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Into The Inferno

It’s five marathons long, hotter than Hades and arguably the most insane race on the planet. And for one Canadian, the Badwater 135 was a chance to prove that he was the toughest of them all.

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A baggage handler-or, as he prefers, an "aerospace worker"- at the Vancouver Airport, Ferg Hawke first took up running in 1989 to get in shape for, of all things, beer-league fast-pitch softball. In the early 1990s, the resident of White Rock, B.C., found his way to ultramarathons, and during the ensuing decade, garnered respectable results in several marquee events, winning Canada's first-ever 100-mile race in 1996 and coming eighth in the 2002 Marathon des Sables, a week-long stage race through the Moroccan Sahara. He'd conquered some heat, logged serious distance and tasted his share of sand, but Badwater's triple-barrelled blast beckoned.

"I have to get [it] scratched off my list of hard, stupid things to do," he once told a Ontario Roadrunner magazine. And so, in July 2004, he found himself at the start of the hardest, stupidest race going.

When somebody figured out that the highest point in the Lower 48-14,491-foot Mt. Whitney-lay less than 150 miles by road from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere-Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level-it seemed only natural to forge some sort of test piece linking the two. And so the Badwater 150 was born. The fact that Death Valley is also the hottest place in North America was only a bonus.

If someone were to write a book on the Badwater race, they might call it A Brief History of Misery . It begins in 1973, when Paxton Beale and Ken Crutchlow, a pair of dedicated California runners, complete a 150-mile relay from Badwater to the top of Mt. Whitney; in 1977, another California hardcore, Al Arnold, solos the route in 84 hours; things heat up in 1987, when Crutchlow organizes a head-to-head race between Yanks and Brits; in 1988, running-shoe manufacturer Hi-Tec sponsors what's by now more accurately called the Badwater 146; two years later, the U.S. Forest Service closes the final 11 miles of trail to the summit of Mt. Whitney, shortening the race to its current length of 135 miles; in 2000, Russian Anatoli Kruglikov sets a 135-mile course record of 25:09; and in 2002, Arizona housewife and self-proclaimed pathological runner Pam Reed, posts the first of two consecutive overall race wins, while lowering the women's record to just under 28 hours.