Tuesday, July 23, 2013

2013 Badwater 135: An Insider’s View of the World’s Toughest Footrace Part 3: The Afterglow

The Afterglow. Enjoying the journey, relishing in a strong finish, and celebrating a tremendous accomplishment. 

I’ve been thinking for a few days about how I would start this final post from the 2013 Badwater Ultramarathon.  I’d like to go back to a picture from the finish line that was in yesterday’s post. 

Here’s the team hugging just after Grant broke the tape:
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words.  It’s not true.  It’s worth far more than that.  You see, I could write a 400-page book about everything that went into this picture.  It’s a spontaneous moment of sheer, unadulterated joy.  It is us coming together to celebrate how Cindy, Liz, Bacon, David, John, and I all did WHATEVER WE HAD TO in order to help Grant Maughan achieve something for the ages.

There was no single MVP of our crew.  We were the links of a chain.  All of us had to be strong in order for the unit as a whole to hold it together.  We also had to not sleep, shower, or eat solid food for over a day, but that’s beside the point.  Camaraderie, adrenaline…and Red Bull, can do wonders for a Badwater crew.

What surprised me was not all of the hugging and high-fiving that was occurring within Team Dingofish Express; it was what was happening with other teams.  Like ancient warriors on a battlefield, there is SO MUCH respect and admiration BETWEEN competitors.  Carlos Alberto Gomes de Sa’s pacer was patting me on the back and telling me that no one had ever pushed him as hard in any race as Grant had on this day.  I high-fived each and every member of Oswaldo Lopez’s crew—none of whom I’d ever even spoken to prior to that finish line moment. 
Ironically, I ran into two of the members of Team Lewis (the ones I had made my bold prediction to much earlier in the race).  They both had grins from ear-to-ear.  We shook hands, and I told them, “Thanks for pushing us so damn hard out there!!”

And, of course, Grant, Harvey, Oswaldo, and Carlos Alberto were all smiles and had their arms on each other’s shoulders—almost as if they were teammates against this incredible challenge.  They were the ones who had truly done the fighting in the battle with each other and more importantly with themselves.  Now, they were simply friends.

Oswaldo, in an incredible sign of sportsmanship, even ripped off his Bib #1 and handed it to Carlos Alberto, saying, “This is for you for next year’s race.”  (Note: Oswaldo also did the same thing for the 2012 Badwater Champ, Mike Morton).  He truly is an ambassador in this sport.  But, we weren’t done with him just yet…more on that later.

Here he is tearing off his Bib # while Carlos Alberto Gomes de Sa holds an O. Lopez sign:
As I stood at the Whitney Portal in the parking lot, I sat on a rock and tried to wrap my head around all that had transpired.  Two days ago, only a few other competitors had even known who Grant Maughan was.  And now, there were journalists EVERYWHERE scrambling to get info on him.

Soon I was joined by my teammates, and we just took in the beautiful Mount Whitney surroundings.

Here we are together (minus Bacon who was most likely in search of a meat delicacy at the grill):
After a while, we loaded up in our all-too-familiar vehicles and headed down the switchbacks to our hotel rooms in Lone Pine.  Along the way, we passed Charlie Engle, who was just a few hundred yards from the finish line.  At the bottom of the switchbacks, we slowed to chat with Oz Pearlman.  He looked pretty raw and he asked how far it was to the Portal.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was 5 miles of some of the steepest uphill climbing in running, so I just said, “You’re close.”  Like a champ, he powered up those switchbacks though and finished 6th.
Arriving at our hotel rooms in Lone Pine, I couldn’t shower and get into bed quickly enough…even though it was 1 P.M….ON A TUESDAY.  I told the team that I was going to take a one-hour nap and would then be ready to grab food.  So, of course, I slept until 6 P.M.

