Thursday, August 9, 2018

Badwater Ultramarathon Race Report - 2018

Once when I was a kid, I went sledding on a steep ridge of snow banked down the driveway from my aunt's house. I remember thinking it would be extra fun to hit the jump at the bottom of the hill if I was riding the sled on my stomach. The first couple seconds of that ride were amazing. Then I hit the jump. It wasn't until I was soaring through the air that I realized what was about to hit me. And then I hit the ground, my chest slamming into the packed ice below me. The air got knocked out of me and my world started spinning. I couldn't breathe. I lost all track of time. "Wait. Is today...Wednesday...or August? I feel sleepy. Am I seeing things? Why are the Golden Girls standing there? Oh, hey Dorothy. Why are you always giving the stink eye? And thanks for the dating advice Blanche."

Then suddenly I became coherent. I saw my aunt hunched over me. She looked scared. "Are you okay Cory?" I had lost all sense of time. Everything was a blur. 

Which is my round about way of getting to the point that the same kind of time warp happened to me recently while pacing and crewing at Badwater in Death Valley. (Sadly there were no visions of Golden Girls.)

For all you normal people who have a few more brain cells than the average ultrarunner, Badwater is a 135 mile run across Death Valley run every July. Because 136 miles across Death Valley would be just plain stupid. Two years ago I ran the race myself. You can see my race report (and a hideous picture of me wearing a cat unitard) HERE. Then I paced and crewed for Ed "The Jester" Ettinghausen last year. You can see that report HERE. The experience was so transformative that I wrote a book about it called Into The Furnace. That book was just released on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible HERE.

This year I had the honor of being part of Andy Lohn's team. I had never met anyone on Andy's crew. I prayed that it wasn't some kind of scheme to kidnap me and hold me for ransom. I could just see my wife with her best Liam Neeson accent whispering into a phone "I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you." Much to my relief everyone in the crew turned out to be awesome, and didn't bare the slightest resemblance to kidnappers. This is Paul Schlagel, Erika Lohn, her husband and our fearless runner Andy Lohn, Luke Thoreson, and me. (Proud to support Farmaste Animal Sanctuary!) Luke was an invaluable resource and contributor with my new book, but this race was the first time we'd actually met. 

I received a gracious invitation from race director Chris Kostman to do a book signing the day before the race. While there, Jennifer Nissen came up to introduce herself. She told me she was running Badwater the next day, and a little bit about her story. Less than a year ago she was diagnosed with cancer. Since that time, she trained to compete in the toughest footrace in the world, 135 miles across Death Valley. This amazing woman became the final finisher of Badwater! She is a fighter, and the embodiment of the Nowhere Near First spirit. Jennifer is proof that we can do whatever we put our minds to!

While Luke and Andy were at a pre-race meeting, Erika, Paul, and I explored the Mesquite Sand Dunes. This particular spot in Death Valley is a special place to me, and I loved watching them fall in love with the dunes as they visited for the first time.

Obligatory sand dune jumping picture:

Monday was race day. Here's how the day played out. 1) Breakfast at a casino in Pahrump, Nevada. (Which was every bit as glorious as it sounds.) 2) Organize inordinate amounts of soda, cookies, candy, and supplies in the van, 3) Try to take a nap but instead just stare at the ceiling, 4) Watch Andy nearly get arrested when a security guard gets angry about trying to take a picture of the crew walking through the casino like a scene from Oceans 11, 5) Luke plays Tetris with luggage in the crew van, 6) Dinner (at the same casino diner where we ate breakfast, and 7) Drive to Badwater Basin for the start of the race. We figured it was a good omen when "Funky Cold Medina" came on the satellite radio as we neared the basin. Then at 9:30pm, Andy's race began.

This is exactly the time that we went off the proverbial sled jump, got the air knocked out of us, and we entered a crazy time warp where time began to blur. We'd drive two miles, put a bucket out on the road so Andy could spot our van ahead of time, we'd swap out bottles of cold Tailwind Nutrition with him, give him electrolyte tablets, tell him a joke or some words of encouragement (or find something to make fun of him about), send him on down the road, then drive two miles to start the process all over again.

