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Friday, April 25, 2014

Wichitan's running obsession takes him to Badwater


It's called the "World's Toughest Foot Race" and I'm not going to question the distinction.

Neither is Wichitan Tony Clark, a 33-year-old former Marine who has been training for the Badwater Ultramarathon for months.

Marathons these days just aren't enough, apparently. So Clark, who has run seven 100-mile races and last summer ran through Kansas from Nebraska to Oklahoma, has found what he believes is the ultimate race for an ultra runner.

Badwater is a 135-mile race from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in California. It'll be held July 11-13, a time of year when the Death Valley locals typically have abandoned the place to the scorpions and gila monsters that thrive in the 120- degree temperatures.

Clark, an electrician, hopes to finish the race in 30 hours or less. He'll begin at the Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 280 feet below sea level. And he'll finish, he hopes, at the Mount Whitney Portal, nearly 8,300 feet above sea level.

Runners cross three mountain ranges totaling almost 13,000 feet of cumulative vertical ascent and 4,700 feet of cumulative descent.

And daytime highs that could cook an egg on the pavement. Speaking of pavement, the entirety of the race takes place on the stuff, so add another 20 or 30 degrees.

"Really, all this is is just a test to see what you can possibly do,'' Clark said. "I want to see how far I can push myself.''

To that end, Clark built an 8-by-8 room in his garage, installed a treadmill and bought a bunch of heat lamps and space heaters that can warm it to as much as 170 degrees. That's where he spends the bulk of his time training for Badwater, where bad things can happen.

Clark plans to give himself two minutes per hour to power walk, and he'll have a crew in California — including his pregnant wife, Angel — whose job it is to make sure he gets the proper amount of nutrition and, of course, hydration.

In his most recent 100-mile race, last month in Pekin, Ill., he said he took in about 15,000 calories. He'll eat anything from peanut butter and honey sandwiches to hamburgers to tortillas. And there's always liquid to keep up the electrolytes, though there is a balance between too much and too little.

The only other Wichitan to run in the Badwater, Eric Steele, had to get off the course for almost eight hours after becoming over-hydrated in 2001. While he has thought of returning to that place for that race, he's been able to pull away.

"I think once you finish Badwater, you've proven yourself,'' said Steele, who went on to run to the top of Mount Whitney in around 77 hours altogether. "I'm a made man now as far as ultra running goes.''

As daunting as Badwater is, thousands of ultra runners every year apply to get into the race. Only 90 are accepted and race organizers typically look for people with the most crazy things on their resume.

Clark's 224-mile run through Kansas last summer convinced them he was right for their race.

"People hear me talking about how difficult these races are and think I must be the only guy in Wichita doing this stuff,'' Clark said. "But it's stunning, because we probably have a group of 15 people or so in this city I know who run 100-mile races.''

Clark, though, will be pushing right by 100 miles in the worst conditions in which he's ever run.

He finished a 100-mile race in Hawaii a few years ago in nearly impossible terrain and having to wind his way through 35,000 feet of ascent and descent.

"It took me 32 hours to finish,'' he said. "And my feet — I didn't even want to look my feet. I literally wore the skin off of parts of my feet.''

He's taking six pair of shoes to California and even more socks. Badwater, he knows, is going to be the hardest thing he's ever done. And we're talking about an ex-Marine who was among the first American troops on the ground in Afghanistan after 9-11, who didn't get to shower for nearly two months after his arrival.

The body is one thing during a race like Badwater. But at least Clark knows what to expect from his body and has ideas for how to combat its lack of cooperation.

The mind is another matter. Clark has run in enough of these ultra marathons to know it's only a matter of time before the mind starts playing dirty tricks.

"The first 50 miles for me is physical and the second 50 is usually a mind game,'' Clark said. "I get a lot of crazy thoughts running through my head during those last 50 miles.''

In almost every race, he wants to quit. He's made it 75 miles, after all. He tells himself that not many others could do even that.

"But then I'm like, 'Tony, you're going to be so mad at yourself tomorrow if you don't finish.' " Clark said.

So he pushes on.

Badwater will, beyond a doubt, mess with Clark's brain.

"It's vicious,'' Steele said. "When I first got into ultra running, Badwater was featured in a magazine I read. I loved to run in the heat at the time and I was totally intrigued by this race.''

He prepared for nearly five years. It didn't matter, Badwater eventually got him.

"A very surreal experience,'' he said. "Kind of a 'Twilight Zone' type of thing. I'm a big Rod Serling, 'Twilight Zone' kind of guy, but that experience was like a few days in that zone.''

Clark isn't daunted. He's doing this, certain that the pain and suffering will be intense.

Part of his motive is to raise money for the Operation Freedom Memorial Foundation, which is planning to construct a monument in Wichita's Veterans Memorial Park to honor those from Kansas who served or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But a lot of the incentive to run at Badwater is about something darker in Clark's soul.

"People love to see you suffer,'' he said. "Everybody asks me about this race and they want to know if I'm crazy or how I'm going to handle it, how bad it's going to hurt.''

Three years ago, during an ultra marathon in Wyoming, Clark started seeing trees move about halfway through the 100 miles. And it had nothing to do with wind.

"You can go five, six hours in these things without seeing another person besides your crew,'' he said. "You really start getting a little bit kooky.''

Start?

Some would say the kookiness set in with these ultra marathon runners some time ago.

Check sports columnist Bob Lutz's blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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