The camera has me worried. Here I am, 25 miles (40 km) into the 2007 Badwater Ultramarathon, reclining in a chair with my foot up in the air, five pairs of eyes trained on my sole, and all I can see are five concerned faces. Three of them are those of my crew, my wife Gabi and my parents, the other two belong to John Vonhof and his assistant Jamie Mieras. John is a foot care expert who is volunteering at ultramarathons and adventure races around the world, attending to athletes’ foot problems. The first thing he tells Jamie after I have taken my sock off is to get the camera out and get a good shot of this.
This is not exactly what I want to hear - I have enough things to worry about as it is. The 110 miles (177 km) of punishing road that lie ahead. The 13,000 feet (4,000 m) of cumulative ascent and 4,700 feet (1400 m) of descent. The dreaded heat, with the temperature currently hovering around 115F (46C). The hot wind doing its best at impersonating a hair-drier. And my busted knees. I really don’t need foot trouble now, not so early on, not after all the effort to get here...
It all started about a year earlier when my left knee packed it in. Scans found a cleavage tear in the medial meniscus and plenty of arthritis behind both knee caps. The doctor recommended to leave the tear alone for the moment and urged me to consider alternatives to running to help preserve what little cartilage is left. I was scared enough by this to accept the fact that nearly three decades of ultrarunning might have to be enough for me. Maybe switching to walking ultras was an option. After all, that’s what Bill Thompson is doing, Australia’s most prolific finisher of 100 mile trail races. I am a great admirer of Bill, and a reasonably fast walker, so I decided to stop running and stick to walking. The knee got better without the pounding, but niggles remained. Ignoring them, I foolishly entered both the Great North Walk 100 miler and the Coast-to-Kosciuszko 150 miler later in the year, only to drop on both occasions, with the knee battered into a screaming mess by the steep downhills of GNW and by the load of the pack at C2K.
At the end of that annus horribilis I considered my options. First and foremost, the meniscus needed to be fixed. After all, it would be useful to be able to move around without too much pain. Then I needed to be a bit selective with the type of ultramarathons to throw myself into. The usual staple of trail runs with lots of steep ups and downs did not seem like the most sensible choice. What I was looking for was something not too technical, with not too many knee-busting steep descents, and with a time limit that would be achievable with fast, sustained walking. I remembered the Badwater Ultramarathon, one of the events that had loitered for quite some time around my mental "wish list" of ultra places-to-go and things-to-do. With a course that runs from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere to the slopes of the highest peak in the continental US, it seemed to tick all the boxes. 135 miles of road? Great! Lots of ups, less downs, none of those too steep? Fantastic! 60 hour time limit? Perfect! I decided to have a go at entering the 2007 event. Who knows what the future holds, better try now while I can still move.
Entry into Badwater is "by invitation". You have to submit an application with your ultra credentials which is reviewed by a selection committee, including race director Chris Kostman. As a minimum, applicants must have finished Badwater, or one of its 135 mile sister events, or a 100 mile foot race. There are around 90 places available. I sent in my "ultra CV" and, despite the fact I had finished only 5 official 100 mile events, I was lucky enough to be accepted.
A week later, I had an arthroscopy done on my knee to trim the meniscus which had been shredded rather thoroughly by now. In the process, the surgeon took scary photos of the cartilage behind the kneecap, or what was left of it. At the physiotherapy sessions during the following weeks, I was shocked to find out how quickly and how comprehensively the strength had disappeared from the muscles supporting the bad knee. The physio improved things, but it was only when my friend Lawrence Mead lent me his mountain bike and I took up commuting to and from work through the hills around the Lane Cove River Valley on Sydney’s North Shore that I saw the left leg regain its rightful place at the table.
Next, I needed a crew. The Badwater event rules require entrants to provide their own support, including a crew of at least two. I managed to cajole Gabi into the job by suggesting a pre-event "warm-up": A week of South Sea tropical island bliss and another week of holidaying in the canyons of the Colorado Plateau, a beautiful area that we both fell in love with when we lived in California over a decade ago. Gabi has great credentials crewing at ultras - she had single-handedly looked after Lawrence and myself non-stop for over 40 hours during the 150 mile Coast-to-Kosciuszko event in 2006. Then, out of the blue, my parents volunteered to fly across from Germany to help out.
I decided use my start at Badwater as an opportunity to raise funds for The Fred Hollows Foundation to support their vision for a world where no one is needlessly blind and Indigenous Australians enjoy the same life expectancy as other Australians. It struck me that for less than the price of a pair of KT26s on special at Target, The Foundation could help restore a person's sight.
