A Weekend in Hell?

By Dan Mountaingoat McGehee, 1998 solo champion

Three years ago, a close friend mentioned that there was this insane bicycle race that went through Death Valley and was something like 500 miles long. I was coming down off a long season of triathlon racing, that concluded with the Ironman in Hawaii, and I could not imagine why anyone would want to ride that far nonstop. When he added that there was over 35,000 feet of climbing, I told him that the people that do that stuff should be committed to a mental institution. Besides, Clydesdales like me (6'3", 210 lbs. ) cannot climb well enough to even finish such an event. However, with getting off the bike in 35th at the Ironman and ending up 212th, I had a lot of time to think about alternative ways to punish myself that did not involve getting passed by so many people. I conceded to the fact that I would most likely never break four hours in an Ironman marathon, and began competing in other forms of endurance racing. For some reason, I was not able to forget that race in Death Valley.

After two years, with a considerable bicycle-specific endurance base, I decided to try this seemingly inane event. The only reasons I could come up were that it was there and I had not done it yet. Besides, it couldn't be that hard, right?

Well, I haven't been committed (yet), but I certainly was admitted. To elucidate, here is my narrative, as best I can recall, on the Furnace Creek 508. Parts of it come back to me, little by little, sometimes in an acid-flashback sort of way, and I'm still having this weird dream that I'm on a ride that doesn't seem to have a finish.

The pre-race dinner was interesting. It was a nice touch to introduce all the athletes and their crews. Each rider, and crew, is given an animal "totem" as a means of identification, instead of a race number. I was sitting across the table from a group of Japanese athletes wearing RAAM shirts. That was very intimidating. One of them was the "Macaw" and been training for this race in Southern California for the last four months. Unfortunately, their lack of English prevented me from milking them of information that would help me decide what level of threat their rider was. In fact, I didn't even know which one was the rider until the next morning at the start line.

I was given the totem "Mountaingoat." This seemed a most unlikely emblem for a person of my size. However, as it turned out, I found my totem to be quite inspirational

I had never slept so well the night before a race. A hot bath and good flushing massage had me totally relaxed. More than that, though, was the confidence I had in my crew. I knew that when I awoke, my bike would be good to go and that any problem I would have could be solved by this most competent group of men. We had a great camaraderie and I would miss being in the van with them during the race. My belief is that in these types of races you have to have a total team, the rider just provides the legs. Without their support, both physical and emotional, there is no way I would have even attempted this race, let alone finished.

The 7:00 AM start was chilly, but the sky was relatively clear and it looked like it would turn out to be a nice day, with the weather anyway. With Magic Mountain in the background, we were on our way. The first four miles is considered a neutral zone, and I spent this time talking with "Tigger." I really wanted his totem, because it is cool, and easy to represent. He knew all the Tigger lines, and what Tigger's do best (everything), so I had to quell my desire to grab his totem and run for the hills. He told me he had won the Terrible Two this year, with around 18,000 feet of climbing, so I knew right away that I would be chasing him on the hills. My advantage was that I had erased, for the day, my fear of going downhill out of control. I was determined to prove that you truly can make up on the downhills what you lose on the uphills - you just have to enter a 500 mile race, and have a fighting weight of 210, to make it work.

After the neutral zone, no drafting or pacing is allowed, and I was shocked at how fast some of these guys (and ladies) went out. This race was 508 miles long, right? The first 20 miles was a moderate climb, and I found myself hovering at AT to keep the large group ahead of me in sight. By the first descent, things settled down a bit and I felt more relaxed.

It was fairly uneventful for the first century. A lot of riders up front, jockeying around and trying to get a feel for who was strong. I was amazed at how often the other riders would stop—to pee, to get food, to talk with their crew. I had decided that the race would not really start until Townes Pass (mile 212), so it would be in my best interest to stay on the bike and keep moving until then. I kept waiting for the famous tailwind that was supposed to push us along the flat stretches as we headed northeast from Valencia through Mojave, California City, Johannesburg, Trona, and Panamint Valley. I'm still waiting. With the lack of tailwind, my worry of getting far off the back increased and I continuously asked my support crew how the riders looked up front. I could not believe how hard some of them were riding, or at least my perception was that they were trying to push the pace.

