Taking part in an event like Badwater reminds me of my performing arts days when I was in dress rehearsal and performance week for a show. Both of these experiences are like entering into a cocoon where you interact very little with those outside of that experience, and it feels like your whole world revolves around the preparation for that show or race. It is utterly consuming and your focus and commitment are at an all time high.
I flew to Las Vegas from NYC and was met at the airport by John Vigil – the “Stretch Doctor” who I met in India in 2011. John was on the crew for Molly Sheridan during The High and I was lucky enough to get a fascial stretch therapy session with him prior to the race beginning. My body really responded to this technique that I searched for someone in Australia to work with (Keith Bearne). The Stretch Doctor was the crew captain for TeamCath and this was his fifth time being on a crew for Badwater – he also crewed Cath at Badwater in 2012. It wasn’t long until I realised that John’s experience would be vital to our teams success.
After a much needed nights sleep after being on the go all over the world for over a month, John and I went back to the airport to pick up the rest of the team. First we stumbled across Mathieu Dore, a delightfully endearing and athletically talented French Canadian. Mathieu had met Cath at a race in upstate New York in 2012, although only spending an hour together, Cath had invited Mathieu to be on her crew after he graciously gave her his gloves during the race after seeing her desperately try to warm her hands up. I soon learnt that Mathieu was the kind of guy who would do whatever he could to make other people’s lives easier. He gave his sunglasses to Cath the morning of the race because she left her pair back at the hotel and his upbeat yet calm personality was something the crew and Cath needed in the challenges during the race.
Mathieu, John and I picked up Cath (the amazing runner) and her Dubai training partner Angeline Tache Wehbe. Angeline, another Australian living in Dubai, had faced the humidity of Dubai and run at all un- respectable hours to prepare Cath for the task of Badwater. Angeline is a running coach in Dubai, is a speedy marathon runner, as well as being the sweetest nurturer out there.
After checking into the Caesar’s Palace we spent the next 24 hours picking up last minute gear items, food for the runner and crew and then packing the Mother Ship. Although we had all just met, we were connecting well and starting to learn each other’s strengths that would play an integral role in the race.
John was Mr Logistics and knew the Badwater course like the back of his hand. We also knew he would be pacing Cath for the final climb up Mt Whitney. Angeline was going to be Cath’s emotional support in the instance that she went to a dark place, she was also going to pace Cath during the significant downhill sections of the course. In addition to being a highly accomplished personal training and ultra-marathon runner Mathieu is a nutritionist which gave Cath confidence that she would overcome the nutritional challenges she had in her Badwater race last year. I probably had the greatest experience racing in heat comparable to Badwater and would pace Cath through the hottest stages.
As much as we hypothesised and planned over how we would pace and tackle certain challenges we were all aware that everything could change once the race started.
As we drove to Death Valley in a vehicle crammed with luxury Voss water, ice eskies and all of our gear, the chatter continued about Cath’s race goals and her reasons for doing the race. Cath’s was racing and raising money for the rehabilitation and treatment for her friend Rich Holland –
In October 2011, whilst training for an Ironman Race, Rich was hit from behind by a car, sustaining multiple life-threatening injuries. These included: broken ribs, punctured lungs, a fractured sternum, fractured right fibula, and severe injuries to his brain. His brain injuries are substantial, the worst of which is a contusion on his brain stem which caused an immediate coma. Rich has what is known as a severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and the specific condition he has been left with is known as locked-in-syndrome.
Due to the type of brain injury that Rich sustained in this awful accident, his brain has a loss of motor messages sent to his body and this means he is unable to move his body voluntarily at all. Only time and intense neuro rehab will tell if this motor control will be regained.
All of the crew felt very committed and passionate to helping Cath achieve her goal and we knew it was going to be a demanding race on all of us – having only one vehicle whilst many competitors had two.
I could go on for a long time about the pre-race preparation, but for all of Cath’s training she left many of her final decisions to the last minute. This included what she would wear, what she would eat and the writing down of her race strategy. Of course she had considered these things beforehand, but she was open to new ideas up until the morning of the race. The race gods must have been smiling on her because this strategy actually worked for her as she ended up wearing a yellow/sun protective race buff that was included in the race package. Cath is convinced this played a dramatic role in keeping her considerably cooler than she was the previous year, and the temperature was much higher this year.
For the first 17 miles of the race, Cath (and all of the runners) would run by themselves. Our crew would stop every 750m to 1km and spray Cath down with water, offer her fresh bottles of iced water, aqualyte solution and food – this required us to stretch ourselves along the side of the road as she ran by. We planned to rotate her nutrition from salt and savoury items – small portions, very regularly. Considering Cath was averaging 6.5minute/kms for the first 65kms this would mean we would stop every 5minutes (approx). Within a few minutes of crewing I realised this was going to be incredibly demanding on the crew and there would be very limited, if any opportunity to rest. Without a doubt the hardest race to crew that i know of.
Cath was a clever cookie and went out conservatively. This was in contrast to many runners in the 10am wave (there was also 6am and 8am wave starts).
Cath completed the first 17 miles in 2:52 and was near the back of the 10am wave start. She then picked up Angeline as a pacer as John, Mathieu and I filled up the Mothership with more ice at Furnace creek. For the next three hours, Angeline, Mathieu and I paced (by running behind Cath) for 30 minutes at a time. On our first rotation we were all shocked with the intensity of the heat. I must confess I was nervous about my ability to be able to pace for long periods at a time. The first 42 miles (67 kilometres) are the hottest down below sea level in Death Valley, but by my second time out I had adjusted to the suffocating feeling of the heat and wind and was had calmed my mind down to the task of helping Cath move along the course.
