Friday, August 20, 2010

Patience to Endure: Talking with Pam Reed about Family, Life, and Her 'Worst Badwater Ever'

Pam Reed stuck out from the crowd at runner check-in like a fluorescent bulb in a dimly lit room - a flash of energy, fast and fierce. Standing now in a sweaty auditorium in the puny village of Furnace Creek in Death Valley, CA, she mingles with the other runners. She shifts this way and that, her eyes radiating a wide-as-the-horizon blue, skin weathered by years in the sun.

She doesn't mean to be conspicuous, but any attempt to blend in would be futile. Does a bolt of lightning have an easy time hiding itself amongst the dour storm clouds? Here at the 2010 Badwater Ultramarathon, the woman is a legend. Her modesty, italicized by her small frame and coyish stature, is at odds with her reputation. Standing an unassuming five feet, three inches tall, magnificently lean, Reed is a giant among ultrarunners.

She won this race in 2002 and 2003. Badwater is an event where just finishing is accomplishment enough; it's a grueling 135-mile run through Death Valley in the heat of July, when temperatures can soar to well over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The great Ann Trason swore off the event forever, calling it a "torture-fest." Most run it just to say they finished. Pam runs to win.

"I still don't think of myself as an exceptional runner," she confesses. "It's just really hard for me to fly with that. I don't feel like I'm any different or better than anybody."

She sells herself short. Her career is full of fantastic feats: her 300-mile, non-stop run in 2005 and her record-setting performance at the Self-Transcendence Six-Day Race where she ran 490 miles. The little lady is insatiable. Hers is a voracious appetite for the extreme. "I have this thing inside of me," she says. "I don't like to be normal or average. I want to do things that are above-average." Pam has pushed her body to a point few people have experienced.

Standing now at the 10 a.m. start line, moments before the countdown, she adjusts her headphones. Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" plays joyously in her ears. She is pumped and ready to go. Any trace of hesitation or fear that might have existed prior to the race seems to melt away. To her left on the start line is Jamie Donaldson, the women's record holder of the race. Pam reminds herself to stay focused. Do your own thing. Race smart. Be patient.

"When I go up against some of these other athletes, I still feel like I don't belong," she admits. "They are way better than me." How can someone like Pam feel intimidated?

Perhaps age has something to do with Pam's trepidation. Donaldson is 14 years younger than her. "I try to be a realist" she says. But even age doesn't mean too much in ultrarunning. "A lot depends on the conditions of the race," Pam says. "When you increase the distance of the event, you level out the playing field." In a race like Badwater, so many things can go wrong, regardless of age. The body becomes a little unpredictable.

Pam is a woman who has come to terms with her aging. Getting older has its advantages. "You have a lot more mileage in your body. So you have a lot of muscle memory," she explains. There's another advantage to being older, and it's psychological in nature. "Patience," she proclaims. Simple and true. "When you're older, your mindset is such that you know how to be more patient. Patience is so important in ultrarunning."

Over the course of the next day and a half, she will need all the patience she can muster. The road ahead is long and difficult. The crowd yells "Go!" Pam takes off. The morning temperature is a mild 110 degrees. The runners eventually line up in a single-file line on the side of the blacktop road. They stick to the white line to keep the soles of their shoes from melting. Pam stays right in there with other top runners. She is one of just a few women doing Badwater this year. Of the 80 competitors, only 13 are female.

"When I started running in 1991, there were only a few women doing these events then," she reminisces. Things have gotten better, but there's still a considerable gender disparity in ultrarunning race participation.

"I think it definitely still is a male-dominated sport." Why? "Maybe it's because, in a family situation, it's easier for men to leave than for women," she ponders. "It's easier for them to go out and train and do this kind of stuff." It's an intriguing theory, and not without merit. Women have traditionally been relegated to the home, left there to cook, clean, and tend to the kids, while men were allowed to leave and do other things. "Maybe, mentally, men can leave and not feel as guilty about it. I remember the minute I had a child, I had guilt all the time about leaving." It's a double standard. The problem is complex, but things are evolving.

