Editor’s note: Holly Hubbard Preston, a journalist and St. Helena resident, reported on the ground at the Badwater 135 ultramarathon where Juan and Federico Sanchez made history as the first brothers to run the race in the same year.
LONE PINE, California – Anyone who knows Juan and Federico Sanchez, St. Helena’s beloved “running men,” is aware of their legendary abilities to cover great lengths of the Napa Valley on foot – day or night, rain or shine.
It’s not until one actually observes the two brothers running through Death Valley’s desolate State Route 190 in triple-digit heat with a fleet of other ultra-distance athletes that the magnitude of their endurance becomes clear.
The two brothers were among 95 elite athletes from around the world invited to participate in the STYR Labs Badwater 135 ultramarathon last week, July 10-12.
The two-day race, which celebrated its 30th official anniversary this year, wasn’t ranked the toughest footrace in the world by National Geographic Adventure for nothing.
An ultra marathon is defined as any foot race longer than the traditional 26.2-mile marathon. Runners who participate in the Badwater 135 are essentially committing to five marathons – all at once.
It’s not just the extreme distance that makes the 48-hour race so tough but also the conditions – principally the heat, which not only creates furnace-like breezes that kick up sand and dust, but also turns the pavement into a searing 180-degree frying pan.
“This whole thing is a completely different ballgame from other ultras,” said Drew Macomber, a 25-year-old budding ultra runner and one of Juan’s three crewmates. “You are out there just out there to finish.”
The race course covers the 135 miles of the most inhospitable territory to be found in the United States. The race begins in the Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 280 feet below sea level, and finishes with a brutal 8,360-foot ascent to the Mt. Whitney Trailhead outside Lone Pine.
When runners and their crews aren’t sweating it out in the furnace that is Death Valley, they are climbing over high desert mountain ranges – three to be exact. While many racers will cross the finish line well under the 48-hour cut off, they will do so having incurred everything from blisters, severe cramping and heat sickness to hallucinations caused by hours without sleep.
Luckily for this year’s racers, the heat, which hovered just below 120 degrees through most of the weekend prior, broke late last Monday night just about the time Juan and Federico were taking their place in line for the third and final wave of the race.
Though both Sanchez brothers have successfully completed the race before, only Juan made it to the finish this round. The 48-year-old construction worker from St. Helena crossed the finish line with his three crewmembers, which included Macomber and fellow Napa Valley residents Ahren Trumble and Larisa Stephenson, at 11:23 a.m. last Wednesday, some 36 hours and 23 minutes after he started.
Wataru Iino, a 37-year-old Japanese engineer new to Badwater, surprised everyone by taking first place on Tuesday night a few minutes before midnight with a finishing time of 23:56. Sandra Villines, a 44-year-old retail manager from San Jose, placed first for the women and 18th overall, with a finishing time of 34:34, which she posted at 8:04 a.m. on Wednesday.
Federico, who was present at Juan’s emotion-filled finish, withdrew from the race late Tuesday afternoon around the 60-mile mark near Panamint Springs, 16 hours into the competition.
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“From the beginning of the race, my legs were giving me problems and I still don’t know why,” Federico said Wednesday morning as he waited for his brother at the finish line. “Maybe it was the heat or nerves. I could have tried to keep going – just keep walking – but at what cost?”
Federico, 47, was not the only runner to take a DNF (did not finish), at this year’s Badwater. By the end of the race, 20 runners, including two veterans expected to finish in the top 10, had dropped out of the race for health reasons.
In a pre-event interview, race director Chris Kostman, whose company AdventureCorps has produced the race for the last 18 years, estimated some 75 percent of Badwater runners will make it to the finish line in any given year.
After a rough night’s contemplation, Federico said he’d made peace with his DNF.
“It happens in a race like this, and not because you didn’t train or your crew didn’t do their homework,” he said. “It’s because of the conditions. This is a hard race to finish.”
The runners who crossed the finish line at this year’s Badwater did so with great effort. Though some made an effort to jog, many more walked and even shuffled they way into the finish tape – often with the help of one or more crew members. Up until the final miles of the race, only a single crewmember at a time is allowed to pace with the runner.
Juan, visibly exhausted but smiling after his race, admitted this was his toughest Badwater yet.
“I don’t know why but I really struggled out there,” he said. “Just when I’d think I was done, I’d start praying and thinking about my family and I’d feel good again and keep going.”
During the duration of the race, Juan took two naps – each less than 20 minutes. His crew slept far less.
The hardest part of the race? “The last 13 miles,” said Juan. “It’s just brutal.” For perspective – it took Juan more than four hours to ascend to the Mt. Whitney trailhead from Lone Pine.
Juan invited fellow runner 29-year-old Nelva Valladares of Los Angeles, who he called a “warrior,” to go with him to the finish line. Valladares, a newcomer to Badwater who was clearly suffering near the end, accepted the offer. The two runners, along with their crews, made an impressive final push to the finish, jogging the last quarter mile amid cheers from the crowds.
Despite their evident exhaustion, Juan and his crew, much like their fellow runners, were all smiles and gratitude as they sat on the steps of a nearby concession area resting before the 20-minute drive back down the mountain to Lone Pine.
For his Herculean effort, Juan, like all his fellow finishers, brings home a silver plated belt buckle, T-shirt, and the bragging rights that come with having completed a super- human endurance test most will never see, let alone attempt.