Sunday, July 22, 2012

Race Report: Badwater Ultra

I was eagerly and optimistically awaiting the 2012 Badwater Ultra, but not from the start. I signed up hesitantly, not being sure if I'd be able to race due to personal circumstances.  But I did, and after I got accepted I still wasn't sure if I'd confirm, until Mike Arnstein enthusiastically convinced me, having gotten accepted himself. So we were sort of a team from the get-go.

The big news before the race was the mild forecast, with highs on Monday, July 16 in Death Valley predicted to be only 108 or 109. People who sign up for the Badwater Ultra, a 135-mile race starting in one of the hottest places on the planet in mid-July, continuing over three mountain ranges and finishing more than 8300 feet up the side of Mt. Whitney, sign up for the full experience, the greatest challenges, otherwise what's the point?  It can normally be 125 degrees during the race, so a high of under 110 is a real disappointment for many. My two previous races, 2009 and 2010, were pretty hot, so at least I've had that experience. This year I had a new and unexpected weather experience. Friday night before the race after I drove out to Stovepipe Wells (mile 42 on the course) with Mike and met my crew - my brother Ted, his wife Becky, and their sons Andrew, Garret and Riley - we were sitting in the saloon and saw the wind pick up a strong sandstorm. Next came the rain, and some heavy downpours! That area gets about two inches of rain a year, mostly in February, and here we just got about an inch! The storm left its mark, with dirt and gravel washed over some roads, and a big standing puddle covering the road just north of Stovepipe until well after the race passed through.

Anyway, the race. I was certainly hoping to improve on my past performances, both between 29 and 30 hours and both good for eighth place. But I didn't have the experience on the course to really judge what I might be capable of. I was hoping at least to take a little time off each leg of the course, not stop for breaks, move a little faster up the hills, keep my running pace up, and with a little luck maybe take a couple hours off my time. My crew was experienced, all five having crewed me in 2010, and Ted and Becky crewed me in 2009 as well. They were all excited to be back and so was I!

Maybe the best aspect of Badwater is seeing running friends from across the country and the world who you don't get to see very often, as well as making new friends. I was especially looking forward to seeing defending women's champion from Japan, Sumie Inagaki again. I ran with her in my first 48-hour race in Surgeres, France in 2008. She got second overall and I got third, but she broke the world record, so I can't be too disappointed. It was also nice to see some familiar faces from the New York area. Besides Mike, there was Ken Posner and his crew, Tony Portera and his crew (who I really didn't see until during the race itself), two friends who were members of Maryland runner Dave Ploskonka's crew, and Milko Mejia, who was on the crew for a 2011 top-10 runner from California, Mark Matyazac. There were also two other members of the upcoming USA 24-hour world championship team entered, Mike Morton and Harvey Lewis.
Jackie Choi and Shannon MacGregor at runner check-in
Me with Ken Posner and crew at runner check-in: me, Todd Jennings, Dennis Ball, Ken Posner, Elaine Acosta, Emmeline Posner
Oh yeah, the race. So at the 10:00 start, the weather was not too hot at all, and there was a stiff tailwind. Counting the runners ahead of me at the very start, I was in ninth place. I'd try to keep track of people passing me and me passing people, but that didn't last long. I just wanted to do better than eighth place this year! I soon caught up to Mike A. as he was on one of his regularly scheduled walking breaks and we chatted a bit. There were some runners and crews that I'd see a lot of during the race, and Mike was one of them. Everything started off smoothly, with my crew doing an excellent job. I'd forgotten to bring sponges, but a cold wet cloth worked even better to wipe my face, neck and chest, and also provided some moisture to breathe when held over my mouth.

The McCarthy crew at Stovepipe Wells: Andrew, Garret, Ted, Becky, Riley

Sumie Inagaki and me before the start
Mike Arnstein and me before the start

I got to Furnace Creek (mile 17) in 2:24, 11 minutes faster than 2010. I attributed that to the weather, but I'd take it! Continuing on without incident, I got to Stovepipe Wells (mile 42) in 6:24, still 12 minutes ahead of previous pace, but feeling much better, and not stopping as I had before. Still, I was feeling the effects of the heat, and needed to walk a bit to cool down and give myself a breather. The 16-mile, 5000-foot climb up to Towne's Pass in the face of a hot howling wind would be my first real test. I planned to employ a strategy of 10 steps running, 10 steps walking. Not too ambitious-sounding, but better than walking it all, plus it might motivate me to expand my running segments. It was doing this that I slowly came closer to Mike, who had passed me some time ago. But as I tired Mike pulled away. In a nice moment, Dean Karnazes came up from behind me and gave me some very kind words of encouragement before continuing on ahead. I'd run a number of races with Dean, but hadn't had much of a chance to chat with him. Another nice note, his pacer there was Michelle Barton, showing the high quality of crew and pacers at Badwater! So as I climbed, caught my breath, and as the weather cooled, I was eventually able to settle into a very productive pattern of 32 steps running, 16 walking, even into the strong wind. (I'm a musician, so everything I do is in groups of four.) I got to the top of Towne's Pass having passed Dean back and feeling great, knowing that I've got good strong quads to fly on the following 12-mile downhill

Night fell, and I did fly on the downhill, passing Mike and seeing the lights of Panamint Springs get closer and closer. But by the time I neared the bottom, I was again needing to catch a breather from the constant fast running, and the beating my legs were taking. Plus, my stomach was feeling a little tight, and for much of the race felt just on the verge of being queasy. So I slowed to a walk on the Panamint Valley flat (where Mike passed me back) and suffered a morale slip. Then Ted gave me an Ensure, which was not quite cold enough, and I returned the chocolate liquid to the valley floor. Having done what my stomach felt like doing for quite a while, I suddenly felt better, reenergized, and ready to take on the climb out of Panamint, having hit the time station there about 1/2 hour ahead of 2010.

This was my big leg of the whole race. In both previous runs, I walked nearly the whole climb. In 2010 I suffered from nasty blisters as well as nausea that made me take almost an hour break, and almost made me pull the plug at mile 80. This time I did my 32-16 pattern and moved well up the hill, helped a lot by my nephews Andrew and Garret who took turns pacing me. (Garret and Riley are both high school students, by the way, and top-notch athletes themselves. Andrew is a very good runner as well, and had no issues with a recent knee injury.) I soon realized that without that stiff wind from the first mountain I could run more than 32 steps at a time. This was good, because the winding roads were steeply cambered, and running the curves did much less damage to my feet than walking them. Halfway up I passed Mike again, and he said how do I do it. But he was doing it too, after all. I really did make good time with Andrew and Garret's pacing, and Becky's cheering (you'd think we were at a Nebraska game!).
On the road early in the race, Ted Philip's car in background

On the road up to Towne's Pass
Ted, Garret and Andrew, close to Lone Pine

Out of the canyon, continuing uphill toward the Darwin turnoff, I was passed by Mark Matyazac, who I'd see a lot of for the rest of the race. Sometimes I'd pass him while he was walking or resting, but he'd pass me  running and take off.  Darwin (mile 90) seemed to never come, which seemed to be the case the last two times as well. But it finally came at 17:37, or 3:37 in the morning. This was huge for me! I made that leg in just over four hours, whereas it took me almost six hours in 2010, when I reached Darwin at almost 6:00 a.m., and almost 5 a.m. in 2009. And I still felt strong! But when my crew told me my place there, I was still in eighth place! I was determined to get out of that place.

A good downhill followed when I saw Sumie close ahead of me, and I was confident that I could catch her. And to my surprise I soon cam across Marco Farinazzo, the 2009 champion, walking down the hill, and passed him! But soon enough, Mark passed me by and took off. I was thinking this could be a real close finish, with Mark, Marco, Sumie and myself all close together, with Mike possibly not too far back, plus I was still seeing Dean's crew van, and I was told that Harvey Lewis was not too far ahead. With Marco being a recent champion, you couldn't count him out of having a burst of speed after struggling a bit.

