July 10th marked the 100-Year Anniversary of the hottest temperature ever recorded on planet earth, a scorching 134.6 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley, CA. Five days later, the gun went off for the Badwater Ultramarathon, coined “The World’s Toughest Footrace.”
Badwater starts at the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and passes right through the inferno of Death Valley during the heat of the summer. The race is a continuous 135-miles long that finishes on the side of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US. Along the way, the course climbs two other towering passes and gains a total of more than 14,000-feet of climbing in total.
Oh yeah, did I mention the headwind? During the monster climb out of Stovepipe Wells, at mile 41 during the race, the wind blows directly in your face and can gust upwards of twenty-five miles per hour or more.
You don’t earn the moniker of “The World’s Toughest Footrace”without stacking up a heavy list of superlatives.
This year marked my 11th attempt at completing Badwater. I’d finished the race previously 9-times (i.e., one DNF) and was hoping to earn my tenth finish. Though, as diligently as I trained for the event, there is never much certainty in completing this challenge (DNF at Badwater is said to stand for, “Did Nothing Fatal”).
I’d previous survived the fastest (i.e., won the race) and was hoping to have a solid performance this year. Along with running upwards of 100-miles per week, my training consisted of sets of push-ups and sit-ups in the sauna at the local gym, multiple sessions of Bikram yoga, and running around town in my big North Face puffy jacket in the middle of summer. Sure, you get lots of strange looks, but it’s what you’ve got to do to get used to the ungodly heat.
I went into this year’s race being in one of the best shape’s I’d been for years. My expectations were set high for this 11th running; I wanted it to be one of my strongest ever. This was going to be my race.
The Best Laid Plans
Death Valley has an evil reputation of dashing men’s dreams. From the early settlers who perished attempting to successful make the crossing, to the miners who came later only to have their fortunes and hard work disintegrated when the hell of the summer took it’s devilish toll, nothing seems to escape the place without facing ultimate ruin.
Such, unfortunately, was the course of my race. Things started as planned, with the first 41-miles completed in near record time. But slowly, painfully, the desert began to win out.
My main goal this year was to finish the race within the official cutoff time of 48-hours, thus earning my 10th finishers buckle. Secondarily, I wanted to finish in sub 30-hours, something I have done nearly every year. Ultimately, I was hoping to finish in the top 5 racers, or perhaps even better. I had trained that hard this year and put that much into it.
Gradually, painfully, it became apparent this ultimate goal wasn’t going to happen. The field was elite this year with a record 25 countries represented. The winner of the Brazilian 135 was racing and he was an odds on favorite.
Racing against others at Badwater can be a dangerous thing. Pushing oneself too hard to early can lead to disaster at later stages of the race. You’d think I’d have learned better by now.
By the time I made it to the halfway point, still on a fast pace, it was clear that I was going to pay the price. From that point forward it became more a matter of survival than racing.
Admittedly, it hurt my pride to dial back my expectations of a stellar finish and readjust to a perspective of just making it. So much preparation, so much hard work, dedication and sacrifice had gone into it. I had paid my dues and felt worthy of a good race.
But that kind of attitude can lead to trouble at Badwater. So instead, I sucked in my pride, put my head down and let the sufferfest commence. And that it did!
Never have I dug so deep just to make it to the finish line. Eventually I reached that point in a time of 32:27:12, one of my slowest races ever, yet perhaps one of my most rewarding, too. 17th place overall next to your name is better than DNF next to it for sure.
Every year I finish the Badwater Ultramarathon I say I’m never coming back again. I’ve now said that I’m never doing the race eleven times.
I said it again this year, though for some reason I’m already starting to doubt myself. While Death Valley has a long history of destroying men’s best attempts at prevailing, perhaps running through the depths of hell is my way of showing that some things can endure, even in the hottest place on earth.
Special thanks to my Badwater crew, Brandon Friese, Jason Koop, Nate Peerbolt and Rich Roll. Without their tireless support, both physically and mentally, I never could have made it. When all seemed hopeless, they provided hope.