"GUIDED BY AN ANGEL"
July 10th-12th, 2017 STYR Labs Badwater 135 mile foot race through Death Valley.
Sitting down to write out my heartfelt thoughts of my personal journey to the finish line of my 10th official STYR Labs Badwater 135-mile race has finally come together. For so long I debated back and forth in my heart and mind if having 10 "official races" was that important to me. I have crossed Death Valley so many times outside of the race and could go back at any time, so why did I need to do the race again?
The answer became clear to me one day on a long training run. Why Not?? We all have an ego, we all have goals and dreams that need not be explained to others because they become personal for reasons others may not ever understand. My ego was not going to settle for 9 and it wanted to go for 10. The number 10 sits so much better with me!
We all have places we have traveled in our life that we yearn to go back to over and over again. Death Valley is a place that I feel as if in a past life I may have lived there! Crazy as that sounds, it is true. I have been fortunate to race and travel all over the world; why I chose to go back to Death Valley over and over again is so personal. Death Valley in July is hot and such a harsh environment but it brings me great joy.
Getting into the STYR Labs Badwater 135-mile race is no guarantee for anyone. I had not run the race in several years because I had retired my number 7 and had retired from the race because I truly thought I felt satisfied with what I had accomplished in Death Valley. Each summer I continued to go back to Death Valley to crew and pace a student because that is how much I love Death Valley. Being accepted to attempt my 10th finish was such an honor for me. The thought of standing at the starting line and sharing the road from Badwater, -282' below sea level, with 94 other athletes that I have great respect and admiration for felt like I was graduating from college! It was said in our local newspaper here in Jackson that I was the first woman to get 10 Badwater finishes and that I went for a record. Pam Reed, who lives in the same town I do, was the first woman to run 10 Badwaters and matter of fact, she has 11 finishes! (Pam was not at the race this year.) I was never going for a record of any kind; my only goal was to be granted one more crossing of Death Valley to the finish line.
I picked and asked my crew if they would join me long before I was accepted into the race. If I had not been accepted, I was planning on going back and crossing Death Valley again on my own. My crew of Sister Marybeth Lloyd, Sada Crawford, Ernie Rambo and Vincent Antunez were chosen for very specific reasons. These 4 people I consider lifetime friends and adventure seekers who know me so well and I know them. It takes an amazing crew of people that are full of selfless love to help someone across Death Valley in July. This crew was the best of the best and one that I will forever be grateful for. They held me accountable for WHY I was on the road across Death Valley once again, they loved and nurtured my personal dream with some gentle tough love.
Sitting in the prerace meeting was so wonderful. I was in a room full of athletes from all over the world who are simply amazing people. I was the only woman sitting in that room who was going for number 10 Badwater finishes. My friend Cheryl was going for number 9 and my friend Marshall was going for number 21 When I was asked if I would go for 11, my answer was and is crystal clear...NO! I am over the moon thrilled with 10! None of us sitting in the pre-race meeting needed to explain to the others WHY we were about to go across 135 miles of heat and hell in July. We all feel the same! It is amazing to be sitting with 94 other athletes who all feel the same way you do...
Not for even 1 minute did I ever feel nervous or scared before the start of the race. I felt like the peaceful warrior who had trained well for the journey ahead. One thing that concerned me was being able to stay awake for 2 nights because it had been a very long time since I had done that. The 8 pm start was new to me. The only other time I started at night was in 1995 for my first Badwater 135.
Being at the starting line at 8 pm, the sun was starting to set and it was extraordinary. Surreal hustle from all the runners and crews to get weighed in, checked in, photos taken, wait in line for the bathroom one more time makes the waiting at the start go quickly. The sun was just about to set, the sky was magical and the smell of Death Valley made me feel so alive yet I had goose bumps! Sister Marybeth and the rest of our crew gathered in a circle, holding hands near the starting line and said a group prayer. The prayer was for all the runners, crews, volunteers to have a safe journey and take care of one another. Sister Marybeth asked God to protect us all.
I felt calm as the wind picked up yet full of excitement to be at the starting line one last time with many other athletes that I consider life time friends. Marshall Ulrich and I took a photo with Sister Marybeth and I felt such honor to be standing with these two people who I greatly love, respect and admire. It was Marshall who convinced me to run my first Badwater in 1995. A runner sang the Star Spangled banner. Tears started rolling down my face as I felt so privileged to be right where I was. The countdown for the start began...5,4,3,2,1....blast off! All was right in the world for that moment.
