By Paul Skilbeck and Chris Kostman
The 31st anniversary AdventureCORPS Badwater Ultramarathon, held July 14-16, 2008, concluded at 8360' (2533m) up Mount Whitney, after Jorge Pacheco of Los Angeles, CA and Jamie Donaldson, of Littleton, CO, took impressive wins ahead of high caliber fields to record the second fastest men's and fastest women's times in the history of the event, widely acknowledged as the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet.
For both Pacheco and Donaldson, their victories were sweet redemption after their rookie efforts in the race in 2007 when both led the field for most of the race and seemed destined to win, only to falter in the last miles of the race and drop back to 4th man and 5th woman overall, respectively.
Pacheco, a 40 year-old machine operator, went to the front early in the men's race and despite a consistent effort by Hungarian national Akos Konya of Oceanside, CA, who placed second here in 2006 and 2007, he was able to hold on to win by a comfortable 29-minute margin with a time of 23:20:16. That left Konya in his now all too familiar 2nd place once again, in a time of 23:49:44, a PR by two minutes and the third fastest race finish in history.
Donaldson, a 33 year-old middle school math teacher from Littleton, CO, geared her entire year since the 2007 race towards her 2008 Badwater effort. She made specific changes to her fueling plan and to her clothing - to avoid chafing - and entered the race with a strategy and pacing plan to at least better her 41 hour finish from 2007. In the end, she led an impressively strong women's field with a time of 26:51:33. Not only did she shatter Pam Reed's 2002 women's record of 27:56:47, but also she bested all but two of the men running in the race. Reed also broke her own record, placing 5th overall and running fourteen minutes faster than she had in 2002.
Seven-three of the 80 starters finished the race, which was beset with uncertainty over road availability following flash floods in the northern half of Death Valley National Park and near Lone Pine in the days prior to, and then during, the race.
At one point on Monday afternoon, race organizers advised competitors of a finish location change - the plan was for racers to continue as normal to mile 102.9, then turn around and run back to Panamint Springs, a distance of 133.5 miles - only to reverse this notice a few hours later after a concerted effort by the California Department of Transportation, who put six road graders into action when a flash flood shut down the race course near Lone Pine.
With its start line at Badwater, Death Valley, the course rises from the lowest elevation in North America at 282’ (85m) below sea level. After a grueling 135 miles of paved roads, the race finishes at Mt. Whitney Portal at 8360' (2533m). The Badwater course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 13,000’ (3962m) of cumulative vertical ascent and 4700’ (1433m) of cumulative descent. The Portal is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
The race began with the traditional wave start, with 22 runners beginning at 6am, 27 at 8am, and 31 at 10am. This is done because of lack of parking at the start line and, even more so, to minimize congestion of runners, crew, and vehicles on the roadway in the National Park. Because hosting food and drink checkpoints along the side of the road in this forbidding environment is impossible, each entrant brings their own support vehicle and at least two support crew members to tend to all their needs.
The 2008 race roster included 43 Badwater veterans and 37 rookies: die hard ultra-runners comprising the world's elite in this sport, and athletes who have the necessary running credentials, but are primarily known for their exploits as adventure racers, mountaineers, triathletes, or in other extreme pursuits. Twelve countries were represented at this unofficial world championship - Australia (2), Brazil (2), Canada (2), France (6), Germany (6), Guatemala (1), Hungary (1), Mexico (1), New Zealand (1), Norway (1), UK (2), and USA (55) - from 19 American states. There were 21 women and 59 men. The youngest runner was 27 while the oldest was 66, with an average age of 47. More info.
The average finishing time is approximately 48 hours, while the overall time limit is 60 hours. For those who finish in less than forty-eight hours, their reward is the coveted AdventureCORPS Badwater Ultramarathon belt buckle. There is no prize money.
As the on-course action revealed, the 2008 race field was particularly competitive. Veteran contenders include Akos Konya, 33, of Oceanside, CA (Hungary citizenship), the 2006 and 2007 runner-up, Charlie Engle, 44, of Greensboro, NC (3rd place finisher in 2005 and 2006), David Goggins, 32, of Chula Vista, CA (5th place in 2006 and 3rd in 2007), and Jorge Pacheco, 40, of Los Angeles, CA (Mexico citizenship) who placed 4th in 2007. Three former champions were also competing: Dean Karnazes 45, of San Francisco, CA (2004), Marshall Ulrich, 57, of Idaho Springs, CO (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996), and David Jones, 55, of Eagleville, TN (1997).
The women's field, the largest in the history of the race, was also deep with talent, most notably Pam Reed, 47, of Tucson, AZ, the 2002 and 2003 overall champion who also won the women’s field in 2005, along with Monica Scholz, 41, of Jerseyville, Ontario, Canada, a five-time finisher who led the women’s field in 2004 and 2006. Other veteran contenders include Jamie Donaldson, 33, of Littleton, CO, who led the women’s race in 2007 for 122 miles before falling back to fifth place, as well as eight-time finisher Lisa Smith-Batchen, 47, of Driggs, ID, the 1997 and 1998 champion.
