Badwater 135: Duct Tape and Determination

Find what you love and let it kill you.
Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness.
Let it kill you and let it devour your remains.
For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.
— Charles Bukowski
 Running into the sunset on night one (photo by Ron Jones).

Running into the sunset on night one (photo by Ron Jones).

As I sat on the edge of the passenger seat of our van, my legs hanging over the edge and blistering in the sun, I lifted my head from the palms of my hands and I started to hyperventilate. Tears streamed down my face. I looked into Jenn's eyes: "I've come too far for this," I cried with what was left of my voice. I started to gasp for air. "This can't be happening. I've come too far." Jenn  matched my stare with equal intensity: "Des, you can do this." I had come 114 miles. I had come too far for it to be over. 

 Jenn, Darin, Jeff, and me before driving to the start. 

Jenn, Darin, Jeff, and me before driving to the start. 

Race Day:

Race day began unlike any other. Because Badwater now begins at night, runners have the entire day to eat, sleep (if they can), prepare, and overanalyze all of the things they have and have not done. I slept as long as I could that morning, which (interrupted) was until about 7:30 a.m. After that, I was up for the day. I ate and I ate some more. I packed my bags. I taped my feet. I nervously paced around. I tried unsuccessfully to nap. I waited. Initially, I was seeded to start in the middle (9:30 p.m.) wave. However, once I knew the severity of my injuries earlier this year, I requested to be moved to the first (8:00 p.m.) wave, not knowing how well I would be moving when race day came. Finally, the time to get dressed and prepare to leave. 

The wind was blowing hard at Badwater Basin when we arrived at 7:30 p.m. The hot air brushed my skin as I watched the sun sink along the horizon during weigh in.  It was ~110 degrees and I had goosebumps. A volunteer wrapped a GPS tracker around my arm and I ran down the ramp to join the other runners at the staring line. Chris Kostman read the names of the 8:00 p.m. starters. Mine was not one of them. It was a reminder that I was not seeded to be in that wave, that I had been injured, that I had barely made it to that start line. The National Anthem played and my eyes welled with tears. No, that was not my starting wave, but I had made it nonetheless. After two months of injury and three hard-fought months of training, against all odds, I had made it. I was there. I was about to start the Styr Labs Badwater 135. 

Badwater Basin to Stovepipe Wells (~mile 42):

When I started the race, I was tired from all of the excitement and from being up for a full day, but, apart from the normal taper twinges, I felt pretty good. I was warm right from the start, but not uncomfortable. That was reassuring as I headed into the night.

After two miles, I saw my crew for the first time. I picked up my headlamp and asked to trade my sun hat for my Pine to Palm 100 trucker, the hat I had worn for 3 out of 4 races in my slam last year and the hat I had worn for every long training run leading up to Badwater. “That feels like home,” I said as I started to leave. “You’re moving too fast," Darin said as I ran off. Slow down. I didn’t feel like I was moving fast at all. In fact, it felt incredibly slow. Still, I listened to his warning and tried to slow my pace. When I saw my crew again another two miles down the road, Darin and Jenn reiterated that I was moving too fast. Again, I tried to focus on slowing down, this time by flat out walking. When I saw them for a third time, they said my pace was better. By that time, though, I was focused on something else: the calf sleeves I had worn to protect my legs from the sun had started to rub and irritate my legs. While I had trained with those sleeves and was confident in their fit, I had not anticipated my legs swelling so quickly, perhaps due to the long day moving around already. We adjusted the sleeves so I could keep them on as long as possible, and I kept moving.

 Photo by Jennifer Van Vlack.

Photo by Jennifer Van Vlack.

Just when the calf sleeves felt better, my left hip flexor started to ache. This wasn’t an issue I’d ever had in training and definitely wasn’t an issue I was aware of entering the race, but it became so unbearable that, by mile 20, I was having trouble even walking, let alone running. Downhill, which is normally my strength, was excruciating. I tried to remain calm. It was too early for something to feel this bad. I had to do something about it. When I saw my crew next, I asked for a tennis ball and tried to dig into my hip flexor by leaning against the van. While I did that, Darin and Jenn laid towels down on the ground and told me to lie down. Darin started to dig into my hip flexor until he found the trigger point. “There it is,” he said. He felt it right away. He dug into my hip for several minutes and then I got up and stretched. I took off running like a new person. I had almost no pain for 4 miles, but then it started to hurt again. We repeated the same lying down on the ground while Darin dug into my hip flexor process until about mile 60. I still don’t know if my hip flexor stopped hurting or something else started to hurt worse, but, after mile 60, it was no longer an issue until after the race.

