"When is the heat going to kick in?" Mark Woolley quipped at around the 5 mile mark. It was just before 9am, we started at 8 and were still laughing and joking with the people around us. "Doin' this for the first time? Good Man" echoed around the floor of the worlds hottest place. It's true, the heat had yet to kick in, it was merely 40 something. Within a few hours it would be over 50. This was the time to enjoy a few miles and the unique experience of running arguably one of the worlds toughest and most pretigious events.
I chatted to Mark about what we were about to do today (and tomorrow and possibly the next day). What we wanted and why we were here. There were 80 starters in the 2010 Badwater Ultramarathon and with that there are 80 different stories as to why they got to the start line and then 80 more about the race. I have read so many reports from others that have made an attempt at this race and was talking to Mark about how we were going to remember this experience as we both did for the Spartathlon last year.
"I don't really know what I'd write about this race?" said Mark. I was about to correct him with the obvious when he interupted to do it himself. "I guess that's because the story's not been written yet?" He quickly responded to himself. Spot on. Along the famous white line of the road through hell there were 80 unique chronicals of the event being typed as we ran. This is mine.
Summer sometime 2006 (it was a Tuesday)
I can't remember whether it was a slow day or an exciting day at work but I guess it didn't matter. I was probably counting down the hours until could leave and go to my track session. Tonight was Yazoos, running 800m reps with 400m rest each time. Your minute time for the 800m was supposed to be a good predictor of your marathon time as well as doing something or other with my lactate threshold. I didn't really know and I didn't really want to go either, but you have to do these things when training for a marathon don't you?
A friend of mine sent me an email with a link to this race with some sarcastic message such as "how about this one?" We were vaguely aware that some people ran further than 26.2 miles. I had just heard of the London to Brighton road race and thought I might have a crack at that one day. All I thought was "F**k, that's more than 2 marathons, back to back. How do people run all that?"
The email about Badwater was just ridiculous. I had never heard of anything like it or known anyone who had done such a thing. It looked like a joke but from that moment I could not put it down. Somewhere out there there are humans who can actually do this kind of thing. I'm a human, could I do such a thing?
The thought stayed with me for the track session that night, which went very well. I was yazooing at not much more than 3 minutes and later that summer I improved my marathon PB from 3.34 to 3.12, beating the target that was written in my spreadsheet by 3 minutes. However with this success came little joy, I followed a program and got an output. I got exactly what I trained for, I felt like a dog fetching a stick. Finishing this marathon confirmed what I had suspected for a few months now, chasing times was not my thing. Finishing a super-human race though, that might just give me enough joy to put the work in. I decided I had to do it, I gave myself 5 years.
(You may have heard) I wrote a book about all this. You can buy it here on Amazon.
Or if you want me to schelp into the attic you can buy it off me on this website.
I started in the 8am wave at the Badwater Basin. We drove down to Badwater along a 17 mile stretch of road from Furnace Creek, where the pre-race HQ and all the runners stay. We drove carefully as the runners from the 6am wave made their way back up to the top of the road. I felt sick as we slowly descended to 282ft below sea level. I wasn't sure whether it was pre-race nerves or the heat already getting to me.
The ceremony is huge, about 30 runners, 30 support vehicles, 150 support crew members, 50 race staff and dozens of media people. The event is imense and the majority of the people here are not here to run but to get a runner to the finish. There was the familiar 10-9-8 countdown and then everyone broke out of the crowd and formed a single line along the road, rather like the start of a 800m race, though a little slower.
Almost as soon as we started running we saw a coach tour coming the other way. I can only imagine what the tour guide was saying. "We are now approaching the Badwater Basin, the hottest and most evil place on earth. And on the left you'll see a load of idiots, who thinks it's a good idea to run through it".
I found the first 17 miles fairly comfortable, we all took it quite slow except one guy who was half a mile ahead after a few miles. The first section ascends slightly back to sea level then drops again into Furnace Creek where the first checkpoint is.
