Monday, July 18, 2011

Halfway to the Death Valley Cup

Late last Tuesday evening, I became a two-time finisher of the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon.

But crossing the finish line, a silver finisher's belt buckle, and a listing on the results sheet don't tell half the story. To me, Badwater ("BW") is an adventurer's tale; a journey filled with peril, emotional highs and lows, and physical malaise. It is a quest to find something lost for years in our modern world--mostly, ourselves. It is an exorcism of inner demons who cook us from the inside while the Mojave desert cooks us from the outside. It is a love story, a drama, and a comedy, not so neatly rolled into one play of 135 separate acts and not nearly as ordered as any famous poetry or prose. It is, rather, an unordered lot of limericks, a
hodgepodge of Haiku, and a stockpile of sonnets, all weaving the narrative into something that anyone can read, try to comprehend, yet not fully understand. Unless, of course, you were there.

And yet, to some, it is just a run. A damn long, hot, tough run...but just a run, nonetheless. To those, I nod and will quietly acknowledge their assertion. It is, on one hand, just a run. On the other hand...


The story is difficult to tell--or at least, to tell well--but in the interest of time and readability, I'll stick to the basic details, despite my desire to write a string of ultrarunning-related sonnets or stupid limericks.

But I didn't say anything about avoiding Haiku:

Hands warm, feet warmer
Sun radiates from the road
Forward run and walk

BW began long before I toed the starting line. Months of training, both on the road and in the sauna. I started to feel like the king of my health club sauna, noticing miniscule temperature variations and even recognizing some of the hot box regulars from time to time. Training sessions consisted primarily of moderate-length mid-week runs and stacked long weekend runs, often reaching over 50 miles for a combined Saturday/Sunday. To combat the horrific springtime weather we experienced in the Pacific NW, I ran dressed in multiple layers, even on the rare pleasant days. Laundry time from February through June was a killer (thanks, Stace!).

When it was time to start the race, I had the best support crew in the business. I've always been an advocate of traveling light, so it was a crew of three for me: Tracy, Paul, and Jennifer, the two former of whom had helped me get through the 2007 version of the race. They would shadow me throughout the day and tend to my every need: Water, drinks, food, massage, psychiatry, and most importantly, cracking the whip when needed. Before I go any further, they were the chief reason why I finished this race. Left to my own devices, I shudder to think what might have been.

Support team of three
A trio beyond friendship
Getting my mind straight

Lining up for photos near the starting line, I moved to the side of the "Elevation -282 ft." sign and looked up to see my former colleague and Ironman Hall of Famer Bob Babbitt! It was the first of many pleasant surprises during the race. Bob and his wife Heidi's support were invaluable at many points in the first part of the race. At BW, the smallest things make the biggest difference, and his cheering certainly buoyed my spirits.

10am, Monday, July 11th. The first steps were filled with relief, as the waiting and preparation were finally done and I could focus on getting down the road. I turned and said to my friend Gerhard Lusskandl (Austria), "Finally!" He just smiled and laughed nervously as we passed the parking lot and deposited ourselves onto the first lonely stretch of road.

I use "lonely" lightly. At no time is a BW runner ever truly alone, save for in his or her head. The carefully orchestrated dance of support vehicles, officials, and fellow runners is a sight to behold...that is, if you're able to see through salt-caked eyes and the waves of heat coming off the road surface.

A light tailwind helped as I matched strides with Gerhard, who had informed me he, too was shooting for a sub-30 hour finish. In his third attempt at a BW finish, I was confident that he was the right train to board, so while I made sure to focus on my own effort, I tried to keep Gerhard and his crew in sight. Plus, he's such a nice guy, our occasional banter made things more interesting, he in his halting English, me in my bad German.

The hills are alive
With the sound of my heartbeat
And dreams of bier steins

As I ran through the first checkpoint at mile 17 (Furnace Creek), my pace, temperature, calorie intake, and feet were all doing well. Tracy had produced a chair for me to visit, but I saw no need and continued down the road, mentally checking off the first 'stage' of the event and prepping my mind for the heart of Death Valley in the next 25 miles. The temperature had slowly risen, and if you talk to 10 people you'll probably hear 10 different max temperature readings. Suffice to say that any time the mercury crests 115 F, it's a pretty warm day. I do know that when I would reach my arms out to the side, palms down facing the
roadway, it hurt my hands; it was as if I was reaching inside an oven to retrieve a pan of brownies (sans brownies and glass of cold milk).

