This was one of the most unusual Badwater runs yet, as if running in the middle of summer in the hottest location in the country isn’t unusual enough. Forty-four runners, their crew, race staff, and a thirty-one person film crew all converged on Death Valley for what is considered one of the toughest runs on earth. I was there to support my friend Steven Silver, from El Paso, on his third Badwater run. Previously, Steven had come in second in 1996 and sixth in 1997 (my first experience at Badwater.)
So what was so unusual this year? Temperatures were cooler this year and may not have even cracked the 120 degree mark, although I’m sure it got close. Humidity was high as monsoon rains from the Gulf of Mexico swirled north and then west across Nevada and into Death Valley. These rains forced the closing of the Badwater Road on race day, and delayed the usual 6 A.M.
Initially, due to the road closure, race management sent the caravan of runners 14 miles up Highway 190 to an elongated turnout as an alternate start location. After several informal and sometimes heated meetings between runners, race staff, and a frustrated film producer/director, it was decided to delay the race until 10 A.M. when the Badwater Road would hopefully be opened. Racers and crew drove back to Furnace Creek and quickly filled the both restaurants. Thankfully, while we were eating and resting, they opened the road, and the race started at Badwater, preserving the traditional start location and morning start.
I will not go into all the details of the race, others will be able to do that much better than me. However, something else happened this year that was unusual, something that has nothing to do with weather, start times, or temperature. Instead, it has to do with two runners and their crews. They did not know each other at the start of the race but somehow wound up working together to share both the pain and the joy of this great race.
After leaving Stovepipe Wells, Steven encountered a strong headwind and a brief thunderstorm on the eighteen-mile climb up to Townes Pass. About halfway up, Steven caught up to Art Webb from Santa Rosa California. He had a two-vehicle crew Juli Dell’era, Vincent Pedroia, and John Rodgers. Howard Zatchick my crewmate and I were both tired and were wondering how we were going to keep running with Steven. He was not slowing down despite the heat, wind, and hills. Neither of us could run as far as Steven. We secretly hoped that he and Art would stick together for a while and give us a break.
Our wish came true, Art and Steven hit it off and magically maintained a steady pace. As they climbed to the top of Townes Pass, then across Panamint Valley, up to Father Crowley’s Point, and around the Owens Dry Lake into Lone Pine they made steady progress from seventh and eighth place to fourth and fifth. Art and Steven had bonded and so had their crews.
After a short break and a quick hamburger and rubdown in Lone Pine, Steven and Art set out on the last leg of the run, a grueling thirteen mile four thousand four hundred foot climb up to Whitney Portal. The late afternoon sun was hot and beat down on us as we power walked through the Alabama Hills. We kept Art and Steven cooled off with plenty of spritzing. As we neared the first of two major switchbacks, the remaining mileage became a frequent topic of discussions. We finally decided that at the end of the first switchback it was three miles to the finish. Everyone was calculating when we might finish. If they kept up their brisk pace, they could finish in just over 34 hours. Art’s previous finish was 44 plus hours and Steven’s best was 37:45. Both of them were on track to shatter their previous PR.
We completed the first switchback in about 20 minutes and made the turn for the second one. Twelve minutes later we had it behind us and we were not slowing down even at the higher altitude. As we started to pass the first campground we could hear people yelling and clapping as we headed into the canyon and the shadow of Mount Whitney 14, 495 feet above.
Steven kept asking how much further and I told him just over a mile. I could tell both of them were getting a little anxious. Suddenly, Steven saw a sign that said one mile and he looked at his watch and became extremely excited. If they could finish this last mile in less that 18 minutes they would break 34 hours. Steven began to run and so did Art. Steven moved ahead about 50 yards as Art struggled to keep running in the thin air. I knew there was one shorter steep hill ahead and I advised Art to keep going and that he could do it. Steven was up ahead yelling back encouraging words to Art also.
As we cleared the steep hill with an eighth of a mile to go Art was struggling. Steven was still up ahead yelling for Art to keep going. Art kept asking how much further and I told him it was just around a bend in the road up ahead. People on the side of the road were cheering. Steven yelled to Art that he was going to wait for him. I told Art he had it made and to just keep moving. We could no longer see Steven as he ran around the last bend in the road. As we came around, we could see the massive movie lights at the finish line. On either side everyone was assembled; Art’s crew, his wife, Christine, Howard Zatchick (my co-crew mate), race staff, campers, and film crew all yelling and cheering Steven and Art on. As soon as Steven saw Art, he ran down the hill to meet him. They ran the last 30 yards together and crossed the finish line with arms raised in triumph, finishing in an incredible time of 33:57. They will share fourth place behind Eric Clifton (27:49), Gabriel Flores (28:36), and Mark Godale (29:58).
Art bent over with hands to knees for several minutes as he composed himself. Steven had one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen. Soon Art stood up and raised his arms above his head like the hero he is. It was time to celebrate.
What a dramatic finish, with Steven and Art crossing the finish line together after having run the last 90 miles together. It was no longer a question of who could be faster or who could win but rather, it was about the respect and understanding that can grow between people joined in a common goal – and what a goal Badwater is. Both of these guys demonstrated the highest degree or courage and sportsmanship throughout the race. Tears of joy and happiness filled everyone’s eyes as they witnessed this wonderful finish to a perfect race. I am proud to be associated with both of these great guys and their excellent crewmembers and everyone else at Badwater.
Jim Wolff, Stan Swartz, and Samir Shahin M.D. are co-author of 50 Trail Runs in Southern California published by The Mountaineers. Jim also supported Steven Silver in the 1997 Badwater race.
July 15, 1999 to July 16, 1999
Badwater, Death Valley, to Whitney Portals
BADWATER TURNED INTO FLOODWATER
Article and results courtesy and © Ben Jones
Everyone is aware of the flash floods in the eastern California and Nevada deserts recently after the news from Las Vegas deluge of the “Strip” and Caesar’s Palace a week before the race. In the days before the event, runners started showing up at Stovepipe Wells Village. The staff there was well aware of what was about to happen and was looking forward to it. No one was quite expecting an apocalypse however.
The runner’s exposition was well attended. Everyone was excited and apprehensive. Many old acquaintances were made as well as new ones as half of the participants were first-timers this year. Course rules were reviewed by the staff, the California Highway Patrol and the National Park Service Rangers. Chris Kostman, Race Director of the Furnace Creek 508 Bicycle Race, presented Marshall Ulrich with a plaque for completing the Death Valley Cup (racing Badwater and the 508 in the same year). Marshall did it in 1996. Marshall was also recognized for his recent solo, self-contained, un-supported crossing from Badwater to the top of Mt. Whitney in just over 77 hours. Denise Jones held a foot-care clinic after the exposition.
Right after the exposition and a runner’s reception, the apocalypse started. A black wall appeared in the north preceded by a plume of dust sucked up from the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes. As the squall proceeded southward, rain started to pelt down and then turned into a sheet of water streaking in at a 30-degree angle. Rivulets of mud started flowing through the motel walks and almost into the rooms. Rivulets soon turned into muddy-brown streams. Flashes of lightning and cracking thunder kept us on our toes. Over the next two hours the cell of energy moved on to Furnace Creek and Badwater. Flash floods caused mud to cover much of the highway in between. Temperatures which had reached 112 degrees dropped. Eighteen miles to the east at 5,000 ft. it was 61 degrees. From this point at Townes Pass, the spectacle was even more dramatic because, as the sun started to shine again, a beautiful double-rainbow appeared within the black cloud and lightning streaks.
Between 0400 and 0500 Thursday morning 07-15-1999 the armada left for Badwater. We were diverted by the Hi-Tec staff and a closed gate at the Badwater turnoff to an alternate site 17 miles to the east. Communications were established by the CHP with the NPS staff. Many of the elite and old-time runners in this race pleaded for a Badwater start. With tremendous cooperation of these agencies, a contingency plan was hastily adopted. We agreed to return to a staging area near the date orchard in front of the Furnace Creek Ranch until the NPS maintenance crew could plow the 17-mile road between there and Badwater. This was done and at 0900 the armada drove to Badwater. Group pictures were taken and last-minute interviews were held. Adam Bookspan, concert trumpeter for the Florida Philharmonic, played the National Anthem. Watches were synchronized. At exactly 1000, Matt Frederick, Race Director, sent the 42 runners on their journey. It was four hours later than the usual start time.
Eric Clifton took the lead immediately. At one point he was five miles ahead. This narrowed later after the trailing runners stepped up their pace. He set a new men’s AM-start record of 27:09 and this was his third try here. Gabriel Flores, who broke David Jones’ record last year of 29:10 in 28:09, maintained second place fairly early and closed the gap to finish in 28:36. Mark Godale, a new-comer to Badwater, put on a spectacular performance for third place and was also under 30 hours in 29:58. Steven Silver and Art Webb, both returnees and over age 50, shared the last 90 miles together. Steven held back about 30 seconds at the finish so both could share fourth place in 33:57. Marshall Ulrich put on a courageous performance, especially after his solo within the last two weeks, to come in sixth. Dale Sutton, the “pajama man,” returned for another spectacular performance for the second time to come in seventh.
The women deserve a lot of credit this year for some remarkable performances. This year there were seven women at the starting line. Angelika Castenada, of the Twin Team, completed the course for the fourth time along with her sister, Barbara Alvarez Warren. They had just won the National Triathlon Championships in Florida and are headed for the World Triathlon Championships in Canada. They were the only women to do Badwater in 1989 and 1990 and were therefore first in those years. In 1991 they improved by about eight hours but were behind Bonnie Boyer, who set the women’s PM-start record of 36:19:20 and they did it in 40:05:10. Now Angelika set a new women’s AM-start record this year of 36:58 breaking Lisa Smith’s 1997 record by three minutes and was the eighth finisher overall. Louise Cooper-Lovelace is recovering from breast cancer surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. She and Lisa Smith were running for charity including breast cancer cure and paralysis research. Louise was the second woman and was the thirteenth overall finisher. Barbara Warren, mentioned above, was the third woman. Fourth and fifth women, Maria DeJesus and Cathy Tibbetts came in fairly close together. My wife, Denise Jones, First Lady of Badwater, improved her time by over six hours to finish for the third time as the sixth woman. All of the women finishers buckled within the 48-hour time limit.
The other finish times are listed below. There were 33 finishers of whom 25 buckled within the 48-hour time limit.
Nine of the 42 starters did not finish. Jason Hodde had an aggravating Achilles tendinitis problem and quit after completing the first marathon distance. Jurgen Ankenbrand, who finished in 1990 and 1992, made it about 35 miles and had to drop because of problems with his feet; he covered the rest of the race as a photographer and encouraged the other runners to the end. Major Curt “Bill” Maples had to drop at 40 miles and needed IV fluids thereby being disqualified. After recovering, he and his fellow Marines, jumped ahead to join and support Maria DeJesus and encourage her to the finish line. Brian Van Oene, from Canada, quit at Stovepipe Wells (41 miles) with stomach trouble. Bill Menard, previous winner at this race, quit with stomach problems at around 50 miles. Carlos Banderas, who, besides Gabriel, also broke the 1997 record last year, had to drop at 55 miles after stepping on a rock in the dark and sustaining a stress fracture. David Jones, previous record holder from 1997, had to drop at 60 miles due to a vertigo problem. Dan Jensen, amputee from a mine-blast injury in Viet Nam, developed swelling of his stump and could no longer wear the prosthesis after 95 miles. Lisa Smith, who recently was the first American finisher at the Marathon des Sables, and was running for breast cancer cure and paralysis research, had a virus disorder and a reaction to a skin application (DMSO), stopped for IV’s at 129 miles and was disqualified, however she later completed the course to the Portals.
During the Race the temperatures were 10 to 15 degrees cooler than usual. The trade-off was increased humidity to 55-100 % giving a high heat index. A storm similar to the one pre-race occurred in the afternoon. A huge dust storm occurred without rain at the Stovepipe Wells dunes giving a dramatic effect for the film crew as runners had to lean sideways into the wind and blowing sand. A lightning storm and flash flooding occurred again with road closures below Furnace Creek.
Leland Hammerschmitt of Ramstead Productions along with Mel Stuart and Chris Wiser were responsible for directing 28 other film people in a two-hour documentary which is being called “Running on the Sun.” They did a marvelous job of coordinating their activities both before and during the race in capturing the human element as well as the race itself. We will all be rewarded in about six months by being able to see it on TV perhaps on the Discovery Channel.
1999 HI-TEC BADWATER/WHITNEY 135 RESULTS
Place, Name, Home State, Age, Sex, Finish Time, Time to Top
01. Clifton, Eric NM 41 M 27:49! New men’s record 46:26 1st
02. Flores, Gabriel CA 33 M 28:36
03. Godale, Mark OH 29 M 29:58
04. Webb, Art CA 57 M 33:57
Silver, Steven TX M 33:57
06 Ulrich, Marshall CO 48 M 35:52 50:10 2nd
07. Sutton, Dale CA 59 M 36:11
08. Casteneda, Angelika CA 56 F 36:58! New women’s record
09. Lapanja, Bob CA 45 M 37:51
10. Hanna, Noel IRE 31 M 39:03
11. Decker, Joe MD 29 M 39:37 104:00 8th
12. Ankeney, Bobb CA M 40:05 57:00 3rd
13. Cooper, Louise CA F 40:14
14. Russias, Pierre FRA 55 M 40:28
15. Manley, Brian CO 36 M 41:23
16. Warren, Barbara CA 56 F 41:25
17. Saffery, Clive TIA M 42:15
18 Palazzo, Nick NY 52 M 43:07
19. Justin, Mick MN 51 M 43:09 73:05 5th
20. DeJesus, Maria UK 34 F 43:10
21. Tibbets, Cathy NM 44 F 43:47
22. Bookspan, Adam FL 33 M 44:43 Race walker record
23. Hamilton, Jim CA M 45:47
24. Jones, Denise CA 53 F 45:54 80:03 7th
25. Simmons, Stephen WV M 46:56 59:00 4th
26. Rosmus, John CA 50 M 49:07
27. Merienne, Jean Jacques FRA M 49:45
28. Smit, Robin CA M 51:10 74:24 6th
29. Romesberg, Ephraim CA 68 M 53:10
30. Moon, Chris UK 37 M 53:48
31. Denness, Jack UK 54 M 54:06
32. Johnson, Kirk NJ M 54:26
33. Weber, Scott CO M 56:34 77:18:28
42 starters, 33 finishers
In August of 1995, Rhonda Provost of Forestville, California, became the first woman to run from Badwater in the heart of Death Valley to the peak of Mt. Whitney, and back—a distance of nearly 300 miles. The course is famous for starting at the lowest point (-282 feet) in the Western Hemisphere and running to the highest point (14,494 feet) in the contiguous U.S. Death Valley is also famous for sporting the highest summer temperatures in the world.
She completed the grueling course in 143:45, just under six days. In the process, she became the eighth runner to complete the “out-and-back” course.
