Monday, July 22, 2013

2013 Badwater 135: An Insider’s View of the World’s Toughest Footrace Part 2: The Battle

Part 2 of Badwater 2013. "The Battle" is not just Eric's experience pacing Grant. He paints such a vivid picture of the incredible team cooperation, respect between runners, and a true race to the finish. Everything to love and cherish in the running community. Oh and the pictures? Almost makes me want to leave the beach and head west. Absolutely stunning. 

Hopefully the last post gave you some appreciation for the toughness and level of commitment of each and every man and woman who shows up to compete at the Badwater 135.  To succeed (and by that I mean just finishing in most cases), you need to be in the best shape possible, be mentally focused, have assembled a top-notch crew, and have really planned out your strategy (and accounted for the strong possibility of unknown obstacles that always pop up at Badwater). 

Grant Maughan dedicated months to only this race.  In the weeks leading up to Badwater, he was in the Grand Tetons with his coach, Lisa Smith-Batchen, dragging tires.  Up hills.  At elevation.  More on the tire pulling later in this post.  He also flew to Death Valley and ran the difficult stretches of the course with Cindy from our crew.  His experience in knowing what to expect of the course and how do deal with the HEAT would prove invaluable as you will see.

On race morning, we woke up at around 6 A.M. to start to get ready to go.  There are actually three start waves at Badwater: 6 A.M., 8 A.M., and 10 A.M.  The race organizers do this to try to have people finish closer together 135 miles later at the Mount Whitney Portal.  It’s also easier to keep track of everyone while they are spread out on the course.

Thus, runners who are going to finish in around 40 hours or over are usually in the 6 A.M. wave.  The mid-30 hour runners tend to be in the 8 A.M. wave.  And the speedy bastards, including many of the notable ultrarunners and former Badwater champions, are the 10 A.M. starters.  The winner of the race generally comes from this start wave. 

Grant is placed in the 10 A.M. wave.  I’m pumped because this means that I’ll get to see so many runners whose careers that I follow—Dean Karnazes, David Goggins, Pam Reed, Harvey Lewis, Charlie Engle, Oswaldo Lopez, Oz Pearlman, and the list goes on.

It never entered my mind for a second that we would be doing a lot more than just waving goodbye to them as they sped along ahead with their two support vehicles on to Badwater glory.  As it turns out, we’d be seeing A LOT of them in the next 25 hours…

Our crew got together to have one final pep talk.  Like I said previously, I could tell that we had something special when we first started conversing online the week before Badwater.  Just to remind everyone that we were bringing our A-game, this is what we had posted on our doors:
During our meeting, we looked over Grant’s time goal one more time.  His original plan was to run the race in 28 hours, which is a phenomenal time, especially for a rookie in the race.  That would likely put him in the Top 10.  This was slated to be one of the hottest ever years for Badwater, so I was a bit worried about Grant maybe pushing it too hard to stay on his schedule.  Running is about adapting in the moment.

But, just for entertainment, we had prepared an Excel spreadsheet entitled: Dingofish “Speedy MoFo”, which was a different slant on Grant’s goal.  We had come up with a way that he could run the race in as fast as 26 hours.  We filed it away in all the other documents that we had for the race not thinking that we’d ever ACTUALLY have to look at the “Speedy MoFo” chart again.

Because each runner is only allowed to have one support vehicle at the actual start at the Badwater Basin sign, that meant that David and I would stay at Furnace Creek (Mile 17.4) to await Grant and our other vehicle somewhere around 12:45 P.M.

This gave David and me about 5 hours to kill at Furnace Creek.  That’s a lot of downtime, but the upside of it was that we got to see the 6 A.M. starters trickle by the checkpoint starting at around 9 A.M. 
Here’s one:
 I got some shots of a coyote that was hanging out across the road taking in the Badwater spectacle.  Of course I put my camera away, and what did the little guy do?  Came right up to within 3 feet of me and casually trotted past.  Epic fail in not capturing that on camera.

Still, not a bad pic of the 1000-yard stare:
But mostly we just tried to stay in the shade (where it was a mild 108 degrees) as we watched both runners and fully decked-out crew vehicles stop to give assistance to their runners and then drive on.  Here are some pics of the vehicles, including our secondary vehicle on Team Dingofish Express.

