Saturday, July 20, 2013

What I Learned From Badwater

Well, as you may know, I made it from the bottom of Death Valley to the Mt. Whitney Portal and completed the entire 135 miles of the Badwater Ultramarathon.
Many people have asked me a lot of questions about this journey. Frankly, I have had more than a few questions about it myself, so I recently sat myself down for a revealing one-on-one interview with, well, myself. Believe you me, I myself was quite enlightened.

Why did you do it?
“Because it was there” seems like a trite answer, but it covers a lot of ground. I am a runner, so an epic run on my 50th birthday had instant appeal to me. Plus, I love the heat and the desert, so running Badwater fit the bill. But it is so much more than that. I knew it would test me to the root of my being like almost nothing else.  And did it ever.

Didn’t You Run For Charity?
Why yes, two of them in fact. The Mid-Ohio Marine Foundation and Always Brothers. People can still donate by paypal ( or or send me a check made out to either group.

What was the Badwater Ultramarathon like?
Wonderful. Terrible. Race weekend was a blur, with a flurry of supply-buying, van-packing, picture-taking and for me, birthday-celebrating activities. In fact, I remember thinking at one point that I was hardly even nervous. Well that jinxed me – at the start line I became very nervous, and had to talk myself down from dropping out. I just felt so unworthy, unprepared, so-less-than-worthy compared to the rest of the competitors there with me.

Believe it or not ... more supplies were already IN the vans.

This isn’t uncommon in running, and usually such feelings pass as soon as the race starts, but I still felt nervous at the first checkpoint 17 miles in! Looking back, I am okay with that. It was such a difficult race under intensely challenging conditions. Fear proved to be a great motivator – it kept me conservative and slowed me down, which allowed me to keep going later.

What was most difficult?
Well of course the high temperature, dry wind and blazing sunshine rank high on the suck-o-meter, but not for the reasons you may think. Fact is, you can’t go very far in Death Valley without taking in loads of fluids and cooling yourself, in this race or in general, or you flat-out won’t survive. But these life-saving steps require a lot of time - good if you want to stay alive,  bad if you are trying to reach a finish line as quickly as possible! You have no choice but to be calm, relaxed and patient (not easy for me, as those who know me can tell you!) and do what you need to do, again and again and again.

1 – get to van

2 – tell crew what you need

3 – give them fluid bottles to be refilled

4 – apply sunscreen or Vaseline, or go behind the van to pee, or grab a snack, or take some pain reliever, or get squirted with water (sometimes all of these things happened at a single stop!)

5 – start running or walking again, repeating this about 200 times or more

George handing off a fresh water bottle at my very first crew stop.  There were (quite literally) close to 150 of them to go. 

Usually in an ultramarathon you look forward to the aid stations which are typically 4 or 5 miles apart, or in the case of Badwater, the checkpoints at miles 17, 41, 73, 90, 122 and 131. Truthfully, though, these stops were rather insignificant, only requiring me to call out my number before moving on.
The first 41 miles, I stopped about every 1.5 miles for fluids and food. At some points later on, the intervals became more frequent. In between I carried a bottle that at different times held water, sports drink, iced tea, Coke and Hawaiian Punch, plus I often carried a second one with ice water to squirt on myself.

I ate more than 40 energy gels, plus forced in pretzels, potato chips, several slices of bread, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, many, many saltines with peanut butter, a handful of gummy bears, several Little Debbies, cookies, and slushy drinks (we even had a blender!). I tried a couple 350-calorie Ensure drinks, but they didn’t do it for me, and also ate a single, tavern tater tot that it definitely didn’t do it for me, although it was sweet of my wife Star to offer me her tots!
None of this food or drink intake was the result of anything I did to care for myself, though. You give up all self-reliance in this race. Sure, I could probably carry enough fluid and food to go 10, maybe 15 miles out there. Then what?

My crew members are the true heroes.  They fed me, watered me, cuddled me, sliced my blisters, wiped my mouth, so, so much more, and never once complained. Even though at times I was a shuffling, scared, whining, smelly mess.
Make no mistake, Badwater is a team sport.  I got by with a little help from my friends.

Yes, especially once when I couldn’t feel my foot when I took a step. I thought I was having a stroke or something, but the feeling passed and never returned. I also was afraid when I got dizzy a couple of times. Then there was the time when I was almost done, and I told Star I was scared. “What are you afraid of?” she asked. “Passing out,” I replied. “Do you feel like you are going to pass out?” she asked with the rest of the crew anxiously looking on. “No,” I sheepishly answered. Apparently they found this quite amusing, gauging from the laughter and continuous reference to it the rest of the way.

