By Hansjoerg Cockroach Franz, 1999 Solo Finisher
The first time I heard about the 508 was while surfing through the internet and checking out the daily updates of the RAAM 1999. There were two Austrian riders attending at the RAAM this year and I wondered if a race like this is also possible for "normal" human beings. So I bought myself a used bicycle for about 400 bucks, set up a training plan and started to ride. Unfortunately, I found out that I had to qualify for the RAAM. While overlooking the qualifiers, the 508 sounded best for me. At this time I did not know that it is maybe the hardest I could choose.
As time passed by, I learned a lot more about the 508. I was impressed by the stories the riders told the last years. Impressive stories and tall tales from the hardest 500 mile race in the world. This was the first time I really recognized that this would be a really tough thing I'm doing.
When I arrived in Los Angeles I was not sure what I have to expect and what would await me here. But I was sure I can reach my goal. I was well rested and I felt like I could do almost anything. The day before the race, me and my crew spent the whole day at Six Flags Magic Mountain. I think we did about 15 rollercoaster rides and my whole body hurt like hell. I took it as a good massage for the upcomming event.
During the pre-race meeting I met a lot of the riders. I was looking up to all the famous cyclists. I heard their names long before and I read their stories. And now I could see them in real life. As Chris Kostman introduced the riders I was really impressed by their accomplishments: five-time triple Ironman finishers, four-time 508 finishers. I wondered what I'm doing here—this was my first bike race. I have no tales to tell about bicycling. OK, I did some mountain climbs, which are maybe impressive to bicycle riders, but that's another story.
After a good sleep at the Valencia Ranch House Inn I was ready to finish what I started six months ago—qualify for RAAM.
I was really happy, as I figured out, that I could hold the planned speed and heart rate during the first miles. I arrived in California City TS#1 exactly on my schedule. I felt good and my crew was giving me enough to drink. As it got warmer on the climb to Jo'burg I slowed down a little bit, to avoid overheating. Some riders passed me on that climb. My crew had gone a little bit too far up the hill and I did not have enough to drink. At this time I want to thank the Horse Crew for the great support. Without them I'm sure I would not have survived this climb in such a good condition. Also in Trona (TS#2) I was exactly on my schedule. The crew stocked up on gas and food at the busy gas station in Trona. And again I ran out of water. This was my first stop during the race and I got my first expectation of the desert. No shadow anywhere, 97 degrees heat and nothing to drink. I had to wait for my crew. After ten minutes they arrived and I could compensate for the lack of drinking. After five more minutes break I was ready to go again. And I felt really good. I knew it will get a little bit colder in a few hours and I'm not far away from Townes Pass. I also figured out that all other riders are also just human beings. I was not far behind and I have seen other riders have breaks and stops.
On the turn to Townes Pass my crew started to prepare my bike for the climb. I think I was the only one riding with just one bike, and we had to change several things to set the bike up for climbing. As I could not afford a triple chain ring or a better gearing, I had to struggle with a 39/25, but it was not too bad. I think I am a good climber and I did not lose a lot of time at the climb (which was, in my opinion, one of the easier in the race). On top of Townes Pass we changed the climbing gear again. Now I think this was one of my mistakes I made. Because we changed several things at the beginning and the end of the climb, we lost about 40 minutes in total. That‘s much more than I expected and also more that I would have lost if I did not change anything. Anyway, these are the things you learn in your first bike race.
After the downhill the trouble started. It hit me from one second to another. I started to vomit and I had to stop for over one hour. It was a nice stop, because I was laying in the desert, looking up to the clear sky, full of stars. I have seen some shooting stars up there and soon placed a wish—to finish the 508. Unfortunately I had to get on my bike again to do this, but I was really in bad condition. I had 17 more miles left to Furnace Creek and I started a kind of sprint finish. All I wanted was to get to Furnace Creek. At this time I was close to DNF, but I thought of all my friends and the good times we had together. I thought of all the training time I spent and my mom's words during our last phone call before the race: "It would be so fantastic even if you just could finish this race!". I think at this time I just kept going because of these words. My wife Verena also helped me a lot during this hard time, because I knew that she would agree with me, regardless which decision I make, but still she forced me to go on until I reach Furnace Creek.
As I arrived in Furnace Creek, Chris Kostman was waiting at the Time Station. He organized some Saltine Crackers and Coke for me. He also told me that most of the riders drop out between Furnace Creek and Baker. "So get him to Baker" he told my crew. I also figured out that I was still not more than four hours behind the leaders, in spite of nearly two hours unexpected "rest stops". I was full of power again. I want to thank Chris for his words. "(You're my favourite Austrian Solo rider this year"). I knew I was the only one. But it kept me laughing, and that really helped. I also tried now to ride with some music and I packed the MD player into my jersey pocked. Chris asked me what music I hear. I did not tell him—and we laughed again. If you still want to know—I had Iron Maiden, AC/DC and MANOWAR to get out of Death Valley. What could be better for this ride, than Manowar, screaming: "I'm an animal—there's an animal in me, gonna set it free!". No soft Metal for such a tough ride.
