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.
"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.When is the heat going to kick in?
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. Dave, Laurie, Me, Debbra, Debra
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.
Tim Welch. Before the race we all had our IQ's measure. Can't remember which scale they used.
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.
That was uphill, the camera made me run.
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.
taking some refuge from the sun
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.
Ascending Townes Pass in the tumble dryer
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 could not find a picture of a road through space. But this is nice.
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.
Leacnig Owens checkpoint at 90 miles.
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 swear some of those rocks were laughing at me.
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.
Doesn't need a caption
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.
Update on 2010-07-24 20:35 by James Adams
I try and write these race reports as soon as I can, while it's fresh and I have yet to forget everything. Also I've found it sort of brings a "closure" the the race. It certainly worked with the Spartathlon. I hated that thing until I started to get everything down on here and after I finished the report I loved the race and was talking about going back. Now that was not an issue here as I was still buzzing from finishing the race of my life. I did find that writing the report helped put it to bed, literally. I slept so badly in the days after the race.
Inevitably I miss a lot of stuff in my haste and thought that this race deserves a follow up with a lot of the things I forgot. Here are some of the things that I remembered that I forgot.
I remember vividly the shock I got when I saw my reflection for the first time in 2 days in Lone Pine. It was after 122 miles and I was using the toilets. When washing my hands I looked up and saw my face, dilated pupils, sunburn and general exhaustion stretched across my face. I knew it was me but I didn't think I was me. I had to take myself out of my own body for so long I looked into the mirror and thought "that's James Adams". I'd been thinking about myself in the third person for so long, "come on James, you can get this done" etc. It was hard to look into the mirror and say "that's you that is".
The long long road into Lone Pine is infamous for it's endlessness. I saw Lone Pine but could not see it getting closer. I could see the mountains behind them and thought they were going to collapse on me. I displayed they symptoms of someone staggering to their death in the heat of the desert. Luckily only for a few minutes. Here are some words from Nikki Seger about that road. I guess you have to be there.
So they say.
You see the lights for thousands of miles -- or at least thousands of hours -- or at least thousands of footsteps.
The desert ends. So they say.
You run over a couple of 5000 foot hills and back to sea level. Then the elevation chart says you run on a plain. It is a plain that leads to a lake that was long ago drained by the insatiable appetite of America. Or us, even. Those of us who want fruits and vegetables all year. So we say -- even when it tastes like cardboard.
This is the approach to Lone Pine during the Badwater Ultramarathon. It goes on and on and on. The approach, that is.
The town, Lone Pine, goes by in a flash. You have run for a long time. A frickin' 100 miler and more. It is way time to quit. And here there are real hotels -- all three of them (one which has trundle beds that will snap and cut off your little pinkie -- so they say). And there are real restaurants! The MacDonald closes at 10 p.m. unless your savvy crew convinces the kids to make one more burger with extra cheese and extra ketchup.
The town is heaven -- but a mirage. You can see it for miles and miles.
Perhaps approaching the drained lake you might be buzzed by kid pilots, training to buzz other desert peoples. Perhaps approaching the mud basin, you might get a glimpse of the magnificent Sierras looming over the eastern flats. Perhaps approaching the "city" lights you might fantasize that the race is soon done. Veterans will tell you that 100 plus miles out of 135 is really only like being about "half way through."
So they say. And so you come to believe the experienced ones as the lake valley goes on and on and on.
And suddenly you turn right. It is the first turn for something like 100 miles! And you run on and on and on. In a flash, you see "race headquarters" -- zombies, all -- and you make another turn. Left this time. And you only have the hill to go.
So they say.
The first question I got asked when I finished this race (that I remember) was "Was that harder than the Spartathlon?"
The maximum temperature recorded over the race was 121F. The highest ever recorded in the race was 128. I'd say that this year was "typical" in terms of temperature. I heard second hand from Marshall Ulrich that the wind on the Townes Pass ascent was the worst it has ever been.
