By Perry Swan Smith, 1998 solo finisher
Crew: John Loveridge, Julie Freelove, and Cheryl McMurray
I barely manage to see Furnace Creek 508 as a bike race. Mine is a total fascination with the challenge and the opportunity it represents. Win, finish, or quit, it will consume your physical and emotional reserves, and draw deeply on those of your crew. It is an opportunity to find and experience yourself, at your limits.
Reviewing the logbook kept by my crew, I come across a circled entry that reads: "2:00am—IT Hits!" It is the event that defined the ride. It is both the low point and the high point of the race.
I'm nearing the end of the Sheep Hole climb, the final major climb on the course. It's exactly 2:00am, 42 hours and 482 miles into the race, and the sky is a canopy of stars. With five hours remaining before the cutoff time, my cadence is fine, and I'm feeling nothing more than the common seat and foot discomforts. At this pace I will achieve my goal: to finish in 48 hours with no major difficulties.
Then, with less than three miles to the summit, IT hits. I'm watching the flashing lights on someone's support van about 1 mile ahead. Suddenly, the two dancing strobes merge into a single amber blur. My heart rate doubles and I become light-headed. There is a momentary urge to "ride through it," to continue, but I stop. When I step off the bike exhaustion envelops me like a dim shroud out of the night. Had I hit the wall? Was this a bonk in the offing?
I argue for sleep while John and Cheryl help me to a seat in the van. Julie throws a blanket over me.
"I need some sleep," I tell them.
"I don't think you need to sleep," Julie insists. "Your body may shut down and we may not be able to get you going again."
I listen, but I persist. "'Tell you what," I said, laying my head back on the headrest, "just let me shut my eyes for five minutes..."
It was a surprise when five-time RAAM winner Seana Hogan rode up and cruised along during the start on Saturday morning. This year she was a race official and was only accompanying us through the seven-mile parade start. It just seemed odd that this time she wouldn't be there, out front, driving the pace as usual. We chatted briefly. Then my rear wheel slipped in the dropouts, dragging against the chainstay. When I stopped, fixed it, and calmly regained the main group without over-exertion, I knew I could stick to my plan. I wanted to conserve my energy and finish. After two attempts in '96 and '97, I could not have accepted anything short of arriving at the finish line, mounted on my bike. When I finally hit the wall later on the Sheep Hole climb, it was those untapped reserves that helped me to continue.
The first thing I noticed about my riding was that the speed was not there. Not that I expected much. My lack of participation in any organized rides during 1998 was simply showing itself early. I took it as a warning: Don't use what you don't have: spend your jollies on speed now, and you'll pay later—maybe when you can least afford it. That turned out to be a wise decision. As RAAM '88 winner Cindi Staiger so clearly points out: the 508 is a climbing race—35,000 feet in less than two days. If you are not prepared, that climbing catches up with you sooner or later. It caught me on the Sheep Hole climb.
So how much climbing had I done to prepare? None. In fact, besides my weekly 125-150 mile totals, I had only done three 165-mile, self-supported endurance rides in the final eight weeks before the race. Nevertheless, I felt I could keep the bike rolling for two days, and that would be enough to get me across the finish line. So, I resigned to keeping my efforts comfortably within my reserves.
Because of my lack of training, I treated this ride more like a fast tour than a race. Overall during the race, I spent nearly 6 hours off the bike. We stopped for anywhere between 15 minutes and two hours at every time station except California City (#1) and Amboy (#6). There were also several other "convenience" stops along the way. In general, we kept things comfortable, but we kept our focus: Twentynine Palms in 48 hours.
One of the few advantages of not being with the faster riders is the view you have when approaching the turn to Townes Pass. For me, it is the image that portrays the transcendent character of the 508. You arrive after dark. On the approach along Panamint Valley Road you see the lights of three or four riders strung out along the winding climb. It will forever be an image of supernatural effort:
Moving now beyond reason,
They struggle against the mountain
Against the night,
Suspended, clawing skyward
Like souls ascending
Climb #10 is a "mild" but endless 2%-3%, 22-mile grade. Sheep Hole gives you a sense of what Eternity must be like. Your butt hurts, your feet are on fire, your energy level is dropping, and you NEVER reach the summit. Each bend in the road reveals yet another interminable stretch of rough, patchy asphalt. But I was mentally and physically managing these challenges. I was prepared to climb until there was no more "up" left on the planet. Unfortunately, I was blind-sided by the unexpected. But when I faded under that night sky, stars rose to meet me.
My crew this year was a culmination of two years of hounding, cajoling, and good fortune. Though rookies at supporting ultra cycling events, each was a Star in his or her own right. John Loveridge is a English expatriate who has toured several continents and sub-continents, including Nepal and one Trans-America trip on which he met his wife. Sheryl McMurray is an accomplished Orange County California club rider who is consistently at the top of the mileage charts. And Julie Freelove, finishing her Master's Degree in Kinesiology, is a seasoned USCF competitor and 1996 Olympic trialist. When I hit the wall on Sheep Hole, they knew what I wanted and how to help me get there.
Lingering between sleep and delusion, I half listen to Julie's urgent whispers.
"Where is it? John, I put it in that, that..., damn it! Where is it?"
I'm thinking to myself, "Unbelievable. What a crew. Somehow they've managed to smuggle a pint of Baskin Robins Pistachio Almond on-board without my getting a whiff of it. What a treat this is going to be!
I don't know how long it took, but finally someone whispered that they had found it. Oh boy, here it comes!
Julie asks for a spoon, then she says "Perry, I want you to try some of this. This'll help you get going again," she said.
"What...what is it?" I feign ignorance.
"Here, just open your mouth a little," she says. I comply.
She spoons it in. The shock is immediate.
"Blugghh! What The Hell Is That!?" I'm surprised and wide awake. What should have been cold and refreshing, was instead warm and bland, and had the texture of a grainy, runny, regurgitated pudding. It tastes like, like...
In what must have been an inspired moment, Julie had snagged three jars of Gerber's baby food and some glucose tablets back in Baker. She knew I was taking in less of my liquid carbo/protein food, and that I would need easily digestible nutrition to finish. She was right. The baby food helped get me going again, and the nearly tasteless glucose dissolved in water sustained me until the end. I managed the final 26 miles on Gerber's and Glucose, and the inspiration of a peerless crew.
I learned later that the final stretch had been as emotional for them as it was mind-numbing for me. Though there was never a question of not finishing, there was some doubt about ever actually getting there. Discomfort, anticipation, and those final insulting grades stretched the last few miles into a rude gauntlet of cruel formalities. I soon stopped believing it would end. Then, almost as soon as I stopped wishing for it, there it was: the toilet paper, the flash-in-the-face, the crew-hug, the bed, THE END.
I came to experience the challenge and to finish. Cheryl, John, and Julie came to help me achieve my goal. Not one of us was disappointed. We were all "transformed," as advertised. We found that point where commitment and ingenuity overcome physical barriers. We shared an unforgettable moment that had more to do with being alive than riding a bike.