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Death Valley – Welcome – English

2004 finisher

Click here to read this story in German

 

You, the one with the dry lips, be always on the search for water!

The dry lip is a sure sign

That it will find the spring at last.

This search is a blessed restlessness

It overcomes each obstacle

Is the key to what you desire.

Even if you don’t have a container, don’t stop searching …

(Rumi)

Step, step, step, don’t stop. Breathe, breathe in, breathe out, dried air flows through the body.

The finish line, far ahead in the distance, the head as empty as possible, keeping the mind quiet, the emptier the better, less to carry, no harmful thoughts which make it hard to move on. Step, step, step, remain in motion.

Over 50 degrees Celsius in Death Valley, with measured 56.7 degrees Celsius the hottest place world-wide besides the Libyan Desert. Stone desert, dried up salt flats, sand dunes and in front of and below the runners up to over 70 degrees Celsius hot bitumen. Three ascents, starting at Badwater, with – 86 m the lowest point of the western hemisphere, up Towne Pass, over 1,500 m in elevation., then down, up again and at last still another hardly 20 km long ascent to the Mount Whitney Portal at nearly 2,600 m. Overall length of the distance 216 km, for which the runners may not need more than 60 hours.

Already 3 weeks in advance of the Badwater Ultra, Ingrid, my wife, and I arrive, living in a RV, not touching the air conditioning. Step by step we want to get accustomed to the heat, to become familiar with it, learn to love it, is it of course the special trade-mark of the Badwater Ultra, which takes place whenever it is hottest in Death Valley. In addition, I would like to get well acquainted with the landscape and the course, running parts of it to finalize my training, gain experience here and now. Up to the start I am able to visualize the entire distance with eyes closed, have divided it into sections, have run it already 100-times mentally.

However, when we stepped out of our RV at Stovepipe Wells after 6 days, which we spent in the Panamint Ranges and Panamint Valley, the burning sun resting on our bodies, the eyes beginning to get smart by the fiery, dehydrating winds, the scorching breath of a melting furnace, more and more the thought to want to run here becomes stranger, seems unreal. Everything is hot. You want to take a shower, grab the shampoo – hot. You want to slip into your plastic sandals, which you foolishly have forgotten in the sun, it burns your soles. Full of joyful expectation you turn on the cold shower – hot.

About 75 runners will be invited to the Badwater Ultra every year. It is a pure invitational race, for which one has to apply on basis of prescribed qualification standards, however also fulfilling the standards an invitation is not guaranteed. Each runner is responsible for his own crew members including a support vehicle. 2 crew members minimum is a must, who have to support the runner during the entire run, sometimes driving the car, sometimes running along.

12th, July, 6 o’clock, Monday morning at the pool Badwater. No bad water, no poisonous puddle. Only saline water, pitiless exposed to the sun and nevertheless also at this place, so inhospitable for us – life: pickle weed, insects, other arthropods, and the Badwater spring snail, which is known to live only in this one small pool. The Salt Creek Pupfish, which does not exist anywhere else, lives few miles away, in the Salt Creek, which is fed by springs. Over thousands of years it has slowly adapted, as the large lake, which covered once Death Valley, gradually drained, changed to a salt desert, the remaining pools getting saltier step by step.

Still the temperature with nearly 40 degree Celsius is bearable in comparison to the glow furnace of the approaching day. Set up to the group photo, national anthem, then approx. 25 runners get in motion, into a magnificent natural arena, without up-roar, without hanky-panky, cheering crowd or VIPs. At 8 and 10 o’clock two further groups follow, thus keeping traffic low, avoiding crowding and a traffic jam. Altogether 72 participants are at the starting line, including 7 women.

With the starting signal one of the most extreme ultra races world-wide begins, a burr migration facing frontiers of the human bearable. Body and mind, as far as driven by reason, would already give up after few hours, would not even begin this running. However the will, the deeply embodied desire to pass through such an extreme experience, carries the runner, hour after hour, step by step, through day and night towards the finish line. However, up to 45 % of the runners terminate the run before reaching the goal. This year the ratio of official finishers with 79 % is pleasing high, 2 runners finished after the time limit of 60 hours, 14 did not finish.

Air seems to burn, driving the body temperature upward. Internal heat of combustion adds to it, set free during the release of energy, which keeps the runner in motion. Understanding dips off. Irresponsibly.

Step, step, step, constantly moving, breathe out, breathe in. Drink, drink, drink, several liters per hour, may throat and stomach revolt. Despaired, the body tries to escape from overheating, to produce evaporative cold from sweat. Sweat, which is immediately sucked from the skin by the heat, which is blown into flame by strong thermal winds.

The sun, which illuminates the globe for us –

If it approaches little, the whole world burns.

