Thursday, 4 August 2016

2016 STYR Labs Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, USA : 135 Miles/217Km




“One fellow said he knew this was the Creator’s dumping place where he had left the worthless dregs after making a world, and the devil had scraped these together a little. Another said this must be the very place where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, and the pillar been broken up and spread around the country. He said if a man was to die he would never decay on account of the salt.”
(William Manly, Death Valley 49er)


Introduction :

The discovery of gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley in early 1848 sparked the Gold Rush. As news spread of the discovery, thousands of prospective gold miners travelled by sea or over land to San Francisco and the surrounding area. Throughout 1849, people around the United States (mostly men) borrowed money, mortgaged their properties or spent their life savings to make the arduous journey to California. A group of pioneers bound for the goldfields arrived in Salt Lake City too late to attempt crossing the treacherous snow covered passes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Rather than wait until spring, they began looking for a short cut, and they finally found themselves trapped in Death Valley (DV). Their survival ordeal became one of the legends of the Wild West. As one group of pioneers finally climbed the surrounding mountains and escaped the valley, legend says, they looked back and exclaimed “Goodbye Death Valley!” Hence, the origin/etymology of its name.

The Valley as seen from Dante's Point

Things have changed dramatically since then. The relief/happiness of these pioneers’ escape from DV has now been converted into eagerness/dream for a group of people who gather at this area in July every year.

I remember watching a Youtube video many years ago of a race where runners were seen struggling to run in a semi-desert environment, with temperatures reaching 48°C. Some of them in the video told stories of their running shoes melting into the pavement and others were seen soaking their bodies in coolers brimming with ice…I was quite shocked and the first thought which crossed my mind then was, “this is INSANITY!!!”



Many things have also changed in my life since the day I watched that video and INSANITY has finally become part of my being! Working as an Emergency Physician at an average of 70 hours a week, I desperately need ‘something’ as an escape from my routine and daily professional pressure. So, for the last 5 years, I have chosen to run at least one very challenging ultrarace (the tougher, the better) each year. I find that with such a race in plan, I am able to go through my days feeling extremely motivated, living and training the whole year for that one goal, which forms a personal challenge to myself. Most of the time, the “journey” leading to such adventure is more exciting than the adventure itself and my life becomes more meaningful, with a purpose.

Last year’s journey brought me back to Greece for one of the most iconic and difficult ultra marathon races in the world, the Spartathlon. Unfortunately, everything went wrong for me in that race! It was a traumatic experience and probably my worst ever performance. I completed the race with destroyed feet (lost 5 nails and gained several blisters like little balloons) and very low morale. I totally lost my confidence and was doubtful of my own ability to run the next race.

My poor foot after Spartathlon

After many months of feeling low and demoralised, I decided to change everything with regards to my training. For the first time in my life, I sought the assistance of a coach (Ioannis Dagkoglou) to guide and advise me. At the same time, I also did my own research and changed my shoes, diet and strategies. I even had my colleagues to perform surgeries to remove four nails on my toes for good. These nails have been giving me problems most of the time when I ran!!! 

I then started looking for a race which is as difficult as possible, to give a second chance to myself, to test how strong and what is the limit of my mental attitude against pain, tiredness, sleepiness - all the issues which I have failed to cope so spectacularly at the Spartathlon.

It was then that I remembered this video of runners jumping into mega coolers covered in ice, trying to lower their body temperature…and I thought, “Hmmm…I love heat, so why not to try the BADWATER 135?”

For those who are not familiar with ultramarathon races, Badwater 135 describes itself as "the world's toughest foot race" and has taken on mythical status with the ultra marathon community. It is one of the hottest, hardest, most grueling foot race in the world, one that is on the bucket list of thousands of runners around the world.



It is a 135 mile (217 km) course starting at 279 feet (85 m) below sea level in the Badwater Basin, in California's Death Valley, and ending at an elevation of 8,360 feet (2,548 m) at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney. Badwater Basin got its name when a prospector’s burro (donkey) refused to drink water from a small natural pool. The prospector later traced the reason for the donkey’s refusal to the source of water in the pool – that it was too saline to drink, and he therefore called it Badwater.




The course consists of three mountain ranges, a total of 13,000 feet (3,962 m) of cumulative vertical ascent and 4,700 feet (1,432 m) of cumulative descent. It takes place annually in mid-July, when the weather conditions are most extreme and temperatures are over 120°F (49°C). It is a race where extreme heat, ascents and distance are all wrapped into one. It is a race that pushes the mind and body to breaking point. And if you think that this race is difficult enough, I will like to inform you that some ‘aliens’ had proven that there are NO LIMITS in INSANITY!

