Finding the right balance to prevent over-training is never easy. As the body ages it doesn’t always tolerate the same intensity of training as it once did. This was the case for me. Things began to break down midway through the peak of my training from severe Achilles tendonitis, a strained quad muscle and an ongoing shin issue. As a running coach I tell my clients to ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ I pushed hard through it and probably didn’t give my body the rest it needed. My thought was, ‘I’m just a few weeks from the taper. I can rest and recover then.’ Ha.
Overall, training was good and solid. My plan consisted of 70-95 mile weeks with a variety of hill work, tempo runs, interval runs and hot treadmill runs. My sun room decided to rebel this year. Previously, I had been able to get the temps in there over 130 degrees. This year my heaters kept overheating and turning off. Or I’d blow fuse after fuse and didn’t have enough extension cord to spread the power source throughout the house. The highest I got the sun room was around 115. I tried to make up for this by spending more time in the sauna and wearing more layers on my treadmill runs. But come race day I was a little worried that my heat training was not adequate.
I had the best training week early May suggesting I peaked a bit prematurely. On my birthday I ran a 10 mile steady state run at 6:45 pace which was my fastest steady state run in years! I was pretty pumped about this. But a couple weeks later I started to feel very sluggish. Truthfully, that sluggishness never left me. I was hopeful that with a hard taper my energy level would improve. That was not to be the case. I felt like the lupus was relatively under control, yet fatigue is always a factor.
One week prior to the race I got my typical head cold. Every. Single. Time. I crammed in the vitamin C, zinc, Vitamin D, Elderberry and colloidal silver trying to lessen the symptoms. It seemed to work pretty well and I never got too bad.
I knew the importance of having a crew with good chemistry. We all needed to be able to work together, get along and avoid drama. I wanted a combination of traits in my crew including good organization, detail oriented, strong runners, leadership, fun, enthusiasm and medical experience. We definitely had that and more.
Crew chief was Stephanie as she would be doing less running than the others and her leadership and organization skills are top notch. She would take care of all my nutrition needs, track my hydration and electrolyte consumption while also keeping track of how the other crew members are holding up. She would also get a few miles of climbing in with me.
Next we had Todd who, along with Stephanie, crewed for me in 2019. I have known Todd from the beginning of my ultra running career and have a strong trust and comfort with him.
Then there is Garett who has paced me several times, most recently at the Daytona 100 where I had one of my best races. He knows me as well as anyone and, like Todd, has years of experience in the ultra world.
Last, but definitely not least, there is Jeff. What can I say about Jeff? He may not have ultra experience, yet his life experience is like none other. His enthusiasm for this event was the best thing ever. He added so much to our team. So much fun and laughter and insight and his top of the lungs singing of Twisted Sister during one of my biggest lows was the best way to wake me up.
I feel like we had incredible chemistry. We complemented each other to perfection with all our different gifts and qualities. We had so much fun together the entire week.
Packing and traveling for a race like this is like nothing else. The planning and organizing involved is complicated. And the amount of luggage is a bit insane.
We decided to fly to Vegas the Friday before the race (race starts Monday night). Having a couple extra days to adjust to the dry air and gather supplies without being rushed was crucial. We rented a van in Vegas and, thanks to many prayers, we were able to obtain a white mini van. An extra bonus was the fact it was a hybrid. This turned out to be super helpful during the race.
Our rental house was an hour away in Pahrump. We picked up some Chick Filet and got on our way. Pahrump is a small, desert town about 90 minutes from the race start and an hour from race check in. We stayed there due to it’s proximity to larger stores and restaurants. The town of Furnace Creeks is the closest to the start, yet there is next to nothing there.
We arrived at our little house and were welcomed by our new mascot, “Badwater Betsy,” the 1940’s-50’s Green Machine.
Pahrump, Nevada is a most interesting town. One of the reasons I love ultrarunning is the places it brings me… places I never would have gone otherwise.
