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Well, as most of you know by now, I think, the 2006 Badwater 135 Ultra-marathon went well for Team Coonhound. I had some minor but nagging injuries going into the final weeks of training that I worked furiously to overcome via sports massage (thanks to Kelli Gaither-Banchoff for some great work on my IT band and quadriceps!), self-massage, stretching, some strengthening exercises and lots of ice. Apparently the effort was worth it as none of these irritating injuries made a showing during the race.
The 2006 version of Team Coonhound consisted of 6 support crew and 1 runner. The crew included Matt Skroch and David Hodges of Sky Island Alliance (a member organization of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection), Carolyn Campbell (the Executive Director of the Coalition & a Black & Tan Coonhound enthusiast), Mark Briggs (a Tucson conservationist & hydrologist/restoration ecologist by trade) and Mike “Harpo” Davis & Ronald X. Hershey, college buddies, appreciators of fine music and all around good guys and hard workers. I was the runner, Bruce Gungle, #47–same as my age and am a longtime conservationist and supportor of the Coalition as well as a fellow Black & Tan Coonhound enthusiast alongside Carolyn.
A couple of other critical support crew acting behind the scenes were our hound sitters back in Tucson: Lori Anderson and John Fleming with some help from Lori’s daughter Gail, Chris and Doug McVie, and Jack Strasburg. That’s a lot of folks to sit just a few K-9s, but then, we’re talking hounds here.
We began the race on Monday, 07-24-06 at 10:00 AM from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Americas at -282 ft. below sea level. Like all the crew vehicles, ours (a gold rental van) included the runner’s last name and bib number (Gungle, 47). We also used our washable chalk “paint” to write “Team Coonhound” on each side and the back of the van, although it took some work to make it fit. In the end, our crew van looked like it had been tagged during the night by a gang of ultrarunner punks.
At 10:00 AM the mountain shadows that the 6:00 and 8:00 AM starts had enjoyed over their first few miles had receded and the temperature was already well above 100 F. By the time the day ended, the official National Weather Service temperature, measured at Furnace Creek (-165 ft. below sea level), would top out at 123 F and the high from vehicle thermometers in our proximity during the day would hit 131 F. As veteran runners say, “It’s not really a Badwater unless the temps hit 120 degrees.” We had a “real” Badwater on our hands this year. And to make matters worse (or better, I suppose, depending on perspective), it was humid, too.
The first time station is Furnace Creek. During this first 17 miles, racers under 60 years of age are not allowed a pacer (a person to run with during the race to help keep the runner safe and his/her spirits up). Carolyn and Harpo were with me for this stretch, and met me every 1.5 miles or so until mile 11, when it had gotten hot enough that I needed to start getting my water bottles refreshed every mile. We rolled in to Furnace Creek at 1:28 PM (3:28 elapsed) where I had planned to take a quick dip in the hotel pool. Alas, this year the pool was undergoing major renovations and was dry as a bone and filled with small piles of dirt.
Just before reaching Furnace Creek I had caught up to and then passed fellow Tucsonan Pam Reed. Pam had won the race outright in 2002 (when she set the women’s course record) and again in 2003. It had been hot those years, and we all thought the heat this year would once again play to her advantage. The fact that I was catching her this early in the race, however, suggested things weren’t going well for her. We talked for a bit, and shortly after Furnace Creek (she didn’t stop) I passed her for the last time, doing my best to get her spirits up and encouraging her to hang in there. Pam’s stomach wasn’t doing well—it wasn’t processing food and liquid, not uncommon for ultrarunners—and she would eventually drop out of the race around mile 40, just outside of Stovepipe Wells after losing close to 7 pounds from her 100 pound frame. In contrast, I started the race at 174 pounds, dropped to 171 through Death Valley where my weight stayed until the second day when it bounced back to 175.
Mark came on to pace and Matt came on to help Harpo and Carolyn with the work. We had discussed at length whether we could crew the runner and pacer both with just 2 persons. It was decided that while it might be possible, it would be hard on the crew, and potentially dangerous for the runner if things started to slip through the cracks like when to give out an electrolyte capsule, when to give a glycogen-replacement gel, when to swap out shoes, not to mention looking out for signs of heat exhaustion, heat stroke and dehydration. For this reason, we ultimately decided on 3 crew plus the pacer across the Valley of Death, and then afterwards we could play it by ear according to the needs of the crew and the runner.
