By Jeff Bubba Shrimp Stephens, 2002 solo finisher
The Furnace Creek 508 gets under your skin. Whether you're longing to enter for the first time in order to get a sacred totem, or returning as a veteran to crew for another, the "508" has a mysterious pull that is hard to deny. My venture in 2002 would be the final goal for a season…and my 4th trip to this special event. I finished the race in 1998 as a rookie in 43 hours, without benefit of ever seeing the course beforehand. I returned in 1999 and 2001 to crew for others, each time, knowing that I must return to race this beast again.
This year has been a year of balance. After doing RAAM last year, I've been riding fewer days per week, spending time with my wife, and trying to become a "normal" member of society again. Although I still did a few long rides, and actually tried to do speed work with racers, I was quite apprehensive about the 508. I felt fat and under trained. Why does a 220-pound Bubba keep signing up for these mountainous events? I might have found balance but I sure haven't found sanity.
About two months prior to the race, my brother, Charlie, called me from Virginia, and offered to come support my efforts. He's a casual cyclist who participates in a few charity tours and has found my stories of ultra races intriguing. This was a special offer…and an opportunity to bond in way that might bring distant brothers closer. Most shockingly, Charlie insisted on driving his vehicle from Virginia, and making the enhancements to rig up an exterior sound system. I assured him that was all really unnecessary, but he wanted to take a long driving vacation to see that part of our country…and, he had gleaned from all the ultra readings that bouncing loud music off the canyon walls sounded, "quite necessary." OK, I wouldn't argue and accepted this wonderful offer.
The rest of my crew materialized quickly. Terry, Tree Slug, Zhmral from Seattle is a veteran of the 508 from 1997, and crewed for me in 1998. We've also crewed on RAAM together, and ridden many miles together at Hell Week and other tours. Terry's all business, and knows this course well. Jon Schaer, my trusty RAAM wrench and riding buddy from Columbus was intrigued to see the 508 firsthand. Jon is a classic enthusiast and student of the sport, and knew of the 508's special status as a monster race long before we ever met.
This crew would be a wonderful combination of assets. Terry knew what this course would throw at me, how to best attack it, and the subsequent mental states the rider would encounter. Jon knew me best as a rider from crewing for me in RAAM. He'd seen my strengths and weaknesses and knew how to drive me. Charlie would be eager to help in any way possible, and would learn immediately from the two veteran crewmembers. And, let's not forget Stella, Charlie's beautiful English bulldog that would be making the trip too. Stella would be the "secret weapon" of the crew. If I failed to move…the crew would unleash Stella to chase me down the road!
The pre-race meeting on Friday night is usually like an ultra cyclist's reunion, especially for us non-California folks that only bump into the west coast gang at these big events. This year's 508 was dedicated to two previous competitors, Perry Swan Smith and John Abalone Arnow, whom had suffered serious medical ailments in the past year. Both gentlemen were present to accept the honor, and both lifted our spirits with their courage to fight their conditions. Both are multiple time finishers of the 508, and that demonstrates an inner strength that will help them return to the bicycle someday.
Charlie and I had stocked the car with food and supplies that afternoon. We all enjoyed a relaxing dinner and reviewed my fueling and riding strategy for the race. As usual, I would use a liquid diet for the majority of my caloric intake, and monitor hydration and electrolyte levels closely. Generally, 50% of the racers will abandon the 508 due to stomach distress and hydration issues. The conditions of the Mojave Desert require a disciplined approach to keep a rider functioning. After our dinner, we retired to the hotel and Jon made a few last minute adjustments to my bike, and we retired for an anxious night of sleep.
I awoke too early, perhaps because my internal clock was still on Eastern Standard Time. I shook off my cobwebs and started getting my things organized and tried to take in some calories. I was still pretty full from dinner, but managed to squeeze in a muffin or two. I knew that a difficult 13-mile climb waited only a few miles into the course and I best have enough fuel in my body to manage a two-hour climb!
