Family Events
Running Badwater

by Greg Minter

I'm sitting here in my kitchen, about five months after I finished running the Badwater Ultramarathon, and I realize that very few days go by that I don't think about it. In fact, just yesterday I finally received what I thought had been the object of my quest in running the race: a silver buckle for completing the 135-mile course in under 48 hours. It's kind of plain, not too fancy. I like that. It fits.

I think the question I'm asked about the Badwater race most often is "What's that?" People just haven't heard of it. It's an obscure event. People generally have one of two reactions: "Cool!" or "Why?"

When I hear the first, I'm put immediately at ease and launch into a description of the event. When I hear the second, I think "if you have to ask, you won't be able to understand." But lots of people, even running friends, have still asked "Why?"

I first started writing down my thoughts about this truly unique experience just a week or so after I had finished; my company had sent me to Germany and I was left alone with my thoughts. However, that first draft quickly turned into a mere recounting of the events of those few days in July. It didn't convey the depth to which this event affects you.

I first learned of Badwater in Ultrarunning magazine, probably in 1995 or 1996; the cover showed a huge stretch of desert with a strip of black asphalt winding through it. Two or three figures, dressed in white from head to toe, ran along its edge. I remember reading the story, reading about the heat and the elements. Sometime after that, I read a long article in the L.A. Times about the race, which described in horrific detail the mental and physical trials the runners went through.

A good friend, Steve Matsuda, and I, used to keep 5 year plans for races we wanted to do. I actually had penciled in Badwater for 2000, but that didn't work out; however, that fall, the documentary Running on the Sun came out. It followed the 1999 race, and I watched Gabriel Flores (who I had met once or twice), struggle along with ten or twelve others that the film followed. When the theater emptied, I was a little surprised to see Gabriel sitting in the back of the theater with some friends and relatives. I went over and said hello, teased him about being a movie star, and a crowd quickly formed, recognizing him from the film. I had already decided to send in my entry.

Making the decision to do a big event is hard. There are always a thousand reasons that you can't do something, usually a lack of something: time, money, experience, support, but more than anything, of confidence. In the film "Cool Hand Luke," Paul Newman plays a character in a chain gang whose spirit just can't be broken. While lying on his cot one afternoon, he says, "I bet I can eat 50 eggs." After lots of catcalls, he backs it up and says "In an hour." A furor of betting erupts, and suddenly his boast energizes the listless bunch of bunkmates. Eggs are cooked, money is bet, and Luke eats and eats until he passes out on the table, but he does it! I think there's a lot of that element in running the long runs for me. You gotta make it interesting.

Who Named this Thing?

I don't know the answer to that one. Badwater is the name of a little saline lake that accumulates near the southern end of Death Valley. It's the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (282 ft. below see level). I like the name. It's menacing, it's intimidating, but it's also simple, and I think that's a perfect characterization of the race.

I was lucky enough to get into the race on the first lottery wave. These waves take place over several months, with more runners added in each wave. There were up to 99 slots up for grabs, but only 71 would eventually fill.

I started researching about how others had trained, and came up with a program that consisted of a six-month build up toward 70 or 80 mile training weeks. I can't do much more than that or I feel tired all the time. I've said many times before, and still strongly believe, that I'd rather get to the start of the race a little undertrained but feeling fit, than overtrained and tired or hurt.

My company was in disarray at the time, so I had some time flexibility in my personal schedule. Most weeks looked like this:

  • Mon: Off
  • Tue: 10-13
  • Wed: 5-6
  • Thu: 13-17
  • Fri: Off
  • Sat: 20-35
  • Sun: 10-12

I never did long back-to-back runs, which I think are ultimately a little punishing. But all in all, not much different from my normal runs, just stretching out the Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday distances.

However, I also added three or four sessions a week at the gym. I joined the YMCA, which was the only gym in my area with a dry sauna. I knew I needed to build up my tolerance for the heat, and had read that others had successfully used the sauna to do just that. On my first session, I stayed inside for 12 minutes. That night, and all the next day, it felt like the blood vessels behind my eyes were about to burst. But I went back two days later and stayed a little longer, and eventually built up to a half hour at a time. They kept the room way too hot, anywhere from 170f to 205f (water boils at 212f), but I think this was a key element in my preparation.