The ride from Furnace Creek started very good. I was back on the run and I felt like riding out of hell. At this time I did not know that I was wrong. Hell was still waiting for me in Baker. The next small low-point of the race was only a few miles after Furnace Creek. I had stiff head winds most of the time through Death Valley. I had already a long ride, some uphills and downhills and I was on a little bit longer uphill (maybe the headwind played me a trick) as I watched for a sign rising up in the headlights of the pace vehicle. I thought to myself, this must be the "Salsberry Pass" Sign. I got it: I'm near the downhill to Shoshone. Soon I could read the sign. It said "You are at sea level". That's impossible. I passed the sign and could not believe, that I climbed even nothing since Furnace Creek. The whole climb is just in front of me. I thought of turning around to double check. This sign must have said, 3000 above sea level. But, however, I had to ride anyway—no matter what this sign said and I just tried to forget it. On the climb out of Death Valley I was really slow, but I passed three riders sleeping at the side of the road.
Shoshone was a nice place. I was already far behind my schedule due to the unexpected stops, but better placed than I expected. The ride between Shoshone and Baker was long but uneventful. Near Baker it started to heat up enormous. On his 1998 report Dan Mountaingoat McGee wrote: "Baker was heaven". Dear Dan, I have to tell you that you are wrong; Baker is Hell! Maybe at night it´s Heaven, but not if the sun already rose up to the sky. This big 500 Billion Watt lamp increased the temperature up to 110 degrees. And I made my second big mistake at this race. I stopped in Baker for a short rest. I have seen other riders stopping there, smashed to the ground due to overheating and exhaustion. I said to myself, if they can stay here for a break, I can do that too. They are the champs, they know what to do. Unfortunately I had a hard time getting on my bike again. The rest stop was too long (about 40 minutes) and it got hotter and hotter. The climb out of Baker was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. But I did not step off the bike—I fell off the bike, three miles before the downhill to Kelso. My crew forced me to get on the bike again. I tried to get on my feet, but I had no chance to stay upright. I could feel my circulatory collapse. And the road jumped again right into my face. I tried it again and finally I was on the bike again. Fighting for the last three miles on that challenging climb. The downhill to Kelso was very slow and I was completely done. I started to hallucinate. But I still recognized that the hallucinations could not be real (except this huge forest I was riding through on the downhill to Kelso). In Kelso I decided to stop until the sun gets lower and it cools down again. I found a nice place in the shadow, just beside an old grave and took a good sleep for approximately two hours. I washed myself, changed to new clothes and hopped on my bike again. As I started to get ready, the Horse just passed me again. I felt completely relaxed. Just as if I awoke from a ten hours sleep after one week holiday on the Bermudas. And I got ready for the last 100 miles. I imagined that this is my 100 mile training ride on a Sunday evening and I put the hammer down.
I think these were my fastest 100 miles ever. I was riding like hell and overtook three more riders, Horse, Crow and Cat. The whole last 100 miles I rode on the big chainring only. One thing that I was wondering is, that I never had any ache in my back, my legs, my arms, my neck or anywhere. I had a good upper body strength due to my rock climbing activities, maybe that helped a lot.
On the last climb (Sheep Hole Mt.) I never dropped below 10 mph and the downhill was one of the scariest in the race. It was very dark and I was afraid the road could be in very bad condition, as it was the last 15-20 miles. But of course I did not slow down. I felt it a few minutes ago already, that something would happen, and at a speed of 40 mph I hit a hole in the road and I had a flat tire within a second. Thank god I could stop safely. The last miles were long with heavy cross-winds. I was so in trance, pushing me to the limit, that I even did not recognize them.
As I arrived at the finish line, I was a little bit sorry, that the race was over already. I felt fresh and ready to go on forever. I´m sure I could have caught a few more other riders within the next hours. After I received my 508 official finisher's jersey (the first ever to receive the jersey right after the race—I'm very proud of that) I stepped on my bike again and searched for a motel for the night.
I want to thank my crew again, especially my wife Verena (also for her patience during the training months) my friend Tomy and his girlfriend Martina, for their great support during the whole ride. I have to mention, that nobody of them is a bicycle rider and they also did not know what to expect from such an event—now they do. I'm very proud of them, because they gave their best for over 40 hours. It's not easy to find such good friends to go on such a journey. But I still think, we had a lot of fun and new experiences on this ride.
All in all, I made some mistakes on my first bike race, but I'm more than happy, that I could finish this challenging event and I could qualify for this RAAM thing. Now I'm one step further to my final goal. I'm not ready at the moment for this challenge, but I will work hard and, with a little help from my friends, a normal "human cockroach" can survive the RAAM. I will tell you how this thing ends.