11 to 15 July 2011
My first taste of the Badwater Ultra Marathon was in 2005 when my goal was to try and complete the race in less than 48 hours to get the coveted Badwater Buckle and if that was out of my reach I would have been very happy to finish the race. Thankfully I completed the race in 41hours 5 mins.
In 2006 I went back to Badwater but this time to crew for a good friend of mine Neil Kapoor, it was very interesting seeing it from the other side of the fence, but nevertheless a fantastic experience. Neil planted the seed in my head by suggesting that we should come back and do the Double!
What is Double Badwater?
In order to complete the Double I first had to run the race which is a 135 miles non-stop starting in Badwater (Death Valley) 282 feet below sea level and finishing in the Portals of Mt. Whitney 8,400 feet above sea level, all in temperatures of approximately 130 degrees; this year they had changed the finish time from 60 hours to 48 hours.
During the race I ran through three mountain ranges, have 69 miles of flat, 46 miles of up and 20 of down! Once I have completed the race I then climb up to the top of Mt. Whitney 14,505 feet (the highest mountain in Contiguous USA) once at the top I have to run all the way back down to the start 282 feet below sea level a total distance of 292 miles.
To add to the challenge I wanted to try and beat the female record, which stands at just over 129 hours.
Myself, Becky and Katherine flew to Las Vegas where we met up with the boys, popping into a Walmart and managed to overfill 5 large shopping trolleys with everything we needed for the race. The list was endless but here are a few of the items we required. Over 80 gallons of water, ice boxes, one large enough for me to sit in, food for 6 of us, sleeping bags, medical kit, clothes, towels, sponges, foot bath, fold up chairs, shall I go on!! All this was packed up into the two-crew cars and we headed off to our hotel at Furnace Creek.
Saturday was a leisurely day doing a bit of sightseeing, having lunch then going down to Badwater Basin to take photos for my Sponsors. Sunday was registration day. Matt and I went up to get my number and goodie bag and most importantly get my books signed by Marshall Ulrich. The official race photo and our race briefing took up a lot of the afternoon.
Once all that was done the crew set about sorting out the two cars. The rules on support cars was changed this year, runners had to have one designated support vehicle and the second one had to be 5 miles ahead, they were however allowed to drop off supplies etc.
During the actual race I was taking part in a survey by Essex University. This meant swallowing a very large pill which enabled my body temperature to be taken by a machine as I ran and every few miles my crew would hold up a chart with funny faces on and ask me how I was feeling and how hot I felt – sounds easy! Dom, the man in charge would be with us for the first 17.4 miles to Furnace Creek to show the crew what they had to do. The pill I had to swallow was HUGE!
Race day finally arrived. There were three starts, 6am, 8am and 10am, I was in the 8am start which meant I had to be at the start line by about 7am in order to get weighed, photos etc. The girls sorted my breakfast while I got my running kit on which I had laid out the night before. After a last minute dash to the loo, Matt, Becky, Dom and myself got into the car and drove to the start, cheering the 6am runners on as we past them coming up the hill.
After being weighed (118lbs) and the group photo taken it was time to stand on the start line and wait for the off. I always get nervous at the beginning of a race so this one was no different; this is where I go quiet and concentrate on what I have to do. After the American National Anthem I plugged my music in, 3,2,1 and we were off – 292 mile to go!!! Ha, is that all!!
I set off at a comfortable pace and managed to get ahead of everyone, I needed to do this just to calm my nerves down and get into my own space, I knew it wouldn’t be long before people over took me but that didn’t bother me, for now I had no-one in front of me and I was feeling calm.
My crew met me every mile to spray me and change drinks if I needed them. I was feeling good, although the wind, which was supposed to be a tail wind, had changed direction to become a head wind, just to make running harder! Coming up to mile 14 I was feeling rather hungry and as if Becky had read my mind she met me with half a banana, fantastic! Somewhere between here and Furnace Creek I took my iPod off, the music was annoying me and I wanted to soak up the atmosphere and beautiful surroundings I was running in.