I had a plan to walk the first mile of the race with rosary beads given to me from Sister Marybeth and say the rosary. Friend Frank Mckinney, who walks the first mile of the race and says the rosary, was not able to take part in the race this year, so I wanted to honor him because Frank holds a special place in my heart. I walked the first mile and said the rosary. It was such an incredible feeling to have ZERO pressure to race off the starting line. As I walked I also started to cry. Tears came rolling down for so many reasons but mostly because I felt the presence of greatness shining down on all of us.
The first 17 miles were tougher than I thought, emotionally and physically, because all the cars and headlights from the 9:30 and 11 pm race starts were coming towards us and were making me feel sick. My mojo was to only focus on what I could control and try very hard to not allow anything I could not control get to me! As much as the cars and headlights were bothering me it was such an honor to be on the road with so many other runners that I just adore, admire and respect. With the night brought the stars. The stars in Death Valley take over the sky and light the way. Often I would look up and think of all the angels flying over us and all the angels in heaven. Although not feeling great I tried to not allow myself to think about it. I stayed with my easy run and walk and my crew would say, "you are doing great" so I knew we were ok on time. 4 mph seems to be a pace I am able to hold for hours and hours with easy run and walk and this pace would surely get us to the finish line. Crossing Death Valley so many other times when it was not part of the race kept coming to my mind. I knew exactly where I was on the course and I loved the familiar surroundings that felt like home to me. Solitude at its best. Blocking out the noise I was able to get into my own zen as I prayed and meditated into feeling absolute peace.
Mile 42 is at Stovepipe Wells. I was so happy to get to this point because I knew I would make the cut-off at 50 miles. I felt confident in the easy run and power walking I was doing. The greatest gift for me at Stovepipe was our 14-year-old daughter standing on the side of the road to see me go past. Of course, it brought more tears of love because it was such a big part of my journey to have Annie at this last Badwater for me. As I started up the long climb Towne Pass, I had so many moments where I was overtaken with emotion, tears and could not catch my breath. My mother lost her battle to cancer at the end of Nov. 2016, several friends had recently been diagnosed with cancer. I was starting to feel immense grief that I had not worked through yet.
My crew was so amazing. The entire journey they worked together so well, had fun and kept me focused on the goal of finishing despite the times I was questioning my purpose for being there. I tried hard to hide my emotional pain from my crew because I knew that God would not give me more than I could handle and I should be tougher!! My stomach felt just awful and I was finding it hard to even get liquid calories down. My stomach felt so full that if I put another drop of fluid in it that it might just bust! It was that very uncomfortable feeling you get when you eat and drink too much and you just want to lie down. I knew if I just slowed the pace down it would be alright. Many others were having the same problems and I would just have to be patient and hope it passed. The humidity in Death Valley was something most of us were not prepared for. I felt heat trained but not for humidity. It was challenging and difficult to process calories. Living in the mountains at 6,000 feet we don't have humidity. The humidity felt so thick in the air making it almost feel like I was running through a very hot light rain. I have trained to be miserable and uncomfortable in the heat, the humidity added another layer of misery to test us all.
The sun was starting to come up and with this I felt a renewed energy and faith. The higher I climbed up Towns Pass (to 5,000 feet) the more the sun was beating down right on my face. It is all exposed and it was hot. Usually when you get higher it starts to cool off, but not this year. I kept reminding myself to stay peaceful and warrior on, one foot in front of the other. My pace slowed down so many times as I became overcome with emotions. My legs felt great but I felt heavy-hearted and found it difficult to move. My heart felt so heavy and full of emotions thinking about so many people I love and care about who are suffering. I was not suffering, I was miserable. You see I paid for and signed up for this Badwater 135. Those who are suffering from cancer, starving to death, have no clean water... they are suffering. I kept wondering why God would allow so much suffering in the world especially children.
At Panamint Springs, I asked the crew to take a break before starting the long climb up Father Crowley’s. I had no plans to stop at all in the race unless it was absolutely needed. I love this climb and find it so beautiful, but I needed an emotional reset button. I started to question why my ego needed 10 finishes, why, why and why? As I sat for a very long time I talked to several friends who were also at Panamint and drank chocolate milk and tried to eat pizza. Nothing wanted to stay down but crew chief Vincent was not allowing me to leave until I did what he asked of me to do. Tough love at it best and it worked. My longtime friend Marie Boyd was at Panamint and she allowed me to cry on her shoulder and gave me a big pep talk. I can't tell you how much I was grieving the loss of my mother and what so many others are fighting in life with illness. I could not stop thinking about our friend George Velasco who has stage 4 colon cancer, my friend Scott with a brain tumor, Damon, Dale, Jonathan and so many with cancer, so many with addiction, depression or any awful illness on and on. I just wanted to fall to my knees and cry.
