The conversations, which were not initially verbose, had distilled down to just a few words every now and then. Brian mostly kept looking ahead in a semi trance-like state while I slipped into a role of active observer as I followed his footsteps. I checked out the other crew cars as we passed and began to recognize the names of people who I don't know personally but who belong to the inner circle of ultrarunners, people my friends know well from their accomplishments at the hundred mile distance and beyond. I checked out the bodies of these athletes, each one unique and very few identifiable as an extreme athlete in the dark of night. Night in the desert is a welcome safe haven from the uniform dictated by the sun during the day, a uniform consisting of hats, long sleeves, zinc oxide, and frequent dousings with cold water. One crew used radios to communicate between pacer and the vehicle, other crews drove a hundred miles to retrieve breakfast at McDonalds. Vehicles were distinguished based on their systems for organizing gear and supplies, some with moving pieces to facilitate retrieval of infrequently needed items such as blister kits, and headlamps in only slightly more time than the readily accessible items like water, food and salt. Badwater 2012 for me consisted of 32 hours in the same shorts, the same progressively dirtier vehicle, with the six of us all getting to know each other better during those hours of sleep deprivation than would ever be possible in a similar timeframe under "normal" circumstances. I marveled at Brian's foresight when I saw him request his battery pack as I paced him up the climb to Father Crowley, the second of the 3 major climbs, and used it to recharge his garmin watch while it continued to collect data about his position and to calculate speed, distance and elevation for future analysis.
With the race starting on a Monday morning and the entire experience naturally starting on the Saturday before, Badwater is larger than a weekend race. The 135 mile course now has a 48 hour cutoff as of 2011, but it used to allow finishers up until 60 hours. After experiencing it firsthand, the 60 hour mark no longer seems to be an absurd amount of time to cover the distance, although the shorter cutoff certainly makes sense from a "put them out of their misery" angle. Indeed, my appreciation for the event itself has changed after being a part of Brian's crew this year, I no longer see Badwater as an unnecessarily dangerous event as far as long term health goes, I no longer see the heat as some sort of extreme condition but more a controllable adversary. Coupled with the dryness, the challenge of the heat is the unique signature of Badwater, a big part of the draw is the challenge of keeping the body functional at the high end of the temperature range, as opposed to some foolish desire to inflict bodily harm as I had previously envisioned. The Badwater experience gives it a tangible quality, watch any hour of the race and you can't help but think to yourself "I might be able to do that" but then stack them end to end and look at the big picture and you must certainly have to entertain the possibility of "I might not be able to handle that." Casual readers of my blog might not be able to differentiate between 100 and 135, road and trail, flat and hilly, sea level and elevation, heat or cold and moderate temperatures, but each of these must factor in and the net result is that Badwater trumps any 100 mile trail race I've seen in terms of total difficulty, if not for the increased duration of the event, at least for the difficulty of being comfortable during any portion of it. But at the same time, road running, even with those 3 monster climbs, is simply not comparable to trail running and those who excel on technical single track may not find their skills to be of any advantage over a clumsier-footed ultra runner who enjoys the thrill of "going long."
|Third crossing starts soon|
Badwater is a substantially different race than Western States, aka that other long race that I write about way too much on this blog. For starters, at Badwater, your crew is your entire lifeline and the race itself, despite the $1000 price tag, offers zero support beyond medical. The crew vehicle meets the runner sometime after mile 2 and continues on with them for 133 miles, leapfrogging (in our case every half mile) until the finish line. Up to two crew vehicles are allowed but may not be used simultaneously, and up to 6 crew members may participate/crew/pace. Pacing is allowed after mile 17 for the remainder of the course, so that opens up a window of 100+ miles of pacing and most athletes opt to have pacers for most or all of that, with a few exceptions, typically the frontrunners who are simply too fast and would prefer competent crew members than speedy runners who don't know their nutrition or med plan. Badwater is remote, with only three locations to purchase gas and ice and no prepared food readily available for purchase until Lone Pine which marks the beginning of the final ascent to the finish line at Whitney Portal. The race was established as an obvious challenge, propel yourself on foot from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere to the highest point in the lower 48 states which just so happens to be 135 miles away, hence establishing 135 as a standard which has since been replicated in the jungles of Brazil and the snowfields of Minnesota. Supported and unsupported single, double, triple and quad crossings have been recorded, but since the most direct route crosses death valley which offers summer daytime temperatures which reach past 130F, Badwater the race has taken center stage as one of the ultimate tests of endurance available on the planet. Like Western States, the interest in racing exceeds the number of spots available, however unlike Western States, the selection process for Badwater is not done by an open lottery. If you want to race Badwater, you have to have to first complete three hundreds and since the final selection is left up to the race director, you probably want to learn a thing or two about how to actually race them rather than simply surviving.
