Running for her life

Josh Brannock

Amy Costa
Amy Costa

A UNF staff member took on extreme temperatures, elevation changes, over-hydration and blisters to get the chance to compete in one of the most difficult foot races on the planet.

It’s 125 degrees outside and there is an unpleasant breeze that blows dry, hot air directly back into Amy Costa’s face and mouth. Sand beats against her body and blisters form on the bottom of her feet. The heat is becoming unbearable.

Costa has been looking forward to this.

She is 17 miles into the Badwater Ultramarathon. The only problem is that the finish line isn’t 9.2 miles away like it would be during a standard marathon. It’s nearly 118 miles away. The terrain rises from the lowest point in America to the base of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States — a difference of 8,642 feet.

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Badwater is described as the most difficult foot race in the world. Amy Costa was one of the “lucky” few accepted to run the trail originally run in 1977 by Al Arnold and in 1981 by Jay Birmingham. The race covers 135 miles of hot Mojave Desert land in the middle of July. It takes years of experience to even be considered to run.

Costa is the assistant director of Eco-Adventure and the Osprey Challenge Course at UNF and does most of her training around campus.

“You can’t just sign up for Badwater,” Costa said. “You can put in an application, but it’s a selection process. It’s the hardest race to get into in the world.”

It’s easy to see why the race is so selective. Race organizers likely want to make sure anyone they select can handle the race without dying.

Badlands Course Map
Runners begin at the Badwater River Basin, 282 feet below sea level, and continue through the Death Valley salt basins, where temperatures easily soar past 100 degrees. The first stop in badwater is Furnace Creek, which holds the record for the highest recorded temperature in the world at 134 degrees.

There aren’t any aid stations along the route so runners must travel the course with a crew. Costa’s crew consisted of her family, crew chief Terry Sentinella and friends Kathleen Wheeler and Andy Woods.

Being part of the crew isn’t an easy task either. Woods described working on the crew as a job that doesn’t have any breaks.

“By the time you drive up a mile and get supplies ready, she’s there,” Woods said. “You’re not sitting around doing nothing. It’s a very active process. You become very invested in what she’s doing and you really become a part of the race.”

Costa's team surrounds her and sprays her down with water during the race.
Costa’s team surrounds her and sprays her down with water during the race.

Every mile, Costa’s crew would douse her in water and place ice under her hat and neck. The feeling of relief wouldn’t last long.

“They would soak me in water and my shirt would be soaked,” she explained. “Less than a minute later my clothes would be completely dry again.”

Mentally, Costa had been prepared for the race because of her time spent in the outdoors in the Appalachian Mountains. What she couldn’t prepare for was the physical toll the heat would take on her body.

“I’ve never dealt with the heat. I’ve dealt with the cold and snow when climbing mountains, but the heat was phenomenal,” Costa said. “My feet were just blistered because of the heat and the pavement.”

At Furnace Creek, Costa said the heat was nearly unbearable. There was wind, but it was filled with hot, dry air that took the water out of her mouth and blew the heat from the ground back into her face.

Costa compared Furnace Creek to standing outside in the middle of the hottest day in Florida and blowing a hair dryer on your face. Needless to say, Badwater is tough from the beginning.

In order to stay hydrated runners drink water, but runners can actually drink too much water and do more damage to their bodies than someone would expect.

Costa has had that problem before. In her 13-plus years of running ultramarathons Costa has had body issues three times. The most severe case didn’t happen during a race, it happened after, during a celebration after winning a 100-mile ultramarathon.

“Half-an-hour after the race I ran around, got awards, talked on the phone and then I sat down and my body started shutting down,” she said. “I did continue to drink. I was just on a high and then I sat down and I couldn’t get back up because my body just shut down.”

“I couldn’t stop puking and all my organs started shutting down,” she said.

Costa was so severely hydrated that by the time she went to the hospital her body was experiencing rhabdomyolysis, which is when muscle fibers break and release myoglobin into the bloodstream. This could eventually lead to kidney failure. Luckily for Costa her body stabilized and she eventually went home.

The two other times Costa went down, she was running the Keys 100 ultramarathon. In both instances, she went down around the 80-mile marker.

