This year I worked as a medical volunteer at Badwater instead of running the race. Last December at Across the Years I talked with Lisa Bliss about doing this while we ran laps around Nardini Manor. I'd met Lisa the year before at Across the Years, before I sent in my application to run it in 2008. She's the medical director of Badwater, a physiatrist (M.D.), not to mention an extremely talented runner and an all-around genuinely nice person. I figured with my nursing skills I might be able to help the runners, and Lisa welcomed me on the team.
There is no better place to be in the middle of July.
I flew into Las Vegas and rented a car, staying in Pahrump the first night. I wanted to take pictures, photographs for inspiration to paint desert scenes. I had time to take a few pictures on the way into Furnace Creek on Sunday morning and then I arrived at the visitor center and helped the race staff with preparing for runner check-in. I met up with at least a dozen of the regulars at Badwater, people I've known for several years through the race. This was an opportunity to get to know some of them better.
It was strange being on the other side from where I was last year. All the fuss and high energy and stress that revolves around being the racer, checking in, having your crew pampering you like bridesmaids, all of those feelings came back from last year. I was glad to be stress-free.
During check-in I was the "splitter", sending runners one way to get their mugshots taken, and directing the crews the other way to go shopping for shirts and race paraphernalia from the Zombies. I felt like half traffic cop, half social butterfly. It was very fun greeting everyone.
When Pam Reed's crew checked in, one of her crew members looked familiar, and then listening to his voice, I knew him from somewhere. Then I put the pieces together. Pam is from Tucson, and Rob, her crew member, is someone I went to college with, for a couple of years, at NAU. He eventually transferred to U of A but was roommates with the guy who lived next door to my friend (and ultrarunner) Kirk Apt. I haven't seen Rob in over 25 years. He is now running ultras too. Pretty cool.
After all the socializing it was time for our race staff meeting, and then the pre-race briefing, where Chris (Kostman, the race director) introduces everyone and talks about rules and other business. Lisa talked to the group about medical concerns. Right afterwards we had our medical team meeting over dinner at the restaurant in Furnace Creek. It took forever to get our food, with the big crowd of race people, but it was a chance to get to know everyone.
There were 10 of us. It was a big group, Lisa and Tim from Washington, Kim and Jeff from Pennsylvania, me, George, Dave, and Steve, all paramedics from different parts of California, and Woofie from Arizona. Woofie is one of my old running partners from Scottsdale. And Mary, who is also a physiatrist, from Pennsylvania, who was to chauffeur Chris on the course and stay at the finish line with him to provide medical support there for the last day and a half of the event as the runners finished.
What a nice bunch of people, and we worked well together as a team.
The night before the race started we all got together, went through the equipment and made our plans. Most of the medical team would go down to the start and weigh the runners in at each of the three starting waves. Steve and I stayed in Furnace Creek and got the medical room organized and got our supplies divided up for the boxes we would need later when most of the team would be in Stovepipe Wells and the others would go ahead to Lone Pine for the faster runners. We ended up not having to treat anyone in Furnace Creek. It seemed like it was going to be a hot day but the high temperature in Furnace Creek on race day was only 122. Not so bad.
We moved on to Stovepipe Wells. While I was driving toward Stovepipe, I stopped a few times to check on runners who didn't look good, or people we'd heard about that we were concerned about. Everything was pretty good, but a few were starting to suffer, which is always the case in that long hot stretch in the afternoon.
Once we got set up at Stovepipe Wells the runners started to come in, first slowly, then we got full. We had 6 cots set up and they were full for most of the evening! We were busy. Mostly dehydrated runners, who were down 8, 10, or more pounds. We'd give them oral fluids and electrolytes and they'd cool down for a while and then they'd get up and go back out. We had a small number of runners where we were concerned about hyponatremia, but we were able to fix them and they went on to finish.
There were a couple of more serious issues, one of which was a crew member, where we did end up contacting EMS, and one runner late in the race who went to the emergency room in Lone Pine. But everyone turned out okay in the end. And there was one runner in Stovepipe Wells who wasn't able to keep oral fluids down and eventually ended up agreeing to IV fluids, so he ended up as a DNF.
