The Road To Badwater

About 6 years ago, at the ripe old age of 52, I decided to embark on a new journey in my life. That journey entailed running my very first marathon in my life-long running career. Ever since I was 5 years old, I had been a runner. It all started with running after all the kids getting on the bus and it soon blossomed into running FROM all the bullies AT the bus stop, to keep from getting beat up. It turned out that I was actually pretty fast and only one kid at the bus stop could ever beat me when I would race everyone. I was always running and when I was in 5th grade, I actually was the fastest runner when we competed for the Presidential Physical Fitness award. I kept running all the way through junior high school and went out for the track team. That was where I came up against the cold hard realization that there were a lot of guys out there who were a lot faster and better runners than I was. I lost total interest and fell completely out of the sport and joined the high school band instead. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I found running again, when I decided to run my first ever competitive running event which was the WFTV 9,999 meter challenge in Orlando, Fl. After that and throughout my adult life, I would do some running to stay in shape and occasionally sign up for a 5K here and a 10K there and even one half-marathon in my mid-20s. When I was 48 I hit a turning point in my life and I felt the urge to do something big. It was going to be either climbing Mt Everest or thru-hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. Fortunately or unfortunately, however I want to look at it, the AT won out. Climbing Mt Everest had always been my biggest dream, but considering my age and the amount of time and money climbing Everest would have taken, alas smart reasoning won out. Thru-hiking the AT continues today to be the greatest adventure I ever took on. I was able to share part of the journey with one of my best friends and along the way I made some new life-long friends who will be with me till the day my physical body no longer walks on this earth. img_4281    img_4283

I saw things and had experiences that just awakened this sense of adventure and wonderment that today I just can’t put down. It took me 6 months to finish the trail and every day was exciting. Then one day it was all over and I had to come back to the real world and live like a normal person. But it was killing me and I went through a very depressing time and was very unsure of myself. I went back into the corporate world, getting up every day and driving into an office and sitting behind a computer for hours on end and longing to be back out on the trail. Back out in nature. It was there that I became good friends with a co-worker named Denise, who was a runner and had run many marathons. Soon I was back into running and Denise and I would go for long runs at lunch. She eventually convinced me that I could run a marathon and so the training began. I was very unsure of myself, but to make a long story short, I finished my first marathon and in a faster time than I expected and feeling pretty amazing and excited at the finish. It was there at the finish, when I made the statement “Well that wasn’t all that bad” that someone (and he knows who he is 🙂 ) suggested I run one of those “50 or 100 milers that everyone’s talking about”. And my response was “who in their right mind would ever do that?”. But thanks to the power of the internet, 3 days later I was out on Google trying to find out what it would take to run a 50 mile ultra-marathon. Later that same year I DID run my first 50 miler, the JFK 50, in Boonesboro, MD. And while there, I met up with a great bunch of folks from the Reston Runners in Reston, VA who were all into these ultras. They sort of took me under their wings and I fell deeply in love with the thought of seeing just how far I could push my body and at the same time enjoy the comradery of the ultra-running community and get to travel and see some fantastic places around the country that could only be experienced on foot. In 2011, I ran my first 100 miler. I was amazed that I could train for something like this and make my body do things I would have NEVER guessed were possible. After finishing a few hundred milers (DNFing a couple too) I started wanting more of a challenge and THAT’s when I found out about the Badwater 135. A 135 mile race from the lowest point in the USA at 282 feet below sea level all the way across Death Valley and 2 mountain ranges, to half way up Mt Whitney, which is the highest point in the lower 48 United States. And all of this during the month of July, when the temperatures can reach into 130 degrees. I was hooked. I read everything I could find about the race and what it took. My heroes became the men who had conquered this beast multiple times. People like Dean Karnazes and David Goggins and of course Marshall Ulrich who has now finished the race 20 times and once even did it solo with no crew, pulling a hot dog cart full of water and ice, all the way across the desert. Every year I would dream about doing this race someday and my five -year plan was put into action. Someday I WOULD run Badwater. Every year I ran more and more hundred milers and I became a stronger long distance