By Steve Beaver Born, 1994 champ and 1999 runner-up
Believe it or not, I struggled with finding the right words for a title to open this story. How do you describe an event that is so much more than a bike race? What words are appropriate to fully capture the essence of this experience. The only thing I could come up with, after a long time is...
I guess I should explain. A scary thought I know, but race director Chris Kostman actually let me give a short speech at the pre-race banquet. I was so happy just to be here, to have an excellent meal while enjoying the company of my friends, knowing I was not under any stress associated with participation in this year's 508 as either racer or crew member. But being allowed to talk in front of this enormous group of athletes and crew members was a definite highlight. I'm not sure how badly I stumbled through the words but the message I wanted to share with everyone was that while my trip here was of a business nature (I was representing E-CAPS/HAMMER NUTRITION, a major sponsor of the race) I considered it a trip to see family and friends. I suggested that due to the extreme nature of our sport and in particular this race, how could we not be drawn together, bonded together as a family of sorts? A bit esoteric perhaps but in my eyes, accurate. And that's how I hoped the riders would also see this. A race of course. Of that there was no doubt. But I encouraged them to get something more out of it, something of much greater value than merely competing in or finishing some bike race. I guess I've just always believed that if there wasn't something more to be gained from the experience, then why do we keep coming back, what draws us to this race that demands everything we have physically, mentally, and emotionally? Perhaps that's it. When you decide to take a chance to go beyond any preconceived limitations, it becomes more than a bike race. And that's what has made my involvement in ultra cycling such a life enhancing experience, the same one I hoped the riders and crews would be able to garner from this race. It's what makes us a close knit family.
But all that being so, the 508 is most definitely a bike race, and a nasty hard one at that. I glanced over at my buddy Reed Finfrock and we both shared a smile knowing that this year both of us would be enjoying the race as spectators and officials. After our epic battle last year in miserable conditions, we're both more than happy to simply watch the race this year.
7:00 AM on October 14th, almost the exact time I was born 42 years ago (yep, it's the kid's birthday and he's spending it exactly where he wants to be), the race is underway. It's a cool morning with a hint of a breeze but with the definite possibility of increasingly stronger winds. I notice some riders are wearing full winter gear which is probably necessary only for a very brief time. For it's not too long before the first of many, many climbs are to be encountered. Less than 20 miles into the race the climbing begins. San Francisquito Canyon Road is a series of climbs as long as the road's name. And talk about false summits. It isn't until you are screaming downhill for more than ten seconds that you can finally start believing the climb is truly over.
It doesn't seem fair that there's not a longer descent from the summit. In fact, after a couple turns there's the short but tough climb up to Johnson Summit. Once the riders get there, it's a sweet downhill into the Palmdale area. The winds are cooperating so far, I've sure seen them a lot worse in years past, and the temperatures are perfect.
I've always called it the Windmill climb because of well, all the windmills at the summit. But it's more commonly known as the Tehachapi Pass and it's here when the riders first get a glimpse of just how long a day (and night, and next day) they're in for. Like many desert climbs, this one is long and gradual, climbing almost imperceptibly until the summit draws closer. The cool thing about this climb is the view. You may have thought you were far behind the leaders until this point, but there they are, seemingly just up the road. At the summit, the blades of the windmills are turning rather lazily. There's a breeze but it's not bad, not yet anyway.
The 508 is one race where the many of the downhills justify the uphills. Not all of them, but a good portion of them. The downhill into Mojave is one of them and before you know it, the first time station in California City is reached. The time station is near a small shopping center in this small desert town called the Aspen Mall. Talk about wishful thinking. I guarantee you will never find an aspen tree here.
At 11:30 AM, under the watchful eye of 508 team veteran Terry Hutt who's manning the time station, the men's tandem team rolls through, followed closely by Kaname Sakarai, Istvan Makk, Andrew Bohannon, the mixed tandem team, Fabio Biasiolo, Barclay Brown, the recumbent entrant, and the remaining 35-40+ riders. The wind up to here hasn't been favorable like it usually is and the times are a bit slower than in previous years. But what a race that is already brewing!
