Around a month after I was accepted into the Badwater 135, I found out that the major deadline I’d long been working towards had been moved to July 25, just days after the race. I asked my supervising attorney what this meant for my vacation plans, knowing the answer. “If the deadline stays as is, I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can let you go,” she said.
I texted Dad and sister to give them the news that I might not be able to run Badwater after all. They were in disbelief, as was I, but I couldn’t neglect my responsibilities at work. The best I could do was to raise the issue one level higher and explain my situation to my supervising partner, Anthony. After I explained the importance of the event and how I planned to prepare in advance for my absence, Anthony just said, “I can tell this means a lot to you, and I know it must have been hard for you to ask me this. The best I can do for now is to tell you that I’ll think about it. Although, I have to say, it doesn’t look good.”
The road forward was filled with uncertainty. I couldn’t get a crew together or make travel plans when it was unlikely I’d be able to run. I didn’t even know if I should keep training. That weekend I was supposed to run 16 miles to Fort Tilden and back, for 32 miles altogether. Since I wasn’t planning to meet up with my friends until the evening and wanted to see the beach, I decided to go forward with it.
During the run, I had plenty of time to think through my options. On the one hand, I had a lot of good friends in New York to spend my time with, so I didn’t want to focus too much on running for no reason. On the other hand, what could be worse than being cleared to take vacation for Badwater and not being ready for it? I thought back to the Rouge-Orleans, where I’d skipped a weekend of skiing only to subject myself to injury, freezing cold, and failure. This was different, though. I’d really only be running during hangover hours in New York and the few weekend trips I’d planned for races involved my friends and family. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t imagine giving up on Badwater when I was so close and had so little to lose.
My longest training run would be the Florida Keys 100 in May. I’d planned the race to visit Dad and his parents in West Palm Beach before heading down to the Keys. But the weekend before, I realized I wasn’t quite ready for the distance. I figured that I should get in one last 50-miler beforehand, but it’d be a gamble, since I might wind up with an overuse injury or too weak to finish the race.
Figuring the potential benefits were worth the risk, the Saturday before the Keys 100, I set out for Tarrytown, a charming area 26 miles north of Hell’s Kitchen. I ran there and back for 54 miles total. Then the next day, I put in 16 miles around Central Park. I knew that I was pushing my ability to recover in time for the Keys 100, but I also knew that it’d go a long way to preparing me for Badwater if I took advantage of the training opportunity.
That Thursday, I flew down to West Palm and Dad picked me up at the airport. He took me to the retirement home to see his parents, who had moved there a few years ago from Detroit. They’d lived on their own until they were over 85 years old, in the same house my grandmother had bought in cash when they first started their family. I always loved visiting my grandparents because they reminded me that true love is possible.
My grandma had fallen in love with my grandfather after only a few dates. He had just come back from World War II after his ship, the USS Bismarck Sea, had been sunk by kamikazes during the Battle of Iwo Jima. They’d married soon after and, 68 years later, still acted like newlyweds. My grandma spent hours giving me advice on how to be as happy in marriage as she was, which basically amounted to: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t lie, and don’t fight.
The next day, I tore myself away from my visit with my grandparents to drive down to Key Largo. I had to pick up my race packet and get some rest. The plan was for Dad to meet me down there the next day, so he could crew me. There were checkpoints every ten miles, but I knew that it’d be nice to have his emotional support and more frequent access to water in the heat. Unfortunately, by mile 20, I was thinking that I’d need Dad for another reason: to drop out.
My legs were already feeling a burn and I had 80 percent of the course ahead. It didn’t help that it was nearly 100 degrees and the mile-markers on the highway corresponded to the course’s mileage, only in reverse. Every mile, I’d be reminded of the remaining distance: 79 miles, 78 miles, 77 miles. It was torture. I texted Dad to let him know I was struggling and likely to drop out. He replied that he was stuck in traffic. It would be at least an hour before he arrived.
I decided to keep running, figuring I could at least log 40 miles, which would be good enough for training purposes. It was still so unlikely that I’d be able to run Badwater that it probably wouldn’t matter anyways. Approaching my 40-mile goal, I called Dad to ask when he expected to arrive. “It’s bumper-to-bumper here—I’m sorry baby. I’m trying my best to get there. Is there somewhere you can sit and wait for me?”