I was also pretty scared when I came upon a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike. Thankfully Darrin Bright from my crew saw it first, and his extremely high-pitched scream stopped me in my tracks. His scream (did I mention it was extremely high-pitched?) even turned the “snake” into a piece of wood that is now sitting on my TV stand at home.

Oh yes. I even apologized to Darrin at one point for being so negative, and once told Star I was a loser and wanted to quit. She stood up to me, and said I could feel bad if I was sick or injured, but not just because it was hard. “Of course it is hard! You knew it would be hard! You didn’t think it would be hard?” Yes dear. Thank you for reminding me to suck it up.

Apparently. So much so, that the crew joked about the mold growing on me because I never changed my shirt or shorts. Yes, it was gross. But it was working – no chafing, no binding, so why change? Despite the stink, Star still cuddled me during a “romantic little nap under the stars” when I needed to lie down (we actually were laying on a blanket covering gravel on the side of the road, cars and other runners passing by, asking if I was okay, but she made it the sweetest place that I never wanted to leave). That shirt smelled so bad that the crew could smell it the morning after the run, and wouldn’t come into our hotel room! They said the shirt should be framed, but I have a secret – I threw it away in room 103 of the Best Western in Lone Pine, California!

You lied down?
Yes, five times. I would arrive at a stop, and was just so tired that I couldn’t continue. It wasn’t my legs, but I just felt so weary! Caffeine had no effect. It mostly happened the first night, which is always a tough time for me in these things. “I just need 10 hours of sleep,” I said one time, which also made it to the crew laugh track of the journey. I would try to sleep, but after 10, 15 minutes would get back on my feet and start moving again.

Of all the things I accomplished during the race, I am most proud of these five moments. I wanted to quit, could have quit, and in other races have quit at such points in time. But I didn’t. I got up and kept going – five times! I did what I never thought I was strong enough to do, something that I knew others did and thought they were so much stronger than me for it.
After one of the five times I got back up, I thought about what Brian O’Neill wrote for an inspirational notebook Star put together for me. Brian is a member of Always Brothers, and we first met him in May 2012 during the 100-mile run from Cincinnati to Columbus to honor the members of Lima Company who were killed back in 2005. 

At the start of that run Brian read a poem by Edmund Vance Cooke and included this passage from it in his note to me:
“You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what’s that?

Come up with a smiling face.
It’s nothing against you to fall down flat.

But to lie there – that’s disgrace.”

What else did you think about?
HTFU. I first learned this acronym on the Lima 100 run from the Marines who took part, and was reminded of it by another one of them, Trevor Thomas Stewart. His note to me read in part:

“Hey D, you might be suffering right now. I hope you are J But I hope you’re listening to Star and enjoying your journey right now. Trust your training. You are a BAD MAN and you have done the work to succeed! Today is your prize. Enjoy it. Know that your brothers are thinking of you and being inspired by you. You are suffering for those who can’t! Think about that and HARDEN THE F@#& UP! (he is a Marine, so didn’t write F@#&, though) …
Other gems from the book that got me through:

From one of my U.K. mates, David Hegarty:
“If you are feeling good, don’t worry, this feeling will soon pass …”

He also wrote a story about the time when he was on a trail run with a friend who stopped for a bathroom break and cried out that he was peeing blood. “No it’s OK,” the friend then said. “I just remembered, I had 2 glasses of beetroot juice this morning.”
“Moral of the story, things aren’t always as bad as they seem.”

Some friends, including Lauren Fithian, wrote poems. Others directed love, prayers, Bible verses, funny stories and positive energy my way (Ricardo Balazs, just can’t sem to find a way to make your story relevant, but it is pretty funny!) Still more sent jokes to get my mind off of things – George Keeney, you may still giggle over yours, but it still troubles me.
Debbra Jacobs-Robinson and her husband Dave even reworked “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” to recognize the trek and my milestone birthday. In part:

“Fatigue to the right of him
Fatigue to the left of him
Hard miles behind him
“Could I have been dumber?”
Wanting to sleep, or cry, or crawl
Wanting to quit, but wanting it all
Wobbling some, taking victories small
Out of the Valley of Death
Up where trees are tall
Ran the New Fifty.”

