Sunday, August 26, 2012

Our Badwater Journey

As we pass the Lone Pine time station at mile 122 the brutally intense sun was beginning to set. We are just 13 miles shy of our goal to complete the "worlds toughest foot race". Now around 8pm on Tuesday, July 17th, 2012 all that remained was a grueling ascent of the Mount Whitney Portal Road. With nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain, beginning at 3,610 feet and culminating at 8,360 feet, this was surely going to be taxing on not only me, but my crew.  We had all given everything we had over the preceding day and a half and every biting step was now draining any remaining energy and hurting our bodies. As we made the left hand turn onto the Portal Road the climb began. For me this would define much of what this run is all about. As the raging fire under my feet intensified, the rigidity in my lower back solidified, the weight of my emotions continued to have me question my validity. There was no amount of physical strength that could carry me to the finish. My wife, Tani was there as always to remind me of the internal strength we have. I listened but struggled to believe. Then she began to read me a letter which was delivered days before, unopened, from my son Jared. As instructed I was to only read this letter if circumstances brought me so low, a greater power was needed.
Minutes before our 6am start, rocking MMRF BW Shirts
Just 38 hours earlier, Monday morning July 16, 2012 at 4am my crew and I rose to the sound of numerous alarms we had set with paranoia the night before. The next hour was spent making last minute preparations and loading the primary support van with all the gear, food and water we would need for the next two days to support the 5 of us on our desert journey. The drive to the start was fairly light hearted as we searched the radio for upbeat songs that would help us get psyched up. There was a dim glow radiating from behind the mountains as the sun began to rise, a slim reminder of what was to come. The heat is the one thing that always left me unsettled when I dreamt of this day. The sun as it always does in July, would slowly demonstrate its power over all those who run the white line through the Mojave every year.

When we arrive at the start with nerves in check, there are a couple of pre race rituals. First all runners must weigh in. This provides some what of a baseline to help determine the cause of a runners poor condition should problems arise later. It is often difficult to diagnose the distinction between Dehydration and a no less significant condition, low sodium levels known as Hyponitremia. Both can lead to serious problems and in the extreme, death.

Much less serious are the group pictures where the race veterans gather together laughing and joking while the rookies mill around the periphery like lost sheep. I am one of the lost sheep, you can barely see my head sticking up in the back. While all of these things are going on my crew, Tani, Mark, Greg and Donna were all making final preparations.

After the group photos are done, runners are quickly asked to get to the start line for few light hearted words from our Race Director, Chris Kostman, and of course our national anthem. This was admittedly quite a moment. We worked for nearly three years to get to the Badwater start line and now the time was here. I'd had the funny sense the past 24 hours that I was out of place. When the anthem began I suddenly felt a little more at home and then I looked up and saw my wife, we both smiled proudly, shed a tear and had a wonderful moment. Without a word spoken, we knew how long and hard we worked, the sacrifices we made and the $40,000 we helped raise to find a cure for cancer. Now it was time to move forward with our journey.

The countdown to start......3, 2, 1 and off we went. We were in the first of 3 start waves (6am). Despite the cooler than normal temperatures, I was committed to my race plan as I watched the majority of the field disappear, going out very fast. Tani (crew chief and wife) and I had spent quite a bit of time prior to our arrival discussing our race plan. Below is our pace chart and nutrition plan.


We broke the race down in to 7 sections with planned paces for each section which in the end would equal a 36.5 hour finish. We determined our pace for each section based on what we thought my overall condition would be at any given point in the race taking into account time of day, anticipated heat, course elevation, etc. Always nice to have a plan so it can blow up at any time. We put together our race nutrition plan using past race and crewing experience along with the advise of Dan Rose. Now it was time to see if we could make it all work.

As we made our way through the first 17 miles to Furnace Creek, temperatures remained cool by Badwater standards but as soon as the sun came over the mountains it quickly reached the mid 90's and I believe the measured temperature eventually topped out around 105. It is my understanding that temperature readings are taken in the shade, about 6 feet off the ground. If this is so, I know why it feels a lot hotter in the sun. Because it is!

