Badwater 2004 Race Report: Robert Wimmer #34
By Sebastian Bär, support crew
Click here to read this report in German
Left our hotel in Stove Pipe Wells. We’d started preparing and packing the van last night and continued doing so as of about 6.00 a.m. this morning, we’d also made sure we had ice, etc. It’s obvious that the team is a little nervous, but on the whole every movement is well thought out and professional. Robert has had a good night’s sleep and is feeling on top form.
- Robert Wimmer / ultra runner
- Sebastian Bär / Head of the BÄR team
- Tom Aigner / sport academic with HSZ
- Juergen Ankenbrand / experienced ultra marathon acquaintance of Robert, German ex-pat of 42 years standing, lives in Surf City, CA., aged 63, knows Robert from TransEuropa run
- Christopher and Audrey Bunn / photographers from the USA
- Jürgen Müller / film and video, has also participated in the TransEuropa run
Arrival in Badwater, the lowest point of the USA (282 feet below sea level), where we also meet up with Marc Cotnoir of Rogers, a ccmpany in the USA and a co-sponsor we managed to secure for this event. Rogers supplies us with the Poron and Senflex materials we use in the Performance marathon shoe. He is a runner himself and can’t believe what Robert plans on doing here. There is already a great deal of media interest in the project and various major US TV stations are onsite. Even now the heat is already beating down relentlessly.
And they’re off! A group of approx. 25 runners make their way over a stretch of 135 miles, taking them right through Death Valley. Other groups with the same number of runners had already started at 6.00 a.m. and 8.00 a.m. We’d met those groups too on their way to the start. There are approx. 80 runners all together.
10 miles later
Robert’s team support had evened out after the first 2 to 3 stops: we stop about every 1.5 km to give Robert ½ litre of fluid (alternating between electrolyte, Frubiase and water) and a gel containing carbohydrates, banana, grapes, melon, energy bars, bottles of vitamins, etc., again always in rotation. We also spray his neck, head, arms and chest with cold water every time. Now we want to rub sun lotion into him again, as the sun is unbelievably hot the way it is beating down, so we tell him to stand still, to which he replies in his typical Franconian dialect: “Nee, i bleib net stehn!” (No, I’m not going to stand still!).
Christopher Bergland is leading about 1 km ahead of Robert Wimmer. Temperature approx. 52°C. Robert is keeping to a pretty even tempo.
The first timing station is here. Robert is talking a little less now and there’s a noticeable tension in the air. Not that it’s a negative sign, he’s not doing badly at all, but the burning heat is still registering 52°C on the thermometer. Pam Reed and Dean Karnazes, both of them favourites to win this race, are nowhere in sight at the moment. They’re probably biding their time towards the back and hoping that someone at the front will suffer a setback.
The gap between Robert and Christopher Bergland is slowly closing. Now we give Robert some slightly diluted Red Bull to give his psyche a bit of a boost.
At Robert’s instigation we swap his LAST inner sole for the Performance inner sole. The LAST sole is proverbially flat, especially in the ball region of the foot.
Robert is laughing and running like a machine. The Performance inner sole is excellent and doesn’t feel as warm on the soles of his feet. We’ve now swapped from spraying to an ice sponge. We’ve learned by experience that it keeps the body temperature down better than spraying does. Robert also turns to us and asks if we’re drinking enough to avoid dehydrating in this diabolical heat. He’s in a really good mood. It’s 2.00 p.m. and still 52°C. He really likes taking the ice sponges and squeezing them out on his head, against his neck, arms and thighs. One duty of the respective person looking after him is to always make sure that he has a bucket of ice water with him, so that the sponge can be constantly re-saturated along the way. In the meantime Robert has already passed a few of those who started at 8.00 a.m. Robert is now starting to demonstrate a little psychological warfare by showing Christopher Bergland very openly hey, I’m here and doing well and letting you do all the work. We’re now also feeding him baby food (similar to Hipp bottled baby food) and letting him walk a few metres, thus allowing Bergland to again increase his lead to 150 m. Robert is on top form! Temperature still 52°C.
