Tuesday, July 29, 2014

2014 Badwater Ultramarathon. Everybody's a rookie this year.

Moments after my finish of the 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon. (Kathy Youngren)

Thanks to my wonderful crew, wife Kathy Youngren and Bryce Carlson, I finished my second Badwater 135 in 28:03:35. Good enough for 7th overall and 6th master. For the Badwater event this was also a 3:10 personal best. Took the first half fairly conservatively and still struggled in the heat a bit on the stretch from Lone Pine to Keeler. Once night fell though I was ready to roll and covered the second half of the course much, much faster.  While this year’s course didn’t pass through Death Valley I strongly believe that the overall difficulty of the route is roughly time equivalent to the traditional route. In short, the huge increase of climb (17,000’ up from 12,000’) AND descent (12,700’ way up from ~4000’), the crew-less 16 mile gravel road climb/descent of Cerro Gordo and still impressive triple digit heat pretty much made up for  the lack of wicked Death Valley heat. At least that’s my take.

I prepared for this year’s Badwater 135 similarly to how I prepared for it in 2011; relatively high, sustained weekly volume and running during the hottest parts of the day when possible. All in all my total mileage over last 16 week macro-cycle was pretty close to what I did in 2011. However, I did a few things differently this time around. Main difference is that I slowed my training pace significantly. Looking back at my 2011 training log and noting several comments about how fatigued I was feeling from the high volume training I then tried to figure out why. It didn’t take me long to figure out that my average training pace was probably a bit too fast something on the order of 7:00-8:00 min/mile pace. So this time around I consciously forced myself to train at a much slower pace that was more representative of what I could expect to run during Badwater during the run cycles of a run-walk schedule something on the order of 9:00-10:00 min/mile pace. The slowing of training pace made all the difference; never felt that deep fatigue like last time and actually (for the most part) looked forward to each run in the heat. You’ve got to slow it down if you want to be able to throw it down in the long ultras!  Another detail I noticed in my 2011 Badwater training was the complete lack of down weeks! Just as ramping up stressors via increased weekly volume is important, even more so is having an honest recovery week every 3-4 weeks! I wasn’t doing that in 2011 and that’s another reason I was really feeling fatigued by the end of my training. This time around I did much better, incorporating a 60% reduced mileage week every 3-4 weeks.
In addition to trying to run in the worst heat each day had to offer around Huntsville, Alabama,  I also got into our sauna for additional heat training over the final two weeks before the race. In retrospect I should’ve devoted a full month of sauna training AND set the sauna at more realistic, expected race temperatures. Instead I followed Arthur Webb’s sauna training plan which consists of setting the sauna temperature as hot as possible (up to 180F) and just sitting there and enduring the heat. I now think doing some light walking in place or cycling or other exercise in 100-130F dry heat would be better preparation interspersed with some bouts of 180F heat towards the end of training.
Over the final 16 weeks of training I hit 1258 miles (78.7 avg) with a peak micro-cycle of 100, 110, 108, 80, 130 mile weeks. For the year I ran 1917 miles from Jan 1st to race day.

Kathy and I met Bryce at LAX on the Saturday before the race (Monday start). Together we then met my Skechers Performance Division sponsor George Van Cott. George provided the ways and means of making this entire adventure possible. I am so thankful! After renting our crew vehicle, transferring a bunch of gear that I’d pre-arranged for George to pick up for us (ice chests, camping chairs, water, etc…) and stopping to grocery shop we were on the road for Lone Pine. We didn’t have to drive far out of town before we were entering the Mojave Desert; human-like posing Joshua Trees became more and more abundant. Once in Lone Pine we quickly checked into our hotel, Dow Villa, changed into some running gear and drove out to Movie Road deep in the heart of the Alabama Hills. We spent the next couple of hours alternately running, hiking and exploring the bizarre rock formations as the sun slowly began to set behind the eastern Sierras and Mt. Whitney. Beautiful!
The next morning, after a nice breakfast we scouted out the first section of the new course: Horseshoe Meadows. The rest of the day was taken up with race check-in and briefings. All in all, by the end of the day I was chomping on the bit to just get this race started and get out there on the road!
Photo op along Horseshoe Meadows Road. (Bryce Carlson)
Exploring the Alabama Hills. (Bryce Carlson)

