Tag Archives: crewing

2013/07/20: Crewing Grant and other Badwater Reflections

It’s funny how life turns out sometimes……

After crewing my friend Karla during the Badwater 135-mile footrace last year, I knew I wanted to go back and crew in the future.  It’s an incredible experience seeing people push their bodies beyond what most people would think is even possible.  The race, for anyone unfamiliar, takes place in mid-July in Death Valley.  It goes from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level, to the Mount Whitney Portal at over 8,000 feet above sea level.  There are no aid stations; each runner has a crew that shadows them for the duration of the race.

This year, when the selected participants were notified, I turned down three opportunities to crew as I was unable to commit at the time and did not want to say I’d help and then back out later.  As the race got closer, I was confident the stars had aligned and that I could help someone out.  A month before the race, I was so happy I found a stranger who needed a crewmember (who had gotten my name from Karla).  That excitement was short-lived, however.  I was not able to take leave for the days I needed, in spite of the fact I had been told previously I would be able to do so.

Having to drop from someone’s crew just a few days before the race was devastating to me.  I would miss seeing friends, the experience of being out there again, and most importantly, I was letting someone down who counted on me.  I tried finding someone to replace me on the crew, but I was unsuccessful in doing this.  I will say I was picky, though; I told the runner that I would rather provide her with no crewmember than one who would be a liability to the team (i.e. limited running experience, no heat training, etc.).

Even though I was not able to find the runner an extra crewmember, while trying to track someone down, there was a handful of runners who went out of their way to help me.  Some of these people I knew, but others I didn’t.  One such person was a guy named Harvey who saw my request on the Badwater Facebook board and went above and beyond contacting people he knew and putting me in direct contact with a few of them.  Harvey, as it turns out, was a Badwater runner, had done the race before, had gotten 4th place last year, and actually was on the U.S. men’s 24-hour national team—wow!  Yet what was he doing in the days leading up to the race?  Trying to help me (a stranger) find a crewmember for a runner who he also didn’t know.  This sort of willingness to help is why I love runners.

Although I was unable to crew at Badwater, since I live in Las Vegas, where many non-local people fly into, I decided to offer my help where I could during the weekend prior to the race.  I had to work Monday through Wednesday during the race, but I was totally available over the weekend.  One guy named Juan who said he needed a ride from the airport in Las Vegas to Furnace Creek.  I told him that was no problem.  At that time, I had no idea Juan was one of Oswaldo Lopez’s crewmembers; Oswaldo was the 2011 Badwater champion.  (Wow!)  My friend Tammy mentioned that I could stay in her room in Furnace Creek that night (Saturday) if I didn’t want to drive back late; she also asked me if I could do some last-minute shopping, which I didn’t mind.  Tammy had gotten team shirts made that had the names of lots of her friends who had somehow influenced her on them.  I was honored to have my name on the shirt and that Tammy gave me one of the shirts.

Shirt front:
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Shirt back:
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After shopping Saturday afternoon, I picked Juan up at the airport.  I’d never met him before, but I felt like I’d known him for years.  On the way to Furnace Creek, we realized we had a lot of friends in common.  We also both loved how close-knit the ultrarunning community is and how approachable everyone is, including the elites.  The two-hour car ride flew by.

Prior to talking to Juan, I was aware of Oswaldo’s accomplishments, but I’d never met Oswaldo, nor did I know much about him as a person.  As we pulled up to the lodging building (where coincidentally Tammy and Oswaldo were both staying), I did something uncharacteristic of my introverted self.  I asked Juan if Oswaldo was still awake, and he said he was; I then asked if I could go meet him, and again he said yes.  I wasn’t really sure what I would say to him, which is why I typically don’t put myself in these kinds of situations, but this turned out to be a non-issue.  Oswaldo’s hotel door was open and we walked in; after a brief exchange between Juan and Oswaldo, Oswaldo shook my hand and said, “Thank you for bringing my friend.”  I was touched by how sincere he was.  Juan, Oswaldo, a few other people, and I all hung out for a while before Juan said he was hungry.

Juan and I walked to the restaurant (the only one in Furnace Creek) and Oswaldo came along too.  Along the way, we managed to “pick up” a guy named Ray.  Ray and I are Facebook friends but I don’t recall ever meeting him before.  He does tons of 100-milers and recommended a few to me (enabler!).  I also happened to run into my friend Andrea who I met at Nanny Goat a couple months ago; she was crewing for an Italian runner.  It caught me off guard to hear my name across a road in the middle of the night, but it was neat seeing Andrea again.

Dinner was sort of surreal for me, sitting across the table from Oswaldo.  He was an incredibly humble and friendly person.  At one point, three out of the four of us at the table were on our smartphones.  I added Oswaldo as a friend on Facebook and he immediately accepted the request.  I thanked him, to which he reached across and shook my hand and said, “Thank you for your friendship.  I don’t tell you on here.  I tell you in person because I mean it.”  How sweet.  As we all conversed, Juan mentioned to Oswaldo that I knew Eric Clifton.  (Eric Clifton has a long running résumé, including winning Badwater once.  He has become a friend, but he’s also a mentor to me; he gives me guidance, challenges me, and gives me viewpoints I don’t always consider myself.)  Oswaldo’s eyes lit up and he said how much he respects Eric and how strong of a runner he is.  Seeing this kind of respect from one elite runner for another one made me smile.

Oswaldo sitting across the table from me at dinner:
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After dinner, we went back to Oswaldo’s room.  He hung out inside while most of his crew (plus me) hung out in the hallway for a few more hours.  They were all very nice.  Another exchange I had with Oswaldo was about the upcoming race.  He said he was going to run it hard and make the best of all of the training he had put in but noted that you never know what will happen during a race that long.  I thought it was admirable that his aim was to run the best race he could and to be motivated by that instead of concentrating on everyone around him.

Here’s a photo of Oswaldo and me right outside his room:
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Sunday morning, I hung out with Tammy and got to chat with a few other runners I’d met last year at Badwater or elsewhere.  I offered to volunteer at runner check-in but I was told they didn’t need any help.  I figured there was no use in me staying around.  However, there was one person I really wanted to see named Chris, as he made the biggest impression on me last year and he’s not online much, so I opted to stay until after the runner group photo in the hope that I would see him.  Another perk of staying for the photo was that I was able to run into some more friends.

As I left the building to go to the group photo location, I looked up and saw Juan coming out of a doorway followed by a few more people, then Oswaldo.  When he saw me, Oswaldo “yelled” at me by name.  I hadn’t thought I’d run into him again, but I’m glad I did.  The night prior, after dinner, I’d sent Eric a message saying I’d crossed paths with Oswaldo and Eric had some kind things to say about him.  I told Oswaldo that Eric said he hoped he would have an amazing race.  He seemed so appreciative that Eric had taken the time to say anything about him.  I got another hug from Oswaldo as well as another photo with him and also one with Juan.  Oswaldo is so kind, and he was genuinely thankful for so many seemingly small things.  It was neat to see.

Oswaldo and me:
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Juan and me:
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I was grateful I got to see Chris, who I really wanted to see.  Chris is one of the most genuinely beautiful people I’ve met and he exudes warmth.  It made me happy that he not only recognized me but greeted me by name when I walked toward him.  Chris is a double amputee after losing a leg and part of his arm as a result of being blown up while clearing land mines as charity work.  Last year, he took the time to give us, Karla’s entirely rookie crew, crewing advice; I also got to chat with him after the race.  He was trying out a new prosthetic leg that had some new technology.  It was pretty fascinating.  I got to chat with Chris for about 10-15 minutes before the pre-race brief started.  There was no reason to stay for the brief so I left.

Chris and me:
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Leaving Furnace Creek was bittersweet.  I was happy because I’d gotten the chance to be in the Badwater atmosphere for a little while and see friends, some who I hadn’t seen since last year.  I also got to meet some new friends.  But I hated that I was leaving Furnace Creek before the race even started.

During the race, I was rooting for Oswaldo to win, and I hoped Harvey would finish in the top few too.  Why?  Because I like when good people do well.  This isn’t to say that the other top competitors weren’t good (as I would discover…); I just simply didn’t know them (yet).  However, in a race like Badwater, I hope ALL runners do well.  I posted constant updates online.  When one friend asked who my friends were so she could cheer for them, I told her the people I was following but told her to please cheer for ALL of the runners because they all deserved it and conditions were brutal.  Since there were only six checkpoints plus the finish, there were long periods of times where updates were sparse.  I could only imagine what was going on out there as the leaders, especially the men, swapped around every single checkpoint.

In the end, Portugese Carlos Sa finished first, Aussie Grant Maughan finished second, Oswaldo finished third, and Harvey finished fourth as the first American.  On the women’s side, Cath Todd finished first, Pam Reed was second, and Meredith Dolhare was third.  The men’s race was especially close, with the men’s race still undecided when they got to the base of Whitney with 13 miles left.

I thought a lot about Badwater during the actual race.  When I was in Furnace Creek over the weekend, I was asked multiple times if I wanted to run Badwater myself someday.  I had a canned response to this, something to the effect of, “No, I have no desire to run it, however, I love the atmosphere and really enjoy crewing and pacing.  I’d love to stay involved in the race in future years, but I don’t want to run it myself.”  I’ve adamantly held this stance since last year.  However, after saying it over and over so many times in conversation, I realized I didn’t really believe what I was saying.  I tried re-wording it, but it still sounded dishonest.  I knew that deep down, I did want to run it myself.

