Saturday, June 23, 2012
Doug Ratliff, 43, from San Antonio, Texas, has done Badwater before. In 2010, he finished the legendary footrace across Death Valley and up Mount Whitney in just over 40 hours. Now, he prepares to return to the desert with a new mindset: to finish the race and summit the mountain - the highest peak in the contiguous United States. To face the seemingly overwhelming challenge, Doug is armed with more than just endurance: he has a purpose. For a few years now, Doug has been involved in raising money for and awareness of the Fistula Foundation, an organization that aids women in Africa and Asia who suffer from obstetric fistula. If you have never heard of obstetric fistula, you are not alone. Most of the Western world has never encountered this devastating condition which leaves young women ostracized from their families and communities. I talked with Doug about obstetric fistula and what fuels him as he prepares to run "the world's toughest footrace" yet again.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Richmond, Indiana.
Were you athletic as a child?
I was not particularly athletic. In junior high and high school, I ran cross country and track. I’m not sure how I got into it. I think maybe a teacher encouraged me to join the team. My dad had run cross country and track when he was in high school, so it just seemed kind of like a natural direction for me to go. I did long distance events. And I was a pretty average runner. It’s not like I was winning races. I loved to play basketball, and, of course, basketball is a big deal in Indiana. But I was never good enough or tall enough to even have a prayer of getting on the team.
Were your parents encouraging of your athletic endeavors?
No, they did not encourage athletics at all. For them, academics were very important. Not sports. I remember even my grandmother was a little dismayed at how important running seemed to be to me. They all wanted me to focus on my studies. But, I loved running so much. Still, they were very supportive of everything I did.
What is it about running that turned you on?
I felt good when I did it. I wasn’t the best runner, but I enjoyed doing it. I felt free. I felt kind of liberated.
Do you remember you very first race?
I was twelve years old and it was some kind of fundraiser at the park to raise money for the zoo. You were supposed to go run as many laps as you could within a certain amount of time, and I actually won that. I ran something like 145 laps. I don’t remember how long the laps were, but the kicker was that I did really well on the fundraising part: It was one of those deals where you pledged money per lap. So, I had hit a lot of people up in the neighborhood for pledges. I remember some people were a little put out when they found out how many laps I ran and how much money they owed.
What did you do after high school?
I joined the army right after high school. I did my Physical Therapy Specialist training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, then was at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia for a year and a half, and then I was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. for a couple years.
I imagine running played a role in your military career.
Yes, there was running in basic training and during PT. I was good at that. Again, I wasn’t the best, but I could run at a pretty good clip on the two-miler and during the PT tests. I think I may have fiddled around with a 10k or two as well, but I didn’t do very well. I’d always leave the barracks and find some place to go run. I’d run back and forth to the gym, and every now and then, I’d run out to the beach depending on where I was stationed.
You had a brief career as a mountaineer. How did you get into that?
It started off as backpacking. My ex-wife grew up in northern California. I mean, way northern California. Oregon, basically. When I looked at the map to see where we were going to visit her family, all I saw were national forest areas. It intrigued me, so I started reading about backpacking and accumulating gear for that. From the place where she grew up, I could see Mount Shasta, which is a 14,000-foot volcano. I thought it would be really cool to climb that. After a few years of learning about mountaineering, I climbed Mount Shasta, and I went on to climb a few other mountains. I didn’t do a whole lot. I just got a taste of it. I did enough to figure out that I got such bad altitude sickness that I didn’t want to keep doing it.
What brought you to San Antonio, Texas?
I moved here in 1998. I wanted to go to medical school. I had been doing pre-med coursework in Toledo, Ohio, where we were living. Texas has five medical schools, and they have some of the lowest tuition rates in the country. It seemed like a good place to try to pursue that. Life happened, and it just didn’t work out the way I had hoped.
But of course, you stayed in Texas, so you must have taken a liking to it.
Yes, and when I was in the army, I actually did my training here. I was a physical therapy specialist in the army, and I did my training at Fort Sam Houston. I fell in love with the city. I love the weather here. The cost of living was low. And, there were plenty of jobs. It was a good place to relocate.
What do you do for a living?
I work with software – what is called call center business intelligence. Business intelligence is basically getting data out of databases and putting it into reports that you can use to figure things out. The market that I work in is the call center market. For example, a bank might have a call center, and I provide them with information about how many calls they took, how long it took to take the calls, and how long their agents took to complete various tasks.
How did you get into ultramarathon running?
I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish in mountaineering, and I decided that was enough; I didn’t like the altitude sickness. So, I was thinking of what to do next. It’s funny: anytime I accomplish something, I immediately begin to think of what to do next, and often I will get kind of blue if I don’t have something lined up. When I was a kid, I always thought that when I was in my thirties, I would run the marathon. So, I thought, “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to run my first marathon.” And I did. I ran my first marathon in 2005. Well, it just so happened that I got a flyer in my race swag bag advertising a 50k race over in Big Bend. I used to go backpacking in Big Bend all the time, so I knew every corner of that park. When I saw that flyer for the trail race, I just had to do it, and off I went. I loved the experience. I was introduced to an entirely new crowd of people. It was a totally different community.
Tell me a little about those differences you perceived between the big city marathon crowds and these new crowds of people you were meeting at the trail ultras?
To give you an example of the difference, I remember at the Big Bend race, I was in a pack of people and we got to the first hill, and as soon as we got to the base of that hill, everyone started walking. I remember wondering what was wrong; why was everyone walking? I realized that these people knew they had 30 miles left to go and they didn’t want to burn themselves out on the first hill. It was just a completely different attitude. The group, in general, just seemed more laid back. Less intense.
So you identify now exclusively as an ultrarunner, or do you still have fondness for the marathon?
I really don’t have any desire to do a race that has 20,000 people in it. I can barely stomach some of the bigger ultra races now. The one that I can think of has like 700 people now, and I can barely stomach that. I’ve been doing the 100 mile races mostly in preparation for Badwater, either to get in to Badwater or to train. It might be nice though to do some smaller, shorter races. A 5k. A marathon here and there. Just to see what I can get my time down to. But, it would have to be really small races in small towns or something. And it would be nice if it were on the trail, too.
Now you recently got married.
Yes, Jazzy and I got married in February of this year.
How did you two meet?
Through my running group Alamo Running Buddies. She started coming to the runs and helped with organizing and hosting runs. We had a lot in common and easily became friends. Over time, we developed a relationship and became best friends. It was a natural fit for us to become a couple.
What is your son’s name and how old is he?
His name is Joseph, and he is 15 years old. He will be with me at Badwater on my crew this year.
Does he run?
Joseph has a heart condition and can't participate in highly aerobic sports or activities. His mom and I have really encouraged him in his academics. He goes to a private school here in San Antonio called Keystone School. Joseph is very successful in his academics. His mom and I are very proud of him. I encourage him to be physically active, things like hiking. He is close now to receiving his Eagle Scout. I remember one time he and I went on a backpacking trip to Guadalupe Mountains, and we hiked up Guadalupe Peak, which is a fairly strenuous hike, and I remember teasing him because he was tired. I said, “Come on, you are a quarter of my age; this should be easy for you.” And he said, “Yeah, but you are an athlete.” I was tickled that he called me an athlete because I don’t think of myself as an athlete.
That’s interesting. Why don’t you think of yourself as an athlete?
Well, running is something I do as a hobby. I do it for fun. I guess when I think of an athlete, I think of someone whose life revolves around sports. That is the number one priority in their life. I think of a professional.
How do you manage to balance your running career with your family obligations and your professional obligations? Is that ever a challenge?
Well, I’m not sure I have ever struck a balance. My first responsibility is to my wife and son. I need to be a financially responsible for myself as well as a provider. So my income and being able to pay my bills takes priority. Training is secondary to that. That’s the reality of things. You do try to strike a balance, but I’m not sure there is such a thing. It’s really more of a juggling act and sometimes you drop things when you juggle.
Tell me about how you first heard about Badwater.
The first time I heard about it, I didn’t really understand what it was. I was doing some training for my mountaineering, and I had gone out over the Memorial Day weekend back in 2005 to climb Mount Whitney. The whole purpose was to get acclimatized on Mount Whitney so that I could go climb Mount Rainier. On the way back to the airport from Mount Whitney, I went through Death Valley to go sightseeing and do some hiking. In the store, I was saying, “Boy! It sure is hot out there,” and the guy in the store said, “They have a race here in July.” I didn’t believe it. I really thought he was confused. That was the first time I heard about Badwater. Then, as I started doing more ultras, I started hearing more about it.
