Guide to the Furnace Creek 508 for
Women Less-Than-Brazenly Self-Confident

"FC Guide for WLTBSC" for short

By Janet Osprey Christiansen

Whether you secretly long to prevail in ultra cycling events, or simply need something extraordinary to reach for, Furnace Creek 508 is an opportunity like no other for endurance cyclists. Surprisingly, the turnout for women is very low, or at least it was in 2003 (only three solos). Yet at double centuries, brevets and the like, I see many strong, strong-willed women toe up to the line and finish. Maybe all that is needed is a little encouragement. After all, I myself initially balked at the prospect of trying to do something as extreme as 508 miles in 48 hours till my Planet Ultra friends fed me a little encouragement and made me believe I could do it.

So stop reading here if you really don't want to get talked into doing the 508.

Too late. You will now get talked into doing this thing.

Training

Without much further ado, let me start out by saying to consider Furnace Creek, you should be fairly confident with doing double centuries, including some of the more difficult ones. Heartbreak, Tour of Two Forests, and Mulholland are good examples. Don't worry about absolute killers like the Santa Rosa Terrible Two. Nothing like that at the 508. Training wise, you do *not* have to become a road rat and train 400 miles a day. I only did one 22-hour ride a month before the 508. That was a bit light, as I would prefer to do two or three long rides of 22-30 hours. However, I did an Ironman in late August, so my schedule was a bit cramped for training for the 508 in seven weeks. It's also not necessary to train in the desert and ride in 129-degree heat and searing sun. But make sure you have “field” proven strategies for handling strong sun and very warm conditions worked out.

Support Crew

OK, now the next hurdle is putting together your crew. Like me, you probably are not plugged into the ultra cycling crowd, at least not yet. So you don't know who to help you do this. Here are some hints. Friends and family are often the best crews, even if they do not know how to fix a flat or have never done any cycling themselves. There is very little opportunity to actually do any bike techy stuff anyway. If they can read a map, follow a script and—above all—stay awake for a long time, they've got great crew potential. I created scripts and schedules for my crew to follow along, separate from the 508 script, which included when to eat, change clothes, change bikes, put on more sunscreen and take out my contact lenses. (DON'T keep those suckers in more than 12 hours in the desert!!! Desert dry air will really hurt your eyes.) So don't worry about not having a super-experienced crew. The most important thing is that they really care about you and can put aside "crew stress" to make sure you keep going.

You can (and arguably should) consider being on someone else's 508 crew before actually riding the 508. This way, you get "lots" of experience without beating up your body and using up resources ($$'s, time). Hopefully your rider will be willing to return crew support favors, or you can ask other crew members to help you out. Either way, after crewing for someone else, you now have a much better idea how to ride this course and how to set up your crew!

Bodily Desecration

I think women might be less enthusiastic to desecrate their bodies ultra-cycling style then men. The most important bit of advice I can give you is to do a couple of ultra-long training rides, including a 24-hour ride. Ideally, get your crew out there for the last few hours of such a ride so they know what you are like when you are mentally dulled from fatigue. MAKE SURE your crew has some experience riding behind you at night and know how to hand off water, food, etc. from the side of the road and from the passenger side of the van. It's not too hard, but don't wait till the 508 to learn on the job.

Another aspect of doing a trial long ride, is finding out how good your equipment is. When I did this, I found out very quickly that I needed to upgrade my cheapie $25 shorts—which had worked fine for doubles—to the Ultra and Micro Sensor shorts. Very expensive but worth every dollar.

I will address some specific vulnerabilities below decks, and what worked well for me.

Saddle Discomfort

Aside from bringing along good shorts and saddle for the 508, I scheduled "hygiene" stops every five hours or so. During that time I cleaned things with Gold Bond Medicated First Aid Wipes. It can by any type of wash cloth. The idea here is antiseptic. Might sting/burn a bit but its only temporary. Then apply Gold Bond Medicated Body Powder to the "stern" and for the mid and aft sections a quality cyclist's lubricant like Chamois Butt'r. The Gold Bond stuff is in any pharmacy or supermarket, and the Chamois stuff you can search for on the Internet. I find Body Glide or Vaseline Petroleum do not work very well.

Ahhh. Now the saddle feels better. I also changed shorts about every 12 hours since that's roughly a double century ride (and because I don't have enough good shorts to change more often). Shorts changes take a long time. At night it will be cool and your legs will get cold, especially if you are at the top of Town's Pass. So make sure your van is organized to change quickly.

Here is how I dealt with the bumpy bad roads (e.g. the second half of the course). I would frequently get out of the saddle and pedal a minute or so. If you stay out of knee-mashing gears, your knees should be ok with this. Mainly it allows the chamois area to breathe a little, have increased blood flow, and takes the pressure off for a little while.

So you do all this stuff and you think you will get by scot free from the usual 508 rider discomfort. Nope. By the second day of the 508 you will experience chafing no matter what. But don't get too uptight. You're way better off than if you had not taken these protective measures. Also, your chafing and soreness doesn't generally get worse beyond a certain point. And whatever happens down there, it will heal pretty fast. This is one time women have less physiological liability than men. I have heard absolute horror stories of things happening to men since most of their "stuff" is external. No need to elaborate here. Despite my many trials and tribulations of the last stretches of the 508, that was one area that was not bothering me so much.

