Since some of you were following the race, I thought I'd share some of my experiences. I was running this year to raise money to build wells in Uganda. For those interested in supporting it, you can go to http://www.seegundyrun.com/How_To_Give.html
*******************Pictures to Follow in Another Post Tomorrow***********
Coming down from the top of Townes Pass and into Death Valley once again, it was like coming back to the scene of the crime. I know every straightway, every curve, every incline and every elevation sign. Every inch of pavement and every foot to be climbed are ingrained into my memory. Every place that we passed conjured up images of me hunched over with my mouth wide open and pain in my stomach. This climb had come to epitomize the agony of races lost at the last two Badwaters. This is where the bully took my lunch money, leaving me with nothing but the clothes on my back. If this year was going to be different, it would have to start here.
It’s hard to look at this race and not first be intimidated by the first 42 miles, which stay mostly at or below sea level while hemmed in by the towering rock plateaus which form the side walls of the Valley. It stays consistently above 120 degrees F most years, peaking at temperatures above 130 degrees F near the sand dunes just before Stovepipe Wells, the 41.9 mile time station. But for me, the valley was no longer as intimidating, having long lost its mystique as a place of death in my mind. My preparation based on my previous experiences, my training and my equipment, like my Injinjis or my Brooks road shoes, had created the best possible circumstances from which to expect success.
Instead, the intimidation came principally from the 16.8 mile, 5000’ ft. climb from Stovepipe Wells (41.9 miles, sea level) to the top of Townes Pass. While my misery on this climb was probably predicated by some lack of discipline or lapse in taking in the proper electrolytes or water in the first 42 miles, the combination of the climbing and a ferocious headwind on an exposed highway have been more than sufficient to tip my stomach over the edge and into a cycle of trying to recover and perform at the same time. Most experienced ultra marathoners recognize nausea as a part of races this physically demanding, although I think they’d all agree that boot n’ rally isn’t the ideal way to maximize performance.
I had built my entire race strategy on being in the right condition in order to be able to hammer this hill with my stomach intact and ready to fly down the other side with an over 3300’ drop over 9.4 miles before a 330’climb into Panamint Springs (1940’ elevation). Each of the last 2 years, I’ve been unable to take full advantage of the drop to help generate the speed and momentum to get out of Panamint and climb up to Father Crowley’s Point (4000 ft. elevation). I had no choice but to be disciplined through Death Valley if I was going to expect a result any different than last year’s race.
I had the right crew assembled in order to beat that theme of discipline and pacing into me. With a couple late replacements, our crew consisted of 4 veterans and 2 rookies. My co-crew chiefs Uncle Andy and Pete had crewed for me at 3 and 2 Badwater races respectively, while Kevin and Nick had crewed in 2007. Our 2 rookies, Mike and Wilfred were both fairly enthusiastic role players who had some experience with marathons. Each of them was either a close friend or family with whom I had pretty established relationships. While apart from Pete I could not expect too much pacing from most of them, they were all athletic and they all brought a passion for helping us (and me individually) succeed. Their personal race experiences were primarily running half-marathons and marathons. As successful individuals in their own right, they were all willing to subjugate their own desires and comforts which humbled me as I trained and would hopefully humble me as I raced. They committed themselves to supporting me as a runner, in my well-building in Uganda and in my dedication to representing God, my family and myself with the best race possible.
Going into the race, we had prepared a spreadsheet detailing expected paces and pacing responsibilities through various sections of the course. I would pick up my first pacer, Wilfred, at the 35 mile mark in the Valley. From then on, I would have a pacer with me except for a 5 mile downhill stretch starting at the top of Townes Pass. During certain sections like the climb from Stovepipe to Townes Pass, we put multiple pacers so that guys would feel comfortable switching in and out while continuing to support me as I ran.
The best thing about these guys was their attitudes. They came prepared to execute the plan. Thanks to Pete’s wife Kimi, we were armed with data from each of the three previous Badwaters from previous checkpoint times to comparisons with the Top 10 from 2008 to a 2009 pacing strategy. In consultation with the crew chiefs and the rest of the crew, we set a pacing strategy that capitalized on my running strength of closing strong and utilized the best pacers for each section. Two primary areas of improvement were to be from Stovepipe Wells to Panamint Springs and from Darwin to Lone Pine. We would slow down somewhat compared to last year between the start at Badwater to Stovepipe Wells (mile 41.9) in order to stay in the proper physical and mental condition to attack the climb out of the Valley.
Of course, no plan can be executed without the proper training. I had been hurt with shin splints for almost 8 weeks between March and May after the Napa Valley Marathon, which severely limited the amount of running during that time. In addition, my impending marriage in May further limited my training. One key race I ran as I gradually started getting better was the ultra hot Diablo 50 at the end of April. I kept it at a slow pace, finishing in just under 12 hours in the 90+ degree heat with over 12000’ of climbing. The difficulty of the race gave me a hint that in spite of the limited miles, I still had a good base to work from. The road back began just before the wedding and picked up steam throughout the month of June.
With 100+ miles per week, I made sure to do quite a few long gradual hill runs to simulate the long climbs associated with Badwater. I even had the opportunity to run with various crew members in order to encourage them in their own training. All in all, it was a successful month as evidenced by a 4:25 5th place showing at the Angel Island 50k. Running at 85% effort, I shaved 28 minutes off my time 2 years ago when I also used it as a tune-up race for Badwater. The runs I was doing and the weight I was losing were starting to pay some dividends. I would be around 171 lbs. by race day, a full 10 lbs. lighter than the year before. With the new found confidence, we had set forth one race plan for finishing just under 30 hours and that was what we were going to roll with.
After arriving in the Valley at 11:00 AM, Pete and I went for a short 2.5 mile run before I checked-in at the Death Valley Museum in Furnace Creek. The crew finished preparations on the van after lunch. Gathering the crew at the vans, we used the same process as last year to split 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 2 seats and a 2nd row seat bench remaining in the main van since that would fit the maximum number of crew members we would have on duty at all times.
As part of their initiation, Mike and Wilfred went to the pre-race meeting later in the afternoon. I’m only required to have one crew member with me and with a repeat of many of the crew instructions, going to this meeting has become a rite of passage for any new crew members. After dinner, while I left for a photo session with a photographer for My Midwest Magazine (in-flight magazine of Midwest Airlines) for an article on the race later this year, the crew continued preparations and relaxed in the room.
