Badwater 135 - World's Toughest Footrace, 4th female, 30:11
Badwater 135 is probably the most famous ultramarathon in the world. It is a 135 mile/217 km road ultrarunning race that starts at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, 282 feet / 85 meters below sea level, and through 2 other mountain ranges goes all the way up to Mt. Whitney Trailhead, which is the highest point in the lower 48 states in the United States at 8360 ft / 2548 meters. The total elevation of the course is 14,600 ft / 4450 meters. All this, in the hottest place on Earth during the hottest time of the year when temperatures are not uncommon to rise above 120F / 48C.
Less people completed this race than climbed Everest.
I had no idea what to expect. This race is well outside of my comfort zone. I put a target of 27-30 hours down just to have something, but I honestly just made a wild guess based on absolutely nothing. The way I was looking at it was that this being my first Badwater, I just wanted to see what it was like and either let it be a bucket list item and never go back, or take what I can learn and go back to do it better next time.
The views were stunning. But yeah, these were the mountains we were supposed to run up and down!
Right now, my head is at going back one day but most likely not next year, however, it changes daily. When I crossed the finish line, I said "never again"! But then again, I said that after my first 24h race and after my first 6-day race too! Anything a runner says during or right after a race simply can't be held against him/her...
I would like to go back one day mostly because of the large number of mistakes I made that could be corrected. I know I can do much better at this race now that I know what it is like.
I absolutely loved the experience, so that is another vote for going back, but it is a grueling race with a lot of logistical challenges that were stressing me out - not something I want to take on every year.
Just getting into the race is a multi-year plan for most ultrarunners. They upped the requirements for next year again. When I applied, you had to have had at least 3 x 100-mile finishes as a minimum and there were a lot of things that you could do to strengthen your application, like crewing/pacing Badwater. For next year, it will be 4 x 100-mile finishes and the first one would have to happen at least 4 years out from your race. I did all 3 of my qualifiers last year, so if I didn't get in, I would now have to wait several years before I could even apply. I also keep wondering if me banging out 3 x 100-milers as part of my training last year was one of the triggers for the new requirement...
Then there is a race committee that pics the 105 people that are accepted into the race and up to 100 of those people will be able to toe the line.
The first big and crazy challenging task is simply the insanely complicated logistics of this race. You are going to the desert, to the middle of nowhere, with no cell service and very little of anything. The rules are also extremely complicated. You must have a support vehicle with a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 4 people who will follow you for the whole race. There are no aid stations. The size of your support vehicle is also restricted in the rules.
Just the sheer complexity of the logistics justify the requirement that most entrants have to have crewed Badwater before they are allowed to enter the race. I was one of the rare exception, who was allowed to race because of my credentials without having ever been to the race before. I really appreciated this, because with my crazy busy life, running my own business and having 3 relatively young children (age 8, 10, 13), there was no way I could get away to crew at this race as much as I would have absolutely loved to. I can barely get away for the times I'm racing.
One day I would love to go back to crew. But the way my life is right now, I don't see this happening anytime soon.
Race start location, Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the United States. Photo: AdventureCorps
My training leading up to the race was sub-optimal to say the least. I had several injuries that I was working through and I crashed on my bike 3.5 weeks prior to the race but pushed through back-to-back long runs the following weekend which was unnecessary and in retrospect quite stupid.
That caused a big set back for the last two weeks with barely any running due to knee pain from the impact of the crash. Meanwhile I was rehabbing a lower back injury that I picked up a few weeks earlier as well as my proximal hamstring. I missed the whole hill training block because of the injuries and the crash and I was very worried about getting through the race without significant injury pain as well as my level of fitness being good enough for the distance. I had a full pharmacy's worth of pain medication, sprays, pads, cool patches, braces, etc.
In this respect I got extremely lucky during the race and nothing got really out of hand. My left hamstring was giving me some trouble at one point but the sprays helped and it went away, my knee was completely painless for the whole race thanks to the lack of running during the last two weeks prior and my back only started hurting mildly on the last big climb but putting on my back brace was enough. It could have been so much worse.
It is generally not hard to find people who would like to crew for this race, specifically because anybody who wishes to participate in the future needs to do that, with very few exceptions. So you can afford to be picky when choosing your crew members.
