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Running into hell: Battling for survival in 'World's Toughest Foot Race'
Marin Independent Journal
Article Launched:08/28/2006 04:45:00 AM PDT
Long past its apex and descending too slowly toward a jagged horizon, the sun broils the valley in arc-welder white. It is a landscape only
a scorpion could love, and the scorpions are smart enough to hide under their rocks.
Mike Sweeney has nowhere to hide.
Sweeney came looking for this sun, this crucible, but he is not running the race his mind and his ego had plotted so carefully. In a realm
of extremes that demands humility, his plans and pace shrivel in the reality of 126 degrees. The San Rafael man led the footrace for 85
miles just a year before. Now he watches the men he'd thought his rivals escape into the heat shimmer.
Sweeney seethes in his own sweat and faces his unraveling.
"We've got to be realistic," he says. "About where we are right now."
The Badwater Ultramarathon Race has never been about being realistic. A 135-mile suffer fest across Death Valley, in the summer, with
the sting of Mount Whitney at its tail, Badwater is by its nature a test of incomprehensible hubris, whittling runners and their support
crews to a raw and even bloody edge. The event is billed as "The World's Toughest Foot Race." No one argues the claim. Ultramarathon
poster boy Dean Karnazes won't even say he "won" when he finished first in 2004, only that he "survived the fastest."
Starting at the Western Hemisphere's lowest point, 282 feet below sea level in a desolate salt cellar of dark and brackish pools, the
Badwater race sizzles across griddle-flat lake beds, climbs mountain ranges and batters body and mind for the length of five consecutive
marathons in temperatures that threaten 130 degrees.
It is a race not for the faint of heart.
Or the sound of mind.
Mike Sweeney thought he was ready. So did 84 others.
Ten days before the July 24 start, Sweeney, a 51-year-old from San Rafael, is working into the last phase of his training, the heat. The
first phases of training, the 15-mile after-work runs and casual marathons, are logged in the training bible. Baking in the sauna at the
Marin Nautilus in San Rafael, Sweeney is now hardening himself against his primary foe, a ritual known in the ultras as "heat training."
Other forms of this flagellation include running in the sun wearing layers of black wool and nylon tights. The runners don't just shape their
senses to the suffering, they adapt their bodies to process the gallons they will consume in the death-march rhythm of Badwater.
Ultramarathon niche hero Scott Jurek drank 21 gallons of liquid when he set the course record in 2005.
Alone with his water and his sweat, Sweeney spends two hours a day in a sauna. If there's room, he runs.
"I do something I call 'sauna wars,'" he says, between chugs of water. "They don't know I'm doing it but I watch the other guys and I see
if I can outlast them."
It's not an unusual remark for an unusual man like Sweeney. In his early 20s and studying the maritime arts, he trained to dive the cliffs
of Acapulco. On the ship south, he prepared himself. "I'd pound on the top of my head," he says. "To toughen it up."
Toughening up and outlasting opponents is the all of ultramarathons. Ultramarathons are not about speed. Ultramarathons are about
endurance, depraved focus. "You run the first 50 miles with your legs," goes the ultra adage. "You run the last 50 miles with your mind."
Days before the start, Sweeney has the legs and the mind. In the heat of the sauna, he confesses an athletic ego and declares himself
"one of three or four" contenders.
He can see the finish line in his mind.
Sweeney is a bar pilot who guides massive ships - 100,000 tons of oil and steel - through the fickle currents of San Francisco Bay. He is
accustomed to control. He can plot the miles of training. He can buy the right gear, the right sports gels, electrolyte potions and
supplements. He can chart the course in his head.
He has the legs and the mind.
All he needs is a plan.
He thought he had one.
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It was 1977 when Al Arnold set out on a solo run across Death Valley. Scratching a course in the dusty shoulder of Highway 190, he
invented the Badwater footrace. Arnold recalls his motivation as "a metaphysical thing" and Death Valley as his "cave," a place where "the
borders were basically unlimited." He remembers a midnight encounter with a limo packed with Belgian beauties. He remembers his
support crew abandoning him for a Yosemite side trip. He remembers "no vehicles, no people, just solitude."
It's not introspection now, he says. It's athleticism. Arnold came to learn from the land. Now runners come to conquer it.
"It's a well-organized international event," Arnold says, speaking on a cordless phone from the driveway of his Walnut Creek home, where
he is "purging" the detritus of 78 years. "There's really no room for these private vignettes. It's a serious thing."
One day before the race, it's a very serious thing.
