There were certain things I expected to a problem during this marathon. My IT band has been sore. I haven’t run much the last couple weeks. Etc., Etc. There were other things I never expected to be problematic.
a) Rain -> Death Valley gets 2″ a year
b) Snow -> It’s Death Valley, it’s H_O_T there.
c) Mud -> See “a”
d) Altitude -> Death Valley is the lowest point in the western hemisphere, at 282
ft below sea level.
Turns out I was right about d. Plenty of air. No problems breathing. a-c turned out to be a different story.
Friday afternoon found me, bags packed, heading over to Michelle’s house. Michelle has been for been my “partner in crime” for each of my long trail runs, and this time, was my ride over to Death Valley. We’d be meeting Diane, Kim, Barbara and Doug there. As we crossed the Sierra’s snow was coming down. North on 395, more snow, as we turned east, towards Death Valley, the snow quit. Michelle and I stopped for dinner, not suspecting road conditions would be worse ahead. As we left our way over priced meal, conditions on the road got worse. Snow, fog and poor visibility made for a slow drive into Death Valley. We bunked on the floor of Diane and Kim’s room, waking to a crisp, cool, WET morning. As the runners accumulated and began signing in, rumors about the course began to circulate. The course was supposed to have us starting at 3,000 feet, climbing over 5,000 feet, then dropping into the Valley for a finish at Badwater (-282). Tiptoes Canyon is apparently gorgeous, but I won’t know for a while, as the park service had closed the course. 400 runners milling around, but luckily there was a backup plan. We soon learned that our run would take place on the Valley floor.
We herded onto buses, and drove to the start. 13.1 miles out. 13.1 miles back. I was disappointed. I like running hilly trails. This was a flat, flat dirt road. Several runners expressed disappointment, but I was trying to put a positive spin on it. I was interested to see how fast I could run a flat course like this. We unloaded from the bus, and shortly after, started the race. It was overcast and a bit chilly. I was running in shorts and a thin long sleeve top. The first twelve miles went pretty well. I was cruising along at a pretty good clip (for me, slow for the rest of the world). The two ranges of mountains, draped in snow, provided a stunning backdrop. The course was flat, flat, flat. Did I mention flat Alkaline beds and the occasional scrub bush provided little scenery. I found myself having no sense of distance or speed traveled with nothing to provide reference. Strange, disconcerting, and disheartening. I stared at rocks, convinced I’d seen the same rock minutes before.
I’ve been plenty tired on runs before, but found the flat, repetitive pounding *hurt* like no race I’ve done before. The normal variety of running hilly trails stresses lot’s of muscles, but works them differently. This road hurt me. It was even muddy in spots, and at one point began to rain. In Death Valley! At the 12 mile aid station I stopped to drink some water. My IT band (Iliotibal Band ) was sore, and changing pace, even briefly, always seems to aggravate it. I hit the turn around mark at 2:20, well faster than my normal pace, but my knee was really starting to get to me. For the next five miles or so, my pace slowed to crawl. I was getting passed left and right, and found the now monotonous scenery disheartening. The quote I’d read earlier reverberated in my brain
“the most deadly and dangerous spot in the US. It is a pit of horrors- the haunt of all that is grim and ghoulish. Such animal and reptile life as infests this pest-hole is of ghastly shape, rancorous nature and diabolically ugly. It breeds only noxious and venemous things. Its dead do not decompose, but are baked, blistered and embalmed by the scorching heat through countless ages. It is surely the nearest to a little hell on earth that the whole wicked world can produce.” (from a newspaper report, circa 1894)
The rocky flat road hurt my feet. By mile 18 I was ready to quit. A slight breeze picked up, I was cold, wishing I had another layer to add. My knee was causing pain with every slow step. At mile 20 there was an aid station. Little relief, except the end was near. A frequent training run I do is six miles long, and pretty flat. I tried to tell myself that this was just like running the bike path, from the AAA building to CSUB and back. Little help, but as I passed time I was ticking off the landmarks that would have been there. Waterfountain. Bridge. The tiny park at 3 miles. Imaginary landmarks filled the spaces in the flat monotonous terrain I was running in. Soon, I could look across the valley and see a bright yellow speck. I knew this was school bus at the finish, and it served as a beacon. I picked up the pace, and the speck grew to a blob, then took form. Soon I could see people. Then it was over.
I finished 8 minutes faster than any other marathon I’ve done. A personal record. But there was no feeling of exultation, only relief. No joy, only pain. I was satisfied, but not happy. There was no sense of accomplishment, nor wonder at the natural beauty. It was a tick mark on my running shoes. Every other race has meant something wonderful to me. This one I left feeling empty. Oh well. There will be other races.