By Ken Kangaroo Rat Holloway, 2001 solo finisher
I had done long distance randonneuring rides before, but this was my first foray into ultra style individual time trial type of riding. Riding 500 miles by myself—no other riders to ride with—was new and daunting.
On the other hand, I would have a van and three friends along as crew members. I'm known for carrying a lot, but even I couldn't stuff three good friends, ice chests and bags of food, extra clothing for all occasions, and enough spare parts to start a bike shop into my camel back and giant swinging seat bag. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. Can I have a coke with ice? My leg is twitching, how about a massage? I'd like some hot soup at the top of the next pass, please. Could you put more ice in my ultrafuel? Even the Davis Bike Club with it's ultra well supported brevets couldn't quite match this. And I hear there is a cross country tour offered in June with the same format.
We arrived Friday afternoon and checked in. Todd, Jeanie, and Dave busied themselves preparing the van, attaching the totem banners, the flashing lights, signs and other decorations while I test rode my bike and talked with the other riders and crews. At six, we headed over to the pre race banquet for more socializing, eating, speechmaking, and displaying of totem costumes, tee shirts, and other paraphernalia.
Saturday started with breakfast consisting of a bagel with cream cheese, and apple turnover, a smoothie, and a banana, the objective being to start with as many calories as possible. My crew would be carefully tracking my caloric intake, and we had already established one of the ground rules was that breakfast counted. It always helps to have a head start.
After the obligatory picture taking and announcements, the Furnace Creek 508 bike race/rolling costume party was off at 7AM sharp. A fire in the foothills had threatened to close the route, but the road had reopened and, other than the fleet of fire trucks that we passed, we saw no indication of the fire. We rode at a moderate pace to the bottom of San Francisquito Canyon, where we were turned loose. A group immediately went off the front while the rest of us continued to ride in a pack until an official came along and told us to break up. Ok, social hour is over, time to get down to business.
After a moderate amount of climbing, we met our support vehicles for the first time at mile 12. Ours was immediately recognizable by the kangaroo rat in the hamster exercise wheel taped to the top of the van (thanks, Jeanie). My crew was ready to go, holding out fresh bottles and a full camelback for whenever I was ready. Todd Teachout, Jeanie Barnett, and Dave Leonard were an excellent crew, anticipating my every need, always positive and cheering me on.
The rolling hills and canyons gave way to the avenues - long, straight roads that climbed or descended for miles at a time, never very steep, but hardly ever level. I was to learn a lot about endless desert climbs in the next two days. During this part of the ride, everyone is still fairly close together and you see the support vans for the riders near you as they pass, leapfrogging their riders. As the ride wears on, riders either drop behind or move ahead and you are more and more on your own. During this period I saw Seana "Hoopoe" Hogan (who quickly pulled away), Mark "Panther" Patten (who also pulled away), Mike "Hummingbird" Hollenbaugh, Peter "Penguin" Pop, who would be the first over 50 finisher, and Dennis "Cactus Wren" Culley, who even had a cheerleader with pompoms in his crew who popped out every time his van stopped and cheered him on.
The first time station was at California City. I stopped for restrooms at a gas station and my crew quickly and efficiently stripped me of pump, tubes, and tire levers I had been carrying in case of problems during the first twelve unsupported miles. We saw Charlie Massieon and some friends near California City (where he lives) out to watch the race. Charlie crewed for Jeanie two years ago and stopped by to say hi.
I had been dutifully packing away the calories, trying to stay ahead of the curve. A little too dutifully. My stomach was not happy, and I started to feel worse and worse. My crew told me I was holding a steady 450 calories/hr. I was not riding well at this stage, and it seemed everyone was passing me. After the climb up to Randsburg (an old mining town perched on top of a hill), I stopped and my crew cooled me down with cold towels while I drank an ice cold Coke. From them on, I periodically gave myself a break from eating and drank ice cold soda's regularly to let my stomach calm down. Feeling somewhat better after the stop, I continued on to Trona.
Prior to the ride, it had been discovered that one of the worst sections of road, Panamint Valley Road, had been repaved. "Course records will fall," howled the old timers—"throw out 2x4's on the road to make it fair." They needn't have worried. To make up for Panamint Valley Road, Cal Trans had scraped a stretch of Trona Road several miles long with those irregular groves we all know and love. My feet, hands, and butt tingled for several miles as I traversed this section of road. I'm just glad we didn't have to do it at night. It felt awfully squirrelly in spite of the 700x26c Forte Kevlar tires, which give a much smoother ride than the x20c or x23c tires I usually ride.
