This is one of the most memorable running experiences of my life, and I wasn’t even racing in it. It all started 2 years ago when I broke the World’s Record for Fastest Marathon while Dribbling a Basketball. The guy whose record I broke (Jerry K) later went on to set the Fastest Marathon while Dribbling -Two- Basketballs. Soon after that we became friends, though he lives near Los Angeles. Time passes and about 3 months ago I get an email from him telling me he is on a Badwater crew and they need one more person. He correctly assumes it is on my bucket list, and after a short conversation with my lovely, wonderful, understanding wife, I am on the crew.
I had a few months to prepare for the heat of the race, as I knew I would be pacing our runner during the heat and my daughter gave me strict instructions, don’t die. So, during a few summer marathons here in the midwest when the temperatures were in the 80-90’s, I ran the Kalamazoo and Med City marathons while wearing several layers of winter running clothes. As I write this after the Badwater fact, I realize that was very good training. One huge difference is that it is way more humid in MI than CA. As long as you drink (lots!) the heat of Death Valley isn’t that bad.
The race starts on a Monday morning (less tourist traffic on the road I guess) so I arrived on Saturday afternoon at about the same time as fellow crew member Michelle. Jerry picked us up and the three of us headed to Jerry’s house and there were the last of the 6 person crew (Sanborn, Moselle, and Steve) and our runner, Marco Mazzi. Marco is from Italy and speaks essentially zero english. I have a mental dysfunction that makes it REALLY hard for me to learn foreign languages, even just a few words. Bad connections in my brain, I guess. Our communication was pretty much pointing and grunting most of the time, but luckily the rest of the crew could communicate with him, so it wasn’t that bad. We did have our moments though, where two ultrarunners communicate volumes with a wink and a nod.
We packed up the two vans with all the food, ice and water (there was a lot) and left for Death Valley in the early afternoon, arriving in the early evening. It was 105 degrees at dusk and beautiful. I tried to enjoy the view now, as when the race was going I knew I would be focused on getting Marco to his goal and not thinking about the scenery in a few days. To save some money, all 7 of us piled into 1 hotel room with 2 queen size beds. Surprisingly, it was not THAT crunched. We were mostly strangers (well, we had exchanged a zillion emails in the previous 3 months) but all had one singular focus, getting Marco across the finish line, so it was all ok.
Sunday was a day of preparation, getting everything ready to go for race morning. It began with a 5 mile shakeout run for me and half the crew. All day long there small groups of people doing workouts near the hotel. We re-organized the vans a second time (it would be done once more race morning) and then I decided to do my one ‘serious’ training run of the trip. I have thought about doing this race in the future myself, and the best gauge of whether I am going to die it to try running in the same conditions. I knew I would get many miles in pacing Marco, but that was going to be at his pace, so I wanted one run at my pace and this was going to be it. ‘Combat Speed’ is the phrase I used. The best way to train to run in 115 degree weather in Death Valley is to run in 115 degree weather in Death Valley
So, while Marco and a few other members of the crew were getting Marco all checked in and attending meetings for the race, Michelle (my crew for this exercise) and I headed out on the course. I waited until ~11am when the temp had reached 112 degrees and sunny to start my workout. I headed south towards the race start.
The Badwater 135 is self-crewed race meaning each runner must supply their own aid stations, which are obviously ‘rolling’. Generally, each runner is crewed by a van loaded down with water, ice and food needed for the runner during the day and half journey. Michelle has a resume that is jaw dropping. The 2008 Badwater 135 is one small blip in her amazing career. Seriously. She has more experience than all the distance athletes I know in Michigan combined, and I know some serious distance athletes. She took off down the road about 1 mile and parked and waited for me to wander by. She seriously knows how to crew this event and I learned so much from her. She knew what to give me, what questions to ask, knew to do it quickly and say ‘Go!’ after a 15 second aid station ‘stop’ (but I was always moving).
During my 15 mile workout I stopped roughly every mile for water, gatorade, fruit cups, grapes, etc. I probably ran it too fast considering the conditions (about 8:20/mile) and thought of a bunch of ideas for my own training and crew ideas for next year if/when I run this race myself. At one point, I needed to start getting these ideas down on paper as they were accumulating and I was going to start forgetting them. After only a few miles I started telling Michelle one ‘idea’ each stop for her to write down for my notes of the trip. One of the coolest things I learned from her was the 90 second blood reset. (my term) The idea is after a while of running (~10 miles) you lie down with your feet above your heart. The blood in your legs flows down towards your heart and mixes with fresh blood. When you stand back up after 90 seconds (not long enough to stiffen) your legs feel very refreshed. I tried it after 10 miles and I was amazed what a difference it made. I came up with the idea of the crew having a joke book. Everytime I get aid, they tell me a funny joke. If I don’t do what they tell me too, they can use that as a threat (No joke until you drink your V-8, for example) Lots and lots of ideas. More would come up during the course of the race, and I wrote them all down. I learned A LOT.
Race morning came and for the first time in 3 days, Marco was happy and excited. He had been sortof subdued watching us run around frantic getting ready and we were all happy to see him in such good spirits. The entire crew went down to the start (Badwater basin, the lowest point in north America at -282 feet) and then I quickly drove the ‘night crew’ back to the hotel before Marco left at 8am.
