Contributed by Jason West, AURA member
10.30pm. 23 July 2018. Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California.
Gee, it’s hot.
We agreed as a team to never state the bleeding obvious, because it was going to be a long night. And day. And night.
When I stepped out of the car I couldn’t believe the oppressive heat radiating from all directions. Up, down and sideways. I knew Death Valley was hot in the middle of the day, but it’s almost midnight and the air temp is nudging 50 degrees C. My first thought was “I’m not sure I can make it through the first 17 miles to Furnace Creek, let alone the rest of it.”
I had no real plan to combat the heat. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought perhaps some ice cubes in my hat every now and then, and ice filled water bottles might help. But neither did. I grabbed a Buff, rolled it over itself, stuck a few ice cubes in and wrapped it around my neck. The melting water dripped down my shirt cooled me to an almost normal level almost immediately. Ok that’s sorted. Now we could think about the race while standing on a salt plain 300 feet below sea level.
I had a pre-race chat with Grant Maughan, arguably the hardest of the hard. Grant had run Vol State, a 500+ km ultra across Tennessee the week before, winning it in three days just so he could drive across the country to California, buy a couple of bags of ice, have a quick leg stretch and then run Badwater 135 for a sixth time. This is on top of scaling Everest in May. Safe to say he knows the course well and when he offers advice, I’m the type of guy who will take it. He said to keep running until I hit the T-intersection at Lone Pine. Then turn right. Then left. Then stop…you’re done. For once, I get to run a race where it is almost impossible to get lost.
The first 50 miles was surprisingly benign. Tried not to breath. Had a headlight, but race director Chris Kostman schedules each race with the full moon in July, so most of us ran purely by its guiding light. Surrounded by the barren desert, it was like running on Mars, the road ahead dotted with the flashing lights of other runners.
For the next 40 miles I caught up to most who started hours prior in the first two waves. The novelty of passing some of the legends of ultra running was something to savour. Passed Marshall Ulrich, former winner and 20-time finisher, replete with no toenails. Said hi. He said hi back. That felt great, to compete with a real pioneer of distance running. Ed Ettinghausen, the Jester, was moving along well when I passed by at around mile 35. Each three miles when he gets to his crew, he takes off the jester hat and throws it into a bucket. Three yards further he receives a replenished drink bottle. Five yards after that picks up another jester hat from an ice bucket and sticks it on his head. Slick.
My team was not so slick…at the start anyway. They humoured me with bad jokes and tempted me with an assortment of fruit, candy and cake for the first few hours, none of which would have stayed down. Best to stick with liquids for the first part…just in case.
The rest of the night was interesting. There were a few vomiters, a few with that thousand-yard stare normally reserved for the latter part of a hundred-miler and a lot of walkers, many feeling the pinch of the endless heat. The heat remained near 50 degrees for so, so long. As the temperature finally receded before dawn, we started the 16-mile climb from Stovepipe Wells to Townes Pass.
A good third of the race is uphill, along frustrating grades that prevents all but the great runners from pushing up them as you normally would. Keeping my heart rate under control was key to survival. So, the vague plan was to run as much of the flat and downhill as possible, knowing that we would all be slogging it slowly up the endless mountain roads. But ‘plan’ is a strong word…usually I just start running and hope for the best.
Passed by fellow Aussie, the indefatigable Katy Anderson halfway up the first mountain. She was looking fresh, sitting on a giant esky sipping a cold one in the shade of her giant van. Talk about well prepared. After making it to the summit, I ran down into the next heat test known as Panamint Valley. The three fastest women on the course promptly overtook me, all looking very focused. There was no way I was going to match it with them at this stage.
I then arrived at Panamint Springs…feet were trashed. They are usually sore after 70 miles but this was something else. My father, crew chief, got in touch with the aid team, consisting of, among others, an Australian nurse and a podiatrist, both helping with the race. By pure fluke we found them in a cabin out the back of the restaurant. I laid down on a couch, offered my feet skywards and they busily got to work. I tried to take advantage of the air-conditioning working at full tilt which reduced the temperature to the low 30s rather than the 50+ outside. But after the scalpel, scissors, and needles came out to start cutting at my feet I was feeling quite upset. And I let them know it, cursing included. They told me to suck it up, which I duly did. Don’t be such a sook.
My father was watching all this, and he thought that it’s all over. He walked out to the crew to tell them it’s unlikely I would be back out there. Five minutes later I walked out with a change of socks, shoes, feet still a little tender, but all ready to go. Up the next mountain, to Father Crowley. Steep-ish grade, with the temperature rising the higher we got. At 4000ft bent over in a carpark trying to get my heartrate under control, the temperature exceeded 55 degrees. Surely it can’t get any hotter and thankfully it didn’t.
We took off towards the 92-mile checkpoint, over undulating hills which climb another 1000ft, and it started raining. It rained on us for half an hour, which pushed the temperature into the 40s for the first time for many hours, a welcome relief. I was in reasonable spirits knowing there was 30 miles of gentle downward grades and only one monster hill beyond that. US Air Force jets buzzed the road for the next hour adding extra relief from the inevitable soreness, all over.
Ran though Lone Pine near 3am. This town turns into a monster truck derby in the small hours, seemingly hundreds roaring through town before the tourist traffic begins. I was not feeling well at this point.
I chugged some blue Gatorade while standing near the exhaust of our crew car. The combination of its unnatural flavour, exhaust fumes and 120 miles of exhaustion had the immediate effect of summoning a projectile vomit. I performed this behind a giant pot plant.
Good thing the residents were asleep because it wasn’t pretty. Amazingly, after that I felt great. Grabbed a stroopwaffle from the crew and started a slow jog towards the final hill, where I quickly caught up with a Hungarian runner.
I have never seen the sun come up twice during an ultra before and wanted to maintain that record. My father paced with me for a mile halfway up the final 13 miles. He then rejoined me for the final mile to the finish. His looming seventieth birthday and knowing that the sun was going to come up for a third time without having slept didn’t dampen his energy.
Met up with the rest of the crew and ran across the finish line, 10 minutes before the sun peered over the horizon. The remaining crew consisting of Andrew from Texas and Edward from Florida travelled away from their families for several days to help me through this. Luckily for me, such generosity exists in only a few select sports, one of them being ultra-running. We cheered ourselves over the finish, 31 hours after the previous night’s start. I went off to be sick, they went and had breakfast.
After a day and a half spent enduring discomforting heat we retreated to Lone Pine for a beer and a long session in the motel’s hot tub. Yes, they have a hot tub. What a place.
Pictured (middle): Badwater Basin start line and Jason West’s crew of Andrew (Texas), Colin (the old man), Jason and Edward (Florida).
Photographs – Supplied.