FKT: Jason Hardrath - Cottonwood Marble Loop (Death Valley, CA) - 2020-02-10

Route variation
Standard route
Gender category
Finish date
Total time
5h 35m 17s

Photos on Strava.

The Short: WOW. What a day of play. Josh provided us a CLASSIC of Death Valley. Marble Canyon will feel playful. Cottonwood will feel intense (still finding scraps and cuts on my legs). A WORTHY DAY OUT!

The Long:

10 hours of driving, each way...just for this…to get shut down...

I had gotten shut down by a freaking sandstorm the morning which I had set aside for Cottonwood Marble Loop.

I knew I was supposed to have an easy day to drive back to work after driving hard with little sleep to be poised to pick up Ashly Winchester should something go wrong during her 167 mile solo, unsupported, off-trail Death Valley Crossing attempt.

Instead the same wind/sandstorm that was a part of what ended Ashly’s effort now was stopping mine before I got started.

But I knew I couldn’t go home empty-handed without at least trying.

So I knew I would be embracing a 6 hour physical endurance effort, followed by a 10 hour driving endurance effort, with no downtime. Sleep, then straight to work.

[insert motivational self-talk]

So in the morning, on my driving day, I started out at about 7:40am, hoping upon hope I wouldn’t have a major meltdown that would require me to try to find a sub for work.

I knew for roughly half of the run I would be running uphill, gaining 4000 vertical feet, then get all that back. I knew the pace I needed to have on the ascent, and the pace I could likely hold descending back out.

Following the road and washes from the 2wd parking area, I wound my way through the initial canyon and up to the Y, Cottonwood Canyon to your left and Marble Canyon to your right.

I had reached out to Josh Grant who originally established the loop as an FKT. We debated the clockwise and counterclockwise directions. He had originally established it going clockwise, saving the prize of running through Marble Canyon to be at the end. I had talked with Ashly Winchester after her women’s effort where she had gone counterclockwise in order to climb up the dry falls instead of having to descend down them. I talked running surfaces with both of them. I looked at the elevation profile. Two things stood out that solidified which direction I would take the loop.

1. Both Ashly and Josh described the surfaces of the Marble Canyon side as “firmer” and the Cottonwood Canyon as “Sandier” and “Deeper”. In my mind, firmer is faster up while softer can be faster down.

2. The elevation profile showed a shorter, steeper climb going counterclockwise with the first 2/3rd mellow then the last third considerably steeper. To me, I would rather have hills steep enough to need a powerhike to be my uphills and then take the longer mellower hillside for the down.

So it was set in my mind then, use the more solid Marble Canyon side to maintain an efficient jog up to the base of the steep stuff banking some time to stay ahead of FKT pace while being able to powerhike the steep sections. Then use the “saved” energy to open it up for the longer and consistently sandier downhill of Cottonwood Canyon. This was my least in my mind.

So I took the right-hand turn. Upon entering Marble Canyon, I could immediately see why Josh Grant saved this to be a treat at the end of his original effort. The rock was beautiful, the twists and turns playful, and the narrow heights awe inspiring. I smiled and laughed to myself often. Trying to follow the most efficient line through each corner, while finding myself compelled to stop with my mouth open to soak it in more than once.

Some more miles. Find the efficient line.

I rather enjoyed the two-move wonder that was the dry-falls climb...definitely real if you are not much of a climber, but a straightforward sequence if you are (to the non-climbers, there have been some logs left leaning on it that may help you).

Some more miles. Find the efficient line.

You come through some trees before the rather hard-ish left to start the real “steep section” then its hands-to-knees work time (not if you are in superb 50k shape, i would suppose you would just grind this 2k out in quick work). The trail is a bit sandy, so mentally be ready for that.

You get one section where it flattens off before it gets steep again, easy to take a wrong-ish turn here.

More hands-to-knees.

When you top out just under 13 miles in, with 4200’ under your belt, at least for me, I got a giddy smile on my face as I saw the steady, sandy downhill with wide-open views guiding me down to the entrance of Cottonwood Canyon. Ok Jason, Time to let’er buck.

From talking with Ashly, I knew I would need to tune into some route finding to end up on the right (literal right) side of the cottonwoods. This little bit through the first section of Cottonwoods is pretty rough. You go up and down, cross through once or twice, it is sandy… be ready for it...keep your eyes peeled for the trail of footprints.

Sandy downhill. Find the efficient line.

After what seems like a good long while. You find the road. (feelings of relief, no more navigation worries.)

Cruise, cruise, cruise. Alternating between sandy and rocky.

When you get back to the Cottonwood-Marble junction it’s less than 2 miles to go. If you have anything left, pour it on.

The Short: WOW. What a day of play. Josh provided us a CLASSIC of Death Valley. Marble Canyon will feel playful. Cottonwood will feel intense (still finding scraps and cuts on my legs). A WORTHY DAY OUT!

- Rocked the Ultimate Direction 5.0 Adventure Vest: Was able to get the fit right, pretty much right out of the box. Loved how lightweight this is for a lower volume, shorter adventure bag. I liked how the hydration bladder rides a bit higher up, with less wiggle, than some older vests. The pockets in the front were super useful. I liked that I could pull some modular pieces off since I like to be a mega-weight-wienie 

- 72 oz of Tailwind Nutrition (Mandarin Orange) mixed to maximum strength of 900 calories for that volume. carried no other food or water.

- Altra Superior 4s: I wouldn't usually wear this minimal of a shoe for this long of an effort. But the shoe performed great due to so many of the miles being softer sand. feet stayed comfortable the whole effort.
- Outdoor Research Sun Hoody - this has been a staple layer for nearly every FKT effort.
- New Balance Short Shorts- These were likely a bad decision as I am still finding all the scraps and scabs from all the angry desert plants.
- random cheap sunglasses
- Ultimate Direction sun hat.

- One “Fastest Known Time” beer by Sufferfest Brewing for the finish line ?