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DOUBLE OR NOTHING: The Death Valley 300 (Badwater Double)

This review was written by Mark which follows his experience of his Badwater ultramarathon. You can read more of Mark's personal race reviews in Mark's running career.

'The greatest distance to cover in any race is the distance between your ears'

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It is the 24th of July 2007, and I’m back in Death Valley. I’ve just managed to recover from severe dehydration yet again, as I shuffle out of the baking heat of Owens Valley towards Lone Pine with the help of my chief crew and pacer, Liam Douglas.

It’s near midnight, and I am approaching the end of my 3rd Kiehl’s Badwater Ultra Marathon, with just 13 miles left to go before I cross the finish line. Ahead of us, my other two crew members, Julia Gale, and Cheri Wold await with some food and coffee for me to give me a boost, before I make my final push up Mount Whitney towards the finish line.

However, this year it will be different for me, as I will attempt a ‘double crossing’. This means I will run the 135 miles back to the start where I have just come from at Badwater at -282ft, after summiting the 14,497ft peak of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous USA. This is a total distance of just under 300 miles, and it is a legendary task amongst the world’s ultra running community.

This will be the toughest running challenge of my life, and as I get closer and closer to the race finish line, I start to wonder just how I will manage to push myself on, as I am already exhausted with my feet badly blistered.

I slowly move up around the Whitney portal roads with Cheri pacing me, and I eventually spot the finish line and cross it in a respectable 46hrs 12mins, to again receive a coveted sub 48hr belt buckle.

It was difficult to put celebrations on hold as I briefly stopped for photographs before being bundled into our crew van to go for some food and rest while my crew packed clothing and equipment in preparation for the big climb ahead.

It will be a long ascent up Mount Whitney, via the Whitney trail that starts at the portals next to the race finish.

Whitney is the highest mountain in America, and we will be likely to feel the affects of altitude sickness at some point.

My crew would carry most of the equipment that we would need, such as food, water, clothing etc.

I changed into my trail shoes, with thicker socks that gave some relief to my aching feet. I also wore warmer clothing, and I used a camelback for my water supply.

At the mountain café, we all tucked into a huge chicken breast sandwiches and chips, to give us energy before we headed off up the long winding trail.

The trail was beautiful, but the sun was up again and it soon got quite hot, and with the heavy packs that the crew were carrying, our progress was slow.

Hours passed by as we hiked higher and higher up the trail into mid afternoon. We then noticed that storm clouds were rolling in across the pinnacles of the mountain, and it wasn’t long before the skies darkened and we heard a roar of thunder and it started to rain heavily.

This could be huge set back, as if I couldn’t summit the mountain and sign the visitor’s book inside the summit hut, my race would be over.

We decided to temporarily take cover from the rain under some cliffs in the hope that the storm would eventually pass us by.

Then we met several climbers descending the mountain that had been caught up in the storm and they described terrible conditions of snow and hail and flooding up on the mountain top.

My double attempt looked in serious doubt, as there would be no escape from the elements up on the mountain crest, and it could be a fatal mistake with the threat of lightening being a strong possibility.

Also, we only had a small amount of mountain clothing per person, and not enough for all of us to keep warm and dry in a heavy storm.

Eventually the rain stopped and we decided to climb a little higher to evaluate the conditions, but as we got higher we realised that even being caught in a storm at this point could be fatal, and with at least a six hour hike back down the mountain it would be possible to get hypothermia if it rained heavily again.

We decided to discuss our options, and Liam decided that he didn’t want to risk it and he also felt responsible for Cheri, who after all was new to all of this.

I respected his decision, as I certainly didn’t want anyone to get hurt, but I was determined to get to the summit to continue with my double attempt.

I could feel my chances slipping away as darker clouds seemed to appear overhead, and Liam and Cheri headed down the mountain to a safer level.

So, I stood with Julia (an experienced climber), and I asked her honest opinion of what options we had.

She was not happy with the situation, but she was prepared to push on a little further and if the conditions worsened then she said we would have to turn around, but if we got trapped up there, then she had a bivy bag that we could both squeeze into.

I was prepared to try anything, and I was even contemplating going it alone. (although I’m sure my crew would have tried to stop me)

Just at that moment another unsuccessful summit crew and runner, Anita Frome was heading towards us down the mountain, and I actually saw a Cougar (mountain cat) moving stealth like down the rocks then out of sight to the side of them! This was apparently a very rare sighting, and I thought it could be a good luck omen.

They told us that they had to turn back just a mile from the summit due to freezing conditions, with hail and rain, and we explained to them our predicament.

