Tuesday, August 21, 2018

World's Toughest Foot Race - A Glimpse Into Badwater

This year I had the opportunity to pace and crew Andy Lohn at Badwater. (Race report HERE.) One of my fellow crew members was Luke Thoreson. Luke worked with me to write the book Into The Furnace. Not only is he hilarious, but he is also an exceptional writer. I asked if he'd like to write about his experience with Badwater, and here is what he came up with, along with some more photos I took during the race:

I walked a few steps away from the van as the rain continued to pelt down. I was at that point where you can’t really get any wetter (besides the hail had stopped), so I walked over to the edge of the road, pulled off my Nowhere Near First hat, and tilted my head up to the sky, closing my eyes. Conveniently we were parked at my favorite spot on the Badwater 135 course, the first sweeping switchback after the Portal Road check-point where the road surrounds a raised circular peninsula of rock and sand. Just three more miles. With Andy and the rest of the crew waiting out the storm by eating cookies in the van, I was alone for the first time since the race began 43 hours earlier. I reached up and wiped a few rain drops off my face. Yep, just rain. 100% all-natural, free-range, gluten-free water. Nothing but good ol’ H2O.

Just kidding. I sobbed.

They were tears of joy, of relief, of being so tired that I didn’t really know what else to do. I sank down into a crouch and pulled the neck of my Farmaste t-shirt up over my face like a bandit in one of the western movies shot in the area. Andy was going to finish. I pulled my shirt off and threw it into the air, thrusting both arms skyward like Andy Dufresne at the end of Shawshank. Andy was going to finish! Emotions, especially fueled on two hours of sleep over three days and multiple cans of Red Bull – is this number 4…no, wait there was that one outside Darwin, so that makes this number 5 - come fast and furious. Like a toddler playing with a “See ‘n’ Say,” the arrow of emotions spun around again, this time landing on “The Luke says ‘Time to get back to work.’” I walked over, picked up my shirt, put my hat back on, and started thinking about how to rearrange the van to get all five people back down to Lone Pine.

This was my fifth-year crewing at Badwater, slowly morphing from a “one-in-a lifetime opportunity” as I tried to sell my wife Kelly on the idea the first year to an annual “run-cation” that I start looking forward to the moment it’s over. During racer check-in, as Cory signed copies of Into the Furnace and posed for pictures, I’d talk to the people waiting their turn (I was also coerced into signing two books – I’m sorry for ruining your resale value).

“Wow, this is your fifth year? Crewing must be easy for you by now. None of us have been on a crew before. What advice do you have?”

First off, nothing about Badwater is easy. Nothing. It is a race that is designed to be as difficult as possible, not only for the runner but also for the crew. An evening start causes sleep deprivation issues right off the bat. Four people stuffed in a van, along with a literal mountain of candy, soda, chips, and this year for the first time in my five years, vegetables. (Cory and I were on the same page as we dragged multiple carts around a Wal-Mart in Las Vegas the day before. I’d reach out towards the Swedish Fish, glancing back at him, and he’d nod. I grabbed two packages only to turn and see him grinning with two fingers raised. Two packages is clearly the right number of Swedish Fish).
Much like Jon Snow, Death Valley likes to remind you “You know nothing, Luke Thoreson.” (Here is what Luke looks like trying to organize mounds of Wal-Mart stuff the day before the race.)

Intricately detailed pace chart where you’ve created a formula based on averaging each checkpoint of every runner from the past four years who finished between 32 and 39 hours? Cool, toss it in the trash when your runner starts vomiting. Carefully organized van with supplies arranged into multiple bins? We lost a bottle of sunscreen about mile 50 and it was never seen again. There was a show on MTV back in the early 2000s called “Diary” that opened each episode with a bunch of people saying “You think you know [what it’s like to be a professional clown, addicted to plastic surgery, etc]….but you have no idea.” Going into the race, my first year as crew chief, I thought I knew what to expect, my feathers peacocking even further out having literally co-written a book on the race.

As Andy emptied the contents of his stomach onto the still scorching hot pavement around mile 31, my first thought was for the safety of my water bottle which was…well, front row at a Gallagher stand-up special (“Sledge-o-matic!”). My second thought was that I had no idea what to do. We were less than 5 hours into the race, and already he was struggling to keep down food. I froze like the proverbial deer in headlights as the rest of the crew swarmed into action. Paul has extensive ultramarathon experience having run some of the toughest winter races in the world (and will add Iditarod, sans dogs to pull his sled, to his resume this year). Oh, and he’s also a registered nurse. If you’ve read this blog, you’re well familiar with the contents of Cory’s stomach and the variety of locations that he’s painted over the years. Finally, Erika, bringing a maternal – and spousal – truly, madly, deeply doooo (sorry, turned into Savage Garden there for a second) knowledge of her husband and unconditional love and support.

