by Linda Brewer
In the Frying Pan Desert, Sometimes a Peak Experience Appears From Nowhere.
© 2003 42K(+) Press, Inc.
The old song about “that lonesome valley” could have been written about the Badwater Death Valley race. Nobody else can cover those 135 scorching miles for you. You have to walk—or run—them by yourself. But that doesn’t mean a friend can’t ride beside you on a bicycle entertaining you with a story about a Mexican witch doctor. Or that another friend can’t give you the reeking shirt off her back.
At 5:30 a.m. at Lone Pine, nearing the end of the 2002 Sun Precautions Badwater Ultramarathon, Pam Reed needed a shirt. She had run through the desert night in a Jog Bra and shorts. Now at higher altitude, her sunburned skin needed a protective layer. Chuck Giles, captain of her support crew, couldn’t find a shirt in the van, so he ordered crew member Susy Bacal to take off her own shirt and give it to Pam. Susy did so reluctantly. She had worn the shirt for umpteen hours at that point and knew it smelled.
Pam put the shirt on and grinned. “It smells!” she said.
“I meant it smelled good to me,” Pam recalled later. “It smelled like Susy and the guys who were helping me. It felt really good having that shirt on.”
In July 2002, 10 days before Badwater, Pam ran the Elkhorn 100 in Montana as a training run. Pam runs at noon in Tucson and expected to handle the Montana heat well. The sun, however, didn’t play fair, and Reed suffered heat exhaustion.
“I threw up,” Pam recalls with a grimace. “I felt like crap at Elkhorn. I died. After that race I sat down and said, ‘It only got up to 104 degrees at Elkhorn. I don’t think I’ll be able to do Badwater.’”
When she got home, Pam called Chuck Giles, Tucson attorney and chief instigator of her Badwater Ultramarathon attempt. “He talked to me for a while and finally I said, ‘I’ll try it,’ ” Pam says.
Negotiation is not Pam’s favorite sport. As director of the Tucson Marathon she has learned to include others in her decision-making process, but when it comes to her own running, she just wants to do it her own way. It’s not that she wants to inconvenience anyone or put down anyone else’s method. Just please don’t try to talk her into or out of a race. Don’t tell her how to train, and don’t give her a list of do’s and don’ts to follow on any given race day.
Chuck Giles did all of the above. He had met Pam through their mutual friend Susy Bacal, a Tucson runner and triathlete. He had followed Pam’s career as a marathoner and ultrarunner, and he had a plan in mind with Pam as the key player. In years past he had officiated at Badwater and he knew the course well.
“Two years ago I watched a woman from Russia set a women’s course record that everyone (including me) thought would not be broken. It intrigued me to find out if it could be done, and I thought Pam was the one to do it,” Giles says. He tried to talk Pam into running Badwater in 2001, but she declined. Chuck kept negotiating with her. “Badwater seemed to me to be a natural event for her, both because she enjoys ultra events and because she lives in the desert in Tucson,” Giles says. Toward the end of 2001 he persuaded Pam to enter the 2002 race. He then proceeded to negotiate with her about strategy.
Badwater requires each runner to have a personal crew on the course. Pam, 41 years old and veteran of nearly a hundred marathons, is used to running on her own, or at most with the assistance of her husband, Jim. Giles picked a crew that included Craig Bellman, Scott Scheff, Carol Trevey, and Susy Bacal.
A long-distance bicyclist himself, Giles enjoys the challenge of preparing for and supporting ultra events. “There’s no opportunity to seek outside help or to consult anyone during the race,” he says. “You simply deal with issues as they arise based on your own abilities. I knew that, from a personality perspective and an ability perspective, these people would make a good crew.”
The first step in the game plan was helping Pam understand that having a good crew was not a sign of self-indulgence. A typical ultrarunner in that she is eager to undertake challenges that nonrunners consider sheer, meaningless torture, Pam doesn’t expect to be pampered. But having a support crew does not equate to being pampered, Giles told her, and he reminded Pam that she would still have to run every step of the race on her own blistered feet.