Nutrition/Food

I cannot imagine eating 400-600 calories an hour while cycling and not throwing up. But a lot of guys swear by this. I was fine with about 250-300 calories with a couple of meal stops (e.g., dinner and breakfast) that coincided with a shorts change (kill two birds during one lengthy stop). I recommend lots of non-sweet snacks since I guarantee you will get sick of hammer gel. I still cannot face Apple Cinnamon Hammer Gel. I was happy with baked potatoes (hold the butter and sour cream please!) and tuna sandwiches. Easy to eat on the bike too.

One thing I did NOT do was to watch my sodium intake (regrets, regrets!). I ended up developing hyponatremia. It took me weeks after the 508 to figure this out (I read an article about it in the RAAM cycling bulletin). This can easily happen because typical cycling foods (e.g., sports drinks) do not have a lot of sodium.** No need to be morbid on the subject. Since it is hard to quantify your exact needs during the 508, here are two simple rules that work for me.

  1. Watch out for nausea. Eat a stack of saltines or a big ol' burrito with cheese immediately.
  2. Eat a stack of saltines or a big ol' burrito with cheese anyway if you're wondering what to have for breakfast in Baker or middle of the night snack in Furnace Creek or top of Town's Pass. 

The symptoms of hyponatremia include bloating (because you are actually over-hydrated), and not sweating (if it's daytime, the sun will feel like a branding iron on your skin). Plus you will start to become very fatigued. This is hard to detect, because if you are going to be fatigued—at least by 300 miles of riding, Keep on taking electrolytes every hour. This is something your crew should keep track of: whatever food you eat, electrolyte capsules, and sports drink and when. By Sunday, they will be able to make better judgments than you will on how much you should be taking in. So they will end up "nagging" you on this. LISTEN TO THEM!

Dealing with the Menstrual Cycle

Guess what? Mine started at the top of Townes Pass. I discovered this while changing my shorts. #$*&@#$^*@&^!!  But as it turned out, it scarcely had much of an effect on my riding. To be honest, menstrual cycles (and PMS days) are most disadvantageous for short, high intensity events like 10k running races, 40km time trials etc., etc. But for longer events, since you have to pace yourself anyway, the effects taper off. So don't obsess over this. Just remember to bring lots of Ibuprofen.

Not Keeping up with the Jackrabbits

I am the slowest starter in the history of cycling. I think if I turned my bike around backwards I would get out the starting gate faster. No question men have a built-in power advantage. Power is defined as the amount of work done per unit time (e.g., bursts of strength). But power will do you little good in ultra cycling. Except to look good out of the starting gate. As far as I am concerned, the jury is definitely out on whether guys have more "strength" than women. I don't wish to turn this into a Battle of the Sexes. Strength is rather vaguely defined, but as far as ultra cycling is concerned, good strength implies sustained power over longer periods of time. I think women have a certain advantage here. Mainly our hormonal profiles (surprise) change levels much less dramatically than men's from hour to hour. In my non-expert opinion, I believe this reflects the simple observation that guys seem to be designed for bursts of power whereas women are designed to be like the Energizer Rabbit (it keeps going and going and going...). So the jackrabbits that blow you away up San Francisquito Canyon while chatting and riding effortlessly may be doing only 3 mph up Town's Pass! And only 10 miles an hour on the road to 29 Palms. Of course they might be doing 20 mph too, which has been known to happen. But not very many riders can claim this feat! Moral of the story: if you think you are way behind everyone, consider that this may be because those behind you have quit or had to abandon. When most people find out you did the 508, they won't ask what place you finished. I have yet to have anyone ask me that. They will likely be awed that you accomplished such a feat.

Other Rider's Crews

The great thing about the 508 is the other crews will always cheer you on and may even lend a hand (I mean we all have to survive out there, right?). I got separated from my crew for a stretch of miles in the beginning (we got in sync later on). While they were frantically trying to find me, other crews very generously gave me water and food till I hooked up with my guys. I told my crew to always help another rider or crew in trouble. So you do have friends out there. And they will really enhance your 508 experience! Experienced riders and crew are always willing to answer your questions and give you helpful advice. My crew was pretty nervous at the start of the 508, having never seen the start of any race with riders, vans, officials all over the place. So I told them to find a nearby crew, tell them this is your first 508, and ask if it's ok to follow along behind them for the initial miles till the congestion thinned out a bit.

There is an Abundance of Interesting Articles on the 508 Web Site

Reading these will enable you to learn from other riders/crews mistakes as well as benefit from their experience. They may also keep you up at night. So try not to read them at bedtime. Most of these articles will be written by guys but they are not "that" different when it comes to handling sleep deprivation, fatigue and general 508 stress.

So now you are out of excuses to pass on the 508. Start planning early (June, July no later). I think I put more effort in preparation than training for the 508. But I love planning things out. It will be your hidden advantage if you do it right! If you want to email any cycling 508 questions or suggestions to me, or tell me I am an incredible dope (Nahhh, don't do that), please feel free to drop me a line at [email protected]

**See “Water and Salt Intake”, L. Weschler; Ultracycling, Jul-Aug 2003 Vol 12 No. 4 for complete discussion of fluid and salt intake during (very) long rides.