This race was significantly more difficult than I anticipated and I will attempt to detail it here.
I knew something was different about this place the morning after the first night when I woke up. My eyes were red and almost painfully dry and my lips were chapped. My nostrils were sore from how dry they were. I had read about ways of helping these conditions before I went and so I had brought some artificial tears and saline nasal spray, but those were just fixes to an environmental condition that would play a major role in how my race went.
There are 4 restaurants at the Furnace Creek Ranch (which is a nice place with a spring fed pool but I will say the room wasn’t the cleanest) and I had some breakfasts and dinners at them while eating the food that I brought (a lot of powerbars, dried fruit and etc.) in between. I had a hearty breakfast on Friday but felt really full for some reason most of the rest of the day (I don’t know if it was nerves or what) so I ate mostly my bars and some bananas I got at the General Store.
I remember when I was sitting at the pool working on one of these blog posts that after justing sitting there for an hour my throat was getting parched and my lips were getting dry (and I was drinking water)… That made an impression on me again but again I didn’t know how much of an effect this would have on the race.
On Thursday night, I had dinner at one of the restaurants and saw a man eating at another table wearing a Badwater shirt. Being that I was in Death Valley and you don’t meet many (anywhere) people wearing Badwater shirts, I decided to yell over to him that I thought that was really cool. We got to talking for 20 minutes and I found out that he wasn’t a runner but the head of the crew for the top Italian runner last year Marco Mazzi.He talked about the race and how it was even more than just the 120 degree temperatures and 135 miles, but there were also 35 – 40 MPH winds for much of it. Good grief! He said that they decided that everyone on the crew could only say that it was hot once a day. Ha! He said there were 5 runners at the start that were doing a Badwater Triple (out to the finish, back to the start and out back again to the finish.. 405 miles) and I agreed with his assesment of them as “Alien”! So I was asking him about Death Valley and the effect that it has on you. He said he did do the 135 mile route on his bike (I am not sure if it is a race or not… there is the Furnace Creek 508 …I think he may have just been riding it with a big group) and really started to get beat up and almost lose it about halfway through and he said another teammate gave him Tomato Juice and he kept drinking them (bottle after bottle) and he came back. Tomato Juice has a ton of sodium and generally some potassium too (doesn’t list it here)
So I started to think that electrolytes were going to play a big part in surviving this harsh dry environment. To be honest, I didn’t just then start to think that but I started to believe it even more after talking with him.
Now I didn’t have any Tomato Juice (the General Store probably had some), I am not particularly a fan in general of the drink and didn’t think (as it usually isn’t) it was a good idea to try something new (like filling my water bottle with tomato juice) on race day. So I just left the Tomato Juice story stay just that… a good story.
On a side note.. another drink which I have heard from another coach that I very much respect is pickle juice. Yes pickle juice. You put it in a little flask and drink it about the same time you consume your GU’s. Apparently many members of the St. Louis Rams football uses pickle juice when they play in hotter environments. But again I wasn’t going to try that on race day.
I asked him what other advice he had and he just said “Drink, Drink, Drink”. At every aid station drink as much as you can stomach. Ok I can give that a shot.
I woke up about 5:30 on race morning (which is actually later than I normally wake up for a race but it started just at the edge of the ranch so I didn’t have far to go to get to the start line) and felt ok. My stomach issues felt better and after a hot shower I felt pretty ready to race. I applied a lot of sunscreen (there are very few clouds in Death Valley!), took a caffeine pill and a small peanut butter bar. On my water belt, I had my new GU flask filled with 5 GU’s ( a big fan of the Peanut Butter, Espresso Love and Chocolate… together they made kind of a Mochachino flavor) and my 20 oz water bottle filled with water and a Nuun tablet. It only took a few hours into the race for me to find out that in this environment what I was carrying with me was not nearly enough.
I got to the race start (no banner or anything just a strip of tape for the start and finish.. that was kind of fun actually) and there were about 400 racers. This race has a 10K, a Half Marathon and a Full. They are all out and backs. The race director gave out the general directions and was actually quite fun. He had some good jokes to lighten things up and seemed like a nice guy (who was maybe a few years out of his prime but I talked with him later and found out that he was a pretty serious ultra long distance endurance swimmer earlier in his career among other things). I have nothing bad to say about the individuals involved in helping support the race (they all seemed nice and truly did their best).. I do have a couple of things to say about the general organization of the race but that will come in a bit.
Well it was about 5 minutes after 8:00am but we were ready to go and off we went. It was about 66 at the start and climbed up to about 74 degrees at the finish (it climbs quickly in the desert). To anyone that races, they know that these are not ideal racing temperatures and generally not PR temperatures… but it was a dry heat (yeah.. it was dry alright) and that didn’t make it any easier in this case.
I went off at (and was able to maintain for about 17 miles) my race pace of 8:45/mile. It felt ok and I got together with a bunch that seemed to be working at about that pace early on. In the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa, they talk about “getting on the bus”. What this means is you come together with a group and get on their “bus” for awhile to help you keep going. The camaraderie of the mutual suffering helps one get through it. I got on a bus early in the race, lost the bus when I stopped at the aid stations, followed different buses late in the race (this helped a lot.. just having a small group to see out ahead of me and try to stay behind them or to catch them) and then eventually got passed by some buses in the last stages.
