At the 2019 edition of the Badwater 135 ultra marathon Rhys Jenkins became the first Welshman to complete the race. Having known and coached Rhys for a number of years now I’ve become very familiar with his passion/obsession with Death Valley so when he finally had an application accepted to take part in the race I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to crew for him and WOW what an experience it has been!
What is Badwater 135?
Labelled ‘the world’s toughest footrace,’ It’s a 135 mile ultra marathon that starts at the Badwater Basin, below sea level and finishes on Mount Whitney. The course covers three mountain passes with around 3000 metres of elevation gain. Temperatures on the hottest parts of the course have been known to go over 50 degrees celsius! There isn’t a whole lot of relief at night either, heat radiates off the road and surrounding rocks long after the sun goes down. In a nutshell, it’s long, it’s HOT and it’s hilly!
How did Rhys prepare?
Firstly, you need to become eligible for a place at Badwater. You need to complete three 100 mile plus runs in 18 months, one of these needs to be from a list of events that Badwater HQ provide. There’s also an application process where you get a chance to highlight your reasons for entering and any other events/challenges or contributions to running worth noting. This is where I should mention, Rhys has actually run the Badwater course multiple times before, not being sure he would ever get accepted into the race, Rhys and brother Scott took things into their own hands.
In terms of training we didn’t look to reinvent the wheel with Rhys’ plan. Lot’s of steady state ‘Zone 2’ running with one VO2 max interval run and one session of hills reps per week. In the final 8 week block of training we made the ‘hill’ reps more like ‘mountain’ reps and added 4 sauna sessions/week. Sauna sessions grew to 60 minutes and would need to be completed straight after a run while core temperature was still elevated. While in the sauna he would do some stretching, hydrate and practice eating in the heat.
The Support Crew
Every runner at Badwater needs an official crew of up to four people and their own support vehicle.
John would be our driver, he lives in Texas and has helped Rhys on multiple endurance challenges, including those in Death Valley. His knowledge of the route and Rhys’ strengths/weaknesses at certain points along it where invaluable. He’s also a straight talking guy, excellent at laying down the facts whilst being void of emotion, a really useful trait when sleep deprivation takes hold and the brain gets foggy.
Stuart, sports therapist, he’s looked after Rhys in the UK with taping, massage and cupping. He came armed with a theragun and he wasn’t afraid to use it! He also did a great job as quartermaster of the support car by making sure everything was stored neatly and easy to locate during the race.
Scott, Rhys’ older brother. An extremely accomplished ultra runner himself with plenty of Death Valley experience.
Rhys would be allowed a pacer after the first 42 miles. Myself and Scott would share these duties, the plan being to switch regularly enough to stay fresh and keep the quality of our support high.
The race, how did it go?
There were three starting waves, 2000, 2130 and 2300 on Monday evening. Each wave had to hit 50 miles by 1000 the next day so the fastest runners started later. Rhys started at 2000, sunset. We had a plan to run guided by heart rate. Through VO2 Max tests at Enduraprep HQ and practice in training we had established that sub 150BPM was a safe intensity for Rhys to run at. If it rose above this at any point he would start power walking. There was always the risk that by mid morning the next day his heart rate would start doing funny things thanks to one night without sleep and the soaring heat. Every few miles, I’d have Rhys shout out his heart rate as he passed, we would record it so we could be dynamic with the plan. Anyhow, he seemed comfortable between 130-140BPM whenever we checked, the heat didn’t seem to be elevating his heart rate, testament to his heat acclimation work at home and his fluid intake, which was on target. In fact he was visibly gaining weight during the first 35 miles. We had possibly overdone the sodium intake causing him to hold water, maybe a little over cautious as Rhys feared a point in the course where he had suffered severe cramps twice before. Either by genius or coincidence the plan worked and he suffered no cramps this time, we had him carry one bottle instead of two and he kept up a suitable fluid intake through the night.
