Category: Training

Lessons Learned at Badwater

During the last twenty years of competing as an ultra runner I have heard countless stories about the famous Badwater Ultramarathon, the 135-mile running race held annually in July from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney. Since I don’t really like the heat, I have never desired to enter. However, so many runners are passionate about this race across Death Valley, their stories were intriguing, and I was curious.

When my coaching client Doug Ratliff informed me that he had been accepted into Badwater and wanted me to pace and crew for him, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to see what this race was all about.

First I began reading about how people acclimate for the race: Running in a sauna, cycling in a greenhouse, jogging on a treadmill with the clothes dryer vent blowing on you. While Doug didn’t do this, he did run in the Texas heat while we (his crew) practiced pacing and crewing. It was unlike any crewing experience I had ever had. I wondered “What could a runner need every half mile?” I was used to doing Mountain Ultras where I saw my crew every 2-3 hours, not every few minutes.

I got my first dose of Badwater reality when I arrived in Furnace Creek two days before the race. When I stepped out of the van, it was like jumping into an oven. The ambient temperature was 120, the wind was hot, and the sun was literally burning my skin. “How was Doug going to run in this, and boy am I glad I’m not,” were my first thoughts. I was beginning to understand the need for nearly constant crewing.

Almost immediately we began meeting other racers and crews. It was like any other ultra in that way, with friendly runners and helpful people. But there was more than that: many of these runners had completed multiple Badwater races, were back for more, and had only great things to say about the race. Bottom-line, I had never seen a group of runners, crews, and pacers so passionate about a race.

This was one of the only races I have attended where the crew consisted of more world-class runners than the race field itself. The crews were literally a who’s who of the running elite: Deena Kastor, Jenn Shelton, and scores of Badwater veterans.

There were a lot of rules! Support vans had to be tagged with the runner’s name and number. Crews had to adhere to race and traffic rules. The logistics involved seemed overwhelming.

As the race got underway I saw the need for all the rules. The 80 racers and some 400 crew members traveled across Death Valley like a well choreographed dance. Everyone worked together, runners and crew helping each other.

Just after the race began a woman approached me yelling, “Hey Hammer Girl.” (I was wearing my Hammer Nutrition shirt.) It seemed her runner had forgotten his HEED and was wondering if I had any. Our crew van was with Doug and I wasn’t sure if we had any HEED to spare. Fortunately we had an extra container so when our crew shift started, we tracked down the needy runner and delivered the HEED to his very appreciative crew.

Pacing Doug was much like pacing at any other ultra, except I had to stay behind, not in front of, him. My job was to keep him moving forward, limiting stops and distractions, while monitoring fluid and fuel intake. We dealt with the usual sleepiness, nausea, and sore feet. There were times that Doug wanted to sit or rest, so I began timing his stops and only allowing him 5 minutes. I kept him motivated by asking him about topics that he enjoyed talking about. Another tactic that worked was asking him to “run to the next marker.” The reality is that Doug had a great race and was a joy to pace and crew, even when the temps reached 110 during my 8-hour pacing shift.

Keeping the runner cool was something very new to me. I have been hot enough in races to drop some ice cubes into my hat and jog bra, but Badwater takes cooling to a whole new level. Our van was stocked with four huge coolers. The “refrigerator” was for those food and drinks which need to stay cool, but were not used frequently. One “coffin” cooler was used just to store about 20 bags of ice. The other coffin cooler was full of drinks, water bottles, plus ice and water to be used for keeping Doug cool. The last was a 7-gallon drink cooler full of ice and water. This cooler was kept sanitary and only an ice scoop was used to put ice in his water bottles, so that no bacteria would get into his drinking water.

Doug used various methods to stay cool. The Moeben hemp wrap was soaked in ice water and worn around his head and shoulders (these were given to each race entrant). He also used the ice bandanas (specially made bandanas that can be filled with ice and tied around the neck), and water spays (industrial or garden sprayers filled with ice water that the crew used to mist him as he passed). All these measures seemed to work well as he never complained about the heat.

Besides the coolers, which took up the majority of the van, we had a tall chest of drawers with everything Doug might need: medical supplies, sunscreen, medications (anti-gas, anti-inflammatory , anti-nausea, etc), Endurolytes, sports lube, powder, foot kit, batteries, lights, etc. There was also a chair and a large umbrella; we had to hide Doug with the umbrella when he needed to change clothes or urinate (there are no bushes to duck behind). We also had two-way radios so the pacer could inform the crew of anything Doug needed before we passed the van again.

We also had a notebook in the van with all of the crew information and a spot to record all of Doug’s intake and output (as well as anything else we thought interesting or pertinent). It was nice to be able to look at this and realize that Doug needed something. He typically drank about 20-24 oz of water and took three Endurolytes per hour. He supplemented HEED with various drinks and food throughout the race.

Overall, I was most impressed with all of the organization. Doug had assembled a first class crew, provided us with all of the information we needed to help him, be where we needed to be, and take care of ourselves. Doug’s race was terrific, there were no horror stories, no giant blisters, no endless vomiting. He was even running up the 13 miles to to the Whitney Portal finish line!

Of course the finish line of any event is the highlight and this was no different. Doug crossed the line with all six of us in tow, was greeted by Chris Kostman, the race director, and presented with his buckle, medal, and coveted finisher’s shirt.

The race experience wasn’t over yet: The post-race awards and party was more of the same: camaraderie, appreciation, and friendship. Runners and crew assembled to applaud the efforts of each one out there. The race recap video was touching! But a couple of amazing things stand out about the results: First, only 7 runners DNF’d. This is one of the most brutal events in the world and yet a huge majority of these runners battle the crazy conditions and make it to the finish line. Second, many of them were finishing more that once, some up to 15 times. Veteran crew members were also recognized, with two women having crewed ten times each!

When Doug had first approached me about coaching him to get to Badwater, my response was, “I’m happy to work with you through the qualifying events but I am not comfortable coaching you for Badwater itself.” I knew Badwater is a special kind of race with a set of circumstances (namely heat) with which I had never dealt before. So, I worked with Doug on his qualifying 100-mile races. For training, he did up to 100 miles per week but was not consistent with his running until he started a running group in San Antonio. The group forced him to be consistent because he was expected to show up for runs.

Because he had crewed at Badwater several times he knew what it would take to finish. He was very organized and had every aspect of his race preplanned, but also had alternate plans in case things did not go well. Another aspect of Doug’s success was intense training in the Texas heat with the van and crew just as it would be during the race. This enabled everyone to experience what we would be up against. Doug tested everything from race fuel to clothing, shoes, and more. He even figured out which shoes he could wear, and when, based on how quickly they dried. Lastly, Doug’s participation in a 48-hour event really helped boost his confidence and gave him a taste of how it would feel to be on his feet for that length of time. All of this added up to a great experience for him and his crew. Each of us was ready to take on the Badwater task and Doug had a “picture perfect race” as crewmember Brenda Carawan put it.

