Sunday, July 21, 2013

Guest Post! 2013 Badwater 135: An Insider’s View of the World’s Toughest Footrace Part 1: The Anticipation

Guest post! Today we are lucky enough to have Eric Spencer write an amazing series of posts about a truly incredible race and mind blowing experience. He happens to be a published author and ultra marathoner, and good friend from high school. Eric has been running since high school days, but completed his first marathon in 2011. He has since gone on to crush 24 hour races and ultra marathons. This past week he paced and helped crew for Grant Maughan at the Badwater Ultramarathon. I'm hoping some of this badass-ness, speed, and crazy perseverance will wear off on me! Regardless, I absolutely love the camaraderie and passion in Eric's story. It is undeniable and moving. Enjoy!

How do you begin a post about the Badwater 135, the annual 135 mile road race from the depths of Death Valley to more than halfway up Mount Whitney—the highest mountain in the Lower 48—during the hottest time of the year in the hottest place on Earth? 

It’s no small feat to try to put into context what I experienced this past week in being a pacer and crew member for Grant Maughan (a.k.a. The Dingofish Express), an Australian who surprised everyone but himself by finishing second overall against the best in the world.  (Pictured below: Grant, along with D-Man, our mascot).
But, fortunately, piecing together my story is easier than actually competing in this epic test of human willpower and mental fortitude (and hydration, lots of hydration).
I decided to break this up into three parts: The Anticipation, The Battle, and The Afterglow.  Don’t worry; this will all make sense later. 

A logical question at this point would be: why am I writing about this in the first place?  While I spend my days as an executive at a financial firm here in Los Angeles, in addition to being an entrepreneur and an author, my real passion is endurance endeavors.  More specifically, running is my sport.  After a life of running shorter distances, I ran my first marathon in December of 2011.  Ultrarunning is what followed, and it has truly become my obsession (yes, I’m using that word).

While I still run marathons and some shorter ultra races (50k), my primary focus is on 100-mile races, 24-hour endurance runs (where competitors see how far they can go in 24 hours), and in some of the world’s epic races that are longer than 100 miles (ahem), like Badwater.

I’ve wanted to run Badwater for the past several years.  It’s in my blood.  I’ve watched every video of Badwater that I can find on YouTube.  I’ve read every article about it.  I have scoured blogs of notable runners for their insights.  I’ve talked to other runners who have done it.  I interact with other runners and crew members in a private group on Facebook several times each day.  During last year’s race, I even watched posts with race updates come in on a Twitter feed…for 9 hours straight.

But a race that spans 135 miles in temperatures up to 130 degrees, climbs three different mountains (for a total climb of 13,000 ft), and has a 48-hour cutoff, isn’t so easy to get into.  (Common misconception: Badwater is just a HOT race.  It is hot.  But look at the elevation profile below.)
To compete at Badwater, a runner must submit an application, and only 100 runners (50 veterans and 50 rookies) will be chosen.  To even apply, a runner must have completed a MINIMUM of 3 100-mile races (that means finishing them in under the cutoff, not just participating). 

It’s also STRONGLY recommended that they have crewed a competitor during the race.  All runners are required to have a crew to even compete.  Crews of up to six are allowed.  I’ll share more about what crewing entails in the next post, but suffice it to say that you better be a jack-of-all-trades and ready to go to war on no sleep.  And be totally okay with “showering” using only Wet Wipes for nearly 2 days.

So, in my quest to apply for the 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon, I needed to get on a crew.  In talking to a few people online, I found a veteran from last year’s race who had a spot on his crew.  I took it instantly.  I was SO excited.  As in SO EXCITED that people in my life who are non-runners were starting to wonder if Badwater was all I was capable of talking about.
But then disaster struck just two weeks ago.  My runner decided to drop out of the race due to a lingering injury and insufficient training.  I know how hard that must have been, but now having been there, you don’t dance with the Devil out in Death Valley unless you are 100%.
I saw my Badwater dreams slipping away.  How would I find someone who still needed a crew member with just a week until the race?  Not expecting much, I posted about it in the Badwater group on Facebook.  To my surprise, I received 4 offers…within 7 minutes.  I was jumping around my condo (apologies to my neighbors) at my luck.  The offers came from all over the world (thank you Mark Z. for helping to unite us all through FB).

The first response was from Lisa Smith-Batchen.  If you don’t know who Lisa is, check this out:  In addition to being an incredible human being and a champion of Badwater and the Marathon des Sables (across the Saharan Desert), Lisa is also a coach.  One of her athletes had gotten into Badwater and was looking for an experienced runner to join his crew.  That runner was Grant Maughan, whom you’ve now seen.

There are moments in life—call it Fate or a Higher Plan—that constantly make me smile.  All of these events happened for a reason, and, in the end, I was able to join Grant Maughan in this expedition, which would forever change me as a person.

In trading hundreds of messages online with Grant and the other 5 crew members (Liz, Cindy, Eric, John, and David)—all of whom are complete animals when it comes to endurance sports—I realized that we had something special right away.  We were organized.  We were all selfless in what we were willing to do.  And, we all cracked each other up.  When you are going to be spending 2 days in close quarters in hot vehicles in the least hospitable place on Earth under great duress, then you better get along.  Or, you might show up in Lone Pine at mile 122 short a couple of people.  (Pictured below: The Dingofish Express with our entire crew at race check-in)
So, on July 13th, I drove to Lone Pine, CA, in the shadow of Mount Whitney, where I met Grant Maughan in person for the first time.  I also met David, who would become integral to our pacing team just two days later.  David and I left our cars in Lone Pine, and Grant drove the three of us along the course in reverse all the way back to Furnace Creek in Death Valley.   We talked strategy along the way (David paced and crewed a runner last year).  But mostly it was a quiet ride for 2 hours as we just took in the beauty of Death Valley at sunset and also were wowed by the steepness of some of the areas that Grant would need to run through.

