This is an article by invitation. The author, Grant Maughan, is a freelance super yacht captain and endurance athlete. Here, he provides us an overview of how 2018 shaped up for him and then takes us ringside to three ultra-running events he was at recently – The Last Annual Vol State, Badwater 135 and Angeles Crest 100. Hailing from Australia, Grant lives in the US. He maintains a packed schedule.
Sometimes a year just doesn’t seem like enough time.
After working on a ship in Antarctica for four months in late 2017 / early 2018 and doing no training I found myself north of the equator about a week after finishing in Cape Town. I was back in Alaska for the Iditarod trail Invitational 350 mile winter race, hooked up to my sled and a little gun-shy after my withdrawal from the event the year before at around the 200 mile mark with frost bite to my fingers and nose. This year, with a conservative approach I managed to finish the event in third place and qualify for the 1000 mile attempt along the entire Iditarod Trail to Nome in 2019.
Not two weeks later I had flown to Australia to renew my passport, then back to Florida, changed equipment and driven to Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee for my first attempt at the infamous Barkley Marathons. Considered one of the most difficult ultras in the world, in its 32 year history only 15 people have managed to finish the five loops, collect all the correct book pages hidden out in the mountains and returned in time to the “Yellow gate.” This year’s weather was some of the worst on record with bucketing rain, cold temps and mud like butter. I managed to finish one loop with all the pages in the required time. Doesn’t sound like much of an achievement but I beg to differ.
A week after I had driven back to Florida, exchanged equipment again and was on a bus being shaken to bits on a mountain road through the Himalayas to Everest base camp in Tibet where I spent the better part of the next two months acclimating and working on climbing the North Col / North East Ridge route of the tallest mountain on earth. After a harrowing summit on May 19, I thanked my lucky stars to be back at base camp and packing for departure.
Not two weeks later I had flown back to Florida, changed equipment out and driven again to Tennessee for my first attempt at the Last Annual Vol State 500km road race. This event is also brain child of Barkley Race Director, Laz Lazarus and is considered an adventure across “small town America”. The route crosses the entire State and winds through country roads and quaint towns that most travelers would bypass on super highways.
Last Annual Vol State
What is the Last Annual Vol State race? Well, to begin with, it’s unlikely to be the last annual anything. Every year, more and more runners sign up for the 500k (314-mile) challenge. This year, 114 ultra-runners gathered for what is mostly a race across Tennessee — although it starts with a ferry ride across the Missouri River, zigzags across the Kentucky and Alabama state lines, and ends at a “rock” on top of Sand Mountain in Georgia. “That’s crazy… and confusing!” you might say to yourself. And you would be right.
Runners follow a labyrinthine course through small towns and farmlands, along backcountry roads and busy highways — and all at the height of a sweltering, sticky, bug-infested Tennessee summer (know what sweat bees are? If you don’t, you will!). The people are super friendly; the farm dogs, not so much. Runners have 4-10 days to finish, although the record holder did it in 3 days 7 hours. You can be crewed or “screwed” (which means un-crewed). There are no aid stations, although some kind-hearted locals took pity and set up “angel stations” along the way to offer food, water and a place to bed down (that MIGHT be chigger-free, if you are lucky). Screwed runners carry what they need or buy it along the way. Unscrewed runners have their crew do it for them.
All runners are free to check into a motel for sleep and a chance to test just how bad their chafing is in the shower. Many just sleep on the ground, where they drop. No fancy trackers — runners are required to call in twice a day with their position on the course. There are not many other rules, except you can’t ride in a car (unless a police officer makes you), and if you leave the course for food or a room, you have to go on your own two feet (no matter how much they hurt) and return to the course exactly where you left it.
King of the Road – that’s the title given to the first to reach Castle Rock by the Tennessee legislature (true story) on completion of the Last Annual Vol State 500km ultra.
Even though I was the first to get there, and proud of it, all of us who endured that long hot road across small town America at some point felt like a truck wreck. We came unstuck, went off the rails, strayed from our minds and asked ourselves questions too big to answer. But in the end we held that wheel in a white knuckle grip and kept on trucking.
