Saturday, 27 July 2013

Encounter with a Balrog. Badwater Ultra Marathon 2013 
By Mark Steven Woolley

Balrogs are nasty, demonic, foul tempered creatures that inhabit the deepest pits of the earth. They surround themselves in fire and darkness and come armed with fiery whips. At the end of the First Age, most of the Balrogs were destroyed by the Elves in The War of Wrath but a few remained, hidden in the most inaccessible pits that the earth has to offer. It is rumored that one of them lives in Death Valley, and that the intense heat found there is not in fact due to the climatic conditions as modern science would have us believe, but that it is due to an angry Balrog, festering his hatred and wrath for the death of his brothers and releasing huge quantities of fire and heat in to the valley. The only creature that rivals a Balrog is a Dragon, but as we all know, Dragons are just a fantastical myth and don’t really exist.

So here we find ourselves again in the Badwater Ultramarathon, that race that starts and crosses the fiery pit that goes by the name of Death Valley. This was to be my second Badwater, having finished the race in 2010, albeit with certain difficulties. I had lost consciousness due to severe dehydration at one point and had to have an obligatory rest in the field hospital at Stovepipe Wells. Eventually I got back on the course some hours later and finished but the art of running the valley remained flawed. My intention of coming back this year was to perfect the art, to run the perfect race, stay on the course and paint the beautiful art that is the ultra-runner passing through Death Valley. The Valley is the hottest place on Earth and it is this single factor alone by which the runners must challenge themselves. Sure, Badwater is a long way, 135 miles or 217 kms to be exact, and crosses a couple of mountain passes and then finishes up the side of a long mountain, with an accumulated height gain of over 4000M, but for a seasoned ultra-runner these do not actually represent anything out of the ordinary. No, Badwater is all about the heat!.

But anybody that thinks this incredible race is actually about the runner is badly mistaken. Badwater is all about the team, the road crew. In order to actually run this you have to have a team of people that support you and that keep you going, that attend to your needs, but far more importantly they actually keep you alive in this most inhospitable of places. The heat is so intense that without their help you would dry out like a withered yellow leaf in autumn and then fall into the ground, empty and devoid of all your moisture.

So then, here’s to the Road Crew. Shortly after receiving the acceptance e mail from Chris Kosman I posted and advert on Face Book. “MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, INTENSE HEAT, LONG HOURS OF COMPLETE MADNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS. ......... Badwater crew needed.” It was adapted from Shackleton’s original in searching for a team to board the Endurace on that fateful Antarctic expedition just after the turn of the last century. With this ad, Shackleton filled his boat with like-minded people and I had my Badwater crew together in less than an hour. The poor misguided souls!

Javi Woolley: My 15 year old Son. 3 years ago Javi’s sister Laura crewed for me on my first Badwater when she was 15. Javi was now 15 and relished the idea of going to the hottest desert in the world. I think secretly he liked the idea that he was going to get to kick my ass for a change!! I believe that the most important thing you can give your children is experience. Badwater is definitely an experience!

Jari Nyman: A dear friend for almost 25 years. Many years ago I used to train insanely hard with Jari in the gym until we diverged in our sporting activities. Jari is now one of the top Jeet Kun Do martial artists in the world and was fascinated by the Badwater ultramarathon. “What was it that drove these people to these extremes?” he would ask, “What enabled them to keep going?”. Only one way to find out and that was to join the crew.

Stephen Sutton: Another dear friend from my university days. Stephen is a magnificent, accomplished sportsman and at Uni we spent many, many times together climbing and mountaineering when in fact we should have been studying. We got into so many scrapes together that it is almost a miracle that we are both still around to tell the tales. We shared a house together but then lost contact some 20 years ago. After finding each other again on Face Book, what better way to get together again than to do the Badwater together!!

Jup Brown: I only met Jup last year whilst running “The High” race in the Indian Himalaya. He spotted, quite by chance that I had a slot in the Badwater and had contacted me, just a couple of weeks before the race asking if he could come along too. We had a spare place on the crew so I immediately said yes. Even though I hadn’t known Jup for that long I knew he would fit in perfectly. We had spent 3 weeks together in the Himalaya and that was more than enough for me to know that he was a first class performer in extreme conditions. He is instantly recognizable as the pale white Kiwi with the long dreadlocks that sports a chronic sunburn.

