Research at Badwater

Extremes / by Adeline Goss /

The most extreme running race in the world attracts researchers looking for physiological data that can't, or shouldn't, be reproduced.

First, the numbers: It is 10 a.m. here at the Badwater salt flats, and it’s 115 degrees in the shade. At 282 feet below sea level, this is the lowest and hottest spot in the Western Hemisphere. There is a wavering road stretching 135 miles toward the 8,300-foot-high portal to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Forming a line across the road, grinning and cheering, are 24 runners, aged 32 to 62. While their body temperatures cling to a normal 98.6 degrees, the pavement creeps up to 200, melting the rubber soles under their feet.

This is the Badwater Ultramarathon, the most demanding and extreme running race in the world. For three days, Badwater runners try to jog  — though many walk, and some report having crawled — through Nevada’s Death Valley, up its precipitous walls and over three mountain ranges to the finish line. They try to make their way nonstop, without aid stations, sleep, or IVs; instead, they are trailed by personal crewmembers, medical staff, and the wellloved Ice Man. “If you were to set up aid stations,” says race director Chris Kostman, “first of all, the people in the aid stations would die.”

Something about the runners defies this logic of the desert. This race is largely a test of will; but in a place like Death Valley, the will must first cater to the body. The resulting struggle —  between resilient minds and near-death bodies — brings teams of researchers to Badwater each year.

If a laboratory study were to subject people to Badwater’s conditions, anyone — members of the FDA, for instance — would condemn it as medically unjust. As a result, the Badwater Ultramarathon is the ideal lab for studying the body’s extremes; it’s conveniently populated with voluntary subjects. Like astronauts and Sherpas, Badwater runners can offer physiological data that can’t — or shouldn’t — be reproduced.

They experience such severe foot trauma that they trade their shoes every few hours for larger models, to accommodate blisters the diameter of half dollars. Skewered by heat, fierce winds, and physical exertion, the runners dehydrate, cramp up, vomit, pass out, and sometimes completely lose touch with reality. If their internal temperatures rise above 104 degrees, key enzymes cease to work, and they stop sweating; without aid, they’ll convulse, seize, and eventually reach coma and death as their brains shut down.

Lisa Bliss came to Death Valley this year to complete both her first Badwater run and a scientific study, using her body as the subject. As the race’s 2003 medical director, Bliss had seen the remarkable differences between runners who had prepared for the race with heat training (including riding a stationary bike in a sauna) and those who had not: Members of the latter group ran a few miles and then typically came to hours later, submerged in tubs full of ice. An ultramarathon runner and a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation, Bliss spent much of the spring in her sauna—and returned to Badwater this July to swallow a pillsized internal temperature sensor before the race. At the end of the marathon, her single set of data made its point — in 37 hours of running, her temperature had hardly strayed from 98.6. Bliss believes that hours of saunas, solariums, and running in winter clothes teaches an ultra-runner’s body to disperse the tremendous amounts of heat that would otherwise shut it down.

Her theory was intuited long before a sensor was available to provide precise data. In an age before power bars and breathable fibers, Al Arnold triggered the Badwater tradition when, in 1977, he attempted to run from Badwater to the top of Mount Whitney. Despite Arnold’s being in excellent shape and hell-bent on reaching his goal, it took him four years to develop a heat-training regimen that prevented him from nearly dying during his attempts. By the time he finally became the first solo Badwater-to–Mount Whitney finisher, his training had altered his average body temperature down a degree, to 97.6.

Recent Badwater researchers have come to examine more than physiology: The 2003 race brought Andrew Mojica, from the University of Texas, to examine the phenomenon of runners’ delirium. At their peaks of dehydration, physical weariness, heat exhaustion, and sleep deprivation, runners’ minds manage to drift from the brutal status of their bodies. “I remember every mile I ran in Badwater… all the pains and aches, when I hurt what, when I saw the dinosaurs,” says 62-year-old, seventime finisher Arthur Webb. “I walked up Mount Whitney with a group of yetis, had pterodactyls running into my head — they’re out there, just on a different plane.” Hallucinations can serve as mere distractions from the body or as obstacles sent by the mind to prevent runners from pushing on. Those attempting the course have reported seeing the white line in the road rise up like a wall before them; trenches opening up in the sand; bats, aliens, and, at least once, the devil.

Much of what occurs in the bodies and minds of ultramarathon runners is so radical as to be almost counterintuitive: A two-time winner consumes nothing but Ensure and Red Bull on her 28-hour run; another runner realizes that she has intoxicated her body with water when she gains ten pounds midrace; some of the most reliable finishers are over the age of 55. A niche sport by any account, ultrarunning has effects so bizarre that its study might well be a niche science. Perhaps that’s why the researchers here are often ultra-runners themselves: Only they can instinctively hypothesize about the toll of these extremes.

Nancy Shura, who was one of the subjects in Mojica’s hallucination study, sees the value of Badwater for both runners and scientists. As she admitted before heading out to crew the 2004 race, “It is a humbling experience to be in the best physical shape of one’s life and have to deal with the reality that you are really a helpless organism.”

Originally published January 1, 2009

Tags competition irrationality pace resilience

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