It's amazing what you can find on the internet nowadays. I managed to find a crew of 4 people who I had never met before but had committed to kicking my arse from the start line to near the top of Mt Whitney. The rules state that each runner must have a minimum of two support crew and one vehicle. Most people have between 4-6 crew and 2 cars/vans. Only 1 vehicle can be leapfrogging you at any one time and typically would do so at mile intervals.
My amazing crew consisted of Laurie, who had crewed twice before, Debra Haaland who was keen to see death valley and Debra and Dave who were friends of Laurie. I was thrilled that people who had never met me had agreed to take this on. I was going to get to know them a lot more over the next 2 days or however long this was going to take.
I said before the start that my needs were fairly simple. I can pretty much eat and drink anything which is an advantage with this kind of race. I gave no instructions on how I wanted to do the race as I didn't know myself. All I said was make sure they put electrolyte in everything I drank.
I stopped briefly in Furnace to use the facilities and ate a few turkey sandwiches that Debra made. They were very nice indeed. It was now around 11.30 and the heat was really picking up. The 26 mile stretch from Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells is often regarded as the most critical part of the race. It's hot, flat and with little breeze. Most people manage to make it to Stovepipe however if proper care isn't taken during these miles it can have dire consequences later on.
The roads through Death Valley are decpetive. It's hard to tell whether you are going uphill or down. Looking ahead gives you no idea and looking behind makes everything look like uphill. I'd sometimes be aware that I was working a lot harder for some reason but it was hard to seperate whether it was an incline or a sudden increase in my body temperature. Whenever I saw the crew I would be sprayed with water and given more to drink. My temperature would have been up and down all the time. Adjusting your own pace is so difficult when you don't know what kind of slope (if any) you are running on. If I do this again I'm bringing a spirit level.
I passed the first marathon in around 5 hours, I thought I'd gone much further than that but I decided no to make anything of times and distances here. I was not even wearing a watch and I rarely asked for the time and was only vaguely aware of the distance. Just put one foot in front of the other, and don't die.
Not long into the race I got a headache. It was painful enough to be frustrating but more worryingly it was a sign of dehydration. I was checking the colour of my piss and it was holding up ok but it was clear that the sun was beginning to do it's work, my right side was burning. I had not put sun cream onto the parts that were covered with my UV50 running top but now was the time to do so. I started to wonder why this place has been picked as the place for the sun to hate. All over the world the sun brings life and vitality, here it just scorches everything and we were no exception. Soon after I passed Tim Welsh who I'd met in Spain a few weeks prior. He was in good shape. Mark and I discussed that Tim had the best chance of finishing this. Having seen him fearlessly climb Spains highest mountain as night fell after running 45 miles on roads without any suggestion of stopping made it clear to us he was going to do ok here. I decided that day not to do the mountain, I slept in the car.
Early afternoon and the heat cranked up, to 50C. A few hours into the race I was starting to recieve ice-bandanas to rest against my neck. I could not even feel ice against my skin, it was too hot. Every 3 miles or so I would remove my top and dunk it in ice cold water and put it back on. If I did this in the UK I'd probably pass out with shock but here it felt so nice for my skin to be so cold, for about 10 seconds. Half a mile later it was dry again.
Every mile I'd get a fresh drink that was mostly ice. I was drinking about 500ml every mile and alternating between water and Gatorade. I started measuring the temperature by counting how long it took my bottle to stop rattling. early on it wouldn't for the whole mile but after about 2 the ice would melt pretty quickly. Water and Gatorade were starting to get a bit tiresome so I tried a protein shake. It's important to take protein when going for this long but it's not really the temperature for milkshake and beef jerky. I tried anyway and felt sick. I ran for a few miles feeling sick and gagging before I finally threw up. It felt so good, I've never been sick in a race before. Recommended.
I continued running with or near Mark until just before Stovepipe Wells where I went ahead. I decided to stop a while and lie down out of the heat. I got in and went to the poolside and lay down in the shade where my crew covered me in wet towels and cloths.
