Monday, May 9, 2011

Goin' Campin'

I am happy to report that I have had lumbar injections of steroids to get the inflammation in my back under control so that I can train. Seven injections in L2-3, L3-4, L4-5, and L5-S1. with X-Ray guidance. I was asleep for the whole thing, but I sure was aware it was done the next day. Ugh. Got better! My back now feels ready and willing to go the distance. The amazing thing to me is that my doctor and surgeon know what I am trying to do, and they are helping me to do it. How many doctors, really, would do that? Every doctor I have ever known before this would just make me rest and tell me to just cut out the running. A Death Valley run would be beyond conception. Well, these guys know I won't rest or stop what I am doing, so they might as well help. When it comes to doctors, to quote Jimmy Buffett, "I have found myself a home."

What is clear from my new X-rays is that my problem is getting worse, a lot worse. The space between vertebrae at the problem disk is nearly gone. For the first time, my surgeon is talking surgery, maybe in the Fall. There likely are options and I need to weigh risks, but if I can run without pain, even live without pain, then I likely will be ready. Right now, I need to think about Death Valley and getting ready for that.

During the lead up and recovery from the procedure, I could not help thinking about how much this back problem has impacted my life over the past five years. It all really came to a head when running the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run. I found myself in tremendous pain and could not make the cutoff times. I was out after climbing Mt. Baden-Powell at 26 miles - a lot done, but a long way from the finish. Something happened on that day to aggravate the injury, and it was a fast, painful spiral down from there. I couldn't run. Hell, I couldn't tie my own shoes.

Several years prior to that, I had started attending the Dick Beardsley Marathon Running Camp every September in Minnesota. It has become my home away from home for a week every year. There I made friends, learned things, and was a runner with other runners. I believe now that if it had not been for the coaches and campers of the Beardsley Camp I would be a very different runner today, perhaps not one at all. When my back injury started to dominate my life, literally, I could talk to those people, keeping myself looking forward, and get all the support I could have ever wanted or needed.

Truth be told, for the past four years at camp, I have spent more time smoking cigars with Rich Benyo than actually running. Happily, this last year that was only because I was recovering and still basking in my Death Valley effort of just a couple weeks prior. 

Rich Benyo, a coach at the Dick Beardsley Marathon Running Camp, editor of Marathon & Beyond, former editor of Runner's World, runner, writer, and oh so much more. It is not an accident that Rich looks a lot like Mark Twain (ne. Samuel Clemens). In fact, during some parts of the year, the resemblance is uncanny. Rich is the camp curmudgeon, a character he plays well. Laughter is the order of the day when Rich is on stage. He is not the oldest coach, but he would not mind if you treated him that way. This man has lived the life I might have laid out for myself, in some ways at least. Rich toured the southern stock car circuit, NASCAR, as a writer covering the racing and the racers. This was during what was the golden age of stock cars--when Petty, Allison, The Silver Fox, and other hard racing, hard talking, hard living drivers battled with guts and no fear. Having traveled the south and eating its greasy delicacies for years, Rich was not exactly the paragon of fitness when the then editor of Runner's World, Joe Henderson, left his spot and Rich became his successor there. Writing and running have been Rich's passion since, having produced numerous books and starting, with Jan Seeley, his own running publication, Marathon & Beyond. Rich's running achievements did not stop at the marathon. He and his friend, Tom Crawford, trained for and became the first humans to run from Badwater in Death Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney and back again, a distance of 300 miles during the month of July. Not feeling like he gave it his all, Rich went back, twice, to do it again. Rich will not admit to making this remarkable run three times, because once he came up short by about 20 miles. He will accept 2.9 times. Well, those of us who know about this course know full well that Rich did it a full three times. 

Rich helped me to see that I could try what he did. I was older (a lot older) than when he did it the first time. I had a bad back. But, I had a brain, and I trained to walk the distance, just as he had done. My back made that a requirement. We have become very good friends. We do not talk politics. I am not really sure where Rich stands, but I am certain it is not to my left.

As I write this, I see that I cannot bring up Rich and the Dick Beardsley Marathon Running Camp without talking about the rest of the coaches and staff. It is they who make this camp so special and important to me. Each one brings something different to camp, something important.

Rich's wife, Rhonda Provost, is also a coach at the Beardsley Camp. She too was on my crew for the Death Valley Express 2010. Rhonda talks about running from the soul. She is the heart of the camp. A nurse anesthetist by day (and night), but she is a highly accomplished marathon and ultradistance runner. Rhonda routinely runs the Boston Marathon each year. As an ultradistance runner, Rhonda took to Death Valley as well, and became the first woman to run the Badwater to Mt. Whitney summit course and back again. She did this so quietly and without fanfare, that many years later only a few ultrarunning insiders are even aware the event happened, to the point that others have been able to take credit for being the first. Rhonda excels at camp through helping others to see their dreams and to make those dreams possible.

