Sunday, July 4, 2010

Badwater 2009 Crew Report

Runner: Steve Hanes
Crew: Denny Colegrove, Niki Yoblonski, Ronnie Hanes,
Melinda Hanes, Michael Baksh, Michael Hanes
Author: Michael Hanes

Watching the videos months prerace at a team meeting was the unsettling equivalent to watching why putting up a bear bag is important while camping. Lots of gone wrong shots, everyone touting that “yes indeed Death Valley is the hottest place on earth” exclamations that shoes used to melt, it's almost hot enough to fry an egg, and oh yea “it's like the hottest I've ever been”. Me personally, I was glad I wasn't running and was worried enough about crewing.

July 2009. After years of preparation by dad and months of getting the crew ready we landed in Vegas, we being Steve, Ronnie, Denny and I. We Found the only rental van with spare keys, had a quick nights sleep then headed west past the sprawl of the city. We were relaxed, in good spirits and generally feeling cramped from the couple days of traveling. A couple stops at Walmarts then a non-eventful but scenic drive through the desert rounded out the second day. We drove up Devil's Lookout on the way in and could see Badwater basin below us with the valley stretching out to the north and Mount Whitney in the background. It was a pleasant 80 degrees and breezy on top, clear and good visibility we joked we should just buy the postcard because there was no way we were good enough to get a picture to do it justice ourselves.

We arrived at Death Valley proper late in the afternoon and Denny's Kestrel said the temp was 112. It felt hot but I was expecting to turn into jelly from the comments on the pre-race video. Water bottles had been in hand since leaving Vegas and I swigged nervously any time I thought about how hot it was and unconsciously when I saw someone else lift theirs. The other thing the videos said was that the heat was “sneaky”, and I was keeping an hard eye on the rascal. The next few days were spent greeting the rest of the crew, packing the van, eating, resting, eating and eating. By the time Sunday came around I couldn't take much more relaxing, I was ready to go!

Steve Denny Niki and I were in the van early driving to the start. I don't think a word was spoken and though it wasn't entirely hostile I couldn't help feeling a bit bad for Niki who must have been thinking “Crap, I signed on with this team. . .so much for fun”. It wasn't completely new to me but I could see how it could be taken that way. When we unloaded, the start line had the feel of new morticians cracking jokes at work. There was an air of solemnity hanging over everything but the nervous excitement and goodwill of finally starting kept things light. After the pictures, the formal start line up and a beautiful singing of the national anthem they were off. Dad looked great from the start, I was afraid he would start off too fast because the excitement and plenty of rest made it feel easy. As I snapped his picture a few hundred yards down the road he looked like he was in complete control and running his plan; steady composed and respecting the course to come.

Denny, Melinda and Ronnie had the first crewing shift so my team said good by and wished them a good time. Mike, Niki and I took off back to the rooms as crew 2. As soon as we got in the car the mood swung happily jovial. I think it was because we had finally started and we felt the excitement of actually doing something (even if it was to go back for breakfast) but Mike and I started joking in earnest, entertaining ourselves and Niki, while trying to preserve the integrity normally reserved for those older than 12. We usually succeeded but there were some low points. I was excited because up to this time we weren't sure what to expect and didn't really know how to interact with each other. As soon as we pulled away from the start it was like each of us dropped the gloves and anything was fair game, much more fun than feeling standoffish!

Steve caught us a little off guard when he came through Furnace Creek 3 hours later where our siesta was, he was on a great pace and looked comfortable, we didn't expect him for another half hour or so but we managed to cover that up. He had a quick ice cream and was off. I think Mike commented “Damn, your dad is haulin ass”. Crew 1 kept attending him by the mile and my crew retired again to finish the down time we were allotted. A few hours later, after the minimum time etiquette would allow for a crew change, I decided it was time to jump in and see what this was all about. Sun gear and ice in place we relieved Denny's crew to his comment “I knew they couldn't stay away”. The only sinking feeling I remember the whole trip is when I saw Denny Ronnie and Melinda pull away after the first crew change. It only lasted about 15 seconds but it was enough to remind me that we were in the middle of the desert with no communications and had better be thinking ahead to keep things on track.

