Monday, August 14, 2017

Bad Beaver Ultra, Gatineau Park, Ottowa, CA Aug 3-5, 2017

August 3-5, 2017
Gatineau Park, Ottowa, CA

A great race, as I see it, incorporates a high degree of difficulty, a beautiful and memorable course and first-rate support.  For an ultramarathon, for example, the race route should be very well marked with flagging, signs and whatever other means are available so that runners do not get lost.  (An adventure race is an entirely different species, when typically at least some orienteering is expected.)  Last week’s “Bad Beaver Ultra” was a great race and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

I like stage races a lot.  Bad Beaver is a 3-day stage race in spectacular Gatineau Park near Ottowa, Canada.  This national treasure covers 139 square miles (301 square kilometers) and is a sports haven year-round.  Our race traversed 150+ kilometers, yet runners saw just a small portion of the innumerable trails found in Gatineau.  This race was one of the toughest I’ve ever run, especially the long second day.  We faced many different kinds of running surfaces and trails, with many steep up and down hills that were quite technical--rocky, rooty, muddy and wet.  The second day was over 70 kilometers—roughly 45 miles.  It took over 16 hours for this Flatlander to complete the day.

Canadian Ray Zahab is one of the world’s great adventurers as well as a very accomplished ultra-runner.  (See “Running the Sahara” for an account of Ray’s 4,300 mile run across the entire Sahara Desert in 2008.)  Ray lives near Gatineau Park and designed the course, alongside his co-race directors Mat Lefevre and Sereena Trottier.  When I heard that Ray would be involved, I knew it would be both immensely challenging and first-rate in every respect.  I missed the inaugural in 2016 but made it this second year and am so glad for that opportunity.
“Bad Beaver Ultra” has started by design as a very small race, to get the details right.  Next year the limit will increase to 50 or 60 runners.  For this 2017 edition, the number of entries was 20.  Prior to race day, three people dropped.  Of the starting field of 17, five did not finish.  I was very fortunate to have my friend and Fort Lauderdale neighbor, Tim O’Brien, compete with me in Gatineau.  Tim and I ran every step together. We finished tied for 9th overall, very pleased to be among the finishers and pleasantly surprised not to have finished last!

The first day, or “stage”, was 53.5 kilometers and was designed as an overview of the remaining days.  A little bit of everything was thrown our way, with the opening caveat from the race directors to save a little for Day 2, which would be far tougher.  Each day incorporated beautiful views from mountain-top overlooks, lots of miles on single and double-track trails and jeep roads and even a small amount of pavement.  Running on heavy, wet grass and mud, groomed and very technical surfaces, over and through streams and downed trees and scrambling up mountain escarpment was all part of the experience.  And the first day included a bonus called “Lusk Cave”.  Upon arrival, a race volunteer was waiting to keep an eye on your pack, shirt, hat and anything else you didn’t want to get wet.  With only running shoes and shorts and a necessary headlamp, you scrambled up the rocks and then down into the cave opening where very carefully you stepped on wet marble into the cold, rushing water.  Towards the end, 150 meters later, where it was completely dark, water was chest and then neck-high, with about 12-18 inches of opening at the mouth of Lusk Cave to exit.  You held on to any piece of rock you could reach the entire distance, and carefully stepped and swam just a little to reach the finale.  The day was very humid and warm, so the cold water was actually welcoming and refreshing.  The experience was also, shall I say, different!  We knew that the cave was incorporated into the route so that it was no surprise.  But it was a first, to be sure.  Exiting the cave, we sloshed up some rocks to where our gear awaited us, spent a couple of minutes shaking-off excess water, then donned shirts, grabbed packs and trekking poles and continued the remaining 5 miles to the day’s finish line.  Yes, our shoes remained damp for the balance of the race.

Damp shoes were not a particular problem, though.  In our packs were changes of socks in addition to food and electrolytes for the three days, sleeping bag, headlamp, batteries and other required gear, personal items, warm clothes for nighttime, rain gear, etc.  Shortly after the start of the second (long) stage at 6:00am, it began to rain.  The forecast had called for heavy thunderstorms all day, yet somehow we missed the worst.  The rain kept up for an hour or two and then backed-off.  It remained very humid all day.  The most difficult terrain of the entire race was the last few miles of the second day, which we ran at night—after the rains began again.  So, our shoes remained damp, but hardly from Lusk Cave alone!  Thanks to our running “partner” that second day, Leeanne Richardson, who lives in the Gatineau area and knows the park well, we were able to complete the distance by 10:30pm.  Leeanne was our leader, set the pace, helped navigate some particularly squirrely spots and got us “home”.  Great flagging, signs and maps (in hand) notwithstanding, confident and knowledgeable leadership is always a huge help in the woods on a dark, rainy night.  Yes, Momma Bear with her two cubs in tow got us back safely to our Bad Beaver den.  Leeanne finished 3rd female.

As with nearly all stage races, we expected to be sleeping in tents on the first and second nights.  Instead, we were pleasantly surprised to be indoors, apart from the mosquitoes and deer flies that were plentiful in some areas during the first two days.  The first night we all slept in a bunkhouse-type cabin, with half the space divided into cubicles with two double bunks in each.  It was luxury, indeed, with real mattresses underneath our sleeping bags.  And “Bad Beaver Ultra” includes dinner; fine food it was, too!  We had only to carry nutrition for during the day as a modest breakfast was also offered.  On the second night, when we did not arrive until 10:30pm, hot dinner was still waiting for us inside a large lodge at the base of a ski lift.  Here we slept on the floor in what would be a very large and hyper-active bar area in season, using sleeping pads beneath our bags.  (We brought sleeping pads with us from home.  Race staff kept those for us until delivering them that second night.  It was a bonus not to have to carry that extra weight for just the one night’s use.)

The third day dawned dry and sunny, with a nice breeze keeping the bugs away.  It was a spectacular day.  At the highest point on the entire course, at the top of King Mountain, the 180-degree view from the overlook was truly incredible.  We could see all the way across the Ottowa River to the Capital at one angle, and lakes and mountains of green and blue everywhere else.  That was one of the many times I wished I had carried my phone on this adventure.

Tim and I ran comfortably and well this last day, making-up some time and looking forward to the finish where our wives awaited with hugs and the further reward of a cold adult beverage!  That third day was just 23 kilometers, or about 14 miles.  We reached the finish line and also received finisher’s technical hoodies.  Slipping-on that clean sweatshirt was a very nice bonus.  After the others finished, we drove a short distance to Doozy Candle Shop, Old Chelsea Quebec, where we were served lunch in a converted garage area.  All finishers received a commemorative candle, awards were presented to the winners and we said our goodbyes until next time.

I could not recommend this race more highly.  It is a beautiful, exciting and tough event, with a touch of luxury tossed in, including night-before hotel accommodations at historic Wakefield Mill Resort for those who chose that option.  Registration for next year’s race from August 2-4 is open now.  Here’s the registration link:  And here is the website for all the info:

Finally, I would be totally remiss if I failed to give a shout-out to my personal sponsors, Skechers and Nathan.  My Skechers trail shoes were stellar on every surface I encountered in the race.  My new Nathan “Journey” pack held everything I needed for the full three days with easy access to the items I used regularly.  My sponsors do provide me with shoes and hydration options, but I wouldn’t wear or use them, never mind recommend them, if they were not the very best for me.  Toss-in the Drymax socks that kept me virtually blister free even in the wet, Trail Toes and NipEAZE to prevent chafing and I was 100% satisfied with my gear choices for “Bad Beaver Ultra”. 

I am proud to be an official “Bad Beaver”!!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Mt. Gaoligong Ultra, November 18-19, 2016

Mt. Gaoligong Ultra, Tengchong, China, November 18-19, 2016


It was if I had been there before.  Never have I received such a welcoming reception from so many complete strangers, whose language I don’t speak and whose life experience and customs are so vastly different from my own.  But the connection was totally real, driven by their individual and collective vision, and memories for the remaining few old-timers, of a war fought on their doorsteps seven decades ago.  It was the Americans, after all, who came to China to fight alongside their parents and neighbors to liberate Tengchong and the rest of Yunnan Province, turning the tide of World War II against the Japanese for the first time on the mainland.  For these people, it was as if that history happened yesterday.  More than seventy years later, here we were—13 Americans and another 5 Brits, Aussies and Canadians—standing on that ancient soil.  We were in China to run an inaugural long-distance race upon their sacred “Mother” Mount Gaoligong and were being honored as if it had been our own boots on the ground and planes in the air.

 ”Badwater” people in City of Tengchong, Yunnan Province, China

Yunnan Province is in far southwest China near the Myanmar border.  It is rural and remote.  During the war the Flying Tigers were based in Kunming, an hour’s flight away, and American bombers flew across the Hump to disrupt Japanese supply lines, roads and personnel right there in Tengchong and the surrounding mountains, home to the Burma Road and the ancient Silk Road.  Seventy-three years ago my father, Mickey, and his crew flew through that sky in their B25 Mitchell, somehow surviving 37 combat missions in that tin-can of an aircraft.  The connection with my father was what inspired me to race Mt. Gaoligong Ultra after co-race director Chris Kostman announced it at Badwater in July.  I just had to be there.  What I could not possibly have known was the respect, the near reverence shown each of us during our entire visit, and not just by senior citizens.  People of every age honored our entire group by cheering and encouraging and asking to have their photo taken with us.   The personal history due to my father, and my rather advanced age for such an undertaking, meant that I received even more attention than most.  The race, itself, and entire visit to Tengchong, became one of the most emotional and meaningful experiences of my entire life, and a very special bonding with my father.
 Mickey Becker in cockpit of B25 Mitchell medium bomber, c. 1943

What closed this circle for me was that my wife, Suzanne, after initial reluctance to travel so far, was there to share this extraordinary week.  Less than a month later, it is a struggle to explain this experience in a meaningful way.  It would have been equally difficult to convey to Suzanne its importance in my life had she not been there to feel it herself.  How fortunate we are to have made the decision to fly halfway around the world for this race.  Mt. Gaoligong Ultra, itself, was nothing short of a first-rate production spectacle with not a detail missed.  There were 53 runners on the starting line on November 18, and nearly 600 staff and volunteers supporting us.  (The complete 104-mile course was marked with 15,000 stands of reflective tape!  Additional signs and banners were everywhere, including posters in the airport terminal.) Then there were the many hundreds of local people, adults and children, in tiny hamlets and villages and farms, who stayed awake most of the night to greet us along the way.  With a bigger-than-life announcer sending us off at the start and greeting us at the finish—this guy must have gotten his training announcing professional wrestling matches in the U.S.!—to the beat of drums, dancers in native costume, un-ending signage and banners, wood fires in raised cauldrons to keep us warm and even fireworks to send us on our way, the production seemed to take its cue from the Beijing Olympics.  (As a race director myself, it was quite the humbling, if not humiliating show of how to do it right!)

 With Suzanne: joy, emotion, exhaustion

There were 14 checkpoints (“CP”), or aid stations along the route.  At each of them were many volunteers and lots of local people with immense curiosity.  In spite of the fact that rarely did anyone speak English, they were so intent on helping us that it was nearly a fight to fill our own water bottle!  At every stop, these warm and caring people wanted to savor those moments with us, to talk and touch and have photos taken.  For me, this race quickly became far more than just a matter of finishing time; I wanted to savor the entire experience.  At CP-6, 39 miles into the race, runners had the option to complete the long route (168km or 104 miles) or the shorter route (124km or 77 miles).  While I was nearly two hours ahead of cut-off, I decided to go “short”, knowing there would be plenty of time to finish, and plenty more to savor at each checkpoint and along the route the friendship shown me, and to reciprocate as best I could.  It was the right decision.  After 10 or 15 or 20 minutes at nearly every stop, I would finally break away to continue the journey along that very difficult, mountainous course to the finish line in Tengchong.  29 hours and 24 minutes after our ceremonious send-off, I "broke" the tape. 