Upon my return, I made it in time to finish watching “Dodgeball” with the team while they prepared final food and got some block ice to put in the coolers. We mostly joked around before I finally went to bed around 10:30 pm. While most years, I have a desire for more picture-taking and bonding time with the crew, this year was about simply taking care of business. We’d been here before and been through all the formalities; what we needed was to simply focus and go out have a great race together. I always have a hard time getting sleep the night before a race, particularly because I’m regularly so much of a night owl. This time, though, after a brief personal prayer time, I was fast asleep within 15 minutes dreaming about what tomorrow would bring.
I was up at 5:45 am and ready to go. The 7 hours of sleep had done me well and I felt alert and ready to get ready. After a warm shower, putting on my clothes, strapping on the Garmin watch and turning on the Ipod, I relaxed over by the van while listening to some tunes. One of my favorite pre-race songs is “Stomp” by Kirk Franklin. It’s a mix of gospel and hip-hop with a lot of energy to get me going. Believe me, I’m a really slow riser so anything to get the blood flowing is a good thing.
I let the crew take care of all the other details and after a quick fuel up, we were off to Badwater around 20 till 7 in the morning. Uncle Andy, Pete, Wilfred and Mike were taking the first shift to Furnace Creek with Nick and Kevin taking care of checking out of the hotel room. At 7 am, 1 hour before my start, I ate 2/3 of a Cliff Bar and a small piece of banana to get my stomach going. 20 oz. of G2 washed it down and I was ready to go. Finding the right amount of food and fluid to eat before a race can be a complicated thing since everyone has their own opinions and their own routines. In an attempt to refine my own routine beyond just empirical evidence, Pete had sent me a New York Times article with the advice of an exercise physiologist recommending a fist full of food and 20 oz. of fluid 1 hour prior to a race. This would give the body enough time to digest and process it prior to the race. Having tried this a couple times during the week prior to the race and considering how small an appetite I have on race mornings, it seemed like a solid strategy.
Arriving at Badwater, I went through my routine that I had adopted last year. Use the restroom, get weighed in with the medical staff and go pray silently by myself out on the salt flats. Alone at this point, I kneeled and silently prayed to the Lord. I thanked him for humility and grace in our journey, that we would be safe and that he would take my ambitions and give me a race that he would be proud of. I needed to set aside the past and look only at the present: 135 miles of road and only one way to get to the finish.
After dispensing with the formalities of photos, speeches and a rather beautiful rendition of the National Anthem, it was time to go. Positioned at the right in front, I did not care about anything more than getting this race started. People would tell me later that it looked as if I was zoned out with my “game face” on, whatever that is. With my headphones on and music playing softly, my eyes gazed squarely in front of me. 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”.
From my outside front position on the start line, I quickly moved towards the front. After being in front for the first mile and a half, 4 to 5 other runners moved out in front of me. Like last year, we targeted a 9 min./mile average during this section, which would eventually drop to 12 min./mile between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. I was surprised with the number of runners who were out in front of me at this point, since I would generally consider my pace to be aggressive and most of the frontrunners still to start at 10 am.
The 17.2 mile section between Badwater and Furnace Creek is generally the least exciting of the race. It mostly rolls with a few long rises and a few long descents. For the most part, it’s a good time to develop a routine with the crew as far as servicing me as I went. Drop the water bottle to the side and hand the ice towel around the neck to the 1st person. Take the hat off to start getting sprayed down with ice water by the 1st person running along side me. Let the 2nd person place the ice towel around the neck as I jog by. Self-adjust the ice towel before the 3rd person puts ice in my cap and hands me a new bottle, gel or food if needed. Finally, self-adjust the cap and keep on running till we do it all again in a mile. It’s not something that you do at any other races, so doing it while continuing to maintain forward motion is somewhat of an art form that can actually save quite a bit of time and momentum. After 2 or 3 stops, we had a good rhythm going which allowed me to continue to maintain focus on establishing a good hydration, electrolyte and fueling base early on.
For hydration and electrolyte needs, we would stick primarily with NUUN in water supplemented by S-caps if necessary. For this first section, we alternated the NUUN water with regular water every mile. In another New York Times article Pete had sent me, the author espoused taking large gulps of fluid every so often rather than sipping the bottle. This was in line with what Uncle Andy had also been trying to get me to do for over a year. Apparently, the gulping gets the stomach going quicker to process the fluids rather than sipping which allows traces of fluids to continue to slosh around in the stomach and can upset the stomach. The only difficult thing for me in this section was just finding the appropriate intervals to take these gulps. Sometimes it was 1.5 minutes, other times it was 3 minutes and other times it was 2 minutes. With a bit of practice, every 2 minutes seemed to keep my mouth continually satiated while not leaving much fluid to slosh around in my stomach.
About half-way through this section, a nagging pain made it became apparent that a couple of Aleve would be necessary to keep my comfortable throughout this first day. I quickly signaled my needs to the crew who responded by the next mile with a couple of blue pills for me to take down with some Lay’s potato chips. Beyond that, I just kept looking at my watch and continuing to keep track of my pace which I was able to gradually bring back to our goal pace from an early, quick start.
By the time we reached Furnace Creek, all but one of the runners in the wave were in front of me as the others who had been in front of me began to fade back. I cruised on in at 2 hours, 36 minutes, which was dead-on with what we had targeted. Although it was 9 minutes slower than last year, I continued to feel refreshed and ready to hit the heart of the Valley.
Kevin came on board at this point with Pete and Mike departing to help prepare the ice baths in the second vehicle, a cargo van. The next section between Furnace Creek (mile 17.2) and Stovepipe Wells (mile 41.9) puts most runners at the least amount of ease. Temperatures are continuing to rise and you feel the most isolated with the salt flats, rock formations and rolling san dunes among many natural geological barriers keeping you from seeing ahead very far. Many areas appear to be picture perfect doubles for other areas creating the illusion that as much as you are running you are not really “going anywhere”. Today, with the temperatures topping out officially at 127 degrees and unofficially near the sand dunes at the low 130s degrees, the weather would more resemble what it was in 2006 during my first year.
