Category: First-Person Stories

Bridge Over Troubled Badwater: A Badwater 2002 Race Story

Official Finisher, 98, 99, 00, 01, 02

Bolts of lightening are slamming into the mountains and the windshield is being pelted with rain from the giant thunderheads filling the evening skies, as our mini-market laden van rolls south along Highway 395 towards Lone Pine and our eventual destination in Death Valley. Each year along this stretch of pavement, it becomes starkly clear, that soon I will be faced with the momentous challenge of running the toughest footrace in the world. Although I have worked very hard and I am completely trained, the harsh weather surrounding us reminds me of the enormous task ahead. I am confident, apprehensive and scared to death.

Every July ninety long distance runners from around the world are invited to compete in the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon. This event starts at Badwater, CA the lowest spot in the United States. It snakes through Death Valley and crosses three mountain ranges before finishing at the Portals on the flanks of MT Whitney. To receive a coveted belt buckle one must finish in less than forty-eight hours. This will be my fifth consecutive Badwater race.

The next day at the pre-race meeting in Furnace Creek, I am inspired by the presence of Lisa Smith and Marshall Ulrich, two of my heroes and Badwater ultrarunning giants. Everyone in the building chokes up when the first man to complete Badwater in 1977, Al Arnold, gives an emotional speech.

To prevent congestion in this National Park there are three starting times (6:00 am, 8:00 am and 10:00 am) with twenty-seven runners in each group.

While driving in for the ten o’clock start I am surprised to see United States Marine Corp, Major Maples, (well known for his multicolor Badwater barfathons), in second place only a few feet behind the leader. He said he would be taking it easy this year. It must be the Marine esprit de corps and all that stuff. I hope he makes it

The moment that everyone has been waiting for is now only minutes away. To preserve these memories truckloads of photographs are taken as we straddle the starting line and stare into the teeth of this most difficult race. During the next few days of roller-coaster highs and lows, having a good time is guaranteed, as well as, getting blitzed by plenty of heat, misery and pain. But, as far as finishing goes, it will be a coin toss, a crapshoot, and the luck of the draw. Yet, we are all still here, drawn to this race like a moth to a hot light bulb. Even though it is already 110-degrees, I get goose bumps and butterflies when the National Anthem is played to honor all the runners. It is good to be back.

The word is given and off we go. “Start slow and then taper,” said the legendary San Franciscan marathoner Walt Stack. Okay. Plan A is to take it fairly easy for the first 42-miles to Stovepipe Wells. If I am conservative during this part of the race I should be able to attack the rest of the course. Sounds good anyway.

My crew, Christine Webb, Lina and Jacqueline Young and Jason Hunter will leapfrog me every mile in the van and attempt to keep me hydrated and well fed. Trying to keep me cool, they will use a super-soaker to wet down my Sun Precautions hat and jacket during the extreme heat of the day. For the first time my beautiful wife is here to help crew the entire race. I told her that if she came along this would be my last Badwater. I don’t think she believes me.

During the early part of the race when we are all full of energy and clicking on all cylinders we run past the colorful landmarks of Furnace Creek, Devils Cornfield, Devils Golf Course and Dantes Point. It’s almost impossible to believe that this barren and arid basin was once filled with water.

Even though the temperature begins to climb into the 120-degree range, I am running at a comfortable pace and having a good time. Fortunately I have started this race relatively healthy. Although I am still pestered by the Achilles tendonitis I developed in last year’s race, it should only be a minor nuisance. At the start of other Badwater races I have been handicapped with inflamed sciatica, stress fractures and a broken toe that I had crunched on a chair leg the day before. Still, I have managed to finish every race.

Through the grapevine we learn that a British runner (promoting Roger Rabbit) started this race in a bunny suit, including the head. He had already collapsed from heat exhaustion. He was evacuated to a nearby hospital. He recovered, but by mile nine the race had claimed its first victim.

This year more than ever the runners are spaced farther apart and there are periods of time when no one is in sight. At times, while I run alone, I listen to the sounds of silence that are gently rising from this great sprawling salt basin, which is surrounded by incredibly chiseled mountains that are brushed with sparkling burgundy and other softer rainbow colors. I am easily hypnotized and totally engulfed by the immense beauty of Death Valley. This place is one of the most picturesque on earth and is a gift for man to treasure. It is a litmus test for one’s spirituality. It is a privilege to be running here.

There are little piles of reminders along the road noting that other runners are having a tough time keeping food and liquids in their stomach. This is never a good sign because vomiting too much lends itself to severe dehydration and an early exit. I haven’t seen any colorful displays yet, which means the Major must be okay.

For brief moments during the day and into the night, I run with my friend Paul Stone. He is crewed by his lovely wife, Abby, a budding cinematographer. She is worried when he is slowed by some horrid stomach problem, but I know that Paul’s tenaciousness will fight this thing off and she can videotape him and everybody else at the finish.

While taking a drink around mile-20, something unusual happens. I knock out one of my front crowns and break the tooth behind it with my water bottle. Strange, I don’t remember this in my race plans.

Just before the Beatty turnoff (mile-28) I catch Chris Frost who is captivated by the super soaking that my crew was giving me. My crew relented and gave him our spare soaker to keep himself cooled down. I hope it helped. I was also glad that mine kept working.

The last five miles into the small resort of Stovepipe Wells (mile-42), where one has a grand view of the famous Death Valley Sand Dunes, which are now stunningly shadowed by the early afternoon sun, has always been the hottest part of the race. This year is no different. Even as I begin to wilt in the 126-degree heat that can be seen undulating from the surface of the road, I continue to run at a brisk pace knowing that a shower at the motel is beckoning. Although it is enticingly inviting, I manage to stay out of their small pool. For unknown reasons jumping in the water has given other runners and myself incredible cramps. I have seen runners go into convulsions and know others who have vomited parts of their stomach lining. For these runners it becomes a frustrating early exit.

After a shower and a 15-minute respite to snack on peanut butter, olives and power gel, I begin the sixteen-mile long and relentless trek up the tough grade to the top at Towne’s Pass.

Except for the overwhelming record setting 130-degree temperatures during my first Badwater race in 1998, when my toenails exploded like kernels of popcorn, the first few miles out of Stovepipe Wells were the hottest I have ever been in my life. A gentle mountain breeze was picking up the 200-degree radiated pavement heat and blowing it right in my face. Nor was there any relief walking on the hot berm of sand on the shoulder of the road. I had trained for months in a 170-degree sauna in order to adapt to this heat. In a sauna you can cool off by leaving the room, but out here there is no escape. The heat clings to you and cannot be washed away. I felt like I was in a frying pan and would soon melt.

My race plan was to jog at a slow pace to the top of this grade. Unfortunately the extreme heat was taking its toll. I was having trouble breathing in the oven-like air and my legs began to feel like heavy logs. I became extremely fatigued and even walking was torturous. But I knew from my 25-years of running that even when the body is subjected to extreme conditions, it has a miraculous way of recovering. It just has to be fed the proper food and fluids. As I inch forward, I consume lots of PowerAde, water and Power Gel. As it starts to get dark and cools down to a pleasant 100-degrees, I begin to feel better.

Somewhere around mile forty-eight, I came upon one of the South American runners who I thought had a chance to win this race. He and his crew were sitting on the side of the road commiserating and consoling each other. The strained look in their eyes told me that he was finished. So much training, preparation and dreaming and now it was all over. The harsh day had taken another victim. He had rolled snake eyes with 88-miles to go.

Although I felt more rested, I knew that I could not run all the way to the top. I was forced to resort to plan B. I strapped on my Sony CD player and I listened to my favorite music. I would run during a song and then power walk the next one. This alternating scheme worked so well that I was able to charge up the mountain pass. My crew said that all that they heard, for the next two days, was Arthur Webb merrily singing along and creating havoc with the music from the Simon and Garfunkel Greatest Hits Album.

By the radiator stop at the top of Towne’s Pass (mile-59) I felt a ten-minute well-deserved catnap was in order. Mistake number one. After a few minutes on the cot, my body was hammered everywhere with incredible cramping. My body was suffering from severe dehydration. Knots the size of walnuts began to surface first in my hamstrings and then in my stomach and quadriceps. Any movement caused a dozen more cramps. Instead of letting me bend up like a pretzel, my crew yanked me to a standing position. After walking around and consuming large amounts of electrolytes my system stabilized.

Then I began the thirteen-mile segment to the Panamint Springs Resort. The first six-miles are quick as I run down the mountain pass in the cool of the evening and then face the more difficult seven-mile run across the Panamint Valley. Near the bottom I run into Kari Marchant who is suffering but still full of energy. After a few minutes of censored chitchat, I charge ahead into the dark of night.

It was time for a refill of inspiration as I catch Rick Nawrocki by the Panamint salt flats (mile-65), which were iridescent from the glowing full moon. This man, his life in peril from an invasion of cancer and suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy, had finished the last few Badwater races. Fortunately he has been cancer free for a year, but now is struggling with a groin pull and other problems. If you ever want to really get emotional just wait for Rick at the finish line. He will be there. This gentle giant will never quit. Rick is my super hero.

After reaching the Panamint Springs Resort (mile-72), I stopped in the hospitality room for a bathroom break. Then I sat down in the parking lot and waited for my crew to make the scrambled eggs that I always crave. Whoops, another big mistake. Ten minutes later I felt woozy and blacked out for a few seconds on the desert floor. While I was laying low and looking around at the sympathetic eyes of my wife and crew, I flashed on the dreaded DNF (did not finish) column during a brief weak moment.

I could feel the tension among my crew as they attempted to figure out how to help me. They have been working hard for the last twenty-four hours catering to all my needs. They are also tired and weary from all the blistering and punishing heat. I tell them that salt and water is what my system needs the most. Dehydration continues to be the problem and I will be redlining it the rest of the race.

Although I was feeling awful, I knew that I was never going to quit. The kids that I run for at the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home, a crisis center for abused and abandoned children in Santa Rosa, CA, were following this race on local radio and on the Badwater race website. How could I ever face them if I folded up my tent and went home. They have already seen enough giving up in their lives. Besides, my few hours of suffering would be nothing compared to the anguish that some of these kids will have to face their entire lives. Also, scrawled on the side of my van was the motto, “The objective is to finish. We didn’t come out here to quit. Do it for the kids.” This was strong medicine and a powerful incentive.

My biggest concern was that besides the Crystal Geyser water, PowerAde and my secret favorites, Cheetos, Starbucks Frappuccinos, and O’Doul’s, there was nothing in my goody filled van that would satiate me. I even spat out the eggs I was craving. Remember the saying food, food everywhere but nothing to eat?

Time for Plan C. Get to the finish line the best way you can. I got off the ground and started the gigantic snail-like struggle up the extremely steep eight-mile mountain pass. The first few miles are sheer torture as the disoriented, nauseated and physically worn body just wants to stop, lay down and sleep. I had just slammed into the well-known “Marathoner’s Wall” and now was attempting to drag it up this hillside. In order to finish, I had to somehow dig down deep to find a way to continue to push forward.

Amazingly our cell phone rang. It was my father-in-law and sister-in-law driving in from Los Angeles checking in on our progress. I told them to stop at a Subway and bring me an assortment of cheese and meat sandwiches. By the time I reached the summit at Father Crowley’s Point (mile-80) they were just arriving. Unbelievable. A special delivered catered lunch out in the middle of the desert. I sat on the stoop of the van (there will be no more lying down) and gobbled a sandwich and washed it down with Ensure. Feel better? Yes. A Small miracle? Maybe.

A few miles later, where the road snakes along the side of the mountain and we have a spectacular view of a mini-like Grand Canyon, an F-15 on a training mission passes just above our heads. It was amazing to watch this silver bird sailing along the canyon walls. Near the bottom it went vertical for a few seconds then rolled over several times and disappeared into the horizon. Minutes later as he repeated the exercise we began jumping up and down honoring this awesome air display. Stay tuned Saddam.

The next ten miles of gently rolling hills should be easy to run but they are not. Having to face another hot day, the sleep deprived and overworked system begins to fight back. Foods in liquid form are poured down the throat and chased with gulps of water since chewing and swallowing have become difficult. It is ironic that we have to eat and hydrate constantly to maintain, while the myriad of fragile desert plant life everywhere in this valley struggles for survival all summer long on only a few drops of water. And we think we are tough.

I am still struggling at the Darwin checkpoint (mile-90), yet I somehow manage to run the next ten miles of slight down hills before stopping and taking group pictures at the 100-mile mark. Usually from this vantage point one can view the Owens Valley ringed by the massive granite walls of the Eastern Sierras and the equally impressive White Mountains. But not this year. The smoke from a gigantic forest fire on the western side of the mountains had blanketed the region. A notable race landmark, the burg of Keeler (mile-108), which is nestled on the edge of the dried up Owens Lake, was also blotted out. Not all news is bad. Only thirty-five miles to go.

Near Keeler the setting sun and rising moon are full and brilliant and orange from the fog-like smoke. Somewhere in the distance, in this Mars-like landscape, there is the clanking of a piece of machinery. From the dark crevices of the tired mind strange movements begin to appear and at any moment I expect to see Star Wars creatures crawling across the eerie scenery.

Dinner (a can of cold Campbell’s Chunky soup) was served on the side of the road at Keeler (a.k.a. Killer). Four years ago at this same spot it was 125-degrees at six in the afternoon. I was suffering from heat exhaustion and had to be wrapped in an ice bag for twenty minutes before I could continue. Two years ago CalTrans paved five miles of road along this stretch earlier in the day. The soles of my running shoes began melting as the 200-degree pavement began to skewer me.

Reinvigorated by the sense that the end is relatively near, I run the last 14-miles into the city of Lone Pine. Before the final climb, I socialize with Lisa Smith’s husband, Jay (Mr. Mom), at the Dow Villa Hotel while my crew tended to a minor emergency.

As Jason and I make the left turn on the MT Whitney Portal Road for the thirteen-mile climb to the finish line, we see the large white LP (Lot of Pain) lettering appropriately emblazoned on a knoll high above the amazingly crafted Alabama Hills. Minutes later, in total darkness, a profound tic-tic-ticking began to close in from below. Heck, we had just started this climb and something was already after us. Fortunately it was just Major Maples tapping the pavement with a stick in each hand for cadence and balance. With his determined look and quick pace, he appeared to be storming the beach. He would get his buckle. Semper Fi Mr. Maples.