In 1989, Tom Crawford and Richard Benyo completed the first double crossing (which became known as the "Death Valley 300"), running from Badwater to Mount Whitney's summit and back to Badwater again. And as if double crossing was not crazy enough, in 1994, Scott Weber completed the first Triple Crossing going from the Mount Whitney Summit to Badwater, then returning from Badwater to the Mount Whitney summit, then going from the Mount Whitney summit back to Badwater in ten days!!!

Finally, in 2001, Marshall Ulrich showed the running community that he is not a human being, by completing the "Badwater Quad", consisting of two back-to-back Death Valley 300, for a total of four consecutive Badwater/Whitney transits! He completed the course, a distance in excess of twenty-two marathons, in ten days!!!

Another interesting fact about Badwater 135 is the names of places within the National Park. Despite so many grim name places in the area (Funeral Mountains, Coffin Canyon, Hells Gate, Devils Hole, Devils Golf Course, Devils Corn Field, Dead Man Pass, Suicide Pass) aptly in tune with the name Death Valley, the runners are comforted with the fact that there has never been any deaths during the event.

It sounds really gruesome but I was shocked when I found out that even the auditorium at the Park’s Visitor Center, where the briefing was taking place a day before race, was designed in the shape of a coffin!!!

But who was the crazy man who had conceived such an event in such a very hostile environment?

Al Arnold, a pioneer of the ultramarathon world, is credited as the “father” of this race. In 1974, he came with the insane idea to run the 146 miles (235 km) between the lowest point in the USA (Badwater Basin) to the highest (Mount Whitney). After two failed attempts, he finally ran the course in 1977 and summited Mount Whitney, some eighty hours after he started.

Al Arnold
(Photo taken from the official STYR Labs Badwater 135 website) 

In 1987, the Badwater trek became an official footrace. During the early years of the race, no particular route between Badwater and Mount Whitney was specified and runners attempted various "shortcuts" between the start and finish. Adrian Crane, one of the competitors in the inaugural race, even used cross-country skis to cross the salt-flats at Badwater.
In later years, as the United States Forest Service enforced the requirement for permits to climb Mount Whitney, the official race course was shortened to end at Whitney Portal, where the road ends and the trail to the peak begins.

Currently, AdventureCORPS manages the competitive race from Badwater to Whitney Portal. Rules have changed somewhat over the years. Afternoon starts have been discontinued. The use of intravenous fluids now disqualifies a runner. In the past, runners were allowed sixty hours to complete the course but this has now been changed to a forty eight-hour.

The course route is now specified, and no support / food stations are provided!! Each runner must arrange for his own vehicle and support crew (maximum of four persons only in one single vehicle) providing him with his needs during race.

Another thing to be aware of with this race is the fact that the participants are strictly by invitation-only and limited to only 100 runners. For those who want to run the race, the minimal requirement is successful completions of at least three 100-mile races. I remember having to fill in one of the weirdest online applications ever when registering for the race, with questions like:

• What percentage of your athletic peers (not just your friends, but the wider circle of athletes who know you, or know of you) would say that you are a good human being and good sportsman/woman?
• Who is your favorite author and/or your favorite book?
• What does the name or brand “Badwater” mean to you?

With your answers to these questions IN ADDITION to your CV of performances from previous races, the organiser will then decide who the “lucky” 100 runners are going to be.

About three weeks after submitting my application in January, I received an invitation to participate in what is officially known as the 2016 STYR Labs Badwater 135 Ultramarathon. I now have an opportunity to train and work for the next four-an-a-half months towards a goal – an event which is so special for me and which requires a lot of hard work, sense of adventure and keen determination on my part. I had hoped that by the end of this journey, I will be able to rediscover belief in myself and the chance to evolve and grow as a better human being who learns from his mistakes.

A week before we were to leave for Los Angeles, something which I feared most happened. Two of the four nails which I had removed after Spartathlon had grown back again despite the surgeries, which were supposed to remove them for good. Unlike normal-growing nails, these new nails were like loosened teeth. They moved around and I had been experiencing discomfort when I trained. With the Badwater race being so close, I was faced with an agonising dilemma - do I remove the nails or do I leave them as they are, and hope that they will not give me any problem during the race?

After contemplating for a whole day, I still could not make up my mind. I was doing my night shift at the hospital when my colleague, Ash, came up to me asked, "So how, Argy? Do you want me to remove them for you?" This was like an answered prayer for me. I needed no more contemplation. I looked at Ash and just said "Let's do it!!!" With that, both the nails were efficiently removed by Ash and this was how my foot looked like 6 days before leaving for Los Angeles!!! 

