2002 Badwater UltraMarathon
There is only one way to prepare for Death Valley, CA...that's to actually be in Death Valley and the 125+ degree weather. I just returned from officiating the 2002 Badwater UltraMarathon operated by good friend Chris Kostman and his company AdventureCORPS. It was my job to supervise the third wave of starters that left Badwater just outside of Furnace Creek and ran continuously 24 hours a day until they arrived at the finish line on Mt. Whitney some 135 miles later. I took my Dad along, and he helped officiate and took many of the webcast digital photos on the Badwater website. Three waves of ultrarunners started on the morning of Tuesday, July 23rd. Some 80+ runners from about ten countries participated. Badwater is the hardest ultra on the planet because of the intense heat of Death Valley.
On day one the temperature climbed to 125 degrees. That night after the sun went down, my Dad and I headed up Towne's Pass outside of Stovepipe Wells and it was still 112 degrees! I have raced in some pretty intense heat over the years but have never experienced heat like Death Valley. The air was so hot it smelled "burnt." Dad and I drank non-stop all day--bottle after bottle of Gatorade and water and we were riding in my truck most of the time!
Death Valley is survival. The ultrarunners have tricks for surviving and competing in such conditions. Special Solumbra® clothing was provided by the primary race sponsor Sun Precautions which is a company that actually makes clothing with a SPF 30 rating. When the hair on my arms started burning off (at about 10:00 AM the first day!), I decided to bust out the long-sleeved Solumbra® shirt and hat that had been provided to me as a staff member. They were amazing! I could literally feel my arms and head cooling off despite the intense heat. The runners also used crew members to mist them off frequently and hydrate them with cool fluids throughout the race. Having a good crew is truly a life vs. near-death situation at an event like Badwater.
I wanted to participate as a staff member and course official to be with my athletic endurance tribe of course but also to observe as a fitness coach and trainer. I wanted to make some assessments of what kind of training the athletes had undertaken and how this training applied during real race conditions. From an academic standpoint, Badwater was quite a learning experience for me. I can see how important proper training is for such an event and have some ideas for working with ultrarunners in the future. One thing for sure--NO amount of "physical training" is enough. No matter how conditioned the physical body is, the mental and spiritual aspects of one's being better also be highly trained. Badwater is beyond mere physical fitness...if you don't have your head and spirit into it, you simply won't finish.
Badwater is out there...as it should be. It's not for everyone--but for the 2002 Badwater UltraMarathon finishers--there was no other place to be last week except the 125 degree journey of Death Valley to Mount Whitney. I'm glad I was there. Badwater redefined heat, determination, and the athletic human spirit for me.