Still Learning

By Lisa Deerhound Dougherty, 2003 women's solo champ

Furnace Creek 2003 has come and gone and, although I was a veteran due to my finish in 2001 with a time of 39 hours and 27 minutes, I still was not completely prepared for the race. In July 2002, two weeks after my husband Gene and I welcomed our second beautiful baby into this world, I decided to give Furnace Creek another try. As summer 2002 waned, I diligently cycled on my fluid trainer nearly every day while both our babies napped. Sometimes I got in an hour, but often they woke and cried until I abandoned my workouts early. Nevertheless, I remained focused and hopeful that 2003 would be my year to scorch the 508 course. I competed in quite a few local, ACA races including Tour de Los Alamos, Tour of Suburban Cloudcroft, Mount Evans Hill Climb and the New Mexico State Road Race, Criterium and Individual Time Trial Championships. All went well. I won some races, placed in most and emerged the state time trial champion. I even competed at the Masters National Time Trial Championship and won the bronze medal in the 30-34 age group. As September approached, it was time to start long miles to get ready for Furnace Creek. Gene joined me on a spectacular, 200 mile ride through the Jemez Mountains in north-central New Mexico. What a great way to spend time together!

At last it was time for Furnace Creek. I felt as ready as I could be. My coach Paul Forsythe planned a great taper the final week so it wasn't a big deal to be in the car for so long before the race. We dropped Allegra and Sean, our little ones, off at my parent's place in Phoenix and picked up my brother Chris who would serve as my second crewman. Gene was my crew chief. He is a fantastic bicycle racer himself and can repair practically anything on a bicycle. He once did a ride from Chicago to Los Angeles, so he knows quite a bit about ultramarathon cycling too! Chris is from one of the hottest, driest cities on earth and he loves playing basketball and waterskiing in the heat. You couldn't ask for a crewman more experienced in the weather conditions we would be facing in Death Valley. We picked up our minivan rental from the Phoenix airport and drove to Santa Clarita early Friday morning. It was hard to believe we would be racing the very next day! I had been anxiously awaiting this weekend for over a year!

Saturday morning came a little too soon. My excitement prevented me from getting to sleep before midnight. I kept going over everything again and again Friday night. I was so anxious in the morning, I could hardly eat breakfast. Our planning had gone well, though, so we were as ready as we needed to be. Most teams had more than 2 on their support crew, but I remained confident. Gene and Chris had supported me in 2001, so they knew exactly what to expect. As the race unfolded, they functioned perfectly. Their attitudes never dipped and they kept me and the bicycle going without fail. Their encouragement was awesome! I started the race strong and determined to ride fast but conservatively. I stayed with the front group for the first five miles until drafting was no longer allowed. Being a USCF racer, I love taking advantage of draft. Five miles may not sound like much, but it allowed me to move fast without too much effort. When the neutral roll-out was over, I kept a strong pace but tried to watch my heartrate. One racer after another passed me. They were flying! I slowly became more and more nervous, thinking that I was moving too slowly, but I didn't want to burn up too early so I maintained my pace.

Chickadee and I exchanged places several times before the first time station. I pulled ahead of her but was stopped for several minutes by a train. Shortly afterward, Osprey passed me and never looked back. I expected to see her again later that day, but as darkness fell, my deficit to her grew. At the first time station at 82 miles, the time separation between Chickadee, Osprey and me was only three minutes. I rode strongly until the Trona Bump, when temperatures climbed into the low 90's. Since we live at 7300' in Los Alamos, New Mexico, temperatures are always mild, so I wasn't at all acclimated to the heat. I slowed terribly on this little climb but rejuvenated somewhat on the spectacular descent into Panamint Valley. What a descent! I think it is my favorite part of the entire course! The road was rough through the valley but the scenery was so beautiful I didn't care! At last, I looked to my right and saw blinking yellow lights snaking upward toward the sky. We were on the threshold of Townes Pass! We turned right and headed toward the wall that loomed before us in the fading light. After climbing a thousand feet, I looked over my shoulder and down into Panamint Valley. As far as you could see, flashing yellow lights stretched behind us. At least we could tell we were toward the front of the pack!

