Edit: I made a few small changes, most notably changing “Lookout Mountain” to “Horseshoe Meadows” because I made up Lookout Mountain for no good reason. Maybe I was still tired.

Two years ago, I met Chris Benjamin while running trails in Kansas City. His goal?

To run the Badwater 135.

I looked at his training and his current form and told him it would take 2-3 years to get him there. He quickly became my second coaching client.

Through a complete change in his running and training, he has transformed into a very, very competitive ultra runner. His specialty are road and flat courses, like Keys 100 and Heartland 100, where he has placed Top-10 at both.

The Badwater 135 traditionally ran from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, to Whitney Portal and the trailhead of Mt. Whitney. The course threw runners into the fire, with temperatures in Death Valley National Park reaching well into the 120’s. The heat pushed the absolute limit of performance and mental toughness.

Or, what can you do when your body thinks it is going to start on fire.

This year’s Badwater would be different. When Chris Kostman, the Badwater Race Director, announced the course change for the 2014 race, runners were less than enthused, including Chris. After some soul-searching, Chris decided to take part in this inaugural course instead of opting to wait for 2015 and a hopeful return to Death Valley.

Editors Note: Chris Kostman, being the guy he is, got in touch and said “You might mention that the course change this year was due to bureaucrats in Death Valley National Park.”  This should be noted. It wasn’t Chris’s decision to change the route. 

From a coaching standpoint, I was left in the dark. I could see the course maps and read descriptions, but they did not fully prepare me (and him) for what he was going to experience. Luckily, I have the opportunity to travel with Chris when he races, and I was part of the small crew that would support him for the 2014 Badwater 135.

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Below are my thoughts on the breakdown of the race. I included thoughts on Chris’ performance as well as general observations on training and important aspects of each specific race section. As I dissect more information, I’ll be posting it on MTGE for everyone to read.

Pre-race thoughts

Initially for training purposes, I broke the race down into five sections. After spending 31:13 on the course, I made some changes and added two more sections to the breakdown, making the following seven sections.

Start in Lone Pine to Horseshoe Meadows and back down to Lone Pine. 
Lone Pine to Keeler on Hwy 136/Dolomite Loop.
Cerro Gordo Ascent and Descent back down to Hwy 136.
Keeler/Hwy 136 to Darwin turn around.
Darwin Turn around to Keeler/Hwy.136
Keeler/Hwy 136 to Lone Pine
Lone Pine to Whitney Portal

Some of my mixed pre-race thoughts.

  • What struck me about the new course was the elevation change. The estimate is 19,000 ft of gain over the duration of the course. The Whitney Portal climb means more gain than loss overall. The remainder of the course is out and back, thus leveling the gain/loss.
  • Heat training became less of a factor. Temperatures in Lone Pine were predicted to hover around 90-95 degrees. Chris lives in Kansas City, where it regularly tops out over 100 degrees with ridiculous humidity.
  • Descents would be difficult. You can always put your treadmill on a 15% incline, but a decline is another matter. Kansas City isn’t full of hills, so we would rely on good running form and training for descents as much as we possibly could.
  • The 15 mile solo route on Cerro Gordo was a wildcard. Some runners who recced the route reported a very tough final 3.5 miles.

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Race Analysis

In order to find the splits, I created a google spreadsheet. You can view it here: 2014 Badwater Results and Splits

Chris’ Overall Results

Time Station – Location –  Split – Split Place – Overall Time – Overall Place

Mile 23 – Horseshoe Meadows –  4:35 – 33rd – 4:35 – 33rd
Mile 45 –
 Lone Pine (Dow) – 3:50 – 31st – 8:25 – 28th
Mile 59 – Keeler – 
3:10 – 18th – 11:35 – 23rd
Mile 67 – Top of Cerro Gordo – 
2:52 – 19th – 14:27 – 19th
Mile 75 – Keeler –  
1:57 – 25th – 16:24 – 17th
Mile 91 – Darwin Turn Around – 
3:51 – 9th – 20:15 – 16th
Mile 122 – Lone Pine (Dow) 
7:27 – 19th – 27:42 -18th
Mile 131 – Portal Road – 
2:23 – 7th – 30:05 – 17th
Mile 135 – Whitney Portal (FINISH) – 
1:08 – 18th – 31:13 – 17th

Race Morning

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The 2014 Badwater 135 started in three waves, 6am, 7am and 8am. Chris was selected to start in the 8am wave. The wave was full of former Badwater winners, Pam Reed, Oswaldo Lopez, Carlos Sa and the 2014 hopefuls like Harvey Lewis and good friend, Grant Maughan, last year’s runner-up.

