Badwater is no joke. Imagine running 135 miles...across Death Valley...over three huge mountain ranges...in July. It's enough to make you want to barf. (Which in my case, isn't just a figure of speech.)
I ran the STYR Labs Badwater 135 last year and it was a truly life-changing experience. Right now I'm working on a book about that adventure and the craziness of the race. You can read my race report from last year HERE. This year I decided that instead of running it, I would pace/crew. I had the opportunity to join the team of my friend Ed "The Jester" Ettinghausen. His finish would set the World Record for the most 100+ mile races ever completed: 142!
The night before I met up with my team, I went to Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. For more than a year, I've had a running picture in mind and I wanted to try to make it happen. Zabriskie Point is, well, freaking amazing.
I did some hiking to get to the point I had in mind, then waited until the sun was just right. The sunset was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, and I was able to catch the exact shot I had envisioned:
To enjoy such an amazing sunset, it involved being out in the 120 heat for a few hours. My stomach started to feel less than bueno. Shortly after taking the following picture, I got back to my car, cranked the AC, and guzzled water. I thought I'd be okay, but a few minutes after starting the drive back to my hotel, I had to pull over to barf. Let me remind you again....Badwater hadn't even started yet!
The next day (Sunday) I met up with the crew at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level, and also the hottest point ever recorded on Earth - 134 degrees. And this is where the race starts. The team was myself, Ed, Ed's daughter Andrea, his wife Martha, and friend Alfa. I also wore a skirt for the first time. (At least that I'm willing to admit publicly.)
I had never met Andrea or Alfa before but we became quick friends and I felt so excited to be spending 135 miles with such an awesome group of people. In the afternoon we went to check-in, then stayed in Pahrump, NV Sunday night. The Badwater race starts in three waves: 8:00pm, 9:30pm, and 11:00pm. Ed had the 11pm start so we had plenty of time during the day to get the van organized and decorated.
Before the start of the race, we took one final group picture.
Ed had run Badwater the six previous years and his team was a well-oiled machine. Ed knew exactly what he needed and when he needed it, and as a crew, it was our job to help him be as efficient as possible. We met him every two miles and set out this green glowing before he arrived. As he ran by, he dropped his water bottles in the bucket, and then two crew members would wait a little farther to hand him fresh bottles and a hat with cold ice inside.
Every once in a while we'd have a spare minute or two before Ed arrived. So while we were waiting, Alfa took this jumping picture of me during the first sunrise of the race.
Because of some storm clouds on the horizon, the sunrise was simply spectacular. The clouds flashed with occasional lightning and even some rain drops. Though it felt good in the moment, we knew this would soon cause smothering humidity.
At mile 42, runners are allowed to have pacers. As a team, we were able to allow Ed to have a pacer during every mile for the rest of the race. With so much time out on the course, you get to know the other runners and crews that you are constantly leap-frogging with. During our climb up Towne Pass, one runner's crew came up to me and Ed and handed each of us flowers. With a broken accent, he smiled and said "This is a hard mountain to climb. Take this to keep you feeling happy."
It was BLAZING hot, but still felt a little cooler this year. It was kind of like running in Hell instead of running in a fireplace in Hell. But one area that certainly felt like running in a fireplace in Hell was crossing the dry lake bed toward Panamint Springs. It was the kind of heat that makes you think "Is that my flesh I smell burning?"
This area is near an Air Force and jets regularly fly near the canyons. Seeing a jet cruise right above you at 600mph is basically one of the coolest thins EVER. (Check out THIS website for some ridiculous photography of the jets flying through these canyons.)
Ed started having stomach pain fairly early on in the race and it never really eased up. Remember that he was going for the most 100+ milers ever. He's no rookie when it comes to working through challenges. Fortunately Ed's walking pace is faster than some people's running pace so he was able to keep making steady progress. Despite not feeling great, his attitude was never anything less than completely happy and optimistic.
Seeing the amount of struggles and suffering that some runners go through is enough to make you cry. Partly because you can empathize with what they must be experiencing. But partly because you feel so freaking inspired by the fact that even though they are hurting, they remain determined and focused. It's not unusual to look over and see someone hunched over with leg cramps, or someone throwing up.
One particularly touching moment was at the top of Father Crowley Point. It was the second brutal mountain climb of the race. Ed stopped to rest for five minutes. We looked over at the team next to us and saw Juan Sanchez sitting alone while his crew worked in the background. Juan was praying for some Divine help to get him through a hard section of the race. I looked over at Alfa and she had tears in my eyes. Maybe I did too.
Sunset arrived nearly 24 hours into the race and he was getting close to Darwin. It had been dark for many hours before I arrived at this point during my race. Ed's stomach was slowing him down and he was off his goal pace, but he was far beyond where I had been the year before.
One of the most difficult parts of pacing/crewing was keeping him moving forward when extreme fatigue kicked in on the second night of the race and he started sleep walking. The smothering sleep deprivation I experienced during the second night of the race last year is beyond description. I had an idea of how he was probably feeling, and tried to keep him engaged and talking the best I could.