I asked them if we could borrow any storm proof clothing they had and any rations that they didn’t need, and Anita was more than happy to let me borrow a Gortex jacket and her crew gave me lots of extra food. She also gave me a pen to sign the visitor’s book at the summit, and said that maybe it was my turn to be lucky this year.

This gave us both a boost, as we now had adequate clothing, emergency cover, and we also had a satellite phone that we agreed to call Liam with at 10pm, with a progress report.

It wasn’t an ideal situation, trying to climb to the summit in the dark, but Julia and I pushed on for a few more hours until we were above 12000ft, where Julia started complaining of feeling nauseous and dizzy. She told me that this was probably the early effects of altitude sickness combined with tiredness, and I tried my best to encourage her to keep going and I told her that it would eventually pass.

We made slow progress up the steep switchbacks that lead to the mountain crest, stopping to catch our breath and eat snacks to keep our energy levels high.

It was pretty cold as we reached 13000ft, and I put on more layers of clothing, but I could also detect a dull altitude sickness headache.

In actual distance, the summit was only a few miles away now, but the mountain crest trail was treacherous in the dark, as it veered up and down and around the mountain pinnacles, with sharp rocks underfoot, and a sheer drop which I nervously navigated on my backside clinging to the mountain side in some areas!

I was really tired now, with aching feet and legs and an altitude headache.

It was hard to concentrate on the terrain, but a fall here would be fatal.

We moved precariously around the pinnacles, which seemed to go on forever, in fact we thought we had gone around in circles, so I marked the trail with an X.

However, we were on the right track, and in the early hours of the morning we started to approach the huge ‘shark fin’ silhouette of the summit peak. Through a freezing wind we reached the summit hut at 4am, and both of us clambered inside it to shelter from the elements.

We looked for the visitor book to sign, which was outside in a steel box. We signed it quickly then got back inside the hut, and I huddled in the corner trying to keep warm whilst Julia mixed together some freeze dried cheesecake mix.

I was now halfway at 150 miles, and I closed my eyes and nodded off for a few minutes. It had taken almost three days to get this far and I was cold and tired.

We had a few mouthfuls of food each, and then we decided to get back down the mountain as soon as possible. We had been really lucky that the weather had held out and allowed us to summit, but we would both feel much safer on lower ground.

It was still dark as we left the hut to descend the steep winding trail. Luckily Julia had brought some walking sticks for me to use, as each step was agony on my blistered feet over the rocky ground, which twisted and turned my ankles and I yelled out in frustration, swearing and cursing at the mountain to Julia’s surprise!

This was my lowest point so far; as I knew I had had hours ahead of painful downhill sections across the mountain crest.

Eventually, the sun started to rise and our spirits lifted as we marvelled at the magnificent view across Owens valley far in the distance. This was the route that I would be running later on my return journey through Death Valley.

We checked in with Liam again via the satellite phone, who was thrilled that we had managed to reach the summit, and then we started our final descent of the mountain, then down through the Whitney park zone.

My altitude headache soon disappeared and it wasn’t long before I could feel the strength of the early morning sun, so I stripped back down to my running gear.

After a while, we both started feeling dizzy with the heat as we followed the winding river trail down through the park. We stopped to fill up our camelbacks with water from the river using a water purifier, and I took a few minutes to take off my shoes and socks and dip my feet in the cool mountain water. It felt fantastic as the swelling went down in my feet and I managed to pop a few annoying blisters.

It was mid-afternoon as we approached familiar ground towards the end of the trail, and we noticed that it had taken us just over 24 hours to summit and return to the Whitney portals.

We staggered towards the end of the trail feeling tired, dehydrated and hungry and we were pleased to be met by Liam and Cheri.

It was time for another huge chicken breast sandwich from the mountain grill café before Julia went off to rest at a nearby hotel, and I crashed out in the back of the van to elevate my feet and get an hour of sleep.

I woke with an urgency to start my run back down the mountain road from the race finish point to Lone Pine.

This was a 13 mile stretch that I wanted to put behind me and I managed to haul myself out of the van and start running at a decent pace once my stiff legs began to loosen up. The mountain trekking had seemed to give my legs some recovery time, and after a few hours I was running along Lone Pine high street towards the crew hotel room, where I would rest again, and change my socks before heading off down the long road into Owens valley, just after midnight.

I wanted to get as much distance covered as possible during the cooler (still well over 100F) hours of darkness, and it wasn’t long before I was running past the small outpost town of Keeler and on towards the hills of Darwin and the 200 mile point.