6 days before leaving for LA!!

Although the nagging problem has been solved, new doubts have now crept into my mind - are my toes going to heal properly before the race? Will I be able to do anymore training before the race?
      

Arriving in Los Angeles :

Landing in Los Angeles after a very long flight from London, I was so excited that I did not manage to get any sleep on our first night in the city. A combination of jet lag and excitement to be in this amazing city must be the cause, and I found myself planning a run around the Hollywood Hills, as I stayed awake most of the night. Thank God, my toes seemed to have healed and I could not wait to do a 'test run' to see how I will feel.   

Despite having only two hours of sleep, by 9am the following day, I was already at the nearby Griffith Park, exploring the local trails and trying to get as close as possible to the iconic Hollywood Sign. I found the way without any difficulty and managed to get a nice view of the whole city with the Hollywood Sign framing my photo, taken from my cracked Samsung Note 3:




Later in the evening, we met up with our local friends Mireya and Rene Dorantes, and Nelva Valladares, who are to be my pacers and part of my crew at the race. It is unbelievable how easy people in the running community can “connect” with one another without having to spend a lot of time being together. My wife and I had met Mireya and Rene, both exceptional runners, at the 2015 Caballo Blanco Ultamarathon in Mexico 18 months ago. We shared many unforgettable memories, due to the sinister outcome of the event that year and had stayed in touch ever since. The events at the bottom of the Canyon that time has surely brought us closer despite our geographical distance.

As soon as I received the invitation to participate in Badwater, we had contacted Mireya and Rene to seek their help and they very graciously agreed to pace and crew me, agreeing also to help me with all the issues of gears and logistics which I will need at the race. It was them who came up with the brilliant suggestion to include Nelva as my third pacer and part of my crew. We did not know much about Nelva then, but soon found out that she is an upcoming star of the local ultra-trail scene, and is often monopolising one of the podium places (usually the first) in all the races she participates in. More interestingly, she is hoping to run the Badwater 135 herself next year. By crewing me, she will have a brilliant opportunity to familiarise herself with the route of the race and all the challenges which she might have to deal with. The fourth member to complete my crew team is my wife, Hannisze, who can now be considered a veteran in this role, having supported me at all my races around the world all these years.

So, we had a lovely evening together, catching up with news and getting to know Nelva. All of us were extremely eager to go through this adventure together and give our very best to help my performance.

(L to R) : Me & Hannisze, Rene, Mireya and Nelva

Our next two days in LA literally just flew by at lightning speed. We visited some of the highlights of the city and chased the many ‘big sales’ at the retail outlets…!!!



Our First Encounter With Death Valley (DV) :

Being someone who lives in England, where the average temperatures never really exceed 25°C even during summer time, I decided that it is extremely important for me to spend some days in DV before the start of the race, so that I can acclimatize myself to the heat as much as possible.

I will never forget that feeling when we arrived at Furnace Creek and I opened the car door for the very first time. It was REALLY like getting into an oven, despite the fact that it was already 7pm. I have read and re-read all about the heat in this area but to actually feel it, still came as a shock to me! Without much enthusiasm, I decided to go for a short run of 15K before it got too dark. I fully understand now why there is a big fuss about the extreme heat of DV (on average, 2 people die from the heat in DV every year). So far, DV holds the record of the hottest ever temperature recorded on our planet (56.6°C / 134°F in 1913). Paradoxically, in the same year, the lowest temperature was also recorded in DV (-10°C / -12°F).



The reason why DV is so hot, is due to its low elevation and topography. Being a deep valley sandwiched between two steep mountain ranges, the hot air which rises from the valley floor is trapped between the mountain ranges and has no means of escape. In this forbidding landscape, created by collision of tectonic plates, you can see some of the most fascinating geological features in the Northern Hemisphere.

For the next few days, I explored most of these amazing places by running during the hottest period of the day (afternoon), while my wife escorted me in the comfort of an air-conditioned car. By taking cold water in regular intervals and more water sprayed on my face, I felt alright and was able to run around quite a bit.





However, one afternoon, I decided to be more adventurous and started out alone from our hotel to cover 4 km on the road until I reach the famous Golden Canyon. From there, I began exploring the narrow canyons and badlands leading to Zabriskie Point. Wow!! What a run I had! An almost unearthly landscape made by bone-dry, finely-sculpted and golden brown rock.