Goofing around early on
However, during the first stretch of beautiful rolling highway, I felt comfortable in the crisp morning light. As we passed many of the landmarks along the way such as Devil's Golf Course and Mushroom Rock, I recall thinking how lucky I was to be there. I had seen it before as a crew member, yet it all felt and looked different this time. There was one instance when I was admiring the sharp contrast of the mountains to the west against the perfectly blue sky when Badwater veteran Cheryl Zarkowski ran by and simply said "It's a blessing isn't it!". Simply f'ing amazing was what I was thinking but Cheryl was right too. I spent some time with Cheryl, friend Meredith Murphy and adventure legend Marshall Ulrich, but mostly, I ran alone with my thoughts. Every 20 to 25 minutes I would reach my crew, they would take care of me as planned, we would have some laughs and then continue on. I think we all thoroughly enjoyed the peacefulness of this morning knowing that what lay ahead would have few similarities as the race would begin to take its toll on us all.

Our first stage and time station at Furnace Creek, now in the books. We were about 8 minutes behind plan but all was good. We had decided to change our cooling breaks from every 20 miles to every 10 and while it slowed us down, I think it was worth it. During these 5 minute scheduled breaks, I would arrive at the crew vehicle and a chair was already set up with a frozen towel spread out for me to lean back on. Two others were on ice, one for my chest and one for my head and shoulders. Each time I could feel my core temperature going down as my crew kept me shaded from the sun.
One of our many planned cooling breaks
A couple of other cooling techniques we used throughout the race were, wearing iced bandannas wrapped around my neck and wrist bands stuffed with ice. My crew also carried a spray bottle filled with ice water to spray down my head, face and upper body.
Typical quick stop
The next 28 miles went relatively well too. My crew was amazingly smooth and they rotated running shifts effortlessly. In my eyes this is one of the most important sections of the course. Respect is the first word that comes to mind as the heat and wind intensify. I also think there is a temptation to pick up the pace as the much faster runners from the later start waves begin to pass and that can be a mistake. It is hard to explain what it feels like to be in the open, sun blazing and the road nearly boiling under your feet during this 6.5 hour stretch. In races past as a crew member, I had seen runners succumb to the heat on the way to Stovepipe and shortly after during the long assent that follows. The heat is so very powerful and silently crippling. When it releases its fury, it is swift and cruel, with little warning and lasting effects that can easily end a runners dream.

Winds are kickin
Although slower than planned by 27 minutes, I was actually in much better shape than any of us expected thanks in part to a steady tail wind through about mile 35.  Primarily however, it was our diligent effort, sticking to our planned breaks that had me generally feeling well. The only concern as we made our final stop before Stovepipe near the beautiful Sand Dunes at mile 40 was my feet. They were ON FIRE, and I had several blisters on my toes and on the bottom of my feet. The balls of my feet worried me most because those blisters are often very difficult to get to because of the calluses I have. We decided to leave the bottoms alone for now, but the giant bubble on my left big toe needed lancing. In other words, I needed to pop it, drain it, clean it and cover it. It is much safer bet to handle blisters proactively than letting them pop on there own which can leave the skin completely open, subjecting the area to infection and even more irritation. It also gave me an excuse to sit longer:) I took this opportunity to dunk my feet in ice water and change my socks which were now full of sand and wet. Not a good combination. (side bar: "Ever take a hot pan off a stove and put it under cold water in the sink?" Imagine that with your feet)

Can you feel the wind?
Feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to go I shuffled the last couple miles into Stovepipe. There was quite a bit of activity here with a few people cheering on the roadside, many runners taking planned breaks at the hotel or cooling off in the pool and the third time station. We had a room at this hotel just in case but I knew I never wanted to leave the road for any reason. It's hard enough to get out of my chair, let alone leave a bed in a beautifully air conditioned room. My crew got together to resupply at this point. I continued on and prepared myself mentally for what was sure to be the first very significant challenge of the day. I was now staring at a 17 mile, 5,000 foot high, wall of scorching asphalt. The sun was directly in my face and the fierce headwind was causing me to stumble at times as its gusts were difficult to battle. I always new this section of the run would be challenging, but I never realized how utterly draining mentally it would be. So very frustrating it was as the wind continuously beat my mind to a pulp. I spent time on this climb, with Tani, Greg and Mark and I think even they were all taken back by the wind. I know in my frustration we even laughed, shaking our heads at how unrelenting it was.