And what a finish it was!  As we reached the paved and cobblestone streets of the city, a motorcycle escort was waiting for each of us.  When I came into view perhaps 1/2 mile or more from the finish, there were excited crowds cheering loudly.  Many local people simply joined-in behind to accompany me to the finish line.  (I had no idea about that crowd until someone told me to turn around and take a look!)   A quarter mile or so before the tape, a race volunteer handed me a large American flag, which I draped over my shoulders and held aloft. 
Flag aloft

 Finisher medal--Mt. Gaoligong bell

Tired from the race and thinking of my father, I was an emotional mess as I reached the old stone gate that marked the finish line.  The greeting was enormous, with race officials and volunteers, other finishers and locals and my wife, Suzanne, there to greet me.  Announcements and photos and presentation of the finishers medal and race sweatshirt were next, followed by a few half-choked words of thanks from me, stopping after each sentence for Chinese translation over the loudspeakers.  I lost it and was thoroughly spent after telling this story that highlighted and reflected more than any single thing this entire experience:  As I left the last checkpoint, CP-14, a tall young man speaking broken English, perhaps 25 years old, asked if he could leave with me.  He wanted to tell me something and “give me a gift”.  We proceeded down a dirt driveway, then crossed a two-lane paved road with police stopping traffic for us.  On the far side, we climbed a steep embankment and entered a grove of trees where I stopped.  This young man turned to me and said: “More than 70 years ago your father fought here and helped liberate Tengchong.  Now you are here to run ‘MGU’ and help save our mountain.” Then he stood very straight and said, “I salute you”.  With those words and that salute, the tears just flowed.  I bowed to him in thanks, then continued to climb that long hill to bring it “home”. 

Chinese family up late to cheer for us

And so it was: profound honor and respect shown us on a personal level, combined with an outstanding race experience on a beautiful and interesting and difficult loop course.  There was elevation gain of nearly 29,000 feet and a similar amount of loss.  We ran on every conceivable surface: technical sections of rocks and roots, open pastureland, dirt, sand and mud, across streams, on huge stone pavers and stairways, paved and gravel streets, and even sections of cobblestone road that are part of the ancient Silk Road.   Then there was the wooden floor of the very long—and very old—swing bridge that moved in every direction at once as we moved across it.  We ran past tiny farms, around expanses of rice paddies and through little villages and parts of the city of Tengchong at the race start in order to reach the mountains.  We finished at the gate to ancient HeShun town, an active and preserved part of the city.  There were the lush forests of the Mt. Gaoligong preserve and open fields along steep hillsides.  Climbs were straight up and down, with almost no switchbacks to lessen the pitch.  Almost nowhere was it flat.

 Thumbs up, for sure!

I've been asked many times about the gear I used in this race and I am pleased to share the details. First were my Skechers "GoTrail" shoes that handled everything thrown at me extremely well.  In the spirit of full disclosure, Skechers is a personal sponsor, but I wouldn't be wearing their shoes if they didn't get the job done. I wore a Nathan "Elevation" pack with 2 liter reservoir and lots of storage for required items, food, extra clothes and personal items.  Ideal!  I used lightweight Black Diamond trekking poles--their ultra-distance Z-Poles.  Socks were Drymax trail socks.  (I've worn nothing but Drymax since 2008.)  I prefer to carry a flashlight, but because I was using poles I wore an inexpensive Shining Buddy headlamp which worked fine.  I used Trail Toes for lube, when needed, and protected my hands with very lightweight gloves. I wore an older pair of CW-X tights with running shorts over them, two shirts--one by Smartwool and the other a DeSoto "Skin Cooler" wicking shirt--a pair of Dirty Girl gaitors to keep out the grit and two Buffs. My trusty Garmin 310XT (I swapped-out two of them) was on my wrist, and away I went!  I couldn't recommend more highly all of these items.

Mt. Gaoligong Ultra is scheduled to be moved from November to March, with the next running in 2018.  Apparently at that time of year the weather is more reliably good, and flowers will be blooming in early Spring.  For any ultra-runner, and with immense enthusiasm, I highly recommend racing Mt. Gaoligong Ultra and visiting Tengchong and Yunnan province, in this southwest region of China. Like all of us in the inaugural running, you will experience one of the most exciting, and meaningful journeys of your lifetime.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

TransRockies Stage Race, August 2016

Trans Rockies Six Day Run was a first-rate stage race event held August 9-14, 2016 in Colorado. 

TransRockies is a race of 120 miles from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, and includes a stop in Leadville, the traverse of Hope Pass and one spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains after another.  This was the 10th year for this race.  It was extremely well organized, challenging and fun for the 550 runners who competed.  For me, the best part was sharing the venue with my nephew, Adam Goucher and his best friend and business partner, Tim Catalano, AND with Tim and Linda O’Brien and many other Florida running friends.  A huge bonus for me was running every step of the entire first five days with Tim O’Brien. We supported each other and kept ourselves moving forward, with the occasional reminders to drink, eat and not to forget the electrolytes.  For us Florida “Flatlanders”, the nearly constant climbing and altitude—the entire race was run between 7,880 and 12,536 feet—were great challenges that certainly reminded us of the value of oxygen!  (55% of the race was run and staged between 9,000 and 11,000 feet.)