We had 2 crews of 3 people which worked out well, a day crew (Michelle, Sanborn, and myself) and a night crew (Jerry, Moselle, and Steve) Sanborn was our translator as she was the only one who spoke italian well, Michelle was our RN, and I was the guy who wanted to pace Marco during the hottest part of the day. We were ready to rock.
As predicted, the first 90 minutes was REALLY stressful. Michelle wanted to re-organize the van so it would make more sense so she did it after the race started. I am driving and forgetting to tell Michelle (who is climbing around the back of the van while I am driving) when we are stopping and starting. Marco went out too fast and so we were trying to get him to slow down and take more electrolytes. He didn’t listen to us and he paid the penalty for such defiance, 42 miles down the road. Eventually we got into a rhythm and things calmed down a bit.
I ended up pacing Marco for about 15 miles during heat of day on day one, walking/running next to him being (essentially) his mule. I would often be carrying food, 1 bottle full of water/gatorade to fill his bottle, 1 bottle of water to pour on his head every half mile or so and a water bottle for myself. It was awkward, but I got the hang of it. The temperature topped out at 110ish that day, but it was not that bad, if you ask me. At no point during the race did I hear one of the the crew complain about being too hot. I guess we all trained for or were expecting what we were getting into.
We rolled into Stovepipe Wells (the mile 42 timing station) at about 4:45pm and we got Marco into medical. He had being getting serious muscle cramps in those last few miles.As predicted, his refusal to eat/drink electrolytes early on cost him. They did a quick blood draw and found his sodium levels very low. They gave him a drink to help, and he drank it too fast and he ended up puking, so they had to start over. Finally, after 2.5 hours, he was back on the course.
We passed Marco off to the night crew, wished them luck, and the day crew and I headed to Lone Pine, arriving at our hotel about 9:30 pm. The drive was long enough that we had ‘come down’ from the hustle and bustle of the race, but not surprisingly, none of us slept hard, us all awake and ready to go by 5:30am. As we were getting ready to head back and replace the night crew, we watched the leader roll by the Lone Pine time station. He was flying and turns out, he missed the course record by 80 seconds. There are some serious runners at this event, especially this year.
When we found Marco and crew at mile 90ish, they were VERY glad to see us as they were at the end of their rope, having been awake for a while. One day 1 when they were not ‘on’ they were still helping us and had a hard time resting, which is totally understandable. We got Marco to the mile 92 timing station about 24 hours after he had started. He had made it through the night and the sun up put him in great spirits.
Sanborn was all pumped and ready, so she paced Marco for the first few hours and I took over at about 10am and stayed with him for about 18 miles through the tough (mentally) flat wasteland that is east of Lone Pine. On day 2 Marco was much better about eating and drinking what he was supposed to. Peeing on a regular basis and still running occasionally. A few miles out of Lone Pine, Jerry took over as Marco’s pacer and would be with him almost to the very end.
Marco rolled into Lone Pine and again stopped in the medical tent (well, hotel room) but this time for his feet. After an hour, he was up and ready to roll. After some serious power-walk coaching from Michelle, he was onto the last 13 mile slog up to Whitney Portal. In that last 13 miles, there is a net 5000’ of elevation gain. The winner (ya know they guy who almost broke the course record) did this section in 2:50. So yeah, it’s a tough hill.
At Lone Pine, the night shift took over again to get Marco up the hill and the day shift relaxed for a bit before we headed up to meet them at the finish. I had some time and energy, so I did a quick 7 mile run (on my own) backwards along the course, cheering on runners as they struggled to reach Lone Pine. I got back, showered and cleaned up before we head to the top. We got to the finish line about an hour before Marco did and relaxed, enjoying the view.
Runners are only allowed one pacer at a time during the race, except for the last 400 meters, then they can have as many people as they want, which in this case was the 6 crew members who helped make it possible. We cross as one big huge group 36 hours 28 minutes and 4 seconds after he left Badwater Basin, just as the sun was drifting away. His effort was good for 39th place overall out of 89 finishers. Love and happiness abounded. Pictures, hugs, euphoria, lots of each. The emotion gets to us all as we achieved our goal and Marco looked REALLY happy to be there.
Michelle had an early flight, Jerry had to work, and I had a late flight all the next day, so the three of us take off after only a short time to recollect. It was sadly too quick a goodbye as we all wanted to hang out and chat about the race and we could have for a long time, but we had to go as we were going to be driving 4ish hours at night as it was. We got to Jerry’s Moms house (where Michelle and I are sleeping for a bit) about 1 am and crashed hard.
I finally woke up (late!) and headed to the airport about 3 hours before my flight. It gave me time to re-write my notes to myself about the race, the magnitude of the last few days finally hitting me. I was sad to leave crazy town with all these psychotic ultrarunners, but my real life was calling me home and I missed my wife and family. It was a great experience with wonderful people and I learned -SO- much from my fellow crew members. Fountains of knowledge, all of them.
I went into this race knowing that afterwards one of two things would happen. A. I decide never to run this race, ever. B. I decide to bust my butt and do everything I can to get into Badwater 2013.
Guess which choice I made?
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