Around 3 years ago I cycled through Death Valley with a group for a landmine charity. It was in March and was not difficult at all. In all honesty I signed up because I wanted to see the place that I hoped to run in 3 years later. It was all coming back to me, these random towns on a road in the middle of nowhere. Stovepipe has a nice pool, a saloon, gas station, general store and rooms. It was only founded in 1923.
I recall lounging by this pool before, that was at the end of a day of cycling about 50 miles. Here I was having run 43 and with 92 to go. I was going to be on my feet for at least another day without sleep. Last time I was here at a similar time of day and was just lounging by the pool to wait for the bar to open. No such luxury this time. I did have a can of coke though, my first treat so far (apart from the turkey sandwiches of course).
I generally try to avoid looking into race maps and profiles before I have to do them. I just turn up and do whatever is there. I don't usually know how high a hill is or how far it's supposed to go, I just carry on. Having studied this one for four years though it's hard to not take in some of the facts and I knew what was up ahead, a 5000ft steady climb over 18 miles.
A shallow incline would normally not be an excuse to walk but 18 miles is quite a long way to go so I would not imagine I would run all of it. In the heat of this race any slight increase in exersion will cause your own temperature to rise and increase the possibility of overheating. "You can't control the sun" was a key message from the briefing. Going up a 5% incline uses about 20% more energy than on the flat, it would be easy to overheat. This was not the main issue in this climb though, it was the wind.
Badwater has it's fair share of stories and tales that may have been exagerated in their re-tellings. So far I had not had the massive feet swelling that is warned by many who tell the story, nor did my shoes melt for not running on the white line. I was hoping the same was true of the "hairdryer" hill that I was about to ascend up to Townes Pass, alas no, it was by far the hardest conditions I have ever run/walked in.
The wind was strong and hot. it would just blow right down my throat and dry me from the inside as well as the outside. The temperature was still 50C but I could no longer protect myself from the heat, it was going right inside me. I drank so much water but it did not stop my throat burning and my lips and eyelids were drying out. Only the elites were running up this, everyone else was staggering and stopping regularly to get hosed down. It took 9 hours to run the first 43 miles, it took about 7 to do the next 18. It was really frustrating as I still had a lot of energy and wanted to press on. At this point Pam Reed went past while I was stood at the car. I yelled well done and that I loved her book. I plodded on, and started to think about my old cat.
I must have been about 10 when I have this vague recollection of my cat getting put in the tumble dryer. I remember the noise it made for the few seconds it was getting spun around in a heated blast and now finally I can appreciate what that was like. Then I wondered, how did it get in there in the first place? I always thought that it was resting on some clothes and the door was just closed without really looking in. But why would it rest on wet clothes? And if the clothes were dry I can understand why the cat would sleep on them but why then would the tumble dryer be turned on? This confused me for a little while before I decided not to think about it anymore as it was too hard. I just wanted out of the tumbledryer.
At 7pm we are required to wear Hi-vis jackets and blinking lights. It's still very light (and hot) so it can feel a bit silly but the darkness does fall quickly. We are surrounded by large rocks which the sun can disappear behind us in an instant. The sun did finally set and let the stars come out, it had done it's job on me for the day. I thought I came off quite well but only time would tell, the effects of dehydration and hat exhaustion could still hit me in the night.
I finally arrived at the top of Townes Pass (61 miles) sometime in the night whereas I'd hoped to be there in daylight. After climbing 5000ft over 7 hours and 18 miles in a tumble dryer wind in a furnace it was then time to undo all of that and almost run back down to sea level. 9 miles of downhill were a welcome reprieve from all the walking. I asked the car to only stop every 2 miles or so now as I was going to try to keep moving.
Panamint Springs was the next stop at 73 miles and I was going to have another prologed stay there. The sun had made me sleepy and thought a powernap, a shower and a complete change of clothes was in order. I could see the lights of Panamint from miles away and a stream of car and runner lights leading to it. I was keen to get there as soon as possible and started overtaking some other runners. "Check you running up the hills" I heard. I had no idea I was running up a hill, it was those deceptive roads again. I really needed that spirit level.