The race director of the STYR Labs Badwater 135 Chris Kostman was at this check point and he came up to me while I was sitting down and said to me, "Lisa, I look forward to seeing you at the finish line." I told him that I would be there and thanked him for the opportunity once again. I left and started walking up Father Crowley's and felt great as I left. Yet within a few miles, the same feelings of absolute grief and sadness seemed to take over my thought process. All I could do was continue to place one foot in front of the other without falling to my knees wanting to cry out to God and ask him why so many have to suffer. I moved in silent prayer and meditation. Sada, Sister Marybeth and Ernie took turns walking behind me. They knew my heart; I did not have to say anything. It became for me a peaceful, misery of acceptance that life comes around full circle and that we must move forward with love, always with love. What is life really all about? What is my purpose here on earth? Am I doing what God wants me to do or am I do what I want to do? My mother lived everyday of her life with full intention. Cancer may have taken her away but she never for even one minute felt sorry for herself, complained or was anything but a warrior who fought until the end because she loved life and she loved her purpose. What does a life that comes full circle mean to you? I can't take any Badwater belt buckles with me to heaven. I can't take any money, cars or stuff with me. What I can take with me are all the memories and all the love that I have been given and have shared with others. Love, love, love and then love some more!
"Give, give, give until it hurts and when it hurts keep on giving." -Mother Teresa
At the top of Father Crowley’s, I still was not able to take many calories down at all. I felt weak in emotion yet strong in body. I decided to stay at Father Crowley's and lie down on the ground and just be quiet. I kept telling myself to enjoy the journey, learn from each step even if it is not what you expected. Expect the unknown and move forward with love. After yet another very long sit out at Father Crowley's I took off feeling pretty good and motivated but was once again soon after taken over with raw emotions that left me feeling weak and wanting to just cry! We passed a few runners and a few runners passed us. Never even for one moment in the race did I feel competitive with anyone. I felt if all in the world went great for me I would have a fast race (fast for me). If things were off, then that was ok, because the only goal was to cross the finish line. I did not wear a watch, never cared what time it was or how long I was sitting out. I could tell by the sun, the moon, the stars and the magical draw of Death Valley what time it was because I have crossed it both directions more than few times. When I got to the finish line I would have 10 offical races, 1 unoffical, Badwater Double, Badwater Quad and countless other crossings crewing and pacing others. Trust me I know where each Joshua Tree sits on the course!!
Arriving at the Darwin check-in station, Marie Boyd was there waiting for us. Marie was just what I needed at that moment. Tears came streaming down my face, I told her how much I missed my mother and how hard all of this was emotionally. Marie understood as she has been through the same not long ago losing her own mother. Losing a mother is one of the hardest thigns I have experienced in my life so far. Friends have lost mothers and of course I have felt sadness for them but when it happens to you the root of the pain hits deeper than you can ever imagine. Marie and I share a very special bond of understanding this pain. Trust me, losing my father or any loved one has been very difficult and it still hurts but for some reason the loss of mom has a pain that is not something I can even describe. I once again asked the crew to allow me to lie down and hit the reset button. We had lots of time to get to the finish line. So much of me just wanted to get in the van and go home and allow my heart to heal but the real me, of course, wanted to finish the darn 10th Badwater. My crew reminded me often who and why I was honoring in this 135 and this helped me get my butt back on the road.
Having little to no calories (trust me, I tried) was a big part of the reason I continued to get so emotional. The crew tried very hard to force me to eat and drink (nicely of course) but it was so difficult. As a coach I have pushed my athletes to make sure they eat and drink, being on the other side of the fence as the athlete being crewed helped me see both sides in such a better light! Do your best, that is all you can ask of yourself and of others.
On top of the heat and humidity the lack of calories continued to leave me just wanting to curl up on the side of the road and allow my grieving heart to hurt. As we moved towards the 100 mile mark the moon was so beautiful. The big dipper was right in front of my face and the moon behind me. I slowed way down for a few minutes to give thanks to God for it all. The good, the bad, the ugly but most of all for the challenges and for allowing me to grieve, pray and meditate in a place that draws out every emotion possible whether you like it or not. I lifted my hands to the sky and asked my mother to guide me to the finish line. Just as I said this out loud a shooting star went shooting right through the big dipper. At that very moment, I felt renewed faith and energy and carried on with a less heavy feeling. Vincent went several miles with me from mile 100 to the turn at Lone Pine, but the crew all took turns.
I felt like I was transforming and had come so far in such a short period of time that my heart and mind felt right with the world. I felt peaceful, I felt Love, I was moving forward with Love. As I made the turn to Lone Pine, Sister Marybeth came out to walk with me. We put arms around each other's waist and prayed, sang, said the rosary once again. I will never forget Sister Marybeth’s words as we moved forward for as long as I live. She said, " Lisa, take your time, we are in no hurry you have lots of time to make it to the finish line. Enjoy the steps. Next year in July why don't we run across Ireland?” I started to enjoy the steps as I told Sister that this would be the last time I walked these steps and it felt good to have the chance to walk them with her one last time.