I didn't have too many emotional moments during the race but I did well up when Jack entered the sports hall where the closing ceremony was. I had finished the race 20 hours before and at least got some sleep. Word had got round an hour before that Jack had finished and there was a buzz of excitement amongst all the pizza eating. All of a sudden we were all hushed and everyone looked towards the door. Jack stepped in and then stepped out, as if embarrassed by the attention he was getting. He was pushed back into the room and everyone stood up and clapped for what was the longest and loudest standing ovation I have ever been part of. Well deserved. He managed to impress me even further by heading straight to the pub afterwards and drank way into the night.
Every crew is so supportive of every runner. Aside from my lapse on the last mile I saw dozens of crews who always appeared to be at the side of the road and willing to spray me. Quite unlike vegas where some tramp would just throw water on your car and try an extort money from you. Crewing is incredibly difficult. It is a fact that the medical team deals with more crew members than runners, often they forget that just staying for 2 days in Death Valley is incredibly hard. When we drove back through Stovepipe Wells a few days later we got out of the car to go to the shop. It was around 11 and just standing up in that heat was unbearable. I had to stand in the shade. I could not believe I spent so long in this heat a few days before.
I forgot to thank Ian Sharman and Claire Shelley for keeping everyone back home updated with my progress. Phone and email reception were intermittent throughout the race and my phone had stopped working anyway so I didn't receive any messages. When I returned my facebook wall was plastered with tracking updates and messages. It was really nice reading them back. Thanks for all the Fetch Forum posts and emails too.
I recieved a lot of good advice going into this race. I think I should thank Mark Wooley again for making me use electrolyes. I also need to thank Mark Cockbain for advising me against wearing white trousers. "You'll look like you've shat yourself".
For the past 4 years I've been happy to bang on about this race to anyone who would listen. Back then is was some dream far in the future that I would glorify the race and superlate every word when describing it. It's the hardest, longest, hilliest, hottestest etc etc race in the whole universe. I'd like to have a go at that some day.
Now it is almost here and my appetite for bigging it up has waned. Similar to my run up to the GUCR 2 years ago I went into a mood of not wanting to talk about anything in superlatives anymore. Now its a case of dealing with the cold hard facts of how I am going to get from the start line to the finish in the conditions that the race presents. This will be unlike anything I have ever done before and hence will be my greatest challenge so far. So before I stop wanting to talk about it I thought I'd just explain what exactly is involved in the Badwater Ultramarathon.
Ascent into Lone Pine
The Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135 mile road race from the Badwater Basin to the trail head at Mt Whitney. The Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the western hempisphere (280ft below sea level) and because of that it is usually the hottest place on Earth. The record temperature recorded there was 56.7C (134F) and this has only been beaten by a recorded temperature of 57.8C in Libya. Death Valley is predictably hot, in July it is usually over 50C.
The race also takes in 3 mountain passes, one after 40 miles of about 5000ft, the second after around 70 miles and around 400ft and then the final one up to the end from about 125 miles rising another 5000ft towards the end. At the finish you are 9000ft higher than you start. Overall there is about 4000m of ascent.
Sounds simple? Not much complication there. I wish it were, I hate worrying about non-running things but in this race you really have to. There is a lot more to it.
To qualify you need to have run at least 2 100 milers. You also need to submit an application as to why you want to do this race. Each year 40 "rookies" and 40 "veterans" are selected to run. I qualify as a rookie since I have not run this before. I'm not sure how exactly it is decided who gets in and who doesn't but I'm not complaining too much right now.
You also need a support crew of at least 2 people and 1 car, since the race in unsupported. There are small outposts around 30 miles apart on route that consist of a small motel and a gas station. Other than that it is just tarmac though the Mojave desert. Then there are some other complications.
The starts are in waves at 6/8/10. I start at 8. This is designed so that you run in the hottest part of the valley at the hottest time of day in the hottest day of the year. The first 17 miles competitors are advised to drink constantly. I'll be instructing my crew to drive a mile at a time and be ready with a fresh bottle of water (I will be drinking 500ml every mile). They will also have to spray me with water from a garden spray to keep me cool and supply me with ice bandanas to keep my neck frozen.
I will be dressed from head to toe in white. I have several long sleeve shirts that will cover my skin, long shorts and long socks. I will wear a hat with a neck flap and a bandana full of ice. I will not use suncream as I will be covering up all of my skin.