On arriving at Panamint I was taken into the car park and the roll mat was set up. My idea of having a shower quickly evaporated as I realised I had to climb over a load of people sleeping on the floor in the dark to get to it. There is no way I was going to be able to do that without falling on them and waking them up. I settled for a change of clothes and asked my crew to wake me up in ten minutes.
I first powernapped during the GUCR 2009 and it worked a treat. It does not cure exhaustion but it can help snap you out of a malaise. I was suffering with bad thoughts of the things that were not quite going right in the race. Complaining that my water was too icy and feeling pain in my feet more. My throat was still dry and sore from the wind and I was having to go to the toilet a lot. I hoped that a quick nap might flush all this out of my head but it didn't. I got up again and still felt quite grumpy. It didn't even occur to me that I'd long passed the half way point. I had another large climb to do now. 4000ft in 13 miles.
I've always had plenty to think about when slogging through some difficult races. Stupid question #2 when I tell people about this kind of stuff is "don't you get bored while running?" or "What do you think about?". I never got bored while racing before, I've always had Badwater to think about.
Every single race and run I have thought about this end. Every struggle I've fought through thinking that it could be much worse when I came here. When I ran the Marathon Des Sables with a chest infection I figured, "well you could end up coughing like this in Badwater, and you are not going to drop out of that are you?" Last year I was suffering heat exhaustion and fatigue on day one of the GUCR. While struggling to stay on my feet and coming to terms with the fact that I had another 24 hours of running left I thought about Badwater. Every shit moment I've suffered but got through in a race has been to finish Badwater. HTFU.
Even the races that went well I thought about how they were going to add to my chances of finishing this. The last day of my 300k 6 day race in Canada was on an uphill stretch of road that looked alive with a burning mirage. After 180 miles of running in 5 days I wondered if this is like the end of Badwater. After my first ultra of 45 miles I thought after the finish that all I have to prepare myself for was another 90 miles, and quadruple the temperature. And add hills. After finishing the GUCR in 2008 I was overwhelmed with my ability to step up like that and go from 55 miles to 145 miles with relative ease. That was the time when I realised I could finish anything, and by "anything" I meant Badwater.
However what was I supposed to think of when actually running Badwater? There is no "next" for me here, nothing to go onto. This is it. I had nothing to look forward to after the finish line. That made it hard for me to think myself through the race, made it easier for the demons to get in.
It became very dark, I decided against using a headtorch as I find them a distraction and only had the dim glow of my flashing red lights to show me where to go. There are a lot of twists and turns on the ascent and for some moments there is no unatural light at all, like you are the only person in the world. I love this feeling of isolation. The huge rocks beside me became invisible and all I could see were the stars and the road. This made me think that I was running on a road suspended in space. I feared falling off the road as I thought I'd end up floating off into space so I ran in the middle.
I loved looking up at the stars, there were so many. Somewhere around one of these there must be another planet similar to ours with intelligent life. And if there was intelligent life I am sure they would have discovered the joy of ultra-distance running, which probably comes somewhere between the spear and the wheel on the order of invention. I thought about another being way up there struggling along as I am in a similar race in similar extremities on his own world. I'll never meet him or even know for sure that he exists but nonethleless I wished the space alien good luck and got on with my run.
Whenever my mind did wander I would start to stray to the side of the road and I really didn't want to fall off and float away, not sure whether my support crew had bought a long enough rope. I was getting frustrated by the slow motion up the hill and was worried that I might not be able to get into a run again when it flattened. I waited and waited for just a small let up in the vertical so I could try a run but it was not coming. I continued to worry and it took its toll until I had a great idea. I just turned around and ran down, only for about 20 meters. I could still run, that made me feel better, that made me go faster.
As day broke I was still climbing up the slope. There were more cars now and I could hear thier engines struggling up the hills. I had not seen many other runners for a while. The sun barely made it over the rocks before it started burning me again, I was not glad to see it back, it was trying to kill me.
The panamint pass ends at around 90 miles and there is another checkpoint on a junction in the middle on nowhere. I was starting to get frustrated by not knowing how far I had gone. was it 86 or 88 miles? By now I was getting really hot, feeling the heat much more than I did on the previous day. This was making me grumpy and I just wanted the CP to come so that I could sit down and have my blisters dealt with, I felt quite a bad one on my left heel and left instep.
