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
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.