The Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, Explained: The Hottest – and Hardest – Race On Earth

The Badwater 135 ultramarathon is known as one of, if not THE, most challenging ultras on the face of the planet. It combines distance with grueling terrain and elevation with staggering heat. 

Here we investigate what the Badwater ultra entails, why it is so hard to get into, and why so many ultramarathoners want to conquer it.  

What is the Badwater 135 ultramarathon?

The Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, the 135-Mile World Championship, directed by AdventureCORPS, is a 135-mile race that takes place in Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth.

(Death Valley was only recently dethroned as THE hottest place on the planet, although it still holds the record for the highest heat).

It is known as one of the toughest and most prestigious ultras in the world.

Its press release calls it “the world’s toughest foot race” and the most demanding and extreme running race on the planet.

Entry is invitation-only and the application is meant to make your palms sweat. 

Related: The Barkley Marathons: All You Need to Know

badwater 135 ultramarathon

How long is the Badwater ultramarathon?

The Badwater 135 covers 135 miles.

What is the elevation of the Badwater 135?

Badwater has a combined 14,600 feet of gain with a total elevation loss and gain of 20,700 feet.

How hot is the Badwater ultra?

The Badwater ultra is hot enough to make your shoes melt, notes ultramarathon legend Dean Karnazes, who has raced it 11 times.

In 2018, the temperature at the evening start was 118 degrees F. The desert’s record high, set in 1913, is 134.1 degrees F. 

Related: Who is Dean Karnazes?

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Dean Karnazes running Badwater 135 (photo credit: Dean Karnazes)

Where is the Badwater race?

The Badwater takes place in California, traversing from the lowest part in the contiguous US to the highest part in the contiguous US.

The start line is at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280 feet below sea level. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,300 feet.

The course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600 feet of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100 feet of cumulative descent. 

Whitney Portal is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States.

Competitors travel through places with names like Mushroom Rock, Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs, Darwin, Keeler, Alabama Hills, and Lone Pine, according to the race site.

The lands have been lived upon for at least a thousand years by the Timbisha Shoshone and the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone tribes.

When is the Badwater ultra?

The Badwater 135 takes place in mid-July in the sweltering summer heat.

Related: Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra: All You Need to Know

What makes the Badwater so challenging?

The Badwater is considered the holy grail for most ultramarathoners.

It has a grueling distance of 135; traverses 3 mountain ranges, taking runners from the lowest point in the US to the highest point in the US with a jaw-dropping vertical ascent of 13,000 feet; all in the sweltering heat of more than 125 degrees F. Runners summit Mount Whitney 122 miles in. 

They have just 48 hours to complete the race. 

Even ultra great Karnazes had to drop out in his first attempt—later conquering the race and winning it.

“There’ve been plenty of wild experiences,” shares Karnazes.

“My shoes have melted, I’ve hallucinated seeing dinosaurs in the desert, I’ve watched an egg fry on the pavement, my crew vehicle has caught fire, and I’ve nearly stepped on rattlesnakes and scorpions along the roadside at night. I could go on…”

badwater 135 ultramarathon
Dean Karnazes running Badwater 135 (photo credit: Dean Karnazes)

How do runners train for the heat? 

Karnazes says he trained for Badwater’s heat by going into the sauna at the gym and doing sets of push-ups and sit-ups.

“I’d run wearing a big puffy snow parka in the middle of summer. And I would drive around with all the windows rolled up and the heater blasting on full speed.”

Karnazes adds, “If you’d like to get a feel for what it’s like running the Badwater Ultramarathon, stick a blow dryer in your face and start running in place. Try that for an hour and you’ll get a sense. I know, psychotic.”

Related: 8 Hacks for Running In The Heat

There really is no guidebook for how to prepare yourself for the Badwater conditions, as runner Kevin Delk attests as he describes his training:

“I took a 9 day trip to Arizona (Tuscan and Phoenix) in late June and ran in the hottest parts of the day.  It was during the record-breaking heatwave. . .  I generally also try to spend as much time just outside as I can when it’s hot.  

During training runs, I try to basically never drink – I’m not sure if this actually helps, but I feel like it makes me more efficient at dealing with fluid loss.  

As far as elevation goes, I climbed Camelback Mountain after runs in Phoenix and do lots of hiking, but mainly I do treadmill training for the elevation.  

Since I know I’m not running up significant hills, I think it’s important to train to walk up hills.  I set the treadmill anywhere from 7-12ish incline and walk around 4 mph.  Sometimes I will do that for 30 minutes, other times 1-2 hours.”

Kevin Delk Badwater 135
Kevin Delk on an incline during Badwater 135, photo credit: Kevin Delk

How old is the Badwater race?

