Three days after running the Boston Marathon last year I talked my good friend Hari into running the Borax Death Valley Marathon with me. I’ve never liked crowds, so silly me for running Boston, right? It’s no secret that I love the desert, and I guess I was looking for something completely different from my other marathon experiences, so I settled on Death Valley. Besides, how badass would it be to say I had run a marathon in Death Valley–and survived?
The three days before leaving for Death Valley were snow days, which is pretty much unheard of here in Dallas. We had to get up at 2am to catch a 6:30am flight to Las Vegas, and hit the road by 3am, which meant almost no sleep the night before. Hari drove down from Allen on icy roads to pick us up, but it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be. Had a spat with Michael after he didn’t pack the night before (like I told him to) and then tried to cram all his stuff in my already full bag. He retaliated by not bringing the cameras, so it was a very quiet drive to the airport. Poor Hari. The icy roads outside were nothing compared to the chill inside the car. It was freezing cold in the airport terminal, too, so we were all glad when we were finally able to board the plane. The extremely empty flight left at 6:35am, and I enjoyed the great scenery from the window. Even though we were tired and grumpy, catching a 6:30am flight turned out to be a great idea. There was no wait whatsoever at baggage claim or picking up the rental car.
Leaving Vegas, we missed our exit because of construction and had to backtrack 20 miles to our turnoff. We decided to stop at Target for snacks for the trip. The temperature was very chilly, in the low 50’s, and despite this I decided I’m still not a Vegas fan. It all seems so fake and surreal and somehow sad. The scenery, however, driving to Death Valley was exactly what I love most: desolate, dry, stark, and dramatic.
When we arrived, we were surprised to find an unmanned park entrance—and a machine that took our $20 entrance fee. We passed Zabriskie Point and the sign for Badwater Basin, and I thought of both the film and the ultramarathon. Our rooms weren’t ready at Furnace Creek, so we went to the Forty-Niner Café and carbo-loaded (veggie wraps with Portobello mushrooms), then drove the marathon route. Hari and I quickly realized it was going to be a challenging course for us, with lots of rolling hills and an uphill climb most of the second half. At least the 13 mile turn-around was at the base of a huge hill that we wouldn’t have to run up. We were grateful for that. I told Hari we would have to run conservatively to save our energy.
We got our room keys, unpacked, and rested in our rooms, and I realized I forgot my magic Teva flip flops for after the race (I swear they cure plantars and all other foot ailments). I would really regret not having those flip flops after the race. Afterwards, we had dinner in the saloon (pizza) and wondered aloud where all the runners were. Except for a large table of California runners, there was no evidence of an impending race. Exhausted from the long day, I made fun of Hari’s “murse” (man purse) and he retaliated by telling me to always wear contacts and calling my glasses “lasers.” After receiving a text from a teacher friend that the next day was another snow day in Dallas, I finally fell asleep.
I slept great but woke up with a desert dry air induced headache. We met Hari for a huge carbo-loading breakfast of whole-grain blueberry pancakes and decided to spend the day doing some light sightseeing in the park. We drove over to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the western hemisphere, and walked out to the water basin. We all enjoyed looking up at the sign on the side of the mountain showing sea level: 282 ft above our heads. The weather could not have been better, with temperatures in the low 60’s and snow on the tops of the mountains above Badwater. Hari and I were awed by the fact that the Badwater Ultramarathon starts where we were standing. For those who don’t know, the Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135 mile race that starts at Badwater Basin (-282 ft.) and finishes on Mt. Whitney (8,300 ft). Oh, and it’s run in the middle of July. Race organizers consider it to be “the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet.” We resolved to come out and spectate one day (NOT RUN!).
We drove to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and hiked a part of Mosaic Canyon, where we were visited by two ravens. We also watched a coyote nonchalantly walk through the motel grounds at Stovepipe Wells, then had lunch in the saloon there (yummy fresh salads with avocado, corn, and black beans). I made everyone stop off for a short walk along Salt Creek on the way back to look for pupfish (found only in Death Valley–we saw exactly one), and noticed tape on the road marking the miles, the first evidence that our race would be taking place the next day. I started to feel very antsy and energetic.