The runners would come in, we'd weigh them, ask them how long it had been since they peed, ask questions about drinking and eating, and we'd give them fluids and electrolytes if they needed it, and we'd hold them until they were able to keep fluids down, eat, and pee, give us a clear enough urine sample, gain a few pounds, and felt ready to go back out on the course. Occasionally I'd have to keep them moving along, sometimes they'd get too comfortable. And then there were a few runners and crew members who seemed to think the medical area was a recovery room, or a cooldown station, even though their runner wasn't in distress. Then I'd have to be traffic cop again.
Eventually the pee cups started to look more like a tasting selection at a brewery. Interesting colors, from dark amber to light wheat. We had a few colors outside of the beer spectrum, too.
The first night I got 4 hours of sleep. We had a few rooms at Stovepipe and we slept in shifts. I slept until 4 am and then woke up to drive to Lone Pine. I left in the darkness and there were very few runners left on the stretch going up Townes Pass, and the sunrise was spectacular. It lasted all the way until I got to Darwin. I did have to make a stop in Panamint Springs at the store to get coffee, and I wasn't to sure of what might be brewing in their coffee pots, so I opted for two pre-packaged Starbucks drinks from the cooler. $4.00 each, but I needed caffeine bad, so it was worth it. I thanked the guy at the register for putting up with us, since they had the store open all night just for the race. He said, "Everyone has been so nice this year!"
I passed the front runners on their way into Lone Pine and most everyone looked great all the way in. I saw Jamie Donaldson who won it for the women last year and this year. She gave me the thumbs up. She was a good hour ahead of Pam, the 2nd place woman.
Not long after I got to the Dow Villa in Lone Pine, where race headquarters is, the Brazilian runner won the race, and they radioed from the finish line that they were sending him down to us. He only spoke Portugese but I managed to communicate with him using Spanish. Note to self: Learn some Portugese before next summer. At least the basics, like drink, pee, eat, etc. Turned out he was fine, just a little dehydrated.
There was an extra challenge for the mid-pack runners. There was a fire in the lower campground, just below where the finish line is, and the top 4 miles of the course were closed for several hours during the race. Chris had to come up with a creative solution to deal with this, so runners were given an option to finish at 131 miles, or to come back later when the course was open and finish out the last 4 miles. Fortunately the fire was contained and the course was re-opened later so many of the later finishers were able to do the full course.
I learned a lot about the effects of heat stress on the body, how to treat dehydration, what to look for if you are not sure if a runner is hyponatremic or dehydrated, or both...I had a great time, met so many nice people, and got to hang out with so many of the people I already know from ultras.
Badwater has become another family for me and it's hard to imagine being away from it. Chris was so generous and appreciative of our efforts, he has turned this event into something that I think everyone on the staff and involved in the race was proud to be a part of.
Stovepipe Wells was the busiest spot for medical, as expected, it's at the end of the hottest part of the day. In Lone Pine it's been cooler and everyone has worked out their issues, and if they had bad problems they usually dropped out by then. There was a lot of foot care on the last day in Lone Pine, but not too many runners needing medical treatment. Mostly routine stuff. But some of the strangest requests came at the end of the race.
A crew member came in, telling me his kid had not had a bowel movement for 2 days. I felt like telling him to go down the street and get a salad at McDonald's, it worked for me. But I told him to go get something over the counter at the drug store if drinking more water and eating fiber didn't work. Sorry dude, I only play Poopsmith when I'm getting paid...
Then another crew member brought his teenage daughter in, she was sick, probably with some kind of viral thing, with a fever and vomiting...or maybe just dehydration, but I am not a pediatrician either. If you're crazy enough to drag your child to an event like this at least take responsibility when they get sick.
Most runners and crews were well informed about heat illness and took good care of each other out there. It was only a small percentage of the runners we ever saw in the medical station. Running in those conditions can put even the best trained runner at risk but it seems like the crews and runners are mostly very knowledgeable and well-prepared.
