I’ve always been fascinated by the behind the scenes aspect of life. We show up at races full of smiles, good cheer, and nervous excitement. What is not visible is the endless hours, weeks, and months of training that propels us to the start lines; the endless coordinating and organizing, check lists, packing, and logistics that commence long before race eve.
When it comes to Badwater 135, there’s no room for wish washy; from the moment the email notifications go out in early February letting you know that you’re one of the lucky few to get in, you have to commit to get yourself into Badwater shape, choose a crew, and begin planning. Fast forward to a super steamy July twilight when the race begins at the famed Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level, and you have to commit all over again to yourself and your crew that as a team, you are all going to get to the finish line 135 miles in the distance. That means that you have to trust, believe, and accept that the journey will be full of twists and turns, highs and lows of the sort that you have never imagined, and pledge to stay in the moment at all times. In a race of this distance, projecting can lead to breakdowns. This year 97 runners from 24 countries made up the field of runners who would traverse 135 miles through Death Valley across three mountain ranges, to the finish line at Whitney Portal, nearly 8,500 feet above sea level.
So why do we do it? I contend that regardless of all the planning and logistical challenges that Death Valley imposes, Badwater 135 is worth it. There is so much to discover about ourselves throughout the journey—we learn about our relationship to stress, to our peers, and to our lives. While the road leading to the Whitney Portal finish line often seems endless, somehow the miles accumulate, one step forward at a time. In Badwater 135, as in life, you have to go the distance in order to arrive.
Then there’s the beauty of the course with its curves and bends, its dips and dives, its climbs and peaks, and majestic landscapes. Badwater 135 enables us to transcend our everyday existences and abandon our comfort zones. The race is about aspiring to things beyond ourselves, and pushing forward when quitting is such an easier option. This year, the full moon showered the sky and earth with light so that headlamps were not necessary. Between that sky and the earth, the world loomed inviting and free. Out in those vast open spaces, I felt far away from my little life, far away from the limitations of daily responsibilities; I felt ready to leap into the possibilities of my life.
Most races start with a back story. In late June, less than 21 days to Badwater 135, crisis struck. The evening after my Keys 100 finish in mid-May, I noticed something unusual with my calf: there was a shadowy feeling to it. I sensed its presence, but when I touched it, I couldn’t feel my skin. It was as if it had been injected with Novocain. Certain that it would pass—as ultrarunners we know all too well that our bodies adapt and get over issues—I opted to forget about it. But two weeks later, when it persisted, I paused. My grandfather had ALS, and one of my brother’s survived GBS, both neurological diseases. That led to an appointment with my orthopedic, who upon measuring my calf noted that it had already atrophied a few inches. He sent me for an MRI, and told me I needed to see a neurologist immediately. I completed the MRI, but as luck would have it, the neurologist couldn’t see me for at least a week. No news meant good news, so I opted to venture to NYC in mid-June to run The Great New York 100. Two days after completing TGNY100, I met with the neurologist. I had debated canceling the appointment—I had just run 100 miles and felt fine, minus the numbness. Surely, things were looking up for me. At the appointment, though, things fell apart. The prognosis came down to three possibilities: a lesion in my nerve (the lesion showed up in the first MRI of my knee); nerve entrapment; or chronic compartment syndrome. The next two weeks consisted of moving quickly with additional MRI’s, ultrasounds, EMGs, nerve conduction tests, and meetings with a nerve entrapment surgeon, who explained my options. All seemed dire.
In those weeks, running shifted from something I love, to something that was harming me. I grew disinterested in all things running. The doctors asked me to take some time off, and I did. It’s easy to get lost in the discipline of our lives, especially when one is training for Badwater, but when we turn off the switch, it’s amazing what happens. We are forced to ask ourselves what we seek. My goal in life is, first and foremost, to be healthy; I desire to live a long and productive life that is full of all of the activities and people that I love. Yes, I love to run, but it’s just one component of my life. Decades of yoga have taught me about compassion for my body—I don’t want to cause harm to myself. The clock ticked on. It was almost July 1st. Badwater was approaching. The doctors and I had to reach a decision. I went through some deep soul searching, and finally arrived at a place in which I was okay with whatever happened. It was then that the surgeon gave me the green light to attempt Badwater, as long as I was ready to drop if my calf didn’t cooperate.
