Mid Jan | 160 km | 1D | Trail | F:130 | 36 HL | △△△△ | United States
A week after finishing the Brazil 135, applications for Badwater opened up. The application was almost as involved as the one I’d submitted to law school. I had to list every race over 50 miles that I’d completed, along with my time, place, and a link to the website where my results were shown. I had to answer essay questions like “What percentage of your running peers would say you are a good sportsman and human being?” It took three hours to complete my submission. I’d worked so hard to qualify for Badwater that I didn’t want to undermine my work with a mediocre application.
Fifteen minutes after I pressed “submit,” an email from Chris Kostman, the race director, came through. “Dear Ms. Plichta, I apologize but we will are unable to accept your application. In order to meet Badwater’s qualifying standards, you must complete the Brazil 135 in addition to an ultramarathon of at least 100 miles continuous. Our application period is open for another two weeks, so we invite you to reapply if you manage to complete a continuous 100-miler in that time.“
I thought the qualifications would be more like guidelines, but the email was clear: I needed to complete another 100-miler in the next two weeks to qualify or else Badwater would have to wait until the next year. My one real option was the Rouge-Orleans, a 126.2-mile ultramarathon from Baton Rouge to New Orleans the next weekend. Questions of whether it was a good idea or not didn’t enter my mind: I just registered.
I arrived in New Orleans a week later, picked up my rental car, and started dropping support bags off along River Road, the racecourse. Dropping bags at six-mile increments for 126-miles would take a while, but would give me ready access to food, water, and supplies throughout the race. Everything was going smoothly, but after five hours, it became unclear which direction I should head.
I looked at the course map and felt my heart pause as I noticed that there were two River Roads. I’d been driving along the wrong side of the river the whole time! Beyond frustrated after scrambling all week to prepare a game plan that was now moot, I replenished my race supplies at Wal-Mart. The race director kindly offered to drop the new bags for me at 13-mile increments and there would be full aid stations every 26 miles. With that settled, I used the rest of the day to rest. It would be a long night.
At 2:30 a.m., I threw on my gear, checked out of my hotel, and headed to the start line, just a short walk from the hotel. Feeling as if I was stepping onto a battlefield, I just wanted to get moving. A cannon sounded and we were off, a mob of bobbing headlights and bright orange reflector vests. The sun soon rose and it was like the miles behind me disappeared, like I was just starting out a morning run.
Soft peach light flowed over the dying grass between River Road and the levee, accenting it with a gold sheen as silver reflected off the long gravel road ahead. I was running strong, despite a few acute pains in my feet. Within ten hours, I was 50 miles closer to the finish. I was looking forward to the next rest station, since the last one had only Coca-Cola and M&Ms. Hungry and running low on water, I turned river bend after river bend, each time expecting to see the tented rest area. There was no checkpoint in sight though. Assuming I must have passed it, I stopped at a gas station to buy water and snacks.
When I returned to the levee, I discovered that my legs had gone on strike, refusing to run. Achilles tendinitis was threatening my right ankle and a sharp burning had seized hold of my thighs. There had been a mix-up and the aid station was actually at mile 58. When I reached it, I wasn’t sure if I could continue. I downed a 5-Hour Energy, took an Aleve, ate, and decided I was as ready as I was going to get. I had to at least try to move forward.
Every step sent a shock of pain through my legs as my body reminded me of all I’d put it through in Brazil, just a couple of weeks prior. When the Aleve and endorphins kicked in, I tried to run and slowly gained momentum. I was behind schedule, though. It would be nightfall by the time I reached my next bag 13 miles away. My night gear was another nine miles past that, at mile 80. I’d asked a race volunteer to switch the bags to bring my night gear closer, but I was skeptical that he would actually do it. Sure enough, I arrived at my next support bag to find that my night gear wasn’t there. I’d have to keep going without a headlamp or my warmer clothes.
