DEATH VALLEY, Calif. — Like a lot of people this summer, Bob Boudreau was complaining about the heat. Unlike a lot of people, he was complaining that it wasn’t hot enough.
“Too chilly,” Boudreau joked as he stood by a golf cart, squinting at the sunny green expanse of the golf course at the Furnace Creek Resort in Death Valley National Park. Boudreau was one of about 30 hardy golfers waiting in mid-June to tee off at the Heatstroke Open, an annual golf tournament for golfers at Furnace Creek, the very spot where the highest air temperature ever on Earth was once recorded — 134 degrees on July 10, 1913.
But at 7 a.m., with the temperature just nudging the 90s, Boudreau and other golfers seemed disappointed it wasn’t hotter And that afternoon, as the last of the golfers finished their rounds, the temperature still was barely touching 100.
Alas for the golf extremists, the Heatstroke Open had happened a week too early. This past weekend, Death Valley recorded a high temperature of 129 degrees, which would tie the all-time June record high for the United States.
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Heat-lovers are now turning to another sporting focus in Death Valley: Running in mid-July.
Like the Heatstroke Open, the 36th annual Badwater Ultramarathon, scheduled for July 15-17, is a celebration of extremes. But unlike the golf tournament, open to any duffer who has sufficient will power, water, sunscreen, stamina and the inclination to be in Death Valley in the summer, the Badwater 135 is an invitational event that annually draws about 100 of the toughest, most serious runners from around the world.
How serious? Consider that the race begins in the hellfire depths of Death Valley at Badwater, the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere, and continues day and night for 135 miles westward over scorching desert and across two California mountain ranges, before ending at 8,360 feet up Mount Whitney.
Lessons for the rest of us? Well, even golfers sometimes forget that extreme heat, which is often deceptive when accompanied by very dry conditions, needs to be approached with extreme caution. And travelers, who typically tug on the sneakers after arrival at a hotel and look for a place to run anywhere they are, might find it useful to hear from the true masters of the running universe, especially now that it’s so darn hot, literally on the road.
The Badwater race often starts with temperatures in the 120-degree range, when asphalt on that sunblasted road out of the valley can radiate more than over 180 degrees. What kind of runners seek this out?
“It bothers me sometimes when you hear people say these people are insane or have some kind of death wish,” said Chris Kostman, whose title is chief adventure officer at Adventurecorps, a California-based organizer of ultra-endurance sports events that runs the Badwater 135. Kostman, an archaeologist and endurance athlete who is also the Badwater race director, said the runners who come to Death Valley — he said 80 percent of them cross the finish line — are at their physical peak: superbly conditioned, aware of the difficulties, driven to endure. “A lot of people just focus on the Death Valley heat part, which is just the first third of the race,” he added. After the long, desolate valley, there are mountain ranges and finally that 13-mile climb to the finish line on Mount Whitney. “It can be like 30 degrees up there, and the day before, it could have been 130 in the desert,” he said.
Even for everyday runners, heat is a big factor in unfamiliar places, said Jenny Hadfield, a top-ranked endurance athlete and coach who is the author of books like “Running for Mortals” and “Marathoning for Mortals.” In dry, hot places “your body sweats, of course, but you don’t realize it because it dries so quickly,” said Hadfield, who has crewed at the Badwater 135.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can occur quickly to the unaware, whether in dry climates or humid ones. “On a hot day in Chicago, you’re sweating so profusely, sometimes even before you run, it doesn’t evaporate in the humidity. Your body dehydrates quickly and heats up quickly because your body is on overtime trying to cool itself,” said Hadfield, who offers tips for conditioning and running in heat on her website, Jennyhadfield.com.
“One good tip is to run intervals, the easiest way to keep your body cool,” Hadfield said. “If you go into a situation where it’s really humid or really, really hot and you’re struggling; you’re breathing heavily at your normal effort, just add a minute or two of power-walking to bring everything back down.”
She added: “When I travel, which is a lot, I typically do some running. But in extreme weather, frankly, I just run inside. I always book my travel for a hotel chain where I know they’re going to have a nice treadmill.”