Badwater Week

And What a Week it Was

By Scott Ludwig, 2003 official finisher

Following is the report of Badwater participant Scott Ludwig of Peachtree City, Georgia. A Badwater rookie, his crew consisted of Paula May (Crew Chief), Eric Huguelet (Paula’s husband), Al Barker (Scott’s training partner over the past 10 years), Gary Griffin (Scott’s friend and an accomplished ultrarunner from Tallahassee), and Josh (Scott’s 17-year-old son). Everyone on the crew is an accomplished runner. Here is Scott’s story. (Note: there is a reference in the story to a ‘streak.’ Scott has run every day since November 29, 1978—the ‘streak’ being referred to.

Seven days in July. ‘Badwater Week.’ And what a week it was.

Friday, July 18 (-4 days)

Paula, our crew chief, held the final DARKSIDE crew meeting at her house. Gary, Al, Paula and I. Josh? Had to work. Eric? Went to the Braves game. Priorities, you understand.

We went over our final gear check and chronological plan for the upcoming week. It appeared we had our game plan firmly in place. All that remained was the execution. Of the game plan, that is (not me!).

Years of training and months of planning were about to be put to the test. We believed we were ready. And willing. And yes, able. We’d find out soon enough.

Saturday, July 19 (-3 days)

Delta takes us from Atlanta to Las Vegas (by way of Dallas). I’d like to say an uneventful airplane ride, but that would be a lie. As I had been heavily hydrating the past several days, I finished off a 20-ounce bottle of water just before boarding the plane. After sitting on the plane for 30 minutes (we still had not left the gate), I realized I had to urinate. Desperately. Just as I was about to visit the restroom, the pilot announced we were ready to take off and to please be seated. OK, I could wait until we were in the air.

However, we crept along the runway, making my particular condition magnify in urgency. When the pilot announced that we were ‘4th in line for takeoff,’ that was it for me. I jumped out of my seat (figuring I had time, since planes take off at two minute intervals) and headed to the restroom, despite the flight attendant ‘reminding’ me that the pilot asked that we be seated. I told her I couldn’t wait any longer.

While I was inside the restroom, I heard the flight attendant (obviously on the phone to the pilot) saying ‘I’m sorry, sir, he said he couldn’t wait any longer and ignored me.’ Just freakin’ great: two years of dedicated Badwater training down the drain ‘cuz I just know once I exit the restroom I’ll be escorted off the plane. The pressure was so intense that I wasn’t even able to urinate. Upon exiting the restroom, I was relieved (literally, not figuratively) that the flight attendant merely assaulted me verbally (as if I were an 8 year old) about disregarding the pilot’s instructions. I apologized and told her it wouldn’t happen again. Later, once we were in the air, I returned to the restroom, where I was finally relieved (figuratively, not literally).

Once we landed in Las Vegas, we rented our 14-passenger van, dropped off two of the seats (we needed storage space!) at the house of a friend of Paula’s, and made a final shopping trip (cooler, meals, water, miscellaneous items) to Walmart. Finally, we checked into our hotel for some much needed rest (I slept 12 hours—something I haven’t done since college).

Sunday, July 20 (-2 days)

Gary, Eric, Paula and I went for a short run in Vegas. We noticed we were perspiring—something we weren’t expecting considering (a) we were running at a 9-minute pace and (b) there’s no humidity in Vegas. What implications did this hold for Badwater?

We loaded up the van and made the 2 _ hour drive to Furnace Creek, where we were welcomed by temperatures hovering around 120 degrees. Welcome to hell. Once we settled into our rooms, we drove out to the starting line in Badwater, where it was even warmer. Driving back to the hotel, we let Josh out of the van 2 miles out so he could run in to test the conditions.

Gary and I waited for Josh, anxious to hear his report. However, he didn’t need to say a thing: the color in his cheeks said it all. They were BRIGHT RED, approximately the color of a ripe tomato. Later that night, Josh and I went to the pool to cool off. Or so we thought. The water temperature had to have been in the 90’s, and the air temperature was still close to 110. Surely the conditions would improve by Tuesday (race day).

The rest of the evening was spent raiding the hotel’s ice machines and wondering whether or not Al (he was flying to Las Vegas this evening and renting a car) would be able to find us in Furnace Creek. He did. A good omen, perhaps?

Another 9 hours of sleep for me; a good investment for what lies ahead.