There was only one point during the night when Ed stopped to rest. "I'm just going to take ten minutes," he said. (I think he only sat down to rest for a total of 20 minutes during the whole 135 miles.) This picture gives a pretty good idea of what Badwater does to you. It wears you down to the point where you're not sure you can take one more step. But you do. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and the miles continue to tick by.
When he hit his second sunrise of the race, we could see Mount Whitney on the horizon. Mount Whitney is the highest point in the continental United States. The race doesn't go all the way to the top, but it goes up to Whitney Portal most of the way up the mountain. From here, runners can see the soul-crushing zig zag of road going up the mountain that they must climb.
Ed made it to Lone Pine, California and the final 13 mile climb to the finish line. This last climb in the daytime heat was the second time during the race when I could feel my flesh starting to smoke. Ed was experiencing the extremes of highs and lows that come during a race like this. Even when he was clearly in the pain cave, he didn't whine, complain, or dwell on what was hurting. He masterfully kept making forward progress.
We continued our regular rotation of pacers. There was not a moment of downtime. If we weren't out with Ed, we were preparing ice, water bottles, and food.
Look closely and you'll see Ed and Alfa looking like ants climbing up a mountain:
The last 13 miles of Badwater are the most absurd, ridiculous kick to the groin I have ever seen in a race. The road is literally vertical for mile after relentless mile.
This is what a common view looks like during this final groin kick:
In the final miles I told Ed how amazing I think he is, and how awesome it was that he was about to set a World Record, and how thankful I was to be part of his crew. In my book "Nowhere Near First" I talked about what an inspiration Ed has been since I began ultrarunning. He has been such a huge support for me over the years and it was an honor to return the favor.
After 37 hours and 39 minutes Ed and our team crossed the finish line together. It was such an overwhelming feeling of happiness. At the finish line of Badwater, you see lots of tears from runners and teams (including our own). Though it sounds like a cliche, it's true that the harder you work for something, the more it means to you. Badwater demands every ounce of determination you possess. But if you're willing to fight for it, that sense of accomplishment at the finish line is unmatched.
As is the Jester tradition, Ed wanted to stay at the finish line to cheer for the remaining runners. How awesome that he would sacrifice his own rest and relaxation to cheer for others. Because he was so giving of his time and energy at the finish line, he had a bit of a hard time staying awake at the post-race party that evening.
I don't think there is anything like an ultramarathon to take you through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and completely wreck you, and put up so many impossible barriers along the way, and then show you that you can do the impossible if you just keep working and don't give up. With determination, purpose, and perseverance, nothing is impossible.
Congrats on that new World Record Ed!
Thursday, May 18, 2017
Recently I took my daughter Dani on one such adventure - her first visit to Death Valley.
It was such a great, great opportunity to spend time together. Every opportunity like this becomes a cherished memory.
Last year I visited Death Valley during the rare wildflower superbloom. (HERE is a picture and video clip I put together of the superbloom.) The flowers were minimal this year but we were still able to track down a few.
Since it wasn't (yet) nine BILLION degrees, we did a little bit of running. Dani caught this cool shot which is one of my favorite running pictures ever.
We spent quite a bit of time at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.
Dani has some serious jump skills. It would be a shame to leave the flats of Badwater Basin without a jumping picture. Am I right?!?!?
Then we drove to the Devil's Golf Course.
There weren't any hotel rooms at Furnace Creek in Death Valley so we stayed in Beatty, Nevada about 40 miles away. On the way to our hotel we stopped at Rhyolite Ghost Town. If you're ever in the area, check that place out. Not only does it have shells of old buildings, but it's also got a lot of artsy creations and sculptures.
The most unique (okay, downright craaazy) thing at Rhyolite is some ghosts in the formation of the Last Supper. We got lucky and caught an amazing sunset while hanging out with the ghosts.
The next day we did more exploring in Death Valley. There was some more running. Death Valley will always hold a special place in my heart after running Badwater last year, the 135 mile race across Death Valley in July. That race was undoubtedly the hardest thing I've ever done, along with the biggest sense of accomplishment I've ever felt. (Badwater race report HERE.)
We did the Natural Bridge hike:
And we checked out Zabriskie Point (I would type a million heart emojis next to "Zabriskie Point" if I could."
I can't describe what a cool feeling it was to watch my daughter fall in love with this place just like I have.
There was a trail right by Zabriskie Point that I had never explored before. I decided to check it out for a few miles and it was unspeakably beautiful, definitely one of the most amazing trails I have ever run.
We stopped at the little Furnace Creek convenience store for a soda and treat refill, then drove to the Mesquite Sand Dunes. Again, we got lucky and caught a beautiful sunset.
Don't think for one solitary second "Ahhh, what a good dad." I assure you that you could ask any of my children on any given day and they'd tell you we are horrible parents. (Teenagers are hard!) We make mistakes. We're not perfect. We have regrets. But we try. We really, really try. Just like you do with your kids. Go create your own adventure with your kids. I promise you won't regret it.
As the sun set on our last night of the trip, I wished I could freeze time. I was so thankful for that time laughing together...and blasting music with the windows rolled down together...and drinking rootbeer together...and enjoying one of God's Greatest Hits together. (Is God going to strike me with lightning for saying he has "Greatest Hits"?)