We all spent two days in Las Vegas after the race, lounging and eating (a lot). Doug drove back to San Antonio and began doing short runs the next week. He says the most difficult part of recovery has been sleepiness and being tired. It took him the better part of two weeks to get caught up on rest. His next race is the Arkansas Traveler 100 in October.

While I still contend that this is not a race for me (I have learned “never say never”), I now understand the allure of Badwater. I understand that this group of runners is somehow connected and part of a very special corps of athletes who have not only overcome, but embraced, the climate and adversity of Death Valley.

Amanda McIntosh with Badwater 135 Ultramarathon race director Chris Kostman at the 2010 finish line

Coach Amanda McIntosh has been a Hammer Nutrition Athlete since 1995. Some of her racing highlights include 1999 50 mile National Women’s Champion, 1999 and 2000 Leadville Trail 100 Women’s Champion, 2005 World Masters 100K Women’s Champion, 2008 Copper Canyon 50-mile Women’s Champion, 2007 Q50 Patagonia Women’s Champion, and 2010 Q50 Costa Rica Women’s Champion. Over the past year Amanda has added cycling and swimming to her running, competing in a few Triathlon and Duathlon events. As a coach she trains beginner to elite runners to accomplish goals from 5k to 100 miles and more. Though Amanda is based in San Antonio, TX, her clients include athletes from all over the world. She thinks Chris Kostman is Da Bomb.

Badwater Blues

Why does every year seem tougher than the last?

Four-time finisher 

No matter how many times I attempt the Badwater Ultramarathon, it never seems to get any easier.  Even though I “survived the fastest” in 2004, I’ve yet to have a good Badwater.  Despite my best commitment to prepare more rigorously every year, the race always gets the better of me.  So any guidance I might dispense in this article needs to be tapered by the fact that I’m still trying to figure things out.

Something I can state with relative certainty, though, is that San Francisco is probably the worst place on earth to train for Badwater.  With daytime temperatures rarely cresting 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and a frigid fog dampening the air, Mark Twain had been attributed with once saying that the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco.  Bummer I live in San Francisco.

Yet British Columbia isn’t a whole lot warmer, and that doesn’t seem to be slowing down Ferg Hawke.  The Canadian native and two-time Badwater Ultramarathon runner-up has devised his own version of Death Valley, right in his back yard.  Hawke built a solarium off the rear of his house, and then stuck a treadmill in it.  Daytime temperatures inside can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which simulate race day conditions quite nicely.  The enterprising ultramarathoner spends three to four days a week inside training leading up to the race.

Still, Hawke realizes the importance of being on the actual course, and also spends time training in Death Valley prior to the event.  There isn’t anything, really, that can emulate the real deal, not even a 130 degree solarium.  They don’t call it “The World’s Toughest Footrace” for nothing.

When it’s 120 degrees outside and there’s a 25 mph headwind, having spent time in such elements prior to the race is invaluable.  Nothing can prepare you for the arduous climb up Townes Pass like spending time training on Townes Pass.  Hawke realizes this, and being the consummate pro that he is, gets out to Death Valley a few times before the event.

There are no “tricks” for running 135-miles across Death Valley in July, but something I’ve found useful in coping with the “blow dryer in your face” effect is using saline spray to help moisten your nasal passage.  As a surfer, I’ve learned that having saltwater shot up your nose actually helps prevent your sinuses from drying out.  Thus I’ve been bringing a tube of saline spray to Badwater and misting liberally along the run.

I’ve also found that much of the high-tech running gear I typically wear seems to be the wrong fabric for Badwater temperatures.  Having a garment that wicks away moisture is great up to a point, but when temperatures crest 100 degrees, the evaporative cooling effect of such material is disappointingly transient.  What I’ve found to remain coolest longest is thick canvas or terrycloth.  These fabrics soak up water and retain dampness for greater periods.  The tradeoff is that they’re heavy.

The added weight, however, isn’t as frustrating as my inability to stay on pace.  What I’ve discovered over the years is something every Badwater veteran already knows: you can’t compare conditions one year verses the next.  Differences in temperatures, humidity, wind speeds and wind direction, sandstorms, flashfloods, etc…all coalesce to create entirely distinct conditions each year.  Trying to compare split times one year against a previous year can be like chasing a mirage.

So how, then, do you best prepare for a race that can throw just about anything your way?  “I try really hard not to think about the heat.  I just run and drink as much as I possibly can,” says Pam Reed.  Staying in the present, and drinking as much as you can, sounds like a prudent strategy.  Reed ought to know; not only is she the women’s record holder, she’s won the thing outright twice, handily disposing of yours truly on one such occasion.

Reed’s training secret really isn’t much of a secret at all.  She lives in Arizona and trains harder than anyone I know: “I run 4 times a day about 45 minutes to 1 hour.  This is when it is about 105 or so out.”  Beyond her natural ability, she’s committed to the core, unwilling to accept anything less than total devotion.  Her phenomenal results are a testament to her dedication and drive.  Train hard, get results.  Don’t bonk.

And even if you train hard, you still can bonk.  Just ask Scott Jurek, who was dehydrated and vomiting after Panamint Springs.  “I got behind on fluids,” he says, “and paid for it.”

But Badwater is about overcoming low points and persevering.  Jurek regrouped and went on not only to win the race, but to smash the course record in the process.  How did he do it?  “The key to turning it around was listening to my body, finding out what was wrong, and then correcting it.  It’s impossible to fight the body.”

So there you have some advice from the best at Badwater on how to make your experience a positive one.  My suggestion is to listen to everyone, yet follow no one.  What works for others might not work for you.  The only “certainty” with this race is that anything less than 100% commitment won’t get you across the finish line.  Experiment with what works best for you, train like crazy, and hope for cooler temperatures and a tailwind…just don’t plan on it.

2004 Badwater champ Dean Karnazes is author of the bestseller, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.  Info at

Heat Training Analyzed for the Badwater Ultramarathon

1999 Finisher

After over a month of heat training preparation, I was fortunate to have had a successful run from Badwater to the summit of Mt. Whitney in the July 99 Hi-Tec Badwater race. I had no real knowledge of heat training before I began heat training, but I posted questions about it to the ultra list and got responses from others who had experience with, or were at least knowledgeable about, heat training.

Many of the ideas expressed were scientific; I did my best to interpret them. Some were more simplified, and out of all of them, I tailored a regimen to suit me personally, as anyone should do. Regardless of the different approaches there are some ideas and beliefs about training for and performing in extreme heat that are common, and as a conclusion to my experience with heat, I will write some of the more basic and simple ideas that I think are sound advice and good knowledge for dealing with it. These are only my opinions, and this is what worked for me.