Titles are not bestowed they are earned, and “King of the Road” will cost you more than a pound of fat.
I was more than a little relieved to finally make it to “The Rock” and the finish in 3 days 22 hours and 2 minutes.
After 500 km of running across Tennessee under a relentless sun and humidity, cranky dogs and the close proximity of speeding big rigs on country roads I finally dragged my putrid body to a stop. One of the difficulties of this event is living in saturated clothing and shoes for days. It’s very difficult to stop blisters, heat rash and horrid chaffing…and that’s besides the endless miles of soul crushing tarmac.
My wife, Susan Jobe who was my solo crew, suffered as much sleep deprivation, stinky clothes and bleary vision as the runner. We traded the front seat of the car and a yoga mat for occasional cat naps on the side of the road, shunning the comforts of a hotel for reasons unknown – but could have something to do with my stubbornness?
I literally saved seven angry dogs by either running to the opposite side of the road to stop them running in front of traffic to come harass me, or standing on the road waving frantically to a high speed vehicle to stop before it vaporized a small girl’s dog in front of her as she screamed from the front yard.
I finished early in the day. So we slept the rest of it in a local hotel before packing the car and heading West for another 2800 miles to Death Valley, California for this year’s Badwater 135.
This was Badwater number six for me and I can only describe it as the toughest finish I have experienced at this race.
With record setting temperatures this year it was brutal to say the least and took a heavy toll on racers. I was obviously fatigued from Vol State only about a week earlier and my feet were in serious disrepair.
My slowest time ever at 34:52:30 and 22nd place didn’t bother me, heck I was just happy to finish this year. With about 30% drop out rate from the extreme heat it was one for the ages.
Whenever someone asks me what they need to know to run Badwater I always tell them they need to respect the first 41 miles between Badwater Basin and Stove pipe Wells. The arid atmosphere is going to suck every drop of moisture out of your body. You have trouble drinking enough to replace the loss and your stomach cannot process it all quickly enough. This year I saw total carnage along that section. Someone was throwing up only five miles from the start. After Furnace Creek I saw a female runner, totally unconscious, being carried to her crew car. A minute later the woman in front of me had a wobble, went off into the gravel and hugged a road post. Not a minute later a guy was projectile-vomiting a ten foot stream of fluid in great heaving growls that echoed off the landscape. It looked like a scene from the trenches of the Somme and we were only about a marathon into the 135 miles. I chugged along in idle, drinking like a fish and gladly peeing frequently.
Heading up Towne Pass my own problems started with my feet that had been taped up after last week’s race but started to fall apart. Blisters under the ball of the left foot started to fill again and the pad started to slew off the bottom. At the summit I had the foot taped up with blue painters tape so I could make the downhill section without the pad on the ball of the foot falling off. It was a slow, painful and unhappy trip down. Then the abominable heat rising out of the Panamint valley made me feel faint and out of it. At times when only a few hundred feet from the car I wasn’t sure if I would make it and thought I would collapse on the sizzling tarmac. It took many hours to get to Panamint Springs where I lay on a yoga mat fitfully for a couple hours.
Unfortunately our crew had to resign here due to heat problems and I thought my race was over until serendipity arrived in the form of the famous Bob Becker*. The runner he had been crewing had just dropped. He quickly slipped into the program and I hobbled away to climb Father Crowley in a heat haze. When we arrived at the top I tried to start running and to my surprise ran many of the miles to Darwin. The 30 miles section to Lone Pine is very amenable to running and with the sun down I gritted my teeth from the foot pain and trotted along for most of those miles, sending the crew ahead to take cat naps.
A big problem I had during this year’s race was falling asleep: day and night. It was like my body’s protection mechanisms were just shutting me down. I spent untold 15 minute cat naps trying to alleviate it. Caffeine did nothing except make me drowsier.
It was a great feeling to arrive in Lone Pine at day break and get on the Portal Road for the final climb to the finish line. Susan and Bob each paced me up the laborious climb to the finish.
