by Joe Prusaitis
Heaven & Hell
Silverton Colorado & Death Valley California
July 11-13 & 22-24, 2003
This is my 3rd trip to Hardrock and the first time I went, I had a wonderful run, so being the person I am, I attempt to duplicate the same sequence each time in order to get a similar result. It works, so why change it. My body takes exactly 10 days to get acclimated, and I go out 14 ays before the race to make sure. We help with course marking to learn the course, get acclimated, meet old friends, and make new ones. It has become our summer camp, where we bond with kindred spirits and relax from the stresses of our regular life. I enjoy it emensely. We drive up from Austin to Silverton to arrive the day before course marking begins. We stay at the hostel and flit about the mountains: days on the course, evenings in the restaurants and homes of friends. Hot springs and fireworks, hummmingbirds and harleys, we pass out from exhaustion each evening before dark and up before sunrise. Camelbacks & sandwiches, elk herds & marmots, we smile til our faces hurt. A few days before the race, everybody else arives and the mood shifts. Our friends slip away into their own old circles while we do the same. Paul & Kathleen arrive and we move to the little house just down from the gym. It is very nice and comfortable. We rest and eat at home now, cooking our own meals, and visting on the porch. The day before is all chaos, as the race overwhelms the town. Check in, meetings, drop bags, and discussions with my crew about plans. I’m more confused than usual this year for the oddest reason. I know the course too well. They change directions each year, and I’ve run both directions now, as well as marked the course 3 times. But we don’t mark all the sections in the order that we run it. We do mark in the correct direction, but the sections are done in an odd sequence. If you split the cousre into sections from aid station to aid station from 1 to 8, then our marking order went something like 8, 7, 3, 2, 1, 4, 5, 6. Anyway, I’m all jumbled up and confused about the sequences now. I know the course pretty well, but I don’t know which sequence is next. I won’t get lost, but I can’t explain it either. Race day starts with me walking out of town dead last once again and following the pack. Hardrock has begun.
11-13 July 2003
The ground crunches as I walk upon it. With no rain for weeks, it’s incredibly dry. I stroll out of Silverton, cross the Animas, and pass the beaver dam. Without getting wet, I clear the creek that thinks it’s a trail. I even get across Arrastra dry. Enjoying the day and taking my time, I slowly drift uphill into Little Giant Basin. The jeep road climbs steadily at alternating levels of steepness. I like to go out slow and get into my own rhythm. Takes me a while to get all the systems working well. Getting off road always seems to lift my spirits and get me going, so I’m pleased to finally reach the trail head. It’s an irregular trail that wanders amongst moss covered boulders and scrub. Not sure of the exact route but the general direction is easy to see. Remnants of an old miner’s route become more obvious along a narrow ledge that hugs the wall and rises steeply. With sheer drops on either side of a narrow ridge, the summit of Little Giant has breathtaking panoramic views all around. Leading off the other side, another narrow ledge circles round her peak and drops down. At first, I drop quickly, but then I have to slow my progress to keep from sliding off the mountain. With switchbacks for a few thousand feet strait down and very little traction on the dry dusty trail, I roll into Cunningham with little effort or speed. Shoes & clothes are still dry so all I need is a cold Gatorade, a sandwich, and some ensure. The place is hummin with energy. Crews, runners, and volunteers are all spun up pretty hard.
Cunningham Gulch road is full of runners, cars, and dust. It’s also downhill. The next climb starts at the turn, and so do the switchbacks. These first two climbs feel the same to me. Road damn near all the way to the top, large old abandoned mines near the summit, and both are very long and steep. I always seem to suffer worse on the first couple of climbs. I have not yet beat the nerve endings into a comatose state. My body’s rejecting the commands my mind is sending. I visit with Nancy Halpin for awhile and then she slowly walks away from me. I see the tram towers first and then Buffalo Boy mine. The trail wraps around and summits onto a mountain top pasture of yellow grass. I run though the field while the wind creates constantly shifting patterns in the grass. To a ledge, another field, then drop down to a rocky knob which thrusts her head high above Maggie Gulch. In every direction, a steep drop. In a controlled fall, I step off the side, go round the rock, and skip down tundra to the creek. To watch, you’d think I fairly well fall off the rock. The slope’s angle makes it impossible to go slowly or even stop. A trail parallels the creek and drops to a jeep road. Theorems and laws can’t explain how I get my large mass from Knob to Maggie in only one thought process. Next thought and I’m eating watermelon with Molly Gibb.
Molly and I visit on Maggie Gulch Road but separate on the trail leading up and over into Pole Creek. The climb’s steep but not nearly so long as some of the others. In the long high canyon, the Continental Divide trail rolls about as it crosses a large plain and hugs the north canyon wall. I want to run so bad, but just can’t seem to muster the energy in this heat at 11000 ft. I walk and run behind Mark & Margaret Heaphy all the way down to Pole Creek Station. I want to skip on by but nearly out of water, I stop to refill and have some soup while I wait.
Crossing a wide valley, I start up a narrow slot leaning uphill for the next few miles. I attempt to keep my feet dry but there are so many creek crossings, I eventually slip in. As I near the summit, I get off course and start up the wrong climb. I hear someone calling my name and look back to find I’m off by one rock wall. I scramble right to get back to the correct trail. The trail winds through chest high scrub and the flags are well hidden within them. Remembering the route now, I follow the correct route the rest of the way up and out of the valley to the high mountain lakes on top. Going a bit faster on the rolling descent. I hook up with Julie as we bounce along for miles. I separate from her as the descent gets steeper and speed down next to a roaring creek. I cross the creek many times before hitting the switchbacks leading down into Sherman Station. Lyle’s waiting for me with pizza and a chair. Gatorade, Ensure, and watermelon first, then a bit of heat rash is repaired with Desiten.
