The Heron Takes Off

By Dan Crain, 1997 Furnace Creek 508 Crew Chief for Lou Hristov

I've learned to be careful who I tell about crewing for Lubomir (Heron) Hristov (everyone calls him Lou) in the Furnace Creek 508, for fear of having others think we surely belong in the loony bin. But I don't have to worry about those of you reading this in the Furnace Creek or the Ultra Marathon Cycling Association magazines, because you're just as nuts. So here goes.

Lou is no stranger to adversity, having come to the U.S. as a refugee after escaping from Bulgaria as a teen with his family. He now works as an Audi technician in Orange County. Lou's been riding for less than three years, but he completed two double centuries in '96 (shortly after having learned what a "double" was) and finished nine in '97, one of which was the Grand Tour Triple. I suspected he was thinking about attempting Furnace Creek and when I offered to crew for him, he had to consider it only a short time before taking on the challenge.

We had no direct experience with individually supported rides. But we knew Lynn Katano, who crewed in this year's RAAM and was planning to crew for the 508 for another rider. She is also the holder of the women's yellow jersey for the Longstreet Stage Race (the five California Triple Crown double centuries produced by Hugh Murphy), and she was able to give us some hints. Lou and I were able to recruit two more for crew: Jonathan Woo and Ken Campbell, both veterans of doubles. But like me, they were rookies as crew. We hoped our enthusiasm would help make up for our lack of experience.

Sleeping the night before the ride didn't go too well. First, there was the alarm that went off by mistake at 3:30 a.m. I mentally fumed at the inconsiderate bonehead that made this blunder, finally to realize that I was the culprit! Afterwards I went back to sleep and began having a recurring dream that the others (there were four of us in the motel room) were gradually beginning to wake up the morning of the ride. In my dream, they then began waking me up. I would then actually wake-up, only to discover that it was still dark and that the others weren't up at all, but were sound asleep. So I was short on sleep when the morning finally arrived and we proceeded to pack our things and get ready for the ride.

The start was full of anticipation, with the riders all lined up and eager to begin. After the riders left, we drove to the initial waiting point. It was only a short time until the first group of cyclists came charging up San Francisquito canyon, at what seemed more than 20 mph. We figured that the pace was much too fast, for all but perhaps a couple of elite riders. We were puzzled when we saw that an acquaintance of ours was with the front group. He was dripping sweat though it was still early and cool. He had started FC in '96, but wasn't able to finish. We worried that he wasn't pacing himself in a way that would give him a decent chance of finishing this time. Our concern turned out to be well founded because he had to again drop from the ride this year. We were relieved to see Lou come up the canyon a couple minutes later, riding easy and looking rested.

The first 200 miles went easy for Lou. He had his CamelBak and was able to eat and drink at a good rate, consuming about 400 calories and 40 oz of liquid an hour. He was able to maintain these rates on intake of fuel and liquid for the rest of the ride, and it appeared to be about right. I wish I'd been able to get a picture of him passing a building in Randsburg (or Johannesburg?) about 10' x 12', standing by itself, marked simply "JAIL". Amazing sight ... maybe next year. He was conservative riding down the steep, winding descent north of Trona into the Panamint valley. We found out later that a member of one of the men's' teams crashed on this descent, hurtling over the edge of the road, and wound up breaking ribs and clavicle, I was told. His team decided to quit the ride to take him back to Bakersfield for care.

As the sun was setting on the first day of the ride, we were at the end of the first 200 miles, stopping at the base of Townes Pass to put night-lights on the bike and car. We looked up the 4000' climb of Townes Pass, after having 200 miles behind us and we all agreed that there's one definite advantage of doing this ride, even as a crew member. Afterwards, most any double will look easy. Then we began the long caravan up to Townes Pass, with groups of flashing lights, in front and behind us, stretched out over the 4000' elevation gain. It took Lou about two hours to get to the top, when he had a half-sandwich, rested a bit and put some warmer clothes on, before beginning the descent to the bottom of Death Valley.

The night was calm and quiet through Death Valley, except when a team rider would pass. (They started later, but because they were doing the ride as a relay team, they passed most of the solo riders.) I remember the sound of the tires as one of the riders passed. The tires pressed against the pavement with each half revolution—Oungh, Oungh, Oungh, against the still of the Death Valley night. Lou continued strong up the passes out of Death Valley. By this time, it was past midnight. Lou had a sandwich, but later told us his stomach wasn't feeling too great. He said it had been shaky since the 1/2 burrito he had earlier. He had bought, and vacuum packed, a bunch of burritos Friday morning, thinking they would be easy to eat. Since he had sealed out the air, he thought they wouldn't need to be refrigerated, so he didn't want to put them in our ice chests. But after he ate the burrito, he told us it was a bit "tangy," and that we shouldn't try to eat them. This was the start of his stomach problems, and now after midnight, his stomach was getting worse. Oh-oh!

