By Tom "Tom Cat" Zaharis
The Furnace Creek 508 is an annual bicycle race that travels thought the most remote deserts in America. The 508, a qualifier for Race Across America (RAAM), is recognized as a premier ultra-marathon bicycle race in the world. This event traces its roots back to 1983, the first year that a qualifier was offered for RAAM. The route was originally a 102-mile loop in the Hemet, California area and was ridden seven times in sequence. In 1985, it moved to the roads between Tucson and Flagstaff, Arizona. Four years later, the race moved back to California, covering 508 miles from Valencia, through Death Valley and finishing in Twenty Nine Palms. Riders are identified during the race by animal totems rather than race numbers to eliminate errors. My chosen animal totem is "Tom Cat". I will have this designated totem for life.
The 2002 508 portrays my fist attempt at this epic race. My attempt represents many years of bicycle experience, months of training and exhaustive planning. Together my crew: Millo, Curt, and Paul, and I experienced the most amazing adventure of my life. This is my story of the 2002 Furnace Creek 508.
My crew and I arrived by rental van in Valencia, California two days before the race. This strategy allowed travel time from Northern California, preparations and rest. On Friday, my anticipation grew as other racers arrived and friendly exchanges were made. The crew and I decided to drive the first twenty-five miles of the course to evaluate map navigation and to displace some of my growing anxiety. Upon return, I decided to ride for an hour to clear my brain and allow the crew some needed peace. I was happy to be in my element, spinning my legs and clearing out the cobwebs. It felt great to be back on my bike. The crew purchased food items and supplies, and then prepared the van with compulsory signs. Introductions were made with other riders and crew. Several familiar faces were observed, including Lynn (crewing for the "Worm"), Mike "Wale" Wilson, Ken "Kangaroo Rat" Holloway and others.
Before the Friday night "rider's meeting" the crew and I enjoyed a pre-dinner self-heating meal in the parking lot. As a good soldier following all the rules, I brought to the meeting my crew members, proof of auto insurance coverage, the "508 book", signed release forms, and one envelope containing a dollar bill. I did enjoy speaking with some of the 508 officials and RAAM finishers I knew from the Bay Area; including, Rick "Amoeba" Anderson, Jeff "Brown Bear" Bell, and Mike "Whale" Wilson. Yes, the ultra-cycling family is small. After the meeting, the crew and I got a real take-out dinner and feasted in the hotel room discussing our plans. My "game plan" was to be conservative, to not play with the fast riders. I have never been a talented rider with gifts of speed, rather one that is steady and relentless. My goal was to leave Death Valley before dawn and to end strong, moving through the field as attrition occurred. I wanted to be flexible and let the ride happen, dictating my progress. The crew would provide for my nutritional needs and decision-making requirements. I would simply make circles with my legs. My estimated race time was between 35 and 40 hours, somewhere mid-pack.
Unable to turn my brain off, I got ZERO sleep the night before the 508. This was a horrible start, but the day had finally arrived. Photos taken, and the atmosphere relaxed, the crew left the start-line to stage themselves at the first designated meeting area approximately twenty-five miles away. The seventh hour came, and the race began with cheers from family and friends. Fifty-seven solo racers and I began the five hundred and eight mile, thirty-five thousand feet journey. With self-control, I began my trek conservatively, allowing other riders to pass me with indifference. I talked briefly with "Mother Goose" during the "yellow flag conditions", the only location where riders are allowed to travel with each other. The course began to climb immediately, and gradually and in fifteen miles gained 2,500 feet. My crew mandated me to consume both oversized water bottles, to start emptying my camel-bak, and to begin eating before I met them at the first designated stop. I was happy and confident to be riding; my heart rate monitor displayed my conservative climbing rate. All started off very well, I was highly trained and ready to have a great race. As I approached the common meeting location, a sea of mini-vans labeled with colorful totems and "caution bicycle ahead" signs dominated the roadway. The reality of the race sunk in. Wow, the race was finally here. My crew was dedicated to me. This was the 508!
Navigation was not an issue. The course was unmarked, but I was generally in site of other racers or my crew was at the intersections guiding my path. I did not use my two-way radio, and gave it back to my crew sometime much later in Trona. The radio would have been helpful to communicate food or drink needs to the crew, but I would soon find out that I would be stopping at the side of the road with my van to eat. Tick, tick, tick the clock never stopped, but I had too! This cruel reality was not part of my "flexible" plan.