When I saw Tammy late on Wednesday when she came back through Las Vegas after the race, I told her I’d had an epiphany.  She said something to the effect of, “You want to run Badwater” immediately.  Then, on the spot, she gave me a lot of the stuff she’d used during her race, including a couple coolers.  She said she did not want to run it again but wanted to stay involved in other capacities.  I was so grateful for her generosity.

Tammy and me right after she gave me her stuff:
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On Friday after the race, I was in Phoenix for my husband’s cousin’s retirement from the Air Force.  I happened to see a posting in a Facebook group I belong to requesting crew for a person wanting to do a Badwater Double.  The person had already run the race, went up to the Mount Whitney summit and come back down to the Portal (a 22-mile round trip), and wanted to run the 135-mile race course in reverse.  Crewing this sounded like it would be exciting; the catch was that the person was going to start within the next 24 hours and I wasn’t even going to be back in Vegas until the following afternoon.  I expressed my disappointment about not being able to crew but said I’d be available Sunday afternoon and evening if the runner found additional crew and was still running then.  The runner, by the way, was Grant, who’d gotten second place in the race.

Eric F (not to be confused with the Eric referenced above or the other one mentioned further down), who had posted the request and served on Grant’s crew during the race, asked me if I knew of anyone else who might be able to help.  I told him I didn’t since most of the local people I knew who were runners had either just run or crewed at Badwater a couple days earlier.  I did not expect anyone to respond, but I figured it wouldn’t do any harm to re-post the request on my own wall.  Surprisingly, within minutes, an online runner friend of mine named Neil who I’d never met in person, and who I didn’t even know lived anywhere in this part of the country responded and said he’s do it.  What?!  He was in a car on his way to Lone Pine before he even had all of the info he needed.

Neil had never crewed before, and now he was somehow going to crew a Badwater runner for many miles (most of the time by himself).  I was originally not going to be able to help until Sunday afternoon as I had a race scheduled Saturday evening and wanted to sleep a few hours after that before driving to Death Valley.  But when it became clear it would be easier on everyone if Grant started Friday night instead of Saturday morning, I realized I’d need to get there earlier if I wanted to help.  It didn’t take much deliberation to drop the race and drive to Death Valley as soon as I got back into town from Phoenix.

Neil was sending updates for the first 40+ miles with some commentary on how Grant was doing, temperature, etc., but he got out of cell range early Saturday morning.  People online were antsy to get updates, while I tried to impress upon them I would post them when I had them (since my friend was texting me and I was posting them), but that no one should assume lack of updates meant anything bad.

I got home a little after 3pm on Saturday and was back on the road with some ice and other supplies by 4pm.  I hadn’t heard from Neil at all in almost 10 hours, but I figured he and Grant would be somewhere between Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells, miles 63 and 93 on the return trip back to Badwater Basin.  I decided I would drive to Furnace Creek, drive the course backward, and find them.  Sounded easy enough.

Sure enough, I found them right on the other side of Stovepipe Wells at around mile 90.  I greeted my friend Neil with a hug and commended him on taking care of Grant solo for the previous 20 hours.  I then walked back to Grant when I saw him approaching, gave him a quick hug, and introduced myself.  My first impression was that he seemed nice.  He mentioned that he was going to make a brief stop at Stovepipe Wells because he needed more calories.

This was the first photo I took of Grant, at the very first stop when I got there:
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Running at sunset:
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Gorgeous desert sunset:
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Sitting in front of the general store in Stovepipe Wells:
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I was surprised that all of the calories Grant was taking in were liquid.  He wanted something with protein; the only thing that was available was plain milk, so we picked up two of those and a Coca Cola.  I asked if he wanted me to grab more for the rest of his run and he said to get three (I got five).  He sat down on a rocking chair in front of the general store and commented that was the first time he’d ever sat down in a race (luckily it wasn’t actually a race).  I chatted with him a bit before a guy named Pat came over.  Pat was crewing another runner, Danny, who was also doing the Double.  It wasn’t until later that I realized that “Pat” was Patrick Sweeney, who has his own ridiculously long running résumé.  He was very nice.

When I walked across the street to my car, dressed in running clothes, I saw a guy with a Badwater shirt.  Immediately after looking at what I was wearing, the first words out of his mouth were, “You must be crewing for Grant,” to which I responded, “You must be Danny.”  We were both right.  Danny had initially planned on running a Quad (the Double twice), but he was having shin issues.

As it turns out, Danny and Grant were running their Doubles to honor Lisa Smith-Batchen.  She had intended to do the Quad herself to raise money for water wells for AIDS orphans in India and Ethiopia.  However, she got injured and had to DNF Badwater.  Danny and Grant decided to pick up the charge and each do “their part” (as if running Badwater once wasn’t enough).  By the way, the charity web site if anyone is interested in donating money is http://www.badwater4goodwater.com.  Lisa was incredibly touched by their decisions.  I had a handful of interactions with Lisa, which was also surreal (as I mostly know her from her role in the Running on the Sun documentary).  Runners are awesome and this is proof they’ll go out of their way to help each other out.

In Stovepipe Wells, Neil made room in his truck so that I could sit in it too.  Using one vehicle was more efficient, and the plan was for him to drop me back off at my car after Grant was finished since he was on his way back through Lone Pine.

Grant is a solitary runner and didn’t want company, which made it somewhat easier on us.  However, I realized one of the advantages to pacing is that it’s easier to get an idea of how the runner is doing mostly just through observations.  When instead we used the support vehicle, we had to pay more attention to the short period of time in his vicinity and it required more questions.  Grant was very easy to take care of, though.  His needs consisted mainly of ensuring he always had a water bottle with ice in it, two salt tabs twice every hour, and about 300 calories an hour.  After each encounter with Grant, we’d pull up a half mile or mile, depending on what he wanted.  There were also quite a few times when he’d run by and say he didn’t need anything.  We tried to get an idea of what he’d need at the next stop to be prepared so he wasn’t having to wait on us.

Shortly after Stovepipe Wells, it got windy and dusty!  There was a huge sandstorm that was difficult to even see through.  Watching the sand flow across the road was surreal.  The sandstorm slowed Grant down a bit, but he kept moving forward.  This was quite incredible to watch.  I would have loved a photo during this period, but I knew the fine sand would have destroyed my phone, so I used discretion.  During this section, there was also a bit of rain.  Yes, sand and rain, and it was still 110 degrees outside.

Here are a few photos from the middle of the night, but not during the sandstorm:
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There were large gaps in photos, and updates sent to Grant’s friends, throughout the run for a couple reasons.  Updates were sporadic at times because of lack of cell reception.  A much larger reason for gaps in photos and especially updates was due to my priority out there—of course I knew people were excited, anxious, and wanted constant info, however, my role out there was to crew Grant.  Providing updates was very low on the priority list compared to taking care of Grant and ensuring he had everything he needed.  I acknowledge I might have been “frustrating” to deal with at times because whenever I had cell receptions, it seemed people wanted more info than I was providing.  While it might not have been apparent to any one person, I had requests to post detailed info on Grant’s wall, tag a particular person in every post, send the same wall post to someone else via private message, others requesting updates via text, and a barrage of other messages asking questions.  With my limited resources, I did what I could, while keeping my focus on Grant’s well-being.  I hope the affected people understand that.

In the truck, it was fun getting to talk to Neil.  We’d known each other online for a few years even though this was our first time meeting in person.  He’s a person I wanted to meet sometime, but I never thought it would be in those circumstances.  We’ve actually both been running five and a half years and we’re both in the Air Force, just at totally different points.  I’m separating from the Air Force, and after many years of being enlisted, he just for commissioned as an officer a few months ago.  I enjoyed talking to him and sharing stories.

After being awake way too long, I finally convinced Neil to take a nap.  This was shortly after the sandstorm.  It also happened to coincide with a low point for Grant.  He was moving much slower and was not stable on his feet.  He was also not as cognitively alert as he had been earlier.  He was very sleepy too and noted he was “seeing things.”  I gave him some caffeine in the form of a Starbucks shot, but it did little to improve his situation.  I was concerned about him.  If Neil had not just gone to sleep, I would have made the decision for one of us to stay with him for a while.  But since I knew Neil needed sleep, I did the next best thing I could think of.  Regardless of distance, I never pulled up farther than I could see Grant’s red blinky lights.  It was dark and I wanted to be able to visually confirm he was still moving forward.

It was about an hour before Grant said he needed to lie down.  He said he wanted to lie on the dirt.  I quickly tried to think of a better alternative, but he said he didn’t want to be comfortable.  Luckily, I convinced him to at least let me put a towel down for him.  I knew it wouldn’t aid in comfort too much but that it would keep him directly off of the dirt so he wasn’t breathing in as much sand (I figured he’d already had enough in the storm) and that there was no point in him getting even dirtier.  Grant chose to use his Amphipod water bottle as a pillow.  I think he was out before he even touched the ground.  He just sort of fell into a heap on the ground, his blinky lights still flashing.  I thought about turning them off, but I didn’t want to bother him.  In retrospect, I don’t think anything would have woken him up.

