There is a moment, however infinitesimal, right before water boils, and right before water freezes. A point at which a cataclysmic change is about to take place, yet still lies just below the surface. A point at which we have one last chance to change the direction of things, for better or for worse.
Or, to quote the lyrics of an Indigo Girls song: “how long ‘til my soul gets it right?”
I sang that song to myself running from Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells. Not because my soul wasn’t right, but because my soul was right. I sang “Flashlight” to my crew even though I forgot to tell them. And even though Chris Kostman, the RD (understatement), said that music is a crutch (“IMHO”), I would have to argue that the 25th Anniversary recording of “Phantom of the Opera” with Sierra Boggess and Ramin Karimloo is art. Especially underneath a blanket of stars.
But I digress already. Ah, Badwater. Land of digressions.
I was last. DFL kinds of last. I had a plan, and I was working my plan, but this was new. This was no field of hundreds, or people who were content just to see “how far” they could get. There were 96 people with plans out there that Tuesday night, and for the first 17 miles, from the Badwater Basin to Furnace Creek, my plan was the slowest. I was last. Dead last.
Do you trust yourself? Do you trust your plan that much? And yes, more than anything: are you willing to shed that very much of your ego? Denying that we have egos is like denying we have feelings. Of course we have egos. But how do we manage them? How do we mold them? How do we prevent them from making us people we don’t want to be? How much of them are about being better? Or just being enough? And why aren’t we enough? When is it that we first learn that we are not enough?
That night, it was enough. It was enough to be last in the world’s toughest footrace. It was enough to know I had a plan. It was enough to know that I wasn’t alone. Even though I was lonely. I was powerfully lonely. As I looked into the mountains lit by the full moon, I felt as if I were lost in space. But it was enough to trust. It was enough to believe. It was enough to sear that surreal image into my brain. It was enough to be last in the most thrilling place in the world.
It was a little over 100 degrees that night, though my training had prepared me well. I didn’t feel hot, and wearing just a tank and shorts after all those months of heavy, wet layering felt like sheer bliss. But the air was desiccated; so incredibly dry for an Ohio girl. Already the parched mouth, the dry eyes, the scorched nostrils and lips. We were sending me out with a full 40-ounce Camelbak for three mile stretches. I ran by and saw DB lying on the roof of the van looking at the stars. I was already drinking more and more. I felt a low-grade headache behind my eyes. At mile 10. That’s food for thought.
They asked if I had seen the shooting stars. I was trying to deal with the fact that my stomach didn’t feel great while reminding myself that it wasn’t used to coffee and running at 11 o’clock at night. And I kept looking off into space. Looking at the moonlit mountains and slowly working through these three thoughts in the background: stomach, headache, lonely. Stomach, headache, lonely.
Some potato chips seemed to balance out the stomach. Loosening the headlamp helped with the headache but then it was bouncing, so I just carried it like a flashlight. Approaching Furnace Creek, I came upon Jack Denness, Badwater legend and this year’s oldest competitor at 80-years old. No longer last, I walked with him and his pacer a bit and wished them well on their journey. Lights were appearing in the distance. Runners often stop to reassess or get a longer crew at Furnace Creek, and those lights meant that I wouldn’t be alone out there much longer.
But I still had the stomach issue, and I didn’t want to burden my crew with a “biffy” that early in the race. A bit of help from a friend and I was quickly in a nearby indoor bathroom, although the site of my already bloodshot eyes wasn’t the most encouraging. A switch of the packs and I was sent back into the night. It was approximately 3 am, and the moon was beginning to shift behind the mountains. I had been afraid that the full moon meant we wouldn’t see the Death Valley stars. I hadn’t realized there was still a window. A window where the moon was slipping behind the mountains but the sun wasn’t yet starting to rise. A blanket of pure starlight, accented by not one, not two, but three shooting stars, a tiny gasp for each one.
