Pam Reed Does it Again at World's Toughest Foot Race


By Chris Kostman
Originally published in Ultra Running Magazine, October 2003

Last year some thought it was a fluke, but in July, 2003 Pam Reed proved them wrong: Once again, she beat all the men, and women, at the Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon, the 135 mile foot race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney. But this time, she didn't run away with the title; it was a race from start to finish at the world's toughest, most grueling, most outrageous ultramarathon.

The race begins with a wave start, with approximately 25 runners per group beginning at 6am, 8am, and 10am, respectively. Additionally, 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.

Last year, Reed began in the 6am wave, whereas most of the top-gun men began at 10am. With Reed out of sight and apparently out of mind, the men were content to race one another and not bother to check on the progress of those in the other waves. This was foolish, because it left them racing for second place. By the time the lead men figured things out, they were too far back and, frankly, too slow to reel her in. Reed won handily with a four hour, 42 minute margin of victory, breaking the women's course record in the process in a time of 27:56:47. It was a feat largely left unnoticed by the running and mainstream media.

But this year the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Arizona Daily Star, Associated Press, CNN, CBS LA, French TV,, ESPN The Magazine, and a host of other media outlets turned out to shine their bright lights upon the 103 pound, 5'2” mother of five.

So on July 22, 2003 as Reed stood at the start line at Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282' below sea level, she was a marked woman. She was grouped with all the known hotshots in the 10am wave and would race them head-to-head for 135 miles.

Winning would be no easy feat, as the next 28 hours would prove.

Several men immediately pulled ahead of Reed as the race began in temperatures already over 100 degrees. By the first checkpoint at mile 17 in Furnace Creek, Reed was in fourth. There, her elapsed time was 2:37, compared to Brazilian ultra-triathlete Sergio Cordeiro's 2:34, 2001 runner-up Rudy Afanador's 2:23, and, most notably, Kiehl's skin care salesman and three-time Triple Ironman winner Christopher Bergland's 2:19.

As the day noted for its higher than usual temperature of 130, scalding winds, and unusually high humidity progressed, many of the runners began to falter. By mile 42 at Stove Pipe Wells, Reed had moved into second, 39 minutes behind Bergland, while Afanador was about to drop, Cordeiro was in 3rd but faltering, and Dean Karnazes, a 4th place finisher in 2000, had moved up to fourth overall, just 15 minutes behind Reed and 56 minutes behind the dominant race leader, 37-year-old Bergland.

Meanwhile, the race's medical team was working overtime, tending to runners, and even crewmembers, that were dropping like flies. It's a fact that in most Badwater Ultramarathons, the runners—and their crews, by extension—are right at the limit of their ability. This year the just slightly worse, or tougher, conditions presented by the heat, wind, and humidity, not to mention the intense competition, were pushing everybody further than ever before, often beyond their ability.

One racer dropped before the first checkpoint, fourteen more dropped before the second checkpoint, and seven more wouldn't make it to the halfway mark. Surviving day one is the name of this game, but many in this hand-picked, international field of super-athletes simply weren't up to the task in this “extra hard” edition of the world's toughest footrace.

The sun dropped as the runners climbed their way up an Townes Pass, the 17-mile, 5,000 foot ascent up and out of Death Valley that is the portal into a much more tolerable environment. Bergland continued to burn up the course, his entirely indoor training program (treadmills and spin bikes; no running outdoors), apparently providing just the right fitness for him to push well beyond his personal furthest ever distance of 78 miles.

For a day and a night, Berland had smiled constantly and seemed to run effortlessly. Listening to tunes on his walkman and with his ever-present crew tending to his needs, the 37-year-old Bergland really seemed to be having no troubles at all. He seemed unconcerned about his competition, too, instructing his crew to tell him nothing about those behind him. He just seemed happy. And he sure was fast. Hailing from New York City, compared to Reed's desert home in Tucson, seemed not a hindrance.

Meanwhile, Reed had kept the exact same 40 minute split through the night, shadowing Bergland, but never able to close in on him. And behind Reed was a mirage that kept up a relentless pace; Karnazes had moved into third and was charging up the course, his mind fixated on the finish line and getting there ASAP, hopefully ahead of yet one or two more people.

So it went through the night, the three superstars burning bright, blazing the most competitive trail in the race's recent history.

And then the sun came up and Bergland went into reverse.

After holding a 40 minute, 3.5 mile gap on Reed for 70 miles, Bergland's energy systems just shut down. In a matter of miles, he went from running steadily like a metronome, as he had without faltering since the start of the race, to a slow run, to a jog, to a shuffle. His smile faltered almost equally. When Reed caught and passed him at mile 111 at 6:47 in the morning, he greeted her warmly, showed his trademarked smile for a moment, then dropped into a walk as Reed blazed ahead. He seemed pleased to be passed by such a great athlete, and even said so to all the journalists who asked what he was feeling, having surrendered the lead to the woman.

The race was over. Or was it?

