Two days later, it’s still difficult to process this race. 135 miles on brutal, shadeless roads, through day and night, in temperatures as high as 115 degrees, and as low as 50 degrees, up three significant climbs . . . for the third year in a row, six hours faster than previous years, finishing eighth against some of the stiffest competition ever to undertake the deathmarch from the Badwater Basin to Whitney Portal. But here’s my best shot at it . . .
I was a little nervous about this race for a few reasons. One, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, I was back-sliding into it, since my training over the past month has been mediocre at best. Two, I would have an “all-rookie” crew, in contrast to the veterans that I had last year, which would mean that I’d have to do more to direct them. Three, well, it’s Badwater. It’s a huge race that a lot of people are watching, and given the prior two points, I couldn’t help feeling that I hadn’t taken preparation as “seriously” as I should have. (Also, my mom said that she was concerned about this, which is usually a bad omen. Then again, Meg D said that I would do awesome, so that at least somewhat canceled it out, right?)
But sometimes, things just sort of come together, and this was one of those times. I landed in Las Vegas early Thursday morning, checked in at the Stratosphere, and wandered the strip for a while until it was time to pick Shannon up. Chris and Jackie came in the next day, which gave us all day Saturday to pick up provisions for the race and go over strategy - not to mention appreciate the awesome view from the 108th floor of the Stratosphere tower. Meanwhile, Falls Road Running mailed me a pair of Altra Instinct shoes, courtesy of company president and founder Golden Harper, along with some other goodies. By the time we set out for Death Valley on Sunday morning, Team Caliente (Like a Boss) was ready to rock.
|The view of Las Vegas from the Stratosphere Tower - storm a'brewin', indeed . . .|
Check-in and the pre-race meeting was the usual hectic scene – photographers everywhere, people posting to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram . . . with all of that commotion, it’s easy to forget that you’re getting ready to run a race. Mostly, I remember eating a pint of ice cream from the general store in Furnace Creek, and unexpectedly seeing Dr. J, in her role as Brooks rep, while I was jamming chocolate chip ice cream in my mouth. That, and sitting near the front of the pre-race meeting for the “elite” 10 am starting wave, near the Fruitarian, Dean, Sumie, and Mike Morton (and Eric Clifton, one of his crew members), and feeling like this whole experience was beyond surreal.
|Jackie and I, escaping the check-in pandemonium at Furnace Creek Resort.|
Fortunately, we had a very relaxing night before the race, and all woke up well-rested and in good spirits for this epic journey. The mood was light as we followed the line of cars to the Badwater basin; stuck behind Mike Morton’s support vehicle, we joked that he should be disqualified because his rear window was partially blocked with luggage.
After weigh-in, the national anthem, and a few words, we counted down the start, and then we were off. Mike Morton picked up speed quickly and got pretty far ahead of the pack in no time; meanwhile, I hung back near Oswaldo Lopez, Zach Gingerich, and The Fruitarian. In the amusing things that runners say to other runners category, Zach proudly told the Fruitarian that he ate “a lot of bacon” this morning. (Then modified his statement to say that all that bacon wasn’t sitting so well on his stomach. “Ugh, bacon,” he concluded, dejectedly.) Gradually, Morton’s push at the front started dragging people along, so I “hung back” with Oswaldo, who commented that the pace (currently around 8 minutes/mile) was “easy” . . . as the temperature climbed to 110 degrees and the road undulated relentlessly. It didn’t feel that bad, actually – it was okay enough that Oswaldo and I chattered a bit in Spanish before he started pulling away, with the rest of the leaders, who were gradually getting sucked in to Morton’s pace.
|And . . . we're off!|
Before I knew it, I was at mile 17, Furnace Creek, the first time station – in 2 hours, 8 minutes. Definitely way faster than I’ve run this section of the race before, but I wasn’t feeling bad at all, and I had really enjoyed rocking through the first part of the race at that pace, not to mention the drive-by sponging/misting support that I was getting from Farinazzo’s crew, and from Coach Nudelman of the Navy Marathon team, who was crewing another runner. Plus, even at that pace, I was still getting passed by a lot of runners – as I said, extremely competitive field. My crew had gotten into a pretty good rhythm of frequently stopping to cold-mist me, put new ice in my hat and my bandana, sponge me, swap out my Gatorade bottles, and pass me food . . . when they weren’t taking photos, texting, or tweeting. Between Chris, the driver and “the IT guy,” and Jackie, whose prolific Facebooking earned her the title of “social media expert,” no part of this epic journey was going undocumented. Meanwhile, Shannon was organizing/coordinating/herding the crew stops. All systems were decidedly “go.”
