The Last Lone Runner
By Arthur Webb 2003 honorable mention finisher
Large boulders are strewn everywhere and rivers of mud and rocks are flowing down the canyons and across the roadbed as flashfloods generated from the remnants of a tropical storm have thrashed parts of Death Valley. Especially hit hard on the Saturday afternoon blitz is the area around Townes Pass and the Panamint Salt Flats, which may have been an ominous indicator of more trouble that would hamper my journey only days away.
On Sunday, as our van inched down the steep Echo Summit area above Lake Tahoe, we were hammered for 15-minutes by a thunderstorm filled with powerful winds, rain and marble-sized hail. Not only was there the fear of the front windshield imploding from the vicious pelting, but also the threat of being swept off the hillside and down the steep ravines by the treacherous winds. Is there a message here?
There was definitely some concern, as we were on our way to compete in my sixth consecutive 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon. This footrace, which is considered the toughest single stage competitive event in the world, starts in the middle of Death Valley, at Badwater, and runs across two mountain ranges before finishing at the Portals, halfway up MT Whitney. To win a prized belt buckle it must be completed in less than two days.
After safely reaching our destination in the desert on Monday, we had some fun and laughs at the pre-race meeting in the Furnace Creek Auditorium. After a comical speech by Ben Jones and race director Chris Kostman covering all the ground rules, the building began to get stuffy and rather warm. As the runners congregated for group pictures on the overheated stage, it was even hard to breathe. I had to leave the building and go outside where it was 120-degrees, in order to cool off. I am not sure but I believe that I was supposed to have ended my sauna training last Friday.
When I stepped outside my room at the Stovepipe Wells Hotel at 5:00 am, I immediately knew that it was going to be a very special and daunting day. Although the sky was clear, it was humid and extremely hot. I could already see heat undulating in front of the magnificently sculptured Sand Dunes just across the street. The tape that was holding the inspirational messages to the side of our van was beginning to peel off. The black ravens, which have somehow mysteriously survived in this harsh environment, were panting and listing on the ground in the shade of the sparse salt cedar trees. They had no energy to fly to their normal resting and baking spots in the trees lining the complex and along the telephone wires that are strung between the poles and attached to some of the buildings. That’s probably not a very good sign. Even the six and eight o’clock starters would have no early morning relief.
For safety concerns, there are three staggered starting times to help prevent the seventy-six runners from bunching up along busy Highways 178 and190.
It was now a sweltering 110-degrees as I mingled with all the runners and their crews at the Badwater sign just minutes before the 10:00 am start. Although it was hotter than usual, my major concern was the missing sea level sign that had always been prominently attached to the craggily side of the Black Mountains, 280 feet above our heads. It was gone. I thought someone had stolen the landmark. It was hard to believe that even out here in the middle of nowhere theft runs rampant.
I will have a word with the Mayor of Badwater, Ben Jones, and possibly First Lady, Denise Jones. Maybe they are slipping. Taking it too easy. Living the good life. Let it be known that another California recall may be in order. Maybe I will challenge him with my campaign platform, "No more crime at Badwater and no more sacred cows". All I need is two or three votes. With a Badwater population of zero we will probably have to stuff the ballot box in order to pull this thing off. A few million dollars in campaign funding should help do the job. Send lots of money. Cash only, please.
Just seconds before the starting countdown, as the National Anthem is played to honor all the runners, I am a bit concerned about the dried out feeling on my lips and inside my mouth. This is usually an early dehydration symptom. Impossible. I have to be waterlogged from the constant drinking over the last two days. Maybe it's just a side affect from the humidity or simply nervous energy. Just in case, I drink two more bottles of water just before the gun goes off. Slosh, slosh, slosh.
The 17-miles to Furnace Creek are euphoric, as the endorphins kick in and I run and chat with lots of different people. Want to have some fun? Run thirty-five miles with Chris Frost. He will make it interesting and you will definitely stay loose. Not only did we joke around but we also appreciated the incredible beauty of the desert basin and the magnificence of the colorful mountains surrounding us. It is one of the main reasons why we are out here. In retrospect I should have stayed with Chris the entire way.
