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Real Heroes

1999 finisher

During races, all the attention is focused on the competitors. Who is in first or where is so and so? Are they going to break the record? Lets get a picture of the runners for the newspaper. Wow, they look great this far into the race.

Why do they look so good? Who has helped them maintain the lead or even kept them going. The unspoken always giving and sacrificing individuals not in the lime light. The Crews: The Real Heroes.

This is a story of one such crew member who helped an inexperienced runner complete the BADWATER 135.

In the fall of 1998 I was introduced to an incredible man named Greg Jenkins. At the time I was a personal trainer and he became a client of mine. He wanted me to prepare him for an upcoming caribou hunting trip in the arctic. I figured no big deal. That was until I found out both of the man’s knees had been destroyed in motorcycle and car accidents. This man had died and come back twice. I couldn’t believe this guy was even walking. But train we did, Sometimes walking on the treadmill at a pace of 5-6 mph with an incline of 15%. Don’t ask how.

This “should have been crippled man” inspired me. I was contemplating running a 100-mile ultra at the time. I had just finished my first, the JFK 50. I was a little nervous. I didn’t know if I could do a hundred. I told myself if this man with broken knees who never ever complained could hike hundreds of miles across the tundra, well I should be able to run a 135 miles.

I ran my idea by Greg. He said not only was he sure I could do it, but he would go with me to make sure I finished. So I applied, eventually got invited and started preparing for the race. Greg built me a special room in his storage shed to train. It had an industrial gas heater on the ceiling, 5000 watts of halogen lamps hanging over me, floor heaters, a dehumidifier and a treadmill. I thought, “Thanks a lot Greg for the torture chamber.” But train in it I did, hour after hour. The time came to leave. Greg had spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars getting our support vehicle ready. There were so many modifications to that vehicle I can’t even begin to list them all. Then he got supplies out the wazoo and everything he could possible think of which would benefit us in the desert. Greg’s nickname had been “OK Jenkins.” “OK” standing for overkill. We had more food and first aid supplies than an army going to combat. We looked like the Beverley Hillbillies leaving Maryland heading out for Death Valley. We stopped in IL and picked up my brother Greg. To avoid confusion, my brother Greg was to be called “Shag” and Greg Jenkins was to be called “Yukon.” What a trip. You can imagine three guys in an extended cab truck together for over 2000 miles. I need say no more. We arrived in Death Valley a couple days before the race. Yukon immediately went to work getting everything laid out properly. Food went here, the generator went there, first aid supplies went over there. Nothing was left to chance. We were prepared.

Race day: Shag and Yukon have the vehicle ready. They both tell me they know I can do this. Yukon tells me to think of it as a 1000 hundred meter dashes and it shouldn’t be that bad. He also tells me to remember, It’s dry heat. “Yeah right,” Greg. Through the entire race they both were incredible. They changed my shoes and socks, made me eat, drink, and kept me motivated. They were by my side every minute. Never once did they let me out of their sight. At mile 41, I was feeling pretty rough. Yukon pulled out the portable shower and bathed me like a father would a son. He told me, you’re doing great, I know you can do it. Shag fed me and we were on our way.

At roughly 0400 AM into the first night I started to bonk. They were there, always by my side. For a brief moment I lost sight of them around a corner. It was very dark. I was zoning. Then I heard this loud noise and saw I bright light. I thought, “What the hell is that?” Rounding the bend, I see Yukon and Shag standing in the middle of the road. Bob Seeger was blaring and halogen lights were lighting up the entire night. They both have their shirts off and are synchronized disco-dancing like two raving mad men. “Oh my god, this can’t be real.” It was real and extremely funny too. It helped to lighten the atmosphere and got me going. It primarily helped me to get away from these two.

Mile 110. Yukon cuts the sides out of my shoes to relieve the pressure. My feet are so swollen. He tells me to keep going. You can do this.

Mile 130. It’s midnight. I’ve been running for 30 some hours now. My feet are numb. I’m delirious. I haven’t slept in about 45 hours. I’m taking as many steps side to side as I do forward. Stumbling. Hallucinating. Staggering. I can’t do this. Out of nowhere, Yukon is by my side. He grabs me by the arm. He stabilizes me. He pulls me forward, the whole time telling me, “I know you can do this. I’ve got you. You are going to do this. I’ve got faith in you.” His reassurance comforts me and gives me a boost. I feel that thing inside which a son feels towards a father. I can’t let him down. Hours later we stagger across the finish line. We finished together. Without these two, I never would have finished. They gave so unconditionally and unselfishly. Never once did I hear them complain. They are the Real Heroes.

September 15, 1999 my friend, father figure, an hero, Greg (Yukon) Jenkins, died of a brain aneurysm while hunting caribou in the arctic. He died doing what he loved to do best. I plan on going back to Badwater in 2000. It won’t be the same without him, but I know for sure, when I’m feeling as if I can’t go on and want to stop, his spirit will embrace me by the arm and whisper “I’ve got you. You are going to do this. Trust me.”

 

Badwater 1999: What Worked/Didn’t Work For Me

Badwater Finisher: ’94, ’95, ’96, ’97, ’98, ’99, ’00, and ’01

Here’s what worked for me at this year’s 1999 Hi-Tec Badwater race

  1. Compeed secured by Elatikon tape at the forefoot. Stayed in place throughout the race; no blistering.
  2. Compeed ‘mini-strips’ wrapped around ‘little’ toes.
  3. Anklet nylons overlayered with super thin sock liners. ‘Double Layering’ with little or no moisture absorption.
  4. Custom insoles (low volume/full length) molded by Russ Bollig of the ‘Podium’ in Boulder, CO. Eliminated ‘shearing’ and resultant blistering caused by my over-pronation on the right side.
  5. New Balance 1200 shoes. Most comfortable, least problematic shoe I’ve worn at Badwater. Worn them ‘out of the box’. I did cut a hole for my right little toe at mile 72. Tread was completely burned off by mile 135, but that is usual for most footwear I’ve used at Badwater.
  6. ‘Dri-fit’ Nike baggy running shorts (without brief). Added bike shorts with chamois insert later in race.
  7. Solumbra long sleeve running shirt by Sun Precautions. Very comfortable. Wore it ‘out of the box’. The special sun protection aspect of the fabric was excellent: no burning even though the shirt was often wet (wetting cotton reduces it SPF rating, but Solumbra’s sun-protective qualities are not affected by water). Very pliable fabric…no chafing.
  8. Aussie style ‘cowboy’ hat with brim. (Sorry Aussies and Cowboys…I know I’m hopelessly insulting both groups with my poor command of ‘hat terminology’). First time I’ve used this style. I liked the large volume of ‘open space above the head and the flow through ventilation. It allowed for more ice to be dumped in and quicker melting. Plus made me feel very ‘adventuresome’. I did use my standard desert hat for parts of the race.
  9. Black Diamond (Chouinard) climbing pants for Whitney. Heavier, more bombproof, warmer fabric than ‘tights’. Allows more comfortable bouts of whimpering while laying on, beside, under the granite on the Whitney climb. Nothing worse than a cold ass or sharp edges to distract one from their internal misery.
  10. Montrails Vitesse for the mountain. Removed the sock liner and did not use my insoles to give my swollen feet some extra room. Nice grip on the granite.
  11. Blackburn Pack with wide mouth-screw down lid bladder system with spring loaded valve. Have used Blackburn equipment the last several years. Lightweight/bombproof/the ‘bells and whistles’ you **need** (stretch cord to secure jacket etc.)/no fluff equipment. The spring loaded valve beats anything on the market.
  12. Patagonia mid-weight capilene zip-T long sleeve shirt for the mountain. This is the most versatile shirt I’ve ever owned. Light weight/super comfortable/warm!
  13. Patagonia ‘Pneumatic’ Pullover Jacket for the mountain. Still waiting for the perfect jacket that is lightweight/breathable yet can handle a downpour.
  14. 1999 Suburban LS 4 Door 4WD. Huge and comfy. Air conditioning system was the only one that has ever worked effectively for my crew in the race. 4WD is a great safety feature for extracting the vehicle from the ‘soft shoulders’ near the dunes at Stovepipe Wells. Mini-vans no more!
  15. Orange Cytomax. Standard ‘per the label’ concentration. Approximately one quart (32 ounces) per hour during the heat of the day; 20 ounces per hour at night. Supplemented with plenty of icy cold water almost every mile.
  16. 1/4 teaspoon of regular table salt per hour mixed into the Cytomax. NO stomach problems.
  17. Tapioca Pudding; bananas; Pringles; Campbell’s ‘Double-Noodle’ Chicken Soup (straight from the can); Hamburgers; Scrambled Eggs-Hash Browns-Bacon slathered with extra salt, ketchup and Tabasco Sauce.
  18. Bloody Mary Style Tomato Juice. Mr. and Mrs.. T’s Brand has a whopping 2070 mg. of sodium in a 12 ounce can. That will bring you back from sodium depletion in nothing flat! It will kill you in ‘regular life’.
  19. My crew: Theresa (my wife) and Rick Nawrocki (‘Story of a Champion’). They worked in sync and constantly provided the support I required to make the journey from ‘lowest to highest’. In the 92 hours of pre-race and race activity, they got less than 10 hours of total sleep. Despite this, they remained vigilant and responsive. Super people.
  20. The camaraderie and support from my fellow racers and their crews. Badwater is an extraordinary race that attracts extraordinary people (like all ultras). The collective energy/support/understanding/enthusiasm is why I return to Badwater year after year.

