Race Report: The 2009 Badwater 135 Mile Ultramarathon by Elizabeth Azze
Wow it’s really hard to put this whole experience into words, but I will try.
The Badwater 135 is billed as one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world and after completing it I would have to agree. The Badwater 135 Mile Ultramarathon is a race that pits the runner against one of the most hostel environments in the world, Death Valley. First of all it’s a huge accomplishment just to be invited to the event, each runner has to a have a serious athletic background to get in.
Along with having an outstanding ultra running, mountaineering or adventure racing resume you have to write an essay of why you want to compete in the Badwater 135 as well and if that’s not enough, crewing before competing is definitely encouraged.
I have ran 100 miles in -20 degrees below zero through the snow in Alaska while towing a 30lb sled (Susitna 100 in Alaska); I’ve attempted to climb the highest peak, Denali or Mount McKinley in the United States only to get stuck for weeks in a tent. I have completed several mid winter adventure races in Alaska that have tested my abilities to endure but I have to say that I have never been challenged on so many levels at once than during this race. Most people travel through Death Valley in an air conditioned vehicle only getting out long enough to take a couple of photos and then quickly return to the car to be rescued by the cool air. Not us, we were choosing to put ourselves out in the sweltering heat where the daytime temperatures rose to 130 degrees F.
The Badwater Ultramarathon, for those of you who don't know, is a team event. Each one of the 85 runners has a wonderful crew who voluntarily follow them the entire distance. It is mandatory for runners to have a crew of at least 2 people during the race and some will have up to 6 people crewing them. I kept it small and true to the ultra running experience, with just 2 crew members but then one joined us at the last minute, making it 3. The crew pretty much keeps you alive the entire distance, by giving you water, sports drink, electrolyte tabs, sports gels, food, ice and all at the appropriate times. They must be knowledgeable in many areas such as, sports nutrition, heat stroke, hyponatremia, blister care, dehydration and so on.
My crew was comprised of Joe, (crew leader) his knowledge of sports nutrition, human movement and most of all me, was crucial to my success. Joe has been crewing me for the last three years so he knows what I need before I do. He kept our crew in check and made the right decisions at the right time. Our other crew mate was one of our ultra running clients Allison Newell. I chose Allison for many reasons and I knew this would be a huge learning experience that would benefit her greatly during her future ultra running career. I love her personality and also knew that even in my lowest moments she would always be a positive light. Phil Rosenstein joined our team at the last minute at the pre race meeting. He left another participants crew of 5 to join my crew of 2. Since I crewed for him last year he felt obligated to return the favor. Joe and I discussed it briefly and thought, “sure, another runner wouldn’t hurt,” so we said yes but only if it was okay with the other runner and her crew. I would have been fine either way, in hindsight I should have kept the team as two.
Joe and I arrived in Las Vegas a couple of days ahead of schedule to prepare for the race. Badwater requires you to provide pretty much everything to make it to the finish line, ice, water, sports drink, food, towels, sponges, water sprayers, SPF, Advil, several coolers, ice, ice, ice and more ice. In total we went through about 24 bags of ice and 40 gallons of water, yes 40 gallons of water. After a little R&R poolside and some mountain biking for Joe, then before we knew it we were on our way to Death Valley for the pre-race meeting in Furnace creek.
The pre-race meeting is a special time, it seems to be a re-union of veterans with a few rookies like myself who just sit there in awe. Allison, Joe and I watched and stared as if we were watching rock stars, “oh look,” we would whisper to each other there is Pam Reed and Jorge Pacheco… Only to a few would these names mean anything. It was funny sneaking photos as if we were paparazzi. I picked up my number which was 33 and sat to listen to the rules of this year’s race. We then watched the very motivating badwater video from last years race. This meeting offered such comedic entertainment by the race director, park ranger and volunteers, that even if you were not part of the race you would have found yourself laughing out loud.