I pressed on, knowing that I would finally get to have a pacer after mile 42. Running Badwater is, in many ways, a very isolating experience. Because the runners start in waves, there are often not a lot of people on the road at the same time. Likewise, for safety reasons, runners cannot run abreast. For that reason, the opportunities to talk to other runners are few and far between. It is truly a race in which the competitors battle themselves and the elements and no one else. First, I counted down the number of crew stops before a pacer could join me. Then, I counted down the miles. I had already asked Jenn if she would be first. Whether she knew it or not, I felt like she was a kindred spirit and my rock going into the race, and I knew having her behind me would be want I needed.

When I reached Stovepipe Wells at mile 42, I ran in limping. I felt great, but my hip flexor was hurting again. I checked in, used the bathroom, and then Jenn and Darin sat me down on the ground again. I ate as Darin dug into my hip flexor.

Stovepipe Wells to Panamint Springs (~mile 72.7):

The sun started to rise and Jenn and I were off, beginning the 16-mile, ~5,000 ft. climb to Towne Pass. It was a long climb and it started to get hot as quickly as the sun started to rise. Still, having Jenn with me gave me a boost of energy. There were times that I started to beat myself up, saying “I feel like I should be running this,” but then Jenn would tell me to look behind at how far we had climbed to help me realize just how much we were ascending and that I was doing exactly what I should be doing. Coming from the trail, that was a battle I constantly felt throughout this race. Although I was aware of the long climbs, I constantly felt like I should be running because I was on the road.

After a couple miles, Jenn, Darin, and Jeff began a pacer rotation. We did a similar rotation when I crewed and paced my friend Larry in 2014, and it seemed to work well for us too. Each of them offered a different perspective, a different approach to running and racing, and has different experience. They made for a great pacing team.

When I finally reached the top of Towne Pass at around 100k, my hip still continued to hurt. Darin, Jenn, and Jeff again laid me down on the ground. Bees swarmed around my head as Jeff fed me and Darin and Jenn worked on various achy parts of my body. Before I set out again, I asked Darin to cut my calf sleeves off. My legs were continuing to swell and the calf sleeves were starting to restrict blood flow entirely. Once that was done, Jeff and I set out, prepared to make the hot descent into Panamint Valley.

As Jeff and I began the descent, I felt a renewed sense of energy having reached and passed the 100k mark. In my mind, that was a milestone. Not long after, I pulled off the road to pee. When I got back on, I instantly felt excruciating pain in one of my left toes, a toe that had suffered the loss of a nail and part of the toe itself in the 12-hour race I’d run a month prior. I screamed in pain. I had no idea what had happened. I started to limp. I asked Jeff to flag down our van when it passed -- I clearly needed to do something about my foot -- but our van had already passed.

After half mile or so of limping, we approached a turnout spot off the road. A voice yelled: “Are you Desiree?” Jeff and I paused. “Yes,” I said. “Desiree, I’m John. Tonya Olson sent me to find you. I’ve been looking for you since Furnace Creek.” I was completely taken aback. “I can’t believe you’re here right now.” I leaned on Jeff in disbelief. “It’s John Vonhof! John takes care of feet!” I exclaimed.  I limped over to him and sat on the edge of another runner's van. As I cringed in pain, Jeff put his arm around me and held my hand while John poked around my toe and taped it back up. There were no apparent issues other than that it had rubbed completely raw. The immediate pain I had felt a half mile earlier had likely been from inadvertently kicking one of the many rocks along the pass.  Having John tape my toe and tell me I was okay was exactly what I needed to continue. “There are so many people from all over who want to see you finish this race, Des” Jeff said as we walked away. Tears welled in my eyes. I knew he was right. I have never felt more cared for than I did at that moment.

