On Monday, July 15, some of the toughest ultrarunners in the world are lining up in Badwater Basin, situated in California’s Death Valley, to attempt the infamous Badwater 135. The 135-mile race begins at 8 p.m. in the lowest point in North America (280 feet below sea level) and ends at Whitney Portal, which stands at 8,371 feet in elevation. Getting to the finish is no small feat: not only do runners have to cover the grueling distance in 48 hours or less, but they have to do so while battling scorching sunshine, blistering pavement (think: hot enough to fry an egg on), and a series of steep climbs that begin around mile 45.
Despite its grueling nature, Badwater is relatively popular as far as ultramarathons go, with 95 runners entered in the 2019 event. That wasn’t the case 30 years ago, when only five people lined up for the ultra. One of the participants in the 1989 Badwater—which was then 146 miles long—was Bart Yasso, the former Chief Running Officer of Runner’s World who is known fondly as the “Mayor of Running.”
Though Yasso, then 33, was in prime marathon shape at the time, he was far from prepared to go more than five times that distance—especially in such hot and hilly conditions. Still, when his colleagues at Runner’s World volunteered him for Badwater, Yasso was game for the challenge.
In honor of the 30-year anniversary of his race—which gave Yasso the nickname “Badwater Bart”—we’re looking back Yasso’s Badwater experience, which he recounts in his memoir, My Life On the Run (Rodale 2009). Below, we’ve included an excerpt from his book.
No one tried running from Badwater to Mount Whitney until 1974. Even then it took the first man, Al Arnold, three attempts before he finally did it in 1977. By the time I came along in 1989, Badwater had been an official race for two years, and only nine people had completed it.
I had good reason to be anxious. I’d never run more than 26.2 miles—and Badwater was more than five times that distance. There was the heat; hot enough that sweat can literally evaporate from your body before it beads. Once, the daytime temperature in Death Valley hit 134 degrees, the second highest ever recorded in the world. And there was the terrain. To summit Mount Whitney, you must climb a total of 19,000 feet and drop 4,700 feet in a toe-smashing descent.
Fortunately, I had a first-rate crew: Jane Serues, Runner’s World’s promotion director, and editor Bob “Wish” Wischnia. They would be called upon to act as chauffeurs, cheerleaders, medics, and sports psychologists. Together, we rolled out of Las Vegas one morning in a rented RV loaded up with groceries, bags of ice, and 200 bottles of water.
We reached Death Valley that afternoon. After a brief prerace meeting, we headed to Badwater, population zero, for the start. Besides yours truly, five runners stood at the line: 46-year-old female twins who carried résumés to pass out to spectators along the way; Jim Walker, who had dropped out of the race in 1988 after completing 96 miles; Adrian Crane, who carried a modified set of skis on his back, part of a plan to ski across the salt flats and shave 20 miles from the course; and Tom Possert, who’d finished first the year before but was disqualified for unlawful assistance on the course (his crew was photographed dragging him up Whitney). As to why race officials let him participate again, I can only surmise that they needed bodies.
The race began at 9 p.m., as the temperature dipped to 117 degrees. (For reasons that still escape me, we all carried thermometers, the big plastic kind that float in swimming pools.) In lieu of a starter’s gun, race director David Pompel shouted “Go!” and we crossed the white line spray painted on the road.
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Possert surged into the darkness like it was a 5K, blazing a 6:30 pace. Crane followed, disappearing into the desert. I was in third place, with the twins and Jim Walker trailing. I resisted the urge to chase Possert. I was used to challenging the leader, but I knew this distance required common sense.
Jane and Wish met me every mile with a bottle of water and snacks. These pit stops sustained me, and I tried to think of something funny to say at each reunion. I was feeling good, but they were having troubles on their end. They resisted turning on the RV’s air-conditioning because they were afraid of running out of gas. Plus, the radio was broken, so they were reduced to singing aloud to fill the time. Jane preferred show tunes, and Wish was a Grateful Dead groupie. I was glad to be outside.