The parking lot at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center is at incongruous capacity for July. If there were a high season in Death Valley, it
would not be the summer. But the parking lot is full, SUVs, minivans, all dressed in tape and decals and parked over the curbs.
Inside, the church of the ultramarathon is convening.
The auditorium was not built for crowds. Crowds are an oddity in Death Valley, but every seat is taken. Runners and crews sit on the floor
in the front. They stand in the back. The uniform is taut legs and leather skin. Every hand clutches a water bottle. Pricey sunglasses hang
from every neck.
The smell of sunscreen hangs in the air.
The congregation is in place.
Ultras know their own world. It is a growing niche for runners, but it is still a niche. On the eve of a race like Badwater, they can nestle
into that niche and pretend that it's all going to be OK, that it is normal, admirable, even fun, to run across Death Valley in the
magnifying-glass scorch of late July.
The program starts with a video of the 2005 race. It is no coincidence that the surreal slow-motion is matched against a soundtrack
steeped in the rhythm of a Gregorian chant.
The church of the ultramarathon is convening.
Sweeney, an easy smile behind a weathered face, would not seem an obvious inductee to this order. He never called himself a runner until
he was 37 and began helping his then-8-year-old daughter train to race in 5K runs. She'd won a few trophies and went on to her first
Dipsea at 9. Sweeney was the focused dad who relished the role of the single father, riding a bike behind his daughter as she ran to
school in Santa Venetia. The irony was not lost on him.
"I thought, 'this little girl is putting a lot into running and I should challenge myself,'" he recalls. Six months later, he ran his first
marathon. "I just expected to run one marathon and that was it."
That wasn't "it." Within a year he was knocking off a marathon a month. Six years later, he'd signed up for his first 50-mile run. In classic
ultra progression, he started scouting longer and longer races. He lottery'd into the Western States 100 in 2000 - hundreds more runners
want in than the race can accommodate - and he "buckled" his first year. Belt buckles are the trophy of choice for ultras. In the Western
States race, winning a buckle means you finished in less than 24 hours.
Sweeney learned fast. When he fell apart and set the record for "the slowest lap by a finisher" in the Hawaiian HURT 100, he came back
and won the event the next year, and the year after that.
In the ultra cult, there is always a "what's next?"
Until you get to Badwater.
In the visitors' center auditorium, the lights are institutional fluorescent, but from every crack in the door, the harsher glare bleeds in.
When a door swings opens, the room strobes white. There are the usual sorts of kickoff formalities. National Park Ranger Ed Derobertis
runs through his ironic safety spiel. "Once again, we have two ambulances in the park," he announces, and then suggests, cheerfully, that
the crowd of compulsives "just take a step back and enjoy some of the sights."
Race director Chris Kostman makes his routine announcements - "the buffet breakfast will open at 5 (a.m.)" - and the routine admonitions
- "Get ice and water everywhere you can!"
When the race's medical director, Lisa Bliss, a Badwater veteran herself, takes the microphone, the dysfunctional disconnect goes
unspoken. The only real medical advice about running in the desert is "don't." The United States Military Survival Manual states it simply:
"Remain in the shade and avoid activity." But Bliss is preaching to a peculiar subculture, a sweaty and severe sect where the obvious was
surrendered many sign-ins ago.
She announces the temperature, a mere 118 degrees. "I always say it's not Badwater if it's under 125." She explains the procedure for
seeking medical help: Every runner is issued a numbered wooden stake. If a runner has to leave the course for heat exhaustion,
dehydration or any of the expected ailments, the stake is pounded into the ground to mark the point where they will resume their ordeal.
"Come get treated," she says, "and get back on the course!"
Outside the auditorium, no one flinches in the glare. The late afternoon's 118 degrees is just a warm-up. Sweeney is shouting greetings to
the congregation. He slaps backs, shakes hands. When he sees 2005 winner and Badwater record holder Scott Jurek, the encounter
merits a hug.
Jurek is tall, greyhound trim, an obvious athletic contrast to Sweeney's 5-foot, 8-inches of middle age. Still, for Jurek, Sweeney is an
unknown. "Last year he surprised me," says Jurek, easygoing but completely cognizant of the stares and outright admiration of the milling
throng. "Here's this 50-year-old guy and at one point he's eight, nine miles ahead of me. I hope he doesn't go out at a course-record pace
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Jurek looks like an ultramarathoner. The 32-year-old Seattle runner is immaculately lean, long in sinew and gait. But appearance may be
no advantage. Badwater is not about being the fastest, Jurek explains. It's about being ready. "It's people who are smart and know their
body. And I think Mike knows his body a lot better than he did last year."
