Extreme heat takes toll at Badwater 135

In a race that saw almost one-third of the competitors fail to reach the finish line, simply making it to the end is a significant accomplishment.

That’s always the case at the Badwater 135, an annual ultramarathon that begins in Death Valley National Park and ends at Whitney Portal, California, after 135 miles and three mountain ascents totaling 14,600 feet and a cumulative descent of 6,100 feet.

But this year, temperatures even hotter than usual mixed with a bit of humidity took their toll on the competitors, and only 69 of 99 runners finished the course. That is the lowest rate in the 41-year history of the event, according to race organizers.

“I’ve never seen such an astonishing number of withdrawals from the race,” said Chris Kostman, who has been the Badwater 135 race director since 2000. “It was heartbreaking to see these incredible gladiators forced to withdraw from the race due to time cutoffs or because they succumbed to the incredible challenge of the race course and the extra brutal weather unleashed by Mother Nature.”

Michele Graglia of Los Angeles, a native of Italy, won the race in 24:51:47, some 42 minutes ahead of Jared Fetterolf of Dallas. The top female finisher was Brenda Guajardo of Austin, Texas, who finished fifth overall in 28:23:10. Twenty-two of 32 women and 47 of 67 men finished the race and earned an honorary belt buckle, while 49 runners competed in Badwater 135 for the first time.

One of those who reached the finish line was the only Nevada resident in the race, Karla Kent of Las Vegas. The Czech-born Kent completed the course in 44 hours, 32 minutes, 45 seconds, her slowest time at Badwater 135. But that result was enough to keep her in very select company.

Kent finished the race for the seventh consecutive year, which ranks fifth on the list of active consecutive finishers. Kent is the only woman among the top 12 on the list. Danny Westergaard of Palos Verdes Estates, California, leads with 12 consecutive finishes.

Kent reached the 17.5-mile mark at Furnace Creek in just four hours, 10 minutes, and arrived at Stovepipe Wells, at 42.3 miles, after 10 hours, 53 minutes. By the end, it was taking an hour and a half to complete the final four miles, but she did it and kept her name on the list of consecutive finishers.

The heat set Badwater 135 records. It was 118 degrees at the start, which is the hottest it has ever been at the beginning of the race, while the 127 degrees recorded July 24, the race’s second day, was the highest ever recorded in Death Valley for that date.

The vast majority of those who withdrew were veterans of the race. Notable runners who did not finish included 2015 and 2016 champion Pete Kostelnick and 20-time finisher and four-time champion Marshall Ulrich.

“Of course, this race is widely known as ‘the world’s toughest foot race’ and the athletes intentionally come to Death Valley to compete during the hottest part of the year,” Kostman said. “They, and their personal support teams, which leapfrog along the course to provide aid to the runners, know what they signed up for and they relish the challenge, even if they meet with DNF. In fact, seeing so many incredible athletes having to withdraw only underscores how fortunate and life-changing it is to actually finish the Badwater 135.”