During my first 100 miler back in 2010, a fellow ultra-runner and now friend, Tony Portera, told me that no matter what happens during a race, to make sure I learned something about the race, and something about myself. If I were to do that, he reasoned, nothing would be in vain, even if I didn't finish the race. I've subscribed to that mantra ever since.
Badwater 2016 taught me two important things. First, due to its extreme conditions, Badwater cannot be planned, anticipated, expected nor relied upon to go as one would like it to unfold. What I mean by that is no matter how well one preps for it, something will go wrong. And it will happen over and over. This race is about how many times a runner can "die" in a sense, and come back from the "dead", or rather, rise from the ashes. The race requires patience, flexibility and the mental fortitude to completely change plans many times over and be ok with it, even when the very idea of changing direction seems counterintuitive. That's what I learned this year about Badwater. More importantly, what I learned about myself is that my spirit animal is a phoenix, one that continually rises from the ashes and keeps coming back, over and over until I'm done. I knew I was a fighter. I just didn't realize how much until this past week. Here's my story.
Because this was my second year in Death Valley, I was far less nervous in the days and hours leading up to the race. I was excited to be back to a place I love with a crew that had served me well last year. I had one crew replacement and I felt confident in my choice of my friend Bob. We all arrived on Saturday in Las Vegas and headed to Death Valley on Sunday morning for racer check in and to get settled into our newly chosen location in Stovepipe Wells, also known as mile 42 on the course. The majority of runners stay in Furnace Creek which is 17 miles from the start line at Badwater Basin, however, we had made a decision to stay in Stovepipe Wells and to let two crew sleep while I ran the first 42 and to pick them up when we arrived in the morning, which aligns well to an 8pm start time. During the first night, I would utilize one crew member, Thomas, to do the crewing/driving from start to 42 thereby ensuring Leslie and Bob would be completely rested come sun up on Tuesday morning and as previously mentioned, with an 8pm Monday night start, I was targeting hitting mile 42 around sunrise. This was a VERY wise decision.
Around 6:30pm on Monday evening, Thomas and I headed out to the start line since it takes a good 45 minutes to drive that 42 miles. As a side note, with the stay at Stovepipe Wells instead of Furnace Creek, things were far calmer for the team. We found last year that Furnace Creek is a hotbed of frenetic, nervous energy and that bleeds off into the rest of the runners - you cannot go to the restaurant, nor the general store, nor the pool, nor the parking lot, without all these runners and crews milling about, half of which appear to be absolutely terrified, the other half wound up tighter than an angry achilles tendon. On the other hand, the atmosphere at Stovepipe Wells, which is mainly filled with European tourists, is a completely different, welcomed calm and for me, that is always a preferred pre-race environment. So back to Monday night - we drove out, making a pit stop at the general store at Furnace Creek (mile 17) for a last minute ice cold coke. It should be noted that Furnace Creek is actually *cooler* than Badwater Basin so I decided to stop and take a check of the famous Furnace Creek thermometer:
Once the gun went off at 8pm, I felt great and even the scorching heat wasn't terrible - the sun had set, my iPod was on and my body felt good for the first 13 miles. I was in a groove and my 12 minute pace was exactly what I wanted it to be. Suddenly, out of the blue my left calf muscle seized up and I collapsed on the side of the road, screaming in pain. I've never experienced debilitating cramps in my legs and in that moment, I felt completely hopeless. I tried to get up and hobble but I couldn't stand. Several kind runners ran by asking if I was ok, I said yes, more embarrassed than anything that I could be so foolish to eschew the electrolytes during the day of the race. I radioed Thomas telling him that I had only made it about a half mile since I had seen him last and would need his help getting across the street. He pulled up and carried me to the car while I screamed my head off. But it didn't stop there. Suddenly I was dry-heaving, my stomach deciding to take a turn for the worse and my head so light that I was on the verge of passing out. As if that weren't enough, my lower abdomen distended and I couldn't grab the Biffy bag (portable toilet sack) fast enough. Those 4 Immodiums I had taken earlier in the day