The Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley

Interview with Ian Adamson

Ian Adamson has shown up in numerous RailRiders catalogs, with his most famous appearance dating back to 2002 when he appeared on the cover with this rather boastful claim: “The Toughest Man on the Planet.” Well, guess what-- he was. He dominated the adventure racing scene for years, leading his teammates to numerous world-championship victories all across the globe. Now retired from racing, Adamson, who lives in Boulder where he is a principal player at Newton Shoes, still likes to dip his toe into competition every now and then. This past July, he headed to Death Valley for the Badwater Ultramarathon, where he and 72 fellow sun-baked masochists walked, ran, and hobbled 135 miles in fry-an-egg-on-asphalt temperatures, while going from 282 feet below sea level to Whitney Portals on Mt. Whitney, at 8,360 feet. Ian finished in 34 and 1/2 hours, ten hours behind winner Zach Gringerich-- but was the first masters runner (45+).
 
RailRiders: Now that you are retired from adventure racing, what prompted you to run Badwater?
Ian Adamson: Badwater has been in the back of my mind for about 10 years, since Chris Kostman took over the event as race director and asked if I would be interested in racing. As a full-time adventure athlete through 2006 this wasn't possible since it clashed with the money races on the adventure racing calendar. As a professional athlete doing races without money were not feasible. Fast forward to the end of last year and I was discussing races with Charlie Engle who brought up the idea of doing the race as part of a documentary movie. I liked the idea as it would be beneficial for raising money for Racers Against Childhood Cancer and give Newton Running some exposure. I was also drifting out of shape while training 60 hours a week in front of my computer so it looked like a good opportunity to do good things and get in shape at the same time.
 
RR: How much training did you do?
IA: My training plan was aimed at making it through the course comfortably in 48 hours. I hedged my bets in January and started training with the hope of getting an entry, even though I'm a rookie and technically didn't meet the race qualification standards. My basic training schedule entailed one longish run each week, one strength session (sometimes on my bike) and a speed session. Every 6 to 8 weeks I did a much longer run: 50 kilometers in February, 50 miles in April and 100 kilometers in May. This was about the minimum volume that would get me through, and at a level that worked with my full-time job at Newton Running. Two weeks before the race I spent doing heat training-- two to three hour runs in the middle of the day wearing full winter gear.
 
RR: What percentage of the course did you run as opposed to walking? At what pace?
IA: I ran/walked about 60/40. Average pace including stops was just under four mph, so I ran at about five to six mph and walked at three to four mph depending on the terrain.
 
RR: What did you do for food and water?
IA: The vast majority of my calories were from liquid: GU Brew and Hammer Perpetuum. Later in the race I started drinking Coke/GU Brew mix and strong coffee. I also took Endurolyte tablets every hour to maintain electrolyte balance, chicken soup, Justin's Nut Butters, GU Chomps, potato chips, M&Ms and chocolate. Coming down the back side of Townes Pass a guy came by and gave me and my support crew a bucket of fries, which were perfect in the relative cool of the night.
 
Team before the start in their RailRiders(left to right): Harvey Lewis, Ian Adamson, Leah Garcia (crew captain), Jennie Emmett, Marilyn Siverson, Nels Siverson, Doug Bertram
 
RR: How hot did it get?
IA: We measured 125 F degrees at about head height in the shade the first afternoon near Stovepipe Wells. It reached around 200 F degrees on the black top roads. Hot enough that taking your shoes off was extremely painful from the radiant heat. It cooled down to 90s at night on the top of the passes.
 
RR: A race like this requires the help of a personal support crew. Who were you crewmates, and how did they help keep you from frying like an egg on the road?
IA: This race is very much a team race, including the support crew. My girl friend Leah Garcia was our crew captain, and I had Doug Bertram (Milwaukee), a physical therapist and ultra athlete, Harvey Lewis (Cincinnati) who is an elite ultra runner and did the majority of pacing, Jennifer Emmet (Denver), ultra runner and medical doctor, and Nels and Marilyn Siverson (San Luis Obispo, CA) who ran logistics and gear for most of the race. We used 600 pounds of ice and 700 gallons of water for cooling. This was primarily used around my neck and for ice drinks and spray bottles. The crew spent virtually the entire race filing bandannas and bottles with ice.
 
RR: What did you use for apparel and shoes? 
IA: I used three pairs of Newton Shoes-- a Distance Racer, Gravity Trainer and Sir Isaac, and rotated these depending on terrain. Apparel choices depended on the time of day. Pre- and post-race were RailRiders Eco-Mesh Shirt, Eco-Speed T and Jammin’ Shorts. At night I wore an Eco-Mesh Shirt. I wore Skins compression tights during the day to assist with blood circulation, cooling and damp muscle vibration. I also wore a Headsweats Protech hat and arm sleeves by RecoFIT and Moeben for sun protection.
 
RR: You were on your feet for about a day and a half, whereas some adventure races last up to a week. Did you pace yourself accordingly? Did you take any naps or rest breaks?
IA: I dragged a bit at about 24 hours (around 100 miles) approaching Owen's Lake. I was also getting sleepy so I took a 30-minute break and napped for 20 minutes to rehydrate and absorb some food. I also stopped every few hours to get weighed for possible dehydration and/or hyponatremia, change shoes and socks, and a couple of massages. This ended up being about a dozen stops for a total of around two hours. My first goal was to average a 48-hour finisher’s buckle pace (2.8 mph) and after that anything under 40 hours (3.4 mph.) Anything beyond that was a bonus as I had advice from several people to try and finish first, then consider time. I ran too fast for the first 25 miles (about 6 mph), exactly as everyone predicted, The later stages of the race were familiar territory, and humping up the hill to the finish felt like any of several dozen adventure race hiking legs. Being familiar with running/hiking for 24-48 hours after several days or a week of racing was excellent preparation for the second half of the race. Adventure racing is quite a different animal in many ways. There is no support crew, you carry heavy packs, you have challenging navigation, few roads or trails, infrequent or non-existent access to food or water, and the race course very long (up to 700 miles.) Badwater is difficult in other ways. Being on a black-top road for 135 miles in those temperatures in and of itself is extreme. There are no other races I know of with the enormous exposure to heat and pounding of the Badwater Ultra.
 
RR: What did you like best about Death Valley?  
IA: The entire course was spectacular. Enormous vistas in crystal-clear air and with dramatic relief in the terrain gave me the feeling of being in a slow-motion Discovery Channel documentary. The sunsets and sunrise lit up the desert and mountains with a kaleidoscope of moving colors that engaged my attention for hours at a time and shaped my memory of the race. I remember the entire experience as a journey through stunning terrain, saturated with heat, color and periods of intense silence. The raw beauty and size of the desert and mountains overwhelmed everything else.
 
Leah Garcia (left), Jennie Emmet, Ian and Doug Bertram (out of frame) during a stop approaching Towne Pass, mile 60
 
RR: How did your body feel the next day?
IA: Once I got a good sleep, meal, a swim in the pool at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas, and a massage from my crewmember Doug, I felt pretty good. I was back on my bike the following day and running by day three so I didn't beat myself up too much.
 
RR: Will you ever do Badwater again?
IA: It is extremely tempting to do the race again with a goal to get a decent time.  Now I know what to expect, and based on my performance in past races, I think it would be possible to knock off six to eight hours. That said, I made a vow after I retired never to “race” again. Also, I had such a blast this year that I don't want to change the experience, so I guess the answer is “no.”
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