Crewing Badwater: The Toughest Race You’ve Never Run

DB's 2013 crew at the Badwater Basin.
DB’s 2013 crew at the Badwater Basin.

There’s a common acronym for the word “crew” in the ultrarunning world:  Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting.  Well, I’m going to be doing my very best not to be cranky (it’s quite rude to the person who’s literally serving you), but the waiting can indeed be endless, especially at Badwater.  So what exactly does a Badwater crew do, and how is it different from “regular” crewing?  All the answers here for our Salty Readers today!

First up, some quick notes on the event itself:  while Badwater and AdventureCORPS, the company that puts on the event, have a top-of-the-line medical staff, a live webcast and social media team, roving race officials, seven timing checkpoints, and photographers and videographers, there is no official aid in the form of food and water offered on the course. This is because of the immense distance of the race, the vast spread between runners, and because, quite simply, volunteers running traditional “aid stations” every few miles would keel over and die from the heat.

Therefore, all of your foods, fluids, do-it-yourself medical and special needs are YOUR responsibility.  Except they’re really your crew’s responsibility, and your crew is your lifeline.  As stated in one of my previous posts:  without your crew, you DNF or die.  Your crew – along with your stuff – travels the entire course with you in a van, leapfrogging you every two or more miles.  Each Badwater entrant is required to have two crew members, and allowed up to four.  Think you can just divide and conquer?  Think again.  Here’s what life is really like for a Badwater crew member.

Imagine Hood to Coast, Reach the Beach, or a Ragnar relay.  Think about all the Gatorade, food, backpacks and clothes stuffed in the van.  Think about how it starts off as so much fun, but how at least one personality conflict always comes to bear before the end.  Think about how smelly and confining that van slowly becomes.  Think about how you swear you’re going to get some sleep in between your legs, but you really can’t because something distracting is always going on, plus it’s just impossible to sleep comfortably in any position.  Think about what it feels like to get out of that van and have to run your third leg after eating junk for 24 hours and having no proper place to do your bathroom business.  Got it?  Good.

Now heat it up to 120 degrees, add 10 or so hours, and remember that you are literally waiting on someone hand, foot and blister the entire time – and not actually running the race.

THAT is Badwater crewing.

It is one of the most incredible, wonderful, fulfilling experiences I have ever had.  It is also the hardest I have ever worked.  And then there was the time that someone actually bought a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish into that sweaty sauna of a van, but I digress.

Badwater crew members are not only their runners’ lifeline, but logistical wizards charged with executing a complex ever-changing plan, all within the confines of a very detailed set of rules and restrictions.  Even their most notable duties are far-ranging and require multiple non-running skill sets – they are indeed the brains and the brawn behind the operations.  The runner is the smallest piece of the puzzle; it is the CREW that performs the heroics.

DB's crew in front of THE VAN.
DB’s crew in front of THE VAN.

Pre-Race Duties

  • Review of set and evolving rules and regulations for the event
  • Review of maps, directions, time stations and GPS coordinates
  • Learning the runner’s pace chart and plans and providing input
  • Mastering the runner’s personal nutrition strategy
  • Learning how the runner’s various pieces of gear/equipment work, and when they expect to need each one
  • Doing their own heat and hill training in order to pace the runner as well as tolerate the environment themselves
  • Reviewing master supply and packing lists, as the packing of equipment is often divided amongst team members
  • Taking an entire week off of work, not to be overlooked
  • Attending onsite seminars for further discussion of rules and best practices
  • Packing the van with all runner supplies in a manner that makes everything quickly accessible
  • Remembering to pack all of their own equipment for surviving and pacing in an extreme environment
  • Alternately stroking the ego of or talking the nerves out of their runner*
  • Listening to their runner obsess about every facet of their training on an almost daily basis*

*I am not suggesting that other Badwater runners do this.  This is, I hope, an obvious tongue-in-cheek reference to myself.

