On March 7, 2013, my heart jumped upon receiving an email of acceptance from Adventure Corps, Inc. to compete in Badwater 135 Mile Ultramarathon. I was dumbstruck and called my friend immediately. Which news do you want to hear first, the bad news or another bad news? Being selected and running this race are both bad news. Badwater is recognized across the globe as the world’s toughest footrace.
Unlike any other footraces, participation in Badwater is by invitation. Only 100 extreme endurance athletes worldwide are selected by a committee. This race is the holy grail of running. There is no prize money awarded to the winners. The much-coveted belt buckle is awarded to those who finish the race within the cutoff time of 48 hours.
The race starts from the lowest point in the United States in the town of Badwater, Death Valley, California, at 282 feet below sea level. Finish is at Mount Whitney Portal at 8,360 feet above sea level. The air is thin at this elevation. The Portal is the gateway to Mount Whitney, which is the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,508 feet. Race is held in the summer month of July and covers three mountain ranges totaling 13,000 feet of cumulative ascent and 4,700 feet of cumulative descent. The distance of the race is equivalent to running five successive full marathons plus four miles. Since its inception in 1977, the Philippines had never had a representative.
Death Valley is the hottest place on earth, and in July 1913 recorded 134F. Aside from the furnace heat and the unending heavenly climbs, runners face sand storms, injuries, sleep deprivation, hallucination, dehydration, and extreme exhaustion. Dear life is at risk. Additionally, the last 13 miles is a straight, strenuous uphill climb.
How did I get into running? Some people are born to run while others dream to run. As a kid, I dreamed of running around a racetrack or competing in track and field. Back then, running was not a popular sport. The Philippines has always been a basketball country. Night time, I raced with other kids on the street when traffic was clear. Only a handful was interested. It was only upon immigration to the United States in 1984 that I was able to revive my interest in running. After a couple of 10k races, I ran my first marathon, the Los Angeles Marathon in 1992. Eventually, I became competitive, won a few trophies, then started running ultramarathons. Ultramarathons are races beyond the 26.2-mile marathon distance.
Aside from health reasons, running made me discover and explore picturesque places. I have met friends from all walks of life who share the same passion. The mountains are akin to the rollercoaster challenges in life. From the mountains to the sea and into the desert, I learned adapting to changes and use this experience in battles encountered in daily life. I’ve discovered hidden treasures of a town, rescued lost pets, found and returned valuable items to their owners. As an architect, at times I find ideas or solutions to a design or construction issue while running. Running relaxes my mind.
Jon McLean, Hervey Chapman, and Nancy Shura-Dervin were big influences in my running career. My friend, Jon, got me back to running after I had called it quits. We ran 5k up to marathon distance but wasn’t crazy to join ultramarathons. Hervey taught me that running was not just about hours, minutes, and seconds. Learn to enjoy running. Nancy is my coach and ultramom. It took her a long time to finally convince me to run Badwater.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Preparation for my biggest race, Badwater necessitated more than just hope and prayers. Key factors were sponsors, training, support crew, and family support. My participation wouldn’t be possible without assistance from generous sponsors. A Runner’s Circle store proprietor, Joe Matias, sought sponsorship for my running shoes and other needs. Co-workers, family, and friends chipped in generously for my rental van and hotel. My support crew was led by Coach Nancy Shura-Dervin. She provided a training schedule which I followed religiously. I also drove 1-1/2 hours to Palm Springs, California, to acclimate myself running in extreme triple- digit temperatures. On top of that, Nancy prescribed getting used to sauna for 20-60 minutes weeks leading to race day. My family also gave full support of my time away during training. On race day, I was ready for war.
Many believed Badwater 135 was a herculean feat to even dream of. I was glad to compete and didn’t let my dream slip away. Some people thought I was out of my mind for even attempting. I simply replied, “Why not? You’ll never know until you try.”
There were numerous challenges I encountered during the race. My nose bled, caused by dry air. Temperature was already 90s when race started at 6:00 a.m. and quickly turned into oven-like atmosphere. My crew kept my body temperature in check by draping an ice-cold bandana on my head and shoulders. Every mile, they replaced my two water bottles with ice-cold water to drink and another to pour on my head. They monitored my pee color and food intake to make sure I didn’t get dehydrated. Everything was planned accordingly. Literally, there were no stones unturned.
The sole of my shoes melted the first 42 miles. The temperature reached a high of 122F. The asphalt road was even hotter and could easily fry an egg. My body endured lots of punishment. I suffered an ankle injury and couldn’t stand straight as my body leaned sideways. I may have used four or five pairs of shoes increasing in size towards the end of the race. Yes, I did sleep but only for 15 minutes on the side of the road.
As I sat with a beat-up body at Lone Pine Mile 122 checkpoint. I assessed my condition. It was 8:45 p.m. of the second day. “I’m not giving up on my dream. I’m going for it.” Every step from thereon was a struggle until the last checkpoint at Mile 131 where victory was at hand. I quietly prayed and thanked people who inspired and supported me, my wife, daughter, mom, support crew, and people who believed in me. In the beginning, I was just a spectator on the sidelines cheering for my heroes. I grew from a minute seed to a giant bean stalk. I was given a chance to make history for my homeland, the Philippines. I ran my heart out and never gave up.
In 44 hours, 8 minutes, and 7 seconds, my goal was fulfilled. I dreamed, I ran, I conquered.
The author wishes to thank Yvonne Liu Wolf for her encouragement in writing the article.
Ben Gaetos is a Los Angeles-based architect. If invited for a short run, his definition of a short run might be different from yours. To date, he has run 80 ultramarathons, 67 marathons and about 200 less than marathon races and still dreaming for more. He wrote the book, I Dreamed, I Ran, I Conquered.