Now THAT was a fun long weekend. This past Friday, Alex, Zoey and I headed out to San Diego to meet up with pals Grant Maughan and Brad Lombardi for the inaugural running of the Badwater: Salton Sea ultramarathon:
As the recent brainchild of Badwater race director Chris Kostman, the Salton Sea race is the first of what will hopefully be a series of Badwater-affiliated races around the country. And this race was definitely worthy of the “Badwater” moniker: it’s an 81-mile odessey from the “beach” of the Salton Sea (the largest lake in California, and probably the largest unintentional man-made lake in the world) to the top of Palomar Mountain. The elevation profile, as well as the terrain and views, greatly mimic the Badwater course itself, making this a perfect training race for Badwater.
Held on Monday, March 6th, Salton Sea is unique in ultrarunning in that it is a team race, yet not a relay: each team has three runners, all of whom run the whole 81 miles, and all of whom must stay within 10 meters of each other the entire race. For this inaugural running of Salton Sea, Chris required that each team have a member with Badwater experience.
2. Our Team
Our team — Miami Thrice — consisted of myself, Brad “the Peacock” Lombardi (a more fitting nickname has never been bestowed upon anyone), and Grant Maughan, a super chill Australian. Brad test drives jet skis for a living; Grant captains a 210-foot yacht named the Turmoil. And I’m an astronaut. Or perhaps a lawyer . . . the point is that we all have tremendously exciting jobs where we get to spend the majority of our time outdoors. That’s definitely true in my case. Sure.
(An illustration of “Peacocking,” courtesy of the movie 17 Again. Yes, I just took a picture from a Zac Efron movie. I’m a really cool guy, I know).
At any rate, crewing for Crockett, Tubbs, and Zac Efron’s best friend would be my wife Alex, our daughter Zoey, along with Brad and Grant’s girlfriends, Brooke and Laura, respectively:
(Gratuitous cute baby pic)
With our team set, we flew out to the Whale’s Vagina and made the short drive to Borrego Springs (race headquarters) on Saturday. (If you haven’t seen the movie Anchorman, that last sentence won’t make a whole lot of sense to you…)
(Like the Channel 4 news team, Miami Thrice is “kind of a big deal”)
3. The Weekend Before the Race
Just like Badwater, Salton Sea is held on a Monday, so we had an entire weekend in Borrego Springs to explore the area, participate in pre-race activities, and get to know the other teams. As an aside, there was some SERIOUS running talent at this race . . . many of the biggest Badwater legends — past and present — were at Salton Sea, such as Jay Birmingham (the second person to ever complete the distance from the Badwater Basin to Mt. Whitney, in 1981), Marshall Ulrich (who will be going for something like his 27th Badwater course crossing this July, I believe), and Charlie Engle (famous for multiple reasons, most notably for his trek across Africa documented in the movie Running the Sahara, and more recently for being the only borrower in the country during the subprime mortgage crisis (out of literally millions) who was imprisoned for allegedly taking out two “liar loans.” To say he was shafted is a monumental understatement. Numerous media outlets, including the NY Times, NBC, and others have detailed Charlie’s story. Here’s a link to the very good NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/26/business/26nocera.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
In addition to those Badwater legends, some of the current superstars, such as 2011 champ (and this year’s prohibitive favorite, as well as possibly the nicest human on the planet), Oswaldo Lopez, were also on hand to run the race. It was extremely cool to get to know all of them over the long weekend.
Borrego Springs was an ideal location for the race headquarters. The Borrego Springs Resort was quite nice, and Chris secured us unbelievable rates (under $100 per night). And it was just at the base of the major mountain climb we would be running during the race (an 8-mile trail with about 4000 feet of elevation gain, starting at about Mile 40 of the race).
(Borrego Springs — courtesy of Brooke)
(Another shot of Borrego Springs — courtesy of Brooke)
Chris was nice enough to lead a group hike on Saturday afternoon through this section of the course. Fortunately for us, we got to the hotel in time to participate. Unfortunately for some of the other groups, they didn’t get there in time, and we wound up being the only group that went on the hike, which would prove to be a HUGE advantage for us during the race. (Many groups had big problems on that section of the race…)
(About half-way up the 8-mile trail climb during the hike — gorgeous vistas! Photo courtesy of Chris Kostman)
After the hike and a surprisingly good meal at the hotel restaurant, we all pretty much crashed for the night, exhausted from our travel from Florida.
