The 2000 Furnace Creek 508: Spiders, Coyotes, and Alien Abductions

Gary Bear Baierl,
2000 finisher

I had always wanted to race in the Furnace Creek 508. It offered what sounded like a completely different challenge than any sort of course I could have raced on in the Midwest. In 1999 I had ridden over 400 miles in a 24-hour time trial on a course in Iowa. But that was Iowa. There were a few hills, but I would be surprised if the course had much over 3000 feet of total climbing. After taking a new job in Los Angeles, I would get my opportunity to face the 508 in 2000.

I had from April to October to get myself acclimated to the heat and climbing of riding in the West. I found a loop near where I was living in the west San Fernando Valley that I could use. It rose and descended somewhere between 500 and 700 feet (I don't have a working altimeter) and I could repeat it between five and ten times each day on weekends to get some climbing in my legs. I also rode the Heartbreak Double Century, a 200-mile organized ride that climbed about 14,000 feet. Still, the 508 was more than double that distance with 35,000 feet of climbing. So there would be unknowns. Finally, I set my goals as (A) finish within the 48 hour official cutoff, and (B) ride at a pace determined by the same factor as I used in Iowa last year: peg my heart rate at 135 and just keep going. If I could accomplish (B), then I knew that my time would be respectable, but I was not out to try to win this race as a rookie.

Getting my crew together proved to be an easier task than expected. Both Rob Schaller and Thomas Berube crewed for me last year in Iowa and said that they would crew for the 508. Thomas was especially enthusiastic about experiencing the slow drive through the deserts of Southern California. And both of these guys have completed multiple ultra distance races of 400 and 500 plus miles themselves. I wanted a third crewmember to keep the pressure off of the other two. A third person would make it possible for them to take sleep breaks. My choice of Jim Ryan, who recently moved to Denver from Chicago to work at a start-up proved to be a great choice. Jim and I had participated in multi-sport events in Chicago, and I knew that he had a great attitude and team spirit. So when I gave him the opportunity he couldn't refuse.

So with all that background, we started the race at 7:00 am from Valencia under clear and cool conditions. In the 508, the race director departs from the common use of numbers to identify racers and instead opts for "animal totems." My totem is "Bear." My crew van had "Bear" signs all over it as well as a teddy bear attached to the windshield. During the first day's sunlit hours crews were to exchange food, drinks, etc. with the riders by leapfrog stops, so I would watch for the Bear-van during this period. The early part of the course winds through Valencia toward San Francisquito Canyon, where the climbing starts. There isn't anything extremely steep early, but we will have gained over 2,500 feet before we've finished the first 40 miles. I felt great over this stretch. I was relaxed and getting into the rhythm of riding up these climbs without letting my heart rate rise above 145 for any extended periods. Yet I was keeping a speed of around 16 mph most of the time.

With such a large field in this race, I got to meet some West Coast racers and others whom I had heard of through ultra-cycling connections. For instance, during a good portion of the first 50 miles I rode along with Hornet and her crew. One member of which is the famous crewing specialist and Team RAAM veteran Lee Mitchell. We got a quick conversation going with each exchange lasting as long as it took for me to ride past Hornet's van. Eventually I pulled away from Hornet and missed the company, because as things get spread out along a 508-mile course you can start to get a very isolated feeling.

Once out of the San Francisquito Canyon we rode through a wind farm containing what seems like thousands of windmills that were slowly spinning in a very gentle breeze. I felt a bit of a tail wind along with a brief descent and was able to push the bike up to about 40 mph for a while without too much effort. So far everything was going as expected, I was getting constant refills of HydraFuel from my crew, staying hydrated, and the weather even stayed cool. I rolled past the first time check, 82 miles into the 508 in perfect position.

