July in Ultrarunning Means One Thing…


climbing Towne

July is here.  Finally.  In different sports, the month of July means all sorts of different things.  In baseball, there’s the All-Star Game, which I always look forward to because (despite your taste for baseball versus other sports), the baseball version is — by far — the most competitive all-star game out there (the players can actually play the same sport with the same intensity that they do during the year, as opposed to a street-ball type game where defense is forgotten (basketball/hockey) or whatever the heck you want to call the Pro Bowl (basically flag football without the flags). 

I’ve also always associated July with some general thoughts, such as hot weather, barbeques, fireworks, and the legal profession grinding to a halt in warm-weather states. 

But in the sport of ultrarunning, the flipping of the calendar from June to July unquestionably places the focus our our collective consciousness on one race . . . Badwater. 

The Draw of the Desert

Ever since Al Arnold proved it possible in 1977 to run from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level) to the highest point in the contiguous US (Mt. Whitney), the “race through hell” — largely run on California Highway 190 — has captured the imagination of more and more people.  Today, Badwater is unquestionably a global event and probably the ultramarathon that more people in the general public have heard of than any other.

As I’m running the Badwater 135 this year as a rookie, I’m obviously particularly giddy about this year’s race.  But what is it about the desert in general — and Death Valley in particular — that seems to draw people in so strongly?  Here are 10 of my answers to that question (in no particular order . . . actually, Number 4 should go first, so let’s just pretend I put it there) 🙂

1.  The Beauty:  I’ve been fascinated by the desert since I was a kid, watching Wile E. Coyote chase around the Road Runner (which, coincidentially, will be the roles that Badwater competitors (Coyotes) play vis-a-vis Oswaldo Lopez (Road Runner) this year!)

road runner coyote

Seriously, though, as a kid growing up in the Detroit area, desert landscapes always intrigued me.  (I grew up in Detroit in the 80’s, well before the auto industry tanked, but even then, Detroit wasn’t exactly being lauded for its scenery or sweeping vistas!)  Here’s what I looked at every day in my hometown (Woodhaven):

Woodhaven stamping plant

(The Ford Stamping Plant in Woodhaven. The Grand Canyon, it is not).

And here’s what you get to look at in Death Valley:

Badwater road

2.  Death Valley at Night:  If the desert (especially Death Valley) during the day is amazing, the nights can simply take your breath away.  I hesitate to even post a picture here, because you need to be there in person to truly appreciate how ridiculously-awesome it is, not just to be able to see tons of stars, but literally GALAXIES:

Death valley sky

3.  New Beginnings:  I graduated law school in 2002.  My first job was at a blue-chip law firm, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Why Pittsburgh you ask?  I wanted to be closer to my then-girlfriend, who decided to break up with me two days after I took the Pennsylvania Bar Exam.  (Information that just MIGHT have been useful before I decided to spend the entire summer studying for that particular test, huh?) 🙂

At any rate, I started my legal career in a city I had no reason being in, and while there was nothing wrong with my firm, I wanted to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as possible.  (Nothing against Pittsburgh, but back in 2002 when I was single, it wasn’t exactly my scene.  “Dressing up” for a night out meant “which Steelers jersey should I put on?”) 

Luckily, in early 2003, I found an opportunity to work at the Arizona Supreme Court.  So I packed up my belongings in probably about 5 minutes, and bolted out to the desert.  I wound up living there for 6 years total between 2003 and 2011.  It was while living in Phoenix — especially while running outside in the summer — that I first entertained the thought of maybe, just maybe, running Badwater one day…

4.  Alex:  We met in Phoenix in 2008.  So the desert gave me my wife, which led to Zoey (I won’t get into details about the “how”), and also our little “player to be named later.”  (We might actually find out the gender this week!).  At any rate, the birthplace of all of this awesomeness was the desert.


5.  The Grand Canyon:  If my lunchtime runs during summers in Phoenix didn’t convince me that I could attempt Badwater at some point, my Rim to Rim to Rim run in July 2011 sure did.  (If you are an ultrarunner, the R2R2R is definitely a pilgrimmage worth making . . . although running it in the middle of July may not be quite so advisable :):


6.  Movie Trivia:  What do the movies Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, Sum of All Fears, Gladiator, The Lone Ranger, GI Jane, Django Unchained, and COUNTLESS others have in common?  They were all filmed in part on locations that are either visible from, or within a mile or so of the Badwater 135 course:


(Near Artists’ Drive, just off of Badwater Road — in the first dozen or so miles in the race)

Alabama Hills

(Alabama Hills, seen in Gladiator, Iron Man, Django Unchained, etc.; around Miles 123-26 of the Badwater 135)

7.  “We ain’t found shit!”  Where else can I re-create the classic scene from the movie “Spaceballs”?: 

comb the desert

(“Sir, are you sure we aren’t being too literal?” “No, you fool, we’re following orders. We were told to comb the desert and we’re combing the desert…”)

8.  Ultrarunners Love the Extreme:  There very well may not be a more extreme ultra on the planet than the Badwater 135.  This year is probably an especially-hard year to argue that harder races exist.  Yesterday, the official temperature in Furnace Creek (National Park Service Thermometer) reached 129.9 degrees Farenheit!  That’s only 4 degrees off of the WORLD heat record, coincidentally set exactly 100 years ago (1913) in Death Valley.  (Note:  the National Weather Service’s thermometer “only” reached 128 . . .)

Death Valley is unbelievably stark, beautiful, raw, and, well . . . extreme.  And even by Badwater standards, it looks like we are in for a “hot” race this year. 

I know some of you will say other races, such as Spartathlon, may be tougher.  I’m a rookie in Badwater this year and I’ve never run in Greece, so what the hell do I know?  But if you look at people who have finished both Badwater and Spartathlon, their times in Spartathlon tend to be faster than Badwater, even though Spartathlon is about 20 miles longer.  I’m not drawing any conclusions . . . just making an observation.

9.  Have You LOOKED At the 2013 Entrant List?:  I am unbelievably excited to be part of such an amazing field of athletes.  Most of the sport’s legends (both past and present) will be toeing the line this year, including the bar-setters such as Marshall Ulrich, Dean K, Lisa Smith-Batchen, and Pam Reed.  Some of the more-recent studs include Oswaldo Lopez, rookie Eduardo Silviero Calixto (the guy who ran the Brazil 135 in around 26 hours this year!), as well as some veterans who are surely shooting for the win themselves, such as David Goggins, Charlie Engle, Harvey Lewis, and Mark Matyazic.   

There will also be a whole host of unbelievably fast rookies — some of whom have run 100 miles in under 14 hours!  Plus, in addition to all of these runners, Florida will be very well represented, with myself, as well as my friends Grant Maughan, Lane Vogel, Will Glover, Amy Costa, Frank McKinney, and Sergio Radovcic.  And when you consider the crews for each of these people, it will be a veritble Florida invasion of Death Valley in a few weeks! 

I am thrilled beyond words to be a part of such an esteemed field of runners this year. 

For those of you making the journey out to the desert at the end of next week, see you there!  For everyone else, the race-day coverage is awesome, and can be found at www.badwater.com.

July is here!!


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