Have you ever had that perfect race? The one where all the stars align, everything goes perfectly and things just fall into place? Well, this was not that race! However, despite all the challenges, obstacles and things that didn’t go as planned, it was an absolute amazing race and the experience of a lifetime.
It all started about five years ago. I already knew I wanted to be an ultra runner, I just didn’t know I wanted to be a STYR Labs Badwater 135 finisher. I watched a documentary on TV about Badwater and was instantly hooked. I told my family that was what I was going to do! They of course thought I was a little crazy and most likely kidding. I set out on a quest of figuring out what I had to do and how the people in the documentary got to that point. I started planning races that would help prepare me and create a running resume that at least stood a chance at getting into the “Toughest foot race on earth”. I knew that only 100 runners were selected each year from all over the world, and that there were far fewer females than males in the race. I worked hard to pick races that would show I was capable of running the distance, handling the elements, and that I was worthy of being selected for this prestigious race. I also got to know runners who had completed the race and I crewed/paced a friend in 2016 so that I could really see first hand what I was getting into. Finally, in January of this year, it was time to apply. I had been warned not to be upset if I didn’t get in, as very few people get in the first time they apply. I spent hours creating the best application I could and submitted it. Two weeks later the time had come, Chris (the Badwater Race Director) was going to read the names of who was selected to race live on Facebook. I watched as he read name after name. I tried to remind myself that my odds weren't good, but continued to watch intently. Then it happened, he read my name! I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that I got in on my first try!
|The note that made me realize I could do this no matter what, thank you Ben Breslin|
Once the initial round of excitement wore off I began to put a game plan together. First things first, I needed a great crew (Team Blue Elephant)! This would prove to be one of the most important decisions I made regarding the race. I carefully selected four people who I thought could get me all the way to Mt. Whitney Portal. These people had to know about running, be friends that I wanted to spend many hours with, could get along with each other, be willing to give up a week of time to the actual event along with countless hours of preparation, and be willing to help me with endless unpleasant tasks along the way! After careful consideration I asked four people to join me on this adventure. They all accepted. This was February; the race was in July. The one thing I asked of my crew was that if for any reason they would not be able to come I needed to know by April, as that would give me three months to find an alternate crew member if needed. April came and went and we were all set, committed, and ready to tackle STYR Labs Badwater 135! Jump ahead to June 14th, 26 days before the start of the race, and one crew member drops. After a mild panic attack the other members of my outstanding crew and I rallied together to find someone who could join in at the last minute. Enter Mike Forest. Mike stepped in saying he was nowhere near trained for any of this, but would be more than happy to help. He was the perfect fit, as he jumped in with both feet and didn’t hesitate to do anything he could for the last few weeks before the race. I now had a complete crew, Dee Dee Urquhart, Melissa Wood, Lisa Atencio, and Mike Forest!
|Just another training day|
Training for this race was very different than any other that I had done. My fear wasn’t the distance, I had run 135 miles before; it wasn't the elevation, I train at elevation continually; it wasn’t the climbing, I’ve done races with a lot more gain; it was the heat. I had never run in temperatures like that of Death Valley and I was not accustomed to that extreme heat. I set out to learn all I could about preparing for this element. I started heat training. I spent countless hours each week in a 180 degree sauna, put on winter gear and trained in 100+ degree temps, and drove around in my car with the windows up and no air. After months of heat training my body had definitely acclimated to the hot temperatures; I was cold (like put on a coat cold) when it was 85 degrees out! I continued to run and train normally; I didn’t change things too much in that regard, except for adding 2 races (the Prairie Spirit 100 and the FANS 24 Hour Race) as training runs. Yes, I was now running 100+ miles as training runs. I'm not sure I did everything quite right, I’m sure I could have trained a little better, but ready or not the race was coming up!
