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.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Ratched Report...

Greetings friends and supporters of Bob! I apologize for the lack of posting but the desert is not full of cell phone towers and fiber optics we take for granted in the city. Just to fill you in, Bob finished the race yesterday in 41:30 which is hauling @$$...and feet looking better than ever...

After a long drawn out post race party last night, Bob finally got some sleep and woke up to start his trek up Mt. Whitney at 4 am with Marshall Ulrich and his crew members. The sky is cloudy today, but that cools things off, and we can see the summit from town, a few blue holes in the sky are encouraging. I feel confident that Bob is in the best of company in the world on this portion of the trip.

The crew did a fantastic job, over the top, of caring for Bob on the way here. Even though Kevin Grabowski, crew chief, begged and pleaded with me not to look at the van when I first arrived, by the time he allowed me to peek at it, there was no evidence of whatever he was hiding earlier. 

Marc Drautz, Beth Stone, and Roger Burruss made up the rest of the crew and Bob couldn't have been in better hands. 

Today we are talk a day of active rest and preparing for tomorrow's jaunt, beginning our return to Badwater. The biggest challenge for Bob, I think, will be distracting him from the constants - pain in his feet. As I told him, that's a given and the key is to focus on everything else around you. Without the rush, pressure, and fanfare of the race, we should have a fun and relaxing time on the way back. 

I will most likely be posting on Facebook from here on unless we have a stretch of solid wifi access, doubtful... So please feel free to check (Alene Nitzky on Facebook) and hopefully Suzanne will share to Bob's followers. 

Thanks for being Bob's supporters and fans. He is such a wonderful human being, it's an honor to be on his crew. From here it will be Ashley Heclo, Roger, Don Nelson, and me...with the shared goal of getting Bob to Badwater to celebrate this already amazing accomplishment! 

Ratched aka Alene Gone Bad, out.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Pursuing the “Badwater Ultra Cup”--2015

I admit it; I’m a “Badwater” junkie.  Don’t know how it happened, but it did!  I’ve been showing-up in Death Valley every July since 2007, and have either crewed for another runner or raced Badwater 135 myself.  Maybe it’s that special camaraderie and race culture; maybe it’s the allure of the desert and the mountains.  Whatever that magic is, I’ve been sufficiently hooked to be competing again in 2015, hoping to earn the “Badwater Ultra Cup” distinction, and attempting the “Badwater Double” at race’s end--as a bonus!  At 70, I expect to “up” the oldest-finisher “Double” record by a dozen years.

As a  Race Director myself, I know a “pro” when I see one, and no one does a better job than Chris Kostman in directing and designing extreme events.  Three years ago, when Chris announced Badwater Salton Sea, there was no way I’d miss being at that crazy, exotic starting line on the crunchy shore of Salton Sea.  A two or three-person team race that was NOT a relay, where mates had to run together for the entire 81 miles to the top of Palomar Mountain?  73 miles on road, 8 miles on rocky trails (mostly climbing), and a course that mimics the Badwater 135 route, just shorter?  I could totally buy into that; Sergio Radovcic, Matt Nelson and I were there and had a terrific experience.

When Badwater Cape Fear was announced for March 2014, my reaction was the same—another Kostman original! Racing a little over 50 miles on a pristine North Carolina coastal island that doesn’t allow motorized vehicles—10 miles on pavement through a beautifully developed second home community and 40 more on the Atlantic Ocean sand beach?  Spectacular idea!  And this not-to-be-missed ultra on Bald Head Island met every expectation. 

Now there were three: Badwater 135, Badwater Salton Sea and Badwater Cape Fear, and a new designation for completing all of them in the same year: the “Badwater Ultra Cup”.  So I threw my hat into the ring for that inaugural chase in 2014.  I had a fine race in the desert in July, finishing 50th in 39:45 at Badwater 135.  The first of the three events, Badwater Cape Fear, was a keeper, too—and, BTW, I couldn’t recommend that event more highly.  But the result for this returning veteran at the second installment of Badwater Salton Sea was not so pretty.  Illness before the race and charley-horsing calf muscles during it knocked me out of the race at the halfway point.  There would be no “Badwater Ultra Cup” in 2014.

