In this Death Valley race, forget winning — did anyone survive?

August 18, 2011

Late at night and high on the mountain, all that seemed to exist for Brenda Carawan was throbbing pain — in each muscle, in every joint. She had to muster everything inside to simply move one foot in front of the other.

“How much farther?” Carawan asked.

“Two-point-six miles,” she was told.

“Argh! I need to sit.”

“You can sit when you’re done.”

Carawan, 34, her sweat-drenched ponytail poking out of her hat, had come so far. Years earlier, she’d locked her sights on this race, a 135-mile torture exercise through the California desert known as the Badwater Ultramarathon. She’d spent years planning, training, dreaming. It strained her marriage at times. She’d quit her accounting job. She’d spent more than $8,000. All so she could suffer.

In a day and a half, Carawan had run, jogged and walked more than 130 miles through the heart of Death Valley in 115-degree heat, in what many consider to be the toughest footrace on the planet.

She hobbled only a few more feet before again asking, “How much farther?”

“Two-point-two miles.”

An expletive echoed through the canyon.

“I can’t keep going,” Carawan moaned. “I’m gonna die.”

* * *

At breakfast before the race began, Carawan tried to calm her nerves by regaling her crew members with a scene from “Rocky II.” A reporter had asked the monstrous boxer Clubber Lang, “What’s your prediction for the fight?”

Carawan, who is a sprite and looks nothing like Mr. T, mimicked the mohawked actor: “Prediction? Paaaaaaain.”

In Death Valley, that much was guaranteed when 94 racers from 14 countriesconverged on a blistering July morning. Runners crowded together at the starting line, sweating through their running clothes before any had taken a single step.

Carawan had made the cross-country trip from her home in Virginia Beach, where she had recently left her job at a corporate accounting firm. Behind her, Michael Wardian, an accomplished runner and ship broker from Arlington, triple-checked the watches he wore on each wrist. Not far away, David Ploskonka, a general engineer from Baltimore, shifted his weight from side to side as he glanced at the nearby salt flats.

Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level, marking the lowest point in North America and the one of the hottest, driest spots on the planet. Chris Kostman, the race director, likes to call Death Valley “Mother Nature’s greatest sports arena,” though a race of this sort presents challenges that few athletes ever encounter.

At 135 miles, no footrace in the country measures longer. Runners have a 48-hour time limit. They run through the night and stop only for short breaks. Then, there’s the elevation change, going from the lowest point in the Mojave Desert and climbing over three mountain ranges — a total elevation increase of 8,642 feet — ending at Whitney Portal, which leads up to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. All the while, runners must somehow control their nutrition, hydrate constantly, limit their exposure to the sun and keep their body in working order until the finish line.

Footraces generally reward the first to reach the finish line, but Badwater is about survival. It doesn’t measure speed as much as it does determination, stamina and human limits.

“For me to feel any kind of satisfaction, I don’t want to have anything left,” Carawan says. “I want to come across that finish line knowing there was nothing left, there’s no more that could have come out of me. If I have to die, whatever.”

* * *

The runners counted down from 10 together. They all had a finger on a watch, ready to synchronize with the official race clock. In unison, each watch chirped as the runners took the first of many steps.

Like most runners, Wardian was dressed all in white, and the bandanna wrapped around his face made him look like a bank robber. Carawan fingered her iPod cord, her fingernails painted Atomic Orange to match her running shoes. She began the race listening to the training montage from “Rocky IV,” in which Rocky prepared for Ivan Drago by running through snow, pulling a sled and chopping wood.

Ploskonka wore a tank top and a red bandanna around his neck. Like most of the runners around him, he had once dabbled in marathons but needed more.

“The marathon isn’t really a mystery,” he says. “You have your watch, your GPS, your splits. That’s all well and good. But for me, there’s always been an exploratory aspect to running, trying to go where nobody has gone before.”

