The Double Furnace Creek 508

Part One of a Trilogy

By Steve Beaver Born with images by Sallie Shatz

In 1999, I entered the Furnace Creek 508 with the intention of becoming the first person to complete two of them back to back. Problem was, by the time I had finished the race (which that year was contested in very hot conditions) I was pretty well spent, having raced too hard in the actual race. Turning around and doing another 508 miles backward along the route was simply out of the question. Since that time I have examined the possibility of actually completing a Double 508 but realized that if it were going to be accomplished a couple things would have to happen. First, I would need some help with the weather. I was under the belief that completing two 508-mile segments under extremely hot conditions, such as was the case in 1999, would be most difficult, if it could be done at all. Secondly, I would have to do the first half of the attempt by riding the route backward, alone and against no competition, since it would be too tempting to race full throttle against the other riders doing the actual 508, then having to turn around and go back. After months of planning, preparation, and intense training, 2002 was to be the year I made a serious attempt at being the first cycling to finish a Double Furnace Creek 508.

My Double 508 started on Thursday, October 10th at 1:00 in the afternoon at the finish line hotel in 29 Palms. Since no one had ever ridden the 508 course backward there was no previous time to gauge my effort/pace off of... I simply had to wing it, hoping I would ride intelligently. I had a feeling that the race route in reverse would eventually prove to be tougher than the race route and my suspicions were very much confirmed over and over again. Don't get me wrong, the 508 route is a beast, there's no question about that. However, having done the route both ways, I have no doubt in my mind that it's much more difficult in reverse. It's just a different course altogether, with the climbs being longer and more difficult to the point of being cruel. Again, that takes nothing away from the 508 route but I am thankful that the current route is the way it is. The 508 in reverse is brutal beyond description.

I enjoyed decent weather, even a little cloud cover as I made my way over the Sheephole grade and headed into Amboy. This section was much easier than the 508 route, where the Sheephole grade is as long and difficult a grind as you'd ever want to subject yourself to, especially coming near the end of the race. The problem I had on the descents was that the road conditions, being their usual and typical lousy self, made going for an extremely bumpy and sometimes hazardous ride. Personally, I am amazed I didn't puncture or break any spokes or rims on some of these descents. Fact is I did the entire 1016 miles and had no flat tires.

The climb out of Amboy towards Kelso is about 20 miles in length. It's not terribly difficult and thankfully it wasn't blazing hot (although I hit that particular climb a bit after 4:00 PM, a time many would consider the hottest part of the day). I remember crewing for Muffy Ritz in RAAM '97 when she and the other competitors had to negotiate this climb. I distinctly remember telling myself what a drag it would be to have to do this climb... and now I found myself on it!

After a gentle to moderate 12 mile descent, I began the 11+ mile climb to the top of Kelbaker Rd. Going uphill on these roads, ones where I (and all 508 competitors) had only descended before in prior 508's, made me see first hand just how lousy the road surfaces were that we competitors had to ride on at speed. The descent off Kelbaker Road, going the regular 508 route to Kelso, is one of the worst. I often times caught myself asking myself, "how the hell did I descend this piece of crap during the 508 without breaking something?" But it's just typical of these desert roads, they are the way they are because they're subjected to such miserable conditions and aren't maintained regularly. It's one of the things that makes the 508 as tough as it is.

By the time I got to the time station in Baker, it was 8:45PM and dark. It had taken me 7 hours, 45 minutes to go 127 mountainous miles, which I was pleased with. However, now a strong wind was blowing. In fact, I recalled having to pedal a good portion of the 21+ mile descent into Baker due to the wind. We did a crew change in Baker and headed towards Shoshone, about 56 miles away. Although it was still early on in my effort, this section would prove to be a pretty difficult one. This is one of the sections that wouldn't normally seem to be too difficult... unless you were going the opposite direction of the regular race route. Let me tell you, it wasn't tough climbing, but it was damn near ALL climbing, all the way to Shoshone. You'd never think much of the terrain going from Shoshone to Baker, it doesn't seem all that favorable (and after 325 miles of the 508 it really isn't) but going from Baker to Shoshone it really sucks!

At the time station in Shoshone, in anticipation of the upcoming climbing, I switched bikes from my carbon fiber Kestrel to my Ionic steel frame. I had done this climb in reverse before during the Death Valley Double, and knew that my entrance into Death Valley would require some tough climbing. Fortunately the wind mellowed out a bit, it was not much more than a gentle zephyr, and I felt great up the climb up Salsberry Pass. A great downhill, an insignificant climb to the top of Jubilee Pass, another nice descent, and I was on Badwater Road at around 2:30 in the morning. The 45+ mile section of road along Badwater is my least favorite part of the course... it just never, ever seems like it's going to end. It required lots of discipline and some very loud music but I did get through it and quietly (observing race rules regarding quiet zones) passed the time station at Furnace Creek 5:18 AM.