A few weeks before the race I started to figure out what I would need to accomplish this task. My list was literally pages long and I couldn't believe how much stuff I had to get! Amazon Prime quickly became my best friend. Packages were arriving daily. I had never packed so much gear for any race…EVER! I unpackaged everything and began to organize it all. A huge thank you to Melissa Wood for coming over to help with the gear prep!
|One day of packages...|
|another day of packages|
|Packed up and ready to be loaded into the van|
It was now July 7th, time to pack the van and begin the journey from Denver to Las Vegas. Melissa and Lisa joined me on the drive. We drove Friday and Saturday until we reached Vegas where we met up with Mike. We spent the day walking the strip to get a little exercise in the heat and sightseeing until our final crew member, Dee Dee, arrived. We then spent some time talking about things to come and got some sleep.
In the morning we got Starbucks, went grocery shopping for everything we would need for the race (thank you to my two dear sponsors who each purchased a large Yeti cooler for this race), and began the drive to Stovepipe Wells to complete check-in. Once we were all checked in we headed to Furnace Creek, where we would stay until it was time to start the race. Sunday night in Furnace Creek Dee Dee and I attended the mandatory runner/crew chief meeting. After the meeting we were fairly confident we knew everything we needed to know. We met up with the rest of the crew, had dinner, and went back to the room to relax.
|The morning of race day|
The next morning we got up, and it was here, it was finally here... RACE DAY! We slept as late as possible because I didn't actually start running until 11pm. We spent the day relaxing, resting, hanging out at the pool, eating, taking an epsom salt bath (ok, that one was just me), and getting everything prepared for the race. After dinner we made the final preparations and headed to the start at Badwater Basin.
We got to the start about an hour before “go” time. We went through the check-in process to get a GPS tracker and weigh-in. Then, we gathered as a group for pictures of the 11PM starting wave. I got the honor of holding Gumby! After a few group photos we removed our hats and listened to the national anthem. This is always very emotional for me, but this race was so special to me that as we listened tears welled in my eyes. I was so thankful for the opportunity to run this amazing race in the land of the free because of the brave. I was one of four Marines who were running Badwater this year.
|The National Anthem|
|4 Marines Ready to take on Badwater|
It was finally time, the race started and off we went (in 109 degree temperature at 11 PM). We ran up the ramp, through the parking lot, and onto the road. From here we would follow the white line for 135 miles making only three turns until we reached the Mt. Whitney Portal.
My crew and I decided that we would meet every two miles. This allowed me to frequently have access to food, drinks and any other supplies I needed. A few miles into the race I had the privilege of running with #41 Ray Sanchez. He had finished the Badwater 135 nine times before this race and was kind enough to share some tips and wisdom with me. I greatly appreciated any advice he had and took it to heart. I was on my way to the first checkpoint, Furnace Creek mile 17.4. Less than ten miles in a runner dropped, at mile 15 I saw another runner vomiting on the side of the road. I knew this was going to be tough, but I couldn’t believe runners were dropping before Furnace Creek. These were some of the best runners in the WHOLE world, thoughts of doubt began to enter my mind; if these runners didn’t even make it to Furnace Creek how would I make it all the way to Mt. Whitney Portal? I quickly pushed these thoughts out of my head. I knew if I wanted to finish I couldn’t have doubt. I worked hard to get there and I wasn't going to second guess myself now! I knew come hell or high water (we were ironically warned to watch for flash flooding) I was going to finish! Time seemed to pass quickly and I made it to Furnace Creek right on schedule. I stopped briefly to check-in and then headed out to make my way to Stovepipe Wells, the second check point at mile 42.
It was now the middle of the night and I was almost a marathon distance in. I had found a comfortable pace and was running alone. I continued to remain fairly steady throughout the rest of the night. Daybreak was upon us. This is always a great point in a race; it seems to come with renewed energy and hope. Unfortunately after sunrise we also got some…lightning, thunder and rain! It actually drizzled rain in Death Valley! This may sound like a good thing, but it wasn't, not at all. With the rain came intense humidity (the humidity was just 3% before the rain). This made the already rising temperatures feel even hotter. The air became thick with moisture. We now had an added level of difficulty laid out before us. I knew Stovepipe Wells was getting close and I picked up the pace. I couldn't wait to get there, check-in and finally have some company. All runners are required to run the first 42 miles alone (unless a runner is over 65), but at mile 42 we are allowed to have a pacer run with is for the rest of the race. Lisa was the first pacer, we left out of Stovepipe Wells and continued the journey to Mt. Whitney.
