Story by Adeline Goss
It’s hotly debated every year: which starting time is the best? Most argue that 10am offers the greatest advantage: these runners have the fewest hours under the Death Valley sun. The 10am crowd also has a longer night of sleep and the advantage of having something to look forward to: passing the dozens of the fifty-odd runners chugging away ahead of them. Others say the 6am start is best, because these runners will stay in the shade of the Amaragosa mountain range to their right until the sun rolls over into the valley. 8am runners perhaps have the best of both worlds. In any case, the three starts of the 2005 Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon have distinctly different moods to them. Here’s how the runners took off:
“You’ve got 15 more minutes to coach me,” Frank McKinney (#42) said to the Official Badwater Coach, Lisa Smith, via his cell phone as he waited to line up for the group photo. The Badwater salt flats—tiny, white pillars of salt, climbing up in masses from the desert floor—stretched out behind the runners, ending in pale mountains at the opposite end of the valley. The heat—well—it wasn’t even hot. If it weren’t for a horizontal strip of sunlight spreading steadily across the salt flats toward us, the runners could have been in L.A.
Everyone was a bit groggy, webcast team included. Film crews trailed behind ever-amicable Jack Denness (“As I always say, I’ll be happy if I finish at 59 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds.”) Meanwhile, his crew gazed up at a sign indicating Sea Level, hovering far up a cliff wall behind us. She joked, a little uneasy: “We’re swimming with the fishes.”
As camera flashes flashed, runners gradually lined up in front of the Badwater sign. This batch of runners holds some of the most inspiring athletes at Badwater. Among them are Miles and Geoffrey Hilton-Barber (#56 and #58), both of whom are blind; Daniel Jensen, a Vietnam vet who lost his foot when he stepped on a landmine, but who has since competed in and finished several marathons and triathlons; and Frank McKinney, a rookie who raised over $11,000 for Challenged Athletes in honor of this race.
Smiles, smiles, and more smiles later, the photo-ops finally ended and each of the runners got ready to assemble at the starting line. A few jokes were cracked, the Star-Spangled Banner squeaked out from Chris Kostman’s boom box, and the runners were off, followed shortly by their wildly decorated crew vans.
Only the medical crew, Badwater staff and video crews hung around, looking shell-shocked and surrounded by the lull of early morning. Jeannie Ennis, inducted into the Badwater Hall of Fame for having completed the race in 1987, stood with Chris Kostman in front of a camera crew as the runners trailed off into the distance. With camera crews listening eagerly, Chris noted that Ennis had gone out on top, literally and metaphorically, and that her being there today inspired the other runners to reach their own goals.
Chris Kostman, Laurie and the webcast crew soon packed up to trail and photograph the runners as they wound through the valley. Making progress down the road were the Hilton-Barber brothers, who fast-walked in tandem with their poles extended, guided by their pacers. Chris Kostman introduced himself to Miles as he ran by taking photographs, and Miles answered without missing a beat. “Chris! Good to meet ya!” he shouted down the dusty road. “I owe you some money, buddy!” (His entry fee.)
This was a quieter group of runners than two hours ago, save for the four news crews that are running around asking all of the questions that I should probably have been asking: Seattle NBC, which is filming a story on Scott Jurek (#100); Current TV, founded by Al Gore; a German TV news crew doing a story on Guido Kunze (#80); and Canadian documentary film crew. The runners arrived more or less on time, received their compulsory weighing from the medical team, lined up for countless photographs, and took their spots behind the Badwater banner. Everyone on the sidelines was scoping each other out—complimenting one another’s crewing outfits, which included a furry rabbit suit, a Robin Hood ensemble, and the t-shirts worn by Rob Harsh’s crew (#67) which read “Just Suffer.”
Indeed. Despite the relatively cool temperature, there seemed to be a lot of talk about suffering and mortality. Asked what she hoped to accomplish as the youngest runner this year at age 28, Judit Pallos of Hungary (#28) replied, “Well, my first goal is to finish under 48 hours. The second best is to finish, and the third is to survive.”
“Which way to Lone Pine?” asked Andrew Elder (#66), as he stood for the group photograph.
Suffering, mortality and oblivion were on everyone's mind, but somehow, the second Badwater group started off without a hitch.
Typically, the fastest Badwater runners are funneled into the 10am start group, by which time the shadows have lifted from the starting line and the temperature in the valley is revving up. This year was no exception: the 10am wave was easily the strongest group ever to line up at the Badwater start line.
Perhaps the most talked about have been Scott Jurek (#100), Pam Reed (#4), Ferg Hawke (#2) and Monica Scholz (#3): Jurek has won the Western States 100 seven times in a row, and is the youngest male in the race, at 31; Reed won Badwater in 2002 and 2003; Hawke finished second last year as a rookie; and Scholz finished third last year, helping give her the fastest combined time of any woman to complete both Badwater and the Furnace Creek 508 in the same year.
Ferg Hawke (#2), who started in the 8am group last year and had to wait at the finish line for Dean Karnazes—only to find out that Karnazes had won with a slightly better time—was now racing head to head with his strongest competitors: “I’d like to finish in the top 3,” he told a TV crew. “I’ll probably watch Scott [Jurek] rip off into the sunset, but I’m just gonna run my own race and see how it works out.”
Most of us missed Scholz and Chris Bergland’s (#5) mutual pre-race striptease, so unfortunately there will be no vivid description of that event here.
Starting line, Star-Spangled Banner. The runners took off down the road, Jurek in the lead at breakneck speed. Chris Kostman, Laurie Streff, and half of the webcast crew took off after them, taking their portraits against the already wavering landscape. Most of the runners were quite perky. Chris Bergland, who holds the world record for 24-hour treadmill running, reported, “I’m trying to run slow today. I just don’t think I can run any slower than this.”
And that was just the beginning...