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A DNF Story, One Step at a Time

2003 entrant and 2002 finisher

There is stress prior to any big event, especially Badwater. The idea is to keep it to a minimum. However, if you are the husband and crew chief of the runner, as a husband you never have the right answer. As the crew chief prior to the event, you know you are ultimately responsible for everything that happens. As the husband of the runner, your heart aches during their suffering, and as the crew chief you have to deal with people stressing out who don’t realize they’re stressing out (they are in denial). Why? One word, Badwater.

“This is the most stress we’ll ever be under!” states hubby/crewchief. It’s one week before Badwater and 3 weeks before going to China to pick up Sarah Qi Qi, our first child we’ve been expecting for 2+ years. The journey for great running has been 27 years thus far, and the task of creating a family began over 15 years ago, 4 years into our marriage. Believe it or not we’ve been through a hell of a lot worse. So technically I think ‘this is child’s play’. Then we look at each other now calmer and say, “Well it’s just that we’re excited.” Then hubby/crew chief states, “Jody I got to deal with your adrenalin too. You’re bouncing off the walls venting on me.”

I laugh in agreement, “Yeah, sorry hun. I’m just so psyched. But I got it together” I pause as I listen for dinner burning, I hope not as Norm unloads the washer. I continue, “I’m sorry, honey. I’ve cut back so well on mileage this week, I’m just cranking.”

“It’s okay,” he replies. “I’m just letting you know, so if I seem edgy you’ll know why.” In our nearly 22-year relationship we’ve learned to pre-warn. At about 5000 RPM is the pre-warning. We redline like our VW at about 7000-8000 RPM. Norm and I sit down to eat and start to discuss Badwater.

“Call Rudy. He called before,” Norm reminds me.

I respond, “I’ll call him at work tomorrow, my brain just needs a rest.” I know when I call Rudy we’ll be on the phone for at least an hour. Norm is just finishing up the signs for the vans. His back bothers him from leaning forward stenciling 6-inch letters in black. We’re awaiting phone calls from the agency on the China travel meeting, the travel agent for China and our guide. Norm’s double checking Badwater and hotel reservations. He’s finishing up sewing another ice hat and special gloves for me. We get phone calls about the baby, wanting to know where I’m “Baby Registered”, etc… These people don’t care about Badwater because they can’t even run a mile so they can’t relate! In lieu of this, we discuss greed and obesity.

We dream of owning a second home in Death Valley. We love it there. Norm states, “I checked the internet for anything new from Chris and the weather in Death Valley. By the way, double check the runner and crew forms. Did you fill yours out?”

“Yes,” I reply.

Norm continues, “So we got the VISA’s for China. God I hate going into the city. But while I waited I went to the Intrepid and did the tour. The Park and Drive situation was screwed up.”

“Well the Secaucus train derailment messed everything up,” I respond.

“You’re not working a full day Friday?” Norm asks.

“Yes Honey,” I answer, “a full day.”

“Isn’t that a bit much?” he asks.

“Honey, it’s only a 10 hour day. People need me and I’ll have a total 3 weeks off plus a partial week of work after China. Some people I treat are not so accepting of this. If I don’t work, I still have to pay 2 rents ahead on my office, I have payroll, I have monthly tax payments, you know,” I reply.

“Jody, don’t get so stressed. I just thought you took more time off from work for Badwater last year.”

“No, that’s not what I did,” I say. “It’s the same. I’m OK with this. I have 3 days of no bodies before the race. I’ll be fine.” I then say a little prayer that I don’t get anyone too emotionally unstable in my office for the rest of the week.

When I get drained, one thing I’ve learned is to pray for that, to conserve energy. Fortunately or unfortunately, I get so emotionally involved with people at work it drains me. I’m concerned with quality of life for everyone and if anyone knows this about me, better than anyone else it’s Norm. He sees the train coming and lassos me from the tracks before I get clobbered. It’s funny, we even finish each others sentences sometimes. I had an acquaintance point this out to me last year. Meanwhile, Norm is counting batteries, flashlights, etc…”Where’s the GU?”

“Uh, in my bag?! I think,” I respond. “OK, let me dig.” As I unpack, find them and re-pack for the tenth time in a week he continues.

“So how many bottles of Succeed Caps did you pack again?”

I sigh, man I want to veg. “Well, I put 2 _ bottles in the big bag, I have 1 full bottle in my carry on, uh, hmm. What are you thinking?”

“What about the crew?” Norm says.

“I’m paranoid, lets bring another bottle. That’ll be 450 Succeed caps. How’s that?” I ask.

Norm laughs. “Paranoid is good.” During that night we do this gibberish back and forth with a little China and baby thrown in to amuse ourselves. “Honey, I have a 12 hour day tomorrow, it may be reduced by an hour but I really need to be stupid and watch the boob tube for an hour and go to sleep.

The next few days our adrenaline is getting more pumped. Saturday (7/20) we get to Newark Airport. The hour before out flight, Norm asks, “Where’s Gary (one of our new people)?”

“Oh I’m sure he’s here. I bet you he’s eating. Don’t worry Norm, he’ll be here. He’s an ‘on time’ kind of guy,” I assure him.

Last year I was the one paranoid about the crew getting to Death Valley. Last year I was the runner, the setter-upper and the crew chief. I had all the worries last year. That drained me last year. This year was different. Norm set up 95% of the stuff, me 5% and I was really able to focus on being the runner. Just then Gary shows up.

I smile and say “Hey, how you doing? When did you get here?”

“Oh I got here a while ago. I was eating,” Gary answers.

I turn to Norm. “See I told you. Norm got scared, Gary. I told him you were probably eating because you’re always on time for stuff.”

The flight is uneventful. I sleep most of the time. I even slept through breakfast. After we land, the three of us make our way to baggage claim. Norm comments, “We had seven bags last year. It was crazy. I can’t remember what we brought.”

“The chairs, Norm. Remember that?” I remind him.” We found out I preferred the bumber and can’t sit long anyway, my back hates sitting. Oh yea, we had a porta-pottie with us. I couldn’t sit in that position. It burned my butt and legs too.”

“Oh yeah,” Norm says. Meanwhile Gary’s probably wondering, ‘What the hell did I just get myself into?’ We get to the baggage claim area and Gary’s brother Tom is there to take him golfing. Norm and I will be traveling to Stovepipe from LV alone and we’ll meet Gary, Al and Carol on Sunday at Stovepipe Wells. After we depart Norm marvels, “Only four bags, Jody. That’s so amazing.” I agree. Norm and I pick up our rental van and go off food shopping.

I’m obsessing. “Seedless Watermelon, we have to get it in Las Vegas, not Pahrump. If we wait till then and they don’t even have watermelon. Well you know how it works.”

“Jody, whatever makes you comfortable,” Norm says. The lady at the car rental is interested in watching the race and tells us where we can get seedless watermelon. As I write out the Badwater website, I can’t stop seeing watermelons. I write “” Then Norman corrects me, we laugh, I write “”. I say to the car rental lady as I hand her the website, “Thank God I didn’t write peanut butter and jelly instead.” We laugh. Some day I’ll have to tell you guys about my obsession of my doing a “Cliff Claven” from Cheers impersonation at work, making everyone laugh for a week until a guy named Cliff came in and I called him Cliff Claven in front of him after I treated him. It was an accident I was having my secretary fill out his bill in front of his.. Talk about embarrassment.

After food shopping and lunch we drive into Pahrump, it begins to pour. Yup, you heard me, pour. Like as in rain real heavy. I get a bit perturbed, “Norm, Badwater better be hot. Because if it’s not, it’s not Badwater. It’s just not the same.”

Norm replies, “Don’t worry Jody, it’ll be 130 degrees on race day.”

I reply, “Okay, I’m just checking.”

I notice the temps seem cool at 94 degrees. Anyone else not understanding the essence of the Badwater race could not appreciate my comments. It’s comparative to Crocodile Dundee’s comments, “That’s not a knife.” As he pulls out a machete, “This is a knife.” And the muggers run away.

Before we know it, there’s flash flooding as we drive to Stovepipe Wells. Norm has to drive through about 5 major flash floods. I squirm as he drives. I remind him I need to go train in Badwater by about 5pm for a few miles. After we check-in at Stovepipe Wells, we get our running and hydration items together and drive towards Badwater. At about Artist’s Entry on the left, there’s a roadblock; a flood is coming. We are warned by the Park Rangers we might not be able to pass back through again. We figure we’ll take a chance. We continue to Badwater start line. Norm will leap frog me every _ mile. I need splits. I’m imitating the first 3.1 miles of the race; this is to get into the right frame of mind. I’ll do this again Sunday morning too. We get done 30 seconds sooner than I planned. “Norm, I have to do this slower tomorrow and Tuesday by 30 seconds or I’ll be dead in the water.” We drive back to Stovepipe Wells making it through the flooded road we were warned about. At dinner that night, one of the waiters we’ve become familiar with, Andrew states “ There’s no traffic allowed through Townes Pass, there’s flooding. I don’t know if your race will take place.” I state, “The race is Tuesday. It’ll be okay.”

Upon waking Sunday, I stretch as Norm buys ice. Norm drives me to Badwater. I do my little run like last night, only this time only 3 seconds slower than I plan on Tuesday. Now I feel comfortable. I have a sense of pace back in my legs. After that I have 3 bowls of cereal, 70 ounces of water, gatorade, and a banana. I rest, I take a 2 hour nap. Before we know it, the rest of the crew arrives. Gary accompanied Al and Carol from Las Vegas to Stovepipe in our second van.

The plan: have everyone rest for a bit, go to dinner in Panamint and tomorrow show the crew the rest of the course from Stovepipe to Whitney Portal before the check-in and meeting in Furnace Creek. Monday we awoke at 5:45am. I stretch, have tea, and eat and rest. Norm takes the crew and drives over the course. I get out to run at 6:30am. I jog for a minute and then I hear a familiar voice. It’s Rudy, strolling, coffee in hand, sandals on, “You’re crazy, man!”

I smile, stopping my watch. “Rudy! Hey, I called you this week, left a message. You want to do a two mile jog?”

Rudy gives me a hug. “Nah.”

