When Jess Mullen toes the start line at 10 a.m. on July 11, the temperature will already be well above 100 degrees.
By midday, the thermometer could hit 130.
Mullen will be wearing a long-sleeve white shirt and long white pants especially designed for desert heat. A hat will shield her face and neck from the relentless sun. A bandana, sewn into a triangle and stuffed with ice, will cover her neck and throat and help to cool her core.
Over the next 30 to 40 hours, Mullen will run 135 miles on scorching black paved roads, following the painted white lines to avoid melting her rubber shoes. Mullen will first cover the roasting flatlands of Death Valley, and then climb 8,000 feet up Mount Whitney.
If she succeeds in crossing the finish line, Mullen will have completed one of the toughest foot races on the planet. The Seattle ultra runner, Crossfit coach and registered dietitian will be taking on the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon.
“I’m running Badwater because it scares me a little bit,” Mullen said. “Because it sounds really hard. Because it is farther than I’ve ever raced before.”
Badwater dates to 1977, when a zealous long-distance runner named Al Arnold decided to run from the lowest spot in North America–Death Valley, which lies at 280 feet below sea level–to the heights of Mount Whitney.
Every year since, runners have been traveling to central California at the hottest time of year to attempt one of the most difficult, extreme endurance challenges around. The race’s notoriety continues to grow, boosted by popular books penned by celebrity runners Pam Reed and Dean Karnazes. Nowadays, most distance runners know of Badwater as the nuttiest endurance race out there.
In fact, the popularity of Badwater has grown so much, runners now must submit applications in order to be chosen for the race. Mullen began investigating the entry process late last year. She’d completed six different 100-mile races over the past year and won The Mother Road, a 100-mile road race in Oklahoma in November that follows the original stretch of Route 66.
Mullen figured that her success at Mother Road bode well for Badwater. While some ultra runners disdain pounding pavement, Mullen’s legs carried her through. She’d completed more than 50 ultramarathons, nearly 50 marathons, and craved the next level of challenge.
“I was at a place where I was up for a new adventure,” Mullen said. “I wanted a big goal for 2011.”
That adventure, Mullen decided, would be Badwater. In February, she mailed her application. To even be considered for Badwater, runners must have either completed three 100-mile races, finished Badwater a prior year, or completed a race called the Brazil 135.
Mullen qualified based on the first standard, but she worried about not meeting some of Badwater’s other selection criteria, including experience in multi-day running events or desert races. She tried to amend for it by listing all of her 100-mile finishing times and explaining why she’d be a good candidate in the essay question.
Knowing Mullen personally, I can vouch for her persuasive argument: She is one tough runner. In fact, she may be the toughest female athlete I know. Mullen won a race called Pacific Rim, in which participants complete a one-mile loop as many times as they can in 24 hours. Mullen ran 116 loops.