What? 135 miles, are you insane?

by Ben Burch

Well it’s not just 135 miles, it’s across Death Valley in the USA - the hottest place ever recorded on earth, I explain. This is normally followed by a question: “how many days does it take?” “Well, it’s just a single run, it’s non-stop”. I enjoy the bewildered look on their face as the sheer magnitude of the challenge I’m tackling is absorbed and I begin to smile. With every person I tell it becomes more real, I see each person is an insurance policy for the dark hours in the middle of the race, how can I possibly let them down, or more importantly let myself down.

So the challenge is to complete the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, it’s probably the hardest of all the single stage ultramarathons out there, it’s not only one of the longest, it also crosses three mountain ranges and it’s run through Death Valley…. in the summer.

But why? Well that’s simple and yet complex to answer at the same time. The simple and short answer – because I want to try and complete it, because I want to see if I have the mental fortitude and physical capacity to do it. But the complex version is nuanced and dives deep into the very core of who I am, maybe who we all are and that is my “identity”.

I love it for a start, I love the suffering and the mental game, I’m fascinated by the relationship between mind and body. Why when you set out to run 10km do you feel like the last few hundred metres are the last you can run and yet the day after you can run 30km and cruise through the 20km point without a thought? Your knee may hurt at 10km, but then at 20km it doesn’t – surely it hasn’t repaired itself? Why do the last few km’s of a long run seem to take ages, when the first take only moments?

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280’ (85m) below sea level. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,300’ (2530m), which is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States.

There is much written on the subject, the role of the brain and many theories out there, perhaps the most famous being the “Central Governor” one. Whilst I find that interesting and read a little on it, I actually really enjoy the experiments every time I run, can I trick myself, can I make 50km seem like 10km? This all started when I was rowing and finding ways to keep going through the long war of attrition that the training is. Can I build upon my mental resilience over the next months and years to be able to continue when every single cell in my body it saying stop, when I am hallucinating from exhaustion, sleep deprivation and extreme heat – can I still put one foot in front of the other? The answer will only be “yes” if I experiment and test myself thoroughly and even then, I may get it wrong. I know today I am not ready.

As I have moved through the stages of my life, the big events and responsibilities tend to become the focus, they are important and I am not belittling them at all. However, inadvertently we become defined by them, rather than the real DNA of what we are about. I don’t believe that it is about rejecting that lifestyle and privilege, it’s just about reminding myself, and in turn the world, that those aspects aren’t actually who you are, they are what you have done. By understanding this I think we (I) can all grow and thrive and with that, inject our DNA back into the life path that we are on and the people we are lucky enough to surround ourselves with.

I think that our identity boils down to the internal dialogue “this is what I’m about, this is what I do and this is why I do it”. We all have an identity, perhaps a few for different audiences, but the description of the one we hold inside our heads, in our core, is very important and we all have a choice – change it or live it. (Johan Hari has written about this as part of his excellent book – “Lost Connections”)

The opinion we hold of ourselves can become, in part, a reflection of how others see us. Often you will hear “you can’t do that because….”, I’ve heard it a million times, but why? I am beginning to realise “you can’t do that” is often the person actually saying that they can’t or won’t do it.. and that’s just fine. I will respectfully ignore that and make my own decisions based upon what I can and want to do, based on my values, responsibilities, time, determination and any other characteristic that may be important – yes, perhaps I have some stubborn genes! I wrote in the past about how “My 100km is your 5km... your salsa is my awkward stumble...” and I really think that’s a key ingredient here. Holding onto this guiding principle is incredibly hard and I think we are all buffeted by the winds that blow. Tell a kid they can’t do something… you watch their determination to prove you wrong, it’s in our very DNA to do what we believe in, we need to remind ourselves, be children again.

“Ships don’t sink because of the water around them; ships sink because of the water that gets in them. Don’t let what’s happening around you get inside and weigh you down”


I had let my identity and me drift in separate ways and it was not making me happy or content. Not anything in particular, each individual element was great and it seems rather selfish and disrespectful to describe any of my life as anything other than extremely lucky. I am extremely lucky.

Realising there is this conflict is not that straightforward - well it wasn’t for me. I think that the process started with Florence (a young girl in Delilah’s class who faced and won a battle with cancer), I was compelled to act and it ignited a fire within. In the same year Allegra was born and the heart-stopping (literally) weeks that followed were the next trigger - this was the beginning of the “wake up” for me and it started to build from there…

During the Happy Heart 100 run, the process, the people and the future of that as an event or perhaps even a movement I started to think more and understand clearly what was important me, who was important and what I wanted to do. Conversations I had, books I read and realisations that I made, not one particular moment – perhaps just the sequence, time and a heightened awareness. It was as if I had not given myself permission for a long time, my internal and external narrative was at odds with what I really believed in. This all sounds strange when I write it down but it was the case, this isn’t about what was wrong, but rather an acceptance that I wanted to change things to be “more right”.

To run Badwater135 I have to live and breathe my core identity, I have to be brutally honest with myself and those around me about who I am and how I act, and perhaps importantly, who I am not. It’s not just when I’m running, but at home, with my family and my friends – it’s the complete package. I don’t just need to be a better runner, I need to be better in every aspect of my life. Better? In this context I simply mean, more closely aligned to what I believe to be better.

Some will look at this as a “selfish run”, one in which I am going after a goal at the expense of all else - I’d challenge that, it is simply one piece in a complex jigsaw, a piece of my identity. It is quite probably not a piece of yours and that’s just fine, we are all unique, let’s celebrate that.

I have wider goals with this run, I have big plans with how it can make a lasting and positive impact on others… I’m a little way from announcing them, but I will and I will do my best.

So does that answer the question? I think so. You may still think I’m mad. Will it prompt others to think? I hope so.

p.s. Interested…. in reading about Badwater, the excellent and amusing book ay Cory Reese does a great job of explaining a little more - Into the Furnace - How a 135 mile run across Death Valley set my soul on fire