Instead of a tailwind, we had to push a variable head and crosswind, so it seemed senseless to expend so much energy so early. On the other hand, perhaps their tactic was to push hard for the first 200 and then hold on, so I decided to stay within at least ten minutes of the leaders.

My first bout of anxiety came when turning right onto Hwy 58 (mile 68). I knew the next turn was only 200 yards later but the truck traffic was so bad that I could not see anything ahead. Trying to get into the traffic lanes was a real task and when I finally got to the light I started sprinting to make the left turn arrow. I didn't make it and had to sit at the light for almost three minutes while thinking about how the six or seven riders in front of me were making free time. Pisser.

The hills did not bother me until the short climb at Randsburg. It was a needed wake up call for my legs and it was time to shed the leg warmers. This brings up the other factor I'm still waiting for—the heat on the first day. I knew that attrition would be in my favor if it got really, really hot. Being from southern Arizona, I was used to, and hoping for, 105–110 degrees. The race roster showed very few riders that would have the potential to efficiently handle that extreme. Well, the east/northeast winds prevented the heat from developing and I was feeling more depressed about my chances of winning by default. The highest temperature I saw on my Trek Radar was 89, but most of the day it hung at 82-86. My crew was ecstatic. Al, Jon, and Steve are from Arizona and this low temperature made for a beautiful day. Phil, from Boulder, was all business; having crewed for this race before, he knew what lay ahead. He had the splits down to the second and continued to stress that I maintain my own pace.

Finally we were on our way to the Townes Pass turnoff. The road winds around and around and around so you can get a good look at the mountain, and it provided me with the time I needed to mentally prepare for climbing. We hit the corner (200 miles) at 5:34 PM. Not only was I over an hour behind schedule, but Tigger was right behind me and there was an individual and a tandem on the hill already. This was my first real stop. The lack of heat had not necessitated a change in shorts until now. The Chamois Butt’r was a god-send, and I was using it every 45–50 miles. Better yet, I was peeing twice as often (on the bike of course) so I knew I was well hydrated. I was off the bike here for three minutes as I changed shorts and switched to a climbing bike. I would have liked to change socks and jersey, and maybe a quick sponge bath, but Tigger was moving fast to get on the road again.

I pulled out just ahead of Tigger, but he was well past me within a mile. Letting him ride away from me up the hill was the first mental challenge of the race. I was tempted to try to keep him in sight so I would be able to create a bigger gap on the downhill. The way the road winds around was a plus, though, because before long I could not see where he was and I could concentrate solely on my heartrate. The setting sun was a majestic backdrop for the climb and is a memory I will always cherish. It was so peaceful and I felt so calm about my position in the race. About halfway up, Chris Kostman, the race director, came by and we had a nice chat. I told him that I was sure I would catch Tigger on the long descent into Furnace Creek. Very few people can descend with the reckless abandon that I have. The problem would come when we hit the Salsberry and Jubilee climbs, at the south end of Death Valley, because of how steep they are.

Townes Pass was, to me, nothing short of controlled chaos. There were a dozen cars, all had flashers and headlights on, and there were people all around us but it was so dark that we could not tell who were the race officials and who were the riders, or if any of them were riders. The camera flashes were countless and in some cases blinding relative to the darkness. This is the first part where I get to say that I feel the four member of my support crew are the most special individuals I have had the opportunity to spend time with. These guys were all over me like a pit-bull on a preschooler. They kept me focused during the stop and their efficiency was incredible. In four minutes, they had massaged my legs, changed my clothes to cold weather gear (with clear glasses and aero helmet), fed me 500 calories (SPIZ is the only way to go), switched my bike over, and had me on the road.

The downhill was a blast! A total adrenaline rush. I had to contain my excitement because I knew that there would be a let-down when we hit the bottom. My 20-watt Vista lighting system worked well, and bright enough for me to see my speedometer that topped out at 57 mph, and for at least 8 miles did not drop below 50 mph. With a 55/11, I was kicking myself for not having them put on a 56 or 57. When the speed dropped below 45 I could pedal to keep up my momentum. This descent is not for the weak of heart (neither is the rest of the 508). The winding road and the intense blackness made it impossible to tell where we came from or where we were going. The oversized support van, provided courtesy of Dominics Cyclery in Tempe, had difficulty negotiating the turns at my speed, and fell behind a few times. Each turn brought more fun as I would extend out of the support vehicle headlights and hope that I would be able to discern the next turn before it shot at me out of the darkness.

