Saturday, 24 July 2010

Badwater: Part Two

Furnace Creek was the first time station on the course and marked the 17 mile point. I ran into the Resort and straight through into the bar where I promptly had my first 'sit down' of the day. I didn't rush, there was no point after all with 118 miles left, so I took my time and jogged out back past the officials and onto the course rejoining about 5 minutes later. From this point on runners are allowed their second crew vehicle if they need it, to ferry supplies/ people too and from the main vehicle but more importantly for me, they allow pacers from this point. 'Pacer' is a bit of a fraudulent term here, you can basically have anybody you like run directly behind of you for the entire rest of the race. That person is there for moral encouragement, to provide you with things you can't carry or just generally be there to push you back to the left slightly if you become delirious and stray out onto the road.

I saw Charlie here with the 2nd car bringing more ice back to the main vehicle, I guessed because they had dumped so much over me in the first 3 hours. I ran the first mile (17 - 18) solo and at that point Frank came across and ran with me. I hadn't realised until after the event but plenty of people have commented on how hot it was that day, even by normal Death Valley standards and the thermometer at Furnace Creek maxed out at 134 degrees F or 54 centrigrade during the afternoon.


Thermometer at Furnace Creek on race day. c/o Tony Portera!

Having Frank there was a big help. The road grinds on and on through the desert at this point and can stretch away for miles ahead of you making it a tough psychological battle so early, with the heat biting at your heals. The temperature off of the road was horrific just felt like you were being cooked from every angle and I mentioned to Frank I was getting a sore throat from the dry heat. For all of this though it was still so great to be there and the scenery of Death Valley was stunning. Frank stayed with me for 5 miles then dropped back to the vehicle to cool down and refresh his water supply etc and then rejoined me a mile later. 

Without really knowing it, this stretch pretty much wrecked the entire of the rest of the race for me. Two things were key, that I had gone slightly too fast and had used up an awful lot of energy and that the boys were still dumping whole gallons of water over my head every mile. This was inadvertently leading to massive chaffing under my arms and around my groin and nuts which would really come good later on. I dropped off from 10 minute miles to 11 minute miles and then down to 12 through the next 25 miles to Stovepipe Wells. As the afternoon wore on Frank and I started to walk all of the ups and jog the flats and downs which is pretty standard ultra practice but made even more sense in this heat, which causes your heart rate to increase massively even just remaining stationary. Frank felt the heat too so the last 5 miles or so down the hill to a right bend in the road and then the flat straight part past the sand dunes to Stovepipe Wells, I went alone. At this point the field had spread out greatly. I had reached and passed Jack Denness from the 6am wave and stopped to give him a hand shake and a big slap on the back for encouragement as he sat under a parasol by the side of the road, fanned by two of his crew. The legend that he is rather than say something about the heat or how crap he was feeling he just said 'check this out for service!' The sun was just starting to drop in the sky as I came in to Stovepipe in 8 hours and 25 minutes, 5 minutes ahead of my 30 hour schedule.


I felt awful and I'd gone too fast even though comparative to any other race Id ever done I'd gone very very slowly. I sat on the side of the car for a minute and felt a little dizzy and sick. The boys passed me a turkey cheese bagel but it was like trying to swallow bits of car tire, my throat was dry and the bagel did nothing to help that. I also cut the lining out of my shorts because there was some pretty bad pain coming from chaffing with the water and stitching in the shorts. Marshall Ulrichs wife Heather came over at this point with the race photographer. She mentioned that Marshall who'd started in the 6am wave had had an hours sleep here, that his foot was still painful but that he was ok and had gone on up the road to Townes Pass. Frank told me to take a quick nap in the car so I got in the air con, told him to let me sleep for 5 minutes and promptly dropped off in about 8 seconds. He shook me awake again and I felt a little bit better so stepped out of the car and started to walk up the road out of the time station.




