Monday, August 5, 2013

Keeps on Ticking…by Meredith Dolhare

Meredith Dolhare’s Badwater 135 Experience (and Beyond)

Meredith at Badwater 135, running in 125 degrees.

If you had told me one year ago today, which would be exactly six weeks post double spinal fusion, reconstruction and discectomy, that not only would I have completed the Badwater 135-mile Ultramarathon in Death Valley by the next year, but placed third amongst the females and 20th overall, I would have laughed in your face. Mind you, there was no doubt in my mind that I would return to racing—and with a vengeance. Hell hath no fury like a redhead nearly stripped of her passion. However, I had no idea what my limitations would be in this unchartered territory. What I did know is that I could not continue training and racing in the constant pain I was in. Yes, the surgery was invasive and my recovery was arduous. I could not do anything but walk with the RunningWorks neighbors on Tuesdays and Fridays, and not until several weeks post surgery. But, oh my—was it worth the hurt! And patience.

Here are three tips for anyone facing a serious injury who wants to get back “on the playing field” within a reasonable timeframe:

1)     Listen to your doctor and STAY OFF THE INTERNET. You can find anything you do or don’t want to read online. Not all of it is true. Listen to the expert right in front of you. That is why you chose him or her.

2)     Get outside of yourself and volunteer and/or fundraise. Do not sit at home feeling sorry for yourself because your recovery will take a lot longer. You would be surprised how quickly time passes when you are helping others who have problems ten times worse than yours.

3)     Keep moving. You are going to want to watch TV or play online because depression makes you tired. Choose to help people who keep you moving and get you out of bed.

Honestly, when I had my operation in late June 2012, I did not meet all of the qualifications for entry to Badwater, yet. The bar has been raised yet again to even receive a coveted invitation to this special event, and I knew if I wanted to tow the line, I still had some work to do—quickly and with limitations. While I was sidelined, I went ahead and applied for the Brazil 135-mile Ultramarathon, which is a qualifier for Badwater and takes place in late January each year. Having now done this race, I realize how ridiculous my plan was considering a) I was not cleared to run by my neurosurgeon until almost December; b) there’s 30k of elevation gain and loss; and c) that pesky distance of 135 miles is kind of far.

Once my neurosurgeon Dr. Isaacs from Duke gave me the green light, I went to the mountains with my faithful training partner “Dr.” Justin Andrews, who knows more about orthopedic injuries than any non-doctor I know. I felt safe with him, and we jumped right into some majorly long runs (for that time period) up to 50k at Moses Cone Park—a couple of days in a row. I am always one to say that if you believe you can, you can. You. Can. Endurance sports are almost entirely mental past a certain point, and I am living proof of that. This was the first weekend of December, and the clock was ticking for Brazil. If I could not start with 50k days and move up, I needed to rethink my plan for the next several months. Badwater had infected the brain in a huge way, and I could almost smell the potential for making it happen. Both Justin and I were shocked that I was able to not only complete the challenging runs at Moses Cone, but also enjoy them and have no issues or pain.

As a result, I decided it was time to try a race. I’m always one to “race to fitness”—meaning, I love to do training ultra races, which have lots of supported miles, and can test my fitness. I try to take my ego out of the equation and simply enjoy the process even if my results are not what they might be at my “A” race. So, the very next weekend, I entered the Bartram 100k in Georgia—again with “Dr.” Justin along with the understanding that he could pull me out of the race if there was concern for my safety. I felt safe and took off with a smile on my face fired up to even be there.

The quote of the day came from me at this particular race, which was ten loops of 10k (two weeks after being cleared), and was, “Two thumbs up, JJ! Not a problem. It is going to be a good day.” Madness.

I cannot explain to anyone who has not experienced nearly losing the ability to take part in whatever it is you love to do what it is like to return to it—and feel better. Around loop five, I had a moment where I shed tears, looked to the sky and thanked God for giving me another chance. I vowed (out loud) not to waste it. I pledged to encourage those with injuries to believe in their ability to return to competitive sport. I knew I was being given a chance.

Somehow, even though I had not run distance in more than a year, I was able to equally split my ten 10k loops and place 2nd female and 7th overall. 63 miles. Even Justin was shocked, and that is hard to do! I was most excited to have surprised my husband Walter, who told me there was no way I would do well after little more than a week of training, and “you are an idiot for even going.” Believe you can… (Walter doesn’t say that anymore, and has always been my biggest support. He was concerned, but I had to know where I was physically.)

If the day had not gone well, I would have reconsidered the Brazil 135 that January because I am realistic despite some of the crazy things I do. I must tell you, believe what the website says in this case. That race is no joke. It never stops ascending and descending. And then…ascending, and descending. The 135 miles are not the problem if you are ready to go the distance. The elevation gain and loss are—as well as the fact that you do not see your crew for hours at a time because cars cannot make it up the steep ascents—or down, without getting stuck or losing control. The terrain was incredible, the scenery unimaginable, the “family” of racers top-notch. I made friends at that race that I will have for life, and placed fifth (top 20 overall). If you are considering a Badwater qualifier or a race beyond 100 miles on foot, I highly recommend this event; however, please do not undertake it expecting something “easy for 135”. On a newly constructed spine, it was hubris.

