All you can hear is your own breathing when you're in Death Valley, the most desolate place on the planet. That and your footsteps. You're running. You've been running for - how long has it been now? A few hours? Seems like an eternity. This stretch of road goes on forever. The pounding of your feet on the blacktop triggers undulating pain through your body. It's hot. One hundred and thirty degrees to be precise. The sweat on your skin evaporates the moment it's released from your pores. Suddenly, the world starts to get louder. A deafening roar in your ears. The wind whips your face like the sulfurous breath of some ancient monster that's been locked up deep down in the core of the earth. The monster is unleashed now. It knows your fears. Your heart beats faster. Why are you doing this? Better not to ask. Just put one foot in front of the other.
Ken Posner kept running. Coming out of the infernal heat of Death Valley, he vomited. But, he kept going. The muscles in his legs begged for mercy. But, he still kept going. After a day and a half, he was still on his feet, still charging forward. We tried to motivate him in any way we could think of. Being a crew member for a Badwater runner is no easy task. You have to be ready for anything. We stayed by his side, working out of the van, handing him everything from Chef Boyardee brand Beef Ravioli to Gatorade to Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch Clif Bars. From the instant he toed the start line, 38 hours earlier, to this very moment, as we waited for him to cross the finish on the mountain, we remained alert. What if he got blisters? What would we do? What if his legs gave out from under him and he collapsed? We had to be ready to spring to action.
We stood at the the finish line, waiting to see Ken come around the corner. The atmosphere was tense and exhilarating. It was only after a few minutes that we realized how chilly it was up here on the mountain. The air was fresh and scented with pine. A stream flowed nearby through the tall coniferous trees. It was hard to believe that just two days ago, life was relatively normal: I had been boarding a plane to Las Vegas.
To be sure, I had read about the heat of Death Valley. A rising dry heat unlike anything on earth. I was warned. But, nothing could have prepared me for it. I knew I was in for trouble the moment I stepped out of McCarran International. It was hot like my hometown of San Antonio, but the air was free of moisture. Your sinuses dried up almost instantly. You had to blink your eyes a few times to moisten them. And the road was so hot. The heat that radiated off the blacktop was my first warning sign of what was to come.
I met Ken for the first time. My initial impression of him was that he was a very down-to-earth guy. I have been fascinated with Badwater and it's entrants for some time now, but this was the first time I had actually met a competitor. He was humble and easy-going, not at all what I expected, truth be told. Badwater is such an extreme race; there is an inherent drama to the whole event. I just assumed all the runners would be dramatic, too. Real hard asses. But, here was Ken Posner, a relatively soft-spoken man, gracious and nice.
I met the rest of his outstanding crew: Meg, the martial artist, Dennis, triathlon coach and superb athlete, and Lynne, the seasoned ultrarunner and most experienced of us four. Together, we drove towards an unknown, but imminent future. But, not without coffee.
At Starbucks, we got to know each other. What was the hardest race you've ever done? The question went around. I knew my answer right away; my hardest race was also my first ultra race. My first 50 miler. After more than 40 miles of running, I felt like I was dying. But, even more than the physical pain, I felt so emotionally fragile. Defeated. I literally sat in the mud - it was a wet and muddy run - and contemplated quitting. After about five minutes of pouting, I got up and hauled ass to the finish line. I like to think of it as one of my finest hours. I was alone out there on the trails. No one could see me or hear me. I'm sure all ultrarunners have had to call upon the hidden strength within them to continue on, despite the overwhelming sensation of feeling defeated by the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of distance. Ken was about to have to call on his hidden reserves of strength many times over the next two days. We had to be ready to support his efforts.
Now caffeinated, we drove to Furnace Creek. We didn't run the A/C because 1) we didn't want to overheat the van and 2) we figured we might as well get used to being hot. Along the way, we stopped to take pictures of a road sign that warned of extreme heat. Driving into Death Valley was like landing on some distant planet, one without rules, where salt cakes the basin floor, where birds fall dead out of the sky and an egg can cook to perfection on the road blacktop. What kind of people would sign up to run in a place like this?
They are people, just like you and me. But, they have explored the limits of their endurance in ways we have not. They have trained their bodies to withstand tremendous pain. And more importantly, they have disciplined their minds to face off against the psychological hardships to come. Gathered in a sweaty little gym in Furnace Creek, these outstanding athletes would soon take on the Mojave Desert and the hottest place on earth. The atmosphere in that crowded gym buzzed with excitement. Here were all the superstars: Marshall Ulrich, Jamie Donaldson, Pam Reed, Jorge Pacheco, Marco Farinazzo, Amy Palmiero-Winters, Nickademus Hollon, Jack Denness, Dan Jensen, Anita Fromm and all the others. Ken sat among them. Bib number 66.
I couldn't read him that well. I couldn't tell if he was nervous or what. I would have been nervous. But, I guess when you have spent 18 months training for something, and you have trained well, you're filled with a certain amount of tenacity. A quiet confidence. But, these kinds of extreme events always involve some element of the unknown, some element of surprise. You just can't be sure exactly what's going to happen. He must have been a little nervous.
That evening, we ate dinner and went over the game plan. Badwater is race where keeping cool is essential. Your core temperature has to be moderated. It's so easy to go out hard and blow up. Slow and steady does it. Race smart. Stay hydrated. Keep fueling. A reliable crew is essential to the runner's success. They are the magicians behind the curtains, the ones giving the runner food, drink, and medical attention. They also pace for the runner, providing that much-needed psychological support for when the going gets tough. It's a relentlessly demanding job that affords you little leisure time. From the moment the runner takes off at the start to the moment he finishes at the end, the crew is responsible for taking care of all of his needs.
That night was a restless, tossing-and-turning kind of sleep. I was too excited. Too nervous. At 6 AM, we would wake up and see firsthand why they call Badwater the "toughest footrace on the planet."