To the Edge

A Man, Death Valley, and the Mystery of Endurance


By Kirk Johnson

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This extreme sports saga, part Plimptonesque narrative, part spiritual journey, explores the limits of personal endurance as a determined journalist takes on a 135-mile Death Valley marathon.

Journalist Kirk Johnson knows pain—mind-numbing, bodywracking pain. When his beloved older brother commits suicide, Kirk starts running— running to escape, running to understand, running straight into the hell of Badwater, the ultimate test of endurance equal to five consecutive marathons. From the inferno of Death Valley to the freezing summit of Mt. Whitney, alongside a group of dreamers, fanatics, and virtual running machines, Kirk will stare down his limitations and his fears on a journey inward—a journey that just might offer the redemption of his deepest and most personal loss.



Copyright © 2001 by Kirk Johnson

All rights reserved.

Warner Books, Inc.

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

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First eBook Edition: October 2009

ISBN: 978-0-7595-2571-9


Special thanks to the Network—Alice and Eri Golembo, Bob and Julia Greifeld, Sharon and Herb Lurie, Rod Granger and Susan Obrecht—for their unflagging if not always comprehending support and encouragement, to my running buddy Jim Colvin for the breadth of his spirit, and to my many friends at the New York Times.

The Boogie

At 4:30 A.M. on a Sunday in mid-June 1999, I was sitting on the shoulder of a two-lane road near Ellerbe, North Carolina, flat-assed on the blacktop, legs stretched out in front of me, staring into the dark woods that pressed up to the lip of the pavement. I was beaten and about as alone as I've ever been in my life.

I was trying to tell myself that what had happened was a good thing. I should get acquainted with the bottom. I should touch the walls of it and think of it as a learning experience, because I would surely be back, in circumstances worse than this. I turned off my flashlight and let the night swallow up the bubble of illumination in which I'd been running. In the predawn stillness, even the birds and frogs that had been keeping me company clammed up.

It didn't work. As much as I tried to tell myself that what I was experiencing was somehow edifying—a landmark on the road I'd begun six months earlier—the truth is that I was scared to death. I'd gone, by that point, about 43 miles in an oddball footrace called the Bethel Hill Moonlight Boogie, a 50-mile ultramarathon that loops all night long around the towns of Rockingham and Ellerbe near the South Carolina border.

Forty-three miles! The number clanged and clattered in my head as I sat there. Forty-three miles! Only a few months earlier, it would have been an unimaginable achievement for me—a distance beyond the furthest margins of belief. But that night I could only see it as a crushing defeat and a portent of failures to come. I felt exposed for the fraud that I was—an imposter and a pretender. I'd gotten into something that was far, far beyond me.

"Who am I kidding?" I called into the darkness, though there was no one to hear. "Who am I kidding?"

Up until that year of my life, I'd been a runner and athlete of the most casual and modest sort. I seldom ran much farther than five miles, never participated in races and had no real goals except fitness and the flush of well-being that I felt from exercise. I came from a nonsports—or even, you might say, anti-sports—background. One of the most humiliating images from my childhood was a photograph of my Cub Scout troop, taken behind our house by the big old black walnut tree that dominated the yard. Every other boy was up in the branches—clowning, grinning and hanging upside down in his silly blue uniform—except me. I lived there and I couldn't climb my own damn tree. I was the chubby little failure left to stand and smile bravely but pitifully beside my mom, the troop's den mother.

By high school, I'd slimmed down physically, but in my head I was still the angry, frustrated fat boy. I'd also become a self-cast radical, tilting against whatever injustice I thought I saw, and my school's sports program loomed as the perfect target. In its hierarchy of brawn over brain, I saw a celebration of mediocrity. In the rah-rah cheering of school spirit, I perceived a cynical calculation by administrators seeking to control the student body by manipulating our emotions. And in the barriers to participation, I felt the sting of a biased reward system that favored children of the pampered middle class over working-class types like me who had to get part-time jobs after school. Underneath all that rage I was just jealous. Athletics was for others and therefore it sucked.

