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How a soldier won ‘world's toughest foot race'

Aug. 8, 2012 - 03:40PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 8, 2012 - 03:40PM  |  
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Looking ahead

Morton has been named to the U.S.A. Track & Field team for the 2012 World 24-hour Championships to be held Sept. 8 and 9 in Katowice, Poland. Check the blog for updates. www.militarytimes.com/blogs/pt365

Related Reading

Profiles of the other military finishers here.
After Action from the Badwater Ultramarathon.

DEATH VALLEY, Calif. — It's just after 1 a.m. and the car heater is running at full blast. The temperature has dropped more than 40 degrees, and 75 is unbearably cold.

Army Master Sgt. Mike Morton, 40, is two-thirds of the way through the Badwater Ultramarathon, the race he's dreamed of running for 14 years.

I've come to this patch of desert to watch him win.

The race started the day before at Badwater Basin — 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley — and would end 48 hours and 135 miles later on Mount Whitney, more than halfway up the highest peak in the continental U.S.

Runners would endure blowing sand, scorching sun and average daytime highs of 116 degrees.

The wind that first day was so hot and harsh that it felt "like being in the prop wash of a C-130," says Army Sgt. Maj. Will White, a member of Morton's crew. It wouldn't stop blasting the runners until nightfall.

Just before 1 a.m., alone and in the dark, Morton clears the Darwin checkpoint — Mile 90.1 — on Highway 190. He is so early to the checkpoint that no one is waiting for him, so a groggy volunteer is awakened to record his time.

But he still has 45 miles to go.

Soon after Morton blows through, I curl up in my rented Nissan Sentra for some much-needed shut-eye. But the sounds of blaring mariachi music startle me awake after just 20 minutes.

This impromptu alarm clock belongs to the crew of 2011 winner Oswaldo Lopez, who at this point is Morton's only real threat.

Earlier, near Mile 60 around 7 p.m., Lopez catches and passes Morton as the men cleared Towne Pass — a 17-mile slog up to an elevation of 4,956 feet. The sun was setting, the temperature was dropping, and Morton's previously low mood was improving.

He and Lopez trade the lead several times on the long and steep descent into the Panamint Valley.

"It's a race now," Morton says with a spark that had been missing for hours. His mood is completely different as he takes off across the valley.

Now, at Darwin, Lopez again tries to rein in Morton's lead. But he will never catch up.

The long road here

Largely overlooked over the past few years, Morton is by no means new to the ultrarunning scene. After his 1997 win and course record at the Western States 100, the then-25-year-old Navy diver had planned to apply for the 1998 Badwater, but a nagging hip injury scuttled those plans.

Instead, he left the Navy for the Army in 2001 and spent the greater part of the past decade either deployed or preparing to deploy. He raced on and off and married his wife, Julie, in 2008. Their daughter, Bailey, is 7.

Now assigned to the Army Special Operations Command and stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., he has recommitted himself to running. This year alone, he has run three 100-mile races, each with a course record and finish times of less than 14 hours.

But he still wanted Badwater, the race that had eluded him for 14 years.

The benefits of support

"The good news is that sign over there … that's 100 miles," Morton's crew chief, Eric Clifton, tells him, pointing to a road sign. "The bad news is this is a 135-mile race."

Morton scowls and runs on.

Clifton — himself an elite ultrarunner — won Badwater with a course record in 1999. He and his wife, Noni Nierenberg, head the well-oiled machine that is Morton's crew. The other members are White, Navy SEAL Senior Chief Petty Officer Eli Ellefsen and ultrarunner Tim Gross.

Badwater is a unique race in that each runner must have a support crew and that crew must provide all the aid the runner needs. While most ultras provide buffetlike spreads of hot food, cold sandwiches, candy and drinks, nary a Pringle is provided for runners at Badwater.

Morton has raced with minimal support before, though he often prefers to hunker down inside himself and run solo. No pacer, little support, no one else. Badwater is the first race where he's had such a dedicated contingent of crew members.

"Noni and Eric are invaluable," he says during the race, adding later, "I didn't have to do anything."

It's a given that when you're crewing for Mike Morton, you're rarely sitting still for long. From the start, he seems to be perpetually early.

"Is that him already?" someone would ask in surprise, and the team would spring into action.

The team is like a NASCAR pit crew. They leapfrog Morton, driving up a mile at a time and waiting for him to run close to the support van. One person sprays him down with ice water, another takes his empty hand-held bottles and replaces them with full ones. A third gives him a hat replenished with ice. Each stop takes less than a minute, with the simple goals of keeping Morton's 128-pound body cool and fueled.