We rested in our rooms until 5:30 (couldn’t sleep) and had dinner at the Forty-Niner again. I have to be bluntly honest and say that I had the absolute worst spaghetti I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Hari had the special bowtie dish, which was better but swimming in oil. Except for our prerace dinner, everything else we had eaten in the park had been great.
Hari went back to his room and Michael and I took a short drive down the road to get away from the lights to look at the stars. I used the Google Sky app on my phone to locate the planets and constellations. The milky way shone bright overhead and we saw a few shooting stars. There is nothing I love more than stargazing and looking into the wonder and mystery of the universe. We went back to our room and I laid everything out for the race. I got another text from Dallas and was incredulous that they were having their fifth snow day in a row. I was asleep by 8:48pm, nervous but excited, and happy to have seen the desert stars.
I woke up at 5am, ate two small blueberry muffins, and drank way too much water before the start. I felt nervous and unsure about how warm to dress. Even though it was very chilly outside, I knew it wouldn’t last. I met Hari at 6:30 and we walked over to get our bibs at the saloon, and we were both very surprised that there were no timing chips. After sitting around in our cabin until 7:45, we finally walked over to hear the race announcements.
About 200 people lined up on Hwy 190 at the start line. The race director gave a nice shout out to those coming from other countries, including Texas, so we felt honored to be included. We sang America the Beautiful and the young American girl next to me said she didn’t know the words. There was definitely a different vibe at this race. People didn’t seem to be overly friendly and chatty like at most marathon starts. It’s not that they weren’t unfriendly, they were mostly just aloof. We realized that most of the Californians we had met on the trip seemed to be that way.
Since there was no chip timing and the marathoners would start first, Hari and I made sure we were fairly close to the front. We could both feel the downhill as we started and knew it would make the finish that much more grueling. No matter how many marathons I’ve run (this was number six) and lessons learned, I always start out too fast. Hari said we were “galloping,” but it was hard to run conservatively on a downhill start. There was one good, steep hill around mile 2, but the course settled into some long, slow, gradually rolling hills . I noticed a woman who looked my age just ahead of me, so I made it a point to pass her a few miles in. I realized there seemed to be many more men than women running this race. Later I found out there were 142 male and only 30 female marathoners.
Since this was an out and back course we had to run against traffic the first half, then on the same side as traffic the second half. This was probably smart, since there were times in the second half when I would have welcomed a car running me over from behind. The race director and park police kept driving past us with flashing lights, telling everyone to run on or close to the white line. No headphones were allowed.
My training for the race had been less than stellar, but my legs felt great the first half. We kept the pace around 9:05-9:07 and stopped for water every three miles. We also carried our own water packs because of the sparse water stops, and we saw many people running with camelbaks. Thankfully, the sky was hazy and the temperatures remained cool for the first half. We were still running in the desert, though, and I couldn’t believe how many people were running without hats or sunglasses.
At mile 6 we could see the huge hill at the halfway point, 7.1 miles away in the distance. Hari asked if we were going to have to run up that hill, and I assured him that was the halfway point. We were amazed we could see seven miles down the road, but that turned out to be a bad thing the second half of the race. The road felt nice and flat, with small rolling hills. We began to have delusional thoughts that the route might not be as bad as we had initially feared. At 6.5 miles the half marathoners turned around, and we thinned out. It is always a bittersweet moment in a marathon when the half marathoners split off, and you realize how much harder and longer your journey will be than theirs.
