by Patrick Reed
This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to join a group of similarly-minded crazy distance runners for a running retreat in Death Valley, USA. In the days leading up to the retreat – a venture which already intimidated me for its extremeness – I received a preparatory email from the organizer, Luis Escobar. (If his name rings a bell, it is because he was in on the adventures which are chronicled for generations to come in Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book Born to Run. In fact, Luis – a photographer by day – shot the cover image of McDougall’s book – see the un-cropped original image above.) In this final email to the group before we kicked off the weekend with a fruit social by the pool in Stovepipe Wells, Luis outlined the weekend’s activities and runs. One run in particular intimidated me to an even greater extent than my general sense of concern:
“Sunday, April 28
5:00am – carpool to Badwater for sunrise desert run – attempt to cross the desert from Badwater to Westside Road – 12 miles round trip – *weather permitting – potentially dangerous – we will call this one upon arrival – in any event we will do something that is both safe and epic.”
Sure enough, like destiny’s clockwork, we awoke at 4 a.m. that Sunday to drive the 45 minutes south – along the Badwater 135 course.
I had thought that Badwater, for all its ultra running fame, was a town unto itself. So, I was surprised to find that Badwater is nothing more – nor less – than a scenic spot with parking spots for too many cars in such a bleak and remote location….
We had been talking about Badwater, of course, all weekend. It wasn’t just the elephant in the room; it was the room. Of the 13 of us attending this incredible weekend, 3 had run Badwater at least one time. In fact, Luis Escobar had placed 7th in the race on one occasion, and Sarah Spelt — the co-coordinator of the retreat – had soloed Badwater once. On that crossing, she had even run beyond the finish at the Whitney Portal to go on to summit Mt. Whitney- the lower 48’s highest spot some 8,000 vertical feet above the Portal. In short, we were in ‘bad’ company — and whether each of us gave verbal assent to it or not, we were not by coincidence a gaggle of ultra-runners who just happened upon Badwater’s starting line in Death Valley. I’ll bet you each one of us has dreams to conquer the 135 miles of agony known as Badwater.
And so a few of us stood at the start of the infamous race – staring down the deceptively innocent-looking asphalt stretch of road before us. In only a matter of months, the most epic of races would be on — champion runners of all nationalities lining up in the sordid heat to conquer their demons and to push into and beyond their limits…
Luis had told our group a couple of times during the weekend that everyone who runs Badwater and stands on the start line looks over their shoulder to the left across the salt flats and wonders… What’s over there? What’s beyond? What lies across? Can you even go there? For a race which itself beckons unfathomable uncertainty, it is uncanny that its focused runners would look left — over their shoulders to find there yet another challenge. Even more striking, here we were – a group of ragtag wannabes, facing our own miniature Badwater — about to go seek out answers to what the greatest questioned: what lies across the salt flat.
All this would have been plenty to mull over — and maybe more than enough to encourage even the boldest to think twice. Yet, add to what I have told you the alarming story we all heard on the day we arrived at that poolside social to kick off our exciting weekend. Sara Spelt cleared her throat, looked down too seriously, and began in choked up sentences to tell the tale of an afternoon outing turned nightmare last summer. She and her soulmate — a 34-year old ultra legend, a Russian bear of a man with multiple ultra records to his name, Michael Popov — had been scouting out a 100-mile race course they hoped to debut as the newest Death Valley ultra this year. Without warning, Misha – as Sara affectionately called Michael – told Sara that he wanted to run across the salt flat from the far side of the flats at Westside Road back to Badwater. A journey of just over 6 miles — maybe a 2.5 hour affair because of the heat (123 degrees!! at that 2 o’clock hour) and the almost impassable footing — the task seemed quite impetuous and unplanned to Sara, but quite doable by her godlike best friend. She relented, prepped Misha up with what he asked for – a liter of water and a bunch of power gels – and off he went.
Unbelievably, the effort proved fatal. And though much mystery surrounds the crossing, the coroner – Badwater’s Ben Jones – blamed dehydration and heat exhaustion to be the deathblow.
As Sara finished her story, I, for one, remembered having read the Outside Online article about the tragedy earlier this year. During her telling, I glanced over at Luis — and thought that he must have planned our weekend’s final effort purposely, to honor Misha and Sara and to enable Sara a full closure to that fateful day. But when Luis, himself, remarked at how incredible it was that he had been always wanting to run that crossing and had indeed unknowingly penciled it into our weekend, the stars seemed clearly to be aligning. Our weekend would be epic, indeed.
