Wednesday 21 July 2010

Badwater: Part One

Frank and I between Panamint and Darwin around mile 88. Photo c/o Luis Escobar.

'Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us' Hebrews 12:1. Quoted on the eventual race winners hat at the start. 

This is long so I’m sorry but this was the longest, hardest, most painful and most rewarding journey I've been on yet and there is a LOT to say. This is a bit of a cleansing process for me psychologically, a week on and the race is still extremely fresh in my mind. My feet have bottomed out now, the nails are gone, the heels have come apart but they're healing. Apart from about 3 kgs which I am still missing I am 80% recovered physically but I still need to get my head around the whole thing. Basically for 3/4 of the race I went pretty good but the last 1/4 I spent skidding out of control all over the road only narrowly avoiding smashing into the reservation and having to book a return journey to start all over again. I have an awesome and dedicated crew to thank for that but I guess also a pretty high tolerance for pain and some experience with what endurance really is. Ive faced most things before in a race but the problems i'll come to at the end were something i NEVER want to go through again.

Here is Part One of the report. Part Two will contain the gory details of how my feet, underarms and 'undercarriage' fell apart….

A lot of races claim to be 'the toughest in the world'. Plenty of people have written articles set on answering that question from a non-biased perspective and almost universally, the consensus is that its Badwater. The raw facts are often quoted as the rationale:

Distance: It is 135 miles non stop.

Environment: The first 42 miles of the race take place in Death Valley, the second hottest place on the planet with a peak record temperature of 56.7 degrees and an average July temp of 50. The race is specifically organised to start during the hottest part of the day, on the hottest day of the year.  The remainder of the race is run in the Mojave Desert and second day temperatures, when runners have already been going for 24 hours, rarely drop below 40.

Elevation: The racecourse covers three mountain passes each between 4000 and 5500 ft with a total of 14000 feet of cumulative gain.

The End: At 122 miles, runners enter the town of Lone Pine and are greeted with probably the hardest finish of any race anywhere, 13 miles of steep ascent to Mount Whitney Portals, the gateway to the highest point in the contigious US.

Badwater is the hardest thing Ive ever done. That’s an easy thing to say. I have until now maintained that the MdS would always be the hardest thing I’d ever do because it was a week of utter suffering. Jim and I were rookies back then and you could really really tell ( During that race I was often unsure of how we could continue. Of course we did and I realise when I look back now that I had no idea then what real suffering was. My legs hurt and I couldn’t hold food down. These are problems which can be solved in an hour with some ibuprofen and some cool off time in a tent. Believe me Im not trying to say that the MdS is easy, unil this month it was the hardest thing Id ever taken on. The level of suffering I reached in Badwater on the other hand made the MdS look like a cake walk. Even Frank who crewed the entire event and watched pretty much every step I took stopped with the gentle abuse and cajoling, usually a very common method of getting each other through stuff like this when he saw my bowed drunken stagger down the last 50km stretch of flat. He said in an e mail to me afterwards that he thought Id gone through about 10 times the pain anyone should have too and it did honestly feel like that. It was still unquestionably worth it.

I didn’t realise until being at the event itself and particularly in the few days afterwards quite how much the race means to 1. The organisers, volunteers and past runners of the race and 2. The running community looking on. The outpouring of e mails and the number of people who have followed the race online across the world, throughout, has been massive and I guess based on the above, the running community in general really does view the race as something uniquely special. Past runners always reflect on how Badwater is like a family. Once you run it or crew it you become part of that family and you build an affiliation and affetion for the event. Cynically I found this a little hard to believe but having run down that massive never ending stretch of tarmac I see what they mean. Badwater is different and for me the reason for that is simply how hard it is. 

The race start and Badwater itself is the name of a geographical point in Death Valley which stands as the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. The nearest major city is Las Vegas so we flew in on the Friday night. We took a long route in order to save costs and went via Rome and New York. Each one of the 3 flights were delayed and in the end we were lucky to get there by 1am Saturday morning, we made our connection at JFK by minutes. The useless incompetent lazy airline Alitalia also lost all of our baggage and wouldn’t see it again until after the race. Its hard to describe how much of a problem that is. 