Temperature has now climbed even higher to 60°C (!). It’s like an outdoor sauna at the moment, incredible. Now we’re giving Robert the ice sponge and another 1⁄2 litre of fluid every km. He ran the first marathon in approx. 3 hrs and 40 mins.
Bergland has just taken a seat in his crew van, i.e. Robert is now leading the field. It looks as if Christopher Bergland has cramps and is falling behind. Dean Karnazes’ crew vans keep driving up to us and checking on Robert’s form. Dean Karnazes is good on slow ground. Robert says it’s ideal for him. He’s let him overtake and is now running behind him at his own tempo. It’s still 60°C.
Karnazes is now picking up speed and is about 600 metres ahead of Robert. Now we’re making refreshment stops almost every 600 800 metres (Robert won’t stand still for these “stops” instead everything has to happen at Robert’s running speed) and cooling him down with the ice sponge. The heat is beating down unrelentingly. Robert feels something in his calves, so we give him more Frubiase and electrolytes.
The rest of us in the team have to apply sunscreen factor 60 and dip our baseball hats regularly in ice water.
A car approaches Robert. An English tourist hasn’t seen him and catches Robert’s hip at full speed with his rear-view mirror. Robert gives a brief yell and the driver drives off. We drive to the side, I run over to Robert, Juergen gets ice ready and what does Tom do? In all the excitement Tom forgets to set the van’s automatic system from “D” to “P”. So, our van drives off by itself right across to the other side of the street where it gets stuck in the side ditch. Robert tells me everything’s OK and carries on running. We’re lucky nothing serious happened in the midst of all this. Another 10 cm and the race would have been over. As chance would have it one of the race officials was nearby and chases after the British tourist. The race continues.
Once the shock is over, everything is back to the old routine. Dean Karnazes is about 600 metres ahead of Robert, but also has to keep going. Now there’s a wind blowing, which unfortunately has no cooling effect whatsoever. Instead it feels as if someone is blowing a large high drier at the highest setting against our bodies. We try to take care of Robert properly, to ensure that his body keeps up with the pace and he stays as hydrated as possible. Only another few miles to Stove Pipe Wells. To the right of us are the giant sand dunes. Temperature has dropped again to 52°C. From Stove Pipe Wells the road will start to slowly climb and that will also make it a little cooler.
Now we’re also giving Robert tomato juice to give him a different taste in his mouth for a change and to ensure, above all, that his body is supplied with salt. Past the sand dunes, and then about another 2 to 3 km to Stove Pipe Wells. The motel where we lived for the past two days there also has a pool.
Robert’s a bit down again at the moment as far as his psyche is concerned, the catering function is now routine; we’re just trying to fill him up with as much energy as possible.
Dean Karnazes is still in the lead at the moment, we’re about to hit Stove Pipe Wells.
Robert had a relaxing time cooling off in the pool and then put on a clean tricot. That did him the world of good. I’ve tried to reach Dr. Thomas Prochnow his coach 6 x from a payphone in Stove Pipe, but with no luck unfortunately. He would have been able to build Robert back up psychologically and motivate him. In the meantime Audrey has fetched us 10 bags of ice and Jürgen has made sure we have more water. After the break I told Robert that I’d managed to get hold of Thomas Prochnow and that he’d said that Robert was doing everything right, that Thomas was right behind him and crossing his fingers that the rest of the race went well. Robert was really happy about that. Dean Karnazes had carried on running without a break. The sweat is dripping off us like nothing on earth too, although all we’re doing was sitting in the car with the window down, and there’s even a breeze blowing through.
Now we’re slowly climbing into the mountains. Temperature 52°C. All of a sudden we meet up with Dean. He’d had to stop and change his shoes. That was the best thing that could have happened to Robert psychologically: Robert had relaxed in the pool and eaten something, whereas Dean had carried on running without a break. Dean has put on brand new trainers. Robert has now overtaken him. The path is constantly uphill, but we still manage to make him laugh a lot. We provide him with more and more vitamins, electrolytes, carbohydrate gels, etc. and keep surprising him every now and again with melon, etc. Now he has a 400 m lead over Dean.