The most important member of your crew is the captain and you want to be VERY picky with your choice. You need someone who absolutely has either raced or crewed at Badwater before, ideally both. I got extremely lucky here, because Pam Smith, who was 3rd female in 2022 and has crewed at this race before, accepted this role. I can't overstate how extremely grateful I am for what she did and the way she lead the team.
The biggest lesson for me regarding the crew was that you need people who will accept you for who you are and who will have your back no matter what. Ideally people who know you, know your personality and the closer your relationship the better. For this reason I was super happy for my coach, Gregg to be able to join the crew. He brought his unshakeable calmness and incredibly supportive attitude with him, which I really badly needed when things got tough and he was the one who knew me best.
Leida and Nick rounded out the crewing/pacing team and according to Pam they were all able to work really well together, even though they had never met each other prior to the race, other than the two team Zoom calls that we had before we left for Death Valley.
Pre-race team photo. Left to right: Pam, myself, Leida, Nick, Gregg
Just booking the rooms at multiple locations, coordinating flights, coordinating rental vehicles, then re-arranging the plan and do it differently, re-booking rental vehicles, picking up supplies from a local friend (thank you, Melissa!), going to Walmart to buy all the food and everything else the crew and I might need for 3-4 full days in the desert was extremely stressful.
My main jam is looped courses, where my crew can sit in one place and give me a bottle with my nutrition every 15 minutes, monitor everything closely and keep good records of everything happening. I really didn't appreciate how complicated this would all become on the go, and then add pacing on top of that. I was definitely very worried about it and for a good reason.
Once I was finally able to start running, I was in my happy place for a while, but the road to that point was not easy. If you volunteer to crew for this race, expect that it is almost as demanding as racing it, you won't be able to get a break or sleep for as long as your runner is on the course, which could be up to 48 hours, two full nights of lost sleep.
Luckily my crew took care of setting up the van and planning their part on their own, with superstar Pam leading the way, and that took some stress off me. I would suggest that if you want pacers, you need at least 3 of your crew members be able to pace, which was the case in my team. I would also 100% suggest a full crew of 4 people. This is a team effort.
We had a plan for all aspect of the race, anything that could come up and I put them down in a printed document so that my crew have it if they need it for reference. We got a lot of things right and I got a lot of things wrong, which is to be expected, and I always treat these as learning opportunities. Now I know where the room for improvement is.
There are some moments from the race that I remember very clearly but there are whole sections and hours of running that are just a blur. I knew in advance how demanding the race was likely to be so I warned my crew to be prepared for a grumpy version of me which was sure to happen.
There was definitely some drama and tension going on at different times in the race, but it was relatively mild compared to my previous races. I've thrown much worse fits during races before. It was nothing like the shouting match and name calling (from both sides) with my friend (still friend!), Bela, on the last day of my 6-day race last year. I was happy to see from a fellow competitor on IG the comment that "if you don't have a bad attitude [during this race] you probably aren't doing it right" . Well, I nailed that part!
Pre-race weigh-in just before the start. Years ago weighing runners before and during ultra-endurance races was common practice to monitor their weight and fluid loss. This practice has been abandoned but some races still weigh runner because if they need medical attention it can be useful information to know their weight. At Badwater they only weigh runners pre-race. Photo: AdventureCorps
I had a pacing plan and I think some of my ideas were good but I had a big oversight that caused a crash between miles 90-118. I'll talk about that later. Back to the start of the race.
There were 3 waves, starting at 8pm, 9pm and 10pm on the 4th July. We stayed in a hotel at Lone Pine, which is around 122 miles / 196 kms from the start on the race course, so it is a 3-4 hour drive to the start. We also stopped for lunch/dinner on the way there.
Our timing was perfect, we arrived at the start, got everything ready, weighed in, went to the bathroom one last time and then it was time to line up for the race start.
The field was packed with world class runners like last year's winners, Ashley Paulson on the women's side and Ishikawa Yoshihiko on the men's side, Ivan Penalba Lopez and Harvey Lewis, 2nd and 3rd men last year, elite ultrarunner, Simen Holvik from Norway and many others. The fastest runners were all in the 10pm wave.
Pre-race with Harvey Lewis, previous Badwater 135 winner, Backyard Ultra record holder, US 24-hour national team member
There were no pacers allowed (other than for senior athletes) in the first 42 miles / 67 kms of the race. This part was also relatively flat. My plan was to get as much distance covered before the sun came up while I was fresh, the temperatures were cooler and the road was flat. I feel that this was executed well.
