It’s six in the morning and it’s already hot — real hot. I’m with my crew, 282 feet below sea level in the Badwater Basin of California’s Death Valley, waiting for my heat to begin its journey across 135 miles of blazing desert. For months, I trained in a sauna for hours a day. I pumped away on a Stairmaster trying to build up “heat tolerance” for this extreme weather, but it’s still nothing compared to the real thing.
Some of the competitors in my group are walking around dressed in white, heat-shielding clothes. It gives the scene a crazy feel: I am among aliens. Despite the shock and otherworldly weirdness of the scenario, I feel confident. OK, I’m a little terrified, but at the same time, good.
I just want to get moving.
I have two goals as the race director readies us for the start: The first is just to survive the race and 120-degree temperatures. The second is to shoot for the buckle, which is awarded to all competitors who finish the race in less than 48 hours.
The race starts fine. I feel really good running through the first checkpoint. But at Mile 24 — nearly one whole marathon into the race — I develop severe heat cramps in my legs and stomach. My crew assures me that I am taking in plenty of electrolytes and salt, but my body doesn’t seem to be processing it properly.
I start deteriorating quickly. My fluids are just sloshing in my stomach, and I feel bloated. I projectile vomit. I will repeat that process for the next 40 miles.
I’m absolutely miserable. Depressed. I wonder if I’m going to make it. I can’t help but think about how much farther I have to go.
Fifteen hours into the race, I’m still puking. I haven’t urinated, and it’s starting to freak me out.
As night falls, we reach Panamint Springs to rest. I finally pee. Some flat Coca-Cola settles my stomach. A little chicken noodle soup and a high-sodium drink get my electrolytes back to normal, but I still feel like I really got my ass kicked.
My feet are a mess of blisters. I close my eyes for some rest as one of my crew works on them, popping the blisters and sealing them with duct tape, then it’s back to the race.
I pass into the company of another runner, Marshall Ulrich, who has made the Badwater crossing more than 20 times. He tells me I’m doing great, that from our position I could walk it and come in under the cutoff time for the belt. This encouragement keeps me moving — sometimes very slowly, butmoving.
At Mile 85 I feel good in my mind, and I’m sure I can finish this, only to quickly lose all positive thoughts again at Mile 90. The highs and lows of this race are extreme and exhausting.
A mile later, my crew senses my drop in confidence and gets me off the road. I’m in bad shape.
I feel like I’ve arrived at the gates of hell.
Still, somehow, I am able to gag down a bit of turkey sandwich and a few Pringles. I feel numb and defeated. I watch as 15, 20 runners pass me by. Suddenly, I am angry at myself.
All I’ve done the whole race is cry and moan to my friends and crew, and I think,F--- it! I’m going to finish this race or die. And with that resolve, I’m out of my chair, putting my headphones in place and running again.
I don’t know what’s in me, but I run steadily to Mile 122, Portal Road, the last checkpoint before the 13-mile, 4,500-foot climb to the finish line at Whitney Portal. Here, I’m joined by my friend and crew member, Aron Ralston, who encourages and paces me at a great clip to the finish. The race was like running in hell then finally breaking through into life.
Out of all the runners, I had the seventh fastest time for the last 50 miles. My time for the entire race: 39 hours, 18 minutes and 6 seconds. Good for 27th place.
I survived. I finished. I got the buckle.