MOUNT WHITNEY, Calif. – Standing at 5 feet 4 inches and weighing in at 130 pounds, Army Master Sgt. Mike Morton is a giant in the ultramarathon community.
Morton, a U.S. Army Special Operations Command liaison officer, recently won the Badwater Ultramarathon – a 135-mile race from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in California. This was his first Badwater, and he completed the course in 22 hours, 52 minutes, 55 seconds, a time that was just shy of the 22:51:29 course record. The Badwater Ultramarathon starts off at 280 feet below sea level, and ends at an approximate altitude of 8,300 feet above.
“It’s a very competitive race -- you had two former winners and two guys who are on the U.S. 24-hour team with me – a handful of guys that I consider serious competition -- but I knew I had the potential [to win],” said Morton, who is on the U.S. 24-hour team that competes in races that see how far competitors can run in one day. “I was elated to win – just to finish it.”
A total of 90 runners are selected. Just to enter the race, applicants must have finished a prior Badwater as well as a series of other high endurance events including races of at least 100 miles. Morton has finished and won three 100-mile races so far this year, all in under 14 hours.
He and a friend, Eric Clifton, who had won the race in 1999, had discussed taking aim at the course record.
“In January, I ran a 100 in 13 hours, 18 minutes, in March I ran a 13:11 100, and then in May I ran a 13:42, and those were all relatively flat courses,” Morton said. “Eric laid out a plan and he was expecting around a 21-hour finishing time, but I don’t speculate like that. I said using those splits is a good tool, but you can’t account for the variables of the heat and the three substantial climbs.
“So in my mind, the course record was a strong record. I had a super-smart runner telling me 21 hours, but in my mind I was content even being near [Valmir Nunez’s] record, because I knew those variables were going to play a role, even with the wind during the day. It’s a strong wind; it’s something I didn’t account for.”
Badwater allows entrants to have a pacer run with them after the first 17 miles, and that comes in handy as the pacer can “mule,” or carry food and water for the runner. Morton had Clifton running with him for the last 20 miles of the race, and Morton said he was doing the math and letting him know he could break the record.
“He was spitting out times, but it got to the point where I wasn’t talking,” Morton said. “I didn’t want to hear him. I was just like, ‘Hey, man, you can tell me all I have to do is run 15 minute miles. I’m going as fast as I can go.’ At some point, there’s no more effort available. You’re running at max capacity.”
One of the hardest points of the race for Morton came at mile 42– a 14-mile climb that he power-walked most of the way. He had a 19-minute lead when he started, but by the time he reached the peak, the second-place runner had caught up.
Temperatures throughout the race reached 119 degrees during the day, and dropped to the mid-50s at night. Morton said he changed out of his singlet into a T-shirt at night, but didn’t realize how cold it was until he saw photos of his support crew wearing hats and jackets. Due to the extreme heat, he went through four gallons of a sports beverage, a gallon of water and the occasional soda to take in sugar. It was enough to require a small support crew and two minivans full of supplies to travel with him.
“I’m more of a minimalist runner – a lot of people have this big layout of food and take everything they may desire,” Morton said. “I usually find one thing in a race that I like and I stick with it. I don’t require anything fancy.”
Morton, who has won nearly 30 races, began competing in ultramarathons -- which can vary from 50-mile, 100-mile and 24- and 48-hour competitions -- in 1994. He served 11 years in the Navy before transferring to the Army, and began running marathons when stationed on Diego Garcia. He was introduced to ultramarathons by a chief petty officer in Norfolk, Va. “I wasn’t a competitive marathoner at the national level – I could run a six-minute pace and not even come in the top 10,” said Morton, who has served a total of 22 years. “But then I moved up to running 50s and 100s and I was winning, so it became exciting.”
In 1998, he was forced to give up competing after injuring his knee and hip when he slipped on ice while carrying scuba tanks. The injury, and training and deployment cycles after joining the Army, kept him from competing for 14 years. The injury still bothers him a bit, he said, but he’s learned to deal with it.
When training for a race, Morton puts in 140 miles a week running twice a day during the week, and once a day on weekend, going through a pair of running shoes in about 10 days. He completed the 135-mile Badwater race on the morning of July 17 and went out for a run again the next day.
Up next for Morton are the 24-hour World Championships next month in Poland, where he will compete on the U.S. team. The American record for a 24-hour race is just over 165 miles, and Morton said he would like to break it. He came close in September 2011 when he ran 163.9 miles, just 1.8 miles off the record, at the Hinson Lake 24-hour in North Carolina.
“If everything goes well in Poland and I meet my goals, I’m kind of content with doing some fun runs,” he said. “Maybe just chilling out and not running twice a day for a little while.”