By Rita Carroll
Last December I was asked to co-lead the Highline trip to Death Valley for their 30th Annual Trail Marathon. I did a fair amount of research leading up to race day. Time spent obsessively Googling images of the elevation gain, and learning about past races that needed to be canceled or rerouted due to unexpected rainstorms. I wondered what I would wear on race day because according to blogs, “when you start, it could be 35 degrees, but when you finish it might be 70 degrees.” Would I wear gloves? Shorts? A tank? A parka? Needless to say I spent plenty of time in my head and on the internet and probably not enough time running up and down hills.
While Google filled me on a lot of stuff, it didn’t prepare me for everything.
Google didn’t tell me that I was actually going to get a great night sleep the evening before the race. That the miles we put on our legs the day prior would keep me loose and that that one beer I had at dinner wouldn’t kill me. Google never told me that the stillness of the desert would ease me to sleep at 9:30PM and that I’d find comfort in the little grains of sand in my bed.
Google never told me that my solo trek over to JT’s cabin the morning of the marathon would be one of the most serene experiences of my life. That the moon and the stars would still be so visible, and that my headlamp would light each one of my steps; steps that were more audible than they’d ever been before.
Bloggers never told me that I’d be in a car with 4 of my friends, old and new, as we drove for an hour to bib pickup and watched together as the sun began to greet us over the mountains.
Google didn’t tell me that I’d be assigned bib number 32 and that the woman who handed it to me would tell me it was her lucky number and suggest I bet on it back in Vegas. Vegas 2019, who’s with me?
I never knew that the pre-pre race ceremony, the one before we boarded the shuttles, would be so dense with runner anticipation. It was like we were going to summer camp or something. We all climbed on to the bus, and I sat across the aisle from my friend. We spent the long drive recounting past races, eavesdropping on other conversations, and sorting through our nerves and excitement.
Google never told me that once we reached the start line, it was quicker to use one of the bus toilets rather than waiting in line at a port-o-potty.
Google didn’t tell me that December 1, 2018 was going to be an absolutely beautiful day. That the air would be so crisp and kind of chilly and that the clothes I decided to wear were perfect; and like most races, you could really run in anything. I had no idea there’d be a runner dressed like Walter White or that a group of friends would be ripping shots of Fireball.
I learned pretty quickly that much of what was going to get me through this race depended on what I already knew in terms of running basics; listen to your body, breathe, and have fun.
The start was unbelievable. The lead vehicle flashed their break lights to signal us, and we took off for miles along an open dirt road of steady elevation. There was this unanimous resignation to nature as we all looked ahead toward our climb off in the distance. It was beautiful, it was quiet, and it was still so full of mystery.
Mile 8 to mile 10 was pretty difficult. Not quite steep enough to walk, but that level of steep where you couldn’t not feel it. I doubted my fitness, and laughed at the fact that I thought running the Ben Franklin Bridge a couple of times was adequate hill training for 2500 feet of elevation gain.
You know that thing where you feel so so small, and your surroundings just keep getting bigger and bigger? And you start to put it all in perspective? And you scale out and see yourself as this tiny thing, and you scale even further out and you can’t even find yourself?
There was this surprisingly sweet little burst of downhill right around mile 11. It was brief, but it felt great. And then at mile 12, I started the hike; we all started the hike. Looking ahead and looking behind, a row of runners on a consistently steep incline to the long awaited mile 13; the entrance to Titus Canyon. We’d get there eventually.
Google didn't tell me how I was going to feel once I finally reached the top. It took my breath away. I had driven this course once before, a year ago, but seeing this on my own two feet, after running a half marathon to get there felt incredible; it felt like I really earned the view and I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
After mile 13 the course is completely downhill. A friend had told us on our drive to bib pickup that, “it’s a 13 mile race and a 13 mile cool down.” The descent started to feel that way as the walls around me grew taller and I just kept going faster and faster.
There was this wonderful sense of protection I felt as I ran deeper into this course. So vulnerable to this canyon that has existed here for millions of years. A canyon that was once a massive body of water and there I was, running through it; running at the bottom of a sea that once was.
At around mile 15 I tripped and I almost ate it.
At mile 17 I started talking to myself.
And by mile 18 I became, “backwards hat Rita.”
Then, at mile 19 my favorite moment of the race happened; I came across my friend.
Emily and I were on this trip together. The past few days were the only few days we’d known each other. When we reached the water stop at mile 20, I turned to Emily and asked her if she wanted to bring it in together, she said yes and we took off from there.
Google never told me that that was going to happen or that I was going to feel my strongest on the last 6.2 miles of the race. We were cruising alongside canyon walls; walls where you could see patterns from waves and erosion. A life so distant from us. Google didn’t tell me that my energy and excitement weren't relying solely on the long awaited finish of the course rather the surprises nature kept presenting me. We knew that once we’d exit the canyon there were about two miles left. We kept catching sun rays and thinking, “oh this might be it!” only to be met with more weaving, deepening our anticipation for entrance back into the vast desert.
Once we cleared the canyon, we took off. Way off in the distance were the bus shuttles, that’s all I could make out. While I had a kick, it was nothing compared to Emily’s. I watched my friend on her strong sprint to the finish, and I followed shortly behind her.
I never thought running 26.2 miles through a canyon in the desert was something that needed to be on my list of things to do in this life, until I ran 26.2 miles through a canyon in the desert. Through a small haze of kicked up dirt, I saw it, that perfectly understated finish sign; no bells or whistles, welcoming me back after the coolest run of my life.
Our little Philly crew finished strong that day. We finished strong, and we finished happy.
Google never told me about the busride back to our cars. Beyond exhaustion and bliss I didn’t have much else going on in my head. I felt my body, so full of joy and I looked around at my fellow runners, as we collectively sat, covered in sweat, and dust, and triumph. This bus full of runners, of trail marathoners, swaying together in unison with each winding desert turn. All walks of life; all runs of life. I’m positive that Death Valley left a lasting impression on everyone that day.