Scatter my ashes here...

Scatter my ashes here...
scatter my ashes in the desert...

Monday, June 2, 2008

Got air?

A few months ago, I realized that it's been 5 years since I've been out to Death Valley. To prepare for Badwater, I really needed to refresh my memory of the course.

I'm writing two posts about the weekend. This one is about the trip in general, and I've made a separate post for the crew called "crew notes" to describe the run and transcribe the notes that Nathan and I took during my two day training run.

For years there have been unofficial and official training weekends over Memorial Day for Badwater. This year I really wanted to do the Wyoming Double and Houska Houska, and I'm not a big fan of traveling on holiday weekends. I'm not into crowds.

My brother Nathan is a big fan of Death Valley, the desert, and outdoors in general. He's also a great photographer, and when I mentioned the idea of going out to Death Valley for a training weekend, he was packed and ready to go before I even asked him if he'd be interested in crewing.

My sister, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew decided to go to Disneyland together this weekend, leaving Nathan a free weekend to travel. It was perfect timing. Memorial Day weekend turned out to be cool, only a high of 84 in Death Valley. This past weekend, it never got to be hot, but it did reach 103 degrees and 96 degrees on the two days of my training run.

I've been so busy lately, I never get a chance to really stop. The past few days I'd been working and didn't sleep well for two nights prior to leaving. As we flew over the Rocky Mountains and over Utah, I looked down at the Colorado River where I ran that race on the Kokopelli Trail a month ago, and then I closed my eyes and to try to sleep. Sitting there in the same spot for two hours was the longest rest I've had in months other than sleeping.

Nathan and I met each other in Las Vegas at the airport baggage claim for my flight. I forgot about two things that Nevada has, that we don't have here in Colorado. One is slot machines in the airport. The other one is smoking. Everywhere.

As we waited for the bags to unload, I was eating the only food I had, a piece of Starbucks chocolate pound cake that was left over from 4 days earlier, race food I brought for the Wyoming Double. While eating it in the Las Vegas airport, I realized I should save some for when we got into California. That piece of pound cake traveled to 4 states before being eaten!

I picked up my bag and we went to pick up our rental car, a mid-size SUV. It was a Dodge Nitro that drives like a brick and has no acceleration power. Regardless, it had plenty of room and served it's purpose as a crew vehicle. Gas in Las Vegas was only $4.50 a gallon. As soon as we crossed into California it was $5 a gallon, and in Panamint Springs we saw our highest gas price at $5.89 a gallon for regular unleaded.

Once we were in the garage picking up the car, Nathan started pulling out his gadgets. In line at the rental car counter they asked if we wanted GPS with our rental car. Nathan said, no. He brought 2 GPS gadgets of his own! The other thing about the rental car was that they give you two keys to the car, but they're locked together on this unbreakable metal ring. One of the cardinal rules of crewing is to always have a spare key somewhere separate from the vehicle in case you get locked out.

We asked if we could get the keys separated. They guy looked at us with that blank stare, the one that cows give you when you run by their pasture...

Whatever. I guess the rental car companies aren't up to speed on crewing for ultras. Can anyone answer that question for me? Why do they give you a spare key that you can't separate from the other key? Does that make any sense at all to anyone out there? I'll give a Vanilla Hammer Gel to anyone who provides the best answer.

We spent a couple of hours in Las Vegas driving around to Super Wal-Mart for supplies and a bike shop for Heed. We bought 4 cheap styrofoam coolers, just in case, some snacks and lots of water and drinks. Then we hit the road for Pahrump, to pick up the coolers at the post office.

As we drove into Pahrump, we saw some interesting signs off the road. One billboard was for the Brothel Art Museum. And then we saw these:

Only in Nevada.

At the post office, we walked in and Nathan was tall enough to see the coolers sitting behind the counter. We tried to get dry and block ice at the ice shop in town but it was closed, so we went to the gas station and got some. We got back in the SUV, and soon we crossed into California and I finished the pound cake.

More interesting signs along the road. One was, the Death Valley Health Center. Hmmm.

As we drove toward the park, I was thinking about how every time I'm in Death Valley I am sleep deprived, and the heat together with the fatigue make everything seem surreal. I'm always finding humor and irony in little things there. I need to come here some time when I'm not doing a run. I need to come back and be a tourist. So many interesting places to check out.
The sky is huge in Death Valley. The scale of things is different than anything you'd experience in most places. Everything is dwarfed by the landscape. Roads wind around mountain ranges and nothing is as the crow flies. It reminds me of how running in Death Valley is. You have to take what it gives you and make the best of it. You have to be prepared, but you can't plan too much, because unexpected things happen.

As we descended into the park, we stopped at the information kiosk and got our park permit. We were looking down toward Zabriskie Point, and I got this feeling like I never left since the last time I was there. I think this place bakes into your bones.

We checked into our room at Furnace Creek and went to get dinner. I noticed a few more little amusing things. One was the list of "Hot Weather Tips" given to tourists on the hotel map, which includes: Never leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle during hot weather.