The ultramarathon exists on the far edge of mainstream sports but has experienced a lot of growth in recent years. According to Ultrarunning Magazine, there were 2,890 U.S. ultramarathon finishers in 1980. Thirty years later, there were 46,280 finishers in 550 competitions. Badwater is among the oldest of the races.

In 1977, a curious Californian named Al Arnold, long fascinated with Death Valley, ran from Badwater Basin to Mount Whitney in 80 hours. A few others tried to best Arnold’s time in the ensuing years, but Badwater didn’t become an organized race until 1987 , when eight runners gathered at the starting line. The field is now limited to about 90 competitors, and each has to apply for a spot and meet criteria that include completing at least three 100-mile races.

The first stretch of the course along Highway 136 is flat, and the heat is unrelenting. As Ploskonka breezed through the early miles of the course, moving away from the jagged, intimidating face of the Funeral Mountains, the terrain seemed to change with each step. Competing in the race for a second year in a row, he found himself among the leaders in the early stage.

He was quickly struck by stomach problems. Around mile 23, his pace slowed to a brisk walk. He passed on water and was already chugging from a pink Pepto-Bismol bottle.

* * *

Runners are allowed to have as many as six crew members using one or two vehicles to help navigate the race route. The crew members stop every mile or so to deliver water, food, first aid and encouragement.

The temperature didn’t seem to have much effect on Wardian, who had prepared for the heat by doing jumping jacks in a Gold’s Gym sauna. He maintained a steady pace through the first town on the route, Furnace Creek. Wardian, long and lean with shoulder-length brown hair, rarely slowed his stride whenever his crew approached to offer aid.

The team had stockpiled more than $600 worth of supplies shortly after landing in the desert, including 70 gallons of water, and felt prepared for any contingency that might arise. A note from Wardian’s two young sons was taped to the dashboard of one of the vehicles. “Good luck, Daddy!” it read. “Keep cool, run fast & smart and HAVE FUN!!”

An accomplished runner on the national stage who enters nearly 50 races a year, Wardian had never competed in Badwater. He thought the event was more like a “suffer-fest” than a footrace. But the 37-year-old looks for new challenges.

“I set high goals, because I want to know: Do I have the commitment, the talent and the motivation to get there?” says Wardian, who has won the National Marathon five times.

Nearly every runner in the race, it seems, has a different goal. Amputees compete to challenge the limitations of their handicap. Runners who are 70-plus show up to defy aging. Drug addicts run Badwater to show they’ve found a healthier vice.

“Some people are running toward something; some are running away from things,” says runner Marshall Ulrich.

Ulrich, 60, has run 120 ultramarathons and has completed Badwater a record 17 times. He once ran it without a crew, and another time he reached the finish line, turned around, ran back to the start and did it again. Ulrich is such a glutton for the asphalt that he has had all of his toenails surgically removed — one less thing to worry about on race day.

“You find the functional and the dysfunctional in Death Valley,” he said.

Wardian passed wind-carved sand dunes, paying little attention to a dirt devil that climbed to the skies, and found both his crew vehicles in Stove Pipe Wells, nearly 42 miles into the race. His crew had assembled a makeshift bathtub, canvas supported by a PVC pipe frame and holding 50 pounds of ice — a desert oasis in the bruising midday sun.

“Super cold,” Wardian said, as he lay down inside, hanging his feet over one end to keep them dry. “How long do I have to stay in?”

He gave it less than a minute, worried more about losing time than about overheating. He took a seat under an umbrella for a new pair of socks — the first of several changes. He swallowed a salt tablet, urinated discreetly and applied an anti-chafing ointment. His team moved with the urgency of a NASCAR pit crew changing tires and refilling oil. Fewer than four minutes passed before Wardian was back on the road.

* * *

Ploskonka knew why he was running, and it wasn’t for the belt buckle. He already had one. There’s no prize money associated with Badwater. No promise of celebrity or endorsement deals. Those who finish take home a shiny buckle the size of a playing card, a medal and a T-shirt. This after paying an entry fee of $1,000 and spending several thousand more to arrange for transportation, a crew and supplies.

