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Supreme Agony and Ecstasy at Badwater
Badwater is a madman's march, a footrace through the summer heat of the hottest spot in America. It extends 135 miles from a stinking water hole on the floor of Death Valley to a piney oasis 8,300 feet up the side of Mt. Whitney. The course is nothing but asphalt and road gravel. Feet and knees and shins ache like they are being whacked with tire irons. Faces turn into shrink-wrap. Lisa Smith is 102 miles into it. She has been running, and now walking, for almost 27 hours, through yesterday's 118-degree heat, up 6,000 feet of mountain passes into a 40 mph head wind. The night brought her 40 minutes of sleep, if that -- two catnaps. Her feet are blistered and taped up, and she is wearing shoes with the toes cut out to relieve the pressure. Her right ankle, sprained twice since February, is so swollen she can no longer wear the air cast that was supporting it. She is also cramping with diarrhea. "It's bad," she gasps. "My stomach is killing me."
Grimacing, spitting, bending over at times to fight the nausea, she trudges on, pushing down? the undulating highway toward Keeler, a ramshackle mining outpost. Visible ahead is the serrated peak of Whitney, as distant as Oz. If she can hang on, it will take most of the day -- and a 4,000-foot ascent over the final 13 miles -- to get there. Every year, two or three dozen elite ultra-marathoners come to Badwater, and every year Badwater beats them down. About a third fail to finish; after 50 miles or 70 miles or 110 miles, the torture exceeds their desire to go on, and they end up rolling away in their cars and minivans, faces covered with wet towels, their bodies stretched out like corpses.
For a thin slice of society -- zealots who live to train, who measure themselves by their mental toughness -- the ultra-marathon is the consummate test of human character. No other event in sport, except possibly a prizefight, is as punishing, as demanding of the mind and body. No other athlete is more revered than the distance runner. Indefatigable, heroic, celebrated in poetry and myth, the Greek soldier, Pheidippides, ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to herald victory over the Persians in 490 BC, then collapsed and died. It was the first marathon. To fill the unforgiving minute, to persevere, is one of the highest ideals of man -- who, after all, was born to hardship, cast from Eden. The explosion of extreme sports in recent years has produced an unprecedented number of ultra-endurance races. Several thousand men and women travel the country -- and abroad -- competing in events from 30 miles to more than 300 miles. There are weeklong "adventure races" by foot, bike and kayak across Patagonia, South Africa, Australia. In Morocco, there is the Marathon des Sables -- "the Marathon of the Sands" -- a six-day trek, in stages, across 150 miles of the Sahara. Colorado has the Hardrock 100, snaking 100 miles through the 11,000-foot peaks of the San Juan Mountains. In Alaska it's the Coldfoot, a 100-miler in October with the wind roaring and the temperatures plunging to 40 below. Death Valley has Badwater: "probably the most physically taxing competitive event in the world," according to the runners' handbook, which warns that you could die out here -- though no one yet has. "Heat illness or heat stroke ... can cause death, kidney failure and brain damage. It is important that runners and crews be aware of the symptoms ... vomiting, headache, dizziness, faintness, irritability, lassitude, weakness and rapid heart rate.... Heat stroke may progress from minimal symptoms to complete collapse in a very short period of time." Twenty-seven runners have entered this year's 10th anniversary race, a field drawn from North America and Europe. Lisa, 36, is the only woman, a fitness trainer from Bernardsville, N.J., who has run 60 marathons -- her fastest in 2 hours and 48 minutes -- and four ultras. Bjarte Furnes, 23, a molecular-biology student from Norway, is out to become the youngest ever to finish. Beacham Toler, 69, a retired boilermaker from Amarillo, Texas, is already the oldest; he aims to better a personal best by breaking 50 hours.
