Scatter my ashes here...

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bobby's Big Adventure

I first met Bob Becker when I ran my first Badwater. We were in line together to pick up our race packets at the pre-race briefing in 2008, and he had several of my Colorado running buddies on his crew.

Bob is director of the Keys 100 ultramarathon, among several other events in South Florida. He's also a great friend, a real down-to-earth and good soul. I ran the Keys 100 in 2010 and then stayed with Bob and his wife, Suzanne, in 2011 when I ran the Lost 118 and Bob and our friend Phil Rosenstein crewed me, in support of my training for my Badwater road double in 2011.

A year ago, after Bob ran Badwater again, he asked me if I would consider crewing him if he did a double the next year. There was no way I would turn that down, the opportunity to give something back to a runner who helped me so much, and Bob especially, being Bob. I was still committed to doing medical at that point and I told him I'd be willing to crew him on the return part of the trip.

As it turned out things got busy and when I was asked to do medical this year I said no, it would be too much and I would be too tired to really help Bob, and my work was keeping me busy and in need of a working brain. A few days of sleep deprivation was one thing, but a week, no way.

This blogpost is about my experience of Bob's run. It fills in the gaps as I was there and what I witnessed. There are four more stories from the return as well as the race and Whitney portions. In all, there were 8 people involved between Bob and the crew. Eight different stories. This is my perspective, one of eight.

This year was Bob's 70th birthday and that was his motivation for getting out there to do this. No one that age has ever attempted this before and he asked if I'd lend my experience from medical, nursing, and running a double Badwater. If I didn't think too hard about it, and thought about Bob the athlete, not Bob the 70 year old, running nearly 300 miles across Death Valley in the middle of summer, I was fine.

I know what a good runner Bob is, and his ability. He's mentally tough and has plenty of ultra experience, and he's always finished Badwater a few hours faster than I have. He's certainly trained and capable. He's run Marathon des Sables, Grand to Grand, and Spartathlon. He's had plenty of heat running experience in Florida, finished Badwater twice. And he's healthier than most 70 year olds, certainly healthier and a gazillion times more fit than most people half his age. Age really wasn't a factor, except for a few minor things that nagged at the back of my mind.

Kidneys, lungs, heart, brain.

I can't help it, but I used to be an ICU nurse. No matter how fit someone is on the outside, if their organs are 70 years old, that's a consideration. Because old organs and old bodies need to be treated carefully, and they might not work or recover quite as efficiently as 35 year old organs or even 50 year old ones. And a trek across Death Valley in the middle of summer, followed by a climb up Mt. Whitney, followed by another Death valley crossing, taxes a body of any age to the limits.

Kidneys need to be working well not only before and during, but after an excursion like this one. I wanted to make sure he still had all those organs intact when he finished. I felt like that was my mission on this trip, not so much as a crew member, which I was, but as guardian of Bob's future health and well-being. And, since I know Bob's wife and kids personally, I was thinking of them, knowing they were trusting the crew with their most precious husband and dad.

Lungs and kidneys work together in regulating the body's acid and base balance. Whitney would challenge those organs, along with his GI tract, brain, and heart not getting a lot of oxygen. And I knew he'd be taking Diamox to help prevent altitude sickness, which would also dry him out even more, before he set out for the last 135 miles across the desert again.

The goal is to be safe and have fun. The runner and crew members need to finish intact, in good health. Then you worry about finishing time. Bob, being the competitor he is, was always thinking about how long it was taking, feeling like rest times were hurting him, even though he was also very aware of his need for rest and cooldown breaks. It's like having a shoulder angel and devil talking into each ear, trying to figure out which one he should listen to.

Getting There


After a year of minimal training but focusing solely on being on my feet for long periods of time in the heat, namely two long runs of 12 and 15 hours each, and a few vertical jaunts up and down Horsetooth Rock, and not much else other than walking, I was as prepared as I'd be. I drove to St. George, Utah which took 10 hours the first day. I entered the no AC zone around Parachute, Colorado, where the landscape begins to look desolate. That means you drive across the hot desert with the windows open and the hot dry air blowing in your face, until the hotel.

I spent the night chilling out, literally, in a comfortable room with killer AC overlooking the Virgin River bike path, where I went for a quick jog the next morning before the two hour drive to Las Vegas.

In Las Vegas I had reservations at the Neon Museum for a tour of the Neon Boneyard. Definitely worth checking out if you get a chance. All the old classic neon signs from the strip are there and it's a great historical summary of Las Vegas.
Then it was time for my favorite sushi place, Sushi Koma. I drove there and sat down for a relaxing leisurely outrageously awesome meal. I took a long time and the place was quiet despite being busy. People were busy eating. It's so good.

Then it was time to hit Wal-Mart. I got some PBJ supplies, a case of water bottles, and found this cool Wonder Woman skirt on the rack for $4.88. It looked like it would fit me, so I decided to get it and then surprise Bob in the middle of the night with it.

After getting a small stash from Walmart, and Felix would be proud that I only spent $20.00 there, I drove to the hotel in Spring Valley, close to shopping, the freeway, the airport, and the highway to Pahrump. I had to pick up Don Nelson, the final crew member from the Keys, near the airport in the morning, at whatever hotel he was in.

Enjoying the view of all the Vegas resorts from my window at sunset, I savored my last full night of sleep. I discovered that the Walmart skirt I bought was actually a tube top for a really big person. I figured it out when I found the shelf bra in it after I got back to my hotel room. What the hell, make it work. If nothing else I could stitch up the shelf bra and put ice in it and wear it on my head.
Thursday morning Don told me he was at Motel Six near the airport, I'm sure that was a colorful introduction to Las Vegas. I drove down there, it was easy to find, and after a quick stop to get some food for Don, we made the 4 hour drive to Lone Pine. Don got to see most of the Badwater course that way. I found Don to be easygoing and pleasant. Good vibe for crewing. He lives on one of the lower Keys. He's heavily involved in running, race directing, and the RRCA in Florida and the Keys.




Lone Pine

Along the way, we got a text from Kevin Grabowski, who was Bob's crew chief for the race portion, that Bob was getting very close to the finish. It looked like we would arrive in Lone Pine about the same time Bob might make it to the finish line. We wouldn't be able to see him finish, but that would be a cluster anyway because of driving up the Portal Road. As it turned out, Bob had just gotten back to town when we arrived in Lone Pine. We checked into the hostel where all the crew members were staying.

Kevin, Marc Drautz and Beth Stone crewed for Bob during the race, along with Roger Burruss. Roger was the only one to crew Bob both ways. Ashley Heclo had crewed another runner during the race but then joined us for the return. Marc had to head back first, then Beth the following morning.

The first thing Kevin did when I got there was forbid me to look at the van until he cleaned it out. When I finally did go to the van, it was incredible: not too dirty, organized, with a minimum of crap. You would never know that they just hauled a crew and all the runner's stuff across Death Valley in the race. No trace of the chaos remained.

Bob looked pretty rough but was in good spirits. Mostly he looked dehydrated and sleepy. After he showered and I looked at his feet, we went over to the restaurant next to the Dow Villa and ate something, and decided he would get some sleep and I'd look at his feet. They looked great and he had just a few minor blisters. The tape John Vonhof put on his feet was in great shape and I didn't want to mess with it until after he did Whitney.

We did get him on the scale and he was down to 115 pounds. He started at 122. That was really too much weight to lose, and I knew he'd be taking Diamox to prevent altitude sickness on the mountain, and that would dry him out more. He was peeing a decent amount and color, and other than being tired, he was thinking clearly, so I pushed the fluids and food and he didn't have any stomach issues. I tried not to worry too much, but I was watching him closely and making him drink even if it was annoying.

The post-race pizza party took bloody freaking forever. It was supposed to be from 7 to 9 pm, Chris didn't even start it until almost 8, and Bob and Kevin, along with several other people who wanted to summit Whitney early in the morning, were chomping at the bit to get some sleep. Since they were headed up Whitney at 4 am, and already exhausted, it was hard for them to sit through. At least it was at night and it wasn't as sweltering as it usually is in there. Still, it was pretty torturous and drawn out for people who had been up for days, as these things tend to be.

