Badwater, Better Known As Satan's Fun Run

LONE PINE, Calif. -- 7:50 a.m. I’m late, exiting the bungalow at the Furnace Springs Ranch and stepping into the cool, refreshing Death Valley air. A cool 98 degrees at breakfast and climbing. ↵

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↵The Badwater Ultramarathon started an hour and 50 minutes ago as the first of three waves of runners met at the lowest point in the United States, a desolate, phlegmy grey salt waste 260 feet below sea level called Badwater (duh). Then, they will run north through the very intestines of Satan himself up through Death Valley, over two mountain ranges, and then up through the Alabama Hills into the forest surrounding Mt. Whitney until they reach the parking lot in the shaded parking lot of the trailhead for the mountain. ↵

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↵135 miles and a time limit of 60 hours. I’ve got coffee, Doritos, and a rental car I plan on treating like a rented mule that kicked my mother. Let’s go. ↵

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↵9:38 a.m.: “Where’s the ice scoop? WHERE IS THE ICE SCOOP?” Dean Karnazes’ crew is politely but firmly clarifying some preflight instructions before they split up into two SUVs and trail the ultrarunner for the distance. ↵

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↵Karnazes’ crew will function like domestiques in the Tour de France. Only two men have made it through this race hauling their own gear; everyone else gently asks friends to abandon sense, logic and at least three days of work to sit in a truck for anywhere from 27 to 60 hours in nature’s most ruthless attempt at making its own immense convection oven. ↵

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↵Karnazes’ crew consists of three female ultra runners, all of whom look like they could strap on a Rommel-style dune cap, hit the trail, and make a respectable finish of the race. ↵

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↵(Oh, you thought I was going to say “time” there? Time is of no concern here. Cellphones do not work. Internet exists in three places in the valley. I was Ari Gold for the first day, constantly tapping at my iPhone as if enough cooing would wake it from its slumber. Not dying is the first goal, one the Badwater is batting 1.000 on in its 32-year history. Finishing is second. If you can worry about time, you probably don’t need to, because you are mutant, exempt from the laws of our world.) ↵

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↵JT, the fourth member of Dean’s crew, admits he doesn’t run ultramarathons. “I’m just a marathoner,” he says sheepishly, a sentence you can only hear at an event like this. “I’ll text you when we get back into cell range.” “Cell phone range” is in 90 miles. Any other contact will involve driving back and forth in the heat and ultraviolet sunlight looking for wherever they may be. ↵

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↵In the meantime, they’ll feed Dean gels, water, sports drinks, freshen up the cooler he dunks his head in every now and then, hand him hats, monitor his condition, and even hop out and pace him on selected sections of the trail. The support crews keep a runner from ending up as a statistic and endure the same sleep deprivation, caffeine binging, heat exhaustion, tedium, and mental fatigue the runners do. When a friend asks you to help them move a couch, remind them that you could call in the favor one day. ↵

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↵Race director Chris Kostman counts down from ten. The 10 o’clock wave pads out and the battalion of vans, trucks and cars emblazoned with runners’ names and numbers comes to life and ambles out and ahead of the pack. Heat waves ripple from the pavement, and the light is so intense on the horizon it looks blue. Perfect weather for the world’s longest sustained display of masochism. ↵

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↵10:24 p.m. I take a car from Furnace Springs to Stovepipe Wells. A CNN reporter ran the distance, but I don’t get paid that much, and I’d explode like a staked vampire before I got to mile three. (The reporter wanted to continue but had to file her story. This is proof you should never listen to anyone on CNN, because they are as mad as barking cats.) ↵

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↵I huddle under a tent at the first time station. A tall, chipper Englishman and his wife are there, sitting next to a time sheet with only two names and times filled in from the first shift. I attempt conversation. ↵

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↵“So, have you run this before?” ↵

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↵“A bit.” He laughs. “Eleven times. But I only came all the way back once.” He laughs, points to his temple, and makes the circular motion that is the universal sign for “deranged.” ↵

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↵Jack Dennis is a very nice man, and a Badwater legend. And I have zero facial recognition skills. This is the 17th mile on the course. Most people do not run this distance in their lifetimes in a single go. At the Badwater, it is exactly 0.12592593 % of the total mileage in a race that goes up 8600 feet over three huge primary climbs. The elevation at Furnace Springs: 190 feet below sea level. How people do not burst into tears at this point is beyond me. ↵

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↵11:48 a.m. I pass a nun in a support crew. Double check, rub eyes, triple check: yup, she’s still a nun. Remind self to keep sample and check water for mescaline when I get back to Atlanta. Also see a guy in a tutu running. Neither is a hallucination. ↵

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↵12:25 p.m. The second race checkpoint, Stovepipe Wells, mile 42, home of the first medical team checkpoint. A single guy is there just to take care of blisters. ↵

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↵Race veterans are volunteering as station monitors and sit in camp chairs beneath a tent. They’re idly trading war stories with the members of the medical staff and occasionally passing bottles of water out to anyone in particular. ↵

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↵“You should be here around 3:30, 4:30. That’s when the drama starts.” ↵

