Monday, July 21, 2008
Badwater 2008: A Blistering Pace, Part Three: Day Two
Panamint to Darwin
Nick and Katy took a break at Panamint, and Steph and Ken took over. I blasted through the climb up to Father Crowley point at 80 miles in just two and a half hours. The views back to the lake bed are amazing, the morning light was shining on the rocks and backlighting the little salt bush-like plants in glowing lavender. I leapfrogged with Phil Rosenstein, a runner I know from Across the Years who lives back east. We talked for a while. He caught up to me later at Darwin and went on for a strong finish.
This section of the course, from about 72 to 84 miles, was the most enjoyable of the whole race for me. I felt fantastic, I was having all kinds of pleasant thoughts, enjoying the scenery, listening to my music, getting lost in the views and the colors around me. I thought about the people who have been so supportive of my journey and started feeling their energy coming to me.
At one point these two guys on the race staff passed by me in their car and yelled "YOU'RE MY HERO!" which gave me another boost. After the road flattened out at about 80 miles, Steph joined me for a while, until where we got to the park boundary at about 85 miles. I had my MP3 playing the milkshake song and I was singing it to Steph and we were giggling our heads off. She had about as much sleep as I did by that point, maybe less, so we were both goofy.
As I got off the climb and started the flat stretch to the 90 mile mark at Darwin, I could feel my feet starting to hurt. Under the ball of my left foot it was really bad and I was having to alter my stride to keep moving. I kept trying to focus on my tunes and moving forward to keep from thinking about the pain, but I knew I was going to have to stop in Darwin and take a careful look at my feet. There was no way I was going to be able to keep moving at that pace another 50 miles unless I did something.
Later on Woofie drove by in the race Medic vehicle and waved at me. I used to run with Woofie when I lived in Arizona. He lives in Scottsdale and we used to run in McDowell Mountain park together, among other runs. He's been working as a member of the medical team on the Badwater race staff for a few years now. I got a big burst of energy after seeing him.
It reassured me to see the race staff and medical staff patrolling the course. Chris has done a great job of building up the race staff to make things safer for the runners and the crews out on the course.
Just past the Death Valley National Park boundary this tourist suddenly decided to pull off the highway, with his car halfway in the road. He stopped about 20 yards in front of me and I was in so much pain, there was no way I was going to move over onto the gravel. I kept moving at my "walk like you're possessed" pace and headed right for him.
It was a stare-down, a standoff between TOWANDA! Queen of the Universe! and Joe Tourist. He looked at me like he wasn't sure what I was going to do, if I was an axe-murderer or an alien from a docked spaceship. I kept moving forward, my eyes fixed on the white line ahead of me. I was headed straight for the middle of his car, as if the white line continued up the hood and over the windshield.
Finally I won. He pulled his car over out of my way, with an annoyed look on his face as if it was some kind of strenuous effort. I didn't say a thing, just kept moving in a straight line following the white stripe as if he'd never been there. Surely the guy had seen dozens of other runners dressed just like me for miles along the highway, all proceeding in the shoulder facing traffic. This idiot couldn't even pull all the way off the road, he had his car straddling the white line and was going to get rear-ended by the next car if he didn't move.
Pretty soon I saw Josh, the giant joshua tree at 89 miles, and then I could see the tip of the white timing tent at Darwin, and the cars coming down the Darwin road to the intersection with highway 190. I arrived at the Darwin time station at noon! Awesome timing! I decided to take a long break and deal with my feet.
I sat down on a chair under the tent and started to take my shoes and socks off. The crew brought me a drink, some food, and started heating some soup for me.
They brought me the foot box, and I hadn't been there 5 minutes when Gillian and Don (the Zombies) drove up in their Zombie mobile. They were cruising the course doing foot care, and I was in luck. Gillian came over and got her foot box out. She asked me what the problem was and I described it to her.
She saw the big blisters on my heels which were not a big deal, I just needed to drain those and that problem was solved. The big problem was under the ball of my left foot, which was excruciatingly painful.
