The Popsicle melted into a sugary mess as I waited at mile 17 to hand it to Pam Reed, a top endurance athlete at the Badwater Ultramarathon.
This 135-foot race traversed through Death Valley in July and ended with a 13-mile climb up Mt. Whitney. I served as part of Reed’s crew team to get her through this ultimate test of perseverance.
When I returned to the crew van after thrusting the icy treat at Reed, who appeared grateful for something at least semi-cold, I flipped the keys and saw the dashboard light up to read 122 degrees Fahrenheit. I served as part of a six-member crew team, with each of us assigned to run behind Reed for two-mile legs while spraying her down with water. But not long after the race started, one member succumbed to the heat and left, and I started to feel nauseated.
In Badwater, racers’ crews set up aid stations—not the race directors or staff. Every mile we jumped out of the van, prepared her food and beverages, filled up an extra spray bottle, dumped ice into a sock she wore around her neck, and sprinted across the street to serve everything to her as she continued on the course.
Often Reed craved something specific and a few feet before reaching us, she’d call out, “Pickles” or “Espresso.” Feeling stressed, we ripped into the ice chest and dug around to satisfy her requests. At every mile, I held cups of seltzer water with my face covered by my own tank top/makeshift balaclava to hold back the sand scratching my skin. This, coupled with the extreme temperatures, made me reach heat exhaustion.
I felt guilty because my body started to give out and frustrated at my inability to tolerate the heat despite. I dreamed of air conditioning blasting in my face and laying on a beach running the sand between my toes instead of it blowing directly into my eyes.
“I can’t do this,” I said to the crew as we drove another mile through Death Valley. “I’m not even racing. I don’t have the body to put myself through this like you guys do.”
“Just do what you can,” everyone said.
“What could I do?” I asked.
I completed numerous marathons and was no stranger to running, not even a stranger to running in heat, but these conditions surpassed anything I thought possible. I looked out at the miles of dirt and dust and decided I was selfish. This experience had nothing to do with me. It was about getting Pam Reed to the finish line. Badwater served as an opportunity for me to pay it forward to all those individuals who helped me cross finish lines.
At the next stop, I hopped out of the car and appointed myself as Reed’s nutritionist for the remainder of the race. I monitored her food intake, created sandwiches based on her feedback (heavy on the mayonnaise, light on the turkey), mixed drinks with various juices to keep her palette from feeling bored—evening naming some of my concoctions, such as the Badwater Berry Beverage, and knew exactly the last hour she drank coffee and when she would need it again. This freed up the other crew members to focus on the running aspect of their jobs, and rest in between their legs. I took a break for 45 minutes total the entire race (30 hours). My stamina and energy changed when my attitude changed.
We all ran with Reed the last half mile where she placed second among the women. It was one of the hardest and most rewarding running experiences; I felt proud to help her make it to another Badwater finish line.
I challenge you to forget about yourself for a while and find a way to help someone else achieve their goals.
Jennifer Purdie is a writer located in San Diego, CA. You can find her work in The Los Angeles Times, Running Times, and Phoenix Magazine.