This is the second time I've been fortunate enough to get away in early February to run the Death Valley Trail Marathon through the spectacular Titus Canyon. The run is put on by Enviro-Sports, athletic events for the "Type E" personality.
The timing to get away couldn't have been more perfect. Spokane had been hit with record snow fall making travel, even to work, treacherous. Fortunately, the plane to Vegas took off without incident, and the two and a half hour drive from there to Death Valley was - like last year - a cathartic and cleansing journey.
The nights were crisp and desert chilled. The stars were layered thick by the billions. Morning came too soon for my tired body but the sun rose confidently and slowly warmed the atmosphere.
The first place I always go is to Badwater. Despite the slight chill in the air, I could easily visualize the Badwater Ultramarathon race morning with the runners gathered at the elevation sign, and then making their way to the road to stand behind the Badwater banner for the National Anthem(s) and the 10 second countdown to the start of their 135 mile journey by foot across Death Valley to Mount Whitney. Despite it being about 50 degrees cooler this time of year, I could almost hear the nervous chatter and laughter, and feel the excitement of those moments before the start of that life-changing event.
(pic: moments before the start of the Badwater Ultramarathon in July 2007)
I trekked out onto the salt fields. The salt was a bit moist in some areas due to some recent rains. It stuck to my sandals and looked and felt a bit like walking through the hard slush I left behind in the Pacific Northwest. I was so far away from that though - in my mind - that I could only feel a strange kinship with the sensation, but I didn't fully make the connection.
From there, I walked the Devil's Golf Course.
Ever wonder why it's called the Devil's Golf Course? Well, just look at that green? Imagine trying to find your ball in that! A little slip of the sandal too, and those crystals can slice your flesh like a razor. Be careful when playing with the Devil!
Artist's Drive was spectacular, as was the Natural Bridge. The drive into Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs stirred in me visceral sensations of the race. I was both excited and awed at the length of the road that seemed to stretch infinitely over the horizon.
(pic: view through the Natural Bridge)
(pic: Zabriskie Point)
Saturday morning was race morning. There was no hullabaloo, no pomp, just a race number pick-up and a briefing of the course by Dave Horning, the Race Director and Producer of Enviro-Sports. Now, Dave is a dude! What a good guy he is! You see he is ALL about the experience of the run, not the run itself. There are rules for the run. No headphones, no littering, no trying to win if you can't. ... Well, not really that one, but he does tell us before the start where the good photo ops are on the course. And he tells us some are "mandatory stops" and that we should just keep track of our sight-gazing time and he will subtract it from our finish time.
Of course, he's kidding... in a way... but not really. And THAT's why Dave's a dude! I think he's awesome. He organizes a great "opportunity" that happens to be a marathon distance run.
So, we bus to the start and actually start when everyone is ready, which is 45 minutes after the planned start time. Nobody cares though, except that it is chilly in the desert morning. Good thing the sun is rising up to do its thing again. It wasn't long - maybe 3 miles into the run - and we were peeling off layers of clothes. It didn't get quite as warm this year as last year but it was SUMMER to me! The 13 mile trek to the top seemed shorter to me this year and I felt good about that. I was bummed that I had some minor aches and pains left over from Across the Years. I wondered if my body had fully recovered from those 150 miles despite that I had put in some hard-ish medium-distance runs (on the treadmill). I just kept reminding myself that those kinks just needed to be worked out. And they did eventually work themselves out.
There was snow on the pass. Enough snow that even the day before the race, the park service had closed the route and we were going to have to run the alternate route, bypassing the spectacular Titus Canyon. But last minute there was cheering and whooping - they opened the roads through Titus... and there'd be no complaining about having to traverse the snow. Well, I never heard a peep or one negative utterance from any runner! We were thrilled.
After cresting in the snow, we dip over the edge and start the glorious "free-speed" downhill running all the way to the finish. At first, it's quite a graded decline,
effortless gliding to and through the "wall" of the marathon distance run.
The most beautiful parts of the course are here, and one can't help but gaze at the rock formations and striations. Of course, I am compelled to do that always, and of course, I am always yet teetering on a weak ankle. And of course....well, you can guess what happened, right? I caught my post-surgical ankle on a loose rock and started to stumble. I instinctively tried to catch myself and landed the ankle down again, this time into a 90 degree inversion sprain. I heard it "crunch" on the inside where the bones forcefully collided. I immediately felt the burn of the ligaments torn on the outside. I imagined that I could even feel the surgical anchors ripped from the bone.
In a split but slow-motioned second, I let my body fall over the ankle. I sacrificed my everything to save the ligaments, if anything were left of them anyway. And I went down. Hard. I landed on my right side, mostly hip, forearm, shoulder and face. I felt nothing at first except the ankle, which hurt like hell. Of course, the FEAR of the ankle hurting hurt more than the ankle hurt itself. I was so shaken that I sent myself into a laborious wheeze. I couldn't catch my breath. And I couldn't bear weight on the ankle. Dang, (to say it nicely) I was not happy!
I tried to force out slower breaths and I quelled the urge to cry. It surfaced again and then again as I took those first painful and unconfident steps, but I said aloud that I will not cry.
As runners passed me by - just 4 miles from the finish - they asked if I were ok. I thanked them for their concern, and I promised to walk or run or do whatever I could if I could actually bear weight on it. I tried. It hurt. I tried again. I stopped. I looked longingly down the course. I wanted soooo badly to just run. That's all I wanted to do. I tried again. I didn't fall over on it. So I gritted my teeth, literally, and said aloud, "Pain is in the brain," and I hobbled on. Of course, as most ultrarunners know, the more you hobble, the better you get, and when that happens, it means you'll be ok. The pain was suppressible, the damage was already done. Running another 4 miles downhill - as long as I didn't sprain it again! - wasn't going to make all that much a difference in my recovery from this.
So, I ran as best I could. It was at a much slower pace, but at least I was running. I was only bummed that I had to shift my focus from the scenery to my self. I had to pay attention to my every step. I really don't like that. I feel like I robbed myself of 4 glorious miles, but it had to be done.
I finished in 4:11 or so. After seeing him along the course, I met Ben Jones at the finish, and we had the chance to chat a bit. I wanted to congratulate Michelle Barton for her win, but she was not around. I promised everyone I talked to that I would be back again in 2009.
Ben Jones' pictures are here.
Hugh Murphy's pictures are here.
My legs were incredibly sore afterwards. I'm not sure why. That usually doesn't happen. So, in any case, I had to rest up the ankle, which is still a bit swollen. Massage has help significantly and I'm ready to try a little running tomorrow. I'm stuck on the treadmill as the roads are covered with impassible snow and are simply not ankle worthy...at least my ankle.
So, next up is some Southern California trail running and some real R&R. More about that later. But I promise to wear my ankle brace from now on when I'm trail running. My surgeon told me I should do that all the time after surgery. I guess it's time I learn a lesson, humbly listen, and start doing that, eh?