After 17 miles the route comes up above sea level but not by much and the furnace like conditions will continue. Again I will be drinking constantly. The road surface temperature will get up to 80C, a temperature which you can toast bread and fry eggs. I might fry an egg on the bonnet of the car, just for a photo. It has been said by many runners beforehand that your shoes can melt on the surface of this road and that only running on the white line will prevent this. Not sure how true this is but I'll test it out.
just after 40 miles the first climb starts. the hills will be welcome as that means you can climb out of the oven. I expect my work rate to increase but the temperature to decrease such that overall I'll still feel like I'm being sick. I've been told that once you get through the first 60 miles you are pretty much home and dry. I can easily imagine dry but with 75 miles to go I'd hardly consider it in the bag. I will then enjoy a 10 mile stretch of downhill and a breeze. But this is no ordinary breeze, I'm told that it is more like having a hair dryer blown in your face.
It will be dark by the time I start the 2nd ascent at around 70 miles. The night time temperature is still in the late 20's C, like a hot summers day in the UK. By now I'd have probably changed my kit completely. My crew might have swapped over (I have 2 teams of 2) so to give each other rest and for the "resting" pair to make errands to get more ice/water or whatever I need. If I am in a bad state I'll probably ask for things that I know they can't get. Just to be a pain.
It will probably be day light by the time I reach the top of the second pass and have another day of blazing hot sunshine to burn me. The sun has all sorts of effects on me and while a lot of my focus is on making sure it doesn't kill me I know that prolonged exposure to it will make me sleepy. The cut-off times in Badwater are very generous (60 hours in total) such that if I needed I could just have a proper nights/days sleep and get up and carry on. I hope it does not come to that.
The top of the second pass is at around 90 miles and I hope to be here not much more than 24 hours. from the start. Then for the next 30 miles I can try and do some proper running.
This is the first opportunity to put your foot down. Doing so in the first 40 is lethal as the sun will have it's way with you. The first 2 passes will be hard too but now after 90 miles and more than 24 hours I hope to get a shot at running 30 miles relatively quickly. I will ache from the efforts before and am likely to be exhausted from the heat, hungry but sick and sleepy but now is the time to get it done. The route is flat/downhill and it will be a little cooler. And it's close enough to the end to push it.
Hopefully not too long later I will enter Lone Pine at 120 miles. All that remains then is a 15 mile slog up a hill to the Whitney Portal. The steepest incline of the whole race is left for the end. Most people walk this whole section and I doubt I will do anything different.
Not much else to say really. The finish rate is fairly high, over 80% usually. This is probably because you have to qualify for this and you'd probably only even start this race if you were willing to give it everything to finish. It's a big commitement to train and complete this race. I don't think many people quit likely (or conciously).
Inevitably I'll get asked to say whether this is the hardest race that I've done. People love their lists and putting the stuff they have done at the top of them. It does not really matter so much to me nowadays as I know I am going to get a completely different experience here than I will do in the UTMB and did so in the Spartathlon. This list by some magazine puts Badwater in 2nd place behind the Spartathlon, however any credibility it has vanishes when you see that a desert charity fun walk is at number 9.
There were some words that resonated with me in this guide to how to do the race. This "how to" guide to the Badwater race is incredible, full of advice and tips on how to deal with the dangers of the race. There is a great comment right on the first page.
"I understood why this is considered the toughest endurance event on the planet, and, at the same time, why it didn't need to be any longer or tougher. It's hard to put it into words [...] but if they added more miles to the event (or something else to increase the difficulty), the same people will finish".
There becomes a point where it does not matter anymore how many miles or left, how high the mountains are, how much hotter it gets etc, you just do it. Getting to that point in the first place where you think you are spent is rare. Not many races will give me this and I am sure I will reach this point somewhere on that road. I doubt it will be in the last 30 miles. It may even be in the first 15 miles. I have no idea, all I know is that I need to get over it when I hit it. After that it doesn't matter whether there is 10 miles left or 200. This could be made into a 150 mile race in have a proper mountain climb at the end, or it could be doubled as some people have done. It really does not matter, you'll find the same 70 people or so crossing the finish line. I hope in a little over a week I can count myself as one of those "same" people.