I talked a bit with some of them for the first 4 miles or so (felt more like an Ultra in that sense.. and as you will see it felt more like an Ultra in more ways as it went on) but then nobody was really that interested in talking. There is a big half mile long hill about 2 miles into the race and I knew that it would be entertaining coming back at mile 24 (entertaining wasn’t the word I was using when I got back to it at mile 24). Then there were almost constant inclines or declines all the way to the turnaround (which by mile 8 seeemd like it took a while to get to). This race is advertised as being basically flat but it is NOT flat. It isn’t mountainous climbs but Death Valley is known for long steady climbs and descents and they take something out of you.. especially when you are trying to run at your marathon pace. But the hills weren’t the biggest part of what made this race so tough (they didn’t make it any easier.. that is for sure), it was the intense dryness and the lack of being adequately prepared for it (although I am not certain how much better I could have prepared for it).
It was 16% humidity when I got to the starting line. I have never experienced that before. I sweat in 35 degree weather. Anyone that has run with me knows that I am solid sweater 🙂 When I got to the finish line and got my medal, my entire outfit was bone dry in 74 degree weather. Essentially my sweat and thereby my electrolytes were leaving my skin so fast that they never got to make any impression. This is what happened out there and hit me at mile 17. I prepped my water and nutrients that I was going to take with me on the race like it was a normal marathon but this was no normal marathon (not that I thought it was going to be as it was labeled “the world’s most inhospitable place” but I, like many out there, thought that since the temperature were within reason that the environment wouldn’t have the impact that it did).
I just hit the wall hard. Really hard. When I was able to run, I was able to get back to my racing pace but as the miles got deeper there came more and longer walking breaks. There was just no way around it and that is what the “Willpower Schmillpower” part of this posts title comes from. There was a runner who I ran with (or just behind) for maybe the first 15 and then passed him a bit for a few miles (he took a long aid station break) and as he was passing me later I told him I was hurting pretty good and he said “You just got to use your willpower!” Nothing less true has ever been said to me. Willpower had nothing to do with it at that point. You think I didn’t want to stay on at my race pace? You think I spent a good amount of money and time, drove two hours from Las Vegas to a small race not to do my very best? My body would simply have nothing of it at that point. I was severly depleted and its effects were showing themselves with a vengeance. I would pick a landmark (there aren’t too many along the road in Death Valley) and walk to it and then start to run again. And that was how basically the last 6 miles played out.
Another thing that I hadn’t mentioned until this point is that the aid stations were 3 miles apart. That was very far for a standard marathon (and is really Ultra aid station distances). There was honestly no good reason for there not being a few more except I guess to make it harder (which is fine I suppose if that is the direction of the race) and they weren’t stocked with any GU’s but they did have a lot of thick pretzels (and with how dry my mouth was were virtually impossible to eat I learned quickly). I wasn’t impressed.
The thing was though that only about 6 runners past me in those last 8 miles… It was hitting everyone with varying degrees of affect. I came up upon a female runner (probably in her late 40’s who had the chiseled build of an athlete that has been in great shape for decades) at mile 24 (whom I had run with for a lot of the first half) and she was almost at a standstill. I asked her how she was doing and she said she had never cramped so bad in her running career. I walked with her for a bit and then tried to run on knowing she would make it and that I knew what she was going through (even though I wasn’t cramping).
This young Asian lady caught up with me (she was also near me a lot of the first half) at about miile 25 and we talked through what we were both going through. One thing she said that I could identify with was “there were points on the way back where if I could of jumped into a car I would have!” I certainly wouldn’t have done that (not that the opportunity presented itself) but it did speak to the intense hurt that we were going through for much of the last quarter. She also said something that brought a smile to my face (and I told her how it made me happy), she said “There were many times where I though to myself.. if that guy can do this without shoes then I can do it!”
Which brings me to that one little point of being the first to run this race barefoot. This was my first barefoot Marathon (I have done a number of Halfs barefoot) and I have to say overall my feet weren’t much of an issue. They never felt hot (I have run in the upper 80’s barefoot) and they never hurt like there was an issue. I will say that later that day and for a few good days afterwards, they felt like they got a workout like they never had before! That is for sure. They were very well worked and reasonably sore but no real issues. What was kind of interesting though was that around mile 20 and on, there were times when I sort of lost my barefoot form (like many runners lose their “running” form a bit late in a race). I wasn’t lifting my toes much and I could feel that making things harder and a bit more “tactile”. I noticed it though and worked to correct it whenever I felt it. Changes in foot form probably happen to most shod runners late in a race, but you don’t really notice it because of all of the padding and so forth. So I am actually grateful for that feedback that I got because of the foot/road connection. Like I said I never felt like my feet were “hurt” during the race, but I was walking around quite slowly afterwards (as many shod runners do as well).
This race has 130 starters and only 97 finishers. That is a big percentage drop for a marathon.. you generally only see that in Ultras. And it is not like the vast majority of runners weren’t “serious” runners.. I mean you literally have to drive two hours at least to get to this race. You aren’t going to do that for the heck of it.
I will say this though.. they did have very cool shirts (even sweatshirts… which is kind of ironic considering it was the one race where I didn’t sweat :)), hats and medals.
So all this having been written, it was my slowest marathon (at a bit over 4:20) but unquestionably my hardest and I am really proud of my performance. Nothing I have written in this post is an excuse of anything, just an analysis of the situation I was faced with. I am really happy with my race. I still think I was in PR shape, but this was not a PR course or day so I am proud of myself for “leaving it all out there” because that is exactly what I did!
And at the same time, proved to myself (and a few others that were doubtful) that you can run a marathon barefoot! I am very glad I did it and it was even more of an adventure that I expected!
I am very much interested in your opinion on ways to improve performance (and reduce electrolyte depletion) in an environment such as this, so please post a comment if you have some advice.
Thanks for reading and best of luck in your racing!