“No, I’ll just keep running,” I replied. “It’s not horrible. I just don’t think that I can make it 60 more miles.”
Arriving at the next checkpoint, at mile 50, I was in fairly good spirits. But it was mostly because I knew that relief was coming. I sat down to collect myself and noticed another runner sitting nearby, looking ill. “How are you doing?” he said.
“Alright now, I guess, but I think I’m going to drop out soon. My legs have been burning since mile 20. I think I went out too hard last weekend. How about you? I’m Katie by the way.”
“Good to meet you Katie. I’m Byron. I’m not doing so well, actually. I was thinking of dropping too. You look okay though. I mean you don’t look like you’re struggling at all.”
“Well I feel fine now,” I said, “I just know that I won’t make it another 50 miles.” As I said this, I grew more aware of how I was feeling: I did feel fine. I was in good spirits again and, while my legs still hurt, they weren’t any worse than 30 miles ago. Making a decision, I told Byron, “My dad’s actually on his way here now, so I think I’ll cool off in the car and then try to make it to 75. How about you? Are you going to continue?”
“Yeah, I’m actually going to get going here shortly. My mom’s just ahead if you need anything while you’re waiting for your dad. Do you want to run together for a bit?”
“Sure,” I said, getting up.
Byron and I ran a good 30 minutes together before Dad showed up. I wished Byron luck with the rest of the race, then veered off towards Dad’s car for a break.
“How you doing sweetie?” Dad asked when I got in.
“Good,” I said, “or better now at least. Miles 20 to 50 were rough, but I think I can get to 75 now. I’m just going to rest for a minute and then can you meet me at mile-marker 40?”
“Sure,” he said. “I can meet you sooner too, and I can get you some food if you want.”
“Oooh! Yes! Can you get me a grilled cheese and a vanilla milkshake?” I don’t know why, but that’s all I wanted, and my stomach was starting to give me problems. “Don’t meet me any sooner though, as it’ll be too tempting to give up if I see you too often.”
“You got it,” he said. “Now go get ‘em. You’re tough and strong. You can do this.”
I climbed out of the car and forced my legs into motion again. Just ten miles to go to the next break, I thought. Ten miles and you get ice cream. The scenery distracted me as the miles passed. The course ran straight from Key Largo to Key West, across one bridge after another with clear Caribbean water on either side. I also distracted myself by singing aloud along with my music. “Come With Me Now” by KONGOS turned out to be a great marching tune. It was goofy, but it helped keep my mind off the pain.
Once I made my 75-mile goal, I decided to run five more to make it an even 80. Then I thought, heck, there’s only 20 miles left. I can run 20 miles. My legs aren’t that bad off. Soon after, Byron ran up beside me. “Hey!” he said. “You’re keeping a good pace. Can we join you?” He was running with an Italian racer named Antonio, who seemed every bit as friendly as Byron.
“Of course!” I replied. “Though I’m not sure how long I’ll keep this up. You recovered well, though.” Byron was looking much less green. “How are you feeling?”
“Good, I caught my third air.” Byron was from Guatemala, it turns out, so sometimes he translated colloquialisms a bit differently, even if his English was otherwise perfect.
While we ran, and intermittently walked, I learned that he was training to be a pilot and working as an airplane mechanic while studying. By the time we reached the checkpoint with only ten miles to go, it was like we were old friends. We said goodbye once more because I needed to rest while Byron was ready to go on, but he promised to wait for me at the finish.
Before making the final push, I knew I’d have to do something about my stomach: I was hungry, but I didn’t want anything to eat. There was a convenience store behind the checkpoint so I took a look inside, hunting for anything that looked edible. Red Baron pizzas! Dad paid while I heated one up, and then stumbled outside to eat it. I rested in the car for fifteen minutes and then headed back out to the road.
I crossed the finish after 22 hours and 47 minutes. Dad, Byron, and Antonio were all there waiting to cheer me through. It was past midnight. We hadn’t been able to get a hotel nearby, so Dad and I slept for a few hours in the car before making the long drive back. After two and a half hours driving the course in reverse, I could hardly believe I’d come all that way on foot. It was harder still to believe that I’d need to go 35 more miles, with 18,000 feet of elevation gains and losses, for Badwater. A good part of me was starting to hope that I wouldn’t be granted the time off, so I wouldn’t have to risk failing.