Badwater Crewing for Gina Fioroni
18-20 July, 2016
Having had a go at Badwater in 2003, I knew a bit about the gut-wrenching mess required to shove a body through all the levels of Dante's inferno and possibly Purgatory. It should be understood I am not partial to road races nor do I feel a need to prove my worth by running in extremely hot weather for obscene distances. I do love to run and don't mind running for very long times, but I would prefer something less nasty than what Badwater is known for. With all that in mind, I thought a long time before I agreed to crew Gina Fioroni of Colorado. I like Gina, but did I like her that much? This is a huge commitment.
She already had her boyfriend John of San Antonio and old friend Erin of New Hampshire for crew. She asked me and my wife (Joyce) to fill in the final slots, and after we agreed, we discovered a major change in the rules that I thought negated any advantage to having 4 crew members. Years past, most runners had 2 crews in 2 cars, to shift in and out with each other. This worked very well, allowing a fresh well rested crew at intervals, as well as an opportunity to refresh the stock of supplies (gas, water, ice, hot meals, and whatnot). Now, the 2nd car was disallowed, meaning, the crew was much like the runner, suffering all the thrills of sleep deprivation, heat, wind, and constant movement for the entirety of the time it took the runner to finish. We had incorrectly assumed we would work as a team and shift in and out, with just the 2 of us in a car. With this new understanding, Joyce & I decided she would not go. It would be tough enough with 3 personalities to grate on each other inside a convection oven that limped along at 1 and 2 mile increments for 40 mind-numbing hours.
Gina wanted me to be the crew chief, whatever that meant. So, for the very first time, I sat down to read all the endless emails, website rules, routes, and restrictions. It was all more confusing than it needed to be. Some of it was very important and most of it was just all that CYA (cover-your-ass) crap for the idiots. I eventually had to reset and start over, so as to copy down all the rules, then delete what was unnecessary, and rewrite in a much less verbose manner what was relevant. Then I went to the next section and started over, and finally, through all the emails and found most all of it redundant. When I was done, I had a half page of what was really necessary, and each item in less than 40 characters long, so as to fit on a single line. All of this became more comical when we arrived at the required runner & crew chief briefing, where I was handed a single sheet of paper that looked pretty damned similar to what I had created over a full weeks worth of whittling on all the endlessly redundant data sent out as required reeding. So, for all you who have to repeat this process when you too have to wade through this, I feel your pain.
John and I drove from central Texas, leaving early Friday, and for personal reasons, John chose the more southerly route along I-10. We watched the temperature creep up as we rolled west: El Paso - 106, Tucson - 109, Phoenix - 112. We pulled up in Phoenix for dinner and sleep, and rolled out after breakfast for the final 4 hours to Las Vegas. We were carrying a wide range of items John had bought or borrowed, most specifically, two 50 gallon YETI coolers... and being very costly, hauled them both into our room with the luggage.
Vegas is always a shock to me. The foul stick of cigarettes is so offensive, it even overrides the endlessly irritating noise pollution. John and I met Gina and Erin at the bar of the Palms casino, shared a dinner, then retired to our room. John and Gina moved most of the race gear to the van Gina had rented specifically for the race. In the morning, they all went shopping for Gina's race nutrition, while I stayed behind and read. Before noon, we rolled west into California and Furnace Creek. Should you ever find yourself here, you will understand the name immediately. The resort temperature gauge featured proudly out friend read 120, but it was the wind that got your attention: it burned. It was not the heat, but the wind that drug so many bits of sand across my sandaled feet. We ran from car to building and backed into the wind at times as well. We checked in for 2 days, but with a 9:30pm start on Monday, we really only needed half of the 2nd day. Gina felt it necessary to rent the 2nd day just so we could stay out of the worst of the weather during day two.
Before we picked up our room key, we stopped to check Gina into the race. Even the check in was such that everyone was treated to the heat and the wind: standing outside in a line, waiting to get inside to pick up the required bits and pieces used for identification as much as anything else. Soon after that, Gina and I were required to report to the briefing. There was nothing new to this. It was all the same info we were already required to read. This is where I picked up the handy single sheet of essential rules that was identical to what I had created on my own. Photos after that, and then done for now.