Tom and I have been taking it in turns to look after for Robert throughout the day, until one of us has to change over to driving because of the heat. That happens about every 6 to 8 stops. At the back of the van Jürgen is responsible for the bottles, the ice, for mixing drinks, for all the preparation and the clearing up afterwards. It’s running like clockwork and very well rehearsed. We’re rotating with the Dean Team van, sometimes their van is in front of ours and sometimes it’s the other way round. The mood is incredibly tense but people still treat each other fairly and with respect.
Robert and Dean are now taking it in turns to be in the lead. Just as we’d finished looking after Robert again, he told me I shouldn’t worry.
It’s bloody difficult; the road’s still climbing and will continue to do so for another 9 miles. Robert is still running like a machine without any interruption! On top of that there’s a wind stirring up, as it does almost every night in Death Valley. And as always, it’s just like the air from a hair-drier. Robert’s struggling to get through more at the moment than I’ve ever seen before.
The sun is still burning down relentlessly. 44°C. We’ve reapplied sunscreen to Robert’s entire body as we’ve been walking. The man runs like a machine.
Robert is now catching up with Dean millimetre by millimetre. The Dean team is now beginning to employ psychological warfare by driving one of their 3 vans either 100 or 200 metres in front of Robert and stopping there, so Robert thinks Dean is right there. Robert’s not a bit interested; he’s in a race of his own.
Robert is constantly alternating between running and walking. As we’re looking after him, he just grins. Temperature dropping to 41°C.
7.03 p.m. It’s below 40°C for the first time. Robert’s running like a machine, he’s now also getting stomach drops every now and again. He’s now finished the second marathon, overall time approx. 9 hours.
Chris Kostman, the race director, has just told us that Robert is 7 minutes ahead of Dean.
Robert is extremely focused and has just given me precise instructions as to what I should do with his sunglasses when he handed them to me. We’re now at 3,000 feet. The road is climbing and we’ve reached the first few hundred metres of shade.
We’ve sat Robert down on the folding stool, given him a “Hallo Wach!” pill, massaged his legs with cooling gel, and given him diluted cola and a couple of pretzel sticks.
We’ve now given Robert his MP3 player as he’s quite tired. As things look at the moment, Robert is in the lead, but that doesn’t bother us, all we’re bothered about is that he puts one foot in front of the other. From now on, as it’s cooling down slowly, we’ll be successively recharging his energy tank. At every stop from now he’ll get food to get his body working again.
Tom is trying to feed Robert with bite-sized pieces of energy bar. Things are looking up. Robert leaves. Down in the valley we can see the lights of the other support crews’ vans. 34°C. There’ll be no more sun today.
Darkness is slowly creeping in, we put Robert’s his reflective waistcoat on now as a precaution against passing cars. Robert is exhausted so we have to keep him awake. He can’t eat at the moment, otherwise he’d probably be sick, but he can still drink. About another mile or so and then we’ll have reached pass level (4,956 feet), and then it’s all downhill from there.
It’s dark, so Robert’s running wearing his waistcoat and a headlamp. Still 29°C but it feels cool to us.
On the way down we only stop approx. every 1.5 km 2.0 km. One of us takes him baby food, water or something similar. Those looking after him now also have to carry the reflective waistcoat and headlamp. At the moment we have no idea where the other runners are, we’re concentrating only on ourselves and especially on Robert. We can tell that we’re coming into the valley again; we’ve reached 32°C again. It’s deadly silent outside.
Dean Karnazes has just overtaken Robert on the way down. Dean is now the same steamroller downhill as Robert was on the way up. There are still another two inclines to go though. 41°C.
Robert suffered a setback about 20 minutes ago. He sat down and didn’t want to go any further. The first thing we did was to lay him in the van. Robert said he didn’t recognise himself. He can’t and doesn’t want to carry on; he’d rather have an ending with pain than a pain without end…
I rounded up all the crew and told them that the new target is to get to the finish line, forget about winning the race. No problem, but the man is psychologically worn down after this exertion. Dean overtaking him must have been the last straw. I left Robert lying down for three minutes. Then I went to him by myself and he described his negative thoughts to me. I then tried to build him up, gave him support, showed him we’re there for him when he needs us with no ifs and buts about it, and told him a few stories. Robert stood up, hugged me and simply started running again. And he’s being doing that now for almost 1⁄2 hour. Tom’s now running a little with him, while Jürgen and I are looking after him.