A couple of days ago I watched the England football team lamely exit the world cup by getting thrashed by a far superior German team. As is the style in England there will be cries that it is really not their fault. The ball was too round, the altitude was sickening, we had a goal disallowed etc. It has been 4 years since England last played in a World Cup and felt the disappointment of being knocked out by Portugal on penalties. Whatever the reason for their exit this time it will be 4 years till they can try and put it right. 4 years is a long time.
4 years ago I was unsure of what I really wanted to do in running. I was training for an autumn marathon, doing the odd half, 10k, relay race and event a triathlon. I did not really know where I wanted to "go" with running. I knew there was something not right about chasing faster times and though I thoroughly enjoyed my first spandex experience I realised that triathlons were not my thing. Then one day that summer when it was a blistering 27 degrees or something I was sent a link by a friend about some ridiculous race in Death Valley. 135 miles in the hottest place on earth in the summer. It sounded so ridiculous as for me to want to do it. But not now, or even soon. I gave myself 5 years.
Things have moved slightly quicker than that and now 4 years later I find myself staring down that valley. I am not there yet but I am now fully aware of what I have to do although I don't know how.
In 8 days I fly to the USA, in 10 days I head for the valley and in 13 days I line up at the start line of a race that has obsessed me since before I started running ultras. I have enjoyed my last 4 years more than can be put into words (though I try with this blog). My canals runs, Alpine treks, Canadian forests, Saharan wilderness, English mud and the historic paths to Sparta have given me so much I can look back on as magical. However they have all been leading up until this point. If I had never had hear of Badwater I could still be out there running road marathons, or worse still triathlons.
It's funny how your feelings towards a race change the closer you get. For 3 and a half years I looked at this and though it sounded stupid. Then as it draws closer, you get more prepared and more confident in your ability it seems quite realistic. And now that it is up upon me and all the training has been done it's gone back to being stupid again. There is nothing I can do about it now. It's already happening.
This weekend I had a great time training in Spain with a couple of other Badwater Brits Mark Woolley and Tim Welch. We ran through the Sierra Nevada mountains on road and on trail, slept out under the stars and covered about 140k in 3 days of running. I was so pleased that my knee held up fine. I realised that I really need to use salt, something I never do. I learned a few things and now am feeling better about the journey ahead. I still have a lot to sort out in terms of crew, logistics, food etc but now there is nothing to do but stretch, yoga and build a shopping list for the Walmart in Vegas.
This leaves me with plenty of thinking time ahead of the race. Plenty of time to think about what I might want to think about during the race, how I might deal with situations as they come. I am nervous but very excited about completing what I set out to do 4 years ago. I can't even contemplate not finishing for that would mean effective disqualification from the next few Badwater races. With so many now applying and so few spaces it would be hard to justify giving a space to a previous quitter rather than a promising looking rookie. For me this is a finish or die race. I don't want to have to wait 4 years to correct my mistake and make up for a poor performance. As I said, 4 years is a long time.
This was my first ever trip to the physio and apparently it was long overdue. I was fooling myself into thinking that he may just be able to click something into place and I could just run out of there, I didn't really know what to expect as I was sitting in the reception ticking boxes to say that I don't take steroids or have hepatitis C.
I went to see an Aussie guy called Greg who was immediately concerned about the distances I run. I insisted that it was good for me and I mocked him for believing the story about the ancient guy running the marathon then dying at the end. Surely everyone knows this is untrue?
There were a few questions about when I feel the pain and what I generally do and then it was straight into mocking me for my abysmal flexibility. I was asked to do a series of stretches that I was woeful at and he was trying to contain laughter. It was an important wake up call to something that I knew all along, I am not looking after my body enough to run the distances I want to run.
I went in there with a complaint about my knee and was pretty much told it's not your knee its your whole body. When trying to move my legs around as per his instructions I was told that my arse does not work and my hamstrings don't really help out much either. I do most of my running powering my legs with my lower back and this is causing lots of tightness in my quads and ITBs and that has finally manifested itself in a sore knee.
