There are only five Wisconsinites who have run the infamous Badwater Ultramarathon and Parker Rios is a member of the group. He ran last year’s 135 mile race in scorching desert temperatures – and lived to tell the tale.
Below, he tells us about his fueling strategy, how he got through the rough spots and the most memorable moments of the race.
Years running: 25
Favorite workout: Any run I can sneak in! Just happy to get out for a run any time I can…
Favorite distance to race: 50 milers because they can be entirely completed when the sun is still out AND 100 milers because around mile 80 is where the real challenge starts.
Favorite song to get pumped up pre-race: Hmm, not sure I have a favorite pre-race song, but the Foo Fighters “Learn To Fly” is pretty good to get psyched up for a run. And Pearl Jam & Smashing Pumpkins are great at 3:00am – both can be like a triple espresso when you’re really dragging and falling asleep on your feet.
Favorite post-race treat: A 12 ounce can of Coke. And then a beer. This is Milwaukee, isn’t it?
At the Grand Canyon, running Rim to Rim to Rim
How did you get started with running?
I wish I had a good story to tell, but I don’t think I do. My earliest memory of running was in grade school. We had a 50-minute lunch break and my parent’s house was about ¾ mile from school. I remember running home as fast as I could each school day at lunch and timing myself on the kitchen clock. I think running as a young child helped build the inner desire that now exists as an adult. Although, having said that, I didn’t run in middle or high school, and was never on the track or cross-country teams.
There are a couple of reasons I keep running. The first is because I love how it makes me feel. Yes, there are days when I absolutely dread the thought of going out for a run, but once I get out and start moving I am so glad I found that motivation. It always feels great to return home from a good run. The second reason is that I love to be out on the trails experiencing nature and natural beauty – 99 percent of the races I compete in take place in just this type of locale. The experience and joy of being out on the trail cannot be easily described. The third is that I have been fairly successful in my running career and that success makes me want to challenge myself more.
What does a typical training week look like for you?
My training weeks are light. That’s just how life is with a family and a full-time job. I try to get in a run or two during the week, but often that just does not happen. As such, I utilize the weekend. But this too poses a dilemma. My wife and I have two young daughters and it’s hard to make the time for just myself. What has worked over the past three years is getting up at about 1:30am on Saturday and getting in a long run of about six hours when everyone at home is sleeping. I have used this time effectively for training for Arrowhead, Badwater and now the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
You are one of only a few people in Wisconsin to finish Badwater – is this throughout the history of Badwater?
I am one of four Wisconsinites* to have ever been accepted into and complete Badwater. The other three (Jason Dorgan, Mary Gorski and Darren Fortney) are all solid ultra-endurance athletes, and I am lucky to be included when those who follow Badwater speak of the Badger State.
Because Badwater is an “invite” only race, last year’s race was the first and only time I had applied and been selected into the race. Each year, Badwater limits the number of racers to 100 runners. Generally, they accept 50 “veterans” and 50 “first-timers”. The race director receives applications from runners from around the world. There is an extensive (multi-page) application process that also requires documented finishing times and races. There is a selection committee of five judges that score each application from all they receive. They then only send out 100 invitations to the highest scoring applications.
One step at a time during the Badwater Ultramarathon
What made you sign up for Badwater? What types of ultra races had you done previously?
Badwater has been on my running bucket list since I first learned of the race back in the early nineties. Over those years, the race has become exponentially more well know, and hence it became harder and harder for runners to get in. Additionally, over those same years, I significantly decreased the “road races” I was doing in favor of trail ultramarathons. However, in February 2013, I won the Arrowhead 135 mile foot race in northern-most Minnesota. Arrowhead and Badwater are the only two 135 mile races in the U.S. Following my Arrowhead win, I correctly figured that this particular performance would significantly help my chances of being selected to run Badwater. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over my 25 years of running ultras, I have completed every “standard” ultramarathon distance (50K, 50M, 100K, 100M, 135M, 24 hour timed races) and have been the overall race winner, at least once, at each of those distances. In 25 years of ultra-running, I have probably completed around 125 ultras.
