By Mike Wracher, Team Action Sports / Snider's Cyclery Bison
Why? That was the question I asked myself as I headed away for hopefully my first completion of the 508 I was grasping for motivation, which I have found to be my signature move at the start of one of these ultra-events. The first one I ever did (RAAM 95) I was too clueless to know what I was getting into. Every ultra-E, pain clogging, cathartic soul slapper, since has taken a lot of introspection to get me started. I remember racing across eastern California during RAAM98 thinking "what the hell am I doing this for—it hurts too much" Of course, as usual, I find myself, get buried in and then revel in the pain.
It took me about 30 minutes of pain, agony, and being passed by a 22 year old to remember again, at the 1999 version of Furnace Creek. We were racing for Norm Hoffman, with local nicknames like, E-NORMous, or pheNORMinal, Norm is Kern Counties athletic Ghandi. Now a raging 58 year old, and battling a dangerous medical condition, Hoffman is an incredible athlete, the father of Kern County Time Trialing, and a National and World Record holder etc. etc… We were racing for Norm, Why? Cause he wanted to.
Our team this year consisted of Ron Jones winner of 95 and 96 RAAM, Kerry Ryan winner of 95 and 98 RAAM, myself also a team RAAM winner in 95 and 98 and Mr. Hoffman. Ron started the idea of putting a team together around Norm. I was honored to be asked, and so immediately said yes. We all finally decided to compete about a month before the race—training was a serious issue. After competing in Team RAAM with Kerry Ryan, Tim Lafromboise, and Pat Tafoya in 1998 I had decided to lay low in 99. Turns out, Kerry was in the same boat—we were slightly panicked to get in shape. Ron, when he heard of our concerns said " Hey no—worries were in this thing for fun"—yeah right. Any group like ours is too used to winning; nothing else was an option. We also had about the best crew chief we could ask for in Tim Lafromboise. Tim is a blazingly fast rider and has done enough of these types of races to know what we were going through. He is also the guy that told me " I hate the 508—it's harder than RAAM" I would soon see why.
The team that seemed to be our major competition was Rat-Pack, a group from LA that seemed a bit cocky, which is often a good thing, but grating nonetheless. The other group we were worried about was the Tandem Team, although they were in a different category they were also Bako-trash and worse, they had been talking smack for weeks. Being from a town that had put together multiple winning teams we were over-confident this bit us in the end. Having made the trip many times we didn't send anyone to the pre-race meeting—big mistake. We had forgotten about a little rule that makes this race different than RAAM—no team time trialing!
I was our lead off rider and I immediately dropped all but one guy. Who was he? Soon he was beside me and then past and slowly pulling away. It was the Rat-Pack climber, if it hadn't been for that kid they would have been OTB. I passed the baton to Ron Jones and my first/worst body slam is over. Of course now I am pissed because basically I had just gotten my ass kicked. Ron passed to Kerry and over the top he went, passing to Norm. Norm started catching them on the flats, our reply to their 22-year-old climber was a 58-year-old time trialist. Norm almost caught them and then it was my turn again, having been humiliated on the climb—I was out for blood. I was making every attempt to tear the crank arms from my TT bike and in the process went by the Rat Pack rider like a freight train. God that felt good!
So as the race progressed we would put time on RP on the flats and rollers and then when a serious climb came they would throw that kid on the road, and he would start taking serious chunks from our lead. Then back to the flats where we would stretch it out again. This went on and on and on. Now I understand what Tim said about this race—there is no time to get into a rhythm I was constantly at or above my limit. There is no way you could finish RAAM at that kind of intensity! (Although in 1996 they pretty much did) The last five hours was horrendous for me. I had wasn't eating and drinking enough (fatigue induced stupidity), and by the time I realized it I couldn't catch up with my nutrition. One pull in particular, near the end I almost couldn't get out of the van. The only thing that got me on my bike was the fact that, in all the team endurance racing I had done, I had never ever missed my turn, and I wasn't going to start now. The next 30 minutes I tried to ride at my limit and fought puking—it was unbelievably hard. The kind of effort that no one but myself knew about. In the follow van they were probably thinking "Jeez, look at Mike he isn't going very fast" For me it was 30 minutes of hell bordering on eternity that I will never forget.
After that little cathartic episode I tried to get myself back into my skin so I could at least finish the race but I was very shaky and weak. The others looked OK, but maybe they were faking it like I was. Norm looked fantastic as we went by him in the van, he was gritting his teeth and giving it everything he had. On the last climb Rat Pack made a serious charge and almost caught us, we went over the top in the lead and then made the big mistake of the race. The terrain to the finish was either downhill or flat. This is where we showed our horsepower advantage. Unfortunately for reasons I'll never quite understand, we went into a two-man rotation (two guys on the road at once) first it was Ron and I. I was cooked and Ron was riding very well. It was basically Ron with me in his draft, then I dropped off and the same thing happened to Kerry. So—no real advantage there but a rules violation nonetheless. The last pull was myself and Norm doing a TT, my whole goal at that point was to not get dropped by Norm. I looked over at Norm and he had a fiendish smile on his face "Isn't this great" he shouted at me "this is the best part of the race". He was on cloud nine—cranking hard down the road on his way to another victory.
We came across the finish line first, were slapped with a 30 second penalty and lost the race by three seconds to Rat Pack. Three lousy seconds for a rules infraction that didn't help us, and the worst part was—we didn't need to do it anyway. We all said to ourselves the effort was worthy enough, and "we only lost because of our own stupidity" but you know the V is what we were really after! Norm was philosophical he convinced us that we knew the value of our effort and that was all we could ever ask for.
A year and a half after the race, Norm Hoffman was hit by a car and killed while training. We all lost a great friend and a mentor. There will never be another like Norm, he was a force of nature, and a kind soul. All those on the team miss him greatly. We think of him often especially while digging deep and striving for that perfect effort.