We got ourselves to the start line in ample time and took the usual sampling of pre-race pictures. Within moments, we were off on a four-mile parade start before making the turn out of town and onto the road that would take us over the mountains that define the "LA Basin." Perhaps I should brief you on the general dynamics of this racecourse.
The race begins at the northernmost area of LA in a town called Valencia. It goes generally northeast, along the Mojave Desert to the uppermost end of Death Valley. Then, we take a southerly route through Death Valley and continuing southeast to the finish in Twentynine Palms. The route is the shape of a horseshoe. Upside down. With all the luck running out. And, if you find a map of California, and find the most barren, uninhabitable section in the southeastern region, you could plop that horseshoe down there…and viola'.
Ok… much to your surprise, deserts aren't necessarily flat! This course has ten major climbs that vary in length from 8 miles to 24 miles and the total cumulative climbing is over 30,000 ft. Remember all those pictures of Afghanistan you've seen in the last year? It's a very rugged terrain. Check out http://www.the508.com/thejourney/routeshow/index.htm for maps, elevation charts and cool 3D images of the course.
Back to climb #1. This 13-mile climb is the most scenic of the course, and probably one of the more difficult. The climb winds and curves about, providing stimulation for the mind. Also, coming at the start of the race, racers are pumped up and in the company of many other racers to pace. So, the climb goes quickly and we drop into a high valley for about an hour of flat riding.
The second climb is another 13-mile climb that starts gradually and gets steeper the last few miles. The highlight of this climb is marveling at the hundreds of windmills along the ridge tops, and the realization that we seem to be climbing into the wind! I experience some wheezing near the top of this climb and make a note to start using an asthma inhaler before the next climb.
The next 40 miles take me through the towns of Mojave and California City. It's noticeably cool today, with a definite raging headwind. This is very unusual for this course. I pass the first time station in 26th position, only 50 minutes behind the first rider. I ride for a few moments with Polecat and he brings up the kind of math I like. "If 50% of the racers drop, maybe 13 of the people in front of us will not finish." Recognizing that 508 rookies tend to burn themselves too fast, we hope our conservative pace is a good strategy.
Climb #3 comes at 112 miles and is a testy eight miles in length. This is the climb that is the cause of many racers demise later in the evening. It's the first of the straightaway, mind-numbing desert climbs that will face us for the next 400 miles. You can see exactly where you've got to go, and how slowly you're moving towards that pass. The sun and heat are usually at their peak when you reach this climb mid-afternoon. So, I pick my lowest gear and try to relax my way up this climb. Thankfully, there's a slight cloud cover that keeps the heat from burning, and I've taken my asthma med which seems to be allowing me to breathe easier. I imagine I'm losing time to others, but know that prudence on this climb will pay later.
Amazingly, I find myself climbing amongst four other riders, and doing so with no great effort. As I crest the pass, I continue to maintain a steady pace with these other four, and then, feeling fresh, decide to use some of my reserves to drop these guys on the next 20 miles into Trona (time station #2). I know that my strength lay in flat/headwind conditions and my burst of energy leads me to a good feeling of confidence in my race strategy. I would see only one of these riders in the next few hours; I had basically dropped them for good.
Trona is a depressed, small town based around a sulfur mining operation. Or…something that stinks like sulfur. Imagine a pitiful Appalachian mining town, plopped in the middle of the desert. Uhhhgg! The crews must stop to top off the gas tanks and gather any supplies, because we won't see a store for 230 miles! I ride on up the road while they take care of business, wondering how the race is developing in front of me. At this point, I judge that I am on the same general time schedule as my 1998 performance. I am discouraged with my speed. When the crew arrives, they inform me that the leader came through only 90 minutes prior to me. I am encouraged by this news and recognize that everyone is being held up significantly by this headwind.
Climb #4 begins after Trona. It's called the Trona Bump, although, it's yet another 10 mile, semi-straight rise with the land to a pass. Dusk is approaching, and I'd like to get my crew to the summit and the spectacular view into Paniment Valley prior to sunset. I radio to Jon and Charlie and tell them that the view into the Paniment Valley will be the most spectacular they'll see all weekend, and it'll be more magnificent with the golden hues of sunset.
If we're gonna make it, you'd better start the music! (Direct vehicle support and exterior music is not allowed until sunset on day#1, and I've been looking forward to this moment.) I suggest that some Allman Brothers would be mighty fine, and suggest that Charlie pick his favorite. He found a good disk and I was coming alive on this climb. I love riding at dusk, knowing that it is symbolic of how we continue to ride when other stop; and this is where I come alive! I notice a spot of vomit on the right shoulder of the road and point it out to the crew. I thank them for helping me race smart. By the end of the race, over 20 racers will have had to abandon, most likely from stomach distress. The symptoms usually surface around dusk, although many racers will heroically trudge into the night before succumbing to the lack of fuel and fluid imbalances.
We're nearing the top and it's time for a music change. I give my brother a pat on the back by saying, "You keep picking the music, that was great!" I knew that he would enjoy sharing some rocking blues with me! We passed a rider near the top who had his helmet off and was leaning over the front of his vehicle. He looked awful and was probably the source of those "stains" we had seen on this climb.
We reached the summit and the breathtaking view into the Paniment Valley, which parallels Death Valley. We would have a raging descent and then ride about 25 miles to the turn that takes us up Townes Pass. We still had a bit of sunlight at the summit, but took a minute to get a windbreaker on me and switch to my helmet with a mounted headlight. We tucked the battery pack in my jersey pocket, and I was off on the descent with only a brief minute stop. I had minimized all stops thus far by peeing off the bike and eating all my "food" while riding. Terry took the wheel of the support vehicle and kept as close as he could on the fast, twisty descent into the Valley. I hope Jon and Charlie took the chance to see the evening sun dancing off the huge Paniment Peaks which separated us from Death Valley.
The Paniment Valley always seems longer than you think. After an eternity, there's a road sign that indicates another 17 miles to our turn. Uhhhgggg! During this stretch in 1998, the teams began passing me. But, this year, I was all alone on this stretch. No one in front, no one behind. With the exception of vomit boy on the last climb, I hadn't seen another racer since I left the group of four behind prior to Trona. This seemed strange given the amount of racers this year, but I'd continue to be comfortable if no one passed me.
Ahhhh….in the distance I saw the string of lights ascending Townes Pass. For a moment I felt discouraged that there were so many in front of me, but then I had to realize that over half the field was behind me! This race has grown since I did it last…and hopefully some of those lights in front of me would be rookies that would drop out. I reached the turn where several crews and officials were gathered. Looks like a few riders were taking a breather here before the most brutal climb of the race. Our plan called for a quick rear wheel change to provide a 28-tooth cog…and away we went. Until I see the string of taillights at PBP, this image of the lights on Townes Pass is the most powerful image of ultra cycling I can imagine. I feel exhilaration and excitement, as well as apprehension as I notice that string of lights is climbing to the heavens. Gulp!
Townes Pass is a nasty climb, even if it didn't come at 200 miles into a race. It climbs over 3,500 feet in about ten miles. I huffed and puffed my way up, wishing I had lower gearing, and vowing to forego dessert forever if I survived. I knew the front-runners were probably stalking each other on this climb in a manner that this flat-lander could never imagine. I keep wondering how I ended up in this sport. Oh well, I'm too old to play football. Guess I'd better keep riding this damn bike.
I was seeing several riders in front of me, and several behind. We blasted tunes off the canyon walls and generally had as much fun as we could trying to chase other taillights up the climb. I don't think we changed position with any other racers during the climb. When we got to the top, there were several other riders and crews, changing clothes and taking naps. I felt like I had caught back up to the race.
