Why You Should Never Ever Crew for Badwater

By Ed Ettinghausen

If you don’t know Ed, you’re missing out. Also known as The Jester (for racing in colorful costume), Ed is not only an amazingly strong runner, but also an incredible motivator. This year, Ed finished Badwater (again), and wrote the following on his Facebook fan page. I enjoyed it so much I wanted to share it here.

Follow Ed’s Facebook page

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Does seeing all the cool pictures and reading all the great posts give you a burning desire to run the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon yourself?

Or maybe you’re not quite that ambitious just yet, but you’d like to dip your toes in the (Badwater) pool by being part of a crew. Would that be a dream come true for you?

If your answer is yes, then here’s the most important word of advice I could share with you, if you’re ever asked to crew . . . RUN! Run as fast you can, as far away as you can!

If you think crewing would be a fun and easy way to experience what Badwater is all about, without all the hard work of running the race yourself, think again Buster!

Talk to those that have crewed. They’ll tell you that the beginning and end, and a few points in between are like a fairy tale, all glamour and glitz and photo ops galore, but once the start line is crossed and the runners make their way through the heat of Death Valley towards Whitney Portal, the rest of it can slowly become just one long, never-ending nightmare.

You might get lucky and crew for a runner that’s very sweet and kind and undemanding – but not likely, as that kind of luck only happens a hop, skip and a jump down the road in Las Vegas.

You’ll find that most of us running Badwater, somewhere along that infamous 135-mile course through hell and back, will end up turning into the big bad wolf in sheep’s clothing. And what you end up with is lots of bad attitude from us, and lots of hard work for you.

Crewing for a Badwater runner is one of the most demanding and nastiest jobs you could ever do in your life. Having crewed/competed at Badwater, with three different crews, I can tell you that it’s certainly not all fun and games, and good times had by all. Far from it.

And yes, I said job earlier, but it’s more like prison slave labor, as the work is non-stop, around the clock, for 24 to 48 hours. Your only escape is stopping. And that only comes at the Whitney Portal finish, or a DNF. Think I’m exaggerating?

Let me give you a glimpse into a few aspects of what crewing is really like, so if you’re ever invited to crew for someone lucky enough to be invited to Badwater, you’ll have to good sense to say, “Hell no, I wouldn’t be on a Badwater crew for all the… all the… all the Borax in Death Valley!”

Time

Plan on sacrificing the better part of four to five days for our speedy little Badwater romp through the desert (or even more if you don’t live in Southern Cali or Nevada).

Isn’t there somewhere else where you’d rather spend a week in the middle of July, than in the middle of Death Valley? What are you, European? (Ok, besides Badwater runners, DV is over-run by Europeans in the summer. Americans have a lot more sense – at least those not doing Badwater.)

And time itself becomes very surreal, as day blends into night, and night blends into day, and day blends into night. In the desert, time just seems to stand still and drag on and on, forever, and ever, and ever…

Running

Yes, you do get to run with us in the actual Badwater race, on the actual Badwater course. How exciting is that? Right? But here’s what your little “fun run” entails:

You have to do it not from beside us, like a buddy out for a nice little training run together, but from one step behind us. You’re more like a humble servant, acting as a human mule as you carry our supplies, constantly taking care of our every need, handing us food and drink, spraying us down with water, keeping our hats full of ice, changing out our clothing, wiping our brows, our noses, our mouths, our (we won’t even mention other regions of the body – well, not yet, anyway), like we’re some kind of blue blood royalty.

And all this while on the run, matching our stride step for step, and trying not to trip over all the rocks on the shoulder of the road, as you are required to serve us from our left rear side. During this time no one looks after your needs, as you try to prevent yourself from getting heat stroke and dropping dead on the course.

And be forewarned, if you are inconsiderate enough to die on us, we’ll just leave your carcass in the desert to mummify. You don’t have to worry about vultures pecking your eyes out, as it’s too dry and desolate even for the vultures and vermin to reside there.

When and where you want to run less, we demand that you run more. When and where you want to run more, we demand that you run less – and then get back in that hot, stuffy, cramped car. If you imagine a half-opened can of sardines left out in the hot sun, that’s the crew vehicle, as it slowly winds its way through Death Valley.

When you want to sleep, we make you run. When you’re too hot, we make you run. When you’re too cold, we make you run. When you’re thirsty and hungry, we make you run. When you need to take a potty break, we make you run. When you want to run faster, we make you run slower, or walk. When you want to run slower or walk, we want to go faster.

You constantly have to look out for oncoming cars, for yourself and for us, as we’re not coherent enough to be paying attention to those things. And many times you’re in places where there’s very little to no shoulder. As I said, this is not like a Sunday morning run with your buddy on a wide-open country road. It’s a lot of friggin’ hard work.