"Last year" is very much on Sweeney's mind.
In 2005, Sweeney led the Badwater race through the first three time checks, scorching a sub 10-minute mile pace in the first 72 miles, his
rivals vanquished behind him in the heat. But at the 90-mile time station, he was held off the course for more than an hour. Blood tests
declared him hyponatremic, the salt in his blood dangerously diluted by the volume of liquid a Badwater runner consumes. Held by a
paramedic until his blood sodium returned to normal, Sweeney watched his lead evaporate in the dry stillness.
Outside the auditorium, it doesn't just feel like a sauna, it smells like a sauna, hardy creosote bushes baking in the sun. Sweeney asks
Bliss about getting blood tests during the race. There are no blood tests this year, she explains. Sweeney steps back. The blood tests were
part of his pre-race plan. He was also going to weigh himself every hour to track how much water he was losing, but the crew member
who was bringing the scale bowed out. There would be no scale, no blood tests.
This was not part of the plan, but in the weeks before the race, his plan was sketched in an odd and casual confidence. Ten days before
the race, his support crew was still in flux. The crews keep the runners alive with food, liquids and repeated dowsings with hand-pumped
pressure sprayers. Three days before the race, only half the crew had committed. He'd found a video team to capture his envisioned
triumph, but he had no permits for them. The core of his crew could only promise 36 hours though he finished in 37 hours a year before.
He had the legs and the mind.
He thought he was ready.
Fifteen hours before the start, in one of the three rooms Sweeney reserved at the Furnace Creek Ranch, every horizontal surface is piled
with the gear that Sweeney hopes will prevent a repeat of 2005. His learning curve is packed in plastic boxes. He has salt tablets, buckets
of sports-drink mix. A stitched-together ice vest will cool him on the course, swim goggles an unlikely necessity if a dust storm whips the
course. Various potions and lubricants combat blisters. A pantry of nutrition bars, gel packs and a shelf's worth of Trader Joe's snacks will
keep him in calories.
"Every time we see you, we're going to give you calories," declares Mark Richtman, the Novato ultra veteran who will emerge as the
leader of Sweeney's hastily assembled team.
Other crew members play more general roles. Retired British merchant marine Frank Baker, a "shipmate" of a friend of Sweeney's and a
last-minute recruit, has diagnosed himself "daft enough" to join the effort. He will drive one of a pair of rented Dodge Caravans. Dave
Jenkins, guitarist and singer for the venerable and still-viable Pablo Cruise, is an old friend. Steve von Dohlen, 38, a prosecutor in San Luis
Obispo County, was set to crew for another runner who dropped out. Von Dohlen volunteered to help so he could scout the course for
himself. "This is on the list of things I want to do," he says. Sweeney hired producer Leo Maselli and camerawoman Wun Yip to produce a
video of the effort. They are flying under the race radar as registered crew.
In the room, the race has already started. Gear, ointments, gels, drinks, ice hats, ice pack bandanas É the organizing will take Sweeney
into midnight. Richtman is reaching for something to stir a 5-gallon Igloo cooler filled with Gu2O, a sports drink.
Sweeney is feeling confident.
"You can stir it with my stake," he announces. "I'm not going to use it."
When the team pulls up to the starting line the next morning, the stake and everything else is stowed in the blue minivan. The crew calls
it "the mother ship" and has festooned it with "Team Sweeney" decals. On the rocky hill face, 280 or so feet above the parking lot, a
simple white sign declares "sea level."
It's 10 a.m., the start time reserved for the most competitive runners. Less ambitious waves departed at 6 and 8 a.m. The race's big
names are prowling the start. Dean Karnazes stands out in tie dye. Two-time winner Pam Reed confers with her crew. Scott Jurek is an
intimidating presence. Veteran Ben Jones, the ultra's "mayor of Badwater," holds court. "My office is the room on the right," he says,
pointing to a pair of stifling outhouses.
Racers and crews cluster in small clots across the parking lot and the length of boardwalk that takes visitors out onto the lowest point in
the Western Hemisphere, a salted crust over pools of black poison. Kostman bullhorns for the obligatory group photo behind the
blue-on-white "Kiehls Badwater Ultramarathon Race" banner. The national anthem plays from a boombox propped against the curb.
And then crowd shouts a boisterous countdown, "Five! Four! Three! Two! One!, the clock starts and the runners step onto the highway, a
field of bobbing white hats, 135 miles of asphalt cinder rolling out before them.
