Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Salty Bones & Windywater 2013: Inaugural Running of the BADWATER: SALTON SEA Ultramarathon

Photo by David Nelson

RACE DAY: MONDAY AFTERNOON

"I knew we should have left LA earlier to make the damn preview hike" I fume quietly to myself.  I look down at my watch: 2:45pm.  I remove my shirt as I am starting to overheat a bit on this sandy trail scrawling up and over a ridge.  Below I see Montezuma Valley Rd and the valley floor of the Anza-Borrego Desert.  Ominous clouds hang off to the northwest, but we're trending upward, seemingly straight up and to the southwest as we crawl uphill towards Ranchita, California (4,065 feet in elevation).  The trail passes by an area called Hellhole Flat (HHF is aptly named) and is supposedly only 7.8 miles, but after over 80 minutes of this sandy mess of a trail, we've only progressed about 4 miles and we’ve lost touch with Team Miami Thrice (the threesome presently leading the race, now by what must have been 2 to 3 minutes)...

FLASHBACK TO PRE-RACE MEETING SUNDAY EVENING
#BWSS RD Chris Kostman renames Team Coyote, Team GAUDY!
“The trail took me & Miami Thrice about 2-hours, 40-minutes to complete.” Chris Kostman (RD aka Mad Scientist behind this Salton Sea event) quipped.  He continued, “The trail will NOT be marked.  If you get to an intersection, look for the brown trail markers with yellow tops, if there are none, you are trending generally left. It might be a little confusing after Mile 4 on the trail…” Chris hasn’t race directed a ton of trail races to the best of my knowledge. Many of his courses have road miles checked off by vehicular odometer with turn-by-turn street directions.
The infamous day I got Ray & I lost for 13+ miles outta Chicago...
Then there’s the issue of Ray Sanchez & I, who while running Chicago to Santa Monica on the Route 66 (one year earlier) ran 26 miles out of Chicago only to discover I’d navigated us 13 miles down the wrong road, meaning he and I had to up our miles from 26 each to 32 each on Day 1 of 17 running halfway across the country. Needless to say Ray and I have gotten lost together more than one time.  We exchanged glances that said, “CRAP, you & I gotta navigate 7.8 miles of trail together.” Let alone the other 73 miles of road with what seemed like more than 73 turns.

RACE DAY: MONDAY 2:48pm
“Come ON, Ray-Ray!” I yell back to Ray who’s falling behind David “The Legend of Villalobos" & I.  We’ve renamed David ‘Villa-yotes’ (Village of Coyotes) since he’s the member of the pack experiencing the biggest recent performance breakthroughs.  He’s only run 50 miles (at one go) previously, and today we’re hoping he’ll tack on another 50k for good measure.  He’s been hanging in like a champ after having a low moment at Mile 35.  Ray is now quietly struggling with some bad chafing and dropping behind.  We can’t leave him more than 10 meters behind based on the race rules stipulating this team race be run together. That means we sometimes thrive together and other times survive together.  “Ray-Ray, if we let these guys get too far ahead, we might spend 30-60 min longer searching for the trail!”  I plead.  Ray doesn’t respond.  But he does pick up his pace.  I catch a quick and unexpected glimpse of Miami Thrice disappearing over another sandy rock formation to the left.  “Sweet!” I think to myself, “We’re still headed the right way”


Brad from Miami Thrice & I ham it up at start of 7.8-mile trail section.

FLASHBACK TO PHONE CONVERSATION 2-MONTHS PRIOR
"Okay, so I have this idea..." said Chris Kostman with an energy in his voice heard only in a cartoon mad scientist when he has figured out new diabolical ways to take over the planet.  Chris is the longtime race director (see: caretaker and historian) of the BADWATER Ultramarathon, a 135-mile ultra running race from (285-ft below sea level in) the bowels of Death Valley National Park in southeastern California, to the Whitney Portals (the trail head to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the 48-contiguous US states).  I'll spare you the long-winded description, race history, and evolution of BADWATER (and allow you to seek that out if you don't already know the history there).  Click HERE for 2-min, 24-sec "what BADWATER is" video...

Chris continued, "So... what would you think about a 81-mile race from the beach of the Salton Sea (near-ish Palm Springs) due west and up Palomar Mountain?  And it wouldn't be 100% roads, but have some trail sections and be run on the dirt shoulder sometimes too!  AND... *pregnant pause*... you'd share crew with other runners and have to stay close enough together to start, progress and finish on the course together."

And with that, BADWATER SALTON SEA was born.

