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Badwater Ultramarathon Report

Death Valley…  it is an aptly named place but maybe a little undeserving of some of the images the name conjures.  Yes, it is a very harsh and unforgiving place, with seemingly a near total absence of significant life.  You can see evidence of plants here and there, but overall, it is bleak.

Yet, in spite of all that, there’s an eerie beauty to the place.  The rock formations and colors range from interesting to captivating.  Standing in Badwater, the lowest point in the lower 48 states (and the start of the Badwater Ultramarathon, possibly the gnarliest and most difficult endurance race on the planet), is like being in another world.  The salt fields, the desolate feel, the surrounding mountain ranges, and the bone-dry terrain are simply surreal.  You can’t help but look around in awe.

Badwater Basin

Of course, it also happens to be one of the hottest places on the planet and certainly the hottest in the United States.  I’m guessing this would make your interest in visiting and spectating wane with the rising sun (and temperature).  With summer highs possibly in the 120s, Death Valley and specifically Badwater can be a gorgeous but extremely unwelcoming place.  And, it was that crushing heat that drew me and some friends there recently.  Some of us are fascinated (and possibly infatuated) with the Badwater Ultramarathon.  To the point that we actually plan a summer pilgrimage to run some of the course two weeks after the actual race.  In the summer.  Under the relentless sun.  Yeah…  we might be nuts.

Badwater Death Valley

All this resulted in me finding myself, on July 28, 2012, preparing for a little jog slightly before 8:00am when the temperature was “only” in the high 80s.  With a forecast of 100 degrees at 10:00am and a post-noon high of 118, the day would be toasty.  I had a desert running hat and shirt, both with triple-digit SPF, a ton of sun-block, a support car who would stop every mile for me, a massive amount of ice, four gallons of water, and a slew of engineered nutrition (e.g., gels, Ironman Perform, Stinger waffles, etc.)  Did I feel prepared?  Absolutely.  Was I also cognizant and respectful of the challenges I was facing?  Even more absolutely.  I wasn’t, for one moment, going to fail to give Death Valley the respect it deserves.  It may be scenically entertaining, but it DOES have “Death” in its name!Badwater Ultramarathon

With all of that being the backdrop, I had no goals or expectations starting the day.  Even factoring that I have a decent amount of endurance experience and confidence, I still wasn’t going to set some arbitrary target.  For all I knew, I might get to mile five (if even that far), and decide that I’d had enough.  I was planning on running as long as (a) I was having fun and (b) I wasn’t going too far “into the hole”.  “Into the hole” meaning I was having to really work to continue.  I don’t mind dragging myself through hell and back during a race, but Badwater was more about the experience; not an objective.

After a few miles, I settled into a rhythm.  Each mile my support car would pull to the side and I’d jog over to it.  In the back were three coolers of ice, one for consumption, one for water bottles, and one for I don’t know what.  I quickly realized that I wanted my head as cool as possible and that having freezing cold water was rather pleasant.  My routine became remove washcloth from under hat, put in ziploc with fresh ice and water, shake, remove, wipe face, and replace washcloth under hat.  To say this felt pleasant would be like saying that having your hand on fire is uncomfortable.  Somehow, wiping one’s face with a freezing cold washcloth felt incredible.  I’d combine that with some water from a new bottle that I would (a) typically drain at each stop and then (b) restock and replace in an iced cooler.  That water bottle also became of source of great pleasure.

Beyond those two things, I would sometimes put more Ironman Perform in a water bottle I carried with me, eat more Salt Stick tablets, and/or eat a gel or Stinger waffle.  All in all, I felt my system was pretty quick, clean, and simple.  This made it easier to keep my rhythm and tempo consistent.  In any endurance activity, I prefer to push through any dark areas rather than come to a complete stop.  Once my body perceives a shut-down, I struggle to get it moving again, particularly at race-pace.

Back to running, I may have prepared myself for something worse than what I would actually face.  While the temperature became more and more noticeable, I never felt the oppressive and merciless heat like I expected.  It was hot, don’t get me wrong, but I found it to be very manageable.  Very quickly, five miles were done and I still felt very fresh.  This quickly repeated itself for the next five.  I wasn’t flying along but I wasn’t walking either.  My average pace was generally between a 9:00 and 9:30 minute/mile pace.  This seemed comfortable, doable, yet not “easy”.