“You sure?” I egg him on. “C’mon. It’s only 2 miles. I’ll share my water with ya. Huh?”

He smiles and shakes his head no I continue on. My crew leaves for their tour. I have gatorade, water, fruit, and 4 bowls of cereal and fall asleep for 2 hours. Before I know it, Norm and crew are back. We drive to Furnace Creek, except for Gary, he left something at his brother’s Gary has to meet his brother in Pahrump. He gets back just after everything is over. We get back to Stovepipe Wells for preparing ice chests and then dinner.

Before dinner, we decide we want a couple of group pictures. We coax a guy we see by his car in front of the Road Runner section of Stovepipe to take our picture. Somehow, he knows we’re here for the Badwater Race. After he takes our picture, he makes a not-so-thought-out statement in his foreign accent, “You must all have big egos.” We all shake our heads, laugh, and say “Yeah, right.”

He leaves, Al makes believe he’s talking back to the guy and says, “Oh yeah. We have a third crew vehicle bringing our balls in.” Now we can’t stop laughing. The comments fly.

During dinner at Stovepipe Wells, we start discussing foods to eat to gross other runners out. I suggest the pink hostess twinkie snowballs. Or cheesecake with tuna fish. Then Gary says, “we need a team sign.” Meanwhile, Al and Carol are yelling “Where’s my soup? What took you so long. It’s a 15-minute drive. You were gone 3 hours.” During this, I make Nick’s hand gestures of a woman who’s top heavy.

“That’s the sign,” Gary states. We ROAR. Then I say, we have to say “Pink snowballs” when we do the Nick Palazzo sign. All of us have the sign down pat now. So after this during the entire dinner, we’re doing the Nick Palazzo gesture.

Before we know it, its Tuesday morning Race Day. Norm sees cloud cover near Badwater. In my mind, I know it will soon abate. You just have to face the music when you’re in Badwater. As my husband says, “Nothing personal, it’s just Badwater.” I eat PBJ, a banana, take in water, Gatorade, and a Succeed Cap as we drive to the start. I have the 10am start. Before I get out of the van to go to the bathroom in Badwater, I put on an ice cap. I’ll not take any chances. I had the runs a bit, but shook them off. It was only positive thinking. I would tolerate. Major Maples knocks on my van window and gives me some good news. Saddam Hussein’s sons Ebay and Yahoo are dead. This gives me extra energy. I’m really pumped now. I thank him for such motivating news. I drink more, then go take pictures with him.

Before we know they play the Anthem and we’re off and racing. My stomach feels crampy, I figure adrenaline. I look at my watch at Telescope Peak and realize it’s 11 seconds too fast per mile back off by 30 seconds. My stomach gets worse. By 3 miles, my legs are dead. My arms get shaky. Norm hands me a new ice hat. The string in the front gets tangled. I yell to get me another one and toss the one just made. Too much ice in the cap, I let them know. About 1/4 mile later, Juan Olivera, one of Rudy’s crew, is holding an ice hat similar to one of mine.

“Is this mine?” I say, confused.

“No,” Juan says. Then I realize, what am I thinking? At 3.5 miles I feel worse. At 5.5, I’m by the van. My stomach is so bad I just want to curl up in a ball. My arms are shaking, my legs have been wobbly for a good 2 miles. I think it’s a sugar problem. Norm massages my stomach, I eat more, I get worse. By 11 miles, I’m in the van. I feel sick. We call the medic, then we stake me at 11 miles and drive to Furnace Creek to get my blood sugar checked. After putting ice on and popsicles 45 minutes later. I see Dr. Lisa Stranc. She takes my temperature; it’s 104.3 degrees. I know it was not initially the heat. I take a 2+ hour break. I get back to the stake at 11 miles at 2:30pm. I begin to walk like Lisa advised. My stomach still hurts, but the rest of me seems fine. By Furnace Creek, I have hope. Whatever it was must be gone now. I’ll run soon, I figure. I don’t start running until 30 miles. I walk with Major Maples for quite some time before then. We have a good talk. By 38 miles, I start to feel like a runner.

It’s dark out by Stovepipe Wells, I find out many have dropped, including Rudy. During this, I realize it was food poisoning. The oil I poured on my spaghetti Monday did taste slightly rancid, but I was hungry and had not a care in the world. But I figure I’m over it. I’ve had food poisoning before 4+ years ago and ended up in the hospital for 6 hours to get IVs in. Perhaps the reason why it didn’t put me completely down is that I was well-rested and hydrated. Last time, I was overworked and overtrained. I’ve ran and worked through worse. It’s all what you’re used to. Or willing to go through, sometimes. I was terrificly motivated when I arrived at Stovepipe Wells. I gulped my Gpush and began my favorite part of the run, up to Townes Pass and then that beautiful downhill to Panamint. After I got past Wild Rose, I’d passed several racers. My body, for some reason, wanted to slow down. I couldn’t for the life of me think why. By Townes Pass my body hated me for walking. Actually, my back is not designed for walking. Norman and Al were buzzing around trying to get ice.

21+ hours had passed. I sat just before Townes Pass on the roadside. My back was screaming, I felt my posterior legs warning me not to run down the hill without Norm massaging me. Gary and Carol crewed and waited with me. I waited 12 minutes. Al and Norm showed. They got the last bags of ice between Furnace Creek and Lone Pine. Norm sent Carol and Gary for rest in Panamint. 15 minutes into Norm working on me, a friend showed up; Rae Clark. He stopped by to see how I was doing. He basically told me to be smart. He knew I was not racing well. Nothing was worth injury or death. Up until this point, both of our adapters in our vans weren’t working for our phones, mashed potatoes and the like. The air conditioning, primarily in the white van, would only work if you drove it 10 or more miles, which only was done 2 hours of the race so far. I felt bad for the crew. I expected discomfort, all this stomach delay was not good for the crew, it adds more stress. At about 30 miles, our battery went dead in the white van and we were SOL for 10 mins. Major Maples and his crew were with us, however, no jumper cables. Just in the nick of time, the Race Medic car drove up to check on us. We’d seen him most of the first 50+ miles. Nice guy. Well, he jump-started us. Thank God.

Soon after a 20-minute sport massage, I was running like my old self, hauling butt down towards Trona Lane and Panamint Springs. It was still mostly cloudy at this point. However, at that point, I started to burn up more. My stomach rumbled. I ignored it until I had about 4-5 miles until Panamint Springs. Then, the sun burst out. I put on my white shirt, sunglasses, and ice cap. I knew I maintained a fever since I began running at 11 miles. I had been sweating profusely since about 14 hours into this thing and now, just as I’d run downhill, I’d drink 10 ounces every 15 minutes. Sweat was pouring off my hands and my stomach was still cramping and bloated. It never cleared up. My legs began the wobble before the sun even came out again. I felt weaker still. This time my brain just pulled me forward. And when the sun came out, I kept thinking ‘get air-conditioned’ just for a little bit at Panamint. I prayed one of our cans had A/C. I had Al radio ahead, yes they had A/C in Gary and Carol’s van.

With 3 miles to go, I lost mental focus. I could see I knew what I wanted. Norm walked to my left. One thing I know if I notice pain; then my brain is shot. I can usually associate into pain if my brain is functioning even 50%. It was not. I remember it was an effort to speak because I needed to focus on placing my feet on the ground. I knew if I wobbled it was over. The brain can only think of 3 things at once when on optimum capacity. I could think of one at best. I didn’t know what a mile was anymore. I’m a numbers person. Jokingly, some call me “Rainman.” My husband calls “The Good Little German.” I began to notice the pain that it normally would be considered a mere annoyance. Now it was on my mind. I knew not to scold it. I always tell myself, ‘You won’t die of pain. Pain doesn’t kill.’ Because if it did, many of us who do ultras would be dead. You can heed pain and still enjoy life. But don’t fear it, or it will take away your freedom. I dragged myself to sunny Panamint Springs Resort, and focused now only on the van.

I can’t remember if I said anything. I don’t remember getting into the van. I remember having ice on me and eating mashed potatoes. I spoke with Dr. Lisa Stranc. Norm and I were worried about another runner. She told me she was going to check on him. I was relieved. Then I fell asleep 4-5 times and had nightmares. Then fell asleep for about an hour. And when I woke up, I felt 5 times worse. I couldn’t think. Norm asked me a question. I was slow to respond. He suggested we cross the parking to the hospitality runners’ suite.

“How about 4-5 hours of more rest?” I asked. I didn’t want anymore sun, that was my initial reaction. About 20-25 minutes after that I DNF’d. I felt worse than at 11 miles. But it was like I didn’t really know how I felt. I usually can describe stuff but this time for some reason I just couldn’t. It was like I forgot how to. That’s what bothered me.

Hall of Fame: Jay Birmingham

In 2003, Jay Birmingham, the second man to ever run from Badwater to Mt. Whitney, breaking Al Arnold’s record in the process in 1981, was inducted into the Badwater Hall of Fame during the 2003 Badwater 135 Pre-Race Meeting in Furnace Creek, CA.

The plaque presented to him by Chris Kostman – shown at the top of this page – reads:
Jay Birmingham is proudly inducted into the Badwater Hall of Fame
for making it a race in 1981 and again in 2003.

Jay subsequently completed the 2004 Badwater 135 – shown below – and has also completed both Badwater Cape Fear in 2018 and Badwater Salton Sea 267 VR Elite in 2021 (details). He also served on the Badwater 135 Application Review Committee for over 15 years.

• To download and read Jay’s book, “The Longest Hill,” about his 1981 run from Badwater Basin to Mt. Whitney, click here.

• Read all our Jay Birmingham posts and stories on this website by clicking here.

• Read this 2003 Profile / Interview of Jay:

Jay Birmingham returns to Death Valley for first time in 22 years: Second-ever finisher honored at pre-race meeting

By Amit Mehrotra

In 1981, 36-year old Jay Birmingham left Badwater, Death Valley, covered head to toe in a sun suit. He was set to run 146 miles. His wife and step-children were his support crew.

The temperature reached over 120 degrees in the mid-August heat as he ran from Badwater, the lowest point in the western hemisphere, to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.

Birmingham was the fourth person to attempt the run and the second to finish. In 1977, Al Arnold became the first person to complete the feat, in over 84 hours. Birmingham ran it in 75 hours and 34 minutes.