I exit with pizza in hand for the long dusty road ahead. Burrows Park is 1000 ft gain over 5 miles of dirt road. I try to make the best of it and focus on walking uphill more efficiently. I find some sort of rhythm and stay with it, actually passing a few folks who are struggling more than I with the heat. The trail leading up Handies starts at Burrows Park and immediately crosses a bridge. I stop, sit on a rock in the middle of the stream, and remove my shoes. I clean & soak my feet in the ice cold snow melt. This feels so good and invigorating, I can feel my smile slip back into place. On trail, I hook up with Tom Knutson for the push up towards the 14000 ft summit. Above treeline, as far as I can see, all the bodies are moving very slow. Time to put on a jacket for some warmth at 13000 ft, as the hot day suddenly seems to be getting a tad bit chilly. At snails pace we eventually top out, crawling the last few feet up a very steep wall directly into the rising moon. I look behind to see the sunset. I expect to hear a symphony crescendo, but all I hear is the wind as I share the summit of 14000 ft Handies with both the sun and the moon. I dwell for a second on the meaning of it. There is none. The sun drops out of sight and the moon takes over lighting the trail in front of me. It is more than enough. Tommy & I roll across the top and start down into American Basin. Crossing this basin in the dark might be a bit confusing. The switchbacks drop for a long way and we push it. Large patches of snow are iced over and awkward to cross. Water rushing under a snow bridge in the dark is a bit unsettling, forcing us a bit faster. The trail gets more difficult to follow but I know the general direction and find my way. The climb out of American Basin up to Grouse-American Pass seems to go quickly as we work our way around creeks and bogs on up to the saddle. A patch of icy snow covers the summit and our path leads through it. Stopping before we begin our long descent into Grouse Gulch, Tom tells me to not wait on him. All I see is trail and the rocks upon it as I pick up speed, dropping 2500 ft in 3 miles. I just love it. The last series of switchbacks are long wide sweeping ones with plenty of room so you don’t have to slow much on the turns. Having spotted my green light long before I arrive, Paul & Joyce are waiting for me at the bottom. Grouse Gulch Station has the look and feel of a MASH unit. Bodies are laying all about, sleeping, eating, or surrounded by a gang of other bodies as teams work to keep their runner in the game. I change into longer, thicker, and warmer night time clothes, and have some food to eat. Pacer’s can start here, so Paul’s geared up and ready to go.
Another long road to 13000 ft Engineer Pass, but this one feels much better than the last. No cars and no dust. I’m feeling energized again and charging up the long road at a rapid clip. I can hear water from the Animas on my left, but even with the light of the full moon, I still can’t see a thing. The twinkle of flashlights fills the sky, the mountain switchbacks scattering them all over the dark face of the mountain. There are still many miles in front of me, but it feels good right here right now. The road ends at the summit of Engineer and we go directly over the side into the tundra. We get our speed up on the steep descent and spin on into a rutted & narrow trail that is not very comfortable to run in. We run next to it where the navigation is less awkward. Still above treeline, we can see the lights from Engineer Station well below us. We plan to buzz it, same as we did three years ago. Don’t need a thing and it’s mildly entertaining to see how many stir into action as we go bye.
We swing close enough to be heard, and Paul yells out my number. Four or Five lights come out and give chase. Two stay near for a mile and then they disappear behind us as we continue our rapid descent. I love running down Bear Creek into Ouray. It’s exhilarating! I know the turns, cliffs, drops and ledges of this section well, running within inches of a sheer drop into a creek hundreds of feet below. We stop at Yellow Jacket mine to evict shoe stones, but don’t even slow as we pass by Grizzly Bear. On the winding wall above the long sheer drops, we hug the right, and then on to the glass switchbacks. The thin rocks sound of broken glass as we pound across them. Left, right, and repeat endlessly down the glass highway to the final turn over the highway tunnel. We stop for just a moment to catch a breath and then my stomach turns. I suddenly feel like puking but can’t quite get it up. It hurts to run so I slow to stay comfortable. I’m moving at snail’s pace again, my gut in a knot. What a twist of pace and energy. The cold water of the Uncompahgre feels good on my legs, but it does nothing for my stomach. Slowly along the roller coaster road, the hanging water pipes, and then Camp Bird Road. A few pass us going out as we crawl into Ouray’s Box Canyon. It’s 4:30 in the morning. 58 miles in 10.5 hours. My crew swarms, helping with drinks and clothes. Shorts and T for the coming day. I forget to eat and top off my water. Amazingly stupid, but I’m up to the task.