Weariness is again creeping in as I begin to think and speak in fragments. I spend half an hour trying to recite (race winner) Pam Reed’s Macbethian approach to this event, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.” But it only gets mixed up with other Shakespearean stuff. Although I never did manage to say it correctly, it will be my theme song for next year.

Suddenly from the pavement up ahead came this huge ghostly glob of transparent goo with a face full of beady eyes. It was heading straight for me but I was able to dodge away. Then little humanoids began to appear along the road and strange animals were crouched amongst the fern-like shrubbery waiting for us to falter. Jason also sensed their presence as we both picked up the pace and managed to pass safely. Several years ago at this same spot a group of Yetis and a flock of prehistoric pterodactyls were escorting me up this mountain. Hallucinations or not, this is great stuff.

Just after our narrow escape I catch Toni Miller from the six o’clock start. She was concentrating hard and was handily moving up the mountain. Two more hours at the current pace and she would buckle. For encouragement and confidence, I praised her on the great job she was doing. I added that the last bit of struggle and suffering would be soon forgotten while the finish line and her prized buckle would last forever. Then I went twenty feet ahead at a slightly faster pace and started cutting all the corners to save precious time. I was hoping that she would follow suit, which she did. With two miles to go I told her that the sweet smell in the air was the finish line. Nothing was going to slow her down now.

When she realized that the end was near, her emotions began to take over. Toni excused herself for all the tears. Forget it. Cry a river. This is the best part. She wanted me to cross the finish line with her. I begged off. This crowning moment was hers. It was the reward for all the hard work that she had done. I stepped aside and watched Toni and her friends break the tape in forty-seven hours and thirty-nine minutes. It was worth the trip just for this touching moment. Toni would have made it without my intervention; I just hope I helped make it a little easier.

Minutes later I cross the finish line with my excited crew. This most incredibly difficult forty-three hour mission is finally over. The next few minutes are filled with enormous pride and satisfaction as the yelling and weeping spill forth. This celebration is the culmination of a successful yearlong journey that thoroughly tests you mentally, physically, emotionally and at far greater depths where the will and soul reside. I firmly believe that if one can finish this race than anything is possible. In my little running world completing Badwater is as good as it gets.

After crossing the finish line the body that has struggled and worked so hard needs to recover and immediately begins to shut down. Only minutes before I was trudging up a difficult thirteen-mile grade and now I can’t walk five feet. I am literally poured into the van and we head down the mountain. There is a string of runners pushing up the hill attempting to fulfill their dreams. I think they are all going to make it.

After we arrive at the hotel, my shoes are pried off and the socks are peeled from my severely blistered and swollen hamburger-like feet. Unable to sleep from a post-race buzz, I start to shuffle down Main Street. Seconds later I trip on a small rock and do a belly flop in front of a group of tourists. As I was on my knees, wiping the gravel and dust from the strawberries across my elbows, one of the spectators gives me a seven point five for the sidewalk springboard dive. To prove it was no fluke I did it again one block away in front of the post office. I better get to bed before I really hurt myself.

The next day, during the long drive home, the adrenaline begins to dissipate and my frayed mind and body are totally consumed by extreme fatigue. Although my thoughts are many miles away and this race seems just like a dream to me now, there is still a small pocket of endorphins racing around deep inside that are already looking forward to the 2003 Badwater race.

Although it will take several months to fully recover, I can’t wait to start the 120-miles a week running regimen. I also look forward to the daily Nautilus workouts and the baking sessions in the sauna at the 24-Hour Fitness Center. Even at 61-years-old, I should do better. I believe that I have finally figured this race out. And, as they say, the sixth time is a charm.

I can’t wait for the summer training sessions when I can hang around with all my friends and heroes. The camaraderie here is top-notch.

I can’t wait for the preparation and the journey across the desert when we drive to the starting line and everyone is full of energy and excitement.

I can’t wait to run through all the beauty and majesty that is in Death Valley and on Mt Whitney. This place refreshes my faith and helps me feel young and alive.

Although someone once said that the special ring to this Badwater race is similar to the tolling of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Bells”, I can’t wait to come back.

Thanks to Race Director Chris Kostman and his support team at AdventureCORPS. This was your best race.

Thanks to Ben and Denise Jones for all your help and compassion. Everyone loves you.

Thanks to my crew for suffering along with me in the desert. Without your help I would not have made it.

Thanks to Ted and Suzie’s Deli Express. I promised I would do anything for those sandwiches. Yes, I am still going to paint your house in September. (I did).

Thanks to all the Santa Rosa Postal Workers, Post 21 of the American Legion, KMGG-FM, KSRO-AM and Channel 50 for all their support and contributions for all the kids and the special interactive program at the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home.

Thanks to my wonderful and understanding wife. Honestly next year will be my last Badwater race. Maybe.

It was indeed an honor to be part of the toughest footrace in the world the Sun Precautions 2002 Badwater Ultramarathon.

Badwater Runners’ Report for the JustDo262 Yahoo Group

2002 Finisher

Well, I can’t believe it’s over!

The planning, training, worrying, running, walking, limping and crying are done. All that is left of the 2002 Sun Precautions Badwater Ultramarathon are the memories. And what wonderful memories they are. At some point, I’ll try and put together a more profound piece about the experience, but for now, here’s what I recall about what happened:


I won’t have had the slightest idea of how to train for Badwater if my buddy Greg Minter hadn’t done it last year. In fact, I would never have even considered doing the race if not for Greg. I’ve been able to “participate” in 100 milers in Vermont and Angeles Crest and for the 135 mile Badwater race as a crew/pacer for Greg. That was more than enough to keep me happy. But there was something about Badwater (and maybe Greg’s subtle pressure relentlessly applied) that inspired me to step out of the shadows and put myself on the line.

I almost hate to admit it, but I really enjoyed training for Badwater. All the runs we did were at “Badwater pace,” which, for us, meant somewhere between 10-12 minute miles. Too slow to run with most of the runners we know so we trained mainly by ourselves. We ran between 70 and 90 miles a week with our long run averaging over a marathon (about 27 miles) for about 4 1/2 months.

Diana Rush was the only person we really ran with regularly. She was great. She never complained about our pace and always pushed to make sure we did all the miles we’d planned. She even tolerated driving around with the heater on from January through the final heat waves we got in July. We went to the gym and sauna regularly. By the end, Greg, Diana and I had used up most of our stories and began to long for others to talk to. 🙂


Greg and I were blessed to have absolutely incredible crews. In fact, I can say without hesitation that I would not have finished if it weren’t for my crew. The day shift consisted of Linda Daniels-Hernandez, BJ Anderson and Diana. Their shift was from 10 AM to 10 PM. This all-female crew earned the nickname the “Desert Wildflowers” at one of the training clinics we attended. They seemed to attract so many of the male runners/crew at the clinic that I thought I’d have to bring twice as much water and ice to “support” these friendly guys. The night crew, for the 10 PM to 10 AM shift was Wendy and JR Young for the first night. Wendy was joined by Saul Hernandez and my daughter Stephanie for the second night as JR went over to help Greg’s crew.

Suffice it to say, my crew was incredible. In the months leading up to the race, their excitement was clear and they gave so freely of their time to attend meetings, training clinics, request vacation time, etc, anything that was necessary. During the race they put so much effort into making sure I was OK. I felt so well-supported out there, I can’t imagine anyone being able to complete this event without such a caring group of people.

I must also thank Greg’s crew for all they did for him and for the support they gave me. Mark Giebel, Mark Gilmour, Charlie Marko and Charlotte Vernon did an absolutely wonderful job with Greg. He had some tough stretches that he had to fight through but his crew was great and were invaluable in helping him recover. Tying our crews together were Greg’s parents Lewin and Sue. They are the parents that everyone longs to have. I think every one of our crew members was calling them “mom & dad” by the end of the week. Somehow they were able to keep all of our crews supplied with ice, water, whatever, always seemed to know how Greg and I were doing, and were waiting at the perfect places to give us a hug along the way.


There were 3 starting blocks to minimize traffic on the two-lane highway from Badwater to the first timed station at Furnace Creek. I ended up starting 4 hours ahead of Greg at 6 AM. We had hoped to start together since all of our training was done together but, as race day approached, we decided that the 4 hour stagger might be better because Greg would probably run faster than I and would catch up at some point along the course. As expected, Greg did run faster but he never did catch up so, consequently, we never saw each other on the course. We did get an occasional update of how the other was doing, but we each ended up running our own race.

The 6 AM start was packed with all the female competitors in the race. Also in my starting block were some of the more well-known Badwater runners (Marshall Ulrich – only person do a “quad” – four crossings during last years race – and a solo unassisted-crossing; Major Curt Maples, Lisa Smith-Batchen and Jack Denness of Running on the Sun fame; Scott Weber – first to do a triple crossing). There was even a guy who ran dressed in a Roger Rabbit costume. Heard that he didn’t even make it 10 miles and had two 911 calls.

The beginning of the race went really well. It was in the low 90s when we started at 6:00. I was probably near the back of the pack and running comfortably. My plan was to take advantage of the “cool” start and run most of the way to Furnace Creek. Wendy and JR were crewing that section and everything felt fine – just like the previous times I’d run this section in the clinics and the race last year. I got to Furnace Creek in 3:47, almost 15 minutes ahead of schedule, feeling good.

The Desert Wildflowers took over from there. I think I ran a little bit after Furnace Creek but my plan was to walk all the way to Stovepipe Wells (mile 42). This is the hottest section of the course, through the heart of Death Valley. It is here where most DNFs occur. The crew kept me cool with iced bandanas around my neck and a cool-water soaking every mile. Linda found a clever way to get ice onto my head without needing to take off my hat. I had bought an ice cap with a zippered compartment for ice. She would just unzip the pouch and scoop ice directly in. It looked like she was actually pouring ice INTO my brain. It all worked well to help manage the heat. I didn’t want to ever know the temperature but afterward we heard that the reported high was 123F and most of the car temperature gauges were reading 130F. Regardless, it was hot.

I reached Stovepipe Wells at about 6:30 PM, a half-hour behind schedule. I felt good and took a few minutes to have BJ massage my legs and feet (she’s a massage therapist in addition to her many other skills). After about a half-hour I was heading out of Stovepipe and up the 18 mile climb to Townes Pass. Almost immediately out of Stovepipe I started to get sleepy. Yikes, it’s only 7:00 PM, I thought. After a Starbucks Frappicino and Hansen’s Energy drink, I was alert again and digging out the night gear (head lamp, flashlights and reflective gear) that all runners and crew must have for the dark. Basked in the light of the full moon, I trudged up to Townes Pass with the Wildflowers until Wendy and JR relieved for the night shift.

I finally began to see more runners on the Townes Pass section. Many of those who started at 8:00 or 10:00 were now passing me. In fact, we saw Matt Penn, a Runners’ Reporter who now lives in Tucson. He had inquired about crewing for me but heard that my crew was pretty full so he offered to be the 2nd crew member for a runner from Idaho whom he’d only corresponded with a few times over the internet. Nice guy, that Matt.

It must have been at the shift change that I heard that Greg had gotten sick a couple of times in Death Valley. Didn’t hear much other than that but I started to get worried. He had gotten sick at the clinics last year but not at all during the race. I also heard that lots of guys in the 10 AM start had been sick because it was well over 100F when they started.

My pre-race plan was to run, very slowly, up much of the climb to Townes Pass. That didn’t happen. I was more than happy to just walk the hill but it set me back a few hours on my projected race time. There’s a steep downhill section after the peak at Townes Pass. I ended up walking most of that too, casually stopping every mile to snack with Wendy or JR. I probably took too long at these aid stops this first night but my stomach was a little queasy and I wasn’t really sure what to eat. Root beer, Fritos, Quench gum and that magic elixir – chicken soup – seemed to do the trick. I did start to get a little tired in the wee hours of the morning but managed to stay awake and moving.

Near the bottom of the hill, I decide to run. Mistake. There’s a seemingly endless flat section through Panamint Valley after the downhill from Townes Pass where I though I might be able to make up some time. I figured I could get a running start and make up some time before the next time station in Panamint Springs. Shortly after I picked up the pace, I started to feel tightness in the upper part of my right calf and up through the knee. I know now that I either strained, pulled or partially tore something. I was still able to walk/limp but running was out of the question.

We finally got to Panamint Springs at about 8:30 AM, 2 1/2 hours behind schedule. There was a hospitality suite set up for runners to shower/sleep so I hobbled in to change my clothes for Day 2. I stayed at Panamint for about 20-30 minutes. I ended up passing some people here who took sleep breaks. My placing in the race wasn’t really the issue here. I just wasn’t sleepy so I decided to keep moving.


Immediately out of Panamint Springs is a steep 8 mile climb to the Father Crowley Lookout at mile 80. This was a slow, arduous climb. The highlights here were the 10 AM crew change where Linda, BJ and Diana rejoined me and some low altitude flybys from jet fighters who use the area for training. They seemed close enough to touch and their power was both exhilarating and frightening. I think I must have started to look kinda bad on the climb because Linda went into assessment mode (she is a social worker who works with cancer patients) and kept asking me my name, address, today’s date, and to do “simple” math like counting backward from 100 in “serial 7s.” I got my name and address right, and relied on looking at my watch to get the day/date correct (that’s a lot to expect when I hadn’t slept in over 30 hours) but I could never do mental math when running anyway so the serial 7s were out!

Near the top of Crowley, I tested my feeble mental math skills and tried to figure out how fast I need to move in order to finish within the 60 hour time limit. There were 55 miles left and I’d miscalculated so I really began to question whether I’d make the cutoff. Finally I asked the crew to figure it out. They said I only needed to go 2 mph and would finish with 3 hours to spare. Not bad, I thought. I could do that.

Maybe not. The next time station was at the Darwin cutoff at mile 90. My paced slowed quite a bit on the long downgrade to Darwin. My leg was really tightening up and I was limping badly. I hadn’t taken any medication up to this point but I was getting really concerned about finishing so I took some Aleve. BJ had some homeopathic anti-inflammatories so I took those too. I noticed that stopping made my leg tight up even worse so I tried to limit my stops at the van and kept walking through the aid stations.

