Monday, January 14, 2013

Death Valley - Final Thoughts

One of the many interesting formations in Death Valley.
January 14 - Tomorrow we all fly home after six days in the desert. It has been a good time to get to know each other and ourselves better. For me, there aren't too many opportunities to do this kind of thing and I had no idea how it was going to turn out. I was worried about being sick, as the week before I had cold symptoms. I was worried about getting injured and not being able to complete the trek, because I have never done anything quite like this before. This week was my highest mileage week by far (140 miles) and I hadn't really done the training I was hoping to do. Even though there was a lot of walking as we traveled, the longer time on our feet had consequences of its own in foot soreness and exposure to the elements.

What can I say?
I am very thankful for all of the planning that Marvin did. He had it all mapped out and I basically showed up with sneakers on. Even with that planning, we were a little fortuitous to have put in some extra miles the first three days or we might have had a problem getting to the Whitney Portal and back before it got dark. Some things you just have to make up as you go along and go with the flow. Death Valley threw wind and cold at us but I guess it could have been worse.

I am also very thankful to have had Doug along as he was an excellent guide. He has done a lot of geological field work in Death Valley and knew the area and its history well. Every day was an education as we discovered how the valley and mountains were formed and where the fault lines were and many other things. It was clear that he loves the area.

I was privileged to run with Marvin and Jim as they are both tough nuts and the conversation along the way was interesting and funny. Even though both of them were dealing with injuries, I never had any doubt that they were going to finish the trek. As the youngest of the three, I had the advantage of a younger body and youthful exuberance (I can't say that very much anymore) but they put up with me anyway.

Too much technology and only one
outlet at Panamint Springs Resort.
Is there any kind of take away from this? Perhaps. We are all capable of pretty cool things if we put our mind to it and stick with it. I think it is important to continue to challenge ourselves as we go through life (it doesn't have to involve running 140 miles) in order to grow and not be stagnant. Lack of cellular service for most of the run was also a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. It is good to just be in the moment sometimes.

Death Valley is a beautiful and rugged place. When I drove through it three years ago in the summer, my goal was to see it and then get out of it (it was hot). I did not realize how much there is to see and do, however, and I missed out on so much. I only saw what was along the road. I would like to come back and spend some more time here and explore all of the side canyons and dunes.

The information from my GPS each day is below. The scale is different for each graph so it can be deceiving to just look at them without noting the scale. The first day was mostly flat. The other days included significant climbs, the likes of which I don't see in Central Pennsylvania. The pace listed is our moving pace (not including stops) and certainly isn't fast, but it got us to the end.

And to the nuts who run this race every July in less than two days, my hat is truly off to them. I certainly have renewed respect for their accomplishment. They are truly inspiring.

Here is a video I through together of the run:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Death Valley - Running Day 4

The long trek from Lone Pine with
the Alabama Hills in the foreground.
January 13 - Done! What a day. The trek started from Keeler at 3610 feet on the far side of the valley from Mt. Whitney and finished on the Mt. Whitney portal at 8360 feet. The weather was the wildcard as forecasts kept changing the night before. It ended up being quite cold all day. The temperature was 10 degrees as we set out at 7:20am but fortunately there was no wind. Jim's and Marvin's hydration packs froze up within minutes but I was carrying bottles and was okay. As the sun rose it warmed up quickly but I don't think it ever got above freezing. The sun felt good and the sky was a brilliant blue that made the snow-capped mountains stand out.

We made good time into Lone Pine (about 15 miles). We did stop at our motel in Lone Pine for a quick re-supply. The climb through the Alabama Hills (where many movie westerns are shot) to the base of Whitney was a beast of a climb. It was not as long as the last two days but it was relentless, with a steady steep grade and hardly any turns, and it was at the end of the day (starting at mile 15). We each picked our own pace and just ground it out.

The road beyond the base of Whitney was closed to vehicles so we met Doug there and he decided to hike up as far as he could as well. It was 3.6 miles from there to the Portal, and we would have to hike back down, making a 30 mile day. We had hoped to avoid making that far of a hike back down but the snow on the road made it a necessity.

Jim hikes to the Portal with Mt. Whitney
looming in the background.
As we climbed the temperature started to get colder. It was also clear that the sun would duck behind the mountains before too long and make it even colder. We kept a steady pace and ground out the miles. The views of the valley were incredible, as well as the views of the mountains above us. At about 7000 feet the show grew steadily deeper. This part of the road was in shadow much of the day and soon we were on two feet of snow. Fortunately, there had been enough snowshoers and hikers before us that we could hike fairly easily without sinking into the snow with every step. We had Yaktrax along but didn't have to use them.

