A couple years ago at Thanksgiving, I watched with fascination Running On The Sun, the 1999 account of the Badwater Ultramarathon. I wrote a review on it here. I knew I would never run the race but it never even occurred to me that one day I would be crewing for it because I didn’t even know anybody who wanted to run 135 miles in a human BBQ. All that changed when I met Pam Reed.
I had crewed for Pam in Jan. of this year when she did a 24-hr. run near my home in California. So when Pam asked me to join her crew for Badwater, I didn’t hesitate. In his pre-event news release, race director Chris Kostman said, “The necessary favorite is Pam Reed, 50, of Jackson, WY, the 2002 and 2003 overall champion who also won the women’s field in 2005 and placed 2nd woman and 7th overall in 2009.” Pam had also recently qualified for the Ironman World Championships and the 70.3 World Championships, and won the Keys 100 in an impressive time. She was more than ready; at age 50, she was in the best shape of her life. Most people do Badwater just to finish or win a belt buckle. Pam was here to win it, and that creates a sense of excitement and a dynamic with the crew that other teams don’t get a chance to experience.
A week before Badwater, one of our crew members had to drop, so my running pal and training partner Dr. Kevin Stuart joined the crew. I was thrilled to be doing another epic event with Kevin as we have shared some really awesome experiences over the years. Still, we weren’t really sure what to expect as rookie crew members. Race rules state “runners accompanied by conveyance such as hovercrafts and helicopters will be disqualified.” Why would “hovercraft” need to be in the rules? At the general store at Furnace Creek Ranch, I found a t-shirt with the instruction, “Bring a compass. It’s awkward when you have to eat your friends.” Such rules and words leave a lot to the imagination.
This year’s crew met for the first time two days before the race in Las Vegas. Led by crew chief Susy Bacal, we were joined by veteran crew members Craig Bellmann and Jim Cady. Nike running coach Kenley Ferrara joined us from New York City. I could tell there was a good vibe with this crew right from the start.
Pam figured she had one person to beat–Sumie Inagaki of Japan. Pam had run with Sumie in France at the 48-hr. world championships. Sumie is the world record holder at 48-hrs. but this was her rookie year at Badwater and had probably never run in this kind of heat.
Early on race morning, Pam got a phone call and heard some difficult family news. At breakfast, she told the whole crew. We knew it wasn’t the kind of thing she could just block out of her mind, but we tried to keep things light-hearted since the race was starting in just a few hours.
Kenley and I waited at Furnace Creek (mile 17) in the second van to take over support when Pam arrived. We watched the entire 10 am. group come through. Something was wrong. The crew said Pam seemed fine the first ten miles, then started slowing down and walking with a sharp pain in her back. We couldn’t tell if it was a real injury or if the stress of the news from home had her tied in knots. Whatever it was, Pam was suffering.
When Pam finally arrived, she had to lay in the shade. We did our best to calm her down, help her relax and find a new groove. She took a dip in the pool at Furnace Creek Ranch and we hoped that would help her snap out of her funk. Eventually we were back on the road and tried to keep moving. We took turns walking with Pam for several miles as she struggled mentally and physically.
One race official pulled up behind us, shocked to see Pam in very last place. Without hesitation he said, “We will bend the rules for Pam. She can do anything she wants out here.” It was indeed an honor to be crewing for Badwater royalty. She made it another few miles but decided to drop before things got worse.
Even at her lowest point, Pam wanted to check on her fellow runners. We drove ahead to find Amy Palmiero-Winters in bad shape on the side of the road. We pulled over and Pam gave Amy some words of encouragement. Amy recovered like a true champion and finished the race.
We also caught up to Luis Escobar who had returned to Badwater after a five year hiatus. Pam and I had a fantastic time with Luis last Sept. when we took him to Jackson Hole, WY to do a photoshoot of Pam in the Teton Mountains. He’s an amazing photographer and an outstanding runner, finishing his third Badwater this year.
Once we gathered ourselves and realized the race was over for us, Pam said she wanted us to drive to Stovepipe Wells at mile 40 to give the rookie crew members a flavor of the race. We passed many runners and just about everyone looked like they were suffering greatly. It was 125 degrees and everyone at the time station remarked how it was so much cooler than last year’s 134. We all jumped in the pool at the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel.
I didn’t get to experience the full measure of Badwater but I saw enough to appreciate the magnitude of what these runners do out there for 135 miles in unimaginable heat. And to consider that every year the field gets better, stronger, faster. I can’t help but wonder just how fast someone can run this course. The men’s record is 22:51:29 and some were expecting it to be broken again this year.
It’s hard to know if Pam will make a another run at Badwater. I’m not sure she knows herself. It would seem there’s really nothing left to prove but a DNF doesn’t seem like the way to end her career at the event that brought her worldwide fame in the ultra running community. If she decides to go for it next year, I hope to be there.