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.
October 13, 1985
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.
•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.
Although nearly four hours of running time remained, it appeared that the American was through for the day. As he lay on the ground, a car drove up. "Now, you have to understand that nobody drives through Death Valley in the summer," Maxwell says. "And out of nowhere, here is a German guy who is looking for Las Vegas! And it just so happens that he's a masseur! Well, he worked on my legs for about an hour. Then he drove away—disappeared. Except for the rangers, he was the only other person we saw the whole time. Anyway, after the massage, I was ready to go again."
By the next night, Maxwell had the race well in hand. "It was obvious by then that I was going to win. Crutchlow had finished, and he drove back that night and found our camp. And we both knew that if I finished, I'd win."
Maxwell completed the course in 51 hours, 30 minutes—six hours faster than Crutchlow. "I had no sense of joy about winning," says Maxwell. "Mostly I felt relief and a tremendous respect for Crutchlow."
After the race, the two men went their separate ways, but in 1976, upon returning to the Bay Area, Maxwell discovered that Crutchlow had been on the radio, asking for a rematch. Naturally, Maxwell agreed.
In the intervening time, each man had had his share of adventures, including another Death Valley escapade. In 1973 Crutchlow and a partner became the first to run, relay style, the 144 miles from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (282 feet below sea level, near Death Valley's Badwater) to the highest in the 48 contiguous states (the 14,495-foot summit of California's Mount Whitney). In 74 Maxwell and a partner completed the same run.
In '76 Maxwell was a tennis pro, a ski bum and also a serious runner; Crutchlow was president of a marketing company. Crutchlow arranged for the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas to sponsor the Death Valley rematch.
"As part of the publicity buildup for the second race," says Maxwell, "they sent us to a physical fitness institute in L.A., where we were thoroughly tested and examined by doctors. They concluded that I would win since I was in better shape."
Maxwell's chief concern was for his legs. During a seven-month period in 1975, he had broken his left ankle and right leg in separate skiing accidents and rebroken the ankle playing football. After going stir-crazy in a cast following the first break, he refused to let the second and third fractures be set in casts. This race, he reasoned, would be a good test of his theories of self-healing.
This time the adversaries were allowed to race head-to-head through Death Valley; otherwise, the rules were the same. On Aug. 23, 1976 they set out, accompanied by a host of TV cameras. Maxwell opened up a small lead, which at first didn't concern Crutchlow. But as the day wore on, the Englishman realized he had made a serious tactical error. "I don't believe in making excuses," he says now, "nor would I offer this as one. I give it to Bruce—he beat me fair and square. I think one of my big mistakes was following the advice of a friend, who is a very good competitive runner, to eat a lot of fruit, particularly bananas. I remembered that one of the problems I'd had in Death Valley previously was that I didn't have any appetite. But he told me to eat enormous amounts of bloody bananas, and that was no good at all. They made me feel very heavy. My plan had been to run for 55 minutes and break for five, but I was always stopping early, with the idea of catching up later. Those five minutes kept dragging into 10, and that's where Bruce got away from me."
As Maxwell steadily increased the distance between himself and Crutchlow, he found himself wondering about his rival's strategy. "I thought maybe he was holding back, waiting for me to burn out." Putting those doubts out of his mind, Maxwell never looked back, and he continued to stretch his lead throughout the day.
At 3:30 Crutchlow became ill and vomited. By 4:30 he was finished for the day. Maxwell kept forcing his pace, and by 8 p.m. he had done 55 miles and held a commanding 17-mile lead.
The next morning, Crutchlow had recovered, but Maxwell maintained his edge. By the time he reached Furnace Creek, however, his right leg was badly swollen and discolored below the knee. He decided to sit down and rest for an hour. When he got up to continue, his right leg wouldn't bend, and he couldn't walk, much less run. So he hobbled, stiff-legged, for the last 54 miles on a leg that, it turned out, had suffered a stress fracture just below the knee.
Maxwell faced his final crisis the next morning when, with 34 miles to go, he couldn't get his blistered and bloody feet into his size 9 shoes. Fortunately, the size 12 shoes of one of his support crew were just large enough, and Maxwell finished the race in them.
By the time he staggered under the archway of Scotty's Castle, Maxwell had lost 18 pounds. At 37 hours, 57 minutes, he had also trimmed more than 13½ hours off his previous time.
For a second time, Crutchlow finished six hours later. Aside from the numerous painful blisters, he experienced another problem with his feet. "Somehow I lost some toenails. I don't know why. Maybe it was the bloody bananas."
Well, now, some people never do learn, and nine years later Crutchlow is making noises about a third race. "Lately I've been thinking about challenging Maxwell to run Death Valley again," he says. "The s.o.b. beat me twice, and I'd really like another chance at him. I'm going to keep at it until I get it right."
When Maxwell was informed of Crutchlow's recent remarks, he was incredulous: "He said that? You know, I wouldn't have thought I'd race him again, but after hearing that, I just might have to. There's no way Crutchlow could beat me."
Jay Feldman, a Brooklyn Dodgers diehard, is a writer who lives in Sacramento.