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26.2 In The Rain: Not Your Average Day In Death Valley

February 15, 2009 3 min read

I finally dropped the cabbage and signed up for a backyard event I had yet to experience: the Death Valley Trail (It's really a dirt road, truth be told.) Marathon. And experience it I did, in the most surreal of ways. The paved road leading toward Beatty, NV and the start of the Titus Canyon version of this event was wiped out by a debris flow the Thursday before the race; but Mother Nature was just getting started. Storm number two arrived in the pre-dawn, race-day darkness, waking me up sometime after midnight to the sound of fairly heavy rain on my camper shell. It let up briefly as the 300+ runners (combined marathon and 30K entrants) excitedly gathered at the starting line on West Side Road (This is the alkali dirt and gravel road that forms a horseshoe around Badwater, at -282 feet, the lowest spot in North America.) The wall of gray to the south reached us by mile two and, getting progressively heavier throughout the remainder of the race and day, the rain did not let up until after dark. It is one of the greatest ironies of my trail running career that the wettest I have ever been during a race was in the driest location in the U.S. Furnace Creek received a good chunk of its 2" annual precipitation on Saturday, February 7th.

The out-and-back course was in relatively decent shape on the outbound journey but, because of the continuous rain and 600-plus feet in perpetual motion, it had become a quagmire on the return trip. Throw in a tailwind on the way south that transformed into a stiff headwind for the northbound homeward slog and the second half was decidedly more difficult than the first. Temperatures were in the low 50s, quite pleasant when running hard, even while wet. I opted for shorts and t-shirt with gloves and rain-deflecting awning (Sage To Summit hat) and stayed comfortable until I crossed the finish line. I barely had time to retrieve my gear bag, don a dry windbreaker and get on the shuttle bus though before shivering set in.

While soaking the fatigue out of my chilled, water-logged muscles at the warm, spring-fed pool back at the resort, mesmerized by the multitude of rain-drops splashing in the soothing waters, the conditions were really getting interesting for the runners still on the course. The parched earth had had it's fill and was now dealing with the bloat by way of streams of slobber. Small rivers and mudflows were forming everywhere. A course that had been creek-crossing free only hours earlier now had several to ford. The runners pushing the 6 hour cutoff were treated to a bus ride back to Furnace Creek that included three debris flow crossings. Literally minutes later the park service closed the road.
The following morning I went for a recovery spin on my road bike out to Badwater on the still-closed road. It was more of a cyclocross endeavor as I had to repeatedly hop off my skinny tires and run (walk, actually!) through the relocated desert pavement. Amazingly enough, the vegetation was already beginning to green-up in response to the moisture. I suspect the wildflowers will be abundant in the upcoming weeks. I have had many incredible experiences in Death Valley over the years, but this one has certainly leaped to the top of the list.
For more information on the event, check out

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