It feels like hell. Sunlight pounds the salt-caked valley floor. Heat rolls like fog between distant, lifeless mountains. The ground bakes through shoes and cracks like piecrust around the saline pools that give California's Badwater Basin its name.
It's hard to imagine a crueler climate, or a better place to start America's baddest-ass footrace: the Badwater Ultramarathon. Each year in the U.S., some 15,000 runners compete in more than 350 ultras (races longer than the traditional, 26.2-mile marathon); approximately 30 ultras cover more than 100 miles. But in terms of insanity, few races come close to Badwater, which starts in Death Valley, at the lowest point in the western hemisphere, snakes along a blacktop highway over three climbs that rise 13,000 feet and down two descents that drop 4,700 feet, before ending at the Mount Whitney Portal, almost 9,000 feet above the starting line. In all, the course is 135 miles, and the temperature can hit 130°. Badwater is a race of pain. Scott Jurek doesn't endure pain; he owns it. The lanky, 32-year-old, Seattle-based vegan ran Badwater for the first time in 2005 and set a course record of 24 hours 36 minutes (breaking Anatoli Kruglikov of Russia's 2000 mark by more than half an hour)- just two weeks after winning the Western States 100 for the seventh year in a row. That back-toback earned him Ultrarunner of the Year honors for the third straight time and cemented his position as America's best ever.
That's why Jurek can walk across the basin on a mid-May morning with a swagger, looking more off-duty '70s rocker-cutoff jeans, running shoes, all that crazy hair-than elite athlete. It's eight weeks before the July 24 event, and Jurek is here with Leah, his wife and crew chief, to replay the 2005 race and fine-tune strategy for the upcoming one. Winning again won't be enough. Jurek intends to run from hell to Mount Whitney in less than 24 hours. No other American has ever come within 3 hours 22 minutes of that time.
MILE 0: BADWATER BASIN
ELEVATION: 282 FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL
It's all uphill from here. When geological randomness placed the highest peak in the Lower 48 so close to the lowest valley, you knew some nutcase would see a need to make the trek on foot. In 1977, after two failed attempts, Al Arnold completed the 146-mile jaunt from Badwater to the 14,495-foot peak of Mount Whitney, dressed at times only in tighty-whities. Jay Birmingham repeated the feat four years later, then wrote a book about it, The Longest Hill. The run became an annual event in 1987, and the current course was established in 1990 when the Forest Service required permits to access the trails to Whitney's peak, forcing the race to end at the Portal, or trailhead.
About 80 competitors run the race each year, and some 75% finish. The 30 or so elite entrants are the last to start, at 10 a.m., and by then, the Badwater temperature is already 115°. The key at the start, as it is throughout, is to stay cool. Jurek covers himself head to toe in heat-reflective white. "You have to respect the course," he says.
Thriving in harsh conditions requires every bit of the discipline he learned as a kid in Proctor, Minn., after his mother, Lynn, developed multiple sclerosis. Gordon Jurek worked full-time and raised their three kids by demanding ultimate effort in every task. One of Jurek's chores was to gather firewood. If the wood was not stacked properly, his father would knock it down and make him do it again. "Sometimes I loathed it," Jurek says, "but I learned you can have fun working your tail off."
He ran his first ultra, the 50-mile Minnesota Voyager, in 1994. He finished second, and he was hooked-not in spite of the adversity but because of it. Jurek is known for both his work ethic and his antics, such as logrolling across the finish line. "I try to remember I'm out here to have fun," he says. "You can get into this intense focus that can be detrimental psychologically."
MILE 17: FURNACE CREEK
ELEVATION: 165 FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL
When Highway 190 crests a hill at Furnace Creek, runners see only miles of black roadway shimmering in the heat, with but one small oasis down the way to break it up. "You feel like such a speck in this vast desert," Jurek says. "You can't think about all 135 miles. You don't even want to think 20 feet ahead." The temptation is to accelerate past the nothingness, but doing so would be suicide. Last year, Jurek fought the urge, maintaining a nine-minutes-per-mile pace. "Still," he says, "the heat creeps up on you."
During Badwater, runners provide their own support. Jurek's crew of three travels in a van loaded with food, ice, water and an electrolyte drink. At every mile, the van pulls off the road, and the crew members go to work. Jurek stops for a moment while one replaces the ice in his hat and the coldwater-soaked bandanna around his neck. Another gives him new bottles of water and electrolyte mix (he carries a bottle in each hand) and loads his fanny pack with energy bars and other simple foods. Leah tracks his mental state, talking with him to gauge whether he's feeling aggressive and competitive, or discouraged. She wants to keep him balanced between the extremes. Every hour or so, Jurek steps on a scale. If he's lost too much weight, as little as three or four pounds, Leah knows from experience that she needs to adjust his intake of fluids and electrolytes.