Grant’s nap:
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By this point, we were only about a mile from Furnace Creek.  I could only imagine what would have gone through someone’s head if they passed a truck in the middle of the night with a person lying outside in a very awkward looking position.  I chose to stand outside the truck to perhaps make it less suspicious looking(?).  As it turned out, no cars drove by during the time Grant slept.  After my concern for him over the last hour or so, the time he slept was peaceful because I knew he was okay.  His breathing was audible, so I figured he was good as long as he was still breathing.  He asked to be woken up in an hour.  He woke up suddenly on his own after 45 minutes and was quite disoriented for a moment.

Unfortunately, Grant seemed to be in worse condition after his nap.  As he sat there on the ground, I said (rather rhetorically), “Are you going to get up and keep moving forward?”  He responded, “I don’t have a choice, do I?”  Watching him stand up and continue to move forward was inspiring.  But I was more concerned about him and kept a constant eye on him.  I wanted so much to help him somehow, but I didn’t know what to do, so I just monitored him.

After a two and a half hour nap, Neil woke up.  He seemed just as disoriented as Grant had been when he woke up.  He asked where we were, oblivious to what had transpired with Grant.  Grant still had 20 miles to go.  When Neil discovered we weren’t even to the Badwater Road turn-off, my friend realized the journey was far from over.  When he saw Grant at the next stop, it affirmed this.  However, in spite of how he was feeling, Grant kept moving forward.  He also didn’t complain.  If we prompted him, he’d give feedback, but other than that, he was silent.

Not long after turning onto Badwater Road, I witnessed something freaky.  There was a random guy wearing little clothing carrying no water running back toward Furnace Creek.  It happened so quickly, and after seeing no other people for so long, it surprised me.  Clearly I was not alone as Neil immediately turned to me and asked in an excited tone, “Did you just see that guy?”  He seemed reassured by the fact he was not alone in his sighting.  We concluded the chance of us having the same hallucination was rather low, but we vowed to ask Grant about it at the next stop.  It turned out we didn’t need to do this, as the first words out of Grant’s mouth when we saw him again were, “Did you guys see that guy?  He scared the s**t out of me!”  We all laughed.

Something incredible happened with about 16 miles to go.  Grant started to speed up.  He was running again.  A quick look at him told me he was still not feeling good by any stretch of the imagination, but he had somehow transcended the physical pain and was in some sort of weird zone.  I couldn’t comprehend the mental fortitude he possessed.  Constantly, I would say in amazement to Neil, “Look at him; he’s already catching up to us again.  And he’s running!  Look at the way he’s moving.”  It was so inspiring to me.  Neil even commented that he’d been looking for some inspiration recently and that he’d found it out there in the desert.

Just as it was barely beginning to get light, I took this photo.  The little white light is Grant:
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The sunrise out there was beautiful.  Here are a few photos from that time:
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This is the magnetic sign on the side of the vehicle.  I didn’t realize it until I was looking at it later, but I caught the reflection of the sunrise over the ridge:
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Grant’s little mascot drove for a while:
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Throughout the whole journey, one way Neil would gauge Grant’s well-being was when he drove by him on the way to the next stop, he’d say “woo hoo” and take note of Grant’s response.  Most of the time, he responded with the same; other times he acknowledged it otherwise, while some of the time, he did not respond.  While I don’t know how Grant is outside of running, or how he was during the race or even earlier in the same 135-mile run, my impression of him was that he was quiet and very introspective.  I tried hard to respect this while also getting info on his well-being I needed to ensure we crewed him appropriately and made sure he had what he needed.

Grant shortly after sunrise:
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I was so impressed by Grant, but I struggled with how to express this verbally in the moment.  I did my best, but it seemed he was pretty self-motivated.  A few interactions I had with him made me giggle.  One such occasion was when I said, “Regardless of how you feel, you look great!”  I sincerely meant that, but then he looked directly at me and said in his Australian accent, “I look great?  I feel f***ing filthy!”  I’d been awake for 24 hours at this point, so maybe that was part of it, but this really cracked me up.  Another reason I found this amusing was that I was reminded of something my friend Brady told me when I was pacing him during the final few miles of a 100-miler a couple months ago.  After being with me a couple hours, Brady suddenly looked at me in horror and said, “Wow, you are filthy!” which I acknowledged; he then expounded upon the original statement by saying, “No, I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone that dirty!”  Haha.

The long journey took its toll on Grant, even during the “short” (13+ hours) I was there.  This was not long after sunrise around mile 128:
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You can see how tired he was, but the sun brings new energy:
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Looking at photos a few days after the race, Grant looked at this particular photo and said he looked “grimy.”  I told him he looked “bad@$$.” Seriously, this is one of my favorite photos, taken about 130 miles into his final 135-mile run:
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Grant was running well toward the end, so I took this opportunity to take some more photos:
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The scenery out toward the salt flats was beautiful:
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I like this photo because Grant looks so tiny next to the huge rock wall.  Yet the size of the rocks pales in comparison to the massive distance he just covered.  It’s really incredible to realize what people are capable of doing when they set high expectations for themselves:
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A couple more photos near the end of Grant’s journey:
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The last mile or so leading to Badwater Basin was in the shade, which was a nice little perk.  Grant finished his Badwater Double on the same section of road where he had begun the Badwater race almost 6 days prior.  (Note that is wasn’t a continuous effort, so it took significantly less time on his feet to cover the 292 miles.)  His final 135 miles took him a total elapsed time of 33:22:54.  For reference, when he ran the Badwater race, he covered the first 135 miles in 24:53:57.

Finishing the final 135 miles:
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Finally done:
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We all hugged each other after Grant was done and then just stood around for a few minutes.

I took this photo of Neil and Grant:
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He was tired but had a good attitude:
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We then went over to the famous Badwater sign.  Grant headed down there first.  I am grateful I was able to take a photo of him by himself looking out across the salt flats.  It’s one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken, not because of its artistic merits but because of what it represents.

Grant in a photo he titled “Reflections on going backward to go forward”:
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Grant at the Badwater sign (serious and then when I asked him to smile):
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Neil and Grant:
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Grant and me:
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Neil, Grant, and me (love this photo):
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Next, Grant wanted to take off his shoes.  I was interested in seeing what his feet looked like.  Neil said he didn’t want to look, but in the end, he couldn’t stop himself from looking.  Considering he never changed his socks and that his feet had been hurting him for over 50 miles, his feet didn’t look terrible.  This doesn’t mean they looked great either.  I put some ice and water in a small ice chest and helped him ice his feet for a few minutes.  I also helped him his sandals on after that.

Icing his feet:
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Grant’s feet:
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Before heading back to Stovepipe Wells, Neil decided to check an item off of his bucket list: Run a mile in Death Valley.  This is a prime example of the necessity to be careful what you wish for.  Recently, he realized he wanted to run a mile in Death Valley sometime.  Shortly after that, he saw my request for someone looking for a person to crew him in Death Valley.  Grant and I cheered Neil on as he started his run and we drove the first mile of the Badwater course to meet him at the end of his run.  It was about 9am and already 103 degrees.  He said that the single mile felt like he’d raced a 5k.

Neil finishing his bucket list mile:
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On the drive back to Stovepipe Wells, Grant slept.  Initially, he slept sitting up, but he quickly sort of “fell over” and slept on a cardboard box next to him.  It was definitely well-earned rest, so I smiled when I saw how well he was sleeping in such an uncomfortable looking position.

Grant sleeping in the truck:
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When we arrived back in Stovepipe Wells about 40 miles later, Grant was still sleeping.  I moved all of my stuff to my car and then made the tough decision to wake Grant up.  I considered letting him sleep, but I wanted to tell him bye and give him a hug.  He was so out of it.  In an effort to not freak him out, I gently rubbed his back to wake him up.  Well, he woke up, but I did freak him out (or at least surprised him as he was yet again confused where he was and what was going on).  While the reasons I woke him up were admittedly selfish, I think it turned out for the best because he needed calories and I was able to get him some more milk at the general store for his journey back to Lone Pine.

Driving back to Las Vegas on Sunday, I felt so grateful for the experience I’d gotten over the previous 15 hours.  I was SO proud of Neil who had stepped up to crew someone over 135 miles even though he had no previous crew experience.  This was incredibly selfless and I’d learned so much more about him, not just about his life but about him as a person, than I had in years of chatting online.  I have so much respect for him.

And Grant… What an incredibly humble and kind yet totally bad@$$ person.  He shattered his goal time for the Badwater race and earned second place, then chose to go 11 miles up to the summit of Mount Whitney and back down to the Portal, then he ran the race course in reverse and honored his friend/coach Lisa in doing so.  Interacting with Grant, even during his run, it was hard to fully comprehend the huge feat he was undertaking.  He seemed so modest and reserved.  But he was so incredibly tough mentally and physically.

I think everything in life happens for a reason.  I am so glad Neil volunteered to help a stranger in his journey because it would not have been possible without him.  I am also very honored I had the opportunity to play a small role in Grant’s journey.  Grant was very self-sufficient, and there were times my duties out there were minimal.  But looking back, I know my time out there was worthwhile.  The single statement Grant posted (in response to one of the photos of him lying on the ground sleeping) that reaffirmed this to me was this: “I was coming apart mentally by then and wanted to lie down beside the road. I was also having balance and cognitive problems. Have never been so far over the edge before. Thank you for caring about me and making sure I was ok. I certainly couldn’t do it for myself by then…”  This made it all worth it to me because it showed me I served a purpose while I was out there.

