Furnace Creek 508

By Rebecca Sun Bear Smith, 2002 solo finisher

For a solid week and a half prior to the 508 I was ill. I went the ten days without so much as a pedal stroke on my bike. I don't normally sacrifice goats, chickens or other barnyard animals nor do I leave offerings of maize, family relics or burn incense during the normal occurrence of my life. To ward off a pending illness I was tempted to do all of the above. Unfortunately my local sacrificial animal store was closed due to misfortune so I was left with just taking care of myself by keeping warm, staying off the bike and eating lots of chicken soup. For the ten days I just felt like I was on the cusp of getting ill without ever actually getting full blown ill. Not a good way to go into a race.

I won't go into my long drive down to L.A. or how the hotel screwed up my reservation and my crew and I all ended up in one room. Nor will I go into how we ended up with all the hotel towels in our bathroom. I just start at this point with the race.

I felt great in the parking lot and the neutral zone but there was another 504 miles to go after that. I was hoping to find Chris and ask if he could perhaps reschedule the race for another weekend as I didn't think the other racers would mind. However, as I didn't see him I kept on going. Every time I looked at my HRM during the first few hours of the race my HR was sky high. I'd back off to get my HR down and soon I'd look again and see that I was in the yellow or red zone once more. During those first few hours the only thing I really wanted to do more than anything was to just pull over to the side of the road and take a nap. At about mile 30 or so I started to cough. I coughed for about 10 or 15 miles. Was it something in the air or was it just something physiological, I'm not sure but again, not a good way to go into a race.

Before the first checkpoint I had a few good moments of racing but I found myself continually asking why I was doing this race. After all I was already RQ'd so I didn't need this race did I? The bottom line is that I just really didn't want to be out there. I kept wondering how far I would have to go so as to not be the first to DNF.

One of the disadvantages of crewing for Husky last year was the false sense it gave me that I would be going into this years race "knowing the course." Funny thing folks—the course the crew does is different than the one the rider does even though you go over the same roads and climb the same hills. This year it seemed that every time that long awaited descent that I was anticipating had somehow turned into a long ascent.

Somewhere past Furnace Creek I stopped the bike. I had reached the emotional low of the race. I wasn't having fun nor could I see the point of what I was doing. I couldn't go on. I wanted to just pack it in right there but I didn't really want to. I recall stating that I just felt so frustrated that my race wasn't going the way I wanted it to and I just felt drained. I also recall trying to say something to the effect that I would feel even worse and for a lot longer if I quit the race. Once the tears stopped my crew pretty much told me to get back on the bike and ride, that the sun would be rising shortly and they had it on good authority that the sunrise would be beautiful, like a big red rubber ball.

Some of the frustration I was experiencing I attribute to my attempt at trying to compare my RAO experience to the current race. I again wanted to complete this race without any breaks but it just wasn't meant to be. I don't recall if it was before or after my emotional crisis that I my crew suggested I take a short nap. I asked how long? They said 15 minutes. I remember something to the effect of asking them to promise they wouldn't let me sleep longer. Also, I was so afraid that I would lay down and not be able to sleep. Fifteen short minutes later they woke me up and got me back on the bike. I didn't need them to tell me over the radio that I was now riding without swerving all over the road and with renewed energy. In hindsight it was the best thing I could have at the time.

Later I agreed to a second rest stop but I wanted to hit 24 hours first. Just before the Salsberry pass we pulled over. Again I was asleep within moments of laying down. This was to be another 15-minute nap combined with a morning clothing change. I got out of my cycling duds, put on a t-shirt closed my eyes and was instantly asleep. When I awoke, Susan helped me wash off with a wash cloth, helped me get dressed and helped me back on the bike. She didn't help me pedal though!

At about mile 350 a team rider passed me. When he was a couple hundred feet ahead I accelerated to catch him. I surprised him when I flew past and then slowed. He passed again and I let him go. Ahead they had a rider switch planned and I caught and passed them. At Baker they gave me the win. To say the least I was feeling somewhat frisky and full of energy—if only that would have lasted to the end of the race.

I don't recall where in the race my right knee started to hurt. It must have been sometime during the night because that was one of the excuses I was going to use to DNF. I also recall planning how I would ride off the road feigning sleep, break a leg or other limb and thus armed with a honorable way out I could quit. But then I recall telling my crew how in 97 Harold Trease rode 2000 miles of the RAAM with a broken collar bone so I kept riding all the while thinking of better and more creative ways to bail. At the top of grade somewhere I kept looking for a ravine of just the right depth to ride into—not so deep that rescue would be impossible but deep enough that the crew wouldn't let me continue even though "I wanted to."

My knee was giving me fits. The inner aspect would feel like it was being stabbed with something sharp. Ice helped it for a while, but only for awhile. When the pain diminished I felt pretty good. When the pain increased I just lost power and focus. Sitting, it would just plain old hurt but standing it felt like it would buckle out from under me. As the race continued the pain became more constant and my pace got slower. Just after Amboy we tried duck taping an ice bag to my knee and it worked—as long as I didn't pedal. The bag would hit the top tube so that idea was a wash.

I meant to ask Chris about getting the road to TS #7 paved in time for next years 508. He did a good job about getting the road to Trona paved this year so I thought he could work the same miracle twice. Near as I can tell when the engineers paved the road to the top of Sheep Hole summit they forgot that it gets hot in that neck of the woods (desert). Once all the pavement was placed it all slid down hill on the first hot day. Washboard pavement doesn't seem to be much a distraction out in the desert so if the pros ever want a place to train for the Paris-Roubaix I’ve got 508 miles of road to turn them onto.

So, what's my analysis of the 508? I’ll say right from the git go it wasn't harder nor easier than the RAO. It's really an apples and oranges sort of thing. Being from Oregon, the heat was something that I'm not used to and I'm told that it wasn't even hot. RAO we had the cold so that sort of evens out. The 508 is a wee bit shorter and just a shade flatter but the roads were in worse condition—so who's to say. They are entirely two different races and I would encourage anyone who really wants to know which is the easier to give both of them a try.

Miscellaneous Thoughts
It's been pointed out to me by more than a few people what great learning experience I had last weekend. I agree. My debut with the RAO was about as perfect as an event could be. Everything went according to plan and there were no lows. This race on the other hand has shown me a taste of how bad things can be and how they can be overcome. So I guess I will have to really say that this was the better race.

When I first read about the idea of "totems" I thought it was a corny idea. But then shortly after the start of last years race I discovered how cool the idea really was. It's really neat to see van's go by plastered with totems and soon you’re recognizing riders by solely by their totem. I am proud to now to be "Sun Bear."

If you've never been involved in a real ultra event you don't know what you're missing. Last year crewing for Husky was my first real exposure. Prior to that I had done a handful of doubles and thought they were pretty cool. A qualifier is nothing like a double. The rider's are so much more focused what with everyone have a van and crew it just feels like the big time. Even if you don't ride an ultra fine someone who needs crew. Funny as it may seem, crewing is a lot of fun.

I know a lot of people were rooting for me during this race. Every time the though of bailing would pop up I thought of all my friends. Quitting, literally would have been harder than continuing the race. I'm a complete space cadet right now what with feeling jet lagged and all and my knee is still throbbing. But I know by next week I’ll be back in the pink