Race Day(s) Duties

  • Taking turns driving a van 135 miles across Death Valley while increasingly exhausted
  • Remembering to never, EVER lock the keys in the van, lest you need AAA.  Because there is no AAA in Death Valley.  There is, however, a large rock with “AAA” written on it that a man in a kilt will gladly throw through your window.  Which should always be left down.  In case you lock the keys in the van.  Which you won’t, because you wear them around your neck.
  • Waiting on the side of the road for your runner with their perfectly chilled, perfectly portioned, and perfectly prepared fluid bottles or packs for exchange, along with whatever other random things they may have requested:  cashews, Swedish Fish, a piece of duct tape applied to their sunglasses just so.
  • Handing them off as if you are a pit crew, while also having their honor of collecting and sorting their trash.
  • Giving them any ice they need for their hat, sports bra, or neck bandana, while also supplying chilled towels for them to wipe their dirty dusty face with, spraying them down with ice water, and possibly dumping ice water over their heads.  So refreshing!
  • Taking their very specific order for the next stop, two miles ahead.  (The other sunglasses, the gray sock for the left foot but the orange one for the right foot, and maybe just half an ice cube more in their hat).
  • Driving two miles ahead of your runner, and waiting to begin the whole process again a mere 20 minutes later.

But Don’t Forget!  You Also Serve As:

  • Their minor medical team.  The typical Badwater medical kit includes no less than two dozen items, ranging from tweezers to moleskin to duct tape to eye drops to a scale.  Chafing, blisters, dry eyes, dry nostrils, diaper rash, weight fluctuations, stomach issues: it’s all covered by the crew.
  • Their virtual thermometer.  Crew members must be familiar with, and able to rudimentarily diagnose and treat, dehydration, hyponatremia, heat illness and heatstroke.  Even better, they should be able to prevent it.
  • Their rules czar.  The rules of Badwater are unique to the event itself.  They are not governed by the USATF or any track and field body that most are familiar with.  They are the rules you get from AdventureCORPS, and those rules include the ones from National Park Services, since Death Valley is a national park.  We have an entire binder full of rules – and they change depending upon which part of the course you’re on and what time of day it is.  You can quite literally drive one minute down the road and enter a zone with entirely new rules.  Violations mean time penalties and possible disqualification, which means your crew is always on, and looking out for a myriad of things:  are blinking lights and reflective vests on at the proper time?  Is the van parked all the way inside the white line?  Have you properly checked in at the time stop?  Is this a no parking area of the course?   Are they driving by you at the proper speed?  Are the headlights and flashers on – in the right combination for the time of day?
  • Their traffic police.  We are not the only people in Death Valley.  There are also tourists and residents on the road.  All laws and rules must be obeyed, in the midst of countless street crossings.
  • Their statistician.  Are you too far ahead or behind on your pace chart?  Are you keeping up your electrolytes?  When is the last time the runner ate?  Are they eating too much sugar or salt exclusively?  Do they need – or are they overdoing – caffeine?  When is the last time the runner peed?  Was it a “safe” color?  What is the current temperature, and how might that be affecting the previous questions?
  • Their tech support.  Are relevant updates being made to social media?  Are iPods and watches properly charged?  Are hot pots and NutriBullets working properly on the converter?
  • Their gas station attendant.  You will have to get gas at least once.  You better do it at the right time, since you only get four chances.
  • Their personal shopper.  Crew must keep a running inventory of supplies, and have a list ready when they get to one of the four locations at which they can stock up on anything you need – most notably, ICE.  They will have only 30 minutes (and maybe less) – to drive ahead, obtain supplies, and get back on the road.  (Oh – and maybe use a real toilet and get an actual sandwich for themselves.)
  • Their cobbler.  Shoe issues are not uncommon.  Before the 135 miles is over, they just might be hacking the toe box or the heel cup out of your shoes for you.  Feet do crazy things at Badwater.  Like swelling an entire size.  You know, running on 180-degree pavement and stuff.

Think that’s all?  You’ll also be:

  • Their cheerleader.  Because they’re awesome, and they’ve got this, and they can do this, and they can keep doing this, and it’s all going to be okay, and they believe in you, and it doesn’t always get worse, and …
  • Their reality check.  Because sometimes, the runner is going to need to slow down.  Or drink more or less.  Or stop chasing someone just ahead of them and get back into their own race.
  • Their emotional support.  Because people go to weird places at Badwater.  They feel a lot.  They cry and laugh and sob and giggle hysterically all in the same breath.  Sometimes while laying on the side of the road.

Yes, all this while living in that crowded, sweaty van, covered with sticky sunscreen and basically eating snack food for a day and a half.