runner, even completing the Grand Slam of Ultra-running in 2014, which consisted of finishing 4 of the oldest 100 milers in the country, all in a 4 month span. I got the opportunity to come out to Death Valley and crew for a guy named Jeff Ashizawa who was running Badwater 135 in 2013. I will never forget how beautiful the place was and how in awe I was of all the athletes. I actually got to meet my heroes Dean and Marshall during the race. I remember my first afternoon at the Badwater basin before the race. It was 128 degrees and when I got out of the car, the heat sucked the air right out of my lungs and I immediately thought that there was no way I could ever survive that kind of heat. Especially for 135 miles. It was a great experience and over a couple of days it allowed me to realize that I COULD adjust to those temps and it helped keep my dream alive. Fast forward to this year. A lot of things happened in my life recently and I had come to another crossroad where I had to make some big decisions. So at the beginning of the year when I looked out and asked what was THE big thing I was going to try and accomplish this year, it was staring me right in the face. It was time to go for Badwater. I knew it was going to be difficult because of the large amount of money that it involved and the amount of time I would have to take off work and all the tough training that was ahead of me. In January, I sent in my running resume to Chris Kostman, the race director, for consideration and you can’t imagine how excited I was when I got the invitation to come to Death Valley and compete in the 2016 Styr Labs Badwater 135 Ultra-Marathon. I was ready to try and run with the big dogs. Without a doubt I knew exactly who the four guys were that I would ask to be on my crew to help me finish this “opportunity of a lifetime”. I contacted 4 of my best friends, Bill Lee, Mark Kaltenbach, Chris Germano and John Svirk and asked them to join me in Death Valley. Now the interesting thing is that none of them were ultra-runners or had any experience with ultra-running and a couple weren’t even runners at all. But I knew that they knew me and what made me tick and what it would take to coax me to the finish line even in the midst of my deepest sleep-deprivation and despair out there in the desert. All 4 initially agreed to come on-board, but admittedly one of them had some very good common sense and convinced me that I needed to at least have one seasoned ultra-running veteran on the team. So he pushed me hard to find someone experienced and offered to still be available if we couldn’t find anyone to take his place. They say timing is everything and luckily at the very moment that we started looking, the youngest female who had ever finished the race, Breanna Cornell, had offered her services to crew for anyone who needed her. We immediately contacted her and talked and everyone felt it was a match made in heaven. So now the crew was set. We started having occasional conference calls since Breanna was in Arizona, Mark and Bill were in Florida and Chris, John and I were in NC. Each member was assigned a task and there was a lot of planning to do. I made Mark the crew chief which took a load of anxiety off of me and let me concentrate on just getting my body trained to run the race. John would join Mark as the assistant crew chief and make sure all the rules were followed. Chris would be in charge of me and make sure that I got the attention I needed and make sure I was getting enough food, water and salt during the race. Breanna was assisting Chris with those duties and as a crewing and Badwater runner veteran, bring needed expertise and great pacing abilities to the team. Fast forward again to the middle of July. All the planning was done, the van and the hotels and the flights were all booked and I was pretty well trained. It was time to finally head for Las Vegas baby! Mark, John, Chris and I all had flights out to Vegas on Friday night July 15 and Breanna was driving from Flagstaff, Arizona. We were all supposed to meet in Vegas that night but sometimes things don’t go as planned. There was a very bad weather front on the east coast and all of our flights were delayed. Breanna, John and Mark made it to the hotel that night, but I got stuck in Minneapolis overnight, sleeping on the airport floor and Chris got stuck in Atlanta. I finally got a flight out of Minneapolis early Saturday morning and made it into Vegas by 10:00 am. Instead of heading to the hotel as planned, I just went on over to the car rental place and picked up the van and then met everyone at our hotel, near the Vegas airport. It was great finally getting to meet Breanna and having the team all together. The TeamWe went to work shopping for all the food and getting the coolers and the van all organized. We finished our tasks early, so most of us decided to go for a little run and then hang out at the pool that afternoon. However, John needed to go get a long sleeved white shirt and so we sent him off by his self in the van, while the rest of us played. We had already had our one SNAFU of the race with the missed flights so I thought for sure that it was smooth sailing from there on out. That was until we got the call that the van had been in an accident. I was devastated. I tend to be quite