By Bill LaDieu
I had a successful, although slow Badwater in 2003. For the next 3 years I obsessed over the race and actively planned my return to Death Valley. My goal was to run the 2006 race in hopes of earning the belt buckle. To earn the buckle I would have to complete the 135-mile course in less than 48 hours. I estimated that there were at least 5 hours of time (my finish time in 2003 was 52:49:18) that I could recover without much difficulty. I was experienced, knew what could go wrong and could plan accordingly. One may wonder why earning the belt buckle is such a big deal. Well, I am not really sure either about the answer to this question, as just completing the 135 mile course at Badwater is a major accomplishment. Regardless of the answer, I decided that attempting to earn the belt buckle was a worthy goal for a second Badwater try
I announced my plans to my wife, Marilyn, before applying to the 2006 event. Marilyn was not excited about the prospects of watching me do another Badwater or going to Death Valley in July. She reminded me about my trials and tribulations during the 2003 event that I had selectively forgotten. I admitted that the run wasn't all peaches and cream but with proper planning and preparation this year's event should be much better. I felt that with a little luck, earning the Badwater belt buckle was within reach. Marilyn reluctantly agreed saying she would crew if I got in.
My next job was to recruit my training partner, Randy Dietz. Randy initially turned me down, reminding me that Death Valley would be very hot and the run was on roads, which just wasn't his thing. I continued to work on him telling him that Death Valley wasn't really that bad… that 130-degree heat, dehydration, no sleep, and long endless miles of roads were really "no big deal." The clincher that finally convinced Randy to go was agreeing to a Mt. Whitney ascent after the run. From that point on Randy was very enthusiastic, talking constantly about the race and the Mt. Whitney climb.
To round out my crew I recruited my son, Nick, and fellow ultrarunner, Connie Karras, from Chicagoland who I had corresponded with when we both helped Jesper Olsen during his run around the world (http://www.worldrun.org/). Connie wanted to experience Badwater for herself for the possibility of doing the race in the future.
Randy and I started to train in earnest in December. Since Randy was training for the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 in May we were able to work out a compatible training program that would suit both of our needs. The key component of our training program was the long run on Saturdays. Most Saturdays we would run between 20 and 30 miles on the Appalachian Trail here in Central Pennsylvania. During the week we also did a mountain run of 10 miles with 2000 feet of climb to build strength, and a track work out to try and retain our fading speed…..I am not getting any younger!! This generally worked out to three hard workouts a week totaling about 35-40 miles. With this training we ran the HAT Run 50K in March and Bull Run Run 50 Miler in April. We both had good races and felt confident that we were well prepared. A major benefit of spending so much time training with Randy was that we were able to obsess about Badwater, MMT100, and training, which further fueled the fires for the attempt to earn the buckle.
With my training complete, Marilyn, Randy and I traveled to Las Vegas on the Friday before the race. That night we went to out for our last planning session where we consumed sandwiches, French fries and beer at a local brewpub. We talked about the race and our planned shopping trip to Sam's Club, Home Depot and Wal-Mart on Saturday.
The big purchase decisions were to decide what sprayer to buy and how many coolers. We elected to go with a plant sprayer from Home Depot and two large X-treme coolers from Wal-Mart among other supplies, which we sorted into cardboard boxes by category.
On Saturday, Connie and Nick arrived to fill out my crew. Randy and Connie had never been to Las Vegas so we walked down to the Strip to have dinner and soak up the sites. After dinner at a Mexican restaurant we visited the Paris Casino and watched the fountains at the Bellagio. All the talk was about the Badwater…Las Vegas and the Strip weren’t important or interesting to us.
Early Sunday morning we stopped at Anderson Dairy in Las Vegas to load up on ice and dry ice. Ice is "king" during Badwater and you can really never have enough! At the dairy we purchased 120 pounds of ice and 40 pounds of dry ice, which we split between the two large X-treme coolers. These coolers were to be the ice supply coolers from which we would resupply the drink and food coolers. After Anderson Dairy we drove to Death Valley stopping at the Super Wal-Mart in Pahrump, NV to buy our remaining supplies and to pack food in the coolers. We bought all kinds of stuff at Wal-Mart….our mantra, as articulated by Randy being: "You will never know what will bring you back from the dead, so get a little of everything that you might want." So… we bought enough food to feed me and a crew of four including fruit, pudding, fruit cups, chicken wings, cola, potato chips, bacon, sandwich meat and cheese, bread, rolls- you name it!
On the way into Death Valley we took a side trip up to Dante's View, which so impressed us during our first trip to Death Valley in 2003. The viewpoint is over 5000 feet above Badwater. I wanted my crew to see the spectacular view of the Badwater salt flats and the view up Death Valley where we would be the next morning.
Around lunchtime we arrived at Furnace Creek, in time for race registration. I stood in line for about an hour to check-in and do all the pre-race stuff. After check-in we headed over for lunch at the Furnace Creek Café. After a good meal my crew split up with Randy, Marilyn and Nick driving onto Stove Pipe Wells to check into our rooms while Connie and I stayed behind for the race brief.
