1. the return home.
While last year's Lone Pine-based Badwater 135 course was epic in its own right, and it may continue in 2016 as its own race (the Cerro Gordo 100), the word "Badwater" has truly become synonymous with Death Valley.
The race, on the 135-mile course between the Badwater Basin and the Mt. Whitney Portals, passes such famed locations such as the Devil's Golf Course, Furnace Creek, Mustard Canyon, Devil's Cornfield, Stovepipe Wells, Towne Pass, Panamint Valley, and Father Crowley. (And if you ever visit Death Valley, you'll quickly appreciate how a place like "Furnace Creek" got its name). In short, the course belongs in Death Valley. And due to the monumental efforts of race director Chris Kostman, the Death Valley National Park staff, members of Congress, and members of the ultra running community -- especially key race veterans Tony Portera and Frank McKinney -- the race is back where it belongs.
2. THe Night Start and its effect on the race.
Of note, the "night start" is neither new nor novel. There have been previous Badwater races that have started in the evening. In fact, Marshall Ulrich, who is the most-decorated Badwater runner ever, is angling for his 20th official Badwater finish this year. His first year (in the 1990s), it was an evening start. So it will make a nice bookend for him.
Many people who have heard of the news of the night start have perhaps quickly assumed that the race would be much easier than the traditional morning start. I, for one, am not quite so sure...
The first half of the race, through the Death Valley floor (from the Badwater Basin to Stovepipe Wells, Miles 1-42), and then the 5000-ft climb to Towne Pass (Miles 43-58), will undoubtedly be easier this year with the night start. But the rest of the race will surely be much harder. Technically, the Badwater 135 passes through three valleys, not just Death Valley (Panamint Valley, Miles 68-72, and Owens Valley, Miles 100-122, are the others).
On a "traditional" year, the lead runners hit the Owens Valley in the dead of night. This is advantageous for at least two reasons: First, it is significantly cooler. Second, the runners are not forced to stare at the imposing sight of Mt. Whitney (the finish line) for over 20 miles. The mountain is visible for many, many miles until you actually start the climb, and it never appears to be getting closer.
This year, the lead runners will hit the Owens Valley during the middle of the afternoon, and temps in the Owens Valley that are only a few degrees cooler than Death Valley. (So temps up to 115 are definitely possible, if not probable).
Putting it all together, with an easier first half and a harder second half, my guess is that the race will be a tad faster overall, but only by an hour or so maximum. And for the middle-to-back of the pack runners, the finishing times will probably be slightly slower with the night start. (Slower runners will have to endure two full nights on the course, and see the sunrise twice before finishing. That is not an easy thing to do...) It will be exciting to see if a new course record is set, though. With the quality of the elite field this year, I think a new record will be set, and it will be around 22 hours (taking about 50 minutes off the current record).
3. The Stovepipe Wells invitational track meet.
With the night start, the elite runners will really push it for those first 42 miles on the Death Valley floor, from the start line at the Badwater Basin to Stovepipe Wells. Don't be surprised at all if the leaders roll into Stovepipe in around 5 hours (which is under a 7:30/mi pace). With the relatively-cool overnight temps (the overnight low will likely be in the 70s), a lot of the top runners will seek to take advantage and blaze through the Death Valley floor as quickly as possible.
The balance, of course, will be to determine how hard to push through the first night, while still considering the need to run through the blazing sun and extremely high temperatures on the second half of the race. But given the fact the 2015 race probably has more talent than any in the race's illustrious history, we should expect a handful of runners to have very fast splits through the first 42 miles.
So who are the favorites? Let's meet them:
4. The Men's Race: international studs and one yankee...
While last year's winner (on the modified, Lone Pine-based course), American Harvey Lewis, has as an impressive of a resume as any American-born ultrarunner who specializes in road races, he is -- in my opinion -- probably not the favorite in this year's race (my guess is he finishes between 2nd and 6th).
That fact speaks more to the quality of the field than to his ridiculously-impressive resume. (Harvey came in second at this year's Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota, as well as ran almost 160 miles while representing the U.S. at the 24-hour World Championships this past April in Torino, Italy. He has also finished Badwater in the top-5 multiple other times.)