 (Rumi)

My supporters, Bennie, my coach and winner of the Swiss Gigathlon this year (www-ad-extremum.de), his girl friend Birgit and Ingrid have to carry a heavy load now, begin to cool from the outside, run along, put to me approx. every 7 minutes a wet, ice-cooled towel over the shoulder, soak cap and neck shroud with ice water, hand me a face-cloth, filled with ice, which I carry under the cap on the head. They hope to avoid thereby a rise of body temperature, hope to save me from harm by the heat such as cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Drink, step, cooling, drink, step, cooling, do not think about quitting.

On top of that as an extra burden: the execution of psychological tests, which measure reaction and memory abilities while running, 6-times venous blood removal, measurement of blood pressure, urine samples, measurement of internal body temperature, for which I gulped down a small transmitter, wandering through stomach and intestine, and a row of other medical examinations. Together with 9 other runners I am part of the scientific project Runex123 under the direction of Holger Finkernagel , medical doctor, that among other things would like to examine plasma volume changes and mental and emotional changes in behavior as consequences of extreme prolonged endurance exercise, heat stress, sleep deprivation, and potential nutritional deficit. During the night I’ll refuse the psychological tests, too much I’m engaged with myself, on the next day one blood removal, when I suffer on the long straight lines before Lone Pine under the renewed heat, my stomach revolts.

In the afternoon I reach Stovepipe Wells, nearly 70 km lie behind me. A first, short break then the long ascent to Townes Pass begins, 27 km, 1,500 m in elevation gain. So far I felt well, have been quite quickly on the way despite my 10+5 rhythm (10 minutes running, 5 minutes going), which I consequently kept from the beginning. However, without feeling it, the heat, the wind, they have leached me out, taken energy, which I miss now on the rise. Victory and defeat in this contest is decided on this first 70 km, in the most extensive heat, the one who don’t economize with his strength, who be carried away to go out too fast, without recognizing it, has already lost.  No chance to run any  more, the body refuses the service, brisk going must be enough. The night comes down, I’m not tired, however, half way up, I’m stuck. Something to eat, lying on the soil for 20 minutes to get some rest, dozing away. My crew keeps an eye on me, I trust them blindly, let myself drop down. As a runner I’m only a small wheel in the gear-box, chanceless without my crew devoted to me.

Go on, up to Townes Pass, then, a wrong bite, my stomach bristles up in protest, empties itself, I feel relieved. Maria, who cares for her husband Angel, offers cooled fruit bites to me, balsam this gesture, an appreciated change. A short rest at Townes Pass, then downhill it goes, at last, running is possible again. 20 km of downhill running, my thighs begin to tremble. Again, my body is leached out, to the third time station I still would like to go, its lights glowing in the darkness I already have in eyes, few kilometers only. However, it is senseless, I hardly advance, laborious my stride. Bennie recommends an immediate break, without any resistance I agree. 45 minutes of rest, something to eat, then on the thin mat, only a sheet covers me, millions of stars above, for which I do not have eyes. Spiders, the deadly black widow, scorpions, snakes, other beasts, it doesn’t affect me, I’m lying on the ground, looking for peace, in order to attain new strength.

Before time, I stand up, forwards. Thoughts cannot be avoided, why only do I this to me? Enjoyment of running, this can’t be, doesn’t find it here. This great landscape, under other circumstances I should be able to absorb it much better. Reasons for giving up, none, despite all the exhaustion, I’m quite all right, those few blisters at the feet, marginal notes. I feel obligated to my crew, they call me “The Desert Fox”, have labeled our van which such ingenious sayings like: “Pain is temporary – glory forever!” and “A goal without a pain – is a dream!!”. Come on, then. Again a rise of about 1.500 m in height. Views back, a headlight chain of support vehicles pulls down Towne Pass, through Panamint Valley, warm comfort, there I was hours ago. Again my stomach revolts, should have its will, forth with it. I drink, must pass water, again and again, my body take up no more liquid, the loss of salt was too much, wasn’t sufficiently balanced.

Again I was becoming a reptile uphill, a powernap of 15 minutes let me awake as a runner again. In the end, downhill again, over 50 km to Lone Pine, on endless straight lines, which I love so much, which seem to disappear in infinity. The Sierra Nevada at left, there lays the goal, glassily in the vapor of a hot day. Strong winds, blowing sand over the road. The run, I would like to bring to an end now, avoiding a second night. Again I run, making use of the 10+5 rhythm, again, my crew has to give their best, drink, step, cooling, drink, step, cooling.

Almost at the finish line, a last ascent of about 20 km to a height of 2,600 m, the state of mind is lifting, the spike of Mount Whitney in front of my eyes, a worthy goal, and behold, my brave heart awakes, less than 40 hours is still possible. Brisk going uphill, Ingrid sets the speed, at her back my eyes suck firmly. She walks ahead of me, as far as she can, then Bennie replaces her. It is done, accomplished. Be roused from the absorption of a long run, from the inmost soul, the runner awakes, newly born, tears pouring. This was not a run over 216 km in roaring heat, up passes, nights through, it was a journey through inner mountains and valleys.

