Badwater: It seems Foolish at First

By Joe Prusaitis, 2003 finisher

At first glace, it seems a bit foolish: to run 135 miles across Death Valley in July. But, if I go for adventure, an education, and some answers, what then? No doubt, it will be exciting. I will certainly know more when I'm done. But really, all I want to know is, ‘Can I do it?’

Joyce and I land in Vegas and escape quickly into the Amargosa Desert. We turn off the highway at an old run-down gas station that might be all there is to Lathrop Wells. With Devil's Hole on one side and the Funeral Mountains on the other, we enter California and then Death Valley. The road ripples ever so slightly downward, snaking thru the desert while the heat visibly radiates off her back. I know the desert has a life of its own, but the only thing moving are the dancing heat waves. There are no trees, the brush sparse and scattered. We drop below sea level as we enter Twenty Mule Team Canyon and arrive by noon at Furnace Creek Ranch, our home for the next two days. The large thermometer out front says 120.

As we step out of the car, the heat slams us. The air is hot and the wind even hotter. My body soaks up the heat and begins to dry out fast. I need to feel something cool on my body so I head strait to our room for the shower. I can't seem to figure out which knob is cold. Hot water comes out of both. One of them finally cools down to warm. With no relief in the shower, we crank up the air conditioner and sit in front of the vent. Joyce looks at me with a questioning look that I can’t answer. This is gonna be a bitch! I try to sleep but can’t get comfortable, a headache developing. I give up and go for an early dinner. They bring us a pitcher of water before we ask: same as they do for everybody else. We were expecting Rich by now, but flash floods from last night’s rare desert storm have washed out the road on Towne Pass. They reopened the pass, but his truck broke down. Finally arriving after dark, we meet his wife and brother for the first time. Rich wrote the book 'Death Valley 300'. He ran over and back. His wife Rhonda had also done the Double. Rich's brother Drew had also. Joyce has paced and crewed in dozens of 100 milers and knows me better than I do. I could not have a better crew.

An early breakfast is followed by a logistics meeting about food, fluids, electrolytes, clothing, shoes, crews, vehicles, shifts, and so on. And not just for me. The whole team will be out there in the heat. Rich and Drew on one crew, Joyce and Rhonda the other. I’ve made advance reservations at hotels in three of the four towns on our route, and there’s a limited supply of ice in each of them. Our car is the shuttle for ice, as well as hot meals, and sleep. The truck will stay on the road with me. Rich is our field general. This is his team and he’s in charge. He’s been here before and knows what the desert will do to you. I on the other hand am just the runner. My decreasing mental capacity only allows for me to answer questions concerning pee flow, what color it is, and how I feel about it. They’ll suggest to me what I should do and if I don’t agree, then they’ll find a more subtle way to do it anyway. This should become easier and easier.

To the visitor's center for race check-in at noon, I pick up my number and let them know I’m here. Short and sweet, we’re back at the ranch for lunch before 1pm. Everyone’s required at the 3pm briefing, so the room is packed: runners, crews, medical, media, and race organizers. It’s a bit long and a bit hot, but this is Badwater and it seems to fit. Driving slowly back the short distance to the ranch, Joyce and I see a coyote walk out of the desert and cross our path. In no hurry, he glances at us and continues across.

Rich brought along his white desert jammies for me to use. The hat has a long brim and a wrap around veil to protect my neck and face. The shirt has an open collar and sleeves that extend past my hands. They’ve made many trips across the desert. I’m honored to wear them. The gang’s busy all evening, Rhonda slicing watermelon and cantaloupe, while Rich and Drew organize the equipment. The boys are soaking wet from hauling heavy ice coolers and boxes. The girls will nurse my feet, so they inspect and discuss their current condition while I lie about and watch TV. Joyce can't sleep and sits up to watch an action movie, and I can't either because I’ve been just lying about. Eventually the show ends and we fall asleep.

The field of 73 starts in 3 separate waves, with the fastest going last. The 6am group is going out as we drive in. The fast group begins at 10am, while our group goes at 8am. Badwater Basin is a shallow pool of saltwater 282 ft below sea level hiding in the shadow of 5000 ft Dante's View. It’s very comfortable, until we start running. The mountain shadow stays with us for awhile, but the sharp edge of it is clearly visible in the distance. Daydreaming, my thoughts drift until suddenly I’m blinded by brightness. The feeling is startling! Moving from shadow to sunlight, I’m slammed back to reality. The air temp catapults past 110 and continues to climb. The wind coming off the black asphalt burns. I attempt to run off road, but it’s more work than I care for. Waiting at each mile, Rich asks a few questions and studies me, gauging my status. The crew every mile seems a bit much for now, but I enjoy the fresh cold drink, and the ice cold bottle feels good in my hands. I can’t possible drink the whole thing before I see them again. Running easy, controlled, keeping my head and hands covered, I drink at regular intervals. Before long, my stomach gets a hard lump that feels bloated and rides up under my ribs. Coming into Furnace Creek at high noon, it’s taken 4 hours to go 18 miles.