We took a quick run to the grocery to get breakfast stuff and a few other items. We would save most of the race shopping for the next day.
Saturday was spent finishing up the shopping,
doing a practice van packing, testing out the Bucket (may it rest in peace),
and doing a little shake out run practicing our crewing plan. There are a LOT of rules regarding crew and pacing so we needed a trial run to make sure everyone had it down. The pacer could only run behind the runner and to the left of the white line unless coming up to spray the runner off or hand them a bottle. Only two crew members (counting the pacer) could be on the left side of the road with the runner at any time. So we had the pacer cross the street to the van to refill his own bottle and supplies while two crew from the van crossed over to my side of the road to get me sprayed and iced down and exchanged my bottles. We had it down and I was so impressed with this crew for how smoothly they handled everything. I was in such great hands that all I had to worry about was putting one foot in front of the other.
I tried to nap each day but never was able to fall asleep. I at least was resting. Sunday we got a few last minute items at the store and rested some more. We then drove to Furnace Creek, race headquarters, for packet pick up and to get our mug shots taken.
I got to see some familiar faces and my friend, William, crew chief for team Patsy when I crewed for her. After picking up my bib and goodies, and buying a few items, we headed the 17 miles down the road to Badwater Basin to get some pictures at the race start and do a little shake out run together.
We ran about 15 minutes headed down the road on the race course. The wind was blowing about 15 mph but was nothing close to refreshing. It was hot, but yeah, this is Death Valley.
I was getting a little cranky because I was hungry and we had to return to Furnace Creek and wait for a group photo with all the racers. We went into the little store and found a turkey sandwich. Might’ve been the worst turkey sandwich of my life, but i needed to eat. Good practice for the next day I suppose. We even forced Todd to eat a healthy salad!
Finally, with pictures done we were able to race back to our house to try to get a good night’s sleep. Unlike when I ran this in 2019, I did get a couple more hours of sleep each night. I wasn’t able to nap ever, but the five-ish hours of sleep I got Saturday and Sunday made a huge difference in my confidence. I did need to take quite a few supplements to aid my sleep, but whatever works.
Monday is finally here. Race day!! I was so excited and nervous and impatient. I wanted the race to just get started but we had to wait until 11pm. I know if this were a morning start I would have a much greater advantage in this race. I have never done my best in night starts, but I always like things to be more challenging :). I tried relentlessly to nap during the day but was never able to fall asleep. This was reminiscent of 2019. I just had to remember that at least I got a little better sleep at night.
I had eggs for breakfast and chicken salad and sweet potato fries at lunch. (Garett is the world’s BEST sweet potato fry flipper).
I had a piece of chocolate cake remembering that one of my best runs was right after I had a piece of birthday cake lol. I drank as much electrolyte drink as I could and at 8:00 it was time to get going. We needed to load up on Sonic ice (150 pounds worth I think) and fill the coolers. Then we had a 90 minute drive to the start.
It rained and stormed several times the few days before the race, and while driving to the start there was some impressive lightning off to our north. We were pretty sure it was not going to affect us but there was definitely more humidity in the air than the desert is used to. It wasn’t Indiana humidity, but it made 120 feel a lot toastier.
The weather channel called for only 8mph winds out of the southeast. I’m thinking if anything it will just make it a bit warmer having this calm wind at my back. But as we were making our way in our fully packed white Toyota Sienna, we could all feel a rebellious wind pounding the car. And upon exiting the car at the Badwater Basin we were all immediately hit with a hot, brutal, at least 30mph wind directly in our faces. And this was not going to be at my back. Nope, directly in my face for at least 17 miles.
I tried looking at this from a positive angle, telling myself the wind would cool me down. Oh how wrong can one be. The opposite in fact became reality with the wind serving as a blow torch adding fire to the trapped 115 degree nighttime heat. It literally was like opening up your oven door, sticking your head inside and feeling the blaze of heat consume you.