Shortly after finishing ten miles, I decided that reaching the 20s was definitely within my reach and so I focused my efforts on that threshold.  Following my hydration and refueling system, I felt I did well in monitoring my core temperature, hydrating, and refueling.  I never felt like I needed to “shut it down” or take a break.  To the contrary, I felt strong and relatively fresh for nearly my entire run.

Badwater 114 degreesPassing a half-marathon (13.1 miles), I decided that “merely” running a marathon wasn’t enough.  Assuming I continued to feel decent, I wanted to run further than I had ever run previously, both in time and distance.  Having done multiple Ironmans and marathons, I have run pretty far a bunch of times.  But, I have never run more than 26.2 miles at once.  When you cross the finish line, you don’t really ever have the urge to continue jogging.  Crazy, I know.  So, I thought, how about a 50k (31 miles)?  That would be quite an accomplishment for me AND for my first time in Death Valley/Badwater.  Boom, I had my goal.

Passing into the 20s, the heat began to unleash its power.  Around noon, I started to feel heat emanating UP from the ground.  This nicely occurred around the same time that the air seemed to get heavier with the increasing temperature.  I found the air I was inhaling to get hotter and hotter.  My roadside head evaporative cooler (aka a damp, chilled washcloth) continued to be great but for MUCH less time.  The ice-cold, fresh water bottle disappeared faster and faster with each passing stop.  My hand-held water bottle emptied faster and faster as well.

Around this time, I also abandoned all nutrition but liquid and Salt Sticks.  Gel packs and stinger waffles just stopped being appealing.  Having learned, the hard way, that forcing nutrition into your stomach is a bad move, I was listening closely to all signals my body was sending.  It was saying: liquid good, solid bad.  My response?  Yes sir, message received!

The miles in the 20s passed with less ease than the first 20.  I wasn’t struggling exactly, but I was certainly becoming more aware of why Badwater is so brutal.  That race is 135 miles, with three massive mountain ranges.  I was merely in the 20s.  Pondering doing 100+ additional miles seemed ludicrous beyond belief (and also somewhat alluring, I have to admit).

Thankfully, as the temperature increased so did my miles.  Seemingly with ease, I passed 26.2 miles.  Around the same time, I passed 4 hours and 22 minutes (up to the point, the longest amount of time I had ever run in my life, during my first marathon when I ran with the flu; NOT a good time).  These “milestones” just disappeared like the shimmering mirages on the road in front of me.  With each passing step, I was setting a new personal best.Badwater 117 degrees

As mile 31 approached, I began to check my Garmin more frequently.  I was running with one friend at this point as all the other runners had quit for the day.  We had two support cars tracking our progress with four total people in them.  While I was having fun and enjoying the experiences, I was also aware of the toll the heat was taking and the boredom my friends were likely enduring.  I wanted to be done for them as much as I wanted to be done for me.

The last two miles, I pushed the pace.  I knew I was less than twenty minutes from my goal and worries like over-heating and dehydrating faded away.  The last mile stop, my support crew asked what I wanted and I said, go one mile up the road and I’ll be done.  That last mile both flew by and dragged on and on…  Rounding a corner, my awesome friends had stretched someone’s very dirty towel between them for a pseudo-finish line banner.  Not gonna lie, it was pretty cool.  Final tally for the day was 31.01 miles in 4 hours and 53 minutes of running time.  I am extremely pleased with that.

That day was a great lesson in how critical knowledge and preparation can be.  While I had zero experience in Death Valley or Badwater, I felt I had a great plan.  Plenty of ice and water, multiple sources of calories, a tried and true electrolytes system (Salt Stick tablets), and multiple hydrations system made me feel confident that, even if something went wrong, I had a back-ups for my back-ups.  Plus, I was confident that, even in the heat of the moment (yes, pun intended), I could alter my strategy if need be.  If it is your first Ironman, marathon, or some similarly-sized event, get advice, plan for the worst, and have some back-ups!

Thanks for reading!

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