"The Power of Plan" - life lessons from my record breaking 2010 Badwater 135-mile Ultramarathon

(July 22, 2010)

On July 13, at 10:20:50pm I completed my 5th Badwater 135-mile AdventureCORPS Ultramarathon in a record time for me, 40 hours, 20 minutes and 50 seconds, shattering my previous best time by nearly 3 hours.

Each time I participate in this brutal test of human endurance I learn valuable life lessons that have proven applicable to life beyond Badwater.

In the past these reflections have been shared in my books, and in other published correspondence. It is my sincere hope that you, your family, associates and friends might benefit from this most recent experience that I believe resulted in some new, valuable insights.

What is "Badwater," Frank?

While I am sure most of you are now familiar with this race, for those that aren’t, Badwater is the toughest race in the world according to National Geographic.

It is invitation only, with 90 runners being selected from 16 countries this year. It runs 135-miles non-stop through the Death Valley desert in July and starts -282 below sea level. The air temperatures exceed 130 degrees, and ground temps are 200+ degrees.

It traverses 135 miles through the Mojave, over three mountain ranges, is run on blacktop pavement, and finishes nearly 8,500 feet above sea level. There are no aid stations. Since the inception of the race in 1977 only 40+/- people have finished Badwater 5 or more times. I am now one of them. Thanks to Chris Kostman of AdventureCORPS for putting on such an epic event. www.Badwater.com

Why even attempt something like this?

I firmly believe that we feel most alive when experiencing extremes, and by pursuing the dichotomies found in life, not by shying away from them. To succeed in life we must embrace the fear associated with change or challenge, and that fear should be welcomed, as it lets us know we are undertaking a risk that will allow our life's ambitions to manifest beyond our current reality. You will be well served to remember and apply these two sentences.

Now, I had already endured four prior Badwater races, and finished them all. My personal best, set back in 2006, was 43:02:20. We have raised quite a bit of money for our Caring House Project Foundation over the years through my participation in the race, choosing to “selectively suffer a little for those who suffer a lot without choice in Haiti.”

I had nothing left to prove. See a short video we shot just prior to the race here:

 


If you are having problems viewing this video, you can also watch on YouTube by clicking here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOfsEPYUDiI

What’s different this year? Why return?

Two simple reasons; 1) I wanted to finish the race on my daughter’s 12th birthday (July 13). This would mean I would have to run much faster than I did when I was four years younger, and, 2) We were using the forum to raise much needed funds for our stepped-up efforts in Haiti post earthquake.

What will I learn from your participation this year, Frank?

The Power of Plan. Or better said, the significant importance of preparing a well thought out plan, and sticking to it when its “payoff” seems so improbable. You will learn the importance of sharing your plan with those whose absence would cause for your undertaking to fail.

In my case, that would be my crew for this year’s race (remember, there are no aid stations); Nilsa my wife and crew chief for all 5 of my Badwater races, Martie McKinney my oldest sister (I am the oldest of six), Chris Finley a good friend whose children go to school with Laura, and Juan Restrepo the founder of the Florida Real Estate Investors Association and a tri-athlete who will compete at Kona someday.

Without this all-star crew there would be no mile 5, let alone mile 135, period.

Before we can draft a sound plan we must prepare so that the material that is included in our plan gives us the best chance to succeed. In my case, that pre-plan material was the training I went through combined with drawing upon my previous experience at Badwater.

My training this year included 5 rigorous months, nearly an entire month longer than in years past. I logged over 1,500 road miles. Many of those miles you could find me at one of South Florida’s tallest drawbridges, dragging an SUV tire behind me to simulate the mountains of Death Valley. I even spent a few days in the Death Valley desert training sections that have given me trouble in the past.

I slept in an altitude tent the entire time. This tent is more like a clear bubble where air with reduced oxygen content is pumped in to simulate sleeping at altitude. The higher in elevation we sleep (or live), the more red blood cells we create. The more red blood cells, the quicker the recovery. The quicker the recovery, the better the training. Yes, I slept alone in this tent, so this week feels like a honeymoon again with Nilsa!

I felt strong physically, and my mental approach was sound, but it did fluctuate from time-to-time. I accepted this as normal over a 5 month training regimen. The distractions to my training created by the state of our real estate market certainly did drain me emotionally often. I had to face this reality, and had to block out all such thoughts as the race drew closer.

My areas of physical concern were primarily my hips, which I have had trouble with in the past. The extreme heat is always a wild card too, but I was as prepared as I could have been due to my training in the sauna on a treadmill in 140+ degree heat.

When setting a significant goal, it is always wise to have alternative plans that will allow for alternative success, but the Primary Goal should always be just that.

