Californians Triumph in Mother Nature's Greatest Sports Arena

By Chris Kostman
Originally published in Ultra Running, October 2001

Death Valley, CA - Seventy-one runners from eight countries and eighteen states ran 135 miles non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney on July 25-27, 2001, in the annual Sun Precautions Badwater Ultramarathon. The international field of athletes ranged in age from 24 to 66 (6 women and 65 men) and represented England, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Canada, and the USA. The Badwater race course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 13,000' of vertical ascent and 4,700' of descent and features temperatures as high as 126F° and as low as 35F°. The fabled and legendary Badwater Ultramarathon is arguably the most demanding, extreme, and prestigious ultramarathon in the world.

Rookie entrant Mike Trevino, 26, of San Diego, CA, won the men's division with a time of 28 hours, 12 minutes, and 5 seconds, the sixth fastest time ever for AM starters. Second place Rudy Afanador, 42, of Medford, NY, finished in 29:03:42, followed by Sigurd Dutz, 48, of Germany in 30:26:27 and Steve King, 52, of Canada in 30:30:51. The women's race was won handily by rookie entrant Anne Langstaff, 40, of El Cajon, CA, with a time of 40:13:40. Second place was Pascale Martin, 32, of France in 44:35:00, followed by Barbara Elia, 56, of Modesto, CA, in 45:09:49. A total of 55 runners completed the distance within the 60-hour cutoff, including a large number of Badwater rookies.

The startline temp in Badwater, at 280 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, was 90F°+ and that slowly rose to 126F° by the afternoon on day one. Despite these extreme conditions, the top runners simply poured on the steam as they traveled through places with names like Mushroom Rock, Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil's Cornfield, Devil's Golf Course, and Stove Pipe Wells.

One unusual aspect of the event is its wave start, with approximately 25 runners per group beginning at 6am, 8am, and 10am. Starting times were assigned by lottery, with runners grouped according to nationality. Each entrant must bring his own support vehicle and at least two support crew members. A series of five timing checkpoints along the route are used to feed information and data to the live webcast, and for staff, runners, and crews to keep track of one another's competitive progress overall.

Each starting group had its frontrunners. For 6am, it was John Quinn, 43, of Boulder, CO, a former double- and triple-ironman triathlon champion. Quinn set out at an extraordinary pace that quickly left all other runners behind. He ran the first 17 miles in 2:19, 41 miles in 6:02, and then reached the race's 71 mark in Panamint Springs, after ascending 5,000' Townes Pass, in 12:59. Panamint would be his finish line, though, as his training had not adequately prepared him for the miles of off-cambered pavement. But once he dropped from the race, Quinn spent the night cheering for the other runners, demonstrating that he is both athlete and sportsman. He'll be back in 2002, with more miles in his legs and a deep respect for Death Valley.

This left Afanador in the lead of the 6am group, and thus off the front of the whole field, as he reached Panamint Springs 90 minutes after Quinn. Interestingly, although race staff repeatedly offered his support crew his relative time splits compared to the frontrunners of the 8am and 10am groups, Afanador's crew refused the information. "We're not going to turn this into a race," they said. "He's just running his own pace, doing his own thing." It would be a race-altering tactic.

The 6am group included both eventual winner Langstaff and Shannon Farar-Griefer, 40, Calabassas, CA, but none of the female competitors from any starting group ever threatened Langstaff. A veteran of the Badwater Training Clinics hosted by Badwater Mayor Ben and First Lady Denise Jones, Langstaff had embraced the course in all its fury and beauty. She was on a mission to win and nothing was going to get in her way, not even the valiant effort of 8am starter Martin, the petite French Marathon des Sables champion who was quickly learning that Death Valley is much hotter and nastier than Morocco. Farar-Griefer was pacing herself to do a Badwater Out-and-Back, as a few runners do each year, so she wouldn't be a threat in 2001.

The demise of Quinn and the decision of Afanador's crew to forego all information about the competition created an opportunity for new stars to emerge. And emerge they did: Dutz and King quickly went off the front of the 8am group and began working their way up through the 6am field. They reached Panamint in 14 and a half hours, having passed all of the 6am group except for Afanador and Jim Benike, 51, of Rochester, MN.

