I had recently been introduced to Cory Reese’s books through Nowhere Near First: Ultramarathon Adventures From The Back Of The Pack. This book was a fun, quick read, and compiled a bunch of stories of how Cory became an accomplished ultrarunner. I decided to pick up his latest book about the Badwater 135 race, Into The Furnace: How a 135 mile run across Death Valley set my soul on fire.
I managed to get through the book during my camping weekend, and overall I enjoyed it, but I had a few reservations. Before we delve in to the good/bad, a brief overview of the Badwater 135. Dubbed the world’s toughest footrace, the Badwater 135 takes participants from the lowest point in America, to the highest point in the continental United States. The magic of geography means that these two points are less than 150 miles apart. This book is the story of not just Cory’s adventure preparing and doing this race, but the story of the history of Death Valley, and the first man to ever complete the run, Al Arnold.
What was great about this book
One of the best parts of this book is the way that the stories of Al Arnold and William Manly are woven through the book. Manly was the pioneer who helped guide the first settlers across Death Valley during the California Gold Rush. The inclusion of the story of these early settlers, along with Arnold’s first modern journey, helps to build a wonderful picture of what Death Valley is, and means, to many people. These chapters in the book were some of my favorite, and I loved whenever we got to come back to them and learn more about these pieces of a richer history and tale.
I also appreciated how Cory doesn’t assume the reader knows or understands ultramarthoning. He explains things that might seem foreign to non-running friends, such as aid station frequency, and how the Badwater race turns this on it’s head. His style is conversational and approachable. This means that pretty much anyone can pick up this book and be wowed by the amazing spectacle that is Badwater.
Despite overall enjoying this book, I feel like it was lacking in area of craft. One of the things that I enjoyed about Cory’s first book, Nowhere Near First, was the “blog-esque” nature of how it flowed. It felt like I was reading a bunch of fun stories that just happened to be put together in a single volume with an overarching theme. However, with Into The Furnace there is a greater narrative that spans the entire book.
The blog-y nature of the author’s writing style unfortunately detracted from this overarching narrative. Many thoughts and comments were repeated multiple times throughout the narrative, and after a while it started to feel like padding for the sake of word count. The inclusion of the stories of Arnold and Manly felt more cohesive, and drove the narrative in a way that often overshadowed the story of Cory’s personal training and racing of the Badwater 135.
One other aspect that I didn’t care for was the over-abundance of self-deprecating, hyperbolic, humor. I enjoyed the style of humor in the first book, but that’s mostly because it felt like the right amount for the stories that were being told. In Into The Furnace I found myself feeling overwhelmed by it. I recall on one occasion there was a joke that went on for what seemed like an entire paragraph, and it simply got old. It often felt like Cory went into serious author mode when talking about Arnold and Manly, and then had to step the self-deprecating humor up a notch when talking about himself.
Despite these issues with craft, I still enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to people who want to learn more about the Badwater 135. Cory’s a fun writer to read, and I feel that with some additional editing, this book could have been even better. He successfully tells the tale of an amazing accomplishment, one that I’ll never even come close to considering. I can’t emphasize enough that completing this race requires an amazing commitment. By including the tale of William Manly, alongside the modern race, we get a true sense of just how special, and difficult, Death Valley can be. It’s not a place for the weak, and everyone who toes the line at Badwater 135 is a special and amazing human being.