I stopped doing my training blogs a little while ago. I dunno, I knew people said they wanted to follow along on my journey, but it just felt too narcissistic for me and I just stopped. I’m writing this on my plane flight out for the race, though, maybe a retrospective on this training cycle. I don’t know. I’m just gonna write, we’ll see where it goes.
My first exposure to the Badwater 135 came around 2008 when I got Running on the Sun from Netflix (when they used to send out DVDs). I watched it and didn’t understand how anybody would ever want to run it. 135 miles in temps exceeding 120 degrees. Whyyyyyyyyy???? In November 2016, my Buddy Jonathan Gunderson asked me if I would crew for him. I was initially concerned that I would die, but he assured me I’d be fine, there’s a method to the madness when it comes to heat training and he’d help me through it.
I went in 2017, but my wife Tiffany told me not to get any crazy ideas. I was amazed at the experience, such magnificence in that desert. Gives you perspective of how small you are. Death Valley is not compatible with life (hence the name?) and I’ve never seen people working so hard as I did when I was out there. When I saw runners finish, I wanted to know what it felt like. Two years later I went back and crewed again and Tiff told me if I ever got in, she’d let me run it. “I’m sure you’d be fine if they were willing to take you, and you shouldn’t ‘not live’ because you’re afraid of dying.” Goals!!!
Anyways, I got after it, and really accelerated my chase when my mother-in-law died too early in February 2020. That showed me that there is no guarantee of tomorrow. Chase your dreams today. And that’s what I did. I applied and was accepted into the race this year and was over the moon. I was also immediately nervous, though.
I’ve seen the runners at Badwater and I’ve always known that they were different than me. I run well, I train hard, but they’re a different breed. They’re leaner, tougher … I knew that if the day ever came, I’d have to take my fitness to a completely new level. I hired my coach, John Loftus, in April 2020. I knew I needed somebody to keep me on track. He’s a longtime friend and an amazing runner and coach and he knew from day 1 that Badwater was my goal. We started working over a year ago on getting my cardio and low heart rate running to where it needed to be. Lots and lots of grinding last summer. Lots of patience.
I started hitting the weights harder last summer — I just wanted full head-to-toe strength. I need to be iron to do this thing. I made progress and stated feeling pretty strong.
One key part I knew I had to work on was my weight. I’ve more-or-less carried 225 pounds for the past 5 or so years. I’ve gotten down to 210-215 briefly, but 225 has been where I’ve lived. Back in the day I was usually around 205. I went with a sports nutritionist who has worked with Olympic-level endurance athletes … I started with him at the end of January and that’s been huge, too.
Anyways, I ran a 100-mile PR of 21:07 last December. That was my closing argument for my Badwater application. There’s a lot that goes into the Badwater app and you need to be well-rounded in lots of areas. On March 6, they called my name on the selection show. It was unreal. I thought I had a chance but now it was real. Excited, absolutely. But I had 19 weeks to get ready. My first run was an easy run in the morning on March 8, but it was so exciting … I was TRAINING FOR BADWATER!
My weight was dropping and I had really adjusted to my new eating routine. I was running exactly what my coach told me to, lifting 4-6 times a week, and I’d added a new element into my training — power walks on the treadmill at 12.0 incline. I alternated wearing a 20-pound weighted vest every other time. Badwater ends with 5,000+ feet of gain over the final 13 miles so that incline training is huge. Also, my heart rate was getting lower and lower on my runs so these were a good opportunity to push it and get a hard cardio workout in.
Maximizing the effectiveness of my time was key throughout this. Every day, I wanted to lift, hike and run. I need to be home at 7 a.m. before my son Jack (for those of you who don’t know, he’s 17 and severely autistic) goes to school. I have a full-time job. I need to be home at 7 p.m. to give Jack a shower. I need to help my wife with her small business. I do the dishes and cook my meal and tried to spend time with Tiff whenever she wasn’t busy. It was a grind, no question about it.