The rolling hills prior to the next major climb can take the legs out of the rider. And it appears that even though the temperatures are staying very favorable, the winds are not. The climb to the ghost town (well, if it isn't it should be) of Randsburg is another deceptively tough climb. It's nearly 8.5 miles long, and feels longer this year because of a slight, but definite headwind. The leaders are tightly bunched with less than an hour separating 1st place from 20th place. Everyone looks strong, I mean everyone. What a stellar field the race is enjoying this year.
Once past the summit, a couple turns are made before civilization is gone. Or at least it feels that way. From Highway 395 a left turn is made onto Trona Road, and brother, it's all over. For the next 20+ miles no turns are made and there is nothing out here to suggest commercial development will EVER happen. The route book mentions "rolling terrain" which means more climbing. It's here that I've always felt like "well, I'm here, I'm committed, there's no turning back." Besides, there's always Trona, the happening town of the Searles Valley. OK, I'm being a smart-ass. Trona, the home of Time Station 2 is 152 miles into the race and seemingly a million miles from civilization. Fortunately the stench from the Borax mines is not prevalent this year. The weather at the time station last year was over 100 degrees. This year it's 80-85 tops.
Reed Finfrock and Chuck Holmberg are kicking it at this time station and waiting for the first riders to arrive. Pat Enright, Seana Hogan, and Dave and Margaret Nelson are also here. It's like an old timers ultra cycling reunion here in Trona. Because there are no gas stations available for the next 228 miles, crews are required to fuel up at the Texaco Gas Station here. Usually the support vehicles will bolt up ahead to get fuel, food, water, and ice for the upcoming night, letting the riders continue alone for perhaps 5 or so miles prior to the time station. Soon, it occurs to me that this little gas station, with its one attendent, are going to be completely overwhelmed by support vehicles. In addition, the Searles Valley Gem and Rock Society is having their "Gem-O-Rama" show, probably the most exciting thing that can happen in this town. Well, it must appeal to a lot of people for there's a lot of "non 508" cars trying to get gas at the time station. We're watching a line of cars and vans backed up, waiting to get gas when it dawns on me. I lean over to Reed and say, "you know, that poor guy in there had no idea what he was going to get hit with. Last week he was probably saying, 'sure, no problem. I can work this Saturday. I mean, c'mon, it's Trona. What's the worst that could happen?'" Well, for the next couple hours he's going to work harder than he ever did because the crews and riders are streaming in.
The men's tandem of Bob Smith/Roehl Caragao continues to lead, with Sakarai arriving 4 minutes later. Makk comes in six minutes after Kaname but stops for five minutes before continuing. Now Bohannon is right behind. The mixed tandem is next, followed closely by recumbent rider Brown. From 3:25 to well over 5:00 PM the riders will make their way through this time station. 508 veteran Sam Beal leads newcomers Dan Jordan and Valsesia Nico. Multi 508 finisher Peter Pop is next with George Butler and Greg Giltner making up the top ten solo men's riders. Jeannie Barnett is having a great race so far and hoots and howls as she blasts through the time station in 13 place overall.
The town of Trona stretches on much longer than it really should. But soon, the riders are once again negotiating one of those long sustained climbs. The summit has no name but the valley below does. And the view is worth all the effort it takes to get there. The view of Panamint Valley is breath taking. And it'd be very easy to lose concentration on the bike or in the car to take in the magnificent sight. The downhill is so sweet; it seems to go on and on and on. At the end of it though, as the road flattens out, the route book cautions "rough road ahead." Well, it's fair warning I suppose but hardly accurate. It's hard to tell you how poorly this section of road is "paved" or why it is in the shape it is compared to the rest of the road. Needless to say it's rugged and many riders over the years have resorted to other bikes, even mountain bikes, to get through this section. The pounding your hands and feet take are merciless. I never remember how long it lasts but it goes on far too long.
I've spent a lot of time in Trona (although I don't know what for) and arrive at the "bad road" (180 miles in the race) after the first couple riders have already gone through. It's nearly 5:45 PM and Fabio Biasiolo is now negotiating this stretch. Since he's a 508 rookie he's obviously never been on this part of the course before. It makes me wonder if he's thinking thoughts such as, "what kind of road is this? And is it going to be like this for the rest of the race?" He's just ahead of 508 veteran Sam Beal who already knows what to expect. I guess even though there's a lot of poor sections of pavement in this race (just the nature of desert roads) you sure appreciate the quality of them after this bit of pavement.
