Steven Silver @ Badwater 2002
By Blade Norman, crew for 2002 finisher Steven Silver
Why would an otherwise sane individual stand at a brick wall and repeatedly bang their head into said wall? The answer to that question is obvious. Because it feels so good when they stop. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. Now, why would the same sane person keep coming back to the Badwater 135 mile Ultramarathon for the pain and punishment it dishes out three, four, five and now even six times? Well, that one is a little harder to explain. But that's what Steven Silver of El Paso has done and he now ranks number three for the "most BW buckles" and somewhere near the top of the "biggest badass" list. It's my duty as this years crew chief to file the report, so here goes. Names have not been changed, so as to incriminate the guilty.
Last year was the fifth Badwater for Silver and I was privileged to serve on the crew with Jim Wolff as chief and Steve James/Laura Bernal as the other crew understudies. This year it was up to me to direct the dance. David Bliss and Lisa Stranc-Bliss were the other two chaperones this time (from Chicago) and we all hooked up in Vegas two days before to prepare for this year's carnage. Badwater requires preparation out the wazzoo and I had taken good notes last year. It's just a shame I didn't remember to bring them along for this time.
Steven had secured an Astro Van for the journey (same as last year) and we made the require stops at "Sam's" and "Albertson's" on Sunday to stock up for the coming death march. Anyone that is considering a try at BW should be forewarned that the runner and crew must be prepared for self-reliance. You are expected to provide all your own support on this desert trek. There won't be anyone out there to wipe your asses for you, or give the runner chocolate and gummie bears along the way. Remember mostly that water, ice and Gatorbarf are worth their weight in gold and you can't cool down with or drink gold. As it turned out, this year was a hot one even by Badwater standards and the DNF ratio was high with approximately a quarter of the field dropping out. I think that the heat of the first day particularly, played a big part in this.
We arrived at Furnace Creek on Monday and attended the pre-race meeting. Chris Kostman had his usual warm and caring demeanor about him and a special part of this years' meeting included an appearance by Al Arnold. (The first man to successfully complete BW back in 1977) Ben and Denise Jones gave their talks/ other celebrities were introduced and all the playing around was pretty much over... Time to shut up and do it. We ate dinner and went to bed. Ten a.m. and it's time for Steve's start...We had already seen a few runners come through Furnace Creek before we drove down to "Hell on Earth". No pacers are allowed now between BW and FC so Steve and the other runners trudged off on the first section unaccompanied. We took our vehicle ahead about 2 miles and got ready for the first of countless pit stops. Steve had said that he wanted cold water only for the first 17 miles into FC. There would be plenty of time for Gatorbarf and other goodies as time progressed. This year's secret weapon was "Sustained Energy" endurance powder. It's made by the Hammergel people and mixes with water into a milky white muck. Good stuff though... Now in retrospect, we can say it delivered as promised and kept Steve from bonking calorie-wise.
So it's drive a little ways, stop and prep water/refill the water cannon and repeat. Pretty much the same as last year except that I'm the one in charge instead of Wolff. It's damn hot already and as we drive forward and park each time it affords the chance to see how the other runners/crew are tackling their task. Of course, we were doing shit right and everyone else was doing it all wrong. (ha) Right before the start some crew person had come up to Lisa and asked her "Was one ice chest enough?" and "How many bottles should their runner drink every hour?" I wouldn't swear to it, but somehow I have the feeling that bunch probably was a DNF.
A little short of 3 hours, we had made it to Furnace creek. The first checkpoint. I ran into get extra ice and David pulled over to the gas station to top off the tank. No need to at this point really, however my feeling is to take advantage of every resource available. Steve was going to sit down and eat something here, so why not get ice and petrol too? Lisa's job was to check our runners' feet at this point. It had already been decided that there was to be no whining about bloodied and blistered feet this year. Bitching and crying was not to be tolerated. As head hard-ass, I would see to this. The second rule was that there would be a tight rein kept on the breaks. Less than 15 minutes and Steven was headed back down the road with Lisa pacing now.
