Friday, July 16, 2010

Badwater 2010 Race Report

Because the Badwater Ultramarathon is such an epic race, I knew it was going to merit an epic race report. I considered writing an “executive summary” of my race report, for those who wanted to hear only the high points. Then I decided that summarizing the experience this way would be selling it short. Besides, if you really want the Badwater experience, you want something that’s long and “colorful.” So here is the detailed race report, except for the technical details about what worked and what didn’t in Death Valley with respect to nutrition, hydration, clothing, cooling, logistics, etc. In the next few days, I hope to follow this up with a post about that, to help anybody who is considering running Badwater, either as a part of the official race, or as a solo effort. So, without further ado . . .

When I walked up to the starting line at the Badwater Basin parking lot on July 12th, 2010, at just a few minutes before 10:00 a.m., all of the anxiety of months of planning race strategy, obtaining supplies, making travel plans, organizing crew members and crew vehicles, fundraising for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), not to mention actually training for the race, finally vanished. As I jogged down the road with 26 of the most-respected ultrarunners in the world, I felt that a huge weight had been lifted – I was finally running the race that I had spent years dreaming about. Now, in spite of the temperature, which was, by my estimate, at least 105 degrees and climbing, I was free to enjoy the experience, and to focus on finishing the race.

The leaders went out fast, too fast for me to even think about chasing them. I hung back as we climbed out of the Badwater basin, running about 10-minute mile pace, chatting with the runners around me, and doing my best to enjoy the company of ultrarunning “legends” in the increasingly-oppressive heat. It was reassuring to find that these runners, who until now were just names near the top of race results, were actually people. Nick Hollon, who in 2009, became the youngest Badwater finisher at age 19, ran alongside me for a while, and told me that I was running smart by not pushing too hard in the heat, so I felt better about letting the other runners pass me. Michelle Barton sprinted ahead of me to take a very public “bathroom break” by the side of the road (at last, the mystery of how women do it on the road was solved). Jamie Donaldson, the eventual winner in the women’s division, mistook me for Phil McCarthy, because my hair looked similar in the back – another welcome and humorous distraction, considering that Phil had placed third, just ahead of me, at the Staten Island 6-Hour Race in 2007. Jamie was having problems of her own – she told her crew that her hair was knotting, and that they needed to help her fix it before it got worse. Yes, ultrarunners are people, too.

My crew – Sara MacKimmie, Andrew Marsh, Jason Wara, and Tricia Jackson, the first three of which were race rookies – pulled our crew vehicle (a rental cream-colored Chrysler 300, the most pimp, ballin’ crew vehicle ever to traverse the Badwater race course) over to the side of the road about every mile or so to hop out and mist me with cold water, refill my water bottle, feed me, and put ice in my hat and in a bandana around my neck. At first their efforts were a bit disorganized, but they quickly (and entirely without my help, to their credit) figured out an efficient system to do all of these things and get me moving again as soon as possible. Thanks to my months of heat training, and my crew’s consistent efforts, the rising temperature wasn’t affecting me. My nutrition plan, however, was. On the descent to Furnace Creek, I took one sip of orange-cream Perpetuem that hit my stomach so hard that I nearly vomited the entire contents immediately, and that was the last bottle of Perpetuem that I drank.

I reached Furnace Creek, the 17-mile mark, in just over three hours, still feeling strong, minor stomach issues aside. From there, the race continued to Stovepipe Wells, the 42-mile mark, and the hottest section of the course. The road continued to gently undulate, and I continued my slow, steady pace, gradually passing runners from the earlier starting waves, and runners from my wave who had gone out too fast. The sick feeling in my stomach worsened, but my legs still felt strong, and my crew’s cooling system was so effective that I passed the hottest section of the course – Scotty’s Castle, 128 degrees F – without a hitch. By the time I reached Stovepipe Wells, about eight hours into the race, all things considered, I was feeling fantastic, and thought that this race might be smooth sailing all the way to the finish.