Andy and I talked before the race. I brought my good camera along for the adventure, and he encouraged me to take pictures of the good, the bad, and the ugly along the way. At mile 31, the bad and the ugly showed up at the same time. During the first night, the temperature never dropped below 109 degrees. The heat and exertion caught up with Andy. Let's just say that the puddle at Andy's feet isn't from his water bottle. (His stomach provided a repeat performance one mile later.)

Andy was around the sand dunes when the sun began to rise.

It's moments like this when I was thankful I had more than just an iPhone. The sunrise was beyond description. You can not be surrounded by a scene like this and not fall deeply, madly in love with Death Valley.

We had a little garden sprayer full of ice water to spray Andy when we met him every few miles. Andy wanted to make sure we were offering to cool off other runners as well. The first climb over Towne Pass takes runners up and over a mountain range. It H U R T S. It was craaaazy hot. Andy's hips were being sassy and his legs were cramping and twisting like those big, chewy Disneyland pretzels. (This photo is a few miles before the mountain climb.)

Because of the sassy hips and leg pretzels, Andy just couldn't move as fast as he wanted. Andy is a talented, experienced runner. And yet as he neared a time cutoff at mile 50.5, we weren't sure he was going to make it. It was a tense hour as we neared the 10:00am cutoff and tried to grasp the reality that Andy's race might be over. With a few minutes left before the cutoff, our crew stood quietly watching him near the cutoff. I saw his wife Erika reach up to wipe a few tears from her eyes. Those solemn moments are difficult to describe.

With seconds to spare, Andy made it past the 50 mile cutoff. We screamed and cheered and squeezed each other in a tight, sweaty group hug. Now that he passed the cutoff, we had a few minutes for Andy to sit in the van and rest. This wasn't time for the crew to rest though. We reorganized supplies and coolers while Paul, with his wealth of medical experience, patched up a few blisters on Andy's feet.

Not only is the heat of Death Valley oppressive, but the course is incredibly difficult, climbing three huge mountain ranges.

The second night of the race is grueling for crew members, and absolutely brutal for runners because of the extreme sleep deprivation. We blasted the Hip Hop station on the satellite radio which included "Push It" from Salt-N-Pepa three times during the race, and a variety of songs from 2 Live Crew that I won't name in order to keep the blog family friendly. I'm not sure why the radio stayed on the Hip Hop station for 43 hours straight. I don't think it's music that most of us typically listen to. But we were in the zone, and we were 2 Legit 2 Quit the station.

Paul spent many hours with Andy that second night which gave the rest of the crew members a few hours of welcome sleep. Once the sun came up, Paul twisted his body like a Tetris piece into the back of the van and slept for a few hours while the rest of us paced and crewed. It worked out perfectly. We were ecstatic to see the second sunrise of the race, and were now a comfortable couple hours ahead of the cutoff.

As our crew chief, Luke kept us running like a well-oiled machine. His sense of humor is so dry you could cut it with a knife, and everything that comes out of his mouth is hilarious. For all of us, the whole week felt like a competition to make others laugh.

Finally Andy made it to Lone Pine and we began the final 13 mile stretch to Mount Whitney Portal. I cherished every mile I was able to spend with him during the race. Even when he was clearly in the pain cave, he remained optimistic and funny. Andy is one of the Top 5 Funniest People I know. He's in good company with other people I know such as Betty White. (Granted, I've never physically met Betty. But I feel like I know her because of that time we spent together during my sledding hallucination incident. She's a sweetheart.)

Near the finish line we had a terrifying encounter with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. (He said his name was Travis Rex. Coincidentally, whenever I saw Travis on the course, Luke was nowhere to be seen.) I saw some really funny captions to the following picture:

  • You can't run from the past.
  • I came, I saur, I conquered.
  • Do these Altras make my arms look short?
  • If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands....oops.

As an added excitement, we got hit with a flash flood a few miles before the finish line washing mud and rocks into the road. Check out how incredibly beautiful this stretch of the race is!


We unanimously decided that Erika needed to join Andy for the last mile of the race. She has such an infectious spirit and radiates with happiness and humor. (There is a video in the works where you'll fall in love with her happiness too.) Seeing her and Andy holding hands as they made the final push to the finish was a perfect ending to an amazing adventure.