I progressed at a steady pace enchanted by the dynamics of the race. The first day crews are mandated to "leapfrog" the riders, and never allowed to travel behind the cyclist until dawn at 6 PM. This provided entertainment having many crews and riders in visual proximity. It gave me something to pass the time. All crews were supportive and festive, providing encouragement through cheers and applause, even at my sluggish pace.
The route progressed straight into moderate head winds for the nearly 200 miles. Certainly, living at the Pacific Coast and the numerous events I have participated in, I have much experience to get me through nature's challenges. But, this was extreme. As a solo race, riders are not allowed to draft each other. The rules require three car lengths when no crew vehicles are present and 100 meters of separation (a football field) when vehicles are protecting their racer. Navigating through the town of Mojave with the help of my crew and finishing a turkey sandwich, I began a flat section of busy highway and strong head winds. The "Beaver's" van passed me while I was trying to balance a cup filled with potato chips with one hand and steer a straight path into the gales with the other. This challenge was met by being overtaken by a one of the best ultra-marathon riders in America. In awe of this body of sinew and protruding muscles, I was reminded that the "Beaver" was making history at this 508. Steve "Beaver" Born had began his quest for the first time finisher of a double 508, by starting two days earlier in Twenty Nine Palms. The "Beaver" traveled with his crew "number one" in the reverse direction to Valencia (in approximately 35 hours). Steve then slept for a few hours. Supported by crew "number two", Steve raced with us mortals from Valencia back to Twenty Nine Palms. Honored to be passed by this machine, I bowed in respect to his attempt. As I finished my chips, and was able to negotiate my progress better I discovered I was catching the "Beaver". Knowing that this was futile to sustain, I succumbed to the temptation and approached Steve with respect. Greetings with my normal "howdy" overture; I briefly talked with Steve. I thanked Steve for his generous advise he had given me in the past regarding stomach problems. The "Beaver" thought his research and experience is an encyclopedia of knowledge and is highly respected for generously sharing this with others. Steve "Beaver" Born did complete the double 508 with success; perhaps, he will be the only one!
I arrived at the first Time Station in California City at mile 82, with a generous application of sunscreen from my crew. Upon request, my crew concerned about my growing nausea gave me two plastic food cups. One cup contained more salty potato chips and the other overlaying cup contained bite-sized gifts of cantaloupe. This balancing act ended abruptly as contents emptied while traveling over a formidable set of railroad tracks with one hand. I survived the assault upright, but I quickly returned the emptied cups back to my faithful crew.
The desert terrain progressed on an endless treadmill, fan on medium-high. My fuel needs were a constant. With encouragement from my crew, I stocked the smoldering fire. Unfortunately, troubles started early in the game. My stomach, distended and nauseated failed to process food well. I was in pain, and frustrated because fuel intake is essential, but my GI distress dictated how much I could put in "the tube". Having gone though this at other events, I knew that decreasing my speed and that slow titration of food and water was required. This translated into eating and drinking small volumes, allowing waves of nausea to pass, and then controlling my mind not to vomit the fuel. Much concentration was required to perform this feat, and it beard heavily on my attitude and the crew. I became so overwhelmed, that at mile 111, I stopped on a mild climb, got into the van and became tearful. I requested a meal of self-heated noodles, knowing that salty noodles have been the antidote for nausea on past events. My crew worried that I was having problems so early, quickly fulfilled my request. They comforted me, letting me know that "everyone" was stopping on the climb. These words were only background noise to my troubled thoughts. Knowing that I needed maximum nutrients, I drained the brine-like liquid from the bottom of the cup. This poor decision resulted in an uncontrollable reflex; waves of nausea forced my stomach contents into my mouth. Forcing them back down proved futile as they exploded onto the welcoming desert sand. Fortunately, I did not drain all my stomach contents; some fuel remained to carry me along this endless grind. I asked my crew for my MP3 player (digital music player with headphones), to distract me from this development. The music served me well; it distracted me and I soon began to consume small portions of food and liquids. The nausea was a constant reminder of my precarious state and the four hundred miles that lay ahead. I knew the crew was worried, but they were always encouraging and answered all my requests without debate. Early in the race I requested my crew to drive the van up the road in half-mile increments. This responsibility required continuous work for the crew, but it gave me short goals to ride to, and emotionally it provided me with comfort to know that I was cared for. Seeing the van and the smiles on my crew faces, were my salvation that propelled me along this incessant path.
