Nearly 100 runners set off this morning on the run of their lives, racing to cover 135 miles of desert and mountain within two days - all for a belt buckle and bragging rights that they finished the infamous Badwater 135 Ultramarathon.
But this year, runners won't start at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, as they've been barred from Death Valley National Park. So, today they started in Lone Pine, 3,000 feet up a mountain in Inyo County, very different location and terrain.
Why were they barred from Death Valley? Well, there's a new boss in town. Late last year, the new superintendent at Death Valley National Park Service announced that they would issue no permits for about ten extreme sporting events held there this year, including Badwater 135.
The ban was announced in October, a month after a Park Service employee died out in the desert heat. The park management says there is no connection between that worker's death and the ban on endurance sporting events, rather, they want to underline the need to make visitor safety a top priority in that extreme environment.
During the one-year moratorium on permits, the park service is writing new safety rules for event managers, athletes and their support teams. For example: in past races, every runner in the Badwater race has one or two escort vehicles following them, and those vehicles will stop every mile or so to tend to the athletes.
The park service says all those cars and vans make for a dicey traffic situation pulling over on narrow roads or blind turns on what's normally a 55 mph roadway. The new safety rules aren't yet public, but they are likely to address this and other safety issues.
But don't think that this is an easy race by any means. The race director - Chris Kostman - tweeted that the new course is, "Much tougher, more scenic, ghost town, high altitudes, and far less troublesome desk-jockey bureaucrats. Still plenty hot."
Kostman's been outspoken in his opposition to the Park Service refusal to issue permits for sporting events this year. Those are the desk jockeys he's criticizing. His company, AdventureCorps, organized a letter-writing campaign to the park service complaining about the moratorium.
But, Badwater is as much a brand and business as an athletic event, and the show must go on, so he designed this new course outside Death Valley.
Runners on the new course started on Monday in Lone Pine and take four out-and-back runs up and down mountain roads. The new route goes through Cerro Gordo, a Gold Rush-era ghost town. A lot of the runners will be there after dark, so the race director is lighting up some of the old buildings for runners to see. What stays the same is that last long slog up the mountain from Lone Pine to Mt. Whitney Portal. And anybody completing this race will run up about 17,000 vertical feet. That's about 4,000 more feet of elevation than the old course. So it's not Badwater-Lite
Race director Kostman says he expects a greater percentage of the athlete field to drop out this year than usual, just because of the elevation gain, altitude, and near constant uphill and downhill running. Those who finish within 48 hours get a Badwater belt buckle.