Ultrarunner’s Dazzling Comeback at Badwater

Ultrarunner’s Dazzling Comeback at Badwater

With an impressive sub-24 hour finish and prestigious silver belt buckle award in The Western States Endurance Run just two weeks earlier, David Ploskonka’s confidence was high. The Western States Endurance Run, commonly known as The Western States 100, pits runners against the clock, racing day and night along a grueling 100-mile course in California’s Sierra Nevada, over a cumulative total of 18,000 feet of climbing and 23,000 feet of descending on mountain trails before reaching the finish.

When David jogged up to the starting line at the Badwater Basin parking lot just a few minutes before 10 a.m., all of the anxiety of months of planning, race strategy, obtaining supplies, making travel plans, organizing crew members and crew vehicles, fundraising for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), not to mention actually training for the race, finally vanished.

As he jogged down the road and joined 80 of the most-respected ultrarunners in the world, David felt like a huge weight had been lifted off his chest—he was finally running the race that he had spent years dreaming about, the toughest foot race in the world. Now, in spite of the temperature, which was by all estimates reaching 105 degrees and climbing, he was free to enjoy the experience, and to focus on finishing the race.

David described the start as it unfolded: “The leaders went out fast, too fast for me to even think about chasing them. I hung back as we climbed out of the Badwater Basin, running at about a 10-minute-mile pace, doing my best to enjoy the company of ultrarunning ‘legends’ in the increasingly oppressive heat.”

It was reassuring to David to find that these runners, who until now were just names near the top of most race results, were actually real people. Nick Hollon, who in 2009 became the youngest Badwater finisher at age 19, ran alongside David for awhile, and told him that he was running smart by not pushing too hard in the heat, so he felt better about letting several other runners pass him.

Jamie Donaldson, the eventual winner in the women’s division, mistook David for Phil McCarthy, because his hair looked similar from the back—another welcome and humorous distraction, considering that Phil had placed third, just ahead of David, at the Staten Island 6-Hour Race in 2007 and would go on to place in the top 10 of this race. Jamie was having problems of her own—she told her crew that her hair was knotting up, and that they needed to help her fix it before it got worse. Yes, ultrarunners are real people, too.

David’s crew—Sara MacKimmie, Andrew Marsh, Jason Wara, and Tricia Jackson, the first three of whom were race rookies—pulled their crew vehicle over to the side of the road about every mile or so to hop out and mist David with cold water, refill his water bottle, feed him, and put ice in his hat and in a bandana he had around his neck.

Thanks to his months of heat training, and his crew’s consistent efforts, the rising temperature wasn’t affecting him much. His nutrition plan, however, was. On the descent to Furnace Creek, he took one sip of an orange-flavored protein powder drink that hit his stomach so hard that he nearly puked the entire contents immediately, a bad omen of still worse things to come.

David reached Furnace Creek, the 17-mile mark, in just over three hours, still feeling strong, minor stomach issues aside. From there, the race continued to Stovepipe Wells, the 42-mile mark, and the hottest section of the course. The road continued to gently undulate, and he continued his slow, steady pace, gradually passing runners from the earlier starting waves, and runners from his wave who had gone out too fast.

David described his progress in the race thus far: “The sick feeling in my stomach worsened, but my legs still felt strong, and my crew’s cooling system was so effective that I passed the hottest section of the course—Scotty’s Castle, 128 degrees F—without a hitch. By the time I reached Stovepipe Wells, about eight hours into the race, all things considered, I was feeling fantastic, and thought that this race might be smooth sailing all the way to the finish.”

Then he began the climb to Townes Pass, and things began to fall apart. His stomach, which had been only a minor nuisance up to that point, was now a full-on disaster. David is typically a very strong climber, but the added exertion of climbing the hill made him feel sick to his stomach to the point of nearly laying down and passing out. To make matters worse, it was getting dark, with no moonlight and no street lights, and he couldn’t take off his sunglasses, because the wind would have dried out his contact lenses. Not even the cheers from the women who were crewing Shannon Farar-Griefer or being misted by Shannon’s superstar crew member, Deena Kastor (who holds the women’s American record in the marathon, at 2:19:36), could improve the situation. He soon found himself slowly trudging up the 16-mile climb in sunglasses at night, with only the dim glow of a headlamp illuminating the ground about three feet in front of him. One of his crew members, Jason, came out and paced him up the hill, patiently walking behind David as he found himself struggling for the first time in the race.

When he finally made it to the top, he was rewarded with a 9-mile downhill leading into Panamint Springs. After being destroyed on the downhills at the Western States 100-Mile Run two weeks earlier (i.e., wrecking his quadriceps, and being passed constantly anyway), David had practiced his downhill running technique so as not to be passed on a downhill ever again. He was ready to put aside all of the stomach issues that he had during the climb to run hard down the hill. Steadily, he passed runner after runner on the downhill, as his pace increased to around a 7-minute mile as he focused on the line of lights in the distance, which turned out to be the crew vehicles of the runners that were ahead of him. The pain in his stomach began to worsen as he pushed the pace, but for the moment, the thrill of being able to move so quickly and effortlessly kept him from slowing down.