The descent from Townes Pass is awesome! We borrowed a 45 Watt headlight system so that I could descend as quickly as possible. This was a very good idea, because it enabled me to hit 55 mph on the 17 mile descent into Stovepipe Wells. The chilly temperatures at the top of Townes Pass were only a memory as 80 degree temperatures greeted us in the valley. I immediately stripped off my heavy jacket, feeling like I was suffocating in the heat. Two years ago, I faded badly during the night and never rebounded. This time, I intended on refreshing myself during the night and riding strongly the second day. Well ... I accomplished my first goal but, unfortunately, not my second. We had been diligent in replenishing lost electrolytes the first day, but I was still depleted by nightfall. Also, I had dropped behind a bit on water and calorie intake, so I took a few extra electrolyte pills and put down some solid food. We switched to Sustained Energy overnight. Even the mild orange cream flavor of Perpetuem was getting old. We passed through Time Station 3 at Furnace Creek where the volunteers appeared to be having almost too much fun! We checked on Osprey and found that she was 30 minutes ahead of me. I hoped she would fade overnight as I set off for the best part of the race.

It is enchanting riding through Death Valley at night! I love night riding! There were pockets of hot air in the valley and we could almost always see the flashing orange lights on our competitors' vehicles, both in front and behind us. The temperature was pleasant and winds were calm. I rode in shorts and a short sleeve jersey the entire night. Mountains towered on all sides, we could make out their shape in the light of the full moon. I ate and drank consistently, hydrating myself in preparation for another hot day in the saddle. Time passed quickly, but it was impossible to keep track of it without a properly lighted cyclocomputer. I was never passed during the night, so my pace couldn't have been too slow!

The road to Jubilee Pass was rough, but I was so relieved to see the flashing lights heading up the exit pass that I didn't mind. Death Valley had seemed eternal and I was beginning to loose hope of reaching Baker before daylight. My body decided it was time to sleep just as I started up Jubilee. I struggled up the climb, refusing to give in to extreme sleepiness. There was a little dip, so I figured we were done with Jubilee and starting Salsberry. Wishful thinking! After climbing for an eternity, I saw a green sign emerging from the darkness. Was it the top of Salsberry? No!! It said Jubilee Pass! I'm sure Gene and Chris saw my shoulders slump in disappointment. What can you do? I kept chugging up the climb until I crested Salsberry. The descent into Salsberry was nice but chilly. I donned a windbreaker and rode to Time Station 4 in Shoshone, manned by Dennis Brown, to whom this year's Furnace Creek is dedicated. We checked on Osprey again to find that she was now almost an hour ahead of me. My struggles with sleepiness had cost me a significant amount of time!

It was still dark as I set off for the worst part of my race, both in 2001 and this year, the stretch between Shoshone and Baker. I don't know what it is. I guess the stretch is dull and mostly uphill, which slowed me down enough to break my spirit. Ibex Pass was tough, but it shouldn't have been! I floundered on it and continued to suffer after the descent. Twilight and then sunrise broke as I puttered on the Baker stretch. I was disappointed to reach Baker in daylight, but I tried not to think too much about it. The hardest part of the race still lay ahead, the 20-mile and 15-mile climbs through the Granite Mountains. They aren't steep, but they go on forever and the heat will be cooking up the course. My crew stopped at Baker to check on Osprey and get some breakfast. I expected them to catch me toward the top of the 20-mile climb, but they joined me within 7 miles. Osprey was now over an hour ahead of me. Losing it on the Baker stretch had lost me the race, I believed. Gene cheered me on, telling me anything could happen and the race wasn't over yet. However, I was convinced otherwise and decided to keep a good pace and try to finish in second place. I knew Chicadee was strong, so I couldn't slow down. I had ultramarathon cycling experience and familiarity with the course on my side, though.

Two miles from the summit of the 20-mile climb, I started to melt down. It was only 82 degrees, but the sun was so hot! I actually started to cry, which told me that I was in danger of heat exhaustion, dehydration or bonking. We stopped and Chris suggested rubbing down my arms and legs with ice cold water. He was afraid the freezing water would cause my muscles to cramp, but we had to do something. As it turns out, the idea was great! It lowered my core body temperature enough to get me up those last two miles. I was looking forward to a long descent until I approached the top. The road quickly degraded until I was unable to avoid the holes and rough pavement. The bumps were painful, but the descent was even worse. I couldn't get any speed going and the rough pavement battered my hands and seat. I was actually relieved to start the 15-mile climb! The pavement improved slightly, but the heat was getting to me even more. We stopped every three miles to rub down my arms and legs. I tried to keep the stops short but I knew my time off the bike was racking up. I wondered how Osprey was handling the heat. She had flown through Death Valley at night, so she got to do these climbs in cooler temperatures. I figured she was leaving me in the dust. Another rookie, like Bumble Bee Berge two years earlier, who was showing me the RIGHT way to do the race. We passed Time Station 6 and learned that Osprey was now an hour and 17 minutes ahead of me. I was still losing time to her!