“Rise from the dead, yeah, rise from the dead,

You will, my dust,

after a short rest.”

(Gustav Mahler, 2. Symphony)

The adventure self experience, complete devotion, despair and oblivion during the run, the  happy feeling to arrive is indescribable and still after all the years a rare, precious property. Not high enough to appraise, a special experience at this run, my crew, Bennie, Birgit and Ingrid, they were the key to success, them is entitled my thanks, my respect.

From left: Chris Kostman, Race Director, Birgit Dasch, The Desert Fox, Ingrid Ruecknagel-Boehnke, Bennie Lindberg.

Don’t you feel how something awakes inside of you? No? Lean back, listen carefully deep inside yourself, it must not be Badwater to start with.

“The ability to endure beyond perceived 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, 1983).

© Guenter Boehnke, August 2004

Badwater Week And What A Week It Was

2003 official finisher

Following is the report of Badwater participant Scott Ludwig of Peachtree City, Georgia. A Badwater rookie, his crew consisted of Paula May (Crew Chief), Eric Huguelet (Paula’s husband), Al Barker (Scott’s training partner over the past 10 years), Gary Griffin (Scott’s friend and an accomplished ultrarunner from Tallahassee), and Josh (Scott’s 17-year-old son). Everyone on the crew is an accomplished runner. Here is Scott’s story. (Note: there is a reference in the story to a ‘streak.’ Scott has run every day since November 29, 1978—the ‘streak’ being referred to.

Seven days in July. ‘Badwater Week.’ And what a week it was.

Friday, July 18 (-4 days)

Paula, our crew chief, held the final DARKSIDE crew meeting at her house. Gary, Al, Paula and I. Josh? Had to work. Eric? Went to the Braves game. Priorities, you understand.

We went over our final gear check and chronological plan for the upcoming week. It appeared we had our game plan firmly in place. All that remained was the execution. Of the game plan, that is (not me!).

Years of training and months of planning were about to be put to the test. We believed we were ready. And willing. And yes, able. We’d find out soon enough.

Saturday, July 19 (-3 days)

Delta takes us from Atlanta to Las Vegas (by way of Dallas). I’d like to say an uneventful airplane ride, but that would be a lie. As I had been heavily hydrating the past several days, I finished off a 20-ounce bottle of water just before boarding the plane. After sitting on the plane for 30 minutes (we still had not left the gate), I realized I had to urinate. Desperately. Just as I was about to visit the restroom, the pilot announced we were ready to take off and to please be seated. OK, I could wait until we were in the air.

However, we crept along the runway, making my particular condition magnify in urgency. When the pilot announced that we were ‘4th in line for takeoff,’ that was it for me. I jumped out of my seat (figuring I had time, since planes take off at two minute intervals) and headed to the restroom, despite the flight attendant ‘reminding’ me that the pilot asked that we be seated. I told her I couldn’t wait any longer.

While I was inside the restroom, I heard the flight attendant (obviously on the phone to the pilot) saying ‘I’m sorry, sir, he said he couldn’t wait any longer and ignored me.’ Just freakin’ great: two years of dedicated Badwater training down the drain ‘cuz I just know once I exit the restroom I’ll be escorted off the plane. The pressure was so intense that I wasn’t even able to urinate. Upon exiting the restroom, I was relieved (literally, not figuratively) that the flight attendant merely assaulted me verbally (as if I were an 8 year old) about disregarding the pilot’s instructions. I apologized and told her it wouldn’t happen again. Later, once we were in the air, I returned to the restroom, where I was finally relieved (figuratively, not literally).

Once we landed in Las Vegas, we rented our 14-passenger van, dropped off two of the seats (we needed storage space!) at the house of a friend of Paula’s, and made a final shopping trip (cooler, meals, water, miscellaneous items) to Walmart. Finally, we checked into our hotel for some much needed rest (I slept 12 hours—something I haven’t done since college).

Sunday, July 20 (-2 days)

Gary, Eric, Paula and I went for a short run in Vegas. We noticed we were perspiring—something we weren’t expecting considering (a) we were running at a 9-minute pace and (b) there’s no humidity in Vegas. What implications did this hold for Badwater?

We loaded up the van and made the 2 _ hour drive to Furnace Creek, where we were welcomed by temperatures hovering around 120 degrees. Welcome to hell. Once we settled into our rooms, we drove out to the starting line in Badwater, where it was even warmer. Driving back to the hotel, we let Josh out of the van 2 miles out so he could run in to test the conditions.