The crew was at their best to answer to all my requests with an unconditional affirmative nod. Somewhere along the endless desert, Curt asked me from the moving van if I wanted "cantaloupe or honeydew" melon in a cup. The attempt to "stuff" Tom never seemed to end. I answered, "Could you please mix them." I crave the sweet taste of honeydew melon and savored the change. I thought that a better choice was a mixture because cantaloupes have a high value of potassium, but I craved the honeydew. I was answered in silence to this simple request. In my world, I saw this as a simple task to mix the prepared melons into one cup and then hand them over from the moving van. Much time elapsed, and my anticipation and frustration grew. Where were my melons? Finally, the melons were handed over. Unfortunately the rolling terrain into Trona and an upcoming descent required me to hand back the nearly full cup of mixed melons. My faithful crew retrieved them back with obedience. Not until the drive home after the race did I realize how much work my random requests wore on the crew. "Tom's bitches" as the crew called themselves, were always positive and dedicated to my annoying requests.
The day's end approached, the temperature reached only the mid to upper eighties with generous cloud cover. The resolve of the winds never ended, they were a constant drain. Representing a change and a new beginning, I always look forward to the transition and riding at night. Approximately ten miles from the Trona Time Station; my crew stopped the van to place the mandated "slow moving vehicle" triangle and the rear amber flashing light assembly. It was agreed that they would travel ahead to Trona to get gas and supplies for the night ahead. Dawn was quickly approaching and the 6 PM deadline. The rules mandated that all riders were to have their support vehicles to follow directly behind the rider from 6 PM to 7 AM the next morning. Cruising at a good pace, I closely monitored the time and the horizon for signs of my support van. Finally, my watch read 6 PM and I had not made my mark. I stopped my forward progress and dismounted. I began walking my bicycle on an adjacent bike path meant for the local mine workers. Confused and growing angry, I was passed by other racers. A race official, Mike "Whale" Wilson stopped his van and asked if I needed any help. After describing my circumstances he drove away with direct orders from me to "get my crew - now!" Walking over five minutes with bicycle in tow, I saw my white van approaching. My claws protruding from their confines, this "cat" went wild. From their perspective behind the protective windshield, my crew could read my lips mouthing: Where in the "truck" have you been, and "vacuum!" Happy that they could not hear my actual words, Curt and Millo exploded out of the van and with precision and expediency, placed lights on my bicycle and placed reflective gear on me. Paul had been left in the Trona store, not knowing that the van had to return in haste to find me.
Treated to a self-heated spaghetti meal and a soda to settle my stomach, we began our night trek towards Death Valley. Reenergized and feeling slightly better, I began to pass several riders until my attempt to retrieve pop-tarts from my jersey pocket resulted in my MP3 player erupting from its protective confines. I immediately stopped not considering my van or other approaching riders. The crew piled out of the van with torches in hand and began to search for the MP3 player and its separated cover. The player was quickly discovered but the cover was more illusive. Doubts prevailed, but the cover was finally retrieved, and again I was at peace. The blackness of the desert was like an abyss, illuminated by red and amber flashing lights as racers penetrated its depths. It was mesmerizing to witness this endless parade of lights as they transversed the terrain.
I quickly re-passed the racers and neared the summit before the plunge into the Panamint Valley. My MP3 player screamed music by "Tool", my path lighted by my chase van only feet away from my rear wheel. Moments of blackness heightened my awareness as dips and turns developed along my course. This plunge required total concentration and alertness to ensure my survival. The pounding music served greatly to intensify the experience. My ten minutes of bliss would be the best I would feel physically and emotionally during the entire race. I would not discover this until the race was over during the drive home.