I can say right here, another important key is to keep the pacers fresh by swapping out frequently. The runner is going to be fried by day two. That's a given...but if the crew can remain relatively fresh it's a big plus. I remembered this distinctly from last year. David took a turn pacing, then I ran with Steve... back to Lisa. This would more or less be repeated ad nauseum for the next 38 plus hours.
Somewhere past FC Steven started swapping out water for an occasional bottle of the Sustained Energy brew. Also, we began using the gatorbarf at this point and continued to use the water cannon liberally. I remember from last year Steven bitching about how much the section between FC and Stovepipe sucks but this year it was different. As we ran and walked we joked about the heat and speculated on things to come. For example, we weighed our chances of viewing Curt Maples puking his guts out by the pool at Stovepipe again this year. As it would be, we would not enjoy that treat until somewhere up the Townes Pass climb. The Major did recover and finish this year though, so I guess the purple pedialyte worked. The Major buckled with about a 47:20 I believe, so I lost that bet.
Other highlights along the stretch to Stovepipe include the Devils Cornfield and the Sand Dunes. Last year, Jim Wolff had chastised me for taking a squirt too close to some kind of rare desert grass in the Devil's Cornfield but this year I was a "Good Boy". I'm proud to say that we were all ecologically friendly. Well, except for that big desert spider I stepped on but nobody has to tell Wolff about that. The Sand Dunes were magnificent again this year and as we finally neared Stovepipe Wells a few "dust devils" were spinning out on the flat areas. Most of the section between FC and SW had seen temperatures in the 125 to 128 range. Time to prepare for the next big pit stop and as Steven made his way in on the last mile I drove ahead for gas and ice.
It was over by the pool now for Steven and Lisa, while David and I got gas and ice. There was a lot of action at the store and I had to elbow some old crippled lady out from in front of the ice machine, as she was trying to get the last few bags (not really!) Meanwhile, Lisa was working on Steve's feet and forcing him to down a bottle of Sustained Energy before we left. I walked over to the pool and dove in for a quick cool off. I got straight out and told Butthead we needed to go. We had spent nearly 30 minutes here now and I was determined not to waste any more time. We were leaving Stovepipe ahead of last year. So far, so good....
Now begins the long arduous climb to Towness Pass. We had made up the time gap on several of the eight o'clock starters by now and were into the "leapfrog" mode with several others groups. It was dark by the time Steven crested the top of TP and I mandated that no stop was to be enjoyed here. We had been swapping pacers frequently and things were going reasonably well. I got out for my turn at running and Steve and I moved on down the backside of TP. The front side of this long climb is basically a power-hike and on the backside you can cruise nicely in the dark. It flattens out as you proceed across a salt flat and Panamint Springs can be seen for quite a ways in the dark. This year there was a full moon and you could really have run without lights. (Except for the safety factor)
Last year coming into Panamint, Steve had hit his first major "bad patch". I remember him feeling sick and lying down at the side of the road during this section and it seemed to take forever to get to PS. There would be none of this bellyaching, this year. Before long it was time to check in at the Panamint time station and mark another milestone. Panamint is seventy-something miles into the run so you know that you've got more than half of it licked. There is a also a guesthouse at Panamint where the runners can rest. Steve was going to be allowed a thirty-minute nap. No more. Often, this is a point where runners take a significant amount of down time and even bag it in. Not for our group though. We woke Steven and told him his 30 minutes were up. (It had really only been 25, but this was an old crew chief trick I learned from Wolff, last year.) Daylight was coming soon and it was time to head up the 13-mile climb to Father Crowley's point. We moved out from Panamint... The section from PS to Father Crowley can be described best as "a bitch of a climb". It has beautiful views in the early daylight but you have to be careful... This can also be a dangerous section because of some tight turns and severe drop-offs as you wind your way up to 5000 feet. We made strong progress over Father Crowley's point and into Darwin Valley. There are several rare types of desert plants now and some of the rock formations appear surreal. At one point David commented "You know, somehow that pile of boulders just doesn't look right". In fact, there are many areas on the BW course where you find yourself asking, "how in the hell did that occur?" I'm sure some kind of a rocket scientist can probably explain it, but I can't.
