2017 Badwater Ultramarathon recap
“Russ, you are ready!!” “You’ve done everything right to prepare for this race.” “Russ, all your training and racing over the years has lead up to this race.” “Russ, you are gonna crush this race. “
These are but a few words I heard from friends in the days before Badwater.
I had to agree. I had done everything possible to have the race of my life. I had “put in the work” as my good buddy “Coach” Tom Atwell said. I raced hard in a marathon, 50 milers and an 81 miler leading up to the start. I had run from LA to San Diego once per month three months in a row. I ran a quality 52 miles on my birthday just five days after the Rock and Roll Marathon. Lots of brutal heat training. Plenty of altitude/hypoxia training. Tons of high intensity nausea-inducing strength workouts. Lots of quality 7, 10, 12, 20 and 30 mile runs. I also had paid great attention to taking care of my body by placing a priority on sleep in the preceding weeks. I was strong and injury free. I had worked on spine, core and hip flexibility and strength. My weight was down to 142 and I kept myself very lean.
Perhaps most importantly, I had really worked on mental toughness training. I worked with my new mental skills coach, Brian Alexander. We had prepared a “mental skills toolbox” so I would have options to deal with the really tough parts of the race. My primary focus was to maximize my athletic potential before and specifically during the race.
I wanted to kick ass in this race more than in any before. To me an optimal completion of Badwater would be a manifestation of MY peak physical and mental functioning. I acted as if I may never have this opportunity again to execute my best and in such a challenging “arena.” It was time…and… I WAS READY!!
We had our pre-race crew meeting one week before up in Temecula. We shared some food, beers and excited energy in anticipation of a great time. We went through race logistics and planned everything in detail. My guys had things worked out as if it was a military operation. Already hungry to get up to Death Valley, we were now more jacked than ever.
I met Brian and Tom at Tom’s house Sunday morning then picked up Joe Nakamura at his house in Riverside. We arrived in Death Valley just in time for the final runner and crew captain meeting. Amazingly, we all made the mistake of having missed the official check-in thinking that it was to be on Monday instead of Sunday. We kicked ourselves silently for having made such an egregious miscalculation. We drove like a bat out of hell just to get to the crew captain meeting in time. We were able to get my race number and essential race materials directly from the race director, Chris Kostman, as he was getting out of his car. Like an ashamed school child, I took the bag and sheepishly walked into the meeting. Instead of focusing on race strategy, my mind was now on how stupid I was for making such a rookie error. I kept thinking of how much of a fool I must’ve looked like in Chris’s eyes. We told him that we had “issues” along the way making us late. Boy did we ever!
During the meeting Joe revealed a huge surprise: my good buddy Nathan Longcrier would be coming out after all to be part of my crew. I was ecstatic. What a”huge pickup”. Nate’s knowledge, experience, enthusiasm and positivity would be a gigantic game changer. I asked him several months ago to crew me but he said he would not be available.
Not only did he come through for me in terms crewing but we ended up using his vehicle instead of the monstrous Sprinter van that I had rented that Chris said was too big for the course. Indeed it was as big as an Air Force transport plane. It seemed like it could carry a Sherman tank in the back. Without Nate coming through with his Ford Expedition, I don’t know what we would’ve done at this 11th hour.
That evening, we all then went out for a nice easy two mile run from the motel to the Badwater Road corner and back to stretch our legs and get a taste of the 115° heat. I could tell the crew enjoyed this as they had never run out in the Death Valley oven before. There sure would be plenty more of that to come!
We enjoyed a nice buffet dinner then went next door to the saloon and enjoyed some cold ones even more.
After a decent night’s sleep, Team #98 had a buffet breakfast at the Furnace Creek Restaurant. We then made final preparations for the crew vehicle by taping on my race number and all the sponsor signs.
Joe, Brian and Tom drove all the way up to Lone Pine, a hundred miles away to pick up Nate and swap vehicles. I spent the entire afternoon holed up in the hotel room resting, napping, reading and relaxing. Before long I felt like a tiger in a zoo cage pacing back and forth waiting to get out and pounce. I couldn’t rest anymore. The start was just a few hours away and I couldn’t wait much longer. “Let’s get it on” I told myself.
