Sometime in March, we began to consider Badwater Salton Sea. We, being Bonnie and I. We would discuss it, and then forget about it. Life was hectic. We were all training for Keys 100, which occurs10 days after Salton Sea, and well, we already had so many race and travel plans for the year. But then as with most race discussions, our idea of running Salton Sea became a reality, with Jodi Samuels (JS) as our 3rd musketeer. It was perfect. We all had the Keys 100 on our radar and we were all too busy to fret much about another race. On a personal note, I had been accepted to Badwater 135, so having completed Badwater Capefear, the possibility of completing the ultracup – which meant I had to run all three Badwater races, including Salton Sea—began to appeal to me.
Badwater Salton Sea is an 81- mile race from Salton City (elevation 125 feet below sea level) to Palomar Mountain, the almost tallest mountain in San Diego County (finish line elevation: 5500 feet above sea level.) The race boasts a total elevation gain of over 9000 feet, and eight of the 81 race miles pass through Anza-Borrego State Park on a single track trail lined with killer cacti and steep climbs. The overall route is a mix of road, side of road gravel/sand/concrete, and trail. Unlike other ultra-marathons, the hitch to SS is that you run it as a team, as in birds of a feather flock together, as in your speed is my speed, as in if we don’t finish together, then we don’t get ranked.
It’s all in the name
Being a team meant that we had to register for the race with a team name. There were a lot of good ideas, but in the end, we all agreed to The Dharma Bums. A Kerouac fan, it all made sense to me: carving our path on the open road, the mountains, California, the chance to be both with others but also within ourselves, and the undertone of nirvana out there somewhere beyond the mountain top. JS got signs made up for our crew van, and on it, she inserted the Kerouac quote, “I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything that I wanted.” As we visited our van throughout the day, various waves of emotion rose up in me when I read the quote – at points, I was so grateful to be running –it was what I wanted to be doing; at other points, I read it and thought: I rather be doing anything in the world than running.
Getting to Borrego Springs felt reality showish – as in how many hours can you possibly travel to arrive at a race. We took two flights, then endured a 2- hour car ride. With about 15 miles to get to our destination, we all became car sick due to the winding, climbing roads. Luckily, Bonnie had ginger candies with her to quell our nausea and keep us from vomiting. A few times Drew–our mini-van captain and one of our esteemed crew–almost had to pull over. Then we arrived at the out of nowhere Borrego Springs Resort and were just in time to change into shorts for our 8 mile hike in 95+ degrees with a vertical gain of 4000 feet. Somehow, someway, the hike invigorated us. The heat was there, as was the heavy breathing the climbs induced, and wow- this- is- steep emotions, but the higher we climbed, the cooler the breeze was, and the more fun the twists and turns became. The killer cacti lined the trail in various places, and it made sure to get us all, its pricklies stabbing our flesh from our thighs to our ankles. At points I felt as if I had mini knives sticking me. Hours later, after we had pulled as much of the pricklies from our flesh as we could manage, the imprint felt like jelly fish stings. The curse of Anza-Borrego State Park was on us.
That evening for dinner, we had the first of our hummus extravaganza. Christian, the second half of our crew extraordinaire, noted to the waiter that he would likely sell more hummus dishes that night than he had in months. It had been a long, great day, and while we were all exhausted, it was hard to wind down. Difficult to imagine we were going to run a race in a day or so. Out in that desert, I felt far away from all that I had left behind. There was that, and the fact that at 84 degrees outside, us Florida folks were freezing!
Then it was Saturday, and RD Chris Kostman’s schedule had us practicing gentle yoga in the early A.M. with Lori Kostman, then all driving down to the start line in Salton City. This was our chance to take it all in, get a glimpse of what was to come race day. There is a part of me that likes to be surprised and see a course for the first time when I am running it, but a more sensible part of me that likes to know what I am in for so that I may mentally prepare. The more I invest in this ultra running passion, the more I value the mental preparation and the opportunity to know firsthand what lies ahead of me.
The post-apocalyptic town of Salton City, where the race was to pass through in the first 7 miles, was a blend of deserted buildings, trailer parks, and some surprisingly dainty houses, and at the shoreline, where the race was to commence, it was a fish-skeleton haven, that literally reeked of – you guessed it – dead fish. We were all fascinated with the shore line, taking pictures of the fish spines. Salton Sea is one of the strangest places that I have ever visited: a blend of forsaken civilization and possibility, depending on how you look at it. At one point Christian stepped into Salton Sea, filling his sneakers with the wretched dead-fish water. For the remainder of the day, his sneakers lived on top of our minivan and as we made our way back to Borrego Springs, folks along the way stopped us to tell us that we had a pair of sneakers on the top of our van.
