Running with the Gods
By George Biondic, 2002 official finisher
It was a Runner’s World article about Marshall Ulrich's run through Death Valley, California, that captured my fascination with the race, Badwater 135.
Then, last year, as crew for Paul Stone I attended the pre-race meeting. I felt like I was an impostor. Did I have the right to be in the company of these super humans, these gods who could cover 135 miles in such an extreme environment?
Still, a few months later I completed my own qualifying race. Further training was delayed due to a serious leg infection. To make things worse all the old leg problems came out to haunt me. The confidence was starting to shake. But if cancer victim Rick Nawrocki did it, I had no excuses. This was going to be total immersion into planning, recovery and training. This was my Olympics!
My wife, Erlinda, and I packed our trailer and left Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, for a six-day drive to the southwest United States. Car problems requiring a new transmission only briefly dampened our spirits. We stopped at Grand Canyon for some serious hill training. Fulfilling Erlinda's wish, we did a double-crossing hike of the Canyon in two days.
After a supply pit stop in Las Vegas, we arrived in Death Valley for the July 4th clinic, “The Jones Experience.” Ben warmly introduced himself at poolside. Soon all the excited invitees and crew were chatting away. We became instant friends with Dave Remington and his friend, Helen Jones. In her caring way, Denise Jones reviewed foot care with obvious expertise.
The small western town of Lone Pine was going to be our home base for the next ten days. I expected John Wayne to come riding down the road. The daily routine was simple: train in the Valley heat and spend a lonely night in the Mt. Whitney Portal’s altitude (8,300 ft.). On one run, I met the friendly Mike Haviland, who was with the friendly Drina, Hirst. He had just finished his own hard workout. We had the good fortune in enjoying Ben and Denise's company.
The much-anticipated day of the pre-race meeting had arrived. This time, I felt I belonged there. Dave Remington came over with a gift, a rather expensive shirt. Moved by this gesture, I promised to wear it. Among the international field of athletes was Marshall Ulrich, an incredible specimen of fitness with an equally impressive list of achievements. The charming and unassuming world-record-holder, Monica Scholz, came in with her mom. Pioneer Al Arnold, the first to have completed the route back in '77, held everyone's attention. When Ben introduced me as the person who most represented what the race was about, I was stunned. Did an ordinary guy who just worked hard deserve a nod? But there was no time for an inflated ego. The crew and I rushed to a nearby hotel, where, over dinner, we reviewed the details of our strategy. They were pumped and jovial. Later I would find out that Erlinda, because of all the responsibilities and excitement, would not sleep for the next 70 hours. Affectionate hugs and well wishes were shared with Paul and Abby Stone.
Next morning, like clockwork we drove to Badwater, 280 feet below sea level, for the 0800-start. The first wave of runners had already been released at 0600. One by one these galloping golden Gods waved as they flew by. At the start, events were moving quickly. I had a brief stretch and then a stop in the outhouse, affectionately known as Ben's office. Then I made a dash to the Badwater sign for a group photo and another, at the start-line. Then, with a kiss from Erlinda, a hug from Denise, and thumbs up from the guys, I stood ready savoring the moment. Thirty proud and united souls were ready to take on this monumental challenge. The start was both civilized and majestic. Ah, the joy of running. Freedom. Wide, blue sky. My body felt light but powerful as I skimmed the winding road over dips and curves. The awakening desert was bright with optimism. Race director, Chris Kostman, zoomed by on his motorcycle keeping an eye on things.
Easily we moved to the first station, Furnace Creek (17 miles), a palm-treed oasis. The crew consisting of Tony Bridwell, Larry James, little brother Joe, and Erlinda checked us in and topped up the four critical ice chests. Then we entered the death zone. The scorching sun brought all runners to a walk. The Continent's highest temperature enveloped us. It was 125 degrees in the shade, if you could find it. Survival took top priority. Soaking cloths with water and ice and drinking was our defense. Frankly, the beautiful sand dunes got little notice. At the Stovepipe Wells (41 miles) station the media mixed questions with pictures, as we ate, stretched and rested. Some small, unfortunate miscalculation would keep 25% of us from proceeding. It could happen to anyone.
