Friday, July 15, 2011

Unfinished Business

As little as I want to sit here and write a race report on Badwater, something in the back of my mind is nagging me to get it done; for myself, for my team and for everyone who followed along with our journey. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to sit down and put the story to paper. Maybe it’s because I just don’t feel like the story has completely played out yet. It was a truly amazing experience and it was everything I’d hoped it would be but it wasn’t perfect so a little piece of me is still out there somewhere. And maybe I'm okay with that.

I'll get right to the story of my Badwater race but for background information on Franklin School's Go the Distance program and the Badwater Ultramarathon see our website at http://gothedistancerun.com/

I went into Badwater somewhat concerned with my fitness and I never would have told anyone before the race but I told my wife Sheri that this was the first time in my racing career that I was actually concerned that I might not make it. I had been dealing with injuries and other life issues throughout my training and was never able to put in the real crazy high mileage 120+ mile weeks I had planned. I did consistently do weekly long runs in the 30+ mile range but my performance on them was very hit and miss. I had some really bad runs where I wound up limping home pysically and mentally depleated and frustrated and I had some really good runs that showed me the endurance and fitness could be in there somewhere and it gave me hope but I just didn't know where I was physically. What I did know was that surviving the heat was the key to Badwater so I spent much of the 4 weeks before the race baking in the 180 degree sauna and sweating through Bikram Yoga sessions over and over. I heat trained beyond what most would considered adequate. In fact, I heat trained beyond what some experts, Doctors and race veterans would even consider healthy and it was suggested by several people that I back off or stop my extreme heat training routine as they thought I may be doing more harm than good. As the race day approached I felt completely ready mentally. I was in the right place and completely prepared to put it all on the line. Physically I had some doubts but I prepared a race plan and pace chart that was a best case scenario and I planned to run to my full potential, no matter what.

More than any other race I’ve done before, Badwater is so much a team event and I knew I had to rely 100% on the people I brought with me to get me from start to finish. My team consisted of my Father Ron, Wife Sheri, Sister Stacy, Brother-in-law Kevin, friend and Go the Distance Partner Gina, and a random guy I had never met named Colin who turned out to be a perfect pacer, great photographer and good friend. Every one of us were rookies at Badwater and not exactly sure what to expect but my Father had done his Badwater homework and put together a race plan for us and every member of the team performed phenomenally. There really are just no better people to have taking care of you during a race than your family. I knew my Wife, Dad, Sister and Brother-in-law were going to do everything in their power to make sure I had what I needed and would be as safe as possible. Gina and Colin each became a part of that family during those two days between Death Valley and Mt. Whitney.

A couple days before the race the team made their way to Death Valley in our rented white mini vans and we settled in at the hotel at Furnace Creek just 17 miles from the start line. I tried to just take it easy and adjust to the heat in the days leading up to the race. I recall the winds picking up one evening as we walked to get dinner and feeling like my eyeballs were burning from the hot dry breeze. Other than the burning eyeballs I felt pretty good and my team kept the mood light and fun but I’ll admit that inside there was a combination of excitement and fear about what was was to come for us all.