Gary and I waited for Josh, anxious to hear his report. However, he didn’t need to say a thing: the color in his cheeks said it all. They were BRIGHT RED, approximately the color of a ripe tomato. Later that night, Josh and I went to the pool to cool off. Or so we thought. The water temperature had to have been in the 90’s, and the air temperature was still close to 110. Surely the conditions would improve by Tuesday (race day).

The rest of the evening was spent raiding the hotel’s ice machines and wondering whether or not Al (he was flying to Las Vegas this evening and renting a car) would be able to find us in Furnace Creek. He did. A good omen, perhaps?

Another 9 hours of sleep for me; a good investment for what lies ahead.

Monday, July 21 (-1 day)

A short run to start the day, followed by a visit to the hotel’s breakfast bar. Actually, breakfast buffet is more like it. Fresh fruit, cereal, breakfast burritos, eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, English muffins, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, apple fritters, juices, coffee, soda, water…good timing, as the crew and I were able to load up on some much-needed calories. After all, we would be living on fig newtons and pretzels for the next two days.

We made a trip to the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center at noon to pick up my race number. We met Jay Birmingham, the first man to officially ‘race’ from Badwater to Mount Whitney over 20 years ago. He autographed a copy of his book about his feat, The Longest Hill, for me. I met Chris Kostman, the Race Director, and had my pre-race ‘mug shot’ photo taken. Three hours later my crew and I would return for the pre-race clinic.

Imagine 300 people in a room…for almost two hours…with weak air conditioning…and temperatures outside over 120 degrees. Sound like fun? Sounds like pre-race conditioning, if you ask me. I can’t remember the last time I was that hot (wait—yes I can, it was yesterday!). But you get the picture. We were all familiar with most of the information presented in the clinic—race rules, race history, etc. A short video of last year’s event was shown, focusing on Pam Reed’s historic finish (first female winner of Badwater!). Pam was back to defend her title, and she was assigned to my time group (10:00 a.m., the other two groups starting at 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m.). Pam, deservedly so, was presented with a plaque in honor of her accomplishment. At the end of the clinic, all runners were invited on stage to be introduced to everyone else in the auditorium. It was so hot on stage, my knees started to perspire. Drops of perspiration were literally saturating my shoes. More pre-race conditioning, I assume. 20 painful minutes later, we were free. Unless, of course, you opted to attend the foot clinic. Which we did. Fortunately, Paula felt comfortable that she knew how to take care of my feet should problems arise, but she and Gary attended anyway. Me? I went outside to get Marshall Ulrich’s autograph for a friend of mine. Plus, it was cooler outside than it was in that damn auditorium…

We ate dinner as a crew one last time before tackling the beast. The crew gave me a card wishing me well, with a personalized message from each one of them (particularly Josh’s, which he had signed with the insightful message ‘Your son, Josh’). Early to bed: 9:00 p.m. The game plan was for me to sleep until 6:00 a.m., eat breakfast at 6:30, and then nap a few more hours before we headed to Badwater at 8:55. Great plan.

Tuesday, July 22 bleeding into Wednesday, July 23 (0 days)

Great plan, but terrible execution. I was awake at 1:05 a.m., and absolutely could NOT get back to sleep. I was, however, ready to eat at 6:30 (although it killed me to make another pass through the breakfast bar and only eat 2 pieces of French toast, some eggs, and a few pieces of melon). Such a deal for $8.50. Next on my schedule? A short nap. If ‘short nap’ means lying on the bed staring at the ceiling for 90 minutes, then my ‘nap’ was a success. At 8:55 I was more than ready to go. It was time to get this show on the road, or as one of the support vans had written on both sides, to ‘shut up and run.’ My crew and I boarded the van at precisely 8:55 a.m. and headed over to Badwater, semi-oblivious to what lied ahead. Soon enough I would be totally oblivious to just about everything.

We arrived at the starting area on schedule, just in time for the Race Director to call the runners over to the ‘Badwater sign’ for pre-race photos. We assembled at the starting line around 9:58, listened to the starter’s instructions, stood silently for the National Anthem, and shook off any remaining pre-race jitters. At 10:00, we were on our way to a destination some 135 miles away.

First Checkpoint – Furnace Creek (18 miles)

Pacing was prohibited in this segment, so my crew provided me ‘pit stops’ every mile or two (depending how I felt). At first, the entire crew would tend to me at once (imagine being mugged by five people armed with spray bottles, water bottles, wet towels, a wet shirt, and sun-block—it’s the best description I can offer). Soon enough, they would develop an ‘assembly-line’ rhythm that was much more efficient and effective. I ran with Pam Reed, the defending champion, for…oh, let’s call it four miles…before she pulled away. I was content to run alone, not wanting to expend valuable oxygen by making small talk with any of the other competitors. My sole focus was to move forward…at all costs. I reached Furnace Creek in 3:02, an average ‘pace’ of 10:06 per mile. I changed shorts, shoes and socks, as they were totally soaked with perspiration and water.

