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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great article! Congrats to all of you! Love the book too.
    BTW, I took that photo of the four of you jumping in the air ;)

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  11. This heartfelt account of the Badwater experience is incredibly moving and captivating. Luke's vivid storytelling and candid reflections offer a glimpse into the challenges, camaraderie, and triumphs of the race and crewing. Reading this, one can't help but be inspired by the dedication, resilience, and profound bonds forged amidst the grueling journey through the furnace of Badwater.