Part 1 of 2
You always remember your first time. The first time you rode a bike, the first time you hit a home run, the first time you drove a car, and the first time you ran a marathon. There’s just this magical feeling that comes with setting out on a new adventure. I remember the first time I laid eyes on the heart of Death Valley from the top of Townes Pass. It just kind of hits you how far the landscape extends out and wide, and how quickly the temperatures rise as you descend to the Valley floor. To be in it is much like peering out from the bottom of your own grave.
For me, going to back to Badwater for a third Badwater Ultramarathon carried with it a different set of emotions and thoughts. The first time out there, the mind was pre-occupied with casting visions and dreams of all the sights and sounds I would encounter. The second time out there, I was focused on not making the mistakes of the first year and working with a mostly fresh, new crew from the previous year. This year, though, I had done everything possible to be primed for a great run. That awe and wonder that captivated me with the first trip to Badwater was replaced by a sense of comfort and calmness that only comes from knowing one’s advesary. Instead of tall peaks and long valleys, I was focused on all the little things that would help shape my final performance. While never losing sight of the fact that it’s always a great thing to finish, I knew that my expectations of myself were much higher. This demanded an attention to many things which had gotten lost in past year’s “big picture” thinking.
It all started with putting together a veteran crew, with 5 of the 6 crew members had already done at least one “tour of duty”. There were family members, college friends, roommates and church friends. Pete, Kimi, Uncle “Mambo” Jose, Mike and Jeff had all crewed for at least one Badwater and been apart of other trail race adventures. Each one of them had also paced me for various size segments of other races, The only member of the crew who hadn’t been to Badwater, Trish, would be able to lean on the other’s experiences. As a costumer in the entertainment industry, her experience at handling actors and actresses made her ideal for the task of handling an ultrarunner whose grasp of reality could erode at any time. In fact, each and every one of them possessed an easy going personality that allowed them to easily roll with the punches.
But of all their talents and abilities, the most important quality of all was their personal relationships with me. I personally value loyalty among all other attributes, and they are among the most loyal and dedicated people I have ever met. They believe strongly not only in what I was doing as an athlete, but also what I was doing as an ambassador for God in Uganda through the well-building and development. I consider them all friends/family for life, which is especially relevant considering that I was trusting each and every one of them with my own life out there. That may seem like an over dramatic statement, but considering the environment and the stress it places on the body, it is not too far fetched. They each came with the attitude that we were all part of a team and that team’s goal was to get us from Badwater to Mt. Whitney Portal as quickly as possible. We would be able to draw on our past experiences to define the areas which had worked well as a team and improve on the areas that had contributed to past issues.
My crew and I did extensive research into various aspects of my previous two Badwaters to identify the areas I needed to focus on as the runner and they needed to do as the crew to ensure a successful journey. These areas included the following aspects (among others): a) 3 scheduled ice baths in the Valley from Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells to further assist in cooling the body and increasing nutritional intake, b) Scheduling shorter breaks with more frequency prior to previous years’ “trouble points”, and c) rigorous pre-testing of nutritional and electrolyte/water consumption strategies. Pete and Kimi created numerous pre-race charts which we used to identify problem points and integrate rest/fueling to meet those challenges. The time charts would be structured around the premise that my strength as a runner was a) an ability to “close” a race over the last ¼ and b) the climbs up Townes Pass (mi. 41.9 to 58.7) and from Panamint Springs (mi. 72.3) to Father Crowley’s Point (mi. 80.1) would be the single biggest turning points of the race. In particular, the climb to Father Crowley’s Point is an 8 mile climb with about 2500 ft. of climbing that comes during the night after an exhausting daytime section. A strong climb up Father Crowley’s can propel a runner into a 10 mile flat/moderate uphill section before one last 32 mile flat/downhill rolling section to Lone Pine (mi. 122.3).
Our pre-testing included a number of key races leading up to the big race. The biggest testing ground of all would be the Running With The Devil 50 miler around Lake Mead in Las Vegas two weeks before the race. I would only end up running 40 miles of it to preserve my body, but it would prove to be invaluable at predicting what would work best during the first 40 miles of the race through the heart of the Valley. It resulted in adding and subtracting from the variety of foods and supplements that I’ve previously used in races. While supplements such as the Hammer E-caps had been difficult to swallow at last year’s Badwater, we made sure to include it as part of the nutritional offering for the simple reason that sometimes you don’t always know exactly what’s going to work at what time. Having backups for the backups is important when the personal stakes are so high.