Monday, July 21 (-1 day)

A short run to start the day, followed by a visit to the hotel’s breakfast bar. Actually, breakfast buffet is more like it. Fresh fruit, cereal, breakfast burritos, eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, English muffins, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, apple fritters, juices, coffee, soda, water…good timing, as the crew and I were able to load up on some much-needed calories. After all, we would be living on fig newtons and pretzels for the next two days.

We made a trip to the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center at noon to pick up my race number. We met Jay Birmingham, the first man to officially ‘race’ from Badwater to Mount Whitney over 20 years ago. He autographed a copy of his book about his feat, The Longest Hill, for me. I met Chris Kostman, the Race Director, and had my pre-race ‘mug shot’ photo taken. Three hours later my crew and I would return for the pre-race clinic.

Imagine 300 people in a room…for almost two hours…with weak air conditioning…and temperatures outside over 120 degrees. Sound like fun? Sounds like pre-race conditioning, if you ask me. I can’t remember the last time I was that hot (wait—yes I can, it was yesterday!). But you get the picture. We were all familiar with most of the information presented in the clinic—race rules, race history, etc. A short video of last year’s event was shown, focusing on Pam Reed’s historic finish (first female winner of Badwater!). Pam was back to defend her title, and she was assigned to my time group (10:00 a.m., the other two groups starting at 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m.). Pam, deservedly so, was presented with a plaque in honor of her accomplishment. At the end of the clinic, all runners were invited on stage to be introduced to everyone else in the auditorium. It was so hot on stage, my knees started to perspire. Drops of perspiration were literally saturating my shoes. More pre-race conditioning, I assume. 20 painful minutes later, we were free. Unless, of course, you opted to attend the foot clinic. Which we did. Fortunately, Paula felt comfortable that she knew how to take care of my feet should problems arise, but she and Gary attended anyway. Me? I went outside to get Marshall Ulrich’s autograph for a friend of mine. Plus, it was cooler outside than it was in that damn auditorium…

We ate dinner as a crew one last time before tackling the beast. The crew gave me a card wishing me well, with a personalized message from each one of them (particularly Josh’s, which he had signed with the insightful message ‘Your son, Josh’). Early to bed: 9:00 p.m. The game plan was for me to sleep until 6:00 a.m., eat breakfast at 6:30, and then nap a few more hours before we headed to Badwater at 8:55. Great plan.

Tuesday, July 22 bleeding into Wednesday, July 23 (0 days)

Great plan, but terrible execution. I was awake at 1:05 a.m., and absolutely could NOT get back to sleep. I was, however, ready to eat at 6:30 (although it killed me to make another pass through the breakfast bar and only eat 2 pieces of French toast, some eggs, and a few pieces of melon). Such a deal for $8.50. Next on my schedule? A short nap. If ‘short nap’ means lying on the bed staring at the ceiling for 90 minutes, then my ‘nap’ was a success. At 8:55 I was more than ready to go. It was time to get this show on the road, or as one of the support vans had written on both sides, to ‘shut up and run.’ My crew and I boarded the van at precisely 8:55 a.m. and headed over to Badwater, semi-oblivious to what lied ahead. Soon enough I would be totally oblivious to just about everything.

We arrived at the starting area on schedule, just in time for the Race Director to call the runners over to the ‘Badwater sign’ for pre-race photos. We assembled at the starting line around 9:58, listened to the starter’s instructions, stood silently for the National Anthem, and shook off any remaining pre-race jitters. At 10:00, we were on our way to a destination some 135 miles away.

First Checkpoint – Furnace Creek (18 miles)

Pacing was prohibited in this segment, so my crew provided me ‘pit stops’ every mile or two (depending how I felt). At first, the entire crew would tend to me at once (imagine being mugged by five people armed with spray bottles, water bottles, wet towels, a wet shirt, and sun-block—it’s the best description I can offer). Soon enough, they would develop an ‘assembly-line’ rhythm that was much more efficient and effective. I ran with Pam Reed, the defending champion, for…oh, let’s call it four miles…before she pulled away. I was content to run alone, not wanting to expend valuable oxygen by making small talk with any of the other competitors. My sole focus was to move forward…at all costs. I reached Furnace Creek in 3:02, an average ‘pace’ of 10:06 per mile. I changed shorts, shoes and socks, as they were totally soaked with perspiration and water.