One point that was reinforced for me right away was that, while this is an individual race (with the support of a crew), we are ALL out there to help other teams if something should go wrong.  While David and I were waiting on Grant, a runner from an earlier wave came in and sat in a chair while his crew tended to him.  He looked a little worse for the wear (with 118 more miles still to go).  He had pretty bad leg cramps.  He asked for salt tablets (our best friend in ultrarunning).  His crew couldn’t find any without caffeine.  He started to show some concern.  David sprinted over to our vehicle, grabbed a handful of salt tablets out of our bottles, and rushed back with them for his crew.  The look of appreciation on the runner’s face is something that I’ll never forget.  He took some tablets, drank 2 Cokes, and 20 minutes later, he was back in the game and running down the road. 

Beyond helping one another, the other hallmark of Badwater is the respect.  I don’t care who you are or what you are doing, if a runner is coming by you on the road, you GET LOUD!!!  Clapping, cheering, and words of encouragement pour in from every direction.  We all know what it takes out there and the personal hell that the runner is probably enduring at that moment in time.  Lifting their spirits gives them new wings.  It was incredible to see people smile suddenly and pick up the pace as a result of this support from other racers and crew members. 

My anticipation about finally being involved in the race was reaching epic proportions.  The lead runners from the 10 A.M. wave started to come in, and they were absolutely FLYING.  I later found out that Oz Pearlman who came through Furnace Creek running like he was on fire, ran the first marathon in 3 hours and 16 minutes.  WHAT?!?!?  Insane.
Here’s Oswaldo Lopez sporting Bib #1:

Oswaldo’s crew working on him while his pacer waits to start running with him:

 Here’s Harvey Lewis getting sprayed down by his crew coming through the checkpoint:
Followed closely by David Goggins:

And then my man, Dean Karnazes, looking in good form through Furnace Creek:
And then it was time for Grant Maughan, a.k.a. The Dingofish Express, to come rolling through.  Here he is with John spraying him down:
Here’s Liz and Cindy from the crew (with our main support vehicle in the background) rushing across to change out Grant’s bottle and give him a fresh ice bandana (seriously, you don’t survive Badwater without those things):
Once a runner reaches Furnace Creek, they are allowed to have a pacer running with them.  Unlike other ultras, however, the pacer must run BEHIND the competitor.  It seems unusual, but this is to prevent the runner from getting an advantage by having someone take the brunt of the headwind for them (and trust me, that headwind is STRONG when it wants to be).
David took the first rotation and ran a flat 5 mile section with Grant up to about Mile 23.  Then it was time for yours truly to get his introduction to that cruel Badwater mistress.  I ran just over 5 miles on that first cycle.  What I noticed right away were three things:

1.     It was WAY windier than I would have expected.  I felt like I was in a convection oven.  It was only 118 degrees at this point mind you.

2.     Each mile our main support vehicle would stop, give Grant a new bottle, spray him down, change his ice bandana, etc.  They would also spray me down for a few seconds, which felt magical.  And all that cool wetness lasted for…roughly 2 minutes.  No joke, a quarter of a mile later, I’m bone-dry again. 

3.     9-minute miles even in 90 degree heat in Los Angeles feels SUPER slow to me personally.  At Badwater, 9-minute miles feels like you are running your 5k pace.  Seriously, I instantly noticed my carotid artery pulsing in my neck as my body fights to cool itself.

Next we rotated in John to pace for 6 miles or so while David and I sped ahead to Stovepipe Wells (Mile 41) to buy more ice (yes, it melts that fast, even in coolers).  You can never have enough of the stuff.  We drove back and David jumped in to pace again.  John and I headed to the parking lot at Stovepipe Wells to hang out for a bit.  My next leg with Grant would begin there in the heat of the day. 

(Note: Runner’s World says that it was 130 degrees at Stovepipe Wells)  They might be right.  Check the navigation screen of our car (also notice the song).  This was 2 hours BEFORE I ran out of Stovepipe Wells at the highest temperature of the day.

