This is My Story
By Ruben Cantu, 2000 Badwater Ultramarathon official finisher
My adventure with the Sun Precautions 2000 Badwater Ultramarathon commenced about two years ago. A friend, "H.E." West, who I thought was my friend, suggested I try running Badwater, since I had just run Angeles Crest for the second time. I immediately notified him he was absolutely nuts. Only certified loony people would try something so crazy.
Well, after two years of the idea sinking in and after reading the book, "The Death Valley 300," by Richard Benyo. It had been loaned to me by Mike Devlin, another so-called friend. After reading it, I was convinced I had to try it. Then, I read somewhere that the race is not complete without a Mt. Whitney summit. This completes the lowest to highest trek. Being of the ultrarunner mentality, that was enough to convince me that I had to run Badwater. Now, the real trick was to convince my wife that I could safely run in 125-degree weather without turning into a prune.
Since I had never crewed in Badwater and had no experience on the extreme conditions in Death Valley, I needed information on how to train and acclimate to the Death Valley environment. My friend H.E., who several years ago crewed for the legendary Marshall Ulrich in Badwater, suggested I contact Marshall for advice. By phone Marshall provided me with invaluable information which I practiced religiously.
The first thing I did was to see if I knew enough people who would be at least half-crazy and convince them to come out and support me as part of my Death Valley crew. H.E. was my first candidate. He had no choice as this whole thing was his idea. I then recruited two people from my 1999 Leadville Trail 100 crew: Mike Marcikonis and Kristin Birrenkott, both from the Denver area; a niece, Monica Gonzales, from Houston (oh how innocent she was); and my best running friend, Mike Devlin. H.E.had experience crewing for Marshall. Mike Devlin, who got to know my every whim by crewing for me at almost every training run, gave me confidence that I had an excellent support team to get me through Death Valley.
For the Mt. Whitney summit my stepson Ric DeVan (who in June 2000 summitted Denali in Alaska) would be the lead. Mike Devlin and Monica volunteered to accompany me up to the summit. As neither of them or I had ever climbed Mt. Whitney before, that made three of the four of us never before having set foot on the Whitney Trail.
For heat acclimitization, I trained for two-and-a-half months every Saturday in the Southern California Anza Borrego Desert between Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea. I got to know State Highway 22 very well. Driving to and from my training site in Borrego Springs, Mike Devlin and I would drive with the heater on and the van totally closed-up. The temperature would climb into the mid 120's with the highest temperature reaching 131 degrees. We would maintain this heat training for up to two hours before and one hour after our 5 to 7-hour desert training run.
For altitude acclimitization I only had time for one trip up Mt. San Jacinto, near Idyllwild, California. Mike Devlin, Ric and I climbed the 10,800 ft. peak about three weeks prior to the run. Not that I considered the Whitney summit attempt easy. It was just that completing the run was much more important to me so I concentrated and devoted my time towards that effort.
Feeling prepared and the eventual start drawing near, I felt pretty confident I was ready for Badwater. However, all this confidence went out the window on our drive to Furnace Creek on Wednesday July 26th, the day before the start of the run. The long drive down from Father Crowley to Panamint Valley and again from Townes Pass down to Stovepipe Wells coupled with the hot and dry wind after the pre-race meeting the evening of the 26th totally blew a big hole in my psyche. I was emotionally devastated but chose to not share my fears and did not alert my crew.
Until now, my goal had been to do the run in 40 to 45 hours. This would get me to the Portals and the finish on Friday evening to early Saturday morning. After the race I would sleep for three to four hours and then attempt the summit very early Saturday morning. I was hoping to reach the summit in about 10 hours, by around 6:00 PM. This would give me a total goal of 60 hours to go from Badwater to the summit. It seemed very doable to me. But the evening before the run, after my psyche had been blown away, I just wanted to survive the run in a respectable time, forget the "buckle," and just get to the Portals alive. Too late to do any more, I resigned myself to just do my best on race day.
As the run unfolded the next morning, I found myself feeling very confident again, yet cautious, about my fitness. My crew was very supportive and encouraging. I went out on a 12-minute- per- mile pace to Furnace Creek to "put some time in the bank" for later when the temperature was sure to surpass the 113 degrees in which I had been training and the current 100 degrees at the start. I reached Furnace Creek (17 miles) on schedule (around 9:30 AM) and still felt very fresh and strong. But best of all, I had "banked" over two hours.
