Swinehart’s crew chief and best friend Stephanie Amspaugh hands Swinehart a drink during the race.
Swinehart’s crew chief and best friend Stephanie Amspaugh hands Swinehart a drink during the race.
Warsaw’s Suzi Swinehart has been running competitively since she was eight years old, competing in her first marathon at 19. She would eventually move up to ultramarathons, her first being the HUFF 50k run in Huntington. Still looking to increase the challenge, Swinehart’s quest to find the biggest and toughest races in the world would take her to Death Valley, California, home of Badwater 135.

Described by the competition itself as “the world’s toughest foot race,” the Badwater 135 is not for the faint of heart. The 135-mile race begins at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, which is the lowest elevation point in North America at 280 feet below sea level. It concludes at the Whitney Portal, the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, which sits at 8,300 feet. The race covers three mountain ranges and the hottest and driest area in North America, with annual highs of over 130 degrees. This year’s race took place from July 11 to 13.

When Swinehart first heard about the race, she didn’t think she’d ever compete.

“When you go out for a run on a hot day, you try to go in the early morning to avoid the heat, you don’t embrace it,” Swinehart said. “But I ran a race called Western States in 2017, and there are parts there that get up to around 110 degrees. I surprised myself and did really well, and thought ‘this is possible.’”

Swinehart didn’t get an invitation the first time she applied for the race, but got into the competition after winning a qualifying race on Bald Head Island in North Carolina. That would be the last qualifier Swinehart would have to compete in, as she was invited back to the race the next two years.

With her spot in the race acquired, Swinehart began possibly the most intense training regimen of her career. When training for a race that spans 135 miles and three mountain ranges, there are plenty of aspects to prepare for.

“Running those distances quickly is easier than when you start slowing down, so I do a lot of speed training. I did a lot of elevation training too, about 16,000 feet,” Swinehart said. “On that last leg, when you’re going up Mt. Whitney, you’re not running up that but you’re definitely hiking with a purpose, so I would hike up hills with a weighted vest.”

With the distance and elevation covered, the last leg of training involves perhaps the most daunting part of the competition: the heat. Before moving into her new home this year, Swinehart would put five heaters in her sunroom while running on the treadmill.

“It would get up to about 130 degrees in there and it was so disgusting,” she laughed. “I would just have puddles of sweat everywhere with that Indiana humidity.”

Unfortunately, Swinehart’s new house does not have a sunroom.

“I still have a treadmill room, as well as the five heaters, so I tried it in my new place and blew a fuse. I tried four heaters and blew a fuse. I could only get one heater going, which only put me to 96 [degrees]. So my heat training this year wasn’t the strongest and that’s kind of what did me in.”

Swinehart still would finish in fourth place with a time of 32:33:47, her best time and second best finish in her three years running the race. While it may not have been her best overall placing, she considers it her proudest accomplishment.  

“I did finish in third place last year, but the competition was so much stiffer this year,” Swinehart said. “There weren’t a lot of international competitors last year because of COVID, so this year there were a lot more elite athletes, and I’m the most proud of that fourth place finish.”

Assisting Suzi throughout the race were her crew of four, who would leapfrog her in a van and assist her with ice bandanas, water refills and nutrition. Aside from those quick meetings every three miles, the first 42 miles of the race are ran completely alone in the desert. It also happens to be the middle of the night.  

“The race starts at 11 o’clock at night, and it’s still about 111 degrees. You try to sleep that day but you’re too excited to even think about it,” Swinehart said.

At the mile 42-mile mark, each runner is allowed a pacer, or safety runner, to run alongside the competitor.

“You can’t do a race like that alone. My team is working just as hard as I am, they’re not sleeping, they’re so focused on the race. The team aspect is what makes Badwater my absolute favorite,” Swinehart said.

The dangers of the race make the pacer and crew a very helpful addition, as Suzi found out first hand.

“Towards the middle of the race I was dealing with really bad heat exhaustion. My crew chief said she was about three minutes from calling EMS,” Swinehart said. “I think it’s because my heat training wasn’t that good this year, but I was also so focused on my pace that I maybe went a little too fast through the hottest section. I got past that section but then I had to climb, and that’s when it all hit me.”

Swinehart’s pacer called into the crew’s van to let them know something was up. She was nauseous and shivering in the heat. She took a 30-minute break in an air conditioned car to allow her heart rate to get back to normal and for her body to reset.

“It took me a few miles after the fact to get back into a groove, so in total that whole ordeal probably cost me about an hour of my time,” she said.

Despite the setback and scare, Swinehart and her four-person crew were able to cross the finish line together for the third time.

“I was very emotional, so thankful to finally be there. The last 13 miles were brutal, the hardest out of all three years,” Suzi said. “I was so proud of our team and how we stuck to our race plan the whole time. We got through that really dangerous stretch and were so happy to cross the finish line as a team.”

With her third Badwater in the books, Suzi has already committed to being in Death Valley next summer. She’ll be keeping busy before then, and has plans to enter a Backyard Ultramarathon in October. The rules are simple: you run 4.16 miles at the top of every hour until there is only one person left.

“These races can go for 150, 200 miles,” Swinehart laughed. “I’ve always been really competitive, but that’s not really what the ultras are about. It’s about seeing how far you can push yourself. It’s you against Mother Nature, and it’s truly amazing."