Through Hell and Badwater


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Badwater is a funny event because, of course, it’s absurd,” remarks ultramarathon runner, Charlie Engle, on the two-day, 135-mile race he just completed. “It’s held in the second week of July, which is traditionally the hottest week of the year, in the hottest place on earth. This year in particular, while we were there, Death Valley actually had a heat wave.”

Though he’s completed in this same competition several other years, not to mention various longer races anywhere from Africa to Asia to the Americas, Badwater 2013 was especially meaningful to Engle.

“It is the culmination of these last few years of my bizarre life,” he says. “This is a book-end, if you will, on my ‘federal holiday,’ on all of the things that have happened to me.”

Charlie Engle running a 1/4 mile dirt path at Beckley Federal Prison. Photo courtesy of Charlie Engle.

The ‘federal holiday’ is a reference to the year and a half that Charlie Engle served at Beckley Federal Prison in West Virginia, following his conviction of mortgage fraud. While confined, Badwater was constantly on his mind: he was determined to run it again after he was released. Even though he had to sit a year out, Engle actually made the effort to go about a parallel race as the event was happening out west, running the same distance of “135 miles in prison in two days.”

So, he was released; he ran the race, and, ironically, from the way he described Badwater 2013 after he returned to his home in North Carolina, it is hard to believe that anyone would look forward to such a debilitating experience.

The heat was so extreme this time around that more runners dropped out than any year prior. The geological challenges of the race were also intense, beginning at an extreme depression and ending at considerable heights.

“You spend the first 42 miles at Badwater going from 282 feet below sea level, up to sea level,” Engle says of the slow, gradual rise in elevation.

That may sound like an impressive accomplishment, but it’s only the beginning.

“From that point, the racers climb 5,000 feet over the next 18 miles, and this is non-stop,” says Engle.

During this segment of the race, Engle and the other runners were met with gusting, scorching winds.

“This wind is charged with hot energy, and it’s blowing in runners’ faces, so they don’t sweat because, literally, it’s drying off your body before it can even hit the surface,” he says. “It was the most dehydrating section of Badwater.”

That part of the ultramarathon “destroyed many runners,” but Engle continued the dry and difficult trek.

“You finally reach Lone Pine, this little town, at 122 miles into the race,” he says. “Then there’s this sense of relief and dread in equal parts as you make a left-hand turn to climb thirteen miles up Mt. Whitney, to finish this race, which goes up to over 8,000 feet.”

Lone Pine, Ca. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The ultimate mountain-climbing section was bittersweet to Engle, being a “brutal way to finish the race” and “a perfect end to Badwater,” where he finished in fifth place.

This hot, long and painful race may not sound attractive to most people. However, Badwater is not the only extreme desert journey that this ultramarathoner has embarked on.

“Running the Sahara, which I did years ago, was about 4,600 miles,” he recalls of this time where he lost about 40 pounds – and only took two showers.

Though these numerical quotes may illustrate how such a state of being could be terrible and torturous, Engle somehow loved the experience. In fact, he deems the desert as his chosen terrain, as it offers the opportunity to run through its emptiness, vastness and visibility.

“The jungle, to me, is the hardest. I’ve raced in the jungles of Borneo, Vietnam, Fiji and the Amazon in Brazil.”

Having completed very long races on these places, Engle describes the grueling conditions of running through tropical terrains.

“All four of those locations can only seem claustrophobic, because you’re totally enclosed all the time,” Engle tells BTR. “You can’t see the sky. You can barely see ten feet in front of you because of the vegetation. It’s humid; there’s no air moving.”

This ecosystem is physically intrusive: Engle recalls being constantly “covered in leeches” and feeling like he was “wearing a jungle coat” all the time. At night, he would have to hang up hammocks to sleep, due to the hungry species that dwell in the soil.

“The ground is basically alive, and if you’re on it, you will very much become part of the food chain for something.”

Of course, many people would come to wonder why someone would care to challenge all of these terrains, climates, atmospheres, body aches, and even predators.

Engle claims that in part, he loves the environmental elements of new places. The opportunity to learn about different cultures is also inspiring, but what he especially enjoys is the clear and liberating mental state that these races grant him.

“There’s just such beauty and such simplicity in this kind of existence, and I think more than anything, that’s what I crave,” he says.

Not being tied down by computers, phones or today’s social requirement of being ever-reachable and ever-responsive, Engle strives for when he is unplugged from the world.

“All I had to think about during Badwater was running, continuing to move, staying hydrated, eating, and keeping my feet healthy,” says Engle. “There’s something so freeing about limiting the scope of what I’m thinking about.”

The race was especially clarifying this year, after having been released from prison, where he could be out in the open air, in the desert, and running. With that stage of his life behind him, Engle is able to tour environments on foot, and pursue the form of consciousness he craves.

“I think most people just don’t ever get a chance to experience this sort of singular purpose and in my opinion, they’re missing out on something by not giving it a try.”