The Nanosaurus' Furnace Creek 496

By Rick Amoeba Anderson, crew for Stuart Nanosaurus Nibbelin, 1998 508 entrant

A subscriber to this list (sorry, I accidentally deleted the message before I noted his/her name) commented on Stuart Nanosaurus Nibbelin's 496 mile FC508 effort with something more-or-less like "ouch, so close." The official reason listed after his DNF was "out of time." But like so many short summaries, this does not come close to telling the entire story. In fact, after riding a steady race through two days and two nights Nanosaurus reached the twelve-miles-left point around 4:30 am—two and a half hours before the 48 hour cutoff. If anything in our sport from which a cyclist walks away can be characterized as tragic, then this qualifies.

Sleep deprivation is what actually beat Stuart. The long miles and associated physical exhaustion were only secondary causes. I have either raced or crewed enough Ultra events that I foolishly thought I was prepared for just about anything a rider could throw at me. But when Stuart entered his own private Twilight Zone, I was hopelessly helpless. What follows is a reconstruction of the events leading up to the meltdown. I would sincerely appreciate anyone who could give me some hints on how to more successfully deal with similar situations in the future.

Over the course of day one Nanosaurus cycled over the first several climbs and the high desert roads according to the race plan that he and his coach, John Hughes, had developed. His goal was to finish the Qualifier while riding conservatively within sub-AT heart rate ranges. This put him near the back early in the race but kept him on the road and clicking off the miles. He stuck to his eating and drinking schedule making the job of his crew (Art, Tracy, David and me) fairly easy. He descended into darkness off the Trona Bump and rode into and across Death Valley before watching the Sun brighten the eastern skies. After simultaneously reaching the 24 hour and 300 mile points on Sunday morning, Stuart reluctantly deduced that he would be riding into another night; a prospect that didn't excite him very much. But he continued to put the hills behind him, reaching the base of the Granites before bidding the sun adieu for a second time.

Shortly after he started the climb, he asked how far it was until the next turn. As he was midway through a 100 mile turn-less section of the 508, I dismissed his question with a curt "it's a long long ways." But again, several miles below the summit with several other racers ahead in clear view, Stuart once more asked me about the turn. This time I explained to him that it was at the T-intersection some 20-25 miles away, after the summit and the never-ending descent. I further explained to him that I knew the course forwards and backwards and promised not to get him lost. I still couldn't figure out why he was concerned; perhaps, I thought, some crewmember had planted the thought. At this stop he also reported seeing animals lurking along the roadside. We tried to assure him that they were only sagebrush shadows cast from his and the pace car's headlights, but he didn't seem to accept the explanation. My only near-hallucinatory experience involved similar sightings, so I wasn't too concerned. (Ok, there was that singular occurrence of the walking rocks, but no need to go into that now.) Finally, he complained that the terrain never changed and that he felt he was making no progress. That's the desert all right; and at night it can seem even more constant. For a rider trying to mark progress, he can't look to road for clues. Our constantly repeated mantra of "Eat, Stuart" and "Drink, Stuart" certainly didn't help things either.

An hour later while he was circling the shores of Amboy's dry Bristol Lake, he confidently announced that Twentynine Palms was only six miles away. I told him that it was much further away; 40 miles or so, some 25 miles past the Sheephole Mountains. He argued that we were already over Sheephole. I corrected him again and he seemed content.

After a strong effort up the race's inexcusably steep tenth and final climb, we chanced upon Mike Wilson and Chris Kostman at the summit (out for a spin at 3:00 in the morning; don't these guys have ANYTHING to do?). After a brief conversation with Stuart they sped back towards Twentynine Palms. Stuart acknowledged their visit at his next pee stop, but asked me why I didn't stop to get my Explorer. We had been using my "FC508 RQ"-licenced vehicle for go-fer errands; one of the crew had to leave the team early and had driven it to Twentynine Palms. So I reminded Stuart that it was waiting for us there but he steadfastly stuck to his story; it WAS back there. As we left the bitterly cold summit, Stuart once more mentioned that we were only six miles from the end. It didn't seem worthwhile to discuss that with him immediately as he already was clicked in for the descent. We let it go and fretted amongst ourselves about how we were going to break the news to Stuart that in reality it was about four times as far.

As we start the final crawl along the very gradual climb to Twentynine Palms, Stuart seemed to find all sorts of reasons to stop. Pee breaks came at ten minute intervals. These were alternated with breaks to put on or take off extra clothes. But after a short talk with him about the need to keep moving, he seemed to buckle down and charge off westward at an invigorated clip. The next several miles were uneventful, with the exception of the sudden dash Stuart made into the oncoming traffic lane. He didn't seem to be too concerned about it, perhaps, we reasoned, since he was at the low point of one of his very predictable 90 minute wakefulness cycles. We decided to watch him very carefully—especially if he was still riding after the Monday morning commute traffic hit the desert. Oh yes, and then there was the stop that he told me he was ready to go back to the motel ("Keep riding; we're almost there.").

By 4 am we had reached and almost passed the Wonder Valley Fire Station "penalty box" when Stuart suddenly darted into the parking lot and circled back east. We caught up with him quickly and asked him what was going on. He again complained that we were taking him in circles; that he had already ridden these roads several times. We did our best to dispute this. He more forcefully told us he wanted to go back to the motel; that he was tired of all this riding around. Finally, he acquiesced to our prodding and resumed his westward progress.

