It’s just a dry heat ... and other tales from the 2018 Badwater 135

Jennifer Nissen of Texas makes her way toward Panamint Springs during the 2018 Badwater 135. She finished in just under 48 hours.
Jennifer Nissen of Texas makes her way toward Panamint Springs during the 2018 Badwater 135. She finished in just under 48 hours. jesparza@vidaenelvalle.com

This is a tale of pain, heat and 2 a.m. delusions in the middle of nowhere.

But this is from a journalist’s point of view, not those of the 99 braver souls who tested themselves by trying to run 135 miles from Badwater Basin to Whitney Portal .

In 128-degree heat. (When they sell you ready-to-make popcorn, it’s inside a lead-lined bag to keep the kernels from premature popping).

From 282 feet below sea level to 8,371 feet above that line. That’s a cumulative 14,600 feet of vertical ascent and 6,100 feet of total descent. (Next time you head to L.A. on I-5, just remember that Tejon Pass tops out at 4,160 feet elevation).

On pavement that hit a toasty 165 degrees.

Ryan Montgomery of Utah broke into a dance at the 52-mile mark of the 2018 Badwater 135. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA jesparza@vidaenelvalle.com

When landmarks along the course have names like Devil’s Cornfield, Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, you know why this is called the world’s toughest foot race.

Welcome to the 2018 edition of the Badwater 135.

Get the picture?

With 99 runners broken into three waves with starts of 8 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m., you’re limited to taking photos of the first group before waiting for dawn the next day to capture the competitors.

The process is to sleep in your car at Stovepipe Wells, some 41 miles from the start, and then wake up before dawn to drive back down the two-lane highway until you find the last runner. Then, you start shooting each runner as you head north until you get to the lead runners.

There is no way to tell who is where. Lack of cellphone reception means you can’t log on to the race website to see where the runners are.

Some runners drop out before you can get a photo of them. This year, two-time champion Pete Kostelnick dropped out at mile 78 but was getting medical attention to the mother of all leg cramps when I missed him at Panamint Springs.

By my calculations, I missed taking photos of 17 runners. Thirty runners dropped out.

Bear with us, please

When Michele ‘Mickey’ Graglia, a 34-year-old coach/athlete from Los Ángeles, was yards from winning the race just before midnight, a race official yelled, “Watch out! There’s a bear there the road!”

Graglia, who was born in Italy and became a U.S. citizen, was clearly irritated.

“Don’t #@$* with us! Don’t try to get us to run faster,” said Graglia in the darkness about 50 yards from the finish.

Thing was, there was a baby cub rummaging through at least one car and some garbage bins. The cub had figured out how to get into the “bear proof” boxes.

An Inyo National Forest ranger caught the cub in the morning and took him 30 miles away.

Who was the toughest?

Previous champion Harvey Lewis showed up having just run the 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 49 days (just four days off the record), while top contender Grant Maughan had barely stopped long enough to recover from winning the Last Annual Vol State 500K (that’s 310 miles) about the same time Lewis was wrapping up his adventure.

By the way, Maughan climbed Mt. Everest a few weeks ago.

Let’s call it a coin flip, but we won’t use the penny spotted outside a Stovepipe Wells store where the temperatures approached 130 degrees!

By the way, Maughan went on to climb Mt. Whitney with his daughter and less than a week later completed the Los Ángeles Crest 100-mile race.

The real toughest runner?

We’ll have to give that title this year it to Jennifer Nissen, a 32-year-old Badwater rookie from Roanoke, Texas.

Not because the risk manager was the last of 66 runners who crossed the finish line, 47 hours, 37 minutes and 42 seconds after starting the race ... and taking a spill before the first mile. She made the cut-off time by less than 23 minutes.

It’s because Nissen finished the race, less than a year after being diagnosed with cancer.

She was the hit at the Wednesday evening pizza party even though she barely finished in time to limp into the gym at Lo-Inyo Elementary School. She got a standing ovation.

“This has changed my life in many, many positive ways. I mean, don’t get me wrong, cancer sucks,” she wrote on Facebook a few days later. “But I’ve gotten to experience so much because of my diagnosis.”

Nissen has thrown out the first pitch at a Colorado Rockies baseball game, run the Amsterdam Marathon, road tripped through Ireland, gone cliff diving in Puerto Rico and has plans to hike a glacier in Iceland adn go whitewater kayaking in the Grand Tetons.

“I’ve made many new friends and traveled more, lived fearlessly and embraced the unknown in ways BC (before cancer) Jennifer couldn’t,” she wrote.

That’s a tough human being!

Juan Esparza Loera has been editor of Vida en el Valle since it first published in August 1990. Send comments, suggestions or questions to: jesparza@vidaenvalle.com