Man vs Self: Running Through Death Valley #Uberman #Triathlon

If you missed any of my previous Uberman posts, check out the complete list of them here.

For event-specific posts that chronicle the swim and bike segments, check out “Man vs Nature: Swimming Across Catalina Channel ” and “Man vs Road: Cycling Through the Mojave Desert to Death Valley.”

T2: Bike-to-Run

After packing up the bike atop Town Pass, the drive to Furnace Creek took a little less than an hour. With all of the focus on the bike segment that day, I had nearly forgotten that this is where Tim Phebus would to join the crew for the run starting in the morning.

After the usual transaction cost of getting settled – figuring where to go, checking in, parking, locating a dinner spot – we parked The Beast in the bus lot where instructed. Lena, Tbone and Benjamin headed to the restaurant while I showered.

At dinner, everyone seemed relieved to be finished with the bike and sitting for dinner at a reasonable hour. (“Reasonable” defined as 8:00pm…) The food arrived cold and we joked – “Oh your food is cold? Let me hold it outside the window to warm it up…”  This was immensely funny for all of us. Yes, had to be there. We were all a little punch drunk now.

After dinner, Lena and Tbone unpacked what they needed from The Beast. It was nearly 9:00pm by now and I was ready to put together tomorrow’s plan and get to sleep. I looked at my phone and saw both a missed call and text from Tim – he made it to Furnace Creek! Tbone and I met him and showed him to The Beast where he and I would crash.

When I put together my race plan weeks ago, I had intended to be on run course by 5:00am  That plan also called for me to run the 135 miles in 36 hours – a 16:00/mile pace. I’d reach Panamint Springs late Saturday night, run through the night over the second big climb, then reach the Mt. Whitney portal at 5:00pm on Sunday. That plan wasn’t going to happen. Instead, Tbone would head out to The Beast 7:00am to drive me to the run start at Badwater Basin for a 7:30am run start, and we’d take the day from there.

As Tim and I settled in, I recapped for him the past couple of days and how I was feeling. We talked about fatherhood and life for a few minutes before finally sliding off into a nice deep sleep. Until 2:00am, that is…

Whack! Whack! Whack! A bright white light shone directly into my eyes from the windshield.

“There’s no camping here!” A security guard was out to inspect why an RV was parked in the bus lot. I climbed to the front of the cabin and opened the door.

“There’s no camping here,” he repeated.

My initial thought was – “Dude, we’re not camping. We’re sleeping.” Instead I told him – “We have a room here and they told us to park here in the bus lot.”

“Who told you?”

“The woman that checked us in.”

“Do you remember who she was?”

“No. I think she had short hair.”

“Look. This is for bus parking, You’re gonna get towed if you park here. What’s your room number and name?” I told him and, if necessary, I was ready to share the details of what I’d done so far, and what I was about to attempt tomorrow, hoping that the ridiculousness of the situation would sway him to leniency.

He told me he’d check with the front desk and come back and leave a note so we wouldn’t get towed. It took my a while to get back to sleep because I was worried about be woken up again and having to figure out where to move The Beast, but he never came back, and I eventually got back to sleep.


The 6:00am alarm sounded – I pulled together my gear, food, nutrition and self, Tbone arrived promptly at 7:00am, we secured the cabin, revved up The Beast, said “See you later!” to Benjamin and Lena, and off we headed 17 miles to Badwater Basin for the the next, and last, phase of the adventure.

Cranking up before the run

Cranking up before the run. Click here to watch.

The road down to Badwater was much hillier than I expected – constant undulations and a net downhill from Furnace Creek. (Duh – we were were headed 277′ below sea level…) My initial run strategy was to run four miles, walk one mile throughout the 135 miles. (I took this from Rich Roll’s book “Finding Ultra.”) That wouldn’t work here because of the rolling hills. Instead, I would run the flats and downhills and walk the uphills. Have a plan, be willing to change or adapt it.

Once at Badwater, Tbone and Tim explored the park a bit – reading signs and sightseeing while I stayed in The Beast for my final prep.


Best sister-in-law EVER!

“Hey Tbone!” I called. “We’re gonna have to Superglue my feet.” This seemed completely normal.

