Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Tackling the Toughest Foot Race

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.

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Russ Reinbolt (left) walks with a member of his support team during the second morning of the STYR Labs Badwater 135 on July 12, 2017 in Death Valley, California.

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.

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Nelva Valladares runs at night during the STYR Labs Badwater 135 on July 12, 2017 in Death Valley, California.

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.

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Oswaldo Lopez is sponged with water by a member of his support team, Ulises Sanchez, during the STYR Labs Badwater 135 on July 11, 2017 in Death Valley, California.Sample caption here

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.

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Oswaldo Lopez competes in the STYR Labs Badwater 135 on July 11, 2017 in Death Valley, California
EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES
Oswaldo Lopez receives first aid from a member of his support team, Ernest Velarde, during the STYR Labs Badwater 135 on July 11, 2017 in Death Valley, California.

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.

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Chavet Breslin walks to the finish line with her support crew during the STYR Labs Badwater 135 on July 12, 2017 in Death Valley, California.

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.

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Iino Wataru of Japan (second from right) crosses the finish line with his support team to win the STYR Labs Badwater 135 on July 11, 2017 in Death Valley, California.
EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES
Iino Wataru of Japan is hugged by a member of his support team after winning the STYR Labs Badwater 135 on July 11, 2017 in Death Valley, California. Wataru won the race with a time of 24 hours 56 minutes 19 seconds.

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.”

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Iwamoto Nobumi of Japan walks with a member of his support team during the STYR Labs Badwater 135 on July 12, 2017 in Death Valley, California.

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. 

EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES
Oswaldo Lopez competes in the STYR Labs Badwater 135 on July 11, 2017 in Death Valley, California. Lopez, who is a past champion, was unable to finish the race and dropped out just past the 100 mile mark.

“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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