The course record, set five years ago, is 26 hours and 18 minutes, but few concern themselves with that or the first-place prize money -- $500. The main goal is to go the distance, because Badwater, like every extreme race, is less a competition among runners -- whose training and talents vary widely -- than it is a struggle between each runner and the miles. To conquer the course, you must get through it in less than 60 hours. Those who make it in under 48 -- two days and two nights -- are awarded a special memento, a belt buckle, a modest hunk of bronze featuring a bas relief of the desert. "If I don't make it, I'll be back every year until I do," vows U.S. Marine Corps Major W.C. Maples, 33, a second-time entrant from Camp Pendleton who stands now at the starting line, shortly before dawn. Three years back, during Utah's Wasatch 100, he got off the floor of an aid station despite hypothermia and winced through the last 50 miles with a stress fracture in his right leg. But Badwater got him a year ago. The Major, as other runners call him, quit after vomiting up a bunch of pink, fleshy tissue that turned out to be part of his stomach lining. It was the only endurance race he failed to complete. "I have fumed over that," he says. "One way I define a challenge is something that does not have a guaranteed outcome. I know that on my worst day I can strap on a pair of shoes and run 26 miles. But here, no matter what kind of shape you're in, there's no guarantee you're going to finish. I can relate to that. I train for combat. Combat does not have a guaranteed outcome."
The race begins in the dawn glow of a clear, breezy morning, below a craggy cliff of the Amargosa Mountains on the valley's east rim. From a casino-hotel on the Nevada-California border, where the runners spent the night, it has taken more than 40 minutes to reach Badwater, so named for an acrid, amoeba-shaped pool of salt and brimstone just off the road. Its brittle white edges look like crusts of ice, but that is a desert illusion, because the temperature at 5:30 a.m. is 92 degrees. A weather-chipped placard notes that the earth here sinks to the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere: 282 feet below sea level. Minivans and cars fill a narrow parking lot. The support crews tend to number one to four people -- wives, coaches, in-laws, friends, gurus, anyone willing to dispense water, food and exhortations. The vans are packed high with provisions -- gallons of water, sandwiches, fruit, candy bars, protein bars, Gatorade, pretzels, crackers, salt tablets, sea salt, socks, shorts, blister pads, tape, towels, ankle braces, sunglasses, sunscreen, five or six pairs of shoes, and a bathroom scale. Sahara hats are popular -- white, Lawrence of Arabia headgear that shades the neck and cheeks. A few runners, like the Norwegian, wear them tailored to hold clumps of crushed ice, a cold skullcap. Dr. Dale Sutton, 57, a San Diego dentist, carries ice atop his head and in hanging pouches near his cheeks as well as in the pockets of his running togs: pinstriped blue pajamas sliced with ventilation holes. He is known as the Pajama Man. Runners stretch, mingle and pose for pictures -- all in eerie quiet, because it is so early, or because they are about to wage combat, or because the open desert sky swallows up most of the sound. At 6 a.m., they assemble on the road. No speeches, no fanfare. They are told to go. They take off to the whoops and claps of the support crews.
In all the miles to follow, there will be no other spectators, no one to appreciate their toil except perhaps the whizzing motorists and the occasional bystanders who have stopped for a Coke or radiator coolant in towns hardly larger than a gas station. At first the road climbs gradually north along the valley floor, away from hills and escarpments named Funeral Peak, Coffin Canyon and Dante's View. The ruddy desert loam tilts toward ridges to the east and falls to the yellow-white valley bowl to the west. For long stretches there is almost no vegetation, just rocky fields divided by the winding asphalt. They move at a fast, easy gait. For superbly fit athletes, who train by doing 10 or 20 miles a day, the early stages of a long race often produce the euphoric sensation that they could go forever. Runners like to savor it, aware of their own breathing, the length and balance of their strides. "I focus on what I'm doing, how I'm feeling," says the man who takes the early lead, Eric Clifton, one of America's great ultra-marathoners. "I'm constantly monitoring myself, keeping my legs relaxed, running smoothly, keeping my arms relaxed. Is my face tensed up? I'm trying to be as efficient as possible." The 39-year-old movie buff, a theater projectionist from Crownsville, Md., has won more than half of the 68 ultra-marathons he has completed; he set an unofficial record last year by running a 100-miler in 13 hours and 16 minutes. Like most who venture into such extreme races, Eric began more modestly, running the two-mile in high school, later dabbling in five- and 10-kilometer road races. Once he realized his own exceptional stamina, he advanced to marathons and triathlons, then ultra-marathon cycling races. With his long, pendular strides and short, pink socks, Eric moves well in front, followed by a pack that includes Lisa and the Major, steady at 9 minutes per mile.
