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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Badwater 135: Drinkin' the Kool-Aid

"It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves." ~Edmund Hillary

Badwater.  That race is in a category all its own.  You really can't clump it in with other races.  It's like apples to...mangoes. 

Geof and I had the immense pleasure of joining our friend and fellow CHUG, Adrian Belitu, for his second running of the Badwater 135 in Death Valley, CA from July 12-14.  When we got the call back in May asking us to join the crew, we immediately set about rearranging our schedules and vacation plans to fit a week of Badwater crewing in.  As an ultrarunner, or even as a running enthusiast, you don't pass up an invite to crew at Badwater, you just don't.  Boy were we excited!  A crew of two is now a crew of four. 

So, now what?

Heat training?  Nah, nothing in the world can properly prepare you for the kind of heat you experience in Death Vally.  Nothing.  At least that was our experience.  So I'm glad we didn't waste any time in saunas.  If we were the ones running, perhaps a different story, but as a crew member I wouldn't worry with that.  I'd worry more about getting enough sleep and knowing your runner!

Fast forward a couple of months.  Lisa Smith-Batchen drops from the race due to a broken foot sustained during her 50 miles in 50 states adventure, so that means Ed Kelly and Terry Madl are looking for a runner to crew for.  The sky has cleared, the sun has shone, and the angels are singing in harmony.  We are going to have the most kick ASS crew ever!  And then there were six.

Geof and I fly into Vegas, drive up and down the strip waiting for Jim's flight to get in, then we head towards the local wally world to meet up with Ed and Terry, who drove the 25 hours from Chicago in Ed's mini-van (aka Team Belitu Headquarters).  After buying out Wal-Mart's entire stock of jug water, loading up on Gatorade, crew snacks, sunscreen and Tecate (c'mon, it was Saturday...still two full days before the race!) we began the 150ish mile drive to Furnace Creek, in Death Valley, CA.  We made a couple stops along the way since we're touristy like that.  Dante's View gives you a bird's-eye-view of Death Valley, and from there we could see where the race starts and where the road courses through the valley in the initial miles of the race.  So that was cool.

Once at the Ranch at Furnace Creek we quickly settled into relaxation mode, hanging out in Adrian and Simone's air conditioned room, enjoying some top-notch Tecate from the can, eventually heading over to the restaurant for dinner
Oh, did I mention how hot it was?  119 degrees.  And it was mid-afternoon.  Heat so hot you feel like you're sitting in an oven with hairdryers blowing at full blast.  Just like that.  But, there's no humidity, which totally rocks.  It's like being wrapped in a sweat wicking down blanket.  You sweat, but it evaporates.  Ladies, you know when you open an oven to check to make sure you aren't burning your grub and the heat hits you in the face and is so hot your mascara melts to your eyelid?  It was so hot, that actually happened to me.  Note to self: no mascara in Death Valley.

Since we had three vehicles, and you're only allowed two during the race (one as the main vehicle, and the second one as a shuttle for crew), we decided to drop off our rental car in Lone Pine and stash anything we wouldn't need until Wednesday in the trunk.  We devised a plan and early Sunday morning, Ed, Terry, Geof and I set out driving the race course into Lone Pine.  I loved that we did this since it gave us the grand tour of the first 120 miles of the race in daylight.  A bonus since a lot of the course would be in darkness once the race began.
On the drive to Lone Pine we stopped at this place...something to do with Borax mining.  Looked so cool.
Heading back to Furnace Creek...had to stop at this sign :)

Once back at the Ranch we joined Adrian, Jim and Simone in prepping the van for the next day.  It was awesome!  I just kind of observed since Ed, Terry, Jim and Simone were already the crew experts and they had it down to a science getting everything placed right!  I learned a lot from this group throughout the next few days.  Learning from the best!
The start of the transformation of Ed's van...soon it would be bulging with more water, coolers, crew members, spray bottles, food, sweaty shoes and socks, sunblock and lots of laughs.

While we figured out how to put all the appropriate signage on the two vehicles, I noticed a guy with a big camera walking around taking pictures of us...it was Drymax Bob!  It was great to meet the man behind my very favorite socks finally.  Very cool dude, and he hooked up Team Belitu with a bunch of their rockin' Hot Weather Running Socks (very apropos).  These socks really stood up to the test throughout the race and I loved giving them a go.  I love Drymax :)  Thanks, Bob! 

Once the vehicles were ready, it was about time to head over for the pre-race meeting.  This was fun as it gave a chance to see all the runners at once, listen to some funny bantar, stare shamelessly at the big names you read about but never actually see, watch the recap video from the previous year's race, and sweat your ass off in an air conditioned room packed with close to 500 bodies. 

