Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Badwater 2011 - Revenge of the Fallen

Okay, normally I wouldn't post on my blog from my cell phone, but since this seems to be a hot topic, and right now, the memories are the freshest, here goes (weekly miles prior to Badwater at some other point, but suffice to say that I ran at least one mile every day).

In case you haven't been following, my goal at Badwater this year was to be as competitive as possible, which would mean a sub-30-hour time at a minimum. Considering how close I was to this last year, and how much more experience I had this year, I thought it was a reasonable goal. So, with the list of lessons learned from 2010, the same crew members (minus one), a team of reporters from the Washington Post documenting my race (along with Michael Wardian's and Brenda Carawan's), and a red Nissan XTerra tricked out with some tight gear organization scheme that my crew developed, and some haphazard-looking renditions of my last name on a four sides (including one that made it look like my name was "Plosko Nka," which led us to joke that we should develop a fake accent, language, and country of origin for me, which, as it turns out, Chris Kostman thought was funny when we told him about it at the finish line), per the race rules, we were confident coming into the race that I would do well. Add to that a "cool" year (115 F as the "high" is cool by Badwater standards), and it was looking to be an exciting race.

After the traditional countdown from 10 to start the race, our expectations were met, as I soon found myself in second place, behind Zach Gingerich, last year's winner (who showed up at the start in flip-flops, with a 2-liter bottle of diet soda, and claimed to be feeling nervous, scared, and not excited to run). This was by design, as I decided that my strategy would be to start aggressively and make a statement. This worked through the first time station (Furnace Creek, 17 miles), but then I slowly started to drop back, as more conservative starters passed me. I came through the first marathon in just over 4 hours, though, so I wasn't too worried. Still, I wasn't feeling quite right . . .

(Early in the race, when life was better . . .)

And then, as I was nearing the second time station (Stovepipe Wells, mile 42), things started falling apart. My calves and quads started to cramp violently, and my stomach was in knots. My body was failing me, shutting down, telling me that it wanted no part in this. I had never had these problems in a race before, and didn't know what to do, so I foolishly chose to hope that they would work themselves out. (And yes, in retrospect, this was stupid, although it did afford the media folks a chance to watch ms dry-heave several times by the side of the road, as my crew looked on).

As it turned out, pushing through made things worse. I started running up the climb to Townes Pass, and while I was passing people on the climb, my cramps and my stomach were worsening. Finally, I reached the point where I couldn't walk without fear of a sudden, violent cramp, so I "staked out" (left a stake with my number on it where I had stopped racing), and went back to the medical station at Stovepipe Wells with my crew. The medics advised putting my feet up, switching shoes, upping the water and electrolyte intake, and slowing the pace. An hour later, I was back on course, with Jason Wara as my reliable pacer. And for a little while, it looked like this was going to work. Jason and I even struck up a conversation about UFOs (we're both big fans, as it turns out) while we climbed. Amusingly, the Washington Post people heard us talking, and I had to tell them that that was the first time he and I had ever talked while he was pacing me. (Normally; he follows quietly behind me, footfalls in unison, silently urging me on).

Unfortunately, all was not well, since when I reached the top of the pass and started to run down (as the medic suggested, since, at 5'4" and 137 pounds, I am a "light" guy), my stomach and cramping issues came back in full force. Here was the first time when a DNF seriously crossed my mind. As I struggled down the pass on the seemingly endless hike to Panamint Springs (the time station at mile 72), I thought about all of the people that I would be disappointing if I failed to finish (family, friends, crew, sponsor, donators to CAF on my behalf), and this made the idea distinctly unappealing. At the same time, my body was falling apart, and I had tried pretty much everything in the book to pull it together, and nothing was working. The only thing I could think of to do was to keep trudging towards Panamint, and re-assess from there. I kept telling my crew this, and it was really killing any optimism that might have still been lingering.

