Welcome to the Zwitty Ultra (www.zwittyultra.com) Badwater "Playbook": ten tips to help you perform to the absolute best of your ability when you run the World's Toughest Footrace . . . the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon.
It is no secret in the world of ultrarunning that Death Valley in general and Badwater in particular have a very special meaning for my wife Alex and myself. So much so that we named our son "Witt," after the race's finish line on Mt. Whitney! And despite only being 4 years old, our daughter Zoey has already been to Death Valley twice . . . and she is the inspiration behind the "Badwater Baby" onesies you can buy at their online store :)
Additionally, in the past few years, Alex and I have become more and more involved with the race and gotten to know race director extraordinairre Chris Kostman pretty well, which has only added to our love of the race and Death Valley!
Personally, this will be my 5th year in a row at the race (I crewed in 2012 and 2014 for other runners, and I ran it in 2013 (14th place, 30:53) and 2015 (5th place overall, 2nd American, 28:09), so Alex and I have definitely picked up a lot of "dos" and "don'ts" along the way...
So without further adieu, here are our top 10 tips to kicking ass and taking names at the 2016 Badwater 135 Ultramarathon!
1. You need a race-day sleep strategy.
This is one of the primary challenges of the "night start" the race now employs . . . how to get a significant amount of sleep during the day of the race so that you are fresh and ready to go when the gun goes off. The earliest you will be starting is 8:00 pm (if you are in wave 1); the "elites" don't start until 11:00 pm, so getting sleep on race day is of paramount importance. And cruelly, the runners that will have the hardest time relaxing enough to sleep on race day will likely be the rookies (the group that needs the sleep the most).
So what sleep strategy will you employ? Whatever it is, start thinking of one now, and practice it a few times between now and race day. Here is mine from last year: I finished an appellate legal brief the morning of the race. I could have written it at any point in the week leading up to the race, but I waited until race day, because nothing puts you to sleep like reviewing a 1000-page trial record and forming a coherent argument out of it for a panel of appellate judges! And after I spent 3-4 hours finishing that brief, I immediately headed over to the Corkscrew Saloon and pounded two pints of beer. 30 minutes later, I was passed out for the next 6-7 hours. Mission accomplished :) (As an aside, if any of you want to write an appellate brief for me out there in Death Valley this year, come see me!)
Seriously, though, think about that thing in your life that never fails to make you sleepy. Bring it with you to the race . . . it can be the difference between success and failure.
2. Do Not Underestimate the night start.
With the night start, the race is now a lot harder (and don't take just my word for it; ask any veteran who has run both the day and nighttime starts, including the authority on all things Badwater, Marshall Ulrich). In addition to being forced to wait until the end of the day to start running (leading to runner fatigue before the gun even goes off), the race is harder for several more reasons:
1. Badwater is now a second half "heat race" instead of a first half one. With the traditional morning start, yes, the first 42 miles to Stovepipe are really hard, as is the climb up to Towne Pass, but things really start to get easier once runners get into Panamint and beyond. With the night start, however, while the first 58 miles are undoubtedly easier, the rest of the race is undoubtedly harder. The Panamint Valley is only a few degrees cooler than the Death Valley floor, and instead of hitting the "heat" with fresh legs, now runners get to experience it after running over 60 miles. Believe me: there is not a single section of the "traditional" course that is as difficult as the climb from Panamint Springs to Father Crowley (Miles 72-80) on the "night start" course.
2. The crucial Darwin to Lone Pine section (Miles 90-122) is much harder as well: For those of you with aspirations of doing really well at Badwater, and maybe even getting the win or earning a spot on the podium, the race is won and lost every year on this slightly downhill 32-mile stretch into Lone Pine. If you can run this stretch in 5 hours, you'll likely win the race. If you can run it in under 6 hours, you'll finish in the top-10 (at least). In other words, it is an absolutely pivotal stretch of the race . . . and it is a lot harder now that the majority of it is run during the daylight (for the front-runners). With a traditional morning start, the leaders usually go through this section in the middle of the night, and are spared the mental anguish of staring at Mt. Whitney and the rest of the Eastern Sierras for 30+ miles, with the mountains never seemingly getting any closer. This section can really mess with your mind.
3. The Portal Road and the Switchbacks: Okay, here's something you need to wrap your head around . . . you are going to be dragging ass on the final stretch between Lone Pine and the finish line (Miles 122.5-135). Last year, no one "ran" this final stretch quickly (I use quotes because if you power walk at 4mph for the 9-mi Portal Rd. section, you will be WAY ahead of the curve).
With the night start, the course just takes its toll on every runner. So when you find yourself swaying on the road, barely able to move in those final miles, just remember that everyone else is feeling the exact same way.
3. respect but not awe.