At last we crested the summit and started the descent. It was much nicer than the last. As we descended, the temperatures rose until, on a long, straight stretch of road, it felt like we had literally descended into hell. When I stopped for a bathroom break, I said to Gene and Chris, "Don't tell me that it isn't in the 90's!" Actually, it was in the high-90's, soon to get even worse. Remembering the way the low 90's had affected me the day before and how the low 80's had crushed me just a few hours ago, I was terrified of climbing Sheep Hole in the high 90's. Chris and Gene told me not to worry. As we rode through Amboy and across the salt beds, I was amazed by the oppressive heat. Chris leaned out the window and said, "This is how 100 degrees feels!" Oh God! I was going to be climbing Sheep Hole in 100 degrees! There was one thing, however, that I was looking forward to ... climbing Sheep Hole Pass in daylight. It was dark when we approached Sheep Hole two years ago. This time, we still had several hours of daylight. I expected the pass to snake over a spectacular mountain. From several miles away, I could see that it was just another gradual desert climb. It was a bit disappointing, but I was happy that it wasn't too steep.

I slowly climbed Sheep Hole, once again stopping every few miles for a rub down. Gene and Chris were careful to keep cold bottles on my bicycle at all times. It was really my crew that got me up that final climb more than myself. I could not have done it without their help and encouragement. As we approached Time Station 7, the heat of the day was passing and I was feeling better. The volunteers cheered us on and gave us a little hula-hula show! I couldn't help but laugh and told them they were great. They really were! One of the best things about this race is the wonderful volunteers manning the time stations. We passed the time station and I happily anticipated the wonderful descent off Sheep Hole Summit. One of Osprey's support vehicles was parked at the top. "That's strange," I thought, but I just figured they had come back to cheer on the slower racers. We were only 29 miles from the finish now, so Osprey was most likely finished and welcoming the finishers.

We rocketed down the pass at 45 mph. I quickly caught up to a support vehicle and decided to pass as long as it was safe. As we pulled up behind them, I could read the racer's name across the back. It was Osprey's follow van! I passed them and saw Osprey slowly making her way down the descent, in obvious discomfort. She must have blown! I turned around and shrugged to my crew. Inside my follow van, Gene and Chris were so excited they were shaking. We were racing again! And this was my kind of race ... a 22-mile, relatively flat time trial. In 2001, we limped along the last stretch, taking almost 3 hours to finish it. The gradual climb into Twentynine Palms was excruciating. This year, it seemed to be all downhill to me. I couldn't get into my aerobars because of a swollen Achilles' tendon, but I got as low as I could and pushed it with all that I had left. Fifty miles ago, the race was all but over. Now, I could win it! I imagined Osprey was right on my wheel the whole way as I cut an hour off the time it took me to complete the final 29 miles in 2001. Even the little hill in Twentynine Palms didn't phase me. I felt better than I had all day. Perhaps the cool night air had rejuvenated me.

We turned into the Best Western parking lot. As we broke the toilet paper finishing tape, Chris Kostman said, "Well, you did it ... Lisa?" He had been expecting Osprey and was completely surprised to see that I had passed her in the final 30 miles and finished first among the women. My time of 35 hours and 36 minutes was almost four hours faster than my first race. It was a sweet win, one that I did not expect ever since the first night. Both Osprey and Chickadee are great racers and put in fantastic rookie times. Heck, their times were great whether rookie or veteran! I'm sure we will all be back again to challenge the course through Death Valley and to improve our times. I am determined to stay strong on the run into Baker. For me, that is the hardest part of the race. I learned a lot this year, but I still have a lot to learn. Thank you Chris Kostman and all of the volunteers for making this challenge possible. Thank you Gene and Chris for supporting me in this brutal race twice. I could not ask for a better support crew. You guys are great!