Out of My League, or Home at Last?
By Vito Bialla, 2002 finisher
The first time I went to Death Valley to train for the world's toughest Ultra marathon I realized I was out of my league. I ran four hours in 110-degree heat when I started crying for no reason and my nose started to bleed. I'm going home, end of discussion.
When you sign up, if invited, they make you sign a death waiver. The pavement can get to 200 degrees, and heat can get to 135-plus during the race. I've done stupider things, but can't really put them to print. The thought of running for 2 days and 2 nights with 13,000 vertical feet and a 4,700-ft descent, from the lowest point in the US to the highest, caught up with me. “Going home. End of discussion. I made a mistake.”
The fear sets in. Fear of failure, ridicule and anger. All that training of running up and down Mt Tam with a backpack in the ski parka, and sitting in the sauna endless hours will go to waste. “Nahhhh.....suck it up, you wimp.”
I train 3 more weekends in the desert. I start to get it. Two weeks before the race I run 7 hours in 120 degrees and love it. Confidence is a good thing in a race like this, humility even better.
Race morning we drive the support van to the starting line 18 miles away. Rich Clark, my training buddy, is with me. He holds almost every Ironman course record in the world in the 60+ age category. Joe Amato, one of my best friends for 30+ years, is in the back. I call Joe the Human Calculator. He also knows how to piss me off if I need it. I found this out playing golf and chess over the years where he routinely humbles me at both. Just in case I need a little prodding I know it will descend on me if I dare start to whine. Mental is 100% of this race. To have the best crew is even more important. We become so interdependent on each other physically and emotionally throughout the event it is hard to describe. They are the real heroes. I'm merely the one stupid enough to have signed the death waiver.
Ten miles from the starting line I see two Germans running and warming up. I once again question the IQ of the company I'm in. (It turns out they weren't just warming up; they were just finishing running 135 miles from the finish line before the race even started!) Lots of activity at the Start. Pictures, Discovery Channel, interviews with Runners World, endless press. You get the feeling they are interviewing morons who are on a one-way path to ...well, Death Valley.
They have 3 staggered starts to spread out the field. We are the second group and go off at 8am. The first 40 miles are flat but also the hottest part of the course. Logic says, “Conserve once you get through this part--you have a nice 5,000-ft climb of 13 miles, so why run hard now?”
We have a long-term plan and are sticking to it. Start slow, walk a lot, shuffle along, drink a half-liter every mile. Stick with your diet as planned. Temperatures were recorded 126 in the shade, but you can add 10 to 15 degrees in the sun. Around 4-5pm is the hottest part of the day. Here we shuffle past sand dunes and Devils Cornfield with a nasty 20-naut breeze in our ear. The sun is now setting and square in your face. The front of the shoes are ever so hot. I try hard to keep my heels in the back of my shoes…feet are on fire. Stove Pipe, first checkpoint: 42 miles, 11+ hours. We move right through it. As we start the climb there are some thirty vans parked here--racers taking a break, some drop-outs, some Bonk-ers. We never stop, instead move right through the checkpoint. Many racers run a mile, stop for a minute or two for water. The Human Calculator, Joe, says, “Hey, that's 135 stops and takes over 2-4 hours off your time.”
We believe strategy is the key for this race. I keep moving. They bring me the water. I think, “A smart crew, combined with a sense of humor, is a must.” The next 6 or 7 hours are straight UP to 5,000 feet. We have a full moon, experience many strange shadows and encounter many racers along the long climb. On a particular 1-mile stretch there are about twenty of us having a barfing contest. I'm in front of this parade of athletes and vans and am convinced I won First Prize: First in “Volume Discarded” and First in “Sound Made in the Process.” Seals would have been jealous of us of our tenor talent.
During the race, we call home as often as we can, but cell phones don't work out here so wife Linda is enduring 8- to 10-hour intervals between updates. She is the liaison between our friends and family. She is taking care of Ben, age 4, who is not really safe to be here in this heat.
Around 2 or 3am, just short of the summit, I decide I need a 5-minute nap. They wake me up 52 minutes later. “Yikes! Why so long, Guys?” “You needed it,” came back the answer.