At 6am, we had breakfast outside the hotel on a cool, crisp morning. I asked Chris “Did you imagine you would be cold before Badwater?” We all laughed. Not the Badwater he had dreamed in his head, but the challenge was still real.

We made our way to the start in downtown Lone Pine. All of the runners had to weigh in at the start in case of a medical visit during the race. After taking care of pre-race greetings, introductions and a few laughs, the time had come.

Start in Lone Pine to Horseshoe Meadows and down.

0-43.0 mi +6874 ft / -6818 ft
Mile 23 – Horseshoe Meadows –  4:35 – 33rd – 4:35 – 33rd
Mile 45 –
 Lone Pine (Dow) – 3:50 – 31st – 8:25 – 28th

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The runners headed up the portal road and hung a quick left, down a narrow closed road toward Horseshoe Meadow. Runners are off limits to their crew for the first four miles, so, what better time to head back into town, grab some coffee, tea and relax for a few minutes?  That we did.

Out of Lone Pine, we caught up with Chris after the required four mile wait. The climb was fairly tame for the first four miles. The runners separated out and found their pace. With the cooler than normal Badwater temps, quite a few of the 8am runners went out with something to prove.

Once on the road toward Horseshoe Meadow, the hill grade increases. There were many runners who, in my opinion, went out too hard at this stage. I saw plenty with labored breathing and tense muscles as they fought against the first climb. I’m sure many were spurred on by the cooler temps and the adrenaline which flows at any race start. Runners in the future would benefit from relaxing on this climb and descent.

With each gain in elevation comes a slight drop in temperatures. The route was fairly exposed, with little shade, but a moderate wind kept the temperatures manageable and cool toward the top.

As per the rules, we provided Chris with aid every two miles. Two miles was a perfect distance. It let Chris get into a groove with his running and was the point where he would be almost finished with his 20 oz of fluid he carried in his hand held.

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Within the first 10 miles, runners who went out too early were already beginning to drop back. Chris’ slow and steady climbing was perfectly on course, his spirits were high and his effort and breathing were easy.

Nearing the turn around, the road dropped for a short bit, only to raise back up for the final climb. The roads began to get crowded with the 6am and 7am runners who were beginning their descents. We cheered and exchanged plenty of greetings between runners and crew, as is the Badwater way.

The turn around point was the beginning of a campground. There were toilets and the first time station. This is a good spot to change any gear, refuel or take a break if necessary.

Mile 23 – Horseshoe Meadow 

4:35 – 33rd split – 4:35 – 33rd overall

Time for the descent. The first 23 miles of 7,000 ft of vert may have been difficult, but the legs are still fresh. The upcoming 20 miles of straight descent from 10,000 ft to 3,500 ft would challenge each runner’s patience.

Can you hold back when you feel fresh?

Pre-race, we talked about this being an important portion of the course due to the potential for significant quad damage from the descent. The smooth road and great temps provided quite the temptation to descend too fast. Chris did an excellent job of controlling his descent to set him up for continued success.

Nutrition began to get a bit tricky during the descent. Sloshing became an issue thanks to the downhills, causing an upset stomach. We changed game plans and kept nutrition light during this time. He had fueled well from the beginning, so we changed to every other stop. We also added in more chewable nutrition instead of liquid to eliminate the excess liquid. Problem solved.

For a second time, runners head through a short, residential area without their crew. We ran over to Subway to grab a sandwich, get some ice and met Chris on the other side.

The finish of the first out-and-back section puts you back into Lone Pine. You then check in at the second time station, located at the Dow Hotel. Pacers are allowed after the second time check-in at the Dow. Mandy volunteered first and began to run with Chris toward our hotel and Hwy.136.

We made the decision for Chris to hop into the hotel room to change clothes and prepare for the long evening to come.