TransRockies was my third stage race.  It was by far the most “luxurious”, and the shortest of the three.  Unlike “Marathon des Sables” and “Grand 2 Grand” (which averaged 155 miles each), we did not have to carry all our gear, including food for the entire week, on our backs each day.  At TransRockies, breakfast and dinner were prepared for us, and very good food it was, too!  Further, the race transported all our gear from one camp to the next, except for four required items and anything else we wished to carry during that day.  (A 2-liter bladder of water is one such item.)  So, my Nathan pack averaged about 7-8 pounds and not the 25-plus that characterized my other wilderness stage races. It was perfect for holding all my stuff in a compact and efficient package that was a huge help in managing the inevitable roots and rocks on very steep and unforgiving terrain. Also, for the first time in a race I wore Skechers "Go Trail Ultra 3" trail shoes, and they were fantastic--very comfortable and never failed to grip on any surface! Skechers is now a personal sponsor, but I had never raced in their trail model. I certainly made the right choice! With my Black Diamond "Z-Poles" trekking poles, I had the right gear to meet each day's climbs. 

Each night we arrived at camp—either running to the finish line there or being transported from the finish line to camp.  One to 2-person tents were set-up and ready for occupancy when we arrived. While nominally first-come, first served, my nephew, Adam and buddy Tim, snagged a tent for me next to them since they generally finished a couple of hours before me!  After grabbing our duffels, we’d hit the tents and lay out our inflatable mattress, sleeping bag and other night gear, and a change of clothes.  Then—and here is another MAJOR difference between this race and other stage races—we would visit the hot-water showers that were set-up at each camp for our use.  Luxurious, I said. Luxurious, I meant!
After clean-up, the goodies continued: “ChillVille” was the big tent area where we could charge our phones, watches and other electronics, help ourselves to snacks from the considerable offering tables and even grab a cold beer courtesy of race sponsor, Crazy Mountain Brewery, Vail Valley, CO, before finding a chair to relax.  After dinner there was live music and a campfire to complete the scene.  Thirty or forty years ago I would have been out there dancing every night too!!

Nights were cold—very cold for this South Floridian.  I wore three layers of clothing from head to toe, climbed inside a sleeping bag on top of an inflatable mattress and was still shivering most of the night.  It wasn’t until fellow Florida resident, the saintly Jessica Oldfather, offered me a fleece sleeping bag liner that she wasn’t using that I finally warmed up! Jessica, IOU BIG

In the morning it remained cold until the sun peaked over the mountains and then it warmed-up immediately.  Nearly everyone would wear jackets, pants, gloves and hats until a few minutes before the start each day, then place everything in a personal “drop bag” that would be transported for us to the finish line. (Yet another race luxury.)  Then off we would go, running distances from roughly 14 miles to 24.5 miles, depending upon the day.  Daily elevation gain varied from 2,500 feet to 5,250 feet.  Climbing up or running down was nearly constant.  There was one unbroken climb of 7 miles.  The fourth day featured running (or walking) for a full mile through a very cold ankle-to-calf deep rocky stream.  It was unique and beautiful.  It was also initially very refreshing, then totally numbing before exiting the water.  With three miles to go from there to that day’s finish line, our feet actually had time to thaw before arriving and enjoying that day’s special tradition-- Margaritas and fish tacos at the bar in the little town of Red Cliff.

My trip to Colorado actually began a week before the race.  I spent those days in the Boulder area visiting family, including daughter Meleah, son-in-law Greg and granddaughter Adeline, sister Lois, brother-in-law John and quite a few nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.  It was a terrific week, but combined with the race, itself, was far too long to be away from Suzanne at one stretch.  We’re actually pretty fond of each other.  I don’t think there will be any more two-week separations.

Stage races in general are very social, relationship-building experiences.  Runners spend many days together, often in close quarters, running substantial miles in very challenging venues.  The camaraderie is palpable, and unforgettable. While TransRockies was neither the most difficult nor Spartan of the genre, it was certainly difficult enough, and in a most beautiful setting.  I highly recommend this race to any runner who would like the challenge of a very different, and first-rate long-distance racing experience.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Completing Badwater 135, Badwater 146 and the Badwater Double 
July 28 to August 5, 2015
Setting the age record for the "Double"

After completing the “Badwater Double”, a couple of days to gather my thoughts became two weeks of increasing hesitancy to write about it.  Though I do so now, even the most talented writer would be hard-pressed to adequately describe this happening.  It’s a given that people new to this race as runners or crew will say that until you’ve lived it you just can’t know how difficult and beautiful and extreme and ultimately fulfilling this “Badwater” experience is.  I’ve been a runner or crew member for nine years in a row, and I still can’t do it justice with pen and ink.

But there is both a desire and an obligation to explain this thing, to tell my story as best I can to the hundreds of sponsors and friends and supporters who made this such a gratifying and humbling journey.  I’ll begin by listing the “facts” to explain why my 292-mile “Badwater Double” was really three races in one.  I’ll then tell “why” I decided to attempt it, talk about training and describe my trial out there, including what I considered to be most difficult segments or factors.

Originally, the Badwater Ultramarathon began as a race to go on foot from the lowest point to the highest point in the contiguous 48 states--during the two hottest summer months.  At 282 feet below sea level, the start at “Badwater Basin” is actually the lowest point in the entire western hemisphere.  The summit of Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet, is the highest point in the Lower 48.  146 miles separate these two points.  That was the race route until the National Park Service introduced a permit requirement to climb the mountain.  With no guaranty that all competitors would be able to get one, the race was shortened to 135 miles, finishing at the Mt. Whitney “Portal” at the end of the paved road at 8,360 feet.  As an unofficial homage to the race’s origins, a handful of people each year obtain permits and continue to the summit to complete 146 miles.  Here are the three components, then, of my “Badwater Double”*:

1.       Badwater 135 Ultramarathon:  135 mile race from Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA, at 282’ below sea level to the end of the paved road on Mt. Whitney at 8,360 feet—the Portal, or Trailhead for the trail climb to the Whitney summit.  Along the way are two additional climbs to 5,000 feet at Towne Pass and beyond Panamint Pass near the Darwin turn-off.
2.       Beginning at Whitney Portal, climb 11 miles to the summit of Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet, the highest point in the lower 48 states, thus completing the 146 mile journey from the “lowest to the highest”, followed by the 11 mile downhill return to the trailhead at Whitney Portal.
3.       From Whitney Portal, the 135 mile return to Badwater Basin to complete the 292 mile “Badwater Double”.

