This is a blog post that is roughly 20 years in the making. I’m pretty sure I heard about The Furnace Creek 508 for the first time that Seana Hogan won the women’s division, which was in 1991. I recall reading about her feats in the San Jose Mercury News and perhaps in Bicycling magazine. At that time, I’d just gotten into cycling and was soaking up everything I could read about the sport, especially the long stuff: the ultimate dream of me and my friend Brian (who I rode with a lot in those days) was to ride across the country.
Over the years, my cycling has drifted further and further off the deep end of the sport. I’ve been gradually gravitating towards one of my childhood dreams of competing in solo Race Across America (RAAM). I did my first century (100 miles) in 1996, my first double metric (125 miles) in 2001, my first double century (200 miles) in 2006, my first triple century in 2008 and my first 500 mile RAAM qualifier in 2008. I didn’t qualify in that race due to the old RAAM qualifying rule where you had to finish within 15% of the time of the first non-RQ’d rider.
In 2009 I attempted the Furnace Creek 508 (The 508) solo for the first time. I went into that race in pretty good shape and promptly dispatched the first 200 miles in under 12 hours. We seemed to be in for a repeat of the previous year when Joan had finished solo in 36:22 in conditions that were perhaps the best the race has yet seen. It felt that way until about halfway down Townes Pass heading into Death Valley when I began to notice some rather strong crosswinds coming from the south. Once the road turned in that direction, just staying on the bike proved to be an epic struggle. It took me 6 hours to ride the 30 miles from Furnace Creek south. You can imagine how hard that must have been, given that I normally can ride 30 miles in well under two hours, and that the road is never more than 100 feet above sea level in that stretch, and most of it is well below sea level. I ended up dropping out of the race in the middle of Death Valley.
In 2010, I went back for a rematch with The 508. The twist this time was that Joan was also riding, so I did not have her on my crew for the first time. A combination of heat that didn’t go away at night and some nutrition issues (I think I actually ate too much for the first time in a long ride) caused me to suffer mightily heading into day two. I didn’t reach Baker until around 5:00 PM, leaving me only 14 hours to ride the remaining 128 miles over several mentally draining climbs. It ended up taking me somewhere around 4 hours to reach a point where I just couldn’t take it any more. I abandoned at what turned out to be about 200 yards from the top of the climb on Kelbaker Road. It was tough to abandon only 100 miles from the finish, but I knew there was no way I was going to get another second wind strong enough to ride the remaining miles.
In 2011, I had a better mental lead up to the race; dispatching some rather difficult races during the year. I had done a 200k brevet in February, a 400k brevet in March, a 50 mile run in April (American River 50), a 200k in June, Ultraman Canada in July/August, a double century in September (White Mountain Double), and a good number of training rides over 100 mile. Combined with all the swimming and running I did in preparing for Ultraman; I was feeling ready to take on and finish The 508.
Finding crew people turned out to be the most challenging part of the race preparations. It took a while to solidify my crew, which consisted of Joan, Rama (a friend from the tri club who had also crewed for me in 2010 and has done numerous races up to half-Ironman length) and Marie (another friend from the tri club who has done two Ironmans and has ambitions of getting into ultra-endurance sports).
Our crew vehicle turned out to not be the issue that it has normally become. Joan and I ended up buying a Toyota Sienna a few weeks before The 508. I had a hitch mount installed, so we would have a bike rack (which I already had for my Forester) to keep the bikes out of the van. This made the situation inside the van easier to control, and allowed me to bring an extra bike; something I haven’t had for any of my races (except Ultraman when we used my car). And I borrowed a PA system from Lee “Fuzzy” Mitchell so my crew would be able to talk to me from the van.
Having the extra space allowed me to bring my cyclocross bike for the bad section of road at the top of the climb on Kelbaker Road (where I had dropped out in 2010).