|The crew vehicle in action|
It was amazing to have company! I can’t remember exactly what we discussed on that first leg out of Stovepipe Wells, but I’m sure it was a great conversation! As Lisa and I were running we saw our crew van coming towards us, then pass us. We were a little confused, they were going the wrong direction?!?! We later found out that Melissa and Mike hopped out on the side of the road with the coolers in the event I reached them before the van was back (I bet they looked funny on the side of the road in the desert sitting on a cooler with no vehicle) while Dee Dee ran back and get some Tylenol from the convenience store. By this point my braids were a disaster, the rain and humidity had caused them to kink out of control. I took them out and put the tangled mess into a ponytail, and pulled my hat back over it. I knew the snared mess would only get worse. Luckily a little later Melissa was able to braid it so it wouldn't bother me any longer!
Over the next few hours my crew took turns running with me, keeping me company and tending to my every need. They were absolutely incredible! We finally broke through the first of three major climbs; Townes Pass was behind us. The first major downhill section came, and boy was I glad to see it! Melissa and I ran this section together since we are both downhill runners with the same running style. It felt so good to be running a decent pace again!
The downhill didn’t seem to last long. We then headed into the salt flats, the heat was scorching and the humidity was high. The heat index soared (up to 149!). We were about 7 miles out of Panamint Springs, mile 72, and the next checkpoint. Melissa and I geared up to make the next 7 miles without the crew as Lisa, Mike, and Dee Dee went ahead to get food for all of us from the restaurant and the very coveted ice bags that ran out just after we got ours in Panamint Springs.
|53 miles from furnace Creek and 53 miles to get to Lone Pine|
Melissa and I finally made our way to meet the rest of the crew. It was a planned stop to change socks, soak my feet in ice water, treat some growing blisters, eat, and relax for just a minute. After spending a little time in Panamint Springs Lisa and I headed out. We were now in the second major climb of the race, the climb to the top of Father Crowley. The crew had gone 1.8 miles to the next stop and Lisa and I were on our way to meet them. However, just minutes into the climb I was sick. The food I ate in Panamint Springs wasn't sitting well. I felt my body beginning to crash. I didn’t know what to do, I tried to expel the food from my body, but it wouldn't come out. So I continued to climb, I knew I just needed to reach the crew; they were now about 1.5 miles away. I slowly put one foot in front of the other and eventually made it to the van. The hike up to the van is a little foggy, but I remember opening the front door of the van, getting in and asking for ginger and a Coca-Cola. I took the ginger and Coke, and promptly passed out. I woke up a short while later, I was feeling much better, but not even close to 100%. I knew I had to continue to move forward. My pace had been reduced to much slower than I had hoped, but I didn’t care. I was still in it, still moving forward and still on my way to get that buckle that was waiting for me at the Mt. Whitney Portal!
Mike and I left the van and continued the climb; we made it to the top of father Crowley before the sun set. It was a great section of the course, made even better by great conversation. I was so happy to be on the course and continuing my journey that I didn’t even mind the difficult climb. I was more thankful than ever at this point that I had such a fantastic crew! They never gave up on me, even when things took a sharp turn for the worst. I knew I had the right people by my side.
|The Top of Father Crowley Pass|
Sunset was upon us; we were about to enter night two. The reprieve from the sun and heat was welcomed, but with the darkness always brings new struggles. We put on our blinking lights and reflective gear and continued on. I decided I didn’t want to wear a headlamp, so I used the light from the headlamp of my pacer. We continued the second part of the second climb up Panamint Pass. This climb was tough, it wasn't as steep as the climb up to Father Crowley, but it seemed to never end. I was getting cold even though it was still a little over 100 degrees. Dee Dee suggested I do a full wardrobe change, the thought of new clean clothes sounded very appealing, so as soon as we got back to the van I put on clean, dry clothes that weren’t full of salt. It felt amazing! We continued on to Darwin, mile 90.6 and the next check point.
Finally, we made it. We checked in with the volunteers, who were so nice (just as they had been at each check-in station). They asked me to sign the guest book, I was tired and didn't want to, so Melissa graciously did it for our team!