Actually everything was going rather well. The heat was not bothering me, too much, even as it began to climb into the 130-degree range. It was still bearable. I had sauna trained for months and was fully acclimated. Besides, my crew, Roman, Jason and my beautiful wife, Christine, who are alongside me the entire race in the van, were attempting to keep me cool by spraying me with super-soakers or draping my shoulders with wet iced-down towels.
I arrived at Stovepipe Wells (42-miles) in decent shape by gorging on plenty of water, electrolytes and eating a variety of high calorie nutrients. For a general cool off and refresher I made an attempt to rinse myself off in the shower by the pool. Gads! I almost scalded myself from all the hot water flowing out of the cold tap. The searing heat of the day even made the water in the pool, the railings and the deck too hot. No relief here.
After a brief respite and a bit of socializing with a few runners and their crews, I started the gargantuan task of climbing the 17-mile grade towards Townes Pass (59-miles). Without exception this area has always been the hottest part of the race. It was now over 130-degrees and the winds coming down the pass made it feel as if I was in a firestorm. The heat was incessant, ferocious and almost intolerable. It kept bearing down on me and there was no escape. Even the 170-degree sauna I had trained in was not this suffocating.
As I began the climb, I started the walk four minutes and then run four minutes routine. It has been the key to my success, on this part of the course, the last few years. I was feeling strong and all my body systems were working properly. So far so good. As darkness began to settle in, I was also looking forward to the cool of the evening. Unfortunately that was never going to happen.
At the Emigrant Station (50-Miles), I decided to take a short break. As soon as I sat on the stoop of the van and had a sip of O'Doul's, the lights went out. It all happened in a nanosecond. While I was away the Grim Reaper visited me. Although I felt like I was already in hell, unless we were heading for heaven, I wasn't ready to go. I still had this race to finish. When I woke from dreaming or from wherever I had been, I was screaming, yelling and clawing. A crewmember that was holding me up was receiving the brunt of my blows. Actually, for a few moments, I thought I was gone.
My crew immediately laid me on the ground with my feet up. Once they found my pulse and I realized that I was still alive, I felt okay. But only for a few moments, because soon everything began to spiral downhill. During the next half-hour I threw up and had bouts of diarrhea. Over the next five hours my crew and several medics tried to take good care of me and used everything in the book to help me recover. They administered a mix of ice, cold drinks, wet towels, food and encouragement. Yet, to no avail. I had a similar problem in the past but was able to start again after an hour. Not this time. Something nasty had its hooks in me and was not about to let go.
Although it was not very easy to watch, Lisa Smith passed by yelling for me to get off my butt and get going. My crew thought it best for me to wait and be patient a little longer. Though I tried to resist, because I did not want to waste precious time, I stayed put. I was still feeling terrible. Marshall Ulrich, who was having his own problems, soon stopped by showing some concern. I figured I could tag along with him and somehow muddle through. I struggled with him for an hour and a half and then I could go no further. My tank was on empty. I have never felt so bad anywhere or at anytime. It reminded me of an extremely bad flu episode.
We drove back to Stovepipe Wells looking for relief. The hotel looked like a triage center. Runners were being attended to everywhere. I refused an IV because there were only a few left and others were more in need. Besides, getting fluids from a needle in your arm disqualifies you, and I still had every intention of finishing this race. A bed was available in one of the rooms where other runners were sprawled out, but it was hotter in the room than outside. It was four in the morning and it still had to be at least 110-degrees. It was time to get out of here. It was too depressing.
We headed for Lone Pine where we had another room. Even though I was able to cool off at the Dow Villa Hotel, my body was never really ready to extend itself. Half a dozen times during the day we either started back or drove the 67-miles to move my marker forward, but with little success. The heat was scaring me and I would get weak and nauseous anytime I started to run or walk. Things were not looking very optimistic.
Although sleep deprived and completely washed out, I could not rest or settle down and I kept tossing and slashing about in bed. All attempts at recovering were futile. It was becoming more and more evident that I was not going to be able to finish this Badwater Race. Depressing. After many months of intensive training, I thought I could handle anything. Nope. What went wrong? Maybe it was severe dehydration, or the heat, or some bug, or the law of averages that finally got me. Although I don’t know what really happened, I do know that this had become a major nightmare.
Did Not Finish. A piercing, devastating and crushing blow. A sword to the heart. Three little ugly words. Demoralizing. After twenty-five years of running hundreds of races, I was about to earn my own personal albatross, a DNF. It's not really what I had in mind, but maybe I could hang a big red flashing neon sign around my neck. Perhaps "Scarlet Letters" emblazoned on my chest. Humbling.