What attracted you to the race?
Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes I’m not sure what it is that attracts me. I think part of me just wants to see what I can do. It’s that drive to see what I can do physically. Certainly, it’s a tough race. It’s hard. And not only is the race hard, but the preparation is hard. And there are times when I think, “Why am I doing this?” There is probably more than one reason. Part of it is that I always thought that Death Valley was very beautiful. The idea of running through that stark desert beauty and making your way through the Sierras just seemed really cool to me. And another part of it is just the desire to meet this extreme mental challenge and overcome it.
You ran Badwater in 2010, and you finished in 40 hours and 30 minutes. Tell me about that experience and how things went for you during the race.
They went really well. There were some challenges, some expected and some not expected. But, generally, things went very well. I put a lot into the preparation and that is what got me through.
So, you finished Badwater and now here you are about to run it again? What is your motivation to do it this time around?
Amanda McIntosh has been a great mentor to me. She was my coach. She told her daughter that I wanted to do it again, and her daughter asked the same question: “Why does he want to do it again?” I had to think about that really hard. I think one of the reasons I want to do it is because I want to follow the course of the original race. The original race was 146 miles and it went all the way to the top of Mount Whitney. The race is cut off now at the 135 miles, just at the start of the trailhead to the summit. When I go this time, my goal is to finish the race itself and then continue to the top of the mountain.
What are you doing to train for Badwater?
Mainly just running and running in the heat. I feel very fortunate that I live in San Antonio. I don’t have to worry too much about getting in the sauna or setting up a treadmill in the sauna like some runners do. I can just go out in the middle of the day and hit the road.
What will be your peak training mileage prior to the race?
Well, it’s been so bad, going up and down with my work hours. A couple of weekends ago, I did a 60 mile run. The week before that, I did a 45 mile run. I’m going to try and hit it hard the next couple of weeks. I’ve got about two more weeks where I can hit it hard, and then I have to stop and just let my body recover for the race.
You are running to raise money for the Fistula Foundation. What is obstetric fistula?
Obstetric fistula is a childbirth injury. It is something that people in the Western world don’t hear about. Even doctors aren’t aware of it. What happens is that women who live in places without access to medical services end up giving birth at home. If there is a complication with the birth, then they have to face that alone. In particular, what happens is that a lot of these women work very hard, starting as young girls – as young as 12 years old. Carrying loads and things of that nature. They start at a very young age, and their diets are adequate to keep them above the level of starvation, even while working, but it is not adequate for someone who is growing. It ends up stunting their growth. So, when they give birth, their pelvis isn’t big and developed enough to accommodate a baby’s head. Often what happens is the baby’s head gets stuck and they will be in labor for days. I’ve heard of women being in labor for as long as twelve days. During that time, the baby’s head is pressing the soft tissue up against the bones of the pelvis. The tissue eventually dies because of the lack of circulation. Just like if I pinched the skin on your arm for six days, that tissue would die for lack of circulation. A doctor from a neighboring village has to remove the baby. The baby ends up dying. They lose the baby. Then, a few days later, they start leaking urine because there is now a hole between their bladder and their birth canal. Or they start leaking fecal matter because there is now a hole between their rectum and their birth canal. Not only is this distressing, but they are also ostracized from their communities because they smell. Their husbands leave them. They end up living in a grass shack in the back of the house. They cohabitate or even dine with the rest of the family. They also cannot have babies, and that is devastating for them, as well. It’s a hopelessly desperate situation where they have lost everything.
How did you first become aware of this issue?
I actually first heard about obstetric fistula on PBS. It was featured on the program Frontline. The program really grabbed me. I saw it while I was just flipping channels, and when I watched it, I couldn’t look away. I wanted to know more, and I was very moved by the presentation. I wanted to help in any way I could.
The Fistula Foundation is reputable charity. You were telling me a bit about how most of the money they receive in donations goes directly towards helping these women.
Correct. It is common for 50% or less of donated funds to go to expenses other than directly to those in need. So, it was very important for me to know that the Fistula Foundation met a certain high standard. The Fistula Foundation is very well-run. 90% of their money ends up going to the end-user. They have a very small staff and modest salaries. Also, there are organizations out there that rate charitable organizations, like Charity Navigator. The Fistula Foundation actually has the highest possible rating.
I hear you have the great elite ultrarunner Liza Howard on your crew. Who else is on your crew?
It's my wife, Jazzy Stallworth-Ratliff, my son Joseph, my old friend Mark Kenyon who was stationed with me at Walter Reed 25 years ago, my friends Jason Crockett and Claudette Tamez, and, of course, Liza.
Do you have a time goal in mind for the race?
I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I would really like to be done in 30 hours. The main reason for that is because if I can finish in 30 hours, I will have a chance of getting to the top of the mountain before the sun goes down. And then I can just enjoy the view.
What do you think that’s going to be like? You’re going into the race with a different mindset than you did in 2010. How do you think it’s going to feel when you get to the finish line and then to the top of that mountain?
I think it’s going to feel great. I know that I am going to be hurting. I am going to be tired. I am going to be in pain. My legs will hurt. My hip will hurt. There is going to be that point where the self-doubt sets in.
So what pulls you through all that? What gets you to the finish?
My crew. This isn’t a race that you can do by yourself. Last time I did the race, it was my crew that got me through. The same will be true this time around.
I agree that your crew will be invaluable in getting you to the finish line. But, your crew isn’t running the race for you.
Right. Ultimately, it’s just you telling yourself to keep going. I don’t start the race intending to quit. I just try to prepare my best and then deal with things as they come up during the race. Invariably, things are going to happen during the race that I did not think of. Things are going to hurt that I wasn’t expecting to hurt. I just am going to have to work through it and keep moving. I think its a lot like life. We are constantly making choices to keep going even when things are hard. We make choices to deal with temporary challenges and discomforts to pursue something challenging. Often pursuing worthwhile achievements means not choosing the path of least resistance and going far outside our comfort zones.
Thank you Doug for talking with me today and I wish you all the best in your training and, of course, on race day.
If you would like to know more about obstetric fistula and the Fistula Foundation, go to www.fistulafoundation.org or click here.
Also, be sure to visit Doug's fundraising website at www.badwaterdoug.com for more information on how you can donate to this very worthy cause.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Quick update on my running tire: a few days ago, it was stolen. That's right. Someone stole my running tire. And I know who it was, too. You see, I ran downtown with my tire, all the way up Broadway St., and to the Witte Museum, and the start of the Riverwalk Trail - a total of about 7 miles. Well, I left my precious carriage in an empty parking garage to run he Riverwalk Trail, with every intention of coming back to get my tire once I was done running the trail. And as I was leaving, I noticed a security guard parked in the empty garage. I even waved at the devil.
Well, when I returned, my tire was gone. Gone! My baby! I love my running tire! We have had some adventures. I know some people who say running with a tire is pointless. To them, I say fooey. I am a fan, and I always will be. I searched and searched for my running mate, but he was nowhere to be found.
On a dreary and rather depressing run the day after these tragic events unfolded, I spotted - what to my wondering eyes should appear! - a new tire! It was tossed outside someone's house like so much garbage. Can you imagine? I immediately called my friend Doug to help me pick up the thing. He drove over and helped me take it back to my place, where I fitted it with a rope. Now I have a new running friend: me and my tire.
Monday, June 18, 2012
"Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh my!" -Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz (1939)Anyone who has ever hiked the trails of Teton Valley is familiar with the sense of fear inspired by knowing they are walking in the land of the grizzlies. The awareness that there are creatures out there in the woods that are bigger than you, creatures that are physically capable of killing and eating you, is enough to instill within trail enthusiasts a sense of complete and utter humility. Out there, you are not top of the food chain. You become aware of your own fleshy vulnerability. The effect is almost primal. It awakens within you a long-dormant state of consciousness. It was this very brand of consciousness that early humans lived with.
Man's evolutionary history is very much tied with that of the Great Bear. Both men and grizzlies, for instance, crossed over the land bridge from Siberia to Pleistocene Alaska at about the same time in history. Archeological records suggest that man might even have traveled the same southern route into the continental United States as grizzlies. If this is true, then man's consciousness might very well have been directly shaped by coexistence with grizzlies and like creatures - the man-eaters.