I was relieved that there was nothing wrong with the knee as such and that he seemed to think I could get up to 100 mile weeks within a month but did suggest I took 2 weeks off running and did a silly amount of stretching. I even got a nice picture of all the exercises to do.
Leaving the place a little dejected and worrying about how fast that Badwater is approaching (8 weeks) I discussed with a few more people what I should do. I was told that stopping running might actually be counter-productive and so long as I did all that stretching I should still be able to run. I liked this though I did think it was just selecting the evidence I liked the sound of, does it make me any different from those loons who spot patterns and think that it proves that Jesus exists?
Well anyway, I have decided to carry on the running and work on the stretches that I hope will make my body last longer. It is going to be risky as I step up the mileage but I have no time left to waste. At least I have 2 things going for me according to the Physio, the race is mostly uphill and it is very hot, which means I won't suffer the impact as much and that my muscles will be warm. Phew. Just don't mention the UTMB.
From overhydrated to dehydrated to anuric (no urine production) with a couple shades indicating hematuria (blood in urine) and rhabdomyolysis (myglobin from muscle breakdown in urine). Not to be confused with water, Gatorade, apple juice, Hawaian Punch or Coca Cola.
I have just finished reading "Extreme Running". Actually there are not too many words in there but a lot of pretty pictures of amazing planet earth. Barren deserts with martian surfaces. Miles and miles of Arctic wilderness and beautiful jagged mountains. Jungles with wildlife and the worlds deepest caves make for some really spectacular photos except they are spoiled a bit by the presence of a sweaty human covered in gear and running number and an expression that suggests he is not enjoying the scenery as much as I am while sat on my sofa.
The book covers 24 of the worlds extreme races that are difficult in a variety of ways. There are a few marathons in there such as the Pikes Peak Marathon which is the venue of this years world mountain long distance championships this year, a simple sounding "up and down" marathon that involves running up to a sickly altitude. The Inca Trail and Everest Marathons also get a mention, the latter involving a 7 day trek to the starting line. The Lake Baikal Marathon also looked appealing, 26 miles across a frozen Russian lake where 20% of the earth's fresh water resides.
There were a few that were already on my list and consolidated their place such as the Trans 333 - a non-stop 333km run through a different desert each year with only checkpoints at every 20k and navigation involved. Also the infamous Jungle Marathon gets a large spread, the only race I know of that actually sounds dangerous beyond the competitors control with the scorpions, jaguars and piranhas. The Atacama Crossing is now a must do for me, the scenery looks like it does not belong on this planet and the high altitude and dryness make it sound like a really challenging multi-day event. I think I will do many more multi-days in 2011.
A few more I had not heard of have been added to my must dos. The Verdon Canyon Challenge sounds like an amazing run with enormous elevation along ridges and caves in southern France. When I become very rich (or someone is willing to pay me to do races) I will also run the Antarctic Ice Marathon and 100k (yes both on the same trip).
I have only done 2 of the races so far, the MDS and the Spartathlon, which gets a brief mention and says little more than it being a very difficult race that not a lot of starters finish.
It includes a wide variety of races of different extremities and different levels of difficulty. Any ultra-runner would have come up with a different 24 based on the same brief. The only US 100 miler that gets in is the Wasatch 100 miler, the last race in the "Grand Slam" that includes the Western States 100, Vermont and Leadville - the "race across the sky". Any of these and the Hardrock 100 would have merited inclusion too.
Perhaps the most lavish spread for a race is for the one I have to do in 4 months time. A huge deal is made of the conditions and others experience of the Badwater race. I read the words over and over as it breaks this race into the 4 parts, the 40 mile flat cauldron, the first pass, the second pass and long descent and then the final push to the Whitney portal. Very useful and something for me to think about as I prepare for this race as well as this paragraph which I can't get out of my head.
