A Badwater High

1999 finisher

It’s been six weeks since the race, and I’m still on a “Badwater high.” I’m high from the unselfish help given to me, and my crew, by Lisa Smith and her sister Julie. Before we even got our bags into the hotel, Julie and Lisa were there to offer crewing and racing tips. I’m high from watching Chris Moon hike the final few miles to the finish line. I’m high ‘cause, when Major Maples became disqualified after accepting an IV, he didn’t quit. He continued on with his crew to lift a fellow crew’s vehicle from the deep sand, then helped Maria DeJesus get to the finish line. I’m high after hugging Louise Cooper-Lovelace, a woman recently out of chemotherapy for breast cancer, shortly after she finished this amazing run. I’m high because when Lisa Smith got to mile 129 and had to go to the hospital for an IV, she didn’t quit either. She returned with her crew to finish what she started; an effort to raise money for breast cancer and spinal cord injury research.

I’ve been trying to succinctly describe my feelings after finishing this incredible event. I’m in awe after witnessing the individual acts of indescribable courage and selflessness. I’ll echo the words of my new friend, Lisa : “I love the people who are involved in this event. There is a silent understanding between us all. You don’t have to explain yourself or get asked WHY you do this? We all know why. It is pure love to test oneself. Badwater. It teaches us so much about ourselves. You feel so strong and powerful. You will always have this with you and the people become your family. We love you unconditionally.”

I had just finished the Leadville Trail 100 on Saturday (09-21-22, 1999), and I had the pleasure of seeing Denise (Jones), Adam (Bookspan), Marshall (Ulrich) and Scott (Weber). Many of Scott Weber’s athletes were also out there to race. I paced one of them to Winfield. Marshall and I were running through the woods at mile 65 in the middle of the night, and we both agreed that our bodies were “beat” from Badwater, although I think Marshall has more reason to feel tired than I do; I didn’t do the Badwater solo, THEN do the race. That man is made of iron!

As for Badwater…

I remember it like it was yesterday. I had the September, 1991 issue of UltraRunning magazine open to page 36 . . . and the title of the article was Death Valley-Mt. Whitney: Some Good, Often Bad, Always Ugly. I began reading about Kenneth Crutchlow and “other adventure racers who lost so many brain cells doing the run from Shoshone in southern Inyo County to Scotty’s Castle at the northern edge, that they had the bad sense to go back to Death Valley on an almost annual basis to do it again and again through the early 1970’s.” The story continued on to tell of the birth of “a run from Badwater, which is the hottest (134 degrees at Furnace Creek in 1913) and the driest place (1.5 inches of rain per year) in the world, to the highest point in the contiguous United States – Mount Whitney’s summit (14,494 feet).” Crutchlow was the first to do it in 1973. (Editor’s note: actually, Al Arnold was the first to do it, in 1977.) The article told of one runner in the 1991 race, Dr. Ben Jones, who “added a little humor by using a coffin to store ice during his race. Having immersed himself in the melted ice water at mile 111, he is reported to have claimed to be the first runner to have risen from a coffin to complete a race.” I was hooked. I knew that someday I’d be on that course killing brain cells.

The day begins at 4:00 a.m. as we leave our hotel and begin driving to the start of the race, 70 miles away. This hotel room, which is at the half-way point in the race (Panamint Springs Resort), will be ours for the next two days in case my crew needs sleep. We meander through the curves of highway 190 as it snakes through the Panamint mountains, then across the valley floor towards Badwater. We stop at Stovepipe Wells to pick up ten bags of ice that we pre-bought the day before, and to fill the van with gas. As we approach the turn to Badwater, we can see a Hi-Tec vehicle blocking access to the turn-off. They wave us to continue east to an alternate starting location. Seems the torrential rains last night washed enough mud across the road to make it impassable. We cruise to the alternate start, but on the way a car passes us just as our van is wading through a mud puddle, and SPLAT! We’re covered with mud! Not such a big deal except that the left window is open and Greg and I get a surprise mud shower. At the alternate start we assemble along the highway with all the other crew vehicles. My crew and I confer on all the last minute details; how much carbo-mix to how much water, what food to have ready, etc. We’re all set to assemble at the start when Ben Jones announces that snow plows have cleared the road to Badwater, and we’re heading back there for a 10:00 a.m. start.

