Bad News for Badwater 135 in the Death Valley Sporting Event Safety Assessment

Go here for the full pdf.

This is the safety assessment that I wrote about a while back when discussing the interplay between the Badwater 135 and administrative law. I haven’t finished reading the full report, but from what I’ve skimmed so far, it looks like Badwater 135 as we know it is dead. While the report refers to a number of sporting events, Badwater is specifically named in more than a few places. Take for instance, this paragraph:

One of the past permitted running events, the Badwater Ultra-marathon, takes place in July. Visitors have questioned why the park allows running events to take place during the hottest time of the summer, when they are advised not to engage in outdoor physical activity. By permitting events to take place during summer months, the park has provided a mixed message to park visitors and other users.

The average visitor, of course, is not a highly trained ultramarathoner who is familiar with the amount and types of training that go into preparing for Badwater. AdventureCORPS doesn’t let just anyone line up in the middle of July to try to run 135 miles in the blazing heat and up the side of a mountain. To say that allowing people who have been identified by race organizers as capable of attempting the race and who have put in months (if not years) of training sends mixed messages to people who are ignorant of those facts is, I think, a cop-out.

In days gone by, passengers used to be able to take a peak at the cockpit of the jetliner they were riding in, but that didn’t mean that they could sit in the captain’s seat and have a go at the controls. It didn’t send mixed messages to them about whether it was safe for anyone to fly an airplane, only the message that those who were trained to do the job can do it safely, but amateurs shouldn’t expect to meddle. I think similar logic applies here. The only mixed message coming out of this report revolves around why NPS decided to suddenly become so concerned for the safety of participants in these sporting events and the park rangers working around them only after they’d been going on for several decades.

NPS sets out a laundry list of supposed “Unsafe acts observed by event monitors, violations of permit conditions, and violations of state laws” (see page 7).  Among that list are things like “Insufficient and inadequate event signage and placement,” “Failure to report injuries, illnesses, and medical treatment provided to participants,” and “Event aid stations located too close to road or in less than desirable locations.” That would seem to be pretty damning evidence for event organizers were it not for the stunning admissions that NPS makes in the paragraph that immediately follows:

In past years, the park has not consistently monitored events or verified that permit holders or event participants were complying with all provisions of event permits. The following weaknesses of the park permit program were noted:

  • Limited communication with permit applicants and event coordinators prior to and after some events.
  • Insufficient number of monitors and failure to monitor past events, especially night events.
  • Limited follow-up with event coordinators on permit violations.
  • Limited documentation and lack of citations to permit holders and participants when violations of permits were witnessed.

In other words, NPS admits that it failed to do its job. If, for instance, you get permission to hold an event and it says that you may only place aid stations in designated areas and they must be a certain distance from the road, whose fault is it if NPS, due to its “Limited communication with permit applicants and event coordinators prior to and after some events” never tells you where those designations are and how far back from the road they should be set up?


Not an aid station or support vehicle in sight.

Again, on page 10, Badwater is called out for special attention regarding reporting of injuries. According toNPS, “between 2006 and 2012 there were no injury reports submitted from anyof the permit holders as required as a condition of issued permits.” The report then goes on to reproduce the injury report that AdventureCORPS made in connection with the 2013 Badwater race. If NPS wants to claim that reports like the one made by AdventureCORPS were inadequate in some way, then it’s incumbent upon them to make sure that race organizers know what’s expected of them. Given NPS’s admitted failure to communicate with race organizers, it stands to reason that NPS failed in that respect as well.

Section 3 documents some of the report’s recommendations. Section 3.4 sets out requirements for weather, dates, and time that spell doom for Badwater:

  • Night/evening events will only be permitted on paved roads and for calendar dates during a full moon phase.
  • Events will not be permitted for locations in the park below 2000 feet during the day between June 14 and September 9, between 10 AM and sunset, when temperatures historically reach 110 °F (43 °C).

If they were looking for a way to specifically kill Badwater, then they found it. If you scroll down to the park map in the appendix you see that most of the paved roads in the park are located below 2000 feet.