Second Checkpoint – Stovepoint Wells (42 miles)

Gary was my first pacer, and he opted to run this entire 24-mile stretch so that he could develop a feel for this event. As we got close to Stovepoint Wells, Gary and I both got to experience what 130 degrees feels like. For weeks leading up to this event we had heard the analogy that the heat ‘feels like putting your head inside a hot oven’ or ‘is like blasting a hair dryer directly in your face.’ Gary and I and the rest of the crew can now say that is exactly what 130 degrees feels like! It was so hot the palms of my hands felt like they were on fire (due to the heat radiating off the road surface). I continually asked Gary to splash water on my hands to cool them off. A crew member for another runner said they put a thermometer on the blacktop road and it read 141 degrees. The soles on Gary’s (brand new!) shoes began to separate, as the heat was melting the glue.

Occasionally a desert wind would blow across the highway. If you’re thinking this served to cool us off you would be mistaken: these desert winds felt like blasts from a roaring fire, and the best thing I can say about them is that they didn’t singe my eyebrows. Even if it felt like they did. We completed our second leg in 6:28, an underwhelming pace of 16:10 per mile. At least we were getting ready to ‘cool off’ by heading up to Townes Pass.

Third Checkpoint – Panamint Springs (72 miles)

OK, so maybe heading up to Towne’s Pass isn’t such a great thing after all. A seemingly endless (18-mile) climb to 5,000 feet. Eric accompanied me for this portion of the course, and the only analogy I can make is that it was similar to walking up flights of stairs for the better part of five hours. Now’s probably not the best time to mention that I detest walking up stairs. I experimented with trekking poles, but it was difficult to say if they were more of a help or a hindrance. Once we reached the summit, I changed (actually, the crew changed) into my running sandals, so that my toes would not ‘bang’ the front of my shoes on the downhills. (I would repeat this for the duration of the event on the downhills) The rest of the crew alternated pacing me once we reached the summit, before Paula took the final stretch right before the checkpoint to allow the other crew members to use our room at Panamint Springs to shower and/or take a quick nap. I mentioned to Paula that I was debating on whether or not I should stop at the room, and finally decided that I did want to take a quick shower and short nap so that I could psychologically divide the remaining 63 miles into a ‘different day’ from that of the first 72 miles. We completed the third leg in 9:04, a robust 18:08 per mile pace.

Intermission

Somewhere around 5:30 a.m. Paula and I entered our room at the Panamint Springs Resort. If ‘resort’ means ‘Norman Bates Motel,’ then, yeah, this was a resort. I took a quick shower (I forgot to remove my watch, so once it got wet it became so fogged that it was of no use for the remainder of the event). I lay down and managed to fall asleep, and the next thing I knew Paula was out of the shower. She lay down on the other bed and said she was going to sleep for ‘5 minutes.’ As we had no alarm clock, I was afraid to fall back asleep for fear that we would not wake up in ‘5 minutes’ and sleep away valuable time. In approximately 90 seconds Paula bounced up and said ‘Let’s go!’ She never fell asleep. I found out later that my sleep consumed a whole 60 seconds. Fortunately, in my mind, I did fall asleep, and I could now mentally ‘divide’ the race into two different days.

Forth Checkpoint – Darwin Turnoff (90 miles)

Eric was called back into active duty, as the next 18 miles were uphill—all of them! There was very little terrain that was even remotely runnable. Eric did a superb job keeping me motivated, focused and hydrated during this period. We even managed to pass a few other runners (climbers?) during this portion of the course. Eric (rightfully so) reprimanded me when I broke one of my race guidelines (‘no wasted motion’) by taking a few steps backward to see a wounded bat on the side of the road. The forth leg took 6:22, an it-could-have-been-worse 21:13 per mile.

It was during this stretch that my crew and I realized just how difficult it could be to consume 300 calories per hour during an ultra event such as Badwater. Up until now, I was taking my Sustained Energy (SE) drink (flavored with Crystal Lite lemonade) for the bulk of my calories, occasionally eating pretzels, jellybeans, or peanut butter to round out my 300 calories per hour. But at this point, I was starting to gag at the thought of drinking any more SE (without the flavoring, it honest-to-God smells and tastes like swampwater). Paula asked me what I would like to eat, and I replied ‘popsicles.’ Al made a quick trip in the extra car to find some. When he returned we were disheartened to find that after eating two popsicles, I had consumed a whopping…30 calories! At that point I began eating small portions: 3 pretzels, 4 jellybeans (‘how many calories now?’), 2 bites of peach jello (‘how many NOW?’). Unfortunately, I had to take ‘a swig’ of SE to round out my 300 calories. Gag.