Death Valley is arguably the hottest place on earth.  The highest temperature ever recorded was there.  During my effort the high temp reached 118 in the Panamint Springs area during the “135”, and 122 during the return to Badwater Basin.  “Badwater 135” includes approximately 14,600 feet of elevation gain and 6,100 feet of cumulative descent.  The reverse is true for the return to Badwater Basin to complete the “Double”.  Summitting Mt. Whitney adds 11 miles of additional ascent to reach the top and 11 miles of descent to return to the Whitney trailhead at the Portal.
Twenty eight (28) others have completed the “Double”, the oldest at 59 years old prior to my finish at age 70.

*The “Badwater Double” does not have to include the Badwater 135 race.  As long as the effort is completed in July-August, the “Double” may be done independently.  Appropriate documentation to verify the accomplishment is always required.

    Badwater Basin salt flats

On Mt. Whitney with Marshall Ulrich and Kevin Grabowski 

Bob’s “Badwater Double” timeline:
Tuesday, July 28, 2015, 8:00pm: Badwater 135 start
Thursday, July 30, 2015, 1:30pm: Badwater 135 finish
Elapsed time for Badwater 135: 41:30:21
Friday, July 31, 2015, 5:00am: Trailhead start to summit Mt. Whitney
Friday, July 31, 2015, 3:25pm: summit; completion of Badwater 146
Elapsed time for Badwater 146—67:25
Saturday, August 1, 2015, 1:20am: Return to Trailhead; completion of Mt. Whitney summit
Sunday, August 2, 2015, 8:00am: Begin return to Badwater Basin from Whitney Portal.
Wednesday, August 5, 2015, 4:48:00am: arrival at Badwater Basin
Elapsed time for Badwater Double: 7 days, 8 hours, 48 minutes

In 2014, I competed in the Badwater 135 for the second time.  As the oldest runner I finished 50th out of 97 who started.  I’ve played sports, worked out or run (in some combination) my entire life.  Looking ahead to my 70th birthday I wanted to accomplish something different and difficult, and decided to attempt the “Badwater Double” as a way to compete again in my favorite race while trying to set an age record for this unique challenge.  Most “type A’s” are competitive, positive and social people.  We quickly “forget” the pain and difficulty of the last challenge or somehow move it to the back burner as we begin to say to ourselves: “If I’d only done ‘that’ differently my time would have been 5 minutes faster”, or “I could have gotten to that crossing before dark”; or, “Had I not eaten that new [untested] food at the aid station I wouldn’t have spent the next three hours puking on the side of the trail.”  Combine that with the personal challenge of running faster, or farther, or in more hostile terrain, and the schedule fills up.
By luck of the draw—and where I live in South Florida with very few off-road trails—I became a Badwater junkie, involved in this road race as runner or support crew for nine straight years.  So, when faced with a big birthday, it was totally appropriate to think about a Badwater-connected test.  I wasn’t fast enough to break Art Webb’s age 70 speed record for the “135”, had already run sub-40 hours and finished twice in the top 50, so I began to think “longer”.  Heroes of mine, Marshall Ulrich and my coach, Lisa Smith-Batchen, had already laid the groundwork with their extraordinary accomplishments in Death Valley.  I just followed their lead, if modestly, by deciding that a “Double” was a reasonable thing to attempt, ideally in conjunction with the “Badwater 135” race. 

The next 12 months were devoted to planning and training (see description below) and running other races to be ready on July 28th.  Two of these were “Badwater Cape Fear”, the 51-mile race on Bald Head Island, NC, that includes 10 miles on road and 40 miles on the sand, and “Badwater Salton Sea”, the 81 mile (mostly) road race that you run entirely with one or two additional teammates (not a relay).  “Badwater Salton Sea” starts at the race’s namesake and ends atop Palomar Mountain in eastern San Diego County, CA; it mimics the low-to-high profile of the “135”.  As a personal bonus, by completing all three Badwater races in 2015, I also earned the “Badwater Ultra Cup” designation.

What is the “Badwater Double” all about?
At its core, like most extreme athletic challenges, it’s very basic: just you, your body and mind attempting something very difficult.  The goal is to run and walk and climb 292 miles through Death Valley and beyond to the summit of Mt. Whitney, then return to the race starting line at Badwater Basin.   The extreme distance (292 miles including the competitive “Badwater 135” ultramarathon), heat (we recorded 122 f), blast-furnace winds (steady 20-30mph with gusts to 40, mile after mile), vertical climbing and steep descents (over 20,000 feet both up and down) and loss of oxygen at altitude (capping at 14,505 feet on Mt. Whitney summit) are the course’s components.  I was certainly not alone out there.  My four-person support crew** was absolutely essential to success; I couldn’t have asked for more from them and couldn’t have done it without them.  But given all that great help, it is still you, the protagonist in this drama, who must ultimately move yourself through the pain and exhaustion to that magical finish line. 

**During Badwater 135--Crew Chief Kevin Grabowski, New Berlin WI, Beth Stone, Orlando FL, Roger Burruss, Palm City FL and Marc Drautz, Boca Raton FL.  For the summit and return leg, Crew Chief Alene Nitzky, Fort Collins CO, Roger Burruss, Ashley Heclo, Boynton Beach FL and Don Nelson, Cudjoe Key FL.

Don Nelson, Bob Becker, Kevin Grabowski at 14,505 feet

Proper training and preparation for these conditions and its duration are basic, as is executing your plan.  Figuring out and maintaining optimal levels of hydration, nutrition, salt and mineral replacement, managing fatigue and keeping body temperature under control by strategic use of ice are all vital.  Great crew manages the plan for you and keeps you on schedule.  Members of the crew take turns pacing you, too.  There is lots of banter and joking and light-hearted motivation along the way, and that is all good.  At the same time this is serious business: there is no BS out there.  Runner and crew must be in sync, communicate accurately and comprehensively and to the point, and adjust to conditions as necessary to be ready for the next segment.  The “Double” is both an individual challenge and a team effort all the way.

