The road to Badwater

24/09/2017

Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

BADWATER… a word amongst a lot of runners that instantly conjures the thought of heat, boiling heat that is stifling, you can’t breath in, you burn in, that’s dangerous, that melts your trainers… an area within Death Valley that the National Park website advises against hikers being outside after 1000 hours (see https://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/safety.htm)… of endurance, challenge and desert… it’s a name that starts the heart beating and the mind whispering “one day” and “what if”… a name that ends up in magazines on lists with words in the titles such as “ultimate”, “destination”, “must do” and “toughest” for races to do before you die.

I think I first found their website when I was surfing races (as you do) back in 2014. Only a year into running and I’d never really considered the possibility of the 135 as completing a 100k had been so painful, but the Salton Sea 81 mile team race did catch my eye and became a bucket list “wish”. It took another year until, in passing, my running friend Telma who I’d met at Grand to Grand, said she wanted to do it too so we signed up. By then I was also aiming for my first 100 miler and once I’d hit that finish line, the 135 started calling. I checked the entry requirements and the only criteria I would be able to enter under would be to have 3 x 100 mile races with extensive ultra experience, a note on the website at that time (since updated) stating that usually meant over 5 years. I figured the earliest I’d be able to enter would be 2018 which would give me time to get the qualifying races without using Salton Sea (it can count towards one of the 100s). Cue January 2017 and the day I got home after finishing Spine Challenger the window for entry opened up… Challenger meant I had my 3 qualifiers, with Salton Sea as an “extra”, so I had figured there was nothing to lose, why not enter. That date of entry was actually 3 years and 50 weeks since that first “training run”, so while I hoped and had a “gut feeling”… the logical and realistic outcome was not to expect anything and be prepared to wait a year before trying again. A few weeks later Race Director Chris Kostman announced the names of those being invited via Facebook Live… I was glued to my iphone as names were read out… stomach clenching each time I heard a different name to my own, not sure if that was fear or relief… when suddenly my name was said… I did a double-take… and then literally danced around the room! What a feeling… I don’t think I stopped smiling for a week, and I must have been beaming on the way to work the following day because I got some strange looks…

The next day it started to sink in what this meant…

sacrifice
hard work
expense
determination
focus
the possibility of failure
asking for help
… and a lot of running

plus a starting line of 99 other athletes who most probably had years more experience, faster speeds and included some runners who were very well-known for what they had achieved.

And then there would be me…
Incredibly intimidating.

My coach and friends kept reminding me over the next few months that I had indeed earned my place, and that I’d raved about what an adventure it would be! Stay positive!

The journey from that point on became pretty intense. What would you expect to be included? High mileage, fantastic nutrition, lots of sleep and a healthy athlete raring to go? That’s what I would think of… instead I got bronchitis in the March which meant 6 weeks worth of training pretty much missed, including my scheduled highest mileage weeks, the 145 mile GUCR race 6 weeks beforehand, where I headbutted a bridge, feet taken out from under me, lots of blood, smashing my nose open, another fall during that race damaging one forearm and twisting one foot so badly that after that race, I ended up at my hospital’s A&E Department, on crutches for 3 days until the worst of the swelling had gone down (it’s still twinging some 4 months later). Add to that a severe lack of uninterrupted sleep for almost a year (I have a neighbour whose large dog barked most nights in the early hours which they did absolutely nothing to control and which woke me up most nights anywhere between 1 and 3 times) which in turn exacerbated my sugar addiction due to the need for energy (which the lack of sleep hugely contributes to – never underestimate the value of a good night’s sleep, I miss that so much) and low monthly mileage due to general lack of time and the usual life things like having to work.

So how do you go about organising for such an epic adventure in a different country to you? Research and planning are key: flights, car hire, accommodation for myself and crew, extreme sports insurance, heat acclimatisation, fuelling… and one thing I don’t like to do and which is vital for this race… acknowledge and ask for help.

This is a race that provides timing stations only. No aid stations, no water stops, no food, no shelter. You have to have a crew. You have to prepare and provide not only for yourself, but also your crew. I ended up with the most awesome crew ever: Cheryl Tulkoff (also a Salton Sea participant) was my crew chief, amazingly kind at heart but tough when needs must, warm, funny, down to earth and exceptionally well organised… Jenny Davis who I knew from MdS… Jenny is Scottish but currently living in Texas… she has a wonderful sense of humour, is pretty laid back compared to me, thoughtful and a very good motivator even when the runner (aka yours truly) is a grumpy so and so (she’s head crew for the amazing Mimi Anderson who is currently on her Guinness World Record transcon attempt… you can dot watch from here, with the main website here, Mimi herself has completed a Badwater double)… Pamela Hogue who was first on the team after being recommended by Jaime McDonald (another g2g participant)… she had crewed the 135 before, is very relaxed, always focuses on the positive with an outlook that is super-happy chilled and not to mention dedicated to Badwater… with Becky Gibbs-Templeton coming on board after being recommended by Joshua Holmes and Andrea Kooiman of the RunitFast Group (themselves both Badwater135 vets)… Becky is a massage therapist who had crewed the Badwater135 before, she has a lovely gentle soul which belies how tough she can be (in a good way) when she needs to be and is just amazing at getting your legs to work when all they want to do is never move again!