Although the weather varies from year to year, there is no such thing as “an easy Badwater Ultramarathon.” This year, as the runners passed Stovepipe Wells, 42 miles into the race, temperatures exceeded the 111F recorded for Monday at the Furnace Creek Visitor's Center, yet the main problem faced by many athletes was the 50-60% humidity from the thunderstorms letting loose on the race course just west of Death Valley.
Pacheco, who had committed to competing in the Badwater Ultramarathon only four weeks earlier, and had been driving around LA with his windows wound up and the car heater on, made the heat and humidity look just fine - as did Konya. After distancing an off-form David Goggins, 33, of Chula Vista, Calif., early in the race, the two began playing cat and mouse before Stovepipe Wells at the 42-mile mark – where Goggins, some two hours behind the leaders and his 2007 performance, would drop out shortly thereafter, complaining about the unavoidable route changes ahead on the course.
Pacheco passed the Stovepipe Wells time station nine minutes ahead of Konya and then extended his lead to 40 minutes on the 4956’ Towne Pass.
Konya, who had given some coy answers to pre-race questions about his form, was clearly better than he said he’d be, and as he tenaciously kept Pacheco in range, questions arose as to when he would make his move.
An opportunity almost arose when news of the brief race re-routing hit the runners. Pacheco had a short down moment near the summit of Towne Pass.
“When we told him the race would finish in Panamint Springs, not Whitney Portal, his face fell. He wanted to race to the Whitney Portal,” said Pacheco’s wife, Maria, for whom he crewed here in 2006.
But Pacheco ran steadily on, visibly undeterred by the thought of being denied this opportunity to atone for what he saw as errors in last year’s race, when his quadriceps gave up with only 25 miles remaining and he relinquished a commanding lead.
Konya saw it very differently. “Actually I was excited about the new course, the downhill finish,” he said after the race. Konya ran a very steady race, seemingly without problems. Pacheco, on the other hand, went through a series of stomach issues during the night, and needed to stop for a couple of 5-minute naps and massages.
As day broke on Tuesday, Konya moved up to about two miles behind. Pacheco was at his most vulnerable here – and had some painful memories of last year to overcome.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh no, this again, the same spot,’ but I was tougher mentally because I knew how I was going to feel so I was prepared mentally and I was more patient and was able to keep going… And at the right moment my stomach got back when I knew Akos was getting closer.”
By Lone Pine Konya had brought the 40-minute gap down to 17 minutes and it was looking as though he would soon be nipping at the heels of Pacheco. But Pacheco’s timely improvement in stomach condition enabled him to find some extra push for the interminable 13-mile climb to Whitney Portal, at 8360.’
At the finish he had extended his lead to over 29 minutes over Konya.
Konya remarked after the race that he "got used to it!" running behind Pacheco for 118 miles. Yet something about this modest, spirited runner suggests that he will get used to running in the front before too long.
Third place in the men’s field, and fourth overall, was taken by 2004 champion Dean Karnazes, who completed his eighth Badwater Ultramarathon in a time of 27:11:00, his best time ever and his second highest placing.
After the agonizing disappointment of her 2007 finish, Jamie Donaldson’s 2008 victory found a special place in everybody's heart.
The previous year’s Badwater Ultramarathon had seemed to belong to Donaldson, 33, of Littleton, CO, until the 122nd mile maker, where shin splints an chafing reduced her to a shuffle, and she pushed through pain barriers unknown to most humans to complete the remaining 13 uphill miles to the finish line. So strung out was the field that she still managed a fifth place in the women’s category, despite taking over ten hours for those last 13 miles.
This year's women’s field - with 21 women, the largest in race history - was stacked high with possible dark horse rookies like Shanna Armstrong, 33, of Lubbock, TX, Lorie Hutchison, 44, Salt Lake City, UT, and Jen Segger, 27, of Garibaldi Heights, BC, Canada, an adventure racer who is the youngest woman on record to enter the event, as well as past champions such as Pamela Reed, 47, of Tucson, AZ, Monica Scholz, 41, Jerseyville, ON, Canada, all of whom were aiming high.
From the start almost to Stovepipe Wells, Shanna Armstrong was at the head of the women's race, not only by virtue of being in the 8 a.m. wave, but also because she was running faster than her rivals in all three waves.
Pam Reed glided past the Panamint Springs time station at 72 miles, distinguished by her trademark humming bird canter, which she was able to keep up for most of the race. Exactly 10 minutes behind her was a determined Donaldson who had recently worked through a violent bout of vomiting, and was looking cautious, but feeling better for the purge and extremely determined.
