Mel and I sat there with our jaws on the floor watching runners popping blisters, barfing on themselves, and sleep walking as they competed in "the world's toughest foot race". After the movie she looked over and said "I'll support you in whatever you want to do with running. But you can't do that race." I said "Um, you don't need to worry. I have NO desire."
But then a funny thing happened. I finished that first marathon. Then a handful more. Then a bunch of 100 milers. I learned how to take care of myself physically and mentally. Inexplicably, Badwater entered my mind and for the last few years it has been my dream to run this race.
Getting into Badwater is tough. You have to submit a resume and only 100 runners are selected. I was honored to be chosen to run this year. To Mel's gigantic credit, she has been 100% supportive of Badwater and I think she long forgot what she said years ago since seeing that I have learned more as a runner.
I chose my crew of Mel, Toby Nishikawa, Jud Burkett, and Clair Coleman. Runners must have a crew accompany them during the race because there are no aid stations. We had lots of correspondence and planning before the race, and then on July 17th we loaded into a van I rented and we headed to Death Valley. It was a surreal moment to be handed my Badwater bib at checkin after having this goal for so many years.
The night before the race, we had the official pre-race meeting in Furnace Creek where it was 121 degrees at 6:00pm. The next day we relaxed, did some packing, and decorated our van for the 8:00pm start time:
On the evening of the 18th, my crew and I headed to Badwater Basin where the hottest temperature ever on Earth was recorded (134 degrees). A few minutes before the race started, director Chris Kostman played the National Anthem over a speaker. I freaking love this race tradition. During the song, I closed my eyes and tried to take in the moment. I thought about the support from my friends and family. I thought about my selfless crew. I thought about my amazing wife and kids. I thought about how blessed I am to have a body that is able to run. Tears rolled down my face as I was filled with gratitude and happiness. After the National Anthem I hugged Mel and the race started.
I focused on starting off very conservatively. We had a glorious tailwind for many miles. Granted, it felt like a blow torch that was going to melt my clothes off, which would have been incredibly embarrassing. But at least the blow torch was on our backs instead of faces. The crew can meet runners every two miles to refill bottles and help as needed. We neared the first check point at Furnace Creek, mile 17. This is one of the few places along the course that has actual food. Mel asked "What do you want me to buy for you to eat?" I said "Surprise me."
When I got to Furnace Creek a half hour later I met up with my crew and Mel had bought me a burrito. I big, long, spicy burrito. But it wasn't just any average burrito. This thing was called THE BOMB! Now I'm a Badwater rookie. But I figure that eating something called The Bomb in the middle of the hardest race of my life may not be the best idea.
I felt it best to avoid a gastrointestinal nuclear explosion and passed on The Bomb. Here is a picture of my crew who was The Bomb holding The Bomb. This is Clair, and Matt Gunn who dropped Toby off at Furnace Creek to crew, then Mel, Toby, and Jud.
Throughout the first night, physically I felt okay overall. The biggest challenge on the first night is the fact that with the layout of the course, you can pretty much see the blinking of tail lights from crew vehicles for 20-30 miles into the distance. And 20-30 miles of blinking tail lights in the darkness looks remarkably similar to 8,741 miles of blinking tail lights. It's best to just not even look ahead more than 10 feet. The moon was so bright that I didn't need my headlamp all night except to check and make sure my urine didn't look like V8 Juice. (Thankfully it never did.) Eventually light began to appear on the horizon.
There aren't any bathrooms or portable toilets in the middle of Death Valley. You have to bring your own provisions for that kind of stuff. We packed along a little poop tent affectionately named The Tent Of Shame. One time when I arrived at the van, ol' Tent Of Shame was set up and Mel and Toby were inside. I'm not going to ask questions about why they were both in there. I can only assume they decided to share The Bomb.
I had been running by myself for quite a while and was beginning to bonk. Suddenly out of the blue I heard loud cheering and screaming and clapping behind me. I looked back and saw another runner coming. It was Jimmy Dean Freeman yelling "Go Cory!!!" He has run the race before and said "It's normal to be in kind of a funk right now. Just get to the sand dunes. There is a special spirit there. I promise you'll feel better." We talked for a bit, then he continued ahead. I reached the sand dunes right as the sun was rising and saw this beautiful sight. Jimmy ended up being exactly right.
