After a 2 month racing hiatus I finally got back out there this past weekend with an incredible experience at the Death Valley Trail Half Marathon. Ironic isn’t it that I ran the coldest trail race I’ve ever done at one of the hottest places on earth? Go figure. No one believes me when I say I almost froze to death in Death Valley.
Signing up for this race was mostly an excuse to talk my stepmom Diana into another fun running event and to go somewhere that’s been on my bucket list. It was also a reason to head south to spend some extended time with my dad, Diana, and family in Mexico for Thanksgiving. I got to see my grandmother there for only the second time in my life. A very special treat!
My dad and Diana live in Southern California and spend so much time hiking peaks in the Ridgecrest/Lone Pine area of the Sierra Nevadas that when we hit the road for Death Valley last Friday it was like usual routine for them.
The race features both a half marathon and marathon distance, the later of which is a point-to-point run from east to west through Death Valley’s Titus Canyon. The half marathon course is an out and back that starts at the west end of the canyon and climbs 2500′ over 6.5 miles before returning to the finish. The race organizers made it clear that weather can require course changes. In 25 years of running the event they’ve altered the course 5 times and cancelled it once. What do you know? Turns out I picked a crazy year. A day before the race they sent out announcements that the course would be altered due to unusually cold conditions. Turns out arctic temps even affect places like Death Valley.
Race day temps were forecast in the single digits at the marathon starting location and with the course climbing up to Red Pass at 4500′ it was likely to be sub-freezing. A weather system threatening snow and rain meant a risk of people getting caught in the canyon in dangerous conditions. The organizers altered only the marathon route: marathoners would now be running the half marathon course twice instead of running the length of Titus Canyon. They were quick to say that everyone would be experiencing the most beautiful part of the canyon and marathoners would now get to see it twice! Despite some disappointment all the entrants seemed to respect the changes.
Knowing that Death Valley could be chilly I had managed to pack some warm clothes by sheer luck but most of my cold gear was at home. We awoke race morning in Furnace Creek to temps in the high 20s, chilly but manageable. When the buses arrived to shuttle us out to the starting area at the west end of Titus Canyon my dad excitedly waved us a farewell. He was going back to enjoy a warm, hearty breakfast (lucky guy!) before heading out to meet us on the course.
As the buses wound their way through Death Valley Diana and I noticed we were headed straight into some low-hanging clouds that looked certain to dump rain on us. We were a little worried. Would we end up soaked and freezing? It was anyone’s guess. We hopped off the busses 30 mins later and were jolted by temps in the teens. I’m not sure if people in the porta potty line were bouncing around doing the pee dance or just trying to stay warm. It was so cold I couldn’t even fathom the idea of running.
Luckily we didn’t have to wait long for the race start and once we got moving I realized I was so cold I had never taken off my 2nd pair of pants! The start was brutal. It was on a wide jeep trail littered with rocks, some so deep in places you really had to pay attention. I saw a few runners get bogged and nearly turn ankles. Though the road seemed flat it was painfully clear to my legs and lungs that we were climbing. That combined with freezing temps and muscles sent my body into a tailspin. My legs felt like bricks, my calves seized up, I couldn’t find a rhythm and I wondered if I’d even be able to run this thing. Diana jogged past me and I could only shake my head and try to get myself moving. I felt 100% like shit.
I alternated between jogging and power walking and hoped that somewhere around mile 3 my body would click like it usually does. I willed myself to keep going, looked around, enjoyed the scenery, and desperately tried to keep moving. And sure enough as my body warmed by legs started to turn a little easier. By the time I reached the first aid station at the entrance to Titus Canyon at mile 3 I was feeling much better.
Once we entered Titus Canyon my mind forgot about my legs and all I could do was run along, looking from side to side, straight up the steep canyon, marveling at how beautiful and peaceful this place was! Even with a small race of 200 people it was eerily quiet. Runners around me seemed equally mesmerized and no one really said a word except the occasional “Wow!” The canyon narrowed in spots and kept winding up and up, getting more beautiful with each turn.
Despite a few little drops of rain the clouds cleared and skies turned blue. A subtle headwind became stronger the closer we got to the turnaround and front runners headed back down the course offered cheers and support to those still plodding upward. Once my legs clicked at mile 3 I was surprised to run the entire way to the turnaround. All the steep hiking has definitely improved my climbing fitness! I stopped briefly to grab a quick cup of water, thank the volunteers, then turned around to have some real fun on the descent. Yippee!!
I tried to sit on my enthusiasm a little, knowing that a 6.5 mile descent is a long one. Diana wasn’t far behind me and we exchanged some animated hi-fives as I headed back down. I was able to tuck in behind another girl who was a fast descender and we both rocketed our way down, picking off runners one by one. I made a quick stop at an aid station to get a splash of water and stretch my cranky back. I rallied my way back behind the same girl I had been following but could feel my legs and lungs starting to cave. My 2 month break was showing – I was having a hard time holding this pace and she slowly peeled away.
From the aid station you could see the finish 3 miles below. It looked so close! But also so far. About 2 miles from the finish I saw my dad excitedly waving from the road. He cheered loudly as I zoomed by and it gave me a temporary burst of energy. But it was short lived as those final 2 miles stretched on forever. The road gravel got a bit deeper and the conditions that were tough on the way up got even tougher on the way down. My legs were fading fast but I glanced at my watch and knew I had a shot at a trail PR. Ah, the mental games you play those last few miles!
I managed to cross the finish in 2:12:52, an almost 2-min PR. I couldn’t believe it! Not only did this course have more climbing than any other half I’ve run but I just came off a 2-month break. I guess R&R really DOES do the body good! Equally awesome was coming across the line and bumping into a local friend and race director behind the finish line doing the timing. Small world!
I stopped a while to walk, scoop my lungs off the ground, and thank the race director and volunteers for a fabulous event. Diana crossed the finish not long after in 2:30, an amazing time considering she doesn’t even really run!
After getting changed and doing some recovery we set out to explore the park, visiting Badwater and Artists Point and then had a nice post-race celebration dinner in Stovepipe Wells. We unfortunately missed the after-party, not having any idea that both of us actually got age group placings. I guess we missed our moment of glory! It’s ok though, we had a great time and spent the following day playing on the Mesquite Sand Dunes inside the park. Such a great weekend made all the better by having my dad there cheering us on!
After a very fun 2 weeks in Southern California I’m now back in the chillier Northwest looking forward to finishing up 2013 with a few more small events before kicking off 2014. Good times!!