Dean
I had trained hills very hard for months and actually believed that I was going to run portions of this climb. What a joke. I ran for a total of 30 seconds during the first 16 miles of ascent and that came when my running idol, Dean Karnazes passed me. He too made a sarcastic comment about how much fun this wind was and then continued on. I knew my crew van was just a ahead so I began to run to catch up with him to get a once in a lifetime picture running with him in Death Valley. I actually caught up to him and was walking behind him when he jumped into his van for a break. Oh well, all for naught but it was a fun moment.

The sun began to set, and we rose higher above the desert floor. The temperature mercifully relented although the wind did not. We continued our planned breaks but with the lower temperatures we would hold off on the ice breaks through the night. While the cooler temperatures were welcome, now about 16 miles into our climb I was depressed. It was around midnight and the climb had taken a lot out of me. Tired, sore and frustrated I needed something to get me pumped up for the pounding decent we were about to endure. Greg was with me at this point and we started to run. Not fast but run none the less. With each step I felt better and ran faster. I am not sure how fast I covered that mile. When I arrived at the top I was breathing hard but I felt rejuvenated. Then I turned around to see that I was alone. Apparently Greg's bum knee go to him here. No big deal, we were meeting up with the crew vehicle at the top, Townes Pass. One small problem! I was unable to find my crew. They were there but I could not identify the right vehicle in the dark and because I had separated from Greg they were not able to find us either. You begin to identify your crew and runners by the light patterns on every one's reflective gear. With the slew of other vehicles at the top and me alone, it did not happen.

I walked past the last vehicle at the top and decided to continue on rather than back track, knowing Greg would find them and they would catch up to me. Second small problem! Greg never saw them either and continued on behind me although at a distance where I did not see him until he caught up with me about 2 miles into our decent. I heard Greg yelling out to me from behind. I recall turning around and yelling back "WTF are you doing here. Where is the crew van?" We discussed it and agreed he needed to go back and find them. By the time Greg made his way nearly all the way back up, regrouped with the others and caught up to me again I was nearly 5 miles and over an hour past our last planned break. Fortunately I had received help from the crew of Claire Heid (now the youngest female finisher in BW history). They were kind enough to refill my bottle and hand me pb and j sandwiches a couple of times. Not to mention some moral support as I became dejected at my situation.

Together again
When we were finally together again, I was dead tired. I sat down for what was to be a quick 5 minute rest. Tani and crew were all concerned and apologetic. I was silent. I did not say a word, took what they gave me and when the break was over, before I could get out of my chair I fell asleep. My crew mercifully let me rest for a whole 10 minutes. When I awoke I was like a whole new man. I jumped out of my chair with renewed energy, grabbed my water bottle and began sprinting down the mountain. "Yeah Right!" I slowly rose, on my exhausted legs, my brain felt like jelly and my feet seemed like they had been stung by thousands of jelly fish. Donna spent some time on the road with me at this point, logging a couple of miles on her incredibly swollen and purple ankle. Donna had taken a major spill suffering a grade 3 sprain just 2 weeks earlier and refused to let me down. I in turn was not about to let her down and continued on. In fact, what's incredible is how the support of crew, family and friends can carry me at these difficult moments. I often thought about all those at home, and of course all my wife and crew had given up, helping me get here, and to be there themselves. They had all taken time off work giving up vacations for me. My wife painfully left our daughter at home for a week (the longest ever away from her). On top of it all, they had to tolerate my grumpy smelly ass. My sons had encouraged me to do this race which resulted in me missing camp visiting day/pick up. The power of all this kindness and sacrifice is quite strong.