I wish that I could say the surgeon’s green light gave me joy, but it didn’t. I felt uneasy. I feared doing permanent damage. I feared regretting the race if anything happened. It took me the two weeks leading up to Badwater to bury my fears and trust in the universe. But right up until I started running on Monday night—the official Badwater start—the fear of causing further damage was thick in my throat. I prayed to God, to my mom, to the sun, moon, and stars for a safe journey. While we still don’t have the answer to what caused my nerve to compress, or when or if it will heal, ultimately, the doctors believe that my compression sleeves were the culprit—a topic to be explored in another article!
Death Valley revisited
In 2015, I arrived at Badwater 135 knowing I was going to create change when I returned home—and for me it was a big change: I was going to leave my career and pursue my next chapter. Pre, during, and post run, I was afraid and unsure. Change is scary. It causes doubt, fear, and unrest. But something in me was propelling me forward, and with each foot that I placed in front of the other, I committed to the long and winding road ahead. A year later, I ran living the change—the great big roller coaster of it. This version of me did not miss any of the beauty of the course. In many ways, the course, with its bumps, and long, winding paths; its climbs upward, rushing downhills, and miles of desolate road, culminating in that final spiral into the sky, was reminiscent of the path I’ve traveled as an entrepreneur. Yes, I am scared at times—both on the Badwater course and off—but my fears have evolved. Instead of focusing on the things I cannot control, these days I am more focused on what I can control, which is my relationship to myself and the world around me. My return to Badwater was perhaps the best indication to me of how I have grown over the past year. While the external scenery may have been the same for the most part, internally, my heart and soul have shifted dramatically. While I don’t always know where I am headed next, being out in the desert soothes me in a way that few other locales ever have; I love the floating feeling that Death Valley imposes, the world-will-wait aspect of it.
No matter how you break it down, the Badwater 135 course is long and tough! But the views are incredibly rewarding. Never once did I let my bellyaching get in the way of taking in the magnificence of the course.
Miles 1-42: I love the solitariness of the initial miles. How each of the racers find their way, how we acclimate with our crews, and create a routine. Right from the start, I felt confident with my crew, like I could let go of all of the planning and let them lead the way. My dad was part of the crew for the first 17.6, which was a fun treat for me. Once my crew dropped him off at Furnace Creek, the plan was for them to pick him up at Dow Villa to rejoin crew duties from miles 122 to the finish at 135. As the night sky set in, the blinking lights of crew-car lights lit the path beyond, like little aliens leading the way. More than once, a shooting star pierced the sky.
Ice baby made a return visit this race, the only difference being that I used ice baby mini from the get- go. As the miles progressed, sometimes there were “no eat” ice babies, as in recycled ice, and other times there were “eat” ice babies, which meant I could chew on the ice cubes. I had my first nose bleed by mile 17, and the second one followed a few miles later. Food went wrong for me early on—by 10 miles, my stomach said no, then got angrier by mile 20, and by mile 25, I was in no way to water or food zone. That’s when I recalled packing Saltines, and requested them, knowing they would come to the rescue. I couldn’t get them down due to the dry heat. As many of them as I ate, more fell out of my mouth. I had to chew, chew, chew, and chase them down with Gatorade. Surely, it was a glamorous scene. But I was determined. I told my crew that I refused to let my stomach dictate the race. I was going to get past stomach issues—I was going to rid myself of nausea. There was no way I was going to pamper my stomach for the next two days and get stuck in a walk fest.
Aside from blue Gatorade and saltines, for the duration of the race my race diet consisted of a few cans of Coca Cola, half a can of coconut water, gluten free pretzel sticks, 1.5 ONE bars, some watermelon, two cheese sticks, Hammer endurolyte and anti-fatigue capsules, a strawberry frozen fruit bar, and water, tons of water! For at least half of the race, I used the water to gargle and keep my mouth wet, as it was often making me nauseated. These races teach you about toughening up; they teach you that you can push through and that sweating the small stuff is really a waste of time and energy. Everyone out there – crew and runners alike – suffers. It’s really hot and really hilly, and for the majority of us, we are out there for a long time.
Miles 42-58: The joy I felt in reaching Stove Pipe Wells is hard to put into words. It was my first mini milestone. Day light enveloped the sky, and a cool, damp breeze gave me a chill. My crew and I had survived the first night and from here on out, we were all going to be out there together, as I was allowed a pacer from this point on. I was also ecstatic that my nausea had died down – I felt much better than I had felt at this milestone the prior year. Pacer Chris joined me at this time, and as the sun took over full force, we climbed the roughly 5,000 up to Towne Pass, stopping at the 50 mile check in (51 + miles on our Garmin’s). As the sun began to beat on us, we came upon a number of racers, including Sada Crawford, who I calculated was in 4th place for the women. It was fun to be back in a pack as we all leap frogged one another, and I was grateful to have Chris to ramble on to. Chris was part of my crew the prior year, so he knew all too well what he was in for in the days to come!