On Friday the 7th, we left early; and picked up Rama on the way to the highway (Marie left her car at our place). We made good time despite a few Bobstops and gas stops. On the way down Highway 5, we talked about strategy and other things. And we got to pass the 2x team Spike The Wonder Dog. Of course, this would be the only time I’d be passing them that weekend! It was fun to call Bob after we passed them to rib him a little.
We grabbed lunch at the Subway in Castaic, before finishing the drive to the Hilton Garden Inn in Santa Clarita for check-in and inspections. Getting to the pre-race activities for The 508 always feels like a family reunion. In this case, it’s a reunion of the crazy family.
After checking in and visiting with Isabelle and the others; we went out into the parking lot for vehicle and bike inspections. We breezed through that (with the experience at these events that Joan and I have, we should be the easy inspections for the folks doing the inspecting.
After inspections, we checked into the hotel and got ready to head out to the pre-race meeting and then to dinner. The meeting was mercifully short (though interesting and informative of course!) and we were off to Olive Garden for the traditional pre-race meal. This is the same Olive Garden where that tradition was born before Joan’s Furnace Creek 508 in 2008. After gorging on pasta and soup, we headed off for food stuff at Albertsons and then back to the hotel.
When that alarm went off too danged early in the morning, I was ready. I felt ready for this race, and quickly showered and got ready to go. I chose to start the race in my Ultraman Canada jersey, since seeing Andi Ramer wearing the same jersey last year at The 508 was part of what inspired me to go for Ultraman in the first place.
One of the coolest parts about the start of these races is that everyone is so focused on what they’re doing, and yet people are still friendly and ready and willing to greet their friends and wish them well. No one really treats their “competitors” as competitors. We are all in this thing together. Being greeted by name by one of my cycling heroes (Seana Hogan, who has been making a comeback into Ultra Cycling this year) before the start of the race was certainly a highlight of the morning. Our favorite NBA Hall Of Famer, Bill Walton, was there to see us off at the start. And sticking with the Back To The Future theme for the race, race director Chris Kostman was there to lead out the first few miles in his Delorean (unfortunately, no flux capicitor in sight). The original four men to compete in RAAM (then called The Great American Bike Race) were also competing (as a 4-person team, who I wouldn’t even recognize when John Howard flew past me on Townes Pass early on the first night).
After a few inspiring words from Lon Haldeman and John Marino (two more of the original four; the other being Michael Shermer), the countdown proceeded and it was time to go. We took off out of the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn and made our way through Santa Clarita and out towards San Francisquito Canyon. The first 20+ miles are a no-support zone, so I was on my own for a while. It was nice chatting with some of the other racers, especially Pudu (Jason Pierce), Butterfly (Andi Ramer) and Gyrfalcon2 (Nicole Honda). It was especially nice to see Nicole out there. She was racing in memory of her fiance Jim Swarzman, who was struck down and killed by a hit and run driver back on April 10 during the Temecula 600k brevet.
Unfortunately, our friend ZomBee (Rob James) started the race with a rather severe illness, which turned out to be pneumonia. That he started at all is a fine testament to his willpower. That he made it 200+ miles before dropping out is testament to his craziness. I know he’ll be back to take on The 508 again. And he will succeed.
I was feeling pretty good from the start, and certainly optimistic. Though it’s impossible to know what the weather is going to throw your way and how your body will react to the miles, I was feeling that this was going to be my race. Coming to the top of the first hill, I certainly wasn’t in first place; but I was cruising along a comfortable pace. One that I knew I could maintain for a long time. And I did…
Once on the downhill, I kept the pace high all the way across the next flat section just west of Lancaster and towards the first “real” climb of the race, the Windmills Climb which leads towards Mojave and the end of Stage One in California City. I felt great through there, going back and forth with some other racers (including Pudu) who I thought would be way ahead of me. Turns out that he was playing the start slow game too. It was nice to have all the people to talk with. Other crews were always very encouraging. I even took an opportunity to throw a spare tube at ZomBee’s crew van (he had mentioned at the start that he didn’t have any extra tubes because someone had brought the wrong size tubes). They were thankful, and fortunately the driverside window wasn’t open, because that’s what the tube hit. Sorry guys, didn’t mean to get that close!
