2023 Badwater 135
This event was over three years in the making for me. So, let me start at that beginning… after I completed the World Marathon Challenge in 2020, my brain immediately went to “what’s next?”. That had been my focus for a few years, so immediately changing gears (retrospectively) was a little ridiculous. However, before we had even left Miami I was familiar with the minimum requirements for applying to Badwater 135, and had registered for my first 100 (Pinhoti), a preferred race for Badwater entry.
As a side note here, I highly do not recommend jumping from big goal to big goal like I did. After huge accomplishments in the making, we all deserve some time to relax and soak up the feeling of accomplishment, which is what I’m doing right now (at least mostly).
Long story short(ish), I focused the next year and a half on running three Badwater preferred races so I could apply for the 2022 edition of the Badwater 135, which I did. I was disappointed that I did not get selected in 2022, hoping my 2nd place female at the 2021 Keys 100 would carry a bit more weight than a non-podium finish. Regardless, I was done with trail races (that’s a whole other story), so planned on Keys and Daytona 100s in 2022 to bolster my second application. After winning the Daytona 100 and meeting Badwater race director Chris Kostman there, I was optimistic about my 2023 application. Turns out, I had good reason to be!
I tell you all this to give perspective into the fact that standing in Badwater Basin, at the start of the Badwater 135, is not simply “getting into” a race. It is a hard-fought, well-earned privilege to be one of the only 100 runners selected that year. Being there in and of itself is an accomplishment. And, I’m extremely grateful that my win at the Keys 100 this year earns me a spot in Badwater Basin in 2024!
I’ve never done any other event (WMC included) that requires so much preparation. I don’t just mean training, which obviously requires some specific focus, but logistics. There are a LOT of race rules to be familiar with, both before and during the race. Including restrictions on crew vehicle size (huge shout out to Raceway Ford for providing an Expedition for us!) and number of crew. And, the crew needs to be selected a good bit prior to the event. Then there’s the travel and lodging logistics (including if you’re providing transportation or hotel for your crew). And then, getting all the race gear (coolers, bottles, nutrition, etc.) there. I mean, yeah, most of it you can buy in the area, but then what? Donate it? Throw it away? I chose to travel with ALL my race stuff. Anyway, point being there is a lot to do to get ready for this event.
Race prep this time also included setting up a fundraiser. I’ve never fundraised by racing before. Lots of people do and I looked into it years ago, thinking it would be awesome to help people through something that I love to do. I quickly got discouraged because I thought that there was some magic pot of money that was manifested when you decide to raise money for charity by doing whatever it is you are doing to help whatever charity it is. I mean, I knew that magical pots of money don’t exist, but I thought there was something to it other than asking friends, family, and strangers to give money. Turns out there’s not. That’s what has kept me from “running for charity” before now.
So, why now? When I filled out my application for the 2023 Badwater 135 race, there is a spot for running for a charity. It makes you think, so I filled it out, not knowing if I’d be selected for the race or what the fundraising would look like if I did. But I did have to name a charity, and I did… Same You. Why this charity? Not quite a year before I was filling out the application, my Dad suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, also known as a bleeding stroke; it is a type of brain bleed that, by definition causes brain injury. This is not the kind of stroke that most people have (those are ischemic strokes). The vast majority of people that suffer from a hemorrhagic stroke do not survive. But, my Dad did. He spent weeks in the neurological ICU, weeks more in the hospital’s neurological unit, and yet weeks more in a rehabilitation facility. My sister and I were doing lots of “Google learning” during this time and ran across the charity “Same You”. Emilia Clarke, actress from Game of Thrones fame, started the charity after she had multiple hemmoragic strokes. She made a full recovery, but realized that not everyone does and that there is a huge mental health, as well as physical health, component to recovery. The charity focuses on helping people find the proper resources to optimize recovery following brain injury.
