Badwater 135 is a grueling 135-mile ultramarathon through the deserts and mountains of Death Valley, California. BADWATER/Contributed

David Castro spent half his life running away — from childhood sexual abuse, torture, a heroin-addicted father and severe clinical depression. 

Now he runs toward things. And next month, he’ll head for the finish line of Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race through Death Valley, California, which National Geographic has dubbed “the world’s toughest foot race.” It’s Castro’s third and toughest endurance race, and he’s running to raise money for Samuel’s House shelter in Key West.

The Michigan native had blocked out his past and ignored his own mental health for decades. In his 30s he had a good job as a district manager for Longhorn Steakhouse. Then a friend’s suicide brought Castro’s own issues to the surface.

“I snapped; I lost it,” he said. “I thought I had nothing and no one.” He had rebelled against the aunt and uncle who adopted him at 12 when they learned what he and his younger brother were enduring. “They were good people, but they weren’t equipped to deal with what we’d been through, and there was no specialized therapy back then.

“I just walked out of my life with a backpack. I thought it would be some kind of adventure,” he said.

It was anything but.

Castro ended up homeless in Orlando, where tent cities were rife with drugs and gang violence. So he came to the Keys about 15 years ago, still homeless, but unlike many others, Castro never struggled with drugs or alcohol. “It was deep, severe depression,” he said. “But I always kept myself clean and presentable for whenever I could find work doing landscaping or construction, anything.”

After staying in homeless encampments in Key West, he went up the road to Marathon. “I used to camp just outside the jail in Marathon, because no one else wanted to be near there. I met some truly amazing deputies. They were fantastic to me, along with a few Key West police officers.”

Castro eventually got into a men’s shelter in Marathon and started working in landscaping. Then a management job opened up at the then-newly built Catch 53 restaurant. With his resume from Longhorn, Castro became operations manager in 2010. “I went from making a couple hundred bucks a week to $70,000 a year. I was back on my feet.” 

He started leading a men’s support group at the shelter, where he eventually met his wife, a licensed therapist. The pair moved to West Palm Beach and Castro started a successful catering business. When he sold his half, he and his wife returned to Marathon, where they bought a home close to one of the places he had camped while homeless. “I’m a big believer in turning a negative into a positive,” he said.

Castro is running Badwater 135 July 11-13 to raise money for Samuel’s House shelter. “I wanted to pick a charity I could relate to, and when I did my research, Samuel’s House fit the bill.” The nonprofit provides shelter and support services to homeless and abused women and families.

The Badwater 135 Ultramarathon selects only 100 of the world’s toughest and most qualified runners for the grueling race.  

“From below sea level in scorching temperatures to altitudes as high as 8,360 feet, endurance athletes representing 23 nations plus 28 American states and the Navajo Nation will face off in a grueling 135-mile non-stop running race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, California,” states the event website. “Widely recognized as ‘the world’s toughest foot race,’ the invitational Badwater 135 is the most demanding and extreme running race on the planet. 

“The start line is at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280 feet below sea level. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,360 feet elevation. The course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600 feet  of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100 feet of cumulative descent.”

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.