I finally got to Darwin just before 5 PM on Wednesday, 35 hours into the race. I’m approaching virgin territory now. The longest I’d ever run was 91 miles at a 24-hour track run a few years ago. I remember how sore I was after that and don’t even want to think what 45 more miles will do to me.

Every day at dusk, we’d see smoke from the fire in Sequoia. Wednesday evening was something else. The air was think with black smoke and ash. The rising moon had an orange cast to it. The gloom brought my spirits down too. Too far to go on a hobbled leg. How will I get through another night without sleep? Too many questions left and not enough energy to search for answers.

Somewhere around mile 95, Linda’s husband Saul arrived. A godsend. Saul is an emergency room nurse with a very quiet and caring manner. I had originally wanted Saul there because of his medical background. Unfortunately, his request for vacation during the race as turned down. But, as things have a way of working themselves out, he was schedule off on Wednesday and Thursday which, at the last minute, made him available for the Wednesday night shift.

What I hadn’t counted on was Saul’s ability to immediately assess the situation and develop an emergency plan. This plan was to get me to the finish line. I don’t really know what happened, but Saul, Linda and BJ got together and figured out exactly what was needed to get me to finish the race. It was as if I was plopped down into this finely tuned machine. Things went from them asking me what I wanted to my crew taking over. They made things simple. Just keep walking, keep up with my pacer and let them know how I was feeling. They did the rest. They calculated how fast I needed to move, spaced out my advil and homeopathics, massaged and wrapped my leg with ice and an ace bandage, kept me hydrated and fed, spaced out doses of caffeine to keep me awake and alert. In short, they did everything. All I did was walk.

From this point, almost everything was a blur. I just walked and did what they said. Sometime that evening I became the “crooked man.” I hadn’t even noticed it but others kept asking why I was leaning to the left. With my entire right leg bandaged and my upper body listing severely to the left, I was quite a pitiful sight. Had I known I looked that bad, I might have reconsidered going on.

Through the blur of the 2nd night, I do recall a few things. The crew stretched a roll of toilet paper across the road at mile 100 so I could “break the tape.” This was the first time I “lost it.” Stephanie showed up at about mile 105 with Wendy for the night shift crew change. My daughters have always been very supportive of my running and it was wonderful to have Stephanie there. I was glad that she could see how great my friends are and how hard they were working to get me through this thing. It seems like people don’t really “get” why runners do Badwater until you are there to experience the race. I’m happy that Stephanie now really “gets it.”

Saul stayed on the night shift that 2nd night with Wendy and Stephanie. With my leg in the state that it was, I wanted to make sure that either Saul or BJ were on shift at all times for their knowledge of traditional and alternative medications. I made steady progress the 2nd night. Saul had told me earlier that, because my pace had slowed and we’d taken some time to refigure the crew shifts. I needed to do 2 mph but would only have a 45 minute cushion to finish. They were trying to build up that cushion because the last 13 miles of the course is the climb up to 8300 ft on the Whitney Portal Road. With my leg in such bad shape, their goal was to get me to Lone Pine by 6 AM so I’d have 12 hours to do the final climb.

On the way to Lone Pine, I kept hearing that Greg was only 1 1/2 to 2 miles behind. I’d heard that repeatedly throughout the 2nd day and was constantly expecting him to catch up. Then, I’d start to worry again. I knew I was moving slowly so I thought the worst. He’s sick again. He’s injured. Maybe he just stopped to sleep. Regardless, we never did see each other.


I got to the Junction of the 395 in Lone Pine at 5:30 AM, a half-hour ahead of schedule. Our hotel was just past this intersection but I didn’t stop at the room. Instead, I got a hug from Greg’s mom, Sue who was waiting in front of the motel. I lost it again. She’s wonderful. The walk to the time station at the Dow Villa Motel was long and slow. This is the point of the race when it begins to sink in that I’ll finish. Again, no real break in Lone Pine and I head up to Mt Whitney.

Last night, Wendy and Stephanie made a trip into Line Pine to get some trekking poles that I might use for the climb. I try them but they are too awkward on the road. Linda, BJ and Diana drive by and I ask them to drive 1 mph. I want to know that I’m going at least that fast. I am. I’m going to finish.

The climb up the Portal Road was quite an experience. I knew that I had plenty of time so my pace was somewhat leisurely. By now I am really leaning to the left. Every car that drives by applauds and shouts encouragement. I feel odd because I don’t feel that bad or in much pain but I know I look horrible. I start to get double vision when I look too far up the road, so I stop looking ahead. By now, the entire crew is here. We take turns so that everyone does a mile with me. Matt Penn is there again. His runner had to drop. He takes lots of pictures of the crooked man. I’m still getting the same reports about Greg. He’s doing well and is only about a mile or two behind. I want to stop and wait to cross the finish line with him but my leg won’t let me. I need to keep going or it gets really tight.

Near the finish, a photographer from the San Diego Union-Tribune snaps picture after picture of the crooked man. They are doing a feature article on Badwater for the paper in August and a reporter will interview me after the race. I guess the crooked man sells papers.

If I can’t finish with Greg, I want to finish with my crew. They are responsible for me completing this race so they deserve to cross the line just as much as I do. BJ, Saul, Diana, Stephanie, JR, Linda, Wendy and I cross the finish line of the Badwater Ultramarathon in just over 55 hours. We cried a lot after we finished. It was wonderful.

Shortly afterward, Greg got to the finish line in 51 1/2 hours. I guess he WAS just a mile or two behind. We hugged and he finishes his SECOND Badwater.


This turned out to be quite a year to do Badwater. First, it was the 25th Anniversary of the first run from Badwater to the top of Mt Whitney. That first runner, Al Arnold was there for the whole week and congratulated us at the finish line. Then there were a couple of big articles in the LA Times after the race. Well, it was after the race for some but many of us were still out on the course when the first article appeared. This race will have special meaning because, for the first time at Badwater, a woman was the overall winner. Pam Reed cut nearly two hours off the women’s course record and finished just under 28 hours. And the fires posed and interesting atmospheric challenge for many of us.

Next year? I don’t think so. This was to be my one shot at Badwater. I’m glad I finished. I love the race and the people associated with it but I want this to be my memory of Badwater. I doubt that running a faster time would give me any more than I got this year. I’ll be indebted to my crew always and feel confident that this will be an experience that they will never forget.

Thanks also to all of you who have support our training efforts and were thinking of us during the race. So many of you have said they were checking our progress on the webcast. In case you missed the NPR piece yesterday, Mike Howard send the following website when you can hear a replay: click here.

The NPR interview features Angela Brunson who runs with the Mountain Goats and is on the Runners’ Report. We were fortunate to get to know her and her crew (including boyfriend Brian and fellow Runners’ Reporter Bill Lockton) during the training clinics and at the race. Angela looked amazingly perky at the finish line and I hear she even came back and ran with the Goats last weekend! Angela and I started together but I never saw her in the race either as she buckled, finishing in 45 hours..

Thanks also to Duffy and Stan who got updates and other info and photos onto the NBB website during the race.

Also, JR has posted some of his pictures of the race: Badwater Ultra Heat Training Clinic-2002

2002 Badwater UltraMarathon Group 1:

2002 Badwater UltraMarathon Group 2:

Ben Jones, the honorary Mayor of Badwater is also the coroner up in INYO County. He sent the following are the race: “I did a coroner’s case the other day on a 39 year-old Swiss professor who tried to go from the DV floor to Telescope peak and back. He drove out the West Side Road and 4 miles up Hanaupah Canyon Road. He parked there one or two days earlier. He made it back to within a few hundred yards of his vehicle. He died of heat stroke with extreme dehydration. His body was partially mummified within hours of his demise on the Wednesday of our Race.”


USMC Major Wm Curt Maples Barfathon


Well, for me, Badwater 2001 turned into an expensive training run. Although I had high hopes for this year’s run, it was just not to be. I felt really good up to about the 39-mile point, and then I started feeling BAD. I figured I would just rest and cool down a bit and then keep going. I got out of the pool and threw up and got really bad cramps in my calves. I tried to replace the fluids but they just came back up. I saw Dr. Jones in front of the store and told him I was not feeling too well. I drank, among other things, a can of tomato juice, in an effort to replace lost sodium. This resulted in a spectacular regurgitation in glorious Technicolor (a technobarf!). This was preceded by a megabarf in the back of the store. I walked very slowly up the road: Unlike my minor sick spells at Western States, I was utterly drained of energy, and was walking at about a 1 mile an hour pace. I would go about a half-mile, get into the van, cool down and drink, then take ten steps and throw it all back up again. After a few hours and about 2 miles of progress (And what seemed like a few gallons of liquid), I decided to bail out. My intention was to complete Badwater while incurring only minor damage, as I have Leadville in only 3 weeks. I knew that if I kept going, I would either collapse outright or, even if I recovered somewhat, would probably wreck my chances of completing Leadville and Wasatch, two races I must complete in order to finish the Grandslam. I am very disappointed, but not at all discouraged: If I wanted a sure bet, I would be running 10K’s, not Badwater. If I have not already moved overseas at this point next year, I will most certainly return to try again. At any rate, I DID manage to live up to my reputation!

Curt [USMC Major William Curt Maples]- aka “The famous Gutpuker from Texas”

Dead Run

Originally published by New Times L.A. Aug 23, 2001

©2002 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Vilma Mejia was vomiting, couldn’t keep fluids or anything else in her system. She had lost 17 pounds in about 12 hours. And she was starting to become disoriented, losing track of where she was and what she was doing. It would have been frightening to a young buck in boot camp, but Mejia was pushing 50, and she is a tiny thing—she didn’t have 17 pounds to give away to begin with. Her husband, Oscar, knew it was going to be difficult to get her to stop. Mejia refused to admit she had a problem, didn’t see anything so wrong with her that she had to quit. Oscar had to figure out a way to do an intervention, and fast.

“Get in the car, rest for a little while, then you can go on,” he told her as she approached Stovepipe Wells, 42 miles from the starting line. Mejia accepted his offer. She’d been feeling weak since about the 20-mile mark. Even though she’d been preparing herself mentally and physically for the heat, Death Valley had outstripped her worst expectations. When she’d left the starting line at 8 a.m. the thermometer read 120 degrees Fahrenheit. “At about 20 miles, it got really hot,” she said later. She waited a few moments in the car, tried to get some water to stay down, opened the door and staggered back out into the heat. The sun was setting. The temperature was bound to fall sooner or later. All Mejia had to do, she figured, was to keep moving. Secretly, though, Oscar had no intention of letting her leave Stovepipe Wells, a wide spot in the road that slices through the most famous desert in North America.

Oscar drove ahead and waited for his wife in the little town. He got her on a scale, and the weight loss was undeniable and alarming. She’d been pushing hard, doing miles in the 12-minute range when she was planning to average 15-minute miles, and the heat was making her pay for her speed. Mejia tried to rehydrate herself, tried to keep down water and Gatorade, tied ice in a bandana and put it behind her neck. But nothing worked. In some sports, athletes are allowed to refuel their bodies intravenously, but in this race an IV drip means instant disqualification. Oscar told his wife, ever so gently, “You have to stop. You cannot go on without hurting yourself.”

Vilma Mejia is not prone to yelling and cursing, but she is insistent. She tried to reason with her husband, tried to convince him it would be OK. But Oscar, a physical rehabilitation specialist, refused. Vilma didn’t take that well. She fumed silently for a moment or two. Then she turned to her husband and said, “OK, if I can’t keep going, at least drive me to the finish line. I want to see it. I want to be there.” So they headed across the desert, then up the slopes of the highest peak in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney. There they waited. Twenty-five hours and nine minutes after the 135-mile race began, Russian Anatoli Kruglikov crossed the finish line, setting a new record and winning last year’s Badwater Ultramarathon.

The contest, sanctioned by West L.A.-based adventureCORPS, which promotes extreme sports, sounds insane. It is the equivalent of more than five back-to-back marathons through the hottest place on Earth in freakin’ July, where the ground itself burns you and the air is so dry that your glasses won’t fog when you breathe on them—the suffocating heat vaporizes the tiny droplets of moisture almost immediately. The start is at Badwater, the lowest point in North America; the finish line is two valleys away, a mile and a half in the sky. If a prison warden tried to make his inmates do this, the courts would have his scalp. Yet since Al Arnold first made the run in 1977, hundreds of runners have attempted to follow his footsteps, voluntarily putting themselves through the kind of physical abuse prisoners of war rarely see—the Badwater run is more than twice the distance of the Bataan Death March.

Every ultramarathon is hard. Badwater, however, has heat unlike anywhere else on the planet. A few years back, four Navy SEALs had applied to run the race, but were rejected because they didn’t have experience in running ultras. As race official Phil Marchant put it, “Just running a marathon doesn’t qualify you to do this.” The SEALs attended a pre-race meeting, and, Marchant recalled, “They stood up and said, “We officially protest; we are as badass as anyone here; we defend you and your country.’ So the organizers let them run that year. Three of them dropped out by Stovepipe Wells, and the last one not far after that.” If you can pull this off, you really have gone somewhere, emotionally and physically, where few people have gone before. When the boys or girls start slinging the machismo over brewskis, you will always have the final word. And even if you never say a word about it to anyone, you will have proved yourself capable of the closest thing to impossible many people can imagine.

Vilma Mejia, who lives in Glendale, sees herself as an example to women in countries where female athletics are discouraged. “I want them to see how much I enjoy this, that anything is possible,” she says, explaining why she runs. But that other reason, to prove to herself that she can, explains better why she had taken another week off from work and dragged her husband and daughter out of bed and into the car at 6 a.m. They headed east on the 10 Freeway, up and over the Cajon Pass on Interstate 15 toward Las Vegas and out to Baker, where they hung a left at the world’s biggest thermometer and sped into the shimmering desert heat. The temperature wasn’t too hot this July day, barely into the hundreds. A promising sign. Ahead was the pre-race meeting and then some rest overnight. The next morning, Vilma Mejia would once again, in Pink Floyd’s words, set the controls for the heart of the sun. The desert owed her one.