Finally, after a couple more switchbacks, we arrived at the Portal. It was a great feeling of accomplishment to reach our destination. Badwater Basin seemed like a long distance away, both in time and miles.The trail to the top of Whitney broke off to the right but I'll have to save that for another day. I made the requisite snow angel, did a little Gangnam style dance, we took a few pictures and then we hiked it out of there. The sun was ducking behind the mountains and it was rapidly getting colder. We met Doug on the way down and he turned around and followed us down. We drove back, got cleaned up, went out for a burger and fries, and finished it up with ice cream.

After 135 miles it is great to have real trees and snow.
I do have to mention that Marvin cut through a parking lot in Lone Pine on our run, thereby violating the rules of tangent-running. He somewhat made up for it by pumping gas when the rest of us were too cold and wimpy to get out of the car, but it still just wasn't right. :-)

My legs actually felt better today than yesterday. Running was easier and they weren't quite as sore. I felt lucky to only have one blister bother me through the 139 miles and not suffer any major injuries. Jim had some shin split trouble today and the foot Marvin injured in the fall was a constant hassle for him but they both ground it out. Jim said the pain "kept him in the moment." I guess that is a good thing.

I make the all-important finishing snow angel at the Portal.
During the trek, my daily sustenance while in motion was 60 ounces of fluid (mostly water), two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a handful of Pringles, two peanut butter cups, and a handful of peanut butter M&Ms. We were on our feet for 8-9 hours a day. A breakfast of a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and a dinner of pizza or a burger with fries rounded out the day. I'll be ready to eat something else for awhile, although the above worked great for me and I had no stomach issues.

Doug makes the trek up Whitney.
Jim enjoys the warmth of the last of the sun on the way back down.
Tomorrow we travel back to Las Vegas and we all catch flights home on Tuesday morning. This has been a good vacation and I have been reminded again that there is no better way to see a place than on foot. Having said all of that, I don't ever have to do this entire trek again.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Death Valley - Running Day 3

Obligatory start of the day photo.
Jim and the Joshua tree.
 January 12 - Today I learned the desert can be a really cold place. After a reasonably good night at the Panamint Springs "Resort," we woke up to 20 degree temperatures for the start of our third day. We got started at about 7:15am and were greeted with a 15 mile climb and a stiff wind in our faces.

Today's climb was not as steep, overall, and not as long as yesterday's climb, but the weather was not as favorable. As we got close to 5000 feet the road leveled off and was rolling for many miles. This was high desert and we had nowhere to hide. The wind, while not nearly as strong as day 1, was tough because of the cold.

We finally got our last glimpses of the Panamint Valley and saw the Sierra Nevada range and Mt. Whitney in the distance. The snow-capped peaks were truly impressive against the clear blue sky. After what seemed like a long time at the top, we finally began the long descent towards Keeler. The descent is not nearly as long as our previous descents because Keeler's elevation is 3610 feet.

After 35 miles we finally ended up at Keeler, where Doug picked us up and drove us to our motel in Lone Pine. Tomorrow we will have 15 miles of relatively flat running before turning onto Portal Road and beginning the ascent of Mt. Whitney. Overall mileage tomorrow will be about 27 miles, although we will most likely need to walk back down a mile or more after we reach the portal because the road may be closed to vehicles due to snow.

First good glimpse of Mt. Whitney in the background.
We were all a little more quiet today as the going got a bit tougher. There was a lot of walking as the little tweaks from the previous days began to manifest themselves as more frequent and painful aches. All of the pavement is a killer. I have been trying to walk in the dirt on the side of the road as much as possible but there was less shoulder today and the road on much of the route was heavily banked due to the hairpin turns. My feet are beat up but I only have one blister so far, which is good. Marvin's foot has been giving him a lot of trouble and has made him limp earlier every day. I believe we will be fine tomorrow but there will definitely be some pain.

Last long stretch of road into Keeler, our stopping place for
the day, with the Sierra Nevada range on the left.
The sights during the first three days have been excellent. Although there isn't a lot of vegetation around, the shift in plant life and colors of the earth and mountains have been interesting. It was great to see the Joshua trees today. The rock and snow of the Sierras stand in sharp contrast to the dry environment that we have been through. I am looking forward to the experience of the climb tomorrow, as long as I wake up and can still walk. I'm not exactly looking forward to the 16 degree temperatures forecast for the morning but what can you do?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Death Valley - Running Day 2

Ready to start day 2.

