“The Importance of Good Sleep”
April 29-April 30, 2018
“C’mon man. This isn’t the Holiday Inn. Let’s get going!” I said that to my good friend and teammate, Coach Tom Atwell as he left the cozy confines of the support van. We stopped in Borrego Springs at around mile 35 of the Badwater Salton Sea 80 mile team foot race. I started to sense that e was struggling. He wasn’t laughing at my silly jokes anymore. We were stopping to rest more frequently. These were not good signs.
The temptation to stop at the van to take a break from running is sometimes overwhelming. But in ultra marathons, one must always be making continuous progress. The cumulative time wasted by stopping adds up significantly in these races.
Back in March, Tom finished Cape Fear, the first of three races comprising the Badwater Ultra Cup. Salton Sea was round two. The Granddaddy of them all, the Badwater Ultramarathon in July would complete the cup. Amazingly, Tom was going for the Cup in this his first year of doing Badwater. I have mad respect for anyone taking on that challenge.
Saturday morning, Tom and his wife Utahna met me at my house. We arrived in Borrego Springs around 2 PM after having met our other two crewmates, Dante and Ashley at my house. Tom, his wife Utahna and I then all caravanned up with them to Palomar Mountain where the finish line would be. They left their car there so they could take off as soon as we finished the race in that they would need to drive back home for their Monday normal responsibilities.
Tom had rented a 12 passenger cargo van with the back two rows of seats taken out. This would turn out to be a perfect call. Arriving in Borrego Springs, we put up our biO2 magnetic car signs and marked our team name on the sides of the van. For obvious reasons (!), we were Team “Bald and Beautiful.”
We then went inside for the race check-in and prerace meeting. For dinner, Tom and I chose our usual local restaurant in downtown Borrego Springs. The temptation to eat too much of the delicious food required restraint knowing that it was unnecessary the night before the race. It doesn’t matter so much what you eat before the race. The important thing is what you eat during the race. Tom and I got a pizza like we have the last couple years. After dinner, we headed to our hotel at La Casa Del Zorro Resort. I had reserved a three bedroom Casita which gave us all plenty of space. After some last-minute tasks, we retired to bed early.
During the night, we were awakened by gale force winds blowing probably 50 miles an hour. I told myself these winds better slow down or we would have super rough conditions for the race. It truly sounded like a tornado was blowing by our hotel during the night. Fortunately by morning, the winds had slowed. Tom told me he got almost no sleep because the wind made so much noise, keeping him awake. (I sleep with earplugs all the time.)
We made our way to the race start 45 minutes away down on the shores of the infamous Salton Sea. Opening the doors of the van, we were greeted by the unmistakable stench this lake brings. After weighing in, we made our way to the start line for the obligatory last-minute group photos and playing of the national anthem. The race director Chris reminded us not to worry about the scorching heat, high winds, possible rain and likely cold damp temperatures we would encounter on the way to Palomar Mountain 80 miles away. He says this at the start of all his races which is one of his trademark statements. It never gets old to me. I laugh every time.
At 6:30 am, we were off. As usual, the first seven miles floated by effortlessly, allowing us to chitchat with the other racers at the front of the pack. I told myself that if we could maintain this pace and effort level, we would do great.
I kept thinking of Henry Ward, who had planned on being one of our teammates but who couldn’t join us after his father had died only two days previously. Tom and I raced with heavy hearts, in honor of Henry’s father and his grieving family members. I would think of them often during the race which helped propel me forward. It was really cool of the race director to acknowledge Henry and his father during the prerace meeting, in front of all the other racers and their crew.
At mile seven we met up with our crew for the first time, Tom’s wife Utahna, Dante and his girlfriend Ashley. Dante is CEO for America of biO2, a big time Brazilian sports nutrition company now entering the US market. biO2 products are all plant-based, vegan and organic. Tom and I have used their products in previous races with tremendous success. And, they’re delicious to boot.
Around mile 10, I asked Coach, “Where’s the wind?” The forecast had called for high winds today. The running conditions were perfect though with temperatures in the 70s this early morning. We continued to clip off the miles effortlessly. We made a brief stop at the mile 15 checkpoint. On the way to the event, I told Tom that we should try to minimize how often we stopped and the length of each stop.
From miles 15 to the next checkpoint at the Borrego Springs resort, mile 35, we continued making great progress. Having been passed by a few more teams along the way, we didn’t worry. We knew we would catch them later down the road. In the parking lot of the hotel, we took our first long break. It was here that I sensed something wrong. Tom had become pretty quiet. I knew this was a sign of trouble in that I had been there many, many times previously. I took a glance at the check in list and noted that we were in about eighth place, which was pretty darn good. Tom and I headed out on the road again. Finally, the winds had started up again and were blowing forcefully. We stopped again for a too long break just outside the restaurant where we had had dinner last night.
