Every time Doug Long sends an email, it carries this message:
"If your dreams don't scare the hell out of you, they're not big enough."
That quote has been around in various forms for a while, on posters and memes and T-shirts. But it connected with Long the moment he first read it.
"It fits my goals in life, especially with my running," Long said. "I just adopted it and pass it along to the next person."
It just so happens that Long's dream is to run the Badwater Ultramarathon, a race that would indeed scare the hell out of 99.999 percent (or more) of the world's population.
The Badwater is a 135-mile footrace from Death Valley (at the lowest point in North America, 280 feet below sea level) to Whitney Portal (at 8,360 feet) in the middle of July. Runners slog up and down a route that climbs 13,000 cumulative feet with temperatures often radiating between 120 and 130 degrees.
In 2009, National Geographic Adventure ranked the Badwater the toughest race in the world, summing up its difficulty in one word: brutal.
Yet in a matter of days, Long will be one of 49 rookies in the 2013 race, which begins July 15. As he talks about it, his voice is upbeat and he laughs often. He can't wait.
The 31-year-old U.S. Army corporal is an experienced ultramarathoner who has completed some of the most challenging courses in North America, yet he's never done the biggest. Some call it the Super Bowl of ultras, but he calls it the "doctorate of ultras" because in order to be accepted, a runner's curriculum vitae must be exceptional.
When Long first heard about the race 10 years ago, he remembers thinking, "That's impossible."
"I was just in awe of hearing about runners who could do that," he said. "I knew at that time I couldn't do it. And it was later when I got into ultras and Badwater came up again. I was just like, 'Man, how hard can this be? What do I have to do to be able to do this?'
"I started looking at the requirements for entry and just kept it in the back of my mind. I would tell people every once in a while that it was a main goal of mine, but [the race] seemed to kind of turn them off. [They] said, 'Man, that's crazy. There's no way I'd ever do that race.' It's just funny how many people don't want to do it. … I'd say I've had that dream for about five years now."
Ninety-seven people from 22 nations have been accepted for this year's Badwater. Rookies such as Long make up nearly half the field.
As horrible as the race seems even to many ultra runners, it's a magnet for others. The rookie roster this year includes a 40-year old firefighter from Sweden, a 35-year-old physical education teacher from Ontario, Canada, and a 76-year-old retiree from Arizona.
While there are no stats for completion rates for first-timers, Chris Kostman, president and race director of AdventureCORPS, which organizes the event, says the overall completion rate is more than 80 percent.
"You have to apply to be in the race, so the people getting in are solid ultra runners," Kostman said. "Secondly, they know it's competitive to get in and they might not get in again. So they try not to blow it. And we have a lot of information on our website and elsewhere on the Internet on how to train, how to organize a support group. … It behooves everybody to show up ready to race."
Kostman says first-time runners such as Long know the Badwater is more challenging than any race they've done, so they take preparations seriously.
"It's the toughest," said Kostman. "And all the people who do it say that. You don't get into the Badwater until you've done a lot of other tough races."
Long has done multiple 100-mile races, including the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 last year, the Hard Rock 100 Endurance Run in Colorado and the H.U.R.T. Trail 100 in Hawaii. He's also twice completed a run around the perimeter of Oahu, a distance of 128 miles.
Plus, he's seen firsthand the difficulty of Badwater.
Last year, he served as part of a four-person support crew for his friend Hannah Roberts, who finished in 34 hours, 26 minutes and 35 seconds. Roberts, in the Navy, and Long had trained and run together as members of the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team (H.U.R.T) when they were stationed in the islands. Both have done multiple 100-mile races. A few years ago, each had pledged to crew for the other at Badwater if they were accepted.
So, there was Long at her side last July, pacing her, getting her water and food -- whatever she needed. This year, Roberts will be part of Long's four-person crew.
Long came away inspired by Roberts' effort and heart. Though the final portion of the race was a grind, she finished fourth among women and 32nd overall.