From the time I got the call from my sister that Dad was being taken to the ER, it was a scary and stressful time. Running helped get me through. I didn’t have a lot of time to run during those months, but I appreciated every step I was able to take on the road. To be there for my Dad and my family, I cancelled some races that I had been planning on doing. It wasn’t really a question. Family first, always. It ultimately led to me forego participating in what ended up being the 2024 World Marathon Challenge (WMC); I was not in a physical or mental space to be able to focus on that effort. That was okay. I was doing what I needed to do from a more important perspective. And, when I found out in February that I’d been selected for the 2023 Badwater 135, I was ecstatic!! It would have been super challenging if I’d done the WMC in February, to turn around and do Badwater in a few short months. So, there was a sort of natural confluence from Dad’s stroke and recovery to my being able to focus on running Badwater.
As I was entering my final preparations for a long-awaited Badwater 135, more than a year after the stroke, Dad is getting ready for follow-up surgery. The road to recovery is long and not straight. Very similar to many ultraraces. Long, and not straight. Now the Badwater is successfully completed, I’m getting ready to travel again to be with Dad’s side as he prepares for surgery and continues to figure out what his “new normal” after his brain injury looks like, as so many do. The struggle to find appropriate and adequate mental and physical health care following brain injury is real, and this organization is really trying to move that bar to help survivors of brain injury be able to access the tools they need to assist their recovery. I am so thankful to all of you that have donated as I’ve geared up for Badwater 135. If you have not yet, feel so inclined you can do so here Jessica Jones is fundraising for SameYou (justgiving.com). I am so appreciative of everyone who has contributed!!
Another, more standard, part of any race prep for me is identifying my goals. We (Ron and I) did a lot of thinking and guesstimating to come up with an A goal of 30 hours, a B goal of 36 hours, and the C goal of finishing. (The Race Director strongly encourages the latter). Our guesstimating was informed with some data. We looked at the paces I managed at the 2023 Keys 100, a very hot year. And, a little more than two weeks before the race, we went out to the desert. We stayed in Pahrump, NV, a very quaint town, conveniently located about an hour from Death Valley. We took this opportunity to adapt to the hotter, but drier temps than we’re used to in south Alabama. I spent a good amount of time practicing my power hiking (ultra runner code for walking) up some long, relatively steep inclines. This is not something I normally do, but I knew I’d need to walk most of the climbs to get through. We spent some time on the actual course, and some time on similar areas closer to Pahrump. Making sure I covered every step of the course to experience it and learn from it was the ultimate goal, so we spent those weeks learning and adapting strategy to get to the finish line. Because this race is truly unlike anything else, I wanted to make sure I experienced it all. You really have to be on the course, in the elements, to really understand and appreciate it.
Something that we’ve found immensely useful before races is to drive the entire course prior to the race (huge benefit of road racing). So, on July 2nd (two days before race day), we gathered the crew in Badwater Basin and set out to follow the course to Lone Pine, where’d we be staying for the next few nights. The race director does a great job with his video previews, but it was good to stop at all the available places along the route and see what each place has to offer. Most importantly, it was a great opportunity to talk a little strategy, let everyone see the course, and spend some time together as a team. That evening was pretty chill and the next day we all went to the runner check-in, organized the gear in the crew vehicle, then headed back to the pre-race briefing. At this point, it was still pretty surreal. We were getting ready to tackle The World's Toughest Footrace, Badwater 135!! July 4th, race day, we packed up the vehicle, all climbed in and headed to the race start. About 20 miles down the road, I realized I left my bib in the hotel! So, a slight detour back a double-check of all other essentials, and we were on the road again. For real, this time.
Since my wave start was at 9pm, we got a hotel room at the Ranch at Furnace Creek (basically the closest possible place to the start) so we could all rest a bit after dinner. Finally, it was time to go. We headed to the start, the car thick with anticipation. As we neared, we saw the first wave of runners heading up the road. We got to Badwater Basin as the sun was setting. I had to weigh in, the crew was finishing final prep of the car and we all tried to relax a bit and soak it all up… The start of the 2023 Badwater 135!
