This is the event that is known as “the world’s toughest foot race”. 90 of the world’s best endurance athletes – runners, triathletes, adventure racers, and mountaineers, have won the right for a place in this legendary invitation-only race.
The field is limited in size and demand to participate in the race usually far exceeds available spots.
There are 28 women and 68 men. The youngest runner is 20 (rookie entrant Ben Clark of Fargo, ND) while the oldest is 69 (Arthur Webb of Santa Rosa, CA, a twelve-time finisher). The average age of the competitors is 44. The Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135 mile (217km) non-stop race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA in temperatures up to 130F (55c).
Here’s a brief glimpse from a previous year:
Although I have written about this race several times before, you might need a quick reminder of some of the facts:
The start line is at Badwater, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280’ (85m) below sea level. The race finishes at Mt. Whitney Portal at 8360′ (2533m). The Badwater course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 13,000’ (3962m) of cumulative vertical ascent and 4,700’ (1433m) of cumulative descent. Competitors travel through places and landmarks including Mushroom Rock, Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, Stovepipe Wells, Keeler, and Lone Pine.
The average finishing time for the race is approximately 40 hours, while the overall time limit is 48 hours – it used to be 60 hours. However, the front runners are expected to finish in 22 to 26 hours.
Course support is not provided. Each runner must arrange for his or her own support crew and vehicle. The crew provides their runner with his or her needs, including water, ice, food, gear, pacing, and first aid. The use of intravenous fluids now disqualifies a runner.
You might well be forgiven for thinking “why on earth would you want to do this race?” So popular is it and so very much a part of the ultra-marathon circuit that this most demanding and extreme running race is re-visited by athletes from around the world year after year.
The 2011 race field is particularly competitive. Veteran contenders include 2010 men’s champion American Zack Gingerich, 31, also placed 3rd in 2009; 2009 men’s champion Marcos Farinazzo, 43, of Brazil, also 4th in 2010; and Oswaldo Lopez, 39, from California (but of Mexican citizenship) who was placed 2nd in both 2009 and 2010. Also competing is Marshall Ulrich, 60, from Colorado, the 16-time finisher who was placed first in 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1996.
The women’s race is equally competitive. With 28 entrants it is the largest in the history of the race at twice its normal size and includes 16 rookies and 12 veterans. Favourite for first place is Pam Reed, 50, of Jackson, WY, the 2002 and 2003 overall champion. She also won the women’s field in 2005 and placed 2nd woman and 7th overall in 2009. Lisa Smith-Batchen, 50, from Idaho, who was the women’s champion in 1987 and 1998, is attempting to become the first woman to compete in the race 10 times. Only 4 men have achieved this. Jamie Donaldson from Colorado who is the women’s course record holder, is sitting out the 2011 race after three consecutive victories in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
There is no prize money, but competitors who complete the race within the stipulated 48 hours will receive the coveted Badwater belt buckle.
This year, 73 of the race entrants are competing on behalf of a charity of their choice. Some of those include Caring House Project Foundation, Challenged Athletes Foundation, Death Valley Natural History Association, Terry Fox Foundation, Heal the Bay, Valley of the Moon Children’s Home, and others.
The race is to be held between 11th – 13th July – when the weather is at its most extreme. Temperatures over 120 °F (49 °C) even in the shade, are not uncommon. Consequently, very few people—even among ultramarathoners—are capable of finishing this grueling race. 20–40% fail to reach the finish line.
Take a virtual flight over the route:
The route now ends at Whitney Portal, but really extreme competitors can continue to the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the United States. In its earlier days, the Badwater Ultramarathon was run from the lowest point in the USA – Death Valley at -282ft below sea level, to the highest point in the contiguous United States, the summit of Mount Whitney at 14,505 ft. In later years, however, the United States Forest Service required summit permits to climb Mt. Whitney and so the official course was shortened to end at Whitney Portal.