The section between the first and second time checks, in California City and Trona, respectively, was still feeling smooth. The weather was sunny, but not too hot. There was a mild headwind, but nothing gusty. And I was doing my best to stay hydrated and fresh until the climb up Townes Pass, where the race really begins. During the route to Trona, there is a climb up to the ghost town of Randsburg. Right in the middle of the town there is this one room building with a sign above the door that says "Jail." It’s straight out of the Wild West! The only thing that would make it better would be if it were closer to the end of the race. Then the race organizers could use the jail as the "penalty box" for those riders who incurred time penalties along the course.

My crew van, like that of most other racers, had a PA system attached to the top so that my crew could talk to me and also play music while pacing me. Of course there are differences in musical preferences between my crew members and myself. I knew that going in and prepared a couple of tapes containing works by Mendelssohn, Mozart, Bach, etc. because Rob brought his collection of "Best of the 70's" CDs. I heard reports that up the course one of the crews was performing that psychological warfare tactic used by the FBI during hostage situations: playing loud and extremely annoying music. Little did I know that it was the Bear-crew, and they weren't even aware that they were doing it! As I was ascending one of the hills leading up to Randsburg, I could hear them playing a song called "The Candy Man" from the 70's collection. I yelled at them that they were supposed to use these weapons against my competitors, not against ME! Next I was collecting my fresh bottle of HydraFuel to the tune of "The Theme from Rocky." All I could say was, "Guys, you are slowly draining my will to live, let alone endure another 350 miles riding my bike!"

The second time check came along and I was still feeling rather strong. I was riding alongside Bandicoot, who went on to win the women's division. She has a very relaxed and consistent style on the bike. You could see how focused she was.

Soon after leaving Trona, I could start feeling the first signs of trouble within myself. My legs still felt strong, my heart rate was still consistent, but my stomach started feeling rather queasy and bloated. I felt like I hadn't digested anything that I drank for the last two hours. This causes a dilemma to any ultra-distance racer, and it is a common problem. In fact, when you look at reasons for DNFs (did not finish) in previous 508s, "stomach problems" is very often cited. The dilemma is that you now need to slow down your food and fluid intake to let your stomach empty, but you need to keep eating and drinking to maintain your fuel sources to keep going for about 300 more miles.

My dilemma eventually caused me to stop at the side of the road where my crew was ready to give me refills. I tried eating a few things at that point but after about five minutes I was vomiting all over the side of the road. Now I knew that I had to let go of my (B) goal and stay focused on my (A) goal. Speed was no longer quite as important, so I took my time to let my stomach calm down. It was getting close to 5:30 pm, so my crew was going to start providing constant support, which would definitely help my spirits once I got back on the road. Quitting was never an option for me. Prior to starting this race I sent an informative email to over 60 recipients letting them know about the race and that I was in it. I knew that many of these people would be watching the webcast and the last thing that I would let myself do would be to drop out of the race.

Finally we were able to get back on the road, albeit at a reduced pace for the time being. As we made our way north with nightfall cooling things off, the roads started to deteriorate. The road surfaces through much of the rest of the race left me wondering who could possibly have paved these roads and then left them that way thinking that the job was finished.

Then the ominous sight of the climb up Townes Pass became visible. I could see the blinking lights of bikers and crew making their way up to 5,000 feet. But I was excited about the climb. I had my light bike with no aerobars and super easy gearing of a 39-tooth chainring with a cassette in the back going up to 28 teeth. I made the bike switch and started my ascent. This climb goes on and on and on. And my problem was that I could still feel myself recovering from my stomach problem. I was on the side of the road vomiting only a few hours ago. I did have to take a break about two thirds of the way up. The problem with that was that the temperature was now plummeting. After I stopped, my body cooled down so much that I started shaking. I did not want to get hypothermia, so I put on several layers of clothing as if it were a ride in the winter in Chicago. I had on my lobster gloves, neoprene booties, everything. And I needed them. As I got to the top the reported temperature was 40 degrees. And the next thing we had to do was make the 5,000-foot descent into Death Valley going between 50 and 60 mph in the pitch dark. I made my bike switch again at the top and proceeded to descend.