Running the cold, unlit course was a strange experience. Lights from factories in the distance provided ambient lighting, shining eerily through the trees to make shadow puppets that seemed to follow me as the light shifted. Untethered dogs added a not-so-insignificant threat. Each time I’d pass a group of houses, at least one or two dogs would approach me, growling and barking. I’d make threats in their direction and yell, “Go! Get! Get!!”
My mood started to dampen as the temperature plummeted on the levee. In an hour, it dropped to 33 degrees Fahrenheit, but it felt even colder. My light sweater and gloves were completely ineffective against the unrelenting wind. It was only 9 p.m. and I was already chilled to the point of desperation. When the thought crossed my mind to curl up on the ground and wait it out, I knew I had to get to the next checkpoint fast.
I started doing this pathetic little jog, my Achilles creaking with every step. A relay runner passed me and I asked how far it was to the next checkpoint. “Two to three miles,” he said. I knew I couldn’t go another two miles as cold as I was, so I took the next ramp down to River Road and flagged down a car, which seemed to be the runner’s support crew. I asked them to borrow a sweater, sheepishly explaining the situation. I had tears in my eyes from the cold wind, and probably a bit from weariness and anxiety. One of the crew members handed me a black fleece jacket. Relief!
My eyes glassed over, blurring my vision, as I kept walking into the head-on wind. Moving forward was nearly impossible without leaning into it. After another two miles, I saw a white Chevrolet pull off to the side of the road. It took a moment to register, but then I realized it was the man who had been supposed to bring me my night gear! He didn’t have it with him, but I was overjoyed to see him nonetheless. He invited me to warm up in the white Chevy and I jumped at the chance.
I took a 20-minute nap with the heat blasting, so relieved to be off the levee. When I woke, I learned the next aid station was within sight. Stepping out of the truck was like plunging into an ice bath, but I had to do it. I hobbled through the next few hundred yards at a zombie’s pace. When I finally arrived, I dove into the nearest vehicle I could find. I couldn’t bear to be outside a moment longer.
It was a tough decision, but I pulled out of the race. My injuries would prevent me from running any further, and there were still 46 miles to go. I conveyed my decision to the race volunteer and felt Badwater slip through my fingers. At least three others made the same decision, including the female race leader.
When I awoke the next day I found that my injuries were even worse than I’d thought. It was good I recognized my limitations. So many times during the Brazil 135 and preparing for it, I’d wondered whether the obstacles I faced were telling me to quit or push harder. In Brazil, I found I’d been right to push forward, despite all contraindications during the race, since I was ultimately able to finish. Even then, however, I realized there must be a point where quitting is the right answer. The Rouge-Orleans taught me that point. But reaching my limit also made me wonder what I’d been trying to accomplish in pursuing Badwater. If I wanted to run in the desert, I could do that on my own. Why did I need a race? I’d given up time with friends, skipped law school classes, and even suffered physical injury, for what? I didn’t have a good the answer.
Almost as a sanity check, I emailed my friend Bogie and told him that I was thinking of giving up ultrarunning entirely. I explained how I was questioning my motivations and how the Rouge-Orleans had been a wakeup call to re-evaluate my priorities. His reply was simply, “What stupid thoughts coming from such a smart girl.” I knew he was right. I hadn’t made those sacrifices recklessly. I did it because Badwater was special to me. It’s not just running through the desert amidst stunning landscapes and extreme conditions. It’s running with the most accomplished and inspiring ultrarunners in the world. It’s the legendary challenge, the camaraderie. It’s feeling at the end, knowing all it took to get to the finish line. In the back of my mind, I knew I’d try for Badwater again. It meant too much to me to rationalize it away as a misplaced goal.
In an effort to get back to the fun side of running, I signed up for a local half-marathon, a trail race off of Skyline Boulevard in Palo Alto. The day of the race, I ran 13 miles up Page Mill Road to the start line, to make it a marathon. I started 20 minutes late, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to run. Most of the race was just rolling hills over soft, moist mulch. The footing couldn’t have been better, and since the whole race was through the woods, there was constant shade and great scenery. By the time I finished, my spirits were a thousand times improved. I decided to ignore goals all together for a while and just run whatever I wanted to in the moment.
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