by Howard H.
Up at 5:30, just enough time to grab a shower, steam up a single grande, non-fat, no foam latte, make sure the camera is in the bag and head to the airport – not much different from the thousands of other times I’ve dropped my car at the MasterPark Garage and headed for SeaTac to catch another early morning Alaska Airlines flight. The difference this time? Almost all pleasure and very little business, heading to Death Valley for the Borax Half Marthon, which starts and ends at Furance Creek Ranch. This year the plans call for a much quicker turn around than the last time down for this run, with an itinerary starting on a 7:30 flight to Las Vegas; grab a rental car and head north and west to the Valley; check in at the Furnace Creek Ranch; a quick meal; some sleep; up early to collect my number – 577; meet the other 350 or so runners milling around at the starting line; run 13.1 miles; back in the car and head to Las Vegas; manage to get my butt on an earlier flight (the benefits of MVP Gold status); and back in Seattle about 36 hours after leaving. Sounds great doesn’t it.
The flight down to Vegas was as uneventful as you could want, unfortunately first class checked in full and I was number 5 on the upgrade list. So, in to the back of the plane I went, seated next to a husband and wife team headed to Vegas for the Super Bowl. She immediately grabbed the window seat, sticking him in the center seat and she fell asleep before we left the gate. As we left the ground he attempted to engage me in some idle chatter, but I had my ear buds in and a book in my face, so no conversation for him for the next few hours.
We arrived in Vegas on time, made our way off the plane to the sounds of slot machines and the sight of the Las Vegas Diamonds booth on the D Concourse. It makes you wonder if the slot players are getting their last fix of Vegas gambling or trying to jump start the fun and who in their right mind would buy diamonds in an airport, especially McCarran?
As we touch down and I check voice mail and emails I see a few calls I need to make and decide to hit those as I pick up the car. I catch the train to the main terminal and quick in to a bus to the Rental Car Center. Once there I glanced at the reader board, note the stall holding my car and head in to the garage. I thought it would be a good idea to rent a Prius, great gas mileage and Hertz had a bit of a deal for the weekend. As I get to the car, I make one of the calls to a colleague in Boulder. We talk away as I walk around the car looking for any damage, then slide into the driver’s seat. The key sits on the console between the seats and as I yak on the phone I look around for a place to plug in the key. I’m searching and talking, talking and searching, but can’t find the hole for the key, it doesn’t make any sense. I turn on all the lights in the car and scour the entire dash area, as well as the consoles, but I’m telling you there is no place to insert the key. Finally I’m laughing and telling my associate that I can’t figure out how to start the car (and I own a Prius). Eventually I have to face the fact that the car has outsmarted me and I head over to the Customer Service Center and ask a young lady to come help start the car. I can just see the thoughts flashing through her mind – another old fool that can’t get a car started, too bad they don’t have the cranks on the front of them anymore. As we approach the car she tells me that the new Prius doesn’t have an ignition switch, rather the key fob just needs to be in the car. Then just to make certain I understand, she carefully explained it could be in my pocket or my briefcase or on the passenger seat or in the console, just anywhere in the car. All I can think of at this point is that this trip is off to a great start.
Time to get out of the garage and head to the valley. After a couple of rights I find my self just one more right turn away from a cruise down the strip, mid-morning on a Friday, in my hot little rental Prius, who could resist temptation like that. After cruising up past Treasure Island I’ve had enough and turn west to get on the freeway and head towards Beatty, NV, which lies just outside the boundary of Death Valley. During this little cruise on Las Vegas Blvd. I managed to sneak in another call and now have nothing scheduled until noon, when I have a conference call with a User’s Group in Mississippi, wanting someone from my group to come down in May for a presentation.