At the Trona time station, I had started to feel better and told my crew that I thought things were going to be ok. I saw Dennis Cully there, and he was having stomach problems. We made a pact not to DNF. After a short break, I went on while my crew refueled the van. I passed Dennis on the Trona Bump climb. The following downhill is one of the sections I had looked forward to riding from my previous two years crewing the 508, and Todd commented "have fun!" as I started the descent. After the road leveled out, it was soon 6PM, "official dark," so I stopped for my crew to attach my lights and Dennis zoomed past. I followed him for a while, concentrating on ingesting calories for the impending climb up Townes Pass at mile 200. Eating while climbing is difficult at best, and in fact I ate nothing during the hour and a half climb up Townes.
I felt really good at the base of Townes Pass, and this high was to last the remainder of the ride, with small valleys and peaks. I was focused on getting the beast over with and climbed at a steady pace. This was the only climb I used my triple on and it made a big difference. I started passing other riders. The first one was walking so I shouted words of encouragement (I later saw he pulled out). I passed four more riders (including Mike Hollenbaugh, who asked my crew "what are you giving him to eat?"). This stoked up my crew. Every time I would pass a rider, they would wait until we were barely out of earshot, then the van would pull up, windows would come down, and hooting and hollering would ensue.
We stopped at the top of Townes for a break, including hot soup for the rider. At the top, we saw Tandem "Tumble Bug" taking a break. I had met Mike Mosley, the captain, at the Tour of Two Forests a month prior. Dennis Culley arrived at the top just as we were leaving. He later told me he spent five hours there, mostly sleeping, before continuing on to finish.
The descent down Townes in the dark was exciting. I had my dual beam nightrider on the bike, a single beam nightrider mounted on my helmet, and the following van's lights. The dual beam kept cutting out - good thing I had the helmet light. I finally fixed the errant nightrider (at 40+ mph, descending in the dark) and got a steady beam. It's good to have excitement to break up the monotony of a long ride.
I had put on a jacket for the descent of Townes, but it came off soon after the road leveled out. The weather in Death Valley was a balmy 74 degrees. About 11:15 we stopped in the visitors center just before time station three for a change of clothes, a bathroom break, and some food. The bathrooms there are open 24 hours. This is also the halfway point of the ride.
The road to Furnace Creek is pretty good, but past Badwater it deteriorates rapidly, and by the time you get near Ashford Mills, it is some of the worst road on the ride, especially since it was at night. I endured this section of the ride, just waiting for the climb to Jubilee Pass to start. The "Davis Drills" tandem team passed me just before Badwater. Dave Taillon and Rick Humphreys were taking a pull and shouted words of encouragement in the few seconds they were nearby. The Drills went on to set a course record for eight man tandem teams at the FC508.
The climb up Jubilee was harder than I expected, but the climb up Salisbury was easier, maybe because I knew it went on forever. Also, because it was dark, I couldn't actually see that the road went on to infinity. During the run from Badwater to Salisbury, three officials passed and talked with me. Cindy Staiger asked if I knew my name ("this is a test"), Rick Anderson noticed I was hoarse (probably because I had a cold—shades of PBP) and wondered if I had been drinking enough. My crew had been keeping careful track of fluids so I knew I was ok. Chris Kostman just wanted to know how it was going. Each time after the officials had gone, the van would pull along side and the crew wanted to know what had transpired.
Near the top, a kangaroo rat darted out from the side of the road, then scurried back into the brush. They have a distinctive way of moving, hopping with both back legs moving together like a kangaroo, so they are easily recognizable, even by a tired rider at three in the morning. Since my 508 totem is "kangaroo rat," I knew then that the desert gods had smiled upon our ride and we would finish well. My crew saw it too and it is noted in the ride log at mile 311 as "encounter w/kangaroo rat." Unfortunately, none of us was quick enough to catch it with a paper bag (see explanation of "dippy hunting" at end of article).
We stopped at the top of Salisbury pass for more soup for the rider and a short break. Rick "Longhorn" Kent was there and left shortly after we arrived. I put on Jeanie's two beam nightrider for the ten mile descent into Shoshone (since mine was no longer trusted). At the Shoshone time station, I took two ibuprofin and a nodoz. I was starting to feel sleepy (it was 5:30 AM) and my feet were hurting.
The sixty mile run into Baker was a high point. There was a tail wind for the first few miles and I was feeling great, maybe because I had laid off caffeine for the prior month and the nodoz was really taking effect. I passed two or three riders during this stretch. In Baker the crew stopped to refuel the van and get supplies while I went on ahead. They caught up with me about five miles out. At the top of the Kel-Baker climb, I stopped to put on sunscreen. The sunscreen was a multi layer mess—yesterday's sunscreen, a layer of dirt, then today's sunscreen. I also drank a milkshake that the crew had brought from "The Mad Greek." It really hit the spot and Dave offered go back for another one.
