To Hell and Back

UPDATED 08/15/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/15/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

As demonstrations of human endurance go, the Hi-Tec Badwater Run stands somewhere between magnificent obsession and sheer lunacy. Ultramarathoners rank this bizarre, 146-mile race from Badwater, Calif., across the geological skillet of Death Valley, to the icy peak of Mount Whitney (14,494 feet) as the sport's most torturous challenge. "Yes," admits Chuck Jones, one of this year's participants, "I guess it is a lunatic fringe kind of thing."

As they hotfoot it over some of the most desolate terrain on earth, the runners must contend with temperatures that range from a roasting 200°F on the desert floor to down near zero in the mountains. Only the world's hardiest and most courageous runners even contemplate this race. And, even then, mere heroism is not enough: Of the more than 80 runners who have entered the race since it began in 1974, only 11 have gone the distance. This year, for the first time, there are cash incentives. The sums are not nearly enough to tempt an ordinary mortal, but male and female winners will each receive $500, with an additional $1,000 if they break the race record.

So here at 2 a.m. on July 28, seven world-class, arguably certifiable competitors are slathering themselves with friction-easing Vaseline, actually eager to get started. (Jones, a 29-year-old horse trainer from Nevada City, Calif., is waiting for his wife to get off work and plans a later start.) The unusual starting time has been selected to take advantage of the night's "cool" temperature of 103°F and, appropriately enough, the full moon. In the glare of headlights from the caravan of support vehicles, the runners are weighed and vital signs noted for monitoring during the race. At 2:46 a.m. they clutch their water bottles and lope off into the night.

While six runners stick to the winding road, Adrian Crane, 33, a British computer analyst from Modesto, Calif., heads out on a cross-country course across the salt flats. The rules allow competitors to choose any route they wish, and Crane—who completed the run last year—is taking a wild gamble. He is hoping to break the Badwater Run record of 45 hours, 15 minutes set by last year's winner, Gill Cornell, who has chosen not to defend his title.

In the moon's ghostly glow, Tom Possert, 25, an engineer from Richmond, Ind., and Frank Bozanich, 44, a university cop from Seattle, seize the lead, running shoulder to shoulder. Clustered not far behind are Dr. Doug Mitchell, 39, a Grass Valley, Calif., chiropractor; two of his patients, Jim Walker, 46, research and development director of the Hi-Tec sports shoe company, which is sponsoring this run; Frank Blazic, 41, a Cool, Calif., businessman; and the sole woman, Linda Elam, 42, a Modesto, Calif., preschool director. Elam, who completed the run in 1987, is hoping to be the first woman to finish twice. "I don't want to finish first," says a determined Elam. "I just don't want to finish last."

Just before sunrise, Jones arrives with his wife, Donna, a state park ranger. He parks his camper and coolly assesses the pace of the approaching runners. Jones, whose running achievements have taken on mythic proportions among ultramarathoners, tells two runners at the back of the field: "I'll catch you by 1 p.m. tomorrow."

Two hours after dawn, the relentless sun claims its first victim; Bozanich collapses from heat exhaustion at the 22-mile mark and calls it quits. While being iced down, he wonders aloud, "Would dying like this be called an accident or suicide?"

A few hours later, with the temperature at 120°F and climbing, Blazic is temporarily sidelined by a blister. While a support crew tends to Blazic's feet, Elam strolls past, holding a parasol aloft against the broiling sun. The heat waves shimmer and distort like a fun-house mirror. The runners somehow Keep going, but radiators of the support vehicles are boiling over, and their crucial air-conditioning systems are faltering one by one. As Mitchell and Walker join Elam and Blazic in the bleak outpost of Stove Pipe Wells for an extended break, they learn that Crane's chancy run across the desert has been aborted. The crust of the salt flat was too weak to support his weight. Again and again, Crane and his pacer fell through the surface, until their legs were laced with cuts and their water supply was exhausted. "It didn't cross my mind," says Crane, "that the desert could hide an obstacle that was so utterly impenetrable as this one." But Crane's not through—not yet. He's hatching a plan to try the salt flats again tomorrow—in snowshoes.

Meanwhile, 18 hours after the race began, Jones is toeing the starting line back at Badwater. Accompanied only by wife Donna, who will keep him supplied with food and water, the bearded, long-haired athlete begins his solitary run.

During the 13-mile ascent from Stove Pipe Wells, five feet above sea level, to the 4,950-foot crown of Townes Pass, heat and altitude conspire to make life even more miserable for the competitors. As night falls, Mitchell is suffering from severe dehydration, Elam is vomiting frequently, and Blazic has developed a persistent nosebleed. Chronic heel-spur soreness forces a hobbling Walker out of the race at the 50-mile mark.

At 6 a.m. of day two, a passing motorist relays the news that Possert, the race leader, is closing in on the town of Lone Pine, only 24 miles from the summit of Mount Whitney. But the other runners seem more concerned with the whereabouts of Jones. The constant refrain at each rest stop goes from "Where's the water?" to "Where's Chuck?" The myth surrounding Jones (he has won a dozen or so long-distance races) is clearly a good deal larger than the 6'2" runner himself.

