Three runners will represent Louisiana in world’s toughest ultramarathon

Three runners will represent Louisiana in world’s toughest ultramarathon
Three Louisiana-based runners will compete in the world's most difficult foot race. L-R: Walker Higgins, Jean Aponte, Derek Dowell.

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Physical inactivity is dangerously high in Louisiana, according to statistics, but there are some good statistics out there and here’s one that should make you proud of the Bayou State.

Badwater 135 is the toughest foot race in the world. It’s the most demanding because it takes runners through the toughest terrain during one of the hottest points of the year. This race is infamously known as the one where shoes have melted into the pavement.

This race is no joke. In fact, it’s difficult to believe it’s even possible. But it is. Only 100 of the most elite ultramarathon runners in the world will be allowed to participate in 2019, and three are from Louisiana.

Walker Higgins, Dan McHugh, and Jacob Jackson were required to stay within 25 feet of each other the entire race.
Walker Higgins, Dan McHugh, and Jacob Jackson were required to stay within 25 feet of each other the entire race. (Source: Walker Higgins)

Keep in mind that only 30 states are even represented in this race. Only 13 of those states have more than one runner.

Higgins is fresh off a win. On April 28, he participated in the Badwater Salton Sea race. This race is limited to 115 runners – twenty 2-runner teams and twenty-five 3-runner teams.

Rather than running solo, the Salton Sea race is a team challenge. Higgins’ team, Electrolyte Love, took home the overall win. They ran 81 miles together.

“At first, it is unbelievable,” Higgins said when talking about the distances required for ultramarathons. “And I think that’s most people’s perception or idea when they first hear about it, they’re just kind of mind blown, but for the runners, it’s just like any other progression.”

His team included Dan McHugh, 48, of Colorado, and Jacob Jackson, 41, of California. Higgins and McHugh ran the race as a 2-person team in 2018.

“We met about a month before. We had never run together [but], we decided to do it and we won overall last year,” Higgins said.

But the win wasn’t enough to land him a spot in the Badwater 135.

“The two-person event does not guarantee you entry into Badwater 135, but the three-person does,” he explained. “So about two weeks before, we added [Jackson]. I met him the day before [the race].”

The three additional Louisiana-based Badwater Salt and Sea runners competed together. Team name, Length of the Dragon’s Toothbrush, includes Jean Aponte, 35, Rhea Loney, 36, and Kevin Spruell, 41. They came in 6th overall. Loney is one of only 33 women who competed.

Higgins, Aponte, and Dowell will now prepare for the grueling challenge of Badwater 135.

Derek Dowell at Badwater Salton Sea.
Derek Dowell at Badwater Salton Sea.

The trio will traverse 135 miles, starting in the Badwater Basin, which is 280 feet below sea level. The journey will take them to the Mount Whitney portal, which has an elevation of 8,360 feet. And they will do it all in 120° heat.

“Right now, I’m focusing on continuing to put in long mileage weeks on roads in preparation for the 135 miles of asphalt and working on strengthening the legs for the three long climbs by running on the treadmill at between 15 to 20 percent incline,” Aponte said when asked about how he is preparing for July. “In the afternoons, I go to a gym called Hotworx and do 30 minutes of rowing or spinning inside of a 135+ degree sauna. As I get closer to the event, I’ll increase my time in the sauna and continue to run at the hottest time of the day in layers.”

It seems impossible, but that’s why these runners do it. They all have their own reasons, but for most, it’s about pushing beyond the limit of what you believe is possible.

“For the adventure and the challenge of seeing what you’re made of when you’re broken down and beaten to your must vulnerable self,” Aponte said when asked about his reason for running Badwater 135.

It all sounds so beyond reach for most of us, who, let’s face it, sometimes need motivation to get up and walk across the room, but every accomplishment is achieved the same way: by taking a first step.

“All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and just keep moving.”

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