Brazil 135
Somehow, I got through the Brazil 135 and thought it would be a good idea to do the Rouge Orleans 126.2 Ultramarathon three weeks later. I suppose you could say I was on a roll, plus had a well-founded fear, due to the highly qualified applicants each year, that I would not be invited to Badwater. It was not one of my best decisions to run from Baton Rouge to New Orleans three weeks after going up, then down, then up…and down again in Brazil; but, I finished the race in third and was miserable. At this time, I submitted my Badwater 135 application intact with all qualifying standards met and surpassed. Now, it was time to wait for the Badwater answer. And take a break!

In my heart of hearts, I knew if I ever received the invitation to Badwater I so desired, especially following these extenuating circumstances, I would honor the people who had vouched for me, like my coach, friend and mentor Charlie Engle, by preparing above-and-beyond the expected. Since beginning endurance sports in Nov. 2008 with Ironman Florida, I have always piled my races on top of each other in an almost insane way—or undertook them post to mid injury. That does not promote quality racing or results (although I do find it very fun—that’s the point). I do not feel that I have ever prepared properly for an ultra-running event, and I only started those in my off-season from triathlon in late 2010. Having discovered a knack for them, I decided it was finally time to prepare solely for the Holy Grail of Ultras: Badwater.

Once I received confirmation of my entry, I started making plans, but due to some personal issues, I could not start training again until mid April. Charlie helped me nonstop and shared his secrets for success, which enabled me to reduce stress and not feel like a rookie. Not to mention, we did most of our lead-up races together, which included the Leatherwood 50-Miler (ouch—first race back), Badwater: Salton Sea 81-Miler, Moonlight Boogie 50-Miler, and the Worth the Hurt San Francisco Double Marathon, from mid-April through mid June. My doctor told me I was not allowed to ride my bike on the road nor swim without a snorkel (a.k.a. “dorkel”) due to lack of fusion, so, why would I not run ultras? As time went on, I continued to get faster and ended up placing as the first female and top ten overall in the final three of four races I did before Badwater, which was a good omen—and gave me confidence. I’m not sure there has ever been a time that I felt more prepared for a race, or as prepared; therefore, towing the line was an exercise in patience. As I began to taper down in mileage for the big day, I felt crazy and twitchy—ready to go. Poor Charlie received text messages and phone calls almost daily to ask if this was normal. I’ve tapered for more Ironman races than average, but I have never felt so eager.

In the final few weeks before the race, I took a “traincation” to Colorado with my son Noah, who also loves to run distance. We spent some time at altitude and summited Beaver Creek Mountain multiple times in preparation for the Mount Whitney climb from miles 122-135. This ended up paying huge dividends because I was solidly in third place overall until I discovered at the Whitney Basin (Portal Road) that a female from the 6 a.m. wave had gone insanely fast. I was in the elite 10 a.m. wave, two waves behind (there is an 8 a.m. wave as well), and thought I had run through the entire two waves in front of me. I called on my training in Colorado and remembered Noah saying that I “had to be ready after doing things so hard”, “put my head down” as Justin says, and went to work. The problem with the 6 a.m. wave is that they have the cover of dawn for at least three to four hours before the “real” heat comes out. Not to mention, they run the stretch from 90-122 without having to see Mount Whitney as a mirage in the distance but not getting any closer. It was wonderful to hear Pam Reed, a fellow Newton runner and legendary ultra athlete who has won the race overall twice, say that this very same “mirage” gives her fits after 11 years of doing the race. It is maddening, and I lost the most time at this point. It was a serious learning curve for years to come, and I hope to improve here.

Anyway, I had endured 20 mph constant headwinds up Townes Pass past 42 miles with more than 40 mph gusts then switched to random chatty bliss with one of my pacers (Chris) going up the Father Crowley climb near dawn. We were going back and forth with Dean Karnazes who was in a funny mood, which helped the overall morale. Love him! There is a reason he is the face of ultra. Plus, that made me realize that I must be doing “alright” because David Goggins was in the mix, too. He, on the other hand, was not happy to see me. We were together the next 15 hours.

"Please get these shoes and socks off of me!"
As a rookie, I did not mind the heat. In fact, I expected it and embraced it. I enjoyed it, and I had trained for it.  I did not run Badwater expecting a cold front. As an athlete from the South, I did not find the “dry heat” intolerable. Maybe this is because I had done extensive and even excessive heat training inside saunas for multiple hours at a time with sweaters, pants, hats, and gloves—or maybe it is because my friends Justin Andrews and Matt Patton converted my boys’ old treehouse at the lake into a running sauna with my grandfather’s treadmill and some space heaters. Lord knows you have to find a use for your children’s discarded playthings! The time I found it the most intolerable was around mile 123-124 when the pavement was so hot that my shins felt as if they were on fire, and the crew had to spray me every 30 seconds. Thanks, Watson!

Regardless, I was ready and I knew it. For day one, the QOTD came from Mosi Smith, one of my pacers who raced Badwater the year prior, “Mer, you are averaging 9:35 at 37 miles—heat of the day, you cool with that? All good?” Yep. All according to plan.

