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Eric Olson Describes the Death Valley Trail Marathon

Titus Canyon about half way through the Death Valley Marathon
Note:  Last summer Eric Olson and I ran the Eau Claire Marathon and the Birkie Trail Marathon together.  Both of those events were a blast since Eric has a knack for storytelling (which helps keep your mind off the miles).  A couple of weeks ago, he took a short vacation from our winter wonderland to go and run a marathon in Death Valley of all places.  Naturally I began to pester him afterwards about providing me with an article on this experience.  Once again Eric came through, and he sent me this wonderful write-up.  Give it a read then share it, like it, and tweet it so that perhaps Eric will be encouraged to send us some more material!--BJ

When I became a Runner in 2002, It changed the way I looked at life completely. As anyone else that gets hooked on this crazy hobby can tell you, you get to know yourself well. From all the many hours of pounding the pavement or trails with the person you know best: yourself.

I’ve found over the last decade that the hardest part about running long distance is 'Getting out the Door.' Once that action is taken all other discomforts seem to fade as you push the body into the run, striving to find the inner wind and perfect physical harmony that is the closest thing to winged flight. Running is an act as primitive and primal as mankind, and it is totally environmentally compatible. I know of no other so elemental, completely natural expression of human physical vitality.

But there is more to it than that. As the years have passed, I have come to realize that running marathons and ultras brings something far greater than the thrill of competition and doing more than you thought you could do. Any award is purely secondary to the experience! For me, it can be simple, direct, honest, challenging, no special equipment—just a pair of shorts and a decent pair of shoes; no pedals, wheels or motors, no encumbering devices. No other noise to mask the sound of your own breathing and footsteps, minimal protection from the elements, rain, wind, heat and humidity. Running will award you with freedom on many levels.

But enough about all that.  Let me tell you a little about the Death Valley Trail Marathon.
Lowest part of Death Valley 200 feet below sea level. Where the race started.
It was early December as I left Northern Wisconsin’s sub-zero temps. I flew to Las Vegas and met up with two of my East Coast friends who were also participating in the race. We spent our first night in Vegas (and that's the portion of the trip that I’ll leave out of the story).

The next morning, (late morning, closer to noon) we found our rental car and headed for Death Valley, California. A place I have never been to before (wish I could say the same about Vegas) it’s a little over 2 hours from Sin City and with the headaches we had it seemed more like 8 hours! This is a very interesting part of our great nation indeed. Death Valley is supposedly one of the world's hottest and driest places. Temps can reach 120 – 130 degrees Fahrenheit in mid-summer, but like any desert it has its cool time in the winter months. Death Valley receives about 1/8 inch of rain every year on average, and not much lives there. Small little growths of Brush here and there and of course lizards they say, but I didn’t see any. What attracts visitors to Death Valley is its natural beauty. Huge mountains on both sides as far as you can see in all directions. I would say the Desert is absolutely beautiful when you don’t live in one. It is the total opposite of where we live in the Mid-West.
Bill, Kim and I the day before the race at Death Valley National Park. 240 combined Marathons
It was the 26th year of the Death Valley Trail Marathon and the course has been changed several times in that time. This year was said to be one of the most difficult courses because of the continuous vertical climb. The National Park Service has to work in conjunction with the Race Director, closing certain parts of the park to allow a race such as this. This year's course started at the bottom of Death Valley 200 feet below Sea Level and then it was climb, climb, climb! 

The day before the race:

We arrived at the Furnace Creek Ranch Hotel Friday afternoon and got settled in before trying to find a place for dinner. Our choices were limited since there was only one restaurant in the area. As I laid out my things for the race, it started to hit me that this was going to be the most difficult Marathon I had ever attempted: aid stations only every 5 miles, the dry desert air, the constant climb, and the altitude we would reach! There was also a 6 hour cut-off time to worry about, no cell service, and did I mention the constant climb? That’s right, 5000 feet of vertical rise in 26 miles. Yes, in the morning I would run up a Mountain in the hottest, driest place in the world. Oh well, there was no turning back, after all, this is what we do.