So if Harvey is not the favorite, who is? To answer that, let's look at some of the top international men in this year's field:
We need to start with the course-record holder, Brazilian Valmir Nunez. His 2007 record of 22:51 has held strong for eight years now, but with this year's night start, it is in serious jeopardy. A late entry into this year's race, Valmir probably figured, "If someone is going to beat my record, it's going to be me, dammit!!" While Valmir is around 50 years old now, as far as pure talent, no one can touch him. He's run 100k (62 miles) in 6:18, a world-record at the time. Six-eighteen. Let that sink in for a minute...
Not only does Valmir have the talent, but he has the experience. Re the aforementioned "Stovepipe Track Invitational," Valmir has run enough races over the last two decades to run his own race. He will more-than-happily let others burn themselves out early in the race while he sits back, runs his own pace, and picks people off one-by-one throughout the race. My prediction for Valmir: podium finish (likely, 2nd or 3rd).
Another international runner who is very motivated to win this year is 2011 champion, Mexican Oswaldo Lopez. Oswaldo DNF'd at last year's race on the Lone Pine-based course, and from all indications, he is out to re-establish himself as one of the very best Badwater runners of all time. (In addition to winning in 2011, Oswaldo has finished in the top-3 multiple other times).
Besides being a world-class road runner, Oswaldo is likely the very nicest ultrarunner alive. (Anyone who has met him will readily agree; the dude is always happy and smiling). That being said, though, don't mistake his kindness for a lack of competitiveness: I paced him for 25 miles this February at the Iron Horse 100 in Palatka, FL, and during our stretch (Miles 50-75), someone actually passed him to take the lead (this is a pretty rare thing for Oswaldo). He looked at me, said, "He is a strong runner. . . But you know what? . . . So am I." And then he proceeded to blow past him and take command of the race.
Oswaldo will be right in the thick of things. My prediction for Meester Lopez: 3rd to 5th.
Next up, we have the "Maid of Honor." For the past two years, Aussie Grant Maughan has finished in 2nd place at the Badwater 135 (he's also finished 2nd at several other major ultras, as well as won a bunch others), and he is surely looking to improve one spot this year. Even though he is 50 years-old, Grant is still an elite road ultra runner, and likely the most mentally-strong runner I've ever met in my life. He's basically a cyborg; he just runs and runs and runs until he crosses the finish line. If the race comes down to a battle of wills (as opposed to pure physical talent), Grant is the hands-down favorite.
Grant will be there right until the finish. My prediction: a third-consecutive 2nd-place finish.
Of Grant, Valmir, and Oswaldo, none are my pick to actually win the race. For my money, there is only one man. Because his "Heart's On Fire..."
5. "Polish Rocky".
For those of you who don't know, Polish Rocky (Piotr Kurylo), is an international legend in road ultra running. He runs the 153-mile Spartathlon in Greece every year. And when I say "runs," I mean it. Literally. He runs from Poland to the start line in Athens, days before the race. (It's over 1000 miles from Poland to Athens). And then he always finishes in the top-10, at what is probably the most-competitive road ultra in the world (besides the 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa).
This year, Piotr has trained in the Phoenix heat for the past two months, doing nothing every day besides running (and training as if Ivan Drago will meet him in Badwater):
By the way, if look like that when I'm 50, I'll be pretty darn happy. Ladies and gentlemen, my predictive winner of the 2015 Badwater 135: Polish Rocky!!!
6. The Women's race: the prohibitive favorite.
Aly is so strong, she will challenge for the overall title at the Badwater 135 this year.
My prediction: Female winner by about 4 hours; 3rd-5th overall...
7. My Connection to this year's race.
I am also running the race myself, and I'm very curious to see just how well I can do in this race. I ran Badwater in 2013, and the improvement from the first time to the second is historically substantial, so I hope that holds true for me :)
Finally, Alex and I were so moved by Badwater and the Badwater family that we named our son Witt (after the finish line on the Mt. Whitney Portals), so we cannot wait to get back to Death Valley in a few short days :)
See you all in a few days!!!