2003 Furnace Creek 508 Ultramarathon Bicycle Race

By Ed Black Bear Kross, 2003 solo official finisher

The Furnace Creek 508 is, as the name implies, a 508-mile race. It is like and abbreviated version of the Race Across America (RAAM), which runs non-stop and requires a full support crew for each rider. But it is accessible to everyone since there are no qualification requirements and its relatively short distance means much simpler logistics. All you really need is one support vehicle and three crew members. Supplies for the entire race can be bought before the start. In fact, the lack of services on very long stretches of the course dictates this approach. And, it's all in only one time zone! After four RAAMs, it was time for three of our past RAAM Crewmembers and myself to do a sort of RAAM Light. Sally Fuller, Scott Critz and Fred Kresse jumped at the opportunity when I asked them.

Part of this course was included in the 1997 RAAM route, but in the opposite direction. Seeing the beauty of the desert at sunset at that time, I promised myself to return someday for the FC508. The California desert is, as Sally puts it, the ugliest and at the same time the most beautiful place one has ever seen. Joshua trees grow up around dead sagebrush—it is surprising that anything could grow in this extremely dry environment.

Course Description

From Santa Clarita, about 40 miles north of Los Angeles, we headed north through the Angeles National Forest to Mojave, then northeast to California City, Johannesburg, Trona and across the Panamint Valley, up and over the Panamint Range to Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley. From there we headed south to Badwater, the lowest point in North America, and exited at Shoshone. Still heading south, we went through Baker, Kelso and Amboy, finally turning east for a few miles to the finish in Twentynine Palms. Along the way, we climbed 35,000 feet. It is still hard to comprehend that this 500-mile loop is contained within one state, let alone such a small portion of the state.


It did not make sense to drive out to this race, because that would take three days of transport each way. If we were to fly out, we could get by with chewing up less vacation time, yet still be more rested for the actual race. I made a fun project out of building a travel case for the bike.

Since there is a practical limit as to how much stuff you can fly with, we would do this with a bare-bones minimum of support equipment. This would make it a very logistically simple race, and after all, how much can go wrong in 500 miles anyway? We would only have to rig the rented van with a set of auxiliary rear-facing flashers, plus signage. Sally put together an abbreviated medical kit. Styrofoam coolers and all the food would be bought out there, but we would not need to keep a food log during the race. The Crew would have a chance to really enjoy this one.


The record for this course is around 28 hours. Typically, I have ridden 500-mile races in the low-thirty-hour range, but given that this is a real climbers race, a realistic goal would be 30 to 35 hours. I really wanted to finish in the top three places, but I should be happy with a top ten.


You really can't go into an event like this without a pile excuses beforehand, so here are mine. Since I haven't taken racing very seriously in the past couple of years, I had decided to take this year off completely and did no USCF races at all. I did no lifting last winter either, which surely contributed to the back problems that flared up several times this past year. In fact, I threw my back out pretty badly two weeks prior to this race, and ended up with what felt like severely pulled quadriceps in my left leg. The only saving grace was that I was completely pain-free while riding, so I guess that doesn't count as an excuse. My season total going into this race was only about 3500 miles. Oh yeah, I'm not a climber either.


This race is run as a time trial with no drafting allowed. The clock stops for nothing. Rider progress is monitored through eight time stations along the way, at which each rider's crew must check in. Riders must obey all rules of the road, including waiting at traffic lights, stopping at stop signs, etc. Bicycles must be outfitted with the legal requirement for lighting and reflective materials at night. During the first day, riders can receive pedestrian hand-ups from their crews, but direct follow support is not allowed until nightfall. At night, riders can not proceed without having their support vehicles follow directly behind them. Direct support can continue into the second day, however, as the race thins out. Although solo racers comprise most of the competition, other divisions include two- and four-person relay teams, tandems, recumbents and HPVs (human powered vehicles.)

Instead of race numbers, riders and teams are given animal names, or "totems." Officials say that this actually makes things simpler when recording arrival times, because they don't confuse race numbers with the times. Some people really get into these identities, pasting their totems to their helmets, or larger-than-life versions bolted onto their support vehicles. I chose the totem Black Bear, for the occasional visitors we have at Clipped Wings Ski Club back in North Conway (but I'm sure TSA would never have allowed us a life-size version of our totem on the plane.)


I didn't really know any of the competition other than what I had read about from recent ultramarathon races. It was a real surprise to see Jerry Goode at the pre-race meeting. He would be crewing for one of the senior (60+ years) riders, Leprechaun. He says he loves living out in Arizona and gives his best to everyone back home. I also met up with Mike Wilson, RAAM Rookie of the Year in '97 and coincidently employed by the same company as myself in a division out in San Jose. Mike was crewing for a two-man team, one of whom is partially disabled.