With an average of 12 minute miles as the goal for the section and 2- 5 minute ice baths
planned between Furnace Creek (mi. 17.3) and Stovepipe Wells (mi. 41.9), I looked to keep my pace steady around 10:30 min/mile. This was difficult at first, but after a brief nauseated moment at mile 20 forced me to take an S-cap to rebalance my electrolytes, I was easily scared straight. We quickly moved away from giving me straight water and went exclusively with the NUUN. Continuing to slow my pace, I finally was able to maintain 10:20 min/mile about 7-8 miles into the section. The uphills were always slower than the downhills, but in the end it all averaged out. After that brief scare, I found a terrific running rhythm while continuing to take large gulps every 2 minutes. The constant need to keep checking my pace and monitor my fluid kept my mind occupied, with the crew keeping me relaxed with their music, dancing and upbeat attitudes. I kept the tunes rolling on my Ipod, using the space to focus on each small section of road I ran by. As I continued to most all of the 6 am runners and the remaining 8 am runner, I sometimes had trouble telling our van apart from the rest until I started using Kevin’s yellow Cal basketball shorts as a sign of which crew was mine.
The best times during this section were the two ice baths. We scheduled them for miles 25 and 35, but also tried to gauge my general condition to adjust if necessary. I always preferred to do them in the middle of a downhill so that when I finished, I would still have some downhill running to get my legs going again. I ended up getting in the “ice coffin” at miles 26 and 35 for slightly more than 5 minutes at a time. The “ice coffin” is essentially a 165 qt. cooler filled with water and ice on the bottom. I submerge my upper body and mid-region into the cooler before a layer of ice and more water is poured on top of me. As an added bonus, we used a block of ice to keep the back of my head cool as well as support my back and head better than last year. Although I never seemed to feel overheated or wanted to pop in the van for a few minutes while I was running, the “ice coffin” sufficiently kept me from getting close to that breaking point. At times, I even felt too cold when in there. But it was enough to keep me lucid and keep me moving.
At around the 35 mile mark, Wilfred came on as a pacer. Since this was his first visit to Death Valley, I was a bit concerned about his well-being. Every few minutes, I chimed in and asked him if he was good. He was just happy to be out there, supporting me in this desolate pace. Wilfred continued to say that if he could run in this place, he could finish the upcoming San Francisco Marathon well. In less than a year of more serious running, Wilfred had come a long way as far as getting himself into better running condition. His two previous marathons in 2009 were a good training for this experience and he seemed to run with ease behind me at our 10:30 min/mile clip. It was nice to turn off the music and just run free by the Sand Dunes. It was close to 2 pm and the temperatures were still fairly warm, although the occasional wind gusts felt cool to my body.
After 3 miles, Wilfred left me and went back to the van a little dizzy. From there, it was Uncle Andy pacing me for 1.25 miles. Before the race, Uncle Andy had trained diligently to return from injury by running consistently at Lake Merced. He also joined Mike, Pete and I for some of our training runs, doing shorter distances than we were but long enough for his purposes. His training showed as we were humming along at 10:15 min/mile pace when he predicted prior to the race that he’d probably only be able to run at a 13:00 min/mile pace. From there, Pete took me the final couple miles into Stovepipe Wells, clocking us in at 7 hours, 13 minutes. While we were two minutes slower than last year, we were light years ahead as far as my physical condition was concerned. We were also 30 minutes ahead of my expected time according to our time chart. My running posture was still very upright and I had no major pain in my body to slow me down. It had been a good day so far although the climbs lay in wait.
After a final 10 minute ice bath 0.2 miles ahead of the Stovepipe Wells time station, we would finally begin the climb up to the top of Townes Pass with a goal pace of 16:00 min/mile. Mike and Kevin would be pacing me in this section, which begins with a rolling first couple of miles before settling into a long, slow graded climb. Powerful heated wind gusts often blow directly at or to the side of the runners. The key to this section is to keep moving consistently. The temperature drops as the elevation rises, so the higher up I can get the cooler it will feel to me.
Starting out, I had to continue to remind myself that I had no reason to celebrate or get too overjoyed yet. This is where I was going to make up huge amounts of time as compared to last year’s 36 hour, 21 minute performance, so there was nothing to get too excited about getting through the Valley. Humility was the order of the day and anything could still happen. Starting out, Mike and I walked for a couple minutes to get the legs moving. With the first couple miles not as steep as the rest of the climb, we then proceeded to get into a pattern of running 1 minute and walking 1 minute. Even though Mike had threatened me with bodily harm if I didn’t stick to the pacing, he was becoming the most enthusiastic crew member about me getting up the mountain as quickly as possible.
By sticking with a pattern of 1 minute running and 1 minute walking, we were able to easily time my gulps of NUUN water every 2 minutes to coincide with the immediately conclusion of the running portions. At times, we shift the pattern to include more power walking as the grade got steeper. The most walking we did was a 1 minute of walking and 4 minutes of walking pattern. We adjusted the pattern accordingly if there was a long enough flat or downhill that I could convince my pacers to run with me or if there was a runner ahead who was close enough to pass.
I would find out later talking to others that there was a big headwind coming down the mountain, but I don’t feel it at all. For the most part, the pattern kept me disciplined going up the hill and I felt good enough that I could power walk anywhere from sub-15 min/mile to 16:30 min/mile. By adding in the running, I was able to keep a consistently strong pace up the hill. Mike and Kevin kept close tabs on our pace, but I still had my own Garmin on just to make sure. Kevin brought the same enthusiasm as Mike to pacing, but he also put the clamps more on my attempts to run too much. Unlike Mike, Kevin had personally witnessed my stomach meltdown on this hill in 2007.
For the most part, the climb was rather uneventful. Walk, run, walk, run, walk, pee, run, walk. Mike had never been a crew member or paced at an ultra marathon event before, so it was interesting to see his shocked reaction that I had perfected the technique to peeing while walking at the same time off to the shoulder. There wasn’t much talking, but the miles seemed to go by effortlessly as the sun waned in intensity overhead. Each few hundred feet up in elevation brought with it a coolness that made walking and running more and more tolerable. I continually relayed back to the van my condition, which was still totally lucid and aware. It allowed me to better communicate my needs, whether it was some more gel, more potato chips or a fresh ice towel.
