Safety concerns put Badwater and Death Valley endurance races on hold

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The National Park Service, citing safety concerns for athletes and the public, has temporarily halted issuing permits for the famed Badwater 135-mile Ultramarathon and a dozen other endurance races at Death Valley.

Since 1987 the Badwater basin in Death Valley has been the starting point for the grueling 135-mile footrace. It's the lowest place in the Continental U.S. and a century ago a temperature reading of 134 degrees made it officially the hottest place on Earth.

The documentary "Running on the Sun" shows athletes baking in the sole-melting heat as they run across Death Valley National Park. For a certain type of endurance athlete, this is the pinnacle of a good time.

But the growing popularity of Death Valley endurance events and the traffic, health and environmental hazards they pose have prompted the National Park Service to call a halt to the fun.

Park Service spokeswoman Cheryl Chipman said the Park Service will issue no further permits for running and cycling events in Death Valley until they've completed a safety study and written new rules for athletes and their support crew vehicles to follow.

"We don't want to wait till we have a death or an accident or a mass casualty of some kind," Chipman said.

Cyclists were riding two or more abreast on Death Valley's two-lane roads, making it hard for cars to pass, she said. Park visitors also complained of environmental and visual blight as athletes relieve themselves along stretches of desert road with no porta-potties.

In the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, each of the 100 athletes brings a support crew of up to six people and two vehicles.

"A lot of it is traffic, people pulling in and out and following racers and creating a hazard as they were doing that for people just driving on the park roads and state highways," Chipman said.

Chris Kostman's company AdventureCORPS put on the last 14 editions of the race. In messages via email and social media he has called on participants to protest the moratorium on permits. For now, he has chosen alternate routes for his events outside the Death Valley National Park limits.

He says Badwater and other running and cycling events  have had few safety issues.

"As far as we can tell there have been no specific incidents that prompted the review," Kostman said.

He said a cyclist had a heart attack during one of his events, but his medical team came to the rescue.

"The Park actually told us it was a good thing that it happened during one of our events because we were able to respond so quickly," Kostman said.

An organizer who had already been granted a permit for a February marathon will be permitted to go ahead with that race, but the Park Service would not accept any applications for events occurring before Oct. 1, 2014 until a new safety plan was in place, Chipman said. She estimated the plan would be ready by spring.

Badwater is one of a dozen running and cycling endurance events that bring about 2,500 people to the park each year. More were in the planning stages, Chipman said.

"This is what race organizers or participants don't really appreciate is that we need to look at all of our one million visitors a year," Chipman said.

By withholding permits now, the park can set uniform safety standards in place for the benefit of all the park's visitors, she added.

Correction: The Badwater 135 Ultramarathon started in 1987. An earlier version of the story said it had been in existence 24 years.

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