Kanuga breaks through the pain barrier at 4th Badwater 135

Kerri Kanuga battles adversity and the elements to triumph again at the Badwater 135 ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley. - PHOTO: Chris Clapp

Somewhere after she had run the equivalent of her third marathon, Kerri Kanuga felt rejuvenated.

Kanuga, who recently completed her fourth Badwater 135 ultramarathon, said Thursday that she suffered from food poisoning for more than half the race. But then, after making it more than 80 miles through her 135‑mile jaunt through Death Valley, she found an extra reserve of strength.

“I went in totally depleted,” she said. “I really had a hard time for the first 85 miles or so. At mile 85 I was hallucinating. I laid down and had an eight-minute nap and I woke up at 100 percent.”

Kanuga was one of just 79 finishers this year, and she’s been able to complete the race in each of the last four years. She blew out one pair of sneakers in the first 10 miles and another by mile 25, but somehow, she managed to be one minute ahead of her 6:27 pace through the first 42 miles in 2018.

Last year, she said, the heat was unbearable. Only 69 people finished Badwater in 2018, and 30 people were either not able to finish or had to stop because of the race’s cut-off time.

Kanuga ultimately finished this year’s race in 37 hours, 58 minutes and 24 seconds, nearly a half-hour faster than she did in 2018.

“I was a little bit more on my game last year,” said Kanuga. “Last year was the hottest year ever. It was much cooler this year, but it’s still like running in an oven with a blow drier in your face.”

Kanuga, 49, finished 35th overall and 10th among women in the race. She was nudged along the path by her support team of Alexis Garcia, Marlene Guerra Garcia and Chris Clapp, and her coach John Fitzgerald was able to make the trip to California to provide her some needed moral support.

Her training regimen – which consisted of carrying 20-pound bags of rice up and down the Camana Bay observation tower one day and running 20 and 30 miles on heavy legs the next – gave her fitness to spare for the Badwater 135, and she believes the hard training lifted her through adversity.

“The first week I did that, I was walking like a penguin for three days,” she said of her intense weekend training runs. “But by the third time I did it, my body said, ‘OK, we’re doing this now.’”

Strangely enough, Kanuga said that she thrived in the incline stages of Badwater 135 and struggled in the flat portions of the course. It is harder to train for the elevation, given Cayman’s flat topography, but Kanuga was proud of the way she was able to attack the adversity she faced along the way.

“It’s always a different race,” she said. “You can prepare as well as you can, but anything can happen out there. You work through hardships. You keep proving to yourself that anything is possible.”

This year, Kanuga worked her way into exclusive company by being one of just 13 people who completed the Badwater Ultra Cup, which consists of three separate races, including the Badwater 135.

She ran the Badwater Salton Sea, an 81‑mile jaunt from California’s Salton Sea to Palomar Mountain in April. That race took her from 234 feet below sea level all the way to 5,500 feet above sea level. One month before that, she ran the Badwater Cape Fear, a 51‑mile road-and-beach run on Bald Head Island in North Carolina.

That was just an appetiser for the Badwater 135, which bills itself as ‘The World’s Toughest Foot Race’. Kanuga has completed it four times now, and even though she just finished it, she knows the inevitable question that follows. Will she put herself through all that again next year?

“Five is a nice number, but so is 10,” she said. “It’s a family out there. You see a lot of the same people and you pick up where you left off. I’ll keep doing it as long as they keep inviting me back.”

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