Rookie runner from Japan wins Badwater race through Death Valley

DEATH VALLEY—Wataru Iino of Japan, a 37-year-old rookie runner, set a harsh pace in brutal humidity to win the 135-mile STYR Labs Badwater race on Tuesday through Death Valley, winning in 24 hours, 56 minutes 19 seconds.

He beat defending champion Pete Kostelnick, 29, who was going for his third consecutive win at Badwater.

As morning light lit up the sky in Death Valley at 5 a.m., a majority of the runners in the STYR Labs Badwater 135 were nearing Stovepipe Wells, some 42 miles into the race.

Intense humid conditions

The clouds obscured the harsh desert sun and a little bit of rain greeted the runners entering Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley, which didn’t seem to bother the runners, but the humidity did. Even though the heat was near 100 and the sun was behind the clouds, the humidity mixed with the heat was a deadly combination.

That Tuesday, the relative humidity for Stovepipe Wells, according to the National Weather Service, was at 28 percent and the dew point was 58 degrees, which was a more true indicator of humidity. The weather service said any time the dew point is over 50 degrees, you can also expect the conditions to be uncomfortable.

Vincent Antunez, the crew chief for Lisa Smith-Batchen, a Badwater runner, agreed with the weather service and said the humidity adds to the heat.

“Lisa looks good and strong and the weather is perfect for her,” Antunez said. “We are at the hottest part of the course but are here still pretty early (28 miles in). The temperatures are low but the humidity makes it feel like 100. We are closing in on the milestone of the race and once we pass Father Crowley she should be good.”

Former champion speaks of humidity

Pete Kostelnick, last year’s Badwater champion, said the humidity definitely slowed him down.

“It was so high that it hurt my ability to cool off,” Kostelnick said. “I was struggling still through the Panamint Valley.”

Around noon Kostelnick looked like he was running into trouble and falling behind. He was 13 runners back. He did the same thing last year. Where he makes up his time is the climb up to the Whitney Portals.

Kostelnick had just eight days off from the 24-hour World Championships in Belfast, Ireland on July 2.

“He really wasn’t too concerned on having so few days off,” Alex Wright, Kostelnick’s crew chief, said as his runner was running up a 5,000-foot peak. “He was feeling good and confident about the run.”

Wood was pretty sure at that point in the race that his runner would have a shot at winning the race and wasn’t concerned about his position.

“I am not concerned,” Wood said. “Pete has it dialed in. He knows what he is doing. In Europe, he had stomach problems but that was probably food related. We didn’t make any changes to his diet for this race. He has an iron stomach.”

Kostelnick would admit later that it probably was the international food that was his downfall for the race in Ireland. So at Death Valley he had to get that out of his mind. He said it was a mental thing.

“I spent about an hour and a half at the medical tent at Panamint Valley and I probably spent too much time there,” he said. “I felt like collapsing then and I don’t think I had eaten enough calories. I had no energy and couldn’t go on. Going into the valley I had no energy to push like I had the year before. The humidity had thrown me for a loop.” He had done a 5,000-foot elevation climb to get into the valley. Kostelnick said he felt better after leaving the tent.

“I got into a groove around Father Crowley,” Kostelnick said. “Harvey Lewis was with me. He and I had both raced in Ireland. We passed a lot of runners together.”

This is where Kostelnick made up some ground around 2 p.m. on the leaders. Marco Bonfiglio, Iino, Oswaldo Lopez were the top three, followed by Uli Stuwe, Grant Maughan, Michael Jimenez and Tetsuo Kiso.

Then came Gerald Tabios, Ariovaldo Branco, Matthew Reily, Szilvia Lubics, Ray Sanchez, and finally Kostelnick.

At that point, these runners were entering Father Crowley overlook. The terrain starts to climb at this point as the runners face another uphill battle, climbing another 5,300 feet leaving the Panamint Valley.

By 4 p.m., Kostelnick had passed Tabios, Reily, and was moving on Branco and Sanchez. He was now in eighth but making a move on sixth place.

Marco Bonfiglio, Uli Stuwe and Lopez were the top three runners followed by Iino and Maughan. Then came Jimenez, Kiso, Branco and Sanchez. The top eight were all out of the national park by 4 p.m. and with about four hours of daylight left, passing the 87-mile mark. Somewhere in there, Lopez ran into trouble.

“I saw Lopez pushing really hard,” Kostelnick said. “I think he ran into trouble outside of Lone Pine and had to be driven into town.”

Hall of famer says goodbye to racing Badwater

At 5 p.m. Lisa Smith-Batchen had passed Father Crowley Outlook and was breathing easier. Her goal was just to finish. She had won the women’s race before as a younger runner (she’s 57 now) and was just going for a milestone.

“I felt great going into Stovepipe Wells, which is nearing the 50-mile mark,” she said. “The humidity slowed me down but couldn’t hold me down. The motivation to finish was just too great.” Smith-Batchen said this possibly was her last Badwater run and she has nine finishes and wanted the 10th finish really badly.

“I am the only woman who has done a double and a quad (which is running through Death Valley four times) and I really wanted this 10th finish,” Smith-Batchen said. “When I got to Panamint I was wasted. I spent an hour and a half there. Time really didn’t mean anything to me. I just wanted to finish. I thought more than once that I wasn’t going to finish. I just said to myself, ‘slow it down, slow it down.’” Smith-Batchen did finish. (Note: Smith-Batchen is already in the Badwater Hall of Fame).

“I won’t be doing another one, but I do still want to run across the United States,” she said.

How the race ended

At 7:10 p.m., Iino was in first, Bonfiglio in second, Stuwe in third, Kostelnick in fourth place and Lewis in fifth place.

As the race drew to a close, two-time champion Kostelnick had too much ground to make a move on first. He hadn’t even entered Lone Pine and Iino had taken the lead and was already up at 3,000 feet, nearing the Whitney Portals, the end of the race.

Iino was the winner, a first-timer, from Japan at 37, followed by Bonfiglio, also a first-timer, from Italy at 39, was second. Harvey Lewis III, a veteran runner, was third; Stuwe, another rookie, was fourth and Kostelnick was fifth, which was his fourth finish.

Kostelnick said he should be back next year.

“I really like this race so I should be back,” Kostelnick said.

As for the winner, Iino, Kostelnick said he was really a cool guy.

“He was very humble and a great runner,” he said. “He kind of embarrassed me a little because he said I was a super runner and all, but he is a great runner too and has done a lot of big races.”

Iino was unreachable for comment.

In the end, 100 runners started the race, 82 finished and 18 had to bow out.

Contact sports editor Vern Hee at