Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Badwater 2013: Spirit Walker

It's happened every year, at least to some degree. But this year, it was the worst. As I crossed over to the right side of the road, to retreat to the relative cool of the crew van, just 18 miles into my 2013 135-mile Badwater run, the first and foremost thought in my mind was: How on earth am I going to finish this race?

Not that this was entirely surprising. After 2012's Badwater left me so physically spent, it was hard to imagine coming back to Badwater in 2013, especially considering how poorly I was running in February. But I had made a promise to my little sister to run Badwater in 2013 for G-PACT, and that, above all other reasons, was why I came back to Badwater 2013. Although I trained well, got much healthier, and improved my fitness greatly in the months that followed, my race results had been a mixed bag. There was really no way for me to be confident about a strong performance, and as race day got closer, this anxiety intensified.

On the logistics side of things, though, things came together without incident. With Chris and Shannon crewing again this year, and Meredith, a veteran of Badwater as both runner (most recently, last year's last-place Badwater finisher) and crew member, replacing Jackie (who is attempting the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning this summer, which conflicts with Badwater), the assortment of gear and goods needed to run this race came together quickly, even affording us time to visit the Hoover Dam before the race. (I've wanted to visit for the past three years, but somehow, preparations always seem to take longer than expected.)

Since you've seen plenty of Death Valley pictures on my Facebook page and on my blog, here's something different: a nifty picture near the Hoover Dam. 

Race morning came, and although my own preparations were quick and efficient, loading the crew van was not. Being stuck behind slow-moving tourists who were yielding to runners from the earlier waves meant that we made it to the start with just 10 minutes to spare, missing the group photo, but in time for the national anthem, for which I wore a pair of pink-and-blue wayfarer-style glasses, with giant kisses on each lens, in the interest of being one step ahead of the trend - this year, the "Badwater Store" was selling these glasses, the kind that my entire crew wore in 2012, and Chris Kostman himself was sporting a pair, of white (our team's color) no less. 

(This year, our team's name was "The Spirit Walkers," at Shannon's suggestion, after the relatively obscure, vaguely obnoxious, oddly infectious Ween song, which pretty much sums up our approach to this event: Hence, the feathers pinned to my cap and my wristwatch, although I think this will not be as trend-setting as the sunglasses.)

After the group countdown, we were off, and for a few minutes, I thought that, in consideration of what was expected to be extreme heat this year, even for Badwater, we would all run conservatively. But of course, about ten minutes in, this all went out the window as people started going off the front, stringing out the starters. I did my best to keep things under control as the heat rose, but I found myself passing the Furnace Creek time station just 10 minutes slower than my split last year, under much hotter conditions. I didn't feel too bad, so I reasoned that things would all sort themselves out . . . 

Which they did, in a less-than-desirable way. Shannon hopped out to start pacing me (pacing is allowed from the 17-mile mark at Furnace Creek to the finish), and I responded by immediately going into heat-exertion induced dry heaves. Of course, I'd been here before, as recently as last year at Badwater, but this I couldn't shake. I moved forward more slowly, but after another mile or so, I had to temporarily throw in the towel and head over to the crew van to cool down. After 15 minutes or so in the van, I went back after it, but it wasn't more than another mile before I was back in the crew van, packed with ice, hoping to feel better. The fact that Dean Karnazes had already "staked out" (gone off the course temporarily to seek assistance, medical or otherwise) was at least some reassurance that everybody was suffering.

By 3 pm, and about an hour of time-out in the van, I was back on the road to Stovepipe Wells, moving at a more controlled pace. I told my crew that hopefully now, the worst of this was over, and it would be relatively smooth sailing to the finish. 

Of course, this turned into a falsehood, as the temperature continued to rise above 120 degrees, with a hairdryer-hot crosswind making it feel even worse. Even with ice in my bandana and my hat, the heat cut right through this, and my pace slowed further as I neared Stovepipe Wells, the 42-mile mark. I reached the time station about an hour and a half slower than my 2012 split, feeling far, far worse. 

Still, I was not alone in my misery - Shannon Farar-Griefer and her gingham-dress-clad entourage were lingering there, and rumor from my crew was that Oz had blown up there as well. So I took about half an hour to eat an ice pop and try to cool down in the van before I continued. Townes Pass, with its 5000 feet of climb over 17 miles, is no joke, and I wanted to do everything in my power not to break down on the climb.

But sure enough, the blasting headwind and the continued heat meant that I continued to struggle. Just a few miles past the Stovepipe Wells time station, I got back in the van again, for another 15 minutes or so, wanting desperately to quit (although never saying it out loud, which, by Meredith's logic, doesn't count). My crew urged me back out there, but after another 15-20 minutes of trudging misery, I returned to the van. Shannon was clearly climbing stronger than I was, and I was feeling worse by the minute. Thoughts of not finishing the race and disappointing everybody who had supported me were getting louder in my mind.

