Photo Credit: @overallgooddaygirl
"Yes dear, I promise I will never run Badwater 135; I'm not even interested in running it, that's crazy even for my standards." Yes I said all of that just 3 years ago, and in all honesty, I meant every word when I said them. Then, out of the blue came a call from Ray Sanchez looking for another team member to run the Badwater Salton Sea (baby Badwater) an 81 mile 3 person team race across the Anza Borrego desert starting at the Salton Sea and finishing at the top of Palomar Mountain. After convincing the wife that it wasn't actually Badwater, I accepted the offer and joined the team. I had so much fun running Salton Sea that I of course agreed to be a part of Ray's Badwater crew in 2019. That's when the bug bit and I realized if I was ever to make it past the strict entry process for the race, that I would have to apply for the following year.
Sure enough I was one of the 100 runners selected to run Badwater 2020, so I trained and I trained HARD; Long runs on pavement every weekend, copious amounts of time running in layers in the middle of the hottest time of the day. I was fit, heat trained and all around prepared to suffer and only one obstacle stood in my way: Covid-19! After battling for months to make the race happen it inevitable was cancelled a week before the race date. I was crushed, I was mad, I felt defeated, Covid had ultimately won Badwater 2020.
2021 started with unfinished business and with a guaranteed entry into Badwater 2021 it was a no brainer to sign up and get my training into gear. I was now in a new age group, out of shape following all sorts of craziness that transpired in 2020 and early this year so, getting my fitness back and ready for Badwater would prove to be a bigger challenge this time around. My training leading up to this year's race was sub par at best. I struggled to get the miles in when I could, only completing a handful of long runs and heat training really didn't begin till a month before the race. Regardless, I was at peace with myself this year and I was determined to soak it in, enjoy the journey and let the cards fall where the may. Fortunately, I was a lot more ready to tackle Badwater than I knew.
Badwater 135 is all about the extremes, so it was no surprise as I pulled into Furnace Creek on Sunday that all the crews were organized veteran crews prepping their mini vans in their matching outfits, going over routines and nutrition strategies. I felt very under prepared as our 3-person team pulled up in our Subaru CUV with everything crammed in the back. I had no concrete food strategy, a loose pacing strategy and my whole crew consisted of Badwater newbies. It didn't matter though, I had assembled the absolute best crew in the desert! My wife Desirae knows me better than I do since she has crewed me at all my races and is a pro in her own right (also she is just beautiful and so forgiving of broken promises!). Brett Goldsmith has paced me at almost every one of my hundred milers and knows the art of when to use humor, offer support or just shut up and run; it's a fine balance and an art he has mastered. Ben Atkins is undeniably one of the best runners in Southern California. He has paced just about everyone on their Backbone FKT attempts and has a calm and reassuring attitude that proved to be key running 135 miles through the desert. The biggest take away of all is that you can try and prepare for anything that might happen during such an extreme event, but a crew that knows what to do and how to respond to problems that WILL arise is ultimately the best tool to finish a race.
After the true endurance event of waiting all day for the race to start, I found myself standing at Badwater Basin (North Americas lowest point at 282ft below sea level) at 11:00pm in a nice cool 100F. As we took off, I knew I wanted to run 10 minute miles for the first 42 miles getting myself to Stovepipe Wells before the sun fully rose. Even with a rough headwind I was able to stay steady and hit the planned pace right on the bullseye; still feeling great when I got there.
Arriving in Stovepipe Wells I was greeted with the first climb of the race, the start of the sun beating down but, gratefully, also the start of running with my pacers. I quickly changed into lighter color rabbit FKT shorts, EZ Tee Perf LS rabbit shirt, some calf sleeves and hat for full coverage from the suns relentless rays. I also changed out of my max cushioned Altra Paradigms into my lighter colored medium cushioned Altra Torins; this outfit worked perfectly for the long day in the sun.
The long, gruelingly hot 18-mile climb up Townes Pass went by surprisingly quick as I mix a few recovery walks in with mostly jogging all the way to the top. This lead into the biggest downhill (one of the only) of the race, going to run it fast right? Wrong.. although it felt nice to change up the muscle group by running downhill, we are now in the hottest part of the day and legs are starting to feel a little fatigue. The lower we got the hotter it got! We were now in Panamint Valley and its HOT, in the words of Desirae "I now know what my meatloaf feels like in the oven!". It was definitely the hottest part of the race at around 121F. As we made our way to Panamint Springs "Resort" off in the distance, we were treated to one of the highlights of the day as a fighter jet buzzed over us only about 50ft off the ground! This stopped all of us in our tracks as we stood now deaf with our jaws on the floor! With huge smiles on our faces, we finished the final few miles into the town where I stopped for a quick bite of real food and a bathroom break before heading out to the second climb of the day.
