"Tweety Bird" and a "Hurricane" Blow Away A Record-Sized 508 Field

By Chris Kostman

"After the turn to Badwater I am doing seven miles per hour, can't take my hands of the handle bar to eat or drink. I have ridden Death Valley 30 plus times, but never encountered anything like this. I stop and unclip. Try to get back on but simply could not get the bike going. Call for my walking shoes. I walk the last mile to Badwater." 

- Peter Pop, the first person to finish Furnace Creek 508 seven times and a three-time RAAM finisher.

Racers in the October 16-18, 2004 Furnace Creek 508 experienced the most ferocious headwinds in the 15 years the race has been held on this course. While the field enjoyed favorable winds for the first 200 miles, by mile 230 the wind was a steady 20 mph headwind, gusting to double or even triple that. Day two was also very windy with a particular nasty headwind on the final push into the finish from Amboy.

Despite the conditions, Marko "Tweety Bird" Baloh, 37, of Slovenia, won the men's solo race, in a very impressive 29 hours and 26 minutes, beating all the relay teams in the process. Baloh had dropped out of RAAM '03 with blood cots in his lungs and was on a mission to prove he's back in fighting shape. Baloh is an incredible athlete with the good aero position, mental determination, and sheer physicality needed to power through the wind.

Baloh's plan was to follow the first racer's pace until Townes Pass and make his move there. Rookie Erik "Oyster" Wochna, 25, of Northridge, CA led up San Francisquito canyon (the first climb) and Baloh marked him until Mojave, where Wochna stopped briefly. Baloh then led until the Panamint Valley, but during a brief pit stop was passed by 2004 Race Across Oregon winner Graham "Python" Pollock, 37, of Folson, CA.

Though he hadn't raced the 508 before, Baloh is an experienced and very competitive ultra racer. Later he said "I thought to myself ‘This is my turf, the other guys will suffer at least as much as I do if not more.'

"So I kept pushing it, made it to the top with sun still on, put a vest and arm warmers on and the descent was really fast! I reached a max speed of 104km/h (around 65miles/h)!"

Once he was in the lead "I had no information on other riders and that kept me going strong. I was really scared that someone would show up (like Python in Panamint) and leave me in his dust. Somewhere after Kelso peak my crew asked an official where are my opponents and he said I had at least a one-hour lead before the second rider. Talk about the relief..."

Rookie David "Mudcat" Holt, 52, of Laguna Niguel, CA finished second, in 33h 32m. Holt was the fourth rider into the halfway mark at Furnace Creek, mile 253, 28 minutes behind Jeff "Landshark" Landauer, 37, the 2003 runner-up from Roseville, CA. Just a minute ahead of Holt at the halfway mark was 59-year-old Dan "Crane" Crain. Leaving Death Valley, Holt passed Landauer and continued an epic battle with Crane. Holt said:  "Toward Jubilee I caught him (Crain) yet again, but he wouldn't let me go, pulling me back at least twice if not three times. The man never got off the bike. . . . Finally, many miles down the road toward Baker, I passed Crane for the last time. He eventually DNF'd with "Shermer neck," but the competition with him contributed substantially to my good results. One tough old man on a bicycle."

In the women's race, Janet "Osprey" Christiansen led through every time station. In 2004 she had led the race for 485 miles, but then collapsed on the side of the road for several hours, falling to second place. This year she focused her entire season on the 508, moving to the desert to train in the heat, wind, and mountains. This year Christiansen rode an excellent race and finished in 35h 36m, placing first woman and third solo overall. Afterwards, she commented "The 'other side' of 24 hours is always really hard. By Sunday morning the whole body feels awful. It is so hard to want to keep going and find motivation. But luckily this year I was able to recover from really bad, cranky patches and ride pretty strong."

Monica "Scarlett Fairy Cup" Scholz, 37, of Ontario. Canada was the second and final woman finisher. A world-class ultra runner, she was the first female and third overall at the Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon 135-mile running race in July. As a result of her two performances, Scholz won the Death Valley Cup with a combined Badwater/508 time of 73h 45m, seven hours faster than previous record holder Angelika "Cat"Castaneda's 80h 45m from 1999. The other three solo woman entrants, Deborah "Dolphin" Caplan, Seana "Hoopoe" Hogan, and Rebecca "Sun Bear" Smith, are all 508 veterans, but were humbled by the course and the conditions and went home with a DNF.

Part of the attraction of the 508 is the extremes:  the austere but beautiful desert scenery and the threat of high temperatures and strong winds. This year the extremes took their highest toll ever:  just 26 of the 50 male solo riders finished and two of the five female riders finished, a 52.5% finishing rate (compared to 66.6% in 2001, 58.9% in 2002, and 63.8% in 2003). Most of the riders dropped during the first night between Furnace Creek and Shoshone, when they were riding at 4-5 mph into an incredible headwind and clouds of dust and sand. Many of the luminaries who were inducted into the Furnace Creek 508 Hall of Fame with five or more previous finishes dropped out, including Mike "Tazmanian Devil" Moseley, Steve "Scorpion" Winfrey, and Seana "Hoopoe" Hogan.