"The truth is that the human body is not designed to run in 55C temperatures. By the time the atmosphere reaches 35C the body will lose it's capacity to release heat into the air. Activity accelerates this process. The maximum core temperature measured in a conscious long distance runner has been 41C. At 42.7 body temperature the runner will collapse. At this stage, the body has begun to pump blood out of the body's outermost layers in an effort to radiate heat. In the meantime, the internal organs are thus deprived of their blood supply, and the thermoregulatory system starts to shut down. The first physical sign of this process is when, despite the searing heat and apparent full hydration, the body simply ceases to sweat. From that stage, if the body goes untreated, serious inflammation and cell damage may ensure and affect the central nervous system. At that point, death can be sudden.
Perhaps I should have just looked at the pictures.
I stayed up till about 2am last night waiting for an email. I was like some loved up teenager waiting for a call. I guess with this kind of thing I am still a teenager, I don't really have the experience. In the few hours of sleep I got last night I had a strange dream that I got to the start late because my flight was delayed. I did not miss the start but I arrived 2 hours early having already been awake for more than 24 hours. Not the best preparation for a race like this though I suspect that I won't sleep that much in the days leading up to it.
Around 7am I woke up and picked up my phone. An email from "Badwater Race Office" that started with the word "Congratulations!" made me feel a bit sick. I thought about catching up on the sleep that I had missed (I took a day off work today) but I clearly was not going to get back to sleep. Plus there was some urgency to the email. I have a week to sign and send forms, pay for the race and book hotels. I don't really like having to move quickly, which is why I enter these races.
There was a competitive element to getting into this race in the first place. I like to avoid competing against others but in this case I had to just to get to the start line. I only had my past ultra running experiences to put on the form and I had no idea whether this was enough. I read into the reasons why runners get turned away and worried. Not that there was anything I could have done about it. Part of the battle of the big and hard ultras nowadays is getting onto the start line.
In preparing your application, keep in mind the standard reasons that generally lead to some applicants not being invited:
The applicant only just met the minimum standards.
The applicant’s credentials are only recent, i.e., not a seasoned ultra endurance athlete with a breadth of experience.
The applicant’s credentials are only old, i.e. all or most of the credentials are from too long ago and may not reflect current ability.
The applicant has no experience in extreme heat or on the Badwater course as a pacer.
The applicant didn't "prove" his or her claims (i.e., they said they paced at Badwater, but no letter of recommendation was received, or they claimed they finished or won any number of major races, but didn't provide any proof of that).
The applicant submitted a “thin” application - not only few qualifications were listed, but not much time was put into the preparation of the application itself. (Sometimes the applicant assumed "we've already heard of him/her" and therefore didn't provide the necessary details. Applicants should never assume we’ve heard of them or have heard of the events they mention in their application.)
There are always A LOT of applicants, all "qualified," and thus some applicants must inevitably be turned away.
I worried about my experience only being recent, and the lack of heat experience.
I discovered that Mark Wooley had made it in too, as did a couple of other Brits I have made email contact with.
My sick feeling has given way to a nervous excitement. I have a LOT of work to do, planning a crew, flights and hotels. And of course the training. I can't do that today as my toe is still (probably not) broken. I also have to sign a form that says this;
I will be sufficiently trained, prepared, and medically fit to compete in the event. I understand that the extreme conditions in this race, including but not limited to temperatures in excess of 130F, wind, dust, high altitude, and radiant surface temperatures in excess of 180F, make the risk of dehydration, altitude sickness, significant skin damage, blistering, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, traffic accident, renal shutdown, brain damage, and death are possible.
I'll be ready.
This was what I put in the application form.
Why do you want to run the Badwater Ultramarathon?
It was hearing about this race 4 years ago that got me into ultra running. I have been thinking about this race since I first got sent a link to it what seems like an age ago. I was still a young runner who was concerned with plotting my next attempt to run 26.2 miles on a flat road in a temperate climate faster than I had done previously. I did this successfully a few times and the satisfaction was small and short lived. Getting marathon PB's and not really caring about them made me wonder whether I was in the right sport. The variety and challenges of ultra-running answered that question unequivocally. Ultra-running has liberated me from judging my running on what a man at the end with a stop-watch might say. I no longer let that guy decide whether I've had a good run or not, I do it myself. Ultra-running has put the fun back into the thing that I love and has given me personal experiences that I would not trade for the world. And like I said, it was this race that inspired the start of that journey.