John took charge of tricking out the race van as he thought it should be used for the race. I watched for a moment and then avoided, as he did not seem to care for any discussion on the topic. I stayed in the air-conditioned room intermittently reading and sleeping. The next day brought more of the same for me, knowing full well I would be soon missing a few nights of sleep. The last thing I did was to buy myself a rather expensive insulated flask to keep my water and ice cold for the duration of the race. The coolers were loaded by John with ice blocks and ice cubes in one and a mixture of cold drinks and foods in the other, also under ice. I wasn't exactly sure what all was bought but I would certainly know before we were done. The general idea was that everything would be easy to see & access at a moments notice. I had brought along a mesh net built for pickup truck beds to throw a good bit of stuff on the roof. Some things, we needed to take with but not necessarily for use for servicing the runner or crew during the race.
Badwater starts with 3 separate waves, beginning 90 minutes apart at 8pm, 9:30pm, and 11pm. A dark start made for a different twist than the sunrise start I had done, but the hard driving wind was thankfully at their backs. Check in, weight taken, SPOT tracker handed out, and pictures taken all before the on-time start to get them going. They held the vans for 10 minutes after the runners, then released us to begin our duties. We pulled off road onto the shoulder for the 1st of many times after 3 miles for the 1st servicing. I hooked an flashing ankle bracelet on Gina before she started just so we could identify her in the dark. It gave us a few moments to get across the road for the ice cold water bottle handoff. The visual was a bit surreal with a line of flashing lots on the cars to the right and the smaller blinking lights on the fronts and backs of all the runners on the left. Every runner was required to wear the blinking lights front and back, but some had other embellishing lights to add to the carnival atmosphere. The cars also had many requirements, which were also embellished. Gina had placed two different colored spinning lights with magnets on the back of the car so she could also find us in the lineup of identical flashing cars in the dark. There were more than a few requirements for the van as well. While driving, headlights must be on & flashers off. While parked, headlights must be off & flashers on. We were not allowed to exit the vehicle from the left side into traffic. Nor were we allowed to be on the left side of the van. Only 2 crew were allowed to cross the road to service their runner, including the pacer, who could not begin until 42 miles in. There were quite a few other requirements, but most are not worth mentioning here, however relevant they may be for race management.
3:14 / 0:44am / 18mi / Furnace Creek
Right from the start, the wind drove Gina much faster than we expected, as I suspect it did most of the others. Still, she managed herself well by avoiding the mad early race suck to go out fast. As fast as she did go, she was well behind most of her peers for the 18 miles from the Badwater Basin start to Furnace Creek. We stopped her at the first time check at Furnace Creek for her 1st sit-down and rest. While we waited on her to arrive, we ran into the store and bought more ice to top off the ice chests and bought a few more jugs of water.
Next time check was 42.2 miles at Stovepipe Wells. Gina did very well through here, staying consistant throughout. She was always just after 'green-shoes' and 'slushy-pack'. In the dark, we could not identify anyone, but for the color and height of their lights. or the tutu they were wearing. John was her main support through here, providing calories, fresh cold bottles of water, or an ice cold mist spray on her neck and shoulders. Erin was our chaffer. I wasn't sure if this was by design or default and never bothered to ask, but it worked out pretty good having her own this job. It was much more complicated than you would think. Where you could park, where you could not, when the lights were on, the flashers, paying attention to the odometer endlessly and forever, tracking all of it, and staying awake for 40 hours. Erin is very New England pale, so keeping herself from getting burned would be a huge personal chore too. It was also pretty danged easy to burn your legs on the van seats by leaving them uncovered for just a few minutes. Pop out, hand out some water, pop back in, and zing... you just burned the back side of your legs. Being the crew chief, I simply needed to make sure it all worked smoothly, so I did whatever I could to fill in where needed, but mostly I needed to keep both Gina and the crew on task. Erin was on it. Gina did really well, but there more than a few times I had to remind John we were all here for Gina and could care less about him. He knows his shit, but still, he and Gina had a few conflicts, and I didn't care for anything that took Gina out of her comfort zone. She already had enough shut to deal with and basically, it was her race. We were just the frickin crew!
John had been coaching Gina for some time, and she was certainly fit. She had done everything she could to get herself ready for this race, and we all expected her to do well. Of course, we also knew some shit would happen, and it only remained to see how we all dealt with it. I wanted to make sure Gina didn't push herself too hard early on, and also wanted to make sure John didn't drive her too hard early as well. I wasn't sure how this would go, but it all worked out pretty well.
8:16 / 5:46am / 42mi / Stovepipe Wells
The next time break would be in 30 miles, or 73 miles onto the race, all of it under the hot desert sun. Coming out of the dark at Stovepipe Wells, the sunrise revealed one whole hell of lot of other runners and crews all around us. We stopped to use the bathroom and to give Gina another short rest. Death Valley doesn't warm up slowly. It goes from dark to hot real damned fast. John could now pace, so he was now on the road with her. For the first time, Gina was now dealing with the iBadwater inferno plus 42 miles of running. She was now getting slapped around and Iwondered how she would deal with it.
For a few miles, the road rolled a bit, before It started the big climb up to Towns Pass. Up til now, we had been stopping religiously every 2 miles. With the strain starting to show on Gina's face, I decided to drop our stop rate down to once every mile. She still had a long way to go and I did not want her to blow out on this early climb. John never argued the point with me, but I knew he and Gina had some big goals, and these additional breaks did nor factor into those plans well. Still I don't think it took him long to see the sense of it. Gina was now struggling, and this climb would take awhile. We saw more than a few runners speed by and gone, but who knows what damage this may have done. It all made no difference to Gina or me as our intention was merely to survive this section as best we could, and save the best for later. There would be plenty more to do after this. This was also a time where all 3 waves were merged, so it was hard to tell who was 90 minutes ahead or 90 behind. John popped in and out with Gina for a mile or two at a time, and eventually, we did top out. We stopped one last time before the long and well earned descent.
One thing was understood by all of us before the start, and that was that Gina loved downhills, and planned to use them well. Knowing this, we told her we would not be stopping any less than 2 miles, and would be looking for pull-outs between 2 and 3 miles, figuring if anything to keep her from going too far too fast. Another grand discovery was that it was actually much cooler on the other side. Looking forward to the downhill, Gina took off quickly, and we barely did get in front of her for the next refill. But, from then on, we did fine, and she did too. We watched one huge guy blow past us at high speed with a tiny pacer in tow, and wondered how he could go that fast. We saw him near the bottom, bent over talking to his shoes, so maybe it was a bit too fast for him as well. Again, I cant possibly know what all he was dealing with, but I do belive it was the fastest running I saw the entire race. With 6 miles remaining from the where the mountain rolls out level to Panamint Springs, the run morfs from a thing of beauty to thing of pain. Most everybody I saw walked these 6 miles. The center section is a large space of dead brown dirt and dust. 3 miles to it and 3 miles across. Again, I had Erin stopping every single mile. Gina was walking, but walking fast.
17:04 / 2:34pm / 73mi / Panamint Springs
Waiting in the middle of the mile wide brown patch of desolation, I watched Dale Cougot run across the area. I am sure he wasn't the only one to run this section, but he was the only one I saw running. Everyone else was with pacer and every set of two walked with some effort, head down, runner leading the pacer, as per one of the bazillion rule requirements. One more time after the desolate patch, and then we drove ahead to the Panamint Springs gas station and grocery. We topped off the gas tank, bought 6 more 10 lb bags of ice, and John took the time to reorganize the coolers, as well as reserve a cot for Gina at the motel. All done before Gina walked the last 2 miles to us. John took Gina direct to the room with the cot, while Erin and I took the opportunity to walka cross the street for a free shower. There was no line, so we were in & out quickly. It didn't seem to make much of a difference though, as we walked out of the shower building, the extreme heat put our bodies back in the same state as they were when we went in. It felt great while under the water, but once out, there really wasn't much of a difference. Gina was still missing when we checked the van, so we went into the saloon and bought a quick hamburger dinner with a soda on ice. As soon as we finished, we checked again and Gina was ready to go. But, John was not. He missed out on both the shower and the dinner, and none to happy about it. He didn't say a word about it, but was quite angry with Gina. She wanted him to pace her up the big climb to Father Crowley Point, and I dont think he was planning the same. He stormeed out onto the road yelling pretty loud, I am not sure exactly what.
