Death Valley Run-Day by Day

July 2, 3:00 AM local time. Didn’t get much sleep the night before, maybe a few hours, but there’s not a lot of time to think about that now. We’re getting ready to go. On the drive from Furnace Creek to the start line, we saw a baby coyote cross the road. A good luck sign? Hopefully, but we won’t know until later.

We chose a “night start” to try to avoid some of the 118+ degree temperatures we expected to encounter in the “Death Zone,” the first 42 miles of the run, stretching from Badwater to Stovepipe Wells. The kids and all my supporters were on my mind that morning. I had come a long way in a fairly short amount of time and I was not going to let them down. I was not going to take myself off the course. If I could physically continue, I would.

The moon was up and almost full as we started at 3:10 AM, the temperature was a relatively mild 90 degrees and the first goal was to get back to Furnace Creek (17 miles) in about 4 hours. Taking it slow, saving energy I knew I’d need later. I set a pattern of 3 minutes running and then 3 minutes walking to regulate my pace. We arrived ahead of schedule in about 3 hours 25 minutes. The moon had set and the sun was starting to make it’s appearance. We rested a bit in Furnace Creek, then began the journey in earnest through the hottest part of the course

The next 25 miles were eerily uneventful. It continued to get hotter, the temperature climbing to 118 degrees, but regular spraying (my crew was wetting my sun protection shirt and scrub pants down every mile), hatfuls of ice (at every mile my hat was filled with ice, which would melt completely in about 10-12 minutes), water, electrolytes and nutrition kept me going. I also changed shoes every 10 or so miles just to change the wear pattern on my feet. I felt so good, that we again, arrived at our checkpoint, Stovepipe Wells, ahead of schedule. The original plan was to rest here for a couple of hours, cool down and spend some time out of the ridiculous temperatures. However, we couldn’t check in to the Stovepipe Wells Hotel until 2. We had covered the first 42 miles in under 10 hours and it was only 1 o’clock. We decided to take on some of the climb called Townes Pass and then come back to Stovepipe for a rest.

From Stovepipe Wells to Townes Pass we climb 4900 feet in 16 miles. It’s about a 6% incline on average, so if you want to follow along, set your treadmill to 6% and let’s go for a 16 mile jog. We had stopped for 4 hours at Stovepipe. My coach knew what we would have to face and tried to get me to relax. I was impatient, wanted to keep going, and only slept about 45 minutes. It was my first big mistake.

We started again at 6:15 pm, and I was averaging just under 19 minute miles up Townes Pass-way too fast (my second big mistake). The reasons this was a such a big mistake were that 1- I had only slept 45 minutes and was not off my feet during the rest phase for as long as I should have been, 2- It was still 115 degrees when we started and although it was getting cooler, my body was still generating and retaining a lot of heat (which causes muscles and in extreme cases organs to shut down), and 3- We were walking into a 20 mph headwind that increased the effort and dried us out much quicker than otherwise. In short, I should have been closer to a 25-30 minute pace, allowed myself to relax a bit more, and listened to my coach and crew. The first sign I was in trouble happened at about 10:30 pm. Just about everything I had been eating and drinking for the past two hours (carbohydrate gels and liquid nutrition) came up. Now, in addition to being tired and overworked, I was in danger of becoming dehydrated. We kept going to the top of Townes Pass, taking occasional sips of water, but not able to hold anything else in my stomach. At the top, we called a rest break just after midnight. I still couldn’t hold anything down, and my crew discussed what the next steps were. The decision was made that we’d rest here and try to get me to hold something down. I’d run over two marathons in the past 21 hours, but if I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach, they’d have to pull me off the course and my run could be over. My thoughts were on my family and the kids. I didn’t want to disappoint them and I started to worry that something I hadn’t even thought of before, my stomach, was what could end things. I could use another baby coyote right about now.

