Below is a personal account of my Death Valley Badwater 135-mile Ultramarathon race from last year. Please use it as a learning tool to understand how to "better your previous best," and also how it relates to my 2012 effort. It's detailed and meant to teach on many levels, so read it when you have some focused time.
Here are three Caring House Project Foundation donation options should you choose to support my attempt at becoming only the 15th person in history to finish the Death Valley Badwater Ultramarathon 7 or more times.
If you would prefer not to donate online, you can mail your donation to Caring House Project Foundation, P.O. Box 388 Boynton Beach, FL 33425. Or you can call Nilsa at 561.722.3950 and make your donation over the phone.
Donate $1 for every mile of my 2012 Death Valley race, or $135. I ask that you help those who can't help themselves. Please consider more than "1" in the quantity box if donating online. For every $135 you donate you will provide 1,350 meals for the most desperately poor and homeless in Haiti.
Donate $10 for every mile, or $1,350. Should you choose this option you will have built 1/2 of a concrete home in Haiti. Talk about "ROD" - Return On Donation!
Donate $30 for every mile, or $4,050. This donation will have a huge impact in Haiti. You will have built one brand new concrete home for a family of 8 who were living in a mud or cardboard shack. Your home will have 2 rooms, kitchen, front porch and bathroom. PLUS you will provide 1,350 meals! The ultimate donation for the ultimate race!
If none of the above suggested donation options suit you, please visit our donate page, Once there, scroll down from the top. There are 70+ alternatives to choose from, many less than $100.
Thank you in advance for your support.
A 135-mile Death Valley race asks: Can You Better Your Previous Best?
How do you create multimillion-dollar oceanfront masterpieces so stunning that they sell in any real estate market?
Or operate a lean, streamlined nonprofit organization that provides housing, schools, food, water and medical needs for people in Haiti who desperately need them NOW? (www.chpf.org)
Or, for that matter, how do you run 135 non-stop miles across Death Valley in the middle of summer—traveling in 125+ degree heat on foot across the hottest place on earth—and survive?
Here’s my not-so-secret weapon: planning. It’s not the sexiest idea in the world, but it’s one of the most surefire. If you saw “The Power of Plan” DVD (http://frank-mckinney.com/powerofplan/), you know exactly what I’m talking about, and you know how to create a precise battle plan for your own organization, or any endeavor.
Almost always, I think you’re better off if you do sweat the small stuff in the planning stages. Clearly envision the big picture, and then get to work on the minutest of details.
Truth: to attain significant success, one must obsess. Although obsessing gets knocked because of its association with psychological disorders, I have to tell you that anything I’ve ever done very well, I’ve obsessed over—and then I’ve gone after it relentlessly, continuing even when the result I’ve worked so hard for seems improbable if not impossible. Not always, but most of the time, I’m able to bring it home.
Having just completed my Death Valley Badwater Ultramarathon for the sixth time, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned, as Badwater always teaches me (and hopefully you) something new. My brother, Bob, insists that it is “a microcosm for life—in two days, you experience the extreme highs, the lowest of lows, the struggles and exhilaration—all in the pursuit of a common goal.”
The Toughest Footrace in the World
The Badwater Ultramarathon (http://www.Badwater.com) hosted by the great Chris Kostman of AdventureCORPS is an invitation-only race held in Death Valley during the desert’s hottest month of the year, July. It starts at -282 feet below sea level, and air temperatures can exceed 130 degrees, while ground temps on the blacktop road are 200+ degrees, high enough to melt the gel in your shoes, not to mention fry your brain right inside your skull.
The course traverses 135 miles through the Mojave, over three mountain ranges, and finishes nearly 8,500 feet above sea level. There are no aid stations, so it’s up to the runner’s crew to get him or her to the finish line. National Geographic calls it the toughest footrace in the world.
Along the route are 7 time stations where runners get checked in by race officials and can stop to do whatever they need to do: change clothes, get food, cool off by sitting in their crew’s air-conditioned van, tend to blisters, pass out, what have you.
And as you run down that white line between checkpoints (distances average about 25 miles), your crew stays within about a mile of you, watching and making sure that you’re not getting crushed by the heat and dragged off into the desert by a pack of coyotes.
Each year, beginning with my first race in 2005, I’ve formulated a race plan I believe will give me and my all-star crew the best chance to succeed. It includes critical information and instructions about targeted time splits, how long the breaks will be, nutrition mandates and—most important—my goals, including:
a minimum goal (the least acceptable accomplishment),
a default goal (the “realistic” yet challenging objective), and
a primary goal (something lofty, improbable, and inspiring).
