Furnace Creek Race Report

By Tracy Tigger Colwell, 1998 finisher

Furnace Creek 508:

When I won this year's Terrible Two, Jeff Bell, a 508 and RAAM finisher, first asked me if I wanted to try FC508. I did not realize that my success had pinpointed me as a hand-picked, one-and-only rider blessed to receive his services as crew chief. He dedicated himself to doing it perfectly and completely in order to give me every opportunity to succeed. I cannot imagine *anyone* doing a better job. Jeff was beyond belief in coordinating the crew, the van, the supplies, me, the route, the driving (even home afterwards!), etc. To me he was appropriately encouraging, realistic, sympathetic, and helpful. Bummer for everyone else that he retired after this ride.

How best to round out the efforts of such a crew chief? Why, with Team Colwell, the two best women in my life—Julie and Judy. No one gets better support, service, and love along the way than from a wife and mom. It's just not possible to get such attention from friends. Nothing energizes like getting off the bike for a hug break.

And finally, thanks to everyone who knows me or knows of me and wished me good luck. I would have quit if not for knowing that everyone really hoped I would finish. Hard to let that many people down.

On with the story.

The night before was energized. Crews and riders everywhere preparing the vans, chatting, bragging, checking out the competition, wasting nervous energy, etc. I saw at least one rider who looked really strong—Mountaingoat (MG). Good guessing.

As the race started, MG and I chatted briefly about the Tigger nickname. Ironically, he wished he had Tigger. As soon as the flag went down, away we went up a short hill into a canyon. MG told me that he figured I would win if my climbing were up to snuff. He figured to do 'okay' due to his weight (210 lbs, but solid). Boy was he wrong. Up the canyon I went after a fast rider (Walrus/Warthog). I was told too many times to forget, "go steady early on, not fast." And so I just went easy and caught him within 100m of the top, at mile 23. I was feeling great and continued at the front for the next 34 miles, minutes ahead of the next rider. Cross winds turned to headwinds near Mojave and the pack compressed. Still, beyond Mojave I was riding in front until nature's call rotated me to the back of the lead pack. Okay, not even 100 miles yet, not a problem.

The rest of the ride to the base of Townes Pass was rather uneventful. I had a two-way radio setup on the bike so that I could chat with the van while they drove around ahead and behind. I went past others, was passed, watched the antics of various crews, and generally just felt really good. The crowd thinned out to Macaw, MG (a great flat TT rider), and myself.

The bottom of Townes Pass, seemed to be the start of the real race. Macaw was already a few minutes up the climb. MG started up with me after icing his knees. The climb was sloooow after 200 miles, but not exceptionally difficult, and very pretty in the setting sun. When I crested, Macaw was just about to leave after 15 minutes of resting. I changed clothes, ate, and followed. MG crested 10 minutes behind me and left on Macaw's wheels minutes ahead of me. That was the last I would see of MG. The descent was awesome! Pitch black, a chase van's lights bobbing & weaving to keep up, and a long way down, you can imagine the fun and horror of cruising into Death Valley. My max was easily 50 mph, and perhaps higher.

Thus I entered the third century. My eating had been a bit off since my stomach just didn't want food. No nausea, just a feeling like being stuffed after dinner. So, I started in on a liquid diet. The distance from Stovepipe Wells to Furnace Creek (mile 255) was a bit disappointing to me since my legs didn't feel great. At Furnace Creek I started to feel better from the liquid calories, and I spotted Macaw leaving the time station seconds ahead of me. I didn't bother to stop and just went hammering to and past Macaw. It felt great! Finally, a tangible goal—to drop Macaw from my wheel. When I went past, I started doing hill intervals along the valley floor (yes, there are rollers there, everywhere). The first jump broke his grip on my tail. The next few dropped him at least a mile behind. As I said, I was feeling good. Down right bouncy, actually. Riding in the evening with a soup of stars overhead and perfect temperatures is just inspiring.

Exiting the valley proved more difficult. After 60 miles of hard chasing (I kept seeing MG's blinking van lights far ahead), I was tired. Thus, the rather strenuous hills out of the valley taxed me beyond my reserves. I made it over the top, but with no power and utterly demoralized at my inability to gain ground on MG in "my" terrain. I nearly collapsed in the van to eat my soup and crackers. By this point Jeff, Julie, and mom were desperately trying to find something that they could give me to eat. I refused nearly everything, knowing that I couldn't afford to go without food, but not having any desire to eat. Even a banana was taking me five minutes to chew and swallow.