One block from the check in station in Lone Pine mile 122 my daughter Annie came running down the road with her arms opened wide yelling... "Mama, you are here." The crew later told me that Annie was worried about running out to meet me because she feared I would get a penalty as you are only allowed one pacer at a time. I am so grateful Annie took the chance and ran out to me with arms opened wide! She gave me the biggest hug and of course I started to cry and she said "You are so close to the finish line, I am so proud of you mama. Guess who will be waiting for you at the finish line?" I asked who would be at the finish line. Annie said, "I will be and so will your mother."
I sat out in Lone Pine much longer than I thought. I was actually having lunch in the restaurant and it felt so funny to be sitting there in the middle of a race but I was loving it and having a great time talking to many friends. I ate very little but it was better than nothing. It felt so good to just sit, have no pressure and visit with friends that I have not seen for so long. Art Webb, Ben Jones, Don Meyer... wow... what a blessing. The common bond and love we all share for the race and for Death Valley for our own personal reasons. It felt like a family reunion. Being with other Badwater legends made my heart full of joy. These people have been part of my life for many years as fellow warriors marching on to victory. These people have impacted my life in so many ways with memories and stories that I will tell for the rest of my days.
As I started up the last 13 miles to the finish line, which is the Portals of Mt. Whitney, I really wanted to run but once again I was hit hard with such deep emotions I can't even explain. The words, “Take your time; we are in no rush” rang in my heart. Slowly, emotionally, peacefully I moved up the long climb towards the finish line. It was as if I was home and I wanted to savor it all, taking in all that Death Valley had taught me since 1995. I realized I have grown with wisdom with each Badwater crossing. As I was approaching the last 2 miles I was overcome with feelings that are not describable. I closed my eyes often, took deep breaths to keep my act together, and slowly walked forward with love in my heart. Often, I would turn around to see how far we had come to see the vast beauty of Death Valley. It is quite a view and one that makes you just say... WOW! The wide expanse that we covered on foot. Looking back I felt God, the angels all around me. This beauty, the colors, the magical spiritual energy, the stars, the moon and the sun that are constantly shining, these feelings of awe. I am left speechless. Does the beauty lie in the emotional turmoil, the contentment we find in confronting our emotions head on? I wonder. The beauty is raw and cuts me to the depths of my core every time I see it and it brings me to tears.
One mile left to go. My crew were all out of the van and we gathered together. Vincent gives me a water bottle and told me to take the last mile alone, to reflect on all the times I have crossed Death Valley. I could barely speak because I was so full of emotion but I said...thank you. As the van pulled away I sat down for a moment on a rock that was on the side of the road. I lifted my hands to the sky and cried out giving thanks to God for the many lessons I have learned through the challenges given. I cried knowing my mother and father were both watching down from heaven and that they were at peace. As I got closer to the finish line I felt a cold rush come over me. I looked to the right of me and visualized as I felt the presence of my mother standing right where she stood many years ago when she crewed, of me as I crossed the finish line. Annie ran down the final turn to meet me. I kept looking to the right of me where my mother stood years ago. I could see her, feel her. She was clapping, smiling and then holding her arms open wide to the heavens saying.."Well done good and faithful warrior. I love you Lisa. We did it!!'"
Annie is approaching me yelling, "Mama we did it, we did it."
Holding hands Annie, Sister Marybeth, Sada, Ernie and Vincent as we crossed the finish line for number 10 will forever be one of the greatest moments of my life. I am full of gratitude for the opportunity and that I was granted one more crossing of Death Valley. The release, the rush of experiences at the finish line, tears of joy, fatigue setting in, yet a burst of adrenaline at knowing what we had just done. Physically I felt fine, my legs could have gone on for days but my emotional energy was drained to a new level. I could smell the fresh mountain air, the pine trees, birds were singing. It was a blessing, I felt elated.
My team stood and took photos as I received my buckle and t-shirt from Chris Kostman the race director. Sister Marybeth and I started singing Hallaugha, Hallaugha. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
We did it, we sure did!
Thank you Chris Kostman, race director for the opportunity to wear number 7 one more time.
Thank you will never be enough for my amazing crew and family for their love and support.
The beauty of it all: we continue to learn and grow wise with wisdom as life is one word. LOVE.
This one's for you Mom, the greatest warrior I will ever know. I love you to the heaven, the stars, across Death Valley and back.