Badwater Threepeat

By Ruben Cantu, three time finisher

I have run the Sun Precautions Badwater Ultramarathon the last two years. Both years I ran the race in 42 plus hours. Since that is considered a good time for a runner my age (now almost 60), I was thrilled with my finishing time but felt I could still improve it. So this year I went to Death Valley with the intention of trying to break the 40-hour barrier. It should be spelled “bearier” because it is a bear.

Considering my last two finishes as quite successful, I thought I had Badwater and Death Valley figured out. Piece of cake. Just go out and stay focused, drink the normal ration of Gatorade and other liquids, pee a lot and everything will be OK. I eschewed the idea that runners need supplements so I never before took any like those “other” runners. All I need is my Gatorade, which I drink by the gallon, and it will provide me all of the electrolytes and sodium that I need. BOY was I ever wrong. I have said many times that you can never be sure of how things will go in Death Valley, I simply did not listen to myself. Just when you think you have the right formula, the rules change and everything goes bonkers.

Now that I have had time to analyze and think about what went wrong, I have a story to tell. I have written an article about my experiences after each of my two previous Badwater finishes. This year I had decided that if all went as before, there would be nothing new to write about. As I said, I had this race pegged. But this story has something to tell and perhaps help other runners from experiencing what I went through.

Heat? I did not think this year, 2002, was as hot as 2000 or 2001, but it sure was humid. I was not ready for the humidity brought in by a thunderstorm that was expected but did not materialize. However, the humidity that accompanies a thunderstorm was certainly present. The heat index must have shot way up because I was unable to maintain my electrolytes at a normal operating range and by mile 36 I was starting to cramp. First I felt my hips tightened up and then slowly my hips and other parts of my body started cramping. I did not see it coming on until it was too late. I found out that cramping is a major symptom of electrolyte deficiency.

Besides my hips cramping, whenever I stopped to rest, my legs would also cramp so I decided to not stop. I was definitely slower than the previous two years and was slowing down even further. I had gained time over the last two years going into Furnace Creek but lost it all even before I got to Stove Pipe Wells. I had never experienced electrolyte deficiency before so I was totally unaware of my problem. I knew I was hydrated as I was drinking my “normal” amount and was urinating regularly, fairly clear urine, which is a sign of proper hydration. I needed time to recover but time down lessens the chances to “buckle”, that coveted carrot.

Jane, my crew person in charge of monitoring my medical condition, suggested that I take a break and try to determine what my problem might be and take care of it. This meant getting a room at the Stove Pipe Wells’ Hilton. She volunteered to go up ahead to Stove Pipe Wells and get us a hotel room. I was in denial so refused to give in and acknowledge having a problem. When I finally agreed to taking a break, it was almost too late. Jane did manage to commandeer a room for me in which to shower, lay down and recoup. Unknown to me, my son Kevin had queried the race’s medical team concerning my condition. The doctor immediately recognized the symptoms and recommended he pump e-caps into me. E-caps are these “magical” capsules that provide the electrolytes your body requires when it is stressed by the conditions under which we were running in Death Valley. Kevin and Heidi started feeding me e-caps in my drinks without my knowledge, thank God, because had it not been for that, I don’t know what the results might have been.

When I finally crawled into the hotel room I got into shower before I laid down to rest and rehydrate. The water in the shower was on full cold yet the water temperature never cooled below about 105F degrees. After the mid 120s outside, 105 was not too bad. I laid down and immediately my body started cramping from my back down to my toes. It might have been the right thing to do but I was concerned about my time and not being able to continue in the condition I was in. Everything cramped whenever I moved. Again Jane came to my rescue. She massaged my cramping legs and was a major factor in my ability to continue.

After about one and one half to two hours and gobs of e-caps shugged down with copious amounts of Gatorade, coke and water my body quit cramping and I was able to sleep for a couple of hours. Kevin and Heidi then went out to our crew support vehicle and made bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, which we devoured and washed down with more water, coke and Gatorade. By this time it was getting time to continue and so we did. We left Stove Pipe Wells (mile 41) at about 12:40 AM Wednesday morning.

The rest of the story, as is often said, is history. I ran/walked for the next 24 hours and managed to limp into Lone Pine (mile 122) by very early Thursday morning. Then we slogged up the Portals Road in just over four hours to finish in a very good time, considering the problem the day before. Final finishing time was 45:56. About three hours slower than my slowest previous time but considering I spent six hours in a hotel room, I am again very happy with my overall time. Great crews are hard to find but I have always managed to find the right crew for me. They were wonderful.

What is next? Well, if you think running for 45 hours in Death Valley in July is crazy, as is the general consensus, wait until you hear about my plans for next year….