I took a total of five or six 5-minute naps, which seemed to work wonders. I was able to fall asleep in about 2 seconds. It worked wonders for my energy level during the race. The descent is short and very steep. It was around 90-100 degrees during the night and very comfortable. Rick shows me a lacing trick so I don't slide forwards in my shoes. My blisters, though, do need attention, but I wait 'til the sun comes up. 6am: Dr. Rich the Surgeon takes over. Blisters on the balls of my feet get cut, drained, taped and sanitized. We lose 7 minutes then head across the second valley.
We go through a long, barren, sandy stretch. Joe hits golf balls as I shuffle by. He manages to find the only bush in the valley. The humor is high, the spirit outstanding. We get dive-bombed by fighter jets, just like in the movie Top Gun. Nice break in the routine. Fascinating to see them zip by 100 yards above the ground. Rich and Joe go ahead to replenish ice and supplies at the next checkpoint. I order eggs, toast and real food. I wolf it down in 5 minutes. Off we go. Back up to 5,000 feet in a long and winding ascent we climb. Much like what you see at the Tour de France.
It is early afternoon the next day and hot, hot, and hot! We pass a few athletes, as we seem to get stronger as the day goes on. Thirty hours of racing. Joe plays the radio over the walkie-talkies. The Dow is up almost 500, and Lance is kicking ass on the Tour de France. The cell phone finally works. I call Linda on her cell phone hoping she won't answer. I can't handle that love stuff right now. Need to stay tough and focused. The slightest “I love you” from her would make me melt, so I tell her, “I love you,” instead and pass the buck. Glad I have my sunglasses on so my crew can't see my eyes.
We reach the next summit, and it is a brownish haze. Somewhere out there is a 34,000-acre wildfire ablaze. We smell it, taste it, and see ash flying. The sun sets at 3pm in a dark mango color. Eerie feeling. It feels like we are on Mars. This long, gradual downhill stretch seems endless. When I tell my crew based on my calculations I don't think we can make the 48-hour cut-off to get the prestige buckle award, they seem rather calm about it. Do they know something I don't know?
When I tell Rich, “I want to run a while, lace up and help me,” he is almost adamant about me walking. We run anyway. When he tells me Joe's calculations are off by a mile, I get more suspicious. The Human Calculator doesn't make mistakes. They are sandbagging some time. I don't say a word.
It’s dark as hell now. The moon is full, but dark orange. There is no depth perception. The stretch goes on for eternity. Run a little, walk a little, run a little ...
As I bend over to stretch, I look at the pavement and there are thousands of bats flapping their wings, all in 3-D. I pee in the sand, and the entire ground turns into living plant life moving up to knee-level. Everything around me is in motion. I hallucinate for the next 8-10 hours. During the night I experience the most fantastic visual experience I've ever witnessed. (I know. I went through the 60’s!) Plants and bushes turn into dinosaurs snapping at me as I go by. I see pianos and furniture in the middle of the road. Physically, I'm fine, but the visual deserves an Oscar.
Finally, we hit Lone Pine now. Start heading up towards the 8,000-ft finish line. We have 14 miles to go and 7 hours to do it in. This seems absurd, but the race manual says, “Be prepared to do 1 mile an hour.” It is that steep. We figure if we do 40-minute miles we can still buckle. Rich, who’s been on the road with me for 26 miles now, laughs and we all get giddy. Joe's humor is endless. He gives us our stats as we head straight up Mt Whitney.
We do the first mile in 17 minutes, the second in 17 minutes, Mile 3 in 19 minutes. We are flying uphill. “It's in the bag,” or so we think. We back off and settle into 20-minute miles. Four miles to go. I need to sit down. I sleep instantly while sitting up. I wake up seconds later and freak out, “Let's go. Let’s go.” “Take your time,” Rich let's it slip, “you got more time then you need.” They conned me the last 24 hours, always putting time in the bank. We have 3 hours to do 2 miles. What a team, what a crew!
I'm numb as I cross the finish line, too tired to cry. I am overwhelmed and still not fully comprehending what has transpired. Maybe as I unwind I'll figure it out. Right now as I sit on a plane to London with family I feel like a servant of the gods who was allowed to play in their backyard for a couple of days and survive.
Total time: 45 hours, 52 minutes, 6 seconds.
20th Male finisher out of 64 (21 did not finish).