In the distance you can see one of the mountain ranges we would soon be climbing over:
Within minutes after the sun came up, I began getting that nagging feeling of "Uh oh. I feel like a chicken inside a vat of boiling oil at Kentucky Fried Chicken."
When I arrived at Stovepipe Wells, mile 42, I was able to start having pacers. Clair took the first turn. I didn't wear a Garmin because I intentionally didn't want to know my pace or mileage. I just wanted to push and do the best I could. When Clair started running with me he said "Hey, I know this isn't what you want to hear, but you need to pick it up a bit to make sure you make the cutoff in 8 miles." For a moment I felt frustrated and discouraged. I hadn't sat down once in 42 miles and I had kept a steady pace. I couldn't believe I was already up against a cutoff. I tried to use that frustration as fuel to get myself up and over the first mountain pass. I had renewed energy and determination. I would run for a while, then take a short walk break, walking as fast as I could.
We beat the first cutoff at mile 50 by about a half hour. I had heard the first cutoff was the hardest but I didn't want to be cutting it that close. My crew was positively stellar. They worked like a well-oiled machine. A bottle of Tailwind and two bottles of ice water every two miles. Ice in the hat and bandana every two miles. An S-Cap every two miles. Trying to coax me to eat a bit of solid food every two miles. A hit of Dr. Pepper every two miles. They would rotate who was driving, who was filling bottles, and who was running with me. Their kindness would have made me cry....if I had a spare drop of fluid in my body. Jud took this cool picture of me and Clair coming down Townes Pass around mile 60.
The next big checkpoint was at Panamint Springs, mile 72. It was the next opportunity to get some real food and interact with civilization for a bit. But before we got there, we had to cross a large, dry lake bed. I'd heard this was one of the hottest spots on the course. (It was.) I'd heard that if it was windy, enormous dust storms could whip up. (They did.) The wind was gusting as Clair and I entered a miles-long cloud of blowing dust. We could only see a few feet ahead of us. Clair said he thinks it blew the hair right off his legs. Again Jud captured this amazing shot as we were emerging from the dust storm:
I arrived at Panamint Springs at 4:23pm, more than 7 hours before the cutoff which felt good. At the resort, I took a 5 minute cold shower and changed my clothes. Best. Five. Minutes. EVER. I ate a turkey wrap. Then visited renowned foot care specialist John Vonhof to have some blisters doctored. With the scorching hot pavement, my feet felt like baked potatoes wrapped in tin foil. It's no wonder this can make the feet a bit grumpy. I hated spending more than an hour at Panamint getting fixed but I'm sure it saved future hassles. (The calf sleeves helped prevent the radiating heat from the road from burning my legs.)
From there, we had our second mountain range to climb. Jud was with me for almost all of that section. I felt bad for not being very social. I just turned on my music (a new album from Needtobreathe on repeat) and tried to go to my happy place. The climb was, well, brutal and eternal. But a highlight was seeing fighter jets cruising right above us and BELOW us across the valley floor from a nearby training base. It was spectacular to watch. As we reached the top of the mountain range at Father Crowley Point (mile 80), a full moon rose behind us leaving me speechless. The views were like standing in a postcard.
For me, this was the point where Badwater truly became the world's toughest foot race. With the darkness of the second night came sleep deprivation unlike anything I've ever experienced. It was suffocating and agonizing. I took No-Doz and felt no difference. I drank energy drinks. Nothing. This is where Clair was a true saint. I could not break myself out of the sleep walking. Clair stayed with me mile after mile. He talked with me to keep me awake. This will sound strange, but I had an hours-long conversation with him while running/walking and I don't remember a thing. I was asleep the whole time. I deeply hate that feeling of being so tired that I stumble myself awake because I almost fall.
This demolishing sleep deprivation is why everyone I talked to who has run both a morning start and a night start at Badwater has said that the night start is harder because of two full nights on the course. At three points throughout the night I laid down for 20 minutes to try and rejuvenate myself. I couldn't fall asleep on the first two stops because my feet and knees were achy, and my nose was so full of dirt that I couldn't breathe very good. I understand that this paragraph makes running sound like the worst hobby ever. But Badwater isn't supposed to be easy. This challenge, the prospect of really pushing myself is what drew me to Badwater in the first place.