Utahna treated us to some popsicles which were delicious during this afternoon heat. The temperature felt to be around 90°. Not blazing hot but hot enough to make things challenging. Despite the two recent pretty long breaks, Tom was very quiet. I hoped that just getting out of the desert would help my teammate. I knew the upcoming eight mile climb on the trail section would be really rough as it has always been in the past.
We walked/ran the next two miles, leaning forward slicing into the fierce headwind trying to push us backward. By now, the West wind had intensified as expected. We stopped again at the start of the trail section after loading up our packs with cold-weather gear and raingear, headlamps and food. Only eight miles, this surprisingly very difficult section had taken us about 3 ½ hours last year. It is always a suck-fest! It lived up to its billing as we encountered at least 50 mile per hour headwinds as we climbed through the rocky trail. At one point, the wind knocked me sideways almost blowing me down and into some cacti. I had to take three stutter-steps to regain my balance. But, we soldiered on. Along the way, we stopped three times for about five minutes to feed and add a layer of clothes. We didn’t see any snakes or longhorn sheep like we did last year.
Starting the section wearing only a tank top, I would finish it wearing a hat and gloves, two long sleeve shirts and a rain jacket. We made good progress the last two miles as the trail flattened allowing us to run at a decent clip. Soon we would meet up with the road again, raising our spirits significantly. This is a huge victory getting this sucky segment over with. Knowing we only had 31 miles to go was a huge boost to our spirits.
I put on my lightweight down jacket and some running tights, chugged an Ensure and a Coca-Cola and a salt tablet and was ready to go. Utahna, Dante and Ashley tended to Tom who continued to be eerily quiet. I tried to balance encouraging him without pissing him off. In a team race where runners must stay together, that can be a huge struggle if one of the teammates is hurting. I know this very well in that I’ve been the one hurting many, many times. At this point I decided to just stand down and let him move at his own pace. Again I know from first-hand experience that when one is hurting, not much can be said to raise the other’s spirits.
When we were away from the van, we moved at a good pace. In fact, Tom often led the way with me tucked in behind him. What frustrated me though was the stopping at the crew van and for much longer than I wanted. My teammate was hurting. (He later admitted that he slept poorly and not nearly enough during the entire week before the race.)
At this point I had become very worried. I knew exactly how he felt both physically and mentally. There is not much that others can do to help the one who’s hurting. This exemplifies one of the things that appeals to me so much in the sport of ultra running. The runner must rely on himself almost exclusively. The fatigue and pain scream at the runner to stop but the mind must force the runner to do otherwise. It’s a torturous struggle. Slowing and stopping only prolong the discomfort and displeasure. But, continuing on sucks maximally. The ONLY thing that can be done is to make RELENTLESS FORWARD PROGRESS, as explained and coined by notable Ultrarunning author, Bryon Powell. He wrote an entire book with the same title. Just as in regular life,one CANNOT GIVE UP.
The wind howled fiercely in our face but we still made a good pace as darkness neared. We came to the area called Ranchita and were treated to some warm Cup of Noodles. Tom and I had just settled into a nice groove but here we were stopping again. Ugh. However, I would not let my wingman down. I didn’t pester him. Today was not his day. I sensed that he was actually over-trained. He trains harder and longer than anyone I know. He sometimes gets up at two in the morning to run, then rides his bike trainer for an hour or so, then does the morning high school swim workout before school even begins. Then after school he does the afternoon swim workout. Sometimes even runs home after that! What Coach needs to do, like almost everyone, is make SLEEP a higher priority. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s one of my secret weapons for achieving peak health and fitness.
The dude is an amazing father and husband. He’s also an amazing role model to countless youth. He’s tough as nails. I had a first row seat of watching grit and tenacity at its best. Despite him not having any gas left in his tank, he continuously pushed himself to go and go and go.
We plowed on to the turn of East Grade Road, a 16 mile climb up towards Palomar Mountain and the finish line. Markers every 2/10 of a mile reminded us of the distance remaining. Along here, a heavy mist/light rain required us to put on our rain jackets. Tom dug deep and kept a solid pace. Energized by the thought of ending this ordeal, he pushed so hard that he sometimes pulled away from me. I loved it! That’s the man I know.
Above cloud level and now that dawn had broken, we had views for miles and miles. We made another turn for the last mile, a hilly section towards the Lodge and the finish. After crossing the line with our awesome crew of Utahna, Ashley and Dante, we both received another Badwater race finishers’ buckle. One cannot accumulate enough of those!
Though this race is only 80 miles which is shorter than many other ultramarathons, it is deceptively hard. Badwater: Salton Sea requires one to endure both hot and cold, road and trail and wind and mist with unique component of having to work as a team. I LOVE IT ALL!