Jay Birmingham: Living Legend of Badwater

“The ability to endure beyond percieved limits requires a desire to continue. But now, rather than an act of will, such excursions are an act of faith.“ (Jay Birmingham, The Longest Hill, Death Valley To Mount Whitney, 1981).

Many Badwater participants may have been motivated by reading a book called “The Longest Hill” in which Jay Birmingham recounted his 1981 Death Valley crossing, the 2nd ever successful run from Badwater to Mt. Whitney. Only Al Arnold had made the crossing before, in 1977. Jay made it to the top of the Whitney Portal Rd. at 59:54, went down to Lone Pine for a short break, then came back and continued to the top for the then-record time of 75:34.

Fast forward 22 years, to July 22, 2003, when Jay returned for a follow-up attempt, but found himself struggling with the heat. “Was it really this hot last time,” he wondered? In addition, one of his main crew members, Debbie Scott, had learned that her mother had had a heart attack and wasn’t able to make the trip. After discussions with the remainder of his crew, Jay decided to pack it in for the day and try again another time.

Fast forward one more year, to July 13, 2004. With Debbie in place, as well as three recent college graduates, Jay’s crew was at full strength. With the sting of the DNF and more recent memories of the hellish temperatures, Jay was ready to rock.

And rock he did! Jay crossed the finish line in 50:10:15, nine hours faster than he did the first time around. Not many people can boast a 9-hour PR for a race. “I learned a lot last year, even though we were only made it to mile 75. I’m extremely happy to have been able to break my own PR after all these years.”

When speaking of Jay, words like ‘pioneer,’ ‘inspiration,’ and ‘nice guy’ are appropriate, so all the event staff and participants were happy to see Jay have such a successful finish.

When asked if he experienced any rough spots or had any recommendations, Jay smiled and said matter of factly that he had “a couple of rough spots, but nothing too bad. I took two short sleep breaks, both of which were very productive. I can’t do it without some sleep. I had planned to take an hour break at Lone Pine, but felt good enough to pass through without any sleep.”

Since 2005, Jay has served on the Badwater Application Review Committee, further demonstrating his support of the sport and for this race in particular. Click any thumbnail or story below to learn more about Jay.

2003 mugshot
With 2002 champ Pam Reed in 2003
With Gary Morris in 2003, 4th man
to ever finish the Badwater course
Hall of Fame induction
2004 mugshot
Setting the pace in 2004
Breaking the tape in 2004
With crew at the 2004 finish line


“Birmingham Sets Another Record,” by Greg Larson, Florida Times-Union, August 19, 1981
“From Lowest to Highest: Birmingham Claims Another Record,” from The Starting Line Newsletter, September 1981
“I WAS THERE WHEN HELL FROZE OVER” By Tamara L. Dickey, stepdaughter and crew member for Jay Birmingham
“Jay Birmingham returns to Death Valley for first time in 22 years,” by Amit Mehrotra, with Q&A
“Death Valley: A Sojourner’s View,” Jay’s 2007 article which compares and contrasts his 1981 and 2004 experiences on the race course, as published in the 2007 Badwater Ultramarathon Race Magazine.
Download Jay’s book “The Longest Hill” in its entirety.

The photos from Jay’s book “The Longest Hill” are viewable below.