Friday, July 20, 2012

2012 Badwater Race Report

A very hard-earned finish (38hrs 6mins)

After all the training, all of the logistics, all of the money spent, and all of the anticipation, my Badwater race was nearly over before it began.  It could even be argued that I shouldn't have finished at all.  So when I crossed that finish line a long 38 hrs after starting, I was ecstatic to simply be there.  I will explain what I mean by all this in a minute....

Since crossing that finish line, many people have already asked me, "so which was harder...the Barkley or the Badwater?".  Without question, there's no comparison.  Barkley is a harder race.  With that said however, I was definitely in more discomfort and pain during Badwater (even more than my torn up feet at Barkley).  I didn't really have a time goal going into the race, but I honestly felt that I could have finished around 35 hours.  Had everything gone like it normally does, I probably would have....but the problems were many....

Race Report

Pre-Race Troubles:
By Friday morning, everything was on schedule, and all the planning had paid off.  I was relaxing in Las Vegas having just spent another day on the town.  I was ready.  My pacer was ready.  My family (crew) was ready.  It was going to be epic.  I was excited about the anticipated moderate forecast for Death Valley (115 Degrees).   But then everything changed.

Saturday morning about 3 am I woke up with incredible stomach pains.  They came and went for hours and I got very little sleep after that.  When we got up in the morning I decided to keep this information to myself and chalk it up to nerves.  We went through the pack-up/check-out motion in preparation to leave for Furnace Creek and the race check-in, but just before heading out the door I raced to the bathroom and lost it.  And it wasn't pretty.  Dark green bile....disgusting stuff.  I was definitely ill.  I haven't thrown up in over 10 years, so going through this experience a short 2 days before race start immediately had me in a panic.  What was I going to do?  I immediately began feeling terrible and I now everyone else knew.  So here we were, everyone in Vegas for me, thousands of dollars spent, and I now had some sort of intestinal virus.  Perfect.

I told everyone that maybe it was just something I ate and I would try to just take it easy until the race.  On the drive to Furnace Creek I got sick in the car a few more times, but managed to keep from throwing up.  When we arrived, we checked in and I took a long nap.  When I woke up I was covered in sweat, chilled to the bone (mind you it was 110 degrees out), and running a fever.  Add to that, I had absolutely zero appetite.  Everyone else in town was carb-loading, laughing, chatting about race strategies, and there I was....a sick, curled-up mess.

When I woke up Sunday, after a decent night's sleep, I felt a little better and thought perhaps I might have just had a 24-hour bug.  My appetite was partially back and I was able to move around without the intense stomach aches.  I went through all the check-in hooplah, and met all the other runners and did my best to put my recent issues out of my mind.  We took our big group photo, and I had race "mugshot" taken for the website.

2012 Badwater Runners!

My mugshot

By later that evening I thought I was in the clear.  We went to the furnace creek cafe for dinner and I had a good amount of pasta.  Of course half way through my meal the entire restaurant had to be evacuated due to one of the air conditioning units was rather interesting.  The entire place filled up with smoke and I truly thought the it was going to burn down.  As my old man would have said, "never a dull moment".  I went to bed cautiously optimistic about the following morning.   Ugh...but then all hell broke loose.

At about 1 am I woke up with my first round of new stomach pains...and this time accompanied by some very uncomfortable business on the toilet.   The combination went on about every 30 minutes until morning....meaning now I had gotten very little sleep on the night before the race, and that I was having to make constant bathroom visits.  I hadn't even thought about how I was going to eat during the race without an appetite.  At this point I was simply thinking how was I even going to start.

The Race:
I immediately informed everyone in my crew of my new predicament and my current "shitty" feeling (pun intended), and that I was having serious doubts about everything.  I felt absolutely horrible, both physically and for letting everyone down.  The thought of a 10k was terrible, let alone a 135-mile ultramarathon.  What could I do?  I had come this far...I had to at least run a mile.  So we drove to the start.  It was a surreal experience driving the 17 miles down to Badwater Basin and seeing the 6:00 am starters running by on the road....realizing that I was about to be one of them.

At the start we took our group photo, I weighed in, and we paused for the National Anthem.  At 8 am sharp, I delicately started jogging down the road with about 30 other runners in my wave just praying that my bathroom urges would hold off for as long as possible.  Needless to say I was carrying a large quantity of baby wipes just in case.

