Death Valley is a brutal unforgiving place. I couldn’t adapt to the environment as I pushed too hard to make the time goal I set for myself. Ultimately pushing hard did me in, forcing me to abort the run.
Months of preparation came to an unexpected and disappointing end way before the starting line. For the first time ever, I had to DNF (Did Not Finish). My Badwater Solo Self Contained Ultramarathon crossing attempt to break the 13-year record came to stop at a mere 45 miles into the run. I didn’t even get up the first mountain pass.
Why did I fail?
It was a fatal combination of many things. Essentially it came down to pushing too hard and not adapting to the extreme 117 degree heat and 36% humidity. All of the plans and preparation had me stressed and my stomach upset at the start line. That’s normal and usually goes away in a few miles as you settle into your pace. But on this day and in this race, my stomach refused to function at any level. I couldn’t get food down and I started to vomit at just 6 miles into the run. Not a good start. But I pushed through anyway.
My body wouldn’t adjust to the extreme heat causing me to become overheated. It turns out that my internal temp was normal, but I was horribly uncomfortable and kept splashing water on my head and back to keep the heat tolerable. Add in some technical problems to this combination and that’s the ultimate reason for me not finishing.
I asked Whole Foods supermarket to freeze water that I bought from them. They agreed. The water was put into the freezer, but someone who didn’t know what they were for, took them out. When we went to get the water, we were told what happened. We got them back into the freezer but it was too late. There was not enough time for the water to freeze. The water being frozen is a key to surviving in the desert for 3 days.
At the start line my water was cold, but not frozen. That would get me through the first day, but then the water became uncomfortably warm. You can drink warm water and it will hydrate you but it will do nothing to soothe you.
Making the call to quit
As the night fell, I was severely overheating. The darkness didn’t offer any relief even though the temperature had dropped to 100 degrees. I laid down on my cart to take a short nap that turned into three or four hours. I started moving again but was still painfully uncomfortable and my stomach was still upset and I was still unable to eat.
I continued to move up the base of Townes Pass. This is the first of three mountains I would have to climb. As I slowly pushed the 250 pound cart up the hill I started to calculate the odds of my success. I counted how much water I already went through and calculated how much I would need at the rate that I was using the water to hydrate by drinking and cool by dousing. I also knew that if I made it over the pass I would end up in Panamint Valley in the heat of midday with temperatures hitting a scorching 117 degrees. With my water dwindling, the remaining water heating up, and my stomach still painful while I felt horrifically overheated, I knew it was time to make the call.
As I came to the realization that I would have to pull the plug on my attempt at beating the world record for running through Death Valley unassisted, I fought with my philosophy that I teach to all my audiences and clients. I teach them to never give in and never give up, even when you are in your darkest hour. Ironically it was the hour before dawn and at the base of the mountain near Stove Pipe Wells in Death Valley.
I didn’t have an answer in the moment, but I knew that in this time and in this place that I would have to give up. I knew it was the smart thing to do. I knew I had to listen to my body. I called my team over to tell them, “I am done. I’m overheated, my water is low, and the water is hot. I will not be able to make it.” Nobody said anything. Jim, the Paramedic just walked away with a look in his eyes that broke my heart. Cherilyn, Jim’s wife and photographer, felt my pain, but she too had a look in her eyes that saddened me to the core. The documentary video guy was visibly angry, something I’ve never seen with Josh. He tried to talk me into continuing, even if I continued without the cart and my team supporting me. I refused. I knew I was done. “This will have to wait next year.” I told him.
I thought I was done for good, at least until next year. But what would happen in the next 24 hours amazed everyone.
Stay tuned for the rest of the story.