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Sweating for Survival: Extreme Runners Race 135 Miles Through Death Valley

Oswaldo Lopez of Madera, Calif., is cooled by his crew as he runs in the AdventureCORPS Badwater 135 ultra-marathon race on July 15, 2013 in Death Valley National Park, Calif. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Update: 2:30 p.m. EDT | Carlos Alberto Gomes De Sá of Portugal has been named winner of the the 2013 Badwater Ultramarathon. He finished in 24 hours and 38 minutes.

Monday morning. 6 a.m. Death Valley. A group of runners line up along an asphalt road. The road cuts through 200 square miles of salt flats, where delicate salt crystals have formed a thin crust over layers of mud in the valley’s Badwater Basin. The temperature is already 93 degrees Fahrenheit and expected to peak to 118 degrees by 3 p.m.

These runners don’t look like your average marathoner. They are clad in wide-brimmed hats, some with flaps that cover their ears and necks, and white, long-sleeved, paper-thin shirts. Some have hand covers, arm stockings and knee-high socks.

It is the start of the AdventureCORPS Badwater 135, an ultramarathon, which begins in Badwater and ends halfway up Mount Whitney, where the road ends and the trail to the peak begins. The qualifying 96 athletes have 48 hours to run 135 miles through desert, valleys and three mountain ranges, in some of the most extreme conditions of any race in the world.

“Most human bodies aren’t designed to operate effectively and efficiently at 120 degrees, says Chris Kostman, organizer of the race and president of AdventureCORPS. “The distance is certainly challenging, but the heat really [is] the biggest factor — and it’s not just the air temperature. It’s also the road surface temperature, because the road will hold the heat in and then radiate up to 200 degrees up their feet and legs.”

Last year’s winner was 40-year-old Floridian Mike Morton, who finished in 22 hours 52 minutes.

Key to the athletes’ survival are the race’s 500 crew members. Most runners choose between two to six people, including friends, family and fellow ultrarunners, to join them on the race route. Some runners get paired up with volunteers the weekend before the race.

Temperatures in Death Valley are some of the hottest in the world. July 10 marked the 100-year anniversary of the all-time hottest world record temperature of 134 degrees, set in Death Valley where the average high in July is 116 degrees. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

There are also a dozen medical staff and 40-50 race officials and volunteers, assigned to a variety of tasks from monitoring the course for environmental hazards such as fires or floods (both of which have occurred during previous races), informing racers and crews of changes to the route, alerting medical staff of health risks, and keeping time.

This is writer Marshall Ulrich‘s 19th time running Badwater. His crew includes his next door neighbor, 72-year-old Roger Kaufhold; firefighter and EMT Jill Andersen; his editor Karen Risch; and Perry Gray, a Canadian runner that attended a running camp conducted by Ulrich.

Stakes are high for the crews, and the constant monitoring in the Death Valley heat can be grueling work. Crew members are usually divided into two shifts, to allow them a few hours of sleep here and there. As the race unfolds, they leapfrog their runners to meet up with them at every mile, and they do everything they can to help make sure their runner stays hydrated and fueled. They replenish water bottles, hand off small amounts of food and salt tablets, spray the runners with water and replace the ice packets they wear around their necks and heads. They exchange shoes when a runner’s feet swell or get too hot from the searing heat radiating off the road. And all of their duties are logged and monitored, so they can think ahead and anticipate the next bout of hunger or thirst.

Don Meyer has been at nearly every AdventureCORPS Badwater since 2000. He completed the race himself in 2001, has been a crew member for several years and is now a race official. He explained that one of the most important tasks of a crew member is ensuring that runners are urinating every 30-60 minutes: a sign of hydration.

“If someone is not urinating, it means either you are not putting enough [water] in or there is something going on,” Meyer said. “If that is not happening, it’s not a matter of if, it’s when that you are going to have a problem.”

The crew also provides mental and emotional support. For Ulrich, even though he has successfully completed the course 18 times, there is always a point where he starts questioning himself, he says: “Mentally, there are times that I will be out there and think, ‘What am I doing this for?’ So, I’ll ask someone to hang out with me [so I can] express those feelings. We have very intimate conversations out there.”

Meyer echoed Ulrich’s comments. “Your crew is everything. You can be the toughest guy in the world, and you are 20 percent of the equation. The crew is 80 percent.”

The mental strength required may partly account for why ultramarathons tend to attract an older demographic, Kostman said. This year, for example, the average age of the qualifying competitor for Badwater is 46 years old. That’s compared to a standard marathon, in which runners average 38.4 years old, according to Running USA’s “2013 Annual Marathon Report.”

Ulrich says he considers running in Death Valley to be more dangerous and difficult than climbing to the top of Mount Everest (which he has also done).

“If you were to freeze to death, there would be signs that it was happening,” he said. “Out in Death Valley, the temperatures are reaching 130 degrees, and things can happen very quickly. Without water, in a matter or two or three hours, you can be dead.”

Double amputee Chris Moon of the U.K. runs in the AdventureCORPS Badwater 135. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Staying hydrated in the heat of Death Valley is the biggest challenge for runners and crew members alike. Aside from the 48-hour time limit, dehydration is the primary reason runners will quit midway through the trek. About 15 percent of runners don’t finish of a typical Badwater race, Kostman said.

Dr. Michael Joyner, a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist and exercise researcher, says the human body is extremely adaptable, and unlike many other mammals, humans have exquisite evaporative cooling mechanisms.

Increasing the amount of sweat, he said, helps a runner prepare for the extreme heat.

“Humans can double and sometimes triple their sweat rate through training,” Joyner said.

Competitors spend hours in hot, dry saunas, until their kidneys eventually begin to retain more salt and their sweat becomes more dilute, which also helps them to retain their electrolytes. Plus, sweating keeps your skin cool, which means less blood flowing to your skin and more to your muscles.

“The sweat … has more fluid and less salt; the salt stays in your bloodstream, and when you drink, the fluid that you drink is able to dilute that salt and restore your blood volume,” he added.

Despite the many challenges, the desire to finish, Meyer said, can be overwhelmingly powerful.

“You want it so bad, and you are out there so long,” he said. “It’s unlike anything else in your life. Your feet are torn up. Your toenails fall off. But you still keep moving.”

The payoff on reaching the finish line is a phenomenal sense of satisfaction — and not just for the runners.

Says Meyer of the race he completed in 2002: “I remember the picture they took at the finish line. My crew guys were crying.”

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