Sunday, August 2, 2009

Crewing the Badwater 135

My apologies for the (extremely) late Badwater write-up. I've been honing my procrastination skills lately, and as you can tell, I'm getting quite good at it, especially with this whole bliggity-blogging thingamajig. Now where was I? Oh yes, Badwater...

I flew into Vegas on Saturday afternoon with a massive head cold. I blame the air travel, but another culprit was all the loud sounds and flashy lights that overwhelmed me as I stepped off the plane. Head cold or not, I was in Vegas for a reason: to crew, pace and photograph Alisa Springman during her second running of the Badwater Ultramarathon.

For those not "in the know", Badwater is known as the toughest footrace on Earth. It's a 135 mile run through Death Valley in the middle of the summer, with temperatures in the 120's and so hot that runners need to run on the white line so the rubber of their shoes doesn't melt. Sounds like a blast, no? Well guess what - it was.

Click for larger. Start lower right (Badwater), finish upper left (Whitney Portal).

As a crewmember and pacer on Team Alisa (there were 4 of us total: Me, David, Sue and Will), our job was to meet Alisa with the crew vehicles every mile or so and re-up everything she needed. New water bottle, ice cold hat, a cooldown with the water mister, ice cold sponge on the neck, food, salt pills, etc. (and those are just the basics at each stop, more complicated matters like blister treatment, shoe changes, etc. also needed to be done, just not as frequently). Whatever she needed, we were there to make it happen.

Back to the story, after a brief stop-over at the off-strip cheapo Vegas hotel, we gathered our things and made the voyage to the one stop shop for all your ultrarunning needs. That's right - Walmart!

Alisa with $425 of food, water, ice, gear, etc.

In retrospect, we purchased more food than we could have ever needed (corndogs and BBQ pork ribs for example), but it was nice to know that when Alisa's stomach was putting up a fight in the desert, chances are we had something to satisfy the beast. After Walmart, we made our way out of Vegas, stopping at every possible Albertson's supermarket we could find in an effort to secure dry ice. After a couple hours, we emerged victorious with $100 of dry ice, enough to keep our supplies cold until Monday afternoon.

After a short two hour drive, we arrived in Furance Creek, a small oasis in Death Valley (aka a general store, gas station, hotel and ice house) that also served as the location of the pre-race activities and mile 17 of the race. Here is where the heat really hits you. Walking through the parking lot felt like a blowdryer to the face. Was this what I had to look forward to for the next few days? Awesome!

Bob from Drymax, Alisa and myself with the van signs Bob printed up

At the pre-race briefing Alisa gathered her schwag and bib number, we all filled out the "we know we might die" waivers, we saw some familiar faces and met some new ones, and on we went to prepare the crew vehicles for our impending journey. (Side note: the extremely dry desert air quickly cleared up my head cold once we got to Death Valley. Thanks, desert!)

Monday morning we awoke at 7am for Alisa's 10am start time. She apparently ran so well last year that they put her in the elite start group alongside other notable names like Jamie Donaldson, Charlie Engle, Dean Karnazes, Jorge Pacheco and the guy that wears the pink tutu (you'll see).

David, Sue, Alisa, me and Will at -282ft ASL (the start)

The 10:00am elite runners

Runners and crews gathered at the Badwater Basin (the race start) for some pre-race words by RD Chris Kostman, a singing of the national anthem by a chick wearing a dress and Moeben sleeves, some quick group pictures, and before we knew it the runners were off to embark on a journey of a lifetime (well, maybe 2 days of running through the desert just seems like a lifetime).

Most crews started meeting their runner after a mile or 2. Alisa had made the strategic decision before race start that crewing for the first few miles was pointless since she would not yet be hot and drinking a lot and it would be easier for us to drive a few miles ahead and meet and get ahead of the caravan of crew vehicles.

Dean Karnazes in the first few miles

Jamie Donaldson (and David, one of our crewmembers, in the green hat)

It was nice seeing all the runners together in the first few miles of the race. Alisa, being as fit as ever, was actually running ahead of Jamie Donaldson (last year's women's champion) for a majority of those first 17 miles. Go Alisa! However, we all knew this would come to an end sooner than later... and it did. Like the good Drymax Team Captain that she was, Jamie went on to finish as first female, again, in a time of 27:20.

The tutu guy (Keith Straw), followed closely by Jamie Donaldson

As if it wasn't crazy enough seeing a guy dressed in a pink tutu and pink shoes running through the desert, it made me have deja vu of my first ever road race - a small half-marathon in Severna Park, MD. Keep in mind this was only a little more than a year ago, but nonetheless, it was my first race ever, and as I was running along I was passed by... yup... a guy in a pink tutu and pink shoes. I recall his shirt saying something along the lines of "you just got passed by a guy in pink". Now here I am on the opposite side of the country, no longer at a small half-marathon but the toughest footrace on Earth, and here is the same guy in the same pink tutu. I gotta give it to the guy, in a sport where everyone is of questionable sanity and fashion sense, he definitely takes the cake!

