Death Valley Marathon Race Report

A couple of months ago, one of my running buddies, Rick, asked: “Hey, Phil. I’m going to run the Death Valley Marathon in February. Wanna join me?” It seems like an innocent question, doesn’t it? So I said, “Sure!” 

Little did I know...

By the way, this was the same Rick who ran the Peak2Brew Relay with me back in August and who I convinced to sign up for the Roth Triathlon in Germany later this year.


Rick demonstrates the Peak2Brew Shuffle

I was still suffering from a torn piriformis muscle, sciatica, or hamstring tendinopathy (pick one — I still have no idea which it is) following some speed workouts while prepping for the Lehigh Marathon back in September.  So my plan was to run the Death Valley Marathon for the t-shirt, not for time.

I took 5 weeks off after Lehigh to give things a chance to heal — and while that helped, once I got back into my routine I was still having some pain after running. A sane person would have stopped running immediately to let himself fully heal. But then again as my friend, Josh, put it: “A sane person wouldn’t sign up for a marathon that’s got ‘death’ in its name.” 

So I half-trained, half-rested making sure I was doing neither effectively. By the time Death Valley Marathon rolled around, my longest run since my last marathon had been 10 miles.

Rick’s infatuation with the Death Valley Marathon goes back to 2011. His friend Matt had suggested it as a cool destination race. (See?! This proves that crazy is contagious!) Matt drove to Rick’s house in Dallas from Louisiana. The plan was for the two of them to fly to Vegas and then drive to Death Valley. The only problem is that the Death Valley Marathon is the same weekend as the Super Bowl. And in 2011, Super Bowl weekend was ushered in by snow and ice in Dallas.


Feb 4th, 2011 in Dallas (courtesy of the DallasNews)

Rick and Matt were stuck at the airport as flights were cancelled willy-nilly. They never made it to the marathon (although the race director eventually mailed them their finisher shirts when he heard they couldn’t make it cuz they were snowed in). So, 2017 was their make-up year: Time to earn those t-shirts. I was suckered along because I think destination races are cool. :-)

Luckily there was no snow in Dallas in 2017 so we flew into Vegas late Friday afternoon without incident. We rented a car and Matt, Ben (Matt’s son), Rick, and I drove to Death Valley. Matt, Rick, and I were signed up for the marathon; Ben signed up for the half-marathon. We got to our hotel, The Ranch at Furnace Creek (not to be confused with The Inn at Furnace Creek), around 5:00 and checked in. Then with a couple of hours of daylight left, we decided to check out some of the landmarks in the Death Valley National Park.

First on the list was Badwater. Badwater is the lowest point in North America at 278 ft. below sea level. It’s also the hottest spot on Earth with a recorded air temperature of 134 F. It’s also the driest spot in North America with less than 2” average rainfall per year.

So naturally we were a bit surprised when it started sprinkling when we arrived. :-) Here’s a picture of Rick at Badwater with a rainbow in the background. (The top of the rainbow is just below the top of the rocks. It’s difficult to see, but it’s there.)

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Here’s a picture a little bit later with the rainbow slightly higher than the rocks.

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Rainbow at Badwater, Death Valley

Pretty cool, huh? How many people get to see a rainbow at the driest spot in North America?

We ogled the salt flats, looked at the sign 300 feet up the cliffs that said “sea level” (in case you hadn’t quite cottoned on to the fact that you were standing well below sea level by that time), took some obligatory photos and then moseyed along.

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Matt and Ben on the salt flats

We stopped by ‘the natural bridge’ on the way back to the Ranch where Ben showed us some climbing skillz he had picked up when he lived in Boulder.

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The blue dot tucked under the overhang is Ben...

Meanwhile, back at the Ranch (I’ve always wanted to say that…) we grabbed the traditional pre-race dinner of… pizza. Go figure.

The race started at 8:00 AM on Saturday. Marathoners went off first, then half-marathoners 15 minutes later, then the 10K. The race caps at 350 runners total because that’s all the park service will allow. (My guess is that the park service has calculated the maximum amount of carrion the buzzards can eat without getting too fat to fly and 350 runners is it.)

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Obligatory pre-race photo. Ben, Matt, Rick, and Phil

We wandered to the start of the race a little before 8. It was cool (mid 50’s) and overcast so I elected to wear a long sleeved shirt. A couple of hundred runners gathered in the dirt parking lot in front of the Death Valley visitor’s center. Then a guy jumped up on the bed of a pick up truck and started to bellow at us.