I had to heat acclimate… living in the UK doesn’t exactly have similar temperatures to Death Valley, so my plan was to use heat chambers during the weekends and gym sauna during the week. I hadn’t banked on it being out of “MdS season”… which meant that generally the heat chambers were not available for every weekend, added to which I had email issues which meant that communication on this part got totally screwed. Plan B was instigated… hit the gym sauna daily for 3 weeks and then fly out to Vegas a week beforehand. This actually worked well, and I had some interesting conversations with various people over those weeks… one day when I was walking around in the sauna with a towel over my head doing some positive visualisation for the race, thinking I looked “Rocky badass” type training, I got asked whether I was in there trying to lose weight… whaaaattttt… now I’m 5’9 so that’s not small, I also look lighter than I am so this was a bit surprising… until the person explained that a friend of theirs had done a similar thing for an upcoming fight, yep I’m going to believe I look badass hahaha… another time, chatting to someone who had thought about taking up running, but worried about walking… and vowed to start when they realised that ultrarunners actually do walk parts of races… to others who knew of the charity that I was fundraising for and the work that they did… the memory of these people also became part of my “journey”.

Kit and equipment are also fundamental and my fuelling on long runs hasn’t been great to date (GUCR showed what a difference going over 100 miles makes for my stomach), so this was a concern… on departure from Vegas, I had my first experience of Walmart… we picked up stacks of food and drink for us all, and as Pamela’s cousin had kindly lent us an ice chest, I bought another two. One would be for drinks, one for food and another for ice only. We also picked up a camping stove and gas, which with hindsight, proved to be a very good thing.

Transport… I took the advice of the hire car company and booked a 5 seater SUV… luckily Cheryl had us check the parking lot when we were in Vegas to see if we could find the one I’d booked… we did… and horror of horrors, it was way too small. Thankfully the rep at our hotel was able to get us a 7 seater at short notice. Unfortunately Jenny had had a little mishap and arrived without her driving licence… now given only she and I would be coming back to Vegas after the race, and I had never driven overseas in my life, let alone on the wrong side of the road… this was a bit of an issue… cue the amazing Matt (Jenny’s other half) being an utter star and getting her licence FedEx-ed over to the hotel from Texas. We went down to Death Valley a day later than planned…

but this worked well because…. unfortunately the hotel in Death Valley had had some kind of blow up of their equipment… which meant no working aircon units. In Death Valley. At the height of summer. Luckily the crew got moved to another room which did have some air con. It turned out our block was the worst affected. As one of my friends messaged… “it could only happen to you”. Cheryl and I unfortunately got no sleep the first night (Friday). The next day we went out and drove over the whole course so that I could plan for what food and drink to get during the race and make sure I knew where I’d be going during the race… oh how those inclines looked totally runnable that day… anyhow, on the way back we hoped all was sorted.

Unfortunately not… and we ended up crashing in the crew room… all 5 of us now together, Pamela having driven up the day after flying into LA… I got a couple of hours sleep and not sure the crew got much more. Not ideal 48 hours out from the start line… thankfully I did manage to get some sleep on the Sunday night because on the Monday, just as I managed to drift off for a “nap” in the afternoon, it was time to get up! So… going into a race sleep deprived, which would go through two nights of sleep deprivation… as my coach Rich said, it’s just another part of the challenge and adds to the “story” (or something along those lines)…

Photo copyright: Chris Kostman/AdventureCorps
http://www.badwater.com

Admin also needed to be dealt with… the usual race registration at Stovepipe Wells which went smoothly: collecting race numbers, race photos, being given your “goody bag” and collecting any pre-ordered items such as the all important biffy bags… not to mention briefly catching up with friends from other races… the pre-race briefing at Furnace Creek was enlightening… especially with the warnings about not gunning your car up the inclines… two cars had blown up and caught fire on the hills only the previous week… because of the heat out there, you have to be careful not to overheat the engine but also you need to get up the hills, so that’s one of the challenges that the crews face… and if your vehicle fails, the runner’s race is over.

Late afternoon Monday… the pace and energy picked up… the crew moved into action… I stayed out of their way so as not to hinder… trying to calm the pre-race nerves… it had suddenly become very very real… I mean, I know standing by the Badwater Basin sign a few days before had been real, but that was when I more a “tourist”… it was part of the fun aspect… the driving round, the having a laugh, the amazing landscapes, taking photos… this was now the time “to go to work” as it were… all those months of planning and training… no more dreaming… no more one day…

today was THAT day…

I had to walk my talk (or run it)…

95 athletes hitting the start line… including me…

I had the 8pm wave…

we started towards Badwater Basin…

this was it…

 

to be continued…

Fundraising page: https://www.justgiving.com/michelle-payne16

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