1. Intro: Back into the fire.
Okay, let's get started. Here are my highlights of the week:
2. Playing in the desert.
Tip #1: Get out to the race a few days early, relax, and have fun!!!
This year, my team was a combination of Badwater veterans (my peerless wife Alex and Badwater veteran Eric "Drakkar Noir" Spencer) and newbies (Team Zwitty members Noelani Taylor and Mike Peragine, who are both incredibly-strong runners who will likely run Badwater in the near future). It was the perfect combination, and everyone was super-excited to get out to Death Valley and play for a week.
Some of the "can't miss" things you need to do before the race:
- Take a team photo at the Badwater Basin sign (above), but don't stop there: walk out a little while to the salt pan beyond the sign . . . the sights from out there are otherworldly;
- Play on the Mesquite Sand Dunes, just outside of Stovepipe Wells (Mile 40 on the race course). Last year, while crewing for Drakkar, we may or may not have had drunken races up and down the sand dunes!);
- Drive out to Lone Pine and visit race legend Dr. "Badwater Ben" Jones, who has more stories about the race and its history than any human alive. Ask him about how he once performed an autopsy in the middle of actually running the race himself!;
- Visit the Alabama Hills on the Portal Road up to Mt. Whitney, the setting for many movies, such as Gladiator, Iron Man, Django Unchained, and many others;
- Drive to the finish line and grab a "bite" to eat or drink at the store at the Mt. Whitney Portals;
- Take a picture at the gorgeous Father Crowley Outlook (Mile 80 of the course); also, note the bullet holes on the bathroom doors (I'd love to hear the story behind that one...);
- For you Star Wars buffs out there, visit Golden Canyon (i.e., the road to Jabba's Palace) (Mile 15 on the course);
- Have a "Dante's Pizza" and "Badwater Ale" at the Corkscrew Saloon at the Furnace Creek Ranch; and
- Hang out with all the European tourists at the huge spring-fed pool at the Furnace Creek Ranch. (For some reason, Americans do not view Death Valley as a top summer tourist destination; Europeans feel quite differently . . . Death Valley is overrun with French, Swedish, and German tourists all throughout the summer. Try explaining to them why you and your team is in Death Valley, and what you are about to do. Their reactions are priceless . . .) :)
We were told to comb the desert...")
Captain Drakkar 'Merica decided to roll out the welcome wagon)
3. getting serious (well, sort of): pre-race and (not) david goggins.
This year, the room was buzzing when David Goggins walked in and sat on the floor; apparently he was there to crew a runner. For those of you who don't know, Goggins is a Navy Seal, a Badwater veteran, the world-record holder for most pull-ups in 24 hours, and he looks like a model. My wife tells me not to take it personally when she screams "Goggins" at night when she's sleeping. :)
Seriously, the guy is a complete stud, and it came as no surprise that after the meeting, Noelani was very anxious to go up to him and introduce herself. After about 15 minutes of plotting her strategy, she worked up the nerve to go up to him. She said: "Excuse me, Mr. Goggins. My name is Noelani, and I just wanted to say that you've been such a big influence on me, I've read and watched so much about you, and I really, really, really respect and admire you." This went on for quite a while, until he said, "Really, why?" She then went on for another while, going into details about how great he was. Finally, he smiled and said, "My name is Eric."
It turns out that David Goggins has a doppleganger who just happened to be at Badwater this year. We were all dying laughing, and Noelani's face was as red as the Team Zwitty singlets we were wearing!
4. race day.
With the night start, runners were faced with the near-impossible task of calming themselves down enough so they could get actual sleep during the day, as the last thing you want to do is be sleep-deprived at the start of a 135-mile run through the hottest place on Earth.
Luckily for me, I had a fail-safe strategy to get a solid 5-6 hour nap on Tuesday afternoon. One of the things I do when I'm not running is that I'm an appellate attorney, and I had a brief due that week. I intentionally waited until race morning to write it (which probably makes me the first person in Badwater history to write a legal brief on race day!)
