Friday, May 8, 2015

Badwater Salton Sea // Ultra Inspired

This past weekend was a bit of an eye-opener for me. Simply put: I want to do an ultra. I've thought about it before but now I know I want to do one... do many in years to come. And let's put it this way: If you witness Badwater and aren't terrified but, rather, feeling inspired and want in? Well, that says something. I'm not saying I want to do Badwater anytime soon--soooo hard!--but I do want in on an ultra after this experience.

Badtwater Salton Sea... from my air-conditioned car ;)

Why? Mainly it comes down to the adventure aspect. Being out there in random places having to navigate through a foreign place often all alone or with just a pacer or teammate--I love that. Pushing the body in a new way? Sign me up. Even though I wasn't running, and I was "just" crew, this was still an adventure for sure.

Anza-Borrego Desert Park.

So anyway, it started when my friend Michelle Barton asked John and I to be the crew for Badwater Salton Sea, a team ultra, which she was running with Majo, an ultra freak from Canada (originally from Slovakia). This is not the original Badwater in Death Valley, it's a newer one down in San Diego that's an extremely similar format as the original, in this case: 81 miles with 40 miles on the desert floor (90-100 degrees), an 8-mile climb out of the desert on the trails, transitioning into the forest, temperatures dropping, ending with a gnarly climb up Palomar Mountain (triathletes, you know Palomar--famous for riding up a big ass mountain). I think the whole race has like 9k ft elevation gain; the course profile is nasty and not forgiving.

I was stoked to be invited to crew, as was John! We took this position very seriously, especially knowing that Michelle and Majo are elite/top ultrarunners. When Michelle asked she thought I might be too busy to do it, to which I said, "I am busy, but these are the kinds of things I want to be busy doing. I'm in." I've wanted to crew for a while and this was a perfect opportunity. We prepared a lot and realized it was going to be no joke given the terrain.

In fact, we documented the ultra on an Endurance Planet podcast coming out May 13. It has audio clips from pre-race planning, during the race and post-race. It's close to 2 hours total (!), and if you're into ultra or if you want to learn how to crew from a couple amateurs who figured it out, take a listen. I also shared some thoughts on the race in this new ATC podcast.

You can also watch this YouTube video Majo made.

Below is my story of why this weekend was so special for not just me, but our team....


Decorating my outback, the team car!
We got into town Saturday (the race was Sunday-Monday), and my car was all packed with a million race supplies and 25 gallons of water, seriously that much. Did I mention it would be hot? ;) We went to the pre-race meeting at Borrego Springs Resort, also where we were staying that night, and honestly I thought who would want to go stay at that resort just for fun? I can see camping in the area and I had no problem being there for our purposes but for a getaway "resort"?

Chris Kostman IS THE MAN!
Michelle's good buds with Chris Kostman the RD so I got to meet and hang with him, and by the time I heard him conduct the pre-race meeting, I was a fan. He's a solid dude with a brilliant mind, slightly crazy (he has to be right?!), and funny.

Sunday we were up at 4:30am, off by 5:30 to drive 35 miles farther southeast, nearly to mexico, to the race start at the Salton Sea. This place was a total trip. I've been to Mexico a lot, I've driven to San Felipe in a bus, and the terrain brought back memories of those days. It smelled like Mexico but even worse with the giant Salton Sea, which way stinnnnnky. There are millions of birds and fish, and their dead skeletons cover the sand. Ironically we drove those 35 miles only to have the runners go back to where we started, literally, as the resort was a timing check point.

Race morning over looking the Stinky, I mean Salton, Sea. #enduranceplanet
The crazy ultrarunners ;)

Off for an adventure!

The gun went off and very casually about 50-60 people started running away, but not stupidly fast like you see in your local 10ks. John and I slipped into our role quickly. The next 40 miles basically entailed John and I stopping every 2-3 miles to mix handheld bottles of Vitargo and ice water to our team. Majo and Michelle had different ratios they wanted of mix, so we were trying to keep those bottles separate along with keeping vitargo bottles separate from ice water bottles. We figured out a system as we went, and, man, next time we will be so pro. We learned so much. They were drinking a ton so there was really no significant downtime those first 40 miles, we were always working, always thinking two steps ahead of what had to be done. We were also rolling ice bandanas, grabbing other supplies at their request, navigating, running to the market for more ice (40 lbs total were bought), and so on.

Hot desert. Minimalist shoes. Majo said it was hotter than his sauna that he was using for heat acclimatization, literally.