8:00 am wave photo


Trying as hard as possible to look not-sick.

Just starting....!

My wave starting (Look for me at around 15 seconds and 38 seconds)

The first few miles were actually shaded from the sun by the mountain and it offered us about 20 minutes of 90 degree "cool" weather.  I was simply trying to get one foot in front of the other but the truth is that I felt absolutely awful.  My stomach was gurgling, pissed-off, and I just wanted to sleep.  

Carri (my sister) and Josh (pacer) were crewing the first 17 miles (my mom was waiting at Furnace Creek).  I told them to go 3 miles up and we'd see if that was a good distance.  After what seemed like an eternity and long after running out of water, I finally reached them.  3 miles into Badwater and I was ready to go home.  Josh ran out and swapped out my bottle and I told them to go 2 miles this time.  I was doing ok considering, so I plodded on.  No bathroom stops yet, although it became apparent that when that time came, there wouldn't be any sort of privacy for it.  I'd literally be squatting in the open for all to see.

 The 2-mile crew stops came and went and soon I was nearly 10 miles in, still holding on, but not well.  I started thinking about what the earliest someone every DNF'd at Badwater.  Mile 10?  Mile 17 at Furnace Creek?  I made the decision that I had to at least run, walk, or crawl to Furnace Creek.  At least then I could say I made it to the first major checkpoint, gave it an honest go, and no one would think less of me for DNF'ing when I was clearly ill.  So I reluctantly told my crew to keep going 2 miles at a go.  Those 17 miles just wouldn't come though.  Around mile 12 you can see Furnace Creek off in the distance, but when out in the long expansive valleys of California, there is no sense of distance.  No matter how many steps I took, the buildings never seemed to get closer.

Early on in the first 2 shaded miles

Mile ~3

Mile ~5

Finally at mile 16, I could see that the end was close.  I was going to go in to the resort, sit on the toilet (which I desperately needed to do at this point), and pray for a miracle.  I honestly felt so horrible, that I really just thought about quitting right there.  When I pulled in, I hit the bathroom but found I couldn't really go.  It was frustrating.  I headed back towards the road, saw my mom excitedly waiting for me and ready to jump in the crew van, and I couldn't bring myself to quit.  I just couldn't.  The next 23 miles are considered the toughest of the entire race.  Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells is long, hot, brutally dry, and often very windy.   I started up the road telling my crew van to go 1.5 miles this time.  Before Furnace Creek was even out of view I had to quickly leap behind a rock and take care of business.  It was awful.  I almost just laid down in the dirt right there afterward.  There was no denying it.  I might have been able to somehow will it away for those first 17 miles, but I was terribly ill, and it wasn't going to hold off anymore.  I was also now starting into what would be the hottest stretch and I knew I was doomed.  I started walking...very slowly.  Every once in a while I jogged for a bit, but then fell back to a walk.  I had nothing in me.  I hadn't really eaten anything either so was terribly behind on nutrition.  Every 20 minutes I was ducking behind a desert shrub or rock to do business again.  I was getting very worried about dehydration at this point as issue only magnified by my current situation.

When I finally made it to the van, I told everyone I didn't think I could continue.  My mom was worried about the dehydration issue at this point too.  Josh offered to pace for a little to see if it might lift my spirits and help me through, but I honestly thought, why?  So I can go 5 more miles?  I wasn't going to get to the end, so what did it matter?  Still I agreed.  I drank as much as I could, gagged down a few clif shots, and we jogged to another stop about 1.5 miles further up the road (after what seemed like an eternity and after yet another bathroom break).  At this point Josh offered to just walk with running...for a while and I agreed, but only if the stops were 1 mile apart.  So this was the situation for about next 8 miles or so.  We went a mile at a go, with very little running, but my intestinal issues gradually began to intensify.  Even with the temporary relief that the bathroom stops gave me, the stomach pain in general never went away...and by mile 28 or so, that baseline pain was punctuated every few minutes by intense sharp pangs that literally had me hunching over on the side of the road in agony.  I have never experienced intestinal pain like this in all of my life.  It was absolutely horrible.  At mile 30 I sat down in a chair at my car in intense pain and everyone knew it was over.  The medical car saw me and pulled over to come talk with me.  The asked me about my condition and I told them that it all started two days before the race as more of a viral/bug...not from race-day heat.  They suggested I try a little ensure or protein drink, take an immodium, and if that didn't work, I always had the option to stake my position on the course, and drive up to town to cool off in the medical tent.  They said perhaps a very long toilet session would "get it all through me".  I took a few sips of an ensure drink and told everyone I would try one more mile, but it was only so I could say that I at least tried.  I already knew at this point that I was going to "stake out".