Joyce is pacing for the next 25 miles, so we walk uphill together on Camp Bird Road to Governor’s Basin. We’re out an hour before the sun comes up and I realize my water bladder is almost empty. Usually I gear up at sunrise, but I’m powering down. I stop to drink some ensure and Red Bull, with hope of getting back in gear, but it has no effect at all. I continue to struggle up the long slow climb. At Governor’s Station, I sit down for a hot cup of soup and a bladder refill. I take my time. Crossing Sneffles Creek, we hook up with Jan Gnass for the rest of the climb out of the basin. Virginius summit is had by three steep pitches that are usually a bit of fun. But once again, the dryness has made these more difficult and dangerous. The first pitch is loose rock and not much different than the Grant-Swamp ascent. It wears me out to climb the scree and I have to stop to get my wind back at the top. At the second pitch we see people going up three different routes. The easiest one is not the way the course is marked, so we follow the course and go up the more difficult route. It’s all very large and loose rocks. Every step and hand hold pulls down more rocks while I slip backwards. We take 2 slightly different angles to avoid dropping rocks on each other, but it takes a while to get up what shouldn’t really take that long. Again, I have to rest when I get on top. The last pitch is the easiest of the three. The course usually goes strait up the face, but this year it angles in from the right across snow and then rock. The entire climb done in a badly depleted state has cost me a lot of time. I’ve been powered down for way too long.
We surf the rocks into Marshall Basin on our way to Mendota Saddle, scrambling forward as fast as we can across a trail of large broken rocks. Off the rocks and onto dirt, we go off course for a minute and have to climb back up to reacquire the trail. Rolling into the saddle and over it, I can see a long way down the trail. There’s no traction and the dust flies on every step. I slide about on each step and in short time my soles are burning. I have to stop and check for hot spots or blisters. There are none, but they continue to burn as I slide downhill, so I slow down. Still a long way to go and I need to be careful. My fast downhill advantage is gone, reduced to a more leisurely pace down the mountain. It’s frustrating. I really want to go and the fast descents are what usually get me spun up. But, this is the way it is. I must adapt. My descent into Telluride is less than what I’m used to. I walk down to the bank of the San Miguel River, peel off my shoes, and drop my over-heated feet into the cool water. Paul starts patching my feet right there in the river. Afterwards, I walk into Telluride with a brand new patch job on my feet and fresh pair of socks. I sit down to a good meal, ensure, red bull, coke, and Gatorade.
Joyce & I begin the long & winding climb to Oscar’s Pass with pizza & Ulli. I feel much better and seem to gaining strength. Trapped on the tourist road out of town for awhile, we eventually escape to a more enjoyable and private trail. Tight steep switchbacks ease into a more linear tilt up into Bear Creek. I start slow and steady and get faster and stronger as we climb. The scenery is stunning in the upper canyons. A short bridge crossing a crevice precedes a house sized and cube shaped rock. We track across a large snow pack without realizing it has a hollow underside, until we exit and look back. Crossing snow bridges give me the willies. We start a long series of switchbacks that hump strait up from the snow pack for hundreds of feet. With head down I focus on breathing until I reach the top of the initial set. Looks like a dozen runners on the switchbacks below us. There are more switchbacks ahead, but nothing like the first set. The terrain flattens out before the final pitch to Wasatch Saddle, but we keep the same rhythm as we march up this climb as well. We find Jan Gnass sitting on top and together we cross the snow & rock fields to Oscar’s Pass. With no hesitation, we roll across and start down the steep rock filled descent. I begin tentatively, but quickly pick up speed. It hurts to go slow or trying to stop, so we quit trying. I realize I can still run steep downhills that are full of rocks. There’s nothing to slide on. It’s the dirt that’s killing me. So, we sprint down the mountain and don’t stop until we reach the bottom road leading to Ophir and Chapman Station. The waiting crew swarms when I stop by our car. Sitting in the dusty red dirt lot, Paul works on my feet, while I drink a lot of fluid and try to eat. It’s not going down easy any more. Joyce restocks my camelback and has it ready by the time Paul & I head out together. Next time I’ll see Joyce is at the finish.
We find ourselves with Ulli Kamm and Rollin Perry early on. We drift into conversation and a comfortable pace as we wind our way up through Swamp Canyon towards Grant-Swamp Pass. Ulli climbs well so I’m pleased to tuck in and hang on. Rollin’s right behind us, but Paul refuses to be contained and bounces all around. We take a short break at treeline, allowing another group to join us. Then our group of seven slowly climbs the remaining steep and rocky trail to the base of Grant-Swamp. When the train stutters to a stop at the base, Paul & I continue on to attack the final pitch. Now we are finally at it. The big dog! The baddest pitch that drops every runner to all fours. I have been looking forward to it. The old vets say the best route is strait up the gut, shortest distance and all that. I start right up the middle and stall quickly. The entire face slides down as I move up, leaving me further behind than I was before. There’s no moisture to hold anything in place, including me. Worse than no progress, I’m moving backwards. I move left, right, and left again. Making some small amount of progress, but stalling again only 50 feet up. Scanning the face, looking for anything solid, I find a shallow chute full of rocks on my left and try it. There is some hold and not entirely solid, but I use it to go a bit higher. Progress is so slow and difficult that nobody’s getting up and off. The face is full of bodies. Twelve people on and nobody going strait up the gut. We’re all forced out to the sides where we find scant purchase in the rocks. Large rocks bound down the face one after another. The sound of ‘Rock’ again and again. Paul and I stay left and finally find the underbelly of the rock summit. The final scramble across the top is all on dangerously loose and brittle rock. Quite a few people are still on the face, with most coming up on the right. Rollin’s across and moving quickly down the other side, with Paul and I surfing down the scree behind him. Quickly separating ourselves from the rest, we pass Island Lake on our way into Lower Ice lake Basin. Night’s coming and we race the darkness. How much distance can we steal from the twilight? In haste, we slide around rocks on the switchbacks, taking hairpin turns with some speed, and reach the hanging valley. Many trails intersect but we navigate the confusion quickly to a raging creek above a waterfall. I walk across a wet log and watch as Paul slips and falls. The thump of his leg striking the log is ominous and he hangs just above the water on the wrong side. The skin from knee to ankle is scraped into a large angry red bruise. We both stop breathlessly still for an instant and then he gets up and walks across. I ask, but he says ‘Lets get on with it, day’s a wastin’. Light fades to dark while we slosh through the muck, both of us soaking wet from knee to toe. The dark canopy of trees opens onto Kamm Traverse, a high face above Mineral Creek. With the moon still hiding her light behind the mountains, we’re forced to turn on our own lights. No more than a skinny goat trail at first, we run, catching Rollin just before KT Station. Busy with noise and bodies everywhere, we sit for a cup of soup, top off our water, and bid adieu.
