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SUNDAY PROFILE : Against the Sun : John Rosmus of Fullerton knows how to make the 146-mile climb from the deadly hot Death Valley floor to the snowy summit of Mt. Whitney. One stride at a time.

August 06, 1995|BARBIE LUDOVISE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The tumbleweeds, they don't ask questions. The sand dunes are not impressed. A man jogs alone down a molten-hot highway. The desert doesn't ask why. The desert couldn't care less.

Back home, the questions come rat-a-tat-tat. Run from Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney? Are you serious? Are you some kind of nut? But as John Rosmus starts his long trek across the Death Valley floor, the only questions are his own.

Will he make it to the 14,495-foot summit of Mt. Whitney?

Will heatstroke, hypothermia or altitude sickness take hold?

What sort of hallucinations will visit him on the 146-mile course, during those long stretches without sleep?

When Rosmus takes his place on the starting line at Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level, the Fullerton resident does so alone, at 6 a.m. That start time will put him in the middle of Death Valley in the heat of the July day.

The "official" race, the Hi-Tec Badwater Ultramarathon, featuring two dozen entrants from around the country, a corporate sponsor and $2,000 in prizes, won't start for another 12 hours. The evening start allows contestants a cooler, nighttime trek across the desert floor.

Rosmus ran the Hi-Tec event the past two years--dropping out with stomach problems in '93, finishing in '94 despite blisters the size of fried eggs. This time, the 46-year-old hockey shop owner wants the extra challenge of the daytime heat.

Rosmus versus the sun.

He is an ultrarunner, one of a small group of athletes who contend that a race is barely worth running unless it pushes you to extremes. Ultrarunners bypass standard 26.2-mile marathons, embracing instead events like the Western States Endurance Run, which stretches 100 miles over the High Sierra. Or the Trans-American Footrace, where runners hoof it from Huntington Beach to New York City, averaging 45 miles a day, for 65 days.

It was that quest for a grueling challenge that, back in 1973, brought ultra-adventurers Kenneth Crutchlow and Paxton Beale to Badwater. In surveying a map of the area, the two realized that the highest and lowest points in the contiguous U.S. were separated by a mere 146 miles. Badwater-to-Whitney was born.

The Badwater race, Rosmus says, "is the most difficult thing I can do on my budget."

Difficult? Try diabolical.

When's the last time you made a 15,000-foot elevation gain--without your seat belt fastened? Or ran for hours through what feels like the inside of a Thanksgiving Day oven? By the way: If you're squeamish about all your toenails falling off, you'd better pass on Badwater to Whitney.

Over the years, the course has attracted its share of characters. Ben Jones, a general practitioner in Lone Pine and the self-appointed "mayor" of Badwater, cooled off during his run by submerging himself in an ice-filled casket. Richard Benyo, the course historian, trained for the first round-trip assault on the course (Badwater to Whitney to Badwater) by sitting in a 150-degree sauna where he alternated doing calisthenics with guzzling water and reading Dostoevsky.

Another year, an innovative athlete striving for the shortest distance between two points crossed the salt bed flats on cross-country skis before scaling snowcapped Whitney. While creative, his trek isn't counted alongside those that follow the established course--the highways that connect Badwater and Whitney.

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It is not just the difficulty of the run that draws Rosmus to Death Valley. He loves the desert, feels at peace in its solitude and has an affinity for its inhabitants who eke out a living any way they can. He finds the harsh terrain inspiring. Fourteen-karat cliffs, endless skies, whitecapped salt flats. Sand, gravel, rock.

Even in the brutal summer heat, Rosmus, a Boston native and former ice hockey player, manages to feel right at home. "To go out there and run, even though I've been beaten to death by the heat . . . I don't know, it's normal for me."

Many outside the ultrarunning realm dub him crazy. Including his mother.

"I don't know where he got it from," Mary Rosmus says with a laugh. Growing up, her only son was quiet yet independent, finding his way around Boston by bus at age 10. Rosmus wasn't yet a teen when his father died in a household fall. Later, Rosmus enlisted in the Army and served two tours of duty as a field radio operator in Vietnam.

Rosmus dismisses the notion that his obsession to run, as he acknowledges it, might be born from his past. He runs because he runs.

"Some people like to work on their cars all weekend. Some like to play tennis," he says. "I like to do this."

Martha, his wife of 21 years, knows that all too well. Though she can't remember the last time a vacation didn't revolve around John's running, she says she supports her husband and his No. 1 pursuit.

"I think he wants to achieve something that's so very difficult for the majority," Martha says. "It's just a real quest."

At certain stages last week, that quest seemed downright quixotic.

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