When Josh and I pulled up to the car a mile later (Mile 31 on the course) I was hunched over and begging to be taken to medical.  We staked the road with my wooden number and I was off the 10 miles up to stovepipe wells via air-conditioned car.  I was so angry.  After training so hard, and taking so much of everyone's time, I was now leaving the course...likely not to return.  My stomach felt like it was being repeatedly stabbed with a dull knife.  Before even making it to the Stovepipe Wells I was in so much pain that I urgently sat up in the front seat screaming "pull over!".  Josh hadn't even gotten the car stopped and I was puking out the half-open door.   I have never in my life thrown up just from physical pain this was a very new experience for me.  When we made it to the town, I dragged myself to the pool bathroom and sat on the toilet in the cool room for over a half hour.  It was terrible, but after it was all over, I did feel slightly better.    Everyone wanted to know what my plan was.  The super-intense stomach pangs had subsided, so I told them that I'd be willing to see if I got it out of my system and try the 10 miles we skipped.

Back-On.  Maybe...
So it was tentatively back on.  Sitting in the cool bathroom had somehow made the idea to go back into 118 degree Death Valley with a stomach bug seem like a good one.  We all hopped in the car and drove back the 10 miles to where I staked-out...having now lost over 2 hours of time.  I was in danger of even making the cutoffs at this point.  When I got out at my stake, I decided to jog a few miles myself at first just to see how I'd fare.  I did surprisingly ok.  No bathroom stop, but I could definitely tell my stomach was still gurgly.  After three miles, Josh jumped back out with me, but the pains were also starting to come back.  By the 7th mile, I was right back to where I was a few hours before.  Sharp pains and frequent stops.  I fought my way past the beautiful Mesquite Dunes for the final three miles and into Stovepipe Wells for a 2nd time (this time by foot) after 10 long hours since the start.  Along the side of the road, 1000-ft dust devil tornadoes were spinning off in the distance.  It was quite beautiful.  At this point, I was only 2 hours ahead of the cutoff, and clearly at the "end of the pack".  I sat in the bathroom for another half-hour and then got into the glorious pool to cool off.  It was the only moment of joy that I had experienced all morning, albeit very short-lived.  When I got out, I felt better.  As I walked out back to the car a race volunteer asked how I was doing and I said that I had a nasty stomach bug.  She looked at me and said, "drink a kills everything!"  I laughed but figured why not at this point.  I pulled a coke zero out of my cooler and drank it as well as a full bottle of my Ultragen mix.  I don't know if it was the last bathroom session, the pool, the coke, the immodium, or the ultragen, but somehow I felt remarkably refreshed.  The sun was starting get lower on the horizon so the temps were dropping as well.  The 17 miles out of Stovepipe Wells are a long slow climb up to Townes Pass.  This meant it would be a lot of power hiking anyway, so I figured why not at least try.  My sharp pains had gone away again, and I felt noticeably better than I did the last time I left Stovepipe.  So, we headed out....again,

coming up to the car around mile 25...hurting badly

One of many enormous wind-driven dust devils

Mesquite Dunes

Townes Pass and My Solo Journey
Leaving Stovepipe, I made the decision to go solo.  This wasn't a dig on my pacer, but more so I could fight my demons on my own and try to find my zen place.  We decided on a 1.5 mile crew stop and I began a very ginger jog up the road.  When I hit the car, I still felt ok.  I sipped another ultragen, ate a gel, and decided to go for one more 1.5 mile leg.  Arriving at the car 15 minutes later, I again felt ok.  Could I have actually gotten it through me?  On the next 1.5 mile leg, the sun began to set and it was an absolutely stunning view back down into Death Valley from where I was on the road climb up to Townes Pass.  My crew had cooked me up some ramen noodles and it actually was appetizing.  My spirits were finally starting to lift.  For the first time during the entire race, I had a slight smile on my face.  The early evening glow was incredible, the air cool, and I was finding the place I always look for during ultras.  The place of calm that I struggle so hard to find in my every day life.