Fifth Checkpoint – Lone Pine (122 miles)

I don’t know who was looking forward to this 32-mile stretch more: my crew or me. After seeing me walk for the better part of 30 miles over the last 48 miles, they were ready to run (‘run’ in this case meaning ‘get this thing over with’). Paula (our downhill specialist) took the first pacing assignment, and before I knew it we were off at an 8:00 minute pace. I would pick out ‘targets’ from which to run from and to, and would continue this practice over the next 32 miles. With the exception of Eric (who we were ‘saving’ for the final 13-mile climb up Mount Whitney), Paula, Gary, Josh and Al would take turns pacing me for two miles at a clip. This exercise evolved into my first official 32 mile ‘fartlek workout.’ Fortunately, I was on a ‘second wind’ (actually it was more than a ‘second,’ but I lost count) and managed to complete this stretch fairly comfortably in a time of 7:27, a pace of 13:58 per mile. It was during this stretch that Josh got excited and broke a pre-race request of mine (‘don’t tell me how my fellow competitors are doing’) by mentioning I was in 8th place.

Being this late in the race, knowing where I stood wasn’t such a bad thing, as holding my place and finishing in the Top Ten at Badwater was certainly a realistic expectation at this point. An expectation I was fairly comfortable with, until Eric tells me around mile 115 that there’s a runner up ahead, and I should be able to catch him in four or five miles. Josh was my next pacer, and I asked him if he wanted to catch the other runner NOW. He did, and so did I. We sprinted approximately a mile where we caught and passed this runner, one who I had last seen over 100 miles ago. Eric unofficially timed our mile in 8:15, but it felt like a sub-6:00. Gary took the next leg, and Eric mentioned there was yet another runner about a mile ahead who I could catch in four or five miles. Gary and I shuffled along, until we spotted this runner in the distance. As I did with Josh, I asked him if he wanted to catch the other runner now. He did, and so did I. We took off at a 6:00 minute pace (or 8:15 if you believe Eric) and caught him within a mile. Adding insult to injury, we caught him on an uphill. At mile 120. Ouch. (We found out later this particular runner finished an incredible nine hours behind us) Josh took the final two mile stretch into the checkpoint in Lone Pine, where we found out we were now in 6th place.

Paula had prepared some Raman noodles for me, the first food I had in 36 hours that remotely resembled an actual meal. It was heavenly. All five bites.

Sixth Checkpoint – Mount Whitney (135 miles)

As Josh will be quick to tell you, I was absolutely dreading the final 13-mile leg to the portals of Mount Whitney. And rightfully so: after 122 miles of desert and two mountain ranges, making a runner cover these final 13 uphill miles is just plain mean! Eric was once again my pacer, and he did everything in his power to keep me focused, positive, and hydrated. I managed to stay focused, positive, and hydrated—for 7 miles. At that point—6 miles from the finish line—I fell backwards, barely maintaining consciousness. I asked for some more Raman noodles, but Paula had nothing to heat them with except for the radiator of the van. The noodles warmed—slightly—but they were extremely ‘crisp.’ Paula, Gary and Al provided shoulders to (literally) lean on, as there were a few moments I nearly fell off the side of the mountain. Paula was force-feeding me Gatorade, and Gary was continually splashing my head and shoulders with ice cold water. I asked one of them to slap me in the face, but they wouldn’t do it. I guess they thought a slap might knock me totally out, which would put a serious cramp in completing our journey. I continually asked Josh ‘who was behind me,’ thinking that—surely—someone would be passing me in my limited condition. Unfortunately, if someone did make an attempt to pass me at this point, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. Fortunately, no one did.

The last 2 miles seemed endless, as we wound around the mountain with no end in sight. Cars were passing us in both directions, many shouting words of encouragement as we neared the finish line. At least I think we were nearing the finish line. Occasionally I would find myself walking more side-to-side than forward, a victim of fatigue, exhaustion, and (I’m convinced) oxygen deprivation (we were at altitude, remember?).

Eric drove the van ahead to take his video camera to the finish line officials, hoping they would film us as we ‘triumphantly’ completed our mission. He agreed to meet us at a point one mile from the finish, where the six of us would congregate and run the rest of the race ‘as one.’ When we caught a glimpse of Eric in our headlamps, it was a bittersweet feeling as thankfully, we only had a mile to go, but nonetheless we still had a mile to go!

After what seemed like another hour, we saw the lights at the finish line (it was now just past 10:30 p.m.). The six of us ran (assuming ‘ran’ means ‘shuffled sort of fast’)—with our heads held high—through the finish line banner, officially signifying the successful completion of our journey. Hugs all around! Chris Kostman officially told us that we finished in 6th place and we were the 3rd place male finisher. Not bad for a bunch of Badwater rookies. The sixth leg had taken 4:10 to complete, a 19:14 per mile pace. Not bad when you take into account the last two miles consumed a full hour.