Narrow canyons

Zabriskie Point

Despite the extreme hot conditions (almost 50°C) and running out of water, I found it hard to stop and I continued to explore the area. When I finally reached Zabriskie Point, after 90 minutes of run, I was feeling really exhausted. Unfortunately, I had another 8 km to get back to the hotel. I will never forget my run back to my “point of salvation”; my heart rate reached the maximum (190) despite me running in a flat section with a speed of only 7km/h!!

I was completely dehydrated and weak when I reached our hotel and learned my lesson well!! After this experience, I now know that the only way to run the race properly is by having continuous intake of fluids and lots of cold water sprayed/splashed on my body to keep the temperature low.

A Small Escape To Las Vegas :

After three days in DV, and having “deep-fried” myself in long exposures to the heat, we decided to have a break and to refresh ourselves in the “Oasis” of Las Vegas. I have to admit that it was a total change in sceneries, leaving this fascinating geological landscape which was created by mother nature over millions of years, and finding ourselves in a very artificial, glittering world of mega constructions, which are completely unfriendly to the environment and local ecosystem. We tried to take it easy by discovering all the curiosities hidden in this city, and of course, not missing out on trying our luck in one of the casinos. It was the first time for both of us, and after several gaffes and embarrassing mistakes, we managed to run away with a profit of USD150!!!




Last 48h Before The Race

On our way from Vegas back to DV, we stopped at one of the mega Walmart to get all the necessary supplies for the race. We spent more than two hours trying to choose the best food/drinks for my stomach and accessories that can help to cool me down. I have learned my lesson well after the disaster of running on an empty stomach for the last 8 hours in Spartathlon and the inability to bring down any source of energy. On the advice given by my coach to rely on fluids providing an average of 200-250 Kcal/h, I ignored almost any sort of solid food while doing our shopping. I chose a wide range of smoothies, juices, liquid yogurts, coca cola, lemonade, and watermelon. I also bought butter, cheese and turkey to make sandwiches, just in case I change my mind during the race and need something solid. I do not intent to use any salt tablets, although I know most of the runners use them. It is simply a personal choice - I have never enjoyed their taste, and I would rather use natural sodium on top of the watermelon, during the hot period of the day.




Back in DV, everything was very different from our last visit. Furnace Creek (the location of the hotel where most of the runners were staying) was congested with runners, crew and tourists. Mireya, Nelva and Rene arrived from LA, just in time for the Race check-in, and we were so excited to go through the last details of preparation of the race together.



Before going back to our hotel, I wanted to introduce them to my favorite spot in DV, ie. The Zabriskie Point. This place made me so happy when I first ran through it, and I needed to visit it again, to recharge myself with some spiritual energy and positive feelings.

Me and my pacers at Zabriskie Point

I think a lot of runners will agree with me that the paramount consideration in any ultra event (given the distance), is the mental attitude. As long as one feels HAPPY and is in balance with one’s body and spirit, nothing can go wrong. That was why I decided to keep my spirits up and relieve myself from all stress and anxiety while I spent time with my crew.

Later that evening, we went for a pizza-dinner together, just chilling and relaxing before heading back to our rooms where I tried to stay up until 4am. Since we were in Vegas, I have been “practicing” to sleep and wake up late, in the hope that this will help synchronise my biorhythms with the late start of the race which was scheduled for me at 11pm.

In 2014, the Death Valley National Park conducted a safety review and placed a moratorium on cycling and running competitions until it can determine how safe they are, despite the fact that there has been no deaths or car crashes during the events. That year, the Badwater 135 was run outside the Park.

Following the safety review findings, the Park Authority placed a requirement for the race to start only after sunset. That shift in starting time is supposed to give the runners about 50 miles of cooler overnight temperatures as they run through the moonlit Death Valley National Park. That is why the race now has three different wave starts (8pm – 9:30pm – 11pm), with the faster runners being allocated to the latest wave. While some people may think that this will make it easier for the runners, I personally do not think so, because by starting late, most runners would have to run through two nights, while having to run through the most challenging part of the race (a very demanding climb) at the hottest time of the day.

On Race day, I managed to sleep late until 1:30 pm, after spending most of the night planning my strategy for the race. At this point, I will like to mention my heartfelt thanks to Dave Krupski, who has helped me tremendously through his guide (which was sent to all participants by the organiser) on zwitty.ULTRA. His detailed guide has helped me gain a better understanding on the course of the race and how to conserve my energy for the second half of the race. Amazing job, Dave!