Fortunately I came into Mojave just ahead of the train. I made it across the tracks before it came, and turned towards California City. That stretch seemed to just fly by as I maintained a steady pace through it into a very slight headwind. My crew stopped in Mojave for supplies and caught up with me as I rolled into California City. Stage One was now done!
Heading north out of California City, I made decent time and before long was on one of the signature stretches of road on the course. I always find the “climb” to Johannesburg to be entertaining. It’s a straight section followed by a couple of corners and then it’s over. You roll through town in about 10 seconds, and then turn onto 395 for a half-mile or so before turning onto Trona Road. The straight part seems to go on forever at perhaps a 2% grade. The curves are a little steeper, but the climb really isn’t all that bad.
All the way to Trona, I was enjoying myself. It was basically a cycle of eat, drink, and keep on riding. I knew going in that minimizing my down time was going to be the key to having a good race. In the past, I’ve always been pretty bad about taking too much time when off the bike. I tried to only stop for stop signs and to pee. My crew did a great job of egging me on and keeping me on the bike.
After Trona (and the end of Stage Two) came the famous “Trona Bump”, which is a short climb with a great decent down into the Panamint Valley. This was also where we hit the mandatory follow time, so I now had my crew behind me in the van to bark orders and keep me motivated and awake. I also stopped to change into clean clothes. This made me almost feel fresh like I hadn’t already been riding my bike for 12+ hours. I was ready to tackle Townes Pass, the longest and hardest climb on the course. You turn onto the highway into Death Valley at mile 200, and the road almost immediately begins to climb. You climb 4000+ feet in about 10 miles. I’d love to do this climb some time when I’m fresh. I think it would be a great climb. Coming this far into the race, it seems a bit daunting! But I just pointed my bike up the hill and chugged away one pedal stroke at a time. At one point, I saw a praying mantis walking across the road. It was certainly cool to see something relatively rare like that. It looked at first like a stick walking across the road! But I knew I wasn’t hallucinating this early in the race…
The climb happened to be where the teams started to catch up with and pass me. The first of my friends to pass me was Donna (riding on 4x Kites) who greeted me and wished me well. She’d been on Joan’s crew when she first attempted Race Across Oregon, and had also attempted The 508 in 2009 when we had the heinous winds through Death Valley. Other friends to pass me on Townes and down into Death Valley were the Wild Hares and Spike The Wonder Dog (fortunately, it was Jay who passed me despite all of Bob’s trash talking about how he was going to pass me during Stage Two!). Coming to the top of Townes Pass, my plan was take a short break to get some real food in and to recover slightly before the descent into Death Valley.
When I got to the top, I slammed some food including a sandwich, orange soda and some chocolate. It proved to be too much for my system to handle. I’d always thought that I’d never be able to throw up on the side of the road and then immediately get back on my bike and start riding… I started to ride away from the turnout at the top of the pass, but I quickly stopped and spewed out the food I’d just consumed. It felt amazingly good to do so; and I was back on my bike less than a minute later and heading down Townes Pass. And I never had problems with my stomach again during the ride.
Speeding down a mountain pass at night is always fun, especially when you have a van behind you illuminating the road ahead. I made good time down past Stovepipe Wells. Then I started to feel a bit of sidewind coming from the south (the same direction I was about to head!). Fortunately, the wind didn’t not continue to blow (it must have just been coming over the pass and deflecting off the mountainside to my right). It was actually shaping up to be an enjoyable nighttime ride through Death Valley. The riding at night was a bit of a blur, mostly because you can’t really see anything outside of what is illuminated by the van’s headlights. I saw a fox at one point, and a few scorpions. The desert at night is a pretty cool place and time to be riding. The animals are mostly nocturnal, and it’s always fun to see what’s out and about.
