Suffer but Savor-My Fifth and Final Badwater 135 Ultramarathon-July 11, 2022
My spirits could not have been higher entering the race. As my last time doing this storied event, I would savor every moment despite the expected suffering. This was the “Super Bowl” of ultramarathons, and I had been offered another coveted spot on the starting line to compete with some of the world’s toughest athletes for now the sixth time. A buddy of mine always tells me to “Embrace the Suck.” This year, I sure would! Non-ultra-athletes can’t comprehend why one would want to race Badwater more than once. They say we’re crazy. But as David Goggins says, “I’m not crazy. I’m just not YOU.” So true.
This being my last year as a Badwater racer, I wanted to “go out on top” and get my best time.
I had prepared almost perfectly. I had assembled an ideal crew. I had the experience. I had never put in more heat training sessions and of such ridiculously high temperatures. Sometimes, I nearly burned my skin sitting on the wood seats of the “kilns.” My lungs felt singed with the first few minutes in the torture chamber.
Mechanically, I strengthened myself such that I felt like a lion. I built up every muscle and joint, including my spine and core so it could easily withstand the huge pounding workload I would place on it in the ruthless Mojave Desert. No area was missed. For example, I even had done thousands of ankle exercises on my bed mattress while waiting to fall asleep.
This time around, I had less total volume of miles but much more high-intensity workouts.
Saying goodnight to my girls after our little pre-race party at my house, I asked Ella as I always do before my big races for some last-minute advice. The epitome of a teenager, she looked up from her ever-present phone and gave her usual terse response: “Don’t die.” I promised her not to worry.
I have always had a top-notch support crew. This year, I felt the most confident ever. My close friend, Coach Tom Atwell would serve as my crew chief. Like a brother to me, I could count on him for everything. Two new great friends that I met in Sweden last winter for the Lapland race, Marios and Manoli, would be my other crew. All three are hard-core athletes optimally capable of squeezing out my best effort. These studs gave me a reassuring sense of calm that I needn’t worry about anything except just running.
Going into the race, I did hide one potential very serious concern: My heart had been going into a slow, irregular rhythm at times when running but not when doing other workouts. Periodically, like a light switch being flicked off, I would suddenly feel extremely short of breath and lightheaded. At high intensity, my heart rate would drop into the 70’s from 140 or higher. Fortunately, by “walking it off,” the appropriate rate would return within one minute. I had it checked out by a cardiologist who put me through a full workup and no cause could be found. Would this happen at Badwater? For sure it would. It was a matter of how often and how dangerous this would be in the unforgiving desert cauldron.
I considered disclosing this to my friends on the race medical team but decided not to for fear of them not letting me start. I took a calculated risk and decided to just go for it! If I dropped dead out in Death Valley, what a way for an ultrarunner to go, eh? Besides, my wife and girls have a nice fat life insurance policy on me.
I felt an odd sense of serenity driving to the second/9:30 pm wave on Monday night. I wasn’t nervous which concerned me. “Was I too chill? Should I change my mindset?” I had never felt this way right before a big race.
We snapped our usual prestart photos. Crew chief Tom led us in a perfect prayer. IT WAS TIME! Let’s go baby and DO THIS!
Despite a starting temperature of 116 degrees F, the early miles felt effortless, like I weighed only 50 lbs. I fell into a perfect pace of around ten minutes per mile. Sweat dripped into my eyes as I was dissipating heat out of my body ideally.
About an hour in, it happened. I couldn't catch my breath. Fearing the inevitable, I checked my pulse—70 beats per minute. “Oh shit,” I said. It’s starting. My heart was pumping out only half the blood my body needed (cardiac output is the term.) I told myself just to walk it off like in training and it would resolve in a few hours. Deep inside, I feared that this might end up killing my race before even the first checkpoint. I couldn’t compete in one of the hardest races in the world in these ruthless conditions with effectively one lung or half my heart!
After a minute of walking, I felt my carotid pulse transition over three seconds back up to 120ish. Phew.
But every few miles the cycle would repeat itself. I became very worried. I persisted and trudged onward. Perhaps this was some funny way God was forcing me to control my pace to conserve energy for later.
At the Furnace Creek/Mile 17 checkpoint (CP), Coach said I was 30 minutes (!) ahead of schedule, despite my walking breaks. Wow. I had been cruisin.’
