See the world, ultra-style

“It’s incredible where our feet can take us.”

Sawna Guadarrama

Ultras are for the adventurous who enjoy trails and sights, even if they often come with rain, extreme temperatures, and rough terrain. Here, three elites describe the most beautiful courses they’ve completed.

Josh Spector: Badwater 135 in Death Valley, California

The race starts in the Badwater Basin at 280 feet below sea level and ends at the Mount Whitney trailhead at 8,360 feet of elevation. The Badwater 135 website describes it as “the world’s toughest foot race.”

But incline isn’t the only concern in July in Death Valley; the high temperatures are impossible to escape. “I tried to train in the heat as much as I could, but I’m a morning runner so that wasn’t always practical,” says Spector, a 46-year-old elite runner from LA.

Motivated by the scenery, he completed the course in just under 32 hours in 2014. “The mountain views throughout the race are stunning,” he says, describing the desert sunrise as “energizing and inspiring.”  

To prepare, Spector did three-week stints of heavy mileage bookended by a couple weeks of shorter, easier runs. He sought out moderately steep road climbs and settled on the Angeles Crest Highway. “I ran twenty-five to thirty miles there a few times in an out-and-back fashion, starting at La Canada-Flintridge and turning around at Mt. Wilson,” he says. “Surviving those runs was a big confidence-booster and made me feel pretty badass.”

Like Spector and his crew, most Badwater 135 runners stay at the Dow Villa, a motel that serves as race headquarters in Lone Pine, California. He recommends the Mount Whitney Portal Store for immediate post-race fuel and the nearby Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery for a full breakfast.

Sawna Guadarrama: Ultramaratón Xocomil 90K in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

This February, 30-year-old Guadarrama won the Ultramaratón Xocomil 90K. Only 11 runners finished, a testament to the arduous terrain, heat, humidity, and elevation gain in this 58-mile race.

That said, the beauty encountered along the way makes it irresistible to some. Runners often rent homes nearby and rely on locals for food because the area is so remote. The course winds through the San Lucas Tolimán and San Marcos la Laguna mountains, with views of the colorful Mayan villages and Lake Atitlán below.

Also on the course: four volcanoes. “Reaching the first summit of the morning and taking a glimpse of the surrounding area was definitely the most breathtaking moment,” she says. But it wasn’t all breathtaking in a good way. Guadarrama faced dehydration so severe that it led to a bladder infection and she almost had to drop out.

But her rigorous training (she logged a total of 60 miles with at least 20,000 feet of elevation gain each week) made it possible for her to finish. “The most rewarding part was definitely running the last few miles knowing I was one of only ten others that would complete the distance.”

Jeff Browning: Ultra Fiord 174K in Patagonia, Chile

Browning took his first running trip to Chile in 2014. He knew right away he’d be back. “The high country of Patagonia was just amazing,” says the 47-year-old from Bend, Oregon, who has won dozens of ultras and returned to the region in 2015 for the Ultra Fiord 174K. “Even with the gnarly weather we encountered, the occasional glimpses of enormous peaks jutting out of the misty clouds were incredible.”

The course would deter many runners, even with the promise of perfect weather. “We crossed six major rivers, one of which was armpit deep, and it rained for the first fourteen or fifteen hours,” says Browning, who stayed at Hotel Remota. “Everything was soaked. We traversed mud bogs and peat bogs and crossed a glacier with open crevasses. The main strategy was to embrace the suck.”

To prepare, Browning focused heavily on technical mountain training. “I ran lots of vertical inclines every week to prepare my quads for the downhills,” he says. “I also ran with my pack and other gear to get used to the added weight.”

He finished the 100-mile race in 24:25:39—and placed first. His biggest takeaway: “Definitely how wild the Patagonia region of South America still is, especially compared to the United States. I pulled from years of acquired skills to persevere and win.”

Photo (top): Kaare Iverson/tandemstock.com

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