Me & Dave Krupski at the Race check-in


As we inched nearer to the start time, I began to feel nervous, and I decided to call my crew for a last meeting. I explained to them my strategy for the race, my logistics regarding food supply. I gave them all my estimated split times and I emphasised particularly on how I dislike having conversations while I am running. I asked my pacers to speak as little as possible while pacing me, except when they feel that I am slowing down. I told them that they are permitted to kick my butt when that happens!! Deep down, I knew how difficult it was going to be for Mireya, Nelva and Rene to establish communication and to provide encouragement to someone whom they do not know very well, especially so when I will be suffering and be in the lowest mood. I knew then that these guys were going to have a task as difficult as mine.

Finally, The Race Is Starting….



The time has finally arrived for this new adventure. While I was chatting with my crew and waiting for the final countdown, I saw the last group of the 97 runners from 24 countries who are participating in this event. All around me, I saw these elite runners whom I have read about, famous for their previous performances in Badwater 135 or some other races around the world. It felt like a dream for me to be in this group of super-humans. I have watched all the videos related to the race for last 3 months and I could not believe that I was finally there, with all these familiar faces I have seen from the videos and social media!


Surprisingly, the weather was not as hot as I predicted it to be and a very strong wind was blowing, which, although was hot wind, managed to make me forget that I was actually in DV. We then heard Chris Kostman, the race director of the event, calling all the runners to stand near the Badwater Basin sign, where group photographs were taken before the National Anthem of the USA was played. When that ended, he started the much-anticipated countdown. A group of 5 runners started as if they were running a half marathon, and the rest of us followed with a slow but steady pace.



Kilometers 1-68 (Miles 1-42)  / Badwater – Stovepipe Wells :

In all my races so far, I have always been one of the runners who started fast. For this race, however, I have a different strategy altogether. Part of my new strategy was to cover the first 68 km/42 miles, with a pace which is totally dependent on my heart rate. I was determined to run in economy of energy with a maximum heart rate of 145. From the first kilometer, I kept checking my heart rate to try and find an appropriate pace. I felt very relaxed and the temperature, for me, was perfect. Not only was it not hot, the strong wind was coming from the backs of us, giving us another advantage – the “push” forward.



After a few kilometers, I turned back to see how many runners were behind me and to my horror, I found out that I was among the very last group of runners! This has never happened to me before and all of a sudden, I began to have doubts regarding my pace. Am I doing the right thing? Should I have taken the advantage of the cool temperature and strong wind by running faster at this stage and to slow down later, when the day is hot and unbearable? I was in this state of frustration for a while until I pushed away all my doubts and decided to stick to my planned strategy to take it easy and run my own pace.

It was then that I started the “positive mind game” with myself. I reminded myself that I should take the time to enjoy this adventure after so many years of dreaming of doing it. I started to love the loneliness and the feeling of running in the middle of the desert under a sky full of stars, with a beaming full moon shining down on me. I finally felt so relaxed that I could even look up the sky to see whether I could catch some shooting stars!


In this section of the race, with comfortable temperature and strong legs, I had time to think about my good life and the privilege of being here. In the past few days leading up to the race, dozens of messages have arrived in my inbox, with so many positive vibes, love and encouragement that I felt so grateful. Deep down, I knew that I was not running alone in this race. Apart from my crew, there were my family and many friends who are determined to stay up and follow me during this adventure. With all these positive thoughts in mind, and by continuously taking fluids – juices, mostly, time flew and before I knew it, I was already in the first Big Station after having completed 68 easy kilometers, mostly on flat sections. My first target to reach Stovepipe Wells as fresh as possible, was achieved without much problem.


Usually, when I run in ultra races, I never stop for more than 3 minutes in aid stations because I do not want to lose precious time. This time, however, my plan was completely different. Once I reached Stovepipe, I sat down to eat a sandwich, changed clothes and looked after my feet. After the disastrous blisters I have experienced in Spartathlon, I decided to pay more attention to the state of my feet this time, by changing socks and shoes regularly, and by inspecting meticulously if there is any blister. Everything looked well at this stage and I changed from my Saucony ISO 2 Triumph to Asics Nimbus. I spent almost 15 minutes in this station, catching up and joking with my crew and I find this to be extremely important for me to get ready for the REAL RACE which I knew was coming soon after that stop. The sun would be out in full force then and the course of the race would be getting steep.

Me at Stovepipe

As you can see from the graph below, after that long flat section at the beginning of the race, we had to face two big climbs, both of which I was unfortunate enough to encounterface during the hottest period of the day!!




