For the past 4 years I've been happy to bang on about this race to anyone who would listen. Back then is was some dream far in the future that I would glorify the race and superlate every word when describing it. It's the hardest, longest, hilliest, hottestest etc etc race in the whole universe. I'd like to have a go at that some day.
Now it is almost here and my appetite for bigging it up has waned. Similar to my run up to the GUCR 2 years ago I went into a mood of not wanting to talk about anything in superlatives anymore. Now its a case of dealing with the cold hard facts of how I am going to get from the start line to the finish in the conditions that the race presents. This will be unlike anything I have ever done before and hence will be my greatest challenge so far. So before I stop wanting to talk about it I thought I'd just explain what exactly is involved in the Badwater Ultramarathon.
The Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135 mile road race from the Badwater Basin to the trail head at Mt Whitney. The Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the western hempisphere (280ft below sea level) and because of that it is usually the hottest place on Earth. The record temperature recorded there was 56.7C (134F) and this has only been beaten by a recorded temperature of 57.8C in Libya. Death Valley is predictably hot, in July it is usually over 50C.
The race also takes in 3 mountain passes, one after 40 miles of about 5000ft, the second after around 70 miles and around 400ft and then the final one up to the end from about 125 miles rising another 5000ft towards the end. At the finish you are 9000ft higher than you start. Overall there is about 4000m of ascent.
Sounds simple? Not much complication there. I wish it were, I hate worrying about non-running things but in this race you really have to. There is a lot more to it.
To qualify you need to have run at least 2 100 milers. You also need to submit an application as to why you want to do this race. Each year 40 "rookies" and 40 "veterans" are selected to run. I qualify as a rookie since I have not run this before. I'm not sure how exactly it is decided who gets in and who doesn't but I'm not complaining too much right now.
You also need a support crew of at least 2 people and 1 car, since the race in unsupported. There are small outposts around 30 miles apart on route that consist of a small motel and a gas station. Other than that it is just tarmac though the Mojave desert. Then there are some other complications.
The starts are in waves at 6/8/10. I start at 8. This is designed so that you run in the hottest part of the valley at the hottest time of day in the hottest day of the year. The first 17 miles competitors are advised to drink constantly. I'll be instructing my crew to drive a mile at a time and be ready with a fresh bottle of water (I will be drinking 500ml every mile). They will also have to spray me with water from a garden spray to keep me cool and supply me with ice bandanas to keep my neck frozen.
I will be dressed from head to toe in white. I have several long sleeve shirts that will cover my skin, long shorts and long socks. I will wear a hat with a neck flap and a bandana full of ice. I will not use suncream as I will be covering up all of my skin.
After 17 miles the route comes up above sea level but not by much and the furnace like conditions will continue. Again I will be drinking constantly. The road surface temperature will get up to 80C, a temperature which you can toast bread and fry eggs. I might fry an egg on the bonnet of the car, just for a photo. It has been said by many runners beforehand that your shoes can melt on the surface of this road and that only running on the white line will prevent this. Not sure how true this is but I'll test it out.
just after 40 miles the first climb starts. the hills will be welcome as that means you can climb out of the oven. I expect my work rate to increase but the temperature to decrease such that overall I'll still feel like I'm being sick. I've been told that once you get through the first 60 miles you are pretty much home and dry. I can easily imagine dry but with 75 miles to go I'd hardly consider it in the bag. I will then enjoy a 10 mile stretch of downhill and a breeze. But this is no ordinary breeze, I'm told that it is more like having a hair dryer blown in your face.
It will be dark by the time I start the 2nd ascent at around 70 miles. The night time temperature is still in the late 20's C, like a hot summers day in the UK. By now I'd have probably changed my kit completely. My crew might have swapped over (I have 2 teams of 2) so to give each other rest and for the "resting" pair to make errands to get more ice/water or whatever I need. If I am in a bad state I'll probably ask for things that I know they can't get. Just to be a pain.
It will probably be day light by the time I reach the top of the second pass and have another day of blazing hot sunshine to burn me. The sun has all sorts of effects on me and while a lot of my focus is on making sure it doesn't kill me I know that prolonged exposure to it will make me sleepy. The cut-off times in Badwater are very generous (60 hours in total) such that if I needed I could just have a proper nights/days sleep and get up and carry on. I hope it does not come to that.
The top of the second pass is at around 90 miles and I hope to be here not much more than 24 hours. from the start. Then for the next 30 miles I can try and do some proper running.
This is the first opportunity to put your foot down. Doing so in the first 40 is lethal as the sun will have it's way with you. The first 2 passes will be hard too but now after 90 miles and more than 24 hours I hope to get a shot at running 30 miles relatively quickly. I will ache from the efforts before and am likely to be exhausted from the heat, hungry but sick and sleepy but now is the time to get it done. The route is flat/downhill and it will be a little cooler. And it's close enough to the end to push it.
Hopefully not too long later I will enter Lone Pine at 120 miles. All that remains then is a 15 mile slog up a hill to the Whitney Portal. The steepest incline of the whole race is left for the end. Most people walk this whole section and I doubt I will do anything different.
Not much else to say really. The finish rate is fairly high, over 80% usually. This is probably because you have to qualify for this and you'd probably only even start this race if you were willing to give it everything to finish. It's a big commitement to train and complete this race. I don't think many people quit likely (or conciously).
Inevitably I'll get asked to say whether this is the hardest race that I've done. People love their lists and putting the stuff they have done at the top of them. It does not really matter so much to me nowadays as I know I am going to get a completely different experience here than I will do in the UTMB and did so in the Spartathlon. This list by some magazine puts Badwater in 2nd place behind the Spartathlon, however any credibility it has vanishes when you see that a desert charity fun walk is at number 9.
There were some words that resonated with me in this guide to how to do the race. This "how to" guide to the Badwater race is incredible, full of advice and tips on how to deal with the dangers of the race. There is a great comment right on the first page.
"I understood why this is considered the toughest endurance event on the planet, and, at the same time, why it didn't need to be any longer or tougher. It's hard to put it into words [...] but if they added more miles to the event (or something else to increase the difficulty), the same people will finish".
There becomes a point where it does not matter anymore how many miles or left, how high the mountains are, how much hotter it gets etc, you just do it. Getting to that point in the first place where you think you are spent is rare. Not many races will give me this and I am sure I will reach this point somewhere on that road. I doubt it will be in the last 30 miles. It may even be in the first 15 miles. I have no idea, all I know is that I need to get over it when I hit it. After that it doesn't matter whether there is 10 miles left or 200. This could be made into a 150 mile race in have a proper mountain climb at the end, or it could be doubled as some people have done. It really does not matter, you'll find the same 70 people or so crossing the finish line. I hope in a little over a week I can count myself as one of those "same" people.