I remember one run in particular: a group of us went hiking and about 50 yards up ahead, a big grizzly crossed our path. It didn't look our way. It didn't stop. It just ambled on. I was stunned. Our group stopped dead in our tracks and slowly backed away. My heart was pounding. My senses were alert like never before. I was alive, such a wonderful and terrifying feeling! In that one instance, when that grizzly crossed my path - although just briefly and without incidence - I began my fascination and obsession with the Great Bear. I bought books about the beast. I read all about bear attacks. I poured over the story of pioneer Hugh Glass and his famous encounter with a grizzly that would leave him mauled and stranded in the wilderness. And in all my research, I have come to several conclusions about the relationship between man and bear.
In Teton Valley, much is made of this relationship. The front page headlines of The Teton Valley News or even The Jackson Hole Daily are occasionally preoccupied with the latest bear attack. Almost always, the victim is to blame. Still, the authorities must decide whether to issue a death sentence for the offending bear or to relocate her (I say "her" because it usually is a female who attacks because she is protecting her young from a perceived threat). The whole thing a hotly political issue. We have all the rules in place: habituated bears are dangerous bears are dead bears. We force order and logic on a situation and relationship that is very often not governable by order or logic. Still, we don't want more people to get hurt, so some action is necessary.
But the possibility of death is always present despite governance. You can feel it out there. It's part of the allure of the trail. We live in a "civilized" world (though I sometimes wonder how true that statement is). Urbanization and the destruction of the last vestiges of wilderness have made it near impossible for everyday people like you and me to have real contact with nature and the primal elements. Most of us will never see a bear in its natural habitat because we have destroyed that possibility for ourselves. We deny ourselves that experience. This is why Teton Valley and the greater Yellowstone region is such a valuable, sacred place. It is a pocket ecosystem, a last remnant of a wild, scary, exhilarating world.
It is our link to the past and our key to understanding our place in the world. Places like Teton Valley - to the extent that they offer excellent hiking, mountain biking, skiing and running opportunities - are invaluable on a psychological level as well. The humility that is forced upon us on the trails, in the land of the grizzlies, is the very antithesis of human pride and greed, those traits that have lead to genocide, war, and death.
We should all be concerned with the preservation of such ecosystems and with the protection of grizzlies. We should hike intelligently and cautiously because, it is true that a habituated bear is a dead bear. We should cherish the mountains and trails because they remind us who we are at the very core. They remind us we are alive, truly and incredibly alive!
Sunday, June 17, 2012
In 1997, Michigan-born Mike Morton jolted the ultrarunning community when he won the Western States 100 miler and set a course record of 15 hours and 40 minutes, despite the prevailing knowledge of the time that one had to train on the Western States course in order to have a chance of winning the race. Soon after his legendary victory, he dropped out of the ultrarunning scene almost completely due to an exacerbated hip injury. Through his military career, first as a Navy diver and now as a member of the United States Army Special Forces, Morton has deployed around the world, including to Afghanistan and Iraq. Living in Florida now, he finds himself in the advantageous position of being able to resume his racing career. He has since turned out some incredible performances, including running 163.9 miles at the Hinson Lake 24 Hour Run in 2011 - just two miles shy of Scott Jurek's American record. He has won and set course records at the Umstead 100 miler and the Long Haul 100 miler. Most recently, he won the Keys 100 miler with a time of 13 hours and 42 minutes. Now at the age of 40, Mike talked with me about life, family, running, and his next big goal - a race he has wanted to do for 14 years - the legendary Badwater Ultramarathon.
Congratulations on your win at the Keys 100. I hear there was lots of rain.
I was hoping the overcast skies would kind of break up the heat. It did rain really hard early on. But, to be honest with you, it didn’t really bug me. I changed my shoes a couple of times just because they were getting soaked and I could feel my socks balling up. But, other than that, it didn’t really bother me too much mentally or anything like that.
Is that the only 100 miler you have planned before Badwater?
Yeah, that’s it. I’m going to back off now. No more races from here on out. For the month of June, I’m just going to do my standard routine and just kind of stay focused.
Mike, why do you run?
I started running when I was 15 years old. I was hooked pretty much from day one. I started doing three miles every other day. About three months later, it was every day. I would run from my house to my grandparents’ house. I would ask my gramp to give me a ride back home. Finally, he got sick of it. He was like, “You know what, turn around half way because I’m not giving you a ride no more.” Eventually, it just turned into me running to my grandparents’ house, kind of hanging out and visiting, and then running back. Probably about a six mile run. To me, it was very normal, just a part of my day. Then, I ran all through high school. When I joined the military, it obviously carried over into the military lifestyle. I’m a person of routine. Running just became part of my daily routine. In the past ten years, being in the Army, deployed all the time, it became a mental safety net. Kind of like my recreation when there was nothing else to do. I would say that in the past ten years, it became even more important as part of my daily routine. For mental health.
How did you get interested in ultramarathons?
I think what intrigued me about ultras – back when I started in the 90s – was that it was a challenge, a physical challenge: what I thought was the extreme. I’m still challenged by it, but it’s not the driving force anymore. Nowadays, I’m more intrigued by what I can do personally. Back in the 90s, I used to think, “Okay, who am I going to race against?” When I go to a race now, it is totally irrelevant to me who is there. I don’t even think about it. I don’t get race day jitters. I know that I’m there competing against myself. I’m trying to see if I can push through each race.
Where did you grow up?
What did your parents do when you were growing up?
My dad was an iron worker in Detroit. My mom was a nurse’s aid for years, but eventually, once they separated, she became a stay-at-home mom.
Was athletics a big part of your childhood?
When I was in the sixth grade, my parents divorced. After that, we moved to a small town in northern Michigan. I started playing football. Pee wee football. I loved it. I played from sixth grade until my junior year of high school. I played basketball, also, but I basically played because I had to: I went to a Catholic school and there were only five boys in the class. Obviously, you need five boys to play basketball, so I was kind of coerced into playing.
I understand that you read about Ann Trason when you were in high school and that she made an impression on you.
I remember reading about her in Runner’s World. I remember sitting in math class, and my math teacher was a runner and a sports enthusiast. Have you ever heard of Dan Majerle, the basketball player?
Sure. The Phoenix Suns, right?
Yeah. And he was on the Olympics team, too. His brother was my math teacher. Their whole family was a huge sports family, and so, this guy encouraged sports. He was always advocating sports and running. He was the one who showed me that Runner’s World article. And that was the only exposure I had to this stuff. We didn’t have the Internet back then. And it was hard for me to get Runner’s World back then in Michigan. That stuff just wasn’t on the magazine racks. So, when I saw that one little article, I thought, “Wow! Man, there are races longer than a marathon!” And then, that interest resurfaced in 1994. I was stationed in Norfolk and I met a guy – he was a chief diver – who was running ultras. That was my first exposure to that world.
Do you remember your very first race?
I do. I ran a 15k in Cheboygan, Michigan in 1988. I ran it in, like, 54 minutes. There were about 20 or 25 people in the race. I was very young. But, I remember running with the front runners. They were talking about pacing themselves and what their strategy was, and I remember thinking, “I’m just going to run this thing as fast as I can.” It was an interesting experience.
What was your first ultramarathon?
The Uwharrie 40 in North Carolina.
And you only run ultras now, right? The shorter distances don’t interest you.
Yeah, I’m not interested in the shorter stuff.
What is it about the ultra distances that you don’t get out of the shorter ones?
The gratification seems to be greater. I don’t want to belittle the shorter distances and the people who run those things. But, for me, the reward is in the distance. I don’t even like going running unless it’s going to be for at least an hour. If I can’t get at least an hour in, I won’t even mess with it: I’ll just wait. Each time I start a 100 miler, I am intrigued to see how I handle it and what kind of performance I can scrape out of it. Every race has its own set of variables. It’s interesting to see how I will perform given the variables in a race.
When did you enlist in the Navy?
In 1990, I went to boot camp.
What made you want to enlist?
My older brother was in the Navy. He did the same thing. He actually had a full scholarship to Michigan Tech, but he dropped out of school to join the Navy. It was just kind of my way out of northern Michigan.
What was it like to be a Navy diver?
I had a good time in the Navy. I always had good duty stations. Tropical. There were some long hours sometimes. If you’re working on a ship or a submarine, you just go in and get the job done. It was always challenging. It was mechanical type stuff. Working underwater. But, I've always enjoyed working on stuff in the garage, so that kind of carried over.
When you started running ultras in the early 90s, the sport was very different.
Oh, man, it’s totally different now.
