For me, Badwater 135 was a race whose magic didn’t fully set in until a few days after I finished. Perhaps it’s because I had so much fear and doubt going into the race—what if I failed? What if one of my crew mates or myself got sick? What if something happened to my dad? I tend to be annoyingly optimistic, but for this race, I found myself drowning in anxiety in the weeks and days leading up to it. And I had reason to be afraid. The temperatures in Death Valley are in the 110 – 120 degree range, the road is long and winding and full of steep ascents and quad-crushing descents. My crew and I were all BW135 newbies, so basically, aside from watching videos and reading articles, and my training adventure out in Death Valley in June, none of us had a clue.
There was a moment, though, somewhere along the stretch from Townes Pass towards Panamint Springs, when 22-year old racer Breanna Cornell, who was singing and dancing along, shared her joy to be running this race alongside so many of the greats. Something in me shifted just then: I was right there with her, running Badwater 135! The race that I had read about so many years back and aspired to. So what if everything wasn’t going as planned? So what about the drama? There were so many stars that had aligned to get me there. So much grit and hard work over the years. So much persistence and faith.
Badwater 135 brings out something buried deep within all of our depths: the mountainous terrain, looming boulders, and the vast expanse of land insists on our insignificance in this great big world while simultaneously inviting us to look around, to take in the magnificence of nature, of our existence. There is something about the wide open space that feeds ones soul: knowing that there are so many untouched corners of this world, how can you not want to keep exploring?
What the hoopla is all about
Badwater 135 commences at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. The course covers 135 miles (217 km) and finishes at Mount Whitney Portal, at 8,300 don’t-look-down-if-you’re-scared-of-heights feet. Aside from the scorching desert heat, which poses a constant threat, the course is one of ups and downs—literally. It covers three steep mountain ranges, for a total of 14,600 feet of cumulative vertical ascent, and 6,100 feet of cumulative descent. This year, the race returned to its night time start, with three groups starting at 8 pm, 9:30 pm, and 11 pm, respectively. I had the good fortune of starting at 8 pm, which meant that I only got to panic until sundown before my race began. Although the night start made for a cool 100 degrees for the first 40 or so miles, it also meant that the 48-hour time limit would take us through two full nights of running. In a typical 100 miler, most runners finish a few hours after daybreak, which means that sleep deprivation is somewhat manageable. Two nights with no sleep, and then the final and hardest climb of the race to look forward to for the last 12 miles, caused me a bit of unrest. Not only would the runners be maxed out on sleep deprivation, but so would their crews!
Aside from the sheer difficulty of this race – an attraction for those who crave adventure and adrenaline – there is a deep-rooted history connected to Badwater. So many of the ultra-running greats have passed through Death Valley en route to becoming Badwater finishers – Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes, Marshall Ulrich, who was out there completing his 20th Badwater 135!; Lisa Smith-Batchen, Oswaldo Lopez, to name a few. This race is the ultimate who’s who of ultra running, but beyond that, it’s a race that breeds truth and camaraderie. It is a battle of grit and mental perseverance, as well as trust in one’s crew. There is no going it alone in this race. And somewhere along the journey, you feel a kinship with the runners out there on the course with you, as well as their crews. Badwater is a family affair, and we are all responsible for getting one another to the finish line.
It’s worth noting that one doesn’t just sign up to run Badwater 135. You have to qualify by having run ultras or completed ironmen-like events for the past five or so years, with at least three 100 mile finishes in your portfolio, one being in the past year, then write a mini dissertation, complete with your full race history – race results, race websites, the name of everyone you’ve ever dated (not really); as well as an essay on what BW means to you and how it will change your life and so forth. If you are one of the 90 something folks from around the world who gets in – the race director makes room for rookies as well as veterans – then you have to switch gears and become a travel agent. There are hotels to book, mini-vans to secure, flights to arrange. I won’t get into the endless gear you have to buy, but let’s just say that Biffy bags are not the only essential required. This race also requires an intense passion for details. Race director extraordinaire Chris Kostman provides details about the course, rules to follow for runners, for crew, what grade OSHA shirt you have to wear at what time of the day, etc. Next year, there’s talk of a comprehensive exam that prospective crew members need to take to qualify for crewing BW135. All jokes aside, this is an incredible race, which is the result of a lot of passion and hard work by Chris and his tireless staff.
