Badwater 2010 by Mark Steven Woolley. Runner Nº 82.
In Badwater they give you a wooden stake with your race number written on it, sharply pointed at one end. The purpose of this stake, according to the organisers is to mark the point at which you fall and should you need to abandon the course temporarily and seek medical attention. When you have recovered, you return to your stake and continue the race from here. However, according to the athletes, the true purpose of the stake is to drive it through your heart; should you die in the desert, so that your soul becomes free to escape the hell of Death Valley.
The Badwater ultra marathon of 135 miles (217 Km.) in a single stage is considered as the world’s toughest footrace. The organizers of the race promote it as such and nobody dares to disagree with them. It starts at the lowest point of the western hemisphere at 85 meters below sea level, in a wild and remote place called Badwater in Death Valley, California; and finishes at the Mount Witney portals where the path to the summit starts, the highest point in the southern Unites States. The difficulty of the race resides in the extreme temperatures that are usually recorded here and only in the Libyan Sahara have higher temperatures ever been recorded. Death Valley is surrounded by tall mountains and these act like giant walls that never let the hot air rising from the desert floor escape. Instead the hot air simple circulates as part of giant convection currents that get hotter and hotter until the temperature reaches 55ºC. The valley floor, in particular the road surface often reaches 90ºC and the micro climate just above the road surface is somewhere between these two temperatures. Sometimes unsuspecting birds fall randomly from the sky like stones, dead before they hit the ground, caught unawares by one of the currents of brutally hot air that are released from the desert floor. The poor birds dry out so quickly that they die in full flight. It’s not exactly a place that favours life, and even less still; a foot race.
It’s also a very selective race and in order to take part you have to be “invited” by the organisers. As a bare minimum you have to have at least 2 races of 100 miles (160 Kms) finished but this is nowhere near sufficient, since there are many, many ultra runners that want to take part in this prestigious event and the competition to secure a place means that you have to have a very comprehensive ultra running C.V. Fortunately for me, last year I finished the Spartathlon in Greece, of some 246 kms, and this result at last gave me the credentials to present my application and be selected. Before formalizing the selection however, the organisers make you sign a document:
I will be sufficiently trained, prepared, and medically fit to compete in the event. I understand that the extreme conditions in this race, including but not limited to temperatures in excess of 130F, wind, dust, high altitude, and radiant surface temperatures in excess of 180F, make the risk of dehydration, altitude sickness, significant skin damage, blistering, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, traffic accident, renal shutdown, brain damage, and death are possible.
And I signed it without even thinking for a micro second.
But this race isn’t just about the runner. In order to cross Death Valley you have to have a support team, or a crew as the Americans would say. In any other race the crew makes the difference between a more or less successful race, but here in Death Valley, your very life depends totally on them; without them you die.
I had the enormous luck of meeting two completely mad Mexicans at the Spartathlon. Both are elite ultra runners and both are amazing human beings that are now amongst my most treasured friends. Vicente Vertiz is an artist, he is the Mexican record holder for the 100 kms and he is nothing less than a whirlwind of intense happy and positive energy, unstoppable and without end. He is a free spirit that finds his expression through his paintings and his ultra running and it is clear that he lives his life according to his own rules. Luis Guerrero is the Managing Director of a sports shop, he wins the vast majority of the races that he takes part in and has had an exceptional athletic career, highlighting his second place in the American Grand Slam of 100 milers in 2002. Luis is very disciplined, organized and very focused on the task in hand without losing his humanity or his sense of humour. When we were all sharing some beers after the Spartathlon I mentioned that I would like to run the Badwater and I didn’t even get to finish the sentence before both of them, Luis and Vicente, said that if I was selected, they would form part of the support team.
Together with Vicente and Luis, Laura my 15 year old daughter joined the team. Laura is sweet and amicable and in spite of only being 15 is very mature, responsible, focused and with an adolescent energy that allows her to overcome any obstacle that gets in her way. What’s more; she said to me that if I was going to the United States then she was going too and that was that! I am a tremendously fortunate and proud father to have such a daughter, but not even I could imagine what she was going to be subjected to in Death Valley – It simply isn’t normal to do these things.
