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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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Even before the start of the 2005 Badwater, it was obvious that it would be a very different race for Hawke. First, there was no rematch with Karnazes, who was busy promoting his book Ultramarathon Man , on David Letterman and elsewhere. Second, now running with the elites, Hawke faced head-to-head competition.

Based on his breakout 2004 performance, Hawke had initially been favoured to win the 2005 event, but then organizers parachuted a handful of the world's top ultramarathoners into the race primarily-if you believed behind-the-scenes conspiracy theorists-to ensure the unheralded Canadian didn't win. Foremost among these runners was Scott Jurek, a long-legged, 31-year-old thoroughbred from Seattle, Washington, who'd recently posted his seventh consecutive win in the hallowed Western States 100 trail race. Mike Sweeney, a 50-year-old ship pilot and veteran marathoner from San Rafael, California, was another serious contender.

From the 10 a.m. start, it became clear that it was going to be a competitive race. Sweeney passed through the first checkpoint at Furnace Creek (18 miles) in 2:23. Jurek came through two minutes later, and Hawke was three minutes behind him. This trio would end up waging the race's central battle, but there were, of course, other stories

Arizona's Pam Reed was out to regain the women's crown she'd surrendered in 2004 to Monica Scholz, a lawyer from Jerseyville, Ontario, who'd finished third overall three times. In addition to the serious competitors, there was also a smorgasbord of self-achievers: 55-year-old South Dakotan Daniel Jensen, who has worn a prosthetic below his right knee ever since stepping on a land mine in Vietnam, hoped to finish the race after failing in a previous attempt; Geoffrey Hilton-Barber, 58, and brother Miles, 62, of South Africa, were vying to be the first blind athletes to complete the race; perennial British fixture Jack Denness, affectionately known as "Badwater Jack," was looking to bag his twelfth Badwater and become the first 70-year-old finisher; likewise, Sigrid Eichner, 64, of Germany, was aiming to become the oldest woman to make it all the way; and, bringing up the rear at the first checkpoint, was Marine Corps Major Curt Maples, 41, who had engineered and finished his own 135-mile "Baghdad Badwater" while deployed in Iraq. Sadly, he would be the first to DNF in the real thing. By mile 42, the second checkpoint at Stove Pipe Wells, five others would also drop out.

Stove Pipe Wells-named by miners who shoved stove pipes in the sand to mark the location of underground springs-is a place of Vesuvian heat where tourists come to fry eggs on the pavement and runners stick to the white lines of the road because the heat of the tarmac melts the soles of their shoes. It's also the exit from Death Valley proper, where the first of three mountain ranges lifts racers from the skillet. And in July, 2005, it was the place where Scott Jurek faced his first Badwater demon.