On the menu, ice cream was listed under "drinks". I guess that would be correct in Death Valley. We had a good dinner, the food is really good at the cafe in Furnace Creek. Then we went back to the room and organized the vehicle for the next morning and put our drinks on ice.

Friday morning when we woke up it was 72 degrees at 6 am. I taped my heels with some foam tape, bathed myself in sunscreen, and we got our stuff together, checked out of the room, and hit the road for Badwater.

After a few pictures I got started at 8:24 am, close to the time of my race start and just as the sun was coming up over the top of the high cliffs above the Badwater monument. As you look up, there is a sign way up high on the cliffs that marks Sea Level. It was 85 degrees in the shade.

Within a few miles Nathan had a smooth method of crewing me figured out and I should have started with ice in my hat or around my neck, but I figured this out after a couple of miles. Then all was good.

It was amazing how many times people driving down the highway would slow down and pull up next to me to find out if my car broke down, or if I was okay. The first time the question caught me off-guard when this guy asked me if I was stuck. For some reason it didn't make sense. I lifted one foot at a time off the pavement, to see if I was stuck. My feet weren't sticking to the pavement..."No, I'm not stuck."

Then I realized why he was asking me. People don't normally go for a run out here?

After that, each time I would point to the crew vehicle and tell them, "I'm running" and thank them, and they'd usually leave me alone.

Occasionally they didn't believe me and I had to do further explaining, but I kept moving forward at my racewalk pace. Don't you think I'd be waving my arms trying to get their attention if I needed help?

There were lots of motorists who went by and gave me a thumbs-up. They must know about the race. There was only one car over the whole two days who tried to veer toward me and honked aggressively like they were going to run me off the road. In general, the roads were pretty quiet. Not much traffic at all, but quite a few tour busses went by.

The day went well. I averaged 4 miles an hour including two 15 minute breaks and all of the short but awkward crewing stops every 1/2 to 3/4 mile along the course. During the race crewing will be much easier with two or three crew members, and I won't have to stop moving forward, they can crew me as I go. With just one crew member it's not as efficient, but Nathan did an amazing job and my stop time was only 15 to 30 seconds each time.

Nathan has an unbelievable ability to multi-task. At one point toward the end of the day I asked him if he got a chance to take any photos because he was so busy crewing me. He said, "About 300 so far."

Multi-tasking must be another thing in the Nitzky genes because I decided early in the day that I was going to take notes and write things down as I was walking along the course so Nathan wouldn't have to worry about taking notes on top of everything he had to do; getting ice for my hat, bottle, and neck, spraying me with water, getting me food, sunscreen, assessing my general well-being, figuring out how far to drive before the next stop, and so on.

At one point another tourist stopped to ask me if I was all right. I was walking along the road scribbling notes and she asked me twice if I was really okay. Maybe she thought I was writing a suicide note?

I took a 15 minute break at Furnace Creek to re-sunscreen myself and get in the shade, but I never got off my feet. Nathan got more ice and did errands, and I took off with two full bottles once I re-iced my hat and neck bandana. He met me about a mile down the road.

Along the road I was looking at the scenery, in awe of the size of the landscape and the colors. The different shades of brown dirt and black rocks, the shades of lavender and pink and orange in the vegetation, the deep blue sky, the tan and pink sand dunes, and the red and bronze mountains. I could feel the spirit of all the other runners who have traveled along this road for Badwater. And I wanted to paint. I wanted to break out my pastels and spend the rest of my life painting scenes from this desert.

The only glitch in the entire first day was somewhere around 26 miles. I asked Nathan for a Slim Fast. I drank one earlier in the day and had no problem. As I drank the second one, it was the hottest part of the day and I didn't think about it as I slurped it down. We were laughing about something and I was almost spitting the Slim Fast out because I was doubled over laughing. About 5 minutes later I felt REALLY NAUSEOUS.

I thought, I am going to barf this up. I kept moving but I slowed way down. I asked Nathan if he thought it was the heat, if I looked like I was too hot, or if he thought it was the Slim Fast. I thought since it came on so suddenly and I'd been doing great up to that point, it had to be the Slim Fast.

Just then a truck stopped near our crew vehicle and two men and a woman jumped out with cameras and microphones. I had no idea what they were up to and I didn't care, I was feeling like puking. Then they leapfrogged us a few times, each time with cameras set up as I went by. Finally I felt less nauseous and I asked them, what are you taking pictures of? They didn't answer except for the woman who said, "runners".

They talked to Nathan, I was still moving forward as fast as I could while still having waves of nausea. I was wishing that Slim Fast would come up and was thinking about trying to make myself puke so I could get it over with, when suddenly Nathan appeared again.

He told me it was an Austrian film crew making a documentary about the hottest places in the world and they wanted to know what I was doing and if they could ask me some questions. They couldn't have done this at a better time...

Suddenly Ben Jones came to mind, with his barfing classification. I think this would qualify as "Barfolalia" which means, "Alert the Media" and I started laughing.

