FURNACE CREEK, Calif. — Leave a credit card on the dashboard of a rental car in Death Valley, and it will melt. A freshly opened can of icy-cold soda turns into a kind of caramelized soup within 11 minutes. A cellphone, exposed to the air, feels like an ingot fresh from the forge. But that matters little, since cellphones don't work here. Also, sandstorms created by tropical-storm-force winds are a concern.
When the National Park Service records the official daily maximum temperature, it takes the measurement in the shade. On July 24, it reached 123 degrees Fahrenheit.
That morning, 85 runners assembled at the dry lake bed known as Badwater — 280 feet below sea level, the lowest, often hottest point in the Western Hemisphere — to race in the Badwater Ultramarathon. Organizer Chris Kostman describes it nicely as "the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet."
It's 135 miles, nonstop, from Badwater in Death Valley to the trailhead of Mount Whitney in the Sierras, the highest mountain in the Lower 48. Successful runners cross three mountain ranges with a combined, cumulative vertical ascent and descent of 17,400 feet, which is like a flight of stairs three miles high.
Badwater veteran Mark Macy says there is a kind of obsession among the participants, and he guesses many are running for reasons they might not even understand. "They say that a lot of us long-distance people are one torn hamstring away from turning into drug fiends or alcoholics — me, too," says Macy, who is a lawyer.
Some show up shirtless at the starting line. Others wear anti-radiation suits.
Some have their soles wrapped in duct tape as a second, disposable layer of skin since the heat of the road tends to cook the foot. A medium-rare steak is grilled to 135 degrees.
They start in three waves, at 6, 8 and 10 in the morning, with the most experienced starting later. At the 8 o'clock start, the sun is still, mercifully, behind the Black Mountains, but the salt flats are already shimmering with waves of heat that induce in the body a kind of instinctive, low-level, thrumming panic.
According to Anthony "Woofie" Humpage, who trains endurance athletes and serves on the medical team here, the ability to sweat profusely is vital. Toward that end, a number of the racers have trained in saunas, running on treadmills.
"The dirty little secret is that the walkers outdo some of the runners," Humpage says. "You treat this like a marathon, you're not going to make it." Because the Badwater is five marathons plus three miles.
You might expect this to be a sport for the young and crazy, but no, it is a sport for the older and crazy. The average age is 46.5 years. (They come from 14 countries; the United States leads with 47 entrants, followed by Germany with 12. In all, 68 men and 17 women.)
Last year, Jack Denness of England became the first 70-year-old to complete the race. Asked the greatest asset for a Badwater run, Denness said, "Pure pig-headedness."
"This race doesn't care how hard you train, how far you can run, or who you are," running coach John Radich, 52, says before the race. He has run it five times. "It actually changes who you are. It challenges you physically, emotionally and ... spiritually."
One race, after consuming "spoiled meat," Radich continued to compete for 70 miles suffering severe intestinal distress. Stop for a moment and consider: You are running from Washington to Philadelphia, with diarrhea.
Christopher Rampacek, 54, a personal trainer and lifestyle manager from Houston, began serious long-distance running after his orthopedic surgeon replaced his hip 10 years ago and told him he would never run again. That was 50 marathons ago.
This is his fourth Badwater. He recalls vividly hallucinating throughout the mountain stretch last year. What did he see? "A swimming pool," he says. "Oh, and the animals were cheering for me."
Neil Kapoor is running his first Badwater. The solicitor from Enfield, England, recently ran, for fun, from London to Paris with a backpack.
"It is going to get hotter," says Kapoor, 38. "Good. That's why we're here."
Kostman counts down the start: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Most of the racers begin by jogging, though some walk. The first check-in, at 17 miles, is the Furnace Creek Lodge. Racers begin to separate, and from a distance it looks like a fleeing force of French Foreign Legionnaires or Arab sheiks with their heads wrapped in floppy hats, towels and scarves. A few wear gloves. All carry water bottles strapped to their hands.
They try to stay on the white line at the road's shoulder because it is slightly cooler, but the heat radiating off the asphalt (145 degrees) still is capable of producing an actual burn on exposed calves.
Around 10:30 a.m., the temperature has settled on 117 degrees. The image of the Badwater race, from its iconic photographs, is of runners alone in a vast, hostile, treeless landscape of rock and sun. This is true, except for the alone part. The racers are all cosseted by their crews, who leapfrog along the course in minivans and SUVs packed with supplies.
At times Badwater has the feel of a rolling medical emergency. Every mile, the crews dash into the road and attend to their runners, misting them with water-filled pumps and filling their bandannas and hats with ice. The racers run dripping sweat, water and ice cubes.
"Our main job is to lie to her regularly," says Bill Lockton, a crew member for racer Xy Weiss, 45, a district attorney from Los Angeles. "We tell her she's looking great."
Her crew keeps track of everything Weiss processes. In go the sodium tablets, electrolytes, antioxidants, fortified waters and nutrition fuels. Every time Weiss urinates, it's noted. If a racer stops urinating, it is a sure sign of dehydration or worse.
By early afternoon, most of the racers who will survive the day have passed Furnace Creek and are headed through the sand dunes to Stovepipe Wells. It is 120 degrees. The participants often describe the experience as "running into a hair dryer." It is apt, but doesn't quite do it. The heat and the silence make some feel as if they are trapped in an oven — an oven with no door.
Rampacek, the Texan, has to take a break. He crawls into his crew vehicle as his team shoves wet towels filled with ice under his armpits, groin and neck, struggling to get his body's core temperature down. "Man, I'm hurting now," Rampacek says. Because of swelling, he will go from a size 11 to a size 14 shoe during the race.
"You're going good. You're looking good. You're right on schedule." This is crew chief Manuel Casillas doing his job, encouraging him while being on super-alert for signs of slurred speech, dizziness, lack of sweat or urination.
"Can you take some food?"
Rampacek: "I don't even want to think about it."
It is notoriously hard to get many Badwater racers to eat. The body sends all its blood to the extremities to cool down, and the stomach revolts at food. It's common to see a racer stop and vomit. If it happens repeatedly, a contestant is in trouble.
At Stovepipe Wells, 42 miles into the race, some contestants jump into the swimming pool. It is hard to get out. Eric Pence, 40, of Colorado lies at the edge as his crew encourages him to ingest a chicken finger. When he finally gets up, he is stiff and limping. Before him lies the challenge of Townes Pass, a climb from sea level to 4,956 feet, straight up, along a road lined with signs warning motorists to be wary of overheating and to turn off their air-conditioners.
Most of the racers climb the pass and move on to Panamint Springs in the dark. There is a mercy in that.
At night, the Badwater changes. The sky fills with stars and meteors. The racers move along the road in reflective gear, blinking red lights and headlamps.
"It's great," veteran Macy says. "You hear the coyotes crying and howling. The cars are flying by. The tourists are doing a hundred miles per hour. You're hallucinating a little bit. It's just a great recipe for disaster." Macy is only half-kidding.
The elite athletes have pulled away. Scott Jurek, who won the race last year, comes into Panamint Springs, 75 miles, before midnight and immerses his body in a large Igloo cooler filled with ice water.
By Tuesday morning, the front-runners are beginning to cross the Owens Valley and ascend Mount Whitney, where the temperatures plummet into the 80s. Jurek wins again, in 25 hours, 41 minutes and 18 seconds. The runner-up, Akos Konya of Hungary, finishes 17 minutes behind him. The female winner is Canadian Monica Scholz, 39, at 32:07:01.
The reward for the rest? A belt buckle, if they finish in 48 hours. A T-shirt if they make it in 60 hours. They know why they run this race. We can only wonder.