I carried pieces of that hoary old critique inside me for years, rattling around like spare parts. Every time I read about some prima donna professional sports star sulking over his plush contract, the old revulsion would flare up. But in the summer of 1997, it all began to crumble. An ambush of odd and unexpected changes in my life, especially the sudden and shattering death of my oldest brother, Gary, triggered a need somewhere inside me that I hadn't even known I had. By the time of my crisis that morning in North Carolina, I'd become—though I still couldn't quite say the word aloud—an athlete in a way I never would have imagined possible. I was exactly one month away from attempting what many veteran runners consider the most extreme footrace on earth—135 miles across Death Valley, California, in the middle of the summer. I'd entered a race called Badwater.

Most people have probably never heard of Badwater; few runners who have heard of it ever try it. The idea that I would be one of those runners was, on its face, ridiculous. I'd run my first regular 26-mile marathon only seven months prior to the Boogie, in late 1998. I was, in real life, a forty-one-year-old reporter for the New York Times who'd written an article about Death Valley and its bizarre desert ultramarathon and then, through some error of cosmic miscasting, fallen under its spell. I was not the real deal. But Badwater was the hardest thing I'd ever heard of, and for this one season of my life, that was enough. In ways that made perfect sense and no sense at all, the race had dragged me into its orbit.

In truth, I'd wormed my way into Badwater without amassing the record of running achievement generally required to secure an invitation. I'd promised the race organizers that I'd only go as far as my limited ability and training would let me, and that I wasn't trying to be a hero, but rather a kind of participant/observer. I wanted to experience the race from inside for a book about the perverse, confounding, paradoxical world of the ultramarathon. I'd drop out when and if medical authorities deemed my continued participation unwise. I'd almost certainly not be able to finish, I said.

All that was still true. I was going to Death Valley more as reporter than runner, more a stowaway than a participant—trying to grab just enough of a tailwind to understand a phenomenon that left me in utter and complete awe. Any small piece of the Badwater experience I could take home with me, I told myself, would be enough to say I'd touched the mysterious edge of human possibility.

In many ways, the mysterious edge was the goal itself. Pushing myself to the outer limits of endurance, I believed, would burn away the old shell of my life, exposing a place where I might find something—though I hadn't a clue what it would be—about my family and brother's life and death. Through the ferocity of its physical challenge, Death Valley beckoned to me as a portal into another world: If there was a place where life's forces and sources of power could come to the surface or flicker into view, this should be one of them. If there was a place where human limitation—but also the limits of explanation and reason and science— should hit the wall, this was it. Badwater was a perch from which I could look for the definitions of what we are—what makes us stop, and what makes us go.

Maybe spirituality wasn't quite the word for what I sought. But I was enough of a believer, or a seeker at least, to think that there might be a way—through the unfathomable postapocalyptic wildness of racing across Death Valley—to reach through the veil and touch something beyond me and my life. A place where misery and transcendence were so deeply intertwined could not be without meaning.

By the time of the Boogie, though, my goals had become even more complicated. Just six months earlier, saying that I'd attempt Badwater had seemed like the wildest, most absurd concept I could imagine. I was embarrassed even telling my friends I planned to do it; to colleagues at the Times I mostly mumbled and fudged and changed the subject. The race just sounded too crazy: 135 miles of desert, mountains and blowing sand, from the bottom of the Western Hemisphere in Death Valley National Park—the hottest, driest place on the planet—to the trailhead of Mount Whitney, 8,300 feet up in the Sierra Nevada.

But over the months, through a regimen of training that had become a journey in itself, simply "trying Badwater" came to seem like no goal at all. I never consciously changed my mind. One day I simply realized that it had happened. The only thing that made sense now for me was to try and finish the race and go the whole distance within the time allowed.

Committing myself to this new path meant that I'd fallen all the way inside the looking glass. I'd become an arrow in flight and I was also the archer, standing there helpless to correct or alter what I'd released.

To simply "try Badwater," I'd realized, would be to perpetrate a fraud. It would be completely contrary to the spirit of all I was trying to explore—the limits of endurance, the borderlines of human possibility, the edge of physical effort. A halfhearted journalist's attempt wouldn't demand enough in a race that demands everything. I had to surrender to that spirit or I had no business in Death Valley.

But I wasn't at all sure where that left me. I'd taken a year off from real life—a leave of absence from my job, a flight from all the rules and rhythms of ordinary existence. And by the time of the Moonlight Boogie, which was to be my last long training run before the race itself, I felt like a man without a country. I didn't belong to the only club that would fully understand me—the universe of ultramarathoners—and yet by attempting to get there I was distancing myself, day by day, from the world in which I'd lived before.