I did another quick stop to change socks and get setup for the next stretch… the stretch to Lone Pine. We continued on with relentless forward progress. My pacers continued to switch out every few miles and spend time with me. Their company was vital to my success. At this point I was exhausted. I had been up for over 50 hours and covered more than 100 miles with just under 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Without the company of awesome friends I would have fallen asleep on the side of the road.
By this time of night hot food always sounds amazing! However, we ran into a small SNAFU, my crew couldn't get the JetBoil to work. Another crew did help us out and we were able to make noodles and broth, but this was a one-time deal. Not the end of the world since we had lots of food that didn’t need to be heated.
|If we shouldn't walk after 10am then we will run!|
If you don’t know what a Biffy bag is I completely understand, I didn't either until I became familiar with this race. Let's start by saying that there are only 5 places along the course with bathrooms; over the course of 135 miles and 42 hours that's just not enough. So the only option is to squat behind the van parked on the side of the road. Yes, I realize this is far from ideal, but there is really no other option. Now, if all you have to do is lose some excess fluids its not that complicated, but what happens when you really need to take care of business?!?! Well, that's where Biffy bags come in. Let's just say that you better be really comfortable with the people around you, LOL! If you're a shy person you will definitely have to get over that really fast on a trip like this! We did decide next year (or the next time I get invited) there will be music playing during all Biffy bag stops for runner and crew alike! J
|Running the white line|
The road to Lone Pine begins to feel as though it will never end. Do you remember the song that never ends? Well, a revised version of that is what was going through my mind as we forged on down this road… “this is the road that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friend, some people started running it as crazy as that was and we’ll just keep on running it forever just because….” If you know the song you can only imagine as this played over and over in my head. Then it happened, the second turn of the course was in sight! We were almost to Lone Pine, mile 122. Before we got to the check point in Lone Pine we stopped at a gas station. I was excited to have a real bathroom! I put my feet briefly in ice water and then put my running shoes back on, it was a bit of a struggle since my feet were swollen, but I got them on. Then my crew went ahead and waited for me at the checkpoint while Lisa and I headed out on foot to meet them.
I got to the checkpoint and there was crew, literally waiting with open arms. As I hugged Dee Dee my eyes filled with tears, that was the moment I knew with certainty that I was going to finish. I composed myself and checked in. Then, Melissa handed me a styrofoam container filled with bacon! I was so excited I wanted to jump for joy (however, that would have taken more energy than I had to spare)! I had been craving bacon for hours. My crew went above and beyond again, they went to a local restaurant and got me exactly what I wanted. As I began to savor the bacon Mike and I headed out to make the third and final turn of the race, the turn that would take us up to the Mt. Whitney Portal.
During this final 13-mile stretch my crew decided they would switch out pacers every mile. I did not want to stop until I reached the finish. They made sure I had everything I needed on the move; the only stop I made was the last checkpoint just a few miles before the finish. The switchbacks we went up for the last few miles were long, steep, and monotonous. I was salty from sweat, I’m sure I smelled like roses, and looked like what the cat dragged in, but I had told my crew one of the things I wanted was good pictures at the finish line so as we climbed the last few miles we sprayed my hair with water, doused it with leave-in conditioner, got out all the tangles and re-braided my hair. It may sound silly, but I felt like a whole new person.
As we came into the home stretch, Lisa and I made our way up and Melissa, Dee Dee, and Mike went ahead, parked the van, and headed down toward us to join us for the final stretch of the course. After such an amazing journey I would have it no other way than to have my entire crew cross the finish line with me, hand in hand. This, after all, is a team effort, I may be the one who ran 135 miles, but they are the ones who made that possible. As I have told them many times, I am nothing without them. This race, this journey, would not have been possible without them. I was beyond blessed to share this with some of my very best friends. They were there for me literally every step of the way, they shared in the good times and the bad, and for that there is no way that I could ever show them enough gratitude. And so we did just that, we ran, hand in hand and crossed the finish line to a race that was years in the making, a dream come true. Tears of joy streamed down my face as Team Blue Elephant embraced in a hug, WE had done it! I was now 1 of only 183 women in the world in 30 years to finish this epic race!