“Don’t think about the 135 miles in front of you. Don’t think about the 130-degree temperatures. Don’t think about the 13,000 feet of uphill,” Chris Kostman tells the 22 runners gathered at Badwater for the 8 a.m. start. There is nervous laughter from the group. It will be the last time some of them will laugh for days. Already, runners from the 6 a.m. starting group are miles down the road; the leaders are pounding out a torrid pace, determined to put in some miles before the temperature really rises. All told, 71 ultrarunners from nine countries start the race. Each has either completed a 100-miler or two 50-milers within a calendar year. Mejia is all smiles, gold hoop earrings and lipstick. She didn’t sleep the whole night through. “I woke up a couple of times; I am so excited,” she says before heading to the start line. Her husband kisses her and wishes her the best. “Be calm,” he tells her; she nods, barely hearing. A Marine major has brought a boom box with the “Star-Spangled Banner” on a tape. Everyone stands at attention as the music plays. Then Kostman leads a countdown back from 10, shouts “BANG!” and, in the shadows from the nearby mountaintops of Dante’s View and Coffin Peak, the field heads off.

It wasn’t burning hot at the start in Badwater, where a few brackish ponds lie still at the edge of the salt deposits that make up much of the dry lake bed at the bottom of Death Valley. The road is flush against a cliff that casts a welcome shade. But a few miles down Highway 178 the road snakes west, and as the sun comes up, the shade disappears. Not only are intravenous drips outlawed, so are any methods of protecting the runners from the sun other than sunscreen and clothing. And as the sun beats down, the mercury soars. Five miles from the start, just to the west of the road, is a salt flat known as the Devil’s Golf Course, where bowling ball-size chunks of darkened salt crystals dot the landscape for miles around, expanding and contracting as the heat rises and falls. If you are quiet, you can hear the earth itself play a metallic, Phillip Glass-like composition as the crystals crack and ping in the searing heat.

It is here that the desert claims its first victim. Klaus Schicktanz, 49, of Germany, an accomplished ultramarathoner, flew halfway around the world for this event, only to drop out after five miles. “His crew member came in, handed us his bib and said he was out, no explanation,” says Keith Kostman, the race director’s brother and one of the staffers at the first timing station, in Furnace Creek. It isn’t as hot as last year, but it is hot, and the breeze that is starting to pick up isn’t helping any. Wind merely dries off runners and dehydrates them more quickly.

Vilma Mejia, like most, is alternating between running and walking, changing occasionally to a fresh pair of shoes that Oscar and her daughter Virna keep in a cooler in the back seat of their rented car. Chilled shoes are a godsend when the pavement temperature reaches 200 or higher. Most runners have a “foot box” stuffed with bandages, scissors or razor blades to cut away blisters, and antiseptics and other medicines designed to keep the feet usable. Everyone has their own philosophy of foot care. Some runners swear by a pair of nylons under their socks; some slather their feet with Vaseline; some swathe them with duct tape. The leader, incredibly, is wearing a pair of black surf booties—thin-soled slip-ons normally used to protect feet from pebbly beaches.

“I want my jacket—wet,” Mejia shouts to her daughter, who soaks a lightweight long-sleeved white pullover in water and hands it to her mom as she walks by. Vilma also wears a long-billed white cap with a neck drape that makes her look like a pint-sized French Foreign Legionnaire. She heads on and Virna, a distance swimmer, shakes her head. “I wouldn’t do this race, period,” she says.

The human body in motion is like a controlled nuclear reaction—too little fuel and the reaction dies, too much heat and the core melts down. It’s not just a matter of pushing water into your system, but carefully replacing what the sun and biomechanical effort leaches from your body. Most runners keep careful track of how much weight they are losing and have calculated, for example, the percentage of that loss that is sodium. Water is critical; sports drinks are critical in the right amount. But too much of either can lead to nausea, and that leads to an entirely different set of problems.

Mejia is relying on a diet of ramen noodles and baby food to supplement the fluids she is drinking on a regular basis; the soft foods are easy for the body to digest, leaving energy to the muscles. She uses long, white, lightweight clothing to keep the sun off her skin and her body cool. Other runners take a more direct approach. Their crew members—the better-equipped runners have two or more chase vehicles, often minivans and SUVs rented in Nevada—follow along with squirt bottles, wet rags or Supersoaker water guns, trying to keep their competitors in the game.

Sixteen miles from the start, Highway 178 meets Highway 190 and the runners bear left. They’ve come up 282 feet from Badwater to sea level, then dropped down 191 feet again for another mile into Furnace Creek, an oasis where coyotes prowl the seemingly out-of-place palm grove. The temperature is 108. Most of the runners still look relatively fresh, still smiling and waving enthusiastically to passersby wishing them well. Not all of them will look so good at the next timing station 25 miles up the road.

If Mejia had been taller, she might never have entered a five-kilometer fun run, let alone ultramarathons. Mejia stands only about five-foot-two. That was tall enough to allow her to be competitive in high school basketball in Peru, where she grew up. But as an adult she couldn’t find a league that fit her near her Glendale home, where she and Oscar have lived for 23 years. The kids were out of the toddler stage and her two daughters were taking gymnastics.

“When they’re young, you get your exercise chasing them, so I had been active, but when they got older, I had nothing to do,” she says. Even Oscar was spending his evenings at the local YMCA, playing something called “pickle ball”—similar to tennis except it’s indoors and there’s a heavy plastic ball involved. Vilma was aching for something athletic to do. So one morning in the late 1970s, she got up and wheezed her way around the block. And the lives of her entire family changed.

Mejia’s competitive streak flared up when it combined with her morning jogs. At first, it was five-kilometer runs, then ten-kilometer runs, then half marathons. By 1990, she’d done the L.A. Marathon and was looking for bigger challenges. She was bicycling, had started swimming, and was hunting around for short triathlons to enter. It may seem extreme, but pouring many hours into her training doesn’t seem to have had any ill effects on her life in general. She was getting promotions at work. Nowadays, she investigates financial fraud for Bank of America, working at a 14-story skyscraper in Glendale that provides a useful environment for her midday workouts, and she says the job of tracking down cheats and thieves is mentally challenging. “People put so much effort into trying to cheat, and they get so little in return most of the time,” she says. Her daughters were doing well in school, moving on to college. And Oscar—well, truth be told—Oscar was getting a little nervous when she started talking about triathlons.

“When she brought this up, I said, “Are you sure?’ Running a marathon is one thing, but swimming that distance is something else,” he said, recalling his fear for his mate’s physical well-being. “But once I saw that she could do it…” he shrugs. One gets the feeling he’s learned not to stand in her way too often. But when he does, she listens.

Mejia’s first ultramarathon was the Angeles Crest 100 in 1991, a 100-mile race along the highway that traverses the Angeles National Forest. It remains her favorite ultramarathon experience. “People knew it was my first, and they were cheering me the entire way,” she recalls. And, it being her first, there was little pressure in the way of expectations—she just wanted to finish. She nearly didn’t. At about the 48-mile mark, she tripped and fell, dislocating her thumb. She popped it back in and kept running. And she finished.

When it comes to ultramarathons, distance isn’t the only factor that determines the degree of difficulty. In April 1994, she was running a 50-miler in the hills east of San Diego when Mother Nature got nasty. “The weather was terrible. It was raining and snowing at the end. There was a scale at one of the checkpoints, and when I tried to get on the scale I was totally shaking, my fingers were completely blue,” she says. “It was the first time I ever have hypothermia. I was—how do you say this?—very, very, disoriented.” Mejia still struggles occasionally for the exact English word she needs to get her point across. “I was not doing well at all. My friends took me to a restaurant and fed me soup.” Four months later, she ran a 50-miler in Malibu without problems. “Every run has its risk. You just have to be ready to deal with them,” she says.

Getting ready means the alarm goes off at 3 a.m. in the Mejia household. Vilma’s up first, doing a few calisthenics, then Oscar drags himself out of the bedroom and they’re in the car, heading toward downtown Los Angeles. Vilma used to work in the Bank of America building there, and she shows up most mornings to leave food for some stray cats she’s fond of. Then she runs through Griffith Park back to Glendale for a shower and breakfast before heading for work.

Mejia wears her jet-black hair short, and a pair of gold hoops typically dangle from her ears. Miles of road work have left her lean, with a body fat content of as little as 2 percent at times. Her body is so fit that the last time she had a checkup, her nurse was taken aback. “She tried to take my pulse, and she did it again, and then she dropped my wrist and ran from the room,” Mejia recalls. “She brought another nurse in, and they did it together, and they ran out again. Finally, a doctor came in and asked, “Are you an athlete?'” Her resting heart rate was about half that of a typical adult her age.

Getting ready means training during lunch, and that can mean some odd looks from her co-workers. When she’s training seriously for an upcoming event, she spends her lunches jogging up and down the stairs of the skyscraper, eating as she goes. “I have to eat while I’m running, so it’s good practice,” she says. But her co-workers have gotten behind her. On many of the ultras, the organizers post regular updates on the runners’ progress on the Internet, and on her last one, co-workers hung a banner across the office and charted her progress.

After work, Mejia changes and heads back out on the road for another 14 miles or so. She tries to get in 20 miles a day, taking Wednesday evenings off to spend time at the gym. When a desert race like the Badwater is coming up, she tries to prepare for the heat by piling on the clothes. On one recent hot evening in Glendale, she was wearing long black Lycra tights, a shirt, a long-sleeved turtleneck, and a long-sleeved hooded shirt. A few days later she added a raincoat to the ensemble. On the bright side, she’s not really worried too much about her diet, confessing to an addiction to french fries from Islands and In-N-Out.

It sounds like there’s little time for family. But in an odd sense, this obsession has brought them together. Oscar is his wife’s coach, her confidant. When she wants to train on uphill sections, he’s following her in the car at 3 a.m. to make sure she’s safe. And at least once a year, Vilma and her two daughters get together and do a relay triathlon as a family. Oscar occasionally joins his wife on a short—emphasis on short—bicycle event.

But the strongest bond Vilma and Oscar have formed through years of this has to do with the trust she places in her husband’s judgment. In a way, Vilma has a mental short-circuit that allows her to accomplish what she does. “Most people think they cannot do something, and they give up without ever trying,” she says. “I cannot think that I cannot do something.” The downside of such a mindset is that when she pushes beyond her real physical limits, into territory where serious damage is possible, she ignores the warning signs. She doesn’t trust her own mind, her own body, when they are crying for her to stop. But she does trust Oscar.

Major William Maples, USMC, 37, clad in long white pants and jacket, walks up to the table alongside the general store in Stovepipe Wells. “Runner 13 checking in,” he says. “Can I sit down?” He drops heavily into a folding chair in the shade of a portable canopy, breathing quietly but hard; his eyes have the glazed look of a prizefighter who’s taken one too many shots to the head. He declines water; he declines the offer of an ice-filled bandana draped around his neck. “I’ll be OK, I’ll be OK,” he gasps. “I’m just going through a bad stretch.” After a few minutes, he gets up and walks across the street to a motel swimming pool, where he collapses facedown in a lounge chair and promptly pukes his guts out.

He isn’t the only one suffering. Between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells are probably the nastiest 25 miles of the race. As
the day wears on, Death Valley’s heat builds on itself like a huge natural convection oven. The heated air rising from the desert floor is replaced by cooler air coming down the mountain slopes, but they’re so hot the “cooler” air is superheated by the time it hits the valley floor. As runners trudge toward the sand dunes on the approach to Stovepipe, the temperature soars to 126 degrees.

“A lot of the runners say that the real race begins here,” says Phil Marchant, one of the race staffers manning the Stovepipe timing station. For several runners, the race has ended here. In a cruel twist, the slower you are, the more time you have to spend in that vicious 25-mile stretch. As the sun crawls across the sky, dust devils hundreds of feet high dance across the desert floor like mad engraving needles; shadows grow long but the heat never seems to ease up. Fifty-one-year-old Errol Jones of Oakland, the race’s only African-American, ran the 17 miles to the first timing station in two and a half hours. He was the second-to-last person to make it to the second timing station, taking nearly 12 hours to make it across the last searing stretch of desert floor.

It is near this point where the scariest moment of the race occurs. Reg Richard, 50, of Pleasant Plain, Ohio, had made it past Stovepipe Wells and started up the hill out of the valley, but he was hurting.

It had been 10 hours since he last urinated, and if you’re not peeing in these conditions, especially with all the fluids you’re drinking, your kidneys are malfunctioning and you’re dehydrating. Suddenly, he collapsed in a heap in the cinders on the roadside. A crew member summoned paramedics, and a park ranger who also is an emergency medical technician arrived on the scene, where an argument broke out over the prostrate runner’s body. Richard was semiconscious. His crew wanted him to be allowed to continue, while the medical folks wanted him taken back to Stovepipe Wells to cool down and drink some fluids. Finally, race director Chris Kostman showed up and laid down the law: He didn’t want people killing themselves on his watch.

“This is my race, and this is what is going to happen,” he announces. He points at Richard. “He is going back to Stovepipe Wells. You are going to put him in a room and cool him down. If you try to go forward right now, he is DQ’d. If he leaves that motel before 10 tonight, he is DQ’d.” Richard is placed in the back of the ambulance and driven back down the hill to Stovepipe Wells. Between the ambulance and the door to his motel, Richard cuts loose with four projectile vomits. The last word on him at the timing station is that he has blood in his urine and is receiving medical attention.

Not everyone is experiencing the same level of distress, but everyone is having some kind of trouble. Mejia is taking a beating from the sun; she’s resting for a few moments in the back of her rented Ford Taurus every three miles. She’s trying to balance between drinking too much and not enough, but she is struggling. Oscar and Virna, worried about Vilma’s condition, put an end to the balancing act. “Every five minutes now, you take Gatorade, and we will let things fall as they will,” Oscar tells her. Still, there’s hope for her getting to the finish line; she’s further along the course than she was at this time last year, and she’s actually in better shape than she was last year.

Sometimes the pain is much more personal, as Mark Henderson, 41, of Houston, finds out. Henderson, the aerospace project leader for the space shuttle, sports a pair of loose-fitting shorts that look like the Texas state flag. He is about 50 miles into the race, heading up the slope beyond Stovepipe Wells to the Towne Pass summit when he spots one of his support vans on the side of the road. “Nut butter! Nut butter!” he screams. A crew member whips a canister out of the back of the van and unscrews the lid. Henderson runs up, digs into the canister and comes up with a handful of what looks like runny petroleum jelly; with his other hand, he whips his shorts aside, exposing his boys to the breeze. His next act apparently relieves the chafing there to his satisfaction; he trots back across the road and up the hill, yelling, “Kickin’ ass, a mile at a time!” as he disappears into the fading sunlight.