And so it was that at 3:30 am, slightly less lonely but looking to pass the hours until dawn, we began “The Phantom of the Opera.” And it was unbelievable. As the sand dunes and Stovepipe Wells slowly came into sight, the moon moved west and the sun rose in the east, both present in the same sky. A Schroedinger moment when it was neither night nor day, but both.
There was a little miscalculation with my pace chart. I looked to be behind my intended arrival at Stovepipe, which meant a mad sprint for four miles at which point I was told by my crew that I was now too fast. I was worried I was beating my legs senseless too soon, I may have even muttered something sacreligous about “hating this damn race,” but there was also a 50-mile cutoff up ahead that was rather tricky with my early conservative approach. I was running tired; not tired from running, but up-all-night- in-the-dark-confused-biorhythm kinds of tired. I needed sunlight and coffee, both of which Stovepipe Wells delivered.
RISE AND SHINE! I pulled into Stovepipe grateful to be there, somewhat stymied by having run 42 miles through the dark. It didn’t feel like 42 miles (good), but I was still nervous I had trashed my legs on the sloping downhill in, exhausted and warming up with the sun.
Robin asked if I wanted my coffee, and I immediately chugged a third of the bottle with some mini muffins. With the sun already making its presence known, I decided to use the time station to make some adjustments for the climb (day?) ahead. We got me into my white Omni-Max long sleeve and my desert hat; stuffed bags of ice into my sports bra and under my hat; coated my legs with spray sunscreen; and switched from the Camelbak to handhelds, since the fluid in the Camelbak straw was taking less than two minutes to heat up to the temperature of tea. After a quick check-in, it was time to face the climb to Towne Pass, the one I had trained hardest for, the one part of this course I had hoped to dominate. It was 7:07 am.
Steve was up first, and just as the caffeine rushed into my system. For two miles straight, it was nothing but buzzed chatter. The continuing sunrise was a watercolor painting; it was happening right in front of us, but looked painted on canvas. So hazy yet so crisp; another desert paradox before our eyes. I had mapped this hill. Charted it. Knew every mile by grade; had run every mile of it by grade and worse. Another sweaty Sunday afternoon, locked and loaded on the treadmill, daydreaming my way up Towne Pass.
I started with 5:1 intervals. I rotated through Steve, George, Robin and Darris. As we adjusted to the prescribed 2:1 intervals, it was all I could do to stick to the plan. I felt GOOD. Alive. Fresh and refreshed, ready to eradicate this thing and leave it in my dust. But Badwater pays you back for those mistakes; especially when you’re not even halfway. We ticked off 1000 feet, 2000 feet, 3000 feet; all according to plan. We were putting time on my generously cushioned pace chart but it wasn’t planned; besides, I didn’t know if I’d need to walk some of the downhill ahead to save my quads and glutes.
There was a nagging little voice in my head, though – the voice telling me that after peeing pretty regularly until mile 30 or so, I hadn’t in several hours. I felt like I “could” go, but knew that I didn’t really have to. DB had told me I wasn’t hiding my pee from him, so during a pit-stop he grabbed a cup. Once out of site I did the deed, and things weren’t so great. “Apple juice” is being generous about the color. We talked ourselves through it; not enough to be worried about, but too dark to ignore the warning. After chugging strawberry Sunkist and watermelon seltzer three-quarters of the way up the hill, I requested two cups of flat water, no ice, at each aid station. (Flat and no ice being easiest and quickest to drink). My weight was down to 95; our goal had been between 97 and 102. I went through about eight cups of the flat water before I reached 4000 feet with Robin, gleefully remarking “956 feet to go!” Not that I knew that hill inside out or anything. I couldn’t believe how quickly it passed; how seamlessly, how effortlessly. The day had dawned. The plan had worked. I was in love with Badwater.
I gave my crew a break and headed onto the downhill stretch into the Panamint Valley alone. I kept my earphone in and started easy, so easy. This hill had killed my quads and glutes just pacing DB two years ago, but I had practiced the downhills too. Again and again and again. I was starting to pee more and more; like a racehorse now. The good news, I was no longer dehydrated. The bad news, I was mildly hyponatremic.