I needed to make something positive happen and soon. So, early Thursday morning, still fatigued and mentally depressed, I began to trudge up Mt Whitney. After faltering for the first four or five miles, I began to feel a little better as I went through the switchbacks near the top and it began to get cooler. I was in awe and completely mesmerized by the stark beauty on this climb, especially on the trail along the Pinnacles on the West Side of the mountain. If you are looking for inspiration it can be found here.
On the peak, while sitting on the rock beside the summit plaque, inclimate weather moved across the area. For ten minutes cold wind, rain and lightning lashed the mountainside and I began to freeze and turn purple. I didn't care if a bolt or two struck me. Cold to the core, I was finally feeling much better. The fear of going back into the heat was now gone. It took some time for me to see, but all at once I realized what I had to do. Did not finish was becoming tolerable but quitting was never, never, ever going to be acceptable. I walked over to the logbook, which is stored in a metal protective container next to the small cabin, and wrote, "It was now time to go back and complete this Badwater Race for the kids". And that's what I am going to do.
Now that the mountainside was all wet, I was afraid that I was going to really hurt myself as I slipped, slid and fell numerous times on the way down. It didn't matter. I would hobble across the course even on crutches. I couldn't wait to get back to the hotel to tell my wife that we were going to go back to my marker and finally finish this thing off. I didn't have to say a word. She already knew. She saw it in my eyes.
Early on Friday, after icing-down a few coolers for the fourth time, we headed for Townes Pass. I picked up my marker at 10:00 am. Since I was still shell-shocked, bruised and bedraggled from the first day blitz and the Whitney scramble, I started by gingerly working my way to the top. The first few miles I walked and jogged little baby steps until I became more fluid and relaxed. Once I crested the pass I ran all the way down the backside of the mountain and to the edge of the Panamint Salt Flats where I took a break for a few minutes.
Hot winds were continuing to whip across the valley. In order to keep from drying out I started the wet towel draping routine. My physical condition was still in question, but I knew that once I crossed this valley, I should begin to feel better as I edged my way up the cooler steep winding eight-mile mountain pass.
During the early miles, when I was still trying to get rid of all the aches, pains and cobwebs, a hand full of runners on their way home stopped by to shout greetings and words of encouragement. While I was struggling across the salt flats, four miles from Panamint Springs, the last of the cars stopped and out popped my Guardian Angel, Monica Scholz. Not only was she ecstatic about my being back on the course but she also gave me enough Ensure and Red Bull to fill my depleted supplies. Before leaving, she gave me a big hug and told me to charge the hills. Okay Monica, that's what I will do.
Reinvigorated, inspired and heeding her advice, I ran to Panamint (72-miles) then all the way up the mountain to the top at Father Crowley's (80-miles). I had never done that before. The stage was now set. I would run about ten-miles then take a five-minute rest on the stoop of the van just to make sure my vital signs were stable. The last thing I wanted to do was to crash hard again. We did this all day and night and I ran every step of the way including the first five miles up the Whitney Portals Road where I finally ran out of gas. I put on my CD player at the Death Valley Park entrance sign (85-miles) and listened to music the entire way. I was communicating with my crew via walkie-talkie.
The forty-miles I ran during the night was complete bliss. It was soothing comfort to have my wife and John Rodgers beside me in the van and hearing the soft and relaxing music from the “Whitney Houston" album as I watched comets streak across the sky that was now filled with millions of brilliant stars. Like candles burning bright, the lights from the van on the road ahead guided my way. Only a few cars passed by the entire night. Everyone else was gone. I was the last runner on the road. And, it didn't matter. Here all alone on Friday night, I was in my own piece of heaven. I felt terrific. I never wanted it to end.
We parked on a side street in Keeler (108-miles) for a midnight snack and a bit of reminiscing. I crashed hard here my first year but was able to continue after being iced-down. One year we were all treated and skewered with fresh 200-degree asphalt that was recently laid on the highway, just in front of this small burg. Two different years, hot ash and dust filled winds, which were created from huge fires from high up in the Sierras, blew across the dried out Owens Lake and obliterated Keeler. I remember having trouble seeing and breathing. I have seen great prehistoric creatures crawling and soaring across the desert and then disappear into the dark of the night. Great stuff. It's what that makes this Badwater Race so special.
