Badwater, A Good Comfortable Road

2003 official finisher

After running Badwater in July I have gotten many requests to write a short report of my adventures in the desert. Well I am not the keenest wordsmith, but I will nevertheless give it a try.

When I decided to run Badwater in summer of 2003, my loving wife, Marilyn was not very enthusiastic about this race. She was concerned about the extreme conditions, but excited about seeing Death Valley. Marilyn’s brother, Dave was much more enthusiastic over the whole idea and offered to crew for me, assuming that I was accepted into the race. So with the makings of crew I began in earnest to plan for 2003 edition of the race. To finish out my crew Dave recruited his son, Scott and we lined up good friend Stan Clarkson who was keenly interested in the event once he heard about it.

My first major training run was to do the Virginia Happy Trails Fat Ass 50 K in December. I rode down to the race with my training partner, Randy Dietz. As runners are wont to do we spent our time together talking about what our plans for the coming year. I told Randy that I was going to do Badwater. Randy thought that was really neat but thought I was crazy, reminding me that the run is all on the road and my feet would probably hurt when considering my plantar faciitus. I admit I hadn’t considered that possibility, but figured since my feet hurt most of time anyway, could it be much worse at Badwater? At the Fat Ass we had great Badwater Training conditions: mud, hills and lots of water. I figured if I could survive this run, a little trot through the desert with a crew at your beck and call couldn’t be that tough!

My training went really well. Randy and I did multiple long runs in the Pennsylvania mountains. A typical run would be to get up at some ungodly hour of the morning, drive to a remote trail head, run all day on wet rocky trails at the lightning quick speed of 3-4 miles per hour and conclude the run by quaffing a couple of beers. With this strict training regime plus numerous sessions of baking in the sauna at 150+ degrees prior to leaving for Death Valley, I felt that I was ready for the race.

The plan was to travel to Las Vegas where we would purchase most of our supplies. I had decided to run in shorts and a tee shirt, foregoing the haz-mat style sun protection suit that many runners prefer; I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. A major issue for this run was to make sure that we had enough ice for the race before arriving in Death Valley. To accomplish this we filled a 120-quart cooler with 100 pounds of ice and layered 35 pounds of dry ice on top to keep it frozen. This worked very well, the ice lasting intact throughout the first day

My crew, consisting of Marilyn, Dave and Scott Wilbur and Stan Clarkson and I arrived at Furnace Creek Ranch on Monday just in time for registration and the prerace briefing. I had my first opportunity to experience the desert heat first hand (it was in the low 120’s) and was it ever hot, especially with the heat radiating up from the pavement. Race registration and briefing was a protracted affair lasting about two hours in a hot auditorium. With conditions being so tough during registration I figured that the race would be piece of cake. At least we would be outside where there would be a breeze.

I was assigned the 8:00 AM start time.. After a good night’s sleep we all filed down to breakfast at 6:00 AM for the buffet. set up early for the race by the folks at Furnace Creek. After getting ourselves more or less organized, we traveled to the start at Badwater for the obligatory pictures and runner check-in. The race started promptly at 8:00 AM and we sauntered off toward Furnace Creek (mile 17.4).

My crew met me every mile or so to replenish my fluids, electrolytes and to make sure that I was eating. I really enjoyed this section of the run, as I was able to visit with the other runners and just cruise along.

After Furnace Creek the race began to get interesting as we were now in the heat of day. It became very tough to maintain anything resembling a run. I was relegated to walking after about 35 miles or so. During this section I spent some time with Barbara Elia, a Badwater veteran. She told me to make sure that I took a swim at Stovepipe Wells to cool down and regroup before heading up to Towne Pass.

As I was on the edge, I considered this to be good advice. At the sand dunes just outside of Stovepipe Wells, I got sick and puked my entire stomach contents. I am not sure if I was sick because of what I was eating or the heat and hot wind, which had come up that afternoon (It was reported that the temperature that afternoon were 130 + degrees F). After puking I felt better, but had no energy as I stumbled into Stovepipe Wells (mile 42.7) where we all jumped in the pool to cool off. Fortunately, I was cognizant enough to take off my shoes and socks. We spent about a half hour swimming and getting our act together before venturing into the dark up the mountain to Townes Pass.

While all this was going on my wife Marilyn was having trouble with the heat. Dave told her to get off the course to cool down. She spent some time in the AC at the Stovepipe Wells store before Stan drove her ahead to Panamint Springs where we had reserved a room to rest. I didn’t see her again until the next morning when I arrived there.

The climb up Townes Pass (5000 vertical feet in 17 miles) was interesting to say the least. It was hot and very dark, which coupled with fact that I didn’t feel that particularly well made for a long night. The climb went something like this: walk a couple of miles; get into car to whine about how slow and bad I was feeling. Then finally I would eat and drink. I was in “Poor Little Old Me” mode big time. Dave, Scott and Stan were great during this section in that they kept me hydrated, fed and didn’t pay attention to my moaning and groaning. In retrospect, I was pretty pitiful. With the rising of the sun I started to feel better, especially after drinking several bottles of half coke and half water. I reached Towne Pass (mile 58.7) early on Wednesday morning feeling somewhat peeked as I had pushed rather hard for the previous 3-5 miles or so. After some down time to get myself back together I got up feeling rather good and started the long down hill into Panamint Valley.