I had promised the crew that this year I would walk more in Death Valley with the ultimate goal of being able to run more, further into the race as a result. In 2004 I had blistered my feet badly over these first 42 miles of pavement where temps at pavement level can top 200 F, and so walking was also meant to help cut down on the blister problems. Changing shoes repeatedly throughout the race (shoes were kept in a cooler) was also meant to help reduce the blistering. Anyway, in 2004 I had come in to Furnace Creek in 3:13, so I had backed off that time by 15 minutes in the first 17 miles.
Nevertheless, Mark and I mostly ran for the next 10 miles and I swapped out shoes two times. Carolyn came on for 5 miles of running (when the temperature a few feet above the pavement hit 131 F according to one vehicle thermometer) and then Matt came on for the final 10 miles to Stovepipe Wells. A couple of miles outside of Stovepipe, I started to feel good again after trouble getting food down for most of the afternoon, and so I picked up my pace—I smelled the barn as they say. My crew claimed I was doing sub-8:00 minute miles into Stovepipe, which I find hard to believe, but I did out run my pacer who reached the time station huffing and puffing a few minutes later. I thought he had stopped to get a ride with the crew since I had not seen him for 10 or 15 minutes. We reached the Stovepipe Wells time station, elev. 5 ft. above sea level, at 7:34 PM (9:34 elapsed). The temperature was right around 120 F. In 2004 I had reached Stovepipe Wells 47 minutes faster, in 8:47. We had done an excellent job getting some walking done in Death Valley.
Hersh had taped over the balls of both of my feet an hour before the race began as a preventitve measure. I had not taped my feet in 2004, and as both feet had 2 to3 inch diameter blisters across the balls, it seemed prudent to try to do something to protect them this year. Nevertheless, a blister had begun to form on the left foot between the end of the taping and the base of my toes, in generally the same area as in 2004 but not all across the ball of the foot, thank god. The rest of my feet felt pretty good.
I had been looking forward to a quick dip in the Stovepipe Wells pool, but with the tape across my feet I was concerned I might damage the tape job or somehow cause more blistering due to wet tape. Still, the pool called my name like a Siren, and so I wandered over to the edge, lay down on my stomach and dipped my torso in and threw water over my back with my hands. I got myself a pretty thorough soaking and felt quite refreshed, and miraculously managed to avoid wetting my shoes.
Rather than hang around Stovepipe Wells doing nothing, I decided to keep going while I had some momentum and charged off up Townes Pass with Mark in tow as a pacer once again. We walked over two miles without sight nor sound of the crew, so I talked Mark in to running back down the hill to Stovepipe to see what the problem was. I wanted to keep going, but we were out of water and it was still around 115 F even if the sun was down. The crew and vehicle finally caught up to me (they had been getting gas, ice and water—very reasonable use of their time, of course) and first David, then later Harpo, I think, marched with me up the 17 miles to the top of Townes Pass, 4965 ft. elevation. We were able to run the final couple of relatively flat miles and reached the nice cool summit at 1:37 AM Tuesday morning. After a short break to swap out wet socks for dry, I headed off the other side of Townes Pass into the abyss of the Panamint.
In 2004 I had run the relatively flat top of Townes Pass but then walked all the rest of the 13 mile, 3800 feet decent to the bottom of Panamint Valley, as I had been concerned about saving my quadriceps. As result, I didn’t benefit from the downhill, and as it turned out, I didn’t run but a few short segments of the entire rest of the race anyway. Figuring that this may be the final chance I would have to run during the race, I had been planning to run down this long hill for nearly 2 years. After about 5 miles of the bone-jarring, foot blistering decent, I thought it might not be a bad idea to occasionally walk a mile to save my legs and feet a little bit of the tumolt. When I slowed to walk, however, I found it hurt my quadriceps just as much as had I continued to run, so I ran, and I ran some more, the rest of the way to the bottom of the hill with the occasional pause to stop at the vehicle for refills and/or nutrition.
