Badwater 101


In short, it’s 135 miles across Death Valley in 120 degree temperatures.  The pavement alone reaches up to 128 degrees.

It’s nothing short of epic.  It’s Coriander’s long-term stretch goal, and her post awhile back was enough to get me reminiscent of my four trips there; twice crewing the official race and twice “playing with fire.”  And let’s not lie, I’ve got my eye on that sucker too.  But I’ve got a secret.  A big secret that I’m so excited to share with our Salty readers.

DB was selected to run Badwater this July.  It has been a dream of his for more than five years now; a dream of his before he ever ran his first 100 mile race.  A dream of his before it was ever a dream of mine.  I could not be more proud of him or more excited for him.  He had to run qualifying races and submit an extensive application.  And worst of all, then he had to just … wait.

Running Badwater has always been a dream of his, but running this Badwater has special meaning.

He will turn 50 years old on July 16, 2013 – the day he finishes Badwater for the first time.


All this talk of Badwater has gotten me thinking, reflecting.  There’s so much I can tell you about Badwater, about crewing Badwater, about the race itself.  But my favorite Badwater memories are still just me and DB, as so many of my favorite memories are.

Before we first crewed at Badwater, several friends teased me that by the time the race was over I would have decided to run it.  No way, I said. First of all, it’s road, and I’m a trail girl now. Second of all, it’s just too dangerous. Too many variables, too much sheer torture. Nope. Not for me.


By the time the race was over, I was all in.

Then time passed, as it does.  Years even.  It never fully lost its hold on me, but it certainly weakened. Western States, Rocky Raccoon, a killer Burning River took its place. I’m a trail girl now.

But two summers ago, we were going to be in Vegas to celebrate our friend Darrin’s 40th birthday.  And it was so hard to resist the call of Badwater in August.

Fast forward to a run the week before we left, when we decided that we “just had to” do something “epic.”

After tossing around several ideas and discarding the majority due to hydration/crewing concerns, we had it.  The Badwater 17.

We would each run the first 17 miles of the Badwater course, from the basin itself (which serves as the official starting line of the race) back to the Furnace Creek Ranch, which was our hotel and also serves at the first official check in point for the race.  We likewise decided that we would each run the course solo so that the other could perform crewing duties. Having spent time crewing in Badwater, we were taking this quite seriously, and pretty much planned to take everything but the scale. Our biggest concerns were ice, cold fluids, a cold vehicle if needed, and, quite frankly, someone watching out for us if we got a bit bigger than our britches.

As we drove from Vegas out to Death Valley, Darris nervously watched the temperature gauge in the car. He was a bit concerned that it didn’t seem to be getting much higher than 100. He had nothing to worry about.

Concern began immediately upon check in, where we were greeted by this solemn reminder. Make sure you check out the third bullet. It was a little before 2 pm, hardly “early morning” or “evening.”

Don't try this at home.
Don’t try this at home.

It was 115 degrees.

We packed up our supplies and headed out for the 17 mile drive to Badwater. The temperature was 117 when we exited the vehicle for some quick photos; I was immediately terrified.


I’ve been there four times now, and I still don’t have words for the heat. I can only use the metaphors; imagine crawling into a pizza oven and then using a hair dryer for wind. Because that’s what it feels like. What I can’t describe is how oppressive and stifling it is. You can barely speak sometimes. All you can think about is the heat. It is downright overwhelming.

It’s a pretty surreal feeling to leave the parking lot, in 117 degrees, running, and just trust you’ll make it to the car in a mile.  Badwater miles are long.

Some observations on Badwater:

1. God was everywhere. In the burning wind, in the exquisite silence, in the rocks and the mountains and the blue sky, in the heat waves I could see radiating up from the ground. His presence was unmistakable.

2. I could see how quickly Badwater becomes a routine, and how helpful this must be in a race where the scenery rarely changes. I was running in five-minute increments; stopping in ten minute increments; getting a “full crew” every twenty minutes. In spite of this, the run seemed to go by before I had even blinked.

3. The scenery rarely changes. It is stunning scenery to be sure, but one could easily feel as if they were on a treadmill in the middle of the mountains. It is VERY exciting when you first spot your crew vehicle.

4. The sounds of silence. There were certainly vehicles going by from time to time, but for the most part, I was surrounded by the most peaceful, tranquil silence imaginable. If silence can be described as “magical,” it was. For long stretches, the only sounds I had were of the desert wind at my back and the sound of my footsteps on the pavement. It felt like some higher form of meditation I hadn’t yet experienced; it almost felt sacred.

5. Badwater is lonely. Once your crew is gone and you’re out there on the highway, it’s very overwhelming. You have no misconceptions of exactly how small you are.

6. There are stunning mountains all around you, but there were some that had this green tint to them that I didn’t remember. They were so magical, a pale green and dark brown layered together like mint chocolate chip ice cream. I called them the “mint chocolate mountains” and was desperate to get a shot of them, but the camera had died. The sun glinted off of them differently the next morning, and the moment was gone. Camera or not, I will never forget those mint chocolate mountains.