Lone Pine to Horse Shoe Meadows (Miles 0 – 23.0, 3700’ – 9900’):
After some last minute pre-race photos we were finally off at 8:00 a.m. pacific time. Temperature was probably in the 70s. From our scouting trip the day before I knew this was going to be a very long climb and descent in this section so the plan was to stay fairly conservative to avoid red-lining. So early on I ran with a large group including fellow Skechers GOelite Ultra Runner Maggie Beach. We’d never met before the race so it was cool to learn more about her and her racing background. However, at about seven miles or so, after passing through the Alabama Hills, the uphill grade began to get a bit more serious and so did I. I shifted into my best endurance climbing gear and soon I’d left my running group behind. The uphill gradient wasn’t as bad as I’d feared; I found it fairly easy to just keep grinding away at a nice shuffle. Slowly but surely I also began to reel in some of the 7:00 a.m. (and possibly 6:00 a.m.) starters .  After what seemed like forever, the dramatic climb with sweeping panoramic views was over. I arrived at the turnaround at Horseshoe Meadows (9900’) in 4:04 in 12th place overall; not a bad start! I was still feeling pretty good, the crisp Alpine temperature at this elevation was very pleasant, very un-Badwater-like! But that was all about to change!
Fueling for this section consisted mostly of Skratch hydration and Pepsi/Sweet tea diluted in water. I was also consuming electrolyte pills and pure sea-salt on a semi-regular basis.
8:00 a.m. start group. (George Van Cott)

Seven miles in. Me and Maggie Beach. Skechers GOelite Ultrarunning. (Jobie Williams)
High up on the long Horseshoe Meadow Road climb. (Kathy Youngren)

Back to Lone Pine (Miles 23.0 – 45.0, 9900’ – 3700’):
What goes up must go down, at least for this course. This was the one section I was really worried about before race day as I knew it would be absurdly easy to hammer back downhill. That would be a major mistake! So the goal was to try and split these first uphill and downhill sections the same; even take walk breaks on the long downhill on occasion. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was how well I was moving! I’d been overly conservative when I’d made up a tentative pacing schedule for this new course. On paper I figured I would’ve been rolling back through Lone Pine a bit later in the day and thus be able to avoid the worst of the heat. Well, I was too fast! Ha! So as I wound my way down the mountain road I could feel the desert heat welcoming me back!
Ever heard the anecdote about how to boil a live frog? Well this anecdote perfectly describes the deceptive difficulty of this new course compared to the traditional course. The anecdote goes that if you try and place a frog in a boiling pot of water it will quickly jump out. However, if you place the frog in a cool pot of water and steadily heat the pot to boiling it won’t perceive the danger and will be cooked to death! While we wouldn’t experience the wicked hot Death Valley temperatures on this course, we would experience a steady increase in temperature from crisp alpine temps to heat in the low triple digits all in the same 22 mile section! So combine the steady increase of solar loading and road heat with the temptation to hammer the downhill and you have a recipe for disaster! But I’d anticipated this and took it easy heading back to town; a lot of walk breaks, cool sponges, etc… I split the reverse route back to Lone Pine (3700’) in 3:53 for cumulative time of 7:57. However, the conservative approach cost me some positions as I’d slipped to 16th overall through Lone Pine. 
Passing by DeLaCour Ranch (35 miles) on my back down Horseshoe Meadow Road. (Ben Jones)