On Sunday morning, Chris organized a tour of the start line area, which is at the “beach” of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. The Salton Sea and the city on its shores (Salton City) is an incredibly interesting area. The man-made sea was a mistake in the first place, but once people realized it wasn’t going to dry up, real estate investors began marketing the area as the “California Riviera” in the mid-20th century. Entire communities and subdivisions were planned, and people actually flocked out there in search of the desert oasis luxury lifestyle. Unfortunately, after a few years, people quickly realized that the water in the Salton Sea was toxic. Millions of fish died, and people got out of Dodge pretty quickly. Today, the place looks like a post-apocolyptic ghost town that would be a perfect setting for a Hitchcock movie, with only a few residents left, but plenty of empty streets with names reflecting the good life that never really materialized (such as “Oahu Lane,” Sea Jewel Ave,” and my favorite, “Yacht Club Drive”).
Here are some pics from our tour of the start line and the “beach”:
(That’s what the beach was made out of — millions of crushed fish skeletons…)
(The tip of the white slip of land jetting out to the Sea is the start line. Photo courtesy of Chris Kostman)
After the tour of the start line area, we had the pre-race check-in and meeting. There was definitely a buzz in the room as everyone was now anxious to have the race start, as well as excited to be part of this inaugural event.
(Official check-in Miami Thrice photo. Courtesy Race Staff).
4. Race Day
It was a beautiful morning, and we all got up early and made the 35-mile drive down the course to the start line:
(About 15 miles outside of the Salton Sea starting line…)
Because we were one of the 14 highest-seeded teams, Team Miami Thrice was given the coveted 7am starting wave time. (There were 14 total teams in the race).
(The playing of the national anthem, performed by the late great Frank Drebin, aka Enrico Palazzo):
Our race strategy was pretty simple — run our own race for the first 50 miles, and if we were in the hunt by the time we got done with the 8-mile trail section, we would race for the win. On paper, we knew we were one of the 5 or so teams that had a realistic shot of winning. I figured our main competition would come from Oswaldo’s team (Soul to Sole), Charlie’s team (team Neopolitan, a great name, considering his team consisted of a white guy (Charlie), a black guy (Mosi Smith), and a redhead (Meredith Dolhare)), and Jimmy Dean Freeman’s team (the Coyotes). Jimmy is a very quiet, meek, and shy guy from L.A. — he lets his running do his talking. That’s obviously a complete lie — Jimmy lets his talking do the talking . . . he talks more than just about everyone I know, and I know a lot of lawyers (a group that is notorious for loving to hear themselves speak).
On to the race. Right from the start, Oswaldo’s team shot out of a cannon and were running sub-8s. They literally had a 100-yard lead after about a quarter mile:
(That’s Oswaldo’s team in the red singlets, already opening up a lead after only a few hundred yards of running…)
5. Miles 1-35 (Salton Sea to Borrego Springs)
This first section of the course was relatively uneventful, with the exception of a very strong headwind (over 20 mph) for most of this stretch. Our strategy was to run comfortably (8-8:30 min/mile) and just get to Borrego Springs feeling good and hopefully in the hunt.
(Getting started — only 80 miles to go!)
Once we got out of the Salton Sea/Salton City area, we hit the long desert road between Salton City and Borrego Springs (Mile 35). This was a gorgeous stretch of the course, and it really looked a lot like the stretch of the Badwater course from Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells:
(Strikingly similar to Death Valley…)
By the time we hit Mile 15 or so, we were solidly in second place, with Oswaldo’s group so far in front of us we couldn’t see them, and no one close enough behind us to be within eyesight. By Mile 20, we actually caught and passed Oswaldo and his teammates, which was both a huge shock and bolt of energy for us:
(Cathcing up to Oswaldo’s group)
Our time at the lead of the race was short lived, however, as Jimmy Dean’s Coyotes team caught up to us at Mile 25. They are a great group of guys, and all very talented runners. (The other members are Ray Sanchez, who has an unbelievably extensive resume, and speedster David Villalobos, who before this race had never run longer than 50 miles). We would go back and forth with them for the next 25 miles, never being more than a quarter-mile apart. We adopted a bit of a tongue-in-cheek “East Coast/West Coast” rap war-style attitude with each other . . . this was definitely a welcome diversion from the miles that were beginning to pile up.
(Sharing the lead with the Coyotes)
Both of our teams were starting to experience problems by about Mile 30 as well. For us, one of our team members was having stomach/nausea issues, and a couple of their guys were having energy lows:
(“It’s so damn hot . . . milk was a bad choice.”)
6. Miles 35-49 (Borrego Springs to Ranchita)
When we hit the Mile 35 checkpoint back at the Borrego Springs Resort, we were in a virtual tie with the Coyotes. After five more uneventful miles through the sprawling “metropolis” of downtown Borrego Springs (I don’t believe there was a single traffic light in town…), we arrived at the trailhead for our 8-mile climb up to Ranchita (about 4000 feet of gain).
