Death Valley – Welcome
By Guenter Boehnke, 2004 finisher
Click here to read this story in German
You, the one with the dry lips, be always on the search for water!
The dry lip is a sure sign
That it will find the spring at last.
This search is a blessed restlessness
It overcomes each obstacle
Is the key to what you desire.
Even if you don’t have a container, don’t stop searching …
Step, step, step, don’t stop. Breathe, breathe in, breathe out, dried air flows through the body.
The finish line, far ahead in the distance, the head as empty as possible, keeping the mind quiet, the emptier the better, less to carry, no harmful thoughts which make it hard to move on. Step, step, step, remain in motion.
Over 50 degrees Celsius in Death Valley, with measured 56.7 degrees Celsius the hottest place world-wide besides the Libyan Desert. Stone desert, dried up salt flats, sand dunes and in front of and below the runners up to over 70 degrees Celsius hot bitumen. Three ascents, starting at Badwater, with – 86 m the lowest point of the western hemisphere, up Towne Pass, over 1,500 m in elevation., then down, up again and at last still another hardly 20 km long ascent to the Mount Whitney Portal at nearly 2,600 m. Overall length of the distance 216 km, for which the runners may not need more than 60 hours.
Already 3 weeks in advance of the Badwater Ultra, Ingrid, my wife, and I arrive, living in a RV, not touching the air conditioning. Step by step we want to get accustomed to the heat, to become familiar with it, learn to love it, is it of course the special trade-mark of the Badwater Ultra, which takes place whenever it is hottest in Death Valley. In addition, I would like to get well acquainted with the landscape and the course, running parts of it to finalize my training, gain experience here and now. Up to the start I am able to visualize the entire distance with eyes closed, have divided it into sections, have run it already 100-times mentally.
However, when we stepped out of our RV at Stovepipe Wells after 6 days, which we spent in the Panamint Ranges and Panamint Valley, the burning sun resting on our bodies, the eyes beginning to get smart by the fiery, dehydrating winds, the scorching breath of a melting furnace, more and more the thought to want to run here becomes stranger, seems unreal. Everything is hot. You want to take a shower, grab the shampoo – hot. You want to slip into your plastic sandals, which you foolishly have forgotten in the sun, it burns your soles. Full of joyful expectation you turn on the cold shower – hot.
About 75 runners will be invited to the Badwater Ultra every year. It is a pure invitational race, for which one has to apply on basis of prescribed qualification standards, however also fulfilling the standards an invitation is not guaranteed. Each runner is responsible for his own crew members including a support vehicle. 2 crew members minimum is a must, who have to support the runner during the entire run, sometimes driving the car, sometimes running along.
12th, July, 6 o’clock, Monday morning at the pool Badwater. No bad water, no poisonous puddle. Only saline water, pitiless exposed to the sun and nevertheless also at this place, so inhospitable for us – life: pickle weed, insects, other arthropods, and the Badwater spring snail, which is known to live only in this one small pool. The Salt Creek Pupfish, which does not exist anywhere else, lives few miles away, in the Salt Creek, which is fed by springs. Over thousands of years it has slowly adapted, as the large lake, which covered once Death Valley, gradually drained, changed to a salt desert, the remaining pools getting saltier step by step.
Still the temperature with nearly 40 degree Celsius is bearable in comparison to the glow furnace of the approaching day. Set up to the group photo, national anthem, then approx. 25 runners get in motion, into a magnificent natural arena, without up-roar, without hanky-panky, cheering crowd or VIPs. At 8 and 10 o’clock two further groups follow, thus keeping traffic low, avoiding crowding and a traffic jam. Altogether 72 participants are at the starting line, including 7 women.
With the starting signal one of the most extreme ultra races world-wide begins, a burr migration facing frontiers of the human bearable. Body and mind, as far as driven by reason, would already give up after few hours, would not even begin this running. However the will, the deeply embodied desire to pass through such an extreme experience, carries the runner, hour after hour, step by step, through day and night towards the finish line. However, up to 45 % of the runners terminate the run before reaching the goal. This year the ratio of official finishers with 79 % is pleasing high, 2 runners finished after the time limit of 60 hours, 14 did not finish.
Air seems to burn, driving the body temperature upward. Internal heat of combustion adds to it, set free during the release of energy, which keeps the runner in motion. Understanding dips off. Irresponsibly.
Step, step, step, constantly moving, breathe out, breathe in. Drink, drink, drink, several liters per hour, may throat and stomach revolt. Despaired, the body tries to escape from overheating, to produce evaporative cold from sweat. Sweat, which is immediately sucked from the skin by the heat, which is blown into flame by strong thermal winds.
The sun, which illuminates the globe for us –
If it approaches little, the whole world burns.
My supporters, Bennie, my coach and winner of the Swiss Gigathlon this year (www-ad-extremum.de), his girl friend Birgit and Ingrid have to carry a heavy load now, begin to cool from the outside, run along, put to me approx. every 7 minutes a wet, ice-cooled towel over the shoulder, soak cap and neck shroud with ice water, hand me a face-cloth, filled with ice, which I carry under the cap on the head. They hope to avoid thereby a rise of body temperature, hope to save me from harm by the heat such as cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Drink, step, cooling, drink, step, cooling, do not think about quitting.