I progressed along the Panamint Valley watching the light show; my thoughts focused on the climb ahead. My blood sugar and nausea persisting in a "roller-coaster" pattern as I approached miles of rough road. I knew I must be well fueled for the assent that lay ahead. Bringing my crew to a stop I announced that I needed to attempt to get my GI settled. With shovel in hand, I escaped into the night to clear my bowels! Upon return from the fouled wasteland I was welcomed to a pancake self-heated meal and a clean, tuned bicycle. I had to consume my meal slowly, fighting the nausea with each bite. The crew filled my bottles with soda in an attempt to ease my symptoms and to reestablish my blood sugar.
Getting back on "the horse," I continued for several miles fighting the rough roads, anticipating the right turn that ascended Town's Pass. My blood sugar remained low, as too much work was required to get me though the desert floor. This was contrary to my plans to get me over the mountain pass. The right turn ultimately came and a stream of endless blinking lights revealed the mountain profile. Somewhere on the initial part of the climb, Millo asked with a smile and kindness in his approach, "Would you like some rods (pretzels)". Not knowing my own emotional state, I answered negatively with colorful words and stopped abruptly. I was at my end! I felt like a thin Thanksgiving turkey ready for slaughter, and the Holiday was two weeks away. I could not stuff any more food into my pouch. I knew I needed more food, but my tank was full and my gas line was clogged! I erupted in anger. Hearing the van coming to an immediate halt, supplies and gear crashing forward snapped me back to reality. I felt horrible. I apologized profusely and continued to apologize through out the remainder of the race for this stupid action.
Town's Pass (EL 4956'), a 13-mile climb with grades from 10 – 13%, consumed me. Progressing at walking speeds, I was passed by the two and four person teams (who started the race 3 hours and 6 hours later than the solo riders, respectively). All the teams were supportive and enthusiastic as they overtook me in a blur. I simply answered them with a shrug. Approximately two-thirds up the climb I progressed as a drunkard by weaving across the roadway. Finally, I pulled over and asked for "help". My crew got me into the van and Paul massaged my legs back to life. I then exited the womb, and attempted to mount my bicycle on a severe incline. I immediately fell over. Curt spontaneously saved me, grabbing hold and prevented my splatter onto the hardness below. Holding me upright, rubbing my back and letting me know I was OK, Curt released me into the bleakness towards the summit. I arrived at the top in reasonable condition. The massage seemed to get my muscle fibers to fire in synchrony. My crew fed me well, placed warm layers on me and equipped my bicycle with additional lighting systems. The plan was for me to spin my legs without pedal pressure as I descended. This strategy was to allow my crew to know that I was still conscience. We were all worried that the 17-mile dive to the Valley floor would cause me to shut down and sleep.
With trepidation, I began my quest for Death Valley. Relaxed and concentrating on my spin, I let gravity rule. At times I would feather my breaks to control my increasing rate. The chase van and I were traveling in unity at fifty miles per hour though the blackness. With Zen-like concentration I survived the plunge. Curt's shirt was drenched with perspiration from this intense experience of driving the van feet from my rear wheel. We stopped at Stove Pipe Wells, the bottom of the Pass to regroup and remove some of my excess gear. We departed quietly for the Furnace Creek Time Station 25 miles ahead. My head darting right and left to illuminate the creosol bushes in a vain attempt to assess the wind direction. I could not tolerate anymore assault from the wind gods. Fighting my body's need for sleep, I pressed on in a gloomy haze towards Furnace Creek.
I arrived at the Furnace Creek Time Station (mile-251) at about 3 AM. Many other riders used this site as a place to get some REM. I had not slept in nearly 44 hours and my crew knew they needed to "put me down". Unfortunately, the van was parked under the gas station's lights. Combined with vague laughter and talking I grew impatient waiting for my dreams. I sat up in frustration, slide the van's door open and called out to the crew that "we are going"! They seemed confused but answered my command. Debate about staying in the local hotel for a couple of hours to sleep was quickly dropped, as I simply said, "NO"!
My goal was to be out of the Valley before dawn weighted on me beyond rationality. I progressed not realizing my depletion. Happy to be kissed on my back by a tailwind, I rode along the shallow rollers illuminated by the heavens. My battle with fatigue was lost as my sleep deprivation took control. I needed sleep and the Badwater turn out became my goal. My crew's dictating that we ALL had to stop and sleep defeated my success of reaching Badwater awake. It was declared that we were stopping until dawn (approximately 2 hours away). I was devastated! Rationally, I knew that we desperately needed sleep, but my plans were destroyed. I was angry, but I had no energy to debate this decision; in fact, it was the only decision.