Race Day- I slept only about 4 hours the night before the race. I wish I could have got more, especially since I was in the 10:00am starting wave, but there was just too much going through my mind and it simply wasn’t going to happen. An hour before start time I went out to the vans to meet up with the team to make our way to the starting line. This is where Badwater really became a different and special race for me. The team was so excited and so prepared for what was about to happen. We took pictures and did some baseline medical tests and then all 7 of us made our way to the starting line in one van. The 17 mile drive to the start at Badwater Basin was a wave of overstimulation for me and I purposefully sat in the back corner of the van so I could avoid it as much as possible. There were runners from the 6am and 8am waves heading towards Furnace Creek and it was so incredible to think that would be me very soon. 94 runners in total would start the race. My team was so excited and joking and having a great time and I was somewhere in between having fun and retracting in order to get into that right mindset for the run. It was all starting to happen so fast. We arrived at the start, I did the required race weighed in for medical purposes, used the restroom, took the mandatory 10:00am starters wave photo in front of the Badwater sign and before I knew it, it was time to line up for the start. There was a strange feeling I had before going to the start line. I gave each of my team members a big hug as if I was leaving them for a while. I was pretty quiet and didn’t have a lot to say. I forget if it was my Dad or Sheri but I told one of them, "I’ll see you tomorrow.” At Badwater your team is with you the entire way and I’d actually be seeing them every mile but I felt as if as soon as I left that starting line I was going to check out and it would become mechanical and I'd simply execute the race plan, then we would all talk again the following day at the finish line. As Cris Kostman, the race director, started counting down from 10 I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe I was about to take the first steps of the Badwater Ultramarathon "The toughest footrace on the Planet". Then it was on. I settled in somewhere in the middle of the pack. After the first few miles I saw my team and they began to perfect the pit stop routine we would repeat each and every mile for the next 135 miles. I was doused with water, given two new water bottles filled with ice for dousing and drinking, fed the required calories, electrolytes balanced and ice poured in my shirt and hat. Then every hour I was weighed. All the data was then entered into the computer to make sure we kept the hydration, calories and electrolytes perfect the whole way. The team was amazing!

