'Toughest' race barred from Death Valley takes tougher route

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When the 135-mile "world's toughest footrace" is barred from its traditional route through one of the world's hottest place, what's a race director to do?  If you're Chris Kostman, you make it tougher.

This year's version of the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon has less desert, more mountains, and still plenty of heat. Runners who  start Monday's race in the new headquarters at Lone Pine and cross the finish line near Mt. Whitney within 48 hours  get a commemorative Badwater belt buckle and lifelong bragging rights.

Historically, the race starts at Badwater Basin in Death Valley. At 266 feet below sea level, it's the lowest place in the contiguous United States. Most of the race was within Death Valley National Park where temperatures of 120 degrees or more radiating off the black asphalt road would melt shoes and blister runners' feet.

Citing safety concerns and the need to draft new safety rules, the National Park Service stopped issuing permits for extreme sporting events in Death Valley last year. The Badwater 135 was one casualty.

With the park off limit this year, Kostman moved the race start line up to Lone Pine, and reconfigured the course as a series of out-and-back routes that climb three major passes. The final 45 miles take runners back through Lone Pine and up to Mt. Whitney Portal, just below the highest point in the lower 48 states.

The old course started with 43 miles across the flat desert. The new version begins with a climb, Kostman said.

"This year it will start with a 23-mile straight uphill ascent going up 65-hundred feet from Lone Pine and then they'll turn around and run back downhill for 23 miles," he said. "And that's just the beginning of the race."

The race also goes up a mountain road to the Gold Rush-era ghost town Cerro Gordo. Although much of the old route has changed, the race still finishes with a 45-mile ascent out of the desert up through Lone Pine to Mt. Whitney Portal.

Kostman said the old course was safe and that the race had no deaths or hospitalizations of participants.

Park Service spokeswoman Cheryl Chipman said the moratorium on event permits was necessary even though there had been no event-related deaths.  "We don't want to wait 'til there is one to make them safer, given what we've observed, what we know is happening out there," she said.   She said the many support vehicles that tend to athletes make frequent starts and stops on the narrow, 55 miles-per-hour road are also a safety hazard.

She says new permits can be issued once the Park Service adopts new safety rules.




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