Photos by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Text by Ye Charlotte Ming
Self-described as “the toughest foot race,” the Badwater Ultramarathon is intense. Every July since 1987, it takes participants from California’s Death Valley, one of the hottest places on earth, over two mountain ranges to Whitney Portal, the gateway to Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States.
Sports photographer Ezra Shaw has covered several extreme races, but none are like Badwater, he said, which runs for just 48 hours and requires runners to complete the 135-mile-long course, non-stop.
The race starts in the evening to avoid the hottest hours. But during the 2017 race, when the first wave of runners left the starting line at 8 p.m., the temperature was still above 100 degrees with high winds.
Runners each bring their own support crew, who follow them in vehicles loaded with water, food and emergency care equipment. After one third of the race, a support crew member can also run alongside the runner as a pacer.
A month prior to the race, Shaw met Oswaldo Lopez, a former champion and one of the favorites to win in 2017. Shaw followed Lopez for large chunk of the race, but the runner developed stomach issues during the event and had to drop out just after the 100-mile marker.
Eventually, Japanese runner Iino Wataru won the race with a time of 24 hours 56 minutes 19 seconds. Seventy-five of the 95 runners who participated finished the race.
To best capture the runners’ commitment to physical and mental endurance, Shaw tested the road before the race started. “I drove the entire course… so I knew what type of shots I would be looking for,” Shaw said. “But of course, that changes as the day goes on.”
After the race began, Shaw stayed awake for 29 hours straight until the winner finished the race. After catching three hours of sleep, he went back to photograph the other runners in morning light.
“I'm not a runner myself, and even if I was, I could never see myself doing something like this,” Shaw said. “I think [the runners] want to see how far they can push themselves. Plus, they must be a little crazy.”
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