I felt so thankful to be a dad.
Yes. I wished I could freeze time.
Thursday, April 27, 2017
HEALDSBURG, CA - Southern Utah hobby jogger Cory Reese recently finished the Lake Sonoma 50 mile race in northern California. "I heard runners get cool jackets and homemade tamales at the finish line, and I really like tamales", said Reese in the days leading up to the race. He did indeed receive a jacket and tamales, but not before facing tremendous adversity.
His Lake Sonoma tamale quest began two days before the race when Reese and his wife Melanie arrived in California. The first place on their itinerary was the Golden Gate Bridge, with a gift shop that should sell t-shirts saying "Good Luck Trying To Find A Parking Spot Anywhere Within 4 Miles".
Reese's wife immediately began singing the theme song to "Full House" like a 1-song playlist set on repeat.
The couple enjoyed walking all the way across the bridge and back. Reese later admitted "I needed to get some form of physical activity to help justify the basketball-sized chocolate chip cookie I ate with lunch."
They then traveled further north to Healdsburg, California where they had been graciously invited to stay at the guest house of race director John Medinger and his lovely wife Lisa Henson. "There were so many highlights from this amazing weekend, but undoubtedly one of the top highlights was being able to spend time with Tropical John and Lisa," Reese said. "They are so funny and so kind, and we feel honored to call them friends."
Upon seeing the views from the house, the Reeses promptly informed their hosts that they would be moving in permanently.
The day before the race, the Reeses enjoyed a relaxing afternoon walking the streets of Healdsburg, meeting new friends at the pre-race dinner, and taking a quick dip in the pool.
Before the race, Reese confessed that he was apprehensive about the Lake Sonoma 50. "I just ran the Zion 100 a few days ago. My legs are still pretty stiff and sore, and Sonoma has almost as much climbing in 50 miles as Zion has in 100 miles. I'd say I have a 94% chance of crying during this race."
Once the race started, Reese was overcome with amazement at the beauty of his surroundings. "I can already tell this race is going to be hard for me to keep my camera in my pack", he said at mile 4.
The stunning views made him completely forget his sore legs...for at least a fourth of a mile.
Unseasonably high amounts of rain made many trails muddy, and some sections became the adult version of a Slip And Slide.
Controversial allegations have arisen that Reese fakes all his runs. When asked about these harsh allegations, Reese laughed and said "If my runs were faked, I'd like to think I'd give myself faster finish times. I'd be happy to show you the 142 pictures I took during the race to prove that my wiry chicken legs have traveled every mile of the course." Upon inspection, Reese did indeed take 142 pictures during the race, implying that maybe he should run more and take less pictures. "With scenery like this, I just can't help myself," he said.
Damning evidence of Reese's jumping abilities (or lack thereof) was spotted at the end of the race when he caught approximately one inch of air in his "jump" across the finish line. His saving grace was this mid-race jump captured by the official race photographer.
Reese was pleasantly surprised to see Gordy Ainsleigh volunteering at an aid station. Ainsleigh is the original pioneer of the 100 mile run - the first person to run 100 miles and show that humans are capable of this insane feat.
Reese's wife nervously waited at the 25 mile turnaround point of the out-and-back course. Reese was a half hour ahead of the cutoff and only stayed at the aid station long enough to take a quick picture and refill his hydration pack before leaving again. Melanie later posted a picture on Facebook commenting "Tons of rocks in his shoes, muddy as hell and currently in the pain cave, but he still has a smile on his face!"
Runners struggled on the return climbs and Reese quickly realized that he wasn't the only one who had reserved space in the pain cave. Hands on hips are a sure sign of pain cave occupancy.
"My biggest problem was that my legs still felt zapped of energy from the Zion 100," said Reese. "I just didn't have much oomph." He pushed forward enjoying the views and the variety of wildflowers blooming all along the trails.
The course boasted countless river crossings. "I was nervous about this before the race," said Reese. "Living in the desert, we don't have obstacles like this." Yet Reese was still managing to defy all odds. Despite the river crossings and oomph-less legs, he had not burst into tears or resorted to curling up in fetal position on the side of the trail and sucking his thumb.
Around mile 45, after more climbs and more mud, Reese finally began to feel a bit of confidence that he'd be able to finish the race before the cutoff.
The clock at the finish line ticked 13 hours 41 minutes as Reese made his one inch jump across the finish line, narrowly avoiding the final cutoff by 19 minutes. Mud-covered legs, a near-dead camera battery, bags under his eyes, and a ravishing appetite for tamales were evidence enough to prove that Reese's run was far from faked. His Lake Sonoma adventure concluded with hugs from his wife and friends, a new finisher's jacket, and the satisfaction of pushing hard to achieve a goal.
~ ~ I can't recommend the Lake Sonoma 50 highly enough. The course is tough and challenging, but the trails are buttery smooth and runnable. They are undoubtedly some of the most beautiful trails I have ever run. Thank you John and Lisa for a truly unforgettable weekend!
Here's a video I put together if you'd like to see more of those 142 pictures I took during the race: