Monday, July 19, 2010

Race Report: Badwater

Well, another Badwater Ultra and at least three toenails are in the history books! This being my second time in the race and my third time at the race, I was hoping to learn from past experiences and improve on last year's time of 29:12 and 8th place. But you never know what the race, the desert or the mountains, or even your self, are going to throw at you.

Pre-Race: I arrived in Las Vegas on Thursday, July 8 without any trouble and picked up my rental van and drove to the Flamingo Hotel, where I'd be meeting my brother Ted, his wife Becky, and their kids April (age 25), Andrew (24), Garret (15) and Riley (13), who had been on a mini Vegas vacation for a few days. Ted and Becky crewed for me last year, but the race and Death Valley would be new for the boys. April was flying back to Nebraska instead of going to Death Valley. When I arrived they were actually at New York, New York, so I walked down there to meet them. On the walk back I was pointing out to the boys what all of the New York landmarks and buildings were supposed to be, looking up like a tourist, when WHAM! I walked right into a fire hydrant! I don't know why they put them in the middle of the sidewalk, but I was at least walking slow, and I was just hoping there'd be no bruises. Of course, Riley seemed to find it as funny as the men standing nearby did. That's a good crew member for ya! ;-) But I think they were all a little jealous of my 28th-floor penthouse room (unrequested) with a view of the Strip and Caesar's Palace across the street, and the big Flamingo neon sign right outside my window.

So on Friday Ted and Becky dropped off April at the airport and we all met at Wal-Mart to get the supplies and food we'd need for the race. Then we drove out to Death Valley. We stopped at Zabriskie Point for the views, and detoured over to Badwater to get to look at it before the hoopla of race day. Then we drove over to Stovepipe Wells and checked in. The first person I saw outsude the motel office was my friend Reza Baluchi, the first Iranian runner at Badwater (living in California). I first met him in 2003 as he was finishing a run across the country and have met up with him occasionally since then. He had high hopes for his Badwater race and had been spending a lot of time in Death Valley training.

Saturday I went on a short run with Andrew, who was a very good cross-country runner in high school, and had been training so that he'd be ready to run with me for short stretches, as Ted and all the boys had been. Later we all hiked around Mosaic Canyon, one of my favorite places in Death Valley. In the evening my sixth crew member, Carilyn Johnson, arrived with her husband, Tim, and sons Grant and Spencer. They'd all be staying the night and the men would drive back to LA on Sunday, where the boys were in a school program.

Sunday at the check-in and pre-race meeting it was good to catch up with friends, some of whom like Connie Gardner, Tony Portera and Amy Palmiero-Winters were running the race, some of whom like Suzanna Bon and Dennis Ball were crewing. Back at the hotel it was time to get all my clothes, food and supplies organized. Then a night of worrisome, fitful sleep.

Mile 0-42: The race started well. I saw a few men running way up hront early, but it was way too early for me to worry about competition. I had time splits I was aiming for that I thought were reasonable, but still a significant time improvement over last year. Shooting for 2:40 to Furnace Creek, I arrived in 2:35, over last year's 2:43. A little fast, but feeling good. I had been doing a lot of back-and-forth with #29, Gregg Geerdes, a runner who I'd never heard of before, but who was running well. At one point between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells I cam across Reza, who was being tended to behind his crew's van. I thought maybe he'd gone out too fast. I kept running well, walking very little, thanks to the efficient working of my crew. I ran mostly alone, although Carilyn ran with me a stretch as we got closer to Stovepipe Wells, and Ted and the boys I believe each ran a short stretch with me, my apologies for not remembering completely. I do remember that last seven miles to Stovepipe never ending, just like every time I've been out there. I was hoping to get to Stovepipe Wells in 6:30 and actually took 6:36. I was running strong but I knew I was overheating and needed to take five minutes in the van to cool down. Five minutes turned to about 20 but then I was on my way up the first hill.

Mile 42-72: After a couple of miles gradually uphill, Carilyn joined me for the tough slog up the bulk of the hill. The early evening temperatures were still hot, and the steep climb combined with the strong headwinds made most of the hill a power walk. I did throw up at one point and nearly stumbled back in standing upright, but Carilyn kept me from falling. She was a little worried after that, particularly since it looked like I wasn't processing the food properly, but we kept on up the hill. Reaching the peak at Towne's Pass was a definite milestone, and I was ready and primed to book it on down the hill. Carilyn and Becky went ahead in the secondary van to Panamint Springs to gas up and get some rest. This part I took solo and took most of my crew stops without slowing down. Nearer the bottom I was joined in the running by Garret, then Riley, Andrew and Ted. I believe they each ran with me a couple miles at this point. And by this time it was dark and I could see the shooting stars. I was starting to feel some hot spots on my feet and was considering having the medical team at Panamint Springs take a look at them, but I was running well and wanted to continue on. I got to Panamint Springs (mile 72) in 13:58, slower than I was hoping but still about ten minutes faster than last year. And I was hoping my big surge would still come between Darwin Turnoff and Lone Pine.