July 3, 12:00 AM local time. We’re 21 hours into the run, having covered almost 58 miles, I’m wiped out. I haven’t been able to keep anything down and if it wasn’t for the kids, my crew, their motivation and pacing, I wouldn’t even be here at the top of Townes Pass- 4956 feet. Right now, they’re discussing my options, which have dwindled down to two. I either keep something down and move forward, or we come off the course.

In my mind, it’s only one, I cannot stop at this point and won’t let my stupidity (pushing too fast and too hard in the heat and during the climb) end this. After a fitful rest, I’m feeling a little better and decide to press on. It’s now 1:30 in the morning. I should have been able to sleep more, but couldn’t. We decide that, to get my 300 calories, my 500-800 mg of sodium and my water, we’d try using just Perpetuem. A strawberry-vanilla sports drink that sounds disgusting, but is weirdly something I can keep down. We start down Townes Pass. The rest has given me some relief and we cover the next 14 miles in 3 hours, 15 minutes. It’s downhill, so we’re moving pretty quickly, and at the bottom of the Father Crowley climb, the lack of nutrition catches up with me again. It’s now 3:30 in the morning, sun not yet up, and I need something more substantial than liquid nutrition if I’m going to cover the next 74 miles. A memory surfaces from my 24 hour race and I discuss it with my coach- what if we tried solid food? It’s against 25 years of coaching experience to eat solids in this type of race- the body has to work doubly hard to break down and digest the food, and water absorbs into the body more slowly as the food soaks it up. It did, however work for me in my 24 hour race, so he’s willing to try it. It’s either that, or we try to go back to the gels, something that turns my stomach just thinking about it. We decide to take another break and wait for the small restaurant at Panamint to open.

I have eggs, sausage and some breakfast potatoes, and I feel the normalcy return. We get going again at 8:00, and start up Father Crowley. An 8 mile, 2500 feet climb that officially takes us to higher altitude for the rest of the run. We get to the top at 11am (now 80 miles into the run), rest for a few minutes, change clothes and start a section that is rolling hills, but will take me first to my furthest distance (92 miles), then my first 100 miles. But before that, we need a nutrition plan. We can’t keep going back to Panamint, and we don’t have much in the way of regular food. Again the memory speaks to me: McDonald’s Cheeseburgers. Each one is 300 calories, and 700 mg of sodium (think about that next time you get a craving!). We are now only about 30 miles from Lone Pine, the big town at the base of Mt. Whitney and officially the 120 mile mark. We take another break, at the Darwin Road at 3 pm, mark the spot where we stopped (the rules say if you come off the course, you need to come back to exactly where you came off and restart) and head into town. I eat two cheeseburgers and we decide that the crew will make turkey wraps (one tortilla, four pieces of turkey and one piece of swiss cheese) which I’ll eat once an hour. We’ll also break my salt pills into my water just in case the pill dumping it all at once into my system was part of the cause of my nausea. We get back to the spot after about two hours and I’m ready to roll! Once again McDonald’s saves the day!

From there, it’s on to the 100 mile mark and darkness…

We hit the 100 mile mark at about 7:35 pm, just as the sun is going down. A little celebration, a few pictures, and then it’s off again. We’re met soon afterwards by Marcia Rasmussen. She’s the unofficial record keeper of solo events like ours, and after finding out about my run, she and her husband drove 6 hours to see us! Not only that, she agrees to pace me for a bit, which turns into the next 14 miles!

As the darkness descends, we get to one of the easier, yet more monotonous parts of the course. 20 miles of nothingness to Lone Pine. My feet are really starting to hurt, so I stop to lance some blisters, then re-bandage and tape the toes. I also end up cutting two holes in my shoes to keep the toes from rubbing. Because my feet have swollen, they’re pressing on the shoes, making it almost unbearable to walk. Lucky for me, Marcia has a number of stories from past Badwater experience and she keeps me focused, moving forward and out of traffic. This is where, due to lack of sleep and overall exhaustion, many runners experience hallucinations. However, there are no Hamburglars coming out of the desert tonight, and we stumble into Lone Pine at 2:15 AM, a little over 47 hours into the run. Little did I know, but the GPS tracker had stopped working. On a positive note, the other GPS tracker had found us and reported our position.