During this period we passed many runners including New Zealand Amy Campbell who was running Badwater for her first time. She was looking strong and focused and I thought we may see her again later in the race.
After Mathieu completed his second 30minute pacing session his face turned pale and he told me he had to switch out, I took over pacing as we moved through Stovepipe Wells (41 miles) in a total time of 7:47. The head wind had picked up and many runners were walking this section, Cath feeling well had the opportunity to move past a few more competitors over a few km incline section. I couldn’t believe how well she was moving and her technique looked very comfortable – clearly an experienced runner over a long distance.
When I went into the vehicle I saw that Mathieu had been really sick and was working hard to recover so he could get back out to pace Cath. With one crew member temporarily out of action, there was more jobs for the non-pacer to cover in order to support Cath in the way she needed to be. Efficiency was crucial and communication between the pacer, driver and crew person was honed in beautifully.
As the sun started to fade and Cath was close to the downhill section (which she planned on pushing the speed up) she needed to look at her heel which had already formed into a blister. Cath tended to this earlier on with some compeed but she needed to remove the compeed as it was rubbing further. We all cringed as a large piece of skin ripped away and a gaping hole in her heel was oozing. A few sternly worded sounds came from Cath’s mouth before she went through a series of options to remedy this situation. After 15 minutes we added a thick protective layer with a hole cut out over the open blister. Cath’s shoes no longer fitted her feet and luckily my spare pair of Brooks fitted her and off we went down the hill. I know Cath must have been in worlds of pain but she didn’t mention her feet again for the rest of the race. TROOPER!!!!
Angeline joined Cath on the 12km+ downhill stage and boy did they fly. At times they were going 4:30km/pace and crewing for them required us to prepare her drinks and food whilst the car flew down the hill. We would jump out of the car run beside Cath as we gave her food and as we switched drinks with Angeline. Everyone was working hard and it paid off as we passed Dean Karnazes before heading to Panamint Springs (72miles). Mathieu continued with Cath through this checkpoint as John, Angeline and I picked up more ice, food, coffee and checked the leader board. It was here that we realised that Cath was only 25 minutes behind Pam Reed and currently placing second female in the race. There was so many people based at this checkpoint, dealing with stomach problems, sleep deprivation, etc. It took us over an hour to get back to Cath and Mathieu and poor Matty was looking pale again as he jumped into the vehicle and John took over pacing up the hill.
The next few hours saw us overcome early signs of Cath’s fatigue by feeding her noodles and getting some coffee into her. She slowed her pace into the Darwin checkpoint (90 mile) as we steadily climbed whilst the sun came up behind us. This was the first and only time that Cath stopped at a checkpoint, she changed her shorts into a skirt due to some minor chaffing, changed out of her reflective gear, had her legs rubbed and drank some coffee from our (secret weapon) french press coffee maker. Although she had walked part of this section her pace was fast and very consistent.
After a 10 minute stop we realised that Pam couldn’t be too far away as her second crew vehicle drove back to see how far behind we were. Cath refusing to be influenced by someone else’s race headed off with Mathieu. As crew and runner dealt with a few sleep and weather demons we had to get back into the day-time crew groove. Crewing in a race such as this really requires everyone to not be sensitive and to have the ability to make light of challenging situations. Luckily John and I embraced this mentality during our weary periods.
From weary individuals to sparked up crew members within an instant when we saw Pam and her crew ahead approximately 1.5kms away. Determined to continue sticking to our plan, Cath only moved slightly quicker once hearing this news. Her focus became streamlined and she required constant reminding on how far we had gone and how far it was to the next checkpoint. Considering all of the race information was in miles, we also had to convert everything into kms. Somehow this was a challenge for a tired minds in addition to all of the other crew tasks.
Within a matter of 10kms or so, we were right behind Pam and I was the fortunate crew member to be pacing Cath as we strongly passed legendary Pam Reed around the 118mile mark. It was the most exciting running moment I have had – and I wasn’t even the runner (crazy huh!). No one felt tired anymore and everyone knew the remaining 17 miles would be intense as we would now be feeling like the hunted dog.
Although we constantly looked behind we couldn’t see Pam behind us as Cath’s pace kicked a few gears quicker. As we headed into Lone Pine (122 miles) we had a 24 minute lead. John took over as pacer at this point and he paced t
he remaining 13 miles to the finish. John was the perfect man for this job and I give him credit for looking after Cath during this 3:41 hours. No doubt Cath was stressed about being caught. For a short period her pace wavered and the rest of us were concerned that Pam would bridge the gap if she was feeling strong. You can never underestimate someone as experienced and talented as Pam. With some encouragement by all of us to increase her pace, Cath stepped it up and I her focus was went to a level that I didn’t think was possible after everything she had gone through. On top of wanting to become first female she knew she was going to be on the line to getting a sub- 30 hour.
The heat was punishing and it was a difficult couple of hours for the crew as we were trying to get everything right from our end.
As Cath power walked the last windy turn to the finish line and we joined her side we were all overcome with emotion as Cath crumbled to the ground at the finish line. In fact I am tearing up remembering how Cath went from being ultra focused to completely vulnerable in that final step. She had achieved every goal she set out for herself and as a crew member you really felt that you played a role in helping her to do so.
In addition to my pride in Cath and amazement at her athletic prowess and mental determination, I feel so blessed to have been apart of this experience. Our team was amazing and I have made some beautiful friendships that I will cherish forever.