The Badwater Ultramarathon cart is a one-of-a-kind engineering challenge to build. It needs to hold 250 pounds of water and supplies, be as lightweight as possible, withstand extreme heat, environment and be able to stop itself on downhills as long as 15 miles.
The first cart to cross Badwater and set a record that has been unbroken for thirteen years was a rickshaw type cart that Marshall Ulrich pulled and pushed precariously through the course. The second, and only other successful solo-unassisted self-contained crossing was Lisa Bliss’ three-wheeled cart that looked like a cross between a baby jogger and a hot dog cart.
I studied the photos of each cart and then talked to each of them to find out what worked well and what didn’t. Marshall said, “Give it three wheels. Two wheels was a killer.”
Lisa was happy with her cart and she designed hers to also be used as a safe area for taking naps. “I was not going to sleep on the desert floor with rattle snakes and scorpions,” she emphatically stated. I didn’t think of that and so I designed my cart to have the same ability. In doing so, mine will also look much like a hot dog cart. After the race, maybe I will have a career on the streets of NYC or at Burning Man selling water and veggie dogs.
I also looked for ways to improve what they did. How could I make the cart better and easier to use. You don’t want to waste any energy on inefficient tasks. Getting fresh cold water, ice, food, or any other supplies should be simply and fast. Pushing the cart for 135 miles in 120 degrees you will loose your ability to do simple tasks. So anything you can do to make every little function easier will save you time, energy, and aggravation.
After weeks of thinking, researching and planning I start the process of building a one-of-a-kind pushcart. I know it is going to be aluminum because it is easy to work with, light and cost effective. I built houses, rebuilt antique cars and can fix just about anything that brakes so the decision to build it myself was a given. But I did need a shop and a welder. I call my friend and amazing metal sculpture artist David Boyajian who created the “9/11 Living Memorial” at Sherwood Island in West Port, CT for the 10th anniversary of September 11th. David is also an avid runner so he was quick to get enthusiastic about this project even though it is a very different medium than he usually works on.
At David’s studio, my friend Dave “Wheels” Wheeler, David and I brainstorm about the cart. We discuss strength, size, capabilities, and many other aspects that are important to building a cart that will withstand the workload and the environment of one of the hottest and most unforgiving places on earth. Wheels and I layout the coolers and the tires to figure out the exact dimensions taking into considerations balance and drivability around turns. It is time to start cutting metal and preparing it for David to weld.
We start to put it together and make adjustments and see it take form. Wheels keeps insisting that we need to angle the front and keep the “box” smaller. I argue against them both. I am more concerned about the weight, functionality and final look. Even though this is a cart, I am thinking hot rod. As we build, it becomes obvious that Wheels is right and the best option is to cut the front at an angle – it looks better too. We keep building and he is once again right about the “box” being kept smaller. I originally wanted to hide the tires like a fender of 50’s Cadillac but weight and usability abandoned that design idea. I was once a student in one of his classes and still have the fish sculpture I created in my garden.
After a full days work, the frame base is built. It doesn’t look like much yet and doesn’t seem like we got a lot done, but we did. The design and layout takes so much time. You have got to get it right or you will be spending hours fixing mistakes. And worse would be a catastrophic failure in Death Valley during the Badwater Solo SSC crossing.
About the base frame
1” aluminum .125, grade 60-61
45’ feet used
Weighs about 22 pounds
65” long (without wheels)
34” wide (widest point)
To test the strength we put the frame between two tables and I stood and bounced on the center. It flexed, but it was plenty strong. I could have and should have used lighter material. But how are you to know until you build it. And it is better to be safe than broken in the middle of the desert. Using lighter materials, I could have save about five pounds on the base frame.