"Just watching what happened after 100 miles, and there's still 35 miles more to go," Long said. "It's funny how we get trained to run 100 miles, then we're done. And that's the farthest Hannah had ever gone before. It was humbling to me to watch her push past 100 miles. Where she did 100 miles under 24 hours and then the next 10 hours she spent working on that next 35. So I was just … I never thought about that before."
Roberts called Badwater a race made "for the kind of masochistic and ambitious people like Doug and myself" and said it's like no other test.
"It's a whole different animal, really," she said.
But her crew was her lifeline. They called themselves "Mixed Nuts." When Long was pacing her, he kept her loose.
"With Doug, we were just super goofballs the entire time. We'd crack up about something ridiculous, [and] everything at Badwater is ridiculous," Roberts said, noting it's always too hot, too cold or too steep.
Long will be supported by nearly the same crew this year. Roberts, her sister Michele Vinbury, Don Ramer and Nickademus Hollon make up a group that got its name when the bunch of vegetarians, vegans and long-distance runners all picked up different bags of nuts at a gas station stop on the way to Death Valley last year.
This year, the team will be wearing red shirts featuring a fruit bat on the front and "Mixed Nuts Redux" across the back, with: "135 miles; 115 degrees; -283 ft up to 8,300'; powered by plants!!"
Long, a vegan, calls himself a "strictly plant-based athlete," but sometimes that's not possible. Being in the military nine years -- including a tour in Iraq -- he sometimes had to go with the flow.
"It's kind of hard, especially when you're going out in the field and stuff," he said. "They don't really cater to a vegetarian lifestyle, let alone a vegan lifestyle."
The plant-fueled Long has no designs on winning Badwater or challenging the race record of 22:51:29. He simply wants to finish it.
"It transcends whatever the stopwatch says," Long said. "Just an awesome personal achievement."
Long has been running since his days on the high school cross-country team in his native Wyoming. He counts the Hard Rock 100 in Colorado as probably the most challenging ultra he's done -- made tougher when he didn't account for an extra three miles that had been added that year because of a problem with land permits. He didn't bring enough water, became dehydrated and even his pacer had to drop out. It took 46 hours and 57 minutes to complete.
"The whole race was kind of an eye-opener," Long said.
But since receiving the email from AdventureCORPS in early March that he'd been accepted to this year's Badwater, Long has been doing everything he can to make sure he's prepared for his Death Valley days.
He switched from mostly trail running to running roads. He's put in 150- to 160-mile running weeks. He completed a 24-hour race in Austin in which he covered 111 miles.
The one thing that's suffered, he said with a laugh, is his sleep.
Because he's in the Army and is a husband and father of two children five and under, he has other demands. Many times he gets up at 2 a.m. to get his training in, then rides his bike to Fort Hood (where he's stationed in Texas) in time for 6:30 a.m. physical training. Then he puts in a full day at the base, goes home, eats, enjoys some family time and goes to bed.
He credits his wife, Katelyn, for supporting his frenetic pace and for sometimes saving him from himself.
"She can tell the times when I'm overdoing it, where I'm pushing too hard, because she'll step in and say, 'You need to calm down and take a break for a little bit,'" he said. "She keeps me in check. I could not do this without her. No way."
And, there is this: the Badwater isn't the only Death Valley test he's training for. In October, he'll ride in another AdventureCORPS event, the Furnace Creek 508, a bicycle race from Santa Clarita, Calif., through Furnace Creek in Death Valley and on to the finish at Twentynine Palms.
Any athlete who can complete the Badwater and Furnace Creek 508 in the same calendar year earns the Death Valley Cup. Long couldn't resist the challenge, so he's also been doing 115-200 miles per week on his bike.
It's served a dual purpose: It provides some balance and cross-training for his legs, and it's honed his competitive edge.
Just one more scary dream.
"I wanted the challenge, and it scares the hell out of me," Long said. "It scares me more than Badwater really does, just because it's so unfamiliar to me, bicycling 508 miles. It's just kind of crazy."