Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tales from the Furnace: Doug Ratliff Pre-Race Q&A

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 or click here.

Also, be sure to visit Doug's fundraising website at for more information on how you can donate to this very worthy cause.

1 comment:

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