About a mile later at 4:30 am, all hell broke loose. Without any warning, he U-turned and sped off to the east. We chased him down only to have him to U-turn and sprint off once more (showing considerably more life than he had for hours). This time I jumped out of the car during the pursuit so that I could tackle him on his next reversal. But he simply pulled up in the oncoming lane and waited for us. I pulled him out of the road. With wide-eyed alertness, he told us that he was onto our game. That it was Wednesday and the race had been over for two days. That he had already earned his jersey. That we had taken him out to repeatedly retrace the route that he had already cycled; he had "seen" the roadsigns to prove this. That he didn't know why we were doing it, but he didn't want to be trapped in our "Twilight Zone." During all of this he was wide awake and completely sure of all his claims.

We did our best to convince him otherwise. We explained our version of reality to him; that he was both physically and mentally tired after riding through two days and two nights but needed to cycle the last twelve miles into town to claim his prize. He tried to prove it was Wednesday by showing us the date on his bike computer but unfortunately its batteries had died. We tried to prove it was Monday by listening to radio news reports; he didn't accept the weather or Football reports as indirect evidence that it was Monday. He couldn't explain why his crew would pull such a stunt, but that didn't particularly bother him. I briefly considered slapping him back to his senses but decided that that only worked in the movies. I thought maybe we should try humoring him: ("Ok, you figured us out. Let's not go in circles any more. But there's no room in the car so you'll have to lead us to the motel.) but was worried that such a strategy could backfire. And I feared that if allowed to sleep, we wouldn't be able to wake him until well after the 48-hour cutoff. We continued trying to talk Stuart into continuing until my brother finally lit upon something to which Stuart acceded; he would finish the race if we found Chris Kostman in Twentynine Palms and he told him that it was Monday, although he was sure that Chris had days ago. We hurriedly marked his position on the course, loaded up the car and sped off towards the Best Western. I was worried that we had already permanently pushed him over the edge. In any case, I kept my thumb on his door lock to prevent any attempt he might make to escape the moving car.

There in Twentynine Palms, Chris proved to us what a class act he really is. After rousing him from a nap in his car, I explained the situation. I half expected him to immediately disqualify Stuart, but instead he jumped up and in his most convincing authoritative posture voice Stuart into continuing. Stuart seemed pretty confused but agreed to return to the race. After Chris gave Stuart some hot chocolate we hightailed our way back up the course. However, on the return trip Stuart almost appeared to be a broken man. Where on the drive into Twentynine Palms he had babbled on about his predicament, one the return trip he was quiet and sleepy. I had to constantly remind him of the agreement, constantly remind him of the "hot chocolate" evidence that we had really talked to Chris, and constantly shake him to keep him awake. And no matter how hard I tried to coax him otherwise, he stubbornly refused to put his cycling gear back on until we were back at the re-start point.

When we got there we were surprised to see Chris immediately pull up behind us. Once more he told Stuart that he expected him to finish then sped off to meet several cyclists who were about to finish. (Chris: that was way above and beyond the call of duty; thank you very much.) For the next half hour or so as I struggled to keep him awake Stuart slowly put on his gloves, helmet and jacket while violently resisting any help. Yes, he would put his clothes back on. Yes, he wanted to ride his bike in. Yes, he knew he could ride his bike. But nothing was happening. Once dressed, he remembered his morning pill ritual and we quickly found the "Monday baggie." Again, while he would accept no help he was completely confused about how to take them himself. At last he managed his arthritis medication and agreed to postpone the vitamins until later.

Then there was nothing left to do but get out of the car and back on the bike. But we couldn't budge him. He was in no particular rush since he remembered Chris mentioning that he would be at the motel until the 8:30 post-race breakfast. At the same time, he started nodding off only seconds after each time I would shake him awake. A few trucks flew by at over 65 mph and we decided that we would only let Stuart continue if he could maintain a straight line. Stuart agreed to ride in if once on the bike we didn't talk him, although he didn't mind if we followed right behind him. (Stuart had memorized the course ahead of time and was confident that he could find his own way.) I finally dragged his feet out of the car , and nearly in tears, he vigorously resisted. But there was no getting him any further. Another car sped by. Stuart nodded off once more.

So at 6:45, we finally faced the decision that we had avoided for so long; the Nanosaurus' race was over. I got Stuart's attention and cheerily told him that "he" had made the right decision to quit; that it simply wasn't safe for anyone to be cycling on those busy roads. I assured him that he had ridden a great race and should be very proud of his effort. Then I suggested he should get some sleep. He immediately fell into a stupor that survived me shifting him back into the car, removing his helmet and Oakley's and buckling him into his seat belt. As a spectacular sunrise followed us into Twentynine Palms for a final time, the car was very quiet. Stu awoke briefly as we transferred him into his motel bed. An hour later he awoke, complained that it felt like someone had bashed in his head but seemed not to remember anything of the evening's events. Several hours later we woke him once more for the ride to LAX; he asked if he had qualified and was content with an explanation that only a few cyclists did. He sensed that something wasn't quite right but didn't particularly want to talk about it; he seemed to remember a dream in which he repeatedly retraced the course and had a disagreement with his crew—but not much more. Before we left him and Art at the American gate for the return flight to Texas, I told him that he had DNF'd at mile 496 and would be happy to talk to him about it whenever he was ready for it.

Anyway, that's what I believe happened. I had gone without sleep for the entire event, so my recollection of the evening's events may be somewhat suspect. I will forever be extremely proud of the effort Stuart put out and the entire crew's excellent performance. I again want to thank Chris for his role in trying to cut through Stuart's hallucinations (and for his good-natured tolerance of my recent cyberspace amoeba/animal drivel). I'm sure there will be many stories coming from this year's 508, but I can hardly imagine that any could be more bizarre than this.