Death Valley run hits 120 degrees
DEATH VALLEY, Calif. – If you were to ask me why I chose to visit this scorching and desolate land during the hottest month of the year, my answer would be “I did it on a whim.”
I’d driven southward a few days earlier from Fallon to Las Vegas along Highway 95, the 385-mile route I always take to reach Vegas, but on my return trip decided on a change of scenery.
So when I reached the tiny Nevada crossroads of Amargosa Valley on my way back to Fallon, I turned west from Highway 95 and soon was in California. I eventually reached Death Valley, where I spent several hours before returning to Fallon on Highway 395 via Lone Pine, Big Pine, Bishop, Mina and Hawthorne.
It was a brutally hot and long day that began at 8 a.m. when I left my motel in Las Vegas. All I had with me in the form of drinks were a half dozen sodas and three small bottles of water. Fortunately, I also had an umbrella stowed in the back of my Ford Explorer that proved invaluable when walking about in the heat.
When I reached Death Valley Junction and got out of the air conditioned car, the weather hit me with a vengeance. The temperature already had reached 115 and was still rising. “How could anyone want to come to this torrid place in such weather?” I asked myself.
But Death Valley was fairly crowded with visitors, many if not most of them foreigners. Germans and other Europeans were out and about, taking photos of the landscape and their traveling companions. I also met several Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese from Taiwan, Canadians, Chileans and Japanese.
A young German fellow I spoke with at a store said he was touring Death Valley with his girlfriend, her brother and her parents. He said his name was Axel and he had been planning their trip here for several years.
“Everyone in Germany wants to go to Death Valley in the summer. Europe is always so cold. It’s hotter here than we expected, but nobody’s fainted yet,” Axel told me in excellent English.
A ranger at the visitor’s center clued me in on some important Death Valley statistics. The highest temperature recorded here this year was about three weeks ago when it reached 124. The record for Death Valley was recorded in 1913 when it was 134 degrees. That is 2 degrees less than the world’s highest temperature, which was reached in Libya in 1922.
I also learned that Death Valley National Park encompasses 3,000 square miles and is the largest national park in size in the contiguous United States. Badwater, which is 282 feet below sea level and is located southwest of Death Valley Junction, is the lowest point in the world. The park has approximately 1,000 plant species, 450 different species of animals and receives only 1.9 inches of rain annually.
When I reached Badwater, a group of Dutch tourists asked me to take their photo with a digital camera belonging to one in their party. This required me to take down the black rain umbrella that was shading me. The fierce heat almost brought me to my knees. “Keep taking pictures of us,” the Dutch travelers implored as I forced myself to hold the camera steady and not pass out.
Back at the Visitors Center, I was told that had I been here earlier, I would have witnessed the annual Badwater Ultramarathon, the 135-mile nonstop footrace that begins at Badwater and finishes at the Mt. Whitney Portal, which has an elevation of 8,360 feet.
From Badwater, the route steadily climbs until reaching an elevation of 5,000 feet. The height then recedes until it reaches the town of Lone Pine, but once again climbs until ending at Whitney Portal in the Inyo National Forest.
This year, 84 men and women contestants from 21 states and 15 nations participated in the grueling run. The temperature reached nearly 120 and the pavement hit 200 degrees.
One of the contestants was a Nevadan, 49-year old Henderson fire captain Tim Kjenstad. He came in 65th place. His running time was 47 hours, 54 minutes and 56 seconds.
The men’s winner was Valmir Nunes, 43, of Brazil, who set a record in the 17-year old race with a time of 22 hours, 52 minutes, 29 seconds. The previous record was held by Scott Jurek of Washington State, whose time was 24:36:08.
The women’s champ was Lisa Bliss, 39, of Washington State, whose time was 34:33:40. The women’s record is 29:56:47.
Dr. Ben Jones, a Lone Pine physician and himself a former Badwater Ultramarathon contestant, told me that of this year’s 84 runners, 69 were men and 15 were women. Their ages varied from 24 to 70.
“The 70 year-old did very well, considering his age,” Dr. Jones said. “How old are you?” he asked me. When I replied 71, he laughed, adding, “Perhaps you can run with us next year.” My answer was “maybe yes, maybe no.”
The 70-year old, Robin Smit of Fresno, finished 77th with a time of 55:52:24, beating out contenders whose ages ranged from 47 to 63.
After the race, Smit was quoted as saying, “It was so hard and mean and hot that I wanted to die. The first day I lost 12 pounds and couldn’t move my muscles without going into spasms.”
Another contestant, a German man aged 69, came in 55th place with a time of 45:01:46. Those old-timers did pretty well, I said to myself.
Perhaps I’ll join the race next year after all.
• Editor’s Note: David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News. This column appeared in the Lahontan Valley News on Friday. Guy farmer, whose prose usually occupies this slot is on vacation.