2013 Pacing Badwater 135

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Chris Moon and me at the 2013 Badwater 135.

I had the opportunity to crew and pace Chris Moon at the 2013 Badwater 135 Ultramarathon. I wanted to help someone at Badwater because I was considering entering, and I wanted to learn more about the race, as well as support a fellow competitor. The Badwater 135 goes from the lowest point in the US, at Badwater in Death Valley to close to the highest point in the lower 48 states at Mount Whitney Portal, covering 135 miles and 13,000' (3962m) of cumulative ascent and 4,700' (1433m) of descent. The race is held in July, when the heat is at its most extreme, and this year the temperature was higher than usual. While Badwater is an extreme challenge for any athlete, Chris Moon lost his right leg and arm while clearing landmines for a charity in Mozambique, which presents an additional and significant challenge. Chris has four prior Badwater finishes, including two 'doubles', where you return to the start for a 270 mile run. This year Chris was working with Endolite to test a prototype for a new prosthetic leg, as well as raising money for the Cambodia Trust charity. The new technology will offer some big advantages to amputee athletes, but testing out a prototype technology under race conditions adds yet another challenge. The new leg worked remarkably well, but it cost several hours of lost time in tweaking and even minor issues with the fit caused additional pain for Chris. It also slowed Chris down so that he had to work harder to stay within the race cutoff time of 48 hours.

1 The Race

I started pacing Chris on the first morning, as the heat began to rise and I stayed with him until after sunset. I covered about 26 miles, with a couple of short breaks to help with the driving while the prosthetic was modified. During the hottest part of the day I was able to spray Chris with water to keep his temperature under control, and to mule for him so he didn't have to carry things. Once the sun set on the first day the crew took shifts sleeping, so I changed from pacing to crewing just after dark, then I got my 3 hours sleep before returning to pace Chris though the final 50 miles of the race. Initially Chris was making good progress, but by mid-afternoon the combination of sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, heat, pain from the prosthetic, and phantom pain from the lost leg all started to slow him down. I worked to keep Chris on a steady pace that would keep him ahead of the race cutoff without going too fast and burning him out. Once we hit the climb up to Whitney Portal, things improved dramatically, much to my surprise. The new prosthetic allowed Chris to climb better than he could move on the flat and he was able to dig in and pick up the pace. Chris finished the race in 45 hours, which is 3 hours slower than 2012, a remarkable result given the higher temperatures and the time lost to working on the prototype prosthetic.

2 What I learned

I wanted to crew and pace at Badwater partly to help out another athlete and partly to learn more about Badwater with a view to competing myself. I learned a number of things that I'd like to share.

  • Badwater justifies its reputation as one of the toughest foot races, and it requires preparation, organization and a smart strategy. Thus the challenge and attraction of the race goes beyond the direct physical exertion.
  • Running on a prosthetic leg is harder than you'd expect, even when you expect it to be hard. There are issues I would never have considered, and my admiration for Chris is enormous. I know that I will remember him every time I find the going tough in a race. His refusal to quit and his ability to pick up the pace when exhausted and in pain is breathtaking.
  • Running in the Heat of Death Valley is different to the heat I've experienced in other places.
    • If the air temperature is significantly above core body temperature, any air movement over dry skin heats you up rather than cools you down. At 125f/52c, the air is 27f/15c warmer than your body and you can feel a wind burning your ears.
    • While it's hard to feel the difference between 115f/46c and 125f/52c, it makes quite an impact. If you consider the difference between body temperature and air temperature, 125f/52c is nearly twice the difference compared with 115f/46c.
    • The low humidity makes evaporation far more effective, so having wet clothes cools you off far more than it would in a humid environment. However, things dry off quicker than you'd expect, so you can soak a shirt in water and it will be dry a mile later. (Not just dry to the touch, but that hard dryness you get if you leave something in the dryer too long.)
    • The sun is vicious, and the perceived temperature continues to rise through the day until just before sunset.
    • The night time is still hot, but the difference between night and day is far greater than in other races.
  • Like other hot races, Badwater is unforgiving of even slight mistakes or errors.
    • If you are slightly too fast and overheat, it takes a long time to recover you core body temperature.
    • If you don't drink quite enough, dehydration comes on fast. It's easy to underestimate your fluid needs as you can be sweating at your maximum sweat rate and feel dry because of the rapid evaporation.
    • Because of the high fluid intakes, getting the right amount of salt is critical and Hyponatremia as a more common problem.
  • A sleep deprived cameraman who was filming the race said 'Death Valley is the coldest place on earth', and I think he's right. The temperature may be hot, but emotionally it's a cold and inhospitable place. However, I rekindled my love of the desert, with its austere and harsh beauty. There are two sayings; 'God made the desert so men could find their souls' and 'going for a run clears my head, but running 100 miles distils my soul'. Running so far in the desert can a uniquely purifying experience.
  • A good crew is important in many ultras, and none more than Badwater. Having a good crew will make a huge difference at Badwater.

