The Grateful Dead's Live Version of the Furnace Creek 508

Highlights from Panda's Best Recollections

By Justin Panda Peschka, 1997 solo winner
(Song titles courtesy of the Grateful Dead)

I wonder what will happen tomorrow. There are so many riders I've never seen and have only heard of; I wonder how I'll compare in this year's race. At the dinner, everyone is chatting while sizing up their competition. I guess racing is the same everywhere. I talk a while to Walrus, who isn't riding this year and otherwise just hides out with my crew and wait for dinner to finish. I sure do feel like an outsider although I raced here last year.

Everyone at the start is so serious and I feel foolish as I pose for the requisite pre race Panda pictures complete with my stylish panda backpack. I feel nervous and have to pee four times even before the race begins. I wish I could go back to watching cartoons in the hotel. Soon enough, the race begins and it seems that burdens are lifted from all the riders. We cruise along and I talk with Penguin and Blowfish. I would like to talk with them more about these long races, but instead I'm racing against them. I decided about a month ago that my goals were to race from the front and lead all the way; a most convincing way to win or at least a heroic way to fail. My crew is unaware of the plan, but they will soon figure it out.

Panda passes a quickly climbing Toad a few miles after the neutral ends and that is the last I see of the riders until the finish. Finally, Panda is free to ride! The first climb is over and I cruise through the onion fields. This part of California sure is ugly and I'm glad to be through it quickly. I see the downfall of my strategy and am starting to wish that there was a rider in front to pace off. Oh well, at least it will be hot today and that should slow some people down, I hope not the Panda. Finally, Panda is past the windmills, California City and through Mojave. I just noticed that my crew still wears their panda ears, even through town and I laugh, thinking about what the people in town see in this spectacle. Leaving the Mojave Time Station, I realize that another problem with being ahead is that you don't know how much lead you have until someone passes you. The paranoia of the lead grows as the temperatures rise.

The climb to Johannesburg and Randsburg is hot. I climb slowly, hoping to get more bottles of cold water before I run out. I'm well hydrated for the hot day ahead, but Panda is going to have problems if he climbs too hard during the heat. Going slowly uphill and fast down is the tactic for the day. An official passes me and says I have at least twenty minutes lead; a good cushion for the night if I have any problems. However, it is still a long way to go and twenty minutes is nothing in a thirty-hour race.

I continue in much the same fashion for several hours: drinking and riding and trying to eat. I'm amazed at how much fluid I ingest and I still need more. My skinsuit is frosted with salt deposits and I've been drinking fluids with the taste of sweet sea water to replace the lost electrolytes. My nutrition and hydration plan is working as I still feel great even in the heat. I make my way toward Trona and stop for a quick break. A few minutes is enough, but it seems my crew was expecting Panda to stop longer. It's hard to communicate with my crew when I'm only able to yell a few words as I pass by. The ears they wear still make me smile and I continue to ride on even further into the middle of nowhere. The foolish Panda feels like the race should be nearly done for some reason, but I know that over half the race still remains. Again, I miss the toxic waste dump, but I realize that I've passed by when my throat and eyes begin to burn uncontrollably. Someday, I'll see what makes me so sick.

Riding along Panamint Valley, I make it to the rough road and know I'm getting close to Townes Pass. I get bounced around like a rag doll and manage to lose an aerobar pad, which my crew retrieves. I wonder when the road crews will really repair this patchwork quilt of asphalt. This is only a taste of Panda's misery to come.

I change bikes a few miles before Townes Pass and the change feels good. Panda cruises up the hill and is to the top well before dark. The valley is beautiful in the setting sun. I stop to change clothes and wash up with the weed sprayer. I must be a real spectacle to the few cars that pass while I change. Maybe they think I'm a local? I feel like a new Panda as I begin the descent. This road sure goes downhill fast and a cool Townes Pass is soon replaced by the still hot valley floor. I really will get to see some of Death Valley before dark. For the tourists I pass as the sun sets, it is just "One More Saturday Night", but for myself it will be a long night with too much time for thinking.

The Valley rolls by quickly and after a quick pitstop, I'm off to the climbs out of Death Valley. The climb is surreal and would be almost peaceful if I weren't riding my bike, or at this point just trying to. I begin to climb up Jubilee and Kostman drives by halfway up. I try to look good but realize that my legs cramp if I ride any faster than my requisite slow crawl. I'm in agony and try to limit my losses as I slowly climb up the pass. Panda gets to what he thinks is the top, but realizes that there is a second part to this climb. How am I going to recover from these cramps? I climb until it feels like my bones are cramping and try to smile every time I see Kostman drive by. I get my legs rubbed at the pass, but I'm worried that nothing will help. Panda can do little else but continue on, or else be taken back to the zoo. Since there's no tailwind like last year and my legs hurt, I continue as best a Panda can in the desert. Where's the fresh bamboo? That must be my problem. Finally, I pass the Shoshone T.S. and eventually make it to Baker. I wonder what adventures other riders are having. This is the hardest portion of the Furnace Creek 508 yet.

Stopped in Baker for gas and it takes forever. I can't believe we make long stops when I still want to ride. I feel the race begin to slip away and I hope that limiting my losses by riding slow to Baker doesn't ruin my race. At least I can finish faster than most; especially if motivated by another racer passing by.

Panda used the last three hours to recover and can climb again. It feels like I'm riding toward the Sun as I climb the 20 miles toward Kelso. I guess the fresh bamboo shoots agreed with me as I'm pedaling faster than before and looking forward to the daylight. I'll try to make Kelso before daylight. I know I'll wake up when the dark horizon is replaced by the dawn.

Stopped in Kelso to eat some soup and reflect on the sunrise. Ate some soup; it came right back up. Moral: don't eat so fast, Panda Boy, since the race and not your breakfast is supposed to be on the road. Oh well, I'm numb to the whole thing and take this as a sign to keep going and not stop again.

I make it to within sight of the interstate overpass. Panda knows Amboy is close, but it takes forever to cross under the interstate. I know I'm descending, but the elusive interstate just mocks my numerous attempts to pass. Finally, I make it to the turn and eventually pass Amboy. Panda won't stop in this once thriving town; he feels the need to finish.

After Amboy, it feels like the last leg of the journey is just up Sheephole and onto Twentynine Palms. Sounded easy, but this was the hardest finish of my life. It took forever to make it to the climb and another forever to climb to the top. Throw in the forever from there to Twentynine Palms, I wonder how I won. The last hour of the race I try to ride fast, but my resolve and body are dwindling. I envision a rider catching me and beating me to the line and this keeps me going onward. My neck hurts and the strain causes my vision to blur. I focus on the painted line so I stay on the road and this works well except where the sand has covered it up. Does this fuzzy road I see ever end?

I see Walrus come to greet Panda as I ride the last few miles to the hotel. Walrus and I talk, making that last leg into town quickly go by. Before I know it, one last hill and I'm done. Why couldn't the previous seventy-five miles have gone as quickly as these last five? I even finish so quickly that my crew makes me do it again since they missed me the first time. I guess that's the least The Panda can do since they're still wearing those silly Panda ears.

As I ice my burning knees, I remember Walrus telling me in Valencia that I'd fare well this year. He was right. Now, I don't "Feel Like a Stranger" anymore. The Panda will be around, so look out when you see those Panda ear wearing fools and don't forget to say hello!