At 7 a.m., the sun emerges above the Amargosas; it is 105 degrees -- in the shade. At 7:15, it is 108. At 7:25, it is 110. A hot, dry wind pushes the competitors along. Dragonflies blow around in it. Tinder-dry weeds quiver in the canyon washes. At Furnace Creek, 17 miles out, the runners veer northwest on California 190, passing a borax museum and descending again into the yawning desolation of a dry lake bed where the thermometer reads 114. The asphalt is at least 20 degrees hotter. Faces and shirts are sweat-soaked. Support vans play leapfrog with the runners, moving ahead a mile or so at a time. Runners stop briefly to drink, many alternating water and electrolyte supplements. How much they drink, eat, weigh, how hot they are, how fast they are going -- every detail is logged by crew members, who take on the mien of anxious scientists, recording the vitals of subjects in some grotesque lab experiment. The body is already under enormous assault; the success of the hours ahead will hinge largely on the fickle alchemy of supplying it proper nutrition. Sweat loss alone in this heat can exceed a gallon an hour. Dehydration is a constant danger. Usually, it is accompanied by the depletion of blood sugar and electrolytes -- sodium, potassium and other ions that are vital to cells and muscles. Cells die; muscles cramp. In extreme cases, the heart may go into fibrillation, which can be fatal. More often, the body channels extra blood to the heart and brain, robbing it from other places -- the skin, kidneys and bowels. A runner gets the chills. Kidneys clog with protein from damaged muscles, damming up toxins in the blood. The walls of the empty bladder sometimes rub at the pubic bone, causing internal bleeding and producing an intense urge to urinate. Pieces of the bowel or stomach wall may slough off in diarrhea. Rarely, the body temperature climbs high enough, 104 degrees, to affect the brain; the runner may slip into convulsions or a coma. Drinking is a safeguard, but huge amounts of water may overwhelm the gastrointestinal tract, causing cramps, bloating, nausea. Even sports drinks may not contain enough electrolytes -- or the body may not absorb them well enough -- to prevent problems. It is often a matter of luck, experience or genetics that enables one runner to endure while the man behind him folds up like a scarecrow.
Badwater delivers its earliest savagery to those from cooler climes. A Swiss runner with stomach cramps is the first to drop out. Bjarte, the Norwegian, vomits after 18 miles -- the beginnings of an agonizing downward spiral that would end with his surrender, 10 hours later, at Mile 53, by which point he had thrown up, in the estimation of one crew member, at least 40 more times. A 33-year-old Canadian, Paul Braden, once ran a Colorado 100-miler in which his blisters got so bad he had to cut off his shoes with scissors, drain the wounds and go the last 15 miles with sandals taped to his feet. But that was not as agonizing as the cramps and nausea he now suffers as he nears the Devil's Cornfield, a grove of clumpy arrowweed bushes 36 miles out. With the wind raking across the road, with the temperature reaching 118 degrees, Paul drops a red flag -- a legal means of temporarily leaving the course -- and accepts a car ride to Stovepipe Wells, a burg at 41 miles consisting of a motel, a saloon and a convenience store. There, officials from Hi-Tec, the athletic gear company that sponsors the race, help him into the back of a refrigerated bottled-water truck. His legs keep cramping and he is screaming so loud that a few tourists wander over, trying to see what is going on. A white-haired race official administers a carbonated electrolyte beverage whose effect is immediate: Paul vomits all over the truck bed. The theory is that his balky digestion -- gummed up by too much fruit -- will now return to normal. Looking queasy, Paul is driven back to his flag. He resumes, suffers more cramps, ends up resting, falling asleep and finally dragging himself back onto the road in the evening, when the worst of the heat is over. Finishing the race is the rite of passage of the distance runner. The sport culls out the weak and rewards the dogged. The runner learns that pain is temporary, but the gulf between those who drop out and those who finish is vast and enduring. With every step, an investment is made. It is either lost on the roadside or it becomes a jackpot that you reap at the end.