3 Comparison with the Keys 100

There are many similarities between Badwater and the Keys 100, and the design of Keys 100 is based on Badwater. Both are point to point road races in hot conditions with crew support. If you are considering doing Badwater, I'd highly recommend both running the Keys 100 and crewing at Badwater as preparation. (I'd recommend both even if you're not doing Badwater, as they are both great experiences.) I am planning on doing the Keys 100 as part of my preparation for next year's Badwater should I be fortunate enough to get a place. There are a number of key differences between the races:

  • During the day there is far less you can do about the heat at the Keys 100. The high humidity at the Keys 100 means that being wet does not help much, and you're probably soaking wet regardless of what you do. Ice will help a little at the Keys 100, but not much.
  • At night, the heat in the keys is far worse than the heat at Badwater.
  • Chaffing is far, far worse at the Keys 100 than Badwater because you are continually wet. In fact, chaffing is a source of drop outs at the Keys 100.
  • Badwater is 135 miles, which is a lot longer than the Keys 100. How much longer? Saying '35 miles does not convey the impact of the difference. Consider how you felt at the 65 mile mark of your last 100 miler and then imagine feeling that way at the 100 mile mark.
  • The hills at Badwater are long and steep, where the Keys 100 is flat.
  • In both races there are places where you can see how far you have to go, but psychologically it's far worse at Badwater, where there are places you can see some 40 miles ahead to the finish.

4 What worked

The hat that served me well at Badwater, made from a Halo hat and an old under armor running top.

As usual, I like to record what worked and didn't work for future reference and for the benefit of others. While I was only pacing at Badwater, I went far enough to learn a few things.

  • Heat Acclimation Training. While it's almost impossible to replicate the heat, low humidity and high sun energy of Death Valley, I believe that my Heat Acclimation Training worked well. It provided some physical adaptations, such as sweating more and higher blood volume, but it also provided the even more critical physiological adaptation of knowing the signs of overheating.
  • Altitude Training. The altitude of Mount Whitney is only about 8,360 feet (2,548 m), but that's high enough to feel the difference normally, and typically I'm susceptible to altitude problems. At that height each lung full of air only contains about 75% of the O2 you'd get at sea level. However, having used my DIY Altitude Training system, I had no problems at all.
  • Covering up. Runners at Badwater cover up to varying degrees, but I found that completely covering up during the day worked best. I even wore white fingerless gloves to protect my hands. There are several factors behind covering up.
    • The clothing reflects some of the heat of the sun, reducing your thermal load.
    • When the air temperature is above body temperature, the air warms you up rather than cooling you down, so the extra insulation is a slight advantage.
    • The clothing holds water for evaporative cooling, and there are some advantages to slightly thicker materials that will hold more water. This is radically different to what you normally want.
    • The UV levels at Badwater will cause rapid sunburn in most people, and sunburn reduces your ability to sweat.
    • Not only is the sun vicious in Death Valley, you also have strong winds and sandstorms, so clothing can prevent the sand hurting your skin.
  • Stay wet. Being wet makes a huge difference at Badwater. I wore a white shirt over a compression top and soaked the shirt in cold water, which kept me much cooler.
  • Modified hat. I modified a Halo Running Hat so that it covered my neck and face, exposing just my eyes. I was deeply grateful for this on many occasions.
  • Ketogenic Low carb diet. I've been experimenting with a ketogenic diet, and while pacing Badwater I ate peanuts, sunflower seeds, one Reece cup, and a double cheeseburger (no bun). I found this worked remarkably well and I had no issues with digestion or energy levels.
  • DIY Electrolyte Drink. I found that adding salt to my drink kept my well hydrated and provided the salt I needed.

5 What didn't work

There were a number of things that didn't work for me at Badwater.

  • Avoid all exposed skin. I had a slight gap between my running tights and my socks, which was enough to get a little sunburn and a little sand chaffing. I also had fingerless gloves and next time I think I will go for the full finger type. I could feel the wind and the sun burning my fingers, and if you touch something metal it's easy to get a burn.
  • Lack of preparation. I run the marathon distance on a regular basis, but I don't do any walking in my training as generally I don't walk much on my races. I wasn't expecting to do more than a handful of miles as a pacer, so I didn't think that would be a problem, but I ended up covering over 75 miles. Walking is different from running, using different muscles and putting different stress on your feet. At the end of the first day my feet were sore and they were painful all of the second day. The pain is similar to Plantar Fasciitis, so I wonder if it would help to strengthen underside of foot.
  • Sandstorms. I was not prepared for the sandstorms, which were not massive, but none the less they make life remarkably unpleasant. I think I need some close fitting glasses or even skiing goggles.
  • Lack of sunglasses. My Sunglasses are pretty good, but at Badwater I wanted something much darker during the day, and I needed clear sunglasses to deal with the sand at night.
  • Wear white. I was dressed nearly completely in white, but not quite. On the first day I had some shorts over my white tights, but I didn't bother on the second day as I could feel the difference in the heat. The other problem was my shoes, which were light blue and got too hot.