Each wave gets a group photo around the Badwater Basin sign, the National Anthem is sung, the race director says a few words, and then off we went. It was incredible to look up and see all the crew lined up cheering as we climbed out of the Basin to start our 135-mile journeys to Whitney Portal. The first 42 miles are “rolling hills” taken on solo, as you can’t have a pacer until that point, and mostly in the dark. For a flatlander like me, I’d just call them hills. I seriously underestimated this part of the course. We’d driven all of it and spent time running parts of Furnace Creek (mile 17) to Stovepipe Wells (mile 42). While we were out there training it seemed hilly, but not bad. Race night, I was already walking parts on the long, grinding uphills by mile 15 or so. Did I have to? No. But, I was trying to be conservative with the ultimate goal of making it to the end. I’d never run more than 100 miles, so I certainly didn’t want to trash my legs in the first 20.
Aside from deciding to play it smart and power hike (walk) parts of the climbs, the first bit of the race had some additional surprises for us…
First, I had anticipated my clothes not getting soaking wet from the melting ice in my neck gaiter due to the dry air. When we had been out training during the day, that was the case. However, in absence of the sun, I was quickly soaked. Now, I’m used to the humidity of the south, so am used to running soaked; with the proper attire. For this, I chose a pair of shorts that I never would have worn if I’d realized how wet they’d be. Let’s just say this error in preparation and judgement caused the chafing to be real “down there”, early on. I let the crew know of this unexpected turn of events, and at mile 17 they had more appropriate dry shorts for me to change into. So, a quick hop in the crew vehicle, a little extra lube, and I was on the road again.
Second, how being out of sleep cycle fucks with you. Somewhere in the middle of the night or wee hours of the morning I was the most tired I’d ever been in my life. My legs were fine. My body was fine. I just wanted to sleep. I remember coming to the crew at one point and barely stopping myself from just laying down on the ground. For those that are familiar with the race, the first cutoff at mile 50.8 is the most stringent. Even though I wanted nothing other than sleep, I was determined to push through past that checkpoint. I was ahead of the cutoff by hours, but wasn’t taken any chances. Even if I was marching like a zombie, I was getting through that checkpoint. But, before I got to it, as I was coming into Stovepipe Wells, day was starting to break. That glimmer of light was like a surge of energy. Sleep? Who needs sleep?
I reached the mile 42 checkpoint where I could pick up a pacer. But, I had run this coming section already in training and knew before the climb to Towne Point really started there was a bit of a runnable section that I wanted to tackle. So, about 4 miles down the road, after I got though that section on sun-rejuvenated energy, Keri joined me. We took off up the climb in a solid power hike. At this point we were still on pace for a 30h finish (my A goal), so we stayed focused on steady forward and upward progress. It was starting to get warm so made sure to keep up with fresh ice-filled neck gaiters, cold sponging, and sunscreen. We chatted with an Israeli competitor who ended up being the first Israeli to complete both the Spartathalon and Badwater! Part way up the climb, swapped out pacers and Madison joined me to Towne Pass. Elevation 4956 ft. After the past 16 miles or so of pretty much straight up, the first of three climbs of the race was behind us!!
At the Towne Pass checkpoint, we swapped pacers again as Catie joined me for the descent into Panamint Springs. It felt good to get the legs really moving again after hours of almost exclusively walking, albeit quick waking. We started cruising down the road, feeling good to let loose a bit. But, we were staying mindful that this was the first of two descents and didn’t want to trash my legs for later. Again, focused on the ultimate goal of crossing the finish line. Those miles coming down really flew by figuratively, and a bit literally with a few sub-9 min miles. As “things” got moving, I did get to enjoy my first Buffy Bag experience (if you don’t know what it is, Google it). We focused on keeping crew stops efficient so we could take advantage of the downhill momentum.