The second step involved convincing Pam that she is not a perpetual motion machine. At about 5 feet 3 inches and not much over 100 pounds, Pam’s body is capable of making a little food go a long way. Giles told Pam he wanted her to eat and drink more during the race than she ever had before. Sounding like a company shill, he touted the benefits of Ensure, Ultrafuel, Red Bull, and Gatorade. Privately, Pam balked.
“When Chuck told me I’d have to drink Ensure, I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she says. She has tried all the usual aid station victuals, and a lot of what she takes in during races comes right back up a mile down the road.
Energy going out depends on energy coming in, Giles said. People who drink only water risk hyponatremia (water intoxication) caused by severe electrolyte imbalance. Pam agreed with Giles’s logic and felt grateful for his preparation. Still, she had reservations about such a businesslike approach to an endeavor she loves.
Running for Fun
“The most important thing for me is to protect my running. It’s such a major part of my life,” she says. “I never want to do anything that would make me not like running. That’s why there are some things I just don’t do. I won’t go to the track and do speed work. Are you kidding? That would make me hate running. I don’t do really long training runs. I don’t really keep a training log. For me, stuff like that would kill my love of going out and running just for the fun of being out there. I don’t follow schedules in books or tips from coaches. People have criticized me for doing it my own way, and sometimes I’ve wondered, should I do it differently? But this is what works for me.”
Pam’s personal step three involved her own preparation for the race. If Chuck Giles and the crew, including three people she didn’t know well, were going to volunteer their time and energy on her behalf, she wanted to be ready. In June, Pam went to Las Vegas for three days and ran two to three times a day in the heat. She usually runs at least twice a day in Tucson, in between chauffeuring her three sons—Tim, Andrew, and Jackson—and her two stepsons—Gregory and Jonathan—to baseball games and soccer practice.
In June and early July, both in Tucson and in Jackson, Wyoming, she ran during the hottest part of the day. “One day I ran five times for about 40 minutes each because I was taking care of the kids,” she recalls. “I’ve heard of other runners training in sweatsuits for three or four hours at a time, but I just can’t do that. I know some people who decide they’re going to run some big race two years in advance, and then they train like a maniac and map out their whole life to fit their training schedule. I don’t do that. What if you go that far and then you have a bad day? It would be too demoralizing,” she says. “I wanted to go into Badwater mentally prepared to do my best, but I didn’t want it to ruin my life if it didn’t work out.”
The crew met up in Las Vegas and headed west to Death Valley, where Chuck Giles set out to inspire his runner in a biblical kind of way. “Chuck took me up on top of this mountain to Dante’s View, and we looked way down. He said, ‘That’s Badwater,’” Pam says. “It was like looking at the bottom of an ocean. It was eerie thinking I’d be down there running it in a few hours.”
Pam’s father is Finnish, her mother Swedish-Norwegian. She grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where as a child she loved nothing better than sweltering in a sauna and then jumping into a cold lake. “I think it’s my Finnish background—I like drastic things,” she says with a laugh.
She is used to running with pain—her hamstrings in particular give her trouble—and she copes in matter-of-fact, Upper Peninsula fashion, where self-sufficiency is a given. So right away at Badwater, the first thing Miss Independence did was call upon her crew to get her started.
The Crew Comes Through
“Right before the race started my hip was killing me, and it scared me. Craig Bellman is a bicycle guy, and he’s good at working on people, so he worked on me right up until the start of the race. For the first 17 miles my hip hurt so bad I thought I might have to drop out, and then the pain just went away.”
Runners at Badwater cannot be paced for the first 17 miles, so the crew confined themselves to gathering as much ice as they could find and handing Pam water from the van. (The crew’s search for ice took on the quality of an adventure of its own. They ended up using 30 bags scavenged from motels and stores.) Past mile 17 the crew members swung into action while simultaneously dealing with their own needs.