Having completed Badwater three times, Dr. Barbara Warren, a San Diego sports psychologist, has found that "the deep satisfaction in life comes from this enormous achievement. You feel like a giant." Often, athletes spend months training and planning for Badwater, which increases the emotional stake in how it turns out. Paul tried to prepare himself for Death Valley by traveling to Amarillo, Texas, a month beforehand, running 10 to 15 miles a day in 100-degree heat. The Major began training for Badwater in January, expanding his regimen to include twice-monthly workouts in the desert near Borrego Springs. Every trip he ran 25 to 30 miles, alone, bored, baking in the sun. "By the end of June, I had put in almost 1,600 miles just for this one race," he says. There are other forces: All the Marines at Camp Pendleton who know he is representing the Corps -- what will they think if he quits? The lessons he learned from his mother, who has spent 27 years battling a degenerative stomach disorder, and his grandfather, who survived the same malady until he was 87, still mowing his own lawn at 86. If you get through a thing like Badwater, a lot of life's other problems seem far more manageable, the Major says. But the moment you let yourself quit, you step onto a slippery slope. One day you quit at 90 miles and the next you quit at 60. Before long you are getting by with the minimum, rationalizing mediocrity. "Quitting is a disease," he says. "I can't bear the idea of looking in a mirror and seeing a quitter." The Major is now bearing down on the 50-mile mark, nine miles beyond Stovepipe. It is well into afternoon. The road climbs; it will reach 6,000 feet at the end of the 18-mile stretch to Towne's Pass in the Panamint Mountains. The wind is coming downhill, and it is directly in the runners' faces -- a steady blast that seems to come from some humongous hair dryer. No one runs; they walk tilting into the wind at comical angles, like a bunch of Charlie Chaplins. The Marine Corps flag snaps wildly from the rear of the Major's support van. His face, faintly freckled, is rigid, his eyes fixed on the road. All of his elaborate philosophy has been bludgeoned down into a tight-lipped, 10-word mantra: "Mind over matter: If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." Much of the first half of the field is scattered along the 18-mile climb. Eric is still well in front -- he's already through the pass -- trailed by a runner from Tennessee and then Lisa, in third place, but well back and struggling. Her 10- and 12-minute miles have disintegrated to this: a mile logged at a woeful 25 minutes. Nauseated, weakened by diarrhea that began the night before the race -- a result of nerves, her crew thinks -- she is limping too, with an air cast supporting her bad right ankle. It is still hot -- 107 at 4:30 p.m. -- and she has at least 24 hours to go. She tries not to think about the punishment ahead. Long-haired and purposeful, a former springboard diver at the University of Wisconsin, she is a staunch believer in mental strength, spiritualism, holistic healing. Like the Major, she is inspired by the courage of others: her younger sister, Julie, a member of her support crew, who overcame life-threatening surgery to repair three small holes in her heart; her cousin Joe, who was Lisa's age when he died last year of AIDS. "He got a tattoo in New Orleans," she says. "Seven guys all used the same needle. All seven of them are dead." Music from a movie they enjoyed together, "The Last of the Mohicans," plays on her headphones.