When I finally reached Panamint, it turned out that Sara had told one of the race officials about my predicament, in a particularly emotional way, and so the first thing they did when they saw me was to send my crew away, and ask me how I felt. I told them that I was falling asleep when I was walking, my stomach was a mess, pretty much every muscle in my body was twitching and/or cramping, I felt weak and sick, and I had the hiccups for half of the descent. Cory Linkel, the race official who spoke to me, finally solved the problem. He told me that he knew that I wanted to finish, and my crew wanted me to finish, but right now, my body was out of control. He told me to lay down on the floor in the cottage for about half an hour, let everything settle down, and then see how I felt about continuing. Sara later told me that to her, he said that he understood what it was like to be the emotional leader of a crew, having been in that position when he crewed his partner at Badwater. He told her to get all of the angst out of her system, then buy breakfast and bring it to me, and tell me to get back on the course and start walking.

I plopped myself on the floor in the cottage at 5:30 a.m., and oddly enough, woke up on my own exactly at 6 a.m., to find that Sara was still sleeping in the cottage, in another room (I have no idea when she got in there). I decided that it wouldn't be right to wake Sara so I could go on, since she and the rest of the crew had been awake for way too many hours straight at this point, and she was driving the crew vehicle, so I let her sleep, and returned to the floor. (EDIT: apparently, this is something that I either hallucinated or lucid-dreamed, as Sara later told me that she and the rest of my crew slept in the car while I was in the cottage.)

Exactly another half-hour later, Sara woke me up, with a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, eggs, and hash browns. It was a very sweet moment, and suddenly, I understood what Corey was saying, and I felt at peace with where I was. Yes, it was 6:30 a.m., 72 miles and 20.5 hours into the race, and if I wanted to at least equal my time from last year, I would have to run the remaining 63 miles in 14 hours, a Herculean feat, considering how much I had already run, and that 13 of those miles were the climb to Whitney Portal, which typically takes about 4 hours, leaving just 10 hours to run 50 miles, over a section of the course where the WINNERS typically struggle to run 5 miles per hour. But right now, none of that mattered. Sara brought me breakfast, and was going to be there for me even if it took the full 48-hour time limit to finish, and knowing this was all that mattered.

I set off down the road, walking, and feeling a profound sense of peace with my self, my crew, my body, my situation, and my environment. I wisely moved slowly, and upped my fluid and electolyte intake. After about two miles of walking, for some reason, the hill in front of me looked like it would be fun to run up, so I did. Slowly at first, but it felt okay, so I started pushing the pace. Before I could even process what was happening, I was plugging along at a solid 10-minute mile pace over the rolling terrain, including crew stop time, and Sara and Andrew were "teaching people how to Dougie" in celebration, courtesy of the mix CDs that we made for this event. In the back of my mind, there was still fear that maybe this was another temporary high, and that I would soon find myself doubled over by the side of the road, wretching in agony from cramps in places in my stomach that I didn't even know existed. I kept plugging along, listening to my body, running gently, and remaining at peace, and soon I was at the time station at Darwin - about 18 miles from Panamint on the strength of about 3 hours of tough running.

I could have slowed there. But I was gaining momentum, and passing people, and my crew was enjoying the show, and especially since I felt like I owed them, after all of the crap they had been through so far, I kept running. No pacer, just me and the 32 miles of rolling, open road between Darwin and Lone Pine. Somewhere along the way, the media crew spotted me, and, realizing that I was no longer dead, resumed questioning and picture-taking, which only spurred me on even more. I ran nearly all of that 32 miles, and passed even more people, and I could feel my confidence building. I reached Lone Pine at almost exactly 31 hours, or 7 hours after I reached Darwin - over 5 miles per hour!

(On the hunt - somewhere between Darwin and Lone Pine)

Now, to equal or better my time from last year, I would have to climb 13 miles, with about 5000 feet of elevation gain, in 3 hours, 27 minutes - a very aggressive pace, given the terrain. But I had a couple of additional motivators here: Jimmy Dean Freeman, who beat me by 5 minutes last year, and only because I was chasing him hard up the climb to Whitney Portal, saw me running between Darwin and Lone Pine, and told me that if I kept it up, I could beat his time from last year (and also, he said that I should do the climb in 3 hours, 20 minutes). Also, the media people wanted to take finish line photos in the daylight, and since night was just beginning to fall when I finished last year, I would have to finish faster (I told them, with a smile, that I would see what I could do about that.)