The stretch between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells was no surprise. The temperature went up as expected but was never a real threat. My crew kept me cool by providing me with ice cold, wet towels and ice packs for my head and shoulders. I slowed down as expected but still managed to bank a little more time for the trip up to Townes Pass. I reached Stovepipe Wells (41 miles) by 3:46 PM. The highlight of this section was catching-up with my hero Marshall Ulrich and getting my picture taken with him. Naturally he did not stay passed for long, as he disappeared into the sunset going up toward Townes Pass.
When I finally reached the top of Townes Pass at around 10:30 PM, I started feeling the effects of the day's hot sun. It had taken a toll and I started to feel quite tired and sleepy. We decided that a 30-minute nap would provide the rest I needed, so I climbed into the RV and passed out for 30 minutes. I woke up feeling much better and resumed the run down into Panamint Valley. This is where the fun begins.
Once we got halfway down the west side of Townes Pass, we saw some lights. I thought it was Panamint Springs Resort (72 miles). As we continued, the lights were not getting any closer. I had expected the time station to be at the bottom of the Valley but, as I found out, it was at the 2000-foot level on the west side of the Valley. Just when my body was ready for another rest stop, I found out we had four long miles to go.
I wanted to reach the time station and check in before I rested so that, if any of my family and friends were tracking me on the web, they would know where I was before I took my next planned 30-minute nap. Well, as the lights were not getting any nearer, sleep deprivation hit me and the hallucinations started. The small hills and sand mounds near the road became quonset huts which kept track of me and would not go away. Then, as I ran along the white line to keep me going straight, the line became a walking stick. It was painted in multi-colors sort of barber-pole style. The stick did not have a handle as it disappeared behind me into the darkness, but the tip did have a black cap to keep the stick from wearing out, of course. It too kept track of me as I progressed toward the lights which would not get closer. I was aware that I was seeing things which were not really there, but my eyes would not phase them out. I might have suffered some sunburn on my eyes. What kept me going was my willingness to reach the Panamint Valley time station. My crew supplied me with ice
water soaked towels for my face every half mile. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, at around 3:20 AM Friday, I did reach the lights and was rewarded with another 30-minute nap. Arguably, my crew chief wanted me to spend a full hour, but I threatened him with something. Whatever it was, it worked as he woke me up in a half- hour.
I had planned another 30-minute break at the Darwin turnoff (90 miles) at 10:00 AM, but I felt so good after the sunrise that I did not need it. It was at this time I started feeling very confident that I would not only finish in a respectable time but would also buckle. I just did not know how much time I would have to rest before the summit attempt.
We passed the 100-mile marker around 1:00 PM 31 hours into the run. My son Ric joined us shortly thereafter. His presence was a big boost to my morale. I had a great crew to this point, but having him along with the rest of the crew made my party complete. Thanks to modern technology and cell phones, I was able to contact my wife in Santee, California a couple of times during the run. Those conversations were very uplifting and a major boost to my reserve. The Badwater Webcast was great in keeping our families and friends aware of the runners' progress throughout the run. Thanks Chris Kostman and his brother, Keith.
The course from Darwin turnoff (90 miles) to Lone Pine (122 miles) was typically long and boring but not very hot. I was concerned about the smoke down from the Inyo County forest fire in the southern High Sierra, but the smoke stayed up high but the ash rained down. At this time, we dispatched Mike Devlin and Monica to go get some rest as they were integral members of the summit attempt. We wanted them as rested as possible. As for me, I just had to keep moving and, before I knew it, we were near Lone Pine. My son and I decided to make a game of it and ran quite hard for that stage of the run trying to reach Highway 395 by 7:00 PM. We did not quite make it, but we were in Lone Pine by 7:20 PM. After a wrong turn trying to find the time station there at the Dow Villa, we finally found it by 7:50 PM and started up Whitney Portal Road. This is another place where I had more vision fun.
Heading up Portal Road through the famous Alabama Hills as the sun started to set, I kept seeing different animals on the side of the trail: I saw a big hippopotamus with its mouth wide open, baby elephants, and an assortment of different animal caricatures. I knew I was seeing things but could not focus enough to get the hallucinations out of my vision. I had to shine a light on the rocks and bushes to discern that what I was seeing were in fact not real animals. Ric had a good laugh on me and later I would have a laugh on him. The weirdest hallucination happened between Ric and me as we walked/ran up the flat section of the Portal Road. I could see a concrete wall running straight forward from us along our direction of travel. Ric was walking right through it and I kept telling him I knew the wall was not really there but I could see it plain as day, it seemed so real.
