By Jonathan Abalone Arnow, 1999 solo finisher
It is 4 am on Tuesday morning after the Furnace Creek 508. I am still so excited from the race that I can't sleep. The problem is that in one sense this race is too short: the intensity, focus, magic, organization, and synergy with the crew is so incredible, I hate to see it over so quickly. I woke up early to write down all I can remember about the experience—to linger and preserve the memories. It IS that great.
This year's race went by in a continuous flow: Saturday daytime blends with the night which blends into Sunday. Memories are fragmented: the morning shade in San Fransquito Canyon, the pleasure of cycling the rollers before Randsburg, the heat on the Trona Bump, the crew spraying me with water, the bizarre pavement of Panamint Valley, the quiet of Townes Pass, our fast turnover on the summit, the competitors and their crews (thanks, Andrea and Team Horse), rocking the night away with music, Beethoven's th and 6th Symphonies at dawn, crewmember Dave Anderson's warm smile every hour of the race, my elation at being in fourth place at Baker, the searing knee pain that was shutting down my effort from Kelbaker onwards, the disappointment of a 16-minute delay while the Amboy train casually shuttled back and forth, the battles with Llama and Barnacle which I eventually lost, the luck of a tailwind into Twentynine Palms, the surprise and pleasure of crossing the finish line with a good friend: the only other Reno, Nevada racer, Dean Crocodile Crothers, tying for fifth place.
Last year's 508 went very well considering I was so new to ultracycling. It was my first bicycle race, first ride over 18 hours, and first supported ride. I learned so much in that race including how to bike at night (just like one does during the day, turn the pedals), relaxation on the bike, and positional comfort. I got the dumb award last year for riding on a rigid flite seat with no Chamois Butt'r, Ouch! Last year I rode to test the waters and to finish. This year's goal was to race the darn thing.
Unfortunately, my cycling season did not go as planned. I hoped to do the Elite PACTour, a John Hughes and Friends tour, and a complete brevet series all before June. Then my mother became fatally ill. Since I am a physician and could orchestrate her medical care, she moved to Reno. She died in April. My father having been married for over 50 years was devastated. I dropped all cycling and exercise for three months, all my plans went on hold while I cared for both of them. I came out of my haze in June and finally got on a bike. I wasn't sure I had time to train for the 508 but realized that fitness and miles logged are only one aspect of the race. The first half of the 508 is raced with the body and mind, the second half is raced with the heart and spirit. I knew my heart and spirit would be ready despite having a late start and only logging 4000 miles before the race.
The excitement began on Friday, when my crew and I assembled in Valencia. I can't say enough about my crew; I was extremely grateful to have Rick Amoeba Anderson as crew chief. Rick knows the course so well and has such a depth of ultracycling experience that I was in great hands. He is my hero and role model of ultrariding. This being only my second overnight ride, the first being last year's 508, his knowledge and ability were very reassuring. His brother, Dave and two 'non' ultracycling friends from Reno, Derek Butler and Chris Empy, completed the crew. I am amazed and touched by their generosity; I hadn't even met Dave before the weekend! I realized by three hours into the race that they were going to take amazing care of me and I wouldn't have to do anything except eat and drink what they gave me and ride by bike.
My crew's first difinitive action, since I was bouncing off the walls, was diplomatically suggesting that I "check in to the motel, go riding, or do anything; just let us organize the equipment". I had forgotten to make Abalone signs for the cars, so they did it by xeroxing the pattern from our T-shirts. It promised to be much hotter this year than last, which concerned me since I train mainly in the morning in Reno where the temps rarely climb out of the 50's. I expressed my concern to Rick and of course his answer was a reassuring, "you will be fine."
As I joined the record number of riders at the pre-event banquet, I was less nervous than last year. I remember wanting to get the race going. Later, I slept well, reassured that I had banked lots of sleep the two weeks before the race. In the morning, it had cooled off and I chose to start the race with knee warmers and a coat—I hate cycling cold, and so do my knees.
After a 1000-calorie breakfast by myself, Rick Anderson walked with me to the start. There was my former crew chief and friend Mike Wilson to wish me well! It was great to see him and know he would be on the course cheering. I lined up Dean Crocodile Crothers from Reno; over the summer we had done a number of training rides and became good friends. I had called him Thursday to wish him luck and to let him know that I (as it turned out, correctly) expected he would be the first rookie to finish. I think if he knew the course he could have really cleaned up.
I struggled to keep my heart rate down in the first climb. I wanted to err on going too slow at least for the first 100 miles. I look at the monitor and saw 165 bpm, yikes, got to slow down. I talked with the Seal, Kaka, Griffin, Horse, and others. As the day progressed the number of support vehicles constantly passing lessened. Still, I could tell which riders were near although I couldn't always see them. Much of the day was spent with the Horse and his crew; they had good music and a great attitude. What a fun race! At time station #1 in California City, I found myself in 18th place. Last year I was in 27th place; things were looking good. I focused on pacing and relaxation.
Things started to heat up on the Randsburg climb: the temperature hit 98. Derek sprayed me with a small hand sprayer and ran up the hill with me to do so. I also think he was getting his exercise too! By the Trona time station, I had moved into eighth place! The Trona bump must have grown since last year—I didn't remember that it was so steep. Many more animals DNF'ed this year compared to last, probably due to the heat. I kept repeating my mantra 'be sure to be fresh on top of Townes Pass'. The awesome descent into Panamint Valley was a visual treat with the shadow rising over the western slope guarding Death Valley. Finally the heat began to break.
