Dunedin ultra-endurance athlete Glenn Sutton, has spent the past week acclimatising to the temperatures of a Californian summer, where he aims to take the record for the number of finishes by a New Zealander in a race dubbed "the world's toughest footrace" – the Badwater 135.

Held through Death Valley, California, on the first full moon at the height of the northern hemisphere summer each year, the 135-mile (217km) race is renowned for its extreme temperatures, which can soar past 50°C. The previous event had unofficial temperatures recorded at 58°C.

"This is the sort of heat that you never forget," Glenn admits. "The training that I have done back home has put myself into uncomfortable situations for running – I've been running with multiple layers on to emulate the heat. Once you start sweating a puffer jacket is more like Glad Wrap. Being in those uncomfortable positions, soaking wet and pushing through to carry on running is the key."

Glenn Sutton runs on the white line to avoid the heat of the road during a training run near Lone Pine in the lead up to the 2019 Badwater 135 event.
Photo credit: Adventure Media Group/Derek Morrison

Sutton has been training in the comparatively cooler single-digit climate of a Dunedin winter, improvising with the use of a heat box equipped with a treadmill. Inside the heatbox he has been able to replicate 40-45°C conditions. But he said that it still wasn't quite the same as the conditions that will greet him at the startline at Badwater Basin.

"The dry, dry heat at Badwater is like standing in front of an oven door when it is opened – a thick carpet of hot air and you can't escape it. There is no opening the door and going into air-conditioning. You're completely exposed and then you have to run 217km. There is no shelter, no trees, you're out in the full sun all day. The heat is relentless."

New Zealand runner and Olympian Rod Dixon dropped into Lone Pine to meet Sutton ahead of the race. He liked what he saw in Sutton.

"Glenn is ready," he smiled. "That's one tough mountain to finish."

Taking on a challenge like the Badwater 135 race across Death Valley is a team event. Even though Sutton will be the only one running non-stop along the tortuous 135 mile (217km) course in California, he will be fed, watered, weighed, medically assessed, ice-bathed, paced and morally supported by a team of four.

The support team for 2019 includes Steve Barton, of Southern Motor Group, Bruce Adams, of Adams Flags, Greg Yee, of Clint's Autos Dunedin, and Glenn's eldest daughter Emily Sutton, of Dunedin.

Over the past two days Sutton and his team have inspected the course and made final plans to ensure a constant supply of ice and food. The course crosses three mountain ranges and from just after Stovepipe Wells (mile 42) to Keeler (mile 108) they will have no  reception and only one fuel and food stop at Panamint Springs to rely on before reaching Lone Pine. That responsibility is top of mind for support team leader Bruce Adams.

"I'm lucky enough to have crewed with Glenn in 2015," Adams said. "And I learnt then how important it is that the support crew gets it right. Ice and real food are the two most important things to help Glenn to keep going forward."

"We have a fantastic support crew and team and all the heat training that we've done will be put to very good use. It will be key for us to even survive these temperatures let alone running the tough bits to support Glenn."

Support crew member Steve Barton said he felt excited and nervous for Sutton on the eve of the event.

"The heat is one challenge here," offers Barton. "We did a training run up to Whitney Portal yesterday and the altitude is a factor, also. The finishline is at 2552m and we start at 85m below sea level with three big climbs on the route. In total, Glenn will be running 4450m of cumulative vertical ascent. The biggest climb is in the hottest part of the day and can last 8-9 hours."

Greg Yee, who is New Zealand's current 24-Hour Track Champion, said the heat added a complete unknown to an already brutal environment. He, along with Barton and Adams will be pacing Glenn after the mile 42 pacer restriction lifts.

"I've never run in that heat before," laughs Yee. "But it doesn't scare me and Glenn will be 42 miles softened by the time I have to pace him. My job is to make sure he gets to the finishline and I'm really looking forward to that adventure."

For the first time at Badwater, Glenn's eldest daughter Emily will join the support crew.

"I've fed Dad at lots of races and I really enjoy it, even when he gets a bit grumpy," she smiles. "My role's to be camp mum. I'll be taking notes of what Dad eats, drinks and monitoring those things. I love doing support and this will be a fun one. It's always cool to see him succeed and to be a part of that success is even more special."

It's called "the world's toughest foot race" for good reason: temperatures in Death Valley soar to 50°C with ground temperatures as high as 80°C. Sutton's best time, in 2014 took him 36 hours to complete. He may be a joiner by trade, but he has some steely ambition. That steely ambition will be truly tested on Monday (July 15).

The race officially starts on Monday, July 15 at 9:30pm Californian time (Tuesday, July 16 at 4:30pm NZST).

Glenn Sutton (right) is joined by members of his support team (from left) Greg Yee, of Dunedin, and Steve Barton, of Southern Motor Group, as they check out the finish 13km at Whitney Portal ahead of the race.
Photo credit: Adventure Media Group/Derek Morrison

Badwater 135: The World's Toughest Footrace

Covering 135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, California, the Badwater 135 is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet. The start line is at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280ft (85m) below sea level. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,300ft (2530m), which is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States. The Badwater 135 course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600ft (4450m) of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100ft (1859m) of cumulative descent. Competitors travel through places or landmarks with names like Mushroom Rock, Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs, Keeler, Lone Pine, Alabama Hills, and the Sierra Nevada. Temperatures have been known to soar above 50°C during the race with an unofficial recording of 58°C near Furnace Creek in 2018. Entries are strictly limited to the best athletes in the world.
The 42nd edition will take place Monday-Wednesday, July 15-17, 2019.

Time difference at Death Valley: -19 hours (NZST)

Follow Glenn Sutton's 2019 race through his Facebook page:
Photo credit: Adventure Media Group/Derek Morrison


Glenn Sutton meets Olympian Rod Dixon at Lone Pine, California, ahead of the Badwater 135, the world's toughest footrace. Sutton has finished both his previous attempts at the race in the 2014 and 2015 Badwater 135 events. Success in this 2019 race will make him the only Kiwi to complete three events. Photo credit: Adventure Media Group/Derek Morrison