After running into Lone Pine (122-miles) and part way up Mt Whitney, I finally had to walk. Actually I was attempting to see if I could run the entire race including the last 13-mile difficult uphill grade to the finish line at the Portals. But the wheels were coming off as cramps and two screaming Achilles Tendons were hammering me. So I just limped the last eight-miles.
As fatigue settled in and my weary mind began to spend more time conjuring in its surreal compartment, I became transfixed on the Alabama Hills that surround the area. There are thousands of huge boulders stacked haphazardly on top of each other like a fragile house of cards. I had visions of pulling one of the smaller rocks out of the pile and watching them all fall apart, crash to the ground and then tumble, rumble and roar down the mountainside into the valley below. As the ground began to shake, I drank a frappuccino. It was time to wake up and get this thing over with before I was swept away. Whoa! I must say that there is only one thing better than a Badwater hallucination and I was way to tired for that.
My wife and John joined me for the last mile. Near the end, I usually begin to mentally and physically shut down, and the emotions start spilling forth. But not this time. That would happen during a private moment at home several days away.
We crossed the imaginary finish line on Saturday morning at 09:00. Alas, the deed was finally done. Completed. A fait accompli. There was not as much exuberance as years past. Except for a few high fives and some pictures, there was little fanfare. It was more reserved, solemn and somewhat anticlimactic. Although I was flushed with a sense of pride, I made a conscious effort at keeping the “celebration” low keyed and tempered. I did not want to overplay what I had accomplished this week. After all the original goal was to buckle by finishing this race in less than 48-hours. That didn’t happen.
I have now been home for a few weeks still working on the healing and recovering phase. The swelling and pain in my feet are almost gone. The pain to the ego will probably last much longer. Although there is some lingering emptiness and disappointment, everything turned out okay. On the bright side, I was reunited with some old friends and was fortunate enough to meet a bunch of new people. I was able to enjoy the majesty and immense beauty of Death Valley and MT Whitney. The 80-miles I ran in 23-hours was the fastest I had ever run that difficult section. It was made easier by alternately consuming Ensure, PowerAde, Power Gel/GU, Crystal Geyser Water, Red Bull, Frappuccino, a few Cheetos and E-Caps.
A few days ago I received an e-mail from race director Chris Kostman. He congratulated me on what I had done. And, in the spirit of Erika Gerhardt, who I personally watched fight off an emotional breakdown just before she climbed the Whitney Portals for an unofficial finish during the 2000 Badwater Race, Chris was sending me a finishers medal and T-shirt. I received them in the mail yesterday. The medal is beautiful. I honestly don't know if I really deserve this prestigious award, but I won't be sending it back either. It is now displayed on the wall just in front of me surrounded by my five other Badwater finisher medals. It is one of my most prized possessions. It has made me feel good about what I did.
I saw the kids that I ran for today at the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home. I walked into their classroom with my head held high and my heart in my throat. The visit was fulfilling and a little emotional as I gave them heartfelt thanks for all their inspirational drawings. My gift for these young kids who have had the most difficult of times, was not so much about winning, or medals, or ribbons, or did not finish. It was more about did not quit. It was about honor and standing tall. It was about character building and giving them a sense of pride. It was about setting an example with moral decisions based on the dignity and respect for the human spirit by doing the right thing and always finishing whatever one starts. Hopefully they understand.
Thanks to Chris Kostman and his support team. It just gets better each year.
Thanks to my wife, Christine, and John Rodgers who stuck it out with me to the bittersweet end. This race is all about the crew.
Congratulations to all the runners who really "finished" this race. This one was as tough as it gets.
Congratulations to Pam Reed for her extraordinary achievement. And, especially, for being so humble about it.
Thanks to Ben and Denise Jones for their hospitality.
Thanks to Lisa Stranc, MD, and all the other medics whose concerns were genuine.
Thanks to Lisa Smith, Marshall Ulrich and everyone else who stopped and gave me encouragement. It made a difference.
A special Kudo for Monica Scholz. Your zest, vigor and sincerity helped inspire me to complete the course. I certainly owe you.
It was a privilege to be part of the 2003 Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon.
I can't wait until next year.
I will be back.