On the other hand, the 17-mile climb up Towne Pass had weakened Armstrong's stride. At Panamint Springs, her time of 13:57 put her 10 minutes behind Donaldson and 13 behind Reed. The Texan later joked that she had a strategy for the first half of the race (to put pressure on her rivals), but not the second half. Her humour was intact as she passed Panamint Springs, where she quipped: "I'm feeling a bit drunk, maybe I’ve had too much water!" Lorie Hutchison was traveling at a slower pace, and passed Panamint Springs 1:36 behind the Texan, but she still looked strong and steady.
As they pushed into the night, up the steep 8-mile Father Crowley climb, and on to the summit of this 15-mile, 3000’ ascent which tops out near the Darwin turn-off, Reed slowly opened up a lead over Donaldson, which had grown to 30 minutes by the Darwin time station, 90 miles into the race, where Reed made a short stop.
Determined to finish the race strong, Donaldson made a move that Reed could not counter, hitting the front at 95 miles. In the words of Pam Reed, "She was too strong, I could not catch her." From there onwards, Donaldson pulled ahead. By Lone Pine at mile 122, where she had relinquished her lead last year, Donaldson led Reed by 18 minutes and had moved into third overall, leading Dean Karnazes by four minutes. It was viewing the “60 Minutes” coverage of Reed and Karnazes in 2004 which inspired Donaldson to compete in this race and she was supporting Karnazes’ “Karno Kids” foundation with her effort this year.
When it came to the grueling slog up to Whitney Portal, two-time overall Badwater Ultramarathon winner Reed said: "I'd forgotten how hard that climb is." Despite that, Reed would finish with a time of 27:42:52, claiming second place in the women’s field, fourth overall, and beating her former record in the process.
For Shanna Armstrong, things kept getting hard and harder and she began to walk more than she was running. The more experienced Hutchison, however, had kept energy in reserve, and during the final 45 miles of the race slowly closed a two-hour gap. As these two scaled the walls of Whitney Portal it started to look as though Hutchison would pass Armstrong, yet the multiple Ultraman world champion hung tough and held onto her third place in the women's field by one minute, six seconds. It emerged much later that she was blissfully unaware of being chased by a woman. "My crew was telling me it was a woman, but it wasn't registering. I had it in my mind she was a guy!" said Armstrong.
The day, however, belonged to Jamie Donaldson, who had recovered from the disappointment of last year's race, learned from her mistakes, trained and prepared accordingly, and in true Badwater Ultramarathon spirit, had never given up.
Of the 80 starters, 73 finished officially in under 60 hours, of which sixty-eight received the coveted belt buckle for completing the course in under 48 hours, a new record for “buckling.” Of special note is Arthur Webb, 66, of Santa Rosa, CA, who completed his tenth Badwater Ultramarathon, all of them within the 48-hour buckle cut-off. This year he placed 30th overall in a time of 39:46:53.
Now in its ninth year producing this race, AdventureCORPS is pleased to welcome the support of race sponsors ZombieRunner.com, Bär Shoes, Hammer Nutrition, Injinji Performance Socks, Marmot, Moeben Sleeves, and The Coleman Company, as well as Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, Panamint Springs Resort, Seasons Restaurant of Lone Pine, Pizza Factory of Lone Pine, Dow Villa of Lone Pine, the community of Lone Pine, CA, and many other generous companies and individuals. More info here.
The Official Charity of the Badwater Ultramarathon is the Challenged Athletes Foundation. As one of the very few charities that provides grants directly to athletes with a physical disability, the Challenged Athletes Foundation has raised over fourteen million dollars and directly assisted over 2500 challenged athletes world wide. One of the goals of the Badwater Ultramarathon is to raise funds for, and awareness of, this organization. More info here.
This year, 58 of the race entrants competed on behalf of a charity of their choice. Some of those include Challenged Athletes Foundation, Boys & Girls Club of America, Special Operations Warrior Foundation, Special Olympics, UNICEF, World Harvest Mission, Valley of the Moon Children's Home, and others.
This year’s race celebrates the 31st anniversary of ultrarunning pioneer and human potential guru Al Arnold's original trek from Badwater to Mt. Whitney in 1977. More about Al. Arnold competed in a solo effort: just Arnold and his support crew against the elements and the clock. The official head-to-head race began ten years after Arnold's pioneer trek, in 1987. More about the original race.
Badwater Gear: www.zombierunner.com/badwater
Official Charity: Challenged Athletes Foundation
Webcast: An extensive webcast of the race, featuring videos, audio files, slideshows, stories, time split, and much more, is archived on the website here.
2009 Entry: Applications to compete in the 2009 event will be accepted in January only from those who have finished at least two 100-milers or a 135-mile member of the Badwater World Cup.
2008 Webcast | Results & Time Splits (Searchable Database) | Race Roster | Pre-Race Press Release
Race Magazine (PDF) | YouTube Channel | Badwater Store