I had another meal at about 6 PM. This was on the light side knowing that I’d be eating 300+ cal per hour for the next day and a half or so. Was this the “Last Supper?”
Back at the hotel we packed up and made our final final preparations. During the 15 minute drive to the starting line, I said some prayers and reflected on the many months of training and all the hard work of preparation to get me to this point. I reminded myself how fortunate I was to be in this position. I thought of the 99.9% of the population that couldn’t do the Badwater ultramarathon for whatever reason.
Down in Badwater, the temperature was 114° even though it was 9:30 at night and the wind was uncharacteristically blowing at about 30 mph. “What the hell is this?” I asked myself. Could this race get any harder? (Fortunately the winds would only blow for about an hour and a half.)
I picked up my GPS tracking device and weighed in. The team took some obligatory starting line pictures. We then found a quiet space away from the hustle bustle to have a prerace prayer led by “Pastor” Joe Nakamura. He couldn’t have done a better job. As I headed to the starting line I felt like an MMA fighter about to enter the octagon for the biggest fight of his career.
Soon we were off. After the playing of the national anthem, the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon was finally underway. I settled into a nice groove running an easy 9 to 10 minute per mile pace. Despite the high temperatures and the much higher than usual humidity, this pace seemed effortless. My first bump in the road, if you will, turned out to be the high winds that were annoyingly blowing my reflective vest all around my torso. I figured out a way to secure it by looping my race belt around the bottom of the vest. Small victory number one I told myself. The hot desert winds didn’t bother my eyes as I had smartly donned some clear protective eyewear before the start. I first met my crew at the 5 mile mark. I swapped out my two water bottles, one with plain water and the other with Perpeteum. After a quick sponge of ice water on my head, I took off. We made it a point to minimize my stops as much as possible.
My crew and I continued this routine until the first check station in Furnace Creek which was mile 17. The work to this point still seemed effortless. I drank an Ensure, stuffed down a BiO2 protein bar, drank a bottle of water and took some salt tablets pretty much without stopping. The Ensure and the BiO2 would turn out to be my main source of calories going forward. I enjoyed the taste, it didn’t give me any gastrointestinal upset and it allowed me to function at a high level. I made it a point to get at least 300 calories per hour. (It turned out that I amazingly didn’t have ANY gastro-intestinal issues throughout the entire race. This almost never happens in ultramarathons.)
I cruised along all the way to the next time station in Stovepipe Wells at mile 42. The winds subsided. I noted the mountains behind me to the east became more visible as the early stages of daybreak were upon us. A few miles outside Stovepipe, I was treated to a surprising brief rain shower with some lightning strikes. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Rain in Death Valley?! No way.
In Stovepipe I sat down for the first time in the race. Man, did that feel good. Here I would pick up my first pacer, Tom Atwell. I think his excitement to join me was greater than my excitement to have him. His enthusiasm and energy were contagious. He”carried”me up the 18 mile climb up to Townes Pass, elevation approximately 6000 feet. During this climb, the sun came up and the temperature soared to at least 110°. He kept me well hydrated and well fed in between the meetings with the crew. I looked forward to another stop at the Pass before the descent down into Panamint Springs. To my extreme disappointment, the van was not at the Pass. “Where the hell were they,” I asked myself. They knew I wanted to take a photo at this point and to take another break. When they weren’t there I became really, really pissed off. When I saw them on the side the road about two miles past the Pass, I threw my water bottle at them and let out a few expletives. I think to keep me on pace, they didn’t stop on purpose to keep me moving knowing I would’ve taken too long of a break. They acted like they didn’t know that I wanted to stop which made me even angrier. But I knew their game. I told them they were a bunch of bitches. It felt good to release some negative energy as the first stages of crankiness entered the picture. Sixty two miles on my legs, 110 degree blazing heat and a night without sleep were taking their toll.