What do you think about the growth of the sport? Do you have any sense of nostalgia for the days when the races were these small, almost underground events?
I have a place in my heart for it, just because of the people I met and what a small community it was. But, I don’t despise the growth. I guess if there is a downside, it’s that every major race now is a lottery. Before, short of Western States, you could sign up for a race a couple of days before. I kind of think ultras have evolved just like how triathlons have evolved. It’s human nature, you know. The goal of a housewife or a working guy used to be the marathon, but now it’s a 50 miler. There are so many of them. They are in every mainstream magazine, too. It’s great that people are getting out there and being active. There is no downside to that.
You ran with people like Eric Clifton, Dave Horton, and Courtney Campbell. They were kind of like your ultra family back in the 90s. Do you still keep contact with them?
Yes. Eric and I are good friends. It’s funny you ask that because after the Keys 100 miler, that Tuesday, I flew out to California to stay with him and his wife. We went to the Grand Canyon and we ran the Grand Canyon. The Rim to Rim. I consider Eric and his wife family. In fact, as soon as I got into Badwater, they offered to crew, which, obviously, I took them up on because of their immense knowledge of the race: Eric has done Badwater three times and he won it in 1999 and set a course record. I didn’t keep in contact with Courtney, but we talk on Facebook and stuff now. David Horton and I email back and forth.
Eric Clifton, of course, is a legend in the sport. So is Dave Horton. Have you learned anything from running with people like them?
Definitely, man. David and Eric provided a ton of knowledge. But, everyone who races these things has his own strategy and his own way of seeing the race and mentally metabolizing it. For instance, Eric fuels off other people in the race. And like I said earlier, I don’t. I’m fueled internally. And Dave was an extremely competitive guy. I’m sure he still is. He’s done some extreme things: multi-day stuff, his run across America, and the Appalachian Trail record.
In 1997, you set the course record for Western States, and after that, you gained this kind of legendary status yourself. You did something that everyone thought was impossible, which was to win the race and set the course record despite not being from that region. And even today, you seem to have this aura of legend, sort of a come-back-kid figure who just might win Badwater this year. I’m wondering how you take this reputation and if you feel like an elite athlete?
No. I think the reputation is unwarranted, especially with the whole come-back kid thing. Where the sport is now, with the number of competitive people, on any given day there are people doing the same thing as me and on the same level of performance. I think that in 1997, it was a big deal to win Western States the way I did because no one else had ever done it. And that wasn’t my motivation at all for doing it. I didn't draw inspiration from the potential to be the first non-Californian to win Western States. See, I’d been all over the world by then from being in the Navy. So, I didn’t tie myself to any piece of geography. And I didn’t realize the gravity of it until after it happened. I didn’t even realize that it would be a big deal. In my mind, the Western States performance was a good performance, but I had other performances that went unnoticed that were better performances athletically. I mean, the Western States record has been broken multiple times now.
Well, I think part of the reason people really respond to your story is that you were, and in some sense you still are, relatively undetected in the sport. Where a lot of these elite runners are getting big time sponsorship deals, you simply aren't going that route. To give another example, in 2010, Scott Jurek set the record for the 24 hour run with 165 miles. And of course everyone knows who Scott Jurek is. But, what a lot of people don’t know is that in 2011, you came and ran almost the same distance – 163.9 miles - in 24 hours. It’s kind of like you are the unsung hero of the sport.
Surely some people view it that way. I’ve had people try to motivate me with the whole 24 hour thing – the fact that Scott has that record and he’s the one who broke the Western States record the first time. But, I just don’t sit around and think about that kind of stuff. My motivation for getting back into ultrarunning has always been personal. I don’t pay attention to what other people are doing in a race or anything like that. No one out on the course is going to affect how my day goes except me. I actually prefer going undetected. I’m not a fan of any attention or even sponsorship. You know, nowadays, a lot of guys have these relationships with people in industry. Maybe I would have gone for all that back in the 90s when I wasn’t financially secure, but I’m at a point now where, with my career in the military, I feel safe. I don’t want to taint my reasons for running with all that sponsorship stuff. I don’t want any implied or specified obligation to anybody. I embrace it just being a personal endeavor.
And now might be a good time to mention that when I asked you to do this interview, the first thing you said to me was that you thought that anything that promoted the sport of ultrarunning was a good thing, and that is why you agreed to do this interview.
It’s healthy that people hear the story of ultrarunning. I truly think that someday the 100k thing is going to catch on here in America like it has in Europe. There is potential here. Maybe not the same kind of challenging trail races, but just the distance. People will keep pushing the distance beyond the marathon. I think eventually it will be embraced internationally and hopefully by Americans and by governing bodies. You know, I can’t understand why there isn’t a 100k Olympic event yet. We’ve got everything else. A competitive distance that truly elite people could run would be great. I personally don’t think I’m suited to a 100k road race, but there are people in this country that would really excel at that.
After winning Western States, you developed a hip injury and you pretty much stopped racing for about ten years.
Yeah, it was quite a while. The last race I did after Western States that was any good was the Rattlesnake 50k in July. Then, in September of that year, I ran what was called the TRAC – the Trail Run Across Virginia. It was a four-day stage race. To me, that was one of my best races ever. I set stage records on all four days. I was racing David Horton and Eric Clifton in that race. After that, the injury just became too much. I had fought it for a couple of months already, but I had some pinched nerves and I was starting to butt heads with the orthopedic guys who were trying to help me. They couldn’t firmly diagnose anything. Eventually, I would run a 6 minute or 7 minute mile pace and I would get tremendous pain radiating down my right leg. Ultimately, they had to go in and perform surgery on my right hip. I healed up, but I just couldn’t go on racing. Part of it was physical, but part of it was mental. I had to step away from running. I had the opportunity to go to Puerto Rico. I thought, “Okay, I’ll just go to Puerto Rico and just hide.” It happened so quickly, you know: just not being able to race anymore. I couldn’t even run that kind of distance anymore without being in tremendous pain. If I couldn’t race, I thought the best way to deal with it was to sever all ties. I didn’t even read about ultrarunning; I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
How did you develop the injury?
It was actually before Western States. I was carrying scuba dive tanks. It was in the winter of 1997, and I slipped. My right hip and knee swelled up. I took about three days off. I was icing it. Three days, obviously, wasn’t enough. I resumed running. I got back out there and trained. I continued to compensate and did more damage.
Do you still have effects from that injury?
Yes, I do. There was significant damage from the initial injury and from me compensating over the years. I still deal with it. During the Keys 100 miler, I had radiating pain. Everything tightened up around mile 55. I had to stop, lie down on my back, bring my knee up to my chest and pull it across my body to stretch the glutes and hamstring. I definitely feel it. And I know when it’s coming. As soon as I feel that early burning sensation, I stop and I stretch, and I try to manage it. There are a ton of variables that play a role when it starts to happen. Dehydration is one of them. Fast pace is another. If I try to go out at a 5:30 minute mile pace, I know I’m going to have leg problems. My hamstring tightens up, fills up with blood, pulls on the glutes, pulls on the back, and then pinches my nerve. It’s something I know about. I’ve had 14 years of managing it. It’s just something I’ve got to deal with. There is really no fix for it.
After 9-11, you joined the U.S. Army Special Forces. Tell me about your decision to become a Green Beret.
It was opportunity. They sent recruiters around. And in March of 2001, I just decided to do it. Then, 9-11 happened. I started training on September 19. And that became my whole life. I felt obligated. I felt like everything was telling me that this was my calling. Those two events coincided for a reason. It was very fulfilling. It took my mind off everything and kept me very occupied. It was meant to be.
I read in an interview you did that you feel your military career has augmented your training, and you mentioned a key word, “maturity.” Can you elaborate on that and what you mean by the word “maturity” in describing your growth as an ultrarunner?
I think what you learn in the military is that there are things you can control and things you can’t. You have different plans or courses of action, and you pick the one that fits the problem best. If things don’t go as planned, you have to have an alternate plan and always be prepared. When I was younger, I never had a backup plan. I took things for granted. Failure was less common. Or, at least, I didn’t think about it as much. But, being in the Army, you always plan for the worst case scenario. I think that has helped me understand life better. It’s helped me reason with myself when things aren’t going well. And maturity also means that there’s less emotion. You commit to doing something and you deal with the process. You don’t need to get emotional if things aren’t going as planned. You accept the fact that you need to deal with it.
Back in the 90s, your race strategy was to go out as hard as you can for as long as you can?