Stovepipe Wells is an important checkpoint in this race for a few reasons.  First of all, it tends to be the hottest time of the day.  The next stretch is where people can really get broken.  From Stovepipe Wells, runners will climb 5,000 vertical feet over the next 17 miles to the top of Townes Pass at Mile 58.  It’s uphill the ENTIRE way.  Brutal.  Simply brutal.  But Stovepipe Wells is also a blessing to many a runner and crew member.  Not only do they have a general store, where teams are scrambling to buy even more ice and some cold drinks, but, more importantly, they have a small hotel with a pool!!!  And the hotel lets Badwater people jump in.  Almost all crew members do it, and so do many Badwater competitors.  They don’t even bother to take off their running gear.  They just dive right in. Don’t worry; their clothes will be dry in about half a mile once they start running again.

So, when in Rome:
Feeling refreshed, I was now ready to tackle the first 5 miles out of Stovepipe Wells straight uphill with Grant.  I’d been drinking and taking salt tablets throughout the day, but because all of the crew’s attention has been focused on Grant each mile (and he was moving so quickly), we had been struggling to take care of ourselves as well.
I started the ascent of Townes Pass trailing Grant.  Instantly the headwind picked up.  15 mph, 20, 25, 30...  We were going uphill, in 130 degree temperatures, and into a MASSIVE headwind.  This was every runner’s worst nightmare.  Somehow Grant was still running 10-minute miles—with occasional power-walking sessions at 12:30 pace.
I got to mile 3 of my pacing leg, and then it happened.  I was spent.  I was overheating rapidly.  My vision blurred.  I saw black spots.  I knew that if I ran 10 more steps that I’d pass out.  I panicked.  I didn’t know what I should do.  My job was to stay with Grant and push him up this hill for 2 more miles until I get swapped out.  But, discretion is the better part of valor.  I stopped.  I waved wildly to our support vehicle.  They drove back going 60 mph, picked me up quickly, and rushed back up to Grant. 

I sat in the front seat with the A/C blasting in my face.  I was bitterly angry with myself.  I couldn’t believe that I’d let Grant down.  Liz wrapped an ice bandana around my neck and massaged my shoulders, which had totally locked up (seriously, she is a master at impromptu roadside massages).  I sucked down 48 ounces of fluids in 3 minutes.  While I was fuming at my decision to stop, an ambulance raced in the other direction.  A runner was down and in trouble.  The reality of what I’m facing has hit home.

Here’s what I looked like after that 3 miles (I’m faking the smile):

But, the beauty of my sport is that it is all about comebacks.  Not only does the hydration and emergency cooling that we do for me really revive me, but I also learn that two crew members out of Liz, Cindy, and Eric (whom we call “Bacon” A. because of his love for Bacon and B. so as not be confused with me because of our shared first name) were throwing up at Mile 3!!  I don’t want to name names, but let’s just say that Liz WAS NOT one of the two people out of three throwing up from that list.

I also found out that David and John had to cut their legs short as well before I ran.  Put simply, Grant was just powering through too quickly for us to stay with him for 5-7 miles at a time.  I’m still not certain that he is 100% human. 

We adjusted our plans accordingly, and the pacers decided on the “Fresh Horses” strategy.  We will rotate between David, John, Liz, and me.  Each of us will do no more than 3 miles at a time.  The sun will be down soon, and we’ll be going downhill for the next stretch.  This way we all stay safe and be ready to run each time we pace and really give Grant the maximum effort.

Finally, after what seems like hours, we get Grant to top of Townes Pass.  Here’s a pic from just below the top.  Look at the beauty of Death Valley (when you aren’t trying to survive in it):
But, we started to realize, Grant was kicking ass.  And we were having fun.  We’d come through a really difficult stretch.  Look at those smiles:
And Eric, a.k.a. Bacon, took his patented cowboy hat pic (PLEASE put this in the Badwater guide for next year):
Even D-Man decided to get in on the action and to photobomb Grant:
The next stretch took us from Townes Pass all the way down about 4,000 feet to Panamint at Mile 72.  The temperature dropped to 99 degrees, and honestly that felt REFRESHING.  My body was back from the dead.  I started pushing Grant, and we were running 8:30 pace for 4 miles at a time without stopping.  It was completely dark, still rather windy, but man, does it seem SO MUCH easier once the temperature drops and the course becomes downhill.

