BADWATER 2005 by Mark Cockbain
‘Sometimes when you run, you might think you hear footsteps
behind you, but this is only your old self trying to catch up’
July 11th, 2005, its 5:30 am and I’m about to embark on my second Badwater Ultra Marathon, that will take me from Badwater, the lowest point in the western hemisphere for 135 miles through Death Valley, over two mountain ranges, then up Mount Whitney, to the highest point in the USA.
I am amongst 80 runners from all around the world who will set out on this epic adventure race.
I have returned to do Badwater again for three reasons. Firstly, I would like to achieve a sub 48 hour time, to entitle me to the coveted Badwater belt buckle. Secondly, I am sure that I can improve on my performance in 2003, when I fell unconscious early in the race, and really struggled with dehydration throughout the race. And thirdly, this race really scared me the first time, and I want to face it head on again, to put my demons to rest.
During the 2003 race, I met Joe Prusaitis, who is president of the Austin Texas ultra running club. I contacted him a few months ago, to ask his advice on getting a crew together for the 2005 race. In minutes he mailed me the details of some ultra runners who would be interested in crewing.
I soon had three crew members consisting of Robert and Cathy Melendez and Liam Douglass.
We would use two vehicles this time, and also book a hotel room at Stovepipe, enabling the crew to rest and take shifts during the night.
One minute to go and I am standing listening to the American national anthem at the start line at Badwater.
I am also using a Camelback for the first 40 miles, to help keep me drinking regularly.
Its 6am, and off we go and I am feeling pretty good, as the sun just hides behind the mountains and I chat to fellow UK runner Wayne Simpson, his third official entry into the race, who is also hoping for a second Badwater finish.
The sun hits us after about an hour, and temperatures are already on the up.
I’m gulping down water every few minutes, as I am desperate to progress further than checkpoint one at Furnace Creek, where I collapsed in 2003.
Things are looking good, as I stop for my third toilet break since we started. My urine is clear, indicating that I am still well hydrated.
Around three hours into the race and I can spot the little oasis in the distance that is Furnace Creek, and I am sure that I am feeling strong.
I continue straight through the checkpoint, as my crew check me in and I am around a mile away from the point of the 2003 spot where I collapsed.
I’m still drinking, but it’s already 120F and I am slowly beginning to be cooked alive. I have one more toilet stop, and then switch from Camelback to hand held water for a while, to help me get more of a relaxed running rhythm.
Hours pass and its getting hotter. Robert and Liam regularly spray me with water to cool me down, and provide some good pacing.
Cathy regularly joins us with the second vehicle to top up our ice, with supplies from Stovepipe.
I’m trying to take an energy gel per hour, as I find that liquid forms of energy are easier to swallow in the heat.
The thermometer has now maxed out at 120F, the highest it can go, but the average daily max is around 130F, and it certainly feels like it now, as I see Stovepipe in the distance. I have to walk a lot more now as I feel like I’m going to overheat.
My face feels swollen, and it’s difficult to breathe. I haven’t been to the toilet for several hours now, despite drinking what I felt that my stomach could handle, which was now quite bloated. Not good.
I walk into Stovepipe, checkpoint two, and get ushered straight to the rented room to try and cool off and eat a decent meal. It’s now been almost 10 hours since the start, and it’s the hottest part of the day.
I put my burning feet into a bucket of ice cold water and eat a pot rice that Cathy has prepared, I pop a few uncomfortable blisters, change my socks and head on up the road after about 25 minutes. I thought it was a good time to take some solid food onboard, as it was now time for the 18 mile steep climb up to Towness pass.
This is a steep hill, and Robert comes to give me some well needed pacing, as I’m feeling quite nauseous, and slowing down.
It’s a few hours now after leaving Stovepipe, and I’m feeling pretty sick. I feel weak and dizzy, and I know that my time is coming for the inevitable problems with the heat. I try to rest and hydrate, but I still feel sick. I’m starting to cramp up now, and this is a sure sign of dehydration. Liam gives me some electrolyte capsules, but its not long before I throw up on the road, and cramp up all over.
I hold on to Liam as I retch at the side of the road, then get into the van to try and cool off. I’m shivering and shaking, which is making my cramping problems worst, as my legs lock up, I scream out in agony.
