Wednesday, July 27, 2016

BADWATER135 Race Report

It was the beginning of February when I received that letter: 
Congratulations, You're in Badwater 135! Only 100 people are selected to run it every year and I could hardly believe I was actually in! Such a thrilling moment! This is THE race that started it all. 

In fact that sparkle was ignited back in late 2010 when my fascination and curiosity for the world of Ultrarunning soared high while reading the stories of perseverance and dedication of legends of our sport like Marshall Ulrich, Lisa Smith, Pam Reed, Dean Karnazes and many others.

Badwater Course Profile

I had just returned with couple of frost bitten toes, a load of heavy gear and a large 1st Place Medal hanging off my neck from the YUKON ARCTIC ULTRA. My "grand plan" this Season was to run the 2 most Extreme (Coldest and Hottest) Ultras on the planet and, well, it was getting real!

In less than 6 months time I would have the opportunity to run between -40 up in the Yukon Territory (CANADA), just below the Arctic Circle, and +120, in the Death Valley (CA, USA). The hottest place on earth.

Sounded like a great idea to me... So, I planned my training ahead of time and gave it all I got!

Fast forward 5 months, I found myself sitting on a comfy bed in Furnace Creek Ranch, explaining the final logistics and rehearsing the Nutrition and Hydration plan with my team, just a few hours before the 3rd wave start (11pm) of the BADWATER135.

All the supplies were getting stocked in the Support Vehicle, a sparkly light grey Dodge Caravan, as we moved our final things out of the room and headed out by 9:45pm.
25 gallons of water were stocked under the seats, my CarboPro packs, Metasalt Elecrolytes, all the extra gear and some fruit and nuts were all packed and ready for battle! We picked up about 100Kg of fresh Ice at the General Store on the way out, neatly placed those heavy bags in the coolers and off we were towards Badwater Basin.

The role of the support team/Crew in such an extreme event is fundamental.
The temperature is so hot and extreme that without the proper planning a runner can incur in serious dehydration and eventually critical health issues. Keeping the runner "cool" and hydrated is mandatory and in this case it means having all the logistics figured out. This can make a substantial difference between making it to the finish line or getting a DNF.
For this reason I had 2 Crews ready to switch every 12 hours, in order to keep everyone alert and awake throughout the Race. The first Team was made by my father Cesare, Paolo, Domenico and Michela. An all Italian first team that would stay with me during the night section, from the start till sunrise. The second team was made by Daniele, Ashley and Brian. I knew their experience would play a substantial role in the later part of the race.
The special atmosphere around the start is always hard to explain, with that funny gut feeling tingled by the daunting thought of what you're about to do...running 135 miles (217Km) in the hottest desert on earth through 3 mountain ranges...the toughest challenge on earth was about to start.

After the ritual group photo, the National Anthem and the countdown, at 11pm on the dot, we were off! The adventure had begun in a warm 115' F. Despite the heat I felt comfortable running around 7 to 8 minute/mile covering the first 17 miles in 2:20. I was in 4th position at that point.
Right from the very beginning the crew would stop every mile or so to give water, nutrition, change the ice bandanas, etc... I gave a written down plan to them with specific instructions on when I needed something, all based on time rather than distance. The timing was good and all went well just until Furnace Creek, the first checkpoint. 

I had run out of water since Golden Canyon (2 miles before FC) but I kept running along although I could not spot my Crew for a seemingly endless time. 

We passed by the checkpoint and still could not see my vehicle. I was already dry and getting frustrated. The flashing lights of all the vehicles parked on the side of the road just past the checkpoint made me hope they could be just a bit ahead. So, I kept pushing and, once I reached that block of cars, I still could not see my Crew. It's been almost 4 miles and I was out of water, it's only when I started cramping and felt dizzy that I realized I had to ask for water to another crew or runner.         
For some logistical issues before and after the checkpoint 45 minutes went by until I saw my crew again and I was not happy at that point. I was swerving down the road, my head was spinning and my muscles were cramping... and we were only 20 miles into the Race! I tried to regroup with a little power nap and taking in some extra fluids but I just couldn't shake it off. There are times you go through debilitating low points followed by exhilarating highs, but this time it just never turned around and I kept pushing and working hard all night. By sunrise I felt like I was already in a pit. Not good, we were in Stovepipe Wells, I still had 95 miles to go and the first climb was just about to start.

