Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier-Waterloo, Iowa
Many people, myself included, look at marathoners with respect for their dedication and ability to withstand pain. The idea of running 26.2 miles is quite an accomplishment. But there is a small group of runners for whom marathoning is where the adventure just begins. These athletes are dedicated to “ultramarathoning,” running races of up to 100 miles or more.
The Badwater Ultramarathon, which began in the 1970s, is one of the most difficult ultramarathons in the world. By clicking to its website, badwaterultra.com, you can see photos of the event and read racers’ accounts of the action. It’s a great vicarious journey through the desert, but more importantly, a window into the minds of those dedicated to pushing the limits of human endurance. The race – which takes place July 25 through 27 this year – is 135 miles long, the equivalent of five marathons. It begins in Death Valley and ends at the trailhead of Mount Whitney. All told, the course involves 20,000 feet of ascent, and 8,000 feet of descent. However, for most people the biggest challenge is withstanding temperatures that routinely reach 120 degrees. At that temperature, people without water can die in a matter of hours.
Unlike the big, commercialized marathons, Badwater doesn’t have volunteers to offer racers water, food or any type of aid. Most people have friends and family drive along the route, hauling gallons of water. Still, by the end of the race, many wind up hallucinating.
The rewards for such punishment are mostly psychological; in fact, the winner only receives a small trinket for his or her efforts. Finishing, or just pushing yourself as far as possible, is the real draw for most racers. Some of the site’s racer anecdotes are great for those with an absurdist sense of humor.
Ben Jones, a Death Valley-based doctor, wrote an essay on heat training and conditioning. He’s a longtime event fixture and is known as the “mayor” of Badwater. One year, a Death Valley visitor had turned up missing a week before the race began. “During the race, I was approaching Lone Pine some 122 miles later and saw the coroner traveling in the direction of Death Valley. By the time I had made it to Whitney Portals at 135 miles, I got word that he wanted me to do an autopsy. I obliged, and then re-entered the course to complete the event to the top of Whitney at 146 miles … I am the only one I have heard of who has ever performed an autopsy during a race,” he adds. “Besides that, I used a water-filled casket … for immersing myself in to cool down during the race. I am also the only one I have heard of to successfully get into and out of a casket and finish the race.” The doctor believes racers should begin heat training at least three weeks before the race. In addition to wearing dark, heat-absorbing clothing while running, racers should avoid air conditioning. He often drives around the Death Valley area with his windows rolled up and the heater on full-blast. “I have done these things, and when it is 120 degrees, I don’t even notice the blast from the heater,” he writes. But, after instructing Web surfers in the best ways to brutalize themselves, he adds what must be an inadvertently comic touch: “Be careful.”