Heading up highway 95, I’m watching the clock and the mileage signs and think that I can make it to Indian Springs, just outside Creech Air Force Base in time for my noon call. The construction crews have orange cones all over the road in several spots, but things still look good for making the call, but it will be close. I pull in to the little oasis of Indian Springs, with it’s gas station that smells of too much fried chicken, an old motel and a casino straight out of the 50’s, about 10 minutes to the hour. I decided to take a stroll in to the casino, but fled quickly when cigarette smoke thicker than a San Francisco fog greeted me at the slot machines. After exiting the casino I wandered around over by the motel, just glad that I’m not staying there that night. Some of you may remember my story about staying in a motel in Baker CA in 2009 on my way to this same race. For those of you that do remember, this motel would give that one a good race to the bottom. For those of you haven’t heard that story, all I can say is that if you are heading from LA towards Vegas and you get past Zzyzx road, keep going and don’t stop in Baker, even if you are attracted to the World’s Largest Thermometer (a little hint, the thermometer hasn’t worked in years). But I digress.
Finished my call, checked my email one last time and headed back out on the road. Another hour or so and I should be in Beatty. Just cruisin’ in my rented Prius, sipping cold water from the Chevron at Indian Springs and chilling to the musical mix of Tony Stiedler-Dennison’s Roadhouse Blues podcast. As I roll in to Beatty the time pushs 2:30 PM and I’m thinking I could use a bite to eat. Beatty isn’t a big town, in fact it only has no stop lights and only one four way stop, but as you know in Nevada that means a burg large enough to house a casino. I decide to do a little drive around, maybe I’ll find a small diner or sandwich shop. First time through I turn left at the four-way stop, that’s the way to Death Valley but not any food. I circle back around and as I approach the four way stop from the west I see the sign. Now many of you know that I’m not a real big meat eater, but if I see a sign for BBQ, especially if it says Slow Smoked, I’m all over it. I roll the little Hybrid in to a prime parking spot and walk through the door. Being a Seattle boy these days, the shock of the cigarette smoke that greeted me was nearly over powering, but nothing was going to stand in my way of good BBQ and they did have a spot in the back with a few tables for food service. I parked myself on a stool at the counter at about the same time as two Aussie’s approached the counter to place there orders. For some reason the gal behind the counter thought we were all together and I thought I was going to get a free meal, but the ladies from Australia quickly pointed out that I wasn’t with them.
I ordered a half rack, thinking I would wolf down some of it now and save the rest for dinner. It came with potato salad, cole slaw and beans, standard fare in nearly any BBQ joint. However, in most BBQ joints the potato salad, cole slaw and beans tend to have different color characteristics. That should have been enough to send me running, but I still had visions of BBQ dancing on my tongue. Oh, the bitter disappointment. Without a doubt this boiled bunch of pork bones with some weak BBQ sauce dripped over the top masquerading as slow smoke ribs were the worst excuse for BBQ I’ve ever had. I managed to eat two of them, told the waiteress and the owner how truly awful the ribs were, paid (yes they still charged me full price) and headed toward Death Valley.
As I write this I’m thinking this doesn’t sound like too much fun, but much to the contrary, it’s not often you have truly world class bad food and I’m heading to one of my favorite races of the year.
After making my way back to the Prius, I head west, just another 45 miles or so to Furnace Creek. It’s a pretty straight shot from Beatty in to Death Valley, a long straight road that disappears in to the mountains surrounding the valley. As I approached the entrance to the Death Valley National Monument, as it is officially known, a group of baby-boomer Harley riders crowd around the entrance sign for a photo opp. Now I’m also feeling pretty good, starting the long down hill descent to the valley floor. On my way, I stop to take the first of a series of photos to knit in to a panorama showing the immensity of the valley.
It also dawns on me that many people have told me over the last few weeks that they just aren’t desert people. What a shame. Don’t get me wrong, I am a Seattle boy through and through, the mountains, the water, the climate – it’s tough for me to think of living anywhere else. But the desert does hold an allure and attractiveness I find easy to appreciate. I think the rawness of the desert’s beauty, the exposure of the geology, fascination with how plants and animals can carve a living in such a hostile environment pulls me close. I think that those people that don’t appreciate the desert just don’t understand it and that they look at isolated elements and fail to see the whole of the environment that surrounds them.