My weekend started on Saturday morning with my first visit to Andre's class at the Point Loma CPY studio. What a treat that was! Andre has one of the most colorful personalities of any instructor I've experienced and threw a class together that was loaded with challenge, fun, and some great one liners. I think my favorite quip may have been when he said something to the effect of not wanting to be anyone else because they are all better at it anyway so there's no point, you might as well just stick to being you. I also enjoyed his self deprecating comments about his inability to type in everyone's name at checkin since he was stuck solo behind the desk, coupled with his affirmations about how awesome he is including "who's your daddy" as the combo offered great contrast and revealed much about the inner humanity present within. After yoga I had to pick up Dan at the airport and drive him to Brian's to meet up with Iso and Jason while we all would wait for Jason to arrive from Japan and head on out to Furnace Creek. While we hung out at the house I got to meet Danica, Brian's wife, and her parents who are in the stage of life where they travel and experience the country in a manner that makes conversing with them a fascinating and enjoyable experience.
|Zinc oxide on the nose|
|Survival is key|
Speaking of Iso, he was my primary connection to the group and perhaps the biggest reason why I was allowed to join up so seamlessly, with the other reason being my ability to eat 12 donuts sandwiched between a pair of 2x1 mile laps in the Krispy Kreme Challenge West. Brian had entered the doughnut man division which meant he ate another dozen and ran an extra two after matching my effort and while he was eating, perhaps in between vomits, he may have felt moved enough to bring me along to consume all of the excess food in the car, much like a dog licks up anything that falls on the floor while his master cooks dinner. Iso, or Geronimo as we like to call him, completed all 3 135 mile races in existence in 2010, becoming the first to do so. To know Iso is to love Iso, there's really no reasonable alternative because he thinks nothing about running for days, massaging a grown man's legs with his bare hands, getting bit by a poisonous spider, or sitting in silence in a stinky van for hours just to get out every 5 minutes in 100+ degrees and spray down a runner. His famous quote about his amazing ability to disrespect extreme distances on foot goes, "like life, sometimes hard." A native of Bolivia, he might as well be Sweedish with his overwhelming matter-of-factness, but just when I start thinking that way he throws in a "yes, Brian is hurting, donde estan los negro modelos?" Iso wound up using Brian's shiny new buckle to open those very beers, after getting on my case for losing track of 2 of them while we consumed the others at the finish line. Oh yeah, that year when he ran all three 135 mile races, two of which were the same week but in different hemispheres with drastically different weather, he also finished Western States much faster than the Yogger or I would be abel to do in subsequent years.
The 6 of us drove in 2 separate vehicles, with me in my car so I could split way too early on Wednesday morning and make the flight I booked to Vermont to pace Rod, through a lightening storm in the desert, and all arrived at the Furnace Creek Inn after midnight. Blake adjusted as well as possible to his travel across the date line as we walked through misters to breakfast. Iso and I did a 4 miler in the heat and met the gang for the pre race meeting which boiled down to a bunch of photos and a lot of BS'ing with old friends. I bumped into Andi and Don, and got my share of "hey old friend" moments as we caught up a bit and discussed Monday's fun. After making the 4 hour round trip drive to drop my car in Lone Pine we ate dinner, clinked a few beers and I caught the tail end of Breaking Bad before some fitful sleep. The day before a race seems to be so strange, typically it becomes one of the most forgettable days of my life as sort sort of pre-flex to the upcoming craziness.