It was an epic year out there and total respect to everyone who was out there – runners, crew and staff.
Badwater 135 continues to be a benchmark of the ultimate grind-fest of road racing….whew!
Angeles Crest 100
After Badwater I decided that I probably wouldn’t run AC100 because my feet were falling apart and incredibly painful to walk on.
I did some Epsom salt soaks, cut off lots of dead skin, filed nails and applied rehydration crème.
To my surprise only a few days later we had driven north to a remote National Park in Nevada to hike climb a 12,500 feet peak and my feet felt “not bad”. We continued the sojourn by climbing another 12’ver near Las Vegas and I decided that though tender I might be able to make it through the 100 miles of trail in the San Bernadino Mountains near Los Angeles. So we redirected the car and eight days after Badwater I was at the start line of the AC100.
I took it easy and enjoyed the beautiful mountain and forest scenery. The trails were well maintained and I was surprised how good I felt. I made a huge mistake though just as the sun was getting higher and hotter. Some of the aid stations are 8-12 miles apart and just before the biggest climb of the race I filled only one water bottle instead of all three and suffered very bad dehydration coming down the other side. My mouth was so dry I could hardly open it.
At the next aid station I sat for half an hour drinking a couple of litres of fluid as I knew it would be difficult to get through the intense heat of the afternoon without trying now to catch up on hydration. The next aid was only five miles away and I did the same when reaching it. The next 30 miles felt okay but it was getting hot on the trails and with no breeze it was stifling. A couple of miles before the hallway point aid station I started to slow down, feeling overheated and faint whilst in heavy bush where the air was not moving. It felt heavy and pressing down on me. I sat at the check point and drank as much as my stomach could tolerate, filled every bottle and got going on a long eight mile section down in a valley.
The terrain was more complicated with a lot of rounded river rocks to navigate and sizzling temperature. About a mile from the aid station I felt totally drained and started wondering if I might have to drop. A final rock staircase up to the checkpoint had me wondering if I could even get up it. I knew I would have to stop for a while and get calories and a lot of fluid into me to be able to go on. I sat on a chair and the hard working volunteers fed me and replenished drinks. After more than an hour it was dark, I was chilly from wet clothes and I knew I had to either get going or call it quits. I started walking down the dirt road which led eight miles to the next aid. Eventually I loosened up and came out of my low point. I walked many miles though and kept drinking and eating.
After the 65 mile point the trail became more technical and there were some long downhill single tracks followed by more big climbs. At one point I lay down for ten minutes to try and stave off my sleepiness. My head was nodding lower and lower before I would stumble, just before I fell asleep. It was very annoying and again, even caffeine wouldn’t buck me up. I kept going though until the sky began to lighten and as the sun came up I felt a new surge of energy on reaching the 90 mile-mark. I ate and drank quickly at the aid station and headed off on a very long downhill with new vigour, going faster and faster.
I was amazed I was running so well after all the races and had no idea where the energy was coming from but I didn’t question it too much. I had another finish line to reach. I ran the entire ten miles and passed more than a dozen runners. I kept going hard all the way to the finish before collapsing in the shade with a cold drink and was extremely pleased with the way it ended. I came in 31st in 27 hours 46 minutes. Around 150 runners had dropped out from the heat; that left about 100 finishers!
We ate and slept at a local hotel before again packing the car to drive over 3000 miles back to Florida. I lost more skin and toenails but that is the price you pay for ultra-running.
I have a few weeks to rest before flying to Italy to try the Tor des Geants 330km mountain race on September 9. I started this race last year but only made it 50 km because of a bad flu two days before race start. Let’s see what happens this year.
It’s been a big year but I feel good and haven’t suffered any injuries from all the activities. I have hardly done any training for anything, mainly because I haven’t had the time to. It amazes me what the human body can do.
(The author, Grant Maughan, is a freelance super yacht captain and endurance athlete. * In 2015 Bob Becker, then 70 years old, had become the oldest runner to complete the Badwater Double.)