Can you tell us a bit about your Badwater experience?
I was really scared going into Badwater. The week before the race, temperatures in Death Valley were exceeding 130 degrees F and I had never even been in temperatures higher than the 90’s. The thought of running 135 miles in Death Valley temperatures was scary. A lot of bad things can happen to the human body just sitting in the shade in those temperatures, and I was going to try to run 135 miles under the sun. I knew that the fact that I had a well-experienced crew was going to be a huge benefit, but they weren’t running, I was. That feeling of intimidation lasted well into the afternoon of the first day of the race, but it also made me want to be cautious with my early effort and kept me in tune with everything my body was feeling. In the early miles of the race I took it pretty easy. I knew I wasn’t really “racing” this event, as my primary goal was simply to survive the distance, the heat and the elevation change and just finish.
Rios before the race – 111 degrees outside!
There were a couple of times throughout the race where I hit some mental and physical challenges. Again, having a solid crew with me helped, but I had to find the strength/guts/grit to tough it out. At around mile 95 I had some significant leg pain and was reduced to walking for about an hour. Somehow my crew was able to get me back to an easy run. By mile 100 I was back moving well.
The last miles of the race are a 12 mile uphill climb to an elevation of 8,500 feet. The good news for me was that it was night and thus pretty dark. As such, I couldn’t see how tough this last section of the race really was. My body could tell it was difficult, and that every step was an uphill step, but at least I didn’t have to “see” how hard those last 12 miles really were.
What is nice about Badwater is that crew members cross the finish line with the racer. Badwater really is a team event with everyone working toward the common goal of getting the runner to the finish line. I would have been nowhere near as successful as I was without my crew!
One of Rios’ crew vans at Badwater
Did you ever have any moments where you didn’t think you could finish the race? If so, how did you get through these rough patches?
There really was not a point where I thought I would not finish. There were, however, plenty of points where I mentally and physically was questioning whether or not I might have to walk the remaining distance. These points occurred at mile 60 (potential cramping), mile 95 (significant leg pain) and again around mental 110 (mental frustration). The idea of having to walk 75 miles, 40 miles, or even just 25 miles to the finish was not in my race plan, so I had to consciously dig for and find the motivation to somehow get into a jogging mode and progressing further at something faster than a walking pace.
Did you have a specific fueling strategy that you used during the race?
The biggest fueling strategy for Badwater is staying hydrated. A racer goes through an incredible amount of water, sports drinks, soda, juices, etcetera. You MUST keep the body hydrated or a lot of bad things will physically happen. We had four big coolers in the support van full of drinks and always had at least one cooler filled with ice. And not only is the water for drinking, but it is also used to keep you cool. It is very common to see a racer getting “sprayed” with water by a crew member while running or even physically getting their body INTO the cooler to ward off the heat your body is dealing with.
Besides staying hydrated, my other fueling strategy was the consistent use of “Vespa” every 2.5 hours. I have been using Vespa for over three years for both training and racing. Vespa is a liquid product that helps the body to burn its own fat for fuel. If the body can burn its own fat for fuel, then the athlete does not have to consume those fuel calories in the form of food. This is especially beneficial at Badwater because the stomach does not want to digest food in that kind of heat. But as I said, I use Vespa on every long training run I do. I have found that I can complete a 35 mile training run without consuming any food calories at all. With Vespa I can avoid using (and having to buy) gels, so-called power bars and all that other stuff. I have turned numerous friends and other athletes onto Vespa and all have seen similar benefits.
What was your favorite moment during the race?
There were a lot of very memorable moments during the race. Over the course of the 135 miles I spent individual time on the road (miles) running with each of my crew members and I have great memories with each of them. That is pretty special to me. Additionally, crossing the finishing line with my four crew members and me all holding hands was very memorable as well. But probably the coolest memory comes from an event that occurred on day two of the race in which we received multiple “fly overs” from Air Force Fighter Jets. Near Death Valley is a U.S. Military Air Force base and, as I understand it, these jets come out each year on day two of the race and do the fly-overs to encourage and support the runners. Having those planes fly low overhead and hearing the noise from their engines was very cool and inspiring.
