Karla Kent arrived at the coffee shop right on time, not just because she is punctual but because she needs her daily coffee.
Kent pondered the drink options on the chalkboard, chose her fuel for the day and was ready to talk. Except for her Badwater 135 Finisher T-shirt, nobody would guess the woman who needs her coffee to start the day is one of the most remarkable athletes around.
A week earlier, the 56-year-old Bellagio dealer completed the Badwater 135 for the eighth consecutive year. The race, run for 42 years and on the same course since 1990, started at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in North America, and ended at the trailhead to the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states.
Kent spent 40 hours, 24 minutes, 15 seconds of her life covering the 135 miles between the two places, running a course that includes 14,600 feet of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100 feet of cumulative descent. Her eighth consecutive Badwater 135 finish is a record for women; in fact, Kent is the only woman on the top 10 list of most consecutive finishes.
Once again, Kent was the only Nevada resident to tackle a challenge that featured runners from 30 states and 19 countries among the 96 who began the race. Seventy-nine finished, with Kent in 55th.
Surprisingly, Kent did not grow up running.
“I started kind of late,” said Kent, a native of the Czech Republic who moved to Las Vegas in 1994. “I started running when I started working at the Bellagio. I worked with some people who were runners, and they got me into it.”
Kent, one of the 2,000 employees who has been at Bellagio since it opened in 1998, said she was in her 30s when she ran her first half-marathon in Las Vegas. It was during a marathon that she found out about the longer races.
“I did a very hot marathon in Lake Mead, and that was before I really knew about ultra running,” Kent remembered. “But it was like 113 that day and I didn’t even notice there was a 50-mile distance because it didn’t occur to me there would be anything longer. Then I talked to the people who did the 50-mile distance and I said, ‘My God, you animals! Nobody does anything like that.’ But I thought if they can do it maybe I can do it.”
But even a 50-mile race is a far cry from the Badwater 135, which stands out even from other long-distance races organized by AdventureCORPS.
“It was a challenge,” Kent said as to her motivation that first year. “Generally people start out with maybe marathons and then they find about ultra running and there’s 50-milers and 100-milers, and then you hear about the ultimate challenges. And of course Badwater stands out because of the elevation and the heat.”
Oh, yes, the heat. Last year was especially brutal in that department, 118 degrees at the start, while the 127 degrees recorded on the race’s second day was the highest temperature in history for that date in Death Valley. It led to the lowest rate of finishers in race history with 69 of 99 runners reaching Whitney Portal, and it also led to Kent’s worst Badwater 135 time, 44:32:45.
By contrast, more normal temperatures this year helped Kent run her best time. Her previous best, oddly, came during her first race in 2012.
“You would think that you learn, but it seems that maybe the first year I respected it the most,” she said. “I mean, I respect it every year, because I’ve seen people drop and I know the issues that can come up, but maybe I prepared more is the right word. And of course I was younger than I am now. My first year I did my best time until I broke it by 11 seconds this year.”
Of course, she didn’t do it alone.
“You have to have a crew,” Kent said. “There’s no aid stations, there’s nothing. You have a vehicle that follows you and it has your ice and your water, change of clothes, whatever you need. I was part of a crew for another runner from the Czech Republic back in 2010 just to kind of get an idea what the race is all about.
“When we got to the finish, I was like, ‘Wow this is cool. I think I could do this,’ although I would be slower. I think I would actually enjoy the journey, and a couple of years later I did it and I’ve been running it ever since.”
Her daughter, Kerstin, flies in from Hawaii with boyfriend Jarel Brown to help her mother run at Badwater. “I know I’ll get to see her every July,” mom said with a laugh. Also on board are Gerald Godoy and newcomer Michael Tamburello.
“My daughter has been my crew chief for seven years, ever since the second one, and her boyfriend comes, and another runner has been with me for four years now. They all know me, they work together well because they’ve done it before, and it’s a great team.”
Kent said she runs only a couple of times a week when she’s not preparing for a race, but she works out almost every day. Her regimen includes yoga and some weight lifting, and she will go to the gym and get on an elliptical or a Stairmaster, which are not as hard on the joints.
“I’m getting older, I’m 56 and my joints eventually will start feeling it,” she said. “I already have all the aches and pains and everything. A lot of people just run, run, run, and while I enjoy it I prefer something that has a little less impact.”
Kent is not your typical Badwater 135 runner. Not only is she one of 26 females in this year’s field of 98, but only 12 are older than she is, including one who was 72. And there’s no big supply van following her along the course.
“I have a Prius V, and everybody else has these big vans and SUVs and they’re full of stuff,” she said. “This is my third year with my Prius, and everybody makes fun of us. ‘How do you do it?’ And there are still things we ended up not needing. But people just don’t believe I can do it out of a Prius.”
But another thing makes her a very typical Badwater 135 runner: She knows she’s not going to be anywhere near the winning time.
“A lot of people entering the race, they absolutely know they have no shot of getting anywhere near the good times,” said Kent. “Then it’s about finishing, which is my case.”
The winner this year, Yoshihiko Ishikawa of Japan, covered the course in a record time of 21:33:01. It took more than 3 hours for the next runner, Patrycja Bereznowska of Poland, to cross the line. The next man finished in 26:11:18, while the next woman crossed in 29:26:45 in ninth.
“There are people that are racing, I would say it’s maybe the top 10 who are actually racing,” Kent said, perhaps being a bit generous considering the 10th-place time was roughly eight hours slower than Ishikawa’s. “The course record is so ridiculous that there are only a few people who can think about winning it.”
Kent enjoys other types of races, mentioning stage races, in which each day is a stage and runners gather at the end of each stage to rest before running again in the morning — “It’s not as ridiculous as this. You get to sleep” — and trail races, which she enjoys for the scenery even if she is not that successful at them. “Some people are mountain goats, and I am not,” she joked. “And I have the scars to prove it.”
Before leaving the coffee shop for a well-deserved massage, Kent reflected on what makes people do something like run 135 miles from the lowest, hottest place around up to 8,300 feet above sea level.
“I believe it is an addiction in a way when it gets to this point,” she said. “But the way I look at is, if I’m going to have an addiction, better it to be this than gambling or drinking.”