The road leading up to the finish was long and tough and although I "could smell the barn," it seemed as if the last two miles would never end. Sometime during the climb up the Portal Road, Chris Kostman joined us far a short walk. It was really nice of him to spend some time with the runners approaching the finish. I guess we were spread out enough so that he could afford the time away from the finish area. All of my crew joined me on the final approach. It was quite an emotional time for all of us and the exhilaration of finishing in such good time (42:53:25) was overwhelming.
We celebrated for a short while. Then Monica drove me into Lone Pine for a shower and some sleep in a hotel. We had initially hoped to depart for the Whitney summit around 4:00 AM Saturday, but, by the time we drove to Lone Pine, checked into our room and showered it was almost 3:00 AM. I left a wake-up call for 4:00 AM at the hotel, I think I heard a snicker from the hotel clerk. We returned to the Portals at around 5:00 AM, where we woke up the rest of the crew, packed our bags. Ric, Mike Devlin, Monica and I departed on the Whitney trail at around 6:20 AM. It was a late start but it was the earliest we could leave considering I was only able to get one full hour of sleep.
During most of the climb, Monica, with no prior experience in mountaineering, did a great job of pace setting for the team going up the mountain. We made really good time on the trail until we got to Trail Camp. From there on up, the climb became a little more challenging. It was more like a death march to me. However, at Trail Camp I was able to rest for about 15 minutes while Ric and Mike filtered water and filled our water bottles.
The climb up the 99 switchbacks was extremely tiring to Trail Crest, but we were able to continue without too much trouble. Several times we discussed our chances of reaching the summit safely with plenty of daylight left. At around 4:00 PM we conferred and decided to set a turn around deadline at a certain time. This would be at 7:30PM. We would turn around then, if we were not close enough to make it to the summit and back to the Trail Crest area by dark. As I heard Ric say several times, "summiting is optional, getting down is not." The tough part along the back section of the climb is being in eye contact with the hut at the summit, but the hut does not seem to get any nearer as you slowly progress toward it. We pushed on with pulling and crawling until finally we persevered in making the summit around 6:19 PM. We had plenty of daylight left for pictures, a quick celebration, and then started back down.
We made it back to the top of the switchbacks (Trail Crest) just before total darkness. The hike back down in the dark was challenging, to say the least. This was especially so in the snowy part about a third of the way down the switchbacks where the trail was completely covered with snow. This forced us to take very short steps to traverse from one switchback to the other.
After 60 plus hours with only about two hours of sleep, total to date, and about 150 miles on my feet, my legs were not very steady. This was the time where Ric's mountaineering experience became invaluable. He safely guided us back down through the darkness.
This was also Mike's and Monica's turn to hallucinate. At one point Monica would not go forward for fear of a snake she swore was on the trail in front of her. Ric had to convince her that snakes did not exist this high up. Shortly thereafter, she screamed and jumped. I thought she had stumbled only to find out she saw a man jump out from behind a rock. Sometime during this period Mike had his turn at hallucinating. He could not remember who he was with or what our names were.
We got back down to Trail Camp around 11:00 PM Saturday night. On the way up Ric had setup a bivy sack with a sleeping bag for me to rest in on the return trip. When we got there the setup was as welcomed as a Holiday Inn to me. I laid in it and immediately passed out for about 45 to 50 minutes. This was to be our last rest stop until we returned to the Portals at 4:05 AM Sunday morning, about 70 hours and 157 miles since we left Badwater Thursday at 6:00AM. The race was over, the climb was over and I was too tired to enjoy it.
On our ride down the Portals Road, our team's hallucinations completed the rounds. I was asleep in the back of Ric's truck while he drove us down to our hotel. His hallucinations were of people out in the street. He wondered what so many people were doing out at after 4:00 AM Sunday morning. Some even tried crossing the street in front of his truck. Mike and Monica were keeping him company and were witnesses to his visions. When this was related to me the next day it was my turn to laugh at him.
Now that the race and summit are over I find myself very happy and satisfied with my performance and the support I received from my wonderful crew, my family and my friends. Thanks to Chris Kostman and his staff for a great race. I am sure all the time he spent setting up the race was well worth his time. Even though I barely met Ben Jones, I certainly felt his presence throughout the race, so thank you. I only regret not having had the opportunity to meet the First Lady of Badwater, Denise Jones, and to spend more time at the finish and at the awards ceremony to express my gratitude and meet the rest of Chris' cast.
My friends and family keep asking what is next? I do not have an answer but I do know that I will not listen to my "friend" H.E. anymore.