And after 43 hours and 42 minutes, Andy made it to the finish line of Badwater! This was a moment he has dreamed about for years. Witnessing that triumph may have caused some wetness around the eyes for everyone. I felt so inspired.

The next day we hiked up to Lone Pine Lake. (How anyone can do this the day after Badwater, I have no idea.)


Unfortunately Paul had to leave early, but it was a great opportunity for the crew to swap stories, laugh, and talk about our favorite Salt-N-Pepa songs.

Out of the blue, Travis showed up again. He didn't bite.

As we made our way back across Death Valley the next day to head home, we stopped at Father Crowley Point, mile 80 of the race. We had our own Top Gun moment as a fighter jet soared past us and into the valley below.

We also stopped at the official thermometer at Furnace Creek. It was 130 degrees. Keep in mind, the hottest temperature ever recorded is 134 degrees. Ouch.

The harder you work for something, the more it means to you. I saw runners face incredible adversity, embrace suffering, and keep going when that little voice inside their head was telling them to quit. It's amazing what people are capable of when they put their minds to something. When life turns up the heat, step boldly into the furnace and let your soul catch fire. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Western States 100 Race Report - 2018

Listen up kids: here's what can happen if you eat your Wheaties, drive home from work with the heater on as part of your heat training, and keep moving for 100 miles just to keep your pacer from barking at you:
Photo by the amazing Melissa Ruse / SweetM Images

The Western States 100 is the most iconic 100 miler in the world. I've been dying to run it for years but had never been selected in the lottery. This year I received a gracious invite from Karl Hoagland and Cory Smith of UltraRunning Magazine to run it! As a race sponsor, the magazine was provided with an entry they offered me. I was completely honored. 

My crew of Mel, Jared Thorley, and owners of the St. George Running Center Steve and Kendra Hooper headed to Squaw Valley a few days before the race to soak in the environment and festivities. Going to packet pickup the day before the race felt insane in the membrane. 

At the pre-race meeting, they told us that there would be 24,000 pounds of ice on the course to combat the forecast for high temps. There would be 1,700 volunteers. We were also told "If things don't go well and you're having a bad day, try to die near one of the two defibrillators on the course." 

The night before the race, we went out for pizza, then came back to the condo and watched Unbreakable while I pre-taped my feet. I always think about my kids while I'm running, so for a race this special, I wanted to take them with me for all 100 miles.

I managed to get a few hours of sleep before the alarm started howling at 2:45am. 2:45am is as morally and ethically wrong as trapping someone inside an elevator then forcing them to listen to Kenny G music. But bags under the eyes be damned - I was standing at the start line of the Western States 100!

The race started, and we immediately started climbing. Speaking of things that are morally and ethically wrong, a 2,550 foot climb to the top of Escarpment to start a race has got to rank up there.

I was one of what looked like hundreds of ants scrambling to the top of a mountain. This picture doesn't do justice to that sucker punch of a hill.

Once we reached the top, we dropped down on an incredibly beautiful trail surrounded by wildflowers. I felt like I was running okay overall, but by the time I got to the first aid station at mile 10.3, I was already significantly behind the pace needed to finish.

The race has a 30 hour cutoff. Then each aid station has a cutoff. There is also a pace guide for each aid station. For example, at the first aid station, average 30 hour runners arrive at 7:40am. I arrived at 8:01am. I hated that feeling of being up against cutoffs, but just couldn't seem to make up any time. The afternoon was brutally hot, and I feared that I wouldn't make the cutoff at mile 30. I knew my crew was waiting there so I kept pushing. I arrived at 1:45pm. (Although the 30 hour pace was 1:10pm.) Being so close to cutoffs, I only stuck around long enough to say hello, refill my hydration pack, and get a quick dousing of ice water. (The volunteers at the race were STELLAR. Each aid station had big buckets of ice water to soak runners with which helped a ton.)

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't fighting some discouragement. I felt like a scrawny boxer in a fight against Mike Tyson. And not just Hangover Mike Tyson. I'm talking Tyson in his prime. I just tried to get from one round (aid station) to the next without getting knocked out.

