“Yeah….but it’s a dry heat.”
Experiencing the Badwater Ultramarathon
The Badwater Ultramarathon bills itself as the most prestigious and most difficult of all ultrarunning events, and it can make a pretty good argument for such status. It begins at the lowest point in North America, Badwater, in Death Valley National Park, some 280 feet below sea level and proceeds through some 40 miles of harsh desert, over two mountain ranges, across another 25 miles of desert valley, and finally up Mt Whitney, the highest point in the continental U.S. That encompasses nearly 13,000 feet of climbing before finishing at the Whitney Trailhead at 8360 feet. To make it even more fun, the race is run in July, which is statistically the hottest month of the year in Death Valley, where the average daily high temperature is 115 degrees. “Yeah,” you say, “but it’s a dry heat”. That’s what I thought, too. No problem. I’m from Tallahassee, Florida where the act of walking from one carport to the back door in the summertime requires one to carry a water bottle for hydration and thrice-a-day showers to stay fresh are commonplace amongst those of us that don’t hole ourselves up in an air-conditioned, hibernating state until the first signs of Fall on Columbus Day. Besides, a Florida ultrarunner won the Badwater race twice in the mid-90s and I took that as a sure indicator that training in the Southeast US prepared one for whatever some arid desert could offer up in the way of a hostile environment. Oh, you silly, silly boy …..
So, why am I telling you all of this? Because by an odd twist of fate, I found myself involved in the 2003 edition of Badwater, and it was an experience that I will never forget. Relating it to you all will be difficult, as such experiences always are when we have traversed the normal bounds of activity and found ourselves at some point where few have had the opportunity to go before. My opportunity began with that aforementioned twist of fate that involved a determined and talented runner with a dream…..
While on a teaching assignment in Atlanta in the spring of 2002, I ventured over to the Callaway Gardens Marathon one fine Sunday. Along about mile two I found myself running next to a congenial fellow that was easy to talk to, and humble. He had run a 3:07 marathon the day before over at Tybee Island, and had no trouble running alongside me that day at Callaway for some 23 miles as I ran my fastest marathon is many years. At mile 23 he sprinted on in, but before that we had engaged in a non-stop review of races we had been part of and our hopes for the future. It just so happened that this fellow had won our 50K at Wakulla in 1998, had run our marathon several times, and most strikingly, was a streak runner. Now I generally am not overly impressed with streak runners, for I don’t think that the act of running every day for an extended period is a particularly healthy thing, and may even hint at obsessiveness and a lack of attention to other aspects of life that are important to me when I pick my friends. This guy was different, though. He was nonchalant about his streak, which began in November 1978, and which had averaged nearly 10 miles a day. He maintained a serious job as a J C Penney Executive in Atlanta, was a family man, and active in organizing local races that benefited charitable causes. I liked that. Besides, he ran alongside me that day when he could have run off and left me, and encouraged me to my best marathon in years. It was when he donned a pair of Zubaz athletic pants after the run that I knew I had a lot in common with this guy, for I thought that the pair I owned were the only ones still in existence. (For those not in the know, Zubaz were a very fleeting fashion statement in the late 80s, seen only on college sidelines during football season, and were a crazy concoction of swirling stripes on baggy pants with elastic bands at the ankles.) Well, this guy had a pair from his alma mater, the Univeristy of Florida (a hated rival of my University of Miami Hurricanes), but the Zubaz connection helped us overcome that obstacle. In the course of sharing our dreams that day, this fellow mentioned that he was approaching 50, and that before he reached that milestone, he wanted to run a little race called Badwater. The fellows name was Scott Ludwig.
We kept in touch, as he lived in nearby Peachtree City, and maintained a tie to Tallahassee as a member of Gulf Winds Track Club. Besides, he was turning his running career more and more towards ultrarunning. He entered the U S 24 Hour Championships in Oleander Park, OH in September 2002, and I told him to “make his mark in the ultrarunning community”. He did so by finishing 4th overall and was the first master with a total of 129 miles. Shortly after that he applied for the 2003 Badwater Ultramarathon and asked me to be a part of his crew, and to assume the role of “spiritual advisor”. When Peg and I went to Death Valley the next month, I brought him back a block of salt that makes up the ground at Badwater and a photo of the small white stripe at the end of the road at Mt Whitney that signifies the finish line. There was never a doubt in my mind that his footprints would find their way to both of them.