Most of the questions that I receive are: 1) How many blisters did you get?  2) How many times did you stop? You slept, right? 3) How often were the pacers with you and why? Were they there to actually pace or for moral support?

1/2) Blisters: I was incredibly lucky. I started out in compression socks because they were Timex branded and I am on the Timex Multisport Team; however, they started to rub and cause blisters when water from my head and the sprayer got into my shoes, so I switched to Balega socks at around 50k—smart move. Charlie told me when I felt a hot spot or any other issue, change quickly. I have never done this before because I do not like to take the time, but he was right. Justin, who is an Athletic Trainer with his Masters Degree, fixed the one major blister early in the race and I never had another issue with it, thank God.  Apparently, blisters are the leading cause of DNF at Badwater. After seeing the photos this year, I believe it! Incredibly enough, I only ended up with those two blisters the entire race, which were non-events, and I swear by Balega socks, a North Carolina company. I changed my Newton shoes and Balega socks another three times during the race, but very quickly, and those were my only stops other than to be dunked in the coffin-sized cooler of ice/ water three times—also very quickly. All stops were five minutes or under barring disasters. No sleeping. No “resting” or “treat breaks” as I call them. Relentless forward progress at all times even if I am moving at a snail’s pace.         

Nathan Leehman from NC: Fast! Ultra Runner on my Crew
3) My pacers picked me up at mile 17, which is where it is legal to begin having a pacer, simply by fluke. Nathan started running behind me to see how I was doing.  I enjoyed his company, plus the fact that he could carry my water bottle, haha, so he stayed. These amazing athletes, Chris Jones, Mosi Smith and Nathan Leehman, who are mentioned in more detail later in the blog, were with me the entire rest of the way, and deserve major kudos for their patience, skill and effort. Justin Andrews, Jeff Daniels and Watson Dolhare in Crew Car One never even slept while piggybacking every half-mile for 135-miles. They estimated there were more than 270 crew stops in that van alone.

In ultra-anything, your crew can make or break you. This is tried and true. In my opinion, if you are ready to race under any conditions, your crew is 90% of your success. In this case, I was so incredibly blessed. My crew was top-notch. When I stated, “(I) started making plans”—that included crew, which I find very important. Do not wait until the last minute to make these plans. Find the right people, who get along with each other, understand ultra racing, nutrition and how to mix it properly (or you will get sick), the need for no drama, and what your goals are without broadcasting them to the entire rest of the field. In my case, my pacers included some of the who’s who of ultra racing now: Nathan Leehman, Charlotte-based ultra-runner who boasts a mid-15 hour 100-mile time; Mosi Smith, former Marine who has run nearly every major ultra run including Badwater—and fast; and, Chris Jones, ultra-runner and marathoner, also in the military, who ran no less than 70 marathons last year. All three of them were invaluable and along the way from mile 17 to the top of Mount Whitney. Plus, Justin Andrews, who I cannot live without at races, was Crew Chief Extraordinaire, along with my Generation UCAN “bartender” as we call him, Jeff Daniels, who has crewed for two Rouge Orleans races, Ultraman UK, and Badwater mixing most likely more GenUCAN than anyone in the world, and my 15-year-old son Watson, who helped me win the Moonlight Boogie with his awesomeness, and who took nearly 1000 photos and four hours of GoPro video—in addition to keeping me from getting sunburned by spraying me every 30 minutes with Mission sunscreen. Watson also helped me move all of the gear into storage in Las Vegas post race so that we can use it again for the Furnace Creek 508-Mile Bicycle Race in October. I had been a zombie since about mile 100, and my favorite post race quote came from him:

            “So…are you in your right mind yet, Mom?”

            “Don’t hold your breath, son.”

Nathan Leehman, Jeff Daniels, Watson Dolhare, Meredith Dolhare, Justin Andrews, and Mosi Smith: Team ROAM (Redhead On A Mission)
            There’s no group of six people with whom I would have rather shared the Badwater experience. My success in this particular race was their success, and they felt that—even though I was slightly bonkers and catatonic at times. It was an incredible bond that can never be broken (maybe for that reason). The most special thing for me is that someone from my immediate family was able to share in the extreme ultra experience rather than simply hearing the stories, which sound like urban legend.

Meredith and Watson sharing a precious moment at finish.
“Mom, if I had not been here to see this with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. I am so proud,” said Watson in tears of shock at the finish after I motored up Mount Whitney for the final 13-miles on the Portal Road in order to maintain third place. I was pushing so hard that I could not speak nor could I answer simple questions. All were met with a blank stare or no response—total focus.

            There is nothing in the world that could have made the last year more worth it. Grateful does not begin to cut it.

            Please feel free to contact Meredith at,, or visit her website at In addition, you can learn about her non-profit RunningWorks at or Both RunningWorks and Meredith can be found on Twitter at or All questions are welcomed and encouraged. Read the Volunteer Basics and FAQ tabs online at prior to joining the 10 am runs on Tuesday or Friday mornings at the Urban Ministry Center of Charlotte, 945 N. College Street. We hope to see you there!      


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