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.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Keeping Myself Out of Hot Water at Badwater

Earlier This year, Death Valley earned the distinction of having the highest temperature ever recorded on earth. Back on July 10, 1913, it got up to 134 degrees. The top spot was held by some dusty corner of Libya, but the 136 degrees once recorded there was tossed out on a technicality, moving DV up to the top spot – We’re #1!
From the looks of the readings being posted thus far in 2013, that 100-year-old Death Valley record might fall just in time for the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon.

Yeah, because the 125 degrees I once ran in while visiting there wasn’t hot enough.
Don’t get me wrong – I love hot weather. And perhaps more strongly, I hate the cold, a relative term, since what is “cold” to me is comfortable, even warm to others.

My running friends know this, and no longer bat an eye when I show up in long running pants, a pair of shirts (one long-sleeved), mittens and a winter hat when it is in the mid-50s.
That's me - NOT training for Badwater, on a sunny 65-degree day in Ohio.
I was born to run in Death Valley in the middle of July, which is why I am capping off the end of my 49th year and the start of my 50th by taking part in the Badwater 135 on the eve and day of my birthday, July 15-16.

All this talk of loving the heat and birthright running across the desert, though, doesn’t measure up to much compared to the realities of the extreme temperatures of Death Valley. As described in the 1999 documentary “Running On The Sun” by my good friend Chris Moon, whom my wife Star and I crewed at Badwater 2012, the heat is “fierce.”

He said to get a feel for it, grab a hair dryer, point it at your face, and turn it on full blast. That gets the point across – to your face – but I believe the true effects require 1,000 hair dryers, turned on high and pointed at your entire body for 10 hours.
I am not exaggerating the heat – and I am not hiding the fact that I am scared of it.

I have crewed two different times, and visited Death Valley on other occasions, including the 125-degree day Star and I went there “for fun.” Not only is the heat unrelenting, it seems alive and rudely acts like it could care less about me, you, or anything else it envelops. I mean it – it feels like an angry death force.

Doing the Badwater 135 sounds like a great way to celebrate 50 years of living, then, huh?
I think so, too, but not without adequate preparation.

That is why you may have seen me out on a sunny, warm day running on our local bike path or in my neighborhood wearing a black, long-sleeved windbreaker, maybe even running pants, mittens and a winter hat.
It's 90 in Ohio now, so some days I'll skip the winter hat.
It is also why Star and I took a three-day trip over the long Memorial Day weekend to Ft. Lauderdale where I did 25 miles a day for three straight days in 80-90 degree temperatures, then threw in a fourth 25 miler the day we got home because back in Columbus it was above 80.

Company for this one!

And it is now why I have been camping out for an increasing amount of time in a friend’s sauna, where my sessions start at room temperature of maybe 75 degrees, climb to a recorded 200, then drop back to a steady 170 for longer and longer periods.
I plan to complete about 30 sauna sessions before the race. And this doesn’t include time in our “junior sauna” – the upstairs bathroom in our home warms up nicely in the summer, and has a built-in wall heater, so I can get it to 100 degrees or so while the rest of the house is cool.

The basket of guest towels comes with a thermometer.  It was 91 up there today without the heater.

During my time in the heat, whether the sauna, my cozy bathroom or even out running in layers or warm days in Florida, I am drinking increasing amounts of water and sports drink. The point of all this heat training is to teach my body to process as much fluid as possible to stave off dehydration. Running in high temperatures and dry winds means I will be pumping out gallons of sweat as I proceed across the desert, and I need to be able to replace this liquid – untrained, the body can’t absorb it quickly enough.
How much “life” I absorb from this whole experience remains to be seen …

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Going For It: Badwater Training Plan

I enjoy running a lot of miles. Good thing, because I have been doing a lot of them preparing to tackle the Badwater 135.
Since I started logging daily mileage at back in 2007, I have recorded nearly 24,000 miles. Considering that I began this running thing back in 1987 and have done nearly 170 marathons, six, 100 milers, and all the prep work for these and countless other shorter races, I am probably at or near 50,000 lifetime miles.

At the finish of my first 100-miler, 2007.                                        

That is why my rather aggressive plan to prepare for the Badwater 135 wasn’t too daunting to me – on paper.
I learned in mid-February that I was accepted into Badwater, and already had a great mileage base going. I had raced a marathon in late 2012 and had paced about 10 others throughout that year and into early 2013. I also had done a 100-mile race in September and another in early February, and was in the midst of training for the 2013 Boston Marathon when I got word that I was chosen for the Badwater field.