There is something about running with a team. Running is largely an independent sport. Sure, you may run with others, but generally you are in your own head, in your own drama, and invested in your own performance. But SS was about getting there together, so for me, this was a completely new experience. There was that, and then there was the crew aspect. Typically, I don’t use a crew. I like to go it alone. And yet, within an hour, I was incredibly attached to the crew support. Water, ice, friendly faces, food, great care. I could never have accomplished this race without my team and our crew. This was a collective experience – a journey of getting there together. At the onset, Jodi S pulled us forward – we had a mix of competitive nature, contentment, and a strong forward- motion mantra.
As we ran from the stench of Salton Sea, we remained focused and calm. Our plan was to run 6 minutes and then walk for 1 minute. We settled into a groove quickly. It was hard to take the walk breaks at the onset with everyone else running, but soon enough, walk breaks and all, we were right up there with all the other runners. It was perhaps the easiest 7 miles I had ever experienced at the start of a race. In fact, chatting with Jodi S and Bonnie, I didn’t even feel like I was in the midst of a race. The first 7 miles we were to be uncrewed; at mile 7, where the sole Salton City gas station/mini mart existed, we would reunite with our crews for the first time, and have the glorious opportunity to use the mini mart’s real bathrooms! We hit this goal in roughly an hour and 8 minutes, which felt on target for all of us.
As we ventured onto the long and winding road that would lead us out of Salton City and towards Borrego Springs, the race was underway. The desert mirage began for me early on: that is, things appeared closer than they were. The road, or the inches of it that we ran on outside of the white line, consisted of flats, climbs, heat, a radio tower in the distance – our 14 mile check in—and more winding, curving, climbing roads. Off to the left of us, there were dunes that were ATV playgrounds.
Early on, JS was on a mission to pass everyone in front of us. At a point, about 20 miles in, our pace was so steady and natural and no one did pass us. Bonnie noted it but I was feeling it: we had found our groove. There was symmetry to our movements. It felt like we could keep going for a long time. For me, there was a magical element to miles 20-35. There was nowhere that I needed or wanted to be other than where I was at: on the road, with our crew there in the distance, taking care to make sure we were set with water, food, and ice every three miles; enjoying a hot Saturday morning out for a run with my buddies. There was that, and the fact that mountains as my backdrop always inspire me and help me to tap into the places within me that are not about work, not about my goals or aspirations, not about trying to be anything other than who and what I am in the moment. Their vastness is a reminder of how small I am in this great, big world. It’s both humbling and empowering and always makes me think of Chagall’s I and the Village.
There were other types of magical moments along the way, too, such as the ice-water rags that Christian and Drew mopped on our heads and faces when they met us and wringed out on us before we would depart for each 3-mile stretch, so that ice water dripped down our backs and fronts. There was their spraying us a la the water bottle we had purchased the day prior. There was Christian’s break dancing in the road extravaganza as we approached mile 35. I’ll mention here that crew is really underrated. In this race, crew was the equivalent of everything great about life. They brought us good cheer, cold ice and water, food, refreshed ice bandanas, and a sense of purpose. (Later in the race, the crew vehicle provided me with giggling material. Every time I saw the Pringles crushed on the floor or our used tissues or cantaloupe rinds, I laughed. What gross people were responsible for this mess?!)
Beyond the mileage, though, beyond the great company and support, something had shifted in me early on in this race. A magical moment for me. I try to be tough, but like everyone else, I have my fears, my self doubt. What if I am not cut out for these races? What if I can’t make it? What if I fall apart? The ultra-demons were present, but there was also the fact that my femoral hernia surgery was just 3 months prior. Was it okay for me to keep pushing on? Should I ignore the pain? My conversation with a fellow runner minutes before the race start settled me as she had undergone the same rare femoral hernia surgery 6 weeks prior! And there she was running and excited. Yes, there was pain; yes, it would take a bit longer for us both to heal, but there we were, and somehow, I had a fleeting knowledge that I was exactly where I need to be. Life is like that sometimes: we get just the message and reminder that we need. Yes, we all go through stuff, but there are two ways to deal—to lay in wait for everything to be perfect again, or to toe the line and push through the uncomfortable moments.
Miles 35 – 40
At mile 35, we checked in at the Borrego Springs Resort time station; it was hard to imagine that earlier in the morning, we had left from there to head to the race start. After some crew love and support, the trail head countdown was in full blast. Our goal was to make it to the trailhead within 9 hours, or 4 pm, so that we would be able to complete the 8 mile ascent before dark. It was roughly 2:30 pm when we set off for the five miles ahead. Logic told us that we should have no problem meeting our goal, but it was hot. The sun was relentless. We were getting tired. Within 20 minutes of heading out, we were taking prolonged walk breaks. One by one, we all needed them. Then, at around mile 38, Drew and Christian met us in town with ice pops! We had asked for them more than once during the day, so when they arrived, we were overjoyed. Ice pops made everything better, and we headed back out on the road with renewed energy. Eventually, at 3:30 pm, we hit the trail head. That’s when we had another falling apart instance: we all had to put on our packs, prepare for the unsupported 8 mile climb. JS popped her blisters; I examined my blisters. We chit chatted with the amazing Marshall Ulrich, who oversaw our blister bonanza. We sat and talked. Talked and sat. Took care of business, and 30 minutes later, we set out onto the trail.