So, Gina was now on the big Father Crowley climb, and it was a good long steady climb that twisted about with plenty of blind curves and dangerous places to get hit by a car, if you weren't paying attention. There were limited places for us to pull off and service Gina, so we were no longer on the 2 mile increment, bur more on whatever was legal per race rules and available. Each location was marked with race signes, so we had to drive by all the pull offs that were not marked. The non-legal pull offs did make sense to avoid, as they were on blind turns, dips, and other hard-to-see places. We drove up about 3 miles and waited at the first possible pull-off.
We had been bouncing along, hopping back and forth with quite a few other crews for 70+ miles, but never really connected with any other teams besides the Texans for some damned reason. We certainly were talking to everybody near us, but maybe it was only the Texan's and one crew from New Orleans who lined-up with our twisted sense of humor I suppose. The crews for Dale Cougot, Carl Hineline, and Frank Sizemore were all here with us now. Gina had caught and merged with the Texans. For Gina, this climb was brutal, but for the crews who had a ride to the top, it was not so bad. The views were lovely and picturesque. We all parked at an angle so we could sit in the shade of our own vans and wait. The runners were all taking longer to cover the distance and the breaks were longer, so we had more time to relax and visit with each other. The pull offs did not match perfectly with what was posted, or maybe we just didn't understand it exactly, but the end result was we couldn't tell our runners how far to the next point. They simply had to go til they saw us next. Easy enough for the crews, but tough on the runners.
Eventually, we all ended up at Father Crowley Point (mile 80.2) and what a glorious spot to hangout and wait. Our first less-than-hot breeze since we started, a great view of Towns Pass, 20 miles behind us, and a bathroom. Father Crowley is a huge landmark for all of us: from here til the final climb is the easiest part of the course. Question is: can Gina still run? Also, it would ge getting dark soon, and the 2nd night is always tough. Even if she still has her legs under her, can she stay awake and use them?
One thing of importance to note here is that every person in the crew is committed to the run just as much as the runner. We finish when the runner does, we're in the same heat, the same sleepless state, the same level of mindlessness that occurs after too many hours awake. Granted, we don't have to run and suffered bo blisters, but we want this thing to end as soon as possible, even as Gina does. Because of the concern running the air-conditioner for 2 days strait and burning up the engine, we go without the air conditioner more than we do with it. We never have it on when we stop and we're stopped a hell of lot more than we're driving.
Gina left Father Crowley without a pacer. John took a break while she rolled alone into the late evening. She was running well again now that the going was easier and the temperature more tolerable. The shadows were laying over the mountains now, such that we were all in the shade of a wonderful evening. Joshua trees dotted the horizon and the crew vans began to spread out. We were still restricted by the pull off parking areas, but this area was easier to deal with than what we had just done.
We stopped at the park boundary next to the Death Valley sign and took some pictures, and Gina asked to have her feet checked for blisters. John had some trouble finding his kit, so we told her to run the next 2 miles while John looked for it. I made a bad call here. We should have stayed put and dealt with it immediately. As it was, we only drove a half mile ahead, but Gina walked the half mile very slowly. By the time she got to us, the sun was completely down and we were in the pitch dark.
John had Gina sit in the van while he sat outside on a bucket and worked on her feet. The back-n-forth discussion between John & Gina took on a distorted shade of doctor/patient I was not comfortable with. While John poked holes in here blisters and filled them with benzoin from a syringe, Gina cussed, cried, and screamed. With a strong desire to hear as little of this as possible, I stood well behind the van and observed the runners who ran by in the dark, listening to her screams. The fact is, I was getting a bit punchy from lack of sleep. Listening to Gina scream, while groups of shadows drifted by, and a full moon casting ghostly cutouts from the Joshua trees, my mind slipped into a surreal existence. This half-sleep, half-dream stayed with me the rest of the night.
Gina eventually got her shoes back on and wandered back onto the road, and John with her. I had hoped the long delay would bring her mojo back, because this is where she could make some really good time. But, it was not so. Two miles down the road, Gina & John showed up in a heated argument with each other. It was my intention at this time to have John stay with the van and get some hot grilled cheese sandwiches made down the road, while I jumped in and ran with Gina, but I unknowingly miscommunicated badly. What I said was not what I meant to say, but I didn't figure this out til many hours later. What I said made no sense and both Gina and John told me 'Hell No'. I thought they were both telling me I was not wanted as her pacer, but it was just a huge misunderstanding. As I saw things, I thought they needed to get away from each other for a bit, so I told John it was time for him to get some sleep and he agreed. First, he should make some grilled cheese. Gina left pretty damned angry, which I hoped would wake her up enough to go a bit faster.
