In 128-degree Death Valley, a man dressed as Darth Vader ran a mile
The Washington Post July 18, 2023
The get-up is elaborate: A balaclava. Thermal underwear and a compression shirt. A Halloween-store Darth Vader costume complete with a helmet.
Jon Rice tries to make his near-annual "Darth Valley" run as difficult as possible. He waits for the hottest day in the weather forecast, dons his multilayered outfit and sets out for Death Valley, where he runs a mile as fast as possible at the hottest time of day.
It's exhausting. It's exhilarating. It's also, Rice freely admits, incredibly stupid.
"I don't agree with anybody else doing this," he said, adding: "I don't even really agree with me doing this, particularly."
People who know a few things about heat and California's Death Valley, believed by some to be the hottest place on Earth, emphasize the danger of even being in such scorching conditions, let alone exercising in them. The unofficial high in Death Valley National Park on Sunday, when Rice did his latest run, was 128 degrees Fahrenheit — a few degrees below the record of 134 degrees set in 1913 (although some have questioned that reading).
"You spend very long in temperatures like that and you have any kind of health problems at all, you'll end up dead," said Jeff Goodell, the author of "The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet."
Rice, 52, said he knows the risks. He trains all year for the tradition, running around his neighborhood near Santa Fe and throwing punches to the beat of EDM music in his in-home sauna. Working out in the 150-degree room several times a week is meant to acclimate his body to the temperatures in Death Valley, which is even less tolerable than usual this week as a heat wave blankets much of the country.
Rice said he makes sure to select routes with cars nearby in case he feels himself overheating and needs to ask for help. His wife, Laura Rice, accompanies him to the park most years and waits at the end, blasting their car's air conditioning and preparing to toss him a cold towel.
The unusual tradition has become routine for her. When the couple met around 2010, Jon was Laura's kooky neighbor who ran around the neighborhood on hot days before collapsing in his driveway. He was just starting his Darth Valley sprints and also had a habit of running for miles through the park's canyons and salt flats.
Laura Rice said she quickly put a stop to the longer runs but has adjusted to the shorter annual tradition. Each year, she jests with her husband that he should make sure his will is up to date and leave her any important phone numbers.
"I do joke because I don't want him to do anything silly that would risk his life," she said. "But I also know he won't."
Jon Rice began running in Death Valley in 1997, when he and a friend were cruising around the United States in a rented Mustang. When they started heading down the park's Artists Drive, Rice decided to get out of the car and run.
He ended up jogging four miles as his friend continued to drive, he recalled. By the end, he wasn't feeling well. He started to hallucinate and became convinced that he was heading in the wrong direction, even though they were on a one-way road.
Despite the terrible first-time experience, Rice was hooked. Running in extreme heat was a big challenge, but it was one he said he wanted to accept — just with more preparation next time.
For the next few years, Rice traveled from his native England to California to run in Death Valley. He later moved to Colorado, then Missouri and finally New Mexico, traveling religiously to the park from wherever he lived.
Around 2010, Rice wanted to make the runs harder, and he thought wearing a mask and black clothing would do the trick. When he remembered that parts of the Star Wars franchise were filmed in Death Valley, he got the idea to dress up as the villain of the series.
Rice, who edits a cryptocurrency trade publication, has done the Darth Valley run most years since then, with breaks during the coronavirus pandemic and a cross-country move. Sometimes other runners join him — occasionally in a Chewbacca costume.
Rice's fastest time was last year, when he said he recorded a 6 minute 18 second mile. This year, he said, he ran it in about 10 minutes after recovering from an injury.
The run was particularly tough this time around. Rice said he felt like a hairdryer was pointed down his throat as he tried to breathe, and his fingertips seemed like they were burning. He coughed for hours after the feat.
Sometimes, park rangers raise their eyebrows at Rice, possibly fearing he'll be seriously injured, his wife said. A 65-year-old man died of extreme heat in his car in Death Valley this month, and the Park Service regularly helps visitors experiencing heat-related illness.
Nichole Andler, Death Valley's chief of interpretation and education, urges visitors not to exert themselves after 10 a.m. Seven of the park's 10 hottest summers have happened in the past decade, she said. Alongside that shift, monthly visitor tallies have recently topped 100,000 in July and August each year.
The draw, Andler thinks, is curiosity.
"If you're from someplace where the highs are normally in the 90s and it's very rare to get over 100, when it's getting to 120 or more, that can make a difference and pique people's interest," she said.
To Rice, the risk of running in such temperatures is worth it. He's willing to accept the possibility of being hurt in exchange for the joy the project brings to his life — and, he said, to the lives of others. Early in the era of his Darth Valley runs, he noticed people leaning out their car windows and staring with shock and amusement as they passed him on the road.
The image stuck with him.
"I just thought, 'What a fantastic thing, to bring a tiny little bit of wonder back into someone's life,'" Rice said. "I loved the idea that people had stories to tell when they got home."