I had two asthma flare-ups and my rescue inhaler, Ventolin didn't help at all. So I decided to try something new which I've never done in a race outside of schedule and took one of my other inhalers, the Spiriva Respimat. It was an impulsive decision in the moment, I can't explain why I did this but it worked! I was super happy with that and will keep this weapon in my tool kit from now on.
I asked my crew to stop and give me a new bottle every 15 minutes because that is how the math worked out for my nutrition and that is what I'm used to in my looped races. It took them a few stops to get into a rhythm because they had to give me one bottle with water to pour on me, then I would drop that bottle and exchange my nutrition bottle for a new one. By the 3rd stop it was all a well oiled machine, one person a bit further down from the other, right on time for me to take the second bottle.
They were also wearing a green flashing light each, which made it easy for me to spot them, I just had to look for the two green lights nicely spaced out in the dark - luckily, nobody else had the same set up with two green lights!
Trying to identify the van in the dark is also a challenge. Coach Gregg brought two flashing yellow lights and with their emergency flash also being yellow (vs red on most other vans) I was able to identify the van relatively well and know when they passed me so I could expect the next exchange.
It must have been crazy in the van. In fact, based on the feedback, I should try to space out the stops every 20 mins next time, because getting in the van, driving ahead of me, stopping the van safely, finding everything I will need, making it to the other side of the road for 2 crew members was a huge rush every single time for this portion of the course.
Luckily, it was over in 6.5 hours which might have seemed like eternity for the crew. Just around this time the sun started rising which was a welcome change although it also meant that the temperature was starting to climb too.
We started out in 38C / 100F at night which was really nice. Still warm enough that you want all your cooling gear and every legal cooling method possible to the fullest but no sun beating down on your head and it just felt fine for that first night.
Yep, that is how far up we are going! Photo: AdventureCorps
It was a "cooler" year in Death Valley for the race, so even in the heat of the day the temperature didn't go above 45C / 114F while it is not uncommon to experience temperatures over 51C / 125F during this race.
My heat training in the sauna worked as well as this kind of preparation can get you ready to run in the desert. In retrospect, it is not enough, but with my life as it is, I didn't have the choice to go and run the race course in advance to acclimate. My thinking is that the next time I run this race, I will definitely want to do that, however hard it is to fit into my life.
I have two main reasons for that. One is that you might spend an hour a day in the sauna and get the physical adaptations you need for running in the heat, but it will not prepare you for being out there for 15 hours in this kind of climate. The first part of the day was no issue, 6-7 or even 10 hours in the blazing sun. But then it just got to be too much.
The other reason is the feel of the sun beating down on you. No sauna will prepare you for how exhausting that is. Not the heat itself but just the feeling of the burning sun on your skin. I only had a small part of my skin exposed, the lower legs above the socks and the thighs under my shorts but next time I will definitely take the time to pull on my leg coolers to avoid this. I had them with me this time but you don't think clearly during the race so I never took the time to stop and put them on. Next time I will put it in the crew document so my crew can prompt me to do so. In retrospect it would have made a big difference.
Stove Pipe Wells was the 42 mile / 67 km check point where the sun started coming up, the flat section ended and the first big hill started and where the first pacer could join me. From this point on the pacers carried my bottles which made things easier for me, but very challenging for them.
I put a lot of emphasis on trying to prepare for the hills mentally - I also would have liked to do that physically, but as mentioned earlier, that phase of my training plan was wiped out. I'm not a good uphill runner so the hills kept me worried. When I looked back at the data I was very pleasantly surprised how well I did on the first two big hills despite the lack of hill training.
Pam was my first pacer and although the pace obviously dropped compared to the flat section, the 17-mile (27 km) climb wasn't too bad and I completed it in 3.5 hours which was in line with my abilities, 3rd fastest in the women's field.
Probably my favourite photo with Pam. I was still happy even though we were deep into the race and she was amazing. Photo: AdventureCorps
As happy as I was with my uphill running, I was just as disappointed with my downhill running. Usually road downhill running is my strength, I love it and really like to full send it. However, my legs were just not responding and it was a slog rather than any kind of running. Downhill running is all about form but when your muscles refuse to get those heels up, it's not pretty. Form is the first thing that goes out the window with fatigue and I suspect that is exactly what happened here. I was trying and it was just not happening. The pace was way slower than I was hoping for and it was all quite painful for the whole 2.5 hours because of the constant breaking that wouldn't have happened with proper form. The whole 14-mile (22 km) downhill section between Towns Pass and Panamint Springs just felt off.