I was given the royal bed in the van adjacent to Curt. Paul and Millo stuffed upright, mangled in the front seats. Someone immediately began to snore. My attempts to be indifferent to the noisy rhythm proved futile. I searched with success for earplugs, but continued to hear the sounds thought the porous foam. Time passed and I was still awake. Exhausted, but I still could not shut my brain off. I finally woke Curt and exchanged positions only to be cooked by the heat generated in the van's tomb. I just lay there, sighing in growing frustration. I then opened the van's door to get some cool desert breeze and for a moment, blackness came.
With the emergence of light I escaped from my tomb with disgust and frustration at the total waste of valuable time and still no perceived sleep. While the crew was stirring I requested some noodle soup and headed for the porta-potti. Sitting there believing that my first attempt at the 508 was now over. I was so far behind schedule; no sleep and too much wasted time were the ingredients for my failure. Well, at least I had success in getting my "gas-line" open. My tube now had a beginning and an end! Not much was said at the morning meal, everyone knew the futility of the race; but all agreed to continue forward. There still might be time!
Death Valley is always a magical place for me. This race represents the seventh time I have ridden through its expanse. My stomach had settled and my wakefulness was now acute. I continued my trek thought the Valley, being pushed by a mild tailwind. Enjoying the incredible beauty and the morning light as it played against the rocky monoliths jetting from the salty planes. My crew stayed away. This was a good decision because we all needed to absorb the high probability of not finishing the race.
The official "sweep van" passed me and Deborah "Dolphin" Caplan asked, "how are you doing". I answered with a smile trying to look as coherent as I could. I was now at the end of the "attrition zone" and I had never been at the "tail end" before. I wanted to let Deborah know that I was sober enough to continue to ride safely. I asked her if she thought, "We had enough time to finish?" She replied genuinely that there "still was enough time to finish." Deborah's sincerity provided hope for success. But, She also shared the realty that she had not finished during two previous attempts.
The Worm's van passed me as I traveled along the Valley. Lynn's face showed surprise at seeing me so far back. Always enthusiastic, Lynn made me feel better and served to revitalize me. I was glad that the road surface had been repaved since my last visit, allowing me to progress at a reasonable rate. My anticipation grew as I neared Ashford Mills and the 15.5-mile climb out of the Valley's depths. To provide levity, Millo strung a toilet paper barrier across the deserted road for me to break before I began the long climb. Was this act a symbol for my incomplete finish? I believed it would be the only time I would break the finish-line barrier – but I kept this thought to myself.
Frustrated to be climbing this long, arduous assent by daylight. I had a previous experience of being "baked" on this exposed climb. Unfortunately, I never discussed this goal with my crew. My growing frustration was misunderstood by the crew and was divisive. Although gentle in grade, the climb is ruthless in its unending, unchanging, and exposed profile. I simply did not want to "see" it again. Without realization, I began to add sustenance without distress. I requested my MP3 player to fight the boredom of this unprotected climb. Quickly I grew irritated by the pounding music and found that it no longer inspired me. My crew served as my best reward. Traveling up the incline ahead every half-mile, the crew provided me with easy to reach goals and eased the monotony. I passed other racers: Including, the "Beetle", "Mother Goose", and the "Worm". These riders and crew were always relentless. I would continue with them leapfrog style for the next two hundred miles. They became my inspiration and my comfort.
I was climbing well considering what my body had experienced. Nearing the top and almost 2 1/2 hours of continuous climbing, I asked my crew to prepare some noodles. They drove to the summit to prepare my feast. Relieved to make my goal in good repair, I sat to consume my reward. My entertainment consisted of "Mother Goose" summiting with resolve and focus.
After finishing my meal, I agreed to "feather my pedals" during the descent to let my crew know I was still alive. Getting buffeted by strong side winds I maintained my advance towards Shoshone. At the base of the descent, I was rewarded by a massive tailwind. Sitting upright, my body acting as a sail propelling me to Time Station #4 (at mile 325). I displayed my frustration at the growing inefficient time management at Shoshone. My "antsy" display only served to increase the wedge between the crew and I. Feeling the weight of failure, I shifted this poor attitude onto my crew. This lack of control was divisive. There were never any harsh words spoken; but, the felt tension was obvious to all, and I withdrew.
