Daytime temperatures reached 120, with the road surface reported to be 170 degrees. The thermometer at Stovepipe Wells at mile 41 hit 130.
And still they ran.
The heat, of course, is part of the challenge that drew 97 competitors from 25 nations to the starting line in Badwater basin, which, at 280 feet below sea level, is the lowest point in North America. Considered among the toughest footraces in the world, Badwater makes runners endure unrelenting sun over three mountain ranges, climb a cumulative 13,000 feet and drop 4,700 feet before finishing near the summit of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada.
Portuguese athlete Carlos Gomes De Sá, 39, who was running his first Badwater, took first place in 24:28:16, followed by Australian Grant Maughan in 24:53:57.
The winning time was just shy of two hours slower than last year’s, likely the result of high heat and raging winds.
“We were running in the hottest place on Earth during a heat wave,” said Karnazes by phone from his air-conditioned car after the race. “We also hit massive headwinds, I’d say 20 to 25 miles per hours, during the climb to Towne Pass. It was the second or third toughest in terms of conditions that I’ve seen in 11 years of running Badwater.”
A fast start also contributed to slower times.
“The field was competitive and a bunch of us went out hard, including me,” said Karnazes. “I was running about a 7:15 pace, which is ludicrous. It was a deadly strategy. At least 10 of us came through the first checkpoint at times way ahead of previous years.”
Karnazes estimates his fitness could’ve earned him a top five, even a top three, finish. He hung on, he said, for 17th.
The harsh conditions likely affected 2011 Badwater winner Oswaldo Lopez, 41. He and Sá ran together on the climb up Panamint Springs to Father Crowley Point. Sá eventually pulled ahead with Lopez finishing third in 25:27:03, nearly two hour off his 23:32:28 second-place time last year.
In the women’s race, Australian Catherine Todd, 34, claimed the top spot in 29:59:29, a mere seven minutes slower than last year’s winning time, but still hours behind the course record of 26:16:12.
Veteran ultrarunner Pam Reed—Badwater’s female champ in 2005 and overall winner in 2002 and 2003—trailed Todd during the last quarter of the race, taking the women’s second spot (and first American, female), 40 minutes behind Todd.
This year’s field was nearly a 50-50 split between veterans and rookies. Forty-nine athletes were running their first Badwater, 48 were back for their second, third, or, as in the case of Reed and Karnazes, their 11th edition.
Cincinnati resident and schoolteacher Harvey Sweetland Lewis III was the first American to cross. He finished fourth in 25:49:50.
Keith Straw (pictured, in tutu, near the start), a Pennsylvania resident by way of Britain, crossed the finish in 42:44:46, over the average finishing time of 40 hours but well under the 48-hour cutoff.
Fifteen runners did not finish.