I took a bathroom break at the parking area at Badwater, and was surprised to see that Pudu was there and down for a nap. It seemed a little early to me. I was wide awake, why wasn’t everyone else? But then, I seem to have managed the sleep deprivation thing better this time around. I carried on and decided to take a sleep break just before the break of dawn, wherever that might find me.
Seeing that this was my fifth time either riding or driving the course, I had a pretty good idea what was coming up on the climb out of Death Valley and over Jubilee and Salsbury Passes. Just a lot of drudgery; as the climb isn’t steep, just really long. I ended up taking my sleep break just after the descent from Jubilee Pass (the descent is less than a mile long). I napped while Joan fended off bats outside (so I’m told). I ate a little before heading off on the climb to Salsbury Pass. I still felt remarkably strong and awake despite only taking a 30 minute sleep break. Salsbury and the descent down the other side seemed to fly by. I remember going back and forth with Lionfish (a solo tandem team). Unfortunately, they ended up dropping out. Apparently one of them was having problems with his elbow and wasn’t able to support his weight. They certainly gave it a good effort, having made it over 300 miles into the race.
After descending Salsbury and into Shoshone (the end of Stage Four), I began to feel a second wind coming on. This was where I had mentally fallen apart in 2010, and it was where I was to begin to feel like I was going to be able to pull this thing off. I was cruising on the road to Baker. I’d asked for a breakfast burrito from the crew. Joan handed me a sausage biscuit with cheese. That certainly hit the spot that was hungry! I was feeling so good through that section that I began to wonder where the supposed climb was. Right about when I had that thought, I saw the sign for the summit. I’d been climbing all this time and hadn’t even noticed? Crazy… I guess ten miles of 2% grade shouldn’t feel bad, but last year I had suffered mightily on this stretch. Of course, last year it had been 98 degrees through there. This year it was around 70. Perfect conditions, and not much wind. No wonder I was feeling good. In 2010, the nighttime temperature had been in the upper 80s; never giving me a chance to recover at night. This year, I was actually cold in the morning.
The stretch to Baker was a bit of drudgery, as it’s all uphill to the end of Stage Five. I kept myself preoccupied with thoughts of how much sooner I was going to get to Baker this year than last (about 4.5 hours sooner as it turned out). My crew stopped in Baker to get supplies and gas, and I kept going on towards the Kelbaker climb. This was the climb that finished me off in 2010. I was determined not to let that happen again, though the weather was certainly heating up. I think it ended up reaching 81 degrees on the climb, and it felt holt because I was riding with a very slight tailwind. The wind was just strong enough that it felt that there was no breeze whatsoever. I was a little miserable through there, I admit. It took a lot of encouraging words and good music coming from the follow van to get me through that stretch.
Near the top of the climb, the crew van for Onager (Bill Osborn) came up next to me. I was shocked to see Bill in the van. Apparently, he was having knee problems and figured it was best not to sacrifice his knee for The 508. So he had bailed. They offered to follow me a little bit and asked if I had any music preferences (they had a better sound system than we did, since my crew had to hold the PA microphone near the speakers inside the car to broadcast music to me. It worked fine, but deafened the poor people in the van (but I am grateful for their sacrificed hearing!). I asked Bill if they could play Don’t You Forget About Me, since I’d had it running through my head earlier in the ride, but didn’t have it on my iPod. They were happy to oblige, and I got to rock out with some 80s classic through the top part of the climb. It kept my mind off the drudgery of the climb, and before I knew it I was coming to the bad stretch of road at the top. Joan had promised that if I made good time to that section, I could ride my cyclocross bike through the bad stretch. And I did. I got on the cross bike and immediately felt better about the condition of the road. The change of shoes and seat also made a huge difference in breaking up the soreness of having sat on the same saddle and been in the same shoes for over 30 hours at that point. I stayed on the cross bike all the way through the descent into Kelso. I switched back there for the climb out of Kelso heading towards Amboy.