Vicente Vertiz: Vicente is a close friend from many ultra battles, including my first Badwater, he didn’t actually make it this year but he was part of the team from the start and deserves a mention. Some weeks before the race he had an eye operation that developed a complication and had to stay at home. I know he was disappointed but I can only imagine that we still have many adventures to come.

Luis Guerrero: Luis actually had a slot in this year’s Badwater but had to turn it down due to work commitments. When he heard of my bags being delayed he quickly got together a runners package, including shoes and sent them to me via another Mexican runner. Luis wasn’t there in person but he was definitely on the crew!! The saying goes that you need friends all the way to the gates of Hell. Well, here I was at the very gates of Hell and I needed a few friends! Huge thanks Luis!

At the start of the race, in the 8:00 AM wave the temperature was already quite hot but after the countdown we were all on our way. Each and every one of us with our own personal journey ahead of us and everyone with their own personal motivation for doing so. Mine was to paint the perfect running art, the perfect race. Now that for me doesn’t mean winning or beating anybody, or even doing it incredibly fast in fact. All it means is that I do it, supremely  elegantly and to the very best of my ability. It means that I keep everything under control and simply flow through the valley, completely at one with nature and deeply connected to my inner soul. It means that I am at absolute peace as I run, completely disconnected from the outside world and where only the present moment actually matters. However, a mythical creature that some would dare to compare to Dragons was going to do its best to see that it wasn’t so.

The start of the race was extremely enjoyable although it was fairly uneventful apart from the increasingly hot temperatures. Indeed, at 8.00 AM it was already quite hot, not having even passed through the bit hot phase. It was a great time to talk to other runners and I spent some enjoyable time conversing with Ian from Scotland, Dave Clark, Seow Kong Ng and a few others that were running at more or less the same speed as myself. Up until Furnace creek you are not allowed a pacer but after that you are so Jari, anxious to try this Death Valley running thing came out on the road with me to run. I am not sure who was having the better time, he or me. But that is the essence of Badwater, either running or crewing you all have an out of this world experience, it is all just so intense. Steph and Jup followed and all seemed to be awestruck on realizing where they were, what they were doing and it was all happening right here, right now.

Now, at this point you may well be asking what quite hot and a bit hot actually mean so for all you American readers, here’s a little formal lesson in good quality British English for you. After all, it was us that started the language in the first place so please take note. Here in England we would say that Death Valley is very definitely a bit hot; that is the normal way of saying that something is hot. Sometimes it gets a bit hotter and we would then refer to it as quite hot; now, quite hot is definitely a quite a bit hotter than a bit hot. If it gets even hotter still, and that’s quite a bit hotter than a bit hot we would then refer to it simply as jolly hot and that’s about as hot as it gets. This year was most definitely a jolly hot year in Badwater! Perhaps the race organization should adopt this terminology as it is far simpler to use and understand that all those degrees which only mess with your head when you’re running.

Upon approaching Stovepipe wells, after some 40 odd miles and after maintaining a supremely comfortable, uniform pace all the way from the beginning I started to feel the heat. In spite of the fervent attempts from my crew to keep me cool with spraying and ice bandanas, the heat was simply brutal. The strong, high winds whipped up the scorching yellow sand from the dunes and blasted it into the runners as they tried to make their way through the valley. I pulled the visor on the back of my cap down across my face in a vain attempt to offer some protection but it was way too little, the sand burned all the same and the wind burned even more. We were in a convection oven and I felt like I was being cooked. Stephen was with me at this time, pacing me from behind and I remember saying to him that I think we should slow down some. Any forcing of the pace under these conditions would lead to a catastrophe. Stephen agreed and we slowed down to a brisk walk. But it was still far too hot and I continued to be cooked. Jolly hot means jolly hot and as I have just explained, that’s as hot as it gets. Jolly hot.