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↵“Yeah. That’s when the good stuff happens. Throwing up, the good stuff for you.” ↵

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↵I ask if they saw the guy in the tutu. ↵

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↵“Oh, yeah. He didn’t have a hat on. He’s gonna burn down if he doesn’t get something on.” ↵

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↵“That’s not the weirdest thing I’ve seen, though.” ↵

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↵“Remember that guy who ran the race one year in a Roger Rabbit outfit?” ↵

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↵I ask what happened to him. ↵

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↵“Oh, he made it about five miles. I thought he was going to, you know, just have bunny ears on. Instead, he shows up in a full plush suit. He said it was his special rabbit outfit for the desert.” ↵

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↵“Yeah. He made it to mile 14 or so before they called medical.” ↵

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↵To corroborate, the relevant excerpt from a San Diego Union-Tribune article on July 13th, 2003: ↵

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↵⇥McCarrick shows up for his 6 a.m. start with long, furry pants, floppy ↵⇥rabbit feet over his shoes and a giant green bow. That is his first ↵⇥mistake. His second: Drinking only 1-1/2 liters of water over the first ↵⇥nine miles, when most medical experts recommend a liter per mile. ↵⇥Three hours into the race, McCarrick is slumped in the passenger seat ↵⇥of his crew's minivan, comatose. When his condition does not improve ↵⇥markedly over the next several hours, he withdraws to avoid becoming ↵⇥the first person in race history to die. ↵
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↵I should mention that he was 67 when he tried this and had already completed the Marathon des Sables distance race in the Sahara in the same outfit. Smart bunny. We wait. Aside from the leaders of the 6:00 a.m. crew, the desert is a long smear of dunes whisking sand into the wind and across the roads. The flip side of desert grandeur is boredom, and we’re firmly sailing the seas of a lull at this point. ↵

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↵1:43 p.m. Marathon des Sables discussion in the lounge at Stovepipe Wells. Most of the crews are still grinding down the road, trotting across the open frying pan of Death Valley proper. Runners working as support personnel are talking about races you wouldn’t have your worst enemy attempt. Casually, like you’d talk about your yoga class. “Yeah, the Sahara was bad for the footing.” “The Western States was a little warm, but not this bad by a long shot.” “The Brazil 135 wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.” “The Solar 565 was terrible, but at least I’ve run on the face of the sun now. Not many people can say that." ↵

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↵2:24 p.m. Last year’s winner, Jorge Pacheco, zips by. I ask how he looked. “Oh, he was running, smiling, singing songs. Looked great.” New knowledge: Jorge Pacheco at mile 42 of a marathon is me at a karaoke bar after five beers. ↵

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↵3:07 p.m.: First heat case ends up in the pool at Furnace Creek. It’s 68-year-old Arthur Webb, and further proof of the unpredictability of the race. Webb is as hoary and grizzled a veteran of the race as you’ll find. This is his 12th race, and he ran 130 miles a week to prepare. Like a veteran, though, he’s calm and taking advantage of his environment by hopping in the pool at Furnace Springs and chilling out until the paramedics get there to treat him. People sometimes recover from heat exhaustion just as inexplicably and rapidly as they succumb to it, so they’ll wait it out. ↵

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↵3:10 p.m. A runner in a full white sun suit barges into the medical lounge. He looks like he’s been on broil for a few hours (which he has) and asks “What do I do?” ↵

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↵Medical staff: “What do you mean?” ↵

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↵“Was I supposed to check in here?” ↵

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↵“Do you feel fine?” ↵

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↵“Oh, yeah.” ↵

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↵“Then keep running.” ↵

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↵“Okay.” And off he went into the heat. ↵

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↵5:40 p.m. I head up to Panamint Springs for a hamburger. Gunning the Chevy Cobalt up the road is like running a midget sprint car race uphill through a middle school parking lot: minivans overloaded with coolers and people, some mozying at 15 mph up the road, some parked, some moving off the shoulder and bouncing up the road a mile to wait for their runners walking on the left shoulder. Even when I slow down to half the speed limit it feels like disaster waiting to happen, as every blind corner yields a runner and their crew crossing the road with gels. ↵

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↵I spot Dean Karnazes walking up the hill, occasionally turning around and walking backward to loosen up his legs and give his hamstrings a break. In a hurried roadside convo, his crew says he’s fine in between throwing tremendous amounts of gear around in the cars and prepping to sprint up the hill so Dean can play another game of “Run to the Van.” That’s another way of tricking yourself into running the race: it’s not a soul-searing 135-mile vision quest, it’s merely 135 trips of “Run to the Van.” ↵

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↵7:20 p.m. The Brazilian Sebastiao passes the Panamint Springs Lodge and Resort at mile-marker 72: calm, strong-looking and apparently running without pain. I eat a hamburger on the porch and watch European tourists cruise along the road. I hope they all think this is what all of America is like: vast Terminator 4 wastelandss populated by mad people performing grueling physical tasks at the far limits of human endurance. And LA, of course, where they all fly into before driving to Death Valley for some reason. So we’re either celebrities, porn stars, ultramarathoners or people who work at gas stations. Now that I’ve typed this, this really isn’t a bad summary of the present moment at all. ↵