I had been planning Badwater since February the 17th when I was formally accepted into the race. That is planning in terms of 1. training, 2. acclimatisation to heat and 3. kit. One of those, albeit the least crucial arm of the three was instantly removed. I lost all of my energy powder responsible for about 200 Kcals an hour which I couldn’t replace (It is a European Product) and the last thing you are advised to do in a major race is change to something new right before in case you react badly or get nauseous and cannot keep anything down. I lost all of my Enduralytes  These are salt replacement tablets that are essential to take if you’re running prolonged periods in the heat. If you don’t take them and drink only water you become hyponatraemic and can drop into a fast and dangerous coma. Throughout Badwater Eberhard my German crew and 6 time finisher usually takes about 3 every 20 minutes. Thankfully I managed to get hold of Frank before he left home and he bought with him enough to just see us through the race. Of course I also lost my spare trainers, running gear, food for the race, headlamps, reflective vests, sprayers etc etc all things that we had to then buy back in Walmart on the way to the race. This was stressful and time consuming and of course what we bought as replacements didn’t match the quality of the stuff id packed. Thankfully I had worn a pair of running shoes on the plane out in case the worst happened.

Picking up the hire cars, a dodge caravan as the main vehicle and a small dodge charge and buying the supplies in Walmart plus a small detour meant we didn’t reach Death Valley until 6pm on the Saturday night, around 6 hours after we’d planned. However the crew were together and we were in good spirits. My team consisted of Richard, Charlie and Graham whom had come out from the UK and Frank (DC) and Eberhard (Germany) both previous finishers and good friends from other races.  I literally would have been lost without any one of them. I was followed and looked after better than I could have ever imagined but i'll come to that in more detail later.

When we got into Death Valley we pulled onto the stretch of the race road from mile 32 to 42 at Stovepipe Wells. Frank pulled the car over and we stepped on to the side of the road to take in the conditions. The sun was down but there was a wind blowing across the sand dunes and into our faces and evening at this time in the early evening the temperature was 119 degrees. Immediately noticeable also was the smell of sauna. The intense baking of the rocks across the landscape and its enclosed nature, ringed by mountains, made it feel and smell exactly like the wooden box Id spent so long sitting it at the gym in 'training' for this insane race. 

We drove up to Stovepipe Wells for the night, the mile 42 time station of the race and stayed there in decent accommodation. There were a few other racers and crews around and it was just great to actually be there. The following morning we spent the first hour writing ELSON #28 on the sides, front and back of each vehicle as necessitated in the race rules with black masking tape. It looked pretty bad but did the job. 

By the end we were drenched in sweat. We then drove down to Furnace Creek the 17 mile first time station to check in. En route I jumped out and ran a 2 mile stretch. I got back in the car afterwards and the sweat was pouring off of me. I wanted to panic at how much i'd overheated in a 20 minute jog but suppressed it so that the boys didn't think to themselves 'holy shit he's just had trouble running about 1/70th of what he's supposed to do tomorrow?'. At check in the atmosphere was good. Badwater only has between 80 and 90 invited runners each year but the scale is way bigger. Each runner has on average 4-5 crew and with officials, media and staff the total pre race meeting consisted of around 400 people. We were taken through the rules, a few old stories, introduced to the organisers and each other and given a quick recap of those in the room whom had run previously and who had the most finishes. It was a long meeting but I left feeling pretty comfortable. 

(Eberhard, Frank and I at check in. Photo c/o of Ben Jones)

Our group of 6 then ate the last supper (one beer for me as forced on my by Frank saying that the only race he'd ever not had a drink before was his DNF at Leadville the first time) and bought about 20 bags of ice for the start in the morning. The boys spent the rest of the evening preparing the cars which is a massive job in order to have everything on hand for when we would need it: Ice, Water, Food, Electrolytes, Hats, Lights etc etc etc . The time was upon us….

