Crewing at Badwater 135

I was a crewing rookie. Sure, I’ve supported other athletes at their races before and have volunteered, but never had I been on the “other side” like this, nor in these kind of conditions or for this duration.  The Badwater 135 race, which starts in Death Valley and ends en route to Mount Whitney, is hot, brutal, unforgiving, crazy.  I lost track of the number of times I said “This is unreal”.

I was lucky enough to be included in Linda Quirk’s crew at her Badwater 135 race. This woman is incredible in so many ways. She runs a non-profit foundation, Runwell, to provide various forms of assistance to those involved with drug or alcohol addiction / recovery and to inspire all walks of life to become active and live a healthy lifestyle. Linda is an amazing athlete who only in the past few years took up the sport of ultra running. In 2010, she completed the 4 Deserts Grand Slam and earned the fame of becoming the oldest American to accomplish this feat in a single calendar year. There could be a book written about her and perhaps there will be one someday.  Anyway, it is an understatement to say I was thrilled to be included in this crewing opportunity.

Linda’s primary mission for the Badwater race was to complete the 135 mile race within the 48 hour cut-off. Her secondary goal was to beat the record held by the woman in her age group, which was a finish time of over 47 hours.  Linda is 60 years young.

The crew consisted of my colleague, Bob Seebohar, who is Linda’s coach and sport dietitian, but he also served as our crew chief. The other crew members were Pam Rickard and Sandy Suckling, both ultra endurance runners; Jill Gass, a registered nurse (our medical lead), coach and  competitive cyclist; and Sam Dean who was our photojournalist (but also took on some crewing duties).  Then there was me. My primary duties were assisting Bob with nutrition and hydration preparation/planning/tracking/assessment and pacing Linda when needed. Our job as a crew was basically: “To do whatever it takes to get Linda to the finish line”.  We were all in!

The rules are very strict at the Badwater 135 with regard to crew and support vehicles. For example, there can only be two support vehicles and each vehicle cannot be in close proximity to each other. There is a maximum of 6 crew members per athlete. There can only be one pacer at any given time and the pacer cannot be in front of or alongside the athlete, only behind the athlete. Nothing can be handed off from the vehicle nor can the vehicle follow the athlete.  And on and on...there were lots of rules to learn but there was no way any of the crew would want to get Linda disqualified from such an important race. She had worked hard to get there and she belonged there with a select few of the ultra endurance athletes from around the world.

Besides learning those rules, I tried to prepare myself to spend hours in the desert heat.  I had done some training runs wearing multiple layers, but it was difficult for me to simulate the conditions where I live at 8600 feet of elevation. I spent time in the sauna. I turned the heat on in my car when driving in 85 degree and above temperatures.  It couldn’t hurt to do those things, but I wasn’t sure how much it would help.  As Bob and I drove from the Vegas airport to Furnace Creek the night before the race started, we noted the temperature on the dashboard of the rental car... 108F degrees at 11:10pm.  Got deodorant?

We laughed with excitement. I was nervous deep down.

Then there’s the part none of the crew had discussed beforehand.  Umm... not all of us knows each other. And we’re going to spend hours in a van together.  Non-stop for two nights. In the desert.  We’ll be stinky. We may get grouchy. But no matter what, we are here for Linda so we have to do what it takes.  Stinky or not.  Needless to say, I was happy I packed extra socks and deodorant in my bag and I’m sure my crewmates were happy about that too.

Did I mention Linda is amazing?  She undertook this race with fervor and determination. I was glad when my turn came up to pace her during the heat of the day, the dark of the night, and the beautiful desert dawn to sunrise we shared on day two. She was so focused that I couldn’t get her to look backwards to check on the sunrise.  Her mottos, whenever I was with her, were “I gotta keep moving forward” and “I gotta get this thing done”. Her back got out of whack prior to the town of Lone Pine so it was quite a nail biter for us to watch her endure what seemed to be extreme discomfort. She stopped very little along the 135 mile route. I was in awe of this woman.  She persevered.  I was learning so much from her every step of the way.

photo credit: Sam Dean photography

photo credit: Sam Dean photography

Nutrition-wise, this was quite an experience. Linda is a low maintenance athlete because she is very metabolically efficient. She can motor ahead without having to fuel frequently or take in many calories. When we assessed her nutrition, it mostly consisted of GenerationUCAN, coconut butter, small amounts of fruit and bites of peanut butter and jam on saltines or a sandwich thin. Of course, we gave her electrolytes and water as well. Pretty simple.

But me, being the sport dietitian, I had my eyes open to what others were doing around us and let me just say that I saw many unfortunate incidents or outcomes.  Athletes vomiting alongside the road and holding their guts in pain is a sad sight no matter who we are.  Granted, the desert heat and wind are elements that can greatly affect the ability to stay hydrated and how well our bodies can digest nutrients, especially on top of the physical stress of this course. It can be very difficult to have an appetite and often times, athletes can confuse fatigue with a nutritional bonk and hence overdo it on calories.  But I had to wonder how many of those athletes had spent much time on their nutrition planning... In any case, it was important for us to have backup nutrition plans for Linda even though she didn’t require as much fueling due to her metabolically efficient system.

Linda ended up beating the previous record for her age group by over 3 hours with a finish time of 44 hours. The emotions at that finish line were incomparable to anything I had ever experienced for my own self. It was truly a special moment. And one I shared with crewmates who are now friends, even though some of us live thousands of miles apart.

A finish at the Badwater 135 is unlike no other

A finish at the Badwater 135 is unlike no other

To Linda, whom I adore and highly respect, thank you for including me in your Badwater journey.  It was truly a WOW adventure.