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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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Though he now held the lead 90 miles into the race, Hawke harboured few illusions about his chances to win. With his toes blistering uncontrollably and with Jurek's ice-bath juju clearly working, Hawke knew that his rival had his eye firmly on the prize.

Shortly after they left Darwin, Jurek pulled away from Hawke once again. This time, Hawke decided not to try to close the gap. "I thought, 'What am I doing trying to keep up with this legend?' I backed it off and that was the end."

After the sun came up, Hawke didn't see Jurek again until the finish line at Whitney.

The hero of the Brier family's escape from Death Valley in 1849 was the reverend's wife, Juliette. Despite shrinking to 75 pounds, she nursed her husband through illness, cared for their children, loaded and unloaded the oxen, built fires and cooked. When an ox sank chest-deep in mud, she went in after it. Though four of the party died, Juliette survived.

You couldn't help but think of Juliette while watching the metronomic determination of 90-pound Pam Reed as she made the long descent into the flat and tedious Owens Valley. Though featured on CBS's 60 Minutes , Reed's heroic accomplishments haven't paid off in sponsors. In her opinion, that's because she's not a chiselled, good-looking man-like, say, Dean Karnazes. In everyone else's opinion, it's because the bug-eyed trotter is a bit too freakish: she readily admits to an obsessive-compulsive streak that has seen her replace anorexic tendencies with a compulsion to run almost constantly; she refuses to use sunscreen, insisting it interferes with the body's cooling capacity, which leaves her with the complexion of an Inca mummy. None of this, however, impeded her from being the first to run 300 non-stop miles in March 2005 (yes, that's 11-plus marathons), nor from being the first woman to cross the 2005 Badwater finish line, reclaiming the women's title and posting a respectable fifth overall in the most competitive field ever.

Reed's story was but one that wrapped happily. Albert Vallee, 46, a mechanic from Chauvigne, France, shocked everyone by placing fourth in his rookie attempt. In another surprise, Charlie Engle, a 43-year-old TV producer from Greensboro, North Carolina, finished in third, improving on his 2003 time by 10 hours, grist for the mill of a documentary he was making on addiction in sport. Geoffrey Hilton-Barber became the first blind athlete to finish (brother Miles dropped out), and an excited Sigrid Eichner achieved her goal of becoming the oldest woman to make it to the end. Septuagenarian Jack Denness and one-legged Dan Jensen crossed the line together. In fact, the race saw an 83 per cent completion rate-highest ever-with 45 of 67 earning 48-hour belt buckles.