It’s been particularly hot in Death Valley this summer with temperatures frequently rising to above 120 degrees. A recent heatwave pushed the mercury up to 130 — within striking distance of the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth.
And a select few endurance athletes welcome that heat for an ultramarathon in the famously parched patch of California. The Badwater 135 sees runners travel from the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, through the arid landscape of Death Valley, up to the base of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental U.S.
Bob Becker is 76 years old and has finished the race three times. He’s heading back to the desert for a fourth go this week.
He’s the first to admit that “a certain amount of insanity is a prerequisite” for wanting to run through one of the hottest places on the planet in the middle of summer.
“It’s a wonderful, very, very challenging race, and for those that like to push the limits a little bit, it’s certainly a great example of doing that,” Becker says. “It’s an experience that kind of gets in your blood.”
Although Becker hails from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, he makes regular trips to Southern California to both run in this extreme race and support others who decide to give it a try.
How do people adapt to this staggering heat?
“Of course it’s hot in Florida, but it’s a different kind of heat with all the humidity, but certainly it’s an advantage to be able to train in South Florida where I live,” says Becker. “I also spend some time in a sauna, which a lot of runners will do no matter where they live. That’s kind of a key for being prepared for what you're going to face when you get out here.”
Aside from heat, a time requirement is another factor. The 135-mile course must be completed in 48 hours. According to Becker, the most elite ultramarathoners will finish in about 24 hours, but for most people, it’ll take some 40 hours.
“You need to be taking in calories and electrolytes to replace the salt and minerals you lose while you sweat out there and certainly a lot of fluids,” explains Beker. “You need to train and practice with what you’re going to be eating and drinking during the race. You need to emulate as best you can the conditions that you’ll face so that you’re not trying something new on race day that might not agree with you.”
This year’s Badwater 135 has 84 runners from the U.S., from Ukraine, Portugal, and Italy. Regardless of their backgrounds, Becker says the diverse field shares a few things.
“I think the thing that people have in common that do these things is a love of endurance sports, of adventure, and of pushing themselves to see how much they can accomplish and how well they can do against other similar athletes,” Becker reflects.
He’s no stranger to extreme marathons, but it’s been a while since he last completed the Badwater 135 in 2015. Now, at 76, he’s the oldest competitor in this year’s event.
Becker says recovery times have definitely gotten longer as he’s aged, but he says much of completing a challenge like this involves good planning and mental fortitude.
“Some people will tell you that while they’re running, they’re focusing on the race itself and their next foot-fall, which is my case,” admits Becker. “Others will tell you they’re writing the next great American novel in their head. Well, I’m not. The key for me is to have a race plan that is age-relative, if you will. I’m not going to go out there and run the full 135 miles. I know that I will probably wind up running about half of it and walking about half of it. … I start from the beginning mixing running and walking.”
What does Becker like most about this race? Crossing the finish line, he says with a laugh.
“For this race in particular and the sport in general, the camaraderie out there is truly extraordinary and unlike any other sport I’ve ever participated in,” Becker says, getting serious.
He continues, “When you’re doing a 100-mile or 135-mile race like this one, anything can happen and generally does. You can have some issues out there and so will other runners. And they tend to take care of each other. Yes, you want to beat the other guy. You’re very competitive. I think probably [we’re] all A-type personalities, but at the same time, you’re looking out for each other. And for me, that’s one of the absolute most important and wonderful parts of this sport.”