Superglue in tact, I started the run at exactly 8:00am. It felt immensely satisfying to set even one foot on the run course. It’d been a long journey to this point, and while I was thankful, I  already felt melancholy to know this was it – the last segment of this fantastic adventure. If not for the cuts on my feet and achy right foot, I might not have believed I just swam across the Catalina Channel Swim just three days ago.

With 17 miles to get back to Furnace Creek, I considered this first segment as “warm-up.” Just chug through the first stretch here, then worry about the rest of the run once I was out of the basin.

Heading to Mt. Whitney

Heading to Mt. Whitney

Heading back to Furnace Creek felt like backtracking – as if Furnace Creek was the real starting point and these 17 miles were a necessary evil. I took it slow with Tim and Tbone leapfrogged me for the first 5-6 miles. After we got into a support rhythm, Tim ran with me for about mile. I was running at 10:15-10:30/minute pace, and with the walking stretches, stayed around 12:15-12:30/minute total pace even with the short rests for water and fuel.

I felt a certain resignation here, even at the run’s onset, that I might consider that I wouldn’t to finish the entire 135-mile run course. I felt some sadness and disappointment, because if anything, I wanted to complete both the swim and run portions of the course after cutting the bike short. I decided to just focus on each mile and let the day unfold.

Around mile ten, Tim and Tbone hightailed it back to Furnace Creek so Tbone could help Lena pack up the hotel room. Tim returned in his Jeep after a short time, now dubbed “Support Vehicle #2,” and we arrived Furnace Creek around 11:30am.

I found Lena on the side of the road, emptying the tanks of the The Beast at an RV park. I walked up as if I just got back from a short jog- “Hi! How are you? Good? Me too. Okay. I’m going to keep moving. See you soon. Love you.” A quarter mile later, I was out of Furnace Creek and on the path to Mt. Whitney with just another 120 miles to go…


The Beast & Support Vehicle #2 (a.k.a Tim’s Jeep)

Our next milestone was Stovepipe Wells, about 23 miles from Furnace Creek. Tim continued as my support vehicle while Lena and Tbone managed The Beast and eventually caught up. We got about five miles out of town and at a rest stop, I told Tim – “This is when it starts to get hard.” He asked – “If it wasn’t for the cuts on your feet and your ankle, this would be a totally different experience for you, wouldn’t it?” Yeah, maybe.

The swelling on my right ankle and foot was a bit annoying. We found eventually wrapped it with a compression sleeve.

The swelling on my right ankle and foot was a bit annoying. We found eventually wrapped it with a compression sleeve.

My pace crept into the 13:00+ minute range because of rests and breaks, but still well ahead of my planned 16:00 pace to get to Mt Whitney Portal in 36 hours. The goal was to reach Panamint Springs (72 miles from Badwater) late in the night, then figure out how to push through the night to cover long climb coming out of Panamint headed to Lone Pine. If I could work through the night to summit this second climb, I’d have 40 miles of downhill and flat in on Sunday morning before the last 10-mile ascent to the finish.


The run course elevation profile

Because started we started the run three hours later than planned, we’d now be arriving to Panamint Springs at 2:00am, assuming I stayed on pace. I pretty quickly knew I’d need to adjust how far I’d be able to go that day. It’d be dangerous descending down Town Pass to Panamint (the same climb I did the day prior on the bike), though at least reaching the Town Pass peak today seemed reasonable – about 60 total miles and summiting at 11:00pm – about 15 hours moving at a 15:00 pace.

As I moved along CA-160, I earned a few “thumbs up” and “hang ten” gestures stuck outside of open car windows. One women snapped a picture she sped by. Lena ran with me for a mile, the conversation and her smile was a big lift from the monotony of brown desert rocks and the white stripe adorning the highway.

Sunscreen & Pedialyte: Two must-haves for the desert

Sunscreen & Pedialyte: Two must-haves for the desert

The 20s are always tough miles for me. As I ran, I worked on the mathematics of my pace and what lay ahead. Reaching Town Pass at 11:00pm seemed physically possible – my pace was consistent and my strides felt smooth. I was keeping my hydration and weight in check, the day was hot but far from intolerable and it would soon begin to cool.

But… even though I could go that far, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I was certain now that knocking out the 72 miles to Panamint Springs was unlikely. And while I imagined a photo atop Town Pass there at the same place I finished my bike segment, conquering that climb seemed very far away in both time and distance. The crew had been remarkable in every way, and reaching just Town Pass would make for a very late night for all of us.

