Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Crewing at Badwater

Just over 2 weeks ago I was fortunate to have participated in one of the world's unique events as I had been invited to crew for Tony Portera at this years Badwater Ultramarathon. Now that I have compiled my memories of this journey (with some thoughts from crew member Chris Roman) I wanted to share them with you.

On the surface, crewing for someone may sound simple. All you need to do is give them food and water and occasionally run with them right? Although I had never crewed before I knew going in it was much more than that especially when the race is 135 miles through the desert. The goal is to finish and most importantly finish safely and here is how we did it.

Course description from Badwater website: "Covering 135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA, the Badwater Ultramarathon is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet. The start line is at Badwater, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere at 280’ (85m) below sea level. The race finishes at the Mt. Whitney Portals at nearly 8,300’ (2530m). The Badwater course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 13,000’ (3962m) of cumulative vertical ascent and 4,700’ (1433m) of cumulative descent. The Portals are the trail head to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Competitors travel through places or landmarks with names like Mushroom Rock, Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, Stovepipe Wells, Keeler and Lone Pine."

Our preparation began back in February when Tony was first invited to participate in this epic adventure (for a second time). While all of my tasks were self imposed I felt a great deal of responsibility as Tony was placing his trust in me and therefore I wanted to learn as much as possible. So I read and watched everything I could on this event over and over. I even read sections of the guide and race rules on the plane ride out. Here is the primary list of materials I used while preparing mentally. Physically I trained as if I were running my own ultra including heat training.

Prior to leaving I put together my own gear for the trip. I am just a crew member so what could I possibly need? I won't list it all but the photo looks more like I was actually running the race.

Tony and I flew to Vegas together Friday morning. The race would begin on Monday at 6am.

Pre-race highlights:

Upon our arrival we met Steve at the the car rental place and our work began. First it was a quick trip to Wal-Mart where we spent 3 hours, making 2 trips inside filling up 6 carts of stuff. You would think we were going camping for a month. While this years experience taught me we over shopped, I must admit it was nice knowing we were fully stocked. We then made our way out to Stovepipe Wells which would be base camp for the next several days.

Saturday morning I managed to get in a nice run to The Dunes and back while we were waiting for the rest of the crew to arrive (Tony & Steve joined for a bit). We then decided to drive the course from Stove Pipe to Lone Pine (about 80 miles). I'm glad we did this as I was apprehensive about the mountain passes. I had heard turnouts were rare and a bit tight, with narrow spaces on the edge of big drops. Everyone has their own perspective and I was relieved that mine told me there were plenty of opportunities to park without going too far and there appeared to be ample room on the edge of these turnouts. The crew arrived late afternoon and after a few introductions, a few beers and dinner it was early to bed.

Sunday included a short run, a team trip to Badwater Bassin for pictures, runner check-in and a pre race meeting in Furnace Creek. The pre-race meeting was great. Everyone involved including race staff, volunteers, elite runners, average runners and crew were there. I estimate there were about 75 volunteers and 450 crew members. That is more than 500 people supporting just 80 runners this year. I can't think of any event that has a support to runner ratio like this.

We arrived back at the hotel after 6pm where we had a quick dinner and loaded up all the non-food gear in the van. I think I finally got to bed around 11pm as I could not stop organizing and reorganizing. I may have over done it a bit and probably elevated the stress level amongst some of the crew but I felt a huge sense of responsibility for Tony's success and safety. Needless to say I spent most of the next 4 plus hours staring at the ceiling in anticipation of what I knew would be an amazing happening in my life.

First Crew Shift (Meredith, Herb and Me) July 12 at 3:30am: Monday Morning arrives and we are up at 3:30am to eat a quick bite, load the van and drive the 42 miles to the start where we needed to be by 5:30am for Tony's weigh-in. I have been following this event for several years now and I could not believe I was standing there at the start with the likes of Ulrich, Dennis and Webb to name a few. The star gazing was short lived as the anthem was sung and the gun went off. The first wave of about 30 entrants in the 6am start began their individual journeys together. I jumped in the van along with Meredith and Herb to get to our first stop at mile one (the plan was to keep all stops at 1 mile intervals unless there was a need to shorten them).

Each stop would involve keeping Tony hydrated, fed and cool. Other than a couple of minor glitches the first 17 miles went well. (1)Left my water bottle on top of the car mile one so lost that. (2)Got pulled over by the Popo at mile 4 for quote "having my head down". Perhaps he thought I was texting in the middle of the desert where there is no cell service. After 10 minutes of discussing I was not given a ticket or a complete explanation for the stop, but no matter. (3)We drove down the road for about a mile with the hatchback open. Fortunately nothing fell out and we had a good laugh with the event staff who pulled in behind us to flag us down.

