Badwater 135Badwater Basin, Death Valley to Whitney Portal“Does anyone have any words of wisdom they’d like to share with the group?” Race Director Chris Kostman asks just minutes before the start of our wave. A few moments of silence passes without a response. “Smile as much as possible!” I blurted out with enthusiasm and nervous excitement. I felt prepared and ready to go. “Thanks, Sean. That’s a good idea. And, thanks for reminding me every day with your countdown for the last few months just how many days left I had to get things ready for the race,” he jokes. I hesitate, smile uncomfortably, then process what he said. Oh, so maybe he did actually see all my training vlog stories that I tagged BadwaterHQ on in Instagram after all, I thought. All 218+ workouts with iFit coach Tommy Rivs and dozens of other workouts on trail and road had comprised my build up and training for Badwater 135, the World’s Toughest Foot Race. So, it stood out to him, it left an impression of some kind. And, so it dawned on me in that moment that my training was at least good enough for Kostman to acknowledge, to remark upon, and so I thought with the glass full as I do, “Trust in the consistency of your training. It was remarkable at the very least!”
After some additional banter, anthems, pre-race rituals, we were off out and running… out of the Badwater Basin next to the famous -282 feet elevation sign, through the small parking lot adjacent to the famous landmark, and out onto the open road to chase after that thin white line. We ran comfortably and strong early on, out in front of the wave, yet well within ourselves, despite heavy 30+ mph headwinds and extreme heat even in the night. All systems were a go and things felt so easy for the first couple of hours, a top-5 pace for the first segment of the race had put me nearly ahead of all runners in the first wave which had started some 90 minutes before. Out of nowhere, we started to battle through some debilitating lows (gastro cramping issues that stopped us to a literal crawl and that would devolve into a desperate walking stretch with 3 separate “Biffy” starlit pitstops). I couldn’t believe that several hours could be lost so early on, but the night skies, constellations, the Milky Way were so freaking amazing to stare at, even atop a 5-gallon paint bucket in writhing pain… yet, we stayed calm and remained positive using humor with our walkie talkie call names… “Biffy two, this is Biffy one, over.” At least we will make sure this will be the most memorable of pitstop experiences! Eventually, we righted our ship just before dawn with a lot of crew support, supreme patience, and ginger ale. Iced up with ice bandana for the neck, arm sleeves packed with ice & xylitol-infused cooling fabric (forearms are still numb), and legs sporting the SPF spray glow, we hammered back up the first big climb out of Stovepipe.Steady as she goes, we managed to climb my way back into the race after having led the charge of the first couple waves early on before letting nearly the entire field pass me from my bucket. We ran easy and light, and ultimately endured the climb before getting to bomb the descent, holding back to about 85% effort to save the quads, and entered the valley as the heat radiated along the Highway, sizzling, stretching for miles and miles toward Panamint Springs in the distance. We caught up and then hopped back and forth with our rabbit teammates Kenny Ringled (and his pacer Benjamin Atkins) who were battling the course and the elements. We had a few good exchanges and encouraged each other, “Let’s go rabbits!” Meanwhile, a fighter jet would escort us across the inferno and into the oasis. We stopped for 15 minutes to devour freshly-made veggie wraps (half for me) and a few crispy fries before getting back out there into the fire. Now over 70 miles in, we were ready to began the second big climb of the race. We paced it smartly to kick things off, navigating the unforgiving angles of switchbacks to preserve the feet from aggravation on the unfriendly, uneven terrain.We had survived the first night. The perils of the Biffy were behind (haha) us now, the night turned to dawn turned to morning heat as the road began to sizzle, tss tss. We had not been alone in having bodies not cooperate through the night and early morning with the lightning pains of storming stomachs a topic on the arid wind. We had managed to get those fresh wraps in, the crisp of a dozen fries, and these magical ingredients settled in cozy. We had hammered and chiseled that first big 5,000-foot ascent some hours ago, and now we were carving up the next one as the temps steadily climbed. The angles of the road as it bobbed and weaved, switching and swerving, were tenuous to the ankles, so we raged gently here, considering the emotions of our feet now over halfway into this intense festival of life breath movement across the desert and mountains. “Stay cool,” that was our mantra, our words, a slippery fleeting focus, the numbness in our forearms declared it, and the bruising of ice buffing the chest, bouncing abreast, confirmed it. The very was gained, the miles ticked. We were making it real. Jay began his pacing journey about half way up these switches. We pushed, we soared, we endured. Jay’s an absolute beast, a well-oiled machine, Mr. reliable, a NASCAR engine, all heart… BIGGEST heart. We battled onward.Martin took the reigns at the top of the ascent, eager to crush “the downhill.” There was so much chatter about this section being downhill, but it was mostly flat and slightly uphill before finally dropping us ever so slightly the last couple miles. We were coming from below sea level, not returning to it which I believe was a part of the miscalculation. Martin has an amazing voice, an infectious laugh, an accent of intrigue… he’s an international human of mystery, our beloved captain, a truly genuine and beautiful spirit, and so we joked and laughed and danced above the pavement. We moved swiftly for a good stretch, ticking off some 8-minute miles which felt like 6-minute miles (haha) on the descent, letting the legs go, soaking up the full array of deep horizons and eye candy peripherals… these views, those views, mind blown… simply incredible. We would reach 100 miles of this journey, just eclipsing 22 hours and change on the Garmin. We are making it real.
