Noelani Taylor walked across her Vilano Beach living room and pulled a cherished DVD off a shelf.
“Running on the Sun: The Badwater 135” changed her life.
The documentary traces the trials and tribulations runners face during what many consider to be the world’s toughest foot race. And there are many trials. The grueling ultramarathon starts in the middle of July at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California — perhaps the hottest place on earth — and ends 135 miles west at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to the Mount Whitney summit.
Taylor, 37, asked her parents to buy her that DVD for Christmas in 2006.
“We began watching it, and by the time it was finished I told my parents that I had to do this race,” Taylor said.
Never mind that by that point in her life, Taylor had run one marathon and one Ironman triathlon. She had no concept of what it would be like to run an endurance race equivalent to five marathons plus four miles, certainly not one that begins at the lowest point in North America at 280 feet below sea level, passes over three mountain ranges and finishes at an elevation of 8,300 feet.
Her parents didn’t doubt her. They never did. Noelani remembers her mother commenting, “Well, I guess you’re going to do it.”
But life happened and Taylor’s dream got put on hold. In 2010, her dad passed away and a year later her mom passed away, both unexpectedly. In 2012 her son, Koa, was born, and she knew if she didn’t begin to take the necessary steps, her dream would slip away.
More than 10 years after watching “Running on the Sun,” for the first time, Taylor will run in this summer’s Badwater 135.
“This is a promise I’m fulfilling to (my parents) and myself,” she said. “I feel like ultrarunning in general just sends a very strong message to people that whatever is inside of your heart is entirely possible. I believe in living life with great passion, and it’s all about finding that which you love, and seizing and savoring it.”
At this point in her story you might imagine Taylor as an underdog, the runner who captures the hearts of spectators and competitors alike as she fights to achieve her dream. Her story is similar to scores of others who have competed and completed this brutal ordeal. But she is no underdog.
“She’s world class (in ultrarunning),” said her coach, Dave Krupski, who himself finished fifth overall in the 2015 Badwater race. “I think she’ll probably win the women’s race and she’ll be in contention for the overall.”
Taylor qualified for the race by winning the women’s title a year ago at the 51-mile Badwater Cape Fear on Bald Head Island, North Carolina. To complete her qualification process, she needs to have three 100-mile ultramarathons under her belt. So far, she has run in two. She ran in Krupski’s Daytona 100 twice. The Daytona 100 starts in Atlantic Beach and runs along the beach south through St. Augustine, ending in Ponce Inlet, just south of Daytona Beach.
Taylor was the first woman to cross the finish line both times. She was second overall behind the male winner in the inaugural Daytona 100 in November 2015 with a time of 17 hours, 42 minutes. She finished fourth overall this past December, lowering her time to 16 hours flat — which is an average of 9 minutes, 36 seconds per mile for 100 miles.
“You come right down through downtown St Augustine, which was wonderful for me, because it traversed a good chunk of my regular runs,” she said. “I had a lot of support from my friends and acquaintances here in town, and that was extra motivating.”
Her third 100-mile race will be the Keys 100 — beginning in Key Largo and ending in Key West — in May.
What makes Taylor a threat to break the female record at Badwater, which is just under 26 hours, is her rare combination of talent and motivation, Krupski said.
Taylor runs 80 to 120 miles a week. She runs every day, sometimes twice a day, at 10-40 miles at a clip. A 10-mile run for Taylor is like a short jog.
Krupski, who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach and has run in more than 30 races of 100 miles or more, manages Zwitty Ultra, a coaching program for ultrarunners, and has been coaching Taylor for more than two years.
“She’s very, very talented, and she trains harder than anybody I know,” Krupski said. “Very few females on the planet can run a 16-hour, 100-mile race. She gets on a treadmill and cranks it up to 10 mph, a 6-minute mile, and holds that for two hours straight. In the sport of ultrarunning, very, very few people can do that.”
DISCOVERING HER PASSION
Taylor, who is an education consultant for Head Start, grew up in St. Augustine. She said she inherited an adventurous spirit from her parents, who met in Hawaii. They sailed to Florida from Hawaii in the 1970s. They sailed through the Panama Canal and landed in St. Augustine, where they made their permanent home.
Rather than her parents’ passion of sailing, Noleani took to running, and her parents encouraged her. She remembers her dad following her on his bike as she ran through their south St. Augustine neighborhood when she was a little girl. Even back then she had an iron will. At age 5 or 6, she and her parents stayed at a hotel that had a waterslide.
“I told my dad I would go down the waterslide 100 times, and I made myself do it 100 times,” she recalled.
She ran the mile and two-mile on the track team at Episcopal School in Jacksonville. Her 4 x 800 relay team won the state championship. She studied education and child development at Vanderbilt and earned her master’s degree at Harvard. In 2004, she moved to Hawaii where she got into endurance sports. She got involved with Team Jet, run by endurance athlete Chet Blanton, and ran her first marathon in Honolulu.
She found she enjoyed running long distances; the longer the better. Even now she says the worst part about a 100-mile race is the drive back, which feels longer to her than the run.
“When I’m actually in the race or in the moment or able to do a really long run, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude,” said Taylor, who has been back in St. Augustine since 2007. “I feel like, wow, this is a special day, when the biggest problem you have or the greatest worry is running. It just feels like a big gift.”
The turning point in her life was watching the “Running on the Sun” documentary.
“Seeing all the different types of people that were drawn to doing this, I felt like this is something that I’ve got to do,” she said. “That turned into something I really am going to do, and I could see that dream transform into reality over time.”
Running 100 miles doesn’t seem possible. The video shows that what might seem impossible at first may very well be achievable.
“I understand the numbers sound absolutely crazy,” Krupski said. “Until you do something, you don’t know you can. The brain can’t comprehend that distance until you do it.”
The Badwater 135 takes ultrarunning to the extreme.
The hardest part preparing for it and running in it, he said, is the mental side. It consumes your thoughts for every waking minute for six months prior to the race. Marathoners know about hitting “the wall.” At Badwater, there are about 20 walls, he said.
But he said Taylor is well-equipped to handle both the physical and mental demands of the race.
“She’s the nicest and most positive person you’ll ever meet, and she’s also a fierce competitor,” he said. “As a coach, someone like Noelani, you have to reign her in, because there is a point of diminishing returns. She has that internal fire as much as anybody I’ve seen.”
Runners at Badwater are required to have a crew drive alongside them to monitor them for such things as dehyrdation and low sodium, and provide them with liquids and nutrition. Taylor was on Krupski’s crew two years ago and became even more inspired to run the race herself. Krupski will be leading her crew when the race begins on July 10.
“It’s just a few months away, which is hard to believe,” she said. “I dream of it often, and a lot of decisions I make are based around making that race successful. I’m really trying to take care of my nutrition, take care of my rest and honestly be surrounded by people who are encouraging and supportive.”
Perhaps her most encouraging supporter is 4-year-old Koa.
“He has been a supporter at all of the races. He comes out and cheers,” she said. “He’s very excited about this desert race. And I feel like I’m setting an exciting example for him to discover whatever he’s passionate about.”