My goal for the event was primarily to finish within the 60 hr time limit. While this sounds distinctly unambitious, I knew from experience that things that look straightforward and easy when sitting in a chair could become incredibly hard "out there". I had been to Death Valley before and had a pretty good idea about what conditions to expect, but it was still difficult to gauge by how much the heat would slow me down. To at least try and produce a tentative schedule, I assumed (or rather hoped) I might be able to maintain an average walking speed of 4 km/hr during the day and speed up to 6 km/hr during the night, when things would hopefully cool down a little. That average pace would correspond to a finish in under 48 hrs, fast enough for the special "sub-48" belt buckle award, and leave plenty of time to the 60 hr cut-off in case things went pear-shaped.
6 km/hr (or 10 min/km) may not seem like much to runners, but it is a decent walking speed, especially when you try to maintain it over long distances. My training regime was based on regular long walks, mostly on road surfaces. I combined those with powerwalking "intervals" up the steep suburban back roads around Lane Cove National Park on Sydney’s North Shore. A number of times I made the trek from Sydney westwards to Penrith, at the foot of the Blue Mountains, following the great route designed by Lawrence for the "Into the Blue" FatAss run in 2004. Eventually, I managed to walk the 63 km from our place in Gladesville to Penrith railway station in under 9 hrs, at a pleasing average of 7 km/hr. But I was not getting too excited: This was less than a third of the total distance at Badwater, and I was walking through the cool Sydney winter rather than the searing heat of Death Valley.
I had planned to use the iconic "Poor Man’s Comrades" FatAss, a hilly 96 km road course finishing at Sydney Opera House, as the last serious training walk before Badwater. When it rained heavily on that June Saturday morning, however, I bailed out and attended to family duties instead. All day, I couldn’t help but think of the brave souls out there facing the atrocious conditions, and the next day I went out to walk the course myself. With still plenty of rain coming down, I finished in 13 hrs for an average speed well in excess of 7 km/hr. I felt as prepared as I could reasonably expect to be.
After a wonderful week spent snorkeling the turquoise waters and scrambling up the steep hills of Fiji’s Yasawa islands, Gabi and I flew over to California and headed straight for the canyon country of Utah and Arizona. I welcomed the hot and dry conditions with temperatures well in excess of 100F (38C) because I hoped to be able to acclimatise a little by spending time in the heat. We managed to do a couple of great walks. First, we climbed up to Angel’s Landing in Zion Canyon, reaching the top at sunrise. Then, on a whim, we decided to cross the Grand Canyon "rim-to-rim". Starting at 3:45am at the North Rim where it was a chilly 48F (9C), we followed the Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and then hurried up Bright Angel Trail in blistering heat to arrive at the South Rim at 1pm, just in time to catch the daily shuttle bus that would take us back the 220 mi (350 km) to the North Rim. Because Gabi had no proper walking shoes, she did the whole thing in Teva sandals. She is one tough cookie.
We met my parents in Vegas and spent some time acquiring gear and provisions. Many filled shopping trolleys later, and with two packed vans, we made our way to the Death Valley National Park Visitor Center in Furnace Creek for the registration and pre-race briefing. On the way, as we drove along endless roads through desert flats framed by barren mountainsides, I could not help but feel a little apprehensive imagining that I would have to travel through similar terrain over the next few days. When we got out of the van at Furnace Creek, it was HOT, and a strong wind came barrelling up the valley from the south. The place was abuzz with runners and their crews, event staff, media, and there were crew vans everywhere, many already emblazoned with the runners’ names and race numbers. After registration and a brief interview with the web cast crew, I had my mug shot taken and then picked up an 82 qt (77 l) esky, courtesy of one of the main sponsors of the event, the Coleman Company. (Their CEO, Martin Franklin, was an entrant in this year’s race and would go on to finish in an impressive 41:29 hrs.) I didn’t know any of the other runners, except for Dean Karnazes, the ‘Ultramarathon Man’, whom I had met a few weeks ago back in Sydney where he had promoted a newly-opened outdoor store.
When race director Chris Kostman told the crowd at the beginning of the briefing that the meeting would take about 4 hours, I thought he was joking. It turned out that I was sadly mistaken. There were sponsors and staff to thank, Badwater Hall-of-Famers to introduce, and race rules to hammer home. Eventually, we staggered out of the hot auditorium into the hotter wind outside, went to our motel, and got on with our preparations - taping signage to the vans, filling eskies with ice, shuffling supplies around. Did I mention that it was hot? The crows were sitting in the trees, breathing with their beaks open. We went for a dip in the pool, which felt more like a hot tub, then had a pleasant dinner and a few beers, and went to bed.
The next morning, we made our way the 17 miles (28 km) to the start location at Badwater, at 280 ft (85 m) below sea level the second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, and the lowest in North America. There is a small saltwater pool next to an expansive flat saltpan, a viewing platform, a carpark, and a sign high up on the hillside across the road marking sea level. We got weighed, lined up at the Badwater sign in front of a big contingent of camerafolk, then made our way to the starting line on the road. The 30-odd of us were in the first of three waves, starting at 6am, with 8am and 10am waves to follow. This wave seemed to have been recruited almost exclusively from middle-aged men like myself.
