I first heard about Claire Heid (now Dieterich) a week before the 2012 Badwater Ultramarathon (aka “the world’s toughest foot race”). *For those not familiar with Badwater (the 135-mile trek through the desert), check out the race website or the post I recently did. Claire was attempting Badwater at age 23, and if successful, would be the youngest female EVER to finish the grueling road race.
I couldn’t believe that such a petite, pretty, sweet young woman could accomplish what she did – she not only finished – but she finished FAST in a time of 41:15:47 (yes, that is 41 hours!) and now holds the title of Youngest Female Finisher. Pretty freaking unbelievable.
Here is her story – how she got into running ultras, what Badwater was really like, and what the future holds for her:
Despite receiving a full ROTC scholarship to Notre Dame, Claire decided to attend the US. Military Academy at West Point (my alma mater!).
For my whole life I had been drawn to the military and when my older brother (Class of 2008) was there, I fell in love with everything West Point had to offer when I visited him.
Claire ran cross country and track in high school but never found an event that she loved or felt she was good enough at. She stopped running competitively when she began college. During her sophomore year at West Point, she tried out for sapper school, a 28-day course designed to train joint-service leaders in small unit tactics, leadership skills, and tactics required to perform as part of a combined arms team. The tryouts are physically intense and demanding. Despite passing the tryouts, she was not selected to attend Sapper School.
When I looked at the people who did make it, I saw ultrarunners, marathon runners, and triathletes. I decided that I didn’t want to be physically incapable of doing something in the Army; no one was going to tell me that I wasn’t strong enough.
It was at this time that she read Dean Karnazes’ UltraMarathon Man. She would return to running, but this time she had her eyes set on ultramarathons - and more. At the young age of 20, she already knew wanted to do the hardest race possible (Badwater) and become the youngest female finisher ever. She signed up for her first ultramarathon – the Bimbler’s Bluff 50k (Oct 2008) a few weeks later. And all of this was at a time when the furthest she had ever run was 8 miles!
Claire recalls her first ultra:
I didn’t have trail running shoes, knew next to nothing about race nutrition, and got lost more than once along the way. But when I crossed that finish line I knew that I had found something special. Running, especially long distances on trails, brings a sense of peace to me. I fell in love with it immediately and knew that I had found something I could be good at. This isn’t because I ran a stellar time or finished in the top 10, it’s because I found something that I was truly passionate about. I had, and still have, such a sense of purpose when I run. Ultrarunning challenges me mentally as well as physically, and I like that aspect of it.
Over the next few years, Claire graduated from West Point, was commissioned a 2LT in the US Army, and began running the necessary races that would allow her to apply for Badwater at the earliest possible point.
When she found out she was accepted to the 2012 Badwater Ultramarathon, she was already consistently running 80 miles per week and began increasing until she hit 120. Her weekday schedule was packed:
- Wake-up: 4am
- Run 8 miles before PT (mandatory physical training with her unit)
- 8 miles during PT
- 4 miles after work
- 45 min in the sauna after her evening run
Claire was stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington, so the time in the sauna was critical to ensure she was getting some heat training (it’s common for the temperature during Badwater to reach 115-120 degrees). She started with 15 minutes at 160 degrees and eventually worked up to an hour at 180 degrees. The sauna time also helped her learn about nutrition and water intake while her body acclimatized to the heat. And the weekends were filled with extremely long runs or an ultra race.
Within about 2 weeks of each other in late February/early March, I found out that I was accepted to Badwater, deploying to Afghanistan in December, and got engaged! I had to juggle wedding planning, training for Badwater, and moving my company to and from NTC (the National Training Center in CA), conducting numerous training exercises, and prepping for our deployment as an Executive Officer. But every time I found myself becoming stressed about what I had going on, I reminded myself that I had everything that I wanted, it just so happened that I got it all at once.
When I asked Claire to describe what the 135 mile race was like and whether it was as hard as she thought it was going to be…this was her response (I would rather just quote her than try to recap in my own words):
I knew the race would be challenging, but I don’t think I could really comprehend the pain of Badwater or compare it to any race I’d done until I was actually there. There were some things that were easier than I thought, such as dealing with the heat. I had an amazing crew keeping me cool as well as a lot of heat training under my belt, so I was not as affected by the heat as I thought I would be. Granted, at 119 degrees it was a “cool” year, but that’s still pretty hot! The pain is hard to describe unless you have run Badwater. Being on my feet for 41 hours brought my concept of pain to a whole new threshold. I had insane blisters, toenails falling off, swollen feet, etc. The pavement is so hot and so hard on your body that it’s relentless. I also had the unexpected problem of my crew vehicle breaking down sometime after mile 100, leaving my pacer to find me aid from other crews. Mentally, that was tough to handle, to not see my full crew every mile and have the nutrition that I wanted. I guess to say it in short, Badwater is a totally different level of difficulty. It’s a whole different ballgame in Death Valley.
So what’s next for Claire? She is getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan for a 9 month deployment (she returns in Aug/Sep 2013). Upon her return she plans to start tackling her bucket list of 100 milers – including Western States and Leadville (two of the most physically demanding ultras). However, the first thing on her list is to take a much delayed honeymoon with her husband. They were unable to take one sooner – they were separated for a while only 4 days after getting married (she had to train with her unit at NTC).
If what she has accomplished in such a short period is any indication of what lies ahead for her, then we should expect to see Claire’s name all over ultra magazines and websites in the future!! She is one of the toughest, most determined runners I have had the privilege of interacting with. And Claire doesn’t know it yet…but if/when I run Badwater, she’s the first on my list to call to be a pacer!!!! =)
Would you ever consider running Badwater?
What’s the toughest race you have ever heard of?
*All pictures are from Claire*
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