Veterans Triumph at the 135-Mile Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon
By Chris Kostman
Eighty-five runners from fourteen countries and twenty American states ran 135 miles non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney on July 24-26, 2006 in the 29th 135-mile Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon. Placing first for the second year in a row was Scott Jurek, who was nearly beaten by a previously unknown rookie named Akos Konya, a citizen of Hungary who resides in Oceanside, CA.
The start line is at Badwater, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere at 280' (85m) below sea level. Following 135 miles of paved roads, the race finishes at Mt. Whitney Portal at 8360' (2533m). 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 Portal is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Competitors travel through places or landmarks with names like Mushroom Rock, Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil's Cornfield, Devil's Golf Course, Stovepipe Wells, Keeler and Lone Pine.
The race began with the traditional wave start, with 26 runners beginning at 6am, 28 at 8am, and 32 at 10am. This is done because of lack of parking at the start line and, even more so, to minimize congestion of runners, crew, and vehicles on the roadway in the National Park. 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.
Some of the top contenders on the start line included course record holder and 2005 champion Scott Jurek, 32, of Seattle, WA; Dean Karnazes, 43, of San Francisco, CA, the 2003 runner-up and 2004 champion; Ferg Hawke, 48, of Surrey, BC, Canada, the runner-up in 2004 and 2005; Dusan Mravlje, 53, of Trzici, Slovenia, the runner-up in 2000; Charlie Engle, 43, of Hermosa Beach, CA, the 3rd place finisher in 2005; and Marshall Ulrich, 55, of Idaho Springs, CO, the thirteen-finisher and four-time champion. Some of the top female contenders included Pam Reed, 45, of Tucson, AZ, the overall champion in 2002 and 2003 and women's champion in 2005; Monica Scholz, 39, of Jerseyville, Ontario, Canada, the 2004 women's champion and four-time finisher; and Lisa Smith-Batchen, 45, of Victor, ID, a three-time women's champion and six-time finisher.
In 2006, the runners were assigned to starting waves based upon their perceived finishing times: Those mainly hoping to finish within the 60-hour cut-off began at 6am, while those gunning for the coveted sub-48 hour belt buckle began at 8am. Those planning "to make it a race" began at 10am. At least that was the plan: It seems that dark horses regularly emerge from the 6am or 8am waves which upset, or nearly upset, the race, as was the case in 2001, 2002, and 2004.
That history repeated itself this year, with David Goggins, 31, a Navy SEAL living in Chula Vista, CA, along with Akos Konya starting at 6am and promptly burning up the course at a world-class speed. What's amazing is how, every time this happens, the 10am frontrunners are oblivious: they seemingly never ask their crews to check on the progress of the 6am and 8am starters, so they are always caught off guard when they eventually find out that, though they are leading the 10am wave, they are not leading the race.
Such was the case this year: In the 10am wave, Ferg Hawke covered the 17 miles to Furnace Creek in 2:40, while Scott Jurek did it in 2:45, and Dean Karnazes did it in 2:48. But back in the 6am wave, Akos Konya covered that distance in 2:42 and David Goggins did it in 2:43, while Stephane Pelissier, 42, of Lanta, France, covered it in 2:39. Of course, seventeen miles do not a 135-mile race make, but in this case it was a good indicator of what was going to unfold.
At Stove Pipe Wells, mile 42, Konya passed by in 6:31 and Pelissier in 6:46, whereas Jurek would take 7:02, Engle would take 7:07, and Hawke would take 7:25, with Goggins in 7:31. The official high that day was 123, but that's measured in a "cooler part" of Death Valley, so most runners were seeing high 120s which were exacerbated by an unusually high humidity of 22%. It was an incredibly hot and humid day for everyone, especially in the area of Stove Pipe Wells, where the runners begin a relentless 17-mile ascent of Townes Pass, a 5,000 foot climb in the hottest afternoon heat and direct sun.
