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Badwater Ultramarathon's faces uncertain future

New safety assessments and recommendations from the National Park Service prevent the race's use of Death Valley in July.


It might be the end of an era.

Since 1987, the Badwater Ultramarathon, otherwise known as "the world's toughest foot race," has brought runners from the Badwater Basin to Whitney Portal. With a 135-mile course through California's Death Valley and over 8,500 feet in elevation gain, the AdventureCORPS race truly lives up to its tagline every July.

But that may have to change. Last month, the National Park Service completed and released a safety assessment of sporting events in Death Valley National Park. The event safety assessment team (ESAT) makes several recommendations for the park's permit process, including several that complicate future Badwater Ultramarathons, namely prohibiting events from June 14 to Sept. 9 and the cancellation in the event of "extreme weather events, including excessive heat alerts for 110 degrees or above."

In an early section on weather conditions, the report names Badwater specifically:

Visitors have questioned why the park allows running events to take place during the hottest time of the summer, when they are advised not to engage in outdoor physical activity. By permitting events to take place during summer months, the park has provided a mixed message to park visitors and other users.

Concern with this "mixed message" seems to be the driving force behind the report's conclusions.

Among the recommendations given, a few stand out. One pertains to events "scheduled at night in low visibility, in areas with limited communication, and in temperatures exceeding 120 degrees." As Badwater is an overnight ultra race held annually in July, this recognition all but calls it out directly. Other concerns with aid station locations, proper signage and misuse of park roads also pop up in the literature.

Race organizer Chris Kostman had little to say in his statement:

"We still see a bright future for the Badwater 135 but prefer not to comment yet until we have fully digested all the new requirements and have requested clarification of some details."

Late last year, the NPS imposed a temporary ban on sporting events in the park in preparation for the ESAT's work:

Effective immediately Death Valley National Park will temporarily discontinue issuance of running and bicycling event permits. Future event permits will not be considered until a thorough safety evaluation of this type of activity has been completed.

In response, AdventureCORPS updated its website with a more in-depth history page and an official statement regarding the temporary ban.

The new park policy changes won't necessarily cancel Badwater outright, but as it stands, getting the appropriate permits remains up in the air. You may still be able to officially run the toughest foot race in the world, but it won't be in July.

The 2014 race was won by a pair of American runners: male Harvey Lewis and Alyson Venti on the women's side.