The downhill into Panamint Valley was probably the highlight of the race for me. I felt great, the views were spectacular and all I wanted to do was run. I cruised down the mountain at good steady clip just enjoying myself. I was higher then a kite; life couldn’t have been better. Dave came riding by in my crew car and hung his head out the window to comment: “Are you @%^#$^ nuts!” I guess he couldn’t rationalize why I could feel so bad one minute and so great the next. As it turned out the bad patch at the top of Towne Pass was my last for the race.

I arrived in Panamint Springs (mile72.3) at about 10:00 AM on Wednesday morning. I was tired, but otherwise feeling good. I took a short nap on a real bed to get off my feet, reenergizing myself for the second half of the race to the Mt. Whitney Portals.

Leaving Panamint Springs I started the climb to Father Crowley Turnout. It was overcast but turned bright and sunny shortly thereafter. I ended up doing most of the climb in the heat of the day, which really took stuffing out of me. During the climb you could clearly see your position in the race with respect to the other runners while switch backing up the pass. Coming up behind me was Marshall Ulrich, who finally caught me at Father Crowley’s Turnout. (mile 80.2). I walked with Marshal and his wife Heather for a mile or so. It was great to get some perspective on the race from one of the legends during our short time together.

After Father Crowley the wheels started to come off. My ITB started to tighten up which made it difficult to run. Even walking was becoming uncomfortable. Recognizing that I couldn’t maintain a pace fast enough to earn a buckle for a sub 48-hour finish, I shut it down and elected to enjoy myself, go for a finish and not worry about speed.

I arrived at the Darwin Turnoff (mile 90.1) at about 6:00 PM on Wednesday just in time to experience a late afternoon desert shower.

To illustrate how “loopy” one can get during a run like this, I was talking strategy (as if I had one at this point) with Dave and Scott at the turnoff. We were standing out next to the time check when I decided I needed to pee, which I did without hesitation. Neither Dave or Scott noticed that I was peeing until Scott remarked: “Uncle Bill you are pissing on my foot!” to which I replied much to my surprise “Sorry“ and continued peeing, although I did shift slightly to the left just missing Dave’s foot. I was the butt of many jokes as this story was retold countless times over the next couple of days.

Shortly after Darwin Turnoff Marilyn and Stan rejoined us. They had gone onto Lone Pine to pick up ice and other miscellaneous supplies. While in Lone Pine Marilyn and Stan decided to pick up subs for everyone except me! As I was coming down the road I saw both crew cars together and everyone eating a delicious looking sub. Marilyn offered me a bite, which I graciously accepted. I could have eaten the whole thing but didn’t want to eat her supper. After eating supper my crew stayed together for the next couple of hours while I leapfrogged positions with Ken Eielson, of Colorado. The highlight of this section was the ice crème bars that Ben Jones’ crew gave us while on they’re way to Lone Pine. With the coming of darkness Dave and Stan went to Lone Pine to sleep while I was crewed by Marilyn and Scott.

My ITB had really tightened up and I was having a lot of trouble making forward progress. Scott suggested that I get into the chair so that he could stretch my ITB and hip flexors. After that he stretched my legs about every two miles or so, which worked great on the right leg, but the left leg remained very sore. With the coming darkness we lost all perspective of where we were on the course; it was just flat and dark. I had trouble gauging my pace and staying focused, which coupled with my sore left leg, made for a very long night. I found that I could run somewhat more comfortably than I could walk, however I didn’t have the energy to run so I just shuffled along as best I could. I reached Keeler (mile 107.8) at about 1:45 AM where Stan and Dave came back from their break to relieve Marilyn and Scott. They were with me for the rest of the night on the run (walk???) into Lone Pine.

Both Dave and Stan walked with me for the next several hours to keep me company. While on the way into Lone Pine we could see the lights of runner’s crew vehicles as they made their way up the Portal Road off in the distance. This was discouraging, as I knew that I had several more hours before I too would be climbing. Dave and I got into a big discussion of how far it was to Lone Pine. I was really focused on Lone Pine because I knew once there the end was in sight. Since we really didn’t know how far it was we sent Stan to clock the distance to the Dow Villa Hotel. Stan took off in the crew car and left Dave and me walking toward Lone Pine. By this time I was becoming irritable and very impatient. I had it in my head that I had 4 miles to go; however when Stan arrived he reported that the distance was closer to 7 miles, which really sent me into a tizzy. I was took off running as I had no intention of spending the next two to three hours on this long straight road. I ran most of the way to the Hwy.190/395 intersection (mile 120.3). I had had enough fun for the past two days and was anxious to get the whole thing over with.

I reached the Dow Villa (mile 122.3) at about 7:30 AM. Dave and I chased Scott out of bed and I went into the bathroom in an attempt to wash off a tube of SPF 50 Sun Block, which was on my hands and arms, religiously applied by my crew throughout the race. I felt like a grease ball. After washing up, I bolted out of the Dow Villa heading for the Portal Road, only I didn’t know where it was. Dave and Stan were getting a cup coffee and noticed me going up the wrong road. Dave took off after me and finally got me headed in the right direction. Needless to say I was somewhat irritated at this point and in no mood for jokes.

With my full crew intact we headed up the Portal Road though the Alabama Hills to the Mt. Whitney Portal and the finish. This portion of the race went very well for me. I had plenty of energy and was able to climb at a good pace despite my sore left leg. I enjoyed walking with my crew and the spectacular views as I progressed up the mountain. I finished the race at 12:49 PM for a total elapsed time of 52:49:18; all in all a very satisfying and memorable experience.