When Pete Kostelnick (’09 Finance and International Business), was a student at Iowa State, he read a magazine article about a race called The Badwater 135. Even though he was a runner for a couple of years in high school, Kostelnick said, “I thought that was the craziest thing I had ever heard of. I was interested and disgusted at the same time.”
Little did he know he would someday run that race — twice!
Organizers describe it as “The World’s Toughest Foot Race. Covering 135 miles, non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, California, the Nutrimatix Badwater® 135 is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet.”
The start line is at Badwater, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280 feet below sea level. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,300 feet above sea level. It takes place annually in mid-July, when the weather conditions are most extreme and temperatures are commonly 120 °F, even in the shade.
To get an idea of just how bad this race is, you have to Google it. Better yet, watch it on YouTube and you will see why it looks like pure physical torture. Participants spend months training and mentally preparing for this race. Few people, even ultra-marathoners, are capable of finishing this grueling race.
Not only did Kostelnick finish the race, he came in 14th place in 2014. He knew he could do better. He wanted to improve, so he entered again in 2015.
That time, he won.
“It was very close until the very end,” he said.
Running wasn’t necessarily his passion in high school, Kostelnick said. “I was a mediocre runner in high school,” he said. “At the end of college, I got back into running. I did a marathon in Washington, D.C., and said I’d never run again after that.”
During his last semester in college, he met his future wife, Nicole Larson (’11 Chemical Engineering).
“She’s a runner. She got me interested again,” Kostelnick laughed. “Plus, I gained about 30 pounds in college, so I started setting some goals. I wanted to qualify for the Boston marathon.” He qualified and ran in it, with an injury, in 2010. He finished in 3 hours and 30 minutes, faster than the average 3 hours 50 minutes.
Afterwards, he was ready for more challenges, and more goals.
In 2013, Kostelnick made news when he ran RAGBRAI, a 400-plus mile bicycle ride across Iowa, with fellow Iowa State grad Richard Kresser (’09 Civil Engineering). “We ran right alongside the bicycles,” he said. They raised money along the way, Kresser for the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown and Kostelnick for the organization Holiday Heroes, which provides programming for children in hospitals around the holidays.
In 2015, when Kostelnick won the Badwater 135, the heat wasn’t as bad as he expected.
“The sun beating on me was the worst part,” he said. Wearing a hat with flaps and sleeves that reflected the sun, Kostelnick battled the landscape and kept his pace. With the help of three friends and a support vehicle, he was provided water and food as needed. After 42 miles, a pace runner was allowed to join him.
“It was easier the second time,” he said. “In 2014, I couldn’t even walk up the stairs afterwards. I also tried to drink a beer after the race and I just threw it up. This year, I enjoyed a beer and kept it down.”
In December 2015, Kostelnick also ran, and won, the Desert Solstice Invitational Track Meet in Phoenix, Arizona, where runners cover as many miles as possible in 24 hours. According to an article published in the Omaha newspaper, Live Well Nebraska, it’s the fifth-longest distance ever logged over 24 hours by an American male.
Kostelnick said he hopes the accomplishment qualifies him for the United States 24 Hour National Team, where he hopes to compete at the 2017 International Association of Ultrarunners 24 Hour World Championship.
No matter which race he is preparing for, Kostelnick said he is able to meet his goals because of the support he has from his wife, Nikki and his parents, Charlie and Clare Kostelnick.
“For the Desert Solstice race, my parents were my support crew,” he said.
“Pete created a time chart of vitamins, food, and fluids that he needed during the race, and we gave these to him throughout the day and night,” his father Charlie said. “Peter told us when he wanted to change any of these as the race unfolded. Nutrition is extremely important in long races like these, and making sure that you get the right amount at the right time is critical. We also provided many words of encouragement along the way.”
They are supportive parents. “But we have mixed feelings about it,” Charlie said. “We’re very proud of Pete because of his amazing accomplishments, and we know he gets a great deal of enjoyment participating in this sport. The events are also very exciting to follow, and the participants always encourage and motivate each other, which creates a tight-knit community of runners from across the country and around the world. These are all great benefits. However, we’re also concerned about Peter’s health, given all of the physical stress that these events place on the competitors.”
Of all the goals he set for himself, winning the Badwater was by far his favorite accomplishment, Kostelnick said. “I’ve always been a goal-oriented person,” he said. “I have a competitive nature. I get more enjoyment on the road to a goal. Once I reach it, I’m on to the next goal.”
Will he run the Badwater again? Absolutely.
“And I don’t care if I win again. Now, I’m going for a new record – the most times finishing that race. Right now that record is 20. So that’s my new goal.”