Ever-smiling, like always, Monica Scholz was the fastest woman through all but one of the time stations: First she passed Furnace Creek in 3:13, while 2005 veteran Noora Alidina, 49, a citizen of Jordan residing in Palm Harbor, FL, took 3:17. Third through the first time station was rookie Monique Muhlen, 53, of Bridel, Luxembourg, who covered those 17 miles in 3:27 as an 8am starter.
Scholz passed through Stove Pipe Wells, mile 42, in 8:50, which Muhlen covered in 8:45 and Alidina did in 9:33. Meanwhile, Pam Reed was battling dehydration and numerous other problems. She would drop after taking 12 hours to get to Stove Pipe Wells, ending her streak of four consecutive finishes.
The arrival of darkness brought temperatures in the 90s, but more importantly, no sun burning overhead. Konya found himself way off the front, not having seen another runner since Townes Pass. He'd had to set his own pace and remain largely ignorant of how the other runners were doing behind him. Ditto for Goggins, who came only to finish and had an all-military crew who was easily the best organized, most efficient, and most consistent of all the crews out there, which is high praise, indeed. "Every operation is a military operation, sir," one of his crew members told me.
Konya would pass through Panamint Springs Resort at mile 71 in 12:22, while Jurek would take 13:25, then it would be Pelissier in 13:43, Hawke in 13:49, Engle in 14:15 and Goggins in 14:41, plus Scholz in 16:08, Muhlen in 16:58, and Alidina in 18:09.
In 2005, Jurek intentionally lay in wait, biding his time and saving his energy for later in the race, when the temperatures were cooler; he didn't take the lead from Hawke until after mile 90 at the Darwin Time Station. This year, on the other hand, he seemed to be struggling after starting seemingly too slowly for a serious attempt at a sub-24-hour race and then found himself battling even to win, let alone set a record.
Meanwhile, as Konya mostly power-walked up the second major climb of the race, a 15-mile, 3000' ascent of the Argus Range while wearing a t-shirt emblazoned in red and orange flames, Jurek was well behind him, both literally and in elapsed time. Konya seemed shocked at how well he was doing and just kept saying how his only goal was to finish. He'd only brought a crew of two friends who had taken him into their home shortly after his arrival in America. They knew nothing about running, let alone ultra running, but their enthusiasm was off the charts. Lucky for them, they, and Konya, were benefiting greatly from the insights of ultrarunner extraordinaire Karsten Solheim, who had volunteered to crew for anybody at the pre-race meeting and was thusly promptly snatched up by Konya's crew.
At Darwin, mile 90, Konya ran by in 16:17 (10:17pm, local time), then Jurek arrived in 17:10, Engle in 18:15, Hawke in 18:22, Pelissier in 18:58, and Goggins in 19:36. For the top women, Scholz covered those 90 miles in 20:42, Muhlen in 22:24, and Alidina in 24:07. The women's race was becoming clear cut, while the men's still remained to be seen. A total of seventeen runners would never even reach Darwin due to dehydration, blisters, cramps, and the like
Prior to Badwater, Konya had only run a hundred miles a few times before and he'd always needed a nap along the way. Badwater proved no different: About 1am, he stopped for a 30 minutes of shut-eye. His pace had been dropping and this was what his brain, and probably his legs, needed at this point.
With the sun rising behind, Konya power-walked from Lone Pine up the 13-mile, 5000' ascent of Whitney Portal Road. He had passed race headquarters in Lone Pine at mile 122 in 23:06. Jurek, now with his crew checking Konya's progress at each time station, had finally caught Konya in elapsed time: he had passed through Lone Pine in 22:51. Meanwhile, Engle took 24:39, Hawke took 25:06, Goggins took 26:16, and Pelissier took 27:07. Scholz would take 28:04, Muhlen took 28:58, and Alidina took 33:12.
After 122 miles on the road, it would all come down to how fast the frontrunners could climb to the finish line on Mt. Whitney at 8360', just as it had so many times in the past, especially in 2003 when Pam Reed bested Karnazes by 25 minutes or in 2004 when Karnazes edged out Hawke by a mere seven minutes.
