Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Badwater Ultramarathon: 135 Miles, Death Valley to Mt. Whitney

The fastest runners in the grueling Badwater Ultramarathon road race have been crossing the finish line all day in California, and I'm again astonished that any runner can do this. 

[Here's the update today on the Badwater Web site, which is loaded with information and the results of the 2013 race. The top three were Carlos Alberto Gomes De Sa, from Portugal, who finished in 24:38, followed by Grant Maughan of Australia (24:53 and Oswaldo Lopez of the U.S. (25:49) In all, 80 runners made it to the finish line, the last posting a time of 47:29. The fastest time record ever is 22:51 hours in the men's division and 26:16 in the women's.]

The race famously starts at in Death Valley National Park at Badwater, which is the lowest point in elevation in the western hemisphere. Runners cross the vast sunblasted valley and into the desert, chug over two mountain ranges and end up at the finish line, 135 miles away and 8,360 feet up Mt. Whitney in California, whose summit at 14,505 feet is the highest point in the contiguous United States. Here's some background on the Badwater race.

Of the 100 or so world-class hardcore runners who start the race, more than 80 percent typically finish. and at the finish line, some runners even continue upward on the path to the summit. 

After a recent visit to Death Valley, I spoke with Chris Kostman, the race director, about the Badwater Ultramarathon, which is also called the Badwater 135. The race is sometimes misunderstood, he said.

"It bothers me sometimes when you hear people say these people are insane or have some kind of death wish,” said Kostman, the chief adventure officer at Adventurecorps, a California-based organizer of ultra-endurance sports events that runs the Badwater 135 and many other extreme-challenge sports events. Kostman is himself an endurance athlete. He works as an archeologist, as well.

"Another thing people often think is these people must have a high tolerance for pain or be masochistic or something, but I try to consistently emphasize that people do things like this because they can. It’s like somebody who’s really great at anything, or just really into something."

Really into it, of course. A casual runner isn't going to show up at Death Valley on a 125-degree July day, lace up the sneakers and complete the Badwater 135. (Here's a walk-up article, so to speak, by Dean Karnazes in Runner's World magazine earlier this month.). Death Valley is the site of the highest air temperature ever recorded on earth, 134 degrees on July 10, 1913. Only two weeks ago, the temperature in Death Valley hit 130 degrees.

Before the race, Kostman said, "Ideally they will have spent quite a few weeks heat-training in the sauna
Some come to the Valley a few weeks early to prep, but most don’t have time for that. And then there are always those people who live in Scandinavia or England, who don’t heat train at all and they just fly over and do it."

Still, that doesn't mean casual runners, Kostman said. "The race is an invitational event, we don’t let just anybody in. They have to have completed at least three 100-mile races before you can even aply for our race.  It’s competitive just to get into the event. The people do get in really try hard to rise to the occasion and not blow the opportunity.
"That’s why even though it’s the world’s toughest footrace we still have an 80 percent finishing rate because people do take it seriously. They want to make the most of the event. Nobody wants to go down in history as the person who passed out at the Badwater 135," he said.

Weirdly, the Furnace Creek Ranch, the only lodging open all summer at Death Valley National Park, is thronged in July and August with tourists, many from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, who co9me there expressly to experience the extreme heat. Around the time of the Badwater race, the nearby Furnace Creek Resort also opens up for a week or two to handle the overflow from Badwater.

"We fill the place up," Kostman said. "We bring a lot of people to Death Valley, nearly 100 runners and about 500 crew-members and 50 or more on te race staff, and a few dozen journalists."

"It's July, and Death Valley is going to be very hot, up to 130 degrees.  But the race is 135 miles long. A lot of people focus on the Death Valley part, which is really just the first third of the race. There are three  mountain ranges they go up, including to Whitney portal. I’ve seen far too many articles where they refer to finishing at the foot of Mt. Whitney. But they really go uphill for 13 miles, and 5,600 feet at the end of that road, and 8,640 feet to the finish line. So during the race, there can be a temperature-range difference from the highest to the lowest of 90 degrees. The focus is on the heat. But I’m up at the finish line for every finisher for about 28 hours, and it can be like 30 degrees out up there. And it could have been 130 the day before.
The temperature range and the elevation gain and elevation range are all factored into the whole thing.
Anything can happen out there. We’ve had flash floods, we’ve had forest fires.  All kinds of things possible. So it's not just pavement and heat. It’s whatever nature has in store."

Kostman is a runner with wide experience. "I've done three 100-milers, through ironically they were all on showshoes in Alaska in the winter," he said.  I’ve also done a lot of lot of ultra-distance cycling in South America and stuff like that."

Who in the world is motivated enough to run the Badwater, I asked. People who enjoy the lifelong challenge of peak performance, he replied. "It's like when you're young and start paying chess and and you win a lot of games, and maybe then it just sort of becomes your thing in life because you got all that positive feedback from winning and you thrive in it, so you keep doing it better. That really describes most of our athletes. They enjoy running, they enjoy the environment, they like traveling -- so they can tie it all together by doing their best like this, where you can cover a lot of ground, see a lot of things in a part of the world you wouldn't otherwise see."

"Badwater is really celebration of life and the human spirit. That kind of gets lost in the shuffle where people think it’s just insane or they focus too much on the competition.  There’s 100 people in the race, and there’s basically four or five men and two or three women who are capable of being first in the male or female divisions. But just getting to the start line is a huge deal, and doing it and finishing is a pinnacle achievement for any ultra-runner. It's really not about the competition or even the winner. Winners don’t receive anything different than anyone else – they all get a belt buckle and a tee-shirt. Those just represent the culmination of years or training and preparation and development, not only as a runner but as a person."

Do they rest or sleep along the grueling 135-mile route?  Kostman: "The front-runners never sleep; they basically don’t even stop. Very few people sleep at all, and even the 48-hour finishers [toward the end of the race] probably don’t sleep more than an hour. But nobody who wants to be in the top 10 can ever stop for more than five minutes, ever. The pace is too high and it's too competitive. Basically they only stop to use the bathroom."

Still, what kind of a human being can do this? The truly motivated simply condition themselves for these astonishing physical extremes, Kostman said. "It's pretty remarkable what people can do. Acclimating to the heat is sort of like mountaineers getting use to the high altitude. In general, you can train your body to do a lot more than you think."


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