This Tuesday morning, July 22, Birmingham will run the Badwater to Mt. Whitney route again for the first time in 22 years.

“It doesn’t take away anything from people who do it now, but I think it took maybe a slightly higher caliber person to do it when you have no support and no official race,” said Greg Minter, a two-time Badwater Ultramarathon entrant and finisher.

At Monday’s pre-race meeting, Birmingham was honored by race director Chris Kostman. He followed Al Arnold, becoming the second entrant in the Badwater Hall of Fame.

Birmingham also signed books for all 73 runners, then spoke to the runners, their crew and the media.

A native of Ohio, Birmingham now lives in Blair, Nebraska, just north of Omaha.

He is known for his 1980 trans-American run, from LA to New York. He ran it in 71 days, 22 hours and 59 minutes.

I spoke to Birmingham about coming back to Badwater, how he will approach Tuesday’s race, and what running has meant to him over the years.

Q: For the first time in 22 years, you are actively connected to this “feat” of humanity. What was it like to run “the feat” alone, in 1981, and now come back for the “the race”?

This is the first time I’ve been involved with “the race.”

After that 1980 experience, where I ran LA to New York, (Gary Morris and I) corresponded, maybe two exchanges of letters. He told me about his (Badwater attempt), and I got just kind of interested in maybe trying it. I had read about Al Arnold and now met somebody who actually tried it. Nobody really was the keeper of the record, except those of us who were long-distance runners. I never did get in touch with Al Arnold. I just didn’t know how to access him. Gary was my resource.

I worked out a plan that would break 80 hours. I didn’t want to go as hard as I could, because the thing that really made me think I could do it was Al Arnold said he didn’t stop the whole time.

I went with the conservative plan, which meant a full night’s sleep each night.

Q: Are you going to feel nostalgic, being out there, 22 years later? You haven’t been here, on actual trail itself, since 1981.

A: My approach is different, so I think it’s going to feel different. I’m going to intentionally being going a lot slower. I’m going to be on the road more hours a day. Hopefully 20 to 22 hours a day, instead of just trying to complete a segment and then going back to the hotel and resting.

It is a race, although I don’t have any real rigid plan to reach. I would like to do well.

Q: What goes through your mind when you’re running 120 degrees in the heat? (Race director Chris Kostman) was talking to a reporter about hallucinations, people who just get off the road and start crying, yelling at their crew, just not alert. What went through your mind 22 years ago and what do you expect now?

A: Twenty-two years ago, I really protected myself from getting in trouble. I was intimidated by the whole idea of running out here. I’m going to be a little slower than I was then. I don’t expect to get in trouble.

Q: What types of people run this race? Is there anyway to characterize them or would that just be inappropriate? Maybe for the layman, for the non-runner, how would you describe the people who run this?

A: I think there are at least three major categories of ultra runners or adventure runners. (First, there are) very talented, aggressive runners, who can run good marathons, probably run good 10-kilometer races. Then, there are people like myself who are not as talented, who want to challenge themselves, but have no chance of winning it, but nevertheless enjoy the satisfaction of completing a difficult task.

And then, I’ve noticed there’s a third group, the people who hallucinate, the people who have bad experiences, the people who have epiphanies, and they like to talk at length about what a great thing it is to do this to themselves. It’s just a different way of looking at it.

Rookie to Veteran, Ultraladies’ Style

More Ultra, Less Lady

2003 official finisher

There is nothing “lady-like” about ultra-running, my personal motto being “I don’t do it for the glory… I do it for the gory”! Ultra-running has often been compared to childbirth in the sense that with both, you surrender to the forces of nature, and in the process toss aside your modesty. With this thought, I wanted my Badwater (BW) crew to be made up of UltraLadies Sandy Gitmed, Saundra Whitehead, Michele Vela, and Wendy Young (I believe in midwives over obstetricians), plus my darling Larry Dervin (who was never in the delivery room with me), and my daughter Heather Shura (who was in the delivery room with me, but doesn’t remember). A late arrival to our crew was Mike Stephens, an accomplished 100-mile runner and emergency room nurse, who should be able to handle the “gory”!

On the morning of the “big day”, Heather said something to calm my nerves, “Mommy, it’s scary!” Being Mommy, I consoled her, “Don’t think of it as 135-miles… just break it into little goals… we’re just going to Furnace Creek and then to Scotty’s Castle turnoff… then Stovepipe Wells.” I suddenly felt in control and ready to go!

So here is my BW story, goal-by-goal:

Training: The first goal was to balance training for a high-profile race such as BW, while maintaining work commitments, family relationships, UltraLadies’ training, and my responsibilities as race director for the Valley Crest Half Marathon held in June. Fortunately, no one area suffered too much: The Valley Crest race was a huge success; the UltraLadies are training on schedule; I am still employed at USC and most important, my family and friends still speak to me! Because of time constraints, the theme for my BW training was “moderation”. I always kept my total weekly mileage below 75, with no run exceeding 35- miles.

Heat Training: I did a significant amount of heat training. About 8-weeks before BW I began driving home from work each afternoon with the windows rolled up and the heater blasting through the AC vents. I also spent 45-minute sessions in a 180-degree sauna, several days each week. The dilute salt concentration of my sweat was quite noticeable after just a couple of weeks. I believe in simulating race conditions so I went to both official training weekends in Death Valley (DV), plus my crew and I went to DV two additional weekends during June. I would typically start my desert runs at 10:00 or 11:00 AM, to benefit from the maximum high temperatures. Once, when the temperature only reached 108, I jogged through DV wearing my black, long-sleeve, fleece over-shirt. What I sight I was! The hours I spent training in DV were invaluable in helping me to work through problems I would expect during the race. On some of the runs I experienced prostration, headache, vomiting, and one particular time I developed debilitating heat cramps of the skeletal muscles of my limbs and torso. Needless-to-say, I left the course that day and went straight to bed! My heat training mantra became “the more I suffer now, the less I’ll suffer later”. Fortunately, all of my heat-related problems were left back at the training runs. My crew and I had learned the fine balance between pace, cooling, hydration, electrolytes and calories… another goal accomplished.

Pre-Race Jitters: I needed to keep my psyche relaxed so as not to use up unnecessary energy. By the time I made my last drive to DV, I knew that I had done everything possible to be ready. Humor really helps me relax, so my crew and I marched into the pre-race meeting wearing “UltraLadies… More Ultra… Less Lady” yellow t-shirts and of course I wore my big nose glasses, which have been with me through all my 100-milers! Even though one finds her self at the premier ultra event in the world… it pays not to take oneself too seriously!

Middle of the Pack: I was starting in the 8:00 AM group… middle of the pack… hopefully I would finish near there! I liked the fact that I could sleep until a normal time, eat breakfast, etc. I will admit to feeling a few butterflies on the drive out to BW but before long I was standing on the runner’s side of the start banner, some photos, a few deep breaths, and I was off, with nothing to think about except getting to Furnace Creek in good condition.

BW to Furnace Creek (miles 0-17): The first stage of the race was my settling in period, getting my body working in the 100-plus degree heat, adjusting to my liquid diet of multi-flavored Gatorades, Chocolate Slim-Fast and Club Soda. Over the next 52-hours, I would consume nearly 1-bottle per hour of each of these three beverages. My crew (Larry, Heather and Mike) settled into spraying me, replacing iced bandanas, and monitoring my pee, while doing the same for themselves to keep in good condition for me. By 10:00 AM the temperature had risen to 119 degrees. We reached Furnace Creek at 12:45 PM, a few minutes after being passed by the eventual winner of the race, Pam Reed. A short rest in the shade and we were off to pursue our next goal… Scotty’s Castle turnoff.

Furnace Creek to Scotty’s Castle Turn Off (miles 17-35): Here the heat really fired up. Several reports had the temperatures peaking at over 130. Some leg cramping at mile 28 cautioned us to increase my sodium and potassium, which corrected the problem. At 5:00 PM, mile 29, we changed crews and on came Wendy, Saundra, and Michele. Admittedly, this stressed me a little as it altered the routine during a time when I was feeling tired, sore, and vulnerable, but I stayed deep into my techno music and before long the new crew had it all together. Although I managed to avoid blisters on the training runs, it was here that I began to feel them forming on both heels and pinky toes, so I changed into my Asic DS Trainers and did some major insole trimming to get me to Stovepipe Wells. I wanted any “down time” fixing my feet to coincidentally occur in an air-conditioned room! The liquid diet was holding me along with saltine crackers and continuously nursing my re-hydration salt solution. The turn at Scotty’s Castle was eventful in that I knew that I only had about 7-miles remaining to get to Stovepipe Wells… 7 long miles!

Scotty’s Castle Turn-Off to Stovepipe Wells (miles 35-42): During this section my crew suspected that I needed more calories and began to feed me little squares of PB&J sandwich. I had minimal pacing before mile 35, as I was content to stay in my techno zone and wanted to keep my crews as fresh as possible during the heat. My friend Greg Minter stopped by to pace a little on the way to Stovepipe. A light show was visible in the northwest sky and the hot wind blew so hard at times that Greg had to hold onto my shirt to keep me on the road. Coming into Stovepipe was a great feeling. I just wanted a cool shower and to get my feet fixed.

Stovepipe Wells to Townes Pass Summit (miles 42-59): At Stovepipe, we spent 90-minutes to shower, repair blisters, and drink chicken broth. Mike, in his first ever attempt at blister treatment/taping, did a mean job! It was well worth the time spent, as we did not need to tend to blisters again during the remaining 93-miles! Marching up the lower half of Townes Pass was a grind. The air was hot and the sets of red eyes ahead of me seemed to be ascending straight up, as though on an escalator. Around 1:20 AM, I felt groggy and was allowed a 15-minute nap in the front seat of the van. At 2:00 AM another crew change occurred and I was back with Larry, Heather and Mike. As Larry paced me up the mountain, it began to sprinkle, and we enjoyed the cool 88-degrees and a magnificent blanket of stars. At 6:30 AM (55 miles) I took a 30-minute nap on the ground. This would be the last time I would sleep for the remainder of the race. I reached the summit at 7:57 AM, 24-hours into the race. Another goal accomplished!