Mike Dunlap is the camp's cardiac expert. Currently, he is an elite masters cyclist. In a previous life, Mike was an elite marathoner. Having met Dick Beardsley in college, Mike has been Dick's best friend ever since. They ran together and competed against each other. He never speaks about it, but it could not have been easy for Mike to watch Dick move from very good to world class-- a step Mike's genes just would not let him make. Close. So very close, yet the gold ring was out of reach. Sill, Mike looks back on his running days with a certain joy that is rare and appreciated by the campers. Knee problems sent Mike onto the seat of a bike. He has taken that to very high levels, recently competing in the Race Across America and other endurance cycling events. Running a marathon camp with Dick had been one of Mike and Dick's plans together. The DBMRC surely has exceeded both of their dreams for such a camp. Mike brings a unique combination of experience, intelligence, and knowledge to his coaching. 

It is said, "Once a Marine, always a Marine." Bill Wenmark lives that life. Bill was a Marine medic in Viet Nam. He lived the Marine life then, and he lives it now. You cannot help but respect Bill, even when he might be driving you nuts. He is what he is, and he is very happy to be that. Bill is the "coach" at the camp. The one who brings hard physicality to the mix that is marathon training. With Bill, we do hill repeats (the right way), work on form, stretch like rubber bands, and get our heads around making our bodies just go. Through a marathon running team he started, Bill has trained more runners to marathon finishes than anyone else on the planet. A lot can be said about Bill, but the one that most aptly describes how he has lived his life and every day is passion. I have learned much from Bill. 

Mary Coordt is the camp nutritionist, and the current marathon "hot shot." A frequent winner at the Napa Valley Marathon, Mary has also qualified for the Olympic marathon trials four times. Always smiling, Mary came to be part of the camp staff several years after I started going. Mary quickly "got" what is special about this camp and fit in as if she had always been there. The camp feels more complete somehow because of what Mary has brought both in terms of knowledge that is useful, but also because she is still competitive and very fast.

When I think about Joe Henderson, I see a teacher, a man who taught me all about running and a bit about living. Joe is the dean of the coaches, but also perennially youthful. Joe runs nearly every day, and has since high school. Joe has a passion for running and running history such that when he talks at camp, there is a hush as we all work to glean every word, every nuance of his tale. Joe was ideal for the job of founding editor of Runner's World. He was the right person at the right time, and is no doubt a major reason for the start of the first running boom in America, and the continued success of running in this country. He has also been vilified for all the wrong reasons, for once writing about long slow distance. "Long slow distance only makes long slow runners," it was said. It was only those who did not stop to read what Joe had written that said those things. Ignorance of the worst kind. Hard work and fast running had to be there, too. Joe made that clear. But, much more important than the petty arguments of small minds, Joe opened up long distance running to everyone. Joe told us we could do it. We could do it fast, or we could do it slow. If we wanted it enough, we could. As editor of Runner's World, Joe also brought us George Sheehan. George became the philosophical leader of distance running. A guru of the best kind. George became one of Joe's greatest friends. Sadly, we all lost George far too soon to prostate cancer. That loss was particularly hard on Joe, but through that, George left Joe a great gift. George, an MD himself, instructed Joe to have periodic and regular prostrate screenings, something generally not done at the time. Today, we still have Joe Henderson with us, and Joe says that is in no small part to George's request for screenings. When I first came to camp, I looked up to Joe, even idolized him for what he had contributed to the world and to me, personally. I still look up to him, but it is hard to be close friends with an idol. I choose to be his friend. I am still learning from Joe, how to run, how to speak, and how to be an example to others. Today, Joe has found a role that he truly loves. He is giving back through coaching in Eugene, OR. He teaches running and is helping a new generation find the joy he has known all his life. He runs less today, and slower than in decades past, but Joe remains joyful in what he has had and what he can give to others. His is a good life. I am glad to be able to share it with him from time to time.

Jenny Stinson started out as a camper and is now a coach and deputy to the camp director. Unable to be in the Valley with me, Jenny supported the Death Valley Express 2010 from afar thorough blogging about the event. Jenny really gets it. She understands what doing the Death Valley course is all about. When asked by a friend, "How does one prepare for such an event?" Jenny responded with, "You spend a lifetime preparing." During the years I have known her, Jenny has started a successful business, participates in numerous running related activities such as being a leader for Joints in Motion, has crewed a rider in the Race Across American (Mike Dunlap), and has become an accomplished ultrarunner. Without a doubt, Jenny is the camp teacher of self support, with mantras, life lessons, and an outstanding "can do" attitude that can only bring you up. She brings an unbelievably good nature and a view of life that is contagious and wonderful. No matter what might be bothering you, all Jenny has to do is smile and speak with her fabulous southern accent and all that melts away, at least for a while. Jenny is the "happy" in the Beardsley Camp.