It is one of the big lessons that I learned at this race for the future: the sections that I was mentally prepared for went great (except the last hill) while the sections that I didn't put much emphasis on because I had thought I got those nailed went really badly. That's the power of mental preparation.
Then the second hill between Panamint Springs and Darwin, again, went surprisingly well. To be honest, I don't remember too much of the race between Stovepipe Wells at 42 miles (67 km) and Darwin at 90 miles (140 km). The 18-mile (29 km) section from Panamint to Darwin took over 4 hours. The hill was "only" 8 miles (13 km) and less steep at 4.5% grade than the first one at 5.6% grade, followed by a 10-mile (16 km) section of very gradual incline. I was still rolling relatively happily other than being disappointed about the downhill earlier, but I was walking more of the hill this time.
Leida pacing me up the hill. Pacers can only run behind the runners in this race and not ahead of them or next to them, but they can carry our stuff like nutrition or anything else. Photo: AdventureCorps
A few words on my gear. I definitely wanted as much white on me as possible. Hoka Hungary generously sponsored me for this race and this was the first time that I wore the Carbon X3 model and I must say that I'm sold! They will also support me for the 48-hour World Championship in August and after this race I decided to go with these same shoes for that race too, I just loved them so much. My all white Injinji toe socks were also a huge win, they helped my feet stay blister free for the most part. The conditions were so extreme that you can't avoid them 100%, but I got away with only having to stop once to take care of my feet.
My Skin Cooler shirt from Desoto Sports was also a key piece of my wardrobe as well as the cooling bandana from the same material. Since they don't make gloves and the palms are prime surfaces for cooling, I used their material from an older shirt that was ruined and sewed a pair of cooling gloves for myself. It was a great idea and they worked brilliantly!
We experimented with different hats and settled on just putting ice in my HoldTheCarbs white running hat. The ice hats were just impractical and inconvenient. A Hungarian performance sportswear company, 575 generously gave me two pairs of white triathlon shorts to complete the all-white look.
The all-white look. Pam pacing me up the hill. Photo: AdventureCorps
I wore my asthma mask for the whole race and only took it off for pictures. I got away relatively unscathed, but you can hear in the finish line video that my voice is not intact, however, the damage was very minimal and I was able to resume workouts as soon as I was recovered, even swimming.
I massively underestimated the stretch between 90-118 miles (140-190km), mostly because it is flat. I knew I was going to get there in the heat of the day but because it is a flat stretch, I was happy about that - at least I'm not climbing a huge mountain in the highest temperatures. But this caused my downfall. I simply didn't put any mental preparation into this part of the race, just thinking it will be a little breather before I hit the last climb.
I couldn't have been more wrong and things started to fall apart on a lot of levels. My feet had finally had enough and demanded attention, my muscles were refusing to move in any economical fashion, my tummy was letting me know that it is too hot to put any kind of energy towards taking in nutrition, I got overheated and dehydrated... everything that could have gone wrong did so during this little unassuming patch of the race. And there was only downhill from there.
I reached the 100-mile mark in just under 19 hours which, objectively speaking, considering the elevation and the heat, wasn't bad at all and Pam was quick to point this out. The problem was rather the way I was feeling and the panic that was unraveling in my mind with more and more things starting to go wrong.
However, at this point, I wasn't alone, many of the competitors were feeling the heat and the distance starting to take their toll. I was still mostly jogging, just much slower with several stops to try to take care of my different problems.
The hills just seem never ending. Photo: AdventureCorps
The original race route that goes from Darwin to Lone Pine was flooded so we were redirected to Olancha where we had to get in our support vehicle and be transported to the point where we could rejoin the original race course. I was hoping to defer all issues to this point but somehow everything collapsed on me about 10 miles before I could reach the car ride part.
I had no choice but to stop and take care of each of them, one by one, meanwhile Maree Connor from Australia was marching ahead fabulously and passed me while I was struggling with my problems by the support vehicle.
I was hoping that the 23-minute break in the air conditioned car would bring new life but somehow it didn't and I never found my mojo again after the ride and everything went further downhill when I got out of the car and should have started running again.
