BADWATER SALTON SEA 2019 - TEAM R U A BADFISH 2 RACE REPORT
Per the race website, Badwater Salton Sea is an 81 mile race from Salton City, CA to Palomar Mountain, the “almost” tallest mountain in San Diego County. The race has an elevation gain of over 9000 feet, runners pass through Anza-Borrego State Park near Borrego Springs to Ranchita bringing a trail aspect to an otherwise road event. Teams of 2 or 3 runners run the entirety of the course together; while runners may finish without their team intact, the teams must be intact to receive an official time. Emilee Molfino and I were Team R U A BADFISH 2.
We ran away from the Salton Sea with a sense of relief to be running away from the sea where things go to die. To learn more about the Salton Sea, there are several documentaries. This one is just over 2 minutes in length and will give you the gist of this Toxic Wonder.
The sulfur stench took our breath away and the thickness of air left a layer of dried fish bone sand on our dewy skin, as we ran into the unknown to a place neither of us had ever gone before literally and figuratively. We ran with a quiet confidence and trust in each other, easily finding our stride as we navigated the first 7 miles that took us the along the shore and through the neighborhoods of Salton City.
In that first 7 miles, our conversation was at times as heavy as the air, but as light as our moods. We reflected on the first decade of our lives in that first 7 miles; from our favorite TV dinners to childhood games played. We were starting to chip away to the beginning of where our running stories started; it seemed appropriate, not just for team camaraderie, but for the brevity of the event.
From the beginning it felt right that the two of us were sharing this part of our story together - and maybe we didn’t or don’t even fully understand why - but I will hold this experience dear to my heart for as long as able - to have someone experience every single one of your steps in an event like this; truly from beginning to end is unique. While we both had our individual battles, it was the strength that we found in our team that elevated the experience.
Our team included our Crew of 4 - Emilee’s husband, Tony and Sister-in-Law, Elina and I had my husband, Joe and running partner Mary. All of our crew had prior experience crewing and/or pacing and running Ultras. It was important for us to have this depth of knowledge. Crewing for this race is different in that the crew experiences much more of the race step-by-step as well. The longest we went without seeing them was 4 hours and at times saw them every 30 minutes.
The first 7 miles went by quickly, but as the temperatures were already rising we were ready for our first ice down and water re-fill from our crew at mile 7; preparing to set the tone for the 28 road miles that would take us into Time Station 2 at Borrego Springs Resort at Mile 35.
After our first stop with the crew we decided that we wanted to see them again in 5 miles. Our plan was to walk any of the uphills and to swap the “lead” every mile or so; each of us taking pulls in blocking some wind and looking out for the RVs and more on the highly trafficked road. We took a brief pause at Time Station 1 (around Mile 14) to let our crew know we were good to keep going; they waited there to check us in so that we would not have to stop. We had a slight miscommunication in how many miles we wanted them to go up the road. They ended up just .5 further up than we thought, but as temps were rising; it was important that we communicate that it was too far.
It was time to cut our time between seeing our crew to 4 miles. We began to settle into our road rhythm while still being able to get lost in the varied landscape, the shades of brown, coming to life with their storied past of water rushing through and the occasional pop of desert bloom.
Our next break we went down to every 3 miles with our crew and stayed there until the last stretch before Borrego Springs. We made a mistake between our last crew stop and Borrego Springs Resort, misjudging how many miles it was, even with the increasing temps (over 100 now) we were moving pretty well, but without having the ability to ice down we had to occasionally walk to allow our heart rates to normalize. And with a mile or two to go to the Resort where we had a Time Cut-off we both began to overheat. By the time we came into the Resort we were overheated and dehydrated.
The crew was wanting to make sure we ran out of of there well before cutoff and so we moved quickly through the transition, not 100% getting on top of the heat exhaustion and in retrospect I would have either taken more time here or at the start of the climb to get more on top of the toll the heat was taking. As we left the resort, we decided to both listen to music for the first time - to take us into the trail section. It came at just the right time, giving us a new set of armor to use in the next few flat and windy miles and uphill road climb to the trail.
At the start of the trail section in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park we were told the trail section could take anywhere between 2 1/2 and 6 hours; we had both individually landed on the fact it would probably take us 4.
