Some people start to slow down in their 50’s. And most people aren’t ready for big physical challenges in their 60’s. But Santa Rosa’s Arthur Webb, at 70, is taking on perhaps the most grueling footrace on the planet – the Badwater Ultra Marathon – a 135-mile course that starts in Death Valley and ends halfway up Mount Whitney. (Update Jul 16: Follow the race here.)
Webb told KQED’s Scott Shafer how he prepares for the challenge.
ARTHUR WEBB: I usually run 10 to 15 miles a day on a regular basis. Training for Badwater is a three-month regimen where I bump that up to 15 to 20 miles a day. For the heat, I go into the sauna for up to 45 minutes at up to 180 degrees. And after that I do some core strengthening exercises in the gym to keep me real strong.
SCOTT SHAFER: It’s one thing to sit in the sauna, it’s another to run through the desert in temperatures like that for hours and hours. Can you really prepare for something like that?
ARTHUR WEBB: You can. It is a physical and mental litmus test. As I run across this monster in 130-degree weather at times, the heat training has helped. I have light clothing on, and I get sprayed with cold water every once in a while. That helps keep the body core temperature down.
SCOTT SHAFER: Who’s doing that?
ARTHUR WEBB: I have to have a crew. A crew vehicle goes alongside me the whole way. Because if not, you could die in a minute; it’s so extreme.
SCOTT SHAFER: You are going to take 35 or 40 hours to complete it, right?
ARTHUR WEBB: Anything under 48 is good. Nobody my age, 70 years or older, has completed this thing in under 48 hours. Last year, at 69, I did it in 37 hours, which was a benchmark finish. But this year I want to break not only not only 48, but 40 and hopefully somewhere around 35 hours. I run for kids in Santa Rosa. They’ll be watching. After doing it 14 times, I’m really, really confident I can do it.
SCOTT SHAFER: What are some of the worst things that have happened to you in this race?
ARTHUR WEBB: The very first year I ran it I broke my toe the day before, and I ran it with a broken toe, which was aggravating. The heat was extreme. It was 130 the first day, 125 the second day. I had a lot of problems. I passed out the second day. They iced me down. I got up and finished. Three years ago I had a kidney stone a couple of days before the event. Two years ago I went down for nine hours. Who knows why? I was unbalanced. But I was able to get up and run all the way to the finish line which was really great. I got a Sports Illustrated story out of that. And last year I had a hernia the second day, the size of a golf ball, and had to keep pushing it back in for like 60 or 70 miles. That was a strain, but I managed to make it to the finish line even with that.
SCOTT SHAFER: Forgive me, but that sounds a little crazy. Some people do this kind of thing once or twice to challenge themselves. Then they cross it off their bucket list. Why do you keep doing it?
ARTHUR WEBB: I love to do it, I love the challenge. And I feel like I’m an unofficial spokesman for the baby boomers and the older generation, that if you stay mentally alert and physically conditioned, you can do anything. Also at my age it’s just like a bell ringer for a lot of people, especially the kids that I run for.
SCOTT SHAFER: I want to come back to the physical challenges. What does an event like this do to your feet?
ARTHUR WEBB: In the first few years the toe box got so hot out there, because the pavement can get up to 200 degrees, I lost my toenails. The first year they just popped off like popcorn. So since then, about two months before the event, I kill off my toenails and then I pull them off just before the race. In fact I just did one yesterday.
SCOTT SHAFER: You pull the whole toenail off yourself?
ARTHUR WEBB: With a pair of pliers, I just yank them right off.
SCOTT SHAFER: Ouch!
ARTHUR WEBB: And then some years there is so much swelling, my feet are so wet, they are twice their normal size.
SCOTT SHAFER: Stop!
ARTHUR WEBB: You asked. But I never let that get in the way. I rise above all the misery and the pain and the suffering and just concentrate on my goal and why I’m doing this, and that helps.
SCOTT SHAFER: So this is going to be your last ultra marathon. How do you want it to end?
ARTHUR WEBB: This is going to be my last Badwater, but I have more on the horizon I want to do. I’d like to re-qualify to do the Western States 100-mile run again and be the only man over 70 to break 24 hours. And then may attempt to run a couple hundred marathons and break a couple of records there, too.
SCOTT SHAFER: Good luck!