the worrier and all I could think (after I found out no one was injured) was that the van was unusable for the race. It did get quite beat up on the passenger door, but the damage was all cosmetic and the doors and everything worked fine. So from that point out our van was easy to distinguish from all the OTHER Dodge Grand Caravans in the race, because it was the only one that had a “racing” stripe on the right side! 20160722 102117After we were done with all the excitement (and I calmed down) we finally got around to going out for a good pasta dinner and came back and got settled into our rooms. The next morning after breakfast, we got ready and were on the road by 10:30, heading out to Furnace Creek, CA in the middle of Death Valley. Breanna and I drove in her car and the other 3 guys took the van and we all met at the Furnace Creek Inn about 1:00, were we needed to go through race registration and get our pre-race pictures taken. This is where I started getting really excited. There is this whole aura about Badwater that just doesn’t exist with any other race. People who meet and run any of the Badwater races (of which there are others around the world) immediately become family and I was so happy to see my “Badwater Family”. Almost immediately I ran into my good friends Bob Becker, Keith Straw and of course my biggest hero Marshall. 20160717 141919It was so surreal for me going through the registration line because I was thinking “This is really going to happen”! I got my solo picture taken in front of the Badwater banner first and then we got the crew photo with all of us wearing our trademark cowboy hats. I have been running for a while wearing a cowboy hat and I convinced the crew to all wear there’s for our group picture. It’s definitely a picture I will treasure!28313967851 3d658ecde8 O28360262726 440d77a03d O After chatting with oh so many good running friends, the crew was anxious to get over to the hotel room and check in. It was hot out in the desert, right around 120 degrees, but It didn’t seem to bother me. But what I had not expected was the extremely high winds and all the sand that was being blown around. It was blowing so hard, I was having a hard time keeping my hat on and keeping the sand out of my eyes. After we all got settled into our rooms, Mark and I had to head over to the mandatory crew meeting that the runner and crew chief of every team had to attend, to go over last minute rule notifications and any race course changes or hazards that we had to be aware of. When we were done, all the runners went outside for a large group picture and the tasks of the day were now finished. After dinner, it didn’t take me long to hit the bed. I slept well and woke early on Monday morning (race day) feeling quite refreshed, but was hoping that I’d still be able to sleep some more in the afternoon before the 8 PM start of the race. Needless to say that didn’t happen.  That morning it was the quiet before the storm as I walked around the race village and watched the sun come up, while most people slept. 20160718 061617I saw all the team’s vans decorated and ready to go. I felt sad that I had not pre-ordered a name sign for our van, like all the other vans had. I knew that Breanna was a great artist from all the work she had shown us. So, I asked her if she would draw us a sign for our van, and I could not have been happier with the outcome of her efforts.20160723 074844I tried to get a nap in the afternoon, but the excitement and being in a strange place and it being daylight, I didn’t sleep much. It was going to be a LONG time before I would get to sleep again! At around 6:15 PM we all hopped in the van and headed the 17 miles south to the Badwater basin, the lowest point in the United States and the starting point of the race. On the way, it was very quiet and spiritual driving across the desert to the start line. Mark, my “head-cheerleader”, had already planned the song that would be played on the way…   it was “Like A Rock” by Bob Seeger. It kind of gave me goosebumps listening to the words and made me think about what I was up against. There are three start waves to the race so that all 100 people are not starting at the same time. Based on what your normal average running time normally is, you are placed in one of the three waves. Since I am a slower runner, I was in the first wave that starts at 8:00 pm. The other 2 start waves are at 9:30 and 11:00 pm. So we were in the first groups to arrive at the start, where I had to check in and get weighed. They weigh the runners so that if they have medical issues out on the course, they can weigh them again and tell if they are experiencing extreme dehydration. I weighed in at 161 pounds and was ready and raring to go. After a lot of good luck wishes to everyone and one final group picture, Chris played the national anthem and then it was finally time to get this show on the road. 27981038253 Cd89580d1e OPrecisely at 8:00 pm the horn blew and we were off. The air was so full of excitement. It was still light out at the start but the sun was already down, so it wasn’t long before all I saw in front of me were hundreds of tail lights and blinking lights stretching for miles ahead. 