Like Scott, Badwater had been a dream of mine as well. Every ultrarunner has thoughts of Badwater, for it truly offers as foreboding a challenge as any footrace on earth. Even the most-talented of racers will dismiss it, for it is truly a “fringe event”, and many will argue that it is more adventure racing that a road race. In 2002, Badwater was won by 40 year-old Pam Reed, a mother of 3, who trounced her nearest rival by 5 hours. A gentleman at the Mt Whitney store told me last October that from that point forward, Badwater would be a race. Pam Reed’s victory brought never-before seen publicity to the event, and several US newspapers and CNN were covering the 2003 edition. A video of the 1999 race entitled “Running on the Sun” was gaining popular acclaim as more and more people were learning about this race across the burning California desert to Mt Whitney. As a member of Scott’s team for 2003, I had listened to advice from seasoned Badwater participants, read an abundance of instructional material, had seen the video, and had driven the course. I thought I knew what I (and the rest of the team) were in for. Friends, I had no clue ….. Until you experience Death Valley in the summer, you have no idea. It is like no other place I have ever seen. It resembles what I would expect on the surface of the moon – barren and appearing lifeless for mile upon mile upon mile. And oh, the heat. Our trip last fall found us basking in 90-degree highs that were tolerable enough that we hiked and ran and lived to tell about it. The nights were even pleasant, as many desert nights can be once one escapes the intensity of the summer months. But Badwater is in July, and this is the place that has recorded the highest temperature ever recorded in the US – 134 degrees, and has an annual rainfall of less than two inches. This is truly one of the most hostile environments on earth, and it was here that Scott had chosen to run 135 miles. For anyone is counting, that is 5 marathons and a 5K cool down.
No one runs Badwater alone. Well, almost no one. A fellow by the name of Marshall Ulrich from Colorado has run the event several times, and traveled the route one time towing a rickshaw-like cart with all of his supplies. Scott opted instead to assemble a team of friends of varying talents and to rent a large van in which to keep all of us and his mountain of supplies. I was proud to be a part of this team, as it included another current Gulf Winds member and a former Tallahassee resident named Al Barker. Besides being a very talented marathoner (he’s run near 3:10 at age 58, and has several sub-3 hour marathons at Boston) Al is an optometrist and a regular training partner of Scott’s in the Peachtree City community south of Atlanta. Our Crew Chief was Paula May, the 50-54 Georgia age group record holder at the 10K, and a talented marathoner. Besides her strong organizational and leadership skills, she brought a wealth of medical knowledge to the team as an experienced operating room assistant. Her husband, Eric Hugulet, was not only our filmmaker (someone had to record this for posterity!), but also a strong runner and an even stronger walker that would lead Scott up the wicked inclines from the valley floor and finally up the 13 tortuous miles of Mt Whitney. Paula and Eric also are regular training partners of Scott’s and make up the core of the growing Darkside Running Club under whose banner Scott would run the race. Finally, there was Scott’s 17-year-old son, Josh. Josh must have been having an extremely boring summer back home, or just really wanted something out on the far edge to write about in his “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay.
Badwater racers are selected based on their credentials. One makes an application to Badwater, stating why they want to run and what it is that they have done that qualifies them to be a potential finisher. Interestingly, a wealth of ultramarathoning experience is not required, as one entrant this year was participating in his first ultra. He was, however, a 5 time leading finisher in the Hawaiian Ironman, and a recent finisher in a triple Ironman. Such insanity gave him a slight edge over individuals that peppered their applications with tales of 100-mile runs and stories of nights spent sleeping inside saunas to build up their heat readiness. Ultimately, 75 were chosen to toe the starting line at Badwater last Tuesday morning, with three evenly divided waves going off at 6 A.M., 8 A.M., and 10 A.M. Those that finished in less than 30 hours had a legitimate chance to win, while those finishing in less than 48 hours won the coveted Badwater belt buckle. The official cutoff time was 60 hours, which is a long, long time to be out in Death Valley.
Scott went off at 10 A.M. with the other elite runners that included last year’s winner Pam Reed, the veteran Ulrich, 10 time finisher Scott Weber, former record holder and trans-America runner Jay Birmingham, and Canadian Monica Scholtz, an elite finisher of over 25 100 mile runs.
