On 4th July 2023, I found myself back on the start line of the “world’s toughest footrace” for the second year running. This race is Badwater 135 and it takes place in Death Valley every July. It is a 135-mile ultra-marathon that starts in Badwater basin, 282ft below sea level, crosses two mountain ranges, and finishes at 8300ft, halfway up a third, Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. Temperatures could be as high as 53ºC/ 125ºF and wouldn’t drop below 40ºC/ 104ºF. Running this epic race once in 2022 should have been enough but I wanted more. The aim of the 2022 race was just to finish, alive. I knew there were areas I could improve in my performance for the race in 2023 and finish in a slightly faster time, plus I had just fallen in love with the whole Badwater experience. It was a complete honour to have been invited to run Badwater 135 again, only 100 ultra runners are selected each year from all over the world, and in the months leading up to Badwater I had put my heart and soul into training which included a month of heat acclimatisation. I did this by going out running at the hottest part of the day wearing winter survival clothes, having daily saunas, running on my treadmill whilst having two electric fan heaters blowing at me and seven sessions in the Heat Chamber at Chichester University where I ran on a treadmill for an hour in a room heated up to 40º while my internal core temperature was monitored with the aim of elevating my core temperature and improving my tolerance to exercising in the heat.
There are three starts for the race and I was on the 9pm start which is the middle start. All runners have to get to mile 50.9 by 10am so I had an hour less time than the first wave of starters. I broke the race down into sections as looking at running 135 miles in one go was too daunting, even though I have run it before and other long races but psychologically this works best for me. I had a support crew of two looking after me, my husband Matthew who was my crew chief, and ultra running friend, Brian. Every runner has to have a support crew of two to four people who basically leapfrog them along the course, stopping every one to two miles and their job is to cool the runner down by way of water spray, ice bandanas, cold towels, replacing cold water and drinks and also feeding the runner! Matthew and Brian were a brilliant team.
The race went really well. Apart from going off too fast initially and my heart rate going too high, once that had all settled down I felt really strong for the first half of the race. I reached the 50.9 mile mark with over two hours to spare so that was a great boost. I was however struggling with my nutrition and was sick several times. I couldn’t eat anything apart from ginger cake and watermelon! The hottest part of the course was Panamint Valley, from approximately mile 68-73 was like a furnace. It was at least 46ºC/ 114ºF for the whole time we were on the valley floor. We had a 40-minute stop for some real food and some blister management at Panamint Springs Resort, mile 73 which is one of the four areas of civilisation in Death Valley National Park. The others are Furnace Creek (Mile 17), Stovepipe Wells (mile 42) and Lone Pine (mile 122). Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs all have a gas station and a shop/ restaurant and Lone Pine is a cool little town with a few motels, restaurants and supermarket, usually full of climbers.
After Panamint Springs it was a brutal 12-mile climb up to Father Crowley in which the temperatures did not drop. Brian had been running with me since Panamint Valley and actually ran 60 miles with me, he was incredible. A lot of that time he was spraying down with water. Once the second night came I started to feel really tired and got to the point where I was almost sleepwalking. I had started hallucinating too and the caffeine tablets weren’t working so I attempted a 10-minute sleep on the side of the road which definitely made a difference. During the night we saw three rattlesnakes, they were definitely there (it wasn't hallucinations!) Once daylight came I felt so much better and soon I had made it 122 miles to Lone Pine. From there it was 13 miles up Mount Whitney to Mt Whitney Portal, an 8000ft climb. This really was savage. I was four hours ahead of my 2022 time. Matthew hiked seven miles up the first part of this climb with me and it was really lovely having him share some of this journey out on the road rather than behind the wheel of the car. It was hot and we were tired but we just kept powering forward.
I crossed the finish line with Matthew and Brian holding the Union Jack behind me. My Badwater 135 2023 finish time was 36 hours 44 minutes. I smashed my 2022 time by 4 hours 8 minutes. I was in dreamland. I was 12th girl (20th in 2022) and 34th overall (55th overall in 2022). The welcome I received from the Badwater support crew and RD, Chris Kostman was incredible. I felt like a hero.
There have only been two British women to have finished Badwater 135 twice, myself and the legendary ultra-athlete Mimi Anderson. I want to be the only British woman to have finished this race three times consecutively. 2024 goal!
On 5th August I ran a 100-mile ultra marathon called the North Downs Way 100, the conditions couldn’t have been more different. It rained for 20 hours of the 26 hours it took me to finish the race. That was my 150th marathon/ultra. Next up on 30th September, I’m running a 153-mile ultramarathon in Greece called Spartathlon which starts in Athens and finishes at the statue of Leonidas in Sparta and I’m running as part of the British Spartathlon Team, another great honour.
I feel I’ve come a long way since being in the Brentwood School Cross Country Team and running the 1500 and 800m in athletics back when I was a pupil from 1988-1995!