Sunday, May 22, 2011

So, back to that looming question...

"What would you do if you knew you could not fail?"

I have ruminated enough.

I have decided.

Despite the unfavorable odds, I am going to try.

The chance of failure is high, and therefore, the quote above simply does not apply.

So, instead, I am going with this question: What would you do if you thought you were very likely to fail but stood just a chance in hell that you wouldn't?

From my pregnant post 9 months ago, I now have this: That is the thing I still want to do, and now, that is the thing I will do. I will focus not on the apparently insurmountable obstacles in my way. Rather, I will see the glimmer of hope, the minute possibility that exists. And I will move toward it. How can there be fear of failure when it is likely and expected? How can there not be the thrill of success when it is almost, but not certainly, impossible?

What is it?

It is a solo, unsupported, self-contained crossing of Death Valley, from the Badwater Basin (the lowest elevation in the US at 282 ft below sea level) to the summit of Mt. Whitney (the highest elevation in the contiguous US at 14, 494 feet).

There are 135 miles of asphalt road that ribbon through the desert, through her valleys and over her mountain passes, that marry the Badwater Basin to the Whitney Portal Trail. From there, the route ascends 11 miles to the summit of the mountain for a total of 146 miles (235 km). Lowest to highest points. It has historic appeal.

There is an official race on the 135 miles of the paved route, the one and only Badwater Ultramarathon, known globally as "the world's toughest foot race." I've crewed at the race, I've paced there, I've run it, and I even once won it (in 2007). I've also headed up the medical team for 9 years. Needless to say, I love this race. Maybe this helps demonstrate my commitment to the Badwater Ultramarathon over the years. It's one of the nicest "salutes" I have and probably will ever receive. I am humbly honored to have been a part of the Badwater family for so many years.

But I am not running the race again (not this year at least!). Instead, two weeks after the official race, which is July 11, 2011, I will set out on a journey to test whether I can cover the same distance on the same route with the addition of the 11 miles to the Whitney summit totally unaided and self-contained. My go date is July 25, 2011.

Some definitions and clarifications:

The first crossings: Read about them here: Al Arnold was the first person to cross Death Valley via this route in 1977. The first organized race was held in 1987, and Jay Birmingham crossed solo in 2001. Then there was the first double crossing by Richard Benyo and Tom Crawford in 2004. For some, there is an allure of crossing the desert by the power of one's own feet, where temperatures reach well into the upper 120 degrees F. Some the desert seduces.

The official Badwater Ultramarathon - This year will be the 34th addition of the official race. Competitors literally from all over the world will attempt to finish the distance in under 48 hours with crews and pacers supporting them. Not an easy feat to be sure!

Solo - Many have chosen to do a solo crossing, which can be either aided or unaided. Aided means you have a crew that carries all your supplies and you cover the distance by foot with their help. There is no race, no cheering from other race entrants or their crews, no awards, no post-run pizza party, just intrinsic motivation and a big heart for the desert. Unaided crossings have also been done. Unaided means you carry all your supplies (including water, ice and food) usually in a baby stroller that is pushed by you. No outside help is allowed but you can restock your supplies and rest along the way at several points. Only a handful of tough ultrarunners have done unaided crossings. And a couple were so good at it, they made the crossing multiple times!

Solo, unaided, self-contained - This means that the person accepts no outside help of any kind: no food nor water, ice nor sunscreen, bandaid nor blanket. Every single thing that might be needed from the Badwater Basin to the Whitney summit must be carried by the person. There is no refueling along the way. This necessitates a kind of cart for carrying lots of water and ice, food and even winter clothes for the mountain. And you can leave the water filter at home because, well, for one, there is no water in the desert to filter, and two,the rules for self-contained say you are not allowed to filter water on the mountain anyway. Nope, every last drop of water, as well as everything else needed, must be planned for and carried from the start.

Has anyone ever done this? Well, yes, of course! The legend, aka King of Pain, Marshall Ulrich made a successful solo, unaided, self-contained crossing in 1999. (And just in case you didn't know, Marshall just published one of the best endurance running/love story books I have ever read - and you can get it HERE.) Marshall tried the crossing first in 1998 but failed to make it very far, so aborted that attempt and returned the next year for a successful completion. Want to read about his 1999 crossing? It's a fantastic story: Marshall Ulrich's unaided, self-contained crossing.

Who else has done it?


But, that's not the end of the "nobody" story.

Another accomplished ultrarunner, Jeff Sauter, planned and trained for and then attempted a self-contained crossing in 2004. And he just about almost made it! He successfully traversed the 135-mile asphalt road from the Badwater Basin to the Whitney portal trail, where he was able to leave his cart and begin the tail of his journey to the summit of the mountain. So, he headed up. And up, and up. And he got about 5 miles from the summit when he succumbed to the severe cold on the mountain and had to accept a blanket to ward off dangerous hypothermia. Thus, his journey ended just a few miles short. What a story it was that Jeff told me! And after hearing it, my obvious question was, Will you go back and try again? Well, I'll let Jeff answer that question, but I can at least say that he most certainly has the heart and the will to do so if and when he decides to give it another go. No doubt about that.

