Elizabeth's Crewing Experience at The 2008 Badwater 135 Mile Ultramarathon

Greetings, I was just part of an adventure that’s going to be very hard to be put into words. This experience has given me a new found respect for the people behind the scenes of any ultrarunning event. I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has ever volunteered or crewed before, without your support we could not cross the finish line.

July 14th I had the opportunity to be on the other piece of the puzzle; I was part of a crew/pacer for a participant that was selected to enter one of the toughest foot races on the planet. The race is called Badwater 135 mile Ultramarathon. Badwater takes place in hell, the race starts in Death Valley at the Badwater basin, which is 282 ft below sea level.  The average temperature is 120 degrees and it travels on a paved highway to Mt Whitney Portal at 8360 ft.  Each runner has 60 hours to complete the 135 miles and get to Mt. Whitney, but if you want the infamous buckle you must get there within 48 hours.

Before going to Badwater I envisioned an endless road in the middle of the desert, I was extremely surprised by the beauty that surrounded us the entire 135 miles. The stunning sunrises, the glowing sunsets and the crumbling mountain ranges painted in many different shades of the fire, truly was a vision, a place that should be visited by everyone. I was very eager to be involved since it is a race I would love to do and it is encouraged to crew/pace to understand what you are really getting yourself into. I applied for Badwater this year and unfortunately did not get in, probably because I had no crewing experience so now it was time for some serious hands on learning.    

The sport of Ultrarunning is not just about running/walking insane distances, we as ultrarunners have to know more about nutrition, hydration, and different conditions that may occur throughout the race such as hypo/hypernatremia, hyperthermia, dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and foot care (foot taping, blister care etc.) so finding and having a crew with experience and knowledge is crucial.  Badwater is a very extreme race because you are dealing with outrageous temps and the incomprehensible distance of 135 miles so as a crew you must be on your “A” game every minute of every moment.

Elizabeth from Mountain Peak Fitness interviews Phil Rosenstein before the 2008 Badwater 135 Mile Ultramarathon in Death Valley. 

The crew that I was lucky to be a part of was made up of 3 other members, Dave Bursler, aka Dave boosler or social Dave. Boosler is a very accomplished ultrarunner; just check out relentlessrunner.com.  Dave has completed Badwater and was a crew member of the 2007 first place female winner Lisa Bliss. Ted McMahon who I just realized escaped without having a nickname, maybe we can call him Wi-Fi Ted. Ted is, how can I say, “normal” meaning not an ultrarunner who has been friends with Phil the longest. His humor, rational thinking and tactful speaking glued our team together.  Dave Yeakel, aka subway Dave, is a C.P.A for a living who used his accounting and organizational skills to keep the van and Phil’s feet in good shape (nice job taping!). Dave has ten 100 mile finishes under his belt as well as a healthy appetite. We can’t forget our runner Phil Rosenstein, aka Philly Phil. Phil has many accomplishments including last years epic achievement of completing the grand slam of ultrarunning and the last great race and if that wasn’t enough he also went to Australia and completed the aussie version of Badwater, Coast to Kosciusko 150 Mile Endurance Run.

Elizabeth from Mountain Peak Fitness interviews Dave Bursler before the 2008 Badwater 135 Mile Ultramarathon in Death Valley. 

In order to make it to Mt. Whitney it is necessary to have a crew and a crew vehicle. The crew vehicle has everything the runner needs to make it to the finish line and is a traveling buffet of cookies, turkey, several different varieties of electrolyte replacement, peanut butter, honey, bagels, pudding, instant mashed potatoes, potato chips, applesauce, ice, water etc. Our crew vehicle drove 1 mile in front of  Philly Phil and towards the end we drove in .5 mile increments. The four of us would trade off pacing duties every three miles, toward the end we traded about every two miles.  

We had an awesome system; 1 person was in charge of sponging him with ice water, the next person fed him or offered food while we kept a detailed chart of how much of what he was eating, his electrolyte intake and how he was feeling (grumpy, dizzy or upbeat). Once an hour we had Phil step on a scale to make sure his weight was staying some what stable. Weighing a runner is a tool used to ensure proper hydration. We helped in changing his clothes, looking over his feet for blisters or hot spots and massaged his legs to keep the blood from pooling. Most of all we always greeted him with a smile and offered words of encouragement.

81 to 90 runners with extreme ultra running resumes are selected through a rigorous application process, similar to applying to college with essays and all. The race had three different start times of 6:00a.m 7:00 a.m. and the prestigious 10:00 a.m. start, which usually comprises of the front runners (Dean Karnazes, Pam Reed, Lisa Smith Batchen etc.). Our runner was selected to start in the 8:00 a.m. slot. With everyone gathered at the start line and the national anthem playing loudly, I felt the powerful emotions one feels when they are about to embark on an epic adventure. Then, without hesitation; BAMM!!!, the gun went off and we were all headed into the unknown.

During the first 17 miles pacers (the runners running buddy…) are not allowed to join their runner but are able to aid him along the way. Phil started out surprisingly strong, seeing how he just came out of surgery 3 months prior where he had a collapsed lung and a few other complications.  We were all just happy he made it too the starting line and new that we may just be out there for the full 60 hour time frame.

During the first 12 miles Phil began showing signs of heat exhaustion with vomiting, dizziness, and nausea. We were all thinking here we go! During an Ultra one may go through many highs and lows, we just didn’t think it was going to happen so soon.  We did what any good crew would do, we discussed the situation to come up with a diagnoses and in about 40 min we pieced him back together and got him back on the road.

As we went through the race I realized how important it is for you too trust your crew to make proper decisions for you. You have to trust them 100% and this must be established prior to the race.  The crew is not there just to keep you company we are there to aid you in every way so that you don’t only make it too the finish line but can enjoy the process of getting there as well. Proper nutrition and hydration has been proven to enhance athletic performance as well as recovery so as for the runner, this could be very hard to do especially later in the day or the next day when exhaustion has set in.

The runner may not feel hungry or thirsty but we knew it was crucial for the runner to fuel and drink often, in order to maintain themselves while out on the course. As for the crew we have been logging the runners behavior so we know if you need food, salt, water etc. Of course there are situations that may occur by error of the crew that could very well hinder the runner that’s why it’s vital to have a healthy balance between your needs and the crew.

This video is a documentary of Phil Rosenstein's 2008 Race across Death Valley. Video by Mountain Peak Fitness.

We had some ups some and downs but after 44 hours & 41 minutes we helped Phil get to the finish line to earn a well deserved badwater belt buckle. 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 it is the ultimate challenge and sport. In total, we stayed up for about 52 hours straight, long enough to watch two glorious sunrises, two sunsets and many inspiring runners of all ages pushing themselves to their limits.  It was definitely a much needed motivator and a wonderful learning experience.  If you noticed the top ten finishers were made up of at least 6 women with ages ranging from 33 to 46.  Badwater 135 here I come!!! I hope I can find a crew who was as awesome as we were, any takers? Thanks!