The Fire Within...a Badwater Solo Crossing
Saturday July 19th 4am, I kissed my kids Carson (6) and Madilynn (4) goodbye making sure I got two extra kisses from each to help keep me strong then I turned and grabbed my bags and headed out the door to the waiting car service. “I hate this” I tell myself as the tears start to well up in my eyes and then I laugh to myself…who says I’m not human….this sucks, I already miss them and I’m not even gone." It is a quiet, warm morning on Long Island as the driver takes me to the JFK airport. I want to sleep since I know sleep will allude me within the next few days but I can’t help but listen to the radio. Two broadcasters from Z-100 are sitting in a car, windows up, in their underwear and the heat at full blast just to see who can stay in the car longest as well as lose the most weight from sweating like pigs. I take a moment to reflect….my destination today Death Valley to pace my coach, Dave Balsley on a Solo Badwater Crossing; replicating one of the most punishing endurance races on the planet from mile 1 starting below sea level to mile 135 finishing at the portal of Mt Whitney, the highest elevation on the continental United States of 8,360 feet. In 2007 Dave completed 72 miles of the infamous race before dropping out due to kidney failure and tomorrow morning at 8am was determined to do it again but this time all 135 miles. Oddly a sense comes over me as it does all of us when we are heading to a race, “did I bring everything?”. I scan the car for all of my items…back pack, cooler, sneakers and as I look throughout the car I look down and think “legs don’t fail me now”. Time passes quickly and I am with a fellow crew member, Cortney debarking the plane in Las Vegas thinking “gambling is the cards for the weekend”. Remember that sense of panic on forgetting something, well as we head out in the van I think “LEGS!!!!!” I look in the back of the van and there they are sitting on the back seat…talk about a sigh of relief. In 1994 I was hit by a car while riding on my motorcycle and as a result I had 27 surgeries to save my leg but eventually resulted in the amputation of my left leg below the knee. Now a single mother of 2, world record holder in 9 different events from the marathon to the Ironman: mentor, director of programs for Junior Team A Step Ahead/Team A Step Ahead Prosthetics and director of programs for ASPIRE a non profit organization that gets children with limb loss into a active/healthy lifestyle, I am heading out to the most challenging test of my career and I am well prepared. Two custom prosthetics to choose from throught the race, one for walking and one for running. We are now on a 3+ hour ride out to Stove Pipe Wells, where the crew (Glenn, Lauren, Hemsley, Cortney and Anne) will stay for the first two days of the crossing. Sunday morning we awake to temperatures of 127 degrees and my coach, Dave kindly states “they take the temperature in the shade so in the direct sun we should be at 150 degrees”….”great” I think and say “no one ever mentioned needing an asbestos suit for this, I’m going to roast like a little marshmallow over a roaring campfire. Much like the blackened marshmallows my kids always give me to eat, "Here Mommy, this is for you!” I am listening to Dave and the crews game plan for the day and all I can think is what have I gotten myself into….this is nuts!
Looking back now, who would have guessed the obstacles that lie before us. Okay…we did plan on a 8am start but it turned into a 8:05am start since the clanging and banging noise we heard while driving out to Badwater was the spare tire hanging on by what looked like one thread. I was lying underneath the van trying to get the spare tire tightened up for fear it was going to come loose and damage the van, or worse, project itself out from under the van like a rocket taking out both my coach and I. Spare tire tight…check…now we can start….mile 1 my coach loses 4lbs in just a matter of minutes and by mile 2 he is getting nauseous causing him to throw up. Let’s just say the first two miles set the pace for the rest that followed. As we continued, Dave’s knee started to cause him a lot of pain so every few miles between trying to keep food in his system we would ice, wrap and tape his leg. My job was to continue on, by his side, trying everything I could just to get him to the next mile. Pretty funny sight a female amputee pacing her coach! I had a job to do out here, I didn’t think much about myself or at least I did very well at kicking my issues out of the picture because in my head there was no room for doubt or mistakes. I kept him drinking; I kept him cool and tried to get some food in him even if it was only for a mile before he threw it up. Secretly I will admit, every chance I had, I took off my prosthetic leg throwing it into a cooler full of ice hoping it would cool it down for another mile or two. I realized out there how the support crews were key to any kind of success that was going to be had and this reminded me of the pit crews in the NASCAR series races….hardworking, fast, error free, loyal and dedicated to their drivers success and this was a world class pit crew all the way.