Tony arrived in at the Furnace Creek time station in 3hrs 1min. This was way ahead of the plan we had discussed which included taking it easy until mile 42. So much for that...TONY WAS LEADING THE RACE which was fun to see but this would come back to bite him. We tried to encourage him to slow down but he was enjoying his race to Furnace Creek with his friend Brian. There was nothing we could do now except prepare for the carnage that was sure to come:)

The 25 miles from Furnace Creek to Stovepipe are relentlessly brutal. Not because of the terrain (that's next) but because it is fully exposed to the burning sun with not one moment of shade. The full force of its power was upon us and it had no mercy as Tony was forced to walk. That too became a struggle as we worked tirelessly to keep him cool for the next 7 plus hours. This includes hydration (lots of ice in his fluids), cold spray bottle which can be used while walking to mist the runner, cold towel ice packs which tony held to his chest while walking and ice cold head baths every mile or 2. We also managed to get about 300 calories per hour into him primarily with Perpetuem and Gu.

With the temperature peaking around 128 degrees even walking became a struggle and Tony became quite dizzy at mile 37. We were taking no chances as I knew Tony had passed out in 2009 after feeling dizzy. We put him on the van floor, legs up, ice packs on his chest and the AC on full blast for about 30 minutes. He seemed revived and we agreed to complete the final 5 miles to Stovepipe before taking another 30 minute break in our room to cool him down.

While Tony was being attended to in the room Steve and I ran to the store to restock the ice and beverage supply. By the time we returned Tony looked noticeably better and he was up and ready for the 18 mile climb up to Townes Pass. Or so we thought!

Second Crew Shift (
Chris, Eddie and Steve) July 12 at 4pm: I would only see bits and pieces over the next 5 or 6 hours as I went to check and resupply the crew twice. What I saw reinforced what I had learned earlier. The heat can suck the life right out of you, no matter who you are. It is the great equalizer in Death Valley. I saw many runners of all abilities sprawled out heading up to Townes Pass looking as if there was little chance they would continue. Tony unfortunately, was one of them making very slow progress and his confidence was severely damaged as he began to doubt his ability to keep moving. The 2 visits I made over the next 6 hours found Tony in a chair. His progress had slowed to less than 2 miles an hour. This 18 mile climb to 5,000 feet is tough under any circumstance. Imagine tackling this ascent after 42 miles in 128 degree heat with night upon you and temperatures still around 100...unfathomable. Somehow, no matter how slowly, Tony and most others summoned the courage to take one more step, over and over and over. He was truly amazing to watch the human spirit endure.

Third Crew Shift, July 13 at 2am: We were so happy to find Tony and crew had made it over the pass and had started the descent to Panamint Valley. After my debrief with Chris, it was clear Tony was still down on himself and still struggling. After a few miles of our routine with Meredith pacing, Tony was quite somber and his mood continued to decline to a point of near indifference. Something needed to happen, so as I walked to Tony and Meredith at the next van stop, I raised my voice a little, and asked him if he was a f****ng p***y. He looked at me funny and I said it again. "Are you a f****ng p***y?" Meredith and Herb picked right up and joined in on it as we let loose with a barrage of insults. We could tell it was getting to him so we kept going despite his orders for us to shut up. Then something snapped in him and he took off running to get away from our onslaught. By the way, we were all laughing hysterically during this little episode.

I picked up the pacing duties here while Meredith and Herb stayed with the van. Tony and I ran/walked until sunrise making great time to Panamint Springs Resort. When we arrived there Meredith and Herb a giant fruit smoothie waiting for us. I could tell this gave Tony a boost. We continued to walk/run for another few hours up another serious climb back up to 5000 feet when Herb relieved me of my pacing duties a few miles before Darwin. Shortly after the switch we realized one of the real dangers of this race. I am not talking about the rattle snakes we encountered but the ahole who came from behind Meredith, Herb and Tony in a huge SUV at well over the speed limit passing several other cars and missing them by only inches. All this guy had to do was wait 10 seconds to safely pass. These incidents happened several times out there so watch out behind you even though you are going into traffic. Tony was doing so well and completely distracted by the near miss that Meredith and I decided to start extending our miles a bit and stretched each mile to 1.25. We did this for a couple hours until the next shift change without one word from Tony.

