By Jeff Bubba Shrimp Stephens, 1998 solo finisher
Chalk one up for the big guy. Chalk one up for all the "normal guys" that shouldn't be able to compete in such elite company. Chalk one up for a midwestern flat-lander. Chalk one up for the guy from Michigan and all the other folks that can't ride outdoors for four months of winter. Chalk one up for the guy that has a "real job" and works over 40 hours a week. Chalk one up for the guy who's physique belongs on a football field...not a bicycle.
The Furnace Creek 508 was my targeted "peak" event for the year. I finished. You can too. If...you plan your training and stay true to your plan.
I had always wanted to do the 508, primarily to get the animal totem. The whole totem concept captures the light-heartedness we cycle for in the first place. We're doing this for fun, right? Sure...we've found ourselves deep in the niche of the cycling sport that forces us to become preoccupied with goalsetting, flexibility, and perseverance. But, if we don't remember to be a lighthearted, fringe element...we're destined to become a lunatic fringe.
Last year, about a month before the 508, I hinted to John that I'd like to come on out and get my totem. He calmly suggested I wait a year, and give myself plenty of time to work up to this tough race. In retrospect, a very wise suggestion. That's why he's the coach. I never doubted I could finish the race; but with a year's preparation under my belt, I was in condition to enjoy the experience.
My anxieties mounted with each approaching day. On The Red Rocks Tour in May, all the 508 vets (my eventual crew) were comparing the climbs of New Mexico and Colorado with the climbs I would encounter on the 508. As we climbed each day, they said things like, "So and so climb is just like this...just 10 miles longer. But Townes Pass is much steeper. Well...Jubilee and Salsberry are pretty hard too. Don't forget Shoshone." Jeez...a one-mile climb in Michigan is considered a mountain. How would I survive 35,000 ft. of climbing at the 508?
God bless Charlie Liskey. He kept telling me all year, "Bubba, the 508 is built for us big guys. There's over 100 miles of serious descending! You'll make up plenty of time there." And thanks to Ried and Seana for confirming that mentality at the start line. "Bubba, we're not great climbers...the 508 is won on the flats. Just ride a steady race and you'll do great!"
Rick Anderson sent me detailed route descriptions which really helped me get a vision of the course before the race. I had no clue what to expect and ten major climbs is enough to put fear in even this crazy rugby player! Steve Born also sent descriptions of the climbing and tried to ease my anxiety. But, those guys trying to tell me about climbing is like Tiger Woods saying, "Oh, don't worry, it's a short par five."
And Steve Born...our resident excitable boy. He sent me a daily motivational e-mail for over a month. His motivationals were rather *spicy*...and certainly sent a clear message that he expected me to be a contender. I mentioned my anxieties about the terrain on several occasions and Steve just brushed them off. He continued with his *explicit* trash talk and helped ease my tension with laughter. Funny...his daily motivationals helped me never doubt that I would finish.
Despite the anxiety of actually doing the race, the logistical preparation of getting my bikes and equipment to southern California weighed more heavy on my mind. If my anxiety is any indication, I have a newfound admiration for the headaches one must overcome to just get to the starting line of RAAM! Thank goodness I had the ultimate crew for the 508. Three previous 508 finishers made my "zoo crew" an all totem crew...the Beaver, the Lizard, and the Tree Slug. These guys really made me feel at ease from the moment I got off the plane. All I had to do was ride the bike and they did all the thinking. I didn't have to prep them at all.
The pre-race banquet was quite a buzz. The room was filled with experienced racers and crew. This event seems to draw folks back year after year. There were numerous RAAM vets helping out on crews; and this affirmed my belief that our ultra community really is a family whose members keep giving back to the sport.
They call me Bubba Shrimp. Biggest shrimp you'll ever see.
I'm not sure what I can say about the race itself. You've undoubtedly heard many accounts. My goal was to join the special "brotherhood" of 508 finishers. Just finish. I was just looking for an exciting experience in a new terrain. I've been riding 24 hr. events for years, and even have a RAAM qualifier under my belt. I knew how to approach this thing. I had a fuel and hydration plan that was tested and true. I may not be as fast as some...but, I'm a "finisher" of what I start. Just get me over those mountains! So...a "shrimp cocktail" of memories would include the following.