I was fresh, and I was glad for the opportunity to see so many of the people I've worked with on the Badwater staff in the past, who are always so warm, friendly, welcoming, and appreciative. "You're late!" they'd say. They all wanted to know where I'd been.

Mt. Whitney and Chillin' in the Valley

The plan was for Bob to get up and do Whitney in the morning, and Kevin and Don would accompany him, along with Marshall and a few of his crew. Kevin was very fit and strong, but had very little sleep and Don was fresh but from sea level at the Keys and I had no idea what might happen up there. I felt good knowing Marshall was there on the mountain and would at least see Bob coming up on his way down, and would let us know if there were any problems. We didn't hear anything so we assumed all was good.

While we waited for Bob, Kevin, and Don, I hung out with Beth. Bonnie Busch from Iowa, with whom I've run a couple of Cornbelt 24 hour races, wanted to take Beth and I out to dinner at the Mexican restaurant. Bonnie was on Bob's crew along with Kevin, Beth, and Bill Wenner last year, though Bill couldn't make it this year. Bonnie is an accomplished and talented ultrarunner and she was doing her 4th Badwater, and we got to meet her crew. It was great to see Bonnie again, I'm hoping I will go back to Cornbelt in the future and see her there again.

We had a fun evening hanging out with Bonnie and her crew, signing the wall at Jake's Saloon, which I had never done yet, and raising hell at the barbershop and various places along the main drag in Lone Pine. Apparently the sleep deprivation gets to some people in more creative ways than others.

This is what Bonnie's crew was up to, multitasking in addition to crewing:




Rest Day

It did take a good 22 hours for Bob to do Whitney, and afterwards he looked completely trashed. He wisely decided to take another day of rest. We fed him McDonalds cheeseburgers and fries in an attempt to plump him up. He really did look scrawny, his face was drawn. He was peeing okay, but I knew it was a deep dehydration and burning up muscle too, as he has no fat on his body whatsoever. I made him drink a liter of oral rehydration salts, and he had a great appetite.


We hung out in Lone Pine for a day before starting back on Sunday morning the 2nd. Marshall gave us some food and drinks he didn't use in his run, so we got quite a bit of extra stuff. We did a minimum of shopping, Kevin, Marc and Beth had cleaned out the van so well and there were still enough supplies that we didn't have to get much other than ice and crew member food. Ashley massaged Bob while I taped his feet. We called it Bob's spa day.








The Return

Ben Jones, Bradford Lombardi, and Scott Wall (CHP Scotty) drove up early that morning to see Bob off from the Portal. Bob was really touched by that. Having Ben's there is sort of like having the Pope's blessing.

Ashley drove Bob and Roger up the Portal road in the morning and the plan was for me to crew them out of my vehicle down the portal road so Don and Ashley could get all our stuff out of the rooms, fill the coolers with ice and get whatever remaining supplies we needed. Then we would meet at McDonalds when Bob made it to Lone Pine a few hours later.

I crewed Bob and Roger down the Portal road in my car. Actually just Bob. Unfortunately it was a mistake to not use the van, even for this short period of time, because we didn't have the right kind of Ensure. I had plenty of ice food and drinks, but I had the stuff Marshall gave us, which contained Ensure Plus. It was chocolate, but it wasn't regular Ensure and Bob wasn't happy with that. So we deal with it until we get to Lone Pine, then we'd be crewing exclusively out of the van.
I soon found Roger the best calming influence on the entire crew. Roger was self-sufficient and he knew Bob's quirks, but his feathers didn't get ruffled at all. Roger took everything Bob said in stride, and figured out the smoothest method of getting Bob's needs met.

Early that first day I had tried to figure out what Roger would need, not knowing if he wanted to be crewed on the Portal Road. I sent Ashley this message, which got butchered by spell check, two different interpretations of crewing...

After only 2 hours of crewing I remembered the learning curve. That's why I prefer to volunteer at races. I'm not big on crewing. It's like herding cats. The last time I crewed Badwater was 2003, plus the learning curve is steep, and runner and crew member personalities also dictate how things flow. I've never crewed Bob before.

