The human body probably can’t endure challenges more injurious than the world’s most intense long-distance races. The Tough Mudder sends participants through ice water and electrical wires. The Iron Man puts athletes through a trifecta of endurance challenges. But the event that might be the toughest of them all is the Badwater Ultramarathon. Each July, the grueling race has runners completing 135 miles through California’s Death Valley (which reaches summer temperatures of up to 130 Fahrenheit) before finishing 8,300 feet up Mount Whitney.
2012 Badwater Ultramarathon winner Mike Morton crosses the finish line one minute shy of the course record. Photo: Instagram/donorun
“Badwater is a lot more difficult than an Ironman,” says Courtney Baird, former editor-in-chief at Inside Triathlon magazine. “First there’s the harsh environment. Death Valley is much hotter than any Ironman in the world. And even the fastest runners can take multiple days to complete the course, with the winner usually getting no sleep. The very slowest Ironman athletes take 17 hours.” The course is so daunting that each contestant is required to have a crew to help them stay hydrated, fed, and cool as they traverse the course, which boasts 13,000 feet of climbing.
The event, held July 16-18, is in its 35th year and was open to 96 runners by invitation only. Of the select group of invitees, 89 runners finished and 7 were unable to complete the course. The winner of this year’s race, 40-year-old Mike Morton, finished in 22 hours, 52 minutes, 55 seconds. His time was just over a minute shy of the all-time record for the course, set by Valmir Nunes in 2007. On the women’s side, Sumie Inagaki of Japan posted the fastest time in 29 hours, 53 minutes, 9 seconds.
Last year’s winner and 2012 runner-up, Oswaldo Lopez, soaks in the Death Valley heat. Photo: Chris Kostman/Adventure Corps
Aside from the podium, this year’s race had a number of impressive finishes. Chris Moon, 50, a double amputee who lost an arm and a leg in a mining accident aimed to shave a whopping 10 hours off his previous time of 53 hours. Moon managed to crush his goal, finishing in 41 hours, 50 minutes, 38 seconds. “I want to overcome physical challenges and show that I have not been weakened by the unfortunate things that sometimes happen,” Moon said to BBC News, adding that he intends to continue running events like Badwater into his 70s.
Perhaps Moon can draw some inspiration from 70-year-old Arthur Webb, who completed his 15th Badwater Ultramarathon this year in 33 hours, 45 minutes, 40 seconds. If this year’s race is any indication, Moon will be dominating long distance challenges into the future just as he hopes.