Aftermath of a BADWATER 2010 finish: complete inflammation response.
As someone who's completed BADWATER in one of the hotter, windier years for that race (2010 saw temps in the shade in the 128-degree range and pavement temps recorded upwards of 168-degrees), and also as someone who routinely looks for the hotter and more difficult 100-mile races to compete in, this all sounded very intriguing.  But I couldn't wrap my mind around a single point...

"SHARE crews? What happens when one person falls apart and the other(s) feel good, Chris?  I think it's an interesting, if idealistic concept.  Just don't know how you'd pull that off."

RACE DAY: MONDAY JUST AFTER 3:15pm
Villa-yotes shirt has been off for hours.  Ray-Ray took his off an hour ago.  I took mine off maybe 2 miles ago and a slight breeze hits us as the sky begins to darken. “Man that breeze feels good” David remarks. Careful what you wish for. The skies open up and less than 10 minutes later we’re getting dumped on. Add in some stiff cross winds and we go from overheating to a shivering panic button being hit. “Fellas, we either start running up this mountain now, or we freeze, quickly.”  I start running uphill and pray they come with me.  I glance over my shoulder and they’re both right there with me.  Relief. The hill lets up on us and we catch another glance of Miami Thrice.  At the next confusing intersection, we see sandy footprints preserved by the rain that’s coming down harder and harder now.  Miami Thrice is made up of two athletes from Miami (friends Dave Krupski & Bradford Lombardi), and one Aussie (Grant Maughan).  Brad ran BADWATER in 2012, both Dave & Grant are registered rookies in 2013.  All three are accomplished ultra-athletes, and fierce competitors which can be masked at times by smiles & clever jokes.  I catch the back of Dave’s white tank top disappearing behind another bush.  We’re closing on them (a little)...

FLASHBACK TO MILES 20-40
Miami Thrice usurped the lead from Team Sole to Soul around Mile 20.  Somewhere just after the first marathon mark, we were side by side. “This is like an Olympic 5k, nobody wants to take the lead” jabs Dave.  “Okay”, I think to myself, “We will lead.”
Dave & Grant of Miami Thrice followed close behind by Team Coyote

Between Mile 27 and Mile 40, the back and forth between Team #12 & Team #14 flip-flopped at least 5 times.  We were never more than 2-3 minutes apart.  We stalked each other.  We watched the crew exchanges.  Our girls (Kate & Angela) cheered for Miami Thrice.  Their girls (Alex+Zoey, Brooke & Laura) cheered for us.  We studied their habits and they watched ours.  It was a fun little chess match.  It was all cordial, friendly and encouraging. But we were clear they wanted to drop us.  We were clear we didn't want to be dropped, especially on the trail that began at Mile 40.

RACE DAY: MONDAY AROUND 4:00pm
Fffffaa-faaa-fffffaaaaa-freeeeeezing
It's raining harder.  Worse than that, the winds are gusting hard.  Villa-yotes, Ray-Ray & I are shivering and my hands are cramping from the cold.  We catch one more glimpse of Miami Thrice and I do a double-take, they are on Montezuma Valley ROAD!  I look at my watch... 7.65 miles, we're almost finished with this trail!  We come off the trail and momentarily we see sun up the road breaking through the clouds.  False hope, it was quickly swallowed up again.  But we see the Team Coyote #14 white van and Kate & Angela howl from the crest of the hill.  We're all shivering, but relieved to be done with the trail. "Guys, get outta your wet clothing an into something dry, QUICK!" We all scramble to shed wet clothing and get out of the elements for a moment.
Popsicle Lombardi
Miami Thrice seems to have a similar level of urgency getting out of the cold.  At one point ALL 6 members of our two teams are inside their respective vans, heat blasting, in warmer clothing, trying to thaw ourselves out.  We watch their van, just in front of ours, wondering if they'll make the move to get back in the elements.  5 minutes... 10 minutes... almost 20 minutes passes since we came off the trail.  The doors swing open and they head back across the street into strong winds and steady, albeit light rain.  "Let's go, Coyotes, it's time to thaw out by running... hard."

David, Ray & I climb out of the van and start running into a headwind.  I'm still shivering and I don't have the energy to look to see if David & Ray are too.  We just need to run a couple miles faster to get our core temps back up.  Simple, right?  David is rapidly closing in on his magical 50-mile mark from which we'll be getting into his unknown, further than he's ever run, hiked or migrated in a single shot previously.  Our pace is temporarily aided by a dog that gets loose and chases us about 2/3rds of a mile down the road, twice crossing the road (and almost getting hit by a car) to get menacingly close to Villa-yotes.  We run faster.  Ranchita, CA!  Rancheti (the abominable snowman statue) and the 50 mile checkpoint!  We stop for a quick photo, some calories, and hit the road in workmanlike style again.  We can see Miami Thrice come over the hill, now a few minutes behind us.  We are all hurting at this point, but grinding it out.  Hang in there, David!
Nasty cold gets nastier.

