Team Loon and the 2003 Furnace Creek 508

By Scott Loon Dakus, 2003 solo official finisher

I am lying on my back, on the pavement, of a gas station parking lot in the middle of the night in the middle of Death Valley. The gas station has been closed for hours (or maybe weeks). There are a few support vehicles parked around with a dozen or so people milling about and talking socially about the race; my crew is among them. I don't know if there was a restroom available there or a phone or a soda machine or anything at all. All I know is that my shoes were off. I didn't want to be within five miles of my cycling shoes; as a matter of fact, when I was getting ready to saddle-up again, I had forgotten where I had put them and was politely reminded by a do-gooder from another crew. God bless him.

I had ridden lots of miles this year and decided in the springtime to do a big ride. By big I meant BIG!. Me and a buddy picked out the Heartbreak Double Century and commenced-a-training. He couldn't do the ride due to problems he developed in the area of where the saddle meets the cyclist. My family and I went to Palmdale for the weekend and I did the ride in about 12 hours. It was torturous and great fun and I met some great people; some of them were riding again here at the 508. My buddy, Craig was also riding the 508 with another friend, Eric. They were a two-man relay team: Sailfish. During the double ride, the 508 was mentioned a few times and I became quite curious. I had thought seriously about attempting it four or five years earlier, but couldn't commit for different personal reasons. Sometime during summer vacation after the Heartbreak Double, I decided that I was going to do Furnace Creek this year.

Training went well; I never did anything too extreme or intense. My main goal was to not get injured and to stay in shape. The biggest training ride I did was a 200 miler exactly two weeks before the race. It had lots of hills and I felt great. I sent an e-mail out at work to see who would be interested in crewing for me and Terry and Paul jumped at the opportunity. As soon as those guys signed up, I know that I would be completing the race one way or the other. Those guys would have duct-taped me onto the bicycle if necessary. As a matter of fact, they did end up duct-taping me. Once when I developed a blister on my foot in the night, and again 4 hours later with a blister on my hand; they just stuck on the tape, told me to quit whining, put me back on the bike and said, "Go that way." I knew going in that if I wanted sympathy or sleep, I had the wrong guys. Of course, they didn't get any either.

I'm not the nutrition expert that you might expect and had planned on using more conventional fuels for the most part; bananas, oranges, muffins, cookies, power bars, goos, gels, Gatorade and juices. If the diet plan was simple, the race strategy was even simpler. The plan was to do nothing for the first 200 miles. I had ridden that far twice this year and knew I could do it and still feel pretty good. I brought two bikes; both Cannondales. One was set up for climbing (mine) and the other was borrowed and set up everything else; aero bars, suspension seat post, etc.

During the vehicle inspection the night before, everyone involved with the race was quite businesslike; my wife took the kids to the room and Terry, Paul, and I went for some bar food and beer. There was a real possibility that we wouldn't be able to get anymore for 48 hours; preparation is everything. In the morning, things were much more laid back and everyone was warming-up and talking and smiling. This was what I signed up for; after all, this was supposed to be fun. We rolled out at exactly seven for the parade out of town.

I made a mistake in bicycle choice. I started on my number one bike instead of my climbing bike and was left without very low gears. I had underestimated the first climb and we weren't allowed support until after it. I pushed too big of a gear and my left knee started hurting in a bad way. That knee was my weakest link and I knew coming in that I had to baby-sit it all day to be successful. I was disgusted with myself at that point. During the entire race, this was the only time that I thought I may not be able to finish. I met the guys, swapped bikes, and started riding a lot smarter. The second climb was up through the windmills and not as bad as the first one. From a long way away you could see that most of the windmills weren't even turning; anyway you look at it, that's a very good sign. Whoever they got to do the weather this year was the right guy; they need to hang on to him.

My knee was really stinging for about the first hundred miles so I had to go easy. My attitude was, "I've got a triple and I ain't afraid to use it!" It was easy to go easy; the climbs were manageable, the roads were smooth as glass, the scenery was beautiful, and most important of all, there was no wind. It was nice to finally get through a time station; I felt like the race had officially started and that I had officially ridden some of it. California City was Time Station #1, 82 miles into the race. Up until this point, there had been lots of race traffic; it was a steady stream of leapfrogging support vehicles. It was odd when a car passed that was not involved in the race. My wife and kids had been parking and cheering me on all morning, too. Five miles after California City was the last time I saw them that day. They were sitting in the back of the truck eating sub sandwiches and drinking sodas. I stopped, gave each of them a quick kiss and hug, and left them to find their way to a hotel for the night. Hopefully, I would see them tomorrow; for now it was time to get to work.

