APG Employee runs 100-mile race in California desert
September 30, 2010
- The Badwather event is billed as the world's toughest footrace.
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - For one employee of the U.S. Army Evaluation Center on Aberdeen Proving Ground, extreme physical challenges are something to be mastered and taken in stride, and he proved that this summer by finishing with a good showing in an ultra marathon that only a very select group of well-trained athletes ever finish.
David Ploskonka, a live-fire evaluator at AEC, crossed the finish line in 17th place in the Badwater Ultramarathon in July, a notoriously difficult footrace across inhospitable desert terrain in intense summer heat, sponsored by AdventureCORPS, Inc., a firm that specializes in ultra-endurance and extreme sports events.
The Badwater event is billed as the world's toughest footrace, and for very good reason. The course takes runners across 135 miles of harsh landscape, from Death Valley, Calif., to Mount
Whitney. As if the heat of summer in Death Valley were not extreme enough, with daytime temperatures that can climb as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit, runners must ascend several mountains and drop back down again, with a total elevation change of some 13,000 cumulative
feet of ascent and 4,700 cumulative feet of descent. Runners finish at Mount Whitney Portals, at nearly 8,300 feet above sea level.
Ploskonka's finishing time of 34:28:04 earned him the right to wear the coveted Badwater Belt Buckle, a prize that few ever earn and a testament to human endurance and gritty willpower. Ploskonka said he was confident he could finish the race because he had a "good endurance base," but though he didn't worry about not finishing, he realized things can always go wrong in such a demanding event.
"What I did worry about were the number of other things that might go wrong, such as not having the right foods, or not drinking enough water, or drinking too much water," he explained .
"Paradoxically enough, in a race as long as Badwater, even a small thing, which seems silly in comparison to the magnitude of the race, can become a huge issue over time if it's not taken care
of right away. I believed that if all of these things were in order, I could finish well."
When asked if he ever reached a point in the race where he found it difficult to keep going, Ploskonka said he was plagued by digestive problems.
"At around mile seventy-five, the fact that I had been eating more than I could process in the heat finally caught up to me, and I was too sick to my stomach to continue," he recalled. "I had to lie down on a cot for nearly an hour, because I couldn't make myself move forward anymore. Fortunately, I had a good crew consisting of my fiancAfAe, Sara MacKimmie, and other ultra-runners and athletes, Andrew Marsh, Jason Wara, and Tricia Jackson, who worked together to help me with my stomach issue, and also to keep me motivated. I gradually started moving forward again, and thanks to their physical support - food, change of clothes, ice, water; and moral support - walking and running with me - I was eventually able to run again, and I finished the race strong, with one of the fastest climbs to the base of Mt. Whitney of any of the finishers."
No one running the Badwater race can escape the impact the July desert heat has on runners, and Ploskonka was no exception.
"I couldn't process nearly as much food as I normally could," he said. "I was well-trained for the temperature, but the fact that there was no shade, so that the sun was constantly beating down on my skin, made the race more uncomfortable than the temperature alone. The climbs and descents were, for the most part, long, but relatively gradual, so they took more of a mental toll than a physical toll. Getting into a comfortable rhythm on the climbs and descents was
critical to being successful."
The physical and mental conditioning that enabled Ploskonka to triumph in the Badwater Ultramarathon began long before he was ready for that event. He started running when he was 13, and over time he increased the distance and speed he ran, graduating from 5- and 10-kilometer races to marathons and ultimately ultra marathons. He may seem to the average person to be a glutton for physical punishment because he has competed in eight 100-mile races, a 24-hour race in which he ran 111 miles and finished second overall, and more than 20 marathons.
He says he has lost count.
"The 100-mile races, such as the Western States 100, which I finished in under 24 hours this past June, are often on difficult trails in remote locations, with significant climb and descent along
the way, and runners are often subjected to such hazards as snow, ice, rain, flooding, river crossings, and extreme heat, all in the same race," Ploskonka explained. "I've gradually improved my finishing times and my places in these races."
At the 2009 Sun Trust National Marathon in Washington, D.C., an annual event that starts and finishes at RFK Stadium, his personal-record finishing time was 2:56:32. During the weekend
of Aug. 21 through 22 this year, he won the Beast of Burden 100-Mile race that commences from the Buffalo suburb of Lockport, N.Y., with a time of 16 hours, 19 minutes, and 5 seconds, a new personal record for the 100-mile distance.
He has piled up most of these accomplishments in a relatively short period of time because he didn't even know ultra marathons existed until recent years.
"As recently as three years ago, I didn't know that ultra marathons existed," Ploskonka said. "About three years ago, in the summer of 2007, a friend of mine, Collin Anderson, who I ran marathons with, talked me into coming with him to a 24-hour race, as many miles as you can
run in 24 hours, because there was a marathon associated with the race. I came along for the marathon, but the marathon didn't go well, and I had traveled a long way to be there, so I decided to keep running with my friend to keep him company. By the time the event was over, I had run 65 miles in 18 hours - unofficially, my first ultra marathon. The following weekend, I ran the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile race in McLean, Va., my first official ultra marathon. I finished in just over 9 hours and was 9th overall. A month later, I ran my first 100-mile race, Lean Horse, which I finished in 22 hours and 39 minutes."
The Lean Horse 100- Miler that begins at Hot Springs, S.D., was the brainchild of Jerry Dunn, known to many as America's "Marathon Man" because of his tremendous running record. Ploskonka
placed 16th during the Lean Horse race that commenced on Aug. 25, 2007.
The training regimen for a race as difficult as the Badwater Ultramarathon is not for the faint of heart. Ploskonka ran up to 100 miles per week in the weeks leading up to the race, and each week
included one long run of 20 miles or more in addition to a speed session on a track and one "hill" session on a treadmill. The treadmill was set at an incline, and Ploskonka ran on the incline for an
extended period of time.
"To prepare for the heat, I drove to and from work with my car windows up and my heater on full blast," he added. "The interior temperature of the car would reach nearly 140 degrees. As I
got closer to the race day, and the weather started getting hotter, I went out of my way to run during the hottest times of the day."
Ploskonka will need to reprise that routine in the not-distant future, or one similarly masochistic, because he is planning to repeat the Badwater ordeal in 2011, and this time he plans to improve on his finishing time and place. He also plans to run in the Grindstone 100 in October, a race that takes place in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia and is billed as the toughest 100-mile ultra marathon on the East Coast. He intends to follow that up with the Oil Creek 100-mile run two weeks later, over a course in Pennsylvania that is advertised to have a cumulative elevation gain of 17,785 feet, making its completion quite a feat indeed. Last but not least, he has his eye on completing the Arrowhead 135-Mile Winter Ultramarathon in February, a race across the Arrowhead Region of Northern Minnesota. The event sponsor's official Web site warns, "Only the
toughest dare apply!"