Badwater 135 Primer: Everything You Always Wanted to Know (or Maybe Not)

DB, Badwater and Me!

So, Clove I’ve been reading your crazy training logs and I’ve seen you drop Badwater like a hot potato over and over and over again, but there’s just one thing … Uh, what exactly is this Badwater thing, anyway?

With a broad swath of readers here on Salty Running, I’m guessing that some of you know what it is; some of you have heard of it; and some of you, unexposed to the ultrarunning world, don’t know much about it at all.  Today we bring you the Badwater 135 primer: some history, a bit of course description, and a little more insight into why I’m training like there’s no tomorrow.

The Badwater 135 is held each year near the end of July, when temperatures in Death Valley are likely to be hottest.  When we say “hottest,” we don’t mean hot in the traditional sense of the word; after all, the hottest temperature ever recorded in Death Valley was 134 degrees.  You should note that this also stands as the hottest atmospheric temperature ever recorded on earth.  On earth.  Sure, that was back in 1913, but make no mistake:  Death Valley got its name for a reason.

The course itself covers 135 paved miles through Death Valley National Park and Inyo County, traveling through the remote towns of Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs, Darwin/Keeler and Lone Pine.  Starting at 282 below sea level and topping out 8360 feet above sea level at the Whitney Portal, the course was originally conceived to go from the lowest point in the contiguous United States (the Badwater Basin at -282 feet) to the highest (the peak of Mount Whitney at 14,505 feet above sea level).  Current permitting regulations do not allow official events on the actual mountain, and permits to climb are limited, thus “reducing” the original course to its current 135-mile incarnation.  Over the course of the event, runners encounter 13,000 feet of ascent over three mountain ranges, with 4700 feet of bone-crushing descent.  It is not for the faint of heart or weak of shin, and the 48-hour cutoff time is not nearly as generous as it might sound – the average finishing time is 40 hours!

The challenges of Badwater are unique and separate:

Heat:  With an average high of 117 degrees but temperatures above 120 quite common, the heat is one of Badwater’s better known challenges.  Training and preparing for the heat are equally as important as getting in the miles; to quote one of the pre-race emails we received, “if you’re not ready for the heat, you’re not ready for this race.”

Allow me to state the obvious.  Welcome to Stovepipe Wells.  (This is a REAL sign, and in reality, it's no laughing matter).
Allow me to state the obvious. Welcome to Stovepipe Wells. (This is a REAL sign, and in reality, it’s no laughing matter).

Elevation:  The elevation change, especially in the final miles, is particularly tough for those who live at sea level.  It’s not even that easy for people who live at altitude – there’s nothing like having the oxygen slowly sucked out of the air after running 122 miles through the desert!

Remote Location:  The towns of Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs and Lone Pine are spaced out across the course and extremely small.  Each boasts a single convenience store and one or two hotels, with Lone Pine being a bit larger.  Depending on when you run through the towns (i.e. middle of the night), you may have further complications, as these are your only opportunities to replenish runner supplies, the most important and valuable of those being ICE.

No Aid:  The race itself provides only medical support; there are no traditional aid stations.  Your crew is your absolute lifeline during this event; without them, you DNF or die.

And last but not least, the course itself.  The course combines the challenges of extreme heat and extreme hills into a mélange of dismay and running ecstasy.  The Badwater course covers what is sacred ground to me, but it comes at a price.

This is EXACTLY what the hills look like.  No lie.
This is EXACTLY what the hills look like. No lie.

Badwater Basin to Stovepipe Wells:  The first 42 miles feature a steady diet of rolling hills, many of which rise to the level of “walkers,” but are the easiest running miles of the course.  With this year’s nighttime start, we’ll be treated to tame temperatures only in the 90’s  on what used to be the hottest section of the course.  You can’t go out too fast, though, because this is still the easiest 42 miles of the course – meaning swift and brutal payback for those who try to bank time.

