David Harper of Clermont has run up and down Sugarloaf Mountain as many as 30 times in one day. An impressive feat, no doubt, but that was a cakewalk compared to the grueling challenges he faced this summer in California.
On June 25, he competed in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which winds through the high altitude and hills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Then, only two weeks later, he tested his running skills again at the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, where competitors run up three mountain ranges in scorching Death Valley heat. This race begins in Death Valley, and temperatures often reach 125 degrees.
Why was this 41-year-old businessman so eager to test his physical limits? Why not?
“I love pushing myself to the limit and enjoy the challenge of finding out whether or not I can compete,” said David, who owns Harper Financial Services in Clermont. “I have been running marathons for 15 years and have competed in five IronMan Triathlons. But to finish both Western States and Badwater, which are considered the most difficult races of their type in the world, is an unbelievable dream for me. To do them both in the same year, two weeks apart, is an accomplishment I am extremely proud of.”
David is the first Lake County resident to compete in either event. He was no stranger to the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, having completed the race in 27 hours in 2004. His goal this year was to shave three hours off his time, which certainly wouldn’t be an easy task considering the 100-mile trail is one of sharp ascents, narrow paths and loose rocks. It begins in Squaw Valley at the bottom of a former Olympic ski slope and concludes in Auburn, Calif. Competitors run the first 25 miles in snow and ultimately climb 18,000 feet and descend 23,000 feet.
He was unable to meet his goal at this year’s Western States. By mile 40, his stomach began bothering him tremendously, and by mile 70 he was depleted and exhausted. “I couldn’t eat anything and stopped taking in calories,” he said. “I felt so bad that by mile 85 I stopped at a medical aid station. It was complete exhaustion. I was cold and shivering and my body had nothing left.”
Medics supplied him with an electric blanket and fed him chicken broth. After 40 minutes of rest, they gave David two options: continue running and avoid missing the 30-hour cut-off time or drop out of the race. While pondering his choices, he sat in a chair near a fire to warm himself. He was told that under no circumstances could he sit down. Those words irritated him. “That made me extremely angry and gave me a second wind,” he said. “Between the chicken broth, liquids and my anger, my body started functioning again, and I decided to keep going.”
With 15 miles to go, he huffed and puffed his way to the finish line, finishing in 29 hours and 38 minutes and beating the cut-off time by 22 minutes. “For 10 of those miles I ran very hard because I was scared I’d come in too late. There are no mile markers and you never know where you stand. I was proud that I beat the cut-off time and never gave up.”
The decision to run the Badwater Ultramarathon only two weeks later was a difficult one. However, only 81 runners are selected to compete by a committee that carefully reviews the athletic achievements of each applicant. “If I had turned down Badwater, I may have never had an opportunity to compete in it again,” he said. Between the races, David drove to Death Valley and spent time hiking with friends and running on the Badwater course. He trained extensively in the desert to prepare himself for the extreme heat. “When I was training, I tried not to over-exert myself because I needed to recover my legs from the first race.”
However, like the Western States, he struggled at the beginning of the race. Much of it was due to the scorching heat. “The first day, the temperature gage on my crew’s car read 120 degrees as early as 8 a.m. and stayed that way until 8 p.m.,” he said. “I was wearing pants and a shirt, which was kind of like a reverse windchill. The air temperature and wind was hotter than my body, so my clothes protected me from the heat. The heat coming off the pavement was so hot that there’s an area on my leg just above where my socks were that is blistered.”
After stopping at a medical checkpoint on the first night at mile 40, he was diagnosed with a low salt level and mild dehydration. He then climbed 18 miles to 5,000 feet, and by this time his stomach “was in knots.” “I was just overwhelmed by the heat. I sat in my crew’s car and enjoyed the air conditioning for 30 minutes then tried to go on. But I began vomiting and dry heaving. I took a couple more breaks but every time I started back out I’d vomit again. It was serious to the point I didn’t know if I could continue.”
To make matters worse, he was in last place by the halfway mark. Everyone behind him had already dropped out of the race, prompting David to seriously consider quitting. “My crew and I stopped at a restaurant at 5 p.m., and I ate a tuna sandwich and French fries,” he said. “It was nice eating fatty food for a change instead of all the power bars and other health food. That gave me energy. I had 63 miles to go and I told my crew to let me run until 8 p.m. and see how I was then. When 8 p.m. rolled around I told them I was going to finish no matter what.”
With newfound energy and desire, David ran the remainder of the night, taking only one 30-minute break. He would complete the second half of the race in only 20 hours while passing nearly 15 competitors along the way. Ultimately, he finished the course in a respectable time—52 hours and 41 minutes, which was good enough to earn him 53rd place. “If I didn’t have so many problems on the first day I would’ve fared much better,” he said. “But I was thrilled that I didn’t quit, and the fact that I rallied very strongly at the end kind of surprised me and my crew.”
For David, merely finishing two demanding races in a matter of weeks is a feat in itself. But overcoming extreme adversity and never quitting is even more remarkable. “In both races I had to reach down deeper than I ever have before,” he said. “They were difficult, but I eventually persevered. As of now, I’m uncertain whether I’ll try to compete in them next year.”