Death Valley Trail Marathon: A Brief First-Person Review

At the finish of the Muir Woods Trail Marathon, I was chatting with Dave Horning — the founder of Enviro-Sports — about which race to check out next. His suggestion: the Death Valley Trail Marathon. So, last December, my wife and I ventured to California to check it out.

The short version: I’m not one for running the same race twice, but I’d have no problem repeating this one. It was well-organized, the crowd was friendly, the scenery was fantastic, and — apart from the race — there’s so much more to do in Death Valley than we’d ever imagined.

Taking 190 through Olancha, CA adds some extra miles, but also adds bonus views of the Sierra Nevada.

Death Valley National Park qualifies as being “in the middle of nowhere.” We drove to the Park from Las Vegas, which took three not-so-exceptional hours. After our stay in the Park, we headed to Los Angeles. It takes twice as long, but it’s also twice as scenic.

In Death Valley, we stayed at The Ranch at Furnace Creek (not to be confused with the more upscale Inn). The Ranch serves as headquarters for the race organizers. It was a great jumping off point for most of our Death Valley adventures and cut down race-morning hassle.

The morning of the race, runners gathered at the Corkscrew Saloon to grab bibs and hop on charter buses to the starting line. The ride that followed turned out to be one of my favorite things about this race — a chance to meet other runners, view some views of Death Valley, and decompress. An hour later, we de-bused in the high desert. We were just outside the eastern edge of the Park, in Nevada, at the start of a jeep road that travels southwest through Titus Canyon and ends on the valley floor. For runners in the “race in every state” game, this checks two off the list (though that approach seems a little suspect).

Despite Death Valley being synonymous with brutal heat, in December, temperatures are far from it. At 3,500 feet, the morning air was nice and brisk, and I was happy to have set out in sleeves. The runners constructed an impromptu rock starting line. “Good Old Dave” (aka G.O.D.) asked first-time marathoners to raise their hands, followed by runners who had ventured in from far-away places like New Zealand. Registration is limited to 250 runners because it’s a national park. The half-marathoners start elsewhere, leaving a relatively small group at the marathon start and lending a friendly vibe (a welcome departure from the loud and crowded build-up to most road races).

When the speech wrapped up, Dave got in his truck, we lined up behind him, and when his brake lights turned off, we followed him down Titus Canyon (jeep) Road. Over the next 26.2 miles, the texture swung back and forth: hard pack, sand, gravel. Knowing that there was zero chance of mid-race “wait, where’s that turn” mishap was a nice change of pace — it’d be quite an achievement to stray off the canyon-walled course.

The race follows Titus Canyon Road. The white dashed line is the California/Nevada border (via the giant topographic map in the Visitor Center).

The first few miles were a slow build to the “bigger climb” — 1,500 feet of gain to Red Pass Summit, which is around mile 12. The grind was steep enough in spots to wake up my legs, and the reward was some very, very exceptional scenery along the way (at least once prompting an audible “wow”).

It was literally all downhill from there, descending to the valley floor 5,050 feet below. Fourteen miles of steady drop isn’t something I find myself running … ever. I quickly realized I had no idea how to factor for that much “gravity help” and aimed for my typical flat-land pace.

At the half-way point I passed through Leadfield, a real-life ghost town and impossible-to-miss landmark. The cool morning air quickly gave way to near-perfect running temperatures. The terrain underfoot and rock walls left and right shifted from mile to mile, making the course surprisingly interesting. Once the race strung out, I ran two or three miles at a time without seeing anyone else. With headphones not allowed (Park rules), all I could do was enjoy the quiet.

Ultimately the road popped out of the canyon and dumped me on the valley floor. The finish line was still a couple miles away, but, with the crisp desert air, easy to see. For me, those last miles are always the longest, but as I closed in on the final mile, hikers and half-marathoners happily handed out encouragement and high-fives which helped.

I crossed the finish line to congratulations from the other runners that had come in, met up with my wife, and headed off to other Park adventures. That evening, most of the racers got together at Corkscrew Saloon, where Dave announced the top finishers in each group and handed out the standard Enviro-Sports trophy: a rubber chicken.

The variety of folks that had ventured to Death Valley speaks to the spirit of this race. Runners were young and old. Some had never run a marathon before, and others had run over a hundred. Some were pushing the pace, and others were just enjoying the scenery. It genuinely felt like everyone was there for one reason: they love running in interesting places.

This is the first in a (hopefully long) series of first-person race reviews. On deck: Muir Woods Trail Marathon and Humboldt Redwoods Marathon. In the future, I’ll try to take better photos.