At 11:00 p.m., the hot desert winds swirled like a convection oven, 116 degrees before the sun even came up in Death Valley, California. And there in the bottom of the western hemisphere, a few dozen maniacs waited for race director Chris Kostman to send them off on what is dubbed "The World's Toughest Foot Race."
This is the Badwater 135. A 135-mile ultramarathon, from the lowest point in the western hemisphere (Badwater Basin) to the Mount Whitney Portal, a gateway to the highest point in the contiguous United States. If the distance and climb are not enough to scare you off, go ahead and add the face-melting heat of Death Valley in July, home of the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth. Still interested?
To be there in person, watching these skinny bodies climb through the dark of night, felt like some kind of dystopian Mad Max torture scene. But the truth is, these people chose to run Badwater. They trained for this -- running in hoodies at the high heat of the day, spending hours in saunas, and keeping the heat on in their cars all summer.
For the 99 runners accepted into this year's race, this was supposed to be fun. So ERA3 sent the toughest guy we know, Mosi Smith, to the start line, with his eye on an ambitious goal time of 30 hours. Though he's no longer active duty, Mosi is a Semper Fi kind of guy -- a Marine -- as well as a badass, a founding member of Team Beastmode, an ERA3 sponsored-athlete, and a known commodity in the ultrarunning community for almost a decade.
Mosi had already run and finished Badwater twice (in 2015 and 2012), and wanted to see whether he could improve his time by a staggering 2 hours, 25 minutes. On average, that meant taking off more than 60 seconds from every mile while maintaining nutrition and hydration, and staving off things like heat exhaustion, sleep deprivation (AKA generic brand exhaustion), and kidney failure.
To put it plainly, this would not be easy. Mosi kept right on his goal pace through the first 40 miles, fighting an almost entirely upward climb through the hottest ever Badwater 135 race, with air temperatures hitting 127 degrees and the road temperature reaching a blistering 159 degrees.
Ultimately, the heat took its toll, forcing every single runner to slow down. But Mosi was relentless in pursuit of his goal. He kept pushing the pace through mile 60, even when his body resisted. Even when his crew suggested he slow down or take time to cool off with an ice towel in the shade of our vehicle.
But by mile 70, Mosi started manifesting warning symptoms of heat exhaustion and rhabdomyolysis, and our crew took action to try to cool him down. Because when someone as smart, experienced, fit, and tough as Mosi expresses concern, you better react.
For the next 3 hours, until the sun tucked its ugly, menacing face behind the mountains, we established a protocol of letting Mosi push for a mile, followed by stopping for 10 minutes to take some shade, hydrate, and let his body cool down.
Before you get your hopes up too high, I want to break the news to you gently. It was too late. It wasn't enough to get our hero to the finish line.
Despite an aggressive calf strain and his overheating issues, Mosi continued beyond the uphill section of Panamint Springs, through the night, and until he had nothing left in the tank. At mile 95, as the sun began rising again, and Mosi made the decision not to continue. The most dreaded letters in ultrarunning, DNF (shorthand for Did Not Finish), would hang beside his name this year.
You may be tempted to label this as a loss or failure, but that's too easy. This was Rocky losing to Apollo Creed. This was Sparta losing to the Persian Empire. For Mosi, this year's Badwater 135 was the ultimate test of his limits and a reminder that if you set your goal high enough -- say, 30 hours or bust -- you just might bust. Only a fool would aim lower.
Ain't no shame in swinging for the fences.
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