Typically I will eat some solid food during an Ultra endurance event - peanut butter and jelly, a turkey wrap, even mac and cheese, My crew knew this and continued to ask if I wanted solid food; I was consuming Skratch hydration mix, Skratch chews, Spring Energy Gels, and GU waffles. I was feeling good without the solid food and kept turning it down. As we entered the trail section and I knew we would not have any aid for 4 hours, I decided to get some solid food down.
The temperatures were still high and we added weight to our backs, knowing the sun would go down and temperatures would turn, we needed to carry hydration and fuel for up to 6 hours, our jacket, a beanie, gloves, headlamps and lighted vests. As soon as we started walking towards the climb, my stomach began to turn, my body quickly signaled that the solid food was a mistake.
We began the 3,000 feet of vertical gain that we would cover in the next 9 miles. My pack felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, it felt like I had a vice on my head, I couldn’t breathe, and I was stopping frequently to try and get my heart rate down. I unhooked my pack to try and get a full breath. I signaled to Emilee that I was not OK. When she turned to look she said that even my neck was sweating and it was at that point that she forced me to sit down to regroup, get more water and a salt tab down.
The nausea was a feeling I’d had before; the longest it lasted was about 4 hours through the night at the Cascade Crest 100 mile Endurance Run last year. Little did I know that not only would it last through the 4 hour trail section, but it would continue to be a factor until the early morning hours, not truly dissipating until the sign of the new day.
In that moment where I was hands to knees and the panic set in, I didn’t fear not finishing but there was a “middle space” between realizing that I had run head on into the Unknown - what I had practiced for and being able to make the connection that I had the tools to work through it. In that moment I had no control and my mind had nothing to connect to.
For what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only seconds I was able to grasp on to one word from my mantra. “Explore.” This was my “New.” I sat and practiced the same move with my feet as I had in the sauna; a practice directed by Coach Lori that was to tap into my parasympathetic nervous system and help me feel calm in the midst of not feeling safe. As I did this I watched my teammate look around with wonder at the Desert Bloom, snapping a few pictures while managing both my mood and physical needs. Once she saw that I had normalized, she gently encourage me to start putting one foot in front of the other helping me realize that pace was a non-factor, that simply moving forward was the best step.
And there we were moving again - settling into a rhythm. Was I uncomfortable? Absolutely, but I was managing the pain. We continued on - keeping an eye out for the Big Horn Sheep that we were told could have been sited and some runners were treated to earlier in the day, for the jumping Cholla cactus, and Rattlesnakes.
We went back and forth with a few teams in those early trail miles; most often with two men from the Phoenix area. They were ahead of us on the trail when we heard “Ladies, there’s a rattlesnake and he is pissed off!” They generously waited for us to arrive, pointed out where he was; we could hear him but we were by no means going to stop and make eye contact. And then quietly told us how to best navigate around him. Being from the Phoenix area, this was not their first Rattlesnake Rodeo and we so appreciated their guidance. Before we knew it we were 4 miles into the trail section and there were finally undulations giving us a break from the relentless climbing.
The sun set and we started to get excited to see our crew again in a couple of miles, and appreciating the next phase of night running. The trail abruptly ends into the road and we scrambled to put on our reflective vests (a requirement for the road section at night), and were greeted by cars, lights, and what seemed like a lot of people. Our understanding was that our crew would be just about 1/2 mile up the road, but there was a small parking lot and a pit toilet on the other side of the road with what appeared to be crews so we paused for a moment to make sure we wanted to head up the hill. The guy who weighed us in that morning was standing at the entrance to the parking lot and he asked us our Team Name - we told him of course and he said “You know the cutoff for the Yeti (still another 2 miles up the road) was at 9PM (it was 9:20).
This did not compute with us as our understanding was that the last cutoff was at the trail head where we’d left with plenty of time to spare and we had covered the trail 2 hours faster than max expected time. In our minds we were “golden” on time, but it was enough to instill a bit of panic - it wasn’t even 1/2 mile before we met up with our crew and heard that this rumor had been flying through “crew camps” so the goal was to get us up to the road to the Yeti to assess the situation as quickly as possible. The temps had dropped and we did take the time to get on Capris and a light jacket.