The Badwater ultramarathon is in its 44th year (after having to cancel in 2020).

While runners began running the course in the 1970s, the race itself officially became the fabric of life in Inyo County since 1987, bringing in lots of visitor spending, says the race site.

Who inspired the Badwater ultramarathon?

The race was inspired by Al Arnold. After two unsuccessful tries, Arnold, then 49, set out at 5 a.m. on Aug. 3, 1977, to run from Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in America (exactly 282 feet below sea level), to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US, (14,505 feet.) 

He did it in 84 hours. Arnold’s feat was lauded in running circles and inspired the modern-day Badwater Ultramarathon, according to the LA Times

Arnold died in 2017 at the age of 89.

badwater 135 ultramarathon

How do you get into Badwater 135?

Entrance into Badwater 135 is almost as challenging as the race itself. 

According to the site, you have officially finished at least THREE running races of 100 continuous miles or longer, at least one of them in the previous 24 months.

(There is an exception: Officially finishing the 81-mile BADWATER SALTON SEA race “counts” as one 100-mile race for this qualifying purpose.)

However, these rules don’t tell the whole story, notes a Red Bull article: Entry into Badwater is by invitation only, and the application goes beyond strict qualifying requirements. It also requires extensive details about a runner’s racing history and personal life. 

First, not all ultras are created equal so the more challenging ones are given preference.

These include the Brazil 135+, Keys 100 and Badwater Salton Sea, all of which involve extreme changes in climate and elevation.

In addition to impressive running credentials, you must prove that you make a great contribution to society.

Some questions that the application may include, according to Red Bull, are:

  • Which Badwater 135 veteran do you admire most, and why?
  • What does ‘Badwater’ mean to you?
  • How do you give back to the sport of ultrarunning?
  • What percentage of your athletic peers – not just your friends – would say that you are a good human being and good sports person?
  • Why are you on this planet?

A maximum of a hundred people are accepted into Badwater each year.

They are split between rookies and Badwater veterans. Organizers look to represent runners from 20 countries, plus 20 to 25 American states, making entry spots all the more competitive.

badwater 135 ultramarathon

How many people have finished the Badwater 135?

According to the Badwater database, 2060 people have entered the Badwater 135 since 1987, for a total of 11,051 unique entries. 

Of the unique individuals who have begun the event, 938 have finished Badwater.

What do you get if you win the Badwater ultramarathon?

There’s no prize money if you win Badwater.

You must finish in less than 48 hours to receive the coveted Badwater 135 belt buckle. 

What makes the Badwater race so alluring?

According to Karnazes, while there are super-tough mountain races, impossible races like the Barkley Marathon, and many other insanely demanding footraces, there is only one hottest place on earth. 

“Running across Death Valley is the superlative of superlatives,” he said.

Related: Ultramarathon Training Resources

Runner Kevin Delk says it’s extremely difficult to put his finger on exactly what’s so appealing about the race:

“Part of me enjoys the history of the race, extending back to the times that no one actually believed it was possible.  I have read Al Arnold’s essays detailing his trials and tribulations in his first attempts several times.  

It’s such a ridiculous concept, and to be a part of it still doesn’t even seem real.  I love testing my limits and there are really few other places that even come close to the test one gets during that race.”

Kevin Delk Badwater 135 photo 2
Kevin Delk, Badwater 135 runner (photo credit: Kevin Delk)

Delk also firmly believes in the power of the race to inspire and demonstrate that often our limits are just what we perceive them to be:

“I find the course breathtaking.   I want to inspire people; I hope they see this normal guy out doing this crazy thing and maybe they decide they want to push themselves.  

Finally, there really is a family feel to the race.  Chris does a great job of embracing this concept and making everyone feel like part of the Badwater family.  Last, it’s good to see all of these other amazing people achieving their dreams.”

Can you watch Badwater 135?

You can watch the Badwater in person if you stake out the start or the finish in Lone Pine or along Highway 190 in Death Valley.

You can also follow on a webcast and on Instagram @ChrisKostman (race director) and @BadwaterHQ (race staff).

What are the records for the Badwater?

The men’s record for Badwater is Japan’s Yoshihiko Ishikawa set in 2019 with a time of 21:33:01.

The women’s record was set by Poland’s Patrycja Bereznowska, also in 2019 with a time of 24:13:24.

Has anyone died running Badwater?

No.

No one has died running the Badwater 135, though lots of people sustain running injuries and hallucinate. 

To learn more about the Badwater, check out the race website.

badwater 135 ultramarathon
Dean Karnazes running Badwater 135 (photo credit: Dean Karnazes)


Whitney Heins
Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the 2024 US Olympic Trials marathon.

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