Are we there yet?

No…it wasn’t the finish line of the marathon I was looking for — just wanted to get to Death Valley after driving for over 5 hours.

The desert — when you first see the landscape of Death Valley with Telescope Peak, Artists’s Palette, and the Sierras as the backdrop, it can be quite breathtaking. But after running on a jeep road for 26 miles, without much variation in terrain or scenery, then driving through miles and miles of the same can get old pretty quickly — in fact, real quick. All the names of the various points of interests, trail names, and locations all make a reference to heat, death, or hell. Well, I guess Death Valley is as close to Hell as you can get without actually being there — recorded temperatures above 130 degrees, and no sign of life anywhere (no water, trees, or animals). I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Lucifer himself standing along the side of the road — Death Valley could very well have been his backyard.

The marathon never never crossed my mind until about a week before the race itself, after my running buds Marc and Tanya Johnson mentioned they were doing it, but even still, it didn’t make it on to my race calendar. Then just about that time, I got a call from my friend Suzy in Puerto Rico, who I originally met at the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, saying that she was coming out to California in a week. She was planning on running the infamous Badwater Ultramarathon this year, even though she had never seen the course or knew muchch about the race itself. Then I thought it would be a good idea to perhaps give her a taste of what she would be experiencing, only that this time, we would be driving down the route, and the temperatures would be frigid as compared to what it will be in July.

I mentioned the marathon to Suzy, and offered to take care of lodging and transportation if she were interested in doing it, so all she’d have to do is just show up. Well, the next thing I knew, we were signing up for the race, barely making it before it reached capacity. The Furnace Creek Inn (the official race hotel) was already full as I had suspected, so we were forced to stay at Stovepipe Wells a few miles north.

Friday morning, as I was gathering directions, while wrapping up some work, I realized that it was about 250 miles, and would take approximately 5 hours to get there. 5 hours! I can make it to Vegas in less time, and thought that that was a long drive. Also, being that it was Super Bowl weekend, I anticipated a heavier volume of cars making their way out, so I wanted to make sure that I got a head start before the 15 became a parking lot.

Too late — I ended up leaving work to pickup Suzy at 2:30, and already, the 210 was bumper-to-bumper, taking me 30 minutes to go a distance of only 11 miles. After getting her, we got back on the freeway, and sure enough, as soon as got on the 15, we were stopped, averaging about 10 mph. I didn’t know how long it’d be until we would be able to get out of it, but was hoping that it wouldn’t last all the way until the 395, where we would be turning off. Luckily, it cleared up just as we were heading up the Cajon Pass, and didn’t have any problems with traffic since then.

We got to Ridgecrest fairly quickly — just under 3 hours if I recall. I couldn’t believe I was back there, since it was only 2 months before when I was there for the OTHTC 50K, and thought I wouldn’t return for quite a while. We stopped off at the Starbucks to grab some coffee, stretch our legs, and decide where to eat dinner. I had my list that Chris Rios had sent to us before, and after getting the staff’s feedback, we decided to try out Casa Corona.

It took a little while to find it because I had problems with my navigation system, but we eventually found it. It was very crowded, but we didn’t have to wait long for a table. Suzy got a bean and cheese burrito (she’s a vegetarian), and I got the carnitas with a bottle of Negra Modelo. The chips and the salsa was pretty good, and the carnitas wasn’t too bad either — definitely would return if I had another occasion to be in Ridgecrest.

From there, I was estimating another 1.5 hours to Stovepipe Wells, so after a quick fuel refill, we headed towards the town of Trona. We would need to drive through there, then hit the 195, which is the road that cuts through Death Valley — the Badwater course. From the intersection, it was another half an hour until we got to the hotel — arriving just after 9pm, after spending about 5 hours on the road, and almost 250 miles behind the wheel.

There was nothing special about the room — a pair of double beds in what they referred to as a deluxe room. We got our gear ready, agreed on a 5am wake up, and hit the sack around 10pm. I slept fairly well, although I woke up a few times to check the time, concerned that we would oversleep.

The morning was chilly, but not too bad — it was in the 40’s. We got ready, and headed for the start, another 25 miles down the road to Furnace Creek Ranch. There was no one else on the roads, so the drive was short. We arrived about 6am, so registration wasn’t open yet — they were scheduled to open at 6:15. Once inside, it didn’t take long to get our numbers and pay our $10 park admission fee. More people were arriving every minute, and soon I saw Marc and Tanya. We said hi, and I introduced them to Suzy. I also met Marty who was also friends with them, and happened to do Costa Rica last year as well.

About 7am, the RD made a few announcements, then we got on a school bus that provided transport to the start area about 30 miles farther down the road, just after the junction. We hit the port-a-pottie line, then waited for the 8am start. We chatted with a few people inquiring about Xy’s gaiters, and mentioned our 100k “fun run” to them — they were very interested, saying that they train in that area all the time.