The 4th member of the team was Francisco Garcia, Mexican by origin but now living in Los Angeles and working for the postal service. I got to know him through the Badwater forum for support teams. We needed a 4th person for extra safety and I got in touch with Fran via e-mail. He is a wonderful person, always smiling, always willing and with an unending supply of energy and a smile that never disappears. He is a marathon runner, but after Badwater I suspect that he will soon be running ultras, I could see it in his eyes, that sparkle of madness that only those that already possess it can recognise.
As I have already said, I am incredible fortunate to know and have such competent people as a crew, and with the Mexican sense of humour the team was baptized as “Team Cabrón” (look up what it means!); when we arrived at Death Valley they painted the name all over the car next to my name and the race number. Badwater is very much a team event where the runner just supplies the legs, just one moving part of a well oiled machine known as a team. If the runner fails, the team fails and vice versa.
The Badwater Ultra marathon has 3 starts. The first wave leaves at 6 in the morning, the next at 8 and finally the 3rd at 10. The slowest runners start at 6, the intermediate ones at 8 and the fastest at 10. The idea is that everybody is in the hottest part of the valley at the same time. I formed part of the 8 o’clock wave and together with Team Cabrón we found ourselves at the start line, surrounded by approximately 25 other teams planning to make the journey on the 12th July 2010. Here we were, 85 meters below sea level in the dried lake of the Badwater basin and ready for the battle to come and to meet our destiny with the devil in his very own personal playground. The road was still in the shade of the mountain, but already the temperature was 38ºC. We posed for many photos and the various TV cameras recorded the moment. In the USA this event is very important with a lot of media coverage. Ten seconds before 8 o’clock we all started the countdown from 10 and the race started, turning our backs on that magical place formed by the brilliant white crystals of salt.
In the depths of the valley, in Badwater between the vast yellow rocky sand flats and the multicoloured mountains, completely devoid of any vegetation it appears that absolutely nothing grows but unbelievably there is life here. In the salt water there are small molluscs adapted to the salty conditions and there are even some plants. They are not very abundant but they manage to scratch a living in this inhospitable place. There would appear to be areas that hold more moisture that others and here can be found a type of low growing shrub with small waxy leaves. There are several springs fed by underground water and here can be found several oases that have been converted into tourist centres. And although it seems improbable, there is an endless list of small animals that inhabit the desert that are highly adapted to the dry conditions, making water from body fat in the blisteringly hot summer, as well as larger animals such as the wild cats that inhabit the mountains. The animals that had us most worried though were the scorpions and the rattle snakes that with just one bite would put an end to your race.
Running through Death Valley is a rather intense experience. The desert sings with the voice of a mermaid and ever since the valley was first discovered it has attracted explorers and pioneers, seduced by its soft, sweet voice and its incredible beauty only for them to be cruelly betrayed and have their lives claimed for being so bold. Death Valley is named as such because many have lost their lives here. And this Badwater runner, also seduced by the desert mermaid’s voice started his journey through Death Valley full of wonder and expectations of having the most important and successful race of his athletic career, and when we all started running, the idea of anything bad was very, very far from any thought that meandered through my mind.
Running under these conditions means that the speed is not that fast and it allows you to chat with the other runners. It’s an unusual thing in athletics but the other runners are not rivals, and at least amongst the group I was running in the only rival out there was the actual desert. The camaraderie and the generally wonderful atmosphere amongst the runners and crew made me remember why we are human beings. I found myself speaking to absolutely everyone at the beginning of the race but I particularly remember an American called Chris who has finished this race some 8 times all under 48 hours, which meant that he had won 8 of the highly prized buckles. Chris was very friendly and didn’t stop giving me advice on how to manage the race; all spoken with his strong American accent in the way that only the “Yankees” speak. Loved it.
