The Badwater Ultramarathon describes itself as "the world's toughest foot race". It is a 135 mile (215 km) course starting at 282 feet (85 m) below sea level in the Badwater Basin, in California's Death Valley, and ending at an elevation of 8360 feet (2548 m) at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney. It usually happens in July, when the weather conditions are most extreme and temperatures over 120 F (49 C) in the shade are not uncommon. Consequently, not many people—even among ultramarathoners—are capable of finishing this race.
Originally, the run was conceived as being between the lowest and the highest points in the contiguous United States: Badwater, Death Valley (-282 ft) and Mt. Whitney's summit (14,496 ft). The two are only eighty miles apart as the crow flies, but the land route between the two points is substantially longer, 146 miles, because of detours around lakebeds and over mountain ranges. Additionally, since the finish-line is 11 miles from the nearest trailhead, anyone who competes over the 146 mile race-distance must be capable of a total physical effort of 157 miles. Due to the two mountain ranges that must be crossed between Badwater and Whitney, the course's cumulative elevation gain exceeds 19,000 feet (5,800 m).
In later years, as the United States Forest Service required summit permits to climb Mt. Whitney, the official course was shortened to end at Whitney Portal. The Badwater-to-Portal course is 135 miles long, with 13,000 feet (4,000 m) of cumulative elevation gain. Forest Service regulations do not allow competitive events in the John Muir Wilderness, however, many runners choose to continue tradition and complete the ascent to Mount Whitney's summit on their own.
Al Arnold first attempted the route in 1974 but was pulled off the course after eighteen miles with severe dehydration. After vigorous sauna-training and desert-acclimatization, he attempted the run again in 1975. This time, a knee injury aborted the run at fifty miles. In 1976, training injuries kept him from even beginning his annual attempt on the course.
In 1977 he successfully pioneered the course, summitting Whitney eighty hours after his start at Badwater. Arnold has never returned to the course, except to receive the Badwater Hall of Fame Award.
The second Badwater-to-Whitney "crossing" was completed in 1981, by Jay Birmingham.
In 1987, the crossing became an official, organized footrace. Five runners competed the first year. During the early years of the race, no particular route between Badwater and Whitney was specified and runners attempted various "shortcuts" between the start and finish. Adrian Crane, one of the competitors in the inaugural race, even used cross-country skis to cross the salt-flats at Badwater.
AdventureCORPS Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon
Currently, AdventureCORPS manages the competitive race from Badwater to Whitney Portal. The course route is specified, and the race is held annually. The field is invitation-only and limited in size. Demand to participate in the race usually far exceeds available spots. Rules have changed somewhat over the years: afternoon starts have been discontinued; the use of intravenous fluids now disqualifies a runner.
Course support is not provided. Each runner must arrange for his or her own support crew and vehicle. The crew provides their runner with his or her needs, including water, ice, food, gear, pacing, and first aid.
Runners who complete the course in sixty hours receive a commemorative medal; runners who complete the course in forty-eight hours receive a belt buckle. No prize money is awarded.
In the last few years, 70 to 80 people have competed in each race, with 20-40% failing to reach the finish line. So far there have been no fatalities.
In 1989, Tom Crawford and Richard Benyo completed the first double crossing (which became known as the "Death Valley 300"), running from Badwater to Mount Whitney's summit and back to Badwater again.
In 2001, Marshall Ulrich was the first runner to complete the "Badwater Quad", consisting of two back-to-back Death Valley 300s for a total of four consecutive Badwater/Whitney transits. He completed the course, a distance in excess of twenty-two marathons, in ten days.
Unassisted Solo Crossings
In 1999, Marshall Ulrich was the first runner to complete the Badwater-to-Summit course without a crew, towing all his gear and water in a cart. He also denied himself use of artificial shade, first-aid from other people, and resupplies of water or ice from the stores along the route. He reached Whitney's summit seventy-two hours after his start.
Badwater Solo Ultra 135/146
In 2005, in response to the desire of local and non-elite runners to test themselves against the course, Hugh Murphy initiated the Badwater Solo Ultra 135/146. Runners attempt the course during the months of July and August and have their completion verified and published by Murphy. Runners are encouraged to include the Whitney summit as part of their transit, but credit is given for either distance. In compliance with National Park and Forest Service permitting rules, this is not a competitive race but a "solo" crossing (as in, "not a part of the official race", which is not to be confused with Ulrich's use of "solo" to designate an unassisted crossing).
Death Valley Cup
Any competitor who completes both the Badwater Ultramarathon and the Furnace Creek 508 bicycle race (also held in Death Valley) during the same calendar year is awarded the Death Valley Cup.
- Official Event Sites:
- Landmark Crossings:
- Breaking Point and Beyond, reprint of Marathoner Magazine article about Al Arnold's pioneering of the course, 1978.
- For Pete's Sake, The First Badwater Double
- My Most Unforgettable Ultramarathon, And What I Learned From It, reprint of Marshall Ulrich's account of his unassisted crossing in Marathon and Beyond.
The Death Valley 300: Near Death and Resurrection on the World's Toughest Endurance Course (Specific Publications ISBN 0915373017)