Rookie to Veteran, Ultraladies’ Style

More Ultra, Less Lady

2003 official finisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starry-Eyed Surprise
Lyrics by Paul Oakenfold

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

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

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

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