At this point I saw a lot of James Elson's support car and figured he was only a couple of miles behind. He started 2 hours after me in the 10 wave and I was looking forward to seeing him as I had not managed to see him before the race. He had his luggage lost on getting into the US and was doing incredibly well to scrape everything together to be able to even start the race.
It had been a long time since I saw Mark and I was worried. I knew from my support crew that he stayed a while in Stovepipe wells (43) but thought he would have caught up with me by now, or at least I would have seen his support car at some point. Half of my crew went back in the spare car and I asked them to find out about Tim and Mark as they did. On finally getting to the CP at 90 miles I sat down and they said Tim was still going strong and was not far behind but Mark had needed a prolonged stop and left Panamint 8 hours after I did having lost 11lb since the start. The race organisers weight everyone at the start, I was 186lb. The only other time I was weighed was at Stovepipe where I managed to put on 1lb. My hydration was generally very good and Mark had a lot to do with that, when Tim and I visited him in Spain a couple of weeks before I had never used any electrolytes before and not doing so in a race like this was suicidal. Previously I relied on salty snacks but on actually reading into it I realised these were giving me 1 of the 4 salts in abundance and lacking in the other 3.
I was told that Mark was moving again and looking ok. I thought at this point he was unlikely to get the Buckle (sub 48 hours) since he lost a lot of time but really hoped he'd finish.
At the CP I sat in a sun lounger in the shade of a gazebo. It was the first time that any shade was available, the sun was directly overhead and even the van could not provide any protection from the sun. I wondered what I would do if I was actually stuck out here? There is absolutely nothing to hide under. The only wildlife I saw in the whole race before lone pine were some little beetles and a scorpion. The wildlife here comes out at night, does whatever it does to get food and then spends dawn digging a hole to bury itself in for the duration of the day. Every mile I was getting sprayed with water and drinking half a litre. How many miles would I last if there was no support van within a mile of me at all points? 2 miles? 5 miles? Not long that's for sure. Humans don't belong here. They certainly should not be running here.
Laurie was keen to look at my blisters, she was well prepared for doing so. However they were not blisters but painful callouses and hence she was unable to remove them. There was one blister which took several attempts to lance before it squirted. It was a little relief but I knew I'd have to suffer the others for the remainder of the race. It suddenly occured to me that I had not taken any painkillers during the race. This was out of forgetfulness rather than deliberate. In other races such as the Spartathlon I was swallowing them like smarties. I didn't really feel the need to take them and then I decided not to for the duration of the race, I was curious to see just how much this would hurt.
I now had 45 miles of downhill/flat to run starting off with a few miles downhill. I was looking forward to it.
I got back into a jog along a very long straight road that headed into the mountains that I would be climbing later. I could see snow of the mountain tops, it looked like a postcard. The road was so straightand still very difficult to tell whether it was going up or down. I managed to run most of the downhill and as it flattened out I was really struggling with the heat. I suffered more strange hallucinations, I thought the white line in the road was a man in the distance rolling toilet roll at me. The postcard view of the mountains looked like a billboard about to collapse on top of me. These were the worst ones I have had and even when I tried to focus I could not rid my head of them, the guy rolling the toilet paper was still there. I could not run or even walk in a straight line and my speech was garbled. I had overheated and had to stop again.
I stopped at the van and said I needed a lie down cos I was seeing things. They all stood around holding sheets over me to keep the sun off and covering me with ice cold towels and flannels. I lay there for about 20 minutes and tried to sleep again to get the demons out of my head. Soon after Debra made a sign to say that we had passed the 100 mile mark, this pleased me lots.
The road didn't seem to get any shorter as I plodded down it (or up it?). This road ended up being very hard to get out of my head, for days afterwards I would struggle to sleep thinking I am still trying to get along this stretch. Some vast stretch of nondescript road cutting right through walls of rock and joshua trees. Someone should write a song about this? There was a town called Keeler which looked completely out of place here, it was set back off the main road. There was a lot more activity on the road now, more cars, more support people and even some roadworks. It felt just like london. Several times I saw Tim Welsh's van speed up and down the road. All I could think of was Tim demanding an ice cream.
