Sunday 17 July 2011

Crewing for Mike Wardian at Badwater 135

Right next to the start line below sea level
Mike plus crew checking out the conditions the day before the race

Mike's ice bath at 42 miles

The entrance to Death Valley

What sort of idiots would run here before the race...or during?
Night running
Dawn sprints
Half way up the final climb and looking back with Mt Whitney behind

I’d heard that Mike was running Badwater earlier in the year and my first thought was ‘rather him than me.’ I’ve run two 100-milers so far this year and am not feeling the need to extend the distance just yet. I've never had any inclination to run this monster of a race, not because it's too hard, just that it doesn't look like 135 miles of pure heat would be fun. 

Friends have run this before plus it’s a race with a big reputation for being brutal due to numerous factors – it’s 135 miles, it starts below sea level but finishes around 9,000ft plus it’s in Death Valley with temperatures reaching 130F (50C) in the shade, of which there’s almost none. Blogs and personal accounts of this race include horror stories of very experienced runners being reduced to crawling while unpleasant things happen in their stomachs, causing extreme issues which I don’t need to go into. This is why it calls itself ‘the world’s toughest footrace’.

And until this year it had a cut-off time of 60 hours (now it’s been reduced to 48). 60 hours of non-stop racing in the most debilitating conditions imaginable while feeling like hell. Sounds fun to you?

Even though it didn’t sound like it would be enjoyable for the runners, it’s clearly an epic challenge and I asked Mike if he’d like an extra pacer to add to his crew so I could see first-hand. Luckily he took me up on the offer and I joined a group of his friends (Vince, Andy, Rick, Jay and Mike’s brother, Matt) who he’d known for years although only Jay had serious ultra experience, having run Badwater and crewed for it numerous times. He was the man we all looked to for advice and it was invaluable to have his logistical knowledge.

I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for since I’ve run many ultras, some with pacers, but Badwater involves so much more input from the crews and pacers. Usually pacers can’t ‘mule’ for their runners, which means carrying supplies and kit for the runner. Only the crew can do this and usually only at designated aid stations. But at Badwater, the crew drives along the route and stops every mile or so to offer food and drink refills while a pacer runs behind (not in front or side-by-side according to the rules) carrying water etc. No pacers are allowed for the first 17 miles from the start at Badwater but then the pacers can carry iced water in a spray and continuously spray their runner. That’s a lot of effort given the harsh conditions.

Anyway, the pre-race days went well with everyone getting to know each other and Mike giving off a relaxed vibe, even though he said he was nervous. Race day came along and Mike was in the third wave of runners at 10am, reserved for those expected to run the fastest times. This meant he’d spend much of the race catching people who had either a two or four hour head start.

Mike started conservatively and was a few minutes behind the leaders after two miles. This was the plan and we were glad to see he didn’t feel the need to zoom off at the start and was saving his energy. Most runners wore mainly white to reflect the heat, except last year’s winner, Zach Gingerich, who had a blue top with long, baggy orange shorts and led from the start. Mike had plenty of lycra to reduce chaffing, bandanas to give him an ‘ice turban’ plus more ice on his neck and around his chest. Everything we could do to keep him cool would help, even with the lower temperatures than usual (‘merely’ 115F).

The crew was kept busy switching his small water bottles using the multiple ice coolers and enough water in the cars to fill a swimming pool. We had a huge selection of food for both Mike and ourselves and tried to offer it as and when he requested. This became easier after Furnace Creek at 17 miles since we could then pace him and carry a walkie-talkie to relay instructions through to the main van in advance of him arriving.

I hadn’t expected to be running through Death Valley with a radio in one hand, a spray filled with iced water in another and gels, bandanas or whatever else he wanted in pockets or balanced in our hands. For some reason I thought it’d be fairly easy to pace and crew this race, but it was great from my perspective that we were all more involved. It felt more like we were in the race. Except, any time we got tired we could just sit in the air-con of the van and relax. None of us ever ran more than about 3-4 miles at a time with him and had plenty of time to recover.

The first 42 miles are basically flat to Stovepipe Wells, but were hot and hard enough to cause multiple finisher and winner, Pam Reed, to have to drop out. Mike looked strong at this point and we had an ice bath ready for him to help cool him down. Given that conditions weren’t quite as bad as they could be, we hoped he wouldn’t need too many of these but the use of the radios meant we could always have one ready for him if he needed it.

After Stovepipe Wells, which is really only a hotel, store and gas station, Mike had the first of the three serious climbs. In addition, this was the hottest part of the day and a headwind of frazzling air increased the difficulty by drying out his eyes, nose and mouth. A good way to describe this section is a 5,000ft climb over 18 miles in dry sauna conditions with a hairdryer blowing in your face. Luckily for the pacers, we had Mike to block the hot wind so we could focus on spraying water on his upper body. During this section, Mike and I also popped out Spiderman masks for a photo (which I'm trying to get hold of now), in reference to us both breaking the Guinness World Record for Fastest Superhero in a Marathon (me first then Mike smashed it the following weekend).