Has anyone else tried? Not that I know of. But if you know of any other attempts, please let me know. I am certain, however, that Marshall is the only one to have succeeded.

So, that is a great story just as it is.

The end.


Jeff emailed me last year and retold his story.

Yay! Great story, great effort, great accomplishment!

And then he said something very much like: "You know, it's never been done by a woman. In fact, I think it's impossible for a woman to do because no woman could push or pull a 250+ pound cart up Towne Pass" (Towne Pass is at mile 42 on the course and is the first mountain pass. It ascends at up to an 8% grade for 18 miles.)

Sure, I said, you're probably right. That's a lot of weight for a woman to push.

So, wait, Jeff. Why are you telling me this?

And then he said, Well, if anyone could do it....

And he left it at that.

Dang it!

And so the mustard seed was planted and the rumination began.

I do not want to live within the borders of my perceived limitations. I have no desire to do something at which I know I cannot fail. How mundane! Rather, I want to risk failure. What's the worst that could happen? I fail to succeed?

Yes, I want to and I am going to try something that is likely - but not necessarily - impossible.

Why? Well, that's a whole other blog post....

However, to put it simply, I can at least say that I believe with all my heart and mind and body and soul that there is no failure in trying, for as long as we keep trying.

And I'll leave it at that for now.


elaine said...

Um, I'm listening!

Chris Roman said...

Yippeee, the secret is out. I very much look forward to your journey and yes indeed you can do this :)

Olga said...

Holly cow. That is some way to un-ruminate. More power to you, tiny woman with biggest dreams. No failure will threaten your path. You will succeed.

Scott McMurtrey said...

Awesome. I got chills reading this.

Anonymous said...

How can I help you git'er dunnnnn? (pardon the use of that overused expression, but he is from Nebraska... ) You're STRONG! you're POWERFUL! and you're COMMITTED! and I can't wait to read/hear about the amazing adventure!!!!!

kristin jossi zosel

:-) said...

Fingers crossed!

Anonymous said...

I found your solo Badwater post through a Drymax sock link on Facebook. Good luck!!I am looking forward to reading about your success

Sean K
Tampa, Florida

Rajeev said...


If there is anyone who can do it, it's you! Go live your dream!!

Neal Donald Walsch said "The voice of caution knows nothing of real joy. What joy is there in doing what there was no doubt you could do? Try something you could fail at...that just could be living".

You will have my good wishes and love coming your way to add wings to your feet. Go get it done, tiger lady!!


Brett said...

I just read Marshall Ulrich's report on his solo unsupported crossing...the only 1 single person to have ever done it.

I could completely visualize Towne's Pass and the final stretch up to the portal. HOW GRUELING!!!

But you are right, why set goals that are easy to achieve - where is the reward in that? Now I would argue you have taken it to the other extreme though. :)

I wish you nothing but the best in planning, safety, performance, and experience. Success is when preparation meets opportunity.

denalifc said...

Hey Lisa
Just read your blog entry and I like what I've read. I've probalby know you longer than most people in the ultra world and yeah you doing this crazy sport is all Ian's fault (love it) as we discussed in front of a 1000 peole the other week. I truly believe if there is one person that can do it it is you Lisa. I can't wait to hear your report after you finish. Go for it my friend

Phil McCarthy said...

"if anyone can do it..." indeed! So there you have it! Successful completion is definitely not assured, but I think your chances are better than you think, Lisa!

Ken said...

I can't wait to hear you tell the story of your successful journey, the ups and downs, the literal highs and lows, and everything else in between. Sign me up for the book. Proud to have you as a friend and to say I've known you nearly 35 years, with a huge gap in between! You inspire so many to attempt the impossible - that failure won't even enter the discussion. Go Lisa!

Backofpack said...

This popped up in FB and I just had to come see what you were up to! Sounds like and incredible and difficult adventure - and you are the person to do it! Eric and I will be pulling for you! (I'll be at school in Boston on your "go" date, but I'll keep my eye out for updates!)

Will Cooper said...

you might need a few extra pop tarts for the trip. good luck!

john Price said...

Lisa, I have unlimited confidence in you. If anyone can I know you can. My advice is to look very closely at to what you take since every ounce of weight is a point against you. Good luck and I'm looking forward to your story, And it IS a success whether or not you make it, because you have tried in a very public forum...
PS This is what I like about Barkly, failure is certain, but there is this very slight chance......

Spokane Al said...


I will be looking forward to your date in July in awe and respect for you do.

You are an amazing human and one who continues to set the standard for the rest of us mere mortals with your adventures on the other edge.

Lisa B said...

Thank you so much, my friends, for your comments and encouragement. They will be my inspiration!

Lisa B said...

Ah, but Al, I truly believe that anyone could do this if they wanted to bad enough. Lots of training (all kinds), sacrifice, the help of others, and a whole lot of stubbornness. :)

Unknown said...

Love it! Just great the way we want to push ourselves to the insane!!
Best of luck, it'll be a blast no doubt :)

Allen said...

Good luck, I think you can do it.

Allen said...

Are you going to be posting any training and diet info?

Lisa B said...

Allen - Yes, I will be posting more here. I've just been focused on the cart, which is almost done!

Unknown said...

Lisa, how can folks donate the charity for which you are running?