Yeah. I kind of still take that same approach. That was one thing Eric Clifton always impressed me with: you can put miles in the bank. In the beginning of a long race, take advantage of the speed that you have because everyone is going to hit some rough spots. If you tell yourself, “My goal is to run eight minute miles for this whole race,” and you start off running eight minute miles, you’re not going to be able to hold that pace all the way through. There’s a bell curve there. Take advantage of the early miles.
Speaking of maturity, what are some of the challenges you have encountered with getting older?
The balance of family. Back in the 90s, I didn’t have a child. That’s a challenge in itself. Back then, I didn’t even own a house. Everything was so minimal. Life becomes so complex. That in itself if challenging.
What about physically? Have you noticed many changes in your physical ability?
No, not really. I guess due to the lack of natural speed, I have to work a little harder. Things come at a more painful cost. But, I think mental capacity can make up for at least a portion of that. Now that I am more mature as a runner, I find that I work harder. I am less likely to take a day off of running or back out of running every day. Back in the day, I would take two days a week off, or if it was raining, I didn’t go running because I just didn’t want to deal with it. I don't do that anymore, and it has made me a better runner. It takes a lot for me to not want to go running. Very rarely do I feel like I don’t want to go running. Usually, I’m fighting something so that I can go; I’m usually trying to get something done so that I can go run.
What is your wife’s name?
How long have you been married?
We got married in 2008, and we’ve been together since early 2003.
How old is your daughter?
She is seven.
Between family, work, and running, it’s hard to imagine that you have time for much else?
Well, I manage to squeeze running in there, like every other person who does these things. Two years ago, and prior to that, there was no time. That’s why I didn’t do it. I was either training to deploy, deployed, or just returning from deployment. There was just no time for running. But, now, I have been fortunate in being given a chance – given a spot where I can take a break. Two years ago, I made the commitment to myself to focus on ultras again and see what’s possible. In December, I came to Florida, and that allows me to take plenty of time. I kind of control my own hours. There is time now to run.
How do you strike a balance between work, family, and running?
To be honest with you, I don’t think it is possible. Balance is in the eye of the beholder. What seems balanced to me, I guarantee you, does not seem balanced to my wife or my daughter. It’s kind of a fine line with selfishness and forcing something on other people. But, I think they are tolerant of it because they know it is not forever. To me, this is an opportunity that I want to take advantage of. Maybe in two or three years, I won’t be so driven. I will have accomplished some of the goals that I want to accomplish. It will become more recreational. But, right now, I am very driven. It’s about competing with myself mentally and physically.
So, your family is supportive of your running?
Definitely. Obviously, there are always some frustrations associated with it that relate to the kind of selfish nature that runners tend to have. But, my wife has seen, for one, the gratification I get from racing. She has also experienced the misery when I can’t run, when something happens and I can’t get out there. I think every runner turns into a monster when they are not able to do it.
I want to switch gears here a little and talk about Badwater. Badwater is a race that I hear you’ve been waiting 14 years to do. Can you tell me how you first heard about Badwater and what made you want to do it?
Back in the 90s, Badwater was my main driving force. It was one of those races that just upped the ante. It increases the variables due to location and extreme temperature. It adds more difficulty to something that is already relatively difficult. Eric and I had always talked about Badwater. Badwater was supposed to be my next thing. As a matter of fact, in 1998 we both planned on going, but then I got my injury. He went; I didn’t. And when the injury took its toll, I kind of cut ties. So there’s a little bit of unfinished business there. It’s always been a lingering thing. It was next on my to-do list. Then, when I started running again, I focused on the 24 hour stuff because I was intrigued by it. But, 24 hour runs aren’t qualifiers for Badwater, or at least they don’t seem to be looked upon very highly. But, once I got a 100 miler in with a good time, I thought, “I’m fairly positive that if I applied to Badwater they’d let me in.”
By the way, I’ve never understood why the 24 hour race isn’t a good qualifier for Badwater. It would seem to me that if you can run 100 miles in the course of a 24 hour race, that’s just as good as running a 100 mile race.
I don’t understand it either. To me, a 24 hour run is way more mentally challenging than any fixed distance run.
Have you ever been to Death Valley before?
What made you decide to register this year?
It was really spontaneous. After I ran the Long Haul 100 miler here in Florida, I was trying to come up with a game plan or a set of races that would sort of drive me along leading me up to the potential to be on the U.S. team for the 24 hour run in September. A soon as I read the deadline to apply for Badwater – the deadline was February 15 and I read it on February 7 – I thought, “I just need to apply to do it. If I get in, it will be perfect timing. I will get in shape for Badwater, and provided I am injury free after finishing – or not finishing – I will be that much stronger toward the end of the calendar year to do the 24 hour team, which I think they announce this month.
What does your training schedule look like?
I am running 130 to 140 miles per week. Just as much as I can whenever I can.
Do you find there is an advantage to training in Florida for Badwater?
I think there’s an advantage to being on the East Coast and dealing with the humidity. The heat is going to be the most challenging aspect of Badwater for me. The anxiety of the heat. I think running in the humidity carries over to the dry heat. Some people complain that in dry heat, they get stomach issues. I know from being deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq that it’s harder running in a humid environment. I feel like my heart is working way harder when it's humid. So, I am going to take advantage of that while I can by running in the heat of the day here.
It’s pretty flat here. There aren’t a lot of training features. I’ve got a couple of good hills that are not steep, vertical climbs, but they are a decent duration that I can run repeats on. I think that one thing people ought to know is that if you can train on a good road grade type of climb, fitness in general and efficiency in running form will make do for the mountain races. If you don’t live in a place with mountain-like terrain, you obviously can’t replicate the race conditions, but you can compensate for that with just general fitness.
Are you doing anything else besides running to get ready for Badwater?
A couple of years ago, work required me to have physical strength and upper body strength. But, now I don’t have that requirement because I am not deployed and I am not wearing body armor everyday and climbing walls and stuff. So, now I am taking advantage of that. I might do body weight exercises. Calisthenics and stuff. Just to maintain general resiliency. But, I’m not going to the gym to lift weights or anything like that. I’m mostly just running.
Are you doing any special heat training other than running in the heat of the day?
Where is your favorite place to run?
Well, right now I am doing all my running on roads just for that mental preparation. I’ve got a couple of different routes I do based on how much time I have. I have a route that I run at work, and here at the house, I have a 12, 15, and 18 mile run that I do. It’s just through neighborhoods and there are also some road sections.
What do you think about when you run?
My family asked me that, too. Everything and anything. I don’t listen to music. I have a lot of stuff that I think about. Work. Life in general. Literally, I think about everything.
As you know, Valmir Nunes set the course record in 2007 at 22 hours and 51 minutes. I know you said you don’t compare yourself to external standards when you race, but does part of you think about going for the Badwtaer course record?
Without a doubt. Mathematically, I think there is the potential there to do it. But, that’s not my goal. My goal is to finish the race. Just doing the race is an investment of time, money, and effort. There are varying degrees of success. I will be happy just finishing. Finishing Badwater will bring me immense satisfaction. If I have a good race and set a new course record, then that would be fine, too.
Do you have any fears or anxieties going into this thing?
I’m sure there will be regret if I have to drop out. I have dropped out of races in the past, and I’ve learned my lesson about really analyzing a situation before you drop out. Not being able to run these races for over ten years, I have learned my lesson about regret. Winning a race and setting a record is secondary to the goal of just finishing. I am more intrigued by the group that takes 30 hours to run 100 miles than the group that takes 15 hours because those people know something we don’t. They have some drive in them, and I wonder if I even have that drive. I don’t ever want to regret not finishing the race.
Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I really appreciate it, and I wish you all the best with your training these coming weeks.
A note about Mike's plan to compete in the U.S. National 24 Hour Team: as of June 14, 2012, it was officially announced that he was selected for the team and will compete in Katowice, Poland, at the IAU 24 Hour World Cup on Saturday & Sunday, September 8-9, 2012. You can find the complete team list here.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Part I: The Desert
"Why should the lovely things of the earth - the grasses, the trees, the lakes, the little hills - appear trivial and insignificant when we come face to face with...the desert or the vastness of the midnight sky? They are the great elements. We do not see, we hardly know if their boundaries are limited; we only feel their immensity, their mystery, and their beauty." -John C. Van Dyke, The DesertThe little insect scampered across the ground; its metallic blue-black wings shimmered in the late morning sun. The day was still as death, not a breath of wind. Just the pitilessness of that blazing white sun. Temperatures rose steadily as the hours went on, but the little wasp could not concern itself with the heat just yet. It was on the prowl, and the scent of its target was thick in the air. It was close. Swiftly it moved over the sand and rocks of the desert floor, until, before long, it happened upon a hole dug into the earth. Here it was: the thing for which it had been searching these past few days, tracking the scent with a ferocious intensity, as if life itself – its very survival – depended on finding it.