I pushed hard to close the gap. A light would appear and then it would vanish. Again and again this happened as if to taunt me. The lights were never straight ahead, always off to the right a little, and I began to believe I was having a retinal detachment. I had not expected such quiet nothingness. Certainly the tandem could outrun me on this terrain, but I watched Tigger and the Macaw closely on the flats and knew they were at a disadvantage.

We came upon Time Station #3, at Furnace Creek, so quickly that I had no time to gather my thoughts and ask questions as to the time gap. I was flying now, finally in my element, and I love to be the hunter. The right turn to Badwater provided no information either, so I intensified my chase knowing the next 42 miles through Death Valley would be critical. If I could not gain contact by the Salsberry climb, my weaker climbing skills would certainly only increase the mysterious deficit. The addition of music had a huge impact on my morale, and lifted my spirits. Each mile was exactly like the last, and it seemed endless. The light of the half-moon was beginning to peak over the eastern wall of the valley as I approached the turn. This was a blessing and a curse—the light helped me mentally, but seeing how high the mountains were was a trade off.

Time to switch bikes again, and no riders in sight. This time I was in no hurry. I felt I must be quite behind and a rest at the bottom of the Salsberry climb would help me to ride nonstop to Baker. The Officials van was sitting there, but totally dark. Our noise must have awakened them and a lady came out. Our inquiry concerning the split produced a look of confusion as she said, "There's been no one else." I never hopped on a bike so quickly. Apparently, the other riders were at Townes Pass when I got there and I was the first to descend into Death Valley.

The testosterone was really flowing up the climb. In daylight I would have had a different perspective of speed, but I do not feel I have ever climbed that fast. With blatant disregard for my quads, I climbed in my 55/21 and 55/23 to the top of Salsberry, coasted the one mile drop between the climbs, and repeated the punishment over Jubilee. I thought I was in the Tour de France—climbing next to Ullrich and Pantani. It's amazing how good a hallucination can make you feel.

This precipitated the only mental black out of the race. I do not remember any part of Ibex Pass, the following downhill, or other aspects of the course until 22 miles outside of Baker. Wait, that's not entirely true. I do remember seeing a sign for some Dunes, but I'm not sure where. It seemed as if I was climbing for hours, but my support crew continued to indicate the course map showed gradual rollers. About every 30 seconds I would ask them when the downhill part of the roller was coming, and where the hell Baker was.

There was a lot of discussion, not all entirely cordial, until we saw the sign. It rose up out of the ground as if it had just then sprouted roots and was growing fast just to spite me. "I-15 Baker 17 miles." I was demoralized and stopped my bike to let the discomfort in my low back engulf me. Where was I? Do I have the will to continue? If the pain becomes too intense, I will not have to get on my bike again, right? I'm I inventing this pain as an excuse to drop out? Why am I such a pussy? It's only 17 miles, uphill, into the wind, with ten feet of snow and I'm barefoot riding a Schwinn Continental with flat mountain bike tires. Why aren't there any bugs, or snakes, or anything living? Who talked me into this stupid event? Are these words coming out of my mouth or am I just thinking them? Why do the guys have such a blank look on their faces? I know they're not aliens; that only happens to RAAM guys. Besides, there is nothing wrong with my mind. But if that's true, then why am I standing in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. Alright, I'll get back on my bike if you guys can tell me exactly how far it is to Baker? What sign?

Baker was heaven. There was light, there were cars, there were people, and there was a mandatory stop to get gas. That's when I realized that I had not imagined the pain in my low back. Damn that John Hughes - now he has me really regretting that I don't do sit-ups. We had dropped the handlebars for better aerodynamics before the downhill into Death Valley, and had forgotten to raise them back up. I literally fell off the bike trying to dismount. "I meant to do that" (Pee-Wee Herman, 1986). Lying on pavement never felt so good. Why is my crew trying to stand me up? Can't they see how much more comfortable I am down here? I'm sure they can find other more important things to do. Jon is a big, tall guy, too. But if he hurts his back lifting me up, what will we do then? Not to mention the liability issues. And there are these two guys standing there looking at me like I dropped out of the sky. Who are these guys? Where is their car? I'm not a side show act and this ain't no circus (at least the first part was right). "It's 4 in the morning; don't you two have jobs?" There is nothing like having an experienced massage therapist around to make the pain more extreme. "It only hurts when you touch the skin, Steve." At this point, getting back on the bike was a relief compared to the misery of massage.