Townes Pass Summit to Panamint Springs (mile 59-72): I was warned that this would be a long stretch so I took it slow, covering the 13-miles in just under six hours. I wanted to run some of the downhills but my blisters prevented it. During this time I was visited by a couple of dropped runners. Norm Haines met me just as I began the descent into Panamint. Ben Jones drove slowly past, leaning out of his window to talk. The appearance of these disappointed athletes increased my caution, causing me to slow down, probably more than I should have. I mentally envisioned all of us as little ducks in the shooting gallery, moving along the white line… oops, down goes another one! The break at Panamint was longer than expected partly because it was timed with a crew change and partly because of the air-conditioned trailer but by 1:45 PM we were moving up the second mountain!

Panamint to Father Crowley’s Point (mile 71-80):
The first few miles leaving Panamint were uncomfortably hot, but I began to rally as the temperature cooled. Michele, Saundra and Wendy got me up the mountain, each one pacing me in two-mile stretches. At Father Crowley’s Point I took a short break in the van, did some creative shoe cutting, and had my dead feet rubbed back to life, something that would be repeated often in the hours to follow. It was probably here that I transitioned into my “robot mode” and began my “Lamaze breathing” and stopped asking stupid questions like “Where am I?” or “Didn’t I just take a salt tablet?” At 4:26 PM, I passed into new territory, where every minute spent on my feet was a new personal record.

Father Crowley’s Point to Darwin turnoff (mile 80-90): The 10-mile stretch to Darwin turn-off was exciting for me. Darwin was a major hurdle, because it was the beginning of some long down hills and was also the beginning of the second night. The dark clouds ahead brought lightening, headwinds and rain blowing in my face. My pacer Wendy and I wondered out loud if the trekking poles I was using would attract the lightening, but an even greater concern were the cars speeding by on the wet pavement. A bright spot here were visits from Rick Nawrocki and Denise Jones, who both smiled from ear-to-ear for me! Darkness fell early and we put on our reflectors and lights. We left the Darwin checkpoint at 8:05 PM, after checking on my friend Louise’s progress earlier in the day… a little before 11:00 AM… WOW, I was so excited for her!!! I think this great feeling led to renewed energy for me in the miles ahead.

Darwin turnoff to Second Sunrise (mile 90-117): This was a great part of the race for me. The girls added Hammer Gel and Coke to my diet, a couple of caffeine pills, and I was good to go! I felt cooler and quite refreshed on the down hill sections. My legs felt good enough to run but my feet felt like hell. I had intense foot throbbing that was temporarily relieved by really vigorous foot scratching/rubbing, which I think got the blood to circulating. I bargained with my crew that I would run on the down hills in exchange for 5-minute foot rubs, to be performed every three miles. My feet would feel quite good for a mile and a half after each massage. We covered miles 90-110 in about 6-hours, passing several runners/crews along the way. 2:00 AM was another crew change and seeing Larry and Heather again was a big boost to me. As Larry and I walked quietly together in the pre-dawn darkness, I finally began to allow myself to think about the finish line just 20-miles away.

Sunrise to Lone Pine Checkpoint (mile 117-122): The long march into Lone Pine was rewarded with a short rest in the lounge chair and a nibble on McDonald’s scrambled eggs, and of course… another foot scratching!!! Mike had to leave for work so we hugged good-bye. Some of Louise’s crew came over to say hello and knowing that Louise finished the race about 12-hours earlier I commented, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t crew for me?”! Only the final goal remained… the climb up Whitney Portal Road to the finish!

Lone Pine Checkpoint to Mt. Whitney Portal (mile 122-134.9): I had 12-hours in the bank to complete the 13-mile climb… no sweat! But for the first time in the race, I nearly lost it in those early uphill miles. I felt incredibly hot, sweaty, dizzy and sleepy. My heart pounded with every step. Larry asked me to pick up the pace after I had just completed a 40-minute mile. I was trying to calculate the exact mileage versus time in my head, but all I could compute was that I had fewer miles remaining than fingers on my hands, and I was not going to throw it all in the toilet! With Larry, Saundra, Heather and Michele pacing 1-mile intervals, we picked up the pace. With about 4 miles remaining, I saw a familiar face, Craig Chambers, by the side of the road and asked him to jump in. Craig took me the rest of the way up the mountain, giving my crew a much-needed rest. Craig was telling me that I was moving strong, and that the last mile would be wonderful. Craig’s smile in the photos more than makes up for the lack of mine. The portal road climb was the toughest part of the race for me. I moaned and groaned with each step. After more than 50-hours of creeping along this “comfortable road”, changing clothes, peeing, and pooping in public view, every ounce of modesty was gone. I had morphed into some kind of wild animal grunting up the mountain, which is how I must have sounded. I had such a feeling of urgency knowing I would make it, but at the same time, fearing I wouldn’t. My wonderful crew kept appearing around each turn, smiling at me and just like women about to give birth, I wondered out loud “What the hell is everybody smiling about?”

The Finish Line (mile 135): Just as more rain began to fall, my team of yellow shirts came out to greet me. Larry, Heather, Sandy, Michele, Wendy, Saundra, Mike (actually dummy-Mike filling in for the real Mike), Craig and I all crossed the finish line together. To run 100-miles, meeting your crew here and there, is one thing, but to complete this incredible journey, where your accomplishment and perhaps your very life, is in the hands of your entire crew, is quite another thing. And just as each mile was shared, so the finish should be!

Post Badwater: Three weeks later I am feeling wonderful and back to running. I attribute my physical condition to the special care given to me by my exceptional crew. Words cannot express the gratitude and love I feel for them: My beloved Larry Dervin, who believes in me more than I believe in myself; My daughter Heather Shura, who totally gave herself over to helping me (even though she herself has yet to become a runner); My selfless friend Sandy Gitmed, who was the backbone of our crew, performing all the ice runs, hotel arrangements and shuttling and feeding the crew; My special UltraLadies’ friends Wendy Young, Saundra Whitehead, Michele Vela and Mike Stephens (UltraLadies’Man), who spent time away from work and family to be a part of this amazing venture. I thank you all, and I hope to return the favor some day!

Starry-Eyed Surprise
Lyrics by Paul Oakenfold

(BW memory walking up Townes Pass under a blanket of stars with a lightening show)

Oooh La La
I see stars
I’m seeing stars…

Like the record spins on the trails we blaze
The walls are closing in but that’s okay.
‘Cause I’ve been waiting all week to feel this way
And it feels so good, so good.
I’m on top of the world, the coolest kid in the neighborhood.
So let me be your star for one night, that’s right.
Sweatbox, laser beams, flashing lights.
You’ve got to feel the rush, feel the spice of life.
Love life, shifty rolls the dice, snake eyes surprise.
Iceing… Mesmerizing. The minds are sick ones.
‘Cause what we are, is victims of fun.
Come on, come on, the fun is just begun;
Come on the fun is just begun.

Oh my, starry-eyed surprise
Sundown to sunrise, I dance all night.
We’re gonna dance all night,
Dance all night to this DJ.

Badwater: My 4 and 1/2 Minutes of Fame

2003 official finisher 

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Hello, friends. Here’s my Badwater report – finally. Let me tell you how this is organized, so you can skip the bits you don’t want to read. A lot of people getting this are athletes, so I’ll be going into the numbers and training methods, etc. that I would want to read about if I were reading someone else’s account. You’ll see headers for each section. If you’re not a runner, the Numbers section might not be of any interest to you, for example.


You can skip this entirely and just watch the TV coverage. Linda Alvarez, a local reporter for CBS has a show called “Special Assignment” and was putting one together on extreme endurance athletes. I don’t know if that’s what it will be listed as in your TV Guide, but that’s the way they referred to it internally. They met me somehow, and followed me around during much of my training and then again at the race. The segment I am in will probably be a piece on the race with some footage of me, but it should give you a good overview of what it was like. They told me they were so thrilled with the footage that they devoted an extra 2 minutes to it, a lot on a 22-minute (not counting commercials) show.

It will air Sunday, August 3rd at 6:30 P.M. in LA, and is syndicated around the country, so it may be a different date and time in your area. Check your local listings. After the initial airing, it will be posted at , so you can still see it later on.

The Report

Badwater is over and done with, and I’ve had a week to try to put it all together. I’ve been having difficulty. There’s too much to say, and there’s too little to say. In reality, all I did was run, drink, go to the bathroom, and finish. My crewmembers have all the stories to tell, not me. (They were great, and a ton of fun. Because there are no bathrooms out there in the middle of the desert, one of them coined the phrase, “The world is my toilet”. I swear it was funny at the time. It was amazing how many sentences he was able to squeeze it into. They also wanted to make up t-shirts for themselves that say, “The Lockton Crew: Only Slightly Less Crazy!”)

I’m also having trouble coming to grips with the fact that I did so well. By my own definitions, I’ve always been athletic, but never an athlete. I refer to my performances in events as “my usual, slightly-better-than-average mediocre results.” That my goofing around performance at the 24-HR run I used to qualify to apply to Badwater was ranked the 25th best performance in the country last year (male) seemed to be a fluke.

I ran Badwater with expectations of my usual results, just hoping to earn the belt buckle by breaking 48 hours, having a secret desire to break 45. Imagine my surprise when I broke 40 hours, with a time of 39:39:32! Then, the next day, I found out that brought me in 10th overall, the 6th male finisher. I’m still kind of in shock. You have to realize who I was competing against, and how much of a chance the Race Director was making in extending me an invitation. To quote Luis Escobar, the 7th place finisher, on his website: “These runners are big time, hard ass, no nonsense kind of people. The extreme of the extreme. Each one has an impressive bio and a list of credentials a mile long. These people mean business. It was more than a little intimidating to line up with runners of this fine caliber. Everyone at Badwater is good.” Out of all the qualified applicants, RD (and LATC member) Chris Kostman handpicked the entrants. Luis’s estimation of the quality of other entrants really did not apply to me because I had no track record to speak of. Of the American men, I had the 2nd best 24-HR performance last year, but many had better performances in years past. (Scott Ludwig, the one who beat me last year, also beat me at Badwater, finishing 3hr7min ahead of me, taking 6th overall and 3rd man. He had the 4th best 24-hr performance in the country last year, and I felt honored to run part of the race with him.)