38°C and there are millions of stars in the sky.
I ran for a while with Robert and kept us chatting on all sorts of topics, I think it did him good. We are all 100% behind him whatever he needs. Now Jürgen’s walking with him for a while. I wish it were already light or my mobile could pick up a network signal so that we could call Thomas Prochnow.
About an hour ago Robert got into the car with circulation and breathing problems. He says he can’t go any further, it’s over. We should withdraw him from the race. He looks exhausted. I asked him twice if he meant it and he clearly repeated that he wanted to stop and that we should withdraw him from the race for health reasons. OK, we left him in the car and drove 3 miles ahead to the next timing station where I had him officially withdrawn from the race. Luckily there was also a medical care station in the same place, as by now Robert could hardly walk. The nurse took his pulse, checked his blood pressure, etc. She said it wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. We should just let him sleep. Now he’s getting an infusion-like booster drink every ¾ hour and sleeping. According to the nurse he might be fit again in 4 to 5 hours and able to finish the race. I made sure that his withdrawal from the race was annulled and that he was back in the race. I was able to do that luckily. There’s still time to withdraw him officially tomorrow morning if we have to. Robert knows nothing about this yet. I’ve now just given him his second booster drink in the medical station (a kind of converted hotel room) and am letting him carry on sleeping.
The nurse is worth her weight in gold. I’ve just woken him up; she’s listened to his lungs, everything’s in good working order. When I told her that he’d started off this morning at 10.00 a.m. she nearly fell over, as she was so amazed that he’d already virtually completed 80 miles. She said he has everything it takes to finish the race!
About 10 minutes ago Robert came up to our van with the nurse and woke us up from our doze. He wants to carry on running now. Much rejoicing, hugs for the nurse and then everyone into the van to drive back to the departure point, three miles before Panamint Springs. We’re off again, Robert’s running! 28°C perfect right now.
Robert has just passed the third timing station in Panamint Springs. It’s working, he’s almost too fast for our liking but we’re taking good care. It’s a constant uphill road again.
Still uphill but we’re now able to crack jokes with Robert again.
I have a power bar for breakfast. Robert is still keeping to his rhythm. We think he’s going too fast but there’s no stopping the man…
We’re still on the incline.
We’ve just passed the 4,000 feet point. 25°C, Robert’s looking good.
The nurse who managed to revive Robert this morning has driven up here specially to see how Robert is. Last year she’d completed the Badwater run herself and decided then to work here as a helper this year. She’d said to herself: “If I manage to help one person to finish the race, then it will have been worth it.” It was worth it.
At the next stop we change his shoes again for a pair a ½ size larger, size 9.0 with a 6mm Wellfit inner sole.
The soles of Robert’s feet have been hurting him; he’d had to struggle to put the shoe on. Now he has to struggle his way through again. We’re again trying to think things out ahead of time to make sure he only does what we plan and doesn’t have to waste any unnecessary energy on anything. That’s not so easy now we’ve had no sleep: sometimes it takes us a full minute to work out how long Robert has already been on the go. Or we decide what we’re going to do to take care of Robert this time around as we’re getting out of the car and have already forgotten what we decided again after taking just five steps towards the hatchback. The path continues uphill a short way until we reach a plateau for a while and then it’s downhill again. Another 14 miles and nothing but steep inclines to the finish.
We’ve just passed the exit sign to the Death Valley National Park, so we’re now officially outside it, after 84.9 miles of pure hell.
Robert would now prefer to have the BÄR LAST inner sole again after all, so we changed again. The team is working brilliantly, Jürgen is a complete professional and showing no signs of tiredness, Tom too is all there and on top form. It is hard on occasion but we’ll get through.
Robert is glad every time all three of us are standing and looking after him, no one rests, and he can’t rest either! Now Jürgen is jogging with him.