So, “Salton Sea” for me in 2014 was quite the bummer, but being part of these races was so enjoyable that I set my sights on giving it a go one more time in 2015.  Besides, I figured that earning the “Cup”--as well as completing the 292-mile “Double”--would be fitting personal birthday gifts in the year when I could no longer deny my entry into Senior Citizenship!!  So, I returned to Bald Head Island in March and actually set a PR for the 50 mile distance.  I had the distinct pleasure of running as the teammate of Keith Straw at “Salton Sea”, and we nailed it!  And now, with just days remaining, Badwater 135 lies ahead, with that proverbial Holy Grail known as the “Badwater Ultra Cup”, just sitting there at Whitney Portal waiting for me to snatch it up!

Thanks, Chris, for all the fun—and all the material for “What I did on summer vacation”.

Bob Becker

2015 KEYS100 Ultramarathon Race Report
RD Bob Becker

The competition was excellent and the views spectacular--as always!  The 8th Annual KEYS100 race across the islands of the Florida Keys was held on May 16-17.  For the first time, a 50 kilometer competition from Big Pine Key to Key West was added to the event menu: 100 miles from Key Largo to Key West, 50 miles from Marathon to Key West and our unique six runner 100 mile team relay from Key Largo to Key West.  Nearly 1,200 competitors insured that the post-race action at the finish line on Higgs Beach kept rockin’!  From 3:00pm on Saturday until 3:00pm Sunday, runners crossed the finish line as 2,000 burgers, 7 kegs of beer, countless pizzas and more began to disappear!  And, a race tradition continued as 700 pieces of Dion’s fried chicken were enjoyed, too.  At the awards program under the huge tent on the beach at noon on Sunday, over 200 awards were presented, each hand-made in the Keys.  Picture the awards presentation stopping each time someone yelled, “Runner coming”, and hundreds of people stood and turned to cheer-in the last few of the 100-milers.  With Gary Hempsey’s band playing “Buffett” on the beach, or the post-race party at “Smokin’ Tuna” or sunset at Mallory Square, the celebration was vintage Key West, and a great complement to the stellar athletic performances along the point-to-point Overseas Highway course.  More than 75% of the race is run on the bike paths, pedestrian bridges and service roads that make-up the “Florida Overseas Heritage Trail” which parallels the roadway for most of that 100 miles.  The balance is run on the road shoulder, including historic Seven Mile Bridge.

Awards time!

Christy Johnson in the Lower Keys

170 people were registered for the 100 miler. 144 actually toed the starting line and 97 finished—a better than expected 67% finishing rate in the sub-tropical heat of the islands in mid-May.  Vanderley Pereira of Brazil beat last year’s men’s champion, Grant Maughan of Australia, for the overall win in 16:17 flat.  Women’s winner, Tammy Walther, of Little Rock, Arkansas, returning to KEYS100 for the 6th time, finished 7th overall with a time of 20:16:18.  There were exciting competitions throughout, including 5th place Zandy Mangold beating 6th place Will Glover by 17.8 seconds to take the Male Masters win.  And Jason Romero, who won the 45-49 male age range award and finished in 9th place overall.  Jason’s time was 20:31:18; he is legally blind.

The 50 mile race saw Chris Van Smith of Weston FL cross the finish line in 7:51:45 for 1st place.  Top spot among the women was Caryn Lubetsky, last year’s 2nd place finisher.  Caryn was 4th overall in 8:19:41.  Tom Drummond of Chalfont PA, Male Masters winner in 8:52:44, was crewed by last year’s 100 mile overall winner, Alyson Venti, who reciprocated for Tom’s crew support of her 2014 record-smashing win at KEYS100, and then again in July 2014 at Badwater 135..