Next Target: Baker. 56 miles away, this location was pivotal to the race. I left the crew behind in Shoshone for them to gather supplies and fill the van with petrol. A huge tailwind shoved me along a landscape of colorful dune formations. I was thankful for this visual gift and made good progress at double-digit speeds. This section was generally flat and fast. I ate without difficulty, but the previously day's experience kept me cautious.
I requested a turkey sandwich with mayonnaise from the returned crew. The crew's driver gladly handed it over. Sandwich in hand, I rolled on. My first bite caused a gag reflex. I quickly handed over this cardboard-like sandwich to the driver and reminded him in a patronizing tone that "I wanted Mayo!" At the next half-mile stop along the busy highway, I got what I asked for, a sandwich swimming in Mayo. Realizing my annoying request met with an exaggerated response, I consumed the dripping mass in silence. Stopping once again to clean the white slim from my handlebars and break levers. I continued my antagonism by asking for Gatorade that was, "not so sweet." I simply could not consume it, even a hummingbird would have turned its bill at this over sweetened liquid. Paul, disbelieving me tested this liquid sugar; realizing the mistake, he quietly replaced it with a bottle filled with the proper dilution. Growing paranoid at this response to my food requests, I withdrew further realizing that we were in trouble! This additional example furthered my distress.
Sleep deprivation struck with severity. My inability to fight off fatigue forced me to stop. My crew directed me to move off the busy highway, and escorted me into the van for a "power nap" in an attempt to re-boot my brain. The crew and I had a frank discussion regarding the high probability of not finishing the 508 in the required time limit. Weighing heavily on my mind, this reality became a focus. The decision was to travel to the Baker Time Station and to "call the race" there. Baker would be the proverbial "line in the sand!"
My inability to tame my sleep deprivation was revealed further down the road when I started to hear voices. Laughter and conversations radiated from my ears in stereo. These noises were dimensional, like voices at a social gathering moving through space with different pitches and volumes. Entertaining and alarming, my response was that I needed help and I quickly pulled off the road. Describing my "trip" to my crew motivated another sleep break and more concern. When I regained consciousness, I requested to have a private conversation with Paul. My words and thoughts differed in their course. My words to Paul described my concerns and my desire to continue with the race. My mind in silent conversation desired to stop. Two different paths were manifested, one verbally and the other mentally. My mind had resolved to halt the race; but someplace else still had the desire to continue.
This "cat" was done. All "nine lives" used up! The fantasy was to finish the race, but the reality dictated that I did not have enough time. I was very concerned about running the crew through another night into this futility. All crew members had to be back to work on Tuesday. With a nine-hour drive back to the San Francisco Bay Area on Monday, I was responsible to have the entire crew home safely and ready to work Tuesday. These pressures and my deterioration directed me to discontinue the 508. Baker would be the stopping point and I was finally at peace with this decision.
With about than ten miles to Baker, Something magical happened. I was restored. This turn of events occurred when I passed "Mother Goose". I asked her "If we had enough time to finish?" She replied with confidence "Yes!" She said that she estimated to complete the race around "6:30 AM". "Mother Goose was not stopping, she was relentless. Moments later, I passed the " Beetle" and asked him the same questions, and described my concerns for my crew. The "Beetle" mentioned that he had completed this race before and that, "We DID have time to finish". He said that the crew "was here for me" and that they agreed to be part of the race to the finish – "all 48 hours worth." I was transformed! I will always be grateful to "Mother Goose" and the "Beetle", because I would not have continued the race if it were not for them and these simple conversations.