So, all weekend, as we raced up and down Titus Canyon, leaped across the endless dunes outside of Stovepipe Wells, and sprinted quarter mile strides on the Badwater course, Sunday loomed. And, for me, there was that combined sense of excitement and great concern as I thought about going back to that place to confront a new friend’s demons… This simultaneous exhilaration and fear must be the stuff of awe.
And Sunday came. And that awe turned to reality. A 3:33 a.m. wake-up, a boiling cup of Starbuck’s instant Via warm in my stomach, and a 3/4 hour journey backwards on the Badwater course, had us there — at the spot of our hopes, and of at least one’s lost dreams. I stood on the Badwater start line and looked left, over my shoulder. I imagined how Luis Escobar must have felt beginning a 30-plus hour run in the hottest place on the planet, looking left, and even then imagining new challenges! (“These guys really are nuts!” I thought to myself.) And then we all walked over to the scenic overlook — and then down onto the desolate, relentless, emotionless, pitiless salt. And we took on the challenge. Head on.
There was something about this retreat weekend which was nothing less than epic — and this run would be the capstone. Even before taking my first stride, I knew this may be the most memorable run of my life.
We walked and jogged for an hour — stopping at the half hours to take stock: were we safe? Were we post-holing — that is, breaking through the salt crust so that the run might be seen to be not only dangerous but impassable? Were we good on water? Who needed to turn back? And then, having made decisions and acted on them, we pressed on. Eventually, I was out in front in a group of myself, Luis and Topher – one of Luis’ veteran cross-country runners from years ago. Now 22, Topher was coming into his own as an ultra runner. I had learned during multiple runs over the weekend that Topher has a strong engine, indeed! The three of us started to get the run into gear – realizing, as the sun cranked over the ridge behind us, that the heat was coming — and thus that each extra minute out there would tax us twice as much as the minute before. We ran and ran, 4 miles, 5 miles — and finally 6. We skipped, hopped, marched, walked and scrambled over the concrete-grade sharpened slabs of salt – angling awkwardly at razed angles. A fall was simply unthinkable.
Our threesome quickly agreed that the task before us was to cross the flats to Westside Road on the other side as quickly as possible so that we could return and turn any who continued to stubbornly venture forward into the increasing heat. 2 hours after we had begun, we were across! We had accomplished the task. Actually, half of the task. Here’s a photo of Luis and Topher on the “other side.”
Now, we had to get back. We would venture to run all the way – except where the footing was too misshapen and perilous. The salt flat continually surprised us with its changing challenges: smooth and slippery like snow one minute, harsh blade-like jags the next and then interminable concrete laid out for 700 meters. Odd dried but swooning riverbeds, then cracked parched earth and then hexagonal-shaped panels stretching to the horizon. We pushed on – stopping here and there for a photo shoot.
Eventually, our threesome — having agreed to one fellow runner’s imploring that she cross over to Westside — and we proceeding more slowly until she overtook us on the return — and having successfully turned one other runner — eventually we found a good quick rhythm, skipping delicately across the difficult footing. On numerous occasions, my tired stride had me clipping the crust of another alien hexagon of salt, but each time I fortunately landed the stumble. And yet it was inevitable that one of us would crash and burn. And so it was that just as I peppered Luis with another question about his incredible experiences, he went down.
The two of us had our cameras tucked into one arm as we raced — both of us veterans of running with our expensive cameras. This time there was no helping the concussion of the fall. Luis’ camera exploded upon impact on the unforgiving salt. The lens, which had already succumbed to the elements a half hour before, now fell apart like butter on the flat, and Luis’ Nikon D2X had taken a hard blow. The battery compartment was jammed open. The saving grace: the memory cards which held all of the day’s tales, lay deep within the black shell of the camera and were no doubt safe.
In addition to the camera’s injuries, Luis had suffered at least a near dislocation of his right middle finger. He said that for a split second he saw the finger completely bent backwards.
Somehow, Luis – a champion ultra runner – limped on — and together the three of us finished the course. Looking back, our two compatriots were still far, far out on the flat invisible if you didn’t know to look for them — engulfed in the incredible landscape.
We completed the run. We paid our homage. And we gave – with injury, sweat, anxiety and courage – to the cause of honoring a fallen hero.
In the end, this incredible run is still echoing in my psyche. I am still not sure whether or not I should have ventured out on the flat; I still exhilarate in the rush of having faced my fear with reason and preparation and physical exertion.
What awesome feat lays before you — beckoning that you face it?
Will you meet it head on?
image credits: Luis Escobar & Patrick Reed. For many more images of this amazing morning, click here.