There was a (very) short discussion on whether or not I should press on and climb to the Whitney Portals, and it was decided that rest was a better option. I had no desire to stumble around at 8000 feet in the darkness, my feet were killing me, there weren’t any records I was trying to break, and we were already way ahead of the 60 hour goal we had set. I had about 15 miles to go to the portals, then another rest until the 5th because we couldn’t go the last 11 miles to the summit without the July 5th permit.

So, 120 miles, dropping into a bed at 2:30am, I get my first and only hallucination. It’s hard to describe, but essentially I was trying to pull the sheets up, but kept missing the edge. My brain said I caught the sheet edge, so the sheet “disappeared” on me three or four times before I actually caught it. 3.5 hours of sleep took me to a total of about 6 hours since we left Badwater. I woke up ready to tackle the first part of the mountain.
July 4 We “sleep in” for 3 hours to celebrate the 4 (I’m guessing) and get started at about 6:30 AM. The crew has had a chance to rest, and I’ve doubled the sleep I’ve had in the past few days to 6 hours. Importantly, I can still move, my stomach feels good, my feet feel a lot better and we’re only 13 miles from the Whitney Portal, then end of the first part of the run.

As I run down the road, my thoughts go back to the kids and the parallels between their barriers and my own. What I’ve had to overcome is so small and most importantly the consequences of my failure are so minuscule compared to them, that I almost feel ridiculous even making the comparison, but it doesn’t stop me:

Before coming to SouthSide, many don’t know their strengths and development needs.
Once at SouthSide, they are assessed, and put on a customized program to help them succeed.
The great staff, their “support crew”, then works with them to make sure they not only make it, but succeed
Along the way, some will surge ahead and some will fall behind, but there’s always someone there to keep inspiring them, educating them, and encouraging them
The new school is really going to create a great environment

I break out of my reverie in enough time to realize I need to make a left turn on the Whitney Portal Road. It’s a little after 7AM and time for what’s been called the toughest climb in an ultramarathon- 11 miles and over 4600 feet of gain. Some sections have a 10 degree incline. Average time is over 5 ½ hours to make this “final” climb. We’ve got a little bit of work to do.

After about a mile, I’m joined again by Marcia Rasmussen! Both she and Suzanne Kenyon pace me the first 8 miles to the switchbacks. I’m actually using trekking poles at this stage to make sure I keep my momentum going. Turkey wraps are still the food of the day and I eat one every hour, drinking my 22 ounces of water to wash it down. I’m asked if I want to stop to rest, but the only thing I can think of is: “If I’m not moving, I’m not getting any closer to the finish!” Keep moving.

Now the switchbacks. The last 3 miles, but definitely not the most fun. David Stores and Scott Weber become my pacers as we slooowly climb the last few miles. I come up over the last rise, see the toilet paper finish line stretched out (note: I’ve never broken the tape at a race, but I don’t believe toilet paper is generally what is used), cross it at almost exactly 12 noon and collapse into a waiting chair. Marcia presents me with a Badwater Solo belt buckle that she’s taken upon herself to make, and I enjoy a few minutes of strange stares from German hikers and the celebrations of my team. We’ve come a long way and finished the 135 miles in 56 hours 49 minutes. We had planned on 60-63 hours and can’t go up the mountain until tomorrow, so we have some down time before the next climb. Time for a cheeseburger. Tomorrow we go up the mountain proper….