We did this about 100 times...

Above is a video from one of our 100+ crew stops. Kinda like a pit crew moving in slow motion, huh? Well most of the first day looked like this. Nothing totally mesmerizing, but we were efficient and we took care of our girl. Oh wait, I almost forgot about happy hour!

"Happy hour?" you might be asking yourself. Hell yeah! After spending a good portion of the day in the sun, we could tell that Alisa's spirits were down and she needed some cheering up. So we broke out the Spongebob Squarepants pinata, hats, wristbands, ribbons and bubble blowers and we had ourselves a little party as Alisa passed on through.

Crewchief Spongebob makes an appearance for happy hour

And whattaya know, after a Spongebob happy hour, we decided that once again we should give Alisa some more cheering up (I don't think she needed it, but the heat does things to your brain so we went along with the fun). This time around, Sue, the wonderful ball of energy that she is, decided to dress up in the new Moeben sun-hood *cough*lookslikeaklanhood*cough* and read Alisa some of their favorite teenage vampire romance novel *gag*. Needless to say, Alisa loved it.

Don't read and run

So like I was saying, nothing interesting happened the first day. Oh wait, and then at some point in the day Will got hungry and decided to cook up some corndogs on the hood of Sue's truck...

The nutrition of a champion ('s crew)

...and Sue did some jumping around, laughing in the face of danger.

Gotta love her

And of course, some more Spongebob fun during our limited downtime.

David and crewchief Spongebob

But yeah, that's about it for the fun we had during the day. As sunset approached, off came the sunsuits and hats and out came the reflective gear and blinky things. Alisa was holding up pretty well to this point (well, maybe some GI problems here and there but that's not too out of the ordinary). We were a bit past Stovepipe Wells, which is mile 42 and one of the 6 checkpoints, as the sun was going down. We started pacing for her at Stovepipe Wells so that brought about a nice change of pace for both her and us alike. The crew now had one less person to get everything done, but we had been through the routine enough times at this point that we were getting good at multitasking. Besides, less heat at night means less cooling down that needs to be done.

As we got further into the night, Alisa's stomach made a turn for the worse and she was having a tough time taking anything in. While pacing, I got to play the constant guessing game of "what nutrition can I trick Alisa into eating?" and also "what song is Alisa currently listening to based off of her oh-so-wonderful singing?". The singing games were fun, the food... well that was a bit trickier.

Yes we run the whole time in ultras. Well, aside from a few breaks here and there...

At one point she came to the realization that a V8 would totally hit the spot. Bad bad move. The combination of downhill running and V8 brought our running and her stomach to a crashing halt. After a good 20 minute break laying on the side of the road (well, kind of in the road but we had our blinky things so it was cool), the V8 and what looked like everything back to breakfast came out in a wonderful concoction that I'm sure cooked up into a nice looking pancake on the hot pavement once the sun came back out. Disgusting, I know, but guess what? It did the trick and she was back to feeling like a million bucks (or about as good as you can feel running 135 miles through the desert).

A few hours later, probably around 4:00am, she made it into Panamint Springs checkpoint, mile 72 of the race (it was slow going throughout the night if you couldn't tell). With all the crewing and pacing we had been doing, we were all pretty tired. It's safe to say that Alisa was quite tired as well, but this became extremely evident when she came in, requested to lay down for a few minutes, and proceeded to sleep for an hour. This was quite the pleasant surprise to the crew so we all proceeded to rest while we could and we quickly passed out in our camping chairs. An hour later, like clockwork, she woke up, realized where she was, grabbed a water bottle and said let's go. Not expecting to pace that soon after waking (literally about 15 seconds), but knowing that I didn't really have an option, I grabbed a waterbottle and off we went. Within no time we were greeted with gorgeous sunrise views as the sun peaked its head over the peaks in the distance:

Goooood mornin'

The light of day #2 brought new life to Alisa. Hell, she even started running a bit! Temperatures on this second day were slightly cooler than the first. Don't get me wrong it was still a scorcher, but they only reached 110ish from what I recall while the first day easily hit 120+. Nonetheless, Alisa had fooled herself into thinking she was invincible to the sun and she opted for regular running gear instead of the cumbersome sun-suit. What's that I hear? Ooh, another job for the crew: sunscreen application! Eh, who am I kidding it wasn't that bad.