I made the first timed CP at Furnace Creek 17.4 miles in good time, which I was happy about, but I was feeling the heat at this stage it was after all 124 degrees. From this point I was allowed to have a member of my crew run with me, they weren’t allowed to pace me but could run just behind me and on the left, the only time they could run in front of me was if they were handing me fluids or food.
The next timed CP was at Stovepipe Wells, 24.6 miles away. According to the Race Director the route from the start to Stovepipe Wells was flat! Such a funny man!!! Compared to the hills we had to come I suppose it was, but I would call it undulatingly hilly!
Brad and Will took it in turns to run 5 miles at a time with me, it was great to have the company even if I didn’t want to talk all the time. The temperature was creeping up and I believe the hottest it got was 138 degrees! I was finding the heat tough going but the boys were carrying a sprayer with them, which made such a difference – water on-tap! Eating is something I always struggle with during races, especially when its hot, so the crew were finding it difficult to get food down me – thankfully I had a very bossy crew who would just tell me to eat, but I could only manage very small amounts at a time. I loved the scenery on the way to Stovepipe it’s stunning with beautiful Sand Dunes going for miles and miles.
I arrived at Stovepipe Wells 42 miles feeling strong and going at a steady pace, another CP to throw away, the next section was going to be tough as there was 18-miles up hill! At some stage along this lovely hill Mike Wardian and Ian Sharman passed me, Ian was carrying the Spiderman mask they had both broken a World Record with, apparently this was to be used for motivation if needed!
The ball of my left foot had developed a hotspot, I decided to stop and let Matt sort it out for me at mile 48, I hate stopping to get feet sorted, but it was the right decision considering I was doing the double! Apparently I had a blister forming under a hard bit of skin, which meant Matt stabbing me with a syringe to try and get the fluid out, OUCH! Plaster on and I was sent on my way again feeling much better and with a spring in my step.
I finally arrived at Townes Pass summit 4,956 feet feeling marvellous, now for the 9-mile downhill section to Panamint Spring Resort. I enjoyed this part, looking down into the valley and seeing all the car lights as they drove up towards Panamint Springs was an amazing sight. Matt was running with me during this stage and from nowhere this vision that was Iris my wonderful Swiss friend appeared belting down the hill, she was going so fast she could have been mistaken for the roadrunner! We exchanged a brief “hi – looking good” and she was gone! At about 11pm I was beginning to feel tired which I suppose isn’t surprising, even coffee didn’t seem to wake me up! By the time I reached Panamint Springs at 72.3 miles I was very tired and according to my crew I looked as though I had consumed far too much of the old amber nectar as I was swaying rather a lot!
To be quite honest I don’t really remember much of the next uphill section (15 miles) I just knew that I had to keep moving. I was still in good spirits and my crew were fantastic at knowing what I needed and when without me having to say anything. I’m not sure what time it was but I do remember it was dark when the Japanese lady, Sumie Inaqaki, ran passed me…she was going like the clappers. Will who was running with me and I couldn’t believe her pace, I remember her blue flashing headlight disappearing up the hill never to be seen again …by me anyway!
Seeing the sunrise, made all the difference, a new day and I was nearing the 100-mile point. The next timed CP was at Darwin at 90.1miles, I was in good spirits here and remember this section from last time. We stopped and looked at the list of runners that had gone through ahead of me, only about 23 so I was more than happy with that and not really expecting to be that far up the field.
The next 12 miles were down hill, my blister was causing me a bit of grief so had it looked at again, change of socks and sent on my way. The views running down this road were wonderful, finally leveling out at Owens Valley.