Finally I was packaged up and sent down the hill to Shoshone. I had been told that frequently a tailwind blows riders from Shoshone to Baker. I was so excited when I saw the cat's tails blowing over in that direction! The breeze was stiff, and warm! Then, within the mile, it reverse to a very slight headwind and turned bitterly cold. My quick mental elation was shattered, never to fully recover again during the race. I was so cold that I asked for a sweatshirt from the van to add on top of my three other layers! Conditions were just miserable with the cold, wind, late night (2 am), and long slow climb.

For the next 4 hours I crawled toward Baker. No one visible ahead nor behind. This was absolutely the lowest point of the ride. I got off the bike all too frequently with any excuse to just stand and avoid riding. I would have quit at any time along here except for a few ideas:

  1. People were expecting me to finish
  2. I was expecting to finish
  3. I was still in 2nd place
  4. Over half way was too much effort to abandon

The crew was nearly besides themselves watching me sink from my elation only six hours previous, to this fatigued and emotional wreck. Each took turns encourage me in some way just trying to find the right words that would make me perk up somehow. I still had the desire to stay ahead of the next guy, but I didn't really want to work too hard for it.

We hit Baker at 6 am, and I just wanted to stop. Seana Hogan was there and piled on some words of encouragement. So, I started up the climb to Kelso. Twenty-one miles. When you are doing sub-11 mph, this is very demoralizing. Two hours to climb a rather simple hill is sick humor at its worst and I was not laughing. The sun rose around 7 am, and I crested at 8 am. Macaw arrived only 15 minutes behind me (ten minutes after I left the peak). Down we went to Kelso, and up the next climb toward Amboy (another 1.5 hour effort!). Again, no visible competition anywhere behind us. Again, Macaw is reported only minutes behind me on the descent. Something terribly disturbing about not being able to see your opponent.

On the descent into Amboy, I finally lose it. I cannot handle the damn road surfaces anymore. My feet and butt are too sore to even enjoy the downhills due to the ancient chip-seal surfaces. Jeff reduced my tire pressure to the point where I could at least ride. With this something clicked and I started to hammer. How does one hammer at mile 440? I don't know. I just know that my mind and pain receptors when elsewhere and I felt completely separated from my legs. Then I watched my speed climb until I was doing 20+ mph on the descent into Amboy and also on the slight rise back out. Very weird. I hit the final climb and kept the power smooth, holding a rather quality speed up Sheephole to the summit. For point of reference, MG had built up nearly an hour gap on me by Baker, and my efforts from Kelso onward cut that down to 38 minutes by the finish line.

Finally, the end in sight and not the tiniest sighting of Macaw behind me on the climb (eight miles, nearly straight). So, down into 100 degree air. I quickly overheated and was iced down sufficiently to continue. Onward with a tailwind to the finish. Finishing has never looked so sweet! With only a few miles to go, the vans from Team Barracuda went whipping by to deposit their riders 1km from the finish so that everyone could ride in together. As I went by them, their rider nearly caught me. I'll be damned if I was going to let someone/anyone beat me to the line at this point!! So, as their team spit two riders OTF to chase me down, I opened up the engines with full afterburner. Hell, why not dump all the fuel at the end of the ride, eh? So, I sprinted them at nearly 30 mph for the last 300 meters.

Finishing was unlike any accomplishment I've ever had before. Parts of the ride were fantastic. When I had a chance to look, the landscape was awesome. But, I've never asked my body for so much effort for so long. I've never hurt so much, nor been so demoralized, nor been so totally burnt out. The true test of the pain level is how quickly your brain dumps the memory. By Monday morning the pain memory was totally gone. I've vowed to never do this again.

I nearly won, and did it in pretty good style. Heck, I was able to walk away, unlike poor Mountaingoat (phenomenal rider!). I now have a totally new appreciation for people like Seana who do this over and over, and sprinkle the experience with RAAM. Thanks, but this is one Tigger who will take this experience and walk away. I'm sure I will eat these words someday.

Click here to see this same story with photographs at chainreaction.com.