“For me, it’s about the unknown,” says the 29-year-old.

“Radar Love” blasted from the speakers of the Nissan Xterra, and Ploskonka’s crew reviewed the runner’s ailments. Not yet 30 miles in, his legs were cramping, he was having trouble focusing, and his stomach didn’t seem to be digesting anything. The Pepto-Bismol didn’t work, but he was still smiling as he continued a power walk.

“If I wasn’t here, I’d be at the office,” he said between heavy breaths. “I really hate the office.”

To prepare for Badwater, he endured his 45-minute daily work commute from Baltimore to Aberdeen with his car heater on full-blast. He had run during lunch and stayed late to use the treadmill in the company gym. He wanted to improve his time at Badwater from the previous year — a formidable 34 hours 28 minutes.

Growing up in Baltimore suburbs, Ploskonka had parents who kept him from more physical sports such as football, wrestling and lacrosse. When he failed to make the high school soccer team, he gravitated toward cross country and has been running since.

At Badwater, Ploskonka was now walking more than he was running. As the course approached sea level, he bent over and dry-heaved. His crew grimaced.

“We’re not really sure what we can do about it,” said Sara MacKimmie, his girlfriend. Badwater is a nutrition puzzle, and crew members work nonstop trying to find the formula that will enable their runner’s body to handle the conditions.

There’s no consensus on whether the Badwater race is a healthy undertaking. University researchers have converged on Badwater to measure the effects the dangerous conditions have on the human body. But the race is still too young to discern any long-term results.

“Fifty to 75 years ago, we were asking the same things about what is now a standard marathon: 26.2 miles,” says Randy Wilber, a senior sport physiologist for U.S. Olympic Committee. “That question now extends to the ultra events. We don’t have an answer, but you could pose a strong argument that it’s not necessarily healthy to engage in a race that’s this demanding on the body.”

A few miles later and about seven hours into the race, Ploskonka took a five-minute break to cool down in the crew’s car.

“You seem happier,” MacKimmie said. “Are you happier?”

“Working on it. I just got to keep moving that way,” Ploskonka said, pointing down a road that seemed to have no end.

* * *

“Okay, I’m freaking out now,” said Carawan crew member Jon Olszyk, rifling through the gear. He had located the toilet seat — one usually designated for camping — but couldn’t unearth its special bag.

“Make it quick,” Carawan said, “because I’m going to go in my pants.”

She was on mile 62 and had been on the road for 12 straight hours. Running in the dark, she wore a reflective vest and head lamp.

Carawan had always been a recreational runner and in 2003 entered an Ironman competition in North Carolina. She had trained for months, and her family flew from her native Texas to support her. Then she bombed the race, failing to finish. Crushed and embarrassed, she walked into an REI store the next day and bought a DVD called “Running on the Sun.” It was a documentary produced in 2000 on Badwater.

“I just thought, Wow, this is unlike anything I’ve seen. I have to do that,” Carawan says.

It took a long time to prep for Badwater. She juggled school and work, got married. But the 135-mile race was always in the back of her mind, and she still felt every aspect of her life was pointed toward Death Valley.

“I do have a tendency to have somewhat of an obsessive personality,” she says. “In my 20s, maybe it was partying and drinking. Running got me out of that. Otherwise, I could probably be an alcoholic. Running is just this place that feels safe. When all hell is breaking loose, it’s that safe spot where I can go and just be in my head.”

She became so gripped with long-distance running that earlier this year, she created a race management company, hoping to stage ultra races in the Hampton Roads area.

Carawan worked on Badwater crews for other runners in 2009 and ’10, her eyes filling with tears when she first set foot in Death Valley and felt the sun burrow under her skin.