24:36 / 10:06pm / 90mi / Darwin
John made a few hot sandwiches, mixing in some thin-sliced turkey with the cheese, which were a big hit with Gina. Hell, I wanted some myself, but needed to make sure Gina got all she wanted. Gina stayed at it all the way to Darwin, where we gave her the van to sleep in for 15 minutes, while the crew waited outside. This was the 4th time check and there were a dozen cars parked here with runners asleep inside. The only thing here besides the vans and the time-check was the 2 foot tall concrete Darwin landmark and sagebrush. With the wind back up, we huddled behind the landmark where John made more grilled cheese sandwiches for Gina. We bagged these up for later, then John created a few quesadillas for the crew. This was by far the best food I had during the entire race. As much as we were working for the best interests of our runner, we were doing a foul job of taking care of ourselves. As much as Gina was running herelf into a state of oblivion, we were likewise, sleep deprived. We had been going just a bit over 24 hours by now. Our reflexes and verbal responses were sluggish and we were starting to miscommunicate with each other. I knew this for certainand could only assume the others did too. We down-shifted our conversation to just the essential stimulus and response: park here, get the chair, I got this, 2 more miles, yes, no, and so on. We still had a long night ahead of us... and the next day!
After the Darwin break, Gina got back on the road, and John went to sleep in the back of the van, partly on the cooler and partly on the chair. Erin was now napping every time she stopped the van. She would pull off the road, turn off the lights, turn on the blinkers, and go to sleep. As soon as it was stopped, I'd climb out of the van, pull the chair out, set it up, put an ice cold drink in one pocket and a few choices in the other. With both John and Erin asleep, and Gina barely awake as she ran/walked down the road, I knew how important it was to 'NOT ONLY' be ready for Gina when she arrived, but to NOT let her see how done-in all of us were. If we were all asleep when you came in, there is no way we could have kept het going. So, i tried all kinds of ways to stay awake til she arrived. I had a tennis ball with me which I used behind my back while we drove to ease my back ache. Now, I used it to bounce on the road and play catch with myself in the middle of the highway. I'd pace down the road, do jumping jacks, pushups, and as much as I tried to avoid it, sometimes I'd just sit in the chair and wait. During the 1st night, when we began, we had Gina wear an ankle light so we could pick her out as she approached. Now, she only had a small blinking light on her chest, which I could not pick out at all. Also, I was typically looking back into the headlights of the cars parked behind us. Many of them never did turn off their lights, leaving their headlights and emergency flashers on the entire night. Usually I am pretty good at getting comfortable in the dark and adjusting to the darkness, and especially with a full moon, but regardless of where we parked, there was always another van behind us within sight so as to destroy my night vision. The first night and day, the vans were hopping past each other at regular intervals, but tonight, we only had one or two others hopping back and forth with us, at a very slow speed. Until early morning, we saw very little regular traffic. Might have been just 3 or 4 cars go past as at high speed that scared the hell out of me and certainly our runners on the road.
Gina was an unconscious rock star all through the night, maintaining about 25 to 30 minutes every 2 miles all night. She also scared the crap out of me more than once... running up on me as I stood there behind the van, sound asleep on my feet. She also woke me from half-sleep a few times in the chair. Typically, she'd tell me she could not stay awake, in which I'd usually just hand her a cold drink, a bite of food, and send her back out. Other times, I had her sit in the chair for a 5 minute nap and tell her it was 15 minutes when she got up. We laid down a mat in the dirt once and she spread out on it and slept like a baby. One way or another, we kept her going all the way from Darwin to Lone Pine. She really impressed me how well she did under the circumstances, the time splits she maintained, while being exhausted, and sleep deprived. I knew she had blisters and her stomach was in a uproar. She never argued with me once. She told me what was bothering her and I would respond with some minimum amount of drink, food, or sleep. We would wipe the grime and the sleep from her eyes with a cold cloth, spoon some food into her mouth, wrap a jacket around her shoulders, and send her back into the ring for another round, over and over again. She simply did what was asked, and I'm so glad she did, because had she known, we were all as whacked out as she was, and pushed us on any point, I doubt we could have pushed back.
