ONE PINE, Calif. It's hard to find your sense of humor when you're running an ultramarathon through Death Valley in July, when the air constantly feels like an oven or hair dryer blowing on you and the pavement is hot enough to melt the bottoms of your shoes.
Lorie Hutchison smiled and laughed often during her first stab at the Badwater Ultramarathon, just a little 135-mile "fun run" through the desert July 14-16.
Hutchison shocked herself, her crew and even race director Chris Kostman by finishing her first Badwater in just over 31 hours, 17 minutes.
The first time someone ran the Badwater course was 31 years ago, when Al Hartman did it with a crew, just to see if he could do it. Over the years the race has grown, with 80 at the start Monday.
The race begins at Death Valley's Badwater
Junction, elevation 282 feet below sea level, the lowest spot in North America.
An international group of elite athletes, who need an invitation to compete and a $500 entry fee, then have 60 hours within which to officially finish the race. It ends 135 miles later at the trailhead to Mount Whitney, which some runners actually climb after the race Utahn Jim Nelson did it in 2004.
Their stories are varied, amazing and inspiring. A few have finished Badwater more than 10 times and even do it by themselves, no crew. Many raise money for charity in the name of Badwater. Arizona's Lisa Smith-Batchen had a nun on her crew, starting in Las Vegas, running/walking to Badwater, then to the Whitney summit and beyond, all in the name of raising money to help others.
This year's winner, Jorge Pacheco, of Los Angeles, clinched it in 23:20. Jamie Donaldson, of Colorado, beat all female runners with a blistering 26:51 finish.
Utahn Jarom Thurston, of Payson, found the shady trailhead in a little over 47 hours everyone who finishes in under 48 hours gets a medal around their neck and a shiny gold belt buckle, a strange but welcome reward for being relatively fast.
Hutchison crossed the finish line after a punishing steep climb out of Lone Pine in eighth place overall.
"That was a very sweet moment," said Hutchison, who has finished multiple 100-mile ultramarathons. "I think the harder it hurts and the longer it takes, the sweeter the finish. And it was fantastic to have my whole crew cross that line with me."
Hutchison wanted it that way, if only for her crew. It's her nature not to impose on anyone, let alone drag them through the hot desert for longer than necessary. It may have been why she ran so fast.
"She wanted us to have fun," crew leader and partner Margaret Rose said. "She didn't want to put anybody out she was worried about us."
There were multiple costume changes for the crew. The grass skirt and coconut shells. The nurse outfit whoa, baby. That Speedo-water wings-goggles-and-beach-ball thing. And too many odd props to mention.
"Our job was to make sure that time passed as quickly as possible," Rose said about entertaining Hutchison, who said she never knew what to expect. "It was nice to see her come in each mile with a smile on her face and leave with a smile on her face."
Rose figured the humor took Hutchison's mind off the enormity of the long, "daunting" roads through Death Valley, where the mercury rises to well above 100.
The nausea, as expected, came and went. "Nothing a little throw-up can't solve," she chuckled after the race.
A bit odd, that someone would want to do that to themselves. And along the way tourists in Death Valley would drive by, staring and pointing. German sisters Rahel and Agnes Brandt and their parents stopped to talk and take photos with Hutchison's crew and cheer as she went by.
As strange as it sounds even Hutchison dubbed it "insane" when she read about it in 2007 it's as equally a calculated, well-thought out endeavor. Adventure seeker Hutchison she has her sights set on climbing Everest and is looking for sponsors trained "scared" for Badwater. A flight nurse by trade, she studied the physiology behind heat training, increasing her blood plasma levels, teaching her body to sweat faster and decreasing her heart rate.
"Once accepted into the race, I read everything that has a reference to Badwater in the title," she said.
After all of that training, running ultras comes down to 10 percent physical ability and 90 percent mental mettle, Hutchison said.
"After that training has been used up, the rest of the race is enduring pain, nausea and resisting the overwhelming urge to drop out," she added.
Time passed during Badwater with Hutchison's five-member crew leapfrogging her every mile or so, giving her what she needed at each stop. Looking for that van every mile was a big deal.
"I ran this race one mile at a time, trying to find the van," Hutchison said.
Crew members reminded Hutchison to look up once in a while during the day and appreciate the beauty of where she was or to take in the blinking lights at night of other crew vehicles lined up miles behind her while she was high in the Inyo Mountains and they were in Panamint Valley below.
In between stops, crew members improvised on how to handle their charge. They cut the tops off her shoes to give her swollen toes more room. They devised a cooling system for her feet without getting them wet. Drew Harrell cut the top off a plastic bottle to hold a sponge and bandanna in ice-cold water to cool Hutchison upon her arrival.
"Ahh, that sponge," she said Wednesday morning after an air conditioned evening at a hotel in Lone Pine. "That was key to keep me going in the hot sun."
Two 10-minute naps helped, possibly staving off the delirium and hallucinations she's experienced in other ultramarathons.
"That's all I needed," she said about the catnaps. "It just recharged me."
Before Badwater, she wouldn't have answered for certain whether she'd consider doing the race again.
"But it's so fun, now that it's over," she said. "I didn't do too bad for a rookie. So it makes me think, gosh, I could do it faster."Feeling stiff but good Wednesday, sipping on an orange juice, she predicted going for her eighth finish at the Wasatch 100 Mile Endurance Run. "I'm actually excited for Wasatch this year," she said. "It will just be a fun run."
Note: Writer Stephen Speckman was on Lorie Hutchison's support staff. E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]