Once we reached Panamint Springs at Mile 72, we gassed up the vehicles, bought even MORE ice, and used a real bathroom (as opposed to Nature’s version that we’ve made liberal use of so far).  We began the next climb—all the way BACK UP to 5,000 feet at Darwin (Mile 90). 

I don’t have a ton of pictures from this part of the race.  Let me rephrase that.  I don’t have ANY pictures from this part of the race.  And here’s why.  At Panamint Springs, the 2013 Badwater Ultramarathon went from a great adventure for Grant Maughan to an actual race to WIN IT ALL!!!  Before it was about finishing and Grant running his time goal of 28 hours.  It became clear that he was going to smash that time goal.  He was going so fast that we didn’t even have a column for him on the “Speedy MoFo” chart!! 

Around Mile 80, I spotted the crew van with the signs on the side that said: #35 Lewis.  Holy s&*t!!   Harvey Lewis is close.  As in, THE Harvey Lewis who runs for Team USA on our 24 Hour World Championship team that just brought home a Gold Medal.  Harvey finished 4th at Badwater last year, and I know that he has world-class speed when it comes to flat or downhill running.

(Spencer’s Confession: While we waited for the lead runners at Furnace Creek at Mile 17.4, I got to talking to Harvey Lewis’ crew.  I made the bold prediction that Harvey would win the race. I based my prediction on his progression as an ultrarunner, which I’ve followed closely, and also his strong finish at Badwater last year.  So, Harvey, when you read this post, you’ll know why I was worried I’d see a headlamp behind me at some point while I was pacing Grant.) 

Near Mile 81, we also spotted Charlie Engle’s van.  Charlie is a Badwater veteran, who is perhaps best known for being one of the 3 runners in the documentary “Running the Sahara,” which is narrated by Matt Damon.  The man has literally run across THE ENTIRE SAHARAN DESERT!!  And he was somewhere in our vicinity. 

But it was completely dark out, so it was hard to tell (even with runners wearing headlamps) where anyone was in relation to us.

At Darwin (Mile 90), there was an official checkpoint.  We ran through it.  The officials came running out into the road.  “You’re in third place!!!”  Wait, what?  Come again?  Can you say that into my good ear? Even though we knew that had left Dean, Pam Reed, Dave Goggins, and a host of other pros miles ago, we had NO IDEA that we were in third place…with 45 miles to go, including that final brutal climb up Mount Whitney.  We found out that Oswaldo Lopez and Carlos Alberto Gomes de Sa were running together and went through about an hour before us.  Grant had just managed to run 90 miles and climb two mountains in extreme heat in just under 17 hours.  Again, the man is not human!!

The temperature had dropped to 72 degrees.  I opted for a running jacket.  Grant was wearing 3 layers and a skully cap to keep warm.
The next 7+ hours were the most exciting and most fun I’ve had in any running event in my entire life.  And I wasn’t even the one competing!!  Although it certainly felt like it.

The strategy and gamesmanship started to kick in.  We didn’t think we could catch the first two, but we knew that Harvey and Charlie are world-class runners and were in hot pursuit.  The game was to stay ahead of them.  Both Harvey and Charlie sent their secondary vehicles ahead to do some recon on Grant and see how far ahead he was in relation to them.

Harvey’s crew then took it up a notch.  They drove ahead and parked.  I could see them 100 yards up the road and knew what they were planning.  They were going to start their stopwatch when we ran by, wait for Harvey, and then figure out the gap.  Then do it again in a few miles to see if they were closing in.  It’s a genius strategy in races like Badwater.

I told Grant who Harvey was and what they were planning.  Grant, in his deep Australian accent, told me, “Okay then, mate.  Let’s f*&k with them a bit.”  We ramped up our pace.  And I don’t mean a little.  We dropped it down to 6:45 pace.  We ran by Harvey’s vehicle and I looked over.  They were staring wide-eyed and in complete shock.  They’d just seen the guy ahead of Harvey go by them at Mile 100 and The Dingofish Express had found another level!!
Pretty soon, we adopted the same tactic and timed the gap between us and Harvey Lewis.  It was down to 10 minutes, but holding steady.  We used our walkie talkies to communicate between our two vehicles.