Heat is the enemy of every desert racer, and the sweltering Death Valley sun can be deadly. Back in 1991, the body of a hiker who had been missing for seven days was found in Badwater during the event. A doctor named "Badwater Ben" Jones completed the race, then went to the Owens Valley Mortuary to perform the autopsy. Jones sliced open the body and found the cause of death to be disseminated intravascular coagulation, essentially a total-body breakdown of the clotting mechanism caused by severe physical stress-in this case, heat.
This race has claimed no lives, although heat exhaustion and heat stroke are constant concerns for everyone. Even Jurek.
MILE 42: STOVEPIPE WELLS VILLAGE
ELEVATION: SEA LEVEL
In tactical terms, the race begins at this gas-andmotel stop pressed against a bare hillside at the valley's western edge. Getting here first doesn't matter; it's much more important to arrive feeling strong. The first big climb, 17 miles rising nearly 5,000 feet to Townes Pass, awaits just outside town. The approach to Stovepipe is the flattest, hottest segment of the race, with the 4 p.m. temperature hovering around 125°. As Jurek covered the final miles into Stovepipe last year, Leah was worried; she knew he was losing weight, even though he was drinking about half a gallon of fluid every hour. Jurek knew he was hot, but he didn't notice any effect on his performance. He'd been running for 6 hours 25 minutes, and he was still on his pace and in third place, 20 minutes behind the leader.
But when he stopped in Stovepipe, all Jurek could think about was cooling down. Although he felt strong, the heat was overwhelming. Leah filled a huge ice chest with water, and Jurek squeezed himself in, submerging his torso. A check at the med station revealed that his electrolytes were high. He drank more fluids, but he struggled with the heat for the next 40 miles, his thoughts consumed by an overwhelming desire for cool. Each time the van stopped on the climb out of Stovepipe, he dunked his head in a bucket of ice water.
Jurek has prepared for the heat this year. He skipped the Western States 100 and will train in Death Valley for 18 days before Badwater. He plans to run a little more slowly into Stovepipe, to stay cooler and be in better condition for the climb.
MILE 59: TOWNES PASS SUMMIT
ELEVATION: 4,956 FEET
Jurek stands in a turnout at the Pass and looks back at the climb, calculating the possibilities. The cooler temps here, 20° below those in the valley, sparked a brief recovery in 2005 and allowed Jurek to catch Ferg Hawke of Canada on the nine-mile, 3,316-foot descent. The two spent the next several hours jockeying for second place.
Jurek is one of the few runners who descends well. Many, frustrated by the long climb they've just completed and energized by the cool mountain air, push on the downhill to make time. But the wind in their hair distracts from the impact the run is having on their quads. By the bottom, their legs are spent-and the race is barely half over.
"I don't think anyone trains harder than I do," says Jurek. He runs about 110 miles a week, does speed work at the track and lifts at the gym. He funds his obsession by coaching and conducting camps. In the lead-up to a race, he strings together three-day weekends in which he logs 99 miles with enough climbing to summit Everest. "If you don't like training for an ultramarathon," he says, "you're in the wrong sport."
MILE 72: PANAMINT SPRINGS RESORT
ELEVATION: 1,970 FEET
Maybe Jurek should have scouted the entire course last year. Then he'd have known about the nighttime heat. He flew down the descent from Townes Pass and into Panamint Valley, expecting to be carried up the next climb by a cool night breeze. Instead, hot, heavy air broke him down mentally and again pushed him to the edge of dehydration.
Normally, he and Leah are experts at managing the fundamentals of nutrition. Jurek doesn't get thirsty; he needs hydration. He doesn't get hungry; he needs calories and electrolytes. All runners produce heat, and to keep cool, they sweat water and sodium, which must be replaced. Nausea is often the first sign of dehydration. Once you lose the stomach, you might as well call it a day.
At 2 in the morning last year, Jurek sat in a turnaround at Mile 77, vomiting. He couldn't cool down, couldn't eat or drink. He had fallen to third place, more than seven miles-and 80 minutes-behind the leader. He wondered if it was time to drop out.
