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.