The closer we got to the top of the Pass, the more excited I grew inside. Even as I tempered my enthusiasm with the continued prayer to God that continue to have grace and mercy upon us in our journey, I couldn’t help but be pleased that this climb would no longer “own” me. And then I saw it. The road sign signifying the top of Townes Pass and almost 5,000 ft. of elevation. The parking lot was less than 0.2 miles ahead where the van was parked. I crossed the road and ran towards the van, a big grin on my face. 11 hours and 33 minutes into the race and 4 hours and 10 minutes after my ice bath at the outset of this climb, I was at the top and feeling good. I took a short 3 minute break to relax, get my leg muscles rubbed and chow down on some hot home fries from the Panamint Springs grill courtesy of Uncle Andy. It was a shorter break than we planned, but Pete was good to let me go with my legs still feeling fresh and not wanting my legs to get tight.
I slapped the Ipod back on again and started rolling down the hill. I ramped up quickly from an initial 11:00 min/mile pace with the descent getting steeper and steeper. At one point at the end of the first mile downhill, I was hitting sub-7:00 min/mile pace. While it sure feels good and looks good on the watch, it wasn’t sustainable in the long term and I began to make a more conscious effort to moderate my pace as best I could. Eventually, I slowed to between 8:00 min/mile and 9:00 min/mile, which allowed gravity to do most of the work for me while helping to preserve my quads by braking as little as possible.
To see Panamint Valley during the day for the first time in 4 Badwater races was a thing to behold. Although I was not looking forward to warmer weather at the bottom of this valley, I reveled in the soft glow that the setting sun created around us. The freedom of simply letting gravity was unmistakable; I even allowed myself to make airplane wings with my arms as I maneuvered around the turns and took some moments to simply let my eyes wander. This was what I was supposed to feel like the last couple of Badwaters. This is what I was missing when Panamint Valley was dark and the only thing on my mind was whether my stomach would revolt against me once more. This felt incredible.
After the first few miles, Pete and Uncle Andy let me know that Wilfred would be coming on to pace me at the 5 mile mark of the descent. Wilfred’s value in this section was not so much on these screaming descents, but in keeping me moving once the road bottomed out at around 1600 ft. elevation at mile 68.1, about 9.4 miles into this small section with 4.2 miles left to go. The elevation rises by over 300 ft. just before the Panamint Springs resort and the time station.
I continued to move briskly, barely able to keep my safety vest on which was flapping in the breeze. 10 minutes later, Wilfred came on and away we went. It was still light out, although the sunlight was fading fast. Towards the bottom of the descent, the grade began to start leveling out which allowed my quads to rest even more. At this point, I noticed my Garmin had lost power. It was not unexpected since my Garmin Forerunner 305 unit has about 13 hours of battery life. The downside was that I was missing the check and balance that kept me on target as far as my pace was concerned. I was more than capable of pacing myself, but with 68 miles on my legs I didn’t feel like I could totally trust a feeling.
While Wilfred kept me moving, I had no idea how fast I was going and Wilfred had no GPS watch on. We had an extra Garmin in the crew vehicle, but my interest in just getting the section done overrode any desire to force him to put one on with such a small distance left to Panamint Springs Resort. I ultimately ended up slipping to an over 12:00 min/mile pace for these last 4.2 miles. While it was almost 2 minutes over my minute per mile pace for this mini-section, he was able to keep me moving continuously with a smile on my face. As I came up on Panamint in a cool 13 hours and 54 minutes for the 72.3 hours so far, I let myself grin again upon seeing “Death Valley” Jack Denness and his wife Mags smiling at me. I was over 4 hours ahead of last year’s time into this time station when vomiting kept me off the course for 45 minutes and more importantly, I hadn’t much of a hint of major nausea. I was in the driver’s seat and this race was beginning to feel special.
3 years ago, Mags was there at my first Badwater working the same time station. She took care of me as I came into the station and most of my veteran crew members from that race always remind me of her words which still make me smile: “You did this to yourself”. While her words were most appropriate during times of struggle, they still applied now. As much as I had been responsible for my times of severe stomach struggle due to not getting my nutrition and electrolytes right, I was also partly responsible for the success of executing a terrific race strategy. While much of the credit for the race strategy belongs to my crew chiefs and my crew who helped keep me to it, I did play a part in not allowing my stubbornness and anxiousness to keep me from executing well. I also executed my training as well as possible under certain limitations so that I could come into this race with a more realistic shot at being at this place in this time. Could it have been a better time with certain tweaks? Of course. Could it have been better considering my history? If so, not by much.
Now that I was seated by the roadway, Pete brought me my microwavable Chef Boyardee “Spaghetti and Meatballs”. Our plan called for a 15 minute break, opening with eating some more complex carbohydrates and finishing up with a short nap with muscle rub down. While the pasta sounded good during planning, I looked at my meal with a slight frown on my face while continuing to mix pasta in a tomato sauce. “Gundy, this is what we planned going into this. You were going to eat some pasta now so you don’t bonk later.”
“I know, I know,” I replied, even if I really didn’t want want it now.
The appetites of ultra runners can sometimes switch on a dime, with cravings coming and going along with one’s physical condition. One minute Lay’s potato chips can seem like heaven and the next minute, it’ll be a frozen fruit bar. I finally relented and began to dig into the mini-dish, which had over 200 calories of energy. I mostly picked at it for a couple minutes while sipping at the tomato sauce before finally making the plunge to eating the spaghetti and small meatballs. About half-way through the dish, I handed it back to Pete. “I finished half of it and it’s got over 200 calories.” At that point, I just wanted to be done with it and get it away from me.
Pete and I went off to the cabin near the roadway so I could lie out and let my legs relax. We had been on break for almost 5 minutes, which left me about 10 more minutes in my planned break. The minute my head hit the pillow, I quickly dozed off while Pete worked to rub out the backs of my legs. Those 10 minutes felt like 10 seconds, because the next thing I knew Pete was tapping at me to tell me it was time to go.