New confidence circulated through me. As if someone had slapped in the face, I woke up with clarity and a new vision. I took a new path; I needed only to get my crew to join with me. We arrived in Baker at 3:51 PM and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. I quickly proclaimed to the crew that I wanted to continue. Millo got information from a race official, to determine if there was enough time remaining for us to finish the race. I was asked to talk with the official, who seemed to know about my "voices", to determine my state. I had never been in this predicament before. Now, I felt the judgments from an official who could "pull me" from the race if it were deemed that I was too unsafe to continue. Well, I was at my best behavior, answering his questions with clarity and precision. He said, "That your eyes look dehydrated". I did not laugh, but found this statement humorous and even went to the van's mirror to see these sunken, tired eyes for myself. The race official, kindly let me continue, and provided words of wisdom for finishing. OK, I was given the "go", now I just needed to convince my crew. To my surprise, they needed no convincing. The crew was already on board. In fact, they were always in support of my finishing. It was MY attitude that led to this perception. We took some time to regroup a finishing strategy. Millo directed me to establish a new game plan for food choices. This would allow one crew member to sleep in the van undisturbed, and was advantageous for me having fewer decisions to make. I felt the crew was behind me; our biggest concern was now fatigue.
Thankful that the crew ate restaurant food in Baker, I began the arduous two-percent, twenty-one mile climb. I enjoyed seeing my other race comrades along the incline. My crew joined me later on the climb. All of us were relaxed and I was no longer tense. We had a new focus and a revitalized hope. We had been replenished in Baker. My crew and I perceived this restoration; we were now united in our quest for the finish nearly 130-miles away.
Someplace on this long climb, my crew approached me with music blaring, playing "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. We all joined in song, inspired by this motivational 80's hit! These simple moments are the best and most memorable. We were treated to a gorgeous sky and colorful rock illuminations by the setting sun. Stopping the van for night-riding preparations of lights and reflective gear, Paul gave my legs a rejuvenating massage. Unfortunately, my crew was now the target of two days of digested carbohydrates. Yes, my gas hole was now working well! This methane previously trapped, finally decided to make its way out into the environment. I could have given Kenny G worthy competition for the longest continuous note; in fact, I would have made Howard Stern blush. I was hideous! I was glad that my brain had turned off its olfactory synapses, because I could not perceive any odor. Only the roaring upheaval was my awareness for my uncontrollable flatulence. I pitied my crew because their senses continued to function. My crew gave me unconditional encouragement knowing that my GI problems were being relieved. They were amazing! This "digestive symphony" continued thought out the remainder of the race. Wishing that I could ignite the energy to tap its power to propel me up these last three climbs; perhaps, I could sell it back to PG&E to help fund my six thousand dollars in race expenses! Unfortunately, my exhaust was simply wasted to the Ether.
The remainder of the race progressed in a haze. Like waking up from a dream, my memories are vague spotty images. But I do remember the assault from the road. The surface quality consisted of rocks impregnated in asphalt with half of their surface exposed to torment my tires and body. I was not the recipient of a flat tire, just a complete trashing as I fought for a smoother line. This attempt was futile, but it gave me something to concentrate on. At one point, I began to scream incessantly at the jarring surface, using visceral and colorful language. Teasing moments of smooth surfaces developed from the blackness, only to be struck down again by the tenuous attack. I was angry by the veracious assault, but it served to empower me.
After the initial long climb out of Baker followed by an eleven-mile descent, I ate a diet of turkey sandwiches, snickers, and gels (GU). My crew mixed palatable liquid that was not too sweet and kept me at steady nutritional levels. Everyone on the "Tom Cat" team was positive and directed to finish. My challenge was to stay awake.
Power naps kept the voices away, but my new fatigue manifestation was "tunnel vision". The second climb was steeper and twelve–miles in length. Spots of rough roads continued, but they did not shake me awake. As a partial moon illuminated the horizon, I perceived a "freeway overpass" aligned at my forehead. For a while I was transfixed by this non-reality. It was a clever distraction, giving me a diversion. At times this chronic structure would become animated and move rapidly towards my forehead. This required an immediate response. I quickly ducked from this formidable impact to keep from getting knocked off my bicycle. Wow-"To boldly go where no one has gone before"! This experience was repeated and provided motivation to take additional power naps.
During one of my sleep breaks, all crew remained in the van except Millo. Taking point outside the van, Millo was the timekeeper for our twenty-minute sleep. This nap hit hard. No dreams, only an instance of nothingness. Then, Millo slid the van's door open and proclaimed "twenty-minutes are up"! I jumped out of my blackness to my new world, revitalized and ready to continue the climb. I have never experienced this sort of sleep. Twenty minutes had passed like a light switch – off then on, and only an instance of blackness representing the passage of time. I felt great, revitalized, with acute awareness! I then remembered that I had a previous experience like this in Death Valley, blackness came there too. All my frustration and belief that I received no sleep there was not correct. Apparently, I did receive this gift of this deep sleep there too.