Out to Keeler (Miles 45.0 – 59.0, 3700’-3609’):
Not going to lie, this section was my worst. Clear skies and triple digit heat were starting to get to me. I was feeling pretty low. Thankfully George decided to run with me out towards Keeler. This was George’s first time experiencing an ultra marathon let alone pacing so he had a blast and his enthusiasm kept my mind off how bad I was feeling. George ended up running around six miles with me out to the Dolomite Loop Rd before handing off pacing duties to Kathy. Unbelievably George turned around and ran back to Lone Pine in the withering heat without any problems! Did I mention that this was the longest George had run in a long time! Perhaps there is an ultra-endurance runner in there somewhere! Wow!
Well, Kathy started to run with me mainly to crack the whip because I’d been having a pity party and walking too much. Other racers I’d been ahead of steadily passed me by as I slowly made my way through the late afternoon heat towards Keeler. Kathy kept encouraging me to run and I found it easier and easier to get back to a running groove. I ran the last several miles into Keeler by myself as Kathy and Bryce prepared my hydration pack for the pending climb up Cerro Gordo. By Keeler, 11:25, I’d dropped to 18th position but the sun was rapidly setting and I was starting to feel much better!

George and me along the road towards Keeler. Sporting the Frogg Toggs Chilly Pad! (George Van Cott (selfie) )
Up and down Cerro Gordo (Miles 59.0 – 75.0, 3609’-8153’-3609’):
The next section would be something complete new and unique to the Badwater tradition: gravel road climb and NO CREW. So runners had to be prepared with enough water and calories for a steep sixteen mile round trip on an old and rough jeep road while their crew waits around for their runner to emerge out of the darkness. There was a slight mishap with the crew I learned about as I rolled into the Keeler time station. Apparently Bryce had forgotten to pack his running shoes in the crew vehicle but no fear, they’d gotten a hold of George and he was bringing Bryce’s non-Skechers shoes out to him! Ha! But George was still a bit out from Keeler when I got there and I didn’t have time to wait around for Bryce to immediately join me on the climb. So I loaded up my pack and headed up the road to the ghost town of Cerro Gordo. We figured Bryce would have no trouble catching up to me and sure enough he didn’t as I’d only covered perhaps a mile when I heard his footsteps rapidly approaching.   Was great having Bryce’s company on this steep climb. As darkness continued to fall we chatted about anything and everything. Only two miles or so into the climb we were startled to see some runners coming back down the road; it was the race leaders Harvey Lewis and Grant Maughan! Damn! Guys were ten miles ahead of me! So it goes!
We kept winding our way up into the Inyo Mountains steadily catching back up to some of the folks who’d passed me earlier or catching some of the runners from the earlier start groups all the while trying to keep track of the many runners coming back down the mountain still ahead of me. Around five and a half miles up the climb we arrived at an ice and water only aid station. We quickly topped off our water bottles and continued up the old road; finally snapping on our headlamps because of the now complete, moonless darkness.
We were warned by the Keeler time station folks as well as the previous aid station personnel that the last pitch up to Cerro Gordo was very steep and loose and to be very careful. Well, the road was indeed steep and loose but, sorry; by Hardrock standards it wasn’t bad at all. After all we saw several regular 2WD vehicles pass us by on their way down the mountain… We were also warned to take an extra layer of clothing because it was going to be freezing cold at the top! Honestly I couldn’t wait to feel the cold but that never transpired although a few stiff breezes near the top felt heavenly to my cooked body!
After sometime we were on the last few switchbacks to the ghost town when all of a sudden I spotted a slithering rattle snake in the road just ahead of me! Sucker never rattled but continued on its way to the other side of the road. Wow! Anyhow we made one final turn and there, all lit up was the ghost town of Cerro Gordo. Honestly looked like a set from an old western but this was the real deal; same old structures build in the 1800s. Amazing and kind of spooky at the same time. We arrived at the time station in 14:11 now in 17th place. The time station was on the front porch of an ancient hotel/saloon. Bryce and I decided to check the place out since it was such hard work to get there we might as well! Was pretty eerie walking around the old place with just our headlamps as light sources.  We were ready for a ghost or two to come through the walls or up through the old bar at any time. So after wasting perhaps five minutes looking around we headed back outside and began the steep descent back to the Keeler time station. I was now basically half way through the race and anybody that knows me knows I’m a second half racer. Little did I know what a second half I was about to have!
Starting back down the mountain road I finally felt cool for the first time in a long while. The temperature had probably dropped into the 60s at the higher elevations of the climb and frequent wind gusts magnified the cooling effect. It felt great! So I began to roll. The first mile or two down the old road were quite steep and loose so not very conducive to fast running but we did move fairly well; passing by scores of runners climbing up the mountain. We wasted very little time at the aid station this time around and kept pressing to get back to the Keeler time station. The lower we got the easier the road grade became and so the faster we were able to run. I’d estimate by the time we broke out of the narrow canyon and into the open where we could finally see the flashing hazard lights of crew vehicles spread across the night; some heading to the left out of Keeler and on to Darwin; others slowly moving towards Keeler from Lone Pine; and a great many congregated at the Keeler time station itself. It was a pretty cool sight to see in the night.
All good downhills come to an end and so too did the Cerro Gordo descent. What a blast! We emerged from the darkness and into the semi-lighted time station to find a line of crew peering back at us, hoping against hope that we were the runners they were looking for. Reminded me of awaiting relay runners jockeying for position on the line; waiting for the exchange! We arrived back at the Keeler time station in 15:50 and moved up a position to 16th place.

The mental crux, Keeler-Darwin-Keeler (Miles 75.0 – 107.0, 3609'-5050'-3609'):
Arriving at the Keeler time station we quickly found Kathy and she led us out to the main road to our crew vehicle. I was actually feeling hungry at this point so I decided to take my only sitting break of the entire race while Kathy and Bryce prepared an avocado tortilla for me. Sitting down was exquisite! I sat down in a camping chair and propped my legs up on the tail gate and ate my tortilla. Awesome! But that break only lasted five minutes or so because all too soon I was back up and headed on down the road towards Darwin.
The next 32 miles were mostly a blur to me as all we did was run down a long, featureless, dark rolling road to the distant time station of Darwin, turn around, and do it again all the way back to Keeler. This section was a huge mental challenge for me. This section was a very long out and back with no real landmarks or features to distinguish one section of road from the next. So I fell into routine to get me through. So, every two miles or so my crew would meet me to swap out bottles, provide additional nourishment or remind me to take some additional electrolyte pills. During this exchange I’d walk for perhaps the next two minutes then I’d start running again and attempt to run all the way to the next exchange. Most of the time I was able to run all the way to the next exchange, sometimes not so much as I’d encounter a steeper section of road. At any rate I kept this routine up all the way out to Darwin. What also kept me motivated was seeing the hazard lights of distant crew vehicles slowly grow closer over time which meant I was steadily catching up to their runner. Somewhere about 4 miles out from Darwin I believe Kathy started running with me once again. I think she was being called up to crack the whip on me a little more! When I finally arrived at Darwin in 19:34 I’d moved up to 12th place and was less than 20 minutes out of 10th place. In fact the next 4 runners ahead of me (on cumulative time) were all out of the 7:00 a.m. group so while I was “close” behind they’d had an hour head start so they seemed further ahead of me than they actually were.
Psychologically it felt great to make the turnaround at the Darwin time station (just a lonely, lit up road side tent in the middle of nowhere). For now we were FINALLY on the old course, on the final push for the finish! It must have been a boost because now I found it easier than ever to keep up the running and minimize the walking. Part of that was the fact that from Keeler to Darwin the road climbs 1400’ or so over the distance so the way back meant a nice, steady downhill for the most part. So I took advantage of the cool early morning air and the easy grade to make great time on the return trip. Now the challenge was on; just how far could I get before the sun would kiss my face?
 Kathy was still with me for several more miles out of Darwin; encouraging me on and together we took in the extremely dark night and lack of light pollution and enjoyed the bright starlit sky! Glorious! Eventually Kathy peeled off to get some more caffeine and to rest before her final push with me into Lone Pine. I kept trucking on, encouraged by the long train of runners and crews I passed by in the opposite direction; all headed for Darwin. The crew stops were getting briefer and briefer as time wore on. We’d swap bottles and I’d grab a bite of string cheese or some chips and I was off down the road. The sun began to peek over the Eastern horizon and the Inyo mountain range as I neared the 100 mile mark which I split in 21:23. I was really rolling and riding the wave now. It was morning, it was still relatively cool out and I was getting closer and closer to Lone Pine. And I was feeling wonderful! I just kept up the intensity as I passed through Keeler (mile 107) and was now past all the outbound crews and runners.

Trying to beat the sun, just outside of Keeler (in-bound). (Kathy Youngren)
Once more to Lone Pine (Miles 107.0 – 122.0, 3609'-3700'):
I was now in a HUGE gap and running all alone. Ahead of me all I could see is my distant crew vehicle, behind me was just the bare, open road; not a crew vehicle or runner in sight! Really now felt like I was just out for a long morning run. Sort of bizarre.
With 11 miles to go before the Lone Pine time station, Kathy joined me once again to crack the whip! Next milestone was at the 24 hour mark when I’d passed through 115+ miles (almost exactly in between either end of the Dolomite Loop Rd). That was a new 24hr personal best by the way. The sun continued to rise but I really didn’t feel hot, perhaps a bit warm so on came my sun hat and sleeves and sunscreen.  The closer we got to Lone Pine the shorter my crew stops came; typically just enough to swap bottles, get a good spray down of water on my body and keep going. Bryce was also providing some recon reports about how far ahead the various runners were and that I was really eating up the gap. That just added more fuel to my fire! Just entering Lone Pine I caught the first of the four 7:00a.m. starters that were still physically ahead of me (though probably not on cumulative time). Again, more fuel to the fire!
The goal all along was to break 30 hours. Short and sweat. Secretly I thought I’d have a shot at sub 29 but that was only if everything went right. Well, rolling along just two miles before the Lone Pine time station with Kathy I wanted to make sure I had as much a buffer on 30 hours as possible since the entire next section was uphill and so much slower. Kathy can attest to the quick pace over those last two miles; I’d not be surprised if there was a sub 8 minute mile in there somewhere, such was my intensity!
I was running on fear. All we have is our experience and my last time running through here I was a beaten man. I struggled to get to Lone Pine from Darwin then crawled to the finish. In my mind I was expecting to blow up just the same so I wanted to be sure to have a good time buffer on sub 30 hours in case that happened again. Unlikely, but you never know and one’s thought processes aren’t always so clear after running over 24 hours straight! Anyhow, last time out here it took me 4 hours to climb to the Whitney Portal from Lone Pine. As I arrived at the Lone Pine time station in 25:20, now in 8th place, I had a healthy buffer to get me under 30 hours! But my work was not yet done, not by a long mark!

