After driving most of the night through rain and a spectacular thunder and lightning storm, we arrived at the Stovepipe Wells Village shortly before the pre-race meeting. It was good to be back. What a delightful afternoon I had milling about and chatting with some very special people. I met Ben and Denise Jones, Matt Frederick, Lisa Smith and her wonderful sister, Julie. I also became acquainted with many other people that I would have the pleasure of running with during the next several days. Later in the afternoon while relaxing on the porch outside our room, we saw it appear on the horizon.
A dark an ominous thunder and lightning storm began to sweep across the valley floor churning up the desert and creating a huge wall of sand that would soon be thrashing Stovepipe Wells. The ferocious sand, rain and lightning storms that followed inundated the area for over an hour turning the complex and the highway into a river of mud and rocks. It was almost worth the trip just to be here in the middle of this incredible phenomenon. As the storm moved down the canyons, numerous other flash floods created havoc everywhere in Death Valley. The next morning, with the help and cooperation of the National Park Service, plows were use to clear the debris off all the roads. Although the race was delayed four hours, we were all fortunate enough to be able to caravan in for the start at Badwater. Everyone was excited and thankful for this. We are finally at the starting line and will be off in a few minutes. What an honor it is for me to be standing in the middle of Death Valley on this small strip of highway among forty-one other courageous runners and their crews. All these people are my heroes. You can sense everyone’s adrenaline, energy and emotional levels rising a few notches as Adam Bookspan plays the National Anthem for us on his trumpet. It is beautiful. It is hard to believe that the time is near. I have been waiting for this very moment for a year. It is almost surreal, like a dream come true. It would be nice if one could freeze time and put this in a bottle to be savored forever.
After synchronizing our watches and counting the time down, the 1999 Badwater Race begins. This small group of elite runners, with lots of hard and demanding work ahead, are now on a mission to attempt to fulfill their dreams by finishing and conquering the toughest and most extreme race in the world. Early in the race, I run with a group of my friends. There is lots of kidding around as everyone sloughs off nervous energy. Leading this group is Major Maples and his crew hoisting American and Marine Corps flags, which are waiving in the slight breeze. It’s a spectacular and emotional sight.
After several miles the pack thins out as all the runners settle into their own pace and everyone begins to get serious. Running alone, I zero in on the challenge ahead. In my mind I have ran this race a million times since last years finish. After eight months of intense mental and physical preparation, I feel capable of finishing in 37-hours. The unusually high humidity and the temperature hovering around the 115-degree range should not be a problem. Three months of being blitzed in a sauna will take care of this. My crew of experienced runners including Vince Pedroia, Julie Dell’era and John Rodgers, instinctively realize my needs and will be at my side the entire distance.
They will keep me hydrated and well fed. Using squirt bottles and a super soaker (an extra large squirt gun), they will keep my sun suit from drying out during the heat of the day and will massage my legs at pre-planned resting spots. Besides leapfrogging a runner now and then and enjoying the beauty of the ever-changing desert, everything goes smoothly as we reach Stovepipe Wells. Looking across the desert while taking a short dip in the pool not only do I see Lisa Smith passing by, but also another sandstorm being whipped up and heading towards the motel. After a quick massage and a phone call home to my wife, we head up the hill towards Towne’s Pass in an attempt to skirt around this new storm. Too late. Immediately the sandstorm with its intense wind comes crashing down on us. It becomes hard to move up the mountain as I lean into the wind for more than an hour.
Shortly after the storm subsides, Steven Silver catches me. After introducing ourselves, he tells me his game plan which is alternating four minutes of running with four minutes of power-walking. This approach was new to me and sounded interesting, so I joined him for a few segments. The strategy worked so well that by the time we had run the ten miles to Townes Pass, I was hooked. This was the beginning of an amazing partnership, which would last all the way to the finish line some 90-miles away.
Everyone knows there are a thousand reasons a buddy system, even if pre-planned, doesn’t work. What we managed to accomplish together during the next twenty-five hours was definitely unique. Our pre-race plans, finishing goals, and running paces were similar. During numerous low spots we coaxed each other to keep moving forward. During the high periods we simply fed off each others positive energy and picked up the pace. We were captivated by the ‘if he can do it than I can do it syndrome.” Most importantly, we just hit it off really well together. We were always well aware of our mission and constantly made a zillion calculations. We also took time to joke and kid around, which was our way of dealing with some of the tired and frayed edges. We did have a lot of fun out there.