David reached Panamint Springs a little after 2 a.m. at approximately Mile 72, and his lowest point in the race. Lack of sleep combined with intense stomach pain made David avoid starting the inevitable next climb for as long as he could. Finally, at the urging of his crew, at about 3 a.m., with an hour of lost time, he began a listless saunter up the hill towards Darwin.

An hour later, he had made, at best, three miles of forward progress, and was feeling impossibly awful. He still had about 60 miles to go, and it was unimaginable for him to continue in his present condition. He asked his crew to set up a cot for him as he promptly assumed a state of partial consciousness for about an hour. Although he had never said the word “drop,” both his crew and he knew that this was a distinct possibility.

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With crew members working frantically to get David back on his feet, one crew member massaged his stomach while the other poured the sports formula Natural Calm® Plus Calcium down his throat. “It was the first time I had every tried this product,” David said, “and it miraculously settled my stomach.”

Reluctantly, at about 5 a.m., David resumed the climb. At Mile 80, he reached the scenic overlook at the top of the climb, and his reward, greater than the scenery, was a Styrofoam box of eggs and home fries from Panamint Springs, which he wolfed down.

Discarding his reflective gear and wiping the dry, salty, evaporated sweat off his body, and donning a fresh shirt, he felt as though he was nearly in a condition to run again. So he did. Short spurts at first, but as the downhill grade increased, so did his pace and the length of the sections that he was running. Andrew, a crew member, joined him for a couple of downhill miles, and by the time he reached Darwin (Mile 90), he felt his condition improving.

After a 15-minute cot break, he was off again. Past Darwin, he continued to pick up the pace, and once again pass runners (most of whom had passed him while he was nearly passed out). Still, as the temperature began to climb again and the sun rose higher in the sky, he found himself taking hourly 15-minute “cot breaks.” He was inching towards the finish line, but now a feeling of exhaustion was taking over.

“I couldn’t see Lone Pine (Mile 122) in the distance, I had no idea which one of the massive mountains in the distance was Mt. Whitney (the finish), and I had now been awake for well over 24 hours straight, so I was beginning to lose focus. At this point, Sara, my fiancée and crew member, got out of the car and paced me for half a mile. As we went by Dolomite Loop, Sara and I officially passed the furthest distance I had ever run at one time (111 miles), and the vague realization that I had now gone beyond my proven limit (with my fiancée by my side, no less), turned out to be both physically and emotionally energizing, and I began to really run again.”

Over the next 10 miles to Lone Pine, David passed a number of runners, and his morale and stomach condition continued to improve.

“One of my crew members, Tricia, gave me a natural fruit- and vegetable-based liquid solution called Energy 28 that both nourished me and further calmed my sick stomach. I lowered my calorie intake to around 100 per hour, and amazingly, food began to digest, even as I was running. I ended up taking one to two packets of Energy 28 per hour, as it revived me and energized me. I finally began to realize that, as Sara had told me many miles ago, my legs were still fresh, and that if I could just put aside all of the stomach issues up to this point, I could still finish strong. As I passed the webcam in Lone Pine, I told the world that I was ready to begin my ‘assault on Mt. Whitney,’ and I continued down Main Street to turn left onto Whitney Portal road, and to the base of the mountain.”

As David began the climb up to Portal Whitney, he felt reinvigorated as the air began to cool, the surroundings became greener, and the sound of rushing water accompanied the monotonous crunching sound of his footfall on the dusty road. Soon he was passing everybody that he could see up ahead of him. His “assault” energized his crew, who brought him food and water with a new-found vigor, and cheered him on every time they passed him on their way to the next stopping point on the climb. After the last time station at Mile 131, Andrew joined him on his fast run-hike up the hill, and gave him yet another reason to further push the pace. By the time he reached the parking lot at Portal Whitney, the sun was beginning to set, and darkness fell as he crossed the finish line with his crew right behind him. He had completed the 13-mile climb in 2 hours and 55 minutes, at a speed of nearly 4.5 mph, an unheard-of pace for this section of the race.

Jimmy Dean Freeman, who finished just ahead of David, would later shake his hand and say that nobody had ever pushed him harder in a race. Chris Kostman, the race director, shook his hand, put the coveted finisher’s medal on David, and handed him his sub-48-hour belt buckle.

“All of those were good things, but as my crew and I posed for the mandatory finish-line photo op, all I could think about was how proud I was of my final climb, and how lucky I was to have such a fantastic crew to help pull me through to a miraculous comeback from the brink of despair.”

David finished his first Badwater Race in 17th place out of a field of 80 world-class ultramarathon runners, in a time of 34 hours and 28 minutes. Had he not lost the 3 hours of stomach recuperation time during the race, he could have placed in the top 10 finishers—an accomplishment he is sure to achieve in his next attempt at the world’s toughest foot race. In the meantime, however, David is not content to rest on his laurels. Strengthened by training, and armed with the wisdom of nutritional lessons learned from Badwater, he recorded a first-place finish, and personal best time of 16 hours, 19 minutes, in the 100 mile Beast of Burden Ultramarathon just a month later. David continues to improve his training and nutrition, and looks forward to new challenges and successes in 2011.