Sunday, July 16, 2017

Badwater 135 Ultramarathon Race Report 2017

I knew I was in for an adventure when I threw up before the race even started. Badwater is no joke. Imagine running 135 miles...across Death Valley...over three huge mountain 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!