It was the middle of July in Death Valley , California, and people were dying. Eighty-one of them to be exact. For Canadian Ferg Hawke, it was just a question of how much longer he could postpone his demise.
By the time he'd reached the 90-mile checkpoint in the 2005 Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, Hawke had been running for 16 hours in preternatural heat that had spiked to 53 degrees Celsius. After being among the top three runners for most of the race, the 47-year-old had just taken over the lead. But his body was in trouble, especially his feet. He knew that if the agonizing blisters blossoming on his toes hadn't started bleeding yet, they soon would. And then the skin would tear off. And then the real pain would begin.
Like every other runner in this test of-depending on your outlook-fortitude or folly, Hawke would admit that he actually enjoys making his body suffer. But even a self-declared masochist can only take so much.
Everything you need to know about Death Valley lies in its name. The rest is just explanation.
There is, for example, the incinerating heat. With a record high of 57 degrees, it is the hottest place in North America. Surface temperatures in the valley frequently exceed 93 degrees and the pavement on the few roads here gets hotter still. In July, it's not unusual to see temperatures bump over 40 degrees by seven in the morning. Think about it.
Then there's the lunar landscape-a semester's worth of geology class, hell without the flames. Bleak arroyos, wasted plains and crumbling hills compete for erosional supremacy and lava flows scab over the oozing, volcanic wounds that formed the place. Shattered peaks-soaring in places to 11,049 feet-hem the valley in on all sides.
It's no wonder that native tribes long ago abandoned Death Valley as a permanent home. The first white people to come here were on their way to California's fabled gold fields. In 1849, the Reverend John Wells Brier decided to attempt an untested shortcut through the area, dragging his family and several wagonloads of young men into what one prescient guide warned could be "the jaws of hell." For months they wandered lost in the merciless heat. They ate their oxen, burned their wagons, suffered dehydration, dysentery and starvation. Some lost over 100 pounds, several died. Their experience gave the valley its name.
Today, other place names serve as testament to Death Valley's inhospitable nature: Deadman Pass, Last Chance Range, Dry Bone Canyon, Devil's Cornfield, Furnace Creek and Badwater. The latter is a nondescript gravel wash, and the water that bubbles to the surface here is indeed bad-a mineralized stew of reeking, undrinkable chemistry. With little imagination, you can taste the demoralization of someone who, having long since run out of water, stumbled across what was sure salvation, convinced they'd taken the lead in the race against death, only to find they'd fallen further behind. Which makes it even more ironic-and all the more insane-that this place is now the starting point of the world's most notorious ultramarathon, the Badwater 135.