I also knew that I'd need a crew to get me through this. Two years earlier, my mom and dad, Sue and Lewin, had come out to see me at the Angeles Crest 100 mile race, but hadn't really participated. I knew I wanted them to come out, and also asked Steve Matsuda & Diana Rush, and Larry Dervin & Nancy Shura. Others asked to come out, which was a great boost for me: Mark & Patty Giebel, Sandy Gitmed, and Mark Gilmour.

In training, I ran quite a few races, and went out to Death Valley twice for training camp weekends put on by Ben & Denise Jones, the unofficial mayor and first lady of Badwater. They're the unofficial race ambassadors, both with multiple Badwater finishes, and one of the hidden treasures of this race.

Those weekends were tough. The first day out, I ran for 28 miles, then pulled off to the side of the road and threw up. I had crashed. I pushed on a little longer, but was done for the day. Sunday was a long slow 18 mile climb followed by a (much quicker) 9 mile downhill. We stopped at a little rest area, and a busload of German tourists pulled over at about the time we were finishing. I explained in my broken college German what we were doing. They were incredulous, but interested, and asked lots of questions, I'm sure headed back to Europe with stories of some more crazy Americans.

We repeated the training weekend in late June. The first weekend (in May) we had temperatures of 120f; this time, it got up to 128f. Denise Jones claimed it was the hottest she had ever experienced (and she's a local!). This time I made it to mile 33 or so before getting sick. I sat down on the side of the road, then laid back. For a second, I stretched out my legs, but the second they touched the hot rocky sand, I quickly pulled them back up. Mark had turned his mini-SUV around on the road and could feel it sliding across the asphalt, which had been softened into a semi-pliable state from the day's heat.

I called it a day again, a little disappointed that I hadn't reached my target of 41 miles. But later I realized that it had really been an exceptionally hot day, even for that area, and I knew I was stronger.

It was so hot that afternoon that Patty, who had been running with me, was having trouble taking her earrings out of her ears because they were too hot to touch. The heat is absolutely freakish, and the only thing I can really compare it to is opening an over door and feeling that wave of hot air. Sunday was a little cooler...only 126f, but I pushed out further and longer than anyone else that day, and knew that I'd done as much as I could.

Let's Go!

The race starts on a Wednesday. Since it takes place on the road, this reduces the runners' exposure to traffic. Most of us caravanned out on Tuesday to the Furnace Creek resort (the headquarters for the race) and gathered for the big pre-race meeting. Marshall Ulrich, a former race winner, was at the meeting, stopping halfway through his quadruple crossing to say hello to old friends.

The night before a big race is always controlled chaos, but I think my group did really well. My dad was great. He had negotiated a discounted van rental for a big white van, and had also ordered the required lettering for the van. He and Mark Gilmour had applied the lettering, and when I came out and saw the van, it make me gulp. Seeing "#57 MINTER" made it somehow more official, more real.

Seeing so many friends so focused on keeping me did I earn this? It really made me realize how lucky I am. I had a dozen or so friends out to help me others had struggled to find one or two.

For me, there's a moment before every long race where it suddenly seems very real, and I almost get overwhelmed. It seems so impossible, so huge, that I wonder how I'm going to make it through. For this event, it came the morning we started.

The runners would start in three waves, at 6am, 8am, or 10am. I had drawn the second lot, so would start in the middle wave. The start is at the end of a long, narrow road, and I remember sitting in the passenger seat when we spotted the first runner coming toward us, a lone figure on the side of the road. This was it, it was really happening!

As we made our way out to the start, more runners, and more vehicles popped up over the rolling hills, and suddenly it seemed like I could sense a rhythm to the race. Somehow I imagined all of the crews working feverishly to keep their runners propped up, thought about all the training that these people had endured just to get here, and how much further there was to go.

Our start was a good one. Major Maples, a Badwater veteran and a U.S. Marine, happened to have a boombox with a tape of the national anthem. A few of us sang quietly along, and then, with a short countdown, we were on our way.

At Badwater, runners can have a pacer the whole way. Steve Matsuda started with me, my longest-time running buddy, which seemed only fitting. We jogged for a few hundred yards, maybe half a mile, then settled into what would become my pace for most of the next two days: a fast walk.