They’ve created an oasis in the shade of date palms. Stripped to shorts and laying on a cot, the girls wash me down with ice cold rags. One of Rich’s many tricks is the scum bucket: rags in ice cold water. After a short rest, the girls check my feet while I eat. The only hot spots are leftovers from last week's Hardrock: two small toes on the right and the pinky on the left. Rhonda patches them with care and Elasticon. Rich suggests the long white desert pants now, because it’s getting hotter. An hour later and revitalized, they send me back.

The girls have gone ahead to check in at the Stovepipe Wells. It’s another 24 miles and still below sea level. The boys take the day shift, serving fresh fountain drinks with sides of watermelon, cantaloupe, and grapes. The service is very good. Despite the hot wind blowing very hard, Drew holds a large beach umbrella to block the sun while Rich serves food & drinks. They do this a couple times, but stop I think when they decide I’m stopping way too often. I suspect they think I won’t stop as often if I’m not quite so comfortable. At 6pm Rich tells me its 130 degrees and the hottest Badwater on record. He asks how I feel and seems impressed that I can still create sentences. As the sun slowly approaches the horizon, the sky lights up, and the air begins to cool. A gentle slope dips down into the valley prior to Stovepipe Wells. The team is in serious discussion and doesn’t see me coming. Must be shift change. The girls are back and have dinner, so I sit down to pasta with chicken while they patch my feet, both heel and sole. None of the roadies are working, so I try the trail shoes. They’re all I have left. Next move will be to cut parts of the shoe off.

The wind has been there all along, but doesn’t dominate until after dark. The calm evening turns ugly and miserable with sand. Faces in the flying sand chase each other across the road and through my light’s beam. And under them, scorpions roam the road. I know the sand spirits are my mind’s playful eye, but the scorpions are real. I tell Joyce about them and wonder if she thinks I’m starting to hallucinate. I turn the flashing light I wear strait up so I can be seen but not blinded by the dark space between the strobes. The wind shoves me about until I'm exhausted by the time I arrive in Stovepipe Wells at 42 miles. It’s 10:30pm and I need some sleep, so they take me to the room where the boys are asleep and put me to bed too. At midnight, Joyce and I leave quietly, so as not to wake the others. Thankfully, the wind has died, and although it’s not as hot as it was, it sure isn’t cool either.

Joyce and I leapfrog with Mark Cockbain, Scott Weber, and their crews. Partners in pain, we share ice, watermelon, and a word when one of us passes the other. 18 miles of steady uphill to 5000 ft Towns Pass. The sun rises on us long before we summit. Rich and Rhonda arrive in the morning, sending Joyce to get some sleep. A natural funnel leads out of the mountains directly to this spot, where the flash floods came through and washed out the road. Smashed into the asphalt on a blind turn is a very large scorpion. My mind wanders: first light, early morning, seeing things more crisp and clear that usual. My eyes are hyper-focused, surreal, while my reactions are hyper-slow, everything in slow motion. My body is asleep, my mind dreaming. This must be the time of every morning when I fall into my best dream state, because I’m there! Paying no notice to my pains or the cars going by at high speed, I float uphill very quickly.

The road rolls across the narrow summit and turns decidedly down. My momentum builds as the road tilts more steeply. My walk becomes a jog, then a run. My body’s confused, sending contradicting signals to my brain: I feel great, this hurts, my stomach aches, the wind feels awesome, and so on. But everything’s overruled by my need to keep my feet under me. Anyway, I’m moving fast for a change. I buzz by a few amazed people who likely think I’m insane for sprinting off this mountain. Rich goes ahead 2 miles because I’m running so well and there aren’t many places to pull over. For 8 miles of steep descent, I stop for refills only. As the slope flattens out and goes strait across the dry salt flat to Panamint Springs, I lose my momentum. The cool morning is gone, the downhill is gone, and so is my water. I can see for miles and watch the truck go further and further away. Reduced to a walk, I’m done, but he doesn’t know. I yell at him to stop, but he can’t hear me. Jets roar overhead, pounding the air with supersonic sounds, while I silently melt down. I study them sitting on the tailgate while they study me walking in. It was only two miles ago that they last saw me looking fresh and full of life. The miserable wretch that walks in surprises them. I sit down behind the truck and lay my head on the tailgate. Rich, ‘You’re going too far’. ‘Ok’, he says, ‘I’ll back off’. Trashed, I drag the last few miles into Panamint Springs by noon. At 72 miles, we’re half way!

