What happens when the two-time defending champion is still trying to get his running legs back after competing in the 24-Hour World Championships a week earlier in Ireland?
The women’s favorite fractures her right foot three miles into the race?
A 20-time finisher – with a record four wins – drops out?
The 2011 champion, one of the race’s most popular runners, can only handle 105 miles of the 135-mile race?
The 2014 winner, who ran 144 miles in 24 hours in that Ireland race, struggles through the early part of the race?
And, the conditions – 117-degree temperatures, 25 percent humidity, some rain, and wind gusts at the starting line that blows away anything not bolted down – taunt the 95 starters with Mother Nature’s fury?
Well, if you’re race director Chris Kostman, you have a race in your hands.
“That’s to be expected!” said Kostman during the 40th edition of the STYR Labs Badwater 135.
In the end, history will show that Japanese engineer Wataru Iino overtook an exhausted Marco Bonfiglio and a hard-charging Harvey Lewis to win the Holy Grail of ultrarunning in 24 hours, 56 minutes, 19 seconds.
It was the slowest winning men’s time since 2006, but the race provided drama as Bonfiglio had opened up an 8-mile lead as the runners crested the second of three mountain ranges just past the race’s halfway point.
But it did generate some drama: By mile 109, Iino had hunted down the Italian runner and ended up winning by almost an hour. Meanwhile, Lewis (who, along with 2015-16 champion Pete Kostelnick, began to chase down runners from Darwin to Lone Pine) closed strongly in third place.
Iino, who works at a car factory in India, began running out of frustration over the 18-kilometer commute from home to work. He discovered he could get to work quicker by running.
“It was very hard, but I enjoyed it,” said Iino about his Badwater debut. He became the first Japanese entrant to win the race, and the first non-American since Portugal’s Carlos Sá won in 2013.
2014 champion bounces back for 3rd
Lewis, who runs regularly to and from his elementary teaching job in Cincinnati, was trapped by floodwater road damage between Lone Pine and Badwater Basin. He made the starting line in time, but he still wasn’t sure if his body was ready.
He felt tired running a 9-minute-per-mile pace after the 13th mile, but managed to survive to Stovepipe Wells, the 42-mile mark.
A soft drink, a change of shoes and shorts and Lewis was ready to make the the trek to the halfway point at Panamint Springs.
That stretch includes an 8-mile descent. “It may sound a little crazy but I visualize I was on a yellow raft floating down the mountain and let gravity do the work,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
At Panamint Springs, he was 11 miles behind Iino, and 12 miles behind Bonfiglio.
Six runners – including 2011 winner Oswaldo López and women’s leader Szilvia Lubics – were ahead of him.
In the end, Lewis finished four miles behind Iino and about a mile behind Bonfiglio.
“It was unprecedented! I could never have predicted that we would finish third anywhere early in the race,” said Lewis, who battled iliotibial (IT) band issues early on.
“Even Kelly (his fiancé) said not until mile 90 did I think you had any chance for top 3,” said Lewis, who recently converted to vegan from vegetarian.
Kostelnick finishes a strong fifth
Kostelnick – who smashed the trans-continental record earlier this year by running from San Francisco to New York City in 42 days, 6 hours, 30 minutes – wasn’t sure if his running legs were ready to tackle Badwater and its 14,000 feet in combined elevation gain.
The 30-year-old accountant from Missouri lost two hours in the medical room after mile 72 trying to figure out how to get back into the race after experiencing low energy levels. He teamed with Lewis to finish fifth in 28:18:07, far off the course record he set last year in 21:56.32.
A couple days after Badwater, Kostelnick signed up for a 24-hour race on Labor Day weekend.
“Wow, what an experience,” Kostelnick wrote in his Facebook page. “One thing I love about running in the Badwater for four years in a row is how familiar and beautiful the course is, but how every year there is some obstacle thrown your way to keep you guessing.”
Last Wednesday evening, Kostelnick said he would start running more races.
“I come away with a renewed sense of confidence from this race,” he wrote.
Groin injury halts Jiménez’s ‘dream race’
Among the men’s favorites was Pebble Beach caddy Michael Jiménez, who finished seventh in his 2015 Badwater debut. Last year, he crewed for friend Ashley Lindsey last year.
Jiménez was in seventh place at the 95-mile mark when he began to feel something wrong near his left groin area.
“It felt tight bad,” said Jiménez. “I tried massaging it a little but that didn’t work.”
He ended up power hiking for the following 5 miles.
“I had the perfect pace!” Jiménez said about his race before the injury. He was forced to drop out at mile 116.
“I would have loved to have kept going,” said Jiménez, who used a cane to get around the following day. “I was in a death march. I couldn’t even get to the van.”
Jiménez said there “are other years ahead here,” signaling his return to the Death Valley race.
Fan favorite Oswaldo López bows out
If what happened less than an hour before the race was an omen for López – the 2011 champion and a race favorite this year after he revised his training schedule to avoid races and focus on mountain climbs and descents, primarily in Yosemite National Park – he wasn’t aware.
The driver of his van, trying to back into a parking space between two other vehicles at Badwater Basin almost clipped a competitor’s crew member as she arranged stuff. Then, on his second try, the driver came within an inch of hitting the adjacent van despite hollers from bystanders.
López – whose Badwater resume includes a title in 2011, four seconds, a third and an uncharacteristic eighth last year – established a fast tempo at the start.
mariachi trumpet player from Madera was first into Stovepipe Wells (42 miles) and first into Panamint Springs (72 miles). At the second spot, he took time for a massage while Iino and Héctor Bengolea charged ahead.
The worst was still ahead. López started to feel stomach problems on the road to Lone Pine and struggled at mile 105, where he was four miles behind the two leaders. A crew member who is a nurse cautioned him to see the medical team.