The next pleasant surprise of the day soon appeared on the horizon: Friends Bob Lynes and Anna Bates had driven from Oregon to climb Mt. Whitney, and had come out onto the BW course to lend their support. I was blown away! Just seeing another familiar face felt like the greatest gift in the world.

They call him The Beast
It's not just his running chops
Big laugh, bigger heart

The horizon also held a few more surprises in store for me, this time, not welcomed. The heat and a brutal headwind started to take it's toll, and I needed a brief stop in the van around mile 35. Five miles later, I was helping 'give back' to the desert by emptying the contents of my stomach, which removed any semblance of wind in my sails. Staggering, dead man walking, I stumbled in the lonely outpost of Stovepipe Wells (mile 42) for the second checkpoint of the race, unsure of anything other than I needed a serious break and a mega-dose of soul-searching. Withdrawing from the race was never an option, but what now? My 30-hour goal started to fade, running through my fingers like a handful of fine desert sand.

Loneliness of the long-distance runner? I contend that there never is, and never has been, any loneliness inherent in long-distance running. A person is only alone as they create in their mind. Like Andy Dufresne said in The Shawshank Redemption, "There are places in this world that aren't made out of stone...there's something inside...that they can't get to, that they can't touch. That's yours." If you can tap into those places that belong only to you, I think you're never alone. Still, those first few miles after leaving Stovep
ipe Wells felt pretty damn solitary. I couldn't summon the beautiful places and orchestral music, so I looked to my shoes, where I had printed in large letters, "LIVE NOW." By embracing each moment and focusing on the spaces between each breath, I moved slowly forward.

Live in the moment
Not then, not another day
Only now matters One more break in the van a bit further up the road, and I felt my stomach woes starting to fade, slowly, as the sun dropped over the mountains to my right. Another devil had now replaced my sour gut--the hot pavement had again wilted the soles of my feet, which had also happened in the 2007 race. This time, however, the pain was already searing, and I hadn't even reached the 50-mile mark. Once I got my stomach right, I became acutely aware of the fluid squishing to and fro on my feet with each step, and it burned like fire. This was going to be a long race.

Reminding myself to focus, I soldiered on, paced at various times by all three of the crew. Tracy would walk with me for a while, then Paul, then Jennifer. Sometimes it was their bad jokes that helped, and other times, just their presence. At the top of the 15-mile climb of Townes Pass, I took a food and rest break, and continued down into the Panamint Valley on the sharp descent. Just before the checkpoint at Panamint Resort, I was able to push aside the pain in my feet and actually make some good time. But lights started playing tricks on my eyes at this point. Coupled to the wacked out brain train of pain and the stain of my energy drain, the trippy-dippies started to kick in big-time. By the time I was back on the road after a short break at mile 72, I knew I was just hanging on.

Usually cost thrice as much
But here they are free

The second major climb of the race was now staring me in the face, but the rising morning sun helped my mood a lot. With feets afire, I tread on, trying as best I could to push through the pain. Around mile 80, I couldn't take it much longer and had Doctor Tracy Medicine Woman lance the blisters to alleviate some of the pressure. Much of the next 10 to 15 miles was a blur, punctuated by an attack of a large bumblebee and the discovery of $0.34 on the ground, which I gave to Paul to see if he could parlay it into riches a few days later in Vegas. With the $0.05 that I found in Lone Pine and gave to Jennifer, it was a real money-making affair.

At the Darwin turnoff checkpoint, fellow runner Luis was having foot surgery courtesy of foot doc John Vonhof. As I checked in, I'll never forget yelling my number and last name, followed by John not looking up from Luis' feet and asking, "How are the feet, Greg?" It was as if he knew...they were toast.

The 100-mile mark came without fanfare, but I did mark the occasion with a bit of caffeine to boost the mind and spirits. 35 miles were all that stood between me and the finish.

