Thursday, February 25, 2010

Talk at Running Room about my Badwater 2009 Experience

Good evening everyone,

My name is Iris and I’m from Switzerland. Since some of you may have a little difficulty to understand my heavy accent, I brought my husband Jeff who will be my translator.

I’ve moved to Canada 11 years ago after I met my husband Jeff at a Club Med in Mexico. My running career actually started right there when he asked me if I wanted to join him for a run. Thank you, Jeff!

I was always pretty athletic but more into the fun sports like windsurfing, snowboarding, sailing, mountain biking and Aerobic. I also used to smoke and finally quit after moving to Canada.

My first marathon I ran in 1999 in Burlington Vermont, followed by the Niagara Marathon (where I qualified for Boston) and New York in the same year. In 2000 I ran the Boston Marathon and my first ultra trail race, the OUS 50 km in Owen Sound. That’s when I got really hooked to running. The following years I still ran some marathons like the Soctiabank, Big Sur, the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland but I definitely preferred the ultra trail races. After running a few more 50 km trail races I told myself if I can run 50 km I can also run further. Why not?

Jeff and I also like to combine running with vacation. It’s a great way to see the world. We ran the Himalaya 100 mile stage race in Darjeeling, India a five day stage race with incredible scenery of some of the tallest mountain in the world; the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world (1921), and the Corsica Stage Race, a 180 km stage race along the beautiful west coast of Corsica.

Then one day I watched the movie “Running on the Sun” about a race called Badwater and I knew right then: I WANT TO RUN THIS RACE. In order to qualify I needed to run at least one 100 mile race (in the meantime the minimum qualification are two 100 miler). After running a couple 100 km races, 6 hour races and 50 mile races I ran my first 100 miler in September 2007, the Haliburton 100 mile trail race. It was such an incredible experience. I loved every single mile of it. Then I tried to get into Badwater in 2008 but had no luck. I was very disappointed but I also knew that I had to run more 100 milers to get a better chance to get into Badwater. I ended up running three 100 mile races that year and finally got into Badwater last year. A dream became true!!

Training for Badwater

As soon as I found out I was accepted to run Badwater I started my training. My monthly mileage was:

January = 190,
February = 200,
March = 265,
April = 223,
May = 310,
June = 260,
July until Badwater = 40 miles which included the following races:

April 18: Seaton 78 km Trail race which took me almost 11 and a half hour after I fell 10 km before the finish line, broke a bone in my left hand and had to walk all the way back to the finish line. I was very lucky it was only my hand and I was off my training for 4 days only.

May 23: Sulphur Springs 100 miles which I finished in 23:15 with very bad stomach problems but also helped me to figure out I can not eat too many gels.

June 6, Kingston 6 hours. I ran almost 60 km and I had a chance to try out all kinds of different food due to the 1 km loop course.

June 20: Niagara 50 km road race (4:56) which was not as hot as usually.

Beginning of May I also started my heat training which was sitting in the sauna several times a week for as long as I could while drinking as much as I could to get my stomach used to absorb a lot of liquids in the heat. Some days I ran to the gym, took a sauna and ran back home which is a great training for Badwater. All in all I was pretty confident I did all the training I could to get ready for Badwater. I also had a great crew ready to join me on this amazing adventure. The Badwater Ultramarathon is a team effort and is not possible without a dedicated crew as the runner has to provide everything he or she needs for the whole race. The numbers of crew members is a minimum of three and a maximum of six. It is also very important that the crew is trained and prepared for the heat. According to race officials they treat more crew members for heat exhaustion than runners. I had a great crew of six and even though none of them has ever crewed at Badwater before they did everything they could to get me to the finish line.

Badwater Ultramarathon 2009

We all arrived in Las Vegas Friday around noon before the race. Our plan was to get the two rental cars, a minivan and a smaller car and buy everything we need for the race in Las Vegas. Then drive to Pahrump which is about half way between Las Vegas and Badwater and has a Wal-Mart in case we forgot anything. It was quite challenging to figure out what we needed for the race like amount of water and food for me and also for the crew. Even though I trained with different kind of food I didn’t really know what would work in the heat. My plan going into the race was to stay on liquid fuel for as long as I can because it is easier to digest in the heat than solid food. I knew it will be hot. I read about temperatures reaching 130 degree and it feels like sticking ones head into a hot oven but how hot it really was I realized after we arrived in Furnace Creek on Saturday afternoon before the race. Oh man, it was hotter than I ever would had imagined. It felt like somebody is holding a hot blow dryer into your face! That’s the only time I was a bit nervous about the race but only for a few minutes. I had to remind myself why I’m here and that I can do it and that everything will be fine.

After settling into the hotel at Furnace Creek Ranch we drove to Badwater, which is the lowest point in North America (282 feet below see level) and the official start of the Badwater Ultramarathon. It felt great to finally be there at the sign that I’ve seen so many time on the web, taking pictures with my crew and the Swiss flag as I was to be the first Swiss women ever to run Badwater.

The next day, Sunday, was the official runner check-in and registration and the pre-race meeting. When I picked up my Bib 18 it sort of felt the first time like it’s really going to happen and I’m not dreaming. And it completely sank in when I was on the stage with all the other 86 runners that were to run the Badwater Ultramarathon 2009. It felt really very special and I was very happy to have Jeff and my friends there and I knew they would do everything they can to support me all the way to the finish line.

I didn’t sleep much the night before the race. The best part was I didn’t have to worry about anything. My crew organized the crew van, got ice and water and everything we needed for the race. Then they went for breakfast. I didn’t want to eat anything before the start and just took my time to get ready for the race and get mentally prepared. I still remember how calm and at the same time excited I felt. I felt great and couldn’t wait to start. As we drove to the starting line we cheered on all the runners from the first start at 6:00 am and we all were so excited. At the starting line I got my weight checked and after the official pictures, the American National anthem the gun finally went off at 8:00. I felt amazing. It was such an incredible feeling to be part of this special race. The first 17, 4 miles went by in no time. I did exactly what I wanted to do – walk all the uphill and run everything else. I also set three goals for myself: the first was to finish the race in less than 60 hours, the second was to get that belt buckle and finishing in less than 48 hours and the third was to finish in less than 40 hours. I was in Furnace Creek (17.4 miles in 3:22 (11:22 am) which was one hour faster than my plan. My crew was working amazingly. They stopped the van after every mile, sprayed me down with cold water, filled up my water bottles and changed my ice bandana. Besides drinking water I was alternating Perpetuem and Noon with Carbo Pro, which worked great.

After a short break I head off full of energy to the next time check at Stovepipe Wells. The temperatures still raised and my crew had to work very hard to cool me off. I still felt amazing and ran everything besides the uphill. We worked the crew that always 4 people were on the course with me in the van and two people were off with the smaller car. The scenery in Death Valley was incredible and the sand dunes before Stovepipe Wells were just beautiful. I love the desert and this was even more stunning that I had ever imagined. Just before arriving in Stovepipe Wells I sat down into a chair for the first time and got a leg massage and an ice bag on my head to cool me down. After that I felt much better again and in no time I was in Stovepipe Wells (41.9 miles arriving at 4.34 pm, 8 hours 34 min). My crew was already waiting for me as were some tourists from Switzerland who wanted to see that crazy Swiss woman who would do a race like this and to wish me good luck and take some pictures. It was quite special.

After refuelling and cooling down I was off again to the next time check at Panamint Springs, which was also the first major climb of the race – 19 miles uphill to Townes Pass! As the uphill wasn’t tough enough there was also a very strong and very hot head wind. It took a lot of energy out of me to climb up to Townes Pass and I was glad I had a pacer. Pacers are allowed after Furnace Creek. After a while I noticed some friction in my shoes and I had to sit down and take my shoes off to have a look at it. I put some Hydropel crème on my feet, changed my socks and was off again. Everything seems to work perfect until my stomach got sick of the liquid fuel and I decided to eat a tuna sandwich, which turned out to be a big mistake for the rest of the race. Right after the sandwich I got some stomach problems and needed to take some Ginger Gravol, which helped a bit for a while. After the day turned into night Death Valley showed me its real beauty. The starry sky was incredible and I’ve never seen so many stars in the sky this close. We even could see the Milky Way. It got a little cooler at night and I ran all the downhill section from Townes Pass to Panamint Springs (72.3 miles at 00:50 am, 16 hours 50 minutes) where I changed my clothes, ate something and had a Ginger Ale and off I went to the next time check at Darwin Turnoff which is the next major climb in the race - a long winding road uphill where we had great views of all the crew vehicles and runners behind us. During the climb I started to feel some blisters and had to stop to take a look at it. When I took my shoes and my socks of I noticed 3 blisters on each foot. I didn’t want any of my crew members having to deal with this and took care of it myself. I drained the blister, disinfected them and put some blister band aids on and changed the socks again and off I went. The first few minutes were quite painful and I decided to take a pain killer. After a while I didn’t feel any pain in my feet anymore and I arrived at Darwin Turnoff (90.1 miles) at 7.27 am in 23 hours and 27 minutes. Up to this point everything went much better than I expected.