The sounds of the "Star Spangled Banner" went up into the morning air which had already warmed up to the mid 90s F (mid 30s C). The sun was still hidden behind the hills, and there was a fair bit of cloud cover to the east and south. Chris Kostman reminded us not to think of the 135 miles ahead, then he sent us off. This wave being the nominally slowest, most runners were content to get going at a sedate jogging pace. I marched along at what I thought was much faster than the 4 km/hr I had planned for the daytime, but I thought it would be best to take advantage of the "cool" conditions.
Most runners had chosen white tops, except for a few with yellow and orange shirts. Someone sported a kilt. I wore a white, long-sleeved, Garmont-branded shirt made from a fabric called Sportwool. It was given to me by Ian Blanchonette, a colleague of mine who had been involved in the development of that material. Wool was not exactly the first thing that would have come to my mind when thinking about high-tech fabrics for hot climates, but apparently Sportwool was shown to be very effective in wicking moisture away from the skin and thus helping to cool the body. After a long search in Las Vegas sports stores, we had also found a pair of white shorts, Under Armour’s Heat Gear Triumph. Nobody could tell that they were a women’s model. For my feet, I relied on the socks and shoes that had carried me on my training walks: Injinji Micro toe socks and Brooks Dyad with their wide toe box.
The crews soon settled into their rhythm. The vans would park off the right hand side of the road and wait for the runners who travelled on the left edge of the road. Many crews would cross the road to hand drinks and food to their runner and spray them with cold water. I thought it would be easier for one person, namely the runner, to cross the road rather than for the crew having to come across to the other side. I had asked Gabi and my parents to wait for me every 1.5 miles (2.4 km), and this seemed to work well. I felt good and made sure to eat bits of fruit and a sandwich. My pace was rather brisk, and I kept up with many of the runners, falling back on the flats but catching them on the uphills. I had a chat with Gabor Kozinc, a Hungarian living in Pasadena, like myself a first-timer. Gabor was moving well and took off after a while.
We traveled along a barren, yet spectacular valley, framed by ragged mountain ranges. These trap the hot summer air and keep moisture-laden clouds out, and thus create the furnace-like conditions of this place - Death Valley. As the sun appeared above the crest of the range to the east, it illuminated the hillsides on the western side of the valley with their glorious shades of red, ochre, brown and grey. It looked like these mountains were oozing minerals, and it was not difficult to imagine the hardy 49ers setting out to find their luck in them thar hills. Often enough, they would be lucky to survive in the unforgiving conditions, and the name they gave this valley gives an idea of how hostile the place was to them.
With the sun out, it was time to put on my Adidas prescription sunnies and my legionnaire’s cap - a white contraption made by Australian company SoGo and named the Adapt-A-Cap Flippa. We also started using an ice-filled bandana "necklace". Our ice supply was kept in two styrofoam boxes on top of some dry ice. Besides the Coleman-sponsored monster esky which held food and drink bottles, we had another 60 l esky for spray water and more drinks, and a 3 gallon (11 l) water cooler.
Throughout the next 3 or so hours, the vans of the starters in the 8am and 10am waves kept coming towards us on their way to Badwater, many of them honking and cheering. At one stage, a guy on a bicycle rode along, furiously swinging a giant cowbell. Tourists started to appear, cameras at the ready. It was great fun.
We arrived back at the Furnace Creek timing station after a little over 4 hours. My average walking speed had been 6.7 km/hr. I was way ahead of schedule. Great. The course changed little as we moved on. Colourful mountains on either side of the valley. Straight stretches of road gently rising or falling. About two hours past Furnace Creek, I started to feel a hot spot under my left heel. Then the same under my right heel. I couldn’t believe it. I continued, hoping this might remain a mere nuisance and eventually go away. At one point, we packed my feet into plastic bags and dunked them into a bucket of cold water. This technique of cooling the feet without getting them wet had been recommended in the "Complete Crewing Guide" to the Death Valley Ultras. Problem was that it didn’t really work for us, the air in the bags insulated the feet too well.
I went on, and gradually a limp made its appearance as the soles of my feet became increasingly painful. I could feel patches of skin sliding against each other. This was starting to develop into more than a nuisance. At this point, a pickup truck with "Fixing Your Feet" written on its windows slowed down next to me. The driver asked me if I had problems with my feet. "Funny you should ask," I replied, "as a matter of fact, I do." I asked him if he could meet me a mile down the road where my crew was waiting. And this was how I found myself in the chair, with my foot up in the air...
