Badwater 135
© David McNew / Getty Images

This is what it takes to get into the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon

Ultramarathon runner Rhys Jenkins reveals what it takes to get accepted into the toughest – and most prestigious – ultra on the planet.
By Charlotte Miles
7 min readPublished on
Considered the holy grail of ultramarathons, Badwater 135 is the race every ultra-distance runner dreams of defeating. Set in California’s Death Valley, competitors battle mid-summer temperatures of up to 53 degrees Celsius as they traverse the blistering desert valley, covering 135 miles, three mountain ranges and a jaw-dropping vertical ascent of 13,000ft, which includes summiting the notorious Mount Whitney 122 miles in. Runners have just 48 hours to complete this torturous traverse.
But it isn't just the haunting (and very real) prospect of failure that gives this race its tantalising appeal (indeed, even Dean Karnazes was defeated during his first attempt in 1995), but the prestige of securing an entry spot in the first place.
Entry into Badwater is by invitation only, with an application that requires strict qualifying requirements, and extensive details about a runner’s racing history and personal life. A maximum of 100 people will be accepted into Badwater each year which includes a 50/50 split of rookies and Badwater veterans. Organisers look to represent runners from 20 countries, plus 20 to 25 American states, making entry spots all the more competitive.
One man that can attest to this is 31-year-old Rhys Jenkins. After his first application was rejected in 2016, it has taken him 10 years to craft his running résumé to impress the committee. Finally on July 17, 2019, Rhys became the first Welshman to take part, finishing 57th out of 79 runners.
“The difficulty in applying is part of the lure of it," he says. "I think that’s why people want to do it so much because, if it was easy to get into, not as many people would do it. As it’s so difficult, it’s such a privilege to run. To put into perspective how difficult it is: only 743 people have competed in Badwater since 1987, whereas 4,000 people have climbed Everest.”
So, just how do you bag yourself one of the few highly coveted places? Here the Welshman shares his wining strategy and best advice...

You need to go above and beyond to prove you can go the distance

Rhys completed the 135-mile course in 40hrs 47mins
Rhys completed the 135-mile course in 40hrs 47mins
To be even considered to compete in Badwater, applicants must create a running CV that proves they have officially finished at least three running races of at least 100 continuous miles, and at least one of them must have been completed in the previous 18 months.
However, as the applicant guidelines point out, 'not all 100-mile (and longer) races are created equal', and so applicants are more likely to be selected if they have competed in particular races – races that are physically, emotionally and logistically challenging. These include the Brazil 135+, Keys 100 and Badwater Salton Sea, all of which involve extreme changes in climate and elevation.
But Rhys went one step further in proving himself to organisers – and himself – running the Badwater course unofficially four times. He explains:
"Badwater had been on my radar as something that I wanted to do, but did I truly believe that I deserved a place in the race? I don’t know. Running the race unofficially was a way to prove to myself that I can do it and, if I did eventually get the opportunity to compete, then at least I could do myself a damn justice. To do the marathon four times unofficially is still, for me, one of the proudest moments of my life. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the support of true friends, amazing family and my inspirational wife.”
To do the marathon four times unofficially is still for me one of the proudest moments of my life
Rhys Jenkins
On top of that, Rhys also took part in Britain’s three longest, non-stop, point-to-point towpath running races: the Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles from Birmingham to London), Kennet & Avon Canal Race (145 miles from Bristol to London) and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal Race (130 miles from Liverpool to London). “You need to prove that you can go the distance and that has to be done in an official manner,” explains Rhys. “Running the marathon unofficially four times is cool to shout about and the race directors would have appreciated it, but I still had to go and do a minimum of three official 100-mile races.”

You must prove yourself as a person

Rhys has raised £50,000 for the charity CF Warriors
Rhys has raised £50,000 for the charity CF Warriors
Acceptance into Badwater isn’t just measured by how impressive your running credentials are, but also your contribution to society. With only 100 highly coveted spots, the committee are looking for "stand-up people" explains Rhys. “It’s not just about running, it’s about you and what you do in your day-to-day life," he says. "They call it the race of champions, so they are looking for stand-up people who are good within the community, outside of sport. You need to prove that you give back [and] do charity work... It’s an all-encompassing CV."
Happily, Rhys' fundraising over the years has given him a mightily impressive CV. Rhys is an ambassador for CF Warriors, a charity which strives to help children with cystic fibrosis participate in sport to improve their lives and life expectancy. He’s raised over £50,000 (almost 90,000 CAD) for the CF Warriors and other charities through his various running challenges.
Runners must all demonstrate their commitment to sportsmanship, which for Rhys was straightforward. A passionate and experienced ultrarunner, he’s completed a number of long-distance feats, including a 2,000-mile run from Boston to Austin in 2010 and running 250 miles along the South Coast of Iceland in 2017. He’s also the race director of Pegasus Ultra Running – an events company organising ultramarathons across the globe.

Your application needs to be completed to an exceptionally high standard

To gain an entry into Badwater, you need to do your research, says Rhys
To gain an entry into Badwater, you need to do your research, says Rhys
If job interviews give you sweaty palms, then the Badwater application may ellicit a similar reaction. Questions can include:
  • Which Badwater 135 veteran do you admire most, and why?
  • What does ‘Badwater’ mean to you?
  • How do you give back to the sport of ultrarunning?
  • What percentage of your athletic peers – not just your friends – would say that you are a good human being and good sports person?
  • Why are you on this planet?
“You need to prove that you appreciate the race and its history,” explains Rhys. And that includes the finer details of the race’s logistics. Indeed, applicants are encouraged to improve their understanding of the race by attending Badwater as a pacer or crew member.
“Just getting to the race alone is an incredible feat so there’s a mutual respect among the runners that we’ve all done a lot of work to get to this position,” explains Rhys. “When you turn up on the day to register you see all the people that you’ve read about. I’m a Badwater geek so I was looking around the room thinking, Oh my god, there’s so and so. You have admiration for people around you. Badwater to me isn’t just a race but a lifestyle.”
The difficulty in applying is part of the lure of it. I think that’s why people want to do it so much because, if it was easy to get into, not as many people would do it. As it’s so difficult, it’s such a privilege to run
Rhys Jenkins

Just because you’ve run it once, doesn’t mean you will be accepted again

Entry places can be just as competitive for Badwater veterans
Entry places can be just as competitive for Badwater veterans
You may think that if you had completed Badwater once before, your entry is fast-tracked next time round. But this isn’t necessarily the case, warns Rhys.
“You have to demonstrate that you have improved yourself as a person since the last 12 months. I think it’s going to be just as difficult for me to get in [again] as last year. I will be classed as a veteran which could make it easier, but every year there are more veterans applying, so the chances of returning decrease.
“This year I want to give back to the running community so I’m going to organise more races to get more people into ultrarunning. In October Josh Llewellyn-Jones OBE, the founder of CF Warriors, is swimming the English Channel (21 miles), cycling 200 miles and then running 160 miles from London to Cardiff, which I will join him for. I’m basically trying to do as much as possible to change people’s lives and if it that improves my application then so be it.”