It takes me a while to spring back from these short little naps, but they definitely help when I am so low and barely moving. Mark soon jumped in with me and I began to feel a little stronger as we approached the bottom of the Panamint Valley. The temperature had gone up again but still much cooler than the day. The site coming down to the valley is amazing as you see the flashing tail lights from other crew vehicles lining the entire valley floor all the way down across and back up. I used these lights as motivators and thought if I can just catch one vehicle it will help my confidence. I busted my ass to catch up, only to have every car move further down the road any time I began to get anywhere near it. I pushed and pushed running as much as I could trying desperately to catch just one car. There was constant hope followed by consistent disappointment. Before I knew it we were ascending again and I began to walk. Although successful, I was still moving after all, I was again drained of all energy as the feeling of failure was calling me. I had not caught a single vehicle/runner and was actually passed by a couple of runners.

I began to slide backwards, facing another long arduous climb which would easily carry us beyond sunrise. Arriving at the Panamint Springs time station some 2.5 hours later than plan, the last 20 hours and 72 miles had simply beaten the shit out of me and my focus was wavering. The only person who knew for certain this time would come besides me was Tani. She has been with me at this hour of the night and seen me in this frame of mind.  Tani had prepared the rest of the crew for this very thing. "Just keep him moving until the sun comes up!" Tani told them, with certainty. The early morning darkness is my kryptonite and she new I needed the sun on my face. The only question was how to get me there.

Nap #2
They fed me some soup, replenished my fluid and then encouraged me up the climb towards Father Crowley and eventually the Darwin Turnoff. Not before I begged for another nap. I promised Tani that I would not stop again that night but felt I needed this to revive. I am not sure if I really needed it but I was definitely having trouble keeping my emotions in check and resisting the temptation to rest. After discussing for several minutes....(well Tani was discussing I was whining) she agreed and let me crash in the van. I climbed right on top of coolers and gear and was out within seconds. As always after 10 minutes exactly the sleep miser told me to get my ass up and get moving. Tani stayed with me and talked me through the night.

Leaving DVNP mile 85
It took us 7 hours to make it to the Darwin Turnoff time station, 18 miles from the last. The sun was up by the time we reached Father Crowley around mile 80 and sure enough by the time we reached the boundary of the Death Valley National Park around 7:30 am my energy began to come back. At this point Ken Posner from the 8am start caught me. I had met Ken a couple of times before back in New York and at his first BW in 2010. Tani and I spent some time with Ken and his pacer and had a great time just bull shitting about whatever. After about an hour we wished each other luck and I went to my car for a quick break. I did not even sit down. I had so much energy all of a sudden. I asked for a Red Bull in my bottle and told Tani it was time to run:) Off I went, on a solid run walk program for the next 9 or 10 miles. When I approached the Darwin time station at 27 hours I picked up the pace and ran right through as my crew was there to check me in. This was the fastest pace I had carried the entire race as I was cheered on by those who were gathered on the road side. I am not sure who I was trying to convince I was OK by running so hard, me or everyone else.

Good news is, I was was actually fine. For now anyway. Mark jumped in a couple miles down the road and ran with me for a while.  The other runners (2) around us seemed energized with lots of back and forth passing, smiles and good cheer. The sun was our friend!!!! Oh silly you Eric. Now around 11:30am I believe, it was again getting hot and the wind was kicking up a bit. The sun, sending a not so friendly reminder of who's boss. I am also fairly certain I was about to pay the piper for my over zealous behavior the last 2 hours. I was feeling so positive and running so well I started telling myself I was going to keep this pace all the way to Lone Pine, 30 miles through the hottest part of the day. What a fucking joke.