The climb out of Baker was something straight out of a nightmare. This was supposed to be the kind of climb I was good at, and I really hate being the hunted. It's about 21 miles of 2. 5 to 4% grades that gets longer with every turn. Halfway up the hill the tandem passed me. How could they go so fast up this hill? For the first time, I was seriously afraid of being caught. Then the first team rider came by so quickly that my heart skipped a few beats as I had thought, at first glance, it was an individual rider. The sunrise was a disadvantage, as now I could not look back for headlights. The crew continued to remind me that I would go faster up the hill if would stop looking back down it. Finally, the downhill. It was horrible. I felt like I had succumbed to one of Lon Haldeman's "let's try that road" adventure rides. The ass was already numb, but it was the quads that really took a beating. I can not imagine riding that stretch (or the road before/after Amboy) without a Softride beam. Granite Pass paled in comparison and the subsequent 20 mile downhill nailed down my lead.

Then we hit the salt fields. What part of Dante's Inferno did this come out of? This ravaged my lungs in short order. My breathing became increasingly more shallow, and taking a deep breath required me to stop pedaling for 5–6 seconds at a shot. It was becoming apparent that I had not fully recovered from the previous week's bout of bronchitis. Each deep breath was immediately followed by intense coughing and the subsequent expectoration of blood. At first it was a dry, filmy type of production that did not have me too concerned, as the air was terribly dry and salty, so I thought this was just a temporary reaction.

Looking at Sheep Hole Pass, the last climb, for 22 miles really pissed me off. It did not seem to get any closer as we wound around in the "moon" fields. I had never seen terrain like this before. Blotchy expanses of salt covered earth with intermittent zones of craterous dried mud. At mile 470, just before the climb started, I lost my desire to ride. I had to get off my bike to breathe and stretch my back. I still could not believe how good my legs felt. I had no soreness or stiffness in any part of either leg, but my low back was trashed from a combination of climbing and trying to stay in a flat back aero position for so long.

Lying down for a back massage and stretching turned out to be a terrible mistake. As soon as I stood up, I lost my vision, a total white out. I knew it was blood flow related and not neurological, but it freaked me out and I was afraid I would not be able to get back on the bike in time to maintain the lead. To be frank, at the time I really did not have any thought of quitting, or on the other hand, finishing. I felt very apathetic toward the entire race. I only had one thought—I do not want to get passed. The role of the hunted is one I do not enjoy (did I mention that yet?). Fortunately, the last time station in Amboy had reported that my lead was over an hour, so we figured I had a little time to kill. This play time cost me 16 minutes.

In retrospect, I realize that if I had allowed myself to get passed, especially while lying on the side of the road, I would have had a hard time completing the race. I can now see how racers can be in the lead near the finish and then end up third or fourth. I was not going to let that happen to me. I had spent far too much time looking over my shoulder and now it was time to suck it up and finish what I started. A season of night riding, boring desert centuries and monotonous Computrainer spinscanning was not going to go to waste just because of a dry cough and a tight back. As my vision cleared, with the help of a few good slaps and a gallon of ice water over my head, I looked up the hill and forced myself to imagine going over the top.

My crew was unbelievable. Through the night, they had each fallen into their respective roles and they now operated with military efficiency. Al Schott, from Mesa, was the head honcho. He was the voice of reason and kept pushing them to get me back on the bike as he has ridden a lot with me and respects my resolve. Phil Emery, from Boulder, was giving me off-the-bike splits every 30 seconds. He knew that every minute I would get more annoyed by the increasing delay, and the decreasing lead. Jon Kircher, from Tempe, was the only one big enough to hold me up, and he was a good sport about the inconvenience. And Steve Burton, the massage therapist new to this type of racing, was able to quickly pinpoint my physical problems and knew precisely what dosage of pain would be needed to achieve our goal. A better team a racer could not have.