After a good night of running I was beginning to slow down as dawn broke and I started the long climb up towards the Darwin turnoff, just narrowly avoiding stepping on a dozy looking rattlesnake that was crossing the white line in front of me!

It was only 8am and the temperature was creeping higher and higher, and I knew it was going to be a very hot day.

Then to my surprise Liam and Julia indicated to me that we had reached the Darwin turnoff (a checkpoint in the actual race), and I was pleased with the progress that I had made, but also relieved that it was time for me to sit on my deckchair and soak my aching feet again in iced water.

My feet were purple and blistered and my hands swollen with the heat as I rested and tucked into my muesli breakfast.

Throughout the race, my crew had been religiously monitoring my electrolyte, gel, food and liquid intake as well as everything that came out of me! This was essential for my crew to calculate what my body required to keep me going through the heat with regards to fluids and energy, and now that I was even more exhausted and sleep deprived I would need a lot more attention, as I was heading back into the hottest sections of the course.

The sun was beating down on me as I set off towards the next stop at Panamint Springs which was another 25 miles away, and Liam and Cheri drove ahead to get some rest.

It was slow going, and I felt like I was being boiled alive, but Julia kept reminding me to drink regularly and she kept drenching my hat and back with water to create a false sweat to cool me. I had been on my feet for four days now and I was becoming much slower as I battled the heat and pain in my feet.

Several hours later, Liam and Cheri returned to crew me as Julia went off to rest at Stovepipe Wells.

I precariously started the long decent of sharp switchbacks towards the valley floor, easing myself carefully around the blind corners to prevent a collision with the occasional oncoming vehicle.

My face felt bloated and flushed as I started to overheat, so I kept drinking as much as possible and taking my electrolytes, as I tried to move forward with the minimum amount of exertion.

Eventually the road flattened out as I reached the valley floor, and I saw the buildings of the Panamint Springs caravan park.

Liam pulled the van into the car park, and he set up my deck chair and foot bath for me on the porch of one of one of the out buildings. Here, I was shaded from the sun, but not the intense ‘oven like’ heat that made it hard to breathe and impossible to cool down.

Liam went to the Panamint garage and brought back a large iced Pepsi and a turkey sandwich for me that tasted great. It was a refreshing change to eat and drink something normal for once.

I was still overheating though, so we moved everything inside a small information booth that had a ceiling fan that helped to cool me down.

It was now mid afternoon, and it was certainly the hottest section of my journey so far. We decided that I should take it easy for a while and just walk across the baking hot valley floor to the base of the steep reverse side of Towness Pass hill, as it would be a disaster if I was to get heatstroke now.

I drank down another large iced Pepsi and then a Gatorade, then I wet my hat and I started trudging across the valley floor towards the 10 mile long hill ahead.

It was hard work on the back of my legs and my feet were aching as I pushed on up the hill. I felt like I was overheating again, even though I was drinking all the time, but I was dizzy and slow.

I stared at the mounds of rocks either side of the road and they started to look like piles of skulls as my mind played tricks on me.

It was the hottest part of the day, and I was feeling irritated and confused which were classic signs of heat exhaustion that was compounded by the extra exertion that I was making to climb the steep road ahead.

I was at another all time low, and I felt that I just wanted to get the whole thing over with as hour after hour passed by until I could eventually see the top of the hill.

The girls pulled the van into the car park at the top of the hill, and I hobbled the last few metres and slumped into my deck chair.

I was relieved that I had finished the last big climb of the course, but I was now running on empty and the afternoon heat had taken its toll.

I slurped down a cup of noodles and lay flat out in the back of the van. I was pleased that the sun was setting, and with the van doors wide open, I nodded off for a little while as a slight breeze cooled my skin.

It was time to make a push for Stovepipe Wells, which was only 17 miles away at the foot of the hill.

Usually I would have welcomed a long downhill section, but not with the way my legs and feet were feeling.

I put on more fresh socks and squeezed my feet into my trainers then limped away from the van trying to loosen up my legs to allow me to start running again. Once I had settled back into the pain, my legs started to move more freely, and I started to run at a decent pace.

Although it was dark it was still very hot, with a slight headwind that was like a hairdryer in my face sucking the moisture from me.

I seemed to be running pretty fast, almost on auto-pilot as I let the downward slope carry my legs forward, but after a few hours I felt like I had hit a brick wall. I had covered half of the distance down, but I had misjudged my pace in the heat, and I suddenly felt empty and confused and it wasn’t long before I was hallucinating at the rocks and bushes either side of the road.