I tackled the climb with great hopes since I trained particularly well on that knowing I could make a difference on the uphill. Of course, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. I struggled throughout and could hardly keep the bounce. The heat was on as I dragged for the 15 mile and 5.000ft climb up to Towne Pass. When the sign came in sight it felt like an oasis in the desert.   The 10 mile stretch downhill to the Panamint Springs Valley was a true relief and my pace was decent at that point, although I was struggling to "feel" the stride and reaching that effortless high I was waiting for... I waited and waited but things only got worse. The asphalt around noon back down to the desert floor was scorching hot and the heat waves ahead of us looked like water puddles in the distance. I could feel the heat through my shoes and took a strong effort to keep moving along while trying to stay cool and hydrated at the same time.

The Panamint Spring Checkpoint (72 miles into the Race) was ahead of us for a seemingly endless period of time, never getting closer. I finally met my second team right at that station and after a couple of minutes break under
the shade of the porch, my pacer Brian and I took off for the Father Crowly ascent. We moved up consistently and got to the Darwin Checkpoint (90 miles into the Race) in 17 hours on the clock, in 7th position. 90 miles covered and 45 to go. Alright, this was the moment! The Race was going to start then... or at least that was my plan. I ate something, cooled down for a second and hit the road, ready to tackle the 50km downhill to Lone Pine as fast as possible!

In any Ultra it's necessary to have a goal but it's also important to be able to adjust and adapt as you go without getting frustrated. It's a mental game so I forced myself to pick up the pace but that's when my kidneys (and my stomach) started hurting, reeeal bad.
I then realized I had not peed once since the start................ so I stopped for almost an hour laying down in the back seat of our Van right on the side of the road to regroup and drink as much as possible until I felt a slight urge to urinate. A root beer colored liquid came out and that's when my wheels completely came off.
(napping during the 2nd night)

The sun was going down but the temperature stayed up as many runners passed by while I pretty much walked the last 40 miles (70Km) of the race. My body was hurting inside and my legs just would not turn or keep the rhythm. 

I pushed and gave it all STILL I could barely even walk. I just didn't want to quit. Ash (Ashley), Brian and Daniele cheered me on, kept pushing and never doubted me throughout, walking with me and keeping me up for a second night until we reached the last final 12 mile and 5.000ft climb up to Whitney Portals by sunrise. It was a very demoralizing feeling, especially when you enter a race with high hopes and eventually you find yourself dragging, watching loads of other runners plodding along and not being able to react... it's something I never experienced to this extent before and it was quite a humbling experience.

"Crawling on the way up to Mt. Whitney Portal"
My initial goal was to finish in between 24 to 26 hours and, given my actual preparation, I believed that could have been fairly achievable. I took an extra 10 hours. What started as a Race turned into a 45 final stretch death march... Our time of 34:00:10 placed me in 25th position while registering the fastest Italian time on this Course up to date.

Ultimately my goal was to make it there...and I can proudly say I did it! 
It didn't matter the time, it didn't matter the position. I knew I could do it and even if I had to walk it all. I didn't want to let this opportunity slip away and the "Yukon&Badwater" Season .

To put things in perspective: I took 17 hours to do the first 90 miles and EXACTLY 17 hours to do the final 45... needless to say I learned a lot and, if I'm lucky enough to be given the opportunity again next year, I'll be back and ready this time!

I'm not going to get into inspirational quotes or anything like that, we know Ultras are hard and that's why we do it. I stripped down to my core to cross that finish line and only made it thanks to the unconditional support of my Crew. Despite the Result not being "exactly" what I wanted I am still proud I had the chance to challenge myself on such a brutal course. I was seeking sheer adventure and that's what I got.

I'm thankful beyond measure for all the support of my team (from left to right): Brian, Ash, Daniele, Cesare, Michela, Paolo e Domenico. We shared a memorable adventure I'm sure we'll never forget. This one was truly conquered gritting teeth and ultimately that's how it's supposed to be.

Special Thanks goes to the outstanding support of 


for making this a reality!

...The next day we got up and, without much planning, on a whim, we drove back to the portals where I started running again, back down the Road towards Death Valley on a BADWATER double attempt.

Report on that coming soon >>>