One morning that June, not long before the Boogie, I'd been sitting on the edge of our bed, lacing up my shoes for another full day of training. I was visualizing the block of work I faced—a 20-mile run, followed by a weight-training session at the gym and then an hour or so in the sauna to push my heat tolerance. Picturing my day made it easier, like a movie that would go past frame by frame, piece by piece. My wife, Fran, lay there beside me in bed, still sleepy and cuddled under the sheets. She reached out and touched me lightly on the arm.

"You're far away," she said quietly.

I looked down, startled at the intrusion into my prework-out reverie. Her words and her touch had come to me as through a curtain—muffled and distorted.

"Yeah, I guess I am—I'm sorry," I said. I touched her cheek, but the distance between us was still there. In my head, I was already out the door and down the road on my run. I was far away, in all the ways that matter. I sometimes felt in those months that I'd become simply a lonely figure on the road, chasing something only I could understand. Sharing it felt risky. Maybe the doubters were right and what I was doing was just craziness. If I kept it all inside, my uncertainties could be restrained. But then it would all come full circle and I'd think, well, if I can't articulate it even to my wife, maybe I should have doubts and maybe it really is crazy.

"I want to be a part of this," she said. "I want to share what you're going through."

I promised to try, but I knew, even as I said it, that I'd fail and disappoint her again. I couldn't even tell her why I couldn't open up, because that would mean admitting how lost I was. I'd be all the more terrified then. Far better, I thought, to swallow hard and keep it bottled.

And that's partly what made my crash and burn at the Boogie so devastating. I'd glimpsed, for the first time, the dark edge of the sport I'd stumbled into, the bleak and desolate places of the soul that it can reveal, and the loneliness that was at its heart.

Anyone who has attempted or attended a big urban marathon, with its product expos, pasta dinners and cheering crowds, would be shocked at the average ultramarathon, which offers none of those things. You get a medal for finishing a marathon these days. By comparison, the typical ultramarathon—technically defined as any race beyond the traditional 26.2-mile marathon distance—prides itself on giving you nothing. Marathons have glamour and publicity and attention and money. They've become the Holy Grail for casual runners who want to become serious runners, and cash cows for cities all over the world that have seen how hosting a race can boost tourism and showcase a city's attractions. They're polished and commercialized—an extended archipelago of the big-business fitness-leisure-tourism industry.

Ultramarathons exist in the shadows, sustaining themselves on different sorts of energy and competition, and offering very different kinds of rewards. They're anti-marathons in a very real way—secret and cultlike and exulting in their separation. The New York City Marathon alone enrolls more than 30,000 runners each year, with tens of thousands more turned away. By contrast, the entire universe of 100-mile-or-more races—about 21 events in the United States each year—draws less than 2,000 athletes. I typed the word marathon into and Barnes & on the Internet one day that spring and got hundreds of hits—training manuals, inspirational tracts, reminiscences and biographies of the greats. Then I typed in ultramarathon and got nothing. The computer search engines that were designed to take me to the last possible remotely connected tangent of my inquiry in the hopes of selling me a book didn't even know to recognize the word, because in the mainstream vocabulary of America it simply doesn't exist. Marathons are urban. Ultra-marathons are mostly rural. Marathons take themselves very seriously and tend to glorify any and all who participate. Ultramarathons have names like the Fat Ass and the Big Buns, the Quivering Quads and the Mountain Masochist.

The Boogie was a classic example of the genre in that it had no budget, no media attention, no prestige for competing and hardly any more for winning. For finishing the Boogie—50 of the hardest miles I'd ever attempted on foot—I was supposed to get a coffee mug, if any were left. All of 26 souls—22 men and 4 women—had registered to run it. The directions to the starting line were marked by a single crude hand-lettered sign about the size of a license plate that had been taped to a telephone pole: BOOGIE was all it said, with an arrow pointing to the right road. When you got there, all you found were a couple of guys in baseball caps sitting on lawn chairs in front of a card table. Even in the town of Ellerbe, the race was all but invisible. It began at 6 P.M. on a Saturday, when most people were sitting down to dinner, and was gone without a trace by the time they woke the next morning. And in the odd, self-deprecating style of the ultramarathon, the Boogie's difficulty was also fiercely and deliberately understated. The jokey one-page announcement on the Internet, with its warnings about course hazards like drunken rednecks and snakes, described its five repeated ten-mile loops as being "not mountainous, but definitely not flat." But the Boogie was all hills, many of which had to be walked, at least by me. By the time I hit bottom, after 10 and a half hours on the course, I'd been delivered to a new place entirely.