I figured that I was riding in the back half of the group when we started up the third climb to Johannesburg. I could see riders spaced out ahead of me and just picked them off one by one up the climb. It was a beautiful day for a ride, my knee was feeling better and everything was going as good as could be expected. The guys in the van were having fun, too. They were waving the flag every time I came by, ringing a camel bell, and now and then they were sitting in comfy chairs in the shade.

The second Time Station was in Trona and the site of the dreaded mechanical failure. Yep, we broke a spoke. "Need a rear wheel, guys," I said. Ten seconds later they brought the wheel another 20 seconds later I was pedaling down the road. That spoke and a couple of bolts that had rattled loose later in the race were the extent of the mechanical problems. We were very fortunate.

Fifty miles to the base of Townes Pass. It seemed that each person I encountered after Trona was thinking about it; or trying not to. Three hours later it got dark, we started the climb, the never-ending climb eventually ended, we screamed down into Death Valley and then started a terribly flat 35 mile stretch. Somehow I ended up terribly drained. I had been pushing a steady gear and simply numbing my feet into non-existence. When I finally got off the bike, my body started shutting down; my legs probably thought we were finished. I guess they didn't get the e-mail.

This was Time Station #3, Furnace Creek. Some farsighted pioneer placed Furnace Creek exactly half way between the starting line and finishing tape of the Furnace Creek 508. The last time station was a hundred miles ago and the next one wouldn't be for another 74. This stop is basically the only distraction to an otherwise eerily serene jaunt through 80 miles of Death Valley. I have heard that lots of folks drop out at Furnace Creek, others get a little sleep, some stop here for a while to let there crews catch a short nap. Some people race to finish; others race to finish well.

That was the decision I had to make before I hopped back on the bike. I had planned (hoped actually) to ride the 508 in 35 hours. Five seven-hour centuries; that was the plan. I was way ahead of schedule. It was ten p.m.; fifteen hours into the race and I was halfway done. The math was easy; if I could keep up this pace, I would be done in thirty hours. There were two strategies going through my mind. When the big climb up Townes Pass was complete, we had a screaming down hill into the valley and I thought that this was a good place to make up some time. You never know what the temperature or wind conditions would be like tomorrow and each mile I could ride in cool of the Death Valley night would be one I wouldn't have to do in the hot desert sun the next afternoon.

That's exactly what I did; I rode somewhat hard through about 35 miles of flat land and small rolling hills from after the decent of Townes Pass until Time Station #3. Terry handed me a muffin and a V-8 and maybe something else, but I'm not sure. All I know for sure is that my shoes were off and that felt pretty good. I use the words "Pretty Good" because there simply aren't words that can convey the difference that night between "shoes on" and "shoes off." I shared my strategy with a woman that was crewing for a relay team and she shared their's with me. She thought that the ride through death valley should be slower, more relaxed, and a time to make sure that you're setting yourself up for tomorrow; get your calories and electrolytes up, settle your stomach down and enjoy yourself for a while, because once the sun comes up things can go bad quickly.

Another cyclist rolls by without stopping. "Osprey!" she shouts to the timekeepers at the table. Without either of us trying, we had been leapfrogging each other all race so far. She was a real bull. She was strong on the flats, climbed very well and spent very little (if any) time off the bike. Each time she was in front of me I knew that I had my work cut out for me. That's when I made my decision. "My new goal," I said to my crew "Is to not catch Osprey again." I have cycled enough to know that I have to ride my own race, not hers. I put on my shoes (they were by the back bumper), hopped on the bike, and rolled out of the parking lot; 50 miles or so until the climb out.

Over the next few miles, the relay teams started passing. The reason this was so disheartening is simply the speed at which they came whizzing by. Here I am grinding out what I thought was a pretty good effort and one of them comes whizzing by making some aerodynamic humming sound and an obligatory, "You're doing great!" Heck, these guys were still smiling. When Horse and Cerion passed me I felt good; I knew I had slowed it down a notch and was riding well within my comfort zone. I was pretty sure that I would see them again (especially with the big desert climbs coming), but not Osprey; she was gone for good.

During the next three hours I tried to get into a rhythm. I just wanted to ride and not bug the guys too much. I only had a two-man crew and I was hoping that at least one of them could steal a short nap now and then. At Bad Water, the road got real rough and I found myself looking forward to the climb. Soon after that the road got worse then it worked it's way right up to ridiculous; at least there is a 3000 foot climb coming. Soon I hope.