Team headquarters. 
I loved every second of this process and was 100 percent in the moment, enjoying the adventure and more so enjoying watching our team KICK ASS!!!! Right away they settled into the top 4 and never dropped from there. Michelle was the only female out of the top 5 teams (maybe more), and she'd eventually set the female course record by a couple hours I think. John and I knew that they were the "in it to win it" type, and we played along accordingly :)

At mile 40 they "left us" for nearly 3 hours as they climbed a trail out of the desert, no car access. Prior to the trail, we made sure they had something like 200 oz of fluids to stuff in packs. When they jetted off we then had the job of moving Michelle's car to Lake Henshaw so it'd be close by post race the next morning. Meanwhile, so many random things happened along the way including a giant cricket storm and the famous "Rancheti" statue, sounds weird but it's true!

Off on the trail section... "Goodbye for 2-3 hours! Hydrate!"

Michelle had her phone to catch some great images on the trail.

Watch out for cactus, Michelle got slammed with some in her elbow!


After the trail section the race dynamics changed. It dropped 20+ degrees, it was windier, getting near dusk, and they were needing less fluids. Michelle even went to a cup of noodles before sunset to get something salty.

Nothing wrong with a power nap, right?!
As it neared sunset John and I were driving these beautiful random roads waiting to see two little runners pop into view every so often. I don't really know how to describe it--it's like we were road tripping, stopping to see the sights, just moving slowly, but with an added bonus of having a purpose to take care of a couple people. There was one time where I was alone waiting for them and I spent 10-15 minutes simply observing some quails and how they behaved together. Then there was the time I saw a herd of cows far in the field and I did what my mom used to do when we were kids and on road trips--the "Come Boss" cow call. It never worked for my mom, but she loved it because her grandma used to do it. Well I gave it a shot and holy hell it worked! It was the funniest moment ever and I was dying in laughter. We even had traffic stopping to see the cows up close.

Coffee chugging in action... See those cows out yonder?

My "Come boss" cow call going down....

.... and holy shit they're actually coming!

Hi bossy!

Curious like a cat.


There were other times when we'd hang with other crews at various stop points, and everyone we met was so cool. It's like the good vibes you get in triathlon, but more intimate. More random, like "what the fuck are we doing out here?!" But you just love it despite the randomness (and heat)...

How crews stay entertained at ultras ;) Dude on left listens to my podcast!

Also random, one of the timing check points required that the crew called in at the time the runners passed the designated point to log the time--how cool is that?!

After the sun set I think my respect for Michelle and Majo grew even deeper, if that's possible. I was sort of cracked out from working like a robot and copious amounts of caffeine (I started chugging cold-brew from the bottle at some point as you saw above). As John put it, we were twired--tired but wired. There's no way I wanted to sleep, nor could I if I tried (it wasn't even late), but I had that feeling like I'd been partying all night. Meanwhile our mountain goats were still running, and now running up a giant mountain. Even though she was a bit hesitant to do so, around sunset I had michelle change sports bras, put on a long-sleeve top, and a fresh hat aka my Betty Designs trucker (which she loved so much that I let her keep it!). She was a little too cracked out herself to make "smart" decisions like that and I knew she'd thank me later for staying just the right amount of warm. On the other hand, majo wore the same tank and shorts all day, just adding arm sleeves at night. Thos Canadians, eh.

Golden hour. 
They just don't stop, these two.

And we don't stop either! #goodtimes
The darker and later it got, the more often John and I stopped to be there for them. But not for fuel so much anymore; rather, simply for support (and also guidance at random street turns). We wanted them to know we were with them every step of the way, and give them something to look forward to--it helped them to be able to think, "Just get to the car to see them again...." The mental strategy of taking a race in bits and pieces works from my experience in long triathlons, and Michelle told me it's even more important in these ultras. She wanted us there often, and I was a bit afraid that we'd (I'd) get annoying to them or they'd get sick of us, especially my cheering! They were quiet at times, but I could tell they always appreciated the closeness. I tried not to ask too many questions and instead let them tell us what they wanted, but at times I couldn't help it--I just wanted to baby them with stuff. "Do you want this?" "Do you need that?" Or then the times where we'd blast music (we played all running-related songs!) and I'd be cheering my brains out in the night stillness sounding like a psycho--John and I questioned whether we were going to piss off nearby neighbors.

An example of me being me.
Then there were the times late into the night when John and I were totally alone going up Palomar. We'd stop and get out of the car and it was quiet as can be, just the wind blowing through trees. It was a full moon and we were overlooking gorgeous open space of undeveloped land. You couldn't quite make out exactly what it was, but you knew it was vast and amazing. We even saw a lightening storm way off in the distance, and a fox! I got so happy thinking, "Who does this on a sunday night?! We do." I am so grateful John and I COULD be doing that on a sunday night and not have to be at a desk at some blah job somewhere come Monday morning.