The mental mine shaft into which I stumbled shortly before dawn that day has no parallel in the real world, at least in my experience. People in the running community talk about "hitting the wall," by which they usually mean that moment when energy supplies in the muscles, called glycogen, are depleted, and the body starts poisoning itself with lactic acid and waste products. When you hit the wall, you can feel confused, exhausted, nauseous or delirious. To all that, the mine shaft of the Boogie added a fillip of hopelessness. I felt, sitting there on the road, like I'd fallen to the very center of the earth and every direction was up. There might be a tiny dot of light out there somewhere in the endless blackness, but I couldn't reach it or draw strength from it. Everything had become menacing. The pines that pressed up to the roadside, which had provided a cool and comforting embrace of nature when the race began, now seemed like something from a Grimm Brothers tale—twisted and tortured, forbidding and frightening, oozing with a sense of doom. There were things that would reach out and grab me if they could. I was defenseless, a tiny candle standing up against the vastness of everything that was bent on defeating me.

In daylight, it's always possible to feel, if only in a vague and subconscious way, in command of things, no matter how much trouble the world throws at you or how exhausted you become. If nothing else, you can see the horizon and the limitless vista of the sky, with their combined illusions of possibility or escape.

The night closes all that off. When the body and the mind are crashing out in darkness, all the things of the world that we fear but can't see—the phantoms and failures and half-forgotten nightmares—join forces. Then they begin to circle and press in toward you tighter and tighter with a whispered chant that chills the blood: It's just you and me now, bub, and no one to save you.

And that's how I first realized I'd begun to understand the ultramarathon. By breaking down, I'd broken through. By hitting the bottom at 4:30 A.M. and 43 miles, I saw how fundamentally different super-distance endurance really was. Running these races didn't just mean running longer, it meant running deeper into the places in yourself that had to be found and conquered. For most of us, sports is defined by what we see on television or in the newspaper—a big business of spectators and fans and money. The ultra-marathon turns the mirror inside out and backward. It lives at the margins, coming to life while most of us are blinking or sleeping or looking away. It's sports under a rock. And the rock that must be turned over to find it is inside each of us.

* * *

What would Ulrich do?

I tried asking myself that question as I sat there in the road, and it made me laugh. There was no answer anyway because Ulrich—or at least the Ulrich I'd created in my head during my months of training—would never face such a situation as this. What would Ulrich do? had become one of my little mantras. I could repeat it in whatever singsong melody or rhythm happened into my head to match the rhythms of my feet hitting the ground or my breathing, and the answer was always the same. He Wouldn't Stop… He Wouldn't Stop. It was a kind of call and response. When my endurance would begin to falter on a long run, I'd ask the question and be rewarded with my own programmed answer. Now it became one more symbol of my desperation.

Marshall Ulrich is a real person, and in fact I knew quite a bit about him. He owned a pet supply store in Fort Morgan, Colorado. He was forty-eight years old. He'd completed more than 90 ultramarathons, including the so-called grand slam of ultramarathoning—four of the biggest 100-mile trail races in the country, all in a single summer. His best time for a regular 26-mile marathon was 2 hours and 58 minutes—far from a world-class pace—but his best performance in running for 24 continuous hours was 142 miles, which made him one of the top super-distance runners in the world. More to the point, he'd finished Badwater an incredible seven times—more than anyone on earth. And he'd won it four of those times, including the 1992 race in which he'd set the record for the fastest Death Valley crossing ever recorded: 26 hours and 18 minutes.

And that spring, it was whispered, he'd raised the bar yet again: He was planning to pull a handcart across Death Valley, all alone, carrying his water, food and spare clothes in a kind of rickshaw device that he'd built himself. He planned to take no help along the way—a pure solo, unassisted Badwater run of a type that had never been done. Ulrich was going to pull a rickshaw across Death Valley.

