The 26 mile trail training run had been staring me in the face for the past fourteen weeks. Every time I looked at the training plan, my eyes would sweep down to the first box that held the number 26. There were two boxes with that number, but the first one seemed the most daunting.
The day had arrived.
The day before, after a 10 mile run with the running group, everyone either laughed or gaped after they asked how far we were running the next day. There were no takers when I asked if they wanted to join us.
Hari wanted to try a new trail, one further out from the city. I was sick of Grapevine, so we agreed on Isle du Bois at Ray Roberts State Park, 57 miles northwest of Dallas. Happily, after fourteen weeks of hot, humid, long trail runs, we finally caught a break with the weather.
I picked up Susan at 5:10am and we headed north. Just before we got there, I realized I had forgotten to bring cash for the entry fee. Susan wanted to buy a state parks pass anyway, which would cover both of us, but we discovered when we got there that no one would be in the office until 8:00am and it was self-pay until then. We drove to the trail head without paying, but my guilty conscience got the better of me. Fearing either a ticket or my car getting towed, we drove back up to the gate and shoved Susan’s six one dollar bills and every coin we could find in my car into the envelope. I had two nickels, one dime, and a whole bunch of pennies.
By the time we paid and found the trail, it was already 7:00am, one hour later than we usually start our long runs. I decided to wear my water hydration vest, and it’s a good thing I did because it would be 16 miles of running before we made it back to the cars.
Half a mile into the run, Susan disappeared. She eventually came running up and said she had lost her sunglasses. Sunglasses are expensive. We ran back to the cars slowly, surveying the trail, but never found the missing sunglasses. I remembered losing my sunglasses at the start of the St George Marathon, which I later said had been my sacrifice to the Weather Gods, and took it as a good omen.
Right off the bat, we knew it was going to be a tough trail for a 26 mile training run. It was very rocky and hilly, and flat, smooth sections were almost nonexistent. The rocks were red and volcanic, and they were everywhere and every size.
On the plus side, there were not as many roots and stumps as we’ve been used to running on. But the loose rocks were challenging, as were the large, pointy boulders that had to be walked over. Other than Palo Duro Canyon, it was the prettiest trail we had been on so far.
Despite running 10 miles the day before, I felt great. I felt smooth and strong on the rocks, and was priding myself on having my third trail run in a row without falling. Being the slowest of the three runners, I stayed in the back and took my time, carefully placing my feet and avoiding any missteps on the trail. I could really tell all the weeks of running trails and the increased mileage had made me stronger and more agile.
Hari looking pensive on the trail
Within the first 10 miles, Susan went down, banging up her knee. She went to the back of the pack behind me, to force herself to slow down, and within ten minutes fell again. She looked up at us from the ground and said, “I might have to quit.” She thought it was low blood sugar and ate an energy gel.
We discussed the possibility that the trail might be too challenging for a 26 mile training run, and that we might not be able to run the full distance. At that point, I couldn’t imagine how we were going to manage to run another 16 miles or so on those rocks and hills. I found myself wishing we had decided to run at Grapevine after all.
Susan’s determination carried us through. She is one tough woman.
The trail was a series of loops, A through E, but we never really knew where we were until we came to Loop D. We just ran. When we weren’t running, it was to stop and watch the deer in the woods. We saw a total of 21, all does, and most with fawns. There were very few bikes on the trail, and no other runners, just a few hikers.
We kept running, on and on, and Hari kept us entertained with his stories of living overseas, what books he had read, what movies he had seen, and what foods he had eaten. I love running with people who do all the talking.
Hari eventually ran out of things to talk about, and then he ran out of water. Susan shared some of hers, and we ran back towards the cars, not really sure how to get back. I have to say, those middle miles were great. Everyone was running well, Susan wasn’t falling anymore, and it felt great to be running in the woods. Everything became so simple. Life was simple: just keep running.
We were coming up on 15 miles, and I suddenly realized: We can do this. We can go ahead and run the full 26 miles. But we were starting to get hungry and it was getting warm.