We kept rotating pacers and WE PUSHED GRANT HARD.  No quitting now.  Some pacers like to lie to their runners.  Tell them they look great.  Tell them no one is behind them.   Tell them it’s all downhill from here.  I chose to go the other way.  I told Grant that now is when the race with Harvey Lewis will be won.  He’s capable of running 5-minute miles for long stretches.  We need to do the work now before the sun comes up again.  He needed to give me whatever he’s got all the way to Lone Pine at Mile 122.

David was also doing a lot of the pacing at this point, having paced at Badwater the previous year and also having been on the winning team at Badwater Salton Sea this year.  I could tell how much Grant trusted David, and he put his trust in the hands of a brilliant strategist.

Grant, like a true champion, responded to our challenges.  He maintained a pace in the mid-8s for the next 20 miles.  He barely even walked.  He stopped for absolutely nothing. 

At around Mile 110, we were greeted by a gorgeous sunrise over the valley:
Here’s Liz pacing Grant with the Sierra Nevada’s in the background:
At Mile 119, I drove ahead with John to await my next cycle of pacing.  At this point, I had run about 36 miles with Grant.  I was tired, but so jacked up on adrenaline that I barely noticed it.

While we were waiting, who should come by, but Oswaldo Lopez himself.  No way!!  This guy has won the race and has finished second a few times.  He was with a pacer and looking strong.  But, he was only a mile ahead of Grant.  John and I clapped for him, and Oswaldo thanked us and said some kind words (honestly, Oswaldo is the nicest guy ever…more on that in tomorrow’s post).

Even though I was excited to see the gap closed to just 10 minutes or so with Oswaldo, part of me knew in that moment that we wouldn’t catch him.  He is just too strong a finisher, and he knows how to run Mount Whitney. 
It had been a couple of hours since we had seen any vehicles from Harvey Lewis or Charlie Engle, so we figured that we had third place pretty locked up.
Grant got up to me at Mile 119 and I started off with him.  Even though I was pretty sure that third was as high as we were going to go, I decided to push him hard into Lone Pine.  At least we would look FAST when we went by the Dow Villa, the race headquarters for Badwater. 

We started running low 8’s and even a little under 8-minute pace.  Grant was just chugging along.  Here’s a pic of Grant and me at Mile 121:
Liz switched in to pace for me at Mile 121.5.  I drove ahead to the Dow Villa.  We parked quickly.  I expected to see an official on the street.  Nothing.  I honestly don’t think they thought anyone else was remotely close to Oswaldo.  I ran inside and announced that Grant Maughan #71 was coming through RIGHT NOW.  One official nearly spilled all the drinks on a table trying to get out of his chair fast enough to get a picture of Grant and also record his split as he went through the checkpoint.

Our entire team was out in the street in Lone Pine screaming for Grant and running after him like crazed fools.  He simply had to make a left turn, and after 13 miles of climbing, he’d arrive in third place at the Mount Whitney Portal.
Except, Badwater had bigger plans for Grant Maughan…

We turned onto the Whitney Portal Road and there, not 100 yards in front of us, was Oswaldo Lopez, his pacer, and his crew vehicle!!  TARGET SIGHTED CAPTAIN!!

Oswaldo began to run slowly with his pacer in tow.  We were right on him.  As most people familiar with Badwater know, once you turn onto the Whitney Portal Road and eventually get to the infamous switchbacks, the race is kind of academic.  Almost everyone is reduced to walking, so moving up in the field is pretty uncommon.

But our entire team was energized.  By race rules, we had to send one vehicle ahead, so I stayed behind with David, Eric (a.k.a. Bacon), and Liz.  David was going to do most of the pacing the rest of the way.  Here’s a pic from Mile 124:
There were media vans and Badwater videographers EVERYWHERE.  You could tell they realized how exciting this was.  To have two runners with their pacers just battling with everything that they had left in the tank.  Even “Badwater Ben” was in on the act.  He looked like a kid in a candy store.  He kept driving ahead a few hundred yards to get more photos.

In one of the most humorous series of events in the race, Grant passed Oswaldo finally after 125 miles of Badwater.  He apologized to Oswaldo for passing him this late in the race.  Grant built about a 25 meter lead.  But, then he stopped to pee along the side of the road quickly.  And while he was doing that, Oswaldo started running and went right back past him again. 

