Badwater Running, But On Modified Course

The first wave takes off from the starting line at this morning's Badwater 135. Photo: Allison Pattillo

This year’s 135-mile Badwater race is being run on a different course because of permit issues.

The AdventureCORPS Badwater 135 long been one of the world’s most challenging races, not only by sheer distance but also because of extreme heat.

Born from the idea to pass from the lowest (282 feet below sea level at the Badwater Basin in Death Valley, Calif.) to the highest (the 14,505-foot summit of Mt. Whitney) points in the contiguous United States and to do it in the heat of summer, runners often had to contend with shoe-melting heat, brutal winds and blinding sandstorms as they made their way through Death Valley National Park to Whitney Portal (8,371 feet) on the flanks of Mount Whitney.

But after 27 years, Badwater has a new route. Racers from 24 states and 25 countries (97 in all, including 19 women) began their 135-mile journey Monday morning in Lone Pine, Calif.

The new route bypasses Death Valley (where a temperature of 120 degrees isn’t uncommon on race day) and instead features more than 17,000 feet (a 4,000-foot gain over the original route) of climbing and 12,700 feet of descending and a 48-hour cutoff. The final 45 miles of the course are the same as in previous years. But the change wasn’t made by choice.

A race is only as good as its permits, and race director Chris Kostman found out in December via the National Park Service website that Death Valley National Park, now under the direction of a new superintendent, was enacting a moratorium on issuing special events permits in the Park until October in order to conduct a review of events. Kostman, who historically operates five annual events in Death Valley through his company AdventureCORPS, was shocked.

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“We traditionally haven’t had issues getting permits because of our flawless safety record,” said Kostman, who said that safety and overall impact of the race were called into question during a December meeting with Death Valley National Park superintendent Kathleen Billings. “We’ve since made changes to lessen the impact of Badwater 135, making it safer and with a smaller footprint,” she says.

But there is still no word from the park. According to Cheryl Chipman, spokesperson for Death Valley National Park, the review is finished, but, “due to the level of scrutiny in the National Park Service and elsewhere, comments and final edits are going to take awhile.”

When it comes to special events permits in National Parks, there are national guidelines in place, but parks operate autonomously, with permitting decisions made by individual park management.

“Each park and place administered by the National Park Service offers visitors unique experiences that must be balanced with the National Park Service’s charge to protect and preserve these special places for future generations,” said April Slayton, chief spokesperson for the National Park Service. “Each park receives permit applications for special events and evaluates them, taking into account a variety of factors, including visitor and employee safety and resource management and protection.”

That leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Dan Sholly, a 30-year veteran of the National Park Service, actually started the Crater Lake Rim Runs and Marathon in 1976, which still continues today, when he was chief ranger at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

“It was a way to encourage my staff to be more physically fit and to enhance visitor experience at the park. It was a win-win situation” Sholly said. “Parks should be respected and preserved, but they need to be enjoyed as well.”

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Chipman suggested that part of the issue is that Death Valley is getting more and more requests for special events each year. For requests to be considered, they need to have some connection to the purpose of the park.

“National parks are for everyone to enjoy,” Chipman said. “We needed to take a comprehensive look at all events in the park to make sure they were a nexus event to the park and reduce obvious risks.”

Despite concerns among racers and race directors that the Death Valley moratorium will have a ripple affect on future permitting for events nationwide, Chipman stressed that the review began at the Death Valley National Park level.

“This was not prompted by our regional office or the offices in Washington D.C.” Chipman says. “It was based upon new applications, the need to make it fair for everyone and to keep safety the No. 1 priority for visitors and staff.

The Death Valley Borax Marathon, held in February, is another race that was part of the safety review by Death Valley National Park. Michelle Ruettinger of Enviro-Sports, the group that puts on the marathon, said she is confident the 2015 race will happen.

“After the success of our race, our 16th annual, the event went to review. We were given several recommendations for further safety that we had to implement in order to receive a permit from the National Park,” Ruettinger said. “If for some reason we should not receive a permit for our event, which would be highly unlikely, we will issue full refunds or full credits to all registered entrants.”

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It remains to be seen what the 2015 Badwater 135 course will be. But Kostman says he is so pleased with the new route that, even if permits are granted to run the traditional race in Death Valley, the new course won’t go away.

“This new route is tough and the community here in Lone Pine has been incredibly supportive,” Kostman said. “I see this race continuing as a 100-miler in the fall.”

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