My race plan called for a clothes change at this point and I accomplished this with pretty stiff/sore limbs. I was behind in my calorie intake and tried to down some quick, easy calories: a coke, some grapes, some Hammer Gel and turkey. After the first substantial time off the bike (maybe 8-10 minutes?) I was off for the descent into Death Valley. Again, Terry took the wheel of the vehicle for this speedy descent. Although I sat high to keep a conservative speed, I reached speeds over 50 m.p.h. After the 17-mile descent, I stripped some clothing layers and handed them back to the vehicle. I rode through the floor of Death Valley with knee warmers and a windbreaker. It felt about 60 degrees, but, I prefer being a little warm than too cold at night.
I don't recall too much of Death Valley, except that it always seem to go on for too long. We ride through 70 miles of gently undulating terrain. It's not flat! The checkpoint is at Furnace Creek, which is 250 miles into the race, and about 50 miles from the base of the climb out of Death Valley. The racers seemed to be more spread out in the Valley and this portion of the race, in the dead of night, is difficult. We didn't have the expected tailwinds, and the sleepies were hitting me hard. I did take a few moments off my bike at Badwater, mainly to point out the signs for my brother for the lowest elevation in North America (-282) and to flash our lights up the cliff walls to find the "Sea Level" sign far above our heads. I owed it to my brother to be a tour guide for a moment. And..off we went again.
As we worked our way across the floor of Death Valley for 4-5 hours, the crew took turns trying to get some rest. This is a tough race for support crew because we never really stop, and they've got to try and get rest in a moving vehicle. They're cramped up in that vehicle for a long time and I bet they're watching me and wishing they could spin their legs on a bike. Funny, I wouldn't mind finishing this race on a car seat. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.
The teams, that started four hours after the solo riders are beginning to pass me in the Valley. Although this is discouraging because they are riding so much faster, they each slow for a moment to chat a word of encouragement, and many exclaim, "You're crazy to do this race as a solo!" I am questioning my sanity at this point, and get discourage because so many racers seem to be passing me, but…I recognize later that I have remained in basically in the same position in the solo race. I racing in the company of Dave "Dugong" Tanner and Rebecca "SunBear" Smith…two racers I'll see regularly for the next 18 hours.
Dave is a RAAM veteran from the late '80s and is a neighbor from Indiana. It's been great to see him returning to ultra riding this year after a long absence. He is a youthful 52 years old. We exchange cheerful comments each time we leapfrog one another, and it's usually some comment like, "We're not in the Midwest…. are we?" I was enjoying watching Rebecca, because she was also over 50 years old, and on a pace to break the record for the age group. Additionally, she was battling in this race with another 50-year-old woman, Nancy "Mother Goose" Guth, for the top position in a year-long competition.
Finally, I start up the climb out of Death Valley to Jubilee Pass with the Sun Bear in my sights. It's still pre-dawn, however, I'm beginning to shake my sleepies and feeling strong on this climb. I catch up to the Sun Bear and ride beside her support vehicle for a while. No offense to my wonderful crew, but, chatting with a few new faces, provides a little stimulation to wake me up. I pass the Sun Bear, but it's short lived as she begins a pattern that I'll witness until the end of the race. She blasts by me like I'm standing still, then, I'll pass her when she's down in her van. Then, she'll blast by me again 30 minutes later. The tortoise and hare is being re-written by a Shrimp and Sun Bear.
Jubilee and Salsberry Passes comprise the 6th significant climb of the race. The climb to Jubilee Pass is about five miles, and gains about 1,500 feet. Then, there's a one-mile descent and the climbing continues for another ten miles and 2,000 ft. to Salsberry Pass. On my last race here, I was listening to Miles Davis and enjoying the most surrealistic, early dawn I've ever experienced. This year, I'm slightly ahead of that schedule; the sun is barely peaking out and if Fast Merry were here, she'd be telling me to listen for the pre-dawn bird chirps. Sorry, Merry…no chirping birds in Death Valley this morning. All I hear is the wheezing of my asthma-stressed lungs. If there were a bird around here, it'd be a vulture keeping a close eye on me. Thankfully, I glance behind me to the stunning terrain of Death Valley and recognize that I've come out of the darkest part of this adventure. Charlie reads my mind and lays some Little Feat over the speakers. Ahhh.….Little Feat is perfect anytime; but, this moment will turn into another lifetime memory.
