Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Badwater Mini-Marathon

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.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Death Valley Peaks

Bucket-list item #1 in the hottest, driest place on the continent

I have always come to Death Valley National Park to ride my bike, either in one of the Adventure Corps century rides, or for one of their cycling camps. I had always hoped that one day I could come here and try a couple of different fun activities. This is the story of the first one.

Telescope Peak is known for having one of the most dramatic vertical contrasts anywhere. The view from the summit at around 11,049 feet (3,368 metres) looks down on Badwater, the lowest point in the Western hemisphere, 282 feet (86 metres) below sea level. I wanted to hike to the top.

The road that approaches the trailhead at 8,130 feet (2478 metres) is described as rough, and it is. It is recommended only for vehicles with four-wheel drive and high clearance. Our vehicle has both those features and it was still an ordeal to get to the parking lot where we began the ascent. Part of this might have been due to washouts from a recent episode of flash floods in the valley. (The appalling road conditions didn’t seem to deter the three young ladies who arrived in their Toyota Prius and scampered cheerfully up the mountain, so maybe it depends on how precious you are about your car.)

Rocky paths. Not for the
flat-footed  or faint-hearted.  
This is not a climb for people who don’t like hiking uphill a lot or who are nervous about heights. A lot of the path is narrow, with hardscrabble rock along the sides of bottomless slopes. A decent and fulfilling workout for experienced hikers; doable, but not a day at the beach for novices. 

The fourteen-mile round trip could take between seven and nine hours. Karen had brought a walking stick; I wouldn’t rule out two as optimum. One serious consideration is that you have to carry your own water, as there is none on the trail. I left some of ours cached behind a tree about halfway up and retrieved it on the way down. A bonus is that although the trail features Death Valley’s well-known dryness, the air is beautifully cool and clear.

A view of the snow-covered north face. 

The memorable (in one way or the other) finale is a series of steep, tough, scrabbly switchbacks (around 12 or 13 of them ... no one seems to be able to count them and get the same result twice). At the end of many of them there are flat stones to sit and rest on if by this time you are feeling a bit peaked (sorry).

We got to summit by walking along a short ridge followed by a little push to the top. The vista is spectacular, although the vistas all the way up are just as spectacular, so the summit views down to Badwater and all the way to Mount Whitney were just the cherry on top (as it were). There is a metal ammo box (how very American I thought) containing a logbook to write your name. There is no signpost for a summit photo, so posing with the ammo box is your photographic proof that you were there. We were lucky that another couple had arrived just before us so we were able to take turns snapping photos for each other.

Karen and I stand on the summit with the coveted ammo box. 

This was an outing I’ve been thinking about for years, and it fulfilled my hopes beautifully. If they would grade the ruts and furrows in the ghastly road to the trailhead, it would be a perfect activity for a day in (or above) Death Valley.

Next: The Badwater Mini-Marathon

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Going the Extra Mile

Run for the Toad
Paris, Ontario, October 3 2015

Every trail has its secrets, its challenges, and its attractions. This, I am learning, is a major feature of trail running: pounding the pavement can’t match it for piquing and holding your interest. The two races I entered this fall were both challenging and rewarding – and as different as could be.

If the Haliburton Forest is Joaquin Phoenix – wild, unpredictable, and exciting – then the Run for the Toad, which I ran on October 3, is George Clooney – refined, poised, and easy on the eyes. The Run for the Toad is a race you'd like to sit down and have a beer with. 

Due to the purgatorial experience of trying to drive a car anywhere near Toronto (even at 6:30 am on a Saturday morning the traffic was stopped dead on the 401), the large time buffer I had left myself to get to the race site had evaporated by the time I arrived. I had to park about a kilometre from the start and was in a vile temper.

“Do you need a lift?” asked a lady in a car who pulled up beside me while I was walking back to my car after picking up my race kit. “You’re parked in the far lot, aren’t you?”

It turned out that she was a volunteer who was driving to the spot where she was going to marshal the runners in the race. Somehow she had divined that she was heading to the same place I was.  A small gesture like this went a long way toward making me glad I had come.

The race course follows a circuitous route through the Pinehurst Lake Conservation Area near Paris, Ontario. There are two well-balanced laps of 12.5k for the 25k racers, and four for the 50k racers. Most of the run takes place under cover of forest, but there are a few outings into open fields. On race day this meant emerging from the trees into a ferocious wind; one aid station had their Smarties and cookies blown right off the food table to someplace probably not in Kansas anymore.

The paths are usually wide enough to allow two people to run abreast with room for a third to pass. This came in handy as I began to be lapped by the fast runners, whose feet seemed to barely touch the pine-needled ground as they flew through the forest with a speed and agility I could only admire. “On your left!” became a familiar cry from racers zooming past me like cars in the fast lane of the Parkway on a Friday night, and I almost always got out the way in time.

I took some advice from my own experience at the Haliburton Forest and worried about pace and time not at all. I was 6 kilometres into my second lap before I even thought to look at my watch. It was a cool, grey day and I stayed comfortable at the back of the pack in my torn tights and worn blue running jacket, both relics of the last century.
Old wardrobe  older runner.

The finale of each lap features a run up a sharp, grassy hill, which the regulars have named Horror Hill. It isn’t really a horror, just a chance to get rid of any excess energy you might have been saving up over the previous 11k.

I liked everything about the Run for the Toad. From check-in to aid stations to finish line, it’s an event that is focused on the runners. I finished the 25k feeling refreshed, not trashed, and definitely more cheerful than I had when I arrived. On my way back to my car, I came across my helpful volunteer again. She spent some time trying to sell me on the idea of trying the whole 50k next year. Who knows? Maybe she succeeded. 

I am writing this from Death Valley National Park in California, where the temperature today is 40C and the cool boreal forest trails of a week ago seem ages away. I am here for a cycling, running, and hiking vacation, and I hope to write more about that in the days to come.