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Running to Extremes
By Lisa Tamati
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Lisa Tamati and Nicola McCloy
All rights reserved.
Return to Death Valley
I think better when I'm running. My soul is at its quietest when I'm in movement.
Badwater Ultramarathon, 13–14/7/2009
The Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley is one of those things it's hard to do just once. It's such a cool event that I couldn't wait to go back the following year to improve my time. It's almost like the unofficial world champs, it's such a big event. I ran it for the first time in 2008 and in 2009 I really wanted to go back again — I hadn't had enough.
Described as 'the world's toughest foot race', Badwater is a 217-kilometre non-stop race which starts 86 metres below sea level in California's Death Valley. From there, it climbs up 2548 metres to the finish line on Mount Whitney. Taking place each year in mid-July, the weather conditions are extreme and the temperature reaches over 49° Celsius even in the shade.
Entry into the race has always been by invitation only but I knew that having run it once, I'd still have to reapply and hope like hell I'd be invited back. Even now, after doing the race twice, I'd still like to go back again but there are so many other events I'd like to do as well that I have to pick and choose — it's such an expensive undertaking to go from New Zealand to Death Valley with all the crew.
After running the race the previous year, I knew I had to pull together a fantastic crew to come with me. After a few hiccups, the team finally came together. I wanted to have my ex-husband (and fellow ultrarunner) Gerhard Lusskandl crew for me again but he had already decided that he wanted to run the race, too, this time. With us both being there, it made sense to share crew accommodation and logistics, which was great. It made things a bit cheaper for both of us.
I managed to convince Murray Dick from Taranaki Engineering to sponsor me, and once he was on board he proved to be a brilliant supporter. He's a real adventurer and a real Taranaki stalwart. He loves a huge challenge. In his fifties, Murray decided that he wanted to come with me and run 10 kilometres alongside me at some point during the race.
Another guy who had been a huge supporter of my previous Death Valley mission was Jaron Mumby. He had organised my sponsorship and a lot of the marketing of the project for me. He's a national champion surf lifesaver and a real athlete, so he's really fit. He was keen for the adventure. He was a bit worried about crewing as he hadn't run long distances before, so I took him for a big run a few weeks before we left for Death Valley. We started from New Plymouth planning to do 70 kilometres, which is a bloody long way if you've specialised in sprinting and never run a marathon.
Jaron started off with me and I was running at my usual slow pace, plodding along. I could tell he really wanted to go a bit faster. He kept running ahead and dropping back. I just bided my time and when we got to about the 21-kilometre mark he was still going really strong. When we got to Okato, which is about 34 kilometres from New Plymouth, he started to fall behind and I was having to stop to wait for him. He didn't believe me when I told him I hadn't changed pace since the start. He reckoned I had sped up, but the truth was he hadn't managed to pace himself properly.
Jaron jumped in the crew car and I carried on around the coast. At about 55 kilometres, he decided to hop out and run the last few kilometres with me. Crewing is about getting in and out of the car and running with me, so I thought it would be good experience for him. He'd been in the car for a while and he found it really tough to get running again. I think it gave him a new understanding of what it is that I do.
With Jaron and Murray on board, I knew I needed some female energy and also a medic. The perfect combination of the two came along in the form of Megan Stewart. Megan is a paramedic and was introduced to me by a mutual friend of ours, Neil Wagstaff, who had crewed for me at Death Valley the year before.
As she tells the story, Megan was absolutely terrified when she first rang me because she wasn't a runner and wasn't sure she'd be able to help me out. I told her to come out for a run with me and see how we got on. She agreed but I knew she was a bit worried about what she was letting herself in for.
Our first run together was 35 kilometres up to the base of Mount Taranaki and back to New Plymouth. Megan was in a mild state of panic, so I told her I was really slow and I'd just cruise. Right from the start, we just got on so well. On that first run up the mountain there was a goat on the side of the road in the national park. Given it's a national park, the goat wasn't meant to be there. There was a ranger up the road so Megan told him about the goat. He obviously went and dealt with it because when we were running back down, the goat was in pieces. I was devastated. But goat or not, I knew this chick was the kind of person I wanted on my team.
That was the longest run that Megan had done by miles and she was really surprised she could do it. She tells me now that I distracted her by talking all the way and she didn't realise just how far she'd run.
Chris Cruikshank jumped onto the crew at the last minute. He'd been on the crew the previous year so he went from being a rookie to being the old hand on the team. He's always the big clown of the party and great fun — he keeps everyone laughing and was willing to do whatever was needed for the team.
