Bad Water Maybe, but a Good Experience, Nonetheless

2003 race official

Joyce and I were at the 6am start of the Badwater Ultramarathon on Tuesday morning, July 22. We had been designated as one of the two medical teams (since Joyce is a registered nurse) to drive the course and assist runners with medical difficulties. Things were quiet until the temperature reached the 130 degree mark. Then, all hell broke loose. Many runners and crew personnel were taken to, or stopped at, Stovepipe Wells (approximately 40 miles) for a dunking in the pool and/or emergency medical assistance. For a while, there, a couple of the hotel rooms looked as though they were MASH units: People stretched out on beds, some with ice-packs and some with IV’s. One crew member was sent to Lone Pine (approximately 122 miles) for immediate treatment (we learned that he took 7 liters of IV).

But, eventually, we were blessed with nightfall and higher elevations as we progressed along the highway with the lead group of runners. We slept about 3-4 hours in Panamint Springs (approximately 70 miles), and then headed back out on the course to offer our services. A runner who led for the first 100 miles required assistance, and Joyce eventually got him up and moving forward. He had to reduce his speed considerably, but he did hold on for a 4th place finish. He just asked too much from his body.

At the Portal to Mt. Whitney (the finish and the 135 mile mark), Pam Reed repeated as the winner in approximately 28.5 hours, followed by the first male runner in about 29 hours. Out of the first 5 finishers, 3 were females. In total, 47 runners finished, from the starting field of 73—a 64% completion rate, and testimony to an effective pre-race, runner-screening / invitation process.

Maybe my hernia surgery which precluded me from competing was a blessing, because the heat on the first day was extreme, even by Death Valley standards. With the humidity in the mid-20’s, it was, all-in-all, a pretty challenging combination. Although I didn’t participate as a runner, I learned a great deal about the course, the pacing needed to finish, the typical medical problems, and the sheer determination that must be brought to the event.

Of course, we came away with many memories, but none more vivid than the management responsibilities of the runner and the crew. Badwater has no aid stations, and all runner support/success comes from runner awareness and the mobile crew. I liken the situation to a multiple-day endurance ride: Everything has to be kept in perspective for an extended period of time. The runner, like the endurance horse, must be physically expended, but, then, readied to keep going.

We had other memories, too. Wednesday evening we exited from our race responsibilities to help a woman with two young kids, whose car had broken down in the middle of the Death Valley National Park. We drove 6 miles back to Panamint Springs and called a Park Ranger for emergency assistance. Then, we returned to the woman, gave her and the kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and some chips for dinner. When the Ranger arrived, we left to rejoin the race.

Our most unlikely and unreal memory is of the fighter-jet which buzzed us as we drove along the desert highway. It was as though we were at a baseball stadium and a military jet emerged from the top of the stands in a fly-over. We were driving along and suddenly a fighter-jet was coming right at us, following the highway, just a few hundred feet off the desert floor. The pilot must have been practicing low-level maneuvers. I went into my “earthquake mode,” meaning that I just sort of mentally suspended my reactions, knowing that I was powerless to change the circumstances. It was an unreal situation. But it became real as the plane passed over us and climbed back to altitude. The jet exhaust blasted everything.

Badwater is over for this year, but Pam Reed, the winner, gave the race some nice publicity with her appearance on the David Letterman show Thursday night, July 31st. Letterman could not believe that she did all that for a belt buckle, but what does he know? Aren’t we are all nuts in our own way? I admit that I am, and I’m penciling-in the event on next year’s calendar.