And Dean Allen Smith, THE brother behind Always Brothers, reminded me of the kids he ran by and hugged during the 2012 Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon & ½ Marathon. “I want you to think of those little heroes while you continue on your journey. Give it everything you have, just as they have.”
I also thought back to seeing Dean, limping along the last mile of that ½ Marathon, knee destroyed, giving it all HE had.

Then there was my brother Damon, my running hero (who owes it all to me for all the times I mercilessly chased him when we were kids). He recounted a story from a marathon he won, during which, well, I will let him tell it:
“Pat, pat, pat, your footfalls on the path, you hear something, you look over to your left, up the hill on the road. There is someone stopped on a motorcycle waving, cheering. Who would be out here? Nobody even knows it’s a race. You feel a chill and pick that mile up a few seconds, anyway you can get to the end, one mile at a time, tick them off.” - Sibling support, 2000 Towpath Marathon

Yes, every word all of you wrote helped. Thank You! (in order of receipt)
Star Blackford
Catherine, Brent and Berkley LaCount
Jay Lanhart and P.J. Soteriades
Sara Abele and Ryan Hughes
Mark Carroll
Reggie “Manimal” O’Hara
Bob Cat Blackford
David Hegarty
Tom Bond & George Keeney
Tom Tisell (a big fan of mine)
Lauren Fithian
Rick Giles
Sara Laudeman
The LaCounts (again!)
Dean Allen Smith
Lindsey Gulliver
Sarah Irvin
Phil Yensel
Ron & Kathy Ross
Eli Ayers (I put the “hammer down,” sir …)
Richard Hulnick
Damon Blackford
Scott Stocker
Sunday Dog Blackford
Debra Jacobs-Robinson
Deb & Dave JR Together (seriously, the WHOLE “Charge Of The Light Brigade”!)
Trevor Thomas Stewart
Kim Austin
Kevin & Elaine Guilfoyle
Ian Berry & Sandra Bowers
Catherine, Brent & Berkley LaCount (#3!)
Kevin Ford
Mike Renavitz
Charissa Fee
Leigh Zeidner
David Garrity
Bill Sanders
Bill Burns
John Martin
Berkley LaCount (Photo running the “Rocky” steps in Philadelphia. In the heat. In flip-flops!)
Dan Leite
Rose Smith
Ricardo Balazs
Jack King
Kayla Allen
Frances Krumholtz
Cindy & Greg Wilmer
Courage Cat Paavo Nurmi Sloopy Candoff Blackford
Paul, Alison & Will Kelvington
Brian O’Neill
Doug & Jill Hile
Preston Osborne
Allen Blaine
Molly Bright - drew an awesome picture of her “Funcle” (friend/uncle) Darris …

And thanks to all who sent phone, e-mail and Facebook messages of encouragement and birthday well wishes, including my wonderful parents.

So the question on all of our minds – will you do it again?

There is simply no reason for me to face this race again. As I was passing by the Death Valley sand dunes at about mile 40 and afternoon was starting to fade into evening, I looked up at the sun, which had pounded me all day, and I yelled: “I beat you today!” Two steps later, I revised my statement: “I withstood you today!”
I feel the same about the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon. I didn’t beat “The Challenge Of The Champions.” But I withstood everything it threw at me. The heat (topped out at 127 degrees). The miles  (the most I have ever done at one time). The hills (only three of them – 18 miles, 17 miles, 13 miles J). The wind (one period of constant headwind lasted for nearly 10 hours). The sleep deprivation (I was awake more than 46 hours).


And withstanding all of this was more than enough, the most I could ever hope to do, with the people I did it with, who helped me see it through to the end.

Star – Team JD did it again …
George & Robin Roulett – You always knew what I needed (except the pizza! J)

Darrin Bright – My “brother from a different mother,” great job pointing out that “snake”!

Lexi Bright – Are you sure you aren’t a veteran of this thing? Nailed it!

Steve Zeidner – The miles flew by running with you! And you, oh less-than-iron stomach, along with Darrin, got me to eat, and eat, and eat.
At Father Crowley Point on our way back to Vegas.
And finally, what advice would you give to someone considering Badwater?
Tell as many people as possible that you are doing it. Make phone calls, send texts, post on Facebook, write a blog, heck, even get the local newspaper to do a story about your training and run a photo of you wearing a breathing-restriction mask in a 200-degree sauna. Then when it is the middle of the night, and you are puking and bitching and moaning and wanting to quit, you will suddenly remember all the people back home who are following you on-line and how much it will suck to face these people after you failed.

And then, you will get up and start moving again.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Here We Go ...

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil …”

-          23rd Psalm

Yea, right.