Rhonda had served as the medical director in 1989 for the first-ever out-and-back attempt on the course, which was made by Tom Crawford and her husband, Rich Benyo. Both were successful in their attempt. In the process, Rhonda developed some revolutionary—and unique—medical approaches to on-course treatment, including the use of duct tape as a “first skin.” By fashioning a foot covering of duct tape to Tom’s and Rich’s feet, she theorized that at least for the first day of running, the duct tape would take most of the abuse of the 200+ degree heat of the roads, saving the runners’ feet from early blistering. (In later years, the duct tape was replaced with even better tapes which helped to reduce, or even prevent, blisters for the duration of the race.)
As a nurse anesthetist, she also applied her expertise once blisters did develop. She had served for several years as medical director at various aid stations at the Western States 100, and had assembled The Red Box, a metal medical kit that set new standards for completeness.
She also served as medical director for Rich Benyo’s second (1991) attempt at the out-and-back and at Tom Crawford’s one-way attempt that year. She again provided medical support at Rich’s successful third attempt on the out-and-back course in 1992.
For her own 1995 attempt to run the out-and-back course, her crew consisted of her husband Rich as crew chief, Jean Ennis (who with Tom Crawford comprised the U.S. team in the first-ever official “race” on the course, that in 1987), “Uncle Billy” Owens (uncle of Tom’s wife Nancy, and frequent crew member for Crawford and Benyo), and Tony Gilbert, a massage therapist. Denise Jones served as her mountain crew.
“Even 11 years after the fact, the Death Valley out-and-back remains (and I’m confident will always remain) one of the high points of my life,” Rhonda commented recently, “not because I completed it, or the first woman thing, because, quite frankly, other than the rest of the team, no one even knew we were doing it.
“To this day, what I learned about myself and others during the event serves me well. When my soul gets tested in life, I remind myself that we are not alone in any of this. There exists a great over-riding force of which we are part. And we can effect outcomes for good or evil depending on where our hearts are. It’s a rather spiritual perspective, but it’s what inspired me to run the course in the first place. It was a spiritual quest which quite literally became a divinely inspired run.”
Rhonda also offered medical seminars at several of the unofficial pre-race “camps” in Death Valley during the early 1990s and has frequently offered presentations on the course and its challenges.
She also served as medical director and crew for Canadian Steve King at the 2001 Badwater Ultramarathon and for Texan Joe Prusaitis in 2003.
She continues to enjoy visits to Death Valley in order to tap into its more spiritual and inspiring aspects.
Rhonda was inducted into the Badwater Hall of Fame in 2006, Rhonda read the following as part of her acceptance speech:
A Regular’s Guy’s Odyssey in Extreme Sports
To The Edge
It is 10 degrees below zero outside my tent, and it has been snowing steadily for three days. I keep trying to think of new, inventive ways of keeping warm, but, ultimately, they all boil down to just one-stay in my purple sleeping bag as long as I can, try to will my mind to blankness.
The wind roars, and the tent pops like a piece of rawhide on the end of Indiana Jones’ bullwhip.
It is, I think, Indiana Jones who has gotten me into this. At least, he’s got to be partially responsible. Him and his keyword, “adventure/.”
In a few minutes, I will have to crawl out of my marginally warm sleeping bag, punch a hole up, through the snow, crawl out and start digging out of my tent. Welcome to Denali, Mt. McKinley, Alaska, Land of Adventure. I have come to this undefrosted refrigerator of a land to check an item off a list. No, make that, The List. Thirteen items, activities, events that have come to define the outer limits of my life; heck, the outer limits of any life.
It is an over the edge list, a collection of events that nightmares are made of:
Trapped in underwater caves…
Trapped on a frozen waterfall…
Trapped in Death Valley…
Trapped in Alcatraz…
And now, trapped on the highest mountain in North America, pinned in by a brutal blizzard and temperatures almost beyond comprehension.
“Wind chill? How about real damn cold?”
I twist into as much of a ball as you can twist into in a mummy sleeping bag, avoiding the inevitable.
I am not supposed to be here…
I am in my 40s, well past the derring-do years. I am a couch potato; well, maybe I was a couch potato. But I know, emphatically, I am not supposed to die in a blizzard on this mountain.
Or am I?
I first created the list with some friends over pizza and beer after a particularly knarly day of windsurfing in Florida. The next morning, on the desk in my office, lay a cocktail napkin with 13 items scrawled across it.
I thought to myself, suppose I really did the list? No, The List, upper case. Suppose I really did it? How crazy is this stuff, anyway? Who are the people who think these things are fun?
I mean, it’s easy to understand why a person might want to run three miles; harder to understand what drivez a person to train to run almost 150 miles across one of the most godforsaken spots in the world, where the asphalt, I will learn, is hot enough to cause the air pockets in the runners’ sneakers to explode and the final 13 miles of climbing will bring them from scorching heat to cold approaching freezing.
It’s easy to understand the urge to swim a couple of times a week for fitness at the local “Y”; harder to grasp the dark appeal of the Alcatraz swim, the bitter cold waters sluicing in and out of San Francisco Bay, the fog and swirling currents, the real or imagined torpedo-like shapes patrolling the deep channels.
So I come to the risk sports looking, I think, for Indiana Jones. Or, at least, someone like him. Some part and parcel of our mythology, cowboy or samurai, riding the edge jaggies for all they’re worth.
Instead, I will find a group of puzzled people wit a tiger by the tail, interested not so much in mythology as in touching and holding an experience as ephemeral as spider silk, ghostly as morning mist over a Montana river, an experience made of equal parts muscle, adrenaline, and a mind that echoes a sneaker commercial…just do it…do it…do it. An experience I touched, however briefly, on a piece of fiberglass in a windy yacht basin.
“I think I know where you’re going,” one of my many instructors will tell me as we hike along the frozen waterfalls of New Hampshire’s Frankenstein Cliffs, named not for Mary Shelley’s monster, but for an artist. The temperature will be below zero, and the winds from the valley below will scour the ice, turning it as brittle and fragile as an old window pane. “But how do you plan on getting back?”
But that is still a ways in the future; out of sight; out of reach.
I stare at my cocktail napkin.
Why not? How hard can it be?
I spend an afternoon at the library, looking up events. There is precious little hard information. I can turn on the television and see all manner of this stuff, but hard information is lacking. The more I search, the more extreme sports seems to be terra incognito, the place on the map where there’s nothing but a hand-drawn dragon. There are secrets here, I think, a world over the edge of the map. Secrets…
I go back to my office and stare at my cocktail napkin:
- Windsurf Big Air.
- Kamikaze Downhill
- Escape From Alcatraz
- Whitewater off a Waterfall
- Rock Climb
- Cave Dive
- Ice Climb
- Skydive; whatever those parachuting thingies are.
- Skate Marathon
- Dive Really Deep
- Badwater Death Valley Run
- Iditarod Bike Race
I need a plan. At first, the plan seems easy-I’ll scrape up what money I have, go out to Death Valley and tan onto that nightmarish run. Then I’ll head on up north to do the Kamikaze Downhill. I’ll learn to rock climb, then mountain climb and get certified to SCUBA dive while I’m at it. I’ll even learn to swim, something I’ve been avoiding. The wind howls, and nothing seems impossible. I drive home, clean my equipment, take a handful of aspirin, shower, and bandage my hands. Then I get the morning paper and turn to the classified—I’m going to need a mountain bike, I think…
Hanging Out In Death Valley
The first clash with reality comes when the rubber meets the road, or, more honestly, when the sneakers meet the dirt. I am methodically (and painfully) turning myself into the slowest runner in the world. Train though I might, in the end, I suspect running will have the upper hand. Still, it’s a necessary step, I grudgingly admit, if I am ever going to get anywhere. I can see the edge, and it seems off at the edge of the horizon.
This obsession with running is triggered by the first contact between The List and the obstacles. I have decided, for reasons that are not totally clear to me, that the Death Valley run, Item 11, would be a good starting point to get me out in training and into doing. It takes me a couple of weeks of phone calls to find out anything about that Death Valley race, which turns out to be the Hi-Tec Badwater 145-miler, sponsored by a sneaker company, Hi-Tec. I learn this from an ad in an old magazine someone loans me, which is a font of information. I learn, for example, that the race, 145 miles of living hell, across Death Valley, over two mountain ranges and up the highest peak in the continental U.S., was created to promote a trail running sneaker, which is no longer being manufactured. Upon seeing a picture of the sneaker, I understand why it is no longer being manufactured. In a world of sleek, high fashion athletic shoes, the Badwater sneaker is butt ugly.
I call the toll-free number listed on the old ad, and eventually end up talking to Dave Pompel, the genial Hi-Tec exec who handles the race. Can I, I ask, just jump in and run the next race, which happens to be a few months away?
“No,” Pompel says.
“Because,” he continues, “this is one of the hardest running races in the world, and—correct me if I’m wrong—you don’t strike me as being an elite ultramarathon runner.”
Well, I reply, there’s something to that.
“Also, the race requires a sag wagon carrying your water and medical support,” he says. “I don’t suppose you have a sag wagon lined up?”
Well, I say, not exactly.
I think about the situation for about a minute while Pompel patiently waits. I need to do something, or The List is going to die before it even gets started.
“Can I come watch?” I hear myself asking.
“By all means,” says Pompel. “And bring a bicycle.”
I have already purchased a battered mountain bike from the classified ads, which I’m going to use in the Kamikaze Downhill. Death Valley, two mountain ranges and the climb up Mt. Whitney ought to get the kinks worked out of the bike.
“I’ll be there, ” I say. “Death Valley in July sounds wonderful.”
“Bring water,” Pompel adds. “And lots and lots of sunscreen.”
The cheapest airfare is into Reno, which is, of course, nowhere near Death Valley. Nonetheless, my bicycle and I arrive in the ratty gambling town late at night, where we pick up the rental and head through the relentless neon into the cool dark of the desert. I camp out in a cowboy motif motel near the desert town of Lone Pine, and head into Death Valley the next morning.
Did I mention the heat?
By 10 a.m. it is skillet-hot, the whole world taking on the smell of glowing iron, while the temperature of the rental car climbs perilously into the red. I look at the first rising hills, and I realize that the air conditioner, never perhaps an optimum piece of machinery, wouldn’t make the climb. I shut if off and roll down the windows.
There is only one radio station I can find as I creep into the blistering mountains, and the disc jockey is performing an on-air exorcism on one of Satan’s minions, a 16-year-old fan of Dungeons and Dragons.
“I want,” the announcer shouts, “to speak to the demon! Speak to me, demon!”
The boy makes a choking noise. “I can’t!” he screams, although it comes out something like, “Ah caned! Ah caned!”
Suddenly, the boy’s voice changes.
“Damn you!” the boy shouts in a new voice. “Damn you and your Jesus!”
Amazingly, the announcer cuts to a commercial for Diet Coke. The car is moving about 10 miles per hour up the steep grade. Every few miles there’s an iron water tank for overheated radiators, and the rising heat creates a twisted carnival mirror affect. The distant mountains dance and twist, and I wonder how far we are from the Charles Manson homestead.
“We now join live, on the air, a battle for a man’s soul,” the radio announcer is whispering, breathlessly. “There’s some rough language, but, people, we are dealing with Satan himself, right now, live!”
We creep on.
“Was Satan, Beelzebub, the Beast Himself that made you kill those little animals, wasn’t it! Wasn’t it!”
“Damn you! Damn you! Damn You!”
I am beginning to wonder whether this is such a great idea after all when we top the last hill and I see the long roller coaster ride into Death Valley proper. It looks…hot.
I roll on through the desert, past ghost towns and moving sand dunes, until I come to a sign that reads: “Ahead—Dates!”
After hours of steady exorcism, the idea of a date in Death Valley is a little frightening. Date palms, of course—the oasis in the middle of the desert. When I arrive, the place strikes me as hell’s own Holiday Inn, a flashy stone building resort surrounded by date palms. There’s even a pool, filled with German and Japanese tourists who appear to have all been dipped in the last existing batch of Red Dye #2. Welcome to Furnace Creek, and pass the sunscreen. This is race headquarters.
“Be gone, demon! Back to The Pit! Be gone!”
When I shut off the ticking, clanking car, the demon is still hanging on, but I sense it’s a close thing.
I check in, stow the bike in my room, and head for the mandatory prerace meeting. There are 15 entrants this year, and for the privilege of running across the desert and up assorted mountains, each entrant will receive a plastic water bottle and a t-shirt. Finishers will receive the coveted Badwater belt buckle.
The race is simplicity itself. At 6 p.m. tomorrow, the contestants will travel the few miles to Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the United States. It’s called Badwater because there is, in fact, a pool of water there, so laced with alkalis of various sorts that it’s a nasty, poisonous chemical stew. Badwater is south, deep into the valley, past the Devil’s Golf Course, in the shadow of 11,000 foot Telescope Peak.
The temperature at the race start will be around 125 degrees. Six feet above the blistering, shimmering asphalt—roughly at head level—the temperature will be closer to 160. “Last year,” one of the racers chortles, “some peoples’ air pockets in their sneakers blew up!” The runners will head north onto U.S. 190, the main two-lane blacktop that carves across this Road Warrior landscape. The runners will pass Furnace Creek, heading toward Stovepipe Wells, a wide spot in the road on the edge of the great migrating sand dunes.
With luck, the runners will hit the first of the mountain ranges, the Panamints, around dawn. They’ll creep up the road I coasted down, headed toward 5,000 foot Towne Pass, where they’ll have a relatively straight shot down into the brilliant salt flats of the Panamint Valley. The runners will have another climb into the tail end of the Inyo Mountains, before heading down onto the long, flat stretch into Lone Pine and the entrance to Mt. Whitney. The run to the entrance to the Mt. Whitney park is 13 miles, with almost a 9000 foot elevation gain. At the portals, the clock stops, and the race formally ends, because the Park Service doesn’t allow races to be run on public land. Most runners, though, Pompel confides, will continue informally to the top of Mt. Whitney, elevation 14,494 feet. The temperature at the portals will probably be in the 40s, although it could easily dip to below freezing. Snow is a possibility.
There is no water on the course, no medical care available, no food and supplies for the hottest part of the run. There is also a 60-hour time limit. The fastest runner will hit the portals in under 30 hours.
“Is this a great race, or what?” says Pompel.
I have decided to follow, mostly, Marshall Ulrich, a 30-something Colorado runner who has made the race his own. When I call his business to let him know I’m coming, his secretary tells me he’s not in.
“He’s out running across the state,” she says without a trace of irony. “He’ll be back in a few days.”
When Marshall and I finally meet, he is what one would expect from a person who thinks running across a state—any state—is fun—thin, wiry and intense. He takes me aside to tell me his finely honed strategy for the race.”If I can run flat seven-minute miles for the first 35 miles, it’ll get me through the hottest part of the run with a minimum amount of contact between my feet and the pavement,” he confides.
Makes sense, I say. I have run a seven-minute mile—exactly one seven-minute mile, and then I had to lay down on the track. I am beginning to think very kindly of Dave Pompel’s foresight.
I meet some of the other racers—a rodeo cowboy turned banker turned ultramarathoner, a phys ed teacher whose husband “gave” her this race as a wedding present, a doctor who has just finished the Markleeville Death Race bicycle ride, and whose support crew will carry a coffin filled with ice, a lawn chair and an inflatable palm tree, plus a square of Astroturf for the lawn.