I sat down in the official finisher’s chair—surrounded by my wonderful crew—for some final photographs for the website. I literally looked like death warmed over, but I couldn’t have cared less.

We enjoyed our journey, and we were successful. We couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Thursday, July 24 (+2 days)

My crew—God bless ‘em—join me for a 3-mile run (gotta keep the streak alive!). Afterwards, a little housekeeping on the van followed by an incredible lunch at the pizza parlor across the street from our hotel, the Dow Villa. Josh and I split a large cheese pizza, but we eat less than half of it (Josh because he ate everything on the late-nite menu at the hotel’s diner last night; me because my stomach had apparently shrunk over the past two days). I spend the afternoon limping back and forth across the street to the laundromat the wash some of the dirty clothes Josh and I have generated this week. I met the wife of a Badwater entrant (Art Webb) at the laundromat, and she told me her husband was still on the course. (We passed him on our way back to Las Vegas the next morning; he was at the half-way point of the course) as he was experiencing some difficulties (he did eventually finish, however)

All Badwater participants and crew members were invited to a pizza dinner at a local elementary school that evening. We spent a lot of time talking with Pam Reed about her performance and her training. She said she has to run 3 times a day, as she has to manipulate her running around her demanding schedule as a mother of three. I invited her to our 50K race in November, and she said she’d run (we’ll see!) if I’d return the favor and run her race (the Tucson Marathon) in December.

After dinner, a short video of this year’s race was shown. As my luck would have it, there was a special feature on each of the top five finishers (I finished 6th, remember?). Regardless, it was well made and very inspirational (up to the point that it didn’t convince me to run it again).

Following the video, Chris Kostman hosted the awards ceremony. He asked all runners who failed to complete the course to stand, and they were given a rousing ovation for ‘having the guts to try.’ Very deserved. Then, all finishers were called to the front of the room to receive their finisher’s medal and, for those finishing under 48 hours, the coveted belt-buckle. We posed for photographs—I’ve never been in front of so many flash bulbs before—and then Pam and men’s winner Dean Karnazes were asked to say a few words. Chris closed the evening by referring to us all as part of the ‘Badwater family.’

A pretty nice honor.

Post Script: On Friday, we made the drive back to Las Vegas. Obviously, we ‘retraced our steps’ along the same route we had started 3 days ago in Badwater. If I hadn’t already decided I would never run the race again, this would have done it for me. I realized that yes, the heat was a huge factor in my performance, but the mountains were much more significant. We stopped in Stovepipe Wells for a drink, and the heat—only slightly over 110 degrees today—still felt like we were sticking our heads inside a hot oven.

Friday night, we enjoyed a crew ‘victory dinner’ at the Pink Taco in Las Vegas. Afterwards Paula, Eric, Al and Gary returned to the hotel for some much-needed rest before our 6:00 a.m. flight to Atlanta the following morning. Me? I had promised Josh that if I was still able to walk after the race—and at this time I barely ‘qualified’—I would take him to see the casinos before we returned to Atlanta. The four hours Josh and I spent—at MGM Grand, New York New York, Mandelay Bay, Excalibur, Luxor—I wouldn’t trade for anything. Josh was so impressed with the large casinos, the bright neon lights, and the endless ‘eye candy’ the city has to offer. But for me, walking on two severely blistered feet was a true test of my pain threshold (I’m sure I exceeded it somewhere during the night). We finally got to bed just after midnight, allowing me two hours sleep before I had to get up for one last run with Gary before we all headed to the airport for our long-awaited (and triumphant) return to Atlanta.

And yes, you read the previous sentence correctly.

Badwater Runners’ Report for the JustDo262 Yahoo Group

2003 staffer & 2002 finisher

The Runners’ Report did indeed spend part of last week in and around Lone Pine for the end of the Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon. I had hoped to be there for the whole race, working on the webcast, but that nasty four-letter word, “work”, got in the way. I was, however, able to leave after work on Wednesday and pulled into the parking lot of the Dow Villa at about 8:45 PM.

When I got there, the race was actually over. In fact, beating everyone, including the first wave of runners who started from Badwater at 6 AM Tuesday morning, was winner Pam Reed who had already crossed the finish line at the Whitney Portals at 2:26 PM on Wednesday afternoon. By the time I got there, four of the 73 starters had finished and 6 others had passed through Lone Pine and were on the Portal Road. Among those already on this last stretch to the finish were Louise Cooper and Bill Lockton who both ran phenomenal sub-40 hour times.