On top of that as an extra burden: the execution of psychological tests, which measure reaction and memory abilities while running, 6-times venous blood removal, measurement of blood pressure, urine samples, measurement of internal body temperature, for which I gulped down a small transmitter, wandering through stomach and intestine, and a row of other medical examinations. Together with 9 other runners I am part of the scientific project Runex123 under the direction of Holger Finkernagel , medical doctor, that among other things would like to examine plasma volume changes and mental and emotional changes in behavior as consequences of extreme prolonged endurance exercise, heat stress, sleep deprivation, and potential nutritional deficit. During the night I’ll refuse the psychological tests, too much I’m engaged with myself, on the next day one blood removal, when I suffer on the long straight lines before Lone Pine under the renewed heat, my stomach revolts.
In the afternoon I reach Stovepipe Wells, nearly 70 km lie behind me. A first, short break then the long ascent to Townes Pass begins, 27 km, 1,500 m in elevation gain. So far I felt well, have been quite quickly on the way despite my 10+5 rhythm (10 minutes running, 5 minutes going), which I consequently kept from the beginning. However, without feeling it, the heat, the wind, they have leached me out, taken energy, which I miss now on the rise. Victory and defeat in this contest is decided on this first 70 km, in the most extensive heat, the one who don’t economize with his strength, who be carried away to go out too fast, without recognizing it, has already lost. No chance to run any more, the body refuses the service, brisk going must be enough. The night comes down, I’m not tired, however, half way up, I’m stuck. Something to eat, lying on the soil for 20 minutes to get some rest, dozing away. My crew keeps an eye on me, I trust them blindly, let myself drop down. As a runner I’m only a small wheel in the gear-box, chanceless without my crew devoted to me.
Go on, up to Townes Pass, then, a wrong bite, my stomach bristles up in protest, empties itself, I feel relieved. Maria, who cares for her husband Angel, offers cooled fruit bites to me, balsam this gesture, an appreciated change. A short rest at Townes Pass, then downhill it goes, at last, running is possible again. 20 km of downhill running, my thighs begin to tremble. Again, my body is leached out, to the third time station I still would like to go, its lights glowing in the darkness I already have in eyes, few kilometers only. However, it is senseless, I hardly advance, laborious my stride. Bennie recommends an immediate break, without any resistance I agree. 45 minutes of rest, something to eat, then on the thin mat, only a sheet covers me, millions of stars above, for which I do not have eyes. Spiders, the deadly black widow, scorpions, snakes, other beasts, it doesn’t affect me, I’m lying on the ground, looking for peace, in order to attain new strength.
Before time, I stand up, forwards. Thoughts cannot be avoided, why only do I this to me? Enjoyment of running, this can’t be, doesn’t find it here. This great landscape, under other circumstances I should be able to absorb it much better. Reasons for giving up, none, despite all the exhaustion, I’m quite all right, those few blisters at the feet, marginal notes. I feel obligated to my crew, they call me “The Desert Fox”, have labeled our van which such ingenious sayings like: “Pain is temporary – glory forever!” and “A goal without a pain – is a dream!!”. Come on, then. Again a rise of about 1.500 m in height. Views back, a headlight chain of support vehicles pulls down Towne Pass, through Panamint Valley, warm comfort, there I was hours ago. Again my stomach revolts, should have its will, forth with it. I drink, must pass water, again and again, my body take up no more liquid, the loss of salt was too much, wasn’t sufficiently balanced.
Again I was becoming a reptile uphill, a powernap of 15 minutes let me awake as a runner again. In the end, downhill again, over 50 km to Lone Pine, on endless straight lines, which I love so much, which seem to disappear in infinity. The Sierra Nevada at left, there lays the goal, glassily in the vapor of a hot day. Strong winds, blowing sand over the road. The run, I would like to bring to an end now, avoiding a second night. Again I run, making use of the 10+5 rhythm, again, my crew has to give their best, drink, step, cooling, drink, step, cooling.
Almost at the finish line, a last ascent of about 20 km to a height of 2,600 m, the state of mind is lifting, the spike of Mount Whitney in front of my eyes, a worthy goal, and behold, my brave heart awakes, less than 40 hours is still possible. Brisk going uphill, Ingrid sets the speed, at her back my eyes suck firmly. She walks ahead of me, as far as she can, then Bennie replaces her. It is done, accomplished. Be roused from the absorption of a long run, from the inmost soul, the runner awakes, newly born, tears pouring. This was not a run over 216 km in roaring heat, up passes, nights through, it was a journey through inner mountains and valleys.
“Rise from the dead, yeah, rise from the dead,
You will, my dust,
after a short rest.”
(Gustav Mahler, 2. Symphony)
The adventure self experience, complete devotion, despair and oblivion during the run, the happy feeling to arrive is indescribable and still after all the years a rare, precious property. Not high enough to appraise, a special experience at this run, my crew, Bennie, Birgit and Ingrid, they were the key to success, them is entitled my thanks, my respect.
From left: Chris Kostman, Race Director, Birgit Dasch, The Desert Fox, Ingrid Ruecknagel-Boehnke, Bennie Lindberg.
Don’t you feel how something awakes inside of you? No? Lean back, listen carefully deep inside yourself, it must not be Badwater to start with.
"The ability to endure beyond perceived limits requires a desire to continue. But now, rather than an act of will, such excursions are an act of faith“ (Jay Birmingham, The Longest Hill, Death Valley To Mount Whitney, 1983).
© Guenter Boehnke, August 2004