On Aug. 3, 1977, Al Arnold began running in the 135-degree heat of Death Valley, the world's highest recorded temperature that year. The air scalded his lungs like a blow-dryer; the rubber soles on his tennis shoes began melting; sweat dried before it could cool his skin. Still, Arnold ran.
After 84 hours, the 49-year-old from Walnut Creek had completed the 146 miles of roadway from Badwater, the country's low point at 252 feet below sea level, to the top of 14,497-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest place in the continental U.S.
The run gave birth to what would soon become the world's most grueling endurance event: the Badwater Ultramarathon.
Now the run is shorter than Arnold's original route, with 11 miles to the top of Whitney having been lopped off for safety reasons.
"Today there are about 25 annual 100-mile races in the U.S., but nothing compares to the one that's 35 miles longer and about 35 degrees hotter," says race director Chris Kostman.
The 28th annual Badwater Ultramarathon that was set to start Monday attracts runners from all over the world.
The record for completing the 135-mile course over the Panamint and Inyo mountains, into the Owens Valley and 8,400 feet up to the Mt. Whitney Portal is 25 hours and 9 minutes, set by a Russian in 2000.
"I did it to prove it could be done -- like Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile," reflects the founding father, now 77 and unable to run anymore because of a bum knee. "Now, I just sit back, amazed at the world-class names who do it."
Among those running this year is seven-time Western States winner Scott Jurek. Go to www.badwater.com.
-- Roy M. Wallack