I felt terrible, and I just tried to keep drinking and hold myself together until we got to Stovepipe. Julia helped me by walking the last few miles with me, as I tried to stupidly point out some hallucinations to her, but of course she couldn’t see any of them.

Liam told us that there were three miles to go, but it seemed to take forever. I knew I wasn’t feeling ok, but I kept quiet and moving forward as I just wanted to get to the crew hotel room to cool down and rest before I went mad.

To my relief, the lights of Stovepipe appeared and I stumbled into the hotel room and straight onto a nice soft bed which felt great.

My crew removed my shoes, and I just wanted to sleep. I was confused, and my mind was racing. I knew I had to eat before sleeping to put back some energy, so I forced down some noodles and then I tried to sleep, but I thought that the room was full of people examining me, and I was having the wildest dreams. I was rabid with heat exhaustion.

I woke a few hours later feeling very confused. I was still dehydrated to a dangerous level, and I decided to drink until I could urinate before leaving the room, since the last 42 mile’s was the hottest ‘below sea level’ section.

I just had to try to stay composed, and keep as cool as possible. My crew were worried that I could easily overheat again, and decided that I needed maximum protection from the sun, so Cheri gave me her long white legging’s, which I cut into shape and I wore a long sleeved top on top of a layer of total block sun-cream.

The plan was for me to move slowly forward through the valley, and take regular rests in the van whenever I felt like I was getting too hot.

I was soon back on my feet again and following the winding road out of Stovepipe, past the giant sand dunes on my left and through an area known as the ‘Devils Cornfield’.

I took it nice and easy as it wasn’t long before the full power of the sun was beating down on me. (I was later told that the crew van had got stuck in sand at the side of the road and a huge truck had towed it out. I was oblivious to all this was all going on behind me!)

Cheri started to pace along side me, and she was welcome company on this long section. She managed to keep me amused with stories and chat hour after hour in the afternoon heat.

I regularly jumped into the van to cool my feet, with the deck chair now set up inside the back of the van, as this was the only shade, but there was no escape from the heat as I sat dripping sweat, with my feet emerged in the bucket.

With less than a marathon to go now, and less than 10 miles to Furnace Creek, I was feeling confident that I could make it.

I could see the green oasis of Furnace Creek in the distance and I was relieved to see that the sun was setting for the last time on my never ending journey and I realised that I had luckily survived the savage heat of the valley yet again.

It was approximately mile 275, as I wandered into Furnace Creek feeling totally exhausted. It was hard to believe we had been staying here 5 days ago before the start of the race, and that the runners and their support vehicles had long gone.

I lay sweating in the van eating yet more noodles as it got darker and I began mentally preparing myself for the last 17 miles.

At this point in a long race it’s easy for your body to relax too much before the finish, and I knew that I needed to stay focussed.

All I could manage to do now was walk, and Liam as my good friend and chief crew wanted to pace me all the way to the finish. There was no way he was going to let me fail now.

We headed out of Furnace Creek together, and turned right at the junction signposted Badwater, to take the long road back to our original starting point that we had left over five days ago.

We walked and chatted together into the early morning, with Liam telling me jokes and stories to keep my mind from crumbling.

Julia and Cheri drove the van alongside us, blasting out music and I was sure that they were deliberately keeping the distance left to cover a secret from me.

At this point I was moving on empty and in a bit of a daze with a strange bitter sweet feeling of reaching the finish. On one hand I didn’t want to take another painful step, but on the other I would be sad that this life changing adventure would be over.

With the combination of sleep deprivation and exhaustion I pointed out shapes of dancing women in the clouds to Liam, as the moon lit up the sky.

The familiar mountain range to my left and the white salt flats of Badwater that was reflecting the moonlight indicated to me that we must almost be there.

I could sense that the crew knew that it was nearly over, as their spirits lifted and they announced to me that I was inside the last mile!

The girls drove on ahead as I walked in silence along side Liam. I was overcome with relief and emotion as I thought about all the highs and lows of this amazing journey, and I shook Liam’s hand to thank him for helping me achieve my dream.

I crossed the imaginary finish line at the point where the race had started and it felt like the world had been lifted from my shoulders, and I hugged Liam, Cheri and Julia and thanked them all, for I could not have done this without all of their hard work and dedication.

I had made it!! What had first seemed like an impossible dream had now become a reality for me.

It had taken me 5 days 19 hours and 44 minute’s (139 hours and 44 minute’s), and I was now only the 20th person in the world to complete this crazy ordeal, and the 5th Brit!

I had created history for myself.

We then all lay on our backs and stared up at the beautiful desert stars as Liam passed around whiskey and cigars to celebrate a true moment of magic.

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