— Mile 45 – Lone Pine (Dow) – 3:50 – 31st split – 8:25 – 28th overall —

Back into Lone Pine and out to Keeler via Hwy. 136 and Dolomite Loop

45-60mi – +392ft/-381
Mile 59 – Keeler – 3:10 – 18th split – 11:35 – 23rd overall

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Miles 45-60 bring you out of Lone Pine and down Hwy 136. This is a reverse of the old course, but don’t worry, you will come back on Hwy. 136 into Lone Pine for the ascent of Whitney Portal.

The trip out to Keeler brings a significant terrain change. Gone is ascending and descending, replaced with flat road and gravel. Chris took this section well, as expected. His body adjusted with the shift to the flatter terrain and he kept up a nice run. Our two-mile leap-frog was reaching the limit of his 20 oz of fluids as the heat began to make itself known. Mandy helped keep him moving while Matt and I kept up on his nutrition and overall fluid intake.

Runners takes a left off of Hwy. 136 onto Dolomite Loop, to avoid traffic. There may be less traffic (read: none) but the downside is the dust cloud created from the crew vans on the gravel and dirt road. The section as a whole has some small climbs, descents, but mostly is exposed and..well..long.

From a crew point of view, we began to think about the Cerro Gordo section. We heard from friends that it was the most difficult part of the course. The 15 miles was also off-limits to us, so we had to be on top of our game to prep Chris and Matt for the ascent and descent. Matt was ready to take on his duty as pack mule.

— Mile 59 – Keeler – 3:10 – 18th split – 11:35 – 23rd overall —

Cerro Gordo Ascent and Descent from Hwy. 136

60-74.6 mi +4361 ft / -4520 ft
Mile 67 – Top of Cerro Gordo – 2:52 – 19th – 14:27 – 19th
Mile 75 – Keeler –  1:57 – 25th – 16:24 – 17th overall

 

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We reached Keeler and the third time station. Cerro Gordo is a 15 mile out/back section with 4,500 ft of climbing in 7.5 miles. The steepest portion of the ascent is the last 3.5 miles. Only one crew member is allowed on the Cerro Gordo section. No van support is allowed.

To tackle the ascent, Matt took over crewing duties. There would be two water stations on the route, but no food support. We estimated this climb and descent would take anywhere from 3.5-4.5 hours, but were unsure overall. Matt loaded up with a full 2L of water, protein bars, GenUCan, Nuun, long sleeve shirt, light jacket and headlamps. Chris switched out from his handheld and went for his small 2L Camelbak.

Once the gents took off up the hill, Mandy and I headed back to the hotel to rest and recoup for the night.

According to runners and crew who took on Cerro Gordo, it was the hardest section of the course. The steep grade, dirt and rocks, and darkness provided a daunting 15 miles, even on the downhill. The climb claimed Oswaldo Lopez, past Badwater champion, and several others.

At this point, the Badwater website was not updating with splits, so we had to estimate when Chris would finish the 15 miles. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much. On the descent, Matt was able to get cell phone service and sent a text well in advance of their arrival.

We organized the van, dumped the garbage and drove back out to Keeler to prep for the next leg.

Chris and Matt arrived back in Keeler in good spirits. After a quick check in at the time station, Chris switched head lamps, dumped his Camelbak and started the climb on Hwy 136 toward Darwin.

Note: Josh Spector provided an awesome review of the Cerro Gordo section in his pre-race prep. Look at it here.http://spectorjosh.com/badwater-135-recon/

Mile 67 – Top of Cerro Gordo – 2:52 – 19th – 14:27 – 19th
Mile 75 – Keeler –  
1:57 – 25th – 16:24 – 17th overall

Keeler to Darwin Turn Around via. Hwy. 136

74.5-92 (1849ft)
Mile 91 – Darwin Turn Around – 3:51 – 9th split – 20:15 – 16th overall

 

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It was well beyond sunset (around 11pm) and I began to run with Chris for 14 miles to the Darwin turn around. As you can imagine, traffic on Hwy. 136 was nonexistent, minus the runners and their crews. We were fairly spread out, so there were no close calls, even at night on a 65 mph road.