By the time we hit the 100 mile mark, usually a celebratory moment at BW, I was whimpering like a lost puppy longing for his mommy. I took my first cool down break since late the prior afternoon and fell asleep.......AGAIN! And yes she made me get up again after 600 seconds. "I have one tough ass crew chief...Don't you think?" No freaking mercy. That would be the last time I would sleep.

I slumbered down the road and noticed something ahead, which even in my hazy state caught my attention. The color of the road was about to change suddenly from the old faded grayish/blacktop to a brand new jet blacktop. The road had been repaved and you could see the difference in the heat rising up in the distance. It was about to get really uncomfortable. My charred feet were already so incredibly sore and the 2nd day of heat had begun to squeeze me of all motivation.

"What the hell were you thinking?" I asked myself. "You new this was going to happen yet you did it anyway! Why Why Why???" A bunch of self pitying bullshit I know but I always go through this. It's just part of my struggle on these journeys. I don't know if I ever actually answered myself, but I began to think of so many people out there who fight the battle, the battle to continue everyday; Kathy, Dee, Wendy and so many others whose paths I have crossed. And then of course those we have lost, Anita, Ben and Mindy to name a few. I guess that answers that.

Oh shit, that is going to be hot (grey to black)
Mark
My crew and I would spend the next 22 miles slowly but rhythmically plodding our way to Lone Pine, at the base of Mount Whitney. I tried as best I could to run when I had energy, walk when I had little and remain awake when I had none. Tani, Donna, Mark and Greg operated like a finely tuned machine. They alternated between main and secondary vehicles smoothly, the primary vehicle was always fully stocked, pacing duties were shared regularly and most importantly, they kept me moving forward. If there was ever an issue, I was not aware of it. My crew was a selfless team, together with one goal in mind, finish! I was fed/hydrated, and hosed down every mile and took a few breaks to temporarily extinguish the inferno in my shoes and body.
Donna
Greg
During one 2 mile stretch we ran through a sand storm of sorts as the wind blew the fine desert sand across the road to about calf height. It was beautiful to see as the sand floated across the road like a smoke machine. When we ran through these tiny little razor blades, they would sneak into my shoes and form little sand dunes between my toes, having the effect of sand paper on my skin. Adding to the pleasure of this spa like environment the radiant heat now cooked my ankles to a nice medium rare. Even with the leg sleeves I wore to prevent burning, the road temperature would prove to be no match with a purple ring about 2 inches wide appearing around both ankles and what felt like hundreds of tiny blisters around the back half of each. The fire had spread, but we moved on.
Tani
We reached the end of Highway 136 as the sun was beginning to set. Night gear was on again for a second time, and we made the right hand turn to Lone Pine. Tani was with me and ran and walked the next couple miles to the Dow Villa and 122 mile time station. The crew had consolidated into the main vehicle for the final stretch together and we were all smiles. There were cheers from the people we passed on our way through town and at the time station there were high fives from race staff and volunteers. We enjoyed this moment thoroughly, while being fully aware of the looming silhouette of the mountain that now rose between us and the sun.
The turn into Lone Pine after a very long day

All smiles at the Dow Villa, mile 122 before a very long night
When we made the final turn to begin the menacing 5,000 foot 12 mile climb that would try to break me, I thought again of my children and how much they meant to me. How much they believed in me. My oldest son Jared (13) wrote me 2 letters before BW. The first letter I shared in an earlier post read as follows:

"Dad, I am so excited for you that a day that you've been waiting years for is less than a week away. I know you can do it. You have so much that is going to push you to the end, whether its for MMRF, thinking about your family, or all the training you've done leading up to this. During your race if you're struggling I want you to open your second envelope.
I love you all so much. Love, JARED"
Time for something extra!
Now here we were, the moment of truth. There were many times during the past 38 hours I wanted to read that second letter but held off. I was all too familiar with the course and knew things would only get worse. The final 12 miles are plain and simple......TOUGH! With an average grade I believe of over 8% this is so incredibly difficult under any circumstance. But after 122 miles in the desert? Are you fucking kidding me. I knew the words from my son would offer up the greatest encouragement a father could receive and I did not want to use this power pill too early. Even in the best of conditions, I planned on this ascent taking 4 hours. About 20 minutes into our climb as the road began to steepen, I found myself again sapped of all energy and drive. At this moment I was an emotional wreck. I could not imagine as low as I felt and as slow as I was now moving with great effort, how there was possibly any amount of mental fortitude left in me.

