Just Once!

By Reed Flamingo Finfrock, four-time 508 finisher (written after the 1997 race)

I'm in the race! Fourth place, 300 miles to go. Third and second places are in sight. Then, it happens, again! The car breaks down; my legs cramp; the bike breaks, hot spots in the feet; diarrhea; the inevitable nausea. If it isn't one thing it's another; and I'm forced to stop. Perhaps drop out. But, surely I'll finish further back than I should. JUST ONCE I would like to perform up to my potential.

If you read ULTRA or Chris Kostman's race book for the Furnace Creek 508, you've read my articles titled 'RQ at last' or "How I screwed up four RAAM Qualifiers before getting it right." Even when I got it right at the FC 508, 1994, things happened that put me in fifth place instead of higher. Not that I am ungrateful!! I just can't stop wondering "what if?"

Since that 1994 508, I've dropped out of RAAM twice (2,300 miles in 1995; 1,200 miles in 1996) and finished the 508 twice more, becoming the first mortal to finish the course four times. Seana Hogan has also finished four times, but she doesn't count because she's a goddess, not a mere mortal such as I. But, she had better look out, because one of these days, just once, things will click and I will finally catch her and maybe even beat her! Do I dare dream of such blasphemous things?

Furnace Creek 508, 1995. After my DNF in RAAM, I was looking to justify my presence as a 'qualified RAAM rider.' My goal was to pretend I wasn't qualified and try to qualify again. I also wanted to improve on my best time of 32:26.

As the race proceeded, all was well. I felt good. The bike was perfect, the crew great, and the car was running well. My splits were as much as an hour faster at Shoshone. With a howling tailwind it looked like a sure bet that I would accomplish all of my goals and place real well in the race. Then it struck, that thing that always happens. This time it was diarrhea and all of the wonderful things associated with it. After what seemed like a couple dozen trips to the great Mojave sand box, we reached the last time station and penalty box, 13.5 miles from the finish. We made our last pit stop then pushed off for the finish. I'm in fifth place and happy to be there. I've got no energy left to race anybody when I'm passed with l0 miles to go! By Adrian Harris! On a Bike Friday! Egads! I passed Adrian way back near Trona 300+ miles ago and he was fried! I can't race him, I'm in survival mode. Hey, sixth is okay! Then I flat, back wheel, only 5 miles to the finish. Damn! The crew whips on a new wheel and we go about two blocks and the front goes flat! Can you believe it? 500 miles, no mechanicals, then two flats with 5 miles to go. A new front wheel, get going again and now there's only two miles to go. What's that? The crew is telling me I am being caught by another rider. Damn! Where are these guys coming from? I put everything I have into a final sprint, but the rider goes by spinning, seemingly effortlessly, followed closely by yet another rider. I'm numb. I lose three places in the last l0 miles, two in the last mile and a half. I'm bumped into eighth place. But, I do finish well within the time limit to qualify for RAAM, so I feel I belong.

I DNF RAAM in 1996 in Boise City, Oklahoma. I'm so crushed emotionally that I try to give away all my bikes and wheels because I am sure I will give up this insane sport forever. Pictures of my fishing pole, alpine meadows full of flowers, pristine water cascading down rocky gullies dance in my head. I really wanted to go back to my fly rod and backpack and hit the dusty trail into the wilds of the high Sierras. Of course, that did not happen and after a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself, I regrouped and formulated a plan to bring myself back. Obviously, riding had become a chore, not a fun recreation. I know myself well enough to know that when I stop having fun, I stop doing well in whatever it is I'm doing. I stayed off my bike for five months, then made a point of riding with others or only on my favorite routes. Physically I became way out of shape, but the mental toughness was coming back. Just in time for the annual running of the Furnace Creek 508, 1997; only for the truly obsessive and self abusive.

So, another tale from the creek. I really wanted to do well this time around. This was my first official race as a 50 year old. I coveted Tom Winstrom's over 50 record. I felt I could break it, but all would have to go well. Just once I hoped for the magic race, getting into the zone where it becomes easy and you fly down the road effortlessly. I started aggressively, which is new to me. I was warming up fast, but felt really good and strong. Early in the race we come to a 'T' intersection that I know is a right turn. But an official is telling us all to turn left. Kostman had mentioned damage to the roads by recent storms, so assuming the course has been changed, I go left, but feel very uncomfortable about it. I go about two miles when another rider's crew catch him and turn him around. Now I'm really angry at myself for following like a blind sheep. I hammer back to the corner where I went wrong and realize my crew has turned and is now ahead of me thinking I'm ahead of them. For half an hour I am dry and hungry. Then my rear derailleur stops working. At this point I see Tom Winstrom's record flying off into the sunrise. Safe for another year. My "just once!" has eluded me again. I resign myself to still trying to ride faster than I have before, but my nutrition and hydration are off early. Nausea strikes on Townes Pass, so a couple of breaks are taken to calm the tender tummy. On the floor of Death Valley I can see four set of lights in the clear night air. Over the next 70 miles we pass three of the riders. I can now see second and third place ahead, but I've pushed it too hard. My feet cramp as well as my legs. The dry air has taken its toll on my eyes and I've developed what feels like hot spots in them.

This has happened to me in the past and I have a salve. But, with each application I'm off the bike at least ten minutes. Three riders—Brittlestar, Toad and Penguin—pass me as I'm being doctored. I'm now in seventh place and that's where I finish. My time is very slow, by my expectations, and I simply finish. The last 200 miles are done on Pepsi, Coke, iced tea and one bottle of MLO that almost, but not quite, makes a round trip.

With all of the problems I had both mechanically and physically, it would have been easy to DNF. From the eyeballs down, I was either on fire or cramping, but I wanted to be tough mentally and push on. I also did not want to get caught and passed, so I pushed on hard. I flatted in the last few miles but could not bring myself to stop to fix it. I rode it in flat. My time was somewhere around 34 hours, 45 minutes; way off the 31 hours I had wanted. I was as totally wasted as I have ever been. I lost an estimated 23 pounds, possibly more, over 10% of my body weight. When I took off my shoes and socks my feet were sort of ash gray. The crowd of people there was astonished to the point of actually taking pictures of my feet! They looked dead. I felt dead. I think I was close for a while. I was unable to eat for two days. I could not stand up for more than about five minutes. I think my brain was stronger than my body this time. To think, I paid for the privilege of trying to kill myself. What's worse, I wasn't alone!