Lone Pine marks the "half marathon to go" point of the race and to took ages coming. I could see in the distance a small town but the road didn't go straight there, it cut back to the left and then onto a main road. I started getting grumpy again about how far it was to Lone Pine. Was it 2 miles or 4? I promised myself I would not bother about this as in the big scheme of things it did not matter but all of a sudden a timetable popped into my head. If I can get to Lone Pine at 6 I can rest and cool down a little, leave at 6.30 and then have 5 and a half hours for the long steep ascent to the finish at the Mt Whitney Portal. 2 miles turned into 3, then into 2 then into 4. There was no way I was going to make it for 6. I got quite upset and moaned a bit at the crew but they knew exactly how to appease me. By reminding me that there was a McDonalds in Lone Pine and taking my order of a fries and a strawberry milkshake. Way to a man's heart and all that.
The 2 mile section into Lone Pine felt quite difficult, for the first time you feel like you are running/walking through civilisation. It is still incredibly hot and I was on the side without shade and was not even thinking about crossing the highway to get out of the sun, there was no way I could make it that fast. Also felt a bit like cheating. I got to lone pine with my McDonalds waiting and lay down again to cool and put my feet up and enjoy the fries and milkshake. The webcam seemed to enjoy them too, broadcasting out to whoever was watching that I was eating McDonalds during a race. They also seemed keen on following me into the bathroom though I closed the door. I did remark that it was so nice to be able to use a proper toilet after all this time. Something that feels like a guilty pleasure in an ultra marathon.
I started the climb just before 7, heading across the busy road and onto Whitney Portal road. I was right up close against the rocky mountain range that I'd been looking at for the past day. This climb goes from 4000-9000ft, it's the steepest climb of the whole route. I was always going to walk this part as do all but the elites. I passed another runner right at the start of the climb and then did not see anyone for ages. The crew were going to stop every mile up the hill on the dot, so I knew how far I was going. The sun was still up but as it was after 7 we had to wear our hi-vis and lights again. The rocks here are amazing, the mountains themselves are covered in sharp edges. As night fell these sharp edges came to life, like Rorschach ink blots. These are used to stare into your soul and gauge your emotional state. All I was seeing were really aggressive spider like animals all glaring at me as if defending their mountain. No beautiful butterflies or cute little sheep at this stage, everything was a beast trying to eat me. There were odd looking rock formations alongside me too, they almost look sculpted, like masses of human bodies piled on top of each other. These were playing havoc later on.
I found the first few miles really hard, it was still very warm and I was out of breath too quickly. I had to use my inhaler for the first time and use it a lot. I still had the heartburn of the dry winds of 24 hours ago and water still tasted like ash. Counting down the miles did not happen as quickly as I hoped and I was doing each in around 25 minutes, it was pretty steep and my power march slowed as I tried to get my breathing under control. Laurie and Debra were going to crew me till about 5 miles to go and then Debbra and Dave were going to see me through to the end. For the end game I gave 3 instructions, keep my inhaler at hand at all times, don't let me sit in the chair and on mile 134 have my Serpentine club top ready with the spare number on it.
The higher it got the cooler it got, it was very noticalble. The sun was setting and I knew then there was nothing else it could do to me, all that stood between me and the Badwater Buckle I've been craving for 4 years was a dark road up to the mountain. I still didn't bother with a head torch but the light was so poor I did use a hand torch occasionally. I was hallucinating again but this time it was a feeling of claustrophobia rather than the wide open space of the previous night. The twists and turns of the road and the walls of rock either side looked like I was in a tunnel. There were huge cacti on the sides of the roads that looked like animations, like people and animals poised to jump out at me. This would not worry me except that on getting onto this path there is a "beware of the bears" sign and Smokie the Bear seems to be the fire service mascot of lone pine. One of these cacti could be a bear, for real.
