The Badwater Ultramarathon has been described as the world's toughest race. I'm not going to belittle the reader with endless metaphors and poetic comparisons of difficulty; I'll just state right away what this race is.
135 miles (217.2 km) run by one person, with a cutoff time of 60 hours.
Oh, and it goes from Badwater, CA (elevation -282 ft.; the lowest point in the western hemisphere, in the desert of Death Valley) to half-way up Mount Whitney (elevation 8,360 ft., the highest point in the USA). Oh, and it takes place in July, the hottest month of the year. Bring some water.
Now, some pedants might say, "The America's Cup is harder, or the Tour De France is harder." These are both valid arguments, but neither of them measures up to Badwater in the most important category of all: Badassery. If you win those races, you get a boatload of cash and sponsorship 'till you die. People who win Badwater, like Pam Reed and Dean Karnazes, get a belt buckle. That's it. And anybody who finishes in less than 48 hours gets the same buckle. The only other sport that I can think of that gives away belt buckles is rodeo, and even they have the decency to pad it with a wad of cash. No dice for Badwater.
So, you want to run 5 Marathons in a row in under two days through the desert, up a mountain for a belt buckle. Surely, people can't be breaking down the door to get into this race? Au contraire, my little friend. You don't know just how crazy some people are. In order to even apply, you must meet at least one of the following criteria:
- You have officially finished at least three 100km or longer running races and/or multisport events that include running sections of at least 50 continuous miles.
- You have officially finished at least one 100 mile or longer running race and/or multisport event that include a running section of at least 100 continuous miles.
- You have officially finished at least one 50 mile or longer running race AND at least three very significant endurance sporting events such as Ironman (or longer) Triathlon, Eco-Challenge, Raid Gauloises, or similar expedition-length adventure race, Furnace Creek 508 bicycle race, Race Across America bicycle race, or comparable. An extensive mountaineering resumé might also meet this qualifying standard. (The definition of which "very significant endurance sporting events" qualify for this standard ultimately rests with the Badwater Ultramarathon organizers.)
- You have officially finished at least three 50-mile running races AND are a veteran Badwater Ultramarathon pacer. (A letter of recommendation from the athlete for whom you paced at the Badwater Ultramarathon is required.)
- You have officially finished the Badwater Ultramarathon.
There are exceptions and clarifications to these rules, but I think you get the point. Now, if you've completed one of these qualifying achievements, your application will not be thrown into the waste bin. But you still have to include an ESSAY describing which of these qualifications best describes your ability and why. An essay! How badass is that? Very.
A committee of five people, one of which is the race director, ranks the essays of the applicants. They each rank each applicant on a scale of 1-10. The scores are tallied, and the top 80 scorers are invited to run Badwater that summer. Over the next six months, the committee can make special allowances for up to 10 people based on charity work, etc.
So, you did five Ironmans, biked across America, did the Western States 100, and finally got accepted to run Badwater. Congratulations. Time to get your equipment together. That's right, you need a lot of equipment to do a run like this. Here is a list of equipment that the race directors REQUIRE (note: a lot more is recommended, but this is the bare legal minimum.):
- A four wheeled, motorized support vehicle less than 78 inches wide (such as a van, minivan, or small car; no RV's or motorhomes).
- At least two support team members to drive said vehicle.
- Reflective clothing (required at night, recommended at all times).
- At least one powered luminary device for visibility (at night).
Okay, so not a lot is required. But keep in mind that most people have a crew of at least four, with a bike (for pacing), and a TON of food, water, ice, and drinks. Plus, a variety of clothing (wearing the same sweaty pair of shorts for two days straight is a recipe for bloody thighs).
So, you've got an impressive endurance race Curriculum Vitae, a truck with some hapless fools who have nothing to do for the next few days, and a pile of food, water and ice. You're all set right?
Wrong. There are myriad details that I could go into about the dangers of running on roads at night, through sparsely populated areas, etc. But the main concern otherwise is heat. You are in Death Valley. This is not a name they chose randomly. Plus, it is July, in the northern hemisphere. Heat exhaustion is a real risk, and if you take any fluid from an IV between the start and finish, you are disqualified.
If the ambient heat weren't enough (measuring up to 120 F), the heat is compounded because you are running on black pavement. This pushes the surface temperature close to the surface of the sun, and heat blisters on feet are not unheard of. Training in Canada might be a bad idea. A lot of people train in Arizona, or else do heat acclimation work, jogging in a dry sauna.
So, you finally got all your stuff together, and are all prepared for the length and climbing and heat. You write your essay. You get into the race. You go to California. You are hydrated, and fit, and ready, and everything. You see 79 (at least) other people who have all done the exact same things as you, maybe even more. Despite the conditioning, support, and previous achievements of all participants, Approximately 25% of you will not finish the race. Have fun.
A Small Disclaimer: Don't let me give you the impression that I, Aeroplane, have done or even seen this race. I've never even met anyone who has done a race similar to it. This is all information gleaned from the race website and weblogs of participants. For those seeking a level of badassery that mere mortals can possibly achieve, try the Mount Washington Road Race; 1/20th the length, and half the altitude and weather. Your mother will thank you.