3:45 AM July 5. We’re at the Portal again, ready to go up. There are a few other groups who have come out for the day to climb the mountain. They all look to be a little fresher than we are. That being said, the sleep overnight was wonderful. I was finally able to relax (without hallucinating) and give myself permission to go to sleep. This part is “gravy” and should be a nice hike. For some reason, I’m discounting the fact that we’re going to climb over 6000 feet in 11 miles (what was that about yesterday being the “toughest climb?”) and have to deal with altitude for the first time. By going to 14,500 feet, we’ll be on top of the highest peak in the lower 48 states, but we just came through 135 miles in scorching temperatures. How hard can this be? :)

Because it’s dark, we start with headlamps. Although we don’t see any bears, the evidence of bear occupation is everywhere. Hopefully, we’re making enough noise, they’re more scared of us than we are of them, and we don’t accidentally get between a mother and her cubs, because the old adage about not having to outrun the bear isn’t going to protect me…I’m not going to be able to outrun anyone. (I’ve also forgotten about the “bear bell” my wife bought me as a joke for Christmas. I don’t know if it works as a deterrent or a dinner bell, but it once again proves that she’s always thinking and I’m always forgetting things).

We’re crossing a series of logs over a stream as the sun starts to come up (a significant point regarding how long we’ve been going that I completely forget on the way back down). Sunrise in the mountains is amazing and we make the halfway point, a base camp camping area at about 8 AM.

Then the “100 switchbacks” begin.

We think about counting them, but then decide that might not be very productive and stick to watching our footing. The drop-offs on each side are getting steeper, and my paralyzing fear of heights is not helping things. Scott isn’t feeling 100%, so he tells the three of us to go ahead and he’ll meet us back at the bottom. We press on, with the air getting thinner, the temperature dropping and the previous 140 miles starting to catch up with us. Near the top, I stumble and reluctantly agree to let David take my pack. He’s already carried a lot of my water up for me, in addition to his own, and he’s been asking for it for the past mile or so, but I’m reluctant to add to his burden. The stumble, while not near an edge and nowhere near dangerous, reminds me that I need to keep relying on my crew if we’re going to make it. We take rest breaks more frequently now and I pick my way to the top, through snow in some places, with their help.

Finally, at 12:15 PM, 81 hours from our starting time, we’re at the summit! It’s a great feeling and I marvel at what it took to get to this point. We take pictures, talk to the others basking in the sun, eat and rest for about 45 minutes. Time to go back down. I confidently predict that we’ll be down in 4 ½ hours. It’s downhill right? Rookie mistake.

While it’s true that going down is easier than coming up, we can now see some of the drops from a very different angle (read: not a good angle). It takes me some time to inch my way down certain sections. The good news is that when we do get away from the “one misstep and we will learn if man can fly” sections, it does go more quickly. The bad news is that after a few hours of landing on my dominant right leg, my knee is screaming at me. On top of that, we have a problem. We’re just about out of water and we still have a way to go. Remember when Scott had to turn back? Well, he had the water purification system that we’d need because you just can’t carry that much water with you. We forgot to get it from him and now we were potentially in trouble. We get to the switchbacks leading down to the base camp, hoping that someone there will be able to help us, instead we run into Scott! He realized the same thing and had been slowly making his way up to us. We stop at a stream, fill our water bottles, and start down again.

The rest of the way down is a series of hops, followed by pain, followed by more hops, we get below the camp. I don’t know if it’s the fact that we’re almost done, or that I know we haven’t been tracked by GPS and my wife will be worried, or the accumulation of miles, but it seems to take FOREVER. I get to the logs and think, Yes! Almost there! Forgetting that it took from 3:45 AM until dawn to get up to the logs (about 3 ½ hours) and it will be about another 2 or so hours until I’m off the mountain. Luckily, again, no bear sightings, and I walk through the Portals for the final time at 6:20 PM. Truly done this time. We get down to Lone Pine as quickly as possible, call my very relieved wife, eat another cheeseburger (why mess with what’s working?) and crash.

So, that’s it. I was able to get through this journey on the inspiration from the kids, the training from my coach, the on-site support from my crew, and the great support that I experienced from both people I know and complete strangers. It has reinforced my belief that we should help each other out whenever we get the chance.

On final reflection, the great thing about a solo run is that I came in both first and last. In other words, it doesn’t matter. Helping these great kids is what matters. Raising the awareness of SouthSide is what matters. Everyone coming together to overcome barriers is what matters. Period.

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