By Scott Ludwig
Virtually moments after I crossed the finish line at Western States, I was asked the inevitable question:
Which was harder: Badwater or Western States?
I imagine some who have tackled both have had to give this question some thought, while others—like myself—can answer before the second syllable in ‘Western’ is spoken.
- Badwater is 130 degrees of stifling heat. Western is a variety of dry temperatures ranging from 40 to 100 degrees (the latter incurred during a ‘hot’ year).
- Badwater is 134.4 miles of blazing hot asphalt through the hottest desert in the country followed by the crossing of three mountain ranges. Western is 100.2 miles of soft, mostly shaded trails through a beautiful mountain range.
- Runners in a typical Badwater field have a completion rate of less than 60%. Western’s is usually well over 70%.
- Badwater’s starting field is usually less than 100 runners. Western’s is regularly in the mid-400’s.
- Badwater has a time limit of 60 hours. Western’s is 30 hours.
- Badwater has no official aid stations. Western has fully-equipped, fully stocked, and fully staffed (by some of the finest volunteers in the country) aid stations approximately every four miles along the course.
That being said, unquestionably the more difficult of the two is…Western States.
While ‘on the surface’ it may appear that Western States is the easier of the two, for a road-hardened runner like me, just the opposite was true.
At Badwater you could count on the weather being consistent; that is to say, (indescribably) hot. At Western, I found myself running through snow two feet deep while thinking I was overdressed in a sleeveless shirt and a pair of shorts. Later in the race, while I was swallowing dust being stirred from the trails in 100 degree heat, it felt as it I were suffocating.
At Badwater I was able to follow one of the basic tenets of my running philosophy: no thought required. I knew that after each step my foot would land on soft, solid (albeit hot) asphalt. At Western, each step was a surprise. Will that rock move and cause me to twist my ankle if I land directly on it? Will this patch of mud be fairly firm, or will it swallow me up to my knees? Is that wet pile of leaves going to be slippery and cause me to fall off the side of the mountain? You get the idea. Give me solid, no-thought-required asphalt any day.
At Badwater there is a 60-hour time limit; I finished with almost 23 ½ hours to spare. At Western, I missed the get-your-name-listed-in-the-results time limit of 30 hours by just under 17 minutes. If this alone is not an indicator as to which race I thought was ‘easier,’ nothing is.
At Badwater, I finished a surprising 6th overall and 3rd place male. At Western, I was the last runner (of slightly more than 200 finishers) to officially cross the finish line. At Badwater, I received a belt buckle—not for finishing 6th, but for finishing under 48 hours. At Western, I received a framed inspirational quote…for finishing last.
Sure, Western offered numerous aid stations as well as incredible volunteer support throughout the event. However, nothing beats having a support crew to provide me with virtually anything I need whenever I needed it like I had at Badwater. Not having to carry my own water bottle, as was the case in Death Valley, made it that much easier to run (no hands required, another of the basic tenets of my running philosophy).
One thing both races had in common: I had the most incredibly proficient, supportive and encouraging crews imaginable. Paula, Gary, Eric, Josh and Al in the desert; and Danielle, Susan and Bill in the mountains. If any of you don’t know how important each of you were in crossing these two finish lines, you do now.
One school of thought is that the ‘beauty’ is the magnificent Western States trail running through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Another is that the ‘beauty’ is simply my primary pacer Danielle.
Some—like myself—may refer to the treacherous Western States trail as the ‘beast.’ Others may consider me as the ‘beast,’ their reasons known only unto themselves.