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After the blast furnace of a Death Valley day, night is a welcome anesthetic. Although the heat will take hours to dissipate, the shroud of darkness at least signals it can't get any worse.
If that sudden physiological relief doesn't motivate the runners, they can always draw inspiration from the desert's hidden life. Between sunup and sundown, nothing stirs in Death Valley. But as the land hands off its accumulated heat to a clear night sky, it also erupts in a startling display of organic commerce. Myriad insects and the bats, birds, scorpions and lizards that feed on them materialize. A scourge of rodents fans across the broken ground, drawing pursuing snakes, owls and coyotes into the range of runners' headlamps.
With the furnace temporarily off, those runners who aren't hurting too badly have a chance to get to work; the race's biggest battles always take place in the dark.
After a jarring, 13-mile descent off Townes Pass, the three frontrunners hit the Panamint Springs checkpoint at mile 72. Twelve hours in and over halfway through the race, Mike Sweeney still held the lead as he headed up the second major climb, a 15-mile, 3,300-foot ascent of the Argus Range. Jurek passed through a half-hour later, closely followed by Hawke.
To this point, Sweeney had set what was literally a blistering pace. But somewhere after Panamint Springs, the wheels had begun to come off. Slowing dramatically, Sweeney was passed by both Jurek and Hawke.
By the time he reached the 90-mile checkpoint at Darwin, Sweeney was still hanging onto third place. Still, the fact appeared lost on him. As were, in a revolving order rather like a CD player stuck on random, other key pieces of cognition-like where exactly he was, why he was gaining weight at an alarming rate (more than four pounds since the 72-mile checkpoint), why he wasn't urinating, and why his lungs were rapidly filling with the fluid he was unable to void.
Sweeney, in fact, seemed oblivious to his plight when his pacer, who'd run into Darwin yelling for a doctor, had taken aside the only available facsimile, an emergency medical technician named Dave Heckman, and walked him off into the darkness. While scorpions scuttled underfoot and Heckman and the pacer conferred, Sweeney milled around wearing a beatific smile like some kind of zombie waiting for someone to say "Go."