I left Spokane about noon on Friday to catch my flight to Las Vegas. It was a bit lonely at the rental car station as I had originally planned on meeting Scott & Leah and driving into Death Valley together, but they were unable to make it at the last minute. I missed their company. I got my car and pointed the wheels West. I stopped at Wild Oats for a few goodies and hopped back on the highway. I brought several CDs with me and so popped one in. But after about 10 minutes of music, I ejected it; I liked the peace and quiet better. I made some phone calls until I lost all reception, and I didn't get it back until I returned to Vegas late Sunday. It was quite liberating actually.
About an hour into the drive, I could feel my soul stirring as I was being pulled closer and closer to the Valley like a magnet. I found myself glancing frequently left and right while driving 80 mph down the straight highway to take snapshots in my mind of the changing scenery . The sun started to set and darkness enveloped the car. The only noise was the sound of the engine. Dusk turned to dark quickly and the stars started to emerge and speckle the sky. As I drove, on some level I noticed a brightness in my peripheral vision to my left. I really didn't pay much attention to it; I figured it must be the sun finally settling behind the low clouds on the horizon. But on some level, it didn't seem right. It was on my left and I was driving South down 373 by this time, so that would make this "sunset" to the East. I glanced again. It sure did look like a sunset...and yet the sky was pitch black except for the stars. So, I braked and pulled over to the side of the road. I turned and faced South at this brilliant "sun" and instantly gasped in awe! It was the MOON, the brightest moon I have ever seen hovering over the horizon! It was full and brilliant and it shone like the sun! It cast its shadows on the mountain tops making them look like huge drapes of crushed velvet. I was alone there in the moon shadows on the side of the road and I couldn't help but laugh aloud. I thought, "Damn, I LOVE this place!" and I got back in the car and continued on. Every now and then the moon's brilliance would catch either my right or left eye depending on the direction I was driving and I would think there was a car driving beside me. Again, I would chuckle; it was just the moon and her shadows playing games.
Once at the familiar Furnace Creek, I got my room and settled in. I am used to staying up in the front rooms with the Badwater medical staff on race day, so it felt odd driving all the way to the back rooms. The last time I stayed here was when I ran Badwater in 2004. I remembered the beer and cigars the night before the race like it was just yesterday.
(a scene from my Badwater race in 2004)
The marathon wasn't set to start until 8:15 - 8:30 am, which seemed like a casual enough start, so I had plenty of time for sleep...and slept a whole 6-1/2 hours.
The runners gathered outside by the Registration for a pre-race talk and the first thing the RD announced was that we WOULD be running through Titus Canyon this year. I guess the past 2 years the race has been diverted to the roads for various reasons (snow, rocks slides, etc.). I was glad to hear that because I was here for the trails. He warned us to ditch the headphones; they were not allowed. He wanted us "to experience Death Valley and the beauty of its canyons" and he felt that headphones would rob us of that experience. I normally do run with headphones on the roads (always quiet enough that I can hear my foot steps) but I don't usually use them on the trails for exactly the reason he mentioned. All 300+ runners loaded onto a few school buses and we made the hour long drive to the start of the race.
It was chilly at the start. I had on shorts, a singlet and my Badwater shirt from last year. I also put on my Dirty Girl Gaiters the last minute and I was certainly glad that I did that. This casual race started around 8:45 with a "GO!" from the Race Director and we were off and shuffling. The first 12 miles ascended 2000+ feet. Not too bad except that most of the incline is from about mile 9 through 12. I say "about" and "approximately" because there were no mile markers (not at any Enviro-sports events) and aid stations were set approximately 5 miles apart. I chatted with some runners. It was a first marathon for many runners. What a great marathon for a first, I thought. Some of these first timers didn't even wear watches but were "hoping to beat 4 hours" or "trying for a negative split." Isn't that fabulous? And so was the "feel" of this marathon, so unlike so many other marathons. This one had an ultra feel to it. And there were in fact, many ultrarunners there. I immediately recognized Dee from Independence who is at Badwater crewing or pacing each year. And there were others I could pick out of the croud and I knew they were ultrarunners...and I'd be correct!
There was lots of talk about the Badwater Ultra; my shirt drew some attention until I ditched it during the first part of the race.
As the long gradual uphills started to get a little steeper, my right hip flexor began to ache. I had this same pain at Uncle Joe's 50k last September and again just last weekend during some hill running. It was only hinting at coming back but I nevertheless shortened my stride and mixed that up with some walking up the hill. I must've walked about 2 miles before I crested at the top. I really don't know how far or how long I walked because I glanced only once at my watch during the entire race and that was at about mile 10 at the aid station. My watch read about 2 hours! Now, I knew I was slow, but DANG, that was s-s-s-low! I had run almost all the uphill till that last long and winding steep ascent so it must've been that last part that slowed me down so much. Oh well, I wasn't upset that I wasn't going to win. :) I was just there for the "experience" of it.