Section 3.6 designates all of the roads that may be used for events as well as the areas that may serve as starting or finishing areas. I’m not familiar with the layout of the Badwater course, so I’ll leave it to those who do know the course to say whether those restrictions would further affect Badwater.

In section 3.9 we find this: “Verbal communication and passing of objects between participants and support vehicle occupants while the vehicle is moving is prohibited.” I understand the concern associated with trying to hand something to a cyclist or a runner while a vehicle is moving. Aside from requiring the vehicle to slow to a crawl it requires the driver to divert his attention from the road ahead in order to avoid a collision with the athlete. What I can’t quite understand, however, is why verbal communication should be prohibited as well. Is it really that unsafe for an occupant of a vehicle other than the driver to open up window and shout something back to their athlete? It doesn’t seem so risky to me that NPS should have to ban it altogether.

Section 3.12 sets out requirements for permits to be granted to running events. Among them we find this (which also applies to cycling events):

All participants and teams must use personal portable toilet products for use on the course wherever toilets are not available. Such products must be used discreetly and must be disposed of properly after use. Public and/or unsanitary practices by participants or team members may result in citations and fines. Personal sanitation devices shall not be disposed of in vault toilets.

I’m not quite sure what a “personal portable toilet product” is, but I can appreciate the need to prevent people from leaving human waste strewn about the park on the side of the road. Again, however, I’m left to wonder why NPS didn’t just leave it at that. But no, they go on to require that you have to relieve yourself “discreetly” and warn that doing so “publicly” can result in citations and fines (and, presumably, suspension or even cancellation of the event). I can only speak for myself, but I tend to try to be as discreet as possible when nature calls during a long run; others are not always so bashful. Regardless of personal preference on that particular issue, does NPS really want event monitors keeping their eyes out for waste disposal activities that are just not quite discreet enough? If that experienced ultrarunner (from years of doing their business out in the open air) has a somewhat relaxed idea of what “public” means is that sufficient reason to put the event itself in jeopardy?

Section 3.12.1 sets out additional requirements for ultramarathons. According to NPS “the ultra-marathon presents additional and different hazards for visitors and support teams.” That seems like a fair point, but looking at the additional requirements, there just doesn’t seem to be very much there that isn’t already repeated elsewhere. Support vehicles are required to “leapfrog” runners (although the report doesn’t say exactly what that means), but that’s something that’s required elsewhere in the report of cycling event support vehicles (at least in certain places in the park).

Section 3.13 contains “Other Recommendations” and includes details about the permit application process. Permits are granted on a “first submitted basis” and “[h]aving previously held the same or similar events in the park does not guarantee the same event will be permitted every year, nor will it give preference to the event if another application is submitted for the same time period.” That presents an issues not only for AdventureCORPS and Badwater, but for every event organizer that has historically held events.

Scanning down, we find that event organizers must submit an event plan that must include a “[d]escription of why it is important that these activities take place within Death Valley National Park and not on public lands elsewhere.” It seems to me that for so-called “public lands” the only reason that the public should need regarding why they want to hold an event in DVNP is that they want to hold it there and not somewhere else. Why did NPS determine that they must have an explanation like this? To me it just doesn’t seem relevant to what they are supposed to be doing, i.e., insuring that people have access to use the park and that they are safe while there. Beyond those concerns (and the concern of preserving the park) why anyone wants to use the park really is none of their concern.

Some of the requirements for events (one support vehicle for each participant, number of support team members, etc.) were already implemented by AdventureCorps for the most recent Badwater races. That requirements very similar to what race organizers had already put in place seems to suggest that, perhaps, NPS took some input from event organizers into account.

Having read through the report (not a close reading, I’ll admit) it doesn’t seem to me that if all of the recommendations are implemented it will be too exceedingly difficult for event organizers to continue to use DVNP for sporting events. At the same time, events like Badwater that relied on the harsh conditions of the park to give a unique character to their event would seem to be over for good. For the NPS that may seem to be for the best, but for the world of ultrarunning it might not be so easy to say farewell to the world’s toughest footrace.




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