All the runners are adrift out here, sorting through their thoughts, weighing the reasons to push on. A few miles behind Lisa is the 69-year-old Texan, Beacham, who slumps into a folding chair to gulp water from a plastic bottle. "This right here is pretty agonizing," he says, but nothing of the ordeal shows on his face, thin as a hawk's. Beacham looks as if everything soft in him has boiled away on the hard roads -- and maybe it has. He runs 3,000 miles a year, seven or eight ultra-marathons. Despite a poor spell at 38 miles, where he had to lie down and take some chicken noodle soup, he is keeping up a formidable pace. The drive seems to come from a fear of growing old, says crew member Jim Davis, who himself is 58. Ultras are especially important to Beacham because without them, without all the training, he would figure to start withering away. "I think he wants to get in as many of them as he can," Jim says, "before he gets to where he can't."
Evening is falling. The corrugated mountains near Towne's Pass glow warm orange and black, painted by slanting sunlight and shadows. Bruised clouds blow over the ridges. At 7:30, the sun sinks into the clouds rimming 6,585-foot Panamint Butte, gone until morning, and a soft violet haze settles over Death Valley. The plum-colored Amargosas, where the day began, are a ruffled curtain across the other side of the world. The heat subsides -- it is 86 degrees at 8:10, when the first automobile headlights fill the shadows. Eric, the race leader, descends into the Panamint Valley, where indolent followers of Charles Manson are still said to inhabit the brushy foothills near the Barker Ranch. Eric is now feeling it. Downhills are murder on the thighs; after the intense early pace, his are aching like "somebody was beating them with baseball bats." At Mile 68, near a motel stop called Panamint Springs, he is passed by a 45-year-old investor named David Jones, who has yet to take a rest. Even when he had to vomit, up at the pass, he turned his head, retched and pressed on. David opens a substantial lead. With the light fading in a landscape of rolling hills and ridges, Eric and Lisa contend for second place. A quick glance up to a stream of purple-orange clouds and Lisa sees a face -- her cousin Joe's face, a vision that lasts an instant and is gone. It inspires her, but also saddens her. She cries. She tells her crew about it. Soon, the sky deepens, and even those tangled clouds disappear, leaving her there on the road toiling. The darkness takes over. She sees a shooting star and is heartened by whatever hope it might portend, but before long she is crying again. Night is hard. Night is for demons. Night is when rationality shrinks away, slipping down a rabbit hole, and nothing remains but the black asphalt and black sky and the questions that flicker through shorting mental circuits, like: Where is the horizon, what creatures are out here, why does it matter, really, to keep on going? Hallucinations are not uncommon. Two years ago, when she got through Badwater in less than 42 hours, her first ultra-marathon, Lisa had a conversation with her dead grandmother. She heard babies crying, Indians chanting. "I saw things flying through the air," she remembers. "All the trees on Whitney, I thought they were people climbing." Others have seen dogs, herds of cows, miniature people pushing tiny sleds, women showering, cactuses magically transformed into rocket launchers, highway skid marks shooting away like harpoons, flying off to infinity. One runner remembers an elaborate bridge under construction, spanning the highway, with an office building next door. Only the next day, when he was driving back over the course and looking for it, did he learn from his crew that all of it was pixie dust. The runners are illuminated for periods of time by headlights, until the support vans pull ahead, leaving them to catch up again. At the west rim of Panamint Valley is another climb, through a 4,000-foot pass called Father Crowley's. It is cool enough there for long sleeves and sweatpants; the runners change during the stops. Here and there, they nap -- half an hour, an hour, rarely longer. Two more drop out, one because of a long, purple thigh bruise, the result of a pinched nerve and tendinitis. Eric goes lame on the downside of Crowley's; he dawdles through 10 miles in six hours and quits at dawn at Mile 94. Having won so many times, he places no stigma on stepping away, regrouping, aiming for another race. That is not the case for the less accomplished. For most who quit, the failure is a trauma almost equal to the pounding of the miles.