The riding along from there to Stovepipe Wells was very pleasant. The road surface was much better and I enjoyed an immensely beautiful dawn. I arrived at Stovepipe Wells just before 7:00 AM where I took the time to do a complete clothing change. Normally, if I were competing in the actual 508, I would not spend the time making a clothing change but my concern was not so much with the overall time but to ensure comfort for the long haul. Of course I wanted to post a decent overall time but first and foremost I wanted to complete the endeavor, something I wasn't 100% positive was possible simply due to the difficulty of the course. So I took a few moments to clean up and change while we also did a crew switch. I was on a sub 34-hour crossing, very fast I felt for this particular course, but I knew that would change soon. Ahead loomed Townes Pass. I was at 5 feet above sea level here in Stovepipe Wells and the summit of Townes Pass was at 4956 feet. After riding over 280 miles I now had 16 miles (it appeared longer than that) and nearly 5000 feet of tough climbing ahead. I felt I climbed well but it sure seemed to take forever for each elevation sign to appear. Slowly they did though. First 1000 feet, then 2000 feet, and so on. Typical of most climbs in this area, the whole climb is visible, not much switchbacks. It's about as demoralizing as it can be, seeing the entire climb stretched out before you. Progress never seems to be adequate and it's at these times where the mental strength needed surpasses the physical strength.

The downhill from Townes Pass was amazing and, while I'm not sure of its accuracy, my bike computer read 68 mph. Sadly, the descent was about 1/2 as long as my ascent. To negotiate the relatively flat Panamint Valley, I got off my climbing bike and back onto my Kestrel. One thing I noticed was that the original bad section of road, one that merits its own mention in the official route book, had been paved over and was now about the nicest stretch of road for many, many miles. I also was very thankful for the cloud cover because I knew the climb out of the Panamint Valley would be extremely difficult. Anyone who's done the 508 knows that this descent (the one going into the Panamint Valley after leaving Trona) is a screamer and one that seems to go on forever, I mean you just coast for a long, long time. Well, going the other direction it is pure hell. It just goes on and on and on, getting steeper and steeper as you go. Again, I am most thankful for the cloud cover and less hot conditions because quite frankly, this would have been damn near impossible to climb in more severe conditions. Still, even with the cloud cover, it ultimately ended up being the hardest climb of the entire 1016 miles.

I reached the time station in Trona at 1:05, just slightly past the 24-hour mark. A whole ton of climbing and 356 miles behind me, I was tired but very happy with my progress. Unfortunately, the cloud cover seemed to disappear and it was getting noticeably warmer. The dry air, wind, and rough road conditions (let alone the terrain) had already been taking its toll on my body. To add to these "built in" difficulties, I made a left turn onto Trona Road, looked up, and saw one of the most awful climbs I'd eventually have to subject myself to. You never think about it during the 508 because you're enjoying this screaming downhill but now I had to go up this monster. I'll be honest it really kicked my butt. Once I reached the summit, I was very hot, very tired, and very much looking forward to a nice long downhill for recovery. That's when I realized why this route in reverse was so difficult: it seemed to me that there wasn't nearly the "payoff" (downhill) for such an uphill effort that I remembered enjoying in the 508. The uphill took so much out of me and there wasn't much of a downhill as a "reward." If anything, it seemed like I was back climbing in no time. It was only 21 miles between the time I got onto Trona Road and the turn onto Highway 395 but it took nearly three hours to accomplish and damn if it didn't just waste me. Although it was still light, the Night Crew took over so that my Dad and my brother Jeff could go ahead to Valencia to attend the pre-race meeting and to secure our hotel rooms at the starting line.

After a nice downhill out of Randsburg a busy 12+ mile section of road (complete with strength zapping rollers) had to be dealt with. With the sun disappearing, this wasn't the best section of road to be on... even with my ever-vigilant support crew behind me, protecting me. Drivers were obviously in a major hurry because they sure drove fast. Although I never felt in danger, I was glad when I turned off this road and headed toward California City, the last time station I would pass prior to the starting line in Valencia. Unfortunately the wind picked up big time here. All the way to California City it was a crosswind, after turning right onto California City Blvd it was a headwind. It was also uphill. After nearly 13 miles of this misery I made a left turn onto Highway 14. This highway normally has a very wide shoulder but there were sections under construction. I was thankful that my brother Dave was behind the wheel of my support vehicle. It was quite dark and I was riding along a stretch of highway where the traffic goes 65 mph or more. Needless to say I was petrified and prayed that we would be off of it ASAP. Fortunately it's only about an 8-mile stretch and I started breathing more normally as we entered Mojave.

