Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Big Race

I know this race report is long overdue, but I have taken my time to reflect on my thoughts and experiences during this amazing adventure. So here you go!:
The closer the race got, the more nervous I became. I know I trained hard and was prepared, but this was not going to be easy!
The 2013 Badwater Ultramarathon started on Monday July 15th. I flew into Las Vegas on the Friday before the race to organize race supplies and meet up with my entire crew. Slowly they all arrived: My brother Jody from Edmonton, Alberta, my sister Stacey from Wasaga Beach, Ontario, my good running friend Tom, from Toronto, Ontario,  Katyna from Mexico and Gerardo from Argentina. Luckily for Joaquin, he lives in Las Vegas, so he didn’t have to travel too far.

The Saturday before the race we all met up at the Royal Resort Hotel, just off the strip, to talk about race strategy and to plan logistics for race day. Everyone was in good spirits and extremely helpful in organizing food, race strategies, travel and pacing for the upcoming two days of the race.

Sunday came quick and the drive to the pre-race meeting in Furnace Creek, didn’t seem to take too long. As we stepped out of the SUV, I remembered what it felt like to be in Death Valley the year before. The heat was intense and the winds were strong. For the first-time crew members, this must have been the moment when they realised what they just signed up for! This year the race director, Chris Kostman, decided to have one race meeting with the entire group of runners and crews, outside on the grass of the Furnace Creek Inn. Chris and his race organizers went over vital information to ensure all the runners and crews were safe on the course. Fortunately for me, I was able to sit in the shade, but because of the lack of shade in the area, my crew had to deal with standing/sitting in the hot desert sun for an hour.

After the meeting we decided to head to the Corkscrew Saloon for dinner and then head back to the Long Street Inn (a 45 minute drive from the start line). Along the way we were able to stop a few times to take group pictures of the crew and of the beautiful scenery. When we arrived at the hotel my crew organized all the food, drinks and medical supplies, while I rested. From here on out it was nothing but thinking about the race.

Since this race takes place on an open highway, there are 3 start times to split the runners and crews up so that it’s less congested along the route and everyone stays safe. I was fortunate to be in the 2nd group of runners starting at 8am, which meant I had a little more time to sleep. I arrived at the Badwater Basin (288ft below sea level), just after 5:30am. This gave me enough time to check-in, get weighed, make any last final adjustments and take some group photos. Stepping up to the start line I was very nervous and you can see it on my face in the pictures that were taken. At that time I thought about all the training I did over the past 5 years to get to this point. I knew I was prepared for this race. Now all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other for 217 km, in temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius and traverse 2 mountain ranges and finish at the Mt Whitney Portal at 8371ft above sea level.

The race began and everyone took off, I wasn’t nervous anymore; I was excited! I had been dreaming about running this race for 5 years, and now it was a reality. The start of any race is hard, because the adrenaline is pumping and you can go out too fast. I needed to make sure I ran at my own race pace and not someone else’s. For the first 28km my crew can help me out by handing me food/drinks on the side of the road, but I’m not allowed a pacer. I enjoy running by myself and this gave me an opportunity to take it all in: the scenery, the heat and the long journey it took to make it to this point. The first 28km are long, winding, rolling hills, nothing compared to the three mountains that I will need to climb later on in the race. By the time I made it to the first checkpoint I was already getting dehydrated, but still felt great.

I took a 10 minute break there to sit in the shade and have something to eat. The next section of the race, from Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells was going to be difficult. It was the middle to the day, I was told the air temperature was 53 degrees Celsius and the road temperature was about 75 degrees Celsius. At this point in the race I was able to have a pacer with me. So Gerardo, Joaquin, Stacey and Tom all took a turn running with me and enjoying their experience at an amazing place. For most of this section I was able to keep my run/walk interval that I trained with, but I was taking a break every hour or two, which slowed my overall pace down. By the time I reached the sand dunes, just outside of Stovepipe, I was doing more walking then running because I was just too hot. Finally I reached the second checkpoint, which is when I decided to take a break in the medical room which was air conditioned. I needed my body to cool down. As I sat down the medical staff wanted me to weigh in. I had lost 7lbs in 70 Km (11hrs and 15 min). After cooling down for about 45 minutes and gaining most of the weight back, I decided I was time to keep moving forward.