The wasp scurried down into the burrow, using its antennae to probe the darkness; in a single instant, it came upon a large, black body huddled deep inside the dwelling. The insect nicked the pulsating mass with its antennae, and in a flash, the colossal creature awoke to the intruder’s presence, scrambling up the burrow, forcing the wasp back up to the entrance, and into the daylight.
Now, out in the open, the two nemeses faced off and regarded each other with a primal aggression. There stood the spider, freshly emerged from its desert burrow, its hairy legs stemmed out from the thick, brown-black abdomen. The wasp lunged forward, as if to strike the tarantula, but the looming creature raised its front legs and bared its fangs. The wasp quickly retreated. It darted around the spider, and before the creature could even react, the wasp seized the tarantula by its hind legs and flipped it on its back. Unable to move, the spider flailed its limbs in the air to repel wasp, but it was too late: the little insect struck at its abdomen with its needle-like stinger.
The blow was fast, but effective. In just a few seconds, the spider went limp. The legs stopped moving; the body stopped thrashing. But, the animal did not die. It could sense what was happening. It could even see the wasp from where it lay. It watched as the winged insect moved closer, latched onto its body, and proceeded to drag it back towards the burrow. If the spider wanted to move, fight, or flee, paralysis made that wish a stark impossibility. Down the hole they went, until finally, they reached the end of the burrow.
The wasp climbed onto the tarantula’s abdomen and proceeded to lay a single egg on the spider’s thick body. Them she climbed out of the burrow and back up to the surface, leaving the defenseless spider with that precious egg egg – her future and the continuance of her species. She sealed up the narrow entrance of the burrow – now a burial vault – with dirt and rocks, so that nothing could disturb the scene that lay below.
For soon, that egg would hatch. And soon, the fat little grub that emerged – connected to the spider by the tip of its tail – would bend over and attach its head to the spider’s body and begin to suck. The tarantula might even still be alive as the baby creature rips into its abdomen and feeds on its insides. Thus, life will end and new life will begin here in the desert.
The Panamint Range glimmered in the distance. The sun rose higher in the sky. Somewhere off in the distance, a raven let out a low, guttural wail. For thousands of years Death Valley has teemed with life, both big and small. It is both womb and graveyard. Harsh yet beautiful. It is life and it is death. Its power is eternal. The spirits of the dead saturate the ground. They linger in the air. Those who enter the desert's grasp will feel that power and will be in awe of it.
Thursday, June 7, 2012
When I called Brad Lombardi on May 29, 2012, he was in his one-bedroom apartment in Stuart, Florida, eating a green salad while perched on a plastic lawn chair his neighbor lent him. You see, Brad doesn't own any furniture. No table. No chairs. He doesn't even own a TV. Just a foam pad to sleep on and an air conditioning unit that is left perpetually unplugged. It is all part of a conscious style of simple living that he has adopted; what Brad doesn't have in material possessions, he makes up for by living life to the extreme. The 43 year old ultrarunner and ex-smoker has tackled the 100 mile distance with some incredible results. I talked to Brad about life, relationships, and running. This summer, he is set to run the legendary Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, California.
I want to start by congratulating you on your performance at the Keys 100 miler.
Well, I’m a little disappointed, but I’ve learned that you don’t get greedy with these things and you take what you can get.
Disappointed? You finished in, what, 19 hours?
A lot of people would consider that to be a pretty good time.
Well, I was shooting for 16:30, so…
And this was your second time doing Keys, right?
Yeah. It was actually my one year anniversary of doing 100 milers. The Keys 100 in 2011 was actually my first 100 mile race. In that 12 month period, I toed the line for seven 100 milers. And I went five-for-seven.
What do you think went wrong this time?
It was the rain. My feet got wet. We hit my time targets in the beginning. I was at 3 hours and 30 minutes at the 25 mile mark. My target was 7 hours and 40 minutes for 50 miles. I came in at 7 hours and 41 minutes. So, I was right on schedule. But, then my feet got wet, and it just went all downhill from there. I actually got cold during the race. The last thing I expected during that race was that I was going to get cold and that I was going to be wet. I had prepared myself for the heat. I love the heat. I was expecting it to get up to 100 degrees, maybe even 110. I thought, “The hotter the better.” And as soon as the rain came out, I was just laughing to myself. I was like, “Are you kidding me right now?”
Have you always been an athlete?
Pretty much. The main thing that has kept me in shape over the years has been surfing. I’ve been surfing for about 25 years now, and that’s kind of all I did for a long time. I had run a few marathons before. In my early 40s, I did a few 5k and 10k races. Stuff like that. But, I was a pack-a-day smoker less than three years ago. That’s kind of my claim to fame. I quit cold turkey on July 25, 2009. Since since that day, I have done over 50 marathons and ultras, including my seven 100 milers. It just sort of progressed. I didn’t even know what the hell an ultramarathon was until my friend told me about them.
Tell me about surfing. Do you still ride the waves?
I do, but not like I used to. My friends in San Diego still don’t understand how I have put surfing on hold to do this whole Badwater thing. For a long time, surfing was, literally, all I ever did. From the ages of 22 to 40, that was who I was. A surfer. I left every girlfriend; I left every job; I left every stable situation I was ever in to chase waves around. Every job I’ve ever had has been, basically, near the surf, in the four corners of the United States: the Pacific Northwest, New England, Florida, and California. I worked on boats mostly so that I could be close to the water.
How do you relate surfing and running together?
I just love to do both. Surfing and running are the kind of sports that just keep you happy and fit because you like doing them. They are not a painful tasks. You don’t have to twist my arm to get me to go out and run or surf. I do it because I like doing it. They are also very similar in the sense that they very individual sports.
I find a lot of runners I talk to tended to shy away from team sports when they were younger.
It’s kind of a selfish sport. I don’t like team stuff. My girlfriend always says that I’m a loner. I don’t like groups. I don’t like too much interaction. I do a lot of these Ragnar Relay Races. But, the only way I will do a relay is if it is totally paid for, if I don’t have to spend a dime, and if I don’t have to drive. That’s kind of my rule because I just don’t really like it. But, I do them because it’s forced miles.
What do you do for a living?
I’m a traditional wooden boat builder by trade and I worked as a shipwright and carpenter for many years. But, presently, I work as a test driver for emerging amphibious vehicles. It’s actually a pretty cool job. I’m like the Chuck Yeager of these kinds of vehicles. They haven’t really hit the market yet. I’m not really allowed to talk too much about them. We’re not allowed to take photos or talk too much about them, but imagine a cross between a four-wheeler and a jet ski. These things cruise around on land, and then, when they hit the water, you push a button and they turn into a jet ski. Basically, my job is, for ten hours a day, I go drive them around and push them to their limits until they break, and then try to figure out why things are breaking. It’s pretty much a dream job.
And the funny thing is, they found me. At first, I thought it was a joke. But, the guys that run it are really cool. They know what I’ve got going on here and they are very accommodating. If I’ve got a race to do or whatever, they give me the days off. It’s good money. And it’s a lot of work. You ride these things for a lot of hours. It’s kind of good cross training. So, that’s an added bonus.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Rhode Island, and I grew up in New England: Rhode Island and New Hampshire. I went to high school out in Seattle. Then, I went to Boston for college.
Was athletics a big part of your childhood?
I grew up playing hockey. I started running when I was probably around 12 years old. I did some road races. In junior high school, I was actually a pretty good cross country runner. I think I got 12th place in the Rhode Island state championships. But, when we moved out to Seattle, I didn't run in high school. It’s kind of funny because now I’m friends with all these guys from high school still, and they were all these big track stars in school and they see what I am doing now and they ask me, “Why the hell didn’t you run in high school?” I really don’t have an answer for that. Because I was going to dance clubs and smoking cigarettes probably.
Yuck. Of all the vices, why cigarettes?