When we next saw the crew, I took a few minutes to care for my feet, changing my socks an retaping them. With a renewed sense of perseverance, I was ready to cross Panamint

Descending into the Panamint Valley was extremely hot. By the time we started to cross the valley and climb to Panamint Springs, the wind had picked up and a sandstorm had started. As Jenn and I slowly pushed through the sand and wind, I looked up at the climb ahead. It was as though I could see uphill for miles, spots of white scattered along the road with a haze of dust surrounding them. The sun beat down on us as Jenn sprayed the last of the water she had on my back. "Do you want me to spray you with the water in my bottle?" she asked. "No," I said. "You need that." We were both almost out of water, despite having refilled 3 or so miles prior, and I knew it was going to be a long, uphill battle until we saw the van again. Spraying me down was a luxury we couldn't afford. At that moment, as I watched the spots of white climb through the storm, the race became real. I was there. I was crossing the desert. I was actually running Badwater. We passed a road sign that showed the mileage back to Furnace Creek and the mileage ahead to Lone Pine. I stopped and hugged Jenn: "We're going to make it!"

When we finally reached Panamint Springs, Darin and Jeff were waiting for us with real food from the restaurant there. After I ate, the plan was for me to rest for 15 minutes before beginning the ~3,000 ft. climb up Father Crowley. This was the first moment in over a day that I actually felt semi human. We sat outside on the patio of a small country store and ate wraps and chips as we watched one wind-beaten runner after another stumble in. "You look better than a lot of the people here," Darin said as he guided me to the van. I tried to rest with little success, but, still, for 15 amazing minutes, I got out of the wind.

Panamint Springs through Father Crowley (~mile 86/summit):

 Refueling at the Father Crowley summit, ~mile 86 (photo by Jenn Love).

Refueling at the Father Crowley summit, ~mile 86 (photo by Jenn Love).

When I left Panamint Springs, I felt better, both physically and mentally, but I was exhausted and was dreading the long, windy climb ahead. To make things worse, my left hamstring had started to hurt, probably the result of compensation for the left hip flexor. Still, I pushed on, encouraged by the quiet support of Darin, who had become my rock in these late miles. He knew when I needed quiet and he knew when I needed him to talk. He knew when to push me. He kept me safe around the sharp turns. The stretch up Father Crowley is long and extremely windy. It also felt more heavily traveled than the previous sections of the course, and so we were vigilant. 

Jenn, Jeff, and Darin continued to trade off pacing duties as I made my way through the ~15-mile climb. We decided that, once I reached the top, I would stop there to refuel, change clothes, and try to rest again. Another 15-minute timer set. Despite being exhausted, though, I was unable to sleep. Soon, I was off into the darkness again, another long night ahead.    

I remember very little from the rest of that second night. I remember being so tired I was listing on the road. I remember sleep walking and running. I remember hallucinating chairs because all I wanted to do was sit down. I remember pushing through anyway. I remember Jeff’s elation when he saw a scorpion for the first time and I remember singing with Jenn to stay awake. I remember Darin keeping watch when I collapsed in the middle of the road and slept for 5 of the most solid minutes I’ve ever slept. I remember feeling just how much they cared about me and helping me reach my goal. I remember pain and exhaustion, but I do not remember suffering. I remember thinking of my friend Larry and feeling comforted knowing he was out there too. Miles apart, we were still running together, and that brought me peace. I remember feelings of hope and anticipation and excitement and fear. I remember pushing through anyway. I remember reaching the 100-mile mark. Another milestone. 

Keeler to Lone Pine (mile 122):

As the second day dawned, I made my way closer to the town of Keeler (mile 108), which I remembered from 2014 as being close to Lone Pine, the final milestone before beginning the ascent to the finish line. With the sunrise and a little cold brew, I found my 100th wind and was running strong. Jenn was running with me again and, as she sprayed down my back, I felt a burning feeling on the surface of my right calf. I stopped to look down, expecting to see a gash of some sort, but nothing was there. I continued running. Several miles later, the pain became intense, and I stopped to look at it again. At this point, the skin had burned bright red and sun blisters were beginning to form. The pain was excruciating. The skin was so burned that it hurt to move my leg at all. I stumbled over to the van at the next stop. I didn't know what to do. Problem after problem, we had patched me up over and over again. I didn't know how we were going to do it again. "I feel like I'm being held together by duct tape," I said to Darin with a hoarse voice. At that moment, all emotions came to a head (being so close and still so far away, the pain, the frustration, the exhaustion) and I started to cry as Darin layered KT Tape over the blisters. My legs hung over the side of the van and I buried my head in the palms of my hands: "I've come too far for this." "You can do this," Jenn said, and the three of them helped me out of the van. Jeff handed me three ibuprofen and Darin handed me a cold brew. I took both and then Jeff and I were off. 