Mile 72-90 (not for the squeamish): Aside from the bugs buzzing around my headlamp, this stretch started off well. Carilyn joined me on this hill again after a couple miles. For quite a while I felt good and was running some of the flatter or less steep sections. But getting closer to Father Crowley Point (mile 80) I felt the circulation in my body go a little off. This is difficult to describe, and was difficult to describe to my crew, but my arms were a bit numb, and the numbness had gone up to my sinuses, causing a strange sensation in my head, although I didn't feel dizzy specifically. Still, I though it would be good to sit in the van a few minutes again until I felt more like normal. Becky took my pulse, which was normal for the running I'd been doing. I threw up out the van door again, mostly water this time, but after a few minutes felt good enough to get moving again, mostly walking but a little jogging mixed in. Oddly enough, starting at this point, something in my kidneys must have kicked in because I was going to the bathroom very often, very clear, and very voluminous. I took this as a good sign, even if the stops took some time.

This section of road has many sloped surfaces because of the tight turns, which was wreaking havoc on my feet, and I could feel blisters developing everywhere, my toes, the back of my heels, the bottom of my feet. They were hurting bad enough to make me get back to the van. After painfully taking off my shoes, the blisters were everywhere, loose skin on the back of the heels, grape-size blisters on the toes, and pockets of fluid beneath the thick skin on the bottom of the foot. Becky and Ted lanced, drained and wrapped what they could, but I honestly didn't think I'd be able to get back on my feet again, they hurt so bad. Certainly not when I had about 55 miles to go. I was considering the possibility of simply not being able to finish, of finishing in so much time that I would be an unexpected burden on my crew, especially when Carilyn had to leave right after the race, or when I was expecting to finish on Tuesday during the day. Could I ask my crew, including two teenagers, to continue into Tuesday night or Wednesday? But I thought about Project Hospitality, the charity I was raising money for, my New York ultrarunning friends and everyone else rooting for me, and I knew I had to give it a shot. I got back up on my feet and decided to walk a little and see how it felt. Of course, it was excrutiating! But after a bit I got into a walking stride, and soon was able to jog a few steps. Then I could jog a few more steps. It was still taking forever to get to Darwin Turnoff (mile 90), and I was falling further behind last year's time as the sun started to rise, but I was gradually able to put the pain out of my head, or at least in the back of my head, and I thought I would be able to finish in daylight in the afternoon. I got to Darwin in 19:44, the section from Panamint Springs taking almost six hours when I was hoping for about four.

Mile 90-122: By the time I got to Darwin, I felt good enough to run at a good clip again, just in time for the extended downhill the first few miles after leaving the time station. From this point on, I was feeling more like myself, my legs were still feeling good, the pain in my feet was in the background, and the road was mostly flat. Most of the race from Stovepipe Wells on, I was running near Connie, and we'd be going back and forth, I was seeing her crew a lot also. I was enjoying their company, and one of her crew members in particular, I'm told he was McGinty, was being very encouraging, being a fellow Irishman! I was somewhat surpsrised to have come up to Connie here again, thinking she would have been too far ahead to catch. But being otherwise somewhat isolated, it was good to see them again. I passed the 100-mile point, marked on the pavement, at 7:34 am, 21:34 into the race. Soon after I passed Dan Jansen, a South Dakotan with a prosthetic leg who was running very well. I believe it was the foul-smelling stretch near the sulfur mines that I passed Connie for the last time. And as I got within a few miles of Lone Pine I could see my next nearest competitor, Eric Deshaies from Canada, as well as 8:00 starter Dominick Grossman. I thought for sure that if I was catching up to Eric this late that I'd be able to pass him, but he must've seen my and gotten moving. Both Eric and Dominick got to Lone Pine a few minutes before me, but I was just so happy to be running and moving well and to finally get to Lone Pine that I wasn't too concerned with catching them. It was nice that Ted and the boys were able to run a couple of miles each with me here again. I was especially happy that it looked like I'd be able to get to Lone Pine by noon, and still be able to pull out a sub-30 hour finish - unthinkable 40 miles ago! I did hit the time station at noon on the dot, 26 hours into the race. 32 miles in 6:16, not bad all things considered.