So I kept on as well as I could. It was a long, long stretch to Lone Pine as any Badwater runner will tell you. But it was much easier being there so early. For one thing, it was cooler. For another thing, it was too early for the trucks from Keeler to be out and whizzing past. The road was blessedly nearly traffic-free! I'd come close to Mark only to see him pull away again, and I eventually had to let him go. But I saw less and less of Marco's and Sumie's crew vans.

That last curve towards the Lone Pine road just would never come. I was still running most of the time, with only short walk breaks, but my running pace was pretty pedestrian. I was becoming disappointed with myself and my current pace. I was hoping to get to Lone Pine before 9:00 ("Lone Pine by 9!" became my crew's mantra), but it was looking less likely as time went on. Still, I could meet two big goals: 1. Get 7th place or higher, 2. Break 27 hours. Getting to Lone Pine by 9:00 would give me a full four hours to get up Mt. Whitney, so I did have a little cushion, having walked up it in 3:44 in 2010.

I made the right turn to Lone pine right at 9:00, and the time check in town at 9:20 (23:20 race time), and was told I was in 6th place - a nice little surprise! It's always exciting to get to Lone Pine, knowing you only have that last, killer mountain to climb. For me, normally the pressure's off actually, as there's only so much you can do to get up the steep 5000+ foot, 13-mile climb with any speed. But I would have to work to take some time off my previous climbs if I wanted to break 27 hours. I started again with my 32-16 pattern, but before long it became too steep to make any running worthwhile for me. I also had Riley or Andrew, whoever was walking with me, keep checking back for Marco. But I did keep a good brisk walking pace, compared to my more casual walking pace in past years. And it paid off - with Ted walking with me and my crew joining at the very end, I crossed the finish line in 26:52:01! This was two hours, 20 minutes better than my previous best of 29:12 in 2009. It was a very satisfying end to a good race.

At the finish, I met Harvey and Mark, who had both finished within the last hour, and who were engaged in a pretty tough battle against each other. Mike Morton had won the race, almost beating Valmir Nunes's course record, Oswaldo Lopez was second, Zach Gingerich third, then Harvey, Mark and me. I rested at the top, went to visit the nearby stream, and then had my crew take me down to town, having been told that the next finishers were a ways away yet. But I was disappointed I didn't stay a little longer, because driving down, I soon met Marco on the way up, then Dave Ploskonka, and a host of other runners on the way down, including Kirt Lindermuller, Terry Sentinella, Sumie, Dean, Jonathan Gunderson, Pam Reed (who I high-fived) and of course Mike Arnstein, who I exchanged a few words with, and who was looking good on his way to a 16th-place finish in 31:04:55.

The crew and I went to the motel and crashed. On Wednesday we would enjoy the awards and pizza party (now a lunch party with the 48-hour cutoff), and a few beers at Jake's Saloon. The other runners and crews and I exchanged stories, congratulations, and went our own separate ways. But not before I put my third Badwater finish on the wall of Jake's Saloon. If you go there, it's in the back on the left-hand side, about seven or eight feet up the wall near the little stage.

I have to give a big thanks mostly to my crew - Ted, Becky, Andrew, Garret and Riley, who all really rose to the occasion! Thanks also to Dr. Jack Mantione, my physical therapist, who helps keep me injury-free and well-aligned and tuned up. And also to the folks at Project Hospitality, a charity on Staten Island that helps the poor, the homeless, and those with HIV, and for whom I've been raising money. They do very, very good work under difficult circumstances. And of course, thanks to all those in the New York ultrarunning community, all my friends who wish me luck and give me their support. It really is great to be a part of such a wonderful community!
Dave Ploskonka and crew (Shannon, Chris, Dave, Jackie) in Lone Pine

3 Badwaters, 3 times on the wall of Jake's Saloon


  1. Such a great RR; you almost make it sound easy! I like the idea of the run/walk based on steps as opposed to time (what I've done for my timed ultras). Congrats and enjoy the rest (which I'm sure you're done taking because you're a nut!).

  2. Congratulations, Phil. Excellent report, as per usual. And an even more excellent result. Thanking for writing all about it, especially for those of us who will never run Badwater!