Honestly, I can get pretty groggy when first waking up from a deep sleep and this definitely wasn’t one of those light cat naps. I spent the first half a minute turning myself around and looking around the room to get my bearings straight before walking out of the cabin and back towards the highway 100 ft. away. The van was parked down the road another 100 ft. where the crew was assembling, but I did not want to waste my energy going down only to come back up again. I waved back at them before beginning the long 7.8 mile, 2100 ft. climb up to Father Crowley’s point. I knew my pacer Nick would catch up with me shortly; I wasn’t going anywhere that quickly to start out.
For the first time in the race, I felt my food sitting heavy in my stomach. The best way to describe it is a small lump near the belly button that isn’t painful, but is definitely not digested. After running a wonderfully executed first 72.3 miles, I wasn’t about to let this hiccup get in the way. The first 2.9 miles of this small section climbs 1,000 ft., making it wiser to power walk most it while waiting for flatter sections to run. As far as my stomach was concerned, I started out slow with the hope that I would eventually be able move faster as my stomach emptied. I worried less about that pace of the climb at this point considering that I had built up a now 45 minute cushion against the 29 hour, 40 minute pacing plan we had developed.
After a few minutes, Nick finally caught up to me, taking my water bottle so I could focus solely on knocking out some miles. I don’t remember too much from our conversation, in part because of the irritation in my stomach. My stomach was starting to feel gassy and the only thing I really wanted to do was pass the gas so I could feel better again. Finally, 3 miles into the climb I felt it coming. I sat down on the road barrier on one of those steep, narrow turns and took one of the most enjoyable restroom breaks of my racing life. Nick ran back to the van to grab some toilet paper me as I relished the moment. Suddenly, I felt well again with my body purged of excess pasta and excess gas. All of that pressure inside of my GI system was gone as well as the excess “weight”; I was ready to roll once again.
Even in flats where I wanted to run more than I did, I backed off due to the extreme camber of the roadway. With little shoulder to run on, it made it difficult to get too much momentum going when cars passed by going down to Panamint Springs. I was in the middle of a more gradual uphill section, sandwiched in between two steep climbs. Even though I didn’t run much, I was power-walking at a rather brisk pace. I chose not to ask Nick for very many pace updates, confident that even with some of my cushion used up I would do well on the section from Father Crowley’s Point to Darwin’s Turnout (mile 90.1) while saving the energy for big race from Darwin to Lone Pine.
With Uncle Andy, Kevin and Mike working the crew van, I kept hearing references to the Spirit of Badwater which only made me smile. It was a term used by someone at the race in 2007 to describe the bright lights of the cars ascending and descending into Panamint Valley from Townes Pass. While the lights themselves are a cool sight, the term was in no way an accurate description of this man-made phenomenon. When the crew used this term, I smiled more for how it reminded me of the crazy quirks of the individual who “coined” it.
Nick and I didn’t see very many lights ahead of us, which was very different from previous years. I often used other runners as benchmarks to pass on the climb but with our terrific performance so far, we were left with quite a bit of empty, dark space to inhabit. I would occasionally look down to the left of the roadway only to see large drop-offs leading to open plateaus below which were illuminated by the bright moon above. This was in sharp contrast to the sharp climbs, during which we were often hemmed in by the peaks or sheer drop-offs which had seemingly no end.
Mile after mile went by with ease as the night sky brilliantly lit up by stars overhead on this clear night. The lights behind me on the road were still at least a mile back with the twisting landscape obscuring any view of potential runners in front of me. My goal pace was 17:48 min/mile and although I was losing time to that goal pace, I was still moving well and feeling well. The final 2 mile climb to the top of Father Crowley is always the toughest with the narrow shoulder and multiple false summits. Even with the previous experiences to draw from, I was still fooled by the sheer number of twists and turns in the roadway.
When I describe Father Crowley’s lookout, it may sound like I’m describing a small town or waypoint with gas station. In reality, it’s a small dirt parking lot overlooking Panamint Valley down below. There is a small monument in the middle dedicated to the real Father John Crowley who served in the area and became the first priest to celebrate mass on top of Mt. Whitney. With a slight downhill tilt to the lot, it’s always important to put the vehicle in park or risk watching your van plummet a thousand feet before ending up in some rock crevasse.
With our crew van parked at Father Crowley with only a ¼ mile left to run, we finally saw Jamie Donaldson’s crew van pull up and park just off the roadway. It turned out she wasn’t too far behind me, although she did have an almost 2 hour cushion on me due to the staggered start times. Since it had very little to do with the race I was running, I brushed it aside in my head as I ran over to our van 25 ft. off the roadway. During the three minutes I spent in the van, I failed to ask the crew about exact pace as compared to the schedule, but the crew assured me that I was doing fine. It was somewhere around 1 in the morning, which meant to me that I still had a considerable amount of time to run sans the sun. I didn’t feel a need to press further, comforted more by the fact that I couldn’t see a scenario where I had lost the whole 45 minute cushion in that one climb.
Unlike last year, I didn’t feel a high amount of fatigue coming upon me at this point in the race. I took the opportunity to sit in the van as a chance to eat some more Lay’s potato chips and keep gulping on the NUUN water. Mike was in the van with me, checking in and making sure I felt alright. After about a minute in the vehicle, I was anxious to go and asked the crew to move the van closer to the road before I got out again. I know, it seems like a rather silly request to move 25 ft. back to the road before I started running again. While it would seem incredulous even to me if I made the request 20-30 miles into the race, I was now at a point where I wanted to spare my muscles having to do any extra work beyond the 135 miles.
A minute later after some quick maneuvering of the van, Mike and I were off. Although there is 1000 ft. of climbing in this 10 mile section, it is barely noticeable to the runner apart from a couple big rolling sections. The weather had cooled considerably at 4000 ft. elevation, relatively speaking. It’s all relative when you’re talking about a temperature drop of probably at least 40 degrees from the peak temperature of 127 degrees (in the shade) during the daytime.
Mike and I walked portions of the uphills starting out while waiting for the first rolling downhill to pick up momentum to start moving quicker. Still, we were maintaining a brisk sub-13:00 min/mile jogging pace going up the hills which helped to offset the intermittent walking. About a mile into this section, Jamie came up behind us with her pacer. We offered each other greetings and then I let her go on her way.
