Badwater Race Report , July 2010 from Debbra of my support crew

I could not have done this without such a kind and supportive band of strangers that I found online. Laurie, Debbra, Debra and Dave were amazing. So long as there are people like that out there then ultra-running will always be an amazing scene to be in.

Badwater Race Report , July 2010 from Debbra of my support crew

(Yes, we’re now doing Race Reports on races we did not run; next, it’ll be Reports on races we watched on TV.)

Like many marathoners, we knew there were deeply strange people on the fringe of our little community: people who run farther. It seems innocent enough: a 50K somewhere or even a 50 miler. A few people we know have tried 12 or 24 hour runs or even 100 milers, but it’s something we don’t talk about willingly; something akin to “I tried it once in college, but I was really drunk and I don’t remember a thing.”

The Badwater Race is similar to admitting “I tried it once in college…” if you add “…and I kept at it for up to 60 hours.  In 120 degree heat.  And did three killer climbs. And didn’t sleep for two nights. And got to experience the thrill of feeling every single muscle in my body suffer in a way that I probably won’t know again until I spend eternity in hell. And paid an $800 entrance fee.”

For those unaware of this masterpiece of masochism, the BW starts at 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley on July 12th. The victims traverse an endless stretch across the valley floor, before the blessed relief of a 5,000 foot climb. Temperatures have been known to plummet during the climb to as low as a hundred. After this, they descend about 2,000 feet as they cross a second valley, then up again to another 5,000 peak, then down to 3,500 feet before the final grueling traverse and the climb to 8,400 feet up Mt. Whitney.

We, of course, did none of this. We merely got suckered into crewing for a 30-year-old British runner named James Adams whom Laurie Woodrow had met on the Internet. (We knew Laurie was on the Internet a lot, but we figured it was just for the porn.)  James had excellent credentials to qualify for the race and a winsome, aw-shucks manner. We thought: He’s young and strong and mentally tough… how long can this take?

It turns out that time is relative: For example, contemplating the challenges of the race from home or while shopping for jerky treats and Gatorade is a brief and pleasant activity; watching “our” runner puke along the side of the road in broiling heat and being unable to do much about it, is slightly less pleasant and seems to stretch time out somewhat. Hearing our runner say that he thinks he may have lost consciousness while running is substantially less pleasant, especially when our ability to provide him with a cool, shady place to recover is almost nil.

Fortunately, James is one of those British “I’m alright, Jack” types who soldiers on, conscious, or not. And we, in our minivan, soldiered on as well, although, by comparison, we were “soldiering” along Rodeo Boulevard with frappuccinos in our hands and toy poodles on our laps. Our hearty band consisted of MSgt Laurie W, the abusive, whip-cracking Crew Chief, Deb JR, Dave JR and Debra H, a runner from Monterey who could not get over how “beautiful” the desert was.  Deb H grew up in northern New Mexico, so rocks and sand looked pretty good to her.

While James was pounding along the blazing asphalt, we traveled in a Chrysler minivan filled to the brim with rancid clothing, coolers full of ice, water and ice-water, implements we could never locate when we wanted them, snacks, more water and ice, more coolers and, let’s see, more water. Oh, and more ice. The constant question was: Will the ice last? It did, thanks to the addition of many, many bags at any location where ice could be bought.  We also started out with 18 gallons of water in jugs, plus Gatorade, Cokes, Red Bull, and various protein drinks. If this seems excessive, consider that, while James drank about a pint a mile, his crew was drinking constantly as well.

James was even-tempered and had few demands. The closest he got to upset was an on-going disappointment that the end was not coming as soon as he’d hoped. Not uncommon here what with the runners doing the equivalent of five consecutive marathons plus tough hill climbs. He took a couple of 20 minute breaks by the side of the road and sat for a moment a few dozen times. The low point for him – aside from being unconscious – was when we would dunk his shirt in ice water and have him put it back on. The expression on his face then was not one of cool comfort, but of intense pain.