As the miles began to add up during the climb, I found my attitude slowly shifting to one of time-reconciliation.  With my stomach woes holding off, here was my chance to try to actually get back into the race.  I had to at least run with it as long as it lasted.  I knew I had lost a lot of time with my stake-out fiasco and wondered if it was even possible to make any of it back up.  I was hiking fast and strong on this climb, passing many along the way and stopping only for quick refills at the car.  By the time I made it to the Townes pass itself, I was feeling remarkably better and cooled off.  The temps were down in the 70's at that altitude, and I was itching to try running again.  Thankfully, coming down the backside of Townes pass into Panamint Valley gives you a 10-mile, fast stretch of road.  Here was my chance to test out my running legs again.  I took a gamble and told my crew to go for 2 miles...and I started running.  It felt great!  Finally!  A very short 16 minutes later at the car I told them to go for 3 miles this time.  Off in the distance I could see the long line of support cars speckled across Panamint valley and up the climb to the Darwin Plateau.  My goal was to now catch back up to them!  I hurriedly ran the entire 10 miles down to the valley floor and up the gradual climb to the Panamint Springs store, walking only a few times and passing at least a dozen more people.  It felt so good to be back in the race.  My stomach issues and bathroom breaks were still holding off, so I kept at it as best I could.

Starting the climb up Townes, having just eaten some ramen.
Sun just setting with Death Valley behind me

The end of the 17-mile climb

The Wee Hours...
I arrived at the Panamint Springs store after about 19 hours, a full 9 hours ahead of the cutoff.  I knew at this point that if I could continue, I would probably be safe from timing out.  After the stop in the store for some snacks and hot mac 'n cheese, I set out on the climb up to the Darwin Plateau....still alone.  I figured I was in a good groove, I didn't want to jinx it.  Plus, running the 2-5 am time slot in any 100-miler is always my favorite period of the race.  The climb up to Father Crowley's Lookout was my favorite section of the entire Badwater course.  It was 3 in the morning, cool air, narrow mountain roads, and beautiful stars.  I was so happy to be able to simply be enjoying it and that I somehow got through the worst of my problems.  About 6 miles out of Panamint Springs, my sister came out to pace me for about 4 miles.  Most of it was power-hiking, but it was nice to have some alone time with her just to chat.  I know having to share a stuffy car with two other people for hours on end must have been getting a bit tiresome.  I felt pretty bad about that too.  Right as I hit the lookout, the sun began to peak out from behind the far mountains and the air began to again warm up.  About mile 80 Josh hopped out and started pacing me again, with the goal of sticking with me until the end.  It was somewhere around here that I noticed the stomach issues starting to come back a bit.

Darwin and the Long Way to Lone Pine
Josh and I continued the 2-mile car stops and ran a fair portion up along the plateau until the small checkpoint at Darwin (Mile 90).  Somewhere along this point, my bathrooms breaks had returned in full swing.  I hadn't really changed any of my diet since earlier, so I decided to take another immodium, hoping that might help.  After checking in and changing into some cooler clothing, we started the 10 mile descent down from the plateau into Owens Valley.  I had grabbed my iPod in Darwin and was now cranking some serious motivational music (e.g. Van Halen).  This meant I was running...and running solid.  I continued to pass more runners in my long effort to make up lost time.  At the bottom of the descent, we passed an insignificant mile-marker sign that the race booklet identifies as the 100-mile mark in the race.  My mom stopped at the sign to crew us and took some pictures.  I though to myself that I had just completed the Badwater 100....for whatever that was worth.  Now, I just had a measly 35 miles to go!  Ugh.  The good news is that the immodium appeared to be working, as my symptoms had again subsided.

Running along the plateau

Mile 100!

