Family Events

Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise

by Greg Minter

Back again. I'm asking myself "Why? Why am I doing this?" I'm sitting on the back bumper of the rental van, the sun pounding down, and the wind buffeting us, sucking all the moisture from our skin. I'm barfing my guts out. Not vomiting, not throwing up-- those are words are too polite to describe the animal nature of the act I was performing. This was a full-fledged barf-o-rama. Over the last few years, I'd learned that I'd feel better if I made myself get it all out, so I put my finger down my throat until it was gone. Of course, I would have to start refueling all over again.

I was at mile 30 or so, and had been moving along at a good clip with all systems go. I'd been asking Mark Giebel, who was driving, the temperature. It had been increasing about one degree every mile or two since Furnace Creek. We were at 126f, and I was fine, but sitting down for just that moment was enough to knock my legs out from under me.

Looking down was unpleasant. There were colors that I didn't recognize, and for a split second, I thought "uh-oh, my stomach lining." Mark and I sat and analyzed for a moment while I toweled my face off. We decided I'd lost nothing vital, so I crawled into the van and Mark covered me with towels drenched in ice water, and packed ice around my neck and under my arms and on my crotch. Just had to wait a little...just had to cool off. What a great sport!

Into the Inferno

Sometimes I think these events are like the dares we used to make to each other when we were kids. The only difference is that when we're adults we put numbers on our chests and start a clock. At some point in your life, you were probably dared into eating, touching, or doing something that you knew you shouldn't eat, touch, or do. But in doing so, you became "the cool kid." Of course, you may also have become "the weird kid" (depending on what you actually would eat). But in any event, you probably learned that there was one less thing to be afraid of in the world...that you could probably do what was put to you if you just concentrated.

After I finished Badwater last year (2001), I was certain I would come back. I had a great run last year, but I wasn't exactly jumping up and down afterwards. My feet were really swollen last time, and it took a couple weeks before I got back to normal workouts. Nevertheless, there was definitely something special about the course, the people, and the place.

To me, the Badwater race is divided into three sections. The first, and the one that gives people the worst problems, is from the start at Badwater proper to the top of Towne's Pass, 59 miles away. For the first 18 miles, you're running along the Funeral Mountains, in the shade if you're lucky enough. This year, I drew the 10:00am starting wave (the latest) and I paid. Someone said it was 115f at the start. No shade from the mountains. No residual cool air from the desert night. My Dad and my friend Mark Gilmour came out to the start with me, and crewed me for the first four hours or so...uneventfully so, and checking in at Furnace Creek was quick.

Leaving Furnace Creek, Mark Giebel took over for a solo stretch. Miles 18-42 are, for me and many others, the worst on the course. They're the most desolate and easily the hottest. I've ended up referring to the stretch between 25-30 as "the fun zone," a self-delusional attempt to laugh through the area where I've had the most problems. For a long stretch, there's an almost white, dry lake bed off to your left. The wind rolls off the mountains in the distance, across that dry lake, and hits the highway with a vengeance. I've gone through this stretch seven times in either races or at Ben & Denise Jones' clinics, and I've gotten sick three times. The first two times I'd stopped for the day...too spent to continue. Fortunately, both had been on practice days.

But here, I was in the race, and I was really sick, close to the worst I'd been. I told Mark later that I'd come about two sentences away from talking myself into dropping out. But I lay back down, told myself to relax, and started searching around in my brain for something to inspire me. It came in a nice form. I coach beginning marathoners for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and I'd had the good fortune of meeting some people who had fought through these diseases. I started thinking about how miserable they must have been, lying there for days at a time, sick to their stomach, with no option but to continue. So, Katherine, and Andrea, and Kyle, thanks. You were there, you just didn't know it.

Eventually, with Mark's help, I got up again. A couple more false starts, and we cut down to 1/2 mile jumps for the crew vehicle. At one point, I got dizzy and lightheaded, and had to sit down on the ground so I wouldn't fall. Once there, it was easy to lay back. You have to keep your knees bent, though, because the ground is too hot for exposed skin. I lay there for maybe three or four minutes, listening to a couple cars whiz by (curious they didn't stop), but eventually made it back to vertical, and then back to the van again. More barfing. I crawled into the back seat again.

While I lay there, my Mom and Dad drove up with a restocking of ice and goodies. They unloaded some gear, and while my Mom stood at the side door of the van talking to me, I heard someone else throwing up. Dad. He'd done too much in the heat, hadn't drunk, hadn't taken any salt. I sat up and called Mark over. "Make them go back to the hotel. Get my Dad into a cool room, raise his feet, get some cool liquids into him, and cool him off." I had to look OK as I convinced my Mom I'd come in if I was in real trouble. My Dad didn't argue...he had just passed his limit and was happy to get into the AC comfort of his big red Ford truck.

They drove off, and I lay back down, but only for a bit. Eventually, the wind started to feel a bit cooler. Fortunately, the sun dropped behind some of the smoky clouds which were being generated by a big brush fire in the Sequioas, and there was an instant break. I started drinking more, and eventually I was moving again.

Charlie Marko came out along that stretch. That worked well, and he pretty much paced me all the way into Stove Pipe Wells. We had a full moon, which I thought was going to be great, but which obscured all the stars we had been able to see last year. Charlie and I discussed his high school life, our tastes in music, and took turns exchanging bad jokes for 7 or 8 miles, until we got to the hotel. Charlie was the perfect pacer. Upbeat, energetic, and oblivious to the elements. But we couldn't ever figure out why he wouldn't let us spray him down. Some water phobia?

We stopped briefly, fixed a blister, then I crawled out into the dark. It was close to 12:30am, and still about 95f. Mark Giebel got a much needed rest, and Mark Gilmour joined Charlie for the night shift. The climb up and over Towne's Pass, out of Death Valley "proper" was uneventful. We reached the top around 5:30am, and Mark noted that it was about 70f. "No wonder I'm so cold," I said, "it's almost 60 degrees cooler than it was this afternoon.

Through Purgatory

So, imagine you've been up for 24 hours or so, and you're running along a nine mile downhill stretch when you start hearing the sound of jet planes overhead. On the way down into Panamint Valley, we heard (and eventually spotted) a pair of military jets doing maneuvers, following each other, darting behind bluffs then shooting straight up at impossible angles. We switched crews again around 8:00am, with Mark Giebel taking over for Charlie during the morning. As we came down into the valley floor, one of the jets buzzed us, not more than 100 feet overhead, and maybe 200 yards down the road. As he crossed from left to right, he rolled 90 degrees to the right so that we could see the entire plane, then snapped back to his normal position with a 90 degree roll back to the left. Mark and I were definitely rejuvenated by the display of power and speed that these machines were putting on. I managed to run a few of the miles down to the bottom, then across the valley floor.

The problem with this stretch is that you can see the Panamint Springs resort for quite a ways. What you think is a mile turns into a demoralizing three miles when you come to the only sign on the valley floor. Fortunately, I knew that was coming, and just plugged on.

At mile 72, there's a funky little oasis called Panamint Springs. They have good food and better beer, which they serve on a shaded patio that surrounds the main building. I checked in at the third time station, then went straight to the hospitality suite. Mark Gilmour worked on a blister again while I talked to Paul Stone and his wife Abby. Paul was having stomach problems, and Abby massaged my feet for a bit while we talked and caught up on the last year. It's amazing what ordinary conversations you can have in the middle of the desert in a room with five or six bedraggled, sun-dazed runners strewn about.

Climbing up from Panamint Springs, I drank some soup which Mark Giebel had secured, and started the twisty climb. This climb didn't bother me last year, as it's very scenic. A little tight with traffic, though, and when I found myself walking into the road while asleep, I stopped at the van and asked Mark to let me take a 10 minute nap. He gave me 15, and I was ready to go.

Ran into Mike Haviland on the way up, and ended up walking with him and his pacer, Stewart, for the next 10 or 15 miles. Nothing too eventful in this stretch, except this is where runners typically start to get cranky. Mark was arguing with me to eat more, and I argued back that I was eating as much as I could. It's important to have crew members you can argue with and still smile. He'd push, I'd resist, and we'd reach a happy medium.

It was around 3:00 that we started smelling the smoke from the Sequioa fire, maybe mile 82. I wanted to make Darwin by 6:00pm, and so continued to push. I made it at 6:09, and was happy to be in. I was close to my previous year's time, maybe an hour slower, but I figured I'd made up about two hours of what I'd lost in the fun zone. Another short rest, then back out on the road. Soon, Charlotte Vernon showed up with my folks to join the crew for the second night, and then a little while later, Diana Rush stopped in.

Saul Hernandez had joined my friend, Steve Matsuda's crew, so Diana came out to see how I was doing, and to see if I had any ideas for Steve's bum leg. We sent some stuff back with my folks, and Diana paced me for probably 8 or 9 miles. This was actually a fairly demoralizing section. While last year I had been able to see the Sierras in the distance, this time they never appeared. The whole sky was a whitish gray, with a faint orange glow where the sun should have been. I tried wrapping wet bandanas over my face to cut the smoke smell, but it made it too hard to breathe, so as it always seems out there, the only option was to push on.

I saw my one true hallucination for this outing, a sea monster that looked exactly like Nessie, which I was happy to point out to Diana. She was happy to get a break and head back to the hotel when Charlie Marko came back out for his night shift, accompanied by J.R., who offered his services for free!

Around nightfall, we had a bad bout with insects. All sizes, shapes, and kinds, attracted to our headlamps and flashlights. Charlie was pacing me at this point, so I let him light the way with his headlamp. We got used to waving the bugs away, but they too dropped off after a few miles. The next week, I was still finding bugs in my gear boxes.

The second night is always a blur. Your feet hurt, but you don't care, because all you want to do is sleep. I took two or three little sleep breaks of 15-20 minutes, most of which were prompted by my drifting into a waking dream state. Much to J.R. and Charlie's amusement, I would end up talking nonsense followed by an unannounced climb into the van for a short snooze.

Finally, morning came again! Day 3. I've slept maybe an hour altogether. These last 20 miles have seemed to take forever, and I'm sure we did mile 108 two or three times. I can see Lone Pine, and who do I hear but the two Germans, Uli Weber and Eberhard Frixe running up behind me. What is with these guys? They're on their way back, closing out 292 miles, and they're still running. I had spoken briefly with them at the start, and Uli had told me that he couldn't walk, that he had to run (you get strange pains out here), but it was still a little demoralizing. I had definitely been cut to a walk; my feet were too sore to think of running.

And then I saw the hotel. Right at the corner of Highway 190 and Highway 395. 120 miles behind me and 15 to go. By this time, I knew I wasn't going to make the buckle cutoff, so I decided to pull into the room and have some breakfast. Dad ran over to PJ's and picked me up some hash browns, eggs, and bacon. Real food! The best breakfast I'd ever had! Well, it was good. After a short rest, I walked back out onto the road and headed for the Whitney Portal road. The interminable flats were behind me.

Reaching Paradise

Last year, I had reached this point a little earlier, and managed to get up the Whitney Portal Road pretty much under cover of darkness, giving me a few more cool hours. This time, I started up around 8 or 8:30, and it was already warm. I expected it to be a little cooler (I was going up to the mountains, you know), but it ended up staying pretty warm. Every once in a while as we got toward the top, we'd get a whisp of a breeze, but never enough to get cooled down.

I'm doing about 19 minute miles going up for a good while, but then I start to get pretty loopy. I remember really trying to hold it together in some stretches, and asking people to just have normal conversations with me. Mark Giebel gave me a complete description of how to eat the seeds from a pinon pine cone, and I know I listened, but all I remember is the best months are September and October. This seemed quite important at the time.

I had planned on trying to climb to the top of Mt. Whitney this year, but I think by the end of the 2nd day, I feared I wouldn't be there early enough or with enough juice left. I was right. That honestly didn't matter. You can't help but be overwhelmed by the majesty of this approach, and finally, the temperature broke. It was cooling down.

To me, the finish of this race is what I imagine arriving in Paradise might be like. You have to understand that the last 13 miles are one continuous uphill. Occasionally, you'll get a tantalizing whisp of a cool mountain breeze, cool air that somehow leaked out around the pearly gates. Of course, I wanted to know just how far it was to the gates, and made Mark Gilmour drive ahead so he could give me an accurate distance.

"Zero-point-seven miles," he said as he came back down the road. Heaven!

"I feel a surge coming on," said Mark Giebel.

"I am surging," I replied, maintaining my furious 3 mile an hour walk.

And then it was there. Again. I could see the finish, but off to the side, Steve and Diana were sitting in some white chairs, waiting for me to get in. They had come in about 20 minutes earlier. I stopped and gave Steve a BIG hug and then headed on in. I let out a big primal scream when I crossed the finish line, and knocked the finishers' tape up and out of the way.

The endorphin rush at this moment is almost overpowering. Imagine building a house of cards or a stack of dominoes for eight months, knowing that one small misfortune can bring the whole thing down. Crossing the finish line is the same as finally getting to trip that key domino or pulling out a card from the bottom floor. And then there are smiles, and smiles, and more smiles. Cheering. Shaking of hands. Pictures and more smiles, and a chair, and a medal. Ahhhhhh!!!!!

You'll hear every runner say it, and it's true: you need a good crew to finish this race. To Mom and Dad, Mark Giebel, Mark Gilmour, Charlie Marko, and Charlotte Vernon, along with J.R. who jumped on for the second night: THANKS! Truly a friend-powered race!

Return to Paradise?

Already, people ask me if I'm going to do it again. Probably. Not next year, but it's an amazing race. The satisfaction of completing something this monstrous, this huge, and this brutal is enough of a high to last for quite a while. But in some respects, it makes everyday life seem humdrum. The simplicity of moving along the line, following the white line, ending in this explosion of green and water and cool is overwhelming. You feel a bit like an animal, but in a good way, in a way that lets you feel closer to the world around you.

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