Sheep Hell Pass seemed like it would never end. Just when you get around the corner, there is more. I could not breathe well at all, which made it even more miserable. I had been reduced to short, shallow, hyperventilation-like breaths. When I reached the top and stopped pushing so hard I was able to get a couple deep breaths in, but with every deep breath it seemed that it just opened more alveolae for the mucous to accumulate in. The deep breaths continued to be followed by intense coughing, and now associated with teaspoon-sized clumps of blood. I reasoned that whether I quit or not, it would take me just as long to recover from the race, so I continued to pedal.

The last 25 miles we finally had a little tailwind, but it was negated by the gradual slope of the road up into Twentynine Palms. I got slower and slower all the way into town. I knew I was losing time, but figured that if they were going to catch me, it would have happened back at Sheep Hole. The snail’s pace finally got me there. I actually slowed down on purpose for the last 5–6 miles so I would look half alive at the finish. I did not want to cross the line and pass out—that would be embarrassing. I really wanted to look the part of a champion and stroll across the finish with an effortless ambiance. Then hop off my bike and kiss the feet of my support crew. Obviously, I was delusional. The breathing felt a lot better with the slow pace and now the back was my only flaw.

I hope I looked better than I felt as I crossed the line. I still had to have help getting off my bike; there was this little matter of getting my leg over my saddle. It was hard to walk on my own because standing up straight required contraction of back muscles that no longer existed. I actually felt as if I had forgotten what walking was like, as I had not walked more than ten steps in the preceding 30 hours.

I was good as new for about 50 minutes, if you don't count coughing up blood and not being able to stand. But after that, my stomach decided it had not gotten the appropriate attention and the vomiting started. It didn't end for 12 hours. Within an hour of finishing I was in the local ER being treated like a pin cushion. I explained to the ER staff that my hemoglobin levels would probably look better if they would stop taking a liter every half hour.

Immediate diagnosis: pneumonia. Then the blood enzymes came back with a CPK of 6889 (normal is 25–188). They were concerned; I was numb. The ER doctor was dancing around trying to either get me admitted or turf me out. I was totally coherent and intensely disturbed (as well as vocal) by his lack of desire to communicate his findings to me. There are times when the phrase "I know you’re only an Optometrist" really opens a vein. In his absence I took the liberty to review my chart. My hemoglobin, hematocrit, RBC's, and platelets were all in the basement. Apparently, when you do not get enough oxygen, your muscles start to eat themselves and spew the residual enzymes into the bloodstream—I'll have to research this more and decide how to avoid it in the future (My wife's research on avoiding this is already complete). The ER's fear must have been of myocardial muscle injury, as this is the most common reason for elevated CPK levels in normal individuals. I explained to them that if I were normal, I would not have ridden the 508 (but that would be a mental status issue, now wouldn't it).

In any case, after much debate, I was shipped down to the ICU at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs where I spent a splendid night with my friends: the emesis basin and Ringer's saline drip. A few days on hospital food and I was begging to be released on good behavior. The CPK had dropped to 3201 and I hadn't had heart or respiratory failure, so they figured I'd live to make it home. I really didn't feel all that bad, Lord knows I was hydrated enough.

For any riders considering this race, I can not emphasize enough how important it is to know what your nutritional requirements are before you start. I maintained an almost exclusively liquid diet by using SPIZ. This provides for all the calories, nutrients, and electrolytes that are needed per hour. On the longer, harder climbs I drank a weak sports drink, like Gatorade, to keep the sugars up, and then loaded up on the SPIZ on the descent to catch up on my calories. I find it hard to hold down calories while climbing hard, so this worked well for me.

With this combination, I was able to average 450 calories per hour along with the needed water for hydration. 508 miles, 30 hours and 55 minutes, 46 minutes worth of stops, 24 gallons of water, 13,920 calories, no sleep, and not even one flat. I can not thank my support crew, enough for all the help they provided, and my sponsors—Dominics Cyclery, Bicycle Wheelers, and SPIZ—for backing me when everyone else was saying I was crazy to do such a long race.

Honestly, at my size, if I can do Furnace Creek, any able-bodied cyclist can do it, too. After the memories of countless short races fade, this certainly is an experience that every rider will never forget. That about sums it up. Hope I didn't bore you with the details. I do wonder when the numbness in my toes will go away.

But, the next time someone says, "Go To Hell," I'll be able to honestly say: "Been there, done that."