Gillian looked at it and tried to drain the blisters she could see. The problem was, I have thick calluses under my foot. That foot has always had more problems than the right one. I had bunion surgery on that foot and it moves differently, I have built up thick calluses on the sole between my metatarsal areas, and I had developed some deep blisters underneath.
Gillian told me she was going to get out the scalpel and try to poke holes in the deep blister to get them to drain. I couldn't argue, I knew I was going to have to endure it, and I knew it would help. It HAD to. My left hamstring and the area behind my knee and upper calf were hurting because of the way I'd been changing my gait since my foot was so sore.
I have super sensitive feet, even under normal circumstances. I can hardly stand to have anyone else touch them. I scream and squirm when Dennis massages them at home. I had to look away and clench my teeth while Gillian worked her magic.
She poked holes in the blister and very little fluid came out. She told me that was all she could do, and then she retaped my foot. She put some compeed pads underneath the bad areas and that helped a lot the rest of the way. I didn't have any trouble with my heels after that point. I had to pee and she took a break while the crew helped me to the other side of the van so I could go...we were laughing hysterically while Nick and Steph practically carried me to a spot behind the van. Ken said, "It's like being at work with your patients!"
...then they brought me back to the chair so Gillian could look at my other foot.
We tried my size 8 shoes after she got done. My feet were pretty swollen and very heat-rashed. I spent an hour and a half of the course at Darwin while getting my feet worked on, but it was well worth it. I was still way ahead of schedule and on tack for the sub-48 hour finish as I left for Lone Pine. It was starting to rain as we left so Nick and I got our raingear on and headed down the road. It was somewhere around this time that I found out that the original course had been cleared for the race, so we were headed to Whitney Portal!
Darwin to Lone Pine
Less than a mile down the road I realized that the size 8 shoes weren't helping. They were making things worse, because my feet were flopping around and causing more friction and more pain. First I tried putting the size 7 back on my right foot, and then I had to stop again and put the size 7 back on my left foot, which was still painful. It helped to get back in my smaller shoes but every time I stopped it was agonizing until I could re-establish the stride and block out the pain. I started dreading anything I had to stop for, like peeing.
Around 92 miles I finally got back into a rhythm and I kept picking up the walking pace. Nick was with me and Katy was driving and crewing. Steph and Ken went into Lone Pine to rest and get us ready for the next section. I had been unable to run at all beause of the pain, which was worse going downhill, even though I had planned to run much of the section from Darwin to Lone Pine. I was still staying on a good walking pace and had plenty of time cushion to make it under 48 hours, so I wasn't concerned. I was worried about my foot though, because after one mile where I walked about a 14 minute pace, I felt my foot start to throb again.
I tried to block out the pain again with music, and I asked Nick if he would interact with Katy for my food and drink needs so I could just stay focused on moving forward. I needed to keep my mind off the pain. Around 95 miles I heard this weird ringing noise. Both Nick and I jumped, we were startled. It was his cell phone. We didn't expect to have cell phone reception until much closer to Lone Pine, but we hit an area that was pretty wide open and it was there. It turned out to be a wrong number, but I asked Nick if I could call Dennis. He dialed for me, and I couldn't get through to him at work the first time. I called the house and left a voice mail, and then asked Nick to try his work phone again. The phone rang and Dennis picked up!
I told him I was at 96 miles and things were going well, that I was on track for sub 48 hours, but I didn't mention any of the foot problems. He told me that people had been asking about me all day at work, and they wished me well. We talked a bit more and we were headed toward some rocks, so we finished our conversation before the call could drop. Soon after that I asked Nick if the phone was still working. I asked if I could make another call. I asked him to dial my work number, I wanted to let my coworkers know how things were going, since so many of them have been so supportive of my training.
The phone rang and Lydia answered. I said, "Lydia! It's Alene! I'm at 96 miles!" She talked with me and then transferred me into the other room, where our manager and some of the other nurses were having a meeting. They passed the phone around and I talked to several people. I told them to tell Sandy the night charge nurse that I wasn't in rhabdo and my kidneys were working great...she was so concerned about me doing this race, before I left I promised I would let her know I was okay.