We slip off road down through skunk cabbage to Mineral Creek. The snow melt stings my feet and seems to stay with me as I slog up through the mud, following the hoof prints of runners into the trees. The switchbacks start quickly, but Paul sets a strong pace, pushing and testing me. I let it all unwind. Feeling great, I push back, working hard to stay with him. We climb quickly, covering a lot ground, yet a light gains on us. It has to be Rollin. Expecting to see him soon, we stop to finish the last of the cantaloupe, grapes, coke, and ensure at Porcupine Creek. Rollin joins our picnic, surprised by the pre peeled cantaloupe and cold can of coke. Crossing the creek through spongy marsh, we climb to the log landmark. The trail twists and winds around rocks, bogs, and brush continuously upward. The silhouette of a high mountain saddle hangs well above us, but I think our target is much lower than that. The moon’s bright high beam shines between the trees. I wonder what it is for awhile before Paul tells me. Too bad he’s so quick to explain. Without him, my imagination would have hallucinated something really grand. As I climb over a rock, I go down hard, my foot screaming in pain. I’ve just popped another blister. I crawl on top of a large flat rock and remove my shoes so Paul can patch me up. I put on a fresh pair of clean socks when Paul is done. My foot hurts quite a bit for about ten minutes after every repaired blister and this one is no exception. Strait up the tundra to the saddle that I initially thought was too high. It’s still a long way off, and we keep going up. Paul pulls ahead and waits on top, using his light as a beacon. The top of Porcupine is much higher than I thought. The large hulking shadow of Putnam looms ahead. The last climb is not an easy one. We glissade down a large bank of snow on top and then the markers control our direction across the wide open high plain. On trail for awhile, across a field, past a buffalo wallow, aiming for the snow field at the base of the Putnam. Too slippery to cross, the snow frozen solid, we go around. While we crossed the high plain, we watched two lights wandering around on Putnam. They come back to meet us above the ice field. ‘Where’s the trail?’ one asks! Strait up the face, I tell them. ‘I’m supposed to believe a Texan’. It’s Craig from Helotes and he thought somebody moved the markers just to mess with him. Paul leads us strait up the tundra face as quick as a billy goat. He goes a long way, then stops and uses his light beacon again. I’m moving about one tenth his speed and can’t believe how fast he is. The slopes very steep with no easy purchase, so I go left and right to get some sort of lateral support. One marker after another, I pass them again and again. How far does this climb go? I got the last climb blues. I know it’s not as long as it feels, but damn, give me the top. Finally I reach Paul and he says we’re about half way. The difference between reality and what I’m thinking is very wide. My thought process can’t bridge the gap. I simply turn and start going up again. Paul repeats the same rapid ascent he did earlier then waits at the top, I hope. I don’t think I like his beacon anymore. After awhile, it starts getting easier as I realize I’m easing onto the rounded summit. We don’t reach the peak here but drift right, angling towards the one on the side. Looking back, I see only one light nearby. Must be Rollin again. The other guys have fallen off. We start to run, across the last peak and down into the deep dark canyon below. The markers get tougher to follow, so we spread out to cover more area. There are steep sheer drops all over this basin, but I know the general direction. Finding the markers, we speed downhill with Rollin not far back. Finally we just stop and wait for him. No sense in not sticking together as we seem to be going the same speed. Fact is, I think we’ve be near each other the last two days. The three of us continue together down to Putnam Station. We stop for a cup of broth and skip out pretty quick.
It’s steep for a bit, causing us to pick up the pace. I nearly run into Paul once as he slows where I can’t. It’s just too steep to stop or even slow down. Into Bear Creek, we run across high pasture onto the nastiest trail on the course. Nothing but broken rocks. Ankle twisting, foot stabbing, shin grinding traps every step. Across the rocks we run as fast as we can make our swollen feet go. I hear Rollin go down behind me and slow to check, but he’s up and running again quickly. Paul goes down too and bounces back up without losing a step. This is insane! We keep going. Our high speed descent rolls right on down to Mineral Creek where we splash across. My feet are numb from the cold and the tingling won’t go away. We cross the highway and climb up to Nute’s Chute. I got the ‘get it done’ feelin but I plan to finish with Rollin. He’s talking PR and I’d like to be there when he does. We bounce along Nute’s Chute in a haphazard sort of run/walk. My foot’s screaming so I stop to check it, then back up to catch Paul and Rollin before the road. Another uphill and we’re gonna be close for a sub-45. I start to push it a bit, urging the pace up to and past the Christ of the Mines. Turning off road and down the last trail into Silverton, we start running again onto 10th and Snowden. Rollin says nobody will recognize him if he runs into town, but we keep running. Rounding the last corner, we approach the rock and stop in front of it. Both of us kiss the rock at the same time. It’s 44:53 and a PR for Rollin. I’m quite pleased to be part of it. I’m both pleased and sorry to be done. My feet hurt and I can finally rest, but now it’s time go home. My feelings are mixed with happiness and sadness, excitement for Rollin, and anticipation of my next event that starts one week from now in Death Valley.
