Most of us have a bucket list but it’s safe to say that a majority would not include a desire to run 135 miles nonstop, in midsummer, through what is unquestionably the hottest place in the continental United States.
But such was the goal that Dartmouth’s Brian Tjersland set himself in July when he entered the Badwater 135 race.
Sponsored by Styr Labs, a nutrition tech company in Arizona, the race starts in California’s Death Valley, 280 feet below sea level, and finishes at 8,300 feet on Mount Whitney after traversing three mountain ranges, for a cumulative elevation gain of 14,600 feet.
Not exactly a walk in the park, even on a good day and there are no good days in summer in Death Valley.
Brian harbored no illusions about the challenge facing him since he’d experienced the course first-hand while supporting a running buddy, Padraig Mullins, in the 2015 event.
Each of the 100 competitors brings a crew of three people to shadow their runner in a van. It was while crewing in 2015 that Brian determined to attempt the race himself, and upon his return he became focused on preparing methodically for such an extreme challenge.
He became a familiar figure on the city streets, running 15 miles daily from the New Bedford YMCA. But a New England winter hardly provides adequate preparation for scorching temperatures on desert blacktop, so as race day neared he concluded his runs by spending forty-five minutes to an hour sitting in the sauna.
“It was tedious and I’d go through almost a gallon of water in there,” he recalls ruefully.
To prepare for the steep climbs on the mountainous course he also trained weekends on the Great Blue Hill in Canton.
The runners at Badwater are individually selected by the race committee and to be even considered for entry a runner must have completed at least three prior 100-mile races. In May Brian was able to gauge his progress by completing a 100-mile trail race in the Maine woods, finishing in 25 hours, an encouraging performance.
The 2017 Badwater, the 40th anniversary of the race, was scheduled for Monday evening, July 11. Brian flew into Las Vegas on Saturday night with a support crew of experienced ultramarathon runners that included his wife Cindy, race veteran Padraig Mullins and Wendy Cordeiro.
The following morning, the team rented a van and went grocery shopping since there are no aid stations on the course. All runners had to check in with race officials on Sunday afternoon in Stovepipe Wells, a way-station in Death Valley, after which the SouthCoast crew found a hotel in nearby Amargosa Valley.
Ninety-five of the 100 entrants, representing 19 countries, showed up at the starting line on the Badwater salt flats that Monday evening, all eager to set out over the rolling terrain.
“It was almost a full moon. It was beautiful,” Brian said. “But I was very nervous at the start around all those world class runners.”
His immediate goal was to reach a cutoff point at Mile 50 ½ by 10 a.m. the following morning. Anyone failing to make it there by that time was taken out of the race.
Even at night, the temperature remained at 114 degrees. so every couple of miles the support team refilled his water bottles or handed him energy drinks and food. He ate cheese, turkey rollups and guacamole as he ran.
After 42 miles, race regulations allow a crew member to run alongside the runner so a team rotation developed: one person drove the van, one slept while the third ran with Brian. At mile 42, the first climb also commenced, the two-lane ascending to Townes Pass, a 15-mile stretch reaching 15,000 feet.
This was followed by a nine-mile descent into another salt flat. When the sun rose the pavement grew so hot that an Australian runner’s legs broke out in blisters and he finished the race wearing pajama bottoms. To cope with the extreme heat Brian wore a hat with a drape in the back and tied a bandana filled with ice cubes around his neck.
“During the night for the first 15 miles or so I felt a little dizzy before I got acclimated to the heat,” he said. “But I kept drinking a lot and that went away. After that I was fine.”
Despite the conditions he never felt the need to change his shoes or socks.
It is difficult to imagine the sheer intensity of this effort merely from reading a written account. Even venturing out of doors in temperatures above 100 degrees is acutely uncomfortable.
Try to visualize running in such conditions and maintaining a constant pace while going uphill beneath a desert sun, having already run all night long.
So what about sleep?
“I only took two naps, one for 10 minutes and one for 20 minutes,” he said. These were taken while sitting on a chair in the back of the van.
But the respite was almost outweighed by the difficulty of getting back in the groove. “I stiffened right up once I sat down and it was hard to get out of the chair,” he said. But he did.
Ninety miles into the race, he felt something go in his calf. He had been running for 26 hours at that point, but he kept going. His pace slowed, but he was able to finish, 66th out of 75 finishers. It earned him the coveted belt buckle.
He crossed the line in 42 hours and 51 minutes, comfortably inside the forty-eight hour cutoff, an incredible feat of endurance, and not bad for a guy whose first road race was a four-miler in Acushnet in 2009.
When it got tough he gritted it out.
“I knew I was going to make it. I WANTED TO,” he said.
We believe him.
So Badwater is off the bucket list and he can now relax and look forward to doing short races, like 100 milers!