We reached the time station at the Panamint Springs “resort” on the far side of the valley at straight up 5:00 AM (19:00 elapsed). The resort provides the race with a little cabin each year, and after a bit of work I finally figured out where it was located, back behind a tamarisk hedge. Inside it looked like a triage for a medical disaster, with bodies laying about wherever a bit of space might have been available. I picked my way through the sleeping heeps of humanity to the bathroom and took a shower with soap and shampoo—a significant luxury it seemed here at mile 73.
Back outside I changed into a fresh pair of shorts and a new T-shirt and then we tended to my blisters which had increased in severity on the way down from Townes Pass. After I took off my shoes so Hersh could try to tape up under my left toes, he looked down and asked me where the cushioned insole was for the left shoe.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’ve been running without the insole in your left shoe,” he said.
“No, I don’t think that could be,” I replied.
“Sorry, Bruce. It’s not there.”
“Well,” I mumbled, “I guess that explains why those shoes felt a little flat. Probably has something to do with the new blister on my heel, too.”
Hersh taped things up as best he could and I headed off with little fanfare to start the 8 mile climb up to Father Crowley point (4000 ft., 81 mi.), which overlooks the Panamint from the west. The sun was cresting the Panamint Mountains behind us as we climbed and eventually a Badwater friend—Steve Teal—was 30 meters or so behind. I felt pretty sure that now that Steve was feeling better (he had had a pretty bad patch in Death Valley) he would most certainly overtake me. My goal was to make sure that he had to work to do it. Whenever we saw him walking our way while I was getting fresh bottles and food, I’d hop out of the chair and start back up the road at as brisk a pace as I could manage. Steve stayed in our rearview mirror at least until we topped out at 5300 ft. (85mi.) but never did manage to pass, and I never saw him again until the afternoon after we finished. A long straight stretch through a sparse forest of joshua trees set beneath a perfect cerulean blue canopy flecked with bright white patches of cumulus clouds took us out of Death Valley National Park at last, and brought us to the Darwin Turnoff time station at mile 91 (5050 ft.).
After a handful of incredibly tasty cherries, compliments of Joe, the time station official, we were off once again. I commented to whomever was pacing me at the time—Mark or Matt, I believe—that I was pretty sure that I was done running for this race, and I began to question my rationale for participating in this event at all. I mean, seriously, what is the purpose? No clue. But the 100 mile mark in the race is demarkated by a clear road cut into the edge of Darwin Plain (probably a basalt—should have looked more carefully) and there the road drops through the edge and runs downhill for nearly 4 miles. As if to prove myself a liar, I started to run, not much more than a shuffle at first, really, but I picked out goals to reach—a particularly big bush, a reflector on a post, then a small boulder—and as I passed each of them I thought that I could probably keep this up if my legs loosened up just a little more. I was running without a pacer at the time and so didn’t have to worry about anyone given me advice or getting in my way or having other problems, and so I just kept charging along until, according to the crew after the fact, I was running something like 9 minute miles. I tossed the occasional water bottle at my crew Tour de France style, and scooped a couple of handoffs here and there and finally just told them to meet me at the very bottom of the hill. “I’m going to milk this [hill] for all it’s worth,” I told them, with my best serious race-face.
It turned out to be 3.2 miles of solid running, from mile 100-103.2, averaging somewhere around 9 minutes per mile. I managed to pass something like a half a dozen other competitors during this tour de force and my crew was jokingly accused of spiking my water bottle. Over the course of the rest of the race a couple of the folks I passed would come back to overtake us, but a few of them I put to rest for good during this one moment of energy and enthusiasm.