We continued our 2-mile segments down into the valley and past the old mining town of Keeler at mile 107.  Off in the far distance we could clearly see Mt. Whitney and the massive wall of the Sierras.  They were just as I remembered them from my PCT thru-hike (minus the snow of course).  Lone Pine was easily identifiable by the green patch of vegetation at the base of the Alabama the base of Whitney.  It all seemed so close, but was still a good 15 miles away.  The temps began to hover around 92 and the wind was howling, blowing abrasive sand across our faces and legs.  I had my neck gaiter up over my mouth and nose to keep from breathing it all in.  Somewhere around mile 115 my body finally started revolting against me.  Strange pains, cramps, and muscle spasms began to kick in at random all over.  Running anything over 105 miles is very rare for me, so my body just isn't used to it.  Add to that, that my training was a little short on mileage for the few weeks leading up to the race, and it all made sense.  I tried taking a few extra salts and switched to walking alone, but I found I was limping very awkwardly.  On many occasions, my quads on either my right or left leg would simply give-out completely for a second or two, and I would find myself starting to fall over.  Most of the time I was able to catch myself before I actually ended up on the ground.  The final 10 miles into Lone Pine were the longest of the entire race.  Brutally long, flat, and endless feeling.  I could barely walk, I was hungry, and I just wanted to get to town.  I knew the final 12 miles up to the finish line are very steep and almost all hikable (not runable).  If I could make it to Lone Pine, rest, and recover....I could probably hike the finish.  After what seemed like a dozen crew stops, we finally made it to the highway 395 turnoff.  My mom and sister drove on up ahead to get some "real food" in Lone Pine, while Josh and I walked the busy highway up into town.  The extra salt tabs seemed to have helped with the muscle spasms, but I knew I still wasn't drinking enough water.  My legs ached terribly and I honestly didn't know if I had another 12-13 miles left in them.  We arrived at Dow Villa hotel in downtown Lone Pine and checked in before the long slow slog up to the Whitney Portal.  I took a decent break, drank another full ultragen, and recouped myself before heading up.

Almost at the HW 395 turnoff for Lone Pine

The Final Journey Home
Josh and I turned up the portal road and began the long hike to the finish.  The first 5 miles or so takes you through the beautiful and magical Alabama Hills.  Another absolutely remarkable section of the course.  What stunning scenery to admire when finishing such an intense race.  As we made our way up the first few 1.5 mile segments, we marveled at the surroundings and simply let the miles tick by slowly. Mt. Whitney was looming before us and the enormous and ominous "switchbacks" were as clear as day in front of us just a few miles.  Somewhere about 5-6 miles in, my fueling finally ran out completely and my attitude took a major and catastrophic shift.  My bathroom breaks had returned, and my energy level had plummeted to near-zero.  I knew I needed to fuel, but just didn't want to.  I figured I could just hold off until the finish (even though it was still a good 6 miles and several thousand feet away).  My attitude towards Josh turned south as well.  I became annoyed, irritable, and easily set-off.  I could have been walking with Mother Theresa and I probably still would have been an ass to her.  I was truly not a fun person to be around.  I knew it was happening, but I just didn't care.  I had an absolute "Piss Off" attitude towards everyone and everything.  I continued to slow down as the incline increased, and my energy level decreased, until my walk was barely a stagger.  At mile 131, when we reached the bottom of the final switchbacks, I made the call to do the next 1.5 mile stretch solo, if only to "clear my head" and "put myself in a better place".  I was really shitting all over Josh with my attitude, and I felt terrible about it.  After checking in the final time, I began the arduous slog up the first switchback to where my crew was waiting right at the turn to the next switchback.  As I walked, I tried desperately to put myself into a better place, but it just wasn't happening.  I hurt, and I just wanted it to be over.  My legs were giving out on me every third or fourth step, and my stomach gurgles were back in full now.  Just make it stop, I thought.  So after 1.5 miles, when Josh hopped back out to pace me, it didn't take long for me to start acting like an ass again.  Like a good soul and hearty trooper, he took it all without saying a thing; constantly asking me if I needed anything or if I was ok.  We reached the turn at the top of the last switchback, I had done the math, and concluded we had a little over a mile left.  THANK GOD.  As I approached the support car,  I walked up to my mom and said, "So what do we have, about a mile?".  She said, "No's more like 2.5".   WTF!!??  I was livid.  I was godamm livid.  I mean...she was right, but I just didn't want to believe it.  I was convinced that once we turned that corner, the race finish would basically be in sight, and now I had 2.5 more miles?  Dammit!  The next 2 miles were brutal. I was cursing the entire way, laying into Josh....because he was there.  I was so tired, so hungry, so dehydrated, and so unpleasant to be around.  I was an asshole...plain and simple.

