Bucket-list item #2 in the hottest, driest place on the continent.
Like the scenery, the heat in Death Valley is breathtaking.
The mountains on either side of the valley trap the hot air and help the sun to act like the lightbulb in an Easy Bake oven. Someone once said that the feeling of heat resembled holding a hair dryer in front of your face and turning it on HIGH. The dry air invades your respiratory system like something tangible.
October is normally a bit cooler in Death Valley National Park. But the week we were here, temperatures were at near-summertime levels, with afternoon highs of 40C (104F).
So naturally I decided that I should go for a run.
For years I have been in awe of a footrace called the Badwater Ultramarathon, which has been held in Death Valley every July. Even before I ever set foot in the valley, I knew about the race from a terrific 1999 memoir called To the Edge, by Kirk Johnson. It was his book that first inspired me to visit the valley – for a cycling event in 2008.
I long ago gave up the idea of ever running the 135 miles of the Badwater Ultra, as my tank is usually empty after 26. But I thought it might be fun to pay tribute to the amazing people who do run the distance by tracing a little part of the route myself.
Originally I had thought I would try to run the first 18 miles (29k), from Badwater, where the event starts, to the Furnace Creek Ranch, where we were staying. The distance itself isn’t daunting, but as the thermometer in Furnace Creek showed higher temperatures daily (and after wearing out my legs climbing Telescope Peak a day earlier) I decided I would be content just to run as much of it as I could without ending up at the side of the road like one of those bleached cattle skulls you see in old westerns.
My qualifications for my superheated undertaking included two recent trail races in autumnal conditions in Ontario. OK. I had no qualifications. Maybe I shouldn’t have said “undertaking.”
I started running from Badwater at dawn as the rising sun was touching distant Telescope Peak. The road was in the shadow of the mountains to the east, and I wanted to get as many miles behind me as possible before I was fried like an egg on the pebbly pavement.
The sky was clear, as it usually is in Death Valley. Almost clear. There was one little, thin, high cloud right over me, and it stayed over me for quite a while, diffusing the sun a little. My guardian cloud. Otherwise, there was not a sliver of shade on the road; not a second’s relief from the sun.
In contrast to the indescribable scenery, the road itself is somewhat boring, with long gentle hills and straight stretches that disappear into the distance like an exercise in perspective. I felt dwarfed by the mountains, and took a moment to look respectfully up 11,000 feet to the summit of Telescope Peak, where we had been standing just two days earlier.
I was very lucky to have Karen to sag me all the way. For those unfamiliar with this term, it means that she met me every few miles in the car with water and ice (and presumably would prop me up if I started to sag).
|Dwarfed by the scenery, I run the Badwater Road.|
The run was a pure joy from beginning to end, of the kind that comes along very seldom in a lifetime. I kept to a very sedate pace and to my surprise felt no stiffness or soreness at all. As the morning wore on, the sun grew more present. My friendly cirrus cloud had burned away, and I was exposed to everything the sun could beam down at me. I added some white sunsleeves to my wardrobe, which kept my arms cool and protected, but by now there was no true escape from the pervasive and relentless desert heat.
With about 8 miles to go, I passed the entrance to Artist Drive, a scenic but hilly loop off the main road, and I remembered the many times we had cursed it on our bicycles, grinding up its smug, nearly vertical topography and holding on for dear life down its white-knuckle hairpin descents. This week it was buried under mud after the recent flash flooding, unable to vex anyone. Now it was my turn to feel smug.
For this run, I was wearing my Nathan hydration vest, which helped keep a steady supply of water going into me (exiting only via perspiration and respiration). I had clipped one of my flashing bike lights to the vest so that I would be more visible to anyone driving down the road. At one point I looked down to see that the light was gone; it had fallen off, like Dorothy’s slippers, somewhere along the way.
There was very little traffic on the road and most times I was utterly alone; the only interruption to the silence of the desert morning was the padding of my shoes on the pavement. At times I sang to myself just to hear some sound.
|The last mile.|
The last mile down to Furnace Creek is all downhill. As I have done on many previous cycling outings here, I finished on the grassy patch in front of the resort, took my shoes off and lay down in my first shade in hours, under the palm trees. The Furnace Creek thermometer read 100 degrees Fahrenheit. How cool is that?
I felt bad about the bicycle light that I had lost. Written and unwritten laws dictate that you should leave nothing in the pristine environment of the desert. Later that day we drove back down the Badwater Road to look for it. And just next to the entrance to Artist Drive, there it was, lying on the ground, still flashing away in the sunlight. So Artist Drive had the last word after all.
Death Valley always does.