So, as a last resort, similar to what I did in 2011, and with Shannon's blessing, I lay silent, by myself, in the dark crew van, for an hour. I didn't really sleep, but an hour of collecting myself made a huge difference. I returned to the course, Rhapsody-enabled iPhone in hand, and blasted Attack Attack while I, well, attacked the climb. I started moving more comfortably, as Shannon, Meredith, and even Chris took turns pacing me up the climb. I passed Shannon Farar-Griefer and her crew apparently having some sort of picnic behind their van on the side of the mountain, which made me feel even better about my progress (they laughed at our water gun system of cooling, so it all worked out for everybody).

When I finally reached the top, it was "business time," and I gained some momentum on the downhill. I could see the line of blinking crew vehicle lights ahead of me in the valley. We were now in a sort of no-man's-land, as all of my early stops had separated us from the rest of the race. But I was running a good downhill pace, and slowly but surely, I was gaining on the runners in front of me.  Meredith paced me in to Panamint, where I tried to use the restroom, but discovered that it was occupied. In the interest of never spending more time at Panamint than necessary (see previous years there), I just left. Walking away from Panamint quickly is always at least a minor victory.

It was now 5 am, which put me at about 4.5 hours slower than my 2012 split, mostly due to stoppage time, as opposed to running slower. So I knew that I had the legs to do this, if I could just hold it together for the next 63 miles. With the sunrise, I perked up a bit, and made brisk progress up the climb to the Father Crowley overlook. I was chatty with both Meredith and Shannon as they alternated pacing me, and feeling better about how this was going. 

Sure enough, in four hours, I had covered the tough 18 miles from Panamint to Darwin, the mile 90 time station, where Meredith welcomed me with a little "Darwin dance." And sure enough, I was passing plenty of people, which was a mental boost, even if some of them (like Tammy, who was fascinated by the fact that she was "ahead" of me, even though she had a 4-hour head start) were in earlier starting waves. (In Tammy's case, she tried to get her pacer to take a picture of her ahead of me, but by the time the pacer got the camera set up, I had already passed her for good.)

Holy cow, I'm running Badwater! (From more or less this section of the race; I just like this picture.)

From Darwin to Lone Pine, a 32-mile stretch, the course becomes more runnable, and, channeling some of last year, that's what I did. In spite of a 15-minute nap break, because I was falling asleep on my feet, I covered this section in 6 hours, getting stronger and stronger as I got closer to Lone Pine, fueled by Kaskade, Ke$ha, and New Order blasting on my headphones. My crew and I had finally hit on a sustainable strategy of water, soda, spraying, and ice bandanas, and everything was clicking. The crowning achievement was passing David Goggins about a mile away from the turn to Lone Pine, at a 7-minute mile pace. Who knew what place I was in at this point, but the surprised, "who the hell is THIS guy?" looks that I was getting from those in front of me, zombie-marching while I approached at a full-on run, told me that some people were going to be very surprised that I was hot on their heels . . .

At this point in the race, this was pretty much everybody's view of me.

Shannon and I blasted through Lone Pine, hollering, screaming, and fist-bumping with the sheer joy that comes with running that fast after having covered 122 miles on foot, and we jay-ran across the street (albeit inside the crosswalk) to Portal Road, where Jimmy Dean Freeman, who I chased in my first epic climb up Mount Whitney, and who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, encouraged me to "climb like you're chasing me!" I told my crew that this would not be a wobbly-legged climb this year, as it was last year, and I proceeded to put on a climbing clinic, power-hiking up the hill, head forward and headphones still blasting. I didn't speak much, lest I lose focus on the task, which was not only to power up the climb as fast as possible, but also to make sure that I didn't crap out at some point, so that, as I had promised, Meredith would get to see Mount Whitney in the daylight. (As a "slow" finisher, she always ends up climbing Mount Whitney at night, and was excited by the prospect of seeing it in the daylight.)

And then, somehow, almost impossibly, for the second year in a row, after over 100 miles of running, I had passed Dean Karnazes.  I couldn't believe how I had done it.  To this day, I'll still never understand how it happened.  But I did it!

As is the case in this part of the race, the air gets cooler and the climb gets more comfortable near the top, in contrast to the 109-degree heat near the bottom. So I sped up closer to the top, not really sure what my split was shaping up to be, but having a vague sense that I might be on track for a PR. I was pushing the edge at this point, low on calories but not wanting to eat and upset my stomach. I was feeling woozy with a little over a mile to go, but two well-timed bags of chilled fruit snacks later, I was feeling strong again, and powered through to the finish. My crew and I ran through the tape together, finishing in 32 hours, 7 minutes, and 51 seconds - a 3 hour, 12 minute split to Whitney Portal, slightly faster than my 2011 march. And of course, Jimmy Dean Freeman was there to share in my success, and offer me handfuls of peanut-heavy trail mix. Another victory. 


We got down the mountain as quickly as we could, in our starved, sleep-deprived state (those post-race hamburgers at Whitney Portal really hit the spot), and headed for sweet sleep at the Whitney Portal Hostel. Sweet, sweet sleep.

