Heat, Wind, and Fun -The Hi-Tec, Badwater-to Mt. Whitney Portal, 135 Mile Ultra, 7/17/97

by Jim Wolff

So this was the deal. I could spend three days of my vacation helping Steven Silver of El Paso, Texas run the 135 miles between Badwater Death Valley and Mt. Whitney Portal located on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the middle of summer. Steven would pay for the food, gas, motel, and rental van. I would be called on to drive the van, hand out water, Gatorade, ice, and food, and I could run as much as I wanted in the 120 degree heat of Death Valley and surrounding areas. It would be great fun. Of course, I said yes.

Oh, did I mention that I had never met Steven Silver. I blindly answered an email he posted on the Dead Runners Society internet listsever requesting another pacer. We exchanged a few emails and then talked on the phone. This was his second time running the Badwater ultra, having come in second in 1996. Two other pacers would be joining us, Virginia Villeponteaux, a psychiatrist (please no jokes) and runner from El Paso and Vicente Ledesma, a golf course landscaper and ultra runner from Houston.

They would all fly to Las Vegas, pick up a van, and then drive to Amagrosa Valley in western Nevada for the pre-race meeting. At Steven’s suggestion, I contacted Major Maples, USMC, also in the race, and we arranged to meet at Ontario Int’l Airport. I would travel with the Major and his 7 Marine pacers and two Navy EMTs to Nevada to meet up with Steven. We were "good-to-go" as the Major would say.

I got up on Thursday morning and drove to Ontario International Airport, parked my car and waited with my large ice chest for the Marines to arrive. Right on schedule up pulled two huge white government vans and out jumped Major Maples and four of his officers ready to help carry my gear. We were "good to go" and off we went. I sat in the second van with three Marines and two Navy EMTs (one of which was female). We talked for a while and they asked me lots of questions trying to figure out what my connections to the Major were. It was a nice drive to Amagrosa Valley in Nevada where the pre-race meeting was supposed to start at 4:00 PM.

When we arrived at the hotel we discovered the meeting had actually started at 2:00 PM and was just ending when we all walked in. It was hard not to notice 10 military types and one civilian walking in late. The race director asked the Major to introduce himself and his crew to the assembled runners, supporters, and media. As I looked out the large windows wind blew huge clouds of dust and dirt through the 110 degree air completely obscuring the surrounding mountains. I felt sort of lost, where was Steven Silver the runner I was supposed to meet here? Several people I asked told me he wasn’t there yet.

Steven finally arrived along with Virginia and Vicente. We picked up the race package and Steven bought everyone an official tee shirt. We transferred my gear to Steven’s van, I said good-bye to the Marines, and we were off for a 60 mile drive to Stovepipe Wells in the heart of Death Valley.

Steven Silver is an avid ultra runner from El Paso, Texas. He finished second in the Badwater race last year (his first year to try it.) Virginia is also from El Paso. Vicente was from Houston Texas. We would be Steven’s support crew during the race and one of us would run with him at all times. There was no particular strategy except that Vicente would probably run 75 miles or so, with Virginia and I making up the other 60 miles.

After a good nights sleep in the only motel in Stovepipe Wells (we all slept in the same room), we drove the 42 miles to the starting line at Badwater, the lowest point in the USA, almost 300 feet below sea level. It was a beautiful morning with lots of wispy clouds in the sky, which turned pink, green, and blue as the sun came up.

After lots of photographic, videographic, and interviewing opportunities, the race started with Steven and Vicente moving out into the lead pack. Virginia and I followed in the van driving mostly on the wrong side of the road for several miles (there isn’t much traffic in the middle of summer.) Later that morning I was admonished by a friendly CHP officer to drive on the right side of the road from now on.

Soon a pattern was established where we would drive one mile ahead and wait for Steven to run by and then repeat the cycle. When he ran by we offered him water, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, and later in the race fruit cups, and canned tuna or chicken.

As we approached Stovepipe Wells, Steven had difficulty urinating and we were very concerned about it. This was also the hottest part of the day (over 120 degrees) and he had consumed a lot of water. I had run with him for about 5 miles and I can only compare the feeling to an electric hair dryer set on hot pointed directly at your face. It is remarkable though how fast you get used to it. It is amazing how the body adapts. In this heat you don’t seem to sweat much but you actually do. It is so dry that sweat evaporates instantly. When you get into the air-conditioned van you are soon soaking wet as the sweat begins to flood your skin.

We finally made it to Stovepipe Wells, the 42 mile point, and all went for a swim in the pool. Steven finally urinated and was now a happy camper again. From Stovepipe Wells (1000 feet in elevation) you begin the first major climb up to Townes Pass, elevation 5000 feet. Virginia and Steven started off and it soon became clear that things had changed. The wind had increased and blew directly in the faces of runners struggling up the hill. After about 6 miles, I ran with Steven and experienced the wind myself. Keep in mind that as evening set in the winds only got worse and at times it was impossible to run. My job was to block the wind for Steven. What fun!

We finally made it up to the top of the pass and it was dark. Steven and Vicente ran in the headlights of the van all the way down to Panamint Springs, a little oasis in the middle of Panamint Valley, where we took another extended break. On the way we were repeatedly photographed by an L.A. Times reporter who was doing a big story on the Badwater race. At Panamint Springs the race director had set up a large room with three beds and a table with potatoes, bread, fruit, etc for runners and their crew. Virginia and I both took a shower and then crawled into two unoccupied beds. Later Steven and Vicente showed up, took a shower, and climbed into bed also. Steven and I slept together. I think Vicente slept on the floor, not wanting to disturb Virginia or the stranger in the other bed. We slept for about an hour (it was about 2:00 A.M. on Friday morning).

When we got up, it was time to start the second major climb up to Father Crowley’s Point. By now the moon was out and it was a lot cooler. At Father Crowley’s Point we took a 15 minute break and Steven slept a little. We finally left Father’s Crowley’ Point and as the sun was coming up we left the Panamint Valley behind us as we started the gradual descent into the Owens Valley. After a drive into Lone Pine with Virginia to get more ice, a milk shake for Steven, and coffee for us, I ran again. It was great to run with all of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains stretched out before me across the Owens Valley and the temperature a comfortable 80 degrees. We were on the final leg of the race.

From left to right, Virginia, Steven, Vincente, and Jim at the finish line.

We ran/walked all day around Owens (dry) Lake bed through the little town of Keeler and then on to Lone Pine at the base of the Alabama Hills and Mount Whitney.

As we ran up the Whitney Portal Road with only 13 miles to go some little kids came out to the road and offered us water and ran along with us. Up ahead was the big switchback leading to the finish in Whitney Portal, elevation 8,400 feet. The air got cooler and cooler as we were now in the shadow of the mountains. I drove the last few miles behind Vicente, Virginia, and Steven as they kept climbing and climbing. At one point Steven wondered how much farther we had to go and I told him 1/2 a mile. I couldn’t believe it when he actually picked up the pace and finished in 39:15 in fifth place. The Major finished about 6 hours later. The next day, in response to a question about how he was feeling the Major, who could barely walk, said firmly "Pain is temporary but pride is forever". How true!

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Jim Wolff, Stan Swartz, and Samir Shahin M.D. are co-author of 50 Trail Runs in Southern California published by The Mountaineers. Jim also supported Steven Silver in the 1999, 2000, and 2001 (planned) Badwater races.

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