Even racers with the dreaded "DNF" after their name in the results seemed to take home inspiration and insights they wouldn't have gained anywhere else: "Despite the DNF, the Saturday of the race rates right up there with my best days. Coming from Northern Canada, bringing three friends, racing with some of the best long distance riders, in a very well run race, through spectacular scenery.... definitely one of the best days," said Bob "Loch Ness Monster" Lees.

Fixed Gear Division

Despite the conditions, the three men competing in the new fixed gear division all finished. Barley "Boar" Forsman, 33, of San Rafael, CA was the first to Twenty Nine Palms in 38h 24m, fast enough to quality for RAAM and 9th overall in the men's solo division. He spent all of 2004 training on his fixed gear, with the Santa Rosa 600K brevet his longest training event. Early in the year he experimented with different gearing, finally settling on a 42x15 with 74.4 gear inches. "The strategy was to favor the flats and down hills and to just suffer up the climbs (I didn't think it would be a problem with nothing over a 13% grade)."  Although he thought he could ride the entire course, the headwinds and grade on Townes Pass forced him to stop and his crew convinced him he was better off walking briefly. The other fixed gear racers did the same.

The riders were restricted to steel frames, no aero bars, 32 spoke wheels and just one gear for the whole distance. Forsman and Sam "Seal" Beal, 52, of Mountain View, CA duked it out for most of the race, but the 508 rookie beat the three time 508 finisher in the end. Beal suffered five flat tires (all on the rear) and posted a time of 39h 10m. The Fixed Gear Division rules required the rider to replace or repair the tube, rather than just doing a fast wheel exchange. Rounding out the 100% finishing rate in this division was Jeff "Parrot" Bauer, 44, of Nashville, TN with a time of 44h 01m. Forsman and Beal rode 42x15 and Bauer rode 42x17 gearing.

The 508 was the most popular 2004 qualifier for the Race Across America. David Holt was the first not previously qualified rider to finish the 508. The qualifying cut-off was 115% of his time of 33h 32m, so men hoping to qualify had to finish in less than 38h 34m. Men 50-55 had to finish within 125% or 41h 55m. The women's qualifying time is 115% of the first non-qualified woman, Monica Scholz. Nine men and two women met the qualifying standards; seven qualified for the first time.

Team Race

New for 2004, the team division followed a fixed relay format, rather than an open relay format as in years past. Each team member raced from one time station to the next, then switched with another team member. There are seven time stations and thus eight stages on the course. Two-rider teams raced four stages each and four-rider teams raced two stages each. Racers switched off while stopped in front of the time station staff, passing a baton between them before resuming racing. The teams had to complete the route in a fixed order with each racer's position declared at the race start: Two rider teams switched off at each time station, rotating A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B. Four rider teams had to rotate A-B-C-D-A-B-C-D.

The new format was incredibly well received. Given the harsh conditions this year, team racers had to dig deep to finish some of the stages. Then riders switched into crew mode, taking care of their teammate(s). Riders noted that they interacted more and they liked the team bonding that occurred as they crewed for each other. Teams also saved money by not having to bring a big crew and multiple vehicles.

The new format puts the emphasis more on endurance than adrenaline. As such it appeals greatly to century, double century and brevet riders, as well as USCF racers with a taste for adventure.

The veteran team racers, such as four-man Team Sasquatch and mixed two-rider Team Chinook, liked the challenge of taking on the long stages, as compared to the short 20- to 30-minute pulls they'd done before. Other team racers really thought the fixed relay format was a better stepping stone to racing the event solo in the near future. Four-man Team Sasquatch's Roy Wallack, 48, of Irvine, CA is a veteran of the Eco-Challenge, Paris-Brest-Paris, Ruta de los Conquistadores, Trans-Alp Challenge, and the team division at the 1996 508 when he and his 2004 teammates competed together originally. After the 2004 508, he said "This was simply one of the highlights of my athletic career -- maybe life. I miss my teammates already."

The new format is more exciting, since riders switch off in front of other riders, crews, and officials all waiting at the time stations. This is similar to the excitement in the start/finish area of a 24-hour road or mountain bike race.

The fixed relay format is also safer than an open relay, since only seven exchanges are made and they're performed while stopped at a lighted time station, rather than riders and vehicles making dozens and dozens of exchanges while moving in the dark and jockeying for position with other team and solo racers and their support vehicles.

The fixed relay format also helped to level the playing field between the team divisions. Most notably, the fastest relay team was Four-Mixed Team Velociraptor Mindseye Multisport in 30h 27m, followed by Two-Man Team Yak in 30h 43m, then Four-Man Team Sasquatch in 31h 45m, making for a tight race across the board. Lucky for these and all the divisional team winners in 2004, the new format provided for brand new "course records" for all of them!

The fixed relay format made for a much busier finish line and lots more competition, and camaraderie, on the race course between solo, two-rider, and four-rider competitors. The consensus was that the new format was a bigger challenge, provided greater bonding and fun within the team, and made the accomplishment that much sweeter.

Is this new relay format the wave of the future in ultracycling? Time will tell, but it's here to stay at the 508.

For complete results, time splits, stories, and over 1,000 images from this year's race, visit the webcast.