After waiting a few minutes for a train to pass I rode over the tracks, negotiated a couple turns, and headed out of Mojave and up the long, long climb of Oak Creek Road. Thankfully, and as expected, there was no traffic. The wind was still blowing, not hard but still very much a headwind (it would reverse direction the next day during the 508... funny how that happens), which didn't make progress any easier. When I got to the summit, I knew I had a long descent to recover on. Problem was, I was now getting very cold. The closer we got to the Palmdale area the colder it would get. I had ridden over 440 miles and found myself becoming more and more drained with each mile. Still, I was a bit upset at myself for not being able to tolerate the cold better. After all, living in Montana for the past 2.5 years I felt I had acclimated to cold conditions pretty well. I suppose I never took into account the fact that I had in fact ridden 440 miles, which depleted my strength and reserves somewhat. Fortunately I had packed lots of cold weather gear... and I needed an awful lot of it. A jersey, polypro top, winter vest, and two winter jackets covered my upper body. Thick tights, shoe covers took care of the lower body, and my trusty Nordic ski gloves to take care of my hands. I was still shivering a bit but now the cold was much more manageable.

Another thing I started noticing, which I found very unusual, was that I was experiencing hallucinations, something I normally don't experience until the latter stages of RAAM. Objects of all sizes seemed to jump out onto the road then disappear. Cracks in the road took the form of human faces. All of these things didn't bother me; in fact I found them helpful in keeping my brain occupied. I was just confounded as to why they were happening so soon into an ultra marathon effort. Perhaps it was because I had already gone through a full night without sleep and was now well into a second night. Who knows? Another thing I knew wasn't really there but seemed to be was a large freeway overpass. In fact I told my crew that I didn't think that it was really there but that I kept seeing this freeway overpass ahead of me and that I was trying my hardest to go fast enough to get underneath it and past it. They never did reply to me, probably because they felt that as long as I was making progress and was coherent (I was) then it didn't matter what the heck I was seeing.

The route through the Palmdale Valley is pretty flat and featureless. It's also always mega windy (you can always count on that), which really hampered my speed. I also knew I had one mother of a climb ahead... Johnson Summit. It starts out gradually, stays gradual for what seemed to be a long time, then just kicked into a very steep and difficult pitch. Ouch! I was so thankful I had a 39 x 27 on my bike because I needed every tooth to get up that monster. Being in the saddle for over 32 hours didn't help matters either. And talk about a let down once you reach the summit. There wasn't much of a payoff at all... just another climb coming up within a matter of a couple miles. I was wasted after Johnson Summit and wasn't really sure where I was on the route. I mean, I had an idea, but going in the opposite direction, especially at night and after nearly a day and a half on the bike made things a lot more confusing. Because of that, I turned right onto a dead end street thinking it was San Francisquito Canyon Road. Jeff Martin, being a 508 finisher and knowing the course as well as he does, gently told me that I had made a wrong turn and got me back on the right route. I told him that I still didn't think we were on the right road because nothing looking familiar. He assured me that we were and that our turn was coming up soon. And of course he was right. The last big climb of this first 508-mile section was no freebie, it was a painfully steep one in fact. Not long but very steep and it took a good portion of what strength I had left.

After the summit I knew I had about 25 miles to the hotel/starting line. I had lost track of what my pace was but I was convinced I had slowed down so badly to the point where I had fallen well behind my hoped for finishing time. I was concerned that I would not be getting much sleep once I got there. Although I don't think the crew knew, I was going through some pretty intense anxiety as a result of my feeble number crunching results. I enjoyed a nice downhill but now was negotiating the relatively flat roads of San Francisquito Canyon. Talk about a long stretch of road! I never thought it was going to end. When I did get to the turn I had completely forgotten about the fact that the route had been changed. I was convinced I had to go through a big chunk of the city before getting to the motel. I was very, very happy when the crew told me that we were in fact nearly there. I had no idea where we were but obeyed their directions. Finally, at 12:22 AM, 35 hours, 22 minutes after leaving 29 Palms, and ahead of anticipated arrival time, I got into the parking lot and off my bike. There was a bit of a glitch getting into my room, which cost a bit of time but by 1:00 AM I had showered and was in bed, drifting almost immediately into a deep sleep while my brother Dave worked on my legs. I was told that I would get five hours of sleep before I had to be awakened at 6:00 AM to prepare for the 7:00 AM start of the 508 (racers are required to be assembled by 6:30 AM). I told Dave that after this 508-mile ordeal, five hours was severely inadequate and that, truth be told, I, or anyone else, would really need several days to recover. However, before I could figure just out how on earth would it be possible to do yet another 508 miles after what I had just been through, I found myself fast asleep.

Click for Part Two or Part Three

For an excellent interview / profile article of Steve Born, click here.