This next section consisted of going 27km all uphill (5000ft elevation gain), followed by a steep downhill for 15km (3300ft elevation loss). Now that the sun was down, hiking up this mountain at night wasn’t going to be so bad; at least that’s what I thought. The wind was relentless. For the next 7.5 hours I was hiking uphill, with the wind so hot and strong that it felt like I was walking with a blow dryer in my face…turned on high.  I was going at a good pace, but I paid for it. Everything I ate/drank at the last checkpoint to gain weight came back up, and I mean everything. The good thing though was I started to feel much better. My brother Jody hiked most of this section with me. Followed by Stacey and Tom running the downhill with me (at too fast of a pace). By the time I reached the bottom, Panamint Lake Bed, the sun was starting to come up and I felt a lot better then I did a few hours past… well at least mentally!

My sister Stacey started the next climb with me up to Father Crowley’s Point . This section was 25km long with a 2500 elevation gain. It was early morning, and the scenery was incredible. You could look back at part of the course and see exactly where you were a couple hours back. I enjoyed walking this part of the course in 2012 with Gerardo Re at night, but it was even better while the sun was up this year. I struggled to get to Darwin’s point, but with the help of Katyna, Gerardo and Joaquin I was able to make it there with plenty of time to complete the remaining 45 miles. As I was going down the mountain after Darwin, Joaquin and I had an amazing spectacle. About 200 ft above our heads a fighter jet flew by and as it approached us the pilot turned the jet on its side and then took off in a different direction. Within seconds a second fighter jet pulled off the same manoeuvre.  It was something right out of a movie and pretty cool to see.

With 35 miles left, I was down to a walk. I don’t know if it was the running down the mountains, the elevation, the heat, or the distance I had covered, but I could no longer run. There were a few times at night I tired to run, but didn’t get very far and resorted back to a walking pace. I felt at the time, it was best not to push myself.  With about 10 hours left, I knew that I had to continually keep walking, without stopping to a break, for fear that I wouldn’t make it to the finish. The sun was down, the traffic was gone, it was just me and my crew on this one long road to Lone Pine, until we heard a few coyotes. Jody, Tom and Stacey tirelessly walked with me throughout the night; keeping me awake and moving forward.

I wanted to give myself five hours from Lone Pine to make it to the Mount Whitney Portal (finish), 17 km away. And that’s exactly what happened at 3am. I arrived and took that final turn to start my climb up what would be the toughest finish of any race. I started at a good hike. Each crew member took turns hiking with me up the final mountain. As the sun rose, so did everyone’s excitement because we knew I was within reach of the finish line. The higher we climbed the more pictures my crew took and the better the scenery became. But at the same time, the mountain became steeper and harder with each passing step (at least that’s the way it felt going on 47 hours of moving forward). I was still concerned abut not making it to the finish in time; it was all I could think about.   At this point I had only slept for about 10-20 minutes here and there, in the past 50 hours. I was practically moving on whatever reserves I had left.

With an hour to go, I had just over a mile left and that’s when I was confident that I would complete this truly amazing race. Most of my crew walked the remaining mile with me. We shared smiles, laughter and thoughts on what we would all do first after getting off Mt Whitney. As I arrived near the finish line, Katyna passed me a Canadian flag for the final push. As I crossed the finish line I had a tear in my eye. It was a journey that I will always remember and couldn’t have been more grateful for the people I shared it with. At that point I think I was too exhausted to even take it all in.

Chris Kostman presented me with a finisher’s T-shirt, a medal and of course the ultimate Badwater Ultramarathon Belt Buckle. With hugs all around and a few pictures with my crew, it was time to get off this mountain and finally take a shower and get some rest. 

I was so honoured for being chosen to take part in this amazing race, and now I’m a finisher. While my time was far from my goal, I was still able to complete this dream of finishing the toughest footrace in the world. I couldn’t have completed this race without my crew, who put in a lot of time and effort planning and getting organized as well as getting minimal sleep during the course of the race. I can’t thank them enough for going out of their way to help me complete my goal. 

I also want to thank my wife for supporting me in my crazy dreams. There were many mornings where I wasn’t home, because I was out training or racing.  You're who I want in my corner when things don’t go smoothly; to point out the beauty in even what seems like the worst days. Julie, I am forever thankful for your love and encouragement, and your gentle reminder that I have the power to change how any story will end.

Prior to the race, I would like to thank Stacey, Tom and my favourite American, Alan Murphy, for training with me whenever they had the chance.

Lastly, I would like to thank everyone who sent emails, facebook posts and well wishes along the way. It is an amazing feeling to look back on this blog and relive the excitement and love from family and friends. I look forward to my next journey and sharing my running experiences with you.

Happy Running!

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