Monday, February 06, 2006

Running the Desert at the Death Valley Marathon

Last weekend, Christi and I headed to Furnace Creek, CA, for the Death Valley Marathon and as much sightseeing as we could fit in. Death Valley is an extreme place - 110 miles of desert, mostly below sea level, often recording no annual rainfall, and temperatures topping 130 degrees - commanding a serenity and beauty that is other-worldly. Needless to say, we enjoyed ourselves tremendously.

(Sunrise at Death Valley, photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)

Death Valley in February is quite nice, with temperatures in the mid-60’s. This is much more manageable than the 115+ degree heat of the Badwater Ultra or Furnace 508 that is held here in August. But that doesn’t mean Mother Nature doesn’t flex her muscles. The original marathon course through Titus Canyon had to be diverted for a third year in a row (first from snow, second from flood, and now from rock slides), meaning we were going to race across the desert plain instead. One could tell from the tone of the Envirosports e-mail message saying the hefty $80 entry fee would not be refunded that this routine was getting old for everyone. But what could you do? If fate says “run the desert”, you run the desert.

Christi and I checked into the Furnace Creek Inn a few days before the race so we could check out the expansive drifts and dramatic couloirs of the mountains. Titus Canyon was deep and mesmerizing – one could imagine the crazy marathon of a thousand zigs and zags that almost awaited us. Scotty’s Castle (a very entertaining tour), Ubehebe Crater, Zabriskie’s Point (best sunset), Artists Palette, Dante’s Peak, and the 20-Mule Canyon were all fascinating. Christi’s camera soaked up the synchronous ribbons of sand and mineral at every stop, and the sunrises and sunsets drew amazing contrasts. By the time we ate dinner at the Furnace Creek Inn the first night (good fine dining, with a surprising array of vegetarian food), we were exhausted. Who knew there was so much to do in a place with nothing to do?

(The winding roads of Titus Canyon, photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)

On race morning, I joined 300 other runners (222 marathoners, ~70 30k runners) at the Furnace Creek Ranch to sign up and get our numbers. The Ranch is a classic cowboy saloon (vs. the Inn, which is more of a spa), and we later enjoyed pancakes, beers, and steak in this casual spot. Since we no longer had a one-hour bus ride ahead of us, everyone had some time to kill before the 8:15am start. Christi and I decided to head down to Badwater for one last tourist stop before the race.

(Warming up at the salt flats of Badwater, 282 ft below sea level; photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)

I had some trouble figuring out what to carry on the race. It was flat and fast, so best not to carry too much. But it was the desert, so I didn’t want to get caught without water. I ended up settling on no belt, and carrying one 8 oz Fuel Belt water bottle and one flask of Hammer Gel. My gear was as light as possible - singlet, shorts, Injinji tsoks, Inov-8 Flyroc 310's, and a couple of salt tablets. I got my iPod ready to roll, but heard the Envirosports people announce a “no headphones” policy as part of the race rules. News to me, but hey, I’m happy with nature’s soundtrack too.

In the crowd, we had about 20 first time marathoners, a barefoot runner named Chris Runyan, and Paul Piplani, who at age 58, was about to finish his 668th marathon. Steve Mader was one of the first time marathon runners, excited that no matter what his finishing time, he was going to set a PR for the distance. As we all lined up, we could squint and see the whole out-and-back course winding down across the desert…so close, but yet, so far.

The first three miles were at a slight downhill grade, and I tried to take advantage of it by letting my strides go longer than usual. There were no mile markers (standard for Envirosports), but I knew the first aid station was going to be around 3.1 miles so I figured I would get my time check there. The dirt road was deceivingly difficult footing, due to a drainage pattern that had created a gravel washboard to run across. I couldn’t quite stretch to my “road running” stride, but was still faster than my “trail running” stride. But we all got used to it within a few miles.

I hit the first aid station in first place and looked at my watch – 17:50. Oops. Looks like I came out a bit too fast. I turned around and saw 3-4 runners not too far behind me…or were they? The desert was playing tricks on me! I filled my water bottle, noticing that I was drinking quite a bit to battle the dry air. I headed out again, this time across the flatter section of the course, and tried to slow my pace just a tad. For a long while, I felt like I was the only runner out there. I couldn’t see anything but desert, and had only my steps and breath to fill my ears. Then I realized all the runners were probably experiencing the same sensation. You don’t realize how aural the woods are until you feel the calm serenity of the desert.

(The road to nowhere - aid volunteers await runners who headed out into the desert;
photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)

I hit the turnaround in 1:27, so my pace had slowed some. I was surprised to see that 3-4 runners had gained ground on me and were within a few minutes. By mile 15, Jason Beehler (a very tan 2:34 marathoner and Ironman triathlete from Indianapolis, IN) passed me up, sucking on the new hydro pack he got for Christmas. He refilled his pack at the 16-mile aid station, so I caught up with him again briefly, but it was clear that his fastest miles were ahead of him. He was a great sport, joining me in cheering on everyone coming the other way and giving high fives. My pace had slowed to 7:15/mile, but I was still feeling good.

At about the 21-mile mark, Peter Courogen (a 2:44 marathoner from Portland, OR) came blazing by me. He was smiling wide, asking where the “backpack guy” was. Peter had come up to Death Valley after a business trip in San Diego and was thoroughly enjoying himself. We estimated that Jason was nearly a mile ahead at that point, so Peter kicked it into high gear to catch him, but not before shouting a few words of encouragement to the last few 30k runners. I looked at my watch, and guessed I was on about a 3:02 finishing pace, as long as it didn’t get any hotter. We passed a few people grooving to their iPods, so perhaps the “no headphones rule” was more of a suggestion.

