Badwater Ultramarathon

The last couple days have been a milestone for me.  It didn’t dawn on me that I was there, ready to go, until I saw the “Sea Level” sign hanging up above Badwater Basin.  The excitement in the air was tremendous.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people smiling and laughing about doing something so insane J.  Well, I got checked in, did my last minute pre-race rituals, and took the pictures at the basin.  We all lined up for the start, and the countdown began.  So many cameras!  I felt like I was on TV.  We all took off.  I decided to pace behind boxing champ Ray Sanchez, who was doing about a 9:30 pace. This pace seemed so easy, and I wanted to run easy in anticipation of the hot weather on its way.  We ran in the shade of the mountains for a bit, then the sun got high enough that we were without shade for the rest of the day.  I maintained my pace, and enjoyed the surroundings.  Death Valley is so amazing, and so pretty.  I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.  We ran past Mushroom Rock in about 2 hours.  I was doing quite well.  I decided to stick with Gatorade until I couldn’t stand it, and I would munch on grapes and cantaloupe during the hot portions.  I figured this would keep my stomach happy and my calorie count up. My goal was to reach Furnace Creek in 2:50.  I hit it right on the nose.   I had a big bopper ice cream sandwich and was on my way.

After Furnace Creek, I picked up my dad as a pacer.  He ran most of the next section to Stovepipe Wells with me.  The temps were on the rise.  It was already well over 100 degrees when we reached Furnace Creek, and the heat would be on the rise the rest of the day. Surprisingly, I hardly even noticed it was hot outside.  I took it to be because of all my heat training, as well as my body gradually getting used to the slow and steady temperature increase as the day wore on.  I had my crew fill up my Stay-Cool™ bandanas every 2 miles throughout this section.  I was drinking a bottle of diluted Gatorade every mile.  I started off with regular Gatorade, but I think the concentration was too strong and my salt was getting off balance (due to urination inactivity).  Drinking the diluted mix worked great for me, and I stuck with it the whole race. I also have to mention The Chair.  My dad got a fold up camping chair with a canopy attached and hooked up some PVC pipe with little sprayers attached.  About 8 sprayers on you at once with ice water gave you goose bumps at 118◦F.  His idea is patent pending and is sure to be a seller at hot weather races like this one.

I met many interesting individuals during the race.  During the section to Stovepipe Wells, I met Lisa Smith-Batchen from Victor, ID (the only other Idaho contestant).  She was wearing crocs after foot surgery and would wear them for the rest of the race.  Ferg Hawke was out there too, so it was great to meet him also.  Shortly before Stovepipe Wells, we passed this kid named Joey from Germany.  He was doing terrible.  He wasn’t carrying a water bottle and had only peed once since the start of the race. We tried to get him on track with essential hydration techniques so that he could hopefully make it to the finish (He did it, 43:22).

After Stovepipe Wells begins the long, long, long, long, long climb to Townes Pass.  I was averaging 14 to 17 minute miles on this section.  I would run from one reflector to another, then walk, then repeat.  Oswaldo Lopez caught me on this section, and I would switch back and forth with him for a while.  I noticed Michael Wardian’s crew vehicle catching up, and I could see him coming up the hill.  I didn’t want him to pass me, so I put the hammer down a little bit.  It worked (for a while).  Fun competition!  He caught up eventually, and I could tell the guy had been suffering in the heat.  I
said some nice words and basically told him not to let me catch up, or else J.  I reached Towne’s Pass around 9 PM.
A nice view into the valley, and I was off down the mountain.  The moon was big and bright, and I was ready
to start the real race.

I flew down Towne’s Pass into the Panamint Valley, stopping every mile to walk and keep my legs from frying too
early.  It was on this section I realized how far ahead of the pack I was.  I probably only had 10-15 crew vehicles in front of me.  I was excited, having the tough hot portion of the race out of the way and the inviting cool of the night ready to boost my performance.  The descent went well, and I was well ahead of schedule.  I couldn’t believe how good of a race I was having. My legs felt really good (like I hadn’t just run 60-70 miles) and my stomach, head, and mind were all in good shape. I got to Panamint Springs (72.3 miles) in 15:04, about 1:26 earlier than planned (that is, planned if I was having a really good day).  I was a social butterfly with the time station personnel for a bit, then started running up Father Crowley.

This was a miserable section of the race for me, and the beginning of the tough part.  It felt steeper than Townes Pass as my energy started to wane.  I grew sleepy as I climbed to Father Crowley viewpoint.  When I got there, I lay down
for about 20 minutes and tried to gather some strength back.  When I got up I started hobbling along again.  Jason Durand paced me for a while and kept the humor up.  I felt better after the snooze but something unexpected happened-shivers and goose bumps.  Was it getting cold out?  Indeed, from the high the day previously (118◦F)  the temperature had plummeted 66◦ to a cool 52◦F.  Unbelievable.  Well, there are two good ways to stay warm in cool weather-bundle up, or man up and run.  You already know which one I chose. After Father Crowley we continued the slow but gradual ascent (about 1,000 ft over 10 miles) to the Darwin time station.  I don’t really remember a lot from this section (probably because it was late and not much remembering was done) except I kept leapfrogging with Brian Recore.  He had ambitions of finishing under 30 hours, which sounded almost possible, but I knew there would be a super tough finish and the lake section to take its toll on the body.  He was good competition to keep me running through this late night portion of the race, which probably helped my finish time a lot.  Mark Matayzik passed me too.  He was doing about an 8 minute pace.  I tried to keep up with him for a bit, but I was just a little too fatigued to pull it off at the time.  After a while I could see some blinking lights off in the distance.  It was the Darwin time station, and the start of the last official downhill section of the race.  I pulled into the Darwin time station, 90 miles, in 20:41 (4:41 AM).  49 minutes ahead of schedule.