Tani asked me if I wanted to read the letter from Jared we had been saving. I nodded with exhausting acceptance. Returning from the car, letter in hand, she began to read:

"Dad, What you do inspires me to do anything I want. I'm so excited for you about running this race because I know it means so much to you. I just want you to try your hardest and not give up till you can't take another stride. Even if you do not finish, but I know you can do it, I will still love you and be super proud of you. I always knew you were going to do something amazing because you always taught me the values of never stop trying and to push your hardest. Go finish this race and kick Badwater's ass. Love, Jared"

I was now walking blindly as my eyes turned to oceans. These tears would put out the fire ravaging my body and ignite a fire in my heart. There was no way I was going to let my children or anyone else down, including myself for that matter. I wanted to take one last break to prepare myself mentally for what I now planned to be a long strong walk. When I leaned on the rear bumper I got extremely warm even with the cooler temperature. Actually I began sweating profusely and peeled of my arm sleeves and rolled down my leg sleeves. The break was quickly over as I figured this was a bad sign and stopping was not helping. As I walked to the other side of the road to begin climbing again, my body made an about face. I was suddenly freezing and shaking uncontrollably. I pulled up my sleeves and asked Mark to grab my jacket. I could see the look of concern on his face as he helped me. I was a little concerned too having never experienced this before.  All I could think of was to keep moving and warm up.

With the incredible words of my son, thoughts of my other children, wife, crew, family and friends I pushed on silently for what seemed an eternity. I thought I was moving well but at night, I was only able to see 20 feet in front of me so I never really knew what progress I was making (I had not worn my Garmin since mile 45). I kept hearing other runners near me shouting numbers like 3, 4 and 5. I turned to Greg, speaking my first words since I had my shivering attack. I said "I wish those people would keep there distance checks to themselves because it is depressing me." Greg responded "Why?" I replied "The thought of having another 8 or 9 miles to go is killing me. I thought I was focused and doing well and now I hear this bullshit!" Greg said,"Are you kidding me? You are killing this mountain and we have all been talking about it for the last 3 hours."

I was completely blown away. I had not said a word to anyone for nearly 3 hours except for the occasional thank your for a fresh bottle. Greg informed me we only had 3 maybe 4 miles left. I was immediately excited and continued my consistent pace and may have even stepped it up a bit. During the climb my entire crew had spent time with me and now as we passed the last time station Tani joined me for the final couple of miles. My thoughts suddenly became clear in the thin air at over 7,000 feet. Everything felt fresh as if my day had just begun. I will even say it almost felt as if I was walking on pillows among the infinite stars. The sky sparkled brightly as we laughed, cried and just shook our heads in disbelief at the journey we just went on. Now nearly 3 years from the day I asked Tani "What do you think about me doing Badwater?" and her responding "OK!" here we were. Even as I write this I am shaking my head in disbelief.

We did it!
Best hug ever!
Greg, Donna, Me, Tani, Mark (We did it together)
Peace and Have A Great Day!

5 comments:

  1. What a totally awesome story of one hell of an accomplishment! This had it all: an unbelievable, seemingly almost impossible quest, effort, pain, perserverance and deep love.

    Congratulations!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Trip! Still in disbelief. E

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  2. Great write up, great story.

    --Eric T.

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  3. Amazing write up Eric...you really dug deep on this one. Sounds like your crew did a great job too. Having to pop, drain, clean and cover your own flesh for this race would be good dinner conversation :-{. Great job on a very very difficult endeavor and congrats on raising so much for your cause. Look forward to sharing a beer soon to discuss more.

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  4. I enjoyed the details I was unaware. :) Thanks,

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