I signed up for a 100-miler in Kansas on March 27 to see where I was at physically with my training and my new nutrition. I went out there and that race went smooth as silk. I stayed strong, really didn’t have any problems, was running sub-10-minute miles after mile 90 … it was amazing. I finished in 17:56, which is actually a pretty good time. I had to pinch myself, I didn’t think I’d ever be capable of that. And at the same time, I was excited — I knew I still had close to four months to get better. My weight the day before was 214, I figured I’d have more to drop.
I kept on grinding and embraced it. My buddy Jon told me about Badwater … “everybody wants to get here, but most people don’t want to do the work.” I loved how hard I was working and how locked in I was. This is a blessing and a privilege, and nothing motivates you like having your back against the wall.
I added a heat race in May, Keys 100 in Florida on May 15, and started back up with my heat acclimation. I sat in the sauna about three times a week and started doing all my runs on my lunch break when it was hottest. Florida was a mess and I dropped out at mile 53. I learned the hard way that I needed a better grip on managing electrolyte depletion. I’ve thrown up three times in my life after running, and two of those times were after Keys.
When I got back, I did some lab testing to find out exactly how much sodium I lose when I sweat and in hindsight, it’s alarming to know how poorly I managed myself in Florida. Better to learn that lesson there than in Death Valley, though. I also added the rowing machine when I got back. I knew I was in the final two months and I wanted to push as hard as I could.
My daily routine was basically 10k on the rower and then weights before work, run at lunch, I attempted to get the treadmill hikes after work, and I tried to increase the frequency of the sauna. It’s a weird mindset waking up daily and hoping to get 4+ workouts in, but as I’ve been telling everybody … I have a date with the devil on July 19. I need to be the best I can be from head to toe.
Ultimately, it’s just impossible to do everything I wanted to do, and I let go of the rowing and lifted a little less starting in maybe mid-June. I started doing sauna sessions every day, though, and did incline hikes as often as possible. Stuck with my diet and the weight kept coming off.
On June 26, three of my four crew members came to my house (two of them from out of state) and we did a trial run of a marathon, testing the recommendations from the lab testing I’d had done, as well as pacing, supporting, charting, etc. Better to figure out what the routine is going to be in advance than during the race. It went pretty well and it was definitely useful.
Ultimately, I got to taper and I’ve been getting excited. Doing my runs, the incline hikes, lifting, sitting in the sauna every night (got up to 1:07, I feel pretty good). I’ve been distracted with several challenges in my life, but I feel like I’ve stayed on track.
I ended up getting my weight down to 199. I’m a lot thinner in the face and I won’t lie, I kinda like how I look at the pool for the first time in my life. I feel strong, I feel good, I feel fit. I feel ready to attack this. I know I have a huge challenge ahead of me, but I knew going into this I’d have to transform myself physically and mentally, and I’ve done that.
Those runners I saw at Badwater in 2017 and 2019? I’m one of them now and I’m ready to show I belong. I started running 16 years ago. I’ve always pushed myself to try to get better and this is as better as I can get. Tiff has said it’s seemed like I’m training for the Olympics. This IS my Olympics.
Oh and one more thing. On November 7, 1991, I broke my neck and praise God I wasn’t paralyzed. I’ve always been grateful for my second chance, I celebrate November 7 gratefully as a birthday for my legs. You know that scene in Saving Private Ryan, how that soldier tells Private Ryan “make it worth it” and he shows up in the cemetery with his family and says, “was it worth it?”
This is that for me, I’ll forever feel like I did enough with the second chance God gave me if I finish this race. I’ll finish achieving my dream I’ve been chasing for my mother-in-law. I’ll hopefully show my kids that they can achieve anything they want if they’re willing to work hard.
It’s been a long road, a lot of work, but I’m ready to get it!
Thanks for reading if you actually got this far. Also, side note … I’m fundraising through this for a pair of small charities that help people with autism and other special needs, the Michael Lisnow Respite Center and the National Autism Association (Pennsylvania chapter). If you think I’ve worked hard and want to give me a pat on the back, there’s no better way than to make a donation of any size at https://bit.ly/sam-badwater … thank you!