The Badwater Ultra marathon describes itself as "the world's toughest foot race". It is a 135-mile course starting at 282 feet below sea level in the Badwater Basin, in California's Death Valley, and ending at an elevation of 8360 feet at Whitney Portal, the trail head to Mount Whitney. It takes place annually in mid-July, when the weather conditions are most extreme and temperatures over 120 °F, even in the shade, are not uncommon. Consequently, very few people—even among ultramarathoners—are capable of finishing this grueling 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 (14,505 ft). The two are only eighty miles apart on the map, 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.
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 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.
The hike between Badwater and Mount Whitney (via the treacherous salt flats in Death Valley) was first made in 1969 by Stan Rodefer and Jim Burnworth of San Diego.
Al Arnold first attempted running 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 running the course, summiting 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 running was completed in 1981, by Jay Birmingham.
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.
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.
The record for the 146-mile race was set in 1991 by Marshall Ulrich: 33 hours and 54 minutes. Records for the current 135-mile course are 22 hours 51 minutes 29 seconds (men), set by Valmir Nunes, and 26 hours 51 minutes 33 seconds (women), set by Jamie Donaldson.
In the last few years, 70 to 80 people have competed in each race, with 20–40% failing to reach the finish line. 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 1994, Scott Weber completed the first Triple Crossing going from the Mount Whitney Summit to Badwater, then returning from Badwater to the Mount Whitney summit, then going from the Mount Whitney summit back to Badwater in 10 days. The first leg of the Triple was also done solo unassisted with Weber pushing an unmodified "baby jogger" cart with his supplies from oasis to oasis spaced from 20 to 30 miles apart. Weber completed the majority of the triple unassisted and solo being met once or twice a day by Ben on the second leg and for 100 miles of the third leg. Faced with the necessity of completing the Triple before August ended, Weber abandoned his cart at mile 390 to be fully crewed by Denise Jones. Completing this Triple and adding the Badwater race from the previous month made Weber the first runner to complete four full crossings of the Badwater-Mount Whitney summit course in a single July-August window. He remains the only runner to have done a multiple crossing with a solo unassisted section of 146 miles or greater.
In 2003, Sawyer Manuj became the first Asian-American to complete the Badwater duo.
Unassisted solo crossingsIn 1994, Scott Weber became the first runner to cross from the summit of Mount Whitney to Badwater course solo without a crew. He did so by pushing a 'baby-jogger' cart with his supplies going oasis to oasis (20-30 miles apart). Weber then continued on to complete 2 additional crossing with minimal support until being crewed full-time for the final 45 miles of this 438+ mile journey.
In July 1999, Marshall Ulrich became the first and only runner to complete the 146-mile Badwater-to-Summit course without a crew or resupply, denying himself the use of artificial shade or outside aid of any kind. Starting with 225 lbs of gear and water loaded in a modified baby jogger, he pushed and pulled the cart to the Whitney trail head, then continued on to the summit with a pack. He reached Whitney's summit in seventy seven hours and forty six minutes.
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 with a support crew (as in, "not a part of the official race", which is not to be confused with Weber or Ulrich's use of "solo" to designate an unassisted crossing).
In 2007, then-19 year old Ben Eakin completed his first solo crossing, having only finished 2 marathons and 1 50K prior to doing so. Eakin completed the solo from Badwater to the summit of Mount Whitney, to become the youngest male to complete the lowest to highest course, as well as the first type-1 diabetic.
In 2005, Barbara Szeprethy, then 24, is the youngest woman to finish the course, 3 times total, in consecutive years.
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.
Badwater World Cup BWWCBadwater World Cup (BWWC) consists of:
- Badwater ( race in the desert)
- Brazil 135 Ultramarathon ( race in the mountains)
- Arrowhead ( race in the snow)
- Europe 135