Thursday, June 29, 2006

Athletics: An inspiring triathlon story plus a solo crossing of Death Valley

Ironman Triathon: one can finish even if things go wrong.

I subscribe to something called the Clydesdale Virtual Racing Team. We have a member named Karen Wells. She has done an Ironman Triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) in the 13 hour range and hoped to go under that in her latest one. She wasn't able to, but her story is interesting nevertheless, as her triathlon almost ended before it even started.

Her husband (Rick Schaefer, who has run several marathons, AFTER having had a heart attack and recovered from it; his story is told in an old issue of Marathon and Beyond) knows that Karen tends to understate what she does, so he told her story for her. In the photo, Rick is the one on the right. Karen is the attractive one. But I digress; here is the story:

Part I: the teaser

Just a short note about Karen's Ironman Couer d'Alene yesterday.

She would have won the Athena 40yrs+ by more than 40 minutes, but she
refused to register for it because her words.. it's the "fat old
lady division" :-) She got tired of "explainng" her wins in that
division, so she competes only in her age group. (Being in love doesn't
mean we agree on everything!) She reminds me that despite being just
a few months shy from her 50th birthday, she still placed in the top
40% in the 45-49 age group, and would have been 9th in the women's 50-
54. She has the worst possible "Kona" birtday... 1-2 weeks prior to
the usual race day.

I'll let Karen tell whatever part of the rest of the story that she
wants. Hint. Ask her about the 'tender' husband/wife exchange at about
mile 6 of the run :-)

Part II: The Rest of the Story
Karen is never going to tell the "whole" truth on this, and besides, Karen
says I'm the better story teller in the family. I guess, with her
permission, I'll give everyone my version of Karen's race report.

Karen's summed up her experience at Ironman CDA this way: "I never trained
to walk all 26 miles."

First, let's remember her racing experience. She’s got 20+ marathons, a
couple of ultras, and a 13:21 Ironman under her belt. She has never once
dropped from any race. In fact, she had never even considered it... until
Sunday. After 8 months of fantastic training, Karen was in the best shape
of her life. She had been trained by the Olympic distance World Age Group
champion, Pete Kain in his special Ironman group. Besides four 100+ mile
rides (and lots of 80/90 milers) on the bike, she was also in perfect
condition to go out and run a great road marathon, having done 4 LSD runs
of 22+ miles plus another 1/2 dozen 15-18 milers. Some of her best
training days (2 mile swim followed by 100 hilly miles on the bike) had
been done in the heat, and she finished all those workouts with lots of
energy to spare. She went into taper mode 3 weeks pre race, giving her
plenty of time to recharge. We knew Karen could count 100% on having a
solid race, particularly the run. (She looked absolutely awesome when she
did her training runs. I was jealous.)

So what happened?

Just 5 minutes prior to the swim start....with goggles on..... Karen
kicked a rock very hard and severely bruised her little toe. OUCH !!!

The cold water in the swim kept the initial swelling down, but Karen said
she felt some pain coming out of the water. It didn’t seem to hurt much
during the bike, and she arrived at T2 right at her PR pace, a strong
showing considering that the record heat was decimating most of the
field. When she took off her bike shoe, Karen said the toe exploded with
pain. The toe was already swollen and purple, and she had major trouble
putting on her running shoe. Karen had no balance when she tried to walk,
and she hobbled across the run course to where I was standing just outside
of T2. She was shaking and trembling enough for me to be very worried
about her, and I thought she was having some sort of heatstroke issue. (I
later realized she had gone into mild shock when she tried to put on the
running shoe.) She told me briefly she hurt her toe just before the swim
started, and she said she was going to drop because pain was going to
prohibit her from running with a normal stride. We talked for a few
minutes, and I worriedly asked her about hydration/nutrition

. I got good
answers, and to tell the truth, I was a bit confused about what exactly was
wrong. Suddenly Karen decided to give the run a try for the first 1 mile
out & back section. As she headed out on the course, I gave her the only
advice I ever give her during the run of a triathlon, "RUN SMART!"

She saw Coach Pete at Mile 1, and said she was unable to run at all. When
she told Pete she was going to drop, Pete asked “Well, you can walk can’t
you?” There’s a lot of emotion behind Pete’s comment. He had cried
the night before when he spoke at the Team Kain dinner about when he
dropped in the middle of an Ironman. Pete calls that DNF the hardest thing
he’s ever done in his life. His heart was in getting everyone to the
finish line, and he was going to try to motivate Karen through a tough
patch. Who knew the tough patch was going to be for 26.2 miles?

As Karen joked today, all this emotion has poured out of Pete and me, and
she’s only up to Mile 1 on the run. :-) :-)

When I saw Karen back at Mile 2 almost 30 minutes later, she said she would
just try to keep walking a little more to see what was going to happen. Her
eyes were a bit more in focus, so I wasn't worried as much. She lamented
as she got going again, “I hope you don't mind being out here for 15
hours!" So off she went, but I had no idea how bad the toe thing really
was... My gal is pretty indestructible, she was in great shape; she doesn't
mind the heat, so I just figured she was going to get moving and finally
find her stride. Boy, was I wrong!

