“Running on Empty”: What It’s Like to Tell All

Photo by Brian Hillard. All rights reserved.

How does it feel to have your most agonizing moments made public? To fess up to some of your less admirable characteristics and describe times when you weren’t exactly Prince Charming?

Truth? It feels pretty good.

Someone asked me recently how it felt to have written not just about my physical efforts but the emotional impact of running across America. And, more to the point, what it’s like to have other people read it: my agent, my editor at Penguin, and (sometime during April 2011 when Running on Empty is released) the general public.

It’s definitely exciting because I can finally say that my memoir is done and you’ll soon be able to read it. In fact, I just finished reviewing the first proof of the book, all laid out so it looks like a book. It does feel good to know that what’s on the page is so forthright, yet I have to admit that this experience—this exposure—is also a little weird. The 2010 documentary “Running America” shows some of the story, so I’ve grown accustomed to having people see it onscreen, but the movie barely scratches the surface of my personal experience.

Maybe you’ve read some of what I’ve written about other ultrarunning adventures, baring my soul a bit for Marathon & Beyond and similar publications. Completing the book was different from finishing those articles, though: longer, to be sure (some 85,000 words or so) but also more personal and, frankly, more painful to write.

Similarly, at 3,000+ miles, the transcontinental run is the longest race I’ve ever completed. It, too, was more personal and painful, more demanding than any other physical test I’ve endured. Although it was the fulfillment of a dream I’d had since the early 1990s, this run did things to my marriage, made me re-examine other important relationships, caused me to confront some of my old demons. I hope to hell that it also helped me exorcise them.

That fall of 2008, while I was running from San Francisco to New York, life became simple. Objectives: keep going; finish; and, at age 57, break a record set in 1980 by then-28-year-old Frank Giannino. All I had to do was move down the road for endless hours, which wasn’t exactly easy, but I had a focus, and everyone else had to adjust and compromise to help me succeed.

Was I ever frustrated during the run? Yes, many times, mostly with myself. Was Heather? Yes, but she kept a stiff upper lip and carried on with a smile even when things got pretty hairy. Were we ever frustrated with each other? Not often, but yes. After it was all done, the payoff was an immense feeling of accomplishment when we arrived at City Hall in New York City.

Was it worth it? I’m still not sure.

No More Running: Time to Face the Truth

After recuperating for a few months, Heather and I went back out to San Francisco and retraced the route, driving to New York, reliving the trip I’d made on foot, solidifying our impressions, and gathering facts. There were times when we laughed and times when we cried, and times when Heather was downright angry with me during our road trip. After all, she hadn’t expressed her frustrations during the run, and neither had I. We’d had no real privacy then, no time to talk on a meaningful level, which had taken its toll.

Here’s an excerpt from something Heather wrote about day 16 of the transcon, September 28 near Roosevelt, UT:

At 2:10 until 3:30 Marshall stopped at 26 miles—his normal routine now—to nap for an hour in the RV and get a massage from Kathleen [Kane]. Roger [Kaufhold] and I had caught up by this time, and I was able to nap with Marshall as usual. He has always said, since we’ve been together, that one of his favorite things is being able to sleep with me. To spoon and have me near him. He says, even at home, how much he loves this. And, during the run, having that human connection, that touch, was invaluable to him.

I have to say I enjoyed that time together, too. Not only for the sleep, but to connect with him in some way. I often thought, during the run, ‘This is no way to have a marriage.’ There was no time to talk to him about the normal things of life. I couldn’t tell him about *my* day; about what I was dealing with. But, in another way, it was a time of connecting for us. For me to show him how much I really loved him, and how much I would do for him. It was a challenge, though. That, I have to admit.

When we returned home, it took us up to a full year and a half to “process” what had happened, to figure out how to put the preceding year into proper perspective so we could continue with our lives. And so I could write a book about it.

During and after the spring when we revisited the route (journaling about 400 pages between the two of us along the way), we worked on a book proposal, and began soon after to work on the book itself. At times, rehashing and figuring out how to express what had happened felt worse than when we were on the road, as everything seemed to surface and hit us head on.

Heather’s role became, primarily, fact checking. That, and helping me to do my own gut checking. She has a superb b.s. meter and is able to gently coax out the truth. As we got deeper and deeper into writing the book, I realized that I had to strive for deeper truths about my life and my relationships with others, including my children, my previous marriages, my parents—and take a brutally honest look at my relationship with Heather. We began to uncover things that we had not revealed even to each other.

That was a pretty raw time for us, so opening my personal life to everyone who’ll be reading this book has felt like exposing my deepest, darkest secrets. In writing this stuff, I often wondered if I could follow through with doing it, revealing myself this way.

Yet my experiences are your experiences, even if the faces and places are different, the circumstances unrelated. What you’ve gone through and what I’ve gone through are just part of the human condition: we all experience good and bad in our lives, and we all have secrets.

In the end, my book reveals things most people never knew, especially what I’ve learned from my experiences, from the suffering I’ve endured and the pain I’ve unintentially inflicted on others—and, more uplifting and enduring, the incredible compassion and love I’ve received.

That is the beauty of a memoir, and Running on Empty doesn’t hold back. Sure it’s a book about the run across America, but it also represents an awakening of my spirit, brought to the surface by the simple act of running, day after day and into each night, and shining light on the dark corners of my very existence.

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