You might think a couple of days spent in Death Valley would suck the life out of you. Not for SaraMae Hollandsworth, who actually experienced the opposite effect.

“I came out of there like I swallowed fire, ready to take on anything,” she said.

Ultramarathoner Neil Smith asked the 36-year-old from Dallas to be one of his pacers at Badwater, a blistering 135-mile race through Death Valley that must be completed within 48 hours.

Ignore the fact that Hollandsworth lost both of her feet to sepsis in 2013 and has trouble regulating her own body temperature. She was all in.

Hollandsworth (second from the left) with Smith and the rest of the support crew. Photo courtesy of SaraMae Hollandsworth

A trip to where the thermostat reaches 115 degrees is inherently laced with surprises for anyone who touches down on the desert floor. Runners, support crews, race organizers, sponsors and spectators descend upon an environment that looks more like Mars, and becomes the scene for where the human spirit gets pushed to the brink as much as the human body does.

Hollandsworth went in expecting to pace Smith for about 20 miles. Instead, she settled in for five.

“I just didn’t have enough time to put my new legs to the test. I wasn’t totally confident in them, so I didn’t want to be a liability as a pacer,” she said.

But, that result, that so-called “failure,” put a fire in her belly.

“It’s unfinished business, and I literally can’t get to the end of my life without doing Badwater again,” she said. “Not only do I want to go fully pace somebody, but now there’s this voice in my head telling me, ‘You could do this. You could do the whole thing someday.”

Diving Into The Heat

Hollandsworth is from Oregon, the so-called running capital of the United States. Her father, who grew up in an orphanage, used running as a form of therapy and became an ultramarathoner. Her sister latched onto long distances and become a marathoner herself. Hollandsworth, however, favored speed. She was a sprinter in college. At most, she dabbled in 3.1-mile cross-country races.

So, when Neil Smith, an “easy-going Texas boy” and lawyer, asked her to pace him, she jumped at the chance to connect with a different variation of her beloved sport.

Smith was put in touch with Hollandsworth after he made a donation to the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the organization that gave Hollandsworth her first set of prosthetic legs. When he inquired about an amputee pacing him for “The World’s Toughest Footrace,” Hollandsworth’s story and big running background was brought to his attention.

Turns out, it was a match made in heaven, because of their ability to endure vast amounts of pain.

“I realized I’ve basically done Badwater in my life. I have that conditioning from what I’ve lived through,” Hollandsworth said.

As much as she was invested in helping Smith get to the finish line, she knew others would express their concerns regarding her new challenge and perceived physical limitations.

Photo courtesy of SaraMae Hollandsworth

“I was afraid to tell a lot of people about Badwater because they would have told me, that’s not safe or smart, and I could die. I have it in me to push the limits to that dangerous place. I’m not willing to play it safe.”

So, Hollandsworth quietly began “heat training” in Dallas. She would dress in a heavy black sweatshirt, as if it were winter, and run in the blazing midday sun.

She was excited to test her body. Shortly before Badwater, she even finished a 31-mile all-night walk for Carry The Load, a trek to honor our nation’s heroes.

“It was like a new level of freedom I had in my body knowing I could accomplish that,” she said.

Falling Into A Different Role

Just prior to Badwater, Hollandsworth got a new set of legs.

“There’s kind of a period of getting to know each other, like a new relationship, where you figure it out and determine what changes need to be made based on how they feel.”

Because she didn’t want to tinker with her legs during Smith’s race and slow him down, she put in a few miles, but didn’t get to test herself like she wanted to physically.

“I felt like a total failure, but it was kind of cool because I hadn’t fallen short of my expectations in so long,” she said. “Having fallen short, in the past, it would have taken me out and it would have held me back, but instead I’m letting that regret fuel me forward.”

Rather than running, Hollandsworth was an “active spectator.” She rode along in the support van, stopping every two miles to help refuel Smith and tend to his needs. It was a great sense of responsibility to not let the ball drop. And, as far as competitors at Badwater go, Smith ran a seamless race.

Photo courtesy of SaraMae Hollandsworth

He finished his first Badwater in 38 hours, 48 minutes, and 36 seconds, five hours faster than his goal.

“It’s a beautiful thing to watch people push their lives to these limits,” Hollandsworth said. “I can’t think of anything easier to fail at than a 135-mile race in Death Valley. It’s incredible to see people who can do anything, but they also set themselves up to fail in a huge way.”

As for Hollandsworth, bearing witness expanded her world view.

“When I was young, I traveled in the States and internationally, and it made my world big. I could never go back to a smaller reality, or live life in one place knowing what and where was possible to me,” she said. “It was the same with Badwater. Witnessing people do the seemingly impossible expanded what is possible for my life.”

With possibility on the brain, Hollandsworth will begin training in September for the 2020 Paralympic Games through the Adaptive Training Foundation’s “Reignite” program. She’ll hit the track, sprinting as fast as her legs will let her, but she surely won’t forget the lessons learned from Badwater and watching legs move a little slower.

“Any challenge is impossible in its entirety, in the moment,” she said. “Really it’s just about making tiny, imperceptible moves.”

And she’ll take that philosophy with her to the track, and who knows, maybe to 135 miles of desert road one day.