When someone asks you to be on their crew, they’re basically tossing you the keys to their dad’s vintage convertible and trusting that you’re not going to drive it into the city, pretend to be Abe Froman – the Sausage King of Chicago – and end up dancing on a float to Twist and Shout. They are trusting you with their hopes, and their dreams, and their safety. Nobody makes it to that finish line without their crew, and Andy had a great crew. Mostly, I just wanted to avoid screwing anything up too badly. Basically, I was a “Cameron” instead of a “Ferris” this year, constantly worrying, fretting, and planning on what to do and what needed to be done.

It didn’t help that Andy reenacting Pompeii multiple times left him chasing time cut-offs. As the “numbers guy,” I started checking and rechecking his progress every few miles as the buffer he had built up was shrinking with every cramp-filled step. After the explosion of joy of making the first cut-off, almost immediately I started looking at the next cut-off. It followed the van around like a black cloud following Eeyore that we just couldn’t shake. I don’t think anyone truly felt like he was safe until we made the turn onto Portal Road. It was finally time to exhale - Travis Rex even found the time to do some pacing - and the entire crew was able to relax.

Actually, let me talk specifically about one member of the crew for a minute.

“So how long have you known Cory?” my friend Derek asked as we stood around at pre-race check-in. I puffed out my cheeks in the international symbol of “well, let me think,” before announcing “Gosh it’s been…a little over 24 hours.” I didn’t meet Cory – none of us met Cory – until the Saturday morning before the race. Throughout the entire book writing process, we talked on the phone a couple of times, but mostly it was us exchanging drafts via email as I tried to sneak in as many pop-culture references as possible (“Where Al was going, he didn’t need roads” was my shout-out to Back to the Future). Feel free to blame/praise (but probably blame) me for many of those additions to the book.

When Andy was looking to build out his crew, Cory’s name came up. Andy was the one who introduced me to Cory’s writing (and I remember him nudging me one year at Badwater and saying “That guy over there? That’s Cory Reese”), and thought he’d make an excellent crew member. I was more on the fence. Nothing against Cory personally – I was thinking about being stuck in a van with someone I had never met before. What if his breath smelled? What if he didn’t want to do any work? What if…

For those of you who haven’t met Cory in person, “live” Cory and “blog” Cory are very similar. Incredibly funny. High energy. Deeply passionate and caring. He truly is an amazing human being.
And the dude knows everyone. Or more correctly, everyone knows him. Walking up to Zabriskie Point before the race, we heard a “Cory? Oh my gosh, so good to see you!” As he rejoined the rest of us, I announced “Cory Count: 1.” Trying to aw-shucks his way out of it, he explained that the only people who know him are from Utah. So when the Cory Count went to 2, I asked the person if she was from Utah (Nope). Same thing with Cory Count 3 and 4 - although to his credit 5 and 7 were both Utah…ians? Utes? Utahi? I stopped paying attention once the Cory Count hit 12.

And as nervous as we were about Cory, I can only imagine his feeling of getting in a van with multiple strangers. We might as well have painted “Free Dr. Pepper” on the side of the van just to make it seem as sketchy as possible. But Cory was not afraid of Stranger Danger and at no point did we sedate him and harvest a kidney for the black market, which I’m assuming was his biggest fear (I did think about secretly switching out his Dr. Pepper for Diet Dr. Pepper – which I’m guessing was his second biggest fear - but never mess with another man’s favorite drink).

It took all four of us, working together, tirelessly, devotedly, completely focused on getting Andy to the finish line and to the slab of metal and a black “Official Finisher” t-shirt that waited for him there. For those of us in the van, we had a front row seat to something amazing. It truly is a captivating spectacle and there is nothing like being a part of it. During those few days, there is nothing but Badwater. You wake up on Monday, you go to bed on Wednesday. And in between is Badwater.

But Badwater doesn’t end on Wednesday.

Badwater never really ends.

Badwater is more than a race. It’s more than a place. For a week each July, Badwater is embodied by 100ish runners and 400ish crew members who are united in a desire to succeed, to push themselves, to be great today. Badwater is a dream. Badwater can be a nightmare. Badwater is a way of life. I got a message from Erika after the race that read simply, “I get it now.”

One of the things that I loved about being a part of Into the Furnace (besides ranting about Arnold Palmer in Chapter 2) was attempting to put Badwater into words, and sharing what Badwater means with a wider audience. My parents – who would just ask “How was it” after previous years - were suddenly full of questions after reading the book. “How was it coming across the Panamint Valley this year? Did you see any fighter jets? Did you say hi to The Jester?”

I’m so thankful to Cory for letting me be a part of the story of Badwater, and thankful to have made a new friend. I’m so thankful to Erika, and Paul, and Cory for being part of the crew. And for Julie, and Mel, and Kelly for understanding what Badwater means to each of us and dealing with our week long absences.

I’m thankful to Andy for being great today. For showing grit and determination and focus and drive and fighting harder than I’ve ever seen him fight before.

I’m thankful for people like Al Arnold who dream and who inspire others – like Andy – to dream.

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.