We finally reached the Darwin Cutoff at mile 90.1 just before 11:00 am. It was time for another major pit stop to work on feet, force Sustained Energy down Silver's gullet and check the time board. This is one of the three places on the course where you make a turn, I believe. Badwater really is a simple race, isn't it? There is certainly no need for marker ribbons or glow sticks. Oh yes, we also forced Silver to change shorts and shirt here at the Cutoff, as he stunk to high heaven by this time. Note to self: Next year bring nose clips...
So it's into Owens Valley and on toward the 100 mile point. It was heating up again and I knew that our ice was not going to hold up. We started making plans to leave Steve and a pacer walking with the remaining ice and haul ass up to Lone Pine for more. This was what we had to do last year and we were almost to that point now. But the BW gods had pity on us this year and with perfect timing our prayers were answered. Coming down the road in the opposite direction was a Coachman RV and the driver stopped, yelling out the window... "You guys want some ice!?" Well, that was a big no shit and he then opens a freezer in the back and hands us 2 bags. We thank him and he heads off further down the road. I guess someone had sent him out from Lone Pine to help. He certainly made our day.
Now our group was stoked. Nothing could stop us now. (Except maybe the 50 kilometers or so left to the end.) It was now that we began to notice the smoky haze in Owens Valley. Normally you can see Whitney up ahead from far out, but not this year. Fires in the forests west of Lone Pine were making the otherwise pristine view appear more like the air of Mexico City. As it would be, we could not make out the outline of Whitney this year until about 4 miles from the turn into Lone Pine. A dust storm also kicked up this year at the stretch just past Keeler and things were slowing down. Each mile seemed to take forever now and I knew that we needed to get to the turn badly for the psychological lift it would give everyone. We passed the Dolomite slant and then crossed the bridge over the creek east of Lone Pine. Last year, it was here where we were attacked by blood sucking mosquitoes. No repeat of that fiasco, this time and it was now only 3 miles to the turn. As we came to the turn, David and I left Steve/Lisa to head into the Dow Villa checkpoint and drove quickly into Lone Pine for final duties. We checked into the room where we would crash after the assault on Whitney was through. Then we went into the check point room at Dow Villa to let them know Silver would be coming soon. Finally, I pulled over to the McDonalds to grab a hamburger for Steve, as he requested before we left.
David and I head backwards now and meet up to Steve and Lisa just coming into town. It's over to the Dow Villa check-in and then two more blocks to the turn on the Portals road. He enjoyed a quick sit down and the burger as I got a couple of blinkers and lights ready for the final push. It would be dark soon and we were now ready. Last year it took over 4 hours to march the 13 miles up the mountain, but this would not be allowed this year. David took the wheel of the van and drove ahead as the rest of us began climbing. Up, up, up... the three main switchbacks loomed ahead and as the sky darkened, the moon appeared as a glowing orange ball due to the forest fire smoke. The temperature was dropping now as we gained altitude. Silver pressed on to his six-peat destiny. Lisa and I offered encouragement as the groups' hero fought on up the switchbacks. "We go into the woods just around the corner now and then it's only 2 more miles..." Steve proclaimed as we finished the third switchback. "We'll be there in 30 minutes".
"You're full of shit Silver..." was my response. "It's still at least 3 miles so get your ass in gear or we'll be out all night". Everyone was in sleep-dep. mode now after 38 hours. We were functioning now on pure adrenaline and excitement and finally we entered the woods. David was stopped up ahead and as we came by he asked, "how much farther is it?" "This is it...Drive up to the end and find a place to park and get out. We all want to be at the finish together" In reality it was still closer to one more agonizing mile and as we drew ever closer Steve would ask "Is this it?...Where is it?...What's that sign say?...Did we make a wrong turn?"
You'd think that after six times he'd know but everyone gets brain dead at the end and the anticipation is excruciating. Finally parked cars on the left came into view and we ran down to the finish. Steven crossed the line in 38:36:00 as 5th overall male and now 6-time BW finisher. His time was nearly 2 hours better than last years' forty-plus hours, despite hotter conditions and the lung searing smoke on the second day. Of course, he had the best crew/crew chief on the course. (Eat your heart out Wolff...) It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.