The sun was setting, and we were pushed for time. Get there for 7.30pm and not a minute later they told us and here we were rushing to the start line of the Toughest Foot Race on the planet. Forget about being the first ever Welshman to take on Badwater, how about being the first ever person to actually miss the start of the race. These were the thoughts running through my mind as we made our way to Badwater Basin.
We pulled into the parking lot and sure enough we were the last ones to arrive. The marshals were lovely enough, but you could tell they were actually concerned if No.11 (Rhys Jenkins) was going to be a no show. After a quick weigh in and last-minute trip to the van for I don’t know what (probably just some reassurance from my team it was time to make this dream a reality) it was time to line up at the Badwater Basin sign.
What happened next will live long in the memory, rubbing shoulders with some of the most amazing people on the planet, looking around and just finding inspiration from everyone else in my wave. We were all here to take on 135 miles through the hottest place on Earth, climb three mountain ranges and join the Badwater Family. There were a lot of people at the start line which created an amazing atmosphere, including the Race Director Chris Kostman – who very kindly reminded us not to think about “the 135 miles of scorching highway between us and the finish line”. Although all my crew were at the start line, I could only see my Brother amongst the crowd and kept looking towards him, it’s amazing in amongst all the cheers of support, his voice rang the loudest (probably the Welsh accent) and proudest, it was all the motivation I needed to hit the road…
Before going into the race itself, I need to take you back to give you an idea of how this all began. Badwater had been on my radar for over 10 years, it was a seed that had been well and truly planted. Badwater is the toughest foot race on this planet, Badwater is the ultimate test of the human spirit.
For me it has been an amazing journey, it has led me into Death Valley National Park on 4 separate occasions for charity and each time I’ve come out of there learning something about my body, the people you need by your side and the course itself. Each time I’ve come out of there loving Death Valley National Park that little bit more. For anyone who doesn’t know much about the Park, it is absolutely awe inspiring and if you ever get the chance to visit then you’d have to search far and wide to find a place on this planet with such raw and epic scenery. The mountains are crazy, the colours blinding, the night skies mesmerising and heat blistering. Death Valley National Park is astounding!
Over the 12 months leading up to my Badwater application, I really focussed on meeting the qualifying standards, hoping that just maybe I could do myself justice and get across how much Badwater 135 meant to me. I spent a lot of time working on and procrastinating over my application and finally hit send with very little time to spare. Did I really think I had a chance of getting into the race? Not really, I knew I had an outsider’s chance if the stars aligned but I understood the quality of people applying for what is the holy grail of ultra-running. With that thought in my mind I tried to suppress any feelings or thoughts of getting into the race, the time passed and soon it was announcement day. I won’t lie, I was very excited that day, just because I knew my name was in the hat, it was a cool experience to watch the Facebook live knowing that there was a very small chance of my name being read out.
Me being me, I’d actually arranged for my good friend and sports masseuse Stuart Clarke to come to my house to repair my legs whilst watching from the comfort (discomfort) of having a sport massage. As the time went by and the people’s names were listed off with incredible race experience, the realisation that I would have to go away and work on myself in regard to running and being a better person became more apparent. Where would I go? Spartathlon? Keys 100? Where would my Badwater journey take me next?
Then all of a sudden something made my heart skip a beat… “I’m super pumped on this guy actually, I just met his brother in London, this guy is from the United Kingdom but he is from Wales”. Automatically I start thinking, right, I’m from Wales, I have a brother, he just met Chris, oh Christ who else is there from Wales who’s applied for this race, there is no way this can be… At which point I could see in the corner of my eye, Cerys, my wife, took a step back and engulfed the deepest of breathes, she knew before I did…
It took me a little while longer, I wasn’t in the race until my name had been read out by the Race Director Chris Kostman, word by word it very slowly hit home, then bam there it was… Rhys Jenkins. I was in shock, I didn’t know what to do, do I scream with excitement, do I punch the air with joy, nope I just sat there and cried, then hugged Cerys, a 10 year journey had led me to this point in time and it was all too much. It was a moment of realisation that I had made it into the 100 lucky souls to take on Badwater 135 in 2019. Queue the wild celebrations from friends and family, messages, phone calls and social media love, it was a crazy few hours. I allowed myself to sleep on it and then got to work the next day.