“Some people buy fancy cars or boats. Some people have children, and that’s an expense they’ll have for 20 years,” she says. “For me, this is my child.”

On the race course, the caravan of crew cars ahead of her looked like flashing Christmas lights, illuminating the descent into the no-stoplight town of Panamint Springs. There, her crew would have a shift change to catch a little sleep and her husband, Russ Carawan, would join her. He was too anxious, though, and sat in a chair on the side of the road to watch the runners and wait for his wife. She finally arrived about 12:40 a.m., slightly distressed.

“You’re doing great, babe,” Russ told her.

“I’m going too slow,” she said.

* * *

Wardian has competed in races in nearly a dozen countries, including about 50 ultramarathons, but he had never run more than 100 straight miles. When he hit that mark at Badwater, he showed no signs of slowing. Three runners were ahead of him, and he was determined to catch each. As dawn broke on Day 2, Wardian’s crew members could only shake their heads. He had been running for 20 straight hours but was suddenly turning in his fastest times, running a mile in less than seven minutes.

It proved to be too much and too soon. As the morning sun peeked over the mountains in the distance, Wardian hit a wall at mile 113 and was reduced to a walking pace.

“You can walk faster than that,” one crew member said.

“I know,” Wardian told him. “It’s like I’m shopping at Macy’s.”

The sleep deprivation didn’t bother him. His wife, Jennifer, says he sleeps only three or four hours a night, anyway. But his stomach was struggling, and he felt as though his body was shutting down.

In the distance, Wardian could see the final stretch that awaited him: Mount Whitney, cast against a bright blue sky, its jagged gray top too high for vegetation.

“It’s like a Disney backdrop,” the runner said.

“Nobody would like this Disney ride,” said his brother, Matt Wardian.

* * *

In the middle of the night, Ploskonka already felt cramping in both legs and feet, and he had developed a violent case of hiccups that had every nerve in his body vibrating with pain. He would doze off, then startle awake moments later and find that his feet were still moving.

Ploskonka resolved that once he reached Panamint Springs, 72 miles into the race, he’d meet a medic before deciding whether to continue. Walking the final miles there, he tried to distract himself by talking with crew member Jason Wara about UFOs, the supernatural, Einstein.

“I don’t know what it means that he’s hurting so much and talking about aliens,” MacKimmie said.

“It means you’re dating a nerd,” said Andrew Marsh, another crew member.

About 2 a.m., Ploskonka saw something streak across the black sky — a shooting star. Just let me finish the race, he wished, and if possible, with a better time than last year.

Ploskonka finally reached Panamint Springs about 5 a.m. and met with a medic, who instructed him to lie down to rest — at least temporarily. Ploskonka found a bed and eased onto a mattress, unsure when he’d get up.

* * *

By midafternoon of Day 2, Carawan had reached the 120-mile mark. But she had ruined her left hip, hobbling like an old woman carrying a lifetime of pain into each step.

“By this point, it’d probably feel better if a car just hit you,” said her husband, Russ.

After years of hearing about Badwater, Russ knew he had to make the trip. The race had rooted itself in his wife’s dreams before they got married, and there were plenty of times in the ensuing years when the two — relationship and race — struggled to coexist.

Money was part of it. In addition to hiring a coach, Carawan flew her crew to Death Valley, paid for hotel rooms, two rental cars, food and water for her and her crew, plus all the gear and supplies. Then, there was the time commitment to train, to run 100-plus miles each week. Russ is a cyclist, but that didn’t mean the Badwater race was an easy concept to grasp.

“I’ve tried to explain it to him over and over again. There’s certain things there are no words for,” Carawan says. “He doesn’t fully understand it, but I think he accepts that this is who I am, this is important to me.”

The miles passed slower than the hours. Drained, Carawan said little. The final stretch is perhaps the most difficult. If runners manage to survive the heat, the distance, the lack of sleep, they’re rewarded with a climb that would buckle the freshest of legs. To reach the finish line, Badwater runners must climb 4,750 feet over the final 12 miles — essentially a half-marathon pointed toward the sky.