Although I'm climbing pretty well, again I'm feeling discouraged about my progress. My goal had been to get over this climb well before dawn, but dawn has clearly broken and I'm cursing that headwind that hurt us all so bad "yesterday." I crest the Pass and have a good descent to the next time station in Shoshone. At this point in the course, the road surfaces become noticeably rougher, which makes the descents uncomfortable. I milk as much enjoyment out of this descent as I can get, recognizing that the next four descents will be the most painful portions of the ride!
As I make the right hand turn into Shoshone, I recognize that the wind is actually a favorable tailwind. Sheesh, it's about time. It's 55 miles to the next time station in Baker, and with the exception of a relatively unmemorable climb #7 up Ibex Pass, it's a pretty boring stretch. Of course the favorable wind seemed to fade pretty quickly, leaving me to chug along, unassisted, in the glaring morning sun. This portion of the course is living up to its historical norm. After the Ibex Pass, you ride across this horrible desert towards the horizon, just hoping Baker's out there somewhere. Mid-morning is always a difficult time to ride in a multi-day event because the low-lying sun causes you to squint. And when you squint, the eyes are nearly closed. And when you haven't slept in 30 hours and there's nothing but desert to look at. WHOA boy! Don't let that head bob! Uhhggg…you get the picture.
Throughout this boring stretch, I'm again in the proximity of Sun Bear, and Jackass. By the time I get to Baker, two other riders that I haven't seen since the start are catching me and causing me further discouragement. They look fresh and I'm feeling rather baked. I continue up the road past Baker while the crew stops to re-fuel and stock up on ice and supplies. Looks like we'll have a long, hot afternoon. I have stayed on the bike, foregoing any stops other than clothes & equipment changes and pee breaks. I feel good about leaving those two riders back in Baker, but wonder if they'll catch me soon on the climb outside of town. We later discover they both DNFd in Baker, and Jon and me seem puzzled by their apparent freshness.
The remaining 130 miles of the course are either up or down. Climb #7 begins outside of Baker and it's the most discouraging climb on the course. It's a light, subtle grade that goes for 22 miles. The road surface is rough, and the sun is usually relentless. I watch Sun Bear & Jackass dart away, and just settle into my best comfortable spin. I'll be on this for well over two hours, so, might as well try to relax. The crew catches up to me and settles in for the long haul. Charlie pumps out some good music and Terry & Jon encourages me to eat and drink. They have been wonderful with gently pushing me fuel and electrolytes. At this stage in events, it's real easy to lose discipline with fueling and hydration, but they're constantly prodding me to consume in a non-nagging way. I obey, and continue to let them think for me. I trust them completely.
This climb is mind numbing. I think Jon is beginning to shake his head in amazement at the cruelty of this course. Terry is probably chuckling. He knows this climb is a cruel joke, because he's done it. With hours to spend on this climb, I've got plenty of time to recognize the toll this race is taking on me. Time to think is bad. I've got to focus on something else. Jon is an exceptionally aware cyclist, and he recognizes that each section of this course isn't so bad, but collectively…it's insane. He's providing great words of encouragement on this climb and I'm responding. He also catches me up on race standings, updates me with the news from Julie at home, and keeps Charlie pumping the hard-driving blues. Charlie has spoken with family at home and tells me that there are already pictures of us from "yesterday" on the webs site. After the race, Jon makes a comment that this climb must seem like a Hitchcock movie scene. The faster you run down the hall, the longer the hall becomes. Yes, the never-ending hallway is a perfect analogy for these desert climbs!