“Be gone, demon! Back to The Pit! Be gone!”
Early the next morning, just as a cotton candy pink dawn is touching the Funeral Mountains, I get up, slip on my shorts, t-shirt and running shoes, fill a water bottle with the warm, salty water from the tap and head down the road, toward Badwater. The thermometer by the pool reads a paltry 85 degrees when I start running, but I know as soon as the sun clears the Funerals the temperature will click up faster than a New York City taxicab meter.
I run along the sandy shoulder of the road, the only sound in the desert is my sneakers, crunching sand. The heat is dry, brittle, like a long spell of fever or crumbling old parchment. I imagine the greedy atmosphere leeching the water from my pores, moisture vanishing before it even has a chance to become sweat.
The desert is still, digging itself in for the hellish day to come. The only plant I can definitely identify is the dried arms of Death Valley sage, unique to this corner of the earth. I follow the pavement until a turnoff onto a gravel road. I head down the gravel, deeper into the desert. The sun is beginning to make itself felt; half its blazing diameter is visible now above the Funerals. All across the gravel road are the twisted hieroglyphics left by the sidewinder rattlesnakes in the gritty sand. An hour passes, then another half hour. I finally stop, the sun blistering on my face. I’ve left the road and run up a jeep trail, which eventually dead-ends into a little box canyon. The snake tracks are thick across the floor of the little canyon, as if all the rattlers on the right hand side decided to exchange places with all the rattlers on the left hand side. I am sincerely glad I wasn’t around when the word came to change sides. It is quiet and still, and all the people in the world are gone. I sit on an already warming rock and sip my tepid water, then run back the way I came, my treaded footprints overlaying the hieroglyphics. It is like running through a microwave oven.
Before the race start, I walk down to the murky pool at Badwater. The edges of the pool are crusted with white mineral deposits, and beneath the surface of the hot, deadly water, creatures dart. Life is persistent. Above us, high on the rocks, someone has painted “282 feet below sea level,” to be sure we don’t forget. Strangely, the next time I’m this far below sea level, I won’t be breathing air. But that’s to come.
My plan for observing the race is simple—I’ll ride my bike along with the runners, run some when I can. Get as close to the race as possible, the least I can do for The List. At 6 p.m., when the runners head off, the temperature is around 120 degrees.
I ride the first 26 miles—the first marathon—on my mountain bike, keeping tabs on Marshall, who is running effortless seven-minute miles, then drifting to the back of the pack, to talk to the doctor with the coffin. At one point, I pull a water bottle off the bike’s down tube and proceed to spray 160-degree water into my face. Note to myself: Carry water on person; 98.6 degrees is substantially less than 160 degrees.
Watching a running race, though, is a little like watching paint dry, and once the full chill of the desert evening sets in, I ride the two hours back to the car, with about a billion stars to light the way. Feeling vaguely guilty, I go back to my hotel room and sleep for four or five hours.
By dawn, Marshall is through the mountains. I drop back, and eventually pick up the rodeo cowboy turned banker, who’s hiking his way up the steepest inclines.
“Want company?” I ask, and he nods. I’m able to drop my bike with the lone support vehicle, cruising up and down the lonely highway, and join him.
“You know what the strangest thing about races like this is?” he asks.
Other than the very fact of their existence, I reply, I don’t have a clue.
“It’s the changes you go through,” he begins. Then we walk along comfortably for a bit.
“In something like this, where you’re being pushed to the mental and physical limits,” he says. “Strange things happen to your brain. It’s like every emotion you’ve ever had—love, hate, fear, anger, all of them—at one time or another out here, they all come out.”
He talks on as we walk, steadily uphill.
The thing is, he is saying, you can’t pay attention to those emotions, either the good ones or the bad ones.
“They’re like thunderstorms in the desert,” he says. “there’s big noise and flashes and the trees shake and the wind blows like stink, but it passes. It passes. And what you’ve got to do is stand there and let those storms blow past.”
We walk awhile in companionable silence. Then he tells me about the rodeo, about his family, about running, about the endless string of miles that have somehow come to define his life. “I think about that a lot while I’m out here,” he says. “But heck, I think about everything.”
Later, I ride for hours, up and down the increasingly spread out line. I am riding uphill, singing to myself, in the full heat of midday. My body is completely covered, except for my face, which is layered with sunscreen the consistency of tar. I pull up my shirt sleeve to scratch my arm, and I notice that I have apparently been dusted with flour.
Salt, I think. The moisture is leeched away, leaving the salt.
I continue my singing and peddling until my brain belatedly engages.
I shouldn’t feel so good bicycling uphill in 120 degree heat. Ergo, I am on the verge of heatstroke.
I stop peddling, lean the bike against a convenient boulder and force myself to drink a full water bottle of hot, metallic-tasting water. In no time at all, I am rewarded with a splitting headache. Since I no longer feel like singing, I get back on the bike and start riding again. The seat is hot enough to sear my butt through the layers, and the metal of the handlebars is too hot to touch.
In the evening, right about full dark, one of the sag wagons for a woman runner flags me down. “Run with her,” one of her team says. “She needs some company.”
So we load my bike into the sag wagon, and they drop me alongside the Phys-Ed Teacher, then leap-frog miles ahead to the next stop.
The first few miles are what you’d expect, comparing notes on homes and families and training regimens. She and her new husband have spent hours and hours on the road, sneakers joined together in holy matrimony, and this race is his gift to her. She is very happy. But the miles wear on, and the hour is late.
Every emotion, the rodeo cowboy, now far ahead, told me. Every one.
“You know my husband, right?” the Phys-Ed Teacher asks, abruptly, and there’s an edge on her voice. It’s after midnight in Death Valley, and there are still 90 miles of running left. The temperature has finally dropped below 100 degrees. “I hate him,” she continues. “No, I want him to die. That’s worse than hating him, isn’t it?” I tell her I think wanting someone to die is worse than hating them.
“Well, that’s what I want. I want him fucking dead.”
She runs for a while in silence, and I can imagine her teeth grinding in the dark.
“I hate this,” she says, and she is crying.
Time passes; the sound of sneakers; occasionally, in the distance, the cry of a night hunter.
“I have to sleep,” she says.
I know, I say, soon.
The miles and the night pass.
I run into her the next day, after she’d grabbed a few hours sleep in a real bed in a place called Panamint Springs. She squints at me through eyes that have seen a little too much nuclear sunlight.
“Did we run together last night?” she asks.
“For a while.”
“Anything I say that sounded stupid,” she says, “was the desert talking.”
“Never thought otherwise.”
Later, I zoom ahead to walk alongside Marshall up Mt. Whitney. He has been running for more than 24 hours with a total of 45 minutes sleep. He is haggard, destroyed, a haint, my granddaddy would say, methodically placing one foot in front of the other, up the mountain. At one point, his support crew is worried that he doesn’t have enough fuel left to make it to the top. They decide on chocolate, M&Ms, and tell him to eat. But Marshall, at least the thinking, rational, laughing Marshall, is no longer home. He continues plodding up the mountain.
One of the crew puts a handful of the brightly colored candy in his right hand and rolls it into a fist. But the fist loosens, and the M&Ms dribble onto the ground.Finally, his main support person puts a half-dozen M&Ms in his hand.
“Marshall,” she says firmly. “Put the candy in your mouth.”
He does so, without taking his eyes off the road ahead of him.
“Chew it,” she says.
His jaws begin to work.
“Now swallow it.”
It is the most agonizing performance I have ever seen.
Twenty-nine hours after leaving Badwater, he arrives at the portals, accepts the congratulations and goes to sleep. A few hours later, he gets up and runs to the top of Mt. Whitney and back down, setting an unofficial record.
I won’t cheat again, I think, the desert rolling beneath the rental’s wheel. I won’t stand by and watch again. The only way to be fair to The List is to do, not watch. Whatever it takes.
End of Chapter Five, Over The Edge, by Michael Bane
Michael Bane’s career reads like a novel—and a very unlikely novel at that.
In more than 20 years of professional journalism, Bane has journeyed from the cocktail parties of New York celebrity journalism, to small wars in the Third World, to the executive boardrooms of some of the most successful companies in American and, most recently, to the ends of the earth in search of adventure.
His trips and stories have been chronicled in such magazines as Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, National Geographic Adventure, Esquire and literally hundreds of others. His 19th book, Over The Edge: A Regular Guy’s Odyssey In Extreme Sports (released in 2000 in paperback by Wilderness Press), prompted the Wall Street Journal to ask…”How did Michael Bane become the George Plimpton from hell?”
Michael Bane has spent time as a confidant to country music superstars, an authority on world class performance in large corporations, a black belt in karate, a columnist and consultant on personal computers, a dedicated restorer of vintage Norton motorcycles, a “guest terrorist” for the U.S. Army Ranger battalion at Ft. Benning, GA, an expert competition shooter and editor of numerous magazines on topics as varied as beer and self-esteem.
He’s been a ghost for various country music singers—Living Proof, the Hank Williams Jr. story, went on to become a top-ten television movie as well as a successful book.
His book on the complex relationship between music, culture and race (White Boy Singing The Blues, originally published in the late 1970s and reissued by Da Capo Press in 1992) recently received this review from an academic journal: “The genuinely eerie aspect about Bane’s study is his ability to conjure the Southerner’s perspective of mystery, fear, danger and suspicion that continues to shroud race relations in the United States…This book matches the very best analyses of rock music ever produced.”
Bane’s co-authored book on business management, Shifting Paradigms (Dogwood, 1991), was cited by business magazines as a significant contribution and is quoted in the Arthur Andersen Group’s recent compendium on current American management thinking.
As a speaker, Bane has addressed audiences in the United States and Canada on topics of risk and risk management, as well as functioning in chaos systems. In October, Bane will be one of four Americans speaking at a special business conference in Bangkok, Thailand, which will be Webcast along the Pacific Rim.
Photos courtesy of Richard Benyo and Jeannie Ennis
Scroll down for two different articles from 1987 and 1988.
Originally published in Runner’s World, August 1988
The lowest, hottest, nastiest place in the United States les only 146 miles away from one of the highest and the coldest. Need we say more?
Badwater, California may be the hottest place on Earth. Temperatures in this Death Valley sinkhole generally run a few degrees hotter than in nearby Furnace Creek, where a high of 134F has been recorded. (The world record, set in the Sahara, is 136F.) Also the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, at 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is as dry as it is hot. In an average year it receives only a couple of inches of rain.
In contrast, a mere 90 miles west as the buzzards soars, or 146 miles by road, Mount Whitney rises beyond the clouds to 14,494 feet, making it the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. On the top of Mt. Whitney, the temperature can fall to zero in midsummer.
The tantalizing proximity of Badwater to Mt. Whitney lures many adventurers, despite the obvious – and sometimes fatal – discomforts. Experienced hikers occasionally walk the course, taking about a week to complete it. And runners, at least since 1973, have challenged its torturous route, though few have made it all the way. Between 1974 and 1986, a steady trickle of thrillseeking runners mounted 70 attempts on the course. Four succeeded. The first was Al Arnold in 1977 in 84 hours, followed four years later in 1981 by fellow American Jay Birmingham in 75:34. The current world record of 56:33 was set by New Zealand’s Max Telford in 1982, followed by American Gary Morris’ 1983 effort in 76:38.
In 1986, two Californians, Tom Crawford and Mike Witwer, tried to organize an official race from Badwater to Mount Whitney. Twenty-two ultramarathoners signed on, but the event was cancelled when the organizers failed to obtain liability insurance – not for the runners but for the support crews. Crawford and Whitwer, deciding to tackle the distance on their own, completed the course in 70:27.
On July 31, 1987 at 6:31 AM, five runners started the first race from Death Valley to Mount Whitney. Two women—Eleanor Adams and Jean Ennis—and three men—Crawford, Ken Crutchlow and David Bolling—began the course at the same time.
Adams, a 39-year-old Briton and the first woman to exceed 200 miles in a 4h-hour race, wasted no time racing into the lead. Responding to an ad for the race, she had written, “My philosophy in life is to never pass up an opportunity. If you do, you never know when it’ll come again.”
Crutchlow and Adams were running as part of a British male-female team against the American team of Crawford and Ennis. Crutchlow, an expatriate English adventurer with an ego as large as his imagination, can lay claim to having started this running-through-Death Valley madness. In 1973, he teamed with Paxton Beale, a California hospital administrator, to finish the 146 miles in a running relay. Now 45 years old and 15 pounds overweight, Crutchlow planned merely to complete the course in a respectable time, hoping Adams’ speed would cary their team to victory.
Crawford, 41, and Ennis, 40, a former polio victim who had just run her first Western State 100 the previous month, planned to run side-by-side to lend each other support. Bolling, a journalist, had been writing about Ken Crutchlow’s magnificent obsessions and decided at the last minute to accompany the subject of his articles. In midafternoon of their first day, the five runners leanred that they weren’t alone. Gill Cornell, of nearby Ridgecrest, had set out on the course the previous evening at 10pm.
Crawford and Ennis came closest to Adams at the 52-mile point, where they narrowed the gap to 7 1⁄2 minutes. But Adams revived during the night, when temperatures dipped under 100F. She encountered her worst period the next day, near the town of Keeler (108 miles). Having already lost 16 pounds, Adams, her strength flagging, was forced to adopt a routine of running 2 miles, resting 10 minutes, running 2 miles, resting 10 minutes.
By this time, Crawford and Ennis trailed by more than 4 hours. Blisters forced Crawford to stop frequently to have his feet retaped. At one point, Ennis sat down on the frying pan road and fell asleep.
With the assistance of an experienced mountain guide, Adams ascended Mount Whitney just before a savage hailstorm struck. She reached the top after 53:03, a new women’s record and better than Max Telford’s old course record. Crawford and Ennis got caught in the hailstorm Adams avoided, but still managed to complete the course together in 58:57.
And what of Kenneth Crutchlow, who needed a time better than 65 hours if he and Eleanor Adams were to win the two-person team contest? Crutchlow and Bolling covered the course at what can only be called a pedestrian race, reaching the top of Mt. Whitney in 126:30.
The starting line for 1988 forms just the far side of Badwater, where the air is thick and the water scant.
The Death Valley Challenge: An Interview with Tom Crawford and Jeannie Ennis
Originally published in Northern California Sport, August 1986
By now, our Sonoma County readers have probably heard or read about English entrepreneur Kenneth Crutchlow and his plans to run from Badwater in Death Valley to Mt. Whitney’s summit, a total of 146 miles, starting at high noon, July 31st. What may have escaped notice in the media coverage centering on Crutchlow is the fact that, unlike previous Death valley runners, this one is to be a race between two teams, Crutchlow and his fellow Brigon, the incomparable Eleanor Adams, and a local team, Santa Rosans Tow Crawford and Jeannie Ennis.
While much ink has been spilled covering the “out-of-shape” Crutchlow’s attempt to prepare for this race, and Ms. Adams needs no introduction to followers of ultramarathoning (she is arguable the best in the world), our curiousity was piqued by the ‘other’ runners, the local team, and they graciously agreed to take time from their busy work and training schedules to be interviewed for this issue of Northern California Sprt.