I just plugged along near the back of the pack during the first day, ensuring proper hydration and sodium intake. I'd pass folks when they slept or rested later in the event. Beautiful terrain on Saturday...but nothing monumental in the memory department. As night fell, I crossed the Panimint Valley. The road condition would be considered "new construction" in Michigan. What's everyone complaining about? I ran over a few scorpions on this road as well. I know they were real....but, I'm not sure about the ones I saw all over the roads in Twentynine Palms.
Watching the support vehicle lights lined up Townes Pass from the valley was breathtaking. It's probably the only time you can see a number of other competitors and realize you're not alone in this adventure! That's a good feeling after 10-12 hours of riding.
I switched to a borrowed bike for the climb up Townes Pass. (We don't need triple chainrings in Michigan.) In retrospect (when everything seems easier) it didn't meet with my fears. However, when I got to the top and Steve turned down the "Southern BubbaQ" tape, I heard an unnerving "foooot...fooot" noise. A rubbing brakeshoe! So...until someone climbs Townes Pass with a flat tire and a rubbing brake shoe...I don't want to hear any complaints!
I clocked 55 mph on the descent into Death Valley. If I hadn't lost all that weight this year, I might have hit 60! I was warned about dropping out of the support vehicle's lights..."dipping into the darkness"...but, it really does stop your heart at 55 mph!
I climbed out of Death Valley in the pre-dawn hours and did the second half of Salsberry Pass as the sun was rising. For those that have followed my "miles with a purpose" mantra this year, I've got a new one. Miles at sunrise. That's Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue"...the most critically acclaimed jazz album of all time...and the perfect backdrop for the surrealistic setting of daybreak on the 508.
I consumed mostly my "top secret rocket fuel"... but Steve surprised me with a monster cinnamon bun on Sunday morning. Susan Barr would've been proud. Devil Ray had been leapfrogging me for awhile, and I was waiting for her to pass me again so I could show off my cinnamon bun. She took too long and I had to eat it. I was really proud of my crew and that bun. I wanted to show someone.
To fight boredom, I made cell phone calls while climbing KelBaker on Sunday afternoon. What a mind-bending desert mirage of a climb! I even talked to my bike shop sponsor at his wedding reception. I thought it only appropriate to congratulate him while I was actually riding my bike! He really got a kick out of that, and the phone got passed around the wedding reception to other friends for my update. "You'll never believe who's on the phone...yeh, Bubba Jeff from the Mojave Desert!"
When darkness fell on Sunday night, things took on a new "glow." I've ridden through two complete nights before with no sleep...but, never after this much demanding terrain and conditions. The stars looked like Christmas tree lights strung up just inches above my head. I shared my illusion with Terry and he commented, "Yes, the Christmas tree lights are pretty tonight!" On the last climb I was forgetting my purpose. I couldn't figure out why I was cycling over this mountain. Stevie Ray Vaughn said I could catch a ride in his Cadillac and we'd go down to Sam's BBQ in Austin and have a little party. We were communicating...really.
And the last twenty miles. The toughest 20 miles in the world. No stimulation and the mind goes where it wants. Twentynine Palms looks like it's right there. How come I can't get there?
Despite the desert's tricks, I finished. And it didn't hurt too bad. No raw butt, no burning knees, no upset stomach! Just a little numbness in my feet and fingers which subsided in a day. And I managed all the climbing (except Townes Pass) comfortably in a 39x25 gear. I attribute this magical strength to the positive thoughts all you UMCA members were sending. I knew everyone was cheering for this "normal guy" to finish this extraordinary event. Thanks!
And another "thanks" to my zoo-crew. Steve Beaver Born was the master of tunes, intimidation and all things with attitude. Charlie Lizard Liskey might as well be my brother. He's a big guy with big veterinarian hands that kept the horsepower in my shrimp muscles. And Terry Tree Slug Zhmral was the rock. He kept those van lights glued to my butt at 55 mph and kept the other two clowns in order. No small task! And yes, we'll be releasing the "black box" tapes from the support van in time for holiday gifts.
So...I've joined a very special group of 508 finishers. I know the secret handshake. You can learn it too. Just start the program now...and I'll teach you that secret handshake next October. Hmmmm...is there a secret handshake for PBP?
They call me Bubba Shrimp....I'm a cyclist.