I started by drawing up a shortlist of the people who I genuinely needed to get me through this. I know to this day that I disappointed quite a few people with my final decision, but it was part of the journey and I had to go with the people who could bring different skillsets that enhanced the team. From every Badwater veteran I spoke with, your crew are the ones that get you through and my crew was pretty badass.
John Ortiz, best man, trusted confident, damn the guy had been to Death Valley with me on two separate occasions (two of the unofficial crossings) supporting me by himself. He knew the route inside out, he knew me inside out, he knew the parts of the course where I would struggle, and he knew the parts of the course where I would flourish. He’d been there for me on numerous occasions. We’d started it together and we were going to finish it together.
Scott Jenkins, brother, best man, trusted side kick and overall amazing athlete in his own right. Scott had tackled Death Valley with me on 2 of my 4 crossings, he’d seen me run it and he’d been through it with me, side by side. He’d had his own ups and downs, he knew where the course bites and he knew exactly what buttons to push when the shit hit the fan. We’d been through it all together and I needed him there.
Lawrence Cronk, a best friend and influential figure on my running career. A stand-up guy with an amazing engine to fit, he’d trained me for the last 2 years and he was the reason my body was in a position to tackle challenges like Badwater. The amount of time I’d spent sharing my dream with him, he probably felt like he’d already been there and done it. He always makes the joke that if you want Rhys to turn up then he’ll pop it in my training, truth be told, he’s right, I live and die by his training plans. He was the guy I needed to settle the ship and watch over me through the world’s toughest foot race.
Last but not least, Stuart Clarke, an absolute stalwart and the guy who fixes me when the body is well and truly broken. The type of guy whose attention to detail is second to none, whether it is a golf ball sized knot in your calf or a stray Biffy Bag, he was the guy that would know what to do. He was the guy that would fix my legs in the hottest place on Earth and bring with him an amazing calming influence.
These would be the four brothers to join me on what would be the biggest challenge of my running career, this was a 10-year dream, this was Badwater. I knew how far I’d be willing to push it and I knew with these four amazing people by my side, my chances of completing would improve. The words ‘legends’ and ‘amazing’ don’t do these guys justice, they are brothers to me (one of them actually is) and I could never ever repay what they did for me in Death Valley. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Enough of the bromance, on to Badwater 135…
We hit the road, well the board walk for the first 100 metres and I was lucky enough to get a high five from Stu and pat on the back from Jacob Cooper (a good friend and awesome ultra-marathoner). Just as you leave the basin you are reminded at how far you are below sea level (282 feet to be precise), a sign placed halfway up a cliff face shines brightly even with the dimming light.
Starting at 8pm in the evening, you’d think that the temperature would be manageable, ok it wasn’t as hot as the mid-day sun, but it was still toasty. It was hot enough for me to see off a litre and a half of fluid every hour (just in water and electrolytes) plus extra drinks. The first couple of miles is pretty much controlled mayhem, runners trying to spot support vehicles and vice versa, finding your rhythm, leap frogging back and forth with other athletes until you establish your place within the line of runners.
The sun had begun to set and out of the looming darkness the Race Director Chris Kostman was there with camera in hand, taking photos and handing out high fives to each and every competitor. A really nice touch that welcomed you into the race!
With Badwater you have three starting waves, I was lucky enough to be in the first wave meaning I had the added bonus of seeing the other competitors making their way to the start line as I was already running, although they weren’t encouraged to shout or beep, you did get some pretty cool sign language of encouragement as they went past.
After a few hours, the darkness had fully engulfed Death Valley and for me I’d found my groove. I call it a groove as it takes a while for my legs and breathing to settle down, once it has, I’m almost like a train, I run with very small steps, feet hardly leaving the floor, it looks like a limp to most but it is just my way of preserving energy and making forward progress. It wasn’t only me who’d found my groove, so had the crew, they were working like a Formula One team, ensuring I was taking on enough fluids, the right fluids, and eating the required calories to keep energy levels up. One thing that made it easier to eat (I find eating during a race extremely difficult) was the fact that the guys had created a walking talking buffet for me to choose from at each pit stop, all the food options had been separated into small pots, I had the ability to pick what I wanted and they had the ability to measure exactly how many calories I was consuming.