Now that is what I call ironic: This must be the first time I have ever opened my shoes -let alone taken my socks off- during an ultra. I have always been lucky not to run into serious blister and foot problems. And now I have 5 people and a pickup truck dealing with my feet. John explains that large patches of skin have partially ripped off from underneath both heels and are now flapping about. I am trying to put on a brave face and ask John if there is any way he could stick the loose bits back on in an attempt to immobilise them somehow. He says he can try, and since it is the only option I can see, apart from dropping, which is not really an option, I ask him to go for it.
John spends the next half hour or so taping the flaps back on while patiently answering my questions about blisters and foot care. The only excuse for my ignorance is that I never had to worry about these things in the past. Eventually, John is all done, and I get up and take a few tentative steps. It is still painful, but at least the soles again feel like they are made from one piece instead of several bits sliding against each other. I am immensely grateful for John’s help and thank my lucky stars that he came past just when I needed him.
So the good news is - I’m moving again. The bad news is that the damage to my feet thwarts all attempts of striding out as enthusiastically as before (and as planned). A slow, shuffling walk is bearable, so it will have to do for now. The other bad news is that it is getting hotter. The scattering of clouds that had mercifully blocked the sun for most of the morning is being shifted along by the strong southwesterly wind. In the heat, I don’t feel like eating. The only food the crew can get me to take are some pieces of watermelon and orange and some apple sauce. Just when I have one of my short breaks, race director Chris Kostman drops by and takes photos.
Very, very gradually, the road climbs, past a big road sign marking sea level. As I creep towards the second timing station at Stovepipe Wells, many of the runners from the 8am and 10am waves are coming past. I recognise Akos Konya and David Goggins, last year’s second and fourth placegetters. I don’t know yet that they will come second and third this time, and that breaking the 24 hr barrier and shaving half an hour off Scott Jurek’s race record time will not be enough for Akos to win this year’s race. We play tag with other runners and their crews, leapfrogging each other as the miles tick over ever so slowly. It is now so hot that I have asked Gabi and my parents to stop more frequently, every half mile (800 m). The ritual is always the same. Stop, take off sunnies, take off dry hat, take off dry bandana, wipe face with wet towel, 10 squirts of cold water to the face, then spray sleeves, neck, shoulders, careful not to get shoes wet, drink something, eat a little (rarely), put ice-filled bandana back on, put freshly soaked hat back on, put sunnies back on, move on. At every other stop, I sit down for all of this. That’s right - I’m a big sitter-downer. The ever-patient crew will end up repeating this pattern over 250 times!
At the junction to Scotty’s Castle, the road makes a left turn. We are now heading in a southwesterly direction, and directly into the fierce, hot wind. More endless straights. I can see the crew vans by the side of the road, miles and miles away. After each stop, the vans lurch forward and come to a stop somewhere far away. I try to ignore the sad fact that this is only another half mile and look forward to the next cooldown. We pass Devil’s Cornfield with its Arrow Weed bushes sprouting out of the barren ground. In the distance, I can see sand dunes. I know these are not too far from the second timing station at Stovepipe Wells, 42 miles (67 km) into the course. Repeatedly, convoys of black cars covered with dark masking tape come past, with 4WDs preceding and following them. BMW is testing new models in hot conditions. They have come to the right place, that is for sure. We arrive at the dunes. The wind drives sand and dust across the road. Half an hour later, I sit down at Stovepipe Wells and enjoy an icy pole.
My speed over the last segment has dropped to 4.8 km/hr. This is still faster than planned, and I had a long foot care stop. I feel good when I get up to leave 10 minutes later. It is now late afternoon, but the heat and the wind are still intense. I keep looking to the hills of the Panamint Range in the west, checking whether the sun has crept any closer to their crest. Alas, when sunset finally comes, it does not make too much of a difference. The wind has picked up enough heat from the hot earth to keep things toasty, even without the help of the sun. The road climbs steadily now, the first big climb of the course, close to 5,000 feet (1,500 m) over the next 17 miles (27 km) up to Townes Pass.
An hour later, I make what turns out to be a fateful culinary choice: Wanting a drink and something salty, I have a few hearty swigs of brine from a jar of pickled gherkins. I remember downing half a jar of the stuff with gusto after finishing Coast-to-Kosciuszko in 2005, but I seem to suppress the memory of running into gastric trouble when I drank some of it going into the first night earlier in that event. I should have known better, really. Soon after, I stop eating altogether, despite the best efforts of the crew. Then the dreaded nausea appears. As night falls, so do my energy levels. The sit-downs become longer. I have been battling with this many times over the years and have somehow always managed to drag myself out of the hole and come good again. But before things get better here, they first get a whole lot worse.