Then I began the climb to Townes Pass, and things began to fall apart. My stomach, which had been only a minor nuisance up to that point, was now a full-on disaster. I’m typically a very strong climber, but the added exertion of climbing the hill, even at a fast walking pace, made me feel sick to my stomach to the point of nearly laying down and passing out. To make matters worse, it was getting dark, with no moon and no street lights, and I couldn’t take off my sunglasses, because the wind would have dried out my contact lenses. Not even the vaguely sexually-charged cheers from the Moeben girls who were crewing Shannon Farar-Griefer (one of them expressed disappointment when I put on my mandatory reflective vest at 7:00 p.m., because it was covering those “lovely abs”), or Shannon’s personal approval of my tye-dyed Moeben sleeves (Shannon is the founder of Moeben), or being misted by Shannon’s superstar crewmember, Deena Kastor (who holds the women’s American record in the marathon, at 2:19:36), could improve the situation. I soon found myself slowly trudging up the 16-mile climb in sunglasses at night, with only the dim glow of a headlamp illuminating the ground about three feet in front of me. Jason came out and paced me up the hill, patiently walking behind me as I found myself struggling for the first time in the race.

When we finally made it to the top, we were rewarded with a 9-mile downhill leading into Panamint Springs. After being destroyed on the downhills at the Western States 100-Mile Run two weeks ago (i.e. wrecking my quads, and being passed constantly anyway), I had practiced my downhill running technique so as not to be passed on a downhill ever again, and I was ready to put aside all of the stomach issues that I had during the climb to run hard down the hill. Steadily, I passed runner after runner on the downhill, as my pace increased to around a 7-minute mile. I focused on the line of lights in the distance, which turned out to be the crew vehicles of the runners that were ahead of me. Somewhere halfway down the hill, the Team InkNBurn crew vehicle pulled alongside me, and the driver offered me a cup full of warm French fries, which miraculously tasted good (to both me, and my hungry crew). But that particular joy was fleeting; the pain in my stomach began to worsen as I pushed the pace. Still, for the moment, the thrill of being able to move so quickly, with so little effort, kept me from slowing down . . .

Until I reached Panamint Springs, approximately Mile 72, and my lowest point in the race. It was a little after 2 a.m., so I was now sleepy, and my stomach felt worse. I went to the bathroom and sat in there for about ten minutes. I went out of the bathroom and sat by a flagpole for about ten minutes. Nobody at the time station bothered to come over and ask me if I was okay (which, in retrospect, was probably a good thing, since this was not the time for people to be babying me). I went over to the gas station, where my crew was re-fueling the vehicle, and flopped onto the deck for about ten minutes (after giving them my zip code, so they could use my credit card to buy the gas). I did about everything I could to avoid starting the inevitable next climb. Finally, at the urging of my crew, at about 3 a.m., I began a listless saunter up the hill towards Darwin.

An hour later, I had made, at best, three miles of forward progress, and I was feeling impossibly awful. I still had about 60 miles to go, and I couldn’t imagine doing it in my condition. I asked my crew to set up a cot for me, and I promptly assumed a state of partial consciousness for about an hour. Although I never said the word “drop,” both my crew and I knew that I was in danger. An argument within the crew erupted about the best way to get me back up and moving forward, and bits and pieces of it caught my ear between the sounds of crew vehicles and their runners passing me. As the intensity of the fight escalated, I gradually began to feel that I owed it to my crew to somehow find a way to get off the cot and keep moving forward, lest their efforts be wasted – I just had no idea how. Eventually, Sara massaged my stomach to help my food digest, while Trish gave me a calcium/magnesium drink that helped to settle my stomach. Reluctantly, at about 5 a.m., I resumed the climb, with Jason as my companion, and the promise of “real food” at the top.