By this time, the temperature was beginning to cool off again and I was feeling good again. I knew I had this in the bag as long as I kept riding. I had about 92 miles to go and almost 13 hours to get there before the cutoff. There were of course, still two passes to climb; so I kept plugging away at the miles. At one point on the climb, I saw what looked to be some sort of falcon (it may have been a Peregrine Falcon, a Golden Eagle or a Coopers Hawk; looking at the species which live in the area), which of course made me feel that Jim was watching over the racers on this stretch of road. I got to the top of the pass a bit before sunset, and was glad to be able to do most of the descent into Amboy while it was still light. There are some fairly treacherous sections of the road, but the long descent makes up for the bad road. I had to stop to switch to a brighter light, and eventually made it down to Time Station Seven (the last one!) at “Almost” Amboy. There weren’t people with the traditional leis for the riders, since those guys were racing this year. So didn’t get lei’d at Time Station Seven, but I did get there without any time penalties, so I rolled on by after briefly stopping to call out my totem to the guy with the clipboard.
There was now only one climb separating me from Twentynine Palms. Sheephole Pass isn’t bad, just a little annoying coming 460 miles or so into the race. I chugged away at another climb; ignoring the chafing from my third set of shorts. My arms were hurting pretty good, and my body was just generally ready to be at the finish line. My crew kept me going with music, lies (you’re looking great!) and even a little karaoke. I just focused on what I was doing, and accepted the occasional bit of food or drink when they offered. I began to hallucinate a little, seeing rabbits and cows on the side of the road (a few of the rabbits were real, but not all of them; the cows most certainly were all sage). Hallucinations an integral part of being awake for 36+ straight hours. It’s actually kind of fun knowing that the stuff isn’t real while you’re seeing it. It’s like knowing you’re insane and embracing it.
Coming to the top of Sheephole Pass, I started to be able to smell the barn; as the old saying goes. I was ready to just put away the final 20+ miles and get this ride done. I got into the mode of just riding, and only communicating with my crew when I needed something or they wanted to know if I needed anything. The final 15 or so miles into Twentynine Palms were a blur of crappy roads and sidestreets that were almost all sand (and deep loose sand from the look of them). I could see the lights of town from miles away and they didn’t really seem to get any closer. But eventually they did, and eventually the driveways became gravel and then paved as I came into town. Finally I got to the turn onto Utah Trail, and I knew I was really close. Turning onto Twentynine Palms Highway, I made my way through town, past a lot of barbershops and bars (it’s a military town, of course). They changed the course slightly at the end, so I had to look for the Burger King on the left side of the road as my next cue (and from there onto a frontage road that parallels the highway). As I got close, I saw another rider just ahead of me who appeared to be lost. I kept going, knowing what I was looking for. I actually passed a four-person team while riding through town during mile 509. That certainly gave me a boost of energy to get me through the last little bit! I turned at the BK and actually missed the frontage road until my crew honked at me. I got back on track and “sprinted” up the hill to the Best Western and the finish line. I waited for my crew to get out of the van before crossing the line so they could run across with me. My finish time was 42:32:55 (I finished at 1:32 AM on Monday after starting at 7:00AM on Saturday), and I most certainly could not have done this ride without the full support of my awesome wife Joan and the support of my friends Marie and Rama.
In short, I love the Furnace Creek 508. I love the experience of sharing the road with so many of my heroes and friends. And I love the challenge of riding 509+ miles through the California desert. I don’t think there is any finer way to spend a weekend that by taking on a great challenge and taking giving it everything you have. It’s a great joy in life to accomplish great things, and to share that experience makes it all the more priceless. Thanks go to: Joan (for inspiring me every day to be the best that I can be), Rama (for seeing what happened last year and coming back for more), Marie (for being inspired by this madness), and all of my other friends who were competing or volunteering at the race; your motivating words helped when I was down and spurred me on. Thanks!
Here’s the link to the full race results: http://dbase.adventurecorps.com/results508.php?fc_eid=54&fcr=Go