The first leg of the race is from Badwater Basin to Furnace Creek (the hottest place on Earth), an 18-mile rolling stretch through the darkness of the night. We made good time for the first section, making it into the first time station at just over 3 and 1/2 hours. It was good going but the team picked up on something, I was gaining weight. I’d been taking on too many fluids and it was showing as I’d gained a little pot belly. Coach Cronk stepped in and only allowed me water for the next few hours, the idea being to flush out the system and get the body functioning correctly.
The section from Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells has always given me issues in the past so we went with a game plan for these 24 miles. To slow the pace and relax, reduce the heart rate and take care of the muscles, walk the slight uphills and just try my best to relax as much as possible. You know what, it worked, my pace did drop but it was the first time I’ve gone through that section with minimal issues. In previous years, extreme cramps to my calves extended through my body and actually knocked me out at the side of the road, not a great way to be after 40 miles into a 135-mile slog. But 2019 was different, the crew got me through that section, Lawrence fuelling me up, Stuart working the muscles, Scott offering great words of encouragement and John straight talking me when my head did wobble (this wasn’t the only occasion).
At this point in the race, you have the different waves of runners catching up with one another and it does become busy in places, as busy as it can get in Death Valley at 5am in the morning. It did bring an amazing opportunity to see the other people running out there and one of the guys, Mosi Smith, offered me encouragement when I needed it – it was only a brief exchange but the guy exudes inspiration and it went a long way to getting me to the finish line (spoiler alert).
Shortly before Stovepipe Wells my bodily functions started working pretty well and I required the toilet, luckily enough I had the option of two toilets (there aren’t many on the route). Either stop now at the Mesquite Sand Dunes or hold out until Stovepipe Wells, I went for the first option. Little did I know I wasn’t alone, as I settled in the darkness with my headlamp, something moved in the corner of my eye, I wasn’t the only one taking refuge, a scorpion scurried in front of my feet, I’m terrible with scorpions and this little visitor really did speed up my bodily functions.
Back to the race…the sun was rising over one mountain range whilst the moon was setting behind another, something really special and a highlight of my race (plenty of these). I found myself re-energised and made a solid push for Stovepipe Wells, instead of stopping and losing time we decided to push past the town and make a dent into the 16 / 17 mile climb up Towne Pass. It worked well as back in Stovepipe Wells the crew had a battle grabbing ice and refuelling due to there being a lot of runners and crews making the most of the facilities (one of only four opportunities on the entire route) so you can understand the need.
This was the part of the race where the crew were allowed to start buddy running and I was lucky enough to have Lawrence jump in at this point, he’d been cramped up in a van for 10 hours with very little sleep so to see him bound out of the van was a great little pick me up, I knew I was in safe hands. Soon we settled into a rhythm and made the push that was always going to happen, I had to get to the first cut off time which is sadistically halfway up the Towne Pass climb. They were tough miles and it was a slog, but I always knew deep down they would be, so to make it to the sign gave me great strength. That isn’t to say the next few miles after the cut off were a breeze, in fact they sucked, I was extremely grateful to get to the top of Towne Pass. From below Sea Level to above 5,000 ft, the views are insane, whether you look back towards Stovepipe Wells or forwards to Panamint Valley, where by chance we were greeted by a Jet Fighter making their daily training run through the valley, the noise is something else, you’d think it would be easy to spot but the Valley is so big, the Jet Fighter turns into a grain of sand. A truly memorable experience!
After the top of Towne Pass, it is a 9-mile descent into Panamint Valley, a section of the route I wanted to run fast, a section I’ve run fast before but for some reason it wasn’t happening. Although I was joined by chief motivator and brother Scott, the legs just wouldn’t churn over, I’d get going and my energy levels would just drop, and it meant for a very slow descent into Panamint Valley.