I then began my fast descent down into the Panamint Valley. Here the temperature was at its highest. It felt like at least 120 and there was no wind. Tom and I made good progress into Panamint Springs which was the next checkpoint.
I noticed though that I was developing “sausage fingers “and that my watchband was becoming tight on my wrist. That meant I was taking too much sodium, causing me to retain fluid. I then backed off the salt tablet intake. Over the next couple hours I noticed that I was peeing off the extra fluid. I really enjoyed solving in-race management issues like this. That’s one of the really cool things about Ultramarathons.
Just a few miles of downhill running opened up a huge blister on the top of my right big toe. It came on very suddenly and I knew that if I didn’t address it immediately it would become a huge problem. I lanced the quarter-sized blister then the guys applied tape around the toe while Tom cut an inch and a half slit in the top of the shoe to open up some extra space. All that did the trick. I didn’t have any blister problems the rest of the way.
However in the last hour or so before the checkpoint, the sleep monster reared its ugly head. It became nearly impossible for me to keep my eyes open. It felt like there were five pound weights on my eyelids. The desire to sleep was overwhelming. I almost panicked knowing that I was only halfway through the race and already having sleep issues. I told the guys that I simply had to try to take a 10 minute nap in the van. I thought they would fight me but they allowed me to sleep after all. They must’ve noticed that my performance was lagging. They put me in the fully reclined passenger seat, cranked the A/C on high then left me alone. Surprisingly I was able to fall asleep in just a few minutes. I woke up after 10 minutes and felt quite refreshed. I sure could have slept more but I was really focused on doing the best that I could in the race.
When I opened the door to get moving again it felt like I was stepping into a brick wall of 115° air. Going from 65° to 115° is a hell of a shock to the system.
I was ready to start running immediately but my crew was nowhere to be found. Again I was reallypissed off. Where the hell were they asked myself. I needed water bottles and calories before I began the next brutal slog up to Father Crowley Point which was around 11 miles away. I left a note for the guys on the front seat saying that I had headed up the road. As soon as I started going I looked back and saw them. They gave me a high-fat ice cream cookie, some more food and some fresh water bottles and away I went. I was proud of my self-discipline for pressing on despite tremendous fatigue and “discomfort.” My mental preparation was paying off. In a mile or so I was joined by one of my crew. Most of this section required power walking because it was so freaking hot and because the difficulty of the climb. We made good progress. I emphasized the importance of getting plenty of fluids and electrolytes and calories. At Father Crowley Point I sat down on the coveted Home Depot bucket again. A hard plastic “throne” had never felt so good before. My guys treated me like a king, massaging my muscles while stuffing food in my mouth and sponging ice cold water over my head, neck, shoulders and arms. Several times up to this point my hip flexor muscles became very tight and painful. I laid down on the side of the road and Joe stretched them perfectly.
Leaving Father Crowley Point, I started to psych myself up for the brutal 32 mile section between Darwin, mile 90 and Lone Pine, mile 122. To me, this section WAS THE RACE. Two years ago I was nearly broken mentally through here. To be quite blunt, this stretch SUCKS! God didn’t make this stretch. The Devil did. It’s horrible because it’s so late in the race; it’s during the second night; and because nothing exists here. There’s nothing to see. It is complete blackness between miles 90 and 105. There’s no moonlight. There are no city lights. There’s no sound. There is no motion. There’s zero energy. And, when this section is over we have a 13 mile climb up to the finish. It screws with the mind. Did I say how much this section sucks?!
My mental skills coach Brian Alexander and I prepared specifically for this godforsaken stretch. We had developed a” metal skills toolbox”. My main tool was an athletic mission statement that I had written. This would serve as the foundation from which I would work. My emphasis now was to maximize, maximize, maximize. I wanted the best effort possible til the finish. I did great from mile 90 to 95. I ran the entire first hour averaging 11-12 minutes per mile. The sledding got a lot harder as the miles wore on. The running spells became shorter and the walking spells became longer. Increasing the suck factor was the fact that the lights in the far off distance weren’t getting any brighter. I felt like I was on a treadmill in a closet. Like the marines say, I told myself to “Embrace the Suck.” I knew that if I just kept pushing, I’d get to Lone Pine. There, I’d be met by my family, and all the kids and their parents whose charity I was running for. I knew it would be party time. That pulled me forward. Don’t get me wrong: it still sucked though.