At midnight we passed Furnace Creek, the last vestige of civilization and the first checkpoint. There, in the middle of an empty street, we celebrated and exchanged high-fives. “Eighteen miles down, 128 to go!” I said.
Watch: Bart Yasso reflects on his 30-year legacy at Runner’s World.
“One hundred and twenty-eight?” Wish said. “It’s stinking hot in this RV. I’m going to die.”
“You’re going to die? You’ve got a fridge full of Dos Equis. Give me a break.”
Exhaustion set in at mile 30. My crew made me pee in a cup to see if I was dehydrated. We tried to check my urine’s clarity in front of the RV’s headlights, but they weren’t bright enough. We took the sample inside and examined it like some sort of science experiment. “Looks like you’re okay,” said Jane.
Then, at mile 45, I saw piles of freshly baked banana bread on the road. Banana bread? Maybe I was hallucinating. This is common at Badwater. The exhaustion, unrelenting heat, and altitude can wreak psychological mayhem on runners. Turns out I was still lucid. Possert was throwing up bananas, which were baking into neat mounds on the 160 degree blacktop. I chuckled—Chiquita was Possert’s sponsor.
He desperately wanted to win the race, and his crew was pushing him. I knew I was closing in on him when I began to see piles of mushy, uncooked bananas.
It was now 2:30 p.m. Thursday, and I had been running for more than 17 hours straight. I was at mile 75, and my crew decided I needed a rest before the next big push. “You’re weaving across the road,” said Jane. “Why don’t you come in, and we’ll put some ice on your legs.”
I felt disoriented and my legs were burned, not from the sun but from the rising heat of the road. I had brought along seven pairs of running shoes and exchanged them for a fresh pair every 10 miles because the midsoles got soft from the heat. I could wear the shoes again once they’d been out of the sun for a few hours. I climbed into the RV and Jane covered me in bags of ice.
“This feels great,” I said. After so many hours on the road, Jane and Wish were pretty wiped out, too. We were all tired and cranky, so we decided to check in to a motel in Lone Pine, about 53 miles away, and rest for a few hours. The race rules allowed for such detours as long as you resumed running at the exact point you had stopped.
At 12:30 a.m. Friday, we drove back to where I’d stopped running. I didn’t want to rest too long for fear I would get stiff and lose momentum. During the trip, we passed Possert, and a few miles behind him was Crane, who had taken his first and only break at mile 119. I was a good ways behind them.
Thirty miles from Mount Whitney, we spotted the twins on the horizon. They had kept going through the night and were now camping on the side of the road. They were a mess. When they saw me coming, they tried to move, but one sister had such terrible blisters on her feet that she was using cross-country ski poles. The other was crying hysterically. I could see how much it meant to them to stay ahead of me, so I hung back a bit. I wound up passing them about 10 miles later, and they slapped me high-fives in a sincere display of encouragement.
I began the ascent of Mount Whitney the next morning at sunrise. Jane accompanied me on the climb. It was slow going over rock-strewn switchbacks and narrow trails. It took us four and a half hours to get to the snow-dusted apex, and we arrived around 10 a.m., exhausted but elated. (This was the last year the event, now known as the Badwater 135, included a climb up Mount Whitney.)
We mugged for a few shots, and then race director David Pompel, who had spent the night on the mountain, congratulated me for being the second to reach the summit. He also told me that the first, Crane, had cut the course and was going to be disqualified. Then he admitted he didn’t have a U.S. Forest Service permit to hold the race on Mount Whitney, so he had appointed a fake finish line at the trailhead to Whitney (at mile 135). Possert had been the first to reach the phony finish but for some reason stopped there, never venturing up the mountain. I had been the third one to reach the trailhead.
So how did I do? I don’t know. I never checked the official results. If you have, don’t tell me. I like thinking I placed first, second, and third in the same race.
Bart Yasso is chief running officer for Runner’s World magazine and one of the most beloved figures in running, and is the author of Runner’s World Race Everything.