Shortly afterwards I spent a long time running alongside James Adams from the U.K. 3 weeks before Badwater, James together with Tim Welch and myself had spent 4 days in the south of Spain training together. It was ironic because at the time (in Spain) we thought we were doing some excellent heat training but now in Death Valley we both realized that in fact it was wholly inappropriate. The first time you step into 50ºC it smacks you in the face and then kicks you hard from inside your lungs. This is followed rapidly by your eyes stinging and your nose and mouth drying out. James has a wonderful attitude to life that I haven’t seen in many people and he has chosen ultra running in which to express himself. James isn’t interested in heroic feats, medals or fame or anything in fact that he considers superfluous and superficial. I had got to know him last year at the Spartathlon and running Badwater was his dream. It was why he was an ultra runner and everything he had done in the last years was to get here and undertake this journey through Death Valley. I shared this dream with James and we were now living it together.
But running in these difficult conditions has its complications and that means that approximately every 2 kms the crew has to soak you in cold water and attend to your needs. There was no shade and the temperatures had rapidly reached 44ºC and we hadn’t yet reached 10 o’clock in the morning. Laura, my daughter was constantly spraying me down with iced water whilst Vicente and Fran supplied me with bottles of ice cold water with added salt (Elete water). Fran worked hard in preparing everything and Vicente would constantly ask me what I needed. After some 2 hours running, the race settled down and from then on only had contact with the people that were running more or less the same speed as me, both runners and crew, and every crew seemed to be soaking every runner. There seemed to be a non written agreement that because everyone was in this together that everyone was here to help. The atmosphere was great but I was conscious that I was drinking an incredible amount of liquid: some two and a half litres an hour.
The first 80 or so kms of the race developed well, but the heat stretched everyone to their limits. From about 11 o’clock onwards it was at least 50ºC. We passed Furnace Creek in about 3 hours and on the way to Stovepipe Wells I met up with Tim Welch, whom I had trained with previously in Spain. Tim has a great sense of humour but what was most amazing was the journey Tim had already made to get here. He had lost 20 kilos in the last 7 months and although he wasn’t the fastest in the whole wide world he had one of the strongest attitudes I have ever come across. He has an incredible ability to just keep going, against all odds, against absolutely anything. I nicknamed him Tim the Tractor. The BBC was obsessed with him and that he was trying to raise money for diabetes research because his daughter of 7 years suffers from this illness. I am sure that when his daughter grows up and realizes what her father has done, she will be incredibly proud indeed.
Vicente also had a dream of running in Death Valley and joined me on the road as a pacer. Not that I actually needed a pacer but that Vicente wanted to run. It was great company but it was short lived in that he had to stay fresh for later in the race. I didn’t know it then but this was a very wise move indeed.
In Stovepipe Wells we had a planned stop of about half an hour to cool down in the pool and sort out any minor foot problems. Just before leaving Luis weighed me and I was about 65 kilos. Perfect. But something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t quite say exactly what but my stomach had a strange sensation as if it was blocked and was holding the fluids back and not letting my body absorb them. I felt a bit bloated but otherwise I was fine. I didn’t take much notice of this and as my weight was actually spot on target I just set out and attacked the hill leading up to Town’s Pass. But with hindsight it is now clear that my digestive system had temporarily shut down. After some 10 hours processing 2 and a half litres per hour it had had enough. The stomach closed up and wouldn’t let the precious liquid pass into my body and so started the countdown to my very own date with the devil himself.
The road starts to climb almost instantly on leaving Stovepipe Wells although the gradient is hardly noticeable. This didn’t make any difference though as I was now forced to walk. It wasn’t that the hill was un runnable, it was just that any effort used in defying gravity, no matter how slight simply caused me to overheat. Slamming straight into every ones faces was one of Death Valley’s infamous convection currents. The wind blew at some 30 – 40 kms per hour but the speed of the wind wasn’t really the problem, it was the temperature which in the early evening, in the shade was still some 47ºC. The drying effect of the wind was devastating and the sensation was like being trapped inside a giant hair dryer. I was walking slower and slower and started to feel that this was not working out. I arrived at the support car and asked for the seat and sat down. James Elson from the UK passed and I wished him the all the best: he was to face his own demons later on but mine were just around the corner.