We walked down to the Corkscrew Saloon for dinner and the thought of a beer still didn't sit well after the previous night's little visit to Vegas. Sitting with my friends Bill and Kim (both from Massachusetts), we had lots to talk about. We'd run lots of Marathons together around the country as well as competed in the Ironman Triathlon together.  I'd even run the Boston Marathon side-by-side with Bill 3 times. The Death Valley Trail marathon would be Marathon #114 for Bill and #72 for Kim. So that was 240 combined Marathons between the 3 of us. Every Marathon trip has its story! But even with the fun conversation and all the laughs, we knew tomorrow was going to be the toughest. A few juicy burgers with fries showed up at our table and were quickly consumed, then it was off to bed.

An early morning wake up and we gathered our supplies.  I loaded my Nathan Hydration Backpack with as much fluid as it would carry, food, chewing gum and of course my iPhone for the incredible pictures that it takes! We headed back to the Corkscrew Saloon to pick up our bib numbers. Yep, I’m no stranger to walking into a Tavern before noon, but never for a bib pick-up. A briefing was held outside before boarding the nice Greyhound Buses for a 45 min ride to the start line. The Race Director was definitely a humorous character that kept the crowed laughing during his speech, but he also made it very clear how dangerous this event can be and that there would be absolutely no spectators allowed on the course and a strict 6 hour cut-off time! 

“No exceptions, if you fall behind, you will be out of this race,” he stated. He then asked around the crowd of the capped field of only 300 participants, “Who came from the farthest?” 

I was impressed to see the large number of International Athletes representing Spain, South Africa and even a man from Abu Dhabi. Several other countries were mentioned before he asked the entire group to join together in singing “America the Beautiful.” It was really cool, I’d never seen that done at a Marathon before.

The bus ride to the start was incredible with nothing but mountains to look at in all directions. At this point I was ready. We were dropped off at the base of Death Valley, and everyone assembled at the start line. The temps were a bit cool that morning at around 40 degrees and I think I was the only person wearing shorts. probably a dead giveaway I’m a Cheesehead!  The event was held on a gravel “Jeep Road” about 10 feet wide with a base of sand and rock. 

The start gun went off and at that point I stopped worrying and just moved forward. I clicked on my Garmin and we headed towards the huge red mountains. I was looking pretty sharp in my fancy orange Cyclova attire, (thanks Ben and Frank). At that point it was just a slight uphill increase and we took advantage of that knowing it was going to be the easiest part of the event. It was about 3 miles until we actually hit the real thing: the base of Titus Canyon where the Mountain begins. As we entered the massive canyon walls I could see why everyone talks of Death Valley as being such big deal. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The Canyon walls were thousands of feet high! We ran in the base of the Canyon while it constantly climbed. It looked like a huge crack in the rock that just kept going up and we just kept following it. Several turns left and right but always up and up.

The aid stations were well staffed and provided us with everything we needed. I was sure to refuel at every stop since there was only 4 of them. I took in more fluids than usual to try and compensate for the dry air and eventual altitude that I just wasn’t prepared for. I seemed to keep up with the general pack just fine. 

Kim, Bill and I started together but after 5 or so miles we ended up going our separate speeds, at times even passing each other back and forth. At about mile 14 the overwhelming climb was taking its toll on me and forced me to walk a little here and there while staying well aware of the cut-off. I’ve never dropped out of a marathon before and as I kept looking at my watch and miles to go I knew today was going to be questionable. The miles slowly clicked by and when I hit 23 I really couldn't run any more. I walked steady for the next 2 miles absolutely as fast as I could and made a deal with myself that I would run the last mile. 

I reached mile 25 and tried to run. I had no energy and kept looking at the time and wondering if it was possible to finish? I had been at this depleted state of strength before in the Ironman and I don’t really know what keeps you going. I made it to the finish line in 5:49 and barely had the power to raise my arms as I crossed. I had only 11 minutes to spare and prayed Bill and Kim would make it also, which they did just minutes later!  We had done it! We had just run a marathon and climbed 5000 feet!

It was a good day and we all met our match. One more finisher's medal for the dusty collection. A bus ride back to Furnace Creek Ranch with a bunch of exhausted runners, some sound asleep, others telling about their grueling experience of an uphill marathon in the California desert. This is one I will definitely do again some day. But rumor has it they may outlaw future endurance events in Death Valley National Park. We’ll see. Until then we will keep living the dream, meeting friends in interesting parts of the world and running these crazy Marathons together. Next up; Chippewa 50k in Central WI. with Ben, Dallas, Adam, Tony, Myself and the other Ben.

Live is Good, take it all in! Eric T. Olson Luck, WI