The first 17 miles were enjoyable and I ran in groups with other runners for a good portion of the way. We arrived back at Furnace Creek (mile 17) in 12th place although I didn’t know it at the time. I was just running what felt comfortable, wasn’t wearing a watch to check my pace or even caring what place I was in. Colin ran a few miles with me at this point as the team picked up the second chase vehicle and organized supplies. Then comes the stretch from Furnace Creek (17) to Stovepipe Wells (42) which has been labeled by many as the most difficult and important section of the course. They are the hottest miles straight through the heart of Death Valley and the team reported a high temperature of 119 degrees with a 15 mph headwind as we were approaching Stovepipe Wells. We did our first of many shoe changes in this section and the new cool shoes felt good on my feet. I can’t say if it was the intense heat training I had done or the incredible job my crew did in keeping me wet and iced but even though it was 119 degrees and other runners were wilting, I never reached a point where I felt overheated the entire day. Actually, I felt great and came into Stovepipe (42) a half hour ahead of schedule and looking forward to the 5000 foot climb up to Townes Pass over the next 18 miles. After 42 miles of flat hot running the climb up combined with the setting sun would provide relief from the desert heat. Just before Stovepipe I began to have pacers run with me. Sheri, Stacy, Gina and Colin are all marathon & ultra marathon runners and would take turns running with me through the remaining 100 miles. I don’t usually run with pacers when I race. I guess I’ve just never felt the need to have someone there to help or to push me. But I have to say the company was really nice and as we began to climb up the first of the three mountain ranges. I remember how good it felt as the sun began to set behind the mountain and I was able to remove the long sleeve white shirt that had been protecting me from the intense sun all day. Now a cool breeze passed over me and things were good. Somewhere along that 4 hour, 5000
foot climb. Sheri was with me and asked if I wanted to now about the race. Hmmmm…..My first reaction was to say no because I knew the best thing to do was to run my own race and not worry about what place I’m in until after mile 90 but I know her too well and the simple fact that she was asking if I wanted to know could only mean it was good news……so I said yes. As best they could tell I had moved into the top 10 and most of the front runners were within 30 minutes of me. I was definitely happy and encouraged but tried to just stick with my game plan. Most of the climb up Towne’s Pass was going really well but I began to have tightness in my lower back and hips that seemed to shorten my stride as it got worse. Several times we stopped and took the time to stretch and loosen up the back but it didn’t seem to be a big concern at the time. By the time we reached the summit it was just getting dark and I was getting tired of climbing. As we neared the summit I told my team I felt I needed to take a break at the top and regroup, stretch, eat, change shoes and just take a minute or two to so I could run well down the backside of the mountain. I sat for maybe 4 minutes and did a shoe and sock change and stretched and basically just tried to loosen up the muscles that have been climbing for 4 hours so they could now run again. The section from Towne’s pass (60) to Panamint Springs (72) is the biggest and really only real downhill on the course. I felt great in the early miles of the decent and really couldn’t have been more happy to be cruising down that mountain at what Gina said was close to a seven minute mile with Sheri pacing right behind. It may have been the best and most memorable part of the entire race for me. As we began to decend into Panamint Valley the temperature rose quickly. I clearly remember telling someone on my team that it feels like it is starting to warm up a little as we were reaching the bottom and them telling me,”Greg…it”s 97 degrees!” This was at 10:30 at night. I ran really hard down the hill. I felt good and I had passed another runner and moved up one position but the valley over to panamint seemed to take forever to cross. It was flat and easy but it was hot and I was getting tired and I felt something wasn’t quite right. The valley turns slightly upwards as you approach Panamint Springs (72)and I ran hard on all of it. By the time I reached Pamamint Springs(72) I was feeling unusually tired from the miles of fast paced running and was anxious to begin the 18 mile climb up to Darwin. The moon was nearly full and the landscape looked like something you would see on another planet. It was barren and rocky and the climb was long. Colin paced the entire way up that hill and we had some good conversations about life and at times I almost forgot I was 80 miles into a race. Somewhere along this section I began to have a few problems. My energy levels dropped quickly and at the same time my back and hips began to tighten up to the point that it felt like my hips were no longer twisting and it made the effort level increase substantially. Every few miles I would stop to stretch my back and try to loosen things up. At one point we tried to massage some Ben Gay into my lower back. This is when we realized that the ice that we had been putting in the back pockets of my shirt all day had actually rubbed my skin raw and the Ben Gay on the open skin quickly had me jumping up seaching for a way to get it off. The team felt really bad but in the dark they had no way of knowing what the ice had done. After a few moments of panic and pain we were able to wipe it off and the stinging slowly subsided. I’d have to say if it didn’t hurt so bad it actually would have been pretty funny. The back was manageable with frequent stretch breaks but I also was feeling really tired and just had no energy. So I asked for food! Not the Perpeteum paste that I’d been living on since the start but real food. I think I had a can of some sort of a rice and bean thing and then some Raviolis. I was a lot of food all at once and my Dad was concerned that I may not be able to handle it all at once but my stomach felt good and after a while the food began to kick in and my energy slowly returned and I was able to finish off the climb at a decent pace. The final miles of the climb actually begin to level off so I ran a portion of those miles. The combination of the altitude and the almost 90 miles of running that I had done that day made even the slightest grade feel like a lot of work. It seemed to take forever but we finally made it to the summit at Darwin (90). For at least the last 10 miles I knew I had developed blisters on the balls of both feet but I wanted to get to the top before taking off my shoes and assessing the damage. The team put out a chair and got to work. The quarter sized blisters on the balls of both feet were taped to help protect them and a blister on a toe on my right foot the size of a grape was lanced. The blisters were uncomfortable but at that point everything was uncomfortable so we put fresh shoes and socks on and we were on our way to Lone Pine.


