Marathon and Beyond

When Out-and-Back Just Doesn't Get It Done

by Marshall Ulrich

The desert asserts an allure that can make runners go to extremes.

© 2003 42K(+) Press, Inc.

As I sit in a tent at 11,000 feet on the mountain called Denali (Mount McKinley),  I am thinking about the Badwater Quad I did 11 months earlier. I am trying to climb to the highest point in North America in June 2002 and have been snowbound for two days in temperatures below zero. “What a difference a day makes.” It seems like yesterday when I was in temperatures over 125 degrees in Death Valley. Things change rapidly when opportunities present themselves in our lives, and with those changes come new challenges. Because of a power failure with my Palm Pilot, I lost much of what I had written on Denali and start writing again in October 2002, only to lose focus, and the story goes untold for another day. Procrastination? Not wanting to accept responsibility? Or perhaps diversions happen in our lives for a reason. Months pass before a trip up Aconcagua, the highest point in South America, in February 2003 motivates me and buys me the time it takes to resume—and finish—the story.

I have found that one thing all extreme adventures have in common is that they have very little to do with the event. So when people ask me why we take on such challenges, I suggest that it might have to do with compensating for something that is missing in our lives, proving to ourselves and others that we are, perhaps, worthy. Or it might be about something that is bigger than who or what we are. I also suggest that the reasons for doing these adventures can change before, during, and after the event itself.

Initially, one reason for doing the Badwater Quad was, quite simply, just to do it. Another feather in my cap, so to speak. I had been thinking about the Quad for years and wanted to prove, mostly to myself, both that it could be done and that it could be done in a relatively short period of time. No one had ever made four consecutive crossings from Badwater in Death Valley to the peak of Mount Whitney. It was an ego-based motivation. Fund-raising to benefit suffering children around the world seemed far from my mind. Fortunately, although my motivation for doing the Quad may have started from some insecurity or need to prove something, this event became bigger than me and transcended many of my insecurities.

As for why it was so difficult to start and finish this story, I believe that the distractions happened for a reason—that the time just wasn’t right for me to tell the story. This event turned out to be more than I thought it would be. (Imagine that.) It took so much out of me that it deserved more reflection than just a factual account. Processing information from endurance events such as the Eco-Challenge, the Raid Gauloises, and multiday adventures such as the Quad takes a while and happens only in due time. For me, much of what happens during these events can come back months and even years later in the form of dreams or déjà vu experiences that take extensive periods of time to process completely and even longer to become part of a conscious behavioral change or to be a valuable part of the growth process.

Background of the Quad

In January 2001, Lisa Smith-Batchen contacted me about doing a fund-raising event to benefit an organization that Lisa had raised money for in prior years: the Religious Teachers Filippini. One of the functions of this group is to help war-widowed women and starving children in some of the poorer countries in the world. More than just providing food, the Teachers Filippini builds schools and educates mothers in trades that allow them to become more self-sufficient. I felt that this was a worthy cause and was glad to learn that 100 percent of the money raised would be used to help the women and children. I believed that an event such as a quad crossing of Death Valley would touch upon the suffering aspect of life. Although the event would do little justice to the suffering that takes place throughout the world, on a smaller scale I thought it might draw the attention of the media and create publicity that could go a long way toward the fund-raising that Lisa and I had in mind. As it turned out, the start of the event was a feature on the NBC Today Show and the Quad was a great success, raising over $70,000.

The recognized course starts at Badwater, California, elevation 282 feet below sea level, and continues for 90 miles across Death, Panamint, and Owens Valleys. At 124 miles, just above Lone Pine, California, the course climbs up to the Mount Whitney Portals, where the organized race ends at 135 miles. To make a complete 146-mile crossing entails continuing to the top of Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet above sea level. For a crossing to be recognized as official, it must be done during July or August, when the temperature typically ranges between 120 degrees in the desert to below freezing on the mountain. These two points—Badwater and the Whitney summit—represent the lowest and highest points in the contiguous United States. The total elevation gain for a one-way trip is about 19,000 feet. Reversing the course makes it an out-and-back or double crossing, adding another 5,000 feet of elevation gain (to climb up Owens Valley, drop down into Panamint Valley, and then climb out), bringing the total gain to about 24,000 feet. Turning around and doing another double brings the mileage to a total of 584 miles with 48,000 feet of elevation gain and the same loss, for a total elevation change of 96,000 feet.

The First Double

The Badwater Quad for starving children started in Badwater, Death Valley, California, on July 20, 2001, at 6:10 in the morning. As I started the event, the ego-based motivations were there. As I progressed along the way, it became a much more profound experience physically, mentally, and spiritually. The event became all about the fund-raising aspect that my crew and I had committed to.

My crew members for the first double were Lisa Smith-Batchen, Bob Haugh, Gary Kliewer, and Diane Grecsek. They were to become my lifeline as they stopped at least every mile to offer me valuable support in the form of water, food, and encouragement. Later, for the second double, the relief crew included Jay Batchen (Lisa’s husband), Courtney Boova, and Ernie Rambo. Freelance photographer David Brooks joined us to round out the crew. I cannot say enough about the dedication and perseverance of these people who took one to two weeks out of their lives and spent their own time and money to benefit starving children throughout the world by coming out to support the Badwater Quad. Each crew member spent a significant amount of time on the course with me, pacing me and generally keeping me moving.

The first crossing went well, as I took a conservative approach. In 1991, I had set one-way crossing records for both a.m. and p.m. starts that had still not been broken. Since then, the a.m. start record was broken using the Mountaineers Route—as opposed to the Whitney Trail route that I used—on Mount Whitney. But for this first crossing, I was not concerned about speed. I crossed the valley walking and running at a steady, consistent pace. It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. By doing this, we reached the top of Mount Whitney in just under 48 hours. The first crossing was unremarkable, just another typical crossing—as if any is. It was a glorious day, and we reveled in the moment, spending a short time on the summit. On the way down from the mountain, we laughed, joked, and for a few hours thought about nothing but enjoying the descent.

Planning the Return Trip

As we headed into Lone Pine, we began to focus on returning to Badwater. The crew started planning and gathering all of the supplies—especially ice, water, and food—that would be needed for another crossing of the hot desert. My mind was on the schedule. We had planned to reach the portals en route to the top on July 22, somewhere around 50 to 60 hours into the event. Since I had reached the summit in 48 hours, I was ahead of schedule. In my mind, and unknown to my crew, I had visions of accelerating the schedule and taking a shot at the double-crossing record of 105 hours. So now my goal was to reach Badwater as quickly as possible. When I filled my crew members in on what I was planning to do, at first some of them were angry that I would consider trying to break the double record on a Quad attempt.

I picked a moderate pace for the night crossing of Owens Valley. Approaching Father Crowley’s pass, I saw more scorpions than ever before. Illuminated by flashlights and the occasional crew vehicle headlights, they would back away with tails uplifted, ready to strike if we came too close. We crossed Panamint Valley, walked briskly up Towne’s Pass, and dropped into Death Valley late in the afternoon of the 23rd. A few miles before reaching Stovepipe Wells, a few of the runners who were scheduled to compete in the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon and Chris Kostman, the race director, came out to pace me into Stovepipe. It was a wonderful feeling to have the support of these people and their acknowledgment of our efforts.

As night fell, it became a test, as I was now running steadily with no intent of stopping. My crew had come to the realization that I could break the double record, and all were now supportive of that goal. Other Badwater Ultramarathon runners started arriving during the night, and as they drove by, they offered encouragement that further motivated me. Dawn broke on the morning of the 24th as I passed Furnace Creek and headed south for the last 17 miles to Badwater. We knew that the record was in hand. In the last eight miles, Lisa felt that we had a shot at going under 96 hours and possibly running a negative split for the double. That would mean running the second half of the course, coming back from Whitney to Badwater, in under the 48-hour time that we took going out. I was feeling great, and we determined that seven-minute miles would get us under 48 hours. We picked up the pace, excited about the prospect of a negative split. For a solid hour or more we held that pace. As we approached Badwater we realized that we were farther out than we originally had thought (one bend short) and that time was slipping. Somewhat disappointed, I cut the pace back for the last mile and we coasted across the finish line, completing the first double portion of the Quad.

After running and walking continuously for the first four days, stopping only for short sleep breaks and occasional naps that averaged approximately one and a half hours in each 24-hour period, we reached Badwater in 96 hours, 7 minutes, breaking the old double record of 105 hours by almost nine hours. We laughed and hugged and were 23 hours ahead of schedule! I felt awesome as we danced the jig and celebrated together as a team. It was sweet victory in our minds. But looming ahead was the fact that I was entered in the actual Badwater race that would begin early the next morning. With our precious time ticking away, we drove back to Furnace Creek, attended the mandatory prerace meeting, regrouped, resupplied, and got a short night’s sleep. The relief crew (Jay, Courtney, Ernie, and David) arrived. Bob, Lisa, Gary, and Diane stayed on to help.

The Quad

At 6:00 a.m. on the 25th, my crew and I started the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon with the 71 other people entered in the race. The night before had been short, as I was restlessly anticipating the start of the third crossing of the desert and a second journey to the top of Mount Whitney. The heat of the desert is always somewhat predictable: always hot, sometimes windy. My concern was about the unpredictable weather on the mountain that could stop us from reaching our goal. Luckily, the double had gone well and was relatively uneventful, including the weather on Mount Whitney. Standing at the starting line, I was looking forward to getting moving again. It was great to be a part of the race, and everyone’s energy made it easy to get back on the road. My muscles were slightly sore, and I had lost 2 to 3 pounds of weight over the first five days, but overall I felt good. Headed up to Furnace Creek for the second time, I mixed walking and running, knowing that I still had 296 miles to cover added to the 296 already completed. I started to think that as great as the first double experience was, the second would be no more difficult. And it wasn’t—for a while.

We passed Furnace Creek, approximately 20 miles into the third crossing, uneventfully until I started experiencing tendinitis on the front of my left shin. It became so painful to run that we devised a way to tie a baggie of ice to the front of my leg with an Ace bandage, just above the ankle, to reduce the swelling and help me deal with the pain. Only 20 miles later, the same thing happened to my right leg—so much for uneventful. Having to contend with the ordinary task of keeping me fueled and hydrated was one thing, but now my crew was faced with having to ice and wrap my legs. Every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on whether it was night or day, my crew unwrapped, re-iced, and rewrapped my legs, only to do it over again hundreds of times. It became a rit-ual. If the ice disappeared, or if I picked up the pace even to a sustained jog, it felt like 120-volt shocks probing my legs. We all hoped that it would subside during the next few days.

We were now approximately 60 miles into the third crossing. I sat in the van upon the top of Towne’s Pass with the ever-present ice bags wrapped around my ankles and my legs elevated to minimize the effects of tendinitis. We were taking a six-hour break. I thought about how far I still had to go and whether I could accomplish what I had set out to do. Was I even capable of doing it? Offers and suggestions were made about modifying the run to include bicycling and using crew members to help in any way that they could to get the job done. Their support and offers to do whatever was needed still inspire me.

Reassessing My Tendinitis

As my crew spoke, my thoughts drifted back to earlier in the day when I had stopped at Stovepipe Wells and submersed myself in the motel’s swimming pool in an attempt to relieve my pain. Rich Benyo, who was crewing another runner, was at the pool. Years before—in early 1989—Rich and Tom Crawford were the first to succeed in doing a double crossing of Death Valley. A couple of years after that first double crossing, Rich told me about his second attempt (in 1991) to do another double crossing. He told of how he had experienced the same kind of tendinitis and how he had made it to Furnace Creek on the way back to Badwater with less than 20 miles to go. He didn’t give me much hope, as he said that because of medical risks, he chose not to continue. Bob Haugh, one of my crew members—and a pathologist affectionately known as Dr. Bob—recommended that I quit, saying that if the swelling continued up my legs, it could cause compartment syndrome. He explained that the consequences could very well be nerve damage and a permanent foot drop. It was a depressing thought, to say the least.

Trying to process this latest information, my mind drifted further back, to my early days running in the Badwater race, to the year that I passed out twice and the next year when I passed out again; to the year when I doubled my ankle over on a rock going down Towne’s Pass and ran on a second-degree sprain for the last 60 miles; then to the solo crossing and the constant nosebleed that I never could control. I had finished them all, but for a different reason—back then I had something to prove to myself.

That’s when it struck me that the Quad had very little to do with me. It was for the starving children, for my dedicated crew, for the people who set foot in this desert with great appreciation, and for everyone who demands a better, more compassionate world to live in.

Dr. Bob at first refused to be a part of continuing, but as I headed out onto the road, we struck a bargain. Dr. Bob, always the thoughtful and caring person that he is, made me agree that if the tendinitis got any worse and moved up the leg, we would quit. We carried on through the night, and it got no better, but also no worse. As the center of the universe became my legs, I could think of little else.

To the Top—and Return

Late the next evening, the struggle paid off as we finished the Badwater Ultra portion of the race at the Whitney Portals. We rested for an hour, then headed up Mount Whitney for the second time, in the dark. Dr. Bob packed ice in a thermal pouch so that we could ice my legs while on the mountain. That, along with trekking poles to take some of the weight off my legs, allowed me to reach the summit in about 185 hours—in time to set a new triple-crossing record. We spent little time at the top as extreme physical fatigue and lack of sleep were obviously taking their toll.

After we descended the mountain, it became increasingly difficult to move forward. Over the last couple of days I had slept no more than one and a half hours. The temperatures on the desert floor had risen from the lower 110s at the start of the Quad to the mid-120s. Blisters began appearing on the sides and balls of my feet at any place there was friction with the shoe, making it necessary to cut off portions of my shoes, including holes in soles. Having worn out one pair of shoes on the first double, I was now in the process of wearing out a second. I later returned the shoes to one of my sponsors, North Face, and said jokingly, “These shoes are pretty bad, as each pair only lasted a few days.”

Heading across the desert floor over the next two days, I felt like I was living a hallucination. My head was clouded. I could hear people talking and trying to keep my spirits up, but nothing really got through. The nights were long and hard, and it became difficult to do anything but think about simple things like picking up my feet and letting them swing forward in a deliberate fashion. Lisa spent many, many miles with me on the course through these long and difficult hours, as she had during the first double. Her dedication and nearly constant presence and support were invaluable. As she gave me words of encouragement, my mind wandered back to the top of Towne’s Pass, 60 miles into the third crossing, where I found—outside of myself—the strength to continue. At that time, I had thought that things couldn’t get worse and that the fourth crossing had to be better. It wasn’t.

Enduring the Final Miles

As I headed down past Furnace Creek that last morning, the temperature was up to 126 degrees with a 30-mile-per-hour head wind. As we struggled south, with Badwater 17 miles away, I had lost about 12 pounds and was a shell of my former self. My left arm had become heavy and numb. I would occasionally tuck it behind the small of my back in my pants, palm out, just so I wouldn’t have to carry it anymore. This brought some relief from the chest pains that I reasoned (as well as a I could) were caused by having to carry the now-useless appendage. Although my numb arm and chest pains scared me and my legs ached with every step, on some level it didn’t matter. I knew I was going to make it. I knew that I would make it to the finish with a little luck and perseverance and the continuing support of my crew. My friend and photographer, Tony Di Zinno, and Chris Kostman arrived to cheer me on as we neared Badwater. My crew joked and was in good spirits. We savored the last few miles, and I started to breathe a sigh of relief.

As Courtney Boova wrote: “No big fanfare waited for our arrival at the finish. A few photographers were present as Marshall, along with his crew members, walked arm in arm across an ever-so-appropriate Ace bandage finish line. There was no need for fanfare as no fanfare or celebration could do this feat justice. A douse of champagne and a few loving words from crew members while Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ played in the background were all that was needed to commemorate the finish. I stared out into the open desert and looked up into the blue sky filled with pink clouds as the sun quietly slipped away behind the horizon. The human mind is a powerful thing capable of conquering anything it wants. Life is about desire. With desire, passion, strong will, and help from other people, anything is possible. You just have to believe.”

The finish was grand. The lack of fanfare, the solitude—it was just my crew and I and the spectacular fiery sunset reflected in the pond called Badwater. Just a few good friends and I getting together to celebrate life.

My elapsed time was approximately 253 hours (10 days and 13 hours)—13 hours over the predicted 10 days. But I didn’t mind.

Reflections About the Quad

What does it take to do the Badwater Ultramarathon—a single crossing, a double, a triple, or even a quad? What it takes is not thinking about it too much and not bragging that you’re going to do it, but just going out and doing it. It takes the support of friends. It takes making and sticking to an agreement with yourself that you are willing to suffer and pay the price. It has been said that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Sometimes that includes a bit of suffering. That is indeed what life is about. I believe that to appreciate the profoundness of life, we have to live it to its fullest, both the joy and the suffering. My experience is that individuals who have suffered, whether by their own choice or by fate, come out on the other side having a bit more gratitude for who they are and what they have.

Of course you can’t expect to come right off the couch and get the job done, but that could be the very unlikely place for an idea to be born. As Courtney Boova said, “You have to believe”—first and foremost in yourself. Nothing can trigger an idea within us if we don’t believe. However, you can’t just think about it or it will never happen. You have to take the next step and let the idea manifest itself externally, which is the act of doing. And with a bit of focus, discipline, and training, we’re bound to succeed. So with all that being said, here is a bird’s-eye view of the Quad.

A Fable of Death Valley

Soaring above the desert, the raven spoke to the coyote passing along the floor of Death Valley and asked, “What is happening? These things that I have been told are cars run up and down the valley as if chasing the wind. Don’t these humans know that the wind is elusive and whispers questions with every breath? They think that they know the answers since they have mastered speed and can even slice through the wind with their airplanes. What have they really conquered? It seems to me that if they would listen, maybe the wind would speak to them and give them answers that are meaningful. Just this morning, as the sun was coming up over the mountains, I saw someone, aided by one of these shiny pieces of tin that they call cars, running along—dressed in white. It’s not as though I have not seen this happen before, but it seems that there was a bit more interest in what this person was doing. There seems to be focus and dedication shared by all. Could it be that this person in white has a higher purpose in mind than just child’s play?”   

The coyote spoke to the raven and said, “Yes, I saw him too, and he saw me. We exchanged glances, and he kept going down the road. It kills me that humans think that they belong out here as much as we do. Just look at that piece of tin loaded down with water and a few other humans; don’t they just think that they are something? They are so full of it, always have been as far as I’m concerned. Look at this human in white; for what purpose is he doing this? Why is he out here, and what gives him the right to think that he has a place in our world? I bet he is even so presumptuous as to think that he is suffering, but it’s not a life-and-death situation for him, so who does he think he is? We are used to the quirks of nature that control our lives and dictate whether we live or die. I can only hope that the man in white, and every human, has a higher purpose. As for us, it’s not about suffering, it’s about just surviving.”

For the children who are starving, “it” is about just surviving.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M&B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.

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