After Grant’s Badwater Double, I was chatting with one of Grant’s Badwater (race) crewmembers, Eric S, and I realized something pretty neat.  It was evidence of how things come full circle… When my friend Tammy ran Badwater, due to a weird situation, she was crew-less for a period of time.  Other crews gave her water, including Grant’s crew.  When I saw Tammy after the race and she realized I wanted to run Badwater someday, she gave me a bunch of her stuff, including coolers. Over the weekend, I used those same coolers to carry ice and supplies out to Death Valley…to aid Grant as I crewed for him at the end of his Badwater Double. Neat, right?

Some people have expressed surprise that I drove to Death Valley to crew for Grant,  No, I didn’t know Grant.  I didn’t know his friend, Eric F, who had posted the “urgent” request for someone to help out either.  But that didn’t matter.  Ultrarunners are like my family, even ones I haven’t met (yet), and if I see one who needs assistance that I can provide, I can’t justify not helping.  I have benefited so much from the kindness of others in the ultra community who had nothing to gain by aiding me that I try to give back whenever I can.  Of course, even in trying to give back, I benefit, so I have a feeling I’ll never even break even (but I’ll still keep trying).

I love the ultra community.  As I’ve noted before, it is the first (and only) group I’ve ever felt welcomed into and feel fully accepted within (and this has held true since before I even ran my first ultra when I was just curious about them).  Every ultra experience I have, whether I’m running or crewing/pacing, I am reminded why I keep coming back to ultras.  I truly love the people I meet, and I make meaningful connections with people in a way that just doesn’t happen in “everyday” life.  I’m introverted, I don’t make friends easily, I hate small talk and obligatory superficial social interactions, I’m socially awkward, and I prefer to do most things alone.  People tire me out, so I tend to save my energy for situations I feel are worthwhile.  In ultra settings, I thrive, which is why people who know me in that setting don’t likely understand what I said in the last sentence… but that’s okay. ❤

Katrina

Badwater 135 Crewing Report (July 2012)

*Originally posted on Runners World forum in July 2012, before I had a blog. 37 lessons I learned at Badwater will also be re-posted in the next post.*

DISCLAIMER: This is a LONG report, but I put lots of photos in it to hopefully keep it somewhat interesting. Also, a lot of the course blended together to me and I don’t necessarily remember what happened during each specific segment; I’ll try my best, but some things may be out of order. This report is going to be more people-oriented as opposed to race-centric. People are what ultras are all about, so the most memorable parts of the Badwater experience to me didn’t concern the course but instead how people conquered the course and pushed their own limits.

ALSO: If you don’t have hours to read this whole thing, that’s okay.  Don’t feel guilty if you just scroll through the pics. 😉

I never thought I would be involved in the Badwater Ultramarathon in any capacity. Each year, 90-something people from around the world are selected from thousands of entries to compete in this extreme race. It is 135 miles in length and goes from Badwater Basin in Death Valley (282 feet below sea level) to the Mount Whitney Portal (8,360 feet above sea level). Since there are no aid stations, each runner is allowed up to six crewmembers and two vehicles. The runners are allowed to be paced after 17 miles by one person at a time; the first vehicle leapfrogs the runner every mile or so while the second vehicle, if there is one, leapfrogs ahead at least five miles and is used as a backup and/or to run errands (i.e. to get more ice) if necessary.

A few months ago, my running coach Ian, who is a well-known ultrarunner recommended that I look for an opportunity to crew for one of the runners. He’d crewed for a runner previously and said it was a memorable experience. I was hesitant, primarily because it seemed way beyond something I’d be able to do and I did not want to screw up anyone’s journey to the finish line due to my cluelessness. Ian assured me that there would be enough other crewmembers who would be able to provide me guidance and that I’d learn a lot.  That was partially right. 😉

I decided I wanted to crew, but I didn’t know where to find a runner since there were fewer than 100 people running it. I answered a request someone posted online requesting a pacer; of the requests I saw, his seemed the least intimidating. As it turned out, that person, John, already had found a crew but was very appreciative of my offer to help. It’s funny because that “least intimidating” person was actually a Barkley finisher; if you don’t know what the Barkley Marathon is, look it up (hint: it’s not a marathon and most years, there are zero finishers). In other words, his post asking for assistance had been very modest, to say the least. 😉

Since John had a crew, I chose to seek a runner on the Marathon Maniacs Facebook page. I’d previously seen that several Maniacs were running Badwater and posted a message with my running experiences (so people knew how qualified, or unqualified, I was). Someone posted and said a guy named Ed may still be looking for some crewmembers. I’d seen Ed at my 50-miler in April; he’d been doing the 100-miler and was dressed crazily with bright colors and a jester hat.  We also exchanged hih fives many times during that race (since it consisted of multiple out-and-backs and the 50-miler and 100-miler were on the same course).  Ed already had a full crew but sent a very helpful message back to me mentioning a few people’s names and saying he really thought I’d be a good match for a lady named Karla who lives in Las Vegas (where I live too). He even told me that if I was still unable to find a runner to let him know and he’d see what else he could do to help.

I’d seen Karla at a few local races, although I’d never talked to her. I messaged her on Facebook and she said she’d be interested in running with me sometime since she was still looking for another pacer. We went for an 8-mile run a couple months ago in 95 degree weather and we had a good time talking with each other, so I joined her crew. Since I live in Las Vegas, I was lucky that I had access to hot weather to get used to it. I still really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, though…

Running was going fine for me the last couple months until two weeks ago. I’d suspected I had exercise-induced asthma for quite a few years but never got it checked out. I always assumed I was out of breath and coughed when I ran because I was out of shape. Just recently I had an epiphany that I’m not out of shape (anymore), which is what pushed me to get tested. Two weeks ago, I had a methacholine test and I had an adverse reaction and needed an inhaler. I was told symptoms would only last a couple hours. The next day, I went for a 15-mile run with Karla and I had the worst cardio experience of my life. I literally couldn’t breathe. Even walking wasn’t allowing me to get my breath back. I felt better later in the day but my breathing was labored the rest of the weekend. This freaked me out not just for my own health but because Badwater was only a week away and I knew there wasn’t time for Karla to find another pacer. The following Monday, I went to the hospital and was given an inhaler and sent away. I used it in the following days and I felt a bit better.

I’m a little bit OCD about knowing what’s going on and planning out the details of things. For this reason, I felt like I was going a little bit crazy because Karla is not really a big planner. With the exception of the two runs we’d done and meeting one other time with the rest of her crew, we didn’t have our “logistics” meeting until last Friday (when we were leaving town two days later). As it turned out, we never really talked about specific details, so I just let go of trying to know what was going to happen and I felt a little better…sort of. One thing I did not realize until pretty close to the race is that Death Valley isn’t flat, haha. Granted, I’d never really analyzed the Badwater course, as I had no reason to do so, but it actually consists of two 17-mile inclines before getting to Mount Whitney.

Here is the elevation profile for the course:
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Karla’s crew consisted of four people: her husband Z (who was not a runner), her friend M (who was not a distance runner), J (who was a runner with comparable long-distance races to me, although he’s a lot faster), and me. I was a bit concerned about the crew because we didn’t have anyone seasoned who knew anything about Badwater, and two of the four had no real running (let alone ultrarunning) experience. We had two vehicles.

These were the vehicles and how we had them organized (I use the word “organized” very loosely):
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The runner check-in and mandatory race meeting both occurred at the hotel where almost all of the runners and crews were staying; if you’ve ever been to Furnace Creek, you know there’s not much there. While I was chatting with the other people on Karla’s crew, Ian recognized me and came up to say hello. He’s encouraged me and guided my running in so many ways over the last nine months. I already knew he’d be there crewing someone too, but it was exciting to finally meet him in person. I gave him a hug and then got a photo with him.

Ian (definitely not a chore to look at, haha) and me:
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This is the race director, Chris Kostman, and Lisa Smith-Batchen, who is a well-known ultrarunner:
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All of the runners got together for a group photo:
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As I was walking to go find Karla after the photo, I ran into my friend Tammy who I first met at North Coast 24 last year:
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We had a little bit of an adventure in the parking lot a little later on: J, Karla, and I were in the vehicle with M in the driver’s seat when M decided to get some water from the back of the vehicle. She got out and forgot a minor detail: She put the vehicle in neutral instead of park and we started rolling backward. We got the vehicle stopped, but of course it had to have happened within the sight of someone else. One of the other runners who none of us had previously met came over and started a conversation with us. His name was Chris Moon. He asked which one of us was running and thought it was me, which I found hilarious since I’m nowhere near the caliber of the other runners there, but then decided to share some advice with our very rookie team. He told us his crew rules, which we thought were good: 1) Everyone will f ck up, so when it happens, just move on without dwelling on it, 2) no negativity, 3) leave the egos behind—the crew is no more important than the runner and the runner is no more important than the crew, and 4) have fun.  M said, “Oh, well, that was my f ck up.”  To which he said, “No, that wasn’t a f ck up… That was entertainment!”

Honestly, I didn’t notice it when Chris first came up to us, but eventually I gained some situational awareness and realized he was missing an arm and a leg! He’d lost them almost 20 years ago while doing charity work clearing mines. He mentioned he’d run Badwater before but it had been over 10 years and that he was testing out some new prosthetic technology this year. The fact he’d done the race before and was doing it again in spite of missing limbs was inspiring, but beyond that, there was something very special about him. The ultra community as a whole is very down to earth, but even in that group, he stood out. He was genuine, kind, and just seemed to exude warmth. There was something about him that is impossible to explain and could only really been felt. We took a few photos with him and parted ways.