This planning/training gave me a certain freedom from worrying what the crew was doing and focus on the task of running. The first year, success was measured by survival and maybe a medal and a buckle. The second year, success was measured by improvement over the first year. This year, success would be measured by how big a leap forward I could take considering we would be able to apply the lessons learned from the race the first two times as well as 3 years of ultra running. While nobody knows exactly how the body will react on race day in those extreme conditions, I could no longer personally accept just “getting through” and instead had set me sights on making significant progress towards my ultimate race goals. I didn’t want to be the poster child for being able to We needed to exhibit the discipline and use the knowledge we had acquired in order to get the breakthrough I was looking for. We had set forth multiple race and time plans, focused between just under 30 hours to 36 hours.
Like the year before, the plan called for the crew to rendezvous at the Furnace Creek Ranch on Saturday July 12th, two days before the race, in order to finish off the preparations and do a final review of the crew/runner responsibilities. This was effective the year before, as a way to get settled in and help both the crew and myself further acclimate to the surroundings. Even going to the sauna on a regular basis or basking in whatever summer heat there is in the Bay Area cannot mirror the feeling of being in the Valley of Death. This is even more important for the crew considering that the level of training they go through to get ready for the heat is no where near the training the runner goes through. By making sure that the crew was comfortable with the surroundings, I would ensure that their efforts to keep me going would be maximized. In addition, we would use this extra day in Death Valley to get organized and ensure that each member of the crew knew where everything was in the van and that I could have a certain expectation of the level of service I would receive each time I passed them.
On that Saturday morning, Pete and Kimi would pick up one of the crew vans in Las Vegas, while Mambo, Trish, Mike, and I would pick up the second crew van in Los Angeles. While Pete and Kimi’s plan to pick up miscellaneous supplies in Las Vegas and be in the Valley be early afternoon went according to plan, my plans in Los Angeles were less than smooth. The morning was spent haggling over rental car reservations until I finally picked up the second crew van just after noon time, grab some lunch to go and head out.
This year, we took an alternative route to Death Valley, going east from Los Angeles before picking up the 15 Fwy to Las Vegas. After slipping around the Angeles Crest mountain, we took Hwy 138 westbound through the back country to Badwater before meeting up with Hwy 190 just before the Furnace Creek Ranch. In previous years, we would go through the Mojave to Lone Pine first to drop off any extra vehicles before taking Hwy 190 all the way to Furnace Creek. The nice thing about this was that since Hwy 190 was the route for the race, it gave people the chance to enjoy the various sights on the race course prior to the race. But this route would be longer than the route we took, which translates not only into time lost (considering we were already late) but also gas burned.
While traveling up the 15 Fwy we were hit with the one thing you can’t always expect in the middle of July: thunderstorms. The forecast had called for a small chance of storms, but in an expanse as vast as that desert region, the movement of storms can be unpredicatable. The sky, covered in a blanket of greys and black, had opened up right over us. With about an hour on the 138 before hitting Furnace Creek, we took our time on the back roads that were now intermittently covered with sand and dirt left over from the storms. We even turned off at one point to take some photos of everyone. The storm was the perfect backdrop, providing the pictures with a palatte that would be a reminder of what awaited us later on. The silver lining was that it made the local weather much more tolerable. It was still warm and incredibly humid, but without direct sunlight we didn’t have to worry too much about our skin getting burnt.
With Pete and Kimi waiting, we didn’t stop at the Badwater salt basin. Instead, we paused the car for a brief moment to take in the view at the bottom before jetting the last 17 miles into Furnace Creek Ranch. It was like I’d remembered; a number of small pools of water next to that long, winding salt-encrusted lake bed. When we did arrive at the Ranch, Pete and Kimi happened to be in front of the General Store next to the main entrance. It was a little embarrassing to be a few hours late from our original 2 p.m. redezvous, but better late than never. Fortunately, Pete and Kimi were able to check-in to the rooms I had reserved and relax.
Furnace Creek Ranch has the feel of an old west dude ranch when you first arrive. It was built as the sister property to the Furnace Creek Inn, Furnace Creek Ranch is by far the preferred place where most of the runners and crew will stay before the race. While there’s always smattering of tourists at the Ranch on race weekend, . It’s proximity to the start at Badwater and numerous supplies make it ideal for an easy morning before the race. Besides, where else can you gaze out at the hottest place in North America while hitting a 5-wood at their golf course?
