Scatter my ashes here...

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In search of the patron saint...Why a Double Badwater

Stephanie Willingham and I go back a long way. We both have a long ultra history in Colorado. Steph used to live in Leadville and I spent a lot of time up there in the 90s when I first started running ultras, like the Leadville 100, the Mosquito Marathon, the Turquoise Lake 20K, and others. But it wasn't until 2003 that our paths really crossed in a way that we ever imagined would result in anything big.

In 2002, I was living in Arizona and I crewed at Badwater for the first time. The runner was my friend Josh Miller, and he blew up before 40 miles. He went out way too fast in the 128 degree heat and when he got to Stovepipe Wells we hauled his butt off to Beatty, Nevada for IV fluids, which disqualified him, but he was power puking blue gatorade and at that point he was a shriveled up, dehydrated piece of roadkill and wouldn't have made it anyway. The experience made quite an impression on me. I learned a huge lesson in how not to do Badwater that year.

In 2003, Steph and I crewed for our friend Ken Eielson when he ran Badwater. Steph was the crew chief, and I was on the crew, and the daytime pacer for Ken. That year, Ken had a successful finish at Badwater. It was the hottest year on record, temperatures reached 133 degrees. That year, Steph asked the question, "Who is the patron saint of the desert?" We googled on it, and asked everyone on the crew. We never figured it out.

I knew I wanted to run the race someday, but I was nowhere near ready. Steph was an amazing crew chief, she had it all together, and I told her that if I ever ran Badwater I wanted her to be my crew chief. She agreed.

I'd just been diagnosed with a weird thyroid disorder called Hashimoto's and I was still figuring out how to get my life back after being a zombie. I'd been having weird weight swings and energy swings, palpitations and a foggy, exhausted feeling off and on for several years.

I was bouncing from one doctor to the next, trying to find one who would listen to my insistence that no, it is not normal for a 39 year old to sleep 16 hours a day and no, 39 is not too old to be running ultras, and no, my ultrarunning is not causing me to feel like this, and it is not normal to feel old at 39 either. If it was, then why were people in their 50s and 60s out there doing ultras like Badwater and being successful, when I couldn't even manage a normal life.

I wanted to go back to school for nursing and I had dreams of running longer ultras again someday, but at that point in my life I could barely read a paragraph from a newspaper article because by the time I got to the last sentence I forgot what the first sentence said. I had my own personal training business which allowed me to control my own schedule and get the unreasonable amounts of sleep I needed.

When I ran I wanted to lie down at the edge of the road, track, or trail, and go to sleep. Not exactly good condition for ultras. Walking for miles in the desert was fine, though, because it didn't require a brain and my hypothyroid condition made it easy to tolerate the heat. I felt great pacing Ken at Badwater and knew that someday, somehow I was going to get my brain and body back, and make it to the starting line.

In early 2004 I got my lucky break. I found an endocrinologist who actually listened to me, and put me on another medication which cleared up my brain fog within a week. At the end of that month I ran a trail marathon. By the following winter I was enrolled in nursing school, and I ran one ultra a year while in school just to stay connected to the ultra community.

In 2006 I graduated from nursing school and found a job in Fort Collins. The year I started nursing school, my ultrarunner friend and registered nurse Chris was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma, and went through treatment while I was in school. He was my biggest supporter and mentor through the trials of nursing school. Then, a week before I moved to Colorado for my new nursing job, my family received the news that my sister, Robin, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a shock to all of us, as we knew of no family history of breast cancer.

My sister was lucky, she caught it early and had a bilateral mastectomy, but didn't need any other treatment. I went out to be with her the day after surgery and stayed for several days, which I was fortunate to be able to do so soon after starting a new job.

When I started my job here, the first of my coworkers to precept me told me about his wife's horrendous experiences going through treatment for ovarian cancer twice. Chris began to tell me stories about how once his cancer treatment was over, of all his struggles to get health insurance for follow up care, and keep a job, and all kinds of stressful hurdles he had to deal with because he had cancer.

Once Dennis and I moved back to Fort Collins from Arizona, I began to run again, having more energy than I had for years. By 2007 I was signing up for ultra races, and in August of 2007 my fitness had improved to the point where I won a 50 mile race in South Dakota, the Lean Horse 50. It was time to start setting bigger goals.

I hadn't run a 100 miler since 1998, though, and I needed to get back into it. The same coworker who precepted me at the beginning, had been enthusiastic when I talked about doing ultras, and I told him about my dream of running Badwater. I gave him a book to read and a video to watch about the race. He had heard about Marshall Ulrich before, and the more I told him about the race, he seemed as excited about the idea of my running Badwater as I was. It was infectious, and I took off on that energy.

I looked into what it would take to get into Badwater, and I needed to get something substantial in before I applied. I knew that my fitness level was where it should be by the end of 2007, and I ran some 70 and 80 mile training runs and felt good. I set my sights on a 48 hour race at Across the Years, with a goal of running 135 miles in 48 hours.

I ended up running 149 miles at the 48 hour race. Steph went with me to that race and we had a great time, plus had an adventure at the end of our trip when I got the crud afterwards and spent the night in the emergency room in Payson, AZ getting IV fluids, but we definitely bonded more through that experience.

When I got home I sent my application for Badwater 2008 in as soon as I could. On our trip to Across the Years, we took the famous "Goodwater" picture at the top of this blog, and we also discussed trying to figure out who the patron saint of the desert was.