What didn’t work

  1. Reliance on training done 10 years ago. I’m thinking about hiring myself to get me back into shape!
  2. Ensure. Usually has worked for me. This time made me instantly nauseous when I tried it at mile 115 or so.
  3. Coca Cola. I usually drink lots on the racecourse. I got that unpleasant ‘this is going to make me sick’ feeling when I tried to use it too often this year.

The Other Half of the Arthur Webb-Steven Silver Story

1999 finisher

Ken Clouber, RD of the Leadville Trail 100 tells everybody at the Friday morning briefing proceeding the LT100, ” You are better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can.” Never in the thirty-five years as a runner, with ten as an ultrarunner, was that more true than at the 1999 edition of the Badwater 135.

I have run Badwater twice …1996, where I finished 2nd in 37:45 and in 1997 where I finished 6th in 39:15 … nothing great, but acceptable. I started my own business in December of 1997 and for a while I was able to balance my life between work, running and a modest social life ( I separated from my ex-wife a week before BW in July 1996). But a year later (1998) I found myself working sixty-hours a week and running forty miles a week. Formerly I ran eighty to one-hundred mpw. My 1998 Leadville proved to me, at least, that mega-mileage for a somewhat competitive runner, was not that important as I finished it comfortably in 28:07 (my fifth finish, and third fastest). I tried racing a race a month instead of training and living in El Paso, Texas, that meant travelling. That worked for me. I ran a pretty easy 25:30 at the Mochican in June, so I felt confident, and ambitious enough to run a 36-hour Badwater. I told Jim Wolff and Howard Zaitchek, both returning crew and pacers, that this year my goals were a 36-hour finish and top ten and with the field assembled that was an accomplishment.

In the field was a POW (Postal Office Worker) named Art Webb. I thought he was a little odd running with the American flag and all, but who are we to call someone else odd? I paid him little attention and kept my distance, postal worker and all. The race, arguably, underwent some challenges … and they have been documented so I won’t review them again. Once underway, I ran a few miles with Lisa Smith, always a pleasure, and she gets my vote for the most attractive extreme athlete in the world, inside and out. Then I picked up with David Jones, 1997 winner and he was fun to run with until he took off at about 20 miles. Then it was my buddy Howard … all the way until Stovepipe Wells (Are there really wells there?). During that trek we ran into and with Gabriel (Flores) and Carlos (Banderas) and I knew I was over my head … but then Art Webb buzzed by at about 35 miles or so and I thought, “OK so I’m eighth, still on target for top ten.”

Arriving at Stovepipe, I was saw Art take off and he diplomatically offered to run with me if I got going right away. I told him that, if I caught up with him, I’d look forward to running with him for a few miles… little did I know at the time it would be ninety miles. After encountering some wind and rain, between mile 43 and 45 or so, I did run into Art and his wonderful crew, Dr. Vince, Julie and John … and the rest is history. I told him my strategy … four minutes running and for of walking … with downhills all ruinning and uphills mostly walking. If ever there was a team effort it was team Art and Steven. Both of our crews joined in helping each other. Art’s crew, with their massage therapy, in-van supermarket and continually upbeat attitude, made the race not only memorable and outstanding, but also alot of fun. Art, on the other hand was a real trip. We talked most of the way … about a lot of things … like how Norm Klein doesn’t consider Badwater a “real race;” about how the film crew, all thirty-one of them, avoided us like we were lepers and about how we were going to break thirty-six hours, and maybe even do thirty-five … and as it got closer to that town town from the Twilight Zone, Keeler, we started computing a thirty-four hour finish, if we really ran hard to the Portals. Leaving Keeler, we passed a brave and gallant, and still looking great, Lisa Smith. We were in fourth and, in fourth, we were going to finish. We had our trials. Me, I was a wobbling wreck from Father Crowly Point (80 miles) to the 97-mile mark. Art was not a lot fun out of Panamant and up the Whitney Road, but it didn’t matter. We were going to finish this together and together we did. At about a mile and a half to go, there was a “1 Mile to GO” sign, so I got real excited about finishing in under 34 hours. Art felt that we could power-walk the last mile under 18 minutes. Somehow, I didn’t share his confidence. We had to run and for the most part we did, but that was a LONG one mile … actually, Howard said it was 1.3 miles. I kept telling Art we could do it and we did, with WE being the operative word… and yes, I waited a for a few seconds for him to come into view when I was near the finish line, but this was a team effort and that’s how it ended … team Art and Steven, 33:57.

On a personal note, without Art, his crew, my crew and all the encouragement of the Hi-Tec folks, especially, Mariane, whom I still have a crush on, this would have still been a very special race, as both my previous my Badwaters were, but doing this one together, being with each other during the “best of times and the worst of times,” made it the MOST special race and one that I will long remember. Thanks Art!

To read what Arthur Webb, had to say about this, click here.

1999 Badwater Reflections

Age 68, 1999 finisher

As usual, I am a wee bit late with a Badwater story. But I’ve been busy. After Badwater, I went almost immediately back east for over two weeks and then to Leadville for over two weeks. At Leadville I helped with the bike race and with the LT-100. Saw Adam and Denise at the start but never saw them afterwards. I crewed for two people. First one was Ron Vertrees from Vallejo and he dropped out at 60 miles. So then I ran/walked the last 23 miles with Lee Schmidt from Napa. My first time at Leadville in a crew capacity instead of a runner. Crewing is damn hard—I think I’d rather run.

Badwater was a tremendous experience for me this year. I had injured my back early in the year so that AR50 in April was my last run greater than 10 miles. I virtually stopped running in April and all I did from then on until Badwater was walk and the farthest I walked was generally 10 miles with one walk of 20 miles. Most of the time I was taking short daily walks like four miles. Most of my friends and family thought I was crazy to do Badwater with so little training and with a ruptured disk in my back. Since I was already entered into Badwater my intent was to start and walk as far as I could. Turned out to be 135 miles. I think that I only ran about 15 miles total and that was when the camera crews were near. I walked all the rest. Actually, it wasn’t so bad. Who am I kidding. It took me over 53 hours. I had only about one hour of sleep the whole time and my feet starting blistering at 35 miles. Thanks to Mike Paradise, who played doctor with my feet repeatedly, I was able to hobble through, but man were my feet hurting. If I ever do Badwater again, I gotta figure out what to do with my feet.

Hallucinations: I can’t believe the things I saw. I wrote to Dr. Barbara (Warren) and told her all about them. They were very similar to the ones I saw in ’98. Mostly buildings, bridges, and geometric shapes. Also I saw green woolly worms. At one point this year I needed to fix a shoe and I didn’t want to sit on the ground so I started to think about sitting on a post, or bench, in front of the buildings that I was constantly seeing. But then I remembered that hallucinations don’t make good seats. Also, during the second night, a policeman stopped and told me to look out for the snakes (?). I thought he said “snakes.” So the rest of the night I worried, and I saw snakes on several occasions. People keep asking why do I do these strange things. Well at my age, I have more past than I have future. And the past is made up of memories. More memories can be built up at one Badwater event than are built up in several months of the other normal sometimes mundane stuff that we do. So, I think that’s why I like Badwater—it provides a burst of memories. Memories such as running down the road in the middle of the night with Chris Moon (amputee) discussing blisters. I argued that I had more than he did. What an inspiration he was. I might have given up if it hadn’t been for Chris.

I hate to say this but I feel it coming on again. I know that I will want to do Badwater again. When I finished last year (1998), I said never again. When I finished this year, I said never again. What’s wrong with me? Is this a form of Purgatory? Am I condemned to run forever through the desert heat due to something bad that I did in my past life?