During this time I passed the 100-mile marker. When I did this race in 2005 I had wanted to get to the 100 mile point in under 24 hours but sadly didn’t manage to achieve it, I mumbled something to my crew saying I would like to try and do it this time, not having any idea what the time was or exactly how far off the 100 mile point we were, you can imagine my surprise when Matt told me I had 48 minutes to run just under 4 miles. There was NO WAY I wasn’t going achieve this again so I picked up the pace, feeling fantastic and really motivated. I kept on asking Matt if I was still on track, was I going to do it, do I need to run faster, poor man! All the crew were there to see me get to the 100-mile point in 23 hours 50 minutes 5 seconds! I’d done it, hugs smiles all round, happy Pink person! Time to keep moving though only 35 miles to go! (192 for the Double)
From the Valley floor to Lone Pine, the next timed CP was a long long straight stretch. Lots of people don’t like this section because it is just endless. I don’t mind it. The temperature was gradually increasing, as was the wind, I don’t remember the wind being like this last time, it just zaps every ounce of moisture from your body. We went through a small very uninteresting mining town called Keeler at mile 107.8, huge salt flats on the left and you could see where they were taking the salt as there were long oblong patches which were blue in colour.
I was getting very bored of drinking water plus it didn’t seem to quench my thirst so every so often I would have some coke zero. Becky who was concerned that I wasn’t eating enough came back with some chicken nuggets and chips from MacDonald’s (I thought of James Adams at this time as he loves MacDonald’s and they seem to be his staple diet as he ran across America!!!) I ate one Nugget and a couple of chips then promptly vomited – poor Will who was running with me was brilliant. He was rather shocked to notice I had thrown up a lot of black stuff, but on closer inspection it was only the raisins I had been eating, obviously my body didn’t like something I had eaten because as soon as I had finished throwing up I felt fine.
It was a great feeling to finally turn right into Lone Pine and reach the CP at 122 miles, now all that was left was a 13 mile hike up the mountain road to the Portals of Mt. Whitney and the end of the race.
This last 13 miles was literally a case of head down and power walking up the road, along the switchbacks to the finish of the race. The crew cars had gone on ahead and parked at the top ready for me to come in. Where was the top? Each turn you think you are there! Suddenly you can hear people and there are my crew waiting for me, the emotions start to build as we join hands and ran towards the finish line, the Union Jack and American flags flying behind us. We crossed the line in a very respectable time of 34 hours and 25 minutes, finishing 24thoverall and 4th female – as always I burst into tears!!!
After being awarded with the Buckle and my medal we headed back down the mountain road to our hotel in Lone Pine for a short sleep before starting on the next section of the Double – to climb Mt. Whitney.
The original plan had been to start climbing Mt Whitney at midnight but the mountain had been closed to hikers for a couple of days due to the snow and ice – we had been told that we might require crampons for the climb – I had had a quick lesson at Furnace Creek on how to use them by Katherine.
Scott D’Angelo was to be my guide for the summit as he had done this four times. Katherine would also come along as she was also an experienced mountaineer. Scott had told Matt that he wasn’t happy to start at midnight but we could begin our ascent at about 4am. There was no point worrying as I couldn’t do anything about it, Scott was the one with the experience and had to make the decisions. We ordered Pizza, I had a bath and a massage, ate the food and then slept for a few hours.
At 4.30am Scott, Katherine and myself set off from the Portals of Mt. Whitney where the race had finished and headed up the trail. The first few miles climbed pretty quickly, and I found myself feeling very out of breath, having to stop occasionally to get oxygen into my lungs! We took a break approximately 4 miles up to eat and admire the view.
At 139 miles we passed the most beautiful lake known as Mirror Lake, quite stunning. It was flat calm and the reflections of the trees on the water looked like a painting.
By the time we had reached the Trail Camp at 6 miles we had climbed up to 12,039 feet. I was amazed at the amount of snow we encountered on our way up even Scott said that he had never seen it that low before.
We stopped here so Scott could refill the water bottles and we could get some food into us. When you are at altitude your body uses up a huge amount of calories and fluids so its important to keep eating and drinking. Again I was struggling with the eating part. Katherine had made us a delicious picnic but I could only manage half a roll, I just wasn’t hungry and really couldn’t be bothered to force the food down me. We had to watch our packs as if they were left alone for too long the Marmots would come along and start trying to get into them! They were rather sweet though.
Katherine wasn’t feeling very well and had been suffering from a bad headache since mile 4, however she seemed happy to continue saying she was sure it would disappear.