  1. Your body is a machine that cannot be thrown into a very foreign and hostile environment such as extreme heat and be expected to perform at its usual high caliber. No matter how tough you perceive yourself to be, simply dealing with heat and accepting it won’t be enough; you must physically adapt to the rigors of heat beforehand.
  2. Simplified, sources of heat are,
    1. External, from the environment, real ( sun, humidity, air temps, ) or simulated ( heavy layers of clothes that trap heat, blankets, ect…).
    2. Internal, generated from physical exertion and output
    3. Both
  3. When enduring extreme heat it is most important to stay cool internally.
    1. By adding coolant. Drinking lots and lots of cold water and ice, the colder the better.
    2. By keeping physical effort to a minimum.
  4. External cooling.
    People naturally sweat to cool off. In extreme heat however, your body might not sweat enough to cool you off, or, the outside environment might be so hot and dry that any perspiration evaporates off your body before it can have any cooling effect on it. Either way, sweat can be simulated by wearing very lightweight or cotton material clothing, long sleeve and preferably covering the legs also, and “continuously” soaking, spraying or saturating the clothing with cold water. The wet clothes against the skin will have the same cooling effect as sweat
  5. The combination of keeping cool internally by:
    1. drinking lots of cold water,
    2. generating as little internal heat as possible by keeping physically exertion to a minimum,
    3. and cooling externally by producing outside coolant in the form of artificial sweat should keep most people cool in the hottest environments if a person has these resources available.
  6. Humidity.
    When considering the temperature performing in, take humidity into consideration. From experience I know humidity is a silent killer. It is rare in the West, common in the East. Humidity zaps strength, dehydrates a person very quickly, and does these things suddenly without warning. A warm humid day is probably more dangerous than a very hot dry day.In my opinion, the best way to deal with humidity is respect it. Even if it doesn’t feel that hot, prepare for it by taking it easy and drinking lots and lots. Basically the same as for dry heat; that’s why I say, above all else, respect it.
  7. Regardless, to perform in a hot environment at a race like Badwater some heat must be generated internally, and heat must be endured. To do so you must teach your body to adapt to the heat by teaching your body to sweat more, and locate a tolerable medium between physically pushing yourself and yet not overheating internally.
  8. Over-dressed heat training.
    1. Can be dangerous. Use good judgment and train in a safe environment, particularly one that is safe from traffic
    2. In the heat of the day, either go the whole nine yards and train in many heavy layers right from the start and run very limited mileage to understand how you will personally react to it, or, start with more routine mileage with perhaps just a sweatshirt and cold weather cap and add more layers and increase mileage as you adapt.
    3. Drink lots and lots of water. Drive to pre-determined spots along your route and put cold water and ice out, or always be close to a source of cold water.
    4. Pace yourself. It’s easy to feel just as strong at the start, aside from feeling heavy, than normal. It “won’t” last. Remember to generate as little internal heat as possible and plan on lots of walking.
    5. Be prepared for nausea. In my opinion this results from the large amount of water in your stomach. Consider salt, rock salt, and E-Caps supplements to assist with this.
    6. Keep up your energy. Just like in normal training, if you run for x amount of time, energy is needed, and even though you might not feel like eating, you must. You might require less energy intake than normal however. Liquid energy is one of the better or “easier” ways to supplement energy in the heat.
    7. Keep your wits. The heat is something that can be very overwhelming mentally. If you start to panic or get the slightest bit confused or dizzy, slow down, sit in the shade, recover and cool down. You won’t be able to escape the heat in the actual environment, however, so if at all possible, cool down by resting and minimizing your effort rather than by taking off any clothing. Tolerating the overwhelming heat can be a big moral victory, but when it comes down to it, safety is your main concern.
    8. Make sure others know what your doing, where your training, when to expect you.
    9. Know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Prevention is easier than treatment.
    10. The frequency of over-dressed training sessions is up to an individual. For me, I opted for about 2 extreme heat sessions a week, and then added one lesser element of heat to each regular training session, by running normally but in the heat of the day, or in the evening wearing a sweatshirt and hat, just always enduring a little more heat than I normally would in order to build an overall tolerance and acceptance for heat. My most extreme heat sessions consisted of wearing a Coolmax t shirt, a sweatshirt, a thick, insulated navy working jacket topped with a rubber, non-breathable, dark green raincoat and cold weather hat. Plus sweatpants off and on, and towards the end of my preparation gloves as well.
    11. Run / Walks with climb from 1-2 hours average. Maximum heat endured dressed like so, 90 degrees + 100 % humidity for 4 hours, 9 miles with climb. Overall 10-11 “extreme overdressed sessions” over 5-6 week period before Badwater.

Important advice. Have a good crew who has knowledge of what it takes to keep you going in the heat. My crew was very experienced and kept handing me another water bottle of ice water even before I could finish the one I already had. I probably wouldn’t have drunk quite as much had it not been handed to me so often. Have your crew think for you and keep you hydrated.

Personal Race Notes
Temps at Badwater were lower than normal in 1999 but humidity was high. I stayed well hydrated throughout the race, wore Solar Eclipse sun hat, long sleeved Sun Precautions shirt, shorts. Wore cotton pajama pants some. Very dependable crew misted me down often and I stayed cool and never once suffered with the heat. Successful finish.

Heat-wise, I suffered much more enduring the heat during my over-dressed training than I did during the actual race. In my opinion I was able to perform well because I had physically adapted to heat and had mentally learned to accept heat, in addition to the cooling methods we used during the race.

A Perspective on Heat Training for the Badwater Ultramarathon

I would never be hotter during the actual event than I was throughout my over-dressed training run/walks in the month before the race. One in particular, two weeks before the race, and the last of my extreme heat training, was the pinnacle of my suffering.

In the heat of the early afternoon I went out wearing a T-shirt, sweatshirt, thick insulated Navy working jacket, topped with a thick non-breathable dark green raincoat, sweatpants, and a cold weather hat, and gloves. The temp was about 90 with close to 100% humidity. I had driven to a point along a climb just before my run and placed a cooler full of ice and water in the tall weeds just off the road. As I was stepping over the guardrail, a vehicle sped past going down the mountain with the driver taking note of the situation, peering back through the rear view mirror.

The majority of my training miles in the month before were done slightly over-dressed, with about 2 heavily over-dressed sessions a week thrown in. On runs when I opted for quality mileage and ran just slightly over-dressed, I ran in the heat of the day. All of my runs were to include at least slightly higher than normal heat to build an overall tolerance to it. Even in the evenings and late at night when I went on my routine fast paced enjoyment runs with Thor, I’d opt to enjoy the humidity wearing a little more than usual.

My approach was to learn to accept the heat, “embrace it” as my crew for the race, Fred Vance, had told me in the month before. And as a cool weather mountain runner, I accepted the heat and learned to like it and deal with it. Aside from that, the heavily over-dressed training would physically teach my body to adapt to the rigors of heat.

