No, it’s not running on the moon—though, if Sir Richard Branson keeps launching Virgin Galactic SpaceShips, runners may someday be able to live out that fantasy! But if your dream is to race in a barren, alien landscape, there’s no reason to wait. The infamous Badwater Ultramarathon winds through the heart of Death Valley, California—and a more alien running scape, it would be difficult to find on Earth.
Or a warmer one. Badwater is hot. At a ground temperature of 180 degrees or more and an air temperature exceeding 130 degrees, we caught up with nine-time Badwater Ultramarathon finisher and three-time Arizona 6-Day Race winner John Radich to find out what his “dream run” would be.
John told us about Badwater and what it takes to compete in this extreme event, but he also said, with all due respect, that his dream run isn’t Badwater. From the smile on his face and the glint in his eyes, we could tell he had something even bigger and tougher in mind.
In fact, it turns out Badwater is just a training exercise for John’s ultimate dream run.
The Badwater Ultramarathon, billed as the “Toughest Foot Race on the Planet,” is a 135-mile punishment-fest that begins at Badwater, California, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. The race snakes through Death Valley and west on Highway 190, passing over two mountain ranges and crossing over and onto Highway 395 before finishing at Whitney Portal, halfway up Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the 48 states. And just to add to the “brutality factor,” over the 135-mile race, runners must negotiate 13,000 feet of elevation gain. Runners face a double jeopardy here as they battle both the ascending grade and the low-oxygen altitude.
A veritable United Nations of ultramarathons, the Badwater race is by invitation only. Only 80 runners are allowed to participate, and include athletes from France, England, Germany, South America and Canada.
John says, “Death Valley is a strange place, with little vegetation and a sun-baked landscape. It is like running on some other planet with its stunning, sometimes surreal beauty and its unforgiving temperament. Death Valley does not care who you are, how fast you run, or what medals and awards you have won. Badwater will do all she can to break you down if you let her. Dehydration, nausea, cramping, heat exhaustion, blisters. All are part of running Badwater. No runner escapes suffering at least one of these, and all must dig down into deep reserves.”
Badwater is a very technical race and takes a great deal of training and preparation. It is difficult to fully understand unless you have run a race of this magnitude. You train so that your race goes well, and in the case of this race, “going well” translates into less suffering and more sheer surviving. It also means completing the run without severely damaging your body. The physical extremes you must push your body through are great. Temperatures in the 120s are considered cool compared to 130+ degrees possible.
In this type of extreme racing, you drink more water than your body is used to taking in, and you end up flushing out salts and minerals through sweat and urine. You must replace these nutrients through proper supplementation. The risk of failing to do so is nasty muscle cramping and heat cramping, wherein your leg tendons become like “overstretched piano wires” that spasm sharply and painfully.
John avoids this situation with one of Natural Vitality’s sports products—Natural Calm® Plus Calcium—a specially balanced powder formulation of ionic calcium and magnesium. Calcium and magnesium are two key electrolytes that work synergistically in balance: Calcium helps contract muscles, and magnesium relaxes them. An imbalance can cause you problems, with too much calcium and not enough magnesium resulting in those painful and demoralizing muscle cramps and spasms.
Natural Calm Plus mixes easily in water and provides a highly absorbable, muscle-cramping-prevention remedy that also supports the absorption of potassium and sodium, two additionally vital electrolytes that, in combination, keep your muscles firing properly and make rehydration possible.
In a race like Badwater, with its extreme heat, you lose your appetite, and you lose pounds. John once lost 11 pounds in this race. And then there is the night …
According to John, “Running at night through Death Valley is a spiritual experience. You see things you think are there and are not.” (Many Badwater runners have reported this interesting phenomenon.) One year, his support van was lit up with Christmas lights, which created quite an interesting effect in the desert darkness. Christmas came early in the desert that year.
John also gave us insight into his race routine. “My rest breaks are short but effective. I make them effective by supplementing and rehydrating. One important ingredient that keeps me going is Natural Vitality’s Organic Life Vitamins®, or ‘OLV’ for short.”
Why liquid vitamins? As John notes, “Many runners like me have a sensitive stomach, so ingesting anything that can disturb digestion is an additional problem to avoid, and a potential race killer. Organic Liquid Vitamins (OLV) mixed in with my water bottle has worked perfectly for me. I have experienced no digestion problems or stomach upsets, and because the vitamins are in liquid form and pre-mixed, they absorb faster and more smoothly, and they don’t sit heavily in my stomach or my throat like pills or capsules do. OLV gives me that extra boost of stamina when I need it most and restores the depleted vitamins and nutrients that my body craves to get me through the long hours and miles ahead.”
John adds, “I immediately feel brighter after I drink them. What a morale booster after 50 and 100 miles. And they are completely natural and food based, so you don’t feel queasy or nauseous like you can from non food-based vitamins that you can only take on a full stomach. And surprise, surprise—they taste good!”
The desert at night is cooler, and that’s when a runner’s appetite tends to finally return. Townes Pass is the longest climb in the race. You leave sea level at Stove Pipe Wells, and a steady climb for 18 miles to the top of Townes Pass gets you up to almost 5,000 feet. Then it is a long, downhill run into Panamint Valley, the 72-mile point, where a major checkpoint awaits. Now, the desert starts heating up again as the sun rises in the bright sky. Suddenly F-16 jet fighters zoom past at subsonic speeds on a training flight out of China Lake Naval Air Base. They seem to know the runners are down below and put on a show for them with the sort of dazzling twists and turns you might see in a Blue Angels show. It all provides a welcome distraction from the suffering and pain of the race.
John explains, “Running the Badwater, you experience many emotions. Your body aches all over. You hit highs and lows. You’re exhausted, and you do what ultra runners call ‘digging deep’ for that last tap of energy you have. But knowing that I am fundraising to help underprivileged kids, my energy seems to come back to me magically.
John raises funds for a nonprofit organization called The Way to Happiness Foundation (www.thewaytohappiness.org), a group that runs a variety of programs in schools and neighborhoods where youth need them most.
The last 13 miles of Badwater run through the western movie town of Lone Pine, California, on Highway 395. This is where you really know you are reaching the finish line. With dawn yet to break, the runners begin their final 13 miles to the 8,000-foot Whitney Portal Road finish.
At this point in the race, John has the road to himself. There’s not another runner in sight, a scenario that’s not uncommon in these ultra races. Now, he begins to feel the effects of sleep deprivation catching up with him as he weaves in and out on the road. Then he spies his support crew one mile ahead, waiting for him. They give him an icy towel for his neck, which definitely wakes him up. With dawn now breaking, the Sierras are in sight, and the view is majestic. As a ritual, John’s loyal and dauntless crew run the last mile in with him to the finish. John says, “You know in your mind you are almost done. The switchbacks on the road tend to tease you, as if they really want you to earn the finish. The turns seem never to end. Finally, we cross the finish-line tape in under the requisite 48 hours. I receive the coveted Badwater belt buckle. I am humbled and honored to finish my ninth Badwater Ultramarathon. It is never easy.
And what is John’s ”dream run”?
Ever since he was 16 years old, he has wanted to run across this great land of ours. His dream run, soon to be a reality, is “a Trans-U.S.A. run to benefit underprivileged youth in late May or early June 2010.”
We’ll follow John’s progress in preparing for and running across America.
What is your ”dream run”? Write us. We want to know.