Chris and me:
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Karla, Chris, and me:
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M, Z, J, and I went to an informal crewing question and answer session that evening. It had some good info, but we’d already read through all of the official rules out loud as a team to ensure everyone understood them, so we didn’t learn anything vital.

From the crewing meeting:
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Dinner the night before the race consisted of pasta we made in our hotel room with a jar of tomato sauce. We couldn’t find the plastic utensils, so we used chopsticks. Beer was the beverage of choice for all of us.

Dinner:
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Our pre-race cooler:
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We decided to take some goofy pictures in the room, some with one of the magnetic vehicle signs:
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The hotel we stayed at was beautiful, very unlike most places I’ve seen in the U.S.

Here are some views of/from the hotel:
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We only had one room for the five of us, so J slept in the car, Z slept on the floor, Karla and M shared a bed, and I got my own bed (the smallest adult bed I’ve ever seen). I don’t think anyone slept too well the night before the race. We didn’t even lie down until after 11pm and we were all awake before the alarm went off at 6am.

Badwater starts in three waves of a little over 30 runners in each one, at 6am, 8am, and 10am. All of the faster runners start in the latest wave with the slower ones in the earlier two waves. The course has a 48-hour cut-off based on each wave’s respective start time. Karla was in the 8am wave, and driving out to the start line was interesting because the 6am runners were already on the course and running toward us.

Here are some photos of the 6am runners:
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The parking lot at the start line was pretty packed with cars; it was no wonder why only one vehicle per runner was allowed at the start. The race begins at Badwater Basin.

Start area:
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The bad water in Badwater Basin:
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Just for reference, the little horizontal white line on the hill at the upper right indicates where sea level is:
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The sign at Badwater showing an elevation of -282 is a popular place for photos.

Out whole team (J, me, Z, M, and Karla):
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Karla and her husband Z:
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All of the 8am runners:
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There was a mandatory weigh-in prior to the start of the race.

Karla getting weighed and J not trying to be very discreet in trying to see the number on the scale:
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Karla was interviewed by one of the Badwater staff members:
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Runners lining up at the start:
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Here are a couple photos of some of the runners, including Karla:
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Since cars were leapfrogging their respective runners, there was a constant line of cars along the course. The cars got more spread out over time, but since there were three waves, there were always other cars within about a mile. As expected, the 10am runners began to overtake the 8am runners before the 8am runners began to overtake the 6am runners.

View of crew vehicles along the right side of the road:
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For the first 17 miles, since Karla couldn’t have a pacer, we’d just walk across the road and swap out water bottle, ice hats and bandanas (one hat with ice and one bandana filled with ice was always in one of our coolers while another one was always on her head). After 17 miles, J and I began pacing her. We’d stay with her for two or three miles at a time before swapping with each other. Once one of us was running with her, when we could see the crew vehicle ahead, we’d start talking about what she needed/wanted so we could run ahead and get it, making it unnecessary for her to stop. Whoever was in the car at the time was keeping track of the total mileage, time, temperature, calorie/fluid intake, electrolyte cap intake, and other notes like when she peed. The log became very important, particularly for the electrolyte caps and gels she was taking because they were on a certain interval and time was going by quicker than it seemed. If we’d just gone by what it seemed, she would have been not getting stuff as regularly as she needed. The whole thing was mainly an experiment because she’d never done that long of a race in high temps. The temperature wasn’t at hot as it normally gets in Death Valley due to a storm a few days earlier. This meant it *only* got up to 118 degrees. 😉

There are large gaps where I didn’t take any photos because I was either pacing Karla or tending to other crew matters.

After pacing Karla the first two times, for a grand total of about three miles, I wondered how I would keep doing that over and over again for nearly two days. I was able to keep up with Karla, but she was still running quicker than I thought she’d be running at that point. When I first ran with her, she’s already run 17 miles and was still ticking off 10-something minute miles. I really wondered what I’d gotten myself into!

Here is a photo of Karla and I sometime between miles 17 and 41:
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Here are a few photos of Karla and J, as well as photos of the course (note that it’s a bit hilly in places), and some dust devils. These were taken just prior to Stovepipe Wells, which was the 41-mile point:
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Somewhere in this segment, Ed, who had started at 10am, caught up to and passed Karla. I thought his outfit was photo-worthy.

Ed is known as the Jester—any idea why?? And yes, he’s wearing a skirt…and so was his entire crew…and yes, they were all males 😉
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There was a pool at Stovepipe Wells that was open to runners. Karla opted not to utilize that, although she did rest briefly so Z could massage her legs (again) and I could put some BodyGlide under her bra strap where she’d begun to chafe from the bra getting wet. I told her that if it got any worse that she’d need to swap bras, but it didn’t get to that point, thankfully.

Evidently I didn’t take any photos between Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs at mile 72. Between these points was one of the 17-mile long inclines followed by about 8 miles of downhill. On the uphill section, everyone I saw was walking. Somewhere on that stretch, Ian and the guy he was pacing, David, caught up to us and we chatted a bit. I introduced myself to David and told him that his pacer was the person who put the crazy idea of crewing into my head; David seemed amused by this but thought the idea was brilliant, not crazy. 😉 This uphill section was tough not just because of the elevation gain but it was very windy the entire time. At some time, Karla and I passed David and Ian; we also passed quite a few other people as Karla’s walking pace is pretty quick. Passing people was a boost to Karla. David went through a rough spot but ended up doing really well later on and ended up easily breaking the Australian record for the course.

Karla ran most of the downhill section after the long uphill portion, albeit slowly. We were still passing people, although it turned into leapfrogging because runners kept stopping at their crew vehicles, meaning they’d pass other runners, stop, get passed, then start going again and pass the runners who had just passed them.

At some point during this stretch, I had the job of driving the secondary vehicle, which was the job none of us really liked because it took us out of being directly involved, since we’d drive it up five miles, wait, and then drive it up the same amount again. I attempted to sleep, but with the emergency flashers of that car and other vehicles, it was impossible. Plus, I just didn’t feel like sleeping. Instead, I chose to gaze up at the stars, which were brighter than I ever see with the lights of Vegas. I also cheered on runners who were so far ahead of Karla that I hadn’t seen in a while (since the only runners I’d see frequently pacing or being with the primary crew vehicle were ones that were within a mile of her). I loved cheering for all of the runners. There were a few in particular I looked for, including Ed and Chris. Chris was doing awesome, and if I had not been looking for his distinct silhouette, judging by the speed at which he was moving, I would not have been able to tell he was disabled in any way. He always had a very kind response to my words of encouragement, as did most of the other runners.

The only runner I had a bad, or rather less-than-positive, experience with was Pam Reed. Admittedly, I went into the experience having the perception she was arrogant. I based this off of her autobiography I read, which was by far my least favorite ultra-related book I’ve read (and I’ve read quite a few). On more than one occasion, I tried telling her “good job” and instead of saying “thanks,” nodding, smiling, looking, or even ignoring me, she chose to gave me a dirty look. I was personally a bit amused but at the same time a bit saddened because everyone else seemed so down to earth, regardless of how awesome they were.

Gas in Panamint Springs, the 71-mile point, was pricey:
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This sign is just a few miles beyond the halfway point of the course, considering Furnace Creek was about 17 miles from the start line and Lone Pine is about 13 miles from the finish line:
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Karla took a quick break:
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After passing through Panamint Springs, there was another 17-mile long climb. By this point, it had been dark for a few hours and Karla was getting very tired. Chris had mentioned that a nap of less than 45 minutes is best so the body doesn’t go into a deep sleep. Karla had never taken a nap in a race before, and we discussed the positive and negative consequences of taking a nap and the best time (when it was still dark or once it got light) if she did take a nap. This was foreign territory for both of us, so she opted to take a nap in the back of the main vehicle. 25 minutes after lying down, Karla woke up refreshed. Perfect!

We had another funny incident around this point. While Karla was sleeping, I had opted to try to sleep and did fall asleep. I was woken up about an hour later due to feeling the vehicle make a U-turn. Z was driving and it was just the two of us in the car. Evidently, Karla had woken up from her nap and took off with M, Z had driven a mile ahead, and then he too fell asleep. When he woke up, he realized Karla and M should have already passed by us, so he thought something had happened and turned around to backtrack on the course. After a mile, he realized they weren’t behind us, so he turned around again, which is when I woke up. After over three miles, we caught up to M and Karla who were waiting with J at the secondary vehicle. M freaked out and started yelling because she thought we’d driven off the road (since the mountain was steep and missing a guardrail in some spots). Karla said she thought maybe that had happened too and kept discreetly looking over the edge. Somehow, not only had Z and I both fallen asleep, but Karla and J passed by our vehicle without realizing it. In retrospect, it was very funny. 😉

Driving along just as it started to get light outside, I noted that the runners I saw looked like complete zombies. The crews of the different runners would exchange words whenever we’d cross paths, and it was pretty common to be parked and waiting for your runner right near where another crew was waiting for their runner.  I made the comment that we’d passed some runners that looked like zombies, to which one of the crewmembers on another team responded, “Oh, you must have seen our runner then!”  Even though Badwater is a race, everyone is very friendly with one another.  Whenever crews see one another, they ask about the other runner, particularly if they looked a little down the last time they’d been seen.  This is what I really love about ultras.