Not only had the "tunnel vision" vanished, but also my visual acuity became hawk-like. I could now see with clarity the rock-laden road that yearned to puncture my tires. I continued to climb, making fluid circles with my spin. When the road got particularly steep or rough, the van would pull-up to my side and the crew would provide encouragement. My crew commented with amazement at how good my position and quality of my spin looked. They seemed sincere, so I just let these kind words soak in to make me feel better. I continued to pass and leapfrog with my relentless comrades. The flashing lights provided the goal I needed to keep me advancing. The miles of descending were a constant concern for my crew to keep me safe. The old strategy continued with success. I was layered with warm clothes, fed well, and spun my legs to display my wakefulness. It worked every time!
The last ten-mile climb was steep and had more attacks from the cruel surface. I had one forward speed, even when I was traveling on flat surfaces. My "first gear" progress was in single digits. I could not perceive the wind direction or the grade. I was simply making forward progress, followed by a very patient crew. My mood was now completely confident. My crew was unconditionally supportive. I had no sense of time. I was like a one-cylinder steam engine, slow and relentless; except, this motor was continuing to pump out fouled exhaust! My crew fueled "the engine" with GU and Snickers. I continued to take a couple more ten to fifteen minute sleep-breaks to re-boot my brain. This worked well; it was our only choice to keep me upright on the bike.
So many of my memories of this last section of the racecourse are a vague blur. My perception of time was gone. I was completely at peace and confident with the belief that I would finish. It was just a question of when. My "first-gear" speed finally brought me into the town of 29 Palms. One more annoying wall to climb. It was viewed with a shrug and just one more offense. Seeing the finish hotel and an official van to guide me across the non-busy roadway towards my success. There were cheers and enthusiastic greetings from a few remaining race officials acknowledging my miraculous finish. I crossed the finish line by "breaking the tape" at 4:25 AM Monday morning! My crew piled out from the warmth of the van, and greeted me with hugs and congratulations. We finished with only two and one-half hours remaining before the official "cut-off time"!
My crew continued their support by guiding me to a throne and helping me off with my excess gear. In a daze we gathered for photos and my "finishing metal" presentation. I shed no tears. I was brainless, without emotion, simply conscious being guided by my crew. My crew continued to keep me upright, walking with me insuring that gravity would not conquer me. They gathered me into my hotel room, and got me to eat a recovery meal. Meanwhile, the crew spent another hour taking care of the gear and other details. They were amazing! Strangely, I did make my goal for finishing "mid-pack". I finished in 28th place out of 58 solo starters. But, because of attrition there were only 35 of us that finished! And congratulations to the rest of my faithful "comrades": the "Beetle", the "Worm", and "Mother Goose" each successfully completed the 508!
Waking to knocks on the hotel room door at 10 AM, I was greeted by smiling faces and more congratulations. The crew repacked and reorganized all the supplies, and I was presented with a T-shirt from a Baker Restaurant (The Mad Greek). This gift signified THE DECISIVE moment for our continuing the 508 and it will always be a significant symbol to our success. The nine-hour drive back to the San Francisco Bay Area was spent reminiscing. The crew described their perceptions and their specific roles they each took during the race. This "debriefing" helped to reinforce the manner in which our strong bonds evolved. We enjoyed much laughter and teasing when we described our experiences and impressions of the event. We all grew in many ways from this race, and I am truly grateful for how it developed. My crew: Millo, Curt, and Paul and I experienced a life changing event known as the Furnace Creek 508!
For me, the success of the 508 was not finishing the race; rather, it was my personal evolution and growth. The 508 is a metaphor for life. Hard work and experience are not the ingredients for success; rather, it is the people in our lives that support us along the unfolding and unpredictable journey we call life. This discovery has provided me with the belief that nothing else has significance. The escaping can end; all that is important is within me and with my relationships with my friends and my family. I will always be grateful for this 508 experience. It has giving me inspiration and completeness.