Defying Death Valley: My Run Through Badwater Basin
As far as global running destinations go, especially for ultra running fanatics, Badwater Basin one of the granddaddies of them all.
A two and half hour drive west of Las Vegas and located in Death Valley National Park, Badwater is the starting point for one of the toughest and most legendary footraces on the planet.
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is the lowest elevation point in North America. And oddly enough, just 84 miles to the northwest is the Sierra Nevada’s Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 states, at 14,505 feet.
Mind-bending, the Badwater Ultramarathon, known as "the world's toughest road race," straddles that distance, ending at the Whitney Portal at 8,374 feet. Some runners, however, have been known to continue all the way to the summit of Whitney or have run the race double, triple or even quadruple back to back! The race traverses some of the fiercest and hostile conditions on Earth, most notably the incredible levels of sustained high heat.
With the road race happening in late July, air temperatures regularly soar and stay in the mid-120s F. With the tarmac sizzling so hot, the runners are advised to try and stay on the white road lines as much as possible to avoid melting footwear. Ground temperatures have been measured at an inferno level of 201 F!
Visiting Badwater from Las Vegas makes for an excellent day trip and a brilliant change of scenery for a training run — an opportunity to run some miles on hallowed ultra racing tarmac.
The first item on the arrival to-do list: check the elevation. At minus 262 feet, the Badwater Basin parking lot is just 16 feet of elevation gain from the absolute lowest point of North America.
With plenty of visitors checking out this destination magnet, it’s a good idea from a runner’s perspective and a heat perspective to arrive and run early in the day (due to the tight road space), then relax and sightsee in the late afternoon.
It was an enjoyable but challenging ten-mile workout of rolling hills, involving a serious level of rehydration and rambling thoughts of others who have run the same path, such as Badwater Ultramarathon legends and winners Scott Jurek and Pam Reed.
The comical highlight of my run was slow-rolling cars pulling up alongside with bewildered people questioning and hollering, “You’re running in this heat?!”
After a brief cool down, it was time to check out the salt flats of the Badwater Basin.
Unlike the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah, which are pretty smooth and densely packed (enough to be used for high-speed car records), the salt flats of Badwater are anything but level. Instead, a vast terrain of hard and very pointed crusts of sodium chloride stretch out into the distance as far as the eye can see. Combined with the summer’s incredibly toasty conditions, wandering out onto the salt flats can feel as though you’re crunching your way on the far side of the moon.
And if you’re super lucky, you may just time your Death Valley visit with the Super Bloom — a rare occurrence that only happens once a decade. Thanks to the torrential rains and a specific temperature range, one of the least hospitable and driest places on Earth explodes with yellow and gold wildflowers that sway in the dry wind.
Until next time, may you be conquering firsts and quenching thirsts.