Badwater #16: Bloating, Blisters and Blitz to the Summit

Mount Whitney | Photo taken by w:user:geographer on 3/25/03, source: http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Image:01520008.jpg

Badwater Ultramarathon 2010

After more than a dozen previous Badwater Ultramarathons, all covering 146 miles to the top of Mount Whitney, what could make this one special? Uncertainty. Overcoming obstacles. Persevering no matter what happens to deter you from going the distance.

Plus it was happening just a couple of weeks after my 59th birthday. A great way to celebrate another year!

My sixteenth race probably wouldn’t be much different from 22 other crossings (one way or another) I’ve made in Death Valley, a place I consider to be one of the most remote and pristine environments left on the planet. There’s always the mystery of whether or not I can rise to the occasion of finishing not only the current course of 135 miles to the Portals of Mount Whitney, but also continue on the mountain to the top–always a challenge. In the past, I’ve experienced a temperature change of up to 99 degrees from the basin of Badwater to the top of Mount Whitney. You never know exactly what you’re going to get, from the heat of the desert and pounding of running on pavement to rough trails, cold (sometimes storms, snow, and lightning), and altitude of the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.

It’s always a crap shoot.

In the past, I’ve heaved a sigh of relief every time I’ve stood atop Mount Whitney and looked down upon the vast desert spilling out into Death Valley to the east. Northwest and to the south are the Sierra Nevadas, extraordinary with snowcapped peaks and lakes rimmed with aqua-colored and thawing ice. Such sights erase the harshness of the arid desert that I’ve just crossed.

The biggest question this year was whether my right foot had recovered enough from my 2008 transcontinental crossing of the United States. In 2009, I’d spent the year recovering, with no distance over a marathon completed and a disappointing Badwater DNF that included a slog of only 25 miles before the foot reminisced and swelled one to two sizes beyond my normal 9.5 shoe size. After this failure, there was a big question in my mind if my body was ready physically and my mind mentally in it to complete the race in 2010.

This year, after passing the marathon distance, mostly walking briskly and making fairly good time, I begin to feel as though I might *just* be able to do this. The road to Stovepipe Wells seems to pass relatively quickly underneath my feet and other than the heat (officially 120 degrees this year) I feel more and more confident. I’ve learned to treat myself with small rewards, breaking the distances down into manageable chunks; the first is 45 miles to Stovepipe, where I take a planned 1.5 hours of sleep, something I’ve never stopped to do at Badwater before.

The days are over when I could run sub-30 hours, twice dipping into the 26-hour frame. Back then, when I was in my forties, there was no stopping, just running, and constant forward movement. In 1991, I continued to the top of Mount Whitney and set the current fastest time of just under 34 hours. After finishing the race in the mid-26 hour range, I slept for just one hour and continued on to the top in the dead of night with temperatures dipping down to the low twenties at the top.

Not this year. This year, I stop for a nap after 45 miles.

After the sleep, a 20- to 30-mile headwind persists up Townes pass, unusual for an a.m. start. (Back when the p.m. start was traditional, it was common to experience headwinds almost the entire night, as natural convections suck cooling wind into the valley.) For the a.m. starts, a tailwind is more likely, as the heated air rises from Death Valley and the temperatures are actually cooler than the 6:00 p.m. starts, sometimes reaching 120 degrees or more. Those a.m. starts heat up starting around 10:00 to noon and don’t relinquish their hold on the Valley until the sun sets.

Some things are somewhat predictable in Death Valley: high air temperatures, dryness, wind, and heat rising from the pavement. Occasionally, a sprinkle or downpour is welcome relief, only to be short-lived, and then the humidity just complicates things. Mother Nature has a way of reminding us that she’s fickle, and adjusting to conditions is always the key to success.

So, after climbing 2,000 feet to Emigrant ranger station, the wind gets demoralizing, and I start to question why I’m doing this race. Again.

This feeling is almost inevitable to experience during the race, once or more, and the best I can do is accept that it’s happening and not make too much of it. I have to trust that answers to “why” can be found farther down the road, at the end, or possibly weeks later. The trick is not to let it overwhelm or bully me into quitting.

The wind remains fairly constant all the way up Townes pass and only after the big downhill plunge into Panamint Springs do I find relief. Progress is good across the Valley floor and up Father Crowley’s as I hit the summit, now just over 24 hours from the start.

From there, the challenge becomes focusing–and putting one foot in front of the other–across the gain and loss of altitude into Keeler and Lone Pine … another Badwater and a another challenge. I retain water and BOTH feet swell, resulting in blisters on the heels, inside and outside of my feet, and a few good ones on the toes. After three stops of popping the blisters, I see Jackie Florien, who stops by to tape my feet, which relieves some of the discomfort and allows me to get back to finishing the race.

Coming into Keeler is always a sign that the end is near, and continuing on to the junction that leads to Lone Pine is always a relief. Here’s where I’m in my element; gaining altitude from Lone Pine at about 3500 feet to the 8,400 foot Portal finish is a stroll, albeit difficult over the last 11 miles (or so).

Yes, my feet hurt and my stomach gets distended with water retention. (My crew kid me about being pregnant or catching my period … but all that kidding makes me grin ear to ear.)

The clock keeps running. and after a good daybreak, we start up the Whitney trail at 5:30 a.m., anxious to see if the upper 99 switchback above the 12,000-foot trail camp was clear of snow. Four of my crew are with me; Perry Gray, Will and Beth Laughlin, and Jill Andersen. Heather stays behind with Murray Griffin, who’s been my wheel man at least seven times in Death Valley, tending to business. The climb is perfect, as we make good time and wear short-sleeved t-shirts all the way to the top for the first time ever. Clouds roll in and dictate that we leave the top quickly, but they add to the comfort of lower temperatures all the way down the mountain.

Now 13 hours later, we’re at the bottom and celebrating another successful 146-mile crossing from Badwater to the top of Mount Whitney, then 11 miles down to the portals. My wonderful crew and I have experienced the full spectrum that only the Badwater race can offer: sublime heat and a slice of heaven topping out at the Mount Whitney summit.

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