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Ben and Denise Jones – Badwater Ultramarathon Hall of Fame

Ben and Denise Jones Inducted into the Badwater Ultramarathon Hall of Fame

In recognition of their 17 years on the race course as athletes, camp hosts, volunteers, crew members, race ambassadors, and Mayor and First Lady, Ben and Denise Jones were inducted into the Badwater Ultramarathon Hall of Fame in July, 2007. Both of them are three-time official finishers, as well as training camp hosts and mentors to many Badwater runners.

Denise has crewed Ben three times (1991, 1992, and 1993). On crewing her husband Denise says, “He is delightful to crew, one of the best-natured people on the planet. Never complains and is always kind and it was always fun!!!”

Her crewing resumé for other Badwater crossings and desert crossings is as follows:

  • 1995: Dave Thorpe (who was a delight but had to drop at Panamint due to blisters)
  • 1998: John Rosmus (easy to crew also, but dropped due to dehydration at Panamint grade)
  • 2000: Robert Thurber (dropped due to knee problems)
  • 2001: Shannon Farar-Griefer (she did the race, then doubled back)
  • 2004: Ben Jones (he dropped due to dehydration in the very hot year)
  • 2006: Lisa Smith-Batchen (her seventh finish)
  • 2007: Marshall (easy to crew, it was a dream team!)

Their plaque reads:

Badwater Hall of Fame

Ben and Denise Jones
In Recognition of their 17 years
on the race course as athletes
camp hosts, volunteers, crew
members, Race Ambassadors, and
Mayor and First Lady July, 2007

Audio interview with
Ben and Denise Jones,
2007 Badwater Hall
of Fame inductees

Ben is an avid photographer of Death Valley, the Eastern Sierras,
and various ultrarunning and ultracycling events.
Click here to check out his many great photos!

Badwater: A Way of Life, By Ben Jones

My introduction to Death Valley was in talking to several great aunts who first went to Death Valley in the ’20’s via a Los Angeles-to-Baker train line. Along the way were the Harvey Houses. Then there was the Tonopah-Tidewater Line to Death Valley Junction. From there a spur-line took them to Ryan and then a coach to Greenwater (Furnace Creek). They used to tell me of the adventure which took about a week each way in those days.

My folks first took me to Death Valley in the late ’30’s. There is a picture of me at Mushroom Rock (which appeared larger then). In 1963, I moved to Lone Pine (mile 122 on the race course) to practice medicine, where I have been ever since. In 1965, I was offered office space across from Furnace Creek Inn. I went there on my “days off’ during the Harvey Company’s tourist season (October to May) for over twenty five years. At the time I had an airplane (Cessna 205) making the trip easier and more fun. During those years, after seeing patients at the clinic, I would train in and around the area.

In the decade from 1977 to 1987, I had (later) heard that there were about 10 individuals (with documented records) who did a solo crossing from Badwater to the top of Whitney (146 miles) as well as about ten others who are on record. About this time, Hi-Tec Sports USA created a race on the Badwater to Mt. Whitney route in order to promote the “Badwater 146” running shoe. In 1989, seven finished.

In 1990, there were seventeen finishers and I knew two runners who had been “invited.”  I went out on the course to try to find them but couldn’t as they were doing the “bed and breakfast” version. The first runner I saw was “Marshall.” and, at the time, I thought that was his last name. Later I met other faster frontrunners, followed by those runners “reduced to walking.” My thoughts were, if I just walked, I could do it also.

In 1991, I asked to be “invited” and was accepted about three weeks before the event. Over the Fourth of July Holiday, I was “walking” along near Keeler when a vehicle pulled over to see what was happening. It turned out to be Tom Crawford, Rich Benyo, Rhonda Provost, and Drew Benyo on their way to their annual training camp at Panamint Springs Resort. I was already familiar with their article, “From Fire to Ice to Fire” in UltraRunning Magazine and Richard’s book, “Death Valley 300.” I asked to be “invited” to train with them so, on the next day; we did a practice run from Badwater to Furnace Creek. (Editor’s note: Crawford, R. Benyo, and Provost are all Badwater Ultramarathon Hall of Fame members.)