One of the greatest challenges that I face as a coach to prepare first-time Team Zwitty Badwater runners is to make sure they keep the race in the proper perspective. I have witnessed world-class runners toe the line at Badwater for the first time, literally shaking because they were so nervous. Sure, Badwater is a lifetime goal for most, a "bucket-list" race that they have been dreaming about for many years. And yes, the race is every bit as hard as advertised. So leading up to the race, you need to give Badwater the respect and awe it deserves by training your ass off, as well as steeling your resolve for the journey that awaits. (And if anyone wants help in those regards, hit me up...).
But once training is over and you are standing at the Badwater sign on the evening of July 18th, the time for awe is absolutely over. You have put in the work; you are ready. You already know how to run 100+ miles, and how to overcome difficult situations and obstacles. In other words, when you start running the actual race, you cannot be in awe of it anymore. Rather, you have to just go about your business, get into your routine, and systematically make your way towards the finish line . . . just as you would in any other race.
I'm not going to debate what ultra on the planet is the "hardest" or "toughest." But as far as road ultras, I have not run a single race that demands more out of you than Badwater. So train accordingly. But during the race, lose the "awe" factor, and just get down to business...
4. for God's sake, have fun!
We were told to comb the desert...")
I highly-suggest the opposite approach: spend the few days before the race socializing with all the other amazing people out at the race. Do all the touristy stuff, like play on the Mesquite Sand Dunes, hike on the path to Jabba's Palace (Golden Canyon). Stay up late one night and catch the starriest sky you've ever seen in your life (Death Valley is one of the only certified "dark skies" in the country). Go to Lone Pine and pay a visit to "Badwater Ben" Jones, who has forgotten more about the race and its history than any of us will ever know. Take a team picture at the Badwater sign at the start line and walk a mile or so into the salt pan.
There are so many cool things to do and see out in Death Valley; it would be a shame not to experience them. Plus, you paid a lot to be out there . . . might as well get your money's worth!! And, as an added bonus, the more stuff you do the few days before the race, the more likely you'll be able to sleep during the day on race day!
Bottom line: have fun out there!!!
5. the "immutable truth."
Rather, the core teaching of ultrarunning is that when we are in the middle of a race and facing unimaginable lows, the voice inside our heads that tells us there is no way we can possibly go on . . . IS ALMOST ALWAYS WRONG. In other words, ultrarunning teaches us that we are always capable of more than we think. Sure, if you break a leg during a race, you are a fool to continue. But 99.9% of the time, we can always still keep moving, get through our rough spot, and come out on the other side feeling much better.
You need to have this mantra seared into your consciousness: no matter how bad things get, if I just keep pressing forward, they will get better and I will persevere.
Now (I know), we can all accept that premise as logical and rational when we are feeling good and thinking clearly. But how about at Mile 72, when you are throwing up on the side of the road at Panamint Springs, it is 120 degrees outside, and you can barely walk because of how blistered your feet have become? How do you convince your brain -- which is actively conjuring up all sorts of sensible reasons why you should quit -- not to listen to those reasons?
Here's the key: do not trust your own brain during these "low" spots in a race. Rather, recognize that you are not thinking clearly, and fall back to your mantra (things will improve if I just press on). And then do exactly that . . . get moving forward. Take your thoughts out of the equation, and simply start moving. It is that simple. You will eventually feel better, I promise...
6. there are better things to do with your time than "Heat Training" in a sauna.
Here's why I am not a big fan of sauna training: it is not really "training" at all. At no point during the Badwater 135 will you be earning points by sitting down outside in the sun. And at no point will Chris Kostman allow you to haul an elliptical or trainer out on the road. In other words, by sauna training, you are not training yourself to run for long periods of time in extreme heat. Rather, you are just tiring yourself out when you could be improving your fitness, running tempo runs, raising your heart rate, and improving your V02 max and lactate threshold levels.
Plus, how much does sitting in a sauna, a few times a week, for 30 minutes or less, actually "adapt" you to the conditions you will encounter in Death Valley? (You are still spending well over 95% of your day in non desert-like conditions). To see some tangible effect of sauna training on your ability to withstand extreme heat, you would likely need to spend absurd amounts of time in there, which is both dangerous to your health and counter-productive. Yes, you may -- marginally -- improve your tolerance to heat by sitting in a sauna occasionally, but you are also dehydrating yourself, and making it harder for your body to recover for your next hard training workout. I would much rather have my runners feeling 100% ready to kick ass on their next tempo run than only be at 80% because they spent an hour or two in the sauna the prior day.
The fittest runners are the ones who tend to do the best at Badwater. Sorry, but it really is that simple. I will take a well-trained athlete who lives in Alaska, has a smart and intense training block leading up to the race (80+ miles a week, with regular tempo/speed work), but never sees the inside of a sauna, over someone who runs 40 miles a week and spends 20 hours a week sitting in a sauna. It's not even close. Further, if saunas actually improved your fitness, everyone would be doing it, and it would be some new fitness craze (which, thankfully, it is not).