Tom Crawford, 41, is the principal of Village Elementary School in Rincon Valley Valley and unabashedly loves his work, which keeps him busy year round. A veteran ultramarathoner, who has completed the Death Valley run once previously (with Dr. Mike Whitwer in 1986 setting an American record of 70 hours, 27 minutes), he has scheduled his 4 week vacation time this year to allow training full time for the race in hopes of becoming the first person to complete the race twice in succession.
Jeannie Ennis, also 41, was born and raised in the town of Cotati, and currently lives in Santa Rosa. She agreed to join the race after Dr. Whitwer withdrew in a rules dispute, and is juggling her training time with her job at IMCP Realty, Santa Rosa. Also a veteran competitor, Jeannie recently completed the 1987 Western States 100 only 6 weeks after knee surgery.
NCS: Why would you or anyone want to run 146 miles through the hottest place on earth at the hottest time of the year, a course that only 10 people have ever completed?
Tom: I’ve got to come up with an answer. I don’t have to prove I can do it; I’ve done that. I’ve run a total of almost 60 ultramarathons and I’ve done over 60 marathons. It kind of goes back to an old Indian legend. A couple of hundred years ago there were Indians that used to do a dance once a year and they would dance for maybe three days, and when they finished, it straightened out the world, and then they would go on for another year.
And in a pure sense, for me to do these kinds of things, as silly to some people as they are, it straightens out the world for me personally. I can start school in September, and really feel that the world’s really straight. At least until something else comes along and I need that fix again.
Jeannie: In my case, I had polio as a child, and braces, and never did a thing. My goal was just to have a pair of red tennis shoes. It took me 33 years to decided I could do something and to prove to myself that it could still be done. You can find something you can do and enjoy it, and I’m sorry it took me so long to find that, to believe in myself, because I never did. I always thought “Oh, I can’t do that, I never did anything as a kid, I can’t do it now.” But that’s not true.
NCS: Neither of you are professional athletes. Essentially this is recreation. How do you fit this type of demanding event into a busy work schedule?
Tom: Running is an avocation, it’s not my profession, and yet these kinds of events do take a lot of training; but if you want them bad enough… it’s like Jeannie right now getting up at 4:00 or 4:30 this morning; you can make them happen. I think one of the things that is so distasteful is to hear people say they don’t have time to fit it into their schedule. Now, I’m not talking about going out and running Death Valley, but I’m talking about some kind of daily regimen of exercise. I think it’s important for our society. I’m seeing more and more children who are obese. I’m seeing kids who come off a soccer season in school who bomb out in a Presidential Physical Fitness test, and yet everybody thinks they’re really fit because they’re playing soccer. Coaches are paranoid now to have these kids run laps’ it’s like punishment instead of a competitive thing. I think we’re creating a sedentary youngster; it’s kind of scary. I don’t care if you run, swim, bike, play tennis, walk; you ought to have some kind of regimen in your lifestyle. Just don’t watch the tube all day.
Jeannie: It’s good for you physically and mentally. I get up at 4:30 every morning whether I’m training for this or not. I work out before I go to work and I come in a good mood while every one else is…Blaahh! It drives me nuts! If they’d get up and do something before work, they’d feel good, physically and mentally.
NCS: Tom, we understand that Jeannie was not your original partner for this run. How did she come to join the team?
Tom: When Dr. Whitwer, because of a dispute over some of the rules, chose to bow out and left me with the freedown to contact any ultra runner I chose, I went over a list of people, and of all the people I felt I could have contacted I chose Jeannie Ennis because she is so mentally tough and that plays a major role.
NCS: Can you tell us about your support team, the people behind the scenes?
Tom: Dr. John Hollander (Sports Podiatrist) is going to be our crew chief and Jeff Ennis is going to be our assault captain going up Whitney. He himself will do over 44 miles going up one day to check things out, and as he comes back down he will hang what we call glow worms, in case we arrive there in the evening. That’s 22 miles (11 each way). Then if Jeannie gets there first, he will make the assault with her and come down and then he’d have to make it again with me so there’s a possibility he’ll have to do three 22 mile roundtrips. My wife, Nancy Crawford, who is also an experienced ultrarunner, will be along to handle media. We have our own mechanic for the chase vehicles, Bill Owens. And finally, I’ve convinced my daughter Amanda to come along as our cheerleader.
NCS: What about your feet; this must murder them. How do you prepare for something like this?
Tom: I didn’t want to be too dramatic, but let me tell you what I will be doing. I will be soaking my feet in Lipton tea.
Tom: In Lipton tea, to get the tannic acid, I’ll be tanning my feet just like you tan hide. You only need about 12 hours: it’s best to soak for an hour, dry, then soak for another hour, etc. So probably even the day before, down there, we’ll be sitting around in the heat, soaking our feet in tea. It’s good for them to begin with, good for anyone, except it really does turn your feet brown.
I use a mixture of about 6 teabags boiled in 4 or 5 cups of water, really black, and mix it with about a cup of vinegar, and soak my feet in it to toughen them up.
I’ll also tape my feet in as much as I’ll put a rubber pad on the ball, and then tape. Your toenails can fall off, you can have blisters all over the top of your feet, but if you get one on the ball of your foot, or a pressure point, it can bring you to a halt, so I put a small 1/8 inch adhesive rubber pad right on the bottom of my foot and tape over it. If I even begin feeling any kind of friction, John Hollander is working on those feet immediately, and he does his war dance and throws his bombs; I said that on purpose, I want you to quote it; and he cusses and screams and does his thing and makes them OK and we go on down the road.
Another thing we do, which was John’s idea, is we take out the insoles of our shoes, and we take tinfoil and double it with the dull surface out, and cut it to the shape of the insole and glue it inside the shoe to keep some of the heat out. We cut the toes out of our shoes, because your feet will just swell like crazy.
We’ll have two or three pairs of shoes we’ll keep in an ice chest, and we’ll change shoes continually. We’ll be changing socks about every hour or so.
NCS: How long will shoes last in that kind of heat?
Tom: I went through six pairs last time. What happens is, you could look at them and you’d say “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with these shoes,” but the inside will bubble. The outside looks OK, but they’ll just bubble; they start to melt. I wrote letters to all the major manufacturers and, you know, they’re experts, but the reason they’re not too interested is there aren’t even 100 people who’ve tried this thing’ the market’s just not there. How many people are going to run where right down on the surface it might be 250, maybe 300 degrees?
NCS: What about your opponents? The media have concentrated on Ken Crutchlow’s physical condition. What do you think?
Tom: We’re running against, I believe with all my heart, the greatest ultrarunner in the world. I don’t see Eleanor Adams as the greatest woman ultrarunner; she is the greatest ultrarunner. Kenneth Crutchlow, the way it’s been billed in all the media is that he would be the world ultrarunner in the world. That’s not true. There’s a portion of this race that is mental, that you can not measure, and Kenneth may not be in the greatest physical shape in the world, and he may go slow, but he’s tenacious, and he’s tough, and if I go a little too fast or if Jeannie goes a little too fast, we might be overcome with heat and then here comes the “turtle” moving very methodically through. So I don’t take him lightly. You’ve got to remember this, Kenneth Crutchlow has ru, two times, the Sahara Desert. He knows what the desert’s like. He has raced three times in Death Valley. Not this 146 mile trip, but he’s run through the desert so he knows the desert and there’s a lot to just knowing what that place is like. But you don’t read any of that stuff.
NCS: Basically, though, you’re counting on Crutchlow’s relative slowness to help you beat the their team.
Tom: Jeannie or myself would be fools to race against Eleanor Adams. Eleanor is the epitome of the greatest athlete in the world. What we’re counting on is the fact that they have the best, and someone who’s a lot slower. And we have two strong, strong runners. Not fast runners. Jeannie and I are not fast runners. But we’re strong. We’re running against the Britons, but as Winston Churchill once said during World War II, we Americans didn’t cross the oceans, deserts, and mountains because we’re made of sugar candy. And I really believe that’s where we’re at. We didn’t do all of this because we’re cry babies or wimps. And I think we’ll give the Britons a run for their money.
I highly respect Eleanor Adams, but I’ll tell you what: She had better not stop for tea. Because we’ll be all over her if she stops.
Death Valley to Mount Whitney
Lowest to Highest
For more about Jay, click here.
Jacksonville’s best-known marathon runner, Jay Birmingham, broke another record yesterday, this time in California’s Death Valley region. The 36-year-old Episcopal High School biology teacher covered a 146-mile route between the lowest and highest geographical features in the contiguous U.S. His time of 75 hours and 34 minutes eclipsed the standing mark of 84 hours set in 1977 by Californian Al Arnold.
Birmingham set a record last summer for an unaccompanied solo run across the United States. His performance of 72 days, 23 hours, for the 2964-mile route from Los Angeles to New York City.
“The Death Valley run was tough,” Birmingham reported from a Las Vegas hotel where he and his family were recovering last night. “The highest temperature was over 120. But it was snowing on the summit of Whitney. This was, without doubt, the toughest 146 miles I’ve ever run.”
The 145-pound veteran of over 60 marathons prepared all summer for his confrontation with historic Death Valley, putting in more than 100 miles a week, most of it in Jacksonville’s sultry summer heat. The final three weeks of preparation were in the mountains of North Carolina and Colorado to get, “some climbing legs and altitude acclimation,” Birmingham said.
Unlike his solo trans-continental run of 1980, Birmingham had his family along on this quest. Wife Anita, a teacher at Arlington Elementary, and their three children, Bob, Scott, and Tammy Reardean–all standout runners at Episcopal High School–served as support crew and running companions. All five climbed the final steep eleven miles of the trail to Mt. Whitney’s summit. The peak, at 14,496 feet, is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.
Birmingham started at Badwater, the lowest point in the western hemisphere. Located at 282 feet below sea level in the southern part of Death Valley National Monument, a two-lane road took him and his family north, then west over two small mountain ranges. After three days of running in century heat, about 45 miles a day, Birmingham confronted Mt. Whitney in the Sequoia National Park, part of the Sierra Nevada range.
“Training in the heat and humidity of Jacksonville was great preparation,” Birmingham said. “There’s almost no humidity out here. I was very conservative because of my apprehension about the extreme heat.”
Birmingham was sponsored by Baptist Medical Center where he works as fitness consultant and teacher of employee wellness programs. When asked about his next challenge, Birmingham said he just hoped he could finish the 5-Mile Jacksonville Beaches Run in two weeks.
“The ability to endure beyond percieved limits requires a desire to continue. But now, rather than an act of will, such excursions are an act of faith.“ (Jay Birmingham, The Longest Hill, Death Valley To Mount Whitney, 1981).
Many Badwater participants may have been motivated by reading a book called “The Longest Hill” in which Jay Birmingham recounted his 1981 Death Valley crossing, the 2nd ever successful run from Badwater to Mt. Whitney. Only Al Arnold had made the crossing before, in 1977. Jay made it to the top of the Whitney Portal Rd. at 59:54, went down to Lone Pine for a short break, then came back and continued to the top for the then-record time of 75:34.
Fast forward 22 years, to July 22, 2003, when Jay returned for a follow-up attempt, but found himself struggling with the heat. “Was it really this hot last time,” he wondered? In addition, one of his main crew members, Debbie Scott, had learned that her mother had had a heart attack and wasn’t able to make the trip. After discussions with the remainder of his crew, Jay decided to pack it in for the day and try again another time.
Fast forward one more year, to July 13, 2004. With Debbie in place, as well as three recent college graduates, Jay’s crew was at full strength. With the sting of the DNF and more recent memories of the hellish temperatures, Jay was ready to rock.
And rock he did! Jay crossed the finish line in 50:10:15, nine hours faster than he did the first time around. Not many people can boast a 9-hour PR for a race. “I learned a lot last year, even though we were only made it to mile 75. I’m extremely happy to have been able to break my own PR after all these years.”
When speaking of Jay, words like ‘pioneer,’ ‘inspiration,’ and ‘nice guy’ are appropriate, so all the event staff and participants were happy to see Jay have such a successful finish.
When asked if he experienced any rough spots or had any recommendations, Jay smiled and said matter of factly that he had “a couple of rough spots, but nothing too bad. I took two short sleep breaks, both of which were very productive. I can’t do it without some sleep. I had planned to take an hour break at Lone Pine, but felt good enough to pass through without any sleep.”
Since 2005, Jay has served on the Badwater Application Review Committee, further demonstrating his support of the sport and for this race in particular. Click any thumbnail or story below to learn more about Jay.
With 2002 champ Pam Reed in 2003
With Gary Morris in 2003, 4th man
to ever finish the Badwater course
Hall of Fame induction
Setting the pace in 2004
Breaking the tape in 2004
With crew at the 2004 finish line
The photos from Jay’s book “The Longest Hill” are viewable below.
The Summer of 1981
Tamara L. Dickey, stepdaughter and crew member for Jay Birmingham, the second person to complete the Badwater to Mt. Whitney course, back in 1981. Jay plans to race the 2003 Badwater Ultramarathon to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of his record-breaking run. Jay was also the first person to publish a book about this run.
I dedicate this book to my Mom. Without her love and support throughout the years, I never would have made it this far. Thank you.
For the shorter version of this story that deals with the Badwater experience only, click here.
We are going back in time to the summer of 1981. My family consisted of five members: A stepfather, a mother, two brothers and myself. (We had a dog, Percy, and a cat, Weebles, but they are not in this story.) No family is without its flaws and we had ours. But somehow we managed to get through them and make the best out of any situation. I give my Mom the most credit for this. We were a close family that operated under the standard rules of early bed times on school nights, curfews on weekends and finishing your plate before you get up from the table. We all had our own lives to lead but always stuck together when it came to family problems or financially difficult times. It was understood that money was not abundant and we did not ask for expensive toys or name brand clothing and footwear. However, we never went without. There was always food on the table and Christmas was filled with gifts, love and laughter. Most of any extra income was spent on trips to various road races throughout the country, running gear and family “vacations.” While most family travel can be grueling and nerve racking, ours were always filled with unforgettable experiences that created memories to last a lifetime, like this one…
CHAPTER 1: MEET THE FAMILY
My Stepfather, Jay, married my mom when I was seven . He is an ultra-marathon runner and has been since 1958. He teaches Biology and Earth Science and is the Varsity Track and Cross Country coach at my High School. He joined our family and introduced us to the sport of running and taught us to appreciate all living things. The running involved competition and serious training. Appreciating Nature was something intangible that could only be achieved by exposing us to summers of hiking and tent camping all over America. It was our way of life. We all enjoyed it… most of the time.
My Mom is, by far, the most incredible person I have ever known. She has overcome personal obstacles and raised us kids in a clean and loving home. She maintained all of these things and, at the same time, worked full time as a teacher’s aid, attended and graduated from college (summa cum laude) with a degree in Education. She teaches fifth graders (crazy person) and loves every minute of it. She is an intelligent, strong, energetic and loving woman who is always there for her family and friends whenever they need her. Over the years she has instilled in me and my brothers strong morals and given us unending love and support. Although teens can be rebellious at times, we always had nothing but the highest respect for her.