I don’t know. Coming out of the water when you’re done surfing and having a butt and some coffee; being around a boatyard; being a carpenter. It all just went hand-in-hand with smoking. Really unhealthy. And I got bigger. Not necessarily fat, but muscular from swinging a hammer, moving big wood and big boats and stuff. I was up to about 205 pounds, smoking butts regularly. I smoked not so much as a social activity or to be cool or anything. I just liked smoking by myself and working on wood and working on boats. I don't anymore though. [Laughs]. I hate it. I’ll never go back.
What made you quit?
It was my high school girlfriend. She got cancer. She was doing chemo treatments in Seattle, and I was in Boston at the time. She has since passed away, but at the time, we talked on the phone a lot. She would call me up during her treatments at 3 a.m. - it was midnight where I was. And we would talk. She convinced me to turn my life around. She got got me to quit smoking. And she convinced me to get into running. She was my catalyst. I envisioned her just sitting there in that hospital, dying to get out and do something. But, she couldn’t. And here I was, clowning around with my life. I had to change.
And what a change! You were an occasional recreational runner and now you are running the world's toughest footrace.
I've really enjoyed the journey. I've gotten pretty far in just a short period of time. I went from toeing the line of my first 100 miler to running Badwater in just 14 months.
What attracts you to these extreme events as opposed to shorter distances?
The 100 mile distance, for me right now, is the distance that really gets my attention. It’s difficult for me to even consider doing the little races. A lot of my friends are triathletes and super fast 5k and 10k people. They are always trying to get me to do these little races, but it doesn’t turn me on. The 100 mile distance is just such a daunting distance. I don’t care if you’re Mike Morton or any of the other big guys: every guy that toes the line realizes what he is in for for that day. It’s so frickin’ hard. But, when it’s over, it’s pretty satisfying. It’s tough to top. I’m sure with Badwater, if I can somehow find that finish line in the time I’m looking to do, it’s probably going to be a peak thing. It’s going to be an epic moment in my life, I’m sure.
You were telling me earlier about your difficulties financing Badwater. Tell me more about trying to strike that balance between work – trying to earn money – and going off and doing these races, which can be quite costly.
It’s tough. I give my girlfriend a lot of the credit because she helps with so much of the financial stuff. I only get paid once a month. So, I get paid tomorrow for the month of May. Then, I’m going to have to wait another 30 days for the next paycheck. Which means this will be my last paycheck before Badwater. It totally – excuse my French – fucks me. I had a friend who was able to pull a few strings to get me into the San Diego 100 mile race on June 10, but I don’t have the cash to get there. It kind of sucks.
You’re also going to school now.
Yeah, I’m a part-time student. Over the years, I moved around so much that I never finished my degree. I have three classes to go in a degree that I started twenty years ago at Boston University. Because of the online program through Southern New Hampshire University, I am able to finish it. The degree is in English language and literature. The idea was that once I stopped running around I was going to go teach abroad or something. At this stage, I may parlay this whole running thing into some kind of teaching or coaching deal. Or something along those lines. It’s never too late, you know. I essentially started running at the age of 40, and I kind of went back to school at age 40, too. It's funny: I feel younger now at age 43 than I did at age 23. It really is relative. A lot of people think I am in my late 20s or something. But, I was born in 1969. I’m an old dude.
What is your girlfriend's name?
How did you meet?
I met her two years ago when I was in Florida. I was actually dating another girl at the time. Brooke was friends with my next door neighbor, and we met because I had a dog and she had a couple of dogs. Well, time went by. I left Florida and went on a road trip out west. I went and worked on a boat in Washington for six months. I broke up with the other girl, and then decided to come back to Florida about a year and a half ago. It just happened we were both single, and boom! I just started dating her! So, it’s been about a year and a half.
Is she involved in your running career?
When I met her, she didn’t know anything about this ultra stuff. She liked being around it, though. She crewed me for my first 100 miler. And I’m tough to deal with. I’ll warn you right now. Towards the end of race, I can be quite nasty. But she put up with it. She is incredible. She knows what I need during the course of a race. I don’t stop anymore during 100 milers. I used to have to sit down and eat something or change. But, now, I just grab whatever she gives me. I don’t even have to ask. She just knows me that well. The thought of going out there to races without her is very scary to me. I’m pretty confident that I couldn’t do it without her there.
Not to change the topic from your girlfriend, but what do you mean you are difficult to deal with during a race?
I can be kind of moody. Everyone knows that about me. My crew knows what to say and what not to say. My pacer knows when to open his mouth and when to shut it. I actually tell my pacer that: “Don’t speak until you are spoken to.” I don’t sugarcoat stuff. Some people hate me because of that. If I don’t like something about you, I’m not going to pretend. You’re going to get an honest answer out of me. I’m brutally honest. Abrasively honest. And when things aren’t going my way, it’s pretty tough to be around me. During these races, I can be a total jerk. During Iron Horse, there was a stretch where I missed my girlfriend for about 4 miles. It was between miles 92 and 96. I ran out of food and water. And that cost me a sub-17 hour finish time. I was on track for a 16:50 finish. But, my tank went on empty and I had nothing. I was crawling. When I finally met up with her and she got me food and water, I was a dick. I was screaming at her.
And how does she handle all this? The races. All this training time you’re putting in. Is that strain on the relationship?
At the beginning it was, but she understands. She’s really easy. She’s also very independent. She has all her own stuff going on. So, we don’t have that tension that a lot of couples do. And I know a lot of people do have it. A lot of my friends do. It’s a lot of hours. My training runs 25 to 30 hours a week. Plus working. Plus my class. Plus sleeping. It doesn’t leave a lot of extra free time. Fortunately, I live very simply.
What do you mean by living simply?
I haven’t owned a TV in 23 years. I don’t even have any furniture in here right now. Essentially, all I’m doing is sleeping on a foam mattress and trying to stay really simple and focused on getting fit. I just recently got a phone. I didn’t even have a phone for a year and a half. But, now I do. So, I guess I’m kind of rejoining society a little bit.
And just to be clear: this lifestyle is by design. It’s a chosen philosophy more than a default one. You choose to live this way.
Absolutely. And I’ve lived this way for a long time. It’s funny; a bunch of triathlete friends of mine all came over to my place the other day to give me a ride. My friend Gavin had to step inside because he had heard stories about my place but had never seen it for himself. He looked around and said, “Well, you do have an air conditioner, but it’s unplugged!” I actually have Christmas lights plugged in the wall, and that is kind of my lighting situation right now. My parents would see me when I was living in San Diego or Boston or wherever the hell I was – I’ve moved over 40 times in 43 years – and they would feel bad for me. They thought I was living in this unhappy poverty-stricken state. They’d go out and they’d buy me all this shit, and I’d come home from work and there would be a little bed and a little table with some chairs. And three months later, I’d move someplace else; so, I’d sell the stuff. They’d get all pissed off. They probably did that about ten times over the years.
Do you find there is a lot of pressure to conform to the “normal” lifestyle of our materialistic culture. House. Car. That sort of thing.
No. People don’t get it. Like my friend Gavin. He was just blown away. They call my apartment “the monastery.” The average American household has the TV on for seven hour a day. The average American individual watches TV for four hours a day. One day, I just got out a calculator and I multiplied 4 hours by 30 days by 12 months by 40 years. And the amount of hours TV takes up in our lives is just ridiculous. I realized at the age of 19 that that was something I just didn’t want to do. That was the last time I owned a television. I gave my TV away, and that was it. I’ve had people give me TV sets over the years and I ended up just giving them away. I won’t do it. I won’t spend my life like that.
And yet, non-active people are often astonished that ultrarunners can devote hours a day to training. It’s because we don’t spend that time in front of the television.
Absolutely. I’ve had people ask, “How the hell do you do all this? You must have some fancy trust fund set up. Where do you find the time?” If you just turn off your TV! The average American watches TV for four hours a day. Four hours. That is my training for the day. People always talk about these new shows on TV. I have no idea what they are talking about... I read. I do read a lot.
It must be liberating to live that way.
Right now, I have 52 cents in the bank. I guarantee you that I am the poorest person doing Badwater this year. I am a hiccup away from living in a cardboard box. But, I am also a hiccup away from greatness. I am very lucky compared to a lot of people. Even though I don’t have a lot of shit and I don’t have any money, I am very healthy and I am very happy. A lot of people get up in the morning and they think about a fancy car or a big house. I think about running. I’m just very content living this way. I’m very content not having a lot of shit.
That probably makes it easier to relocate!