YET ANOTHER *BAD IDEA
I'll start by saying I'm a huge fan of *bad ideas.  I'm the founder of many a *bad idea.  Often times, my favorite stories begin with an idea that isn't confined to the principals of common sense.  As Mark Twain once said, "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment."  As the BADWATER Salton Sea Ultramarathon finally stood: "81 miles. 3 person teams. No runner left behind. You don't have to pee together, but other than that, you stay in line, one-in-front-of-another for all 81-miles of the race.  The beach of the Salton Sea to the highest point on Palomar Mountain. First Monday in May with a 28-hour time cutoff."
Henshaw Lake in the background, Mile 68: 7:45pm
MILE 68 CHECKPOINT - HENSHAW LAKE RESORT - 7:45pm
We're tired, cumulatively and from being awake since 3:30am.  We have no idea where Miami Thrice is (or any other team for that matter), as we haven't seen their crew van for an hour or two.  We are in the lead, maybe by 1 mile, maybe by up to 4 miles.  We assume that they are close, and that they are running faster than us.  We assume all this and share that assumption with each other as it continues to drive us to run for longer, run harder, and a little faster.  "Keep pushing, guys! We can rest when we're done." We're all hurting, except maybe Ray "F*@#ing" Sanchez, who's doing grand jete's behind Villa-yotes and I as we hang on for dear life.  The twilight gives way to complete darkness.  The darkness gives way to a dense fog as we climb the final 12 miles up to the top of Palomar Mountain.  We run from reflector to reflector.  We count the mile markers.  We may all be hurting, but we're still laughing, joking and having a good time together.  We push through occasional rain spells and the fog towards the 16 hour mark (11:00pm).  At one point Chris Kostman stops by to check in on our progress.  We're only a few miles from the finish now.  If we push we can crack 16 hours.  We start running again...
The FOG. Have we run straight into the Twilight Zone???

FLASHBACK TO SUNDAY AFTERNOON AT SALVATION MOUNTAIN
After visiting the Salton Sea starting line on a beach near the now leveled Yacht Club in Salton City, we drove halfway around the Salton Sea to get to Salvation Mountain.  If you haven't seen Into the Wild then you might not have any idea what we experienced there.  Were we 'saved'?  You betcha.  The 5 of us walked around a pile of dirt, hay-bails and paint that took some 20+ years to fully construct.  While the man behind it all (Leonard) is no longer there, physically, the energy of the place is absolutely wild.  We explored the mountain and all got on the same page as to what we wanted to accomplish the next day.  We left and wondered what we got ourselves into.

MILE 80 - PALOMAR MOUNTAIN - 10:46pm
"About a mile to go, guys, but we're gonna have to push a little if we want to get done before 16 hours!"  We pushed a little harder.  I nervously looked at my watch again, not sure how many times I inadvertently stopped it throughout the day. We might have 10 minutes, we might have 12 minutes, but we gotta push.  I start to feel feint.  We see the final turn, marked by a ton of flashing lights and a vintage ambulance.  "I'm gonna need a modern ambulance in a minute" I think to myself.  Up the rocky driveway, we can see the lights atop the hill where we finish.  The house looms above us, and we're finally going to see the end of this long journey.  We break the tape together, hand-in-hand.  Team Coyote is complete with the 2013 BADWATER Salton Sea race, in 15-hours, 57-minutes and change.  Suddenly the hurt fades away a bit, but the cold seeps in more.  We pose for a couple quick finishing photos then tuck inside to stay warm.  Chris informs us that we were 37 minutes ahead of Miami Thrice with a half marathon to go, so they should be there within the next 45 minutes.  We're excited to congratulate them on a hard fought race.  In this type of race, there aren't winners and losers (as evidenced by no differentiation in finishing medals, nor awards), there are simply finishers and non-finishers.  Everyone's attitude was one of relief upon crossing the finish line, from around 11:00pm Monday night to around 9:40am Tuesday morning.  We were all stoked to be done.

