Because the National Park Service permit only allows 100 racers each year, Badwater annually attracts some of the very best road ultrarunners in not only the country, but the entire planet. This year's field is no exception.
One thing is for certain: 2017 will usher in a new women's champion at Badwater . . . 2016 champion, course record holder, and proud new mommy, Aly Allen (nee Venti) is skipping this year's race for obvious reasons. Even with Aly's absence, however, the women's race is shaping up to be one for the ages, and features world class runners making their Badwater debuts, as well as some top-level race veterans seeking their first win.
Note: With many of the top men's competitors at Badwater this year also racing this weekend's World 24-hour championship in Belfast, Ireland, we will post our preview of the men's race next week, after the world championships have been decided. Now, on to our predictions for the women's race:
2. The two favorites.
We will say it right now . . . last year's runner up, Brenda Guajardo, will be this year's Badwater 135 champion.
Even though she is running against one of the absolute best female road ultramarathoners the world has ever seen (more on Szilvia, below), no woman in this year's field can match Brenda's combination of talent, big-race experience, and specific Badwater experience.
In addition to her 28:40 second-place showing last year at Badwater, Brenda has been an absolute force in the international ultrarunning scene for years:
She also won the overall title at last November's "Authentic Pheidippides" run -- a running of the Spartathlon course from Athens to Sparta, and then turning around and running back to Athens -- for a total of 306 miles! (This is, after all, what the fabled Pheidippides was said to have done...).
-Prediction: Simply put, there is no one in the field with Brenda's long-distance road racing experience, combined with her on-course experience at Badwater (she also finished the race in 2012). Look for her to top the field and earn her first victory at this storied race on July 11th.
If anyone can knock Brenda off from the winner's circle at Badwater, it's the "rookie" entrant from Hungary, Szilvia Lubics, making her debut in Death Valley this year.
We put "rookie" in quotations because while she is a first-time Badwater runner, Szilvia is a world-famous road ultrarunner, who -- until two years ago -- held the women's course record at the prestigious Spartathlon in Greece.
The main question for Szilvia will be how she adjusts to the harsh and unrelenting climate of Death Valley. Many Europeans who have enjoyed success at the Spartathlon have come to Badwater to test their mettle, and have seen mixed degrees of success. Recently, England's Dan Lawson (2nd place Spartathlon finisher in 2015) ran the 2016 Badwater 135. He finished in a tie for third place, a smashing success. A year earlier, however, Piotr Kurylo (i.e., "Polish Rocky"), who finished second to Scott Jurek in the 2007 Spartathlon (memorialized in the book Eat and Run), came into Badwater as one of the race favorites. But the course had different plans for Polish Rocky, and he was out of the race by Mile 50 with stomach issues.
-Prediction: Szilvia's ability to figure out Death Valley will likely be the main factor in deciding whether she reaches the podium and contends for the win, as her talent and track-record is undeniable. She will figure it out, reach the podium, and finish in 3rd place.
3. The Blazing Rookie.
Perhaps the most physically-talented woman in this year's field, Noelani Taylor routinely runs 20-mile training runs in 2 hours flat and barely breaks a sweat.
She is the two-time defending champion of the DAYTONA 100 ultramarathon (a flat, fast, and scenic ultra in North Florida in December), including a blazing 16:00:03 finish in 2016. She also came in third place at the hot/humid Keys 100 last month, and has won the gorgeous 51-mile Badwater Cape Fear race on Bald Head Island, NC.
Regardless of how she finishes, one thing is for sure . . . Noelani will savor the experience and have a huge smile on her face pretty-much the whole time she is at the race. (Along with longtime Badwater runner Oswaldo Lopez, she will be one of the two nicest people you will ever meet at Badwater . . . one of our favorite games is trying to get Noelani to say a swear word . . . it rarely happens (the closest we've ever gotten was to get her to say "Holy F!" Seriously, the most she can bring herself to say is literally the letter "F") :)
-Prediction: Noelani's undeniable talent and unflappable positivity shines through, and she lands on the podium in her first Badwater 135, in second place.
4. Top-5 contenders.
Fellow Ponte Vedra, Florida resident Amy Costa (who we just ran into a few days ago doing bridge repeats for 6 hours on a bridge near our houses), looks to be primed for a big result at Badwater this year.
She's been running ultras for over a decade, and her storied career has seen dozens of wins at the 50-mile and 100-mile distance. She's also run Badwater every year since 2013, and has finished 8th (2013), 4th (2014), and 5th (2016), so she knows the course and how to run it.
Amy is super-fit, evidenced by her 17th place finish at the hugely-competitive Marathon des Sables stage race in Morocco this past April.
Haling from Colorado, rookie entrant Chavet Breslin is looking to make a splash at this year's race. Judging from her recent results, she's in fine form to do so:
On New Years 2016, she won the Across The Years 24-hour race, with 119 miles. She also finished in the top-5 at the highly-competitive Desert Solstice 100 in Phoenix, running a very respectable 18:12.
More recently, she finished as the 5th woman at the popular Rocky Raccoon 100 in Texas (21:36).
Another ZWITTY ULTRA athlete in the field, Sandra Villines has steadily progressed up the ultrarunning ranks over the past two years. In addition to finishing last year's Badwater 135 (8th place), Sandra is the two-time reigning master's champion of the Keys 100, as well as the master's champ of the 2016 Daytona 100.
In 2017 alone, Sandra has already run 4 100-mile races, and has consistently placed in the top-5:
Another rookie making her Badwater 135 debut, Los Angeles-based Nelva Valladares has largely stuck to racing ultras in and around California.
And she has had some great success, including wins at the 200-mile Born to Run ultramarathon (2015), the 2016 Wild Wild West 50-miler (Lone Pine, CA, which is now directed by Badwater legend Brad "the Salty Peacock" Lombardi), and the 2016 Mt. Disappointment (CA) 50-mile run.
-Prediction: Nelva continues her strong showings at California races, and finishes her rookie Badwater run between 4th and 7th place.
5. The Badwater Hall of famer.
Already enshrined in the annals of Badwater history, Lisa is one of the true pioneers of the Badwater 135, finishing the race nine times, and winning the women's race twice, with a winning time of 37:01 (1997) and 37:33 (1998).
She's also the only woman to ever complete the "Badwater Quad," which is 4 consecutive crossings, over two weeks, between the Badwater Basin to the summit of Mt. Whitney (a total of 584 miles).
6. men's Preview: coming next week...
We will publish our preview of the men's race next week, after the conclusion of the World 24-hour Championships in Belfast, Ireland (some of the Badwater favorites are running the 24-hour race, so it makes sense to see how they fare in Ireland before predicting how they will do at Badwater...)