In February of 2003, a neighbor of mine (John) and I ran the Death Valley Marathon. I figured that since I — theoretically, at least — was going to do an offroad marathon as part of the Mountain Extreme Triathlon that summer [note: I chickened out], I’d better have done at least one marathon beforehand. Since this was to be an all-offroad marathon, it seemed like a good choice.
John and I took Friday off from work, because we figured Death Valley — 2 1/2 hours out of Las Vegas — would be around a 10-hour drive from Orem. Well, there aren’t a lot of curves in that road, not a lot of reasons to go slow, and I have a car that likes going fast. We got there in under 8 hours. We had plenty of time for a little siteseeing (the Devil’s Golf Course is the most surreal thing I have ever seen), a big dinner, and then off to bed. We’d need to be up early for the race.
Saturday morning we got our race bibs and then gathered around the race director for his race instructions. "I was in charge of marking the course," he said, "And I took great care marking all the turns and mile markers." Lots of laughs came from the crowd, which I didn’t understand. Then he said, "Just kidding. There are no mile markers, there are no turns. There’s just one, long road with a finish line at the end." Then he said, "If you want to stop and take some pictures along the way, go ahead and pause your stopwatch. When you get to the finish line, we’ll adjust your time for you." I could tell this was going to be a low-key event.
All the racers (field limit of 250) boarded schoolbuses; the drivers proceeded to take us to the exact center of the middle of nowhere. They parked on a dirt road, which looked like it rose at a very slight incline ’til it stopped at the foothills, very far away. Nothing but flat and sagebrush in every direction. I had heard this was supposed to be a beautiful marathon; what a crock.
Running on a Treadmill
There was no starting gun; instead, we were told that the race would start when the brake lights on the jeep 20 yards ahead of us went off. OK, gotta love the pared-down nature of this race. The lights went off and we all took off up the road.
The strange thing about running on a perfectly straight, very-slightly uphill road, is that it seems like you’re not going anywhere, and certainly nowhere very fast. In particular, though, I was not fast. Within the first couple of miles, I was sorted to the back third of the field. I didn’t care though (so I say); I was just there to see if I could cross the finish line on my feet.
After what I’m going to guess was about 8 miles the perfectly straight road reached the foothills and started twisting upward. That’s when I started being grateful for my big ol’ mountain biker legs. I’ve got horrible running top speed, but tons of torque. Up I went, passing dozens of people. OK, maybe just one dozen. After about 2 miles and I’d guess around 1000 feet of climbing, I caught up with John — we had made it to the 10 mile aid station.
Down We Go
Now for a big batch of downhill — or, what I would have considered a big batch of downhill up until Saturday (you’ll see what I mean in a minute). In a mile or so we descended 500 feet. My feet were bunching up in the front of my shoes, but it still felt good to "coast" a little bit. I was worried, though, by what I could see in front of me: a very steep road, zigzagging up the mountain not far away. I figured that couldn’t be part of the run. Too steep.
It was part of the run.
John and I were pacing each other well now, and I proposed a "run 2 minutes, walk 1 minute" approach to this mountain pass. John ratified the proposal and up we went. The strategy worked; it’s easier to deal with pain when you know it’s going to end in an exact amount of time. We passed a bunch of people who were evidently demoralized into walking the whole pass, and reached the 12 mile mark. I think we climbed almost 1000 feet in 1 mile. John sang the blues (literally).
Now, though, we had nothing but downhill in front of us. 14 miles of downhill, descending 5000 vertical feet. The first 2 miles of it were crazy-steep; you had to shuffle-step in some places to keep from losing control. Now, though, I had a better idea of why people said this was such a beautiful run. Having summitted, we were now treated to beautiful canyons, stark, gorgeous mountains, and giant vistas at unfathomable distances. John and I stopped a couple of times to take a few pictures.
Mostly, to tell the truth, I kept my head down, picking out a good line to run. The road was mostly very good semi-packed dirt, but there were spots where you had to run through deep gravel for 20 feet or so. That slows you down. I stopped to empty my shoes no fewer than 5 times during this race.
By the time we reached the 15 mile aid station, I had hit my endurance groove. Before the race, I expected to have sore knees, ankles and insteps by this point, since I usually have all three of these by the end of much shorter runs. I was surprised to find, then, that I had no aches. I felt good and strong. Running on dirt is much kinder to your joints than running on pavement.
Between mile 15 and 20, John and I hooked up with a 60-year old guy from Santa Cruz; he says he does 4 marathons per year. I don’t doubt it. John and I would pass him from time to time, but he always reeled us back in. At the 20 mile aid station, when John and I stopped to get a drink and some Advil, he continued on. I figured that was the last we’d see of him.
Most of mile 20 – 23 is through a winding, narrow (maybe thirty feet wide?), but incredibly high canyon. I’d get vertigo craning my neck up, looking at the top. Or maybe it wasn’t vertigo. Maybe I was looped from having run further than I ever had before. Whatever.
We got to the final aid station (mile 23), then, almost immediately, could see the finish line. We were back in the flats, where it was hard to gauge distance. John started picking up the pace. I matched. He kept pushing, I kept matching as best as I could. We were now going at a 7 1/2 minute/mile pace.
Finally, I didn’t think I could match anymore and said, "John, go ahead, I’ll see you in a few."
John replied, "No, we’re finishing together." Then he started singing "Give Me Three Steps." We kept going. John pointed out that it would be nice if we could catch the 60-year-old before we finished. We did, about 50 feet before the finish. Then the 60-year-old showed us who was boss by breaking into a sprint, beating us at the finish line. It’s tempting to say "I hope I’m in that kind of shape when I’m 60," but the truth is I’d be happy to be in that kind of shape right now.
My stopwatch — which I forgot to pause, much to my dismay — shows that we finished in 4:39. I’m happy with that.
48 hours later, I was the sorest as I’ve ever been — especially my quads, which have never taken a 14 mile downhill beating like that. Stairs were not easy to climb now, and were impossible to descend.