Our start is at 7:00am just as the sky lights up. The first 8 miles are under the yellow flag, leading up to the first hill where the racing begins. Rick "Akita" Ashabranner shoots off the front, followed by Eric "Ostrich" Ostendorff. Rick had finished a strong 5th in this year's RAAM. I stay close to them on this winding, waving road through the Angeles National Forest as we put some distance on the rest of the 52 men, 3 women, 1 tandem and 1 recumbent racers. The relay teams did not start with us, they will have their own start in a few more hours. I had been concerned about not taking this race seriously, but I finally manage to put on a race face.

The roads are very deceptive. They always seem to be flat, but in reality they are either graded up or graded down. Only the speedometer hints what the grade is at any given place. The scenery makes the course quite pleasant. Odd mixes of grasses, palm trees and other deciduous trees gave it a unique look among several areas of burnt brush. The weather is perfect—dry, cool and calm.

Now that Akita has disappeared, Ostrich slips ahead of me as well. About two hours into it, Gorilla and then Blowfish ride by—what place am I now? 5th? Red Rooster, Cerion, Nematode. Man, I'm bleeding race positions! It's a long race, and I'm just going to do my own thing. Many of them are sure to blow up. Flamingo—now there's a guy who's 57 years old, yet he won the Race Across Oregon this year.

The California road conditions are now reminding me why I have used fully-suspended bikes in the past. After a couple miles of descending on bumpy chip-and-tar, my computer mount comes loose and dangles by the cord. The bolt must have come loose, and I grab it so as not to loose any hardware. There is still a long way down, but I see support vans parked by a "T" intersection below. Sure enough, my Crew is parked there, so I stop and ask for some tools. Now I realize that the bolt had not loosened up, but actually broke! After some fidgeting around, we manage to get the computer mounted on the aero bars, sideways, and I continue. Several riders have gone by, including Deerhound, one of the women riders, and Horse. I pass both of them after a bit, and then we start up a pretty good climb. Shrike, the recumbent rider with a full fairing goes slowly by. I ask him how hot it is in there, and he says not too bad. He's looking forward to the comfort through Death Valley tonight, though.

I eventually pull ahead and the descent to Trona is definitely worth the price of admission. Beautiful new pavement twists through the rock cliffs here on the west side of this valley, the east side some 10 miles across. We must be up 1500 feet and dropping fast. It is the kind of descent where a bicycle can outmaneuver a car, and I'm loving it! We have about two hours of sunlight left, so the dirty brown valley is coming alive with color in the setting sun.

Down in Trona, the second time station, Sally, Fred and Scott have planned things perfectly. They had pulled ahead to get food and gas (the last that will be available tonight) and await my arrival to check in with the officials. As I ride through, Sally hands up a hot dog for me. What an idea! However, it is a really spicy one, and I'm worried about finishing it. While I'm eating, Horse passes me and advises, "You'll never climb again!"

Townes Pass

After Trona, the roads get really desolate. It is six o'clock and time to turn on the lights. I had planned on riding the entire race with the lights mounted on the bike because the LED technology provides legal lighting without heavy batteries. I have to stop to put the leg reflective bands on, though. The Crew can now provide direct support, so we now feel like a complete unit.

In the middle of no where, we take a right turn that leads up to the infamous Townes Pass Climb. It is 10 miles long, and we will gain almost 3500 feet in elevation. The route book says the grade is mostly 6%, with sections as steep as 13%. OK, Mount Washington averages 12% for almost eight miles, so this should not be so bad, even without going into it fresh.

Deerhound passes me just as the road begins to rise. I give her encouragement, and she replies that she just wants to make it in an hour and a half. Hmmm… I had figured an hour, but perhaps she is being more realistic. Ahead, the amber flashers of five rider support vehicles are stacked up on the accent with no hint as to where they will finally pass through the mountain range above.

Let me guess that the temperature is about 75 now, so the Pass should be 20 or 25 degrees cooler. I'll be fine climbing in shorts and this short sleeve jersey. I'll have to put on leg warmers and a polypropylene shirt or jacket at the top for the descent. I expect the Valley below to get cold tonight, perhaps in the forties. Never mind that now, I'm just starting up the hill.