Me and Susan, not looking sweaty and red-faced like usual because it was only 60 something degrees!
Finally, after 16 miles of running, we made it back to the cars for a much needed food and water break. We’ve discovered that real food trumps energy gels on trail runs, though we’re still figuring out which foods work the best for each of us. For me, it’s dolmas and Gatorade. There’s something about stuffed grape leaves washed down with Blue Glacier Freeze G that my stomach likes.
After the break, we looked at the trail head map and Hari asked if we wanted to finish the run on our own at home, or continue on. Susan had said from the beginning that she wanted to get the miles in on the trail, and I knew it would be hard to muster up the energy to run another 10 miles, solo, in the evening. We all agreed to power through to the end.
In my head, I split the remaining mileage in half and concentrated on running only the next five miles. Five miles was nothing, completely do-able. I was fatigued, but my legs still felt pretty good. Or so I thought. After the first mile or so, I started slipping on rocks and almost rolled both ankles, numerous times. My ankles were starting to show signs of weakness.
Every mile was a small victory. When we reached mile 17, we had only single digits left. Hari and Susan pulled ahead, I dragged behind. There was little talk. At one intersection, because we never really figured out where we were on the trail, and because we had inadvertently run in circles–literally–several times during the day, we made a huge rock cairn so we wouldn’t miss the turn-off back to the cars.
The rock cairn
Mile 20 to 21 seemed like forever, and when I caught up to Susan and Hari I discovered they hadn’t stopped until 21.24 miles. Might as well run a little farther than 26.2 and say we had run our longest distance ever.
I had started walking all the uphills by this time, trying to save energy, but I still felt good. Tired, but good. Susan remarked that we had less than a 10K to go. Time to hunker down and put the brain on auto-pilot.
Half a mile later I fell.
I had taken pains to always walk over the largest rocks on the trail, having paid the price several summers ago when I fell on a flat rock on a trail run in the Tetons and cracked a few ribs. This time, knowing my ankles were tired and weak, I ran up onto a large rock and had the thought, “I should have walked over this.” Before I knew what was happening I was headed for the rock, chin first. I landed on the side of my chin, flipped over onto my back, and landed in the leaves.
My chin had a big knot and was bleeding, my palms were scraped up, and my head hurt. For some reason I had only the slightest scrape on one knee, so my chin took most of the force of the fall.
After sympathy from my friends, we continued on. I felt so pitiful and sorry for myself, and frustrated at falling yet again on a trail run. I hung in the back and had a little cry. I put on my sunglasses so Hari and Susan wouldn’t know. They eventually stopped to let me catch up, asked how I was, and I burst into full blown sobs. I couldn’t catch my breath and I couldn’t stop crying. I felt like such a baby!
It didn’t hurt that bad, and I knew it was the fatigue that was making the tears flow so easily.
Those last five miles were some of the toughest I’ve ever run. Getting hurt meant I was mentally washed out, which only compounded the physical fatigue. Nothing was going to stop me from making it back to the car on my own two feet, but it meant a lot of walking. I was scared of falling again on the rocks, I was exhausted, and I hadn’t eaten anything when we stopped at mile 21. Big mistake.
Hari and Susan were strong to the end, running up most of the hills and staying focused on finishing. My left ankle hurt worse since the fall, and running became painful. Not wanting it to turn into another week of foam rolling and icing, I walked all the uphills and a lot of the downhills, carefully making my way through the rocks.
See all those rocks scattered around? We ran on those ALL DAY LONG!
Susan eventually said we had only a 5K left to run, and reminded us when she had said we still had a a 10K to go. Things began to look familiar. We were getting close to the end. I told Susan and Hari not to wait on me, gave Susan the key to the car, and told them I’d see them at the end.
Just like a few weeks ago when I had the stomach virus, I walked in all alone the last mile back to the car. It seems to take forever when you’re so close to the end.