Costa was running a hard, fast race. Despite thinking she was taking in enough fluids, she was dehydrated. Instead of losing control of her body after the race, this time she collapsed on the road while in mid-sentence with her daughter.

Her most recent collapse was again at the Keys 100 ultramarathon roughly a year and a half ago. With the memory of not drinking enough water still fresh in her mind, Costa was taking in massive amounts of water.

“I was pounding so much [water] that I was going to the bathroom every second and my body wasn’t processing how much I was taking in and eventually I went down again,” Costa said.

At nearly the same spot in the same race Costa went down again, but this time she was determined to finish the race.

“I fought with the ambulance people and refused to be admitted,” Costa said. “Then they gave me a bag in the ER, but I refused to be admitted and called the race director to see if I could finish the race.”

The race director allowed Costa to go back out to the spot where she had fallen twice and let her go on and finish the race from there. Her determination and refusal to stop caught the attention of a runner who was amazed by her fight.

Terry Sentinella became friends with Costa after the Keys 100 and was her crew chief in the Badwater 135. Sentinella had experience at Badwater. He had run it twice, and in each race he learned from the crew he had around him.

During Badwater, Sentinella was able to spot that Costa was making the same mistake she made at the Keys 100: She was drinking too much water.

“You expect a little dehydration, maybe four, five pounds lost during a race,” Sentinella said. “But when you start gaining weight that’s a problem. You have to start finding a way to lose all the extra pounds.”

Sentinella was weighing Costa every five miles. Her weight continued to go up and up. By mile 23, Costa had put on 18 pounds of water weight.

“I couldn’t run because I was going to the bathroom so much and I thought that was a good sign,” Costa said. “Thank God [Terry] said ‘you’re having a problem.’ I was drinking like there was no tomorrow because it’s Death Valley and I was dying.”

In order to get her weight back down Sentinella forced Costa to stop drinking water for an hour while she kept running.

Costa will forever be grateful for having Sentinella as her crew chief.

“If he didn’t do that I would’ve been down on the ground and I wouldn’t have finished Badwater,” Costa said. “You gotta find the fine line between drinking too much and too little. It’s tricky.”

While Costa was constantly going to the bathroom, there wasn’t a traveling band of porta-potties following her. There was only open-space and the side of the road. An ultramarathon isn’t for those who need amenities; it’ a run for those who do it for the love of running, those who don’t need anything special.

Costa crossed the starting line at 10 a.m. July 14 at the Badwater River Basin. She ran through Death Valley at temperatures reaching 125 degrees, through a sandstorm, during the heat of day and the dark of night. She gained 18 pounds within the first 25 miles, didn’t drink water for an hour, acquired blisters on her feet and crossed the finish line of the hardest foot race in the world at 12:40 a.m July 17 at the base of Mt. Whitney.

Elevation changes for the race.
Elevation changes for the race.

It took Costa a total of 38 hours and 40 minutes of running to reach the finish line that put her into ultramarathoning glory.

Yet even with that accomplishment, Costa still feels as though she has work to do. Costa plans to run with Woods and Sentinella through the Brazilian Amazon at the Brazil 135. The Brazil race will be completely different than Badwater for multiple reasons. One difference is the Brazil 135 has aid stations set up throughout the course. Another difference is Costa will be doing the run unassisted.

Costa admits the terrain will be hard to train for in Florida. The trio will be running through a muggy rain forest and climb up and down mountains throughout the Brazilian landscape, something that Florida is overwhelmingly lacking.

“In Florida you’re going to have to run bridges to train for the hills,” Woods said.

Costa will run the Brazil 135 in January, during South America’s summer. The race is run on the hardest segment of the Caminho Da Fé, or Path of Faith. The path has been used as a way for Brazilians to reach the Nossa Senhora Aparecida Basilica, where the image of the Virgin Mary was found in 1717 by three fisherman.

Unlike Badwater, the Brazil 135 only has roughly 10 miles of ‘flat’ landscape. Its landscape is ever-changing.

Costa doesn’t run ultras like Badwater and Brazil for the glory. She does it because she’s a competitor. Her start in ultramarathoning began when she saw people who were older and in worse shape running in longer races than her. Costa is content with being last, but as long as it’s possible for her competitors to run, she’ll be running right behind them, blisters on her feet and IV in her arm.

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