I slogged through mile 22. 23. 24. 25. Finally hitting 26.2 – a full marathon – somewhere between rest stops. It felt like a minor achievement though no one announced my name to the crowd at a finished gate or draped a medal around my neck.

Dr. Livingston, I presume?

Dr. Livingston, I presume?

Somewhere around here, I crossed paths with Giorgio, the other competitor who set out to complete the entire Uberman course individually. He was on Day 3 of his bike. (He eventually went on to successfully complete the course, taking eight days to do it.)

Once I reached mile 30 though, my demeanor changed for the better. The hilarity of the running through the desert finally set in:

I had a long climb from mile 31-34 ahed, then a nice descent from 34 to 37. Coming out of Furnace Creek 15 miles ago, I could see ahead this very section I was now on. I looked back behind me – now barely able to see where the mountains fell into Badwater Basin. We’d covered a lot of ground so far.

The sun edged towards the horizon, turning from the bright white and pale yellow color to a more definite orange – signaling that sunset was near. I sensed a permanence in this – an infallibility that I’d need to transition into night running soon. Just a three days ago, I watched the same sun rise and set over the ocean. Now I was watching it from the middle of the desert hundreds of miles away. Oh the places you’ll go…

My hip joints were a normal amount of achy, and my muscles felt strong – barely any soreness.The Superglue on my feet was holding. The swelling in my right foot was bothersome but not worsening. (We wrapped it was a compression sleeve a few miles back which helped.) My longest training run was only 12 miles, and here I was well into the 30s with an engine I could trust to get me to 50 miles and beyond. I was maintaining my energy and hydration. It was satisfying to know that my training program worked.

With less than three hours of light, I wouldn’t reach Town Pass before dark. Stovepipe was less than ten miles ahead, then it was ten more miles past there to the start of the ten-mile Town Pass climb. Once I started the climb, I’d have 3-4 hours of walking to reach the top.

I was grappling with boredom and asked myself – “”Ok, so now what? If not to Town Pass, then should I at least get 50 miles? That’s a nice, round number. Or maybe 51 to say I knocked off 50+1 miles? Or 52 to say I did a double marathon? Was that a good enough story?” The numbers began to feel arbitrary. Every reason I considered was extrinsic – to have a good story, to hit a round number, to say I’ve done this or that distance. None of them were good reasons.

Would it really matter if the journey ended at 72 miles or 50 miles or 42 miles? I’d already covered 30+ miles today. After 140-mile bike ride through the Mojave Desert. After a 23.76-mile swim across the Catalina Channel. This morning, I woke up this morning ready to start and fully expecting to cover 135 miles by foot in 36 hours. That mentality alone was a feat.

If I stopped here, then what? Drive to Panamint Springs? Sleep for the night and start again in the morning? Start from where I stopped, or just skip the Town Pass climb and to see how far I could get just to log more miles?

I spotted the Jeep and The Beast din the distance at the nadir of the long decline. As I moved down the decline, I looked my Garmin. It showed that I was pushing a 9:35 pace.

I thought – “Okay… if I feel this good right now, I can push hard for the next 12-13 miles to get to 50 in under three hours and then be done. Or I can be sure to get to Stovepipe Wells in about an hour then call it a day at 42 miles.”

But why? What good reason did I have? Was 50 or 42 really any better than 37?Somehow I knew I wouldn’t want to run tomorrow, so whatever I decided would be the terminal point in this journey. The bend and eventual incline up ahead looked like a road to nowhere. This was enough.

Just before sharing my decision with the team that we'd finish here

Just before sharing my decision with the team that we’d finish here

I crossed the highway to the support vehicles. Tim was sitting in the Jeep eating pretzels. Benjamin was playing in the dirt. Lena and Tbone were standing to see what I needed. I asked everyone to come together.

“Here’s the deal guys…. I’m bored.”

“What was that?” Lena said, laughing. “Here’s the thing… We’ve now covered 37.72 miles in the last 8+ hours…”

So that was it – my finish to Uberman. We packed up and headed to Panamint Springs for one of the best dinners I’ve ever had.