I learned very quickly how to properly set Bob's water bottles up in his hand carriers. And to keep them dry. And he chose these crazy bottles with little narrow mouths that you have to really crush the ice into small pieces and shove them in the hole, hard to do when you're used to wide mouth bottles. But we got used to it.

The other thing about Bob was the paper towels. He liked to have paper towels in the little pouch of his water bottle carrier on his hand. But the towels had to be folded just so, as Roger demonstrates here.

I didn't have the special paper towels with me on the Portal Road. That was the other mistake. Then as it got hot, we started to prepare ice bandana for Bob's neck, and I asked Don to fill one. Then I watched him fill a bandana with a pile of ice as big as Bob's head, and I realized some instruction was in order. I explained how much to put in the bandana, explained about why we have to avoid getting Bob's feet wet, and assured Don that he'd be an expert by the end of the day.

Actually it wasn't too hard to crew Bob because other than being particular about a few things, it was very easy to predict and anticipate his needs. Ensures and gels, occasional chips or Cheetos, occasional 5 hour energy, which really wasn't working but if he thought it was, then we're doing it.

I tried to make Floridian jokes, like how the crew vehicle had its blinker on. I was the lone foreigner, the only non-Floridian. We had the walkie talkies, which were helpful. "Meow" was the communication we used with each other over the radios. Apparently that came from Kevin, something about Hello Kitty walkie talkies from last year, or some such thing...

When we got into Lone Pine we got McDonalds and then got out on the road for the long journey up the hill toward Darwin.

Don and Ashley with Bob.

Bob made remarkable progress that first day. Scotty came out and visited us before he took off for home, and gave us a crash history lesson on the Dolomite area.

We soon got into a rhythm of pacing and crewing. Roger took tons of photographs, and posted them on Facebook. He's a great photographer and artist with the camera. Some of the black and whites he posted were phenomenal. There were fires somewhere in California and they made the Sierras hazy but we got a colorful sunset.

The Red Baron and Wonder Woman

We got through Keeler before sunset and I picked Bob up at about the 102 mile mark on the course. We hit the 100 mile to go mark and took a picture. This is one of my favorite parts of the course at night. There was almost no traffic, and there were times when it was completely still, silent, just the silhouettes of yucca and hills under the stars. I told Bob that I might change my mind and have my ashes scattered up here instead of in the Devil's Cornfield.

Climbing up to Darwin during the night it got very cool. I remembered this from my own return trip, it got down to 70 that year but this time it felt cooler. The temperatures had to be in the 60s, and I was fine, but I was with a bunch of Floridians who were all bundled up and freezing.

I gave Bob my Solumbra jacket to wear over his shoulders until the crew dug his warm clothes out at the next exchange. Even I started to feel cool near the top. I put my Wonder Woman skirt on and that kept my legs warm. Bob and I were giggling about how he looked like Snoopy as the Red Baron on top of his dog house, with my jacket wrapped around his neck and flapping in the wind.



Swollen Hands and Snakes

I dropped Bob at the DVNP sign at 84 miles to go and Ashley took over. I drove down into Panamint to get us another room for that night and hopefully catch a shower and a few Zs before we had to check out. We hadn't used the room at all during the night, and we had canceled the second night thinking we might not need it, but as it turns out, the opposite was true.

I snagged the last room, but there was a glitch: check out and check in were 11 am and 4 pm. The check in and out times were a cluster because during the hours of 11-4 the heat of the day, there was no place to go inside other than the restaurant. And busloads of tourists arrived.

I drove back up the hill to let the crew know the plan, and I saw a huge rattlesnake on the side of the road, must have just eaten a jackrabbit. Fortunately it was on the other shoulder from where Bob and Ashley were.

I saw Roger and Don parked by side of road in the van just a mile outside Panamint. They flagged me down and said, "Bob wants to see you, one of his hands is really swollen."

I drove up less than 1/2 mile, Bob's hands were swollen, he couldn't even close them into a fist. He had only taken 2 electrolyte capsules per hour and it was blazing hot. The temperature had gone from the 60s to well over 100 within just a few hours. He was peeing okay and I assured him we were less than two miles from Panamint. I said, "We'll take you into the shade, cool you down, and get you eating some salt."