The Father Crowley climb is shorter than Towne Pass but steeper and hotter. As we got higher up Father Crowley, I expected it to get cooler, but I was wrong again! The higher we got the more the wind blew at us like a convection oven...poor meatloaf! In this section the crew vehicle is only allowed to stop in designated areas due to the curvy tight blind turns. Long sections of steep hot climbs between aid made this section tough, but I just put my head down and powered to the top knowing that gradual down hill and cooler temperatures awaited me. Sure enough the temperatures while still hot, at well over 100 degrees, mellowed out some and we made our way through an uneventful and rather boring section of the race on our way to Darwin.
Darwin was a little time station in the middle of nowhere that I passed by moving very well all the way through this section to mile 100 in about 20 hours before the preverbal shit hit the fan. The sun was starting to go down and we were on a flat, rolling section of the course where you could see the lights of Lone Pine in the distance about 20 miles away. This was by far the longest 20 miles of my life! Every mile felt like it took an hour and the closer we got to Lone Pine the further Lone Pine got away from us. Convince the torture would never end, my attitude took a downturn and I stop eating, which made the situation even worse. My bad attitude and lack of eating made my crew go mad also. We were all mad, exhausted and ready for the race to be done, FU Lone Pine, come to me already.
After what felt like days and multiple adult tantrums, the "hallelujah" moment came as I reached the intersection into Lone Pine. With renewed spirits and ONLY a half marathon to go, I felt refreshed and ready to push on up to the portal. Two days ago my memory of running this section with Ray lead me to give my pacers false hope that it was "mostly flat with about 4 mile of uphill at the very end"; Boy was I wrong...AGAIN!
The climb to the portal is typically a brutal death march of 4,300 feet of elevation gain after already completing over 120 miles. After tackling the first part of the climb with Brett through the Alabama hills section with a relatively quick pace considering the days events, I took a moment to catch my breath and have a quick break by the car while my pacers got ready to switch off. "You are in 4th" Ben tells me as I was trying to find the motivation to make it those final 8 miles. Having not known (or really cared) what position I was in all day, hearing those words at that moment was exactly what I needed to light that final fire under my ass. Although I was told I was solidly in 4th, the lights I could see coming at me as I hit the switch back made me think that the chase was on. With Ben at the lead playing his epic sound track of Han Zimmerman and the Proclaimers counting down the miles (And I would walk 500 mile....) the finish line seemed to get closer and closer.
Somehow, despite my exhaustion and every part of my body screaming for me to stop we powered up the mountain quickly and before I knew it, we had made it through the pitch black, eerie roads that lead us to the final turn with the finish line in sight. Elated, with 50 yard left, my whole rookie crew joined hands and together we triumphantly cross the finish line with a time of 28:56:38 good enough for 4th place overall.
It was an indescribable feeling crossing that finish line and celebrating with race staff and my crew. No sooner had a stopped moving than I was standing there in a surreal moment taking pictures with Chris Kostman and talking about my experience. As we talked, my head started spinning and my legs began to feel weak so I reached for a chair and told everyone I was about to go down. "No you're not!" Desirae states as my crew quickly gets to work once more keeping me in top shape. With some Starburst to boost my sugar levels and blankets to warm me back up, I slowly began to come back to the land of the living and was ready to head down the hill towards a beer and a bed! WHAT a race!!! Not sure what could top this one, until then a beer to celebrate and another trail to run...
A huge thanks to my amazing crew Desirae, Brett and Ben for helping me survive in such an inhospitable environment. You cooled me off, cheered me up, fed me and kept me moving forward, no way I could have finished Badwater without you guys! Thank you rabbit for the continued support and the amazing clothing that withstood the ultimate test in the desert. I stayed cool and comfortable and, dang I looked good doing it! Thank you Altra Running for your support and for making the best shoes on the market, 135 miles in 120 degrees and no foot issues whatsoever! Also wanted to say thanks for all my friends, family and team mates for all the positive words of encouragement and following along!