Fortunately, Grant overtook him a bit later.  I swapped in to pace for the next mile.  Grant gave me clear instructions, “Look back there constantly and you tell me what he is doing.  If he runs, we run.  If he walks, we walk.”  So there I was, craning my neck around, trying to see if Oswaldo would make a move.  Grant began to run again.  I gauged how far the gap was.  100m, 150m, 200m, 250m, and growing.  I gave one final look back.  There was nothing cocky in my final stare, but in my mind, I was saying, “I DARE YOU to try to catch us.”
We turned the corner and didn’t see Oswaldo again (until we hugged him at the finish line).

So Grant was overjoyed.   He was joking around a bit with us at Mile 127.  He was going to finish second at Badwater.  Brilliant.

I happened to lean back into our crew vehicle and I heard yelling on the walkie talkie.  It was John (who was up ahead) and he sounded intense.  He was shouting, “Gomes de Sa IS ONLY 8 MINUTES AHEAD!!!  He’s RIGHT AROUND THE NEXT TURN!!!”

NO WAY?!?!?  Grant caught HIM TOO?  Instantly, even though I knew we were running out of road to catch up, my brain said, “Grant is going to win Badwater!!”  It just seemed like this was Fate.  We had spent the better part of the past 10 hours trying to explain to everyone else who Grant even was.  Now he was hunting down the only man in the entire field who was still in front of him…

This of course turned all of us into wild animals.  Eric was yelling, “This is why you pulled tires in the Tetons!!!”  Liz, in her New Zealand accent, was shouting, “Come on, Aussie!!!”  She was also crying.  And I have to admit that I was on the verge of tears myself.  I’d seen what strength and determination and sacrifice Grant Maughan had used to get himself to this point.

And this is where I’d like to comment on what a champion Carlos Alberto Gomes de Sa is.  His crew got a frantic radio call.  It said that an Aussie was on the mountain right behind them and had cut an hour off of his lead just in the past few hours.  The takeaway message they received was: “If Carlos Alberto walked the rest of the switchbacks, he was going to get passed and finish second.”  So, he did what champions do.  He ran it in.  And he won Badwater.
By Mile 133, we knew that Grant wasn’t going to win.  We didn’t care and neither did Grant.  He had still done the unthinkable.  Here’s a great pic of him on the switchbacks:
Grant continued his climb towards the Mount Whitney Portal at 8,400 feet.  Keep in mind that he had just come from Lone Pine, which sits at around 4,000 feet.  In other words, this is the toughest end to the toughest footrace on Earth.
We started to hear cheering, and having been on Mount Whitney a number of times, I knew we were very close to the parking lot.  We were greeted by a race official and the rest of the team.  We put on our Team Dingofish shirts, gave Grant his Australian shirt, prepared the Australian flag, and began to run the last 100 yards up the hill towards the finish line and Badwater glory.

Grant broke the tape in 24 hours, 53 minutes, and 57 seconds.  And we all smiled, laughed, and hugged like each one of us had individually just finished Badwater ourselves.  Grant had done all the heavy lifting without a doubt, but it took a complete unit to make this dream a reality.

The pictures below only capture part of the raw emotion and excitement:

Then it was time for some hardware, presented by Race Director, Chris Kostman:

I’ll talk more about the spirit among competitors at Badwater in tomorrow’s post, The Afterglow, but here are a couple of pics that show the mutual respect from true warriors, including Oswaldo Lopez who came in about 30 minutes after Grant—making it the closest finish for the Top 3 in Badwater history. 

This pic is Grant with Carlos Alberto Gomes de Sa, the 2013 Badwater Champ:

And finally, these two men can sit down and relax.   They proudly honored Portugal and Australia respectively, and certainly themselves:
Here are the three podium finishers:
Harvey Lewis battled to finish in 4th Place, running his best time ever at Badwater, being the first American finisher for 2013, and putting on one hell of a show by SPRINTING the last 50 yards across the tape:
Getting back our story, it was time for Team Dingofish Express to revel in the moment:

But the journey doesn’t end at the finish line of Badwater.  See you back tomorrow for the final installment, The Afterglow.  Because no one parties like ultrarunners after they do these insane endurance challenges…