During the race, I couldn’t figure out where all the fast runners were. Only a few passed me, and I kept wondering where all the famous names behind me were. Now I realize that the reason they didn’t pass me was that I was beating them. This is causing severe distress to my self-image! It’s being forced to recreate itself.

The Conditions

As you know by now, the race was 135 miles long, goes over 2 mountain ranges before it reaches Mt. Whitney for a total vertical rise of 13,400 (It also has descents of close to 7,000 ft – tough on the quads!), and goes through Death Valley in the heat of the day at the end of July. It has the reputation of being the most grueling ultramarathon on the planet. This year there was a lot of debate about exactly how hot it got. The consensus seems to be 130, although many people told me they got higher readings, all the way up to 135! The humidity, typically around 4-6%, was in the 15-18% range, which was even more of a factor since every increase in humidity makes you feel the heat even more. I was blown away last year by its 125 degrees and 6% humidity. This year was epic! Several veterans told me it was the most extreme they ever experienced.

The Training

The only way I could figure to train for the race was to make my workouts so much more grueling than anything I would expect to experience at the race that the race would seem easy in comparison: the Train Hard, Race Easy formula. It worked. For the athletes reading this, a typical weekend towards the end would be to run 18-miles of hard hills on Saturday, then on Sunday morning, take those aching quads on a 55-mile bike ride that had some significant hills in them and try to hold on to the wheel of the leader as long as I could (impossible for me even when I’m fresh), and then after the ride, go run another 20 miles of hills. One of those routes was 10 miles straight up at an incline steeper than anything at Badwater but the finish, and 10 miles back down. I hurt more any Sunday night than I did during the race, but taught myself how to continue on, and in fact do surges, when my body was already beat. For heat training, I went out to Death Valley over both Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, and after the latter, came back and trained in the sauna for 12 days. That was the worst! I’d go in for 90 minutes, keep it around 165-170 degrees, and eventually worked up to doing a 5 + 5: 5 minutes rest followed by 5 minutes doing anything to get my heart pumping hard: pushing off the walls, modified pushups off the bench, jumping jacks, running in place, etc. As a consequence, although I was clearly aware that it was hot during the race, I was surprised to find out it was hotter than anything I had ever experienced out there. The training worked.


People kept asking me if I was scared, nervous, or anything. I wasn’t. It seemed perfectly natural that I was about to do this thing, and there was no sense of trepidation at all. I was aware of the fact that people tend to drop like flies, but there’s no use anticipating some Act of God coming along to wipe you out, and I had done the work. I felt strong and confident, with only a slight concern that I had tapered too long. I hadn’t. It takes at least 2 and maybe 3 weeks for your body to recover from the kind of damage my training had done while strengthening me.

The Race

In many respects, this is the most boring part in that there really isn’t much to report. I ran it as a fun run, and I think that is confirmed by the facts that I stopped at mile 41 to jump in the pool at Furnace Creek, and then took a 2 hour break (1 _ hour nap) at Panamint Springs (mile 72). That was my only down time. Other than that, I did have a fun run. I ran within myself, met a lot of really nice and interesting people along the way (mostly as I passed them). I had stomach problems once, but that cleared up quickly. I ended up taking no solid food whatsoever, getting my calories from Accelerade and Slim Fast, which for some reason went down (and stayed down) really easily. Sure, I got tired, and every time my crew would work on me (feet, legs, etc.) I’d lay back and close my eyes until they were done. Fortunately/unfortunately, that only lasted about 5 minutes each time. There was one point where I thought I’d have to stop running. Starting up after a walk break, I got a sharp shooting pain in my left calf that stopped me cold. Trying it again after a couple of paces, that shooting pain went across the back of my knee. At that point, I could have walked the rest of the way in and still earned the buckle, so it wasn’t the end of the world, but I wanted to run and I think we spent close to 45-minutes working on it. This happened shortly before the Darwin Checkpoint, which is why if you look at the charts you see that a lot of people who I led into Panamint checked into Darwin ahead of me. It took a hour or so for my leg to let me get back up to my regular pace, at which point I was able to catch almost all of them.

The Numbers

1st leg from Badwater to Furnace Creek: 23rd fastest out of 73 runners, 23rd overall, covering the 17.4 miles at an 11:19 pace.

2nd leg from Furnace Creek to Stove Pipe Wells: 10th fastest of 58 runners still in the race, which moved me up to 10th place. This was the hottest stretch and my time slowed to14:18 for the 24.5 mile leg, 13:10 overall. Note that 15 competitors had already dropped out.

3rd leg from SPW to Panamint: 12th fastest of 50 runners still in (lost 8 more), which dropped me to 11th place. 20:18 pace for the 31-mile leg and 16:06 pace overall. This time includes an hour stop at SPW for a swim and an ice bath, then an 18-mile hill that climbed 5,000 ft; subtract the hour off, and I ran it much faster.

4th leg from Panamint to Darwin: 29th fastest of 47 runners still in (3 more dropped), dropping me to 18th place. A 25:34 pace for the 18-mile leg, and a 17:58 overall. The time for this 18-mile leg included both the 2-hour stop at Panamint (1 _ hours of sleep in there) and the time working on my cramp. It was also mostly all uphill.

5th leg from Darwin to Lone Pine through the Owens Valley: 10th fastest of 46 runners still in (the final person dropped), moving me up to 13th place. Even though I had to start slowly for the first hour because of the cramp, I averaged 16:26 for the 32-mile leg, for an overall pace of 17:34.

Final leg from Lone Pine to the Whitney Portals: 7th fastest of the 46 runners still in, moving me up to 10th place overall. This mountain just continually gets steeper the further you go. I burned out my pacer and had to have him relieved. I did this 13-mile leg at an 18:13 pace, for a final overall average pace of 17:37.

Then, the next day, 3 of us climbed Mt Whitney, for another 22 miles. At the top, the clouds rolled in, it hailed on us, and the thunder and lightening off in the distance started coming closer, so we ran most of the way back down.

After the Race: I was very lucky. I had no blisters to speak of, except for a very tiny one my crew insisted needed fixing. I think they were just bored and needed something to do. I will probably lose 2 toenails from the run and another for sure from Whitney, but as many of you know, that is a fairly common occurrence even in marathons. Not a big deal. I don’t feel like running much, but I have led pace groups for Nike’s Club Run LA for the past two nights without difficulty, and it hasn’t been a week from the end of the race. I’m losing more weight after the race than I did during, where it didn’t really change much. My body fat dropped 3 percentage points from the day I left for the race to the day I returned. Interestingly, it makes me look fatter. Go figure! Because everywhere else is slimmer, the deposits that remain actually stand out more than they did when their appearance was smoothed by the presence of more body fat around them. I’m going to cool it for a while, mostly biking and swimming for the first month before I gear up to start training again.

The Future: Would I do it again? Absolutely! I could have completed this one faster by shortening the breaks. Will I do it next year? We’ll have to see. My business partners are very glad it’s over; they were feeling neglected because of all the attention I had to put on preparing for the race, and were concerned it was eating into my productivity. They are right; there is no doubt that it was. This kind of training can be destructive to relationships in general, something all you Ironman competitors know about. I have a few bridges to mend (you know who you are), if it’s still possible.

Death Valley is incredibly beautiful. While running through it, I kept being struck by the utter tenaciousness of Life. No matter how extreme the conditions, no matter how apparently barren the surroundings, if you looked closely you saw Life teeming everywhere. It was truly magnificent.

My crew people were brilliant. They were all rookies out there, but I had taken 3 of them with me over the Fourth of July Heat Training clinic. They became a good crew there. At the race, they became a great crew. I fell in love with every single one of them, and their devotion to getting me through this event was nothing short of humbling. One of those crewmembers was my son, Andrew, and that was especially great. I was thrilled to have him there helping me through this. His Ironman training made it a fairly easy task for him to keep up with me.

To all of you who sent me your good wishes pre-race, thoughts during, and congratulations after, thank you very, very much. You inspired me.

The Last Lone Runner

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.

Arthur Webb

Badwater: It seems Foolish at First

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!

Badwater to Mt. Whitney: The Way to Happiness

Crew for 2003 official finisher John JR Radich

Last week, we crewed and paced one of the Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon runners, John “JR” Radich. JR’s dedicated crew support consisted of 4 ultrarunners and bikers: Mark, Charlene, Jesse and Ivory. Marathons are a regular fare for the 49-year-old Monrovia resident, JR, who has been running extreme-endurance races for some 25 years, so he sets his sights even higher. As you know, Badwater (Death Valley) is the lowest point in the Americas. Then on Saturday, after the race, extreme ultrarunner “JR” and I ran to the “summit” of Mount Whitney. This was my first and about his 3rd MW summit climb (run).

During an interview early in the year by the Pasadena Star News, JR (who will run in the race for the fourth time) said: “There’s nothing like it. It’s the most intense race I’ve ever done. This race doesn’t care who you are, how many races you’ve won or how strong you are. It will test your mind and body to the limit and it will try to break you.”

News traveled fast back to Badwater event participants, as we heard about Sacramento Bee and other newspaper articles, plus that L.A. Times front page had a 7-page story on the Death Valley race and runners. The winners were one thing, but returning to watch and pay tribute to the very last finishers was more amazing, because you realized they had their very own interesting stories to tell. This year, his Badwater 135 mile finish time was about 10 minutes slower than last year’s Buckle. However, his team believes JR would definitely have broken below 40 hours, if a brand new Enterprise rental SUV with only 21-miles had not broken-down, with the A/C off during the entire event, in unrelenting heat. As a result, the runner and team lost about 4 hours off-loading all gear, ice and supplies onto a backup truck, plus the many long phone calls about the failed (“heat stroke”) Chevy Ventura SUV.