Shortly before Panamint, the terrain levels out a bit and gets back to some rolling hills before the second big climb of the race starts. Somewhere in this section, Catie asked how many miles in we were. And I responded with whatever it was, realizing it was more than halfway. We did a mini celebration… just over halfway and feeling good!! Once we got down into that section, we could feel the heat of the day starting to build. Refocused on ice, sold sponge, and making sure I was taking in enough liquid. When’s the last time I peed? Not sure. Need to keep drinking. Keep moving. Somewhere on the ups in that section, I realized my heart rate was getting high, so we backed it down to a fast walk to keep everything in check. Otherwise, I thought I was feeling fine.
Met the crew again right before the Panamint checkpoint at mile 72. Swapped out pacers and picked up Madison for the impending climb towards Father Crowley. About a mile into it, I suddenly felt nauseous and my head was HOT. It was so crazy how quickly it hit. I told Mad I was feeling off and I thought I wanted to rest and cool off in the truck. Once we got to the rest of the crew they had cold, wet towels for my head and to wrap around me. I climbed in the back seat with the AC blasting. Ron was in the front and we chatted about what I was feeling and how I was just amazed how quickly I went from good to no good. After a few minutes of nibbling on crackers and sipping Sprite, I realized I was still not cold (those that know me, chilled towel and AC will normally have me shivering in seconds). It felt like I was in there for a long time, but I think it was about 10 min. Finally, I started feeling cool. Started shivering. I decided that meant I could continue. My stomach was still not feeling right, but we took off again with some liquid electrolytes and a cold water towel cape (the first of my fantastic fashion statements in the race). My legs still felt fine, so I wanted to go, even if I was sort of fighting my body to do it. The result was slow progress, but it was still progress!
The climb to the next checkpoint is 18 miles. I was 1.6 miles in when this happened. That’s a long way to climb not feeling great. But, my towel cape, pacer (Mad and Keri swapped out during the climb), and I were determined to keep moving forward and up. As we kept going, we quickly realized we were not alone. We passed some competitors who were pushing through a tougher patch than I was and some that were recovering from a rough patch, starting to get back after it. This race is not called the World’s Toughest for no reason. To make things worse, the last application of sunscreen (we used the spray) was getting in my eyes. I think it sort of pooled on my forehead or closed eyes, then as I started moving, in got into my eyes. We stopped and I took out my contacts, flushed my eyes, rinsed my contacts, and put them back in. It felt better. For a bit, but then my eyes went back to burning so badly that I could barely keep them open. Another stop to take them out again, rinse my eyes again, and this time put in fresh contacts. Success! I could see pain-free.
We continued the long grind, up to Father Crowley and beyond, only stopping again to apply blister pads to a couple of hot spots on my feet. After what seemed like an eternity (one of many in this race), we were finally nearing Darwin checkpoint around mile 90. This meant the second big climb was behind us! The gradual and rolling descent into Lone Pine from here was prime for some solid running stretches. At least in theory.
I did the little out a back there, which was part of the modified course this year solo, then Catie and I took off from Darwin enjoying stretching the legs on the downhills. I was feeling the earlier descent in my quads, but nothing terrible, so focused on keeping the momentum going. Was good on the downs, but as we got into the ups of this rolling section, my heart rate started jumping up again. I got frustrated because I wanted to run, but knew I should keep my heart rate at a reasonable place to avoid any major issues. So, we did what was need to achieve the main goal – cross the finish line!
As allude to above, this year the course involved a detour from the normal route. Due to road flooding from snow melt, the direct road into Lone Pine was closed, so the race course took a turn at mile 103 towards Olancha. The crew had decided to rotate pacers, so I spent a bit of time with everyone in this strech. This next stretch of 15 or so miles was excruciating (yet another one, if not the longest, of the eternities during the race). Not physically painful, but once darkness hit, I was immediately exhausted. When I said (wrote) earlier that I’d never been so tired in my life during the first night, I quickly reached a whole new level of tired this second night. I knew the because of the detour I’d be getting into the crew vehicle at mile 118 or so. We’d then drive for approximately 20 minutes to the next checkpoint. So, I don’t want to stop knowing I had that mandatory rest time in front of me.