Once again, the sleep monster reared its ugly head. My eyelids were getting heavier and heavier. I was forced to start pumping the caffeine. For unknown reasons, the caffeine wasn’t working. I was entering zombie state. I was afraid to take even more caffeine for fear of what happened to me my first year at Badwater. That year, the massive amount of caffeine turned me into a monster. I became altered and combative. I didn’t want to repeat that an end up not finishing. So I soldiered on.
I was so freaking sleep tired that I close my eyes and put my right hand on Tom’s left shoulder as he guided me forward as if I was blind. At this point and at some points earlier in the race when I was super sleep tired, I even laid my head on my face or shoulder to try to” sleep-run” but it didn’t work.
Before long, I was met by my good buddy and work colleague, Dr. Tom Lawrie. He gave me a huge emotional boost. He was bouncing with energy and it carried over to me. I still wanted to lay down on the side of the road and nap but I slayed the sleep monster and pressed on.
Around mile 118, we heard some coyotes off in the distance howling. I think they were Laughing at us fools for running out here in the middle of the night.
Making the right turn out of “Suckville” on to the Rte. 395 lifted my spirits. Half asleep, I ran the next two miles at a good clip. Tom Lawrie pointed out the flashing LED lights up ahead, telling me that all the kids and their parents were up there waiting for me. Realizing it was 5 o’clock in the morning and all these people were up waiting for me to cheer me on put a lump in my throat. I made sure to give a high five or a hug to every single one of them. It was the least I could do to show my appreciation for their sacrifices.
Empowered emotionally but now about 3/4th asleep, I made the left turn onto the Whitney portal road. Tom L., Tom A. and I made decent time on this gradual incline. A few miles later however, morning broke and the sun rose in the sky causing the temperature to do the same. Sure enough, the climb steepened significantly. The next six miles were absolutely brutal. I had to pound to Five Hour Energy’s to keep my eyelids open. By now, I was so sick of eating and drinking but forced myself to do so. I knew how important it was for this last push to the finish. Entering the switchback section of the climb, there were brief times when I held on to my pacer’s pack or shoulder so he could literally pull me up the mountain. Feeling as if I was cheating, I let go of him and dug deep. Each step forward lifted my spirits. I knew I had my third Badwater buckle in the bag. I imagined how spectacular the finish would be with all the Down syndrome kids, their parents and my daughters and wife sharing any experience with me.
For the last four miles or so, Tom and I both ran out of calories and liquid. Running on fumes, I sucked on the remaining ice from his last water bottle trying to eke out any calories I could.
Then, a caravan of cars passed me with yelling and screaming and honking of horns. I was getting concerned that I would beat my wife and friends to the finish as they drove up from Lone Pine. To tremendous relief, sure enough they would make it in time. When they all passed me, I was overcome with a swell of emotions. All my hard work and sacrifice over the last year or so had paid off. I was so grateful to all the many, many people that had supported me in training and during the race. I was ecstatic that my two daughters would finally cross the Badwater finish line with me. I had waited years for them to be with me here. That moment would be coming within the next 15 minutes.
Trying to hide my emotions from Coach Atwell was nearly impossible. I felt so strong and powerful at this point. Nothing would stop me. I cranked up my favorite song on my iPod so loud that it hurt my ears, risking perforating my eardrums.
Rounding the final bend in the road, I saw all my “fans” wearing my red race shirts. As I met them, we lined up in rows and held hands so we could all cross the finish line as one. Adam Hank was on my right side and my two daughters were on my left. It was such a special moment that I will remember forever.