I was going through kind of a low when I passed this sign just outside the Last Chance aid station. It helped give me a good boost. I later found out it was made by Allen Lucas. Clearly he thought I was moving so fast that I ran my feet right off. Thanks Allen!

Sometimes I'd see runners throwing up or runners with tear stained cheeks giving their absolute 100% to fight cutoffs. They were working so hard. I was working so hard. I felt so inspired by the people toward the back that I was able to share the trail with.

At Western States, what goes up must go really, really steep down.

And then it goes really steep up again. (During the race, runners climb a total of 18,090 feet and descend 22,970 feet.) For most people, a section called "The Canyons" is the most difficult part of the course. The heat is engulfing and smothering, and there are some pretty rough climbs. But the climb to Devil's Thumb is the most fierce. I was pouring sweat by the gallon. Then the saddest thing happened. It was so hot that a runner near me spontaneously ignited and turned into a pile of charcoal. I HATE when that happens!

I was still a few miles away from the Michigan Bluff aid station as the sun set on the horizon. By that time, runners were very spread out and I'd go quite a while without seeing another runner.

It was dark by the time I got to Michigan Bluff. This will come as 0% shocking, but I was still uncomfortably close to cutoffs. At that point, my friend Steve Hooper joined the party to pace the next 22 miles. (The word "party" is used very, very loosely here.) Steve is basically amazing. He had open heart surgery less than a year ago. It's a longer story than I have room for, but running literally saved his life. Unfortunately I had let myself get behind on calories and just couldn't seem to turn it around. For the last 45 miles of the race, my stomach felt like I swallowed a honey badger. I was walking a tight rope where my stomach was begging to barf, and I was begging it not to. Steve and I kept a pretty good pace, and he was patient with me at aid stations when I turned my nose up at every single thing he offered. Humans should never eat honey badgers.

Steve saw lots of carnage out on the trails. We passed quite a few people heaving their guts out on the side of the trail. Eventually we reached the Rucky Chucky aid station at mile 78. I saw my crew for a minute, kissed my wife, then my friend Jared Thorley joined me to pace the last 22 miles. It was 4:13am when we set out to cross the American River. The river is wide and COLD. Every runner has to put a life jacket on and hold onto a rope as they cross. My friend Tony Nguyen caught this picture as I approached the river. It gives a pretty good idea of the toll that nearly 24 hours of forward motion had taken on me.
Photo by the amazing Tony Nguyen

I didn't get any pictures with Jared because we were trying to hurry as fast as we could to stay ahead of cutoffs. We pushed and pushed. Jared watched his Garmin like a hawk. Whenever I started to lag he'd say "Come on Cory, you've got to go!" I heard that at least seventeen million times. I would have given anything for the strength to punch him in the throat. We'd get to aid stations and I'd stay long enough to fill my hydration pack, put some ice in my hat, and then start running again. When I saw my crew, I'd give Mel a kiss but wouldn't stay to talk. She later told me she broke down in tears near the end of the race. She knew Western States was important to me, and she saw how much I was struggling. She wasn't sure I could make it. I definitely wasn't sure I could make it. I'm so thankful for the support Kendra gave Mel during the race.

Jeff Kozak was a volunteer at the mile 90 aid station and wrote a touching article for UltraRunning Magazine about the encouragement he gave me as I passed through. Admittedly my eyes got a little wet reading his description of the desperation I was feeling. You can read his article HERE.

At mile 96 I had accepted the fact that I probably wouldn't make it to the finish in time. There is a gigantic climb around mile 98 and I was spent. I had laid everything out on the line, and truly had nothing left to give. Jared kept pushing. Over and over I heard "Come on Cory, you've got to go!"

I managed to make it to the top of the climb. I had one mile to get to the finish line at the Placer High track. I was sure I didn't have enough time to make the 30 hour cutoff. Then out of the blue I saw my friend Paul Grimes. He hugged me and yelled "You've got this! You've got this!"

