Sunday, December 23, 2012

Marshall Ulrich: Running long on empty

A long due post and review of a book which I bought last Spring and read over the summer. Overall, a book for the hard-core ultra-runners. If there was the equivalent of the Motion Picture Association for ultrarunning, I'd assign a Restricted to it (with Chris McDougall's Born to Run and Scott Jurek's Eat and Run in the PG-13/beginner category). Yet, a great book, easy to read, a captivating account of a trip across the USA on foot and many useful tips for those of us who want to keep pushing the envelope always further.
Marshall is a phenomenon in the world of endurance. Not just running: he also climbed numerous remote mountains including the mythical Mount Everest and the seven highest summits of the seven continents, and placed in many of the most competitive adventure races. And not just endurance in physical exercise: Marshall had his share of intense and shaky personal life and emotions, though his child and adulthood. A model, or let's say example, of extreme determination and pain resistance. He has a wikipedia page, a website advertising his public speaking engagements, coaching programs.

While the book is mostly about Marshall's run across the US in 52 days, it is a memoir linking this race against the clock and injury to many other milestones and anecdotes of Marshall's life and personal journey into extreme endurance. While it's fascinating to follow Marshall's physical and mental struggles through this challenge which he called his ultimate ("this was the last thing on my tick list"), this isn't an introduction to ultra running, it's for the mature audience... Now, if you have several years of ultra experience, you'll relate to the concept of rumination (p 135), time compression (p 149), and may be ready to leverage a few training, nutrition and hydration tips (e.g. p 166). As a fan of Vespa, I liked to read about the confirmation of the power of fat burning (p 67). Now, and even after having ran 77 ultra races and 120 more in training, I still have hard time putting my arms around the following two mental strength tips. The first one is that, if you experience pain in one part of your body, you just have to think (and believe...) that this part doesn't belong to your body anymore, hence the pain neither (p 132). Sure! The second one corresponds to the state that ultra legend Yiannis Kouros (holder of 134 world records!) frequently experiences of feeling his mind floating outside his body and watching him run (p 130). A way to detach yourself from your physical pain, of course! And that discussion about extreme pain control happens half way in the book so you can imagine what the second part of the book is about...

Again, an amazing life story about pushing the limits of the human body and mind, and a few inspirational and useful tips for the ultra braves! ;-)

I used my Sustainable running label for this post but I don't believe Marshall's running regimen can work for everybody, for the common mortals... While Marshall's track record proves that this extreme mileage is sustainable for him, Running on Empty is more about sustained running, running for 50 days at a 10 minute/mile pace in spite of adversity, unmerciful weather, hectic relations with sponsors, financial hurdles, uncertainty, doubt, pain, injuries, mental and physical fatigue... Hopefully not something you'll have to do everyday if you picked running as a hobby! ;-)

Here is a link to a great video clip summarizing Marshall's philosophy about ultra running and pain management (the video server seems down for the holidays though...). More videos can be found on Marshall's website or YouTube.

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