I finished 3.5 hours slower than last year, and 8 places lower, but ultimately, I think that I ran a smarter, better race. Last year, I had the benefit of "mild" weather, a tailwind, and plain old luck. This year, many more things were stacked against me, from my long recovery to health to the extra-hot weather. I had my share of low points and then some, but I worked through them well, and ultimately ran the last 63 miles of the race, from Panamint Springs to the finish, in 13 hours - an hour faster than my best for this section, including a new PR on the climb to Whitney Portal, and, overall, about the same as the top finishers' splits on this section of the course. So, in a way, this year's Badwater was a lot like this year's buildup to Badwater - fumbling and frustrating in the early going, but eventually smoothing out, and going on to exceed expectations. 

I am deeply thankful to all of those who supported me and my efforts this year, and the years prior - family, friends, crew, donors to G-PACT, and I'm not going to list any more right now because I'll surely miss people. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you all are the reason why I ran Badwater this year, and you all are the reason why I kept fighting to turn the race around and finish strong. And thanks to all of you, fingers crossed, I'll be back again next year, for my fifth consecutive Badwater, with the goal of making it the best yet.


  1. Well done Dave! And well done crew! Thanks for the great updates and answering my incessant texts throughout the race =P

  2. wow, talk about a strong finish! feeling some of that visceral joy you spoke of in a previous post just reading about your perseverance. Amazing. KUDOS!

  3. Good job Dave and crew. How many miles do the crew members typically put in...


  4. Depends on how much they want to run. Shannon ran 60-70 miles with me, not counting the distance to and from the car, which could have added another 10+ miles. Meredith ran 20-30, again not counting running to and from the car (similar amount of distance added). Chris ran 0.5 miles and mostly didn't get out of the car. :)

  5. Incredible race! I checked on your progress after Day One and you made incredible strides on Day Two. G-PACT again thanks you for your contribution. Glad you got to see the Hoover Dam. I saw it for the first time on July 1st as I drove over it.


  6. What an incredible thing you have done for G-PACT!!! As a gastroparesis sufferer and a volunteer for G-PACT I want to thank you immensely for this amazing feat. As we all suffer day to day with the conditions of this horrible invisible illness, it is incredible to see people such as yourself going through grueling situations to raise funds and awareness. There are no words great enough to say thank you for what you have done for all of us!


  7. Another Badwater runnerAugust 7, 2013 at 8:28 PM

    Dear David,

    I am miffed and quite upset about your mention of my name in your Badwater write-up. Usually I enjoy reading other runners race accounts, but that is not the case here.

    My recollection of our encounter is entirely different than yours and for you to state the things that you said when I take great measures to respect the other racers, and the larger community in general, is extremely disturbing.

    As well, for you to insinuate that I may have cheated is both patently false and borderline slanderous. Not once did I leave the course, nor have I ever left the course in ten years of Badwater finishes.

    I will ask that you kindly remove all mentions of me from this blog. I will also sincerely request that you refrain from treating other athletes, those that have trained and sweat and sacrificed just as hard as you, with such disregard.

    If you wish to talk in person I would welcome that. In the meantime, please remove those fallacious statements about me from your blog.

    Very truly yours,
    Dean Karnazes

  8. Fellow Badwater athleteAugust 7, 2013 at 8:36 PM

    P.S. We saw each other at the awards festival (remember, I stood right next to you). If you had a problem with me or my behavior I wish you would have mentioned it then, live, instead of writing something offhand in your blog from afar.

    Talking in person would seem like the decent thing to do if you have a problem with someone.

  9. Dean,

    First off, I have a great deal of respect for your ultrarunning accomplishments, your contributions to the community, and your charitable work. In no way did I mean to disrespect you (or any other runner, for that matter) with anything that I have posted on my blog. I apologize that what I wrote in my blog was upsetting to you; that was not my intent.

    As far as bringing this up face-to-face with you, you make a valid point. I personally did not have a "problem" with my interaction with you, but others may have perceived the same events differently.

    To me, it appeared as though you were violating rules regarding multiple pacers and relieving yourself discreetly. But, in my opinion, these rule violations were of no significant consequence. The former appeared to be for a relatively short distance, and the latter, well, it happens, and neither my crew nor I were offended. There seemed to be a plausible, albeit illogical, explanation for how I could have passed you twice without stopping my own forward progress or seeing you pass me. In my four years of experience at Badwater, all of these things seemed unusual, and therefore noteworthy in my race report, but were in no way intended as complaints.

    But as you, and others that I have talked to have suggested, the way that I described my encounter with you may have given others an unduly negative perception of you. Had I at least mentioned this to you face-to-face, you would have had the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions about our interaction.

    In my blog, I take great pride in showing running in all its forms, good, bad, ugly, and otherwise. And my readers often tell me that they read my blog because they appreciate my candid, honest approach.

    So, in that spirit, I welcome you to explain your understanding of our interaction, and I will gladly share this with those who have read this race report, so that they can hear both sides of the story. And once again, I apologize that what I wrote in my blog was upsetting to you.

    David Ploskonka