Most 100+ milers are on trails that feature a significant amount of singletrack. Even if there is a fireroad, the sensation of moving quickly is always there as a myriad amount of trees and rocks pass by. Various peaks and valleys give you a sense of accomplishment and distance. Badwater however does things on a much larger scale. The road is in the middle of a wide valley, and the major peaks are 20-40 miles apart; an near eternity for a runner.
Having the opportunity to run the first climb of the course, 17 miles, 5,000 feet up Townes Pass, I got my first real taste of Death Valley. We only had temps around 85-90 degrees, but we had the relentless incline. Not many races feature 5,000 ft climbs, and for good reason. The body (and cars as well) can accumulate great amounts of elevation provided there is some relief to utilize other muscles and give the climbing muscles a rest. Similarly, the same is true for roads vs. trails; a road runner is using a fraction of the muscles groups a trail runner is, and therefore does not endure long distances as well. Badwater gives runners the worst case scenario in it's climbs.
Just in case the above wasn't enough, the sun's effects are magnified by the valley's unique way of reflecting heat and sun on a runner. Moeben arm sleeves and a neck guard are absolutely necessary protection. Even in the relatively cool 85 degree weather, I felt an enormous amount of relief with the sleeves. Sunlight can burn skin as well as drain the body. The constant protection of UV 50 sleeves vs. numerous coats of sunscreen or a long sleeve shirt keeps me cool, protected, and saves energy.
One answer I have to Badwater's oppressive heat is the New Balance 904/905. It is a stable and simple road shoe that does exactly what I need. It has a well-designed toe box that allows the foot to flex naturally and stable arch that is coupled by a rigid skeleton that holds up well through the heat and long miles. Even more appealing is how this shoe is built for the long haul. Where some road shoes have support that dies off with cushion at 300 miles, this shoe has hung tough through well over a 1000 miles a pair and given me the confidence in it for the demands Badwater. One of my worst fears as far as gear is something that gradually dies off in the heat and starts to tweak my IT bands and arches without me noticing. In a race as competitive as Badwater, the runner must have absolute confidence that his gear is the lightest, the fastest, and the most practical and sustainable. I believe in this shoe!
The First Run
I started off maintaining at a casual 7:30-8:00 pace on the gradual incline out of Stovepipe Wells. As we began to approach 1,000 feet, I slowed down to 9-10 minute miles. Everything in the first 5 miles felt like slow motion.
(The start of the long climb)
After cresting the 3,000 ft mark, I began to slow to 10-15 minute pace. I ran the entire climb, but there were points that puzzled KD as the incline wasn't overly steep, but I couldn't break 14:00 pace for the life of me. I eventually got through 4,300 and the hill relented as I started to smell the summit, and ran through Townes Pass in 2:57.
All in all, this race is going to be brutal. I mean, we're talking down right sinister, evil, merciless running. However, I'm more excited than ever to take on the worst race in the world (though the race claims to be the toughest, I'm gonna go with "the worst" on account of the pavement, mind games, and heat). There's still a part of me that wants to be back out there cursing the hill, putting my body through another 30 rounds with the giant -loving and hating every second of it; but I still acknowledge how bad it hurt, and will hurt. The idea that this will be a race is perhaps one of the greatest/worst inventions of sport. At any rate, the curse is upon me, and I'm eager to get intimate with this race.