Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 26 Jun 1999 08:45:03 -0400

Death Valley Days

(from RC 283)

Six months or more of each year, Death Valley National Park is misnamed. From late fall through early spring it's pleasant to visit and teems with tourists, many of them Snowbirds who park here for much of their winter.

We came to Death Valley in midwinter to enjoy the sunny 70-degree days, star-filled nights and starkly spectacular mountain-rimmed desert scene. Now Barbara and I stood at Badwater, looking up at a cliffside sign that read "Sea Level."

The salt pan sits nearly 300 feet below the sign, at the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere. Less than 100 air miles to the northwest looms Mount Whitney, the highest point in the 48 connected states at more than 14,000 above sea level.

Standing now at Badwater was like coming to a stadium where something amazing once happened. Only it was hard to imagine this as the place sat empty, with the air cooled down emotionally as well as physically from what it had been 10 summers ago.

Few people had then traveled on foot the 150-mile roads and trails from the pit of the Valley to the peak of Whitney. None had gone to the top and back.

Tom Crawford and Rich Benyo set out in midsummer 1989 to complete the out-and-back. They not only faced 300 miles of enormous elevation change, but also temperatures that ranged from the 120s in the Valley (and a foot-frying 200 at road level) to near-freezing on the mountain. Benyo wrote about their ordeal and adventure over this "tantalizing perversion of nature" in his remarkable book, The Death Valley 300 (Specific Publications, Box 161, Forestville, CA 95436).

We stood now where Benyo and Crawford had started, and hoped to finish -- a painted pedestrian crosswalk at Badwater. Rich would write of feeling small and humble at the start:

"I would NEVER see this challenge in terms of conquering or overcoming or beating the Death Valley-to-Mount Whitney course. That, to my way of thinking, would be pseudo-macho, foolish and a waste of psychological energy.

"My rule to myself was this: I will go to Death Valley and I will, in all humility, become one with the course while I am on it. I will not fight the course, because to fight it will be to lose, because the course is larger, older, wiser and much more powerful than I am. It will be there long after I am gone to dust."

The temperature on Barbara's and my recent winter day here would not top 70. We couldn't imagine how they felt on arriving back here, Crawford about 5-1/4 days later and Benyo taking just over a week.

Rich would write in his book, "Across the line, I stop. Stop. It feels as though every ounce of energy anywhere within my body has just drained away. There is no feeling of elation, only a numbness and a weariness that fills every inch."

Crawford told his fellow pioneer, "We're getting the hell out of here, and we ain't ever coming back." But Rich did come back, twice to try the course himself (he fell just 26 miles short of completing it in 1991 and finished again a year later) and later to crew for the person who'd supported his runs the most. In 1995, Rhonda Provost became the first -- and still only -- woman to experience these lows and highs.

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