Badwater and Beyond

1999 competitor

Badwater 1999 is not over for some of us. Myself and fellow running friend Louise Cooper-Lovelace still have to complete our journey to the top of Mt Whitney. We will complete our dream on Sept.18th, 1999 and anyone who would like to join us is welcome. We will meet at PJ’s diner (next to the Dow Villa Motel) in Lone Pine at 4:30am on the 18th. Not only will we climb the mountain to complete our journey for the causes but also to honor a young girl named Colby who lost her life to cancer while we were running the Badwater course. Those who watched the”48 Hours” coverage on Louise also saw the story about this amazing young child; her courage, strength and determination touched many. We will carry her beautiful spirit with us to the summit and sign her name in the logbook for she is one of the heroes of this year’s Badwater race. Afterwards, on Sunday Sept.19th, we’ll travel back to LA and celebrate the completion of our quest at Louise’s house. We will also celebrate our Birthdays, which both fall during this week.

Beyond covering the 135 miles of the Badwater course we set out to raise $200,000 for Breast Cancer Research and Paralysis Research. Both causes are very close to our heart. Donations are still being sent to The Christopher Reeve Paralysis foundation, with a 50/50 split to support both causes. (Donations can be made on-line on behalf of Louise and myself at www.paralysis.org).

On the eve of the Badwater 1999 race I am in my hotel room with crewmembers running around trying to get the vans ready for the morning. Marshall Ulrich is getting a massage from my sister Julie. The sky is turning black, the wind is picking up, and the sand is starting to blow. The wind is so powerful it is rocking the vans back and forth. Lightening comes along with the downpours of hail and rain. This is the desert? I tell Marshall to take a look outside; I saw that look on his face. Shit!

What will they do if this keeps up? The roads will all be closed, the course will be flooded. This doesn’t happen in the desert. I turn to Marshall and I ask him “if this happened during the race would you stop and get in your van?” “He replied, “well I think I would.” Not more than 5 seconds later Marshall’s crew member Gary said, “he’s full of it.” He knows that most would get out of the storm and stop until it passes, but there is no way Marshall would stop. HMMMMM I think to myself what would I do?

The next morning everything looks like it is a go. We all head to the start -282 ft. below sea level but we’re stopped by officials just before the turn off. Sorry they say, “the road to Badwater is closed, the race is going to start 17 miles in another direction.” What? This can’t be! This won’t be the Badwater course; it won’t be going from the lowest to the highest. I think to myself, “we can’t have this.” But, I am happy when we arrive 17 miles down the road and learn that several of the runners feel as I do. We want the Badwater course not an alternate route. However, I understand why others just want to get going and I will respect whatever the race officials decide. The decision is that we will wait until 10:00am…until the road to Badwater is cleared and opened. It will be a 4-hour delay.

9:50am. My sister Julie gathers our crew and Louise’s crew together. Holding hands, we form a large circle and Julie leads a prayer for all of us and for all of those who are running and crewing. She leaves us all in tears with beautiful word’s that touch each of our souls. Adam Bookspan, a race walker, plays the national anthem on his trumpet and once again some are brought to tears by the beauty of his talent.

We all cheer and the gun goes off. I grab Louise’s hand and squeeze it tight, close my eyes and wish her a safe journey. I know she is going to have an amazing race, she has my lucky number, 7, on her chest. I enjoy running the first several miles with all the guys who I have run this road with before…the conversations, the laughs, jokes, and the words of wisdom. The energy in this desert, on this day and everyday, is like nothing I have experienced anywhere else in the world.

I soon find myself running right next to Noel Hannah of Ireland. I give him a hard time; earlier this year we chased each other through the Sahara desert for days. He asks what music I’m listening to…poor guy had to listen to me sing my way through the Sahara. Only this race is different because Noel is smiling a lot more – his beautiful wife is riding in the car next to us, she is one of his crewmembers.

The storm hits me about 43 miles into the course; where ever you happen to be on the course, you see it coming. I think about Marshall who is ahead of me and I smile. The lightening scares me a bit; I don’t want the crew out on the road with me. The winds come again; the sand hits my legs and it hurts. There is a runner in front of me. He looks back several times to see if I’m going to catch him and he keeps running. I think that if he can run in this wind I should be able to run as well. But I realize that I am walking as fast as he is running so I just continue to walk. Soon I see Marshall up ahead. Just 2 weeks prior, he lived one of his biggest dreams…to complete the Badwater course self-contained. He is the first to accomplish this. How did he recover so quickly? How does this man do it? I have never met anyone with the same the strength and endurance that this man has. I see the look on his face, he is tired but he will recover yet again… he will be back to pass me soon enough. He usually does. This is what he does best.

We reach the mountains roads during the night. It’s cool out I think,..the heat has not been a factor for me this year; it’s the humidity that makes it different. Climbing, climbing I feel great. I love this place I keep saying to myself. It is like no other place on earth. Why is this? The crew and I are having a lot of fun together. I send them back to see how Louise is doing. I learn she is doing awesome!

Steve and Art came flying past me into Panamint Springs. I’m sticking to my plan. Run 4 min. then walk 4 min. Let them go, let them go. I ask David, “who is that?” He says, “Art and Steve.” I say, “that little shit.” Art had told me last year that if I was going to run the race again his plan would be to stay on my heels to the finish. I smile as I think about the conversations we have had and how happy he is that his wife is here with him. Now I pass them and fly up Father Crowley’s. I have never felt better at this point in the race. Yes, the usual aches and pains but I am having so much fun…just taking it all in.

100 miles…I see the time a crewmember’s watch. I don’t like to wear a watch, I find that I look at it too much. Just over 22 hours! Wow, at this point I’m still feeling great.

115 miles…the sun is directly overhead and it feels much hotter today. I’m beginning to feel weak. It’s not important what happened, it just happened. We drop my flag and go to the hotel in Lone Pine. We stay there awhile and then we head back to my flag. Meantime Art and Steve pass me again. Back on the road again, I’m moving slowly… this is all I can do. Marshall greets me on the road we give each other the well-known look. He passes me and we both continue on. Once again I think about how strong this man is. I think about Louise. I find out that Eric Clifton is heading up towards the finish. This is good news. I knew he could do it and am thrilled for him. Louise has our friend Nurse Karen on her crew. She comes to check on me. Angelica is close behind me now. She knows I’m just ahead and I can feel that she is trying to catch. I’m doing the best I can.

The start of the Portal road…I am ready to take on the last 13 miles to the finish. Nurse Karen gives the ok. The body goes through such phases, this will pass I’m sure of it. I move slowly. This is ok…we are far ahead of our pace. Angelica closes in. Tears fill my eyes…not because she is passing me but because of the respect I have for her as a fellow competitor and athlete. We take the time to give each other a hug. I tell her to go for it. I think my crew is expecting me to go after her. I’m doing the best I can.

7 miles from the finish, Nurse Karen suggests that I stop. She says, “you have nothing more to prove out here.” I listen to her words. I think of the promise I made to myself and other’s…by continuing the race I would be breaking that promise. To continue with the race would be a poor decision. I stop. Sad yes, what happened is not important.

6:30am the next morning I wake up and look at one of my crewmembers. He sees the look in my eyes and says, “you want to go to the top, don’t you?” I said, “yes, I’ve got to go to the top. We’re all going to the top; we’re going to finish what we started. I may be disqualified as an official competitor, but the #1 goal was always just to finish.

8:30am…I’m back to where my flag was dropped. I move slowly. I laugh with my crew. We congratulate others who are coming down the mountain. Denise is on her way down with Ben; she broke 48 hours. I am so proud of her and this accomplishment and realize how happy I am to be here. Race officials drive past us as we make our way to the finish. I see tears in their eyes. I hear the words; “you have a lot of heart.”

My good friend and crewmember, David, left earlier this morning to summit Whitney. I see him get out of a truck and walk towards me. He says, “I couldn’t do it, I had to finish with you and our team…and then I am going to take your race number, 35, to the summit…you are going all the way to the top. (This didn’t sink in until the next day when he showed up scared and bruised from doing just that…getting my race #35 to the summit, 14,496ft. above sea level…the highest he’d ever been.) I round the corner to the finish line…I can see it. I gather my crew and we join hands. It’s here! I feel the same elation that I did the year before and the year before that. This is Badwater and this is the finish. I raised my arms and look up to sky and say, “thank you for getting us here!” I gather my crew…we share a group hug and wipe the tears of joy from our eyes. Together, as Team Dreamchasers, we completed this journey through the desert…and our race for the cures. It’s a journey that will live in our souls forever. I am presented with a pancake the size of a large pizza. I sit and the reflections begin…and will never end.