I think I gave the crew the wrong concentration of Sustained Energy (I know this shouldn't be rocket science) and it ended up the consistency of Cream of Wheat cereal; I could barely squeeze it out of bike bottle. So Ensure became the liquid food of choice with Gatorade as the electrolyte drink. After bringing masses of solid food, I ate virtually none. It was too hot. Our routine for this ride was two gatorade bottles, then one bottle of Ensure on ice followed by a camelbak of Cytomax. Simple. I had instant mashed potatoes and hot soup at the Townes Pass summit and a cookie and one slice of bread in Baker; the rest was Gatorade and Ensure.
I switched to my stripped-down climbing bike at the turn to Townes Pass; wow, it felt great to be on a 16-pound bike. I could only see two other animals on the climb and stupidly couldn't wait to pass them. Catching these riders proved to be very costly: somewhere on the consistently steep lower third I felt a tweak in my right knee, a tweak which later came back to haunt me over the last 120 miles.
Our stop at the summit was only three minutes. My four crew members attacked me with assigned tasks as I ate soup and mashed potatoes: they dressed me in knee warmers, shell, and vest, swapped out my day helmet for my night helmet with its 10 watt helmet light, and switched back to the bike with aerobars. At TS #3 in Furnace Creek, I was in fifth place, a dream come true! It helped to know that the Jubilee Climb wouldn't start for awhile. After 50 miles of alluvial rollers I reached the base of the climb and switched over to the climbing bike. I enjoyed the action of the teams passing me. I remember yoyoing positions with Barnacle: it seemed that I would pass him on the hills but he was strong on the flats and pushed right back. I had never had the opportunity to listen to music while riding before this race. The pace van had a great system and I listened to Pat Methany, Led Zeppilin, Hendricks, Moody Blues, Grateful Dead, and Talking Heads—it helped tremendously. While it was cool on Salsbury Summit, it was nothing like last year. I hit Shoshone (TS #4) at 4:02 am, within minutes of my 4 am projection, yahoo! While I really enjoyed riding to Baker, I needed to dress really warm; two leg layers, skullcap, and a wind shell. We listened to Beethoven's 7th, the acid rock of classical music. It was great. I had trouble keeping my hands on the bars as I was busy conducting the music. Then to top it off, just at sunrise we listened to the Pastoral Symphony.
Somewhere after Ibex Pass, we passed a sleeping Mandrill and I rolled into 4th place. We shut off our music to make sure we didn't disturb his sleep. I expected to be passed by Mandrill before Baker and kept looking over my shoulder, but it never happened. I arrived in Baker (TS #5) at 8 am, still on schedule. But the right knee was swelling, I diagnosed myself with prepatellar bursitis, and every pedal stroke was accompanied with a stabbing pain. Yikes, there were three climbs left and 120 miles for that bad knee. Rick told me that Barnacle and Llama are coming to rain on my parade. Barnacle blew by me on the Kelbaker climb; he caught me with my pants down, literally. What was coming out was beginning to look like the chocolate Ensure I thought I was digesting. I struggled to get by him again, but I think he had a secret energy pill and he blew by again and that was the last I was to see him. The knee was worsening, I could only grin and endure the pain. Rick, anticipating another hot day, started pushing fluids. The descent into Kelso was fun but I really slowed down on the Granite climb. Another great descent followed into the Amboy valley. It was such a relief not to pedal for a while. I even passed a team rider (I must weigh more) on that descent. But as we descended, I felt a furnace blast hit my face. I have never been in this kind of heat. I kept asking the crew, "Do you know how hot it is out here?" Yes, they knew: it was 107 in Amboy. I hit Amboy (the old time station #6) at 2:15pm. I was now off my plan; I had hoped to be there at 1:30 or earlier. John Hughes had told me that you win or lose the race on those two long gradual climbs and I had barely crawled up them.
Then I came upon the train. It was a long train; I couldn't see the engine cars or caboose! And it was not moving: when it did, it just slowly moved a few feet forward or back. I knew I was foiled. I got in the van and started eating poptarts, drinking coke, and putting ice towels on my neck. After five minutes, Llama caught up. I ended waiting a full 16 minutes before the train cleared the tracks. Llama and I started together from there. She was stronger than I and left me in the dust. The knee was unbelievably painful; now simply getting to the finish before dark would be a challenge. Fortunately there was a tailwind on those last 20 miles into Twentynine Palms. As I limped along, another rider approached. This wasn't how I expected the finish to be. I had just wanted to limp in but instead it looked like I would be involved in a sprint finish. I knew it would be Dean the Crocodile, my training partner. It was great to see him and I wanted to hear all about his race; he surprised me by suggesting we cross the finish line together. After some posturing, and "time trialing" like wobbly drunk team riders, I agreed and we rode up those last two hills together and crossed the finish holding hands together. What an emotional roller coaster the last three hours had been. I was very touched by Crocodile extending a claw of friendship at the very end; it put the whole race again into a new perspective.
It was still light out and I had nearly achieved my goal of a sub-35 hour finish. My official time of 35 hours and 20 minutes tied me for 6th place overall and 5th place for men. Thanks to Chris Kostman for a great race. I am also indebted to my crew who gave 150 percent effort and made the weekend memorable. Thanks Rick.
I keep thinking, 'what if I didn't strain my knee on Townes Pass, what if I had done a 200-mile ride this summer and had started riding before June? What if I had ridden more than 4000 miles before the race?' There is only one way to find out—come back next year and try harder!