So I grabbed a baggie of kosher salt to dip my finger into every couple of miles, and when that didn’t work, I remembered the olives. Ah yes, who could possibly want Kalamata olives in the middle of Badwater? Me. And they were so good. So unbelievably good.
And the sky was pink. Maybe it was the mountains, maybe it was the haze, but what I’ll always remember is that the sky was pink. The downhill didn’t hurt the way I worried it would, and the sky was pink. If you can have a near-death experience while experiencing living at its very height: breathing, sweating, breathing, sweating, so it was. Was I running towards heaven, or straight into it? It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. The sky was pink.
The music kept playing; a song from Robin, a song from Darris, a song from the LaCounts, a song from Bruce. Atomic Dog from Sunday. I was floating toward a pink sky. I was dancing through my sunscreen spray-down on the side of the mountain. Darris was dumping pails of ice water over my head, over my neck, rubbing it across my back and trying to avoid my shorts. I was dancing under a pink sky. The miles didn’t matter. I was headed down to the Panamint Valley under a pink sky, legs firmly beneath me and soul on fire.
And then someone turned on the blast furnace, and Badwater got real.
I can’t explain what happened. I ran into a pit-stop under a pink sky and casually asked who had turned the furnace on. I was no longer feeling radiant heat on my calves; instead I could literally feel them burning. My shirt was drying as fast as we got it wet; the ice in my bra was liquefied in minutes instead of miles. I was bone dry, salty hot. No more were the plastic bags the ice had been in (to protect against dripping and chafing). Chafing be damned, I needed that ice to drip. We got me loaded up and I headed back out onto the valley floor. I requested a laundry list for the next stop, I felt terrible, I tried to divide it between the two of them. Darris: sunscreen, lip balm, eye drops, Vaseline. Robin: Ice. So much ice. Cold seltzer. Salt. The scale.
Two miles later. I slowed my pace, concentrated on the ice, reminded myself I was just working to Panamint. I ran in. They asked what I wanted first. I chugged. I asked to think. I said “ummmmm…” And I realized I needed the van.
I wasn’t supposed to get in. I was supposed to get crewed beneath the “shade” of the hatch, get some extra ice maybe. We tried. It wasn’t enough. I wasn’t in trouble, I recognized that; in the same thought, I realized that Trouble was on its way if this didn’t get fixed now. And so, in spite of my fear that getting cold in the van would make stepping back out into the heat that much worse, I did indeed end up in the van, air vents opened full blast, cold towel over my face, hands to my wrists in a pail of ice water. And oh, the sleep. Because if I had to be in there, even for five minutes, shouldn’t I give in to that blessed feeling of finally, just for a minute, closing myyyy …
COLD! And there it was. I was shivering, freezing cold, so cold. Scrambling to turn the vents off and trying to warm my hands. Out of the van with a couple chugs of coffee, and back to the hatch to finish the crew and get moving. I realized as I stood there, getting sunscreened and Vaselined and iced for the next two miles, that I was standing right in front of the exhaust and stepped away to stop the burning on my calves. Except there was no exhaust. There was just radiant heat. Because this was Badwater, and that night start hadn’t changed a thing except when.
Darris walked out with me, carrying a sprayer to keep me cooled down while I got back into the game. I needed the spray but as we worked the four miles left to the Panamint check point, it was going to all the wrong places – namely the lady parts. We were running again within a mile, more subdued, but running. I knew there would be a third wind, I just didn’t know when. But more so, I knew the goodies were on fire. I ran into Panamint pulling my shorts out and away from me, trying to stall the inevitable.
The power was out. The power was out and I was devastated for my crew. No matter how tired, how chafed, how hot; all I knew was that this meant my crew didn’t get food. We were supposed to go through Lone Pine at 3 or 4 in the morning, which had meant this was their last chance at a meal. But there was no power, and there were no meals. They tried to play it off, but it mattered to me. It mattered a LOT. But there were things to be done and another climb ahead, so into the van I (briefly) went. My dry shorts went on, followed by a massive amount of Vaseline and a rather comical moment: Robin opens the door to the van to find me with my hand down my shorts, open Vaseline jar next to me. My response?