After a nice breakfast at Furnace Creek, we all get our vans moving to Badwater. What a caravan! Forty two race crews and several movie crews all lined up along the bare desert highway. At the starting area all of the racers gather ‘round the Badwater sign for a pre-race photo, then “five minutes to the start” is announced. I hurry to get my race number on my long sleeved Sun Precautions jacket, then take my place among the other 41thrill-seekers. One of the racers, Adam Bookspan, who is a symphony musician, plays our National Anthem on the trumpet. Count-down from ten and we’re off!

I’m VERY happy to be moving as I settle into an eight minute-per-mile pace. The first ten miles are one big traffic jam. Crew vehicles are desperately trying to reach their runners without blocking the course. At about mile five, Andy sets out a hurdle that we brought as a practical joke, so I step over it. Greg and Jeff stop each mile for the first 15, then every two miles after that. I alternate energy drink with water, and keep a bandanna with ice in it around my neck constantly. This allows crisp, cold water to soak the front of my shirt, which feels wonderful even with the slightest breeze. Greg paces me off-and-on for many miles. I feel great as the miles pass. At around mile 20, I’m running with Maria DeJesus from the U.K. She’s running well, but is wearing a soaked cotton tee-shirt. I ask her if she has a racing shirt with wicking fabric, to which her crew man says “yes,” but she refuses to switch shirts because her sponsors names are on it. A few more miles pass and I crest a hill where I can see Jeff and Greg playing hacky sack. At least they’re enjoying themselves!

At mile 40, I approach Stovepipe Wells as a strong cross-wind begins to whip sand across the road. The onset of the sand storm coincides with the onset of a nausea in my stomach. I’m beginning to feel sluggish and tired. I stumble into the general store where I jump on the scale that Greg and Jeff put out to weigh me. 174 pounds – I’ve lost two since the start. I’m met with a movie camera and questions from some of the production crew. They ask how I’m feeling and what I intend to do. I tell them that I’m going to sit down until I feel better, so I get into the van and close my eyes. My heart sinks as I realize I’m getting worse instead of better.

An hour passes, and as I sit in the passenger seat of our crew van, I see other racers making their way past us on the road, bandannas and hoods shielding their eyes from the whipping wind and sand. I long to be out there with them, but the nausea in my stomach and cramps in my legs won’t let me walk. I feel helpless, and as we sit idle with the minutes ticking by, I know my crew feels the same way. It is then that I remember reading a past account of this race, where Dr. Ben had given a sip of carbonated pop to someone in my same condition to make him vomit. His thinking was to empty the stomach, then begin re-hydrating. Greg suggests that I try some 7-UP, so I take a sip, then realize I have a short few seconds to get out of the van before I barf all over the road. I’m scared when I see blood in the vomit. There, kneeling on the side of the highway, with my head spinning, I have only one question; after only 42 miles, is this the end of my race? Later on, Greg will tell me that he and Jeff thought this was the end for me. But the amazing thing is that I feel better almost immediately. We’re worried about the blood, so Jeff and Greg ask a nearby California Highway Patrolman if he knows where the paramedics are. Turns out they are back towards the start tending to others worse than me. Eventually, Noel Hanna and his crew come in and park next to us. We’re thrilled to find out that one of his crew is a nurse, who says I just have a ruptured capillary, or a stress ulcer, and I should take several Tums (which she gave to us), re-hydrate to get my weight back up, then hit the road if I’m feeling okay. We jumped all over that advice. It wasn’t long before we were power-walking our way up the next 5000 foot climb.