Sleeping

For a solid four to five days, don’t plan on getting much sleep, and certainly not in your own bed. You might be able to catch a wink or two, here or there in the vehicle, but when it’s lurching and stopping every five minutes, and the doors are all thrown wide open, with the temperature in the vehicle constantly changing, and everyone’s yelling instructions each time we pass by – about 300 times throughout the race – good luck on that.

And the times you do get to sleep in a motel, the night or two before the start and the night after the finish, it’ll probably be on the floor, in some dive, as we’re too tapped out financially, or booked too late in the game to get decent rooms with beds for everyone, at the nicer accommodations, with the pools and Jacuzzis, and the continental breakfasts.

Eating and Drinking

This is no “eat, drink, and be merry” fairy tale. Because if you’re lucky enough to get real food – before and after the race – it’ll probably be at some fast food joint, since we can’t afford to take you to the nice eateries.

During the race, there’s very little to eat, other than a few unappetizing warm/dry snacks, and there’s no place or time to stop and get real food without hearing, “Why did you guys abandon me? Do you want me to die out here?” Surprisingly, we have a cooler full of mouth-watering food that’s off-limits to the crew, although for 99% of the race, we have no appetite, so it just sits there, temping you each time you open our cooler.

You also have to constantly keep asking us what we want to eat, going over the list of foods, again, and again, and again, because nothing sounds appetizing to us, as you try to convince us of how good such-and-such would taste, just to try to get us to take one or two bites, just to get some well-needed calories into our bellies. No matter what you give us, even when we ask for it, it’s always the wrong thing.

Same thing goes with the drinks. We get dibs on all the good drinks; you’re stuck with water, or thinned out Gatorade. And you’re constantly worried about our fluid intake, cause we won’t drink more than a sip or two at a time, but insist that you always carry a topped off 24-ouncer of our favorite drink, each time you pass the support vehicle.

The one time that you don’t exchange for a new one, since we hadn’t even touched it from before, we get upset because it’s not cold enough, has too much ice, too little ice, is the wrong flavor, is mixed too strong or too weak, or is not in our favorite water bottle with the special top.

You resort to calling us Goldilocks, or princess, or prima dona, or diva, or worse, amongst the other crew, but don’t dare let us hear it, because we’ve completely lost our sense or humor, and will have a big conniption fit followed by a complete meltdown.

Gear

We demand that you get us the exact right gear, exactly when we want it:

“That green wind-breaker! No, not the green one in your hand, the yellow one, the one with the hood, the one that says “San Diego 100” on it, like I keep telling you! No, not the one in the red duffle bag, the other one in the blue duffle behind the seat! I know where I packed it! It’s right there where I just told you, just keep looking, I know it’s there, you’re just not looking in the right place!”

After all the crew have frantically torn apart every square inch of both vehicles, desperately searching for that one very special yellow wind-breaker with the hood for the last three stops, and then you sheepishly tell us you can’t find it, but you can only find that original green pull-over without the hood, that very first one you showed us – 30 minutes ago, when your blood pressure was about half of what it is now – we’ll tell you:

“That’s what I’ve been asking for all along, the green wind-breaker with the hood, that says San Francisco Marathon. What’s wrong with you people! Why don’t you listen to me!”

And then after you help us take off the reflective gear, put on the green wind-breaker, put the reflective gear and the light back on us, we’ll wear it for three minutes and decide it’s too hot, “because we’re going up hill now, but when I asked for it we were going downhill”, so you have to go through the whole process – in reverse.

But do it quickly, while we’re running, as we don’t want to lose any more time, because now we have to make up time for all the lost time you caused us by looking for the wrong wind-breaker.

Garbage

As supplies get used up, the garbage accumulates. But since you’re in the middle of the desert, you have to keep it in the vehicle until you get to the next check-point/town 30+ miles away. More and more smelly trash is building up, but we don’t smell it because we’re in the open fresh air, and we’re doing all the hard work, so don’t you dare complain to us.

Body Fluids (and Gasses)

You cannot imagine what the body in capable of producing in just that day or two on the road. Sure, there’s bound to be plenty of blood, sweat and tears, but you can find that at any ultra. At Badwater, “when it rains, it pours”!

The additional body fluids that are produced and dealt with somewhere along the course would include never ending snot rockets, plenty of pee, piles of poop, pockets of pus, and buckets of barf (the crew name “Vomit Boy wasn’t just a random, made-up name, after all). That wouldn’t be so bad, except that your job is to document all the waste elimination, including grading it on color, volume, and consistency.

Still think crewing sounds like a fun job?