One hundred miles down
Just a marathon to go
Plus a measly ten

A death march ensued. Try as I might, it's tough to find an upside to miles 100 through 120. Perseverance? Toughing it out? Death before D.N.F.? Adjectives escape me as I try to explain my fatigue and the pain in my feet. I teetered on the brink of sorrow as the tree-lined town of Lone Pine seemed to purposefully elude my arrival. It almost danced on the horizon, never coming nearer, teasing me with her promise of fast food restaurants, convenient laundromats, and a cheese omelette.

As I finally passed the Lone Pine checkpoint and made the last turn toward Mt. Whitney, I knew the finish was inevitable. Basic math, however, wrapped me in the cold, wet blanket of disappointment as I knew I would be hours from my pre-race goal. I had reached the threshold that so many athletes have faced: The moment where sucking it up is not an option, but a requirement; the point where pride must be swallowed, pain suffered in deafening silence, and a smile forced, not for those on the outside or for the camera, but for oneself, if only to convince the body and soul that you are indeed doing the right and noble thing.

Creator help me
I surrender my body
Help my mind find peace

The road from Lone Pine tilts up sharply for the final 15 miles of the race. My mind, by now so exhausted, could barely process the images my eyes captured. As darkness descended, rocks, sage, and various roadside plants transformed to people on lounge chairs, children playing, and large, Carnival-ish paper mache heads. Cracks in the road were albino snakes, jumping to bite my ankles. A flashing light ahead beckoned me; and I tried in vain to convince Paul that we were DEFINITELY not on the correct course...that we needed to turn and take the special 'runner shortcut' that I'm sure they had for us. At one point, my crazy babbling got so bad that Jennifer delivered a forceful face slap to knock some sense into me...or so she says. I frankly don't recall a moment of it.

Live now. Through the haze that had enveloped my head, I focused on my breath, knowing that the mind-games were simple by-products of a long day and a half. When deep breaths came, a calmness overcame me. I knew that the miles were short and the finish was at hand.

The final miles gave me time to reflect...the sacrifices my wife and kids had made for months while I disappeared for hours at a time to pound the pavement...the evenings when the couch or bed called, but I could be found in a blistering hot sauna for an hour...the social commitments delayed or canceled due to a training schedule...the heart and soul Tracy, Jennifer, and Paul had poured into this race...

So many people

Give of their time and heart
So I can finish

As the finish tape appeared at the Whitney Portals parking area, I had no emotion left to release. My body, mind, and spirit had used up every ounce of energy in getting me across valleys and mountains, that I broke the tape, smiling, so ready to finally stop. The contrast between the start and finish was so distinct...38 hours earlier, I couldn't wait to start, and now, I couldn't wait to just get in the van and drive back to the hotel in Lone Pine.

The blur of the post-race festivities further spun my head on its axis. That warm, warm feeling of being part of the fraternity of BW finishers is a glow that won't escape me any time soon. But just as soon as I find myself reveling in the energy of finishing BW, I'm sobered by another thought: The prospect of facing the 508-mile Furnace Creek 508 bicycle race in October. If I successfully finish it, I'll be only one of eighteen or so folks to ever have done both races in the same calendar year. It was motivation enough to get me off the couch and onto the bike saddle less than one week removed from finishing BW (a painful one-hour ride, if you must know).

There's another thing I carried with me during the entire BW experience: My love and admiration for my younger sister Amy, who is battling demons of her own, albeit of a different sort. Now a breast cancer survivor of a number of months, her courageous head-to-head battle with the disease has been met with grace, dignity, and power...a power that Amy never has had in short supply. As proud as I am of finishing a silly footrace, I'm tenfold proud of Amy. As I traversed Death Valley, I threw Amy's cancer to the mesquite tradewinds of the Mojave, which carried away any whiff of the disease into the ether. Begone.

This race effort is dedicated to Amy, to the spirit of those who have traveled these roads before me, and to those who shall follow behind me.

If I shall be so lucky as to live another 20 or 40 years on this earth, perhaps I will be able to look back and remember when I played a very small role in the drama, comedy, and tragedy known as Badwater...and smile.

Smile today, all day

For tomorrow may not come
Until winter calls

Remember to love the ones you love.

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