Even after a week of normal life, I’m still trying to comprehend the consciousness of crewing at the Badwater 135 ultramarathon out in Death Valley.
I say that, because we joked that this race crams weeks of consciousness into just 48 hours. When you try to think about all that you’ve seen and done, it just doesn’t fit with the clock time you just lived through. I’m back at work, and yes, I experienced the post race let down all week, but I think I am on the way back up finally and writing this is like the next deep breath in.
So what does it take to run in this race; other than being accepted by the race committee (which is no easy task, I hear)? In my opinion, one needs:
A. Physical Conditioning
Surely goes without saying perhaps, but the temperatures here are not within the normal running window; unless you live in Florida, the desert southwest, or fortunately western Pennsylvania for these past few weeks. Folks routinely setup a treadmill in a sauna for training, and that’s probably as good a simulation as there is to be had. Temperatures notwithstanding, let’s not forget its a 135 mile non-flat race as well, so that means training runs of 60 miles plus. Lastly, there are considerable hills and mountains to climb, with 13K feet to climb and 4,700 feet of descent.
Seasoned veterans lost half their feet to blisters and I saw all sorts of other physical challenges waylay even the most prepared athletes in this melee. Yes, you can drink too much water and over-hydrate. In some ways this is scarier than being dehydrated (at least from what I have seen). I do think all of us on the team were all in some form of dehydration for most of this trip.
B. Mental Preparedness
There is a mental game to every race. Here, I think there are several additional things to take into account: You will be tested; even the fastest finishers are seriously tested within this race, whether it be pain, failure of attitude or otherwise.
Additionally, when you are running across a valley where you can see 20 miles or more, a 15 minute pace doesn’t change that view very quickly, and its easy to see how this wears people down. It is extremely hard to gauge distance in the desert, and my crewmate Matt routinely tricked me into underestimating distances. “How far can it be?” - is exactly why people die out here.
Moving six crew members and a runner across Death Valley in the heat of July is not simple. Having something a runner would want to eat at the 40th hour is fairly random. You’re going to need a lot of stuff and unless you can luckily drive there, how do you get it all from here to there? Flights, vans, hotel rooms, clothes, shoes, food, liquids, meds, and a battery powered margarita machine. Where does it all go? How does it fit? What else do we need?
We ran in the heat of the day, the chill of the night. The relentless cooking of below sea level and the sudden freeze of 8,500 feet. We were hungry, thirsty. Our runner’s feet were swollen at some point, and bruised at another - it all requires different gear.
Think of it this way, the more extreme the conditions, the more particular the gear, and with lots of different conditions, well, that’s a lot of stuff.
What did I learn crewing? A lot. It was one of those situations where you think you know something, and it turns out, you know very little.
A. Don’t ask your runner what they want. Tell them.
It took me 38 miles to realize this, and 100 to get comfortable with it. Next time, I think I’d be even more of an SOB about sticking to pace and time, which is hard to gauge when you want your runner to be at the edge of their limits, but never, ever over.
B. You’ll see and do things outside your comfort zone.
I returned to normal life and did not continue to do certain things I did last week, perhaps because they aren’t all that socially acceptable, but I now know that I can - when push comes to shove.
C. The farmer hanky per mile in these conditions is far less for me than it ever has been on the east coast.
D. I came back a bit less selfish.
At least I hope I am. I really enjoyed being a helper. I really enjoyed seeing others reach their dreams. A lot of people labored for a very long time to even be at this race. It was incredible to be a part of it and see those people battle onward.
E. Drive knows no limits
I had thought I was a pretty driven person. Every person who toes the line at this race is driven beyond what I had imagined prior. The amount of effort here is dramatically beyond normal. I think it is quite good to be exposed to this kind of focus, it resets one’s internal expectation meter.
When I started running, I first was amazed at people who crush it week in and week out, running the most difficult of races and doing well. No disrespect meant, but most of these folks are born with the right genes and don’t have day jobs. They run all day, every day.
Keep being awesome, because we need you to set the pace.
Then I found lesser known folks creating their own incredibly crazy challenges, in the order of “how fast can I run from A to B?” and then went out and did it.
Take crazy to the next level, because we need you to change our view.
But I have to say, the most impressive people out there are the ones that work day jobs, that aren’t born with the right genes, but that battle it out and finish a difficult race because it never occurred to them to quit when things went off plan, to stop because something hurts, or give up because they just aren’t going to finish before the cutoff time.
I salute you, because we need you to set the standard for all of us, and the standard is the standard. The standard is grit, determination and a never say die attitude.
Then there are the folks that didn’t make it, unceremoniously titled DNFs. I had as strong a feeling for these folks as any because I didn’t see anyone quit as things became difficult or they just didn’t have it - no, the only reason I saw these people were that medical intervened as their health was in danger. They were crushed, obviously; they did the time, they had things in order, but the cards just did not play out as planned.
The human body doesn’t always react as we had planned. There are a lot of variables in running. These conditions exacerbate that range of things you try and monitor. When things go south, they can go very far south, very quickly. Many people DNF’ed at or before mile 42. The fog of battle can be quite brutal here and there is little margin for error.
Come back, because we need an underdog to believe in and we believe in you.
Anyway, what is neat to see is that all of these types of runners were on display at Badwater, and I got a change to meet them all face to face (Yes, I finally met Dean Karnazes, and yes, it was the one time I left my phone in the van).
When it is all said and done, it was an awesome experience and I have to thank all of the crew for teaching me so much in such a short amount of time. Thanks to Bob, Christy, Peyton, the impeccable driving of Mr. Wolf and the indispensable knowledge of our crew chief, Matt.
Our man, Sergio Radovcic crossed the line in 45:49:08. Almost nothing was as we planned for past mile 38, I saw many opportunities to quit, yet it never occurred to me that he would not finish. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the endless show of grit it took to close down those remaining 97 miles.
I remember standing there at the finish for a few brief moments, encased in every bit of spare clothes I could find in the van because I was freezing, thinking that I actually believed him when he said that he would not be back next year…
AdventureCorps puts on an amazing show at the edge of the earth. Many, many thanks to them, their team and support team for all that they do and for the opportunity to be a part of something with such storied history. Now that I have been there, I am quite sure it lives up to its name of “the world’s toughest foot race”.
Lastly, a well deserved congratulations to all the participants and finishers.