Amy Palmiero-Winters’ biggest mistake, she said, was going for the ride.
It was just before this year’s annual Badwater Ultramarathon, and a member of Palmiero-Winters’ crew wanted to see the race’s finish line. So, they all piled into a minivan and went cruising along the race’s road course.
They’re driving along and the desert miles are adding up — 10 miles, 20 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles. The hills are growing steeper and more treacherous. The minutes expand into an hour and then keep on expanding. And the driver, Palmiero-Winters said, starts to get tired — just from driving.
It’s at this point that the reality of the situation starts to set in for her: In the coming days she would be traveling this very same course again — on foot — 135 miles. That’s through Death Valley and up Mt. Whitney. In July.
“The guys kept saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re going to run this whole thing,’ ” Palmiero-Winters said. “It was tough seeing it like that. I realized how long and how tough it was.”
Yet, come race day July 11, the 38-year-old Meadville native, mother of two, and below-the-knee amputee was there at the starting line. And at 10 a.m. she took her first couple strides in what is rightly regarded as the “the world’s toughest footrace.” She had 48 hours to finish.
Running 135 miles is like leaving your house in Meadville and hoofing it non-stop to Johnstown.
However, the Badwater race isn’t just long. Its starting point at Badwater Basin in California’s Death Valley is approximately 300 feet below sea level. It’s the lowest point in North America.
The race’s finish line is at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to the summit of Mt. Whitney, 8,360 feet above sea level. And it’s just one of two mountain ranges along the race’s course.
“The hills,” Palmiero-Winters said, “were like nothing you can imagine.”
To top it all off, the race is held in the dead of summer. Temperatures regularly exceed 120 degrees.
Each year about 20 to 40 percent of the 100 or so people that attempt the Badwater Ultramarathon do not finish the race.
Palmiero-Winters had been one of them. She attempted to complete last year’s Badwater, but her leg bone broke through the skin in her prosthesis and she was forced to bow out.
This year, however, Palmiero-Winters was not to be denied. She crossed the finish line at around 3:30 a.m. on July 13. She had been racing for 41 hours, 26 minutes and 42 seconds.
She was the first female amputee to complete the race.
“It’s like there’s nothing, but it is beautiful,” Palmiero-Winters said, describing the desolate Death Valley scenery. “You’re standing at the halfway point and you look off and you can see the snow-covered peak of Mt. Whitney. It’s not like the places we live in. It’s untouched by human hands, natural. It’s an amazing area. We live in beautiful area. But this is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”
She wasn’t entirely alone out there. She had her four-person crew following her in a van and supplying her with fluids, fuel and some much-needed motivation
“My little kids were actually in Meadville while I was there,” said Palmiero-Winters. “They were sending me pictures and all kinds of cool things from Meadville. They’d send pictures over the phone and the crew would come out and run beside me and show them to me.
“That helps when you’re out there doing this stuff. They were always behind me the whole way.”
The crew was also tasked with maintaining Palmiero-Winters’ prosthesis, which she has used since a 1994 motorcycle accident resulting in the loss of her left leg below the knee.
Due to the heat of the race, the prosthesis could reach a scalding 160 degrees. So the crew had nearly 600 pounds of dry ice stashed in the van. And every so often they would hand-carve chunks out of the ice and slip them into neoprene pockets sewed in and around the prosthesis to keep its temperature down.
When the day was at its hottest, they were replacing the ice every mile.
“I had an amazing crew,” Palmiero-Winters said. “Without them, there is no way I could have accomplished what I did.”
The prosthesis created other complications. For instance, Palmiero-Winters’ racing leg has a fairly small base, one that didn’t provide much leverage on steep inclines and declines.
“You don’t have a heel to slow you down,” she said. “It makes it difficult to run downhill. So you have to run downhill sideways.”
And with all the extra care needed for running on a prosthesis, Palmiero-Winters says she had to expend more energy then her competitors.
“Physically, what (the race) does to body is you use 40,000 calories when you’re out there,” she said. “Since I have a prosthetic I have to use more energy and use more calories than the other runners.”
Keeping those calories up proved a challenge, too. Palmiero-Winters started getting sick pretty early in the event. And as she hit the home stretch, it was turning into a crisis.
“I had 11 miles left and I was going straight up Mt. Whitney,” said Palmiero-Winters. “I couldn’t see straight, couldn’t walk straight.”
One of her crew members rustled up a source of energy from an unlikely place.
“She stopped into a McDonald’s and bought a Big Mac,” said Palmiero-Winters. “I had just the bottom part of the burger and the bun. And it worked. It definitely worked. I hadn’t eaten a Big Mac since I was a kid. That was exactly what it took to get me to the top of the mountain.”
So, fueled by a McDonald’s burger, this finely-tuned athlete managed to complete one of the most fearsome courses the world has to offer.
And then she collapsed in an exhausted heap, right?
Nope. No time.
“We crossed the finish line, did interviews had to go right back to the hotel and get ready to fly out,” said Palmiero-Winters. “We had to fly out the next day and we didn’t get back to hotel 5 o’clock in the morning. We had to get moving.”
This interview was held about a week after the race and Palmiero-Winters was already feeling pretty good.
“Typically, it’s supposed to take your body three to four months to recover,” she said. “Probably by, like, Saturday my muscles started feeling good. I was fine.”
In fact, she hopes to take on the Badwater again.
“I learned a lot from it,” she said. “Every time I do a race like this, I’m humbled by it. I will go back.”
Surely the question on most people’s minds at this point is why? Why would anyone do something like this?
Well, ever since she’s returned to running after the loss of her leg, Palmiero-Winters has never been shy about her desire to inspire others.
“If I can go 135 miles in the desert then some kid who’s in front of me in an assembly can walk a block, or put the video games aside and be healthy and active once a day,” she said
And besides, she enjoys it.
“Everybody has likes and dislikes,” she said. “And I do what I do because it makes me happy.”