Once the sun actually came out, people started to look more alive. Starting on the second day, Z and M started pacing certain parts of the race; by this time, Karla was primarily walking.

Here are some photos taken between miles 71 and 90, including one of M and Karla, one of Karla and me shadows, J and Karla, some beautiful scenery, and the sign marking the boundary of Death Valley at mile 85:
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The Darwin time station was located at mile 90 and was very minimalist.  They did have some medical people here, though, and J got one of his blistered tended to.

Darwin:
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The post on the left marks the 100-mile point of the course:
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There was some pretty scenery over the next section of the course:
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It was around this point J started to become… difficult to tolerate. He was tired, irritated, overly dramatic, and I really just wanted him to be quiet. He was sitting in the front seat of the car moaning and saying how much he was hurting. I was way too busy ensuring Karla was taken care of to have to watch after him too. I kept an eye on him to ensure he was eating and drinking, but beyond that, I couldn’t afford to put any more of my resources toward him. I understood he was tired, but I’d only slept an hour and really just wanted to ensure Karla made it to the finish line. It was very strange, but I felt fresh the entire time, well after the first couple times I paced where I felt in over my head. I wasn’t sore, I had no problems breathing, I wasn’t chafing, and I had no blisters. I think part of this was mental (well, I didn’t have chafing of blisters, but regarding being sore or overly drained). On every one of my races and everyday runs, the experience is all about me, but during Badwater, my focus was almost solely on Karla. Any emphasis I did put on myself was to indirectly help Karla (i.e. if I get too dehydrated to pace, Karla is in big trouble).

There was a long section before getting to the town of Lone Pine (at the base of Mount Whitney) that seemed to go on forever with seemingly no progress. This section was also windy and sandy. Luckily, Z and M started pacing some more. Through talking to M, I realized she runs sometimes on a treadmill and had a very false perception of how fast she thought Karla was running. I recommended that M do a segment with her, even if it’d entail a little bit of slow running. I knew M wouldn’t have any problems keeping up, and I told her that if for some reason she did to not worry and just tell Karla to go ahead; then we’d wait for her after Karla went by. After M paced her first section with any running, she was exciting because she said that was her first time ever running outside. I was shocked by this, but she said she’d always thought it would be too hard so she’d never tried. First time running outside being at Badwater? Awesome for her. 🙂

Here are a couple photos from that section:
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Another thing worth mentioning is that Karla had felt okay the entire time but had no desire to eat any solid foods for almost the entire second day. This made the nutrition element interesting because I was trying to get her calories in her water bottle without overdoing it and also trying to fit in electrolyte/salt caps too. How this all worked okay was a miracle because I was just experimenting and was the sole person besides her who was responsible for what she consumed (scary, right?)

Getting to Lone Pine at the 122-mile point was exciting because the only thing left was getting up Mount Whitney to the Portal. Z had mentioned he’d make some soup going up the mountain, and I remembered we didn’t have any utensils. I took a quick detour, running across the street and into a McDonald’s (the first fast food place I’d seen since leaving Las Vegas) and asked for some forks and spoons. The guy behind the counter gave me a really weird look (don’t blame him, haha) but complied and I ran back out and caught up to Karla. Somewhere in Lone Pine, there was a funny point where we passed a billboard for Carls Jr. that had a picture of a huge burger and a caption that said, “Running on empty?” Karla looked at it and said, “Uh, yeah!” It made me laugh. I stayed with Karla from about 4.5 miles before the base of Mount Whitney. At that point, everyone except J decided it’d be best to switch off every half mile or mile.

M in action taking photos:
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A few views before it got dark:
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There was a runner from Japan who had a crew (we kept seeing his crew vehicle), but he didn’t have a pacer the entire time on the mountain for some reason. We always cheered for him when we saw him and he always smiled. When he saw M and I take our cameras out, he decided to pose for us. Over the next few hours (the climb takes a long time, even though it’s only about 11 miles), he started hobbling quite a bit, we suspected due to blisters. But he still kept moving forward and he still kept smiling when we told him “good job.”

The photo is blurry, but since he went through the effort of posing for it, I opted to post it:
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About six miles from the end, there was a bit of a “discussion” that occurred among Z, J, and me. Karla had said prior to the race that her goal was 40 hours. As the race went on, she said she’d be happy even if she did it in 41 or 42 hours since the 40-hour goal wasn’t based on concrete evidence. Even though she slowed as time went on, at about 129 miles, J was convinced she could go sub-40 hours. Z and I disagreed, based on the pace she was going; when it had gotten dark, she’d also gone into a low spot mentally. J insisted that we tell her to speed up and run 100 meters at a time. Z laughed at the ludicrousness as everyone was at a slow hobble at that point and Karla wasn’t in a place she could run. J said we should feel obligated to tell her she could make her original goal and refused to listen to me when I said she’d told me that going sub-40 was not important. Karla’s smart. She knew the time and the rough distance she had left; I knew she could do the math if she wanted since she was still quite alert mentally.

By this point, I was also getting cranky.  I’m normally pretty calm, but J was getting on my nerves more than anyone typically gets on my nerves.  I was quite irritable, and I felt bad about this, especially since I’m used to being the mediator, not the arguer.  Everyone was sleep-deprived, though, which really didn’t help since there was no “voice of reason” anymore. 😉  Luckily Karla wasn’t too far from the finish by then, so I knew the end was near and I could soon go to sleep!

Even at the pace she was going, she was passing people, which I think boosted her spirits a little bit. However, she was also a bit discouraged seeing vehicles driving down from the mountain as she knew all of those people were already done. Looking up ahead, there was a broken path of blinking lights of runners and vehicles that indicated where we were headed. However, looking behind us, we could see lights way down below, showing all of the people still behind us. Seeing all of the lights coming up to our point seemed to surprise Karla.

The climb seemed to go on forever, and it was very difficult to judge how much distance was left. In the official booklet, there was a chart that showed which landmarks lined up with which miles, but even these didn’t seem right. Also, it wasn’t as relevant early on, but the chart went up to 134.4 miles, not 135, and there was a note saying the official distance is 135 miles but that odometers vary so it’s possible to get different distances, as evidenced by the official chart. .6 miles early in the race equated to practically nothing, but toward the end, it means a lot more. The last time station was at 3.8 miles from the end, and to give a reference point, the fastest anyone covered that distance was 57 minutes (and the winner actually took an hour and 15 minutes for that distance).

Z was with Karla the last 4 or so miles of the course, which was good for the two of them to experience it together and also because she’d resorted to only speaking Czech. While she lives in Vegas, she’s a Czech citizen, and when she got tired, her mind fell back to the language she was most comfortable with.

The last little segment of the course is very steep (160 feet of climb in .1 miles!), but we met her right before the finish line and as is the tradition, we all crossed the line together. She was able to speed up to a very slow shuffle at the end. 🙂

Here are some photos from the finish line and then right afterward and all of us posing for the official photo:
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She finished in just after midnight on Wednesday in 40:24, which she was happy about, as she interpreted this as meeting her goal (she’d wanted to finish in 40 hours and her time was 40:something).

The stars looked so bright from the Portal.  The stars actually looked closer than all of the lights coming up the mountain.  We didn’t stay up there very long, though, as it felt very cold (40s I’d guess).

Driving back down the mountain was a moving experience because we went past dozens of runners still making their way up the mountain. They looked physically pretty broken, but even though they still had hours until they’d finish, they continued to move forward. Every single person who made it to the mountain road crossed the finish line. As a matter of fact, every runner who made it to 90 miles finished. This is impressive considering everything that can happen over the span of 45 miles.

Of the 96 runners who toed the start line, 89 of them finished, which is an extremely high finish rate. The race staff is very picky about who they allow to even enter the race, but even so, only 7 people not finishing is amazing to me. And for the record, the first male finished in 22:52 (a mere minute off of the course record), the first female finished in 29:53, and the last runner finished in 47:08 (well under the 48-hour cutoff).

There was a post-race pizza party at noon after the race. It also doubled as a recognition ceremony as every runner was recognized by time and stood at the front of the room. They also showed a video with highlights from the race, which was great considering the race had just officially ended two hours prior.

Here are some photos from the party/ceremony:
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Chris came up to us after the party and we chatted some more. I didn’t realize it until I got home and looked it up, but this year at the age of 50, he’d cut almost 12 HOURS off of his time from when he ran it over 10 years ago. He had one of his sons with him (I think he was 13), so that was neat. His son said he wanted to run the race when he was old enough. His son had a very similar demeanor to him; they were both very enjoyable to be around. I told Chris I’d seen him a couple of times the first night and that it looked like he’d been moving along really well; I let him know I cheered for him (well, and everyone else), and he said how much that meant to him and then he apologized for only be able to acknowledge it with a wave and a “thanks” because he was tired. I couldn’t believe he was actually apologizing because I would not have expected any more; like I said before, I’m okay if someone even ignores me…just don’t give me a mean look (especially since mean looks take as much effort as a nicer look, haha). 😉 I got two hugs and kisses on the cheek from Chris before we parted ways. I still say he’s one of the most genuinely beautiful people I’ve met.