If this hellish climb doesn't break you, the descent into Kelso might. The road surface is horrible with bumps, cracks and potholes. After 410 miles, it's tough to maintain the focus needed to keep safe on this descent. Racers can't get into their aerobars, and must keep hands on the handlebars. And, this is where the hands and feet are screaming for mercy from the collective pounding of the last 24+ hours.
And, up and down and up and down we go again. The last two climbs over the Granites and Sheepholes are torturous at this point. The next climb (#9) over the Granites is 12+ miles. I'm starting to do the math in my head and making a sub 40-hour race my goal. That's a bit off my original goal of 36 hours, but, still an admirable result at the 508….and particularly given all the headwind we had yesterday. I've got 90 miles, two major passes, the hellish last 20 miles of gradual elevation gain to the finish….and about 7 hours til the 40 hour mark. At this point, I'm telling myself that this is easily attainable. But, I'm doing the math in my head as if I'm riding in Ohio on an evening training ride. I forget that I'm 420 miles into a grueling race.
Nonetheless, I begin working hard on my way up the Granites. I'm clearly hours ahead of my 1998 (43 hr.) pace, when I was climbing this at dusk. It's still mid-late afternoon, I'm feeling confident. My lungs are beginning to pay the price for the increased demand and my breathing is becoming shallow. I try to relax and bring myself under control. Although I'm "sprinting for the finish"….I've still got over six hours to go. It's funny how the ultra racer's frame of reference is warped. Regardless of my perception of being in the home stretch, I recognize that I've got to keep fueling and hydrating my body…or, I'll not make it. I've been drinking diluted, cold liquid fuel during this hot afternoon using more Hammer Gel to keep my calorie count up. Again, Jon and Terry are getting the majority of calories in me when I descend, and keeping me "nursing" the light calories when I'm working hard on the climbs.
There's a time station at the top of this climb and we stop there to take a very brief rest. Other than the top of Townes Pass at midnight last night, I think this is the only other time I sat in the folding chair. My feet were screaming, so I wiped my feet down with cold water and changed my shoes. I put on a clean jersey but opted to pass on a change of shorts. I enjoyed the 5 minutes off the bike, but knew that I couldn't waste time. That climb had eaten up a good two hours and the clock was still clicking toward the 40-hour mark. Stella, Charlie's dog, barks at me as if to say, "Come on….you've been here too long!"
Away I went down the longest descent of the race. It's well over 20 miles and feels like it takes forever! The road surface is very bad and I stop halfway down just to take my hands off the bars and shake some life into them. Jon jumped out and asked what was wrong…he didn't understand how difficult it was to just hold onto the handlebars at this point!
When I reached the bottom, we make a turn toward Amboy (another nowhere "town"). The road is still very rough…like fresh Indiana chip n' seal with Michigan potholes. At least I can get in the aerobars and take the load off my hands. There's about an hour's worth of flat riding through vast plains where they mine borax. It just looks like riding down the middle of a beach. The sun is setting and it seems like the mountain I have to climb is so far away. I rode through here in '98 after dark; so don't recall the features of the terrain. I haven't seen another rider in some time, but make out some red lights on a mountain that looks like it'll take me hours to reach. This just doesn't seem right.
But, I notice the pedaling effort becoming harder. Are my brake pads rubbing? Am I bonking? Or…am I actually climbing? After 5+ minutes…I conclude that I must be on a grade…again, one of those subtle grades that is hard to distinguish by eye. Jon informs me that we're on one of the famous "climb to the climb" sections. It's a subtle grade for five miles before we reach the "real climb."
And finally, we're on climb #10, Sheephole. If you look at the elevation chart, it seems to be one of the steepest climbs on the course. Good thing I didn't recall that from past experience, else I might have psyched myself out. It's about ten miles long and climbs 2,500 feet. Darkness has fallen and I'm continually running numbers in my head, and getting more frantic that I may not make my 40 hour goal at 11:00 pm. I've been in a zone for several hours and I increase my effort for this climb. The road is horribly rough. I'm picking my way through holes and gravel…at least it's all somehow covered in a way that none of the road surface is loose. I'm focused intently on riding on the white line…trying to avoid the rough pavement and staying off the right shoulder, which is thick sand. It seems I'm riding in a six-inch groove. After a while, I recognize the sand is more dangerous…and move left and take my jolts on the pocked pavement.