After the race, usually, we stay through Sunday night and leave town early Monday, so Joyce & I can both get more sleep. Makes for a much more plesant and safe trip home to Austin. But, with Badwater looming, we made plans to escape right after awards. Paul & Kathleen Schmidt had rented a nice little house for the last few days and still had it through Monday. They had hoped we would stay with them another night just to relax and enjoy some relaxing time together. After a minimal amounto of discussion, we changed our plans to stay another night for all the original reasons plus a chance to visit with our friends another evening. The problem with our new plan is I have to be at work on Tuesday morning. We have 24 hours and 1000 miles. Do-able as long as we dont sleep. Leaving Silverton at sunrise, we stop at Durango for breakfast, and Albuquerque for lunch. Dinner is a bit late in Lubbock though and by the time we arrive in Sweetwater, we know Austin’s a long shot for tonight. I just can’t stay awake for very long and Joyce has been doing the bulk of the driving. After dinner, she gets so punchy, that it’s just not very safe to continue. We decide to stop in Sweetwater as there’s nothing but podunk towns for awhile after her and no sure thing on another nice hotel. We have a very nice dinner and pull up for the night.
We have an early breakfast and start at sunrise again. We get home before noon, unpack the truck, and I’m at work by lunch time. I’ve been gone from work over 2 weeks and way behind, so I stay late to catch up. I’m leaving again on Sunday, so I hammer all week to catch up and make plans for next weels trip. Lots of little things to arrange and confirm: hotels in 4 cities, rent car, and air plans for 5 people. Rich is driving out from Napa Valley with his wife, plus his brother is flying in from Pennsylvania. I just need to arrange hotels as they are coming on their own terms. Bills get paid from arrears and then again in advance, Joyce makes neogborly arrangements for her dog, the kids are called and reminded that we have not abandoned them, even if have been gone for awhile and are leaving yet again. We just got home on Tuesday and are leaving again on Saturday, just 5 days later. We have no time to get our lives in order. Our kitchen is under construction and the living room is being painred, so everything we own is in a large pile in the living room inder tarp. Erica takes us to the airport early Sunday and we’re almost glad to be leaving again. we are off for Badwater.
22-24 July 2003
At first glace, it seems a bit foolish: to run 135 miles across Death Valley in July. But, if I go for adventure, an education, and some answers, what then? No doubt, it will be exciting. I will certainly know more when I’m done. But really, all I want to know is, ‘Can I do it?’
Joyce and I land in Vegas and escape quickly into the Amargosa Desert. We turn off the highway at an old run-down gas station that might be all there is to Lathrop Wells. With Devil’s Hole on one side and the Funeral Mountains on the other, we enter California and then Death Valley. The road ripples ever so slightly downward, snaking thru the desert while the heat visibly radiates off her back. I know the desert has a life of its own, but the only thing moving are the dancing heat waves. There are no trees, the brush sparse and scattered. We drop below sea level as we enter Twenty Mule Team Canyon and arrive by noon at Furnace Creek Ranch, our home for the next two days. The large thermometer out front says 120.
As we step out of the car, the heat slams us. The air is hot and the wind even hotter. My body soaks up the heat and begins to dry out fast. I need to feel something cool on my body so I head strait to our room for the shower. I can’t seem to figure out which knob is cold. Hot water comes out of both. One of them finally cools down to warm. With no relief in the shower, we crank up the air conditioner and sit in front of the vent. Joyce looks at me with a questioning look that I can’t answer. This is gonna be a bitch! I try to sleep but can’t get comfortable, a headache developing. I give up and go for an early dinner. They bring us a pitcher of water before we ask: same as they do for everybody else. We were expecting Rich by now, but flash floods from last night’s rare desert storm have washed out the road on Towne Pass. They reopened the pass, but his truck broke down. Finally arriving after dark, we meet his wife and brother for the first time. Rich wrote the book ‘Death Valley 300’. He ran over and back. His wife Rhonda had also done the Double. Rich’s brother Drew had also. Joyce has paced and crewed in dozens of 100 milers and knows me better than I do. I could not have a better crew.
An early breakfast is followed by a logistics meeting about food, fluids, electrolytes, clothing, shoes, crews, vehicles, shifts, and so on. And not just for me. The whole team will be out there in the heat. Rich and Drew on one crew, Joyce and Rhonda the other. I’ve made advance reservations at hotels in three of the four towns on our route, and there’s a limited supply of ice in each of them. Our car is the shuttle for ice, as well as hot meals, and sleep. The truck will stay on the road with me. Rich is our field general. This is his team and he’s in charge. He’s been here before and knows what the desert will do to you. I on the other hand am just the runner. My decreasing mental capacity only allows for me to answer questions concerning pee flow, what color it is, and how I feel about it. They’ll suggest to me what I should do and if I don’t agree, then they’ll find a more subtle way to do it anyway. This should become easier and easier.