The sun is setting over the mountains and the pastel colors of light orange and pink bathe the slopes all around. It's quite spectacular and for once, I get to finally take it all in at a much more leisurely pace. I could get used to this! But really, watching the race is never as good as being in the race. My competitive nature is being re-awakened and I feel the twinges of wanting to be out there racing becoming more than a gentle tug.
The riders I see passing all look strong and relaxed. The top rookie, Istvan Makk is in third place. He is a top placer in all the California doubles this season and is strong and fast...for 200 miles anyway. What's 500 miles going to feel like? I lean out the car window for a quick conversation, tell him he's looking great, and ask him that very question. He smiles and says that while he feels good, "I'm used to 200 miles." For Makk, every mile from here on will be a new experience although I have no doubt his strength will see him though if he's paced himself correctly.
The base of Townes Pass, the dreaded Townes Pass comes at just about the 200-mile mark. When you reach the end of Panamint Valley Rd. you come to a stop sign with two choices only, left or right. To the left is a great little resort hotel and restaurant. It looks tempting being the only building out here for miles and miles. But it's not on the route. No, the route requires that the rider turn right and head into Death Valley via the unbelievably difficult climb over Townes Pass.
I've competed in this race twice and I've crewed in it five times. Each time it becomes crystal clear (especially when I'm riding it) that this climb is as tough as they come. Oh it starts gradually alright. It's even pretty mellow. But soon enough it just goes up and up and up with no conceivable breaks. Grades listed in the route book are anywhere from 6-13% but it feels like 13% the whole way. It's tough! Most years the leaders reach the lower slopes in the daytime, late afternoon, but this year it's dusk and everyone will climb with lights on and definitely descend in pitch black darkness. Here at the base of Townes Pass it's the time of day my father is fond of describing as "if you aren't where you want to be by now, you'll likely not be there by dark." As dusk slowly turns to dark a tremendous, nearly full moon rises over the summit, a magnificent sight.
The powerful tandem team is still ahead and first to arrive. Amazing because this is definitely not a tandem-freindly course. 4 minutes back Kaname Sakarai stops at the stop sign, makes the right turn and begins his assault on this toughest of 508 climbs. Ten minutes back Makk and Bohannon arrive simultaneously followed by the mixed tandem, Biasiolo, Beal, Brown (recumbent), Jordan, Pop, Nico, Rick Kent, and John Williams. Falling back are Greg Giltner and George Butler. Riding steadily in the middle of the pack are 508 veterans Steve Winfrey and Arvid Loewen, and newcomer Jeff Martin. Still leading the women's race is Jeannie Barnett, in 17th overall position, laughing and howling at the moon as she starts the climb.
I spend nearly two hours at the base of the climb, reminding crew members to turn off exterior speakers at the summit. Once there, they will be in a "quiet zone" (National Park rules) for the next 45 miles. But the summit is ten grueling miles away. Most will take 1.5 hours or longer to reach the summit. But the spectator's view from the base is spectacular as the familiar ultra cycling sight of flashing rear lights is visible for nearly two-thirds of the climb. I am watching, as if in a trance, as the lights snake up the mountain, crews faithfully supporting their riders. Because the climb is so difficult, the flashing lights take a long time to make substantial progress.
At the summit I follow the support vehicle of the mixed tandem team of Cindi Staiger and Mike Moseley. They are literally flying down the back side, hitting speeds of nearly 70 mph. This year there is construction underway on the Pass although there are no signs to indicate it (at least not until you're right on top of it). Small sections of road are cut out. It's not too deep and doesn't go on very long but at those speeds it's definitely not what you want to have to deal with. I am thinking that this could be a serious problem for the riders this year and I can only hope they all make it through OK.
The undulating terrain through Stovepipe Wells to the time station in Furnace Creek is still somewhat downhill overall. The lights of the Furnace Creek resort look tantalizingly close but are so far away. It's so damn dark outside, even under the moon that I can't discern who it is I'm passing. Whoever, they are all looking strong. I can't recall a race so close this far into it. Hell, last year Justin Peschka reached the time station an hour ahead of me...and, arriving at 9:03 PM, I was ahead of my pace from the year I won the race! Yes, I did get to within 20 minutes of him near the closing stages but by all accounts Justin had the race in the bag a long time before Furnace Creek.
