When I crossed the finish line of Badwater 135 in 2022 it took me less than 60 seconds to declare that I wanted to do it again!
Fast forward to January 2023 and I put in my application for Badwater 135 2023 with no idea whether it would be strong enough to get one of the 30 coveted places for veterans of Badwater. I had had a great year of running last year with my main achievements being the Keys100, Badwater 135 and was First Lady in the Leeds Liverpool Canal Race (130 miles) in August 2022. When Race Director Chris Kostman read my name out as one of the 100 invited runners to be taking part in the 2023 race during his Facebook Live broadcast in early February I was absolutely delighted to have been chosen.
In the months leading up to Badwater I did think to myself should I have been satisfied with running and completing this epic race once and quit whilst I was ahead but there was something about the whole Badwater experience that I had fallen in love with. It was the build up, the training, being part of this exclusive but inclusive Badwater family and the desire to be at least a two time Badwater Finisher.
Last year I felt like I had imposter syndrome at all the pre race activities but this time I knew I deserved to be there. I was in my element at racer check-in and the pre-race briefing, catching up with friends both from the UK and those who I had made last year.
I was on the 9pm start line which is the middle start. I was slightly nervous by this as I now had an hour less to make it to the first and toughest cut off of the race, the 2000’ sign at mile 50.7 where every runner has to go through by 10am regardless of which start they were on.
Driving down to the start line we passed all the 8pm runners starting their race along the Badwater road heading in the opposite direction to us. We had the standard AC/DC ‘Highway to Hell’ blaring out of the car stereo to ramp up the pre race adrenalin and we stuck the Insta360 camera out of the car window videoing all the runners whilst beeping them all in support as we drove past. I received this same auto salute last year, it was incredible!
As I stood next to the Badwater sign with my fellow 9pm starters looking up at all the support crews and support cars with a multitude of flashing blinky lights beaming down on us in the basin, Joyce Lee sang the US National Anthem and Race Director Chris Kostman gave us a countdown and we were off. It was happening. I was pumped! It wasn’t too hot, only 44ºC/ 111ºF degrees and I started with the same strategy as last year to break the race down into sections and not look at it as a whole 135 miles!
After about 8 miles I wasn’t feeling great. This was not the start I had wanted. My heart rate had shot up to 175bpm when I was aiming to run with it between 120-150 bpm. Two support crew were helping me for the race, who I affectionately called my ‘ice butlers’, my husband Matthew who is very experienced at crewing me at all my ultras and Brian Hamilton who has run almost every ultra marathon out there and completed Badwater 135 in 2021. I told them how I was feeling and they said I had gone off too quick and gave me my first ice bandana. So, I just tried to take it a lot steadier and focused on my breathing and getting to the first timing check point at Furnace Creek, Mile 17.
I was alternating a handheld bottle of water followed by a bottle of electrolytes every time I saw Matthew and Brian. However my body wasn’t absorbing the water and it was sloshing around my tummy. My tummy felt so bloated like a beach ball and then I had this horrible burp stuck in my throat that I couldn’t clear but it was making me feel sick.
Matthew and Brian from the start were so slick. They were always waiting for me across the road from the support car with our caddy which was stocked with fresh bottles, a buffet of different foods, a new ice bandana and they had adorned our crew car with a flashing red arrow and some orange flashing pucks which sometimes they stuck on random metal posts on the side of the road making it so easy for me to identify them. I was so happy that they were getting on so well and crushing it as a support crew.
At around 15 miles the lead runners from the 10pm start sprinted past me, they were like a peloton of 5 (Harvey Lewis, Ashley Paulson, Simen Holvik, Yoshihiko Ishikawa and Ivan Lopez) effortlessly gliding along the road. It was so impressive to see. I knew most of them and gave them all a shout out. This in itself was surreal, I knew these elite ultra runners!
Once I passed Furnace Creek I started to feel better. The runners had spread out a bit, although you could still see the snaking of the support cars along Highway 190 with all their flashing hazard lights and all the runners with their multicoloured flashing blinky lights. It really is quite a spectacle. I put my head down, listened to my music and focused on getting to the marathon mark followed by getting to the hill at mile 30. Last year I walked that hill but this year I felt great and ran up it slowly and strongly. By now I was starting to pass other runners and Brian said I was catching people up who had started on the 8pm start. I was feeling really good but I was struggling with eating. Matthew and Brian were trying to be firm with me and I wanted to eat but it was hard. I found the Jamaica Ginger Cake and watermelon were the only things I could stomach; at least it was something.