Fourth Crew Shift, July 13, 12pm: Tony was definitely getting tired and deservedly so as we had covered around 30 miles the last 10 hours. Tony fought hard all morning. His spirits were still good and we made a smooth shift change as I quickly debriefed Eddie on the day while Chris kept Tony moving. I did stop back a couple hours later to bring more supplies and took this video at the 100 mile mark.


Fifth Crew Shift, July 13, 8pm:Our runner was seriously struggling when we showed up. The next several hours would be a serious mental battle. Not just within Tony, but between the two of us. Our crew decided I would pace for Tony as far as possible and then Meredith would take over at some point up Whitney. We also asked Chris to stay on as his medical background gave Tony comfort. Tony had come to rely on this which was good because Tony believed everything Chris told him. As darkness fell upon us Tony was begging to take a nap and I am sure he could have used one. He began to fall asleep, literally while walking. However, I felt strongly that this would pass and we needed to keep him going. Our concern was that if he napped it would be hours not minutes and the 48 hour goal would be gone. I kept telling Tony that we would discuss it again at the next stop which we had shortened to every half mile. Each time I managed to convince him to go one more stop he grew more agitated with me until he wanted Chris's opinion. I told him we would do whatever Chris said and Tony agreed. When Tony told Chris he wanted to nap we were about 6 miles from Lone Pine and Chris told him he thought it was a bad idea. Tony kept walking but was now really upset with me. He told me that I was going to ruin the entire race and if I did not let him nap he would probably not finish at all.

I must admit at this moment I was doubting myself. Tony had much more experience than me and I certainly did not want to be responsible for failure. I was however put in this position because Tony had confidence I would make good decisions at tough times. I thought about the situation and saw no benefit to napping. We had about 8 hours to make the 48 hour buckle. I basically told him tough s**t. "There is only one way to find out if I am wrong." I said. "We are not going to discuss naps again until you finish." Man was he pissed at me. We did not talk for a while and he even put his head phones on and began role playing Rocky on a training run. It lasted only a few minutes as he quickly came back to earth, but it was hysterical to watch this delirious lunatic boxing his way down a desert highway. As I discussed in my post "Badwater Opens My Mind" this is also when Tony received a call from Charlie Engel. I wont elaborate again but I encourage you to read the post. This was wonderful moment.

Needless to say Tony was inspired to keep going and there was no quit in him. From here on out we discussed our pace and goals 1 mile at a time. All we needed to do was 2 miles per hour to get to the finish in under 48 hours. As we passed through Lone Pine and began the climb up Whitney, Tony decided this was the moment to change his shorts. The chaffing had become unbearable and changing on someone's front lawn was just what he needed. I wish I had this photo and I promise to share it with you if one shows up. After the quick change we began our ascent in silence as we listened to the night and the rushing river waters around us. We could see nothing but the sounds were blinding.

After several monotnous 23 minute miles Tony had enough and once again put on his head phones and began a serious charge as we ran most of the next 5 or 6 miles. We were all cheering Tony on in his white sun solutions gear, looking like a white teletubby running up a mountain (what a site). It was now well past midnight and Meredith jumped in to pace the last few miles. For some reason Chris asked if I would take over driving. It seemed funny to me that Chris was all of a sudden uncomfortable driving. That is until I got behind the wheel and noticed he had no idea how to drive or park. The van, facing up a steep hill just 20 feet from the nearest drop off, was still in drive. I kid you not , the car had been sitting there in drive facing uphill.

The van made it to the top and so did we. After nearly 46 hours of team work, we crossed the finish line together. Amazing, inspiring and fulfilling are the first few words that come to mind. An experience never to be forgotten as I learned much about the people I shared the experience with and myself. Parts were good, parts were not so good, the sum of the parts....The Journey.....was awesome!!! Peace


P.S. My totals as a crew member according to my Garmin and memory from the race morning alarm to my first post race beer are:

Time 50:42:09
Distance 332.17 miles
Elevation Gain 21,264 feet
Sleep 4 hours
Beer 6 IPAs with Chris at 6am on July 14, 2010


  1. Haha! Very nice recap, although, of course, I remember some parts a tiny bit differently. Then again, I suppose I could have been imagining things.

    All around, what a fantastic, hardworking crew I had. Everyone made things seem so easy. I never really wanted for anything (except a turkey sandwich at one point). It was an absolute blast, and I appreciate all of your hard work in making the second Badwater finish an amazing one.

  2. Wow, what a brutal event. Badwater simply boggles my mind....don't know how people get through it. (running or crewing!). Nice report Eric.

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