That was a big boost too, and it helped me to keep my mind off of my feet. Soon after I hung up from calling work, I started to feel it again, and it was getting worse. I told Nick the only thing I could think of was trying to get a hold of Denise, since we were headed toward Lone Pine maybe she would be there. Denise Jones (married to Ben) is a multiple Badwater finisher and is known as the "Blister Queen" for her foot care expertise. She was going to be available during the race along with John Vonhof, another veteran ultrarunner who literally wrote the book on Fixing Your Feet.
The crew didn't waste any time. Katy took Nick's cell phone and drove ahead to where she could get the phone to work again and called Ken in Lone Pine. Ken called race headquarters to find out if Denise was around. Somehow he got a hold of Don Meyer, who is a another runner we know from Across the Years and who was working on the Badwater race staff, and he contacted Denise. Ken called us back within minutes and said to stake out and head into Lone Pine to race headquarters, that Denise would be on her way.
We staked just past the 100 mile mark and they drove me into town. It was 5:00 when we put the stake in, and I took a little 10 minute nap on the way into race headquarters. I kept my feet up and used it as an opportunity to rest. They dropped me off and Steph and Ken met us there, they helped me into the medical room at the Dow Villa, and I saw Woofie and Lisa Bliss, both of whom reassured me that it's only blisters, we can take care of that.
I sat on the bed and took my shoes and socks off, and waited for Denise. I chatted with Woofie for a while, which was good, it distracted me from thinking about the time. Woofie asked me how it was going, and I answered, "I finally figured out what it means to run at a blistering pace." Denise showed up shortly after that and had her giant foot box. She started checking out my feet as I squirmed. She told me the same thing Gillian said, that I had big deep blisters underneath the calluses, and that she would have to drain them. Again, I didn't care, I just wanted to get back on the road.
She started to work on my feet and then John Vonhof came in with his foot care kit. He had the scalpel, and Denise told him she felt better about having him cut holes in my feet, so he sat down and went to work. It didn't hurt except when they put pressure on the tender areas. I couldn't see what they were doing, but the crew was there and watching. They said it was pretty spectacular watching him drain those big deep blisters.
Finally he re-taped my feet and used a special kind of bandage between my toes to help the blisters drain as I put pressure on my foot when stepping down and forward. I thanked Denise and John and the medical people, put my shoes and socks back on and the crew helped me limp back to the van, and we took off back to the 100 mile point.
On the way back I tried sleeping but couldn't. We reached the stake at exactly 7:00, we'd been off the course for two hours, which made a total of three and a half hours off the course for foot care. I knew it was necessary in order to preserve my race, but mentally it was a blow. I needed to re-group and as Nick and I started out again, we started to crunch some numbers.
I started out with extreme difficulty, I was stiff and slow and the pain in my foot wasn't too much better. It was improved, and within a few miles I could feel the blisters starting to drain just like John said they would. It was a weird, burning, squishy feeling in my shoe, between my toes. Every footstrike still caused a sharp, burning sensation in the ball of my foot. Nick calculated that we could still make it in under 48 but it only left us an hour of sleep time and not much wiggle room other than that. We'd have to continue at a good pace.
In my head I was thinking, it will be okay as long as I don't have to take time out for another blister. And I knew I was still going to finish, even if every step of the last 35 miles was agonizing. Somewhere in the back of my head there was this nagging little thought that I had plenty of time, even if I didn't make the 48 hour cutoff for the buckle, I would make the 60 hours easily. I was remembering Anita's words that she told me during the Wyoming Double. She said, "Shit happens out there, and it will happen. You have 60 hours to finish, that's plenty of time."
And then I completely erased that thought from my mind and replaced it with my own thought, I am going to get that buckle, even if I am in excruciating pain for every step of the next 35 miles. Shit happens, and you find a way to deal with it, and get back to the business of reaching your goal.
I was accepting the pain. Just like accepting the heat during that first day across Death Valley, now I had to accept the pain.