But a lot of extreme or bad things happened this year. Unofficial comments were: there was an unusually high 27 DNF (about 35 %), plus crews received about 40% of all medical attention (7 IV bags, etc) . And various running teams reported measured temps of 133 to around 140 degrees F! But Charlene deserves “Team Radich” commendations, for disappearing to sit in the dangerously hot broken-down van near the Scotty’s Castle road, while waiting for tow services, with only a jug of hot water and a popcicle delivered by a park ranger. And oh—projectile vomit that ultrarunner JR placed on my Brooks Adrenaline shoes in the “death zone” (between Furnace Creek & Stovepipe Wells, when he dropped to the hot ground covered with iced-towels), may be shipped to the highest bidder advertised on E-Bay.

Getting to sign your name & address in the Summit Log Book, stored in the locker right on the summit outside the Summit Cabin, is a reward. There was a slight bit of shivering plus quivering quads noticed up there. Perhaps to keep himself warm & know where I was, despite 2-way radios, JR ran back down to meet me along the last set of southwest trail switchbacks. No bothersome insects at high altitudes, was a treat! But since mountain lions or bears were no trouble, I understand that balloon-like swelling fingers and hands bother a few folks at higher altitudes (HAPE). We had departed in total darkness around 3:30 am Saturday morning. We made it back off the mountain to the vehicle at the Whitney Portals trailhead before dark after 7 pm. Of course we were very tired, from the treacherous ascent & descent. Later, one realized that there’s only 2 ways getting there – either by foot or helicopter. Rocky, boulder-laden trails would kill a horse! For fast hikers or runners at altitude, you will notice slight difficult breathing. Oh—the rocky 1,000 switchbacks were killers. Plus, passing through several spectacular meadows, blazing flowers, glaziers, and unbelievable views overlooking the PCT/JMT, Inyo, Lone Pine proper, Sequoia and Sierra Nevada’s was indescribable.

As you know, Mt Whitney (14,496 feet) was the tallest mountain in the USA, until Alaska’s Mt McKinley (20,320) was added. At one point on the summit, there was a furiously loud thunder, then within only about 2 minutes, rain and hell made us put on ponchos. Exposure to lighting is taken very seriously there! On the evening before running the summit, I purchased an “I Climbed Mt Whitney” shirt, so I had to live-up to it or never be seen wearing it. I felt sorry, as JR ran down carrying both our heavy packs to make time at several points, so I had to treat him later. What an incredible person. Wow – to pee or crap at the lowest or highest places on mother Earth! And oh, Rae Clark ran past me and others going up the 1,000 switchbacks, and was out-of-sight in no-time. As you know BTW: National Ultra Champion Rae Clark held the fastest time for the American World Record 50 km race (still unbroken, i think). I had dinner Tuesday night in Death Valley at SPW with Grand Slam awardee Errol “Rocket” Jones, Rae Clark & the “Skyline to the Sea” 50 km race director. Moments later at SPW, their Badwater race team & our team took group photos.

Interestingly, the local female cyclist on our team has biked over 18,000 miles around the world on every continent except Australia. Who knows what’s next for some of them, as Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Everest, Dead Sea and other ultraruns interest them more than watching soaps from a coach to combat city crimes, diseases or other causes. JR Radich’s fundraising goals for The Way To Happiness’ “Run The Crime Out of Los Angeles” was exceeded last year. Your deeply appreciated contributions and help are tax deductible and can still be accepted, by contacting or sending your donations to TWTH organization. HELP with the “Creating a Better World Youth Program.” MAKE A PLEDGE FOR THIS CAMPAIGN TODAY! Call, mail or fax it in at: The Way to Happiness International, 6381 Hollywood Boulevard, Suite 250, Hollywood, California 90028, Phone: (800) 255-7906, or (323) 962-7906, Fax: (323) 962-8605, Email:, or visit to donate online on our secure web site. Make a pledge—even if only a dollar per mile! By continuing to set his goals high, Radich said he hopes to exhibit one of the 21 precepts set forth in The Way to Happiness: “Set a good Example.”

It seens that TWTH’ “Set a Good Example” precept is a very good one. My knees are still dirty—bowing to the incredible BW entrants and finishers!

Ivory Phillips <team John “JR” Radich #77>

Badwater, A Good Comfortable Road

2003 official finisher

After running Badwater in July I have gotten many requests to write a short report of my adventures in the desert. Well I am not the keenest wordsmith, but I will nevertheless give it a try.

When I decided to run Badwater in summer of 2003, my loving wife, Marilyn was not very enthusiastic about this race. She was concerned about the extreme conditions, but excited about seeing Death Valley. Marilyn’s brother, Dave was much more enthusiastic over the whole idea and offered to crew for me, assuming that I was accepted into the race. So with the makings of crew I began in earnest to plan for 2003 edition of the race. To finish out my crew Dave recruited his son, Scott and we lined up good friend Stan Clarkson who was keenly interested in the event once he heard about it.

My first major training run was to do the Virginia Happy Trails Fat Ass 50 K in December. I rode down to the race with my training partner, Randy Dietz. As runners are wont to do we spent our time together talking about what our plans for the coming year. I told Randy that I was going to do Badwater. Randy thought that was really neat but thought I was crazy, reminding me that the run is all on the road and my feet would probably hurt when considering my plantar faciitus. I admit I hadn’t considered that possibility, but figured since my feet hurt most of time anyway, could it be much worse at Badwater? At the Fat Ass we had great Badwater Training conditions: mud, hills and lots of water. I figured if I could survive this run, a little trot through the desert with a crew at your beck and call couldn’t be that tough!

My training went really well. Randy and I did multiple long runs in the Pennsylvania mountains. A typical run would be to get up at some ungodly hour of the morning, drive to a remote trail head, run all day on wet rocky trails at the lightning quick speed of 3-4 miles per hour and conclude the run by quaffing a couple of beers. With this strict training regime plus numerous sessions of baking in the sauna at 150+ degrees prior to leaving for Death Valley, I felt that I was ready for the race.

The plan was to travel to Las Vegas where we would purchase most of our supplies. I had decided to run in shorts and a tee shirt, foregoing the haz-mat style sun protection suit that many runners prefer; I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. A major issue for this run was to make sure that we had enough ice for the race before arriving in Death Valley. To accomplish this we filled a 120-quart cooler with 100 pounds of ice and layered 35 pounds of dry ice on top to keep it frozen. This worked very well, the ice lasting intact throughout the first day

My crew, consisting of Marilyn, Dave and Scott Wilbur and Stan Clarkson and I arrived at Furnace Creek Ranch on Monday just in time for registration and the prerace briefing. I had my first opportunity to experience the desert heat first hand (it was in the low 120’s) and was it ever hot, especially with the heat radiating up from the pavement. Race registration and briefing was a protracted affair lasting about two hours in a hot auditorium. With conditions being so tough during registration I figured that the race would be piece of cake. At least we would be outside where there would be a breeze.

I was assigned the 8:00 AM start time.. After a good night’s sleep we all filed down to breakfast at 6:00 AM for the buffet. set up early for the race by the folks at Furnace Creek. After getting ourselves more or less organized, we traveled to the start at Badwater for the obligatory pictures and runner check-in. The race started promptly at 8:00 AM and we sauntered off toward Furnace Creek (mile 17.4).

My crew met me every mile or so to replenish my fluids, electrolytes and to make sure that I was eating. I really enjoyed this section of the run, as I was able to visit with the other runners and just cruise along.

After Furnace Creek the race began to get interesting as we were now in the heat of day. It became very tough to maintain anything resembling a run. I was relegated to walking after about 35 miles or so. During this section I spent some time with Barbara Elia, a Badwater veteran. She told me to make sure that I took a swim at Stovepipe Wells to cool down and regroup before heading up to Towne Pass.

As I was on the edge, I considered this to be good advice. At the sand dunes just outside of Stovepipe Wells, I got sick and puked my entire stomach contents. I am not sure if I was sick because of what I was eating or the heat and hot wind, which had come up that afternoon (It was reported that the temperature that afternoon were 130 + degrees F). After puking I felt better, but had no energy as I stumbled into Stovepipe Wells (mile 42.7) where we all jumped in the pool to cool off. Fortunately, I was cognizant enough to take off my shoes and socks. We spent about a half hour swimming and getting our act together before venturing into the dark up the mountain to Townes Pass.

While all this was going on my wife Marilyn was having trouble with the heat. Dave told her to get off the course to cool down. She spent some time in the AC at the Stovepipe Wells store before Stan drove her ahead to Panamint Springs where we had reserved a room to rest. I didn’t see her again until the next morning when I arrived there.

The climb up Townes Pass (5000 vertical feet in 17 miles) was interesting to say the least. It was hot and very dark, which coupled with fact that I didn’t feel that particularly well made for a long night. The climb went something like this: walk a couple of miles; get into car to whine about how slow and bad I was feeling. Then finally I would eat and drink. I was in “Poor Little Old Me” mode big time. Dave, Scott and Stan were great during this section in that they kept me hydrated, fed and didn’t pay attention to my moaning and groaning. In retrospect, I was pretty pitiful. With the rising of the sun I started to feel better, especially after drinking several bottles of half coke and half water. I reached Towne Pass (mile 58.7) early on Wednesday morning feeling somewhat peeked as I had pushed rather hard for the previous 3-5 miles or so. After some down time to get myself back together I got up feeling rather good and started the long down hill into Panamint Valley.

The downhill into Panamint Valley was probably the highlight of the race for me. I felt great, the views were spectacular and all I wanted to do was run. I cruised down the mountain at good steady clip just enjoying myself. I was higher then a kite; life couldn’t have been better. Dave came riding by in my crew car and hung his head out the window to comment: “Are you @%^#$^ nuts!” I guess he couldn’t rationalize why I could feel so bad one minute and so great the next. As it turned out the bad patch at the top of Towne Pass was my last for the race.

I arrived in Panamint Springs (mile72.3) at about 10:00 AM on Wednesday morning. I was tired, but otherwise feeling good. I took a short nap on a real bed to get off my feet, reenergizing myself for the second half of the race to the Mt. Whitney Portals.

Leaving Panamint Springs I started the climb to Father Crowley Turnout. It was overcast but turned bright and sunny shortly thereafter. I ended up doing most of the climb in the heat of the day, which really took stuffing out of me. During the climb you could clearly see your position in the race with respect to the other runners while switch backing up the pass. Coming up behind me was Marshall Ulrich, who finally caught me at Father Crowley’s Turnout. (mile 80.2). I walked with Marshal and his wife Heather for a mile or so. It was great to get some perspective on the race from one of the legends during our short time together.