“Don’t worry, I didn’t double dip.”
And we were climbing again, and I was getting tired. I couldn’t figure out where we were mileage-wise, and the crew was having trouble figuring it out as well. I didn’t know exactly where the hill had “started,” and since we couldn’t make sense of the mileage, I was doing it blind. We were back to our rotations, and my crew was so positive but nervous that I wasn’t eating enough. My liquid calories were high, but they wanted more food. I choked on Skittles, which would cause my throat to burn a bit for the rest of the race. I waxed philosophical with Steve. Seriously deep religious stuff. Really, just trying to figure out why I was there. Which I couldn’t. For some reason, I was trying to make sense of my entire life experience on that mountain, tired, exhausted, hungry and hot. So I blathered myself senseless and came up with absolutely nothing. Why I felt like a failure at coming up with nothing was an even bigger mystery.
I was hiking fast and falling asleep faster. My crew was telling me how wonderfully I was doing, and it was all I could do to wonder if it wasn’t good enough for a nap. There was carnage at each parking stop up the second mountain, and it was all I could do not to join in. But I pounded my Cokes; I got down what Clif SHOT I could; I just. Kept. Hiking.
And then I knew that I couldn’t anymore. It was so hot. It was so hot, and exhausting, and I was just so – tired. I was trying to get past mile 80 – why, I don’t know, because it’s not like 55 is a manageable number, and you’re not supposed to do math anyway. So I blathered, and I hiked, and I considered my situation. And I decided that if I could just sleep for ten minutes – just ten minutes! – and then chug a coffee, it might get me going again like I had out of Stovepipe. It was a gamble. It could make me even more tired if I woke up groggy. But the bottom line was that I wasn’t getting out of this without sleeping, so shouldn’t I do it proactively?
We hung it on the top of the hill. I thought it was mile 90. It’s not quite mile 90. It’s up there. Somewhere. But I had to finish the hill. We got there. I almost got a surge of energy running to the van, just knowing it was finally naptime.
Ten minutes. Ten minutes, then coffee. I begged them not to play with me. TEN minutes only.
Ten minutes later, I was chugging coffee and getting my ipod back for the second downhill stretch.
It was good, at first. It had worked, at first. But I was really having trouble eating now, and my crew was really concerned. They were forcing food at me. I was trying to think of what I could eat. I was done – DONE – with sugar. My mouth was so dry that everything turned to sawdust. I put a piece of bread in my mouth and it came out drier than it had gone in. Darris told me to mix Gatorade with it like a hot dog eating contest, ‘cause yeah, that wouldn’t nauseate me. We tried watermelon with salt; apparently I made a face at it like a baby being asked to try mashed liver. I picked up peanut butter, dry heaved, and put it back. Candy? Ugh. Crackers? Dry. Pretzels? Dry. “Star. You have got to EAT something,” they begged me.
I was trying so hard. I know they couldn’t see it, but I was trying so hard. And then I remembered. The hot pot. The soup. The SOUP!!! And the hot coffee. I could do this. Elation! They were tired, yes, but I would eat soup. I left them at the van, heading out for my next two miles and trying to ignore the dark sky and the lightning in the distance. SOUP! It was all I could do not to cry. My dry mouth actually tried to salivate. I couldn’t run fast enough to get to those salty, slippery noodles. I thought about how awful Gatorade tastes after noodles and I didn’t care. My brain was chanting beneath the caucophany: “Noodles! Noodles! Noodles!”
I was coming up on the van. On noodles. I would show them how much I was willing to eat! They would be so proud of me! Noodles!
But the hot pot wasn’t working on the converter.
And the storm was brewing.
There were no noodles, and the lightening was getting closer.
After 88 miles, Badwater had caught me. And it was just getting started.
For Part II, go here.