(Frank looking a bit concerned)

The next 16 mile section is the first major climb of the race, 5500 feet up from Stovepipe at Sea Level to the summit of Townes Pass. This is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand you are climbing out of Death Valley and the hottest part of the race for good, on the other you are climbing up a monster hill, the sun is still out and worse there is an enormous hot wind coming straight down the road into your face. The first few miles I had Eberhard with me as a pacer for the first time. Eberhard has run Badwater 6 times including running the double one year (he ran from the finish line to the start before commencing the race and returning to Mt Whitney in a total time of 104 hours). Need less to say he was a good man to have on the crew. He explained that the hairdryer coming down the hill was normal and that I really had cracked the hardest part of the race and should be pleased with myself for my performance so far. As we climbed onto the steeper section of road we started to pass a lot of the 6am and 8am runners. As Frank took over the pacing duties, the higher we climbed, the steeper it got and the harder the wind blew. It felt exactly the same as if someone took out a hairdryer and positioned it 6 inches in front of your face and turned it on. People were starting to break down here. All down the right hand side of the road were runners crew vehicles but rather than moving, most had their respective runners and pacers sat out of the relentless wind behind the car, some laid out on the road getting some sleep. I went past Mark Wooley a fellow Brit living in Southern Spain whom I had met at the registration and he seemed in good spirits taking a well earned break off of the road. 

As we climbed we passed each 1000ft elevation marker and the sun finally dipped below the mountains giving us respite from the heat for the first time. We carried on up the road with our reflective gear and lights on, reaching Marshall as we got towards the top of the climb. He seemed to be dragging his right foot along but was ok as we walked with him for a couple of minutes. Towards the summit of the hill the climb tailed off a little but it seemed to take forever to reach the top. When we did, Eberhard and Charlie were pulled over on the side of the road waiting for us as Charlie and Richard had gone on to Panamint Springs to get an hours sleep before coming back to us. Frank hopped back in the car here and I grabbed a turkey wrap and coke which worked way better than earlier on. Charlie joined me at this point for the 12 mile section of downhill running in to Panamint Springs at mile 72.3. This was my favourite part of the whole race. Eberhard had made sure I knew that this section was runnable so to keep enough in the tank to have some 'power' coming down into Panamint. Well I didn't have a lot of power but after half a mile of walking and eating, Charlie and I kicked up a reasonable jog and stayed solid most of the way down the hill. Each stop I was alternating between coke, mountain dew and non alcoholic lager, a weird combo but one which worked well as my taste buds rejected any more sweet stuff and then craved it again in almost minute by minute cycles. The pattern was set for this stage, we would collect a drink from Frank and Eberhard, walk a few hundred metres and then run the next 1300m to the car again. In this way we made reasonable time, I was just slightly off of pace for the 30 hour mark but not drastically. Marshall came back past us at this point and we followed his red LED all the way down the hill to the last 3 miles into Panamint where you're back on the flat/ slight uphill. Turning around we could now see a trail off into the far distance of runner lights coming over the mountain and down the hill behind us, it was a stunning sight. We got into Panamint in 17 hours 50 minutes, just before 4am. The guys were filling up with petrol when we go there and I sat in a chair for 2 minutes whilst they did a hand over, Rich and Graham coming back out to swap with Eberhard. 

It was pitch dark now but I could see a lot of runners asleep at the time station in chairs or 'cots' collapsable beds. This was a pretty good tactic at this point but I hate stopping in races, ive never done it and I felt it was better just to keep moving. Out of Panamint we faced the second major 18 mile climb back up to around 5000ft. It was more of a gradual ascent but it was still pointless trying to run any of it. The boys took it in turns at this point as we went higher and higher up the road. Graham and Richard both took on pacing duties as the sun came up behind us illuminating Panamint valley and the road we had come down on from Towne's Pass. I wanted to try and get the climb done before the sun came back out so that I could just concentrate on jogging slowly the 50km section from mile 90 to 122 at Lone Pine although in the heat, the downhill would prevent my heart rate from climbing too high.




By the time we reached 80 miles however the sun was out. The camber on the road was driving me crazy, the road sloped badly off in one direction or the other as we went up the switchbacks and putting pressure on parts of my feet that were already blistered. I hadn't really noticed my feet until this point because the road was straight and even which meant i was pounding the same parts of them and they were therefore just numb. Now I was changing my gait to allow for the camber it started to feel like I had raw nerve endings exposed on the soles of my feet. Frank stepped back in as we got the flatter part of the climb and paced me all the way to Darwin at Mile 90.