I spent 3-4 hours writing it, which was more than enough to make me plenty tired to go to sleep :)
When I woke up, it was game time...
5. Badwater 2015: Miles 1-17.4 (start line to furnace creek).
At exactly 11:00 pm on Tuesday evening, all the playing and waiting was finally over, and we were off, running north on Badwater Rd. towards Furnace Creek. It was a beautiful night to run: no wind, temps in the low 90's with basically zero humidity (which is a welcome change from what it's been like in Florida the past few months), and the full moon provided a spotlight so bright that runners did not even need to wear headlamps.
From the beginning of the race, I felt confident and relaxed. As mentioned earlier, the field of elite runners was stronger this year than ever before, and included some of the very best road ultra runners in the world, such as Badwater record-holder Valmir Nunez, last year's champ Harvey Lewis, Oswaldo Lopez, Aly Venti, Grant Maughan, and my pick to win the race, "Polish Rocky" (Piotr Kurylo). (For my pre-race prediction article, click here).
My plan for the first 17.4-mile section to Furnace Creek was to run quickly and comfortably, at about 7:45/mi. Right from the start, Harvey took off (as is his trademark), and reportedly ran the first mile in under 6 minutes.
I really enjoyed this first section, and maintained a consistent pace throughout. By Mile 10, I had moved up into third place, with Harvey and Polish Rocky/Drago way out in front of me. It was a really cool stretch for me; I found myself in a nice "bubble" where it felt like I had the desert all to myself. And the nighttime moonlight running was just spectacular.
Right before the turn off of Badwater Road to the downhill stretch into Furnace Creek, I caught Polish Rocky. It was absolutely shocking to me; I figured he would just take off and that would be that with him. But I could see him for about a mile before passing him and he kept looking back at me, and sped up multiple times to try and hold me off.
Tip #2: While I will talk about all the other runners around me in the first 90 miles of the race, it is generally not a good idea to alter your own pace in the first 90 miles of this race, based upon what another runner is doing. The race is won and lost every year on the 32-mile stretch from Darwin to Lone Pine (Miles 90-122); my goal was just to get to Darwin as quickly as possible, yet also with enough in my tank to run as much of that crucial stretch as possible. Badwater is far too long and far too hard to run at someone else's pace besides your own early in the race. The way I like to think of it is that the first 90 miles is like watching a movie, and although I'm a participant in the movie and interested in how others are doing, I don't care to become an active participant in the plot of the movie until Darwin. So while it's fun for me and my crew to note how other runners are doing -- it's good to have things to talk about over the course of so many hours -- we don't let other runners change or dictate my pace at all for the first 90 miles.
We reached Furnace Creek in 2:14, in second place, three minutes behind Harvey. As it turns out, it was not Polish Rocky's day, and he wound up dropping out of the race after about 50 miles. So much for my powers of prediction!
6. Miles 18-42 (furnace creek to stovepipe wells).
7. the climb to towne pass (miles 43-58).
So my plan was to run as much of the first 8 miles of the climb as possible, and then power-hike the majority of the second 8 miles. The goal was to reach the top with (1) a good level of energy and (2) fresh enough legs to take advantage of the scorching downhill on the other side of the mountain (3000 feet lost over 9 miles).
Tip #3: As with every ultra, you cannot treat Badwater like a single race. 135 miles is just too damn long of a distance to wrap your head around, especially when you are feeling like crap at Mile 25 (or sooner). So break the race up into distinct sections, and have a plan and a goal for each section. I break Badwater down into 15 distinct sections...
The climb to Towne Pass was largely an enjoyable experience, as the sun was rising behind us, and Mile 42 is the first time during the race that pacers are allowed. After running by yourself for over 6 hours, it's nice to finally have some company on the road. And your crew members are usually very eager to get out of the car and run with you, especially if it is their first time experiencing the race. With Mike and Noelani, they were champing at the bit to get out on the road with me, and it was great to experience the race through their eyes!