My entire race plan revolved around running well from Darwin (90) to Lone Pine (122). It was all downhill or pretty flat and it was late in the race so I knew this section would separate those who took care of themselves in the first 90 miles and those who didn’t. I think I took pretty good care of myself but I also know that being up in the top 10 made me push a little harder than normal. I was in the hunt and that kept the competitive juices flowing. I was on the edge but keeping it together. I enjoyed the first 10 miles of this section as it was a nice steady decent but not too steep that it trashed your legs. My pacers took turns running with me and keeping me company. Each one of them had their own unique qualities that kept me motivated, focused and happy. Somewhere around mile 98 we picked up another position and I believe that moved us into 7th position. As the sun came up the road began to level out and gravity was no longer helping me with the pace and the effort became harder. Every time the road turned even slightly upward it would suck the energy right out of me. By around 9am I was working really hard to get through the remaining flat, runnable miles to Lone Pine before making the climb up Whitney. With just a few small rolling hills I had pushed a bit too hard and I needed to stop and regroup. I was disappointed because I knew I should have walked the hills before getting to that point but I was determined to keep the pace up all the way to Lone Pine. I took maybe 5 minutes to sit and drink and eat and try to figure out how to get things moving again. I got up and walked a mile, then sat again. I walked a second mile then sat. By the third mile I was able to shuffle along somewhere between a walk and a jog and over the next several miles I had made a recovery back to a decent jog but this had taken almost an hour and I traveled only a few miles. My energy levels were low but my stomach was good so I called for more calories in hopes that it would give me the boost I desperately needed to get me to the finish. The remaining miles into Lone Pine (122) were uneventful. They were hard and the pace wasn’t terribly fast but it was consistent and I was closing in on the finish. Badwater can be such a mentally difficult race. Running across Death Valley you can see for miles and miles ahead. The mountains rise up from the desert floor with not a single tree to obstruct you view of exactly where you have to go. And as you come down from Darwin you can see the finish line at Mt. Whitney for nearly 30 miles and it just never seems to get any closer.

I was so happy to finally be making the right hand turn onto Highway 174 to Lone Pine (122).I didn’t remember it being that far to town when we drove it the day before but when we did finally arrived it really lifted my energy level to be running down the street through the only real populated town along the way. People were just going about their daily lives but some knew those strange white shrouded runners had started at badwater Basin 122 miles away and would look up from what they were doing to shout out a few words of encouragement or give a honk as they drove by. We passed through the checkpoint at Lone Pine and learned one of the leaders had staked out with an injury and we were now in 6th place. Then we made that final left turn that would take us 5000 vertical feet up Mt Whitney over the next 12.5 miles. The grade starts very gradual and knowing I was right on the edge I began to power hike the climb almost from the beginning. Within the first mile I felt the strain of the hill and the heat of the early afternoon sun and I recall telling Colin, who was pacing me at the time, “this is going to be tough”. With each mile I began to slow more and more without any control over the situation. I tried eating and drinking as much as I could. I’d take short breaks in hopes that something would come back to life and I’d regain the energy but nothing was there. The best way I could describe it was that my brain was over-riding my will and slowly dimming the power and the lights were slowly going dark. By mile five of the 12.5 mile climb I was in pretty bad shape. Sheri was walking with me and the crew in the van would drive up ahead and wait. It was everything I could do to continue moving forward and it took every bit of my concentration to focus on the road in front of me. Walking was no longer an automatic reflex and I had to think about the placement of each foot as if they were not connected to my body. As I stared at the aggregate road just a few feet in front me, the spot I was focused on was amazingly clear while everything else around it was blurred. Something as simple as balance was no longer taken for granted and I could feel my body literally shutting off. So many thoughts were going through my head but the lack of blood to my brain was making me question all of them. I had to think about each little step. I began to worry about Sheri and what she would do if I did lose consciousness and the crew was a ways up the road. So I told her she should be carrying a radio to call the crew in case something happens. I know she knew I was in bad shape but I think it bothered her to hear me say that. Okay, I know it bothered her to hear me say that. So I grabbed her hand and we walked up the mountain holding hands. She never would have showed it at the time but she later told me that underneath her sunglasses were tears. I also had to give thought to what the best course of action is to get me to the finish line. I had to face reality that if I continued doing what I was doing I was eventually going to pass out. I just knew it. I could feel it coming. If that happened, would I be able to recover from it and still finish? Would the medics allow me to go back out if that happened? I looked up at the mountain and the nearly 4000 vertical feet and 7 miles and realized that something will have to change in order for me to get up there. The grade was just going to get steeper, the altitude higher and the air thinner and my condition was getting worse with each step. I told Sheri I needed to take an extended break and see if I could recover. The crew saw me coming and could tell I was struggling badly and already had the chair out for me to sit by the time I got to them. They immediately covered me in cold towels and sprayed me down. With his experience as an EMT, Kevin did everything he could to access my condition. Looking back it must have been an incredibly helpless feeling for my team to not be able to fix me. My heart rate wouldn’t go above 100 and my blood pressure was slowly coming down and I could feel it and began to sink deeper into the chair. I knew it was going to be a while before I’d be getting up again. After 10-15 minutes in the chair we made the decision to move me to a horizontal position on a cot in the shade. It was demoralizing but I knew I had no choice in the matter. Either I was going to lie down voluntarily or my body would make me lay down the hard way. I had to accept the fact that mile 128.3 would be the end of my racing day. So as I laid there on the
cot at mile 128.3 I simply changed goals and finishing would now become my objective. I never doubted that I would finish. It was something that I was going to do no matter what, for myself, for my team and for all the kids at Franklin School who were following my race. After more than 30 minutes of rest I tried to stand to see if I would be able to start my way up the hill again. My crew grabbed my arms and helped me to my feet but after maybe just 10 seconds I sat back down. Not because I was going to pass out, just because I could tell it wasn’t there. The balance, the energy, the coordination were all still extremely compromised and I wasn’t going to get too far in that condition. I think that was pretty hard on everyone there. They had watched me fight through the 120 temps of Death Valley the previous day and the two 5000 foot mountain ranges throughout the night but this time there was nothing left. Eventually the decision was made to bring me down the mountain, get me out of the heat and get some medical attention. It wasn’t a hard decision but it wasn’t what anyone wanted with just 7 miles to the finish line. Kevin drove the stake in the ground with my #43 on it and I left knowing I’d be back for it before the 10am cut off the following morning. The medical personnel asked lots of questions and drew some blood for testing. The greatest compliment to my crew was that my blood work came back perfect. Not good, but perfect. 26 hours of running, 6500 calories and over 7 gallons of water and my Hydration, electrolytes, glucose were all spot on! So what was my problem? Pure exhaustion. Central command was simply shutting me down to protect me from myself.