To the outside world, Furnace Creek isn’t anything special.  It has two hotels (one amazingly with a golf course), a general store, a museum, and a gas station.  Basically, it’s the stopping point from Vegas to get you across the mighty Death Valley.

To anyone competing in Badwater or crewing/pacing one of the runners, Furnace Creek is something else entirely.  It is the beginning of a journey.  It is a place where old friends—united in the common bond of being warriors of unimaginable strength—gather to swap war stories and talk about their non-running lives.  For the 50 rookies in the race or anyone new to pacing or crewing (including yours truly), Furnace Creek is where you first get welcomed into the family.  Your life is about to change, and all of the veterans already know it.

At Furnace Creek, the walls get broken down.  There are no celebrities here who are too busy to give you the time of day.  Everyone is rather chatty.  I checked in only to find out that my hero, Dean Karnazes, was staying two doors down the hall.  He joked around with our crew and took a couple of priceless photos (FYI, Dean is SHREDDED…I want to look like this at 50).
In heading to the general store to grab some drinks, we noticed a small group chatting in rocking chairs.  In that group was Lisa Smith-Batchen who was at Badwater to raise money for her charity and to do so by running the race, continuing to the summit of Mount Whitney (for a total of 146 miles), turning around, and running all the way back to Death Valley.  And then calmly doing that ENTIRE cycle again.  She was doing it with her close buddy, Marshall Ulrich, another legend in the sport of running. 

Next to Lisa in a rocking chair was Dr. Ben Jones, or “Badwater Ben” as he is affectionately known.  If there were a Nobel Peace Prize for running, this guy would have two.  He is a pioneer in my sport and at Badwater.  But he’s an even better person.  (Here’s a pic of Lisa, Ben, and Eric from my crew):
It was at this point the midday sun that I realized just how HOT Death Valley really is during the summertime.  Dean Karnazes was asked to describe it once and he said it was, “Like Hell, only hotter.” 

And Furnace Creek wasn’t even the hottest part of the race.  Stovepipe Wells at Mile 41 was going to claim that title (more on that tomorrow).  Here’s a pic from Sunday in Furnace Creek:
As I mentioned above, the qualifications just to apply to get into the race are difficult, and they should be.  This race is the real McCoy.  One might assume that only the 100 runners in the race are the incredibly fit individuals walking around Furnace Creek.  But then you realize that you have been seeing a slew of men and women of all ages with washboard abs, deep running (and sock) tans, and sporting race shirts from ultras all over the world.  The person next to you at the bar having a beer could be one of the most elite ultrarunners on the planet who’s there to help out a buddy.  I also learned that they could speak any one of 20 different languages, since this is such an international race.

I notice a younger guy in a tank top in the hotel parking lot.  David tells me that it is Nick Hollon.  He’s here to pace and crew a competitor.  All Nick has managed to do is become the youngest finisher of Badwater (at age 19) and win the Barkley Marathon this year.  If you don’t know about the Barkley, check it out here:  I haven’t done it, but if you Google “complete badass”, I’m confident that this guy is going to pop up, along with maybe some Navy SEALs.

And speaking of Navy SEALs, after a few years away from Badwater and ultrarunning, David Goggins was back to run it again.  Who is David Goggins?  See the link below.  He’s done some pretty routine things like finish 3rd at Badwater twice, serve our country in our most elite fighting force, and break the world record for most pull-ups in a 24-hour period (he did over 4,000).  Random aside: the day before Badwater I saw him go on a training run in a dark hoodie when it was a mere 117 degrees out.  More on Goggins in tomorrow’s post.

I could go on forever about seeing people like Pam Reed and Marshall Ulrich and some of the other veterans whom I’ve looked up to for years.  To me it’s still surreal that not only did I spend so much time around my heroes, but that I felt like I BELONGED with them.  They were so welcoming.  They ARE human just like me.  Of course they are also athletic freaks as well, but it’s nice to know that at our core, we aren’t so different.

Beyond the mutual respect that all of the runners, crew members, and race officials clearly showed for each other, there was so much palpable tension on Sunday, the day before Badwater.  It’s the last day before everyone heads out to take on a challenge that will test every part of who they are as people.  We all know the dangers, and many of the veterans have a DNF (Did Not Finish) to their name.  One small mistake out there and your race is potentially over.  One larger mistake and you might be getting driven out in an ambulance.

So, after we did the mandatory check-ins and all of the other paperwork, to break up the tension, some of our crew drove to the Badwater sign where the race starts.  Furnace Creek is actually at the 17 mile mark.  Thus, we drove even further into the closest thing to Mars that we have on Earth.  This would be our first glimpse of the famous Badwater Basin sign.  We decided to have a little fun (and amuse German tourists at the same time):

The final hours on Sunday were spent packing up both of our vehicles to support Grant.  This was no small undertaking, as you can see.  I firmly believe that the preparation on the part of the crew was at least half of the success we had collectively.  Basically, you want crew members who have OCD-like tendencies when it comes to planning.  Note: If you have a problem with gross blisters, going to the bathroom on the side of the road, being sweaty for nearly two complete days with no break, then this might not be for you.
Finally, it was off to sleep—or at least to try to sleep.  The next day was about to fill our crew with a wealth of memories and allow us to witness the sheer grit, determination, and raw strength of a 49-year-old Australian named Grant Maughan.

Look for part 2 tomorrow!