Of course you have to be training like crazy prior to BW 135 so that you can run your races to qualify, and then once you get in, you have to up your training and include daily sauna training as well to help you to acclimate to the intense heat. I was fortunate to work with BW veteran, Coach Dave Krupski, so I followed his mileage schedule in the months leading up to it.
My race summary
- Miles 1-20 (Badwater Basin to Furnace Creek): I felt amazing! Strong, elated!
- The next 10 miles toward Stovepipe Wells: pretty good.
- Miles 30 – 120 (approaching Stovepipe Wells to Lone Pine): pretty awful. This includes, but is not limited to vomiting, stomach gripes, sleep walking, the inability to eat anything, the inability to drink water without feeling nauseous, the inability to look at food without gagging. The positive was that my body was holding up – aside from my knees feeling as if they had the ability to bend backwards, I was fine.
- Miles 122 – 135 (Dow Villa to Mount Whitney Portal): I was able to eat toast from Alabama Hills Café and munch on ice chips. I felt energized and great!
I prefer to unload the less than pleasant moments of the race first. To say that I have never grappled with as many meltdowns in 43 hours as I did during BW135, is to put it lightly. The meltdowns were like chicken pox: they multiplied of their own accord. Always, there was space in my life for another meltdown. The first one started about 30 miles in. I was feeling strong, excited, all was going well, until it wasn’t. My stomach began to act up. I should mention that the Tailwind I had expected to use for calories and electrolytes for the first 6 or so hours, failed me within the first hour. It had a strange perfume taste, which made sipping it impossible for me. No big deal – I drank water and took an endurolyte every hour, so I wasn’t concerned, not to mention that I had consumed calories all day. But about 5 hours in, it all caught up with me – perhaps it was my pre-race anxiety easing up, or the heat, or some mysterious Death Valley virus. My stomach began to flip flop. And then flop flip.
I was also putting in more calories than I ever do at the onset of a race. My crew was concerned with my keeping to 200 calories an hour, but I have never done that at any 100 mile race. In fact, I never get preoccupied with food/calories when I run. I eat when I can – I let my stomach dictate. Forcing calories this early on was mistake number one for me, and the coconut water, coke, gels, and whatever else I forced down, really came back to haunt me later in the race. Apparently, the stomach only wants what it wants.
By mile 42, my next melt down was in full effect. I felt depleted, disinterested, and there was no way I had another 90 something miles in me. But that’s when my first pacer was going to join. I couldn’t wait to share with crewmate Chris how miserable I was feeling. It was his lucky day. I don’t like to think of myself as a whiner, so I will blame it on the mysterious Death Valley virus. The good news is that Chris helped me to get over myself and in a few minutes, I was able to run again. He stayed with me the whole first part of the uphill grind, until we hit the 50.5 mile Hansel and Gretel villa. Thankfully, I was ahead of the first cut off.
My next meltdown came around mile 65, when the heat was threatening to melt me into the concrete. Heat takes on a whole new meaning in Death Valley. Crewmate Melanie likened it to the feeling you get when you’re sitting too close to a camp fire – you are not exactly going to burn, but you feel yourself charring a bit. The heat invades your lungs, your nostrils, your eyes, so that you are a human furnace. That’s when Melanie introduced me to ice baby, which became my best friend for the next 10 or so hours of the race. Ice baby made everything better! Ice baby was a large Ziploc bag filled with ice, which I hugged at times (a la baby) and other times I placed it under my arms or on my head. Later in the race, ice baby gave birth to mini me, which consisted of a smaller Ziploc filled with ice. There was a point – around mile 68 – when my melt down was at a full out 10 on a scale of 1-10. Crewmate Bonnie was stuck with me at this point, dutifully spraying me with one of our industrial water sprayers as I attempted to speed walk across Panamint Valley, the mini-wind tornadoes our entertainment. I’d estimate that the temps were close to the 118 degree mark. I felt myself slowly fading; this was when I rushed to the crew vehicle and my super crew put ice babies all over me and made me lay down in the van while I cried hysterically over absolutely nothing.