Miles 40 – 48
JS was on a mission during our trail trek. She led the way and Bonnie and I followed close behind. As soon as we were in the midst of the climb, I was grateful that we had done this 24 hours prior. It truly helped the few times we doubted if we were going the wrong way. For us Florida transplants that do our hill training on bridges and dunes in south Florida, this climb was the real deal: rocks, sand, dirt, more rocks, up and up and up and onward. But, it was always manageable – climbable steepness. Regardless of our huffing and puffing, our estimate that it was going to take at least four hours to cover these miles – we had turned off our Garmin’s to conserve batteries— by some miracle, we completed it in 3:15. At one point we passed a men’s team with one team member who seemed to be dying – this was beyond a death march – more like man seeking a cliff to jump off – and then by some miracle of their own, they passed us on our final mile. When we came out of the trailhead, we were greeted by a jumping up and down, happy and hyper Christian, who high fived us all and led the way back to our van.
We changed clothes when we arrived at the van – nightfall was approaching, which meant wind, cold, brrr. On with our tights, more tops, jackets, headlamps, reflective vests, and gloves. I managed to eat a peanut butter and jelly wrap at this point. This was monumental for me, as throughout the race, I couldn’t look at, let alone imagine eating anything real. I had been using gels, some Tailwind, so when real food became appealing, I knew the tide was shifting for me in a good way. At mile 50, we paused for a picture with the towering Rancheti, as we were told by past participants that this would bring us good luck, and then we were on our way again.
Then it was downhill – literally – which was a great thing for us runners. Gravity did its thing and pushed us forward. Soon, it was dark, as in the great void/land of the lost, and we plodded forward through the darkness. Once, a large lady in a truck pulled alongside me to ask if we were okay. By then, the full moon illuminated the night sky which was both helpful and ominous in its way.
We passed towns, bodies of water, large trucks on the road. The miles came slower. We moved slower. It grew colder, and at times we were sweating. At some point, Bonnie remarked that she had on double gloves and double hats. Clearly, we were not in Florida anymore.
Miles 69 – 81
All races have their battles. For Salton Sea, The Dharma Bums began to battle the last leg of the race, which was all uphill, all the time, 2000 vertical feet to love. There were moments of sleep walking, foot issues, more sleep walking, not being able to eat, trying to eat. Through it all, the long and winding road persisted. I can’t pinpoint exactly when the fog and mist enveloped us, but at some point, the air was so thick with fog that when I reached for my ponytail it felt slick and gross. At around mile 77, there was a moment of awe as we moved beyond into a world above the clouds; to our left, there was a valley dense with clouds. I doubted this – thought at first it was a hallucination, but no, it was clouds and we were moving above them as we climbed.
Then there were bouts of desperation, moments of slugging coffee drinks, Coke, M&M’s; hours that blisters throbbed, exhaustion overcame us, and everything in between. In short – it was like most other ultras towards the end, and our crew was oh-so-lucky to deal with us.
Then, somehow, someway, in the distance, there was the hint of daylight. The hint of the end. We climbed and pushed and then we were moments from the finish, with Drew and Christian doing all they could to help us find out where the finish line was. It was up one last hill, and we climbed it straight into the finish line garage. We had no idea what place we were in, or what time it was at that point.
We finished in 22:37 – 3rd team overall and 1st woman’s team!
If you want to feel famous, as in paparazzi following you, come to Salton Sea; RD Chris Kostman and his team manage to track you along the course and photograph you at all times, not to mention the videos and live webcams. But beyond the fun and games, this is a race about camaraderie and companionship. About the balance between solitude and togetherness. About sticking it out and getting there together.
The day after a race is a surreal experience. First, there’s the fact that you and your crew fall asleep all over the place – in cars, waiting in hotel lobbies, at the airport, on planes. But beyond the exhaustion, no one but you – and in this case your team and your crew mates – know what you really endured: the laughter, the pain, the angst, the joy, and the thrill and excitement of completion. You come back to the world and there is no re-entry or speech or anything that you get to share. Only you know what it meant to you – what you learned, gained, hated, and loved. And for those random but real moments when you reminisce and think: I did that, I accomplished that, it was real, it is all worth it – every last moment of it, because the knowledge that you were able to endure and to succeed fuels your brain, your heart, your life and enables you to experience, if only fleeting, something like nirvana.