For the Hell of it - Page 3
Photo by Kyle Ormsby
We greet the start—the junction of two dirt roads, one nice and graded, the other rutted, rocky and occasion- ally drowning in thick gravel and sand. The latter is ours. After taking a leak, eating one of his mother’s home- made energy bars—Helen Bars—gulping some water and letting Ana take a quick video to capture the moment, David, his mom at this side, starts to run. To run. That thing we probably do in our dreams before we even know how to walk. And to run into a mystery the way David intends to run, for little other reason than to discover something about himself.
In order to finish alive, David figures he’ll have to rein in his legs and trot at a modest pace of 12 minutes per mile. Shut in by dark- ness, headlamps lighting the path before them, David and his mom cruise forward. I accompany them on a mountain bike, and in this early hour, when the taillights of the van disappear leaving the three of us together under an infinite black sky, I become useful as the mule.
David begins his run at just over 2500 feet, a hair after 5 a.m. For a half mile, until he and Helen’s engines warm, it is chilly. But after 10 minutes of running, David pauses to strip off his running pants and long-sleeve shirt. I stop, dismount and place the clothing in my backpack. By the time I swig some water and hop back on the saddle, David and Helen have disappeared.
The ride for me is not easy. These tires, sticky with fat nubs, kick up gravel and do not roll easily. The short path in front of me illuminated by the headlamp paints an inadequate picture of the bumpy land ahead. I pedal hard, going as fast as I dare, hoping to spot the runners. By the time I catch up, my T-shirt is soaked in sweat and my chest heaves. Helen is ready to shed some clothing. I repeat the process, letting them run off ahead while I load the pack. I chase down the runners again as dawn starts its own furious gray- blue march over the mountains. Sweeping fields of Joshua trees, their fleets of bushy trunks capped by a blossoming of thick limbs that jut skyward, dot the eastern slope. To the west the land sinks to dry lakebeds, then climbs abruptly to 7000-foot peaks.
The morning light also reveals why my legs are on fire only five miles into this show: the land behind us, back toward the start, lies a long way below now. In the darkness, we climbed nearly 2500 feet. When the van appears, David munches a banana, powers down a Helen Bar and drinks as much as he dares.
After the pit stop, Helen runs on with David, who has been joined by Zach. As I bear toward them, behind again, I first see Helen. She decides to take a breather and join Mike in the van.
When I finally catch David and Zach, my legs and lungs are screaming. Fifteen miles in, and David’s just fine, running with the dogs and thinking about math. He and Zach, also a mathematician, are cooking up a problem. David breaks it down for me the best he can. He used to try this in our college days. But despite his best efforts at simplicity, my slow mind slams shut. As I labor on, he and Zach Ahammer out the details.
At mile 18, when we once again meet up with the van, I retire for the morning. David, Zach and Ed run on without me and I take a seat in the van. I hungrily munch a small fortune of Helen Bars, two bananas and chug a thermos of water. My shirt drips with sweat and I’m cold. I can do little but doze and feel weak as I watch from behind the windshield as David motors on, surely and consistently.
David could have cruised out into the middle of Death Valley alone, or with Ana, and pulled off his run just fine. But he wanted a bunch of people with him. I think he wanted to have a
party, the kind where everyone took a moment to share thoughts with the host. I have little doubt that over the next six miles David and Zach solved their math problem. On Helen’s early morning stretch with her son, she briefed David on family and town news. As I biked, I spoke about the first date my wife took me on in 2003—it was to Death Valley.
“Yeah, she searched me out at a rowdy Modest Mouse concert,” I said. “We went out for coffee afterwards, and she mentioned that the following weekend she’d be driving to Death Valley. So I said, who you going with? Alone? Well, I’ll go. And we haven’t really left each other since.”
David didn’t mind the mushy cliche. “I love that story,” he said. People, friends and family together, putting some miles on the legs and drinking in life. That’s the third reason David decided to run through Death Valley.
Morning gave way to afternoon, and as David and Ana trotted past Teakettle junction—a fork in the road where passersby have long strung up tea kettles from a wooden sign—the glaring sun stood high in the vacant blue sky. At this point, one road bends to the left, climbing 1500 feet before peaking and dropping back down to the Joshua-tree-speckled desert floor. The other road juts across the desert, angling downward and outward to a vast, dry lakebed known as the Racetrack.