We settled into a 17 minute per mile walking pace. I didn't even dare try running, we were still going downhill and I didn't want to aggravate my screaming foot any more. I tried my strategy again of tuning into my music and having Nick interact with the crew. I was eating jello and baby food and I knew my caloric intake hadn't been great but I was eating something, getting some calories in, and staying hydrated. The worst part was having to pee, because I'd have to stop and then start the pain all over again as I worked back into my rhythm. We stayed on a pace that allowed me to put minutes in the bank toward a cushion I'd need heading up the Portal Road.
As it got dark the second night, we were headed toward Keeler, and I was starting to weave. It was time for a nap. I knew I only had an hour so I pushed it as far as I could, until I was so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open. Steph and Ken were crewing and driving, Nick was pacing me, and Katy had stayed in Lone Pine, she was resting, as Steph put it, "We need SOMEONE to have a brain in the morning on the way to the finish line!"
Steph and Ken drove ahead and found a safe spot to put the pads down for me to sleep by the road. I kept seeing things in the dark. There were crickets all over the road. I could hear them, I knew they were crickets, but for some reason my brain wanted me to think they were scorpions. I also kept seeing things in the shadows of the vegetation on the side of the road when the wind blew.
We stopped just past Keeler and I slept hard for 40 minutes, then woke up suddenly. I wanted to brush my teeth, put some drops in my contact lenses, and get going again.
We hit the road exactly one hour after I stopped. It rained on us for about 5 minutes right after we started. By the time Ken & Steph found the rain gear, it stopped. The sky was cloudy but we could see the nearly full moon high in the sky. We could also see the red taillights of the cars zigzagging their way up the switchbacks of the Whitney Portal road in the distance. Nick was calculating the pace again, and he wasn't telling me, but I'd been gradually building up a little cushion of time.
At some point past Keeler, I was concentrating on how bad I wanted that belt buckle, and I asked Nick to shine his light on my ears and tell me if my smiley faces were smiling. He laughed at me, "You're not superstitious at all, are you?" He told me how to adjust the smiley faces so they were upright. Then I was good.
We made the turn into Lone Pine and it amazed me how many big trucks were going by on the highway in the middle of the night. We passed Scott Weber on the road in Lone Pine, he looked strong, and we talked for a minute and I went on. Nick and I made the turn onto the Whitney Portal Road at 2:46 am. My feet were still throbbing but I had reached a point that Ken describes as "being one with the pain".
Lone Pine to Portal
The minute we turned onto the Portal Road off the smooth asphalt of Highway 395 I realized I was in for a rough finish. The concrete mix they used to pave the road is great for keeping the road intact under bad winter conditions, but it has all kinds of little rocks and bumps in it, and the unevenness was causing the pain in my feet to flare up worse than ever.
A block off the highway I saw something move on the side of the road and I aimed my headlamp at it. It was a baby skunk! I pulled Nick away, toward the center of the road. He asked me what was wrong and I told him, there's a skunk. He started moving TOWARD it! I said, no, come over here! I can imagine us going all this way and then getting skunked 13 miles from the finish. As if the Portal Road isn't bad enough.
And it was bad enough, and worse. The one part of the course that I have never run on before is the Portal Road. I've been up and down it twice in a car, and I should have paid more attention when I was out there in June with Nathan and Ben, but I didn't.
I forgot. It is a relentless, steep, 13 mile climb that gains nearly 5000 feet and does not give you a break, at all. I was afraid that my pace would slow, but Nick was calculating. He had a copy of the landmarks and mileage along the Badwater course and in the dark by the light of his headlamp, he was figuring out my pace, which stayed at 17 minute miles even on the steepest grades. In my head I was going to get that buckle.
I was trying to place my feet on the ground as carefully as possible, when I could see a crack or bump in the road surface, I'd avoid it. It was getting easier to see and I turned off my headlamp.
At 127 miles I was distracted by something and I stepped on a crack in the asphalt and suddenly I felt this intense, sharp, stabbing pain in my foot. I screamed and Nick asked what was wrong. It took me a few seconds before I could talk. It felt like one of the deep blisters under my foot had popped. There was blood soaking through my shoe, which I didn't see until after I finished, but everyone else did. No one said anything.