“My previous contact with events of this nature convinced me that it’s essential for the crew to get some rest and have the opportunity to eat properly,” Chuck Giles says. Pam worried about that, too.
“Craig Bellman’s a nature guy. He’s a real healthy eater. He’ll go off into the desert and eat a plant that looks edible,” Pam says. “He kept missing breakfast at the cafes they came to. Every time they found a restaurant, it was closed. It was kind of funny, but not really. Finally, way into the race, he was able to get a sandwich. I felt so bad for him.”
In most accounts of the Badwater Ultramarathon, Hades-related words crop up repeatedly. The first part of the course looks like the as-yet-undeveloped suburbs of hell. Pam likes mountains, and she knew that if she kept going she would find some, but they were a long way off. “The start was just nothing—flat for a long time. Then from mile 17 to 42 it was kind of hilly, not too bad,” Pam recalls. “There was a lot of dirt beside the road to run on, so I ran on that because I thought it might be cooler than the pavement. I don’t think it was, really.”
Susy Bacal ran with Pam for miles during the afternoon with a spray bottle in one hand, misting Pam to keep her cool.
Pam had decided not to wear sunscreen for fear the oily coating would increase her body temperature. For much of the day she wore a Tucson Marathon T-shirt soaked with water—her personal version of a swamp cooler.
“Poor Pam had to hear my entire life story,” Susy Bacal says. “I ran with her, and I talked constantly about everything I could think of. And then I got really, really hot.”
“Susy ran with me and she kept trying to fuel me. Chuck had all these drinks in the van,” Pam recalls. “At the top of the hill around mile 42 she got heatstroke. Her face was completely red.” In three hours of running with Pam and seeing to it that she drank every few minutes, Susy neglected to take in enough liquid herself. Feverish and fatigued, she retired to the van to recuperate and rehydrate. Meanwhile, bicyclist Craig Bellman took over keeping Pam company on the road.
“From mile 42 to 72 it was just huge and hot,” Pam says. “I had to climb this big hill into a headwind, and the temperature was about 120 degrees at that point. Craig was riding beside me and he kept saying, ‘With each step you take up the hill, the temperature is getting a little bit cooler. Any minute now you’re going to feel cooler.’ The guys in the crew—they were very positive about everything. No matter what came up, they took a positive attitude toward it,” Pam says.
Search for a Witch Doctor
“As it got later Craig rode his bike alongside me, and he started telling me this story about when he went to Mexico to find this witch doctor,” Pam says. “He was looking for this witch doctor he’d heard about, and he found the witch doctor’s daughter and she told him the man had died, so he went in the house and saw this dead guy lying there. And just when he was telling me this, Chuck drove up in the van and told Craig it was time for him to get off the bike. I guess he was afraid Craig was distracting me and I might just stop and listen. And Craig said, ‘No, I’m not getting off until I finish this story.’ I’d never heard anything like it.”
The runners strung out along the course, tiny, overheated figures in a burnt landscape. Pam kept moving as others stopped to rest. “I stopped once for one minute to change my shorts,” she says. “You come to a race and you either have your day or you don’t, and I was thinking this was my day if I could just keep going. One thing that was weird was that they were testing new BMWs on the course. The guys in the van would get all excited and say, ‘Wow! Did you see that car?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’”
Meanwhile, Chuck and the crew kept offering Pam Ensure, Red Bull, frozen pops made from Ultra Fuel, and a variety of other items. “I didn’t eat the peanut butter sandwich—just a couple of bites,” she says. “I would drink part of a can of a drink—I couldn’t drink the whole thing. But running out there and seeing how well the food worked, I thought a lot about nutrition and what I might do differently in my races.”