Due to the potential for crowded road conditions, crews are not allowed to pace their runner for the first 18 miles between the start at Badwater and the first checkpoint at mile 18 at the Furnace Creek Ranch. Conventional wisdom and hard statistical evidence has shown that patience pays and speed kills in the early grueling stages of Badwater and that those who are still moving by the second checkpoint at Stovepipe Wells (mile 42) have an excellent chance of making it to Whitney within the cutoff time. Scott went out with last year’s winner Reed and a group of several others and then settled into a comfortable sub-9 minute pace in the first leg. Temperatures at this time were already near 120 degrees, and the first signs of a hot desert wind were coming across the salt basin at Badwater. He arrived at Furnace Creek in approximately 3 hours, whereupon I joined him for the 24-mile leg to Stovepipe Wells. It is the memory of these next 6+ hours that will forever be etched in my mind when I recall this incredible event. During these 24 miles we encountered the unceasing near record 130 degree heat that I trust will be as close to a near-death experience as I want to get. The intensity of the heat and the wind made it virtually impossible to stay well-hydrated. While the crew tried to get Scott’s core temperature down at mile intervals by wiping him with ice cold towels and by constantly giving him ready-chilled shirts to wear, I was at times carrying a water bottle in each hand and another in my pack to get us from stop to stop. One was to keep him hydrated, one was to constantly squeeze onto his head and neck, and one was getting fluid into myself if I had the presence of mind to do so. While the crew would minister to Scott at the stops, I would do what I could to assist them while at the same time realizing that I had to get my own core cooled off and hydrated. It was an interesting experience, and one that has made me question if tackling the event as an entered runner will ever be in my future. By the time we arrived at Stovepipe it was 6:30 PM and I was as tired and in need of a break as I have ever been. Meanwhile, he had been in the desert for 8 and half hours, was still not a single foot above sea level, and still had 93 miles ahead of him. But, as the sun was getting low, he had reached a point that 11 of the 75 either failed to reach or would not go beyond. The next 18 miles were all uphill, climbing to 5,000 feet at Townes Pass, the intermediate point between Stovepipe and the third check station at Panamint Springs (MM 72). We took turns through this stretch, with Eric doing most of the uphill walking and Paula encouraging Scott to run the steep 8-mile downhill towards Panamint Valley and the final 2 miles to the checkpoint. I was with Scott on the uphill leg at 10:30 PM under the clear desert sky that we were told that the temperature was still 110 degrees! I never thought I could be in 110-degree heat and feel comfortable but after the mind-altering experience of the previous afternoon it was very much the case.
Sometime after midnight we agreed that Josh and I should go ahead to Panamint Springs and check into the room that Scott had reserved for the purpose of getting some rest and a shower before facing the long second day of heat. We would sleep for an hour or two, and then relieve Eric and Paula so that they could do the same. Scott was expected to arrive around daybreak. As soon as I lay down I realized things were not as they should have been. Not only were my legs twisted grotesquely by cramping muscles, but also I was extremely nauseous. There was no air conditioning at the so-called “resort”, and the room was extremely hot. Josh was so tired that he fell asleep, but my fear over what was happening to me and the nausea kept me from doing so. We had been told that the act of a crew member going down in such a remote area can mean the demise of your runner, and all I could think of was that I needed medical help and it was likely to take me out of action. Scott, meanwhile, had another 60+ miles ahead and another day in the desert. After throwing up, I went immediately to the check station to see about some medical advice. I was told that all of the medics were back at Stovepipe treating downed runners and crew there, and that none were available. I described my dilemma (which included not having urinated for 16 hours) to one of the race volunteers and he told me that I simply was in serious need of sodium and water and that if I could get some in me I would have a chance of being able to continue. Although the symptoms clearly supported such a diagnosis, I was shocked that that could have actually been the problem, as I had been eating sodium tablets every half hour while running and drinking very heavily all day …. Evidently, neither had been sufficient to deal with the brutal conditions that I had been in, and it was apparent that in my focus on keeping Scott cooled and hydrated that I had not taken care of myself as I should have. I immediately ate two Succeed! caps and drank the last two liters of bottled water at Panamint, which were graciously given to me by a worker at the all-nite outdoor bar. As a team, our problems were further compounded by the fact that Panamint and Stovepipe were both out of ice, and the only place to restock was in Lone Pine 50 miles away. Although I immediately felt better after the tablets and the water (I couldn’t have ever felt any worse I don’t believe!), I offered to go to Lone Pine for the ice and other supplies. The two hours out of the