For example, in 2010, my minimum goal was to finish in under 60 hours; my default goal was to finish in under 48 hours and thereby earn my fourth Badwater belt buckle; and my primary goal was to finish on my daughter’s 12th birthday.
By following the plan yet staying flexible throughout the race, my crew and I met our primary goal: Last year, I shattered my previous best by nearly 3 hours, finishing in 40:20:50, in plenty of time to sing “Happy Birthday” to Laura. (http://www.frank-mckinney.com/blog.asp?article=193)
Approaching the race in 2011, I sent an email to the crew with a new plan.
… As we are 5 for 5 in my previous Badwater attempts, we must see the finish line for a 6th time, no matter what.
In lieu of detailing our 2011 race plan here, a plan I have been working on since February, I have attached it as a Word document. Perhaps you can download and print it … Be sure to study it. Before you open the plan, to accomplish our 2011 initiative, let’s abide by my Badwater 6 Commandments (one for each race):
Relentless forward motion -
time moves, and we must move with it.
Start slow then slow down - save for day 2.
Be efficient with rest stops.
Be patient with my and your emotions.
At times, just let me go
(remember, I have trained 95% of the time alone).
Have the time of your life!
Remember - Someday we won’t be able to do this.
No doubt my crew was expecting my usual several detailed pages and multi-tiered goals. When they opened the attachment, however, they found a single page. In fact, they found just one line:
“38:49:19 or better.”
For my sixth go at this ultramarathon, my one and only goal was to finish in 38 hours, 49 minutes, and 19 seconds, or better. If I succeeded, it would be 10 hours and 1 second faster than my first race six years ago (when I was much younger of course), and an hour and a half faster than my fastest time.
And what about planning? What about obsession?
Believe me, I had obsessed. I had trained to that magical number for six months leading up to the race, doing my usual bouts in the sauna to acclimate to the heat, sleeping in an altitude tent to ensure I wouldn’t be affected by the extreme elevation changes, dragging a tire strapped to my waist for miles and miles, running long distances—all in meticulously planned preparation.
My prior experience at Badwater also told me that it was a suitably lofty ambition. Not only was I carrying the confidence of the previous year’s accomplishment, but I’d intentionally dropped some weight and was running really lean. Friends were telling me that, at age 48, I seemed to be turning back the clock.
But could I do it again? Would I better my previous best?
Take an Uncalculated Risk
"and the home of brave...10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …” And we're off – only 135 miles and 349,999 footfalls to go!
Commandment #2 was to start slow, and then slow down, saving something for day 2.Yet it felt unusually cool that morning of July 11, “only” 98 degrees at the starting line, whereas it’s often pushing 110. Plus there was a tailwind blowing at my back, which I knew could possibly be there to urge me on for the first 42 miles of the race.
Once we got under way, my nerves settled down, and then I moved into a comfortable pace, which I knew was faster than in years past. Not because I was checking my watch, though. Although I normally wear it all the time, I mean ALL the time—including in the shower and bed—I always take my watch off for this race so that I can “run by feel,” something I learned from Mr. Badwater himself, Marshall Ulrich, the man who’s crossed Death Valley more times than anyone else, who wisely recommends that you work hard and efficiently when you’re feeling good, and back off when you need to.
So without looking at my time, I knew I was flying, and at one point, Nilsa, my wife and crew chief yelled, “You’re running a 10-minute mile! Slow down!” But I was feeling good, and I wanted to get to that first checkpoint at Furnace Creek, just 17 miles from the start.
The crew and I had talked at some length about how achieving a 38:49:19 finish would mean that, at some point, I’d have to take a big, uncalculated risk. Sometime during the race, I’d have to go completely off-plan, push harder than expected, do something extremely daring to secure the goal.
Yet this wasn’t it: I was cruising. I hadn’t needed ice on my neck until much later than usual. I’d taken my hat off because I was in the shade for the first two hours. The cooler temps were definitely a plus, and my training was paying off.
After a couple minute break at Furnace Creek, I pressed on, knowing that the next 25 miles, nicknamed “the highway to hell,” would be tougher, longer and much hotter (having seen 136 degrees one year).
But I could have a pacer with me, which meant that I didn’t have to do it alone. After an enjoyable stint with my brother Bob as my first pacer, my friend Kass O’Brien came out with me, an elite runner who consistently places in the top three in 50-mile races. We ran together through the 120-degree heat, marveling at the desolate desert around us.