Later, after my first successful “race” in 1991 they were even more impressed that I had taken time out during the race to do an autopsy. It was on a fallen trekker who was not successful in navigating the saltpan of Lake Manley (Death Valley). They also liked the idea that one of my cooling devices was a water-filled casket in a U-Haul truck. These happenings lead to the concept of “Mayor” and “First Lady” of Badwater. After that I had two more successful crossings, in 1992 and 1993. My wife, Denise, also subsequently had three successful crossings, in 1994, 1996, and 1999.

Denise and I got married in 1990. In the early ’90’s, we began to bump into other runners training for Badwater. We began organizing heat-training clinics to help the athletes prepare for the races. We held them on Memorial weekend and Fourth of July weekend each year. Over the years we got to really know the folks who attended and their crew members, pacers, family members, as well as some interesting newbies and wannabes. It made it much more interesting and fun when the race finally happened each year. We were able to provide useful information about replacement of fluids, electrolytes and calories as well as heat adaptation. This has translated into a success rate of about 85% for the attendees. In addition, we have crewed (and paced) runners during some of the races as well as some on their own solo adventures.

Denise and I were in the 1994 race as the “Mayor” and “First Lady” of Badater. She was successful in getting to the Portals and to the top of Whitney. I had renal failure and dropped at 41 miles. We both entered in 1996, but as two separate teams. Again, she was successful in making it to the Portals. A storm kept her from making the top that year. I dropped due to exhaustion from overwork and issues of depression (not race related). She was again successful in 1999.

1999 was a big year for media coverage. Kirk Johnson, sports editor for the New York Times, came to our clinic and did the race that year. Following his performance he wrote a book entitled “To the Edge.” Also, “Running on the Sun” was directed by Mel Stuart and produced by Leland Hammerschmitt in 1999. Kirk Johnson, Marshall Ulrich, Lisa Smith, and many others are featured in this production, along with me.

Ben and Denise Jons
Badwater Ultramarathon Race Finishes
Ben: age 58, 1991, 49:50:05
Ben: age 59, 1992, 51:04
Ben: age 60, 1993, 50:14:32Denise: age 48: 1994, 55:32:15
Denise: age 50, 1996, 52:04
Denise: age 53, 1999, 45:54

I turned 70 at the end of 2002 and decided to try it as the first ever 70-year old in 2003. This time I suffered from the 139 degree temperatures and my own 101 degree internal temperature. I decided, being the only one on call for the Inyo and Mono Coroner’s Offices that I didn’t want to have to do an autopsy on myself. Besides that, I was having hallucinations about being in the Garden of Eden and seeing Mary Magdalene as well as being wrapped in a shroud (of Turin).

Other athletic experiences in the area have included the annual Death Valley-Whitney bike race, which I did eight times in a row. In 1991, I ran the first Titus Canyon/Death Valley Marathon (and the four after that). Actually, I had practiced on that course on my own before that.

Our further involvement in Death Valley included supporting the following: (1) Marshall Ulrich’s South-to-North Crossing of Death Valley National Monument; (2) Marshall’s Death Valley Solo, Unsupported Crossing (we were present with the camera); (3) Scott Weber in his Oasis-to-Oasis Triple/Quad; (4) Denise helped Rhonda Provost by pacing her up and down Mt. Whitney as the first woman to do the Double Crossing in 1995; (5) Denise crewed Shannon Farar-Griefer as the first woman to do the Double Crossing within the race context; (6) Denise crewed for Adam Bookspan in the South-to-North Crossing in 2002; (7) Denise crewed for Lisa Smith-Batchen with Double Crossing in 2006. 8) Last summer, I had the pleasure of helping Scott Jurek, along with his wife, Leah, with a day of desert training as well as filming his workout performance. I then crewed for Pam Reed during the 2006 race.