Another key member of the crew was my friend Howard Dell. He's an amazing guy. Originally from Canada, he'd been a sponsor of mine in New Zealand but had got really sick and moved back to the United States. He had an incredible record as an athlete: he represented Canada in the bobsleigh at the 1988 Olympics, he played professional football in both Canada and the States, and he coached a heap of really successful track athletes.
The final member of the crew was Casey Potatau. I met first met Casey through champion boxer Shane Cameron, just as she was getting into running. At that stage she was keen to see how an ultra worked.
One of the things I learned from my previous effort at Badwater was that I needed more time to acclimatise to the temperatures in the desert than I'd thought, and also a little more time to get over jet lag. This time Megan and I headed over to the States two weeks before the race and met up with Gerhard, who'd flown in from Austria.
In the lead-up to the race, we stayed in a small town called Page in Arizona. We also took the chance to visit the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. But mostly our time was spent training. The combination of the heat and altitude were a perfect testing ground for both me and Gerhard. The Arizona desert is absolutely beautiful but it was pretty hard going. Sometimes the wind would blow so hard, the sand felt like needles going into my skin — not the most comfortable of feelings.
The good thing about spending time in Arizona acclimatising was that when I went to meet the rest of my crew, I was feeling really good about racing in Death Valley. The fear I'd felt the previous year wasn't nearly as strong.
Getting back to Las Vegas from Arizona, Gerhard and I met up with the rest of our crews who had flown in from Austria and New Zealand respectively. There was only one man missing. Where was my old mate Howard Dell?
I was a bit worried that he hadn't turned up to meet us when he said he was going to. Of course, I didn't know what had happened to him until he emailed me a photo of himself lying in a hospital bed hooked up to all these machines. In his hand was a sign saying, 'Lisa, I'll be there somehow.'
I couldn't believe it. He was in Los Angeles and two days before he was due to travel he had a lung embolism and was admitted to hospital. At the time he was on the waiting list for a liver transplant and he was rushed into intensive care for treatment. But true to his word, he signed himself out of ICU at 10 p.m. that night and drove out to Death Valley because he didn't want to let me down.
The next morning we were having our briefing and he still hadn't turned up. I was really worried. It turned out that he'd arrived in at about 2 a.m. and gone to one of the crew rooms.
Unfortunately, the room he went to belonged to some of Gerhard's crew. They all freaked out to see this big black dude standing in their room in the middle of the night. They didn't know he was coming and that he was on my crew. They were scared out of their wits so they told him to get out.
The poor guy — he was deathly ill and ended up sleeping in his car in the heat of Death Valley. He finally found us after the briefing. We had to change all the crew names because we'd told the organisers Howard wasn't going to make it. I should have had more faith in him!
I felt a bit more comfortable about the race the second time round but you never feel really confident in an event like that. Knowing I was no longer a rookie was a good feeling, but Badwater is never something you can feel confident of finishing because there are so many things that can happen.
As it turned out, my second time at Death Valley was actually a harder race than the first. The pressure was on to improve my time so I went out with a different mindset. Instead of focusing on just finishing the race, I was thinking about my time and that's never good.
Instead of running by myself and setting my own pace, I decided to run with Gerhard. Even though I know he's faster than me, I planned to stay with him for the first 30 kilometres. Our strategy was for him to try to pull me along a little bit so I could improve on my time before he took off and ran his own race. I did that but the cost was huge. I ran 30 kilometres in 3 hours in heat that was mind-boggling — around the 55° Celsius mark. When we got to the first checkpoint at Furnace Creek Ranch, Gerhard motored off into the distance and I held back a wee bit. I really paid for that burst of speed dearly later on. Looking back, running at 10–11 kilometres an hour in the hottest part of Death Valley was a bit stupid.
After Gerhard left me, Murray Dick decided it was time for him to live his dream of running 10 kilometres with me in the desert. The poor guy really didn't know the sort of effect the heat would have. He jumped out of the crew car all keen to run. He started off OK but went downhill fast. He lasted 5 minutes before collapsing in a heap because of the heat and suffered all day from mild heat stroke.
When I arrived at Stovepipe Wells, the 70-kilometre mark, I was completely toasted. Even though I knew that I'd made it through the hottest part of the day and the hottest part of the valley, I also knew that out of Stovepipe Wells it's a 30-kilometre slog uphill that takes you 5000 feet up Townes Pass, the first of the two big passes in the race. And even though it's cooler than down in the valley, it's still over 40° up there at night.
On my way up Townes Pass, I started to have real trouble with my digestive system. I had acid build-up in my stomach from the gels that I'd been talked into using. They'd been fine in training but I'd had experience before that gels don't really work for me. I let myself be convinced that these ones were different and they'd be OK but I should have trusted my instinct and not taken them.