My oldest brother Bob, age 18, is a quiet, shy and yet very stubborn young man. He has always been there to lean on when the chips were down. He is a very good runner and has won many races in his age group. He loves the sport and pushes himself very hard. He likes girls but is too shy to talk to any of them! I admire him for his integrity and innocence. His greatest strength is his loyalty. Bob never hurts anyone deliberately and never gets into trouble. A parent’s dream child for a teenager!
Scott is the middle child. He is a year younger than Bob and two years older than me. We aren’t much different in height and weight. Scotty runs too, but his heart isn’t in it. He enjoys Wrestling and is very good. He has a tendency to get injured easily though. He is as innocent as Bob and just as shy. He giggles when he gets embarrassed and his face turns bright red. He is very seldom into trouble except academically. But that’s okay.
Both of my brothers have a terrific sense of humor and we play tackle football or baseball together on weekends. Other than having the usual sibling rivalry, my brothers and I get along pretty well. They think I am spoiled because I am the “baby girl” of the family.
My name is Tammy and I am a “tom-boy.” I am also a very free spirited and independent person who loves romance, excitement and adventure! I run cross-country and track and play center halfback on the girl’s varsity soccer team. I can keep up with most boys my age when it comes to sports and usually surpass them when it comes to a battle of wits. I take life by the horns and to hell with the consequences. I am 15 years old for crying out loud! Life is too short to sit back and wonder what would have been like had I not taken a chance or two.
Little did I know that this summer would unfold one of the greatest adventures of my life, an experience that would become permanently ingrained into the fibers of my soul.
CHAPTER 2: THE “BOMB”
Being a family on the go and that being in many directions, we had two cars. The newer one was a 1976 Toyota Corolla. It was white with a black pin stripe. I called it Snoopy. I loved this car and was hoping it would some day be mine! It had a stereo, air conditioning, no mechanical problems and was great on gas.
We also owned a 1965 Dodge Coronet two-door sedan. It was a sun-oxidized, turquoise color with splotches of primer and rust scattered throughout the steel body. The driver’s side door did not open nor did the window roll down. You had to enter and exit through the passenger door. We kids had the delight of sitting in the back seat lined with a nylon fabric intertwined with a gold, metallic fiber that was unraveling in several places. This caused our legs to itch when we wore shorts. There were two pieces of plywood on the floor, placed there to cover the holes in the floorboard, which had rusted out over time. The universal was going bad and when you put the car in reverse and backed up it made a big thud and then went “clang, clang, clangety clang…” kind of like the warning bell of a large construction vehicle.. Fuel economy was not a consideration when the car was designed, let alone in it’s present state. Not only did it suck down gasoline, it consumed a quart of oil about every 100 miles. The carburetor was so far gone that the exhaust pipe spewed out a greasy black film of oil on the rear of the car. All you could make of the word Coronet were the letters O and N. The trunk was huge but took some jiggling and wiggling of the key to get it to pop open. We kept a roll of paper towels in the trunk to wipe the residue off of our hands. The tires on the thing were all re-treads and only one of them had a hubcap. When you turned the car off, it coughed and sputtered for another thirty seconds , which always made me wonder if it was going to start again. We nicknamed it “The Bomb.”
Which car do you think Jay decided to take on the ten weeklong trip? You guessed it, “the bomb!” I couldn’t believe it! The thought of being seen at school in that thing was bad enough, but to traipse all over the country in that thing wondering if we would make it the next ten miles or not, did not exactly make us happy campers. But we loaded her up with our backpacks, tents, duffle bags and a cooler and headed out on our journey. First stop, Black Mountain, NC.
CHAPTER 3: BEER AND BRAIN WAVES
Ten hours had passed since we left Florida. It was dark and I couldn’t see anything except shadows of trees. I was wide-awake because I had slept the whole way. I have this carsickness thing when I ride in the back and well, lets just say it’s better for everyone if I sleep. Anyway, we found our way to Don McMahill’s cabin and we were welcomed with open arms by his family. They have been friends of the family since Mom and Jay were married. Don always calls me “Ttttam” for some reason and I never minded because he was always funny and very nice. Mom convinced me to go to bed since it was so late and I did reluctantly. I tossed and turned and as I faded off to sleep I tried to figure out how I was going to get my stuff out of the car the next morning without any one else seeing me…
I awoke to the sound of “Oh Carolina” playing over a speaker system. I sprang to my feet and looked out the window. What a beautiful place! I put my shoes on and rushed outside (I had slept in my clothes), looked around and saw no one in sight. I ran to the car and grabbed my bag out of the back seat. After a shower and change of clothes, I followed the signs and headed down to the “Galley.” Luckily I got there just before they closed the line down. It was only 7:30 am!!!!
I met up with my family in the dining room and we talked about “the plan.” The only guidelines given for the next two weeks were that I couldn’t leave the camp without permission and had to be home to check in before dark. I could live with that. This place had a pool, a game room, plenty of trails to run on, several mountains to hike and, from the looks of things, hundreds of boys!
My brothers and I went for a walk around the place. You couldn’t go anywhere without going up or down a hill. We were impressed with the colonial buildings that graced the grounds. Lee Hall was the largest and sat in the middle of several smaller buildings all painted white. This YMCA provided day camps throughout the summer and hired high school seniors and college students from all over the country to be part of the staff. It was an honor to be chosen for this job, but it was a lot of hard work. Lee Hall was the largest, as it provided a co-ed dormitory for the campers and dorm staff. The main lobby had a snack bar, a nice living room area with a huge fireplace, some tables and chairs and a grand piano. The walls were lined with portraits of past Presidents and numerous books. I plinked the keys on the piano a little and took it all in. We went out on the huge porch and sat in the slat board chairs and checked out the spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After about an hour, I got ancy and decided to check out the pool. My brothers said they would meet me down there later.
After a quick change into my suit, I joined my Mom and Mary McMahill at the pool. They had been lounging there for a while already. Mary smiled and said, “Have you checked out the guy swimming laps yet?” I just rolled my eyes and laughed as I pretended not to be interested. Just then, he got out of the water. I first noticed how tan he was. A little small, but very muscular. He was built like a typical swimmer, with broad shoulders and a tiny waste. His hair glistened from the chlorinated highlights. He looked over as he was drying off and I smiled politely. I didn’t want to seem too eager. It wasn’t like I was looking for a long-term relationship.
I sat down with my Mom and started talking about something ridiculous like, what they were going to do after lunch? Blah, blah blah…and then I noticed he left. Great! So I jumped in the pool and cooled off from the heat of the day. My brothers showed up as promised and they brought a football. We played catch in the water and it seemed that within twenty minutes every other kid without other things to do showed up and wanted to play too! We had a blast.
We missed lunch that day and snacked on stuff left over in the cooler. I checked out some maps of the place and asked some of the staff members about hiking trails. They all told me that the hardest one was “High Top” and advised that I not go alone.
The Dinner Revelry blared over the speakers and off I went to the Galley. As soon as I walked in and got in line, there he was, the guy from the pool. Our eyes met instantly and I could feel myself blushing. I tried not to smile but I couldn’t help myself. He was kind of cute, but I just wanted to make a friend, not send out an invitation to take my clothes off!
As I got closer in line, I looked directly at him and asked, “How far is it to High Top?”
He said, “The trail is about 3 miles but it will probably take you an hour to hike it.”
“When can you take me up there?” I asked kind of jokingly.
“Uh, how about tomorrow morning at 6:30? Meet me on the steps at Lee Hall and bring a lunch.” He replied.
“OK!” I said and extended my hand “By the way, my name is Tammy, what’s yours?
“John, John Parker.” he said hurriedly.
We were holding up the chow line and people were getting ugly so we had to cut the conversation short. I scarfed my food down and ran back to our cabin. Mom and Mary were there talking about stuff and I told them about my encounter with John and our plans for the next morning. Mom was a little hesitant but Mary assured her that he was a nice boy and helped me put together some lunch items. I wrote in my diary, and watched some TV with the younger kids. I was so excited I could hardly sleep that night.
I woke up at 5:00 am, dressed for the trail, grabbed the lunch (Spam sandwiches, carrot sticks, potato chips, grapes and two cans of Shasta Orange soda), and literally ran to the steps of Lee Hall.
I was early, I knew it, but I was too excited to sit around the house and wait. My Adrenalin was racing and my heart was pounding. It was so quiet outside. The clear dark sky displayed a stellar “work of art.” The cool, damp air smelled of pine trees and lilacs. I felt my heart calming down when suddenly, I heard footsteps. I turned around only to see the grounds keeper pushing a wheelbarrow. I decided to sit down in one of the chairs on the porch. After waiting for thirty minutes my eyes grew heavy and I drifted off to sleep.
I woke up to find someone tapping me on my knee. I felt a little pocket of druel in my mouth and before I acknowledged who was tapping me, I shrugged my shoulder against my mouth discreetly and then opened my eyes to find this guy, wearing a beige hat, smiling at me.
“Good morning sleepy head!” John said sarcastically.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Ten minutes after seven.”
“What?! Where have you been? You’re late! Can you still go?” I asked in a panic.
“Yup, I got the morning off, but I have to be back by four o’clock this afternoon.”
“Cool! Let’s go!” I said anxiously.
Little did I know we had to make a stop at the store first. This meant we had to go into town. I knew I wasn’t supposed to leave camp, but I was a teenager driven mostly by peer pressure. So I agreed and off we went. We stopped into “Fast Fair” and John went in to pick up some last minute supplies. I thought he was getting cups or ice or something. A few minutes later, out he came with a bottle of Paul Masson wine and a six-pack of Strohs!
Now, I admit that I was no angel at this point in my life. I loved the taste of beer and used to sneak sips of it at parties my family attended. I had also tried marijuana once before, but didn’t like it because it burned my throat. I was afraid of any drugs stronger than that and never tried them. I like being in control of myself and don’t like hangovers. So, my “partying” was pretty much limited to a consumption of one beer. Today was going to be different.
John was a smooth talker in a way. He wasn’t pushy or anything, he just had a way of making everything sound so easy and harmless. He was from Texas, and I truly believe that they give guys charm lessons as part of their high school curriculum. At any rate, he convinced me to have a beer at 8:00 in the morning! I insisted that I have some sort of food first and ate a couple of carrot sticks…yeah that was real helpful.
As we headed back toward camp to begin our trek up the mountain, I consumed another beer. No alcohol was allowed at Blue Ridge and your car could get searched at the gate if they suspected anything. But at eight o’clock in the morning on a Sunday, there was little chance that we would get caught. The rest of the beers and the bottle of wine got stuffed into a backpack along with the lunch. I was feeling pretty silly at this point and couldn’t stop laughing. John thought I was “cute” and just laughed along with me.
Finally, we parked the car and hiked up to the base of the trail. The sign said “High Top: warning this trail is rugged and can be dangerous in places, only experienced hikers should attempt to climb to the summit!” Well, I was experienced and definitely in good enough shape to handle it, so up we went. I was still feeling a little foggy and giggled when I stumbled on a root or something. John and I talked about what our ambitions in life were and ourselves. At times, it was if I could hear his thoughts before he spoke them. It was weird, kind of like de ja vou. I attributed it to the effects of the beer and didn’t think much more about it.
Half way up the mountain, the trail began to get steep and rocky. I was leading the way until I suddenly felt my mouth watering and my head began to spin. I didn’t want to admit to John that I was feeling sick, so I pretended I wanted him to lead for a while since the trail was disappearing and he knew the way.
Not two minutes later, up came the carrots. Oh…my…God! They looked undigested and hurt like hell coming up. I was hoping that John hadn’t heard me gagging, but of course he did. I think he pretended not to in order to preserve my dignity. He hollered down, “Are you alright?”
“Oh yea!” I shouted. I was mad at myself for being stupid enough to drink and for having such a low tolerance.
“Do you want me to come down there and help you?” he asked from fifty yards ahead.
“NO!” I exclaimed. It was bad enough that I gotten sick, I didn’t want him to see it!
I took several deep breaths, placed my face on a cold rock and started feeling better. I started back up the trail and as I drew close to where John was waiting, he extended his hand and pulled me up onto a giant boulder. I reassured him of my well being and we resumed a good pace up the trail.
We made it to the top in just under forty minutes. The view was breathtaking. We sat on a giant rock that seemed to overlook the entire State. I sat there and smelled the clean, fresh air and thought to myself that there was no place else in the world I would rather be.
John and I exchanged further background information. He had just graduated from High School somewhere in Houston, Texas. He was headed to Steven F. Austin State University to major in Geology. He was a varsity swimmer and played the piano. He no longer competed in swimming but was very interested in pursuing a career in music.
I have always admired anyone with musical talent. But the piano is my favorite instrument. I had taught myself to play by ear. I wasn’t very good, but I enjoyed playing and making up songs. So, I was very eager to hear him play and he promised I would.
The skies began to cloud up and the temperature dropped. It looked like rain. But we were determined not to let a little water ruin our fun. We moved back into the woods where there was a cluster of trees and a small bed of leaves and pine needles on the ground. A perfect picnic spot!
We munched on our lunch and downed the bottle of Paul Mason. After it was empty, we buried it next to a tree with a note inside that read: “John and Tammy were here. We ate, we drank, and we laughed. Life was good.”
I was tired from my early rise and the day’s events. A nap sounded good. We slept side by side, never touching.
We both awoke at the EXACT same time! We looked at each other in amazement and then he looked at his watch. 3:42 pm! He had to be at work in seventeen minutes and we were still on top of the mountain! He couldn’t be late!
We grabbed our gear and took off down the trail. The trail was steep and rocky. There were roots sticking up out of the ground and downed trees blocked the path. We hurdled tree trunks and rocks pounding our knees on impact. We clung to vines and branches hanging from the trees above and swung through the air like monkeys.
Just as we were getting our momentum, the skies opened up and it began to pour!! The path turned into a stream. The trees provided little shelter from the hammering rain. We laughed as we slid and slipped in the mud. John was in front of me and all of a sudden he yelled out, “Snake!!” and jumped. I was following close behind and shrieked! There it was, a black snake slithering along in the water. I jumped too and didn’t look back.
We made it down the mountain in eighteen minutes. We both raced to Lee Hall and John went straight to his room to change into his staff uniform. I ran back to the McMahill’s cabin to get dry and all the while I smiled about my experience. At the same time, I felt bad that John was late for his shift. I figured he wouldn’t want to spend any more time with me after that. I was wrong.
That night he called me and asked if I would meet him in the Chapel after Church services were over. I happily agreed and slept well that night.
I walked into the chapel and was impressed with the walls of windows that displayed nature’s beauty. At the front of the room was a raised platform with a wooden pulpit. On the left was a beautiful Spinet piano, on the right was a huge pipe organ where John was sitting on the bench smiling. He didn’t say a word. He whipped around and began playing.
Suddenly I felt my skin explode with goose bumps! I was awestruck by the sounds and melody created by that instrument. I sat there on a chair watching and listening. His fingers seemed to move so fast yet so effortlessly. He smiled as he played. The most amazing feeling came over me. I felt as if I was having a telepathic conversation with him. I would think, “Oh, how beautifully you play!” And he would then look at me as if to say “Thank you.” I decided to test it out and find out if it was just my imagination. So I thought towards him, “Did you have fun yesterday?” And without hesitation, he turned and looked right at me and said “Definitely!”