It was a good thing I was more than half asleep, otherwise I would’ve been completely overcome with emotion. After I celebrated by giving everybody hugs, Chris Kostman, the race director snapped my finish line picture and awarded me my coveted Badwater finisher’s buckle and finisher’s T-shirt. Despite it being my third finish, this part never got old.
Sitting in a chair for a few minutes away from the finish line never felt so good. I was experiencing overwhelming joy. The sense of satisfaction and pleasure I experience after finishing a really hard and long ultra is better than having an ice cream sundae on a beach in Kauai with my family on Christmas morning or after Ohio State beats Michigan in football! Though I was a few hours slower than my goal time, I was still extremely pleased with my performance. I later would learn that I finished in 25th place and an hour and a half faster than my best time two years ago. I had gone from DNF the first year to 42 hrs and 30 minutes the next year then to 37:30 to now 35:52.
On my way back to the van for the drive down to the motel in Lone Pine, I visited the outhouse. What a wonderful relief it was to be able to use toilet paper and not rocks.
Back at the motel I melted into the bed without even taking my shoes, socks or clothes off. I felt guilty doing this while my crew cleaned out the van. I was utterly exhausted and absolutely famished. Not to be dramatic, but I was too tired to get up and go get some food. But I was so hungry that I couldn’t fall asleep. My head actually hurt from the dire need of calories. I needed some Motrin for the headache but I would have had to go buy some across the street as the crew van was now gone. The guys had now left for home. And, I was so grimy and stinky with layers of sweat, salt and sunscreen. I knew I had to take a shower but didn’t have the energy to do so. I ended up getting a few hours of broken sleep. I mustered up the strength to take a sit-down shower in the small bathtub. I had to cross my legs Indian style causing my hamstrings to cramp up. I had to stand up really fast to stretch but I was so wobbly that in doing so, I almost slipped and fell over in the tub.
Feeling a little refreshed, I walked across the street to the gas station to buy lunch and Motrin. This consisted of an ice cream sandwich, some salted cashews, some yogurt, Chef Boy R Dee and some whole milk. Back at the motel , I dozed a little bit more.
Feeling much better by 6:45, I walked over to the awards ceremony/pizza party. To dodge cars while crossing the 395, I had to run across the road about twenty steps and noted that my legs weren’t that sore. I got a kick out of seeing all the other runners limping around, especially because I wasn’t. The race director called up all the finishers, going from slowest to fastest with everyone joining him up near the podium, as each successive finisher is called up. (One nice thing about finishing 25th is that I didn’t have to stand up in front of the whole crowd for as long. (I was pooped.))
I had planned on going to the local pub to celebrate with the other runners to have a few cold ones. Again however I was so freaking sleep tired that adding alcohol to the mix would have finished me off. Instead, I went back to the motel and slept and slept and slept.
Postscript: As I mentioned ad nauseum in this post race recap, sleepiness affected me greatly in this race. I have never been impacted by this more. Even large amounts of caffeine didn’t seem to be very effective. Every participant in Badwater has to go two nights without sleep. Of course this affects people differently. I got whacked pretty hard!
When the desire to sleep hits, the effects can be truly incapacitating. I’ll probably never know why sleepiness affected me so much this time. My theory is that I had been using Melatonin a few times a week up until about a week and a half before the race. I suspect that that had affected my brain chemistry, hormones and circadian rhythm. As a result, I swear I’ll never take any sleep aid within three months of a big race.
Though I am absolutely pleased with my performance in this year’s race, I truly think I can still go several hours faster. When I was in a good wake state, I noted that my fitness was extremely strong and that the heat didn’t destroy me nor did the altitude. Mentally, I couldn’t have done much better. I just wasn’t able to fully maximize my fitness as a result of being so damn sleepy during the race. I know I’ll get it figured out.
To my crew, my friends, my family, my coworkers, my sponsors (DeSoto Sport, Just Run, BiO2 Nutrition, Gracie Jiu Jitsu La Jolla, AltoLab) and to all the kids with Down Syndrome and their parents and all others associated with DS action, I express to you my heartfelt gratitude for all your love and support.I couldn’t have finished this race without you!