By dawn, we were halfway between Shoshone and Baker, and Lou's stomach forced him to stop. I massaged his feet and he decided to lay down in the van awhile to see if his stomach could settle down. We moved down the road a hundred yards or so and left him alone to sleep. It was early morning, and in the still air, we watched a flycatcher wag it's tail while perching on the mesquite. Then it swooped down to catch passing insects. A bit later, the advance van of the Whippet men's team passed us and we saw one of the Team-Whippet riders approaching. As the rider passed, we chanted "Whippet, Whippet, Whippet" to encourage the rider. It happened that the Whippet rider for this leg was our friend Jerry Wildermuth, who frequently works the registration table at Hugh Murphy's doubles. As Jerry passed us, low on his aerobars, a huge grin showed on his face.

After Lou slept about thirty minutes, we returned to the van and saw that he was already stirring and wanted to get moving again. He still wasn't feeling too well though, and before he reached Baker, Lou had to stop again several times for 10 or 15 minutes each. We feebly tried to help, but there wasn't much we could do. We finally got to Baker and picked up some food. Lou said a chicken sandwich sounded good and we got him one from McDonald's. Although Lou's a person who has an unnatural affinity for natural foods, this bit of fast food finally helped to settle his stomach.

Sunday's ride over Kelso, Granite and Sheephole summits seemed to take forever. It was hot, especially after losing elevation after Granite pass. Though Lou was reluctant to use water to cool his body, I finally got him to agree to try it, so every couple miles, we ran next to him and doused him with water on his shoulders and thighs. It helped. Some of the worst road surface was along this stretch, which added to his discomfort, especially on his stiff aluminum Klein bike. (He's now working overtime to get his dream bike, perhaps a Litespeed Vortex.) After dark, Lou finally crested Sheephole summit and forced his way back to 29 Palms. The last few miles went excruciatingly slow. Finally Lou crossed the finish at about 9:30 p.m. and achieved his goal of finishing as RAAM-qualified.

Thinking back on the ride, I remember Hugh Murphy's comment to us at the Friday night pre-ride meeting. "Just remember," he said, "that Sunday's ride is completely different from the Saturday ride. It's like it's a completely different event." And I thought back on Saturday morning as I watched the close pace line of riders charging up San Fran canyon. That's quite a contrast from the Sunday action. Then, there were only about half as many riders, spaced out sometimes hours apart, slogging up long passes, advancing by sheer force of will.

We were lucky this year with weather. No desert wind to blow our rider off the road, and no extreme heat during the day, at least not as bad as many previous years. As crew-members, I thought we'd find much of it tedious, but not so. There was always something happening, or something to be planned for.

We did a few things right. We drove the course ahead of time. That gave us a feel for the turns and the terrain. But driving it at 70 mph didn't allow us to see how bad some of the road surface was. Also, I made an abbreviated route slip for Lou to carry. It contained the mileage for only the turns, passes and time stations, but not the myriad check points in between. With the route slip, he was more easily able to keep track of how far it was to the next turn, pass or time station. Another help was that we worked with a crew of three, so that during the night when one crew was sleeping, the driver still had a companion to help keep him alert. I forced myself to sleep on two occasions during the night for an hour each. That was enough to allow me to be alert when I had to drive later on.

But there are some things we would do differently. We took too much of the wrong kind of stuff. Who needs three ice chests? They took up all the floor space, and we just wound up with soggy sandwiches. And what we took wasn't well organized. We weren't able to find things when they were needed. After the start, we lost the cameras and weren't able to find them again until the finish. Also, the radio communication was less than ideal. We had hand-held units, which turned out to be awkward for the rider to use. A good PA system is probably the best way to go.

Stats: Lou rode the consecutive centuries (100 mile portions) in the following times: 5.7 hrs., 6 hrs., 7.5 hrs. (this section includes the 4000' climb over Townes Pass into Death Valley), 10.3 hrs. (stomach problems!), and 9 hrs (for the last 108 miles). Time on bike was just less than 34 hours. Total elapsed time was about 38.5 hours. In the first 300 miles, Lou was off the bike only about 20 minutes. But in the fourth 100 miles, when he had his stomach problems, he was off the bike about three hours, including 30 minutes or so for sleep. Average speed when on bike: 15.1 mph. Maximum speed (descent down Townes Pass): 51.6 mph. Grit and determination exhibited: very high. Satisfaction factor: higher yet.