Again, I strip down and lay in the shade. Unlike the last time, there’s much less shade and I’m far from comfortable. Left to myself for a bit and then taken to a room in the hotel, Rich says I have an hour. I need to sleep so I can handle the next long climb. It’s a swamp-cooled room, but there’s no chance of sleep. A very noisy runner and crew moves into the next room. Even though I’m lying in a comfortable bed, I feel as if I’m still out there on the road moving. The girls bring me a grill cheese sandwich. They cut and tape my blisters while I eat. They’re worried about my progress. With half the time gone, I'm only half way. I need to pick up my pace to make the 60 hour cutoff. If I go any slower I'm done. If I stay the same, I'm on the edge. I have to go faster to create some sort of comfort zone. There where only 9 people behind me when I came into Panamint. Most of them are ahead of me now. I'm either last or near to it.

Rich walks me back to the road, explaining the situation. It’s time for me to go faster and I have to quit sitting every time I come in. I have a long stiff climb directly in front of me and the road is canted such that I have to walk up against the guardrail for a level surface. I finally have some cloud cover and feel pretty good out of the direct sunlight, so I set a good pace and keep it going. After going through a few water handoffs, I surprise the boys by sitting in a ditch to rest my feet while finish my Ensure. Makes no sense to stand up while I’m not moving. I feel really good charging the switchbacks and start to build some momentum. Rich teases me about my new high speed pace, a 15 minute mile. I surprise them in a quick series of turns, tossing my bottle into the cab as I go by. Drew has to runs me down in his bare feet to hand me a refill. A different world waits on top at 4000 ft Father Crowley Point. It’s cooler now, with rain clouds above a gentle rolling road. The boys go ahead to collect our rooms at Lone Pine, and the girls are back for night shift. Dark clouds yield a spot of rain here and there, and finally I get lucky, attracting a good downpour. It’s the one and only time I run past the truck and need nothing at all. I don’t wish to stop while I’m wet for fear of my body temp spiraling downward. It turns into a beautiful evening and a colorful sunset. I pass by some Joshua Trees that create some interesting silhouettes in the setting sun. They look like anything but trees.

After dark, Joyce joins me on the road. She wants to run for a bit and share the road experience with me. After so many hours of being left to my self, it’s nice to have her company. It’s too dark for me to tell if the road is flat or hilly. Joyce tells me it’s downhill, but Rich led me to believe it would be a steep downhill. I’m going easy, waiting for the last big down, but Joyce says this is the down. We discuss it for minutes before I reason out that she just drove this road during the day and should know. I’m finally convinced that I misunderstood Rich and this is the hill. Once reasoned out, I feel obligated to run again. We pass Darwin after 9pm at the 90 mile point. The rolling downhills continue and I'm still running well. Bats start buzzing us. Just one at a time, but one is near us for more than a few miles. I feel good for awhile but slowly, my feet really start to hurt. A little at first, then more and more, until I slow to a hobble. I have to get off my feet, so Rhonda gets the chair out every time I come in. I ask Rhonda if she can cook some hot broth or chicken soup. She needs some time to figure it out, so she drives ahead about 2 miles this time. It’s the best meal I’ve had in days. I slurp down the whole pot. She also checks my feet and discovers a couple large blisters. A repair job and a few painkillers have me running well again. My pace picks back up and quickly. In the darkness, the road seems to go on forever. All we can see are the occasional scorpion and the bats that buzz our heads. I ask for more hot soup and when I get to the truck, Rhonda has a surprise for me. I sit in front of the tailgate, which she has covered with a towel. She pulls the towel away to display a row of soup cans. ‘Your choice’, she says, with a smile. It’s hilarious, but I’m very serious about my selection. I slurp another full pot of broth at the next stop, and continue on in wonderful spirits. I have no idea where we are until we pass Keeler at 110 miles, just 12 miles from Lone Pine. Joyce stops me to see a rather large scorpion, translucent under her green light and very much alive. Now she’s checking the ground and air every time we stop to pee.

