2005 Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon: An "Unbreakable" Record Falls

By Chris Kostman

On July 11, 2005, eighty-one runners and their personal support teams converged on the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, a spot in Death Valley, CA known as Badwater located at 282 feet (85M) below sea level. They were there to compete in the 2005 Kiehl’s Badwater UItramarathon, a non-stop, 135-mile foot race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48. 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.

The Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon is an invitational race with entrants selected from a pool of applications which help to discern the runners most likely to safely and fairly finish the race while also representing as many countries, states, and athletic backgrounds as possible. The international field of athletes, fourteen women and 67 men ranging from 28 to 70 in age, represented Brazil, Canada, France, French Polynesia, Germany, Hungary, Jordan, Mexico, Monaco, South Africa, the UK, and nineteen American states.

The race began with a wave start, with 26 runners beginning at 6am, 27 at 8am, and 28 at 10am. Because hosting food and drink checkpoints along the side of the road in this forbidding environment is impossible, each entrant brings their own support vehicle and at least two support crew members to tend to all their needs. (In explaining this system, the press has made much of my statement that “aid station volunteers would die” if we organized this race like other ultra races.) A series of five timing checkpoints along the route feed timing data to the live webcast, and for staff, runners, and crews to keep track of one another’s competitive progress overall. Medical teams and race official patrol the course continuously to keep things safe and fair.

Those hoping to finish within the 60-hour cut-off began at 6am, while those hoping to earn the coveted sub-48 hour belt buckle began at 8am. Those planning “to make it a race” began at 6am. Across the board, there were exciting stories to be had in every single entrant. Not only was this the largest field in the history of the race, but also the most competitive, most international, and most diverse.

Among the many elite entrants were Pam Reed, the two-time overall winner from 2002 and 2003, Ferg Hawke, the Canadian dark horse who had surprised many with his second place finish in 2004, Monica Scholz, the three-time third place overall finisher who was also first among women in 2004, plus a surprising rookie: Scott Jurek, the 31-year-old Seattle ultrarunner who has won the Western States 100 trail ultra seven years in a row (including less than two weeks previous to this race) and is considered by many to be America’s premier ultrarunner. Noticeably absent from the 2005 race field was Dean Karnazes, the five-time entrant who had placed 2nd in 2003 and 1st in 2004. He had accepted an invitation to compete on Team USA in the 24 Hour World Championship in Austria the following weekend.

First off the front with a split of 2:23 at mile 17 in Furnace Creek was rookie entrant Mike Sweeney, a 50-year-old ship pilot from San Rafael, CA. Two minutes behind him was Jurek, followed another three minutes later by Hawke, the 47-year-old station attendant from Surrey, BC. Sweeney was clad in dark shorts and a white t-shirt, Hawke was clad in dark shorts and a grey t-shirt, while Jurek was wearing proper Badwater attire: all white sun-protective gear from head to toe. Among the women, Pam Reed, a 43-year-old race director and mother of five, passed through Furnace Creek in 2:42 while Monica Scholz, a 38-year-old attorney from Jerseyville, Ontario, Canada passed through in 3:19.

Bringing up the rear with a split of 7:01 was everybody’s favorite Marine Corps Major, Curt Maples, the 41-year-old who created and ran his own 135-mile “Baghdad Badwater” while deployed in Iraq a year ago. He would become one of the first to DNF this year. By mile 42, five others would also leave the course. More would follow later.

After passing Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, and Devil’s Golf Course, the runners pass the 42-mile mark at Stove Pipe Wells. Located at sea level, this marks the start of the 17-mile, non-stop ascent of 4,956’ Townes Pass, the exit from Death Valley and the first of three major ascents of the race.

Sweeney continued to lead through Stove Pipe, covering the 42 miles in 6:05, followed by Hawke in 6:16 and Jurek in 6:25. In fourth in 6:33 was Christopher Bergland, the 39-year-old New York City author who took fourth in 2003 and does nearly all his training indoors on a treadmill. Reed would come through in 7:19, pulling further ahead of Scholz who would take 8:59. Between them, in 8:22, was Jody-Lynn Reicher, the 42-year-old massage therapist from Midland Park, NJ who completed the race in 2002 and 2004.