Jamie continued to jog the uphills rather than walk certain sections and jog/run others. She slowly pulled away from us, which again did not concern me in the least bit. I wanted to keep her in our sights to allow myself to be pulled into her pace, but it wasn’t necessary. A mile and a half after she passed, we finally passed Nick Hollon, the final runner from the 6:00 AM wave. He was moving slowly at the time but continued to chip away. I looked around to see if Akos Konya, one of his crew members and another runner who I’m friends with, was around but didn’t see him before moving onward.
The course took a big left turn at this point before entering a gorgeous plateau inhabited by numerous Joshua trees. Looking left and seeing the outlines trees set against the dark background allowed my mind to continue to wander off when necessary. This is the beginning of a five mile stretch with a few long, sloping hills before taking another left turn onto the top of the plateau that leads straight towards Darwin’s turnout. It is a “no man’s land” portion of the race course; not quite close enough to consider letting loose but definitely far enough into the race to feel the build-up towards finishing.
Kevin and Mike took turns pacing and my legs started to loosen up again on the long, 0.25 mile downhill sections. We would run 1 minute and walk 1 minute on the uphill sections, saving ourselves for the continuous running stretch when we were atop the plateau. Once we reached the plateau, I could no longer see Jamie’s van in the distance. Mike started to lite somewhat of a fire under me when he mentioned that we needed to pick it up if we wanted to stay on schedule. I ran as much as I can but still insisted to walk some on the uphills. I was starting to run low on energy and was struggling to battle through the fatigue. I tried to eat more GU and take a couple of Enlyten Energy strips, which seemed to perk me up temporarily. But, I was still fighting and still struggling against the mental games of being so close on this plateau but knowing that the time station would only appear in the distance ½ mile away.
Eventually, I saw it and told Mike, “There’s the time station”, in a relieved but trailing voice. We surged a bit in the final mile and I immediately ran over to the van to take a seat in the front for a few minutes. My total time at the 90.1 mile mark was 19 hours, 20 minutes, 4 minutes behind the pacing schedule. It was 3:20 AM and not a soul in sight, although Jamie and her crew had come through 7 minutes earlier. I was exactly where I needed to be, considering the pacing schedule also was for 29 hours, 40 minutes which was 20 minutes faster than the goal sub-30 hour race. I told Pete I needed a nap for 5 minutes before we started up again. Of course, before I knew it, Pete opened the door exclaiming, “Alright, it’s been five minutes.” I immediately replied, “I need 10 more,” conking out again.
At that point, I started to shiver with the relatively cool air hitting my skin. I was beginning to mentally and physically unravel, simply overcome by the fatigue in my body. Upon awaking again, Pete exclaimed, “Ok, we’ve gotta go now if you want to hit the sub-30 goal.” I was a little bit disoriented, but the stern tone of his voice meant business. This is what we came here for and it was time to suck it up and get moving. It was for moments like this that Pete was here; to get me out of the low points, treat me like a whipping boy and back moving again. I explained to him that I was freezing and he arranged get me my lightweight windbreaker out of my gear bag. It’s a little bit crazy when you think that I was actually going to use the windbreaker. I brought more in case I needed it going up Whitney portal, but with the winds gusting and temperatures in the 70s (from what I found out later) it was too cold for this runner.
At the 19 hour, 45 minute mark, we finally left Darwin’s turnout with Pete now pacing me all the way into Owens Valley to Lone Pine. After he instructed me for the first minute to walk, I was able to slowly work my way into a jog for the next couple of minutes before finally starting to run again. For this 32.2 mile stretch, I would need to finish it in about 6 hours and 30 minutes to have a shot at going sub-30 hours. That translates into around a 12 minute/mile pace, which can get more difficult if the winds turn towards you. The portion of road from Darwin to Keeler (mile 107.8) is a mostly smaller rolling net downhill, although you really need to gain momentum on the downhills to get up and over the uphill portions effectively.
Pete would read off my paces every few minutes, getting faster and faster. Within the first mile, my 25:00 min/mile walking pace had become a 10:00 min/mile running pace again with the wheels beginning to turn. The first few miles of this stretch are primarily a low grade, flattish downhill which is great for a runner like myself looking for momentum. Pete continually reminded me that Scott Jurek refers to downhills and the pull of gravity as “Free Speed”. “Free Speed”, huh? I really liked that analogy and kept repeating it in my head as we moved on through. Pete knew that the last 10 miles into Lone Pine can be a grind with the rising flats and ferocious headwind that tends to characterize it. With a small tailwind helping to propel me, I needed to take advantage of the “Free Speed” wherever it was being given to get me off to a good start.
I made a conscious decision to let Pete continue to monitor my pacing and nutrition for this section, only taking opportunities to look at my watch every few miles. I needed to let go of that responsibility and only focus on my strides and continually gulping down my NUUN water. Pete is as meticulous a person as they come, always concerned with the details. With Uncle Andy the lawyer and Pete the law student at the helm, details were always emphasized. Although his expertise is more tilted towards swimming, he and his wife Kimi were at the forefront of designing this race plan and studying the racing patterns of other top runners. He understands sports nutrition as well as anyone on the crew and is a great athlete to boot. Most importantly, he is a great friend and having paced me at Badwater and other ultra events previously, I was more than willing to trust him to pace me well and keep me moving towards my goal.
The miles seemed to fly by like magic. Nick and Kevin manned the crew van, putting a smile on my face while they bumped the tunes every time they went by. They would even stop to dance at some points, It was mostly hits from the 80s and 90s like “Living On A Prayer”, but I was hardly complaining. I let Pete handle all the exchanges of water, GU or any food and instead focused completely on the road. Pete would simply hand me what he wanted me to eat at the correct time intervals. I was also continuing to go without the ice towels around the neck or ice in the cap, hoping to forego the need for major cooling until we were close to Lone Pine. Not having to slow to allow the changing of caps or the towel to go around the neck kept me in a constant rhythm. The only major adjustment I made was to get rid of the windbreaker after the first 5 miles, having warmed up sufficiently.
