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‘Ridiculously difficult’: La Jolla doctor conquers his fifth Death Valley ultramarathon in 125-degree heat

La Jollan Russ Reinbolt (center) is pictured with Nikki Hank, Erica Reinbolt, Adam Hank and Ella Reinbolt (from left)
La Jollan Russ Reinbolt (center) is pictured with Nikki Hank, Erica Reinbolt, Adam Hank and Ella Reinbolt (from left) before leaving for his Death Valley run July 11.
(Courtesy of Sharla Hank)

Dr. Russ Reinbolt is 135 miles farther down his road to challenge himself. The La Jolla resident and emergency room physician recently completed his fifth Badwater 135, an annual ultramarathon in Death Valley, raising money for Down syndrome support.

From 9:30 p.m. July 11 to noon July 13, Reinbolt, 57, ran 135 miles from Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in North America, to Whitney Portal, the trailhead to the Mount Whitney summit and the highest point in the contiguous United States.

The Badwater 135 course covers three mountain ranges and totals 14,600 feet of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100 feet of cumulative descent.

During the race, which is coined “the world’s toughest foot race,” temperatures in Death Valley reached 125 degrees.

“It is ridiculously difficult,” Reinbolt said. “Not only is it hot but it’s windy as well. It feels like you’re being singed by a blowtorch.”

Reinbolt took three five-minute catnaps in his support van during the entire race.

The days after the race have been consumed by Reinbolt trying to eat and sleep as much as possible, he said. “My appetite is ravenous and … the desire to not move one’s legs is unbelievable.”

“One thing that ultra-athletes have the ability to do is delay gratification,” he said. “So when you attain that goal, it’s just absolutely wonderful. It’s a satisfaction that lasts forever.”

The past couple of years, Reinbolt has raised money through his Badwater run for DS Action, a San Diego-based nonprofit that advocates for people with Down syndrome.

“Knowing that my suffering will help alleviate some suffering or make life easier for those with Down syndrome” makes the race worthwhile, Reinbolt said.

Dr. Russ Reinbolt raises money for DS Action to support Down syndrome advocacy.
(Christine Franey)

When Reinbolt’s older daughter Ella was attending elementary school at All Hallows Academy in La Jolla, she met classmate Adam Hank, who has Down syndrome.

“I was just really impressed by how he approached things despite his limitations,” Reinbolt said.

Watching Adam, Reinbolt said, inspired him to choose DS Action, founded by Adam’s mother, Sharla Hank, as his charity to run for.

“Our family is very grateful to Russ,” Hank said, both for the fundraising help and the continuing friendship between the two families.

Beyond raising money for DS Action, Reinbolt said it’s tough to articulate why he pushes himself to his physical limits.

“I have been blessed — or cursed — with a desire to continually improve myself and to maximize my potential in all aspects of my life, but particularly physically,” he said.

Extreme athletic events “allow me to chase that goal,” he said.

He said he strives to also inspire others to push themselves to do more.

La Jollan Russ Reinbolt trains daily for ultramarathons and runs from Los Angeles to San Diego monthly.
(Courtesy of Badwater)

Training for the Badwater 135, Reinbolt said, takes being an elite-level athlete, and someone who wants to take on the ultramarathon has to meet certain qualifications.

“Anybody who gets accepted into the race has an athletic resumé that’s very impressive,” he said. “For safety, you have to prove that you can handle the conditions.”

“The hallmark of my training … is once a month, I run from Los Angeles down to San Diego,” Reinbolt said. He takes trains to the Santa Monica Pier and then runs the approximately 120 miles back to La Jolla.

Reinbolt also undertakes heat and altitude training and yoga, and often strength training with a device that helps him process air with low oxygen.

“When I’m walking around my house, I wear a 40-pound weighted vest,” he said, and ankle weights at work.

“The bottom line is I train really freaking hard,” he said.

He’s not the only one: La Jolla High School coach and teacher Tom Atwell often trains with him. Atwell supported Reinbolt as the chief of his three-man crew during the event.

To prepare, Atwell would “do hours upon hours on the treadmill or the bike in his house in a closed room with hot fans blowing on him,” Reinbolt said. “He was perfect.”

“Tom and I are very good friends,” he added. “We just have this common thread of pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves and trying to be role models for other people.”

He said that leads to their being role models for one another.

Reinbolt says this was his final Badwater 135, though he sheepishly admits he’s said that before.

“I’m going to be more selective in what I do in the future,” he said. “I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody.”

To donate to DS Action, visit bit.ly/docreinbolt4dsaction. To learn more about Reinbolt’s athletic events, visit ultramarathondoc.com.