Beyond the limit: running the Badwater 135

Running 100 miles or more non-stop may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but for a hard-boiled minority it is a life-consuming obsession. For them, pain and suffering are bywords for athletic prowess, and in a world where sporting merit is measured on a scale of toughness, the Badwater Ultramarathon is the Holy Grail.

Beyond the limit: running the Badwater 135

Running 100 miles or more non-stop may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but for a hard-boiled minority it is a life-consuming obsession. For them, pain and suffering are bywords for athletic prowess, and in a world where sporting merit is measured on a scale of toughness, the Badwater Ultramarathon is the Holy Grail. 

By Michael Long

Toughness is a prerequisite in the world of ultrarunning. Ask anyone who has ever run further than 26.2 miles in one hit and they will testify to that. Yet the virtue is not only confined to ultrarunners themselves. A major selling point in the business behind the sport, toughness is a prized marketing asset for ultramarathon organisers too. Many claim theirs to be the toughest race of them all, but few can rival the Badwater Ultramarathon.

Held annually since 1987, the unique race snakes some 135 miles along a remote highway from Badwater Basin 282 feet below sea-level in California’s Death Valley to Whitney Portal, 8,360 feet up the highest peak in the USA’s 48 contiguous states, Mount Whitney. Its distance and elevation gain alone are enough to put off even the hardiest endurance athletes altogether, but to make matters worse for the 90-odd runners who are selected to take part each year, the race has a 48-hour time limit and takes place during July, when temperatures in Death Valley have been known to reach a shoe-melting, throat-burning, sodium-sapping 56.7°C.

This year the route for the race, which takes place on 21st July, has been altered slightly due to a safety review by authorities in Death Valley National Park but with the distance and finish line unchanged, it will be just as challenging for the 98 die-hard runners – 19 women and 79 men – who have signed up. Indeed, casual weekend joggers need not apply for the Badwater 135. Only those with the necessary endurance running credentials – generally speaking, at least three races of 100 miles or more under their belts - are permitted to run the legendary race. Adventure racers, mountaineers, triathletes and other extreme beings make up the most international field in the race’s history.

The Badwater 135 is the pinnacle event in any ultrarunner’s career, and the Badwater 135 finisher’s belt buckle is considered the Holy Grail of ultrarunning,” says Chris Kostman, whose event company AdventureCORPS has been managing the race since taking it over from the previous organisers in 1999.

“Within the world of ultrarunning, the Badwater 135 is pretty unanimously considered the world’s toughest footrace. There are lots of tough races and there are others that say they are the toughest, but the people who run Badwater have already run everything else and they’re in a fair position to assess their various merits and strengths and challenges. Inevitably, if somebody is a true ultrarunner, some day they’re going to want to come to run the Badwater 135.”

Regardless of Kostman’s inevitable bias, it is clear that the factors that make the Badwater 135 so tough – perhaps even tougher than other events that claim to be the toughest like the multi-stage Marathon Des Sables - are the same as those that make it so appealing. Ever since Al Arnold became the first man to complete the Badwater course in 1977, runners have flocked from all over the world to test themselves in one of the hottest places on Earth and the race has never struggled to generate local, national and international media attention as a result.

“We’re lucky in that the race itself is a very compelling story,” says Kostman, who boasts the wonderful, albeit self-assigned job title of chief adventure officer. “When it’s covered in the print media, for example, it’ll be in the front section of a newspaper; it’s not buried in the sports pages somewhere. It’s a human drama that people, whether they’re athletes or not, whether they’re runners or not, generally find very intriguing.”

"Inevitably, if somebody is a true ultrarunner, some day they’re going to want to come to run the Badwater 135.”

Organising the Badwater 135 is no mean feat for Kostman and his team of around 50 volunteers. Having founded AdventureCORPS in 1984, Kostman personally oversees everything from media, sponsorship and merchandising aspects of the race to dealing with five different government agencies and coordinating medical teams, support crews and race officials during the event itself. In addition to those duties, he also edits a 60-page magazine about the Badwater 135 while managing the many other properties under the AdventureCORPS umbrella, such as the Furnace Creek 508 ultracycling race and two other ultrarunning contests under the Badwater brand: Badwater Salton Sea and Badwater Cape Fear.

“Really the list just goes on,” he says. “It’s a full-time job and then some.”