Second Checkpoint – Stovepoint Wells (42 miles)

Gary was my first pacer, and he opted to run this entire 24-mile stretch so that he could develop a feel for this event. As we got close to Stovepoint Wells, Gary and I both got to experience what 130 degrees feels like. For weeks leading up to this event we had heard the analogy that the heat ‘feels like putting your head inside a hot oven’ or ‘is like blasting a hair dryer directly in your face.’ Gary and I and the rest of the crew can now say that is exactly what 130 degrees feels like! It was so hot the palms of my hands felt like they were on fire (due to the heat radiating off the road surface). I continually asked Gary to splash water on my hands to cool them off. A crew member for another runner said they put a thermometer on the blacktop road and it read 141 degrees. The soles on Gary’s (brand new!) shoes began to separate, as the heat was melting the glue.

Occasionally a desert wind would blow across the highway. If you’re thinking this served to cool us off you would be mistaken: these desert winds felt like blasts from a roaring fire, and the best thing I can say about them is that they didn’t singe my eyebrows. Even if it felt like they did. We completed our second leg in 6:28, an underwhelming pace of 16:10 per mile. At least we were getting ready to ‘cool off’ by heading up to Townes Pass.

Third Checkpoint – Panamint Springs (72 miles)

OK, so maybe heading up to Towne’s Pass isn’t such a great thing after all. A seemingly endless (18-mile) climb to 5,000 feet. Eric accompanied me for this portion of the course, and the only analogy I can make is that it was similar to walking up flights of stairs for the better part of five hours. Now’s probably not the best time to mention that I detest walking up stairs. I experimented with trekking poles, but it was difficult to say if they were more of a help or a hindrance. Once we reached the summit, I changed (actually, the crew changed) into my running sandals, so that my toes would not ‘bang’ the front of my shoes on the downhills. (I would repeat this for the duration of the event on the downhills) The rest of the crew alternated pacing me once we reached the summit, before Paula took the final stretch right before the checkpoint to allow the other crew members to use our room at Panamint Springs to shower and/or take a quick nap. I mentioned to Paula that I was debating on whether or not I should stop at the room, and finally decided that I did want to take a quick shower and short nap so that I could psychologically divide the remaining 63 miles into a ‘different day’ from that of the first 72 miles. We completed the third leg in 9:04, a robust 18:08 per mile pace.

Intermission

Somewhere around 5:30 a.m. Paula and I entered our room at the Panamint Springs Resort. If ‘resort’ means ‘Norman Bates Motel,’ then, yeah, this was a resort. I took a quick shower (I forgot to remove my watch, so once it got wet it became so fogged that it was of no use for the remainder of the event). I lay down and managed to fall asleep, and the next thing I knew Paula was out of the shower. She lay down on the other bed and said she was going to sleep for ‘5 minutes.’ As we had no alarm clock, I was afraid to fall back asleep for fear that we would not wake up in ‘5 minutes’ and sleep away valuable time. In approximately 90 seconds Paula bounced up and said ‘Let’s go!’ She never fell asleep. I found out later that my sleep consumed a whole 60 seconds. Fortunately, in my mind, I did fall asleep, and I could now mentally ‘divide’ the race into two different days.

Forth Checkpoint – Darwin Turnoff (90 miles)

Eric was called back into active duty, as the next 18 miles were uphill—all of them! There was very little terrain that was even remotely runnable. Eric did a superb job keeping me motivated, focused and hydrated during this period. We even managed to pass a few other runners (climbers?) during this portion of the course. Eric (rightfully so) reprimanded me when I broke one of my race guidelines (‘no wasted motion’) by taking a few steps backward to see a wounded bat on the side of the road. The forth leg took 6:22, an it-could-have-been-worse 21:13 per mile.

It was during this stretch that my crew and I realized just how difficult it could be to consume 300 calories per hour during an ultra event such as Badwater. Up until now, I was taking my Sustained Energy (SE) drink (flavored with Crystal Lite lemonade) for the bulk of my calories, occasionally eating pretzels, jellybeans, or peanut butter to round out my 300 calories per hour. But at this point, I was starting to gag at the thought of drinking any more SE (without the flavoring, it honest-to-God smells and tastes like swampwater). Paula asked me what I would like to eat, and I replied ‘popsicles.’ Al made a quick trip in the extra car to find some. When he returned we were disheartened to find that after eating two popsicles, I had consumed a whopping…30 calories! At that point I began eating small portions: 3 pretzels, 4 jellybeans (‘how many calories now?’), 2 bites of peach jello (‘how many NOW?’). Unfortunately, I had to take ‘a swig’ of SE to round out my 300 calories. Gag.

