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Through the valley of death

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13/06/2018
 

America’s Death Valley is a place where only scorpions, snakes, and poisonous spiders feel at home. A place that once held the record as the hottest spot on earth. So it might seem like a crazy place to hold a running event. But these extremes are exactly what make the Badwater Ultramarathon so popular. Not just anyone is allowed to compete, however... 

 

America, 1849. It’s a hot day in California’s Mojave Desert. Probably too hot for a group of gold prospectors moving though the wastelands on the Old Spanish Trail, a trade route leading westward from Santa Fe in New Mexico to California. The oxen are panting and snorting and the creaky wagon wheels are threatening to give way. The travelers start looking for a shortcut that will let them bypass some of the long trail. But their pioneering spirit soon turns to despair. Their chosen diversion takes them into a valley so hot, so hostile, and so long that it seems they’ll never live to see the other end. Weeks pass. The wagons are chopped up for firewood, the oxen slaughtered for food. But at last they find a pass that lets them escape the barren hellscape – today’s Wingate Pass. The weary group continues on their way; in the end one old man dies on the journey while the rest know full well that they have narrowly cheated death. “Good-bye, Death Valley,” calls one woman in farewell and the awe-inspiring name is born.

This sun shines all day on the Badwater Ultramarathon. And when it goes down at night, things only cool down to around 30 degrees Celsius – offering no real break from the heat. Photo: Badwater.com/AdventureCORPS

 

“Good morning, Death Valley,” were probably the words going through Hajo Palm’s mind in 2013 as he stood in Badwater Basin, famous as the lowest spot in North America at 85.65 meters below sea level. Hajo, who hails from Germany, was looking forward to the challenge of a lifetime. He had been preparing for months – running, building his endurance, spending hours in the dry heat of his sauna. He ran several ultramarathons – events covering more than 100 kilometers – with the sole purpose of securing a place in this race. Because to run in the Badwater Ultramarathon, you have to prove you’ve got what it takes. Each year some 90 runners embark on what many consider to be the world’s toughest ultra-run, and they all have serious running credentials. To gain a spot, you have to have completed at least one ultra-event of around 160 kilometers in the year prior to Badwater. You have to show that at some point, you’ve successfully run in either the Badwater Ultramarathon itself, in three 160-kilometer runs, or in the Brazil 135+, a sister event to Badwater. And your application has to include a written statement about why you want to compete in the race. Only runners who the organizers consider qualified receive a starting number. And get to pay an entry fee of US$1,495. Hajo Palm made the cut. In 2013 he was  63 years old – one of the oldest runners ever to attempt this insane feat. And there he was, standing at the starting line of the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon. In Death Valley.


This is a run that pushes every runner to their limits and beyond. The distance is 135 miles (217 km), which the runners have 48 hours to cover. Because the ultramarathon takes place in July when Death Valley is at its hottest – in 2018, from July 23 to 25 – temperatures often exceed 50 degrees Celsius. The spectacular event starts in the Badwater Basin salt flats and finishes at Mount Whitney Portal, 2,500 meters above sea level. Along the course, the runners face a total vertical ascent of around 4,000 meters. The final ascent alone is 20 kilometers long. Their route takes them past sand dunes, stony deserts, and saltwater pools. Past scorpions, snakes, and black widow spiders, known for their deadly poison. And then there is the heat. Until 2006, when temperatures of 70.7 degrees Celsius were measured in Iran’s Lut Desert, Death Valley held the record as the hottest spot on earth, with a peak temperature of 56.7 degrees.

 

A place of legend – a place of magic. Prospectors came here in search of gold. Years later, the valley served as the backdrop for “Death Valley Days,” a TV western that enjoyed huge popularity in the post-WWII era. Ronald Reagan also rode through Death Valley in his days as a movie cowboy, long before going on to be elected president of the United States.

 

And to make sure that none of our modern Western heroes fall by the wayside, every Badwater runner has to bring along a support team. Two crew members must always be on standby in the support vehicle. Cold compresses, drinking water, emergency supplies – participants have to provide everything themselves. The organizers recommend brining along a crew member who also has ultramarathon experience, if possible with the Badwater race. Because crew members often run alongside participants for some stretches, serving as pacers to help runners maintain the speed they need to complete the race on time. In 2016 an American runner named Pete Kostelnick and his team achieved the seemingly impossible, covering the 217 kilometers in 21:56:32 hours – a new record. And Hajo Palm also caused a sensation in 2013 by crossing the finish line at the age of 63. After training for the event for ten years, he had finally fulfilled his dream. “It was the best race in my running career,” says Palm. And, thinking back to the famous anecdote about those early travelers he adds, “Good-bye, Death Valley!”

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