From the Campsite I looked up towards the next section of the climb, a series of 98 switchbacks! My breathing seemed to be fine as we headed up the switchbacks and I was thoroughly enjoying the scenery, beautiful flowers that only grow above 5,000 feet and taking lots of photos. We had to walk across a vast section of snow with a sheer drop below us, I didn’t really like this bit but it was the only way of getting to the summit so a case of one step at a time and try not to look down!
Katherine was really struggling, her pace had slowed and unfortunately the headache was getting worse. She made the decision to stop, I really wasn’t happy about this, firstly leaving her and secondly the thought of not having her at the top with me was a huge disappointment, I didn’t know what to do – what was the right decision? Scott was happy to leave her as she was experienced mountaineer, I still wasn’t happy, but left her in the capable hands of another lady who stayed with her for a couple of hours. Once Katherine felt better she did climb a bit further but decided it wasn’t the right thing to do and went back down to where we had left her.
Scott and I continued on our journey still enjoying the most fantastic weather, we were so lucky. We got to John Muir Trail at 13,480 feet here you continue up the mountain or go left down the John Muir Trail. We passed several people coming down, we had two miles to go but it seemed to take forever. Over the boulder field, more snow which actually made it easier and finally to the summit at 14,505 feet – WOW the view from the top was out of this world, I had done it, climbed my first mountain in a total accumulative time of 54 hours 52 minutes! 146 miles. It was very important for me to sign the book and take some photos to prove that I had summited the mountain, having done this and Scott had eaten some food we headed back down.
I couldn’t get down fast enough, I was really worried about Katherine. We found her exactly where we had left her but not in a good way so we had to get her off the mountain as fast as possibly. Going back across the snow was pretty frightening but thankfully she started to be more compus mentus. There were some funny moments when we asked what the code for her phone was and she replied “I don’t smoke!” daft woman! Then asking her what her husband’s name was she replied “Tim of course”, she hadn’t lost the plot completely then!
We were getting tired now and all tripping over the same root on the trail, lots of swearing going on as the toes got stubbed again and again. Two miles seemed to go on forever and I knew the plan for me at the bottom was to then run down the mountain road to Lone Pine. However, I had other plans and kept telling Katherine and Scott that whatever the crew said I was definitely NOT going to run down to Lone Pine tonight, I was going to put my foot down.
When we arrived back at the Portals we made sure that Katherine was looked after (although she seemed fine, I was worried). I was all ready to be assertive, however Becky had other plans (the woman knows me far too well!) she told me that I was going to have something to eat, a 90 minute sleep in the back of the car, then run the 13 miles down to Lone Pine. They had laid out a sleeping mat and bag for me. After all my banging on about it as I came down the mountain that I wasn’t going to run the 13 miles I found myself sitting in the back of the car taking my trainers off! Becky had given me some chicken soup which I didn’t really like and just wanted to go to sleep, she said that if I didn’t drink the soup I wouldn’t be allowed to go to sleep, the soup went down quicker than you could blink your eye, I lay down and I was out for the count. (I do seem to have the ability to crash very quickly!)
Being woken up has never been a problem for me, I treat racing like work, I know that when that alarm goes off there is no hanging around I just need to get moving, so when Becky woke me up with more food I changed my top, put on my trainers, head torch and reflective gear and we started the run down the road towards Lone Pine.
I felt great, Matt was driving the car and Becky was running with me, there were no rules to abide by now as regards pacing so we could run side by side and chat which was rather nice – poor Matt was so tired he had fallen asleep while parked up waiting for us to run past, Becky had to wake him up! My legs felt great and I ran all the way to our hotel in Lone Pine where I was allowed another short sleep: this was to be my last in a bed until I finished.
The following morning I left the hotel at 7.30am it was supposed to be 7am but feet needed to be sorted and things always take longer than you think! At this stage of the run I was 4 ½ hours behind schedule, mainly due to the delay in being able to climb the mountain, but I knew that I should be able to keep up a faster pace than was on schedule – I hoped anyway!