At last we arrived at the foot of the Salsberry climb; most veterans had told me that Townes Pass was the mother climb for this race, but looking at the ride profile in the few preceding days made me more ascared of this climb than the others. Townes Pass is higher and steeper, but Salsberry comes a hundred miles further into the race. My thinking had been that when I was done with Salsberry Pass, the hardest parts would be over.

I had been looking forward to Townes pass the entire first morning. I love to climb; that seems to be the only time that I ever gain ground on anyone. As we were rolling down Panamint Valley Road during the late afternoon of day one, I could see the mountains to my right and I knew that Death Valley was on the other side of them. I had been riding with Osprey off and on and she was looking very strong. It was just about 6 pm and time for all good cyclists to have their lights on and support vehicles behind them. My guys showed up (like clockwork) and pulled in behind me, Osprey's car pulled up, but they didn't have her bike lights on yet so she pulled off to prepare that stuff. I turned right and there it was before us: the majestic Townes Pass. The road goes straight up and the story goes that there is nothing like the sight of all the following cars with their flashing lights inching their way up the mountain and into the darkness. I must have been up near the front; I could see three cars on the pass; the rest of them were up too far to see or already over the top. I hate those guys.

The climb was long and steep with a cruel little twist thrown in; the elevation markers. I was climbing forever when I passed the first one. Elevation 2000. I passed a couple of guys before the 3000 foot sign and Paul started cranking out some Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. They're no Abba, but they'll do. I ended up trying to forecast the remaining climb based on the elevation signs. Don't do that, it doesn't work so well. The problem is that I had heard stories of some of the elevation markers missing. So, when I saw an elevation sign approaching from way up the road I figured that I'd been going so long that I must have passed a missing marker. No such luck. When the 2000 foot sign did that to me, I remember my shoulders dropped in disappointment. When the 4000 foot sign magically turned into the 3000 foot sign, I almost got off the bike. When we hit the 4000 foot sign, I asked the guys what the summit elevation was. They told me 41 or 42 hundred feet. "Great!" I thought. "No, check that; it's 4965." "Great!" I thought. Well, all good things must come to an end and that climb did. The last mile or so eased up quite a bit; we stopped, had a quick bite, swapped bikes and headed down the hill.

That was one hundred miles and six hours ago. The first few miles of this climb were not as steep as Townes Pass and we passed what looked like a couple of different racers and crews sacked out for a bit. A few miles up the road came the crest of the first summit, Jubilee Pass at 1285 feet, and then a steep, fast descent to 1000 feet, and then a perpetual climb up to 3300. We spent two and a half hours on the climb. Nothing special happened; it was a constant pattern of sit-and-spin, stand-and-mash, grab a drink. Down hill into Shoshone and Time Station #4. Surely all the tough stuff was behind us now.

My crew and I had a pow-wow at the stop. I told them that I'd been hallucinating for the last few miles and was quite tired; they were concerned that I hadn't taken in enough calories or electrolytes lately. I was in real want of a short nap but wasn't brave enough to ask for permission. The solution was simple and obvious. One Double Caffeine tangerine flavor Power Gel (made by athletes – for athletes) washed down with a can of Coke. Who turned on the nitrous? 56 miles to Baker.

From 4:30 until 8:00 we road the boring road to Baker; one small climb and drop; then 30 miles of bone flat road into town. This town is unlike most of the other towns on the route. It contains stores and actual people. 7 a.m. came while we were still 15 miles out. For the last 200 miles, I had been having a little trouble with food. Basically, everything I tried to eat made me queasy and I just didn't want to eat. This is kind of ironic, because usually I don't stop eating until my arms get tired. At seven, the vehicle no longer has to follow you. They told me that I'd looked like crap for a while and that they were going into Baker to get me some real food and that I was going to eat it. How could I resist that? They fueled me up, handed me my walkman (I could only get a country music station; please kill me), and headed down the road. After following me at pedestrian like speeds for 13 straight hours, they were way overdue for some highway speeds. I hit Baker at exactly 8:00 and they gave me a bacon and egg burrito the size of my forearm. I ate that burrito with my shoes off and with reckless abandon. Between a bathroom break, wholesale wardrobe change and eating, we were there for about 35 minutes. I hadn't planned to make any stops near that long, but Terry and Paul were right on the money and I needed some dense calories.