Fifth Checkpoint – Lone Pine (122 miles)

I don’t know who was looking forward to this 32-mile stretch more: my crew or me. After seeing me walk for the better part of 30 miles over the last 48 miles, they were ready to run (‘run’ in this case meaning ‘get this thing over with’). Paula (our downhill specialist) took the first pacing assignment, and before I knew it we were off at an 8:00 minute pace. I would pick out ‘targets’ from which to run from and to, and would continue this practice over the next 32 miles. With the exception of Eric (who we were ‘saving’ for the final 13-mile climb up Mount Whitney), Paula, Gary, Josh and Al would take turns pacing me for two miles at a clip. This exercise evolved into my first official 32 mile ‘fartlek workout.’ Fortunately, I was on a ‘second wind’ (actually it was more than a ‘second,’ but I lost count) and managed to complete this stretch fairly comfortably in a time of 7:27, a pace of 13:58 per mile. It was during this stretch that Josh got excited and broke a pre-race request of mine (‘don’t tell me how my fellow competitors are doing’) by mentioning I was in 8th place.

Being this late in the race, knowing where I stood wasn’t such a bad thing, as holding my place and finishing in the Top Ten at Badwater was certainly a realistic expectation at this point. An expectation I was fairly comfortable with, until Eric tells me around mile 115 that there’s a runner up ahead, and I should be able to catch him in four or five miles. Josh was my next pacer, and I asked him if he wanted to catch the other runner NOW. He did, and so did I. We sprinted approximately a mile where we caught and passed this runner, one who I had last seen over 100 miles ago. Eric unofficially timed our mile in 8:15, but it felt like a sub-6:00. Gary took the next leg, and Eric mentioned there was yet another runner about a mile ahead who I could catch in four or five miles. Gary and I shuffled along, until we spotted this runner in the distance. As I did with Josh, I asked him if he wanted to catch the other runner now. He did, and so did I. We took off at a 6:00 minute pace (or 8:15 if you believe Eric) and caught him within a mile. Adding insult to injury, we caught him on an uphill. At mile 120. Ouch. (We found out later this particular runner finished an incredible nine hours behind us) Josh took the final two mile stretch into the checkpoint in Lone Pine, where we found out we were now in 6th place.

Paula had prepared some Raman noodles for me, the first food I had in 36 hours that remotely resembled an actual meal. It was heavenly. All five bites.

Sixth Checkpoint – Mount Whitney (135 miles)

As Josh will be quick to tell you, I was absolutely dreading the final 13-mile leg to the portals of Mount Whitney. And rightfully so: after 122 miles of desert and two mountain ranges, making a runner cover these final 13 uphill miles is just plain mean! Eric was once again my pacer, and he did everything in his power to keep me focused, positive, and hydrated. I managed to stay focused, positive, and hydrated—for 7 miles. At that point—6 miles from the finish line—I fell backwards, barely maintaining consciousness. I asked for some more Raman noodles, but Paula had nothing to heat them with except for the radiator of the van. The noodles warmed—slightly—but they were extremely ‘crisp.’ Paula, Gary and Al provided shoulders to (literally) lean on, as there were a few moments I nearly fell off the side of the mountain. Paula was force-feeding me Gatorade, and Gary was continually splashing my head and shoulders with ice cold water. I asked one of them to slap me in the face, but they wouldn’t do it. I guess they thought a slap might knock me totally out, which would put a serious cramp in completing our journey. I continually asked Josh ‘who was behind me,’ thinking that—surely—someone would be passing me in my limited condition. Unfortunately, if someone did make an attempt to pass me at this point, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. Fortunately, no one did.

The last 2 miles seemed endless, as we wound around the mountain with no end in sight. Cars were passing us in both directions, many shouting words of encouragement as we neared the finish line. At least I think we were nearing the finish line. Occasionally I would find myself walking more side-to-side than forward, a victim of fatigue, exhaustion, and (I’m convinced) oxygen deprivation (we were at altitude, remember?).