I got out of the seat and started walking once again in the giant hairdryer but this time I had difficulty maintaining my balance. The crew sped off into the distance and went ahead the normal 2 kilometres to wait for me and I thought “Oh shit, that was a bad move leaving the crew”. I felt disorientated, light headed and started to weave from side to side. Before I actually fainted I decided to sit down, and then before actually falling down I decided to lie down. My head span like I was inside a tumble dryer and then without warning, without any control whatsoever I empted the contents of my stomach all over the desert floor. I had truly been kicked in the teeth by the desert and now I was out of it. In no time at all there were people looking after me, it was Dave Corfman’s crew; Kyle Fahrenkamp, Gail Lance, Dan Corfman (Dave's twin brother) and Phil Rosenstein. They quickly hailed the passing medics (Jeff and Kim) and they came to my aid. My overwhelming sensation though was one of embarrassment, how could I possibly be on the floor, in this pathetic state, vomiting and doing it all in front of these complete strangers? I apologized hoping that at least I could be well mannered about it. The medics stayed with me whilst the others looked for my crew. They said it took about 20 minutes for them to locate them and for them to arrive but it seemed that they arrived in just a few seconds. I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of the time in between. Did I really pass out? The medics left instructions with the crew that I was to rest and rehydrate and that if the problems persisted I was to be taken straight to one of the field hospitals that had been set up. I lay down in the car and tried to drink. In about half an hour I got up and tried again.
Vicente was still very worried and decided to accompany me on the road since I couldn’t even walk straight. The support car went ahead just one kilometre this time and waited for us. It was about 12 at night and the thermometer still read 47ºC. The temperature hadn’t dropped at all! I staggered as though in a drunken stupor and progressed very, very slowly. When we got to the car I sat down and as the red life giving liquid that circulated in my veins grew thicker and thicker I fell uncontrollably to the floor again. I vomited profusely and then dry wretched for some time lying there on the unforgiving desert floor, in a puddle of my own vomit completely incapable of moving. I was completely out of the game. It was all over. I looked up at Luis and for an instant he didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. His eyes said it all “You’re fucked kid”. Luis took out the stake and for a moment I imagined him driving it through my heart, then he gave it a short sharp blow and drove it firmly into the sand to the side of where I was lying. “We’re going to hospital” he said. “You’re not well”. Internally I was angry at the acute injustice of all this and the brutality of the desert but I simply didn’t even have the energy to complain.
Once in the field hospital in Stovepipe Wells I got checked and weighed by a friendly doctor called Dave. All seemed to be in order except for the loss of 11 pounds in body weight (about 5 kgs) and the associated evident symptoms of severe dehydration of not being able to stand, constantly feeling dizzy and not being able to focus my eyes. I had to hydrate and recover body weight and until I had recovered at least 3 kgs I wasn’t to be allowed to continue (not that I could anyway). Luis started to give me small sips of an isotonic drink making me drink it like a father with a small child. In spite of my protests that I was going to be sick again, the precious liquid, full of salts stayed inside me and my body started the process of absorbing it. Little by little, very little by little I started to recover the lost weight and started to feel better. I actually started to think that this race wasn’t lost after all and that it certainly wasn’t over yet. All I had to do was to convince Luis that I had recovered.
After some 3 hours of forced rehydration Jack Denness arrived, a humble man but an absolute living legend at 75 years old. This was his 12th Badwater and he already held the record of the oldest person to make the crossing at 70 years old. Jack was feeling ill too and he laid down in one of the other beds. Another half hour passed and I finally convinced Luis that we had to return to the stake and continue with the race. The time limit was getting too close for comfort and I didn’t want to time out. (Looking back, Luis made the difference here. Without his insistence that I should drink I don’t think the recovery would have actually happened.) I shook hands with Jack, and looking him straight in the eye, wished him all the luck in the world and told him that we would meet again at the race end. Absolutely no retreat, no surrender. Many times in ultra marathon running it’s not about running at all, not about how far you run, not about how fast you run, it’s all about how many times you can pick yourself off the floor and simply keep going.
Upon leaving the hospital I spoke to Laura. She was quite frightened and was having her own low point. She is only 15 years old and had just witnessed how the desert had unleashed its full fury and thrown her father to the ground in a clinical, brutal, pitiless act. She too had passed the day in 50ºC and this was taking its toll too, in spite of not having been running. I said that she must rest and sleep as much as possible in the car. In the morning we will re-evaluate the situation and above all not to be worried as she had 3 very competent people looking after her. But her fear wasn’t for herself, it was for me.