January 11 - The day dawned clear and chilly. After a relatively good night of sleep, I felt a bit sore but was refreshed and ready to go. The motel at Stovepipe Wells was a decent place, although the walls were thin, but the beds were good. We ate breakfast around 6:15am, got packed and ready to go, drove the seven miles back to where we stopped the day before, and were running by 7:30am.

What a difference a day makes. The irony of it being much colder in the southern California desert than it was at home in Pennsylvania today was not lost on us. The saving grace, however, was the lack of wind. It was virtually non-existent. This was great because yesterday we had to take extra care with various bodily functions. I swear that when I peed some of it never hit the ground. It blew away and evaporated. It also took me a little practice to get the snot rocket technique down (back to the wind, head back). We were ready for calm.

When you come across the only cornfield in
hundreds of miles, you've got to take advantage
of it, even if it is the devil's.
We had a little downhill (about 3 miles) when we started but then the long climb began up to Towne Pass at 4956 elevation. The climb began below sea level and climbed for 18 miles. This is the longest sustained climb in mileage I have ever done and is just a monster. The climb up the Grand Canyon north rim has more elevation change but it is steeper so it is over much more quickly.

We walked most of it. It was a long slow slog. It did offer great views of Death Valley as we climbed and I kept turning around and walking backward to soak them in. The fighter jets constantly flying over our heads provided some diversion as well. The temperature on the climb was mid to upper 30s. I can't imagine doing it in the summer during the actual race in temperatures well over 100 degrees.

We finally crested the pass and were greeted with a somewhat more painful task of negotiating the steep downhill. We ran some and walked some; neither one of them felt particularly good on the legs and hips. Numerous times Marvin would take off at a sub-8:00 minute pace for half a mile and Jim and I would struggle to keep up.

These are the great dunes near Stovepipe Wells. I
would have liked to hike out on them but that
will have to wait for a different trip.
We finally could see our destination of Panamint Springs Resort on the far side of Panamint Valley but it looked a long way off (and it was). After making it to the floor of the valley we still had six miles of flat and then uphill running/walking. We pulled into the "Resort" around 4:30pm, finishing a long day of 38 miles. Marvin's original plan was to stop 7 miles earlier but we felt okay so we banked a few miles.

Panamint Springs Resort is no Stovepipe Wells. There is no electrical lines coming in so everything runs off a generator or gas. Our room had a little space heater in it that wasn't turned on and it was cold. There was one receptacle in the room. We took showers (thankfully the water was hot) and went to eat at the restaurant. The restaurant was cold but the 10" pizza I ordered and completely consumed and the Coke hit the spot.

This should be our longest day. Tomorrow we will look to do 34 miles or so, depending on how it goes. We will then spend the night in a real town in a real motel at the foot of Mt. Whitney.
Finally at the top.

Death Valley - Running Day 1

Badwater Basin.
At the start.
January 10 - Today I learned that the desert can be stinkin' windy. We left Pahrump, Nevada, at 5:15am for the hour and 45 minute drive to Badwater. As we drove, we realized that their was a strong wind outside as we went over Jubilee Pass and down into Death Valley. We arrived at Badwater at 7am, got out of the car and were immediately buffeted by the wind.

You've got to love pit toilets. I thought I would make use of the one there before we ran and soon ran into technical difficulty. It was so windy that when I threw my toilet paper down the hole it came right back up at me and landed on the floor. I tried again with the same result. Finally I threw it down and slammed the lid shut and that was that. 

We got our stuff together, took a few photos, and headed up the road by 7:30am. Even though it was just after daybreak, Badwater is tucked against the mountains on the eastern side of the valley so it took a long time before we actually saw the sun.

Fortunately the wind was behind us. The weather service was calling for 25-30 mile per hour sustained winds in the valley with gusts to 50mph. I believe we got it. It was nice having it behind us, but even with that it just felt like we were constantly getting beaten up. My muscles were constantly bracing against it.

The road from Badwater going north is definitely rolling with broad sweeping turns in it as it winds around the alluvial fans that come down from the mountains. There are also perfectly straight stretches that disappear into the distance. The scale of the valley is so grand that distances are very deceiving. This will be our flattest day of running but it definitely was not flat. There just aren't any steep climbs. The one climb was over two miles long but only rose a few hundred feet in elevation.

