The morning of Badwater felt calm, even though I was about to take on 135 miles. For once I wasn’t scrambling or arriving late to the start line. Probably because of my win at Badwater Cape Fear, I ended up in the “fast” start group, though I certainly didn’t belong there. At least a dozen of the people standing next to me were ultrarunning legends, like Pam Reed, David Goggins, Aly Venti, and Grant Maughan. They would finish below 30 hours, for sure, while I was hoping for sub-40. I tried not to compare, reminding myself that I was running my own race. Aly Venti runs 200-plus miles per week, my mind said. You’re not going to compete with that, and you don’t want to. The national anthem started, and I snapped back into the moment.
The gun went off and we started running. I looked to my left and saw Aly Venti, looked ahead and saw no one but Carlos Sá. We hit the first hill and parts of the pack started to move away. With each notch up in altitude, another couple of runners passed me. When we hit the first major climb, 23 miles up a hill called Horseshoe Meadows, I knew the next time I’d see the elites is when they were on their way back down.
I started up the hill running, a bit unnerved that all those around me were slowing to a walk. I wondered if I should be walking too, but I wasn’t tired. I passed my support car once, then twice, still feeling strong. Six miles into the hill, I started to slow, realizing I had 14 miles of uphill remaining. Then another runner passed me walking and I thought: that’s enough. Let me save my energy and walk up this hill, lame as it feels.
As I climbed, I started wondering when I’d see the first group of runners come down. My wave had started at 8 a.m., but two others had left at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. I should see them any minute, I thought. If not, I had a long way to go. When I saw the first runner pass by on the way down shortly later, I was relieved at the thought that my walk wouldn’t go on eternally. Mostly, I just wanted to experience that 23-mile downhill! I thought I’d see some more runners from the 6 a.m. wave next, but instead, the race leaders from my 8 a.m. pack streaked by. In just 23 uphill miles, they had already passed almost everyone who had started a full two hours ahead of them!
Five hours after starting out, I reached the summit, though I didn’t realize it until my crew captain, Andrea, congratulated me on getting through one of the toughest climbs of the race. My pace was around 13 minutes per mile, which I didn’t consider too bad, given all the walking. I spent a few moments at the car, putting on sunscreen and grabbing a cheese sandwich. I asked my crew to space out the rest stops on the way back down to four miles instead of three. I wanted to make up time and knew I wouldn’t need water and food as frequently on the downhill. As soon as I reached a section of the course steep enough to really pick up speed, I let loose. My already-high spirits got a boost as the adrenaline kicked in. I was grinning, even though there was no one around to see it, or perhaps because there was no one there to see it. I cruised down, hardly stopping at the car to re-fuel. I passed a few runners here and there, but most were still ahead since I’d lost so much time on the uphill.
At the base, I kept gliding on the energy stores that had returned to me. Instead of thinking of the 90 miles ahead, I thought of the 14 miles I had remaining to get to the base of Cerro Gordo, which was at the 60-mile mark. Even though the 16 miles up and down Cerro Negro would be some of the toughest in the race, they’d be walking and straight downhill miles, which don’t count in the same way. The exertion would be more mental than physical. So once I reached the base, I’d essentially be past 75 miles. Thinking about it that way made it seem more doable, even though the mileage was the same.
A few miles later, the heat of the day hit me. I felt the overwhelming urge to get off my feet. I told this to my crew, conscious that it would probably unnerve them coming just 40 miles into the race. But they understood completely, telling me that my Dad was just a mile or so down the road and that I could sit with him in his car for a moment to catch my second wind. That got me going again. I hadn’t seen Dad since the Keys 100, since he’d arrived after the race start. I couldn’t wait to give him a hug and relax with him for a minute.
When I saw Dad in the distance, I was surprised how relieved I was. He ushered me into his car, turned on the AC, and gave me some food. I lay back and started venting all my worries, what had worked well, what hadn’t worked well, how I was feeling, etc. The best part was, I didn’t have to worry about disappointing him. I knew Dad could listen to my worries and would love me exactly the same whether I finished or stopped right then. I’d placed enough pressure to finish on myself that it was immeasurably helpful to have someone say, “You know, you should be out here for you, and you alone. If you are having fun, go for it; but listen to your body and remember that no one says that you have to do this.” I’d only given myself 10 minutes of car time, which were basically up, so I gave Dad another hug and got ready to go again, feeling a thousand times better.
At mile 45, I could start having a pacer with me. My crew – Andrea, Byron, and Maryanna – were all ready to go, probably excited to be out of the car for a while. They had decided, to my great relief, that I wouldn’t carry anything extra on the course, except up Cerro Gordo, when the car couldn’t come along. Whoever was pacing me would carry water for both of us, which felt a bit awkward, though it was extremely helpful. They would switch out pacing every four to eight miles to stay fresh, except that Byron would have to run all of Cerro Gordo, since there was no opportunity to switch. Before heading out, I changed shoes. It was such a small thing, but it made a huge difference. I felt like a new runner, though the race was far from over and I’d have plenty of time to tire again.
It was simultaneously a relief and terrifying to reach the base of Cerro Gordo. It was the steepest climb of the race, but by the time I finished, I’d be more than halfway done, with two of the three major climbs behind me. Byron was the ideal teammate for this tough section. He didn’t complain about the steepness or how slow I was going, and he did his best to keep me distracted. He asked me about past races and told me how the other runners were doing on the course. Apparently, several had already dropped out, including David Goggins. When you go out hard, the chances of “blowing up” and having to drop are much higher. Even so, I was surprised to see an elite runner drop so early. As I trekked further up Cerro Gordo, I started to understand.
The hill was interminable. At every bend in the road, I’d look up expectantly for the water stop, thinking that it couldn’t possibly be much further. Whenever I saw a cluster of lights in the distance, I’d think, it’s there! But then I’d discover that it was just a runner lying on the ground to rest or a pair hunched over trying to summon the energy to go on. I longed to lie down or, at least, take a breather. But I knew if I stopped once, I’d want to stop again and again. It was better to continue putting one foot in front of the other.
My strides kept shortening. It looked more like a shuffle than a walk. Byron kept telling me, “Keep your back a little straighter. There you go. Just try to walk a little faster.” He was infinitely patient, never rushing me, but just gently reminding me that I was in a race. Being a slow walker, I was surprised that not too many people passed me heading up. It seemed that everyone else was struggling, too. When we finally hit the checkpoint 2.5 miles before the summit, Byron and I took a moment to refill water, grab a bite to eat, and rest our minds. It is hard to describe what a relief it was to hear him say, “Hey, you’re close – keep it up.”
In a few minutes, I told Byron that I was ready to continue and asked if he was as well. He acted as if I was speaking a foreign language and had this amazing attitude of “I was born ready,” even though he was far too humble to say it. Instead, he just said, “Sure, let’s go!” Heading into near blackness, we started climbing. I thought back to Mt. Kilimanjaro. This felt like the summit day, taking the climb step by step, by light of the moon. The stars were bright, as it was around 11:30 p.m. in the desert, just like when I rose from my tent and saw the Milky Way for the first time. The same way we shoved aside our needs on Kili to make forward progress, I had to do again. I couldn’t let myself stop for a break, because that would just prolong the pain and cost me precious minutes. I knew the turnaround was close. The further we progressed, the more racers we saw sleeping or resting on the roadside.
I felt a quick rest with my feet up would revive me in about five minutes. But I focused on the fact that the summit had to come soon and I’d be better off making forward progress until I reached it. A couple of bends in the road later, I saw an old house in the distance. It was the turnaround point! I walked a bit faster up to it, revived by anticipated relief. Even as I closed in on the house, I envisioned myself plopping on a bed as all the stress of the climb unraveled. The funny thing was that I got so much energy from reaching the summit I hardly needed to rest there. I knew I’d be better off on the downhill if I took a moment at the top anyways. A race volunteer saw me looking like I wanted to go in and said, “Go ahead, grab a carpet.”
“Grab a carpet?” I said. I was confused at first, but when I walked inside, I saw that there were at least eight men sprawled out on old oriental carpets. Many were sleeping, but others were clearly in a great deal of pain. One was having a panic attack that made it hard for him to breath. I felt like I’d walked into an old western saloon, where people were recovering from a shoot-out. I told Byron that I’d rest while he refilled bottles, called our team to update them, and lowered myself to the floor for a quick breather.
Of all the sections of the course, the Cerro Gordo downhill was the one I’d been looking forward to most, as it was eight straight miles of steep decline. My legs feeling 50-pounds lighter, running that downhill was like free falling. The only thing holding me back was myself, as I didn’t want to lose control of my stride. Our headlamps guided the way, lighting up rocks in our path with just enough time for us to sight them and change up our step. I wasn’t sure whether Byron was used to such fast downhills, especially in the dark, so I kept reminding him—and myself at the same time—to be careful. The last thing we needed was an injury. Byron was having a blast, though. He was avoiding the rocks better than I was. He actually started making fun of me for it, telling me not to play soccer with the rocks, as I kept kicking them and stumbling a bit.
It seemed like no more than 15 minutes and we were back at the checkpoint, but neither of us wanted to stop. We briefly paused to top off our bottles before continuing on. We passed runner after runner. Most were taking breaks on the way down, or even walking the whole thing, as the pounding and stress on their quads was too much after so many miles. I knew I needed utilize the downhill to make a dent in my time, as I’d most likely only slow from here.
On the way up, I’d planned to take a 10-minute rest at the base; but when we reached the car, I still felt energized. Instead of resting, I refilled my bottles and grabbed something to eat before heading off again. Andrea was with me now, as she and Byron had switched out per the rotation system they had set up. It was amazing to see three people who didn’t know each other come together so cohesively. They had systems for refilling my bottles with water and electrolytes; procedures for preparing snacks to take along; and a whole list of items to check on, like whether I needed sunscreen, had blisters, needed to change shoes, was eating enough, etc. They were also, as far as I could tell, having fun, which kept me from feeling like a burden. This experience was standing in stark contrast to the one I’d had in the Brazil 135, where my crew and I’d stumbled through the race with more mishaps than I’d imagined possible.
My energy from the Cerro Gordo descent was starting to wane when Andrea and Maryanna switched out pacing. I felt the need to walk a while to regroup, but the walking, while physically easier, was mentally draining. I didn’t have a constant stream of endorphins lifting me up as I do while running. Luckily, this was the first time in the race where Maryanna and I were running together. We spent a lot of time just catching up on life, which was an excellent distraction. I thought back to some of my other races, when I didn’t have someone to be accountable to or talk to. I’d worried that not having alone time would be challenging, but now realized it was far easier to stay positive and focused with friends around. There was no room for wallowing or griping. If I started feeling down, Maryanna, Andrea, or Byron would work to bring my spirits back up. It was like having an emotional rescue team.
The sun started to rise and with it my mood, if for no other reason than that I refused to not enjoy what had become my favorite moment of every race: daybreak. It was finally that moment, after a long night of running under the stars, when the colors come out again, the vibrancy of the race returns, and you feel like you’re waking up.