I don't know when it first was that I heard of a test of will and strength of shorter duration, but of significantly greater severity. I speak now of the Badwater Ultramarathon. The lowest and highest points in the lower forty-eight United States lie less than one hundred miles apart, as the attack crow flies. Respectively, Badwater Basin at -282 feet (-85.5 m) and Mount Whitney at 14,505 ft (4,421 m). There's enough man-made interventions between the points so the route can be traversed. Four decades ago, a man named Al Arnold decided to do so. After two failed attempts, he succeeded in 1977. It became something of a holy grail to ultra-distance runners - people who'd refer to a marathon as a warmup run - and a decade after Arnold blazed the trail, an official race was born. Nowadays they only go to the Mt. Whitney trailhead, but nonetheless, "135" - the number of miles from Badwater to the Whitney Portal - is a hallowed number. Oh, and let me mention some other points. In the Tour, you take the start as a team of nine, and as you're hauling ass up those Alps and Pyrénées, the team leader has his domestiques to conserve energy for him before he drives to the top. At Badwater, the organizers strenuously object to and strictly prohibit any sort of drafting. You've got a team along the way - in fact, you're required to - but each competitor must cover every centimeter under their own power. And this race takes place in the middle of July. You don't need to remind me what Death Valley is like in that kind of heat. In 1999, during our family's road excursion to Alaska and back, Mom took us through there. On July 11. Some checking reveals that was only four days before that year's Badwater 135. I slipped out of consciousness for at least part of that leg of the journey, probably thanks to mom securing the air conditioning - which on balance, was integral to us getting through and on to Las Vegas.
Something brought me back to the Badwater website shortly after the start of the year, at which time I discovered a total travesty - the route would have to be significantly altered in this and possibly subsequent years. The superintendent of Death Valley National Park had suspended the issuance of permits for sporting events within the park in order to conduct a "safety review" of such events, notwithstanding the impeccable safety record of AdventureCORPS, the company that stages the event (and others in Death Valley). Seeing this raised the usual libertarian impulses within me, which comprise a combination of "oh, come on now" and "I am not surprised in the least." AdventureCORPS did two things. First, they released a strongly worded statement, combining strains of "you're really stabbing yourselves in the heart" with "did you forget we run 100 milers for fun? We're ready to fight for this." Second, they composed a new course which is arguably tougher. Twenty miles of climbing off the bat? Check. Eight miles up, over dirt, to a ghost town, and back down? Done. Plus the usual finish at Whitney. Striking at Badwater only makes it stronger. Take note, DVNP.
But who gets it in their head to do this? Why does anybody think this is a good idea, much less pay a thousand dollars to do so, not to mention organize the support crew and logistics? Last night, I found the answer in a talk from last year's TEDx Honolulu:Run Sea Legs Run. The Navy hook intrigued me. I clicked that tag in the sidebar... and found one post in particular. Whoa! Ex-LTJG Roberts is a hard-core "I'm done with this, and I don't care who knows" type, just as I was once upon a time. (There are innumerable posts to that effect in the history of this blog; finding them, especially in the 2007-2009 range, is an exercise left to the reader.)
As topsy-turvy as the last five years have been, I most certainly would not have traded them for an equivalent period of time in
I used to say that Badwater saved my life and I think I believe that still to an extent, but what I see now, is that it's not the race, because that's really just a place-holder. It's more the community of people that I have been exposed to doing these races. What I think primaly was so initially powerful and appealing to me was not necessarily that people are running this distance in this heat, but as you watch people talk and do Badwater, you are watching people do what they love with people that they love. I think, more than I wanted to be an ultra runner, I wanted to be someone who does what that they love with people that they love. And through ultra running I am so grateful that that has been part of my story. So my hope is not that everyone goes out and runs Badwater, but it is that you find your equivalent, whatever it is that lights you up, and maybe the people that also light you up. So I hope you find a community that by your involvement in, you make it better, and that they make you better.I hope that Hannah finds the perfect shade of blue for her hair, and that she continues to find the right races to challenge her and the right people to get to the finish line of each of them. And I hope that the rest of us - myself included - find the strength to live up to her words, to find the spark to our torches and the friends to keep them lit over whichever one hundred and thirty-five miles we choose.
* Discovered this clip while searching or the one above linked. Plus two to Robert Flores.