Severe Bad Language Warning


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Before we got there we had time to run within a foot of a coiled up rattle snake just sat on the side of the road. It was a rare section of running for me as I came past it and I could hear Frank shouting at me over the sound of my ipod and I turned around to see him pointing and shouting snake. We'd passed it and thank god it hadn't gone for us I couldn't imagine having to DNF for a snake bite.



The boys put some signs up around the snake and we continued on the flatter straight road to Darwin. We were running intermittently now and not a lot of it, my balls and undercarriage were really starting to chaff and I was noticing how Id had to start walking with my hands on my hips to stop the skin from under my arms rubbing the raw wounds I had underneath them. We got to Darwin, mile 90.1 in 23 hours 35 minutes, just before the start of my second day of running.

From this point on I am going to recount what I remember of the 'race' but there is unquestionably large chunks I can't really remember or worse that I have imagined. I have discussed various things with the boys in the crew in the aftermath and there are quite a few things that I have no recollection of.

I'd broken the race down into chunks the whole way along so that I was able to cope better mentally with the idea of running 135 miles. So far we'd covered:

0 - 17: Badwater to Furnace Creek
17 - 42: Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells
42 to 60: Stovepipe to Townes Pass (Climb 1)
60 to 72: Townes Pass to Panamint Valley
72 to 90: Panamint to Darwin (Climb 2)

Now we were entering the last 3 Stages and with 'only' 45 miles left I was in good spirits so still to come were:

90 - 100: Darwin to the 100 mile marker
100 - 122: 100 Miles to Lone Pine
122 - 135: Lone Pine to Whitney Portals (Climb 3)

I fully intended and had pre-warned Frank that I wanted to run the 50km section from 90 - 122 so in the car at Darwin I got out a serious amount of vaseline again and applied it everywhere to abate the chaffing. I changed my shorts which were rock hard with salt, for Franks longer fresh pair. I would love to have changed my shoes or even taken the off for a minute but I knew if I did I would never get them back on and the bigger pair id bought before the race were in my lost luggage. So at this point I just had to grit my teeth and deal with the reality that I wasn't going to be able to look at them or handle any of the blisters until the end of the race, maybe another 16 - 20 hours away. I ate another turkey cheese wrap and had a coke and off we went. I felt awful but I knew I really had put myself in with a chance of finishing in a half decent time.



(Spread legs. No need for a close up of what is going on underneath)

We jogged away form the car and made it around half a mile, a nice gradual downhill before I had to slow to a walk to readjust my shorts and stop them tearing into my balls. We carried on jogging and came to a walk again for me to repeat. This happened for the rest of the race. Every 300 yards I had to stop to readjust the shorts into a position where I could actually continue moving forward. Without putting the reader off from the rest of this report, basically the skin had blistered on the inside of my thighs, then on my perenium and up my butt crack, but worst of all on the actual nuts themselves. Whilst the blisters were actually bearable, what was now causing a sharp massive burst of pain every couple of minutes was that the blisters had burst. I had a lot of bleeding weeping skin rubbing on another patch of bleeding and weeping skin. The vaseline was totally ineffective at this point now matter how much I applied.

I spent some time trying to explain to Frank just how bad the pain was without worrying him into thinking that we were going to be out for another 24 hours because I was going to have to stop all the time. We just kept jogging and walking and then walking even more to the point where we were only jogging the proper downhill sections. The sun was back out in force now and was climbing in the sky as it got to midday. I reached the 100 mile point in 26 hours and 5 minutes which was still respectable but we had big problems now. It was back up to around 40 degrees and there was just one big straight road leading away into the distance for roughly another marathon before we got in to Lone Pine. There was no respite, no shade, just a hot wind and a long painful slog. Frank took me to 100.5 miles where Eberhard was waving an enormous Union Jack along the side of the road. The boys had been incredible thus far but when they saw the kind of pain I was in now they just turned in an epic performance to carry me through. Eberhard took over from Frank for a few miles, who still hadn't been to sleep and coached me through how this section would work. We would go around 17 miles to a small mining village called Keeler, then we would turn left across the salt flats and have a 5 mile section down into Lone Pine.