Yes, you may -- marginally -- improve your tolerance to heat by sitting in a sauna occasionally, but you are also dehydrating yourself, and making it harder for your body to recover for your next hard training workout. I would much rather have my runners feeling 100% ready to kick ass on their next tempo run than only be at 80% because they spent an hour in the sauna the prior day.
Focus on improving your running fitness in training. If you have an extra 10-15 minutes a few times a week to sit in a sauna, knock yourself out. But do not make it a main part of your regimen: it really does not constitute "training." (Still don't believe me? Next time you are in the sauna, look around you. Do the majority of people around you look like LeBron James? Or more like Kevin James? My strong suspicion is the latter...) :)
7. Um, Okay, if no sauna, then what do I do to "heat train"?
Some people choose to take a trip or two out to Death Valley in May or June before the race, and train on the actual race course. The problem, of course, is that such trips are very expensive, and you are already likely paying a lot of money for the actual race weekend.
The solution I have come up with over the years: spend a long weekend in June training in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area in Arizona. In June, Phoenix is every bit as hot as Death Valley (often hotter), there are thousands of miles of hot roads to run on (with gorgeous scenery), and the mountains surrounding the valley offer excellent replicas of the famous climbs you will encounter at Badwater. (My personal favorite mountain to train on in Phoenix is South Mountain, the highest peak in the "Valley of the Sun," which actually has a road (Summit Rd.) that you can take all the way to the top. It is perfect Badwater training...)
And the best thing about a weekend in Phoenix/Scottsdale in June is that it is very affordable. People that live in the Phoenix area take their vacations in June and July to escape the heat and bolt off to San Diego or Denver. And since -- besides us -- no one is crazy enough to actually want the heat and vacation in Phoenix in June, hotel prices are dirt-cheap (less than $100 for a 4-star hotel in Old Town Scottsdale). Car rentals are about $100-150/week. And all of the prime training locations are within a 15-mile radius from Sky Harbor Airport, so logistically, it is far easier than planning a trip out to Death Valley to train.
With all of these factors in mind, we are proud to announce that starting next June (2017), we will be hosting the first official Team Zwitty Badwater Training Camp in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area! Details will follow in the coming months, but you can expect 4 days of running, strategy sessions, and a tour of the best and most-distinctive restaurants the Valley of the Sun has to offer! Stay tuned :)
And for this year, for those of you with flexible work schedules, we will be hosting a free Badwater training camp in Phoenix, from June 17-20 (next weekend)! All are welcome to attend . . . if you are interested in getting in a lot of quality miles, learning key tips about Badwater, and basically spending a long weekend with like-minded individuals, just let me know, and I'll forward you the details!!
8. Blister Prevention made easy.
If you feel any of the above things work for you, great, by all means, keep doing what works. I'm not going to offer any opinion on the efficacy of any of those strategies or products. Rather, I just want to highlight the one thing that absolutely WILL minimize your chances of getting blisters at Badwater, regardless of what "race day blister strategy" you employ:
Run as many miles as possible during training in race-like conditions. It really is that simple. As humans, we are adaptive beings. We respond to training. When our feet get used to running on hot roads in dry conditions for long periods of time, they won't blister as much anymore (if at all). The more you can get your body (and feet) used to running in hot/dry desert conditions, the better equipped you will be to handle Badwater.
9. the "n of 1" mistake.
In ultrarunning in 2016, it seems like every weekend, a new "coach" is announcing his or her services, imploring his or her clients to pull tires (or even cars . . . seriously) for hours on end, or otherwise giving advice based on that person's own experience, rather than objectively looking at training in a scientific way, combined with the experiences of hundreds of athletes and what they respond to in training.
My point: when training for a bucket-list race like Badwater, it is important to (a) gather as much information out there as possible, (b) question everything from an objective point of view, (c) think like a scientist, and (d) come to your own conclusions about what is sound advice and what is not. All advice is not created equal.
In my articles on this website, while of course I have certain habits and strategies that work for me in my own running, I do not simply recommend them to my runners unless (1) they are substantially validated by science, and (2) scores of other runners have responded positively to the particular advice/strategy. Coaches need to take their own personal biases out of the equation in order to avoid the "N of 1" mistake.
Correspondingly, runners need to be aware of this problem as well, and not just say, "Well, Chris Roman cuts the toe boxes out of his shoes, and he's an awesome runner, so I'm going to cut the toe boxes out of my shoes." It may very well turn out that cutting the toe boxes out of shoes is an objectively-valid blister prevention strategy. But it is not objectively valid just because I say it is or Chris Roman says it is . . . you need to do your homework to ensure what you choose to do in training and on race day is in your best interest.
10. savor the experience.
I cannot wait to see everyone next month, especially all of the Team Zwitty athletes and crew members who will be at this year's race (over 20 strong)! Train hard, train smart, and if I can ever help in any way possible, please do not hesitate to reach out!