I was released from medical with the okay to return when I’m ready. We checked into our hotel which was just a few blocks away and I took some time to eat, drink, shower and just get things right before going back out to finish. I didn’t know when that would be but I knew I’d go back out and get it done. After a couple of hours the food and rest began to do their job and was feeling like I could probably slowly make my way to the top of the mountain but a few of the crew had taken naps and it was the heat of the day so I made the decision to wait until a little later when it had cooled a bit and then we would all go back out and enjoy our 7 mile hike to the finish. And we did. The sun was setting behind Mt. Whitney and we were ready to finish this thing. I started very slow and cautions not knowing how much I had in the tank but after the first couple miles I knew I was going to be fine and that put the whole team at ease to see me enjoying the remaining miles and not struggling with them. We passed a few other runners who were having a hard time and had been on their feet for the last 33 hours. I almost felt guilty at how good I felt after my 6 hour recovery. As we approached the finish line I made sure that every member of my team was there to run across the finish line with me because this truly was a team effort. Every one of them was a very important component of the team and each had a hand in getting us all to the finish. After 34:06 the Go the Distance team crossed the finish line arm in arm for a 20th place finish.

Without a doubt, Badwater is special! It’s unlike any race I’d ever run before. It pushed me to physical limits I’ve never seen before. It also might be the first time that I didn’t achieve my performance goals but was still completely satisfied with my performance. My race ended at mile 128.3 and I came up just a few miles short of exceeding all of my expectations. I can accept that. I gave it absolutely everything I had and if I had the option to push through the pain and continue up the hill I certainly would have. But my body decided that some things are more important than finishing 6th….. and I guess I have to agree. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t just that little part of me that wonders how things would have gone if I would have been able to train as hard as I had planned. Would it have been enough to get me up Mt. Whitney? How much faster could I have crossed Death Valley or how much better would I have done in the mountains? So yes, anyone who knows me will tell you........there might be a little unfinished business at Badwater.

To be continued………………..




Watch a 15 minute video summarizing the Go the Distance Teams race at Badwater. http://www.twitvid.com/EBWAS





More pictures from Badwater at http://on.fb.me/qipl3e