A hilly road in Gladwyne isn’t exactly Death Valley. But the thermometer in my car hit 97 on the way over, and here I was on foot, with a harness around my waist and a chain behind it dragging two car tires, mostly uphill, along the pavement of Conshohocken State Road.
Todd Carmichael had courteously shoved barbell weights and water bottles inside my hollow tires, because I guess having just air in there wasn’t enough to make my little whiff of his world as fun and puke-inducing as it could be. Moving steadily ahead of me, like someone who’d done it before, he was pulling just one tire himself – something off an 18-wheeler truck.
Twenty seconds into the workout, I’d started wondering how many days it would take my legs to recover. A couple minutes in, the way my calves felt made me think of a chicken leg when you’re eating it, tearing the meat off the bone. “The first 10 -minutes – that’s what it feels like for the first three days in Antarctica,” Carmichael told me. And he’d know, because there was that time in 2008 when he walked 690 miles to the South Pole, alone in whiteout weather and subzero temperatures, suffering from frostbite and hallucinations, in 39 days, seven hours and 49 minutes, breaking a world record. “The feeling that you can’t go on any farther, like you’re going to die, is just your body’s way of telling you it doesn’t want to do it,” Carmichael says. “But once it realizes you’re going to do it anyway, it adjusts.”
The road we were on, using tires in the least efficient way possible, was one lane in each direction, so the Audis and Lexuses and SUVs veered around us. A few drivers slowed to joke (“Need me to call Triple A?”) or snap photos. Carmichael, who is co-founder of Philly-based coffee roaster La Colombe Torrefaction, must have looked to some like a heat-induced vision: unshaven, in a desert-style turban, dragging his curious load past the entrance to Beth David synagogue.
At 47, Todd Carmichael plans to spend the last 10 days of September walking across Death Valley on the California-Nevada border, about 155 miles, alone, without help, no cheating. That would be a record – actually, a first. There’s a young stud who claims he was the first to walk Death Valley alone, in 2008, but he’d stashed food and water in caches along the way. Carmichael will carry everything he needs, hundreds of pounds (mostly water), as he did in Antarctica. Actually, he’ll pull it behind him, in a cart he’s designed, and that explains his weeks of tire-pull training and also the turban. Unlike a Phillies cap, he says, a desert turban keeps a layer of water on your head, and that conserves maybe a liter a day, about 20 fewer pounds of water to carry.