After Father Crowley the wheels started to come off. My ITB started to tighten up which made it difficult to run. Even walking was becoming uncomfortable. Recognizing that I couldn’t maintain a pace fast enough to earn a buckle for a sub 48-hour finish, I shut it down and elected to enjoy myself, go for a finish and not worry about speed.

I arrived at the Darwin Turnoff (mile 90.1) at about 6:00 PM on Wednesday just in time to experience a late afternoon desert shower.

To illustrate how “loopy” one can get during a run like this, I was talking strategy (as if I had one at this point) with Dave and Scott at the turnoff. We were standing out next to the time check when I decided I needed to pee, which I did without hesitation. Neither Dave or Scott noticed that I was peeing until Scott remarked: “Uncle Bill you are pissing on my foot!” to which I replied much to my surprise “Sorry“ and continued peeing, although I did shift slightly to the left just missing Dave’s foot. I was the butt of many jokes as this story was retold countless times over the next couple of days.

Shortly after Darwin Turnoff Marilyn and Stan rejoined us. They had gone onto Lone Pine to pick up ice and other miscellaneous supplies. While in Lone Pine Marilyn and Stan decided to pick up subs for everyone except me! As I was coming down the road I saw both crew cars together and everyone eating a delicious looking sub. Marilyn offered me a bite, which I graciously accepted. I could have eaten the whole thing but didn’t want to eat her supper. After eating supper my crew stayed together for the next couple of hours while I leapfrogged positions with Ken Eielson, of Colorado. The highlight of this section was the ice crème bars that Ben Jones’ crew gave us while on they’re way to Lone Pine. With the coming of darkness Dave and Stan went to Lone Pine to sleep while I was crewed by Marilyn and Scott.

My ITB had really tightened up and I was having a lot of trouble making forward progress. Scott suggested that I get into the chair so that he could stretch my ITB and hip flexors. After that he stretched my legs about every two miles or so, which worked great on the right leg, but the left leg remained very sore. With the coming darkness we lost all perspective of where we were on the course; it was just flat and dark. I had trouble gauging my pace and staying focused, which coupled with my sore left leg, made for a very long night. I found that I could run somewhat more comfortably than I could walk, however I didn’t have the energy to run so I just shuffled along as best I could. I reached Keeler (mile 107.8) at about 1:45 AM where Stan and Dave came back from their break to relieve Marilyn and Scott. They were with me for the rest of the night on the run (walk???) into Lone Pine.

Both Dave and Stan walked with me for the next several hours to keep me company. While on the way into Lone Pine we could see the lights of runner’s crew vehicles as they made their way up the Portal Road off in the distance. This was discouraging, as I knew that I had several more hours before I too would be climbing. Dave and I got into a big discussion of how far it was to Lone Pine. I was really focused on Lone Pine because I knew once there the end was in sight. Since we really didn’t know how far it was we sent Stan to clock the distance to the Dow Villa Hotel. Stan took off in the crew car and left Dave and me walking toward Lone Pine. By this time I was becoming irritable and very impatient. I had it in my head that I had 4 miles to go; however when Stan arrived he reported that the distance was closer to 7 miles, which really sent me into a tizzy. I was took off running as I had no intention of spending the next two to three hours on this long straight road. I ran most of the way to the Hwy.190/395 intersection (mile 120.3). I had had enough fun for the past two days and was anxious to get the whole thing over with.

I reached the Dow Villa (mile 122.3) at about 7:30 AM. Dave and I chased Scott out of bed and I went into the bathroom in an attempt to wash off a tube of SPF 50 Sun Block, which was on my hands and arms, religiously applied by my crew throughout the race. I felt like a grease ball. After washing up, I bolted out of the Dow Villa heading for the Portal Road, only I didn’t know where it was. Dave and Stan were getting a cup coffee and noticed me going up the wrong road. Dave took off after me and finally got me headed in the right direction. Needless to say I was somewhat irritated at this point and in no mood for jokes.

With my full crew intact we headed up the Portal Road though the Alabama Hills to the Mt. Whitney Portal and the finish. This portion of the race went very well for me. I had plenty of energy and was able to climb at a good pace despite my sore left leg. I enjoyed walking with my crew and the spectacular views as I progressed up the mountain. I finished the race at 12:49 PM for a total elapsed time of 52:49:18; all in all a very satisfying and memorable experience.

Out of My League, or Home at Last?

2002 finisher

The first time I went to Death Valley to train for the world’s toughest Ultra marathon I realized I was out of my league. I ran four hours in 110-degree heat when I started crying for no reason and my nose started to bleed. I’m going home, end of discussion.

When you sign up, if invited, they make you sign a death waiver. The pavement can get to 200 degrees, and heat can get to 135-plus during the race. I’ve done stupider things, but can’t really put them to print. The thought of running for 2 days and 2 nights with 13,000 vertical feet and a 4,700-ft descent, from the lowest point in the US to the highest, caught up with me. “Going home. End of discussion. I made a mistake.”

The fear sets in. Fear of failure, ridicule and anger. All that training of running up and down Mt Tam with a backpack in the ski parka, and sitting in the sauna endless hours will go to waste. “Nahhhh…..suck it up, you wimp.”

I train 3 more weekends in the desert. I start to get it. Two weeks before the race I run 7 hours in 120 degrees and love it. Confidence is a good thing in a race like this, humility even better.

Race morning we drive the support van to the starting line 18 miles away. Rich Clark, my training buddy, is with me. He holds almost every Ironman course record in the world in the 60+ age category. Joe Amato, one of my best friends for 30+ years, is in the back. I call Joe the Human Calculator. He also knows how to piss me off if I need it. I found this out playing golf and chess over the years where he routinely humbles me at both. Just in case I need a little prodding I know it will descend on me if I dare start to whine. Mental is 100% of this race. To have the best crew is even more important. We become so interdependent on each other physically and emotionally throughout the event it is hard to describe. They are the real heroes. I’m merely the one stupid enough to have signed the death waiver.

Ten miles from the starting line I see two Germans running and warming up. I once again question the IQ of the company I’m in. (It turns out they weren’t just warming up; they were just finishing running 135 miles from the finish line before the race even started!) Lots of activity at the Start. Pictures, Discovery Channel, interviews with Runners World, endless press. You get the feeling they are interviewing morons who are on a one-way path to …well, Death Valley.

They have 3 staggered starts to spread out the field. We are the second group and go off at 8am. The first 40 miles are flat but also the hottest part of the course. Logic says, “Conserve once you get through this part–you have a nice 5,000-ft climb of 13 miles, so why run hard now?”

We have a long-term plan and are sticking to it. Start slow, walk a lot, shuffle along, drink a half-liter every mile. Stick with your diet as planned. Temperatures were recorded 126 in the shade, but you can add 10 to 15 degrees in the sun. Around 4-5pm is the hottest part of the day. Here we shuffle past sand dunes and Devils Cornfield with a nasty 20-naut breeze in our ear. The sun is now setting and square in your face. The front of the shoes are ever so hot. I try hard to keep my heels in the back of my shoes…feet are on fire. Stove Pipe, first checkpoint: 42 miles, 11+ hours. We move right through it. As we start the climb there are some thirty vans parked here–racers taking a break, some drop-outs, some Bonk-ers. We never stop, instead move right through the checkpoint. Many racers run a mile, stop for a minute or two for water. The Human Calculator, Joe, says, “Hey, that’s 135 stops and takes over 2-4 hours off your time.”

We believe strategy is the key for this race. I keep moving. They bring me the water. I think, “A smart crew, combined with a sense of humor, is a must.” The next 6 or 7 hours are straight UP to 5,000 feet. We have a full moon, experience many strange shadows and encounter many racers along the long climb. On a particular 1-mile stretch there are about twenty of us having a barfing contest. I’m in front of this parade of athletes and vans and am convinced I won First Prize: First in “Volume Discarded” and First in “Sound Made in the Process.” Seals would have been jealous of us of our tenor talent.

During the race, we call home as often as we can, but cell phones don’t work out here so wife Linda is enduring 8- to 10-hour intervals between updates. She is the liaison between our friends and family. She is taking care of Ben, age 4, who is not really safe to be here in this heat.

Around 2 or 3am, just short of the summit, I decide I need a 5-minute nap. They wake me up 52 minutes later. “Yikes! Why so long, Guys?” “You needed it,” came back the answer.

I took a total of five or six 5-minute naps, which seemed to work wonders. I was able to fall asleep in about 2 seconds. It worked wonders for my energy level during the race. The descent is short and very steep. It was around 90-100 degrees during the night and very comfortable. Rick shows me a lacing trick so I don’t slide forwards in my shoes. My blisters, though, do need attention, but I wait ’til the sun comes up. 6am: Dr. Rich the Surgeon takes over. Blisters on the balls of my feet get cut, drained, taped and sanitized. We lose 7 minutes then head across the second valley.

We go through a long, barren, sandy stretch. Joe hits golf balls as I shuffle by. He manages to find the only bush in the valley. The humor is high, the spirit outstanding. We get dive-bombed by fighter jets, just like in the movie Top Gun. Nice break in the routine. Fascinating to see them zip by 100 yards above the ground. Rich and Joe go ahead to replenish ice and supplies at the next checkpoint. I order eggs, toast and real food. I wolf it down in 5 minutes. Off we go. Back up to 5,000 feet in a long and winding ascent we climb. Much like what you see at the Tour de France.

It is early afternoon the next day and hot, hot, and hot! We pass a few athletes, as we seem to get stronger as the day goes on. Thirty hours of racing. Joe plays the radio over the walkie-talkies. The Dow is up almost 500, and Lance is kicking ass on the Tour de France. The cell phone finally works. I call Linda on her cell phone hoping she won’t answer. I can’t handle that love stuff right now. Need to stay tough and focused. The slightest “I love you” from her would make me melt, so I tell her, “I love you,” instead and pass the buck. Glad I have my sunglasses on so my crew can’t see my eyes.