Miles 58 – 68: Jerry was going to coast downhill with me from Towne Pass to Panamint Valley, and off we went. Pre-race, this was the section I had feared may cause the most complications when it came to my calf—if my ankle was going to drop, I anticipated it would happen during the descent. If I could make it past this section, I knew that I would completely settle into the race. Contrary to my fears, the downhill was exhilarating for me. The prior year, I had been petrified of this section. It was a reminder of the long way I have come under coach Lisa Smith-Batchen’s training, including the weeks of downhill running she incorporated into my schedule pre Brazil 135 in January. I enjoyed the descent this year, relaxing my legs and body into it and falling forward. More than once as we spiraled down, Jerry suggested that we stop and do some downward dogs. It was incredible how stretching out my legs and getting a blood rush to my head propelled me forward feeling stronger! Prior to reaching the valley floor, Jerry and I engaged in singing some of our favorite nursery school songs: Bingo Was His Name-O; The Ants Go Marching By; Hot Cross Buns; we even sang a bit of 99 bottles of bear on the wall.
Miles 68- 72: Becky was stuck with me for this section. Last year at this point, I had a major meltdown, and unfortunately, I felt it coming on again as soon as the heat of the valley floor permeated my legs. We had gone from cool and breezy downhill to brutal heat in a matter of miles, and I was melting. Then, minutes into the journey, there was a sand storm. Determined to move forward, I was unbothered by the blowing sand, but apparently, my crew had other ideas for me. Chris had Becky and I get into the van and locked the doors, as if the sand was threatening to come and get us. Within a few minutes, we were allowed to head back out. In the distance, I saw Panamint Springs hotel, another huge milestone for me.
It was around this point in the race that I knew that I had been talking too much: my throat was beginning to hurt and I felt overly tired. Coach Lisa had warned me about talking too much during races over the past few months. The more I talked in a race, typically the slower I got and the more I tired myself out. I tried to remember this and committed to shutting my mouth.
Miles 72-80: At Panamint Springs, Jerry met me by the gas station and held out a strawberry frozen fruit bar to me. From my reaction, you would have thought that he was handing me a winning multi-million dollar lottery ticket. It was the best treat that I had ever eaten. I got to wash up in the bathroom here, then set out for the next big climb up Father Crawley. Chris joined me again, because when it was time for heat and climbs, it was time for Chris to get to work. He stayed with me until about mile 76, when I had a mini-meltdown, then Jerry took over and climbed with me until mile 80. What I learned later in the race was that Chris had had his own meltdown and needed to recover and rest during those miles. The Father Crawley climb, although brutal in its way, is one of the highlights of the race to me. The winding road and breathtaking views of mountains beyond help to detract from the pain of the uphill battle.
Miles 80-90: With ten more miles of climbing until we reached the Darwin summit of 5,000 feet, Chris was back out there with me. I felt myself falling apart more than once during this climb. The temperatures were dropping, which was great, and the sun was beginning to fade. I was excited for the approach of my final night out on the course, but also began to feel my eyes shutting. When I felt myself continually veering off of the road, I told Chris that I needed a nap. I curled up in the van’s front seat and welcomed a 15-minute siesta. When I awoke, I was fresh and ready to go. I am amazed at what short naps can do for me in the midst of a race. We hit Darwin just after nightfall, and I had a tinge of excitement knowing that I only had 45 miles to go.
Miles 90 –on: It was Becky’s turn to come out and keep me company. At this point I had a moment in which crewing was reminiscent to me of babysitting. I was sure that there were countless things my crew would rather have done than wait on me and try to keep me motivated. Becky kept me alert and on track for miles, until the sleep demons came out to get me again. “M&M’s,” I said. “The M&M’s will keep me awake!” Becky walkie talkied in that I was ready for the chocolate. To our dismay, though, the chocolate was soaked in the cooler. It was then that I decided I needed another nap. I asked for ten minutes; Becky bargained for seven minutes, and my subconscious must have been in cahoots with her, as I woke up within 7 minutes.
