Records Broken as the Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon Turns 30

By Chris Kostman
Originally published in Ultra Running, September 2007

The 30th anniversary Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon turned out to be a record-breaking foot race that was extraordinary in many ways. The 135-mile non-stop run from Death Valley to Mount Whitney featured the highest caliber field yet seen in this race, and it produced two worthy champions in Valmir Nunes of Brazil, and Lisa Bliss of Spokane, WA, who stood out from of a field that included 84 athletes from 15 nations and 21 American states.

The two year-old course record was smashed by the rookie runner Valmir Nunes, 43, who paced himself in third place and then finished strong to take a hard-earned race win after an eventful night out on the road. The Brazilian’s finishing time of 22:51:29 bested Scott Jurek’s 24:36:08 mark set in 2005 by a large margin.

Lisa Bliss, 39, of Spokane, WA came back from a long way behind in the women’s field to turn the tables on her rivals and emerge as a surprised winner with a time of 34:33:40.

More runners than ever before finished the race, with only six of the 84 starters withdrawing.

With its start line at Badwater, Death Valley, the course rises from the lowest elevation in North America at 280’ (85m) below sea level. After a grueling 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 4700’ (1433m) of cumulative descent. The Portal is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States.

The race began with the traditional wave start, with 27 runners beginning at 6am, 26 at 8am, and 31 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. A race staff of 50 patrolled the course, worked the six time stations, produced the webcast, and provided medical and footcare support.

The 2007 race roster included 43 Badwater veterans and 41 rookies. They represented fifteen countries - Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Jordan, Mexico, South Africa, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and USA - and twenty-one America states. There were 17 women and 67 men. The youngest runner was 24 while the oldest was 70, with an average age of 47.

The 2007 race field was particularly competitive. Veteran contenders included Akos Konya, 32, of Oceanside, CA (Hungary citizenship), the 2006 runner-up, Charlie Engle, 44, of Greensboro, NC (3rd place finisher in 2005 and 2006), David Goggins, 32, of Chula Vista, CA (5th place finisher in 2006), and Albert Vallee, 48, of France (4th place in 2005).

Among the rookie entrants attempting to make their competitive mark was Jorge Pacheco, 39, of Los Angeles, CA (Mexico citizenship), a superstar of the 50-mile and 100-mile ultrarunning scene who stepped up to the 135-mile Badwater distance this year; he did his homework by serving on Badwater support crews the past three years, including crewing for his wife who this year returned the favor.

Also planning to compete for the title was Valmir Nunes, 42, of Santos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, the champion of the inaugural Brooks Brazil 135, a founding member of the Badwater World Cup held in January. He has won 75% of all the races he has finished and he brought the same philosophy to this race, saying, “I started with only one thing in my mind: I needed to win this race.” Prior to the race, Nunes spent 10 days training in Death Valley, staying at Stovepipe Wells. During that time I realized that I could break the record,” he said.

The women's field was also deep with talent, including veterans Noora Alidina, 50, of Palm Harbor, FL (Jordan citizenship), who was 3rd in 2006 and Lisa Bliss, 39, of Spokane, WA, who was 3rd in 2004. Rookie hopefuls for the leadership of the women's race included Dagmar Grossheim, 45, of Germany, Tracy Thomas, 45, of Champaign, IL, and Jamie Donaldson, 32, of Littleton, CO, among others.

Temperatures exceeded the 114F (46C) recorded in Furnace Creek as the runners passed through Stovepipe Wells, at the foot of the mighty Townes Pass climb. A leading group of three runners from the 10 a.m. wave was pulled along by Mexican national Jorge Pacheco, 39, of Los Angeles. A Badwater rookie, Pacheco had a gap of 15 minutes over Hungarian Akos Konya, 32, of Oceanside, Calif., with another rookie, the Brazilian ace Valmir Nunes, 43, a further six minutes back.

All runners who ascended the 17-mile climb before dusk faced a stiff headwind on the slopes up to the pass at 4,956’. Pacheco used this stretch of the race course to show his considerable strength and establish a psychological advantage over his rivals.

