A Rookie's Tale

By Rick Akita Ashabranner, 2001 solo finisher

The annual bicycle race known as the Furnace Creek 508 occurred last weekend with 94 participants including teams and 39 solo riders. Each assigned with animal "totems" in place of numbers.

I was solo participant "Akita." The 7:00 am start on Saturday opened with perfect conditions. There was concern that a fire the canyon the day before would close the road but that turned into a non-issue. With my ultra riding experience being mostly double centuries, I decided to pace myself similarly, ride my own race, and just try to keep the leaders in sight. Over the first climb I felt great. Flats are fun for me so I keep a brisk pace within my capacity. At the ninety-mile point, my crew informs me that we are in the lead. My first thought: Uh-Oh. Slow down, there's a long way to go. I get caught and trade the lead with a rider from Austria (the eventual winner) and settle into a rhythm. The climbs seem to feel longer and it's obvious that "Old Fox" from Austria is a better climber than me. At the pass leading to Panamint Valley, he's over the top gone for good. Oh well. I make the 200-mile point in 10.5 hours and hear a voice nagging that I am going way too hard, too soon.

Near the turn to Townes Pass I got a metal splinter in my tire and while swapping wheels "Panda" catches me. Seeing as how he has won it twice, I figured he was coasting to the finish. I was surprised to later learn of his DNF. Townes Pass climb came and went and it's now dark. "Ostrich" pulls up as we are readying for the descent and he gives my crew some great advice about following the rider using the opposite lane. Fifty-seven mph on the descent into Death Valley without trying. Third into time station #3 at Furnace Creek, about fifty minutes behind the previous racer. Halfway point, there's still a long way to go.

Through Death Valley I'm conscious of some racer's lights visible behind me. I try to keep the pace up but was beginning to feel nauseous. My fueling choices were marginal at best and I began to slow. I was passed by "Ostrich" and some others while carb loading. This motivates me a bit and I pour on the power, passing them handily. But can I keep them back there? I kept up the pace expecting to hit the Jubilee/Salisbury climbs with some momentum but the distance between Badwater and Ashford Mills was longer that I remembered. There was no moon so I could not judge the terrain at all. Do I attack a hill expecting a short bump or do I gear down for an extended climb? I couldn't tell. By the time the climbing up Salisbury finally starts in earnest I'm a bit spent. Zing, there goes "Ostrich," "Panther" and "Bumble Bee." They stay ahead of me through to the finish. Good job! Oh well.

I ate a bit and continued the climb but I was slowly bonking more and more. And I became sleepy more and more. I noticed the bike weaving violently after snapping myself awake a few times and decided for my own safety I should stop. My first real rest break since the start, some 270 miles and around eighteen hours into this. I wanted to nap for ten minutes, but after what felt like two, I was told it had been twenty. My thought processes were getting muddled. I was even quoted as saying, "better get going, this hill is not going to climb itself." HUH?! I forced myself to get back on the bike because go I must. A vehicle zoomed by rather quickly. "There goes the eight rider tandem team." Wow! Others passed. By this time I think my place was eleventh or worse. My emotional low point. I felt as though I failed. I did go too hard, too early. A pure rookie move, it was. RAAM qualify?! What was I thinking?! Oh well, just get to the finish. Gear down and spin up this awful climb and get it done.

So I spun. And spun. Hey! Pretty soon, I was passing riders. Some riding, some pulled over like I was. The rest break really revived me and my spirits soared. At Shoshone, Chris the race director said I was now seventh and "Dog just left, go work on him." I had a focus again. I concentrated on his lights and attacked. Boom, one down hey look there's another. Caught that one and spat 'em out. There's more ahead. It was like that all the way to the next Time Station. I don't mean to disparage the efforts of the other racers, it was just one of those moments when things clicked for me. The Ibex climb I barely noticed, and the following rollers suited me just fine. I like those slight inclines where I can still turn a big gear. Upon reaching Baker I was fifth solo. Now I must concentrate on at least maintaining this position if not improving it. The sun was up, the day was becoming warm and... What? My feet were now starting to get painful. Hmmmm. Gotta keep riding.

On the Kelso peak climb a particularly bad section of road happened in front of me. I veered to the extreme right to hopefully avoid it. Yea, that smooth portion along the painted line looks good, lean and turn, now lean to straighten out. BAM! Not even time to click the foot out. The front wheel slid out from underneath me using fine sand that the road crew had thoughtfully painted over as lubricant. Lets see, knee is mangled as is the left hand but all else is fine. How's the bike? Scuffed but still rideable. It just so happened that a 'Race Official' vehicle was just up the road and had seen the whole thing. They were the roving observation team of Cindi Staiger and Rob Muskrat Morlock. They patched me up good and sent us on our way. Turns out they have seven RAAM's between the two of them. Thanks!

Back on the bike. By this time I'm peeking back looking for competition so often it is annoying my crew. My feet are really beginning to hurt badly. This is no ordinary "hot foot." It's obvious that the Sidi shoes are too narrow. My feet have expanded more than I am used too and I'm now having the blood restricted. It feels like the fleshy pads are getting bruised. Gotta keep riding but the pain has very much affected my speed.

Granite pass took awhile but there was still no sign from behind. The descent was great, there's Amboy, where's Sheep Hole Pass? All the way over there?! By this time the teams who started hours later than the solo's are zooming by. I haven't been caught by any other solo riders but then again I haven't caught any more either. At least not since before Baker. The "road" condition was quite hideous and it was really getting hot.

The approach to Sheep Hole takes me way too long. About half way up the climb, I have to stop. It's got to be over one hundred degrees; no relative wind and I feared heatstroke. I'm lightheaded and not perspiring anymore. I took a break in the crew vehicle and my friend Fabio "Bunny" Biasiolo happens by in a van. Shucks, it turns out he DNF'ed at TS #2 due to cramps. This guy is surprised to see me and is overwhelming in his positive energy. A six-time RAAM racer, he's a true free spirit.

I'm feeling motivated again and hit the climb. Spin! It worked on that Salisbury effort what now seems like a million years ago. My crew is ferrying cold cups of water to me every couple of minutes to pour over myself. That does the trick. Before I know it I'm getting a congratulatory flower "lei" at TS #7 and we push over the top. The descent is a good one but the last stretch to the finish goes on and on. Wow those feet hurt. Five hundred clicks go by on the bike computer, Whoo Hoo!

During this stretch Fabio is "leap frogging" me with cheer support. At one point I see him whip his speeding van into a parking lot resulting in a tremendous dust cloud. As it clears there he is violently waving a flag jumping back and forth. We are all laughing by now! Oh this is great! We make the turn onto Utah Trail Road then the final right turn and we are in Twentynine Palms. The sun is in my eyes, where's the motel finish line? It's over that bump? Arrrgh. Crest the bump, there's Fabio blocking traffic for me, final turn, cut the tape. Whew, fifth solo, fourth in the "male under fifty" category, time 34:26 and RAAM qualified too. What an experience!

I have to give tremendous recognition to my Crew: Irene Huynh, Greg Antonini, and Steve Gabbert. I did a lousy job informing them on how to support an ultra distance cyclist, mostly because I didn't know much myself. These great people had no idea of what they were getting into and basically learned it on the job watching others and even asking questions. Becoming experts in no time, they were wonderful support making up a great team.

Greg made an even larger sacrifice in that he lost his wedding band during the first day but chose not tell me about it until much later, wanting instead to have me keep riding forward. We retraced our steps the following Monday including walking Townes pass, but to no avail. It remains missing. Drat! Thanks Greg!