Death Valley puts brakes on running, cycling races

Dec 24, 2013, 5:33 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) – It’s the hottest, hardest, most grueling foot race in the world, says Shannon Farar-Griefer, who has run the Badwater 135 ultramarathon through Death Valley five times.

That’s exactly why she keeps coming back, she says, and why every ultrarunner has it on their bucket list.

The race takes the bravest of runners 135 miles through the hottest place on Earth in the middle of the summer.

Next year, for the first time in 37 years, runners won’t be able to tackle the Badwater 135. Death Valley National Park recently put a moratorium on foot and cycling races through the desert hot spot 200 miles east of Los Angeles while they study ways to make the events safer.

“We’re devastated,” said Farar-Griefer, who is the first woman to conquer the race route back to back. That entails running 135 miles from Badwater Basin in Death Valley to near the top of Mount Whitney, then turning around and running back to the starting line.

“It’s like taking Wimbledon away from a tennis player,” she said Monday night as word spread among the running community that the race would have to make a detour through a less challenging environment next year.

The safety study should be done by the spring, and running and cycling events could resume as early as next October, Death Valley spokeswoman Cheryl Chipman said Monday. But sponsors could be faced with enforcing stricter safety rules when events resume.

Chris Kostman, whose AdventureCorps sponsors the Badwater 135 and several other endurance competitions in the sprawling desert park, questioned the need for such a review. He said his organization has held 89 such events there since 1990 without a serious incident.

“There have been no deaths, no car crashes, no citations issued, and only a few evacuations by ambulance after literally millions of miles covered on foot or by bike by event participants,” he said in an email to supporters.

Chipman said park officials aren’t so concerned about runners and cyclers, who they know arrive prepared to survive the area’s heat and rugged terrain.

But as such events have grown in popularity, she said, participants, their support crews and spectators have begun to jam the park’s narrow two-lane roads, creating a dangerous traffic hazard.

“We don’t want to have to wait for an accident to happen to do this safety review,” she told The Associated Press on Monday. “We want to be proactive and create the conditions that we think are the safest allowable for these kinds of events.”

Death Valley, which attracts about a million visitors a year, is located some 200 miles east of Los Angeles in an area that’s sometimes been described as a desert salt pan surrounded by mountains. Temperatures can top 130 degrees in the summer, when the Badwater 135 is held each July.

The race takes its name from its starting point in Badwater Basin, which at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest point in North America. It continues across a barren, unforgiving desert before it takes runners over three mountain ranges, ending near the top of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48 states.

Runners take part by invitation only, and to be considered for admission, one must have completed three or more 100-mile races.

“Although it is considered the world’s toughest foot race, we have an 89 percent finishing rate,” Kostman said.

Not that finishing is easy.

“I’ve had blisters on my feet, chafing, throwing up,” Farar-Griefer recalled with a laugh.

“But I kept going back every year for more and more punishment because I love it. It’s known to be the world’s toughest race, and that’s a bit of a turn-on.”

With no Badwater 135 next year, AdventureCorps has scheduled two similar but slightly shorter versions through less grueling environments in California and North Carolina.

“But nothing beats running the original route from the bottom of Death Valley to the end of the road on Mount Whitney,” Kostman said.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Death Valley puts brakes on running, cycling races