After about 17 miles we got into Furnace Creek, the first glimpse of civilization in the valley. We had been making decent time with the wind at our back, but weren't pushing it. In the distance in front of us we could see dust storms and virga (rain that doesn't reach the ground). I wasn't exactly looking forward to running through blowing dust worse than we had already run through, but what could we do? It was where we had to go. 

We stopped at Furnace Creek for about 20 minutes. There is a campground, general store, museum, park service office and some other things there. I got some iced tea in the store and we sat and ate a little food. Where we were was sheltered from the wind so it was a nice spot for a break.

It started to feel cold right before we left and as we ran off we discovered why. The wind had completely shifted 180 degrees and was now hammering us in the face. The temperature had probably dropped 10 degrees. Coming into Furnace Creek I was thinking about taking off my jacket because it was getting warm but now I wished I had gloves because I was cold.

Furnace Creek.
I have never run into wind that ferocious. The gusts were just ridiculous. At that time, I couldn't quite imagine doing that for another 17 miles. We did a lot more walking now, as it was just difficult to run when the road turned directly into the wind. Doug met us at about 21 miles and I got some Gatorade to take with me and we kept going.

Marvin's original plan had us stopping after 30 miles today. We had decided that we would probably go further, but we weren't sure how much further. I thought it was stupid to go further in that wind, but I shut up and decided I would do whatever the other two wanted to do. Doug met us again at mile 31 and we told him to meet us at the turn-off for Scotty's Castle at mile 34.

We finally got there, and after Marvin contemplated going another few miles, we finally jumped in the car and headed for our motel at Stovepipe Wells.

I feel relatively okay after one day. I thought the windburn might be worse than what it is. My hips are a little sore but it could be worse. Having said that, it will be tough to get up and do it again in the morning. I am looking forward to a good supper and turning in early.
Finally getting above sea level on the 2.5 mile climb.

Just got back from supper. The waitress put a birthday candle in my vanilla ice cream. The ice cream wasn't that good but it was still a good way to end the day.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Death Valley 2013 - Prelude

Doug and Jim wait for Marvin's plane to arrive.
January 9, 2013 - It is all Marvin's fault. I wouldn't have thought of such a hare-brained scheme myself. About a year and a half ago Marvin Hall floated to me the idea of running the Badwater Ultramarathon Course for fun that winter. What could I say but "I'm in." I mentioned it to my brother Jim and he was immediately gung-ho to do it. After initially looking at January of 2012 and not being able to coordinate schedules, we put it on the calendar for January of 2013.

The Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135 mile road race that has been held in July for many years. The course starts at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest point in the U.S., and finishes on Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental U.S. Originally the race went all the way up Mt. Whitney (over 14,000 feet) but at some point that was disallowed so now it finishes at the Whitney portal at about 8300 feet. The actual race is in July when daytime temperatures run up to 130 degrees (crazy!) and runners have 48 hours to complete it.

Our plan was to take four days to run the course (about 34 miles a day) and do it in January when temperatures generally top out around 70 degrees (a little more sane). Marvin was able to convince a friend, Doug Miller, who had significant experience in Death Valley working with Penn State, to be our support. There aren't many lodging establishments along the course so we would run to a certain spot each day, be picked up by Doug and drive to a motel, and then drive back to where we stopped in the morning and start again.

Jim shows off emergency rations.
Yes, I know we have taken the wimpy way to run this. Real men like State College's own John Fegyveresi, who completed the actual race last summer (and more impressively the Barkley Marathons last spring), run it in less than two days when it is 110 degrees and if he were doing it our way he would probably camp in a tent. But what can I say, I guess I am only somewhat adventurous (I won't speak for the other two because I know at least Marvin is a hardier soul than I am).

I flew out to Las Vegas today and am sitting in a motel room at Pahrump, NV, about to turn in for the night. The three of us met at the airport, drove a few hours, got some groceries and now here we are. In the morning we are planning to leave at 5am, drive the hour and 45 minutes to Badwater, and start running at daybreak (7am). We will run at least 30 miles, possibly further if we feel well after 30.

I just hope I feel better tomorrow. I feel like crap after all that flying and my body clock is messed up and I've been fighting a cold for the last week. Whine, whine, whine. Having said all that, I am glad to be here and anxious to get started in the morning.