I have worked so hard for this moment, dreamt about it, and is only 2 days away. Monday I begin one of the greatest challenges in running, certainly of my life, and perhaps one of the last remaining great adventures on Earth, the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon across Death Valley.

And I am afraid.

Not of the distance. 135 miles is a long way for sure, but I am well-trained.

Not of the hills. I wore a weight vest and ran up and down hills, and am great at hiking.

Not of not finishing on Tuesday, July 16, my 50th birthday.

Funny thing, but the longer the distance, the less worked-up I get about how far it is, even though I have dropped out of more ultra-marathons (three out of the 10 I have started) than any other race (of 169 marathons I have attempted, I only dropped out of one).

And I have 38 hours from the time I start at 10 a.m. PST on Monday to get to the finish before my birthday ends the following day. Anything can happen, sure, but I am fairly confident I can get there within this timeframe, possibly much faster.

What has me so afraid is how crappy I might feel from the effects of the blasted Death Valley heat.

How hot are we talking? 100-plus at the start, climbing close to 120 before Day 1 is done.

Mostly, I am afraid of how my head is going to feel all day Monday. Like one of those cartoon thermometers that, as the heat rises, the head gets bigger and bigger, and starts to pulsate, and them, boom! Explodes.

Sure, there are real dangers of being out in such temperatures, let alone exerting oneself such as running or walking. Heat exhaustion, heat stroke, organ damage, death.

I trust myself, and more importantly my crew, to not get so close to the edge that those problems arise.
But the headache, disorientation and dizziness and other yucky feelings that can arise from the shoulders on up, yeah, those are likely, and I am just not looking forward to them.

Thankfully as I traipse through the Valley of Death for a day-and-a-half, my crew will always be close by in a van, and after the first checkpoint at 17 miles, are even permitted to join me on foot.

That means cool refreshments will be handed over to me as quickly as I empty a bottle of sports drink or water, and a cooling spray of mist or dousing of water will always be available.

The crew will be broken into shifts of three people each, rotating off and on every few hours. When they are “off duty” they will head to one of the hotels along the course (yes, they have them in Death Valley!) to cool off, eat and rest.

This is crucial. In fact, more heat-related health problems happen to Badwater crew members than competitors. Sure, with up to six people allowed per crew, the odds are that more of them could become ill,  but it is simply unlikely that any support person has prepared themselves as much as one of the runners for this journey.

I do believe my crew is the best anyone out there will have. Of course there is my very understanding wife, Star. She is an accomplished ultrarunner and has crewed Badwater twice (oh the stories she can tell!), so she knows what it entails.
Star's very favorite Death Valley picture.  In her words, "no make-up, no posing, no bs.  Just a tiny human in the middle of the desert."

The team also includes George and Robin Roulett of FrontRunner running store fame (among other things!). Robin has also crewed at Badwater, and George has spent considerable time traveling through and running in the West.  Both are experienced runners, and dear friends, so I feel very thankful to have them joining us.
Robin & George with Star and I at Buckingham Palace during a trip for a marathon in the U.K.

The others are new to Badwater, but I feel very confident in their abilities. One, Dr. Darrin Bright, cares for our 18,000 runners and walkers as Medical Director of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon & ½ Marathon. Experienced as an ultrarunner and Ironman in his own right, Dr. D is a good guy to have on our crew, but more importantly, one of my favorite friends.
Darrin and I (with Star) after one of our many adventures - a trip to the Niagara Falls Marathon that included a surprise guest (him), saving a life (him), and towing a car (well, that's a Star story, but he's used to those too.)
His daughter, Lexi, an incoming sophomore at Columbus School for Girls, is a runner who is smart, savvy and sure of herself.  She has already crewed a number of 100 milers and volunteered for the Columbus Marathon, and she ran her first half marathon earlier this spring.  Lexi will be in charge of our photography, video and social media efforts while slinging sports drinks, ice and snacks with the others.

With Lexi, her dad and her younger sister Molly at the Princess Half Marathon - she would make her half marathon debut there a year later.
Last, at least alphabetically, is Steve Zeidner, a very, very good ultrarunner from Columbus.  Stevie-Z joined the local trail and ultrarunning circuit around the same time Star and I did, and has also become a close friend both on and off the trails.  He is just coming off of a run from Cleveland to Cincinnati (210 miles in four days) to raise funds for Cystic Fibrosis research, and we got lucky to snag him for our journey.
Steve is on the far left; Star took this on a winter morning after a run with her "crew of mountain men."  Some Badwater trivia:  the guy on the right is Jay Smithberger, runner #91 at this year's Badwater; the guy in blue is one David "Mountain Lion" Huss, who will be crewing for him.

