Wednesday, July 30, 2014

2014 Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, Race Report

July 21-22, 2014
Bob Becker

Last Monday night, July 21, the big dipper above Cerro Gordo Road, about 15 miles outside Lone Pine, CA, was so clear and big and close that I could nearly grab it with both hands and take a drink.  And so it was with my Badwater race: all the elements needed to complete 135 miles were right there for the grabbing, and I went for it.  Truly this experience could not have been any better.

I have been part of this event for each of the past 8 years, racing it in 2008 and crewing for other runners each of the other six years.  There is a special culture here, a vibe that is hard to explain but that draws most people back year after year.  The “Badwater 135” Ultramarathon is as iconic as a race can be, and known as the “world’s toughest footrace”.  With a limit each year of 100 runners able to compete, 26 countries and about as many states were represented at the starting line.   It was such a privilege to be part of this select group.

6:00am wave awaiting the start

Ready: Let's go! 

When my application was accepted as the oldest runner this year, race planning began and progressed with modest but realistic expectations.  This is not a race where I would land on the winners’ platform!  The goal was to finish, and maybe to pick-off a few runners along the way so as not to be dead last.  Next on my wish list was to finish in under 42 hours, and finally to beat my time of 40:48 from 2008—admittedly a bit of a stretch.  My first call was to friend and ultramarathon trainer, Lisa Smith-Batchen, who had gotten me ready for my very first 100 mile race and again for Badwater in 2008.  We discussed those goals in the context of my age and condition and time remaining before the race; I had total confidence that Lisa would have me ready on race day.  (For those who don’t know her, Lisa Smith-Batchen is a 53 year old elite ultrarunner who has won Badwater twice.  And this month, beginning on July 1st and ending on July 15th, Lisa ran a most extraordinary route for an important charitable cause.  Lisa ran the traditional Badwater route to raise money to drill potable wells in Africa and India.  But, after completing those 135 miles, she then summitted Mt. Whitney—the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states—and then ran back to the Badwater basin where she began, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level.  That “double” was not enough, so Lisa repeated the entire route, completing the 135 mile course again, summitting Whitney a second time and then returning to Badwater.  She traversed 584 miles, completing the “Quad” crossing in 15 days, only the second person, and first woman, to ever do so.)  Yes, I was in pretty competent hands.   

Coach Lisa Smith-Batchen and 2nd place Badwater finisher Grant Maughan

 With training spot-on, it was vital that many other elements of this effort be in balance, too, as I would be on the road without sleep for a long time.  My nutrition and hydration plan required 200-250 calories  and 20-30 ounces of fluid per hour, adjusted for time of day, and 2 electrolyte capsules every half hour or so.  I can find it difficult to swallow solid food during long, hot races, so caloric intake was primarily from Ensure, Hammer gels, Gatorade and Coke, with odds and ends of fruit, cookies, soup and chips on occasion.  It worked.  There was never any stomach distress and the balance of fluids and salt/mineral replenishment held steady. 

Throughout the race, except at the beginning and first night, I wore an ice bandana around my neck and a buff containing ice, tied at one end, under my hat to help control body temperature.  These were replaced with fresh ice every couple of miles.  During the second day when the heat became a much greater factor, I was sprayed with water from a hand-held sprayer almost constantly while moving down the course.  After the first 45 miles, we were allowed a “pacer” to run with (actually behind) us.  Each member of my 4-person support crew took turns as the pacer, keeping me focused and alert and in good humor.  Badwater is a race that would be impossible to complete without a crew of people meeting you every couple of miles to replenish fluids, offer food and ice and massage and encouragement, a change of socks and whatever else might possibly be needed.  As with other factors in my race, my crew of Bill Wenner, Kevin Grabowski, Bonnie Busch and Beth Stone was beyond fantastic.  I couldn’t be more grateful for their outstanding care and concern and excellent execution.  If there were any issues in that van, I never knew about them.  Their job was to keep me focused and moving forward according to plan, to provide whatever help might be necessary along the way and to cross the finish line with me at the Mt. Whitney Portal.  And they got it done beautifully.