|Shannon and Jackie, keeping me hydrated and cool on the way to Furnace Creek - that's Oswaldo Lopez, just ahead of me.|
Predictably, the section from Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells got a little rough. The temperature was climbing, and the fast early pace was taking its toll. I started slowing, and reached the point, around the 50K mark, where I stopped, leaned over, and dry-heaved several times. No big deal. I backed off the pace a little bit, and kept moving forward, per my strategy this year to make constant forward progress at just about any cost. I had intermittent pacing help from Shannon here, packing a water gun to keep me cool in between mistings. I told them that my goal was to make it to Stovepipe Wells, the 42-mile mark, (a) within 7 hours, and (b) feeling reasonably good. As I rolled through Stovepipe Wells about 10-15 minutes ahead of my 7-hour schedule, I felt good about my progress.
|Holding it together in the heat on the way to Stovepipe Wells.|
Then came Townes Pass. I knew this was going to be a tough, brutal grind, but I hadn’t anticipated just how bad the headwind was going to be. (Maybe the tailwind at the beginning of the race should have given me a clue . . .) Fortunately, our crew had matching sunglasses for the day, and clear glasses for the night, so at least dry eyes weren’t going to be a problem. But this was by far the stiffest, most suffocating wind in this part of the course that I had ever faced. (It also didn’t need to include Collin shouting “Falls Road sucks!” from his crew vehicle as they passed me, but that’s another story.) It was bad enough that I stopped a couple of times on the way up, for about 20-25 minutes total, to collect myself before going on. Some people passed me here, but I wasn’t terribly worried, because I knew I had a long downhill coming, and plenty of legs to catch people on the downhill. Plus, Jackie was serenading me on the way up, with songs like "You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings," which, silly as it was, did lift my spirits a bit.
|Marching up Townes Pass, crew in tow.|
And sure enough, on the backside of the pass, I was motoring along, happy to let gravity work for me for a change, and passing people with reckless abandon. Before I knew it, I was at Panamint Springs, terrible place that it is, about 14.5 hours into the race, with another 63 miles to the finish. As I said a few times about last year’s race, if I could just put two good “halves” of the race together, I could have an awesome finishing time. But in this case, that would mean dropping a 14-hour run from there to the finish, just as I did last year, right after pushing hard enough to get there that fast in the first place. I was a little nervous . . .
|Blazing down the backside of Townes Pass, into Panamint Springs - long-exposure, light-speed style.|
Because, recall from previous years that Panamint Springs had been the site of my lowest points. I was determined not to let that happen this year, so I told my crew we were not stopping there for any period of time if we could help it, and I kept chugging through. They soon caught up to me, and while I was less aggressive on the road to Darwin this year, I kept making progress. At this point, it was solidly night, and COLD. As in, 50-ish degrees. But also moonless, which made the stars even more visible, much to Chris’s delight – he got some awesome night-sky pictures, which may have made up for the fact that, for once, it was too dark when I passed Father Crowley overlook to get any good pictures there.
|There are stars over Death Valley, too.|
I was doing my best to take advantage of the cool temperature and darkness and pick up the pace (also, moving fast enough so as not to freeze was sort of a factor), and gradually, I started passing people. By the time I reached Darwin, the 90-mile mark, I was in 17th place (by some report, anyway). I felt mostly disheartened by this news. Here I was, on track for a mid-28-hour finish (if I could pull off the second half of the race that I thought I could), and I was still that far back. But then again, my primary goal was to finish under 30 hours, and I could at least achieve that. So I decided to focus on that.
As I headed from Darwin to Lone Pine, a 32-mile trek, the sun came up, the temperature became briefly pleasant (on its way to being brutally hot again), and Jackie Choi (aka “Jackie Joy”) started hopping out of the car to pace me. Jackie is always sunny and smiley, and the rhythm of her footsteps behind me kept me locked in to a comfortable running pace. In this section, I told both her and Shannon as they paced me that this was the section of the race where magical things can happen, since everybody is getting tired, and by making slow, steady progress, and being patient, you can gradually pass a lot of people.
And sure enough, patience and persistence paid off. At this point, the only runners ahead of me were from the 10 am wave, so every pass moved me up a place. And wouldn’t you know it, Dean Karnazes was just ahead as we were nearing the 100-mile mark. Jackie hopped out to pace, wearing a sweater (still complaining of being cold), and carrying her cell phone, to both photo-document and play Deadmau5 to spur me on, while Shannon told me that Dean was dying, and I could take him down. I couldn’t have planned it better – we passed Dean, and his decidedly more serious-looking pacer, just as we crossed the 100-mile mark on the road, at around 20 hours and 40 minutes, a solid 100-mile race time itself, and Dean said to us “35 miles to go,” in a tone that suggested that we were stupid to have done what we just did. But considering that I kept putting distance on him, I’d say it was a great move, and Jackie sure got a kick out of it.