But that's not the case this year as both Sakarai and Bohannon arrive at the time station (252 miles) at 9:40 PM. Makk has fallen back ever so slightly, arriving at 10:11 PM. He's not looking bad though and is riding like a seasoned veteran. Biasiolo isn't looking quite so good. While he is still as strong as they come, it just doesn't appear to me that he's at his best this race. Arriving in 4th place at 10:35 PM, just behind the mixed tandem, Fabio would eventually have to drop before reaching the next time station. Nico has moved up to 5th, with Pop, Beal, Jordan, and Williams going back and forth. Giltner drops out here citing "burn out" so Butler, Winfrey, and Martin all move up. Less than three hours after the leaders pass, Jeannie Barnett's crew checks her in, still holding a commanding lead.
It's been a long day for me, one that actually seemed to begin well before arriving in California from Montana. It's hard to keep my eyes open so I decide to pull the car around to a darker area of the parking lot. Once the seat is tilted back, I'm history. It's the sleep of the dead. It would be over three hours before I woke back up, of course wondering where the hell I was. Once I realized that I was still at the time station I said to myself, "three hours? Plenty! I'm gone"! Less than five miles past the time station I make the right turn onto Badwater Road, heading through the lowest point in the United States, on the way to what I consider the crux of this race, Jubilee and Salsberry Passes. And as luck would have it, I am correct in my belief.
I remember my race last year going through Badwater. I knew Justin was far enough ahead of me that I wouldn't see his support vehicle's flashing rear lights. I was just so happy that he wasn't several hours ahead of me at the Furnace Creek time station as I had figured he would be. Knowing he was only an hour up the road was a victory of sorts. When you put things into perspective, they take on a whole new meaning.
And it's this wisdom, garnered from so many years of ultra cycling, that I felt compelled to share with others now from the comfort of my rental car. Having slept at the time station for a couple hours I knew that several riders had to have passed. I was guessing that perhaps slightly more than half the field had rolled past the deserted gas station that had served as the time station. So I'm getting to see some of the riders I hadn't seen since the very first time station which now seems like a week ago.
On my way to the base of Jubilee Pass I pass good friend Harvey "Kaka" Kulka who is riding well and looks totally focused. So much so that I don't think he even recognizes me. "Yahoo! Who is this ANIMAL hammering through the night?," I yell to him for encouragement. Not looking anywhere but directly forward, his reply is something to the effect of, "I'm doing OK, just trying to make good progress." And he is. He's making excellent progress. And I realize that he probably is so focused on the flashing lights pulsing off the support van of the rider not too far ahead of him, that conversation with me is not a priority of his. I would like to talk to him more but I decide it's best to not disturb his concentration. I fall back to talk to Josh Simonds, his crew chief, and ask him to tell Harvey that he's doing great. I want to say more but leave it at that. And I gradually move past Harvey and his team.
What a strange place this area surrounding Badwater Road is. The flashing lights of many support vans appear briefly, then disappear behind another of the many bends the road takes as it snakes around the Greenwater Range of the Funeral Mountains to the rider's left. And I would have to believe that nowhere else in the world will you find yourself at such a low point (-280 feet elevation) with an 11,000 mountain (Telescope Peak) so close nearby on the right. But again, even with the near full moon illuminating the road and landscape, it's hard to make out just who it is I'm passing. Most rider's support vehicles indicate their rider by a picture of the animal totem they represent and in the dark that's not always easy to spot. Every one of the riders I pass is the picture of focus and concentration so I won't disturb them. I carefully drive past several riders on this 46 mile stretch of road.
And it never seems to be "only" 46 miles. Part of the mysterious difficulty of this race is that the desert makes things appear closer than they really are. Another hardship is that a mile seems so much longer. Don't ask me how or why, it just does. And it is never more apparent than on this stretch. The real drag is that the road surface deteriorates as you get closer to the base of Jubilee Pass and in addition, you have to "climb to get to the climb." You see, the climb doesn't begin until you take that long sweeping left past the Ashford Mills Historic Ruins. But the road just goes up and up just to get to the damn turn! This borders on cruelty!