I started to move faster up the hill, getting each mile done in less than 20. My breathing got better and for the first time I felt like it was cool enough to make the effort. It was so dark that often I thought I might have taken a wrong turning but I was not turning back. The walls felt like they were closing in, I could see the lights of the switchbacks up ahead in the distance and then again behind me, it was amazing and this time I knew that the glow was not leading to the halfway point but to the end of the Badwater Ultramarathon, the thing that I have been obsessed with for 4 years.
I gave myself 5 years from seeing this race to complete it. Here I was in 4 years about to finish. I applied this year with no real hope of getting in. Since I took up ultra running 4 years ago it has become harder and harder to get into the "classic" ultra marathons because of the competition. This year the Spartathlon sold out for the first time. The GUCR and the UTMB were lotteries for the first time, Comrades sold 15000 spaces in 5 hours this time and the MDS now has a 3 year waiting list. It's fantastic that there is such huge interest in the sport now. When I first started it was hard to find events and there were only a few in the UK. Now we are tripping over them, there is something to do every weekend.
But there is something about the classic events. I want to do them all. I applied to get into the Western States 100 this year again with no real hope of getting in (lottery chances are about 1 in 15). I watched the lottery online and watched 350 names get pulled out and none of them were mine. This hurt more than I thought it would, like a personal rejection. If I had got into WS100 I would not have even considered applying for Badwater this year, but the WS100 rejection brought it home to me, I don't have much time to do these events before they become impossible to get into. "Do what you can while you can" as Jack Denness would say. So I put in my application for Badwater including my essay on why I should be allowed to run. What's the worst they could say? Yes?
Just over a mile to go and I am winding through the switchbacks looking for the red blinking lights of my next and final mile marker. This is where I was going to take off the sun baked white top I'd been wearing all day and put on my nice cool fresh Serpie top. I was looking forward to doing this, it meant the end.
I saw the car in the distance and yelled "Pull the ice chest down, I'm going to sit for a minute". They responded "would you not prefer the chair?" and I snapped, "No - the ice chest, I won't get out of the chair". I had told my crew clearly that if I needed to sit they were to get the ice chest so that I did not get too comfortable. They struggled to pull the ice chest out of the back of the car and I sat myself down and thrust my water bottle at them. They filled it as I said it's only a mile to go. "Yes, just over a mile" they responded. I was a little annoyed at the "just over" bit but didn't let on, I just asked for my Serpie top. This was not forthcoming, I was tired and wanted to hurry up. I looked up and said;
"You're not my crew". I was staring into the face of a complete stranger. I had sat down and barked orders at the crew of another runner. I apologised profusely and they were just in hysterics about the whole thing. They had done everything I asked of them (apart from the serpie top). It was the crew of Keith Straw (the fairy) who was just ahead of me. I made my excused and sheepishly left their van and staggered on where I did see my support crew. The other guys stopped and chatted for a minute and all I heard was laughing. I slowed as I made sure they were indeed my support crew. They had everything for me, the ice chest to sit on, another water and most importantly the vest with the number 30 on it. It was time to get it done.
It is traditional in Badwater to cross the line with your support team, it only seems right. More so than any race I can think of this really is a team effort. I had the simple (though not easy task) of just moving forward until I got to the end. I managed to do that (with the exception of those 20 meters which I never told anyone about). My crew had to do so much more. I was quite difficult and vague when saying what I'll need during this race and I would not have been as prepared if it were not for Laurie knowing exactly how to do this. The night before the race she and the others were sorting out ice chests and food boxes while I stood and stared into space. I could not watch and I was no use at all. Debbra suggested I just go to bed and get some rest which is what I did.
Debbra and Dave were friends of Laurie and were incredibly enthusiastic for helping a British stranger complete his dream. They bought along a truckload of food and other treats. I destroyed their collection of cliff shots towards the end of the race, they were just what I needed. They were brilliant at hosing me down with water, making my greasy noodle snacks when I wanted and always been a welcome sight particularly in the night when I thought the car would never some at all.