The crew took us through the night where we were both anxiously awaiting the cooler temperatures and let’s just say the night brought the temps down to a freezing 103 degrees as well as an odd darkness. It was beautiful yet eerie as we walked along the barren roads of the desert. During the early morning hours my coach started to get a little delirious as we walked, I stayed focused on keeping him safe from wandering off the road (He admitted he could see it happening easily if you were alone). Dehydration and fatigue were really wreaking havoc on him. In the distance I could hear a loud rumbling noise coming towards us and so turn around to see two giant lights coming at us…here we are in the middle of the desert looking like something from a sci-fi movie with our white North Face suits and blinking red lights on our chest and backs as well as a little spot light resting on our foreheads. The sound takes me back to Cortneys story that the setting here in the desert reminded her of a popular horror flick “The Hills Have Eyes”. If you were lucky and did not see this movie Ill tell you it is about a family traveling through a desolate area where nuclear testing was done and as a result of the testing it turned the local residents into zombie like monsters chasing, mutilating, killing the family who was just driving threw. As the lights and rumbling get closer I think holey cow this is it, I’m a goner but I must be hallucinating….but I swear I am seeing a GIANT snow plow coming towards me, yes, a snow plow in the desert. My coach keeps going and I think I must have had that dazed deer in the headlights demeanor because I was stuck to the pavement, it felt like my Nike airs melted and sealed my fate, I couldn’t move. It was total fear when the driver pulled beside me, shut off his truck and leaned an elbow out the window. My headlamp casted an even creepier glow upon his face when he spoke….”Whut arrre yu doing aut heere”. I will say nothing better than a super shot of adrenalin in the wee morning hours. I turned to run like I was attached to a bottle of Nitrous Oxide and yelled out “ummmm Heeee’s running a race” and sprinted to catch Dave. After a mile or so down the road I realized that the driver was out there clearing the roads of rocks and sand from an isolated rain storm that washed the road out…I am laughing out loud, here I thought he was going to get me.
We walked through until the morning and I could tell how hard this was on Dave; I wanted him to succeed more than anything, to finally get that demon out of his closet. Little did I know that this whole time a fire of a different type was burning inside me.
Well we are finally on our way to the town of Panamint and I can actually see it off in the distance but first we have to travel about 9 miles on a constant downhill road to get there. Up until now the specialized, custom designed running prosthetic that I am wearing as a result of that motorcycle accident hasn’t really crossed my mind. Well, walking down a hill with a canter in the road does not work well with a non movable ankle…I make a mental note to remind Erik Schaffer C.P. aka…leg guy, cause he can make these prosthetic legs work for any kind of terrain and right now would be nice to have him here to pit crew me. I have to leave Dave’s side and run the next few miles because it is starting to cause some pain down in the socket to my residual limb where my leg is cut off.
