The White Line Through Hell

217 kilometres. 40°c. Coyotes lining the route. Welcome to the world’s harshest road race.

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At 85.5 metres below sea level, Badwater Basin in California’s Death Valley is the lowest point in the western hemisphere. A mere 160 kilometres away stands Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower forty-eight states. Between the two, a series of mountain ranges trap moisture, creating arid playas that receive less than five centimetres of rain a year. With temperatures reaching 50°C ( 90°C on the road surface) and winds that toss the heat around with a vengeance, Death Valley is one of the most hostile environments on earth. Its name goes back to the winter of 1849, to pioneers in search of California gold. Lost, out of food, and dealing with weakened oxen and battered wagons, they endured severe hardships before finally escaping, bidding goodbye once and for all to a place they christened Death Valley.

It is here that a gruelling 217-kilometre road race—the equivalent of five marathons—takes place each July. The Badwater Ultramarathon starts at the salt flats of Badwater, where an ever-present haze shimmers off the surface, a surface so bright it can cause “salt blindness.” After traversing three mountain ranges, the course ends on Mount Whitney, an elevation double the height of Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain. Passing through towns and landmarks with ominous names such as Furnace Creek, Devil’s Golf Course, and Stovepipe Wells, the race provides a true test of human strength and endurance every painful step of the way.

The event is run on asphalt, and runners stick to the white line at the side of the road, where the temperature is a degree or two cooler. Racers have sixty hours to complete the course, and those who do it in under forty-eight receive the coveted Badwater belt buckle. No money, no international glory. Just a belt buckle and the personal satisfaction of having survived Death Valley.

On July 11, 2005, four Canadians gather at the start line, together with seventy-seven other competitors, ready to test their mettle. Ferg Hawke, an Air Canada station attendant from South Surrey, BC, appears for his second Badwater Ultramarathon. Monica Scholz, a lawyer from Jerseyville, Ontario, returns for her fourth. Matthew Sessions, a survey technologist from Port Moody, BC, and Ray Zahab, a personal trainer and motivational speaker from Chelsea, Quebec, will both experience the harshness of the race for the first time.

Unlike most ultramarathons, Badwater has no aid stations. Entrants provide their own support crews, who cater to the athletes’ every need. Start times are staggered to avoid congestion, with the 10 a.m. wave reserved for the fastest athletes. Last year, although Hawke’s resumé was strong enough to merit a later start, he was placed in the 8 a.m. wave.

“I guess I underestimated his talent,” says Chris Kostman, the race director. After a torturous 217 kilometres, Hawke surprised everyone—except, perhaps, those who knew him—and came in second place by a margin of only seven-and-a-half minutes. Had he started in the same slot as winner Dean Karnazes, and been able to keep an eye on him, the outcome might have been different. This year, all four Canucks are in the 10 a.m. wave.

“Statistically, it’s amazing,” Kostman says of how Canadians typically perform. “Considering they come from the frozen north, they do really well in the heat. I might have to start playing the Canadian national anthem at the start line.” Rumblings over breakfast the next morning indicate that the Canadian contingent already has a plan in the works. Three minutes prior to start time, an energizing “O Canada” is bellowed, pre-empting a canned version of the “Star Spangled Banner” and leaving Kostman somewhat pressed for time.

The Canadians’ performance at Badwater is a much-covered-up affair. Last year, 60 Minutes attended the race, hoping to produce a show on the male-female rivalry between the 2002 and 2003 winner, Pam Reed of Tucson, and last year’s winner, Karnazes of San Francisco. Not only did Hawke’s impressive result on his first attempt at Badwater overtake the show’s agenda, but Monica Scholz placed third overall and was the first female to cross the finish line, leaving Reed out of the top three. The show did its best to ignore Hawke and Scholz, not even mentioning them by name.