As far as other runners, throughout the next 30 or so miles (until Father Crowley at Mile 80), we would encounter three other runners on multiple occasions: my friend and last year's female champ, Aly Venti, Jay Smithberger from Ohio, and Michael Jimenez from California.
Along with a few others, Aly ran every step of the 16-mile climb, so she got a little ahead of me during the climb to Towne. Jay -- who looks exactly like Captain Obvious from the commercials -- and I did a lot of the steep hiking together towards the top of the mountain. And Mike, who is a supremely-nice guy and works as a professional caddie at Pebble Beach, was around us constantly during this time. It was great to share the road with these guys (misery loves company) :)
We reached Towne Pass, Mile 58, a little after 9:00 am (10 hours into the race). I had accomplished my goal of surviving the climb, had energy, and was ready to start running . . . and running fast down the mountain.
8. the panamint air show: miles 58-72 (towne pass to panamint springs)
This section was largely uneventful for us, and we rolled into Panamint at somewhere around noon, so about 13 hours into the race. We were now more than half-way to the finish line :)
One really cool aspect about the Panamint Valley section of the course is that Edwards Air Force Base is not too far away, and F-16 fighter jets were buzzing us all day long. They were flying a few hundred feet from the ground, and seemed so close that we could reach out and touch them.
9. painful penance: the scorching climb to father crowley and darwin (miles 72-90).
Prior to the race, many outside observers opined that the night start would make the course "so much easier." Now that the race is over, ask anyone who has run both versions of the race what they think of that sentiment. To a person, everyone who ran this year's race said it was much harder to start at night. (One only need look at the list of a high number of world class runners who DNF'd this year as proof of just how hard it was out there).
I think it's harder for two main reasons: First, instead of a first-half heat race, the race is a second-half heat race, and the Panamint Valley is still extremely hot; it is generally only a few degrees cooler than the Death Valley floor. So now, instead of hitting the hottest section right at the beginning, runners have to run through a still-hot Death Valley overnight, and then reach the hottest part after putting 70 miles on their legs.
Second, with a night start, most runners are already sleep-deprived before the race even starts. My advice: become a lawyer and make sure you have a brief to write on the morning of the race :) Seriously, sleep throughout the day of the race is absolutely paramount.
On the eight-mile climb to Father Crowley, everyone around us suffered mightily. It was just really, really hot out there as we attempted to climb out of the valley. I knew that things would start getting better and cool off a bit once we got to Father Crowley (elevation 4000 ft), so my sole focus was just to constantly move forward and be ready to start running when we reached Crowley.
This section is one of the parts of the course that I am most proud of, as we survived it better than most teams, and because we managed my energy level and body temperature throughout the hard climb, I was pretty fresh when we got to Crowley, and I had a great 10-mile stretch from Crowley to Darwin. During this section, I escaped all three of the runners who were near us for the past 30 miles (Mike, Jay, and Aly), and we never actually saw any of them again for the rest of the race. We hit Darwin (Mile 90) in about 17 hours (4:00 pm), and I was in great shape to start the crucial section of the course (Darwin to Lone Pine).
10. Eating Aussie crow: darwin to lone pine (Miles 91-122).
The section went very well for us. We ran 8-9 min/mi from Mile 90 to about 105 (so about half of the stretch). It actually started hailing during this stretch, right around Mile 100. It was pretty wild, but also was fun to run through. A film crew from the BBC was out on the course, and the reporter seemed to think that the rain was an added hurdle for the runners. ("And now, look, at the rain that the runners must combat on this epic struggle as they make their way ever so much closer to the finish.") They were forced to re-shoot that segment, as I ran by them with an enormous smile on my face in the background!
In addition to the BBC, there were other international media outlets at the race, including Al Jazeera. I found out about this from a buddy's daughter, who informed me that "there's a guy named Al Jazeera who is here. He is covering the race." (That provided a great inside joke for the rest of the trip!)