You see, Karen had to compensate for the swollen toe by walking on the
inside of her foot, and soon Karen had a huge blister on the entire ball of
her foot. Any attempt to run with the weird stride used different muscles,
and this had her on the edge of cramping (and the heat wasn't helping
any) At the 5 mile mark, Karen turned around to walk back into the aid
station to drop. When she got there, she decided she wasn't quire ready to
drop…at least not yet. As JimP used to say, just one more mile.

15 minutes later I drove up to her. She stopped and leaned into the car
window with the words

“Can I quit? I'm not having any fun out here" I can’t run at all, and I’ve
got big blisters “ I lifted her sunglasses, looked into her eyes, and
here eyes were clear.

Me- “How are you feeling?”

Her- “I’m ok, I guess.”

Me…harshly “ Then finish the f*&king race”

Her..”F*&k you. Why do I have to?”

Me, with tears running down my face, “You have to finish this race because
I can’t do it.”

Note-I gotta be careful about how often I play that particular card, but it
worked this time!! :-) However, deep inside I was really suffering for
her. I now knew that she was never going to find any kind of running
stride, and that she had a loooong, hard afternoon/evening ahead of her.
She was going to have to go another 20 miles on sheer guts. Man, that's a

But to her credit, she walked, and walked, and walked, and walked, and
walked. Karen wasn't kidding. She never ran more than about 3 minutes
during the entire 26.2 miles. She walked on that stupid swollen toe and
ugly blisters for more than 6 hours!! She walked her way right up to the
part when the race announcer shouted in the microphone "Karen Wells, 49
years old from San Jose, California. Karen Wells, you are an IRONMAN!"

My emotions run big at Ironman events, but I’m crying for strangers. This
is the first time I've cried for Karen. It's brutal for me to think of
what was going on in her mind having to walk mile after mile. But deep
inside I know I was right in making her stay on the course in the manner
that I did. She is still cussing me out about it, but now she has a laugh
and a smile about it.

Karen is not a quitter. It’s just not in her nature to give up. If she
would have dropped, Karen would have always had a nagging doubt about
whether things could have turned around later on the run, and she would
never have forgiven herself. And like Pete Kain, a DNF would have made
this the worst racing experience of her life. Instead Karen has the shirt,
the medal, the finisher’s hat, and of course, the pride! Most of all,
Karen knows that on a day of record heat (20 degrees hotter than last
year), on a day of a record # of DNF’s, on a day when her little toe
betrayed the 8 months of perfect training that the rest of her body had
done, she still hung tough all the way to the finish to again earn the
mantle of Ironman. And she still ended up in the top 40% of her age group!

Epilogue - Karen hasn't been able to wear shoes since she took off her
running shoes about 20 feet from the finishing area immediately after the
race. The toe was, and still is, mega-UGLY. It looks like it has a big,
purplish, yucky cocoon encompassing most of it. The bruises/blisters drew
looks of admiration from her teammates, and it draws looks of pity from
strangers whom she catches staring at her open toed sandals.
As for me, I’m still swelling with pride for Karen. But I feel a
twinge of sadness for her, too. More than anything else I wonder how Karen
would have done if she could have done some real running during the race?
Her legs were ready. Of all things that can get you in an Ironman…a little

Rick Schaefer- sitting in San Jose, California with a real live Ironman
finisher within hugging distance.

How to finish Badwater if you can't (or don't want to) complete the formal Badwater Ultramarathon.

The Badwater Ultramarathon is one of the toughest ultras in the United States. It is brutal: 135 miles across Death Valley in July.

From it's website:

Covering 135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA in temperatures up to 130F (55C), it is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet.

The start line is at Badwater, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere at 280’ (85m) below sea level. The race finishes at the Mt. Whitney Portals at 8360' (2533m). The Badwater course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 13,000’ (3962m) of cumulative vertical ascent and 4,700’ (1433m) of cumulative descent. The Portals are the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States.

Of course, I am not going to get into "which ultra is harder than which"; many claim that the Barkley (which is in danger of not being held anymore), given that only a handful of people have ever finished it, is harder. But I digress.

But, as the site says, one has to qualify for the race (minimal standards, even I qualify). Then, a race committee reviews the applications and selects 80 for the race. If selected, you have 60 hours to finish, but you need to finish in under 48 hours to win a "buckle". And, the best I could tell, you need to pay $250.00 and to have with you a crew of 2 at all times, plus at least one car!

There is another way to do this: you can enter the InYoUltra:
and either do the Badwater course, or do the whole course plus the Mt. Whitney summit. Go to the roster part to see what to do. You can also link to stories there.

And on an aside, I published a story about Jeff Sauter's attempt to do the unsupported solo crossing. Jeff finished the 135 mile Badwater part, but couldn't quite make the Whitney summit. Here is a story about the one person who has pulled it off:


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