Turning 135-Mile Race Into a Rerun

Times Staff Writer

Pam Reed crossed the finish line of the 135-mile Badwater UltraMarathon Wednesday afternoon, sat down, vomited and yawned.

Chalk up another one for the mother of five from Tucson.

Ending the brutal footrace on the eastern flank of Mt. Whitney, Reed clocked in at 28 hours, 26 minutes, 52 seconds -- about 24 minutes ahead of the second finisher.

The 5-foot-3 runner was half an hour slower than she was last year, when she became the first woman to win one of the most extreme events in the world of ultra sports. But that hardly mattered to those who looked on.


“Pam is superhuman,” said competitor Nathan Oshner, 34, of Katy, Texas, who dropped out of the race after 38 miles, suffering from dehydration and severely blistered feet.

“She’s the best,” said Jean Pierre Vozel, 48, of Leguevin, France, who crumpled with heat exhaustion after 15 miles.

“It’s an honor to be in the same race with Pam,” added Lone Pine physician Ben Jones, who had hoped to be the first 70-year-old to complete the race. Instead, his body temperature rose to 101 degrees at the 37-mile mark, and he found himself “wishing for a flash flood so we could get the whole thing over with.”

About 22 miles from the finish line, Reed passed the last of her competitors. Christopher Bergland, an affable 37-year-old New York salesman, could hear her short, choppy steps approaching. But, legs turned to putty in heat that climbed to 125 degrees, he could not respond.


“Good job,” Reed said to him. All Bergland could do was smile and extend his hand for a quick handshake.

“I’m in awe of you,” he said.

In the run from blistering Death Valley to a point halfway up Mt. Whitney, Reed endured -- besides the heat -- sand and lightning storms, uphill grades as long as 17 miles and a cruel twist on the Badwater name: humidity.

But she seemed nonchalant about her jaunt from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere to the flanks of the tallest peak in the contiguous United States.


“My strategy is simple,” she said. “Don’t stop running, and forget about blisters. They happen and they hurt. Oh well.”

She won a T-shirt and a brass buckle.

As if set on cruise control, Reed, 42, settled early into a 10-minute-mile pace and kept it there, even as her lean competitors from Europe and North and South America fell to the wayside.

The second finisher was Dean Karnazes, 40, of San Francisco. Then there was Bergland, who had prepared for Badwater by running on a treadmill in a 180-degree sauna for at least an hour a day.


Ignoring her blisters and never changing shoes were only a few of the things that set Reed apart from the other women and men in the event.

She spurned sunscreen, except on her nose, as part of an effort to enhance her body’s ability to perspire. Nor did she stretch before hitting the road.

The race started 282 feet below sea level Tuesday morning at Badwater, a salty pond nearly encircled by massive gray cliffs, where the temperature hovered at 114 degrees with -- for Death Valley -- unusually high humidity of 15%.

“Have fun!” yelled a fan as the 73 runners set out down the road in three groups with the equivalent of about six consecutive marathons between them and the finish line. “Keep smiling,” shouted another.


The runners laughed and waved back as they trotted away.

After a few miles, however, it wasn’t funny anymore. Moving into a forbidding, undulating wilderness of salt flats, barren mountains and lava fields shimmering in the waves of heat, some started walking, hoping to finish the race within the time limit of 60 hours.

That was the easy part.

Before long, the runners were separated by miles, accompanied by support crews that followed closely behind in vehicles stuffed with critical supplies: ice water, Gatorade, extra shoes, salty snacks and sunscreen.


Many carried amulets and tape players loaded with songs whose titles resonated with the terrain and the challenges at hand. Reed wore a gold chain and amethyst pendant given to her by her husband, and listened to U2’s “The Joshua Tree.” Bergland tuned in to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans crooning “Happy Trails.”

The volunteer crews played leapfrog with the athletes throughout the punishing route, moving half a mile ahead at a time. Exhaustion, headaches, stomach cramps and blisters were treated on the spot. Runners were splashed with ice water and handed corn chips, turkey-and-cheese sandwiches, aspirin and vitamins.

They were also soothed with words of encouragement.

“Pretty soon the sun will go down and it will be dark -- and cool, very cool, Pam,” said Reed’s mentor, Bennie Linkhart, who led a crew that also included a lawyer, a county judge and a flight attendant.


At midday Tuesday, the heat and humidity were taking a toll. One man fell to his hands and knees by the side of the road, while his volunteers draped layer upon layer of cold towels on his head. Another runner developed a fever of 104 degrees and was persuaded to call it a day.

At the 41-mile mark, some parched and sunburned participants took time for a quick dip in a swimming pool at a roadside stop called Stovepipe Wells.

Reed, Bergman and Karnazes pressed on, miles ahead of the rest.

Just ahead, however, the course worsened as it snaked 17 miles up and out of Death Valley over a steep and windy mountain range strewn with lava boulders. Six-time entrant Marine Maj. Curt Maples likened that stretch to “running into a blow dryer.”


The three front-runners handled that stretch, then crossed another range of barren mountains draped with thunderclouds before entering the eastern outskirts of Lone Pine, in the shadow of Mt. Whitney.

That’s when Reed made an important decision.

“She looked me right in the eyes and asked, ‘What are my odds of finishing first?’ ” recalled Linkhart. “I said, ‘I won’t kid you, Pam. Your chances are 20 to 1 of winning this thing.’ ”

Feeling renewed, she said, “Thanks,” and stepped up her pace.


After breaking the tape, Reed was ushered to a folding chair, where she leaned forward with her head in her hands and said, “Oh, wow. That was hard.”

“You’re the winner once again, Pam,” said Badwater race director Chris Kostman, as he hung the champion’s belt buckle around the badly sunburned runner’s neck.

“I think I’m going to throw up now,” Reed said. A moment later, she sat back in the chair, yawned and asked Linkhart, “Have we still got that cot in the van? I feel like laying down.”