My eyes grew wide and I asked, “How’d you do that?” Suddenly, he stopped playing.
He came over towards me and said, “I think we’re on the same brain wave Tammy!”
“The same WHAT?” I asked.
“Brain waves. It’s the energy created by one’s thoughts and emotions. I think that we have the same frequency in a way.”
At first I felt as if I had terribly misjudged this guy and wanted to politely excuse myself and find a new friend. But then I figured I would hear him out and make my determinations later.
He sensed my discernment and walked over to the piano. He motioned for me to come with him. I sat down beside him and he asked me if I would like to help him create a song.
“Who me?” I asked bewildered.
“Sure! he said encouragingly. I can tell you have a creative mind. You can help me with the words and I will create the music to go along with it.”
“O.K.!” I said and we created “The Forest” and our magical friendship took off.
To summarize, the song takes you on a walk through a forest. Trees surround you and up on a branch you see a woodpecker. As you continue to walk you see a flock of birds flying through a blue sky. Then you come to a meadow. There is a rabbit chewing on some grass and a fox is approaching. You turn around to find a bear growling at you. You run and find your way to the other side of the meadow where the fox is now chasing the rabbit and gaining ground. Then you glance away and see an owl looking at you and hooting. Back at the meadow the fox is still chasing the rabbit and the music is getting faster and faster until…Blam! “Chomp, chomp, chomp goes the fox on the rabbit. He ate his fuzzy tail and his long ears!” But the forest remained the same.
As the words spilled out of my mouth, John was quick to compose a corresponding musical depiction. Within thirty minutes we had written our first song together, but it would not be the last. After all was said and done, we would compose over twenty other songs. Most of them were based on our adventures and trips we took during our fourteen days of non-stop fun together.
We went white water rafting down the Nantahala River, performed our songs for some elementary children at Lee Hall, jumped around on some bunk beds we found in storage, went hiking all over the place, played video games in town, ran countless miles through wooded trails, jumped on trampolines, swam in the pool, excavated and maintained walking trails for the camp, played hide and seek at night with the other staff members, consumed a lot of beer around numerous bonfires, and last, but not least, we drove up and down the camp road at night in his car, with just the flashers on (that was wild!). We were never sexually intimate. The only time he kissed me was the day I left…
We were sitting on a log overlooking a stream. As we watched the water flow past us we realized our time together was going with it. We made a promise to each other that we would stay in touch and never forget that we were “connected.” He gave me his beige hat with his blue nametag on it as a memento. He leaned over and kissed me gently as if to say “Thank you.” I smiled and was just about to kiss him back when I heard my Mom calling for me.
My family was packed and waiting for me in “the bomb.” As we drove away I looked at him through the foggy rear window with tears running down my face. My heart ached. But I knew I would see him again, someday.
CHAPTER 4: MY ROOTS
Since my Mom and Dad had divorced, going back to Ohio was always an experience filled with mixed emotions. I often wondered what my life would have been like had we stayed in our small town and grown up with our relatives close by. As a child I was often saddened and cried when we left. But as a teenager, I realized that my life would have been dull, and I would have been just another face in a crowd of troubled teens with a boring life, longing to escape it.
Seeing my grandparents and cousins was always pleasant at first, but soon grew wearisome. It was always a battle of which side of the family was going to see us first and who would stay where. My brothers always wanted to stay with Daddy. I, being closest to Mom, was content being with her and her family. This summer, however, I decided to stay with Dad and his wife, Nancy, at their new farmhouse in the country.
Dad had inherited three stepdaughters in this marriage. I was three years younger than the oldest, Melissa, but she and I seemed to get along the best. She had a cool car. It was a black Ford Maverick with flames painted on the side. I helped her change out a starter for it one afternoon. In appreciation, she offered to take me out with her that night. My Dad was not too happy about it, but he didn’t feel as if he had much control of my actions at that time and didn’t try to stop me.
We met up with some of her friends from high school and we drank some beers and went hotrodding on the back roads. We had a great time and she was surprised that I was more mature than her younger sister. It was the start of relationship that I had never had before, a “sisterhood.”
During the time we spent in Ohio, I visited my Dad’s parents, my Mom’s parents, and my cousins on my mom’s side and my great grandparents on my Dad’s side. None of them ever understood my interest in sports and running. They never really approved of Jay as our stepfather and never understood why my Mom left my Dad. I defended my Mom and our lifestyle and explained that me and the boys were happy and that is what mattered.
I discovered on this particular trip that you can never go back and re-live your past. You can only hope that the path you chose for the future will deliver a life without regret and bring happiness to you and your family. Although we were not physically close to my relatives in Ohio, I always hoped that they realized how often I thought of them and how much they were loved.
As we said our “goodbyes” and headed for St. Louis, I cried. But this time it was not as a child wanting to cling to her Daddy, but as young woman who realized she didn’t really know anything about her father and had never made an attempt to find out. I vowed that my next visit would be spent changing that situation.
CHAPTER 5: LIFE ON THE ROAD
Over the last eight years, my brothers and I had experienced a number of road trips. We had suffered through boring highways, picnic lunches at road side rest areas versus McDonalds Happy Meals, playing the alphabet game with bill boards and road signs (you can never find “X” except for a sign showing the town of “Xenia Ohio” just outside of Cincinnati), games of “slug-a-bug,” and finding state license plates from around the country. But as teenagers, we had become less enthusiastic with such things. My brothers were completely happy scanning the sports and comics pages of the newspaper. But, with my carsickness problem, I was unable to read stuff or play any hand held travel games in the car. So I resorted to singing songs to myself and just thinking. I would think about boys, my future, the meaning of life, or whatever popped in my head. I often picked my Mom’s brain about things. She was usually happy to answer my questions for the first hour or so, but then she would ask me to sit quietly and assure me that we would be stopping soon.
After eight or ten hours of driving during the day, we were always anxious to stop for the night. My brothers and I would always pray for rain so that we might stay at a motel for the night rather than having to put up our tents, sleep on the ground, eat hot dogs and beans for supper by a campfire and have to walk half a mile, in the dark, to go to the bathroom. Our prayers were seldom answered. Nonetheless, I must admit we were a much closer family as a result. We each had our own tent to set up plus we were each assigned specific tasks. My brothers would collect wood for the fire. I would get water for the “Kool-Aid” jug and coffee pot. Mom would make sure everyone had clean clothes to wear for the next day and then get supper rounded up. Jay would set up his and Mom’s tent, plot the course for the next days drive, make any necessary telephone calls, put oil in “the bomb” and help the boys with the fire wood. We would often sing songs around the campfire while Jay played his guitar. We had some favorites that always made us laugh. We would usually turn in early so we could get up and go for a run together before breakfast the next morning. We were still “in training” after all.
We were headed out to Pikes Peak in Colorado and were all going to run in the marathon. Jay and Bobby were the only ones making the twenty-eight mile round trip run. Mom, Scotty and I were only running the fourteen-mile ascent. But that in itself was a difficult task. I was excited about returning to Colorado. We had been out there before when I was eight. I remembered riding horses and learning wood and leather crafts. But I was too young to participate in many things back then. So this time was going to be different. I wanted to do as much as I could in the two-week long running camp in which we were participating.
CHAPTER 6: CAMP CROCKETT
After a few days of driving to various sight-seeing places (St. Louis Arch, Mount Rushmore etc..) we arrived at Camp Crockett, Colorado YMCA just south of Colorado Springs. The majestic Rocky Mountains towered above us. The dry air smelled of the wild flowers, which grew in the grassy meadows. You could also smell the horses in the stables. I couldn’t wait to ride! But first we had to get our cabin. I was hoping it was going to be better than the one we stayed in eight years ago!…
It was called “The Hole.” The name itself was bad enough! It was a tiny two-room cabin that tilted to one side. The front room had a sofa bed, a rickety table with three wobbly chairs, and a small rust stained sink with a broken piece of mirrored glass hanging above it. The back room had a set of bunk beds and a rollaway bed in the corner. Their was no electricity hooked up and we had to use candles and lanterns to see at night. It created an eerie glow. The place gave me the creeps! After we had been there a few days I heard about the history of “The Hole” from some of the camp staff.
Apparently an old mining couple had spent the winter there and developed cabin fever. As a result, the old man went crazy and while his wife was sleeping, with her head hung over the bed, the man slammed the bed into the wall, crushing the woman’s head and killing her. He then shot himself in the head and the noise from the blast knocked the cabin off of its foundation, which is why it leaned to one side. The legend stated that the woman’s ghost still haunted the place.
Well, after that, I couldn’t sleep there. The next day I asked my mom if I could sleep with some of the other girls in their “Sinawik” (Kiwanis spelled backwards) cabin. They had asked me under the impression that I was a little boy. I had short hair at the time and when they asked what my name was and I said “Tammy” they thought I said “Timmy.” When I got my nightgown out that night, they were surprised!
But that was eight years ago and I was happy to hear that “The Hole” was bull dozed to the ground and we would be staying in some newly built dorms up on the mountain.
We checked in and I was “bunking” with a girl from Wyoming named Jill. She and I were the same age and hit it off from the start. We spent the first few days exploring the camp and ran
together everyday. We met up with a few other girls but most of them were kind of prissy, so Jill and I just hung out together.
It wasn’t long before we “ran” into the guys at the camp. It was kind of interesting. Other than a couple of boys of various ages staying on the grounds and my brothers, there were two groups of them attending the same training camp.
The first group consisted of six boys from Tuba City, Arizona. They were all Native Americans from the Hopi Tribe. They spoke in their native tongue whenever they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying. I thought it was cool to meet some true “Americans” and that they took pride in their culture enough to continue to speak the language. They all flirted with us at first, but after we discussed running and other nonsexual subjects, they simmered down and began to look at us as “friends” rather than “fresh meat.” Lloyd was the quietest and the cutest. After a brief conversation, Jill and I agreed to meet them later that night by the Bonfire.
Right next door, was the second group. These party animals were from Dallas, Texas! A bunch of “cowboys!” Jill immediately directed her attention toward the brown haired, blue-eyed Texan with a smile to die for. His name was Tom. They all removed their cowboy hats as we stepped into the room. They were charming and wanted to “win our hearts” amongst other things I’m sure. We both just smiled and invited them to the Bonfire.
That night, Jill and I primped, curled and sprayed our hair and rushed down to the Bonfire. We were anxious to see what the night would have in store. It was like something out of a western movie…The “Cowboys” versus the “Indians.” Thoughts of a possible fight ran through my head. I began to think maybe what we had done wasn’t such a good idea.
Just then, both groups were walking down the trail together. They all waved as they approached us. We all sat in a big circle that night and formally introduced ourselves to one another and everyone got along great. As curfew drew near, we put out the fire and cleaned up the area. Lloyd offered to walk me back to my cabin and I graciously accepted. Jill had already left on a walk with Tom.
As we walked along the dark trail our flashlights helped very little to detect any roots or rocks sticking up out of the ground. I tripped on one, call me “Grace.” I fell and hit my knee. Lloyd extended his hand and pulled me up. I realized that he was a gentleman and I didn’t feel intimidated by him. We talked all the way back to the dorm and he asked if we could get together again sometime. I agreed and as we approached my door, he stopped me. He leaned over towards me as if he were going to kiss me. But instead, he whispered something in my ear… “Um yuki takai” (Don’t know if the spelling is correct).
I asked him what it meant, but he just smiled and walked away. My heart jumped suddenly and a slight chill ran up the back of my neck. I wasn’t sure if I should have slapped him or kissed him! Who knew what he had said? Who was there to ask? Only his roommates spoke Hopi and if it were something private I didn’t want to advertise it! Hmmmf!
I could hardly sleep that night for the lack of knowing what it was that Lloyd had so gently spoken into my ear. The next morning I was charged with excitement from the anticipation of seeing Lloyd at the Mess Hall. On the way down to breakfast, Jill and I exchanged stories about the previous night. She had gotten more out of it than myself! I guess you have to move pretty fast in order to keep a guy in Wyoming. I didn’t place judgment on her, God knows I was no “Snow White.” It just takes me a while to loosen up to a guy. I have to get to know him as a person first. I like to think that he wants me for who I am, not for what I have between my legs. I’m allowed to delude myself aren’t I?
There he was, amongst his friends, eating his breakfast. I sat down with Jill a few tables over. I was just about finished and began to think he wasn’t really interested me when I suddenly felt his hands on my shoulders. He started to massage my neck when I turned around and noticed my Mom looking at me. I quickly maneuvered away from him and said,
“Hey, what’s up?” I had to act bothered by his actions in order to deceive my Mom. I figured if she thought any funny business was going on, she would make me stay in her cabin for the rest of our stay.
Looking surprised he said, “I’m sorry, Tammy. Did I do something wrong?”
“No, no, no!” I said quickly. “It’s just that my Mom is watching and I don’t want to get into trouble. Let’s go outside and go for a walk. I’ll meet you by the stables in a few minutes.”
I walked over to my Mom and she had fifty questions for me. Like a teenager, I tried to explain myself and defend Lloyd’s actions as “completely innocent.” She asked that I check in with her before dark and instructed that I stay out of “trouble.” I knew what she meant and assured her I would.
My Mom knew that I was no longer a virgin. But she didn’t want me to get a bad reputation, a disease or worse yet, pregnant! I could understand her concerns and was always very conscientious when it came to promiscuous behavior. I never led guys on and I never got myself into a bad situation. I knew how to handle myself and felt confident that I could fend off any unwanted gestures. My Mom however, didn’t share my confidence, but that’s all part of being a mother.
Outside, Lloyd was waiting by the stables. We went for a ride and talked about running mostly. He was surprised at my extensive athletic background being a girl and all. I had been running longer than he had and my mile time was only five seconds slower than his. He was impressed and asked if I would run the race with him. I agreed. I knew I wasn’t going to win any trophies or anything, and I just wanted to finish the race. I figured if I had someone there to help keep me keep going I had a better chance of being successful.
During the next several days, the “Cowboys,” “Indians” and Jill and I all trained, ate, played, walked, worked, rode horses and shared ghost stories together. We had a great time learning some Hopi words (most of which I have forgotten) and learning rodeo “lingo.” The only bits of wisdom that Jill and I were able to provide were regarding the “do’s and don’ts” on a first date. We gave the guys guidelines on what to do to impress a girl and what not to do in order to avoid insulting her. They always listened with great enthusiasm. Although Jill and Tom had become an “item” the rest of us just hung out as friends.
The guys from Arizona had not traveled much and were not used to the weather extremities of the Rockies. Once, while running, we got caught in a hailstorm. It took me thirty minutes to convince them that it was, in fact, hail and not frozen bird poop, which the guys from Texas had jokingly given as an explanation.
Race day had arrived! We were all excited and nervous. Some of the guys were hoping to win an age group or even place in the top ten finishers. My brother, Bob, was one of them. He was in good enough shape to do it, he just lacked confidence. I told him to just do his best and it didn’t matter how he placed, but to make sure he didn’t get injured. The trail was steep and rocky in places, especially above timberline. Coming down the mountain was more dangerous because your footing was hard to control when combined with speed, a steep incline and tired muscles.