My increased intensity and drive to meet my goal have my lungs rebelling in a manner I've never experienced, causing me to gasp in shallow breaths. I'm declining fuel of any type because my shallow breathing is taking all my energy. I'm sipping on a soda, trying to get a few measly calories and hoping it'll settle my stomach. I don't share my breathing difficulties with the crew, but wonder if they can see it. They understand how my stomach is feeling at this point…and don't try to force fuel on me. I guess it helps when I'm polite when I say "no thank you" to their offers…and they must see that I'm riding strong up this climb. They've again, found a perfect balance of keeping me sipping something…without nagging.
This climb is lasting too long. It's totally dark now and I watch the cars pass me and continue up the road for an eternity. Watching them go forever…just discourages me. I begin forcing myself to not look up the road, rather to focus on the road surface, or pull myself up to the next road sign or distinguishable desert bush up the road. Finally, I'm getting closer to where the cars are disappearing over the top. And, finally, I see the last time station in the distance. It's about a mile from the top, and usually lit up in some sort of party atmosphere. This year, the volunteers have created a Halloween theme…and have pumpkins and festive orange lights. My crew shouts my name as we go by…and insists I not stop to visit. Damn. They're correct; I'm still worried about making my goal.
And, at the top, we stop just long enough to put on a windbreaker and a Walkman. This descent is only five miles long, so, I don't bother with the helmet mounted light. The last 26 miles are a "quiet zone" with no exterior music. So, when we reach the bottom, I'll turn on my Walkman. The last 21 miles is often referred to in the ultra community, as "the longest 20 miles you'll ever do." How true. We'll gain about 1,000 ft. in this stretch, and as the gods would have it….there's a raging headwind. It's a cruel stretch after overcoming what you believe is the "last obstacle" in the Sheephole mountain climb. In '98, the silence really messed me up. I had no concept of time. And, in perhaps the most famous story ever, one racer totally freaked out in the middle of this stretch, and quit the race!
My calculations from my bike computer indicate it's sometime around 9:00pm…we're at 38 hours. I've got approximately two hours to ride 21 hard, uphill, headwindy miles. I figure if I can average 14 miles an hour, it'll take me 90 minutes…or, one complete tape in my Walkman. I figure if I can focus on the music, and get through the tape, I'll be there! I fiddle with my lights several times to check my speed…I'm riding a steady 17mph…although, it feels like I'm trying to hold 30mph. Ok….just focus on the music. I visualize myself on the wind trainer in my basement, and work hard on the aerobars for each song, then, take a breather after each song…and down to the aerobars again. Uh oh….gotta click up a few gears…seems the wind and grades are getting more dramatic. I get a light on my computer…..oh drats….14 mph. Oh well, that's what I need to do. Just get through this tape. Damn….this tape has more songs on it than I remember. Sheesh….I'm not even to the second side of the tape.
I can see the lights of Twentynine Palms on a distant mountainside, and it seems so far away….and filled with so much darkness in between. And, I'm climbing noticeably. How cruel. The crew has given me one last fuel bottle and I'm nursing it well. I could make it on fumes, but might as well not bonk. Jon comments that my pedal stroke and cadence are great. Why does it take until the end of the race to find a groove? Same thing happened on RAAM. The last 100 miles I was spinning like Lance.