Going in excess of 50 mph down a hill in the dark on a road you have never biked on before is a little crazy in retrospect. I’m lucky I wasn't hurt because there were two sections of road missing going down this hill. There are signs warning you of these sections, but they are placed right next to the bumps, way too late to do anything about trying to slow down to get over them. On the second bump, my bike took the impact pretty hard. My crew was driving right behind me and later informed me that they could see the entire frame and the wheels compress as I hit the missing pavement around 50 mph. After crossing the missing section, I looked at my speedometer and saw that it no longer showed my speed. The impact was so bad that it caused my Spinergy wheel's spoke to fling the glued-on magnet flying off like from a slingshot. For the rest of the race I could only tell my speed by perception or by asking my crew. And of course I wouldn't know exactly how far I had gone or had to go without asking either. At least my heart rate monitor continued to work. And it could have been worse. I later learned that one of the recumbent riders crashed coming down this hill because of the missing road.

By this time, with all my slowing down and resting to let my stomach recover, I knew that I had pretty much made my way to the back of the pack. It didn't really bother me though, because I never saw myself not making it to the finish. I even knew that from here on I would likely move up in the rankings because I felt so strong given my problems up until now, and that I made it past one of the toughest obstacles.

As we were rolling through Death Valley toward the third time check in Badwater, the feeling of being in the remote wilderness was apparent. Ahead in the dark, crossing the road, visible in the headlights was something that looked like it was about the size of a chipmunk. As I rode past I could see that it was a huge tarantula spider that looked to be about as big as a fist. A little later I could see several animals rustling around on the side of the road. As we went past we saw that it was a family of coyotes, probably hungry and looking for the weak bikers to take a leap at!

After rolling into the time check at Badwater around 3:00 am, I had my crew warm me up a cup of chicken noodle soup. My stomach felt like it could now tolerate some real food, so I wanted to try to get something down. The soup was great and I slowly started to increase my speed from here through the rest of the race. We wound our way through the twisty and rutted road through Death Valley in the dark.

As the sun rose on Sunday I was just getting to the climbs up Jubilee and Salsberry and out of Death Valley. At this point I was also starting to pass some of the riders who passed me while I was down. One of the great things about these races is that, in the midst of competition, all riders and crews still cheer on the other riders and crews, as if we're all battling this tough course together rather than racing against each other. My case in point happened as I was climbing up to the Salsberry Pass. I knew I was feeling better and started doing more climbing out of the saddle. As I passed by one of the riders who had previously passed me all I heard was an enthusiastic "the Bear is back!" This kind of encouragement does a great deal to keep you feeling focused after 300 miles of riding.

It heated up a little bit more on Sunday. I had the benefit of a light tailwind that took me from Shoshone to Baker, the sites of time checks four and five. In Baker, the world's tallest thermometer read 88 degrees. Although warmer than Saturday, it still could have been much warmer than that. Other than a poor driver who nearly killed me while trying to pass me with his camper/trailer, this section was rather dull.

Once past Baker, this course challenges the riders to three more climbs. The first one, to the Kelso Peak is never steep, but it goes on and on for what seems like 100 miles. In reality, it rises about 2,500 feet in around 20 miles. But with poor roads and the fact that you already have about 400 miles in your legs, you really do start to feel like it will never end. I passed Kaka’s crew on the way up and I remember telling them how this climb was so demoralizing. Kaka raced in the 508 in 1999, but DNF’d. It was good to see him still going strong with less than 100 miles to go this time. And he did go on to officially finish.