About 6 or 7 miles into the section, Pete mentioned that we were doing sub-10:00 min/mile and asked me if I wanted to slow down. I replied, “Nope. Let’s keep this train moving”. I knew the terrain would naturally slow at various points during the long run to Lone Pine, but I wanted to take advantage of this “Free Speed” I had in front of me. Right around this time, I remember being amazed that we were actually “doing it”; that we could actually come in with a plan and see it unfold as we had planned. I also felt invigorated, like I was part of this other race; the competitive race. It created this atmosphere that seemed to feed my running right now. Even though I was also going after this time goal, I was now chasing something more than just a ghost.
The road snakes through an open, desolate plateau marked by random gravesite markers. Eventually, it drops down through narrow openings in the hillside to a dry lake and the town of Keeler below. The narrow openings are not natural and were probably blasted open with TNT many years ago to create a more gradual downhill grade for the roadway.
It is in this section around the 100 mile mark that the road swings up and down much more, requiring the runner to get sufficient momentum on the down swings before powering back up again. I called out to Pete, “There’s Burberry Hill”, which was important for two reasons. One, it was a section Pete had named Burberry Hill after my wife’s love of Burberry purses. Two, it meant we were fast approaching mile 100 and the big 3 to 4 mile drop towards the flats just before Keeler.
Every time we ramped back up a rise, Pete would remind me, “Swing your arms”. It got to the point where I would try and pre-empt him, calling out, “Swing the arms” just as the rises began. Kevin and Nick continued to jam in the crew vehicle, keeping everything loose out there while. They even took photographs of me taking a short minute to squat to go Number 2 next to the roadway, which we all laughed at together.
We passed the 100 mile marker a little before 6:00 AM with almost 22 hours elapsed in the race. Once through the narrow opening in the hillside, the view opens up to Owens Dry Lake and Keeler in the distance. This is by far one of the cruelest views of the race, with Keller still over 6 miles away and Mt. Whitney far off in the distance. You tell yourself you’re still an hour away and yet your eyes make it seem like it’s 20 minutes away. Every mile you travel seems like a waste of time when it seems like you’re still 20 minutes away. Hurry up and get there already!
What then transpired around mile 102 was by far the one thing I never expected to happen. About a half-mile in the distance, there was Jorge Pacheco walking with his pacer. Jorge Pacheco?!?!?! The defending champion?!?!??! The one everyone expected would make a run at the record. Granted, he was still 2 hours ahead of me based on his start time. Still, it was a bit shocking to say the least. Then off a half-mile to a mile further down on the next rolling rise in front of Jorge was a runner that looked like Jamie.
Off to the shoulder, Kevin and Nick were parked a quarter mile short of where Jorge was running. Just off to the side and out of view, Kevin was jumping up and down wildly which brought a short-lived smile to my face. I don’t take pleasure in anyone’s misfortune, but I think having seen me struggle before and to see me running so strong at that moment, it reinforced how far I had come from races past and how much more I was starting to enjoy being part of the “other race”.
As we passed by Jorge, I gave him a fist bump and tried to encourage him. “It’s all good. We all have bad days. Keep moving.” Shortly thereafter, I passed by Jorge’s crew van saying hello to an ultra running friend, Jimmy Freeman, who was crewing for Jorge and was now encouraging me to keep running strong. I acknowledged him with a short word and smile while continuing onward. After that, I was gone with my eyes fixed forward and no turning back.
Upon reaching the bottom of the hill and the main intersection of the 190 freeway and the 138 freeway, there was still 4 miles of flats and gradual uphill to go until Keeler. About a mile out, I stopped to walk briefly and get my bearings straight. Pete and I were continuing to plug away, even if our eyes continued to tantalize us with thoughts of being closer. Even with all the downhill portions of the last section, the uphills and a couple brief “nature breaks” had taken enough time that I still needed to average 13 minute miles the rest of the way to Keeler.
Once past Keeler, there is a gradual rise and fall before hugging the hills to the east going northward towards Lone Pine. Nick and Kevin went back to Lone Pine to get ready for the final climb while the other guys came back on to run the crew vehicle. As we started this final section towards Lone Pine, the back of my heels started throbbing more and more. I reached down to try and get what I imagined was a pebble at the back of each foot. What I got was a layer of dead skin from broken blisters. My shoe laces had been a bit loose for much of the race to accommodate for any foot swelling, which left small gaps between the back of the heel and the back of my shoes. While it made for a more comfortable ride, it also created a situation where sliding in the shoe was bound to cause some friction at the back of the heel and at the front of the toes. The front of the toes were fine for the time being, although I did feel some pressure on top of my right little toe. You often don’t think about this type of pain for a great majority of the race when you are concerned with everything else going on. But with the pressure on and the pain somewhat amplified, it’s hard to ignore from both a physical and mental standpoint.
This was really the beginning of this 14.5 mile section that was turning into a grind. I alternated between a brisk walk and running. Pete kept imploring me to dig deep and reminding me that I would have to keep moving quickly if I was to have any shot at a sub-30 hour finish. There was little humor and very little smiling with so much at stake. I kept moving briskly, but suffered from lapses in my physical and mental fortitude. Once, I insisted Pete pop the blister on my right small toe due to the discomfort even though it was clear he wanted me to keep pushing and keep moving. That was a few minutes there that I could ill-afford to lose.
The first 9 miles lacked the ferocious headwinds of previous years, allowing me to keep moving at around a 11:00 min/mile to 12:00 min/mile pace. You could see the direction of the headwinds by looking at the nearby grasslands. At times I surged in response to coming up to the crew. With the time now past 8:00 AM and the temperatures expected to hit 100 degrees F in Lone Pine, the crew once again started giving me ice towels. Although I accepted, I also limited the frequency of changing the towels to keep my momentum moving as much as possible. Also, with us running low on my tried and true Chocolate GUs, they sprinkled in some other more fruity flavors much to my dislike.
This was another road which appears to have no end, although at some point 9 miles into this section, you take a 90 degree turn towards large rolling flats and the main freeway running through Lone Pine. I could finally see the turn up ahead although we had another 3 miles to get there. Pushing and pushing, all I wanted was to make the turn. The mind games played by every false summit, false turn or false ending can cause a man to go insane. All I was focused on was that turn, using the crew van which would go ahead 1 mile after each stop as a gauge for the exact distance. Cars and big rigs kept whizzing by to run supplies out to crew vans, go back to one of the small outposts or simply passing through Death Valley. Each pass brought with it the residual blow back from the displaced air that would’ve knocked my hat off if I wasn’t holding on to it each time.