"Do you see what is happening with marathons right now," Pam asks. "The Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Half-Marathon had 9,000 women in it and 3,000 men [this past year]. The full marathon had 3,900 men and 3,300 women. That is unheard of. I think what's happening is that women are realizing that they can do it."

Of course women can do it. They've been doing it for a long time. Pam will be first to admit that a big part of long-distance running is pain management. "Women can endure pain," she exclaims. "Here is an example: up until three years ago, I had never had a facial or a pedicure. Well, I decided to get a facial done. Oh, my gosh! It hurts! Then I got a pedicure, and it hurt, too! I thought to myself, Women go through a lot of pain to look good. Some women do that Botox stuff. If they can endure all that, then they can run. (Laughs). Women are so strong."

Pam is married and has three children and two step-children. People have criticized her for putting running above her family. As a professional athlete, she spends a great deal of her day training.

"I’m always out doing something, either running or bike riding or swimming," she explains. "I'm sure a lot of people talk about me now and say, 'How can she leave her family? How can she go and do all these things and be away when she has a family?'" It's true. One need only go to and read some of the customer reviews of her book, The Extra Mile, to get a feel for the fire she has come under. They accuse her of abandoning her kids to go and run, but the truth is, Pam has always had her kids' best interests at heart.

"I try to set a good example for them. I want my kids to always be fit. I want them to be healthy for the rest of their lives. Emphasizing healthy physical activity is important for my family." Living in Jackson Hole, WY, there are plenty of opportunities for family physical activity. "We hike together; we play tennis together. You just hope they will watch you do good things and then come to the point of wanting to do it, too."

Coming up now on Stovepipe Wells at mile 40, Pam isn't feeling too hot. She's been running for hours already. Her feet are killing her. Blisters are forming. Her stomach is in knots. But, the worst part of it is the heat. The sun beats down on her relentlessly. It's 125 degrees. She's never felt this bad before. Each step is an effort. The only thing she can think to do is take a cold dip. "An ice bath," she tells her crew. "Can you get me an ice bath together?" The crew hustles off to get the necessary supplies. Then Pam realizes something: if she stops here for an ice bath, she might not be able to continue on. It might be too much to start back up again. The thought terrifies her. Something snaps inside. She can't possible allow herself to stop now. No way. She has to press on. As they pour the ice into the cooler, her crew watches her run right on by.

Pam has seen her share of rough times. For 15 years, she struggled with anorexia. "I’ve been through every level of anorexia," she explains. "I used to think that everyone went through the things I went through [growing up]. I thought it was completely normal. Eventually, it got to the point where I had to be hospitalized. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t put food in my mouth. I couldn’t even drink water." How did she survive?

"Running actually helped my anorexia. I finally realized that if I wanted to run, I had to eat. If I don’t eat, I can’t run." Pam found her saving grace. "You have to put something in your body; otherwise, it’s just not going to run. I know a lot of people out there would say, 'Come on; you're full of it. You run because you're anorexic.' They think I exercise to get rid of whatever I'm eating. That is not true. Yes, I know that I'm very thin, but it is absolutely not true for me."

Pam feels very strongly about the issue of eating disorders in the world of endurance sports. "I really think we need to be talking more about anorexia and bulimia. You know what else we need to be talking about? Depression. It all needs to be brought to the forefront. There are so many people that suffer from these things, and they are afraid to talk about it because they are embarrassed. Mental illness is not an easy thing for people to be open about. I don't mind talking about it. I think that the more people talk about it, the more it will come out. We all have problems and we need to talk about these problems. It’s kind of like how parents don’t want to talk about when their kids get in trouble. They want to paint this picture for everyone else to see. It’s a fa├žade, and it’s just not real. I want people to know real."

She feels for others who might be going through what she went through. "You need to go and get help," she urges. "Go to a hospital. It is so important that you get help and realize that you don’t have to go through it alone. But, in addition to that, I would also say that you have to find your own answers. All the hospitals and all the doctors won’t help you unless you come to terms with it yourself."