The definition of Badwater is different for every runner.
And that definition changes by the mile. Karnazes, the San Francisco author of "Ultramarathon Man" who has become the public face of
ultramarathons, calls Badwater a test taken in the moment, a series of tests, a series of moments.
"You can say something like, 'It's 126 degrees,' and those are just numbers. To be standing in the desert with a 25 mph headwind in your
face at 126 degrees, it's other-worldly," Karnazes says. "You cannot relate to it."
You can't plan for it either, not really, Karnazes says. The unexpected will arise. "What happens when your shoes melt? Which they will.
What happens when you run out of ice? Which you will."
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"Sweeney just rolls with the punches," Karnazes observes. "He thinks on the fly."
Before the race, Karnazes likes Sweeney's chances for all those reasons.
But rolling with the punches only works for a while.
"When you get that physically destroyed," Karnazes observes. "It's hard to hide your true personality."
Sweeney is far from physically destroyed in these first miles. His support crew is finding its rhythm. The operation clicks in half-mile
intervals, five-minute increments. At each stop, the crew throws open the doors of the minivan and leaps into the convection-oven heat.
Richtman and von Dohlen run out with pressure sprayers to drench Sweeney head to toe. Richtman exchanges iced water bottles for
emptys. Von Dohlen slips a new ice-packed cap over Sweeney's graying hair. It is a pit stop accomplished at full sprint, and the crews do
it over and over again, through the night, without sleep, without rest, a grueling hardship to rival the runners'.
Sweeney looks steady but the his plan is already wobbling.
At the meeting the day before, the race director issued a directive about "high-tech cooling vests." The vest Sweeney has devised is
anything but high-tech. It is a hand-stitched contraption of Mylar and nylon quilted to hold ice. Before the race, he'd conferred with
Kostman by e-mail and been granted clearance.
On the course, things change. The unexpected arises. Race officials stop and inform Richtman, the crew captain, that the vest has to come
Sweeney bristles. "Tell them I have permission from Chris (Kostman)," Sweeney shouts.
"Chris told them to tell us," Richtman answers. Sweeney keeps running.
The argument evolves in installments, at every stop, but at 7 miles the vest finally comes off. The race handbook says that Kostman can
"overrule any rule or invent a new rule" at any time. At the pre-race meeting, he was clear. "I'm not your buddy," he told them. "I'm the
Three miles later, Richtman is worried again.
Sweeney is running 9-minute miles. It's too fast. "This is a 135-mile run," Richtman shouts. Sweeney doesn't break his pace.
"It can't be a race. It's an endurance event," Richtman shouts again. Two miles later, Richtman is shaking his head. He wasn't there in
2005, but he knows the story. "He's doing the exact same thing again, right to a tee."
In Death Valley, the earth itself is cracked and broken, the bones exposed. The landscape sneaks up on the observer. The long vistas are
static, but the immediate surroundings change suddenly, almost violently. The runners step from a gnarled volcanic convolution and into a
patch of sandbox hills. From the Badwater boardwalk, they can see Telegraph Peak jutting 11,049 feet above.
This is the landscape of catastrophe, a geological cul-de-sac in a bad neighborhood. Trapped in a tectonic tug of war, the land stretched
thin here. The Earth's crust buckled, plunging to new depths. Fractures and faults riddled the region. Mountain ranges collided and
cleaved. The land has been washed by a tropical sea and home to vast lakes. Now mountains on all sides scrape the moisture from the
sky before it can fall as rain, leaving a valley that receives less than two inches of annual precipitation, cut off from all other watersheds.
Time lingers here, the past still stark and visible. The rock faces that stare down on Death Valley are better than a billion years older than
the continent itself. The wounds lie open. Volcanic craters that burst from the land in chokes of steam and earth thousands of years ago
retain their rough edges and violence. Spring fringes the corners in wildflowers but the eons' parched cycle promises little renewal and no
redemption. The past lies as close and craggy as yesterday, but it must be studied to be understood, the pages of the textbook scattered
out of order. A lake once sunk the Badwater site 600 feet deep. All that is left now is the salt, and a black shimmer, at a distance
indistinguishable from a mirage.
The remains of an epoch entombed in salt and the heat.
Both quantities are utterly intertwined for Sweeney. In 2005, it was hyponatremia that stopped him. If the sodium in the blood falls too
low, the cells in the body hoard water. The cells engorge. The brain swells. The precise physiology is poorly understood. People sweat at
different rates. The salt in their sweat varies. The symptoms of hyponatremia and dehydration are disturbingly similar. But every runner
knows that stroke, coma and death stalk the course.
