2009 Badwater Ultramarathon:
Evolution, Confidence, and Conflagration
By Chris Kostman Originally published in Ultra Running Magazine, September 2009
The 32nd edition of the world’s toughest foot race, the AdventureCORPS Badwater Ultramarathon held July 13-15, 2009, was the most intriguing, noteworthy, and exciting in recent memory. Three particular motifs stood out: the exponentially increasing pace and ability of the runners, the intelligence and confidence with which the top runners competed, and the response of the runners, crews, and staff to a forest fire which shut down the traditional finish line for a portion of the race.
Participants in the event are racing faster and faster throughout the field as the years go by. In the race's first 12 years (1987 through 1999), the event was an insular group of nearly all Americans. Since 2000, it has drawn from all across North America and has become increasingly international (17 countries were represented this year). Additionally, information about how to train, to prepare for the heat, to eat and drink, to set up a support vehicle, to support a runner, along with an increasingly rigorous selection process, have all contributed to increasing the performances of the runners.
In the past three years, the finishing rate (under 60 hours) has been 87 to 93%. This year, 77% of the field received the coveted sub-48-hour belt buckle; as recently as 2004 it was just 58%. Perhaps more tellingly, this year 24% of the field completed the distance in under 34 hours, compared to just 8% in 2004. More data.
Also of note is Nickademus Hollon, age 19, of San Diego, CA who became the race’s youngest finisher by a five year margin. Nick didn’t just finish, though: He placed 19th overall with a time of 33:21:29. At the finish he said "youth can compete, and get ready for a new wave of ultrarunners!"
Badwater runners are smarter, faster, tougher, and more motivated than ever before to put in their career performance when they toe the line. Said 2009 rookie finisher Perry Edinger: "I set out to finish under 30 hours, I did that. Now, I am done competing. I thank you. You allowed me to complete my competitive career with the most significant race I could muster."
It has long been said that "the race is not always won by the swiftest." This year it was won by the wisest, most patient, and most confident. For example, women’s champion Jamie Donaldson didn’t take the women’s lead until mile 40, at which point she was in 7th overall. She would finish in 5th overall. Charlie Engle was running in 13th at mile 41, but ultimately placed 4th overall with a new personal record by over two hours.
Men’s champion Marcos Farinazzo of Brazil, a Badwater rookie who had won and broken the course record earlier this year at the Brazil 135, also took this approach: He stopped for a massage at mile 41 and then didn’t take the lead until the summit of Townes Pass at mile 59. He relinquished the lead at mile 72 (Panamint Springs) for another massage and didn’t take it back - for good - until about mile 100. Zach Gingerich, en route to a 3rd place finish and a PR by 12 hours, would surge into the lead, but couldn’t hold it against the strategic moves of the Brazilian. Finally, Arthur Webb, age 67, found himself overcome by the heat on day one. He took a long break in Furnace Creek (mile 17) and eventually moved through mile 41 (Stovepipe Wells) an astonishing 11 to 15 hours behind the rest of the race field. Yet, by the finish, he had earned his 11th sub-48-hour belt buckle.
Two nearby campers reported "giant trees just across the creek from our campsite engulfed in flames" to us while we were stationed at the finish line on Tuesday night at about 930am. Approximately 28 runners had completed the course when I radioed in a 911 call via our race headquarters down the mountain in Lone Pine. Within 45 minutes, an Inyo County Sheriff’s deputy arrived with lights flashing and tires squealing. He pulled up with his window down, saying something to the effect of "Get out of here immediately. There’s a fire. Do not stop to pick up anything. Get in your cars and LEAVE NOW!" He then raced off to alert others in the area. We scrambled to grab the bare necessities (finish line tape, medals, buckles, cameras, and computers) while rookie entrant Dennis Koors literally sprinted around emergency vehicles and the deluge of departing cars to cross the finish line at 10:13pm. I took his photo (minus the finish line tape as there was nobody to hold it up), then jumped in my van as he jumped into his support vehicle.
Image above taken quickly by Sophie Kashurba through the forest at night as we dashed down the mountain.
We headed down the mountain, discovering a serious forest fire less than 100 yards from the road, not one mile from our finish line. Dozens of giant trees were engulfed in flames from bottom to top. Firefighters and fire trucks were everywhere and a scramble of cars was disgorging down the mountain. I raised our Mile 131 time station on the radio and they told me they were aware of the situation above them, but had been told by the authorities that they could remain at their location. We made the decision to make that location the official finish line from that point onwards. We were all lucky that the wind was blowing down the mountain, not up towards our finish line located at the end of a dead end road.
As a result, the traditional mile 135 finish line was closed from 10:14pm Tuesday night until 7:10am on Wednesday morning. Therefore, all 2009 entrants who completed either 131 mile (within 58 hours) or 135 miles (within 60 hours) are OFFICIAL FINISHERS of the race. This resulted in three different types of Official Finishers, all considered equal in terms of accomplishment and recognition:
36 finished before fire closed the last 3.5 miles of the race route: All 36 received sub-48-hour buckles.
9 finished after the last 3.5 miles were re-opened (not affected by the fire): 1 of those received a sub-48-hour buckle.
30 finished at mile 131 due to the road closure: 29 of those received sub-48-hour buckles. (Of these 30 finishers, 8 came back to the race course when it reopened and finished the full 135 mile route. THE CLOCK NEVER STOPPED for these athletes, thus their times were anywhere from several to eleven hours slower than otherwise might have been the case.)
We salute every race finisher and their tremendously positive response to a difficult situation. Thankfully, no lives were lost and the fire was contained during the night. We also salute the US Forest Service, Inyo County Sheriff's Department, and CAL Fire for their fast response and professionalism, and for allowing us to maintain the mile 131 finish line just at the periphery of the fire zone while they did their job.
The Official Charity of the 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 nineteen million dollars and directly assisted thousands of challenged athletes world wide. One of the goals of the Badwater Ultramarathon is to raise funds for, and awareness of, this organization. More info here.
This year’s race celebrates the 32nd anniversary of ultrarunning pioneer and human potential guru Al Arnold's original trek from Badwater to Mt. Whitney in 1977. More about Al. Arnold 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. More about the original race.