For the next 25 miles, I found a perfect groove, enjoying the wonderful 115-degree, full moonlit desert. Sometimes I proceeded without my headlamp chasing my distinct shadow. I made sure to eat and drink all my crew gave me, taking a salt tablet every 45 minutes or so.
Rolling into the Stovepipe Wells/Mile 42 CP at dawn, things could not have been better. No issues. The miles were ticking by truly effortlessly. I ran the last eight miles into the CP, forgoing any previously planned walking breaks. I noticed that the slow heart rate issue had passed. I didn’t want to even address it for fear of awakening the “monster.”
I couldn’t believe how I felt. If this continued, I would have the race of my life.
I stopped at Stovepipe Wells for less than ten minutes, when in previous years it had been at least 30. I ate some real food (about 1000 calories), changed my shoes and socks, put on sunscreen, and donned my sun gear in preparation for the scorching 17-mile climb up to Towne Pass. Racers could pick up their first pacer at this point and Coach would be mine.
We walked 98% of the climb, saving our precious reserves for the easier miles. Even though the temperature was blazing, it didn’t really hurt me. My crew had optimized my performance, as expected. They had me right on pace for a very aggressive “gold medal” goal finish time.
The wind picked up as we crested Towne Pass, worsening the effects of the heat. It just siphoned the moisture out of us. Sweat evaporated immediately in the dry desert air. My black shorts were caked in salty residue.
Marios paced me down into the Panamint Valley, cooling me by spraying me every five minutes with ice water. We were cruising along well so I know I surprised him when I stopped suddenly. I had to answer “nature’s call.” It came quickly. (And only once during the entire race.) He chuckled when he saw me use a round rock to do you know what. Hey, no toilet paper or leaves were available out here in the desert. Man was that rock scalding on the skin! TMI?
I continued running deep into the desert salt pan where it felt like we were on planet Mercury. The blowing 120 plus degree wind seared any exposed skin. One would think that a breeze would ease these conditions but in fact, it cruelly exacerbated the heat.
My crew placed ice under my hat. I also wore a bandana with a pocket containing ice, tied around my neck.
I noticed that I was the only one running these miles as other racers were suffering in the “pain cave.” I tried to make small talk as I passed others but stopped doing so because it seemed cruel to beat someone when they’re down.
Wisely, I walked the last two miles into Panamint Springs Resort/Mile 72 checkpoint. I wanted to make this stop brief, as I still felt relatively perfect. My crew pissed me off because they were seemingly taking their jolly old time refueling, getting ice and water and ordering food. Now, I know they did this on purpose, trying to force me to get a good rest for the tough miles ahead. Coach advised me to take a brief nap in the air-conditioned van, but I didn’t think I needed it. I slept for about five minutes. When I awoke, none of the guys could be found. I wanted to get going but couldn’t without letting them know. I made myself some bottles of Tailwind (my electrolyte drink) and ate some tortillas while anxiously waiting for someone to show up. When the guys arrived with an ice cream sandwich, I had to be nice to them. I really needed to relax and do what they told me.
I picked up Manoli for the “death march” up to Father Crowley Point. Only eight miles, this section took me three friggin’ hours. The rigors of the Badwater Ultramarathon had caught up to me. I took another break here not feeling so chipper as at previous stops.
All three guys paced me to the Darwin/Mile 90 CP. I had trouble running this ten-mile section which also ended up taking me three damned hours. I guess my charging so fast earlier had caught up to me.
Unlike previous years, I didn’t stop even briefly at the Darwin CP. I wanted to attack the feared 32-mile “suckfest” into Lone Pine. This segment had broken me every year. It’s isolated, dark, lonely, and late in the race. The lights of Lone Pine can be seen miles away but torment runners, as it seems as we were running in place for hours upon hours, without making any progress. Starting our second night, the mind plays tricks on us giving us freaky hallucinations. I term it the “Hallucination Highway.”
I told Coach I wanted to “chop down the tree” of this section one swing (mile) at a time. He used another analogy of “How do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time.
My mental skills Coach, Brian Alexander gave me many tools for this notoriously grinding portion of Badwater. Everybody hates it. I would use all those tools. Mostly, I just “chunk it down” into small segments. I could hear him say “Live in the moment.” He told me to focus on the positive and ignore the negatives. I don’t want to give away all my secrets though!