Even though I didn’t finish as strong as I wanted to, I did it. It might have been my toughest run ever. Not only did I complete a 26.4 mile trail training run, it was also my longest training run ever,my longest run of any kind ever, and my highest mileage week ever (56.7 miles).
It was so good to be done! We celebrated with cold beers in coffee mugs, cold Gatorade, tabbouleh, sandwiches, and shade.
One of the few flat, smooth sections of the trail
Other than the 57 mile drive home, there was still one thing left to be done: I had to stop at the park entrance to pay my fee, fess up to the envelope full of pennies, and pay the balance. The state park ranger laughed when I explained how we had had to scrounge around in the car for all my loose change at 6:00 that morning, and she said they were wondering what the deal was with the 65 cents in change. Everyone had a good laugh at our story, didn’t make me pay the 35 cent balance, and I felt good about being honest.
I didn’t get home until almost 4:00pm. We were on our feet for seven or eight hours. None of us is really sure. Trail running is exhausting.
For that one day it was our job.
Michael took pity that night and cooked steak and baked potatoes for dinner. I was asleep by 8:30 on the couch. I’ve never slept better.
After returning home from one of the hottest camping trips I’ve ever been on, it was tough to stay motivated and upbeat in the continuing heat. I usually get through the summer by never expecting September to be any cooler than August, but this year I allowed myself to have false hope after a few teasers of cooler temps in late August. My misery was my own fault. My friend Nick reminded me not to waste these last few days of hot weather on “the wrong attitude.” Pamela Positive got told. Thankfully, the temperature finally came down just in time for our weekend long runs.
MON: Hike – 3.5 mi – Went for a hike at sunrise with Kurt in Palo Duro Canyon. Hiked the Rojo Grande Trail and part of the Juniper Trail (which I think we will be running on in October in the 50K race). Heard coyotes calling in the field as we walked along a creek bed, and enjoyed the canyon for one last morning. Sad to be leaving, but not sad to leave the extreme heat.
See you again on Oct. 20, Palo Duro!
TUE: Running rest day – No excuses, I was simply too tired from the trip and sick of the heat to get out of bed and run the scheduled 4 miles on the plan. I told myself I would run at the gym (didn’t), at least do strength (didn’t) or yoga (didn’t), or run in the early evening (didn’t). Mostly, I’m ticked that it’s still in the 100’s in September. Blah.
WED: Run – 12 mi, Strength (arms), Yoga (twists) – Great run this morning at 5am with Hari and Susan. Kept up a good pace, and the temp wasn’t all that unpleasant. I’m resolving to make up my missing 4 miles from yesterday, and get back on track with yoga and weights.
THU: Run – 8 mi (hills), Yoga (back bends) – I decided to punish myself for not running on Tuesday morning by joining Susan for her hill run. I’ve always been envious of Susan’s level of fitness, and now I know her secret weapon. Those hills kicked my butt. It was a great workout. Rounded it off with some yoga.
FRI: Running rest day, Yoga (forward bends and hip openers) – Woke up feeling somewhat stiff and a little sore from Susan’s killer hill run yesterday. Did some yoga to help loosen up the muscles for this weekend’s long runs. Thankfully a cold front is supposed to roll in tonight and bring cooler temps, so I couldn’t be happier about starting Sunday’s 26 miler in 64 degree weather.
SAT: Run 10 mi – What a difference 10 degrees can make! Everyone today on our group run couldn’t stop talking about how much better it felt to run this morning compared to our usual Saturday morning runs. It rained very lightly before the run, which brought the humidity up a bit, but it still made a huge difference. I loved telling Michael last night that I was “only” running 10 miles today. I felt strong during the run, and it felt easy. Yay!
SUN: Trail Run – 26 mi – Longest training run ever, and longest distance run ever. 26.4 miles in the books, and it was tough. We were lucky to have the coolest temps all training season (around 60 degrees), and it made a huge difference. We ran at Isle du Bois, which is in Ray Roberts State Park, and perhaps it wasn’t the most optimal trail for a 26 mile training run. The trails were very rocky and hilly, and after Susan fell twice in a ten minute span of time within the first 10 miles, we questioned whether we would really be able to run a full 26 miles on all the rocks and hills.
