Badwater 135 Ultramarathon – Death Valley, California

Badwater 135 Ultramarathon – Death Valley, Ca

Josh Miller/August 2021

In 2002 author Josh Miller participated in one of the most grueling endurance running events in North America.  The Badwater 135 mile race in Death Valley, California.  I didn’t finish…but boy is this story one for the books!

Covering 135 miles non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA, the Badwater 135 is a demanding and extreme running race.  The start line is at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280’ below sea level. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,300’. The Badwater course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600’ of vertical ascent and 6,100’ of descent. Competitors travel through Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs, Darwin, Keeler, Lone Pine, Alabama Hills, and the Sierra Nevada.

Preparing for this type of race is daunting.  The amount of training needed pales in comparison to most races, but I also trained during the hottest parts of the day with training runs close to 40 miles.  Four months prior I had just returned from my second Marathon des Sables in Ouarzazate, Morocco and finished in the top 50 of about 600 runners.  I was stoked and completely confident.

The “Badwater” as it’s called is the type of race that can chew one up and spit them out.  And that’s exactly what it did to me!  With a crew of four friends, a rented van, and loaded with gear we made the drive to Death Valley, California.  We stayed two nights prior to the start and attended the painful pre-race briefing the afternoon before.  I was assigned to start in the third wave at 1000am the next day and went back to the room to further prep.

I had created a detailed spreadsheet of where I wanted to be and at what time and I was on cue early on until, well, the wheels fell off.  At about mile 30 the heat and my desire to push early on took a toll.  My crew eventually took the wrist-bound spreadsheet away from me.  I was pushing too hard during the heat of the day and we needed to save that for the night leg.

It was early afternoon and my crew had just left after a break to eat, cool down, and hydrate.  I was feeling a little light-headed but I stressed I was fine and they began to drive to the next stop.  Within a short time I went to my knees and started waving my arms to get them to stop.  The pavement was scorching and barely mustered the strength to stand up.  By this time the two guys got out and began to walk me to the van.  All I remember was, “There he goes!”.  I woke up in the van, A/C blasting, and ice and water drenching me.  I had dropped, well, like a hot potato.

I guess I was in there for about one hour and really started to feel like I had rebounded.  I gathered my things and in short time I was back at it.  The afternoon sun was still blazing and the asphalt road radiated heat.  It seemed like the soles of my shoes were on fire.  We continued with stops every 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile and we were clicking along then the wheels really started to fall off.  As the sun began to set and on one of the now routine aid stops I vomited.  As an endurance runner you kind of know when this might happen.  I was no longer peeing, my stomach was bloated, and energy was low.  After trying to drink a little more up came everything I had drank and/or eaten over the last several hours.  Not just a casual spitting stuff up, this was a projectile session and afterwards I felt great.  Ahaaa!  I’m back.  Good to go!  I nibbled a little, refilled water bottles and set off again.

Unfortunately, the vomiting continued.  Anything that went in was coming out.  We made it to what seemed like a motel out of a horror movie.  Not just the rooms and location, but there were about a dozen other runners.  Some in a room, some in their vehicles, some, like me, barfing or just laid out.  We got a room and began discussing options.  In between bouts of barf I would render my thoughts; but I was talking to two very experienced endurance runners, a third was a Vietnam era Green Beret with extensive combat medic experience, and the last buddy was a Firefighter/EMT.  After much deliberation I was strongly advised to not continue.  I still wasn’t holding anything down which meant not being hydrated, a serious challenge with this type of race.  At about 0100 that morning I realized my race was over.  I laid on the bed and shut my eyes.

I thought we would be up early and start the drive back to Phoenix.  That was the plan until my colleagues took a look at me.  I had continued vomiting and was pale and gaunt.  My SOF buddy politely claimed, “You look like shit.”  We agreed I needed fluids ASAP and headed to Beatty, Nevada and came across a small medical clinic.  This was before everything was open all of the time.  The clinic was closed so one of my crew called 911!  He advised it was non-emergent but I was in dire need of fluids.  As luck would have it the clinic had an RN on call who came to our rescue.  He was explained the situation, took a look at me and immediately got me in a bed.  An IV was set up and he said he would not let me leave until I took a leak.  Well, the first bag dried up, no pee, the second led to a third, and by the end of the 4th IV bag I said I needed to use the bathroom.  I wish the look on his face could have been captured.

He gave me what seemed like a lecture on how dumb my lifestyle was but he was nice enough.  He wished us well and said to steer clear of alcohol for the next day or two.  We told him we were stopping in Las Vegas for the night to get a good meal and were headed back to Phoenix the next day.  We took it easy, but it was at the slot machines sipping cold beer.

There were a lot of lessons learned from that one race.  Some of my fellow runners said I didn’t train enough but I felt I was very prepared.  In April I had just ran the MDS, a 150-mile race over 7 days carrying your own supplies; and I did well.  I strongly felt that I still hadn’t recovered from that race, went into training shortly after my return, and just bit the dust at Badwater.  Who knows, right?  I never was one to ponder why I DNF (Did Not Finish) a race.  I finished most, DNF’d some.  That’s life.



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