Everyone finished the race. My brother Scott, Lloyd and I came in about 10 minutes behind my Mom. Later we found out that Jay and Bobby had also finished and did well. Bobby was among the top finishers in his age group and received a medal. The rest of us received patches and a T-shirt for our participation.
It was probably the most difficult physical challenge I had ever faced. Fourteen miles of uphill running in high altitude. The snack bar and tourist shop at the summit provided great comfort from the freezing wind outside. We all had hot chocolate and donuts as we recuperated from the race. Lloyd and I ventured outside again and took some pictures. We were so thrilled the race was over but at the same time saddened because we knew that camp was over and we would soon be saying goodbye. In the back of my mind I realized the chances of ever seeing him again were slim to none. But I was grateful to have met him.
I talked Mom into letting me ride back down the mountain in the van with Lloyd’s teammates. When we got back to camp, I took a hot shower and changed clothes. I met Lloyd and the rest of our gang at the Mess Hall. We planned a party for that night. Now all I had to do was to find a way to sneak off camp.
The camp was having their own celebration that night. So it wasn’t too hard to slip away undetected. We all piled into three different cars that belonged to the boys from Texas. We headed five miles down the road away from camp and found a perfect spot by a stream to set up a campfire. The guys had gotten a couple cases of beer, hot dogs, potato chips and stuff to make “smores.”
As the night air grew colder, we all huddled close by the fire and began to tell ghost stories. We were having so much fun that we lost track of time. We didn’t get back until after 3:00 am! I had a sinking feeling that I was going to be in trouble. I seldom got away with any wrong doings. Somehow my Mom always knew.
As we pulled into camp, we turned the headlights out and parked about half a mile from the main entrance. But as we walked up the road, we saw a group of people standing around with flashlights. The camp director, several camp counselors and my parents were all out on a search. Not only was I in trouble for being off camp, but I had violated curfew and we had all been drinking!
My Mom was too angry to even speak to me. I just got the evil glare and Jay told me to get to my cabin. It was a horrible way to end our otherwise perfect time together. All I could think of was how much I had disappointed my Mom.
The next morning I went straight to my parent’s cabin and apologized. I told them why I went and exactly what we had done and where. They still weren’t too happy with me but the anger level had dropped considerably. After breakfast, I went over to Lloyd’s cabin to say goodbye.
I asked him one last time to tell me what he had whispered into my ear that first night we met. I finally got the answer to the question that had tormented me over the last two weeks.
“Your pretty nose.” He said with a smile.
I looked at him inquisitively and asked, “My NOSE!?! What is so great about my nose?”
He just laughed and stroked my nose. Of all the things in the world I had imagined, I would never have guessed that. I had always hated my nose. It is long and pointy and I felt self conscious about it. I used to dream of having a cute little pug nose. People told me my nose gave me character. Yeah right. That day, however, I was thankful to have a nose that had made such an impression on a boy. The whole thing seemed kind of romantic in a way.
As I said goodbye to Jill, Lloyd and the rest of the gang, I didn’t shed any tears. Instead I smiled to myself realizing the friends I had made and the good times we shared would never be forgotten.
Jay topped off the car with oil, we all loaded up our gear and with a trail of smoke behind us, we headed out for Las Vegas
CHAPTER 7: LIMOS, LIGHTS AND A CAN OF FIX-A-FLAT
After spending a day and a night on the road, we arrived in Las Vegas in awe of its spectacular display of lights and huge signs. Jay had made connections with some company who agreed to put us up for two nights at the Stardust Hotel. I was expecting it to be some “hell hole” in comparison to all of the beautiful places we were passing along the strip. But much to my surprise, we turned into the parking lot of this beautiful place all lit up with tiny white lights. The parking lot was filled with cadillacs, mercedes, limousines and other assorted luxury cars.
There we were in our rust bucket car, pulling right up to the front door! The valet parking guys just looked on in amazement. As if the appearance of the car wasn’t bad enough, as we all began to tumble out of the passenger side door as the car coughed and sputtered, we noticed that we had not one, but two flat tires!!!! Argghhhh! I was so embarrassed, I wanted to just fade into the pavement. We piled back in and sheepishly limped out of the way of the other incoming cars. I hunched down in the seat as we waited for Jay to come back from the gas station down the street. He arrived about ten minutes later carrying two cans of “Fix-A-Flat.”
Right there in front of everyone, he sprayed the stuff into the tires, dumped more oil into the car and motioned for us to get out. I wanted to wait until we had the cover of darkness, but I wasn’t so lucky. I grabbed my duffle bag out of the car and began walking quickly inside, leaving my family behind. The front desk clerk asked me if I had any luggage to check in. I handed him my dusty duffle bag. He raised his eyebrows and picked it up by his thumb and one finger. I gave him a dirty look and said, “Just wait, there’s more!”
As the rest of the family strolled in we piled our raggedy luggage on the shiny brass dolly. We were shown to our room. It was huge and luxurious! The front walk-in closet was almost as big as my room back home!
Mom, my brothers and I went downstairs to check out the casino. What a place! I had seen images of Vegas on television, but nothing compares to a real life experience. My Mom played a few slot machines but luck was not with her at the time. We toured the rest of the hotel to stretch our legs, then headed back to the room.
Jay suggested we go for a run down “the strip” before dinner. Sounded good, so off we went. Six miles later we returned to the hotel, showered, changed our clothes and headed out. It was dark now and the city lights were stunning! We could hear the slot machines taking in and spitting out change at every casino. Hundreds of cars lined the streets and thousands of people were on the sidewalks! I was so excited to be there and wished I was ten years older.
The next day was spent visiting with some of Jay’s sponsors for his World Record attempt run through Death Valley, our next stop. The summer before, he had successfully completed a World Record solo run across America. He began in Los Angeles and finished in New York City in just under 72 days. He accomplished this feat without a support vehicle. It was just him and a backpack, filled with candy bars, a thermal blanket and a spare pair of running shoes. Funds were sent to pre-planned Post Office boxes by numerous friends, sponsors and of course our bank account. Many townspeople along the way provided him with lodging and a hot meal. Averaging 50 miles each day, it was an experience of a lifetime. His success only spawned his desire to achieve greater challenges. As a result he chose to run from Badwater, California (the lowest elevation point in the continental U.S.) to the summit of Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the continental U.S.) during the hottest time of year!
As we were leaving a local fitness center, we literally “ran into” Bob Barker (Price is Right host). He was just finishing a workout and on his way out for a run. We all chatted briefly and shook hands. I was “star struck” and could barely muster a “Nice to meet you!”
The next stop was the rental car place. I was thrilled that Jay had come to his senses and wasn’t going to drag us all through Death Valley in “the Bomb.” It was a beautiful blue AMC Concord with air conditioning!!!! My happiness was short-lived when we kids were told that Mom would be driving the rental car as a “support vehicle” for Jay and Bobby would be driving the Dodge to take me & Scotty to the various “checkpoints” or lodging for the night. This was arranged so that we would not have to sit in a hot car waiting for Jay every 3 miles or so. This would also allow us to spend our days exploring, swimming or watching TV while we waited for Mom and Jay. Begrudgingly, we accepted the idea.
We decided to take a “test drive” in the rental and check out what Death Valley was going to be like. After surviving a dust storm and being stuck behind a truck traveling 27 MPH for 2 hours, we arrived in Bad Water. The local resort was closed this time of year but had modest accommodations reserved for our family. I looked at the thermostat hanging underneath a “shade tree” and it read 127 degrees! I couldn’t believe it. The air was dry though and didn’t feel any hotter than the muggy 100-degree weather we lived with in Florida. It made me wonder how long a pair of rubber-soled running shoes was going to last on the sizzling asphalt.
After firming up the reservations and talking to the park ranger, we all headed back to the city of lights. Mom and I spent one last night in the casino downstairs and I drank “Shirley temples” to give the false appearance that it was a cocktail. We didn’t win much, five dollars or so. But we had a lot of laughs and saw some very strange people.
We were all up and out the door by 7 o’clock. It was raining. As we headed out of town we heard flash flooding warnings on the radio. The storm was getting stronger and we feared what was ahead. Mom and Jay were ahead in the Concord with their flashers on, we crept along behind them in the Dodge, sweating and steaming up the windows. The defroster only blew hot air on the floor. I had to wipe the windshield off with a T-shirt so Bob could see the road.
Just as we were approaching Bad Water, we saw brake lights ahead and then we were all stopped. The storm had caused a huge mudslide in the road and we had to take a detour around it. We drove an extra 20 miles or so in order to reach the resort in Furnace Creek. Was Mother Nature giving us some kind of warning as to what lay ahead in the next few days?
After a long morning of driving, sweating and arguing with my brothers about various things, I was not in the mood to go for a run. But we were coaxed into it. We discovered a lush golf course. It was like an oasis in the desert. The grass was so green against the now bright turquoise sky. It felt like carpet under my feet and I decided to run barefoot instead of wearing shoes. Jay frowned upon the idea, but I assured him I would be careful. Scotty and I lagged behind and tossed a tennis ball back and forth while we ran. Just as we were heading back, the sprinkler system came on! Water was being sprayed all over the place. We got soaked! It was a welcome relief from the heat so we decided to continue playing in them all the way back to the room. Some of the sprinklers were very high pressured as my brother found out while trying to jump over one!
We had a delightful home-cooked meal at a small “mom and pop” restaurant. Our desert was a delicious date milk shake! I usually have trouble eating dates because they remind me of the ever-abundant palmetto bugs (flying cock roaches big enough to vote) that plague the South. But this was very good. We were all tired and turned in early. As I drifted off to sleep I thought of John and longed to hear his music.
CHAPTER 8: “HELL”
A Park Ranger told Jay that the road was still closed because of the mudslide. He decided to run back and forth along the dry road to make up the distance. During his run, he was met by a group of running colleagues who told him the road was no longer closed! After having waited for three hours to get started that morning and not wanting to jeopardize the legitimacy of his record attempt, Jay decided to start fresh the next day and do it right.
At 7 o’clock am, the temperature had already reached 100 degrees. The boys and I waited for Jay to make his 18-mile trek from Bad Water to Furnace Creek. Three hours later he arrived. We kids all piled into the Dodge and told our parents we would see them at Stove Pipe Wells, which was 25 miles down the road and our lodging site for the night.
As we pulled in at the small dusty motel, we were excited to see a swimming pool! Yippee! After we checked in and unloaded the bags, we changed into our swimsuits and headed for the pool. Three big splashes sent the water up over the pool’s edges. As we all came up our faces showed the same agonizing expression. The water was HOT! It was like jumping into a hot tub without the bubbles. We grumbled as we got out. It was too hot to swim, no television to watch and we were in the middle of nowhere! We were like the children of Dr. Seuss muttering “Nothing to do but sit, sit sit.” Bob decided to go for a little run while Scotty and I sipped sodas by the pool. I was working on my tan and he was adorned with sun block, a towel and T-shirt fashioned like an Arabian Sheik.
Mom and Jay finally showed up. We compared notes and after Jay took a brief nap, he commenced his running again with Bobby tagging along. Around 7:30 that night we headed out to the only restaurant in the valley. The maître d’ told Jay that it would be a 30 minute wait. He still had a schedule to keep and needed to resume running. He very seldom spoke his mind in public, but he let that guy have it and we were seated immediately. I was impressed. However, Jay went back and apologized to him and explained how tired and stressed out he was. There were no hard feelings and we all chowed down on a hearty meal.
After dinner and a brief ride back to the motel, Jay started back on the road. The clear night sky and the full moon lit up the desert. While it was still quite warm, the pool had cooled off considerably and my brothers and I decided to go for a swim. As we were leisurely floating around in the water, Scotty suddenly yelled out, “What the hell was that!?”
I jumped and screeched a little. I thought he was just kidding around and as I began to lecture him about making so much noise, I felt something “whoosh” past me. “Ahhhhhh!”
I hollered. Then we saw them. BATS!! They too were enjoying the cool water!
It took no time for us to hop out of the water and seek shelter under the motel’s porch. We watched in amazement as the little black winged creatures swooped down into the pool to get a drink. Mom and Jay pulled in around 10:30 and shared in our amusement for a few minutes.
It was late and we knew we had a long drive the next day. The road had been flat and fairly strait up to this point. We were only 5 feet above sea level now (after having been -282). But our next stop would take us up to over 3,700 feet above sea level in just over 70 miles. Jay was already feeling some pain in his Achilles tendon. The hot, dry air had chapped his face. His fears of failure were suppressed but I knew they existed. We all worried about him out in the heat and pushing too hard, but we had faith that he would succeed and offered encouragement every chance we could. Our biggest responsibility was to behave and get along to avoid creating any unnecessary stress.
The next morning, after pouring oil into the car and checking her fluids, the boys and I headed out once more to face yet another hot day. The mountains we had viewed from afar, approached quickly now and the incline was taking its toll on the poor old car. Is wasn’t long before the car began to overheat. I finally talked Bobby into pulling over at one of the roadside water containers that we had seen throughout the valley.
Bobby can be pig-headed at times and doesn’t like to take orders from his little sister. But he knew we needed to stop. In a huff, he climbed over me and got out of the car. He opened the trunk and filled a milk jug with water. Without even thinking, he went to the front of the car, popped the hood and opened the radiator cap! Scalding hot water exploded out of the radiator and Bobby was screaming. Scotty and I ran out to help him. Luckily he was wearing sunglasses, which were now partially melted on one side. But his arm was not so lucky. He had burned it pretty badly. I escorted him back to the car and placed him in the back seat. Scotty and I pulled some sodas out of the cooler and we submerged Bob’s arm in the icy water. He was too quiet and I suspected he was in shock. I knew he was not fit to drive.
Scotty thought that he should drive since he was the next oldest. But I argued that he didn’t yet have his learners permit and I did, therefore I should drive. Needless to say, I won the debate and told Scotty to keep an eye on Bobby and to not let him go to sleep. It was six miles to Townes Pass, our rendezvous point with the folks and where we could possibly get some supplies to dress Bob’s burns. After filling the radiator, we headed out. The road was curvy and uphill the whole way. Scotty gripped the dashboard like a nervous cat holding onto a tree limb. I shrugged off his lack of confidence in me and got us there safely.
A couple hours later, Mom arrived and was informed of the day’s events. She was upset and felt terrible for having subjected us to all of this misery, but we assured her that we were okay and that it would all be over soon. We applied Solorcaine and gauze to Bobby’s arm and gave him some aspirin for the pain. I would have to drive, unlicensed and illegally, the remaining 64 miles to Lone Pine.
The road was narrow, curvy, and treacherous and continued to climb. Every once in a while the car would grumble and overheat. I would pull over and wait for her to cool down before continuing on. What should have taken just over an hour to drive ended up being more like three. Scott’s nervousness eventually faded and he was more attentive to Bob who kept his arm submerged in the ice chest. We both tried to keep light conversation going to boost his spirits and take his mind off of the pain. His burns were severe and the desert heat didn’t help matters.