This was a pivotal point in our race, it was a make or break moment. Unbeknown to me, the crew had been chatting, they’d been monitoring my calorie intake and it has been next to nothing for a few hours, I’d been chugging down the fluids but I’d been delaying taking down proper food. As mentioned, I’m terrible at eating lots during a normal ultra-marathon, let alone the world’s toughest and hottest ultra-marathon. My appetite wasn’t there, the food I was chewing was just sticking in my throat and I couldn’t swallow it. At this point, they sat me down, I think it was Lawrence (…lets blame Lawrence) and he gave it to me straight, he told me my race would be over within a few hours if I didn’t start to eat, my 10 year dream would be left at the side of the road. I just nodded, I didn’t really know what to say, I just knew something had to change and it had to change quickly, I didn’t have much time.
So going into the hottest part of the race (due to the time of day and location), I was struggling, Scott had been doing his best to get me going, shouting encouragement, keeping me cool with water and handing off water bottle after water bottle, next to no energy was in me. Now it was over to Lawrence with the Mission Cooling blanket, this isn’t an advertisement, it was a legit bit of kit that kept me cool(ish) across the Valley floor, the sun was beating down, the wind was kicking up, our caps were blowing off our heads but the blanket kept cool and it remained so until we cleared the sandy section of the Valley. That blanket really did save my ass in a desperate time and it bought me a little more time to get to Panamint Springs Resort. I still wasn’t eating much but the words from crew and look of worry on their faces was engrained in my mind and I invited the guys to get me a Cheeseburger from the small resort restaurant, there really isn’t much there but it really is a beautiful place, it takes you back in time.
Growing up my nickname was Burger Boy, I could and still can see off a burger in the blink of an eye. Hence why I asked for the Cheeseburger, a greasy hunk of meat with a layer of calorific cheese and ketchup, heaven for me on most occasions but not this time… As soon as the guys presented it to me, I just knew it wasn’t going to be easy to eat, my hunger wasn’t there but my desire to keep the tank fuelled was, I chewed and choked on that Cheeseburger until it was consumed. I’d had the nod from the crew, and we were good to get going but not before Stu had given my legs a wakeup call with the Theragun and some severe knot dislodging.
Onwards and upwards as they say, and yep it was quite definitely upwards, the Father Crowley climb from Panamint Springs is hellacious for most but for me I usually love it. Going into the climb my confidence had been knocked from the previous 10 / 15 miles, we started off slowly (I was joined by Scott on this section) to get the movement back in the muscles after a prolonged break and you know what, something clicked, an awakening of sorts, my energy levels improved, my head picked up and I kept reminding myself why I was running, yes it had been a 10 year dream but I was running for the CF Warriors, a crazy good charity from south Wales that helps children with Cystic Fibrosis get into exercise and lead a healthy lifestyle. Here I was in the hottest place on Earth, going up one of the toughest climbs around, through one of the hottest times of the day and I was getting faster, I was catching other competitors (not that this was my goal but it helped get me up the 9 mile climb), I was refusing to break, I was running uphill, Scott was having to bust a gut to catch up with me after filing up the water bottles, I was well and truly back in the race and I was having fun, I was enjoying the pain again.
At the top of the climb which is actually a few miles past Father Crowley the road begins to plateau for a bit, the sun was beginning to dip and a gentle breeze caught me, it was pleasant, the hottest part of the race was behind me and we took a small break at one of the designated rest areas on the climb. My senses were back, I wasn’t in a dark place anymore, we got chatting to other runners and crew as we took in what we had just gone through. This would be another pivotal moment in our race…
I’d been focussing on getting my ass up the Father Crowley climb so much that I’d taken my eye off the overall time, we’d made up time, we were alive again. Now John is great at many things but one of the things that I admire most is his straightforward manner; he gives it to you blunt. He sat me down (I was already sitting) and he laid it out in front of me… You want 36 hours we can get you 36 hours; you want 40 hours we can get you 40 hours, you want to run the whole thing backwards we can still get you there in time. I don’t know if he meant for it to be inspirational but by God it got me going, it got me pumped, it reminded me that these guys would go through hell and back for me and I owed it to them to give it my absolute all.
