Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Note: This is not a training plan for everyone. It is my training plan, and it does not contain complete details. If you follow this and end up dead, I take no responsibility! Did you get that? I take no, as in none, responsibility.

How does one train for a Death Valley to Mt. Whitney crossing? Last year, my friend was asked that question. Her answer, "You train for it all your life." When it comes to distance running, George Sheehan wrote that we are all an experiment of one. Both answers are correct. For an extreme endeavor such as the Death Valley Express II, the conditions of the experiment change from year to year, from month to month, and might not even be known until well into the event. What about time to do it? Can you have a full time job and train? For this last question, it depends on how much you are willing to give up to reach for a dream.

"Training all of your life" is largely preparation for the mental aspect of putting one's self through an extreme ordeal. You cannot one day decide to take on Death Valley. Your chances of success, even with good physical training, are likely not very good. Here I am talking more specifically about a solo, with crew support, crossing. Racing conditions are very different mentally. Doing such a crossing for nothing more than personal reasons, whatever they are, can be very difficult when the going gets hard. And it will get hard - very, very hard.

So, still you ask, "If what you say is true, how can you train?" You train for the course and the most likely conditions. Training to go long distances involves going long distances. That much is simple. Simple to say, at least. The course is largely asphalt, so training on a hard surface is good. There are climbs -- some steep and long, some very steep and shorter. The descents can be very severe. So, one needs to train on hills, going both up and down, for extended periods.

I am now in my mid-50s. While not a limitation, I do have to accept that my body will not take the pounding it once so enjoyed. I have made adjustments, mostly in how I approach speed in my training. Also, my bad back has to be taken into some account. Stressing it with hard pounding, especially fast running, might end the entire thing in a day. I have learned through a lifetime of running what my body can take and what it needs to get the job done. The need for such experience is one of the reasons there are few "youngsters" doing Death Valley solos.

My personal training style for Death Valley involves shorter efforts during the week. Usually Monday - Friday will have four or five 5 to 6 mile sessions on a hilly course. When I say hills, I mean climbs that might be 1000 ft or more in the course of a couple of miles. Steep, but not crazy steep. I usually take a day off a week, sometimes two. In the last two months of training, I will add a mid-week 10 - 15 mile session on hills. Sometimes I will do two of these, typically doing this as my commute home from work. To supplement the hill work, I will go to Lone Pine and climb the road to the Whitney Portals. This is the finish of the crossing, and the hardest climb on the route.

Weekends are when things get serious in terms of mileage. Saturday will be 10 to 15 miles. Sunday 20 to 25 miles. This will build through the last two months toward 20 on Saturday and 30 on Sunday. These workouts are the key. Going long for many hours at the pace I expect to do during the event are difficult physically and mentally. Most of the weekend is taken up in training or recovering from training. Not a lot else can fit into the time available. My wife, Deborah, and I have turned many of these long efforts into a journey to a new or favorite restaurant some 20 or 30 miles from home. I go there and give her a call on my cell phone when I am close. She comes out and we eat before going home. Sometimes I might be so "done" that my food just runs down my chin and my conversation is little more than guttural ughs. But, we have fun.

I don't worry too much about total mileage, other than to make sure I am getting the long stuff in and keep it up by doing something during the week. I rest when my body tells me that is what I need. That might mean 50 miles in a week, or it might mean 100 miles.

The bottom line is miles. Lots of hard miles, with plenty of ups and downs, is the bulk of my training on the road.

But a Death Valley crossing in August has other complications that must be taken into account. That is heat - dry hot, heat. That much is certain. Wind, sand storms, rain, relatively high humidity all can be factors, but the one thing that has to be included in the training is surviving the heat. Everyone who does this thing in Death Valley suffers from dehydration and heat exhaustion to one degree or another. You must train to minimize those impacts. First, you have to train in heat. Second, you have to train to drink vast quantities in relatively short periods. There are physiological changes that can be brought on by training in heat, besides just getting used to the environment. Your body will learn to retain electrolytes, in particular sodium. Normally, if you lick the sweat off your arm, you will taste lots of salt. Do that to a properly heat trained person and you will taste only water. Drinking lots of fluids is necessary because, whether you know it or not, you are sweating like crazy in the heat. You must replace those fluids as fast as you lose them. That can be a gallon or even two gallons an hour. Normally, you will not process than much fluid out of your stomach in the time needed to get it into your bloodstream. Training in heat and drinking large volumes teaches your body to do what it needs to survive.

At no time during training or the event can you let yourself get behind on drinking. I know this well. Dehydration will hit you fast and hard. One of the worst aspects in this situation is that you can get very disoriented. If you are a long way from your crew when that happens, things can get dangerous in no time. That I know well, too.

For heat training, I have made a hot box out of a storage shed. I use heaters to bring the temperature inside to at least 130 degrees F. In the hot box I will ride a stationary bike for a half hour to an hour a day. As I get more heat trained I will push the temperature to as high as I can stand for 20 minutes. At my best, that might be 160 degrees F. Usually, I can handle 145 degrees F for a half hour. This varies with how much other training I have done that day and how much heat I have taken in general. All the while I will be pounding down fluids, making it so that by the time I get out of the hot box I am having to run to the bathroom asap.

When not in the hot box, I try to train as much as possible in the heat of the day. I keep my office on the warm side and sometimes blow a little heater on me. This is not so much heat training as making myself comfortable in a hot environment.

Everything builds until two weeks from the event start. At that time, I head to the Valley of Death for four days of 20 miles each in the heat of the day. This will tell me if all systems are in order and ready. Deborah will crew for me as will be done during the event, stopping every mile, providing me with copious amounts to drink and something to eat. Last year, I did a similar training session. The heat was especially extreme during that time, making the road surface especially hot. My feet blistered (a problem I had not been having during training) and were not healed before I had to start the event two weeks later. Not a good situation that I will attempt to prevent this year, somehow. After this little training session, I will rest - training occasionally but not intensely, until August 8th and the start. I will continue to keep the heat training up, however.

If I have done everything right, did not get sick, timed the training correctly, on the morning of August 8th there will be nothing more to do than head down the road.


"Badwater" Bill
Tujunga, CA