After a short break to set up the sleeping arrangements, do introductions with the crew, and move our supplies into the room, those of us who just arrived broke for dinner. Dinner was a nice opportunity to relax and unwind from always being on the go. After spending Friday night working late, we left in the wee hours for Los Angeles to pick up Mike and Trish before leaving for the Valley. I think the only time I stopped to relax was the half hour we took to get some food and rearrange the supplies we were taking with us. Besides, there’s nothing like a nice plate of spaghetti with a huge meatball to take the edge off.
Nightfall brought with it a light rainfall, which felt incredibly good in the warm air. However, it also brought with it some measure of anxiety. With the course traversing incredibly dry terrain, any rain can washout roadways. The weather forecast had called for clearing on Sunday and Monday, which was good. As far as performance, I wasn’t really worried about the high humidity affecting me too adversely. So you trade extreme dry heat for a hot and humid heat? The common denominator is still planning on hot weather. I always build into my heat training a few trips to the wet sauna in order to get somewhat used to high humidity in case of a situation like this. Everyone has to run in it, so whatever it ended up being, we’d all enjoy it together J
Usually a night owl, I succumbed to the desires of the rest of the folks in going to bed at around 11 instead of watching a movie. Well, it paid off because I was up bright and early at 7 a.m. on Sunday. After showering and getting dressed, I headed to the General Store with Kimi and Trish. I noticed the weather was still not above 90 degrees and overcast sky kept the sunlight from bearing down. Instead of the heat acclimation hike that I had slated for us, we decided to take advantage of the overcast weather and get the supplies into the crew vans now.
Gathering the crew at the vans, we went through the process of splitting up the supplies between the main crew van and the support van. The main van would have all of the main medical, food and water supplies. It would have a round cooler with just ice, a 100 qt. cooler with drinks and food for both runner and crew, and a third cooler with “grey water” for use with the ice towels being draped on my neck every couple miles. In the back next to the hatchback, there would also be a small rubbermaid container with a sampling of all the “most used items” including electrolyte tabs, a couple bags of chips, a clif bar, and small trail mix bags. This would allow for quick and easy access on the fly. The support van would serve a dual purpose by holding the ice coffin/cooler I would soak in periodically during peak heat as well as keeping all the extra water and food supplies that would not fit in the main crew van. We did an initial load of ice into the coolers to cool down the drinks while planning on a refill the following morning prior to the race. We also left four seats remaining in the main van since that would fit the maximum number of crew members we would have on duty at all times.
I pretty much stayed away from this process since knowing where things were would be less of a priority for me as the runner. Trish and I were in charge of writing my name and number on the back, front and side windows of the crew vans. With limited numbers of special marking pens, I couldn’t get too creative. However, I did find space to sneak in a couple smiley faces and a “Go Oxy” in honor of my alma mater, Occidental College.
After finishing off the vehicles and the crew being satisfied with the final organization of the vans, I took off just after 11 a.m. with fellow runner Alan Geraldi to the pre-race check-in. It started at noon, but with a long wait to be anticipated, it didn’t hurt to walk over to the Death Valley Museum and get in the front of the line where the check-in and pre-race meeting would eventually held. The rest of the crew were off on their own to eat lunch, use the pool on-site, or just use the time as they pleased.
The long wait at the Museum finally ended and within 15-20 minutes I had picked up all the swag, shirts and gear I needed before going back to the Ranch. Lunch consisted of a pre-made sandwich before Pete and I decided to lace up our shoes and gofor a short couple mile jaunt up the road to the Furnace Creek Inn. The Inn is perched on the hill a mile up from the Ranch. It is a national landmark, having been built around the turn of the 20th century when the Valley teemed with workers mining for borates. With a day spa, natural spring pool, and lush gardens surrounding a few ponds, it stands out as a . Closed in the summer, the Inn accommodates the influx visitors in the Winter when the weather is decidedly cooler in those parts. Once arriving at the Inn, we took a quick 10 minute look around before turning around and heading back.
After hanging around for an hour, it was time to head to the 1 ½ hour pre-race meeting at 3:30 pm. The meeting is mandatory for runners and at least one crew member. They show the brief video from last year’s race, run through the main safety points and highlight certain rules. The highlight of the meeting is at the end, when all the runners are introduced by name on stage and there is a group photo. Many of the speeches are variations of previous years’ speeches and although some are quite humorous, it makes the meeting less than appealing for veteran crew members. The veteran crew members unanimously agreed that Trish should go to the meeting with me, as a sort of initiation so she could get the “full experience”.