As the race headed straight up Townes Pass and through the hottest part of the day, Jurek took the first of what would be five short breaks to immerse himself in a giant cooler full of ice water. Along with wearing the all white gear and holding back on his pace, it was an effective, and smart, way to tackle the course and the competition. This race was 35 miles further than his longest previous race and twice as far as he’d ever run on pavement, not to mention significantly hotter than he’d ever experienced. But this mountain trail specialist was showing respect for something that was seemingly far removed from his specialty, but was manageable with the correct game plan and an excellent, attentive crew, both of which he had. Heading up his crew were his wife Leah and well-known pacer Dusty Olson.

Just past halfway, after a long, 13-mile, bone-crunching descent off Townes Pass, is the Panamint Springs checkpoint at mile 72. Still leading the race was Mike Sweeney, clocking the distance in 11:58 as he ran through the night and headed up the second major climb of the race, a 15-mile, 3000’ ascent of the Argus Range. Next was Jurek in 12:32, followed a minute later by Hawke in 12:33. Bergland posted 13:28, followed by Charlie Engle in 14:05 and Reed in 14:08. Engle, 43, of Greensboro, NC is one of the producers of TV’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” He had placed 8th in 2003 and was looking to improve upon that.

As the night wore on and the competitors raced through a sheer blackness illuminated only by the night sky and their headlamps, the sixteen hours of off-the-front effort caught up with Mike Sweeney. So did Hawke and Jurek, who had been passing one another repeatedly for several hours, fighting for second place, then the lead. Sweeney found himself shutting down and seeking medical attention as he arrived at checkpoint four at mile 90 at Darwin with a time of 17:02. Hawke and Jurek has passed through in 16:32 with Hawke sprinting through first “so that the folks back home would see a Canadian leading the race.” Engle would pass through in 18:32 and Reed in 18:55, also passing Sweeney, who was huddled in a bomber jacket and a blanket at the checkpoint. His attitude was good, but his body was rebelling.

Hawke’s first place position through Darwin would be his only fleeting moment in the overall lead, for Jurek unleashed all he’d been saving during the first two-thirds of the race and took the lead shortly thereafter. With some 40 miles to go and the sun beginning to rise behind him, it wasn’t long before he could see Mt. Whitney and the road ascending it that would take him to the finish line. He put the hammer down and didn’t look back as the split between him and Hawke grew larger by the mile.

Heading past Keeler at mile 108 and then towards Lone Pine at mile 122, Jurek put all his focus on the course record. The record of 25:09:05, set in 2000 by Russian entrant Anatoli Kruglikov, had seemed unbreakable to nearly everyone, but now it wasn’t looking invincible to Jurek. Fresh on the heels of winning Western States for a record seventh time, Jurek was intent on making history and sealing his reputation as the king of trail and road ultra racing.

Jurek would pass through the fifth checkpoint, at Lone Pine, in 21:43, compared to Kruglikov’s 22:17 in 2000, making it clear he was a man on a mission. Next would be Hawke in 22:57, Engle in 25:17, Albert Valle of France in 26:06, and Reed in 26:18.

After completing the 13-mile, 5,000’ ascent of Whitney Portal Road, Scott Jurek, 31, of Seattle, WA took first place honors with a record time of 24 hours, 36 minutes, eight seconds. He crossed the line in a full sprint, letting out a war hoop.  His enthusiasm and excitement was palpable. Jurek commented “Last year, running the Grand Slam gave me the confidence that I could run hard this year soon after Western States. A lot of people have said ‘Jurek doesn’t run on pavement,’ but after 135 miles I think I’ve validated that (I can). I’m tickled as can be. I had complete respect for the course. Respect and experience really does help on this course. You have to be patient.” Jurek, who ran in the same socks and Brooks shoes for the duration, had no blisters. His longest training run on pavement this year had been 90 minutes.

Ferg Hawke, 47, from Surrey, BC, Canada placed second with a time of 26:33:00, an improvement of nearly an hour over his 2004 time of 27:30:20. Hawke’s 2005 finishing time is the fourth fastest in the history of the event. Right at the finish line, Hawke and Jurek pulled up chairs together and joked and swapped stories as a large crowd of fans, crew, staff, and media looked on. Many gasped when they saw Hawke’s toes, which were covered in massive blisters.

Charlie Engle, 43, of Greensboro, NC took third with a time of 28:49:47, a huge improvement over his 2003 time of 38:39:38.

Albert Vallee, 46, a mechanic and garage keeper from Chauvigne, France took fourth with a time of 29:59:18 in his rookie attempt.

Pam Reed, 43, of Tucson, AZ placed first among female entrants and fifth overall with a time of 30:29:55. Her previous finishing times were 27:56:47 in 2002, 28:26:52 in 2003, and 31:17:55 in 2004.