We arrived about 30 minutes before the start. My crew got everything organized, filled my bottles and completed final preparations while I went to the bathroom and got weighed in. I stood around anxiously a few minutes before realizing i needed to sit in the cool van until it was time to go to the start line.
With Covid, this year was a bit different. Only runners were allowed down the ramp where the race began at the Badwater Basin sign. Chris gave his famous pre-race speech that I now knew by heart. Following the last minute instructions, Badwater legend Oswaldo Lopez played a beautiful rendition of our National Anthem on his trumpet. I wish I had a camera at that moment when the spotlights went out and suddenly all the reflective crew shirts lit up in the most impressive line from the entire length of the parking lot up above us. The thought of so many giving and sacrificing so much of themselves, their families, their lives to help someone else attempt an insane feat was just mind blowing. I sucked it all in and then we were off with a countdown from seven.
The wind was even worse than I expected. My pace plan went out the window at the very start. But I knew that around mile 17 I would take a left turn and I expected the wind to no longer be in my face at that time. So I still pushed the pace a little. I found myself first female but was trying not to think about placement so early in the race. I stayed behind a couple other women the first couple miles but felt the pace was almost uncomfortably slow so I moved ahead. If I had known we had 42 miles into this heated 30 mph wind I might have done differently.
I found myself, maybe because of the wind, extraordinarily thirsty. Like I was drinking more than ever in any race. I was draining my bottle well before reaching my crew every 3 miles so I decided to ask them to stop ever 2 miles instead. The unending wind was throwing sand and dust into my eyes causing them to burn and water incessantly. My throat and lungs were feeling no better. This was a very long beginning to a race, but finally, we approached the left turn. Relief would finally be here.
Wrong. The wind continued in my face!! What was this, some kind of joke? I might have shouted out a few profanities (I was alone out there at this point). I arrived a mile down the road to our first check point. I suppose I should describe how this ultra is much different than most others for those that may not be aware. There are no aide stations at Badwater. All aid is given by your own personal crew. All runners must have a crew of at least 2 people and no more than 4. You must load up your van with all supplies you anticipate needing for the entire race. There are three small towns along the way, however, where you can restock on things like ice and water if necessary. There are six timing stations along the route where runners must check in. Furnace creek at mile 17.5 was the first check in.
My crew did an amazing job keeping me cool the best they could.
I quickly gave my number and continued on my way. I ran a strong mile or two before I was hit with my first severe low. Part of it was the fact that I was still being racketed with at least a 30mph headwind. The second part was that it was closing in on 2 am and my brain was not liking this running-when-the-body-should-be-sleeping thing. I was also out there alone now as the runners had spread out significantly.
The humidity was still heavy for being the desert and it was still well over 100 degrees I think. But my team was incredible with getting me sprayed and cooled down each stop, refilling my ice bandana and making sure I was drinking and taking in enough electrolytes. The heat was not my issue at this point. The wind and irritation to my lungs was. I was short of breath and starting to wheeze a bit. I was taking more walk breaks now in order to keep my heart rate lower. I had not remembered how hilly these first 42 miles were. For some reason I had in my head that it was flat until mile 42. Oh my, was I way off. The hills are unceasing the first 42 miles. And at mile 30 there was a 3-4 mile climb that I had to walk a majority of.
I felt like the night was never going to end. I was discouraged that my time was so much slower than I had wanted at this point in the race, but I prayed I would have more energy when the sun came out in a couple hours. I told my crew I was having a horrible low and this race was not going well. But I also told them, “I will finish this thing, but it might not be very fast.”
My crew kept reminding me that the night was almost over. I will feel better soon. It was not a good feeling to have 100 miles left in the race and already feeling trashed. But I would get to the first climb at mile 42 and give my legs a long break from running. Maybe things would turn around then.
My nutrition intake was not working as planned. The smoothie popsicles had melted on the flight from Fort Wayne, then refroze at our rental house, and then starting to melt again. This left them with the most bizarre and unpleasing texture in my mouth. I couldn’t swallow them at all. So we had to go to other things for nutrition and we only had three frappuccinos. Unfortunately, the frappuccinos were the only thing my body was tolerating too. I think i had a few chips here and there but other than that and the frappuccinos I don’t remember eating anything else until we approached Lone Pine, mile 122.