Mike and Niki had never crewed before but after just a couple stops we roughed out the efficiency and settled into our tasks. Mike appointed himself First Science Officer, keeping the most incredible calorie and fluid notes on dad as well as all of our weights at intervals for the remainder of the trip. Niki and I handled ice bandannas, spray water and food prep. In short we had a tight ship. Dad continued to look steady and calm through the afternoon. Running splits must have been sub 11 minute miles, pit stops were 20-40 seconds and when we got to Stove Pipe Wells dad was way ahead of his 48 finish goal, looking great and and “feeling fine” I believe the quote was. He decided to stop for a while in the shade nursing two ice cream sandwiches, a water bottle and the garden sprayer while the crew refueled, used the facilities and cycled ice. Mike and I realized that a liter of icewater to the back of the neck two or three times in short order is highly rejuvenating, we couldn't quite convince Niki of the benefits though.

The climb out of Stove Pipe Wells is Townes Pass, a dead grade going from sea level up to 5,000 ft in a mileage I can't recall. Dad's 600 calorie snack got him a few miles in but it was back to crewing shortly. We had been debating when we should start pacing dad, officially we were able to since Furnace Creek before noon. Since he looked so strong and we didn't know how we would hold up we decided to wait until it was cooler. At the 50 mile mark, just over 12 hours from the start and partly into Townes Pass I jumped in to pace leaving Mike and Niki all crewing duties. Luckily it was a walking grade up hill, dad however is a stronger walker than I and even after he was 50 miles and 120 degrees into it I was working to keep up! That was great news. He was on such a good pace that the front runners didn't end up catching him until later that evening and into the night.

Niki and Mike handled the van admirably and I was free to enjoy the scenery and observe other runners/crews which I didn't have the chance to do just driving by them. Dad was still so relaxed and comfortable that he was ok with anything to eat. I felt bad to ask for Niki to make me something special because I had only been pacing a couple hours and would have been more fickle than the runner! Strapping on the headlamps we came to the top of the Pass and took a 20 minute break in the dark to eat a good meal of baked beans et. al. and let it soak in before the downhill into Panimint. We wished other runners well and enjoyed the time.

We made excellent pace on the decent which seemed to go on and on while my toes wedged into the tips of my shoes from the downhill pounding. Dad started to look like he was finally showing a few signs of being on his feet all day and covering 75 miles. We had to slow down once on the downhill and walk for a stretch so he could eat a bagel with turkey. He was still in good spirits but had started plopping into the chair on sit down breaks and wasn't as quick to jump out. A few miles across the valley floor Crew 1 came back from their siesta to take over duties and my team was free to take the rest of the night off!

The drive from Panimint to Lone Pine that night was beautiful. The sky was clear and filled, possibly a half moon out, watching the runners' crew vans snake across the valley and up the next mountain range miles in the distance was inspiring. Mike pulled the car over at the top of Father Crowley's grade and we all got out and watched, talked, thought and shared a touching few minutes after the day's work. We passed the front runners at the top of the hill and I dozed on and off for the rest of the ride, I was fried. When we got to the hotel I asked for the first shower, laid down on the bed and didn't hear anything more until getting up the next morning.

When I rolled over I was a bit surprised Mike wasn't there. The plan, at least when I crashed was for Mike to take his shower then for he and I to share a bed so Niki could have one to herself. Apparently as I was falling asleep I was on my side and arranged a pillow under one of my shoulders so I could lean on it and relax the muscles without letting them sag. This had the appearance of me seductively cuddling said pillow and Mike was a bit nervous by the implications and decided to seek space elsewhere.

We all felt great for breakfast and went to a diner, I don't recall the conversations but we were all in a good mood. Mike managed to spill his water on the table then rinse it off with his coffee a few seconds later. I think there was a comment to the effect that he was much better with water bottles on less sleep and was henceforth cut off. Niki told us about Mt. Whitney and some of her adventures. Fueled up we headed out to find dad!

We passed some of the front runners heading out of town and were about half way down Owens Lake bed and just beginning to joke about where we would see him when I spotted the signature turned out right foot and slightly pitched torso a few hundred yards up the road that meant he had finally started working hard. Mike and Niki were appropriately incredulous until Mike recognized Melinda's gait as pacer and we all got a face recognition on Steve as we drove up. WOW he had moved during the night! Maybe 12 minute moving miles since we left him, we were stunned.

Thus came the day of Owens dry lake: flat, dead and hot at 5,000 feet. The thermometer said it was in the hundreds and single digits but I felt more lethargic than in Stove Pipe at 120. Niki did an amazing job pacing all day and my half hearted attempts to relieve her were thankfully turned down. Dad's walking pace was 13 minute miles but he was working hard to do it. Food got out of whack for a bit and never really recovered for the rest of the day. Through it all he kept on moving but we could see it was tough. Niki was the painted opposite; fresh and chipper she looked like there was nothing to it, maybe that's the lift a good pacer brings.

