Originally published in the September 1981 Starting Line, the monthly publication of the Jacksonville Track Club, Florida.
Jay Birmingham, Jacksonville’s running guru, co-founder of the JTC, and distance runner extrordinaire, spent his summer, like most of us, running in the heat. But it wasn’t enough that he put in his miles in the sticky humidity and upper-nineties heat of Florida. No; Birmingham decided to put his 100+ miles per week of training to the test in California’s Death Valley.
As most of you already know, Jay succeeded in his quest to improve on the record for running from the lowest point in the country (Badwater, in Death Valley) to the highest mountain peak in the 48 United States (Mount Whitney), both in California, and only 146 miles apart. With his family serving as support crews and running companions, Jay covered the distance in 75 hours and 34 minutes.
The previous best mark was set in 1977 by Al Arnold, a native Californian who failed at least two other times to complete the route. Arnold’s solo record time was 84 hours.
Last summer, Birmingham captured the imagination and support of much of the Jacksonville community with his solo run from Los Angeles to New York City, a distance of almost 3000 miles in just under 72 days. On the eve of his departure from L.A., he met an experienced desert runner named Gary Morris who provided Jay with a desert shirt to help with his trans-America run. Morris was hoping to break Arnold’s record last year but managed only 60 miles before extreme heat and nausea halted his quest.
Birmingham has always competed strongly under hot conditions so the idea to pursue the Death Valley mark was a natural. With the encouragement and financial backing of Baptist Medical Center, Jay bumped his mileage over the 100 miles per week level as soon as his teaching duties at Episcopal H.S. were done in May.
Many hard-core locals have competed in the Sand Dunes Challenge, a five-mile ordeal through the soft sand near Regency Square in the Arlington area. But Jay ran that course every other day at noon in the month of June. He alternated the sand runs with multiple loops over the Main Street and Acosta Bridges. To prepare for the mountains, Birmingham ran the Gulf Life Tower’s 26 floors, five times, once a week. His long run was typically the 21-mile, 21-hill Lydiard Course near his home in east Jacksonville.
Wife Anita, sons Bobby and Scott, and daughter Tammy, all prepared well themselves. The whole family raced in the Pikes Peak Marathon or Ascent just a few days before heading to Death Valley. From August 15 through the final miles on the 18th, Bob ran many miles of the DV route with Jay. The entire family hiked and jogged the final 11 miles up Mount Whitney’s 14,496-foot summit. After three days of heat ranging from 95 to 120 degrees, they finished in a snowstorm!
Jay said the run in Death Valley was the best-planned run he has ever done. His preparations went smoothly, no injuries interrupted his training, and his fitness was high, even by his standards. Nevertheless, Birmingham said that he was conservative because of the failures of others. He believes many JTC runners could accomplish the run and do it much faster.