There was not much left of the race, the big climb up to Mount Whitney Trailhead, which was the longest half marathon of my life, but before I hit that point there were a few miles/kms of flat road that I could have easily jogged but I couldn't pull myself together enough to do so. In terms of position in the race it really didn't matter, I would have ended up 4th either way and I didn't realize that it could have brought me in under 30 hours if I just jogged this part instead of walking.
There came a point when there was no more smiling. Photo: Kevin Youngblood
I'm not sure I would have had the mental strength to jog even if I knew but I probably would have tried harder. My jog at this point wasn't too much faster than a power walk.
I feel that after Maree passed me, I just checked out mentally which is something I really want to work on. Some athletes are able to push themselves even if "it doesn't matter" because it won't make a difference in the finishing order. Harvey Lewis is a great example of this. If it is something to strive for, I'm not sure yet, but it definitely seems that I'm not in this camp right now. If there is someone closing on me, sure, I can definitely pull out reserves that I never knew I had. But just for the sake of pushing myself, without anyone in sight to catch and without anyone threatening my position, somehow it doesn't happen. I was fully aware of my tendencies pre-race and I put it down as one of my goals to avoid this exact situation, yet I just fell back into my habit of being content with what I have if I have no way of bettering my position in the race.
The problem with my approach is that I feel disappointed with myself afterwards and it leaves a void. I think that is why I'm trying to change it but at this time I don't feel strongly enough about the other approach being superior that I could override the way I'm wired. Maybe feeling the disappointment after the race will be enough for me to feel stronger about wanting to change it. I did the same in the 6-day World Championship, where I had the win locked in with no worthwhile records or goals to chase and decided to not even go back on the course for the last 13 hours of the race just for the sake of hitting a higher number. I felt the same disappointment after that race but at the same time when I listen to my brain and not my heart, I know that my decision in that race made a lot of sense and it was probably the best course of action in that situation. I still can't shake the disappointment. It is not regret, just disappointment.
At one point fighter jets started flying over us and everyone was so excited but by that time I really wasn't in the mood to appreciate them at all.
The final climb to Mount Whitney Trail Head was about a half marathon and it took me about 5 hours. There was a 5km (3 mile) stretch that I completed in 1 hour and 40 minutes, the longest 5k of my life! By that point I was exhausted and steep climbs are really not my jam, so I'm not sure how much faster I could have completed it even if I was feeling great. My guess is that not much faster.
Pam was walking with me for a while and we were chatting, she let the guys take a break and come back in a few hours. Once they were back, my coach, Gregg walked with me for a while which I really enjoyed. His knees can't handle running any more so he wasn't pacing me for any part of the race, he was driving the van. On the last hill my pace was so slow that he could easily walk with me. His presence meant a lot. I have no idea what we talked about haha... luckily I warned the crew to expect that and not to count on me remembering anything that was said during the race. The fun part of that is that if any of them ever pace me again, they can just tell me the same stories and it will all be new to me again!
It is a tradition to cross the finish line with your crew. I love this, because without them, I couldn't have made it. Photo: AdventureCorps
I made it to the finish in 30 hours and 11 minutes, just outside of my original estimate of 27-30 hours. In retrospect, that was actually spot on if nothing went wrong, or at least, if less things went wrong or if things went less wrong... 3 hours behind 3rd place and more than an hour and half ahead of 5th place.
Ashley Paulson won the race overall in a dominant fashion with a huge new course record, India's Sonia Ahuja finished second woman and 4th overall, Simen Holvik from Norway came through second overall and first man, last year's winner, Yoshihiko Ishikawa from Japan was 3rd overall and 2nd man, Harvey Lewis ended the race as 3rd man and 5th overall.
I would like to thank race director, Chris Kostman, all the organizers, staff and volunteers for an amazing race, it was an incredible experience. I can't thank enough my crew, Super Pam, Leida, Gregg and Nick for their help and support. I couldn't have done it without them. A huge thank you to the companies that are behind me: Hoka Hungary, F2C Nutrition, Injinji toesocks, Squirrel's Nut Butter, Running Free Canada, Team MPI, HoldTheCarbs.
It seems fitting to finish with this, since I'm watching the series "Arnold" on Netflix these days: "I'll be back!" .
At the finish line with my crew, left to right: Nick, Pam, myself, Gregg, Leida. Because it is a private race, I was able to run both for Canada and Hungary. I love it when I don't need to choose. Both countries are very important to me. Photo: AdventureCorps