Once we reached the turn, Pete just kept pounding into my head that I had to keep moving. I knew that every rise and every downhill was getting me that much closer. Find the crew van, make it to the crew van, and then repeat. I was dejected that it was already 9:30 PM and we still had over 4 miles to go, but Pete kept me moving. 3 miles, “There’s the freeway”. 2 miles, “Time to make the turn onto the 395.” Once on the 395, we alternated between walking and running with the camber of the roadway slanted at a 45 degree angle for the first mile of the home stretch. Once on the sidewalk, we started jogging once again, cruising towards the Dow Villa, and finally the Lone Pine time station. I could see Uncle Andy up ahead; I was dejected and relieved. Don Meyer was out in front waiting for me with his familiar yell for every runner that passes by: “Elite runner coming in”.
Unaware of my elapsed time, I was finally told that we arrived at 10:19 AM, or 26 hours, 19 minutes elapsed. Honestly, I was a bit shocked by this expecting that the intermittent walking had knocked me down time-wise a little harder. I kept apologizing to the crew profusely, my head drooped somewhat from the total exhaustion I was feeling and the feeling that I had let them down. I even apologized to Pete who had been pushing me so hard. Pete responded, “Are you kidding? I’m so proud of you.” The rest of the crew responded in kind, letting me rest with Wilfred stopping across the street at McDonald’s to bring me back a few fries.
The irony of my apologizes was that in reality, I actually still had a shot at going sub-30 hours considering a 3 hour, 30 minute final 12.1 mile climb was not out of the question. After a 12 minute break last year, I climbed it in almost 3 hours, 45 minutes. But at this point, I was completely beat and was unable to muster the mental or physical strength to keep going at that kind of pace. My uncle let me know, “Hey, just go at your own pace.”
After 20 minutes of lounging and trying to get un-sore, I finally headed out slowly with Kevin at my side. We began at a walking pace, making the turn half a block from the Dow Villa Motel and onto Whitney Portal road. It was hard to get my legs going again; sometimes a break can re-energize you and sometimes it only compounds the soreness in your muscles. This time, it was the latter which let me know right then and there that this would be a long walk up. Unlike last year, where I had Dave Horner racing near me to push me faster up the hill, there was very little company around. I walked, pulling my broken body towards a finish.
About a mile into the climb on the initial flat section of the road, I pulled over to do a “Number 2”. After finishing, I felt a queasy feeling in my stomach. Before I could go any further, I hunched over in a squat and puked the McDonald’s fries. Some how, extra grease and fat didn’t seem to sit to well at that moment. I followed it up with a few dry heaves before pulling myself upright to begin moving slowly again. At that point, it just merely exhaustion rather than a full-on revolt by my body. I would have to slowly rebuild my electrolytes and put some calories in me, but even that was a bit painful. I wouldn’t eat my staple of Lay’s potato chips because my mouth was incredibly dry, the GU didn’t appeal to me a whole lot and the bananas were causing me to use Nature’s Restroom too much for such a small section of the race.
The rest of the climb was predictably slow and a bit painful at times. If I had been climbing as usual, no one would have passed me. But on this day, I saw a few of 10:00 AM starters from Pam Reed to Jorge Pacheco (again). I didn’t care too much in the moment. I tried to follow on their coattails as they went by to power walk faster and even jog, but it was often too brief to make a negligible difference. A parade of crew members assisted in pacing me at various points: Kevin, Nick, Mike, Uncle Andy and finally Wilfred. They continued to remind me of what a great race we were having, but I was having none of it. I just wanted to end. About the only thing keeping me going was the electrolyte water, the Enlyten Energy strips and a little bit of heart. The crew seemed ecstatic to be finishing early on Tuesday and kept great attitudes and more great music playing on the way up to Mt. Whitney Portal.
I had no watch on, but I clearly recognized all the physical landmarks of where the finish line was. With 2.5 miles to go, I picked up the walking pace to a relatively brisk 18:00 min/mile pace for a few minutes before dropping down slightly. I knew we’d be slightly over 31 hours, but just wanted it all to end. After the final switchback, I put a little smile on my face and little more effort into my feet. The finish line approached and everyone on the crew joined me for the final 200 ft. “sprint”. I was able to put some more pep in my feet and break out into a jog before finally crossing the finish line at 1:33 PM on Tuesday, 31 hours and 33 minutes after we started. It felt good to be back.
Maybe if I hadn’t stopped at Lone Pine, I would’ve regained my composure and broken that tape in under 30 hours. Heck, what if I hadn’t lost 2 months of training to shin splints? My crew put in such a tremendous team effort and made me feel like I had nothing else to worry about except running. Who knows? They might as well call any 100+ mile race the “What If?” Ultra marathon since races that long often leave you with as many things to nitpick about what you did wrong as they do answers about what you did right. I lost a few places during that final climb, but it didn’t matter much. I will still probably look back at this race and remember how incredibly lucid and physically together I was. I will remember that most of the places that had haunted me in the past became merely points on the road on the way to my destination this year. It made me believe that so much more is possible for my ultra racing if I can keep running with the kind of discipline I was able to maintain. 5 hours is still a very nice improvement, even if I’m still left with the feeling that there remains unfinished business. We’ve improved every single year and if I do it again, I intend to see us take an even bigger leap forward. I do know that if I run this race again, there will be no more stopping at Lone Pine. There will be no more lagging after Keeler. There will be no more stopping at Darwin. There will be a smaller break at Panamint Springs. I will be faster up Townes Pass and faster through the Valley. I will be 5 lbs. lighter than this year. There will be no lingering weaknesses mental, physical or spiritual left not dealt with. I will pray more, run more, train more and raise more for Uganda. Ora Et Labora, meaning “Pray and Work”. If I run this race again, I already know what my goal will be and what my ultimate goal will be. But that I’ll keep to myself because sometimes my goals aren’t God’s goals. The most important goal is to represent God well so that at the end of the day it can be said, “Job Well, Done”. For now, I leave you with this small memoir of my experiences….Time to exorcise some more memories at Angeles Crest.