1987: The Year Badwater Became a Race

Photos courtesy of Richard Benyo and Jeannie Ennis (Click any thumbnail.)
Scroll down for two different articles from 1987 and 1988.

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Le Desert: Badwater Becomes a Race

By Richard Benyo

Originally published in Runner’s World, August 1988 

The lowest, hottest, nastiest place in the United States les only 146 miles away from one of the highest and the coldest. Need we say more?

Badwater, California may be the hottest place on Earth. Temperatures in this Death Valley sinkhole generally run a few degrees hotter than in nearby Furnace Creek, where a high of 134F has been recorded. (The world record, set in the Sahara, is 136F.) Also the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, at 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is as dry as it is hot. In an average year it receives only a couple of inches of rain.

In contrast, a mere 90 miles west as the buzzards soars, or 146 miles by road, Mount Whitney rises beyond the clouds to 14,494 feet, making it the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. On the top of Mt. Whitney, the temperature can fall to zero in midsummer.

The tantalizing proximity of Badwater to Mt. Whitney lures many adventurers, despite the obvious – and sometimes fatal – discomforts. Experienced hikers occasionally walk the course, taking about a week to complete it. And runners, at least since 1973, have challenged its torturous route, though few have made it all the way. Between 1974 and 1986, a steady trickle of thrillseeking runners mounted 70 attempts on the course. Four succeeded. The first was Al Arnold in 1977 in 84 hours, followed four years later in 1981 by fellow American Jay Birmingham in 75:34. The current world record of 56:33 was set by New Zealand’s Max Telford in 1982, followed by American Gary Morris’ 1983 effort in 76:38.

In 1986, two Californians, Tom Crawford and Mike Witwer, tried to organize an official race from Badwater to Mount Whitney. Twenty-two ultramarathoners signed on, but the event was cancelled when the organizers failed to obtain liability insurance – not for the runners but for the support crews. Crawford and Whitwer, deciding to tackle the distance on their own, completed the course in 70:27.

On July 31, 1987 at 6:31 AM, five runners started the first race from Death Valley to Mount Whitney. Two women—Eleanor Adams and Jean Ennis—and three men—Crawford, Ken Crutchlow and David Bolling—began the course at the same time. 

Adams, a 39-year-old Briton and the first woman to exceed 200 miles in a 4h-hour race, wasted no time racing into the lead. Responding to an ad for the race, she had written, “My philosophy in life is to never pass up an opportunity. If you do, you never know when it’ll come again.”

Crutchlow and Adams were running as part of a British male-female team against the American team of Crawford and Ennis. Crutchlow, an expatriate English adventurer with an ego as large as his imagination, can lay claim to having started this running-through-Death Valley madness. In 1973, he teamed with Paxton Beale, a California hospital administrator, to finish the 146 miles in a running relay. Now 45 years old and 15 pounds overweight, Crutchlow planned merely to complete the course in a respectable time, hoping Adams’ speed would cary their team to victory.

Crawford, 41, and Ennis, 40, a former polio victim who had just run her first Western State 100 the previous month, planned to run side-by-side to lend each other support. Bolling, a journalist, had been writing about Ken Crutchlow’s magnificent obsessions and decided at the last minute to accompany the subject of his articles. In midafternoon of their first day, the five runners leanred that they weren’t alone. Gill Cornell, of nearby Ridgecrest, had set out on the course the previous evening at 10pm. 

Crawford and Ennis came closest to Adams at the 52-mile point, where they narrowed the gap to 7 1⁄2 minutes. But Adams revived during the night, when temperatures dipped under 100F. She encountered her worst period the next day, near the town of Keeler (108 miles). Having already lost 16 pounds, Adams, her strength flagging, was forced to adopt a routine of running 2 miles, resting 10 minutes, running 2 miles, resting 10 minutes.

By this time, Crawford and Ennis trailed by more than 4 hours. Blisters forced Crawford to stop frequently to have his feet retaped. At one point, Ennis sat down on the frying pan road and fell asleep. 

With the assistance of an experienced mountain guide, Adams ascended Mount Whitney just before a savage hailstorm struck. She reached the top after 53:03, a new women’s record and better than Max Telford’s old course record. Crawford and Ennis got caught in the hailstorm Adams avoided, but still managed to complete the course together in 58:57. 

And what of Kenneth Crutchlow, who needed a time better than 65 hours if he and Eleanor Adams were to win the two-person team contest? Crutchlow and Bolling covered the course at what can only be called a pedestrian race, reaching the top of Mt. Whitney in 126:30.

The starting line for 1988 forms just the far side of Badwater, where the air is thick and the water scant.