Badwater is beyond a race of 135 miles. For those of you that have run or driven the course, crewed for a runner or sat and listened in on some of the race stories, know this to be true. I have had the privilege of racing all over the world; there is no other race that touches me like this one. No other event is talked about by the competitors and crews like Badwater. So what is Badwater? It’s beyond compare. It’s a spiritual journey for all. It’s a union of people that have an unspoken respect, admiration and love for each other. It’s a personal quest for each and every person that is involved, whether they are in Death Valley or somewhere else cheering us on. It’s a family full of loving, caring, sharing and giving. It’s God’s country, whatever you make of it. It’s Ben and Denise, the Major, Marshall, Art, Steve, Chris Moon, Dan Jenson, Cathy Tibbets, Noel Hannah, Adam Bookspan, Brian Manley, Scott Weber, Bill Mennard, the Twins. It’s Louise. It’s all of us runners and crews who are out there sharing our spirit in one way or another…and leaving our footprints in the sand.

I finished in over 48 hours, with over 16 hours of down time. Whether you made it to the finish or not it takes courage, commitment and dedication just to make it to the start. We all witnessed what this event is all about. Be it runner or crew you have a story to tell of how Badwater and beyond touched you and moved your soul to dance and you are forever changed.

I thank all of you for this experience. The crews Louise and I had were wonderful. They traveled from all over the USA to be a part of Team Dreamchasers; without them this would not have been possible. Thank you…Hi-Tec, The North Face, Contageware and my good friend Jim Johnson for making this dream turn into a reality. A special thanks to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation for there continued support and assistance.

I leave you with one final thought. Many have expressed interest in continuing our quest for racing for the cures. Please don’t hesitate to ask for our assistance. If you can touch and save just one person and continue the race for the cures then it makes the journey all worthwhile. Let’s all continue to work together, as one big, happy family.

***To my crew: I am forever grateful to you for taking time away from your jobs, families and personal responsibilities to share this life changing experience. I realize now just how much this has all meant to each and every one of you. From all of the letters that I’ve received I understand that the journey was worthwhile… and in some ways is only beginning.

A Crew Report

This was one of the most unusual Badwater runs yet, as if running in the middle of summer in the hottest location in the country isn’t unusual enough. Forty-four runners, their crew, race staff, and a thirty-one person film crew all converged on Death Valley for what is considered one of the toughest runs on earth. I was there to support my friend Steven Silver, from El Paso, on his third Badwater run. Previously, Steven had come in second in 1996 and sixth in 1997 (my first experience at Badwater.)

So what was so unusual this year? Temperatures were cooler this year and may not have even cracked the 120 degree mark, although I’m sure it got close. Humidity was high as monsoon rains from the Gulf of Mexico swirled north and then west across Nevada and into Death Valley. These rains forced the closing of the Badwater Road on race day, and delayed the usual 6 A.M.

Initially, due to the road closure, race management sent the caravan of runners 14 miles up Highway 190 to an elongated turnout as an alternate start location. After several informal and sometimes heated meetings between runners, race staff, and a frustrated film producer/director, it was decided to delay the race until 10 A.M. when the Badwater Road would hopefully be opened. Racers and crew drove back to Furnace Creek and quickly filled the both restaurants. Thankfully, while we were eating and resting, they opened the road, and the race started at Badwater, preserving the traditional start location and morning start.

I will not go into all the details of the race, others will be able to do that much better than me. However, something else happened this year that was unusual, something that has nothing to do with weather, start times, or temperature. Instead, it has to do with two runners and their crews. They did not know each other at the start of the race but somehow wound up working together to share both the pain and the joy of this great race.

After leaving Stovepipe Wells, Steven encountered a strong headwind and a brief thunderstorm on the eighteen-mile climb up to Townes Pass. About halfway up, Steven caught up to Art Webb from Santa Rosa California. He had a two-vehicle crew Juli Dell’era, Vincent Pedroia, and John Rodgers. Howard Zatchick my crewmate and I were both tired and were wondering how we were going to keep running with Steven. He was not slowing down despite the heat, wind, and hills. Neither of us could run as far as Steven. We secretly hoped that he and Art would stick together for a while and give us a break.

Our wish came true, Art and Steven hit it off and magically maintained a steady pace. As they climbed to the top of Townes Pass, then across Panamint Valley, up to Father Crowley’s Point, and around the Owens Dry Lake into Lone Pine they made steady progress from seventh and eighth place to fourth and fifth. Art and Steven had bonded and so had their crews.

After a short break and a quick hamburger and rubdown in Lone Pine, Steven and Art set out on the last leg of the run, a grueling thirteen mile four thousand four hundred foot climb up to Whitney Portal. The late afternoon sun was hot and beat down on us as we power walked through the Alabama Hills. We kept Art and Steven cooled off with plenty of spritzing. As we neared the first of two major switchbacks, the remaining mileage became a frequent topic of discussions. We finally decided that at the end of the first switchback it was three miles to the finish. Everyone was calculating when we might finish. If they kept up their brisk pace, they could finish in just over 34 hours. Art’s previous finish was 44 plus hours and Steven’s best was 37:45. Both of them were on track to shatter their previous PR.

We completed the first switchback in about 20 minutes and made the turn for the second one. Twelve minutes later we had it behind us and we were not slowing down even at the higher altitude. As we started to pass the first campground we could hear people yelling and clapping as we headed into the canyon and the shadow of Mount Whitney 14, 495 feet above.

Steven kept asking how much further and I told him just over a mile. I could tell both of them were getting a little anxious. Suddenly, Steven saw a sign that said one mile and he looked at his watch and became extremely excited. If they could finish this last mile in less that 18 minutes they would break 34 hours. Steven began to run and so did Art. Steven moved ahead about 50 yards as Art struggled to keep running in the thin air. I knew there was one shorter steep hill ahead and I advised Art to keep going and that he could do it. Steven was up ahead yelling back encouraging words to Art also.

As we cleared the steep hill with an eighth of a mile to go Art was struggling. Steven was still up ahead yelling for Art to keep going. Art kept asking how much further and I told him it was just around a bend in the road up ahead. People on the side of the road were cheering. Steven yelled to Art that he was going to wait for him. I told Art he had it made and to just keep moving. We could no longer see Steven as he ran around the last bend in the road. As we came around, we could see the massive movie lights at the finish line. On either side everyone was assembled; Art’s crew, his wife, Christine, Howard Zatchick (my co-crew mate), race staff, campers, and film crew all yelling and cheering Steven and Art on. As soon as Steven saw Art, he ran down the hill to meet him. They ran the last 30 yards together and crossed the finish line with arms raised in triumph, finishing in an incredible time of 33:57. They will share fourth place behind Eric Clifton (27:49), Gabriel Flores (28:36), and Mark Godale (29:58).

Art bent over with hands to knees for several minutes as he composed himself. Steven had one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen. Soon Art stood up and raised his arms above his head like the hero he is. It was time to celebrate.

What a dramatic finish, with Steven and Art crossing the finish line together after having run the last 90 miles together. It was no longer a question of who could be faster or who could win but rather, it was about the respect and understanding that can grow between people joined in a common goal – and what a goal Badwater is. Both of these guys demonstrated the highest degree or courage and sportsmanship throughout the race. Tears of joy and happiness filled everyone’s eyes as they witnessed this wonderful finish to a perfect race. I am proud to be associated with both of these great guys and their excellent crewmembers and everyone else at Badwater.

Jim Wolff, Stan Swartz, and Samir Shahin M.D. are co-author of 50 Trail Runs in Southern California published by The Mountaineers. Jim also supported Steven Silver in the 1997 Badwater race.

1999 Hi-Tec Badwater/Whitney 135 Story and Results

July 15, 1999 to July 16, 1999
Badwater, Death Valley, to Whitney Portals
135 miles

BADWATER TURNED INTO FLOODWATER

Article and results courtesy and © Ben Jones

Everyone is aware of the flash floods in the eastern California and Nevada deserts recently after the news from Las Vegas deluge of the “Strip” and Caesar’s Palace a week before the race. In the days before the event, runners started showing up at Stovepipe Wells Village. The staff there was well aware of what was about to happen and was looking forward to it. No one was quite expecting an apocalypse however.

The runner’s exposition was well attended. Everyone was excited and apprehensive. Many old acquaintances were made as well as new ones as half of the participants were first-timers this year. Course rules were reviewed by the staff, the California Highway Patrol and the National Park Service Rangers. Chris Kostman, Race Director of the Furnace Creek 508 Bicycle Race, presented Marshall Ulrich with a plaque for completing the Death Valley Cup (racing Badwater and the 508 in the same year). Marshall did it in 1996. Marshall was also recognized for his recent solo, self-contained, un-supported crossing from Badwater to the top of Mt. Whitney in just over 77 hours. Denise Jones held a foot-care clinic after the exposition.