As I reach the valley floor, I turn left to Furnace Creek, tracing the course the race will take in the morning. A right turn would lead to Stovepipe Wells and the Mesquite Sand Dunes, which I plan on visiting before the sun goes down.
After checking in at the Furnace Creek Ranch stowing my single carry on bag I decide to head over to the sand dunes. Driving towards the dunes I start noticing the interesting clouds high over the valley. Of course coming from Seattle I have a passing familiarity with clouds and I’m starting to think that we have the makings of a spectacular sunset. All along the drive I keep looking to the west, trying to find that spot from which to shoot some sunset pictures. By the time I get to the dunes, I realize that my focus is on the potential sunset, so I flip a U-turn at the turn off and head back towards the one spot I had identified as the place to shoot some pictures of the impending sunset – a setting where the sun will sink through a fold in the mountains.
As the sun crept behind the mountains it painted an incredible picture across the sky, starting with yellows and golds moving through the blues and purples finishing in a deep firey red. Light reflects off the mountains to the east while on the west side of the valley nature went wild with color and texture. It becomes one of those breathtaking moments when the power and sutlety of the natural forces truly humbles and inspires. For me that inspiration comes from the fabric and cycles of the world. The humility reveals itself when I start to think that I have some control over color in my art and nature can conjure up such a rich dislay. In the end both emotions drive me to create.
Back at Furance Creek it’s time for dinner and almost everyone in the restuarants or saloon have some association with the race tomorrow. I sit at the counter and pretty quickly become engaged in a conversation with the two ladies next to me. One is running her first full marathon and the other has run several. They hail from San Bernadino and we talk about some of the various races we’ve run around the country. It’s an early night for bed and a good nights sleep leading up to the start of the race tomorrow.
Race check in is 6:45 – 7:45 and with the huge crowd (about 350 total runners) check in happens in about 2 minutes. All I can think of right now is that I spent about 20 minutes in line for a bus to take me from the stadiums to the starting line at last year’s Seattle Rock and Roll Marathon. What a different feel these small races have. After picking up my number, I head the 300 yards or so over to the starting line.
Dave the race organizer climbs up on the railing by a map of the valley and gives us his standard pep talk, with the introduction of the rubber chicken trophy and the rubber chicken purse for the winners. He talks about the timing chips (or lack thereof), the starting and finishing structures (or lack thereof) and the general low key elements of this race. He points out that for marathoners this is a Boston qualifier and that the California Highway Patrol insists that no one wear head phones, as the race is run on the main highway through the valley and that road stays open throughout the race. As the time push 8 AM and a little later, he gets all the marathoners to the line and simply shouts GO! – that’s the way to start a race. About 10 minutes later those of us in the half marathon line up. We can still see the marathoners in the distance since the race starts with a slight down hill for the first mile then a good up hill for the second, all of which you can see from the starting line.
I tend to run with headphones, but with the prohibition for this race, I simply crank up another edition of the Roadhouse Blues podcast and let Tony Steidler-Dennison rock us out and back for 13.1 miles. Many of you know I am not necessarily the fastest runner and I had a steady stream of other runners pulling up along side to listen to the music and have a little runners conversation. Again it struck me how low key, yet competitive this race is, people running for time yet still able to enjoy the race in such a beautiful setting for what it is - competition with the elements and yourself.
My time wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be and I could give you lots of reasons why, simply stated I just didn’t have it in the end that day, but there is always the next race to show improvement. In the end I came away more convinced that ever that small races have it all over the bigger commercial events – a 350 – 400 person run with a relaxed start feels much better than the cattle corrals in the Rock n Rolls and some of the other huge races.
In the end I head back to my room, grab a shower, stuff my things in to my bag, feel proud about being able to start that Prius without any help and head back to Vegas, all the while looking forward to Death Valley next February.