But once there, I believe the two passes, Jubilee and Salsberry, are the crux of the race. They aren't terribly long nor are they steep. What they are is deceptive. The entire lay of the land sweeps up with the climb, leaving very little in the way of depth perception. You're going up, but it doesn't appear that way. I know in my experience (primarily from doing the Death Valley Double Century) that there have been times I've looked at my gear selection and wondered how I could be in such an easy gear and going so bloody slow! But with experience comes wisdom which has taught me that this is the section of the race where a decisive move can be made. It's certainly been that way for both my 508 races and it appears to be that way now. Because I had slept in Furnace Creek I knew that I wouldn't have a chance to bridge up to the leaders before the time station in Shoshone. It appeared to me that the three solo leaders would be past the time station with a pretty good gap on the remainder of the field. And the bulletin board at the time station, run by good friend Dennis Brown, supported that theory...with a twist.
Somewhere on the slopes of either Jubilee or Salsberry (or both), Andrew Bohannon must have decided that this too was the place to make a move. And what a move! I could barely believe my eyes when I saw his arrival time at Shoshone. Arriving at 2:11 AM, Bohannon was going for broke, literally blowing away the competition. Nearly an hour would pass before second place Sakarai would arrive and slightly over an hour before the men's tandem team would show up. Third place solo rider Makk, still having a superb race, arrived at 3:30 AM, well ahead of fourth. Using my own pace from the previous year as a gauge, I realized what an incredible effort Bohannon had made over this stretch which included the aforementioned two very difficult climbs. The distance from Furance Creek to Shoshone is a bit over 73 miles. The Badwater Road takes up 46 miles of that stretch with the remainder involving a lot of climbing. Jubilee is about a five mile climb, Salsberry steeper and longer at ten miles. The problem is that these two deceptively hard climbs are separated by only a mile; it's like doing one long climb that just gets harder the further up the road you go.
And the descent is no jewel. Once the summit of Salsberry is reached there isn't a gigantic reward in the form of a screaming downhill like there is off of Townes Pass. Instead, the road flattens out and goes up again for quite awhile. If you're not prepared for that it can be most discouraging. But 508/RAAM veteran Bohannon was apparently and adequately prepared for he flew threw this section between time stations in 4.5 hours, a 16.28 mph average! I mean, he put the wood to the field. SEE YA! In contrast, my 1999 pace (which I thought wasn't too bad at the time) was a half hour slower. This guy is motoring and destroying the field. Unless he had a melt down, a 55 minute gap is very difficult to make up. But this was the 325 mile mark, still plenty of racing left and I'm sure no one's considering this thing over. In the middle of nowhere, under a cold, starry desert night, 40-plus riders are still out there racing, definitely racing.
I would guess that the section from Shoshone to Baker, a distance of 56 miles, is something most riders would like to forget. It's dull, uneventful, and slightly uphill. A poor excuse for a climb, the Ibex Pass, has to be negotiated 15 miles after Shoshone. It's more of a nuisance than a real honest-to-goodness climb and it's a hassle. This whole race must start feeling like a hassle to many of the riders. When one thinks of "the middle of nowhere" this stretch probably receives an awful lot of first place votes.
I know it does for me because I am finding it hard, in my nice heated rental car, to keep my eyes open. I find a spot alongside the road, kill the engine and it's all over. ZZZZZZZZZ! Unfortunately, it's very cold out here so I find myself subconsciously waking up and restarting the engine to turn the heat back on. After an hour or so of this, I'm no longer tired and drive the remaining miles to the town of Baker where time station 5 lives. And, like it was in Trona, it's an ultra cycling reunion. Reed Finfrock is running this time station as he did in Trona. The Nelson's are here as are RAAM/508 vets Rick Anderson, Mike Wilson, and Ed Levinson. Joining in the "fun" are race director Chris Kostman and long time ultra cyclist Len Bertain. The world's largest thermometer reads 55 degrees at 6:00 AM but it feels 10 degrees colder. The tailwind the leaders had enjoyed out of Shoshone has turned to a gentle but noticeable headwind. This will eventually change to a bit of a cross wind or tailwind as the field leaves Baker to climb the notorious Kelbaker Rd.