Right after the exposition and a runner’s reception, the apocalypse started. A black wall appeared in the north preceded by a plume of dust sucked up from the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes. As the squall proceeded southward, rain started to pelt down and then turned into a sheet of water streaking in at a 30-degree angle. Rivulets of mud started flowing through the motel walks and almost into the rooms. Rivulets soon turned into muddy-brown streams. Flashes of lightning and cracking thunder kept us on our toes. Over the next two hours the cell of energy moved on to Furnace Creek and Badwater. Flash floods caused mud to cover much of the highway in between. Temperatures which had reached 112 degrees dropped. Eighteen miles to the east at 5,000 ft. it was 61 degrees. From this point at Townes Pass, the spectacle was even more dramatic because, as the sun started to shine again, a beautiful double-rainbow appeared within the black cloud and lightning streaks.

Between 0400 and 0500 Thursday morning 07-15-1999 the armada left for Badwater. We were diverted by the Hi-Tec staff and a closed gate at the Badwater turnoff to an alternate site 17 miles to the east. Communications were established by the CHP with the NPS staff. Many of the elite and old-time runners in this race pleaded for a Badwater start. With tremendous cooperation of these agencies, a contingency plan was hastily adopted. We agreed to return to a staging area near the date orchard in front of the Furnace Creek Ranch until the NPS maintenance crew could plow the 17-mile road between there and Badwater. This was done and at 0900 the armada drove to Badwater. Group pictures were taken and last-minute interviews were held. Adam Bookspan, concert trumpeter for the Florida Philharmonic, played the National Anthem. Watches were synchronized. At exactly 1000, Matt Frederick, Race Director, sent the 42 runners on their journey. It was four hours later than the usual start time.

Eric Clifton took the lead immediately. At one point he was five miles ahead. This narrowed later after the trailing runners stepped up their pace. He set a new men’s AM-start record of 27:09 and this was his third try here. Gabriel Flores, who broke David Jones’ record last year of 29:10 in 28:09, maintained second place fairly early and closed the gap to finish in 28:36. Mark Godale, a new-comer to Badwater, put on a spectacular performance for third place and was also under 30 hours in 29:58. Steven Silver and Art Webb, both returnees and over age 50, shared the last 90 miles together. Steven held back about 30 seconds at the finish so both could share fourth place in 33:57. Marshall Ulrich put on a courageous performance, especially after his solo within the last two weeks, to come in sixth. Dale Sutton, the “pajama man,” returned for another spectacular performance for the second time to come in seventh.

The women deserve a lot of credit this year for some remarkable performances. This year there were seven women at the starting line. Angelika Castenada, of the Twin Team, completed the course for the fourth time along with her sister, Barbara Alvarez Warren. They had just won the National Triathlon Championships in Florida and are headed for the World Triathlon Championships in Canada. They were the only women to do Badwater in 1989 and 1990 and were therefore first in those years. In 1991 they improved by about eight hours but were behind Bonnie Boyer, who set the women’s PM-start record of 36:19:20 and they did it in 40:05:10. Now Angelika set a new women’s AM-start record this year of 36:58 breaking Lisa Smith’s 1997 record by three minutes and was the eighth finisher overall. Louise Cooper-Lovelace is recovering from breast cancer surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. She and Lisa Smith were running for charity including breast cancer cure and paralysis research. Louise was the second woman and was the thirteenth overall finisher. Barbara Warren, mentioned above, was the third woman. Fourth and fifth women, Maria DeJesus and Cathy Tibbetts came in fairly close together. My wife, Denise Jones, First Lady of Badwater, improved her time by over six hours to finish for the third time as the sixth woman. All of the women finishers buckled within the 48-hour time limit.

The other finish times are listed below. There were 33 finishers of whom 25 buckled within the 48-hour time limit.

Nine of the 42 starters did not finish. Jason Hodde had an aggravating Achilles tendinitis problem and quit after completing the first marathon distance. Jurgen Ankenbrand, who finished in 1990 and 1992, made it about 35 miles and had to drop because of problems with his feet; he covered the rest of the race as a photographer and encouraged the other runners to the end. Major Curt “Bill” Maples had to drop at 40 miles and needed IV fluids thereby being disqualified. After recovering, he and his fellow Marines, jumped ahead to join and support Maria DeJesus and encourage her to the finish line. Brian Van Oene, from Canada, quit at Stovepipe Wells (41 miles) with stomach trouble. Bill Menard, previous winner at this race, quit with stomach problems at around 50 miles. Carlos Banderas, who, besides Gabriel, also broke the 1997 record last year, had to drop at 55 miles after stepping on a rock in the dark and sustaining a stress fracture. David Jones, previous record holder from 1997, had to drop at 60 miles due to a vertigo problem. Dan Jensen, amputee from a mine-blast injury in Viet Nam, developed swelling of his stump and could no longer wear the prosthesis after 95 miles. Lisa Smith, who recently was the first American finisher at the Marathon des Sables, and was running for breast cancer cure and paralysis research, had a virus disorder and a reaction to a skin application (DMSO), stopped for IV’s at 129 miles and was disqualified, however she later completed the course to the Portals.

During the Race the temperatures were 10 to 15 degrees cooler than usual. The trade-off was increased humidity to 55-100 % giving a high heat index. A storm similar to the one pre-race occurred in the afternoon. A huge dust storm occurred without rain at the Stovepipe Wells dunes giving a dramatic effect for the film crew as runners had to lean sideways into the wind and blowing sand. A lightning storm and flash flooding occurred again with road closures below Furnace Creek.

Leland Hammerschmitt of Ramstead Productions along with Mel Stuart and Chris Wiser were responsible for directing 28 other film people in a two-hour documentary which is being called “Running on the Sun.” They did a marvelous job of coordinating their activities both before and during the race in capturing the human element as well as the race itself. We will all be rewarded in about six months by being able to see it on TV perhaps on the Discovery Channel.

1999 HI-TEC BADWATER/WHITNEY 135 RESULTS

Place, Name, Home State, Age, Sex, Finish Time, Time to Top
01. Clifton, Eric NM 41 M 27:49! New men’s record 46:26 1st
02. Flores, Gabriel CA 33 M 28:36
03. Godale, Mark OH 29 M 29:58
04. Webb, Art CA 57 M 33:57
Silver, Steven TX M 33:57
06 Ulrich, Marshall CO 48 M 35:52 50:10 2nd
07. Sutton, Dale CA 59 M 36:11
08. Casteneda, Angelika CA 56 F 36:58! New women’s record
09. Lapanja, Bob CA 45 M 37:51
10. Hanna, Noel IRE 31 M 39:03
11. Decker, Joe MD 29 M 39:37 104:00 8th
12. Ankeney, Bobb CA M 40:05 57:00 3rd
13. Cooper, Louise CA F 40:14
14. Russias, Pierre FRA 55 M 40:28
15. Manley, Brian CO 36 M 41:23
16. Warren, Barbara CA 56 F 41:25
17. Saffery, Clive TIA M 42:15
18 Palazzo, Nick NY 52 M 43:07
19. Justin, Mick MN 51 M 43:09 73:05 5th
20. DeJesus, Maria UK 34 F 43:10
21. Tibbets, Cathy NM 44 F 43:47
22. Bookspan, Adam FL 33 M 44:43 Race walker record
23. Hamilton, Jim CA M 45:47
24. Jones, Denise CA 53 F 45:54 80:03 7th
25. Simmons, Stephen WV M 46:56 59:00 4th
26. Rosmus, John CA 50 M 49:07
27. Merienne, Jean Jacques FRA M 49:45
28. Smit, Robin CA M 51:10 74:24 6th
29. Romesberg, Ephraim CA 68 M 53:10
30. Moon, Chris UK 37 M 53:48
31. Denness, Jack UK 54 M 54:06
32. Johnson, Kirk NJ M 54:26
33. Weber, Scott CO M 56:34 77:18:28

42 starters, 33 finishers

Rhonda Provost – The First Woman to Complete a Double Badwater

Top: Rhonda’s husband Rich Benyo helps with her feet. Middle: Rhonda and crew member Jeannie Ennis. Bottom Left: Rhonda gets close to nature. Bottom Right: After 300 miles, a toilet paper finish line.

In August of 1995, Rhonda Provost of Forestville, California, became the first woman to run from Badwater in the heart of Death Valley to the peak of Mt. Whitney, and back—a distance of nearly 300 miles. The course is famous for starting at the lowest point (-282 feet) in the Western Hemisphere and running to the highest point (14,494 feet) in the contiguous U.S. Death Valley is also famous for sporting the highest summer temperatures in the world.