Later Paul wrote me this: "When I set out from the track, my intent was to find the last runner who had a chance to finish and do anything/everything I could to help that person in. I was nearly 100% sure no one behind you had a chance... and that you did. It was such an overwhelming experience to see the fate of your run teetering on the edge there. I can’t imagine the feeling of missing the cutoff by such a narrow margin after such a long arduous and emotional journey. To go through so much and be so close! I wanted so badly for you to feel the elation of hitting the track in auburn and so badly for you not feel the agony of missing the cutoff. You know the rest of the story and I’m so glad it ended the way it did! It was inspiring to see you not give up and summon the physical and mental strength needed to move in a way that must have seemed impossible to you!" I'm so thankful for his encouragement, and for the rest of my crew who encouraged me to keep going during that final mile. (Here's me and Paul at the finish line.)

Then as I got a little closer to the track, I saw my friend Kaci Lickteig. I look up to her so much. I admire her not only for her athletic abilities (she has WON the Western States 100!), but also for her radiating happiness, humility, and kindness. She gave me a high five and said she was so happy that I was going to finish. (This is a photo with Kaci a few weeks ago at Western States Training Camp.)

I can't describe the emotions I felt when I got to the track. I just had to circle the track to get to the finish line. As I approached the finish line I heard Celine Dion playing over the loud speakers, courtesy of my friends John Medinger and Lisa Henson who were the finish line announcers. Suddenly my ears hurt as bad as everything else on my body. With less than 5 minutes left, I crossed the finish line of the Western States 100!
Photo by the amazing Michael Miller / Mas Korima

I knelt down on the track absolutely overcome with emotion. (And if we're being completely honest here, overcome with exhaustion too.)

I really can't fathom the fact that I was so close to cutoffs for the last 90 miles (!!!) of the race. There were so many times when I wasn't sure I'd even be able to make it to the track. To finally make it to the finish line left me overcome with emotion. I kissed the ground below me. Renowned photographer Howie Stern happened to capture the image.
Photo by the amazing Howie Stern / Howie Stern Photography

I stood up and was hugged by Jared Thorley, the man who helped me along that final 22 mile grueling push. I've never had to dig so deep before. I've never wanted to punch someone in the throat so much. Once I saw this picture from Paul Nelson, I suddenly didn't care that I hadn't gotten any pictures with Jared along the course. This picture is a perfect summary of the experience we shared.
Photo by the amazing Paul Nelson / Paul Nelson Photography

I gave Mel a kiss. She has been my rock and my greatest support and my best friend. I'm so happy I was able to share this moment with her. (Sorry about the 90 mile long anxiety attack I caused Mel!)
Photo by the amazing Paul Nelson / Paul Nelson Photography

After a minute, a nice man with an official-looking badge came over to say hello. Then he grabbed my arm and said "Let's go for a walk." Pretty soon I found out that "Let's go for a walk," means "You need to go to the medical tent." Don't worry. It was nothing that a can of Coke and a 90 second power nap couldn't fix. #imnotdead

At the awards ceremony I got to spend a few minutes talking with Gordy Ainsleigh who, more than 40 years ago, was the first person to show that human beings are capable of running 100 miles. 
Photo by the amazing Steve Hooper / St. George Running Center

The volunteers at the Western States 100 were exceptional. They were kind and encouraging and helpful. Finishing Western States was the epitome of a team effort. My crew believed in me when I had a hard time believing in myself. They helped me find strengthen I didn't know I had. I deeply love each person on my team. Thank you Mel. Thank you Kendra. Thank you Jared. Thank you Steve.

I can't express how thankful I am to UltraRunning Magazine for the opportunity to run Western States. Thanks to my great sponsors Altra Running, St. George Running Center, Tailwind Nutrition, Injinji, UltrAspire, and Dr. Pepper. (Okay, that last one may be wishful thinking.) 

At the finish line of the Western States 100, a dream came true. It was an experience I will always cherish. Running has taught me that we are capable of more than we know. We can do hard things. Being stubborn and determined can take you a long way. The harder you work for something, the more it means to you. Dream big. There is intense, deep satisfaction in knowing you gave your all.


If you are a runnerd like me and like reading about running, I just released my new book "Into The Furnace: How a 135 mile run across Death Valley set my soul on fire." It's full of juicy stories about embracing suffering, facing fears, and how to look people in the eyes after you have just thrown up on your feet. You can find it on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible.