“NO WIMPY WOMEN in this house.”
A catchphrase, a vibe, a lifestyle that my mom bestowed upon my sister and me while growing up. She’d say it, flexing her biceps after accomplishing some feat of strength that ordinary moms wouldn’t dare, like dragging thousands of pounds of wet carpet up the basement steps and onto the front lawn to dry after an unfortunate storm. My mom was not waiting around for anyone’s assistance. In fact, she probably found your offer patronizing. She’ll do it herself.
Her two daughters? We absorbed and became that motto and bravado. Toughness, you see, is a family value.
You want an origin story? Because this is where it all begins.
Fast-forward to July 19, 2021. I’m 38 years old, feeling plucky and primed, and in the best shape of my life. It’s 113 degrees outside as I wait for the 8 p.m. start of the notorious Badwater 135. Known as the toughest footrace in the world, Badwater is a 135-mile ultramarathon across Death Valley, California — home of the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth.
To successfully complete this race, I’ll have to endure both face-melting heat and merciless climbing. The race starts at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level) and ends at the portal of Mount Whitney (8,374 feet above sea level), the tallest mountain in the Lower 48. All in, Badwater includes three sections of mountain climbs, accounting for nearly 20,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Yeah, it’s intense. But that’s kind of the point. And that’s kind of my whole thing. As an athlete, a tomboy, a chippy kid from Jersey, I guess you could say I’ve been groomed since birth to value toughness as currency. And I want to know how much is in my account.
STARTING AT NIGHT is the first true mindf— of the Badwater experience. But before we even hear the word “Go!” we’re about to get clobbered with the next one: a low-lying, hazy brown cloud making its way toward the start line. I’ve never seen anything like it.
A haboob, you say? What even is a haboob?
A violent, oppressive dust storm? Heading right for us?
Cool. Cool-cool-cool. Supercool. Perfect, even. Running headfirst into a natural disaster, just like we drew it up!
I had trained for the heat and the hills, but how can you train for weather you’ve never even heard of?! Too bad, sucker, because you’re in it now.
With fresh legs, no mountains to climb, and all that pent-up excitement, the start is supposed to be one of the easiest sections of the race, the part where you remind yourself to slow down — take it easy! — because this is an ultramarathon, not a marathon, and definitely not a sprint. But this haboob and its headwinds throw my pacing chart out the window from my very first step. It feels like being pulled backward by a set of invisible resistance bands, and these “easy, slow miles” are slow but not so easy. My work rate is higher than I want it to be, but what else am I going to do? Stand still?
I just have to power through it one step at a time and hope the fatigue doesn’t catch up with me too soon.
THE FIRST WAVE of grogginess falls over me at about 12:30 a.m. I haven’t been running for even five hours yet, so I know I have to fight it. To nap now would mean less time running while the sun, and all its fury, is still tucked away. To nap now, with 115 miles — plus three mountain sections and two sunrises — still to go, would be soft.
And I didn’t train for two years to be soft.
“Find it,” I tell myself. It’s dark, but I’m not talking about finding the next checkpoint, the road ahead of me, or even the hand connected to my arm. It’s an accidental mantra that I’ve wandered into during this race. Find the energy to stay awake. Find the pace that feels right. Find whatever it is inside you that will keep you upright and moving.
I don’t even know why I suddenly feel so tired. I was doing great at the Furnace Creek checkpoint, and that was less than 2 miles ago. Maybe that haboob really worked me. Maybe it’s that I’ve been awake for 17 hours already. Maybe I just need to suck it up.
I look behind me, hoping another runner might catch up to keep me company, but it’s just me and the white line on the side of the road. All I see are the faint, shadowy outlines of mountains in the distance. The same mountains that trap the hot air down here and make it feel like you’re standing under a hair dryer.
I guess deserts are, by definition, deserted, but I’m stricken by just how eerily quiet it is right now. The only things I can hear are the whistling wind and the shuffling of my own footsteps. I sneaky love this feeling. It feels illicit, like I’m breaking curfew. My very mediocre headlamp projects a small cone of light in front of me, just enough to prevent me from turning an ankle or meandering off-road. Anything beyond this glowing orb is a mystery I won’t solve until I run through it.
PEOPLE ALWAYS ASK me why I run ultramarathons, and why Badwater in particular. Why would I choose something so grueling and difficult? Why do I want to suffer this much? Why am I not satisfied with 30 minutes of moderate exercise four to five days a week? A marathon? A 50-miler? A 100K? A 100-miler? Where does the madness end?
I never know how to answer those questions. They seem more rhetorical than curious, as if the person grilling me has run out of ways to express their incredulity, awe or disapproval.
Part of it is that I learned pretty early on that to be special, I’d have to really work at it. I wasn’t blessed with height or cover-girl beauty, those physical gifts that require only routine maintenance. And after I hit puberty — or more accurately, after puberty hit me — my body was no longer the fastest or the strongest. But I knew one thing: I could out-effort everybody.
Effort might not get you everywhere — let’s admit that Division I scholarships require some mix of nature, nurture and divine intervention — but it’ll get you pretty damn far. Hopefully effort will get me somewhere in the neighborhood of 135 miles.
I press on.
I CLICK OFF my headlamp to see just how dark it is out here. I look up to the night sky, so full of stars, it looks like someone shook glitter onto black construction paper. I remind myself to drink it all in because this is why I signed up for this race. To experience every feeling, every view, every moment, even the low points. Especially the low points.
Luckily, I’m not in this fight alone. Like every runner at Badwater, I’ve got a support crew to help me across this forsaken, wind-ravaged desert. Up ahead, I see the emergency flasher lights of our van, a roving pit stop that leapfrogs me every 2 miles along this journey. And in that van are four fairy godrunners whose job is to make sure I don’t die, disintegrate or drop from the race.
My crew. My people. My lifeline.
You can’t just grab four runners off the street and expect things to go smoothly for 135 miles. Even if you trust them with your darkest secrets, you can’t pick your four best friends because one of those dodos will inevitably wind up excommunicated. You’ve got to find the right mix of people who can handle long miles, sleep deprivation and extreme heat. You need people who will challenge you and hold you accountable, but who also understand that everybody has limits and that they’ll be tested out here. You need people who can both follow the plan and thrive in chaos.
Enter Ricky Haro, my crew chief and the brains of this operation. Ricky was my first pick, no hesitation. He and I already have Badwater history, working together to crew our friend Mosi Smith in 2018, when he dropped at Mile 95, and again in 2019, when Mosi made it up that damn mountain for his personal best time.
As crew chief, Ricky is the big wheel who keeps the rest of us turning. He is my coach, my meteorologist, my digestive whisperer, my therapist, my emotional support animal. Ricky is my everything at this race. Without him, I’m toast.
Ricky is also the sneakiest badass you’ll ever meet. He keeps a cool head and a low profile, but among some other lifetime-achievement-level accomplishments, this dude has done two crossings of Death Valley, including once self-supported. “What does ‘self-supported’ mean here?” you ask. A fantastic question, gumshoe. It means Ricky pushed all his own supplies across Death Valley — in a glorified shopping cart with brakes — to the summit of Mount Whitney in the dog days of August. No crew, no van for naps or lugging around ice. Just pushing his own water, food and extra sneakers up and down mountains by his damn self for three days. Dude is a beast. Your crew chief would never.
In that second slot, I went with my long-lost little brother, Jimmie Wilbourn. Jimmie and I have been cosmically united since we met in 2013 at Hood to Coast, a 200-mile team relay race in Oregon. We are practically the same person, but Jimmie grew up in Texas and I grew up in New Jersey. He never curses, and I can’t f—ing help myself. He’s a guy, and I’m not. Otherwise, twins.
Jimmie and I were instant rivals at Hood to Coast, running the same sections of the course on opposite teams and talking trash the whole time. When Jimmie’s teammates learned that I ran a faster first leg than he did, their entire van of Air Force dudes started clowning Jimmie about it. Of course, Jimmie got fired up and beat me on the next two, cementing our rivalry — and an unbreakable friendship. Since then, Jimmie joined my relay team, and the rest is history. I’m convinced he’s my patronus. I need his fire, jokes and brotherly love to get across Death Valley.
Odd as it sounds, I had never met Kalie Demerjian or Brenna Bray before choosing them to crew me at Badwater. It’s important to me to have more women in sports and striving toward the toughest races in ultrarunning, so I put feelers out into the universe, had a phone call with each of them to get a sense of their vibe and experience, and voilà. Teammates. That might seem like a really high-stakes way to make friends, but here we are.
With her wind-tangled brown hair and different-colored eyes, Kalie is your mellow pixie dream girl. At first blush, you might think she’s too small, too demure, too passive for Badwater. But maaan, you’d be the wrongest of the wrong. Kalie is a quiet storm. A pint-sized powerhouse. An ultrarunning stud, who, at just 24, ran her first 100-miler fast enough to qualify for national championships. Bonus: Kalie is introverted, a massively underrated characteristic for anyone with whom you’re going to spend three days in a van. Because sometimes, everyone just needs to shut up and run.
Last but not least, meet Brenna, whose boundless energy could have settled the Wild West. She is the ultimate teammate: Minnesota nice and bubbling over with excitement about even the most mundane aspects of this Badwater adventure. Need water? Watermelon? Candy watermelon? Just say the word and Brenna will come a-running. She is ready for whatever the desert throws at her: more heat, more miles, more climbing. Just stuff it in her backpack and she’ll carry whatever you need.
As I approach my support van sometime around 1 a.m. and somewhere around Mile 22, I am dragging ass. I down some Coca-Cola and a pile of candy in hopes that eating like I’m at a movie theater concession stand will perk me up. In my real life, when I’m not running an ultra, I quite literally never drink soda. And the last time I cared about candy was when I retired from trick-or-treating in the sixth grade. But during an ultramarathon, it’s all about high-calorie foods that are easy to digest. Give me your white sugars, your carbs, your packaged Pop Tarts yearning to be eaten. It’s like Buddy the Elf is your nutritionist.
But the sugar high hasn’t hit yet. As a last-ditch effort, I ask Ricky and Jimmie to hand me my headphones.
Boom. We’re right back in this.
It’s like the ghost of Whitney Houston has entered my body. I wanna dance with somebody. I wanna run to you. I’m the queen of the night. I sing into the desert winds, belting out the high notes and paying no regard to any lizards or jackrabbits that might have been sleeping. Though I can’t see another runner for miles, it’s an all-out party right now.
Fighting off that wave of grogginess gives me a rush of confidence that carries me for miles and hours. “You got this, KC.” I address myself in the second and third person, as if my mind and body are separate entities.
TO RUN AN ultramarathon, you have to listen to your body and troubleshoot the issues it brings to your attention. On the fly and under duress, you need to be able to solve problems big and small: aches, pains, fatigue, digestive issues, chafing, blisters, overheating.
Chances are, I’m going to face every single one of those challenges during this race. But this is what we trained for.
Back in February, I began ramping up my mileage. I’ve run a few 100-milers in my time, but we’re talking about 35% more miles under significantly harder conditions. I had to start building my body and mind toward the challenge. By midspring, I was regularly running 85 to 100 miles per week. Six days a week, I woke up early and ran as far as I could — based on how my body felt and how much time I had available before starting work, because despite the time and effort, I make zero dollars from this bizarre hobby. Marketing puts food on the table, and your girl’s gotta eat.
To keep up with my metabolism, I ate everything that wasn’t nailed down. I slept hard just about every night, so tired from exertion, my muscles in desperate need of restful recovery.
To be clear, I love training that hard. The feeling of breaking down and building back up. Of emptying the tank. People might tell you that less is more, but not me. I’m a “more is more” person. I want extra miles, extra soreness, extra spice.
Besides, lacing up my sneakers and popping out the door is freedom. To think or not to think. To go where I want to go. To listen to podcasts or playlists or nothing at all. It’s my time.
During those months of training, I had slow days when my legs felt heavy and tight. And cold days when the wind ripped at my face and nearly froze my lungs. But no bad days. Because I was building toward something that gave me a sense of purpose. Something I’d already worked for, something that had denied me once. I didn’t want this race to get any more of me without a gnarly, knock-down, drag-out fight.
That’s right, team. Because though this was the first time I had made it to the start line, it wasn’t my first time training for Badwater.
In 2020, I applied and was one of the 100 runners selected to run Badwater. I trained the full cycle, and then, 10 days before the race was scheduled and just three days before I was set to leave, the race director sent the email we had all been dreading and night-sweating for months.
Fri, Jun 26, 2020, 10:39 PM
Subject: 2020 Badwater 135: CANCELED
What didn’t COVID ruin in 2020? All those hours of heat training, sitting in the car with my windows up wearing six layers of sweats. All those days waking up while it was still dark out. All those miles and worn-out sneakers. All those squats and deadlifts. And for what?
We didn’t even get a refund. Not even a credit for the next year. It was just one big, fat L.
I was pissed. I was a living, breathing version of the Michael Jordan “and I took that personally” meme. I wanted revenge. I did not want to let this race defeat me, so I used my vendetta as motivation for an entire calendar year.
Being mad at the circumstances around the 2020 race cancellation should not be confused for the actual madness of heat training, which is both ridiculous and necessary.
For a race like Badwater, it’s not just about the miles on your legs. It’s getting your body acclimated to extreme heat so it won’t shut down or, you know, die. It’s learning to recognize the difference between “Wow, this is miserable” and “I might be experiencing organ failure.” Typical, totally normal stuff, right?
In June, I did every run in layers — piling on sweatshirts and long pants while running through the streets of hot and humid Washington, D.C. I looked deranged and unstable, like the kind of person who doesn’t know what season it is and might wear a tinfoil hat to prevent brain goblins. I made sure to give the Secret Service agents standing near the White House a thumbs-up — All good here, guys! — but they nevertheless stared at me with suspicion and confusion.
As race day got closer, I spent an hour each morning in a 200-degree sauna at the gym, hydrating and sweating through every pore to train my body to process water more quickly. I sat in the soft light reading paperback books until their bindings melted and pages curled. My heart rate elevated as if I were doing interval training, but I was just sitting still, roasting like a turkey. Though it wasn’t my goal, I outlasted every single other person who stepped into that cedar box. This is my house now.
Speaking of my house, sorry to my supportive partner, Josh, but I turned off the air conditioning. The good news is our electric bill was almost nothing; the bad news is that it never got much cooler than 84 degrees. And yet, I still put on a hoodie, long pants, wool socks and slippers, closed the door to my home office, and blasted a space heater. Three times a day, I had to put my laptop in the refrigerator to cool it off so it wouldn’t crap out. Me? I was a constant sweat-ball but otherwise functioning just fine. The things we do for love, right?
WHEN I REACH the Stovepipe Wells checkpoint at Mile 42.2, it’s 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday. As the sun rises, the desert glows with pinks and purples and ambers, like melted rainbow sherbet.
For having already run for 8.5 hours, I’m feeling strong, efficient and ready to smoke this next section, a 17-mile climb to Towne Pass. The temperature is steadily climbing, and so am I.
“Why is this so hard?” I ask Brenna, who has been pacing me for the past 7 miles.
“You’re crushing it,” she says. “Look how much you’ve covered already.”
I turn around for the first time in hours, and everything behind me is downhill. What a relief to know that it isn’t just fatigue slowing me down and forcing me to feel the effort. This terrain is no joke.
At Mile 52, Kalie jumps in to pace me for the rest of the climb, and it’s like a lightning strike. Straight energy. When she’s nudging me on, I can feel her giddy-up, almost like I’m boxing her in. She wants to move. You can just sense it. I keep pressing on, and soon enough, we’ve power hiked to the top of Towne Pass, the first of three mountain sections between me and the finish line.
Mile 58.7 and still feeling great. Almost 5,000 feet of elevation, earned step by step from below sea level, most of which is about to evaporate as I bomb down the hills. I lean into the downward slope and careen through the steep switchbacks, focusing on my leg turnover. I don’t need the road signs to announce every 1,000 feet of descent; I can feel it as my knees grind like a molcajete. No sense fighting gravity. It’s better to use that free speed, even if it hurts.
When I get toward the bottom of the mountain, Ricky hops in for a strategy jog.
“Jimmie’s going to mule you across Panamint. We’re not going to do any crew stops because I want you to get across the kill zone as fast as possible,” he says. “It’s going to be hard, but you got this.”
Compared to the mountains ahead and the mountains behind, the next 7-mile section of straight road looks flat and easy.
But girrrrrl, don’t kid yourself. You’re headed right into the heart of the beast.
Jimmie and I begin pushing through Panamint Valley, and I am instantly sweating like a dad at the YMCA. “It’s freaking Hurricane Harbor in here all day,” Jimmie says, spraying me down with cold water every few paces.
This is fun. This could be fun. Then, out of nowhere, this is not fun.
Panamint Valley is where dreams go to die. The air temperature is 114 degrees, but it’s way hotter than that on the road, freshly paved black. And there is no cross-breeze in hell.
I feel like straight-up garbage. Like I want to stop — not quit — but stop running, sweating, slowly melting into glass.
Poor Jimmie keeps dousing me with water and nudging me along. He’s in long sleeves and long pants for sun protection, and I’m wondering how he hasn’t dried into jerky — a literal Slim Jim. What a good friend. Without Jimmie, I’d be dead and picked over by some wayward coyotes by now.
I can see our next checkpoint at Panamint Springs Resort, and my eyes tell me it’s about a mile until I get there. But then I see a road sign that practically ruins my life.
PANAMINT SPRINGS RESORT — 3 MILES
I lose my mind. How? How am I only halfway through this? Am I on a conveyor belt going backward?
I’m furious at everything and everyone, because how is this taking so long? I want answers, but there are none in Panamint Valley. It’s the closest thing to Azkaban prison I’ve ever experienced.
I curse the sky, screaming up at the sun like I’m the lead in a Shakespearean tragedy. I defy you, stars!
Jimmie had just crossed the road to restock on water and ice, leaving me alone with my angst for just a few minutes. So now I’m looking at the van — at four generous, kind people trying to keep my spirits up — and I just know that one of them is going to say something nice.
Look, I’m not proud of it, but I’ve had the humbling displeasure of striking out in a slow-pitch softball game. When that happens, I don’t want anyone to pat me on the back and tell me it’s OK. It’s not OK. It’s disgraceful and humiliating. I grew up in New Jersey, where our state motto might as well be “cut the bulls—.” So when people patronize me or tell me lies in the interest of being nice, it offends me on a deep, molecular level.
I can endure the heat and chafing and sleep deprivation and toe blisters. But what I cannot endure is my crew lying to me and trying to protect me from the fact that this sucks right now and it’s going to suck until I get from here to there using my own two feet.
I can’t handle the untruth. So I preempt them, yelling across the road into the van before they have a chance.
“No one better tell me I’m doing a great job right now!”
They look at me, stunned and silent as I march past.
Fueled by my rage, I finally make it across the sandy stretch of Hades and immediately go down for a nap in the van. My thighs are tagged with red swirls, not from sunburn but from flash heating. I just want to take my shorts off. The chafing beneath the back of my sports bra feels like someone ripped off an angel’s wings, which feels appropriate for having traipsed through hell.
I stretch out in the passenger seat, cover my face to block the sun and close my eyes.
IF I RECALL correctly, the boys’ attitudes changed in about fourth grade. Until then, they had only ever thought of me as one of them: an athlete, a competitor, a teammate. At our elementary school field day — Applegate School’s de facto Super Bowl — I was the anchor in the sprint relay. In gym class, I was always one of the first picks. I loved sports as much as or more than those boys, and I torched most of them in the mile run during the national physical fitness test.
I was still the same kid, so I didn’t understand why Danny Pires, who had been my best friend since kindergarten, all of a sudden started yelling “Girls can’t play ball!” to me at recess. I didn’t understand why I no longer got invited to their sporty birthday parties at Grand Slam USA.
As I reflect back, it occurs to me that, at the budding age of 9, the boys in my class had finally soaked up that meathead au jus. The antiquated, hurtful narrative that boys are better than girls, particularly at sports. The messages had been pumping at them in toy commercials, sports broadcasts and history textbooks where boys get to be adventurers and girls get to cheer for them and bring them pitchers of water.
I had successfully fended that off, simply by competing. So it stung when all of a sudden my times and performances weren’t enough to prove that I belonged in the game.
I definitely didn’t cry about it then or now. But every time I don’t get the invite to play pickup. Every time someone sees me as just an undersized girl who doesn’t belong on the field, on the court, in the conversation. Every time women and girls in sports get marginalized, discounted or left out, it adds more fuel to an already raging fire. No wonder I’m burning up out here.
Healthy, unhealthy, who gives a f—? The point is, this is how I sublimated all those feelings. I’m still in this race, still fighting to prove to people who don’t even think about me that they were wrong. That I’m tougher than they will ever be. That they’ll never beat me.
Because there are no wimpy women in this house.
WHEN I WAKE up from my nap, it’s an absolute revelation. Unless you’ve been around toddlers recently, you might have forgotten what a 30-minute nap can do.
Don’t call it a comeback.
Ricky puts an ice bandanna around my neck and drapes a wet towel over my head. Kalie hops in to pace me, and we begin climbing the second mountain section.
“You finally look like you’re running Badwater!” Ricky says, 75 miles and 18 hours into the race. About damn time.
There must be something in the water Kalie sprays on me because we are cruising up these mountain switchbacks. At every turn, I look back and see another astounding view of the road behind me and the vast expanse I’ve covered on foot.
The landscape is severe and reminiscent of what you might find on Mars — craggy rock faces, a sky without clouds, questions of whether anything could sustain life here. With this as our dystopian bizarro backdrop, Kalie and I talk about life and nihilism, and how freeing it is to believe that nothing matters. Below us — yes, below — we hear fighter jets flying through Rainbow Canyon, a common training area for military pilots.
It’s like being in a sci-fi movie. But this is real life. My life. What even is life?
Before you know it, I’ve conquered another 8 miles and we’re at Father Crowley’s Turnout at Mile 80.65. Jimmie tells me that Sally McRae, who will go on to win the women’s race, left this parking lot crying. Judging by the piles of puke I passed on the way up here, I’m sure she’s not the only one.
I feel strong but tired. I press on, running the flats and feeling cooler than I’ve felt since last night.
“Can I take this off?” I ask, offering Ricky the ice bandanna that has been refilled a thousand times and tied around my neck. I don’t want to carry the weight, and I’m sick of being so wet. The chafing, you guys. It’s inhumane.
“It’s still over a hundred out, so no,” he says, laughing. Bro, Death Valley really plays with you. It makes you think that 107 degrees is refreshing.
We get to the Darwin checkpoint at Mile 90.6 at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday. We’ve officially exited Death Valley National Park and are moving into the backstretch of the race. I’ve been running almost 24 hours, but I still have another 45 miles to go before I can figuratively call it a day.
Time and space become amorphous and meaningless. The sun is up, but so is the moon. The landscape looks the same — desert to my left, distant mountain to my right. But way up ahead is a mountain range where I know there’s a finish line. I just have to get there.
ALL DAY, THE sun has been attacking me directly, but now she’s trying a new tactic. Twilight, the silent killer. Through thousands of years of social and biological conditioning, the darkness tells me it’s time to rest. But I can’t stop now; I’m not even close to done with this race.
By Mile 95.6, I am a headless horseman. Twenty-four hours and 55 minutes into this race, and my body continues to make forward progress, but I’m not sure who’s driving this thing. Everything feels strange and upside-down. And though I’ve never been drunk in my life, I feel hammered.
“I think I need a nap,” I tell my crew.
“I want you to push to Mile 100 if you can,” Ricky says to me. He’s concerned that if I nap now, I’ll lose ground and the runners behind me will leave me in the dust. Besides, goals are important and sometimes the urge to sleep goes away, right? So, I’m trying, y’all. I’m really trying to throw down these next 4 miles.
“Find it,” I say to myself. But I just don’t have it right now. Resistance is futile. But man, do I appreciate my team always nudging me on, believing I have it when I really don’t.
The moment I hop in the passenger seat and close my eyes, your girl is zonked. Racked out. Unconscious. Gone in 60 seconds. But when Ricky wakes me up 30 minutes later, I pop up like a golden brown slice of toast, perfectly done.
“Start hunting,” he says. Only two runners have passed, and all I see ahead are their vans’ flashers. It’s on.
BRENNA, KALIE, JIMMIE and Ricky tag in throughout the next 20 miles, the night getting progressively darker and cooler as we get farther from Death Valley. The miles are a slow-motion blur as fatigue really kicks in.
Now that the temperature has dropped into the 70s, my body is no longer heat challenged, which means it’s starting to perform other functions beyond just cooling off the engines. My digestive system is gearing back to life, processing everything I’ve consumed. My belly feels a little woozy every time I eat.
But I need calories. I can’t make it another 20 miles on fumes and good intentions. So, everything is a balance. Everything is a struggle.
But I signed up for this. I wanted this. I still want this.
When I reach Mile 111 at 1:21 a.m., I walk to the van and matter-of-factly tell everyone that I’m taking a nap. “Wake me up in a few minutes,” I say. There’s a chance I’m asleep before my body even hits the passenger seat. But 4 minutes later, Ricky wakes me up, and girrrrrl, I’m telling you. That micronap? Life-giving.
We arrive at the Lone Pine checkpoint just before sunrise on Wednesday. I’ve gone 122 miles, and while I’d love to think that finishing is a foregone conclusion, the rest of this race is uphill. I’ve got 13 miles and 5,000 feet of vert between me and that finish line.
I suppose now is as good a time as any for blisters to develop on my heels. Those little motherf—ers sure know how to spoil a party.
Look, you probably have a lot of great people in your life who will be there for you when you need them. But if you don’t have a Ricky, then you’d better go find yourself a Ricky. Someone who will clean up your blistered, pungent feet with no questions or complaints. True heroism.
Even in my condition — feral, sleep-deprived and light-headed — I know it’s a scene. Me, kneeling across the passenger seat, eating a Pop Tart and dangling my heels out the door. Ricky, applying a tincture that stings so bad it makes me breathe like I’m in labor. I put on my third pair of shoes and prepare for the climb.
“You need to be obsessed with getting up these hills,” Ricky says. He knows. He’s been there. The second he says it, I’m locked in. No more lollygagging. We’ve got a job to do.
Good news. This ass and these thighs were built for two things: denim and climbing.
I POWER HIKE up the next 3 miles alone, my heart rate higher than it’s been this entire race. Then Brenna and Jimmie rotate in, encouraging me, telling me I look strong, reminding me to swing my arms. I don’t have the breath or the mind to hold up a conversation. I just nod along and keep grinding.
I hit the last checkpoint at Mile 131, and Kalie hops in to pace me to the finish. “Just keep going,” she says. “Nothing else matters right now.” Her small voice and quiet energy feel like they come from within me.
I’m in angry mode. Anyone between me and the finish line is my enemy. And I’m not just saying that to add drama. I’m about to snap.
We hit a series of steep switchbacks, and I’m gaining on the racers in front of me. I pass them on a turn, running in a burst that takes the wind out of me. The air is thin, the hills are steep and I’m running on empty. I’m in a dissociative state — between awake and asleep, alive and dead, here and gone. My nutrition is right at the brink.
I don’t want to crash. I’ve come way too far to fail now.
“IT’S JUST A few more switchbacks,” Jimmie says to me when I ask him for the third time how much farther I have to go.
I stare him right in the eyes and say, “That’s not helpful.” It’s as if he’s a customer service agent denying me a refund and not my very good friend who flew all the way out to the middle of nowhere to support me. As if him not knowing the precise distance from this arbitrary point to the finish line is a personal attack. As if he’s sabotaging me on purpose.
So now I’m yelling. At my support crew. The four people who have kept me alive this entire time, tending to every blister and bellyache. Upon reflection, I’m the worst.
But you have to understand. At this point, I’ve been on my feet and sweating for 37 hours. My mind is foggy; my body is a disaster; and I’m so tired that I don’t even have the cognitive function to regulate emotion.
I have less than a mile left of this life-sucking 135-mile race, and I want to cross that finish line running. I’m browning out, from sleep deprivation and an insurmountable caloric deficit, and I just don’t have the legs to kick if I don’t know how much farther I have to go.
Then Brenna comes bounding over with a big smile on her face. Who could possibly smile at a time like this? We’re dying out here, Brenna!
“There’s a woman up ahead, walking slowly… You can pass her!” she says. She believes in me and knows I’m competitive. But I’m beyond all of that.
As much as I like Brenna, I don’t have the same relationship with her as I have with Jimmie. So I snap at him instead.
“I don’t care about one single human being right now.”
I think I was referring to the woman up ahead, but with such a blanket statement and stank attitude, I can’t be sure. Honestly, I don’t even remember saying it. But my crew can corroborate that I am possessed by an inner beast.
Finally, I see the finish line and the aforementioned woman, talking politely and appreciatively to her crew as they approach the tape.
I swear I love my crew too, but I’ve got a funny way of showing it. They get out of the van and join me in running toward that finish line together. I take off. It’s maybe 100 meters, but it’s everything I have left. I’ve still got some fast-twitch muscles ready to fire, and I cross the finish line not just jogging but running hard. When I go back and look at the race data, I’m the sixth-fastest person and the fastest woman in that 4-mile stretch. Is that an excuse for being a heinous zombie? Probably not. But to my crew, I’m sorry and you’re welcome for the memories.
I DON’T CRY at the finish line. I don’t feel overwhelmed or overjoyed. In fact, I don’t feel much of anything other than wiped. After taking some photos and thanking my crew, I lie down on the pavement and close my eyes.
We did it. We actually did it.
It took me 37 hours, 37 minutes to get from start to finish, of which I spent 64 minutes napping, at least 120 minutes singing and 25 minutes yelling irrational things at my poor, wonderful crew. I polished off 4 liters of Coke, 11 packets of Pedialyte, a pineapple and a container of strawberries, two sweet potatoes, four protein shakes, two packages of gummy watermelons, a jar of pickles, a cup of ramen and two emergency McDonald’s hash browns.
We spend about an hour at the finish line, but I’m not sure why. I’m minimally conscious, trying to eat a pancake but instead just fondling it. I put my head down on the picnic table and try to remain human.
Later that day, my team checks into our Airbnb, where I finally take a shower and wash off the sweat, stink and dirt that gives me that “girl raised by wolves” vibe. As the hot water hits my raw, chafed skin, I scream a little. OK, fine, a lot. But it’s worth the pain to feel clean again. I curl up for the most important two-hour nap of my life.
That evening, the five of us head to a sleepy café in a sleepy town. It’s just us, rehashing stories from this magical adventure as the sun sets behind that mountain ridge near the finish line.
That’s when the dream starts to feel real.
I didn’t know that you could feel cathartic and giddy at the same time, but here we are, laughing our heads off as I start to feel a warm, proud glow.
My crew fills me in on the things I missed while I was running. How mean and angry I was, how hot and sweaty and tired they were. But we did what we came to do, so the low points become the high points. That’s how we’ll always remember them.
Because we really did this thing.
I thought Badwater would show me how tough I am. But that’s not what this was about. Badwater doesn’t test your toughness. It’s not a f—ing truck commercial.
When you’re out there, you see people breaking down. Marching to the finish line with vacant eyes and a cramp-induced lean. Puking and crying and speaking in tongues.
Where do they muster the strength to pick themselves back up time and time again?
I knew before I even started the race that it would change me. Because I’ve done some hard things, but I’ve never seen myself on the other side of that line. Running Badwater was the only way I knew how to get to the truth, to ask questions I didn’t know I had about myself.
Are you ready to see your insides laid bare? Do you actually want to know who you are when it all falls down? Can you trust other people to hold you together mentally and physically when you have nothing else left? Are you OK pooping in a bag next to someone you want to respect you when this whole thing is done?
I left pieces of myself out there. Things I thought I was are now just sitting in a discard pile somewhere between Mile 90 and the finish line. But I found new pieces, new answers, new reasons. And though I’m still not done figuring out how it all fits together, I know I wouldn’t trade this feeling for anything.
I remember hearing an episode of the podcast “Invisibilia,” in which anthropologist Renato Rosaldo discussed his time studying the Ilongot tribe, from a remote area of the Philippines. Rosaldo described a word, a feeling — liget — that didn’t have a direct translation from Ilongot to English. It wasn’t sadness, joy, fear or anger, exactly, but it could be all of those feelings or attached to them. It most closely translated to “high voltage.”
Liget is primal, intense, all-encompassing and difficult to describe. After Badwater, I can relate.
It was like I experienced the entirety of human emotion all at once.
Love and pain. Terror and triumph. Anger and affection.
Humble but invincible. Close to dead but never more alive. And very, very sweaty.
I’ve always been a little bit terrified of letting go because it’s scary to think of what might happen. But I learned that to prove myself I didn’t have to be fearless. I just had to fear less.
I had to get comfortable being completely exposed — to my crew, to the elements, to the possibility of failure. To the unthinkable fear that I’m not good enough, not tough enough. That those boys might have been right about me.
I had to run headfirst into that fear, and why not add a haboob while you’re at it. Because you might have to let it all in so you can let it all out.
Badwater showed me that it’s not toughness or effort that sets me apart or defines me. It’s my willingness to step into the arena and risk it all. My vulnerability is my superpower.
I just had to go out there and find it.