From the start of this afternoon run I felt strong despite the weight of the heavy clothes as I immediately began to climb one of the many long, steep, San Francisco like streets. I remembered what I learned throughout the month of heat adaptation, “pace is critical”. Strength and comfort will decrease shockingly fast in the heat. A lesson I had learned the hard way a few times in the last month.

And on the bright side, it would end, the time “would” come when I could throw off the heavy clothes and once again feel the comforts of cool air. Hours away, but it would come. Hours away didn’t seem tolerable at times, like telling a drowning person they’ll be able to breathe in a few hours. Monotonous. Part of the mental toughening aspect of it all. Enduring.

After the steep climb out of Bluefield, I began the steep 2-mile climb up the mountainside to the scenic overlook at 3,400 feet. The windy road up was what I thought would be almost a carbon copy of the windy steep ascents of the Badwater course that I had read about, only shorter. The climb up and over, down and back up the mountain is one of my many regular routes anyhow.

With hindsight now, I was correct, the roads were very much alike, only those at Badwater steeper in places. About a mile up, I started walking slowly. This was the hottest I had been in my training and I wasn’t feeling well. Not far from the top I made my way through the knee high grass and weeds to the cooler and looked around. Not there. This was the spot. I was somewhat ticked off to say the least, and even more had been really looking forward to the cold water and ice.

Stepping over the guardrail I thought, “Maybe, just maybe it’s this next spot of weeds where I put the cooler.” I was sure my cooler had been stolen though, “It was a nice cooler”. A few steps into the weeds, just 10 yards from the first spot, was my cooler. A welcome sight. Not just because of the water, but because I still had my cooler. I collapsed to my knees in the dried straw and briers where I filled my bottles with ice, water, grassy sticks and pollen. The point in real endurance where a person stops being a normal person and becomes more like an animal, not caring the slightest about the many pieces of grass and who knows what throughout the ice and water andgulps it all down in great haste. Then topped off my bottles. The climb continued slowly up to the top and then down the Virginia side of the mountain a ways.

I was walking very slowly, nauseated, exhausted, robbed of my strength. In the heat I was overcome by the vile smell of a dead animal carcass rotting in the unrelenting Eastern heat wave, carelessly thrown over the steep bank with lot’s of other human trash. A 1/2 mile down the other side I turned left off the main road and began a very steep climb straight up a rugged, rocky ATV road that climbs around 300 feet in a fifth-of-a-mile. So steep, so hot, with the heat pouring off the dark gravel, I made my way about 10 yards at a time, pausing a few seconds then onward.

Finally reaching the top of the mountain with it’s high towers and antennas along the snakelike ridge. From there I began an even steeper descent back down another rockier trail to the road below again. The two roads form a triangle, both starting less than a fourth-of-a-mile apart down on the main paved road, and then converging at the same point on the ridge at the top of the mountain. On my regular routes here, I run up one, down the other, turn around and climb the one I had just descended to the top again and descend back down the first climb again. A monotonous triangle pattern I ran over and over, up and down while training for Barkley. This day I would only run the triangle pattern once, then return over the mountain back home. When I descended to the main road I did an about face in the middle of the road and started to climb again. I was so exhausted and run down, I climbed a few yards at a time bent over, hands on hips, head hanging down looking at my feet, to tired to look upright, stretching out with long, slow walking strides. Shortly up the very steep second climb I was overcome by the exhaustion and collapsed under some sticks and bushes along the side in the shade. I was breathing very deeply. Gasping for air as if it would cool me off. I laid on my stomach stretched out, but there was no relief, no air. I sat right back up and stretched my legs out in front of me. First one, then the other. No matter what I did I couldn’t sit still. Like a person under water struggling with no air, thrashing about, I felt is if I was suffocating. I could only sit still a matter of seconds and the panic would set in and I’d have to move. Lean back, sit up, put my legs out, pull them back up to my chest, nothing I could do would relieve the monotony of the heat. My mind felt heavy with thoughts racing through it. My breathing was labored. For the first time in all my training I realized I could die.

I wasn’t going to, surely, but people die from heat exhaustion all the time. And just because I was enduring extreme heat with a purpose didn’t make me immune to the laws of the mortal human body. All along there was one act I could have done to instantly relieve the monotony, to have undone my jackets and thrown off my clothes. I craved to do it. It would have been like reaching the surface and taking a big breath of air. I needed to do it. But I wouldn’t accept it. There would be no escaping the heat in Death Valley, and to tolerate it and overcome it would be very hard. To make it back home without giving in and enduring this heat would be what I call tough. In the collapsed condition I was in, that very relief would be even hours more away than I had planned, but I had to endure. My face clinched in discomfort I sat there and accepted my pain as something I could not change. Like a fish out of water, my breath became less frequent, more shallow, and my movement gradually ceased. The dry ground saturated with drops of sweat all around, all covered in dust had stuck to my wet clothes. I just wanted to go back home to my cats and dogs who were much much smarter than I. I concentrated on the joys of just sitting still in the shade, the joy of each deep breath. A minute passed, then another, and I did cool off some, at least internally. Always present was the heavy, wet, hot insulation of the four layers of clothes, my forehead was hot to the touch, my outer external surface burning, but inwardly, I was cooling. My breathing returned to normal, and I reached a point of comfort and stillness sitting in the dust.

Eventually I moved on, yards at a time again, up to the top once more finally. Then back down the first climb of the triangle to the paved road, and back up the overlook slowly, concentrating on minimal effort. Going down the other side I drank the rest of the water and ice at my cooler, endured many looks from people and slowly made my way down the mountain and down the hills back home to where it came, the time when I could throw off those heavy, soaked clothes. Instant relief. It felt so good.

If I wasn’t ready to at least mentally endure the heat of Badwater, then I never would be. These small adventures weren’t merely training runs, but small feats of endurance themselves to be reckoned with. I thank JESUS for the strength and safety granted me.

The 4th of July I ran a blistering, for me, pace in a late afternoon Wilderness 8k in 95 degree heat and humidity down a steep mountain road and then up the mountain 1000 + feet on a rutted ATV trail without hardly the slightest bit of effects from the heat. I drank lots and finished 2nd overall, 6 seconds behind 1st, in 25 minutes and some seconds. I felt very strong, and had truly physically adapted to heat.

My last training runs were after midnight runs with Thor in the cool of the night where I had seemingly endless strength up and down the steep streets.

I had done all I could to prepare for Badwater.

Medical Risks in the Badwater Ultramarathon

(Adapted from Western States Endurance Run program.)

This 135 mile race is probably the most physically taxing competitive event in the world. It also has considerable medical risks. All runners and crews must appreciate these two facts both before and during the race.

