Scatter my ashes here...

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Death in Death Valley

I'm very sorry to say that I am reluctantly blogging about the death of a runner, again. I've already been asked about it, people always want to know what I think, with a blog about ultras, Badwater, and heat running, so I decided to post, carefully.

I don't mean for this to sound judgmental. It's not intended that way. The grief of his family and friends is too painful and too great, there hasn't been enough time for them to process all that has happened, and right now, we don't even have all the details or the results of an autopsy.

There have been comments and articles on the Internet and in Outside magazine and various blogs, and discussion on ultralists. I've steered clear of it, but I've had too many e-mails yesterday and today asking me if I know about this, if I knew him, if I know what happened, what do I think, etc. I got tired of writing back to people saying, I really can't comment on this right now. So here's what I know:

Most unfortunately, it was in Death Valley. It was not connected with the Badwater race, not connected with any multiple crossing of the valley, not connected with any organized event. It wasn't even intended as an ultra run.

I don't know all the details beyond that. I didn't know Michael Popov, I ran in one race with him 4 years ago but we never exchanged more than a few words and well-wishes as we ran laps at Across the Years. He was young, a fit and accomplished runner.

It sounds like he was trying to cross the bottom of the valley from the West Side Road to Badwater, a distance that, as the crow flies, is only about 10 kilometers. He underestimated what it would take to cross that way, it appears he didn't have enough fluids to keep him going in the event something went wrong, which it did.

I wish someone had told him that Ben Jones had done an autopsy before on a guy who tried to cross the valley like that, looking across and thinking, it's not that far, but died doing it. I don't know if anyone told him. I don't know if they did and he decided to do it anyway. It's not the first time that someone has attempted to go across that way and died.

Crossing the valley that way isn't what it appears. There are obstacles, wet, muddy, marshy salt flats, variations in terrain and footing that make it a lot longer crossing than a few hours. It's not pancake flat as it appears from the eye or even the topo maps. There's no shade, and no drinkable water. There's also no access to a road without going a long way out of the way...

It doesn't matter who you are, how well-conditioned you are, how experienced or accomplished you are. Whenever you set out on an adventure run of any distance, but especially in an extreme environment like Death Valley, you need to do your homework, and you need to plan for the worst with a workable backup plan.

It was 123 degrees. He died of heat stroke. I don't know if he had a backup plan. It doesn't sound like there was one. It doesn't take long between the time someone gets in trouble in the heat and death from heat stroke, without intervening quickly. It sounds like he didn't have a chance by the time someone discovered him. Even though he was conscious when found, it didn't take long before there was no way to revive him.

There is nothing anyone can do to ease the grief of his family, his friends, and the people who were closest to him as they go through this loss. It is unfortunately one of the most difficult lessons to accept for people who love adventuring and extreme sports. We are not infallible.

We CAN do everything in our power to keep the worst from happening, and having a safety plan, a backup plan, and doing your homework before you go might not save every life in every instance, but it might save yours.

My own feeling is that it didn't have to happen, and unfortunately, it did. Do your homework. Don't think you're invincible, because you're not, no matter who you are.

Please be mindful of this as you go on your journeys.


SteveQ said...

I've often been put in the "too stubborn to quit, too tough to die" category, but it is amazing how quickly things can go seriously wrong... and it doesn't have to be somewhere like Death Valley (in fact, people who go there probably are better prepared than most). I recently had severe dehydration and heat exhaustion in northern Minnesota because the "1 mile, at most 3 hour" bushwhack became 8 hours and I never thought I'd need 4 gallons of water to go one measly mile. In retrospect, I found a dozen mistakes I had made; when suffering in the heat, one tends to make bad decisions, which just make things worse, which leads to worse decisions, and so on. Best advice: never go it alone, because two people are less likely to mess up than one.

Alene Gone Bad said...

Excellent points and advice, Steve. Yes, I remember reading on your blog about your experience running out of water and being dehydrated up can happen anywhere. Most people who run in Death Valley are well-prepared but you are absolutely right about once you are heat stressed, your decision-making capabilities become diminshed, and things can spiral downward quickly. Having a buddy, and other people who know what you're doing and can keep their eyes and ears peeled, is a good safety net.