At about the halfway point, John Quinn, 43, of Boulder, Colorado is well in the lead, pounding away in his flimsy-looking surf booties. He is six miles ahead of his nearest competitor. For fun, Quinn flies to France and competes in triple Ironman competitions that involve miles of swimming, hundreds of miles of bicycling and three marathon runs. By this point in the Badwater race, he’s been pumping out miles in eight minutes, 30 seconds for the length of nearly three marathons. But he’s in pain now. As he slows to a walk on the slight rise up to the third timing station at Panamint Springs Resort, he says, “Not enough miles on the legs in these conditions, and the [curvature] in the road is messing with them, too. We’ll get up to the time station and reassess. This place is kind of hot, but it’s something beautiful.” The swelling in his left knee is visible; his limp is painful to watch.

Nearly an hour back, Rudy Afanador, 42, a forklift operator from Medford, New York, is in second place, coming down the slope leading to the Panamint dry lake bed. He’s just passed a vista point from which Mount Whitney, 73 miles distant, is visible. And Afanador is trucking along, his strides long and powerful, looking more like a guy who’s done six blocks than 60-plus miles. His crew knows Quinn is struggling, and Afanador is hunting him down. But there is pressure from behind, although Afanador won’t know it for hours yet.

Every person who started this race may be an accomplished ultramarathoner, but some are more accomplished than others. Some of the stories border on the unbelievable.

Take 39-year-old Chris Moon, of Hampshire, England. After a stint in the British army, he trained in mine-clearing and went to work in Cambodia, teaching former soldiers there how to clear minefields. In 1995, as he walked through a supposedly clear area, he tripped a mine. The explosion blew off his right leg above the knee and part of his right arm. Already a marathoner, he put on an artificial leg and kept going.

This summer is his third Badwater. This time, like last year, he is going to make it really hard. Anyone, he figures, can run from Badwater to the point where the paved road leading up Mount Whitney ends. Anyone can climb to the top of Whitney. But to turn around and run back to the start, now that would be a challenge. The British Broadcasting Corporation thinks so, too, and has dispatched a camera crew to track his progress through the desert for a documentary on a prototype artificial limb he is trying out.

Sunrise on the second day finds Afanador far ahead on the road. Quinn had made it a mile past the third timing station at Panamint Springs before his left knee blew out. He and his crew sit at the roadside for the next six hours, cheering the other competitors on. Sure, every group of athletes claims to be a family, that they’re brethren as well as competitors, but when you reach this level of competition, it’s more true than nearly anywhere else. There are far more people in the world with the ability to win the Indy 500, more quarterbacks who could win a Super Bowl, than there are people who have a real shot at winning the Badwater. And no matter how well you train, no matter how mentally prepared you are, doing this will hurt. These people know each other; on the road, they ask about the progress of those at the back of the pack as well as those breathing down their necks. One hundred twenty-two miles after the start, Afanador cruises past the final timing station in Lone Pine on Highway 395. It’s almost 26 hours into the event and he’s still running, his closest competitor on the road fading backward behind him.

But he isn’t in the lead anymore.

Young gun Michael Trevino, a 26-year-old San Diego computer geek, is coming to the front, and fast. The software applications engineer had been five minutes back at the first timing station and 37 minutes behind at the second. He’d started in the 10 a.m. group, meaning he’d spent more time running across the desert floor in the hottest part of the day. But in the evening, heading up and over the nearly mile-high Towne Pass, he ran perhaps the most amazing stretch of the race, surging into the lead. He’s up by 55 minutes at the fourth timing station.

Only 10 minutes after Trevino zipped through Lone Pine, Afanador crosses the finish line 8,500 feet above Badwater at the Whitney trailhead, where temperatures barely make it into the 70s during the hottest part of the day. It is 11:03 a.m., slightly more than 29 hours after he started. Now the really hard part begins. He knows Trevino is way ahead on time. All Afanador can do is sip fluids and wait. He’s beaten everyone in his group, and has a huge lead on everyone from the 8 a.m. group. But if that damned Trevino kid shows up anytime before 3 in the afternoon, Afanador is taking home second place.

The wait isn’t anywhere near that long. Trevino crosses the line at 2:18 p.m., winning by 45 minutes, his eyes looking somewhat sunken, but he’s still standing, walking easily. Amazingly, Richard, the sick guy, has dragged himself from the motel room in Stovepipe Wells and back into the race. It takes him more than 12 hours to make it to the third timing station 30 miles away, then nearly 18 hours to make it the next 18 miles. But he finishes, crossing the line at 9:48 a.m. Friday morning for a final time of 51 hours, 48 minutes and 14 seconds. The final finisher makes it to Whitney with less than 20 minutes to go before the race officially ends at the 60-hour mark. Of the 71 starters, 55 have finished.

Vilma Mejia never saw the mountain.

At first, upping her Gatorade intake worked well. Then the cramping started, first in her thighs, then in her feet, a sign that she was dehydrating. But without an IV, reversing the dehydration process is slow, and nearly impossible when you’re also trying to run across Death Valley in July. Then the blistering started.

Mejia reached Stovepipe Wells dead last, in the middle of the night, and Oscar and Virna checked her into a motel. “I just want to rest for a half-hour,” she told her family. When they tried to shake her awake, she begged for another hour of sleep. When another hour had passed, she realized the race was over for her. There was no arguing; she was unable to get out of bed, her feet hurt so much she could barely walk, and her right hip throbbed because of the awkward gait she’d adopted to try to stay off the ball of her right foot. All she could bring herself to say was, “I don’t feel well.” Mejia was disappointed, but she’s hoping to try again next year.

It is ironic that Mejia’s race ended at the same spot as last year. She had been determined to finish this time. But out here in this place named Death, the desert doesn’t seem to remember that it owes her one.

Matt Palocsay’s Badwater 2001 Story


A year and a half in the making, my race was completed on Friday July 27th after shedding blood, sweat, and tears on the course from Badwater to the summit of Mt. Whitney. It started when I got the bug, the “Badwater bug”. If you don’t know what this is, you haven’t been out there. All I had to do was crew for one clinic and I was hooked; sometime, as soon as possible, I was going to run the course. I don’t know if it is the beauty of the course, the family of people involved (led by patriarch and matriarch Ben and Denise Jones, whose love for this race makes it something very special), or the challenge it consists of. Whatever it was, I got it and I got it bad. I went to both clinics last year and then crewed for a runner who had to drop with injury. Mona Landfield and I, now without a crewing commitment, offered our services up and back the course to anyone who wanted help. We saw the race in all aspects, from the fresh Jay Grobeson near the front to the struggling Erika Gerhardt. I knew I had to come out the next year. After the race, I ran a strong cascade crest 100 and Angeles crest 100, but my mind always wandered back to Badwater. I couldn’t wait to get back out there.

Living in Los Angeles, it is not much of a trek to get out there, so I took my first of many desert trips in February during president’s day weekend. How shocked could I have been? There was snow everywhere! I did my runs in slush on the side of the road up white mountains and through canyons with joshua trees with icicles dripping off. Not exactly race conditions, but something special all the same.

Again, I went out the end of March to get some more miles in. On the night run from furnace creek to stovepipe wells, a glow above the mountains lit up the road. We thought it was an alien or maybe the lights from Vegas, but it turned out to be the northern lights. No flashlights, no moon, just the aurora borealis to light my path in Death Valley. A few more runs in Vegas, some more in Death Valley, a sandstorm while out there on my own that lifted a 100 foot high wall of sand across my path, a couple clinics where I met my fellow runners and their crews; such good people out there. My crew was getting better and better. I made some mistakes on the runs, but the lessons were learned. Approaching the race, I just wanted to avoid getting injured. I guess it was a bad time to stab myself in the calf with a buck knife. Fortunately, I heal quickly and the antibiotics staved off the infection.


For all of the logistics to figure out before this race. I had listened when people made suggestions, and I covered all of the bases and then a few more. I wanted my running to be the only thing that determined my finish. Redundancy was not enough. I recruited the best possible crew. Mona was determined to get to the finish and dance on the summit. My buddy Andy from college had been supporting me through all of the desert training runs and knew me very well. My buddy Derrick from high school learned all the right questions to ask and was a strong supporter on the crew. And then there was Vicki who was a bundle of energy. She had crewed out here before for Carlos Banderas.

With a safe trip to the desert, a good meal behind us, and everything in place, we started the race at 6am. I took it easy for the first stretch, knowing how easy it is to lose the race in the first 42 miles, but how tough it is to win it from there. I stayed steady and solid and actually pr’d the front 42 even though I was as fresh as I had ever been. I did not feel the temps get to high (not above 115) so the cool weather probably helped. There are not many details to give along the next stretch. I hit a low at about 12 midnight and was able to pull myself out of it. For the first time, I saw the dense band of stars that make up the plane of the milky way as I looked up at the sky. It is amazing what you can see out there . . . a quick nap and back at it. I had a few foot problems but we took care of everything as it started and did not let it build. My crew was resting well and taking care of themselves. I was cracking jokes the whole way and everything was clicking. The race itself was pretty uneventful (my crew may say otherwise) but I just kept going and staying strong.

My dad came out to the race to say “hi” and did a mile with me, which was pretty cool. He stayed with us until the Portals to help out. As we approached Lone Pine, my energy dropped a bit but my crew found Carl’s Jr. Some burgers brought me back to life. As we could see Lone Pine, I honed in on two runners just up ahead and gave my best General Patton speech to rally the troops, and it worked. I spun them into a fury and passed the runners within a half-mile. We cranked up to the Whitney Portals in less than 4 hours (which involves some running) and had a brief celebration. I made it from Badwater to the portals, 135 miles, in 38:48 and change with a 10th place overall and the youngest finisher ever (not too shabby if I do say so myself). But I wasn’t satisfied . . .


I needed the summit. That first 135 is a tough son-of-a-gun. If that was all there was, I would have been satisfied. But I knew there was a mountain looming over my shoulder and I had to get up it. We took about 30 minutes to re-group and load the summit packs and off we went. It was about 10pm and I was heading up a 14,500ft. summit in the dark with only a little sleep in 40 hours. It was pretty sketchy going up, especially when there was a thin trail that had nothing but a 1,000-foot drop off to one side. I had to pull a few ballerina steps to stay on trail and alive. My legs were strong and even with the caffeine, my mind was a little weary, but not hallucinating. We did, however, forget to re-load on water at our last chance. By the time we got to about one mile from the summit, we had no water left and had not been eating. It was getting colder and we were getting more and more tired. We could either press on and summit and hope to find water soon enough on the way down or pack it in and bail. We decided to press on and ended up finding snow. Mona had brought a camp stove, so we were able to melt the snow. It took about 45 minutes to fill the bottles and bladders and by the end of that time, I was shaking heavily and pretty wrecked. Only one mile from the summit, I almost bailed, but I got a burst of energy (hydration?) and made the last push to the summit. It was 47:48 and change from the time we left Badwater. This is the third fastest a.m.-summit (behind course guru Marshall Ulrich and super-stud Eric Clifton). We had a little bit of an emotional outpouring. It had gotten a little scary up there and it was a long way to have come. We couldn’t celebrate too much because we still had to make it down and we were still not in the best shape.

The trip down was hell. I started hallucinating vividly and stopped eating and drinking about half of the way down. I wasn’t sure I would make it. It was 55 hours after leaving Badwater. I reached the Portals again and that was when the real emotions came out. I had completed the 8-month journey and was still in one piece. To steal from Jerry Garcia, “What a long strange trip it’s been . . . “

I recovered quickly and was running around the parking lot the next day (we have it on video tape). I think a few beers that night after the run helped speed up the recovery curve. We went to the post-race meetings to see how everyone else had done and my friends had all run great races. My crew and I will reconvene in Las Vegas in September to do the real celebration and trade pictures and stuff. It will be my last big “thank you” to them for taking such goods care of me. It is hard to stress how important crew is for this run and they really made it happen.

I’m pretty proud. I am the youngest finisher/buckler/summiter, 10th place overall, 1st to the summit, 3rd fastest AM-summit time, and I even buckled the summit. Yeah, I’m pretty lucky.

If you have the chance to do the Badwater to Mt. Whitney run, do it. Do your homework first but do it. I hope your experience will be as wonderful as mine has been.

Matt Palocsay

Mr. Bo Peep Runs Badwater

Oh no, there are sheep walking all over the highway and the cars are speeding by at seventy-miles an hour and nobody is stopping to help save them. I just can’t stand by and let them all get run over, so in the blink of an eye I went from ultrarunner to ultrasheepherder. It seemed to take forever to chase them off the street and into the safety of a makeshift pen out in the middle of nowhere. How come no one else is helping me? I wonder if I am the only one who sees this happening? I have had some scary hallucinations out in the desert but this is the worst one yet, because it is so realistic.

Yet this can’t be a hallucination, because it is still two days before the Badwater Ultramarathon and I am in my hometown of Santa Rosa, CA. This roundup has really happened. Unfortunately, we are leaving for the desert in several hours and I will have to leave these guys all alone for a few days hopefully with enough food, water and lots of luck. Will they be all right or will they break loose and run back on the road? Will their owners or will “Miss Bo Peep who has lost her sheep” find them? Will they have enough to eat and drink or will the dogs get them? I will spend lots of time over the next five days worrying about these guys as we head for Badwater.

The van is filled with electricity and excitement and there is the usual apprehension as my crew and I leave Lone Pine and begin our journey across the mountains and into the magnificent beauty of Death Valley.

As soon as we arrive at Stovepipe Wells I immediately stumble into two of my friends and heroes, Lisa Smith and Marshall Ulrich. He has just completed his first, double crossing. At the prerace meeting I meet Ben and Denise Jones, Paul Stone and his wife Abby, Steven Silver, the Major, Errol Jones, Rick Nawrocki, Shannon Farar-Griefer and others. I attempt to get the autograph of every runner for my annual journal. It is all so incredible. It is good to be back.

As we mill about the starting line just before ten in the morning, I find it hard to believe that this is already my fourth consecutive Badwater Race. Very little has changed. The juices are flowing and the butterflies are still the same each year. Pictures are taken at the Badwater sign and at the starting line, which is draped with a Sun Precautions Banner. Perched high above our heads, at 282 feet on the side of one of the huge granite walls of the sprawling Amargosa Mountain Range, is the Sea Level sign. The entire scene as usual is almost surreal.

As we nervously await the start and stare into the maw of this most difficult 135-mile enterprise, we are all honored and privileged to have the National Anthem sung to us by Barry Oschner, brother of Badwater runner Nathan.

The word is given and off we go. After months of running high mileage, weeks of sauna training and one year of waiting, this unbelievable trek is finally happening. It feels good to be running and fortunately it’s only 110 degrees. Early into the race there is no one to socialize with because everyone is already in single file and there are huge gaps between runners.

I eventually settle into a comfortable pace, while my crew (Lina, John, Pilar and James) begin feeding, hydrating and keeping me sprayed down with cool water to help protect me from the blistering heat. For the next two days they will keep me going by doling out Crystal Geyser Water, Power Gel, Ensure, Cheetos, Starbucks Frappucinnos, soups, watermelon, peanut butter, puddings, fruit cups, bagels, chicken sandwiches, tuna fish, and two of my new secret weapons, O’Douls non-alcoholic beer and GLACEAU fruitwater. That should do the trick.

As I run along monitoring the needs of my body, I realize that I am completely surrounded and engulfed by the overwhelming and immense beauty of Death Valley. It is easy to understand why this Great Basin, with its colorfully named landmarks, has been established as one of our treasured national parks. Although the desert and surrounding mountains are arid, desolate and sparse, the views, which are breathtaking, continue to draw me to the Badwater Race each year.

Everything goes smoothly and it is rather peaceful and uneventful for the forty-two miles into Stovepipe Wells. I do remember making a special effort to tell one of the crew’s that I thought they were too far ahead of their runner. These people belonged to the eventual winner, Mike Trevino. Shows you what I know. Feel stupid? Yeah.

My plan was to run this race in under thirty-hours. I arrive at Stovepipe Wells on schedule. It has taken me seven-hours and I am feeling tremendously strong and confident. I reward my effort with a cool and refreshing dip in the pool because at five in the afternoon it is still a scorching 126 degrees.

Although my doctor suggested that I take up swimming for my age-related arthritis, I told him I wasn’t sure but I didn’t think it was possible to swim across Death Valley. Maybe he meant doing a couple of laps when I spend a few minutes in the pool. I am sure that’s what he meant, so in I go. But after ten minutes in the water, everything changes drastically. I suddenly become hampered with a bad case of cramps in my calves and hamstrings, which keeps me sidelined for an hour.

Lying on the ground attempting to recover, I look around at all the large black ravens sitting in the trees all fluffed up with their beaks wide open and their tongues hanging out trying to find relief from the scorching sun. They are shinning examples of the animal kingdoms struggle to survive even in the most extreme conditions. We are only out here for a few days but they are here all summer. Admire their will? You bet.

I consume lots of salts and electrolytes that my friend Bobb Ankeney has given me. My crew massages my legs and the cramps begin to diminish. Fortunately I had recovered enough to start the long trek up Towne’s Pass just as Major Maples, who was in the pool, began his lengthy Technicolor Barfathon. One of my strong points has never been a good puke spectator.

For unknown reasons I have always felt bad along this 18-mile climb to the top at Towne’s Pass. I always feel great every year when I arrive at Stovepipe Wells and terrible when I leave only minutes later. It’s puzzling and mysterious, so next year I think I will try something different and just sneak on past the resort. My theory is to keep doing this race until I get the job done properly.

Halfway up the momentous climb I run into Steven Silver and Shannon Farar-Griefer. Shannon (who I would have the pleasure to run with through the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California a month after the race) has just had a bad case of blisters attended to by the “Blister Queen” and crew person, Denise Jones. We run together for a few miles and have a good time joking and kidding around.

It is nighttime in the desert and we are all treated to a spectacular display of hundreds of shooting stars amongst the billions of other glimmering stars peering down from the heavens. Every year I get goose bumps from this awe-inspiring spectacle.

Suddenly from somewhere out of the darkness, my body is clobbered by extreme weariness, which practically stops me dead in my tracks and will plague me for the next forty-miles.

After my struggle to the top of Townes Pass (58-miles), I spend an hour seeking a few unfulfilled minutes of desperately needed sleep. For some reason I have always had trouble sleeping on this course. I try the old trick of counting sheep but it doesn’t work. All I can see are my buddies that I had left penned up back home jumping over the fence and dodging all the cars on the highway. It will be two more days before I can get home to see what has happened to them.

Since there is to be no sleep, I drink and eat as much as possible. I am mentally and physically exhausted. It takes a major effort to get up and get going again. I gather some steam by running down the hills and power walking across the salt flats to the Panamint Springs Resort (72-miles), where I seek another hour of unrewarded sleep. I am in terrible shape and I know that the upcoming mountain climb will be torturous.

I have a craving for scrambled eggs but the restaurant is not quite open. Kari Marchant, who is crewing for Shannon, gets the cook to make me some eggs and I am treated to breakfast on the side of the road about three miles up the climb out of Panamint.

A few miles further, as we edge up the mountain pass, we witness a spectacular fly by from an F-15 cruising along the canyon walls. This guy really gets close and he tips his wings just before banking off and in seconds disappears into the horizon. Yet another special treat out here in the desert. It must have cost the race director a bundle to put this display on.

It is early in the morning when I take a much-needed rest after the eight-mile and extremely steep and difficult climb to the top at Father Crowley’s (80-miles). While sitting in a chair I look across the canyon and see this man falling out of a gigantic multicolor hot air balloon. He lands on top of a huge green trampoline and starts bouncing around. As soon as I point this circus act out to my crew it all disappears into thin air. Although everyone thinks it was a hallucination, I know it was for real and that’s all that counts.

It is day two and again we are all be faced with the extreme challenge of surviving this monstrous undertaking while being consumed by the blistering, drenching and relentless heat. With these happy thoughts embedded in my frazzled brain, I start running.

Three miles later my wheels begin to come off as I continue to suffer more bad spells. The weariness continues to be overwhelming and I can no longer move forward. Sleep deprived, my body is screaming for some shut-eye. The sandman still does not cooperate as I lay in the hot van and only feel worse. I told my crew that things were getting desperate and I was beginning to have some doubts. I have been running ultra’s log enough to know that the body has an amazing way of recovering even during extremely bad spells, but since this one has lasted so long I feel that only a minor miracle would get this old beaten and battered body to the finish line.

LinaYoung tells me that she didn’t come all the way out here to see me quit. She reminds me of what I had put on the race bulletin board only a few days ago, “If Marshall can do this thing four times then there is no reason that the rest of us shouldn’t be able to do it once.” That did it. It was like getting hit square on the forehead with a sledgehammer of guilt and shame. I have written enough in the past about not giving up and now it was time for me to dig down deep. I knew I owed it to her and all the kids that I run for in Santa Rosa. It was now time to practice what one preaches.

I loaded up on as many carbohydrates and liquids as I could swallow. Looking for more relief, I take off my running shoes and put on a pair of shower clogs. Then I crawled out of the van and started moving forward. With words of encouragement from my crew I was able to somehow struggle the seven-miles across the heat of the valley, passing the Death Valley National Park entrance sign and the Saline Valley turnoff, before arriving at the 90-mile checkpoint at the Darwin turnoff.

Another hour slipped away at this rest stop while I guzzled juices, ate and cut the toes out of a good pair of running shoes. Amazingly, after being physically tortured for twelve-hours I finally start to feel better. Actually I started to feel a little more positive about a mile ago after the “Mayor of Badwater”, Ben Jones, stopped by for a brief chat. I think he doused me with some of the magic that I have witnessed him use over the years to help revive other physically and emotionally broken down runners. Anyway, I knew that the next eighteen- miles to Keeler (108-miles) were mostly downhill and with this new lease on life I was able to run to the old mining town in less than three hours.

Along the way we stop for pictures at the gravesite with the large white cross, which is about one hundred feet off the highway. Although the cross makes a terrific landmark at mile ninety-six, I wonder the same thing every year, why are these people buried out here in this desolate place? I will ask Ben Jones. I think he knows the story.

I stop briefly around the 100-mile mark where one can finally see the panoramic view of the great sprawling Owen’s Valley with the majestic Eastern Sierras and the towering Mt. Whitney in the background. Absolutely stunning.

Arriving at Keeler I wonder what would be more appropriate than for a postal worker to have dinner on the bench in front of the post office, which is located two streets deep into this tiny burg–and that’s what I did. Wow! I could live, work and train here everyday. Then again, maybe not. My wife wouldn’t really like it out here, since there doesn’t seem to be a Macy*s anywhere in sight.

Now I am feeling really strong and healthy and run the fourteen miles to the Dow Villa Hotel in Lone Pine (122-miles) in two hours. This is the way I had planned on running the entire race—well, maybe next year. I was able to generate lots of speed as I zipped by the mosquito-infested bridge over the Owen’s River. Man where these guys hungry for blood.

Before the final assault to the Portals, I gobble down a couple of malts and french fries. Ironically as I make the left turn onto the Whitney Portal Road I meet Steven Silver who is also ready to go. We talk about finishing together like we did two-years ago, but for various reasons there is separation as we both struggle and trudge up the 13-miles towards the finish line.

About halfway up, in the refreshing cool of the evening as the brilliant quarter moon slips behind the mountain peaks, it occurs to me that being familiar with this course should make the final stage of this race seem shorter. But a phenomena of this event, that I believe everyone who has already been here knows, is that this climb appears to get longer each year and the switchbacks go on forever. Is this just an oddity or maybe the mountain continues to grow taller? That’s it. We are all running too far. I think it is time to dig around in the old toolbox and get the measuring tape back out.

Fortunately I was able to get through the switchbacks safely by sneaking past all the prehistoric animals that were after me last year. They must have been snoozing. Passing the last mile marker, I send word down to Steven that we will wait for him to catch up so we can cross the finish line together. I was just going to stop and wait but I was becoming nauseous and lightheaded and felt I would pass out. So I slowed to a crawl and a few hundreds yards from the finish line Steven and his crew finally catch up.

While holding hands, and surrounded by both crews, we run the last few feet screaming, yelling and crying. It is all over and we have both made it again. The deed was done in forty-hours and nineteen-minutes. Not exactly what I had intended but I will gladly take it.

Although I am extremely exhausted there is still a tremendous sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and enormous pride spilling out during the next few minutes of emotional release. It is one of the few moments in life that gives you an incredible high. It has always been worth the struggle to get here. It is my number one reason for running this Badwater Race every year.

Although the race is over, I have one special task to accomplish. Later in the morning I will climb to the top of Mt. Whitney. It will be my first time. Back at the hotel in Lone Pine I spot Marshall who is about to begin his climb to the portals. He wants me to summit with him and his crew. He says it will be a “hoot”.

While waiting for Marshall to get prepared to summit, I spot Rick Nawrocki who is about to complete his race. What a great sight it is to watch this gentle giant, with all his cancer related problems over the last few years, break the finish tape. What a proud moment for this honorable human being who had everyone crying.

Marshall, his crew Bob, Ernie, Jay, David and myself, begin the assault of Mt. Whitney at three-thirty in the afternoon. It’s incredible but this man who has already run some 450-miles still has an enormous amount of energy and he sets a quick pace as we charge up the mountain.

As it starts to get dark in the middle of the switchbacks a park ranger who checks our passes and thinks about stopping us, relents, but has some trepidation about letting us continue up the mountain. “Don’t do anything stupid”, she says. I have to chuckle to myself about all the irony. Here is a group of people who have probably challenged and conquered most of the extreme events in the world, including having just run across Death Valley in the blistering summer heat. No, we wouldn’t do anything stupid.

In the darkness along the western side of the pinnacles our flashlights would occasionally brush across the sheer face of the granite walls, which seemed to fall for thousands of feet into a dark abyss. I realize that one misstep or stumble anywhere along this narrow trail, which winds along the mountain for miles and is filled with rocks and boulders and you would be history. Maybe it was better to be doing this climb at night since I am afraid of heights, or as George Carlin says, “afraid to fall from heights”.

David gets altitude sickness and Jay volunteers to help him descend. Though we will only have two ten-minute breaks up this eleven-mile climb, Marshall, Ernie, Bob and myself continue to briskly forge ahead. Marshall with his wonderful personality and his ever-present warm smile offers me words of encouragement There is no whining, complaining or negative vibes from anyone. This is serious stuff and our main objective is to summit the mountain with all deliberate speed.

I promised Lisa Smith that I would help look after Marshall on our way to the top. Problem is that he winds up babysitting me. It took everything I had just to keep up with him. This man has earned enormous respect from me. I have been around lots of rugged people but I have never known any man as tough as Marshall. He is in a class by himself. Close to the top around 14,000 feet, I have trouble breathing but manage to gulp enough air to continue on. So this is what a “hoot” is all about.

At eleven-ten we arrive at the cabin on the top. What an honor it is to be standing with these three tough as nails people on the peak of Mt. Whitney. Although it is a pitch-black evening and you can’t see anything it doesn’t matter. The emotions are still indescribable. It’s almost as exciting as crossing the finish line. I have finally completed the goal I have had for years—the 146-mile trek from Badwater to the top of Mt. Whitney.

After we take a few pictures and sign the guest book by the cabin, we start to descend. The climb down is swift but is slowed as we meet an extremely sick David. Marshall, who is now on the last leg of his quadruple crossing, darts ahead with Jay as we escort David down at a more leisurely pace. We have problems with our flashlights working properly and eventually will have to nestle alongside the trail for an hour until daybreak.

Near the Portals we run into Shannon Farar-Griefer, Rick Nawrocki and Scott Weber who are just beginning their climb to the summit. I have only had one hour of sleep in the last four days and did not even recognize that it was, Denise Jones, who was with them, and was giving me a big hug.

At the Portals I hitch a ride to Lone Pine where I find my worried crew who figured we had all ran right off the side of Mt. Whitney during the night. After saying our good-byes at the morning breakfast, we pack the van and head home. Just before I go comatose and get some much-needed sleep, I spend a few minutes reflecting on this Badwater Race.

It is hard to believe that the six days out in the desert have gone by so quickly and the entire experience is already over. Although I am totally exhausted, I already miss so many things.

I miss the months of training and the baking sessions in the sauna at the 24-hour fitness center. I miss the journey from my home to the desert when all of us are fresh and full of vigor. I miss the reunion with all my friends and especially all the camaraderie.

I miss all the energy, apprehension and trepidation at the starting line. I miss the two days of challenging this most difficult event as we raced across the heat of the valleys and the relentless climbs over the three major mountain ranges.

I miss the buzz during all the good miles from all the endorphins rushing through my system. I even miss all the miles of torture and suffering (but not as much). I miss seeing Ben Jones and Chris Kostman who were always somewhere out on the course making sure everyone was okay.

I miss the all the excitement and the emotional release as we crossed the finish line. I miss climbing Mt. Whitney, especially since it was my first time. I miss the unbelievable picture postcard beauty of Death Valley and Mt. Whitney.

But most of all I miss everything—the entire package. In my little ultrarunning world it does not get any better than this. I cannot wait to recover and start training again for this all-consuming and unbelievable adventure. I will be back.

Thanks to Chris and Keith Kostman and all the people at AdventureCORPS who made this race possible.

Thanks to Ben and Denise Jones just for being Ben and Denise Jones.

Kudos to race winners, Anne Langstaff and Mike Trevino, and all the other runners who were brave enough to toe the starting line for this very difficult race.

Thanks to my crew, Pilar, John, James and especially mother hen, Lina, who knew instinctively the right things to say and do during some of my desperate times, which enabled me to keep going and reach my goal.

Thanks to Lisa Smith (the toughest lady I know) and crew who helped Marshall Ulrich inspire everyone by completing his quad for starving children.

Thanks to new heroes Chris Moon (running for several charities) and Shannon Farar-Griefer (running for children with cancer) and all their crews’ help, while each completed a double-crossing.

Thanks to all the other crew’s who helped everyone fulfill their dreams.

Thanks to SCORE INTERNATIONAL and the American Postal Workers Union for their sponsorship.

Thanks to, Christine, my beautiful and understanding wife of 33 years for being so special. And no, we are not moving to Keeler.

For the fourth year in a row my crew and I had an incredible week being around all the wonderful people and all the beauty that is in Death Valley. It was again an honor to be part of the toughest footrace in the world, the Sun Precautions Badwater 2001 Ultramarathon.

Thanks again to everyone a million times over.

Blessings to all.

# 94 Arthur Webb
Badwater 98,99,00,01

PS: By the way, all the sheep were okay when I returned home. Their owners had found them and had herded them back to the safety of their own pens. Amen.

Return to Badwater 2001

2001 finisher

I returned to Death Valley for a second go at 135 mile Badwater Ultramarathon against the mild protests from co-workers, friends and family. Why? Was the most prominent question? Why do you want to put yourself through that “torture” again? This is a most common view from most non-runners, and runners not familiar with ultra running or extreme sports. I do not consider it torture, I think it is “fun.” Besides, if you don’t challenge yourself every now and then, how do you know who or what you really are?

Look at it from my perspective: I love to run. The longer the run, the more I enjoy it. Compare it to a golfer. If anyone who enjoys playing golf, for enjoyment and some mild competition were given a chance to play golf with his golfing peers, for say 60 hours, I am sure that person would certainly do it. All the golf you can play in 60 hours for one green fee. Now would you call him or her a little crazy? Yes, probably.

I not only get the chance to run for 60 hours, if I want, or for however long it takes me to run the given distance, I also get to do it in a little heat. In this case it was 135 miles in approximately 130F degrees (atmosphere temperature). The reflective surface temperature can get a little hotter, about 150 to 180F degrees. But that does not happen until the afternoon and by then you are either acclimated or numb to the heat (fried), and besides, it is not that hot all of the time. The temperature at the start in Badwater this year was in the cool mid 80s.

Seventy-one ultra athletes toed the line for the Sun Precautions 2001 Badwater Ultramarathon. Some were repeats and some new comers, including six women. I ran the first 17 miles to Furnace Creek in 3:26, five minutes ahead of last year, as I was all fresh and ready to face what was in store for us later in the day. This section is spent renewing old acquaintances, meeting new friends and setting up the pace according to how you feel and how well trained you think you are. This part is easy as long as you don’t go too fast and exhaust your legs too early. Lots more fun is sure to come later.

The section between Furnace Creek and Stove Pipe Wells (don’t you just love the names) is a time for acclimating to the heat. During this section you will talk to God often and ask that He keep the sun behind a cloud and the temperature below 125. He does not listen to us very well as the temperature when I was approaching Stove Pipe Wells reached a deep frying 126 to 128. The secret here is to drink, drink, drink and then drink some more. You must stay hydrated or suffer the consequences. This is followed by peeing, peeing and peeing some more (you hope). Vacating the bladder is how you monitor your hydration level. I reached Stove Pipe by 3:30 PM, 9:30 into the race, 16 minutes ahead of last year.

But this is where the race really starts. By now the runner has run 41 gut-wrenching miles and processed gallons of Gatorade, water and copious amounts of various other drinks in hopes of remaining hydrated and fueled. Forty-one miles and you have only managed to go from 282 feet below sea level to five feet above sea level at Stove Pipe Wells.

Leaving Stove Pipe Wells, at my slow pace, you must not only face the hottest part of the day, you also have the dry hot winds that pick up off of the Panamint Mountain Range, and the climb up to Townes Pass. The climb is a seventeen-mile uphill battle of varying degrees of steepness. It starts out at about six percent grade for the first five to six miles, turns up to eight percent about six miles later then goes up to about a 10 percent upgrade (feels vertical) for the last four or five miles to the summit at Townes Pass. Just for fun, this year Caltrans added a two-mile stretch of fresh black oil to really hold the heat. I found myself shielding my face with my hands, as the reflective heat was unbearable.

I took two five-minute breaks going up to Townes Pass. These were the first times I got to sit down on a chair. My crew worked on my old tired legs by massaging the sore spots. The reward was waiting for me at the summit of Townes Pass where I laid down for about 50 minutes. Sleep was not possible because I was shivering-cold (it was about 83F degrees which felt like freezing compared to the daytime temperature) and the in and out traffic at this pit stop was non-stop. I did manage to rest and rejuvenate enough to be able to run down towards Panamint Springs, the third official time station. I arrived at Panamint Springs over an hour and a half ahead of my last year’s pace so I took advantage of the time and laid down for an hour.

By luck, Chris Kostman, RD, was vacating his room and was most gracious to allow me to take over his room for an hour. Being the diplomat that he is, he also made the room available to any other runner who wanted to shower or rest for a while. With other runners coming into the room, my rest was very broken up. So I left after an hour. This rest stop did not provide the rest I needed and sleep deprivation hit me hard at about 3:30 AM. I had trouble continuing up the steep grade to the Father Crowley Lookout Point. It was here that I asked my crew to set up a cot by the road and allow the truck to block the wind. It was windy and cold (85F degrees) at this time of the morning. I slept for 30 minutes and woke up feeling better and able to continue up towards Father Crowley and the summit of the second mountain range.

It was during this climb that I had to respond to the call of nature. I was so tired that I simply wanted to go home (not “quit” as quitting is not allowed in an ultrarunner’s vocabulary). I told my crew that if I was lucky, perhaps a rattle snake would bite me during my excursion into the bushes or a vehicle would hit me and merely break a leg while I crossed the road and I would have to involuntarily terminate my current death march. It was not to be.

Besides, I had a real motivator and reason to suck-it-up: I had dedicated my race to a very close friend and co-worker who, four weeks before the race, discovered she had cancer. She is doing very well now, thank God, but I wanted to show my support for her and drew strength from her. I thought of Laqueta often and knew I could not quit as I know she is a true winner. Her attitude and positive karma carried and motivated me and I knew I would never quit as long as I was able to move forward.

I reached the Father Crowley Lookout Point just after sunrise and with the sunrise came a new day. I usually feel like new after the sun comes out (second sunrise) during these races and I look forward to it and count on it to pick me up. It worked. I knew then that a successful completion was in-the-bag, just a matter of how well I would do time-wise.

The course after Father Crowley continues up for a few more miles but it is relatively flat to undulating. One could say it is very runable and actually an easy part of the course, but for being tired. The next time station is at the Darwin turn-off at about mile 90 (with just 45 miles to go to the finish). I did not compare my time to last year until I reached the 100-mile marker where I arrived a mere 21 minutes ahead of last year. It was a good sign as I did not have much support, pacer-wise, all night and most of the day before. I was pretty much on my own to set a comfortable pace and had nobody to whine to when I felt like it. So I can claim that I never did any whining.

After mile 100 we were essentially back in civilization and in cell phone service range. I managed a call home and spoke with my wife. (Coincidentally, at about this time I also received a call from one of my crewmembers from last year’s race). These calls proved to be a major uplift. None of my family was able to support me this year so any contact with family and friends was a major picker-upper, as I will explain later. After my conversation with my wife I felt uplifted and was able to run faster for quite a few miles. This allowed me to make up some time on which I had already given up.

Lone Pine is the last time station before the finish and a major milestone on this course. But before you get to Lone Pine you have to go past Keeler and around Owens Lake. Even though this part is very runable, it is also the longest, flattest, most boring part of the course. I seldom call any running surface boring but this section is as close as it gets. This is where the family thing came into play. I mentioned earlier how word from family and friends play a big psyche part. One of my sons, Kevin and his girl friend, Heidi, called me individually from Seattle. They asked how I felt. My response was that besides being totally exhausted, extremely stinky and deep-fried, I felt great. With Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney in sight, I was very motivated.

At 6:57 PM I arrived at the corner of Highways 395 and 136 – Lone Pine at last. I arrived at the time station 25 minutes ahead of last year. The beginning of the end comes as you leave Lone Pine and start up the Portals Road, the steep, switchback approach to the base of Mt. Whitney, and the finish line. It’s 13 grueling miles with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain. Yes, a climb of 5,000 feet in 13 miles. Sometimes the grade reaches 19 degrees, but it felt like 90. Last year I experienced a lot of hallucinations while going through the Alabama Hills, a beautiful part of the course. That was interesting. This year I felt very alone, as I had no apparitions to keep me company.

Throughout the last 24 hours I had experienced major heartburn with anything I ate. I relied mostly on Hammer Gel for energy and Gatorade and water for hydration. Coming out of Lone Pine my crew chief, H.E. West, a 2002 Baswater hopeful (total crew was two with Dave Molinaro, an accomplished tri-athlete) offered me a burger with lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions. I knew I would suffer the heartburn pain but the idea of eating hot food after 36 hours sounded so good that I accepted and ate more than half before my stomach realized it should burn. I managed to wolf down two-thirds before I could not stomach the rest. This food proved to be a charm as I got re-energized and “zipped” up the Portals Road to the finish in just under four hours. For you math wizards, that is approximately 18.5 minutes per mile. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Shortly out of Lone Pine the sun set on me and we only had a crescent moon (very romantic but I was alone) that soon went behind Mt. Whitney and total darkness set in. Going up this part of the course can be very scenic during the day. At night it is rather mundane until you are high enough to enjoy the “city” lights of Lone Pine. Not exactly a San Diego skyline but they do have some scattered visible lights at night. I received more calls from home and Seattle about a mile from the finish. It was great to hear from them again. I guess my family was as anxious for me to finish as I was. The difference was that I felt like burnt toast and they were toasty comfortable at home.

I continued up the Portals Road to a very welcome finish and a great surprise when I realized that my time was faster than last year. Not much, 31 minutes, which when spread over 135 miles is only seconds per mile but I am a year older too. Simply completing an event like this is considered a tremendous accomplishment, but you just had to be there.

He’s Not Heavy, He’s My Brother

Crew for Marshall Ulrich and his Badwater Quad for Starving Children

I can honestly say that I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I committed to being a member of Marshall Ulrich’s crew as he attempted a Badwater Quad, an unprecedented feat of running 600 miles through Death Valley. To cover the miles, he would travel back and forth from Badwater, -282 feet below sea level, to the top of Mount Whitney, +14,500 feet above sea level, twice. The adventure sounded exciting and the opportunity to be involved in such a record-breaking event lured me in and drove me to want to add my name to the list of crewmembers. Not only was I enticed by the adventure but also by the inspiration behind the run. This was an undertaking to help raise money for the Missions of the Religious Teachers Filippini which help save the world’s starving children. Because of its inspiration I knew there was something more, something special, about this journey and about Marshall.

Although I was basically clueless about Death Valley and what exactly my role was going to be in helping Marshall, I admit that I did have two preconceived notions about the experience. First, I knew it would be hot. I also knew that in being a part of this once in a lifetime event and witnessing this extreme athletic undertaking and ultimate test of one’s own body and soul for the benefit of others, I would be changed forever. I was right on both accounts- it was hot and I have been forever changed.

After a two-hour drive from the Las Vegas Airport, Jay, David, and I arrived at our motel in Stove Pipe Wells where we were to meet Marshall, Lisa and the rest of the crew. Those we were meeting had already completed the first two legs of the journey, approximately 300 miles. Immediately upon our arrival I got a taste of what makes Death Valley so famous- high temperatures. I stepped out of the car into an oppressive heat and a strong desert wind. It was 5:00pm and I was overwhelmed by the dense, hot air that surrounded me. With such heat present in the evening, I grew anxious about being introduced to the desert heat at high noon.

The room at the Stove Pipe Wells Motel served as our race headquarters. From the outside, the room had few visible signs that this was the camp of a man who had plans to run 600 miles through the hottest place in America. The only signs of life were the few shirts and socks left out to dry in the sun. However, once I walked into the room, I entered a new world. My assumptions about this experience were confirmed as I stood in the doorway. It was going to be hot and unlike any other experience in my life.

