Conquering Badwater

During the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, California, Ben Gaetos runs on the white line where it's not as hot. (Photo courtesy of Ben Gaetos)

An ultramarathon is a foot race longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. The Badwater Ultramarathon, simply known as “Badwater 135” is touted as the world’s toughest ultramarathon.

“Badwater 135” covers, well, 135 miles from the Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California, at 282 feet below sea level to Mt. Whitney Portal at 8,360 ft. above sea level. Along the way, the course covers three mountain ranges for a total vertical climb of 13,000 feet and cumulative vertical descent of 4,700 feet. The runners must cover this distance on foot within the cut-off time of 48 hours. It is a “by invitation only” event where 100 runners from a much larger pool of qualified applicants are invited to run.

On the 36th anniversary of the race, held from July 15-17, 2013, a Filipino ultrarunner was invited for the first time. Fifty-six- year-old Benjamin Gaetos of Eagle Rock in Los Angeles, popularly known as “Mang Ben” or “Kuya Ben” among his Filipino friends and the Filipino ultrarunning community, finished the grueling race in 44 hours 8 minutes and 7 seconds.

Gaetos' support team provides aid during the run. (Photo courtesy of Ben Gaetos)

Mang Ben finished in 64th out of the 81 runners who crossed the finish line. There were 97 runners from 25 countries in this year’s race. Out of the 97 runners, half were Badwater “veterans” and the other half were “rookies,” or ”first-timers” at Badwater.

Although Ben was one of the “rookies, ” he is an accomplished ultrarunner in his own right, having finished almost 60 ultramarathons, including 100-mile runs, 100km races, 50-milers and 50km runs. Ben has also completed the Bataan Death March (BDM) 160km and 102km ultramarathons in the Philippines.

It is so hot in Death Valley that runners are advised to run on the white line bordering the road where it is a few degrees cooler than the black asphalt, to prevent the soles of their shoes from melting.

“The mountain ranges near my house in Eagle Rock, California helped me with my strength and endurance in preparation for the race,” said Ben. “The hot weather in California and regular ‘sauna’ sessions since February of this year also gave me the confidence and acclimatization for the heat in the Death Valley Desert. ”

Ben also trained in Las Vegas Red Rock Canyon Park and Palm Springs, California, in the weeks prior to the race to get used to the extreme heat in the desert. There were times while heat training when he was stopped by roving California Highway Patrol officers or motorists and asked: “Are you lost?”; “Where are you going?”; “Where did you leave your car?”; “Are you out of gas?”; “Do you need help or a ride?”

On one occasion he was accosted for unknowingly running inside Indian Reservation Grounds. On another occasion, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway security personnel found his unusual activity in the bushes suspicious. Ben explained that he had stashed ice coolers with his hydration supplies at various points along the road.

Gaetos at the finish line, with crew chief "Ultra Mom" Nancy Shura-Dervin (Photo courtesy of Ben Gaetos)

It is so hot in Death Valley that runners are advised to run on the white line bordering the road where it is a few degrees cooler than the black asphalt, to prevent the soles of their shoes from melting. Ambient temperatures during the race reached as high as 121 degrees Farenheit, while the temperature on the ground reached as high as 180 degrees. Runners also endured blasting headwinds during midday and nighttime.

“My pace slowed down before I reached Lone Pine with my swollen left ankle and severe lower back pain, but I never thought of quitting the race. I knew my ultra friends back home in the country expected much from me as my participation and finish would be a significant part in the history of ultrarunning for the Philippines. I was not going to fail my friends and my country,” Ben said after he was awarded with the Badwater Finisher’s Medal and Belt Buckle.

A western belt buckle is the traditional finisher’s prize at 100+ mile ultramarathons, and the Badwater buckle is a particularly coveted one in the ultrarunning community due to the sheer difficulty and extreme conditions of the race.

Gaetos (third from left) with support crew at a break stop for aid (Photo courtesy of Ben Gaetos)

Ben is an architect at the Los Angeles City Department of Public Works. He is involved in the design and construction project management of public park recreation center facilities, gymnasiums, senior centers, and swimming pool facilities within the City of Los Angeles. He is also part of the team of city architects that worked on the latest transformation and reconstruction of the famous Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles.

“I fulfilled a long time dream of earning the Badwater 135 mile buckle,” Ben beamed. “I endured the heat of Death Valley and swollen ankles in the last 35 miles. Thank you to my family, relatives, co-workers, running and non-running friends, Joe and Derek and “A Running Circle” (ARC) family for your support and prayers. My crew led by my ultra mom, Nancy Shura-Dervin, Drew Foote, Balmore Flores, Jay Torres, Rafael Covarrubias, and Sundar Vembu took special care of me. To all Filipinos, para sa atin ito (This is for us)!”

Jovenal Narcise

Jovenal Narcise

Jovenal Narcise is a retired Major General of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and founder of the Philippine Association of Ultrarunners, a national organization affiliated with the International Association of Ultrarunners that promotes the sport of ultrarunning in the Philippines. Narcise is a dedicated ultrarunner himself, and is the race director of the Bataan Death March series of 102k and 160k ultramarathons. "Bald Runner" as he is known, also promotes local tourism in the Philippines through the various ultra runs he organizes in scenic locations across the country.