As we limped into Lone Pine, we were all happy to see our reserved accommodations were not cheesy. It was a very modern facility with a pool, tennis courts, game room and a Jacuzzi! We checked in, unpacked the car and redressed Bob’s arm with fresh gauze. We agreed a swim was in order. Bob couldn’t go swimming, but was able to relax waist deep on the pool steps. We only had to wait a few hours before Jay and Mom arrived. Both of them were happy to see we had made it safely.
Jay had stopped in a little town in Panamint Valley. He was warned against doing so as it was once home to part of the Manson Gang. The locals didn’t take to kindly to strangers supposedly and Jay had doubts about going into this one gas station. To his good fortune, the woman was very hospitable and supplied him with the much needed water and supplies he asked for.
Facing the steep climb in the car was bad enough, I couldn’t imagine Jay having to run it. His muscles were aching but he needed to resume his endeavor. It was past lunchtime and we were all hungry. After a good meal and a short nap he and Mom were off again.
It would take two days for Jay to complete the never-ending hill up to Lone Pine. He would have to suffer through the hottest part of the valley before reaching the base of the highest peak. The surface temperature soared above 150 degrees and he recalled seeing a shaded thermostat registering 115 degrees.
We kids didn’t mind staying in Lone Pine. It was a beautiful tourist town. Souvenir shops and friendly people offered a great place for us to explore. There were numerous trails near the hotel. Scott and I ran together while Bob reluctantly stayed behind. He would need to stay off his feet if he was to accompany us all on the “big climb” up Mt. Whitney. He found pleasure in reading the sports page by the pool and secretly gazed at girls in their bikinis behind his new mirrored sunglasses.
When Jay finally arrived at Lone Pine he looked sun baked and exhausted. Rather than call it a day, he took a short two-hour break and resumed his trek to the base of the mountain, Whitney Portal, which was another 13 miles down (up) the road. I admired his determination and perseverance. I only hoped it would not be his undoing. He still had to tackle Mt. Whitney. His legs were fatigued and his Achilles tendon was getting worse. I wanted to help support him through this last stretch the journey. We all did.
CHAPTER 9: FOUR SEASONS IN ONE DAY
It was 4:00 a.m. and we were all getting dressed for our morning jaunt up the mountain. Having experienced Pikes Peak’s 14-mile trail in Colorado, we were rather confident that Mt. Whitney’s 11-mile climb would be slightly less grueling. I dressed in my usual running attire of shorts and a t-shirt. Jay convinced the boys to bring their windbreakers and sweat pants just in case it was cooler at the top. I did not want to carry any extra baggage and as it was already 80 degrees outside and the sun had not risen, coolness was the furthest thing from my mind.
My mother, who is always prepared (former cub-scout den mother), decided to bring her rain gear, a sweat shirt and the camera to capture the “record setting” on film. At the last minute she, for some strange reason, grabbed the matches on the nightstand and shoved them in her jacket pocket.
Jay and Bob brought flashlights, fruit, granola bars and I carried a couple bottles of water. Scott carried the flags that were to be held up at the moment of triumph. We each wore a small nap sack to share the load. We headed out the door and drove to Whitney Portal. At 5:15, we headed out for the top.
We had to use the flashlights on the heavily wooded trail. There were several small streams to cross and as we were hurrying, we didn’t always stay dry. My feet were soaked as I was leading the way and didn’t see the water until it was too late. The trail itself was hard to follow as there were few markings and it was not wide or heavily trafficked like Pikes Peak.
At six miles, we reached “timberline” and the trail was less dirt and more rock. The rock sizes seemed to get bigger the further up we went. It got to the point of literally having to climb over them. The sky was growing darker by the minute and we could hear crashes of thunder echoing throughout the mountain range. The air was thinning out and my enthusiasm with it.
With about three miles to go, we passed two hikers dressed in “foul weather gear.” We asked them if we were on the right trail to the top and if had they been there. The reply was grim.
“It’s too stormy! We are headed back to camp! You guys should do the same!” They hollered over the increasing winds.
We couldn’t turn back now, as much as I wanted to. We were so close to the top and Jay could still set the record. My body ached from the uphill battle and my feet were cold from my water-logged shoes. I slowed my pace and Jay and Bobby decided to go on ahead to shave off more time. I cried, feeling like I had let him down by not being in better shape. If only I had trained more seriously and listened to his advice when he gave it. As I drifted further behind the family, feeling more emotionally and physically exhausted, I saw Jay coming towards me.
He reached out, gave me his jacket, took my hand and said, “We are going to do this together or not at all! You can do it Tammy! Just keep moving and use your arms! We are almost there!” At that moment I felt a surge of energy inside and was determined not to let him down.
The wind howled in our faces forcing us backward at times. Sleet and snow began to sting my bare legs. My feet had become numb from the below freezing temperatures. Would we ever reach the summit? I kept looking for lights coming from a souvenir shop or coffee house like at the top of Pikes Peak. I saw nothing but snowflakes whipping around in front of me and the silhouette of Scotty struggling as well.
Suddenly, I heard Bob’s voice shouting. “Come on you guys! You’re almost there! You can make it! We have reached the top!”
After 5 hours of endless climbing, I was so glad to hear those words! I began laughing as I envisioned sipping a cup of hot chocolate and soothing my throbbing feet wrapped in a warm towel. My laughter was soon stifled by the sight of my brother standing upon a pile of snow-covered rocks that housed a small plaque. It read: “Mt. Whitney, summit 14,496 feet, highest point in the continental United States.”
“This is it?” I asked desperately. He pointed to a small rock shelter that looked like something out of the “Flintstones.” I found my brother inside gasping for air and shivering. We were all freezing and our teeth were chattering. Mom had taken photos of Jay with the three flags (two from his sponsors and a U.S. flag) and they soon entered the dirt floored dwelling. Mom tried to comfort us even though she too was cold and miserable. Suddenly she remembered the matches in her pocket!
As she pulled them out we all scrambled to find trash and small bits of wood or other flammable materials. Jay (a former Boy Scout leader) created a small fire and, to make it last a little longer, he burned the felt flags and wooden sticks (sparing the stars and stripes). As we choked on the smoke that lingered inside, we warmed our bare toes by the fire. I looked over at Scott and noticed he was crying. I asked him what was wrong and he whimpered, “We still have to go back down.”
The mere thought of it made us all groan. We were used to driving down Pikes Peak after such an undertaking. But there was nothing up here to get us back down except our own frozen feet. We were not dressed to survive the freezing temperatures, we had eaten all of the food, were low on water, and were out of dry materials to burn. We had to head back and soon.
The storm had eased up only slightly. With thoughts of being back in the desert heat and knowing it was all down hill from here, my brothers and I hurried down the path, leaving Mom and a hobbling Jay behind. We were assured that they would be fine so we didn’t feel guilty.
We had been zipping along at a pretty good clip and had left the snow behind. After about 3 miles or so, we could feel the temperature warming up a bit. We could see the green trees down below and knew we were approaching the half way point. The trail was still quite treacherous and required tremendous agility. Our legs were beginning to wear out and we decided to slow down to avoid injury or falling off one of the many cliffs. The feeling in my toes came back and the sun was shining.
We were now on more even ground and about 3 miles from the bottom. As quickly as the sun emerged, thick dark rain clouds covered it again. Without warning, the skies opened up and the rain fell in huge drops. We were instantly soaked and more irritated than ever. Would this torture ever end? Was there a shortcut down the mountain? We didn’t want to take a chance in getting lost so we decided to stay on the slippery trail.
We ventured back through the streams we had crossed earlier, only larger now, and back down through the towering sequoia trees. In just under 4 hours, we were back down at the bottom and a few hundred yards from the car.
“Do you have the keys, Bob?” I asked. “No.” he replied sadly.
Scotty expressed his frustration with a few colorful metaphors. We tried to find a tree that would shelter us from the pouring rain, as if it mattered. We were sopping wet from head to toe, thirteen miles from civilization, locked out of the car containing a bag of chips and a few granola bars and too tired to stand up.
Almost two miserable hours passed waiting for Mom and Jay to come down. We had experienced the heat of the summer that morning, the coolness of fall later that morning, the Arctic conditions of winter at the summit and the rains of spring that afternoon. We were all tired, cranky and bewildered and wished we were back in the middle of Death Valley where it was dry and hot. Jay reminded us that we would soon have our wish as we would have to drive back through it when we headed home! Arghhhhh!
We celebrated Jay’s victory that night with another family and other running friends. It was a short-lived event as we were all extremely tired and were anxious to get some sleep. That night I sat looking up at the moonlit sky and reflected on our trip. As the realization set in of what I had experienced throughout this whole vacation, the thought of going home seemed unappealing. There were no more exciting new places to see and Interstate “10” was a boring stretch of road. The only great challenge remaining was to make it back to Jacksonville in “the bomb.”
CHAPTER 10: HOMEWARD BOUND
After a much faster drive through the Death Valley we were able to appreciate the beautiful colors of the desert and the spectacular sight of the borax flats. We arrived in Las Vegas and spent one last night there taking in all it had to offer with much less stress.
Once we intersected with I-10, my mind became blank with the lack of anything of real interest to look at. I just sat back in a half sleep reminiscing about our trip and the people we had met along the way. I re-created in my mind all of my adventures over and over again so as not to forget a single detail. As we approached Texas, I remembered John Parker being from Houston. I knew he would have left Blue Ridge by now and pleaded with Jay to take a detour down there so I could look him up. I got a big fat rejection. I pouted for the next hundred miles or so and went back to daydreaming.
We finally hit the Florida state line after three long, grueling days of driving in the humid heat of the South. In six hours we would be home and the adventure would come to a close, I thought.
When we pulled in the driveway, I noticed a small piece of paper stuck in the front door. I figured it was a note from our neighbors who had been collecting the mail and taking care of our dog and cat while we were gone. The only unusual thing about it was that they knew we rarely used the front door and entered the house from the side door by the carport. But I casually walked up to door, removed the paper, and opened it up. I let out a loud screech of excitement (as all teenage girls do) and went running toward my Mom.
“What is it?” she asked.
I handed her the note. It read: “THE FOX AND THE RABBIT WERE HERE!”
It was from John. He had been to my house and had spent three days camped out in the yard waiting for us to return. I had missed him by one day! We probably crossed paths on I-10 and didn’t even know it! I was so excited and ran down to the neighbors to collect the mail. Amongst all of the bills, junk mail and running magazines were 16 letters that John had written and one tape that he had made of all the songs we wrote while at Blue Ridge. I couldn’t believe it, but was utterly thrilled. What was to be the end of my adventure turned out to be the beginning of something that would create a whole new meaning of the word. But that is another story!
I hope that you enjoyed reading my story. Although it is all true, I wrote it to provide entertainment and a temporary distraction from life. I am now a happily married mother of three young boys and life can be filled with little adventures everyday like trying to find a lost diaper bag at Disney World and succeeding! It is not always exciting or romantic and does not offer many rewards. It can be boring and repetitious at times and occasionally I feel bogged down. But it is because of my experiences as a child, young woman and an adult that I have been happy in my daily life.
Whenever I get overwhelmed with feelings of being unappreciated, unattractive or just plain down in the dumps about any little thing, I can always find a way to rise above it by reflecting on something from my past. I have had to overcome a great deal of unhappiness in past relationships, my job, my health and my appearance. But rather than dwell on the negativity I sit down and remember some positive experience and allow its “energy” to pull me up. The positiveness inside of me exists because I was exposed to a wide variety of people and places, had a loving family, and acquired an education in life not found in any school.
Anyone can have an adventure. Whether it consists of a vacation to a new place, a walk through the city, window-shopping or surfing the Internet. Life has many positive things to offer. My advise for anyone who is lonely, frustrated or just depressed about themselves or the life around them, is to get away from your day to day routine and do something impulsive. Take a road trip. Try on crazy hats with a friend or your Mom (our idea of fun in a snobby store). Hike some trails and experience nature up close and take in all of her beauty and wonder. You would be surprised at the way it makes you feel and the long lasting impression it will provide.
Whatever you decide, don’t just dream it, do it! Anything can be achieved with a little effort and a lot of determination. Don’t look at life as having “stumbling blocks” but rather “stepping stones.” Do not confine yourself with being too young or too old to try something. Let the world, and all it has to offer, be yours to explore, digest and enable you to grow old happily and without regret. If I were to die tomorrow, I can honestly say that I have led a full life and hope my children will do the same. What about you?
Originally published in the September 1981 Starting Line, the monthly publication of the Jacksonville Track Club, Florida.
Jay Birmingham, Jacksonville’s running guru, co-founder of the JTC, and distance runner extrordinaire, spent his summer, like most of us, running in the heat. But it wasn’t enough that he put in his miles in the sticky humidity and upper-nineties heat of Florida. No; Birmingham decided to put his 100+ miles per week of training to the test in California’s Death Valley.
As most of you already know, Jay succeeded in his quest to improve on the record for running from the lowest point in the country (Badwater, in Death Valley) to the highest mountain peak in the 48 United States (Mount Whitney), both in California, and only 146 miles apart. With his family serving as support crews and running companions, Jay covered the distance in 75 hours and 34 minutes.
The previous best mark was set in 1977 by Al Arnold, a native Californian who failed at least two other times to complete the route. Arnold’s solo record time was 84 hours.
Last summer, Birmingham captured the imagination and support of much of the Jacksonville community with his solo run from Los Angeles to New York City, a distance of almost 3000 miles in just under 72 days. On the eve of his departure from L.A., he met an experienced desert runner named Gary Morris who provided Jay with a desert shirt to help with his trans-America run. Morris was hoping to break Arnold’s record last year but managed only 60 miles before extreme heat and nausea halted his quest.
Birmingham has always competed strongly under hot conditions so the idea to pursue the Death Valley mark was a natural. With the encouragement and financial backing of Baptist Medical Center, Jay bumped his mileage over the 100 miles per week level as soon as his teaching duties at Episcopal H.S. were done in May.
Many hard-core locals have competed in the Sand Dunes Challenge, a five-mile ordeal through the soft sand near Regency Square in the Arlington area. But Jay ran that course every other day at noon in the month of June. He alternated the sand runs with multiple loops over the Main Street and Acosta Bridges. To prepare for the mountains, Birmingham ran the Gulf Life Tower’s 26 floors, five times, once a week. His long run was typically the 21-mile, 21-hill Lydiard Course near his home in east Jacksonville.
Wife Anita, sons Bobby and Scott, and daughter Tammy, all prepared well themselves. The whole family raced in the Pikes Peak Marathon or Ascent just a few days before heading to Death Valley. From August 15 through the final miles on the 18th, Bob ran many miles of the DV route with Jay. The entire family hiked and jogged the final 11 miles up Mount Whitney’s 14,496-foot summit. After three days of heat ranging from 95 to 120 degrees, they finished in a snowstorm!
Jay said the run in Death Valley was the best-planned run he has ever done. His preparations went smoothly, no injuries interrupted his training, and his fitness was high, even by his standards. Nevertheless, Birmingham said that he was conservative because of the failures of others. He believes many JTC runners could accomplish the run and do it much faster.