Badwater to Furnace Creek

The first 18 miles of the race run alongside the Funeral Mountains. They tease you with a little shade for the first mile or so, but the temperature was already over 90f at the start. I knew the first day was going to be the test for me; it's the hottest part of the course, and I was glad to be the last one cresting the first hill out of my wave of runners.

I quickly fell into a good rhythm with my crew. Mark & Patty had brought some little walkie-talkies so we could stay in almost constant communication if necessary. What's frightening is how much water you need out here. I'd decided that I'd try to consume a 20 oz. bottle per mile, alternating between gatorade and water. I'd pour a half teaspoon of salt into the gatorade, as straight salt sometimes makes me gag on these long ones. This way I didn't even taste it. I'd run the downhills, walk the rest, and felt pretty good.

The morning passed relatively uneventfully. I made it to Furnace Creek about 4 1/2 hours, a little ahead of schedule, but feeling good. I ducked into the general store there to cool off and change socks. That was one trick I off wherever you can. Just getting out of the heat for 5 minutes gives your body a break, and mentally recharges you.

Soon I was back out. This would be the hottest stretch, and Mark Giebel started out with me, and we talked and talked. I remember Patty running part of this with me, telling me stories about her and Mark's adventures climbing Mt. McKinley...could it really be so cold somewhere?

We were actually pretty lucky with regard to temperature. The race director claimed mid 120's but from our readings, we thought it peaked around 118f. It may not sound like much, but it's a drastic difference, and we felt lucky.

In the late afternoon, I picked up Larry as a pacer, and I remember walking through an area called the Devil's Cornfield. We ran and walked, and I remember both of us commenting on how lucky we were to be out experiencing that moment. It's a place where awesome and grandeur are appropriate, and you can't help but feel humbled by your surroundings. You don't dominate the course, you ask permission to pass through.

Around 7pm that evening, I made it into Stovepipe Wells. I'd made it through (what I thought was) the hardest part! I remember seeing Patty standing up on a fence and screaming wildly as Larry and I came around the last curve. Forty one miles down. Less than a hundred to go.

I saw some videotape of myself at this point after the race and saw that I looked pretty spent. We hustled across the road and I had my first blister fix...some minor adjustments. I also had most of my crew either feeding me or massaging some part of my legs. Not bad treatment if you can get it!

I ate a sandwich, drank a snapple, and then got a little mad when I realized that we'd been at the stop for over a half hour. But I was still doing OK on time, and I knew there was a big hill coming up, so I didn't protest too much. My crew had my best interest at heart, and as soon as I was ready to go, they pushed me out the door.

Stovepipe Wells to Towne's Pass

When you leave Stovepipe Wells, you go up. And up. And up. There's an 18 mile climb with a gain of roughly 5,000 feet in altitude, which climbs out of Death Valley proper. This was actually a really nice stretch of the race.

I got a little sick at one point and had to lay down for a minute, but it was a truly spectacular section. It's black out there, blacker than you can imagine, and there are only two sources of light. The blinking lights of support vehicles stretched out for 18 miles, and the hundreds, thousands, millions of stars above. I remember walking a little more with Larry that night, watching the Milky Way roll into view, turned on edge and accompanied by dozens of meteors.

Near the end of one shift, I remember coming up to the van and hearing music from "The Phantom of the Opera" (which I had never heard) drifting out. Shortly thereafter, we paid the price for our luxury of music and light. The van's battery died, but luckily we were almost at the end of the shift and we were able to flag my dad down and get a jump.

Towne's Pass to Panamint Springs

Sometime after midnight, maybe around 2am, we made it to the top of Towne's Pass.

Steve, Diana, and Mark had come out around midnight and were my crew on that first long, dark stretch. I think this is my least favorite part of any long race, because I'm fighting off sleep, which seems to jump on my back like a big heavy monster and try to push me down.

When you crest Towne's Pass, you hit a long downhill, almost 13 miles worth, with about 3500' of descent. It was there that I started to get some bad blisters, so I couldn't really take advantage of the downhill to make up any time.

I was pretty sleepy coming down, and it was there that I saw my first two hallucinations. The posts on the guard rail were somehow translated in my mind to a long set of high-hurdles. "Those aren't hurdles, are they Mark?" I remember asking. "Uh, no Greg," he laughed. A little while longer, and I asked "When did they put this divider down the middle of the road?" Again, a slight pause. "What divider?" Mark asked calmly. Out of the corner of my eye, the difference in color between the road and the shoulder were being interpreted by my mind as a wall and a shadow. I remember Kurt Johnson seeing a similar thing in his book "To the Edge" which recounted his experience on the course two years earlier. Well, I was in good company.

We ran by the starlight for much of that downhill, turning our flashlights on only to warn oncoming cars or to keep ourselves awake. When the sun finally came up behind us, we were happy to be able to see Panamint Springs in the distance. For some reason, this stretch seemed to last forever. I remember sitting on the side of the road and asking for two minutes of sleep. Mark clicked a picture of me sitting in the chair with my eyes closed and the sun rising behind me over the first of three mountain ranges.

We pushed on and made it into Panamint a little before 8am. There'd been a snafu with the hospitality suites the race was supposed to provide, but John Quinn, one of the front runners, was kind enough to let me crash on the bed while Mark worked on my blisters. I slept for a little over 30 minutes, right through the repairs, and much refreshed. My feet had begun to swell a little, and Mark swapped shoes with me. A little over 24 hours into the race, I was at the 72 mile mark. I pushed myself up and out of the bed, drank some soup that Mark Giebel had bought for me, weighed in and found that I was pretty close to where I had been at the start. All systems were I started up the next big hill.

Panamint Springs to Darwin

The climb out of Panamint Springs, (where Charles Manson reportedly used to hang out) up to Dante's View is a narrow, windy road. By 9am it was hot again (no surprise there), but I was feeling alright again after the little nap.

The climb, back up to 5000', was pretty uneventful, but I remember being very happy to reach Dante's View at 80 miles. We ran into the guys taking pictures for the website and they snapped a few of me getting sponged and sprayed.

I remember doing a lot of this stretch with Mark Giebel. We met Jack Denness, the old Brit from the Running on the Sun documentary, and he was as nice in person as he seemed in the film. He told us it was his 10th time at Badwater. Talk about humbling.

The stretch between Dante's View and Darwin is pretty nondescript. Fortunately, it's flat, and I even managed to pick it up and run part of this section. At mile 90, Darwin, there was nothing but a bus with a psychedelic paint job, and some woman playing a big tribal drum. I remember stopping briefly, then getting a nice drumbeat by which to head back on to the highway. 90 miles down. Two-thirds of the way through, and it was right on 3:00pm. 31 hours, and I was averaging a little less than 3 miles an hour. I knew I had some wiggle room, but not much, and I was getting pretty tired.

Darwin to Lone Pine

I switched crews again at 4:00pm. Larry, Nancy, and Sandy took over, and eventually we crested the last hill that led into the Owens Valley. I remember seeing thunderclouds stretched over the peaks of the Sierras, with rain showers and lightning strikes visible in the distance. The wind was blowing into our faces, and I remember talking with Larry about my time.

"You know you're close," he said.

"Yes, I know," I replied.

"Well, what did you come here to do?" he asked.

"I came here to buckle, nothing else," I said.

"Well alright then, let's go."

It was a short exchange, but it was just what I needed to wake me up. I shook my head and started running again. It was still daylight, and I knew I wanted to cover as much ground as possible before it got dark and I got sleepy.

I took a long stretch by myself, wanting to refocus. I remember I met Chris Moon along this stretch, again, one of the runners from the film. He too was a great guy. We offered each other friendly encouragement and I pushed on.

Sometime late that afternoon, I pulled off the road and asked how far we had gone.

"100.8," Nancy replied.

No fanfare, no nothing for 100 miles. I'd done that distance twice before, and wondered if someone might mark a line across the road, but there was no sign of any kind. I realized I still had a lot of road ahead of me.

I started to hallucinate as the sun started to set. This was new to me (with the exception of the night before) and it took me a minute to realize what was happening. The first was a clump of bushes which twisted into a group of three tigers eyeing me from the side of the road. These were quickly followed by a huge stack of giant Lincoln Logs (toys I played with as a kid). When the van passed by, I said "I think I need a pacer, I'm starting to freak out a little here."

I don't remember ever being so happy to see Steve. He jumped out of the van and fell into step with me. The hallucinations continued on and off that night as we wound our way toward Lone Pine: a giant white high-top tennis shoe, desks and chairs stacked bonfire fashion into a huge pyre, and lastly a roadsign malevolently transformed into a guillotine! Each time, Steve chuckled as I tried to point out the obvious danger or anomaly, and for a while, I walked with my hand on his shoulder which somehow seemed to ground me.

Twice, genuine, 100% real scorpions, large, gray and hairy, scuttled across the road under our feet. We gave them wide berth. At some point, we passed through the ghost town of Keeler, but it was uneventful for me.

When we finally could see the lights of Lone Pine, we were ecstatic. We radioed ahead to have the car wait at the junction of highways 190 and 395. Psychologically, I wanted to feel like I'd made some progress. We came to the intersection a little after 1:00am.

I crawled into the van, face down on the middle bench seat, while Nancy and Mark worked on my blisters yet again. But I had made the big push that I knew I had needed. I had come 120 miles, and was 15 miles away from finishing, with 7 hours to spare. As long as catastrophe didn't strike, I'd have that buckle.

Lone Pine to Whitney

I swapped pacers when I climbed out of the van. Diana (bless her heart) was fighting terrible allergies. Seems the trees in and around Lone Pine blow off some kind of dust that made her quite miserable. But she was anxious to go, and we headed into the "main drag" of Lone Pine.

We hit the actualy check in point (around mile 122) a little before 2:00am. We saw Ben Jones and Mary Campilongo there, both smiling faces that I was happy to see. Picked up a BIG cup of coffee and kept on going.

At mile 122, you turn off of Highway 395 and begin the long trek up to the Whitney Portals. Diana had never done this stretch, and I must have been in a good mood, because I decided to play a little trick on her. After we crossed the highway, we came to a four-way intersection. I paused, and in as serious a voice as I could manage, I asked "Ok, which way?"

To imagine the look of terror on Diana's face, you'd have to know how much she takes to heart doing a job well. I could only hold a straight face and started laughing. "I'm just kidding, we go straight!" I think I got whacked a couple times for that one.

The last stretch is the steepest in the whole course, roughly 4500' of gain in 13 miles. Fighting sleep was becoming a real problem on the way up this stretch. For a while, I remember having Steve, then Larry, then Mark keeping a hand in the small of my back to keep me pointed in the right direction.

Somewhere along the way, I saw a huge blimp (which, in fact, was nothing more than an exposed rock face of a formation on the side of the road).

As the morning passed, I remember one point in particular. I was walking with Mark Gilmour, the guy that first got me trail running ten years ago. I remember being to the point of tears as I walked up saying "This is the hardest ****ing race in the world, and I'm going to buckle!" It was unreal to both of us.

The sun came over the White Mountains and struck the face of the Sierra's early that third morning. There are three particularly steep hairpin switchbacks near the finish, and I remember all of my crew driving up ahead to the finish.

Steve was going to finish the race with me, and the others walked and drove up ahead to wait for me. The roar of the stream coming down next to the Portals told me I was close, and when I heard Mark Giebel's yell, I knew I was just around the bend.

Suddenly, it was over. I'd crossed the tape, took a few steps and let out a yell that must have woken up everyone in the camp. Lots of hugging, lots of crying, lots of smiles. I'd managed to get up the last 13 miles in about 4 1/2 hours, with the help of my crew and pacers.

What I Took Away

Well, now that I look at the buckle, it doesn't mean as much as I thought it would. Don't get me wrong, it's not leaving my possession. Ever. But I think you learn things, experience things, that just don't happen everyday when you undertake something extraordinary.

To me, it's the equivalent of finding a hidden door in the roof of your house. You stick your head through and find that there's a whole other level you didn't know about. Putting yourself through the physical, emotional, and mental extremes required by an event like Badwater let you take a peek throgh that hidden door. You realize there's always more.

I was fortunate to have been able to really get in touch with nature (even if only for a short while), and to have an experience that still resonates and seems more real than the humdrum days that occupy most of our lives.

Now that some time has passed, I think a new favorite question is emerging: "Will you do it again?" That's an easy one. I'll be out there again next July to peek into that hidden room again.