NORTH BEND, Wash. — The sun has not quite risen on a cool, cloudy morning as Scott Jurek straps a water bottle to his right hand and starts running up a steep alder-lined trail, heading to the summit of Mount Si.
Most of the ultramarathons he runs take him through similar terrain. But now he's training for a race he spent years avoiding, because it stretches across 135 miles of Southern California asphalt in the cruel midsummer heat of a vast desert.
On July 24, Jurek and about 90 other of the world's most seasoned long-distance runners will take on the notoriously grueling Badwater Ultra-marathon, which begins in the belly of Death Valley and ends more than halfway up Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States.
With temperatures that often soar past 120 degrees, many runners wear hats and bandanas equipped with pockets for ice cubes that melt every mile or so. Five times during last year's race, Jurek spent several minutes sitting in a super-sized cooler full of ice water.
A running coach, pitchman for Brooks Sports, Inc., and physical therapist based in Seattle, the 32-year-old Jurek ran Badwater for the first time last year, just two weeks after his seventh consecutive win at the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run in Northern California.
Few were surprised that he won and set a Badwater course record of 24 hours, 36 minutes and 8 seconds. This year, he's out to finish it in less than a day.
"I think his chances are excellent," said Marshall Ulrich, a four-time Badwater winner. "I think he may not just break 24 hours — he may break 23 hours or maybe even 22."
Some people thought Jurek was crazy last year when he ran it so soon after Western States. Even he acknowledged it was "a little bit over the edge."
This year, he's skipping Western States and concentrating on Badwater. He'll be heading down to Death Valley 2½ weeks before the race, spending more than double the time he did last year getting acclimated to the searing heat.
"Definitely being more heat-trained this year, knowing the course, knowing how my body reacts to certain stages of the race will be a huge benefit," Jurek said after wrapping up a recent training run up the 4-mile Mount Si trail.
During the hottest hours of the day, Badwater runners rarely see their own sweat. It evaporates that quickly. They have to monitor their electrolyte levels regularly throughout the race, and hop on scales to weigh themselves every hour or two, to make sure their bodies are processing all the fluids they're sucking down.
At times, Jurek's weight was down three or four pounds — a lot, he said, for a man who weighs 165. He guzzled about a gallon of water every couple of hours, but figured out it wasn't quite enough. This year, he said he plans to drink more and weigh himself more often to make sure he drops no more than a pound or two at any given time.
Some Badwater runners take sleep breaks. Jurek lay down at one of his low points last year, but never snoozed. At one low point last year, he had a rare bout of vomiting. At other lows, he said it felt draining just to walk. He ran backward a time or two just to vary his stride, giving his muscles a bit of a break.
His goal all along was to win the race, but he held back and let others lead until mile 90 or so. That impressed Lisa Bliss, who served as the race medical director.
"He was able to plan and pace himself very well. I think in that respect he's a phenomenal runner," said Bliss, a veteran ultrarunner who finished Badwater two years ago.