Elite ultra-marathoner and long-time trainer, Lisa Smith-Batchen, coached me again as she had for my first ultra (Marathon des Sables), first “100” (Rocky Raccoon) and all three “Badwater 135” races.  She has always had me ready on race day and this was no exception.  Lisa’s coaching philosophy is not just about long mileage; she tailors training to the age, ability and condition of the runner and to the specific race goal, if there is one.  So training for “292” this year was different than training for “Badwater 135” last year.  I did a lot more cross training, for example--core, weights, spinning-- and a lot more walking and tire pulling.  Example: on a Saturday later in the training schedule I pulled a tire for 5 miles, then crossed the 17th Street Causeway back and forth for 25 miles. I'd power walk up and run down, turn around and go back up and down. (Each crossing was ½ mile.) Then I'd finish the day with a 10 or 15 mile run.  So, running specifically was only part of the training equation.

Running Badwater 135:
Runners have 48 hours to complete Badwater 135.  My plan was to use most of them, to conserve as much energy as possible for the Whitney summit and return to the “Basin”.  But I’m also a competitive person and just can’t help wanting to pick-off a few of the young-‘uns out there!  So, my finish in 41 hours and 30 minutes was considerably faster than it should have been, and finishing 60th was not very smart.  But, it was still the slowest and lowest finish of the three, which is how I justified it to myself! 

Announcements and photos before our 8:00pm start

As you proceed along the route, you inevitably settle into a groove at roughly the same pace as a few other runners.  (That is likely to happen more than once over the long distance.)  So you see them and pass them and they pass you, often many times.  Longer or shorter stops to meet your crew every couple of miles or so create those on-again, off-again passing opportunities, as do bursts of energy or periods of slower movement.  The rules require pacers to stay behind their runners at all times, and for all race participants to be in single file unless passing someone.  Still, this format allows for plenty of conversation.  I had good company for many miles from Shannon Farar-Griefer, Kelly Lim, Kim Budzik and Marshall Ulrich, and the last quarter mile to the finish with Jason Romero, the remarkable legally blind runner from Denver.  But, your focus as a racer is still you and what you must do to beat the cut-offs and make it all the way up Whitney Portal Road.

With Marc Drautz on Whitney Portal Road

As a runner over 65, an option was to have a pacer beginning after 3 ½ miles.  I chose that option.  My pacer carried a walkie-talkie and communicated with our crew in the minivan before we reached them at roughly two mile increments as to what I would need at the next meet-up: always a fresh water bottle with lots of ice.  (Even carrying an insulated bottle, water became warm very quickly.)  The plan was to consume 200-300 calories every hour.  On the hour typically I would drink a half bottle of milk chocolate Ensure, and on the half hour either a gel or other item approximating 100 calories.  I’d also gulp some Gatorade or soft drink frequently, and take 2-4 Endurolytes each hour to help replenish lost salt and minerals.  I would wear an ice-filled bandana around my neck and a smaller container of ice under my hat to keep core temperature under control, changing these very frequently during the day and even at night.  With a few exceptions, it doesn’t cool-off much out there.  The ground and rocks and road retain a great deal of heat and it radiates slowly throughout the night, heating the air and contributing to the windy, hot conditions. 

The heat and wind spawn a “dust devil” in Panamint Valley

This year the race began at 8:00pm, and I was in that first of three waves.  While we did not have the intense heat of the day at the beginning, there was plenty to go around, and being awake for two full nights and most of two full days was all the challenge anyone could want.  Of the 100 registered runners, 97 started.  An extraordinarily high 18 dropped before finishing, including two previous winners and many other elite runners.  Some went-out too fast, thinking they could bank some miles during the “cooler” night hours.  It was the “cooler” part that really didn’t happen.  I approached Stovepipe Wells at dawn, roughly 40 miles into the race.  Shedding night gear, we began the long and steady (18 mile) climb to 5,000 feet at Towne Pass, then down the far side to Panamint Valley at 2,000 feet.  The valley floor and the next six miles to “Panamint Springs Resort” was the hottest section of the 135-mile race, hitting 118 degrees.  Passing Panamint Springs, the climb was on to the next summit beyond Father Crowley Point at the Darwin Turn-off (5,050 feet) as the second night closed in.  The 8 miles to Father Crowley are particularly steep, feature very sharp turns in the road and generally zero shoulder.  And there is plenty of traffic to keep you on your toes.  Many sections of the roadway along the route are built with very significant camber—i.e., sharp pitch to the pavement with no flat section.  Blistered feet really love those sections!  (It was actually harder going downhill on the way back than climbing on the way to Whitney.)   The crew and I leap-frogged the 50 miles from Panamint into Lone Pine at the base of Whitney where they checked into our luxurious rooms at the Whitney Hostel—6 bunk beds in one room and 4 in the other!  After a quick break, now in daylight, I began the 13-mile climb to the finish line up Whitney Portal Road.  I was struggling.  For many miles I had been unable to stand straight, with a lean to the left to complete this very attractive picture.  But I was moving well and knew where to find that finish line.  A quarter mile or so from the end, we connected with Jason Romero, the legally blind runner, who had completed my KEYS100 race in May.  We grabbed hands, later joined by our respective crews, and continued to 50 feet before the “tape”.  At that point we asked Jason and his team to go first.  After the excitement welcoming him, the tape was stretched across the finish line again and it was our turn for glory!