Kilometers 68-95 (Miles 42-59) / Stovepipe Wells – Towne Pass :

This section involved the longest climb of the race, ie. 27 km (17 miles) to reach Towne Pass. From this entire climb, the organiser of the race allowed only one member of the crew to run behind every runner, never in front or beside. That is why it would be inappropriate for me to use the term “pacer”, who, to me, should be someone who runs ahead of me, to lead me in a comfortable pace when I am tired and slowing down. For this portion of the race, Rene was there behind me, and I kept to my plan of running throughout the first half of the climb, taking advantage of the low grade of inclination.

Me and Rene during the first climb

Once the climb got steep, we started to power hike, with the aim to keep our legs rested. We maintained a very good pace and kept overtaking many of the runners who had started earlier in the race. For the first time in a race, I did not care about my position as I concentrated whole-heartedly on my performance and nutrition. For all these sections, Nelva, Mireya and my wife worked relentlessly in making sure that both Rene and I had ice cubes applied on top of our heade (in ziplock bags placed under our caps) and around our necks (in ziplock bags wrapped around our necks in a bandana) every 20 minutes.



I never stopped drinking plenty of water and juices, and I was actually feeling very good. Another milestone of the race was completed when I reached Towne Pass without any sign of fatigue. It was here that I decided to sit down and changed my Asics Nimbus to Hoka Stinson.



Kilometers 95-116 (Miles 59-72) / Towne Pass – Panamint Springs :

This section includes a lovely long downhill of 20 km (12 miles) into the next Time Station at Panamint Springs. I was feeling strong and determined to run as fast as I could for most part of it. The incredible cushioning and shock absorption of my Hoka Stinson helped me a lot to “fly” into Panamint Springs. Indeed, Rene and I ran with a pace of 4min/km (6:30 min/mile), and we continued to overtake many other runners during this time. As far as I can remember, this was one of my most exciting moments of the race where my confidence and optimism was reaching skywards.

The lovely downhill against the vast landscape. NB : Not me and Rene in this photo :-)

Everything was going so smoothly and almost half of the race was already done without me feeling unwell. I was able to enjoy not only the descent but also the majestic landscapes. Panamint Lake Bed looked like a vast dessert surrounded by mountains and sand dunes. I remembered thinking at that time that all the lovely things on earth, ie. the grass, the trees, the lakes, the waterfalls – appeared trivial and insignificant when one comes face to face with the sea of desert and the massive mountain walls around it. It is unbelievable to think that one of the largest aquifers in the world actually sits on top of a land so dry, gray, and barren!!! More than 350 springs are hidden underground, after hundreds of miles’ journey from the mountains of Nevada! I read somewhere that the largest spring can pour out up to 2000 gallons/ 7,580 L per minute!!!



Yes, I was really thinking of all these facts about underground springs and snow-melt water when I was running this downhill part. However exhilarating that downhill rush was to be, it finally came to an early end. All of a sudden, I found myself in a “frying pan”, where the heat was getting really serious this time.

Nelva doing a great job, cooling me off with ice water

A gentle climb finally brought us to Panamint Springs. I stopped here for another long 15 minutes, to eat something solid (bites of pizza and sandwich, watermelon with salt) and to change socks/shoes again. 

5-star treatment from my crew. Massage and Pizza-fed : what more can I ask for?

I found out that I have gained a blister and quickly popped the "little ballon" and taped my toe before getting back into the race for the hardest and hottest section of the course.






Kilometers 116-145 (Miles 72-90) / Panamint Springs – Panamint Pass :

For this section of the race, I had Mireya to run with me as Rene took a well- deserved rest. The 13 km (8 miles) climb to Father Crowley was brutal. The temperature by now was close to 46°C (115°F), and the winding road was very narrow, giving very little safe space between us and the cars coming down the road. Thank God, this is America, where drivers actually do respect runners and they kept a safe distance from us. Mireya and I walked the entire section.

Mireya & me during the hottest part of the day



For the first time during the race, I started feeling tired and hot. I kept drinking water and Coca Cola. My crew was waiting for me at every designated location allowed by the race along the route, spraying me with cold water, and replacing the ice cubes on top of my head and around my neck. Despite the fact that I was descending into a “grey mood” at this point, with less enthusiasm and increasing tiredness, I could still find ways to motivate myself, especially when I became aware that I have just overtaken a runner from my late start group.



That gave me a boost and I was able to convince myself to keep pushing in this endless climb. When we finally reached the second section of the climb, which was less steep, I was surprised that I could start running again, even overtaking a few more runners in the process. I knew that I was doing well in the race so far, because for the last 17 hours, no runner has overtaken me. However, I did not have a single clue of my actual position in the race and I did not ask my crew to find out either. I preferred this easygoing approach without any stress of my position, which, I can tell now, was NEVER my approach before!!