And THEN something wonderful happened. I crested the hill. And just like a roller coaster car slows and pauses at the top of the loop before diving down the tracks, the movie in my mind went into slow motion as I crested the hill, and a grin spread across my face as the view of the vast valley below spread out beneath me. I could see the trail twisting and turning and winding its way down all the way to the bottom. And I started running....and I kept running....faster and faster and I flung my arms up and I shouted "Wow!" and "Wheee!" to my fellow compadres who shared my downhill joy. And it never ended. It just kept going downhill. There were maybe a few 10 foot uphill blips among the descent but you never noticed them because of the speed of your legs and momentum of your body. So, we all just ran and ran. How some braked for pictures of the surrounding beauty, I don't know.
(Here's a picture from the Envirosports website.)
Despite the glee, I was yet mindful of my wussy ankle and I watched my every step. A couple of false twist starts here and there but my proprioception training served me well and I was always able to right my ankle at the hint of turning it. It felt strong and was not weary despite the weakness from the nerve damage. This was my first long run on trails so I was thrilled. Granted these trails weren't technical but they were certainly trails to my ankles. Dirt and rocks and road crooks and crannies mean instability to me. I couldn't have been more pleased with how my ankle held me up. I inventoried the other old parts of my body: my back was good, the hip flexor no longer hurt, my heart beat rhythmically and seemingly slowly, and my lungs were compliant and efficient. Despite the 75 degree temps, I felt only warmth which soothed my muscles and mind.
So, I had about an hour and a half of this glorious descent. I didn't stop at any aid stations on the way down...I didn't want to break up the fun. At mile 23 you could see the finish line and the buses in the distance. They looked closer but we were warned that we'd have 3.2 more miles to go once the finish came into view. There was no wall, no soreness, no aches, no mind demons, only pure joy in my mind and body. My strongest miles were those last miles and still, I felt like I could run forever more. I crossed the humble finish line and hung out to talk with the runners.
Back at the hotel, I let some new friends use my shower because they had already checked out of their room and I went to the pool to soak my non-blistered, non-aching feet. Still, the pool felt good. I attended the brief awards ceremony where we learned that the several runners who chose to wear headphones despite being warned not to were disqualified by the RD. He said, "Those of you who wore headphones, we know who you are and your names will NOT be listed in the official results and your results are listed separately and are hanging on that sheet of paper outside of the building." He received an applause from the rest of the rule-abiding runners and quite frankly, I think he did a superb job with sticking to his rules and openly DQ'ing the runners. Rules are rules. Don't like them, then don't run Enviro-sports events.
The next morning, I felt great. I drove to Stovepipe Wells and parked the car. I ran the 2.5 mile uphill road to Mosaic Canyon and then hiked the trail for another 1.5 miles or so. It was easy at first, much like the Titus Canyon dirt roads, but then got more and more gnarly and crevassed, requiring arms and legs to make progress.
After reaching a spot that was particularly difficult to navigate, I started thinking of Aaron Ralston and I decided it was best to turn back. I did not want that day to be the day I'd fall and brake a leg, get lost in the canyon, and bake my body in the Death Valley sun. So, I turned back and ran back out of the trails and down the road. This was the first time I felt some soreness in my quads. I knew I'd be a little sore on Monday, which I was.
How delightful! I sure have missed that feeling.
I then showered and packed up and drove out to the Badwater Basin, which as you all know by now, is the lowest elevation point in the US at 282 feet below sea level.
Making that 17 mile drive down Badwater Road by myself and NOT during the race made me realize just how friggin' long that road is! The more I thought of the race - at 135 miles long - the more I can't fathom how anybody, never mind me, has ever run that distance. How does the body do it? Even more, how does the MIND do it? Wow, it is a long, long road....and that's just the first 17 miles! The Badwater Runners have another 118 more miles to go! Just amazing.
So, I headed back to the chings and chimes of the Vegas airport and to the many messages left on my cell phone over the weekend, which I got all at once as soon as I got within a cell tower for reception. The slots were ringing, the metallic musical "Wheel-of-Fortune" sounds polluted the air and I searched out a quiet corner at the gate to wait. My flight home was simple and without any gliches. I was tired - and SORE - this morning, but the day is done and I am already one day closer to the weekend.
I am so pleased with this marathon "experience" as the race director calls it. It happens all the time that I am never more alive than when I'm in Death Valley.
For anyone who's interested, here are the results of the 2007 Death Valley Trail Marathon.
For a few more pictures, go here.