Getting Ready to start: There are three different start times for the race, 6:00, 8:00 & 10:00 am. I was fortunate to get selected to be in the 10am start, yeahhh! This meant that I could take my time in the morning but on the other hand, starting later in the day meant we were going to be thrown into the furnace right from the gun. After a great night of sleep, I awoke with high motivation and energy. I put on some music and started my warm-up (foam rolling & active stretching). I ate, put on my number and we were on our way to the Badwater Basin at -282 feet below sea level, the place where the journey would begin. As we were driving along with the race already in progress, we cheered on the other runners and observed all the interesting outfits choices. I thought to myself hmm..., maybe I should have wore that or look he’s wearing those, then Joe said, "well you have 135 miles to change outfits", we laughed and continued on our way. WE ARRIVED! First up, bathroom, then pictures, national anthem and on to the start line with the count down beginning; 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... After years of thinking about this race and only a couple of months preparing for it; which is all I had time to, I was finally on my way running along Badwater Road (Rt. 178).
Badwater Basin to Furnace Creek - Mile 17.4
Jeez it’s hot! All of a sudden a very intense feeling came over me knowing that I have 135 miles of this... I strategically started out pretty slow in fear of blowing up physically and literally from the heat like spontaneous combustion. During the first 17.4 miles your on your own and cannot have anyone from your team make forward progress with you. I have to say the first 17.4 miles were some of the hardest miles for me. It takes a while to figure out what I was going to need in this hot adventure in unfamiliar territory. Our water sprayer broke early on, which was really sad because I found great relief from the mist. I ate way to many gu’s (sport gels) which placed me in a state of bloat and fog but I didn’t throw up or get nauseous, just a bit uncomfortable and irritated. Usually later on during a 100 miler is when I zone out and tend to lose track of my gu intake. When this happens, I count how many empty packages I have but in this case my crew were removing the empty packages so it got a little confusing.
I was following behind a two-person team who seemed to be getting crewed every half a mile or so, their crew even started spraying me out of worry, LOL. I began to think what is my crew up too? I’m dying out here, when I saw them I said that I need to see them sooner. In the beginning miles I stayed with, who I now know as the kiwis from New Zealand. They seemed to be going at a pretty good clip, I felt it may have been a little too fast. Sure enough, as we were heading closer to furnace creek I saw each of them head to the van for some serious attention, even some puking within the first 17 miles. Wow, after that I remembered back to last year where Phil, who I crewed for last year, developed heat stroke within the first 12 miles. So I began to control my pace and my crew figured out what was working best for me. We stayed with a crew stop every mile where I exchanged out my hat for one freshly soaked, my scarf for one that was fully loaded with ice, new ice cold water bottles with whatever Joe felt was best for me at the moment and then I got sprayed down with our backup sprayers... We found our grove!!!
Furnace Creek - Made it to mile 17. 4, Phil joined me as I fought through my discomfort and laid off the sports gels for a bit. I made steady progress as my body got back to normal. I was a little upset and actually screamed out loud because we should have communicated a little better in how I was feeling. Joe and the crew realized this and from there on it was flawless, other then the time when I thought they made a wrong turn and got lost but we will save that for later...
Stove Pipe wells, is a tiny town which has a general store, gas station, restaurant and motel. It was the section from Furnace creek to stove pipe wells where I realized just what I was doing... I’m here in amidst this amazing beauty, with all these wonderful people, placing one foot in front of the other, embarking on one hell of an adventure. I became overcome with the emotion and the power of it all. I was still battling through my rough patch but making much better time now. I found myself running off to the shoulder on the dirt, trying to convince myself I was on a trail somewhere in the woods; some how that always seems to get my legs to move quicker. At each crew stop, I would stand or walk while Allison changed my ice scarf and gave me my food of choice for the moment, Phil would renew my hat with an ice cold one while placing ice in my moeben sleeves and all of this was going on as Joe sprayed me down carefully to avoid my feet getting wet and then handed me my new water bottles. It was amazing to see my crew get all of this done in less then 2 minutes over 135 times. I can’t thank them enough!