Denise has crewed for the race and in solo crossings a total of 15 times, which includes 3 double crossings. This led to her to join with Theresa Daus-Weber in writing a book about crewing. “Death Valley Ultras: The Complete Crewing Guide” was published in May 2006. It is a technical guide with a comprehensive collection of information to plan and crew a successful Death Valley ultra with instructions, tips, a list of the known Death Valley crossings, and a photo gallery of views from the Badwater Ultramarathon course.

There were two nice publications during 2006. The first was an article featuring me in Best Life (Men’s Health), by Rodale Publications in the March 2006 issue. The title of the article is, “A Prescription for Lifelong Health.” A photographer visited me and took 20 rolls of 12 shots each with his Hasselblad camera using IMAX film; one was used in the article. Then I was interviewed by the executive editor for three hours for the two-page article. The second was a DVD produced by PBS/Nature entitled, “Life in Death Valley.” While they were there on a half-dozen trips, not only did they film the wildlife, but they were also involved in flash floods, a once-in-a-lifetime wildflower display, and the Badwater Ultramarathon. I was pleased to be a part of the feature.

All in all, we have seen this Race from a complete perspective: participant, camp host, volunteer, crew member, “Race Ambassadors,” as well as “Mayor” and “First Lady.”

Badwater/Whitney has become a way of life for us. Doing the race is not necessarily “good for the body,” but is offset by being good for the mind, soul, and spirit. The concept of adventure racing and extreme sports is here to stay. We enjoy keeping up with our friends and meeting more people who share the same types of adventures.

He’s Not Heavy, He’s My Brother

Crew for Marshall Ulrich and his Badwater Quad for Starving Children

I can honestly say that I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I committed to being a member of Marshall Ulrich’s crew as he attempted a Badwater Quad, an unprecedented feat of running 600 miles through Death Valley. To cover the miles, he would travel back and forth from Badwater, -282 feet below sea level, to the top of Mount Whitney, +14,500 feet above sea level, twice. The adventure sounded exciting and the opportunity to be involved in such a record-breaking event lured me in and drove me to want to add my name to the list of crewmembers. Not only was I enticed by the adventure but also by the inspiration behind the run. This was an undertaking to help raise money for the Missions of the Religious Teachers Filippini which help save the world’s starving children. Because of its inspiration I knew there was something more, something special, about this journey and about Marshall.

Although I was basically clueless about Death Valley and what exactly my role was going to be in helping Marshall, I admit that I did have two preconceived notions about the experience. First, I knew it would be hot. I also knew that in being a part of this once in a lifetime event and witnessing this extreme athletic undertaking and ultimate test of one’s own body and soul for the benefit of others, I would be changed forever. I was right on both accounts- it was hot and I have been forever changed.

After a two-hour drive from the Las Vegas Airport, Jay, David, and I arrived at our motel in Stove Pipe Wells where we were to meet Marshall, Lisa and the rest of the crew. Those we were meeting had already completed the first two legs of the journey, approximately 300 miles. Immediately upon our arrival I got a taste of what makes Death Valley so famous- high temperatures. I stepped out of the car into an oppressive heat and a strong desert wind. It was 5:00pm and I was overwhelmed by the dense, hot air that surrounded me. With such heat present in the evening, I grew anxious about being introduced to the desert heat at high noon.

The room at the Stove Pipe Wells Motel served as our race headquarters. From the outside, the room had few visible signs that this was the camp of a man who had plans to run 600 miles through the hottest place in America. The only signs of life were the few shirts and socks left out to dry in the sun. However, once I walked into the room, I entered a new world. My assumptions about this experience were confirmed as I stood in the doorway. It was going to be hot and unlike any other experience in my life.