The Coyotes were more than content to hang on our heels and let us show them the way, given that we had hiked the trail two days prior, and that’s exactly what happened. We knew that’s what they were doing, so we tried to push the pace a bit, and we got through the section in a little more than 2 hours (which was a pretty fast time). I was overheating for the first few miles, it was so hot. But by the later miles, it had started to rain steadily, and it was positively freezing by the time we reconnected with the road at Ranchita. It was so cold that all three of us bee-lined it for the support vehicle to warm up. My teeth were literally clanking together and I was shaking uncontrollably. Brad and Grant were in similar distress. The same was true for the Coyotes. No one had prepared for cold weather; for me, the possibility had not even crossed my mind. Luckily, when we met up with our crew, Han took my lightsaber and cut open his tauntaun, and we all crawled inside to get warm:
(This is what we looked like coming off of the trail around Mile 50…)
We probably sat in the support car for a good 20 minutes, but none of us were getting any warmer. Eventually, we bundled up and forced ourselves back out on to the course, knowing that the only way we would get warm again would be to get moving and get the blood flowing. The Coyotes had the same idea, but reached it a bit before us, and by the time we had gotten out of the car, they were so far down the road we couldn’t see them.
(At the “Rancheti” in the “town” of Ranchita (Mile 50). This is what it looks like when you put 3 Florida guys in sub-freezing temps . . . )
Side note: The teams that came through that section after we did experienced even worse weather than we did, and at least a few teams experienced major problems on the trail. Charlie’s team got lost, and wound up spending an extra two hours searching for the trail. Amazingly, that only cost their team one place in the standings (going from third to fourth). It takes an incredible amount of will power to push through something like that, and focus on the miles that you still need to run in order to finish the race. They probably had the gutsiest performance of any team out there…
7. Miles 50-68 (Ranchita to Lake Henshaw)
We never made contact again with the Coyotes. We did get to within about 5 minutes of them, but by the Lake Henshaw time station (Mile 78), they had about 37 minutes on us, and with only an 11-mile climb up Mt. Palomar left, we had little chance to catch them.
Our main focus from Miles 50-68 was to just have all three of us continue moving. One of our team members was experiencing some major energy deficit issues. In theory, this section could be run very fast if all systems were operational — it is a beautiful downhill 20-mile stretch across sweeping vistas and fields:
8. Miles 68-81 (Lake Henshaw to Finish Line)
This section — a climb up Palomar Mountain — could only be described as a death march. We just tried to encourage each other to stay moving and get up that mountain as fast as possible. By the time we were about half way up the mountain, we knew we were locked into second place — the Coyotes were about an hour ahead of us, and no one was within 3 hours of catching us from behind. So we battled our way through the cold, foggy, and rainy darkness, and eventually crossed the finish line at the Upper Meadow Lodge in almost exactly 17 hours (17:02):
(At the finish line with Race Director Chris Kostman. t was so cold that Brad literally ran the last 10 miles of the race in jeans…)
When we arrived at the finish line, the Coyotes were still thawing out themselves. We all headed inside the Lodge (which is a SWEET house, if you’re ever in the area and looking for a kick-ass place to stay), and hung out for a few minutes to warm up, toast our race, and begin the process of greatly exaggerating our exploits :)
(Cups of instant noodles and little bottles of Maker’s Mark whiskey: now there’s a winning combination)
We finished the race at about midnight, and drove a few miles to our rented house (the Bailey House), which we were sharing with Charlie’s group. Like the Upper Meadow Lodge, it is a great property (I can’t really say enough about how cool the whole race and all the locations are . . . this is definitely an under-utilized area of the country).
The next morning, I woke up feeling better than I ever have after an ultra. I felt so good that I went for a run back down to the finish line so I could cheer a few teams on as they finished their races. (One of my absolute favorite things about ultras is watching other people finish their races; it’s always such a cool and positive experience…)
A few hours later, Chris and his very nice wife Laurie hosted all the runners at the Lodge for a post-race brunch, which was an amazing spread of food. We had a great time listening to everyone’s race stories and soaking in the general buzz and good vibes that were created by such a cool event. Thanks to Chris, Laurie, and all of the volunteers for putting on such an awesome event. I’m especially glad I got to experience the inaugural running of what is sure to become an iconic ultramarathon.
Alex and I had a blast (so did Zoey), and I know Grant, Brad, Laura, and Brooke all feel the same way. Thanks to everyone who followed our progress during the race and for all the nice things you said to us after the race. I’m sure I’ll see most of you Florida runners next weekend at the Keys 100, which will be an awesome event as always. And then for me the focus will be solely on Badwater (gulp)…