SOUTHERN UTAH — The story of Hurricane resident and distance runner Cory Reese’s journey to the Badwater 135 ultramarathon — a 135-mile footrace across Death Valley in July — could probably best be filed under the category of “never say ‘never.'”
The unassuming Reese has the characteristically sinuous, muscly legs of a distance runner and hundreds upon hundreds of miles under his belt as he prepares for the race deemed “the world’s toughest footrace.” But like most people, Reese didn’t originally set out to become an ultrarunner.
In fact, early on in his running journey, Reese recalls a conversation with his wife in which he said he would likely never do anything as crazy as run an ultramarathon … but that was a long time ago.
Now the self-described trail-running addict is getting set to join about 90 other endurance athletes July 18. They will run from Badwater Basin (280 feet below sea level) in Death Valley to the 8,300-foot high peak of Mt. Whitney Portal, California, all in the space of 48 hours.
A natural progression
Several years ago Reese saw a news article recapping the St. George Marathon that piqued his interest. Reese said that the idea of being with thousands of other people who are really pushing themselves appealed to him so he vowed that the following year he would be running.
True to his promise to himself, Reese followed a basic training plan and toed the line at the St. George Marathon. Not only did he finish the race, he fell in love with running in the process.
“I really loved it, I had so much fun,” Reese said. “So for the next couple years I just ran a ton of half marathons and marathons and loved everything about the whole experience, the sport and the other runners. I just fell in love with everything.”
Though the St. George Marathon acted as a catalyst, igniting Reese’s passion for running, it wasn’t until a friend invited him on a trail run that Reese’s identity as a runner became clear.
He is a trail runner, Reese said. It was that realization that sent him on a progressive journey into the world of utlrarunning – one that continues to test the limits of his endurance today.
“My friend took me out on a trail run and it just opened my eyes like ‘wow there is so much around me that I had never noticed before,'” Reese said, “and I just felt like this what I am, I am a trail runner and I transitioned my running to almost all trails.”
For Reese, trail running is as cathartic as it is anything else, it is an activity during which he finds solace in the quiet, open expanse of nature. The trail, he said, is a place where he can disconnect from the everyday hustle of the real world and just enjoy the scenery around him.
“I’m almost like an addict,” Reese said. “If I go a few days without being out on the trails, I start getting anxious for it.”
Reese’s love for the trail led to a desire to do a trail race, but unlike road races where distances can vary from one mile to 100 plus miles, trail races are mostly ultramarathon distances.
An ultramarathon is widely accepted as anything beyond the 26.2 miles of the standard marathon, said Clair Coleman, Reese’s friend and fellow ultrarunner. Typical ultra distances are 50K, 50 miles, 100K and 100 miles.
“I figured spending all day on the trail sounds fun so I’ll just sign up for an ultramarathon,” Reese said.
Reese has now run ultramarathons in almost every distance in varied terrain and climate. At Badwater, he will face his most daunting race yet.
While most people might run away from a moniker like “world’s toughest footrace,” it was precisely the difficulty that drew Reese into wanting to enter the Badwater ultramarathon.
Though he will be straying from trails and returning to his road racing beginnings, the physical base he has built through running trail ultras has given him the desire to take his running to the next level, Reese said.
“I want to go after the hardest race I can think of,” Reese said. “I think that’s what intrigued me was just the difficulty of it. I can’t think of anything too much harder than Death Valley in July.”
The Badwater 135 is an endurance road race that pits athletes against both the clock and the elements. Racers will have 48 hours to complete the race which starts at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the United States at an elevation of 280 feet below sea level and ends at Mt. Whitney Portal at an elevation of 8,300 feet. Mt. Whitney Portal is the trailhead to Mt. Whitney summit (14,505 feet) which is the highest point in the contiguous United States.
According the race’s webpage, in between the start and finish, runners will do a total of 14,600 feet of cumulative ascent and 6,100 feet of cumulative descent as the 135-mile course makes it way across three mountain ranges.
Average temperatures in Death Valley in July range from about 115-120 and can soar even higher on any given day. According to AccuWeather.com the current predicted high for the July 18 start date is 119 degrees.
Reese said the heat will definitely be one of the biggest challenges he will face in completing the race. To prepare, he has been running during the hottest portions of the days in Southern Utah, wearing several layers of clothing on runs to mimic the conditions he will face and spending as much time in the sauna as he can stand.
Badwater is a self-supported race meaning there will be no aid stations stocked with oranges, energy gels, Icy Hot, motivational signs or peppy volunteers along the course. Instead Reese will have a crew team comprised of friends and family who will take care of his hydration, fuel and motivational needs as they follow him along the course in a rented 15-passenger van.