At the summit of Townes Pass, 58.7 miles into the race, Pacheco led Konya by over 35 minutes, and Nunes by 42 minutes. The Mexican looked the strongest runner in the race. Yet, as Pacheco’s wife said from the crew vehicle, “There is still a long way to go in this race.” She knew he had run no more than 100 miles prior to this, and as a veteran of the Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon herself, she knew only too well what a big difference those extra 35 miles make, not to mention all the other elements which make this the world’s toughest foot race.

On the 10-mile descent to the Panamint Valley, 3,036’ below, Konya remained about 35 minutes behind Pacheco, while Nunes had closed to sixteen minutes behind the Hungarian as he passed through Time Station Three at the Panamint Springs Resort. “I was not worried, I was in control,” said Nunes at the finish line when recalling this part of the race. Yet at the post-race banquet, his tone was a little different. “I had intended to lead the race from the beginning, but because of Jorge (Pacheco) and Akos (Konya) I could not do that,” he admitted.

David Goggins looked comfortable in fourth place for most of the race, and unlike his rivals he was running without a pacer. Though he was running faster than the year before, he never looked likely to challenge the top three – unless they faltered, in which case he was ready to sweep them up with his relentless cadence and hyper-efficient crew.

The nighttime low temperature was a relatively cool 93F, (34C) but more importantly the runners were out of the blistering ultra-violet of the sun’s rays. Going through the Panamint Springs time station, Goggins was 1:16 behind Pacheco in fourth. A further 35 minutes back, the Swiss runner, Christian Fatton, 47, had moved up into fifth place.

While the runners headed into the dark steepness of the “Father Crowley” climb – 2,020 vertical feet in only eight miles – many of the crew members stopped at the Panamint Springs Resort, which kept its kitchen open all night to feed support crews and race staff.

Nunes showed his determination on the Father Crowley climb and reeled in Konya shortly after the Darwin time station 90 miles into the race. That was the last the Hungarian would see of the Brazilian. “Valmir just took off,” said Konya who recalled that he was mentally preparing himself for third place when reports began coming in that Pacheco was walking and did not look good, “so I kept going hard and I passed him (Pacheco) at Lone Pine.”

Pacheco, the hundred mile specialist, met his demise around the 110-mile mark, where he found his quads no longer willing to keep up a running pace. He was quickly reduced to a shuffling walk and the lead of 43 minutes that he had held over Nunes at the Darwin time station had turned into a deficit of 1:38 at Lone Pine, 32 miles up the road.

Pacheco had set new record times to the first four time stations, but in the end it was all to no avail. At the finish, enormously impressed by his rival’s effort, Konya approached Pacheco and told him of his record setting pace through the first four time stations. “Yes, but it was a mistake,” explained Pacheco. “I’ve never run this far and I was unable to slow down (in the first 100 miles).”

Konya passed Pacheco and moved into second place shortly before the Lone Pine time station, and Dave Goggins would pass Pacheco and move into third place on the final climb to the finish on Mt Whitney. This was the most punishing of all climbs in the race, 4671 feet in 13 miles.

Konya would complete the course in 23:47:47, more than two hours faster than the 25:58:42 he posted in 2006. Goggins would finish in 25:49:40, compared to 30:18:54 in 2006.

The rookie Pacheco’s fourth place finish would be in a time of 26:41:52, a time fast enough to win the race overall in 2001, 2002, 2003, or 2004.

What happened in the women’s race mirrored the men’s category: an object lesson in the delicacy of pacing and the value of experience in this arduous event. Rookie runner Jamie Donaldson, 32, of Littleton, Colo. set out at what looked like a reasonable, if brisk pace and worked like a metronome to put great distance between herself and her rivals. 

By Panamint Springs she had a lead of one hour and twenty minutes over second place Tracy Thomas, 45, of Champaign, IL, and 2:25 over Noora Aladina, 50, of Palm Harbor, Florida. At that point in the race, 72 miles in, Lisa Bliss was 3:25 back. Donaldson’s lead looked almost unassailable.

