It’s been no surprise to me that people are curious about Badwater – and even more curious about how one even begins to train for it. There’s certainly not the wealth of “couch to Badwater” training programs that there are for the 5K, 10K, and half marathon distances; even my non-runner friends who are able to get their heads around 100-milers have been stymied anew by this latest adventure of mine. Extra miles, extra hills, extra heat – well, extra everything. Which, it turns out, is a pretty accurate description of my training – extra everything.
The elephant in the room: how much time is this taking? Two to five hours on weekdays, longer on the weekends. I break it up between early morning and evening sessions. I am lucky and grateful to have two fantastic employers and a flexible work schedule. I am blessed beyond measure to have a husband who supports me, puts up with this, and above all else, inspired me with his own Badwater completion in 2013 – on his 50th birthday, no less.
To my mind, there are four critical components of training: distance, hills, heat and mental acuity/sleep deprivation. A focus on those disciplines alone is immensely time-consuming and still omits two very real wild cards: wind and altitude. Here’s an insider’s look at what I’ve been doing – and why.
Having completed ten 100-mile races and run up to 107 in a single shot thanks to a trail detour, I felt reasonably confident in my ability to get “the miles” in. I am well aware that Badwater involves an extra 35 miles than usual, and 28 more than I’ve ever run in a single effort. My race plan, however, also involves more walking – and more long stretches of continuous walking – than I’ve ever done in a 100-miler. Like many first-time marathoners, I will enter new and uncharted territory while running Badwater, and I’m mentally prepared for that.
I am blessed to be a reasonably “durable” runner, and have always performed and held up well under high mileage. But this one’s a bit trickier. Here’s some stats and the explanations behind them.
- Peak Mileage: While I would typically peak at 100 miles per week during a training cycle, I’ve topped out just under that (93/95/91) during this training cycle, mainly due to the addition of other workouts (sauna and walking). It happened for two reasons. First, you just run out of time at some point. But second, and more importantly, I found as I got into the meatiest weeks of training that the program that took shape wasn’t quite what I wrote down on paper, but was such a perfect, well-oiled, and functioning program that I wasn’t going to risk it for the sake of a number. I was recovering well. I had a semblance of balance. There was a sense of “routine” in the workouts I was doing, and the order in which they were being done made sense.
- Long Runs: Everyone that I talk to is so curious about my long runs, and why they haven’t been longer. I’ve done a split 47 (Grandma’s/Mohican pacing), a 40, and a 37 with sleep deprivation, all during my peak mileage weeks. Add to that numerous 24’s and 31’s, and that’s the base. Yes, a lot of runners do 100-milers as “trainers” in the build-up to Badwater, but I didn’t think that was a good idea for me. I know the amount of physical and mental recovery I need after a 100-miler, and I didn’t want to risk going into Badwater stale. I typically do a single 40-miler before racing a 100, and this time, I’ve done three with relative ease. I feel comfortable and confident that I made the right training decisions for my body and my strategy – only the course can decide the rest.
I expected this one to be my Achilles heel. I am not “bad” on hills, and I don’t “hate” hills. That being said, I have never made hills a priority, nor have I particularly enjoyed them. Sure I would throw a few extra ones in during Boston training, and sure my regular morning run route had some solid climbs in it, but given the choice, I never scouted them out. Nor did I work on form or power as much as I just gutted it out. And that’s just uphills. Badwater also offers killer, shin-blasting descents. For miles.
Which is why it’s been so gratifying to see all the progress I’ve made in this area. To be honest, I’ve kind of got a thing for hills now. The rules and the workouts that made that happen:
1. We never run flat. If there aren’t hills, it’s not a run. Familiarity goes far.
2. “Only” a five miler? No problem. There’s a half mile hill with a solid grade less than half a mile from our house. So get your butt up and down that thing a few times. Because if there aren’t hills, it’s not a run.
3. Wednesday hill runs of 13 miles; all hills one mile in length. Six one-mile uphills, five one-mile downhills, plus a mile each of warm-up and cool-down.