Since the fitness boom of the late 1970s, distance running has seen a steady surge in popularity in the western world, yet ultrarunning, in its purest form, continues to occupy a niche within a niche. Whether staged on asphalt or on trails, the sport has barely evolved from its late 19th century roots on the fells of northern Britain, and nowadays there are almost no professional ultrarunners whatsoever.

“You could count them on one hand,” Kostman says. “Everyone who does ultrarunning as a competitor has a full-time job already and there are only a handful of people who have endorsements, but even those people are coaches or they do motivational speaking or have something else that is remotely related.”

One man who can count himself among that rare breed of professional ultrarunners is Scott Jurek. Twice a winner of the Badwater 135 – including once, in 2005, in a course record time of 24:36:08 – the American has won everything there is to win in ultrarunning, including the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run seven consecutive times and the Spartathlon, a punishing 153-mile jaunt from Athens to Sparta in Greece, on three straight occasions. Considered a true student of the sport, Jurek has even ventured to Mexico’s remote Copper Canyons to compete against the Tarahumara people, a Native American community renowned for their extreme distance-running tradition and ability. In 2007, at his second attempt, he managed to beat them on their own patch.

Jurek’s near-dominance of the sport over the past decade has earned him godlike status on the ultra scene and with it endorsement deals with the likes of Brooks Running, Clif Bar, Flora Health, Pro-Tec Athletics and Ultimate Direction. Beyond that, speaking appearances across the globe and a book contract have kept his need for a regular nine-to-five at bay.

“The thing to keep in mind is the people who do ultra events do them because they can,” says Kostman, himself an accomplished ultra-athlete who at the age of 20 completed the Race Across America, a 3,000-mile cycling race from San Francisco to Washington DC, in less than 11 days. “They have discovered the ability to run or bike really far, for a really long time, and as they have that ability they want to use it to go out and explore the world.”

"It’s the perspective of the whole race staff: that we’re going to host an event that goes so well it gets to happen again.”

It may seem noble in the extreme but that basic spirit of exploration is clearly seen in organised ultra races where the winner often receives the same commemorative belt buckle as the person who finishes last. In the Badwater Ultra Cup, a new series that will tie together the trilogy of Badwater races organised by Kostman’s AdventureCORPS, runners who complete all three full-distance events in the same calendar year are spurred only by the carrot that they will be ‘featured on the Badwater website and their virtues will be extolled throughout the Internet and in future editions of Badwater Magazine’.

“There are a handful of races that have prize money,” says Kostman, “but it’s just not that type of sport and I don’t know if it ever will be.”

With little money to be made in ultrarunning, ultramarathons are invariably organised by the runners themselves. The IAAF-recognised International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), for instance, which sanctions annual world championships up to 100 kilometres and a yearly 24-hour World Challenge, is headed by a committee of volunteers, while the majority of independent races “are put on by amateurs or hobbyists”, as Kostman puts it.

“[The Badwater 135 is] the anomaly in the world of ultrarunning,” he explains. “Most ultrarunning events are put on either by one guy at his kitchen table, just for fun, producing a race in his backyard basically, or they’re put on by some kind of running club or non-profit charitable group that is structured completely differently. They’re not put on by professional organisations like ours that are doing it for a living.”

Though unique among ultras for being organised by a for-profit entity, the Badwater 135 deploys a modest commercial model when compared to city-based marathons and other large-scale running events which boast sophisticated broadcast operations and sponsorship structures. Besides entry fees of US$1,000 per runner, the race’s main income comes from a handful of local partners in endemic categories such as clothing, hydration and equipment.

It is an unassuming set-up but, as Kostman explains, that is just the way it is. “We don’t spend a lot of time pursuing sponsorship and TV deals and things like that because it’s not our main focus,” he reveals. “We’re not opposed to sponsorship; we’ve had some excellent partnerships over the years and there are companies that we’re talking to. It’s just that we don’t have a person on the staff whose job it is to go out and solicit sponsorship. Nor do we have an agent or agency that’s out there doing it and receiving a commission.

“Our focus is always, first and foremost, on the athletes and producing a world class event that is done safely and is well regarded,” he continues. “Our main concern is that the event goes safely and smoothly and that we’re allowed to host it again the following year. That’s my perspective and it’s the perspective of the whole race staff: that we’re going to host an event that goes so well it gets to happen again.”

This is an extract from an article that featured in the April 2014 edition of SportsPro. Subscribe to the magazine today here.