20160719 045947There was a wonderful tailwind blowing from behind that actually kept things relatively cool with the temp hovering around 100 degrees. Soon the moon came up and it was completely full. I wish I could have captured the image of that full moon coming up over the mountain and the desert before me. The way it works with the runner’s crew is that they have to drive the van up about 2 miles ahead of the runner and pull over and wait for the runner to arrive. After they have taken care of the runner, they then drive up 2 more miles and wait again till the runner gets there. This goes on for 135 miles. With all of the blinking tail lights out there it was hard determining which van was my crew, but we eventually worked out a signal where they would flash a light and I would reply back with a couple flashes of my light to let them know it was me coming in. Things went very smoothly and I made it into the first checkpoint at mile 17.9 at 11:45 PM, exactly the time we had projected. The crew had a chair waiting for me and I took a short break, before getting back on the course. I was feeling great and not the least bit tired. The moon was so bright I didn’t even need a headlamp to see where I was going. And I think the brightness of the moon actually kept me from feeling sleepy, all night. Shortly after the stop in Furnace Creek though, I started having very painful left knee issues. Out of the blue, my left knee was just locking up and at times I couldn’t even walk on it. I started thinking that if I didn’t get this under control, then my race was over. Every time I stopped at the van, I would raise it up and rest it for a few minutes and I even wrapped an ace bandage around it to see if it would get better. It would be fine for about 2 miles and then the pain would come right back. We continued like this on through the night and made it into Stovepipe Wells at mile 42, right around 6:30 am. I had planned on being there earlier but the knee issue was really slowing me down. My only hope was that the upcoming climb up Townes Pass would be better on my leg, because it wouldn’t take so much pounding. I had to change from my night running gear into my daytime running gear at this point. It was gonna be hot out there in the searing sun and I had to be well protected. I had a long sleeved white shirt, lots of sun screen and a long white cloth that hung out of my cowboy hat and draped over my ears and the back of neck to keep the sun off of it during the day. When I got there, I was starving and I wanted to eat some real food. I had been eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Fig Newtons and GUs and just junk, so now I was craving some eggs and sausage and pancakes and toast. What was frustrating though is that the restaurant there at Stovepipe Wells didn’t open till 7:00 so I had to waste 15 minutes waiting for them to open. When the doors opened, be assured I was the first customer at the breakfast buffet. I ate a HUGE amount of food and was in and out in 15 minutes. I was not happy that I had to waste 15 minutes waiting for them to open, because the race clock was still ticking and I was wasting time, but I needed some serious fuel to keep me running. With a full stomach though, I was on a mission to make up time and I had 8.9 miles to go to get to the 50.9 mile mark by 10:00 am. The first cutoff at mile mark 50.9 in the race, was one of the biggest and toughest. If you don’t make it there by 10:00 am on the first morning, then you are out of the race. I’m not sure why, but it seemed like I started slowing down after I got back on the course out of Stovepipe Wells. I was in danger of missing the cutoff, and in the last mile I had to really dig deep and give it everything I had, to make it. I beat the deadline by 5 minutes and I was not happy about that. There is nothing worse than chasing cutoffs in a hundred miler, because you will always have this feeling of dread and anxiety following you the whole race. Now that I was past the cutoff it was time for the first big climb of the race up Townes Pass. A 3000 foot climb over the next 10 miles, in the searing heat of the day. I am a strong climber and felt well trained, but it was great having a strong runner like Breanna out there with me, to help push me up that mountain. We made it up to the top in excellent time and started heading back down the other side towards Panamint Valley, the second hottest place on earth. Chris came out and paced me down the back side of Townes Pass and through Panamint Valley. My legs felt great and we were really killing it heading down the steep backside of that pass. As we came around one corner, suddenly we could look out into the great expanse in front of us and see the desert/valley below and across to the climb back up Panamint Pass on the other side. The road leading up towards Father Crowleys, made it look like the summit on the other side was so close but in reality it was over 25 miles away. The distances are so deceiving out in the desert. As we came down into the valley, we could see these huge dust devils and dust storms blowing across our path that stretched for miles. We were hoping to find a break in the storm where we could run through with out getting pelted by the sand, but we knew we might not get lucky and would have to run right through them. As we got closer, the sandstorms were so thick that you would see a car