DEATH VALLEY, Calif.--I drove to Death Valley last week because I had always been curious about the kind of people eager to spend up to 46 hours on their feet, with no sleep, running across the hottest place on Earth, dodging oncoming traffic, in the middle of July.
Nearly 20 years ago, I had seen "Running on the Sun," a thrilling Mel Stuart documentary about the Badwater 135 ultramarathon, which begins in the desolate Badwater Basin, 280 feet below sea level, and ends a day or two later, depending on the runner, 8,000 feet up, in the redwoods, at the base of Mount Whitney.
In that film, I first encountered Marshall Ulrich, now 66, who spoke matter-of-factly about having his toenails removed in order to run more comfortably. A week ago at a pre-race safety meeting in Furnace Creek, which is exactly as hot as it sounds, Ulrich received a standing ovation from the crowd. This was his 21st Badwater. I felt like I was meeting a rock star.
"I just want to go out there and do it, and be anonymous more than anything," he told me Friday, after dropping out of the race at Mile 72. "I couldn't ask for more."
"Running on the Sun" also included a British woman who trained by running uphill with a big black spare tire chained to her waist. This seemed -- and still does -- physically impossible. It is not.
There was also a rugged Marine Corps major, with a belly flat as sheet steel, who looked like he would eat the rest of the field for lunch. He wanted to know, he said, if he had "the right stuff." He ended up on his knees during the race, vomiting so much he was forced to accept IV fluids, an instant race disqualifier.
"I always say every year, anything can happen in Death Valley on this race route," said Badwater race director Chris Kostman, a writer and ultra-athlete who also produces ultramarathons in the Salton Sea and Cape Fear, N.C. "It's the world's toughest foot race. If everybody finished, it wouldn't be the world's toughest."
After I wrote about Badwater on Wednesday, I heard from many friends and readers, most of whom had the same response: These people are crazy.
But are they? Are they really?
"Well, what's crazier? Sitting on the 405 Freeway for three hours a day?" said Mark Matyazic, 52, an Irvine entrepreneur and seven-time Badwater vet who finished the race in ninth place after 31 hours and 23 minutes. "I found myself on the freeway driving back and forth to work, and that's when I decided, 'This is nuts.' That's when I started training more." He left the corporate world and works from home now as a consultant.