And still, I could feel that I was getting it done faster than I ever had before. Since early on, I’d been sensing that 38-and-change finish. I could begin to feel it in my bones and every muscle.
At our next planned stop at mile 42, my crew had set everything up for me to rest and reset so that I’d be ready to continue on for the remaining 93 miles—just shy of four more marathon distances to go after that.
They’d meet me at the time station, and then they’d drive me in our air-conditioned van to a hotel room about 100 yards away—faster than walking and cooler, too—where they’d already have an ice bath ready for me, a change of clothes laid out, some food, the room set to the coldest temperature, and Nilsa would be there ready to encourage me and attend to my developing blisters.
It would be 30 minutes of well deserved relief, and a critical stop we had made in all five of my prior runs at Badwater.
As I pulled into the mile-42 time station with Billy Idol blaring through my earbuds and jacking me up, I instinctively just kept on going, blowing through and leaving my crew behind. Even as the few spectators were clapping and cheering me on, I could hear Nilsa’s voice over my music, crying, “No, no, no!”
I’d just skipped the last and most important long stop before the halfway point in the race some 30 miles away, and I knew I’d made the right decision.
My “uncalculated risk” was just taken!
My sister Martie was right behind me, so she heard it when I started to sob a few minutes later. A huge wave of emotion had just hit me, probably from the realization that this was it, the uncalculated risk, and there was no turning back now. Sure, I could make a stop later, but there would be no hotel, no ice bath. No place even to rinse my face. I knew this would pay off big.
She patted me on the back, reassured me, told me it would be all right.
About four miles later, the route switched back, and I felt the tailwind reverse against me. Now, I was running straight into the hot blow dryer-like blast, and uphill for 18 miles as I traveled from below sea level to 5,000 feet above. At mile 50, I climbed into the van for a quick respite, time to lower my heart rate, cool off again, regain focus.
It’s amazing to me how quickly everything resets in the body and mind when you need it to. It doesn’t take much time, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. And then you can get back out there again and keep on going. We did, all the way to the top of Towne Pass, at mile 60.
As Kass and I motored along the next section under a nearly full moon on a quad and shin-pounding 12-mile downhill, I spotted a young rattlesnake side-winding its way along the white line in front of me. Seeing it just in time, I jumped over it and pushed her to the side, warning, “Watch out – there’s a rattlesnake running the white line with us!”
Poor Kass, who’s afraid of bugs, spiders, and snakes most of all. She shrieked and jumped straight up in the air! And I’m sure that if she hadn’t had such a strong sense of responsibility for me, she would have immediately made a U-turn back to the van and driven herself directly to the airport to get out of there. But we continued on, with her jumpy and on edge every time she heard any small movement on the side of the road.
Still believing I was well in front of my previous year’s pace, we blazed across the desert, and then pulled into the third checkpoint at mile 72, more than halfway through the race.
We’d been out there for between 18-20 hours (remember, I didn’t know what time it was), and I stopped for about 50 minutes, where I changed my clothes for the first time, pulling off crusty black tights streaked with the dried white salt of my sweat. Nilsa took care of my blisters and massaged my feet to help with the extreme swelling that had set in.
Laying there in that small hotel room, I suddenly felt a light impact on my face as a long brown insect dropped from the ceiling and landed, perching itself from my forehead to the end of my nose.
“Nilsa! A walking stick is on my head!”
Thinking that it was a little early in the race for hallucinations, she turned to me with a look of deep concern. She thought I meant a walking stick, like a cane. “How can a walking stick be on your head!” she exclaimed. Anyway, you get the picture…
Back out on the road, the sky was bright with the big moon and more white than black in the sky with the billions of stars. Oh how beautiful and pleasantly distracting. Without need of a headlight, I allowed myself to get lost in the night, secure in my performance to this point.
Holding Fast up to Father Crowley's at Mile 80 & 5,500'
Just before sunrise and coming into a scenic spot called Father Crowley’s at mile 80, I felt my stomach revolt. This happens every year, so I was ready for it, and I let Nilsa know it was time. The crew drove to the back of the parking lot at the overlook, where I spent about half an hour throwing up, purging my system of all the accumulated supplements, fluids, and electrolytes.
With that out of the way, I was feeling good again and headed out on the road by myself to watch the sun come up, which is early in the desert, maybe about 4:30. I enjoyed the time alone and ate some bananas and avocados. I even had to put on a jacket as the temperature had dropped to an astonishing 60 degrees!
