Badwater 135 Ultramarathon | The world’s toughest foot race

Earlier this month, in the height of southern Californian summer, the latest installment of the “world’s toughest footrace” took place. Under the beating sun, 100 athletes compete in a non-stop, 135-mile contest that starts below sea level in Death Valley, and finishes at the Whitney Portal of Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States. 

This is the grueling story of the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon.

Badwater Ultramarathon
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Marathons are tough. Ultramarathons are tougher. The Badwater 135 is the toughest. Now in its 24th year, some of the world’s best endurance athletes come together each year to try and conquer one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. 

The race takes its name from the starting line at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park. At 282 feet below sea level, this point is the lowest elevation in North America. Runners climb to altitudes as high as 8,360ft, crossing three mountain ranges and racking up a total of 14,600ft in cumulative vertical ascent. In total, they also have over 6,000ft of descending. 

The 100 athletes in the 2023 edition consisted of 60 men and 40 women. Having grown into a global event, endurance runners from 26 different countries traveled to take part, while 25 US states were represented. 

Badwater Ultramarathon
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Ahead of this year’s edition, the respective men’s and women’s course records were: Japan’s Yoshihiko Ishikawa’s time of 21:33:01 in 2019; and Utah’s Ashley Paulson finished in 24:09:34 in 2022. Both Ishikawa and Paulson competed again in 2023, with Paulson winning the overall race and smashing her own previous record, finishing the course in just 21:44:35. Ishikawa finished third overall, just shy of the 24-hour mark, with the two stars separated by Norway’s Simen Holvik. 

Of the 100 starters, 89 successfully finished in 2023, with six athletes trudging home after over 46 hours, with the race over after the 48-hour cut-off point. The overall average age of competitors is 49, and the field was a mix of 34 ‘Badwater veterans’ and 66 runners taking part for the first time. 

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64-year-old California native Danny Westergaard successfully finished his 16th consecutive Badwater race. The full list of the athletes and their times can be found here.

The race is organized by AdventureCORPS, which was founded in 1984 by Chris Kostman. Under the Badwater® name, the organization has now grown to host events well beyond its eponymous location in Death Valley. Badwater has expanded to organize endurance races in places including the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, the Mustang region of Nepal, the Yunan Province of China, the Republic of Artsakh in the South Caucasus and Armenia.

Badwater Ultramarathon
Double amputee Chris Moon of the U.K. runs in the 2013 Badwater 135. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

In the past, the finish line was the summit of Mt. Whitney, however, it became too difficult to get enough permits to race the extra 11 miles. Now, the finish line Whitney Portal is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit. The rest of the course is all granted permits from – and indeed the race run in close collaboration with – Death Valley National Park, California Department of Transportation, U.S. Forest Service, and the County of Inyo, according to the Badwater site.

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