The rest of the way into Lone Pine I ran all of the downhills available and walked all of the flats and uphills. David paced for 7 miles or so and filled me in on all sorts of sports information with a special emphasis on baseball and Boston teams for my benefit. I walked and ran stretches alone, or with other crew members. Eventually, the pretty white cotton clouds from the Darwin plain became low topped thunderheads, and one rained on us around mile 108, soaking my shoes and feet. I changed out my wet socks for dry ones and continued on until a second, more serious storm blew up with a full compliment of lightning and a heavy downpour. I retreated to the crew vehicle where I took advantage of the down time to get in 15 or 20 minutes of sleep. After the rain had stopped, Carolyn woke me up and I hopped out, refreshed, and continued on to Lone Pine.
A few miles before town what is left of the Owens River flows north to south, surrounded by some marshy land and enough mosquitoes to qualify as an Alaskan province. Carolyn was pacing me at the time and we were walking with another Badwater friend, Chris Frost of Malibu, CA, who I had been trading places with since before Furnace Creek. Incredibly, Chris had landed 30 gallons (yes, gallons) of Starbucks soy latte before he left Malibu, and as he and his girlfriend and Carolyn and I meandered along, his crew chief/barista took our orders—double shot latte on ice, all the way around. Needless to say, this perked everyone up, and in no time it seemed we had turned the corner north onto Rt. 395 and were heading on into Lone Pine, swatting mosquitoes and needing to pee.
Coming up to the Lone Pine time check point at the Dow Villa hotel, Chris looked over his shoulder and spotted the lone remaining Arizona contestant, Robert Andrulis from the Valley of the Sun, approaching at an alarming rate.
“We can’t let this guy over take us,” said Chris.
“Right. We’d better run,” and the two of us made a feeble attempt to trot. Chris bagged it after 10 meters or so, but I kept going.
“No, we can do it,” I called over my shoulder, “once you start to loosen up,” and I started to really move.
The Dow Villa was less than a block away now, and out of nowhere Chris blazed by me, literally sprinting, and chiding me on.
“Yeh, your right; I guess I can run!” he called as I tried to kick it into my highest gear.
Robert and his crew had by now faded, not entirely amused by our little joke, I guess, but was now sprinting about as fast as I can go, even on a good day. Still, Chris was able to out do that by a fair measure and blazed into the time station at least one full second ahead. A couple of dozen people just hanging around outside the Dow Villa were more than a little amused as they cheered us on, two ultramarathoners sprinting into the Mile 122 check point, 35 hours 17 minutes into the race. It was 9:17 PM of the second day, and we had just 13 miles left to go, straight up to 8360 ft. on the side of Mt. Whitney.
The first 8 or 9 miles up the Mt. Whitney road was a grind. Harpo hiked with me over the first few miles. Chris Frost caught up to us, passed us, and then we caught him again after he went down for a nap. I felt like I was crawling. I already knew that the sub-40 hour finish wasn’t going to happen, and now I began to worry that I wouldn’t even beat my time from 2004 (42:48:58). Frost quickly passed us, and we ground on, Hersh, 3 Red Bulls into him, taking over for Harpo and keeping up a solid stream of excellent conversation that kept my mind off the grind and my feet moving on up the road. I was eating alot, but finally I decided I needed to take a nap and then take care of some other business, and after 10 or 15 minutes of rest, I came back refreshed and told the crew we had to make sure we beat the 2004 time.
“Excellent. A focus, a goal!” cried Harpo, and I agreed.
Off we went for the final 5 miles with renewed purpose, and the miles ticked past. Two miles from the top, Frost passed us in his crew vehicle coming down, ultimately beating me by over 50 minutes. Finally, we turned the corner into the trailhead canyon, then reached the switchbacks, one long one right, then an even longer one back left, then a long winding climb up past a couple of overflow parking lots and a campground off to the left. More climb finally brought us up to the right-hand turn that takes you in toward the big pines where the finish line banners are strung and a few lights were blazing and we knew we had it, we were there, and the crew met us, Hersh and me, rounding the corner, running now and up we went and crossed the finish line beneath the monster pines.
But the race director didn’t get a decent photo, so I had to turn around and run across the line again. But his flash didn’t go off, so I gave it a third shot, and this time he got something like a decent photo and I wasn’t going to do it again, anyway, so we called it a day. Finish Time: 41:26:23, 3:26 AM, 25th place (when they finally sorted everything out), 1:22:35 faster than 2004.