After Furnace Creek — Mile 17.4 — the crew is allowed to pick up its second vehicle. Their radio call signs are the standard Team 1 and Team 2, but White quickly renames his van things such as the A-Team. He DJs music for his van, favoring an eclectic mix that turns to anger metal late in the night to keep the crew going.

They all know how important this finish is for Morton.

Managing expectations

Morton hits 50 miles in the punishing heat in 6 hours, 50 minutes. His typical style of running hard from the start is the opposite of conservative: Through the first two checkpoints, his pace is about 8 miles per hour.

Clifton had predicted that if Morton could get to 100 miles in 14 hours (about an 8:30-per-mile pace), then he'd have a good shot not only at winning and breaking the course record, but also at running a sub-20-hour race and smashing the record.

Morton gets to the halfway mark — 67.5 miles — at about 10 hours and puts away 100 miles in a little more than 16. No one says it out loud, but beating the record becomes less likely, less of a priority. Instead, the team works to maintain Morton's lead on Lopez.

Keeping perspective

It's Tuesday morning, and I'm sitting outside race headquarters on Highway 395 in Lone Pine. The sun is starting to rise, and I'm nursing a black coffee and trying to shake off a sleep-deprived fog.

All distance races are like this: The crew suffers so the runner can finish. You don't tell the runner that your feet hurt; you don't complain about being tired or hungry. No matter how many miles you've paced or how long you've been up, the runner has gone farther and slept less.

A cheer goes up from volunteers standing outside the race office: Morton has just come into view. Lopez is nowhere to be seen.

It's just after 6 a.m., and Morton is 13 miles from the finish line. He'll have to get up Whitney Portal Road and climb 4,750 feet in roughly 2 hours and 45 minutes to beat Valmir Nunez's record time of 22 hours, 51 minutes and 29 seconds set in 2007.

He looks determined; he looks ragged.

Military strength

Running a race as long as Badwater is daunting, but Morton says his military training has given him the tools to make him a better runner.

"You just break things down in their basic elements rather than getting emotional and letting the total sum of everything that's not going good get you," he said in an earlier interview. "You learn to break things down and get it in its simplest form and deal with it that way."

For example, instead of thinking about running 135 miles, he thinks about just having to run seven shorter stretches — checkpoint to checkpoint — until he reaches the finish line.

The final push

The sun is up, and Clifton is again pacing Morton, patiently walking with him when the inclines become too steep for the exhausted man to run. Morton, a slim man anyway, looks impossibly thinner with his technical shirt hanging off his shoulders.

It's a little less than nine miles from the Lone Pine check-in to the check-in on Whitney Portal Road. From there, it's four miles to the finish line on switchbacks that are disconcerting during the day and terrifying in the dark.

Later, as more runners finish, the entire final section will smell like burnt brake pads as drivers move cautiously around the runners.

I'm standing at the Portal Road check-in with Ben Jones, aka "the mayor of Badwater." Jones, a doctor, lives in Lone Pine and has been a fixture at the race for decades, finishing it three times.

I ask how much time Morton has to beat the record.

Jones estimates that if Morton got to the check-in soon, he'd have to do 15-minute miles to the top. A 15-minute mile is a brisk walk — a walk with a purpose. Throw in a 131-mile warm-up and an average incline of 6 percent and this stops being an easy task.

Morton's pace on this section slows to an average of a little more than three miles per hour.

Nothing is easy at Badwater, so it's no surprise that the finish line is on a hill. Morton comes into view and runs slowly, arms raised, across the finisher's tape.

He has won.

But the record eludes him, despite being early the entire day, he arrives a little more than a minute too late.

Morton's time is 22 hours, 52 minutes and 55 seconds. Nunez's record stands.

Onlookers cheer, then almost immediately begin to offer opinions on where Morton went wrong, what they'd have done to shave that stray minute from their time — less than a second per mile.

A spent Morton answers questions for the race's live webcast, then kicks off his shoes to reveal battered feet with blood blisters.

It feels bittersweet, but Morton would still come down the mountain as the champion of the race he's always dreamed of running.

He doesn't dwell on the record. He and the crew go for pancakes.

After Action

Later, back home in Florida, Morton says he's pleased with his race and isn't disappointed with missing the record.

"Shoot, I would have been happy just to finish it," he says. "I'm still super pleased with it, no doubt about it. Valmir [Nunez] is a top-notch runner. You look at the historical data, there are only two people who can go sub-23 hours. You think of all the great runners who've run it — it puts it in perspective."

He pauses.

"Now, looking at 76 seconds," he says with a laugh. "It's like, damn, man, I spent that much time looking for shorts."

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