Sandra Villines was not expected to challenge at the 2017 STYR Labs Badwater 135, a grueling journey through Death Valley that includes 14,000 feet of combined elevation gain.
The 1990 graduate of Stockton’s Edison High School was rewarded at the 40th edition of Badwater while 20 runners – including 2011 champion Oswaldo López, 20-time finisher Marshal Ulrich and women’s favorite Brenda Guajardo – had to drop out for various reasons.
The 44-year-old Villines turned on the speed in the final 45 miles to become the first Latina to win the Holy Grail of ultrarunning. Race statistics show no woman ran the 31-mile stretch from Darwin to Lone Pine faster.
She finished in 34 hours, 34.43 minutes, good enough for 18th place overall. Villines was the first Latina to win the women’s race. (Twin sisters Barbara Álvarez and Angelika Castañeda, who won together in 1989-90; followed by a Castañeda win in 1999, were born in Italy and later married Latinos).
“I’m still kind of overwhelmed and in awe of being here,” said Villines, who was born in Bakersfield and has lived in Madera, Stockton and Sacramento. “Just being here is enough of a blessing for me.”
The heat, while not in the 120-degree range as the previous week, was still a factor. Throw into that 25 percent humidity, strong gusts of wind at the July 10 evening start (three waves of runners started at 8 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m.), and occasional lightning and the conditions were that much harsher.
“That’s expected!” said race director Chris Kostman about the harsh conditions.
The winning men’s time was the slowest since 2006, and the best women’s time was the slowest since 2001. Japan’s Wataru Iino, an engineer based in India, won the men’s race in 24:56:19.
The conditions and high dropout rate (the highest since 2003 when 27 of 73 starters dropped out) failed to dampen the enthusiasm for Villines and Jacques.
Villines showed up at Death Valley with a goal of beating her 2016 debut time of 36 hours, 35 minutes.
When Guajardo – who finished 10th overall last year and was the second-fastest woman at 28:40 – was sidelined at mile 10 after fracturing her right foot in the third mile, it opened the women’s field.
It appeared to be a gift for Hungary’s Szilvia Lubics, a three-time winner of the 246-kilometer (153 miles) Spartathlon in Greece.
Lubics, who holds the women’s Spartathlon record at 26:53, zoomed out to a 10-mile advantage as the runners hit the Father Crowley Lookout 80 miles into the race.
Villines was 39th overall, and trailed six women. At one point, she trailed Lubics by 3 hours, 41 minutes.
Earlier Tuesday morning, Lubics “went flying” by Villines, who started her run at 9:30 p.m. Lubics started at 11 p.m.
“I trained very hard for it, and I had a strategy,” said Villines. “But I never even thought about placing on the podium.”
When her coach mentioned she had a shot at winning, Villines developed “a whole new strategy and I went to work.”
By the time she reached Lone Pine, about 13 miles from the finish, Villines was two minutes behind Lubics. It didn’t take long for Villines to zoom past the Hungarian and win the women’s race by almost an hour. (Florida’s Amy Costa was second in ).
“My goal is always to do a good job, do my best, and, hopefully, inspire others that they can do the same thing,” said Villines, who this week celebrates her 25th year with Walgreens where she is a district manager.
Next up for Villines, known as Sandra Vi in the ultrarunning world, is an attempt to run from San Francisco to New York City in 52 days. That would be a women’s record if she can cover 54 miles to 65 miles a day.
Not bad for a high school student who “hated running” and was overweight.