Insights and Anecdotes from Al Arnold

Memories from the man who went first, proving it possible (that’s Al at Badwater Basin in the photo above, when he attended the race in 2002):

In early 1961 I was invited to a gathering of scuba divers in Oakland. The guest speaker was Jacques Cousteau. At the end of his speech, he mingled with the club members in their bright dive club jackets. I wasn’t a member and so didn’t have the jacket. When they introduced me to Mr. Cousteau, he asked if I was a diver. A member said, “no, Jacques, he’s a jogger.” He flapped his arms and pointed at the sky and said “astronaut,” then he pointed at the floor with swimming motions and said “aquanaut.” Then he raised my arm overhead and said “Al, the joggernaut!” and everyone cheered. That’s the inception of the word “joggernaut,” which is how I was introduced to the Badwater 135 runners when I came to spectate the race in 2002.

Back in 1977 when I ran from Badwater to Mt. Whitney, there were humourous moments and there were serious moments:

I was running along my myself by Artist’s Canyon and this limousine came driving along. It pulled over and all these gorgeous women from Belgium got out. They wanted to know what I was doing, and then posed for pictures with me. I spent some time with them, but not enough, ha ha! The temperature was, of course, very hot. As a result, there was a mirage across the road and after they pulled away and headed down the road, it looked like the limo just ascended into the sky.

Later I made it to Panamint Springs and the Department of Transportation was stopping traffic from traveling up Hwy 190. There was demolition going on and there would be an eight-hour delay on the Father Crowley climb. Not wanting to wait eight hours, I grabbed two gallons of water and headed north, then west into the Panamint Valley desert. Eventually I ascended a rocky canyon all the way up to Father Crowley checkpoint, with the Cal Trans crews honking their horns so I would know which way to climb.

When I got back to the road, my only remaining crew member was Eric. I essentially was abandoned by the rest of my crew. (Earlier they had gone into Artist’s Canyon and I didn’t see them again until Stovepipe Wells. Fortunately Cal Trans came along and gave me water.)

Simply put, without the crew, there can be no runner, so I’m thankful to Eric for sticking with me for the whole run. Crew members have to train for the heat, be alert, and take this very, very seriously. It could be a matter of life and death.

Two weeks after my 1977 run from Badwater to Mt. Whitney, I was in Hawaii, at the beach. I was hit by by a wave and totally paralyzed. At the hospital I was diagnosed with Brown-Siccard Syndrome. They gave me a walker and said maybe in a year I would be able to walk a few steps. I gave them the walker back and told them to give it somebody who could use it.

Three days short of one year later, I ran around Lake Tahoe, 72 miles. Without a walker.

The body follows the mind, and with hard work and dedication, anything is possible!


NOTE: Al Arnold is the Neil Armstrong and Edmund Hillary of ultramarathons, the first to run between Badwater and Mount Whitney, back in 1977, after two failed attempts in 1974 and 1975. He became the first inductee into the Badwater Hall of Fame in 2002, on the 25th anniversary of his historic run, and remains a staunch friend and fan of the race. He lives in Walnut Creek, CA and is 88 years old. His birthday is February 4, 1928. He can be reached by email at alarnold1977 “at” and loves hearing from fellow ultrarunners. His essays are archived here on the website.