Finally, we make the turn into the outskirts of town. I know I have to go two miles to reach the main street. And that's not so bad. But, when I make my turn on to Main, I'm thinking the finish line is right there. Jon tells me the bad news…three miles to go. Uhhhgggg. I keep glancing at my computer and am thinking I'm going to be so close to my 40-hour goal. I'm hammering with all I've got…which ain't much. I can feel a screw loose and wobbling in one of my cleats, and try to time the traffic lights so I won't have to click out of my pedals. I'm scared that if I do…my cleat will fall off…and I'll lose time trying to switch shoes. I'm also trying to nurse that pedal up the rolling hills…fearing that I might pull out of the pedal and fall or injure myself. That would be tragic with only three miles to go.
There's one last _ mile steep hill about a mile prior to the finish. It's probably the steepest hill on the entire course. I get up it…but, my lungs and heart scream…and I gasp for breath. This is the closest I've ever come to a full-blown asthma attack. My heart rate felt like it was 300, and I was totally starved for air. I try not to let the crew see my obvious problem…but, know that my shoulders must have been heaving from the quick, shallow gasps for air I was experiencing. I was truly scared. Thankfully, I could see the finish in the distance, and managed to turn my focus from fear … to relief.
I crossed the line in 39 hours and 40 minutes…easily meeting my sub-40 hour goal, and bettering my 1998 performance by 3 hours and 25 minutes. I think that's about an 8-9% improvement. Not bad. When I crossed the line, Race Director Chris Kostman asked me how it felt to finish my second 508. My response was quick and simple, "This is a dumb race!" And, a voice from the assembled folks at the finish line chirped, "Or is it dumb people that do this race a second time?" Yeh…you got that right! I should have known this race would hurt me. Nonetheless, we're happy to have finished 19th overall of the 56 single bikes that started. And, our time is very respectable…especially so, for a big guy on such a climbing intensive course. I pass along my sincere thanks to my crew and we assemble for pictures.
My crew was top-notch all the way. I'm pretty low-maintenance compared to many other riders, but, when I needed a quick wheel change, or asked for some ice in my bottle, or asked for a mileage stat….they were quick, accurate, and accommodating. They were proactive in supplying me fuel and water; I knew they were always on schedule. Terry is so responsible and diligent…. I knew he'd take action before anything ever became a problem. Jon knows I like to hear the mileage stats…and he could always provide accurate info within a minute. My brother, Charlie commented after the race "that it was a real pleasure to watch those two work together." I can imagine their cooperative sense of strategy and their differing experiences with my behavior over the years…complemented each other in a manner that benefited my performance.
And Charlie seemed to enjoy the experience. He took tons of pictures and filled all roles (driver, navigator, fuel captain, and tune guy) at some point. I enjoyed his comment at the finish line, "I'm going to have to take a few days to digest and fully understand what I just saw." There were several times during the race that I would wonder what he must have been thinking of me. Did he think I was insane? Was he inspired by the effort? What glimpse of my character did he capture? I guess he caught more than a glimpse…because in this kind of event….it's laid out in the open for all to see. Regardless, I was honored that I could open myself up to him this way. And, his willingness to drive across the country to be part of this experience certainly spoke volumes to me of his character.
And, in one last note, after watching several other racers finish for the next hour, I started having a very productive cough. I started coughing up stuff from deeper in my lungs than I've ever felt. And…the stuff that was coming up was unlike anything I'd ever seen. After examining the stuff a little closer…I thought I might be coughing up pieces of my lung. Literally! Some of the matter had the shape of alveoli… the little air sacs in the lungs. I mentioned it to someone…and in true ultra cycling fashion…about 10 people gathered around to investigate. It's funny how some gross things become very clinical to ultra cyclists. I summoned a doctor (Jon Arnow) who was at the hotel, and he assured me that, despite the potential glamour of "coughing up a lung"…..the stuff was just deeply encased mucus. Drats…how unromantic. I imagine the combination of the conditions, my asthma med, and my workload, led to production of this "stuff."
My feet and hands were swollen for days, and my diaphragm ached for a week. But…somehow….as two weeks passed, I found the rose colored glasses, and the damn 508 is under my skin again! Chris Kostman and the spirits of his totems must be working some kind of magic.