I started to vomit and pass out. My blood pressure was down around my ankles. I was 2 hours ahead of my previous year's schedule at that stage but I was not in good shape. I was so focused on beating my time that I almost blew the race. All night, I just kept fighting and fighting and I wouldn't take a break.
Looking back, I would have been better to take an hour off to rest and recover before getting back out there. Instead, I fought like a madwoman. I was passing out on the road and then getting up and wobbling along, barely even walking properly, let alone running.
I knew I still had so far to go and I didn't know how the hell I was going to do it. All I knew was that I had to keep going. Sometimes determination can work against you. In that sort of situation, it's very hard to take a step back and go, 'Hang on, I'm probably going to lose an hour here but I can probably pick up my pace if I have a rest.' It's not always easy to make the right decisions on the spur of the moment or under that much pressure.
Getting up Townes Pass was an absolute mission. I don't really remember much about it — just that I kept passing out and falling over. I ran along holding onto Megan's arm and focused entirely on putting one foot in front of the other.
According to Megan, I kept saying to her, 'Tell me a story, tell me a story.' And off she went, 'Once upon a time, there was a runner called Lisa ...' Apparently she went through every story she could think of because I kept asking for more. I don't know if those stories were any good but they must have been interesting enough because I stayed on my feet and kept going. Well, most of the time.
Apparently, at one point, I was simultaneously crying and vomiting. Megan must have been wondering what the hell she'd got herself into out there in the desert with me being a big old mess. I was telling her I felt like shit and didn't know if I could go on. She was being all encouraging but then I did the one thing all crew members dread. I lay down in the middle of the road and absolutely refused to move.
I don't remember it at all, but Megan tells me she was cajoling me and nicely saying to me, 'Come on, Lisa, get up.' And I just yelled 'NO!' like a naughty kid. In that kind of situation it's really difficult for a crew member to know what to do. They're walking a really fine line — they don't want to give me a hard time but sometimes they need to be firm enough to get me restarted. It's tricky for them to know when to push and when to hold back. But Megan knew. Boy, did she know. She stopped, bent over me and yelled, 'FOR FUCK'S SAKE, GET UP OFF THE ROAD!'
Apparently, I started crying and said, 'Don't talk to me like that ...' But then Megan gently picked me up off the road and we carried on up the pass.
From here, Megan takes up the story.
About 10 minutes later and she was even lower but she was still moving. It was dark so we were making our way by torchlight. I was looking around, keeping an eye on where we were going so she didn't stumble and fall over. Then I spotted this thing on the road just up ahead. It was like three cowpats stacked one on top of the other. They were huge. I thought I was seeing things. It was a very unlikely place to see cow shit.
Just as we got to it, I thought, 'Nope, those aren't cowpats.' So I grabbed Lisa around the waist, picked her up and made her jump over this thing. Then I turned around and looked back to see what it was. Only then did I realise that it was a Mojave green rattlesnake, which has the most toxic venom of all the rattlesnakes. I couldn't believe it. When I told people later that we'd run over a rattlesnake, they'd be like, 'Well, there's plenty of them squashed on the roads.' And I'd have to explain that we had actually run right over the top of a live rattlesnake.
I didn't know whether to tell Lisa or not. It could have freaked her out in the extreme or she might have gone 'Wow! How cool is that?', I wasn't sure. I decided to tell her. I said, 'Lis, Lis, we just ran over a snake!' She said, 'Did they?', thinking that I meant the guys in the support vehicle. 'No, we did, we did!'
All of this happened and I just kept on running. I had no idea what was going on. One minute I was running half asleep with Megan holding my arm. Then all of a sudden she picked me up and threw me over this thing in the road. I just carried on running, completely unmoved by all the drama.
Before long, it became clear to the crew that they had to do something about the fact that I had been unable to hold down any water or nutrition for a quite a while. I'm pretty sure me being in bad shape took Megan's mind off worrying about Howard. She was absolutely terrified that something was going to happen to him along the way, too. But Howard stuck by me the whole way and in the end he saved the race for me.
In the middle of the night I couldn't get any salts into me and my electrolytes were all out of kilter. Howard is such an experienced athlete that he could see what was happening. Because of his liver problems he'd been given a solution to help stabilise his own electrolytes. Howard got his solution of alkaline water and electrolytes and made me keep swishing it around inside my mouth. He wasn't trying to make me drink it because he knew I'd vomit it back up if I did. He just told me to put it in my mouth. It ended up that by doing this enough of the salts were absorbed by the membranes in my mouth to pull me back from the edge.
Excerpted from Running to Extremes by Lisa Tamati. Copyright © 2012 Lisa Tamati and Nicola McCloy. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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