Badwater Ultra to Return to Death Valley

New safety measures appease NPS

Nov 17, 2014
Outside Magazine
badwater basin badwater ultramarathon death valley national park nps hannah weinberger chris kostek cheryl chipman ultrarunning ultraracing endurance running endurance sports adventureCORPS press release world's toughest race

Badwater 135, a linchpin race in the ultrarunning community, will once again start below sea level in the Badwater Basin.    Nick Pelletier/Flickr

The grueling Badwater Ultramarathon is returning to California’s Death Valley National Park in July 2015 after a year in exile, race organizer AdventureCORPS announced in a press release. The 135-mile race will be held July 28 to 30 along its traditional route between the town of Badwater and the portal of Mount Whitney.

The event’s future was threatened at the end of 2013, when the park suspended endurance event permits while it completed a safety review. The self-billed “world’s toughest foot race” features a course that climbs more than 17,000 feet in searing heat. A field of up to 100 racers must attempt to reach the finish within 48 hours, forcing them to run through the night. Responding to the suspension, AdventureCORPS race director Chris Kostman modified the 2014 race route to avoid Death Valley. This past August, the park imposed permanent restrictions on organized races, citing safety concerns. The specifics of the new regulations seemed to force Badwater out of the park forever.

But now Kostman and Death Valley officials have agreed on increased safety measures mandated by the park’s safety review (PDF), allowing the race to return to its traditional route on a slightly shifted timetable.

“This wasn’t a reversal [of a ban],” says Death Valley National Park spokesperson Cheryl Chipman. “We finished a safety review and have new conditions. And apparently the race organizer decided that he wanted to have it in Death Valley, and he’s willing to comply with the new conditions.”

“The dust has settled, [and] both AdventureCORPS and the National Park Service are cooperating,” Kostman told Outside. “We just have to follow all their new rules and regulations, such as scheduling on or immediately before the full moon and starting the runners after sunset, along with a variety of smaller operational issues regarding the start line, road signage, and such. Plus a lot more paperwork and oversight.”

Chipman says the race will start at night to keep it in compliance with national guidelines for heat safety, which has a 110-degree upper limit for endurance sports.

“By starting at night, below 110 degrees, we’re taking away the factor of radiant heat,” Chipman says. “The runners are at higher elevation by the time it rolls around and gets hot again. Or they’ve reached the point where they leave the park, where we don’t have jurisdiction.”

Badwater organizers will release details on the new regulations in early January, but “most of the impact of the new rules will be on us, the organizers, with more bureaucracy and additional expenses,” Kostman wrote in the press release.

Meanwhile, Kostman let Outside in on some of the new athlete-specific rules: “No more than one support vehicle, instead of two. No more than four crew members, instead of six. Bib numbers on pacers, too. Less back-and-forth of the crew across the road to support their runners. Limitations as to where crews can stop during the second major climb of the route. More reflective high-visibility gear at night and during the day. Things of that nature.”

Athlete registration will open January 19 and close February 2.