Death Valley, Day 0: On my way!

After reading all the stories about the Badwater ultra-marathon, supposedly the toughest footrace on earth, I knew that I wanted to go and see what all this Death Valley fuss is about. I also knew that I wanted to do it in winter or early spring as I wasn't quite ready to deal with the scorching summer heat; btw. one of the things that makes the Badwater race so tough is that it is in July when the temperatures reach 50 °C (120 °F). As I had no plans for this weekend it seemed like a good idea to do it now.

Since I mentioned the temperatures it's worth noting that Death Valley holds the "most" distinction in many categories. To begin with it's officially the hottest place on earth -- in July 1913 a temperature of 57 °C (134 °F) was recorded there. The temperatures in the range of the aforementioned 50 °C (120 °F) are quite common in the summer. Secondly, it's the driest place in North America with the average rainfall of just 5cm (2 inches), a fraction of what most deserts get. Finally, it contains the lowest point in North America -- Badwater, the start of the race, is located at 86 meters (282 feet) below sea level. Interestingly, just 136 kilometers (85 miles) from there is Mount Whitney, which, at its 4,421 meters (14,505 feet), is the highest point in the contiguous United States (yup, you guessed, Badwater ultra-marathon goes from Badwater to Mount Whitney). Quite a place, huh?

So during the week I started my research. I wanted to figure out two things prior to going: where to sleep and where to run. Both turned out anything but straightforward. Sleeping is very scarce in that area. There are very few places in the park itself and they tend to be expensive. I wasn't up for camping -- I am spoiled in that sense and like a shower and a nice bad after day's worth of running :). That left two options. The first was to sleep in Ridgecrest, west of the park, which would mean shorter drive there, but it was almost 3 hour away from Furnace Creek, the central place of the park. Another option was Beatty, just over the Nevada border -- 1 hour long drive from there seemed much more manageable but Google estimated my drive from home to take 8.5 hours (and that's not including breaks); as I was thinking of leaving Friday after work, that didn't seem optimal.

Similarly planning the runs wasn't going too great either. My initial idea was to run on parts of the Badwater ultra, but I quickly realized that this is not such a great idea. As far as I could see the race was taking part on roads and if I knew one thing it was that I didn't want to drive over 8 hours to do some road running -- even if it was to be in the hottest, driest and lowest place on earth ;). Now, information about trails in Death Valley seemed limited. Or, to be more precise, it seemed there are no trails, except for a few short hikes. The park website was recommending trailless hiking, but I wasn't sure whether was up for that.

Death Valley as seen... on Wikipedia :)

I was still undecided so on Thursday evening I dumped all my sport clothes into my car, "just in case". On Friday during the day I did a bit more research but very little progress. So I decided not to go. Experience taught me that it's better to do some planning to get the most of such trips and if I was going that far I indeed wanted to get the best out of it.

Funnily enough, very shortly after I made this decision I looked into my calendar and realized that Monday was a day off! (President's Day). A long weekend does not happen very often here, so I knew that it's now or never. I quickly booked a hotel -- Beatty it was, long drive or no long drive -- and jumped into my car.

By the time I set off it was 4:30pm and it was supposed to be an 8.5h drive so my ETA was around 1am (although naively I was hoping I could make it faster). In any case I called the hotel making sure that I'll be able to get in.

The beginning of the drive was horrid. It was the time when people were getting out of work for the long weekend and to make it worse there was an accident on 101, so I was moving at a snail's pace. Gladly, after Gilroy and getting off of 101 things got somewhat better. I passed next to the Pacheco State Park where I stopped and did some running last year, on my way to Yosemite.

Soon afterwards I hit the Interstate 5. It was my first time on an Interstate. It had two lanes but one of them was permanently taken by all the trucks. Still, with the 70mph limit, that moreover no one seemed to take too seriously, I was moving at a decent speed.

The longer I was driving the more desolate the roads were becoming. The last 2 hours or so I spent crossing the park and I'm not sure whether I saw a single car in all that time. It was completely dark by that time, so I'd have to postpone appreciating the views until the next morning.

Finally, at 2am, I reached the hotel. I checked in and went to bed; tomorrow will be a busy day and I needed to get all the rest I could.

Next day in the next post. I cannot promise less boring narrative but I do promise many more cool photos :). Stay tuned! Read about it here.

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