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↵Bears before hibernation eat the skin and fat off salmon and leave the deep pink muscle unused to rot on the shore: it’s all the bears need. Ultrarunners would do the same thing at this point in the race if they could. Most runners at this point can’t swallow another gel, bloc, gu or other synth-food. They’ve burned through so many calories and so far down into their metabolic gas tank that they begin to crave nothing but pure fat. ↵

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↵Alisa Springman, one of the runners this year and a repeat performer from last year, told me pre-race how she destroyed a hamburger and fries at Panamint last year before embarking on the second half of her successful first try. “Your body starts to want nothing but the most energy-rich foods at that point.” That’s one way to put it. When I see the French runners spooning canned foie gras into their mouths at mile-marker 102, I’ll know why. ↵

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↵The French brought their own national mascot for support, by the way. ↵

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↵10:05 p.m. Naptime. I lay down. All I can dream about is a circle of runners and medical personnel staring down at a man in a rabbit suit lying on the floor of the desert facedown. ↵

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↵2:17 a.m. Unable to sleep, and back on the road to Lone Pine, the high desert town that is the final staging point for the race. See “Watch for Cattle" sign along the way. See no cattle. Believe runners over the years have skeletonized them all. ↵

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↵The trip up to Lone Pine is the spookiest drive of my life: ghostly red flickers from the required safety lights the runners wear and the lights from vans arranged in a lightning strike zigzag up and down the ranges separating Death Valley from the rest of the world. Make a turn and two people floated in your headlights, a pacer and the tottering runner struggling at mile 70, or mile 80. If you invaded a country full of the very fit where reflective clothing and expensive running gear was traditional tribal wear, this is what the stream of refugees would look like. ↵

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↵2:43 a.m. Two rabbits choose to kill themselves in front of my car in three minutes. With runners on the left and support crews parked on the right, I don’t dare swerve. I’d say I made a crow happy, but at the speed I hit them I hope those crows like wild desert hare-flavored smoothie, because that’s about all that was left. ↵

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↵4:33 a.m. Race organizers all over the place sleeping in room 32 at the Dow Villa Inn in Lone Pine. I’m afraid that I’ve gotten here too early and that I’ll have to wait forever, since by my math the race leader won’t be through ‘til about seven. In the meantime, I check time splits and read Texts From Last Night to feel better about the shape my life is in. (24-year-old girls with drinking problems: helping you feel better about yourself since 19forever) ↵

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↵A day into the race, essentially, and only two of the field have dropped out, only one from heat exhaustion. 122 degrees, the limits of human muscle and bone, the risk of organ failure, the worst environment on earth, and every other possible confounding factor inhibiting success in going 135 miles save animal attack: they’re all here, and all stand in the way of success for a runner. Yet only two people have had to stop due to injury or heat exhaustion, and no one has just flat-out quit. It is testament both to people’s dogged endurance and the irrationality of that instinct even in the face of hellish conditions. ↵

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↵A correction: brown bears forage aggressively during the day at the finish line at Whitney Portal. So animal attack is slightly possible, too, and is part of the buffet of suck offered by the race. ↵

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↵6:29 a.m. Whoa. During the night the Brazilian, Marcos Farinazzo, has overtaken the field despite stopping for 18 minutes at Panamint Springs to get a massage. He’s five minutes down the road and a shimmer in the distance. Also, 68-year-old Arthur Webb is back and grinding on the course after spending some time in the pool and letting his body knit itself back into working order. These people have a different manufacturer’s warranty on their bodies than I do. ↵

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↵6:34 a.m. Mile 122.3. Marcos Farinazzo passes through Lone Pine, smiling and at a full, jovial trot. His crew of Brazilians appears to be in full samba mode, and his pacers are keeping him an unthinkably brisk pace for the last 13 miles of the race. He only has to climb almost 5000 feet from this point. That’s all. Really, shouldn’t be a problem after running 122 miles. ↵

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↵8:20 a.m. After emptying my car of anything with any food scent at all to keep bears from busting into the extremely abused Chevy Cobalt and driving it to some bear chop shop for sale on the black market, I discover something that has no connection to the minor little bear problem at Mt. Whitney. ↵

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↵That is less a pancake and more a circular futon made of flour, butter and milk. It certainly has nothing to do with bears stealing cars as a distraction while their accomplices jack hubcap-sized pancakes from campers’ hands. I sat at the finish line waiting for Marcos, who set such a furious pace up the hill that race organizers scrambled to get traffic out of the way to clear a solid path for him. ↵

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↵8:39 a.m. Farinazzo crosses the finish line with a time of 23 hours and 39 minutes: not a world record, but a scorching time nonetheless. Latin passion abounds: his team cries, kisses Marcos on the cheek, bows to him as if he’d just put in a goal in the World Cup, and translates for him in the impromptu press conference. He describes the final climb as “diabolical” and Lone Pine as “the evil city that would not appear for me.” When he’s asked if he has any blisters, he says no, none at all, and them smiles and points at the back of his shoes. ↵

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↵The heels flap at the back. In 135 miles, he has run the rubber holding them to the sole completely off them. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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