Badwater 135. July 2018
Badwater 135 2018
The last hurrah
“Maximize your potential” I had made that my mantra for the three months leading up to the race and hopefully during the race all the way to the finish line. I made the decision that this would be my last time doing the Badwater 135 ultramarathon. Having been on the starting line four times previously with three finishers buckles already, I felt like after this year, it would be time to move on to other challenges and to allow someone else to take a shot at this grueling and iconic event.
I was ready. Though I didn’t put in as many miles this year compared to last year, the quality of them was much higher. I had done way more high intensity work. Mentally, I was about as sharp as I could be. Plus, having done so well last year, I felt that I was in a good position to improve significantly this year.
I had assembled a solid crew. Brian Alexander, my mental skills coach, who crewed me last year would be my Crew Captain. My brother Jake would join me for this awesome experience too. In early June, I added George Chmiel, a cousin of one of my doctor friends. A total stud, he had an amazing transcontinental run under his belt. A high-energy, high achieving guy, he would prove to be a “strong pick up,” to the team.
Surprisingly, up until about four hours before the race, I noticed that I didn’t have any prerace jitters. I couldn’t tell if this was a good thing or a bad thing. In years past, I was wound up pretty tight in anticipation of the magnitude of the Badwater 135. It sounds kinda silly but my ultra life revolves around this race. All my training is focused on it. Badwater is my Super Bowl.
The weatherman predicted higher than normal temperatures. Part of me wanted it to be as hot as possible. I had plenty of intense heat training. ”Bring on the heat baby” I told myself. “Give me all you got!” Boy would I regret those thoughts.
Driving out for the 9:30 pm starting wave, the car thermometer registered 120°. “Let’s get this going,” I told myself. The previous brief period of having butterflies passed. I couldn’t have been more at peace. It was almost as if I was just going out for a simple nighttime training run.
After our last minute checks and the obligatory starting line photos, we assembled at the Badwater Basin sign. Soon we were off.
The Gods blessed us with no wind, unlike last year when we had gale force winds. However, the air felt as thick as mud due to the blazing temps. I settled into a nice pace, probably about 10 minutes per mile. It seemed effortless. As is always the case early in my ultras, I had to keep pumping the brakes so as to conserve energy for the miles ahead. I cruised into Furnace Creek, mile 17, which was the first time station. Like I would do it every stop going forward, I consumed calories and picked up new water bottles containing my electrolyte drink. After three hours of running, I noted that my black shorts were accumulating a great deal of white salt residue. I reminded myself to make sure to take in adequate electrolytes to prevent future problems due to the hotter than expected conditions.
We runners were pretty well spaced out my now. I really enjoyed this next 25 mile section, heading towards the second time station in Stovepipe Wells. Though still around 115°, I chipped away at the miles with very little effort. Despite having consumed tons of liquids, I wouldn’t take my first pee until six hours into the race. Of course I was sweating tons but it evaporated so quickly such that my clothes remained completely dry. I felt really strong heading into Stovepipe Wells. 40 miles in, I could tell that I was very well trained. I had done my homework.
As dawn broke, my crew let me have my first break. I sat on the back of the van for about five minutes. I had my first Coke and some solid food. Brian used the rollers on my muscles. For heat and sun protection, I put on my long sleeve shirt, my DeSoto Cool Head cooling balaclava and got back on my feet. This set up worked well, allowing me to dissipate heat by my crew soaking my clothes frequently with ice cold water. A bandana containing ice tied around my neck helped out even more.
Next up: the push up Towne’s pass. With a 5000 foot climb over 16 miles and with the heat of the sun now on our back, it’s a really tough slog. Almost no one runs this section. But anytime we hit a flat segment or a rare slight downhill, I tried to run slowly. But again, I had to run smart and conserve. Only one third of the way in, discipline was of highest priority. George would be my first pacer through here. His presence injected me with energy. I loved being with him because he’s so darned positive. Brian and Jake took turns pacing me also. Jake’s ankle had been really hurting him the last few months and of course it blew up during the race. He wouldn’t be able pace me any further as a result.