|Things of note, right to left: Dean Karnazes, his pacer, me, Jackie, 100-mile mark on the road.|
We kept up the steady pace, and by the time we reached Lone Pine, we had passed several other runners, including the Fruitarian (who was on his back on a mat with his legs up on the rear bumper of his crew vehicle when we passed him). I unofficially broke my PR for most miles run in 24 hours (I reached 118 miles just as my watch turned over to triple-zeros; previous best was 111). In another nod to Jackie, I passed Sumie, the eventual first female finisher, ahead of Pam Reed, just before we reached the Lone Pine time station. I had to go a little faster than I would have liked to make that last pass, but considering how patiently and effectively Jackie had been pacing me, even though we had already passed Dean together, I felt like I owed her another one. At the Lone Pine time station, one of the volunteers actually recognized my Falls Road Racing jersey, and asked if I was from Baltimore, and I had my very brief moment of proudly representing, before I jay-ran, Baltimore-style, across Main Street and onto Portal Road, just to make sure that Sumie stayed behind me.
Then, the climb to Whitney Portal – 13 miles, lots of elevation gain, and, this time around, since I was finishing so fast, it was noticeably hotter than usual. Normally, this is where I take off and do awesome things, but with the heat and all of the running I had done in the previous section, I felt totally flat on the climb. All of Shannon’s water-gunning in the back and Jackie’s cheer wasn’t really helping, except to ensure that I had no excuse not to grit my teeth and resolve to put one foot in front of the other until I reached the top. By the time I got to the 131-mile mark, the last time station, the temperature had dropped, and I had been marching up the climb for long enough that I actually felt as though I had fallen into a semblance of a rhythm. And, with just a 4-mile “fun run” to cross off on the car (we had been crossing off each half-marathon as we passed the half-marathon marks), my mood improved significantly. I was chatty, cheery, and coherent as I fell into a rhythm much more evocative of this section of the climb last year, and, with cell phones finally working again, I was feeding off of not only my crew’s excitement, but the excitement of the people at home.
|Finally starting to smile in the final stretch of the climb to Whitney Portal .|
|Heaven on earth. (Also, as I was later informed, an excuse for others to take "dirty" pictures of us in our compromised position.)|
My crew and I hung around the finish line for what seemed like a very short time to me, but was actually several hours, sunning ourselves on rocks, eating the remaining junk food that we bought for the race (who knew that we had that much beef jerky?), and cheering for the finishers that came in behind me. I felt a little too dazed to be useful. Eventually, we headed back down the mountain into Lone Pine, to tend to the cuts, scratches, blisters, and general filth that we had accumulated during our adventure. I barely remember the Mexican food that I ate for dinner at the food cart in front of our hotel, but I’m pretty sure it was awesome (and now that my appetite is returning, I wish that I had some more). It was definitely awesome that they gave me a free pineapple Jarritos for running the race.
Even after writing all of that, and having a day to think about everything, this is all still unbelievable to me. Obviously, I’ve trained hard for a long time, and I knew that I was capable of this performance, but to finally have everything come together, and to make it happen, is a totally different thing. Most of all, I’m overwhelmed by all of the support and well-wishing from family and friends, and I am beyond thankful for all of it. I can’t possibly thank everybody here, but I do want to mention a few – my awesome crew for this race, of course (Chris, Shannon, and Jackie), my crew from the previous two years (Andrew, Sara, and Jason), without which I wouldn’t have had the experience to do what I did at this race this year, all of the people who donated to CAF, whose names/slogans were on the back of my jersey the entire race (and didn’t run a bit, even with the constant misting, thanks to the magic of fabric markers), Meg H for dutifully watching my cats, Meg D and Pete at the Falls Road Running Store for overnighting me the sweet kicks for my race, Golden Harper, founder of Altra, for the shoes, my beautiful girlfriend Tina for her unwavering emotional support, and my mom, dad, and sisters, for always being there for me. And if I didn’t list you here and you feel slighted, feel free to call me out on it – there’s just so much to process right now (including, amusingly enough, 135 text messages on my cell phone after the race, once I got service back) that I’m not even sure that this 3000-word essay covers it.
But the last thing I will say, before I move on (to some sort of food, most likely), is that everybody I’m thanking here and elsewhere is a motivation, inspiration, and source of energy for me to run the way I run. Keep it coming – I’m determined to keep on raising the bar!
EPILOGUE: Our crew’s sleep-deprived post-race trip back to Las Vegas is practically a blog post in and of itself. But the short version is that after many, many photo stops between Lone Pine and Las Vegas, and one very clutch In-N-Out stop, we arrived at the Vdara in Las Vegas with our baggage jumble, only to find that our bathroom reeked of cigarette smoke – in a supposedly smoke-free hotel. Naturally, we complained, and asked for an upgrade, and the next room that they gave us . . . reeked of marijuana smoke. One more complaint and one round of uncontrollable laughter later, we were in an excessively awesome room, with a view of the Bellagio fountain, a stainless-steel refrigerator and dishwasher, and robes for maximum enjoyment of lounging, champagne-toasting, and re-living the experience. An appropriately surreal end to a delightfully surreal experience.