Robert’s foot soles were hurting him so we stopped him and sat him down. I took a look at his feet and found three massive blisters full to bursting on his right foot. I lanced and dried them for him and put blister plasters on them. The whole procedure was distinctly unappetising. But it was also a distinct help to Robert. Thought processes are again getting slower, slight headaches: cola and power bar à that’ll work!
Robert has just come and told us that the treatment worked wonders. That’s OK then! Marc Cotnoir of co-sponsor Rogers, who was here yesterday as well as today, was extremely impressed to say the least, he took a few more photos, and is now back home in Connecticut again. He again told us that he had the greatest respect for us. Robert applauded the treatment of the blisters again on this way past. That did me a power of good too. He’s feeling better again now, his running tempo is back to normal and we’re finally going downhill again.
Robert is a pure running machine; he’s smiling and feeling great. Since the blister operation there’s no stopping the man again. He’s laughing, is enjoying running and everything’s going to plan. Gave the firm a quick call to give them an update. Christof told me that everyone in the firm is behind us cheering us on. Robert was really pleased about that too. I personally took a 10-minute nap, now I feel a bit better. We’ll get through this; I estimate there’s about another 35 miles to go.
The CBS TV station has just been here with the camera crews from “60 Minutes” and did an interview with Robert and I (during the race), as they had to have the TransEuropa winner. They were impressed by his attitude. The programme should be broadcast in the USA in the Autumn. The newscast was here on Sunday anyway.
Robert has a few stomach problems, so we give him some more stomach drops.
We’re now on a never-ending dead straight road, incredibly boring and hot. That obviously affects Robert’s psyche again. We’re giving him salt tablets to keep his muscles pliable.
This blasted straight road goes on and on. We’re all getting rather slow and tired now too. The midday sun is beating down without a break.
Blasted straight line. Robert has lost all interest now. He’s walking; one of us walks next to him all the time to keep him in good humour.
My mobile is finally picking up a network signal again. I immediately called Dr. Thomas Prochnow and surprised Robert with the mobile. He was really pleased, laughed and his legs began to run again. Now he’s running again, we’re taking care of all his wants and things are moving again.
Just a little bit further and we’ll finally be off this straight line.
Massage break for Robert. He says nothing other than “Now it’ll be tough!”
If this here is already so tough for us then Robert’s performance is superhuman. Now we’re in Keeler. The distance covered is 107.8 miles more than 4 marathons.
We hadn’t got rid of the straight line; there was another one straight after the bend and that won’t change now until Lone Pine. Robert’s having problems with his balance and feeling dizzy. It’s probably sunstroke. He’s really pale and feels cold. We immediately put Robert in the car in the shade and let him rest for 10 minutes. Luckily a medic car from the race came past. We stopped it and the medic checked Robert’s pulse, how his skin reacted, checked his temperature, etc. and decided that everything was working perfectly. Robert is physically fit. He apparently just needs a dry shirt, as there’s so much wind here. The medic explained to us that when he shivers his muscles are rubbing against each other and then his temperature climbs. Robert smiles, feels much better immediately and carries on. He does say though that this stretch here has nothing to do with running.
Tom is walking with Robert; we keep driving past, parking, etc. and then starting the whole process from the beginning again at short intervals. Tom and I are now limiting ourselves to signs with regard to Robert’s form. That seems to work. The medics said that we’re through the worst; Robert can carry on with his mind at rest.
Robert is at a low ebb psychologically; you’d think he had no more motivation. So, I got out of the van and walked with him for 10 minutes and told him a few stories. Robert smiled and did his thing. Now he’s even beginning to jog again, alternating between that and walking the whole time. Robert, just stay relaxed and laid back. Now sand is also blowing across the road…
Robert is bravely putting one foot in front of the other. Tiredness is really getting to us all now, so how must Robert be feeling…
Dozed off for a short while until Tom called me to tell me that I should talk to Robert. It seems to me as though I’ve been gone for an hour, but I realise it wasn’t long when I look at the last entry. Tried to jog very slowly with Robert but it didn’t work. How do I rouse him from his exhaustion, at least until Lone Pine where we can check into our hotel rooms in advance and Robert can take a quick dip in the pool? He’s carrying on bravely though, even jogging now and again, and the fact that he’s still able to motivate himself to all this makes him seem increasingly superhuman.