It took me a few minutes to recover from the most intense pain but I hadn't stopped, I just slowed down while I was blowing out the pain. I told Nick, you must think I'm the biggest whiner. I was giving this little moan with every step, but it helped.
I was getting goofy and my blood sugar was dropping, I needed to keep eating, and Katy recognized this. She started pushing me to eat. All I would ask for was jello and baby food. We were down to only red jello. My mouth and tongue and lips were bright red when the sun came up.
As the sky gradually got lighter we could see the "Z" switchback ahead of us at 130 miles. The road was impossibly steep. I wanted to look back at the view back toward Darwin over the Alabama Hills, where they shot all the old Western movies, but I couldn't disrupt my stride without excruciating pain and losing my pace.
I had to pee but I was going to hold it as long as I could, I didn't dare stop. It was taking forever to get to the Z. Nick told me, we're going to shoot for under 47 hours. That was when I realized I had it in the bag. I had built up a solid hour of cushion, as long as I stayed on pace, I was on track to finish in just about 47 hours. I didn't care about the 46. I just wanted to keep moving and let the time take care of itself. If I did, I did. If I didn't make it under 47, it was okay.
No one passed me the whole time going up the hill. At one point, one of the runners who had just finished was coming down the road in their crew vehicle and hung their finisher's medal out the window and yelled "Go GET IT!" That got me charged up.
Once we got to the switchbacks, it seemed like each one took forever, but they really didn't take that long. Once we turned the corner, I knew it was time to start looking for the "one mile to go" sign. It wasn't there, but I knew the Whitney Portal campground was it. I kept moving and the crew drove on ahead. I wanted to finish in my Poudre Valley Health Foundation t-shirt and I changed into it. I took off all my night gear and handed it to the crew before they drove ahead to find a place to park and run to the finish line with me.
The road kept curving around and I kept looking for the big trees, the ones that mark the finish line, but there were so many big tall trees I couldn't tell. Finally I heard the people and started seeing other crew vehicles parked and I saw Ben up there with his camera, and the finish line ahead. Everyone was cheering for me, I started to run, and I crossed the finish line tape and kissed the tree. 7:04 a.m.
You can see me crossing the finish line and more pictures from the webcast at these links: finish line, Alene & Chris Kostman, Team Towanda
All I could say was, "My feet hurt", but I was smiling with my red jello lips and I remember sticking out my red jello tongue. I just ran 135 miles on jello, baby food, and 90 minutes of sleep. I can be as goofy as I want to be.
My official time was 47 hours and 4 minutes. I hugged Chris, the race director, and he put my finisher's medal around my neck and gave me my buckle. We did some photographs of me, me with Chris, and me with the crew, and we didn't hang around too long as it was cool and cloudy and I didn't want to get chilled.
On the way down, we saw Denise Jones and stopped to thank her. I was so grateful for her attention to my feet, I don't know what I would have done without the help of Denise, John, and Gillian along the way.
We went back to the motel in Lone Pine and the crew had to help me walk into the room after getting out of the van, I was so stiff and my feet hurt so much. It was there I noticed the blood that had soaked my left shoe.
It took me a while before I was up to doing anything. I sat in a chair, the crew brought me an egg sandwich from McDonalds and some orange juice, I slowly removed my shoes and socks being careful not to pull the tape (and skin) off my feet, soaked my feet in tubs of ice water, and eventually I got the energy to take a bath.
We had a jetted tub in the room, which was like heaven, as long as I kept my feet out of it. I had burns on the backs of my ankles and calves from the heat radiating off the asphalt for two days. Steph and Katy worried about me being so out of it so they checked on me while I was taking a bath, but I did fine by myself. The only thing that was hard was putting weight on my left foot.
I took a nap for several hours, I think the entire crew slept. I knew there was no way I was even going to attempt climbing Whitney with my feet in the condition they were in, but I didn't care. I came here for the race, Whitney is always going to be there. As it turned out Katy was the only one of us who actually climbed Whitney, along with Dale and Ed from Colorado.
photo credits: Nick Clark, Ken Eielson, Stephanie Willingham