I should mention that I am not a drama queen. I am known for being pretty tough. And I would get tough again later in the race, but not before mile 75, when crewmate Chip paced me, and I told him I was not able to keep going. This resulted in another 15 minute rest-in-the-van episode in which the girls convinced me to change my clothes, which was a great call. A pink tank top made everything better. Then Chip and I were off on our mission again. The 4,000-foot climb to Father Crowley overwhlemed me. It was just so far to go. Chip, who has run a million miles with me, wasn’t having it. “You beat the 72 mile cut off by 5 hours, so why don’t we try another mile.” So we climbed, and climbed, and climbed. We were neck and neck with Marshall Ulrich and his crew, as well as CJ and his crew, so the company around me was pretty excellent. And then we saw it: the rainbow. First there were the ominous rain clouds high up on the mountain, then there were the rain drops and mist (thank you, God, for holding back a torrential storm which could have caused the dreaded flash flood), and then, in the horizon, was one of the most glorious, perfect rainbows. We all stopped to take it in. I don’t believe in pots of gold, but I do believe in the beauty of the natural world. Right then, right there, there was no place on earth that I would have rather been but climbing that mountain, close to that sky, a rainbow within reach. Chip began to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and I was torn between chiming in and ignoring him, because it was partly sweet and partly annoying, but singing exuded too much energy. The rainbow persisted as a back drop for quite some time, giving way to a second rainbow (we were told we were hallucinating), and then we were at Father Crawley with only a 1000 more feet to climb before we peaked at Darwin Turnoff, 5000 feet of elevation, which is where our next descent would begin.
Chip stayed with me through mile 97, which meant he got to witness my one last meltdown milestone: shortly after mile 90 was when my vomiting sessions began. It was now my second night with no sleep. Darkness had set in. Nothing made sense. Food was the enemy. My stomach was a sour mess. I couldn’t stop vomiting for some time. But at some point, that ended too, and I was back to feeling off, but not dead. It was a few hours post-vomiting when my sleep walking began, but crewmate Chris made sure that I didn’t drift off into a ditch, so all was well.
The race, though, was far from all meltdowns. In fact, there were moments of joy and exuberance; moments in which I had never felt freer in my life. During my first visit to Death Valley in June, the soft shoulders of the mountains scared me. I didn’t want to be out there running them. During the actual race, I felt no fear, only a persistence to keep moving forward. The same was true of the final switch backs, but I am jumping ahead of myself.
What I thought about when I thought about nothing
Death Valley is one of the places on this earth that reminds you of how large the world is. How insignificant that you are – your problems and worries. I thought about all of the space and how we confine ourselves to our little lives, our homes, our jobs. How we let immaterial nonsense overpower the important things in our lives. How we often stop living in the moment and jump ahead to memorializing it. How nice it was to just be for a bit without phones and social media – to truly disconnect. I thought about how our insistence on showing the world where we are and what we are doing (look at me, here I am Facebook!) depletes our interest and absorption in the moments themselves. Out in Death Valley, I felt expansive. There was so much beauty along that path, and I thought – if you can see yourself and your life, your struggles and your joys, in the reflections of the long and winding mountainous roads, perhaps you get to glimpse who and what you are all about. There are no lies out there in the desert – just heat and road and serenity.