Darkness on the second night came while ascending the Granite Mountains, second to last climb in the race. After the climb and then 20 plus mile fast descent from 4,000 to 500 feet we went through the town of Amboy, population 20. I thought that the roads had some bad sections up to this point in the race, but from here until almost the very last mile, the pavement, if you can really call it that, has no truly smooth spots. At one point my crew worried that I was getting tired because I was wavering all over the road. In reality, I was searching for the least rough line in the road. There is a railroad crossing in Amboy that, from what I could see in the dark, looked like the van would have trouble crossing, let alone my bike with 23 millimeter wide tires. So I stopped, threw my bike over my shoulder and crossed over the tracks cyclo-cross style. Thomas, my crewmember that does the most cyclo-cross racing appreciated that. Here we were doing a 508 mile cyclo-cross race!

After crossing the tracks, we finally have to climb up Sheep Hole Mountain, the last climb of the 508. I was still feeling strong, and was doing a good pace up these last three climbs. Much of my climbing was out of the saddle. My crew kept me motivated by trying to encourage me to finish ahead of the Banana Slug, a recumbent rider. I had passed the Banana Slug near the Granite Mountain climb, but he subsequently caught and passed me on the way up, while keeping a very impressive pace. It’s tough to climb on a recumbent because you lose the leverage of having your body's weight above the pedals. When he passed me he seemed to be trying to make a statement. So my crew caught on to this and did their best to use it to my advantage. While going up the steeper Sheep Hole, I went by the Banana Slug for the last time. My crew wanted me to keep going strong at this point. What they were unaware of was that there was one more obstacle that would cause me to lose focus!

Near the top of the Sheep Hole, the climb begins to get steeper. I'm sure we were all a little punchy at that point in the race. I took a quick look up in the sky while I was climbing. I noticed some lights, brighter than stars, making erratic movements off to the southeast. There were three sets of lights; none moving across the sky like an airliner flying to a destination. Rather, they would float for a while, then dart back and forth and up and down. I became mesmerized at this while I kept going, and briefly forgot that I was in the last 50 miles of a 508 mile bike race. I called my crew to come up alongside so that I could share the sight of these lights with them. "Keep pedaling" was all that would come out of the loudspeaker. So I pointed to the sky hoping that they would see the lights. "Keep pedaling." I kept going, but would periodically point up when one of the lights would dart about. Jim responded over the PA, "keep going, we're concerned about a possible alien abduction up here."

Finally, I started to get mad. I stopped the bike, let the van roll up and I said to my crew "do you see those lights?" My crew responded that they saw airplanes, but I insisted that they look at them for a few minutes and they would see that no airplanes could fly like that. Now they were starting to get mad! They agreed with me that the lights could not have been any conventional airplanes, but Thomas pointed out that the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center is located just to the west of where we were. We will never know exactly what those lights were. I looked back down the hill and could see the lights of riders and crew making their way up the Sheep Hole and I finally remembered that I needed to finish this race. I got back on my bike and from then on I forced myself to keep my eyes from the sky.

The last time check is at the top of the Sheep Hole, and the race organizers make this a time station with a theme. There was a Hawaiian luau proceeding and as I went past the station the official put a lei around my neck and proclaimed that for making it past the final time station I was to get "lei-d." At that point I probably needed it.

There is a brief descent from the top of Sheep Hole but then there is actually a somewhat grueling climb into a headwind to the finish in Twentynine Palms. This section is onerous because you are literally "so close and yet so far." You have gone about 490 miles, but in order to finish you have to do almost 20 more miles into a constant headwind out of the west and up another long gradual climb. A quick blast from the past lifted my spirits. As I was working my way through this tough part I could hear a van pulling up from behind and somebody, but not my crew, calling my name. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lee Mitchell cheering me on from Hornet's van! He told me the unfortunate news that Hornet suffered an injury to her Achilles tendon and was forced to abandon the race. But he was excited to see that I was so close to the finish. It seemed like days ago that we were carrying on that conversation early in the race.

After 41 hours and 44 minutes, I rolled into the Best Western in Twentynine Palms to officially finish my first Furnace Creek 508. I gained a few battle scars along the way, but the experience was worth much more than the pain of enduring these. Of course, I couldn't have done it without my fantastic crew. We will all be back for more pain for years to come.