We saw one particular runner that was constantly dropping her drawers on the side of the road, and doing her business. I won’t mention her name, but her initials are BMW…

No, if she wants to blog about it herself, we’ll leave that up to her. So we’ll keep her name anonymous: What happens at Badwater stays at Badwater. BMW actually stands for Badass Mystery Woman. But we did notice BMW’s crew members dutifully standing guard, each time she had to expose her assets, which she said happened over 60 times during the race (remember that documentation we require the crew to do).

And I’ll bet that if BMW (I see some real sponsorship potential with this BMW thing) needed help in wiping her bare assets, the crew would have stepped up to the task at hand, because that’s what crew do for their runner – anything, and everything to get them to the finish line. (By the way, this Badass mystery woman ended up passing our sorry asses coming into Lone Pine, in spite of her time-consuming and extremely uncomfortable affliction.)

As bad as all that sounds, I’m sure Team Jester would have gleefully traded places with BMW’s crew, in at least one particular area. Being the gentlemen that they are, and remembering that “what happens at Badwater…”, they would probably never mention this, so I’ll go ahead and “spill the beans” so to speak.

I had gas! Lots of gas! Whole tanker truckloads of gas! I had so much gas that if I could have bottled and sold it, the profits would have easily paid for all our Badwater expenses, with enough left over for a much needed week of detox at a Vegas resort and spa for the crew. Race officials are now adding a new DQ item to the rulebook: Flagrant use of noxious fumes. They’re actually referring to it as “The Jester Rule”.

My foster mother (rest her soul) was so guarded in her speech that she would refer to it as “breaking wind”. Any other vulgar reference in her presence would be swiftly rewarded with a lavish mouth full of soap.

Somehow I’m thinking that faced with the choice of my “breaking wind” versus mom’s mouth full of soap, my crew would have happily chosen the latter. (One of mom’s other claims to fame was her ice bath “remedy” for peeing the bed, but that’s another story for another time. And a big reason why I never, ever do ice baths now – even at Badwater!)

Don’t forget the position the crew are required to take when accompanying their runner on the course. That may not have been so bad, except that there was a head wind for large portions of the race. The crew were in such bad shape by the time we meandered our way up Whitney Portal that we had guys in Haz-Mat suits cleaning them up as we crossed the finish line.

I think next year, if there is a next year – now that I won’t be able to get anyone in their right senses to crew for me – we’ll have to change the team logo from a jester hat to a gas mask. Maybe I won’t look at future crew members’ ultra running experience, just look for a bunch of coke heads that no longer have their sense of smell.

Weather

Hot, very hot, and extremely hot!

And this was a cool year, as it only topped out at 116 degrees. But remember, “it’s dry heat”…

Coming down from the other side of the Panamints in the early morning hours of day two, it did drop down to 49 degrees. Then there’s the wind (the other wind). Sometimes lots of wind. Going up Towne’s Pass, a little 17-mile fun run from Stovepipe wells with a 1-mile vertical elevation gain, we had a headwind that just kept building steam.

I don’t know the numbers, but if’n I was a bettin’ man, I’d say it had to be 30-40(+) MPH winds. Maybe this was the one and only time the crew were happy to be required to stay behind the staff.

It was funny seeing other teams with the crew drafting so close on their heels, four arms and four legs moving in unison as one. Looked like some kind of new Olympic event, a hybrid of the two-man bobsled, the cross-country skier, and the marathon. Could call it the “bobskithon”.

Mechanical Failure

When you’re constantly stopping and starting vehicles in Badwater conditions a couple hundred times, there’s a chance you might have to deal with some car issues. Last year, one of our SKECHERS vehicles lost the AC. This year, we had a transmission slippage issue.

Third place finisher Zack Gingrich’s crew had to get a jump-start on the course. Of course, cars can easily overheat. With long stretches between gas stations, fuel can be a problem. And it’s not uncommon for people to accidentally lock their keys in the car.

CHP officer Scott (wearing his traditional kilt) is the local AAA guy, in case anyone gets locked out. He carries with him his special rock that has “AAA” painted on it. Nice guy that he is, he does give you the courtesy of choosing what window you want destroyed.

Unappreciated

Be prepared to get yelled at, cussed out, flipped off, trash thrown at you, pushed off the road… and that’s just from the locals driving by. You’ll get that and plenty more from your runner, including things ripped out of your hands, empty (or full) hydration bottles and trash thrown across the road, sweaty clothes, hats, towels, thrown in your face, and non-stop scoldings. Oh, the scoldings you will get.

