SI Vault
Jay Feldman
October 14, 1985
As its name indicates, Death Valley is not a congenial place. In the summer, temperatures frequently exceed 110° in the shade; ground temperatures of 190° are not uncommon.
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October 14, 1985

Two Intrepid Runners Found Their Places In The Sun In Death Valley

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•None of the vehicles connected with the runners or their support crews could have air conditioning.

•The runners would stay within 25 feet of the road at all times—no shortcutting across the desert.

•The course would be the one Bill Emmerton followed on his first run: beginning in Shoshone, southeast of the valley, proceeding north on Highway 127 for 1.6 miles, west on Highway 178 over 3,315-foot Salsberry Pass and down into Death Valley, north to Badwater and Furnace Creek and up 3,000 feet to Scotty's Castle—134 miles in all.

Maxwell's training consisted of running five miles a day around Oakland's Lake Merritt, playing handball and doing push-ups and sit-ups in a sauna. "A few days before the race, I went to L.A. to try to get used to the heat a little more," he says, "but I had no idea what I'd gotten into. I began to get an inkling when one of my support crew wondered if he could take his dog along with us. I called the park rangers in Death Valley, who said, 'Do not bring the dog—the dog will be dead within an hour.' That was when I started to suspect it wasn't going to be like running around Lake Merritt."

Crutchlow was sponsored by Clarks, the British shoe company whose "desert boots" he would be wearing for part of the run; Maxwell was backed by Levi Strauss. The publicity departments of the two companies went to work, and the Bay Area media jumped on the story. The ensuing publicity alarmed the rangers who keep an eye on the 2,981 square miles of Death Valley National Monument, part of the federal park system. Citing a law that forbids sporting events in national parks and monuments, the rangers put a damper on the event.

Finally, a compromise was negotiated: The runners would start their race 48 hours apart, thereby reducing the media crunch. A coin flip determined that Crutchlow would go first, and on Aug. 4 he set out from Shoshone. Ever the dapper Englishman, he began the race, as he does virtually all his athletic endeavors, in a natty pin-striped suit and bowler, and with an umbrella tucked under his arm. Once out of sight of the media, Crutchlow changed into running clothes.

"It was a tremendous advantage to go second," says Maxwell. "Part of the agreement was that we weren't supposed to know where the other one was—none of my people could go ahead, and none of them did. But the rangers were going back and forth, and I ended up hearing where Crutchlow was." One thing Maxwell heard was that the Englishman had missed the turnoff to Salsberry Pass and lost three hours backtracking.

Buoyed by this news, Maxwell started out much too fast. "I virtually sprinted the first 14 miles, and heading up to the top of Salsberry Pass I was so sick to my stomach, I was hoping a rattlesnake would bite me so I could quit gracefully—and I hadn't even dropped into Death Valley yet!" Maxwell forced himself to go on, adopting a strategy whereby his support vehicle would go ahead half a mile and stop, giving him the security of knowing he was never more than a half mile from water. (He estimates that he drank between four and five gallons a day.)

Crutchlow, meanwhile, was experiencing similar difficulties. "The obvious thought that always comes to mind is, 'Why am I doing this?' I've asked myself that question many times under many circumstances and, frankly, I've never really found a satisfactory answer. But you have to convince yourself that no matter what, you'll never quit. If you quit once, you'll likely do it again. It's just a question of mind over matter. As long as you're putting one foot in front of the other, you're making progress."

When Maxwell reached Badwater at midafternoon of the second day, the soles of his running shoes had melted. Winds of 30 to 40 miles per hour had singed his skin, and he passed out. At the same time, one of the two men in his support crew became violently ill and had to be evacuated to a refrigerated room, where it took him 17 hours to recover.

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