I had the pleasure of meeting Leigh Drelick of Scottsdale, AZ, through a mutual friend. She shared the story of her husband, Jules, who will be embarking on the Badwater 135 race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney. I jumped at the chance to interview this incredible competitor and was amazed by his personal journey that has propelled him to pursue this challenge. Here's his story:
Whether you’re a hard-core athlete or a couch potato, the challenge that Jules Drelick is about to face surpasses most mere mortals’ capabilities. But his story shares a common thread of resilience, endurance and just plain hard work. His ultimate dream became a reality when crossing the path of a stranger in the middle of the desert.
By day, Jules works long hours as a director for a mutual fund administrator in Phoenix, is a husband, and father to two young children. An experienced trail runner, the last several months of his precious free time has been dedicated to running 70-80 miles per week to prepare for the historic and elite Badwater 135 challenge - July 18-20, 2016.
Billed as “The World’s Toughest Footrace,” the race covers 135 miles starting at Badwater, Death Valley, the lowest elevation in North America at 280’ below sea level and finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,300’ elevation, the highest point in the contiguous United States. The course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600’ of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100’ of cumulative descent.
The Good Fight
Born in Long Island, NY, Jules parents went through an acrimonious divorce that took him at a young age to western North Carolina, also known as Appalachia. On the day he and his mother arrived, their uninsured home burnt to the ground. His mother and stepfather spent most of their time unemployed, leaving the family’s main source of income as child support from his father.
At times his life seemed pretty hopeless, and at 15 he ran away to live with his father in Pennsylvania. His transition from a poverty stricken area of the South to an affluent suburb of Philadelphia forced Jules to become very self-reliant and eventually he headed down the right path. Working long hours while attending high school and earning top grades allowed him to put himself through college at Penn State and later he earned an MBA from the University of Chicago. His education helped to launch his career in the financial services industry in New York City.
In 2000, he met his wife, Leigh. They married in 2001, less than two weeks after the events of 9/11 in New York, and moved to Long Island. Although they loved many aspects of New York life, the commute made it difficult to envision a good quality of life for the family they hoped to start one day. In 2002, they moved to Arizona almost sight-unseen, seeking a fresh start and a better life. Today, they are blessed with two kids, 9-year-old Tristan and 5-year-old Sasha.
Not your typical track or cross country runner in high school or college, Jules admits to hating running and even mocking his schoolmates for their daily runs. Good at team sports, especially basketball, speed and conditioning were his best attributes as an athlete.
That all changed in 2005, while working for ING, a global financial firm, who became the lead sponsor of the New York Marathon.
When asked what is the hardest race he ever did he always responds, “The first one.”
Jules ran his first ING New York Marathon at 39, and despite a dedicated 18 week training plan, he was walking the race by mile 18. He remembers two smiling, chatty old guys, patting him on the back and telling him to “hang in there” as they trotted past at mile 19. He staggered to the finish line, collecting his first running medal. Disgusted with himself, he vowed to return, and be better.
He did just that the next year in New York by cutting 25 minutes off his marathon time. His resilience persevered yet again when two years later he qualified for the Boston Marathon. After Boston, there was no turning back and Jules began looking for bigger and better challenges. Since his first New York Marathon, he has competed in over 100 races, including over 40 ultramarathons (races over the 26.2 mile marathon distance).
Why Badwater 135?
On a hot spring Sunday in 2013, Jules was on a trail run in the McDowell Mountains, training for the San Diego 100. Somewhere around 10 miles from the nearest trailhead another runner approached him, a rare sign in such a remote part of the desert. Even more unusual, this runner stopped to chat with Jules to exchange training regimens. When Jules mentioned he had to finish his run in time to attend church services that morning, the runner said, “So, do I,” and that instant connection amongst two strangers jumpstarted his dream to pursue Badwater.
The man suggested he contact Karsten Solheim to assist as a pacer for his next Badwater race. To this day, the name of the runner escapes Jules, almost as if he was an angel, but true to his word he shared Jules’ contact information with Solheim. That is how he came to be a crew member for a 76-year old stranger, who ended up being one of the most inspirational people in his life.
When his wife asked a few years later what he wanted for his 50th birthday, Jules blurted out, “I want to run Badwater!”
According to Jules, “With only a limited number of races and adventures in my future, Badwater represents an iconic race for ultra-runners, where even veterans speak in awe of the challenge.”
Ultimately, his crewing experience and the many shared miles running on the Badwater course with Solheim helped Jules receive an invitation and was accepted as one of only 100 runners in the July 2016 race. His wife will join him in this milestone as one of his crew members.
This year’s field includes entrants from 18 countries with 20 different nationalities, as well as from 27 U.S. states. Facebook forums allow runners to seek crew and pacer help, get tips and information, and generally participate in this small like-minded community.
“There are a number of runners and members that I’ve been in touch with already through the race, and the diversity of backgrounds helps make the race an incredibly rich experience,” said Jules. “I think I’m probably the least interesting person in the race!”
Like many of the other runners, Jules has chosen a non-profit in which to raise funds. CURE International (www.cure.org) is a faith-based organization that operates charitable hospitals and programs in 30 countries worldwide, where patients, especially children, receive surgical treatment regardless of gender, religion, or ethnicity. These children live in places where access to quality health care is limited. Perhaps the most recognized supporter of CURE is football player Tim Tebow, whose foundation recently built the Tebow CURE hospital in the Phillipines.
According to Jules, “I think what drew me to CURE is my own challenged youth. While I was not physically impaired, I know the pain of being a kid living in a desperate situation. For a kid in despair, there is nothing more welcome as a helping, loving hand.”
Those interested in offering support can visit his fundraising page at https://cure.org/my/jules-drelick/.
Training Against the Elements
An expert at ultra trail races, Jules has had to make a transition from natural trails to asphalt and concrete roads for his current training. Typically peaking at around 50-55 miles a week, with at least half of that distance on trails, for Badwater, Jules is running in the 70-80 mile range which might actually be on the light side compared to his competitors.
Jules has also added some speed to his training the last six weeks prior to the race by running 800 meter repeats at a local track. To work out the kinks and maintain his core strength, he practices yoga several nights a week.
The heat, an expected 125 degrees in Death Valley, is also why he has switched his training times to the hottest times of the day. Although, Phoenix has been a great place for him to prepare for this daunting aspect of the race, he doesn’t believe that it gives him an advantage over other competitors.
“I think I’ll be in good shape for the heat, but sure won’t have an advantage against a runner from Northern California that gets 10 hours of sleep every night and runs 100 training miles during a stress-free week,” states Jules.
To Jules, Badwater is a competition against the course and the elements, not necessarily the other runners. But be assured, always the competitor, Jules will push to pass another runner as well as hold off anyone from passing him. His primary goal is to finish in the 33 to 36 hour range, which would put him in the 20th – 30th place, faster than 70% of the field.
At any point in the race that poses to be tough, he will tap into his inner strength and be reminded of the battles he has won to get to this point.
“All I have to do is think about the conditions I grew up in to be reminded what real adversity is all about,” said Jules. “I know I’ve been incredibly blessed to have my life turn out the way it has.”
Please visit Jules Drelick's fundraising page to support CURE at https://cure.org/my/jules-drelick/.