We got up, iced, gassed, and made it to the start line at Badwater with a half hour for photos, weigh in, and for Blake to survey the crew and identify his primary and secondary targets. The start played out in typical anticlimactic form, a 5 second countdown and an air horn giving way to easy walking or jogging. Temps were quite reasonable so a few chose to run a bit stronger in hopes that a cold year would mean fast times for all, but the morning and early afternoon heat arrived and took its typical toll, slowing many runners and punishing those with more aggression than restraint. Both men and women would hop off towards the rocks for bathroom breaks, a symphony of urine production and exposure of genitals. I got to pace while Brian was passed by the leaders which was a real treat, and an even better treat was seeing some vans repeatedly indicating their runner close behind, and then having those vans fall away indicating a problem or slowdown. All through this first 100 miles Brian performed flawlessly, running strong and power walking only the very steep climbs or to gather aid from the crew van. Blake did his best flirting, Dan learned the ins and outs, Jason gave us instructions, and the race organizers scolded us for things like taking too much time to get out of the door on the traffic side of the road and putting a towel over the window to block some of the heat and sun.
|Thumbs up from Hannah #25|
The meltdown ensued, culminated by a pass from Dean Karnazes on the portal road. We stopped for some blister care within the Alabama mountains and perhaps as much out of boredom as anything else, Brian eventually started a slow walk uphill. The finish to Badwater is unimaginable if you haven't gone through the events of the prior day. Showing up to hike Whitney is stunning, beautiful and fantastic. The rock formations and the contrasts between desert floor and high sierras take your breath away. But all of that beauty seems almost irrelevant as you watch the finishers on their final climb, some in agony, others in triumph, all aware of the meaning of the accomplishment. It's an extended reminder of the magnitude of the challenge when you spend 5 hours driving up a 13 mile road. The finish line itself was actually fairly fun, perhaps as much due to the timing of the late afternoon arrival when hikers were preparing dinner and in a pleasant mood. The drive down, with alcohol assisted euphoria, became a highlight of the day for me, cheering some of the others and witnessing those who were able to run strong as well as those who were following the "one foot in front of the other" plan. Dinner consisted of pizza and my first salad in days, a few more beers, and one of the most anticipated showers of my life. I would love ultra that much more if I didn't have to get dirty doing it, and even though I took every conceivable opportunity to wash my hands, I still felt like a 1" thick layer of grime coated my entire body after two days spent mostly outside. Brian concluded the night for me by saying this was his favorite year, we were the best crew he's had, etc, all semi obligatory but feel-good nonetheless.
I tried to rally at the bar but found my heartburn from all of the junk food coupled with my body's tendency to fall asleep at any opportunity and wound up walking the two miles back along the course to our hotel before crashing in my sleeping bag, waking up at 6am, and driving back to San Diego to catch this flight. We made plans for a BBQ once Brian's body has recovered and I met 3 new dudes and got to know Brian at a level that cemented our friendship. I can no longer say "never" to Badwater. Having experienced it firsthand, it is remarkable, and I understand those who feel the obsession, those who feel called to finish it at any cost. I am no longer blind to the appeal. For the short term, the hefty price tag, considering time, money, and focus, all for a belt buckle, will keep it a spectator sport for me, although there are some who complete an "official" crossing with their own crew outside of the liability constraints of the race, but there is something magical about the frenzy of Stovepipe Wells and the climb up to Towne's pass with all of the other runners and vans. That frenzy gives way to the overnight solitude and lines of flashing lights seen from above on the climb to Father Crowley which in turn becomes sporadic moments shared as a few final passes are made and the final masscre plays out on portal road.
Just for Chacha I'm adding some photos of Hannah.