Between all my hard work and the skills, abilities and general awesomeness of my crew, I feel we are as prepared as any team in this race. And that will help me enjoy this journey so much more! Believe me, I am going to love it out there!

Someone recently asked me what I was going to do to celebrate my 50th birthday AFTER I got done with Badwater.
But this is my celebration! I am with people I love and care about so much, who love and care enough about me to provide support in the middle of the desert during the hottest time of year (and one of the hottest times in recorded history).

I will be testing my limits like I never have before in all my 18,250 days on Earth.

My life’s mantra is: “So, what are you waiting for?”

Regardless of how things shake out, I know the answer to that question with regard to this journey. I am waiting for exactly nothing. I am in Death Valley, having the time of my life.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Listening To The Voice Of Reason – She Knows Of What She Speaks

“You Can’t Win If You Aren’t In The Lead.”
-          Me

The year was 2008, the location where I muttered that line to myself was Mile 15 of  the Burning River 100 in Northeast Ohio.
This was an Olympic year, Beijing to be exact, and excitement for another great Games was building.

But before they took place, I had Burning River to face. This race has a lot of meaning for me. My first 100 miler a year earlier, it starts in Willoughby, where I had my first newspaper job out of Kent State University’s school of journalism, and finishes in my hometown of Cuyahoga Falls. In between, the course traveled through parks I loved as a youngster and towns I know well.
And now, here I was at Mile 15, and I had just taken the lead in the race.

Frankly, I was quite astounded with my situation at that moment, and took advantage of the opportunity to make myself a legend in my own mind.
“This is your Olympics.”

“You can’t win if you aren’t in the lead.”
When I got to an aid station several miles later, one of the people checking race numbers called out, “you’re in first place!”

“I know! It’s crazy, isn’t it?” I called back.

These weren't my Olympics, but I knew of what I spoke!

Wow, was that the truth.
You can probably guess what happened soon after. Apparently 100 miles really is 100 miles. And while I led for 15 percent of the race, that only got me to mile 30 before someone else passed me. Then someone else. And so on, eight times total.

I ended the race  that year in 9th place with a time of 21 hours and 43 minutes. Certainly not bad, and a time many people would love to achieve.
But if I hadn’t done what I ended up doing, I bet things would have turned out much differently.  

Steve Prefontaine, the iconic middle-distance runner, used to go as hard as he could for as long as he could in races, to see who had the most guts.
I only compare myself to Pre in noting that my way of approaching that 2008 race was how he probably would have run ultras. And he probably would have won the 30-mile division of every 100 miler he entered. Then he would have puked his guts out.

Not puking my guts out, but not feeling the love either.  Pictured with my youngest Badwater crew member, Lexi - you'll hear more about her later this week.  Hint: though only 15, it's not her first rodeo.

In an ultra, you don’t have to be in the lead early, or even in first place close to the end, to still end up winning, or at least do well. And the best example I know of someone following this route happens to be very close to me: My wife Star.
My wife is very competitive. Just try being married to her (she said I could use that line).

You think I kid?  Here she's just starting to pick up some speed running into a mile 40 aid station ...
And here she is kissing me good-bye as she leaves the aid station.  I wouldn't get close to her again - until I dropped.  Another experienced BW crew member, Robin, is in the black top.

But Star hasn’t come across that way in the early parts of any of the 100 milers she has run. “Second Half Star” is a title I gave her because that is how she runs ultras. And of the eight she has done, she has been 2nd place woman twice and captured 3rd place three times (National Championship third places twice at Burning River, FYI), so she IS competitive.
One of her 2nd place finishes was actually more of a “fun” run at the Umstead 100 in North Carolina, which she set out to run very conservatively after only five weeks of training. We both also lost a ton of time when slowed by a crazed guy attacking runners and then helping a participant this madman injured.

Yet as she has done to so many others, she hunted me down in the second half, and finished only 30 seconds behind me - and I was working hard just to finish. I am hanging on to that Blackford family 100-mile PR of 19 hours 23 minutes as long as I can, but she is knocking on the door with every race she does.
Her strategy is so simple and proven, yet it has failed to sink in for me. Until now. She has devised a plan for how I should run the Badwater 135 that I have promised I will follow in pursuing my goal of breaking 30 hours.

