Laura Watts (née Walton) has completed the Badwater 135 Ultra marathon which is also known as the world’s toughest footrace in Death Valley this summer. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have finished Badwater! Not only that, but she's only the 11th female from the UK to have ever finished this race. We caught up with Laura to find out more about the gruelling race.
How did you train for the race both physically and mentally?
Badwater 135 is an invitational race where athletes are chosen based on their running CVs and I was honoured to be selected for the 2020 race but due to Covid, the 2020 race was cancelled and I was unable to travel to the US for the 2021 race due to the international travel restrictions. Thanks to this, by the time 2022 came round, I had had two years to immerse myself in training for Badwater 135!
Alongside the “running” side of the training, where I was running marathons as training runs ( I have run 131 marathons and ultras to date), the heat acclimation was a very important part of the process. Approximately four weeks before flying out to Death Valley, I started having daily sauna sessions (building up to 70 minutes straight in the sauna), going running at the hottest time of the day, wearing thermal clothing and running on our home treadmill with two electric fan heaters blowing hot air at me. Then I also had six 90 minutes sessions in the Heat Chamber at Chichester University which involved running on the treadmill in a pre-heated environmental chamber (to simulate the same conditions as Death Valley) until my core temperature reached 39ºC and kept it there for the whole session. This was an invaluable part of the training as it improved my tolerance to the heat, increased my sweating efficiency and enabled me to run at a lower core temperature and with a lower heart rate. I also ran a 100 mile ultra marathon, the 'Keys 100' six weeks prior to Badwater which was 100 miles along the Florida Keys and this was a great test of running in the heat.
Mentally, I had waited two years for my dream bucket list race and I made sure that I had done everything that I could to give me the best chance of finishing “the world’s toughest footrace”. I think I also watched every documentary and read every book I could find about Badwater too!
What does the race involve and what makes it the world's toughest footrace?
Badwater 135 covers (as you might have guessed) 135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, CA. and is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet.
The start line is at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280’ (85m) below sea level. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,300’ (2530m), which is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States. The Badwater 135 course also crosses three mountain ranges and the event is deliberately held at the hottest time of the year! It was 51ºC/ 124ºF for at least 9 hours of the race and the temperatures didn’t fall below 40ºC throughout the race.
This is an invitational only event where only runners with extensive ultra running experience are even considered. They might not be the fastest runners but they are the toughest. There were 94 starters and each runner has to have a support crew for the duration of the race who are there basically to keep their runner alive!
Did you encounter any obstacles and how did you overcome them?
Badwater 135 was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life but the most amazing - it was truly an epic experience. The race started at night which meant that you went into the race sleep deprived but the advantage was it was cooler for the first part of the race. I say that, I think it was still 47ºC at 8pm on the start line!
I was incredibly positive throughout the race as I wanted to try and enjoy the whole experience, plus I had a team of 4 as my support crew (including my husband Matthew, my crew chief) who had given up their time to look after me and help get me to the finish line. I struggled to eat food during the first part of the race which was a worry as without fuel, my running engine wouldn’t last very long but I discovered these Hawaiian rolls which one of my crew had which I was able to eat and this was a game changer! The crew were amazing at keeping me cool by using ice cold towels, spraying me with a water sprayed filled with ice cold water, giving me ice bandanas and changing my water bottles which they did every two miles, so this was a very effective way of trying to cool me down.
The hardest part of the race was when it was 51ºC in Panamint Valley just over half way into the course, which we renamed the Valley of Death, and then the 5000ft climb up to Father Crowley in the heat of the day. When I went into the second night, I was extremely sleep deprived and attempted to try and have a 20 minute sleep on the side of the road. Unfortunately I couldn't get to sleep even though I was so tired, which meant that later on I started hallucinating. I was seeing rocks moving and snakes on the road! When the sun rose on day 3, I felt so much better. The last 13 miles of the race climbs up to 8300ft to Mount Whitney Portal and that last climb was absolutely brutal - it was so steep and the heat was relentless. Despite all my research, no one had told me how hard that was going to be, especially with 122 miles already on my legs!
I finished the race in 40 hours and 52 minutes.
What does the achievement mean to you?
Becoming a Badwater 135 finisher means the absolute world. I am so so proud. I am only the 11th female from the UK to have finished Badwater and less than 1,000 people have ever completed Badwater - more people have climbed Mount Everest!
What’s next for you now?
I left a piece of my heart in Death Valley so I will be applying for the 2023 race as it was just such an incredible experience - I loved it and the feeling of accomplishment. I would like to run the Spartathlon Ultra marathon which is a 153 mile ultra held every year in Greece and I have a place to run the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in 2023, 105 mile ultra with over 35000 ft of elevation. I might try a 200 mile ultra marathon in the future - but I don’t think anything will come close to Badwater 135.
Huge congratulations to Laura who continues to astound us with the level of grit and determination she shows to get through every single one of these tough Ultra marathons - we are in awe!
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