 With Jason Romero, approaching the finish line

 Crossing the line in 41:30, 60th place out of 97 who started the race

The Badwater 135 post-race pizza party at the elementary school in Lone Pine is a race tradition.  Runners are recognized and called-up for a photo op, and it’s the last time to see most of the runners and crew until next time.  There was also recognition for completing the “Badwater Ultra Cup” for the 8 or 9 of us who reached that goal.  Final arrangements were made there with Marshall Ulrich and Jill Anderson (who secured the permits for all of us) to meet in the morning for the Whitney climb.  Then there was a quick stop at Jake’s Saloon to add this year’s finish note in magic marker to my little section of the front wall before returning to the Hostel.  After completing gear prep for the summit, I got 3 ½ hours sleep, waking at 3:45am to dress and head up the hill.  Kevin Grabowski and “new” crew member, Don Nelson, accompanied me on the Whitney loop.  We began at 5:00am with Marshall, Jill and 4 members of her crew.  Jill was not feeling well and had to drop early, returning to the Portal.  The rest of us continued on.  Kudos are in order to Mike Holmes whose gift of two Excedrin knocked-out an intense headache after just an hour on the trail; that was the last issue with obvious altitude sickness for the rest of the climb.  Three hours or so into it, Marsh and Jill’s crew took off, as Don, Kevin and I were moving pretty slowly and there was little reason to hold them back.  (We would later see them on their way down an hour or two from the summit.)  The three of us eventually reached the top and signed the ledger there at about 3:25pm, took some photos and then began the trek down.  Kevin was mostly spent, having had just 6 hours sleep in nearly three days.  He had never been awake for that long a period and it took its toll.  Don was “fresh” as he had arrived the previous day to crew on the return.  Still, Don is a Floridian like me, so the elevation affected him, too.  The Whitney trail is not “technical”—i.e., you don’t have to be roped-in or harnessed.  But, it is extremely rocky, uneven and long, with all the steepness you might ever want!  The trail is also not marked well and is, in places, very difficult to follow even in daylight.  Because so many of our miles heading down were after dark—we finished after 1:00am—it was a major challenge to find the way.  With Kevin and me not functioning particularly well, Don Nelson showed what leadership is all about.  He repeatedly found the trail when we reached apparent dead-ends and lead us all the way to the trailhead at Whitney Portal.  Don even drove us down the mountain, got us upstairs to the room and all but tucked us in!!  What a day it had been.

    Stunning scenery

    On top!

Early that morning, August 1, Kevin, Beth and Marc drove the extra rental car we had stowed in Lone Pine back to Las Vegas to fly home.  Roger Burruss continued on crew for the duration.  Don Nelson was onboard.  Ashley Heclo, who had crewed for British runner David Ross during the “135”, joined us for the return.  Rounding out the crew for the return trip was Nurse Ratched, herself, Alene Nitzky, who completed a double a few years ago.  The initial plan was to begin the return on Saturday, August 1, late in the day.  Alene, who is an RN and has volunteered on the Badwater medical staff a number of times, recommended that we take extra time to rest and instead leave the following morning.  She received no argument from me.  Alene worked on my blisters and taped my feet as best she could—the worst blisters were too deep under callouses to be accessible without the risk of infection.  Ashley, a terrific massage therapist, worked her magic, especially on my back, and applied tape to help with my posture.  It worked amazingly well.

Ashley Heclo massage; Alene Nitzky on the blisters

At 8:00am on Sunday morning, Ashley drove Roger and me to Whitney Portal where the 135-mile return would begin.  A big surprise awaited me there in the persons of Dr. Ben Jones, CHP Scotty Wall and Bradford Lombardi.  (Brad had also completed the “135” and was resting for a solo, unassisted 146-mile crossing in two weeks!)  What a great photo op and send-off.  Ashley drove back to the hotel to prepare the van for the return.  Alene crewed from her small SUV the 13 miles down Whitney Portal Road while Roger did the pacing duties, providing his usual fine company.  I was quickly reminded how much more difficult and painful the downhills are.  Approaching noon we arrived in Lone Pine, meeting the rest of the crew at McDonald’s where a cheeseburger and fries sounded like a good idea!  Then, with Ashley pacing and Bradford joining us on foot to the ranger station at the edge of town, the final 122 mile attack began.  The return was much slower than I had hoped it would be.  The vast majority was power-walked as my feet and legs, especially, wouldn’t tolerate much running.  We stopped as needed, remembering that the finish was the prize and not how fast we got there.  At no time during the entire experience did I ever think we wouldn’t finish.  Yet we had to be smart about fatigue and the unforgiving desert conditions, especially, as Alene noted, being mindful of wear and tear on my 70-year old organs. 

 Roger Burruss, Bob, Brad Lombardi, Scott Wall, Dr. Ben Jones at Whitney Portal store

The majority of the course is gently rolling rather than totally flat, except for the mountain portions.  We had completed the descent of Mt. Whitney.  Next up was the 3,000 foot downhill from Darwin turn-off and Panamint Pass into Panamint Valley, the 3,000 foot climb up to Towne Pass and the final 18-mile, 5,000-foot downhill from there to Stovepipe Wells.  Once at Stovepipe, it was “only” 42 miles to the finish and with no more long, steep ascents or descents; that marker was a big goal in my mind.   But the downhill from Towne Pass had extracted a price, so I arrived with a screaming right anterior tibialis (shin) that continued for the duration of the run.  Proceeding in bright daylight, we felt the wind gradually pick-up during the course of the day.  The harder it blew, the hotter it was.  A few miles from Furnace Creek the sun began to set, but neither the wind speed nor wind temp got the message.  By Furnace Creek it was blowing at a steady 15-20mph.  After a break there, I continued for a mile on Route 190 with Ashley Heclo pacing me, to Badwater Road, where we turned right for the final 17 miles to the ultimate finish line.  I thought we’d be smelling the old barn door and picking up speed, but the gods had a different idea!  The winds kicked-up to a consistent 20-25mph, increasing in intensity the closer we got to the Basin, with gusts to 40mph and more.  I believe the message went something like: “So you think you have this done, huh?  Well, watch this!”  The heat from those steady headwinds made this section the toughest segment of the entire adventure.  What a way to finish!  We reached the Badwater Basin parking lot, and the crew joined me for those last steps to the “Badwater Basin” sign where, at 4:48am, I lost it.  With tears of joy or relief or maybe both, I hugged that gang in thanks for all they had done to get me home.  It had been a very long (nearly) three days of keeping this zombie moving ahead—relentless forward motion, we say—without much if any sleep, themselves.  What an outstanding job they did.  Then it was back to Furnace Creek to our rooms.  Finally, my shoes could come off after all those miles.  (I hadn’t dared change a thing along the way.)   A shower and a few hours of sleep never felt so good.  We checked out at 11:00am, drove to Las Vegas where we reserved rooms at the “Hard Rock”, checked-in and collapsed.  Don Nelson and I were on the same flight, which he moved from 8:00am on August 5th to that same time on the 6th.  That was the best change ever!  It was great to have his company, and almost equally good that we did not have to change planes at our one stop in Columbus before reaching Fort Lauderdale.