Chris and me afterward (photo courtesy of M):
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I got to meet Dean Karnazes after the party. I wasn’t really sure what to expect because I had a preconceived notion that he might be a jerk. However, unlike my interactions with Pam Reed, I was very pleasantly surprised. I’d actually brought two books for him to sign—one for me and one for a friend. I have a friend named Josh who I met when I was deployed last year, and at the time, he let me borrow one of Dean’s book; I’d accidentally bent the cover of the book, which Josh said was okay, but I felt bad about it. Josh is a great runner himself and runs a sub-3 hour marathon; I keep trying to convince him to get into ultras, but so far he’s declined. To pay him back for the bent book, I decided to give him a book signed by Dean. 🙂 I relayed that whole story to Dean, and in Josh’s book, part of what he wrote was, “Listen to Katrina and start running ultras.” 🙂 Dean also signed the other book to me and also thanked me for my service (since I’d mentioned I met Josh on a deployment).

Dean and me:
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I also ran into Marshall Ulrich afterward and got a photo with him. Karla was actually leapfrogging him for a significant portion of the second day. It was surreal because I’m in the process of reading one of his books at the moment. Of course I didn’t think to bring it with me to get it signed by him.

Marshall and me:
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Leaving the party, I crossed paths with Ed the Jester. While I didn’t know him beyond seeing him at my 50-miler earlier this year and exchanging a couple Facebook messages with him a few months ago, I still wanted to say hello. I reminded him of the message he sent me and thanked him for recommending I contact Karla to see if she needed another crewmember. He’s an incredibly kind person and he seemed genuinely happy that it had worked out for Karla and me.

The Jester and me (photo courtesy of M):
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Meeting, crossing paths with, and interacting with all of the runners before, during, and after the race was exciting.  Some of the people I’d only read about in books or seen on t.v. so it was very surreal.  At times, I felt like I’d been swooped up and dropped into one of my books.  Strange, but ridiculously awesome!

Before leaving Lone Pine, I took this photo to give some reference. The peak just to the right of the tree is Mount Whitney, and the finish line was about halfway up it. It looks a long way away from the vantage point of where I took the photo. However, by the time runners got to that point in the race, they’d already run 122 miles (and then they STILL needed to go all of the way up there!):
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To get back to Las Vegas, we had to backtrack about 100 miles of the course. Driving it seemed to take a long time and it was crazy to think that Karla had covered it all (plus more) on foot.

These were random photos I took along the course from the car on the way back to Vegas:
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Looking back at my experiences with Badwater, I am so grateful I had the opportunity to be a part of it in any capacity. I am so proud of Karla! I can’t say I have any desire to ever actually run the race myself, but I would love to be a part of it in other ways in future years. It’s one of the most eye-opening and memorable experiences I’ve ever had.

One of Badwater race reports I read yesterday broke my heart and also inspired me. It was written by John, the guy I talked to via email when I was looking for a runner to crew. To give a little background information: I never got to meet him at the race, and I was never able to confirm which runner he was at the beginning when he was still in the vicinity of Karla. After a couple hours, I never saw him or his crew vehicle again… until many, many hours later when Karla and I ran past his crew vehicle with him sitting behind it. I knew something had to have happened because it made no sense why he was suddenly behind us. As soon as we ran past, he got up and got back on the road with his pacer, but they were just walking. I pointed out to Karla that she’d just passed the Barkley finisher, but I was secretly concerned and knew something was wrong with him. At some point when I was likely in the car, he passed us and I never saw him again, but at the time stations, he was one of a few names I would constantly look up to check that he was still on the course.

John’s race report was painful to read. He got some kind of stomach bug that was wreaked havoc on his gastrointestinal system in the days leading up to the race, and logically, he should not have even started. He continued to have problems and had very intense stomach pains. At mile 30, the medical vehicle approached and recommended he be driven ahead to the next time station that had medical care. (A runner is allowed to seek out medical attention and leave the course to do so, but prior to leaving, they pound a wooden stake with their number into the ground so they can be brought back to the exact same point.) He was in incredible pain and went to the medical area. He lost 2 hours of time but felt a little better, although things got worse again. Someone recommended that he drink some Coke, and he strangely felt a lot better after that. To make a long story short, he finished. The entire time I was reading his report, I couldn’t figure out how he did what he did. Of course it can easily be argued that he should not have even started the race, but to realize that he had to will himself forward under extreme pain ever step for over 38 hours is amazing. His story reaffirmed that the human mind is powerful and that we’re capable of way more than we think they are. It also serves to inspire me the next time I debate not running because I don’t feel quite right. Again, I don’t necessarily advocate his decision to do what he did, but I have the utmost respect for what he did.

Badwater changed me. I’ve been feeling increasingly restless over the past year or so, and the things I experienced and witnessed there have only fueled that. Going back to work on Thursday made me feel like I wasn’t where I belong. There is so much more to life than the monotony of doing the same things every day ad nauseum. While at Badwater, I saw people pushing themselves to the breaking point and then continuing through sheer determination in pursuit of accomplishing their goal of finishing the race. There was something incredibly beautiful seeing people stripped of all of the normal comforts of daily life and truly living way beyond their comfort zones doing things logic says are not possible. I was in complete awe of the feats I saw performed, and while not everyone may want to run 135 miles, I can’t help but think that there is way more out there to experience than the nice, safe cookie-cutter life so many people, including me, have become accustomed to. While I’d heard the quote before, it never had at much meaning before; now I can really relate to it: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” (Neale Donald Walsch)

Random little fact I wasn’t sure where to put elsewhere in the report: I paced a total of 43.5 miles of the course, in segments ranging from 1.2 to 5.4 miles. Ian told me not to do more than 25 or 30. I texted him afterward and told him “sorry.” 😉

Katrina

37 Lessons Learned from Crewing and Pacing at Badwater 135 (July 2012)

*Originally posted on Runners World forum in July 2012, before I had a blog. Full (LONG) crewing/pacing report has been re-posted in the previous post.*

It’s taken longer than I’d planned to compile this list of lessons learned, but I did it.  Keep in mind these lessons are specific to crewing at Badwater, but some of them are still relevant to crewing at other ultras (or maybe even preparing to run ultras):

1.  Learn to enjoy the little things and focus on them.  Yes, you may be in pain, but the sand dunes, mountains, and especially stars are still beautiful.

2.  Think about the race in segments; it may be very hard to imagine the race as a whole.  I remember standing near the start line and realizing my mind was incapable of grasping the fact I’d be doing the same thing for the rest of that day (another 16 hours), the ENTIRE next day, and potentially a little bit of the ay after that.  Break it up into whatever segments you can comprehend.

3.  Know your runner’s history, not just the races they’ve run and their finishing times but any particular issues they had or things that went really well.  Every race is different, but there is no need to reinvent the wheel and try to learn everything from scratch; it helps to at least have a starting point.

4.  Keep a log to track what’s going on.  Each time we stopped (every mile or so), we’d write down the time, elapsed distance, calories taken in, if there was an electrolyte cap given, how the runner was feeling, and any other things that took place (replaced water bottle, new hat filled with ice, leg massage, etc.).  The most important element of this for us was the last time she took an electrolyte cap, which she was taking every hour the first day and slightly less often the second day since she was drinking more electrolytes then.  Time was going by quicker than it seemed, so I was constantly telling her to take another cap in spite of the fact I felt like I’d just given her one and she thought she’d just taken one.  Without the log, the caps would have been given significantly less frequently.  Keeping the log could also come in handy in the event the runner’s condition starts to degrade so the recent actions can be reviewed and a logical “recovery” plan can be devised; if you don’t know where things could have gone wrong, you’ll have no idea how to fix it.

5.  Be prepared to put a positive spin on negativity from the runner.  For example, if the runner seems discouraged after being passed by someone, you could potentially point out that the person who did the passing is someone who started in the earlier wave, meaning they’d technically been running longer and therefore moving at a slower race.  Or you could point out the number of people still behind your runner.

6.  Lie to your runner.  This seems terribly deceptive, but it can be in your runner’s best interest.  For example, don’t bring up any crew issues; the runner has their own worries-everything with the rest of the crew is always fine.  Don’t point out vehicle problems; deal with them, but don’t let on to the runner.  At the crewing meeting prior to the race, one of the guys pointed out that he crewed one year during which the only vehicle had a slow tire leak the entire time; 7 cans of Fix-A-Flat were used, but the runner never knew.  However, lying to the runner must not go overboard, and it must not involve things the runner is already aware of as you don’t want the runner to become distrustful.  It is important to keep in mind the intent of the lying-to protect the runner from things they can’t control anyway; it is always done for the benefit of the runner.

7.  Avoid taking medications.  I can’t cite the sources, but there have been some recent studies showing the negative impacts of even OTC pain meds.  I don’t think the issue is necessarily taking the meds one time but instead taking them at the onset of some kind of pain and then again every few hours; over the course of 30, 40, or more hours, that’s a lot of drugs (way over the daily maximum dosage) in a body that’s already over-stressed and particularly bad for the liver.

8.  If the runner must take a nap, it should be no more than 45 minutes (and some people say 25),  After approximately this period of time, the body can slip into REM, which will make the person more groggy and miserable than when they began the nap.

9.  Bring foods that are familiar to the runner, and particularly foods that have worked well in previous long-distance races.

10.  Bring a variety of foods and flavors of those foods because different things may appeal to the runner at different times.  They could develop food aversions.  At one point, my runner developed a hatred for a certain flavor of Powerade; luckily we had a variety, but this could have been problematic otherwise.  It also doesn’t hurt to bring some foods that the runner typically doesn’t eat during long runs, in the event that all else fails; this is sort of counterintuitive, but sometimes I think something new helps.

