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! 

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