We came upon an official race vehicle some time later and Josh politely asked them, "Hey guys, can you give us an honest distance to the finish from here?".  They looked back and said we are here to mark the "1-mile to go" spot.  Finally, the last mile.  I looked off in the distance and could see the faint lights of the finish area and was finally able to exhale.  A few minutes later we saw my mom and sister one last time parked on the side of the road where the informed us that it was indeed about 1/2 mile left.  They then drove on up to the finish to wait for me.  Josh and I rounded two final short switchbacks, where I was able to pass one last other runner.  As we approached a parking area full of cars I could see the finish tape just a short 50 meters ahead.  I tried to muster up a delicate jog, but my legs wouldn't have it.  Instead I hobbled up and walked through the tape in a time of 38 hours 6 minutes.  It was finally over.  Before I could even get my award, I was spec'ing out places in the dirt to lay down.  It was all I wanted to do.  Instead, I was put in front of a screen for some photos, and given my finishers shirt, award, and buckle.  It was about 55 degrees up at 8000 feet and I immediately began shivering.  I hopped in the car quickly and we made our way down the mountain cheering for the following runners who were still making their way up.  I was finally headed to the bed I had so long dreamed of.  It was over.  I had done it.

Alabama Hills area

Mile ~130 crew stop

Leaving mile 130 crew stop

The race director and me (With awards)

Team Fegy (mom, me, carri, josh,......and dad)

The Finisher Shirt

I sit here now on Friday afternoon just a few short days since the finish and many things go through my mind.  I think how part of me feels disappointed with my 38 hour time, but how the other part tells me that I should be ecstatic I was able to finish at all in light of all the problems I faced.  I think of the moments of pure bliss I experienced out that first night in the mountains. I think of the agony I suffered through when I had to stake-out near stovepipe wells.  I think of the 4 miles I got to run with my sister in the middle of the night.  I think of the ridiculous landscapes I witnessed.  I think of the weird ways my body revolted against me, and how I thought my kidneys might have failed me the following morning (thankfully they didn't).  I think of how not only did Josh put up with my whiny and cranky shit at the end of the race, but that he ended up pacing me for almost 70 miles.  70 friggin' miles!

I think of how much better I might have done if I were healthy, or how much worse I might have done if the temps were over 125F

I think of goofy stat stuff, like how there are now only two people in history of the world who have ever finished both the Barkley Marathons and the Badwater in the same year....and I'm one of them (Jim Nelson is the other).  I am a rare breed of..."Barkwater" Finisher.

I think of a lot of stuff.  Most of it doesn't really matter all that much though.

In the end what I think the most is how absolutely grateful I am that I had the support team that I did.  There is no way I could have ever done this race without such an incredible group around me.  I didn't finish this race....WE did.  I started running this race on the morning of July 16th, 2012....exactly 7 years to-the-day of my father's passing.  I was running it for him....and I know he was there in my support van.  I think it was in those most hopeless moments when I couldn't think of a single logical reason to continue, and was in utter agony...that he was filling my next water bottle.


A couple of goofy random things to finish this report off with....

I had a temperature logger recording temps throughout the race.
Here is the plot of those data.  (High of 118, Low of about 55)

Some "bad water" from the actual Badwater puddle


Chris Reed said...

Way to go! Nice race report, you really gutted it out. Congrautalations!

Collin McMullen said...

Wow - that is awesome!

Anonymous said...

I was standing in line behind you at packet pickup for the Fingerlakes Fifties when I heard of your Barkley finish. Interested to read about it, I found your blog and read that you were training for Badwater. Amazing! I was so thrilled to read of your finish. Thank you so much for sharing. I was out there on my first 50K adventure a couple of weeks ago and couldn't be more inspired to dream big and keep hitting the road. Congratulations to you!!

Anonymous said...

This is simply mind boggling! You have one tough will and an amazing desire to finish what you start - EPIC!

Steve McAninch said...

Beyond awesome, John. Nice job.

Unknown said...

I ran with you for a couple of those early miles and am wicked impressed and proud of you for your gutsy finish. Way to go and a huge congrats.