In Badwater Basin at the bottom of California’s Death Valley, the air feels like a giant hair dryer and the pavement can melt the soles of your shoes.
However, on Monday night, 100 of the best endurance runners in the world embarked on what is known as “the toughest foot race in the world,” traversing 135 miles of terrain through one of the world’s toughest climates. ends of the planet in the most intense time of the year.
Only 100 runners from around the world are selected each year to compete in the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon. Last year it was canceled due to the pandemic, but this year the race returned, even in the face of a historic drought and unprecedented heat waves. On July 9, Death Valley reached 130 ° F (54.4 ° C), the highest on record in the valley, and on Earth, since 1913.
“We all think they’re a little crazy,” said Abby Wines, a spokeswoman for Death Valley National Park, “but we’re in awe of them as ultra-athletes.”
Wines saw the first wave of 33 runners roll off the starting line at 8pm on Monday night. At that late hour, the large white digital thermometer in front of the park’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center read 110 ° F, but by the time runners finished crossing the flat expanse of the valley Tuesday afternoon, temperatures were closer to 115 ° F.
Wines said the competitors drew both admiration and nod from the 145 hardy souls who live in the valley full-time: “Even living here, we all struggle with the heat.”
‘Unlike any other race on earth’
The ultramarathon has grown in popularity in recent years, but it has also faced criticism for its dangers; In May this year, 21 ultramarathoners died in China amid extreme weather conditions.
But for many ultrarunners, it’s the scale of the challenge that draws them to the Badwater race.
“It doesn’t look like any other race on Earth,” said Dean Karnazes, who has raced the Badwater 11 times, and dropped out only once after collapsing from the heat. “Not only is there heat, but there is a fierce headwind, like having a hair dryer in your face. Everybody runs for the white line, because the asphalt can melt your shoes. “
Runners do their best to prepare their bodies for the heat. For Karnazes, who didn’t run this year, that meant doing sit-ups and push-ups in his gym’s sauna. He would also drive to Death Valley for the race in several layers of parkas and his car’s heater was completely turned up.
The run climbs from the lowest elevation in North America, 280 feet (85 m) below sea level, to where the road ends on the way to Mount Whitney in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, at 8,360 feet.
Each runner is followed by their own support team in an air-conditioned minivan, advancing by leaps and bounds, stopping every few miles to provide them with jets of water from spray bottles, electrolytes, ice cubes, snacks, and extra shoe changes.
The race organizers also provide medical personnel and the park requires them to provide their own ambulances. This is essential, Wines said, because the closest actual emergency hospital is 125 miles away in Las Vegas and helicopters cannot fly in temperatures above 118F.
Park rangers receive several calls a week to rescue visitors experiencing symptoms of heat illness, but the run has resulted in no serious injuries, Wines added.
The race takes place over a period of 48 hours. By Tuesday night, Harvey Lewis, a Cincinnati high school teacher and ten-time competitor, had won, setting a time of 25 hours and 50 minutes on the course. A few hours later, prominent ultramarathon runner Sally McRae, 42, won the women’s division, crossing the finish line around 6 a.m. Wednesday.
Although many international competitors were unable to travel for this year’s race due to the pandemic, the runners represented 17 countries and 29 states, including 24 women and 60 men, with participants between the ages of 28 and 76.
There is no prize money for the race, but those who finish in less than 48 hours receive a coveted Badwater 135 belt buckle.
“To even apply to participate in the race, runners have to have done a number of other ultra-tough races,” race director Chris Kostman said in a interview last week on Accuweather TV. He said a committee then studied the qualifications of each runner. “It is much more detailed than applying to a university or getting a job, because our goal is to organize a career with people who are able to finish the degree.”
Reaching the goal
Arnold Begay of Tulsa, 58, was trying to finish the race for the second time, representing the Navajo Nation. On the podcast Run the riot, said his childhood living on an Arizona reservation without electricity or water had given him the preparation he needed for this type of event. But, he said, his first run of the course in 2009 had been far worse than he expected.
“It was like my guts had been ripped,” he said. “I took a beating. I’ve never experienced this kind of agony. “
But he said that somehow, after working as a member of the support team in the last race in 2019, he was drawn to do it again.
According to the statistics of the race, Begay retired some time after completing the first 42 miles almost 12 hours after the race.
While Karnazes won the race in 2004, it is the course’s many pitfalls and misadventures that he remembers most vividly.
“I don’t like to say I won, I just survived the fastest,” he said.
He remembers passing rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas, who come to warm up on the road at night, and have his crew take his temperature and feed him whole chunks of ice to make sure his core temperature doesn’t come close to hitting it. of heat.
He said the runners’ feet became so swollen, as they progressed through the heat and climbed the top three climbs of the unforgiving course, that competitors regularly wore several sizes of larger shoes so they could gain size during the race.
Runners often wore white UV-resistant fabrics from head to toe to prevent blisters, he said. However, the glaring reflection of the sun on the road could burn the inside of the nostrils or the roof of the mouth.
Karnazes, who wrote about the Badwater breed in his book. The height of a corridorHe recalls the first time he raced the Badwater, and was unable to finish, in 1995. The motorhome he had rented for his support team had exploded and he had tried to go on alone without help. He said the crew eventually found him passed out on the road and took him to a hotel to revive him. He’d woken up wondering why he wasn’t on the run yet, but he was determined to go back and do it over and over again.
“There’s magic in misery,” said Karnazes, who still runs ultramarathons but promised his family he’d leave the grueling Badwater after he ran his 10th race in 2013. He admits he’s still drawn to the sheer joy of doing it.
“I am very tempted,” he said. “I’ll probably be back.”
Wines says the endurance of the runners is refreshing for rangers who are used to people making extremely short summer visits to the park.
“In the summer, most people just drive by and take a picture of the thermometer,” Wines said. “They jump out of their air-conditioned cars, feel the heat, and then go back in. Which is fine, because ordinary people, who are not acclimated to the heat, should not put pressure on it. “
But, he said, these runners “are tackling the landscape at the most extreme time of year, which is an admirable way to experience it.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism