A Former Model’s Journey to Winning Badwater 135

Photo Credit: Chris Kostman

For a couple of days after winning Badwater 135, Michele Graglia was wiped out. Just getting out of bed was tough after running through a desert furnace and climbing thousands of feet to Whitney Portal.

Yet Graglia was ecstatic. Winning Badwater had been his biggest goal in running. “I was joking the next day, I said, ‘OK, I can throw my shoes away. I’m done running,’” he laughs. “I accomplished everything I wanted to do.” Of course, Graglia will keep his shoes and, for a few days, allowed himself to enjoy the victory he locked up just before midnight on July 24.

An Unusual Path to Ultras

But eight years ago, Graglia was far from Death Valley, living the high life in New York City. He was a model traveling the world for photo shoots. His face was on magazine covers and he cashed big paychecks as part of what he calls a “rockstar lifestyle.”

Yet, he was unhappy and unfulfilled. He wanted something more out of life. He’d tried a lot of things: going to law school, helping his family’s floral business (which first brought him to the U.S.) and modeling. He was still searching. By sheer happenstance in 2010 he picked up a book Ultramarathon Man by ultrarunner Dean Karnazes. He couldn’t put it down. He read it, read it again and re-read it.

“He found his purpose in running extreme distances in extreme conditions,” says Graglia. He figured if Karnazes could find fulfillment in ultraraces, maybe he could, too. He remembered how happy he’d been as a kid in the outdoors, hiking in the Dolomites of Italy with his family or skiing the Alps.

So, at the start of 2011, he began running in Central Park with the goal of getting in shape to do an ultra. Despite having run only a few cross country races in middle school, and never doing even a 5K as an adult, Graglia set his sights on Florida’s Keys 100 that May. Incredibly, he was in the lead at 84 miles. Then he passed out. He knew nothing about how to fuel or hydrate, and had pushed too hard. He woke up in an ambulance with an IV in his arm.

In his next race, a 50-miler through the Everglades in January of 2012, he not only stayed upright, he won in 8:18:27. In the six-plus years since, Graglia has victories in ultras from 25 to 167 miles across the U.S. and also won the inaugural 175-mile race from Milan to Sanremo (his hometown in Italy) in 2014.

A New Runway

Today, the 34-year-old former fashion model is now living in Los Angeles and describes himself as an adventurer who’s always seeking another challenge—which led to Badwater.

After a disappointing race in 2016 (“my wheels completely fell off,” he says), this race was one of redemption. He stayed strong throughout the 135-mile route, finishing in 24 hours, 51 minutes and 47 seconds, nearly 42 minutes ahead of runner-up Jared Fetterolf and almost 10 hours ahead of his 2016 time.

Focusing more on hydration, nutrition and heat management this time, as well as training since last fall (specifically for the long climbs, putting in 180-plus mile weeks just before the race), Graglia never wavered. He took some walking breaks near the end, but never took a rest.

Photo Credit: Chris Kostman
Photo Credit: Chris Kostman

His crew kept him as cool as possible in one of the hottest races in Badwater’s 41-year history by soaking his hat and bandana around his neck in ice to keep his core temperature down. That allowed him to function in a year in which a record 30 of 99 starters had to drop out. Race director Chris Kostman said the temperature for the first wave of starters at 8 p.m. July 23 at Badwater in Death Valley was 118. The next day, the valley reached 127.

Yet Graglia kept moving. “I never stopped,” he says. “I never went in the shade. I never sat in the car. I kept moving forward from the beginning to the very end.” He decided to not challenge the leaders early, but to find his own rhythm. After the first big climb to Towne Pass 58.7 miles in, Graglia took the lead, though he still thought former winner Oswaldo Lopez was out front. Graglia kept pushing hard, looking for Lopez who actually had fallen behind after taking a bathroom break.

“Eventually I get to Panamint Springs, which is 70 miles into the race and they told me, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re in the lead,’ ” he says. “So that was a pleasant surprise.”

Graglia then put in another strong climb through 5,300-foot Panamint Pass to open up a gap on his pursuers. When he crossed the finish line, he and his crew embraced in exhaustion and triumph. In his fourth time at Badwater, twice as a crew member and twice as a runner, Graglia had his win.

“When I first started running, seven, eight years ago, Badwater always represented the race. It’s the one that fascinated me the most, the one that brought me in,” he says. “The lure of the challenge, the family, the community around it. It’s just so special. It was very meaningful to me.”

Though he doesn’t make the kind of money he did modeling, but says he’s blessed. He has some running sponsorships, and also works at a fitness resort in Malibu, teaching yoga (as does his wife) and guiding hikers. He also is a running coach and sports nutritionist.

“I am beyond happy,” he says. “I’ve found the balance I need to be able to pursue this passion, this (running) career at the level I want to.” That passion includes pushing outside his comfort zone. Badwater was a big one. What’s next is even bigger.

Graglia wants to run across four great deserts: the Sahara of Africa, the Atacama of South America, the Gobi of Asia and Antarctica. He hopes to do one per year, beginning with a 700-mile trek across the Atacama starting Sept. 15. “It’s the first step of a new life path,” he says.

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