At mile 10 I felt good, and I was able to take in the beautiful scenery. I had been fascinated with Death Valley since I was a little girl, but could never talk anyone else into going with me. I couldn’t believe I was running a marathon there, entirely below sea level, and that there was snow on the mountains above me. Hari and I ran with a man from Wisconsin for awhile who left us at the water stop, and then we ran behind a young college sophomore girl who talked about her late night adventures the night before. When Hari complained about her bragging about her late night and being able to run faster than us, I reminded him that she was 20 years old.
Hari and I talked about running, literally, in the footsteps of Scott Jurek and Dean Karnazes on this stretch of the Badwater Ultramarathon route. It was really cool to know that we were running a small part of that extreme course. Right around that same time Hari tripped and almost fell, so I took it as a sign that it was time to stop putting ourselves in the same league as Jurek and Karnazes.
Michael passed us in the car around mile 10, and cheered us on. It was great to see a familiar face. At mile 11 we started to see the first fast marathoners double back and pass us. Hari and I made a point to tell the runners good job and way to go. We couldn’t believe that only about 20% of the people thanked us, or acknowledged our encouragement in any way. Most simply ignored us. This happened over and over, so we had another long discussion about how different this race was from others.
A runner passed us with a handheld radio playing music, and we thought he was pushing it on the “no headphones” rule. I rarely run with music, so running with my thoughts has never been problematic for me. Of course, my thoughts do drive me crazy those last six miles of a marathon, so maybe I should try it sometime.
There was a very nice downhill to the mile 12 water stop, then we saw Michael again just before the turn-around at mile 13.1. The turn-around was nothing more than tape on the road, and absolutely NO ONE was there to make sure that everyone ran to the official turn-around tape spot and didn’t cut corners, so to speak. We both wondered how this could possibly be a Boston qualifying race when there was no official race person standing at the turn-around.
I was starting to feel a little tired and the uphill seemed to start immediately. I stayed optimistic, put my head down, and trudged on. Hari and I both got serious at this point and didn’t say much to each other. A woman passed us from the opposite direction running in the middle of the road, and I was glad to note that she seemed my age and I was ahead of her. My competitive spirit was still strong at mile 13.7.
From a few conversations along the way it seemed that a majority of the runners in this race did a lot of trail running. I wished I lived in a place that had more trails to run on. We started passing a young man cheering us on who parked on the side of the road and played music with his car doors open. He was one of only five spectators the entire route.
I tried not to think about how many more miles there were to run, and wondered why marathons were so much harder than our long runs at home. I decided to run the rest of the race one mile at a time and not continually calculate how many miles left to the finish. I failed miserably, as always. Water stops every 3 miles was not working for me at all the second half. I kept calculating how much further to the next water stop, even though I had water in my fuel belt. Three mile water stops are simply too far apart the second half of a race, especially in Death @#*$% Valley.
We saw Michael again at miles 15, 17, and 20. At some point I started to feel some chafing on my inner thighs, and a blister somewhere, too. It was getting harder and harder to stay with Hari. He had been running like a well-oiled machine since last summer, and carried it forward into Death Valley. He finally pulled ahead around mile 19. He looked strong and just kept going, without looking back. I was happy for him and hoped he could keep the cramps away that plague him at every marathon, but I was also sad that I couldn’t keep up.
The hills became unrelenting. They weren’t big hills, but they were enough to make it challenging. It was mentally tough to see most of the race course along the edge of the hill. The long, gradual, uphill stretch was always visible just ahead for miles in the distance, and it was hard not to get discouraged. I decided to keep my head down and just follow the white line. This helped a lot.
At mile 21, I was bone tired of slogging uphill. Some of the hills were significant, and I noticed that every single runner in front of me, as far as I could see, was walking on the uphills and running the downhills. It was very hard to resist, and I started doing the same. I remembered my trail running friends telling me this is a common practice in ultras and trail runs, but probably like everyone else, I hate walking in a marathon. I resolved to get over it and just do what needed to be done.
I used the white road markers as my guides and kept telling myself, over and over, just run to the next mile marker. I saw Michael just before mile 23. I took that opportunity to stop and whine.