Reaching the 90-mile checkpoint at Darwin after the sun had fully risen, my outlook was improving—until I accidentally overheard my time to that point: “26:52,” the time station official announced. Not only was it unfortunate that I overheard the time, I later learned I overheard the wrong time.
Oh, no. No, no, no, no.
As I went down the road, I had all the time in the world to do the math, making the calculation over and over again and hoping for a different number. It seemed that in that one moment, my goal had been lost. Bye-bye, 38:49:19. Hello, disappointment.
Soon enough, though, I settled on a new goal: I’d finish in under 40 hours, and was confident I could reach this revised ambition.
Yes, I’d break 40, and set a new personal best! Below is a photo of us crossing the 100-mile mark. You can see "100 mi" drawn in chalk on the road.
We ran through one of my favorite places, a little town called Keeler (population 50), which most people think is kind of creepy but that I love. (It smells funny, and a lot of peculiar characters call it home; it would probably make a great location for a horror film.)
One of the reasons I like it so much is how quirky it is, plus the people we’ve met there have been truly hospitable. This year, the day before the race, we went into the Keeler post office, a building the size of your bathroom, and saw an advertisement (a.k.a. old flyer with curled edges) for hats with “Keeler Volunteer Fire Department” on them, $12.
When I told the postal clerk that I’d love to get a hat, she called up the fire chief who said we should stop by his house, so we did. After spending some time getting the know George the fire chief, my crew and I all walked away with our official KVFD hats, treasures for sure!
So as I ran through town, I stopped at the “Keeler: Pop. 50” sign at mile 105, put on my hat, and had my picture taken. Right about then, my crew checked my ankle, too. Why was my shoe so tight? Why was my stride so funny? We rolled down my sock and discovered that the tendon on the top of my left foot was blowing up. Uh oh.
Nilsa strapped a large ice bag to the top of it (another trick we learned from Marshall), and off I went, alternating running slowly and walking fast. Unfortunately, the sweat trapped by the ice bag started running down into my shoe and making my blisters even worse. We took the ice off and I just gritted my teeth.
At the fifth checkpoint in Lone Pine, mile 122, we knew that the problem was serious, probably extreme tendonitis, as my lower leg was twice its normal size. After my time was recorded, we went to a hotel close by and took a long look at the ankle and tried to figure out how I would complete the remaining 13 miles.
Should I even try to run? Should I walk backward? What could we do? Ultimately, we decided that I’d just go out and do what I could do. No elaborate plan, just the intention to finish as quickly as I could and beat my previous best.
We could still do that, I was sure.
Yet the next 13 miles escalate at a 15% grade, making for some very slow going (most treadmills only go to 12%). This steep incline combined with my foot was definitely slowing me down.
But as I walked uphill with the sun setting through the clouds overhead, I clutched at a rosary a friend had given me and held onto the purpose of this run: yes, I do it to test myself, but more important, I do it to raise money for charity. I prayed, “Lord, give me the strength and the courage for this next step.”
And then … just 100 yards from the second-to-last checkpoint at mile 131, I felt my world going black, and in a hurry. I cried out to my sister Madeleine that I was going down, and then BAM! I hit the pavement then rolled over on my back, my eyes having rolled themselves into my head. When I came to, I was disorientated and shaken (and shaking too).
“Something’s wrong! Get Nilsa!”
My wife ran to my side, concerned but composed. Then came the great debate began about what to do with me. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and we were worried about what was going on with me—should I see the paramedic?—and weighing that against what it would mean to be medically forced off the course at this point in our effort.
Well, I should say “they” were weighing those concerns, because I was just sitting there on the pavement, scared and adrift. My brother, Bob, and my sisters, Martie and Madeleine wanted me off the course and into a medical tent. Nilsa was trying to figure out how to take care of me and help me to the finish. Kass was standing by, worried and waiting for instructions. There was no “right” answer.
Ultimately, we decided to load me into the van and drive down a couple thousand feet, just in case the problem was related to altitude. We doubted that was it, but we would give that a shot, as it would also allow me to rest for a little bit and reset my heart rate.
It seemed to work, and I convinced myself I was fine (enough) as I watched runner after runner passing me as I sat dazed in the van. Then we drove back up to where I’d staked out to mark where I’d been before we’d gone down, and I got going again, walking a mile an hour.
A mile an hour!
On I went with my hands folded over my heart so that I could monitor my pulse, walking toe-heel, toe-heel with Nilsa’s hand secured to my waist in case I were to go down again.