I admit it is going to be hard to do this, because I am going to want to go out as fast as possible. And why not? In the ultramarathoning world, Badwater is one of the jewel races, and this year’s field again features a “who’s who” among runners.
Oswaldo Lopez, who was 2nd last year in 23:32:28 (he won in 2011 with 23:41:40);

Badwater veteran and Navy seal David Goggins, who did 2,588 pull-ups before injuring his forearm in attempting to break the 24-hour world record;
Dean Karnazes and Marshall Ulrich, who many people know for their long-distance running antics and books;

Charlie Engle, featured in the movie “Running The Sahara;”
Pam Reed, the only woman to win Badwater two times outright;

And of course, the most awesome Chris Moon, who was in the documentary about Badwater, “Running On The Sun,” and for whom Star and I had the privilege to crew last year.
This year’s field also includes two fellow Ohioans I admire: Harvey Lewis of Cincinnati, who came in 4th at Badwater last year (26:15:51), and Jay Smithberger of Granville, a local ultra-running legend who has done and won many races.

Heck, dare I say it … “This is my Olympics?”
Well I just did. Now I just have to stop saying it or even thinking it, and stay focused on my plan. That is why I am sharing my pace chart, so those of you who might follow my progress at on July 15 and 16 can hold me to it.

Checkpoint 1 – Mile 17.4 – Running time: 3 hours, 7 minutes
Checkpoint 2 -  Mile 41.9 – 7:31

Checkpoint 3 – Mile 72.3 – 16:36

Checkpoint 4 – Mile 90.1 – 21:35
Checkpoint 5 – Mile 122.3 – 25:59

Checkpoint 6 – Mile 131 – 28:23
Finish – Mile 135 – 29:45

This takes into account the high temperatures, uphills and distance Badwater presents, particularly on the first day of the race. Once night falls and I get to some major downhill sections (10-mile-long stretches of descent) I might get to some checkpoints earlier, but none of that can happen until Day 2 (Happy 50th Birthday to me!).
While service is spotty in Death Valley, the race organizers do a great job of updating the progress of the racers, and my crew will likely be posting messages when we reach towns along the way.

Feel free to send comments and commentary to keep me on track!
Meanwhile, thank you for your interest in this adventure, and if you feel inclined, please support the two charities for which I am competing: The Mid-Ohio Marine Foundation (, and Always Brothers (  Several people have done so already – THANK YOU! – and I suspect others are waiting to see if I can actually complete this monster.

Picking these two charity groups to support, do I have a choice?
Bottom line is the Marines and families these groups help have endured much worse things on our collective behalf than me running across the desert “for fun,” so show your support for them and for me with a donation without even leaving the air conditioning!
One of my favorite Death Valley shots ever.  When life seems overwhelming sometimes, I still think of this odd bit of plant life, and how insignificant most of my worries are.  I'll be looking for you out there, friend.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Going the Extra Mile ... and Then Some ...

“The awful truth began to dawn on him. There was no Secret! His days would have to be spent in exactly this manner, give or take a mile or two, for longer than he cared to dwell upon, if he really wanted to see the olive wreath up close. It was going to be the most difficult, heart-rending process he would endure in the course of his life.”
John L. Parker Jr. in Once A Runner

Mr. Parker wrote the truth in describing the efforts of his book’s hero, Bruce Denton. There truly are no secrets when it comes to running.
But Bruce, for all his successes, fictional or not, never attempted the Badwater 135.

And while I have been living the “Trial of Miles, Miles of Trials” lifestyle in preparing for this arduous trek across Death Valley, I have also been willing to try a few less-than-mainstream tricks to hopefully get me farther on down the hot, dry, dusty road in two weeks.
I have previously described my high mileage training – 1,300 of them over 12 weeks to be exact. I have averaged about 10 miles a day for years, so this part of my preparation suits me.

And I have been doing heat training with long runs in Florida, wearing extra clothing on runs here in Columbus, and spending an increasing amount of time in a sauna – up to an hour at nearly 200 degrees – as I teach my body to adapt and become more efficient at processing fluids.
All of it seems to be working. When I go out for a run, I simply go, and go, and go. My legs no  longer grow tired while running, and no longer feel sore after I finish. Even after the 50 miles I recently ran on trails, after which I ordinarily would have been hobbling for a couple of days, I ran 10 miles the next morning to round out my peak mileage week, then rolled right into another high-mileage week. I am not becoming as hot as quickly on my heat-of-the-day long runs, either, and not feeling dehydrated afterward.

