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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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He was mumbling non-sequiturs and chuckling to himself. He tugged at his clothes, stared at the ground and struggled-mightily-to answer the simplest questions. Then, despite an air temperature around 30 degrees, he began to shiver, and descended into incoherency.

With 160 marathons under his belt, Sweeney had been forced out of a long-distance race for the first time only two weeks earlier. At the Western States 100, he'd developed a breathing problem that was treated with puffers as if it were exercise-induced asthma. But when it reoccurred at Badwater, accompanied by other symptoms, it was clear that asthma wasn't the issue. Dave Heckman had immediately sensed Sweeney's troubles were connected to hyponatremia-low sodium or "water intoxication"-brought on by too much fluid.

Hyponatremia is a serious condition: drinking too much water increases blood plasma and dilutes the blood's salt content; the endgame can be coma and death. Drinking as much as four litres in 20 minutes has induced a 40-hour coma in otherwise healthy travellers to desert tourist destinations. (The same thing happens to compulsive water swillers partying on the drug ecstasy.) But there's a kicker: because symptoms of hyponatremia and dehydration are similar, people often ply the victim-who's likely wavering on the edge of consciousness-with more water.

One of hyponatremia's rare but fouler manifestations is pulmonary edema, a condition more commonly experienced by high-altitude climbers in which fluid leaks into the lungs, eventually drowning the victim. Suspecting this-correctly-Heckman sat Sweeney down for 90 minutes, forced several urinations, did some blood work and sent him-reluctantly and only at Sweeney's insistence-on his way (though Sweeney was closely monitored for the rest of the race).

Sweeney eventually rallied and toughed it out for twelfth place, but a day later at the awards ceremony, he still hadn't fully recovered, and couldn't recall exactly what had happened out there. "I remember we were looking forward to the climb out of Panamint and a chance to use some different muscle groups. Then things got kind of hazy..."

When Hawke and Jurek passed the sputtering Sweeney , the final duel was on. After trading leads several times over the first 16 hours of the race, the two runners remained neck and neck. Then, around 2:30 a.m., Jurek put on a burst of speed and accelerated by Hawke . "I think he was trying to make a point because once he passed he slowed to his regular pace," recalls Hawke. "And right away I saw I was gaining again. I'd led several times but not at a checkpoint, so I picked it up and came into Darwin 10 seconds ahead of him."