Most impressive (to us) were the finishes of Team FOMO (Molly Sheridan, Bill Andrews, John Vigil), Team Stray Dogs #2 (Kate Fischbeck, Chris Frost, Danny Westergaard) and finally, Team Neapolitan (Charlie Engle, Mosi Smith, Meredith Dolehare).  FOMO & Stray Dogs #2 survived the most elements, battling until past 9:00am Tuesday morning, and Neapolitan got lost on the 7.8-mile trail for what could have been an extra 2-hours of bouldering off trail to reconnect with the route. Every person that finished the route impressed us.  We tip our caps to ALL 42 athletes that started the race and all 37 people who finished (including 11 of the 14 teams, still intact).  We can't wait until next year when we imagine the number of teams could double or triple!
Still goofing off at just after 11:00pm Monday night




THE TEAM COYOTE SALTON SEA *PHOTO BLOG
*many pics by race photographer David Nelson, RD Chris Kostman & Kate Martini Freeman
Team "Coyote" or Team "Mexican Oreo"... you decide.

More than one similarity between Salton Sea Ultramarathon and BADWATER, the delicious water at the start...

The beach is made up of a million tiny decomposed fish bones.

A closer look at the "SAND" on this beach.

Fishy paradise.
AAA Sugar Team Members "Adventure Amber" & JDF's (pretend) "Sandbox Nemesis" Ashley aka AshRuns100s 
Charlie Engle of Team Neopolitan (callsign: Jailbird... I love people with a sick sense of humor, like Charlie!) 

The quiet before the storm.

Team Sole To Soul starts out fast, builds a 9 minute (1 mile plus) gap early. Team Coyote walking in background.
Team Coyote walks the start, Jimmy does a snowboarding move off a rock he does NOT land, then starts running "9's"

Settling into pace the first few miles with 11 of the 13 other teams.

Started out sunny & warm, but 15-20 degrees cooler than it had been the week prior.


By Mile 3, Team Coyote settled into 3rd overall where we'd stay for over 20 miles, clipping off "9's" nearly the whole time.

Around the Mile 7 mark, and the first time we'd be crewed.

Uber-crew: Kate Martini Freeman & Angela Shartel.  They were (in one word): F-U-N!
After 7 miles in Salton City, we headed due west into (and through) the Anza-Borrego Desert
One of the first inclines, into a head wind, into the heart of Anza-Borrego

Disappearing up the incline

Running towards the mountains and clouds in the distance
Exchanging pace setting (wind cutting) duties every mile, on the mile. 4:06 1st marathon (David's first ROAD 26.2)

Catching up with Team Miami Thrice for the 2nd time. Flip-flopped the lead 7 to 9 times between Mile 27-48
Angela showing off her & Kate's OCD organizing skillz

2 girls to crew 3 guys?  No problem: Kate & Angela have big hands and big energy.

Forget something at the van?  No problem, both Kate & Angela are accomplished ultra runners who'd just run you down.
Dave Krupski leads Miami Thrice & Team Coyote out of Mile 40

Brad & JD are posers, and prove it here in the heat of battle.

The ENERGY and silliness from Kate & Angela was more endless than the 81-miles of running we boys did.

Angela is a fan of Charlie. If you know Charlie (AT ALL), you're a fan of Charlie.

Team Neopolitan in 3rd overall after overtaking Team Sole to Soul (right before a 2-hour trail "sight-seeing" detour)

Views from Montezuma's REVENGE climb
Hellhole Flat became a windy, rainy mess. Yes, we froze.

A break in the rain, with enough time to change and get back at it 20-minutes later.

David Villa-yotes & I struggle to get dry clothing on with the help of our dedicated crew.

Bradford feeling the chill.  He'd run in jeans much of the rest of the remaining 33 miles.

Wet compression socks off, check. Dry compression socks ON? Bad idea.
David with the initial symptoms/stages of hypothermia.

Time to fight the WIND and rain again. Our teeth chattered for at least 2-miles as we tried to warm up. 33 miles to go!

Still cold. But happy we OUTRAN that stray dog a mile back!

Three tough mutha-effers. Note: they don't look particularly warm.

JDF & David working hard, Ray practicing his balletic leaps.

Ray-Ray... what the F*#K dude!?!?
Fighting the cold, wind, rain (and soon fog) through the final stretch.

Last time station: Lake Henshaw Resort, Mile 68. Half marathon to go. Oh yeah, up-mountain!

Finish line consummation. Unbridled joy. After tripping at the starting line, I also tripped at the finish. Brilliant work JDF.
Haven't stopped clowning around, yet. Or ever.

Grateful for this woman. If only she were a woman. Grateful for this goddess...

How we'll remember this race, a rad capture by Chris Kostman around Mile 3 of the race.


Team MVP: David Villa-yotes. All tuckered out after 31 more miles than he'd ever run before!!!
The BEGINNING is the END?  Good one, Chris!  See y'all at BADWATER Salton Sea 2014!
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