The 2010 Badwater 135 runners

Quick dinner and then we all hit the hay.  Adrian was starting with the 10:00 a.m. wave (there are three waves, 6a, 8a and 10a) so we didn't have too early of a wake-up call, and it gave us a chance to eat a real breakfast before hitting the road in order to arrive by 9:30 for all the shenanigans.

Geof, Me, Terry, Simone, Adrian, Jim and Ed just before leaving FC for Badwater Basin

Ed and Terry being the stand-up guys that they are, they opted to hang back at Furnace Creek so that Geof and I could go to the Basin for the start.  Race officials stressed the rule about having only as many people in a vehicle as there are seat belts, and, as it were, we were going to be over that limit by one person once Adrian was out.  Ed and Terry have been there done that at BW a couple times so it was really cool of them :)  Thanks guys!  The start was abuzz and overflowing with nervous energy: photogs and videographers running around snapping shots and getting B-roll; runners putting on the final touches, chattering nervously with crew and friends; medical staff weighing runners; everyone taking their turn to snap some pictures with the Badwater sign; pit stops at the last actual outhouse for 17 miles; water being consumed at lightening speed to counter all the sweating.  Intense!  
Finally, Chris (RD) rounds up the troops for the group photo in front of the sign before corralling everyone up to the road for the start.
Everyone is so clean and pretty, and smiling.  That won't last very long...!

Jim and I stood up on the gravel to the left of the start, to see the action, "just like it is in the movie!"  Watching them all take off gave me goose bumps.  The first steps in 135 miles of steps.  This was also going to be the first and only time we would ever see the eventual winner, Zach Gingerich...he took off from the start and kept going.  That dude is sick!

We were now getting a crash course in crewing at Badwater.  There would be no downtime for the next three hours as we followed Adrian along the course to Furnace Creek, where Geof and I would swap out with Ed and Terry.  Ed would be joining Adrian on the road, kicking off the pacing duties.  We stopped about every 1/4 mile to jump out of the van, spray Adrian down with ice water, wrap a towel drenched in ice water around his shoulders, swap out his bottle and make sure all was okay, all while running or walking behind him.  It took a few miles, but we did get into a groove: Jim was the sprayer, Simone was the towel-er, Geof was the water bottle swapper and I was the picture taker :) 
I'll say this now: crewing at Badwater is hands down the most exhausting thing I've done...even more so than running 100 miles.  You are constantly prepping things in the vehicle for the next stop, and as soon as you jump back in to head up the road, you're about to jump back out to get something else to the runner.  Don't get comfortable, that's the kiss of death because then you're useless.  Up and down, up and down, my ankles were sore from jumping in and out of the van onto the heavily cambered, gravel roadside!  Every 3-4 hours we would swap out with two other crew members and take a rest.  Geof and I would grab something to eat usually, and try to sleep in the shuttle vehicle, but that usually didn't work out too well, so we were pretty sleep deprived.  It wasn't until the second night (maybe 36 hours into the race) that we finally got actual quality sleep (for 2 hours).

Adrian was a superstar runner to crew for.  We could not have asked for a better person to crew.  He never lost his temper...he never even showed signs of any discontent...he wasn't even close to being demanding, I think he may have been more worried about all of us than he was about himself!  Adrian's a pretty independent dude and knew exactly what he wanted each time he stopped.  This made our job very easy and kept things going really smoothly.  After a couple of early shoe changes due to the ice towel dripping into his shoes, his feet were good to go.  He was moving really well and had such good spirits.  The only real issue was his stomach, and this was something he wasn't anticipating as he didn't have that problem last year.  So, he began the tough process of problem-solving on the go.  Before long, most of his calories were coming from defizzed regular Coke and Mt. Dew, and by the first night he was subsisting on PB&J and...MILK!  Since he was drinking so much milk, he didn't want to run for a bit afterwards so that the milk could settle, very smart move.  He did get sick a couple of times, but just as soon as he was done he was back out on the road.

Geof paced the next 17-20 miles after Terry finished his leg.  This was part of the early, hotter part of the first day and he did so well!  I was proud of him and couldn't help but picture him doing this one day...
Van with a view: Adrian and Geof

I was having a great time working with Jim and Simone, learning more and more, and laughing so hard at times I thought I would burst :)  Can't hate that!  After Geof finished pacing, Jim jumped in for a short stretch, running with the water sprayer behind Adrian.  They began the long climb up to Townes Pass, and when they got here... 
Who says the desert doesn't have any good views?!