At mile 24 or so, my water bottle was empty, and I felt like I was dying of thirst. I could see the finish line (but then again, I had been “seeing” it for the last hour). I knew the thirst was just dry air coupled with the no-breeze stale heat, but it made the tunnel vision creep in. How in the world anyone could run here when it’s over 100 degrees is beyond me. But I grouped together with a rag tag bunch of 30k runners who were talking about that first post-race beer, and together our visions of Corona helped us grind up the last hill to the finish. I finished 3rd in 3:05, Jason Beehler had won in 2:57, and Peter Courogen almost caught him, finishing in 2:59. Larry Emerson of Bishop, CA (whom I believe had one of the bigger cheering sections) had an impressive 12th place finish in 3:27, showing that 51-year-olds can rock the desert too. Carol Silvera from San Jose, CA, won the women’s event in 3:33. Steve Mader clocked a marathon PR in 4:04 (as expected), good for 77th place. We all relaxed with snacks and Gatorade, commenting on the similar salt lines between the runners’ faces and the Badwater basin, and that shared feeling on being the only runner out there.

(Sunset from the Furnance Creek Inn, photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)

Despite missing Titus Canyon, we had a great time at the Death Valley Marathon. The Furnace Creek Inn is a wonderful retreat (particularly from busy Las Vegas), and there is definitely enough to do to fill a weekend visit. Fine dining at the Inn did not disappoint, and we enjoyed the more casual setting of the Café/Saloon/Steakhouse at the Ranch too. In retrospect, I should have carried more water for the race, and would recommend you err on too much (the winner DID have a hydro pak after all). It you’re looking to break out from the mountains and roads, this race is definitely worth checking out.

Peace, SD

PS – Congrats to Bev Abbs for rocking my home course (Woodside 50k) in 4:23 for 1st overall!


  1. this one sounds like a hoot (except for the 2,300 foot ascent in the first 12 miles of the regular course).

    i am going to add it to my calendar for next year.


  2. cool pics. Looks beautiful.

  3. nice writeup. I was looking forward to it and it didn't disappoint. Congrats on your run.

  4. Sounds like a beautiful experience. Seems like an intimate event.
    Rock on with your fast self!

  5. sounds awesome! i planned on it a couple of years ago and never got around, may be i should. great time! how 'bout badwater now?

  6. Thanks for stopping by, everybody!

    Answering your Q's:

    No WAY I'm doing Badwater at this point. ;oP

    There is a nice 30k if the marathon seems out of reach. But I bet you could do the full 26.2!

  7. Come on, wuss! Do the Badwater! Seriously, tho, that race is frickin _insane_.

    Tell Christi fantastic job with the photos


  8. HI Scott
    I ran the Death Valley too last Saturday. My husband and I flew from Calgary, Canada. The scenery was a bit boring after a while as I am used to run trails in the Rockies. This is my second race with Enviro and I like them alot as it is unpretentious and low key. I got in at 4:0030 sec. I was pretty happy!
    GUylaine Gignac

  9. Scott,
    I thought you might enjoy a look at Paul Piplani from about a year and a half ago. He flew into NJ for Raritan Valley Road Runners Towpath Train'ing Run

  10. What a cool race! The scenery is beautiful. I love the pic of you running at Badwater!

  11. And 4th overall for you.


  12. Thanks! Actually, I got 3rd - the original results had a couple of 30k runners in the wrong race.


  13. Scott,

    I ran the Death Valley marathon past december and thoroughly enjoyed it. I will come back for the race through Titus canyon next year. Congratulations on your run.


  14. Really nice write up, but I would argue with your statement that your gear was as light as possible. As the barefoot runner I would have to say it could be a little bit lighter! I just wore shorts after I took the singlet off.

    The salt wore away my skin so it was a bit tender after mile twenty. Ran up to that point, and then walked most of the last six miles. Do wish I had a hat to provide shade from the sun. My name links to a writeup by a friend of mine on the trip.

    I appreciated the encouragement from all the faster runners on the out and back course.

  15. Thanks for stopping by, Chris! I added your name to the story. You are AMAZING!


  16. Well in the preview my name made a link, but then it didn't come out that way. Here it is:

    Barefoot in Death Valley

    And thanks for the congrats. Nice to have those who almost win still be impressed with me.

  17. Hey i signed up for the race this year 2007. I was wondering what to wear?? Is it cold in the morning and is a pack with a 1 water bottle enough? I am coming from boston ma. and have no idea what to expect.Any info will help thanks

  18. It is cold in the morning (high 30's - it is a desert), so bring a hat, gloves, and jacket for before the race. The Titus Canyon trail has a lot of shade too, so you may want to keep your gloves and hat for the first half.

    One water bottle should be enough as long as you remember to also drink at the aid stations while they fill it. The folks who brought water bottles/packs definitely had the advantage. The air is very dry, and it sucks the hydration right out of you.

    You're going to have a great time! Bring your camera...

    Thanks and good luck, SD

  19. Wow, what a wonderful time we had! Still can't walk very well. I ran the 30K this February 2007, and we ran Titus Canyon. It was absolutely beautiful and well worth the trip. We stayed at the Ranch, it was Okay, more like a motel, but the price was right and it was a better option for my two girls and husband as they hung out the day of the race. What a bus ride to the start. We had nice weather, about in the 60's and the canyon did have some pretty cold spots. I would highly recommend this run. I may do the marathon next year, but that first and only hill for the 30Kers was unbelievable! I think we all got tired of running downhill for 14 miles as well, but it sure made for a heck of a time at the end.

    All in all this was a very rewarding experience! Had a blast!

  20. Yes, you can! I think as long as it isn't raining (flood warning), you can just point in any direction and head out.

    Have fun!


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