The RD asked about the number of marathons people have done, and it turned out that the infamous Paul Piplani was present, when he announced that he did 638. I chatted briefly with a girl from TX (?) who was curious about 100-milers, after spotting my HURT shirt. She asked me a few questions while we were waiting for the start, and wished we could’ve talked more. Shortly after, the race began.

First section was primarily downhill to the first aid station at mile 3.1 — I knew that we’d have to come back up this hill to the finish, but tried not to think about it then. I filled my bottle, then continued down the road. It was already warm, but the temperature never really got too hot, especially when the sun was behind some clouds.

The terrain was a combination of gravel, hard pack, and rocks — overall, there was very little elevation change, nothing significant enough that would be considered a hill. Therefore, it made it very difficult to walk any parts of the course, since I felt “guilty” doing so when the course was flat, but knew that I really should if I wanted to feel good through the whole race. Of course I didn’t, and pretty much ended up feeling uncomfortable most of the time — it felt as if I was running a 4 hour 10k.

Suzy was behind me, but I didn’t know how far back. I noticed I was on an 8 min/mi pace for the first 3 aid stations — 3.1 mi, 6mi, and 9mi (where the 30k runners turned around). At the 12 mi aid station, I fell a few minutes behind, and got to the turn around at about 1:50 — I knew then that I would be cutting it very close to the 4 hour mark.

On the way back, I noticed that the girl I was talking to at the start was second female, and Suzy was not too far behind. I felt myself slowing, but tried keeping a constant pace. The aid stations seemed like they were farther apart, but obviously they were still in the same spot. The 12 mile (or now 15 mile) aid station came by quickly, as I refilled my bo
ttle and grabbed a banana.

Just before the 18 mile aid station, I felt a sharp pain in my left small toe, and thought it was a thorn. It reduced me to a walk, and I decided to take my shoe off to see what was causing it. After removing my sock, I realized there was nothing in there, but it was a blister. I’ve had problems with this area before, when my foot would land on my toe, eventually causing a blister to form. It didn’t happen all the time, and I was surprised that it all of a sudden popped up. I didn’t do anything about it, and continued on, thinking that worst case, I can just walk the rest of the way, or tape it up at one of the aid stations farther up.

A lot of people were passing me, but I didn’t care. My 4 hour goal was not important anymore either, and was actually hoping that Suzy would catch up to me. On the way to the next aid station, I saw Marc and Tanya, and Marty was not too far behind them. My toe wasn’t bothering me too much, but I started combining some short walk breaks every few minutes — something I probably should’ve been doing from the start.

I had a little bit of my gummi bears, but that was as much as I ate the rest of the way. I eventually made it to the 21 mile aid station, and saw that I had exactly 1 hour to reach my 4 hour goal, which meant that I had to average a 10 min/mi pace. I knew it was going to be tough, especially the last 3 miles uphill, but was feeling relatively good.

The finish was in sight for quite a while, as I ran with a guy up to the final aid station, which I got to right at 3:30 — 30 minutes to go. I decided to make an attempt at breaking 4 hours, but the last uphill slowed me down significantly — I crossed the finish at 4:05. Not too long after, I saw Suzy making her way up, and walked over to take some photos — she finished in 4:10. Full results here.

This race was hard for me — it was too flat and short, which basically meant that I did very little walking, therefore, I never got a chance to switch muscle groups. I was pretty sore immediately afterwards, a lot more than I wanted to be.

I ate some chips and licorice at the finish, as more runners were finishing up. Someone came up to me and recognized me from Vermont — Chris was a pacer from Massachusetts. Then another runner recognized me from Ridgecrest and Leadville — I believe his name was Paul. Chris was planning on running Umstead, and Paul was set to do Vermont, then attempt Leadville again (he dropped around mile 83 this year).

We got on the bus ride back to Furnace Creek, and I got some food at the restaurant — a patty melt and fries, two vanilla shakes, and a lemonade. After i was done (Suzy only had coffee), we went next door to the gift shop where she bought a few things to take back.

Soon we were back in the car, on our way home — 5+ hours away. This time, instead of going through Ridgecrest and down the 395, we headed south on the 190 towards Baker. This meant that we would be driving through quite a bit of desert before we would hit the 15. We left about 3pm, and not too long after we got on the road, I started feeling real sleepy. So we stopped at Shosone, and while I took a short nap, Suzy went to the store and visited the museum — that helped me snap out of it, and we were quickly back on the highway.

We didn’t stop in Baker, and continued on to Barstow, another hour away with plans to stop for coffee and gas. It worked out well, since I was empty. We found a Starbucks right next to a gas station, so after I filled up the tank, we got some coffee.

The rest of the drive went relatively quickly — thankful that we weren’t hitting the usual Sunday afternoon return traffic from Vegas. I chatted with Al briefly, and also met his daughters before I headed back home.

I ended up putting on 550 miles, which was 25% of my total mileage on the car.


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