Dawn Lisenby didn’t think she’d get another shot at running the Badwater 135, the world’s most extreme foot race.
Finishing the ultramarathon through California’s Death Valley just didn’t seem to be in the cards. The Flagler Beach running coach and trail race director dropped out after 42 miles last year with severe muscle spasms and nausea that turned out to be symptoms of COVID.
Lisenby didn’t expect to get another opportunity, but she decided to send in her application again.
On July 6 — 46 hours, 34 minutes and 4 seconds after starting the race — she crossed the finish line, the last of 89 runners to finish the grueling course in the allotted 48 hours.
“I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to get back in and to finally secure it. It feels like a big load off to finally have it,” Lisenby said. “It’s been a lot mentally, physically, a long time coming. It’s a happy ending to the story.”
Her story began in 2017, when she served on the crew for another runner. In 2018, she ran the course with a full four-person crew a few days before the actual race. The 135-mile test starts at Badwater Basin, 280-feet below sea level. The course passes over three mountain ranges and ends at the trailhead to the Mount Whitney summit where the elevation is 8,300 feet. Lisenby ran all the way to the summit (elevation 14,505 feet) but took over 75 hours to finish.
In 2019, she decided to send in her application to enter the 2020 race. She was selected as one of the 100 runners, only to see the race get canceled two weeks before the scheduled date because of the pandemic.
The entrants were given the opportunity to run it instead in 2021 or 2022. Lisenby chose 2022, because there was to be no finish-line party in 2021.
My preparation was very meticulous. Failure was not an option. — DAWN LISENBY
She didn't finish the race, but she did attend the party and met Leigh Clary, an ER nurse from Sacramento. Clary told her, “You have to get your finish, and when you do I’ll help you.” Clary served on Lisenby’s crew this year, along with Jonathan Rice, Tiffany Forrester and crew chief Celia Eicheldinger.
Lisenby was told that people who do not finish, don’t usually get accepted again, but while running the Donna 110 in Jacksonville in February, she was listening on her headphones and heard that she had indeed been selected again.
She trained harder than ever and felt she was ready when she woke up at 4:15 in the morning on July 3, the day before the race, to discover her flight to Las Vegas had been canceled. But she got on another flight and got to the race in time. Her strategy was to make each checkpoint with two hours to spare.
“My preparation was very meticulous,” she said. “Failure was not an option. This was my third year. It’s not a cheap race (over $1,500 just to enter). I was very cautious. I took breaks when I felt I was getting overheated. I was not worried about time. I was not worried about who’s around me. I was competing to finish the course.”
The temperature at the start was 118 degrees, about 10 degrees cooler than last year, she said. And near morning, it dropped into the 60s until the searing Death Valley sun came out again. As the day went on, Lisenby developed an inflammation in her mouth that made it difficult to eat and drink. It slowed her down.
At Mile 108, fatigued and calorie deprived, the course was diverted because of flooding by the Owens River. She thought she had 12 miles to next cutoff but she really had 18.
“One of my crew said you’re going to have to get moving, so I just started running hard,” she said.
She made the 122-mile checkpoint with 53 minutes to spare.
From there she had a difficult climb. Her crew stopped at McDonald’s and got her a vanilla shake. It did the trick. She made the final climb and finished holding hands with her crew members.
“It was awesome. It took four years of working toward that finish,” she said. “I’m so grateful to everyone who helped me, not just the amazing crew. Those people were dedicated to seeing me finish. But all this year, I had a family support team around me. It takes a village. You realize you can’t do this alone. I realize you're stronger than you think you are. You can always dig deeper.”