Heat illness and heat stroke are serious risks. These can cause death, renal shutdown, and brain damage. It is important that runners and crews be aware of the symptoms of impending heat illness. These include: nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, faintness, irritability, lassitude, weakness, and rapid heart rate. Impending heat stroke may be signaled by a decrease in sweating and goose bumps, especially over the chest. Heat stroke may progress from minimal symptoms to complete collapse in a very short period of time. Deaths and renal shutdown (kidney failure) have been reported in other ultra-marathons. Adequate conditioning is mandatory.

Adequate fluid and electrolyte intake is the most important preventative for heat illness. Runners may well require dozens of gallons of fluid during this race. Proper pace is crucial.

The high altitude plus exertion can also produce various degrees of altitude sickness. This can lead to severe lung and brain swelling, and even death. The main treatment is rest, and especially to get to a lower altitude.

Blisters are also a problem on this course, with pavement temperatures perhaps reaching 200 degrees. Proper foot care & preparation are essential for having a successful race.

Remember, you are responsible for your well-being while participating in this race. There are no aid stations. Know where your limits are and know your body. Your acceptance of invitation to this race declares that you are aware of the risks & potential health problems.

Heat Training and Conditioning for the Badwater Ultramarathon

Three time finisher

I am a long-time physician in the high desert area, living and practicing in Lone Pine, California. It is at the foot of Mt. Whitney and at the threshold of Death Valley. I have treated cases of every imaginable medical circumstance including heat exhaustion and heat stroke (including disseminated intravascular coagulation). Since 1990 I have been involved in the annual Badwater Ultramarathon (formerly the Hi-Tec Badwater 146).

In 1991 my claim to fame happened during the race. About a week before 14 of us started at Badwater, Death Valley, there was known to be a trekker missing who had attempted to traverse Death Valley east to west 10 miles and then return. During the race, I was approaching Lone Pine some 122 miles later and saw the coroner traveling in the direction of Death Valley. By the time I had made it to Whitney Portals at 135 miles, I got word that he wanted me to do an autopsy. I obliged and then re-entered the course to complete the event to the top of Whitney at 146 miles. I am the only one of which I am aware who has ever performed an autopsy during a race. Besides that, I used a water-filled casket (body removal tank) for immersing myself in to cool down during the race. I am also the only one I have heard of to successfully get in and out of a casket before successfully finishing a race.

In terms of heat training and experience, I began to increase my exposure to the heat in 1990 when I went out on the Badwater course to see and help several friends who were in the race. While training to participate in 1991, I became acquainted with Richard Benyo and Tom Crawford of “Death Valley 300” fame; they had done the round trip from “Fire to Ice to Fire.” As a result of this association and having done the autopsy, there was a touching ceremony at Badwater on 07-04-1992 where I was dubbed the “Mayor of Badwater” and my wife, Denise, the “First Lady of Badwater.”

I completed the Race in 1991, 1992 and 1993 and did not finish on the next two attempts in 1994 and 1996. My failure in 1994, after 40 miles, was because I did not start the race hydrated well enough and that I stopped manufacturing urine. I gave myself four liters of IV’s as I laid on my casket in the U-Haul before I started putting out urine. I felt that, if I were to continue, I would wind up on the renal dialysis ward. Because of the extra heat in 1996 and the resulting fatigue that existed, I pulled myself at 50 miles. I could have continued but I went ahead to support my wife and free up my crew for her as I would have finished beyond the 60-hour time limit. My wife finished successfully in 1994, 1996, and 1999.

One advantage I have in regard to heat training and adaptation is that I live in the high desert in the Eastern Sierra. In Lone Pine, it gets to above 100 degrees F in the summer and it is very dry with less than 10% humidity. It is usually 20 degrees hotter in Death Valley no matter what time of day or what day of the year it is. All I have to do is go eastward and hang around in the heat (in dark clothes) and do some light exercise.

There is some very good scientific information about heat acclimatization that is very informative and can be found in “Marathon and Beyond” in the July/August 1997 issue: “Into the Valley of Death” by Richard Benyo and “Beating the Heat” by David E. Martin, PhD. Another valuable piece is in the “Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Science” on “Heat Acclimatization” by Lawrence E. Armstrong, PhD. My information below is more of a “by the seat of the pants” approach.

“How long do you need to train in hot conditions to acclimate?”

My answer is as long as possible, but, practically, about three weeks. Try to spend as much time above 100 degrees F as possible and that means traveling to the low deserts of Southern California or the eastern desert areas such as Panamint Valley and Death Valley. It is necessary to spend time outdoors in these areas and just trying to relax while getting used to the heat. The training can be eased into. Of great importance is to have the potential crew members along also. The event being trained for can almost be more difficult and hazardous for them than for the performer. Most athletes cannot afford the time and cost of doing all of this, unfortunately.

“When acclimating, how long and how hard should you exercise each day?”

Long is more important than hard. Start easy and then work up. I like Walt Stack’s creed of “start slowly and then taper off!” Calculate the distance being covered and the time limit imposed, then go from there according to your capabilities. For the Badwater Ultramarathon, 20-minute miles will cover the 135-mile course from Badwater to Whitney Portals in 45 hours. One can buckle in 48 hours. For this 135-mile Race, most of it is flat and I tried to do 15-minute miles for these 70 miles. I treated the 19 downhill-miles as flat miles at the same pace to save the legs. The uphill 18 miles from Stovepipe Wells Village to the top of Townes Pass and the 15 miles from Panamint Valley to the Darwin Flats I tried to do at a 20-minute-per-mile pace. For the steeper 13 miles from Lone Pine to the Portals, I tried to do at a 30-minute per-mile pace. The 11 miles up the Whitney trail I allowed a 1-mile-per-hour pace. So, setting a pace for the terrain of the anticipated race is necessary. This is not possible for a continuous race lasting more than 48 hours. The intensity and duration of training can be adjusted upwards for each additional day of training, but allow a few rest-days or, at least, a few rest-hours for you compulsive people. I would say try to do a mild level of exercise for about 8 to 10 hours each day. The intensity can be adjusted upwards to a moderate level later. It is virtually impossible and essentially inadvisable to train at an intense level in these conditions. Try to gauge how many hours or days it will take to get through the anticipated event and heat and practice accordingly.

“Is passive acclimatization possible?”

It certainly is and this is mostly what I do. Wear dark clothes while in the heat. Don’t use air-conditioning. You can even roll up the windows of the vehicle and turn on the heater. My exercise base has usually been 1-2 hours of exercise a day every day in my calculated fitness range. [This is three to six times what is needed for general and basic health]. I have always been at the back-of-the pack, or, as I often announce, in the top 98%. In getting ready for this race, I like to go out to the desert and just kick back and do some hiking as well as strolling on the dry lake beds and over the sand dunes. I take a camera and a micro cassette recorder as well as some techno-nerd items. Try to have fun and visit with other desert rats. Be sure to write up your story even if you “fail.” Pass on what you learn. With progressive heat adaptation, I have found that I don’t seem to sweat as much and my skin doesn’t seem to taste as salty, even if I am not exercising at the time. Fluid and electrolyte and calorie replacement are extremely important in these conditions for you and your crew. These are separate issues that could be covered later. Passive conditioning can get you by better than vigorous exercise. Decide what it is that you are trying to accomplish and set some goals.