By then I was feeling better and the Slim Fast had stayed down, so I told Nathan they could talk to me but I wasn't going to stop. The woman caught me soon after that. First she asked me what I was doing. I said, "Training for Badwater."

Then they took off and met us another half mile down the road. This time she asked me, "Why do you do this? Do you feel compelled to do this?" I started laughing. I wanted to say "The voices told me to do it, I forgot my Haldol today". But I think I said, "I've always wanted to do Badwater and I love Death Valley." That seemed to make her happy. That was last we saw of them.

I was no longer nauseous but I'd been out 7 hours without getting off my feet and I decided it would be a good time to take a break. I stopped at the Beatty turnoff sign and I got in the car and we turned on the AC and drove around for 15 minutes until we got back to the spot where I stopped. I got out and started going again from the Beatty sign.

The descent into Stovepipe Wells was the best. I love the Devil's Cornfield. When I saw it I got so excited, I took off running and forgot my water bottle! Nathan had to catch up to me and bring it to me. I ran most of the last 5 miles into Stovepipe Wells.

We got to Stovepipe Wells after 10 hours and 46 minutes, including stops. Not bad at all, that's 42 miles. The air temperature hit a high of 103 but Nathan recorded it as 123 on the asphalt. The whole day I was very much aware of the 25 degree caveat. It might be 103 out here and I'm feeling great going at a relaxed four mile per hour pace, but on race day, it could be 128 degrees and that changes everything.

We checked into the room. My feet didn't look bad, some heat rash, no blisters. My legs were heat rashed though. I showered and then we got dinner. The restaurant there isn't quite so good as Furnace Creek, but it's okay. We woke up early and got another 8:00 start on the way to Panamint.

I made it to Townes Pass summit in 4 hours, 27 minutes. Before the top I had a Slim Fast but drank it slowly. No problems this time. Then at the top I took a 10 minute break and ate some jello.

I strted the descent into Panamint and told Nathan I wanted to run as much of it as I could. It's 13 miles from the pass to the resort and it's all downhill until you hit the east edge of the dry lake bed about 4 miles out from Panamint Springs resort.

About 2 miles down the pass you get your first glimpse of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada range with Mt. Whitney. That's where you can first start imagining the finish.

I ran almost the entire 9 mile downhill stretch and then quite a bit of the way to the resort. The view looking back across the lake bed and up to the road you just descended is one of the classic Badwater photo shots. It's really amazing when you see the tiny runners against this backdrop of these huge mountains and valley.

I reached the Panamint Springs resort, 30.3 miles from Stovepipe Wells, in 7 hours and 19 minutes. Just before the resort is the general store, which had a sign outside. They have ice, groceries, and Ensure.

They were ready for me.

I took off my shoes and washed off my feet and we hit the road for Lone Pine. My feet didn't look too bad. Some heat rash, but no blisters. I did have a few friction spots on my heels and under my left foot. I ate more jello and some baby food before we hit the road for Lone Pine. Ensure didn't sound too good.

We were to call Ben Jones when we got into Lone Pine for a quick visit. We drove the course to about the 120 mile mark when I called Ben just outside Lone Pine. He said he'd meet us at the intersection in town and drive up to Whitney Portal with us. We parked and waited for Ben for just a minute before he showed up, and we drove up the last 13 miles of the course. We caught up on Badwater gossip and trivia, and Nathan and Ben hit it off with their mutual love for techno-gadgetry. We stopped at Whitney Portal and took pictures then I went over and touched the tree at the finish line.

We drove back to town and Ben joined us for a burger at a restaurant there before we took off back to Stovepipe Wells. It was great to see Ben, it's been five years. He looks fantastic. At 75, he's still staying busy with running events like the Wild West 50K and Badwater-related activities, and still doing coroner's cases on a regular basis.

Ben provided me with the original inspiration to do Badwater. I'll be seeing him at Badwater in a few weeks, when I embark on my journey. He truly is an ambassador for running in Death Valley and that whole area of eastern California, along with being Mayor of Badwater.

On the drive back we stopped for several photo opportunities in the evening light, and I noticed how much of a descent there is on the course between 90 and about 110 miles. We saw two gigantic, monstrous snakes out on the road on the drive back. Ugh!
It was good to see the parts of the course in daylight that I'll be running at night during the race.

We left the coolers in the room in Stovepipe Wells along with the extra bottles of gatorade and water and Slimfast that we never used, figuring some employee at the park might be able to use them. Sunday morning we drove back to Las Vegas, stopping for some photographs, and in Furnace Creek at the general store for a few gifts. I saw some smiley face earrings and I couldn't resist.

When we got to the airport we had some time before our flights, so we reviewed the pictures on Nathan's camera.

The trip back was uneventful, my flight got in a half hour early, which was nice. On the flight I sat next to someone from Windsor, so we talked about tornadoes, mountain biking, and Death Valley during the flight. I used the drive back to Fort Collins as a heat training opportunity in the car. I arrived home to Dennis and the Buffaloes around 6:15, sleep deprived, sweaty and smiling earring to earring.

6 weeks to go! TOWANDA!

(all photos this post by Nathan Nitzky)

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