When a marathon falls short, and Austin’s heat feels downright balmy, some folks head to Death Valley to prove their athletic mettle by racing long distances through the desert.
Take Austin ultra runner Brenda Guajardo, 41, the top female finisher in last month’s Badwater 135-Mile Ultramarathon, an invitational race that starts in the Badwater Basin of California and winds its way up into the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Guajardo, an office administrator and event planner, ran through 108 degree temperatures and beneath scorching sun, and climbed a cumulative 14,600 feet of vertical ascent. She finished in 28 hours and 23 minutes, first among all women and fifth overall.
The former aerobics instructor, who took up running in her 20s when she decided aerobics wasn’t keeping her fit enough, has entered the race three other times. She finished eighth female in her first attempt in 2011 and second in 2016.
She was favored to win last year but broke her foot from overuse 2 miles in. That injury makes this year’s victory all the more remarkable.
“In the last year I’ve had to relearn how to walk,” she says. “I had a limp I couldn’t get rid of and I had to rebuild my mileage. I made serious adjustments in how I train. I couldn’t do speed work, because it was too much on my foot, so I just did long and high volume at a slow pace.”
The training worked.
At the first checkpoint, at Mile 17, she stood in fifth place. She took over the lead at the second checkpoint, at Mile 42, and held it all the way to the finish. Her pace ranged from speedy, 7-minute, 45-second miles on the downhills to between 14- and 16-minute miles on the final uphill slog to the finish. The second place woman finished 25 minutes behind her.
The temperatures took their toll. In the blazing sun, heat radiated from the pavement. “It’s strictly asphalt, all road,” she says. “It definitely cooks your skin.”
Guajardo said that temperatures at the race this year felt relatively comfortable, thanks to the hours she spent training in the Texas heat.
“The humidity in Austin is my Kryptonite. Racing in the desert feels like a vacation compared to the insanity of Austin’s high heat with high humidity,” she says.
Guajardo, who crossed the finish time of her first marathon in 1997 in a not-so-speedy 6 hours, prepared for Badwater by spending 90 minutes in a 140-degree dry sauna, then running outdoors in Austin. She also trained in the Big Bend area to simulate the conditions in Death Valley.
“You teach your stomach how to process fluid in high volume,” she says. “It teaches your body how to sweat very fast and push water out. On race day I put ice-filled bandanas around my neck and my crew sprayed me with water every so many miles.”
But why enter such a grueling event?
“Why not? I think I’m most intrigued by the mind and body connection of what happens when you’re out there. For me personally, I’m very introverted and my job requires me to be very extroverted. To spend an extraordinary number of hours by myself is replenishing. It’s how I gain my energy back.”
Guajardo holds the women’s course record for the Nove Colli 125-mile race in Italy. In 2016 she won Pheidippides Race — a 304-mile race in Greece, where she broke the men’s course record by more than four hours.
Guajardo says she’s not sure what comes next, other than taking some time off for a full recovery, which takes at least a month.
Or maybe enjoying some quality time with her much pet — a turtle named Charlie.
“I consider the turtle my racing animal because turtles represent longevity and patience. … A turtle reminds me to always have patience, never give up. Well, and the obvious — slow and steady wins the race.”