By then, we were pretty much all awake—though not exactly operating at 100% mental capacity.  All of us, including Grant, headed down Main Street for some pizza and beer (hooray beer).  We walked past the famous Jake’s Saloon and who should pop out of the western-style saloon doors, but Mr. Oswaldo Lopez himself.  He didn’t even look REMOTELY tired.  He offered to buy us all beers, but pizza was our #1 priority at that point.  We did take some great pics with him though.

With Oswaldo:
While we were calmly eating—strike that—I mean ravenously devouring our pizza, we’d watch runners coming down Main Street getting ready to turn left and head down the Whitney Portal Road towards “The Beast.”  To a person, everyone in Lone Pine—it didn’t matter what they were doing—cheered, clapped, and shouted words of encouragement.

During our meal, ultra-legend Marshall Ulrich happened to pass by the window.  Cindy did her best carpe diem, grabbed a piece of pizza loaded with bacon and ham, rushed it out the door, and handed it to Marshall.  He literally ate it in the crosswalk on Main Street.  He looked liked someone had just handed him a briefcase with a million dollars in it.

After dinner, we walked back to Jake’s Saloon.  This is kind of the go-to spot for anyone who is in Badwater.  Given that it was around 8 P.M., there weren’t a ton of runners who had already completed the race.  So, we grabbed ourselves a booth and some pitchers.

Here’s our entire team with Grant:
After a couple of hours, we were all pretty beat.  It was time for a much needed extended sleep session.  As we walked back to the hotel, we’d still catch the occasional headlamp and cheering coming from up the street.  There were plenty of runners who still had the climb of a lifetime to go to reach that finish line.

The next morning, we finally made use of an item that we’d carried with us the entire time, and not used ONCE during the actual race—our portable scale.  To give you an idea of how perfect Grant’s nutrition and hydration had been, he had actually GAINED 2 pounds since the day before the race.  How shall I put this?  I was not QUITE as good at staying hydrated and caloried-up during the race.  I had LOST 13.5 pounds in just 48 hours!!  Who needs crazy diets?  Just go crew at Badwater…

Fortunately, a complete breakfast awaited all of us.  I literally think that the 7 of us drank them out of coffee.  Halfway through our meal, in walked David Goggins, limping pretty badly, and accompanied by Ferg Hawke, another Badwater legend, who had crewed for Goggins this year.

But, despite the pain, everyone seemed to be all smiles.  Here we are:
After breakfast, it was off to the local elementary school, where the awards ceremony would be held in the cafeteria.  Other than the finish line, the experience in this cafeteria would be the most surreal of the entire Badwater week.

This cafeteria was TINY.  I mean really small.  There was pizza and a few drinks at one end and then cafeteria tables for the runners and crew members to sit down.  I didn’t see a fire marshal, but this place was packed to the gills. 

I was just fine being crammed into a room like this because I was surrounded by my crew and Grant, the many new friends we’d made along the way, and, of course, the legends of the sport and of Badwater.  It was humbling beyond words.  It was like marrying into an exclusive family.  A family bound by shared triumph over Badwater hardships.

Here’s Eric recruiting Oswald to the Florida Ultra Runners (photo credit: BGS Photography):

Bacon with Charlie Engle (photo credit: BGS Photography):

And then the actual awards ceremony began with, Race Director, Chris Kostman presiding over it.  And, I have to say, I’ve been to a lot of ceremonies and even received my fair share of awards, but they were NOTHING compared to this moment. 

In most races, the awards consist of going through the age group winners and the overall male and female winners and handing out a few medals to everyone else.  Not at Badwater.
For starters, Chris Kostman asked the 15 runners (out of 96) who DNF’d (Did Not Finish) to stand up.  They received a thunderous applause from the other runners and crew members.  Chris made it point to tell them to look around the room at the legends who had completed this race 8, 10, 12, 15+ times.  ALL OF THEM have at least one DNF.  There is NO SHAME in it. It’s all about framing.  This race demands everything you’ve got, and they were champions just for being in the race.  It was a touching moment because everyone in the room knew how they felt.  They spent months—maybe even years—trying to get to the starting line, only to succumb somewhere along that cruel, hot road.