As the sun set and the stars emerged, setting off the crickets, we tried to forget about the almost three hour delay at Stovepipe, and focus on our renewed goal of getting to the top of the pass. Several times, Andy would ride his Harley ahead of us, turn around, shut off his engine and headlight, then coast toward us in a weird game of ‘chicken.’ Luckily, he never hit me! Near the top of the pass, Jeff made Greg and me some Ramen noodles; the best noodles I ever had! Then, Jeff left me with my double bottle pack and drove Greg ahead to our motel about ten miles up the road. I reached the top of the pass and started down the other side when Jeff returned.

We re-filled my bottles and I insisted that Jeff increase the stops to three miles, so he could take 20-30 minute naps as we descended the pass. I was finally able to run again and felt so good that I crept up on Jeff at one stop, started making those noises from the Friday the 13th movies, and totally freaked him out! I met and passed several runners on the way down the pass. I was impressed when I met Cathy Tibbets, who had a pacer who turned out to be from the movie production company! I later learned that these movie makers became so enthralled with our race that they lost almost as much sleep as we did trying to personally experience as much as they could. I finally reached the Panamint Valley floor and began walking the last few miles to Panamint Springs Resort, when I remember everything going black, then awoke to find my right leg buckling beneath me. I had fallen asleep while walking! At Panamint Springs, I got in the van with Jeff and we reclined both front seats, set our watches for one hour, and we’re both out cold. When we regain consciousness I’m ready to start climbing up the next mountain pass. Jeff crews me a few more times before he heads back to let Greg take over the crewing duties. Near the top of the pass at 80 miles, Greg, Andy and Bonnie meet me with real food; pancakes, bacon and ham! This tasted sooooooooo good that I devour it quickly. Greg paces me for most of the morning, then alternates with Jeff later on in the afternoon. I alternated walking with running over the pass into the town of Keeler, at 107.8 miles. A California Highway Patrol officer pulls up in front of us, gets out of his car, says “Howdy,” then walks behind our crew van to two tour busses that had been speeding. The officer tells us he’s going to write them tickets for not slowing down for the runners!

At 120 miles, I’m truly in ‘no man’s land’, for I’ve never run past 100 miles in one shot, and I can feel the miles on the pavement exacting their toll on my body. I’m mostly walking now, and as I near Lone Pine, I’m on a ‘death march.’ My crew decides that I should stop at our hotel for one hour of good sleep. We shuffle into town, stagger to the room, pull off my shoes and lay down. I pull the covers over my head and realize that I’m shivering uncontrollably. “Just get some sleep,” I tell myself. Bang! My hotel room door flies open and hits the wall as four very excited people rush into my room. My eyes are wide open and my heart is racing. I’d only been asleep for half-an-hour when Art and Stephen start yelling at me to “get out of bed ‘cause it’s the wrong thing to do and I should just get up now and keep goin’ up the mountain!” Greg and Jeff are asking me what they should do; listen to them or let me sleep? I’m finally able to convince Art and Stephen that I’m gonna be okay. if I can just rest my brain for awhile, then Greg and Jeff usher them out and close the door. I know Art and Stephen are only trying to help me ‘cause I’m a “greenhorn” in this race! After an hour of sleep (and one ugly nightmare), I lace up my shoes and hobble down the stairs. I see my crew and ask them “which way up the mountain?” Bonnie joins me as we begin walking up Whitney Portal Road. Up ahead we can see a string of lights snaking their way up the final 13 miles to Whitney Portals, at 8,300 feet. I can feel the excitement building in my crew again. After two low spots of un-certainty, they are now certain that we’re going to cross the finish line tonight. Andy finds yet another opportunity to scare the hell out of us. He flicks on the halogen spot light 20 yards from us, making Bonnie and me think we’re about to become desert road-kill. At two miles from the end, Louise and Julie hop out of Louise’s crew van to give me a hug. At this point, I tell Jeff and Greg that they’re going to cross the finish line with me, so Andy and Bonnie head to the finish to get pictures. A few more switch-backs and we can see a brilliant flood light shining up to the serrated peak of Whitney. I grab Jeff and Greg’s hands and we raise our arms in victory as we run the last 50 feet to the finish tape! The rush is incredible. This race that I’ve dreamed about for the last decade is over … and we did it.