From The Lean-To: Badwater’s Baddest Man

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The Badwater Ultramarathon started yesterday, July 11th, at Badwater, Death Valley, the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere at 280 feet below sea level. And after 135 miles and two days of what I can only imagine is the most beautiful, blissful, hell-on-earth punishment a human body can put itself through, the race will end at the 8,360 foot-high Whitney Portal, the trailhead to the highest point in the lower 48, Mount Whitney. The course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 13,000 feet of cumulative vertical ascent and 4,700 feet of cumulative descent. All of this at an average of 120 degrees faranheit, even in the shade.

The lunatic pictured above is Al Arnold, the guy who first tried running the race solo in 1974. But it wasn’t until 1977, on his third attempt, that he finished it….

In 1974, the 6’5″, 200 lb. Arnold trained his body to acclamate to the hot weather by riding a stationary bike in a 200 degree sauna. In August, he started on the course, running six hours and 22 miles in the 130 degree heat before stopping. He was severely dehydrated and sick.

Arnold trained harder over the next year and came back in the summer of 1975 to try it again. The weather was only 105 degrees, cold for that time of year and perfect for a long run in the desert. His knee hyperextended soon after he started and he was forced to stop again.

Despite the embarrasment of two failed attempts, Arnold kept training, parking his car before the sun rose and running around Mount Diablo in California, coming back 15 hours later after running 60-70 miles. He trained in the sauna for longer hours at above boiling point temperatures, and most importantly, learned to slow down to a snail’s pace while running (a 20 minute mile) so he wouldn’t burn himself out.

He stepped up to the plate again in 1977, with a ground temperature of of 190 and an air temperature of 120. He ran the race solo with a van following him the entire route. It took him almost an entire day to cross the first 50 miles of the desert, and 84 hours and three breaks later, none of which were longer than 30 minutes, he climbed to the top of Mount Whitney. He gave an autograph to a hiker who gave him a first aid kit in return and became the first person to finish the Badwater.

And he never ran the route again…

There are of course details I’m leaving out in this remarkable story in order to make it a “blog entry,” so if you want to learn more about Arnold, read this 1978 article from Marathoner Magazine. And to follow the 2011 live Badwater Webcast, click here.

Jeff Thrope is the editor and founder of Cold Splinters. For more ways to pretend you’re sleeping under the stars instead of reading the Internet, visit and