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Badwater competitors belong to a special fraternity within the broader cult of ultrarunning; to a person, they believe no ultramarathoner worth their salt stains has truly arrived until they've completed Badwater. The racers comprise an eclectic mix of quasi-qualified amateurs merely hoping to somehow finish and seasoned pros who expect to do it in style.
The race starts in three waves. At 6 a.m., the coolest part of the day, the first group hits the road; these folks simply hope to make it under the 60-hour cut-off. Intermediate runners, chasing the coveted 48-hour belt buckle, leave at 8. And the 10 o'clock wave, with conditions already bordering on unbearable, is reserved for elites who want to make a race of it.
In 2004, when Ferg Hawke made his first trip to Badwater, he was unknown to the organizers, and instead of putting him with the elites, they stuck him in the middle group. From the gun, he led that pack. By the 40-mile mark he had passed the entire 6 a.m. flight, and found himself running unchallenged through the desert. Although difficult to maintain pace in such a vacuum, Hawke continued pushing it, more so when his crew reported split times from the 10 a.m. wave that suggested he was outpacing even the elites. Alone through the night he ran, into the smouldering dawn.
Two hours back of Hawke, but just behind him in time was 42-year-old Dean Karnazes of San Francisco, a five-time entrant who had once run 262 miles non-stop (he has since run 350 in an astounding 80:44). As much as Hawke's stellar debut was self-motivating, it was even more motivating to Karnazes, who realized his chance to finally win it all was about to be usurped by a hoser unknown. With support crews driving back and forth delivering food, water, gossip and encouragement, there wasn't a competitor in the race unaware of the battle being waged by two runners who would never see each other. Picking up the pace in the final stretch-where Hawke had hung on for dear life-Karnazes bested his rival by a scant seven minutes to claim the 2004 Badwater crown in a time of 27:22:48.
The close finish between a veteran and upstart challenger set the stage for a rematch. Except that Hawke swore at the finish he would never do it again. Which is what everyone says in the initial flush of survival.