Sunday, April 29, 2012

Book Review: A Few Degrees From Hell

A Few Degrees from Hell: The 2003 Badwater Ultramarathon [Paperback]  Scott Ludwig (Author)   $23

So I buy as many books that I review as I receive from publishers. Those that I buy are ones that I have a special interest in or may be titles that are older. More any that regularly reads this blog you have be beginning to realize that I have begun to have an obsession with ultra-marathoning at this point. In particular the Western States and the Badwater races. This book was the first book I personally purchased detailing the Badwater race. I thought I would share my thoughts on it for anyone interested in the race or for such a long and grueling race.

The publisher describes the book as:  The Badwater Ultramarathon is commonly referred to as 'the toughest footrace on the planet.' In 2003 defending champion Pam Reed, Dean Karnazes and 71 other runners took the ultimate challenge of running 135 miles in California from Badwater to the portals of Mount Whitney. Their journey would take them through the hostile environment of Death Valley...and subject them to temperatures ranking among the highest ever recorded on earth. Twenty-five runners tell of their adventures in arguably the absolute toughest of 'the toughest footrace on the planet'--the good, the bad and yes, the ugly--in this incredible and fascinating compilation. You are certain to gain a respect for the runners you will meet, and perhaps an even greater respect for the area known as Death Valley. The runners--who experienced heat exhaustion, dehydration, nausea, blisters, hallucinations and fatigue during the race--competed in temperatures literally 'a few degrees from hell.'
The book is unique in a sense that it covers one year’s race from the point of view of 26 different people. The race that is detailed in the 2003 running of Badwater where the heat was roughly 133 degrees and almost set the North America heat record. So for any of the more recent races it was a good one to chronicle due to this extra heat element that all participants and their crews had to deal with. The book is really a retelling of the experiences of 25 runners. These runners were both elites and less experienced ultra-marathoners. They were young and old and both fast and slow. I found the book to be a really good mix of and representation of the various types of runners who participate in this event.

I think anyone who runs would be interested in this from a number of reasons. I find it very interesting from the why do I do this point of view. Some of the runners have really gone into detail about their almost two day journey. Many share their thoughts throughout the race and strategies. But the core of all of the stories is their struggle with both the heat and the distance. Even the most prepared runners found that unforeseen events would occur that had to be dealt with. For the casual reader it is a book of human spirit and the journey to reach/achieve a personal goal. For anyone dreaming or planning for the race there is a lot of insight into how to prepare for it and deal with the varied issues during the race. In a sense it is a primer or guide for a runner to not only understand what the race will be like but what they need to organized and prepare for as a part of the race.

As much as I am fascinated by the race reading 25 accounts of the same race does towards the end become a little redundant. By the middle of the book you know by heart the check points and their distances for the runner. You learn where people basically take a rest, swim, a break or even sleep. You understand the various parts of the course and their elevations. So you become a little bored with the basic knowledge if it is yet again repeated by the runner. But even with so many elements of the story the same each story is unique and worthy of reading. Each runner provides their slightly different view of the world and the race from where they were at any given time. You do begin to wonder if some of them will make it and how they could possibly go on. But most do and somehow find the drive and strength to do so. The chapter I actually enjoyed as much as any was the last chapter from one of the crews. It was a wonderful description of what that side of the race goes through. It was refreshing even at the end of the book to see just how much hard effort it takes to support one of these runners. I actually think the support crews have it harder than the runners with the heat and amount of activity they have to deal with. I actually wished that the author had added more stories from the crews. I think it would have been a nice balance to the runner’s stories and we as readers could have gotten to take the complete journey with some of these crews and runners.

Personally I found the book a great motivator. As extreme as the race is and as silly as my dream to run it is, the book gives me a lot of hope to one day to complete it. I found many of the people running my age or older. I found that they were not super human but simply dedicated to running and focused on this one goal. Many of the runners had times that seemed achievable and their run/walk approach was almost used by everyone due to the heat and elevation changes they all face. Would it be extremely hard and even dangerous to do? Absolutely. Is it something that people achieve on a yearly basis and fulfill their goals? Again yes. So I guess there is some hope for this older overweight father for the future.


  1. Great Article Brian. You can achieve what it is you want in life. Let me share a motto we live by presented by my wife's uncle:

    Success formula for anything is simple. Show up, take action, hold yourself accountable or be held accountable! Do this in your faith, relationships, and career and I promise you will have a fullfilled life! Today in everything I do, I will show up, take action, and hold myself accountable!!!!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Really good advice for sure. I'm in a bit of a mood at the moment and these words certainly put things into perspective for me. I appreciate you sharing these with me. I'll try my best to follow them and work myself out of this mood I have been in. Thanks for the kind words and I'm glad you enjoyed the review.