A runner who stops ceases to be a runner. It is a death of that identity, marked by an ignominious epitaph: "Did not finish." The phrase is abbreviated on the printouts that list the winners, and the slang verb, "DNF-ing," has an obscene sound, foul with shame. The runner who succumbs often goes to extraordinary lengths for resurrection, training for months and traveling back to the same race, the same course, a year or two later, to try again. Twenty-four hours have gone by. Fatigue seeps like ice water into bones and joints. Walking is the rule now. Rest stops lengthen. Closing their eyes, they get leg massages. They take time to patch blisters, tape their feet, change shoes. They go up half a size when the swelling is bad. They drink hot soup and get up with the painful slowness of old men. Gossip travels up and down the course in irregular pulses, moving from race officials to support crews, then to the runners. They crave information about the whereabouts of others, how they are doing. Eric's withdrawal is surprising news. It is rare now that one runner sees another, except on arduous grades or during long stops when someone is passed. Lisa slips into third place. Beacham drops back into 10th, an hour ahead of the Major. Only twice during the night has Beacham slept, once for 15 minutes, another time for 20. He maintains a steady pace through Crowley's despite a blister on the ball of each foot, wounds that have been growing for almost 60 miles. "It was pretty painful until I got them lanced," he says, his breath as sharp as piston strokes. "They hurt now, but I can stand it." Beyond the pass, the road levels out near 4,000 feet, angling northwest along the Saline Valley and the dry Owens Lake bed: contoured terrain that grows nothing but rust-colored scrub. A wall of white mountains fills the far horizon. This is another of Badwater's psychological slams. One of those distant, chiseled peaks is Whitney. "You can see the finish," says a runner, "but it's 51 miles away."
The sun climbs into the blue vastness of space and they pass one by one down the long, rippled road, a line of asphalt that runs forever. "The sun's coming up, and pretty soon the sun will go down, and that's what you have to think about," says Dale, the Pajama Man, who at 7 a.m. is distracting himself, playing mental word games, his gangly limbs swinging as if they are loose in their sockets. "You have to disassociate your body from the pain." At a drink stop, he sips slowly, to avoid spitting it up, and tries to gauge his progress. "I have, what? Thirty-five miles to go?" "No," a crew member tells him. "Forty-seven."
In spite of the distance remaining, race officials are able to make a reasonably accurate projection of the finishers. They can see who is going well, the ones who will probably hang on. David Jones, victorious only once in 57 prior marathons and ultra-marathons, is far ahead in first, already nearing Lone Pine, the tree-lined town at the base of Whitney. He is on his way to clocking 29 hours and 10 minutes, more than five hours ahead of the man in second. Most of the top 10 runners will earn a buckle. Beacham's blisters will continue to plague him, but he is on his way to finishing in 43 hours and 53 minutes, well under his goal of 50 hours. The Major limps on a swollen right knee and is chafing so badly in the crotch that a streak of blood runs to the knee of his white sweatpants. His crew has dubbed him "Mad Mood Maples"; he is headed for a time of 45:15. At least 18 others are also on the way to finishing. Seven have quit. That number might reach eight. Lisa is the one in doubt -- the only remaining runner in serious trouble who has not yet withdrawn. At 102 miles, she clings to third, reeling from her bad ankle and diarrhea and sleep loss. To go the next six miles to Keeler takes her four hours. Lone Pine is 16 miles beyond Keeler. Morning turns to afternoon. The sun beats down; temperatures soar into the 90s. The highway veers right into Lone Pine, past an airport, motels, diners, then left at a traffic light onto the two-lane road up Whitney. This final stretch, a 4,000-foot ascent over 13 winding miles, is by far the most daunting. It begins gradually -- the road flanked by sagebrush and boulders and tall rock formations that look like brown crispy cereal all glued together. Soon it rises to impossible steepness, tracing the edge of sheer granite slopes. Lisa is still on the lower slopes at 3 o'clock, taking ice treatments on her ankles. They are both so badly swollen they barely move. Coming out of the motor home, she is staggering. Turning uphill, her mirrored glasses catching the hot sun, she