Minutes later, he dropped out of his second Badwater in four years. Both were due to stomach problems.
López, who did not attend the Wednesday evening recognition event, apologized to his supporters in a Facebook post.
“Unfortunately, I started to have stomach problems that eventually lead me to drop out of the race. I could not continue after mile 105 and in third place,” he wrote. “From the bottom of my heart I apologize for letting you guys down.”
15 Latino runners challenged Badwater
The Latino contingent totaled 15 this year, with representation from the U.S., Puerto Rico, México, Colombia and Argentina.
Other than Sandra Villines’ triumph in the women’s race, the men’s highlight was Ray Sánchez completing his 10th consecutive Badwater in eighth place. He had a personal-best seventh-place finish in 2015.
Sánchez timed 30:23:20, finishing half an hour behind Japan’s Tetsuo Kiso and an hour ahead of American Mark Matyazic.
The 50-year-old engineer was within three miles of a pack that included Lewis, Kostelnick, Jiménez and Grant Maughan at mile 95. At that point, he was in 10th place. Sánchez didn’t pass anyone, but didn’t allow any other runner to pass him either in the final 40 miles.
Except for López and Jiménez dropping out, the order for the first eight finishers didn’t change from that point on.
▪ Brothers Federico and Juan Sánchez, construction workers from Saint Helena, were trying to complete Badwater at the same time for the first time. Each had two finishes coming into the race.
Juan, at 48 the oldest by a year of the two, finished 30th in 36:23.54. Federico had to drop out at mile 73 near Panamint Springs due to leg problems.
“I started a bit fast, and that destroyed me heading toward Lone Pine,” said Juan, who had open heart surgery two years ago.
Federico said his legs never responded. By the 50th mile, he was hurting. The uphill was OK, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate on the downhill.
The brothers are unsure about future Badwaters. They have young families.
“For me, it was a personal decision,” said Juan in Spanish. “My wife knows how important this is to me.”
Federico said the same thing. “It’s a decision that a couple makes,” said Federico, whose children are 1½ and 3 years old. “They give life to our marriage.”
▪ Puerto Rico’s Luigi Dessy finished sixth in 2015 with a time of 28:24.37. But, the engineer/certified welding inspector slowed down to a 32:38:00 time last year.
Despite having 2009 champion Valmir Nunes on his crew this year, Dessy, 39, managed a 38th-place time of 38:09.54.
He has finished four consecutive Badwater races.
▪ Camilo Martínez, a Colombian who lives in New York City, improved on his 2014 debut when he clocked 34:24.23 to finishe 21st. Last week, the 36-year-old self-employed runner timed 33:32:59 for 13th place.
▪ Roberto Mario Gili Farina, a 44-year-old travel agency owner from Córdoba, Argentina, made his Badwater debut with a 51st-place time of 40:06:46.
He took up ultrarunning as a protest against his doctors who told him athletics was out of the question after he injured his left shoulder playing rugby.
“They prohibited me from taking part in any sports,” said Gili Farina in Spanish. “Badwater was very hard, very pretty, and very well organized.”
Don’t expect Gili Farina to be back next year. He doesn’t repeat races.
Two other Argentines competed: Héctor Bengolea, 53, finished 26th in 35:57.07; and, Juan Craveri, a 48-year-old Buenos Aires businessman, who finished 94th in 45:28.31. For Craveri, it was his second finish at Badwater in three tries.
▪ Francisco ‘Paco Raptor’ Manzanares, who had been battling a lower back injury leading up to Badwater, returned for the second time in three years.
In 2015, he finished in 41:13:42 on a redrawn course when the Death Valley National Park superintendent banned the race and other activities until a safety study was done (There has never been a death in the 30 years that Badwater races have been organized).
This year, he figured he’d try to break the 40-hour mark. The 47-year-old businessman from Chihuahua, Chihuahua, México did it. He crossed the finish line at Mt. Whitney Portal in 39:47:08.
“To finish the 2017 Badwater 135 is a life experience worth living the pain,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
▪ Dessy wasn’t the only Badwater entrant with a previous champion on his crew. Nelva Valladares had 2008 winner Jorge Pacheco on her crew.
The 32-year-old Los Ángeles resident made her Badwater debut with a 29th-place finish of 36:23:53.
“Just as life has its ups and downs so did Badwater 135,” said Valladares in her Facebook post.
Valladares, a graduate of Exeter High School, was the fifth female finisher at Badwater.
Record run for ‘The Jester’
Among other highlights from the 2017 Badwater 135:
▪ Ed ‘The Jester’ Ettinghausen broke the record for most races of at least 100 miles by finishing his seventh consecutive Badwater in 37:39:56, good for 35th place. The 56-year-old running coach/motivational speaker from Wildomar has now completed 142 races of at least 100 miles. He stayed around at the finish line to cheer on the rest of the finishers.
▪ Twenty runners did not finish the race, including López and Guajardo, who were considered among the favorites. Four-time Badwater champion Marshall Ulrich, 66, of Colorado, was trying to finish his 21st Badwater but dropped out. The 20 DNFs was the most since 2003 when 27 of 73 starters did not finish.
▪ Germany’s Uli Stuwe was the only runner who started at 9:30 p.m. to finish among the top 10. The “full-time dad” who lives in Ventura placed fourth overall in 27:40:24. Runners started at 8 p.m., 9:30 p.m. or 11 p.m. on July 10. They all had 48 hours to complete the course.
▪ After not completing the race since 2015, Shannon Farar-Griefer was the last finisher in 46:10:46 with less than 2 hours to spare. The 56-year-old resident of Calabasas has multiple sclerosis.