Off we went into the second night, just as the sun was setting we were leaving Death Valley, passing the huge Welcome To Death Valley sign and things were going good, the rolling hills were going down nicely, the Greatest Showman was on repeat and we were closing in on the Darwin 90 mile checkpoint. We got to the time station and it was pretty crazy, this small checkpoint in the middle of nowhere had a lot of visitors, runners everywhere, some taking the opportunity to nap, others running straight through, we took the middle road and decided to take a 20 minute comfort break. Stu took care of my legs whilst I tried to take on a few more calories, you could see the lack of sleep creeping into the team, not that they would have admitted it, they were my rocks. Shortly after leaving the time station, the road starts dropping a little then the rolling hills kick in for a bit, at this point, we were all struggling to stay awake. The going was steady, but we were wobbling. I could feel myself falling asleep whilst still moving forward.
We were surprised by how many support crews, vehicles and runners there were in close proximity. From the 100 mile marker (before this even) you can see the finish line, 30 miles out and the road was lit up like a Christmas tree, every one of those lights was a runner, a runner heading towards their dream and we still had 30 miles to go. Although this was a harsh reality, it was inspirational to see, knowing there were other people out there in the same fight as you, something special that I will never forget. Soon the lights began to play games with us, I asked Lawrence if he could see the ‘dancing car’ and he said yes. Were we both hallucinating? The car kept dancing back and forth across the road, it was still a fair few miles away so we spent the next 30 minutes trying to figure out what was going on, as we closed in on the ‘dancing car’ it soon became clear that it was actually two cars that had stopped close to each other and coincidently their hazard lights had been set off at different times. Either way it was a welcomed distraction.
At this point my mind was frazzled, my head was dropping, and I could see the same with the team. I suggested we take a 20-minute nap, a nap for everyone to just rest their engines, no noise, just relax and listen to the environment. The guys put the alarm on, Stu made a pillow out of boxes and I drifted off almost immediately. I woke up in a panic, damn it we’ve overslept, we’ve lost hours, are we still in the race? Is the dream over? I didn’t know what to do, I just laced up, shouted something at the crew (can’t remember what) and just went off like a rocket, they’ll find me eventually, just get going and whatever we’ve lost we’ll get back. Transpires we’d been asleep for 10 minutes and actually just made up time from a moment of sheer panic and confusion.
After a few more hours the sun was waking up and the moon was off to bed, the heat returned, and we made our way into Lone Pine. This was it, the final time station, 13 miles between us and the finish line of the world’s toughest footrace. 13 miles left of a 135-mile race? In the bag yeah? No chance…
Possibly the cruellest 13 miles of my life. 13 miles of sheer ascent to Whitney Portal, at this point in the race the road goes up (again) and it doesn’t stop going up until you hit the finish line. It is a brutal way to finish a race but by heck it is truly magnificent! You reach the famous switchbacks with a couple of miles left and you feel uplifted. You look back to see how far you’ve come, turn the corner one last time and enter a true oasis.
The crew had made their way down the road to walk the final mile with me, I was pretty emotional, I didn’t know what to say, I just thanked them all individually, plenty of man hugs flying around, tears underneath the sunglasses, I popped my arm around John and just couldn’t get my words out, I was choked up, he knew it, we didn’t share one word, but knew exactly what each other were thinking.
Whitney Portal to me is the best place on Earth, the lushest forest, running streams, Mount Whitney watching over you and the finish line of a 10-year dream… The finish of the world’s toughest footrace… The finish line of Badwater 135.
I was nervous with the finish in sight, there it was, people cheering, cameras rolling, and I questioned myself… Did I deserve to cross it? Did I deserve to be the first ever Welshman to cross it? I came to realise that as an athlete I will always question if I could have done better or got a quicker time, it’s something that will always drive me. I lived a lifetime in those final few steps and I did it with four of the most incredible people in my life… Scott, John, Stu and Lawrence thank you. Greeted by the awesome Chris Kostman and presented with the holy grail… The Badwater Belt Buckle… The 10-year dream had become a reality. FUCK YEAH!
People have asked what is next since I’ve returned home and there is only one thing on my mind… Getting back to Badwater in 2020! I want to build a Welsh legacy in the race, I want to live the Badwater way of life.