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.

1 comment:

  1. Great recap, Darris! Such a tremendous journey and thank you for sharing it with the many of us who will never have the ability or courage to attempt something like this. You rock!