To The Edge
by Kirk Johnson
Published by Warner Books
256 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Running Death Valley: Badwater
Reviewed by Janice A. Farringer
Why in the world would 42 people decide to run a 135-mile ultramarathon across Death Valley in July? In under 60 hours? With no crews except the ones they could assemble themselves? Ending by climbing up Mt. Whitney, 8,300-feet above sea level, to break a white tape and get a T-shirt? Kirk Johnson, a New York Times writer, takes the reader on his personal answer to these questions in To the Edge: A Man, Death Valley, and the Mystery of Endurance. His reasons and his journey are as complex as the human mind and as simple as a need to grieve a lost brother whom he adored. Johnson's book is a gem of inner journey writing. From page one, you are in the hands of a superb wordsmith who offers you the safety and comfort of his insights while leading you through hell on earth, all the while explaining the wonder of doing the impossible.
Kirk Johnson was not a marathoner. He ran, but he began to run a lot more after his beloved older brother Gary committed suicide. The central question for Johnson became a search for why some people stop and why others push on. After all, "at age fifty-five, retired and financially comfortable, [Gary] simply turned and walked off the field." Why? Johnson's unexpected assignment to the sports department at the Times led him to the world of ultramarathoners and eventually to Death Valley's Badwater Ultramarathon.
Badwater began as a story to cover. Johnson delved into the people first. He found ordinary men and women doing the thing they loved at the edge of their capabilities. In their everyday lives they simply blended in. There was a schoolteacher, a YMCA instructor, a CPA who was a Vietnam veteran with a prosthetic leg. These were human-interest stories and Johnson tried to maintain a writer's objectivity, but the questions of endurance and the line between the rational mind and the body's abilities eventually caught him up in the runner's inner journey. Death Valley and Badwater became his own story. To The Edge is a mix of Johnson the writer -- who here and there steps back to tell the story, convey the facts -- and Johnson the runner -- who allows us into his innermost thoughts. He takes us where reality and imagination meld in the crucible of brain and body pushed to the limit. Zen is the word that comes to mind. Hallucinogenic at times. Beyond rational, always.
Unlikely as it seems, To The Edge is a slow and mellow read. I didn't flip the pages and rush to the end. I figured the guy was still alive at the end and that was pretty incredible in itself. Johnson's prose and his tidbits of Death Valley history and tales of other runners and other Badwater races is so absorbing you begin to understand that Badwater itself is about slowing down, thinking your way through, crossing your own line. Being in on the adventure going on inside and outside Johnson's mind is simply fascinating and you can't help but savor every page.
The world was surprising and filled with eye-opening wonder, and the simple act of moving through it had become a source of joy. Above me, the sky was enfolded from horizon to horizon with stars, more than I had ever seen. Meteors were as regular as metronomes, as regular as my footfalls on the road, and the Milky Way, cutting a swath across everything, was a road, too. The heavens above mirrored my little world below. I would follow the Milky Way, or Highway 190, it didn't matter. All that counted was that I was moving.
I will read this book again. It may be one of the few I don't pass along to friends, though I will recommend it. The thought of the physical challenge of making your way across Death Valley is pretty horrifying and Johnson shares those details. He tells you that the "blacktop in July radiates up into the runners' feet at temperatures approaching 200 degrees Fahrenheit." He tells you about his blisters and the exhaustion. But it is the challenge to his mind and his spirit that lingers with the reader. It is that journey that will amaze you. | October 2001
Janice A. Farringer is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.