The other challenge I experienced from this point until the end of the race is that my stomach absolutely would not tolerate any solid food. Nothing. I relied on liquid calories. I drank a hit of soda when my van met me, and drank Tailwind in between. The Tailwind undoubtedly saved my race. I prayed so hard that once I saw the second sunrise of the race I would start to wake up. I knew two mountain ranges were behind me and that the hardest climb lay ahead. Check out the elevation profile - what lay ahead looked terrifying:
The sun peaked over the mountain at mile 109. Again I found myself feeling like a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Now was Toby's time to shine. She was a combination of drill sergeant/cheerleader/shoulder to cry on. She kept me moving faster than I would on my own. This race report is just a Reader's Digest version of Badwater. There is enough to write a book about. Actually, that's the plan. But I've also got another ultrarunning book about to be released. We had a pre-order goal which, if met, would trigger an appearance of the hideous, skin-tight cat unitard. You guys rock. The goal was met. And the cat outfit showed up at mile 109 with an accompanying jump. I can only imagine that other runners thought they were hallucinating.
Every once in a while I'd get to the van and ask for two minutes in the chair. They kindly held an umbrella over me, then kicked me out when my time was up.
The last 25 miles were so indescribably hard. I admit, going into Badwater I knew it would be crazy hard. But I felt confident that my heat training was good. I knew that I had run races with more elevation gain. I had run a 150 miler. I had run a 205 miler. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the difficulty of Badwater. It turns out that Badwater was exponentially harder than anything I've ever experienced. Even now, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the difficulty of that race.
We slowly approached Mount Whitney where we were given one final kick to the groin as runners climb nine BILLION feet in the final 13 miles. When approaching the climb, you can see the emotional breakdown-inducing switchbacks that were created by Satan himself.
During the final climb up the mountain, each crew member joined me for a mile or two. Those were such special miles. I was suffering more than I could have imagined, but I loved reminiscing with them. I knew I wouldn't be approaching the finish line if it weren't for them. The road had just been redone with a fresh coat of tar and the heat was radiating from the street hotter than ever before. This is the kind of afternoon heat that makes shoes melt.
Toward the end, I met up with my friend Ed "The Jester" Ettinghausen who finished the race earlier. Not only has he been one of my biggest role models as a runner, but he was the biggest influence and support in getting into and preparing for Badwater. I so much admire his kindness and enthusiasm. I hugged him with every ounce of strength I still had when we saw each other. (To him it probably felt like hugging a dead fish.)
Mel was with me for the last mile. I'll always treasure that moment. She pulled out and read me some letters my girls had written. On the envelope it said "WARNING - Only open on tough times and when you feel down. I'm sure it will cheer you up!!!" I cried.
Soon afterward I experienced something I had been dreaming of for years. I saw the finish line in front of me. I was filled with emotion. Again, as I had done 135 miles earlier, I closed my eyes and tried to take in every bit of this life-changing moment. (PC: race director Chris Kostman)
I want to thank my amazing running sponsors. I feel so incredibly blessed to work with amazing companies, amazing products, and most importantly the amazing people behind them. Gigantic thanks to Ultra Adventures, and St. George Running Center, and Tailwind Nutrition, and Altra, and UltrAspire.
I have the greatest kids ever. Thank you Jackson, Danica, and Kylee for supporting my dream. And thanks to the sweetest, most compassionate, supportive wife ever. I am the luckiest guy in the world to have Mel for a wife.
I am so thankful for the body God has given me. I'm thankful for prayers that were answered. I'm thankful for the repeated lights of hope that God pierced my heart with during the race when I began to despair.
I'm so thankful for the best crew ever. I love each of these people who filled a valuable role in helping me get to the finish line. That finish was 100% a team effort. HERE is an article Jud wrote for The Spectrum from a crew perspective. Thank you Toby, Jud, Mel, and Clair.
My experience at Badwater taught me some lessons that I'll never forget. We can do hard things. We are capable of so much more than we could imagine. Let the love of others fill you with hope. When life tries to knock you down (by way of a leg hair removing sand storm), keep fighting. Don't give up. Smile. Even if you don't feel like it. A jumping picture a day keeps the blisters away. (Okay. That's a complete and utter lie.) Dream big! Live without regrets. The harder you have to work for something, the more it will mean to you. There is intense, deep satisfaction in knowing you gave your all. The sport of ultrarunning has transformed me and I will never be the same.