The room was a bit of organized chaos. It was stocked with supplies that would be Marshall’s lifeline for his journey- food, cases of O2GO, extra clothes all embroidered with the North Face logo, boxes of new running shoes, a bike, and first aid kits. Although I was a bit overwhelmed by the scene, I didn’t have time to get too frazzled because a gold Chrysler mini van packed with people soon pulled up to the door. It was Marshall, Lisa and the rest of the crew. Although they were all tired and hadn’t slept in 24 hours, they greeted Jay, David, and I with smiles and hugs. Immediately my worries were eased, my fears pacified. Although I was the youngest of the group, I was welcomed with open arms, literally, big hugs from everyone. In a matter of seconds, complete strangers made me to feel like part of the family. Again my assumptions about this trip and the people involved were confirmed. These were special people and this was a special event.

At four o’clock the next morning, two mini vans filled with crew and supplies left the motel at Stove Pipe Wells to escort Marshall to the starting line of the race where his third crossing would begin. Marshall’s third crossing was in conjunction with the Badwater Ultra Marathon where he would be joined by 71 other athletes hoping to run 135 miles from Badwater to Mount Whitney. Twenty-five miles from the start, Marshall began to experience tendonitus in the left shin. Only a few miles later, the same fate befell the right shin. At this point, a plan was devised to help reduce pain and swelling. Ice, changed approximately every 20 minutes, was ace bandaged to his shins until he crossed the finish line.

As if running 600 miles through Death Valley in July does not present enough of its own obstacles, having to endure crippling pain in the legs for close to 300 miles, which include drastic changes in elevation as three major mountain ranges are crossed, adds another large hurdle. It is in the face of adversity, however, that the true character of a person is revealed. It is only the toughest of people that can stare adversity square in the eyes, then poke them out. I don’t know if Marshall Ulrich can be described as tough. That would never do him justice. I don’t think there is a word in the English language or any language for that matter that could describe this man.

Although sharp pains pierced his legs with every step, blisters appeared on his feet, the sun beat down hard on him every day, wind blew at his face, and sleep was a word missing from his vocabulary for 10 days, Marshall kept moving with a smile on his face. You would be hard pressed to remember a time that he complained or didn’t ask how everyone on the crew was holding up. In all of his pain and suffering, Marshall never lost a sense of something beyond himself- the children he was running for. In his moments of greatest suffering, it was not about him, it was about the children. For them, he pushed himself to continue even if that meant slowing from a run to a walk. Marshall offered all of his own pain to help relieve some of the suffering that these children endure every day.

As Marshall made the final turn onto the road leading back to Badwater for the last 17 miles of the Death Valley Quad, after having covered approximately 580 miles, the desert did not yield. It maintained the most vicious and unforgiving conditions. Temperatures were extreme, approaching 130 degrees and wind whipped at close to 30 miles an hour. Most mortals would have long since crumbled but Marshall pressed on and arrived at the finish line as the sun was setting 10 days and 13 hours after the start of the Quad.

No big fanfare waited for our arrival at the finish. A few photographers were present as Marshall along with his seven crewmembers walked arm in arm across an ever so appropriate ace bandage finish line. There was no need for fanfare as no fanfare or celebration could do this feat justice. A douse of champagne and a few loving words from crewmembers while Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” played in the background was all that was needed to commemorate the finish. In his own quiet way, Marshall overcame all odds and accomplished a goal that even in the face of adversity he never dreamed of letting slip away. He taught us all a lesson about will power, determination, courage, and dedication to other people.

As Marshall was getting his picture taken after the finish, I stared out into the open desert and looked up into the blue sky filled with pink clouds as the sun quietly slipped away behind the horizon. Lisa put her arm around me and a chill ran through my body. Never before had I seen such an athletic pursuit and strong display of human will power. Marshall has shown me that there are no limitations. The human mind is a powerful thing capable of conquering anything it wants. Life is about desire. With desire, passion, strong will and help from other people, anything is possible. You just have to believe.

Click here to read Marshall’s report and to view an incredible finish line slideshow by Tony DiZinno.

My Time in the Desert, the Badwater Ultramarathon

2001 finisher

A 135-mile road race. OK, but 135 miles is longer than I had ever run. No aid stations so one would need at least a four-person crew and two vehicles. OK, I’ll get a crew. Start at 280 feet below sea level and finish at 8,340 feet including going to 5,000 feet twice for over 13,000 total feet of climb. OK, maybe I can do it. The average high temperature is 115 degrees and the low is 87 degrees. Well, now I’m scared.

For the past nine months I had thought of the Badwater 135 every day and night. I had signed up for one of the world’s toughest foot races. I bought the movie, ’Running on the Sun ’documenting the 1999 race. I had never seen such blisters, puking, and excellent runners talking incoherently. I read everything about the race and visited the race’s excellent web site at

The race goes from Badwater, the lowest point in the US to the Mt. Whitney Portal through Death Valley during the hottest week of the year. Although not part of the race one can get a permit to go to the top of Mt. Whitney, at 14,494′, the highest point in the continental US.

Wow! How to do it all? The hard drive of my brain was flashing overload. The Mt. Whitney hike would take 12 to 15 hours. A difficult long day by itself but after 135 miles? I read several hiking reports and books. Mt. Whitney was considered a separate event and I packed a pack with gear just for the ascent. My pack would be ready to go at the Mt. Whitney Portal. My lottery permit was for Friday, which gave me the freedom to start as early as midnight or a practical late start of noon. With the Mt. Whitney planning out of the way I could concentrate on the Badwater 135.

Since Badwater is a road race, training was just miles of more miles. Everytime I looked at the end of my driveway there were an infinite number of roads to run but how much was enough or too much? An injury would wreck months of planning and training. Training for heat was another problem to solve. There are many ways to heat train. One method is to workout in a sauna increasing the temperature gradually to 160 degrees. Working out in a sauna to the same temperature as cooked meat didn’t sound reasonable so two weeks before the race I started wearing more clothing on my daily training runs. Starting with a black long sleeve poly top eventually I was wearing three layers of black clothing. The same gear as running at 20 degrees in the winter. The topper was the black wool stocking cap. After a few miles my brain felt like popcorn in a microwave oven. I was at my limit, if Badwater was hotter then I would be cooked.

Fluids, food, clothing, and medical gear were the main elements for race day. Clothing was easy, two sets of coolmax T shirts with black compression shorts, a few pairs of socks, one pair of NB 1220 road shoes and a Sun-Precautions desert type white hat. Exposed skin would get a coat of 30 Sunblock. The medical kit was a big bag with a variety of tapes, ointments, New Skin, needles, Band-Aids, and Succeed capsules.

We bought the food in Las Vegas. The full shopping cart had almost everything I had ever eaten at an ultra. I wasn’t sure what would taste good during the race.

Fluids were easy, ten gallons of water, two gallons of Succeed, and four liters of Coca-Cola. After adding the crew’s food and fluids we had to tie two suitcases onto the roof of the rented Ford Expedition.

By lottery I would start at 6:00 AM. Other starts were 8:00 and 10:00 AM. 6:00 AM was the coolest start but the 10:00 AM start had the advantage of knowing all the other runners’ checkpoint times.

At 6:00 AM it was 90 degrees, the sun hadn’t cleared the mountains yet to start baking Death Valley. The early miles were fun. I met a few people and played a game of leapfrog with runners and pace cars. My son, Aaron and daughter, Lorraine were crewing me for the first ten hour shift. My wife, Lorraine, son-in-law John Kulas and daughter-in-law Allison and grandsons Austin, Jordan, and Carter were back at Furnace Creek Ranch, the seventeen mile check point to cheer me on. The checkpoint was just a person with a clipboard. No stopping just a verbal acknowledgement as I ran by.

By now the race was getting a rhythm. The crew knew when I needed fluids and the temperature was rising. The next checkpoint was Stovepipe Wells at mile 42. At 118 degrees leaving Stovepipe Wells valley was slow and hot. I knew there were two runners ahead of me but couldn’t see their pace vehicles. There was no one close behind me. I was alone on the road with my pace vehicle and the heat. I won’t see another runner until dark near the Panamint Springs checkpoint.

Townes Pass summit at 4,965 feet marked the end of the long hot walk out of Stovepipe Wells. Ahead of me was six miles of steep downhill. The sun had slipped behind the West Mountains and it felt almost cool although it was 102 degrees. It was time to run. The grade was almost too steep but it felt good to be pounding down the road. My knees got a little sore so I eased up because I had only completed the easy half of the race.

Several hours ago I came up with my race plan. This race was so different with checkpoints about 25 miles apart and few major landmarks other than road signs. I was used to running from aid station to aid station four to ten miles apart. Sometimes my crew vehicle was stopping every quarter mile. The Vermont Trail 100 race popped into my mind. I had run this race in 1994 and 1995 and it was hot with miles of road running. My time averaged 21 hours for 100 miles. My plan was to complete the first 100 miles in 21 hours. I knew that the last 13 miles were all up hill and almost everyone walked to the finish line. My only problem was the 22 miles after the first 100 miles. But at least I had a goal although 100 miles was still a long way away.

As I neared Panamint Lake I could finally see the taillights of a pace car miles ahead. Supper was a seven-minute break next to Panamint Lake. The sun shining across the dry sand lakebed surrounded by pink and purple mountains was beautiful. My eyes were enjoying the beauty but the rest of my body was tired and sore. Still 100 plus degrees.

I passed Rudy Afanador a mile before Panamint Springs Resort. He was at the side of the road dressed in full whites, head down not looking good. In a few minutes he passed me just ahead of the check in but headed back to the crew vehicle after saying no one was ahead of us. A short time later wearing shorts and a singlet he repassed me in the dark speedwalking that long up hill to 5,050 feet. I would see the taillights of his crew vehicle moving further away the rest of the night. He would be the only runner I would see until the race ended.

The Darwin checkpoint at 5,050 feet was just a guy under a canopy. Easy to see if you are the only person on a dark road but my crew vehicle never saw the checkpoint. From Darwin it was a gradual 17 miles downhill. Good running. A million stars in the sky and 70 degrees. It felt almost cold, as it was a 50-degree temperature change on my body. My crew cheered me on as I hit the 100-mile mark at 21:35 hours. Not bad, only 35 minutes off my goal. The new goal was Lone Pine. The next 9 miles were gradual down hills but now my legs and back were sore. My stomach was upset, I was retching beside the road, and I could feel two blisters on my left foot. I hadn’t sat down in three hours. I told Aaron and Allison I needed a 15-minute nap but not to let me oversleep as I crawled into the back seat with my Mt. Whitney gear as a pillow. Leg pains woke me every five minutes. Aaron drained and taped my blisters. His first experience at blister repair. He reminded me later that my feet weren’t too sweet after 23 hours in the same socks. It was now dawn, I had fresh socks, taped blisters, and my stomach felt good. I was running down the road again but now I faced 11 miles of flats and the sun was heating the road up again. My body was extra sensitive to the heat and it seemed like it took forever to make any progress. Just run to the next road sign. Just run to the next road sign. My new goal. Easy to say but so hard to do when one can see a sign for miles. There were many walk breaks. Finally I arrived at the intersection that I thought was Lone Pine. When Allison said it was two more miles to the Dow Villa check point and the Whitney Portal road in Lone Pine I thought it was a cruel joke. It was a long two miles surrounded by truck traffic.

Finally I saw the turnoff to Mt. Whitney Portal road. 13 miles uphill and it was hot, over 100 degrees again. When asked how I felt I didn’t say hot anymore. Toast was my new word. I felt like I was in a toaster. I was hydrated but felt awful. I was only trudging up that long road because it was the quickest way to the finish line. It felt like the sun was baking my back and legs. Toast, just like toast in a toaster. Going through the Alabama Hills was pretty. 300 plus movies were made there. I hoped to hallucinate a few cowboys and Indians from those movies as I could have used the entertainment. We estimated it would take another 3 to 4 hours to get to the finish line. It seemed so far away but the only thing to do was to keep walking. The second crew vehicle arrived a few miles from the finish. Seeing the whole family boosted my energy. Daughter Lorraine would pace me to the finish. I joked about which was harder, running the race or taking care of three little boys. We passed a race sign that said one more mile. I was going so slowly that it felt like three miles. Eventually I could hear people clapping and ran the last 50 yards to the finish line. Chris Kostman, RD, took a few photos of my crew while I sat in a chair drinking water. 31:16:24 hours, earning a fifth place. Riding back down the mountain I yelled encouragement to a few runners but soon fell asleep, my legs would jump every few minutes reminding me of this long run. At the motel I headed for the shower and Aaron delivered a cold beer as requested days ago. I drank half a beer then flopped into bed for a short nap.

Later that night we walked across the street for beer and pizza. We ordered too much food. Before bed I double-checked my pack for the trip up Mt. Whitney. The alarm rang at 2:45 AM and we were driving to the trailhead by 3:30 AM.

We started up the trail at 4:22 AM. There were at least twenty other hikers around us. I didn’t feel bad just a little stiff and a cup of hot coffee had cleared my head. I was ready to begin another full day. I was in the middle between John and Aaron but after a while I took the rear. I was too slow. We made treeline around sunrise as planned. It was spectacular. Aaron and John had never been on a big mountain and didn’t know what to expect but now they were all smiles. Later at 13,000 feet the dull headaches would start. We summited at 11:50 AM and took all the obligatory photos. It was beautiful. The trail down was long and slow. I didn’t feel bad I just couldn’t move very fast nor accurately and there weren’t any good places to fall. We did run the last mile, as it was a wide section finishing at 5:23 PM. Just over 13 hours. I had gone from the lowest point to the highest point of the continental US in 53:50 hours. After all the months of planning and worry my race was concluded. The next day driving back along the course there wasn’t a trace of the seventy-one runners, their crews, or vehicles. Looking at the empty road I felt like it was all a desert dream.

A Badwater Poem

By 2001 Finisher 

I’ve caught the Badwater-Fever too,
and this is a poem from me to you.

The way to the Whitney Portal is long,
I say to myself I will be strong,
the days are hot and the sun is burning,
I have to control my power, and that’s much for learning,
Oh highway to Lone Pine, I love you so,
sometimes I run, sometimes I go,
Running on the sun,
what a fun,
climbing up the hill by night,
it’s so beautiful, the stars shine bright,
And then I can see the finish line,
A look to my watch: Badwater Buckle, you are mine!

I can’t wait a so long time to race again,
Oh yeah, I’m a real Badwater Fan!