I'd been stunned by the idea when one of the Badwater organizers had described it to me in a phone conversation a couple of months before the Boogie, and frightened by it, too. As a reporter, I knew I should call Ulrich then and there and get the scoop. As a runner in that summer's race, I was terrified of the idea and couldn't bring myself to do it. Ulrich was larger than life, an unapproachable, forbidding giant. He and his plan had become a psychotic image that I could see and imagine somehow all too well. At any time, a vision of his lonely quest—one man alone in the desert under that blazing sun in defiance of all the world and its comforts—was liable to pop into my head and produce a shiver.

Now, sitting flummoxed on my fanny in North Carolina, trying to figure out how to get going again, Ulrich once again strode imperiously into my thoughts, resplendent in his real and imagined detail.

What would Ulrich do?

I had no idea.

The Bethel Baptist Church sits at the top of Bethel Hill, which was the Moonlight Boogie's focal point. Through the course of 50 miles, we had to climb the hill 10 times—five times from each side as we went through the race's 10-mile loops. But it wasn't until about midnight—30 miles through the course, the sixth time past the church—that I heard the music. A friend of one of the runners had positioned himself there on the roadside, illuminated from behind by the church lights. He'd become a silhouette and nothing more—featureless and anonymous—and then, magically, as I went by, he began to play a flute. The melodies were random but warm and rich and with enough of the minor key in them that I felt lifted right out of my skin. The whole hilltop seemed to undulate as the notes rippled out, so sweet and pure that you wanted to swallow them.

I wasn't sure whether I'd been changed in the course of 30 miles, or whether the rules of music and beauty had evolved toward some new plane of perfection, but I was transported. I wanted to cry and float off the hillside, and almost felt that I could, buoyed by the notes themselves. Mostly I was thankful that I could be there at just that moment. And as I went by, the thought struck me how singular and unrepeatable the moment was. It could only occur there and then—and in just that state of fatigue that made me so susceptible. Like falling in love, there was a chemistry that could never be reproduced.

Around me, the other runners had become disembodied shadows, anonymous and almost invisible if they ran without flashlights, as many did. And if their lights were on, then they were just bouncing beams that floated by and disappeared, utterly without form. The human family that surrounds and supports us most of the time had stepped to the sidelines or gone to bed, leaving only this tiny collection of individuals struggling through the night, each with his or her own agenda.

Even my flashlight took on new meaning. There were long stretches when my light was the only illumination in an otherwise black and enveloping darkness. The beam, not terribly powerful, would only extend perhaps 10 feet, and gradually it came to seem as if that pool of light—the frontier of the observable universe—had become a kind of floating bubble. I moved forward and it moved forward, and I was trapped within it—never able to see or move past it. There was no horizon—no long-term view to temper the relentless sense of enclosure. And that meant I often had no visible cues at all as to whether I was climbing or descending. I had to rely on how my legs felt—whether it seemed like uphill or downhill—and that barometer became increasingly unreliable as the night wore on and every step, in my fatigue, came to feel like a climb.

The same sort of blind momentum had defined this whole year of my life. I was pushing my mind and body through uncharted territory. Every step was an exploration and often a milestone as well, as I surpassed, again and again, my own supposed limits. All I knew was that I was moving forward, and where I ended up was a question that would have to answer itself. There was no stopping, no turning back and no flinching—only motion, and thus, in its own sweetly brutal way, hope.

I don't know how long I sat there in the dark. Long enough, in any case, that it became pretty uncomfortable, and that standing up—hell, even running—began to sound better. And I began to think about home, too. I thought about Fran and my twelve-year-old twin boys, Anthony and Paul. It seemed like I'd been gone for so long, though it had really only been 24 hours. I needed to hug them and have them yank me back from this place. And I began to think about the responsibilities I had, all the tasks still left to be completed before the race. I didn't have time to be sitting here. I'd made too many promises. I clicked my light back on, grunted and groaned and tried to holler some pale and pallid encouragement to myself, scraped off the road pebbles and shuffled down the road.

I arrived back at the Boogie's card-table finish line at dawn—in fifteenth place out of the 20 people who went the full distance. It took me 12 hours and 20 minutes. And I guess they were out of coffee mugs by the time I got in just after dawn, because I never got one.

Red Square



On Sale
Nov 11, 2009
Page Count
304 pages

Kirk Johnson

About the Author

Kirk Johnson lives in New York City.

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