Run Epilogue: Driving Home & My Trip to the ER

My visions of a Panamint Springs steakhouse were unfounded, but not terribly inaccurate. The town consists of a General Store with a gas station, a campground, the Panamint Springs Resort Hotel, various undefined residential structures, and a bar and restaurant – a metropolis compared to desolation between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells.

Checking into the hotel at the General Store, the attendant informed me the restaurant was open until 9pm.

“Do they serve beer and wine?” I asked.

“They have 180 beers on tap and in bottles.”

“That’ll work.”

We showered and headed for dinner. I enjoyed a Cardiac Burger and fried jalapeño poppers. We talked about the journey and laughed at the absurdity of it all. It was everything that I hoped that dinner. I felt satisfaction, fulfillment and love.

Sleep was tough that night. My neck abrasions burned all night long. The cuts on my feet ached and my right foot throbbed. The room was too drafty with the ceiling fan on, and too stuffy with if off. My nasal passages were dry and clogged with bloody snot. I hobbled to the bathroom in the middle of the night, barely able to put weight on either foot.


Tbone & Tim outside of our “resort” hotel in Panamint Springs

We awoke the next morning to discover the $10 all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at the restaurant. I gobbled down three bowls of Frosted Flakes, two stacks of pancakes and a croissant stuffed with Nutella – more carbs and sugar than I had eaten in the past month. And richly deserved…

I saw Tim off as he headed out on his 3.5 hour drive back to Las Vegas. Lena, Tbone and I loaded up The Beast and backtracked south through Trona, then to Ridgecrest, over to Bakersfield and eventually north on I-5 towards home.

Recapping my Uberman finish at a rest stop, heading home. Click here to watch.

Recapping my Uberman finish at a rest stop, heading home. Click here to watch.

The drive home took nearly nine hours, even with minimal stopping. My right foot swelled even more and I spent most of the ride icing and elevating my legs while hanging out with Benjamin. My right wrist worsened – I think my body finally realized I was done with the insanity and relieved itself of the it’s short-term defenses.

I thought I might have a hairline fracture in both my foot and wrist, thinking that both injuries came from getting slammed into the rocks on the swim. Once home, I headed to the ER because it was the only place open at 8pm.

I must say… it was entertaining to explain to the doctor what brought me there. He first poked and prodded at my foot. In checking my wrist, he could both feel and hear the tendons moving – they squeaked when I moved my hand up and down. Then he started with the questions.

“How did all this happen?”

“Mostly from swimming.”

“Where were you swimming? Were you surfing?”

“Ocean swimming near LA.”

“What about the cuts on your neck?” I sensed that he was now prodding…

“Those are from the wetsuit. I was out there swimming for a while.”

[Puzzled look on the doctor’s face…] “How long?”

“About 14 hours,” I answered, followed by a long pause. “So here’s the thing – I swam from Catalina Island to shore.”

“That’s pretty far, isn’t it?”

“About 23 miles.”

“When was this?”

“On Wednesday. Then on Friday, I rode on a bike from Mojave to Death Valley,. Then yesterday ran 38 miles in the desert as part of an endurance event. I think I aggravated my foot on the bike and run because it was bothering me whole time.”

I caught a glimpse of the medical assistant taking notes on her mobile laptop station. Her eyes widened. Now she’s got a good story to tell around the Thanksgiving table – “So we had this guy about a month ago that came in with a swollen foot, two gashes in the other foot and cuts around his neck that made him look like he got strangled… The idiot decided to swim across the Catalina Channel. And if that wasn’t enough…”

The doctor replied – “My partner does medical care for the Western States 100. She sees this stuff all the time. I don’t get it very often. You’ve got tendonitis in both your foot and wrist. We’ll take some soft tissue x-rays of the cuts on your foot to make sure there aren’t any foreign bodies in there. And the same for your wrist, because I’ve never seen anything like this before and I’m just curious. I’m more worried about the abrasions on your neck – those are pretty nasty.”

After the X-rays and verification of the diagnosis, I was done. Sleep was moderately better that night, but still fraught with throbbing and discomfort.

The next morning, Lena took the lead cleaning out The Beast. I helped however feebly that I could. I drove The Beast back to El Monte RV in Dublin with Lena trailing behind. We got back home to Davis mid-afternoon and the adventure was officially over.

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