Rene took over the pacing from Mireya & me - still on the never-ending climb

**My crew admitted to me (after the race) that up until Darwin, they were too busy rushing to stock up ice and drinks at each Time Station before having to attend to my needs and then to drive to the next designated location, that they had completely forgotten to think about checking my position at the Time Stations!! I was also informed that throughout the race up until near Lone Pine, they could not get any mobile signal at all on their mobiles to trace my position through the GPS units that were attached to all runners.**

Time Station at Darwin

However, they must have had some “leisure” time to spare and check the list while waiting for me at the Darwin Time Station because as soon as I ran into the station, they informed me that a few of the runners who were in front of me had stopped to rest and replenish and if I were to continue running, I would be in the 11th position!! Gosh!!! The competitive spirit in me was suddenly awaken from its deep sleep. This piece of news was able to immediately lift me out of the “grey” mood that I had earlier fallen into. All at once, I was smacked with the reality that there is a slim chance that I could actually finish in the top ten of this epic race!!

Kilometers 145-197 (Miles 90-122) / Panamint Pass – Lone Pine :

I started running this 50 km section in total euphoria after the unexpected news. I was remembering what Dave Krupski has highlighted in his guide: “The race is always won or lost in this stretch of 50K. If you can run it in 5 hours, you win the race. If you can run it in around 6 hours, you will finish in the top 10”. With this in mind, I tried to keep a comfortable pace to bring me to Lone Pine in around 6 hours. The temperatures were dropping and the sun was beginning to fade during this section.


My crew, by now as excited as me, was keeping count of the runners ahead of me manually and was encouraging me and keeping me informed of how close I was to the next runner ahead of me. It began to feel like a race again, instead of a "journey", if you know what I mean. I now have an aim to catch up with the next runner who is ahead of me. For most of this section, everything worked well for me and I managed to overtake three more runners and was then running in the 8th position. I was running most of the time in this never-ending section with Nelva behind me, who kept me going consistently with my pace and never once slowed down to allow me room to slow down too. I could practically ‘hear’ her breathing down my neck!!! (Thanks for that, Nelva!!)


20 Km before reaching Lone Pine, I was starting to feel really tired and losing the motivation to push further. It was getting dark and Lone Pine still seemed very far away to reach. By this time, my remaining crew had managed to get internet connection through their mobiles and when they found out that Oswaldo Lopez, one of the biggest legend of Badwater (he finished the race five times, once in the first position, three times in second position, and once in third position!!!!) was ahead of me, they tried to push me more and motivate me with their new-found fact.


To be very honest, only the thought of overtaking Oswaldo alone made me shiver in that heat of the desert! So, instead of thinking of that, I concentrated on George Myers, the runner who was behind me. I had this feeling that he was steadily closing the gap between us and so, I focused my mind on that instead. This made me push further, and with the amazing help from Nelva, I finally reached Lone Pine at 11pm after what seemed like forever. I knew that my race was almost done but I also reminded myself that if I wanted to keep my 8th position, I should maintain my speed and not slow down, not even for a little bit. With that in mind, I just ran through the last Time Station at Lone Pine with Mireya now on my heels, after relieving Nelva from her long run.

Kilometers 197 – 217 (Miles 122-135) / Lone Pine – Whitney Portal :

Only 20km (13 miles) and a 1,700m / 5,600 feet climb remained, before I reach the glorious Finish Line, after 24 hours on road! I was hoping that I could do this final section with an easy hike, but unfortunately for me, George Myers had caught up with me and was only 300 meters behind me when I started the last climb. I was too tired to notice this fact initially. It was Mireya who alerted me about this ‘bad news’.

Me and Mireya climbing up that torturous last section to the Finish!!

We were then stumbling in pitch darkness except for the light illuminated from our head lamps. It was in the middle of the night and the temperature was beginning to drop drastically and I was getting cold. In the midst of all this, my mind travelled back again to the guide by Dave Krupski, who has by now become my very trusted mentor in this race. He had highlighted that the first 12km (7 miles) up this section is runnable!! This fact alone convinced me that the only way for me to stay in the 8th position was by running this section. With that, I took a deep breath, put my head down… and I started running. My crew was there waiting for me at every 1-mile interval but I did not stop as I did not want to break my momentum. Most of the time, I just told Mireya what I felt like having and she was the one getting for me whatever I wanted (mostly Coca Cola and fruits).


I kept my pace consistently for one hour without stopping or looking back until Mireya assured me that George was out of our sight. Before I could ‘relax and enjoy’ this moment and reduce my speed, Mireya whispered timidly behind me (as she has been warned that I do not like conversation, remember??) something which gave me yet another challenge. This time, she was telling me that Oswaldo was very close ahead  and maybe I should push a little bit more to catch up with him.