My GI issues had already begun and it wasn’t even mile 40 yet. Actually, it began around mile 14 but i had a nice break before it restarted. This would become a greater issue around mile 55. But it is the absolute most frustrating thing for me and these races. EVERY single race I’m struck with major GI challenges. I mean it’s like no one else and I’ve searched and searched for the answer and come up empty with everything I’ve tried. We know the main issue is having systemic lupus which afflicts every part of the body with inflammation. The intestines simply get extraordinarily inflamed and irritated with the stress and jostling of running. Then anything that goes in goes immediately through me. I end up losing a lot of hydration and can’t retain much calories at all. It’s a literal sh** show. But I have learned to accept it the best I can as it seems to be something I can’t change. I just bring extra clothes, a lot of wipes and go with it.
Somewhere around mile 38 the sun was coming up. This was a most glorious site to me.
As I have said so many times to those who have never had the pleasure of visiting Death Valley, it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. God’s glory simply shines in all directions there. There is nothing like it. Now that I was no longer surrounded by darkness, I could see and be inspired by the gorgeous sites surrounding me.
I soon approached the second timing station at Stovepipe Wells, mile 42. I could finally have my first pacer, which would be Garett who had been stuck as the driver for the first 42 miles. He was pretty excited to get out of the car for a while and begin the hike up the first mountain pass.
I was discouraged from the start of the climb as my breathing was still labored severely. I remember feeling so great on this climb in 2019 and felt much more sluggish this time. I am sure it had to do with all the sand I inhaled the last 7 hours along with the battle against the wind. But I just powered up the best I could around 16-17 minute miles. I was constantly craving my frappuccinos but now we had to ration them. I needed to save one for the long stretch from mile 90-122.
I can’t remember when the GI issues got the most severe but at some point every time I would run more than about a minute I would have to go. Like REALLY have to go. It got so ridiculously frustrating at one point I just lost it and started sobbing and punched the dirt below me. I yelled out, “I hate this body!” Then I picked myself back up again and tried to start over. Eventually I had to accept that my intestines were not going to cooperate. But I had to replace all the fluids I was losing, and it was a LOT. I had to focus on what I could control. How could I problem solve my way out of this? My crew was amazing with helping me get through every obstacle I encountered. If I had to walk more, then I would, but I would keep moving forward.
We got to the top of the climb at Towne Pass, mile 60, and I was looking forward to the 9 miles of downhill. Steep downhill at 9% grade. Todd took this section as he is the strongest downhill runner. The first 2 or 3 miles went very nicely and I was running strong again. But then I was struck with a sudden cramp in my upper abdominal muscles, probably from the constant diarrhea. I was halted to a very frustrating walk as running was excruciating. I tried pushing on my stomach in order to run but nothing worked. Todd suggested I try breathing through it, put my arms over my head and maybe decrease to a super slow pace to see if that helped. The slow pace seemed to calm things down but I was so annoyed as this was my opportunity to make up some time. I thrive on downhills. But no matter how hard I tried, whenever I picked up the pace the abdominal muscles seized up and I had to slow it down. Closer to the bottom Stephanie gave me a couple extra salt stick. This seemed to finally do the trick and it slowly resolved.
We eventually got to the bottom and, keeping a slow, steady pace my goal was to run this section much better than I did in 2019. It was a 4 mile, flat, HOT stretch to Panamint. Todd handed me over to Garett with one of the best quotes of the day, “Make this section your b****!” This encouragement echoed in my head the next 4 miles and I’d say I succeeded. I made it to Panamint Springs, mile 72 and surprisingly, after all the setbacks, I wasn’t that much slower than I was in 2019 with much harder conditions. I was still in 2nd place and had hopes I could turn my stomach around and run a solid 50K from Darwin to Lone Pine. But first we had another 18 mile climb.