seemed like a heat-induced hallucination as I threw my cramped leg onto the open passenger door, stood on the non cramped leg and contorted my body just enough to lean backwards where everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, came out. I cannot imagine how pathetic I looked in that humbling moment, nor did I care. It was 11 pm and dark outside. Front and rear passenger doors were open, affording a small bit of privacy in an otherwise mortifyingly embarrassing moment. For the next hour and 10 minutes or so, I continued to experience terrible diarrhea and cramping and I threw everything I could possibly find into my body in a panicked effort to stop my body's internal war. It was also at that very moment I got my period, something no woman ever wants to deal with during such a long race. The quick loss of iron from that didn't help and in addition to how bad I already felt, I also began to become very tired, something that is fairly common for me every month. In that 70 minutes, I consumed 3 HyperHydration packs from Skratch, 2 ibuprofens, 2 Red Ace beet shots, 1 KOR ginger shot and a coke. As those went down, I started to feel less light-headed, less cranky, less "bad" and I knew I *might* make it. At that time, it wasn't just the idea of a DNF, it was the idea that I'd be the first person to drop out, not even making it 20 miles. I was petrified of that outcome, knowing that I likely wouldn't get invited back in 2017 and that I'd have to explain to a lot of people how I managed to really screw up something so important, something I had spent time, money and effort on. So I pushed myself to quickly recover, to do whatever it took, and to suck it up and push myself out that car. And then I did. 72 minutes after I had stopped, I started back again. And while the leg cramps didn't completely dissipate for another 10 miles, I was able to continue forward progress. I ran faster and faster through the night, hitting 10:30 miles close to daybreak. I rose from the dead. It was wonderful.
The next morning came in with the sunrise and by the time we reached mile 42, my pacers were ready to go. I changed clothes, we did some foot taping and were on our way. Now, one thing I didn't mention above is what happened to my body during that 72 minute "recovery". Because I had consumed 3 packs of HyperHydration within an hour, I had taken in 213% of my daily sodium (5400 milligrams) with exactly zero forward progress. I had also been drinking Gatorade and popping salt pills and SportLegs. All that sodium caused massive leg swelling far earlier in the race than I originally planned for and as a result, blisters were starting at mile 30, rather than last year's mile 122. I had brought 4 pairs of shoes, each progressively larger but I hadn't counted on being in the largest shoe, shoe #4, size 11, so early in the race. This was not a good thing but I really had no choice and for the hike up to Townes Pass (miles 42-58), I was counting on the blisters to be fairly benign. They were but that didn't last.
As the day wore on, my amazing crew kept my spirits up. It was extremely hot and there wasn't a cloud in the sky this year. Those miles from 42 to 58 are just one long slow uphill during the super hot daylight hours so they require a lot of hiking and hydrating. My pacers switched off a few times but generally speaking, we made good progress. The downhill into Panamint Valley (mile 72) wasn't bad and we were excited to get to Panamint for real food and a chance to prep for the night.
Side note again, the past few weeks had seen some crazy rain storms for DV with tremendous flooding and washouts and as a result, the winds were higher and the sand storms far greater. Our trek across Panamint Valley proved that rebounding from such acts of nature doesn't happen quickly. The floor of the valley was well above 120 degrees when we crossed and the winds were around 45-50 mph. The sand was so heavy that our crew vehicle was absorbed by a thick brown cloud and Bob and I were left to lean forward and hike as fast as we could, with him occasionally trying to shield some of the wind from me, for fear of me being blown into the sand flats across the road, pausing at times to reach out and see if we could feel a vehicle nearby. It was ethereal.
Once we made it through, we arrived for an early dinner break at Panamint. My crew pulled the Yeti out, wrapped my feet in plastic bags and plunged them into what I can only describe as a pure, unadulterated pedi-heaven, better known as an ice bath. Once again, off came all the bandages and Thomas performed the second of several minor foot "surgeries" in the field. The blisters were huge and three toenails were bulging out, nearly popped off from the massive swelling and blood beneath them. The pain was intense.
After departing Panamint, we began the second long slow hike up to Father Crowley which runs from mile 72 to about mile 90. The sun was setting and once again, the beautiful moonrise proved that all the suffering was worth the scenic austerity we were so blessed with at this time of day. Night fell and we were shrouded in a beautiful nocturnal bubble, broken only occasionally by the sounds of other exhausted runners and their vehicles. As happens in races of this distance, we spent the second night leap-frogging with other, similarly paced runners. We knew the winner had already finished but we argued that he was missing this beautiful experience and we would never want to be at mile 135 when we could be here, at mile 75, instead... (side note, we lied)
After the sunset, the fatigue really set in. This year had been much hotter than last and the drama and stress had been tougher and we needed to sleep. The alarm was set at 9pm for 45 minutes, which turned out to be the fastest 45 minutes of my life. It went off and I, being cranky and really wanting more sleep, protested as I climbed out of the car with Leslie, irritated that it was pitch dark, we were at mile 83 or so and we still had a long time to go until the second nap, having already decided to emulate what we had done in 2015 - a nap early in the evening and a nap just before sunrise.
As those night miles wore on, we exchanged banter and stories and continued forward, deciding to walk because my feet were very, VERY unhappy. The cranky ankle had returned, the blisters were enormous and we still had 40 miles to go. Finally around mile 97 it was once again, nap time and once again, that 30 minutes went by faster than any other 30 minutes in my life. However, this time the sun was just starting to look over the edge of the horizon and mile 100 was not much further, a mental milestone that is about as exciting as one can get in this race - TRIPLE DIGITS! I also felt more alive, more awake, more excited to get going and so I began to run as I had two nights before. Owen Valley (miles 100-120) is a beautiful, cool oasis and I knew I could count on overcast skies and temps in the 80s, just like last year. We even had a nice misty drizzle for a bit in 2015 so I was extremely excited for that heat hiatus because I naturally assumed it would happen again...
Except it didn't. The sun came up and nary a cloud was to be seen. The temps soared into the 90s by about 9 am and the 2015 storms, which had started gathering at the base of Mt. Whitney last year, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, a heatwave came through and once again, I was sweating, swelling and swearing. I. Was. Miserable. By this time my back and shoulders were bleeding from heavy chaffing, my feet were so swollen we had to cut out the fronts of the shoes & cut off my calf sleeves. My blisters were back and worse than before. So we decided to take yet another 45 minute stop to work on my feet. I felt nauseous, I was once again roasting and I needed to be left alone. My crewed obliged and I ran for a while alone, left to deal with the sadness and frustration in my own head, broken only by an occasional upbeat song on the iPod that took me away to a happier place.
But as is the way with life, in this race time passes and each step forward is one step closer and eventually we were in Lone Pine, mile 122. All that was left was a half marathon hike up the mountain. I remembered it was tough from the previous year but how bad could it be? I knew what to expect, right? Well, that is I knew what to expect when road construction wasn't happening and the brand new, shiny black, blazing hot asphalt hadn't just been poured that morning. Oh, it was miserable - the loud sounds, the smells of tar, the heat so hot you could see wavy lines in the air... it was just terrible. The rocks and gravel were rolling into my shoes where we had cut out the toes, hitting my blistered toenails and knocking into my tender skin. It took us another 5 hours to go 11 miles, each step seeming like it was harder than the one before but again, much like the morning hours, time passed and we worked our way up until we finally were at the portal road (mile 134). There was no beautiful calming fog like last year, no drizzle of rain to cool us down. Just the blistering sun, pushing us, fighting us and ultimately allowing us to cross that line where we hugged, high-fived and congratulated ourselves on our mission accomplished. As I stood there smiling and watching the flurry of activity, I couldn't help but notice a small bird sitting in the tree next to the finish line, observing, watching, flitting about and wondering what was going to happen next, what adventure was waiting on the horizon after this one, happy to be perched there in the afternoon sun, knowing the day had been successful. And I knew that little phoenix had been me all along.