I was assigned to the 6:00 AM start. As a consequence we had to leave Stove Pipe Wells at 4:30 AM to get to the start for the mandatory check-in. As part of the check-in the medical staff weighed each runner so that, if necessary, they would have a base line that they could use in case of problems during the race. I weighed in at 195 pounds and Randy remarked… "Gee you're fat". I thanked him for his encouragement and secretly hoped that my weight wouldn't make a difference in my race. After the obligatory pictures, playing of the National Anthem by Adam Bookspan and words of encouragement by Chris Kostman, Badwater Ultramarathon Race Director, we were off!
I felt absolutely fabulous during the first 17-mile section to Furnace Creek. My crew met me every mile or so to switch out water bottles, give me something to eat and spray me down with our fancy Home Depot water sprayer. I made it to Furnace Creek around 9:30 AM…faster than my first race. Was this too fast?? My crew wondered whether I should slow down, as they were concerned that I would blow up.
After Furnace Creek Randy joined me as a pacer and asked how I was feeling. I told him I felt like a million bucks. Randy's response was "Oh Boy" as he knew getting too high this early in the race was not a good thing and that I was probably due for a crash. Sure enough, at around 20 miles…. "Ka Boom"…. I was down for the count. I was overheated, with my weight down 5 pounds and heart rate racing along at 150 bpm. I was also bloated and unable to absorb fluids. In other words I was in real trouble.
My crew put my Number 82 wooden stake in the ground to mark my place on the race course, then drove me around with the AC on high in an attempt to drop my core temperature. It was the hottest part of the day with temperatures in high 120s.so caution was the order of the day. Fortunately, after about an hour, I was able to clear my stomach by puking. After puking I was able to rehydrate and get myself back onto the course. Appropriately chagrined, I started back out on the course being much more conservative in my approach, knowing that getting to Stove Pipe Wells in good shape was more important than how fast I got there. During this section Connie and Randy alternated running with me to keep me company and focused. I very much enjoyed this section as I got to visit with the front-runners as they came past me. Some of them had started at 10:00 AM, so were a lot faster than me! I arrived in Stove Pipe Wells in reasonably good shape, took some down time by swimming in the pool to relax in preparation for the climb up to Towne Pass.
During the 2003 event I had no problems with my feet so since I rarely had problems I didn't expect any this year. Well guess what? I had a hot spot developing on the left foot. We took a look at it at about 30 miles and decided to let it go, as it was not much of anything. That was a big mistake! By Stove Pipe Wells it developed into a full-fledged blister that required immediate treatment. Fortunately for me, John Vonhof, author of the book "Fixing Your Feet" was there to help out. John lanced the blister and patched it. Many thanks to John for fixing my feet and keeping me in the race.
As the sun was setting I started the 17-mile, 5000-foot climb up to Towne Pass. Marilyn and Nick crewed me while Connie and Randy rested at Stove Pipe Wells. Initially the climb went very well. I spent time walking with Nick and passing the time with other runners on the road as we made our way up the mountain. After about three hours I reached the halfway point along with multiple Badwater finisher Arthur Moore. I felt very good and confident at this time.
Marilyn and Nick left the course around 10:00 PM. Connie and Randy joined me for the remainder of the climb. Shortly after that I went into the tank big time. I was cycling between dehydration and bloating. I was unable to adsorb fluids. In a nutshell, I was in very bad shape as I made my way up the mountain. I finally reached Towne Pass around dawn and climbed into the van to rest and recover. At this point I had serious doubts about my ability to finish the run and was considering dropping out of the race at Panamint Springs. My crew was not happy about the prospects of me dropping and was doing their best to keep me going. Randy and Connie were using the strategy that if they could get me moving again, eating and drinking that I would be okay. I asked Marilyn and Randy what I should do. They both told me to wait until getting to Panamint Springs before making a decision. Marilyn specifically told me that I didn't need to stop at Panamint Springs because I could always crawl into the van and call it quits at any time after that. She convinced me to try going farther. Acting on their advice Randy and I walked down the mountain and across the Panamint Valley. I didn't run a step of this section.
At the bottom of the mountain we met up with Dan Jensen who had dropped at Panamint Springs and was driving back along the course with his family. We talked and commiserated about our respective conditions with Randy doing his best to keep me positive. I was really struggling at this point to stay in the race and not quit. My rational went something like this: I had used over half the time to do half the course and there was no way I would be able to run a negative split, therefore I might as well quit. During my constant whining Randy had been quietly pushing food and drink on me which in combination with the early morning sun drastically improved my attitude.
