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Adventures: > Death Valley Trail Marathon 2004

by Peter Holleran

   “The most deadly and dangerous spot in the United States. It is a pit of horrors - the haunt of all that is grim and ghoulish. Such animal and revile life as infests this pest-hole is of ghastly shape, rancourous nature and diabolically ugly. It breeds 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 upon earth that the whole wicked world can produce.”

      -   newspaper article, ca.1894

   With such an introduction printed on the race application, the Death Valley Trail Marathon in early February, 2004, was an event I felt I could not pass up. Acclaimed by past entrants as an awesome and beautiful course, this race held yearly by EnviroSports starts at 3500 feet and runs on a gravel jeep road past ghost towns over an isolated mountain pass before descending 5200 vertical feet through scenic Titus Canyon into the heart of Death Valley. This one-way road is drivable, preferrably by four wheel vehicle, and susceptible to flash floods in the winter. Four miles of the descent passes through an ever- narrowing section with high rock walls decorated with ancient petroglyphs, a popular hiking spot in the cooler months. All of this beckoned, along with the chance to explore Death Valley with its natural wonder and interesting sites, such as Telegraph Peak (highest elevation in the park, at 11,049 feet), Devil’s Golf Course (a strange area of salt pinnacles rising up from what used to be a shallow lake that evaporated 2,000 years ago), Badwater (the lowest elevation in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level), Ubehebe Crater (a 770 foot deep hole in the ground, technically called a maar crater, caused by an eruption of steam and magma), the famous Sand Dunes, the Racetrack (a dry lakebed where rocks mysteriously slide across the flat surface, leaving behind long tracks for tourists to ponder), Mosaic Canyon, Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point, as well as the chance of simply absorbing the atmosphere of a legendary place known for reaching the highest recorded temperature in North America at 134 degrees (and reportedly 201 degrees on pavement). I was also intrigued with driving along the course of the infamous Badwater to Mt. Whitney foot race, a 135 mile scorcher held annually in mid-summer (to maximize the insanity). Compared to the efforts of the intrepid souls who enter that event my little wintertime endeavor was mere pantywaist, no more than a casual afternoon stroll.

   Driving down I-5 I turned left at Bakersfield, drove over Tehachapi Pass to Mojave, veered north to 395 heading towards Mt. Whitney and exited right on 190 for the final approach to Death Valley. The terrain begins to get sparser, more remote and desolate, the closer you get. Two passes are gone over, including the Panamint Range, which the Chemehuevi called "sacred land, Storied Land, where the great myths were said to begin and end." (see Running Wild by John Annerino). Chemehuevi, the "always moving around people", were neighbors to the Mojave and known for their legendary running prowess. Entrance to Death Valley is via a long descent on an elluvial plain into Stovepipe Wells, one of two outposts of civilization in the park (the other, somewhat fancier, alternative being Furnace Creek) where I stayed during my trip. A park brochure warned about hiking without carrying adequate water. Supposedly one or two people from the very motel I stayed at die each year after walking as little as half a mile out into the desert while unprepared, and in the summer there may not really be any such thing as adequate preparation. (The intense heat notwithstanding, rain is not an impossibility, even in the summer. Although the yearly total precipitation for Death Valley averages 1.96 inches, on 8-15-04 that much fell in one day and caused massive damage).

   The lure and lore of the valley was captivating. I was fascinated to read of the kangaroo rat who can live their entire lives without drinking a drop of water, getting all the moisture they need from the dry seeds they eat. Living in underground burrows during the day, they reclaim water vapor from the humid air by special membranes in their nasal passages, while conserving water by having their kidneys concentrate urine to five times that of humans.

   I become more immersed in the sheer historical atmosphere of the place when I heard the tape “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” by Marty Robbins playing in the gift shop and noticed dvds and videos of the TV series Death Valley Days hosted by Ronald Reagen (and earlier episodes by the ‘Old Ranger’, Stanley Andrews), and sponsored by “Twenty Mule-Team Borax”, on display. I purchased the Marty Robbins tape and played it on my trip to Las Vegas after the marathon. It perfectly captures the feeling of the Old West and both evokes and prolongs the Death Valley experience.