The Death Valley Challenge: An Interview with Tom Crawford and Jeannie Ennis 

Originally published in Northern California Sport, August 1986

By now, our Sonoma County readers have probably heard or read about English entrepreneur Kenneth Crutchlow and his plans to run from Badwater in Death Valley to Mt. Whitney’s summit, a total of 146 miles, starting at high noon, July 31st. What may have escaped notice in the media coverage centering on Crutchlow is the fact that, unlike previous Death valley runners, this one is to be a race between two teams, Crutchlow and his fellow Brigon, the incomparable Eleanor Adams, and a local team, Santa Rosans Tow Crawford and Jeannie Ennis.

While much ink has been spilled covering the “out-of-shape” Crutchlow’s attempt to prepare for this race, and Ms. Adams needs no introduction to followers of ultramarathoning (she is arguable the best in the world), our curiousity was piqued by the ‘other’ runners, the local team, and they graciously agreed to take time from their busy work and training schedules to be interviewed for this issue of Northern California Sprt.

Tom Crawford, 41, is the principal of Village Elementary School in Rincon Valley Valley and unabashedly loves his work, which keeps him busy year round. A veteran ultramarathoner, who has completed the Death Valley run once previously (with Dr. Mike Whitwer in 1986 setting an American record of 70 hours, 27 minutes), he has scheduled his 4 week vacation time this year to allow training full time for the race in hopes of becoming the first person to complete the race twice in succession.

Jeannie Ennis, also 41, was born and raised in the town of Cotati, and currently lives in Santa Rosa. She agreed to join the race after Dr. Whitwer withdrew in a rules dispute, and is juggling her training time with her job at IMCP Realty, Santa Rosa. Also a veteran competitor, Jeannie recently completed the 1987 Western States 100 only 6 weeks after knee surgery.

NCS: Why would you or anyone want to run 146 miles through the hottest place on earth at the hottest time of the year, a course that only 10 people have ever completed?

Tom: I’ve got to come up with an answer. I don’t have to prove I can do it; I’ve done that. I’ve run a total of almost 60 ultramarathons and I’ve done over 60 marathons. It kind of goes back to an old Indian legend. A couple of hundred years ago there were Indians that used to do a dance once a year and they would dance for maybe three days, and when they finished, it straightened out the world, and then they would go on for another year.

And in a pure sense, for me to do these kinds of things, as silly to some people as they are, it straightens out the world for me personally. I can start school in September, and really feel that the world’s really straight. At least until something else comes along and I need that fix again.

Jeannie: In my case, I had polio as a child, and braces, and never did a thing. My goal was just to have a pair of red tennis shoes. It took me 33 years to decided I could do something and to prove to myself that it could still be done. You can find something you can do and enjoy it, and I’m sorry it took me so long to find that, to believe in myself, because I never did. I always thought “Oh, I can’t do that, I never did anything as a kid, I can’t do it now.” But that’s not true. 

NCS: Neither of you are professional athletes. Essentially this is recreation. How do you fit this type of demanding event into a busy work schedule?

Tom: Running is an avocation, it’s not my profession, and yet these kinds of events do take a lot of training; but if you want them bad enough… it’s like Jeannie right now getting up at 4:00 or 4:30 this morning; you can make them happen. I think one of the things that is so distasteful is to hear people say they don’t have time to fit it into their schedule. Now, I’m not talking about going out and running Death Valley, but I’m talking about some kind of daily regimen of exercise. I think it’s important for our society. I’m seeing more and more children who are obese. I’m seeing kids who come off a soccer season in school who bomb out in a Presidential Physical Fitness test, and yet everybody thinks they’re really fit because they’re playing soccer. Coaches are paranoid now to have these kids run laps’ it’s like punishment instead of a competitive thing. I think we’re creating a sedentary youngster; it’s kind of scary. I don’t care if you run, swim, bike, play tennis, walk; you ought to have some kind of regimen in your lifestyle. Just don’t watch the tube all day.

Jeannie: It’s good for you physically and mentally. I get up at 4:30 every morning whether I’m training for this or not. I work out before I go to work and I come in a good mood while every one else is…Blaahh! It drives me nuts! If they’d get up and do something before work, they’d feel good, physically and mentally.

NCS: Tom, we understand that Jeannie was not your original partner for this run. How did she come to join the team?

Tom: When Dr. Whitwer, because of a dispute over some of the rules, chose to bow out and left me with the freedown to contact any ultra runner I chose, I went over a list of people, and of all the people I felt I could have contacted I chose Jeannie Ennis because she is so mentally tough and that plays a major role.

NCS: Can you tell us about your support team, the people behind the scenes?