“Can one simulate hot conditions at home?”

Yes, and this has been done using a sauna and with maybe adding some minimal exercise. Get a medical checkup before starting all of the above activities. Another way to do it is wear extra (dark) clothing as mentioned above while exercising in desert-like conditions. Wear something that traps the heat for a while. Again, don’t use air conditioning and roll up the windows and, if this doesn’t do it, turn on the heater. I have done these things and when it is 120 degrees I don’t even notice the blast from the heater. It does help the vehicle to run cooler, too. All of these things are useful, but the most important is to get in the right frame of mind about what is going to be done. You do have to get your skin, stomach and bladder through all of this too. I have had the advantage of living where I do and traveling frequently to the desert. I have practiced as a physician here since 1963 and have observed what can happen out here. Be careful!

Common Sense Solutions to Common Foot Problems


  1. Conditioning – A large part of finishing with good feet is to do your conditioning. Put the miles in that build strong and tough feet.
  2. Fit – Another component of finishing well is to wear shoes that fit well, with plenty of toe room.
  3. Calluses – Blisters under thick calluses are very hard to drain and patch. Use salves, creams, lotions, and files to smooth and thin calluses.
  4. Cramping – Watch for cramping when changing shoes or socks and twisting your feet and legs. Have your crew or aid station person help you.
  5. Changing shoes and socks – Use a shoehorn to avoid pressure on your heels–sore heels and blisters can be made worse by pushing and twisting your foot into a tight shoe. Put one in each drop bag with shoe or sock changes.
  6. Changing shoes – If you have a change of shoes but your current shoes are OK, stick with them.
  7. Socks – Choose moisture-wicking socks and change them when they get full of grit and dirt. Five-toe socks by Injinji are the best for performance and for preventing blisters.
  8. Lubricants – If you lube your feet, wipe the dirty grit off when changing socks and reapply more lube.
  9. Lube or powder – Some feet will get soft and blister more with a lube, so try a powder like Zeasorb. Your feet will stay cleaner too.
  10. Hot spots – When you feel a hot spot, stop and take care of it before it becomes a blister.
  11. Blisters – Fix blisters before they get bigger. Any larger than 1/2 inch should be drained and covered.
  12. Making holes in blisters – Use a scissors to cut a V notch in a blister at the point where pressure will push fluid out. Cutting a hole at the forward part of a blister risks tearing the skin off the top.
  13. Cleaning the skin – Use an alcohol wipe to get oil and lube off  your skin before taping over a blister–otherwise it will not stick.
  14. Rocks – When you feel a stone in your shoe, stop and remove it before it becomes a bigger problem.
  15. Toenails – Trim your toenails straight across and file them smooth. Rough edges will catch on your socks and help cause black toenails and toe blisters, especially on downhills.
  16. Foot Care Kit – Make a foot care kit for your crew and make sure they know how you want your feet managed. (Do not assume that someone else will have someone to fix your feet or the stuff you have found works best on your feet. Bring your own.)
  17. Hydration and Blisters – Stay hydrated to reduce the swelling in your extremities and reduce the chance of blisters.
  18. Shoelaces – Check your laces before race day and replace any that are worn — don’t take a chance on a broken lace.
  19. Shoes – If your shoes are worn and ready to be tossed, toss them and get a new pair with time to get your feet accustomed to them.
  20. Post race foot care – After finishing, shower and wash your feet before fixing and problem areas on your feet.
  21. Post race blisters – If you have blisters that are not bothering you after the race, leave them and they will go away by themselves.
  22. Post race foot soak – After arriving home, if you have blisters, soak your feet in Epson Salts in warm water several times a day. This dries out the blisters.

Buy the Book “Fixing Your Feet”

The book Fixing Your Feet: Prevention and Treatments for Athletes has become the bible of foot care for those serious about foot care. This book has been used by thousands of runners, adventure racers, hikers, and other extreme sports participants. The second edition was released in March 2000 and is 312 pages in length. With expansive prevention and treatment sections on almost every foot care issue you will ever need, this is the one book you need to fix your feet. For information on the book and how it can be ordered, click here.

For another informative article on foot care prior to the race, click Getting Your Feet to the Starting Line

JOHN VONHOF, FOOT GURU:Ultra runners, adventure racers, triathletes, and especially Badwater Runners should know the life, work, and insights which John Vonhof has to share on the subject of feet, shoes, and foot care. He’s literally written the book on the subject, “Fixing Your Feet.” John has also been an important member of the Badwater Race Staff in recent years and I’m sure that many runners can give thanks to John for allowing them to finish the race when their feet had other ideas in mind. John also maintains a very informative blog which all athletes should consult regularly.

The Wall

Originally published in Men’s Fitness

“All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall…”
-Pink Floyd

Ask any runner about preparing for the 26.2 mile grind of a marathon, and sooner or later-usually sooner-you’ll hear about “The Wall.”

It is a truly fearsome place, where legs turn to melting jello and breath comes in short, gasping gulps. It is a legendary place, usually encountered around mile 20, where the flesh weakens, the spirit sags and the will drains away into a little puddle on the hard, hard ground. All hyperbole aside, there is probably nothing as feared, or misunderstood, by the novice marathoner as the 20-mile wall, the point where it is written that a person runs out of steam.

What is The Wall, anyway?

The modern science of running mechanics has stalked and, if studies are to be believed, captured The Wall. Jeff Galloway, in his 1984 classic book “Galloway’s Book on Running,” breaks the 20-mile barrier down into two specific physiological causes.

The first involves glycogen, one of our basic fuels stored in muscle tissue. Glycogen, says Galloway, is predominately a short-range fuel. Glycogen stores, even in a fit person, will only get us…20 miles. When we need endurance, our body should be burning fat; even a skinny person has about 600 miles of fat fuel. There’s a catch (isn’t there always?): fat can only be burned aerobically, in the presence of oxygen.

“When you run faster than you’ve trained, or farther,” Galloway writes. “You overwhelm the muscles.”

The precious glycogen is burned, waste products and fatigue poisons build up the muscles faster than they can be eliminated, and you hit The Wall.

A second factor, he adds, is that many very popular marathon training regimens call for the longest run to be 20 miles. That last 6.2 miles is uncharted territory. If you were to look at a map of the marathon route, the last six miles would have no details whatsoever-just the image of a fearsome-looking beast and the inscription, “Here Be Dragons.”

“So if you extend your long run to 26 miles or more,” Galloway writes, “and run the race pace you’ve trained for, you can avoid encountering, much less hitting, The Wall.”