At Mile 80, I reached the scenic overlook at the top of the climb, and my reward, greater than the scenery, was a Styrofoam box of eggs and home fries from Panamint Springs, which tasted amazing. Andrew helped me out of my reflective gear, wiped the dry, salty sweat off my body, and gave me a new shirt (my previous white undershirt had mysteriously dyed itself red, perhaps from the strawberries or watermelon that I had been eating), and when I finally stood up again and began progress down the hill, I felt as though I was nearly in a condition to run again. So I did. Short spurts at first, but as the downhill grade increased, so did my pace and the length of the sections that I was running. Andrew joined me for a couple of downhill miles, and by the time I reached Darwin (Mile 90), I felt my condition improving. Still, at Darwin, I took a “cot break” to re-group, while my crew chatted happily with the time station volunteers. They looked at pictures of the burned-out VW buses at Darwin, while Andrew, after mentioning a number of times that he wished he had brought a bike to Death Valley, finally got his fix when one of the time station volunteers let him ride his bike down the road towards Darwin. All of this in the background made me start feeling “normal” again, and I was on the cot for only about 15 minutes before I got on the road again.

Past Darwin, I continued to pick up the pace, and once again pass runners (most of whom had passed me while I was nearly passed out). Still, the temperature began to climb again as the sun rose higher in the sky, and soon I found myself taking hourly 15-minute “cot breaks” to prevent my stomach from revolting. I was inching towards the finish line, but now a feeling of exhaustion was taking over. I couldn’t see Lone Pine (Mile 122) in the distance, I had no idea which one of the massive mountains in the distance was Mt. Whitney (the finish), and I had now been awake for well over 24 hours straight, so I was beginning to lose focus. At this point, Sara got out of the car and paced me for half a mile. As we walked past Dolomite Loop, Sara and I officially passed the furthest distance I had ever run at one time (111 miles), and the vague realization that I had now passed my proven limit (with my fiancée by my side, no less), turned out to be both physically and emotionally energizing. As soon as Sara got back in the car, I began to run again.

Over the next 10 miles to Lone Pine, I passed a number of runners, and my morale, and stomach condition, began to improve. Tricia gave me a natural vegetable-based solution that, for some reason, both nourished me and calmed my sick stomach. I lowered my calorie intake to around 100 per hour, and amazingly, food began to digest, even as I was running. I finally began to realize that, as Sara had told me many miles ago, my legs were still fresh, and that if I could just put aside all of the stomach issues up to this point, I could still finish strong. As I passed the webcam in Lone Pine, I told the world that I was ready to begin my “assault on Mt. Whitney,” and I continued down Main Street to turn left onto Whitney Portal road, and to the base of the mountain.

As I began the climb up to Portal Whitney, I felt re-invigorated as the air began to cool, the surroundings became greener, and the sound of rushing water accompanied the monotonous crunching sound of my steps on the dusty road. I hiked fast, and ran where I could, and soon I was passing everybody that I could see up ahead of me. My “assault” energized my crew, who brought me food and water with a new-found vigor, and cheered for me every time they passed me on their way to the next stopping point on the climb. After the last time station at Mile 131, Andrew joined me on my fast-hike up the hill, and gave me yet another reason to further push the pace. By the time I reached the parking lot at Portal Whitney, the sun was beginning to set, and darkness fell as I crossed the finish line with my crew right behind me. By my watch, I had completed the 13-mile climb in 2 hours and 55 minutes, at a pace of nearly 4.5 mph, nearly unheard-of for this section of the race. Jimmy Dean Freeman, who finished just ahead of me, would later shake my hand and say that nobody had ever pushed him harder in a race. Chris Kostman, the race director, shook my hand, put my finisher’s medal on me, and handed me my sub-48-hour belt buckle. All of those were good things, but as my crew and I posed for the mandatory finish-line photo-op, all I could think about was how proud I was of my final climb, and how lucky I was to have such a fantastic crew to help pull me through the difficult sections of the race.

As I savored a real bathroom at the finish line, and later, a hamburger at a restaurant in Lone Pine, I realized that the race had changed me. All of those things that I had felt burdened by at the start of the race – the crew, the plans, the logistics – were not only essential to making the experience memorable, but also to my success in the race. Without the up-front planning, and the support of my crew and “fans” at home, my 17th place, 34 hour, 28 minute, and some-odd second finish would not have been possible. I had (and will continue to have) a new-found appreciation for a number of things that, up to this point, I had considered “stressful” elements of my life. With this valuable experience, my crew and I will be back at Badwater in 2011, chasing a first-place finish.