The inaugural 50 kilometer race was added after a chorus of requests to do so, and a consensus to make the heat a factor at that distance, too.  (No “easy” ultramarathon “introductory-distance” race, this one!)  The first 50 kilometer competition began at 1:00 PM on Saturday.  David Kilgore of Palm Bay, FL, a KEYS100 rookie at age 23 and winner of this year’s 50 mile EVERGLADES ULTRAS trail race, broke the tape in 4:19:17 for the win.  Women’s winner and 2nd overall was Fabiola Morales of Miami, FL.  Fabiola’s time of 5:39:55 was only 17.4 seconds ahead of 2nd place female Caitlin Lopez of West Palm Beach.

The 100 mile team relay race produced a spectacular example of athleticism with the record-breaking performance of Space Coast Runners.   The team of Shane Streufert, John Davis, Steve Chin, William Vanos, Dan Burnett and Chris Cacciapaglia completed 100 miles in 9:07:27, beating the old record by 9 minutes in significantly hotter conditions.  This was one of those records that most thought would never be broken.  But, Team BT’s Road Warriors “unbreakable” record stood for just one year.  This was an exciting race as Space Coast Runners and BT’s Road Warriors competed head-to-head; “Road Warriors” finished 2nd.  Overall, 136 teams, including 30 military teams, raced simultaneously with the individual ultramarathoners.  Many teams offered individual runners their support, encouragement and camaraderie along the way while being inspired by the individual effort they witnessed under a cloudless, hot and humid South Florida sky.  Our unique 100-mile relay race remains an important tradition and integral part of the KEYS100 race experience.

More than 30 states and 7 countries other than the U.S. were represented this year.  The 9th Annual KEYS100 returns to the islands on May 21, 2016.  Visit for all the details, and check out the official race video from 2014 ( for an excellent overview of the KEYS100 race experience.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

EVERGLADES ULTRAS, 2/21/2015, RD Race Report

EVERGLADES ULTRAS Race Report for 2015

Record-Setting Race Day in the Everglades on February 21st: 4 of 6 Race Records Broken!

It was one of those near-perfect February Florida days: cool at the start, reaching the 70’s in the afternoon.  The course through the heart of the Everglades was mostly dry, with bridges and work-arounds built over sections that still had flowing or standing water.  And did runners ever respond to this opportunity!  235 people registered for this 4th annual EVERGLADES ULTRAS, competing in 50 mile, 50 kilometer and 25 kilometer races.  (The first two of these were also the USATF-Florida Association trail championships at those distances.)  First time 50-miler David Kilgore, 22, of Palm Bay, FL, made it look easy as he blew away the course record by an astonishing 1 hour and 10 minutes with a time of 6:02:43.  (That time is even more impressive considering the old mark was held by elite ultra-runner Katalyn Nagy, who is a member of this year’s U.S. 24 Hour Team, competing next month in Europe in the world championships.)  In addition, both 50 kilometer records were broken as was the men’s 25 kilometer mark.

50 kilometer winner Cuche Alarcon, from Veracruz, Mexico, was in South Florida for business and decided to compete in a race while here.  Compete he did, beating the field in a time of 3:49:47—and breaking the old mark by a full three minutes!  Not to be out-done, 50 kilometer female winner Natalie McLeod, Vero Beach, FL, finished in 4:53:44, beating the old record by eight minutes!  Tim Lyster’s 25 kilometer record was set in the race’s inaugural year, but Jason Clark, of Chittenango, NY, decided it was time to lower that standard, finishing in 1:42:16.  That effort took 8 ½ minutes off the old mark.  While she didn’t break the course record, 50-mile female winner, Michelle Matys, Boca Raton, FL, set a big PR as she reached the finish line in 8:30:59.  1st place 25 kilometer female victor, Natasha Yaremczuk, was thawing-out in South Florida before returning home to Ontario, Canada.  Natasha beat the second place female finisher by more than two minutes as she crossed the line in 2:00:14.  It was truly a day of amazing performances and personal bests.

