Legend has it that the marathon commemorates an ancient Greek herald who collapsed and died after running 26 miles to announce a victorious battle at the city of Marathon. Today, the race, while an impressive feat of endurance, is nonetheless a commonplace one.

Still recovering from the shock of his older brother's suicide, New York Times reporter Kirk Johnson learned of a race that would define a new kind of endurance. The Badwater Ultramarathon is a grueling 126-mile run with a course that unfolds across the scorching desert of Death Valley.

Assigned to write about the race, Johnson decided to participate in it, although he had never even run in a regular marathon. He set out to discover the limits and definitions of human endurance, and he shares his discoveries in To the Edge, a compelling memoir about his training for and running of Badwater.

Johnson's involvement with the marathon surprised even himself. Though serving as a sports reporter for the Times, he was not athletically inclined. But the suicide of his older brother, an avid runner, gave him a need to understand why people give up and what reserves of strength humans find in order to endure. In his early passages, Johnson notes the striking contrasts between the marathon and the ultramarathon. Although run as a competitive race, the latter is all about endurance; a third of the participants don't even complete the course. His own amateur status caused Johnson to feel an unaccustomed aversion to speaking with those participating in the race, lest they ridicule his lack of experience or his presumption at joining them. This intimidation motivated him to attempt several 50-mile-plus races, a punishment his body was hardly capable of taking.

Johnson writes candidly about these and other self-doubts. Though attempting such a race at all is a remarkable feat, he shies away from center stage, instead relating the stories of the race's diverse participants. The common thread these runners share is not so much perseverance as courage and an indomitable To the Edge is a remarkable, inspiring memoir about the strength people can find within themselves and the camaraderie of individuals sharing a solitary yet common struggle.

Gregory Harris is a writer and editor living in Indianapolis.

 

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