Then it came time for the finishers to be recognized.  They had already received their belt buckles at the actual finish line, so this was more to do the official places and times.  Once again, in a fashion that is unique to Badwater, Chris Kostman announced EVERY SINGLE RUNNER in reverse order, starting with Tammy Massie, who had finished just under the 48-hour cutoff.  (Random note: Tammy actually got separated from her crew vehicle in the middle of the day near Stovepipe Wells during the absolute HOTTEST part of the race.  She was running out of water in her bottle and could have been in danger soon.  Team Dingofish Express got her hydrated and drove ahead to reconnect her with her support vehicle.  It’s an individual sport, but we are all there to get EVERYONE to the finish line safely.)

What I also found interesting is that as the runners were called up, they were asked to remain at the front of the room.  So, collectively, the group kept getting larger at the front.
Here’s Dean Karnazes, Charlie Engle, and Dave Krupski taking it all in (photo credit: BGS Photography):
Finally it was Grant Maughan’s turn to be called up to the front.  The look on his face is priceless.  I think he was still trying to come to grips with what a life-altering achievement he had just attained.

Grant with D-Man—who was totally cool with the spotlight.  (photo credit: BGS Photography):
And just like that, the ceremony concluded.  There were hugs and handshakes.  Exchanging of contact info.  Plans for future races.  But, by and large, the journey kind of just ended peacefully.  There was a moment of sadness for me.  I didn’t want to leave this room filled with warriors of the highest caliber, but who were just as welcoming and friendly at the same time.  We UNDERSTOOD each other.  Running Badwater or other extreme ultras doesn’t seem crazy TO US.

Back at the hotel, I hugged Liz and Bacon.  Then I told Grant, “The greatest thing that ever happened to me was having my runner drop out.  Because I got to crew for the absolute stud in the end.  And it REALLY changed me.” 

I loaded up my SUV and began the drive back to Los Angeles.  My 2013 Badwater experience had come to an end.  Dean Karnazes once said that he’s always a bit sad when he reaches the Whitney Portal and crosses the finish line because Badwater is about the journey.  Once he crosses that finish line, the journey ends.  I totally get what he is saying.  It echoed my sentiments as I drove through the desert towards civilization.

But while Badwater may have been over for me, its addictiveness was not quite done with Mr. Grant Maughan…

Grant stayed in Lone Pine that night.  He woke up early and climbed Mount Whitney, which just happens to be 14,500 ft (and the highest mountain in the Lower 48).  Then, to continue the mission that his coach Lisa Smith-Batchen had begun (before having to withdraw due to injury), Grant decided to do the Badwater Double to raise money for Badwater 4 Good Water.
Yes, you read that correctly.  He got to the summit of Mount Whitney and started running BACK to Death Valley.  Forrest Gump has nothing on Grant Maughan.  He even found another Badwater runner to do it with him—Danny Westergaard.

Grant would, of course, need a crew vehicle to give him all the essentials.  So, Team Dingofish scrambled and found a volunteer to accompany him.  Amazingly, after grinding out a sub-25 hour 2nd place performance and climbing Mount Whitney, Grant took just over 33 hours to get all the way back to the Badwater Basin sign.

Here he is finishing it up:

So, that’s where my Badwater experience ends…for now.  But Badwater has become a part of me.  I can’t imagine NOT going back there each year in some capacity.  I WILL be applying for 2014 (fingers crossed), and if that doesn’t work out, rest assured that I’ll be back pacing and crewing another runner.

I’m not the same person or the same runner that I was before I showed up in Furnace Creek and had the adventure of a lifetime.  For that, I’ll be forever thankful.

Thank you, Eric for sharing your wonderful experience. It has been such an honor to have you share here about Badwater. Looking forward to hearing more in the future! Hopefully about a Florida Ultra in the near future...