Update: It has been pointed out to me that this ban is leveled at events that take place in Death Valley during July, and isn’t for every event that takes place in the park. The text below has been updated to reflect this.
The Badwater Ultramarathon is one of the toughest races on the planet, thanks in no small part due to the fact that much of its 135 miles (217 km) length crosses through the desert in Death Valley National Park.
For years, the race started in the town of Badwater and ended at the Mt. Whitney Portals, drawing some of the best endurance runners from around the world to compete. But now, the National Park Service has banned the event from taking place inside the park altogether, changing the very fabric of this iconic event.
The news of the ban came a few weeks back, creating disappointment within the ultra-running community, even if it wasn’t necessarily a complete surprise. Earlier in the year, the Park Service instituted a temporary ban on events taking place within national parks in order to evaluate them for safety.
That forced the 2014 Badwater Ultra to create a new route that didn’t put race organizers and runners in conflict with the NPS. When this year’s event took place back in July however, there was still hope that the ban would eventually be lifted. This new ruling – signed by Death Valley National Park Superintendent Kathy Billings – makes it permanent.
The primary reason for the ban is concerns about safety issues. Death Valley is one of the hottest locations on the planet, with temperatures in the summer routinely exceeding 110ºF/43.3ºC. Prolonged exposure to that kind of heat can put any visitor to the park in danger, let alone athletes attempting to cover more than 100 miles during the hottest time of the year.
There also appeared to be some concerns that the Badwater would take part at night, when visibility was low and there were fewer park service staff members on duty to deal with potential issues. Responding to calls for assistance could be greatly delayed, raising the questions about overall safety even further.
It should be noted that this ban isn’t just leveled agains the Badwater Ultra. Death Valley has hosted between 10 and 14 sporting events each year, and any of them scheduled to take place in July, when the heat is at its worst, will not be allowed to take place. Of those, the Badwater is probably the most well known, but others could be affected by this ruling too.
This year, the race started in Lone Pine, and followed the edge of Death Valley towards the regular route up Mt. Whitney.
The new route added some further challenges with more climbs, but the spirit of the race remained the same. It is possible that this route will now become the one that is used moving forward. The race will likely continue to keep its name, even though it will no longer begin in Badwater as well.