On a cool and beautiful Saturday morning in February, 87 hearty souls raced through the desert to complete the 2017 Death Valley Marathon. The course runs through spectacular Death Valley National Park along the same road traveled by the infamous Badwater 135 ultra marathon.
Instead of the national anthem, the race director led us all in a more appropriate and moving rendition of America the Beautiful.
Before the race, I worried that the out-and-back course might be a bit dull, with the same view for miles. I needn’t have worried, as the park is gorgeous and the course winds through the valley with ever-changing views of mountains to the east and west. Also, while the course boasts less than 325 feet of elevation gain, that number is deceptive. It felt to me like we were usually on a slight uphill or downhill grade on rolling hills and rarely running on just flat pavement.
The course roadway is open to park visitors, but I found the vast majority of drivers to be extremely respectful of the runners. We ran on the west shoulder at all times, and while that meant a little jockeying for position at the beginning of the race, the runners soon spread out and by the second half, I often found myself running alone through the desert. Spectators are not allowed on the course, and aid stations are only every three miles. The stations were well-stocked but I thought the Gatorade was a little too watered down (that is foreshadowing, in case you didn’t catch that).
I really enjoyed the first half of the course. The problem for me came around mile 16 when my calves started cramping. I can only speculate that I undertrained for the race or underfueled during the race, or some combination of the two. I had brought my own homemade sports drink that worked fine for me in training but obviously did not do the trick in the race, and the Gatorade on the course didn’t make up for it in the final miles. My splits went from a super-consistent 8:52.6 and 8:52.4 in miles 8-9 and 8:58.8 and 8:58.9 in miles 14-15 to 13:56 for mile 21 and 15:03 for mile 24! At one point I considered whether I wanted to drop out of the race (that might have been the time I heard the raven caw above me and wondered if that was a vulture coming for my carcass when I dropped to the ground. I might have gotten a tad bit dramatic in my suffering). I asked myself if I was going to injure myself by continuing. When the answer was no, I asked myself if I would feel better if I stopped, or better if I finished. I knew for certain that I would feel better if I finished, so I set my mind to it. I decided that I needed to take the focus off my cramping, painful calves, and concentrate on something that didn’t hurt. Somewhere after I really hit the wall in mile 20, I started counting my arm swings. My arms didn’t hurt, and I felt more powerful and in control as I counted each time my right fist punched forward. Long story short, by the time I finished the race, I had counted over 4,200 swings of my right arm. I got into a zen zone by the final miles, and brought my pace back down from 15:03 to 12:38 for mile 25 and 11:37 for mile 26! Mike brought the girls to the finish line, and they gave me a burst of energy as I ran the final 0.33 in a pace of 9:46.
I finished in 4:28:01, a full 51 minutes off my PR of 3:36:58 (recap of the Phoenix Marathon here). I had hoped to come in under 4 hours, but only two women out of 26 female finishers managed that feat. My final stats:
The first place male and female finishers came in at a blazing 2:49:40 and 3:21:08 respectively. Including all of the 87 finishers, the average finish time was 4:39:40 (a perfectly respectable time, and now that I look into it, I see that the average finishing time for the New York City Marathon is 4:34:45, so the average here is only 5 minutes slower. I guess I just thought this race would trend on the fast side due to the sea level altitude, the good weather, and the experience level of the type of runner who would choose a race that does not allow spectators). If I had to do it over, I would train harder (though I thought I had trained well, with 3 20-milers under my belt), and carry Gatorade instead of my homemade sports drink. Or perhaps, knowing what I know now, I would have opted to do the half marathon and had more time to view the rest of the national park, which truly wowed me with how beautiful it is in the winter.
I was very happy to find that the finish line fare included trail mix with nuts, raisins and M&Ms (heaven!) and a pretzel mix too. I picked up my cotton race t-shirt, which I will wear with pride. While I didn’t finish anywhere near the time I hoped, I am unusually proud of myself for finishing this race. The marathon always has something to teach me, even in my 8th one. This time I learned that the mind really can control the body. My mind carried me through 10 miles after my legs started cramping. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a pretty impressive display of sheer determination.
It’s been three weeks since the race and I’m back up to running 10 miles for my long run this weekend. I am still thinking through what I’d like to take on next. Do I choose another marathon after three particularly hard experiences (REVEL Canyon City, Boston and this one)? Or turn to a different challenge? All I know is I like having a big goal, so I’d better start planning.
What was your hardest race and why? Have you been to Death Valley? (If not, you should go — in the winter!)