No matter what you do and how hard you try, it will never be right, and it will never be enough. (Refer back to the “Goldilocks Syndrome” above.) Be prepared to hear phrases like:

  • How many times do I have to say (fill in the blank)?
  • What took you so long, you were supposed to have that an hour ago? I don’t want it now!
  • You know I hate (fill in the blank)!
  • I said stop every mile, you keep going like three miles up (and you’re actually only going in half-mile increments)!
  • If (fill in the blank) happens again, I’m going to kill (fill in crew members name)!
  • If (fill in crew member’s name) says (fill in the blank) one more time I’m going to leave him on the side of the road!
  • You told me it was only ( ) miles to ( ), we’ve already gone farther than that!
  • What is wrong with you people!

And the best one ever: “I hate you! You will never crew for me or anyone else, ever again!”

Confusion and Paranoia

We are constantly telling you things and forgetting we said it, or hearing you say things, and forgetting you told us. Or hearing you say things that you never said. We don’t know what we want, when we want it, or why we want it.

We totally get disoriented on time, distance, and direction, but of course everything you tell us, we don’t believe, so we make you check, and double check, and triple check. We know everything; you know nothing.

We are constantly worried that the next guy is right behind us, and is going to catch us any second. We are in constant fear that one of the crew will do something to get us kicked off the course. Every vehicle coming from the other direction is a race official, out to get us. And somewhere on the course our mantra becomes, “I will never, ever do Badwater again!”

And then, we shut down. We don’t say a word, so you’re left guessing what is wrong with us. We’ll only shake our heads yes or no, because it takes way too much energy and breath to talk, as we huff and puff our way up the climb to Whitney Portal. Simple tasks, like putting on foot in front of the other, navigating a turn, keeping upright, are all suddenly monumental tasks. We look like we are near death.

Then suddenly, the finish line comes into view and we become Lazarus, raised from the dead long enough to cross the famous Badwater finish tape. We collect our buckle, get our group picture, and then collapse in a heap. And when asked if we’ll do it all over again next year, through the tears of joy, we manage to whisper one single word… “Yes”.

Ask anyone that’s ever crewed at Badwater, and they’ll confirm the above, plus give you an additional thousand and one reasons why you should never, ever crew at Badwater.

So why is it that so many people so badly want to crew at Badwater, and literally beg to be on a Badwater team, causing many runners to turn scores of disheartened crew seekers away?

Because once you get through the hours and hours of nastiness above, there is nothing else in the world that compares to being a part of a Badwater team.

Period. End of story.

From what I hear about giving birth, there seem to be a lot of similarities. When all is said and done, all that is said and done is forgiven.

Badwater is a team effort. Only two people in the world have survived Badwater 135 in the summer, as a solo journey: ultramarathoner extraordinaire Dr. Lisa Bliss, and 2012 18th time finisher, ultra rock star Marshall Ullrick – who has more Badwater buckles than anyone else on the planet.

They will both tell you that going through Badwater without crew is like going through hell without… well, you get the point. It’s near suicidal. So a Badwater finish is a finish for all on the team, and the corresponding unfortunate Badwater DNF, is a DNF for all on the team as well.

There is something so unique and indescribable about the whole Badwater experience, that it’s like you’re in another dimension. When you leave the highway at Baker and start heading west, through the beautiful dessert, sights seen in no other place on earth, it’s like you’ve been transported into a parallel universe.

And for four days you get to hang out with hundreds of like-minded people, all with one over-riding goal: get your team to Whitney Portal in under 48 hours. Funny that the “portal” into this parallel universe isn’t actually at the Mount Whitney finish, but somewhere on that Highway 190, just west of Baker.

So if I haven’t completely turned you off about crewing, then go for it. It is without a doubt one of the most amazing events you will ever experience in your lifetime. And other than a piece of metal for your belt, and a name on a finisher’s list, this is one of the few sporting events where the crew is just as proud at the finish as the competitor.

Because we did it as a team. The most difficult part of Badwater is trying to get back into that parallel universe we call real life, and waiting 365 days to do it all over again.

See you at Badwater 2013.

Jester on…

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4 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this with your readers Vanessa. I’m quite honored. (And thanks for saving me the embarrassment of those typos and punctuation errors from my original post.)

    Although some of it was tongue in cheek – obviously – most of it is pretty much what really goes on at Badwater. So if you ever get the chance to crew at BW . . . RUN!

    No, actually crewing at Badwater is one of the most amazing ultra experiences you could imagine. Honestly, if you ever do have the opportunity to crew, do it! It’s a testament that your runner has faith that you’ll get his sorry/sore ass to Whitney Portal in 48 hours. But be careful, because if you ever do crew at BW, you’ll surely be bit by the BW bug, and there’s only one cure for that . . . more BW!

  2. Pingback: Crewing Through Hell | Live Free

  3. Pingback: Crewing Through Hell - The Badwater 135

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