We ran 16 miles before a break at the car for more water and food, and knew we would be able to finish off the last 10 miles. I felt good, though fatigued, but after a few times of almost rolling both ankles on loose rocks, and then falling hard on my chin on a big rock at mile 21.5 (and crying in front of my friends!), the last five miles were both mentally and physically tough. We did it, though, and somehow we made the 57 mile drive home afterwards, too. I was asleep by 8:30 on the couch, achy and sore from the fall, and oh so glad it was done.
Susan and Hari
STATS for WEEK 14: Run – 56.7 miles, 1 strength/core workout, Yoga – 80:00
As always after a hard week of running, I was happy to have an easy week. For one reason or another, I didn’t do as much strength training or yoga, and that’s something I want to work on in the coming weeks. Summer decided to hang on a bit longer, with temperatures rising again above 100 degrees, but I ended the week with a wonderful trail run in Palo Duro Canyon, site of our 50K race in October, with my friends Hari and Kurt.
MON: Running rest day – I was like a zombie all day. I felt very fatigued, somewhat grumpy, but my legs felt surprisingly good after a 23 mile run. I did nothing physical, and spent the afternoon and evening on the couch with the iPad.
TUE: Run – 4 mi – Met Mike at 5:15am for a 4 mile run through Highland Park. I forgot to charge my Garmin, and he didn’t wear his either, so we were Garmin-free. It felt like we were pushing the pace, but hard to tell on tired legs. Another humid morning. So ready for summer to be done with. It was a busy day and somehow I never got around to core/strength or yoga.
WED: Run – 10 mi, Strength (arms) – This morning was one of those great runs where everything comes together. The temps were cool, humidity low, and I felt strong and smooth. We added in some significant hills, too, and despite the fact I ran 23 miles on trails just three days ago, the legs felt great. I just felt really good the entire run. We also got passed by a coyote, who came running out of the Arboretum and continued on in the grass. It was a truly beautiful animal, so lean and incredibly fast. Came home to finish off with 20 minutes of upper body weights.
THU: Running rest day, Yoga (forward bends) – 20:00 – Got some much-needed sleep. Going to run 10 tomorrow with Hari since we’re going camping this weekend to Palo Duro to check out the race course–and just have fun. Hopefully we’ll be able to run 4 on Saturday evening and 6 on Sunday morning. Not happy that it’s going to be in the upper 90’s all weekend. Did yoga in the evening to loosen up the legs before tomorrow morning’s run.
FRI: Run – 9 mi – It was such an incredibly warm and humid morning, Hari and I decided to run a loop and add the missing mile on to one of the weekend runs. The air was completely still and the bugs were horrible as well, getting in our eyes, ears, mouths, and noses. The run itself felt easy, and I’m enjoying being able to run so strong and effortlessly on a loop around the lake. I love having this level of fitness.
SAT: Running rest day – Hari, Kurt, and our families drove to Palo Duro Canyon for a weekend of camping and trail running. We were hoping to run at least 4 miles in the canyon in the evening, but the 104 degree temps helped us decide to run long in the morning instead.
SUN: Run – 11 mi – Best trail run so far! Started at dawn at the Givens, Spicer & Lowry Running Trail, which took us to the Lighthouse formation, and added on the Little Fox Canyon Trail loop. It was 70 degrees at the start, and it felt great to be running in such cool temps. It also felt great to be running on a trail without roots or stumps. Though the temperature climbed up to 95 degrees by the end of the run, we couldn’t stop raving about how beautiful the scenery was. It’s runs like this that remind me why I love trail running so much.
* All photos courtesy of Kurt Cimino
STATS for WEEK 13: Run – 34 miles, 1 strength/core workout, Yoga – 20:00
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)