We roused Crew two on the radio outside the hotel as we came into town. Denny somehow knows exactly when and where Steve's going to be and was waiting for the call. Mom and Denny made a BigMac, fries and a chocolate shake run while dad moved through town and took a well deserved seat in the shade just as the food came up. Passing on the fries he managed the burger and most of the shake before taking a nap in the car for a half hour before starting the 12 mile ascent up Mt Whitney. Unfortunately only one vehicle could go up Mt Whitney and the van had only room for 4. Denny and Mom graciously let the rest of us crew even though they wanted to be a part of the climb as much as we did. Thank you both, next time you won't have to sit out (did I just say next time??)

The food and rest must have done Steve some good but I couldn't see it just looking at him. Hopefully he felt better. The sun was just going down behind the mountains as we started out, being on the eastern foot it was the first place in the valley to get shaded though the air was still hot. The mood changed again here; where the previous days were full of joking and fun comments it seemed like this was a somber march to the summit. Niki commented about the change and I said I wasn't quite sure but the closest I could come up with was that it felt like vespers. We had had so much fun during the race and in the days leading up to it that this last climb was it, after that it was all done; there was no more runner, no more crewing, a signaled start to heading back to our jobs and day to day responsibilities where this thing called BadWater doesn't exist. I hoped that flew but I also couldn't help thinking that Dad, finally showing exhaustion was carrying the mood as well. How was it possible for us to joke and carry on when just a few feet away he was working arguably harder than any of the rest of us had worked in our entire lives and us not recognize and respect it. The whole rest of the race he had looked fantastic, made it look easy in fact, Owens dry lake was tough but he kept moving, here he was simply spent.

After a bit of the climb every mile and a half he would need to pull over and eat something. He could probably only process the simple sugars from what he took in so in another mile or so he would need to sit down and eat again. He was quite irritable at this point and while I'm sure it wasn't because of us it had the effect of putting us on tip toes which seemed to make him all the more irritable.

Curiously a sherrif's car sped past us before we reached the checkpoint 2/3 up the hill, then shortly later another one raced past. . . what in the devil was up. Not stopping at the checkpoint dad marched through picking up Niki as a pacer and dropping off Melinda. Getting up to the first switchbacks we started seeing cars coming down from the top talking about a fire and heading to the bottom. Determining only Hell or Chris Kostman, the race director, had the authority to call off the 135 we kept going until we encountered one or the other. Just after a switchback to the left in the rock face there was a pull off where we could look out over Owens dry lake and see the snake of car lights imperceptibly moving to keep pace with the runners still strung out along the valley. Dad was a few yards past this when an official coming from the finish line told us we needed to stake out and were likely finished because a fire had closed the upper campgrounds. Again, we hadn't heard this from Hell or Chris so dad pulled up a chair, noted the time and we all enjoyed the view and settled in for a wait perhaps farther into the night. After about 60 seconds Chris came driving down saying that yes indeed the upper finish was closed due to evacuation and the checkpoint we passed a mile back was the end of the line. Blink, blink, everyone pile in and drive down to the station. Mill about while the news is confirmed and reconfirmed, accept it's all over, get into vehicles again and head back to the hotel.

It happened so fast and with such finality that it didn't really sink in as being finished. At the hotel dad headed in to get a shower while we unloaded coolers into the rooms. The sudden transition without a defining apex had us all a bit on our heels. There was an odd rift in conversations as we unloaded the coolers of the last few days, being a very real indication that we were done. For me it didn't really change until after a failed attempt at McDonalds that night and we went back and made a meal off the copious remains of crewing food. Lunchmeats, fruits, bagels trail mix and a couple Fat Tires that we kept cool for the ride all came out and we sat around the room joking and listening to other sides of the story. Dad felt great and was in high spirits eating a sandwich and listening to our follies of crewing. He didn't feel like anything was missing at all, he had done his best. It wasn't about jumping across the ribbon at the end, it was about all the steps leading there and he had done that complete. The beer tasted good, the second sandwich hit the spot and things were more as I pictured them.

The next morning news came that they had reopened the top with a host of possible finishing scenarios to accommodate anyone who had been displaced. Dad was happy with his effort the previous night and decided to leave it at that. We were excited to go back up for a photo op at the top because in the confusion last night here wasn't time. Mike and Melinda however, had a long trip home so they took off while the rest of us made the beautiful drive up Portal Road in the day cheering runners still on the climb. At the top, the altitude and cool shade of the pines was a welcome relief to the previous weeks heat; pictures, the shiniest buckle I've ever seen and congratulations all around were shared. We topped it all off was a massively good burger and fries for lunch while we unwound and enjoyed the view.

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