Find the strength to endure. Be patient. She tells herself these things over and over, but the pain is cutting through. It's nighttime now. The stars overhead put on a brilliant celestial light show. She tries to remain positive. She doesn't tell her crew about her feet hurting. Things will look up. They always eventually do. That's what ultrarunning is all about. You go through rough patches, but then you feel better. So why wasn't she feeling better already? I'm not going to quit! I am not going to quit! She repeated the mantra and powered on. But, the pain!

"Pain comes and then it goes," Pam explains. "When it goes, you try to learn how to manage it. Managing it is accepting it. So, accept it, and then move on. You have to accept that it's there, and you have to be grateful that you're able to run in the first place because there are so many people that can't."

She's accepting it, damn it, but the pain isn't doing what it's supposed to do. It isn't subsiding. She has dealt with pain before in other races. She's had it all: foot problems, stomach issues, heat exhaustion. You name it. But, never before have all those things hit her at once. The pain is accumulating. Her body wants to stop. This has never happened. It's the afternoon of day two. The finish line is close. Pam has been running now for over 30 hours. That's 30 hours of pure misery. She already stopped to change her shoes once, at mile 95, and it didn't help. In fact, it might have made things worse. Her feet were screaming. The climb up Mount Whitney is steep. The Portal Road seems to go on forever. She could very easily call it quits right here. It's a tempting idea. Her mind goes back to a few years ago when she was forced to drop out of Badwater.

"I quit one year because at mile nine, I got dehydrated. I have a few theories as to how that happened. First, I had that Hi-Tech shirt on. That thing was wicking away the moisture off my body, and I felt like my body wasn’t cooling itself. When I wear cotton, I’m fine. So, I will never wear Hi-Tech stuff again. That was one thing. Another thing was that my crew that year, for the first 17 miles, didn’t crew me like they normally do. From then on, my crew has always been very cognizant of my eating and drinking."

There's the finish line. She sees the crowd of spectators gathered ahead. The cool pine-scented breeze on the mountain serves only to remind her of the inferno she made her way out of just 32 hours earlier. It feels like ages have passed. She doesn't know how she did it. As she crosses the tape, the people around her cheer. Her crew gathers around to congratulate her. But, Pam doesn't feel the glory of the moment. She feels disappointed.

"I guess I should be really proud of myself for finishing," says almost wistfully. "I gutted it out for the whole time." Pam comes in third woman, 14th overall. "I just have so much more in me than that. I feel like I let a lot of people down. It was my worst Badwater ever." Yet, coming in third woman seems like something to be extremely proud of.

"I am disappointed at the way I behaved. I wasn’t grateful enough for just being able to be there. I kept thinking about all my aches and pains. It makes the whole experience so different if you go out there being grateful for being able to run and for being able to be there." You sense that Pam truly loves this race. She loves to run, and she loves adventure.

"Badwater is such a cool event," she exclaims. "It’s a great experience. The desert is just so beautiful. It’s gorgeous out there. Running on the road, surrounded by mountains, it is so serene." But, there's more to it than that. Running has shaped Pam's life in a such a huge way. Her ability to endure through these races serves as a metaphor for life in general.

"I used to say that [I run] for my sanity. I think it's evolved. I feel like God has given me a gift and that gift is running. And I feel like I need to honor that by running and sharing that with other people - that running really helps your self-esteem; it boosts your confidence. It helps you do a lot of different things in your everyday life. I love it."

Having the patience to endure is not easy. It requires focus, discipline, and a strength of the soul. Races like Badwater can bring out the best in a person, highlighting all that is good and worthy in people. To endure is to affirm your humanity. "Partially, it’s fun," Pam offers. "But, it’s not always fun. It’s not easy for sure. If it were easy, at the end of the day, we wouldn’t have that feeling of accomplishment. That is what running is. When you’re doing it, it’s not exactly the best thing in the world. But, when you cross that finish line, then you get to say, 'Oh, wow! That was really cool.'" Pam has been through some hard times, but she never resigns to defeat. Never, never give up. Pam plans to be back at Badwater next year.

For a complete transcript of the interview with Pam Reed, click here.

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