And that is when I met the Balrog! Now, you don’t get to meet a Balrog every day in your life and trust me, you don’t really want to. The Balrog is a foul, evil creature anyway and to make matters worse he was very angry and breathed fire straight into my face. I guess that he was angry that the other runners hadn’t paid him any attention or maybe he was just having a bad day, remembering the ass kicking that Gandalf had given him in the mines. All the same I ignored him and kept on going which only made it worse. Balrogs don’t like being ignored. He breathed some more, and then with the intensity of the fiery Balrog’s breath falling hard on me I fell, quite unexpectedly to the desert floor. I was completely and utterly stunned. I really, really didn’t feel this coming. In a space of just a few minutes I went from being completely in control, from feeling completely on top of the world to being a crumpled, pathetic heap on the floor. Every time in the past that I have had a serious issue in a race, I have always had some kind of warning. Sometimes the warning would be ignored and I would pay the consequences and at other times I would heed the warning and adjust the parameters that led to the problem. But I always had a warning. This was vastly different. One minute I was just fine and the next I was on the floor. Such is the cruel ferocity of Balrogs. The scene from Terminator II came to mind when the terminator was covered in liquid nitrogen. As he tries to move, first his leg breaks and falls off followed by his arms as the whole machine crashes into the floor. The terminator, still concious looks down and sees all this happening, incredulous at it all, so convinced is he of his own invincibility.

I stood up and tried to move but fell down any way. Stephen was aghast. I got up again, but this time I had no control over the fall and fell into the sand at the side of the road making all of those lovely, white desert clothes filthy with the dirt and sand that stuck to the wet clothing. At least the clothing was still wet but it was drying out so alarmingly fast that it wouldn’t stay that way for long. And then what? Without the cooling effect of the wet clothes, the cooking process would begin in earnest and then the mummification would begin. I didn’t want to mummify! Where on earth were the crew? We were right on a bend and the crew, although only a couple of hundred meters away were out of sight. They couldn’t see me and were unaware of the drama unfolding.  They were seeing me diligently every mile, which seemed like plenty. In fact it even seemed excessive. No one, not even me had any idea that this would happen. As I just said, there was no warning.

So I managed to get my torso up and just sit there helpless. Stephen was in a conundrum, he didn’t know whether to leave me and run for the crew or just stand over me and protect me from the sun. Another runner passed. I don’t know who. Stephen asked them to alert the crew and for them to come back urgently. Then another runner and Stephen said the same. That was the strange thing about all this. Intellectually I was 100% with it. I understood perfectly well what was happening but my body would not respond. But that was also a problem as I also knew what it meant and that was scary. If I didn’t get cool very, very soon I would enter into a very dangerous state, and sitting there on the desert floor wasn’t getting me cool! I was completely helpless and at the mercy of being rescued. Not a comfortable thought. Not the perfect race. Not the perfect art.

After what seemed an eternity, but which in reality was just a few minutes the crew pulled over and bundled me into the car. The aircon was on full and they systematically packed me out with ice. Where ever they could make the ice stick they stuck it. Wherever the ice wouldn’t fall off they placed a big bag and drenched me in towels soaked with ice cold water. Now that was cold, no I mean really cold but it did the job. In just a few more minutes I was even being seen by a doctor. Now, this often goes unsaid but the doctors at the Badwater race are absolutely awesome. They do an absolutely magnificent job behind the scenes. Nowhere have I ever been where they are so efficient, so professional and so helpful. Most doctors would have pulled me at this point but not in Badwater. They try to sort you out so you can actually get back on the course and finish. Badwater doctors give no sympathy; they just sort you out, kick you in the ass and tell you to get back out there. They understand us and for that I am eternally grateful.

I still had a low blood pressure from the heat shock even though my core body temperature was once again back to normal and the doctor had given me orders to check into the field hospital in Stovepipe which was just a couple of miles away. Jup wanted us to stake out but I refused, instead we walked a bit, rested a bit, walked a bit more until I was there. There was no sign of the Balrog. I can only assume that he had thought that he had beaten me and had gone to hunt down some other runners. He is cruel that way, and I crept quietly out of the car lest he should see me, he didn’t see me again so I guess I was lucky this time.