Many more runners were passing me, but I just kept my head down and went on, no doubt looking more like a disoriented or contemplative tourist than a competitor in an ultramarathon.
At my request, Nilsa gave me my watch about a mile from the finish. It was 11:30 at night, and yet a new goal was born: let’s at least finish on Tuesday, as the sub-40 goal was now history.
I could see the lights at the end of the race and then, like a fool, I picked up the pace to about 3 miles per hour.
And then…Bam! Everything went black and down I went again, a half-mile from the finish line!
Again, my heart was racing. I was totally spent. I had nothing left, as I thought Will I become one of those weird Badwater stories, the guy who DNFs (did not finish) a half-mile from the finish? I could do without that kind of notoriety, but I was afraid to stand up, and my crew was in chaos again, trying to figure out what to do.
Now, finishing on Tuesday was also probably beyond our reach. We were so close to the finish, but how could I get there?
I sat up and leaned back on my hands with my legs outstretched. I scooted my rear end along the pavement, bending my knees, and then brought my hands up close behind me. Again. And again.
As I scooted along like that, my crew was telling me to stop, I was going to cut up my hands, it was too difficult, stop! But I kept crab crawling backwards, inching my way toward that finish line.
And then I stood. Since the race rules allow runners to cross the finish holding hands with crew, I took two hands and then leaned hard on my strong brother Bob. Mentally checked out but on my feet, I completed the 135 miles in 42:03:31.
Now, as I look back, I remember only parts of crossing the finish line. I’m still recovering from the tendonitis and am planning a follow-up visit to my doctor just to rule out that anything more than acute dehydration caused me to faint on the course.
Did I Better My Previous Best?
Did you expect to read a story of how the golden boy with the Midas touch who accomplishes everything he sets his mind to had glided into yet another personal best?
Not exactly that, this time, is it?
No, this year’s Badwater humbled me in a way it never has before, literally pushed me to the ground and made me fight to the finish.
What I’m taking away from it is confirmation of something I wrote about prior to the race, a spiritual and practical force called dynamis. It’s a Greek word meaning “power at work” or “power in motion,” a power that can be unleashed only in collaboration—in spirit with God, and in practice with the people around us.
Early on in the race, I’d felt as if the record was mine for the taking, but don’t get me wrong: I never take the accomplishment of a goal for granted. It’s important to be willing to take that uncalculated risk when you feel the time is right, trusting the result will come.
And when obstacles rise, move forward with faith. There is no complaining, no complacency in having done well in the past, no laying down and giving up when you’re just a half-mile from the finish. Instead, enlist dynamis. Rely on God. Lean on those in your life you know will support you.
So, I didn’t better my previous best “time” but I succeeded in bettering my previous best “experience” by learning even more about perseverance and, most important, being grateful and feeling so blessed just to be able to do what most won’t or can’t. With the help of my crew Martie, Madeleine, Kass, Bob and my oh so supportive wife Nilsa, I finished with my 2nd fastest time ever, finishing a full 2 hours below my 5-year race average.
Yes, I am now 6 for 6.
And, in case you are wondering (and if Nilsa, my wife reads this), given what we went through, this is my LAST Badwater … ;)
Postscript: We endured for the benefit of our Caring House Project Foundation, as my participation in Badwater is our last fundraiser for 2011.
If you haven't already, would you consider supporting my successful effort either on-line, over the phone or via the mail?
Donate $1 for every mile of my successful Death Valley race, or $135. I ask that you help those who can't help themselves. Please consider more than "1" in the quantity box if donating online. For every $135 you donate you will provide one bio-sand water filter that we continue to send to fight cholera PLUS 450 meals for the most desperately poor and homeless in Haiti.
Donate $10 for every mile, or $1,350. Should you choose this option you will have built 1/2 of a concrete home in Haiti PLUS provided 1,000 meals! Talk about "ROD" - Return On Donation!
Donate $30 for every mile, or $4,050. This donation will have a huge impact in Haiti. You will have built one brand new concrete home for a family of 8 who were living in a mud or cardboard shack. Your home will have 2 rooms, kitchen, front porch and bathroom. PLUS you will provide 15 bio-sand water filters to fight cholera, PLUS 500 more meals! The ultimate donation support for the ultimate race!
If none of the above suggested donation options suit you, please visit our donate page, Once there, scroll down from the top. There are 70+ alternatives to choose from, many less than $100.
If you would prefer to make your donation over the phone, please call 561.718.3061, or mail it to CHPF, P.O. Box 388 Boynton Beach, FL 33425.
Thank you in advance for your support.
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