She completed the grueling course in 143:45, just under six days. In the process, she became the eighth runner to complete the “out-and-back” course.

Rhonda had served as the medical director in 1989 for the first-ever out-and-back attempt on the course, which was made by Tom Crawford and her husband, Rich Benyo. Both were successful in their attempt. In the process, Rhonda developed some revolutionary—and unique—medical approaches to on-course treatment, including the use of duct tape as a “first skin.” By fashioning a foot covering of duct tape to Tom’s and Rich’s feet, she theorized that at least for the first day of running, the duct tape would take most of the abuse of the 200+ degree heat of the roads, saving the runners’ feet from early blistering. (In later years, the duct tape was replaced with even better tapes which helped to reduce, or even prevent, blisters for the duration of the race.)

As a nurse anesthetist, she also applied her expertise once blisters did develop. She had served for several years as medical director at various aid stations at the Western States 100, and had assembled The Red Box, a metal medical kit that set new standards for completeness.

She also served as medical director for Rich Benyo’s second (1991) attempt at the out-and-back and at Tom Crawford’s one-way attempt that year. She again provided medical support at Rich’s successful third attempt on the out-and-back course in 1992.

For her own 1995 attempt to run the out-and-back course, her crew consisted of her husband Rich as crew chief, Jean Ennis (who with Tom Crawford comprised the U.S. team in the first-ever official “race” on the course, that in 1987), “Uncle Billy” Owens (uncle of Tom’s wife Nancy, and frequent crew member for Crawford and Benyo), and Tony Gilbert, a massage therapist. Denise Jones served as her mountain crew.

“Even 11 years after the fact, the Death Valley out-and-back remains (and I’m confident will always remain) one of the high points of my life,” Rhonda commented recently, “not because I completed it, or the first woman thing, because, quite frankly, other than the rest of the team, no one even knew we were doing it.

“To this day, what I learned about myself and others during the event serves me well. When my soul gets tested in life, I remind myself that we are not alone in any of this. There exists a great over-riding force of which we are part. And we can effect outcomes for good or evil depending on where our hearts are. It’s a rather spiritual perspective, but it’s what inspired me to run the course in the first place. It was a spiritual quest which quite literally became a divinely inspired run.”

Rhonda also offered medical seminars at several of the unofficial pre-race “camps” in Death Valley during the early 1990s and has frequently offered presentations on the course and its challenges.

She also served as medical director and crew for Canadian Steve King at the 2001 Badwater Ultramarathon and for Texan Joe Prusaitis in 2003.

She continues to enjoy visits to Death Valley in order to tap into its more spiritual and inspiring aspects.


Rhonda was inducted into the Badwater Hall of Fame in 2006, Rhonda read the following as part of her acceptance speech:

 

Excerpt From “Over The Edge”

A Regular’s Guy’s Odyssey in Extreme Sports

To The Edge

It is 10 degrees below zero outside my tent, and it has been snowing steadily for three days. I keep trying to think of new, inventive ways of keeping warm, but, ultimately, they all boil down to just one-stay in my purple sleeping bag as long as I can, try to will my mind to blankness.

The wind roars, and the tent pops like a piece of rawhide on the end of Indiana Jones’ bullwhip.

It is, I think, Indiana Jones who has gotten me into this. At least, he’s got to be partially responsible. Him and his keyword, “adventure/.”

In a few minutes, I will have to crawl out of my marginally warm sleeping bag, punch a hole up, through the snow, crawl out and start digging out of my tent. Welcome to Denali, Mt. McKinley, Alaska, Land of Adventure. I have come to this undefrosted refrigerator of a land to check an item off a list. No, make that, The List. Thirteen items, activities, events that have come to define the outer limits of my life; heck, the outer limits of any life.

It is an over the edge list, a collection of events that nightmares are made of:

Trapped in underwater caves…

Trapped on a frozen waterfall…

Trapped in Death Valley…

Trapped in Alcatraz…

And now, trapped on the highest mountain in North America, pinned in by a brutal blizzard and temperatures almost beyond comprehension.

“Wind chill? How about real damn cold?”

I twist into as much of a ball as you can twist into in a mummy sleeping bag, avoiding the inevitable.

I am not supposed to be here…

I am in my 40s, well past the derring-do years. I am a couch potato; well, maybe I was a couch potato. But I know, emphatically, I am not supposed to die in a blizzard on this mountain.

Or am I?


I first created the list with some friends over pizza and beer after a particularly knarly day of windsurfing in Florida. The next morning, on the desk in my office, lay a cocktail napkin with 13 items scrawled across it.

I thought to myself, suppose I really did the list? No, The List, upper case. Suppose I really did it? How crazy is this stuff, anyway? Who are the people who think these things are fun?

I mean, it’s easy to understand why a person might want to run three miles; harder to understand what drivez a person to train to run almost 150 miles across one of the most godforsaken spots in the world, where the asphalt, I will learn, is hot enough to cause the air pockets in the runners’ sneakers to explode and the final 13 miles of climbing will bring them from scorching heat to cold approaching freezing.

It’s easy to understand the urge to swim a couple of times a week for fitness at the local “Y”; harder to grasp the dark appeal of the Alcatraz swim, the bitter cold waters sluicing in and out of San Francisco Bay, the fog and swirling currents, the real or imagined torpedo-like shapes patrolling the deep channels.

So I come to the risk sports looking, I think, for Indiana Jones. Or, at least, someone like him. Some part and parcel of our mythology, cowboy or samurai, riding the edge jaggies for all they’re worth.

Instead, I will find a group of puzzled people wit a tiger by the tail, interested not so much in mythology as in touching and holding an experience as ephemeral as spider silk, ghostly as morning mist over a Montana river, an experience made of equal parts muscle, adrenaline, and a mind that echoes a sneaker commercial…just do it…do it…do it. An experience I touched, however briefly, on a piece of fiberglass in a windy yacht basin.

“I think I know where you’re going,” one of my many instructors will tell me as we hike along the frozen waterfalls of New Hampshire’s Frankenstein Cliffs, named not for Mary Shelley’s monster, but for an artist. The temperature will be below zero, and the winds from the valley below will scour the ice, turning it as brittle and fragile as an old window pane. “But how do you plan on getting back?”

But that is still a ways in the future; out of sight; out of reach.

I stare at my cocktail napkin.

Why not? How hard can it be?

I spend an afternoon at the library, looking up events. There is precious little hard information. I can turn on the television and see all manner of this stuff, but hard information is lacking. The more I search, the more extreme sports seems to be terra incognito, the place on the map where there’s nothing but a hand-drawn dragon. There are secrets here, I think, a world over the edge of the map. Secrets…

I go back to my office and stare at my cocktail napkin:

  1. Windsurf Big Air.
  2. Kamikaze Downhill
  3. Escape From Alcatraz
  4. Whitewater off a Waterfall
  5. Rock Climb
  6. Cave Dive
  7. Ice Climb
  8. Skydive; whatever those parachuting thingies are.
  9. Skate Marathon
  10. Dive Really Deep
  11. Badwater Death Valley Run
  12. Iditarod Bike Race
  13. Denali

I need a plan. At first, the plan seems easy-I’ll scrape up what money I have, go out to Death Valley and tan onto that nightmarish run. Then I’ll head on up north to do the Kamikaze Downhill. I’ll learn to rock climb, then mountain climb and get certified to SCUBA dive while I’m at it. I’ll even learn to swim, something I’ve been avoiding. The wind howls, and nothing seems impossible. I drive home, clean my equipment, take a handful of aspirin, shower, and bandage my hands. Then I get the morning paper and turn to the classified—I’m going to need a mountain bike, I think…


Chapter 5
Hanging Out In Death Valley

The first clash with reality comes when the rubber meets the road, or, more honestly, when the sneakers meet the dirt. I am methodically (and painfully) turning myself into the slowest runner in the world. Train though I might, in the end, I suspect running will have the upper hand. Still, it’s a necessary step, I grudgingly admit, if I am ever going to get anywhere. I can see the edge, and it seems off at the edge of the horizon.

This obsession with running is triggered by the first contact between The List and the obstacles. I have decided, for reasons that are not totally clear to me, that the Death Valley run, Item 11, would be a good starting point to get me out in training and into doing. It takes me a couple of weeks of phone calls to find out anything about that Death Valley race, which turns out to be the Hi-Tec Badwater 145-miler, sponsored by a sneaker company, Hi-Tec. I learn this from an ad in an old magazine someone loans me, which is a font of information. I learn, for example, that the race, 145 miles of living hell, across Death Valley, over two mountain ranges and up the highest peak in the continental U.S., was created to promote a trail running sneaker, which is no longer being manufactured. Upon seeing a picture of the sneaker, I understand why it is no longer being manufactured. In a world of sleek, high fashion athletic shoes, the Badwater sneaker is butt ugly.