During the trail section our crew had some time to kill; while perusing the aisles of the Center Market in Borrego Springs they happened upon some plastic beards; what better way to try and lighten our moods when coming off the trail, they thought. They lovingly joked with us that they’d been waiting so long that they’d grown beards. This could have gone 1 of 2 ways; thankfully I was in a good enough space for it at least bring a wry smile to my face.
Sure enough as soon as we were at the Yeti our Crew was able to communicate to us that the rumor was false, that we were just fine on time; we had to keep moving for sure, but no sense to panic in not making it to the finish line in under 28 hours. I remember that we took (or at least I did) quite a bit of time at the Yeti; we took pictures, I ate potato chips, drank a coke and used the real bathroom.
Just about a mile outside of Ranchita, I decided I thought I could handle some Pepto; we either couldn’t find it in the van or it was not in the van, so the crew jammed back to the Ranchita store to hopefully find them still open; while they were open, they had none, but luckily another crew came to the rescue with 2 magic pink tablets. They were at least part of what helped my stomach start to normalize.
Somewhere between the Yeti and our next time station at Lake Henshaw, the lack of nutrition and the early morning darkness, the quietness of the road caught up. The conversation between Emilee and I had drifted from verbal to silent, relying on instincts to know where the other teammate was at. Conserving energy we were fighting our individual battles while still doing our best to energetically lift the other up.
My battle was sleep. For the first time I can honestly say I fell asleep walking; waking up to stumbling off the side of the road and the sound of the creature or creatures in the trees. Whether there were really animals in the trees or not, I heard them. Emilee later explained that she knew I was falling asleep and would only let my headlamp get so far behind her; as soon as we reached our crew at the next stop, she announced that we had a sleepwalker on our hands.
Thank goodness for the Jetboil and instant coffee. My stomach had settled enough that I could grasp the idea of coffee and Mary convinced me for the first time in several hours to eat, coaxing me with a Dark Chocolate Almond Bark Thin. She knew the way to my stomach - coffee and chocolate. It was just the jolt I needed to start the 11 mile climb up Palomar Mountain.
Between the lack of sleep and darkness the climb up Palomar Mountain is dreamlike. Outside of potential voices, I surprisingly did not hallucinate on this run. As the temperature continued to drop into the 40s and rain came, the layers went on, first a heavier rain jacket, then the puffy jacket. We were seeing our crew every 2 miles or so up the climb as our pace had slowed, the vulnerability of exposure on the road, with a lot of turns and no real shoulder; while it was not highly trafficked; their were moments of caution as to which side of the road was the smartest (we had been given permission by race officials that we could choose which side of the road we felt safest). This also allowed us to follow the tangents as best we could - so we wove, and wove, and wove our way up the hill. As the darkness let go to early morning fog, with the promise of a new day our pace quickened, we surprised our crew fast asleep in the van, not expecting us so soon. As the morning truly arrived, we imagined what views may have been out there from the Mountain, but we were 100% socked in.
Again, we took turns pacing each other up Palomar Mountain. After what seemed like and actually was hours, we were what we believed and our crew believed to be 1.1 miles from the finish. As we crested what we believed to be the last climb, there was a photographer and the smiles on our faces were huge, we just had a little downhill and then a right hand turn by the fire station and 0.1 to go. As we approached the right hand turn, we saw our crew; we thought they had pulled off so that they could run into the finish with us. Wrong. They had stopped to communicate an error in mileage. It was not 0.1 to the finish. It was 1.1 and a lot of it was uphill. But I was not defeated by this. I remember feeling surprisingly unphased and more wanted to console the crew that was worried that we would be upset with the miscalculation than the fact that there was more climbing ahead. That last mile up Palomar may have been our fastest up the mountain.
Badwater Salton Sea definitely lines right up with Cascade Crest in terms of my favorite race to date. Each race experiences is woven into the fabric of my being, but some go far deeper than others. This is one of those bonds for life with my running partner and crew. I was changed by this race; inspired by the generosity of my crew, the familial embrace of the race director and volunteers, by the quiet vastness of the desert that both caused me and allowed me to dig deeper than ever before; by both filling an unexplainable void to revealing what could be in the future, by the spirit of my teammate. It revealed sharp edges of my soul that I want to embrace and others that I would like to polish. This experience will give me a deeper strength when embracing what challenges lie ahead. As my teammate reminded me, “The moment of collecting courage sits in our hearts forever.”