 Jenn and me around mile 120 (photo by Darin Swanson).

Jenn and me around mile 120 (photo by Darin Swanson).

My legs were tired, but they felt fine. Still, I was barely able to hold a 15:00 mile due to the pain from the blisters. Jeff walked with me, his positive words propelling me forward. Soon, he traded places with Darin: "You're not going to like me much," Darin said, "but you're going to do what I say." I nodded my head because I had long lost my voice. "You see that ditch over there? Your pain goes there. The muscles you need to climb Whitney are not the same muscles you need to run, so trash them." I nodded again, and I started to shuffle. Soon, we were rotating running and fast walking between mileposts, each one a small victory. Darin rotated handing me Gu and throat drops. Soon, the fast walking became less frequent and the stretches of running became longer. "Make me breathe hard!" Darin said, and I ran faster. I looked down at my watch. I was running a sustained 8:00 pace. "See those green trees up ahead?" Darin said. "That's Lone Pine." I whimpered the only response I could without a voice, but Darin heard it. He knew how much that meant. I ran faster. 7:45, 7:30, 6:55. I ran as hard as I possible could. Lone Pine got closer. 

Darin traded off pacing duties with Jenn, and she jumped in as though she'd been running with me the entire time. We saw Lone Pine. It was like coming home. I knew the turns. I remembered the town. As we approached the final time station, I heard people yelling my name. I glanced over to see Larry and his crew. It was a piece of home. I ran faster because I was getting closer. I ran faster for the people who were there to support me. I ran faster for the people who believed in me. I ran faster for Larry, whose unyielding support got me to that point.

Lone Pine to Whitney Portal (~mile 135):

 Photo by Jenn Love.

Photo by Jenn Love.

As I turned the corner to begin the final 13-mile, 5,000 ft. ascent up Portal Road, I stopped to hug Jenn. "Will you stick with me?" I asked. "I'll be with you until you don't want me here," she said, and we climbed through the Alabama Hills. The pavement I remembered from 2014 soon turned to gravel due to road construction. The smell of tar permeated the air and it became hard to breathe. I stopped to use my inhaled several times. 

The climb got steeper and steeper, but eventually turned to pavement again. Jenn and I joked that we never thought we'd be so happy to see pavement. The freshly-surfaced, hot road burned beneath my feet and it felt like they were on fire. My power hike turned to a shuffle and, eventually, to a slow crawl. Darin traded off with Jenn and started to push me again. This time, though, I was  moving as fast as I could. I had nothing left.

The climb was long and hot. My feet burned. The sun blisters on my calf stung. I was exhausted and starving, but I couldn't stomach much of anything. It took everything I had to fight down one final Gu. As we gained altitude, I started to wheeze. 

 Finished (photo by Chris Kostman).

Finished (photo by Chris Kostman).

With anticipation, I kept looking ahead. I knew when we saw Jenn and Jeff again, I would only have one mile left. Cars drove down
Portal Road, previous finishers honking and cheering. The support and camaraderie was palpable. Our races were different, but we had been through the same hell. I climbed that mountain with my hands on my knees and my head held high. Badwater had killed me over and over again, but I had risen from the ashes and was still climbing. The person who reached Whitney Portal that day was not the same person who charged out of Badwater Basin 42 hours prior. When I reached Whitney Portal, I knew I could no longer by broken. "I wish I could tell my dad," I said. "He knows," Darin replied."

Soon, we saw Jenn and Jeff and I moved a little faster. The four of us climbed that last mile together, finishing something we'd all fought for all night and day and night and day again. We all crossed the finish line together, and we all finished Badwater. 

 Photo by Chris Kostman.

Photo by Chris Kostman.