The next few hours are rather unpleasant. There is the mandatory chunder episode. Progress is agonisingly slow. And I had planned to steam up these climbs in the cool of the night! Dad drives ahead to catch an hour of sleep in the motel at Panamint Springs, the next timing station at 72 miles (115 km). After he returns and Mum leaves for her break, he walks with me for a little. I have trouble keeping up, even though he is just ambling along. When I finally reach Townes Pass, I am behind 48-hour finish pace. If things don’t improve, I will have to start worrying about the 60-hour finish pace.
From the pass, the road gradually winds its way down. As I come around a bend, I see bright lights in the distance, far below. This must be Panamint Springs. The road into the valley and the climb out on the far side are dotted with the brake lights of crew vans. It would be wonderful to be able to hurry down the gentle descent, but my feet categorically disagree with the downhill. As Gabi has taken her turn for a quick kip, my parents successfully nag me into chewing down tiny cubes of bread, two or three at a time. It works, and the nausea recedes, ever so slowly. We descend into Panamint Valley even slower. Dawn comes, and the extent of the flat valley ahead becomes clear. While the slopes of the mountain ranges are mostly dark rock, the wash on the valley floor is sharply separated from them and brightly coloured. The sun appears behind me and proceeds to rise into a cloudless sky. Soon, the beautiful early morning colours are washed out in the glare.
Shortly before I arrive at the eastern edge of the valley floor, a Badwater legend comes past, gently jogging down the road. This is Marshall Ulrich’s 20th Death Valley crossing. I make sure to give him a bit of a clap. Dad tells me that a rusty drum on the left marks the halfway point. We arrive at the bottom of the descent. Ahead lies a seemingly endless, 5 mile (8 km) long, straight stretch of road. Crossing Panamint Valley does become a bit of a struggle, but there is also reason to cheer up. Dawn always lifts the spirits, the nausea has retreated somewhat, and up ahead is the timing station at Panamint Springs. I try not to think of the big climb beyond that looms ahead on the western side of the valley.
In our motel room at Panamint Springs, I give myself the luxury of a sponge bath. I don’t dare to take off my shoes. The descent from Townes Pass has made the pain on my soles worse, but I cannot risk to disturb John’s taping job by fiddling with shoes and socks. Gabi appears with a giant cup, and I get stuck into what must be the most expensive fruit smoothie I ever had. And the most delicious, too.
My average speed on the segment since Stovepipe Wells has plummeted to a measly 3.5 km/hr, and this during the night, which was supposed to be my "speed-up time". I am now well behind 48-hour pace. Never mind, the good news is that I have managed to pick up the pace a little since the bad episode before Townes Pass. Back there, it looked like I might miss the 60-hour limit if things didn’t improve.
It takes me half an hour to get back onto the road. Ahead lies the climb to Father Crowley Point, a bit over 2,000 feet (600 m) in 8 miles (13 km). The sun is high now and blasts the asphalt and the rocks with abandon. No shade in sight. I grind up the hill. Walk, stop, wipe, drink, spray. Walk, sit, wipe, drink, spray. Walk, stop, wipe, drink, spray. Walk, sit, wipe, drink, spray. You get the idea. Looking up, I can see tiny vans on the switchbacks far above. Looking back, I can just make out the road in the glare as it snakes down from Townes Pass and through the valley. We play tag with Ian Parker and his crew who have a big green toy frog strapped to the roof of their van. Ian is going for his sixth finish. Closer to the top, a runner and his pacer go past, both decked out in bright orange. Ludovic Chorgnon looks amazingly strong jogging up this hill in the insane heat. He also looks like he is wearing white tights, his legs totally covered in massive slatherings of zinc cream.
When we reach the vista point at Father Crowley, the slope relents a bit, but there are another 1,300 feet (400 m) to climb over the next 8 miles (13 km). I am not too enthusiastic about the course flattening out. The different heel strike brings more and different pain to my soles. To take my mind off what’s happening to the feet, I check out the surroundings. Subtly, the landscape has changed. We have climbed to an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,500 m), onto a high desert plateau. Some of the nearby peaks rise another 1,000 feet (300 m). At these elevations, Joshua Trees appear in abundance, and they provide a welcome change from the sparse scrub that was clinging to the rocky slopes of the Panamint and Argus Ranges. After the switchbacks, the endless straights have returned. There is little to break the monotony, so I am grateful for the diversion provided by the wooden stake driven into the dirt by the side of the road. It is marked with the number 36 - Ludovic Chorgnon’s. Each starter has one of these, and if you leave the course for whatever reason, you must leave your stake behind and resume your race exactly there. I wonder what happened to Ludovic who looked so strong on the last climb.