At the top of Towne’s Pass, we took a couple quick pictures and I began the descent down into Panamint Valley. It was hot before. But now, it was frickin’ blazin’. My crew would sponge me and spray me down with ice cold water but within minutes my clothes would become parched dry again. I knew the heat would really take a toll on my guys so I didn’t want a pacer for this section and the section through Panamint Valley, the hottest part of the race. I needed them to stay as fresh and energized as possible.
Running across the long straight road over the Panamint salt pan, the searing crosswinds singed my legs. I actually thought I had been stung by something because of the burning sensation. I laughed inside thinking” How wild is this?!” It’s been crazy hot in my previous Badwater’s but at this point, it felt the hottest ever.
To get a quick experience of the scalding heat and to take pictures through here, lots of tourists were getting out of their cars but leaving them on with the A/C running. Impulsively, I almost jumped into the back seat of one to get a brief escape from the kiln I was baking in. Just as I was about to open the door, I saw a huge cooler filling the back seat which left me no space to crash. Majorly bummed, I took it as a sign that I should just suck it up and carry on.
Though I still had been feeling relatively strong, the last 30 miles in the intense heat had started taking its toll. I had become so damn thirsty and hungry. My crew allowed me another break inside an air-conditioned cottage, at the Panamint Springs Resort. Other runners were strewn out across the floor with their legs up. I would do the same. I stretched while guzzling down some drinks. I devoured most of an ice cream bar. Melting quickly, half of it dropped on the nasty carpet but I picked up as much of it as I could and shoved it in my mouth with my dirty, sweaty fingers. It was delicious! I considered licking the rest of it up off the carpet but thought that probably wouldn’t be a good idea. I wasn’t a dog!
After a quick change of socks, I headed back out. Going from 72° air to 127° air felt like I had landed on the planet Mercury. Imagine the blast of heat you get when opening the oven door when baking something. But for hours on end…that’s Badwater man!
For the next ten miles, my crew didn’t have many options to pull over because there were limited shoulders on the side of the road. This meant that they couldn’t cool me as often as I’d like. The temps seemed to be easing a bit as I climbed up towards Father Crowley Point, but it was still awfully toasty!
I finally made it to the crew van where a chair and a turkey wrap awaited me. By now, I was really dragging. I had very little physical and mental energy. Just as I was about to start going again, I saw the crew van of my good buddy fly by. Since I hadn’t seen him since the start of the race, this meant he likely dropped out. I felt absolutely horrible for him. But, I had to focus on my race.
I peeled myself out of the chair and tried to start running. I simply couldn’t. I had to walk a half mile or so before I could ease back into running. My legs had stiffened. My stomach felt bloated. This is a perfect example of why ultramarathoners say “Beware the chair.” Sitting down during a race can do more harm than good.
It was here that I noticed that I developed “sausage fingers” preventing me from making a fist. From my knees down I became extremely swollen. My normally loose watch strap was now tight on my wrist. I had been taking tons of electrolyte tablets and hydrating plenty. It certainly kept me out of trouble but I think I may have overshot the mark. I was making nice light-yellow (non-bloody) urine but the high sodium intake caused me to retain fluids. Over the next several hours, I would back off on the salt tabs and I noted that my fingers and ankles became less swollen .
Heading towards mile 90, I psyched myself up for what for me is the hardest part of this stupid event. Darwin to Lone Pine is a 32 mile Godforsaken stretch of highway that has tormented me every year. I hate it. It’s always at night. It’s always still hot. It’s dark. There is no civilization. There are no landmarks to measure one’s progress. It’s super late in the race. My spirits are always at an all-time low through here. But, I had prepared for this with my mental skills coach Brian for the last six months. I kept telling myself to “maximize my potential.”