The only thing that I thought was weird were the very small number of crew members who brought their runners in afterwards and told us the runner needed an IV, as if we were a recovery tent. That was not our job either, and it annoyed me that they were telling us what their runner needed when clearly they had no clue. They just needed to drink, eat, rest and sleep. Sure we could all feel better after a few liters of normal saline living in this dry climate but IV fluids are just a quick fix for what they really need to do, which is take care of themselves and let their bodies recover. People expect things to be fast and easy. There is nothing about this race that falls into either of those categories.
The post-race party happened Wednesday evening and it was fun to see everyone one last time. I got to spend some time talking with Nattu and his crew, including Bob from Florida. Nattu kicked butt this year, he ran 37 hours, in his 3rd Badwater. We miss him around Colorado, he's been in California all year.
We were all exhausted, so we all got sleep and then Thursday everyone took off for home or wherever they were headed, some to Lake Tahoe, Lisa and Tim to climb Whitney, and I headed back into the valley to take pictures. I first dropped off the sharps containers at Ben and Denise's house so Ben could dispose of them for us. Being the coroner, he has the connections! Then I left to drive back across the course, in the heat of the day.
I wanted to catch both sunset and sunrise on Thursday night and Friday, and it was worth it, I got nearly 1300 pictures and probably 300 good ones. I spent the afternoon at the pool in Furnace Creek and then went out at sunset toward Badwater. The next morning I woke up at 4:30 and got out again to take more pictures along Artist's Drive. Then I drove back to the Las Vegas airport.
When I go back to run Badwater again, I hope it will be to do a double. I want to go back and run Badwater again in 2011, but I'm not sure if I'll actually do the double so soon. If I don't do a double then, I'm making it my age 50 goal.
When I was 40 and was just starting to get my health and energy back after getting my thyroid problems straightened out, I made a promise to myself that I would be fitter and healthier at 50 than I was at 40.
I know what you're thinking. I didn't say anything about being crazier.
There is something about turning around and going back across Death Valley after the race itself. For me, it's like closure. I can't just leave it with my back turned, I have to go back and see it in reverse.
Last year I can remember the morning Ken and I were driving back home, we left Lone Pine and drove back over the course and saw the few runners who were out there doing a double, and I wanted to be out there. I didn't want it to end at the finish line at Whitney Portal. I need to turn around and go back.
The colors in the rocks, the plants, and even the man-made objects in the landscape make you feel like you're on another planet. I know my running friends, even the ones I've known for many years and who share my love of running, don't understand why I love running in Death Valley in the summer. They don't understand how I can want to run, much less enjoy a race that covers 135 miles on asphalt. But they don't understand that this is the most beautiful, colorful, vibrant asphalt in the WORLD!
When I'm there, I have lost interest in how fast I run, where I finish in the pack, and in putting the race behind me as fast as possible. Running here is not an event to be put behind you. The elements are not separate from you, you are part of the surroundings. You become part of the landscape, the wind, the heat, the road, and the colors while you're moving through it. And there is nothing else like it.
This is why I want to go back. I want to see more sunrises like this, and as the day goes on, the relentless sun, the hot wind, the intense colors, the dramatic landscape that dwarfs you, while at the same time you belong to it. You become part of the whole picture. There is no other way to describe it, except to experience it.
Photos (from top): The temperature on the odometer on my rental car, Badwater sign near Golden Canyon, Artist's Drive, Badwater pools, the medical room at the Dow Villa in Lone Pine, George and Kim working on a runner's feet, runners along the course headed toward Lone Pine, the Dow Villa sign that changes colors throughout the day, celebrating the finish with a "Badwater ale", bottom of Artist's Drive, sunset over Furnace Creek looking toward Stovepipe Wells, road looking back toward Badwater, 3 photos of rocks along Artist's Drive, Panamint Dry Lake Bed at halfway along Badwater course, outrageous red rocks going up Father Crowley's, view from Father Crowley's at sunrise, near Darwin with lone Joshua tree in background, colors around salt pan around 5 miles into the course, gold rocks near Artist's Drive, more gold rocks looking back toward Badwater, sunrise over Stovepipe Wells from the road up Townes Pass, Alene at the park entrance.