heat, and more water returned me to normal, and I was able to hook up with Scott and the team by the time they were only a few miles out of Panamint. The dawn brought some milder temperatures as a blessed overcast moved in, and we rotated two-mile shifts as Scott moved towards the Mile 90 checkpoint at Darwin. He had worked hard during that 18-mile stretch and other than some bad blisters, was looking and feeling strong. He’s a remarkably determined runner that never lets the inevitable ultrarunning “bad patches” effect him; furthermore, he is a strong finisher in all endurance events and seems to be at his best when his rivals are struggling. Well, his competition this day was struggling and his focus was on “relentless forward motion” and the finish at Whitney. The scoreboard at Darwin had him in about 10th place when he arrived at 10:30 A.M., and it was at this point that we again set out into the 32 miles of high desert known as Owens Valley leading us to Lone Pine, the last stop before Whitney. I had been warned back at Panamint that the previous day found temperatures of 110 degrees in this area and sand storms, but I kept this from Scott so as to not discourage him. Perhaps as much as meeting your runner’s physical needs, the pacer and crew need to encourage and keep nothing but positive thoughts in the head of the runner. (George Palmer, with his efforts on my behalf at three Pennar 40 Milers, is a wonderful case study in this approach!) Fortunately for us, the temperatures remained in the low 100s and although the sun came out and the wind blew, we encountered no dust. Scott ran incredibly well, reeling in four to five of his rivals during this stretch. He arrived at Lone Pine at 6:30 PM in 6th place overall, and had only the 18 mile uphill trek to the Whitney Portals ahead of him. He knew going in that this portion was basically un-runable and that even the top finishers are reduced to a leg numbing hike at this point. Nonetheless, he worked hard all the way to the top, maintained his position, and gloriously crossed the finish line at 10:32 P.M., some 36 hours and 32 minutes since the start, some 135 miles away.
The repeat winner was the amazing Pam Reed, in 28 hours and 27 minutes. I had the chance to spend some time talking to her at the post-race dinner and her crew chief was a tremendous amount of help to me before the start, with his advice on the importance of keeping our runner as cool as possible. For those of you out there with a disdain for long training runs, Pam has managed to win this affair two years now with no training runs longer than 20 miles. By her own admission, she is just an average marathoner, but manages 100 miles a week into her busy life by running as much as 4 times a day. Like Scott, she is methodical, patient, and has an easy stride that never changes in spite of miles and miles of tiring running.
The Badwater experience was a remarkable time. It showed me the incredible harshness of nature in an environment that is not conducive to any sort of life – much less that of running 135 miles. It showed me that those that put their bodies and minds to the test in this perhaps ultimate of ultrarunning events are normal, hard-working, family-oriented, caring people, that simply have a desire to conquer a tremendous challenge. It also was a case study in getting along with others under the most trying of circumstances – extreme heat and discomfort, confinement in close quarters for over 35 hours, and no sleep. It all came about because of a singleness of focus and a determined effort to do everything we could to see the talented Scott Ludwig be the best that he could be and attain his Badwater goal that he had voiced to me in our first meeting 18 months prior. He finished in 6th place in a field that included on this day the very best in the world that were willing to put themselves to the test. As a crewmember, I was deeply honored to be there, and am proud of him not just as a friend but also as a member of Gulf Winds Track Club. There may be others from GWTC that leave their footprints in Death Valley – Jeff Bryan, for one, and Fred Johnson, have voiced their desire to see what the fuss is all about. The night before leaving for Badwater I had told Peg that I may give it a run next year. When I called her several days later from Lone Pine following my experience in the desert and the Panamint Springs motel room, that “maybe” had become an emphatic “No!” But, as is often the case in ultrarunning, it always gets better. It got better that morning and that afternoon, and on Whitney that night. Never say never. But – never listen to anyone that tries to tell you, “It’s a dry heat”!
The Day After
When Scott was accepted into Badwater several months ago, the real question in my mind was not whether or not he would finish, but whether or not he would then let the streak die a peaceful death. After all, he had reached the mountaintop, both literally and figuratively, and the burning question in my mind was, “How could he possibly run the day after Badwater?” Well, that was a very silly question on my part. Those on the crew that have known Scott far longer than I assured me that he would run his mandatory minimum of 3 miles on Thursday. Sure enough, less than 12 hours after finishing atop Whitney, we were all gathered in the motel parking lot for day number 9,000 (more or less) of what is one of the 25 longest running streaks in the U.S. I feel certain, however, that none of those ahead of him have ever run Badwater. Like I say, though, he’s really a fairly normal individual…..