With Death Valley and the course as inhospitable as they are, there’s a spirit of camaraderie about Badwater. Runners give each other hugs and words of encouragement as they pass. Crew members share tips, not to mention ice packs and other necessities. But the race itself is about the lonely runner on the road, complete with heat waves, mirages, and a white line that reaches to the horizon and flows ribbon-like over gentle slopes of asphalt. Badwater is about survival and the patience needed to run one’s own race. It’s about respect for the harsh and rugged beauty of Death Valley—its multi-hued ranges, sweeping sand dunes, and hot, gusty winds that attack with incredible force. It’s also about respect for fellow racers, united by an obsession to discover just how much the human body can endure.

There are many reasons to enter Badwater, reasons as varied as the competitors. Some have specific goals. Seventy-year-old Jack Denness from the United Kingdom is running this year to be the first septuagenarian to complete the race. Asked why he ran eleven other times, he replies, “I must be bloody mad.” Dan Jensen, a Vietnam war vet who lost a leg to a landmine, has some unfinished business. In 1999, he made it almost 100 miles before complications from his prosthetic leg forced him to withdraw.

The Canadians, too, have their reasons. For forty-year-old Sessions, it was the documentary Running on the Sun (about the 1999 race, and featuring both Denness and Jensen) that drew him. “The pain, the blisters, the people spilling their guts on the road”—all appealed to him. Thirty-six-year-old Zahab, relatively new to ultramarathons but no rookie to the world of extreme sports, was looking for another challenge. The location, whether it’s the Yukon, Alps, Sahara, or Death Valley, is part of the allure. And, he says, “Badwater is legendary.”

By 10 a.m., the sun has risen over the mountains. The temperature already exceeds 40°C as runners gather around the start line. There’s no gun, just voices counting down, somewhat out of sync. Then they’re off, some jogging, others walking. How fast does one begin a journey of 217 kilometres?

The stretch between Badwater and Stovepipe Wells is flat. The sun reflects off salt flats for the first part, off sand dunes the next. Temperatures hover in the upper 40s, and the heat from the pavement is so intense it’s been known to melt the soles of running shoes and burst their gel cushions. The heat of the valley forces some out of the race early.

Within the first sixteen kilometres, Sessions hits a bad spell and projectile vomits at the side of the road. Zahab—wearing a belly-baring top, Lycra shorts, and what looks like a bright orange bathing cap—is going strong. “I didn’t expect to feel this good at this stage,” he says. He arrives at Stovepipe Wells in just over seven hours. A coyote stands by the checkpoint, watching. Zahab stops for a cool-down and a foot massage and admits that Death Valley is a lot hotter than he expected.

With corn-rowed hair and dangling earrings peeking out from a legionnaire’s hat, the thirty-eight-year-old Scholz is running well, letting out a “woo hoo!” each time someone calls out “Go Monica!” She’s known for her friendliness. “If you watch Monica run,” says Karnazes, “she’s one of the few who looks like she’s actually enjoying herself.”

Forty-seven-year old Hawke is already in the top three, together with Scott Jurek and Mike Sweeney, both from the United States. Asked if he has any concerns, Hawke replies, “The heat, the distance, the competition. But other than that, everything’s fine.” Jurek, a late entrant, is a seven-time winner of the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile trail race he’d completed just two weeks earlier. The lithe, clean-shaven (right down to the ankles), boyish thirty-one-year-old is younger than the average athlete at Badwater, where winners are usually in their forties. “There’s no perfect age to run,” he says. “It’s about maturity of mind, of spirit.” He thinks he has a good chance of not only winning Badwater on his first attempt, but also breaking the record of 25:09:05, set in 2000 by Anatoli Kruglikov of Russia. “I’m not trying to sound cocky,” Jurek says. “I do well in heat.” He is, however, a trail runner and admits that running on pavement may be problematic.

