The Toughest Race

<B>Lesley Stahl</B> Talks To Runners In The Badwater Ultramarathon

By sunset, temperatures fall into the 90s, but the course will climb a grueling 7,000 feet. You'd think that a strong, fit man would have a huge advantage over a skinny little woman like Reed. But guess what? She won this race in 2002.

"I would love to have won the women's race, so that's what I was looking for," says Reed. "And then, when I won the men, the overall, it was shocking, you know?"

It was so shocking that people thought it was a fluke, until she did it again in 2003. And that year, she beat the man everyone thought would win: Dean Karnazes.

"Coming in second is the worst thing you could ever do," says Karnazes. "Because no one said, 'You had a great finish at Badwater. You came in second. You know, you beat 76 other people.' They just say, 'You lost to Pam.'"

Reed's husband, Jim, and sons Jackson and Andrew, all agree she's a better athlete than Jim, who introduced Reed to endurance running 13 years ago.

"Slowly, but surely, she passed me by. Actually it wasn't slowly, it was probably quickly," recalls Jim Reed. "I had my problems with it, at first."

"He was not happy. He was not happy," recalls Reed. "He was mad at me. We've struggled for years with that. But now, he's OK with it."

By midnight in Badwater, 14 hours into the race, with 60 miles to go, Karnazes is ahead of Reed.

But Karnazes knows better than anyone that it's way too early to think victory. Seven more runners have dropped out by sun up, and for the survivors, who've run straight through the night, things are getting pretty dicey.

Has anyone ever studied Karnazes to see what actually goes on when someone's been physically pushed as far as he has? "They've looked at my blood," says Karnazes. "And if you just put this in front of a physician, they'd look at it and say, 'Oh, this person has had a massive heart attack."

In a heart attack, the damaged heart muscle releases an enzyme called CPK into the bloodstream. Doctors say that during a race like Badwater, runners damage so much muscle tissue in their legs, they get greatly elevated levels of CPK, too. Given the punishment, it's curious that you don't see any young people in these ultra-races.

Why isn't this a sport for 20- and 30-year olds?

"I think the best word is patience," says Reed. "When you're younger, you're going to go out like a racehorse. For this type of thing, it's not going to work. You have to be really smart and patient."

After running for 24 patient hours, every step is an agony. So why does Reed do this? "I don't know," she says. "At this moment, I love to run. But this is hard."

"I don't think I'm nuts," adds Reed. "I think I love to run. I know I do. And I have more energy for my family and for my children."

What if Reed took a day off? What would happen if she didn't run? "She gets really irritable when she doesn't run, even for a 5-hour stretch," says her husband, Jim. "Like say, we have to sit in the car for a while on a drive, she can't do it. If we stop for gas, I say, 'OK, go ahead. Go for a run. We'll get the gas and we'll maybe stop and get something to eat, and then we'll pick you up three miles down the highway.' And then she can settle down."

Reed is one of seven women in the Badwater race, which is remarkable since just 30 years ago, women were considered too fragile for long-distance running. The Olympics didn't allow a women's marathon until 1984.

But now, some researchers actually think women have some advantages in the sport. First, it's a theory that women have a higher tolerance for pain. They also metabolize fat more efficiently.

For Reed, however, being a woman had its disadvantages this time around. "In the middle, at mile 90, you know, I'm a woman, and I got my period in the middle of the race," says Reed.

After 120 miles, Karnazes needs some fuel – so he places a breakfast order with his father, for a burger and chocolate milkshake. "I guess I shouldn't tell you I own a health food company," says Karnazes. "Cholesterol, fat, bring it on."

And after the power breakfast, it's the last leg of the race up the side of Mount Whitney. Karnazes slows to what looks like an agonizing death march. But he is re-energized when he's the first to cross the finish line -- after running for 27 hours and 22 minutes.

Karnazes kisses his medal at the finish line. "I've never worked so hard," he says. "That was the hardest race I've ever run."

There's no prize money at Badwater, just a belt buckle and a pat on the back.

"In other sports, there really is a payoff, either in terms of money or fame – recognition," says Stahl.

"It's definitely below the radar for the general populace," says Karnazes. "Maybe at some point in history, ultra-running will kind of get to that level where people recognize there are humans that are really, really pushing it here. And a marathon is not the limit. You can go farther."

Pam Reed got a disappointing fourth place -- behind two men and another woman. Out of the 72 starters, 13 dropped out. All the women finished.

Both Reed and Karnazes say there will be a rematch this summer.