Ángel ‘Bacho’ Vega arrived at the 2018 edition of the world’s toughest race in the heat of July thinking he had prepared to conquer … and failed.
Race director Chris Kostman pulled him out at about the 50-mile mark, some 85 miles short of the finish.
That failure paved his way to success last month when he completed the Badwater 135 in 39 hours, 48 minutes and 7 seconds.
This wasn’t the longest race for the 46-year-old lawyer from Gilbert, Arizona. He’s run a couple of 183-mile races in his native Puerto Rico, and won once.
This wasn’t the fastest race for Vega, who began his running career 13 years ago when he was inspired to run a marathon after his older sister, Lucy Vega, had run the St. George Marathon.
This was, however, a special race for Vega.
“There’s the mystique and tradition behind Badwater, the idea that’s where the big guys go to challenge themselves was a draw to me,” said Vega.
While Vega didn’t run in record time like Japan’s Yoshihiko Ishikawa (21:34:01), he did accomplish his goal of finishing.
“It was interesting because I was telling my crew that finishing the race this year started with me ‘failing’ last year,” said Vega, who placed 52nd of 79 finishers this year.
“I went into last year’s race thinking that I was ready to go and that I had trained enough,” said Vega, a father of three. “I actually got punched in the face by the extreme heat last year.”
His hydration plan – vital to not only staying alive in the hottest place on earth, but to remain in the race – failed.
His mental preparation of surviving a race with 14,000 feet of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100 of cumulative descent deserted him.
A CHANGE IN PREPARATION
Vega figured he needed a different approach this time.
He changed his nutrition.
He revamped his hydration plan.
He spent more time in the sauna to acclimate to heat that can reach 180 degrees on the asphalt.
“When I started this year, the heat wasn’t bothering me. I was able to drink a lot more,” said Vega.
However, there was a last-minute monkey wrench this year: His wife Staci, who serves as his crew chief and has been to all his races, got sick and couldn’t make it.
Vega had to find a crew chief, which he did. He just had to follow his wife’s plan.
For Vega, cruising the first 17 miles from Badwater Basin to Furnace Creek boosted his confidence. “I was able to tell how far ahead I was from last year,” he said. “At the first checkpoint at Furnace Creek, I was ready to keep going. My legs were still fresh.”
Vega can’t talk about this year’s race without thinking of last year’s failure.
“The preparation and the experience of having failed, and the understanding that I couldn’t go through that again, made me realize I had to make those changes,” said Vega. “The work we did prepared me to be ready for this year.”
RATES BADWATER AS TOUGHEST
Vega is no stranger to ultras.
He has run in the Western States 100 (28:16:01 in 2015), four Javelina Jundreds (a best of 22:23:12 in 2013), the 183-mile coast-to-coast runs in Puerto Rico, and a couple of other 100-mile races.
Los 50 de San Jorge, the Puerto Rico run, is longer and has more elevation climb than Badwater, said Vega. Yet, he looks at Badwater as being a much bigger challenge.
“You would think that’s harder,” he said. “The fact that it’s so isolated at Badwater, and the heat never lets up.
“This year we had a cooler year, but it doesn’t really get that much colder. There’s not that ability to rest and get away from the heat.”
Badwater, said Vega, is where “tough people go to test themselves.”
“I’m a competitor, and I try to be with the best and not try to take the easy way out,” he said. “If you want to be the best, you’ve got to try to find out where the best are and go there.”
Vega realizes he won’t run alongside someone like Ishikawa, or previous champions like Pete Kostelnick or Harvey Lewis (who finished third this year).
“That’s not my goal. My goal is to toe the line and prove that I can hang and compete on the same course,” said Vega, who has also completed three, full Ironman competitions.
He abandoned Ironman because “it became a little too commercialized.”
PEOPLE RUN 100 MILES?
That’s when he discovered ultras. “People run 100 miles?”
He signed up for the Javelina Jundred in 2010 and figured it would be just “one and done.”
He took a liking to ultras.
“There’s the mental idea of how much farther can we push, and how much can we understand ourselves by putting ourselves in a difficult situation,” said Vega.
“At the core of endurance and running is the mental challenge of my mind and my body telling me different things, and who is going to take over. And, who’s really in control.
“They call it flow state. Some people are able to achieve that by doing yoga. Running is the purest form of getting there and being one in your thoughts.”
Vega focused so much on this year’s Badwater ultra, that he did not schedule any other races. “2019 was Badwater for me.”
He might look at an ultra in October.
Is another Badwater in his future?
“One way or another, I will be part of the Badwater family,” said Vega, who has crewed in previous Badwaters.
For now, he’s resting up and enjoying time with his family. He celebrates his 22nd wedding anniversary this month.
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