I ran continuously from the Darwin CP at a good clip for ten miles making a solid dent in chopping down the tree. I ran those ten in one hour and 50 minutes! I was proud of my effort and discipline. But the next 22 miles? Now that’s another story.
At this point, my crew started hurtin.’ The heat, the lack of sleep, the ten-hour time difference and the overall demands of crewing had caught up to them. Even Coach had lost a step by now. I felt horrible for them. They were sacrificing so much for me. When I would approach the van, I saw the guys deep asleep, collapsed in the seats, like a wet towel draped over a piece of furniture.
I realized that I had to dig deep as I was falling behind my planned schedule. By now the sleep monster caught up to me also. I took two five-minute naps which were quite refreshing.
I ended up walking way too much of miles 11 through 32 of Darwin to Lone Pine. I more than gave back all that time I chewed up in the first ten miles. My previous aggressiveness had waned. Instead of running, I would wimp out and walk instead. And, I stopped far too often, wasting minutes which added up to several wasted hours. I trudged slowly the last five miles into Lone Pine with each mile seeming to be five miles. Daylight arrived, not helping invigorate me like usual.
I took a 15-minute stop at the big right turn onto the 395 Highway, doffing my nighttime stuff and donning my daytime garb. I drank an Ensure and a Coke and applied a fresh layer of sunscreen. As the sun rose for another day, so did the temperatures. I tried to quicken my pace to minimize the time in hot temperatures for the finishing 12-mile slog up the Whitney Portal Road. The guys around me were hurtin’ too. We knew what was coming—a death march up the average 10% grade.
I dug deep despite my tank nearing empty and my needing sleep. I just couldn’t muster the energy to run the milder uphills let alone the short flat intervals. My muscles had tightened which limited my stride length. Again, I needed to stop often. I had two Starbucks Frappuccino’s, two hours apart which perked me up miraculously each time. Tom, Manoli and Marios took turns “dragging” me onward. I tried not to look up toward Mt. Whitney and the steep switchbacks that awaited me. I just looked down and soldiered on with periodic peeks to enjoy the spectacular scenery.
Tom forced me to drink despite me being so sick of having to do so. As I got closer and closer, the excitement of getting my fifth finisher’s buckle offset the exhaustion of the contest. I tried not to think about how slowly I had done the last 45 miles. I now would not finish with my best time ever. I had fought the good fight, but Badwater demands one’s constant best performance. I eased up late in the race and I would have to accept that. I eliminated negative thoughts and reminded myself to appreciate these moments. I was with my best friends, doing what I love in an amazing part of my country. I couldn’t be much happier.
With half a mile to go, I had forgot to tell the guys to put on our red DeSoto team shirts so we would look unified for the finish line photos. They had parked the car a fair distance away and now it was too late to get them. Oh well.
We crossed together. I had done it. Again. Race Director Chris Kostman greeted me with my coveted Badwater belt buckle. I processed all the many emotions—overwhelming satisfaction, gratitude, relief, happiness, and empowerment. I absorbed the moment, knowing it was my last time as a Badwater racer. What an amazing journey that started with crewing someone else to now my fifth finish myself. I thought about the thousands of miles and innumerable workouts I had done over the years.
I wanted to sit for a spell to maximize the experience and to just not have to move. But after the post-race photos, the guys told me we had to leave. Tom had to get back home to his family in San Diego and Manoli had to head back to Los Angeles for a filming project as soon as possible. I didn’t have time for a post-race meal at the Portal restaurant, notorious for its tire-sized pancakes.
Back in Lone Pine, I collapsed on the hotel bed. I needed some recovery nutrition before sleeping. All I had near was a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs. I drank water out of the bathroom faucet. Not the post-race meal I had hoped for.
As I closed my eyes, I couldn’t fight the perpetual question that pops up in my head- “Now what?” I fought that off and told myself to just enjoy the here and now. With my heart acting up recently, I feared this might be the pinnacle of my athletic life and that I would “ride off into the sunset.” I had accomplished nearly everything desired.
Again, I immersed myself in the pleasure of enormous satisfaction. All my hard work, training and delayed gratification had paid off. I had accomplished yet another big goal. I graded my performance as a solid B plus. In a race as tough as Badwater, I’ll take that.
Most importantly, I kept my promise to my daughter Ella and didn’t die!
Photos courtesy of Emmanouel Armoutakis, and from AdventureCorps-- Arnold Begay, Ian Parker and Robert E. Lee.