“Congratulations! You have been accepted to compete in the STYR LABS Badwater ultramarathon.” Yes! Yes! Yes! After following this event for 18 years, I would now have an opportunity, along with 99 other runners from 22 countries, to discover if I could complete the world’s toughest event: a 135-mile race in Death Valley, the hottest place on earth.
More importantly, I would use the opportunity to raise funds for Girls on the Run-Chicago (GOTRC) and promote gender equality. Those who have followed my progress in various articles will know about my motivations. In short, my two brothers and I were raised by a single mom. I am exceptionally passionate about this critical cause, and May this year I founded Echo 37.com a collaborative website to help promote gender equality (In early 2017 we will be launching the next phase of Echo’s evolution).
The next 5 months were super intense. So much to do in so little time. Miles and miles of training runs. Hours and hours of preparation, and lots and lots to worry about. Could I do this? Am I good enough? How am I going to get through it all? Before I knew it, it was race day and the alarm on my phone went off.
I awoke at 6:00 p.m. on Monday July 18th wondering where on earth I was? Oh yeah: Badwater, Death Valley, and in 3 hours I have a little run of 135 miles to do. I was actually feeling relatively calm and ready. We had arrived on Friday and spent the weekend preparing the support vehicle, reviewing the race strategy, and attending the race briefings. Everything was good to go.
The first big dose of nerves appeared as we travelled to the start line. “It’s ok Will, just remember the plan. You’ve got this,” Jane, my crew chief, reminded me. A support vehicle and crew are a mandatory requirement for Badwater where temperatures often exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit. There are no aid stations, and you need to store all necessary supplies in your crew vehicle. The Echo 37 crew were simply amazing and I owe so much to Jane, Andrea, Erin, and Rokas. They had arrived from all quarters of the U.S. to help make my dream come true. They delivered the brilliance of a Daytona pit crew by keeping me hydrated, happy, and moving forward. They were amazing, and I am so thankful for them.
The course starts at Badwater basin (at 200 feet below sea level, the second lowest point in the Western Hemisphere) and heads 135 miles east to the Mount Whitney portal at 8,700 feet. The first 40 miles are relatively flat. Then you go 15 miles up to 8,000 feet. Nine miles back down again. 5 flat miles before the second major climb of 8,000 feet. Back down again. Followed by 30 undulating miles and a final 12-mile climb to the finish line.
After the customary national anthem, the race commenced. I plodded along at a 12 minute-per-mile pace trying to make sense of everything. There was a full moon and the night sky was beautiful. Gazing at the stars, I smiled whenever a shooting star flashed by and enjoyed the silence and stillness of the Mojave desert. Mile 2 arrived and my crew were on point to swap my water bottle and offer nutrients. They would meet me every 2 miles for the entire race providing about 250 calories per hour, ample water, and an army of encouraging words.
As the miles went by, my nerves calmed and I knew it was time for a sing-a-long. Something that epitomizes the serenity and tranquility of the desert… or not. My screeching vocal chords successfully ruined Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” and some poor desert creature must have been asking itself, “Who is Tommy? What is a dock? Why should I take his hand!?” The rest of the night followed a sequence of run, walk, swap water bottle, see shooting star, hear strange animal noise, get scared by shadow, scream a rock ballad, eat an avocado and humus wrap. Repeat.
Mile 20 delivered my first noticeable issue. The national park service is not overly keen on having its beautiful park defecated by 100 runners and their crews pooping everywhere. Accordingly, poop bags are supplied. Not your standard plastic bags, but amazing feats of engineering demanding a degree in quantum mechanics to operate. After a few desperate minutes I finally figured out what went where, how and why. Feeling a little lighter and a lot better I headed off into the desert.
The sun emerged at about mile 40 as the first major ascent arrived. After the mile 42 check point, pacers were allowed and Jane accompanied me half way up the hill before changing with Rokas, who took me to the summit. A very steep 9-mile descent was next. Descending is surprisingly tricky because if you go too fast you will trash your legs, and if you try and brake or go too slow you will trash your legs.
After a flat stretch of 4 miles, the next ascent commenced and this one was brutal. In additional to the obscene elevation, the second ascent also offered a very precarious stretch of road with blind spots, tight bends, and a significant drop over the edge into the valley. All of a sudden there was a loud bang as Maverick and Goose shot across the sky in their F-16’s. Witnessing Top Gun pilots do their stuff was super cool. They disappeared into the valley and I peered over the edge to see the top of the plane. I did wave to them, but they failed to reply, so I simply continued my journey.
The toughest part of the race occurred at mile 80. I desperately needed to stop. I felt awful to the power of 37. Nothing specific, just an all-encompassing sense of fatigue. Sitting in the van for a good 15 minutes enabled me to get myself back together before Erin accompanied me to the second summit.
After a more moderate descent, I faced a long 30 miles towards the base of Mount Whitney at a town called Lone Pine. The sun was setting as my brief respite of feeling completely evaporated. I started to fall apart. Aches, pains, and a massive blister appeared. My left ankle was not doing as I requested and the chaffing was excruciating. I was exhausted. Then my head fell off! No not really, but you know what I mean. What’s more, tiredness became a real problem. I desperately wanted to go to sleep, and keeping my eyes open warranted a pair of match sticks. Alas, none were at hand.
Andrea made the decision that I stop for 10 minutes for a power nap. I fell into the van, but no sooner had a put my head down to rest did I hear Andrea saying, “Wake up! We need to get you moving. Erin will pace you.” Argh! Really! So I stumbled out of the van for more miles of torture.
Arriving in the town of Lone Pine offered a huge sense of relief, but also an unexpected dose of sadness. I felt like I had just gone 10 rounds with Ronda Rousey, but now it dawned on me that I was approaching the end and I didn’t want this to finish. All that remained was the final 12 miles to climb and then this epic journey will all be over. After a few tears, I also realized that for the past 40 odd miles I had felt awful but now I started to feel great, so I started running and before long I was in full stride doing 9-minute miles. Go figure! I guess that’s why they say an ultramarathon is a metaphor for life.
All running immediately ceased at mile 131. Talk about saving the best for last. We now faced a climb of 4,000 foot climb over 3 miles. To borrow an English phrase – ‘that’s proper steep!’ We eventually reached the Mount Whitney Portal where Rokas, Andrea, and Erin were waiting. Loads of hugs occurred before we walked together holding hands and crossing the finish line after 35 hours 22 mins and 34 seconds to claim 31st place.
Badwater was everything I hoped it would be. Spectacular, fiercely difficult, and immensely rewarding. Thank you again to everyone involved: my mom for inspiring me to take on these challenges, my crew for all their hard work, my coach for all his guidance, and my amazingly supportive and world class colleagues at work and all my very dear friends for their constant encouragement.
Finally, thank you to everyone who donated to GOTR, and I will leave you with a request for all men and women, girls and boys reading this: Please continue to promote gender equality.