There is nothing that can be done, but to try and replace my salts and re-hydrate as soon as possible, to get me back on to the course.
I didn’t want this to happen, as I know how much time can be lost trying to recover from this, but at least I am conscious this time!
Several times I got back onto the road, to try and slowly push on up the hill, but each time I struggled after a few yards, and had to rest. Liam encourages me by telling me not to worry, that it’s just a bad patch and it will pass.
Eventually, I managed to flush enough water through my system to enable me to walk on up the hill, and I soon manage to keep up with Roberts pacing.
It was now dark, and we are all lit up like Christmas trees, with luminous jackets, and head torches. The never ending hill was beginning to flatten at the summit, and it was now time to try and get some solid food energy.
I eat some rice pudding and I’m pleased that I can hold it down. My feet are now blistering badly, but it is a long downhill section into the Panamint valley and Liam joins me to give me company on this section for a few hours.
I gain some good mileage, as we bottom out in the valley below. It’s still dark, and the caravan of runners and crew stretches across the valley floor, to the small outpost of Panamint Springs at checkpoint three.
Liam and I trudge across the valley floor, towards the lights of Panamint, but hour after hour goes by and it seems to get no closer.
We eventually see a sign for three miles to Panamint, and cannot believe it is so far. Distances are so deceptive in Death Valley, because of the sheer huge scale of things.
I waddle into Panamint, as dawn approaches. My feet are mashed. Time for more food, as another long and winding 12 mile hill looms to take us out of the valley.
Liam heads back to Stovepipe for a rest, while Cathy and Robert are to crew me for the next section. They explain that they are going to ensure that I keep drinking and eating to prevent a re-occurrence of yesterday’s problems.
Up and up out of the valley, twisting and turning on the never-ending switchbacks. The sun is up and the familiar ‘ping’ ‘ping’ of the metal road barriers expanding with the heat reminds me of my last visit here.
I am constantly reminded to drink by Cathy, who ensures I take ‘three big gulps’ each time.
We reach the lookout over the valley, and we can see the path that we have travelled last night far in the distance over the mountains.
The road flattens, and I am running again, although each step is now causing me agony because of the blisters.
Hours pass, and it feels even hotter than yesterday. Eventually Liam joins us, and we reach checkpoint four, a small tent at the side of the road.
Again I have some hot food, and inspect my feet, which are pretty bad. My lips and neck feel burned, and my face feels as if it’s on fire.
We are now at 90 miles and I try to make up some distance by running a long gentle downhill to the 100 mile point.
I’m joined again by Liam for a while, but I struggle to run constantly, and keep breaking into a walk as I feel myself close to overheating.
Hours go by and I’ve lost my appetite. In the distance we see the small outpost of Keeler, and I think I can reach it in a few hours.
Half a day later I reach Keeler! it was much further away than we thought, another optical illusion.
The sun was beginning to set on day two, and I was at another low point. I had not been eating, and I was totally exhausted.
I was now shuffling along, as my feet were swollen like tree trunks. I was also covered in flies, which were just adding to my misery.
It was still a long way to the Lone Pine intersection and time was getting on. It would soon be 40 hours on my feet.
My mood lifted slightly when Robert arrived from his rest at Lone Pine with a freshly made pizza.
I ate a slice and later drank a bottle of coke, which was a refreshing change from all the sports drinks I had consumed.
Liam joined me again and tried to encourage me to move faster. I did in little bursts, but soon resumed to a walk. I was shattered.
We started a run ¼ mile, walk ¼ mile in an effort to get going, and this worked for a few hours through the darkness towards Lone Pine.
Liam was now busy calculating that we could reach Lone Pine by midnight, as long as we kept up the pace. This would give us six hours to climb Mount Whitney, to break 48 hours. Last time it took 6 ½ hours to climb Whitney! It did not look promising.
Eventually we saw the Lone Pine intersection and from here it would be just over a mile to checkpoint five at the Dow Villa hotel.
Robert and Cathy went on ahead to prepare some food at the hotel, whilst Liam and I shuffled over the last mile into Lone Pine. I was now moving at a pathetic one mile per hour.
Seeing the hotel lights was a relief. Only 13 miles to go, but it was now half past midnight and I needed food, rest and a foot inspection before tackling Mount Whitney.