The toughest foot race on earth

July 19, 2013

Death Valley, California

By Lucy Nicholson

Park Sukhee, 46, had been running and walking for more than 35 hours when he approached the base of Mount Whitney. His friend handed him a South Korean flag and he broke into a jog and a smile. Running ahead of him to take photos, and realizing I was his only other spectator, I lowered my camera to applaud his achievement.

Park had just run 135 miles (217 km) from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Death Valley, to the trailhead to Mount Whitney, climbing a total of 13,000 feet (4,000m) over the course, in temperatures that blazed to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit (around 49 degrees Celsius).

GALLERY: DEATH VALLEY’S ULTRAMARATHON

The Badwater Ultramarathon bills itself as the world’s toughest foot race. Competitors run, walk and hobble through one or two nights to finish the grueling course within the 48-hour limit.

When I told people I was covering the race, the typical reaction was: “those people are crazy”. But there was something very moving about watching runners stride toward a goal most of us can’t even fathom, let alone accomplish, smiling proudly as they marched towards the finishing tape.

No cheering spectators in bleachers, no prize money, no television coverage, no security guards. Just a handful of race staff, a few curious hikers, birds chirping in the pine trees, and the glory of receiving a Badwater Ultramarathon belt buckle. And perhaps the euphoria of having run the equivalent of more than five back-to-back marathons through the harsh California desert to reach the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountain range.

“It’s the race to do,” says five-time Badwater finisher Shannon Farar-Griefer, 52, of Hidden Hills, California. “This is the Wimbledon, the Grand Prix of ultramarathons, this is the one to do. “I love it. In a marathon, at mile 20 people start hitting a wall. That’s when my body starts to feel good.” In her first Badwater Ultramarthon in 2001, Farar-Griefer finished and felt good enough to turn around and run back to the starting line.

Since then she had her third child, and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She finished one Badwater after the diagnosis, but this year the disease took its toll in the blazing heat. In the harsh desert plain, where the heat of the asphalt has been recorded as high as 201 degrees Fahrenheit (93.89 degrees Celsius) in July, and running shoes melt, Shannon collapsed on a blanket by the side of her team van.

Her crew doused her forehead with iced towels, and gave her fluids. She pulled herself up and walked towards Townes Pass, about 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) in elevation.

Competitors say the race brings out a level of camaraderie not seen in other sports.

This year’s winner, Carlos Gomes De Sa from Portugal, and third place finisher Oswaldo Lopez from Mexico, ran over the mountain passes and through the night together before former champion Lopez felt himself tiring and told Gomes De Sa to go for it alone.

Lopez approached the finish line with a posse of cheering followers. After crossing the tape, he gave Gomes De Sa a bear hug. Then he cracked open a beer and ate shrimp with chili with his team.

All but 15 of the 96 runners finished the course. Chris Moon, 51, an army veteran from the UK, who lost his right arm and leg in a explosion while supervising mine clearance in Mozambique, was competing in his fifth Badwater Ultramarathon. He was testing a new prosthetic leg.

“It’s not the thought of 135 miles through the hottest place on earth at the hottest time of year against some of the world’s toughest ultra athletes, or the pain from blisters on my stump or the thought of projectile vomiting again that fills me with fear. It is the thought that I might not do as well as last year and I could fail which haunts me,” he wrote on his blog before the event.

A crowd gathered in Lone Pine in the early hours of the final morning to encourage him up the final mountain. He didn’t beat his 2012 time, but finished in just over 45 hours.

As the moon rose on the second night, I stood in a turnout on the side of the road as runners made their final mountain ascent. The hazard lights of team vans could be seen below blinking like fireflies along 15 miles of roads stretching across the long valley.

I set up a tripod to capture a long exposure of the path of the runners’ headlamps under the starry sky. I chatted to the family of Amy Campbell, 30, from Auckland, New Zealand, as they waited for her in the team van. Her fiance was walking with her as a pace setter. The two were going to get married in Las Vegas when the race was over. As the couple walked past, I yelled: “Congratulations!” A male voice from the darkness replied: “She’s passed the test!” One of her family members joked in return: “But did you?”

Around midnight, I drove down the mountain slowly to avoid competitors in the dark. Some walked on the wrong side of the road, one stumbled across the road, seemingly blinded by my headlights or delirious walking a second night with only a headlamp and teammate to lead the way.

I braked to avoid an incoherent man lying in the middle of the road next to a bag of ice. I pulled over and stepped out of the car. “Just put me in the van, I’m done,” he told his team. He said he was freezing. They told him he was burning up, and helped him out of the road.

For many of these competitors there was still a long night ahead and thousands of feet to climb. Farar-Griefer’s race ended the night before, a mile shy of Townes Pass, when she was forced to return to the medical center and pull out of the race. She had lost eight pounds after vomiting throughout the day and sweating. She had reached the second checkpoint at Stovepipe Wells (41.9 miles) in 11 hours, 45 minutes and pressed on for another 15 miles before she could go no further. Her formidable strength and determination now has to be directed towards fighting the chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system, a challenge greater than the searing winds of Death Valley. Her doctor has told her she needs to start daily injections or could end up in a wheelchair in a year and a half.

“I gave the race everything I had and more,” she said.

She had no regrets.

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