Bohannon hasn't made a mistake in his tactics; he's now over an hour and a half ahead of the resurgent Makk, now 11 minutes ahead of Sakarai. The men's tandem is actually the second rider(s) to arrive at the time station, continuing their remarkable race on this course not considered terribly "tandem-friendly." But the real interest for me is the group behind the top three solos and the tandem. I decide to backtrack along the course, back towards Shoshone. RAAM/508 veteran Peter Pop is making a brilliant surge as he is now in fourth place. I'm not sure if he knows who it is (me) yelling encouragements to him but he's really moving well. 11 minutes behind him is Italian rookie Nico, 16 minutes behind him is the strong and steady Jordan. The mixed tandem is next, followed very closely by Beal, and Williams. 9th and 10th places belong to Steve Winfrey and Jeff Martin. RAAM qualified Winfrey is going for his third straight 508 finish while Martin is in virgin territory... and riding magnificently. Jeannie Barnett is also having a fantastic race and is in 11th place overall. The time spread from 1st to 10th at the Baker time station is nearly five hours, but the gap from 2nd to 10th is only 3.5 hours. This race, at least for every place except first, is definitely not over.
Kelbaker Road never ends, of that I'm sure. Oh, there's a summit alright, but even when you reach it, you still feel as though you're climbing. Now of course that's not possible, it just feels that way. The geographic description, alluvial fan, is most apparent here. The road rises to 3600 feet from less than 1000 at Baker, it just takes 22 miles to get there. The grade averages 2.4% which, along with the length of the climb, makes gear selection, proper pacing, and mental toughness key. Five of the 4-person teams have either already passed or are now passing the majority of the solo riders including the all female Red Rockettes team. Not only are they riding really, really well, they appear to be having more fun than anyone in the history of the race. It's awesome to watch them attack the climb, led by former 508 champion and RAAM legend Muffy Ritz. Their crew chief is another ultra cycling vet, two-time 508 winner John Hughes who, along with the rest of the crew appears to be emphasizing teamwork and a spirit of fun, as well as racing. It's a strategy that is working well for the RR team as they blast up the climb.
The downhill off of Kelbaker is nothing to write home about. The road surface is poor at best, and the descent doesn't justify the amount of work it took to get there. And the "town" of Kelso at the bottom of the descent has nothing to offer the weary ultra cyclist. Nothing, except for a series of rim-bending railroad tracks. I am hanging out here with my best friend Charlie Liskey who is crewing for Steve "Scorpion" Winfrey. It's a good time to catch up on our lives (I spent several weeks at Charlie's place, I called it the "Lizard Lounge," in preparation for several ultra cycling races of mine) and to relive some 508 memories. The Scorpion is enjoying a surge of energy and arrives at the tracks at 12:57 PM in 8th place. At 1:03 PM John Williams arrives but looks a bit tired, perhaps too much to put up a fight. 11 minutes after Williams, Martin arrives and will soon pass Williams on the next climb.
This "next climb" is over the Granite Mountains. It's 17 mile length is not quite as long as Kelbaker but it is steeper, and hotter. Although temperatures are holding remarkably well in this year's race, it's perhaps the hottest part of the day and after 415 miles, you're going to be affected by any fluctuations in temperatures. A new time station, manned by Glen Tebo is, appropriately named, "The Middle Of Nowhere" time station. Bohannon still has a comfortable lead but the race for second place is fierce. Makk arrives only minutes ahead of Sakarai. An hour behind them, Nico is trying to hold on to fourth place ahead of Pop and Jordan. It's almost a dead heat between these three. Beal is comfortably and seemingly securely in 7th place while Winfrey and Martin battle for 8th and 9th. With less than 80 miles to go there are going to be no opportunities for mistakes or rest.
Finally, after a few rolling hills, a nice long descent is made towards the town of Amboy. At the bottom of the intersection, a right turn at the "T" is made onto the National Trails Highway. It's here where I catch up with Jeff Martin. He tells me he's hallucinating, even talking to the cactus. At that moment I'm taken back to my RAAM qualifier in Arizona, the RAAM Open West (which the 508 eveolved from). At about this same time in my race, I also had hallucinations. And they too involved talking to cactus. And it dawns on me that everything Jeff is telling me regarding his emotions and hallucinations is almost an exact replica of my rookie experience 14 years ago. Some things never change I guess. I offer a couple words of encouragement, hoping they will help and decide to do a little backtracking after Jeff leaves. I've been helping Jeff with a supplement program for months prior to this race and I want to see him climb the last major climb. But that's still many miles away and gives me plenty of time to catch up with the other riders, including another friend of mine, Rick Kent.