His feet held up pretty well although he commented a time or two that he’d just have to accept blistering.  Laurie did her Clara Barton bit, but his feet did get steadily larger. Thinking about injuries leads one to ponder the question of whether it’s better to have a crew made up of chums or family or one made up of strangers. I think James was lucky to have strangers: although we didn’t know him well enough to  always ask the right questions, he was also able to keep us at a bit of a distance in a way that a runner couldn’t if the crew was made up of friends – and especially running friends. One runner had his 15 year-old daughter on his crew. When he got sick, the girl was, of course, deeply concerned about her dad, not about how to help him get back on the road quickly. Note: This runner lost six hours due to inability to absorb water, but got back on the road and finished well under the 48-hour time limit to “buckle” i.e., win a belt buckle emblematic of finishing in under 48.

A crew made up of running buddies might have more skills and would certainly be more likely to goad a struggling runner back onto the tarmac, but there is something to be said for having privacy. The worst, I would think, would be to have a family crew. This would seem like the group most likely to suggest quitting. (“Honey, we’re all melting out here and Tiffy’s missing soccer for this and your sister’s coming to visit next week – with her brats – so let’s be reasonable: you tried very, very hard and we’re all very proud of you, but it’s time to go home. It was a cute idea, but be serious.”)

The race rhythm is to meet the runner at one mile intervals. Since a car goes much faster – even a Chrysler – the crew can get “set up” with the right drink, snack, ice-filled bandana, etc.  At first, we would leap out of the van and get the things ready quickly…then wait another five to seven minutes for James to run up to us. Later on, we realized that we had more time. Since the heat was slightly less brutal in shade, we’d sit inside for a few minutes before doing our chores.  A certain casualness creeps in, especially as crew get weary. More than once we had to bolt out of the van late as James neared.  We worked in two rotating teams taking five to ten mile turns, the “on” team working out of the van while the “off” team hung out in Debra H’s Honda CRV.  We stuck with this approach despite the basic flaw that there was nowhere for the “off” team to go to rest. Towns are non-existent; there is no shade, and the nearest store might be twenty miles away. Since James ran all night, the crews kept ahead of him all night and no one slept more than a few minutes at a time.

There was one exception: Laurie and Deb H crewed the first seven miles up Mt. Whitney while we took showers and had a nap in Lone Pine 13 miles from the finish. The plan was for us to take over crewing for the last few miles. Laurie and Deb H would go on ahead to the finish. We’d all do the last few yards with James as he finished. Good plan. We showered, set our alarm for a one hour nap and fell into dueling comas and slept right through the alarm. Fortunately we got a “wake up” call from Laurie. Better still, Laurie and Deb H were too tired to be upset; after all, James was about to finish!

He crossed the tape in 39 hours and change, well before midnight on the second day. As we had hoped, he was strong and tough-minded to the end, even cranking out 20 minute miles on the way up Mt. Whitney (a leisurely pace in Santa Monica, but try it up a killer slope on no sleep and after 130+ miles).

We hugged and shook hands all around, took photos and said the usual things. James settled down to nap at the finish line and wait for chums who’d come in later. Deb H hopped in her CRV and started the drive back to Monterey. On no sleep! She eventually had to stop for a nap, but made it home okay. We drove back to Lone Pine and pleasant dreams – and slept through the alarm again.  Fortunately, Laurie was there on the floor – as she is at many sporting events – and woke us up.

The funniest – actually the only funny – episode occurred a mile or so from the finish. James, pounding out his last miles on raw determination, saw what he thought was our van and asked the crew to pull out a cooler for him to sit on. “Water,” he said. The crew did as he asked and he was off again in a moment, but only after realizing that this was not his crew: It was the crew for the runner ahead of him. The crew took care of the runner even though he wasn’t “their” runner. And had a laugh about it – as did James – later. That’s the Badwater way and emblematic of most of the people involved: humble, soft-spoken, and full of good cheer. A brotherhood of suffering whose members understood that Badwater could “get” any runner at any time and it was only with a measure of good luck that even the best-trained of the batch made it to the finish.

There is no way one can crew at Badwater and claim to have gained a true perspective. Sure, you can see the competitors beaten down by the challenge, but struggling on nonetheless, but crewing is a million miles from participating. No one can understand the depth of fatigue, bone, and muscle pain that the athletes endure without actually going through it. No one should even think about doing this event without knowing how far deep down inside themselves they can reach for stores of strength and perseverance and courage. Trust us, it ain’t about having enough water.