Marathon Melt

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006

FURNACE CREEK, Calif. Leave a credit card on the dashboard of a rental car in Death Valley, and it will melt. A freshly opened can of icy-cold soda turns into a kind of caramelized soup within 11 minutes. This we know. A cellular telephone, exposed to the air, feels like an ingot fresh from the forge. But that matters little, since cellphones don't work here. Also: Sandstorms created by tropical-storm-force winds are a concern.

When the National Park Service records the official daily maximum temperature, it takes the measurement in the shade. On Monday, it reached 123 degrees Fahrenheit.

Naturally, given these conditions that morning, a group of 85 runners assembled at the dry lake bed known as Badwater, 280 feet below sea level, the lowest, often hottest point in the Western Hemisphere -- to race in the Badwater Ultramarathon. Organizer Chris Kostman describes it nicely as "the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet."

The race covers 135 miles, nonstop, from Badwater in Death Valley to the trailhead of Mount Whitney in the Sierras, the highest mountain in the Lower 48. The successful runners cross three mountain ranges with a combined, cumulative vertical ascent and descent of 17,400 feet, which is like a flight of stairs three miles high.

Externally, the contestants seem like normal human beings. In fact, while some of the racers have that lean, zero-body-fat look of elite marathon runners, a few of the contestants appear slightly plump.

Mark Macy, a veteran of previous Badwaters, says there is, by necessity, a kind of obsession among the participants, and he guesses many of them are running for reasons they might not even understand. "They say that a lot of us long-distance people are one torn hamstring away from turning into drug fiends or alcoholics -- me, too," says Macy, who is a lawyer.

Some show up shirtless at the starting line. Others wear anti-radiation suits.

Some have their soles wrapped in duct tape as a second, disposable layer of skin since the heat of the road tends to cook the foot. A medium-rare steak is grilled to 135 degrees.

They start in three waves, at 6, 8 and 10 in the morning, with the most experienced, those proven fastest, starting later. At the 8 o'clock start, the sun is still, mercifully, behind the Black Mountains, but the salt flats are already shimmering with waves of heat that induce in the body a kind of instinctive, low-level, thrumming panic.

According to Anthony "Woofie" Humpage, who trains endurance athletes and serves on the medical team here, the ability to sweat profusely is vital. What you want to be, Humpage says, is a real sweat hog. Toward that end, a number of the racers have trained in saunas, running on treadmills.

"The dirty little secret is that the walkers outdo some of the runners," Humpage says. "You treat this like a marathon, you're not going to make it." Because the Badwater is five marathons plus three miles.

You might expect this to be a sport for the young and crazy, but no, it is a sport for the older and crazy. The average age is 46.5 years. (They come from 14 countries; the United States leads with 47 entrants, followed by Germany with 12. There are 68 men and 17 women in all.)

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