Continuing a series of monthly articles on major world ultras, here’s coverage of the Badwater 135 which was on July 16-18. It’s probably the best-known ultra in the world for non-runners due to media stories and the extreme nature of the event.
What is it?
A 135-mile road race through Death Valley, starting at Badwater at 282 feet below sea level through to Mt Whitney. The original concept was to run from the lowest point in the US to the top of the highest mountain in the 48 contiguous states, but it now ends at Whitney Portal at 8,360 feet. The race describes itself as “the world’s toughest footrace” and it’s certainly not to be taken lightly. It’s also not flat, as some think, but does involve many seemingly endless roads that go to the heat-blurred horizon. It does have many flat sections and three major climbs as can be seen in the profile below.
Entry is limited to fewer than 100 runners with an essay required to be considered for a place. Temperatures in Death Valley have hit 134F, but at least runners don’t have to deal with the blazing sun on their own since this is the most crew-intensive, single-stage race you can imagine. Crews can drive along the entire course and supply aid at any point as long as they can park off-road first. Many runners, especially the leaders, have pacers spraying them with iced water continuously, meaning an expert crew is essential.
The crew’s perspective
Unlike trail 100-milers with limited access to the runner and aid stations spread over the course, Badwater has only six timing points plus the finish and no aid other than emergency medical assistance is provided. That leaves everything to the crew and many have two vehicles and several people per vehicle. Without going into all the rules too much, it means that crews tend to drive short distances and see their runner every few minutes, keeping them constantly busy. There’s none of the waiting around like when crewing a trail ultra, unless you’re having down time in the second vehicle.
With a course record of just under 23 hours and a cut-off of 48 hours, crews need to be careful to look after themselves in the heat for a long time and deal with sleep deprivation, too. I’ve crewed for the past two years and the intensity of the effort put in by everyone involved with each runner is both inspiring and incredibly fun. For anyone who has any kind of interest in what it’s like to run through Death Valley, offering to crew is well worth it and will teach you a lot about the race, including whether or not you want to run it yourself. It’s also a lot cheaper than paying almost $1,000 to enter and footing the bill for your crew, vehicles, hotels kit and everything else involved. Americans can easily spend $10,000 in total and foreigners even more – I crewed for an Australian who spent more like $20,000!
An additional fun aspect is that there are three starts, at 6am, 8am and 10am with the slower runners earlier on. That means that even the leaders aren’t alone through the course because they gradually catch up to the early starters and take much of the race to catch the fastest of the earlier runners. Towards the end almost everyone looks zombie-like in terms of their running form, but all have a grim determination seared onto their faces by the hair-dryer winds.
The sharp end of the race
The race is mainly about survival but major ultra names have run and won the race, such as Scott Jurek (twice). With slightly milder temperatures this year and a high of around 114F (according to the car I was in), it looked like times would be fast. The previous two winners were there, Zach Gingerich and Oswaldo Lopez, plus Mike Morton who held the Western States course record on the traditional course until this year (15:40) and who ran three 13:xx 100-mile course records earlier this year. Amongst the women, the favorites were the defending champ and winner of the Spartathlon, Sumie Inagaki of Japan, and triple winner, Pam Reed.
Mike took off fast with Oswaldo overtaking him briefly on the first climb and Zach in third throughout much of the day. But Mike was a man on a mission and pushed hard and was under course record pace until the very end when he finished in 22:52, just a minute off the record. Oswaldo ran a course PR to shave off nine minutes from his 2011 winning time, in 23:32. You’ll struggle to find a more positive and happy runner in any race and he completed a run of 2nd-2nd-1st-2nd for the last four years. Then Zach rounded out the podium in 25:49.
Inagaki ran hard from the start and was in fourth overall halfway through before fading to a grind to the win in 29:53 for 11th overall. Pam was second all day and finished in 31:06 and Maggie Beach took third in 33:31.