Meeting the Challenge at the 2001 Badwater Ultramarathon

By Phil Hicks
Originally published in the Tyler (Texas) Morning Telegraph

It’s called “Running on the Sun” and I have the blisters to prove it. Actually, there was no running on my part, since I was a crew member for my friend, Paul Stone, who took on the Badwater UltraMarathon, a 135-mile race through Death Valley, Calif.

Why anyone would want to take on this challenge is unbeknownst to me. However, 71 brave souls took on the challenge of racing through one of the most unforgiving deserts in the world. As I stood at the starting line in Badwater — the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level — and the temperature was hovering at 108 degrees at 10 a.m., I was asking myself why am I here? Well, Stone had asked me to crew for him back in December and he said we would be stopping in Las Vegas. It’s hard to turn down a trip to Vegas. Plus, he was raising money for a charity, Living Alternatives, an organization that reaches out to young girls who are experiencing unplanned pregnancy.

Death Valley may be close in distance to the Strip, but in reality it’s light years away. A crew member’s responsibility is to take care of the runner, whether it’s giving him or her food, water, salt pills, keeping their spirits up, etc. Our crew chief was Stone’s wife, Abby, who was prepared for everything. President Bush needs her to run the country while he’s on vacation. Joining Abby and I were a delightful couple, George and Erlinda Biondic from near Toronto. It was a team effort, but the runners take on the heat and the altitude.

As Dr. Ben Jones, three-time Badwater finisher and anointed mayor of Badwater, says, “I don’t think there’s anything about it that’s good for the body.” And his wife, Denise Jones, the first lady of Badwater, told crew members to expect extreme heat, extreme exhaustion, extreme frustration at times, extreme confusion and extreme joy — when’s it’s over. How right she was.

After the start at Badwater, the racers go about 41 miles past Furnace Creek and the sand dunes to Stovepipe Wells. Then it’s uphill — about 18 miles and 5,000-feet — to Townes Pass. In the middle of the night at Towne Pass, eight or so crews gathered, much as troops who had battled that day and were preparing for the next assault. That’s followed by 31 miles downhill to Panamint Springs Resort, back up 3,400 feet to Father Crowley’s Point — a dangerous narrow path — and back down again toward Lone Pine, Calif., a quaint resort area at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The race then concludes with 13 miles up to 8,400 feet on Mount Whitney.

I’m tired again just writing about it.

Through the heat, dust storms, bats, laughs and cries, our runner finished. Stone finished the run in 37 hours, 51 minutes and 21 seconds. He received the Most Improved Award by finishing some 15 hours better than his 2000 finish (53:21.20). Taking first place was Michael Trevino of San Diego in 28:18.12. The top female finisher was Anne Langstaff, a 40-year-old personal trainer and exotic dancer from El Cajon, Calif. She finished in 40:13.21.

It’s a unique race in that the length is more than five marathons and there’s three ascensions on the route as you begin below sea level and end up a little over halfway up Mount Whitney at 8,400 feet. As we baked under the 121-degree heat, I asked Stone why couldn’t he at least pick a run in Alaska or Hawaii? It’s ironic you can feel so close to God in that environment, which has such sites as Dante’s View, the Devil’s Golf Course and the Devil’s Cornfield.

Night is the most breathtaking of all. The stars are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, but no where have I felt like I could reach up and grab the Big Dipper. And I’ve never seen so many shooting stars. Abby and I counted 23 and I made a wish each time. As we neared the finish line, a crew member of Mark Henderson’s squad, a fellow Texan from Houston, told us a bear was ahead. Mount Whitney is known for its bear activity. We had come 134 miles and I told Stone either I was running over the bear (I wouldn’t have done it animal lovers) or he could just run around or over it, because we had come too far to stop now. Luckily, the bear disappeared and Stone crossed the finish line as the temperature gauge read 61.

It was quite an achievement. Of the 71 runners who began, 55 finished. Why people do this run, I still don’t understand completely, but I do understand trying to meet the challenge. There’s people like Chris Moon, a former British soldier who lost an arm and leg when he was volunteering with an organization to defuse land mines around the world. Moon used a prosthetic arm and leg and finished at 53:47.07. He met the challenge. Or someone like Rick Nawrocki of Torrance, Calif., who, despite battling cancer and having a recent stem cell transplant, finished in 51:51.08. He met the challenge. The competition is testing oneself and your limits and not against each other. The encouragement you hear is very inspiring. Quite an experience.