Back up the long hill I drive. I don't know where Rick is but I had received a message on my cell phone from his crew, asking me to find them. En route I see Jeannie Barnett flying down the grade, looking so strong and fresh, as though she's barely ridden a century. I know Rick's out there somewhere but I have no idea where so I keep driving. In this race there are been more than adequate volunteer officials. My main reason for being here is as a representative of E-CAPS/Hammer Nutrition but I since I was planning on being out here on the course I offered to help "semi-officiate" by making sure no one was cheating, etc. Well, no one that I've seen has been and it's not been an issue. Still, I want to be impartial so I don't want to overdo it when offering encouragements to my friends. I have tried, in fact, to be equally encouraging to everyone I've seen whether I know them or not. This goes back to my pre-race speech about how all involved are "family." And that's what my desire is, to help members of this ultra cycling family, be they rookies or vets, friends or unknowns, get through this race safe, sound, and healthy.
Just before time station 6 I see Rick. He's finishing up a quick break and appears very happy to see me. As a multi RAAM finisher he's not too stoked about his time in this race and admits that he's not as well conditioned as he needed to be in order to contend. His two person crew hadn't even met prior to this race so this is all a "learn as you go" experience for all of them. His crew of two are doing a fantastic job keeping him fed, clothed, and motivated but are perhaps getting tired and running out of ideas. I'm not sure what to say so I just let the words roll out. "Dude, I know you're not happy about your time or position in the race. You and I both know that you can do better, no doubt about that. But be objective. You're in 16th place right now. For you, that's probably not acceptable but it's the cards you've been dealt. And believe me there's over 20 riders behind you that would kick your ass to be where you are now. So look at this in a positive light if you can. You're using this as training for a double ironman in November right? So consider what's happening in this race to be not only superb physical conditioning, but mental and emotional conditioning as well. In fact, look at this as one of your best efforts because when you were discouraged by not being further up the standings, you stayed strong and didn't give into the temptation to quit. Think of this as your finest race, not your poorest."
Now I don't know how much of that helped, but I like to think it did because Rick got back on the bike with what appeared to be a renewed sense of purpose. He would conquer his own personal demons (and I think we all have them on ultra marathon races) and finish the 508, adding to his excellent resume of ultra marathon results.
The end is near, for me anyway. I don't know what time it is but it's getting darker and I want to be in Twentynine Palms at a decent time so I can see some of my friends finish and get some sleep before I have to travel home. But there's a new time station at the summit of a particularly nasty climb over the Sheephole Mountains. And you can't help but notice it. Right near the summit (and on this climb, there appears to be several summits) on the left side of the road, 508 veterans Dan Dibb and Greg Page have constructed the ultimate time station. And I'm not kidding. This is the time station where anyone who's accrued time penalties must sit and serve them out. But what a place to it. Dubbed the "Luau Locale," time station 7, at the top of the Sheepholes is lavishly decorated with a Hawaiian theme. A large canopy tent is at the center, decorated with flower leis and tropical ornaments. Life size, professionally painted wood cut outs of hula dancers are all over the place as are surfboards and other artifacts, all lit up with ground level flood lights. And did I mention the tiki torches? Yep, the bro's have got the tiki torches as well. They haven't forgotten a thing. And the effect is perfect, especially for a tired rider and crew, taking some of the agony out of the effort. And of course everyone gets a "I Got Lei'd At Time Station 7" lei. Beautiful.
Bohannon had reached this time station at 12:14 PM, still with a comfortable lead over second place which is now held by Kaname Sakarai who arrived at 1:55 PM. Makk holds tight to his top rookie and third overall spot, arriving at 2:42 PM over the amazing Dan Jordan who is definitely bridging the gap, arriving at 3:23 PM. It's probably too late to catch Makk but Jordan has climbed two places since I last saw him. Awesome effort. Pop holds a near 25 minute lead over Nico which appears to be safe. Beal is having another great 508 and will hold onto 7th position while Martin, who at one time was as far back as 16th place, is now in 8th. Winfrey has a lock on 9th as does Williams in 10th.