I didn't see anyone on this section. Frank Mckinney and David Ploskonka had come past me as I slowed to walk between 90 and 100 but once through 100 miles it was just me and the boys. Eventually I stopped running and resorted to walking as quickly as I could which was around 18 minute miles. When thats your max pace you know its going to be a long day. The heat crept up, Eberhard stayed with me and every 300 - 500 yards I would stop still and make adjustments to be able to carry on. The pain was undoubtedly the worst Ive ever had, probably because it was sustained over so many hours. It got worse and worse and worse to the point where when the boys would stop alongside me, now every half mile instead of a mile, I would readjust downstairs and my hand would come up with a good amount of blood on it.

Without re-iterating the already unnecessary details Ive just given, basically the 50km stretch that I was hoping to cover in around 7 hours, took me over 11. In the end I fashioned a bandage for my damaged areas out of an arm sleeve which I taped in place around my leg. The problem with this was that I obviously needed to keep going to the toilet so I had to keep removing and retaping it. In the end I binned the tape and would just reposition it again every few minutes. I wasted literally hours having to go through this process. In hindsight its easy for me to say 'well I should have just gone on with it and wasted less time' but I can tell you its sending shivers down my spine just recounting this bit and I know that if I hadn't done what I'd done I may well have been stopped almost dead in my tracks. A few other things went wrong at this time also, the heat was up and Id not been as diligent with my drinking and eating because my mind was focused on just blocking out the pain. I started to dehydrate a bit and then felt like I was headed into the path of heatstroke so took  a few minutes in the car at one point again to sit in the air con and cool down. Any longer and my legs would have turned into lead. I also had some stomach problems and at one point wasn't able to make it to the crew vehicle even before I had to dive into the desert for a pit stop. That meant one of the boys (Frank) had to come back a few hundred yards with some loo roll so I could carry on.

The boys kept amazing spirits up all the way through this patch and I just bowed my head and kept putting one foot in front of the other. I think they all took turns in walking with me for stretches but I can't really be sure. To me now it seems that Eberhard was with me almost all the way down to Lone Pine with Charlie for a bit and Richard doing some miles, with Graham taking me the last few in to the town but its all a bit hazy.

Anyway enough wallowing. When we could finally see Lone Pine in the distance, we could also see Mount Whitney and the surrounding mountains looming massive and distant in the background. The car kept stopping every half a mile all of the way into Lone Pine as we rounded Keeler and dropped down and over a river before a short climb up and flat section into the town itself. When we hit the road junction Graham and I turned right and the car was there with a load of Mcdonalds for us. Id ordered some chicken nuggets and finished them in about thirty seconds flat. I wandered off down the road on my own now knowing full well that the left turn into the last stage up the mountain was less than a mile ahead. Again I stopped to readjust everything in front of a hotel and the boys formed a kind of screen in front of me so as not to scare the rest of the general population, I remember that much.





When we got to the turn there was a time station and it snapped my back into reality. Frank set himself up with reflective vests and handed me the same along with 4 ibuprofen to try and help with the pain, at this time it was just after 8pm and we'd been going for a little over 34 hours straight and 122 miles of running/ walking. We turned past the time station and left at the traffic lights. The Portal Road was very different from the way I'd imagined it. I had expected a thin single lane road with over hanging trees and more of a mountainous feel. The reality, and i've no doubt this was my mind playing tricks on my as a result of fatigue, was that I felt like I was entering a theme park. The dark quickly came down and Eberhard, Frank and I began just to pace up the hill one step at a time. At first we moved quite slowly and in the twilight it seemed to me that the trees overhanging the boulder lined road were reaching out like giant inflatable animals towards us. The boys carried on beside us in the crew vehicle stopping every half mile for the duration of the climb. After a couple of miles I decided the best thing to do would be to let Frank take the lead and sit in behind him. I spent the time from 9:20pm to 11:30pm just staring at the reflective strips on the back of Franks trainers lit up by my headlamp and it ate up the time. I would guess we were travelling about 3.5 miles per hour in that section and it suprised him and Eberhard but me also as to how much better I fared on this stretch. No doubt the end being within reach was a big factor.