When we returned to the stake I started to walk aging, with Vicente, the magnificent Vicente who decided that he was to be my personal guardian angel on the road that night, always at my side watching and with Fran dedicated to preparing the food and drinks. Luis drove the vehicle and looked after Laura. We walked up the hill with the sole objective of finishing inside the time limit of 60 hours. We calculated that if we could just maintain a pace of 5 kms an hour we could enter before the time limit and finish. I started with such grand ideas, to run a much, much faster race but the desert had decided to teach me a lesson in humility and now all I thought about was the possibility of finishing. I just had to finish, yes, that was the new objective: to finish.
But as we climbed towards Town’s Pass, it became much cooler and I felt much better and my appetite even returned. I ate something and started to actually have a bit of energy and feel stronger. When we arrived at Town’s Pass at some 1500 M just before the dawn I took off the brake and started to run down hill, taking advantage of the inclination. Above all, Laura also said that she felt much better and had risen from her own low. Vicente climbed in the car again, satisfied that I had passed the worse and he let me run freely. And wow did I feel free! The fresh, early morning air gave me a new leash of life and combined with the food that I was now eating meant that I was running at a decent speed and I even started to reach and over take other runners. The running animal, the running animal that lives inside me, the product of my ancient, ancestral past was awakening from its deep sleep. The animal that abandoned me in the night when the desert threw me to the floor had at last returned. It wasn’t quite fully awake yet but I could feel its powerful and savage presence, it was there and although I didn’t know it at the time it was to run freely at my side for the remainder of the race.
Shortly I was running alongside Brendan Mason from Australia. Brendan told me that his next challenge was to swim across the English Channel between England and France and it was a joy to be in the company of other madmen. We also commented that we thought it in our best interests to get across the next valley before the sun rose high because on the other side, a hill just like Town’s pass was awaiting us. The 50ºC heat of yesterday was in the forefront of our minds and we really didn’t want to have to climb the hill in that heat. I said goodbye to Brendan as I was running a little more freely than he and ran until I arrived at the next control point of Panamint Springs. This point had a closing time of 30 hours and I had arrived in 24:22, some 5 and a half hours inside the limit. The crew insisted that I rest and that I sleep a little but I limited myself to eating some food and sorting out a couple of minor hot spots on my feet. But I couldn’t convince them that I was now just fine, and that I had climbed out of the black hole that I had fallen into on the previous night and they continued to be very worried about me. This isn’t at all strange, since seeing a person laid down on the hard floor of the desert in a puddle of their own vomit, twice, does lead to a certain preoccupation. But what they didn’t know, because I was the only person in the whole of the desert that knew was that the ancestral wild running animal was now by my side and was on the verge of being freed. I didn’t give them any more opportunity to argue the point and simply set out, marching up the hill to Father Crowley point. They had no choice but to follow.
But the intense heat of the previous day never arrived. Climbing the hill wasn’t as bad as I had imagined and I climbed with a happy ease. I didn’t run on purpose, just walked in spite of feeling the presence of the powerful animal at my side, begging to be let loose because I was worried about dehydrating again and I certainly didn’t want to fall into the same trap as yesterday. Sometimes you have to know how to control the animal, in spite of its seductive power. Near the summit I met up with Brendan again. He had passed me in Panamint Springs when my crew had obliged me to rest. He told me that he was going for a sub 48 hour finish and that he wanted one of the prestigious silver belt buckles. I told him that all I was thinking about was simply finishing and that last night I thought that it was all lost, that I would be very satisfied with just finishing. His pacer, Greg said that I should re-evaluate my goal but I didn’t have time to even think about it. The animal at my side had already made the decision for me and we were now going to run, and run hard!