The room was a bit of organized chaos. It was stocked with supplies that would be Marshall’s lifeline for his journey- food, cases of O2GO, extra clothes all embroidered with the North Face logo, boxes of new running shoes, a bike, and first aid kits. Although I was a bit overwhelmed by the scene, I didn’t have time to get too frazzled because a gold Chrysler mini van packed with people soon pulled up to the door. It was Marshall, Lisa and the rest of the crew. Although they were all tired and hadn’t slept in 24 hours, they greeted Jay, David, and I with smiles and hugs. Immediately my worries were eased, my fears pacified. Although I was the youngest of the group, I was welcomed with open arms, literally, big hugs from everyone. In a matter of seconds, complete strangers made me to feel like part of the family. Again my assumptions about this trip and the people involved were confirmed. These were special people and this was a special event.

At four o’clock the next morning, two mini vans filled with crew and supplies left the motel at Stove Pipe Wells to escort Marshall to the starting line of the race where his third crossing would begin. Marshall’s third crossing was in conjunction with the Badwater Ultra Marathon where he would be joined by 71 other athletes hoping to run 135 miles from Badwater to Mount Whitney. Twenty-five miles from the start, Marshall began to experience tendonitus in the left shin. Only a few miles later, the same fate befell the right shin. At this point, a plan was devised to help reduce pain and swelling. Ice, changed approximately every 20 minutes, was ace bandaged to his shins until he crossed the finish line.

As if running 600 miles through Death Valley in July does not present enough of its own obstacles, having to endure crippling pain in the legs for close to 300 miles, which include drastic changes in elevation as three major mountain ranges are crossed, adds another large hurdle. It is in the face of adversity, however, that the true character of a person is revealed. It is only the toughest of people that can stare adversity square in the eyes, then poke them out. I don’t know if Marshall Ulrich can be described as tough. That would never do him justice. I don’t think there is a word in the English language or any language for that matter that could describe this man.

Although sharp pains pierced his legs with every step, blisters appeared on his feet, the sun beat down hard on him every day, wind blew at his face, and sleep was a word missing from his vocabulary for 10 days, Marshall kept moving with a smile on his face. You would be hard pressed to remember a time that he complained or didn’t ask how everyone on the crew was holding up. In all of his pain and suffering, Marshall never lost a sense of something beyond himself- the children he was running for. In his moments of greatest suffering, it was not about him, it was about the children. For them, he pushed himself to continue even if that meant slowing from a run to a walk. Marshall offered all of his own pain to help relieve some of the suffering that these children endure every day.

As Marshall made the final turn onto the road leading back to Badwater for the last 17 miles of the Death Valley Quad, after having covered approximately 580 miles, the desert did not yield. It maintained the most vicious and unforgiving conditions. Temperatures were extreme, approaching 130 degrees and wind whipped at close to 30 miles an hour. Most mortals would have long since crumbled but Marshall pressed on and arrived at the finish line as the sun was setting 10 days and 13 hours after the start of the Quad.

No big fanfare waited for our arrival at the finish. A few photographers were present as Marshall along with his seven crewmembers walked arm in arm across an ever so appropriate ace bandage finish line. There was no need for fanfare as no fanfare or celebration could do this feat justice. A douse of champagne and a few loving words from crewmembers while Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” played in the background was all that was needed to commemorate the finish. In his own quiet way, Marshall overcame all odds and accomplished a goal that even in the face of adversity he never dreamed of letting slip away. He taught us all a lesson about will power, determination, courage, and dedication to other people.

As Marshall was getting his picture taken after the finish, I stared out into the open desert and looked up into the blue sky filled with pink clouds as the sun quietly slipped away behind the horizon. Lisa put her arm around me and a chill ran through my body. Never before had I seen such an athletic pursuit and strong display of human will power. Marshall has shown me that there are no limitations. The human mind is a powerful thing capable of conquering anything it wants. Life is about desire. With desire, passion, strong will and help from other people, anything is possible. You just have to believe.

Click here to read Marshall’s report and to view an incredible finish line slideshow by Tony DiZinno.