This year, experience would prevail in those final miles: Jurek had won his seventh consecutive Western States 100 in 2005, then won Badwater in record time as a rookie just two weeks later. This year he'd "retired" from Western States to focus exclusively on Badwater. He had even come to Death Valley over two weeks in advance to get "heat trained" for the race.
Jurek's sub-24-hour finish would be remain elusive, perhaps for another year or another runner, but his vast ultrarunning experience would give him the "finishing kick" necessary to win the 2006 Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon with a time of 25 hours, 41 minutes, 18 seconds.
Akos Konya would place second with a time of 25:58:42, less than seventeen minutes behind Jurek. Prior to this race, Jurek and most of the other entrants had never heard of Konya, but he'll never be incognito again.
Charlie Engle placed third with a time of 28:18:36, about 30 minutes faster than his third place finish in 2005. Ferg Hawke, the Canadian who had been runner-up for two years in a row, placed fourth with a time of 28:45:10. Next would be David Goggins in fifth with a time of 30:18:54. Goggins, like Konya, will also never again be an "unknown." Pelissier took 6th in 31:28:15, William Sichel, 52, a rookie from Scotland, took 7th in 31:36:12.
Monica Scholz would place first among women and eighth overall with a time of 32:07:01. This was her fifth consecutive finish and second women's division title. Monique Muhlen placed 2nd female and 9th overall in a time of 32:25:52 in her rookie attempt, while Noora Alidina placed 3rd female and 16th overall in a time of 37:16:15 in her second Badwater appearance.
The conditions in the 2006 race were exceptionally challenging, even for this event and its always hostile venue. Besides the official high temperature of 123 with 22% humidity on the first day, it rained and hailed at times later in the race, with small flash floods covering the road in ankle-deep muddy water. ("Badwater" at both ends of the race course?) Despite the always challenging route and the adverse conditions, 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 superb medical staff who tended to them.
The international field of athletes, seventeen women and 68 men ranging in age from 28 to 69, represented Austria, Brazil, Canada, El Salvador, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, India, Jordan, Slovenia, Sweden, the UK, and the USA. Of the 85 starters (47 veterans and 38 rookies), 67 finished officially (79%) in under 60 hours, of which fifty-three received the coveted belt buckle for completing the course in under 48 hours.
The Badwater Hall of Fame expanded from five to seven members this year with the induction of Rhonda Provost, the first woman to complete a double Badwater—in 1995—and a several-time Badwater support crew member and inventor of Badwater-specific blister-prevention techniques, as well as Jack Denness, the eleven-time official finisher of the race who became its first 70-year-old finisher in 2005 (and served on the race staff this year with his wife Mags).
For the fourth year in a row, the title sponsor of the race 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, visit www.kiehls.com.
Additional race sponsors include The North Face, E-CAPS, Hammer Nutrition, Injinji Five-Toe Performance Socks, ZombieRunner.com, Stove Pipe Wells Resort, Panamint Springs Resort, Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, Seasons Restaurant of Lone Pine, Pizza Factory of Lone Pine, Dow Villa of Lone Pine, and many other generous companies and individuals from the community of Lone Pine, CA and beyond. For more info, visit www.badwater.com/sponsors.html
The Official Charity of the 2006 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 eight million dollars and directly assisted over 2100 challenged athletes world wide. One of the goals of the Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon is to raise funds for, and awareness of, this organization. For more info, visit www.challengedathletes.org.
A live webcast of the race, including numerous video, audio, and text files, plus complete time splits, results and over 1,000 images, was produced by AdventureCORPS and remains archived at www.badwater.com/2006web/ for further viewing.
For Badwater gear, visit the special Badwater Store hosted by Badwater veterans Gillian Robinson and Don Lundell at www.zombierunner.com/badwater.
Prospective entrants in the 2007 Badwater Ultramarathon are encouraged to submit an application for consideration in January 2007. Minimum qualifying requirements include officially finishing a 100-miler or a member of the BAD135 World Series which features 135-mile sister events of the Badwater Ultramarathon held around the globe.
Originally Published in Ultra Running Magazine, October 2006