And nobody knows better, or thinks he knows better, than Sweeney.
At every second crew stop, he shouts a one-word admonition:
Jenkins keeps a handful of tablets in his front pocket.
At the Furnace Creek time check, 17 miles in, Sweeney is dead-even with Jurek. He'd led Jurek for the first 16 miles.
Jurek is a study in moving economy. Draped head to toe in loose-fitting sweat-wicking fabric, he glides across the landscape in a state of
grace. Feet barely lifting off the too-hot tarmac, long legs reeling in the miles.
After the rest stop, both men smile as a race volunteer felt-tips their times on a grid.
Sweeney will not see Scott Jurek again.
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Weighing in on a borrowed scale, Sweeney is five pounds lighter than he was at the starting line, all water.
It doesn't slow him, not yet. He keeps moving. The crew keeps moving.
Jenkins is already caught in the moment. He wasn't at the start. Runners are allowed only one van for the first 17 miles. Jenkins, a man
who lives on the rock 'n' roll stage, calls the crew's job "intense."
"I just started and it's non-stop action," he says. "You gotta be on it every half mile and a half mile comes by quick."
Jenkins is one man on one crew. There are 85 crews on the road. At the Furnace Creek Chevron, the minivans are gassing up. The gas
station has its own ice house and the line is five deep. There are 17 bags left. The ice house was full a day before.
Three miles past Furnace Creek, the race is stringing out. The course climbs here, flirting toward sea level against the backdrop of the
Funeral Mountains. Sweeney's race has a different trajectory.
The body he had trained and honed is turning against him. His bowels have come undone. Every few stops, he trades his "SALT!"
command for "TP (toilet paper) and privacy!" Intense effort can starve the digestive system of blood, as the circulation moves to the
muscles. Badwater can be a race of indignities, and Sweeney is finding his.
The legs slacken with the pace. A year before, he was out front, setting records. Now he's walking.
Still, in Death Valley, every pace is a blistering pace.
The official high for the day in Furnace Creek is 126 degrees, in the shade.
Except there is no shade, only sun. Ground temperatures have measured 201 degrees here, a scant 11 degrees below boiling. Pork is
"well done" at 170 degrees. The runners tread on the white line to keep their shoes from melting, the asphalt too hot to touch.
The dashboard thermometer pegs at 122 degrees. It won't move for hours.
Through all of this, Sweeney is suffering. Badwater came during a heat-wave week that killed more than 140 Californians. It hurts to
breathe. Told that he'd completed his first marathon at a respectable four hours and 40 some minutes in this heat, Sweeney grimaces.
"Geez, don't tell me that," he groans.
This is not the course he'd charted.
Nearing 3 p.m., Richtman, a 100-mile veteran himself, is calling the difficulties "a blessing." "He'll listen to his body more," Richtman says.
"And just listen."
Sweeney still says, "I love you guys," as he trots away from the pit stop of sprayers and water bottles, but most stops include some nag
or admonition. "Mike, that bottle better be empty next time I see you," Richtman will shout. Tension between runner and crew is
Every 10 minutes, Sweeney demands his salt tablet, the hindsight of 2005 ever intruding into 2006. Salt, he believes, is an answer,
maybe the answer.
The shadows grow longer. It is 4:24 p.m. A quartet of dust devils dance across the sand dunes as Highway 190 approaches Stovepipe
Wells. Sweeney plays tag with a pair of runners shuffling in loose white suits like science-fiction wanderers on some desert planet. These
are not contenders. These are survivors.
This is not the race Sweeney knows he can run, believes he can run.
Six-and-a-half hours and 34 miles into the 135-mile race, the dashboard thermometer still stuck at 122 degrees and a dust storm homing
in on the course, Sweeney is looking for a new plan.
He breathes, heavy.
"We've got to be realistic," he says. "About where we are right now."
ABOUT THIS SERIES The Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135-mile footrace across Death Valley. It starts 282 feet below sea level at
Badwater and finishes at 8,360 feet above sea level on the shoulder of Mount Whitney. The race is run in July, when daytime
temperatures can flirt with 130 degrees. It is known as “The World's Toughest Footrace.”
Mike Sweeney, a 51- year-old from San Rafael, prepares for the race that he led for the first 85 miles in 2005.
The temperature rises with the sun. The runners and their support crews endure the heat as the race continues into the night.
The runner and his crew face the final miles and confront the realities of Badwater.
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