The boys are back at 4am. Rhonda heads to bed in Lone Pine but Joyce wants to stays on the road with me. She intends to run with me to the finish. Mark is back also. We drift back and forth with one another, visiting his crew and him. The thought of the sun rising on another flat salt bottom starts me running again. To the amazement of Rich and Drew, I push the last 5 miles into Lone Pine very hard. Mark starts running too and stays just behind me. The Inyo Mountains rise strait up out of the desert east of us and keeps the sun off our backs even after the sun has risen. Free sunlight: light without the cost of heat. The sun finally rises above the mountain's horizon just as we enter Lone Pine at mile 122. Rich thinks I need some rest before the final push to Whitney Portal so they roll me into our hotel room and put me to bed at 7:30am on Thursday. They give me an hour and then once again the girls cut and patch my feet, prior to sending me out the door.

The Lone Pine checkpoint is one block past our hotel. I pass by at 9:15am. I take note of Mount Whitney as I wait at the traffic light to cross the road, my last turn. This road ends at the portal. With only 13 miles to the finish, I now know for certain that I will finish, and so does my crew. Not that we ever got heavy handed or over serious, but now the mood is all jokes and laughter. A lightness in my stride, and it seems, more bounce in the crew as well. It has been a long haul and a feeling of accomplishment is felt by the whole team. We have been successful. What we did worked. I questioned them many times, but rarely ever challenged what they suggested. I am after all, only the runner: dumb from sleep deprivation, extreme heat, and way too many miles.

Joyce remains by my side as we power hike up through the Alabama Hills. The landscape is phenomenal. All the rocks smooth and round, stacked one on another in unusual patterns. It’s all very pristine and comfortable. A noisy bubbling brook cascades next to the road. It’s still quite hot, and the backs of my legs appear to be burnt up, so Joyce covers them with sunscreen. I down an entire bottle of water before we climb the first mile. Joyce goes ahead to get more for each of us but it’s steep enough to keep her from going much faster than me. I’m feeling pretty strong for my 3rd day. My feet are so numb I no longer feel any discomfort. The steepness of the slope becomes easier as we reach the long strait-away and I can now see the switchbacks a few miles ahead. A large dark cloud mass hangs over Whitney and her neighbors. I’ll be in their shade once I reach the base, and maybe even some rain.

At the start of the switchbacks, I stop for my last sit down after climbing the first steep step. I drink my last ensure and start my coke diet. I leave behind my hat and my water bottle for the last three very steep miles. Joyce & I charge the uphill, slowly pick up speed, and start to pass others as we surge on up. As the switchbacks get steeper, I seem to be getting faster. I’m only walking, but I’m not sure I could run up this beast much faster than I’m walking. It feels so comfortable and efficient. I stop at each mile only to slug down another coke and some water. Trees! For the first time, I see trees. It starts to sprinkle a bit of rain and I feel my first cool breeze as we enter the trees. Rich drives ahead to find a parking spot and to be at the finish when I cross. I start seeing parked cars and think we’re there, but we still have another steep switchback to go up. Pushing as hard as I can, a start running, but I’m forced by the steepness back into a fast walk. Screaming with anticipation, my rhythm all akimbo, I break into a run when I finally see the finish. Joyce is right next to me as she has been for the last 50 miles and the smile stays on her face now even when she starts crying. Everything I feel is bottle up inside, too tired to do more than grunt. We cross the finish at 1:15pm with a time of 53:15. I can finally sit down. The crew was the best! The weather was the worst! I loved it all but I will never come back to run 135 mile road race in Death Valley during the summer.

The Benyos where wonderful. The support and friendship I received from them was more than I could have asked for. They gave me a week of their valuable time while I attempted this completely irrational quest, something that they fully understood. They became good friends along the way. I will not forget what they did for me. Some of it was heartfelt and some of it was funny enough to keep us laughing for years. Joyce was her usual exceptional self. She continues to support me as I continue to wander about. She ran the last 50 miles of Badwater with me after running 25 miles of Hardrock with me. Her smile is infectious and her desire to see me succeed only drives me harder. All my minor conquests would mean nothing if I could not share them with her. All our adventures are worth more than gold, and held forever in our minds. For myself, I felt more for those around me than I did for myself. There was no enlightenment as well as no hallucinations. Death Valley has an exceptional beauty if you can see through the heat, and the environment itself is something to experience. I had heard of it since I was a child and was always curious. I was anxious to get here just to see and feel of it. Now I have a personal picture of it, not much different than what I expected, but now it is real. It is mine!