We reach the next summit, and it is a brownish haze. Somewhere out there is a 34,000-acre wildfire ablaze. We smell it, taste it, and see ash flying. The sun sets at 3pm in a dark mango color. Eerie feeling. It feels like we are on Mars. This long, gradual downhill stretch seems endless. When I tell my crew based on my calculations I don’t think we can make the 48-hour cut-off to get the prestige buckle award, they seem rather calm about it. Do they know something I don’t know?

When I tell Rich, “I want to run a while, lace up and help me,” he is almost adamant about me walking. We run anyway. When he tells me Joe’s calculations are off by a mile, I get more suspicious. The Human Calculator doesn’t make mistakes. They are sandbagging some time. I don’t say a word.

It’s dark as hell now. The moon is full, but dark orange. There is no depth perception. The stretch goes on for eternity. Run a little, walk a little, run a little …

As I bend over to stretch, I look at the pavement and there are thousands of bats flapping their wings, all in 3-D. I pee in the sand, and the entire ground turns into living plant life moving up to knee-level. Everything around me is in motion. I hallucinate for the next 8-10 hours. During the night I experience the most fantastic visual experience I’ve ever witnessed. (I know. I went through the 60’s!) Plants and bushes turn into dinosaurs snapping at me as I go by. I see pianos and furniture in the middle of the road. Physically, I’m fine, but the visual deserves an Oscar.

Finally, we hit Lone Pine now. Start heading up towards the 8,000-ft finish line. We have 14 miles to go and 7 hours to do it in. This seems absurd, but the race manual says, “Be prepared to do 1 mile an hour.” It is that steep. We figure if we do 40-minute miles we can still buckle. Rich, who’s been on the road with me for 26 miles now, laughs and we all get giddy. Joe’s humor is endless. He gives us our stats as we head straight up Mt Whitney.

We do the first mile in 17 minutes, the second in 17 minutes, Mile 3 in 19 minutes. We are flying uphill. “It’s in the bag,” or so we think. We back off and settle into 20-minute miles. Four miles to go. I need to sit down. I sleep instantly while sitting up. I wake up seconds later and freak out, “Let’s go. Let’s go.” “Take your time,” Rich let’s it slip, “you got more time then you need.” They conned me the last 24 hours, always putting time in the bank. We have 3 hours to do 2 miles. What a team, what a crew!

I’m numb as I cross the finish line, too tired to cry. I am overwhelmed and still not fully comprehending what has transpired. Maybe as I unwind I’ll figure it out. Right now as I sit on a plane to London with family I feel like a servant of the gods who was allowed to play in their backyard for a couple of days and survive.

Total time: 45 hours, 52 minutes, 6 seconds.
20th Male finisher out of 64 (21 did not finish).

Running with the Gods

2002 official finisher

It was a Runner’s World article about Marshall Ulrich’s run through Death Valley, California, that captured my fascination with the race, Badwater 135.

Then, last year, as crew for Paul Stone I attended the pre-race meeting. I felt like I was an impostor. Did I have the right to be in the company of these super humans, these gods who could cover 135 miles in such an extreme environment?

Still, a few months later I completed my own qualifying race. Further training was delayed due to a serious leg infection. To make things worse all the old leg problems came out to haunt me. The confidence was starting to shake. But if cancer victim Rick Nawrocki did it, I had no excuses. This was going to be total immersion into planning, recovery and training. This was my Olympics!

My wife, Erlinda, and I packed our trailer and left Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, for a six-day drive to the southwest United States. Car problems requiring a new transmission only briefly dampened our spirits. We stopped at Grand Canyon for some serious hill training. Fulfilling Erlinda’s wish, we did a double-crossing hike of the Canyon in two days.

After a supply pit stop in Las Vegas, we arrived in Death Valley for the July 4th clinic, “The Jones Experience.” Ben warmly introduced himself at poolside. Soon all the excited invitees and crew were chatting away. We became instant friends with Dave Remington and his friend, Helen Jones. In her caring way, Denise Jones reviewed foot care with obvious expertise.

The small western town of Lone Pine was going to be our home base for the next ten days. I expected John Wayne to come riding down the road. The daily routine was simple: train in the Valley heat and spend a lonely night in the Mt. Whitney Portal’s altitude (8,300 ft.). On one run, I met the friendly Mike Haviland, who was with the friendly Drina, Hirst. He had just finished his own hard workout. We had the good fortune in enjoying Ben and Denise’s company.

The much-anticipated day of the pre-race meeting had arrived. This time, I felt I belonged there. Dave Remington came over with a gift, a rather expensive shirt. Moved by this gesture, I promised to wear it. Among the international field of athletes was Marshall Ulrich, an incredible specimen of fitness with an equally impressive list of achievements. The charming and unassuming world-record-holder, Monica Scholz, came in with her mom. Pioneer Al Arnold, the first to have completed the route back in ’77, held everyone’s attention. When Ben introduced me as the person who most represented what the race was about, I was stunned. Did an ordinary guy who just worked hard deserve a nod? But there was no time for an inflated ego. The crew and I rushed to a nearby hotel, where, over dinner, we reviewed the details of our strategy. They were pumped and jovial. Later I would find out that Erlinda, because of all the responsibilities and excitement, would not sleep for the next 70 hours. Affectionate hugs and well wishes were shared with Paul and Abby Stone.

Next morning, like clockwork we drove to Badwater, 280 feet below sea level, for the 0800-start. The first wave of runners had already been released at 0600. One by one these galloping golden Gods waved as they flew by. At the start, events were moving quickly. I had a brief stretch and then a stop in the outhouse, affectionately known as Ben’s office. Then I made a dash to the Badwater sign for a group photo and another, at the start-line. Then, with a kiss from Erlinda, a hug from Denise, and thumbs up from the guys, I stood ready savoring the moment. Thirty proud and united souls were ready to take on this monumental challenge. The start was both civilized and majestic. Ah, the joy of running. Freedom. Wide, blue sky. My body felt light but powerful as I skimmed the winding road over dips and curves. The awakening desert was bright with optimism. Race director, Chris Kostman, zoomed by on his motorcycle keeping an eye on things.

Easily we moved to the first station, Furnace Creek (17 miles), a palm-treed oasis. The crew consisting of Tony Bridwell, Larry James, little brother Joe, and Erlinda checked us in and topped up the four critical ice chests. Then we entered the death zone. The scorching sun brought all runners to a walk. The Continent’s highest temperature enveloped us. It was 125 degrees in the shade, if you could find it. Survival took top priority. Soaking cloths with water and ice and drinking was our defense. Frankly, the beautiful sand dunes got little notice. At the Stovepipe Wells (41 miles) station the media mixed questions with pictures, as we ate, stretched and rested. Some small, unfortunate miscalculation would keep 25% of us from proceeding. It could happen to anyone.

The first “hill” rose 5,000 feet over the next 18 miles. Two miles up the lights nearly went out for me. The crew sat me on a chair, placing ice on my head and neck. With wobbly knees we inched our way up wards. On the shoulder of the road, in her van and surrounded by crew, Ernie Rambo appeared to be in trouble. “Good luck, Ernie” was all that came out, in response to her faint smile. Denise was making her rounds to see if we were OK. As soon as sun dipped below the mountains everything changed. Tony with Clydesdale power paced us yet kept the conversation light. Strength returned. The full moon shown so brightly that a flashlight was not necessary. Towne’s Pass (59 miles) brought on great exhilaration. Jack Menard and his crew were not about to hold back. Their joy was quite contagious. We rapidly moved down into Panamint Valley, drinking and eating as much as possible. Without losing a beat we pushed through the next station at Panamint Springs Resort (72 miles) and up the next hill. Our goal was to reach the top before sunrise and the dangerous heat. Just slightly ahead, Jody-Lynn Reicher was bounding effortlessly over stones and shrubs. The 180-degree pavement heat had penetrated through her shoes burning her feet and thus forcing her to the difficult shoulder. Now I started to fade. Her advice to focus on the horizon helped greatly. Still, the time came where only yards from the crew, I came to a stop. No muscle could be willed to move. The gang moved quickly. Some pumped liquids and energy gel into me while others broke ugly blisters and cut out the edge of my shoes to relieve pressure. As he passed by, Marshall Ulrich offered help. In minutes we were on our not-so-merry way. Lone Pine (122 miles) seemed to be on the other side of the planet. As he was driving by, Ben instantly calculated that a 40-hour finish was attainable by continuing at a 22:18 pace. Our spirits were lifted again, upon entering the town. The crew worked franticly to get ready for the home stretch, the last 4.600-foot hill. Again the setting sun made it easier. Tony was doing everything for me, except walk. Larry, while joking around, was supplying drinks and food. Erlinda was comforting with her soft, soothing tones. Joe, a brilliant strategist, kept track of the distance and time remaining to get under 40 hours. Mile after mile I repeated the mantra “I can do this”. It was working! Over the last few yards we held hands unified by this great achievement. Just before midnight, we crossed the finish line, utterly exhausted, but completely satisfied. I was oblivious to the great news that a woman (Pam Reed) had won in record-breaking time. As we drove down, I kept fading in and out of sleep, in mid sentence. At one point we stopped, when Jody-Lynn Reicher, in her amazing way, pushed an energetic hand through the window in congratulations.

The post-race get together was filled with lasting stories and sweet emotion.

A few hours later, upon Ben’s encouragement, I returned to the finish line. I was there in the darkness to hike the unofficial 11 miles and 6,300 feet to Mt. Whitney’s summit, solo. By noon, on the 14,497-foot peak, I was basking in perfect sunshine and relaxing in conversation with fellow Badwater runners Linda McFadden, Barbara Elia, and Jan Levet (crew). I gave someone my camera. With one hand pointing at the lens and the other over my heart, I said, “take one for my wife”. For the first time I lost control of my emotions and then wept. The summit was so seductive that it would have been easy to spend the day there. But there was no time to waste. I had to get off the mountain and get to safety. Between the altitude and the rationing of food and water, I drifted into a catatonic state. I was a horrifying bag of bones. The return was a slow, agonizing step at a time. Just minutes before nightfall it was over. Humbled. I was reminded that we are mere mortals just straining to be like Him/Her. I hope He/She approved of our efforts. For a while we saw a little bit of Him/Her in each other’s faces and actions. What a thrill!