Here were our goals:

Minimum Goal: Finish in under 60 hours – there can be no DNF (did not finish).

Default Goal: Finish in under 48 hours – earn 4th Badwater belt buckle.

Primary Goal: Finish on Laura’s birthday (July 13). As I was starting at 6:00am on July 12, this would require a finish of better than 42 hours, or 1 hour and 3 minutes faster than my best time of 43:02:40 set in 2006.

There are seven checkpoints in the Badwater race. I would like for you to think of these checkpoints as similar to identifiable pauses in the execution of your plan, where you must evaluate your progress up to these breaks in the action.

A summary of our targeted time splits, or points in the race where we could evaluate our progress, were as follows: 3:45 to the 1st checkpoint (mile 17.4 - Furnace Creek), 9:45 to 2nd checkpoint (mile 42 – Stovepipe Wells), 20 hours to the 3rd checkpoint (mile 72 – Panamint Springs), 27 hours to the 4th checkpoint (mile 90 – Darwin turnoff), 37 hours to the 5th checkpoint (mile 122 –Dow Villa), 40.5 hours to 6th checkpoint (mile 131 – Portal Road), 41:59:00 to the finish (mile 135).

OK, so how did you (do we) get there?

Efficiency in execution is a must, and I felt that if we were more efficient at our planned breaks and even while moving forward (remember - relentless forward motion) we could shave some minutes off our overall time. I put Chris in charge of this effort, that way the rest of the crew would not have to concern themselves with this important initiative, they could just follow Chris’ lead.

All were to be ready with; i) the van for me to rest, ii) change of clothes, iii) timing the stops and telling me when it is time to resume, iv) keeping me hydrated and feed while I was moving forward, etc.

Who is in charge of efficiency at your organization? If it is you, that is fine, but attention must be paid to this detail.

In addition to efficiency, flexibility must be understood. Below the following time chart is our race plan broken down into 7 segments.

It was meant to be a guide, not a mandate.

There must be inherent flexibility built into your plan, as the conditions will inevitably warrant periodic deviation. These 7 segments allow what seems to be an insurmountable, incomprehensible and impossible undertaking to be broken down into manageable sections.

Instead of one daunting task, I wanted all to think of this race as actually seven shorter races, where we could celebrate more manageable milestones.

These time charts (taken from the Badwater website) show time splits into each checkpoint from my previous 4 Badwaters. I derived our time goals from these historical splits.

I want you to see this as an example of the historical data that you must collect in order to create a viable plan that will give you the best chance of success.

The references in red were my fastest for that particular section of the race. Summary, you will see that I had my best race where I went slower at the beginning, and had faster splits toward the end. So, when undertaking a significant challenge, start slow, then slow down!

 



Here are the 7 Segments, with abbreviated commentary as sent to my crew a week prior to the race. Please pay close attention to the what appear to be a benign comments in bold red once you get to the 5th segment:

#1) Mile 0 to 27 (No stopping at Furnace Creek checkpoint #1, 17.4 miles, go to mile 27): 6:00 hours, arrive 12:00. Start slow, then slow down. We will not stop at the first checkpoint at mile 17.4. Our race plan called for arrival into checkpoint #1 in 3:45 elapsed time. We arrived in 3:39.

#2) Mile 27 to 41.9 (Stovepipe Wells checkpoint #2 – 41.9 miles): Our race plan called for arrival into checkpoint #2 in 9:45 elapsed time. We arrived in 9:31.
Mile 17.4 to 41.9 is the hottest and arguably most draining section of the course (saw 136 degrees in 2006). This is the danger zone, the highway to hell, and is a significant contributing factor to runners who DNF later in the race. If this section is approached properly, it will have positive effect on balance of race.



#3) Mile 41.9 to 72.3 (Panamint checkpoint #3 -72.3 miles): Our race plan called for arrival into checkpoint #3 in 20:00 elapsed time. We arrived at 20:03.
We will be leaving Stovepipe for Panamint at the hottest time of the day (around 4:30pm), and running west, straight into the sun. We begin an 18 mile slow climb from below sea level to 5,000’. Once we reach the top of Towne Pass we start to descend. Let me go a little downhill to give “downhill” muscles a chance to fire. Remember we will have used “uphill” muscles for 6 hours.

#4) Mile 72.3 to 90.1 (Darwin checkpoint #4 – 90.1 miles): Our race plan called for arrival into checkpoint #4 at 27:00 elapsed time. We arrived at 26:59.
Leaving Panamint around 3:00am we have an even steeper and slower climb to mile 90. This is the most dangerous part of the course. There are very few turnouts to park, and many blind curves. Be extremely careful. It will start to heat up again.