Here is where things got interesting. In all my research I had learned that the race starts at Townes Pass; however, earlier in the ride (like 20 hours ago) folks told me that the race really starts in Baker. They were right. When you leave Baker you are 380 miles into a 508 mile event; you have ridden countless centuries; lots of them tough. Not only is this attainable, it should be cake. I don't know where you're from, but where I'm from, they don't make cake like this. The first of the three "Desert Climbs" is Kelso Peak. It is 20 miles long; just a real gradual grind. I got real comfy and although I was going quite easy (remember the burrito), I passed a couple of guys that were starting to show some ware. A third of the way up the hill and what should appear, but my wife and kids. They had spent the night in Twentynine Palms and were planning on cheering me all the way in. Over the next hundred miles, they must have posted up 20 times or more.

Each mile up the Climb, the road conditions got worse. The people who decide on road surfaces can get quite creative in California. The road started by being a little grainy, then had little heat bumps, then maybe a section of hand patched lumpy goo. There is a huge portion of the road that seams to have had the tar laid down and then had gravel sprinkled over it and then was left to bake until done. Seriously it seems that the farther from civilization you got, the worse the road was; like the guys driving the road-fix-it trucks had to buy their own gas or something. The descent was iffy at best. It is not a place for 16 spoke wheels, that's for sure. I had a suspension seatpost with a gel-pad on an aluminum frame; not even close. What I noticed during the descent was that my feet were actually numb and hurt the most when the pressure was taken off; it was the same with the buttocks area. I was sort of o.k. while I was standing or sitting; but try to go from one to the other and it hurt a lot. But, that's exactly what I had to do. For the last 300 miles, I would sit and pedal at a high cadence for a minute or so and then stand and push a higher gear for 15 or 20 seconds. As the day dragged on, the time I would spend standing dwindled until I was only standing for three or four pedal strokes each time.

The next to last climb was a bit shorter and not as much altitude gain. Near the top of this climb was Time Station #6 and at the very top were the crew, the family, some shade, and another burrito. This stop was a little shorter and a bit more festive. 80 miles to go and we're starting to feel confident. The guys had done an excellent job of keeping me watered and fueled. I didn't want to eat much, but they kept finding things that I would eat. Like on top of Townes Pass (last night) Terry pulls out this pasta dish with basil and sun dried tomatoes. Is there anyway you can imagine how good that tasted? I didn't think so.

Next came a 20-mile very fast descent down to 500 feet. It was afternoon and it was hot outside. I was staying well hydrated, but was still overheating. Again the Loon Crew bailed me out. They soaked down a towel with ice water, wrapped it around my neck, poured water on my back, put me on the bike and kicked my butt down the road. Just as we were approaching the bottom of the last climb (and it was a good one), I came upon Osprey. The guys had told me she was up the road and looking like heck. I talked to her for a while. She was hot, dehydrated, and going about half speed; but she was pedaling. And that's how you get through these things. Over the last 5 hours of the race, I passed a handful of guys that were stopped or pedaling at near-stop speed; those burritos were paying off big time. As I crested the last climb and the last time station, I was feeling relatively great. My feet were nothing short of killing me, my butt was a sore subject, and my arms were feeling so weak that at times, I had to ride on the aero bars because they just wouldn't hold me up; but I had lots strength and energy.

There was a short descent and then it was onto the crappy road to the finish line. As we started the flat 20 mile section into Twentynine Palms, we relaxed and joked a bit; Paul and I took photos of each other while we were rolling along and almost crashed. No harm, no foul. But with 16 or 17 miles to go, we got down to brass tacks again and turned it up a notch. If I didn't finish before 6 p.m., then we'd have to put the lights back on; Paul was having none of that.

The guys left me with a couple of miles to go so they could park and cheer me on at the finish line. My wife took a different approach; she decided to fill up the truck with gas thinking I was further back than I was. She missed me finishing, but that's not what it's all about. When you race the 508 or crew for someone or even watch it for a day, you'll get a chance to see someone dig a little deeper than they thought they would or could.

Horse finished about an hour and a half later. He was still riding strong and in great spirits, but had been battling with a knee all day; we talked for a bit and then waddled off like old men. We had to head home so I could give my crew back to their families. My wife drove; the kids and I slept. When I got home, the first thing I did was check to see how Osprey did. She finished in 37 hours and 51 minutes.

Our time was 34 hours and 50 minutes; ten minutes ahead of schedule. For me it was worth the effort. I was not the best rider there; in fact, I was the eighth best rider. With a different support crew, I may not have finished at all; I definitely would've been out there a few extra hours. I had the best support crew at the race; Terry and Paul were the real deal.