Just one more thing, though:  now get ready to run 10 – 20 miles, because it’s time to pace.  So that divide and conquer idea I mentioned?  Here’s how it breaks down:  one person is driving.  One person is pacing.  One person is crewing.  And one person is trying to take their rest break, while the hatch of the van is constantly going up and down, and the coolers are being opened and closed, and ice is being broken and scooped.  And that’s a best case scenario with a full crew of four.

I repeat:  It is one of the most incredible, wonderful, fulfilling experiences I have ever had.  It is also the hardest I have ever worked.

Post-Race Duties:

  • Watch the runner receive adulation(!) at the finish line.
  • Transport this rancid-smelling emotional piece of goo down the mountain.
  • Make sure they are relatively lucid and eating/drinking.
  • Attempt to convince them to bathe before collapsing in the bed.
  • Cleaning out that awful van.

In the unlikely case that the bullets haven’t fully made my point, let me be a bit more prosaic.  Badwater is a team sport, and the runner is the most insignificant part of the equation.  Yes, the runner will cover an extremely difficult 135 miles in an extreme environment, but it is the CREW that completes this race.  And as the best crews develop their rhythm over the course of the event, they seem to almost become an extension of runner themselves, with three or four people somehow functioning as one body.  Rare is the Badwater runner that doesn’t treat their crew like gold; without the crew, there is no race, and there is no finish line.

So who did I convince to take this on?  My fearsome foursome of Badwater veterans is my absolute dream crew, and I simply couldn’t be more excited to share this experience with them.

Robin:  Robin has crewed Badwater twice before, and has also been my #1 crew person almost every time I’ve run Burning River.  She knows my running, and she knows instinctively when something’s not right – sometimes before I do.  She also knows how to let me figure out my low spots myself.  In the non-running world, Robin is a spirit sister.  Life has knit our lives together, and friend is too mild a word for who she is and has been to me.

Robin.  In a walk-in ice cooler in Panamint Valley.
Robin. In a walk-in ice cooler in Panamint Valley.

George:  Robin’s husband, a Badwater crewing veteran, and my pacer at my very first 100-miler.  George will be the calming force, but also won’t let me sandbag.  He knows when I have more in me than I’m letting on, and he knows how to get it out of me.  He is methodical and analytical, but only in the interest of throwing down when it counts:  sub-3:20 at Boston at 56 with a negative split kind of thing.

George crewing DB in 2013.
George crewing DB in 2013.

Steve:  Another Badwater crewing veteran, and a long-time member of my local trail/ultrarunner family.  Steve and I have covered many miles and many conversations together, from Mohican to Burning River to Western States, where I paced him through a long 45 miles that included snakes (not real) and skeletons (real).  We have seen each other at our running best and puking worst.  And Steve is not only taking a week off from work for this, but a week away from his amazing wife and two young children.  I couldn’t be more grateful, or more excited to have someone with whom I share so much running history on my team.

Steve at Western States with ME as pacer!
Steve at Western States with ME as pacer!

And last, and never ever least but always greatest, my best friend, my favorite person in the world, my soulmate, my spirit twin, and the only Badwater finisher on our team, my husband Darris.  The one who believes in me when I can’t believe in myself; the one who knows what I’m capable of long before I do; the one who loves me not only because of who I am, but in spite of who I am.  There is no one in the world who knows me better than he does, and there is no one who knows what I’ll face out there better than he does.  Without him, my world would cease to exist.  With him, my world makes perfect sense.  I slept on the side of the road with him at his Badwater, and during that 40 hours, he taught me every single thing I need to know not just about running Badwater, but about life:  you always get up.

DB and I during our 2012 crewing adventure!
DB and I during our 2012 crewing adventure!

I can think of few things less selfless than helping someone else achieve their dream.  It is a precious gift, and the true work of a Badwater crew.

Trail and adventure enthusiast. Girl who swears like a sailor but not when she's teaching Sunday School. Survived infertility without a successful pregnancy. Self-employed, primarily working for Clif Bar and Company. Thirteen 100-mile race finishes with seven top 3 placements. An original Saltine.

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3 comments

  1. Feeling quite interested in and very connected to this great adventure. Having crewed on a couple of occasions including one in the dead of winter, I have only a slight sense for the difficulty of both tasks. Wishing all 5 of you success in every way. Completion of course, but also growth and joy in the journey.