Greeted with the promise of a shoulder massage, the handoff was to Vic. Vic is as kind as they come, he can’t help but pass it around, and his extreme kindness is only matched by his zest for living, for doing, for seizing the opportunity, and it’s that excitement and curiosity and “yes, let’s do it” mindset that is infectious in the best possible way! As he worked on my shoulders with a new super-top-secret, hush hush, magical awesome product that I can say without a doubt you are going to want to have and eventually need, the tension quickly released and the shoulders melted, drooling mouth watered, “don’t stop” is our new mantra. And, with this massage came renewed energy, and we forged our way forward, chasing the dusk and finding a rhythm across the painted starry night.
“The night is dark and full of terrors.” We gently raged through the expansive valley, legs ‘a rumbling, stomachs ‘a grumbling, minds ‘a fumbling through that twilight zone, that long to be forgotten sun, that quieting smirk now across a laughing indigo sky— this shadow now cast of darkness, the diminishing divide upon the horizon, ever nearing and shifting over our mind like a thick fog blurring headlights, like a thin blanket covering the eyes, lids giving way to gravity. We fight the circadian demons, blink hard, move faster, c’mon stomach, EYES UP! Vic hands the pacing reigns back over to Jay. We are on a mission now, just get to Lone Pine, just power through another ten clicks and then we can storm that fortified castle Whitney. Who is this Whitney anyways? “Give me ten good men and some climbing spikes…” Thoughts are fleeting, the brain flickers on, off, on… no vacancy. We gotta shut it down for just a minute. There’s a smooth spot adjacent to the road. One minute nap. Jay let’s our lids shut, our breath changes, it is known now… 60-second countdown… and we awake renewed. This is a decent duct tape, finger to the blue screen, and we are running again. Strolling into the quiet little pine town, Jay brings our ship to port, and we exchange passengers for the final half marathon ascent.
With Martin back at the helm, we sailed through the lone channel amidst the buzz and whirl of speeding ships blowing wake across our bow. “Merry Christmas mother-trucker!” they taunt us with their brawn & might. We remain unfazed, stoic, undeterred, our course never clearer. We are pirates on the Dread Ship Rivers, and we will leave no survivors!! We RAGE with focus, with a quiet voice, with German techno beats that, ehem, even the most discerning of pirates are known to listen to at night, at a reasonable volume. Having navigated through the shipping lanes, Magellan anchored up, and we plugged into the otherwise quiet sanctuary of this ascending sea.
“Were their any eels in the waters?” We muttered. Did we forget to hoist the main sail? Once armed with powerful cannons and lead, our vessel had begun to flutter, the wind calmed, sails no longer lifting us up. Those sphere protectors, those lashing lids of ours were taking on water, shutting and shuttering, taking little pictures, frame by frame, jitterbug into the heart of the ascending sea, that darkened mountain majesty, and we knew what was known before… that we must reach land safely to continue our quest, and so the lids can shut. Time waits for no one, yet we finally reach the shore.
Jay greets us, leading us to a tiny room with circular feet, sliding entry, inside are three cozy chäirs and a smattering of battle gear, indiscernible things, staples of various kinds… what on earth is a Yeti? Weary, foggy thoughts. Magellan joins us, Jay behind the helm, the vessel is quiet, engine cool, just the sound of deafening silence… and then alas, we begin the one-minute reset, lids lay anchor, brains shut their doors, “back in a minute” the sign reads, quite literally… breathing changes, that finger press of the power switch, the lights are out… it’s the final countdown… then the lids open once more, and we emerge recharged and ready to attack the breaking of dawn.