As always, we ended up meeting a few of the volunteers and runners I’ve gotten to know over the past couple Badwaters. I ended up chatting with Dean Karnazes, who was right behind me in line. We wished each other a good race, from one San Franciscan to another. He has always had one of the more muscular physiques of the Badwater runners but this year, with all his desert running, looked as skinny and lean as I’ve ever seen him. The veins popping out of every corner of his arm were insane. I can’t say I had the same look myself, but if anything, this race teaches you that speed out here come in a lot of different forms. I was just hoping that all the gym work and intense June runs had leaned my body sufficiently to where it needed to be.
The meeting itself was pretty much standard protocol. Well, except for the flash flood warning for Badwater basin. With the storms moving through, they honestly didn’t know what it would do to the course. While the area near Mt. Whitney was been hit and other areas were experiences delays to clear roads, it was anyone’s guess what the final outcome would be. Although I was optimistic with the skies clearing earlier in the day, weather in the desert can change on a dime. The most humorous moment came when the CHP representative showed us how AAA will open your car if you lock your keys in it here in the Valley. He pulled out a rock in his right hand with the letters “A-A-A” painted on the flat face. The meeting took a much more serious tone when the race director mentioned that one of the long-time participants/volunteers would not be racing this year due to the recent dissapearence of his son while hiking over July 4th. If anything, it put back into perspective the place the race holds in all of our lives.
In another “real life” moment, the race director announced that 2007 competitor Don Fallis was battling colon cancer. Don was well-known because although he didn’t finish due to severe back spasms, he made a spirited entrance to the post-race party in Lone Pine (122.3) right at the 60 hour time directly from being out on the course. He was a true warrior out there and in honor of that spirit, we each wore a “I’m on Don’s Team” t-shirt provided by the race officials for the pre-race photo.
Night Before: In a bit of detour after the meeting, I made sure to show Trish the small airstrip tucked away behind the museum as well. It’s really rather neat to think you can take a private plane and land there. We drove the ¼ mile back to the Ranch. With the flash flood warning in effect, we decided to skip the 17 mile trip to the start in favor of a group trip and pictures up at the Furnace Creek Inn. Everyone wore their new Badwater race t-shirts, and we quickly made our way to the oasis that Pete and I had found earlier. After snapping a number of shots near the gazebo and among the palm trees at the pond, we went back to the café for dinner. The Furnace Creek Café is one of two eateries at the Ranch. It pretty much serves standard American fare at a pretty reasonable price considering your options are limited.
By this time, we were getting concerned about our 6th crew member, Jeff, who was scheduled to join us around this time. Jeff and I both went to Occidental College, later becoming roommates and I was a groomsman in his wedding. Jeff was an outdoors person, always interested in exploring. I can’t say I was really worried about Jeff. But with the flash flood warning changing the road conditions and both of us out of cell phone range, we were unsure where he was at this point. Of course, as luck would have it, shortly after we sit down at the Café, in comes Jeff. Finally, the crew was all there.
After chowing down, we made our way back to the rooms for some minor, last night arrangements. While the crew members hurried back and forth, arranging the leftover items, I was left to sit there and “try and relax”. Around 9 pm, I just couldn’t stand it any longer. If I was going to get some sleep that night, I would need to work off at least a small portion of this excess enemy. So, I grabbed Mike to go with me on short 1.6 mi jaunt from our room to just up the road from the main gate.
It was nice to get out of the room. Being around all those people, I needed to get back into my own space. Mike thanked me for bringing him along on the journey, but in truth it was me who was thankful to him. We were mere hours from the start of the journey, . Our friendship with each other had seen quite a bit; broken relationships, broken finances and a few pick-up basketball games to name a few. This was just another shared struggle to add to the foundation of our friendship. Oh, how good it felt to be back where I belonged.
Before finally going to sleep, the crew and I held a short prayer time back at the room. It’s always good to ask for God’s grace, especially when faced with a daunting challenge. Humility is always the order of the day here. There is no room for pride; the race simply won’t allow it.
6 am: Rise and Shine! After a good 7 hours of sleep, I was surprisingly lucid. I hate race morning, but at least I got an extra couple hours compared to some 100 milers and marathons. Looking around the room, I started to smile. There was just this sense that after all the months of training and racing, I had finally reached the culmination. At the same time, you also start wondering if all you’ve done will translate over well into the actual race.