Townes Pass to Panamint Springs 72.3
Oh boy, the first major climb has come and its about 18 miles long, followed then by 12 straight miles into Panamint Springs resort. It was here that I yelled out that there was something in my shoe. I only shouted because I was in between singing in which I did for a large part of the race mixed in with a little dancing; it’s a fun way to pass the time. For those of you who have experienced a blister before know that a good sign of one developing is when you feel like there is a rock in your shoe. I continued to run even though I knew the blister war had started.
Before the race they warn you to remove all calluses from your feet or any rough spots. Calluses in the heat can separate from your foot and blister underneath at which the entire callus can come off completely, leaving the foot raw underneath. I felt that I did an okay job leading up to the race with my calluses but okay was not going to be good enough out here. My rough skin mixed with the dirt that got in my shoes from running the first 40 or so miles on the side of the road was causing a bit to much friction. Along with a few of my toenails having a sharp edge to them causing the sock to catch and jam the toenail into the skin; I was all set for the making of some solid blisters. My blistered feet had nothing to do with my Drymax socks, which I do love or my shoes. Wonderful! I now don’t only have to run in the heat for endless miles but I also have to endure the pain accompanied with blisters in every footstep I take and there is no one to thank for this but myself.
During the next 65 miles I will soon find out what my okay job of foot care has caused. I pressed on letting Joe know what was going on and he suggested that we have a quick look. "I’m coming to the van" I shouted "get the chair ready"! I sat down took my shoes off and my feet looked like they were run over by a truck. Whose feet are those I said to myself? Joe lanced some of the blisters and taped my feet in certain areas. I changed my socks put a different pair of shoes on and slowly walked away from the van. After you stop moving it’s hard to get going again. You feel like a stiff corpse getting up from the grave. My feet were so painful I had to run/walk on the outside of my feet for the next 65 miles. However during the next hour my foot pain subsided as my mind and my spirit became transfixed by the stunning desert gold sunset. Traveling by foot for such a long time is so powerful, you hear, see, and feel everything for so long that the energy of the environment seems to become a part of you.
The first night in Death Valley is about to begin.
When nightfall embarks its as if another race is about to start. Everything changes, your sight becomes accustomed to the light of a headlamp, the sound of the speeding cars that have been flying by you all day have slowed or are non existent. The desert becomes awakened by 40 mph winds and the sounds of rattlesnakes. I was smart enough to know there would be no relief just because the sun was down. Between the sustained hot winds pushing you back and the temps that were still in the high 90’s, the challenge of this race was just beginning. The flicker of break lights and headlamps painted the road for as far as the eye could see, carving out the winding mountainous road ahead and the road behind. It was like I was part of a night time desert parade.
Joe jumped out of the car to pace me up part of the climb, he said this is really hard to believe regarding the wind. It was like a giant blow dryer blowing towards us on high. My lips and nose began to bleed my eyes began to dry out. I was happy I had my clear lens sunglasses on, if it weren’t for them I would have had to walk / run with my eyes shut. That’s another interesting little tid bit, I wore sunglasses for 35 hours straight. Joe actually took them off of me at a point to clean them and I yelled at him to hurry because I needed them for every second of the race. We continued to press on! It was probably about 9:00 p.m or 10:00 p.m, I really had know idea. I guessed most of the way without a clue of pace or time but I knew I wanted to make it up Father Crawly before sunrise and this was a strategy of ours to avoid time splits. I also knew that the climb would suck the life out of me if I stuck around to do it in the heat of the day.
72.3 Panamint springs was our next major time station and “town”. The town was made up of a hotel, restaurant and gas station, a great place for the crew to fill up on gas, ice and other small items. We were now at 1,920 feet and I had to make it up to 5000 feet in 6 or 7 hours so I picked up my pace to make sure I reached the 5,000 ft elevation sign at mile 87 before sunrise. Allison joined me for a good chunk of this climb; we talked girly stuff and watched the darkness turn to light. Joe jumped in just as the first hour of sunlight of another day broke through, which was perfect timing. I said “time to brush my teeth”, lol... Yep, this was my reward for making it to the top. I brushed and walked quickly because before long the sun was going to start beating me into the pavement again.