As I ponder his fate and approach a huge sign marking the boundary of Death Valley National Park, I catch up with Erhard Weiss, a German living in Switzerland, and we walk together for a while. He has finished Badwater last year in 57 hours, together with his wife Heidi who crews this time around. Erhard wants to break 48 hours, but concedes that it will be difficult to make up the 2 hours or so we are behind the 48-hour pace. When he tells me that he has no blisters whatsoever, I am envious. In addition to the troubled undersides of my heels, I can now feel my big toes hitting the front of the shoe. The feet must have swollen a fair bit in the heat. I have a spare pair of shoes half a size larger than the ones I am wearing now. They are New Balance 881s, nice and wide, and look rather pedestrian, which I think is quite appropriate. Gabi thinks they would be appropriate for the retirement home and makes fun of me. With her giggling and my toes complaining more and more, I decide to take the risk and change shoes, carefully trying not to disturb John’s taping handiwork.
When I get up and start moving again, I am amazed at the difference. The toes have wiggle room again, but the real surprise is that the heels feel much better! Sure, they still hurt and I can feel the blisters, but the different fit of the shoes makes walking much more bearable compared to only a few minutes ago. For the first time in more than a day, I stride out as purposefully as I had originally planned. No major complaints from downstairs. Wonderful! I crank up the pace. In the distance, I can see Ian Parker and Erhard Weiss and their vans. They have moved away when I changed shoes, but now I start to catch up with them. It is mid-afternoon, but I don’t feel the heat that much. I’m moving! When I walk past one of Ian Parker’s friendly crew ladies, she tells me that there is a timing station a mile and a half ahead, and that there is a long downhill just beyond. I had totally forgotten about the time check, and I am not sure whether I should be happy about the downhill or worry about it. I motor on and soon after go past Hawaiian Don Fallis who is walking with his torso severely tilted to the right. Asked whether he’ll be OK, he tells me he’ll be fine. (At that stage, neither of us knows that Don will DNF at Lone Pine in just under 60 hours and walk straight to the Awards Ceremony where he will be greeted with a standing ovation.) I catch up with Erhard and Ian just before the timing station at the Darwin Turnoff, 90 miles (145 km) into the course.
The checkpoint is a rather forlorn outpost in the high desert. Two roads, the brave time keepers with their little gazebo, a few vans, and plenty of sun, heat, and dust. At 3.8 km/hr, my average speed since Panamint Springs has not been great. But at the moment, I feel good, so I don’t stick around for long. The road turns to the northwest and, as predicted, starts to drop very gradually. We have started our descent into the last of the three valleys the route traverses. To the west, across Owens Valley, looms the massive silhouette of the Eastern Sierra, and I am delighted to finally catch sight of its ragged peaks that stretch along the horizon as far as the eye can see. It is over a decade ago that I last visited this beautiful valley and the mountains that frame it, and I carry many fond memories with me. The splendour of the White Mountains with their forests of millenia-old Bristlecone Pines. The grand views of the High Sierra’s granite peaks from the summit of Mt Whitney. The strange tufa towers of Mono Lake. It feels great to be back.
The sight of a massive storm cloud on top of the mountains with its promise of shade helps to further lift the spirits, and I feel enthusiastic enough to attempt a gentle jog. The other reason for this attempt at athletic prowess is more mundane. The heel blisters have woken from their afternoon nap and realised that we are going downhill. It hurts less when I land on my forefoot, so for the next 10 miles or so, I "dance" down the road on the balls of my feet. When I reach the 100 mile point, the rays of the setting sun pierce the cloud bank for a bit of celebratory illumination. I celebrate my slowest ever 100 miles by having a quick lie-down. When I get up half an hour of dozing later, it is dark. The second night is upon us.
A few miles later, near the junction of highways 190 and 136, we reach the valley floor. From here, the road skirts the edge of Owens Lake. The lake is dry most of the time, thanks to the Los Angeles Aqueduct siphoning off most of its inflow, but it seems to have enough water to sustain copious amounts of insects who have made it their mission to explore as many orifices as possible of any beast silly enough to enter their realm. At least, this new nuisance takes the mind off the screaming soles. It hasn’t taken long for my feet to fill the larger shoes, and after the long downhill spent landing on the forefoot, evil things are happening to my toes. Eventually, I have no choice but to carefully peel my left shoe and sock off so Mum can patch up a nasty blister under the big toe. As I move off again into the dark, I have no trouble making out the course, neatly marked as it is with the brake lights of crew vans. There aren’t many of them directly ahead, but in the distance I can see a red "Z" carved into the side of the mountain range. The switchbacks up to Whitney Portal are certainly busy. I try to suppress the thought that they are 30 miles (48 km) and probably half a day of walking away.