At 10:45 a.m. Blazic's nose is still bleeding heavily, and his grotesquely blistered right foot looks like it has sprouted extra toes. Finally, at the 90-mile mark, with broken bones in his left foot, his blisters raw and bleeding, Blazic bows out.

Thirty-six hours into the race, a light shower brings the temperature down to a comfortable 98°F. The chief beneficiary is Jones, who has covered more than 70 miles in 18 hours and is gaining ground with every step. "Every 10 miles we change his socks and pretend we're enthused about this," says Donna. Crane, who has dropped his notion of crossing the desert on snowshoes and is pacing Possert, is intrigued by the emerging duel. "It's going to be close between Chuck and Tom as to the fastest time," he says. "Jones is the same caliber runner as Possert and, purely on past record, the best runner out here at the moment."

Throughout the afternoon, Elam and Mitchell take turns passing each other, until the latter's calf muscles suddenly clench in disabling spasms. Mitchell admits to second thoughts about subjecting his body to such punishment. "I don't know how many times today I've asked myself why I'm doing this," he says.

As the race's medical director, Dr. Robert Morgan decides whether a competitor can continue. One mile too far can result in brain damage, kidney failure or the biomechanical phenomenon known as necrosis—the localized death of living tissue. Life-and-death decisions can't be left to the impaired judgment of a dehydrated, oxygen-starved, nearly delirious ultramarathoner. After checking Mitchell's vital signs twice and releasing the spastic calf muscles, Dr. Morgan allows him to rejoin the race. But in order to keep a watchful eye on his fellow chiropractor, Morgan joins him as his pacer. Morgan has already logged 20 miles with Blazic today, even though he hates running.

Also under close scrutiny is Elam, accompanied by husband Larry, 50, and daughter Lynne, 24. Over the past two hours, they've watched her vomit repeatedly, dropping her weight from 110 lbs. at the start to a perilously low 103. Linda is seriously dehydrated. Her leg muscles are knotted so tightly that Lynne's frantic massaging can't unlock them. "I've already decided that I'll still finish," says the 5'3" mother of three during a brief rest stop. "The finish line keeps me going. I worry about the kids when I'm out on the trail, so I try to run faster."

By 11 p.m. of day two, Possert is within reach of Mount Whitney's summit. Elam, moving steadily, is 26 miles behind, and Mitchell, staggering on savagely blistered feet, is trailing her by six miles. Incredibly, Jones has narrowed the gap between himself and Mitchell to only 13 miles.

At 11:52 p.m. Possert lurches to the hut on Mount Whitney's windswept summit and signs his name and arrival time. His time is 45:05—10 minutes faster than the existing record. But he's too exhausted to celebrate. "I gotta get some sleep," he moans and promptly nods off where he drops.

Throughout the night, the others continue their hellish ordeal. At 3 a.m. of day three, Dr. Morgan wakes Mitchell from a two-hour nap that Morgan insisted upon when Mitchell's blood pressure and other vital signs looked grim. "I'm not even awake yet," groans Mitchell as he's prodded to his feet. Jones too has slept for a couple of hours and is now out there alone on the ribbon of asphalt. He becomes convinced that he has spotted a UFO because he can't explain a vision of blinking lights.

Reality intrudes when Jones's support vehicle breaks down. In desperation, his wife grabs a backpack full of water bottles and starts running with him. They cover five miles in this fashion, until their plight is discovered. Two of the medical dropouts, Frank Blazic and Frank Bozanich, rush to the couple's aid in Blazic's van.

At 5:31 a.m. the unwelcome sun rises for the third time since the race began. Still finding strength where none should be, Linda Elam is striding toward Mount Whitney, maintaining a phenomenal 3 mph pace up a sheer grade with more switchbacks than a corkscrew.

Jones pulls even with Mitchell at 12:30 p.m., and the two competitors laugh and hug. Later they share chicken soup and trade turns at treating their aching, swollen calves with an electrical microcurrent therapy machine.

At 4:33 p.m. Elam reaches the summit and signs in. Her time is 61:47. Jones is spotted three miles from the summit; the record set by Possert the night before is still within his reach. He's going strong, running up the mountain, leaping from rock to rock. By 6 p.m. he's one mile from his goal and seems to have ample time in which to beat Possert's record.

Then, suddenly, Jones is stricken by altitude sickness. "I puked a couple of times in the last mile," Jones says later. "It took me an hour and 24 minutes. I was clawing my way up and thinking, 'If I don't make it in the next 15 minutes, I'm going to pass out from the altitude and the cold.' " He clocks in at 45:54, happy just to finish. "It was a life-and-death thing, not just the record," he says.

Jones is not the only one facing such extremes. As Mitchell stands just two miles from the finish, a storm and nightfall arrive together. He is alone by now, his crew felled by altitude sickness. Mitchell is making one of the toughest choices of his life. He has come so far, survived so much. Should he take what could be the final risk, or turn back to the race's support camp to await daylight? He will finish; there's no doubt now. The only question is when. He chooses the wiser course and hikes down to find shelter. Next day he finishes the course, logging a time of 80:32. For Mitchell and his Badwater comrades, pre-race enthusiasm has been tempered by the ordeal. "I wasn't enjoying this a lot of the time," he allows.

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