We got up on race morning at 6am. Id slept well and I felt ready to go. We tidied up the last few bits of gear and got down to Furnace Creek where the boys ate something before we headed on 17 miles back further down the road to the start at Badwater itself. I had been assigned a slot in the 10am wave so the 6am starters and 8am starters were already on the road. It was great to see people heading back towards us from the opposite direction with their crews and vehicles all rolling with them and making sure they had what they needed. I recognised lots of faces and names on the cars, in particular James Adams whom I hadn’t managed to catch up with pre race. He had already reached mile 8 ish and was only a bit over an hour in.

The Sea level Sign
When we got the start the other runners looked like they were there to race. The 10am wave contained all of the fast runners, previous winners: Jorge Pacheco, Marco Farinazzo, Jamie Donaldson, Pam Reed. All in all I was way out of my depth. We had photos at the Badwater sign and moved across to the startline. I was the last one to join it and stood directly behind Jamie who’s crew kept jumping in to spray her down and make sure she started in 100% peak condition. 

As we stood on the startline I thought about what was ahead and I wasn’t daunted. Id trained, I had a pace strategy, I trusted my own ability to get through the race in a reasonable time and more than anything I knew I had the grit and determination not to quit for any reason aside medical ones I may lose control of leading to potential long term damage in which case that call would be out of my hands. Chris Kostman the race director introduced Casey Dukus who stood by our startling and sung the national anthem beautifully. Even the boys afterwards admitted their hairs stood up on the backs of their necks (apart from Rich who thought it sucked). Stood there in that unholy place in that incredible heat in silence with such a monumental task ahead with that rendition of in my opinion the most uplifiting national anthem was awesome.


Chris counted down from 10 to 1 and off we went. I'd set up a strategy with the guys that they would see me at the 1.5 mile point and then every 1 mile from there, giving us an opportunity to avoid the early pile up of crews on the roadside who would stop each 1 mile from the start. My starting gear went like this: Yellow headsweats cap so that the boys could pick me out, white cotton head and neck scarf which we called the 'wizard hat' drenched in ice cold water, ice necklace which Frank invented the night before and would keep my carotid artery cool, white moeben armsleeves, race shorts, long white compressions socks, my usual 8.5 road trainers, 2 watches, my St Georges Cross and a water bottle. My pacing strategy was to aim for 30 hours. The first section from Badwater to Stovepipe Wells would be an 8.5 hour run for the 42 miles. 

At each mile mark the boys took off my wizard hat and replaced it, handed me a new water bottle with enduralytes in and sprayed me down with water from a garden store plant sprayer. Then every 3rd mile they would replace the ice necklace with a new one. To start with we were a mess and that was purely because we hadn't practised but the boys quickly got it down so that from mile 5 onwards we looked like a nascar pit stop. The first few miles I was running in a group of 5 with Connie Gardner, Jamie Donaldson, Jimmy Dean Freeman and Michelle Barton. We all overtook each other when one of us slowed for the crew and then proceeded on. We were running roughly 10 minute miles which was a little quick but nothing too bad and i certainly didn't pull anything quicker than a 9:45 during the entire race. When the crew came up bang on went the headscarf and the ice necklace over the top. Eberhard got a little excited in the early stages and kept pulling the wizard hat all the way down around my neck but we ironed that little problem out and the team were unreal. Plenty of checking to see how I was doing, some minor heckling as they went back past in the car to the next mile point but just the right amount. After around 7 or 8 miles the race started to spread out a little. I guess I ran most of that first section around 15th - 20th out of the 8am wave of 25 runners and certainly didn't feel like I was overcooking it, but I did run all of it even the smaller uphills. At mile 17 we hit Furnace Creek Aid Station/ Time Point Number 1. I reached that marker in 2 hours 57 minutes. 

Early on around Mile 6. Photo c/o Chris Kostman

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