7. There’s a time warp on the Badwater course. You’re working so hard to stay safe; you’re being so careful to monitor your body and its response to what you’re doing. Even though the run seemed to go by quickly, the five-minute intervals to the walk break seemed endless. I would look at my watch regularly and find that only 45 seconds or so had gone by. The effort level to run safely in the conditions is just so much more extreme; time slows down to the point that it seems half an hour has gone by in the five minutes it takes for the watch to beep and signal the walk break. I started picking out landmarks and challenging myself to see how long I could go without looking at my watch.

8. My original plan was to take my iPod, but I decided against it. My plan had been to drink at every chorus during every song.  Oh Star of little faith. One need not be reminded to drink at Badwater. Ever. It is simply a constant. You drink. And drink. And drink. Without thought, without reminder. You just drink. How much? For me, seven 20 ounce water bottles in a little over 2 hours.

9. “Dry heat” is a myth. Yes, Badwater is the driest place on earth. (This is fact – driest place on earth. Arguments have been made for a section of the Sahara, but Badwater still has it pretty much locked up.) I almost have to make an argument for humidity. Dry heat is still oppressive. Within four or five miles, I was horribly congested and had bloodshot eyes and chapped lips. It just dries you out. Nasal passages, eyes, lips – all fried. About six miles in I realized my face was caked with granular salt and threw some water on it. Big mistake; salt in the eyes to boot. I looked high as a kite by the time we got to dinner.

10. Did I tell you it’s dry? Part of my routine was to alternate white short sleeve shirts. Every two miles, I would put one shirt into a cooler of ice water, and remove the other from the cooler to put on. Did you know that cold can hurt? It does. A shirt removed from a cooler of ice water, dripping wet, slapped onto a torso above 98.6 degrees hurts. Especially on the stomach. But not for long. In the Badwater basin itself, my shirts were drying within a mile. And I am talking out of the dryer, bone dry. Crunchy dry. Later in the run, it took about a mile and a half.

11. You do sweat at Badwater. It’s a myth that evaporation gets all of it. But it gets most of it.

12. It is so beautiful I was weaving across the street sometimes. I would turn to look at this mountain, that salt flat, an odd piece of greenery that managed to survive. I’m lucky I didn’t do this when Darris was around, or he probably would have disqualified me.

13. BADWATER IS NOT FLAT. Nope. Not even down in the basin.

14. Badass v. Fool. As we were preparing for and participating in the run, Darris and I were quite proud of ourselves for being such badasses. There were, however, two moments at which I was extremely concerned. Earlier in my run, I had the signs of a headache coming on, and then I began to hear the blood rushing in my head and one of my ears started ringing. We didn’t go into this trivially; we knew the risks and had crewed Badwater in the past. But I admit, I was concerned. At that point, I had a crew stop approaching and pushed through; a fresh ice shirt and plenty of ice in my water bottle were enough to correct it. The second instance came when I was running a long uphill around my eighth mile or so; I was momentarily dizzy and overcome by the urge to just sit down right there. It passed quickly, but it was sobering. Running Death Valley is dangerous. We can label it adventurous, but at the end of the day, it’s an equal part dangerous.

This day goes in the Blackford Top Five.
This day goes in the Blackford Top Five.

The Aftermath: In the three hours directly following our Badwater runs, we decided/realized we were fools. We were no longer feeling like badasses. We were a little bit sick, drawn and drained. We had headaches and literally felt dry – our lips, eyes, throats, skin. We realized again how dangerous the undertaking had been, regardless of how educated we felt were or the precautions we thought we took. We thought anew about how your crew is your life and death out there.

We looked stoned as we wobbled and weaved our way over to dinner and almost fell asleep between our salads and the pasta course. I worried like the hypochondriac that I am that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning; I decided that if I did, I just might feel like a badass again.

It was just one of those life highlights for us. I don’t even know that the race itself could compare to this particular feeling, because this was just us, doing our thing out of styrofoam coolers in a little white rental car, bandits at Badwater at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on a random Wednesday in August.

I woke up Thursday morning sobered but revived. Definitely feeling a little bit more like a badass.

As we drove out of Badwater back to Vegas, we stopped for a few more pictures and felt that dry wind blowing across the valley again. It’s a seductive wind out there to be sure, and it didn’t need to tell me what I already knew.

I’ll be back someday, and it won’t just be for 17 miles.

The long and winding road - to transcendence.
The long and winding road – to transcendence.

Trail and adventure enthusiast. Girl who swears like a sailor but not when she's teaching Sunday School. Survived infertility without a successful pregnancy. Self-employed, primarily working for Clif Bar and Company. Thirteen 100-mile race finishes with seven top 3 placements. An original Saltine.

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  1. No kidding, Salty! Running through the woods is fun…but through the desert? That just sounds awful. Way to go Darris for doing this, but whoa man…just…whoa.

  2. Amazing! I can’t believe you did 17 in those conditions, and I can’t wait to hear how DB does. Congratulations and good luck (to both of you)!

  3. Hi! I stumbled across this website post Boston Marathon when I was looking for something to uplift my spirits. I loved this post! I became intrigued by Badwater after reading Pam Reed’s book a few years ago, and in the last month have learned of two hometown connections to this year’s Badwater, one being Clove’s husband. I never thought I had the guts to race/train past 26.2. But I feel so inspired. Thank you for writing about these adventures! It has been very inspiring and just what I needed. But mostly, I cant wait to hear about this amazing experience! Good Luck!!!