11.  Have a plan for how things should go, but stay flexible.  Don’t develop such a rigid plan that the smallest issue will derail the entire thing.  However, having no plan at all isn’t any better.

12.  Do your best to anticipate what’s going to happen (while keeping an open mind since that thing might not happen in the way you expect, or at all).  For example, if the runner is requesting a new iced hat every second stop, it’d be good to have one ready every second stop.  Or if the runner walks inclines and typically eats only when walking, be prepared to see if they’re hungry and what they want to eat when you see there is a long hill come up.

13.  Keep track of any issues the runner mentions, even in passing.  Runners may try to hide issues either to not inconvenience their crew or because they think they can work through them.  In a shorter race, a hotspot may be tolerated for the rest of the distance (even if it develops into a blister), but when there are still over 24 hours ahead, it must be dealt with at the soonest opportunity.  Likewise, if the runner is beginning to feel overheated and get a headache, request that they sit down for a couple minutes at the next vehicle stop; this short rest is an investment for their well-being for the rest of the race.

14.  Don’t let the runner dwell on the negative.  Even if the runner is fatigued or in pain (assuming the crew can’t do anything further to manage it, like providing a massage), acknowledge what they’re saying, particularly to note any increases in severity, but try to distract the runner by talking about non-running topics, telling jokes, singing, or anything else.

15.  Know the strengths and weaknesses of the runner but also the other crewmembers.  This may not always known in advance, but it helps crewmembers find their niches on the team and it allows the crew to know which area may be particularly difficult or less challenging for the runner.  If the runner has a habit of reaching very low points when the sun goes down, for example, have ideas of how to deal with this in the future, or at least be aware that this behavior is normal and temporary.

16.  Always be as kind as possible to everyone around you.  However, know that everyone is sleep-deprived and likely very stressed out, so don’t take harsh words personally.  Remember your role, do the best you can, and don’t dwell on anything negative that’s been done or said that has no bearing on the rest of the race.  This is especially important to make newer crewmembers aware of so they don’t feel unnecessarily attacked by someone who has no idea what they’re even saying or how their words are coming across.

17.  Don’t ignore your personal needs as a crewmember.  It may seem selfish to take the time to take a nap, not pace for a segment, eat food that belongs to the runner (assuming there is plenty), etc., but it is really in the best interest of the runner.  If you don’t take care of yourself, you could become worthless to the runner later.  For example, if you can’t find the time to deal with a blister you feel developing and you become unable to run later on, this is bad for you and is not in the best interest of the runner.

18.  Keep situational awareness of the distance that has been covered, the time it has taken to do that, and what is ahead on the course.  The runner will ask these types of questions and you should be able to give them a decent response.

19.  Know the runner’s goals for the race and have an idea of when they expect to get to certain landmarks along the course.  Early on, the emphasis is typically on ensuring the runner is not going too quickly.  However, this is a double-edged sword as you don’t want the runner to go out too quickly and burn themselves out, but depending on the course, temperatures, etc., it may be logical to try to bank some miles earlier.  Discuss these things with your runner so you know what they intend to do.  Also, be aware of the overall course cutoff and any cutoffs along the way.  It doesn’t need to be reassessed constantly, but the crew should have an idea of where the runner is at a given distance compared to their goals and any course cutoffs.

20.  Know what is expected of you in advance so you can train and plan accordingly.  Just because you are a crewmember, that doesn’t mean you won’t be covering parts of the course on foot, and depending on what your runner wants, it could be longer segments than you think.  This shows how important open communication with the runner is in advance.  Or, for example, a crewmember unfamiliar with such races may not realize there are almost no bathrooms along the course; this is good to tell them in advance.

21.  Bring different styles of clothing.  This applies to the crew but especially to the runner.  It’s possible that a blister or chafing may start but can be easily mitigated by putting on a different shoe, sports bra, etc., that doesn’t rub in the same spot.  However, if you just bring duplicate sets of the same style of clothing, it may be more difficult to prevent issues once they’ve started.

22.  Share info about the runner’s condition and any of their intentions with the rest of the crew.  While it may seem like a good idea to safeguard that information, it typically isn’t.  For example, if a runner mentions a chafing issue to you and then the same chafing issue to another crewmember an hour later, it’d be easy for both crewmembers to think it’s a temporary thing, not something that’s persisting and in need of addressing.  Or, if the runner notes that they’ll want a gel in an hour, tell other people because you might forget.

23.  Reapply sunscreen.  I don’t know of any sunscreen that lasts for over a day, particularly in extreme conditions with lots of sweating.

24.  Spray the runner with water, if they want that, however, be careful when you spray their legs because the water can very easily get into their shoes.  Wet shoes tends to equate to messed up feet, which can very easily result in race-jeopardizing problems.  If feet get wet, change socks and shoes as soon as feasible.

25.  Have a way of remembering to take any necessary daily medications.  This is relevant for the runner and the crew.  In a race that spans over 24 hours, the perception of time is skewed and therefore medications that are taken every morning are easy to forget since the concept of morning typically follows sleep, which may or may not have occurred.  My runner, who was very alert the entire time, told me at one point to reminder her husband to take his meds.  That reminded me I also had neglected to take my daily “med”; I don’t say what “daily med” I take, but I will say we joked that if I had a kid 9 months later that its initials would be BW.

26.  Clearly organize supplies in the car in a way that everyone understands.  Ensure that things that will be used more frequently or that are more important are easier to access.  And don’t be afraid to modify the organization as times goes on if a more logical way becomes apparent.

27.  Ensure the runner begins eating earlier in the race than they become super hungry.  It is possible that a runner’s body will, for whatever reason, reject food intake later on, so it helps if at least a few calories were bale to be banked earlier on.  Of course the runner is in some state of depletion nearly the entire race as they’re burning more calories than their bodies are processing, but there’s no reason to aggravate this situation.

28.  Determine in advance what situations would warrant dropping from the race by discussing the topic with the runner.  Justifiable reasons tend to only be linked to physical problems as it is understood that mental commitment may wane at times.  However, if the runner has a recurring injury that may flare up, determine if that is good grounds for quitting (or perhaps only if it occurs before a certain point).  It is important to hold the runner accountable to what they said prior to being put into the extreme conditions of the race.  At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that there are some instances in which quitting is in the best long-term interest of the runner; finishing at any cost can be foolish.  But don’t let a runner off the hook easily if they make excuses for why they don’t want to continue.

29.  Try to prevent the runner from throwing up.  There are some instances in which this is the best solution to expel whatever is causing issues, but if the runner is only experiencing slight nausea, try to mitigate this as early as possible.  When the runner pukes, you now have zero idea of what is still in their body and what’s not there anymore.  This can turn into a huge guessing game of figuring out how to replenish their body when you don’t know what’s missing, let alone the time schedule on which that should be done.

30.  Phrase recommendations in such a way that the runner thinks it’s their idea.  This is especially important when your runner is stubborn and doesn’t like to be told what to do.  Build the stage for them to choose what you want to tell them to do.

31.  Know your runner’s preferences for talking and silence, which may change over time.  You don’t want your good intentions to make your runner mad.

32.  Know all of the official rules for the race,  Not reading them in advance is no excuse for not following them.  After your runner has worked so hard to get to the race, you don’t want your own ignorance to be the reason the runner is disqualified.  We actually sat in the hotel room the night before the race and read through every rule out loud and discussed it.  We also took the list of rules with us for reference.

33.  Have separate containers of ice for consumption and non-consumption.  This may not be relevant to many other races, but at Badwater, ice is not just something you put in your drinks.  However, it is paramount to not be soaking feet or putting dirty hands into the same ice/water people are going to be consuming.  And never touch the for-consumption ice with bare hands, as despite your best intentions, your hands are not clean and could make everyone sick.

34.  Ensure everyone knows how to operate all of the vehicles.  Just because you’re designated as a pacer doesn’t mean you’ll never drive one of the vehicles.  For example, pulling out of the start area is not the time to discover that you don’t know how to reset the trip meter, nor is the middle of the night when you should realize you don’t know how to turn on the headlights.  Also, even if your personal vehicle doesn’t lock automatically when you shut the door, the vehicle you rented may behave differently.  There are quite a few stories of people locking themselves out of their crew vehicles with the engine running.

35.  Don’t give your runner options when it doesn’t really matter.  It may seem helpful to have them choose between 25 flavors of gel, but in many instances, they don’t care and the decision is overwhelming, plus it wastes time unnecessarily.  Sometimes choices are good, but keep them limited to a max of 2 or 3.  Most of the time, if your runner doesn’t want something you offer to them, they’ll tell you; over time, you’ll develop an idea for what your runner does and doesn’t prefer.

36.  Consider the climate of the entire race and plan accordingly.  All of us fell into the trap of not equating Badwater with anything “cold.”  At night in Death Valley when the temps dropped to the 80s or so, it felt cold.  Also, the Mount Whitney Portal at midnight was in the 40s.  In normal conditions, this would seem cold.  However, after a high temp of 118 during the day and being more susceptible to cold due to being tired and moving slower, it seemed ridiculously cold.

37.  Remember you are there by choice, whether you are the runner or a crewmember.  Things will get tough and you may go through phases of varying lengths where you wonder how you ended up there, but the fact remains that you are there, because of a decision you made, and you need to make the best of it.  No one made you sign up or help out.  By being there, you’re pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, which is good.  You will learn a lot about others and yourself.  Enjoy the moment.

Katrina