It got marginally cooler as we climbed and it was starting to get dark by the top. Mike was still talking and in great spirits. So much so that we let him jog the downhill on his own since he was moving reasonably fast and we wanted to save our own energy to keep as fresh as possible when the sleep deprivation set in. It’s extremely important for the crew to look after themselves as well as the runner since nobody wants to be a drag on the person who is actually in the event. We all wanted to be able to jump to help every time he needed it.

I had my first break as nightfall hit. Mike didn’t get any of these, but I fitted in a meal at Panamint Springs which is the third desert outpost along the course, at 72 miles. Mike came through around fourth place and still looked good as the second long climb started in the dark.

It was now completely dark but with almost a full moon to light the road enough to see. Everyone, including Mike, had red flashing lights on front and back for safety, but while the moon stayed visible we didn’t need a headlamp.

This climb was slower although Mike did move into third place along the way. There was more walking as the miles started to take their toll, even with the temperatures hitting as low as the 60s. From this point it was all about survival and maintaining the body through fuelling and electrolytes. This meant we constantly reminded Mike to eat, even though he had no appetite.

Mike was passed by the eventual winner, Oswaldo Lopez, along this climb. Oswaldo had looked pretty exhausted 30 miles earlier but was now fresh and moving at a great pace. We wished him well then continued the hard slog uphill. Soon after Mike felt so bad he had to walk even in the mild heat and on the flat. These are the times that really test the runners and make the difference between losing a lot of time and getting a second wind. Mike is mentally as tough as can be but couldn’t stomach food so it was difficult to turn him around and get him back to feeling more comfortable. After more walking he was able to eat a little and soon came back to us and ran again.

The hour before dawn is meant to be one of the hardest in any ultra due to the lack of sleep and time on the feet to this point. But at the first hint of light Mike perked right up. He started running fast enough to tire the other guys pacing him and I stepped in to sit behind him, offering anything he needed. Amusingly, he was listening to music and started accelerating even more as the songs got into his blood. He was in a zone and we’d covered over 100 miles, but still had plenty left so it was too early for any kind of sprint finish. But Mike was in third and wanted to go for the win so he went with it, even throwing in surges which stretched out my legs more than I wanted to at this point.

I then switched out, told the other guys to not bother pacing until he slowed (mainly because he was going so fast it’d just tire us out too much) and took a break while the others agreed to stop every half mile for him, given the lack of a pacer mule. Instead, I went ahead to see where first and second were and to time the gap to Mike.

By the time Mike got to me he was just over an hour off the lead and had around 20 miles left, but he’d slowed back down to a jog. It would all come down to the last 13 miles after Lone Pine, which is basically all uphill for a winding route up to the base of Mt Whitney and the finish line. Anything can happen in ultras this long and runners can lose hours if they have serious problems. A mile can take an hour or even more and some people have to just stop and rest for long periods to sort out the damage they’ve done to themselves.

It was bright and sunny again but not too hot, especially compared to the previous day. Sub 24 hours looked possible at a stretch, but only if Mike could feel good the whole way up. We spurred him on to catch second place, who was only a couple of miles ahead. Unfortunately Mike then had his worst patch of the race and could barely walk at a crawling pace. He also couldn’t keep any food in him, which made it hard to bring him back. We were forced to stop and let him sit down, sipping water gradually.

This was the toughest part of the race for all of us. Mike was in his own personal hell while we could only sit there and wait. There was nothing we could do since even the stomach medicine or ginger ale was too much for him. If he didn’t get better soon, we’d have to suggest a lie down in the hotel after leaving a stake by the road to show where he was when he went off course (another nuance of the race).

Mike forced himself up although he wasn’t much better and decided to push through the last four miles of switchbacks. Catching second had left our radar but keeping third was now a serious task and we constantly looked over our shoulders. Seeing Mike keep going, surviving on just iced water, was inspiring and really showed the spirit of this race. I told him that if it had been easy it wouldn’t mean as much to finish. So he kept walking and did the last 3.6 miles in just over an hour, which is generally considered to be a good pace. Not many have broken an hour for the final section of climb and nobody runs it…until they see the finish line, anyway.

As he approached the last corner, all the crew joined him to jog across the finish line. This reflects that the crew has a large part to play to get their runner through it all and is a nice touch. An hour previously I wasn’t certain Mike would finish without going to the hotel first but he looked surprisingly sprightly. I think that when he accepted he wouldn’t feel any better, he just dug in to grind out those last miles without expecting to feel fine again. 26 hours 22 minutes for third place.

I was honored to be part of Mike’s race and the whole crew loved helping him achieve a great finish. It wasn’t the win he’d wanted but it also wasn’t a DNF (did not finish). I’ve never seen anyone go through such highs and lows in an ultra, but I know it is standard for this race. It was incredible to watch first-hand and harder, yet more fun, to be crewing and pacing than I’d imagined. My opinion of the race has changed slightly and I'd love to return to crew/pace, but I'd still rather run on trails and have more fun than run this whole thing myself. Plus it's not cheap - budget for around $10,000 to cover entry, travel, car hire etc for the runner plus the crew. Never say never, but I'll stick to Western States for my long run at this time of year for now...or maybe Hardrock if I can get an entry.

Full results on the race website here. And a Washington Post article on Mike and two other runners is here (it includes the only copy of the photo of the two Spidermen).