To the visitor’s center for race check-in at noon, I pick up my number and let them know I’m here. Short and sweet, we’re back at the ranch for lunch before 1pm. Everyone’s required at the 3pm briefing, so the room is packed: runners, crews, medical, media, and race organizers. It’s a bit long and a bit hot, but this is Badwater and it seems to fit. Driving slowly back the short distance to the ranch, Joyce and I see a coyote walk out of the desert and cross our path. In no hurry, he glances at us and continues across.
Rich brought along his white desert jammies for me to use. The hat has a long brim and a wrap around veil to protect my neck and face. The shirt has an open collar and sleeves that extend past my hands. They’ve made many trips across the desert. I’m honored to wear them. The gang’s busy all evening, Rhonda slicing watermelon and cantaloupe, while Rich and Drew organize the equipment. The boys are soaking wet from hauling heavy ice coolers and boxes. The girls will nurse my feet, so they inspect and discuss their current condition while I lie about and watch TV. Joyce can’t sleep and sits up to watch an action movie, and I can’t either because I’ve been just lying about. Eventually the show ends and we fall asleep.
The field of 73 starts in 3 separate waves, with the fastest going last. The 6am group is going out as we drive in. The fast group begins at 10am, while our group goes at 8am. Badwater Basin is a shallow pool of saltwater 282 ft below sea level hiding in the shadow of 5000 ft Dante’s View. It’s very comfortable, until we start running. The mountain shadow stays with us for awhile, but the sharp edge of it is clearly visible in the distance. Daydreaming, my thoughts drift until suddenly I’m blinded by brightness. The feeling is startling! Moving from shadow to sunlight, I’m slammed back to reality. The air temp catapults past 110 and continues to climb. The wind coming off the black asphalt burns. I attempt to run off road, but it’s more work than I care for. Waiting at each mile, Rich asks a few questions and studies me, gauging my status. The crew every mile seems a bit much for now, but I enjoy the fresh cold drink, and the ice cold bottle feels good in my hands. I can’t possible drink the whole thing before I see them again. Running easy, controlled, keeping my head and hands covered, I drink at regular intervals. Before long, my stomach gets a hard lump that feels bloated and rides up under my ribs. Coming into Furnace Creek at high noon, it’s taken 4 hours to go 18 miles.
They’ve created an oasis in the shade of date palms. Stripped to shorts and laying on a cot, the girls wash me down with ice cold rags. One of Rich’s many tricks is the scum bucket: rags in ice cold water. After a short rest, the girls check my feet while I eat. The only hot spots are leftovers from last week’s Hardrock: two small toes on the right and the pinky on the left. Rhonda patches them with care and Elasticon. Rich suggests the long white desert pants now, because it’s getting hotter. An hour later and revitalized, they send me back.
The girls have gone ahead to check in at the Stovepipe Wells. It’s another 24 miles and still below sea level. The boys take the day shift, serving fresh fountain drinks with sides of watermelon, cantaloupe, and grapes. The service is very good. Despite the hot wind blowing very hard, Drew holds a large beach umbrella to block the sun while Rich serves food & drinks. They do this a couple times, but stop I think when they decide I’m stopping way too often. I suspect they think I won’t stop as often if I’m not quite so comfortable. At 6pm Rich tells me its 130 degrees and the hottest Badwater on record. He asks how I feel and seems impressed that I can still create sentences. As the sun slowly approaches the horizon, the sky lights up, and the air begins to cool. A gentle slope dips down into the valley prior to Stovepipe Wells. The team is in serious discussion and doesn’t see me coming. Must be shift change. The girls are back and have dinner, so I sit down to pasta with chicken while they patch my feet, both heel and sole. None of the roadies are working, so I try the trail shoes. They’re all I have left. Next move will be to cut parts of the shoe off.
The wind has been there all along, but doesn’t dominate until after dark. The calm evening turns ugly and miserable with sand. Faces in the flying sand chase each other across the road and through my light’s beam. And under them, scorpions roam the road. I know the sand spirits are my mind’s playful eye, but the scorpions are real. I tell Joyce about them and wonder if she thinks I’m starting to hallucinate. I turn the flashing light I wear strait up so I can be seen but not blinded by the dark space between the strobes. The wind shoves me about until I’m exhausted by the time I arrive in Stovepipe Wells at 42 miles. It’s 10:30pm and I need some sleep, so they take me to the room where the boys are asleep and put me to bed too. At midnight, Joyce and I leave quietly, so as not to wake the others. Thankfully, the wind has died, and although it’s not as hot as it was, it sure isn’t cool either.
Joyce and I leapfrog with Mark Cockbain, Scott Weber, and their crews. Partners in pain, we share ice, watermelon, and a word when one of us passes the other. 18 miles of steady uphill to 5000 ft Towns Pass. The sun rises on us long before we summit. Rich and Rhonda arrive in the morning, sending Joyce to get some sleep. A natural funnel leads out of the mountains directly to this spot, where the flash floods came through and washed out the road. Smashed into the asphalt on a blind turn is a very large scorpion. My mind wanders: first light, early morning, seeing things more crisp and clear that usual. My eyes are hyper-focused, surreal, while my reactions are hyper-slow, everything in slow motion. My body is asleep, my mind dreaming. This must be the time of every morning when I fall into my best dream state, because I’m there! Paying no notice to my pains or the cars going by at high speed, I float uphill very quickly.