I call the toll-free number listed on the old ad, and eventually end up talking to Dave Pompel, the genial Hi-Tec exec who handles the race. Can I, I ask, just jump in and run the next race, which happens to be a few months away?

“No,” Pompel says.

“Why not?”

“Because,” he continues, “this is one of the hardest running races in the world, and—correct me if I’m wrong—you don’t strike me as being an elite ultramarathon runner.”

Well, I reply, there’s something to that.

“Also, the race requires a sag wagon carrying your water and medical support,” he says. “I don’t suppose you have a sag wagon lined up?”

Well, I say, not exactly.

I think about the situation for about a minute while Pompel patiently waits. I need to do something, or The List is going to die before it even gets started.

“Can I come watch?” I hear myself asking.

“By all means,” says Pompel. “And bring a bicycle.”

Perfect!

I have already purchased a battered mountain bike from the classified ads, which I’m going to use in the Kamikaze Downhill. Death Valley, two mountain ranges and the climb up Mt. Whitney ought to get the kinks worked out of the bike.

“I’ll be there, ” I say. “Death Valley in July sounds wonderful.”

“Bring water,” Pompel adds. “And lots and lots of sunscreen.”

The cheapest airfare is into Reno, which is, of course, nowhere near Death Valley. Nonetheless, my bicycle and I arrive in the ratty gambling town late at night, where we pick up the rental and head through the relentless neon into the cool dark of the desert. I camp out in a cowboy motif motel near the desert town of Lone Pine, and head into Death Valley the next morning.

Did I mention the heat?

By 10 a.m. it is skillet-hot, the whole world taking on the smell of glowing iron, while the temperature of the rental car climbs perilously into the red. I look at the first rising hills, and I realize that the air conditioner, never perhaps an optimum piece of machinery, wouldn’t make the climb. I shut if off and roll down the windows.

There is only one radio station I can find as I creep into the blistering mountains, and the disc jockey is performing an on-air exorcism on one of Satan’s minions, a 16-year-old fan of Dungeons and Dragons.

“I want,” the announcer shouts, “to speak to the demon! Speak to me, demon!”

The boy makes a choking noise. “I can’t!” he screams, although it comes out something like, “Ah caned! Ah caned!”

Suddenly, the boy’s voice changes.

“Damn you!” the boy shouts in a new voice. “Damn you and your Jesus!”

Amazingly, the announcer cuts to a commercial for Diet Coke. The car is moving about 10 miles per hour up the steep grade. Every few miles there’s an iron water tank for overheated radiators, and the rising heat creates a twisted carnival mirror affect. The distant mountains dance and twist, and I wonder how far we are from the Charles Manson homestead.
“We now join live, on the air, a battle for a man’s soul,” the radio announcer is whispering, breathlessly. “There’s some rough language, but, people, we are dealing with Satan himself, right now, live!”

We creep on.

“Was Satan, Beelzebub, the Beast Himself that made you kill those little animals, wasn’t it! Wasn’t it!”

“Damn you! Damn you! Damn You!”

I am beginning to wonder whether this is such a great idea after all when we top the last hill and I see the long roller coaster ride into Death Valley proper. It looks…hot.

I roll on through the desert, past ghost towns and moving sand dunes, until I come to a sign that reads: “Ahead—Dates!”

After hours of steady exorcism, the idea of a date in Death Valley is a little frightening. Date palms, of course—the oasis in the middle of the desert. When I arrive, the place strikes me as hell’s own Holiday Inn, a flashy stone building resort surrounded by date palms. There’s even a pool, filled with German and Japanese tourists who appear to have all been dipped in the last existing batch of Red Dye #2. Welcome to Furnace Creek, and pass the sunscreen. This is race headquarters.

“Be gone, demon! Back to The Pit! Be gone!”

When I shut off the ticking, clanking car, the demon is still hanging on, but I sense it’s a close thing.

I check in, stow the bike in my room, and head for the mandatory prerace meeting. There are 15 entrants this year, and for the privilege of running across the desert and up assorted mountains, each entrant will receive a plastic water bottle and a t-shirt. Finishers will receive the coveted Badwater belt buckle.

The race is simplicity itself. At 6 p.m. tomorrow, the contestants will travel the few miles to Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the United States. It’s called Badwater because there is, in fact, a pool of water there, so laced with alkalis of various sorts that it’s a nasty, poisonous chemical stew. Badwater is south, deep into the valley, past the Devil’s Golf Course, in the shadow of 11,000 foot Telescope Peak.

The temperature at the race start will be around 125 degrees. Six feet above the blistering, shimmering asphalt—roughly at head level—the temperature will be closer to 160. “Last year,” one of the racers chortles, “some peoples’ air pockets in their sneakers blew up!” The runners will head north onto U.S. 190, the main two-lane blacktop that carves across this Road Warrior landscape. The runners will pass Furnace Creek, heading toward Stovepipe Wells, a wide spot in the road on the edge of the great migrating sand dunes.

With luck, the runners will hit the first of the mountain ranges, the Panamints, around dawn. They’ll creep up the road I coasted down, headed toward 5,000 foot Towne Pass, where they’ll have a relatively straight shot down into the brilliant salt flats of the Panamint Valley. The runners will have another climb into the tail end of the Inyo Mountains, before heading down onto the long, flat stretch into Lone Pine and the entrance to Mt. Whitney. The run to the entrance to the Mt. Whitney park is 13 miles, with almost a 9000 foot elevation gain. At the portals, the clock stops, and the race formally ends, because the Park Service doesn’t allow races to be run on public land. Most runners, though, Pompel confides, will continue informally to the top of Mt. Whitney, elevation 14,494 feet. The temperature at the portals will probably be in the 40s, although it could easily dip to below freezing. Snow is a possibility.

There is no water on the course, no medical care available, no food and supplies for the hottest part of the run. There is also a 60-hour time limit. The fastest runner will hit the portals in under 30 hours.

“Is this a great race, or what?” says Pompel.

I have decided to follow, mostly, Marshall Ulrich, a 30-something Colorado runner who has made the race his own. When I call his business to let him know I’m coming, his secretary tells me he’s not in.

“He’s out running across the state,” she says without a trace of irony. “He’ll be back in a few days.”

When Marshall and I finally meet, he is what one would expect from a person who thinks running across a state—any state—is fun—thin, wiry and intense. He takes me aside to tell me his finely honed strategy for the race.”If I can run flat seven-minute miles for the first 35 miles, it’ll get me through the hottest part of the run with a minimum amount of contact between my feet and the pavement,” he confides.

Makes sense, I say. I have run a seven-minute mile—exactly one seven-minute mile, and then I had to lay down on the track. I am beginning to think very kindly of Dave Pompel’s foresight.

I meet some of the other racers—a rodeo cowboy turned banker turned ultramarathoner, a phys ed teacher whose husband “gave” her this race as a wedding present, a doctor who has just finished the Markleeville Death Race bicycle ride, and whose support crew will carry a coffin filled with ice, a lawn chair and an inflatable palm tree, plus a square of Astroturf for the lawn.

“Be gone, demon! Back to The Pit! Be gone!”

Early the next morning, just as a cotton candy pink dawn is touching the Funeral Mountains, I get up, slip on my shorts, t-shirt and running shoes, fill a water bottle with the warm, salty water from the tap and head down the road, toward Badwater. The thermometer by the pool reads a paltry 85 degrees when I start running, but I know as soon as the sun clears the Funerals the temperature will click up faster than a New York City taxicab meter.

I run along the sandy shoulder of the road, the only sound in the desert is my sneakers, crunching sand. The heat is dry, brittle, like a long spell of fever or crumbling old parchment. I imagine the greedy atmosphere leeching the water from my pores, moisture vanishing before it even has a chance to become sweat.

The desert is still, digging itself in for the hellish day to come. The only plant I can definitely identify is the dried arms of Death Valley sage, unique to this corner of the earth. I follow the pavement until a turnoff onto a gravel road. I head down the gravel, deeper into the desert. The sun is beginning to make itself felt; half its blazing diameter is visible now above the Funerals. All across the gravel road are the twisted hieroglyphics left by the sidewinder rattlesnakes in the gritty sand. An hour passes, then another half hour. I finally stop, the sun blistering on my face. I’ve left the road and run up a jeep trail, which eventually dead-ends into a little box canyon. The snake tracks are thick across the floor of the little canyon, as if all the rattlers on the right hand side decided to exchange places with all the rattlers on the left hand side. I am sincerely glad I wasn’t around when the word came to change sides. It is quiet and still, and all the people in the world are gone. I sit on an already warming rock and sip my tepid water, then run back the way I came, my treaded footprints overlaying the hieroglyphics. It is like running through a microwave oven.