The Medical station was carnage. There were runners and crew sprawled all over the place and I took comfort in that I was not alone. I wasn’t the only one to suffer from heat shock, or to be hunted down by a Balrog!! Some even looked like they had been cooked by Dragon’s breath but then again Dragons aren’t actually real are they? I checked in, got checked out and sure enough I still had a low blood pressure. The doctors there asked detailed questions about my salt intake and then they gave us the news. I was only taking about half the quantity of salt that I should!! We had followed the instructions on the bottle diligently but the heat in Badwater is so intense that we should have doubled the quantities. They gave me some saline solution to drink that has to rate as one of the most unpleasant drinks I have tasted in the whole world but it certainly did the trick. My blood pressure came back to normal and life started to flow in this old dog’s body again. This dog may have been beaten but he certainly wasn’t out. During this time, the crew was always with me and they took it in turns to make sure I drank the foul tasting liquid. They also took some time out to cool down themselves in the pool just across the courtyard which was also a good move.

After 3 hours, everything was back to normal and we had a job to do. So, as more people were coming in to be seen by the medical staff, I vacated the bed, checked out and together with the crew started walking up the hill to Town’s Pass. I felt so much better, so much more alive. In fact I felt like I did just a few minutes before the encounter with that foul, unpleasant creature of myth and it would be fair to say that I felt just great! Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses and whereas the extreme heat is obviously one of my weaknesses, the ability to bounce back, and bounce back strong has always been one of my strengths. The Balrog hadn’t counted on that one! Now, all throughout this ideal, never, ever did I question myself that I might not finish. Whilst it was apparent that I wasn’t going to do a fast time, it never entered my head that it was over. Ultramarathon running is like this, you get problems. It’s all about how you deal with them that makes the difference. Yes Woolley, get off the floor and start again; it’s as simple as that.

Now the crew was a crew with a mission. They were even more determined to get me to the finish than ever before and whereas they had humored me into thinking that I was actually in control during the early part of the race, they now made no secret of the fact that it was indeed they who were now calling the shots. I was just to run and stuff down my neck whatever they gave me, and that meant salt tablets! Yuck! Oh no!, I really, really hate salt tablets and salt tablets hate me. That is why I take salt in solution, but at the concentration recommended by the doctors this was too much so it was salt tablets. My stomach still felt a little delicate after the earlier incident but when a salt tablet was forced down, the stomach promptly rebelled and increased the moisture content on the valley floor by quite a lot.

Vomiting in that way actually made me feel quite refreshed but that sentiment was all lost on the crew I’m afraid whilst they cleaned it off their socks and shoes. The crew looked somewhat perplexed but they let me carry on anyway. About an hour later Javi stopped me and made me take another salt tablet. I think he was enjoying this, a complete reversal of roles and relished the moment that he was able to give his dad orders and that there was nothing I could do but to follow them. But to no avail, I instantly vomited again, splashing Javi’s shirt with little drops of puke in the process. Yes, now that was a role reversal if ever I saw one, how many times has he vomited over me when he was a small baby? One going the other way was just pure karma!!

Further and further we climbed up the pass, accompanied by Jari, Jup and Stephen on the road as pacers. My god did those blokes work hard to keep me going. Night fell and so did the temperatures and at one point Javi came out to pace me and we enjoyed a rare father-son moment in that desolate, dry place and then it was Stephen’s turn to administer the dreaded salt tablet. This time Stephen grinned and stood out of the way as he passed me the little offensive white brick; the others didn’t even get close.

Now, this is actually quite hard to explain but I had come to dread the salt tablet as much as the Balrog in the valley and as much as I wanted to please the crew, that little tiny salt tablet was going to do it’s upmost best to derail what was left of my Badwater attempt. So there it sat, in my mouth surrounded by water whilst I went through the rigorous mental preparation for the swallow. I mean, I had to psyche up more for the salt tablet than to start the actual race. One, two three go !…. errrr….no not yet ….. just control those vomit feelings and ….swallow! …… OK, let’s try again! One, two three…..”You stood out of the way Steph?” …. Now this was turning into an epic battle within the battle, Woolley against the salt tablet but with the same cast iron discipline that was going to get me to the finish I managed to swallow the unpleasant little bastard and more importantly I managed to control the vomit. You may laugh, but this one little event required more mental discipline and self-control than getting back out on the road after the heat shock incident!