Miles 100 and on: Somehow, someway, my energy returned as the new day, the final day of the race, dawned. Determined, I asked for my music, and began to trot, which turned into a jog. Chris stayed close behind me, and suddenly, it occurred to me that I was going to get my life back at some point! That I wouldn’t be involved in this race forever. I was running now, determined to complete the race. I intercepted with buddies Dale and with Carl as we all plowed forward. I was feeling happy! Along the way, my buddy Chip Corley, who had recently finished, came out to cheer us on the course. The road into Lone Pine seemed to stretch on forever, until finally, in the distance, the one and only stop sign leading into the town of Lone Pine appeared! We were almost on our way to the final uphill stretch!
Miles 122-128: My dad rejoined the crew once we reached the Dow Villa motel, the second to last race check in point. Jerry joined me at this time and we were off on the trek up Whitney Portal road. I felt great for miles, until I didn’t. The heat and sun began to taunt me again. How could it still be so hot when we were so far from Badwater Basin? With ten miles left to go, it was all beginning to sink in. But it was still such a long way ahead.
Miles 128-131ish: Becky was back with me, and for me, this may have been the most challenging climb of the race. I was really hot, tired of food, and my stomach was beginning to sour again. I had no conversation left in me, but I was cognizant of Becky’s constant draping of new ice bandanas on me, the crew offering me nonstop Gatorade, ice baggies, spray downs. The same old, how about eating this or that, or that or this. As tired as I got of it all, the crew didn’t falter. They kept offering me the same options, without fail, right there until the very end.
Miles 132-135: We had made it to the final check in point! Chris joined me for the final climb up, up, up into the sky. It amazed me that the last few miles, 3.6 to be exact, could take so long. Just when you keep thinking it’s almost over, there’s another few feet to go before you even spot the finish line. And then, the whole crew joined together, we crossed the finish line! I felt too tired at that instant to feel elated, but I was thrilled to stop!
While there’s nothing easy to me about this race, I didn’t struggle or suffer as much this year as I did the prior year. I felt confident and comfortable with my crew. I forgot about my calf issue after the Towne Pass to Panamint Valley downhill. If my ankle didn’t drop at that time, I knew I was going to be okay. I gained a new faith – in my body, my mind, in the universe. While I worried that my dad made it out to Lone Pine safe, I didn’t panic; I trusted that he would be okay, and he was. I also trusted in my training. Lisa Smith-Batch is more than a coach. She really cares about her students and people in general, and you feel it. Her training is not easy, and more often than not it is multidimensional, but when it came race time, my legs were strong and sturdy. Following Lisa’s training gives you this quiet confidence – knowing that you have her on your side, things seem more possible. She breaks down hurdles and goals and comes up with simple solutions. She keeps it real, and she keeps her students aspiring, too.
More than once, when the temperatures rose and the sun beat me down, I tried to remember why I started this race. What it meant to me. There was no earth shattering reason, other than the fact that as much as I may be afraid at times, I am more afraid to miss out on life, to miss out on the challenge, the adventure, the beauty, the journey. I thought once during the race of my divorce, now so many years past. What struck me was that being with the wrong person can take you off course in your life, and that it’s up to you to find your way back. I thought about the fact that my dad is growing older; he will be 85-years old in August. To me, he is still very young in many ways, although the years may tell a different story. I thought about the fact that at 46-years old, I too am growing older. But I am also growing stronger both physically and mentally, and from that base, I am confident that I can improve. I thought about the fact that our goals and dreams are always evolving, and how at one time in our lives what mattered so much, no longer does. Ultras always bring me back to that: when you are in survival mode, it’s amazing how much of your struggles and desires and fears you let go of. All that matters is that very moment. And yet races turn dark at inopportune moments. The pain sets in, the miles loom endless. I asked myself more than once staring at the giant glowing moon: how can I be the light? If only for a moment, how can I transform myself to shine back, and what came to me was gratitude. To remember how lucky I was to be healthy enough to be out there, surrounded by all of this beauty, all of these great people, my crew watching over me, in the midst of this race, with its deep and profound history.
When all is said and done, the heart of the race are the people surrounding you. Race Director Chris Kostman and his staff who make the event possible. Family and friends who give up a week of their life to support you. The crews of fellow racers who are always cheering you on. An ultra race to me is one of the most beautiful snippets of community. We all work together, with a simple and common goal: to arrive at the finish line a little bit stronger, softer, and more committed to the road ahead. For me, each race is a metamorphosis. I never come out of an ultra-event the same person that I went into it. I see the world anew. I see myself anew. I grow a bit more accepting, more aware, and humbler. Badwater 135 is a world unto itself, and for all those who aspire to it, it’s worth it – each and every step forward.