After I ran through the Darwin checkpoint my goal was to try and maintain 4 miles per hour to Lone Pine.  The sun was rising, which helped me wake up even more and did its typical job of making me feel like a new man.  I would run from one reflective post in the road to the next one, taking a walk break if I needed.  Looking at my running pace, I was incredibly pleased to see that I would run 100 miles well under 24 hours.  This meant I had run everything before me
faster than I had at the Cascade Lakes Relay (my 1st 150 miler) last summer.  Awesome!  I got to 100 miles in 23:21.  Sha-bam!  With only a Pocatello 50K left to go, I was now in gear to push hard to the finish.

Oh wow the lake section.  It was long and boring.  I had my watch on though, and knew exactly how far I had to Lone Pine.  With the sun up though, it warmed up.  I have to tell you, it was 100x hotter in Owens Valley than in Death Valley.  Owens Valley means that you have run 100+ miles, run all night, are tired and exhausted, and the warm weather will seem much warmer than the day before.  So even though our thermometer read at 82◦F, I was cooking.  My crew did their job of soaking me with water and getting me ice bandanas.  In Badwater, uncommon crewing is a common virtue.
4 miles an hour is my type of thing.  They helped me with it immensely.  I got excited the closer and closer we got to Lone Pine.  The high Sierras were growing huge, jutting up above the valley more than 11,000 ft.  I eventually dropped down to Owens River which signaled the longest mile to Hwy 395.  Another crew had said something like, “It’s only 1 mile to the highway,” when in actuality it was 2.5 miles.  Ugh.  That way the toughest [mental] section of the course right there.  I got there eventually, and turned right into Lone Pine. My dad got me some ice cream and I checked into the Lone Pine Time Station in 29:11.  I lay down for 5 minutes and began the most awesome finish of any race.

Now, I have talked very little about my physical feelings during the race.  But trust me, I was in some serious pain from 90 miles on.  The climb to Father Crowley had many banked turns that put a lot of discomfort on my feet in some sensitive spots.  I had a blister fixed once, but I figured if I could run with blisters then I should.  So I did.  Those blisters and hot spots hurt so bad on the way up to Whitney.  My feet were extremely uncomfortable and I was getting blisters on the balls of my feet that were just excruciating.  More pain, more fun.  I had enough fun for a 1,000 person party.  My feet also felt like they were going to break in half.  The last climb was steep.  I ran as much as I could.  I pushed harder and harder.  My pacers could barely keep up with me, and I was more than 120 miles into it.  I was catching people on the climb and loving it.  I love good competition, especially when it is in the late hour of the race.  Some people knew I was coming and tried to hold me off.  So much fun.  When we got to the switchbacks, I tried to run them.  Then I realized they were at a 10% grade.  Wow!  I kept hiking at my 17:50 pace.  I finished the switchbacks and was now onto
the final portion of the climb.

Almost there.  I was filled with such awe that I had come this far.  I couldn’t believe it.  Over four years since reading Dean’s first book.  I was about to become an Official Finisher of the toughest footrace on the planet.  I thought of my wife.  I wanted to do well for her.  I saw cars on the left hand side of the road.  The cars are overflow parking for the Whitney portal.  I started running, even though I was incredibly tired. My crew was there, cheering me on.  We ran toward the finish.  Wildman (Fred Willet) said “Last one to the finish has to buy the dinner!,” so I sprinted and Jon Kinzer raced me.  The finish tape struck my chest and I let out my best war cry.  After a good 30 seconds I was completely out of breath.  I made it!  An official Badwater Finisher, a veteran of the race.  I sat at the finisher’s area and received It.
You already know what “It” is.  I am now wearing It.  32:46:12. That number will stick with me for a long, long time.
17th place overall out of 82 in a field of international competitors.  What a complete honor.

Looking back, I had a near-perfect race.  Next time I will probably try some different shoes for blister control. Other than that, I was dialed-in. I ran an extremely consistent pace for the whole race, and never felt like I was completely out of energy.  I took care of all my problems early on; taking that proactive effort helped me get a great finishing time.  A HUGE thanks to Holly Finch and The Pulse Running & Fitness Shop for sponsoring me for the race, Heather Culig who was the Pearl iZumi rep who got me the awesome Pearl Float IV as well as the countless others who supported me financially to participate in this endeavor.   Uber Kudos to my crew- Crew Chief Mike Blessing, Jon Kinzer, Keith Callaway, Jason Durand, and Fred “Wildman” Willet.  They made it happen.  We came, we saw, we conquered.  I will return to Death
Valley, but I will do it in a few years when I (hopefully) have more time on my hands and can go for a Win.  Thanks to
all for all your support in this dream of mine. I hope I have given you belief in your own dreams.  May they happen for you too.


7 thoughts on “Badwater Ultramarathon

  1. Ben I may have to try this badwater thing I didnt think I would want to but after being there I must try Love you buddy you duh Man!!!!!

  2. Ben, I’m so proud of you! I’ll slide your book next to my DK favorites on the bookshelf one of these days! This is an awesome, awesome story.

    Take care,

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