And that’s just how it was, the unleashing of the animal in turn freed me from those artificial constrains that restrained my mind and I started to run fluidly and with an ease that is difficult to explain on the flats that lead to Darwin Pass. Every 2 kms I would see the crew with Fran, Vicente, Luis and Laura and even they appeared to have accepted that I had indeed recovered. Running in this way was pure delight and the temperatures oscillated between 35 and 40 ºC, a luxury. However, I didn’t lose my head and I controlled the speed purposefully so that I didn’t lose more liquid than I was capable of absorbing. I had just seen how I was incapable of maintaining a through put of two and a half litres per hour without imploding so I limited myself to a speed where I maintained hydration by just drinking one litre per hour. That is what I thought was prudent, and above all it seemed to work.
Upon arriving at the control point at Darwin Pass, at 90 miles (144 kms) I came across Chris again who I had conversed with at the start. We interchanged some words but my legs didn’t want to slow down and I carried on. Some kilometres later I found myself running with Joe Judd and his pacer Mandy Miller, two very friendly Americans (although Mandy is actually Scottish) who were running at a pace that seemed correct. We spoke about everything and nothing, simply enjoying the company of like minded free spirits but after a couple of hours the animal at my side started to sing. Lone Pine was just some 30 kms away and beyond that the 21 km hill that climbed to 2500 M and when the road ends was the finish line. The night was arriving and there was no sign of the giant hair dryer of the previous one and I said goodbye to Joe and Mandy and started to run as if it were the only thing my body knew how to do. The sensation of running freely without anything holding me back was simply gobsmacking in this wild and wonderful desert that I found myself and even my crew couldn’t believe what they were witnessing. How was it possible that this person who couldn’t even stand up the previous night was now running like a beast? If I tell the truth I don’t really understand it either but sometimes there is nothing to actually understand, just live the moment and let go with this wild primordial being that sings at your side and that doesn’t give explanations to anybody.
Now, instead of every 2 kms, the crew was stopping every 4 because they simply didn’t have time to get everything ready and rest. Fran was the only one who came out of the car, always working to the very last minute giving me fresh drinks and food, always with his unstoppable smile. He was my hero. At some point I crossed paths with Dan Mirinsik who confessed to me that his feet were completely shredded but that he was pushing hard for the buckle. I wished him well and carried on running.
I passed the village of Keeler in the blink of an eye and arrived at Lone Pine exactly 38 hours and 20 minutes after setting out, which gave me 21 hours and 40 minutes for the 21 kilometres up hill to the finish, or more concretely 9 hours and 40 minutes to achieve the sub 48 hour belt buckle. It was clearly within my reach.
Vicente wanted to do the last half marathon with me and we settled into a fast happy power walk up the hill together. The creature at my side, after having accompanied me the whole day decided that that was enough and left. I could have summoned it any time I needed to but its work was done and I let it go. I can only suppose it regressed to the depths of time but I know that it will be there the next time that I need it. There were parts of the hill that were perfectly runnable but we carried on walking just the same as it simply didn’t make sense to try and scratch a few minutes off the time I was going to achieve. We simply carried on up that never ending hill in the black of night but then I heard something that I hadn’t heard in a very, very long time. It was running water. To our side was a river, formed from the snow melt on Mount Whitney and it was making the sweet sound of a waterfall that cheered our souls. The contrast was simply brutal, from the depths of Death Valley to the side of a mountain where trees grow and where water flows. It was simply incredible, but we couldn’t hang about, we had a race to finish.
And on we went, on and on, corner after corner on a slope that seemed to have no end. After every curve or corner in the road we expected to see the finish line but all we ever saw was just another corner or curve in the road until at last we saw some dim lights and then the rest of the crew. We took out the Spanish and British flags, embraced each other and then crossed the finish line, everyone united in a moment in time that I will never, ever forget. We had finished the Badwater Ultra marathon!
Just after having finished, when the race director, Chris Kosman was hanging the medals from my neck I saw James Adams. James had finished the race some 3 hours previously and had decided to wait at the finish for all his friends to arrive, wrapped up in a blanket. I was the last. This says everything about James and here I would simply like to say that he has my utmost respect as an ultra runner, human being and a friend. He is a true gentleman. Tim Welch, another friend had just arrived too in some 44 hours but as he had started 2 hours before me he had entered just 10 minutes before. Nobody was expecting such a strong recovery from me (because they don’t know about the animal that comes to my side in these moments) and as he was exhausted he went to the hotel.