After the long descent into Kelso, the climb to Granite pass started. This climb was the hardest of the ride for me. You see the summit, or so it seems. Then you get there, only to discover it is just a short dip and the climb stretches on, and endless straight road with telephone poles going on to infinity. Then another false summit. Somewhere along there is the "time station in the middle of nowhere." They told us I was three minutes behind Peter Pop, but looking down the road, I saw no sign of him. Along this climb I developed an annoying twitch behind my right knee. It would never get worse, but would twitch every minute or so. Jeanie managed to massage it out and it came back only briefly after that.
About this point my crew told me I was at about 307 calories/hr—still ok, but dropping. I quickly calculated that this must mean my intake for the last several hours must be low. I had not eaten that much at night and was beginning to slow down. So I upped my intake, downing two bottles of ultra fuel in about two hours, and started to get the edge back.
After the top of Granite, there is a 10-15 mile descent (I was just glad I wasn't climbing it). It went on past I40 down to route 66, a steady 30 mph. During the descent I noticed I was starting to fade, so at the bottom I took a nodoz and two ibuprofin (just on general principles). We then continued on into Amboy and left on Amboy Road towards Sheep Hole Pass (which is sometimes shortened to Sheep'ass). This section of road rivals the road near Ashford Mills as being some of the worst - tar with sharp rocks sticking out, and lots of potholes. I'm sure I added a mile dodging pot holes on this road. The one trick that seemed to work is riding the smooth white painted line at the edge of the road, except the time the shoulder disappeared and I went off into the sand.
Amboy Road traverses a wide, flat valley. The Sheep Hole mountains look like they are a day's ride away. Finally (in about nine miles), you start the climb up Sheep Hole. About this point, I looked up from pothole dodging and noticed a van in front of me. I passed Peter Pop near the base of the climb. He asked who I was, but I could only croak out my name—further conversation was impossible. By then talking hurt more than riding. Dan Crain was crewing for Peter and said hi as I passed.
At the top is time station seven with a luau going on. One of the time station volunteers put a lei over me as I passed. At the summit half a mile further on I stopped to be de-leied and to drink another soda. The descent to Wonder Valley was bumpy and best done in daylight. I developed some bike shimmy on this descent that Todd noticed from the van. Then follows twenty miles of another endless desert climb along Amboy road toward Twentynine Palms (more gradual than Kel-Baker or Granite Pass). Next we turned onto Utah trail (six miles from the end), and finally Twentynine Palms Highway, where my crew put my lights on since I would finish after 6PM ("official dark"). With a straight face, and in a somber voice, Jeanie informed me that, because we had so much food, the race officials said we had to go around again. I said, "fine but this time I'm riding in the truck." This response brought howls of laughter from my crew.
I finished at 6:11PM, 7th solo finisher. Chris told me I was RAAM qualified. The first finisher (Othmar "Old Fox" Altmann from Austria) was in at 31:10, and he was not previously RAAM qualified, so this set the standard—within 15% over his time. I made it by just 40 minutes.
I talked to other riders at the finish. Paul Biron had finished eight minutes before. Mark Patten had been in for two hours. A few riders came in during the next couple of hours, among them Mike Hollenbaugh. Other finishers who's progress I had been following include Ron Way and Dennis Culley from Arizona.
This year's 508 was fairly benign weather-wise, with no excessive winds and temperatures never higher than the high 90's. The DNF rate was thirty percent, significantly lower than the usual fifty percent. It was also a year for the rookies to shine. Six of the first seven finishers were rookies. Eric "Ostrich" Ostendorff, who had never ridden more than a double century, finished in 32:24 for third. All in all, I had a lot of fun on this ride and two weeks after, I think I would do it again. It is very doable for someone with randonneuring experience (especially 600k and longer), or someone who has ridden a lot of the California double centurys. Thanks to Chris and his army of volunteers who organized and staffed the event, taking a weekend or much more of their time to put on the 508. And it's a lot of fun to spend a four day weekend with three friends helping you succeed, waiting on you hand and foot. Thanks Todd, Jeanie, and Dave!
This is a "sport" where a group of people (ie: the culprits) go into the desert and chase the dippys (ie: kangaroo rats) towards the bag man (ie: victim), who is waiting to catch them with a paper bag.
Of course, the culprits retire to the pub and bet on how long the victim will stay out there. In spite of knowing this, I still took Jeanie's suggestion of "kangaroo rat" for my totem.