But, at some point I could not take it anymore. I climbed into the back seat of the Expedition and closed my eyes. I didn’t close the door because I didn’t want to get too comfortable. I think I asked the crew to not let me stay there for more than 10 minutes (but, to be honest, memories from this point on are a bit blury). I tried to eat an oatmeal crème pie, but it was not nearly as good as I remember, so I stole an Ensure from Mad (at the time I didn’t realize it was hers) and then got back on the road. I hadn’t slept. And, I hadn’t rested long, but I felt better.
It wasn’t long before I was back to zombie mode. Too tired to think. Just kept plodding one foot in front of the other at a seemingly decreasing pace. I realize now that I was so tired during this stretch that I literally forgot to run. We walked the vast majority of this 15 miles. Not because I physically had to (I don’t think), but because I didn’t think to try to do something different than what I was doing. That’s how exhausted I was. Total auto-pilot.
So, after what seemed like a couple of eternities through the vast desert darkness, we reached the Olancha checkpoint. I climbed in the vehicle and promptly passed out. When we got to the next checkpoint, I woke up totally disoriented. But, I heard the race staff say “you’re good to go as soon as you’re ready”. That triggered me. Ready or not. Here we go. Ron joined me as we got pointed in the right direction to head into Lone Pine. My headlamp shining on the asphalt brought on some delirium hallucinations… I could see things like numbers and letters in bright colors all mixed together (Ron later told me I also said at the time that I could see faces) in the road. I knew they weren’t real, but I could not unsee them.
After a bit, we tried to jog and my legs promptly revolted, so I resigned to continuing to walk. Fortunately, even when tired, I can keep a pretty brisk pace. This is another place, retrospectively, that making that decision with deliriously tired brain probably wasn’t the best. I’m pretty sure I could have gotten in more running, but was too exhausted to think to try again. It was only a few miles from getting out of the vehicle to the reaching Lone Pine, but during that second night, everything see to stretch on forever. Finally, we reached the checkpoint at Dow Villa. It was a great mental achievement. A half marathon to go. Mostly up a mountain, but only 13 miles. But, the overwhelming exhaustion of sleep deprivation was strong. A few blocks later, I sat down on the sidewalk, leaned against a post, waiting for the crew. A few moments of closed eyes, some massaging, and a canned espresso drink got me moving again.
But, I was cold. So, before we took off, I put on some extra clothes. I hadn’t brought long pants to run/walk in as I didn’t think I’d need them (to be fair, it was in the upper 70s), but Mad and I headed into Alabama hills multiple upper layers, gloves, and a beanie. Since I didn’t have anything appropriate for my legs, we fashioned a towel skirt (another fashion statement, though short-lived). As fashionable as the towel was, it was a bit cumbersome, so I swapped it out for a much-more-practical space blanket skirt. Fashionable and loud (literally). Keri joined as daylight broke and we started the final climb. Again, the sun recharged me and I felt less like needing to sleep and more like ready to finish this race. I shed some layers and got refocused on waking with a purpose. To that finish line.
I had really wanted to finish before the second daybreak, but that wasn’t how my event played out. And, I’m kind of glad. The views from the final miles up towards Whitney Portal in the early morning light were spectacular! It was a zombie-ish grind up that final climb, but felt less and less grueling as we neared the top. The realization that we were about (in relative terms) to become a finisher of the World’s Toughest Footrace was energizing, even in my sleep-deprived delirium. With a few hundred feet to go, the whole team came together to cross the finish line. Together. Because that is how we got there. Nearly 35 long hours of effort to get us from Badwater Basin to Whitney Portal. We did it!! Badwater 135 finisher. 8th female, 28th overall with an official time of 34:49:40.