We see soldiers marching up the road and know there is urgency to fall back in the ranks, to complete our mission, to have fun storming the castle! Our eyes are up now, and so we STORMED and marched ever nearer, up onward! Beyond those marching, with swords at the ready, warmed and energized by the light of early morning, We moved craftily like ninjas over the switching turns, climbing higher and higher. We turned to look behind us briefly, the descending sea now looked so vast in the distance beneath us, in our dusted wake, and a calm sense of gratitude came over us. It’s our time now to lead the charge to victory, impregnate those fortified castle walls and capture Whitney in the name of the Dread Pirate Rivers. As the castle neared, we teamed back up with Jay, the brotherhood reunited, feeling mighty and accomplished, at the foot of the castle and the first of our finish lines, the first of our celebrations… we soaked it in, raised the white flag to elation, and relinquished our emotional guards for we’d raged across the valley of death, pillaged the descending seas, now decorated swashbucklers, yet we all knew there was more climbing to be done.
Whitney Summit to Mount Whitney Peak
We rest our lids, triple z’s, sweet dreams and counting sheep… refueling time, re-chalking the lines for the bonus round. Our quads were on empty and brains a bit swirly, but as midnight broke, we prepared ourselves to saddle back up and tackle the 146 (and 157), the icing & cherry top booty. The eleven-mile ramble, waxing through bramble, climbs another six thousand feet up, up, up… lids open wide, eyes up to the tippy top of this beautiful fortress Whitney with an implied safe return descent back to the castle portal. It was now nearly one in the morning as we began to make it real, to begin at the lowest point in the no Western Hemisphere in Badwater Basin and rise to the highest point in the contiguous forty eight, an unforgettable quest that captivates the far reaches of our imagination. As we approached the Whitney trailhead, alongside our fellowship roamed a dark shadowy blur… eyes focus, focus more, adjust, loading… “oh yikes!” we exclaim as a marvelous black bear moved suddenly across our frame, in search of foolish visitors, picnic baskets unguarded, and other spoils strewn along the castle grounds. She gazed for an hour, or what felt like an eternal instant, directly into our grimaced breath, stout hearts beating fast, faster, whoa patrol, sirens blaring, silently slaying our cells with a deafening volume. We rage ever so gently now, a delicate rage, scrambling, eyes up, here we go!
That adrenaline palpitation would immediately boost us as we broke trail and powered upward into the shadows. The lighthouse keeper on the moon lit up the indigo sky like a brilliantly radiating gemstone perched on the mountain ring, sparkling and beaming above the tree line. We marched steadily up the single track with eyes in the widest set position, locked into a startled awareness as we crossed little streams, hop-skipped rocks and made quick work amidst the flowerful terrain. Attentive and alert as ever, we spotted a foraging doe on trail who’d been feeding under the safety of the night’s canopy. Our steady pace would endure, forward is the pace, and eventually would give way to regular, short stops to cinch the slack, to ensure our team was fully synced up. We are a unit, we are one.
We’ve risen from the depths of an inferno and now find ourselves with heads in the clouds. Another thousand feet comes and goes, repeating, repeating, and as our vert clicks up, the temperatures click down. We approach the saddle, winds chilling to the bone, more layers are unpacked and applied, its getting real now. Lakes in the valley, lakes where we’d just been… spectacular lakes as far as the eye can see. Teeth clattering with each break in the action, layers wearing thin, and so it’s go time for the summit… push, push, photos, push, photos… the sun has come out to play now and shine her beautiful smile upon our cold, battered, worn bodies. We must keep moving though as it’s approaching that freezing point. Two more clicks, just keep moving. Photos!
The last sharp turn reveals our final destination, a hut of stone is the landmark, a refugio adorning the highest point, and we have her fixed in our crosshairs now. Breathtaking ridge line, chiseled windows open gazes in the distance. Move, breathe, move, breathe, think warm thoughts… oh my how the temperature tides have turned. As we approached the last hundred feet of vert, besting that final precipice, the feels were rushing forth in overwhelming response to what we were doing, what we’d just done, the immense amount of energy and time that was invested in our quest… a big helping of magic wrapped in a miracle greased by hard work and smothered in carbs with a pack full of cuddly puppies. The fellowship of the Rivs, the Biffy Brigade, the Badwater Brotherhood had reached the summit together. Push-ups for those who can’t, for those not forgotten. And, then, we stood tall at 14,500+ feet, we stayed vertical, smiles took up permanent residence in this mythical place, and we hoisted the peak plaque high up in the chilled air. We had raged across the scorching desert, stormed this fortress Whitney, reset our possibility baseline while rekindling that allusively invincible summer, once again awakening the giant within.
“Biffy two, this is Biffy one, over.”
Mount Whitney Peak to Whitney Portal