Suzi Swinehart just won't quit.
Not even when faced with some of the harshest conditions on the planet.
That's not an exaggeration.
When she faced 30 mph winds across Death Valley in the heat of a July night with temperatures still 115 degrees, Swinehart found a way to make it to the finish line of what is dubbed, “The World's Toughest Footrace” that began at 11 p.m. on July 19.
That's what Swinehart and 83 other runners faced during this year's 135-mile Badwater race, where Swinehart finished in 34 hours, 23 minutes and 33 seconds, good for a third-place podium finish behind Sally McRae (30:48:47) and Norma Roberts (33:37:49).
“Overall, I am pretty content with the result with how many challenges (I faced),” Swinehart, 49, said. “There's a lot of adversity to overcome out there. Everything that you could think of that could go wrong, went wrong. I am ecstatic that I got third place after all that.”
Badwater 135 starts at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in the United States at 280 feet below sea level, and runs to Mount Whitney Portal at 8,300 feet. Runners climb 14,600 feet and descend 6,100 feet.
Of the 84 starters, 69 finished, including 22 of the 24 women in the field. There were three starting waves with runners toeing the line at 8 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and the fastest expected finishers, such as Swinehart, starting at 11 p.m. with a 48-hour cut-off.
“My race plan, I threw it out the window after the first 10 miles,” Swinehart said. “I was not going to hold the pace that I wanted. Then I had major stomach issues, like I always do in these races. I ended up having to walk a lot because I had this cramp in my side. Then the second night came and then I had sleep deprivation hitting in. I was a zombie.”
The race differs from other road races in that runners have access to their crew for most of the race.
For Swinehart, this was crucial, as her team consisted of her coach and close friends who knew what to do to keep her going, like grab Starbucks Java Chip Frappuccinos when other fueling methods weren't working.
“We traveled out there as a team. That's the other thing I love (about this race): The team aspect,” Swinehart said. “There's other races where you have a crew, but this is so different. Your crew is your lifeline. There's no way you'll finish without your crew. It's just an amazing adventure that we have together.”
Her crew consisted of her coach and friend Stephanie Pfefferkorn, and friends Garett Carolus, Todd Sullivan, and Jeff Anderson. Each person brought different strengths to the table, and all have experience in endurance sports.
“Stephanie was the leader, she was taking care of everybody and getting everyone what they needed,” Swinehart said. “Todd and Garett were the main pacers. They ran the most with me. They know me as a runner better than anyone.
“(Jeff is) just the funniest, most enthusiastic that you'll ever meet. He doesn't have ultra experience, but just his enthusiasm and sense of humor and his personality, made everything so much better. He did a lot of the climbing with me and some of the slower running. Stephanie did some of the climbing with me.”
The team aspect is especially important when managing Swinehart's lupus as well as the other team members understanding the diagnosis, medications, and sharing the same drive to get her to the finish line.
“I've never met anyone as mentally tough as Suzi,” Pfefferkorn said. “She has an autoimmune disease that results in her body attacking its own DNA. She's had multiple strokes over the past few years and can barely balance on one foot. She's on the same chemo meds that make cancer patients sick.
“Yet mentally she is able to push through all of that and pull out these amazing performances. She even set some American age group records at (the elite track invitational) Desert Solstice with a then undiagnosed hip fracture from her lupus medications. How does anyone do that? I'm constantly in a state of awe.”
But it's that kind of support structure that got Swinehart to the starting line of the event in 2019, and got her on the list for 2020 (canceled because of the pandemic).
Swinehart earned her acceptance into the 2019 event after winning the 51-mile Badwater Cape Fear race in North Carolina, but she also has other accolades that simply pad her running resume, including a top-20 Western States Endurance Run finish in 2017 and her age-ground record from Desert Solstice.
“Obviously we're always looking for a greater challenge,” Swinehart said. “We go from 5k's to half marathons, marathons, 50k's and 100 miles. What's next? Need something a little harder. I think watching the documentary, 'Running on the Sun' and saying, 'There's no way I could ever do that.' Thinking how insane it is to run in 125 degrees.
“Right after I ran Western States. Western States is known to be very hot, 100-110 degrees in the canyons. I handled the heat better than expected. After that, I wondered if I could do Badwater. I started looking into it, I applied the first year (for 2018) and didn't get in. Stephanie said that I was just going to have to get an automatic entry by winning (Cape Fear). I didn't think I had a chance to win Cape Fear but we went out there anyway and I surprised myself and won.”
Next up for Swinehart is a little bit of a cooler, softer surface as Swinehart takes on the Indiana Trail 100 at Chain O' Lakes State Park on Oct. 9.