What makes a race like Badwater so appealing? Would you ever do the race again?
Badwater as a race is appealing solely because of its one-of-a kind type challenge. As I stated earlier, I no longer run “road races”, but the idea of running 135 miles through the intense heat Death Valley and the fact that race starts from the lowest point in the western hemisphere (Badwater Basin at 283 feet below sea level) to the highest point in the Continental U.S. (Mt. Whitney) makes it an incredible challenge. Badwater is considered by many to be THE ultimate running challenge.
Unfortunately in December, 2013, the race organizers were notified that the governmental organization which controls and manages Death Valley National Park has banned all formal, organized, athletic competitions held within the park. So starting this July, the race course as it was originally created back in 1977 may never again be the same. As such, I don’t know if I will ever try to become an official Badwater race entrant again.
Yet, despite the current ban on organized athletic events, individuals are not prohibited from using the very same roads as the original race was held. In fact, when the “race” began in ‘77, it was NOT an organized event, nor was it technically even a “race”. Rather, it was simply one individual challenging himself to see if it could be done. And this very same “spirit” still continues each July and August as a small number of individual runners (not associated with the official Badwater race) perform their own individual challenge leaving from Badwater Basin and head for Mt. Whitney. In fact, some runners have pushed the challenge beyond the standard 135 Mile Badwater and have done “Double Badwaters” (meaning running from Badwater Basin to the summit of Mt. Whitney at 14,560 feet then back to Badwater Basin) of 294 miles, and even “Quadruple Badwaters” of 588 miles.
Whether or not the ban of organized competitions in the National Park persists, in the back of my mind I am thinking about returning to Death Valley in July of 2016 to attempt my own “double Badwater”. This would be the summer that I am 50 years old.
What races are you planning on doing in 2014? Do you have any goals for these races?
My race plans for 2014 are as follows: John Dick 50K (Southern Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin) in early February, Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 Mile (Alaska) in late February, Ice Age 50 Mile (Southern Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin) mid-May, Kettle Moraine 100 Mile (Southern Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin) early June, Badgerland Strider 24-Hour Run (Germantown, Wisconsin) early September, and the Glacial Trail 50 Mile (Northern Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin) early October. For each of these races I have no specific goals or desired finishing times. I hope to simply finish and enjoy each run.
What are your favorite Milwaukee races?
My favorites are Ice Age Trail 50 Mile and the Glacial Trail 50 Mile. I enjoy the two 50 milers because while they are still a challenge, they can be accomplished with minimal training. And while they are the same distance and both held on trails, they are also very different. Ice Age has become a very well-known national 50 mile race with competitors coming in from around the country. Glacial, on the other hand, still remains more of a local secret and more low-key. Each race is phenomenal for its own individual reasons. Each has its own beauty with one being in spring and the other in fall and each holds its own challenge.
What are your favorite places to run in Milwaukee?
All of my favorite local places to run are a short drive from Milwaukee. For runners in this area, we are incredibly fortunate to have both the northern and southern units of the Kettle Moraine within an hour’s car drive distance. There is Lapham Peak State Park 30 miles west of Milwaukee. There is also Scoppernong State Park 45 minutes southwest of Milwaukee. Additionally, one hour southwest of Milwaukee is the Nordic Trail System. All locations offer “loops” as well as access to the Ice Age Trail. Lastly, to the direct north, off of U.S. 45, is the Northern Kettle Moraine unit with numerous of access points to the Ice Age Trail as well. I would encourage any local runner to make the drive and experience a run on these beautiful and scenic trails.
Thanks for chatting with us, Parker! If you’re a runner in MKE, we’d love to chat with you. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be featured or know someone who should be featured in an upcoming Let’s Get to Know . . . post.
Keep Running MKE – you’re doing great!
*Note: Erika Gerhardt from Wisconsin also raced Badwater Ultramarathon in 2000.