Pam frequently suffers from altitude sickness in Colorado’s mountain races. Fortunately, at Badwater she didn’t have to contend with altitude until the last few miles. As the road climbed, Craig switched on his bicycle light. “We came up out of Panamint and came around the turn and there was a full moon. It was beautiful,” Pam says. “At maybe three in the morning I was getting really sick of it, though. I kept holding on, thinking, ‘When am I going to break down?’ Then Chris Kostman, the race director, told me I was winning the race overall. Two of the top guys had dropped out. I just wanted to know how much farther it was to Lone Pine. Chuck and Craig drove all the way to the end to see how far it was, and when he came back he said it was 24 miles. I thought, It can’t be! I’ve been out here so long and I’m almost there.”
For most runners, 24 miles is a good long day’s run, but for Pam it signified the home stretch. “In ultras I get to a point with maybe 20 miles to go where for me, it’s like the last couple of miles in a 10K. I don’t want to eat or drink. I just want to focus on getting there, getting it over with.”
That’s when, still moving, she put on the shirt that smelled both like Susy and the by-now unspeakable interior of the van and drew a kind of strength from mutual body odor. “I knew I was getting close to the finish line when all of a sudden these people were there with cameras and microphones trying to talk to me and get me to say something before I crossed the finish line. I just wanted to keep it pure and finish it before I had to talk,” she says. Eyes glowing white in her sunburned face, Pam crossed the finish line in 27:56:56, setting a new women’s course record and finishing five hours ahead of the next competitor.
An Emotional Finish
“All these people were asking me how I felt about setting a record, and I just started crying in front of them. I hate crying!” Pam says. “I was overwhelmed, thinking about what I’d just done. I’d been running for 135 miles and now it was over. And also, I was thinking here it’s 28 hours into the race and so many runners are still out there, having to go through that heat for a second day. I felt terrible that they had to go through that.”
Chuck Giles came home immensely proud of his team’s success. “That mostly had to do with Pam and the effort she made. A crew can keep a person from being successful by not doing their job, but in the end, it’s the effort of the athlete that results in success or failure.”
Before Pam went off to run Badwater, her friends in Tucson couldn’t help communicating their fears for her. “My friends were saying, ‘Pam, I don’t think you should do this. What if you get heatstroke? What if you die? Are you sure you want to risk it?’ It made me kind of mad, because I knew I wasn’t going to kill myself just to win a race. I wouldn’t do that to myself,” Pam says. The main physical effect she suffered was tender feet—not blistered, but burned, tender soles.
News of Pam’s accomplishment has traveled around the country. She has been asked for her autograph at races. People meeting her often say, “You’re Pam Reed?” in a puzzled way, as if they expected someone bigger or more conventionally athletic looking.
“I don’t really know how people expect me to look or behave. I’m just who I am. Running is just what I do,” Pam says. “There’s a Finnish word, ‘sisu,’ that means ‘guts,’ and maybe sisu is part of the running thing. My dad’s cousin Arvid Saari, who’s in his 70s, is just beside himself with pride, and that means a lot to me.”
Media attention is an aspect of her achievement that Pam is learning to deal with, but the most important result of her race is personal. “Right after Badwater I felt such a sense of peace in myself. It was like I had finally done the thing I needed to do. It made me feel good about myself, that I was on the right path. I also learned how important a good crew can be to getting you to your goal. Basically I just had to show up and run. They were wonderful.”
As much as she loves running, Pam doesn’t proselytize among nonrunners. “I don’t think running is for everybody. Some people just don’t like it. Some people don’t have a runner’s body, and when they run they’re fighting their body the whole time. I think people should do the kind of exercise they really enjoy, and then they’ll stick with it and be happier. I’m not a hero-worshiper. I’m not into celebrities in anything, sports or acting or politics. I really most admire people who are happy in themselves. If you’re happy being yourself, then you can do whatever you need to do in life.”
Such as repeating at Badwater? Pam says, “It was a perfect time and place where everything came together. Part of me wants to let it stand, but part of me wants to run it again.”
At press time, Pam was still planning to give Badwater another chance.