I ran most of the race behind a man in a Hammer Nutrition jersey, whom I started calling “Hammer” in my head. Just keep following Hammer. When he stopped and I passed him, I told him to keep running, that he had been pulling me along. We passed each other back and forth until the finish line. He said he was running Death Valley in preparation for a 50 mile race he was training for, and offered me $10 if we finished together. I passed a young man and exchanged encouragement. I saw him later that night in the restaurant and he told me it was his first marathon. Wow, Death Valley for your first marathon! How do you top that?
I could always see Hari far ahead in the distance–I mean, I could see his neon green compression socks. I also saw the moment he stopped running and I knew his arch nemesis, cramps, had paid a visit. Eventually I caught up to him and we proceeded together. We passed the road sign exit to Beatty, NV—30 miles—and joked that we should add on some extra miles for fun.
Even though I was exhausted, I was still enjoying myself. I wasn’t beating myself up over having to take walk breaks on some of the uphills, and finishing was never an issue. It was starting to get very warm, and the other racers became very encouraging. Twice we had to stop to help Hari stretch his calves.
Finally, blissfully, there was that fantastic hill around mile 2, only this time it was a steep downhill. It felt great to let it rip, and I felt like I was flying. It reminded me of the St. George Marathon and qualifying for Boston. It was the best feeling in the world.
It didn’t last long. At the bottom of the hill we started the long uphill to the finish. Hari was in a lot of pain and had to stop and stretch his calves less than half a mile from the finish. We were so close. I told him to keep moving, that we were almost done. All I wanted to do was finish the race and be done, and it was killing me to stop with the finish line in sight. Hari walked a little more and I took off, finishing less than two minutes ahead of him, and feeling guilty for not waiting on him.
I finished in 4:18:27. Not my best time, but not bad considering I had walked some–and it was Death Valley, after all, so I felt entitled to extra badass bonus points for the location. It felt incredible to be done. I got my medal and yelled encouragement to Hari as he crossed the finish line. We took pictures with Hammer, who had finished a few minutes earlier than me and got to keep his $10 bet, and picked up our t-shirts (well, Hari did, but I was told they had run out of all the small sizes–at yet another race!!!!!).
We hobbled to our cabin, sat in the rocking chairs outside, and drank a celebratory beer. My feet missed my magic Teva flip flops, and I realized that I had The Worst Chafing Ever. Ugh. I rested, but didn’t sleep, then we all headed over the saloon for the awards ceremony. I had won 2nd place in my age division! In a marathon!
We got dinner from the Forty-Niner and ate it in the saloon, and I had a nice conversation with a man from Utah while waiting for our food. He told me about the Top of Utah marathon, his favorite race (slightly downhill), and told me I would enjoy it. Earlier, I had overheard this same man tell the waitress that last night’s spaghetti was the best spaghetti he’d ever eaten, that it was hard to find good spaghetti, and since my spaghetti from the same restaurant had been so awful, I have to assume that spaghetti in Utah is like Mexican Food in Kansas.
Since I had forgotten my magic Teva flip flops I had to wear my boots to dinner, and because of the terrible chafing I had to wear a skirt. I looked kind of stylish, but only I knew the real reason why. (Full disclosure: I was in so much pain from the chafing that I bought some Desitin in the gift shop. I took a lot of ribbing from the guys, but it worked.)
I was asleep by 9:00pm.
Three months later, I have to say that the Death Valley Marathon was one of my favorites. I loved the small size, the desert setting, running in a national park, and the challenges of the course. It was tough at the time, but it was an awesome event. Running with a dear friend like Hari made it all the more memorable. Most of all, I will always cherish the little red ribbon I got in the mail for placing 2nd in my age group–a marathon feat that will surely never again occur in this lifetime!
Age Division: 2/5
High temp: 85
Low temp: 54
Wind: 17 kph
(All photos courtesy of Hari, Michael, and Hari’s camera)