A Race to Remember
By Steve Matsuda
It was a classic duel. The closest finish ever in the history of the Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon. Eight minutes separated the top two finishers. Each athlete pushed himself to his limit, for hour upon hour over the 135-mile course. Neither would walk away saying they could have given anything more.
To add intrigue, the first runner to cross the finish line, couldn’t immediately be crown the winner. Because of limitations on the number of runners and vehicles that can safely navigate the start of the race, runners must begin in three waves, each starting two hours apart.
Ferg Hawke, a first-time Badwater entrant from Canada, began in the 8:00 AM starting block and pushed the pace hard. After about 40 miles, he had passed all the runners in the 6:00 AM start. His objective was to take advantage of the “cooler” morning before temperatures began to rise.
Dean Karnazes, a Badwater veteran, had finished the race three times before, including a 2nd place finish last year. He said he really wanted to win the race, this year more so than any other. He pushed harder and with the hotter 10AM start, he says he felt the affects of the heat more this year than last.
As Hawke continued to push the pace, he built a sizeable lead. It wasn’t until Karnazes reached mile 72 at Panamint Springs did he learn that Hawke actually had a 47 minute lead. Through the night, Karnazes continued to apply pressure, shrinking his deficit to 11 minutes at the Darwin station at mile 90.
After 122 miles in Lone Pine, only two minutes separated them. What remained was 13 miles and 4,700 feet of elevation gain on the Whitney Portal Road. However, because they started two hours apart, Hawke would lead the way up the hill and Karnazes would follow about two hours later, trying to cut more than two minutes from Hawke’s lead.
Hawke gave it all he had up the agonizing climb to the Whitney Portals and was the first to cross the finish line in a fantastic time of 27 hours and 30 minutes. He then had to wait and see if his time would hold up for an overall victory.
Karnazes was in the opposite situation. He would make the same agonizing climb but do it at least three minutes faster than Hawke. Karnazes also gave all he had and finished in 27 hours and 22 minutes. After 135 miles, Karnazes won the race by 8 minutes and is the winner of the 2004 Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon.
Both athletes were gracious after the race, which was contested fairly and at the highest level of performance. Their efforts will be long remembered.