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Byline: Lew Freedman
DEATH VALLEY, Calif._Miles into the big empty, as Arthur Webb strode past the sand, cactus, scrub brush, gravel, shale, salt flats, sculpted hills and jagged mountains, the intense, inferno of a wind swirled out of the desert and baked him.
By rights, the gusts should have tempered the 130-degree temperature. Instead, they burned exposed skin. The unforgiving July sun was a yellow fireball above the competitors in the 135-mile-long, 26th annual Badwater UltraMarathon, the self-proclaimed world's toughest foot race. Land and the runners were the same: Lean, hard and parched.
Webb ran a little bit, walked a little bit. He draped a cold-water-dipped, blue-and-white checked towel over his shoulders.
"This keeps the body cool," Webb said as he ran. "Cooler."
Putting the words "cooler" and "Death Valley" in the same sentence is contradictory. This event connects Badwater, 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the United States, and Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S., at the hottest time of year in the hottest place in the country.
At the National Park Service Furnace Creek Visitor Center, at mile 18 of the course, rangers warn everyone against hiking even a mile. The advice was ignored by 73 men and women from 11 countries, from Brazil to Tahiti, who climbed 13,000 feet, crossed three mountain ranges, descended 4,700 feet, and were scorched by a relentless desert heat.
Along the way, feet, stomachs and will failed and more than 33 percent of them quit. Survivors only dared to dream of the simple reward, a T-shirt, certificate, belt buckle, on the final uphill, 13-mile trek from the community of Lone Pine to the 8,365-foot mark on Whitney.
"Some people consider it laughable how little they get," said race director Chris Kostman of an event that offers no …