Competing in the Badwater Ultramarathon—a two-day, 135-mile trek that begins in the desert of Death Valley and ends high in the Sierra Nevadas—requires a certain amount of mental toughness, which bodes well for Oz Pearlman. The 30-year-old's stock in trade is his mental acuity: When he's not running, he's a professional mentalist and magician, dazzling audiences with any number of mind-reading tricks, sleight-of-hand illusions and flaming wallets.
Pearlman (whose first name, pronounced OHs, is Hebrew and means "brave and strong") was not serious about running when he was young. He ran only one season of track and cross-country at North Farmington (Mich.) High. "Not only was I not a standout, I was arguably the worst person on the team," he says. "In terms of performance and morale, I brought the whole team down. I was the one who got the team to quit and cheat on workouts."
Ironic, then, that a workout for Pearlman today is rarely less than 18 miles. And when he's training for an ultra, it can be as long as 70. "Beyond that you're getting diminishing returns," he says. "You're breaking down your body too much." And that's not a good idea heading into Badwater, which begins on July 15. The race entails roughly the equivalent of running from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia. While climbing nearly halfway up Mount Everest. In temperatures that can approach 130°.
Pearlman ran his first marathon in 2004, in Philadelphia, largely out of boredom. He was working at Merrill Lynch and says, "I missed having something to look forward to, something on the calendar. And racing did that for me." He finished the race in 3:21:28. He quit his desk job in 2005 to pursue magic full time, working about 300 shows a year and appearing, in 2010, on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He'd come a long way from his first gig, as a 14-year-old doing tricks for patrons at a neighborhood Italian restaurant.
Now he runs whenever he can: He recently did 26 miles just before taking the stage in Dallas. At Badwater, Pearlman hopes to take advantage of his road-racing experience—he holds the record in the New Jersey Marathon, at 2:28:19—on the flat and downhill segments, while walking for most of the serious climbs. As for the heat, he eschewed sauna training and will pack as much ice as possible under his hat, around his neck and inside his Lycra sleeves. He'll ingest a steady diet of energy gels and start taking short catnaps about 24 hours into the race, which takes most finishers more than 30 hours. Most of all, he'll try to have fun. "At the ultras I try to enjoy the moment and the experience," he says. "Because you know you're going to suffer."
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
Cumulative vertical ascent: 13,000 feet
Cumulative vertical descent: 4,700 feet
Total elevation change: 8,300 feet
FIRST CLIMB: Towne Pass, elevation 4,956 feet. The leaders will climb it in the early evening.
START: Death Valley, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere
LAST CLIMB: The final 13 miles of the race are up the side of Mount Whitney, a 4,750-foot increase in elevation. The leaders will tackle it in the middle of the day. "Everyone walks," says Pearlman. "The winner walks. You've had one night of sleep deprivation. You're hot, you haven't slept. Everyone pretty much agrees it's the four or five worst hours of your life."
COURTESY OF OZ PEARLMAN
EN FUEGO When not dazzling the likes of Phillies star Ryan Howard, Pearlman can usually be found training or racing.
COURTESY OF OZ PEARLMAN