looks ready to cry. Two crew members walk alongside, ready in case she should collapse. "Never, Never Quit," says a spray-painted slogan across the back of the motor home, but sometimes such lofty ideals must give way to reason. Her crew huddles in the road, discussing whether to make her stop. Her mother, Dot, squints up the mountain. "It's scary," she says. "She doesn't want to give up. I think we're trying to make the decision for her. My theory is, live to race another day." Arguing for surrender is that in two weeks she is scheduled to compete in a 300-mile adventure race, a team event for which she and her friends have paid hefty entrance fees. It is unthinkable to miss it, but the recovery from an ultra-marathon can take weeks. Most runners are fortunate to begin training again in six or seven days; stamina may not return for a month or two. Lisa, though, doesn't always make the rational decision. Crew member Tony Di Zinno remembers an earlier adventure race, when she suffered a sprained ankle and a hairline fracture of her right leg on the second day out. She strapped on an air cast and kept going, six more days, 250 more miles. "The day after she got home she was running laps in the pool," Di Zinno says. "That's her style. She gets injured and she pushes, and the day after she finishes she trains. She's awesome." Her hope had been to break the women's record for Badwater -- 36 hours and 19 minutes, set during a race that began at night. That goal is now out of reach. With eight miles to go, Lisa disappears into the motor home. Sister Julie stands outside, helpless, wondering if this is where Lisa will yield. "She says she's never felt this bad," Julie says. "She can't bend her ankles, they're so swollen. There's no blood in her urine yet, but she thinks she lost her stomach lining." For almost half an hour, there is only this still-life picture: the motor home under a cloudless sky, the rugged mountainside rising above it. Now and then a breeze stirs, but all the air seems to move at once, muffling sounds, preserving a strange hush. Insects clicking softly in the sagebrush. Inside, Lisa lies on her ravaged stomach. She will explain later that it is unwise at this point to sleep: The body begins to shut down. Instead, she meditates. In her mind she makes a list of all those reasons she should quit, the complaints of 127 horrific miles, every negative thought. When the list is as long as she can make it, she lights a tiny imaginary fire -- and she burns it. The door opens. She is helped down to the pavement, and she turns to confront the mountain. "I'm going to get to the top." Upward, then, with the road growing steeper. Her ankles cannot handle the slope, and so she turns around, walking backward, tiny three-inch steps. Up, up, up, staring into the sky, Whitney rising behind her. At 5:45, she is well up the mountain, the road at last curving into the afternoon shadows, the valley spread out below. Pine trees begin to appear. Her legs look puffed up, rubbery, but they keep moving. Where the road levels out she turns around, walking forward until it rises again. At 6 o'clock, she has less than four miles to go. Every step is precarious, but her mood soars -- "it's beyond exhilarating" -- and she talks in strained breaths about a book, "The Power Within," by Chuck Norris, and how its lessons helped her through the hard moments. Less than a mile to go and the road rounds a steep turn. Lisa goes through it backward, her arms out, as if dizzy. Immediately, four U.S. Marines -- the advance guard from the Major's group -- jump out of a van and join her, like jet fighters forming an escort, but they drop away after the final curve, letting Lisa take the last hill alone. Whitney Portals, where the race ends, is tucked within a nook of chalky granite: a clear pool fed by a plunging waterfall, hillsides thick with tall evergreens. A yellow tape is stretched across the road and Lisa hits it, finishing in 37 hours and 1 minute. It is not the record she wanted, but it is the fastest a woman has gone from a daytime start, when the racers cross the floor of Death Valley in the heat. Officials, crew members and five or six bystanders surround her, applauding. She is weeping, relieved, overjoyed, falling into the embrace of her sister, her mom, her friends. She looks up at the sky and says thank you. A huge bouquet of red roses is placed in her arms, spilling over them in a glorious scene of triumph -- a portrait somehow perfect, but also fleeting, because Lisa quickly hands the roses away. "Can't hold them," she whispers. "They're too heavy."
(Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times)