Eventually we got to the top of Towns Pass and with the summit came a feeling of being back in control of events once again. I knew I wasn’t really in control, my crew and especially my son made that clear, but at least I thought I was back in control. So I climbed into the back seat of the car and had a 15 minute power nap. Now, if that didn’t show them who was in control then nothing will! After the nap I felt really refreshed and then came the magic ingredient. I reached for my MP3 player and with Iron Maiden, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner blasting in my ears I connected to the hidden energy store that my body reserves for these moments and started to run. I swear that I owe Bruce Dickenson and Steve Harris a huge favor here, are they even aware that they turned my Badwater race around with just a few well sung rock notes accompanied by a thumping bass rhythm? Probably not. Maybe I will write to them just to let them know that one of their songs saved Badwater for me. The rock music instantly touched my soul and caused it to wake fully, to connect to the inner animal and then to let rip.

I’ve described this animal in detail before so I shan’t repeat myself here but it is a wonderful raw, primeval creature that lives in the depths of every human being alive. It is an integral part of our ancestral past and the only way to connect with it is to break away the surface layers under which it lives. Ultra marathons are good at removing these layers but Badwater strips them off with a band saw. In Badwater, if you don’t know how to connect then you simply can’t survive out there. Badwater reduces everything to the primeval and we don’t we just love it for that! That is why we came here is it not? The beast came to my aid the last time I was here and here it was again. The majestic feeling of pure unadulterated power in my legs and body, accompanied by the rock music was just too much to resist and I just let myself get absorbed into the moment. Running and running quite hard (as opposed to just a bit hard), all accompanied by the gradient of the hill, and with this I started to pass other runners. Ah, and the iced coca cola helped too! I actually started to feel sorry for the larger part of the human race, so many people live without ever coming close to this creature, without ever knowing of its savage existence. So many people in the world and so few that ever get to experience this feeling, this connection with something magic, something that resides in the depths of time but that can be found by anyone alive as long as they are prepared to look. If you’re reading this and you are an ultra-runner then you will have some idea of what I am talking about. If you are a Badwater veteran you have been here too!

Upon reaching the Panamint Valley the sun hadn’t quite surfaced yet and I asked the crew if they could prepare me a hot, freshly brewed coffee. Now, we’ve all had good coffee before and probably, taken in isolation the coffee they made me would probably not exactly pass a Starbucks quality control test but I swear that that coffee was the best in the whole world, no I tell a lie, it was the best in the whole damn universe!! I sat there in the chair, sipping on the gorgeous murky brown liquid mixed with bits of dust and sand from the desert and just watched some of the other runners pass me by as the sun gently crept above the horizon and started to let its presence felt and fill the valley with majestic orange-yellow light. I didn’t care that other runners passed, I knew I would pass them again later, but even that wasn’t the point. I felt so completely at peace with myself that I only cared about the coffee and to cherish this rare moment.

We checked in to the Panamint Station and then I started to powerwalk up the hill. The hill up to Father Crowley point is steep enough to warrant powerwalking. There is a particular gradient where it is more efficient to power away walking than it is to run. That hill is just that gradient. Jup, Jari and Stephen took it in turns to come out on the road with me and Javi took great delight in stopping me every half hour and making me take the salt tablets. 

“THOUGH SHALL NOT PASS!” …. “Unless a salt tablet is consumed” as Javi stamped his feet into the ground, blocking my passage and handed me the offensive little white blob. So I would take the tablet, everyone would stand well out of the way and I would have the obligatory battle with self not to vomit upon which Javi would let me through and the race would continue. Did I ever tell you that I just hate those salt tablets?

The hill came to an end quite quickly and the lazy stretch that followed was pure delight. Somewhere along this road, before the Darwin checkpoint I discovered a brand new kind of endurance rocket fuel. I swear that this should be patented as it is the most powerful energy rich ultra-running fuel on the planet. It consists of some white bread (Highly processed with all the fiber removed, you know; the healthy stuff) soaked, and I mean soaked in Olive oil. Seriously, I mean soaked. Between the bread is some turkey breast and then comes the magic ingredient. Some chilly cheese potato chips! As many that would fit in. The olive oil would run out all over my hands as I ate it but the great thing about olive oil is that you can use it for lube too and it saves having to stop for Vaseline! Now there’s a thing, a sandwich that you can lube with and eat to boot! Some pretty cool stuff gets invented during a race eh?. Great stuff and should be part of every runners kit. But the main thing about this was the huge energy release that accompanied and this was what kept me going all to the very end. Ah, and some iced Coca Cola too.