Will had the first stint of the day, we ran out of Lone Pine this time turning left heading back towards the mining town of Keeler. I was feeling great and going at a steady pace. After a few hours I had already made up 2 hours on my time – my head couldn’t take in the maths that went into working out my pace so I left that up to the crew! Because of the pace I was running at I kept eating away at my time until eventually I was ahead of schedule!
The other competitors were going home today and as they drove past they tooted their horns, waved, shouted and sometimes even stopped to say “keep going, well done” it gave me a real boost and meant a lot to me that people were taking the effort to do this.
It was wonderful to finally have the whole crew together, this meant there was a real buzz coming from them which was fantastic. They continued to meet me every mile and still took it in turns to run with me. After running through Keeler, and a few more flatish miles I then had the 12 mile climb up hill towards Darwin. There seemed to be quite a few jets flying overhead, god what a noise they made, everyone apart from myself got very excited by these machines!! I was still feeling good and moving steadily, knocking off the miles, I now had less than 100 miles to go!
I’m afraid I’m not very clear about a lot of things that happened, who I was running with, what I ate etc, but I do remember running down the long 15 mile section towards Panamint Springs (which had been a timed CP during the race) feeling good and running with Will when Becky handed me some pasta, as always trying to get food down me. I walked along eating this and had a moment when my toys were thrown out of the pram because I didn’t want to eat the carrots, you can just imagine what I sounded like, a spoilt child!!! Becky was very good when I handed her back the bowl after a few mouthfuls saying it was disgusting. I think Will had a bit of a giggle and I told him that she would keep giving it too me every mile until I had eaten it! Sure enough, a mile down the road the pasta got handed to me again, however I did notice that the carrots had been taken out but she had filled the bowl up – another slight sense of humour failure. Becky paid no attention to me and said that if I didn’t eat the food I would have to sit for 2 hours until it was gone (2 hours was the time I was ahead at this point in the race) grumpily I ate the food. I did apologise to Becky at the next mile, she just smiled and said she always ignored me anyway!!!
In the original schedule I was going to have a rest at Panamint Lake, 223.9 miles, but because I was way ahead of my schedule I continued as the next section was 8 miles up hill to Townes Pass, this I definitely wanted to get out of the way as it was to be my last long hill! Once again it was a case of head down and power walking. My calves were feeling a bit tight and I was beginning to feel tired again, but continued going, knowing that at the top I could have a sleep.
It was fantastic to reach the top and see the cars waiting for me, I felt tired, not shattered but knew that a sleep would be good and keep me moving faster when I woke. After something to eat I took off my trainers, snuggled up in my sleeping bag and had a 90 minute kip.
Becky woke me up, it was very cold outside and the wind had picked up. I got dressed, putting on several layers underneath my reflective gear to keep me warm.
I stopped at the next mile point as my blister on my left foot was causing me pain. The blister had become full of fluid again so needed to be drained to help alleviate the pain. This done off I went feeling much happier. Next stop Stovepipe Wells!! All down hill!
I was getting extremely frustrated with myself as I kept on stopping, far too regularly to have a pee, when I did go it was painful and nothing or little came out. This has happened to me before so Becky had brought along some cystitis sachets for me to take – after two sachets and a magic pill from Matt the problem seemed to improve! (took about 3 hours!)
I was given a real boost when Darren Fortney and his crew stopped to say hi on their way to Las Vegas, I don’t think they had any idea how much I appreciated what they did – thank you.
Becky and I continued on our way towards Stovepipe Wells, I was still running, albeit not very fast but running nevertheless. The highlight of the morning was when Marshal Ulrich stopped in the middle of the road and came over to talk to me, he even introduced himself which made me giggle as everyone who runs Ultras knows who he is! After he left I had an added spring in my step as we ran into Stovepipe for breakfast!
There are two things I remember about my breakfast stop, the first was my cereal, just delicious and the milk was ice cold, perfect. The second was receiving a BBM from my husband to say that my eldest daughter’s other half had asked if he could marry her – well, you can imagine with the emotions already high I just burst into tears, but they were of joy!