Stovepipe Wells to Towne Pass:  At approximately mile 42, you begin a 17 mile climb from sea level to 4,956 feet at an average uphill grade of 8%.  That means some of it is runnable; some of it is also steeper.  The last five miles top out at a solid 10% grade.

Towne Pass to/and Across Panamint Valley:  There’s no rest for the weary, as the next 10 miles serve up a bone-crushing descent down into Panamint Valley.  Ever run down an 8% grade?  I have, and it hurt me for a week.  And I was only pacing DB through that specific session.  Hence, downhill training on a treadmill.  HARD.

Then you get about four flat miles across the valley floor, which is likely to be a convection oven of misery.  Based on my current pace predictions, I’ll run through here in the heat of the day, just when the mountains are trapping all 118 degrees of dry heat into a brand new sauna experience for me.

Panamint Valley Floor to Darwin Turnoff (mile 90):  Surely you’re bored with a relatively flat road by now, so you might as well climb some more.  15 miles, climbing from about 1,800 feet back up to 5,000.   Just to keep you honest.

Darwin Turnoff to Owens Valley:  A slightly more gradual 16-mile descent to the town of Keeler, marking mile 105.

Owens Valley/Keeler to Lone Pine:  A blessedly flat 18 miles – but if you have anything left and aren’t asleep, it’s almost guaranteed to bore you to tears.  It is the world’s only outdoor treadmill.  You run for hours and get absolutely nowhere.

Lone Pine to Whitney Portal:  Saving the best ascent for last, a cruel and wicked climb to the finish, climbing more than 5,000 feet over the last 13 miles.  30-minute miles are not uncommon once reaching the sharp switchbacks.  If you are lucky enough to climb the mountain at night it is absolutely magical; looking down at the lights of Lone Pine and Keeler, I’m often reminded of the movie “The Grinch who Stole Christmas.”  It’s so incredibly, indescribably beautiful.  And for a special treat, as you climb closer and closer to the finish line at 8,360 feet, the oxygen is gradually sucked out of the air.  It’s the most amazing and cruel finish line in the world.

So there it is, Salties.  That’s what I’m up to with this crazy training, and in a nutshell:  I can’t be hot enough.  I can’t run enough hills.  My crew and I can’t overplan.  And every exhausting, dehydrating minute is worth it.

This is, for me, a once in a lifetime undertaking, and one I continue to be so grateful for.  Stay tuned for next week’s post on the history of Badwater and the near-cancellation of the event last year, as well as a continuing series of posts on how my crew and I plan to make this trip across the desert quickly, safely and efficiently.

Until then, stay salty!

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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5 comments

  1. Thank you for including us as your train for this challenge of a lifetime. How many participants are there, and how did you get a spot in the race? Also, do you plan to sleep at all, and if so, will you try to sleep during the day or at night?

  2. Hi Caper! There are 90 participants and the race is by invitation/application only. I’m going to discuss all of that in next week’s post!

    Sleep is in the enemy. I hope to finish significantly under the 40-hour average, and to try to avoid sleeping. If I need to, we will stick to 10 – 15 minute catnaps followed by caffeine.

    Thanks for following!

  3. My biggest surprise pacing BW135 in 2013 was the personality of the course. I had imagined it to be endless miles of boring nothingness, but instead found it to be full of character. Enjoy yourself and hope you have a terrific race!

  4. What are the rules of this race? We are all familiar with USATF rules governing every other race. This race clearly has a completely different set of rules.

  5. Clove, I am so impressed by your receiving the invitation (you must have impressive running resume), the training required (we saw a documentary a few years ago about training for Badwoater along with actual race footage) and your internal fortitude and external strength. I hiked Mt. Whitney a few years ago, starting in the pitch dark from the portal at 1:00 a.m. The hike was tough but magical. You will be surrounded in the most amazing coolness of night furing those last miles from Lone Pine to the Portal, relief at finishing and wonderful cheers. Good luck and congratulations on even taking this challenge.