* * *

Wardian was silent, his eyes unfocused. He had to be helped into an SUV. He wasn’t sure he could continue.

After 15 minutes, his first steps looked as though he was learning to walk again. His brother walked behind him. As they maneuvered the switchbacks up Mount Whitney, the air became thinner, the scent of pine more distinct. Wardian had given up on food and told his brother he might need another ice bath.

“You got one thing to do first,” said his brother.

“What’s that?”

“Finish.”

He wouldn’t win, though; a runner named Oswaldo Lopez had already finished in 23 hours 41 minutes, less than an hour off the record pace.

About 125 yards from the finish line, Wardian was met by all six of his crew members. Together, they sprinted the remainder of the race. His official time: 26 hours 22 minutes — 2 1/2 hours behind the winner but good enough for third place.

Wardian found a seat, took off his shoes and peeled off his socks, revealing a middle toe that had been replaced by a blister the size of a Tootsie Pop. “Someone’s going to have to carry you back now,” said one of his crew members.

“Pssh,” responded Wardian. “You guys carried me all the way here.”

* * *

Ploskonka slept for less than an hour. By the time he worked his way out of bed, the lone restaurant in Panamint Springs, which was along the race route, had opened for breakfast. He ate eggs, potatoes and half a pancake, then decided to continue.

He started by walking those first few miles outside of town, as other runners had because of the steep incline. But before long he moved into a jog. Then a run. As the temperatures heated up — again, topping 100 — his feet sped up. By 2:30 p.m., Ploskonka had more than 109 miles of roadway at his back, not to mention an increasing number of competitors.

“Pass some more people,” his girlfriend pleaded.

He maintained his torrid pace when he made the turn toward Mount Whitney near dusk. The final four miles took him all of 55 minutes, better than all but one other runner. When he found his crew near the final turn, he was sprinting.

Ploskonka crossed the finish line in 22nd place. His time of 34 hours 18 minutes was a 10-minute improvement over the previous year. “I got to be honest,” he told his crew, “I thought we were doing 40 hours or worse — if we finished at all.”

He had hoped to break 30 hours, to finish in the top 10. But he said battling through the most pain he had ever experienced on a race course felt like an even bigger victory.

* * *

Many competitors report hallucinations during Badwater. The tar lines on the asphalt become snakes. Dinosaurs roam the desert. Old friends and family appear on the side of the road. As she neared the finish line, Carawan saw a cat, a plane, a tent and people — none of which existed. On the final stretch she was gripping her left hip and limping along. On Mount Whitney’s switchbacks, her crew sang, “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain,” but Carawan was not quite as jovial. She pleaded to stop and rest, moaning that she was about to die.

As the stars came out on the second night, Russ took over as Carawan’s pacer. Just two miles to go. He reached for her hand and the two moved in sync. Maybe he hadn’t understood why Carawan needed to run Badwater, but he certainly knew why she had to finish. He talked about food, friends back home, and their dog, a 6-year-old yellow lab named Lance — anything to take her mind off the pain.

Finally, she spotted her crew. The grimace disappeared from her face and the limp from her step.

“We’re here,” said Amanda McIntosh, her coach. “This is it.”

“Amen,” Carawan said.

More than 36 1/2 hours had passed, and 30 others had already crossed the finish line. In all, 81 of the race’s 94 entrants would finish within the 48-hour time limit. But to Carawan, this was years in the making, and it felt like the stage was set specifically for her.

“Was this your dream?” McIntosh asked.

“This is better than my dream,” Carawan told her.

They then crossed the finish line together and hugged. Carawan hadn’t died. She didn’t collapse or even crumple into a chair. The horrors of the race had been replaced by elation, and she was soon holding a glass of champagne in the cool night air, toasting with her crew.

“I’ve got to do it again,” she said.

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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