To be quite blunt, that is much, much “easier said than done.” I ran pretty well from mile 90 to 100. Then, I just seemed to lose my drive. At one point, I had to remind myself that “This is frickin’ Badwater damnit!” This thought helped me pick up the pace for a few miles. It was short-lived. The accumulated miles and lack of sleep had made my mind numb. I lost my fire and my drive. I wasn’t sleepwalking at this point like in years past. And no sleep-deprivation hallucinations either, like in some years. But I had kind of zoned out like a zombie. I wanted to be “in the zone.” It pains me to say it but I feel like I wimped out through here.
As I’m writing this several weeks after the race, my friends have been telling me that I’m being too hard on myself. Probably. One usually is their own worst critic.
George paced me in to Lone Pine. Miles 115 to 122 sucked. Each mile felt like five miles. Coming through Lone Pine around 5:30 am, I walked instead of ran through the time station. Now just 13 miles up towards Lone Pine and I’d be done with Badwater.
As the second dawn broke, Mt Whitney and the Eastern Sierra Mountains revealed their peaks while I remained in the shadow of the mountains of the Owens Valley. Again, I tried to run the continuously uphill Whitney Portal Road. Nope…it wasn’t gonna happen. I still made pretty good time fast-walking. I had realized hours ago that I wouldn’t make my goal time. Knowing that really put me in a funk. Though I knew I would finish, I felt defeated. Now, I was pretty much just going through the motions. Badwater had broken me.
George, Brian and Jake paced me up the Portal Road. The sun had risen and the temperatures climbed equal to my climb toward the finish. Two other racers passed me, crushing me even more. I just didn’t have it in me to try to hang with them. I told myself just to run my own race and not worry about others. (There’s a lesson that applies to life in general!)
It’s hard to describe the emotions one feels when crossing the finish of the Badwater 135. It’s almost anticlimactic. I’m always so beat up that I can’t fully take it in. The satisfaction of finishing and the euphoria of it finally being over is tempered by the utter exhaustion of going 135 miles in such difficult conditions. Per custom, my crew and I crossed together and exchanged hugs of support and congratulations. Race director Chris Kostman gave me my fourth finisher’s buckle, of which I’m very proud. But…
As a competitive athlete, I always strive to improve. My time of 36 hours and 21 minutes put me approximately a half hour slower than last year and four places lower in the standings for 29th place. People trying to console me remind me that it was super hot this year. But I counter with the fact that it was super hot for everybody doing the race and many people still improved their time. What was my excuse? All ultramarathons are tough in their own right. But the Badwater 135 really should be considered one of the hardest races in the world.
I DNF’ed at mile 127 my first go-around. The pain from that took months to get over. Every year since, I finished and successively improved my time. Knowing that I would not be doing the race again, I trained so hard with the goal of “Going out on top.” I didn’t. I told myself “No regrets.” But, now I have them because I regret not pushing myself harder. The pain from that will take forever to get over. And that really hurts.
I also feel like I let down Brian, my mental skills coach who prepared me so well. I just didn’t execute. That’s on me. Preparation is huge. But without execution, all the prep in the world is useless.
I’m tempted to say that last year I reached the peak of my athletic capabilities. I’m tormented by painful thoughts that I might be on the downhill now, age-wise. However, I have hope from knowing many people in their 50’s who are still killin’ it. I guess the difference might be that those people are just tougher mentally than I am. That’s a fact I just might have to accept. I have mad respect for anybody who does ultras. I have the greatest respect for those who continually challenge their limits.
I’ve had some great races in my day. This year’s Badwater for me was good…but not great.
So…I gotta keep workin’.
I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to my crew of my big bro Jake, my new BFF George and my soul brother Brian. I’m so grateful for your unselfishness care and concern. You guys rocked it!
Also, thank you to my sponsors:
Just Run-Running store in La Jolla, CA and 4S Ranch, CA
DeSoto Sport-Triathlon gear, apparel and wetsuits
biO2-All natural, all plant-based Brazilian sports nutritional products and bars
First Endurance—Sport Nutrition and maker of Ultragen, my recovery drink
SZENT-Aroma flavored beverages—To be launched soon!
Brian Alexander Athlete Mental Skills Coach
Backcountry.com—On Line retailer
In support of my Charity: DS Action—Racing for those with Down Syndrome