It's funny: I’m actually about to move out of this place in about two weeks. I am going to put all my stuff in storage, and I’m going to get a travel trailer and drive out to Death Valley. When you live like this, it allows you the opportunity to roll up the carpet and go. I went and paced my friend, Sergio Radovcic, at Ultraman UK this year. He called and said, “You’re the only one I know who’s crazy and stupid enough to roll up the carpet and leave for ten days. Wanna go?” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s go.” Now, if I had a wife and kids, I wouldn’t be doing this.
I want to talk now about Badwater. How did you first hear about the race and what sparked your interest?
The funny thing is, I knew nothing about Badwater. I used to date this girl, and she told me one day, “Hey, I got this movie. Why don’t you watch this while you’re running on the treadmill today. It’s called ‘The Distance of Truth’ and it’s about this guy named Ferg Hawke.” I threw the movie in, and when that movie was over, I said, “I’m going to do that.” And this was long before I even did an ultra. I’ve probably seen that movie 50 times now. I correspond with Ferg now. He’s been really encouraging since I started doing this.
What made you apply this year?
I actually had no intention to apply for Badwater this year. I was actually supposed to crew for Chris Roman. Chris asked me a long time ago, and I said yes. I figured I would go grew this year and 2013 would be my year. But, I was getting better and better at the 100 mile distance. I ran my first 100 miler in 23 hours. Then I took it down to 21 hours. Then, 19 hours. Finally, I dropped down to 17 hours. That was at Iron Horse. After that, I was like, “You know what, I’m just as fast, and, in fact, faster than a lot of these guys doing Badwater.” And I’m super fit right now. So, I figured, why not throw my name in there? I’ve got a decent backstory. I’ve got the credentials. Write a couple of essays. I got a letter of recommendation from Mimi Anderson, who I crewed for last year. It was just kind of a long shot.
Tell me about your relationship with Mimi Anderson. What was it like crewing for her?
It was awesome. I had never met Mimi before going out to crew for her. She was going for the record for the Badwater Double.
Which she got.
Easily. I think she broke it by like 20 hours. When I met Mimi for the Double, I thought, “This is insane. I don't know how someone can even finish Badwater once, let alone turn around and run back to the start. You’re going to run across Death Valley, summit Mount Whitney, and then run all the way back?!" I was actually the first pacer on. I got on at Furnace Creek, at mile 17. At that point, she was hauling ass. I think she was running 8:30 minute miles. And I remember going, “Mimi, you are going way too fast. I know I’m kind of green at this whole thing, but I don’t think this is a good idea.” And by the time we got to mile 30, she was really getting weary. I even said to one of the other crew members, “How is she going to do a Double? I don’t even think she’s going to finish this thing.” And then, I watched this little lady – 5-foot-nothing, 100 pounds, fueled by nothing but grapes and almonds and water (her diet during this race was just so small; it was ridiculous) – just get stronger and stronger. When she got to mile 75 and then cracked 100 miles, all of a sudden, she transformed into this machine. She was just relentless. It was so cool to watch the whole evolution of it. She powered through the thing. Super tough lady. Incredible. And she’s a grandmother! I’m 43 years old, and I'm a pretty tough dude, but I was watching this grandmother run me into the ground. As a pacer, I was just amazed. I needed relief, and she just kept on going. And it’s not like it just ends at Badwater with her. She’s done some insane races. She just finished the Jungle Marathon yesterday.
You draw inspiration from her.
Of course. All that just gets put into your memory bank. She’s been instrumental in keeping me inspired to do this thing. When I get into trouble during these races, I start thinking Ferg. I start thinking Mimi. All these people that you’ve seen come back from the dead and power through these things.
Are you being coached?
Yes. I am doing the Furnace Creek 508, too. I am going for the Death Valley Cup, so I actually have a fancy Belgian coach now. His name is Dr. Peter Vervoort.
How did you come into contact with him?
A friend of mine owns a bike shop called Belgian Bike. And he’s his doctor. He hooked me up with this guy. And the two of them have kind of taken me under their wings to try and hone my skills a little bit because I’ve really never trained before. Up until about two months ago, I’ve never really trained for a race. I would do my running, but there was no rhyme or reason to it. No structure.
And you felt you needed that for the Death Valley Cup?
Well, I wasn’t going to turn it down. It’s kind of nice: every morning, I just click on my phone and it tells me to ride “X” miles or run “X” miles. My coach has incorporated 200 to 300 miles of cycling per week into my running routine. So, I am running about 100 miles a week. And I am cycling about 200 miles. But, what I am going to do for the next few weeks is up my running mileage and just keep my cycling where it is at. I try to stick to what my coach gives me as much as possible, but I adapt it to what I feel I need. Like yesterday I wasn’t supposed to run, but I ran anyway because I felt like it. What they put out there, I treat as a general guideline, but it is not the Bible. When Badwater is over, then, I will quit running and focus on cycling until the 508 in October.
Where do you like to do your training runs?
I really love Florida. I like the Treasure Coast around here. Hutchinson Island is also a good place. Jensen Beach. It’s an 18 mile long island and I love to run there. I kind of feel like a local celebrity when I go run there. I get a lot of honks. A lot of thumbs up. I get a lot of support in this community.
I understand that you have a nickname. What do they call you?
They call me “The Peacock.”
Why do they call you that?
Well, they call me “The Peacock” because – it’s kind of a long story. I’ll give you the short version. The friend I told you about who asked me to pace him at Ultraman UK, Sergio, well, when I met him, it was for a Ragnar thing about two years ago. I’d never met him in person, but he needed a guy to run it, so I said, “As long as it’s paid for, I'll do it,” and he said, “Yep. I got a hotel. I got a van. Everything.” So, my friend Will Glover and I got on this relay team. They picked us up. We started running our leg. And we got really competitive. We set the tempo pretty fast. And when I run, I run very upright and just take off like a peacock. Sergio said it to Will while I was running. He has a European accent. He said, “[Imitating the accent] Will, what is it with Brad? Look at him. Look at the way he runs. He looks like a fucking peacock!” And from that moment on, it kind of stuck. So now, I am the freaking peacock. I went with it. Now, I go to races and I hear people yelling, “Go! Peacock!” It’s pretty cool.
What time of day do you usually run?
Whenever I can get the hours, basically. I belong to a running group, which I attend every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 a.m. I like running with them. And then, I’ll maybe run in the middle of the afternoon if I’m not working. And then, run at night.
Are you doing any specific heat training?
Martin Memorial Hospital is the gym I go to. The trainer there, Scott Morrison, gave me a year's free membership as part of an incentive to, basically, do well at Badwater. He wants to help me. And he gives me a lot of pointers on nutrition and stuff. But, the only sauna in the country is at LA Fitness. So, I was forced to join. And I go there about 4 or 5 times a week.
Is it active or passive sauna time?
I just sit there like Buddha Brad. I’ve worked my way up to where I can sit in there for 60 minutes. I take two big jugs of water in with me that I put in the freezer the night before. And I just sit there and try to control my breathing and stay relaxed and take the heat. I try to be happy with the heat. But, it’s tough because there are so many yahoos who come in and they are kickboxers and they juice the thing up to 240 degrees and sit there for like three minutes. And here I am trying to log in time. It's so frustrating! I’ve come to the point where I just tell them, “Dude, if you are in here for just three minutes, jumping around like a monkey at 240 degrees, it doesn’t do you any health benefit.” I’ve had that conversation with a lot of guys in there.
Do you have a time goal in mind for Badwater?
I do, indeed.
Do you care to share it?
I don’t want to disclose it.
Fair enough. I want to talk now about your mental preparation. We’ve talked about training your body, but how do you prep your mind for an event like this?
That’s funny you say that because people always ask me what my biggest training secret is and that’s it. Mental training. I do a lot of relaxation techniques. I do it in the sauna, and I do it when I go to bed and when I get up in the morning. It’s just kind of realizing and reflecting on where I was and how I got here and what I am doing. Staying focused on the present moment is super important.
Any fears going into this thing?
I think it would be the biggest regret of my life if I don’t come home with that buckle. I even told the guys at work, “At this point, with 45 days left to go, I am willing to walk away from everything in order to know that I’m prepared when I show up on race day. The last thing I want is show up to Badwater Basin and toe that line at 8 a.m. with reservations that I haven’t prepared myself. I want to take the line with confidence, and with a little pinch of fear, that I can cover the distance. I think if I give it my best and if I prepare myself my best and something goes horribly wrong and I don’t finish, then I could probably live with it. But, I will use all 48 hours if I have to.
Brad, I have no doubts that you will be amazing. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me, and I want to wish you all the best in your training.