Sunrise on Tuesday, epic! As the moon ducked over the mountains to the west, the sun peeped over from the east, I don’t have the creative writing prowess to do it justice, it was just bloody cool! Checkpoint one at 50 miles was midway up Townes Pass, the first mountain. Stovepipe Wells sits at the bottom at 42 miles, Rhys planned not to stop here. This was wise, it was chaos, the first proper chance for crews to get fuel and ice from a store. Having Rhys crack on while we negotiated the panicking crews and busy shop worked well. Sounds like we’ve got this nailed right? Well……between 45 miles and 72 miles the cracks started to appear! It has always been the plan to hike the climbs but this didn’t sit well with Rhys on Townes pass, he seemed defeated and getting to checkpoint one seemed to take forever. Ideally we would use the walking sections to have Rhys eat real food whilst it was easier to digest at a slower pace but we’d hit a wall with this too, we couldn’t tempt him with anything else but watermelon. ‘You can’t run 135 miles on just watermelon and electrolytes!’ Was eventually how blunt we had to be, this helped, marginally but there was still no hope of even finishing this event if he couldn’t eat something more substantial. Townes pass has a 9 mile descent into Panamint Valley. Our goal had been to run all of the descent before dropping into the hottest part of the course. Rhys ran some of it but took plenty of walking breaks and stops at the van. The crew were all getting concerned, if this easier section was going badly, how would he cope in the valley? Cue the mission cooling cape! We can’t make him eat, we can’t make him go faster but we can keep him cool. The cape had been soaking in an ice bucket, we wrapped it around him and without discussing it the crew all backed down a little and just let Rhys get on with it. Panamint Springs was just a couple of hours away with the option of hot food and shower if any of us needed it, we’d just get there and then re-asses. The crossing of Panamint Valley was pretty grim, temperatures of around 45 celsius and a hot wind that whipped our hats off a few times. Another major factor that plays tricks on you, out in the desert you really have no clue whether that feature in the distance is a mile away or ten miles away, Panamint Springs just wasn’t getting any closer. In an attempt to turn a negative into a positive I kept reminding Rhys that, ‘this is it, the iconic stretch, the one in all the Badwater photos, it’s meant to suck here, but you’re doing it, embrace it!’
We took our longest stop of the whole race in Panamint Springs, 45 minutes, we sat Rhys inside and fed him a cheeseburger, Stuart massaged his legs and we changed his socks. By the time we left that checkpoint we were four and a half hours inside that cut off and about to start the second mountain pass, Father Crowley. Most view it as the toughest climb on the course but Rhys, now revived, set off with Scott at a great pace, even running some of the nine mile climb, something I’m sure only the fastest few athletes would have tried. Things were looking up and further boosted by a great chat from John, the straight talking Texan, ‘Rhys tell us what you want to do, 36 hours is still on the cards, if that’s what you want, we can make it happen, if you want 40 hours, we can do that, if you want to take it easy you can walk backwards and finish in 48.’ Simple but highly effective, Rhys continued to run more than walk well into the night and we hit the 90 mile check point a full eight hours before the cut off.
The second night was something I was, in a strange way, looking forward to. I knew things would get weird with confusion and possible hallucinations so this is where we would all need to dig deep, get Rhys through the night and he’ll be able to see the finish at sunrise. By about 0300 everyone was struggling to stay awake, Rhys even thought he was falling asleep while running, he suggested a twenty minute nap. I set my alarm, dropped off, then doof! As my head hits my chest the car door opens, it’s Rhys, ‘c’mon let’s go!’ He’d slept for just ten minutes! I necked half a can of Pepsi and literally had to chase him, he was off down the road. We could have easily lost a few hours to sleep right there and still finished within 48 hours but this is where Rhys’ mental strength really shone through, it was mightily impressive!
What we didn’t expect at this stage was for racers to still be so close together. Support car hazard lights lined the road for the twenty miles to Lone Pine. It was mesmerizing in the dark and you couldn’t look for too long without feeling woozy. Throughout that night we managed to run quite a lot, taking short breaks every 35-45 minutes. During one of these breaks we received some lovely encouraging video posts from CF Warriors and the young cystic fibrosis sufferers they support, we can’t thank you enough for these messages, they give morale and motivation a huge boost. We cracked on towards Lone Pine in time for breakfast, the last chance for hot food before the thirteen mile ascent to Whitney Portal. In my mind I viewed the final climb as something of a presession, then it dawned on me, if I was setting out for a thirteen mile hike today, that would still be a pretty long day, it’s not over yet! At the foot of the climb Pete Kostalnek, a previous winner passed us, turns out he was having a poor race by his standards and took some time out to sleep. Just goes to show, if it’s not your day, this course can be hell for even the very best! Teams already finished that were heading back down the mountain were cheering and offering up any left over supplies and the atmosphere in the final few hours became pretty emotional. We walked the final mile as a team with a Welsh flag draped around Rhys, job done in 40:45, incredible!