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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.
In July 1966, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Marquant became the first person to complete a crossing of Death Valley on foot. Marquant's 102-mile trek was actually a circular route that included part of the valley floor and the Panamint Mountains to the west. By the end of his nine-day ordeal, Marquant was semidelirious.
Two years later, Australian long-distance runner Bill Emmerton became the first person to run the length of Death Valley, completing a 134-mile course in just over three days. Exhibiting a bit more sense than Marquant, Emmerton chose the relatively "cool" month of April for his feat. Still, his trip was not easy; near the end, he had to cut the front out of one shoe to allow the blood to flow freely from his torn and blistered foot. Convinced his first jaunt hadn't been tough enough, the Aussie ran the valley again four months later, extending his distance to 211 miles.
Given the course's obvious drawbacks, it's surprising that in 1970, barely two years after Emmerton's second run, someone came up with the idea of a competitive race across Death Valley. On the other hand, given the event's initiator, maybe it's not so surprising. Ken Crutchlow, 41, is a British adventurer whose feats have included a hitchhiking race around the world (during which he stowed away first-class on the German liner Bremen from New York to London), a bicycle marathon from Los Angeles to Mexico City, and a bicycle relay race in which he and a partner beat a freighter traveling from San Francisco to Ketchikan, Alaska.
Crutchlow was hanging out one day with John Fairfax, a fellow Englishman who in 1969 had become the first person to row across the Atlantic alone. "During the course of the trip," says Crutchlow, "John had killed a shark using only a knife, and after that he had this silly joke: He'd say, 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for I am the biggest s.o.b. in the valley.' Well, one time I said, 'What's the point of walking through Death Valley? You might as well run.' And he said, 'I'd like to see you run across Death Valley.' So I said, 'No problem. I bet you a pint of beer I can do it.' At the time I didn't even know where Death Valley was."
Fairfax was willing to bet a beer but was not interested in running in the race himself, so Crutchlow set about finding someone else to compete against. He headed for San Francisco, where he issued an open challenge through the Bay Area newspapers. Enter Bruce Maxwell, a former University of Wisconsin varsity tennis player, whose distance-running career consisted of completing the 1969 Boston Marathon to collect on a $5 bet.
Maxwell took up the gage, and he and Crutchlow hashed out the rules for a race across Death Valley. Says Maxwell, 37, "In retrospect, it was complete idiocy. We were trying to make the race tough without having any idea of what the conditions were like."
The first, and most important, rule to Crutchlow and Maxwell was that the race be held in August—the hottest month—and that all running be done between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.—the hottest hours. Explains Crutchlow, "You want the satisfaction of being able to say that you crossed the hottest place on earth, and you don't want someone to be able to diminish your achievement by saying, 'Oh, yeah, but you ran it at night.' " (Marquant and Emmerton had done most of their running during the evening hours.)
The other rules were:
•The runners would stop at 8 p.m. and camp for the night.