Upon reaching Panamint Springs I had pretty much decided to continue on with race, although I didn't tell anyone. Marilyn suggested that I take a nap in the cottage set aside for the runners to regroup. I thought that was a great idea. I entered the cottage and asked where I could lay down. Two young guys in the living room pointed to a bedroom. I went into the bedroom where Bonnie Busch, who was crewing for Jay Hodde, was resting on the left side of a double bed. I figured "What the hell" and laid down on the right side. Bonnie didn't object. She asked how I was doing. I explained to her my plight of being so slow, having just completed a 17-hour time split from Stove Pipe Wells to Panamint Springs. Bonnie told me that she had done a complete study of the race splits and that while 17 hours was indeed slow, it was not out of the range and that I still had an excellent chance to finish. With her encouragement I drifted off to sleep for a short nap. Shortly after this Marilyn and Randy came looking for me to see what I intended to do. I was already up and ready to go. Also, about this time Jack Denness came into the room to lecture me about not quitting. With all this positive encouragement I got up, ate some food and started up the switchbacks toward Father Crowley Point. My crew had to scramble to catch up.
The rest break and Jack's lecture must have worked. The 8-mile, 3500-foot climb to Father Crowley Point was a blast. I felt strong and was able to move at a good walking pace up the mountain. During this section Marilyn and Nick crewed me while Connie and Randy took some downtime to rest. My feet, despite the blisters, did not bother me too much. I was able to run and walk to Darwin Turnoff checkpoint at a good pace.
One of the highlights of the race for me was when it began to rain before I reached the Darwin Turnoff. We could see and hear a storm approaching for some time. Initially, I climbed into the van to wait the storm out. But with the falling temperatures I decided that I would rather run than sit cooped up in the car. I put on a reflective vest and took off. Randy joined me for a short section, reminding me not to get too excited and to just meter it out. I was on top of the world and out of the heat of Death Valley and Panamint Valley. I reached The Darwin Turnoff checkpoint at around 7:00 PM on Tuesday.
Leaving Darwin I was mentally back in the race and raring to go. I figured that I should be able to reach Lone Pine by midnight and started to pick up the pace. Connie and Randy had been watching me run and knew that it was unlikely that I could keep it up. Connie, our crew statistician, had been keeping track of the race mileage, pace, food, fluids, etc. She told Randy that it was 30 miles to Lone Pine. Randy decided to "burst" my bubble by telling me that it was 30 miles to Lone Pine and not the 22 miles that I had thought. Recognizing that there was no way I was going to do a 5 hour, 30 mile split I slowed down. Connie, who paced me during this section, did a great job of keeping me focused and insuring that I was eating and drinking.
I made excellent time to Keeler. However, with nightfall and painful feet, my pace dropped off during the final run into Lone Pine. Connie and Nick both walked with me during this section to keep my spirits up. I also had the privilege of spending a short time on the road with Lisa Smith Batchen and Marshall Ulrich. Lisa was in the midst of her double-crossing (Badwater to the summit of Mt. Whitney and back to Badwater). We leaped-frogged each other for two to three hours.
My blisters while tolerable were definitely getting worse. They were beginning to affect my pace. Connie redid the patches on my left foot and taped my right foot, which had a hot spot developing.
Upon reaching Rt. 395 into Lone Pine, Randy surprised me with breakfast- scrambled eggs and bacon. It tasted great! What a nice surprise! The food and rest picked me up. At this point in the race I knew I was going to finish- it was just a matter of how long it was going to take me to get up the mountain on blistered feet.
After eating breakfast and checking in at the Lone Pine checkpoint, I started up the Whitney Portal Road, a 12 mile, 5000 foot climb. Randy and Connie joined me for the entire climb. It was good to have the company, although I wasn't particularly talkative, being more inclined to whine about my feet and how tired I was than to carry on any sort of meaningful conversation. Nonetheless, they stuck with me as I slowly made my way up the mountain. Also, the beautiful scenery of the Alabama Hills and Mt. Whitney itself was good distraction to keep my mind off my feet.
Partway up the Whitney Portal Road, Brazilian runner, Mario Lacerda, and his large exuberant crew came by me laughing and cheering, giving me a much-needed lift. Mario's wife asked Marilyn if she was the wife. After answering yes, Marilyn asked her if she was the wife, to which she replied yes. Laughing and joking, Marilyn and Mario's wife compared notes on their experiences during the race.
Near the finish I kept on insisting that the end was closer than Marilyn was telling me. She was noting landmarks and reading the mileage out of the Badwater Race Magazine. We kept up a spirited discussion about how far it was as I moved up the mountain. Near the end it seemed like there were a lot more switchbacks and turns than I remembered from before, which really frustrated me. Nonetheless, I eventually reached the finish and of course, Marilyn was right.
At the finish my entire crew joined me holding hands to cross the line together. I wanted to share this moment with my crew, as my finish was truly a team effort. It felt great to be done! Earning the belt buckle for a sub 48-hour finish was not in the cards this year, but this is not what Badwater is all about. It's about the shared experience and bonding of runners and crew that make this race special. The buckle is still elusive and will probably remain that way for me.
Many thanks to Chris Kostman for again organizing a first class event; it was an honor for me to participate.
2003 Finisher 52:49:18
2006 Finisher 54:50:21