I had entered Badwater 09 on the spur of the moment, along with a lot of other ultra races to help keep my mind occupied whilst I went through a difficult personal time.
My friends Liam Douglas and Julia Gale had again agreed to be my crew, and the goal for me this time was to try and achieve a sub 40 hour finish time.
However, I had made a big mistake with my preparation for the race, as I had just completed the Thames Ring, which was the UKs longest ever non stop footrace at 250 miles.
This meant that I had only two weeks recovery before Badwater…..it was a stupid idea.
As a result, my body was weak, my feet were still damaged, but I tried to see this as an extra challenge, and a new test for my mental strength.
Focussing on Badwater was difficult this time, and even as I stood on the starting line, I felt much more anxious than in previous years, and the reality hit me that I was about to embark on the hardest race in the world again, but in an unprepared mental and physical state.
I was again in the 8 am starting group, and the temperature was already well over 100F
I knew that it would be a gamble to push for a fast time, but I decided to commit to a steady pace from the off, to have any hope of a 40 hour finish.
The first 26 miles went pretty smoothly, but my legs felt stiffer than usual as I headed along the hottest stretch between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells.
With the hot wind in my face and temperatures over 120F, I was already being squeezed out of moisture like a sponge…and no matter how much I drank, it was just not helping.
I was again bloated with liquid, and was not urinating, even though I had been regularly taking electrolytes. It still seemed like salt loss was my problem, as my shorts were almost white with salt, but I realised that my body was just still too weak to cope with the high demands of the race, and just before I reached Stovepipe at 40 miles, the inevitable happened.
I felt very light headed and nauseous and dizzy. I started to walk, and tried gulping down more liquid to try and ‘kick start’ my kidneys, but it was not working.
I was sure that I was going to pass out, and I flagged down my crew vehicle. My legs and neck began to painfully cramp, and I had barely made it to the van door before I started violently throwing up.
All I could see was stars, and my ears buzzed as I sat in the passenger seat trying to cool down.
Liam (a trained medic) was monitoring my pulse as Julia wrapped my neck and legs with iced towels.
I was breathing deeply trying not to pass out and I was shivering uncontrollably. I had all the signs of heatstroke.
I desperately drank to try and reverse the problem, and I easily lost over an hour before I felt able to walk again, and I managed to stumble the last few miles into Stovepipe Wells, where the plan was for me to fully re-hydrate and balance my salts.
Liam decided that I could not continue the race until I was able to urinate, which I had not done for over 10 hours!
I knew the clock was ticking, but I was also aware that this was quite serious and I did not want to damage myself permanently, so I sat in the van taking regular sips of water, until I could eat, and the salt/liquid combination eventually allowed me to pass water.
My Plan A of a sub 40 hour finish was over, and I was now focussing on Plan B…..to finish the race.
I got back on my feet and headed out of Stovepipe Wells up the familiar 17 mile steep Towness Pass hill, and I was now aware that my feet were already starting to fall to pieces inside my shoes, and I was experiencing a larger than usual midfoot blister.
Hours later I began to reach the top of the hill at 60 miles, and it dawned on me that I was yet again trapped in Badwater hell. Why was this race never easy for me? But maybe that’s why I loved it so much…….because it always took me so close to the edge. Once things go wrong so early in a race, I know how much pain it is going to cost, as I will never let it beat me.
I was weak now, but I had managed to re-hydrate during the night, and I ran the next 13 miles down towards the next checkpoint at Panamint Springs. I was running at a good pace, but again I was conscious that I had become bloated with liquid, and Liam told me again that I was in the red as I had not urinated for 6-7 hours.
I also had very deep huge blister on my left foot which was causing me to limp in pain.
Usually, blisters don’t bother me and I just grit my teeth and ignore it, but this time it felt different. It was very deep, and the whole of the base of my foot was sliding loose.
Liam was not happy with my hydration situation, and told me straight that I would not be able to finish if I continued in my current state. I was bordering heatstroke again, and limping like a cripple. I totally trust and respect his judgement, as he has kept me safe during my two previous races and my double crossing.
I took his advice and took a break at Panamint to drink plenty of fluids, but I knew that I also had to do something about my left foot; otherwise I would be to slow to finish.
There is always a lowest point in a race, and this was mine. At just over half way, I was a total mess.
It could have been an easy option to just sit there and let the time pass by until I would be timed out…… but of course that’s just not me.
Badwater veteran Ian Parker also arrived at Panamint just after me, and this year he was crewing a racer.
He asked how I was doing, and I told him about my foot problem, and he said he could help.
Now, I refuse to ever have my feet touched during a race, but I knew that this time it was my only hope.
I was desperate, so like a professional surgeon, he sliced open and drained the fluid from my blister, before sealing and bandaging it. He was a god send, and had done an excellent job.
It was still very painful to walk on, but now the pressure had eased and it was now padded.
I was also passing water again, so I covered myself in a wet white hood and arm coverings and was ready to tackle the next red hot 13 mile uphill.
I gulped water ever few minutes and stopped to urinate regularly, as I knew this was my last chance to keep the ‘show on the road’.
Every step hurt, but I had been here before and the pain was like an old friend coming to join
Eventually I reached the Darwin checkpoint at 90 miles, and I was still in control of my hydration, even though today seemed hotter than yesterday.
I was already 36 hours into the race, but I knew that I had plenty of time to finish, even with my run/walk mix.
It was another long night ahead as I crossed Owens valley, and Julia and Liam took turns to walk with me.
I was literally running on empty now and just focussing ahead on the lights of Lone Pine, which never seems to get closer.
I was finding it hard to stay awake, and I kept closing my eyes.
I just wanted to get it over with now, and ran down as many miles as I could until daybreak and our arrival at Lone Pine.
The Lone Pine checkpoint staff was pleased to see us, and I had a welcome coffee and a bite to eat before the final 13 mile climb up Mount Witney.
The sun beat down on my back and my legs were burned bright red.
Liam and Julia sprayed me with water to keep me cool, and I tried my best to ignore the pain from my blistered feet.
I started off feeling quite strong, but I began to fade away as the slope of the mountain became steeper.
UK veteran Jack Dennes stopped to give me some encouragement, in his unique no-nonsense style, and I told him I would see him at the finish.
The race wasn’t going to beat me now, and with just a few miles to go, I was stopped by two traffic policemen on motorbikes.
‘Are you Mark?’ they said…….and with surprise, I replied ‘yes’
Then they said that they would have to issue me with a fine for traffic violation! I could not believe it.
Then, as soon as the said that Jack had sent them, I knew that it was a joke, and we burst out laughing, much to my relief.
They wished me good luck, and with only a few hundred yards left the finish line was in sight.
It had taken me 52 hours this time. A long time, but I had not let that race beat me.
It had been one of the hardest Badwaters I had done, with many lessons learned, but it was one of the sweetest victories.