Distance running has always been a matter of testing the human mind, body, and spirit. Nothing accomplishes this better than an ultramarathon. Ultramarathons are by definition ultra, ultra-long, and ultra-tough. However, some ultramarathons still manage to stand out even amongst their peers as difficult races. Badwater 135 is one of these races. What makes it so hard?
Badwater 135 is set in one in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates during the most inhospitable time of the year. The race is long, it is tough, and it is hot, very hot. If that wasn’t enough, Badwater 135 sees runners having to overcome some serious elevation gain.
Ultramarathons are about pain, self-discovery, and pushing the limits of the human body. Very few races are capable of pushing these limits more than the Badwater 135; it is brutal but sublime.
The Badwater 135 is the epitome of an ultramarathon and fully deserves its reputation for being one of the planet’s toughest and most punishing ultramarathons.
- What Makes Badwater 135 So Hard?
- Our Verdict: One of the World's Toughest Ultras
What Makes Badwater 135 So Hard?
Where does one even start on this question? Marathons have never been considered simple undertakings, and ultramarathons take the marathon experience and multiply it, in every way, from length to endurance, to pure will – everything is more. But what sets Badwater 135 apart?
The reality is that the hardness of Badwater 135 is made up of the perfect storm of features that transform it into the ultimate endurance test. Only 60% to 80% of the competitors manage to finish every year, giving it one of the higher attrition rates in ultramarathon races.
It is a long race that requires long-term dedication from more than just the runner attempting it. While each individual feature is hard in its own right, it’s the total sum of parts that truly makes up the hardness of Badwater 135.
The Inhospitable Badwater 135 Course
As much as Badwater 135 is an ultramarathon, one thing all runners know is that the hardness of a race can depend a lot on the course itself. Badwater 135 provides a course that dishes out brutal punishment in every aspect. It is, after all, set in desert conditions.
Badwater 135 is set in the desolate and inhospitable Death Valley in California, with runners making their way through areas with names like Furnace Creek. It gives a pretty good idea of what to expect, and it’s hot.
135 Miles of Pain
The distance, as is evident in the name of the race itself, is 135 miles. That is a long way to go on foot. And what makes it brutal is that it is set on a very long straight road with very little deviation to take the mind off of the monotony. Badwater 135 is a full 135 miles of mostly straight road with undulating hills. That’s a lot of ascents, 14 600 feet of vertical gain in total.
Huge Elevation Gain
Starting at Badwater Basin at an elevation of 280 feet below sea level, runners can look forward to two major climbs, a 17-mile climb that provides a 5000-foot elevation gain and lastly, a 13-mile climb, again with a 5000-foot elevation that takes them to the finish.
It’s not quite as brutal as the infamous Barkley Marathons, but it’s still going to burn.
The Temperature At Badwater 135
Badwater 135 is hot, very hot.
The race is run in mid-July, so that temperatures will be at their extremes. With highs reaching over 120 degrees at times. It is very hard on the human body, and runners need to have trained for the heat and have well-thought-out race plans to survive the brutality out on the road.
The race is run on tarmac, which can get hot enough to fry an egg on. This extreme heat can lead to the swelling of the feet, so many runners will use larger shoe sizes when running this race. And it doesn’t get much better during the night either, and the tarmac absorbs so much heat during that day that it continues to radiate it out at night as well.
Dehydration From The Heat
With extreme heat comes dehydration.
To survive these conditions, runners need support crews to provide them with hydration and douse them in water from time to time to help them with heatstroke.
Dehydration is a serious risk at Badwater 135. The humidity is very low, sometimes as low as 10%. This dryness can be very dangerous as runners use a lot of water and lose a lot of water. Enter dehydration which, in conditions as extreme as Death Valley, can be life-threatening.
The dryness of the environment of the desert environment can negatively affect breathing, making it more difficult and uncomfortable, yet another reason to ensure proper hydration throughout the race.
Loss of Appetite From The Heat
One of the lesser spoken-about side effects of high temperatures is a loss of appetite. While not usually a big issue, during Badwater 135, this can be a serious problem. 135 miles is a long way, and then there is also the elevation gain. The body is doing some serious work to keep going and must be fed to ensure sufficient energy to complete the race within the 48-hour time limit.
Runners will burn up to 600 calories an hour during an ultra. Because of this, they need to fuel properly. Even if they don’t feel like it, the runners have to eat. This makes the Badwater 135 difficult as runners are often pushing themselves to do things their body does not feel like.
Sleep Deprivation on Badwater 135
There is a time limit of 48 hrs at Badwater 135. This means that in order for runners to have a chance at completing the entire 135-mile race, they need to be on the move almost continuously. There is very little time for sleep or rest, barring the odd 10-20 minute nap. The race requires a constant pounding of the tarmac. This aspect definitely is a big contributor to what makes this race so hard.
Lack of sleep is unpleasant at the best of times. In conditions of extreme heat under massive physical strain, it is brutal. Runners will often suffer from hallucinations.
Arid Climate Training Is Required
Many will put all the emphasis on race day itself, but there is no race day without training. Badwater 135’s extreme conditions mean that proper training is integral to completing the race and is another aspect of what makes the race so hard. You aren’t just dedicating 48hrs of your life to this race, and you need to dedicate months and months of training.
And not just any training either; the severe conditions at Badwater mean that for runners not to be shocked by the dryness and heat, their training needs to incorporate these conditions as well. Many runners will not live in arid areas, so they will have to go to some length to replicate warm conditions.
Preparation can see runners putting in over 120 miles a week for months and getting acclimatized to the brutal heat by sitting in a sauna for an hour or two after each run. Just getting ready for Badwater 135 takes serious determination and effort.
A Large Support Crew Is Needed
Probably not one of the usual things to make a list of what makes a race hard, but at Badwater 135, the support crew is integral to your success, so you need to know you can count on your crew and have them properly prepped for your day.
This involves a lot of pre-race meetings, where the runner and their crew must go over the race plan and build in contingencies for when things don’t go to plan. Nutrition, hydration, kit changes, and sleep, all need to be looked at. Enough water, food, and electrolytes need to be packed – the race is relatively remote, and in extreme conditions, the runner may not have 30 minutes to wait for spare water to arrive.
The race crew is responsible for the runner’s well-being and life when out on the road. This means they need to know the runner – well, so they can be in tune with the immediate needs as they arise.
What makes this hard is that runners need to find 3 to 5 dedicated individuals who will be happy to give a lot of their time to the run, with at least 72hrs being solely focused on the runner and race. It is a lot to ask.
As mentioned earlier, the extremity of the race conditions mean that runners do hallucinate, so a race crew who knows what they are doing is very important, and another thing that can make this race so hard – finding the right crew and having them learn the runner’s needs.
Our Verdict: One of the World’s Toughest Ultras
Badwater 135 is easily one of the hardest ultramarathons in the world.
Not only is it truly ultra in terms of its 135-mile distance, but its setting in a desert in mid-summer makes it inhospitably tough on the body over and above the actual distance. High temperature, and low humidity all take a brutal toll on the human body.
If this wasn’t enough, sections of massive vertical gain and a 48hr time limit ensure that runners are pushed to their absolute limits. It is not just the experience during the race that makes it hard, but the pre-race training and preparation – getting together a supportive and knowledgeable crew is no easy feat.
The all-encompassing difficulty surrounding Badwater 135 is what makes it hard.