#5) Mile 90.1 to 122.3 (Dow Villa checkpoint #5 – 122.3 miles): Our race plan called for arrival into checkpoint #5 in 37:00 elapsed time. We arrived at 35:51. This is the longest section of the course in terms of miles (32.2). How we do in this segment will determine if we break 42 hours. It gets extremely hot near Keeler (mile 105) with volatile weather. One year we had a flash flood, another, an intense sandstorm. We will begin to think about the finish and if we are on track to break 42:00.



#6) Mile 122.3 to 131 (Portal Road checkpoint #6 – 131 miles): Our race plan called for arrival into checkpoint #5 in 40:30 elapsed time. We arrived at 38:55.
From mile 122.3 to the finish is the steepest (12-15%+ grade) and slowest part of the course. Depending on the condition of my feet and mind, this section can be very slow going.

#7) Mile 131 to The Finish (Finish Line – 135 miles): Our race plan called for arrival into checkpoint #5 in 41:59 elapsed time. We arrived at 40:20:50
Once we leave mile 131 we will sense the finish! If we are close on time we will push. Everything will hurt, and we all will be very tired, but I will do what it takes to speed up. We can rest when we are dead! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for getting me to the finish.


 

 


So let’s read between the lines…

But before we do so, I must introduce a fact that even I find difficult to comprehend.

I did not wear a watch, and I instructed all in the crew to never tell me what time it was. I even told them to put tape over all the clocks in the crew van. The crew was told never to speed me up or slow me down, just keep to our prescribed plan. It was not until after the race that all of us were amazed with the almost clairvoyant pre-race time split goals.

Look above again. We were within minutes of the prescribed time, until segment five, when it would be time to see if we could achieve our Primary Goal, and it was that segment, and the final segment, that I ran faster than I ever had in the past (see below).

 

 



If you factor in the varying pace, the extreme heat, the fact that I had terrible gastric issues 14 times early in the race (yes, I counted them), was violently ill with vomiting for ½ hour at mile 90, had x-rated (read horrific) blisters on my feet - worse than ever before, the sleep deprivation, and had a blast furnace-like headwind for much of the hill climbs, it’s uncanny how the early part of the plan was executed with such precision.

At the very beginning I made a reference to the “significant importance of preparing a well thought out plan, and sticking to it when its ‘payoff’ seems so improbable.”

When I look back on the plan, and compare it to the eventual outcome, it seems clear that breaking 42 hours was improbable.

I was four years older than when I posted my best time, I had to shave over an hour off that time, there were years that my elapsed time exceeded 48 hours, my elapsed time to the 4th checkpoint this year was similar or slower to years past where I was nowhere near a sub-42 hour finish, and I was pretty ill for parts of the race.

But I had faith, and with faith comes real hope. I had faith in the plan, in my knowledge and experience gained over my prior 4 Badwaters, and certainly in my crew.

I even said a special prayer hundreds of times that I conceived during the race, and said over the 200,000 footfalls that occurred. “I am thankful to you God for the strength in that last step I ran, and for the health in mind and body for the next one I am about to take.”

So, by sticking to and believing in a sound plan that looked like it might fail after 27 hours of implementation, resisting the temptation to deviate, and keeping true until it was time to really show what we were made of, we were able to accomplish our Primary Goal.

For the rest of my life I will have a respect for and appreciation of The Power of Plan.

Now it’s up to you to devise your own plan for your life, business or particular undertaking. To do so, you must first identify your Primary Goal, one that will leave you challenged, but forever changed.

Once you have done so, apply historical performance data gathered from your or another’s experience to refine your “race plan.” Be sure someone monitors efficiency. Allow for flexibility, and cast alternative plans that could result in alternative success (Primary Goal, Default Goal, Minimum Goal).

Then the most important element, execution! It took 200,000 steps and 145,250 seconds to attain our Primary Goal, and I had to keep relentless forward motion in the forefront of my mind at all times.

Remember, time will progress, so you may as well try to move forward with it.


If you are having problems viewing this video, you can also watch on YouTube by clicking here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTiyEzmvDRE

 

I want to thank Chirs Kostman, "Chief Adventure Officer" for AdventureCOPRS and the hundreds of volunters who made my 2010 race experience my best ever!

P.S. The primary beneficiary of our successfully executed plan is our Caring House Project Foundation. Remember “selectively choosing to suffer a little for those who are suffering a lot without choice in Haiti.”

I ask, if you were moved by our race story this year, and found some value in its content, could you make a donation so that our Caring House Project Foundation can provide 1,350 meals to Haiti? If you have already done so, I thank you. If you haven’t, please visit the following: https://m143.infusionsoft.com/cart/?product_id=157.