The director of the camp, and the only one that really makes things happen, is Jan Seeley. With Rich, Jan started and publishes Marathon & Beyond Magazine--the most unique and finest of the running periodicals. Though not a runner all of her life, there is no question about Jan's athletic qualifications, having been a world class field hockey player. Built more for field hockey, Jan does not match the "standard" portrait of a distance runner. But, make no mistake, she is a distance runner, having completed numerous marathons, the Pikes Peak Ascent, done a Grand Canyon rim to rim run, and many other races of significance. Jan is the camp organizer, the one we gladly let give us instructions for the week. She makes camp happen. This is no small task. When it comes to this group of coaches and campers coming from all places and having all backgrounds, herding a large group of cats might be easier and sometimes more satisfying. We cannot help but love Jan. Through all her intensity and drive to make camp the perfect experience, she does find time to be with the campers and enjoy the fact that we are enjoying ourselves.

I am not going to write anything lengthy here about the Head Coach, Dick Beardsley. Books have literally been written about him, including his own book. Dick's life in running was the stuff of dreams and legend. How could this kid from Minnesota possibly have risen to the level of being able to run side by side with world record holder and elite, big city educated and trained Alberto Salazar during a brutally hot Boston Marathon? How could he crush the likes of Bill Rodgers to be alone at the lead with Salazar? What was it that made him and Salazar push each other beyond the breaking point, only to keep going? Dick is made of something special. So is Alberto. On that day in Boston, Dick wanted to win that marathon more than anything life ever presented to him before. He needed it. Salazar had to defeat Beardsley. Maybe it was twisted pride, or just pure competitiveness, Alberto took both of them into the history books. If everything had gone just right--no cramps, no motorcycle getting in the way--could Dick have won in those last few steps? Not likely. Alberto was just too good and at the top of his game. But, what did happen was the greatest marathon race of all time. Dick might not have won, but he came away with something better--a story. A story that only he can tell. And tell it he does, with a talent for speaking few people have. But this is, of course, not Dick's whole story. Life-threatening injuries leading to narcotic drug addiction have given Dick even more tales far more important than a marathon run. Dick has taken his success and tragedies in stride and has created a life of storytelling and giving. The recently founded Dick Beardsley Foundation is one of the two charities I am running in Death Valley this summer to support. It is an honor to be on the Board of Directors for Dick's foundation, and it is an honor to call Dick my friend. There is no question, I both idolize and idealize Dick Beardsley. Yet, he is still just a man. But, he is a unique man. I treasure my friendship with him.

When I am in Death Valley this summer, suffering and thinking, I will think about the Dick Beardsley Marathon Running Camp and what it has brought into my life. The people. The stories. The coaching. Most importantly, it gave me hope and identity as a runner when I needed it most. Thank you, Jan, Jenny, Mary, Rich, Rhonda, Mike, Bill, and Dick. Each of you has given me something special. Each of you is special. 

"Badwater" Bill Latter
Tujunga, CA


  1. WOW! Bill thank you for all the kind words about the Dick Beardsley Marathon Running Camp, our wonderful coaches, the Dick Beardsley Foundation, etc.! Your amazing doing Death Valley under the physical limitations you have because of your back and raising money and awareness that anything is possible if you believe! Keep spreading your wings and soar to your highest possibilities Bill, your a incredible inspiration!

    Dick :-)

  2. Bill, what a wonderful post about the heart of the camp - the people. It was a pleasure to attend camp this year and I left with a precious gift. The gift of friendship. Thank you for being a gift to me and our friends at camp.


  3. Mr. Bill,
    Thank you for the terrific post and your thoughtful and inspiring words. Those who say you are a "sort of good writer" are wrong, however. You are a very talented writer indeed. Perhaps the "sort of" is humility on your part. In any event, you know I wish you fulfillment in both your athletic and non-athletic undertakings. As importantly (maybe even more) I wish you good health, a pain-free existence, and safety. How you achieve that is in your hands. BTW, I can't tell you how honored I feel to have a gosh darned NASA scientist as one of my friends ~ that would be you! How cool is that? And you have luscious hair to boot!!


  4. Deborah Levine LatterSeptember 13, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    Hey, sista, that's MY hair! :-)