 Badwater Double: DONE!

We arrived in Florida and were greeted at the airport with a surprise crowd as we left the secure area.  My best friend and biggest fan, wife Suzanne, was joined by good friends Susan Jobe, Silvia Quinzani, Audrey Campbell (and her grandson) and Marcela Todd.  Some of my Thursday night running (and beer-drinking) buddies were there, too: Tim O’Brien, Sandy Siegel and Cid Yousefi.  Someone suggested we grab a beer before heading home, so the “boys”, Suzanne and I did just that.  Buddy Mark Ehrenshaft joined us later on his way home from work.  Even Don Nelson stopped for awhile before beginning his long drive home to Cudjoe Key, about 22 miles from Key West.  Some food and a beer, then it was home and lights out for this guy.  What an amazing 12 days it had been! 

One more note—most difficult:
Final 17 miles down Badwater Road to the finish, with unexpectedly high winds full frontal.  These were constant 25-30mph winds with gusts to 40 and more, blowing me sideways at times.  Although late at night, the blast furnace-like winds result from the combination of temps still in excess of 100 and the release of heat from the rocks and roadway around and under you that accumulate from the previous day.  Crossing from Stovepipe Wells to Furnace Creek, headwinds continued to gain strength with heat the incessant constant.  Hot winds at night were a major factor throughout this adventure.  With only brief respites, I wore ice around my neck and under my hat nearly 24/7. 
In the “difficulty” category close behind was the summit of Mt. Whitney for this flatlander.  We began after just 3 ½ hours sleep (in nearly 3 days), topping-out at an altitude of 14,505 feet.  It took 20 hours to go up and down the total of 22 miles, with crew member (and first time Whitney climber) Don Nelson taking the lead and finding the trail again and again, leading exhausted crew member, Kevin Grabowski, and me back to the Whitney Portal trailhead long after dark.
Finally, the many long, unending stretches of sameness take a toll, the best example being the road from the Darwin turn-off into Lone Pine—and its reverse on the way back.  The 18 mile downhill from Towne Pass at 5,000 feet to Stovepipe Wells at sea level on the return is another.  This stretch contributed damage to the right anterior tibialis (shin) and strain to the lower legs.  Altered gait from strategically “placed” and painful blisters certainly contributed to these issues, even with the subconscious (or unconscious?) effort at transcending the discomfort, trying to normalize form and pace and just focus on the end goal.

Post Script:
The bucket list is clear, at least for now.   It feels a little strange, actually.  So, what’s next: read a book?  Okay.   Sit in a rocking chair and play checkers?  Adventure gods, save me, PLEASE! 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Beginning Again...

Bob is moving like a maniac down the Portal Road, standing up straight and tall thanks to Ashley's magic spa treatment yesterday. 

Ashley dropped Bob and Roger at the Portals this morning, and Bob got a surprise send-off by Bradford Lombardi, Scott Wall, and...wait for it...none other than the most famous Badwater family member of all, Ben Jones.

Needless to say Bob was extremely touched by the well-wishers and moral support as he starts the final leg of his journey.

I am crewing Bob and Roger on their way back down to Lone Pine, then we'll proceed with the full crew and caravan into the afternoon and evening across Owens Valley.

Internet connections will get harder to come by until we hit the Furnace Creek area in a few days. But I'll do my best to keep you posted. Again, Facebook is the easiest to share quickly, so check my page (alene nitzky) or Suzanne Becker's. 

It's a beautiful day for a run!

Ratched, out...

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Chill Pill

Bob is catching some ZZZZZs while the crew does the tourist thing, laundry, and shopping before the trek back across the Valley starting tomorrow. The priority today is plumping Bob back up to his usual self, he is a bit dehydrated and hungry but also sleep deprived. I'm threatening to use my medical kit (above) if he doesn't comply.

Looks like Bob chose the right day to summit Whitney because today there's some nasty-looking stuff happening up there.

This morning Bob chowed down on some French toast and a special mixture of electrolyte replacement salts. Mmmm...breakfast of champions. 

Marshall and Heather were very kind to donate additional food, drinks, and leftover supplies before they left town this morning. 

Tomorrow we will take this show on the road again. Until then, we're enjoying some therapeutic air conditioning. 

Ratched RN, out.

What About Bob?

Bob is sleeping soundly after getting down from Mt. Whitney around 2 am. We will take this day to rest and let his body recover. I told Roger last night to wake me up if there are any serious problems- thinking kidneys and lungs, or any other vital thing.  Feet and brain we can deal with when he wakes up. 

No one woke me and all messages from the crew point to Bob's doing well, just needs sleep. I will leave him to sleep and we'll regroup once he wakes up and starts moving around. 

The double is hard enough on even the toughest athletes but here's where we have to take extra things into consideration: Bob is 70 years old. We all know he's nothing like a typical 70 year old but the reality of his body is this: while he's fitter than almost everyone of any age, his organs are 70 years old. And doing this sort of race taxes the body- not just the muscles, but the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and other parts like nothing else. So that's what we will keep in mind as we watch Bob's progress. His body needs a little longer time to recover than someone 30 years younger. 

So all is well here in Lone Pine, and I will update when we have a plan.

Ratched, out.