Badwater ultra: a view from the crew

Post by Tawnee Prazak at

Badtwater Salton Sea

“This past weekend was a bit of an eye-opener for me. Simply put: I want to do an ultra. I’ve thought about it before but now I know I want to do one and do many in years to come. And let’s put it this way. If you witness Badwater and aren’t terrified but, rather, feeling inspired and want in? Well, that says something. I’m not saying I want to do Badwater anytime soon, but I do want in on an ultra after this experience.

So anyway, it started when my friend Michelle Barton asked John and I to be the crew for Badwater Salton Sea, a team ultra, which she was running with Majo Srnik, an ultra freak from Canada (originally from Slovakia). This is not the original Badwater in Death Valley; it’s a newer one down in San Diego that’s an extremely similar format as the original.

This ultra consists of 81 miles with 40 miles on the desert floor (90-100 degrees), an 8-mile climb out of the desert on the trails, transitioning into the forest, temperatures dropping, ending with a gnarly climb up Palomar Mountain. The whole race has a 9,000 feet elevation gain; the course profile is nasty and not forgiving. I was stoked to be invited to crew, as was John! We took this position very seriously, especially knowing that Michelle and Majo are elite/top ultrarunners.

The ultrarunners

Sunday we were up at 4:30 a.m. and off by 5:30 a.m. to drive 35 miles farther southeast, nearly to Mexico, to the race start at the Salton Sea.
The gun went off and very casually about 50-60 people started running away.  The next 40 miles basically entailed John and I stopping every 2-3 miles to mix handheld bottles of Vitargo and ice water to our team. We figured out a system as we went, and, man, next time we will be so pro. We learned so much.

They were drinking a ton so there was really no significant downtime those first 40 miles. We were always working and always thinking two steps ahead of what had to be done. We were also rolling ice bandannas, grabbing other supplies at their request, navigating, running to the market for more ice (40 lbs total were bought), and so on.

Michelle had her phone to catch some great images on the trail.

At mile 40 they “left us” for nearly 3 hours as they climbed a trail out of the desert, no car access. After the trail section the race dynamics changed. It dropped 20+ degrees, it was windier, getting near dusk, and they were needing less fluids. Michelle even went to a cup of noodles before sunset to get something salty.

As it neared sunset, John and I were driving these beautiful random roads waiting to see two little runners pop into view every so often. After the sun set I think my respect for Michelle and Majo grew even deeper, if that’s possible. 

The night, the full moon, and our runners coming up (those lights are them)

The darker and later it got, the more often John and I stopped to be there for them. But not for fuel so much anymore; rather, simply for support (and also guidance at random street turns). We wanted them to know we were with them every step of the way and give them something to look forward to. Michelle wanted us there often, and I was a bit afraid that we (I) would get annoying to them, or they’d get sick of us, especially my cheering!

They were quiet at times, but I could tell they always appreciated the closeness. I tried not to ask too many questions and instead let them tell us what they wanted, but at times I couldn’t help it. I just wanted to baby them with stuff. “Do you want this?” “Do you need that?” Then there were times where we’d blast music (we played all running-related songs!), and I’d be cheering my brains out in the night stillness sounding like a psycho.

When Michelle and Majo were less than 10 miles to the finish it seemed like it all had gone by so fast and that it would be over in no time, but at that point there was still roughly another couple hours I’m guessing. It was a grueling unrelentless climb. They were still running/jogging, rarely walking. I was floored by that! Majo did great in the cold night whereas Michelle was stronger in the heat earlier. They were a perfect team in that sense. She kept him going in heat, he kept her going late in the cold.

Michelle and Majo cross the finish line!

They finished at 12:02 a.m. Monday, 17 hours and 2 minutes after starting, earning third place overall, and Michelle the female course record. The first place team went 15:09, which was a new course record. Conditions were “ideal” for a record-setting day. We were all stoked beyond belief and it was actually hard to wind down to go to bed that night after what I just witnessed.

After midnight at the finish line with the superstars of ultra!

After this experience, John and I just fell in love with the whole ultra thing- the adventure, the planning, the executing, the teamwork, the organization, the curveballs, the ability to adapt and overcome on the fly, the mental aspect, the endurance, the sheer grit to keep going, all of it. Personally I watched these runners and I wanted to be one! No matter what I’m confident that, personally, getting into some ultras will be good for my mind and body, and give me that new kind of adventure I’m craving.”

During the race, Majo and Michelle wore Swiftwick ASPIREs the whole race. “We never had any hot spots or blisters or any foot issues. We never changed socks,” says Michelle.  Majo wore the ASPIRE ONE, and Michelle wore the ASPIRE ZERO.