A feat of love, hate at world’s toughest footrace; foreigners shatter records

Badwater Ultramarathon champion and new record-holder Yoshihiko Ishikawa finishes the 135-mile race with his crew, which includes his girlfriend Miki Matsushima.
Badwater Ultramarathon champion and new record-holder Yoshihiko Ishikawa finishes the 135-mile race with his crew, which includes his girlfriend Miki Matsushima.

The heat was on 31-year-old Yoshihiko Ishikawa during the 2019 edition of the Badwater Ultramarathon, a race through a blistering 135 miles and cumulative elevation climbs of 14,600 feet.

After all, those obstacles are what makes this the world’s toughest foot race.

Ishikawa also faced a daunting collection of elite ultrarunners.

▪ Two-time winner Pete Kostelnick had run from San Francisco to New York City in record time, and was the only man to break the race’s 22-hour mark.

▪ Harvey Lewis, who recovered from a broken neck to win the 2014 race, has competed at ultras throughout the world.

▪ Australia’s Gran Maughan has climbed Mt. Everest, run the Iditarod in frozen weather and sailed the seven seas in inhospitable waters.

Badwater Ultramarathon champion and new record-holder Yoshihiko Ishikawa proposed to his girlfriend, Miki Matsushima. She said yes. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

The engineer – who conquered the daunting Spartathlon (a 152-mile run in Greece) last year – was more worried that he had trouble getting down on one knee seconds after claiming the 2019 Badwater race in record time.

Flanked by portable lights, race officials and several onlookers, Ishikawa held onto his girlfriend Miki Matsushima as he lowered his right knee onto the asphalt at Mt. Whitney Portal and reached for a small jewelry box he had hidden on his headlamp.

Painfully, he got down and proposed.

She said yes.

Yoshihiko Ishikawa gets emotional after he proposed to his girlfriend, Miki Matsushima. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

His face showed the emotions of the moment.

Ishikawa ran away with the grueling race with a time of 21 hours, 33 minutes and 1 second. The old mark (21:56:32) was set in 2016 by two-time champion Pete Kostelnick.

How dominant was Ishikawa?

He took the lead at Stovepipe Wells, which is the 42-mile mark. He ran without a pacer the entire race. His victory was a foregone conclusion by the time he reached Lone Pine, the 122-mile point.

The only question was: Would he break the record?

Much like Matsushima’s response: Yes!

Yoshihiko Ishikawa runs while his girlfriend Miki Matsushima offers him encouragement near the Alabama Hills. Ishikawa shattered the course record. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

Ishikawa, through an interpreter, said he has been preparing for Badwater the last two years. The most difficult part of the course, he said, was the downhill from Darwin because it wasn’t scenic enough.

“This time it’s the longest I’ve been on a race course,” Ishikawa posted on this Facebook page. “The support crew helped me get my butt slapped, alive and managed to get a goal. It’s been a long trip.”

Just as impressive was the effort by Poland’s Patrycja Bereznowska, who broke the women’s record with a time of 24:13:24. The old mark of 25:53:07 was set in 2016 by Alyson Venti.

Bereznowska is no stranger to ultra records. She holds the women’s record at the Spartathlon (24:48:18 in 2017) and owns the women’s 48-hour world record.

The 43-year-old runner finished second overall at Badwater, and was more than five hours ahead of the second woman, Maryland’s Gina Slaby (29:26:45).

Other race highlights

▪ Kostelnick, who was expected to be one of the main runners, struggled with hamstring issues at mile 101. He staked is position, went to Lone Pine for a cheeseburger and a nap before returning to his spot six hours later.

Two-time Badwater Ultramarathon champion Pete Kostlenick ran into problems during the middle part of the 135-mile race but managed to finish in 35 hours, 32 minutes, 29 seconds JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

“Some days aren’t yours, even when 90 percent of things go your way,” said Kostelnick. “And sometimes someone else raises the bar on your course record, but you can usually salvage something.”

Kostelnick covered the final 13 miles in 2 hours, 23 minutes, believed to be the fastest-known time for that section that features 5,000 feet of vertical climb. Ishikawa, who also ran the final portion, needed 3 hours and 10 minutes to cover that distance.

▪ Lewis, the runner-up, made his move after Panamint Springs but had too much distance to make up.

Cincinnati school teacher Harvey Lewis approaches the Darwin checkpoint Tuesday afternoon. He finished third. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

“Badwater was an absolutely battle from start to finish. A battle in the exterior world with the elements and the other racers; and a battle in the mind to keep positive & moving when it seems no longer possible,” he said. “I fought through innumerable challenges including overheating and my toughest climb to the finish up Whitney. At a point, holding onto third seemed exceptionally unlikely.”

▪ No, that was not some person wandering endlessly in the desert leading up to Panamint Springs. That was Australian Grant Maughn sporting a self-designed outfit.

Australian Grant Maughn makes his way toward Panamint Springs on Tuesday morning. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

“There was a lot of curiosity about what I was wearing yesterday while running the Badwater 135,” said Maughn, who finished seventh in 28:30:33. “I call it the Sol Poncho.”

Maughn designed the outfit which looks like a dress from distance to “be billowing to allow air flow, bit like a Bedouin robe.”

“It’s fantastic and was my fashion statement for this year’s race,” he said.

▪ Double amputee Chris Moon finished his sixth Badwater with his sons at his side. The United Kingdom runner lost parts of his right arm and right leg while clearing mines in Rhodesia.

Chris Moon makes his way toward Lone Pine on Wednesday morning. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

While making his way to Lone Pine on a late Wednesday morning, Moon remained positive and even asked a photographer if he needed different poses.

Moon finished 74th among the 79 finishers in 45:33:38.

▪ Sixteen of the 95 starters did not finish, including first-timer Nancy Levene.

The 51-year-old mother of four from New York was “really having a race of a lifetime” until her rental car broke down past the race midpoint.

“I went 22 miles without a crew car,” said Levene.

The race traffic director and his daughter served as Levene’s crew until she landed in medical and the decision was made for her to stop. Levene donated a kidney to a daughter last year.

▪ Among the finishers were Sacramento’s Ray Sánchez, who completed his 12th consecutive Badwater. He finished 28th in 34:29:31.

Arizona corporate attorney Angel Vega approaches the 126-mile mark of the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon on Wednesday morning. After not finishing last year, Vega completed the race in 39 hours, 48 minutes, 7 seconds. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

Arizona lawyer Ángel Vega finished 52nd in 39:48:07 after having to drop out during last year’s race.

Argentina’s Héctor Bengolea picked up his second finish (27th in 34:23:11), while Uruguay’s Silvia Amodio placed 35th in 36:17:48.

More stories, photos: