The “World’s Toughest Race” certainly lived up to its name. Badwater 135 is an invitation only ultramarathon that traverses 135 miles from Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level, crosses Death Valley and finishes at the portal of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. The course takes you over three mountain ranges and typically has temps in the 120’s. Adding a bit to the degree of difficulty is the start time of 11pm. Sleep deprivation is a very real factor.
The year leading up to the race had many, many ups and downs. Exactly one year ago I had the most rewarding experience of crewing and pacing the amazing woman, Patsy Ramirez-Arroyo, as she became the first Puerto Rican to complete Badwater.
I left Death Valley with hope and motivation to return one year later to face this race of extremes. As race director Chris Kostman says, Death Valley is mother nature’s greatest sports arena. I couldn’t wait to get back there.
I immediately started writing out my training plan to include long runs in my heated sunroom, sauna sessions, speed workouts, hill repeats and strength training. I knew if I could follow my plan religiously I would be as prepared as possible to conquer Death Valley.
But life doesn’t always want to follow our plans. Just a few weeks after returning from crewing at the 2018 Badwater, I became seriously ill with a lupus flare. This was very likely triggered by the extreme sun exposure which is a common trigger of lupus symptoms. I ended up in the hospital for a week and bedrest another two weeks. A small blood clot developed in my inflamed brain which led to a complete loss of balance (which I have yet to have return completely), vertigo, and left side weakness.
This was just another hurdle to overcome. Coach Stephanie helped me with intense rehab. Slowly I was able to walk a little more normally. Then I started jogging. And finally was able to run again and resume my training for Desert Solstice and then Badwater.
My left leg became stronger, yet still wasn’t as strong as the right. As a result of this imbalance, I was overcompensating and overstressing the right leg. At the 50 mile mark of Desert Solstice I fractured my right hip. I finished the 100 miles and knew it was a significant injury. I was non weight-bearing for 6 weeks. It was just another hurdle to overcome. It was also a wake-up call that I needed to do something to strengthen my bones if I was going to have to continue on strong lupus medications that weaken bones.
Regardless, I was able to start running gradually again. Yet as I built up the mileage I struggled with the other hip with more overcompensation. It was a roller coaster. But with a combination of strength training, massage and dry needling, I was able to avert any significant injury.
My training peaked with three weeks in a row of over 100 miles. 118 was my max week. I did many two-a-days, speedwork a couple times per week and hill repeats once per week. I mixed in both road and trail, yet did a majority of my miles on road to prepare for the 135 miles of asphalt.
I also did many heat sessions. I have my treadmill set up in my heated sunroom which in June I am able to crank up to over 120 degrees. At it’s highest I got it up to 133. I ran several 20 mile runs in that heat. I also did sauna sessions, especially the three weeks prior to the race.
Badwater is a race that necessitates more logistical planning than any other. Packing was a huge ordeal that required a few martinis with Coach Stephanie to make it through. We had piles and piles of supplies organized into categories like cooling items, first aid, electronics, nutrition, etc.. Somehow we were able to cram everything into all of our luggage.
We decided to rent a house for the duration of our stay in Pahrump, Nevada. This was about an hour from the airport in Vegas, and 90 minutes from the race start. To stay closer to the start would leave us in the middle of nowhere with no stores, restaurants or much civilization at all. In addition, having this house both before and after the race meant we could keep our luggage there during the race to give us more room in the van.
We rented a Dodge Caravan. There were no white ones available so we settled on silver, which worked out fine. The seats stow away and we had plenty of room. Getting all of our luggage to fit seemed like a mighty task, yet somehow it worked:
I decided I was going to try to sleep as much as possible as soon as we arrived in Pahrump. Well, this didn’t pan out very well. I tried and tried to no avail. I think I put so much importance on getting sleep that it backfired and caused me to became overly anxious about sleep. Then I just couldn’t fall asleep at all.
We arrived Friday night. That night I maybe got 3 hours of sleep. Saturday I think was a little better with 4-5 hours. Sunday I probably only got 3 hours. But I was hopeful that I would sleep a few hours during the day on Monday. Well, that didn’t work either. I got none at all. I was so frustrated and feeling pretty negative as it was getting closer and closer to the race start. My brain was tired. It WANTED to sleep, but it just couldn’t turn completely off. And now it was too late. It was time to drive to the start.
As we arrived at the start line, the thermometer on our van read 113 degrees. At 11:00pm, this was rather toasty. I needed to use the restroom so headed down to the outhouse and ran into Walker Higgins who I had met at previous Badwater events. The outhouse had no lights so Walker let me borrow his light. It was not a pleasant experience entering the bathroom. I held my breath and peed as fast as possible and shot out the door gasping. I gave Walker his light back (he was thankful I didn’t drop it in the toilet) and I headed back to the van for final preparations.
Mike stood me aside with words of encouragement and wisdom, reminding me to start off easy. Don’t try to go out fast to stay with the front runners. Save myself for the second night. Having a great second night would be much more important than having a fast first night. Mike had given me a very thoughtful gift of five bracelets, one for each section of the race. I would start with the one that read, Patience.
I was feeling more anxiety than I’ve felt at any other race at the start. I was feeling the weight of having put so much effort in planning and training for this race over the past year… and so much money. Furthermore, I felt the pressure of not letting my team down. In no way did they ever make me feel that way, yet I thought it. I tried to breathe and relax and trust the great training I had put in over the last several months.
The start was emotional. I was standing with some amazing runners at the start of the legendary Badwater 135. There were many photos taken and my stomach was in knots as I waited anxiously for the start. One of the runners beautifully played the National Anthem on his trombone. Then Chris gave his traditional “don’t think about the 135 miles you have to run…” speech and with a count down, “5…4…3…2…1” we were off.
Badwater Basin to Furnace Creek (Mile 0-17.5)
I got a little bit stuck in the back at the start, but slowly climbed myself up to the four other women in the 11pm wave. The bionic woman from Poland, Patrycja Bereznowska, was running up ahead a little and I snuck in behind Gina Slaby and Annie Weiss. The fifth female was running a few feet behind me. I felt the pace was too slow at 9:30 but remembered the words from Mike and stayed disciplined.
I hated stopping so early as I approached Stephanie and Todd standing with the small cooler, spray bottle and a new water bottle. I stopped to get some ice put in my sleeves, Todd sprayed me down and I replaced my handheld bottle while the other women continued on. It was over 110 degrees and even though I didn’t feel hot, I knew it was vital to stay on top of the heat. Stephanie ordered me to drink more as I gave her a pretty full bottle, and I ran off to catch up to the other women.
I should mention how much work Stephanie put into my nutrition plan. She put together a nutrition spreadsheet containing every bit of detail for any possible food/hydration intake I may consume. No one could put in more effort and detail into planning for this race than she did. It must have taken days to put that thing together. And her scientific knowledge and expertise is anything but average. She knew exactly how many mg of sodium, potassium, magnesium, etc that I needed per hour depending on temperature and probably any factor you can imagine. Unbelievable. For those who “don’t believe in coaching,” they don’t know Stephanie.
We decided to start off at three mile increments. This seems to be what most of the other runners were doing as well. It was frustrating being so congested in the beginning but I knew this would spread out. I was drinking Nuun and trying to get a bottle down every three miles but I was not succeeding. It was very hard to drink so much so early when I wasn’t feeling extremely hot or thirsty. I felt like I was forcing fluids down and it started to slosh around in my gut. I didn’t want to get nauseated so early in the race. But every time I handed my half filled bottle to Stephanie she reminded me to keep drinking so I wouldn’t get behind on fluids. I tried to do better.
I hit my time goal to Furnace Creek perfectly staying around 9:30 pace. I felt decent, not tired at all, not hot. As for nutrition, I was sticking to drinking smoothies every hour. These were going down easily and giving me the calories I needed. Furnace Creek was the first time station at 17 miles. I checked in with my bib number while the crew filled the van with gas and bought 11 bags of ice.
Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells (miles 17.5-42.2)
We continued our routine but I think went down to 2 or 2.5 mile increments. At this point I was now running alone. I think Annie and Karen were behind me while Patrycja and Gina were up ahead. I felt good about my position and my pace. I was not pushing it one bit. The only stress I felt was difficulty drinking a lot.
These miles are a blur. Actually, much of the race is a complete blur so I’m doing my best to remember what I can. The one thing I remember from this section is a strange white or light gray bird swooping down at my head scaring the &^%* out of me. I swerved and ducked and my leg nearly gave out as I attempted to avoid the attack. I discovered later when running with Mike after another one swooped down toward us that this bird was actually a bat.
The last 10 miles of this section were getting a bit to me. I was ready for a change and to get my first pacer.
Bathroom issues began early. I am pretty sure this is due to the anxiety I was feeling. I had stopped 5 times already in the first 25 miles. Having the pop-up poop tent with bucket was a pretty good set-up. Maybe better for me than whoever had to dispose of it. Sorry team ☹
Around 38 miles in I felt my first blister on my big toe. I told the crew to have stuff ready when we get to Stovepipe to fix it up. Instead they set the chair up and got my socks and shoes ready at the next crew stop. That was a smart move to fix it early rather than later.
Todd became the foot doctor and lanced my first of several blisters and taped it up. I switched out of my Torin Plush and into Paradigms with a fresh pair of Injinji socks after covering my toes and feet in Blister Shield. The first couple steps were painful but as soon as I started running again the pain was pushed to the back of my mind. Soon we arrived at Stovepipe.
Stovepipe Wells to Towns Pass (Miles 42.2 – 59.6)
The beauty of the sunrise as we arrived at the sand dunes was unspeakably gorgeous and uplifting.
The first 8 miles of the climb were divided up between Aaron and Todd. I was really looking forward to changing things up and going to a power hike up the mountain. The first 42 miles I ran non-stop (other than very quick crew stops) and my legs were ready to change it up. I was very close to being right on my goal pace. I hit 42.7 miles in 7:06 and my goal sheet had me arriving there in 7:00.
However, I didn’t realize the first 1.5 miles were downhill! So no walking yet. We ran that very well and banked a few minutes. Then we started hiking and my legs loved it! I did a lot of training by power hiking hills with a weighted vest. This seemed to really pay off. I was holding sub 16 minute miles up the mountain.
Mike jumped in for more of the climbing. I just remember being so purely happy as we hiked together. I was happy for him being out there after a partial knee replacement just nine months ago and being able to participate again in what he loved. Mike has always been a mentor to me as he is for so many others. We reminisced on that first 100 I was training for when we did many night runs together and how special those were. We talked about so many things and the miles just clicked off one after another. The beauty around us just made everything better. Being where I was in that moment seemed to be exactly where I was meant to be.
Stephanie jumped in after Mike for the rest of the climb. She was busy shooting selfies in the beginning and would have to run to catch up… not easy on that mountain.
Nothing made me more happy than to see my crew having a blast out there.
The miles continued to go by quickly as I hiked with my coach and best friend and we focused on continuing to hydrate and stay cool.
When we reached the top, Aaron jumped in to start the intense 9 mile 9% grade descent. I wasn’t sure if my legs were going to transition back to running very well, but after a few steps they felt amazing! This downhill section was a quad destroyer so I tried to run as smoothly as possible with no breaking. As a result I was running 8:15 pace and even creeped up to 7:45 pace. Aaron warned me to be careful and maybe I should slow down. I tried but it took more effort to slow down than to run that pace. It felt more relaxed and easy just letting gravity take me down the mountain.
Todd jumped in for the last half of the descent and we continued a very quick pace. We could see the Panamint Valley below for miles and miles. It looked near enough to touch, yet we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to it.
We kept snaking around the mountain further and further down and my quads were beginning to fire up. I needed to get to the bottom. I again was looking forward to the next climb, up Father Crowley.
When we took the last curve around the mountain and it opened up into the valley, I was in heaven.
Finally we reached the bottom. We had 3 or 4 miles to go to get to the Panamint time station. This was a very hot stretch. The sun was beating down and for the first time I did feel a little warm, yet it was still very manageable.
Those last couple miles into Panamint were very slow. I think I walked some of this flat and thinking back I really should have been running. I lost some time here.
As we entered Panamint, the crew again loaded up on some ice, water and gas. We began the Father Crowley climb which is a tricky section with dangerous mountainous curves and little room for the crew vehicles to park. Therefore, the crew must only stop at designated areas.
Everyone hiked a portion of this section, although I can’t remember in which order. Again, I was hiking strong at a 16 or so minute pace and my legs felt great. We could hear the fighter jets in the distance and I looked forward to seeing their show somewhere on this climb like I had the year before. Unfortunately, we didn’t get much of a show this year. But we did see some Thundedrbirds showing off up in the sky. One made a cool circle for us then shot himself straight up in the sky as high as possible. It was pretty impressive.
At this point in the race I was well ahead of schedule for my sub 30 hour goal. I made up a lot of time on the climbs and the downhill. I don’t remember much about getting to Darwin other than it seemed to take a lot longer than I expected. I reached the Darwin time station, mile 90.6, in 19 hours 57 minutes which was 16 minutes ahead of schedule.
Darwin to Lone Pine – (miles 90.6 -122.7)
I don’t know exactly where things started to go south. I believe I started to fall asleep while running and my focus was gone. I got confused and had one real hallucination of a big telephone pole falling toward us. At the next crew stop I drank more pepsi and took a salt capsule with caffeine. This seemed to perk me up and I began running strong again for a few miles.
Because the caffeine seemed to work I started taking it more frequently. This was likely a big mistake. Not only is caffeine dehydrating, it also tends to cause me anxiety. In addition, I was taking prescription diarrhea medication which is also dehydrating. This all was about to backfire.
I was running along and the weather was pleasant. Maybe in the 80s with a breeze. It was feeling a little cool compared to what we had been through. Yet suddenly I felt a hot flash and got very nauseated and dizzy. I stopped on the side of the road with Todd pacing me and said I am really dizzy. I felt like I was going to pass out so I laid down and don’t remember much after that until the crew arrived and got me up in a chair. I felt like I was in a dream state, not fully awake at all. Their voices sounded far, far away. Stephanie was there encouraging me, telling me I was going to finish this race no matter what. I knew that I would, as long as I didn’t die. I never wanted to quit, ever. I just needed to figure out how to wake up again. I couldn’t stay awake as hard as I tried.
The crew got me back on my feet and I was a wobbling mess. How the hell was I going to go 33 more miles? But I just started putting one foot in front of the other. Relentless forward progress. Just get there. Eventually maybe I would wake up again.
Another crew stop and I had to lay down again. I tried a 15 minute nap. Not sure I completely fell asleep but I closed my eyes and it felt pretty good.
It was time to try to run again. I was losing so much time now and I was so mad at myself. I felt I was letting my team down and I needed to fight through this and force myself to stay awake and run. I started doing a 4:2 run walk interval and that worked pretty well. We made progress doing that. Sometimes we would run from post to post. Whatever I could to get myself to run. The frustrating thing was my legs and muscles were totally fine. The only thing hindering me was this intense sleepiness.
I was running with Aaron when I spotted a snake. I yelled out, “Snake!” and yes it really was a snake, not a hallucination. I asked if it was a rattle snake and he said it sure was! But it was a baby and didn’t have it’s rattles yet. Aaron made sure to go back and snap a pic:
That got my adrenaline going which helped temporarily wake me up again.
I was breaking up the remaining miles 5 at a time. This stretch to Lone Pine was an eternity. We could see the lights forever, yet it never got closer. But I focused on one mile at a time until we were down to single digits. Then finally, we could see the road where we would eventually make the right hand turn into town.
I mistakenly thought that as soon as we made that turn we would be at the time station. I had no idea it was another 1.7 miles or so to the time station down a dark street with nothing around, and with a smell that nearly killed us. We still aren’t sure what that was about. The entire town seemed to reek for some reason. It definitely was not like that last year.
I walked it in to the time station. Another mistake as I really didn’t need to walk. I should have forced myself to run at this point at least to get to the portal road for the final 13 mile climb.
Finally, we arrived. I quickly checked in with my bib number and went on to make the left hand turn onto the portal road and began the beautiful ascent up Mount Whitney. The silver lining here is that we would see all the beauty around us as the sun would be rising shortly. Had I finished when I planned on finishing we would not have seen this beauty.
This 13 mile extremely steep climb sucked out every last bit of strength I had left- which wasn’t much. I was still falling asleep on my feet, and even though I knew I was close it felt so far. With hands on thighs I willed myself up the mountain one painful step at a time.
Everyone took a portion of this climb and I cherished those last miles with my teammates. I was so grateful to them and felt a love for them that only a race like this can produce. I could feel the bond between us all was much stronger now than when we started. They say Badwater will change your life. I believe that now.
We found shade when we could, which wasn’t much…
And finally, FINALLY, I had less than a mile to go. With half a mile to go I met the entire crew so they could walk me in. I changed into my finisher’s team shirt and struggled greatly to hold back the tears. I was at a level of exhaustion I had never felt before.
And I felt like the brutally tough finish of this race was the culmination of so many things for me over the past few years as I struggled to overcome past demons, serious illness, depression, etc. This race parallels life’s challenges in so many ways. With the help of those who love and care about me, I met the obstacles head on and never let them stop me. I was determined to get to the top, to cross the finish line and be victorious with my crew. This was the best feeling of my life.
I never felt pressured by my team to win, or be top three or top anything. I typically put that pressure on myself, but this race was different than any other. I knew finishing this race no matter the place was going to be the best accomplishment of my life. I was doing my best. I was trying to be smart by being conservative early and walking the 18 and 13 mile climbs. There was not a lot I could do about my sleep issues. I have always struggled with getting good, solid sleep. Things have been a bit more complicated with that the past couple years. And it was further hampered recently by stress at home with my dad being in a serious car accident. I know considering everything we faced, I did the absolute best I could on this day.
My crew and I will be back, hopefully next year if I am blessed to be invited again. I will fix the sleep issues, be better with hydration, and run a solid 50K between Darwin and Lone Pine. I am counting down the days until I return to Death Valley, one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Thank you to:
My supporters and sponsors, Fort Wayne Running Club, Acuitas Financial Group, Medi-Dyne Healthcare Products, and Altra Running.
Thank you to all of those who supported me financially including very generous donations from:
All of those who donated to the Lupus Foundation
Chris Kostman, Badwater race director, for inviting me to participate in this epic event. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for putting on the most epic, challenging and rewarding race on the planet. Thank you for taking me in as part of the Badwater family. My heart is content. I can’t wait to do this race again and again and again.
Aaron Schneider- Crew, pacer, singer, rattle snake expert. You kept me going, you helped me stay positive and focused on my goal. You have been a treasured friend over the past many years. Having you by my side during the toughest race I have ever participated in was comforting. I knew if anyone could handle my potential meltdowns, it was you. I am so grateful to you. You helped me believe in myself. Now if I could just get you to move back to Indiana! By the way, I’m not sure that many people realize what a beautiful singer you are! Thank you for the gift somewhere around mile 110. I have some more song ideas for next year.
Todd Sullivan– Crew, pacer, blister popper, all around great individual. Your enthusiasm was so infectious out in the middle of that beautiful desert. We began this ultra journey together a decade ago, learning with each other, celebrating our accomplishments, sharing stories, dreams and adventures. You helped the miles go by quickly, always focused on the positive, helped me see my potential, remain focused and strong. I enjoyed every mile with you. You were amazing at getting me to run when my brain was shutting down and at times I didn’t even know where the hell I was. It was also reassuring being out in the middle of the desert with a millionth degree black belt karate guru. Thank you, Todd for being there for me through this journey.
Mike Pfefferkorn – Crew Chief, pacer, mentor, the Godfather. Your support over the years has changed my life in many ways. I knew how much you despised the heat so when you jumped in and said “of course” you’d crew and pace me, I was so honored and touched. The miles I spent with you out in the desert were some of the most memorable miles I have ever run. I am blessed to call you a friend. Thank you for showing me the way and making me a better person. I can’t wait to get more miles with you out on the trails soon! And some night runs like old times. Thank you for accepting me and being a great friend.
Stephanie Amspaugh– Crew, pacer, coach, needle enthusiast, amazing friend. Where do I start? The journey we began together three years ago has enriched my life and given me new purpose. With your love and guidance I have grown from this timid, insecure, at times self-loathing woman to a person who now has more confidence and is learning to love and accept herself. You have given so much of yourself to me and others. I don’t know anyone more giving and compassionate. Thank you for taking care of my plethora of injuries, keeping me disciplined to taking care of my health, and encouraging me to follow a sensible training plan. I have never had a better friend and, without doubt, I never will. I am blessed beyond words to know you.
To all of my crew, a final thank you. I am excited about doing this all over again next year. I truly love each and every one of you.