We still hadn't seen any other runners in a long long time but it felt like we'd made good progress and would likely have made a bit of time back. At about mile 129 though I had to slow again. The pain from my undercarriage was back and my legs were starting to tire on the climb. Frank pushed on as fast as he could without losing me but I was taking a long time to push up the 2 miles to the 131 mile time station, the last one of the race. In the end we hit that in 37:30. The whole way along I had moved the finish time goalposts in my head as things began to unravel. 30 hours became 34, became 36, became 38 and it was here I realised I would just like to finish this thing and if sub 40 was possible then great. 48 hours is the cut off for the buckle and 60 for the entire race so clearly by this stage these were in the bag barring a total physical collapse.

We walked that last 4 miles at about 2 miles per hour pace. The whole portal road is uphill, ascending from 4000ft to almost 8500ft and the last steepest kick spans from mile 131 to mile 133.5. At this point, Marshall, who had rested at Panamint after passing us on the way down from Townes Pass came back up to us. He walked between Frank and I and grabbed my arm as if to say good job almost there. He asked Frank if this was the last switchback and Frank kind of laughed and said 'you should know buddy', Marshall being on the path to his 16th official Badwater finish. We rounded that switch back, walked up to mile 134 where I could finally see the road enter the trees which I knew we would have to do before we hit the end. The boys left us here and drove up to the finish so that they would be ready. Frank, Charlie and I pushed on and it seemed to take forever. There was no sign of life or any directional help at all. Just utter darkness with overhanging rock formations and trees, no lights, no people, no sign of the finish line. In the end we made educated guesses as to the route and rounded a corner to see the boys up ahead. Eberhard gauged there was about 1km to go and we walked as a group up that last 10 minutes into sight of the finish line. They let me go at that point and I ran the last 15 yards over the finish, with James Adams cheering us on from just beside it where he'd been since finishing 2 hours before us. Finishing time 39 hours 19 minutes 2 seconds, 38th place. 80 Starters.

I felt ok on the line. There was no massive release of emotion, just a general pleased to be done kind of aura. We all hugged each other and I thanked the boys each in turn for a massive performance and their help. Chris Kostman then took some shots at the line, solo, with the whole crew and with just Frank bearing in mind this was the first leg of 2 with the bike ride coming up towards the end of the year. Someone fetched the car at that point and we cruised on down to the hotel at the bottom of the mountain. I kept drifting in and out of sleep on the way down that drive and it was very painfully that I managed to get into the shower and then onto the bed for a few hours kip before the drive back to Vegas.

I've been in a pretty bad way since the end of the race. We had almost 2 full days in Vegas and for 24 hours or so all I could do was lie in the bed and eat a small amount occasionally.



My calves, feet, undercarriage, underarms and stomach were all in bad shape.




I made it out to dinner in the Venetian restaurant Tao on the Thursday night but with a 6am flight the following morning hit the sack about 10pm. The 36 hour journey home about finished me and I've come out of the other side of this week still feeling a little shaky but well on the road to recovery. My feet and energy levels are the last things to come back.

I would recommend this race to anybody, anywhere. It is probably the hardest thing you'll ever do but it is a monumental run and in my opinion worth everything you have to give to get to the finish. Its easily my single greatest accomplishment in a short 28 years. The barriers to success start with the entry criteria, they will not accept any applications from people who haven't run at least 2 x 100 mile non-stop races. The 90 places are highly covered and I was extremely fortunate to get a place with only 40 rookie slots each year. The fact that so many of the runners go back to race time and time again is a pretty good indication of just how special Badwater is.

Perhaps the most special accomplishment ever on the Badwater course took place this year. Jack Denness finished the race for the 12th time in a total of just over 59 hours. The time seems slow but Jack recently turned 75 years old. Ive said it elsewhere already that I think this may be perhaps the greatest sporting achievement Ive ever witnessed. All in all there were 5 British finishers this year with James Adams, Mark Wooley and Tim Welch all making the finish as well. A good performance from the UK!

Would I run it again? You can never say never but I think for next time Id like to crew someone else and get to see the event from the other side of the fence. From everything the boys came out of it with, you get a similar experience without the handfuls of punishment.

Next up its UTMB and FC508. Thats it for me in 2010, its already been the best year of running and racing I've ever had and could have hoped for despite being over 9 hours outside of my goal time at Badwater. In the end it was just about finishing and that is no bad thing. Id take just the same result at the next two all day long.

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