Though Reed's crew with two vans had never bothered to go back and check upon the competition behind her, Dean Karnazes, the 40 year adventure athlete (ultrarunner, windsurfer, mountaineer, snowshoer) from San Francisco, CA had kept pushing his pace, moving towards the front of the field. Though he was sixth, 15 minutes slower than Reed into Furnace Creek, he'd clocked just one or three minutes slower between each of the next two checkpoints. Between the halfway mark and Darwin, he was six minutes slower, then moved into second on the new day, passing Bergland not long after Reed did. On the way to Lone Pine at mile 122, Karnazes finally slowed, giving up 25 minutes to Reed, who had been energized by taking the lead and had upped the ante to put Bergland behind her once and for all.

Reed's burst wasn't necessary, as far as Bergland was concerned. With his body systems shutting down left and right, Bergland sought medical attention and the solace of his support van. He'd give up four hours to Reed on his way to Lone Pine and was reduced to less than a shuffle as he headed up the 5,000-foot climb to the finish line.

But it was a good thing that Reed didn't slow down, because Karnazes lit the afterburners on his way up to Whitney Portal, the 8300' finish line at the trailhead of the highest mountain in the Lower 48. Starting up the mountain 50 minutes behind Reed, he covered the last thirteen miles in three hours flat, compared to Reed's 3:25.

But that didn't matter; the race was Reed's, once again.

And this time, all the eyes of the world were upon her as Reed beat all her female and male competitors, winning the race outright with a time of 28:26:52. It was 25 minutes slower than in 2002 and one of the closest finishes in the race's history, but it was pure vindication that 2002 had been no fluke. The media frenzy at the finish line, complete with satellite truck beaming the images nearly live, was underlined with her appearance on the The Late Show with David Letterman the following week. (Letterman's other guest that night was Melanie Griffith. Reed brought the house down when she told Dave that she “got a belt buckle” for her efforts.)

Karnazes would finish 25 minutes back, in second place with 28:51:26. Third over the line was not Bergland, but Monica Scholz, 36, of Jerseyville, Ontario, Canada with a time 33:41:29. Fourth, at barely a walk, went to Bergland with a time of 33:58:37. He'd really dug deep to even finish, his body shut down but his pride and pleasant demeanor intact. Tracy Bahr, 31, of Bend, Oregon, was the third female and fifth overall with a time of 35:16:17. Women placed 1st, 3rd, and 5th overall in the final top standings. Never again will this race list its results with men and women in separate columns.

Altogether, an invitational field of seventy-three runners from twelve countries and twenty-three American states contested the 135 mile non-stop race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney on July 22-24, 2003. Covering three mountain ranges for a total of 13,000' of vertical ascent and 4,700' of descent, the 16 women and 57 men ranged in age from 31 to 70 and represented Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Tahiti, Luxembourg, Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland, Monaco, the UK, and USA.

A total of 46 of the 73 runners completed the distance within the 60 hour overall cutoff, a 63% finishing rate. Of these 46 official finishers, thirty received the coveted belt buckle for completing the course in under 48 hours. Click here for full biographical data on all 73 runners.

During a ceremony at the pre-race meeting, Jay Birmingham, the man who “made it a race” back in 1981 when he broke Al Arnold's pioneering 1977 against-the-clock record, became the Badwater Hall of Fame's second ever inductee. Then, twenty-two years after his first and only effort on the course, he took his place on the starting line and contested the event with the rest of the field. Blisters forced his premature withdrawal after the halfway mark.

The title sponsor of the 2003 Badwater Ultramarathon was Kiehl's Since 1851. "Kiehl's is honored to be involved with such an extraordinary race and to have supported each of the athletes with our Vital Sun Protection line of sunscreens," commented Abbie Schiller, the Kiehl's Vice President of Public Relations.

Kiehl's was founded as an old-world apothecary at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Third Avenue in New York City. Its unique and extensive background represents a blend of cosmetic, pharmaceutical, herbal, and medicinal knowledge developed and passed on through generations. For more than 150 years, Kiehl's has served its customers skin and hair care products formulated with the finest ingredients. The company is characterized by a strident commitment to service standards of the highest quality.

The Official Charity of the 2003 Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon was the Challenged Athletes Foundation. As one of the very few charities that provides grants directly to athletes with a physical disability, the Challenged Athletes Foundation has raised over four million dollars and directly assisted over 1000 challenged athletes world wide. One of the goals of the 2003 Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon was to raise funds for, and awareness of, this organization.

Additional race sponsors included Hammer Nutrition, Seasons Restaurant of Lone Pine, Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, Panamint Springs Resort, Dow Villa of Lone Pine, the community of Lone Pine, CA,, and many other generous companies and individuals.

The event was held under permits from the U.S. National Park Service, California Department of Transportation, Inyo County, and the U.S. Forest Service.

A live webcast of the race, including dozens of stories, over 1,000 images, video clips, complete race results and more, was featured throughout July 22-24 at and remains archived for further viewing.