There's less than 30 miles to the finish but it may as well be 130. The road, like it really seems to have been from the start, is a gradual incline. The road surface is not too bad but there's an awful lot of traffic for such a "off-the-beaten-path" type of place. The good thing about this traffic is that it lets you know that the finish is getting closer. Sometimes it never seems as though it does but somehow it does. I've always believed that last 30 miles of this race, the last 30-50 miles of any ultra cycling race, and especially the last 100 miles of RAAM, are perhaps the most difficult of all no matter what the terrain is. I think this is because it's so easy to get caught up in the idea that something you may have never thought would end actually will. Something that may have so many times seemed as being too hard to accomplish is nearly complete. A goal that took so much time, money, and effort to realize will be realized. But the cold, hard fact of ultra marathon cycling is that the race is not over until the finish line is breached. And every mile must be accounted for. I know this is true for any race, that's a given. But due to the extreme distances involved in ultra cycling it's on a much larger scale. And it may be one reason why this sport is so damn hard and so incredibly rewarding. Maintaining focus and discipline in all areas, physically, mentally, and emotionally for the entire duration of the event takes an extraordinary amount of strength and courage. Sometimes it just hurts so bad and sometimes the temptation to stop is so overwhelming. But the reward at the end, that thing you feel, cannot be put into words. I won't even try here. After that final hill is climbed, a left turn is made, followed by a quick right into the parking lot of the Best Western. 508 miles from Valencia, with 35,000 feet of climbing accomplished, the journey is over.
Andrew Bohannon won this year's 508 in an excellent time of 31 hours, 17 minutes, 57 seconds. His race was a brilliant display of strength and tactics, played out to perfection. I think Kaname Sakarai is the toughest guy I know. After a 3rd place finish in the 135 mile Badwater ultra marathon run and a 1st place finish in the 100 mile Angeles Crest ultra run, he comes back on very little rest to finish in 2nd place in 32:31:56. What a stud. Istvan Makk showed he has what it takes to not only be a top 200 mile racer but an ultra marathon cyclist as well. His 3rd place time of 33:45:10 set the RAAM qualifying standard for this year's 508. Dan Jordan finished a superb race, riding strong the entire way, finishing in 4th place, 34:19:40. I predict Peter Pop will someday set the record for most 508 finishes. This one was a solid 5th in 34:50:30. Valsesia Nico was an unknown prior to this race but isn't now with his 6th place finish in 35:09:58. Sam Beal finishes two in a row, both top ten finishes, with an excellent 35:39:09. Jeff Martin, who told me prior to the race that he just wanted to finish, did so in spectacular fashion, with an 8th place finish, arriving in Twentynine Palms in 36:49:29. Steve Winfrey has started three 508's and has finished three 508's. There's less than a handful of athletes who can claim that. His time of 37:10 was good for 9th place. John Williams has ridden ultra cycling events solo, team, tandem...I think he's done it all. This year he completed another great ride with a 10th place finish in 37:33.
Both tandems finished strong. The men's tandem, Bob Smith/Roehl Caragao, were the third entrants to finish overall in a time of 33:36:57. Cindi Staiger and Mike Moseley, the mixed tandem entrant, rode a great race and finished in 35:41:00. The first woman to finish, a position that was never in doubt from the start, was Jeannie Barnett who's time of 39:08 more than made up for last year's disappointing DNF. Carol Trevey finished in 2nd place in slightly over 43 hours. Barclay Brown gets my vote as toughest of them all. He recovered from a high speed crash off of Townes Pass and still finished the race in an excellent time of 40:40. Like it appears to be for tandems, this is a very difficult course for recumbents. His effort was stellar, to say the least.
The Furnace Creek 508 is race you can't forget. To be a part of it, as race, crew, official, or spectator is a most unique experience. Congratulations to everyone who took part in this year's race. A special thank you to race director Chris Kostman and everyone who made this year's race such a tremendous experience.
Click here to read Steve's "Handicapping the 508" article.
For an excellent interview/profile article of Steve Born, click here.