Before making that decision, Jurek lay down on a mat in the dirt. He closed his eyes and took his only nap of the race-three minutes tops. When he sat up, he knew he would finish. "It gave my stomach a chance to recover," he says simply.
When he races, Jurek says, he turns off the noise in his brain. "There aren't a lot of random thoughts. There's just no time for that." One exception: thoughts of his mother and how he watched her crumble stoically under the effects of her disease. "Pain wasn't something to complain about," he says. Lynn Jurek took a turn for the worse when Scott was 10. Before moving into the nursing home where she still lives, she divorced Scott's father to free him from obligation to a person whose functional life was ending. "I think of the pain and the loss she has to deal with," says Jurek. "All I have to do is run 135 miles through the desert."
MILE 80: FATHER CROWLEY'S TURNOUT
ELEVATION: 4,000 FEET
During his recon, Jurek looks back on his slow climb up the second pass and cannot remember how often the van stopped to assist him a year ago. Or what was said to motivate him. Or when his crew spotted Mike Sweeney, on the verge of collapse after leading the race for 16 hours. Jurek doesn't remember because Leah and the crew made a lot of it up. Leah may be the only crew chief who tells stories to her own runner. "She tells little lies with lots of truth," Jurek says. On the climb to Father Crowley's, Leah told Jurek he was closing in on second, when the crew hadn't seen the next runner's van for many miles. At other points, she deftly changed the subject each time Jurek asked the distance to the next checkpoint.
"Late in the race, this stuff works like magic," says Jurek. With another second wind from the cool of the mountain pass, Jurek increased his pace on the descent from Father Crowley's. Hawke, now leading, pushed hard to stay in front. The pair passed through the timing station at Mile 90 in a virtual tie, setting up Jurek's surge to the lead. "If you're going to pass somebody, pass them with authority," he says. "It's a huge psychological jab."
ELEVATION: 4,050 FEET
Leah is the reason Jurek can relax on race day. She's anal, so he doesn't have to be. She's intense, so he doesn't have to be. When Jurek goes into his late-race trance, his thoughts narrow to fundamentals-such as putting one foot in front of the other-and he relies on her more and more. "I can give clues about how I'm feeling, and she figures out what to do to trigger a response," Jurek says.
As they approached the 100-mile point in last year's race, Leah wondered how her husband would react to running farther than he had ever gone before. So she didn't tell him that they had passed the 100-mile marker, and Jurek didn't ask if they had. After more than 18 hours on the course, Jurek was consumed with just maintaining basic motor function. He focused on keeping an efficient stride while pushing any doubts and questions out of his mind. "She gets inside Scott's head," says Justin Angle, a member of Jurek's crew. "She's a puppet master."
MILE 108: KEELER
ELEVATION: 3,610 FEET
The tiny mining town offers the first view across Owens Valley to the Mount Whitney climb. "It's daunting," says Jurek of the path ahead. At this point in the race last year, his mental endurance was stretched, even though he had left all of his rivals far behind. "I was starting to crash." Leah was doing her best to fool him, to keep his mind off the distance, comparing his position on the course to familiar points in the Western States 100. But Jurek knew he had run farther than ever before, and he still had a full marathon left to go. "You want it to go by quickly, and I was pushing it."
Here, Leah told one more tiny lie, suggesting he could break 24 hours. "I needed a trigger," Jurek says. "Goals fuel my fire. That's part of the sport: going beyond what people think is possible." Jurek missed the target, but it drove him the final miles to the finish and fueled motivation for 2006.
MILE 135: WHITNEY PORTAL
ELEVATION: 8,360 FEET
If he were so dominant in any other sport, Jurek's name would be paraded as that of an all-time great. Among U.S. ultrarunners, he's Zeus. Outside, he's a question mark, as in, Why does he put himself through the torture? "It makes me feel, not like a freak, but that you have to explain your existence, your legitimacy, your mental state," Jurek says. "But it is a valid question. I'm not sure I have the answer."
Early in the morning on July 12, 2005, a few carloads of ultra fans arrived at the public campground near the Mount Whitney Portal. After following the race on the Internet, they drove to the finish to see if Jurek could break 24 hours. Sometime after 10:30 a.m., a crazy war whoop bounced through the sheltering pines. Coming off the last switchback, Jurek burst into a full sprint, hands in the air, fists pumping. He was nearly two hours ahead of Hawke, who would finish second, but that wasn't the point.
The race was over, but Jurek knew he was just getting started.