By the time we hit the "town" of Keeler (Mile 108), I had hit a pretty bad energy low that lasted a few miles. During this section, the eventual female champion, Australian Nikki Wynd, blew by me. Along with the rest of her crew, her crew chief / boyfriend David Eadie -- a world-class middle distance runner who ran Badwater a few years ago -- had some few choice comments for me and my crew. Going back to my "Badwater Preview" article from a few weeks ago, I stated that Aly was "the only world-class runner in the female race." Big mistake on my part. Huge. I simply overlooked Nikki, who is a tough-as-nails runner who is one of the top runners in the world at 24/48 hour races. So her crew definitely liked the moment when she passed me, and they shouted things like "Blog about that!!!"
The next day, we all hung out and shared more than a few laughs about the whole thing. It turns out that David shares my deep love of sarcasm, and we all got along famously...
Back to the race: Nikki and I passed each other for 3-4 miles until she pulled away for good. I re-focused on my own race and getting into Lone Pine. We arrived there at about 11pm, 24 hours into the race (122 miles). The only thing that stood between us and the finish was the namesake of my son Witt . . . Mt. Whitney and the Portal Road.
11. Bringing it home.
We got a jolt of energy, however, when we reached the final checkpoint at the base of the Mt. Whitney switchbacks, at about Mile 131.5. There, we were informed that I was in 5th place by about 10 minutes, and if I had a solid final 3.5 miles to the finish, I would finish the world's toughest footrace, on its hardest year, and with the most competitive field ever . . . in the top-5. Talk about motivation. It's funny how much more we are capable of than we think; minutes earlier, I was barely moving. But now, with the prospects of a top-5 finish, I found a new well of energy that I did not know existed. Eric (who valiantly ran the entire final section from Lone Pine with me) and I flew up those last few miles, and we finished the race in 28:09, in 5th place overall, and second American!
Throughout the day, I shared stories with other runners, visited with so many friends, and just enjoyed my time with everyone else in the Badwater family. The post-race awards ceremony was a blast as always, as was the time at Jake's Saloon afterwards (well, I didn't make it out too late, but it was fun nonetheless).
On Friday, we drove to Vegas, and while I won't break the time-honored code and divulge any real details, suffice to say we had a blast and a bit of a hangover when we flew back to Florida on Saturday :) One detail I will share is that when we arrived to our hotel in Vegas on Friday afternoon, a hotel employee delivered a bottle of champagne and the following note, from Zwitty runner Pat Hrabos (who will likely be running Badwater at some point in the near future). We were all blown away by the really kind gesture:
13. Thank you.
The rest of my crew team this year was unbelievable. Eric was the most-experienced, as far as Badwater is concerned, and he made sure everything ran smoothly and we stayed on track throughout the entire race. And Mike and Noelani were energetic, tireless, and engaged throughout the entire race. It is exceedingly rare for a crew to not have some level of angst/drama over the course of a 24+ hour race. But these guys just worked together perfectly, and we had fun throughout the race . . . although I suspect they had a bit more fun then I did!
Next, I'm just so happy to be part of this incredible Badwater family, and we all have Chris Kostman to thank for organizing this race for the past 15+ years and, especially this year, for fighting so hard for the race to return to its rightful home in Death Valley. It was particularly awesome to hang out with so many old friends with Florida ties, such as Tony Portera, Frank McKinney, Bob Becker, Will Glover, Eric Friedman, Smitty, Grant Maughan, Aly, and many, many others. And it was great to meet a bunch of new friends, like Nikki Wynd, David Eadie, and Michael Jimenez.
Finally, this year was especially awesome with over a dozen Team Zwitty runners at the race. Both Jodi Weiss and Andrea Kooiman had great races and earned their belt buckles! And many others were on crew teams, including Greg Fenton, Winston Fletcher, Christy Johnston, Bonnie Collins, Mel Papatestas, and Jessica Nathan.
Thanks to everyone for making this year such an especially-memorable one! I hope to see as many of you as possible in November at the inaugural Daytona 100!!!