Simple, reasonable explanations. But do they really answer the entire question, or only a small part?

I have some thoughts on the matter, but I need to give you a little background first.

A few years ago, after a wild day of windsurfing, pizza and beer, my friends and I created what we laughingly referred to as the list, 13 athletic endeavors that could kill you. In the time that followed, I decided to do all 13 things (chronicled in my book, “Over the Edge: A Regular Guy’s Odyssey in Extreme Sports”), which involved morphing myself from a seriously overweight couch potato to something resembling an athlete. Some of the items on the purely arbitrary list turned out to be easy (rock climbing), some terrifying (cave diving), some (climbing Mt. McKinley) harder than I had ever imagined.

Early on in the process, I was lucky enough to hook up with Steve Ilg, author of “The Outdoor Athlete” and listed by numerous publications as one of the best personal trainers in America. When I first met with Ilg in his small, dusty office on a back street in Santa Fe, he struck me as more of a shaman than a coach. I wanted to talk to him about training regimens; how far should I be running; how much weight should I be lifting. That was important, he said gently, but not nearly as important as what was in my head.

Through Ilg, I learned (somewhat lurchingly, I have to confess) that all athletic endeavors have a physical and a mental component. Imagine each of these components as lines on a graph. When a person first starts training, the “physical” line spikes up faster than the “mental” line-as we start training, there’s more physical than mental effort required.

As we push ourselves harder, as we make the decision to test our own personal limits, that mental line-the mental effort necessary to accomplish our goals-increases faster than the physical line.

There will come a point, said Steve Ilg the Shaman, where your success or failure, possibly even your life, will hinge not on the physical, but solely on the mental.

What does this have to do with The Wall? I think for most of us, the 26.2 miles of the marathon represents the first place where the physical and mental lines on the graph converge. Yes, the physical effort of a marathon is tremendous, but it is the mental effort that will carry you across the finish line.

Unfortunately, we tend to approach mental training the same way we approach physical training-how much do I lift; how far do I run? There are numerous books these days on mental preparation for various sports. The bulk of them tend to offer sort of a brain prescription: two sets of visualization, three sets of relaxation, a quick two laps of positive thoughts and-viola!-instant sports nirvana.

Were that it was only so easy! As I moved through my list and beyond I came to see that the closer we came to our own personal edges, the more we moved away from the physical and onto a mental “landscape.” That landscape was and is fraught with dangers, traps waiting for the unknowing. It is the place where cause and effect start breaking down; where time looses its grip; a place where chaos reigns supreme.

I first caught a hint of this landscape in Death Valley. I was biking and running alongside competitors in the Hi-Tec Badwater 135, a 135-mile running race from Badwater, the lowest point in America, over two mountain ranges to the portals of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in America. Temperatures can range from 125 degrees down to below freezing.

It was morning, and I was alongside a rodeo cowboy turned successful banker, who did ultra-endurance events the way normal people do 5-K runs. The temperature was just cracking 100; we’d been running the flats and walking the climbs. As we walked, he was explaining to me the basics of the mental landscape.

“In an event like this,” he said, “your mind goes to strange places. You’ll experience every emotion, from the highest highs to the lowest lows.”

And then he told me about the dragon. And what an amazing dragon it was! Scales like roofing tiles; eyes blazing yellow fire. It was, he said, a dragon created of all a person’s fears and doubts and fatigue and pain. As the temperature soared, the banker described the dragon; how it came at a person’s lowest ebb, feeding on all the pain and suffering, every thought of failure, every couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t.

As he talked, the great convection oven that is Death Valley sucked the moisture from my skin, leaving only a fine, white dusting of salt.

What do you do, I insisted.

“Why, nothing, of course,” he said. “Keep running.”

To tell the truth, in my two marathons, I’ve never found a trace of The Wall. Mile 20 was no more-or less-painful than mile 18 or mile 23. Certainly training had something to do with not hitting The Wall. But more importantly, the lessons I learned at the edges of the known universe have served me well. I have found my dragon on the cold ice of Alaska, and on the sides of Big Mountains; once even within sight of the lights of Malibu, after all night on a trail and a full day left to travel. He’s there, though, always waiting. If you go far enough, there’s always The Wall.

The old rodeo cowboy told the truth-the mind will go to strange places, and, despite how easy those relaxation and focusing techniques seemed in your bedroom, you won’t have much control. Instead, here are some thoughts that have helped me, and can help you.

  • Accept that a portion of your race will be run on a mental landscape, and that it can be a scary place. It’s a landscape littered with your own failures and successes, your pains and your losses. It’s home to mythical creatures and places of legend, and your journey will be uniquely your own.
  • Understand that you may be beset by storms of powerful emotions-exhilaration, despair, fury. But like storms, the emotions pass. And like storms, these spikes of emotion have no meaning. I once ran alongside a woman who described in meticulous detail how she planned to kill her new husband, because she hated the bastard so much. Remember, strange places.
  • Never question your goal. The completion of a marathon, especially a first marathon, is more than a goal. It’s a summit, and summits have the power to capture and hold a person’s imagination. A trick I use is to “table” the mental discussion of whether this particular event was a good or a bad idea; set it aside as a question I’ll deal with later. Then I focus on why this event captured my imagination.
  • Let go of judgments. While your mind is bouncing hither and yon, sooner or later it’s going to land on the “Why am I running so badly today?” square. It’s a dead end. Rather than expend that mental energy on judging my performance, I repeat one of my favorite mantras: “nothing proves anything.”
  • Negotiate with your body. Crazy as it sounds, I carry on a mental conversation with my body. Before the race, I explain what is expected and acknowledge that it’s going to hurt. I apologize in advance, and promise that I’ll make it up to my body somehow. Amazingly, my body continues to believe me.

Finally, what do you do if you hit The Wall, when you finally meet your dragon?

Why, nothing, of course. Keep running.

Five Ways to Avoid the Wall

  1. Train realistically: Athletes (and even some of us faux athletes) have a remarkable ability for self-deception. The best way to know how you’ll respond in a situation is to practice that situation first. If you’re training for a marathon, at least one of your training runs needs to be 26 miles. If you’re training for a race that takes place at night,some of your training needs to be at night. I think of this as showing my body what I’m going to expect from it.
  2. Crosstrain: The more you move toward harder endurance events like the marathon, the more overall balance seems to pay off. I “trade-off” sports, especially on designated long days. to keep my interest up and injuries down. The added plus is that my overall good level of fitness helps carry me through longer events.
  3. Avoid judgements: When I was a “serious” triathlete, I used to study my race results with a magnifying glass. No matter how well I did, I was always performing “below expectations.” I have seen fine athletes talk themselves into quitting because they were running below par. Set your judgements aside on race day.
  4. Mentally prepare: Forget happy talk; you’re going to hurt Out There. But you know that already. In my mental rehersals, I try to be as realistic as possible, including acknowledging that it’s going to be painful. I also remind myself that, despite it all, I’ve crossed a lot of finish lines.
  5. Plan flexibly: Remember, long athletic events tend to be chaos systems. You can’t forsee everything nature is going to throw at you. Mental flexibility is your greatest tool for getting past The Wall.