Eric drove the van ahead to take his video camera to the finish line officials, hoping they would film us as we ‘triumphantly’ completed our mission. He agreed to meet us at a point one mile from the finish, where the six of us would congregate and run the rest of the race ‘as one.’ When we caught a glimpse of Eric in our headlamps, it was a bittersweet feeling as thankfully, we only had a mile to go, but nonetheless we still had a mile to go!

After what seemed like another hour, we saw the lights at the finish line (it was now just past 10:30 p.m.). The six of us ran (assuming ‘ran’ means ‘shuffled sort of fast’)—with our heads held high—through the finish line banner, officially signifying the successful completion of our journey. Hugs all around! Chris Kostman officially told us that we finished in 6th place and we were the 3rd place male finisher. Not bad for a bunch of Badwater rookies. The sixth leg had taken 4:10 to complete, a 19:14 per mile pace. Not bad when you take into account the last two miles consumed a full hour.

I sat down in the official finisher’s chair—surrounded by my wonderful crew—for some final photographs for the website. I literally looked like death warmed over, but I couldn’t have cared less.

We enjoyed our journey, and we were successful. We couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Thursday, July 24 (+2 days)

My crew—God bless ‘em—join me for a 3-mile run (gotta keep the streak alive!). Afterwards, a little housekeeping on the van followed by an incredible lunch at the pizza parlor across the street from our hotel, the Dow Villa. Josh and I split a large cheese pizza, but we eat less than half of it (Josh because he ate everything on the late-nite menu at the hotel’s diner last night; me because my stomach had apparently shrunk over the past two days). I spend the afternoon limping back and forth across the street to the laundromat the wash some of the dirty clothes Josh and I have generated this week. I met the wife of a Badwater entrant (Art Webb) at the laundromat, and she told me her husband was still on the course. (We passed him on our way back to Las Vegas the next morning; he was at the half-way point of the course) as he was experiencing some difficulties (he did eventually finish, however)

All Badwater participants and crew members were invited to a pizza dinner at a local elementary school that evening. We spent a lot of time talking with Pam Reed about her performance and her training. She said she has to run 3 times a day, as she has to manipulate her running around her demanding schedule as a mother of three. I invited her to our 50K race in November, and she said she’d run (we’ll see!) if I’d return the favor and run her race (the Tucson Marathon) in December.

After dinner, a short video of this year’s race was shown. As my luck would have it, there was a special feature on each of the top five finishers (I finished 6th, remember?). Regardless, it was well made and very inspirational (up to the point that it didn’t convince me to run it again).

Following the video, Chris Kostman hosted the awards ceremony. He asked all runners who failed to complete the course to stand, and they were given a rousing ovation for ‘having the guts to try.’ Very deserved. Then, all finishers were called to the front of the room to receive their finisher’s medal and, for those finishing under 48 hours, the coveted belt-buckle. We posed for photographs—I’ve never been in front of so many flash bulbs before—and then Pam and men’s winner Dean Karnazes were asked to say a few words. Chris closed the evening by referring to us all as part of the ‘Badwater family.’

A pretty nice honor.

Post Script: On Friday, we made the drive back to Las Vegas. Obviously, we ‘retraced our steps’ along the same route we had started 3 days ago in Badwater. If I hadn’t already decided I would never run the race again, this would have done it for me. I realized that yes, the heat was a huge factor in my performance, but the mountains were much more significant. We stopped in Stovepipe Wells for a drink, and the heat—only slightly over 110 degrees today—still felt like we were sticking our heads inside a hot oven.

Friday night, we enjoyed a crew ‘victory dinner’ at the Pink Taco in Las Vegas. Afterwards Paula, Eric, Al and Gary returned to the hotel for some much-needed rest before our 6:00 a.m. flight to Atlanta the following morning. Me? I had promised Josh that if I was still able to walk after the race—and at this time I barely ‘qualified’—I would take him to see the casinos before we returned to Atlanta. The four hours Josh and I spent—at MGM Grand, New York New York, Mandelay Bay, Excalibur, Luxor—I wouldn’t trade for anything. Josh was so impressed with the large casinos, the bright neon lights, and the endless ‘eye candy’ the city has to offer. But for me, walking on two severely blistered feet was a true test of my pain threshold (I’m sure I exceeded it somewhere during the night). We finally got to bed just after midnight, allowing me two hours sleep before I had to get up for one last run with Gary before we all headed to the airport for our long-awaited (and triumphant) return to Atlanta.

And yes, you read the previous sentence correctly.