The temperature hovered around 80 degrees and there was a slight wind. Quite a few times we found ourselves between wanting to run, but after 80+ miles  steep and flat take on new meaning. We opted for a power hike.

I would say we walked 70-75% of this section on the way to Darwin. The darkness begins to play tricks on you. It’s hard to judge what is flat and what is hilly. We used passing cars and followed their lights to judge what sort of terrain we were on.

The out and back course design gave us the opportunity to see the lead runners, including giving high-fives to our good buddy, Grant, who finished second for the second year in a row.

As we got closer to Darwin, we began to see the car lights off in the distance. The last climb kept us guessing as to how far we truly had left. Mandy and Matt drove to the turn around and scouted how far we had left, about two miles. Eventually, the course will take a slight right and the time station was hidden on our right.

Chris was beginning to feel the impact of the course and the time on his feet. We sat him down for 15 minutes. We changed his shoes, look after a few small blisters and made sure he was well fed. The quick rest gave him time to lower his heart rate and prepare for a very runnable section toward Lone Pine.

This section overall was difficult for a few reasons. It was a sustained climb, albeit not steep, but lengthy, it was night and judging distance was difficult, and the athletes started to feel the time of the race.

Chris clocked the 9th fastest time on this section.

Mile 91 – Darwin Turn Around – 3:51 – 9th split – 20:15 – 16th overall

Descent from Darwin to Cerro Gordo and Hwy. 136 intersection

Mile 92 – 108 (-1849ft)

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The out-and-back nature of the course meant Chris would have a good downhill run out of Darwin and for 18-20 miles. Chris left the Darwin aid station at Mile 91 and started to run at a good clip. The running was a welcome change from all of the walking on the road to Darwin.

The next time station was in Lone Pine, but I broke up these sections based on terrain.

This section is runnable, direct and very exposed. Depending on the time you arrive, it could be very hot. In our case, it was still night for the first half, and the sun began to rise right around Mile 100.

As he ticked off the miles, we began to run into other crews. The 20 miles were full of leap frogging between us. We passed some runners, some runners passed us. Mandy, Matt and I were able to catch a few 15-20 minute cat naps which kept us fresh for the rest of the race and prepped us for the still long day to come.

Traffic started to whiz by as night turned to day. The speed limit is 65 mph, so make sure to be well on the side of the road.

Keeler to Lone Pine
108.6-124.5 (16.0 mi +329 ft / -227 ft)
Mile 122 – Lone Pine (Dow) 7:27 – 19th split – 27:42 -18th overall (This is from Darwin Mile 91 to Mile 122)

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Cerro Gordo time station. The mix of racing 24 hours, rising temps and the mental pressure of seeing Lone Pine in the distance began to pile up. Chris started to feel the heat and went through a rough patch.

He sat in the back of the van for a few minutes and we applied a few cold towels. It was good to get out of the heat for a bit. At this point, Chris was driven by the thought of a cold shower and a quick break in our air conditioned hotel room.

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There was no noticeable climbs or descents to speak of during this section. Just straight running toward Lone Pine. Like heading toward Darwin, the distance was deceiving. Also, I recommend NOT looking at the road markers on the right side of the road unless you want to drive yourself crazy.

At this point, we began to switch off every two to four miles to pace. Matt, Mandy and I were getting tired after driving, looking after Chris, and planning our next moves.

Matt hopped out of the van and paced Chris into Lone Pine. This was one of the better exchanges during the race.

Me: “It’s only 2.5 miles to Lone Pine and the hotel”
Chris: “2.5 miles??! 2.5 miles??! It’s just over that hill”
Me: “It’s 2.5 miles..”
Chris: “2.5 miles?!?!?!?!”

Mandy and I hurried ahead to get the hotel room ready. We cranked the A/C and brought up changes of clothes, food, and whatever else Chris requested.

Chris came into Lone Pine and headed straight for the hotel room. His quads were shot. I could see him limping and struggle to climb the stairs to the room. He knew all that stood between him and the finish was the last climb to Whitney Portal.

He took a cold shower, changed clothes and ate a small bit of food. 20-25 minutes passed before he was ready to go. He needed that break and it would prove to help immensely during the last climb to the finish.

— Mile 122 – Lone Pine (Dow) 7:27 – 19th – 27:42 -18th —

Lone Pine up to the finish at Whitney Portal.