...it was time to put on the night running gear.  Each person on the road is required to wear a reflective vest and at least two blinking red lights (one front, one back) in addition to a headlamp or handheld light.  This is where I jumped in, 7:00 p.m.  The grade wasn't too steep and easily runnable with fresh legs, but with however many miles it was at this point in your legs, plus the heat, most everyone was hiking up this section.  Adrian and I had a really good clip going up and he was in great spirits still.  We chatted on and off about random things, meeting the crew every 1/2 mile now.  I was really enjoying myself, so happy to be out there with him, experiencing the course from the other side.  I recall the wind.  It was a'blowin' but not as bad as the year before I guess.  I had to turn my head to the side in order to hear Adrian.  The stars, oh, the stars!  They were bright and bountiful, and climbing higher and higher it looked as if you could reach up and touch them.  Adrian would snap off his headlamp from time to time, and I had mine on its lowest setting.  I wouldn't say you could run without light out there (no moon), but it was certainly a lovely sight without one.  I also really enjoyed the power walking; I'd like to think that's my specialty :)  I remember wondering when 100 degrees has ever felt chilly...I got goosebumps a few times during that section!  After spending a day near 130, a 30 degree drop is pretty significant.
Me, Simone, Adrian

I'm not exactly sure how much I got in the way of mileage, but Terry took over with about 3-4 miles left to the top of Townes Pass.  From there Ed would take over and bring Adrian back down the other side of the mountain and into Panamint Springs.  Once they jumped in, Geof and I went ahead into Panamint in search of the shower, food and maybe a nap.  Only two of those things materialized.

At Panamint Springs, there is a hotel with a cabin that is opened up to the runners and crew during the race.  It has three rooms and one bathroom.  The bathroom was stocked with toiletries and hand towels, very cool.  The rooms were stocked with bodies.  We stepped through a thick veil of bugs and into the chilly cabin and found ourselves surrounded.  People passed out on the couch, every bed, the floor.  There were a couple people in front of us in line for the shower, so we sat silently in the front room and waited.  As long as you didn't open your eyes in the bathroom, it was top notch!  I won't go into detail, but it was kinda gross :)  However, it was a shower and presented the opportunity to get clean for the first time in 24 hours.  Glorious!  We grabbed a burger inside the small restaurant and then made a very feeble attempt at a nap after that, but excitement and Adrian's impending arrival kept us pretty awake.  Oh well, maybe we'd get a nap the next evening :)

After a longish rest for Adrian when they came into Panamint, we headed out again.  The night was a funny thing.  Much quieter from the daytime and now runners were getting further and further separated on the road so it was pretty desolate now.  As the sun rose again from behind the mountains to the east (breath-taking) I was with Adrian again.  We witnessed a sunrise of awesome proportions; the mountains behind us were exploding with color and light.  We were hiking up a steep and winding pass up to Father Crowley I believe (man, I'm getting foggy on this already!).  I was holding a can of coke and marching quietly behind Adrian.  He had gotten quiet and seemed to be very within himself.  I'm not sure when the realization hit him, but in those very early morning hours it became clear that his sub-30 hour goal had slipped away in the night.  He seemed to come to terms with a second full day ahead of him very well.  He joked with us about another 24 hours and maintained his relatively sunny disposition and laid back nature.  What a trooper. 

The second day was in large part paced by Jim.  He did an amazing job and really kept things moving.  Great job, Jim!  He seemed taxed after a long stretch, but pushed on nonetheless.  It was another steamer, that second day, and perhaps hotter than the first!  We were convinced the van's thermometer maxed out at 130, but that it was actually considerably warmer, wow!  I was really feeling the effects of sleep deprivation, but was really thankful my stomach held up.  I made sure to keep up on water intake, salt and good calories...things that are far too easy to overlook when you're crewing and worrying about someone other than yourself.  It's so important to take care of yourself as crew/pacer during these events, perhaps equally as important as your runner. 

Boy did we laugh a lot during this journey.  Ed inhaling not one, but TWO double quarter pounders and fries was by far the most hilarious.  "I haven't eaten a burger from McDonald's in over seven years, and here I am eating two!"  I think we turned Ed back onto Mickey D's :)  We got some mileage on that one!  Later in the second evening, Adrian's stomach was really rebelling against him and he had stopped sweating and started shivering so he opted, very smartly, to take an extended rest in the van to catch up on fluids.  Feet up, laying on the floor he rested for a long while, drinking big amounts of Gatorade to rehydrate.  Simone wanted him to stake out so we could take him to medical, but he wouldn't budge.  Then Geof noticed a med official had pulled in front of us to grab something from the side of the road, so he waved him down and had him take a look at our guy.  Adrian was reassured that he would be fine, and to keep up exactly what he was doing.  Phew!  I think this is exactly what he needed and was a turning point for him.  Jim, Terry and Ed were resting in Lone Pine, so the remaining four of us entertained Adrian in the van while he relaxed, talking about all the funny stuff that had happened throughout the day.  This was one of my favorite parts of the experience :)

