Originally published in the Arizona Daily Star, December 7, 2002, Sports page C1
It was 3 a.m. on July 24 when Chris Kostman pulled up next to Pam Reed in Death Valley, Calif.
Reed was running down a road guided only by the headlights of her support vehicles and a full moon. Smoke from a burning forest nearby filled her lungs. Water was constantly being sprayed by a friend biking alongside. The terrain was dirt.
And Reed was on mile 115.
The mercury had reached 126 degrees the previous afternoon. But it was much cooler at night in arguably the world’s most difficult sporting event.
“I told her that at the rate she was going she’d be winning the race overall very handily and putting her name in the history books,” said Chris Kostman, race director of the 25th annual 135-mile Badwater Ultra Marathon. “Two of the top men had dropped out.”
Reed became the first woman to win the race outright and shattered the women’s course record by 1 hour and 35 minutes. She ran over 94 percent of the race, finishing in 27 hours and 56 minutes. And she ran nine miles the next day for fun.
On Sunday, Reed, 41, will be in charge of more than 4,000 runners at the ninth annual Tucson Marathon. The heavily downhill 26.2 mile course begins in Oracle, winds along the Santa Catalina Mountains on Oracle Road, and finishes at the Sheraton El Conquistador Resort. Reed is the race owner and organizer.
“It was just so dry,” said the 5-foot-4-inch, 100-pound Reed of her Badwater experience. “You just have to drink every couple steps, which I don’t normally have to do at all.”
Normally, Reed runs 100-mile races in cooler places such as Colorado or Utah. Normally, she gets sick, maybe throws up, and runs the entire race alone.
She says it was different in July, thanks mainly to her crew organizer Chuck Giles, and six people in two vans. They ensured she was hydrated, fed, happy and alive.
The course began in Badwater, Death Valley, the lowest point in United States at 280 feet below sea level, and ended halfway up the 14,494-foot high Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. It featured 79 runners, reached a low temperature of 35 degrees on Mount Whitney and included a total ascent of 13,000 feet.
Reed began the race at 6 a.m. on July 23. After Mile 17, she always had a crew member running or biking alongside her as did other competitors in the race. When she approached Mount Whitney, she remembered the previous record-holder had stopped for an hour and a half at the mountain’s base.
Reed just kept going.
On her way up, she called her husband to tell him she would win. When she crossed the finish line, tears flowed
“It took me a long time, up until a couple months ago, to realize it was 135 miles,” said Reed. “It didn’t feel that hard. I don’t know if (the other races) were harder or this was just my day.”
After the race, she went to the hotel, showered and slept – for 15 minutes. She didn’t go to bed until 9 that night. She woke up at 6 the next morning and dragged her friend Susy Bacal for a nine-mile run up and down Mount Whitney.
Kostman considers Reed’s run one of the greatest athletic achievements he has witnessed in his 20 years of extreme sports. He credits that in part to the fact that she ran all alone after the 42nd mile, never changed clothes, and ran on an all liquid diet.
“It’s completely unparalleled, her achievement, on many levels,” said Kostman. “Frankly I think it went improperly unnoticed by the mainstream media.”
Reed was 20 years old when she first heard of ultramarathons. Channel surfing, she came upon the Hawaiian Ironman and the Western States 100 races the same day on TV. It spiked her interest.
She moved to Tucson from Michigan in 1981, and in 1988, she ran her first marathon. Three years later she completed her first 100-mile race. In 1995, she came full circle, completing both those races she had watched on TV in the same year.
This year alone, she has run seven marathons, six 50-mile races and three 100s. Ten days before Badwater, she ran a 100-kilometer event in Montana. Three weeks after Badwater, she ran 100-mile race in Leadville Colo.
“The blisters thing, that was a little longer (after Badwater),” said Reed. “I continued to run. It’s just my feet; they didn’t heal as fast.”
In April, she ran the Boston Marathon, in reverse, four hours before the race started, in 3:36. Then she stopped at the start line, got a drink, and ran with the crowd in 3:30. It was training for Badwater.
Why does she do it?
“I (just) love running,” she said. “For a lot of people, running is so much work, and it’s not for me. It’s just so much a part of me.”
Reed’s daily routine includes three runs per day for about 10 to 15 miles, including one run at noon, year-round. She says her husband is supportive, but her five children think she’s a little “nutso.” They expect her to win every time.
Right now, Reed is not sure whether she will plunge into the desert again next year to defend her title. She says it depends on whether Giles will take the chief operating role and organize her crew again.
“It’s wonderful to do really well and win. That is not the reason I do this,” said Reed. “If I didn’t ever win again, I guess I would be disappointed, but it wouldn’t stop me from (running). I do it, because it’s (for) my sanity.”