Running into Stovepipe Wells, the second timing check point at Mile 42.2 I still felt really strong and as the sun came up I felt even better. Matthew and Brian told me not to stop as they said lots of runners had come in there to have a break . This definitely spurred me on and I started the 16 mile climb from sea level to Townes Pass. I was already one hour faster than my 2022 time. My notes from the Zwitty’s Ultra Guide told me that the first 8 miles of the climb were runnable and I tried to run as much of this section as I could, combined with some hiking although when I turned round and looked back, the hill was a lot bigger than it looked from the forward direction!
It was starting to heat up so I donned my long sleeve SPF50 white Patagonia top and put some Factor 50 on and Matthew and Brian made sure they were stopping every 1-2 miles. Each stop was the same routine, spray me down using our Hoselock pressurised water sprays filled with ice water, a new ice bandana, a new cold drink in one of my handhelds by Nathan Sports and lip balm!
I made the 50.7 mile cut off with 2 hours to spare and was beyond delighted. Now I had so much time to finish the race. I treated myself to a 5 minute sit down at the Wildrose car park and had a reset. Then I was off to complete the 3000’ and 8 mile climb to the top of Townes Pass which was an elevation of 4956’. I power hiked all of this section and was sick several times but felt better afterwards.
I was now an hour an a half ahead of my 2022 time and apart from feeling nauseous was feeling great. Now it was the 9 mile savage descent into the Panamint Valley. I tried to run freely but my knees were taking a pounding. I took my first ibuprofen which with hindsight I wish I had taken before I started the descent. It was getting hotter and hotter as I descended and this was where Brian started his epic stint of pacing me.
Brian really pushed me to keep running as much as I could through Panamint Valley. It wasn’t as hot as last year (over 50ºC) but was still 46ºC/ 114ºF for the whole time we were on the valley floor. Last year I think I walked the whole way but this year I ran a lot of it. The routine was to pick a post out in the distance and try and run to it then walk a little bit and run again. This really was effective; combined with Brian in command of the Hoselock spray gun spraying me down. We overtook more runners and I was really looking forward to getting to Panamint Springs Resort, mile 72.7 to use the toilet for the first time and have some real food.
Last year we spent over an hour at Panamint Springs which was too long and this year Matthew went ahead and pre ordered the food so it was waiting for us when we arrived. I had a painful blister on my little toe which I had been ignoring but Brian wanted to sort it. I was sat in the restaurant, eating fish and chips and face timing my Mum and Dad. It was the first opportunity we had had any wifi or phone signal. Meanwhile, Brian lanced my blister and taped it up. It was stinging badly so it was another ibuprofen and time to suck it up!
I was now 2.5 hours ahead of my 2022 time. This was just going so well, I was in dreamland. We spent about 40 minutes at Panamint Springs which was 20 minutes too long and then it was time for the 12 mile Father Crowley climb. Brian and I set off back into the furnace. There are only 8 or so spots where crew can stop in this section so Brian was communicating with Matthew on the walkie talkies with what I needed at each crew stop. The climb was never ending and each time we thought we were near the top we turned a corner and there was another steep climb. But we got it done.
Next was a long stretch to the Darwin Check point at 90.7 miles. It was still daylight! I was now 4 hours ahead of 2022! At Darwin I had my second sit down and was sick again. I immediately felt better although my nutrition really was suffering. I think all I had eaten was ginger cake and watermelon. Matthew and Brian lied to me and told me there was no watermelon left to stop me asking for it!
I wasn’t sure how far Brian wanted to run with me but he said he was happy carrying on so we pressed on with our night gear. For the 2023 race there was a diversion at the intersection where Highway 190 becomes Highway 136. Hwy 136 was closed due to flooding from the Owens Dry Lake Bed, which was full of water caused by the melting of the record breaking snow that the Sierra Nevada Mountains received over the winter. RD Chris had managed to come up with a new route which meant we carried on running down Hwy190 from mile 103.9 of the course to Olancha, a 14.6 mile section followed by an 18.6 mile car journey (sleep opportunity!) which was timed to the second from Olancha to the outskirts of Lone Pine and removed from our finishing time.