I don’t remember much here to be honest. I was hoping to see the Blue Angels but we could only hear them and never really saw them. It was HOT I do remember that. This race was different from 2019 in that it never really cooled down until somewhere closer to Lone Pine. There were some more runnable sections at the top of the climb, but again as soon as I started running my intestines protested in a major way. Sigh. My plan to run a solid 50K here was fizzling.
We reached Darwin before sunset. We began running from roadside post to post. We would run to one post then walk to the next post. I started feeling a little better and found I could run that far without needing to ‘hit the bucket.’ I guess I should report here that, sadly, somewhere along the route we lost the poor potty bucket. It sits alone somewhere out there today amongst the dusty, desert cacti.
So, anyway, I decided to try running two posts at a time. Nope, that wasn’t happening. So we stuck to one post at a time as long as possible.
The second night fell upon us and a new low kicked in with the sleep deprivation now a huge factor. I desperately needed the chair and to reset myself. The finish line felt so far away. I was feeling hot here even though temps I think had dropped to around 85 or 90. But there was no breeze as we were surrounded on both sides by mountains. It felt humid and I was desperate for air. I changed out of my short sleeve and into a tank again and asked for a little ice in my bandana.
My stomach continued protesting so we dropped down to running 20 steps at a time. We tried 40 steps and that was too much again for my intestines.
With somewhere around 5 miles to Lone Pine, Garett was pacing me and the crew decided to drive to town to get some real food. I seemed to be doing ok and thought I’d have no trouble if they were gone 30 minutes. Well, suddenly and without warning, the temps dropped at least 20 degrees to 65! I was FREEZING. Shivering and extremely uncomfortable I was begging for my crew to get back and give me my jacket! 30 minutes turned into 40, 45? It felt like forever! As soon as they returned, I layered up with two jackets and sat down next to the exhaust of the van hoping that would heat me back up. How crazy is it going from burning up in 120 degrees to hypothermic in a matter of a couple hours!
This turned out to be the best reset though of the race. Stephanie brought me a turkey sandwich and a hot coffee and my body loved this. The calories rejuvenated me and I was relieved to have my crew back. I got back on the road and before we knew it we had hit Lone Pine. I was expecting to be in maybe 6th or 7th place at this point and was completely surprised when Mike messaged Stephanie that I was in third! This pumped me up a little and I started hiking up Mount Whitney (13 miles at 10% grade) with purpose and determination.
Stephanie was pacing me here and we approached the van. Garett started running toward us and told us the woman ahead of us was right there. I saw her and started running up the mountain! Todd jumped in here to pace me and push me hard so I could hold my position. Where this energy came from I have no idea other than the last several hours of being unable to run. after getting ahead of who was either the 2nd or 3rd place woman, I went back to a power hike. It was like night and day from 2019. I never stopped other than one pee break. My intestines were recovered and I was hiking around 16 minute pace up this 13 mile mountain. In 2019 it took me 4 hours and 22 minutes to get up this thing. This year it only took me 3 hours and 45 minutes.
With about 2 miles to go I got a little anxious because I was feeling extreme thirst and not sure where my crew went and I had run out of water a while ago. Finally, I saw them and got a new bottle. Stephanie hiked the last 2 miles up the mountain and having her there with me at the end of this excruciating sufferfest was perfect. I was so relieved to finally be so close. 34 hours. That is a long time.
With half a mile to go the rest of my team met us and we completed the journey together. I had no idea what place I was, what my time was or anything and honestly I didn’t care. This is a different kind of race. This is a race each team does within themselves. I fought and overcame my own demons. I learned that no matter what challenges there are, it is never over. Never give up. Never give in. I felt the love of my team. I felt the strength of God. I felt pride in pushing myself completely to my limit. I felt pure gratitude to my team and those at home who were praying for me and cheering for me.
And I felt hungry. I was ready for one enormous pancake.