Any attempt to rank the hardest ultra marathons in the world is always going to be hotly debated. It’s a subjective topic and what is brutally tough for the goose might be perfectly acceptable to the gander. However, one race that regularly pops up in discussions of the toughest races on earth is the Badwater Ultra Marathon.
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Participants have to run 135 miles, starting 85m below sea level at Badwater and finishing at 2,530m at Whitney Portal, climbing 4,450m throughout the course in California's Death Valley National Park, the hottest place on the planet.
However impressive you are as a runner, however long you've spent training, running in Death Valley is a tough proposition, even if you have no intention of running 135 miles. Suffice to say I was quite apprehensive when I set off for, not the Badwater Ultra, but two days running in the furnace with Under Armour’s second Run Camp, a project which pits elite runners (and me) against extreme conditions.
Day 1: Titus Canyon
The good news on the first day of Run Camp was that we were not going to be running in the hottest part of the day. The bad news was that meant starting the drive to Death Valley insanely early in order to get there for a 7am start.
There was, however, more good news to be found in the route for the run, which turned out to be 11 miles downhill through the Titus Canyon. Sheer walls shadowed the trail on both sides for most of the run, right up until the awe-inspiring moment when they fell away to reveal the scale of the valley itself.
Despite the name, Death Valley is remarkably beautiful, so a run where you actually had a chance to look around and enjoy your surroundings was the perfect introduction to the area.(opens in new tab)
Day 2: The Badwater Road
Our second run, along the Badwater Road, was less about the beauty and more about brutal endurance. Before we even reached the road, we had to cover several miles of trail.
Fortunately, it was a relatively mild day in Death Valley, with temperatures in the mid-30s. Unfortunately, I’m from the UK, so it felt very hot indeed. It was a dry heat which, coupled with the wind, can dehydrate you rapidly without you realising.
The long, straight stretches of the run made it feel like I was going nowhere, especially on slight uphills where the going got tougher. It felt like a huge victory when I finally finished the trail section of the run, which ended with a long, straight, energy-sapping uphill, and reached the road, which heralded a very welcome downhill stretch.
The Badwater Ultra is known for the long, white line, the road marking which competitors stay fixated on as they plod along. Even over the laughably short distance I was running when compared to the real thing, I grew to hate the white line, occasionally straying off to the shoulder of the road just to get a break from its relentlessness.
Under Armour hadn’t revealed the length of the run, which, combined with the damnable white line, started to really mess with my head at around the 13-mile mark.
I started to hope every crest would reveal the finish, resulting in several severe disappointments when it only revealed more empty road.
Eventually, at the 15-mile point, I glimpsed fluoro vests half a mile ahead and decided that that had to be the end. If not, it would be my end anyway.
Luckily, it proved the real thing, with the run finishing, fittingly, in Furnace Creek, site of the 1913 record for hottest temperature ever recorded.
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UA Run Camp
The first UA Run Camp was in the mountains of Colorado, the low temperatures and high elevation testing the participants. The challenges in Death Valley were quite the opposite, and who knows what the focus of the next camp, likely to be in the second half of 2017, will be?
Follow @UARunning on Twitter (opens in new tab) or Instagram (opens in new tab) for updates and info on how to apply for a place. For 2016, hopefuls had to share a picture of themselves on social media after their toughest run, tagging @UARunning and using the hashtags #EarnYourSpot and #UAContest.
UA Charged Bandit 2 Running Shoes(opens in new tab)
It’s easy to underestimate the Bandits at first glance. They seem too lightweight to cope with really long, tough runs and are free of the gaudy fluorescent markings of contemporary long-distance running shoes.
However, after testing them in the most extreme conditions I could handle, I can confirm that the Bandits are very much up to the job.
Despite their modest appearance, they cram in all the support required for long runs, but they’re also flexible and durable enough that you can wear them on fairly rugged trails.
The upper is breathable and comfortable and the fact that the Bandits come in under 300g also means they’re easily light enough for short, tempo runs as well as long-distance training. £80, buy on underarmour.co.uk (opens in new tab)
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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