(Part 1 of a two-part series on ultrarunner Desiree Marek and the Badwater Ultramarathon.)

The Badwater Ultramarathon (also known as Badwater 135) has been unofficially named “the world’s toughest foot race.” Held every July in Death Valley, CA, the 135-mile race boasts a net elevation gain of approximately 8600 feet, starting at the lowest elevation point in North America (279 feet below sea level) at Badwater Basin and finishing at the trailhead to Mount Whitney (8300 feet above sea level).

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Such a climb poses a serious technical challenge for runners in any location, but especially so in Death Valley, where daily temperatures can exceed 120°F. Those runners who have attempted Badwater’s grueling course – only 100 per year, chosen through a highly selective application process – are considered among the toughest (and, to some, craziest) in the sport.

Marek’s personal running journey

Marek began considering Badwater in 2013 – only four years after she first started running, and only picked up the sport in 2009 when her brother persuaded her to join him on his daily runs.

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Almost immediately, Marek was hooked. She ran her first half marathon in October of 2009, and completed her first ultramarathon (a race longer than the 26.2 miles of a regular marathon) four months later.

Long distance trail running immediately appealed to Marek and her love for the outdoors. Her favorite race to date is the Western States Endurance Run, a grueling 100-mile trail race through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Since that first run in 2009, Marek has gone on to complete over 30 ultramarathons, along with numerous half and full marathons.

Running on plants

In addition to her lightning-fast ascent in the ultrarunning community, Marek has also inspired interest due to her vegan diet. While the larger endurance community boasts a number of vegetarians and vegans (Rich Roll, Scott Jurek, and Ariel Rosenfeld among the most well-known), to the average individual, the idea of a runner fueled exclusively on a plant-based diet tackling such long distances may seem hard to believe.

Marek became vegetarian at 16 and transitioned to veganism in 2007 for health reasons, after her father was diagnosed with cancer. Though she has never had to defend her diet to other runners, she has indeed encountered a greater deal of skepticism from non-runners.

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