But this doesn’t mean I haven’t employed a few “secret” training methods. Fact is,  I am still scared of what lies ahead at Badwater, and am not afraid to try things that may help me survive and even thrive in the desert.
Like put on 18.5 pounds.

Yes, a number of times in recent weeks, I have donned a 10-pound weight vest, plus a hydration pack full of sports drink, and gone out and run hills. Specifically a half-mile hill in a local park, or another one in my neighborhood. I have built up to 10 repeats, and suffice it to say, it is hard work.
Not as much work as the 18-mile, 15-mile and 13-mile ascents I will encounter at Badwater, but I also won’t be wearing 12 percent of my body weight on my shoulders as I climb 13,000 feet over 135 miles, either.

While strapped into this vest/fluid pack contraption, I feel the full extent of the extra weight, and my breathing is a bit constricted since everything is cinched on tight.

Not that I feel any less constricted, nay claustrophobic, when I wear my “mask.”
Ready for altitude ... and doomsday drills.

What? Yes, I bought something called an “elevation mask” that I have worn a couple of times in the sauna. This beauty looks just like a gas mask, and has vents and filters you can use to basically make it increasingly difficult to breathe.

Not sure it is replicating time spent at altitude or anything, but it definitely forces one to fight for air, which is something, especially when that someone is me, inside a 200-degree sauna. Don’t worry, I only do this for very limited amounts of time, I promise.
There is another limit to this gizmo that I’ve already reached. I don’t care if it could train me well enough to sprint up Mt. Everest, I just can’t bring myself to wear it outside. No need to scare children and small animals or draw the wrath of the local authorities when out for my run.

Finally, there is something else I will be wearing on my face that will hopefully help me beat the heat – a white beard.
Trying it out while on a break from crewing last year.  See how reflective?
Experts say you should wear light-colored clothing for optimal coolness in bright sunshine. Well, thanks to my genetic disposition, my beard grows in white despite my youthfulness, so maybe my light-colored whiskers will form some kind of shield that reflects the light. Perhaps it will hold moisture longer than bare skin, too. I will arrive in the desert a few days early, so if this reflective fur becomes a furnace, I can always shave it off.

Badwater veterans cite three things they train for when preparing for this race: The distance, the hills, and the heat.
I am doing all three, in ways that suit me, including some that are well-understood and despite the ridiculous of the event, traditional. I am putting in the miles, I am going up and down hills, and I am building up tolerance to high temperatures.

Overcoming fear of it all isn’t something I have heard too many of the experts talk about, so I have come up with my own ways to get beyond them. And if my methods work, then the secret will be out …
NOTE:  The beard worked for this guy ...

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Wet Cold Nightmare in Hell

“Physical Discomfort Is Important Only When The Mood Is Wrong.”
This quote adorned t-shirts my dad got for me and my brother one Christmas. I don’t recall whatever happened to my shirt, but I never forgot the message. And on various occasions I have muttered the phrase to myself to try and get my mind back to a good place when my body is  uncomfortable and my mood is very dark.

Like at the Hallucination 100 in aptly named Hell, Michigan last September.
After I decided I was going to apply to the 2013 Badwater 135, I gained one strong item for my running resume when Star and I crewed racer Chris Moon at Badwater last summer. But even though I had done several 100 milers, I still needed to get one of these completed within 12 months of applying to the race.

Hence, Hallucination.
Although it is every inch of 100 miles, this race doesn’t have the major elevation changes, super technical trails or severe conditions sometimes found at others. It also starts in the afternoon, which I kind of liked so I could get the dark over and done with sooner. Hitting nighttime after 15 hours of running at ultras that start at dawn really knocks my body rhythm for a loop, but this time evening would only be a few hours away.

Finally, it is a loop course, so I would see my crew chief (actually my entire crew!) Star every three or so hours, and she would even get to pace me in the later part of the race.
So off we went at 4 p.m. I started steadily, just cruising along, enjoying the day, staying comfortable, my mind in a good place. Several miles in, going through a field, I saw several runners ahead of me jumping up and down, and could hear them shouting. When I reached the point where their impromptu dance party was held, WHAM, I began doing my own jig, as the source of the fun was found to be a swarm of bees.

Luckily I was only stung once in my left lower leg, but it was right at the top of my sock where it touched my ankle. Each step the cloth rubbed the spot, which began to swell and itch. Not comfortable.
At least it was early enough in my race that I was not troubled with any other discomfort, so I shook it off and continued.