4. Preceded by the Tuesday night special, a five mile downhill run on the treadmill at -1, -2 and -3 percent grades. Yes, the descents at Badwater are steeper, but a hard, fast, scary downhill run on a treadmill does a great job of stressing and wearing out the quads and shins before going into the Wednesday hill run.
5. The Sunday killer. Those runs I just described are great for Boston, but the hills at Badwater are long. 17 miles long. 15 miles long. 13 miles long. And how can you really be prepared for a 17 mile hill when you’ve never run one, right? So, starting in May, I began those wacky runs I describe in my training logs that are literally(!) all uphill. I don’t have a 17 mile hill here in Ohio, but the treadmill has no problem dishing one out for as long as I’ll stay on it. I started with only 8 miles, and yes, I’ve worked my way all the way up. I can’t begin to describe how empowering it is to know that I can run 17 miles straight uphill, at a 7 – 8% incline – and at what I consider a reasonable pace for said adventure. It’s long, it’s boring, and yes – it’s hard. But I have never felt stronger on hills, and I have grown to love these grueling weekly workouts.
6. And last, but not least, the daily grind. Four days a week, I’ve been spending one hour walking uphill on a 10% grade. Not running, just walking. Just getting used to that feeling of hiking up a hard hill – and building the muscles that will power the hiking that’s required on the steepest climbs.
Here’s one of the most important things I can tell anyone about Badwater, regardless of whether they’re planning to run or crew it. It’s hot. It’s beastly hot. And no matter how prepared you are, it’s going to feel hot. Before I crewed DB in 2013, I did a fair amount of heat training as well as sauna sessions. And when I first stepped out of that van into 117 degree heat, guess what? It was hot. That didn’t mean that I wasn’t adapted; it means that when you feel 117 degree air on your skin, it feels hot. You can, however, train your body to perform and function optimally in those conditions, and to maybe feel like it’s not quite as hot. Here’s what I’ve been up to:
Sauna Sessions: DB is doing these with me in preparation for crewing and pacing. We started back in May, and will have a plethora of sauna sessions completed when we head to Death Valley. We typically do 50-minute sessions between 180 – 200 degrees four times per week, after building up from 30 minutes when we started.
Many people have asked us if we exercise in the sauna; some people do, but we do not. Our personal focus in the sauna is teaching our bodies to process the amount of fluids we’ll need to get through Death Valley. While we are passively getting familiar with the type of heat we’ll experience, the more important piece of this is making our sweating mechanisms more efficient. The average human body is capable of consuming all the fluids it needs to exercise in Death Valley, but not of processing them. Drinking 2-liters of fluid an hour means nothing if the majority of it sits in your belly – or if the majority of your sweat is coming directly from your blood stream (turning your blood and therefore your brain “sludgy”) rather than intracellular spaces.
When I began sauna sessions in May, my heart rate was maxing out just under 120, and I could only get down about a liter of fluid before feeling uncomfortable. As of this week, my heart rate typically tops out in the low 90’s (though I have had a half dozen sessions in the high 80’s), and I can get down more than 2 liters of fluid without feeling bloated – or having to pee uncontrollably when I’m done. Yes, I am as soaked as a drowned rat, but being able to process that much fluid into sweat that quickly will pay huge dividends in Death Valley. And yes, I am always cold right now.
On a final note regarding the sauna, I must stress an even more important point that I made in my most recent training log: there are no “bad” sauna sessions. The bad sessions are just as important – if not more important – than the good ones. The bad sauna sessions teach you what trouble feels like, as well as how to handle it mentally and physically. In Death Valley, there is no door. There is no escape clause. Learning how to be claustrophobically hot, as well as how to cool down quickly and regain equilibrium, can be absolutely crucial in tough spots during the race.
2. Jackets and Pants and Fleece, Oh My! The layering is no secret, and only slightly less time-consuming than the sauna. To properly prepare for running through Death Valley, I simply can’t afford to be cold – or even comfortable. Since I took a bit of an early lead, slowly beginning Badwater training immediately following Umstead, I was able to adjust gradually. I just never stopped wearing my winter running clothes. Then, of course, I started adding extra layers to those. A typical running outfit on an 80-degree day is long pants with spandex running shorts underneath, plus a running tank, a long sleeve shirt and a sweatshirt or jacket. Depending on the severity I’m going for, we sometimes add a winter running hat for extra punch – and strange looks.
