20/20 Hindsight on the Furnace Creek 508

By Frank Goulard, President, Portland Triathlon Association, 1992 finisher and 1993 and 1994 entrant
Originally published in the California Events Schedule, 1993

The Furnace Creek 508 bicycle race is directed each October by experienced race director and endurance athlete Chris Kostman. The race follows a horseshoe-shaped route from Valencia north to the 5000' summit of Townes Pass, south through Death Valley, and continuing south to the finish line in Twentynine Palms.

The race is actually several different events in one. It is a 508 mile race in and of itself with some thirty men and women of different age group and abilities, as well as tandems and four person relay teams. Also, consider it the Western U.S. Race Across AMerica Qualifier. And consider that as much as it is a tremendous endurance event, it is also one of the great road trips of one's life. I know, for I've ridden it twice: one grateful finish, and one humble DNF (or is it the other way around?)

Kostman conducts an informative pre-race meeting the night before at the host hotel in Valencia. Athletes and their personal support crews pick up race shirts, route updates, and get to meet other fine people. The typical entrant is equipped with a mini-van and three support people who are critical for the athlete's well-being throughout race weekend. They need to be devoted, free of distractions, and ready to be doctor, physiologist, friend, and coach, all at once.

The race starts at daybreak Saturday at the Ranch House Inn parking lot. A six mile, easy paced group ride leads to the foot of the San Francisquito Canyon where the 508 officially begins. Here race pace sets in and it is important to stay within one's self and drink two to four bottles of liquid and fuel per hour. The afternoon desert temperatures range from 90 to 105, even in October. The rest of the day takes the riders over several mountain passes and further away from the comforts and sights of civilization.

Dusk brings most riders to the Panamint Springs area, at the foot of the ten mile, 3500' climb up Townes Pass, the northern portal to Death Valley. The stark desert scenery is spectacular in the soft, golden twilight and there is pristine beauty in its desolation. Interesting that this is so. By this point, racers begin to realize that the race is becoming more than just a race. It's an adventure, a trip to remember, and it's only just beginning with a long, dark descent into Death Valley.

Nighttime riding is actually quite peaceful. The support vehicle lights up the entire road for the cyclist. Death Valley, where "not even dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun," adequately cools off in the night. Cyclists roll past the halfway mark, Furnace Creek, without fanfare. Four hours later, it's up and out of the valley over a 3000' pass. Some riders choose to nap for an hour or two or three, while others will go the distance without sleep.

Dawn is spectacular over towns like Shoshone and Baker in the Mojave Desert. The roads are more desolate. The mind is becoming more numbed by fatigue. The contact with other riders is more infrequent. However, that daylight also brings a renewed sense of determination. Every mile brings the cyclists closer to the finish, but there are a few more challenging climbs in the last 100 miles. But then, it's only 100 miles to go! Riders can almost smell the finish line. And once there, after 29 to 48 hours of riding, it's been done! Riding 508 tough but beautiful miles, one with the road and bike, through the night, is a real mind-blowing experience.

The Furnace Creek 508 is not for the light-hearted, but it is achievable for the focussed individual. Furthermore, it is one of the greatest sporting accomplishments around, bar none. Life is a gift. Our bodies are a gift. Our minds are a gift. These, God's gifts, are simple and free. It is up to us to accept them, NO, to embrace them joy!