drive into it and then just disappear. Only occasionally could you see through to the other side of the valley and to the outpost of Panamint Springs up ahead. Sandstorm2Sandstorm1Chris and I were both getting sand-blasted and had to put wet bandanas across our faces to keep from inhaling dust and keep the sand out of our eyes. With all the suntan lotion lathered on my legs, after we got through the storms, the sand was caked about a quarter inch thick on my legs. Luckily when we got to Panamint Springs, just a few more miles past the valley, they had a shower there and I was able to go in and shower off and get on clean clothes for the rest of the journey. I was really struggling with sleep deprivation at this point and getting very cranky and snapping at my crew. They agreed to let me go get a quick nap at one of the hotel rooms the race director reserves for this purpose at Panamint Sprints resort. As I walked into this big room with lots of other tired or injured runners, who do I see but my hero Marshall Ulrich. It seems even the toughest of the tough were have a rough day today. Marshall was struggling with some medical issues, so he had decided to drop out of the race and get medical help rather than doing further damage. He was in great spirits though, because when I went into lay down, he scooted to the side of his bed and said “come on Dave, we’ll spoon” with a big grin! I told him if I did that, every ultra-running woman in Raleigh would get jealous. It was sad seeing my biggest hero go down in defeat, but that’s ultra-running. Years ago, after my very first DNF in a hundred miler, and in the midst of my resulting depression, a very good friend explained to me “You can’t be a true ultrarunner until you experience your first failure and truly appreciate the rewards of all your suffering”. I hold that thought with me in every one of these races. I found an empty bed and laid down and quickly fell asleep. In 30 minutes though, the crew was there to roust me out and get me back on the race course. They were doing the math and were very worried I wasn’t going to get to the finish within the 48 hour cutoff. I was very groggy and grumpy and was acting like an asshole. All I wanted to do was sleep, but I knew I had to finish this thing I had started. Now it was time to do the second big climb of the race up towards Father Crowley’s Vista Point. Another 3000 foot climb over 15 miles and I was one tired and exhausted puppy. When I first started the climb I felt energetic and didn’t even want a pacer to start the climb with me, but once again it wasn’t long before I really started slowing down. Every time I would catch up to the crew and sit down, I was falling asleep for a split second and it was all the crew could do to get me back up and going. And when I was out there running/walking, I was basically sleep walking. Breanna was with me for a good part of that climb pacing me and she started worrying, because I was staggering all over the place and walking out into oncoming traffic. She radioed ahead to the crew and let them know how bad it was getting. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mark told me after the race, that Chris (who knows my running capabilities well) was pretty worried because he had never see me like this.  Later in this section, John came out and paced me for a while and did his best to engage me with some deep political talk in hopes of keeping my mind going. All of these tricks worked to some degree, because I did keep going somehow. Everyone was taking turns coming out and pacing me at different times to help keep me moving forward. When we got up near the old ghost town of Darwin, Mark was with me and I was hallucinating and thinking that the cactus and Joshua trees were people running out in the desert. I don’t remember a lot of it but he said it was funny. Having made it past Darwin at milepost 90, I was past the next to last checkpoint in the race. We made it to this time station at 2:08 AM which was about 3 hours ahead of the cutoff of 5:00 AM. I now had to get to mile 122 in the town of Lone Pine and I had to get there by 2:00 PM. I had a long ways to go and I was moving very slow. I am always a slow runner between the hours of 1 am and sunrise, because my body just wants to SLEEP. I kept trying and trying but just couldn’t muster the energy to get on a roll. Somewhere around 4 am though, something magical happened. I suddenly felt awake and kept telling myself that all the light in the sky (from the full moon) was really the sun coming up behind me. It worked because all of a sudden I was speeding up and not having to stop and sit every time I met up with the crew. Progressively, I was making good time. That section between Darwin and the town of Lone Pine is torturous because you can see so far into the distance and it just doesn’t seem like you are making any head way. And after the sun came up, I really felt awake, but it wasn’t long before it got really hot again. It seemed like the road just went on forever. On and On and On I just kept trudging towards that mirage that I saw in the distance that was the town of Lone Pine. It was really frustrating. When we finally reached the final checkpoint in Lone Pine it was 12:39 PM, just a little over one hour ahead of the cutoff and now I had THE