The road rolls across the narrow summit and turns decidedly down. My momentum builds as the road tilts more steeply. My walk becomes a jog, then a run. My body’s confused, sending contradicting signals to my brain: I feel great, this hurts, my stomach aches, the wind feels awesome, and so on. But everything’s overruled by my need to keep my feet under me. Anyway, I’m moving fast for a change. I buzz by a few amazed people who likely think I’m insane for sprinting off this mountain. Rich goes ahead 2 miles because I’m running so well and there aren’t many places to pull over. For 8 miles of steep descent, I stop for refills only. As the slope flattens out and goes strait across the dry salt flat to Panamint Springs, I lose my momentum. The cool morning is gone, the downhill is gone, and so is my water. I can see for miles and watch the truck go further and further away. Reduced to a walk, I’m done, but he doesn’t know. I yell at him to stop, but he can’t hear me. Jets roar overhead, pounding the air with supersonic sounds, while I silently melt down. I study them sitting on the tailgate while they study me walking in. It was only two miles ago that they last saw me looking fresh and full of life. The miserable wretch that walks in surprises them. I sit down behind the truck and lay my head on the tailgate. Rich, ‘You’re going too far’. ‘Ok’, he says, ‘I’ll back off’. Trashed, I drag the last few miles into Panamint Springs by noon. At 72 miles, we’re half way!
Again, I strip down and lay in the shade. Unlike the last time, there’s much less shade and I’m far from comfortable. Left to myself for a bit and then taken to a room in the hotel, Rich says I have an hour. I need to sleep so I can handle the next long climb. It’s a swamp-cooled room, but there’s no chance of sleep. A very noisy runner and crew moves into the next room. Even though I’m lying in a comfortable bed, I feel as if I’m still out there on the road moving. The girls bring me a grill cheese sandwich. They cut and tape my blisters while I eat. They’re worried about my progress. With half the time gone, I’m only half way. I need to pick up my pace to make the 60 hour cutoff. If I go any slower I’m done. If I stay the same, I’m on the edge. I have to go faster to create some sort of comfort zone. There where only 9 people behind me when I came into Panamint. Most of them are ahead of me now. I’m either last or near to it.
Rich walks me back to the road, explaining the situation. It’s time for me to go faster and I have to quit sitting every time I come in. I have a long stiff climb directly in front of me and the road is canted such that I have to walk up against the guardrail for a level surface. I finally have some cloud cover and feel pretty good out of the direct sunlight, so I set a good pace and keep it going. After going through a few water handoffs, I surprise the boys by sitting in a ditch to rest my feet while finish my Ensure. Makes no sense to stand up while I’m not moving. I feel really good charging the switchbacks and start to build some momentum. Rich teases me about my new high speed pace, a 15 minute mile. I surprise them in a quick series of turns, tossing my bottle into the cab as I go by. Drew has to runs me down in his bare feet to hand me a refill. A different world waits on top at 4000 ft Father Crowley Point. It’s cooler now, with rain clouds above a gentle rolling road. The boys go ahead to collect our rooms at Lone Pine, and the girls are back for night shift. Dark clouds yield a spot of rain here and there, and finally I get lucky, attracting a good downpour. It’s the one and only time I run past the truck and need nothing at all. I don’t wish to stop while I’m wet for fear of my body temp spiraling downward. It turns into a beautiful evening and a colorful sunset. I pass by some Joshua Trees that create some interesting silhouettes in the setting sun. They look like anything but trees.
After dark, Joyce joins me on the road. She wants to run for a bit and share the road experience with me. After so many hours of being left to my self, it’s nice to have her company. It’s too dark for me to tell if the road is flat or hilly. Joyce tells me it’s downhill, but Rich led me to believe it would be a steep downhill. I’m going easy, waiting for the last big down, but Joyce says this is the down. We discuss it for minutes before I reason out that she just drove this road during the day and should know. I’m finally convinced that I misunderstood Rich and this is the hill. Once reasoned out, I feel obligated to run again. We pass Darwin after 9pm at the 90 mile point. The rolling downhills continue and I’m still running well. Bats start buzzing us. Just one at a time, but one is near us for more than a few miles. I feel good for awhile but slowly, my feet really start to hurt. A little at first, then more and more, until I slow to a hobble. I have to get off my feet, so Rhonda gets the chair out every time I come in. I ask Rhonda if she can cook some hot broth or chicken soup. She needs some time to figure it out, so she drives ahead about 2 miles this time. It’s the best meal I’ve had in days. I slurp down the whole pot. She also checks my feet and discovers a couple large blisters. A repair job and a few painkillers have me running well again. My pace picks back up and quickly. In the darkness, the road seems to go on forever. All we can see are the occasional scorpion and the bats that buzz our heads. I ask for more hot soup and when I get to the truck, Rhonda has a surprise for me. I sit in front of the tailgate, which she has covered with a towel. She pulls the towel away to display a row of soup cans. ‘Your choice’, she says, with a smile. It’s hilarious, but I’m very serious about my selection. I slurp another full pot of broth at the next stop, and continue on in wonderful spirits. I have no idea where we are until we pass Keeler at 110 miles, just 12 miles from Lone Pine. Joyce stops me to see a rather large scorpion, translucent under her green light and very much alive. Now she’s checking the ground and air every time we stop to pee.
The boys are back at 4am. Rhonda heads to bed in Lone Pine but Joyce wants to stays on the road with me. She intends to run with me to the finish. Mark is back also. We drift back and forth with one another, visiting his crew and him. The thought of the sun rising on another flat salt bottom starts me running again. To the amazement of Rich and Drew, I push the last 5 miles into Lone Pine very hard. Mark starts running too and stays just behind me. The Inyo Mountains rise strait up out of the desert east of us and keeps the sun off our backs even after the sun has risen. Free sunlight: light without the cost of heat. The sun finally rises above the mountain’s horizon just as we enter Lone Pine at mile 122. Rich thinks I need some rest before the final push to Whitney Portal so they roll me into our hotel room and put me to bed at 7:30am on Thursday. They give me an hour and then once again the girls cut and patch my feet, prior to sending me out the door.