After the downhill were finally 4 miles from the town of Panamint and my coach lets me know if he keeps going he will not make the 60 hour cut off of the official race, since we are about half way now and we have been out there walking for 31 hours already. Only 6 days ago, the official Badwater race was held and the temperatures only rose to a mere 118 degrees. Well the decision has been made, Dave turns to me and says “It is up to you, finish this thing!” I felt like I went into a dream sequence and everything was floating around me and I was absolutely clueless on what to do. I sat down in the van and when I did blood started to come out of my nose and mouth (obviously the dry heat had something to do with this) but I think the stress that was just put on my shoulders helped a little too. While we were trying to stop the bleeding, I asked Hemsley, whom I have a close bond to, (I am a coach/mentor to her 7yr old daughter Cate who lost her leg below the knee as an infant. I help her compete in triathlons, running, rock-climbing and in life, showing her we all face obstacles; were given two choices, give up or suck it up and be something better because of it) I look toward my friend “what would you do?” She doesn’t hesitate at all. “Amy you have been out here taking care of Dave for 31hrs and you didn’t take care of you, look at your leg, I would stop!” I look down to see that the continuous external heat of Death Valley has literally cooked my residual limb, like it was in an oven, the heat transferred through the metal on the prosthetic and caused my limb to blister and peel. Well, I have to suck it up I tell myself, no excuses….I put the liner and leg on removing any pain from my thoughts and take off towards the hills after the town of Panamint. I actually feel very good, physically I feel strong and fast and for the first time in over 67 miles, I am able to run. Running was something I was born to do, I started at 8yrs old with a borrowed pair of sneakers and have run through the worst and best times of my life. I think, I have two little kids waiting for me at home who think I am the worlds “fastest mommy” and a whole team of Junior athletes who gain inspiration for what their futures hold from my accomplishments, lets get going.
I realize for the last 31+ hours I had a job to do and now the focus was on me. I kept feeling confused and asking now my crew “why do I feel so tired, why I am going so slow?” Glenn the crew chief looked at me and said, "You’ve been out here with no sleep for 70+ miles and on top of that you are running up a hill…..”oh, okay” I replied and got my iced bandana, cold drink and peanutbutter Powerbar (I love these things), mp3 player and set off to get this done before the 60 hour mark. Mentally I forget about the miles done so I can be surprised when I finally do ask….it is starting to get dark and the tolerance I have to pain is starting to grow weak…I keep telling myself “suck it up, stop being such a wimp” but at the next mile I really need to sit down and take a look at my limb. Well the role has reversed, Dave who is a prominent physical therapist in New York City gets his first-aid bag out of the van and works on my real foot first…the mind is a powerful thing when you want to accomplish something. I take my sneaker off and my foot is covered in blisters, one on every toe as well as all toenails are gone and one of the blisters covers the entire metatarsal area of my foot wrapping up around the big toe knuckle….”wow….I knew I should have gone for that pedicure before I left”. After a little triage on the real foot, it is time to take off my prosthetic and liner to see just what the damage is….”holy crap (and that was not the word the crew or I used either)” remember the blisters well they were more like 2nd and 3rd degree burns on my residual limb and when we pulled the liner off my skin basically went with it. The entire back of my leg below the knee was exposed and had no skin covering it and the bottom skin covering my tibia was swollen with the skin pulling off. My liner has a metal pin at the bottom, connecting the prosthesis to my leg and who would have known this would have been such a good transfer of heat. I told myself to get it together and get up and get moving….however the realization of doing 45 more miles on my leg like this made me wish I wasn’t human after all. I got up and got back out on the road and tried to push the pain away….I even laughed to myself when Anne who was running beside me said “Did you hear that?” it was a rattle snake in the bushes beside me and I immediately thought “go ahead, bite me….all you’ll do is bust your teeth (the visual of a rattlesnake lunging and biting my prosthetic leg was humorous)….however the humor and focusing couldn’t stop the pain. In the official Badwater race days earlier, the athletes were stopped at mile 131 due to fires up near Mt. Whitney….as for me a different kind of fire stopped me at mile 94 but started a new fire within…..and that is the fire/burning desire to next year compete in and finish the most punishing endurance race on the planet….Badwater. I know I can do it as I learned so much this year and I will be physically and mentally prepared to reach my goal of finishing and run it as my race.
(After I stopped my crew graciously drove me to the hospital to receive medical treatment for the severe burns. I have also started the thought process of how next year I can keep the external outside heat from transferring to my limb inside my prosthesis)
Thanks goes to:
The Crew and my family
A Step Ahead Prosthetics LLC
The North Face