The trek through the second night to Lone Pine is endless. At least the lights of Keeler serve as a bit of a landmark, but the miles seem to stretch out forever as I battle fatigue and as the microsleeps are replaced by microwakes. Unlike the night before, my stomach is rather docile, but after another hot day of walking the feet insist that this silly exercise should end at once, or else. But there is little choice but to stagger on, sleepwalking, zigzaging, as it is the custom during the wee hours of an ultra. Dad, Mum, and finally Gabi disappear for their paltry breaks at the Mt Whitney Motel in Lone Pine. There is a little less to do for the crew now, since in the relative cool of the night there is not as much need for constant spraying. With the memories of last night’s horrors fresh in their minds, they keep feeding me small pieces of sandwiches. Gabi puts on a CD with traditional Fijian music that we bought on our holiday there, and the gentle sounds of guitars waft through the still air. More than anything else, the stops provide welcome mental targets to walk towards.
To stave off the relentless attacks of the sleep monsters, I attempt to entertain myself by producing a little moan every time my heels hit the ground. It soon loses its novelty effect. Like he has over much of the last night, Johnny Cash sings Nine Inch Nail’s "Hurt" inside my head. Now I start to wail with him. "I hurt myself today--To see if I still feel--I focus on the pain--The only thing that’s real..." Shooting stars come falling out of the sky. Every time I close my eyes, I am far away.
Eventually, a thicket of tall bushes marks the remnants of Owens River, and a few miles on, we turn right onto highway 395 and can finally see the lights of Lone Pine. As the big rigs roar past, we pass a busy truck stop to eventually arrive at the Dow Village Motel, the race headquarters and fifth timing station at 122 miles (196 km). Inside, tired event staff stare at laptop screens and kindly let me use their bathroom. My average speed on the last section since the Darwin turnoff has been a modest 4 km/hr. Well, beggars with no feet can’t be choosers. With almost 47 hours elapsed, I am three hours behind 48-hour pace and over seven hours ahead of 60-hour pace. To the west wait 12 miles (20 km) and over 4,600 feet (1400 m) of unrelenting ascent to the finish at Whitney Portal.
My parents leave for the motel to pick up Gabi. Only one van per runner is permitted onto Portal Road, so they will all have to travel together. Meanwhile, I waste a few minutes trying to find the turnoff from the main street. Soon after, I cross the Los Angeles Aqueduct. An engineering marvel that has been carrying water from the upper reaches of Owens Valley to the metropolis for almost a hundred years, the Aqueduct has also robbed the Valley of its capacity to sustain farming and devastated its lakes. From here on, Lone Pine Creek runs parallel to the road, one of the many watercourses that drain the glacial valleys of the Eastern Sierra.
And the climb starts in earnest now. As the road steepens, I notice that my heels hurt less. Somehow the loose bits of skin don’t slide around that much at this angle. I tentatively increase my pace. Still not too bad. I can’t believe my luck - I’ve got legs that feel reasonably strong, a nice, juicy, mountain to climb, a cool morning and, most importantly, feet that don’t scream at every step. I let loose and soon settle into an energetic stride. It feels wonderful to finally get some power onto the road. The endorphins are kicking in. And the third dawn arrives.
When Gabi, Mum, and Dad catch up with me, I am in the middle of the Alabama Hills. These bizarre and picturesque rocks form a maze-like barrier between the valley floor and the granite peaks of the Sierra to the east and have served as a backdrop for many Westerns. We pass Movie Flat Road, and since I am motoring and don’t want to stop for refueling, my tired crew now has to run along and hand over drink bottles and sandwich morsels. Very Tour de France. Occasionally, vans with runners and crews come down from the finish. I wave, they cheer, and I know that it will not be too long before we will roll down that hill.
We travel through a spectacular landscape on a magnificent morning. There is not a cloud in the sky. Even before the sun rises over the crest of the Inyo mountains behind us, its rays illuminate the tops of the peaks ahead, causing them to radiate a soft pink and orange glow. One of them is Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the "lower" 48 states of the US. Where the Portal Road ends at an elevation of 8,360 feet (2,548 m), the trail to the Whitney summit begins, and I fondly remember the equally crisp October morning almost 14 years ago when I walked up there and back. As I climb, so does the sun, and soon the whole valley is bathed in sunlight. Despite the constant climb, I manage to keep up my rhythm. In fact, I am thoroughly enjoying myself.
As we approach the base of the giant "Z" I had seen from afar last night, we pass another timing station. The time keepers tell the crew that a runner has gone through here 25 minutes earlier. The road gets even steeper now. I love it, and as I attack the first long diagonal, I can just see a van disappearing around the corner at the other end. 20 minutes later, I catch Dan Marinsik from San Jose, who is approaching his 5th Badwater finish. It looks like he is doing it tough, death marching up the switchback with his pacer. I know that it will not be particularly uplifting for him to see another runner go past, but I still I try to give him a few encouraging words.