Geof and I finally got some quality sleep in around 12 a.m. on Wednesday.  We, along with Simone, drove into Lone Pine to our hotel and slept until 3 a.m. (amazing sleep!!) and then drove up the road to meet up with everyone, hoping they were on their way up Mt. Whitney by then.  And boy were they ever!  They had made some really good ground in the time we had been sleeping and I was so excited to see them.  The road up to the Whitney Portals/Finish Line (~8,300 ft.) is a steep mother with only a few switchbacks, but damn is it beautiful!  Outcroppings and vistas galore!  The sun exploded from the Panamint range behind us and we got the best seat in the house for that show!  My heart began picking up speed as we gained more and more altitude and I was downright giddy as it was clear Adrian was going to make it under the 48-hour buckle cutoff.  On the second big switchback, Geof jumped in to walk Adrian in the rest of the way.  We drove up a ways to one of the few safe places to park and I jumped out to watch them come up the road.  You can imagine my shock when I saw that they were RUNNING!  133 miles in, on a steep mountain road and he's running!!  There was one guy he had been leap frogging with and Adrian decided once and for all that was it; that guy was going to be left in the dust.  Terry and Ed had re-joined us now and followed us up to the parking area where we waited for Geof and Adrian.  They rounded the final corner and moved up to us where we all lined up and held hands and we marched toward the finish line.  As soon as the finish line tape was in sight, hands still together, we broke into a sprint, Adrian breaking the tape in 44 hours and some change.  He DID IT!

What a ride!  What an experience!  How exhausting!  I can't fully describe the vibe of the finish line, but it was just awesome.  Goosebumps and all.  The chilly air stood in stark contrast to the baking heat down below at the foot of Mt. Whitney.  The buzz in the air matched that of the starting line, minus the nervous anticipation.  I couldn't believe it, I was actually there, seeing all this with my own eyes. 

After heading back down into Lone Pine for some sleep, some eats, and a short run around Lone Pine, Geof and I headed back up to hike and run up the Mt. Whitney Trail for a few miles.  What a spectacular trail!  I wish we had had more time to spend up there.  I highly recommend it.  Upon returning to the trailhead and Portal Road, we found we were just in time to watch the race's final and oldest finisher arrive, Jack Denness, 75.  It was his 12 official finish and it was another of the big highlights of this experience.  The RD said his finish drew the biggest crowd he'd seen all race.  People were clapping, shouting and whooping as he approached, British flag held high, smiling ear to ear, more than 58 hours after he began his journey.  I was so happy we got to see that and be a part of it all.  That was some history happening right there!

I may have had my sleep-deprivation induced bouts of grouchiness, but I knew the whole time that I was really going to miss this experience once it was over.  And I was right :)  Adrian was such a pleasure to crew for and so respectful and outwardly grateful to have all of us there.  It really has turned me on to this race so much...but not as much as Geof.  I have a feeling we'll be back, albeit in slightly different roles next time ;-)

We are seriously drinkin' the Kool-Aid now...thank you Adrian!!

I took a ton more pictures so check 'em out if you like: Badwater Pics.

Crash, out.


Torey said...

Aww, Paige - what a touching and fantastic 'crew report.' You described it all so well. I love seeing a glimpse into what seems so unimaginable from Chicago.

Rachel said...

That sounds like such an incredible experience. Congrats on being such a huge part of your runner's accomplishment...BW is a team effort and your RR conveys that so well, while giving Adrian his rightful credit for being a kick-butt runner who fulfilled most ultra runner's wildest dream.

Alene Gone Bad said...

Great job to you and your runner Paige. I look forward to seeing you back at Badwater! I hope to be running it in 2011, and if you're interested in another crewing experience next year I am looking for experienced crew.

Anonymous said...

Great post Paige. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

Adam Fitzgerald

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your crewing experiences! It definitely sounds like a tough job, but rewarding :) Something I'd love to do someday.

Run Home Pam said...

That's so cool, Paige! My training partner, Susan, wants to run this some day. Reading this, I could almost be persuaded to join her.....What a fantastic adventure!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! Fantastic!

Paige said...

Thanks for the props, all!

Pam, you should absolutely join Susan if she does Badwater one day! It's a sort of rite of passage for us runners; crewing or running it! But, beware, it gets in your blood...!

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