Near Panamint Springs we caught Lisa Smith and tried to sneak by her, but she quickly dusted us off. At Panamint we decided on a well deserved catnap in the hospitality room. We were now talking about a 36-hour finish. There was to be no sleep as my mind continued to calculate all the possible finishing times. Just as we were ready to go the room started spinning and I almost passed out. I had bonked in other races and had some immediate concerns. With the cold shakes, I made my way into the bathroom seeking any kind of relief. Steven was ready to go but I was in trouble. There was no way that this partnership was going to dissolve. So, after a few more minutes I gritted my teeth and started up the mountain with Steven in the cool and dark of the night. Fortunately, I began to recover and felt much better. Near the top a wild burro was about to chase my crew across the road. It backed off as we approached. After cresting the hill and passing Father Crowley’s Point, I became concerned about a large white figure just off the side of the road. Steven assured me that it was only a big white rock and we probably would be safe since it travels only a few inches every million years. Near the Death Valley National Park sign, we discovered the alternating mile marking signs along each side of the highway. We were now able to judge our pace more efficiently which made it easier to calculate estimated arrival times anywhere along the course.
We arrived at Keeler with a burning question. What’s that all about, the grave site and large cross at mile 96? Maybe Ben Jones knows. We could ask him the next time he drives by pulling his goody-filled wagon. After another short rest and massage, off we go. We begin to think a 35-hour finish is possible. My left hip, which would give me problems on Mt. Whitney, begins to hurt. Unfortunately, a few miles later around Swansea, we pass Lisa (who is having a very hard time). I feel sorry for her. Lisa is my number one hero. In Lone Pine, my beautiful wife arrives which gives me a new source of energy. After two malts, some pudding and a quick leg massage we start the climb to the Whitney Portals.
The beauty and majesty of the mountain is powerful and overwhelming. We begin talking about a 34-hour finish as we surge up this long steep 13-mile hill and into the switch backs. Eventually we spot the last mile marker. With nineteen minutes to go we have a chance to break 34-hours. I think we can make it if we power-walk very hard, but Steven tells me we will have to run. I follow as Steven begins to run up the hill. It is hard because the pain in my hip is now excruciating. As we press on I am doing more of a running hobble. Steven keeps yelling back for me to suck it up and keep running. As time is slipping by and everything is hurting, I wonder, how come the last mile always seems the longest. Finally, after one last bend we spot it in all it’s glory. The finish line. Steven is almost there and could easily cross but he is waiting for me. As I hobble up he holds out his hand for me in an unselfish gesture of compassion and sportsmanship. As we clasp hands and head for the tape, we are yelling, screaming and crying. We cross the finish line together in 33 hours and 57 minutes and collapse into each others arms. The mind and body are shot. All that’s left is the emotional release. It is exhilarating. The intense passionate feelings pouring out during the next few fleeting minutes will be cherished forever. It is heaven on earth. It is for this moment that I worked so hard. It makes all the training in the cold, the rain, the heat, the long runs, the 140-mile weeks and the months of baking in the sauna worth every second. In the ultrarunning world it doesn’t get any better than this.
I left the mountain knowing that, if I can do this, then anything is possible. It has made me feel like a giant. This Badwater experience has become part of my spirituality. I know it has made me a better person. I will be back.
Thank you, Matt, Karen and all the other fine people at Hi-Tec. Outstanding job. Thank you, Ben Jones for all your support and compassion. Thanks to all the crews. With your help we are able to achieve our goals. Thanks to all the runners. I admire and honor your courage to even attempt this most difficult of all races. You are all winners. Thank you, Steven Silver for everything. Marian loves you and so do I. A special thanks to my wonderful wife Christine for the thirty-one years of love and support. This one was for you. Being surrounded by so many caring, compassionate and talented people made this one of the most fulfilling five day periods of my life. It was an honor to be a part of the 1999 Hi-Tec Badwater Ultramarathon. Thanks a million to everyone.
To read what Steve Silver had to say about this, click here.