Same deal for spinning classes. Same deal for the hour of uphill walking on the treadmill every day, though I usually go with a “Rocky” style cotton hooded sweatshirt (hood up, of course) for that drill. And, same drill for that “Sunday Killer” run that’s medium-distance and all uphill. A clothes change is required about 8 miles in; by then I’m soaked through, which sadly starts to have a cooling effect instead. For the sake of sanity, as well as optimal workout performance, I allow myself a “break” on two specific runs: I wear shorts(!) and a single long-sleeve on any run longer than 20 miles, plus during the 13-mile hill workout on Wednesdays.
3. Also, my car stinks. Because I might still have the heat on high blast anytime I’m driving. In July. Unless I’m going to church or a work meeting and can’t show up bright red and drenched.
Basically, I am so hot, all of the time. Except when I’m so cold from all of the heat training.
Sleep Deprivation/Mental Training
So much of what I’ve already entailed goes into the mental preparedness one needs to even begin to approach Badwater, most of all, familiarity. But there are two other magic ingredients I’ve added to the mix with that – ones that I hope and pray will get me up that mountain trashed but smiling.
Sleep Deprivation: I recognize how blessed I have been to perform well at my previous 100’s; so well that I’ve never been up more than 26 hours between rising and finishing. This will not be the case at Badwater. Even with a best case scenario finish, I will be running several hours more than 26. Sleep deprivation will be a very real factor; we saw it up close during DB’s run in 2013, when we struggled to “wake him up” for almost ten hours of the event. To that end, DB and I did a totally bizarre sleep deprivation trial this past weekend: we ran one mile every hour for 24 hours, after being up all day. I also ran a hot, layered 13 miles immediately before we started the 24-in-24. The point of this exercise was not to get high miles or improve our fitness in any way, but to get me extremely familiar with how it was going to feel to run at weird and uncomfortable times when I was already exhausted. Well, mission accomplished. And I can assure you, ignorance would not have been bliss on this topic.
Familiarity: In training for any ultra, I have long believed that the worse you can safely feel in training, the more ready you’ll be to combat the low points on race day. What I am familiar with these days?
Heat. Death Valley will still be hot, but my mind and my body know heat. More importantly, they know just where to put the ice to get my heart rate down, and fast.
Hills. Regular hills? Every day. Mile long hills? Several times a week. Hills at a 10% grade that force you to a fast walk? Four times a week. 17 mile hills with no break? Yep. I know what it feels like. Will it be harder on the course? So much harder. But I will know that I have done it. Over and over and over again.
Exhaustion. Distance. Boredom. Check, check, check.
And finally, the course. The beautiful, sacred, totally overwhelming vastness of the course. I’ve crewed three times and we’ve visited another four on our own. I’ve run almost every section of this course, some sections countless times. And I’ve studied. I’ve studied grades – and not just overall ones. I’ve studied temperatures. I’ve studied landmarks and we have our own personal ones too. History. I’m about to get to know this course so much better than I ever have before, but I truly feel as ready as I can be. Which brings us, at long last, to the single most important piece in my arsenal of tools. More important than heat, hills, grades, ice, heart rates, altitude, wind, dust devils, hell or high water (highly unlikely):
Humility. Because for all I’ve done, and all that every single person training for this race has done, something is going to go wrong. Because this is a ridiculous distance in a sacred but rather inhospitable place.
When I step to that starting line, I will not do it thinking I am ready to conquer this course. Instead, I will be asking the desert its permission to cross, and to cross safely. I will humbly become one being with the course, accepting the challenges I am not prepared for or too tired to deal with as due toll for the crossing. I will share the highs and the joys with the desert with gratitude. And I will recognize that I am a guest on what I consider sacred ground.
It takes ego to sign up for this race. It will take humility to finish it.