The one part of Death Valley that would be perfect for a trail marathon is Titus Canyon, which cuts through the mountains outside of Beatty, Nev., to the floor of Death Valley. Once used by Indians and later miners, it is now a one-way jeep road through some of the most beautiful scenery Death Valley has to offer. The ironic part is that most tourists who visit Death Valley never have the chance to see this natural wonder.
Which broaches the question: If no one sees it, is it a natural wonder?
This is question I felt compelled to answer. So on Friday the 13th (this did not bode well) of December, Richard Cramer, his wife Pat and I took off for Death Valley. We took Casa de Cramer (travel trailer) and enough gear to complete our task. Unfortunately, I was sick.
Now, I am a trained professional, licensed to abuse my body. Marathons are much better run when you feel good. Besides the cough, fever and body chills, I had about enough energy to sigh in a pitiful and mournful way. Richard characterized this as whining, but I like to think that I was delirious.
I was hoping that race day would dawn bright and clear and I would feel great.
It wasnt to be. But no excuses! Let the word go forth that Richard is the man I went to compete against that day, and Richard had his way with me. He ran a great race and stomped me into the dirt!
Early on Saturday morning, we assembled in the Furnace Creek Ranch parking lot to get our numbers and start the long drive to Beatty. The day was cold and clear, with a biting wind. We huddled in front of the buses and got our first look at the race director, Dave Horning. Hes a burly type of guy with mischievous eyes. We boarded the buses and the unlikely caravan set out to the start line. As an afterthought, I took my jacket.
It was so cold at the start line that most people stayed on the bus until just before the race was supposed to start. We were in the Amargosa Desert, one mountain range removed from Death Valley to the east. Dressing inappropriately there could definitely be life-threatening.
Some people looked as if they knew what they were doing, but some were completely under-dressed. Dave assembled us on the dirt road outside the warm bus and dug his toe into the dirt, announcing that the course was certified 26.2 miles from that spot. Then he laughed and told us about the sign a few miles up the road that measured the course at 28.
"Dont believe the sign," he said. "I measured the course three times using my cars odometer."
(I say get a new car, the odometer is broken!)
Then he asked who came from the farthest point in the United States.
Someone said "Washington." (As in D.C.)
"Now we have to sing!" Dave continued, not missing a beat. "The Star Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful, you pick!"
With that, about 70 shivering trail runners broke into the prettiest rendition of America the Beautiful that you have ever heard. Now, take a minute and get a mental picture of that! This was no ordinary marathon.
Dave announced that he was going to get into his car and, when the brake lights went out, that would be the start of the race. The lights went out as promised and his little truck rumbled off down the road and out of sight. We started running.
The first seven miles runs up the alluvial fan toward the hills. These miles seemed to drag a little.
Marathons are usually associated with thousands of cheering fans lining the streets, encouraging the runners onward. Youve seen them on TV. Even in the smaller events, a runner can look forward to a happy face at an aid station. Well, things are going to be different here, buster. The first aid station at mile 5 was a box with gallon bottles of water in it. Help yourself, pal! Nobody is going to be pouring water for you until mile 10. Deal with it!
Suddenly, I had an overpowering feeling that Id better be able to go the distance, cause I was on my own. Actually, I was with Richard. If anything happened, he could go ahead and tell them I was struggling.
Things got a lot brighter when we finally made it into the hills. We would be climbing from about 3,000 feet above sea level to 5,400 feet at our highest point, and then dropping to the valley floor, which is close to sea level. You do the math. This is not for the faint of heart.
The hills and peaks were magnificent, and the trail twisted and turned through them all the way to mile 10 and the first manned aid station. Things were starting to unravel for me here, but this is where Richard bid me a fond farewell. See ya, sucker!
From here, the course headed down into a rugged valley, past mineral deposits of every color. At the other side of the valley was the long climb to Red Pass at mile 14. Here, a nice lady dished out bananas, water and encouragement. From there, the course dropped relentlessly to the valley.
The farther we went, the narrower and deeper the canyon got. It was still cold, and I was alone, alternately putting on and taking off layers, depending on whether I was in the sun or not.
I was struggling, and Richard was nowhere to be seen, but the views they were tremendous. I ran past Leadfield, a derelict old mine boom town that was one of the greatest pranks of the 20th century. Seems a land developer promoted the canyon by salting it with lead and showed ships sailing in the dry rivers of the Armargosa Desert.
I finally got to the next aid station and asked, "What mile is this?"
Another wonderful lady replied, "Mile 18."
I almost cried.
I explained that I had run other marathons and this had to be much farther than mile 18.
She just looked puzzled, as if to say, "What are you gonna do? Youre here now and youve still got eight miles to go!"
But she didnt say that. She said: "Dont worry, honey. If anything happens, just sit down on the road and Ill be along to pick you up!"
What an angel!
I kept on. Past the petrogylphs and into the narrow, soaring walls of Titus Canyon itself.
Suddenly, I heard singing. I thought I was hallucinating, but then a mountain biker sped past me. He was loving life, coasting all the way home. That looked liked good idea to me.
Every turn of the canyon looked like the end was near. But the canyon twisted and turned and turned and twisted. I started to believe that the sign that read "28 miles" was right.
The walls of the canyon soared to the sky, only about far enough apart to get a car through. I ran for another hour or more. Finally, I caught a glimpse of blue, and then around the next bend I popped out above Death Valley.
But the finish was still a long way off about three miles. I could see the glint of the sun off the windshields of the cars on the road.
I struggled down, walking, jogging, stumbling. At the end, I collected my T-shirt and caught the last shuttle back to Furnace Creek Ranch. It was about 4:30 and getting dark, since the sun had gone behind Telescope Peak to the west.
I hadnt slept in three days, I could barely breathe, I was getting muscle cramps, but I felt really good! I mean REALLY good. This was cool, REALLY COOL!
But, just as a warning: Dont try this at home. I am a trained professional running lunatic. And life is good once again.