   Unfortunately, my months-long anticipation of the next day’s adventure got a rude awakening when I was informed by runners in the Stovepipe Wells restaurant that due to snow earlier in the week the spectacular Titus Canyon Road was closed by park rangers, and the race itinerary had been changed to what promised to be a boring out-and-back flat course on a gravel road alongside Devil’s Golf Course in the lowest part of the park near Furnace Creek. What added insult to injury was discovering that the race organizers knew as early as Tuesday of the closure, but didn’t notify the runners until Friday night, thus not giving them a chance to back out or get their money back. Many came from long distances, including Canada, North Carolina, and even Belgium, and were mighty upset, to put it mildly. The excuse of Envirosports management was that they were hoping for a last minute opening of the road and therefore waited to inform us of the change. That didn’t go very far in placating the runners who remained convinced it was all about the money. Even more annoying was the report from a few runners who went up to the pass on race day and returned saying there was hardly any snow up there at all. (Unfortunately again, their actions in defiance of the rangers caused the future of the race to be placed in jeopardy, and a hold was put on the next year’s permit for the event! Fortunately, this wrinkle was ironed out later by race management, who also promised to more promptly inform runners of any course cancellation. Apparently Titus Canyon is closed 15% of the time in the winter).

   Since I was there already, and scheduled to drive on to Vegas after the race, I decided to make the best of the situation. Although I love mountains, and only came with the hope of getting (up) high, I held out the remote hope that the race officials were not entirely lying when they said that the alternate course was still very interesting, running alongside the Devil’s Golf Course, beneath scenic Telegraph Peak, and following part of the historic escape route of the Bennett-Arcane party who, after days trying to cross this barren expanse, finally found a shortcut out of their misery before looking back one last time and cursing the place by saying, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

   It was not to be, however, as the course lived up to my most boring expectations. Firstly, going straight out and back is monotonous, and the distances are deceiving. What looks close is still very far away, and one is continually disappointed that he is “not there yet.” The flat gravel surface was very tiring, and after just a few miles my legs became sore. Wearing brand new shoes, a common race day error, was no doubt partly to blame for this. I found myself continually switching from one side of the road to the other in search of better traction, which was also annoying. While not very hot by Death Valley standards (the temperature reached into the mid 70’s), the direct overhead sun added 20 degrees of radiant heat, and I chose not to wear a hat. Such a move in the summer would probably have been fatal. Darn it, I HATE running in the heat, and came prepared only to run over a cool mountain summit and down a shady canyon. Yet perhaps I was over-reacting a bit. When asked how the race went by a gift shop employee who saw me wearing a Death Valley Marathon t-shirt, I mentioned that it had been kind of warm. He gave me an uncomprehending look which seemed to say “you’ve got to be kidding, I guess you have never been here in the summer, have you?”

   After the turnaround at 13.1 miles, I ended up walking/running on the raised salt flats on the side of the road because the crunchy surface gave some relief to the strain I felt in my legs, although it was slow going and didn’t do too much for my time. I finished strong, but in a rather pedestrian 4:49. Considering all the walking I did, however, and the fact that the winning time was 3:05, and only 30 of 168 runners broke four hours, I suppose it wasn’t all that bad. Afterwards my roommate and I drove to the west end of Titus Canyon and jogged up the first 1/4 mile or so to see what the original course would have been like. Well, according to this Trail Runners Club photo report, it looked like it would have been great! I will have to wait until next year to find out, however - if I chose to go back.

   Which I probably will. It was strange, but when I first arrived the stark desolation of the valley made me feel like getting out of there as soon as I could. After twenty-four hours, however, it began to grow on me and I felt like I was leaving much too soon.

   On the long drive home I again played the Marty Robbins' tape. Along with “El Paso” and “Hanging Tree”, I particularly liked “Saddle Tramp”: “saddle tramp, saddle tramp, I’m as free as the breeze, and I ride where I please, saddle tramp, saddle tramp....”. I am not sure of the song’s attraction - it basically romanticizes being a bum - but listening to it while gazing out at the vast lonely stretches of the Mojave Desert, for a few all too brief moments it seemed to promise an alternative to real life. Nearing Barstow the San Gabriel range and Mt. Baldy became visible far to the south, reminding me that L.A. and civilization lay just on the other side.

***A not specifically recommended but highly intriguing big adventure is a 20-mile,  11,300' climb from Badwater to Telegraph Peak. Isolation, exposure, lack of water or trail for most of the route, and seasonal ice and snow are a few of the challenges. Two cars are a necessity unless one hikes up and back (which is dubious, as it could mean carrying enough water to last 40 miles. There is supposedly a spring at the ten mile mark - if you can find it).