To the Edge: A Man, Death Valley, and the Mystery of Endurance
Reviewed by Don Allison
Perhaps the easiest type of running story to write is that detailing one’s personal running experience. That being said, it is also the most difficult kind of story to make interesting for the reader. In To the Edge, author Kirk Johnson digs deep into his reservoir of literary talent to make that happen, recounting his journey from sedentary author to hardened ultrarunner. In an usual progression, Johnson, a New York Times reporter, becomes fixated with the Badwater Ultramarathon after completing his first marathon in New York City.
Johnson’s accelerated learning process adds a unique twist to the narrative, as does his highly descriptive account of the Badwater race itself. Just reaching the starting line is an ordeal for Johnson, and although the account of the race is somewhat anticlimactic, all ultrarunners can relate to the inevitable ups and downs Johnson experiences during 135 long and painful miles.
Although one gets the feeling that Johnson is just a brief interloper in the sport of ultrarunning, his evolution from non-runner to ultrarunner is captivating nonetheless. Johnson spares the reader no details, and is quite frank and self effacing in taking the reader inside his family relationships, all of which play a pivotal role in leading Johnson to the desert in Death Valley. If the book has a downfall, it is in the repetitive forays into Johnson’s obsession with his Badwater pursuit. Too much of the book is spent exploring this issue, thus causing it to lag in spots. Also, a somewhat amusing, but eventually tiresome aspect of To the Edge is the fawning adoration Johnson bestows upon ultrarunners he has read about but is reluctant to approach. For many that have participated in the sport of ultrarunning for a time, this kind of idolization is rarely seen, thus does not seem to fit with the rest of the story.
The sport of ultrarunning has rarely attracted the attention of elite writers. That fact alone is not enough of a reason to read To the Edge, but the story that this writer offers in its pages is. Both the ultrarunning experience from the perspective of a novice and the polished prose in its telling make To the Edge a worthwhile read.