At the end of the second straight, the road rejoins Lone Pine Creek. At this elevation, pines start to populate the slopes. Their green shapes are in beautiful contrast to the white of the granite and the blue of the sky and provide a welcome change from the dusty scrub we have encountered over the last two days. The campground appears, and I remember from my previous visit that the end of the road is just a little further up the road. This must be the last mile. A few bends in the road later, I see Gabi, Mum and Dad waiting ahead. Without my indefatigable and ever patient crew I would not be here now. We hold hands and jog together the last few metres to the finish tape. This is their finish as much as mine.
There are hugs all around. John Vonhof has come up to the finish, and I give him a hug too. Heaven knows what would have happened if he hadn’t been at the right place at the right time. He tells me that he didn’t expect me to get here. Chris Kostman hangs a massive medal around my neck and congratulates me on my official finish in 50 hours and 9 minutes. I tell him how much I appreciate him personally welcoming all the finishers and then learn that Brazilian Valmir Nunes has pulverised the race record and not only broken 24 hours, but finished in under 23!
Apart from my feet, I feel great. It turns out I have just done the third fastest time from the last time station up to the finish, at over 5.8 km/hr, and the fifth fastest time from Lone Pine, at over 5.6 km/hr. The legs are fine, no soreness to speak of. More than anything else, I feel grateful, grateful to Gabi, Mum and Dad for looking after me through two days and two nights, and grateful to the ultra gods for smiling on me and letting me get away with this. I am sure that the fatigue will kick in as soon as the adrenaline rush subsides. I think Gabi, Mum and Dad feel the same way.
We hang around the finish for a little while. Mum buys the largest pancake I have ever seen. We chat to a few hikers who get ready to camp on the Whitney Trail. When we are about to leave, we see Dan Marinsik finish. Then we roll back down into Lone Pine. Halfway down the hill I hang out of the van’s window to cheer on Erhard Weiss who is soon followed by Ian Parker. The sun is high up in the sky by now, and I don’t envy them having to walk up this hot and shadeless road for another few hours. We arrive at the motel, and I savour a cold beer. When I finally take my shoes and socks off, I am greeted by battered big toes and juicy blood blisters on top of my little toes. John’s tape is still in place, and I don’t dare touch it.
After a quick nap, I go to the Dow Villa Motel to see John who has offered to check on my feet. He expertly lances the top blisters and recommends leaving the rest alone until the tape is ready to come off by itself, unless there is an infection. I buy a copy of his book "Fixing Your Feet" and promise him and myself that I’ll look after my feet in the future.
Late in the afternoon, we make our way to the local school for the Award Ceremony and pizza party. It begins at 6pm, just when the race officially closes for the first wave starters. The school assembly hall is packed with runners and crews. There are lots of sunburnt faces and taped-up feet in sandals. As Chris Kostman opens proceedings, Don Fallis walks into the hall. He was the last runner on the course and has made it to the Lone Pine timing station 5 minutes before the final cut-off for what must be a disappointing DNF. I remember last seeing him at the Darwin timing station where he was limping along as if someone had half broken off his upper body, and I can’t believe he kept walking like that for another day. Everyone stands and gives him a clap. Chris announces that 78 of 84 starters have finished, 65 of those in under 48 hours. It has been a very good year. The finishers are called to the front one by one, and the crowd goes mental. Then the winners receive their awards - Valmir Nunes from Brazil who finished in an unbelievable course record of 22:51:29 hours, and Lisa Bliss from Washington State, the first woman in 34:33:40 hours. They give short, emotional speeches, then it is the sponsors’ turn for a few words, and then we file out, picking up our official finisher’s shirts on the way out.
Outside, the sun is setting over Mt Whitney, bathing the peaks of the Inyo Mountains on the other side of the valley in hues of orange and pink. I have a quick chat to Jack Denness. He is a Badwater legend, having finished 11 times and gained fame in the documentary "Running on the Sun" that was made a few years back. This year, he has come over from England to volunteer at the timing stations. He tells me that he plans a start in 2010 with the intention to break the age record for 75+ years. I haven’t made any plans for the future yet, but later that night, as Dad remarks "Next year, we only need one van and one normal car", I know that we will be back sooner rather than later.
I hobbled around for a few days on my battered feet. When the tape came off about two weeks after the race, we could see the extent of the damage for ourselves, but over the next few weeks, the feet healed well. I stayed in touch with John Vonhof and kept him informed about my feet’s recovery. John later wrote an article called "My Best Blister Patch Job Ever" in his "Fixing Your Feet" e-zine about his treatment of my blisters which he ranked "near the top of bad feet" in his years of patching thousands of feet.
Congratulations on reading this far. Just a gentle reminder that now might be as good a time as any to join me in supporting the work of The Fred Hollows Foundation and help them make a person somewhere see again.