Further, I have crewed Badwater twice and visited Death Valley on other occasions, so know what the distance, the heat and the hills are all about “out there.” I understand what it takes to get from point A (the Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Continental USA) to point B (Mt. Whitney Portal, two-thirds the way up the highest point in the lower 48).
Crewing Chris Moon through Lone Pine, 2012.  Photo credit to AdventureCORPS.              
So, it didn’t seem too big of a deal to work up a 12-week, 1,300-mile training plan. Believe me,  it has been quite a different thing actually doing it. But doing it I am, thanks to an unbelievably supportive, ultra-marathon-running wife who gets it, having a job that allows me to work any and all hours as long as I get it all done, and being blessed with enough physical stamina and strength to not fall asleep while standing and moving forward one step at a time for hours at a time for weeks at a time or breaking bones and tearing muscles and ligaments from excessive pounding day-after-day-after-day.

Here is where I am thus far:

Week 1 – 90 miles – Done (First week, getting warmed up)
Week 2 – 110 miles - Done
Week 3 – 100 miles – Done (My “rest” week)
Week 4 – 120 miles - Done
Week 5 – 150 miles – Done (including three days of 25 miles each in the South Florida heat)
Week 6 – 140 miles - Done
Week 7 – 100 miles – Done (Another “rest” week)
This is Week 8,  which will have me doing another 150 miles, including 50 of them at the Mohican 50/100 race this Saturday at Mohican State Park near Mansfield.

Survive this, and it gets easier (!), with 120 miles in Week 9, then a three-week taper of 90, 80 and 50 miles.

                            My wife and I heading out for 25 of those really hot Lauderdale miles.

Then the real “Challenge of the Champions” begins at 10 a.m. on Monday, July 15, when the temperature at the Starting Line will likely be about 110 degrees, climbing to near 130 degrees, and I will ascend 13,000 feet over the 135-mile-long course in something less (hopefully) than 30 hours. Needs to be at least less than 38 hours so I can finish on my 50th birthday.

Oh, did I mention the “special training” I am doing in conjunction with all these miles to prepare for the heat and the hills? We’ll talk about “that” another time …

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Warm Heart In The Blistering Heat – My Charitable Mission To Death Valley

Friends, this July I am taking part in the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley. This 135-mile footrace starts at the Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level the lowest spot in North America, and finishes about two-thirds the way up Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. Yes, Death Valley in July, when the daytime temperatures could hit 130 degrees.
I will start on the last day of my 49th year, and finish the next day when I turn 50.
I am footing the entire cost of this adventure myself. All travel, crew expenses, equipment, etc. I don’t believe it is right to ask others to help me pay for my “fun.”
At the same time, this is a rather epic ordeal, and I believe it should be associated in some way with a charitable initiative. Most of the other 100 people competing with me this summer agree, and are running Badwater to raise money for a number of worthy charities.
I have selected two charities which hold special meaning to me.
·        The Mid-Ohio Marine Foundation ( I first became involved with this group during my time working at A.D. Farrow Co. Harley-Davidson. The MOMF was formed after nearly two dozen U.S. Marine reservists from Lima Company 3/25, based in Columbus, were killed in Iraq in 2005. We did a variety of fundraising activities for the group, and I was asked to serve as a trustee, a post I still hold.

·        Always Brothers ( The group was formed by Marines to pay tribute to one of the fallen members of Lima Company 3/25, and has held several running initiatives to pay tribute to fallen Marines and to support their families. Last year my wife and I took part in the “100 Miles For Lima” run from Cincinnati to Columbus.
If you feel my attempt to conquer Death Valley this summer is worthy of your support, please consider a donation to my two charity choices – the Mid-Ohio Marine Foundation or Always Brothers. The groups will split all the money that comes in, so making a donation is easy – put one of the group’s names on the check, with Death Valley in the memo line, and mail it to me:
Darris Blackford
c/o Athletic Club of Columbus
136 E. Broad Street
Columbus, OH 43215

You also can go to either group’s website and donate via Paypal.  

Thank for your kindness, your support and your friendship as I celebrate my first 50 years this July 16th  in what will end up being a very worthwhile, albeit warm, way.