Mile 122-135: As my crew organized themselves, splitting up as one van would have to go straight to the finish, I began the journey up Portal Road. I covered this last 13 steep uphill miles, 5000 feet elevation gain, last year in about 3:45, and I was hoping to do a little better this year. But honestly, knowing that I'd have to walk virtually all of it, although I would power walk as fast as I could, took pressure off. It was kind of an equalizer among the runners. In fact, in my mind I thought of Lone Pine as the finish line and the climb to the Whitney Portal as a sort of voctory lap. Certainly things can go wrong and I was careful not to tempt fate, at the very least it was possible to be passed, but I just kept moving and enjoyed the day. Carilyn walked with me here again, poor woman had to do all the hills with me! But she was good company and kept me focused on eating and drinking properly to finish the race strong. I could never remember where exactly the 131 mile checkpoint was, but eventually we came upon it, and every step was bringing me closer to the finish. The steep switchback brought me closer to the turn into the wooded campground area. Then Carilyn got in the van and Ted walked with me the last couple miles, as he did last year. We were passed by Connie's crew van, and McGinty(?) said she was about three miles behind, but in my paranoid state and knowing Connie's drive I was ever worried that she'd come up right behind and pass me at any moment. I didn't dare look back but I had Ted look back. Eric had gone up the hill too fast for me to catch, as had Dominick. Most of my time with Ted was speculating on how far the finish was. I kept thinking it was just around that corner or just past that sign. But the road kept going up, and I was getting paranoid about taking a wrong turn! We would shout, "Hello, anybody there?" when we thought the finish must be right up ahead. But eventually we saw our teammates in their Team McCarthy shirts that Ted and Becky had made up, joined them, and jogged in to the finish line, crossing the tape in 29:44:52. I have never felt to relieved to get to a finish line, and have never finished a race that was so much in doubt. And I still got a sub-30 hour finish, and finished 8th place for the second year in a row. Finishing ahead of me were Zac Gingerich, Oswaldo Lopez, Jamie Donaldson (breaking her own course record), Marco Farinozzo, Gregg Geerdes, Jorge Pacheco and Eric Deshaies. 8 is my lucky number after all.

Post-Race: From the finish line, Becky took Carilyn back down to Lone Pine, where Tim would meet her to drive her back to LA. I stayed for a while hoping to see Connie finish, but I needed to get to the motel and take care of myself, so down we went, and we passed Connie near the top, as she would finish in 30:35. The rest of the time in Lone Pine I could barely walk, the blisters hurt so bad, especially on the bottom of my right heel. I had to take pictures of my feet when I got my shoes and socks off, for documentation. I won't share them with you here, but there was al kinds of stuff everywhere, and a couple of toenails were floating on a wing and a prayer. It hurt to put pressure on, it hurt to take pressure off. Tuesday evening, Becky and I did see Marshall Ulrich as he checkined into the time station before heading up to the portals, so it was good to see him moving well on his way to his 16th finish. On Wednesday, we all drove up to Movie Flat Road to look at the scenery and climb on the rocks. The awards ceremony was in the evening, and it was good to talk to Connie again, and Reza, and share war stories. As I told people, I was hobbling but happy. My crew was awesome, Andrew, Garret and Riley in particular really stepped up and got me going. And I think they even enjoyed themselves! My feet were swollen as I drove back to Vegas and limped through the airport. But my journey wasn't over yet... Part 2 to come!
Pics: 1. Garret, Riley, Becky, Ted, Andrew at Zabriskie Point; 2. Carilyn, Garret, Ted on the road; 3. View from my room in Vegas; 4. Me, Ted, Garret at the start; 5. Running in the desert; 6. Carilyn, Riley, Garret, Becky, Andrew, me, Ted at check-in in team shirts; 7. The McCarthys at Movie Flat Road; 8. Andrew, Reza and me at check-in; 9. Relived to be done; 10. Getting my medal


  1. Many congrats Phil! Great to see you out there again!

  2. Well done, Phil! Now, let's see the pictures of your feet! :)

  3. Way to gut it out under tough conditions, Phil! Congrats on breaking 30 hrs. again!

  4. Rock On My Running Brother!!!
    Mario R

  5. Phil
    Great race report and congrats on finishing in under 30 hours. Your report brought back great memories (and of course not so good memories). Way to persevere through the tough times, you have a true warrior spirit. Also sounds like you had a great crew that kept you motivated when you needed it most.

    I enjoyed running with you, hope we run into each other again

    - the unknown guy, Geerdes #29

    Say hey to Dan Rose for me next time you see him.