The crew

As is traditional, there were three “waves” of runners beginning this race--at 6:00am, 7:00am and 8:00am.  We were allowed 48 hours to complete the course.  Badwater Basin, where the race traditionally begins, is located within Death Valley National Park.  A new park superintendent upon arriving in the desert last year, decided not to approve any event applications in 2014 until after a safety study had been completed.  In spite of 25 uneventful years for this race, not to exempt Badwater from this action was ludicrous, but her decision stood.  As a result, the course this year had to be modified.  “Death Valley” is part of the greater Mojave Desert, so the revised route incorporated the 30 miles of desert road from Darwin to Lone Pine NOT located within the national park—out and back, actually, for a total of 60 paved desert road miles—plus the traditional climb to the finish up Mt. Whitney to 8,500 feet and the road’s end at “Whitney Portal”.  Instead of starting at the Badwater basin, the route began in Lone Pine with a climb of 22.5 miles to Horseshoe Meadows at 9,900 feet, followed by an equally long descent.  For a Florida flatlander, it was a most interesting start! 

The long and winding road down Horseshoe Meadow Road. Lone Pine in the background.

Running it! 

Passing back through Lone Pine at 45 miles, a 15-mile stretch of desert road took us via a detour on Dolomite Loop Road to Keeler, the small settlement at what once had been thriving Owens Lake.  There, we made a left-hand turn onto a rocky dirt road, leading up 7 ½ miles to the ghost town of Cerro Gordo at 8,152 feet.  This off-road stretch was by far the most difficult part of the race, with the grade reaching at least 18 degrees in some sections, and seeming to continue forever!  When my pacer, Kevin, and I finally arrived at the bright lights of what had been the “American Hotel” many years before, we were too tired to check out the bullet holes in the old saloon walls inside.  I sat for a couple of minutes on the porch, then began the equally steep 7 ½ mile descent.  Had we been among the fastest elite runners who climbed Cerro Gordo Road during daylight, we wondered if the experience would have seemed so daunting.  On the other hand, they missed that crazy big Big Dipper, so there is that consolation. 

Just off steep and rocky Cerro Gordo Rd.

At the bottom of the mountain, I took a left at Keeler on Route 136 and ran for 17 miles, reaching the turn-around point at the Darwin turn-off.  What a welcome sight, knowing that we had completed 92 miles, and that the finish was just 43 miles down the road—including that climb to 8,371 feet—all straight ahead.

Between Keeler and Lone Pine

 It is hard, grinding work out there.  Yet it has its special moments that are exciting and fun and motivating.  Catching-up with my crew every couple of miles was one of them.  As trite as it sounds, hearing people yell out their windows, “Go, Bobby, go!”, or “You’re looking strong”, and similar cheers, were somehow very meaningful and became my unspoken mantras for awhile.  And crossing the finish line at Whitney Portal? As rewarding and exhilarating as any experience could ever be.  Beating my goal by a lot.  Finishing in under 40 hours.  Just perfect.

View across Owens Valley from Cerro Gordo Rd. to switchbacks on Horseshoe Meadow Rd.

I ran Badwater this year as something of a test.  I have been thinking about celebrating my 70th birthday in 2015 by running the “Badwater Double”, and wanted to see how I’d do racing “only” 135.  Yes, I got it done, but it does hurt—a lot!  So, it will be awhile before I’ll think about that decision, and lots can happen anyhow in a year.  Come to think of it, sitting in a rocking chair at the old age home with a slice of birthday cake in my lap doesn’t sound so bad right now…

Cooling spray from Bill Wenner heading up Mt. Whitney Portal Road


Peter Matus said...

Hi Bob,

great blog/article...!!

Congratulation to your results.I will see you on Florida Keys 100 again.I will try 100 miles after 3 years of 50,and maybe one day you will help me "how to" at Badwater.

manadoc said...

Congrats! Great write-up. Loved it. Russ Reinbolt #98

ANatureLover said...

Bob, thanks for sharing the experience of "Bad Water". I would have trouble driving it. Gooooo Bobby!!!