Matt Palocsay’s Badwater 2001 Story

PRE-RACE

A year and a half in the making, my race was completed on Friday July 27th after shedding blood, sweat, and tears on the course from Badwater to the summit of Mt. Whitney. It started when I got the bug, the "Badwater bug". If you don't know what this is, you haven't been out there. All I had to do was crew for one clinic and I was hooked; sometime, as soon as possible, I was going to run the course. I don't know if it is the beauty of the course, the family of people involved (led by patriarch and matriarch Ben and Denise Jones, whose love for this race makes it something very special), or the challenge it consists of. Whatever it was, I got it and I got it bad. I went to both clinics last year and then crewed for a runner who had to drop with injury. Mona Landfield and I, now without a crewing commitment, offered our services up and back the course to anyone who wanted help. We saw the race in all aspects, from the fresh Jay Grobeson near the front to the struggling Erika Gerhardt. I knew I had to come out the next year. After the race, I ran a strong cascade crest 100 and Angeles crest 100, but my mind always wandered back to Badwater. I couldn't wait to get back out there.

Living in Los Angeles, it is not much of a trek to get out there, so I took my first of many desert trips in February during president's day weekend. How shocked could I have been? There was snow everywhere! I did my runs in slush on the side of the road up white mountains and through canyons with joshua trees with icicles dripping off. Not exactly race conditions, but something special all the same.

Again, I went out the end of March to get some more miles in. On the night run from furnace creek to stovepipe wells, a glow above the mountains lit up the road. We thought it was an alien or maybe the lights from Vegas, but it turned out to be the northern lights. No flashlights, no moon, just the aurora borealis to light my path in Death Valley. A few more runs in Vegas, some more in Death Valley, a sandstorm while out there on my own that lifted a 100 foot high wall of sand across my path, a couple clinics where I met my fellow runners and their crews; such good people out there. My crew was getting better and better. I made some mistakes on the runs, but the lessons were learned. Approaching the race, I just wanted to avoid getting injured. I guess it was a bad time to stab myself in the calf with a buck knife. Fortunately, I heal quickly and the antibiotics staved off the infection.

THE RACE

For all of the logistics to figure out before this race. I had listened when people made suggestions, and I covered all of the bases and then a few more. I wanted my running to be the only thing that determined my finish. Redundancy was not enough. I recruited the best possible crew. Mona was determined to get to the finish and dance on the summit. My buddy Andy from college had been supporting me through all of the desert training runs and knew me very well. My buddy Derrick from high school learned all the right questions to ask and was a strong supporter on the crew. And then there was Vicki who was a bundle of energy. She had crewed out here before for Carlos Banderas.

With a safe trip to the desert, a good meal behind us, and everything in place, we started the race at 6am. I took it easy for the first stretch, knowing how easy it is to lose the race in the first 42 miles, but how tough it is to win it from there. I stayed steady and solid and actually pr'd the front 42 even though I was as fresh as I had ever been. I did not feel the temps get to high (not above 115) so the cool weather probably helped. There are not many details to give along the next stretch. I hit a low at about 12 midnight and was able to pull myself out of it. For the first time, I saw the dense band of stars that make up the plane of the milky way as I looked up at the sky. It is amazing what you can see out there . . . a quick nap and back at it. I had a few foot problems but we took care of everything as it started and did not let it build. My crew was resting well and taking care of themselves. I was cracking jokes the whole way and everything was clicking. The race itself was pretty uneventful (my crew may say otherwise) but I just kept going and staying strong.

My dad came out to the race to say “hi” and did a mile with me, which was pretty cool. He stayed with us until the Portals to help out. As we approached Lone Pine, my energy dropped a bit but my crew found Carl’s Jr. Some burgers brought me back to life. As we could see Lone Pine, I honed in on two runners just up ahead and gave my best General Patton speech to rally the troops, and it worked. I spun them into a fury and passed the runners within a half-mile. We cranked up to the Whitney Portals in less than 4 hours (which involves some running) and had a brief celebration. I made it from Badwater to the portals, 135 miles, in 38:48 and change with a 10th place overall and the youngest finisher ever (not too shabby if I do say so myself). But I wasn't satisfied . . .

THE SUMMIT

I needed the summit. That first 135 is a tough son-of-a-gun. If that was all there was, I would have been satisfied. But I knew there was a mountain looming over my shoulder and I had to get up it. We took about 30 minutes to re-group and load the summit packs and off we went. It was about 10pm and I was heading up a 14,500ft. summit in the dark with only a little sleep in 40 hours. It was pretty sketchy going up, especially when there was a thin trail that had nothing but a 1,000-foot drop off to one side. I had to pull a few ballerina steps to stay on trail and alive. My legs were strong and even with the caffeine, my mind was a little weary, but not hallucinating. We did, however, forget to re-load on water at our last chance. By the time we got to about one mile from the summit, we had no water left and had not been eating. It was getting colder and we were getting more and more tired. We could either press on and summit and hope to find water soon enough on the way down or pack it in and bail. We decided to press on and ended up finding snow. Mona had brought a camp stove, so we were able to melt the snow. It took about 45 minutes to fill the bottles and bladders and by the end of that time, I was shaking heavily and pretty wrecked. Only one mile from the summit, I almost bailed, but I got a burst of energy (hydration?) and made the last push to the summit. It was 47:48 and change from the time we left Badwater. This is the third fastest a.m.-summit (behind course guru Marshall Ulrich and super-stud Eric Clifton). We had a little bit of an emotional outpouring. It had gotten a little scary up there and it was a long way to have come. We couldn't celebrate too much because we still had to make it down and we were still not in the best shape.

The trip down was hell. I started hallucinating vividly and stopped eating and drinking about half of the way down. I wasn't sure I would make it. It was 55 hours after leaving Badwater. I reached the Portals again and that was when the real emotions came out. I had completed the 8-month journey and was still in one piece. To steal from Jerry Garcia, “What a long strange trip it's been . . . “

I recovered quickly and was running around the parking lot the next day (we have it on video tape). I think a few beers that night after the run helped speed up the recovery curve. We went to the post-race meetings to see how everyone else had done and my friends had all run great races. My crew and I will reconvene in Las Vegas in September to do the real celebration and trade pictures and stuff. It will be my last big "thank you" to them for taking such goods care of me. It is hard to stress how important crew is for this run and they really made it happen.

I’m pretty proud. I am the youngest finisher/buckler/summiter, 10th place overall, 1st to the summit, 3rd fastest AM-summit time, and I even buckled the summit. Yeah, I’m pretty lucky.

If you have the chance to do the Badwater to Mt. Whitney run, do it. Do your homework first but do it. I hope your experience will be as wonderful as mine has been.

Matt Palocsay