The first "hill" rose 5,000 feet over the next 18 miles. Two miles up the lights nearly went out for me. The crew sat me on a chair, placing ice on my head and neck. With wobbly knees we inched our way up wards. On the shoulder of the road, in her van and surrounded by crew, Ernie Rambo appeared to be in trouble. "Good luck, Ernie" was all that came out, in response to her faint smile. Denise was making her rounds to see if we were OK. As soon as sun dipped below the mountains everything changed. Tony with Clydesdale power paced us yet kept the conversation light. Strength returned. The full moon shown so brightly that a flashlight was not necessary. Towne’s Pass (59 miles) brought on great exhilaration. Jack Menard and his crew were not about to hold back. Their joy was quite contagious. We rapidly moved down into Panamint Valley, drinking and eating as much as possible. Without losing a beat we pushed through the next station at Panamint Springs Resort (72 miles) and up the next hill. Our goal was to reach the top before sunrise and the dangerous heat. Just slightly ahead, Jody-Lynn Reicher was bounding effortlessly over stones and shrubs. The 180-degree pavement heat had penetrated through her shoes burning her feet and thus forcing her to the difficult shoulder. Now I started to fade. Her advice to focus on the horizon helped greatly. Still, the time came where only yards from the crew, I came to a stop. No muscle could be willed to move. The gang moved quickly. Some pumped liquids and energy gel into me while others broke ugly blisters and cut out the edge of my shoes to relieve pressure. As he passed by, Marshall Ulrich offered help. In minutes we were on our not-so-merry way. Lone Pine (122 miles) seemed to be on the other side of the planet. As he was driving by, Ben instantly calculated that a 40-hour finish was attainable by continuing at a 22:18 pace. Our spirits were lifted again, upon entering the town. The crew worked franticly to get ready for the home stretch, the last 4.600-foot hill. Again the setting sun made it easier. Tony was doing everything for me, except walk. Larry, while joking around, was supplying drinks and food. Erlinda was comforting with her soft, soothing tones. Joe, a brilliant strategist, kept track of the distance and time remaining to get under 40 hours. Mile after mile I repeated the mantra "I can do this". It was working! Over the last few yards we held hands unified by this great achievement. Just before midnight, we crossed the finish line, utterly exhausted, but completely satisfied. I was oblivious to the great news that a woman (Pam Reed) had won in record-breaking time. As we drove down, I kept fading in and out of sleep, in mid sentence. At one point we stopped, when Jody-Lynn Reicher, in her amazing way, pushed an energetic hand through the window in congratulations.
The post-race get together was filled with lasting stories and sweet emotion.
A few hours later, upon Ben's encouragement, I returned to the finish line. I was there in the darkness to hike the unofficial 11 miles and 6,300 feet to Mt. Whitney's summit, solo. By noon, on the 14,497-foot peak, I was basking in perfect sunshine and relaxing in conversation with fellow Badwater runners Linda McFadden, Barbara Elia, and Jan Levet (crew). I gave someone my camera. With one hand pointing at the lens and the other over my heart, I said, "take one for my wife". For the first time I lost control of my emotions and then wept. The summit was so seductive that it would have been easy to spend the day there. But there was no time to waste. I had to get off the mountain and get to safety. Between the altitude and the rationing of food and water, I drifted into a catatonic state. I was a horrifying bag of bones. The return was a slow, agonizing step at a time. Just minutes before nightfall it was over. Humbled. I was reminded that we are mere mortals just straining to be like Him/Her. I hope He/She approved of our efforts. For a while we saw a little bit of Him/Her in each other's faces and actions. What a thrill!