But that is not to say that there weren’t many more amazing feats to witness. I worked the Lone Pine aid station on Thursday, through the early morning hours and then again as the final runners passed through. I also helped Greg gather some info for his webcast duties. I’m sure that many of you were anxiously following the progress of the race through the webcast. Greg and the whole staff did an absolutely fantastic job this year. I can honestly say that those working at race headquarters got about the same amount of sleep as the weary runners and crews. Everyone associated with supporting this event were so passionate about their work and should be sincerely thanked for their efforts.

In between these volunteer stints, I got a couple of chances to see Nancy Shura making her way along the course. She looked strong on each occassion, except for a zombie-like stare she wore on the final arduous climb up to the finish. Nancy and her crew (Saundra, Wendy, Michele, Sandy, Mike, Larry, and Heather, with a final assist from Craig) did a fabulous job and she completed the course in 52:35.

One of the things I really enjoy are the first-person accounts of the race written by runners and crew members. I’ll spare you any more of my perceptions under the assumption that we’ll be reading more in the future from the participants. But I will add some miscellaneous notes about what I saw and heard at the race this year:

  • Temperatures on Tuesday were said to be absolutely miserable. The “official” weather service report was about 125F but most who were there would swear it was at least 130F.
  • A number of well-known Badwater veterans including Mayor Ben Jones, Major Curt Maples and the 2nd person to run from Badwater to Mt Whitney, Jay Birmingham had to drop out. Ben actually “staked-out” twice, leaving the course to try and cool down but eventually had to drop.
  • Race organizers provided a valuable service this year by adding several mobile “Medic” units who patrolled the course and provided essential emergency medical services. 40% of their services were provided to crew members, including one person who needed seven IVs. Deb Clum was one of these important medical professionals.
  • 46 of 73 starters finished (under 60 hours) and 30 buckled (under 48 hours).
  • Women placed 1st, 3rd, 5th and 9th overall (Pam Reed – 28:26, Monica Scholz – 33:41, Tracy Bahr – 35:16, Louise Cooper 39:22).
  • Don Lundell came through Lone Pine station (mile 122) at about 10 PM on Wednesday. Just 5 hours earlier, his girlfriend Gillian Robinson had arrived at Panamint Springs, some 50 miles behind. Don finish in 45:10 and Gillian finished in 58:38.
  • Lisa Smith-Batchen and Joe DeSena ran the Vermont 100 mile endurance run in around 24 hours on Saturday/Sunday, took a day off, then began Badwater on Tuesday. DeSena completed Badwater in 42 hours and might have run the fastest race split ever from Lone Pine to the finish at the Whitney Portal in 2 hours and 53 minutes. Lisa took a 12 hour rest in the middle of the race and still finished in 52 hours.
  • Barb Elia pulled a “Steve Matsuda” becoming the “crooked woman” for much of the last part of the race.
  • Dan Marinsik was told in May that he had a brain tumor. Against doctor’s orders and the urgings of his family, he told the doctors to postpone surgery until after the race. He completed his first Badwater attempt in 53:36.
  • Dean Karnazes, the 2nd overall finisher and men’s winner, was one of many early finishers to stop by the station at Lone Pine asking about locations of the runners still on the course so they could give them their excess food and drinks. Dean also holds the world record for the 200 mile run.

Miles and miles of congrats to everyone involve in the race this year… especially RD Chris Kostman who took a great event and has somehow managed to improve it every year.

1987: The Year Badwater Became a Race

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.

NCS: WHAT?

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.

##

I Was There When “Hell Froze Over”

An Eye-Witness Account of Jay Birmingham’s 1981 Crossing

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.

Note: this is a chapter taken from a longer work. To read the complete work, click here.

We are going back in time to the summer of 1981. My family consisted of five members: My stepfather, mother, two brothers and myself. 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. As both my parents were teachers, we were not what you would call wealthy. Most of any extra income was spent on trips to various road races throughout the country, running gear and family “vacations.”

My Stepfather, Jay, is an ultra-marathon runner and has been since 1958. 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.

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 in 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.

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-week long 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.

Our “vacation” was to include many stops along the way. We visited a running camp in Black Mountain, North Carolina, our family in Springfield, Ohio, another running camp in Manitou Springs, Colorado, saw the sights in Las Vegas, Nevada and ultimately wound up in Death Valley, California, where Jay would attempt to set a world record for a solo run from Badwater to the summit of Mt. Whitney. While my encounters are fully documented in a short story I wrote a few years back, I chose to focus on the Death Valley portion in the hopes of giving readers something to think about during their own experience here. With that said, I hope you will enjoy the following account.

We were all up and out the door by 7 o’clock. It was raining. As we headed out of LasVegas 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 a rented AMC 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.

The next morning, 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 enjoyed 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 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.

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 halfway 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!

We celebrated Jay’s world record 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. The only great challenge remaining was to make it back to Florida in “the bomb.”

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. 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.

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