Mmmm... melted mango smoothie

Will, David and myself rotated pacing duties with each of us doing 5-15 miles at a time. My favorite part of the entire trip occurred while pacing so sadly I don't have any photographic evidence. I was told there were usually jet flybys since there was a military base close by. Being a skydiver, I've seen plenty of flybys at the dropzone, so I didn't really think much of it. Well, as Alisa and I were running along on the white line, just over the horizon we start to see and hear a jet hugging the turns of the road and coming directly towards us. I kid you not, the F18 (F16? beats me) came screaming by at Mach Fast-as-Hell, probably only 100 feet off the ground. It was probably the coolest thing I have ever seen. I'm sure Alisa would have joined me if she had the energy to do so, but I was jumping up and down waving my arms and screaming like a little kid on a rollercoaster. When I waved my arms, the pilot dipped the wings to acknowledge us. AWESOME! By the way, this didn't just happen once, nor did it happen twice. We got THREE kick ass flybys! (Can you tell this got me excited? Ok, I'll stop now).

The runner with her water bottle mule, I mean pacer

Right around mile 100, we started to get dangerously low on ice so Sue and I took her truck (the designated gopher vehicle) to restock in the town of Lone Pine, about 20 miles ahead on the course. I drove, and with this being the first opportunity to just sit still for any period of time in almost 2 days, I nearly fell asleep at the wheel. Not good! Thankfully we made it Lone Pine alive, as did all the runners we passed/missed, and I was able to re-energize with some Red Bull. We got our ice and headed quickly back to Alisa and the rest of the crew.

Shortly thereafter, we realized that we needed to check into the hostel in Lone Pine for after the race, so Sue and I once again headed back into Lone Pine. Alisa would be running into Lone Pine in the next hour or two, so the two of us (who hadn't slept as much as Dave and Will) took the opportunity to rest and waited for Alisa to come through. While waiting around, I saw Dean Karnazes very slowly, and what looked like very painfully, walk through town. His crew brought him a big ol' milkshake from the local McDonald's, and after cheering on some words of encouragement to the man whose book got me into this whole ultra world, I too made my way to Micky D's for what would be the first "real" meal that didn't consist of PBJ and PowerGel (I know, Micky D's isn't a real meal, but beggars can't be choosers). Let me tell you, that burger and milkshake were deeee-licious!

Dean no longer does pizza on the run, just milkshakes

When Alisa finally made her way into LP (mile 122), Sue took her first steps as a pacer. With their close relationship, Sue's uplifting presence and her disliking of the heat, we had planned all along to save Sue's pacing for the last 13 miles, the final climb up Mt. Whitney, since she would be able to keep Alisa motivated and happy during this most difficult portion of the race.

Alisa and Sue coming up Whitney Portal Road

The rock formations on Whitney Portal Road were unlike anything I had ever seen, absolutely stunning structures with shapes that you can't find on the east coast. My favorite formation was obviously the big rounded rock painted to look like a monster of some sorts.

What a monstrous rock. Get it?

The sun set for the second time as Alisa ran up Whitney Portal Road. We all donned our required night gear once again, but this time the finish line was so close you could taste it.

David enjoying the view as the sun sets for the 2nd time

With just a few miles to go, we drove the van up to the finish line and walked down to meet Alisa and Sue so we could all walk Alisa in for the last mile or so (let's be honest, not even the leaders are running at this point in the race). All five of us were now together, and just moments remained before Alisa and Team would finish this epic journey. As we rounded the corner and saw the finish line in the distance, we all joined hands and started running. I had put my headlamp and Alisa's flashlight in my shorts pocket, and as I started running the weight pulled my shorts down. Not wanting to cross the finish line with my shorts around my ankles, I threw the lights off into the dark abyss. I again joined hands, and within just a few steps we were screaming with joy as we crossed the finish line of our 135 mile adventure.

She did it! 135 miles in 35:42:35

Now that's one happy team!

Alisa got her awards, we posed for a few pictures, and after a few minutes of sitting we got her up and made our way to the van. As we were walking over, a police car came screaming up the mountain with its sirens. The cop was yelling "Everybody off the mountain! The mountain is on fire! Everybody off the mountain!" Holy crap! We rushed Alisa into the van and sped down the mountain, passing a huge campfire turned forest fire. Badwater was hot enough, we didn't need to get any more burn going! Thankfully we made it back to the hostel with no fire encounters. Others were not so lucky as the finish line was forced to shut down for 9 hours right after we left, so many racers were forced to finish at mile 131. Still, everyone who made it was considered an official finisher and received the credit they rightfully earned.

To sum it all up in one word, wow. A truly unforgettable experience that far exceeded all of my expectations in terms of difficulty, beauty, comradery, fun and heat. Will I ever run Badwater? Well, that depends on if I get in next year...


For more pictures, see my Flickr page HERE.
Official webcast and results HERE.

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