He protested, was very grumpy at first. But once he got there, he sat down in the shade, we ordered fries and a round of veggie burgers for everyone and he scarfed. We kept ice on him- his head, neck, legs, groin, and his hands got less swollen. Then we made him sleep in the van AC most of the afternoon in the campground while we waited for our room. We talked him into getting some rest because in the heat of the day he could recharge and then be ready to go when it cooled down. He didn't argue much.

Waiting in Panamint

Don was resourceful and came up with some great ideas. He set up a simple sunshield with a sheet over the van held down by water jugs to keep it from blowing away in the wind as Bob slept. Whenever Bob was being a grumpy ass and not wanting to stop or sleep, at first, trying to convince him to rest during the heat of the day was like pulling teeth until he actually sat down. Then in 5 seconds he'd be gone, nodding off in the chair or in whatever position he stopped in.

Panamint in mid-afternoon was close to 120 degrees and breezy. The gusts got stronger throughout the afternoon. I crashed on the picnic table bench while Don slept on the table on a mat. Ashley slept on another table. I don't think any of us got more than a few minutes of real sleep. Roger hung out on the porch at the resort. We were all running on fumes. Then the wind started to pick up and blow dust.

Don tried to bribe the housekeepers into finishing our room so we could check in early, but it didn't work. They got pissed and didn't let us in until 4. It was still hot and windy and pointless to get started yet. At 4:00 we woke Bob up and drove him to the room, people showered, Bob slept another hour, then at 6 he took off with Roger or Don. I can't remember.

We knew it would be pushing it for Bob and Don to make their flight on the 5th, so we decided that as soon as we were close enough to phone service, Don would call the airline to try to change the reservations for their flight back to Fort Lauderdale. Fortunately he was able to get reservations for the same flight 24 hours later. Having the pressure on Bob to finish in time to get a little rest, a shower, and drive to Vegas was a huge psychological burden.

Towne Pass

I went back into the room to get a few more hours of sleep before pacing Bob all night again, and the air conditioning in the room was like 90 degrees. Cool compared to outside, but stifling to sleep in. But I slept, waking up at 11 to tank myself up with caffeine and drive up to Townes Pass where I found the crew just before midnight. Don took off in my car to go to Stovepipe Wells, check into the room, and get some sleep.

I was worried about Ashley and Roger not getting enough rest, but they kept assuring me that they were switching off with naps in the van. I offered my car so they could drive to the hotels and shower and sleep, but they didn't want to. Ashley was the most energetic of anyone and she did a huge share of the pacing out there in the heat. She was a great asset for several reasons, including her ability to do bodywork for Bob whenever he needed it. She also taped his back to help with his posture which was a huge and noticeable improvement.

Bob was in a much better mood going down Townes Pass. I paced Bob from the top of the pass until about 9 am, a mile from Scotty's junction. We exchanged life stories, talked about all kinds of crazy stuff, and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the desert sky. Coming down Bob was using 5 hour energy to stay away. My favorite Bob quote of the whole run was "Pomegranate my ass!" after chugging a so-called little bottle of that swill.





Seinfeld Comes To Death Valley


Don had slept well in the room in Stovepipe Wells. When I was done pacing, Don took over and we kept moving. I drove into Furnace Creek to check into the room there, we hadn't checked in the day before but had our room for several nights. That was when I had my Seinfeld moment.

To check in, I had Bob's credit card but not his ID, I was brain dead, and they were giving me a hard time. The clerk at the desk got the manager, who told me that since we didn't check in or call the day before, the room came up as available. She told me, "I don't have those rooms anymore."

I told her we couldn't call since we were out in the middle of the desert. She got pissy with me so I snapped back, "Did you tell him that would happen if he didn't call?". She said, "I don't know what it says on the website. I can't refund your deposit." I told her we weren't asking for a refund, we just wanted our room. So then suddenly she was able to find us two rooms. A true Seinfeld moment.

Then I called Suzanne the minute I got into the room. I knew she was waiting anxiously to hear from us since we'd been unable to communicate for over 24 hours, once we got past Father Crowley there'd been almost no wifi or phone connections.