The night, the full moon, and our runners coming up (those lights are them)....

I had packed a cooler of food in advance for John and I so we had plenty to keep us going including barbecued chicken thighs, bacon, kerrygold cheese, go raw flax crackers, coconut chips, avocados, carrots, basil pesto, eggplant dip, cold-press green juice, cold-press coffee, a 32oz growler of kombucha, dark chocolate, paleo cereal, nuts, UCAN, sardines, and probably even more. It was all perfect convenience food and our style. We didn't eat all of it but it did keep me well-fueled starting saturday night though monday afternoon.

When michelle and majo were less than 10 miles to the finish it seemed like it all had gone by so fast and that it would be over in no time, but at that point there was still roughly another couple hours I'm guessing. It was a grueling unrelentless climb. Majo said he was breaking it into km's for he and Michelle--baby steps--while they shared a coke. They were still running/jogging, rarely walking. I was floored by that, especially michelle! Majo did great in the cold night whereas Michelle was stronger in the heat earlier. They were a perfect team in that sense. She kept him going in heat, he kept her going late in the cold.

The last mile looked to be downhill on the map, but sadly we fed them false hope and it wasn't totally a descent. They had to finish running up a long, steep driveway into the garage of this gorgeous house that served as the finish line! Yup, Chris Kostman, the man, rents out a giant "lodge" on Palomar that sleeps like 20 people, and the garage of the house is the finish. "Welcome home" -- right?!

After midnight at the finish line, aka in the garage, with the superstars of ultra!

They finished at 12:02 am Monday, 17 hours and 2 minutes after starting, earning third place overall, and Michelle the female course record. The first place team went 15:09, which was a new course record. Conditions were "ideal" for a record-setting day. We were all stoked beyond belief and it was actually hard to wind down to go to bed that night after what I just witnessed. In fact, Chris ended up giving John and I a bed in the house to make life easier on us, as our sleeping arrangements were up in the air. Now, that's friendly treatment! Meanwhile Chris stays up all night bringing in the runners, and never seems to get tired. What a guy! I woke up the next morning with a window view from my bed of runners still finishing.... imagine that.

He got his IPA at the Finish!

The "Kostman Lodge" -- finish line lower left corner.
My car liked this trip.
Majo and Michelle were obviously on Cloud 9 when I woke them up (I did let them sleep in!) and absolutely stoked beyond words despite being desperately tired still. I felt like our team was more like a family than random friends at that point--in just a couple days we had already been through so much living. We saw them in deep spots, and we helped keep them alive basically. Meanwhile, John and I just fell in love with the whole ultra thing--the adventure, the planning, the executing, the teamwork, the organization, curveballs, the ability to adapt and overcome on the fly, the mental aspect, the endurance, the sheer grit to keep going, all of it. Personally I watched these runners and I wanted to be one...

Now that all said, let me point out: It's easy for me to sit back and dream of doing an ultra after watching Michelle and Majo gracefully kick ass. I got spoiled seeing the "glamorous" side of ultra (maybe glamorous isn't the word--they certainly did suffer). But our guys mostly ran that damn course, which just isn't normal! Meanwhile, IMO, they were soooo low-maintenance to care for it seems. But I know it wasn't/isn't like that for everyone. I know these things are brutal, I know people suffer, I know people have to pull out, I know it hurts and there are probably even darker periods for some than what I saw with our team, and the longer they take I'm sure the harder it is in a way--just like Ironman. I know Michelle and Majo suffered and gave it a 100 million percent (including their training leading up!), but they were 10+ hours faster than some who did this... those extra 10 hours out there must just be insane for runners and crew. I saw it even at this race, those guys who took 26-27 hours, I watched them walk up that mountain. I'm not naive to this sport, and I don't expect to go out and magically be like Michelle. I've learned so much about ultras from Lucho and my podcast.... No matter what I'm confident that, personally, getting into some ultras will be good for my mind and body, and give me that new kind of adventure I'm craving....

Morning after. ALL smiles. We wrapped up with a brunch for all racers/teams at the Kostman lodge, hosted by the Badwater crew. How cool.

 How about a few more pics:

I was clearly happy about this lol!!!


Yes please.


  1. Awesome write up Tawnee! So nice to meet you out there on the course! It was a fun day! You got some great pics! Hey... do you mind if I link to your blog from my own? Thanks so much!!

  2. "...watched them walk up that mountain. I'm not naive to this sport, and I don't expect to go out and magically be like Michelle." Who WOULDN'T want to run like Michelle! She's absolutely amazing.

  3. What a fantastic recap. I am looking forward to listening to the podcast!