Almost to Lone Pine! Me and my better half. (AdventureCORPs)
Final push, up Whitney Portal Road (Miles 122.0 – 135.0, 3700'-8371'):
I was now on the final section of the race course; the infamous Whitney Portal Road climb; over 4600’ of climb in the last 13 miles. Last time up was a death crawl for me, but this time looked to be a much better experience.  At the next crew stop just a mile or so up the road, Kathy handed me a delicious generic Slushy drink. Wow! That hit the spot and was perfectly timed. I power walked and drank the slushy down quickly. A mile later I saw my crew again and they said the next runner, from my own 800 a.m. time group was just ahead! No freaking way! I was also told to try and start running if I could because this other runner had been running! More whip cracking by my crew! I love it!
If you’d told me before the race that it was possible for me to run most of the Whitney Portal Road I’d have laughed in your face and called you crazy. Well, as crazy as it sounds it actually didn’t feel too bad shuffling steadily uphill. The grade, for the most part, was actually reasonable and I felt like I was far from redlining so I just kept a good uphill shuffle going. Why not? At worst I’d blow up and still probably complete this last climb faster than I’d done before. So up and up I shuffled. After a few bends in the ever climbing road I could finally see the runners ahead of me. A group of three. One of them was in my starting group and so catch them and I’d move up a spot, the others were in the 700 a.m. group and so I was technically already ahead of them. I kept pushing uphill. Nice and steady. I’d found my climbing legs. And so, in quick succession I was past all three runners and not looking back. I’d moved into 7th place and by all reports 6th place was too far ahead to consider catching with so little race left.
With just 6 miles to go (or so) Bryce jumped in to run with me to the finish. Yeah, you guessed it, more whip cracking! The funny thing with the Whitney Portal Road is that it actually gets steeper the higher up you get. So while I’d made great time over the first half of the road climb, the grade was steadily getting steeper. I now had to take frequent short walk breaks and wait for the grade subside (if it ever did I don’t know). Finally we reached the final switchback section with just 4 miles to go; the last time station which I split in 27:13, still in 7th place. It was passing through this last checkpoint when Bryce mentioned the possibility of not only breaking 29 hours but that we still had a long shot at sub 28 hours! I knew sub 29 was in the bag but sub 28 seemed a huge stretch given what I knew lied ahead. A very steep finish! Still I was game to try. Why not? Well climbing up the road passed the time station wasn’t very encouraging as the road was now so much steeper than earlier. I’d all but dismissed the idea of being able to run any more of the climb when suddenly the grade did ease and I started to shuffle once again.
So I was now in the very last section of the race and still trying to run! Unbelievable to me, I just knew I’d be walking it in but I wasn’t! I kept shuffling and shuffling and then I was on the final switchback, passing by Kathy and George; Bryce still running behind me. But I was getting tired. The adrenaline was starting to wear off, the wave of endurance I’d been surfing since leaving Darwin was nearing the shore and about to break. But shuffle along I did but I was having to take more frequent walk breaks. I kept glancing at my watch and knew that I didn’t quite have enough time to slip under 28 hours. Still too far out and too steep a road to go. I told Kathy to go ahead to the finish and park and walk back and find us. We had perhaps a mile to go. The road climbed steeper than ever as it neared the campground area. All of a sudden, ahead of us I we could unbelievably see the next runner ahead of us! Despite leaving Lone Pine a full 1:14 ahead of me he was now perhaps only a quarter a mile ahead of me! But there simply was not enough race or enough fight in me left. Also wasn’t a good sign that hadn’t seen Kathy yet; meant I still had a good ways to go.
Finally Kathy emerged ahead of us, walking down the road. She said we had over ¼ mile to go. I looked at my watch and did the math. I then stopped trying to shuffle; nearly red lining now; and walked. I was done. Sub 28 hours wasn’t going to happen this time around. No worries. So with that, I strolled the remaining distance to the finish line with my wonderful crew!

The long Whitney Portal Road (you can see the final switchback just to the right of my head). (Kathy Youngren)

Me and Bryce with Mt. Whitney (upper right corner); high up on Whitney Portal Road. (Kathy Youngren)

Still trying to run. About to make the turn onto last long switchback of Whitney Portal Road. (Kathy Youngren)

Shutting it down. Approaching the finish. (Kathy Youngren)
The finish! With my awesome crew: Bryce Carlson and my wife Kathy. (AdventureCORPS)
Picking up some hardware. Post-Finish. (Kathy Youngren)

The first half of the “Bad Spartan” is complete; 135 miles down and 153 more to go! As I type this a week removed from the race I still can’t fathom the race I had; especially over the back half. I’ve so much more confidence now as I look toward the Spartathlon coming up in less than two months. I know I have it in me to work through the rough patches and finish strong. My body feels pretty good over all, a sure sign of rapid recovery due to the high volume training I put in before Badwater.
So now I’ll rest a bit more then get right back to the routine. 

Less than two months to go! (Spartathlon Website)

The Bad Spartan! (300 Movie Poster, with artistic modifications!)