Race morning at Badwater is supposed to be as stress free for the runner as possible. As the runner, the only thing you should be doing is taking a morning shower, nibbling on some food, and putting on the race clothes. The crew takes care of all the details. Still, I wanted something to keep me occupied. After a quick shower, I nibbled on a Clif bar and banana. Around 6:50 am, I took a couple of salt/electrolyte capsules in order to firmly start the race fully fueled. I shuttled back and forth between the room and the crew van, checking things such as radios and clothes. It probably didn’t add anything to preparations except to give me something to do like a baby and their pacifier. Just before leaving at 7, I took the customary pre-race trip to the restroom, got into the van and we were off.
Pete, Kimi and Trish accompanied me to the start to handle the first leg from Badwater to Furnace Creek. This section requires less people because the runner requires less servicing. The temperatures tend to be lower and the strain of the journey doesn’t begin to bear down (in my experience) until the section between Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells. The ride out was pretty quiet, with some chatting back and forth. It wasn’t as quiet as the first year or as chatty as the second year. I felt like I was in that happy medium between excitement and focus. Often, I prefer to spend this time gazing out on the landscape and listening to music.
Most of the music isn’t too emotional; I try to keep things a little lighter at that point to settle into an even-keeled emotional state. Sometimes, if I find a song I like, I might actually play it a few times prior to the start. The song of choice this time? “New Shoes” by Paolo Nutini. It’s rather tame, but with catchy instrumentals and creative lyrics. Besides, what could be more appropriate for a race that often forces its participants to put on new, larger shoes due to foot swelling in the heat?
On arrival around 7:25, it was the same as years past. Get weighed in, use the restroom again, and say hello to various folks. After weigh-in, I made a point to walk out onto the salt flats. Alone at this point, I kneeled and silently prayed to the Lord. I didn’t say much, simply sitting in the presence and allowing the silence to speak to me. After a minute or two, I got up and returned to the crowds.
I paid no attention to the runners around me. Even during the runners group photo at the Badwater sign, I didn’t really say anything. In spite of the anticipation and the overwhelming yearning to put aside past disappointment and make this a year to remember, I wouldn’t allow it to show in my demeanor. While emotion can be a powerful ally, now was neither the time nor place to display it.
Ten minutes before the start, we moved to the starting line on the roadway. Occasionally, I would glance towards Pete and Trish to my left in the crowd of crews, race officials and media who were snapping pictures. I was in a mental vacuum, a sort of black hole of thoughts. I had washed away all the thoughts of previous races and was ready to run my race. While others were either joking or smiling or crying (yes, crying), I stood there with little emotion. I had the crew I wanted, the plan I needed and the training necessary to get it done the way I wanted to get it done.
Finally, after all the speeches, anthems, and runners getting last minute supplies, it was “Go” time. With a couple minutes before the start, the crews were allowed to give their runner any last minute items, at which time Trish slipped me one water bottle to keep my company for the first couple miles. Chris Kostman, the race director, kept looking at his watch until the final countdown begun. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5”. I planted my feet in anticipation of the start. “4, 3, 2, 1, Go”. Off we went, with most jogging and some walking. From my inside front position on the start line, I quickly moved towards the front.
Badwater to Furnace Creek:
After a half-mile of trailing the “early leader”, I firmly planted myself out in front. It’s not so much as if I was gauging myself against anyone else as it was just a part of the race day pacing plan. Having an 8 am start, I want to take advantage of those cooler temperatures before mid-day. While the advantage is somewhat diminished by having to begin the climb up Townes Pass during a warmer time of day, it was important to me to let the legs loosen up during this first section from Badwater to Furnace Creek. We had initially targeted a 9 min./mile average during this section, which would eventually drop to 13 min./mile between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. I was just moving along, minding my own business.
I had 3- 5 minute ice baths planned between Furnace Creek (mi. 17.3) and Stovepipe Wells (mi. 41.9) and had already planned on a slower pace through the heart of the Valley, so this quicker pace at the outset did not worry me much. Having experienced intermittent ITBS during the year, the thing that concerned me the most would be roads with an unevenness or were banked. Most of the roads in the valley have an even grading and even if I did feel some discomfort, I had no reservations about popping the Aleve as necessary. While not always recommended, it had become my all-purpose drug of choice for how easy it went down. For the time being, I was just concerned with making sure I established a good hydration, electrolyte and fueling base.
The pit stops every mile were rather mudane at the outset: drop the old bottle and cap, grab the new bottle and grab a new cap with ice in it. Every couple miles, I would also get a new ice towel around my neck. It was important that right from the outset, I kept my body temperature down and did not allow my perceived comfort to dictate my actions.