One smoldering strip of asphalt extended as far as Martin Franklin could see. There was no end in sight.For the part-time Aspen resident, who had a crew of six traveling in two cars plodding along with him Monday, it was a lonely stretch of highway. Little more than four hours and 20 miles into his ordeal, the 42-year-old broke down. "Internal issues" made urinating impossible. Midafternoon temperatures soared well into triple digits - the crew's cameraman fried an egg on the pavement.The prospect of 115 more miles, through aptly-named towns like Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, and the thought of letting down so many wore on Franklin."I got in the van, and I started crying - I was falling apart mentally," said Franklin, CEO of Jarden Corporation, a leading provider of niche consumer products. "I was thinking 'I brought all these people up here and raised all this money, and I'm going to blow up at Mile 20?' I'm sure I would've reacted differently if I was at Mile 90, but It got me depressed."Crazy stuff starts to happen out there."Franklin wasn't about to give in. After all, he sought out the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile test of wills from Badwater in Death Valley - the lowest point in the contiguous United States at 280 feet below sea level - to California's Mount Whitney Portal at 8,360 feet, primarily because of its reputation as the most grueling race of its kind. "It didn't disappoint," Franklin joked Thursday. "It's genuine torture."And while he characterized his pursuit as narcissistic (and one may argue slightly masochistic) there was another motivating factor. He was running as much to test his limits as he was to honor the lives of veterans who return from Iraq and Afghanistan carrying the scars of war. He was running to raise money - as much as $500,000, he said - for the Wounded Warriors Project, a nonprofit dedicated to easing the transition for servicemen and women returning from active duty.
Steve Robison, a 24-year-old who lost his left leg below the knee and most of his right calf as the result of a sniper attack in Mosul, Iraq, was part of Franklin's crew."During the course of running this thing, we had time to talk," Franklin said. "He has no regrets. He has such an amazing attitude. Talk about a hero." Franklin pushed on. He drank some Coke and slogged toward Mile 21 in temperatures approaching 127 degrees.His battle of attrition was just beginning. Another obstacle emerged at Mile 41, when Franklin's stomach unexpectedly started rejecting food. "It got ugly out there," he said. "It got ugly for everyone."In order to cope with the sheer magnitude of the distance laid out before him, Franklin broke the race down into marathons, he said. He promised himself treats for meeting certain goals - he earned a Red Bull after reaching Mile 42, and his crew made a quick detour late Tuesday in Lone Pine to find him a McDonald's hamburger.
Franklin kept a steady pace during the early-morning hours Tuesday and accomplished his goal of negotiating 4956-foot Townes Pass and making it to Panamint Valley - 70 miles from the start - before daylight. Intermittent seven- to 10-minute naps helped keep him relaxed and focused.
By his own admission, Franklin deteriorated during the afternoon hours Tuesday. Clear skies, a stark contrast to Monday's overcast conditions, bathed competitors in relentless sunshine. There was no relief. Temperatures hovered around 112 degrees - and much higher on the asphalt. Franklin tried to run on the white lines to keep his shoe soles as cool as possible. That strategy was abandoned, however, when he started wobbling like a sedan riding on its rims."That plan was out the window. I was delirious and was wandering into the middle of the road," Franklin said. "I honestly don't remember much, but my wife said I was saying all sorts of strange things. I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other."This was no Rockingham, North Carolina, where in September Franklin qualified for the Badwater by running 100 miles - 66 monotonous laps around Hinson Lake - in 22 hours, 53 minutes. That fact became clear when Franklin's feet started to bear the brunt of high mileage and harsh conditions.His feet were so badly blistered that they were constantly burning, Franklin remembered. They also began to swell, so much so that only two of the seven pairs of shoes he planned on using fit. He constantly rotated both pairs at each rest stop; his crew would hold one pair outside the car window to dry them, then stick them in a cooler."I haven't seen my shoes since [the race], but I doubt I'll be using them again," Franklin said. "I think they've done their mileage."With each step so excruciating, Franklin took all of Tuesday to reach Lone Pine - a distance of 50 miles. After checking in, he headed straight for an adjacent hospital tent. Doctors spent one hour working on Franklin's feet, rubbing on benzoic acid solution, then wrapping them in thin tape. He was exhausted, but Franklin couldn't doze. The procedure was far too painful."What a vicious race," Franklin said. "It felt like it was going to go on forever."
Despite all his adversity, the end was now attainable. Fifteen miles and a steep climb through starry-skied darkness stood between him and the finish at Whitney Portal. Franklin was rejuvenated, he said. With his wife, Julie, at his side, he pushed onward and upward. Shortly after passing the final checkpoint, 3 1/2 miles from the finish, and staring down a 2,000-vertical-foot climb, Franklin even ran a few sections of the last leg. He caught a few people down the stretch and crossed the finish line in 38th.
His 41 hours, 29 minutes, 24 seconds of torment had reached its much-anticipated climax. "It was complete euphoria and relief," Franklin remembered. Race winner Valmir Nunes of Sao Paulo finished in 22:51:29. "I wanted to feel what it was like to do something like that. I liked the challenges of being able to do something narcissistic, but doing it to raise money for charity was a great balance."Franklin was still struggling with blisters Thursday, but elation filled his voice. He said he is satisfied, both to be able to raise money for a deserving cause and to make it to the finish.But don't expect him to tempt fate on the desert-lined highways of California anytime soon, he said."I'm not doing this again - I promised that to my wife on my video," he joked. "Maybe when my 50th birthday comes around and I'm feeling terribly mortal, we'll see. I'll try and think about something bigger and badder than Badwater. There's nothing like that that I know of. Maybe the first marathon on the moon."Jon Maletz's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org