longest and toughest climb ahead of me up to the finish. Needless to say this had me a little nervous thinking I was cutting it close and not knowing how tough this climb would be. It was really getting hot out, I was exhausted and I had a 4000 foot climb over the next 12 miles with the last 2 miles being so steep that cars have a really tough time climbing it without overheating. But, like I said before, I’m a strong climber and I had luckily left some “gas in the tank”. Breanna and I started up that climb and I set the pace. The climb up Whitney PortalI figured if we could keep a sub 30 minute per mile pace all the way, we could finish in ample time. A 23 minute pace was where we settled in, and we were able to maintain it even when it got steeper. Meeting up with the rest of the crew along the way a few times, they changed out my water bottles and kept me watered down with the sprayer to keep me cool.  Looking up at that climb ahead was daunting but I was getting more and more excited about the fact that I WAS going to finish this damned race! Another thing that energized me was all the other runners who had now finished were coming down and giving me big shouts of encouragement as they passed. Finally, when we got up to the last section of the climb, around mile 132, I told the crew to go on up ahead and get ready, because we were all going to cross the finish line hand in hand together. When I finally reached them, I changed into a clean shirt and together we all headed that last mile towards the finish line. I was so exhausted, but elated when I came around the last corner and saw that finish line. Suddenly I wasn’t the least bit tired. We all ran through the finish line banner together and my 135 mile Road to Badwater was finally complete.28485283655 Ec63bea578 O I finished in 45 hours, 48 minutes and 58 seconds (a full 2 hours ahead of the cutoff)  and was able to get there in time for the race director, Chris Kostman, to be there and personally award me the team’s belt buckle. 28380073902 Fcc272754b O27869568753 D634027775 O(1)I wasn’t the very last finisher of the race, but I was close. I think there were only 2 or 3 people who finished after me. But irregardless WE got the job done! After we finished taking pictures up on the mountain, we had a quick beer together and then headed for the van and down the mountain to the town of Lone Pine for our hotels, and the after race banquet. When we got into town, our first stop was the Timberline Motel where I had reserved 2 of the team’s rooms. Imagine my horror after 60 hours without sleep, when the man at the front desk tells me he has given my rooms, that I had reserved with a credit card, to someone else. I was livid. And what’s worse, this is a small town and it fills up on Badwater week, so there were no extra rooms available. We still had 2 more rooms reserved at the Best Western on the other end of town, but both of the rooms only had one bed in each of them. By a big stroke of luck, when we got to the BW, the lady let me know that she had just gotten one cancellation and there was a room available. It was a Deluxe room with 2 beds. So Breanna and I had a place, and the lady at the front desk had a cot put in one of the other single-bed rooms and we were all assured of a place to lay our heads for the evening. After getting a shower, Breanna and I headed out to the after-race awards banquet. I think the other guys were just beat and wanted to rest in their rooms. It was quite an honor getting called up in front of all your peers, at the banquet, and being recognized as a finisher of one of the world’s toughest races. IMG 5022I got to see most everyone for one last time, including Marshall and many other good friends. Badwater after-race tradition holds that everyone always stops by the local watering hole in town called Jakes. We were no exception. Even as tired as I was, I still stopped by for one beer and to say final goodbyes to everyone for now. When we finally got back to the room, it had been well over 60 hours since I had any real sleep. So needless to say, I crashed very hard and slept solid until the next morning. On Thursday morning, we all got up and started working on cleaning up the van for the long journey back across the desert to Furnace Creek and then back to Vegas. It was so surreal riding in the van and backtracking across the stretch I had just run. It really allowed me to collect my thoughts on what I had just accomplished. It was a great journey and it made me think dreams really do come true. I was very lucky to have the perfect crew that I had and all the support from friends everywhere. In conjunction with the race I had made it a fundraising effort for one of my favorite charities, The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, an organization that helps veterans suffering from PTS, TBI and other psychological issues. I had hoped to raise $1000 for the charity. I raised that in less than a week and in the end with all the matching funds, will have raised nearly $3000 for the charity. So with this adventure finally over, the biggest question I am getting is “What is next?” and “Will you do it again?” … I don’t know what is next, but my answer to the second question is “You Betcha “ 🙂



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