Before the race start, I walk down to the murky pool at Badwater. The edges of the pool are crusted with white mineral deposits, and beneath the surface of the hot, deadly water, creatures dart. Life is persistent. Above us, high on the rocks, someone has painted “282 feet below sea level,” to be sure we don’t forget. Strangely, the next time I’m this far below sea level, I won’t be breathing air. But that’s to come.

My plan for observing the race is simple—I’ll ride my bike along with the runners, run some when I can. Get as close to the race as possible, the least I can do for The List. At 6 p.m., when the runners head off, the temperature is around 120 degrees.

I ride the first 26 miles—the first marathon—on my mountain bike, keeping tabs on Marshall, who is running effortless seven-minute miles, then drifting to the back of the pack, to talk to the doctor with the coffin. At one point, I pull a water bottle off the bike’s down tube and proceed to spray 160-degree water into my face. Note to myself: Carry water on person; 98.6 degrees is substantially less than 160 degrees.

Watching a running race, though, is a little like watching paint dry, and once the full chill of the desert evening sets in, I ride the two hours back to the car, with about a billion stars to light the way. Feeling vaguely guilty, I go back to my hotel room and sleep for four or five hours.

By dawn, Marshall is through the mountains. I drop back, and eventually pick up the rodeo cowboy turned banker, who’s hiking his way up the steepest inclines.

“Want company?” I ask, and he nods. I’m able to drop my bike with the lone support vehicle, cruising up and down the lonely highway, and join him.

“You know what the strangest thing about races like this is?” he asks.

Other than the very fact of their existence, I reply, I don’t have a clue.

“It’s the changes you go through,” he begins. Then we walk along comfortably for a bit.

“In something like this, where you’re being pushed to the mental and physical limits,” he says. “Strange things happen to your brain. It’s like every emotion you’ve ever had—love, hate, fear, anger, all of them—at one time or another out here, they all come out.”

He talks on as we walk, steadily uphill.

The thing is, he is saying, you can’t pay attention to those emotions, either the good ones or the bad ones.

“They’re like thunderstorms in the desert,” he says. “there’s big noise and flashes and the trees shake and the wind blows like stink, but it passes. It passes. And what you’ve got to do is stand there and let those storms blow past.”

We walk awhile in companionable silence. Then he tells me about the rodeo, about his family, about running, about the endless string of miles that have somehow come to define his life. “I think about that a lot while I’m out here,” he says. “But heck, I think about everything.”

Later, I ride for hours, up and down the increasingly spread out line. I am riding uphill, singing to myself, in the full heat of midday. My body is completely covered, except for my face, which is layered with sunscreen the consistency of tar. I pull up my shirt sleeve to scratch my arm, and I notice that I have apparently been dusted with flour.

Salt, I think. The moisture is leeched away, leaving the salt.

I continue my singing and peddling until my brain belatedly engages.

I shouldn’t feel so good bicycling uphill in 120 degree heat. Ergo, I am on the verge of heatstroke.

I stop peddling, lean the bike against a convenient boulder and force myself to drink a full water bottle of hot, metallic-tasting water. In no time at all, I am rewarded with a splitting headache. Since I no longer feel like singing, I get back on the bike and start riding again. The seat is hot enough to sear my butt through the layers, and the metal of the handlebars is too hot to touch.

In the evening, right about full dark, one of the sag wagons for a woman runner flags me down. “Run with her,” one of her team says. “She needs some company.”

So we load my bike into the sag wagon, and they drop me alongside the Phys-Ed Teacher, then leap-frog miles ahead to the next stop.

The first few miles are what you’d expect, comparing notes on homes and families and training regimens. She and her new husband have spent hours and hours on the road, sneakers joined together in holy matrimony, and this race is his gift to her. She is very happy. But the miles wear on, and the hour is late.

Every emotion, the rodeo cowboy, now far ahead, told me. Every one.

“You know my husband, right?” the Phys-Ed Teacher asks, abruptly, and there’s an edge on her voice. It’s after midnight in Death Valley, and there are still 90 miles of running left. The temperature has finally dropped below 100 degrees. “I hate him,” she continues. “No, I want him to die. That’s worse than hating him, isn’t it?” I tell her I think wanting someone to die is worse than hating them.

“Well, that’s what I want. I want him fucking dead.”

She runs for a while in silence, and I can imagine her teeth grinding in the dark.

“I hate this,” she says, and she is crying.

Time passes; the sound of sneakers; occasionally, in the distance, the cry of a night hunter.

“I have to sleep,” she says.

I know, I say, soon.

The miles and the night pass.

I run into her the next day, after she’d grabbed a few hours sleep in a real bed in a place called Panamint Springs. She squints at me through eyes that have seen a little too much nuclear sunlight.

“Did we run together last night?” she asks.

“For a while.”

“Anything I say that sounded stupid,” she says, “was the desert talking.”

“Never thought otherwise.”

Later, I zoom ahead to walk alongside Marshall up Mt. Whitney. He has been running for more than 24 hours with a total of 45 minutes sleep. He is haggard, destroyed, a haint, my granddaddy would say, methodically placing one foot in front of the other, up the mountain. At one point, his support crew is worried that he doesn’t have enough fuel left to make it to the top. They decide on chocolate, M&Ms, and tell him to eat. But Marshall, at least the thinking, rational, laughing Marshall, is no longer home. He continues plodding up the mountain.

One of the crew puts a handful of the brightly colored candy in his right hand and rolls it into a fist. But the fist loosens, and the M&Ms dribble onto the ground.Finally, his main support person puts a half-dozen M&Ms in his hand.

“Marshall,” she says firmly. “Put the candy in your mouth.”

He does so, without taking his eyes off the road ahead of him.

“Chew it,” she says.

His jaws begin to work.

“Now swallow it.”

He gulps.

It is the most agonizing performance I have ever seen.

Twenty-nine hours after leaving Badwater, he arrives at the portals, accepts the congratulations and goes to sleep. A few hours later, he gets up and runs to the top of Mt. Whitney and back down, setting an unofficial record.

I won’t cheat again, I think, the desert rolling beneath the rental’s wheel. I won’t stand by and watch again. The only way to be fair to The List is to do, not watch. Whatever it takes.

End of Chapter Five, Over The Edge, by Michael Bane

Michael Bane’s career reads like a novel—and a very unlikely novel at that.

In more than 20 years of professional journalism, Bane has journeyed from the cocktail parties of New York celebrity journalism, to small wars in the Third World, to the executive boardrooms of some of the most successful companies in American and, most recently, to the ends of the earth in search of adventure.

His trips and stories have been chronicled in such magazines as Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, National Geographic Adventure, Esquire and literally hundreds of others. His 19th book, Over The Edge: A Regular Guy’s Odyssey In Extreme Sports (released in 2000 in paperback by Wilderness Press), prompted the Wall Street Journal to ask…”How did Michael Bane become the George Plimpton from hell?”

Michael Bane has spent time as a confidant to country music superstars, an authority on world class performance in large corporations, a black belt in karate, a columnist and consultant on personal computers, a dedicated restorer of vintage Norton motorcycles, a “guest terrorist” for the U.S. Army Ranger battalion at Ft. Benning, GA, an expert competition shooter and editor of numerous magazines on topics as varied as beer and self-esteem.

He’s been a ghost for various country music singers—Living Proof, the Hank Williams Jr. story, went on to become a top-ten television movie as well as a successful book.

His book on the complex relationship between music, culture and race (White Boy Singing The Blues, originally published in the late 1970s and reissued by Da Capo Press in 1992) recently received this review from an academic journal: “The genuinely eerie aspect about Bane’s study is his ability to conjure the Southerner’s perspective of mystery, fear, danger and suspicion that continues to shroud race relations in the United States…This book matches the very best analyses of rock music ever produced.”

Bane’s co-authored book on business management, Shifting Paradigms (Dogwood, 1991), was cited by business magazines as a significant contribution and is quoted in the Arthur Andersen Group’s recent compendium on current American management thinking.

As a speaker, Bane has addressed audiences in the United States and Canada on topics of risk and risk management, as well as functioning in chaos systems. In October, Bane will be one of four Americans speaking at a special business conference in Bangkok, Thailand, which will be Webcast along the Pacific Rim.