When we talk about something “hot,” in journalistic jargon we are referring to a particularly debated and disputed issue. This is not the case with the Badwater 135, that is, one of the most extreme ultramarathons in the world: “hot,” in this case suits it perfectly, since it is run every year in mid-July (this year it will start on the 12th and end on the 14th) in one of the hottest places on the planet, namely the Death Valley.
Heat is not the only detail for which Badwater is famous-there is also a not inconsiderable elevation gain to overcome and many tricks to take. Because when it’s very hot, it’s not that you just get “hotter”-your body reacts differently.
Death Valley is located in California and, as mentioned, is one of the hottest and most inhospitable places on Earth. In fact, the peak temperature recorded in 1913 was 57°. It is not the hottest temperature ever recorded (the Lut deserts in Iran and the Sonoran desert in Mexico -where have been recorded peaks of 80.8°C – beat it) but it is certainly the hottest temperature where an ultramarathon is run.
The start is, indeed, at Badwater, 86 meters below sea level, and the finish is after 135 miles-that is, 217 kilometers-at the Whitney Portal, at the beginning of the ascent to the summit of Mount Whitney, one of the highest peaks in the U.S. at 4,421 meters.
The race originally included also an ascent to the summit and in fact was 146 miles (235 km) long, but, when authorities required special permits to run a race at altitude, it was decided to cut it to the current 135 miles.
Frenchman Jean Pierre Marquant was the first to attempt solo in 1966 the adventure that would later become the Badwater. In later years and until 1987 this challenge maintained an unofficial nature and was contested among very few ultrarunners.
It was not until that year that it became a full-fledged race, albeit with very particular rules: it’s invitation only and the organization does not provide any assistance. Each competitor must rely on his or her team for equipment, food, liquids, ice, and any medical interventions.
Initially the maximum duration was set at 60 hours; today is 48 hours.
There is no prize money but only a commemorative buckle belt. And the glory of having finished it!
It is hot
What does running in those temperatures entail? Basically, two “drawbacks”: the temperature is so high that the sweat evaporates as soon as it reaches the surface of the skin, causing very rapid dehydration, and the midsoles of the shoes – in direct contact with the asphalt, which is at higher temperatures than the air – soften to the point of even melting. Solution? Run on white stripes or bring many changes of shoes. As did Bart Yasso, who, when he ran it in 1989, had the idea of bringing 10 pairs of shoes to rotate every 10 miles: as soon as he felt they were too “soft,” he changed them for a fresh pair and put the freshly used ones to rest and cool, and then put them back on later.
There is also an Italian flag among those of the Badwater winners, and it is that of Michele Graglia who won it in 2018 in 24 hours, 51 minutes and 47 seconds.
In 1989 Adrian Crane showed up at the start with a pair of skis on his shoulder. Had he gone crazy? No, not at all: in fact, one section of the route involves crossing salt lakes, and his idea was to take advantage of the surface…by skiing on them!
The aforementioned Bart Yasso recounts that the 1989 edition was also attended by Tom Possert (who would go on to win it that year and the next), who had been disqualified the year before for having his crew help him on the final climb. Unable to explain how they could readmit him, he perfidiously concluded, “I have no idea how they could allow that, I guess they needed bodies.”
The record for the 146-mile version is held by Marshall Ulrich and is 33 hours and 54 minutes while the 135-mile record is from 2019 and is held by Yoshihiko Ishikawa (21 hours, 33 minutes and 1 second) while Patryzja Bereznowska owns the women’s record, set in 24 hours, 13 minutes and 24 seconds.
Badwater is also special in that it does not always hand the victory to a man: in fact, in 2002 and 2003 Pam Reed beat male competitors.
Will it happen again this year? There are only a few days left to find out.