But like Pacheco in the men’s race, Donaldson was hobbled by a debilitating breakdown. In her case it was shin splints, which came on at about the 90-mile mark. With every step hurting, the courageous Jamie Donaldson began a painful looking shuffle that she continued to the end, although she eventually dropped to fifth place.

Some 24 hours before she crossed the finish line, 8,360 feet up the slopes of Mount Whitney, Lisa Bliss was climbing Townes Pass and having grave doubts as to whether she would even finish.

“I had bad blisters. But I just said to myself, ‘I’ve got what I’ve got, I’ll just carry on.’ But I couldn’t even walk, the pain was so bad. Then my doctor found a metatarsal pad, the one item I couldn’t get hold of before the race, and that made the pain tolerable.”

Bliss, a medical doctor who oversaw the assemblage of the event’s 10-member medical crew, discovered that she was getting stronger and stronger as the race progressed. On Townes Pass she was the fifth woman, and from there on she started passing her rivals one by one all the way to Lone Pine where she finally caught the ailing Jamie Donaldson.

“Maybe they just went out a little too hard. Maybe I benefited from all those long stops I was taking to tend to my blisters and tendon problem. I don’t know, but at around 90 miles I started to feel real good and just began running. I must have had the fastest woman’s split form Darwin to Lone Pine. I ran the whole way,” said Bliss after the finish.

Bliss passed Donaldson at Lone Pine, 122 miles into the race with only 13 miles remaining, and went on to win with a time of 34:33:40. Unable to respond, Donaldson could only watch as Noora Alidina also went past to claim second place in 35:12:13, then Tracy Thomas, whose third place finish time was 37:26:44 and then Bonnie Busch, 49, of Bettendorf, IA, who posted 40:29:16. Donaldson would place fifth with a time 41:00:57, a heroic effort.

Of the 84 starters, 78 finished officially in under 60 hours, of which sixty-five received the coveted belt buckle for completing the course in under 48 hours. Of special note is Robin Smit, 70, of Fresno, CA, who completed the race in 55:52:24 and became the second ever 70 year old to finish the race. He broke the 70+ age group record of 57:52:12 set by Jack Denness in 2005.

The Badwater Hall of Fame expanded from seven to nine members this year with the induction of Ben and Denise Jones of Lone Pine, CA. Race director Chris Kostman presented this distinguished and much loved couple with a plaque that read “In recognition of their 17 years on the race course as athletes, camp hosts, volunteers, crew members, Race Ambassadors, and Mayor and First Lady.”

Now in its eighth year producing this race, AdventureCORPS is pleased to have had the support of title sponsor, Kiehl’s Since 1851, for the fifth year in a row. Kiehl's was founded as an old-world apothecary at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Third Avenue in New York City, still the location of its flagship store. Kiehl's 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. More info.

Additional race sponsors included The Coleman Company, "The Greatest Name in Camping Gear" and producers of the Official Race Cooler of the Badwater Ultramarathon, Hammer Nutrition, Injinji Performance Socks, ZombieRunner.com, 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. More info.

The Official Charity of the 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 ten 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. More info.

This year, 63 of the race entrants competed on behalf of a charity of their choice. Some of those include Challenged Athletes Foundation, Wounded Warrior Project, ASPIRE, Reserve Aid, Team St. Luke's, UNICEF, One Campaign, World Havest Mission, Caring House Project Foundation, Valley of the Moon Children's Home, and many other worthy causes. The race roster includes links to the various charities.

This year’s race celebrated the 30th anniversary of Al Arnold's original trek from Badwater to Mt. Whitney in 1977. Arnold, an ultrarunning pioneer and human potential guru, competed in a solo effort: just Arnold and his support crew against the elements and the clock. The official head-to-head race began ten years after Arnold's pioneer trek, in 1987.

Applications to compete in the 2008 event will be accepted in January only from those who have finished at least one 100-miler or a 135-mile member of the Badwater World Cup.

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