Next came the 10am group, which started in the full heat of the day without even a moment of shade to savor. First to the front of this group was Trevino, a young buck who had qualified for Badwater by running 25:36 at the 2000 Angeles Crest 100 and by winning the Raid the North Adventure Race in British Columbia. He continued his education and preparation by attending the Badwater Training Clinics, where everyone noted his speed, focus, and analytical approach to everything about his training and nutrition. While many ultrarunners, especially in Badwater, chronologically underfuel themselves while racing, Trevino consumed an average of 700 mostly liquid (Cytomax and Ensure) calories per hour during Badwater. This would give him the strength to not only outrun all the others, but also left him looking "5k fresh" at the finish line.

Although Trevino immediately charged to the front of the 10am group and soon began reeling in runners from the 8am and then 6am groups, he "intentionally went out conservatively in order to save something for the end." Keeping track of Quinn, Afanador, Benike, Dutz, and King through the timing checkpoints, he pushed himself "close to the edge" in the second half of the race to surpass them all in elapsed time. It was a brilliant strategy.

More than twice Trevino's age and with three or four Badwaters each between them, Arthur Webb, 59, of Santa Rosa, CA, and Steven Silver, 52, of El Paso, TX, amazingly stayed on Trevino's heals all the way across Death Valley. They would later tie for 11th place in an emotional late night finish.

Afanador, blissful in his ignorance of his overall position, was the first to arrive on Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states. He ascended the 12 miles from Lone Pine to Mt. Whitney Portal in 3:16, then began the waiting game to see if he'd actually won or not. Next over the line was Benike, also a rookie and also of the 6am group, with a 31:16:24 that would ultimately place him 5th overall. Would additional 6am starters follow? If not, then certainly the 8am frontrunners would come next, many would assume.

But it was Trevino who would arrive next at the finish line and take the overall victory. In elapsed time, he had been five minutes behind Afanador at Furnace Creek (mile 17) and 37 minutes behind at Stove Pipe Wells (mile 41), but as the day came to a close, he surged the 17 miles up Townes Pass. By Panamint (mile 71), he was 27 minutes into the lead and by Darwin (mile 90), he was 55 minutes faster. From then on, it was just a question of finishing smart and strong. And that he did.

Before Badwater, Langstaff had made quite a name for herself with nine 50k victories, three 50 mile victories, and a victory at the 1999 Vermont 100 (18:50). So it was no surprise that she completed the first 17 miles in 3:10, 41 miles in 8:36, 71 miles in 18:13, 90 miles in 24:48, 122 miles in 34:59, and then reached the finish line in 40:13:40, placing her 11th overall, more than four hours ahead of female runner-up Martin. Two television crews from San Diego documented her efforts at winning the race in strong form and with great style. She and Trevino will certainly make for excellent "poster children" for Badwater in years to come.

For the rest of that day, night, and the following day, runners from around the world made their way up the mountain and triumphantly across the finish line. Twenty-nine men and four women earned the coveted Badwater Ultramarathon belt buckle by finishing in less than 48 hours. Another twenty-two runners made the official course cutoff of 60 hours.

One of them was Marshall Ulrich, 50, of Brighton, CO, a four time Badwater champion and eight time finisher. Even more significant, Ulrich completed the 2001 race as the third leg of his "Badwater Quad for Starving Children," a four-time crossing of the Badwater-Whitney race course. He accomplished this record-setting goal in ten days, thirteen hours, a feat that had never before been accomplished.

The course was first officially completed in 1977 by ultra running pioneer and human potential guru Al Arnold of Walnut Creek, CA. Solo efforts against the clock were the name of the game until the first race was staged in 1987. Always legendary and known worldwide through the ultrarunning and adventure sports grapevines, the Badwater Ultramarathon has achieved major mainstream attention in recent years. The 1999 race was documented in the feature-length film "Running on the Sun," which made the rounds of the film festival circuit throughout 2000. And in recent months, New York Times editor Kirk Johnson, a 1999 entrant and finisher, released, "To The Edge: A Man, Death Valley, and the Mystery of Endurance" (Warner Books) to wide acclaim and fast-paced sales.

The title sponsor of the 2001 Badwater Ultramarathon is Sun Precautions, the Everett, WA-based makers of Solumbra 30+ SPF sun protective clothing, medically accepted sun protection for sun sensitive and sun sensible people, as well as the most popular attire for Badwater runners. Additional race sponsors include Hammer Nutrition, E-Caps, cycledesign.com, dizinno.com, mediablend.com, adventurecorps.com, and thefinalcut.net.

A live webcast of text, photos, and videos of the 2001 race received over 310,000 page views during the three days of the event, more than triple the viewership of the 2000 webcast. It remains archived at www.badwater.com for continual viewing.