The second female and 14th overall, with a time of 37:39:22, was Monica Scholz, 38, of Jerseyville, Ontario, Canada. Her previous finishing times were 38:33:30 in 2002, 33:41:29 in 2003, and 29:22:29 in 2004.

The third female and 18th overall, with a time of 39:33:09, was rookie entrant Judit Pallos, a Hungarian citizen who lives in Newport Beach, CA. At age 28, she was the race’s youngest entrant. (Jurek was the youngest male.)

Mike Sweeney, 50, of San Rafael, CA took 12th with a time of 36:54:15. This was a long drop from leading the race for nearly 90 miles, but he showed courage and tenacity to pull himself together and complete the course in a still respectable time.

Geoffrey Hilton-Barber, 58, of South Africa, became the first blind athlete to complete the race. With a time of 46:30:17, he was guided along the entire course by fellow South African entrant Flip Jergens. His brother, Miles Hilton-Barber, also blind, had to withdraw before the third checkpoint.

Daniel Jensen, 55, of Sioux Falls, SD with a time of 57:44:15, became the second amputee athlete in history to complete the event. As a result of stepping on a landmine during the Vietnam War, Jensen wears a prosthetic limb below his right knee. He was featured in the film “Running on the Sun” when he DNF’d at the 1999 Badwater.

Jack Denness of Rochester, Kent, UK, with a time of 57:52:12, became the first 70-year-old to complete the race since its inception in 1987. This was the 12th time he has officially completed the race. He has vowed to retire from competing at Badwater, but plans to return in 2006 with his wife Mags to support the race.

Sigrid Eichner, 64, of Berlin, Germany, became the oldest woman in history to complete the event. A rookie entrant, her finishing time was 52:45:46.

Scott Weber, 52, of Mt. Shasta, CA became the third athlete in history to complete the race ten times. He completed the course in 57:42:00.

In a moment that couldn’t have been scripted better, but happened naturally, Jack Denness, Daniel Jensen, and Scott Weber all arrived at the finish line nearly simultaneously. They were joined there by rookie entrant Andrew Elder, 34, of London, with a time of 55:53, connecting the history of the race with the present and the future. There wasn’t a dry eye at Whitney Portal as the four athletes, their crews, staff, fans, and onlookers marveled at the excitement, drama, and pure inspiration which this race provides, from start to finish, from the first across the line to the last. It was an absolute privilege to be there at that moment, every one of us relishing success and a job well done.

A total of 67 of the 81 runners completed the distance within the 60 hour overall cutoff, an 83% finishing rate. The conditions in the 2005 race were particularly challenging, even for this event and its always hostile venue. The official high temperature was 118 on the first day. It was also nearly that hot during the latter parts of the race where it’s usually cooler. Despite that, the race enjoyed one of its highest finishing rates in the event’s history, a testimony to the caliber of athletes in the race and the support crews and medical staff who tended to them. Of the 67 official finishers, forty-five received the coveted belt buckle for completing the course in under 48 hours.

The Badwater Hall of Fame expanded to five members this year with the induction of Jeannie Ennis, the first American woman to ever complete the event. She was one of only four competitors in the original Badwater Ultramarathon, held in 1987. Ennis was 40 in 1987. She currently resides in Loomis, CA and is still an active endurance athlete. For more info, click here.

The title sponsor of the 2005 Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon is Kiehl's Since 1851. 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. For more info, click here.

Additional race sponsors include E-CAPS, Hammer Nutrition, Injinji Anatomical Interface Systems, Seasons Restaurant of Lone Pine, Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, Dow Villa of Lone Pine, the community of Lone Pine, CA, and many other generous companies and individuals. For more info, click here.

The Official Charity of the 2005 Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon is 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 seven million dollars and directly assisted over 1400 challenged athletes world wide. In 2005, Badwater entrants and staff raised over $35,000 for CAF. For more info, click here.

To view the extensive webcast of the 2005 Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon, which received over 1,000,000 page views by over 108,000 visitors in July, click here. To download the 2005 Race Magazine, click here. For race results and time splits, click here.

Postscript: 2004 Badwater champion Dean Karnazes placed 34th overall and 3rd American at the 24 Hour World Championships on July 16-17 with a distance of 219.29km. The winner of the event? Former Badwater record holder Anatoli Kruglikov with an astounding distance of 268.06km.