I thought about my dad, how grateful I am that he is healthy, so open minded, easy, and kind. I thought about my mom, how the years without her have somehow passed, and how my journey through Death Valley would both petrify her and invigorate her. You go, girl, is what she would say, although she would be a nervous wreck until it was over. I thought about how now that she is no longer with me in the flesh, she is always with me in sprit. During miles 59 to 68-ish, I told crewmate Mel, who was grieving the loss of her grandmother out in Death Valley, about my losing my mom. How she had died in her bed, in her leopard pajamas, on a Sunday afternoon after we had all been out to dinner less than 24-hours prior, and how I had been the one to touch her cold hand and realize that she had passed. There are moments in your life that change you forever. Moments in which your whole being adapts and shifts and new versions of yourself are born. Loss is real. For a long while, I lingered in loss. Along the way, though, I began to trust in the forward motion of life, which is just as real as loss, and perhaps, where our future lives.
At about 78 miles into BW, I was over myself and the nonsense that holds me back. I was over the race – or over the fears that the race had induced in me during the months and weeks leading up to it. So what if I didn’t succeed? So what if I succeeded? What did any of it matter? But it all does matter. I am a believer that the way you do anything in life, is the way you do everything. And that belief made me realize that it was all okay – the struggle, the dread, the wanting to quit, the knowledge that I would push on. I felt strangely free, although in that freedom there were also questions: why did I spend so much time in my life worrying? Why did I so rarely see how many choices were around me at all times? Why did I confine myself when life is anything but confining?
The keeping going
The road leading to Lone Pine was long and winding, but as the sun seeped over the horizon, its fiery glow illuminating the sky, it was magnificent, too. There were points in which I never thought I would get there. 22 miles to go. 21 miles. 17 miles. And so on. Along the way, Harvey Lewis, last year’s BW champion, passed me, but before he did, he stopped to talk with Mel and I. To tell us that we were doing great. Wish us well. Apparently, he too had not had a great night. His gesture not only touched me, but all of those around me. Pauses – whether in a race or in life – are underestimated. This race is made up of true champions, both in the flesh and in spirit, too.
The restless me doesn’t always believe in one foot in front of the other, but this race reminded me that it is the only way to arrive. When we made it to Dow Villa, mile 122, it was beginning to sink in that I was going to finish. Yes, I still had a long way to go; yes, I had hours ahead of me, but I was almost there! I saw my dad, the rest of my crew, the hotel I would be checking into at some point later in the afternoon, and then there were my two favorite girls from NYC! I was able to push on and forward, making my way up Whitney Portal Road, my final and most tedious climb of the race. Time seemed to move quickly for me at this point; I had a new found energy to get the miles done, all the while, munching on my ice chips (the newest adaptation of ice baby) and now and then sipping some coca cola.
Strangely, nothing felt like a big deal to me at this point. The miles – so what. The heat – who cared? It has become cliché, but then and there it was my truth: it was not the destination that I sought. It was about the journey. My journey. My crew’s journey. My dad’s journey. Sure, reaching the destination meant that we all got to hang out and rest, but this was not the end of my road by any means. I didn’t know exactly what mattered at that point. I wanted to finish, but I also had the feeling that we, I, never really finish things in life. We just stop at some point. Rest up and recuperate until the next adventure. Forward motion is the way of the living. Chip joined me for the last 3 or so miles of the race. I had dreaded the switchbacks in the days leading up to the race, but when I was actually on them that day, I felt unfazed. We pushed on, one steep turn after another, passing the parking lots and hikers, the whole world seemingly within our view below, until finally, we rounded the last corner, and there, in the parking lot up ahead, was the Badwater 135 finish line ribbon, awaiting us to charge (or touch), as we crossed the finish line as a team.
In these races, as in life, there is no substitute for grit and grace, and finding the gratitude in your heart that allows you to keep going. Badwater 135, for me, was beyond digging deep; it was about finding and cultivating my granite, and remembering to smile, because after all, I chose to be there.