The last three years have been an amazing journey, from my first ultra (45 miles in 2007) through to the Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles in 2008) and more recently the Spartathlon last year. What I love most about these races (though it usually is some time after when I fully appreciate it) is the way they try to break you down and stop you finishing. Whether it is the mountains and hills, the sun or the rain or just the sheer distance of it there is always something there that is trying to stop you getting to the finish. The greatest of victories is when you are smashed to pieces and on the floor in a race and it seems all but over. Then you hold onto yourself just enough to carry on moving. When you do things seem a little easier and you remember more why you are there in the first place. These are the experiences I want to take to the grave with me.
I have written about my running in my blog for the past 3 years. I write more to preserve the memories than for anyone else but hope that you get a chance to read it.
So back to the original question in why I want to run Badwater. Aside from my 4 year obsession mentioned above I feel that this is the only "step up" for me. Having finished the Spartathlon last year I don't believe there are many more races out there that are harder to finish and hence will give me those physical and emotional breakdowns which I crave.
I am now confident that I will finish this race but am fully aware of the fact that it will take more that I have had to give before. Races like the GUCR and Spartathlon have taught me that I can rely on things that I don't even know I have at the start line. I love starting a race feeling "ready" but not entirely sure how I'm going to get through it.
People keep asking me "how will you train for something like that". Fact is I don't know. I know I can run for 40+ hours, I know I can run well over 100 miles in one go, into night and day and night and through pain. However I'm not entirely sure, after 35 miles of Death Valley when my body and brain are fried from the heat and I am struggling to remember who I am and why I am stood at the side of a molten road with 100 miles to go, how I will deal with that. But I know I'll think of something.
I am having a period of procrastination before applying for the race I've been thinking about for 5 years. I heard about this before I ran my first ultra and aspired to run it in 5 years. Now it is within reach, the application form is on my screen right now. It's kind of like being young when you really fancied a girl for ages but you didn't do anything about it in case she said no and you look like a twat. Then, in a moment of haste and (possible alco-pop inspired) bravery you pluck up the courage to do the deed and then you panic momentarily as you consider "what if she says yes?"
The Badwater application forms came out on the 1st Feb. I have printed it off and looked through the questions. Most of my answers are "no - not done anything like that". There is a question asking me for my shoe size, not sure why. Perhaps they are obliged to fully represent people of all shoe sizes? Sillier things have happened.
Having known my chances in the other 2 lotteries I have entered recently, Western States was about a 20% chance and UTMB about 75% I really have no idea what my chances are here. The application process is more like a job interview with CV's and an assessment committee. I know that there are 40 places for "rookies" - those that have not run Badwater before and a further 40 for "veterans". It is never revealed how many apply for each of the positions and there is no lottery, each application is judged on it's individual merits. I have no idea what my chances are;
The form makes for intimidating reading. Once I confirm my name, nationality, shoes size, shirt size and confirm that I can speak English it gets straight into the detail.
How many continuous races of 50-99 miles have you run?3
How many continuous races of 100+ miles have you run?3
How many times have you completed the Badwater ultra?0
How many times have you crewed at Badwater?0
It then asks for a predicted race time and then evidence to support this prediction. It is really like an appraisal or a job interview.
It then suggests "other stuff" you may have done which does not count towards qualification but that you may want to add to support your application. This is like getting marks for showing your working out in an exam, even if you don't have the right answer you can get some sympathy points. Some suggestions for what counts as scribbles are "multiple" multi-days in one year (so one MDS is not enough), 500 mile cycle races, double, triple Ironman or further, the grand slam (6 really tough 100 mile races in the US within 3 months of each other).
Reading the whole form leaves me feeling a bit inadequate. I have the minimum qualifying races (2 100 milers) but then so do many more people who I know will be applying for this race. I know I'll be up against people who have been running ultras since before I was doing cross country at school. My 3 races may well get my application on the table, but how far it goes depends on others.
"Why do you want to run Badwater"? is a question I'm going to have to give a lot of thought to, since it may be my only chance of competing against the other entries. It seems strange that I should feel competitive about getting into a race. If they let me get to the start line then all thought of competition will depart and I can do what I love doing again, running my own race.