I assured Suzanne he was doing great and would finish sometime very late in the night, let her know about Don's change in the return flights, She knew we wouldn't be able to communicate during certain sections so she wasn't overly concerned but she was thrilled about the update. Suzanne asked me to call him Bobby. That all of his friends back home called him that. Even though I've known him for 7 years, I only know him as Bob.
They were out of frozen fruit bars at the store, dammit, but I drove back out on the course with ice, popsicles and iced coffee for the crew. They all told me to go get some sleep and that they were doing well, that we would cool Bob down when they got to Furnace Creek. It was getting quite hot and the predicted temperature was 117, but it seemed like it would be a lot hotter.


I tried taking a nap after a shower in the room but I couldn't seem to get comfortable. My mind was racing. I managed to get 2 hours of sleep but I could tell I wasn't functioning very well. I drank a bunch of coffee but that didn't help. I was fuzzy. Bob was making good progress all the way to Furnace Creek, but we brought him in to nap and cool down for a while. I got Bob a soggy kid's grilled cheese sandwich and only slightly less soggy French fries from the café.

Smelling Something

Bob was on a mission, he could smell the barn, and probably the funked-up upholstery with the sweat of more than half a dozen unshowered runners over a week's time. The plan was to get him across the bottom of the valley before it got super hot. It was super hot. The temperature had reached 122 in the valley, and there was a killer gusty crosswind of probably 30 miles an hour.

The entire crew stayed together after Furnace Creek on Bob's final 17 mile stretch. Mother Nature wanted Bob to know damn well who was boss that last night. The wind did not let up, it was so crazy windy you couldn't even open the door of the vehicle. I think the gusts were closer to 50 mph. Bob is a tough ass. He persisted down the road and as we approached sunrise we were almost there.

This is the point where it's really a matter of just toughing it out. The runner wants it to be done, the crew wants it to be done, and it doesn't get any closer. But eventually, you reach Badwater. And fortunately the road signs that say 17 miles are wrong because it's only about 16. So you think you're getting a bonus.

Bob ran into the finish just before sunrise, at 4:48 am. He thanked us, tearfully.

Then we headed back to FC, all crashed in the room and I set my alarm for 10 so we'd have an hour to get out of the room to head to Vegas. Don and I got Bob settled in his room and then we all got a few hours of sleep.

We said our goodbyes, Bob did his little dance in the parking lot. We weighed him, and he was at 120.

The crew did a great job of keeping him hydrated, plumping him back up after his shriveled up state after Mt. Whitney, and keeping him intact. Gaining 5 pounds on the return and no major cramping problems as he's had in the past indicated that he was in great shape at the end. Even his feet didn't look bad. Successful runner, successful crew. Both ways.

Then we all were off. I went to Vegas, got one last sushi fix again at Sushi Koma, drove to St. George and crashed for the night, then drove all the way home on Thursday, and here I am.

I'm done.

It doesn't take long for life to slap you in the face, no sooner did I get home than I had multiple things come up related to work, and a gazillion emails to answer, a gazillion Facebook and Twitter notifications, and so on.

But it's okay. As Bob said, maybe that's the whole point of going to Death Valley, to get away from all of it for a while, to leave everything behind. And it's true. Few places give you the opportunity to really get away. Those deserted roads, the bare stars, the Joshua trees and sand dune shadows at night, all remind you of how important it is to step out of your routine and strip everything away for a while, just a while, to remember the human being you are.

Capable of breathing the air, seeing the stars, listening to silence, without a care in the world, just moving forward, rhythmically, footfall after footfall, powered only by your own will and your own strength, because that's really all that matters.

Congratulations, Bob! Well-done!
#BeLikeBob.


photo and video credits: Roger Burruss, Don Nelson, Ashley Heclo, Beth Stone, Susan Canevello

1 comment:

Rachel Gantenbein said...

Congrats, Bob! I can't even imagine how much effort from not only the runner but the entire crew and pacers! Wow! You are all rock stars for being a party of his incredible journey! I hope you've had time to get caught up on some sleep since you got home.