Brad left Stovepipe Wells with me, but when I tried to run my body felt tired, Brad was great and told me to keep walking as I had just eaten and not to worry. The wind had picked up and I was able to run for short distances but struggled against the wind, which the boys reckon was approx. 25 mph with gusts of 30-35 mph. Running into this headwind felt like a hill session, really tough and I was using up too much energy so had to resort to power walking again.
The crew were fantastic, but I was feeling very frustrated that I had to power walk when it was all runnable. The wind was like no other I have come across before, it zaps every ounce of fluid from your body, eyes dry out, throat goes dry and when sprayed down my shirt would dry in minutes, to be perfectly honest it wasn’t very pleasant!
The power walking continued and we were steadily heading towards Furnace Creek, the 1st timed CP at the race. Will who had done a run with the boys before the race began kept on telling me that he was sure we would see Furnace Creek at the next corner, I didn’t mind it passed the time and made me smile!!
As Will and I walked past the Cheveron Gas Station we were met by a man from the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, he gave me some dried sage for safe passage and a cup of sage water to drink or rub on sore knees ankles, really lovely. Apparently Will poured the water all over him once I left Furnace Creek!!
Eventually we could see the Furnace Creek, a sight for sore eyes. I was asked what I wanted at the stop and I remember having a real desire for an iced coffee – why an iced coffee I will never know, it just popped into my head.
It was fantastic to arrive at Furnace Creek, now I only had 17.4 miles to go! For me this had to be the best moment of the race – I sat down under a tree in my chair was given another wonderful bowl of cereal (grapenuts and cold milk) then Becky handed me a large cup of iced coffee, you should have seen my face! At first I thought they had made it, but in fact had bought it from the shop at Furnace Creek, either way it didn’t matter I had got what I’d asked for, at that moment in time it was better than any 5 star meal.
Matt came with me from Furnace Creek, the wind was still blowing, I was hoping that when we turned right heading down towards Badwater Basin it would die down and I could start running again.
Silly things were annoying me as we headed down towards the finish line, I was getting very confused with the distance I still had to run as I was being told different distances by everyone so eventually the boys drove down to the finish so that I would know exactly how far I had to go. Everyone was taking it in turns to walk with me, I had become quite quiet which I always do when I just need to concentrate and get a job done. Matt found it very amusing that I had an iced coffee in my water bottle! I also found at this stage that Perrier water was very thirst quenching. The route seemed to be very hill going in the reverse direction and the end never seemed to get any closer, keep going, one foot in front of the other and I would finish.
Although I was quiet I was still feeling good and was convinced that my crew had miscalculated my time. In the original plan I would be finishing on Saturday (although I misread this and thought it was Friday)!!
With two miles to go the boys took the cars and drove to the finish line, they then ran back up to join us so we could all finish together. With 1 mile to go the girls sorted me out for the finish – bit of lip gloss and we set off to meet the boys.
We were remarkably quiet as a group running the final stretch – perhaps we were all savouring this special moment. The ¼ of a mile to go Badwater sign appeared quicker than expected, here I started running much to the delight of my crew (and me I might add!!!) then I could see the car park and picked up the pace, all I had to do was reach the point in the road where my 292 mile journey had begun 4 days ago! The Aspen team crossed the line in a total time of 108 hours 10 minutes and 24 seconds and I became the first British female to complete the Double and beating the previous female record by over 21 hours!
I would like to say thank you to the group of kids who were at the finish line, I think they got quite a shock when they saw us running in at 8pm! Their enthusiasum was fantastic and they made what was already an incredible finish into an unforgettable one!
A very special thank you goes to my wonderful, marvellous, outstanding, awesome crew, Matt Nelson, Becky Healey, Katherine Hay-Heddle, Brad Lombardi and Will Glover. They never complained (not to me anyway!) supported me unquestionably, they seemed to know what I needed and when, made me feel relaxed and calm, which meant that all I had to do was run. We have had the most incredible journey together, leaving me with memories that I will cherish for years to come.
Thank you to my Sponsors Aspen who believed in my ability and gave me the chance to make a long standing dream