As soon as I got back to Fort Collins, I met with a friend, Barb Brown, who worked for the PVHS Foundation, and told her what I planned to do if I got into Badwater. I told her about my interest in supporting cancer-related services, and I asked her what I could do to raise funds and support the Foundation's efforts. She put me in touch with Nikki Mossing (now Caputo), who helped me organize and promote a fundraiser that year connected with my race.

Steph was my crew chief in 2008 and I had a successful finish in 47 hours, making the belt buckle cutoff that year.

As I approached the finish line in 2008, on horribly painful blistered feet, I didn't want the race to be over. It was too much fun! We never figured out who was the patron saint of the desert, either. It went by too fast!

On my way back home after the race, I was in the car icing my trashed feet with crew member Ken Eielson driving, and we passed Dan Westergaard on the road, headed back toward Badwater. We also saw a couple of European runners who were doing a double. I watched them with envy, wishing I could be out there going back. Two days of the race didn't give me enough of Death Valley. I wanted to repeat my experience out there, at all hours of the day and night, under the stars, and in the blazing sun, looking at the mind-blowing colors and rock formations in the landscape. I told myself I would have to go back and do it again.

I originally set my goal for a Badwater Double when I turned 50, in 2014. I figured I could do it one more time before then, so I planned on doing the race again in 2011 just to have more experience. In 2009 and 2010 I worked as a medical volunteer for the race. I couldn't stay away.

After working the race in 2009 I spent a little extra time in the Valley, taking photographs and exploring places off the race course. I wanted to see everything, and Death Valley is the kind of place you could spend a lifetime exploring and never be done.

In fall of 2009, my dad was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which affects his blood cell counts, making him anemic and immunosuppressed. He was doing fairly well, and worked to reduce the stress in his life, improve his eating habits, and moderate his exercising. My dad was running 10 miles a day on his treadmill, still working, and actually functioning well other than being fatigued.

I went down to Arizona to visit him, and he was still very much in the early stages of processing all the information he received from his doctors along with his diagnosis. It was a lot for him to wade through and I thought I could help him understand all of the things that were happening in his body, and what he needed to do with the information.

At the same time I'd been struggling with the fact that I was very unhappy in my job. Returning from Badwater again, with everyone and their supportive, enthusiastic attitudes toward adventure and life was a huge contrast to what I returned to at work. It was a huge letdown to come back to work that summer, and I knew I was going to have to make a change, because it was affecting everything in my life, including my enthusiasm to run and my health.

Things continued to get worse at work and finally one day I had one of those A-HA! moments. I told my boss I wanted to go part-time. I slowly started handing off my responsibilities, and preparing to leave, but no jobs were available. I was feeling depressed, not sleeping well, and generally at loose ends.

I talked to my friend and mentor Chris about my feelings about work. I told him I felt like oncology might be the right place for me. He thought it was a great idea. The cancer theme had resurfaced so many times that it felt like it was steering me. I also found it fascinating.

I began putting all my energy into finding another job. I began applying for every oncology job that came up, talked to the manager and director, and began learning as much as I could about cancer. I attended a cancer support group regularly, and got involved in the Survivorship Advisory Council, took online classes, and persisted.

Meanwhile I decided that I had to get back to training because it was the only thing that would save my sanity. I chose the Keys 100 in Florida as my first goal race for 2010, and I knew that I would have to use 2010 as a buildup year if I wanted a chance at running Badwater in 2011.

I set a PR at 100 miles at the Keys, and while I was in Florida, a job was posted back home. I had my resume and application ready to go, and I sent it off. I interviewed as soon as I got home, and around July 4th, I was offered the job in outpatient oncology!

I had met numerous cancer survivors through the support group and now I was going to be taking care of patients receiving treatment for cancer. The switch to the outpatient environment from ICU was a huge and welcome change for me. It was so gratifying to be able to talk to patients and find out what they needed, and there was so much to learn. My coworkers were helpful, supported me, and welcomed me as part of the team. I never felt like I had to "prove myself" before I would be accepted.

The change in my overall well-being started immediately. I felt so much better, happier, and more energetic. I signed up for the Lean Horse Hundred and the 48 hour race again at Across the Years.

Meeting so many cancer survivors and learning from their stories, as well as my dad and sister, made me start thinking I shouldn't delay doing a double. I didn't know what might happen before I turned 50. I wanted to do it, and really, there was no reason not to.

I began thinking it might be possible to do a double in 2011. I worked on finding crew members and decided to apply for Badwater, but not make a decision to double until I knew I would be ready. Steph was all over it. She was already starting to plan.

"We'll have to figure out who the patron saint of the desert is this time." Steph said on one of our many planning phone calls.

I told her it would probably come to me in the middle of the night out on the course.

I needed some advice from someone who had done it. Dan Westergaard had run a six-time crossing of Death Valley in the summer of 2010, which blew everyone out of the water. I contacted Dan, and to my surprise he responded immediately. I told him about my plans to double, ran my basic strategy by him, and he thought it was great. He was very encouraging and answered all my questions. I began to think a double was going to be possible.

Things went well through the end of 2010, I set a PR at Across the Years, and my entry was accepted into Badwater again. In the beginning of 2011 the Foundation launched the Save Change to Create Change program to raise funds for the Cancer Center Project. I gave several talks and we began promoting the idea for a fundraiser around various community events and my race.

By May I knew I was ready to double, but we'd already been planning for it anyway. Everything was in place: training, crew, supplies, reservations. I had confidence in Steph's experience and the fact that she knew me so well. We'd spent hours on the phone, in monthly, then weekly phone calls to discuss the minute planning details since the beginning of the year.

On July 8th, 2011 we went out to find the patron saint of the desert.

photo credit: Nathan Nitzky

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