Phil was now joining me for an awesome section of downhill. We were moving along at a nice pace, walking 2 posts (reflective post on the side of the road) then ran 3, it was a nice rhythm we developed. Before you know it, we were at the 100 mile mark, whoo hooo! This is my first time over 100 miles on foot, now I am totally moving into uncharted territory. At this point we started to see Mount Whitney in all its glory in the distance. Come on Lone Pine, are we ever going to get there? Time for some oatmeal or maybe instant mash potatoes, yummy… This is how it would work if I wanted something, I would tell whoever was pacing me to tell the crew what I needed and they would have it ready by the time I saw them again, which at this point the distances varied from a mile and half to every half a mile depending on how I was feeling. I walked and ate my oatmeal with a banana, it was like the best thing ever. Great time to run again, feeling great at mile 110! At this point I was actually running a 8:00 min pace, that was until I became over heated. Now it was time to dunk my head in some ice water and get covered with ice towels to bring my core temperature down. I can’t even begin to describe how great this felt, in about 5 minutes I was back up, moving forward and feeling good.
Lone Pine was getting closer and closer...
I decided to walk / run at this point in fear of heat stroke. My mind was starting to wonder why for the last 20 miles my crew kept asking me not to swallow when I was drinking but to just rinse my mouth and spit it out? I knew part of the reason was the fear of over hydration and by also placing cold water in my mouth I was helping my body to keep cool. Joe being so smart to know what was going on with me and he knew that in an environment such as this, even a little can go a long way. I was feeling strong so I just listened and kept moving forward! Here I come, mile 122! Lone pine is a gateway town to the wonderful finish line of this race. From this point, a 13 mile climb remained up to Mt Whitney portal.
I was so sick of the sun and it was really starting to piss me off. I had thought magically that when I started the last climb I would find some relief but instead the sun was still brightly throwing its hot rays through my body. We past Dow Villa hotel; the race headquarters and I saw our van pass, by I wondered where they were going? I noticed I was out of fluid starting this climb, I began to scream toward them raising my arms! I thought they were lost. Phil and I continued on, I asked him do you think there lost. I started to panic then I started to scream, screaming led to crying hysterically because I felt abandoned, without water or food. At this point in the race one feels so bare, exhausted, anxious, etc. Finally they came back, Phil got into the car, Joe came out to get me through my tantrum, My pace slowed terribly, my legs began to wobble, I could barely hold my head up.
The hill was steep, I couldn’t believe I had 13 more miles of this in the blaring sun. Other race vans were starting to appear so I knew racers were pretty close behind me. Joe fed me some red bull and Ensure and decided to stay with me for the entire climb. The red bull kicked in, Yahoooo! My pace picked up just in time for the endless switchbacks that I have been watching from a distance for the last 8 miles. Joe and I were now walking, sipping coconut water and watching our second breathtaking sunset.
We were in disbelief that in 2 miles or less this would be the end of one of the most visually stunning and all inspiring human experiences one could ever have. Allison Joined us for the last bit, at this point I knew the finish line could be around the corner. Yes, there it is, the finish line hidden by the entrance of a campground. I could hear loud applause and see lights flicker, "this is it", I thought to myself. I just couldn’t believe we made it. I am now a Badwater finisher!
I feel Badwater encompasses all of the aspects of what drives us to run ultras. The mental game to push forward, to embrace the physical and mental/ spiritual journey, the challenge of the environment and the science behind keeping ourselves alive by making the right nutritional and hydration choices at the right time. For me this is the ultimate challenge in sports.
Thank You to my Mother Norma, Joe, Allison, Phil and my sponsors, Drymax, Road Runner Sports and to everyone who supported me along the way. I couldn’t have done this with out you! I hope I inspire you to push harder and to endure more than you ever thought possible. The gift that awaits you at the end can never be explained but it's yours, yours to cherish and to grow upon!
As for the weeks after, I felt some pain in my left hip for about 2 weeks and that was mainly do to my running gait being impaired by my blisters and from the uneven road service. My feet, till this day, which happens to be a full 5 weeks later, are still peeling and I lost all but one toenail. I’m still on a high though and asking myself, what’s next?