But then as the temperatures slowly rose above 120 degree on the second day things changed. My stomach felt really bad and it was very difficult to eat something. I slowed down a lot but could manage to run at least the downhill parts of the course. My crew worked very hard to cool me down. A few times my body got so overheated I almost past out. I had to sit down and my crew covered my body with cold towels to cool me down. After a few minutes I started to feel a bit better. However, my stomach got very upset and I could hardly put any calories into my body and my Electrolytes were out of balance. I didn’t have any energy left to run anymore and as it turned out I walked the last 25 miles. That long stretch into Lone Pine took forever and Mount Whitney didn’t seem to come any closer but I knew all I had to do is put one foot in front of the other. Finally I arrived in Lone Pine (122.3 miles at 5:40 pm, running time 33 hours 40 minutes).

Jeff suggested I should take a break and cool off in the hotel swimming pool but just thinking of taking my shoes off didn’t appeal to me and I told myself that I only had 13 miles left. In retrospect I have to admit that I should have taken a break. Those last 13 miles were the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The road up to Mount Whitney portal is very steep and the incline almost 12%. It took forever to get to the last check point at Portal Road (131 miles at 9:14 pm, 131 miles). It was dark again and it also got a lot cooler due to the altitude. Only 4 miles left but it got tougher and tougher. Jeff paced me and it took him a lot to make me going. A few times I told him I just wanted to lay on the road and not move anymore or a truck can roll over me and I would never do this race again in my whole life. At the same time I also knew that I would never ever quit no matter what. As we got closer to the finish line I started to feel a bit better. Then one of a sudden we heard sirens and got passed by three police car speeding uphill and we smelled burned wood. I thought, wow great they have a barbecue at the finish line and already pictured the biggest burger I would eat. At mile 133.5 (38.19 hours) we saw all the cars coming down from the finish line, people, chaos and nobody knew what happened. We got told we had to leave immediately because of a forest fire. That was the worst moment of the race. I could not believe it but then we saw the big flames and the smoke. My first thought was I had DNF’d because of a forest fire and not because I couldn’t do it and I felt so disappointed. All I could do was stake out and turn back. We drove down to the hotel and I felt like in a bad dream. Still did not believe what happened. I could not lie down and go to sleep so we decided to empty both cars. Hours later I was still in my running clothes. My crew finally could convince me to have a glass of wine to celebrate but it just didn’t seem right to me. Finally I went to sleep with the biggest disappointment of my life still in my head.

The next morning, my crew found out that the race is still on and that they had reopened the finishing line and we could drive up to where I staked out and finish the race. It felt great to cross that finish line with my crew even though it was not the way I had dreamed it would be. As it turned out, I was the first runner that couldn’t cross the finish line anymore the night before due to the fire. And we didn’t know that they moved the finish line down to the last check point shortly after we had left the previous night. However, since the time never stopped my official finishing time was 52:09. I had lost 13 hours and 25 minutes due to the fire. My actual time was 38.44. I still got the buckle and I was very happy of what I did and am very thankful to my crew who did everything to get me to that finish line and to my husband Jeff who helped me to fulfill my dream.

Badwater was the toughest race I’ve ever done and one incredible experience. I had to dig very deep to finish it and I’ve learned a lot about myself and about life. It was amazing to see how hard a body can be pushed to achieve a goal.

And despite I said I will never do this race again, I put in my application for this year and hopefully will be accepted. I have another dream: I want to finish this race in one stretch without a forest fire, the way I have pictured it a million times.

1 comment:

  1. That was an amazing story, congratulations on finishing.

    I noticed you are doing it again this year, good luck !