2009 Badwater - Switchback City (80 Miles) from Tony Portera on Vimeo.
White Plains Man Takes On Desert Heat
What the heck are you doing, ask the men in towels.
Anthony Portera explains to them why he's wearing a sweatshirt, ski cap, and two pairs of sweatpants in the sauna. And why he stands up in the 185-degree heat to do squats. It's called an ultramarathon, he tells them. It's 135 miles, nonstop, through the hottest place in the United States. To get used to the 120-degree heat of Death Valley, he exercises in the public sauna while dressed for a snowball fight.
The men look more confused than ever. One hundred and thirty five miles through Death Valley? For God's sake, why?
To see if I can, he answers. In his mind it's a sensible response. To the men sweating buckets beside him? Not so much.
You're crazy, they say. And so ends the conversation Portera, a 38-year-old White Plains resident, has had in the New York Sports Club sauna a million times over.
It's hard not to sympathize with the people around him. The man is crazy. It doesn't matter that he can hold down a commercial real estate job and keep a wife and two daughters. He's crazy."He's really into it," said Brewster's Wayne Bates, Portera's crew chief for the race. "He's a little obsessive."
He's also driven. Portera ran his first marathon in 2004, and began looking for new challenges. That meant running longer and longer distances.
There is no prize money for the Badwater Ultramarathon. In fact, Portera is spending thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to equip his crew. There isn't recognition beyond the community of masochist endurance runners. Beyond the race's official charity, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, there is no good reason to enter. Yet 90 men and women, representing 17 countries, did. More were turned away.
Tomorrow morning they'll take off from Badwater, Death Valley, the lowest point (280 feet below sea level) in the contiguous U.S. They'll run through the day, the night, and the next day. By the time they reach the finish at the base of Mount Whitney they'll have covered 135 miles.
The average finish time is 44-48 hours. The record is 22:51. Portera would like to finish in 36-40.
"Staying awake is very, very difficult," he said. "You start to get renewed sense of energy as the sun is coming up."
Supporting him will be a crew of four to six people. They meet him at every mile marker to tend to his needs before driving ahead to meet him at the next marker. In the van will be water, Tylenol, duct tape, a spray bottle, coolers with ice, a foot-care kit, medical kit, salt tablets, arthritis medicine, and baby wipes (hint: there are no bathrooms in the desert).
"To be honest most of the heat-related incidents are with the crew not the runners," Bates said. "Because they're so busy taking care of the runner that they forget to take care of themselves."
They aren't allowed to turn on the air conditioning because they can't afford to have the van break down. Portera went through it last year when he crewed for someone else. Now it's his turn to get pampered. If you can call it that.
He's run 100-milers before - Grand Tetons, Javelina, Rocky Raccoon. Every day he gets up at 4:30 and runs for an hour or more. After work he heads to Rockefeller State Park in Tarrytown and goes another few hours. On weekends he goes for eight or nine hours straight.
That sort of training is old hat. It's the heat, not the distance, that he wants to be ready for.
"At first," he said of the sauna training, "it was brutally unbearable. At first it was very unpleasant. I would fidget. My heart rate started to rise. I was uncomfortable and impatient. But you get used to it as time goes on."
Portera Survives Badwater Ultramarathon
It was about 13 hours into the race when Anthony Portera felt weak and dizzy. His stomach had been bothering him for a while, but now his legs were getting shaky. He weaved over to his crew van, announced that he had to sit, and promptly fainted.
It was all his crew could do to stop his head from hitting a rock. His eyes rolled back in his head and he began to vomit. All over himself. Three times.
"For a little while," said crew chief Wayne Bates, "he almost looked like he was dead."
When he came to, his crew was, of all things, encouraged. There he was, barely conscious in the Death Valley dirt, covered in what used to be dinner, one knee badly swollen from running on uneven pavement, and they figured he had taken a turn for the better. They encouraged him to keep moving. None of them stood to inherit from his will, either. Their attitude was the one you have to have at the Badwater Ultramarathon. Things are going to get bad. Bodies are going to revolt. Expel the problem (sometimes literally) and get back on your feet.
If Portera didn't know before that this wasn't his grandma's foot race, he knew it now.
Badwater bills itself as the world's toughest foot race. Two weeks ago Portera, 38, found out why. The White Plains resident, whose training had included doing squats in a sauna while dressed for winter, survived 135 miles of hell, through waves of 128-degree heat and three mountain ranges, to cross the finish line in 43 hours and 50 minutes. Nine hours later he crossed the finish line again just for good measure.
A fire on Mount Whitney, the final checkpoint, had forced race officials to cut the epic journey short at 131 miles.
Portera earned a prize belt buckle for finishing in less than 46 hours. He had placed 59th out of 86 competitors. He went to his hotel room at 5 a.m. and passed out in his clothes.
A few hours into what was presumably the best sleep of his life, a knock on the door woke him up.
The last four miles had been re-opened, crew member Jen Vogel said, and he could finish the full race if he wanted to.
"I did it in Crocs," he said. "I couldn't get shoes on. My feet were swollen. My right knee was the size of a watermelon."Officially his time was 52:44 because officials kept a running clock for everyone, even the people delayed by the fire. Counting only race time he completed the journey in 45:24.
About $7,500 was raised for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which buys athletic equipment for the physically disabled. Another $7,500 came out of Portera's pocket for all the expenses that go into the race. He documented his journey in vivid detail on his blog at irunultras.com. The page even includes video of him openly sobbing from the pain of an ice bath at the end of Day 1.
"My parents were quick to say, 'So you're not going to do this again are you?"
Sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Portera. Your son is already on record as saying he wants back into Death Valley.