My crew knew from last year that I could climb, and they were in full support as I took on the climb, while everybody else looked on in amazement as I ran and power-hiked at 15-minute mile pace or better up the steep, winding road to Whitney Portal. Jason and Andrew traded pacer duties up the hill, and Sara kept me sprayed down and stocked with water, electrolytes, and Natural Vitality Energy 28, which tastes amazing and really gets me going on a long climb. When I reached the final time station and learned that I had just 3.6 more miles to the finish (I was expecting 4), and nearly an hour to do it, I doubled my effort and pushed hard to the top, with Jason and Andrew alternately behind me, pushing me forward. I think this pretty well sums up what it was like on the final climb (that's Jason pacing me in the picture):

My crew and I broke the tape in 34 hours, 18 minutes, and 14 seconds, ten minutes faster than last year, in the daylight, and faster than Jimmy Dean Freeman's finishing time in 2010, on the strength of a climb that took 3 hours and 15 minutes. Considering the circumstances, this was a beyond-miraculous victory, considering how hard I had to push, over the remaining distance. Make no mistake about it - while I was at peace with my body, it didn't mean that I wasn't in pain. It meant that I accepted the pain, and ran at the crippling edge of it, for 14 hours, at the END of such a brutally difficult race. I told Chris Kostman, the race director, that I liked the black-and-purple finisher's shirts (from Baltimore, and a Ravens fan), and he joked that they made them that way just for me. With that kind of finish, it's forgivable that AdventureCorps would mistakenly post on their website that I won the race. :P

(Race Director Chris Kostman presenting me with the awesome Ravens-themed finisher shirt by Moeben)

In a way, all of the above can be summarized pretty simply: my fluid/electrolyte balance was off, because I had never run that fast for that long under those conditions, and my body didn't know how to handle it. Had I taken in more fluids/electrolytes from the start, especially considering my performance at the end, I may really have contended for the win. (Incidentally, I eventually found that an Endurolyte every 15 minutes, and 20 ounces of water every 30 minutes, was the recipe for staying cramp-free, which sounds outrageous, which is probably why I didn't attempt it in the first place.)

But in another way, this is about working through a desperate situation, a seemingly ruined race, with the support of everybody around you. I am so grateful for the support from my crew, my sponsor, Natural Vitality, my friends and family, all the people who donated to CAF in support of my run, the people who texted/tweeted support before/during the race, the Badwater staff, and I really hope that I'm not forgetting somebody. Because at the end of the day, Badwater is more than just a 135-mile race through Death Valley in the hottest week of the summer, designed for lunatics or people who feel that they need to do something this "macho" to prove themselves to others. Badwater is a test of yourself, to find your limits and your weaknesses, to face them head-on, and to conquer them. Badwater is a race that requires the support of everybody around you to be successful, and it tests the limits of patience, charity, and love in those people. And finally, Badwater is an inspiration to everybody, in that knowing that ordinary people can work hard and achieve amazing things. So although I didn't get the victory that I was seeking (okay, I did get it erroneously :P), I believe that the race was victorious on all of these levels. And next year, I hope to have that victory on one more, for real. :)

(Epilogue: I hope that I didn't forget anything important, but if I did, I'll update this post. Maybe I'll even get ambitious and post some pictures. :) )

(Epilogue to the epilogue: So I did get around to making some editorial changes, and posting some pictures - all courtesy of Sara MacKimmie. Enjoy!)


  1. Dave - Congrats! It wouldn't be an ultra without some mental AND physical struggles. Great job overcomming them both!

  2. Wow, what a story! And I agree - a true victory in so many ways. Enjoyed your write-up!

  3. Thanks! Glad that you all enjoyed the recap. Also, an amendment to the report - it turns out that, according to Sara, I hallucinated/lucid-dreamed the part where Sara was in the bed. I'm not even sure that I woke up. :P

  4. Great writing and now I know the story of why you were taking so long between those two stations. True toughness--great climb. Most impressive.

  5. Found your blog completely by accident, and really enjoyed reading about Badwater and amazed by what you went through to finish it. Thanks for sharing the details of the race and also how you went about training for it.

    Congrats on the accomplishment!

  6. Tremendous effort, David! Glad you shook off the pain and run that final stretch at a hurried pace. I really enjoy your Badwater adventures. Black & Purple, baby!