We have to keep dipping our caps in a bucket of ice water every 20 minutes because of the heat. 20 minutes later they’re dry again.
Robert is eating and drinking well but is just too exhausted. He can only walk. The road stretches ahead unrelentingly straight for another 8 miles right up to Lone Pine. Walking in a never-ending straight line is really boring again in this heat.
Jürgen has now been running with Robert for quite a while.
Now Robert only ever says “yes” or “no” at the refreshment stops that we’re making regularly every km. I really hope he manages to do this. He’s an unbelievable fighter.
As Jürgen has now been walking with Robert for quite a while he’s just announced that he is going to go up to Whittney Portal with him. Then Jürgen will have completed his own marathon today. The man really is one on his own and that’s an excellent decision on his part, as it will allow us to take care of them and Robert is happy with that too. Both of them are jogging a little again now.
We’re in Lone Pine!!! Unbelievable!!! And Robert is running at a good speed, Jürgen’s running with him. I went quickly to the hotel with Jürgen Müller and picked up the keys to the hotel rooms, in case Robert wants to use the pool or take a shower before the final spurt to Whittney Portal.
Robert’s in the pool!!! He feels like a new man! Clean clothes and then off to the final spurt, the last 14 miles in the mountains.
Every scrap of tiredness has disappeared without a trace from Robert as well as ourselves. Now there’s only the steepest ascent in the race left. But he’ll manage that. Another 4 hours to go maybe.
The ascent has begun, Robert is walking with Jürgen. He’s in a good mood, making jokes and laughing.
The sun has now disappeared behind the mountain, which means that there’ll be no more sun in this race for Robert! Robert in the shade!!!
Time seems to be flying past. Robert is alternating between walking and running. We’re keeping to the normal refreshment rhythm. When you think of all the different types of refreshment we’ve forced into this man in the last 33 hours…
Robert is now being given caffeine tablets again, Voltaren. He’ll do it. Bats are also flying around here.
Jürgen (63 years old!!!) has not slept for 2 days, now he’s going up to Whittney Portal with Robert and chatting and telling Robert stories as he goes.
Another 6 miles to go!!!
Robert can do it, it’s obvious that he’s absolutely exhausted but he still keeps putting one foot in front of the other. Now it’s pitch black.
Another 5 miles to go!!!
The 5th marathon is over, 131 miles, 7,000 feet
Frubiase, cola, Red Bull in constant rotation. Robert is struggling. Every step is costing him energy but he plunges on untiringly.
We’ve reached an incredible height in the meantime. From the mountain we can see all the tiny lights on the support crew vans in the valley below.
Robert is wheezing like nothing on earth. He’s not talking any more either when we give him refreshments (about every 800 m). but he keeps going as consistently and steadily as a machine.
They overtake us and Jürgen says in his American Franconian: “Wir haben einen ganz schönen Zahn hier drauf, man.” (It’s quite a pace we’re going at, man.) And again there are millions of stars in the sky.
10.48 p.m. approx.
Another mile to the Badwater finish line. Robert changes from walking to running again. Pounding up the mountain like a steamroller.
Finish line in view up ahead, cameras with radiating system emitters, a few people, in the middle of the wood…
Robert goes through the finishing line, he shoots his arms high above his head, laughs and accepts the congratulations. Robert’s at the finishing line!!! After all that’s happened this man has reached the finishing line after an upward final spurt of 14 miles! The team congratulates Robert and each other! Robert Wimmer is an official finisher of the 2004 Kiehl’s Badwater Ultra Marathon with a time of 36 hours 53 minutes and 08 seconds. And that makes him the best German too. Robert is incredible; we had an excellent team, a crazy race. Who would have thought that last night or even this lunchtime? We’ve now all probably been awake for about 40 hours, so all we want now is sleep!!!
This report can only give a brief insight into the hell that was Badwater. Words cannot express and even pictures can only give a very rudimentary indication of what people actually go through here.