Badwater Ultramarathon got underway yesterday with 90 runners setting out from the tiny town of Badwater in Death Valley. The classic race takes endurance athletes across 135 miles (217 km) of some of the harshest environments imaginable as they run to the Mt. Whitney Portals in temperatures in excess of 100ºF/37ºC.
As with most ultramarathons, the distance is a big part of the challenge. But with the Badwater, it is also about the vertical gain. The race starts 280 feet (85 meters) below sea level, and rises to 8300 feet (2530 meters) above sea level at the finish line. Along the way, runners must negotiate their way across demanding desert landscapes, through difficult valleys, and up mountain passes. Those that complete the grueling run will end up with a cumulative vertical gain of more than 14,600 feet (4450 meters), with the fastest runners completing the run in less than 24 hours.
The runners departed last night in three different waves, with the first setting out around 8:00 PM local time. The second set of athletes took to the course at 9:30 PM, with the final wave hitting the road at 11:00 PM. Traveling at night helps to lessen their exposure to the heat, but today temperatures are expected to hit 113ºF/45ºC out on the course.
If you have followed the Badwater over the past couple of years, you probably remember that in 2014 the race was forced to take an alternate route because the National Park Service had implemented a bad on endurance events taking place within national parks while it evaluated safety requirements. This year, the Park Service allowed the runners back in, but mandated the overnight start to help mitigate the danger.
Some critics have said that this could put the athletes under more stress however, as now they'll be heading into the hottest part of the day already fatigued. In the past, runners would start fresh, but take on the heat early, with the cooler temperatures arriving just at the most opportune time to refresh the runners. That won't be the case this year however, as they'll now be 50 miles (80 km) into the race when things really start to get hot. How this impacts the results remains to be seen.
If things go according to form, the first runners should reach the finish line as early as this 7:00 or 8:00 PM this evening. Others will stagger in over the next day or two. As always, it'll be interesting to see how things play out in an event that has been called "the toughest footrace on Earth."