He was the race director. ;-)

And he killed time by telling us jokes. He was actually pretty funny. He urged the marathoners up to the front (the start ‘line’ was two orange cones set on the shoulder) and counted the race down: “Three, two, one, go!”. There was no gun, no air horn. But we got the message anyway.

The Death Valley Marathon is an out-and-back. The road isn’t closed to the public so we were instructed to run on the left shoulder and single file. You’d think there would be terrible bunching but with less than 100 people running the marathon, it all sorted out within the first quarter mile. Water stops were set up every 3 miles with Gatorade, water, banana pieces, and Clif Bars. By the second water stop (mile 6), we were so spread out that the volunteers actually brought the drinks to the runners on the shoulder holding a cup of Gatorade in one hand and water in the other: your choice.

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The first (and only uphill) about 1.5 miles in the race. This was as ‘bunched up’ as it got.

We were very lucky. The cloud cover — which looked spotty and threatened to blow away any minute — actually stayed with us for about 3 hours keeping us cool.

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Early in the race: 1) I’m still smiling and 2) I’m wearing my sleeves down.

The race course is fairly flat: less than 500 feet of elevation gain in total. We started off going down a moderately steep hill for the first half mile and then hit a steep ascent at mile 2. Then the race course levels off with a long mild downhill and a long mild uphill.

Elevation graph courtesy of GraphMyRun (of course.)

The vistas were a combination of amazing and boring. In the distance, you could see snow capped mountains. But off the race course on either side were lifeless gravel, sand, and stone. Every now and then we’d see colored rock formations (like the Badlands in South Dakota).

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By mile 3 I’d rolled up my sleeves. By mile 9 I was gulping two drinks per water stop. It wasn’t that warm (mid 70’s?) but it was dry.

Rick and I ran together at a steady 9:00 min/mile pace right up to the halfway point which was exactly as planned. But my wheels fell off soon after.

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Half-way marker selfie!

Death Valley Marathon is a Boston qualifier race, but it isn’t chip timed nor was there anyone noting our time — or even checking that we got there — as we looped the half-way marker. If someone was inclined to cheat to qualify for Boston, this would be the race to do it at.

We kept our eyes open for Matt as we headed back. He was shooting for a 6+ hour race and we figured we’d catch him around mile 15 (his mile 11). We were watching intently and were completely surprised to see Ben running towards us. We paused briefly and Ben told us that he felt so good at the half-marathon turn around point that he decided to run the full. He mentioned that he passed his dad about a mile back.

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We caught up with Matt about 5 minutes later.

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Whose idea was this, anyways? Oh, yeah… Mine.

The wind, which had been at our back the whole way out, was now blowing steadily into our faces. And it felt good. The sun was finally burning through the clouds and the temps were climbing. The warmth and my lack of training were taking their toll.

Rick’s original plan was to run 9:30’s. He assumed I’d take off early on and we’d run the race by ourselves. But he felt good running at my pace and hung with me to the half-way point. Now, I was doing everything I could to hang with him. I started run-walking and Rick stayed with me even though he was still going strong. He explained that it was better to drink post-race victory beers with a friend than by yourself.

I suggested that a true friend would run up ahead and fetch some beers to bring back to his suffering buddy. Rick didn’t buy it though. I kept hoping that Rick would take the hint and leave me behind so I could lie down and curl up in a fetal ball without any witnesses, but he was having none of it.

The beer theme was a constant refrain on the way back

We kept asking the volunteers at the aid stations if they had any beer. The clever ones told us it was at the next aid station. The really clever ones told us they were at the finish line.

Speaking of the finish line… Some 4 hours and 20 minutes after we started we saw this wonderful sight:

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Oh, it may not look like much, but it was like heaven on Earth to me. :-) Oh… we did get a couple of beers after the finish while we waited for Ben and Matt. 

And the sweetest part of this race? The results, of course. Despite the fact that Rick could have left me in the dust anytime he wanted after mile 15, and despite the fact that I deliberately tried to finish second to him, the official race results posted on the board for all to see after the race showed that I was 1.1 second faster than him. :-) Mwa ha ha ha.

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And now the obligatory GraphMyRun analysis:

I ran most of the race at my Easy pace (yay!). Note the fairly steady pace up ’til mile 14. Oh well. That’s what happens when your longest training run is 10 miles. See that brief spikes in pace at miles 3, 3.5, 5, etc? (Blue and green dots on the bottom graph). That’s where I sped up to get in front of Rick to take his picture on the course. I stopped that particular piece of non-sense by mile 15…

 © Phil Miller 2014, 2015, 2016