The Lone Pine checkpoint is one block past our hotel. I pass by at 9:15am. I take note of Mount Whitney as I wait at the traffic light to cross the road, my last turn. This road ends at the portal. With only 13 miles to the finish, I now know for certain that I will finish, and so does my crew. Not that we ever got heavy handed or over serious, but now the mood is all jokes and laughter. A lightness in my stride, and it seems, more bounce in the crew as well. It has been a long haul and a feeling of accomplishment is felt by the whole team. We have been successful. What we did worked. I questioned them many times, but rarely ever challenged what they suggested. I am after all, only the runner: dumb from sleep deprivation, extreme heat, and way too many miles.
Joyce remains by my side as we power hike up through the Alabama Hills. The landscape is phenomenal. All the rocks smooth and round, stacked one on another in unusual patterns. It’s all very pristine and comfortable. A noisy bubbling brook cascades next to the road. It’s still quite hot, and the backs of my legs appear to be burnt up, so Joyce covers them with sunscreen. I down an entire bottle of water before we climb the first mile. Joyce goes ahead to get more for each of us but it’s steep enough to keep her from going much faster than me. I’m feeling pretty strong for my 3rd day. My feet are so numb I no longer feel any discomfort. The steepness of the slope becomes easier as we reach the long strait-away and I can now see the switchbacks a few miles ahead. A large dark cloud mass hangs over Whitney and her neighbors. I’ll be in their shade once I reach the base, and maybe even some rain.
At the start of the switchbacks, I stop for my last sit down after climbing the first steep step. I drink my last ensure and start my coke diet. I leave behind my hat and my water bottle for the last three very steep miles. Joyce & I charge the uphill, slowly pick up speed, and start to pass others as we surge on up. As the switchbacks get steeper, I seem to be getting faster. I’m only walking, but I’m not sure I could run up this beast much faster than I’m walking. It feels so comfortable and efficient. I stop at each mile only to slug down another coke and some water. Trees! For the first time, I see trees. It starts to sprinkle a bit of rain and I feel my first cool breeze as we enter the trees. Rich drives ahead to find a parking spot and to be at the finish when I cross. I start seeing parked cars and think we’re there, but we still have another steep switchback to go up. Pushing as hard as I can, a start running, but I’m forced by the steepness back into a fast walk. Screaming with anticipation, my rhythm all akimbo, I break into a run when I finally see the finish. Joyce is right next to me as she has been for the last 50 miles and the smile stays on her face now even when she starts crying. Everything I feel is bottle up inside, too tired to do more than grunt. We cross the finish at 1:15pm with a time of 53:15. I can finally sit down. The crew was the best! The weather was the worst! I loved it all but I will never come back to run 135 mile road race in Death Valley during the summer.
The Benyos where wonderful. The support and friendship I received from them was more than I could have asked for. They gave me a week of their valuable time while I attempted this completely irrational quest, something that they fully understood. They became good friends along the way. I will not forget what they did for me. Some of it was heartfelt and some of it was funny enough to keep us laughing for years. Joyce was her usual exceptional self. She continues to support me as I continue to wander about. She ran the last 50 miles of Badwater with me after running 25 miles of Hardrock with me. Her smile is infectious and her desire to see me succeed only drives me harder. All my minor conquests would mean nothing if I could not share them with her. All our adventures are worth more than gold, and held forever in our minds. For myself, I felt more for those around me than I did for myself. There was no enlightenment as well as no hallucinations. Death Valley has an exceptional beauty if you can see through the heat, and the environment itself is something to experience. I had heard of it since I was a child and was always curious. I was anxious to get here just to see and feel of it. Now I have a personal picture of it, not much different than what I expected, but now it is real. It is mine!
I have known about Death Valley since I was a kid, and never having been there, I was very curious. I actually knew quite a bit about the place. Still, the feel of the heat and wind in Death Valley was something that must be felt firsthand. Like the Grand Canyon or the beach, pictures just don’t do it justice. I am glad to have BadRock behind me. I’ll continue to do summer camp at Hardrock, but will not partake of the annual Badwater pilgrimage. Like Christinas and Muslims, trail runners and road runners can get along, but they have inherently different beliefs. They immerse themselves in the events, becoming part of it. They love the mountain trails or they love the desert heat. I checked the results for both races and only found 16 people who have done both events, and only 1 person has more than 1 finish at both events, with me being the only fool to do both in the same year. Liek fire and ice, heaven and hell, they just seem to be opposite ends. Each of them have regulars who make this thier one big event each year. I knew in advance that Badwater was not part of me and I was not part of it. I do not care for asphalt surface, endlessly flat distance, or heat. I am more for the rugged trails, endlessly changing terrain, and cool breezes. I didn’t know if I could finish Badwater, but I wanted to experience the event, and find out if I could run it. It was not easy for me, but I have done it. I loved Badwater and enjoyed meeting many of it’s main characters, especially the Benyos and Badwater Ben Jones. 3 weeks after the event, my feet are still growing layers of skin back. Besides that, I feel fine. When thinsg settle down here at home, I will start making plans for more trail races. It is who I am.
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