Tom: Dr. John Hollander (Sports Podiatrist) is going to be our crew chief and Jeff Ennis is going to be our assault captain going up Whitney. He himself will do over 44 miles going up one day to check things out, and as he comes back down he will hang what we call glow worms, in case we arrive there in the evening. That’s 22 miles (11 each way). Then if Jeannie gets there first, he will make the assault with her and come down and then he’d have to make it again with me so there’s a possibility he’ll have to do three 22 mile roundtrips. My wife, Nancy Crawford, who is also an experienced ultrarunner, will be along to handle media. We have our own mechanic for the chase vehicles, Bill Owens. And finally, I’ve convinced my daughter Amanda to come along as our cheerleader.

NCS: What about your feet; this must murder them. How do you prepare for something like this? 

Tom: I didn’t want to be too dramatic, but let me tell you what I will be doing. I will be soaking my feet in Lipton tea.

NCS: WHAT?

Tom: In Lipton tea, to get the tannic acid, I’ll be tanning my feet just like you tan hide. You only need about 12 hours: it’s best to soak for an hour, dry, then soak for another hour, etc. So probably even the day before, down there, we’ll be sitting around in the heat, soaking our feet in tea. It’s good for them to begin with, good for anyone, except it really does turn your feet brown.

I use a mixture of about 6 teabags boiled in 4 or 5 cups of water, really black, and mix it with about a cup of vinegar, and soak my feet in it to toughen them up.

I’ll also tape my feet in as much as I’ll put a rubber pad on the ball, and then tape. Your toenails can fall off, you can have blisters all over the top of your feet, but if you get one on the ball of your foot, or a pressure point, it can bring you to a halt, so I put a small 1/8 inch adhesive rubber pad right on the bottom of my foot and tape over it. If I even begin feeling any kind of friction, John Hollander is working on those feet immediately, and he does his war dance and throws his bombs; I said that on purpose, I want you to quote it; and he cusses and screams and does his thing and makes them OK and we go on down the road.

Another thing we do, which was John’s idea, is we take out the insoles of our shoes, and we take tinfoil and double it with the dull surface out, and cut it to the shape of the insole and glue it inside the shoe to keep some of the heat out. We cut the toes out of our shoes, because your feet will just swell like crazy.

We’ll have two or three pairs of shoes we’ll keep in an ice chest, and we’ll change shoes continually. We’ll be changing socks about every hour or so.

NCS: How long will shoes last in that kind of heat? 

Tom: I went through six pairs last time. What happens is, you could look at them and you’d say “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with these shoes,” but the inside will bubble. The outside looks OK, but they’ll just bubble; they start to melt. I wrote letters to all the major manufacturers and, you know, they’re experts, but the reason they’re not too interested is there aren’t even 100 people who’ve tried this thing’ the market’s just not there. How many people are going to run where right down on the surface it might be 250, maybe 300 degrees? 

NCS: What about your opponents? The media have concentrated on Ken Crutchlow’s physical condition. What do you think?

Tom: We’re running against, I believe with all my heart, the greatest ultrarunner in the world. I don’t see Eleanor Adams as the greatest woman ultrarunner; she is the greatest ultrarunner. Kenneth Crutchlow, the way it’s been billed in all the media is that he would be the world ultrarunner in the world. That’s not true. There’s a portion of this race that is mental, that you can not measure, and Kenneth may not be in the greatest physical shape in the world, and he may go slow, but he’s tenacious, and he’s tough, and if I go a little too fast or if Jeannie goes a little too fast, we might be overcome with heat and then here comes the “turtle” moving very methodically through. So I don’t take him lightly. You’ve got to remember this, Kenneth Crutchlow has ru, two times, the Sahara Desert. He knows what the desert’s like. He has raced three times in Death Valley. Not this 146 mile trip, but he’s run through the desert so he knows the desert and there’s a lot to just knowing what that place is like. But you don’t read any of that stuff.

NCS: Basically, though, you’re counting on Crutchlow’s relative slowness to help you beat the their team.

Tom: Jeannie or myself would be fools to race against Eleanor Adams. Eleanor is the epitome of the greatest athlete in the world. What we’re counting on is the fact that they have the best, and someone who’s a lot slower. And we have two strong, strong runners. Not fast runners. Jeannie and I are not fast runners. But we’re strong. We’re running against the Britons, but as Winston Churchill once said during World War II, we Americans didn’t cross the oceans, deserts, and mountains because we’re made of sugar candy. And I really believe that’s where we’re at. We didn’t do all of this because we’re cry babies or wimps. And I think we’ll give the Britons a run for their money. 

I highly respect Eleanor Adams, but I’ll tell you what: She had better not stop for tea. Because we’ll be all over her if she stops.

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