I was a little surprised when the temperature dropped to a point when I needed a jacket. It was in the 50s. but after the extreme highs, my body was no longer adapted to this level. For the duration of the entire race, Gina's entire wardrobe change consisted mainly with changing her baseball cap for a buff and having arm sleeves or not. But, just before sunrise as we rolled into Lone Pine, I was cold. The entire gang was awake now and we could see the car lights for the runner's crews on the road up Mt Whitney. There is something invigorating about seeing your destination after a long journey It was also a nice visual to watch the morning sunlight touch the tops of the mountains ans quickly drop down their faces and begin to approach us. The temperatures were as perfect as we could ask for, but the mountain shadows we were in would not stay with us much longer. One moment we were in the shadows and cool and in the next, we were in direct sunlight and the desert heat was back on us. It wasn't just the closing of a refrigerator door, but akin to dumping one from an ice tray into an oven.
34:08 / 7:38am /122mi / Lone Pine
We rolled into Lone Pine with the sun on our backs. At the turn into town, we waited on Gina once again, then raced ahead in the car to pick up a few more cokes at the store to put on ice, and also to buy us all a hot McDonalds breakfast sandwich. We all stood on the road, eating our breakfast as we watched Gina go by. She told me she needed to find a bathroom, so we were not in a hurry, but she did get ahead of us here to go through the Lone Pine checkpoint. Waiting on John, we lost track of her for a few minutes, and by the time we had the team back in the car, I wasn't sure where she was. I didn't know if she had turned and continued up the road or stopped at a bathroom. Not knowing which, I decided to drive ahead to check for her up the road, knowing if she was behind us, we would find out quickly and circle back. As it is, she had gone ahead and we were back with her, having lost her for all of 5 minutes and no worries.
This is it. The final section. We are finally on it. She has but a half-marathon to go, and its all uphill. Also, she is again in the direct heat of the sun. John took a couple of ice cold water bottles and jumped out to pacer her again for a bit, while Erin and I drive ahead to stop where we can at 2 miles increments. Gina is punchy but excited to be approaching the finish, as are the rest of us. I am not sure any of us could have an intelligent conversation right now, and not a bit surprised how little discussion there is at this point. Anything less mind-numbing than this race and we'd all be yammering away right now. Gina walks rather quickly up the mountain while it appears that John has to run now and again to keep up. We are 5 miles from the finish when Gina informs us she is sick of the coke and everything else. She is not drinking much of water now as well. Just 4 miles from the finish and knowing she is no longer drinking or eating, I tell her we are not stopping for her again. There is no reason for it. She just needs to get it done and we'll wait for her at the finish. She has a full bottle of water, but she wont drink even half of it. One mile from the finish, I tell John to get out, to go back to run her in. John doesn't seem to understand what I'm saying at first. He says he needs a short nap, and he actually closes his eyes and lays down in his space in the back of the van. I'm surprised but again I need to make it clear our ability to communicate now is not very good, and I know it. I don't know if I was not clear or didn't say what I intended to say, or if what John heard or planned, so I just sat there and watched him. He closed his eyes for 2 or 3 minutes, then got up, climbed out. He opened the back of the van and took a long time to fill his water bottle and adjust his clothes. I really half expected Gina to run up on us while we sat there. I was not in a legal parking place and was in a bit of a rush to get on up and away from this spot. Wouldn't it be a bitch for Gina to get DQed because of something her crew did just 1 mile from the finish. I was terribly impatient, but I held my tongue and waited. As soon as he closed the back, we drove ahead to the finish and found the one and only parking spot left in the upper lot.
37:14 / 10:44am / 131mi / Portal Road
Erin and I got out and waited. It took longer than I anticipated, so I started walking backwards down the road. I must have gone a quarter mile before I saw them approaching. Gina thought I was at the finish and wanted me to confirm. But, I told her I had walked down the road aways and didn't know exactly. She had her fast walk on and kept on marching. John and I tried to keep up with her and followed in her wake til we were 30 yards away, where we found Erin. Gina slowed down so that all 4 of us could cross the finish together. It was done.
38:22:36 / 11:52am/ 135mi / Finish