Our host and partner, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, is the largest state park in Florida.  At over 80,000 acres, “The Fak” easily contains these race routes, including the single loop 50 mile course, with much of the park still to explore.  Competitors race along raised trails called “trams” above the swamp strand, then through spectacular grassland prairies and wooded “upland” areas.  The park boasts the largest variety of orchids and bromeliads on the continent and a wide array of animal life: Florida panther, black bear, bobcat, deer and Florida mink, to name a few.  There are alligators and other reptiles, to be sure, and an astounding array of bird life.  On race day in this nature preserve, you never know what you will see.  Most animals are not used to seeing or hearing runners or any other humans--and the park rangers supporting them on all-terrain vehicles--so tend to keep their distance.  Still, there are always stories of wild-turkey and deer and bear and Bard Owl sightings, and lots more.  What an exotic and unique location this is for a trail race.  Eoin Craigie, who was racing from Montreal, said: “The race and the day were both incredible and I couldn't have asked for a better event to attend.  I came down from cold Montreal to run the 50M and didn't expect such great scenery…  I'll be back to race the Everglades and let everyone know this is a great event.”  Or, in the words of 25 kilometer runner Rebecca Kinzel: “It was a thrill to run in such a remote, absolutely pristine place.”

EVERGLADES ULTRAS is particularly mindful of providing extraordinary runner support.  10 fully stocked aid stations and three un-staffed water and ice stops are scattered throughout the venue, many in very isolated locations that can only be accessed by ATVs and UTVs.  Tents and tables and chairs, coolers with ice and water, sports and soft drinks, a wide assortment of food and more are driven out and set-up by park rangers and volunteers in this exciting environment.  Much of this is jungle, folks!!  All 70 plus miles of race trails are opened or re-opened by hand, trimmed, mowed by tractor and flagged before race day.  It is this Herculean effort that affords us all the privilege of experiencing this amazing place.  On race day, all active trails are patrolled by a large staff of park rangers whose job it is to fully support runners and focus on their safety.

Fifty mile age group winner Ashley Heclo commented that, “The aid stations were amazing, the trails perfect, the rangers gracious and helpful, timing on point.” She praised the ”…fantastically helpful and cheerful volunteers”, and added: “Park rangers were active all day checking on runners on desolate parts of the course and topping off water bottles… I've drank the koolaide man, in large part because of meeting people who inspire me to reach beyond.”

Race veteran Stephen Roos, commenting on the course’s technical areas, said:  “Once you get past the first three or four miles, which are easy and cute, you are lured into thinking this race is gonna be a breeze.  The next 10 miles are due north, filled with Florida beauty you will probably not see anywhere else on foot.  Wild orange groves, wild grapefruit trees, ferns and orchids, with swamp on either side.  The next three miles are due west and are very technical.  Pay attention to where you are stepping or go splat.  During pre-race orientation race director Becker explains there are "cypress knees".  These are the root systems of cypress trees that grow horizontal just underneath the surface growing nodules above the ground that look like knees.  …These things are the devil's imps!   Imagine the arcade game "whack a mole" in reverse.  Instead of having a mallet and whacking the head of the mole when it pops its head up, cypress knees will pop up when you are not looking, grab you, and trip you. 
“After leaving the technical northbound and westbound trails, the southbound route opens up to tall grasslands and trees as far as you can see in all directions.  Eventually there will be fewer trees and the trail will open up to prairies that go on...FOREVER!
“Then there is the beauty that is found all through this event.  Whether it was my good looks or scintillating smell, butterflies flew within inches of my nose many, many times throughout the day.”

Then there are comments like these from first-timer John Flynn.  These alone are enough to make old RD’s like me come back year after year:  “I ran my first 1/2 marathon on October 26th, my first marathon on 12/7 and my first 50K ultra yesterday.  That was one of the great experiences in my life. To be doing these things at 59 is just amazing to me.  I even get a medal and a beautiful picture on top of all of that! I am walking on a cloud (softly, my feet still hurt).”

EVERGLADES ULTRAS is held each year in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park near Everglades City, FL.  2015 was a most memorable event.  See you again next February.