If the heat bothers the six-foot, 172-pound Hawke, it doesn’t show. I first interviewed him in 2004, two weeks before his initial attempt at Badwater. He’s a master of heat training, with a solarium and collapsible sauna on his back deck. When the temperature reached his ideal of 58°C, he opened the sliding door just enough to let me and a tray of water bottles through, careful not to allow any heat to escape. As he ran on a treadmill, I attempted to take notes. Sweat trickled into my eyes, flowed down my arms, and pooled on the paper. My hand stuck to the page. I gave up, leaving the interview to the tape recorder. Within fifteen minutes, I’d had enough. Hawke had yet to break a sweat.

His excessive heat training is a definite advantage. While Jurek takes time during the race to immerse his torso in a cooler of ice water, Hawke stops only briefly to change shoes and socks, and to pop a few blisters. Pressed for details about urinating on the run, he replies, “Think garden hose—squeeze, release, squeeze. You just kind of keep running and it doesn’t hit you.”

In the lead for the first half of the race is Sweeney. There’s a buzz among crew members and race organizers. How can he go so fast for so long, they wonder. By the 148-kilometre mark, however, Sweeney falls behind and receives treatment for overhydration (a common problem when athletes increase their water intake but neglect to replenish much-needed sodium). Jurek and Hawke jockey for the lead. After a dramatic pass through a checkpoint at 1,600 metres above sea level—where Hawke led by mere seconds—Jurek pulls ahead. It’s 2:30 a.m., and they’ve been running for sixteen-and-a-half hours.

Elsewhere on the course, Zahab has withdrawn. The concern was that he had developed rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle fibres that can lead to kidney failure. We don’t see him again until the awards ceremony, when, though disappointed, he enthusiastically expresses a desire to return next year. He, too, has unfinished business.

By hour twenty-four, Hawke is still going strong, but his stiff gait reflects obvious pain. Blisters cover his toes, and one, the size of an egg, sits on the ball of his right foot. Still, he smiles. Hawke has, according to race official Bruce Gungle, “the best smile this side of Monica Scholz.”

Ahead, Jurek moves with grace and speed, covering the final twenty kilometres, a stretch that rises over 1,500 metres, in less than three hours. On his first attempt at Badwater, Jurek, true to his word, wins the race in a record time of 24:36:08. Hawke, with a time of 26:33:00, once again takes second place, shaving almost an hour off his 2004 time.

At Lone Pine, the final checkpoint, Sessions relaxes at the medical station, attempting to ward off heat stroke. I ask him if Badwater is everything he thought it would be. “And then some,” he replies as his eyes roll back in their sockets. He’s out. He briefly drifts back into the conversation, then disappears again. Hours later, when he’s ready to return to the race, he has no recollection of having spoken to me.

Scholz approaches Lone Pine. Struggling, she prefers not to talk. Hawke hobbles to see her, accompanied by his crew members. As she passes, the two hug, exchanging jokes and comments. Scholz, feeling “like a bag of shit,” trudges on, promising to be back in four hours. It takes her slightly longer than that, but after a day-and-a-half on the course, she earns a belt buckle.

The next time I see Sessions, he’s looking good—fast and happy. There’s a spring in his step—no blisters yet—and his brown eyes sparkle after much-needed rest and rehydration. He reaches the end with the first rays of morning sunshine. His time is 43:04:42. He too buckles.

Post race, Scholz says she’ll be back next year to crew for someone else. As for future returns as a competitor, she says it’s still too early to tell. Zahab is already planning his next attempt, and Sessions hopes to be there as well.

Hawke is nursing his feet. He lost eight toenails, three more than last year. He doesn’t comment on whether he’ll return, but something tells me he’ll be back. Although he can now claim the fourth-fastest time in the eighteen-year history of the race, he still hasn’t finished first, something that might just haunt him.

What initially draws athletes to the Badwater Ultramarathon is a desire to see how far the mind and body can be pushed. What keeps them coming back to one of the most inhospitable places on the planet is an addiction as inexplicable as the one that drew them to extreme sport in the first place.

Barbara K. Adamski