Debra H I met on the forums. She was enthusiatic from the start and coped well with my hesitation about the race. I was not easy to deal with before as I was pretending the whole thing wasn't happening. The closer it got the more I'd zone out of it. Debra helped with the organisation and had most of the gear. She ran with me while I was unable to talk or walk straight. She made the sign that showed I had run 100 miles which made me feel great. She would have suffered the same lack of sleep that I did and still managed to smile every time she saw me.
Laurie was the one who held everything together. I met her in London a couple of weeks before and as soon as I did meet her my mind was at rest that I was in good hands. She got talking to all the others and making sure that everything I needed was there. She came and met me in Vegas and helped me shop for supplies before driving into Death Valley. She made sure all the forms were in order and did so much before the race had even started. Then when it did start she was amazing, tending to my blisters, making sure I ate and drank. Finding new ways to keep the sun off me while I was lying down. Laurie wants to run this race next year. She'll be fine.
I waited for my crew to line up as I prepared one last burst of speed to get to the end. It was an honour and a privelege to cross the line with these guys.
I have watched lots and lots of videos of people finishing Badwater and thought I'd know exactly what the finish would look like but I had not seen it from this side before, from the side of someone running through it. I ran through it, 39 hours and 24 minutes after I started.
During the race I looked forwad to the moment where I could lie down and not have to get back up again. It was hard getting up each time that I did to carry on. I decided long ago that I was going to wait at the finish for Tim and Mark to complete it. My crew were worried about leaving me here but I insisted they go back to the hotel as I was sleeping under the stars tonight and wait for the others to get in. Laurie made sure that one of the organisers knew I was there and he gave me a load of blankets and I lay down on the mat glad in the knowledge that when I got up again I'd only have to clap.
James Elson was next in. 1.55 after me but having started 2 hours after than meant he did it 5 minutes quicker. We had a quick chat that resembled 2 very drunk people trying to figure out where they are going to meet tomorrow. He said "See you at the UTMB". Not long later I saw Caroline who was part of Tim's crew, he was only an hour away. I took a nap before hearing the noise of his arrival, he ran comfortably under the buckle time. Tim hung around a bit before he was escorted back down to the car park to be driven back down to Lone Pine where everyone stays. It was gone 2am, I figured it would be sunrise before Mark got in so I braced myself for a few more hours sleeping on the rocks. But as Tim left Mark arrived, I was astonished. Somehow he picked himself up from near catastrophe to record a very decent time and well under the buckle time. From what I heard it was touch and go as to whether he was going to finish, he must have smashed the second half.
I got a lift back down with Mark and his crew and slept on his floor. It must have been 4 when we went to bed and by 7 I was wide awake again. I struggled to sleep and even eat for the next week, in fact I still am stuggling now I write this 7 days after I finished. I keep waking up thinking that I am still running that long straight road into Lone Pine. Last night I thought I was swimming it.
Well, there it is. 4 years of running obsession cumulating in a buckle. I really didn't see much past the finish line in terms of what I wanted to do next like I have been able to for every other race. It's funny how my life has changed so much in the past 4 years and all because of my decision to run this, all because of a random email I got at work one day.
When I first thought of this I didn't know of anyone who did this kind of thing. I didn't know of any events. I knew that most big cities had road marathons and other shorter road races, I had no idea about this world that I have become so deeply involved with.
In those 4 years I have met so many people who just love running as I do, just doing it for the hell of it and not caring what a guy with a stop watch says. I've become part of a growing scene in the UK who seek these kind of adventures every week. I love that. I love turning up to events and being able to chat to friends rather than being caged in a pen with other annonymous bib-numbers. I've loved writing this blog which documents everything I have gone through.
4 years ago I thought that getting the buckle at Badwater would be it, proof that I can handle the toughest race in the world. That was never going to be the case though. Watching Jack Denness finish his 12th Badwater aged 75 and then head straight to the pub, hearing about a buy who having finished the race was running back to badwater, hearing all the stories from all the characters I have met along the way here of how there is so much more out there. I'm still only 30 and I've just finished Badwater, and that's just the beginning.