This crew will be vital to Reese’s success in finishing the race.
“Badwater has a whole team of people to get you from point A to point B,” said Ed Ettinghausen, Reese’s friend and Badwater veteran.
Ettinghausen recently completed his 123rd 100-mile ultramarathon and holds a world record for the most 100-mile races run in a calendar year; 37 in 2014. He will be returning to Badwater for his sixth time as a competitor in July.
Ettinghausen said that it is the team mentality that is one of the most helpful things in making it through the 135-mile run.
“You don’t want to let your team down,” Ettinghausen said.
Among Reese’s crew will be Coleman. Though Coleman is 20 years Reese’s senior the pair have struck up an unlikely friendship which started as a work connection and grew through a shared passion for running.
The two, along with another running friend, Catharine Kalian, have completed ultramarathons in Antelope Canyon, Arizona, the Grand Canyon, the Tushar mountains in central Utah and several others.
Coleman said his primary duty as a member of Reese’s crew, come hell or high water, is to make sure he gets that belt buckle — instead of a finisher’s medal, ultramarathoner’s typically earn a belt buckle for crossing the finish line.
Coleman will also spend some time pacing Reese on the course.
“I do plan on pacing him and hope to get 20 to 30 miles in with him while doing so,” Coleman said. “I paced him for a 13 mile section of the Wasatch 100 and I found that just by visiting with him while on the run provided a good distraction from some of the pain and suffering.”
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Are you a good human?
The distance and extremes of the Badwater 135 will test Reese’s physical endurance to the edge of his limits but it will also challenge his character and take him to places inside himself that he characterized as “dark.”
The powers-that-be behind the Badwater race understand that both physical ability and character play a huge part in a racers ability to take on the challenge and therefore the application to enter includes detailed questions about a runner’s race history as well as more personal questions.
“They asked other personal questions like ‘what is your favorite book and why?’ or ‘would people in your sport consider you a good human?'” Reese said.
According to Coleman, the answer to the latter question is a definitive yes. Coleman said:
If I had to describe Cory with one word it would be persistent. This guy never gives up. This is a guy that ran 100 miles around a high school track in 107 degree heat, round and round and round. I have seen Cory when he is hot, tired, and sick to his stomach yet he continues to press on. He knows how to push though the hard times. He does not verbalize the negative. When he’s having a rough time you can tell by the look on his face but he won’t talk about it. After the race he may mention he had some rough times but not at the time. He is a very positive person by nature and I think he fights the rough times in a race with his positive thoughts and attitude. He also falls back on his awesome sense of humor to get though hard times. He has a gift of being able to laugh at himself and this helps to lighten the moment and push away the discouragement.
Ettinghausen, who is known on the ultrarunning circuit as “The Jester” due to his colorful racing outfits and jester hats said that he found a kindred spirit in Reese whose sense of humor and crazy antics will be as much a part of his success at Badwater as his physical and mental abilities.
“It is people like Cory who will make the event fun and exciting for everyone else,” Ettinghausen said.
Reese’s sense of humor can be found on full display in his blog entitled “Fast Cory.” In his blog he details his life and running forays and honestly and hilariously shares his Badwater training stories.
In one post he gives insight into sauna training at the gym. He wrote:
“I joined a gym to use the sauna to train for Badwater, the 135 mile race in Death Valley coming up in July. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- I’m not a gym person. At all. I need fresh air.
- The thermometer in the sauna says it is 178 degrees.
- Hell is exactly 178 degrees.
- At a gym, lots of people call you “Bro”.
- I have approximately 86% less muscle mass than most people at the gym.
- I have made it up to 82 minutes so far in Hell, I mean the sauna.”
Reese is known throughout the Southern Utah community for the pictures he posts on social media of himself doing cheerleader type jumps during his runs; something he does, he said, because it reflects the joy he feels while running.
While Reese feels he is as prepared as he can be for the race, he remains grounded, maintaining a good balance between confidence and humility.
“I’m interested to see if I am capable of it,” Reese said. “I don’t know if I am, I don’t know how it will go. We’ll see.”
Both Ettinghausen and Coleman have high hopes for their friend and are confident in his abilities.
“I think if anybody can complete this race it will be Cory,” Coleman said. “As I mentioned before, he has the drive, positive attitude, keen sense of humor and the training to succeed.”
“I don’t have any doubt he will finish,” Ettinghausen said. “I think Cory is tough enough that he will get through whatever comes up.”
When he does finish, Reese who is also a professed sugar addict with a penchant for Twinkies and Dr. Pepper, plans to eat himself silly, he said.
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