You may remember me. I’m the average kid from Birmingham, UK, who is attempting to complete the STYR Labs Badwater 135 ultra marathon, the world’s toughest endurance event. The goal? To promote gender equality and to provide an inspirational story to prove that anyone can achieve absolutely anything.
The Badwater brand includes two other ultra-marathons; the Cape Fear 51.4 mile and Salton Sea 81 mile events. Completing all 3 in the same calendar year earns the prestigious Badwater Ultra Cup. Determined to promote gender equality and to raise further donations to support the Girls on the Run programming, these two races are now part of my journey.
The Badwater Cape Fear 51.4 mile race took place on March 19th, 2016 on Bald Head Island, North Carolina. The 1989 film Weekend at Bernie’s was filmed here, and the Bald Head Island Conservancy does a great job of protecting four distinct habitats: beach and dunes, maritime forest, freshwater lagoons, and salt marsh estuary. A plethora of wildlife resides on the island, including sea turtles, dolphins, and alligators, plus over 260 species of bird.
Cape Fear is a prominent headland jutting into the Atlantic Ocean from Bald Island. The Cape also forms part of a treacherous stretch of coastline known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,“ final resting place to numerous shipwrecks including the Queen Anne’s Revenge, flagship of the famous pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. One of the runners in the race even dressed up as a pirate – awesome.
Bright and early the day of the race, I head to Old Baldy, the pet name given to the oldest lighthouse still standing in North Carolina and the starting point of the race. Two events would be taking place today: a 50k and a 50 mile. The national anthem plays and final instructions are given. “I think we’ll go with a little Bohemian Rhapsody, gentlemen,” I say to myself as I press play on my iPod. The starting gun fires and off we go! Freddie’s distinctive vocal chords deliver the line, “Open your eyes/And look up to the skies/And see.” I smile and obey. The sun is fighting a losing battle to break through the clouds, but the scenery is still stunning.
I typically start slow to try and settle myself. After all, it’s going to be a long day. Those runners who adopted a similar strategy were unfortunately about to enjoy my screeching rendition of Queen’s masterpiece, along with an ongoing request to do the fandango. Those poor souls were the first casualties of the day.
The first nine miles were on road as we passed the vacation homes and golf course. At mile 10, we hit the trail and two action packed miles of subtropical forest commenced. One other thing you should know about me is how much I love theme tunes from 80’s TV shows. Seriously – my iPod is littered with them, from Charlie’s Angels to Happy Days. Yes I know, I’m super cool. Just like Fonzy.
I smile from ear to ear upon entering the forest because the theme tune to MacGyver flows through my headphones. A constant limbo dancing contest complements the music as I am forced to duck n’ dive under and over branches and various other obstacles. However, the sound of a sudden thud brings proceedings to an instant halt as I turn around to see what I had dropped. My bag of magic beans had fallen out of my pack, and I am really going to need those little beauties later. Magic beans? Read on…
A well-stocked aid station greets runners as we emerge from the forest. The volunteers are amazing as always. They provide words of encouragement and support. I will talk more about nutrition and training in later updates, but one thing to share now is that my fuel of choice is Coca-Cola; it’s the perfect sports drink. I chug the bottle and wave goodbye to the volunteers. It was time to visit the beach for two loops of sand totaling 36 miles.
I interrupt the shuffle feature on my iPod to enjoy another rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. “Anyway the wind blows/Doesn’t really matter to me.” Well here’s the thing Freddie: it does. It really matters – a lot. Of all the possible elements to grace a runner’s day, wind is the worst for me. Running on sand is tricky enough, and a torrent of wind and rain decides to slap me in the face the moment I step onto the sand. From the Windy City to the Windy Beach – perfect! Despite feeling akin to the feather from the Forest Gump movie, internally I felt reasonably strong and head north for nine miles to the turnaround aid station.
One minute I’m a feather, the next I am mistaken for a little fishy. Deep in my own thoughts, I inadvertently run straight into a fishing line. It scares the living daylights out of me and probably ruined a day’s fishing. I must have apologized 50 times, but the fisherman just laughed and told me to keep on running! So off I went and reached the turnaround point before heading back the way I came.
Ultra marathons are a great metaphor for life, full of highs and lows and a parade of problems to solve. Contrary to common perception, they are much less about athletic ability and far more about mental fortitude and problem solving. You meet veterans who have lost limbs and people who have overcome depression, tragedy, or the loss of a loved one.
Endurance events bring out the best in people, inspiring them to complete extraordinary adventures. On the beach, I had a delightful conversation with a middle aged mom of three who was taking part in her first ultra-marathon. Now that her children had left home she wanted to see if she could complete a 50 mile race. Meeting amazing people is something I love about endurance events and they help you so much when it gets bleak. There is very little competition, and people stop to help those in trouble, share food/water, and we always say ‘good job’ as we go past fellow runners. Few entrants run the entire distance and many adopt a walk/run strategy. Endurance events are a great symbol of equality – old and young and women and men of different nationalities and ethnicities all come together. In the ultra running world, everyone is equal.
We all experience tough times during these events, and mine arrived at mile 40. I did not feel too good and needed to walk for a while. You know the feeling will pass, but you still start to question why you’re here and how in the world you’re going to finish the race. Sometimes you can go a long time without seeing another soul. That can be demoralizing, and I was relieved to see the next runner up ahead of me. No way! It’s the guy dressed as a pirate.
Now it was time to deploy my secret weapon: the magic beans! The true value of salvaging these chocolate covered espresso beans was about to be realized. Sure enough, within 20 minutes, my spirits had improved and coincidentally the sun emerged. The sight of a dolphin and the sound of another 80’s theme song only added to my good spirits. Soon I was running again in the presence of stunning scenery, accompanied by Flipper, listening to the theme from Baywatch “I’ll Be There,” chasing a pirate. Life is good!
Once I had overtaken Blackbeard, an argument ensued between the ocean and I. The incoming tide was slowly pushing me up the beach onto the softer sand, which we all know is not conducive to running, and definitely not what I need after eight hours of running. “Take a day off!” I yelled. “You can ebb and flow all you like tomorrow, but today please go away!” My futile and, to other runners, crazy remarks fell on deaf ears. In the end, I embraced the tendencies of a 5-year-old and splashed through the water.
I left the beach and after a brief stretch of road, I crossed the finish line with a time of 10 hours and 12 minutes. Badwater races, similar to many endurance events, are small family–like affairs. Our fantastic race director places these events in locations that open your mind and challenge your soul. It takes grit and a little help along the way from magic beans, volunteers, and other runners, but as I always say, anyone can do anything.
I sat down and consumed the post run meal of champions – pizza and beer! Once I felt a little better, it was time for a few photographs. I saw Bob Becker and asked him for a photo. Bob is a 70-year-old veteran of the Badwater 135, who had just finished the Cape Fear 50k race, and is further evidence that anyone can accomplish their dreams.
Stay tuned for more updates as we continue on our journey to promote gender equality. In the meantime, please continue to support Girls on the Run. We need your help to inspire young girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident. We must promote gender equality, and everybody must believe they can do anything they want in life.
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Badwater Ultra Cup Series Events