From the checkpoint at the Darwin turn off to Lone pine is a very, very long stretch of desperately straight road. You can see it all out there, laid bare in front of you and the end never ever seems to get any closer no matter how fast or for how long you run. The good thing though is that for most of the time you can see Whitney and that means the finish line. It was during this last stretch that I met up with and passed many other runners, including my friend Seow Kong from Malasia who I had met in the Himalaya last year. This, at least in part was due to the immaculate care that I was getting from the crew. They really were amazing and they would take it in turns to pace me, especially Jup who would run at every possible opportunity with everybody keeping me cool by spraying me. This obviously helped enormously. Why, even the dreaded salt tablets started to enter the system without complaining and the crew no longer ran out of the way to look for for cover when I took one. I obviously had this one under control now!

From Lone Pine to the Whitney portal is a very long hill, and when I say long I mean long. It really does go on forever and now with the night falling and the mountain slowly slipping into darkness it became difficult not only to judge distances but also to distinguish the features in the road. Stephen came out to pace me for a couple of miles and then Jari. The company was great and we chatted about anything that took our fancy. I was power walking now and progressing at a decent pace. I had run literally all day previously and made up enormous ground that compensated somewhat for the lost time due to the heat shock in Stovepipe. At this point my legs actually started to feel tired for the first time. Eventually Jup joined me in the power march and then the dusky shadows started to form strange images in my mind. The cracks in the road became long, elongated snakes and I even saw a crooked nosed witch with a hat and broomstick at one point but no matter how hard I looked I didn’t see the Balrog. That was a good thing and I remained satisfied that he had stayed in his fiery pit in the depths of Death Valley. Incidentally, if you are interested in seeing him, you’ll probably find him just outside Stovepipe Wells lurking and sulking in the sand dunes. But be careful, for he is a foul, unpleasant creature who doesn’t take being disturbed lightly. The hallucinations were marvelous and I discussed with Jup what I was seeing which was rather surreal because he was seeing the same things too. Sleep deprivation does that to you, you know.

Then out of the blue, when I thought that we hadn’t even gone one third of the way up the hill we stumbled across the last check point before the finish. Wow! Were we really here already? I knocked back a Starbucks espresso from a tiny little can as the hallucinations from the cracks in the road were really messing with my head now. It did the trick neatly and cleared the haze. After about another mile, Javi changed places with Jup and accompanied me for the last couple of miles to the finish. What could a dad want more? I finished the Badwater being paced by my 15 year old son and that really rocks!

The rest of the crew joined us some 100 meters before the finish and with all the national flags in hand, British, English, Spanish, Finnish and New Zealand we embraced and crossed the line together. We had finished Badwater in 40 hours 53 mins.


For a couple of days in your life you get treated like a princess and at the end everyone praises you, sings your glory and gives you a beautiful belt buckle. Everyone thinks it’s the runners that are the heroes of all this; after all it is they that do all the running but I have some news for you, that’s all wrong. The crew are the real heroes as it is they that actually do all the work. All you have to do is run and that’s the easy bit. Why, you don’t even have to think as the crew do it all for you. And we all know how hard thinking is; right? And what do they get out of it other than some free pizza and a couple of beers? Well, next year and the following I will be back, not to run but to crew and I will be able to tell you all about it. Next year I’ll crew for Luis Guerrero, assuming he gets a slot, and then the following year for Jup Brown. I have to put back what I have taken. That’s karma.

So then, I dedicate this little story first to my own wonderful, awesome road crew, and then to all the road crews out there in Badwater for it is you lot that actually get these little princesses across the finish line, in spite of what they may think themselves!!


  1. What an awesome report. LOVE the Middle Earth references...."You Shall Not Pass" screams Gandalf and so did you to the Balrog!!

    My work colleague, Jay Hodde, was in charge of your 8am starting group, so we are connected in a distant sort of way. Since you have journeyed "There and Back Again", you understand connections.

    The crews are did a great job of saluting them properly.

    Run well...thanks for the write up.