The road from mile 103.9 to Olancha was literally a long straight road and this is where I started to feel really tired. It was now dark. Brian and I took some caffeine tablets but tiredness was winning over caffeine. We saw three sidewinder rattlesnakes and I had some hallucinations (the snakes were real!) I thought these white plants were packing materials.
We didn’t see any other runners throughout this section apart from the occasional support car leap frogging us. I was starting to fall asleep on my feet and declared that I needed to sleep. Matthew got the B & Q sun lounger out of the crew van and I told them I wanted no longer than 10 minutes sleep. I am not sure if I went to sleep but I could hear Brian and Matthew talking and saying that another runner was coming and if it was a girl they needed me to get up!
I jumped up as I didn’t want to be overtaken and carried on pushing towards Olancha. That was a long and brutal never ending 14.6 miles section. I wanted it to end. Brian had just run 60 miles with me, he was incredible and I can’t thank him enough for putting in an amazing shift. Not forgetting he ran Western States only a week before! He is a machine!
Arriving at Olancha was so efficient. Into the car, reclined in my flatbed seat, given a comfy pillow, I immediately tried to sleep. Gone! I don’t remember anything until we arrived at Timing Checkpoint 7 @ Lubken Canyon. I was quite confused and thought the Badwater Marshall was the same guy that saw us on our way back at Olancha. Then I stumbled around before I made it to the main road. My crew made sure the sleep inertia had worn off before pointing me in the right direction. I started running again and felt good. Check Point 8 at the Dow Villa Motel in Lone Pine was only 4 miles away and it was now daylight, another boost.
I made it to CP8 in 33 hours 5 minutes and knew I just had the huge climb up to Mount Whitney Portal to go. I was going to finish this race. Matthew and Brian had been telling me that I was definitely going to be finishing sub 40 hours and I was energised. Matthew hiked 7 miles up the first part of this climb with me and it was really lovely having him share some of this journey out on the road rather than behind the wheel of the car.
It was hot and we were tired but we just kept powering forward. Some of the earlier finishers of the race were heading down the mountain in their support cars and it was wonderful getting a beep from them and a high five out of the window. I wasn’t sure how long this section would take but I was on a mission to get it done.
There was a competitor in front of me from Israel who I had been leapfrogging earlier in the race and had seen his support crew so many times. Matthew and Brian were encouraging me to catch him up but try as I might, I just couldn’t catch him. This was a great motivation though for me to keep pushing. Matthew swapped with Brian and Brian hiked the last few miles with me. He put some rock music on his phone and we marched on listening to ‘Don’t stop believing’ by Journey and ‘Simply the Best’ by Tina Turner to name a few anthems.
I was holding back the tears and feeling so emotional. Matthew went ahead to position the crew van near to the finish line. It was literally 100m from the finish. Matthew and Brian held up the Union Jack behind me as I ran the last part of the course and I held up the finishers tape. The welcome I received by the Badwater support crew and RD, Chris was incredible. I felt like a hero.
Badwater 135 2023 finish time was 36 hours 44 minutes. I smashed my 2022 time by 4 hours 8 minutes. This was dreamland. I was 12th girl (20th in 2022) and 34th overall (55th overall in 2022).
There have only been two British women to have finished Badwater 135 twice, myself and the legendary Mimi Anderson. I want to be the only British woman to have finished this race 3 times consecutively. 2024 goal! My nutrition and hydration wasn’t great this race and is my high priority item. I believe I can get quicker. Badwater really is such an incredibly special but addictively brutal race and I am hooked on it. I’m going to work really hard for the rest of 2023 to get my running CV as good as I can make it, to give me the best chance of being invited back for 2024 race.
Special thanks to Matthew and Brian. They rocked. What a dream crew. I went for quality rather than quantity and they were just amazing. Thanks to Nathan Sports whom I’m proud to be an ambassador for, for supplying the Exodraw 18oz handhelds (which were incredible, super light and the best handhelds I have ever used), the strobe light LED safety lights and the streak reflective vests.
And to my amazing employer Virgin Atlantic for their unwavering support and decals for the support car. I didn’t see any other runner with an airline supporting their Badwater journey. And to the worldwide support I received on social media from my friends, family and followers. I definitely felt very special and honoured.
And lastly to our brilliant RD, Chris Kostman and his panel for inviting me back for a second time to Badwater 135 and believing in me and for having the confidence to put me on the 9pm start line. I am so grateful to you all for making my running dreams come true.
Until we meet again.
Laura 2 – Death Valley 0