The course suited me very well. I really do not like trail running all that much, but just when I started getting frustrated or bored, the route switched to road or bike path. Then, after a while, when I felt I could endure some different scenery, it changed back to trail.
Eventually I got through Loop 1 and met up with Star. I felt good. She even noted that my mood seemed upbeat. I was running smart and enjoying myself.

Starting loop 2 and as happy as I get on trails.  Peace, man.
My time at the aid station was fairly brief. I got some food and drink, loaded up on food items I would carry for later, and took off on Loop 2.

Out on the course it was more of the same. Just a good day that was starting to turn to night, albeit darkness was descending a bit quickly as clouds had begun to form overhead. I was not only still feeling good, but I knew after this loop Star would be joining me to run Loop 3, so I was anxious to get this one completed.
About ¾ the way through the loop, the darkness of the clouds revealed their treat – rain. It was light showers, but it was still wet, the bane of an ultrarunner’s existence. That is unless you like feeling wet clothes sticking to you, cold chills, and chafing for hours and hours.

I emerged from the woods to the most welcome sight – Star, dressed in her gear, ready to join me on Loop 3 despite the rain! Knowing she would be with me eased my mind immensely. This weather was not going to foul my mood after all!

Pacer to the rescue!
A quick refueling, and off we went. Along the trails. Onto the roads and bike path. Back onto the trails. The two ultra-amigos, doing our thing, just running along in the rain.

La-la-la, la la yuck … Yeah, after a while, even our happy little corner of the world began to suck a bit. And as the rain worsened, it began to suck a lot.
Star remained encouraging, telling me she was so proud of me and doing all the things a pacer does to lighten the mood for a runner who even under the best circumstances starts to go to some bad places.

Trouble was, she wasn’t just wet from the rain, she was getting increasingly cold. I was too, but she suffers from a mild form of Reynauds, so the cold isn’t just uncomfortable for her, it hurts. Circulation to her extremities becomes limited, causing her hands and feet to turn bright red and painful, her lips purple, and she must get warm.
As we pulled into the aid station after completing Loop 3, I knew where things stood for her even though she fought the reality of the situation. She was done pacing, and was going to have to go sit in the car with the heater on to get warm. She felt terrible, like she was abandoning me, but I explained to her that I would feel worse if she DIDN’T take care of herself. There was no benefit to her continuing, even if she could, and it certainly wouldn’t help me worrying about her when I still had 50 miles to go to finish this thing.

Ah yes, me finishing this thing.
Before she went to the warmth of the car, we grabbed our clothes bag with dry gear, and headed for the only shelter available at 3 in the morning in the rainy campground that serves as race headquarters – the cement block restroom/shower building.

I went into the men’s room, and Star followed. The heck with decorum, and besides, no campers were foolish enough to be up, and any runners would understand.
The restroom was warmer than the outside temperature, but I was soaking wet, and began to shiver. I stripped off my wet clothes, toweled off the dampness, and pulled on dry items as Star ran the hand dryer to warm herself.

Slowly we began to thaw and I started to feel better. And that was bad. See, I was warmer and dry. And I knew what lie ahead of me as soon as I walked out that door. Wet and cold.
Full disclosure: this photo is actually from the start of the 2012 Rocky Raccoon 100.  But yeah, that's exactly what it looked out outside the bathroom door.
As if on cue, the door swung open, and in came a camper to pee.
He was surprised to see someone else up at this hour, and very surprised to see a woman in the men’s room.

“Sorry, we’re just trying to get warm,” I said. “No problem,” he countered, and walked down to the end of the room, leaving us by the sinks.

When he returned, he noticed all our wet clothes and saw us trying to get warm.
“You runners are crazy,” he said. “Yeah,” I countered.

“You know if you aren’t having any fun you can always stop,” he said as he opened the door and headed back into the rain.
Yes I could. And that is the moment when my mood changed.

Badwater was my dream. Unfortunately at the moment I was in the middle of a wet, cold nightmare in Hell, Michigan at 3 in the morning.
I was at that proverbial fork in the trail, road and bike path. I could heed the point raised by my peeing compatriot and quit and be comfortable. And with a flush, my dream would be gone.

Or I could change my mood, forget the discomfort, and do what I came to do.
As I exited that warmish restroom during the rainy early morning hours in Hell, the temperature suddenly dropped, and my body immediately became wet. Strangely, I barely noticed.

And in a couple weeks, when I am on that dry, hot road in Death Valley and I am most likely very uncomfortable, I will run my thoughts back to that night when I was so wet and cold. And when I do, I feel fairly certain that my mood will change.
That, my friends, is the power of dreams.