The legendary Oswaldo has been suffering from muscle pain from way back earlier in the race but being the champion that he is, picked himself up each time after a short rest and fought on heroically despite his immense pain. On this brutal climb, he must have been suffering again from this pain to have made him slow down.

Indeed, Mireya was right. We overtook Oswaldo while his team was helping him deal with his pain. We then began our power-hike towards the Finish Line. With only 2 km to go before the Finish, I was slowing down again. I was feeling very tired by then and was getting a kind of visual hallucinations, where all the rocks in my vision were transformed into human or animal figures!! It was quite annoying because I was aware that this was the result of exhaustion and a sleep-deprived brain, but I had no way of preventing it. The figures kept dancing before me annoyingly!!

I could hear my crew cheering me on every now and again, their voices echoing in pitch darkness. Mireya was at all times giving me motivation while hiking behind me. Just as I thought the Finish was within our reach, all of a sudden, Mireya was telling me that Oswaldo was up and running again and was getting dangerously close to us!

What a nightmare!!! I was not able to enjoy even the last 2 km of the race?? I started picking up my speed again and was fighting with all my might to keep this 7th overall position. I was not going to lose it, especially not now, when I was so close towards the end of the race.

As we approached the final few meters before finish line, I turned back for the first time to look and to confirm that no one was behind us (I now have a feeling that Mireya was giving me a 'false alarm' back there, to get me to finish this long race as soon as possible!!!). I then asked my amazing team to join me as we crossed the Finish Line altogether, for make no mistake, this is one race that requires a team effort!! And I have truly been blessed with the most superb individuals in my team, without whom, I would never ever be able to achieve this performance. Thanks again, from the bottom of my heart to Hannisze, Mireya, Nelva and Rene!!

Photo Credit : Chris Kostman 

Photo Credit: Chris Kostman


EPILOGUE :

I completed one of the most glorious races of my running career in 27 hours and 39 minutes. If you ask me whether I had expected to finish the race within this time, I would honestly answer you that no, I have not. With this achievement, I regained the confidence which I have lost a year ago at the Spartathlon.

I feel proud to say that I am able to learn from my previous mistakes, to transform them into knowledge and to put them into practice. My performance at Badwater has confirmed that this is possible. Credit should also most certainly be given to Ioannis Dagkoglou, for his long-distance assistance (emails and phone calls from Greece) in guiding me to this unexpected achievement. He managed to keep me fit with only 50-miles of training volume per week (most of which were squeezed between my night shifts and long day shifts at the Hospital) and also gave me precious advice in terms of the kind of nutrition I should have and the various strategies which I should adopt.

If there is a will, there is certainly a way. Finally, I can find peace with myself! The future now looks a little bit brighter despite the fact that I am getting older. I am now more determined to push myself to new boundaries.

My dream to successfully complete some of the most difficult ultra races around the globe, has so far been mostly achieved. It is perhaps time for me to move forward and try something completely new and different. For those who know me well, you will know that ultras in hot environment have always been my favorite playgrounds. Unlike some, I find the hot environment very comfortable.

However, I think it is about time I step out from my comfort zone and challenge myself by going to the other extreme - by venturing into the freezing temperatures of the Poles. This is going to be a huge challenge for my body, taking into consideration my low tolerance to the cold climate and how easy it is for me to get frostbites. I know all this too well, from my past mountaineering and ski mountaineering experiences. So, my next big challenge will be the North Pole Marathon in April 2017. I am hoping that with the right equipment and gear, everything will be made easier for me.


In preparation for this new challenge which I have set for myself, I will be looking for various opportunities to compete/train in races/places at low temperatures, just so that I can test my gears and evaluate the response of my body towards these 'unfriendly' elements. I hope everything will go as planned, and as smoothly as possible.

Thanks to all of you who have been following and supporting me with your kind messages of inspiration during my Badwater 135 experience. Your words of encouragement, prayers and positive vibes,  have carried me through all the difficult times faced in the heat and cold during this race. A special thanks goes out to my colleague, Ash, who helped take away my frustration with my loosened nails, by performing such a superb job. Thanks also to our good friend, Naomi Ruiz, who has come all the way to Lone Pine to see me finish the race. Sorry you missed me there ;-)   

**More images from the race of other runners and crew, taken by my wife, can be viewed on her Page at: 
https://www.facebook.com/RunAndRaces/photos/?tab=album&album_id=855928977883892