We took 42 hours, 36 minutes and 39 seconds. I say “we” instead of “I” because I didn’t do this alone. Badwater is a team effort and without the crew you would simply die before any other consideration. For the crew I am eternally grateful. Laura my daughter, Vicente, Luis and Fran. Words cannot do justice for my gratitude towards you. You have helped me achieve one of my lifetime dreams. Run the Badwater Ultra Marathon.
Running ultra marathons is like living life itself. In the lowest moments, when all hope is lost you just have to carry on. Never, ever surrender, absolutely never. The simple act of placing one foot in front of the other means that you are moving and with the passage of time the circumstances change. If you have stayed in the game, if you haven’t given up you are then in a situation where you can take advantage of the new circumstances and win through. But you can only succeed if you are still there.
At 59 hours and 15 minutes Jack Deness arrived. The 75 year old gentleman from England had finally conquered the course for one more time. In the post race ceremony he hadn’t even had time to change his clothes and when he entered the room he received the most warm and heartfelt standing ovation that I have ever witnessed in my life. It is my intention to carry on like Jack.
And finally, I would like to share with you something that Luis told me in Death Valley in reply to those that don’t understand our sport and ask us why we do what we do. The answer goes something like this:
“When you see someone dancing but don’t hear the music, it appears completely incomprehensible what they are doing and they appear completely mad with those strange and uncontrolled movements. Only when you hear the music can you understand the dancer.”
To understand the ultra runner, you just have to hear the music.
Mark Steven Woolley
Chronicle by Laura Woolley Dominguez. Crew member and daughter of Mark Steven Woolley.
I have always known that my dad was mad, that he was missing a few screws up there ……. But after Badwater I have arrived at the conclusion that he needs to visit a doctor or a psychiatrist ….. Maybe they should even start making some space for him in the lunatic asylum. And that’s how it is, you have to be truly mad (or completely drunk) to send in an application to run Badwater.
It’s a race that takes you to the extreme limit, a game against the devil himself in a burning oven. Such is the heat that consuming more than 2 litres of water an hour is nothing strange; you can’t survive conditions like these alone. The runner depends completely on the support team that follows him. It’s not an easy task, not for the runner nor for the crew. The runner supplies the legs but it is the crew that carries the weight. If you think that the runner is the only one that works you are mistaken.
When the runner suffers, the crew suffer; when the runner fails, the crew fail. Badwater is not a solitary race: it is a team race, a team on which your life depends. As part of the crew you don’t just have to look after yourself but you have to make sure that the runner has everything that they need. As I said before, my father is mad but who is the madder here? The mad person that actually runs Badwater or the people that that run after him? I think the latter.
I accepted the challenge of going to Badwater thinking that it would be a new and enjoyable experience, without the faintest idea that I was actually putting myself in the wolves’ mouth. When one mentions 50ºC, one thinks “Wow, that’s hot” Heat? Heat is not the word! What one finds in Death Valley is an oven. You can’t describe with words what you feel like in temperatures that are 13ºC above your own body temperature; it’s something indescriptable, unimaginable, INHUMAN.
The distance wasn’t a challenge.
The lack of sleep wasn’t a challenge
Drinking 2 litres of water an hour wasn’t a challenge
The only true challenge in Badwater is the HEAT.
Those that switch on the air conditioning at the first hint of heat should turn straight around and look for somewhere else to go, because Badwater isn’t a place for school girls that are afraid to sweat a little. It is for this that the crew is INDESPENSABLE. And yes – it was hard. Yes – I had a tough time. Yes – the heat was unbearable. But yes – the experience was incredible. As I said before, when the runner suffers, the crew suffer, when the runner fails the crew fail. But when the runner is on a high, the crew is on a high; and when the runner succeeds the crew succeed with him. When we realized that we could finish this race in under 48 hours we all had an adrenaline surge, not just because that meant we could all get to bed earlier than expected but because we could complete one of the most extreme ultra marathons in the world in less than 48 hours.
Laura Woolley Dominguez