124.5-135 (11.7 mi +4588 ft / -0 ft).
Mile 131 – Portal Road – 2:23 – 7th split – 30:05 – 17th overall
Mile 135 – Whitney Portal (FINISH) – 
1:08 – 18th split – 31:13 – 17th overall

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After departing the hotel, we headed toward the second last time station. 13 miles stood between Chris and the finish line. He checked in with a 7:27 time for the section from Darwin to the Dow Hotel, including his time in the hotel room.

Note to runners, you DO NOT have to cross over the road to check in at the Dow Hotel. Keep running against traffic on the opposite side of the time station. They will check you in as you run by. Just shout your number.

Chris began the descent up to the finish a mere 28 hours into the race. The climb to Whitney Portal is very exposed for four miles. The mental aspect also kicks in as you can see exactly where you are going, and where you need to go to get there.

2014 Badwater 135 - Whitney Portal

From a crew standpoint, we switched out runners much faster than before to keep our interest level high. We cut cut back on nutrition except for the bare minimum of some applesauce. He just wasn’t feeling like eating and frankly, there was no worry about finishing. It was just one foot in front of the other.

The course steadily climbs out of Lone Pine. The first six or seven miles are straight road toward Mt. Whitney. After checking in at the last time station, the switchbacks begin. They are much steeper than they look from afar and are filled with a fair amount of hiking traffic. Be aware.

While we waited for chris at the last stop and exchange, we looked out over the valley and saw the entire course. Laid out in front of us was 120 miles of beautiful, varied terrain. I took a minute and reflected on the fact that Chris covered all of that course ON FOOT. It’s a bit mad when you really stop to process it all…

We crossed into the campground and only a few switchbacks remained between him and the finish. There was a brief worry that we had missed the finish line, but the course kept climbing until the last turn.

Matt and Mandy parked and came down to meet us a few hundred yards from the finish line.. We all began a VERY slow run and as a team, crossed the finish line. Chris finished in 17th place at 31 hours, 13 minutes.

Badwater. Complete.

— Mile 131 – Portal Road – 2:23 – 7th split – 30:05 – 17th overall —
— Mile 135 – Whitney Portal (FINISH) – 
1:08 – 18th split – 31:13 – 17th overall —

2014 Badwater 135 - Chris Kostman and Chris Benjamin

2014 Badwater 135

Post Race thoughts

What an incredible event. From the crew, to the runners and the city itself, Badwater lived up to its name. I did not experience a race on the old course, but this course was absolutely spectacular and brutally tough. The previous Badwater course was considered to be the World’s toughest. This course, while lacking in brutal heat, was equally as tough. The three separate climbs interspersed with long stretches of flat running made the course extremely difficult. The heat played a factor on the second day after an already long first day of running.

At Badwater, your crew matters..a lot. It was an absolute pleasure to work with Mandy and Matt. They were phenomenal. Not one issue between us for the entire race. We were a well oiled machine. The small crew meant we were all occupied with tasks, which kept us occupied throughout.

Badwater purists who scoffed at the new course would be well served to come back next year and try their hand at the new route. They may find a harder course than they think.

I’ll post some more training thoughts over time as we begin to think about the 2015 version.

Chris’ Overall Results

Time Station – Location –  Split – Split Place – Overall Time – Overall Place

Mile 23 – Horseshoe Meadow –  4:35 – 33rd – 4:35 – 33rd
Mile 45 –
 Lone Pine (Dow) – 3:50 – 31st – 8:25 – 28th
Mile 59 – Keeler – 
3:10 – 18th – 11:35 – 23rd
Mile 67 – Top of Cerro Gordo – 
2:52 – 19th – 14:27 – 19th
Mile 75 – Keeler –  
1:57 – 25th – 16:24 – 17th
Mile 91 – Darwin Turn Around – 
3:51 – 9th – 20:15 – 16th
Mile 122 – Lone Pine (Dow) 
7:27 – 19th – 27:42 -18th
Mile 131 – Portal Road – 
2:23 – 7th – 30:05 – 17th
Mile 135 – Whitney Portal (FINISH) – 
1:08 – 18th – 31:13 – 17th

2014 Badwater 135

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