If You Hit The Wall

  1. Don’t stop: “Program” youself before the event that you’re going to press on regardless, even if you’re barely moving. At the 1993 NYC Marathon, I was running so slowly uphill in Central Park that i was actually going backwards.
  2. “Table” your thoughts: The easiest way to quiet all those negative thoughts is to set them aside. Sometimes I actually visualize a locker-like box, where I stuff all my negative thoughts until I have the time and energy to deal with them.
  3. Get out of your head: Don’t dwell on how amazingly bad you feel. A really attractive woman running nearby is a handy, uplifting area to focus on. I’ve done it, and it works. Hormones are wonderful things.

Click here to read chapter five about the 1991 Badwater Race from Michael Bane’s book, Over The Edge: A Regular Guy’s Odyssey in Extreme Sports

The Meaning of Support Crews



My success at Badwater was entirely due to the fact that I was surrounded by high quality, dedicated people who genuinely wanted to help me be successful. Badwater was not an individual achievement but rather a team effort. A group of four Badwater virgins somehow entered Death Valley and managed to traverse 135 miles through the steaming, hot desert and come home with the coveted sub 48 hour buckle.

There were challenges along the way that I’ve never encountered in any ultra running event I’ve participated in but they were overcome because of the strength of the team.

While no one other than me had a particular role at the start each acquired their own identity as the race progressed. The lone female member of our team was the leader and took control when I needed her most. I leaned on her hard and she never once let me down. My friend from Wisconsin was the silent strength of the team. He could relate to the suffering I was experiencing as he too has suffered and persevered through grueling events.While he communicated in a different way than my other two crew members I was able to understand and benefit. My third crew member and my best friend and confidant experienced my worst moments with me. He could very well have left me in the desert whining to myself but what he did instead was listen. I was walking death between miles 115-122 as we looked for Lone Pine. I relied on my best friend to be my life support system and somehow he kept me moving forward.

Badwater was a success not only because of the finish but also because of what I learned about others. I had two total strangers enter my life on those 3 days and they stood by my side until the bitter end. My one good friend who went into the valley of Hell with me showed me that indeed he is the best friend I’ve ever had. I learned that I have two very good friends that live far away but despite the distance we will always be friends and I can always count on them to be a positive influence in my life. I learned that it is okay to lean on others once in awhile and that true friends will indeed come through for me under any and all circumstances. Badwater is indeed a team event and without a strong group of people surrounding the runner success would be impossible.

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Are You Giving Your Skin Enough Love?

Download this article as PDF – Reprint in your running club newsletter!

Gracia Walker of Kiehl’s poses with just some of the fine skin care products given to all Badwater entrants and staff in 2005.

An interesting thought struck me while lecturing to a group of hard-core triathletes recently. Yes, they are fit, yes they are intense, and yes, they are amazingly motivated people, I thought. But gosh, the ones who have been doing this for a while look a bit weather-beaten.

I kept this thought in mind when I was at a local road race in New York. Again, many of the runners who had been out doing their thing for a number of years looked a bit leathery.

Following this realization, I began an informal survey in my office. “How do you take care of your skin?”, I began asking. Much to my surprise, many of my patients did little more than apply sunscreen once on their face briefly at the start of their exercise regimen. (This was, in fact, so interesting to me that I am currently doing a study on this issue.)

The facts on skin-related injury are staggering. It is now estimated that one in 50 Caucasians will develop a form of skin cancer in their lifetime. Rates among people with pigmented skin are increasing as well. This is a substantial increase, especially in the past 15 years. According to Dr. Barney Kennet, a dermatologist based in New York, “the numbers of people coming into my office with sun damaged skin and sun-related cancers has grown tremendously in the past ten years.”

What are the factors that lead to sun-damaged skin and skin cancers? With a thinning ozone layer, increased time in the sun leads to increased skin damage.

Who is at greatest risk? Genetics play a role and skin pigmentation and a family history of skin cancer are both important. But even more important is a history of deep sunburn. Repeated, deep, painful sun damage has been strongly linked to pre-cancerous skin lesions.

The key to prevention is avoiding these repeated burns. As Dr. Amy Knopper, a dermatologist from Kansas City told me, “You can’t pick your skin pigment, but you can sure pick what you do to with what you’ve got. Take good care!”

Ok—so that sounds good, but let’s get real, triathlons and other endurance events are run during the middle of the day. Personally, I can recall the sun beating down on my back in Kona during the Ironman Triathlon, thinking to myself, “I’m sorry skin, I’m sorry.” Much to my dismay, by the way, there is a residual burn on my back from that day, despite my efforts at sunblock use.

Are triathletes and other endurance athletes taking skin protection seriously enough? The hydration message seems to have gotten through, as has the threat of hyponatremia and the benefits of stretching and weight training. But is the sunburn prevention message resonating? Unfortunately, I’d say, not yet. Yes, there are some aid stations along the course of some races that have sunblock, but often, these are few and far between.

Until we arrive at the day when skin care and sunburn prevention are taken as seriously as they should be, the onus, my friends, is on you. If you are involved in outdoor endurance sports, you must protect your skin. This means consistent use of waterproof sun block. SPF (sun protection factor) means the relative time it will take for you to burn your skin. For example, if you might burn in 10 minutes normally, then an SPF of 15 enables you stay in the sun for 150 minutes without burning. Of course, these numbers have different ramifications for everyone, so being vigilant is key. For me, I try to find a product that stays on when wet and is at least a SPF 30.

Throughout race day, take the extra time to apply a bit more sunblock, even if it “costs you” a few minutes. Likewise, when you are training, load up on skin protection. Slop it on, all over yourself, and make sure to bring some for later. Also, make sure to use adequate head protection to prevent burns to your face, ears, and the top of your head.

And what about getting a tan? As many members (especially female ones) of my triathlon team tell me during our long bike rides, “It’s OK to fake it; we all do!” Meaning, if you want to be darker and it’s important to you, use fake tan. Even if it doesn’t offer sun protection, it’s much safer than a real suntan.

And lastly, if there are any new or funny looking moles or patches on your skin, speak to your doctor or dermatologist. (They can be very small, by the way.) All types of skin cancer are treated more easily when they are caught early.

As we spend hours making ourselves faster, fitter, and healthier, let’s be sure to remember that our skin needs love. Protect it—unless you are a lizard or a snake, you only get one coat!

Jordan D. Metzl, MD, is a nationally recognized sports medicine specialist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. In addition to his medical practice, Dr. Metzl is a 25-time marathon runner and four-time Ironman finisher.