Things are simply named in the desert. Stovepipe Wells.. where the stovepipe well is. Furnace Creek.. a creek as hot as a furnace, Badwater.. where a salty pool of bad undrinkable water lies.. and Death Valley… a valley so hot you die in it.
In this place, one of the hottest temperatures in the world ever was recorded.
In this place, every July 100 runners run 135 miles non-stop from the lowest elevation in North America to the highest point in the contiguous USA. As well as fierce temperatures runners will cover three mountain ranges resulting in a total of 14,600 foot of vertical ascent. According to Wikipedia very few people are capable of finishing the race.
For me this race is one I have always dreamed about.
My old MdS friend Krasse Gueorguiev was lucky enough to be accepted for a coveted place this years race. I was to head out to crew him.
There are no checkpoints on this race, only timing points, so crew are compulsory. Rules state you must have a car and at least two crew members. We were to be three. As well as me, there was Al and Steve. Both ultra runners, familiar with the highs, lows, nausea, delirium, and running miles and miles through the night.
We met up in Las Vegas. After squeezing everything in the car (the larger 4x4 that had been booked had not showed up) we headed west into the Death Valley National Park. It was hot as hell.
Lucky runners are selected by the Race Director with the field being around 50% re-entries and 50% newbies. In an amusing and slightly edifying brief from STYR Labs Badwater RD, the charismatic Chris Kostman showcased the history of the race and some of the truly outstanding runners who had raced. The race briefing also gave the crew members the chance to go over the strict race rules.
With the entire route on road and over two nights fatigue is another thing to battle. Everybody had to be on board with the rules. High-vis, highway rules and respecting the environment are the key messages. A park ranger told us two cars had overheated and burst into flames in the last two weeks. Air conditioning in the car would be a rationed luxury for the crew. We were hoping for a 30 hour or so finish time. You can’t really run a car non-stop for this long in temperatures over 50 degrees. If your car breaks down the runner is out of the race.
9.30 pm was the start time. A restless day was spent until we headed down to the start in Badwater Basin, 85ft below sea level. After the national anthem they were off. Krasse looking a focused mix of fear and determination. We were into the first night.
The temperature was a balmy 38 degrees and the plan was to stop every 2.5 miles. This sounds very frequent, but here it was not. Krasse was getting through 1 litre of water every 2.5 miles. He maintained a steady pace whilst we drove ahead, prepared a tray of food and drink and chilled more water in ice.
At 42 miles you are allowed a pacer. This is timed with the first big climb. 13 miles uphill. This is where the hard work begins..
As we went into the next day, the temperature was almost insufferable. Steve, Al and myself were rotating duties of pacing, driving and crewing. There was no time to rest. By lunchtime we were stopping every 2 miles, then 1.5 miles as the heat and distance took it’s toll. Krasse remained unbelievably focused. He was so easy to crew in that respect. He was putting his trust in us to get him there.
There are three places along the course you can stock up on ice and food. By Panamint Springs, the 72 mile mark, the scene was unlike one I have ever witnessed in an ultra marathon, and I’ve seen quite a few chewy situations. Runners overheating, falling asleep, crew wired and exhausted. Myself, after a dash into the tiny shop lugging bags of ice to the car and stocking up on cola, tried to catch 10 minutes sleep before jumping into the car to catch up Krasse as he took on another big climb.
I don’t remember much about the next night. We were stopping every 1.5 miles by this point and Krasse was having to dig deep. Eventually dawn lit up Mount Whitney ahead of us. Up this mountain was the finish line. It seemed so near and so terribly far away. We went into a town called Lone Pine, the first real experience of civilisation. It marked 12 miles to the finish line, all uphill.
By mile 133 watching Krasse determinedly marching up a steep hill. Having just seem an incredible lady only manage 6 or 7 steps at a time it was nearly too much to bear. We were all a little delirious from lack of sleep at this point. We had gone over 45 hours without sleep, and we were not the ones running 135 miles.
The finish line is perched on a sharp incline. Traditionally in the race runner and crew cross the line together. We gathered as a crew behind Krasse as he broke out into a run before crossing the line. This race is not for the faint hearted. Reading about it is one thing, but seeing it is another. I have nothing but the upmost respect for all who make the start line.
Krasse had worked so hard for this moment. Not just in the race itself, but in the years of hard training he had done to make the start line. In his words, it was the realisation of a ten year dream.
Well done mate.