It is a very long, slow climb. I use my lowest gear, a 39 x 23, occasionally standing and stretching. Mars has already been shining in the sky to the right, and now the Big Dipper comes to light on the left. More climbing. The light has dimmed behind the high jagged horizon behind me. The Moon must be on the other side of this climb, as evidenced by the brightening sky ahead. I don't know who that rider is some quarter-mile up, but some very obnoxious music is spewing out of his support van. I would much rather climb in peace.

The road eventually flattens out, and a most welcome caution sign appears warning of the steep decent ahead. We pull off in a dirt parking area on the left near some other support vans. I'm completely drained. I sit down in the side entry to the van, eat and drink something, put on my leg warmers and clear glasses and ask Fred for my light NEBC jacket. It is not as cold as I expected up here. Then I start to shiver. This is nothing new to me—after a day of riding, my body has a tough time regulating its temperature.

Fred patiently gets my warmer jacket and I remount, totally beat. The hill will last several miles, and the shivering should subside after descending into warmer air. Brrrrr! As the speed picks up, I continue to shiver so violently that I'm wobbling the handlebars. I'm concerned at this speed—over 50 miles per hour—and fight to keep the front wheel on the pavement. Next, a contact lens flips and I have to shut the eye so as not to loose it. Some fun, and another fifteen miles of this! After that hard climb, this is my reward. Oh well, just deal with it.

The road twists and heaves like a roller coaster, and many times I outrun the van's headlights, riding into complete darkness. Eventually the shivering subsides, the road calms down and the speed drops as we bottom out in the village of Stovepipe Wells. I had already given up on the contact lens, but as I rode over a dry river bridge, the lens miraculously rights itself! Hah! It couldn't have done that fifteen miles ago?

Death Valley by Moonlight

The next 100 miles should be flat. It is surprisingly warm down here, perhaps 70 degrees, so I remove my jacket and hand it off to the Crew. I'll keep the leg warmers on, so as to keep any leg problems in check. I'm getting a bit sleepy, even though it is early yet. I'm sure the Crew will see me shaking my head to keep from dozing off, but I should be OK in a little while.

Oh yeah, I was looking forward to this stretch of road while planning for this event a long time ago. Like everyone else, I have wondered all my life if I would ever get to visit Death Valley. Well, here I am. The Moon is in front of me, just a day past full, and Mars is obvious over the salt beds to the right. A pattern repeats itself where we pass rock cliffs just off to our left as the road drops a bit, then bends around to the right and up again and I look off into the dark salt beds on the right. This happens countless times, and sometimes the cliffs are more dramatic. The weirdest thing is seeing elevation signs on the side of the road with negative numbers.

Progress always seems slow at night, even when the road is flat. At least we have a time station in the middle to break things up. We stop for a bit because they have a bathroom, and Scott gets a race update from the official. We are about the sixteenth to come through, but it is not clear how many were team riders. Having started two hours after the solo riders, they were gradually passing us. Horse is nearby, though, because I see the mascot he has on top of his support van—a kid's rocking horse—is all lit up from inside!

OK, the fun is over. We're climbing again, albeit gradually. The road is very rough and beginning to annoy me. The only traffic going by is associated with the race. Scott says it looks as though many riders are bagging it. I notice Cpt-N-Kangaroo's support van drive by with the tandem on the rack.

As we start up toward Jubilee Pass, race director Chris Kostman pulls alongside in his van, snapping pictures and giving me encouragement. I ask him if he can do anything about the road surface. "Once you get to the top, the road doesn't suck anymore." I hope he's right because this would make for an unpleasant descent.

There is still another ten miles to the top at Salisberry Pass. This is not as bad as Towne Pass, but it is very slow going. Off the shoulder is Flamingo's support van, dark and quiet. The bike is leaned up against it—Reed is having a bad race. Scott had heard something about Akita and some others dropping out also, so the race is taking its toll.

Daylight Again

I keep watching for some hint of daylight on the horizon, but it is a long time before it finally appears. The next time station is Baker, where we can expect to find civilization again. The desert brightens so I turn off my lights and remove my leg bands. In fact, I'll unclip the front light and pass it off to the Crew, because I shouldn't need it anymore. Ahead there is a long rise probably five miles out. Once into it, it is actually not that bad, but the heat is already rising. This will be a very hot day, I'm sure.

About ten miles from Baker, the Crew gives me a water bottle and some food, and says they will meet me up there. Off they go, but seemingly not much faster than when they were following me. Even with no wind I'm just crawling along the flats at nothing better than 15 miles per hour. This is a very lonely road, perhaps one car every five minutes or so. I should get to Baker in half an hour.

Scott meets me at the convenience store with a Mountain Dew and apple pie as I had requested. After a minute or so of sitting down on the dusty concrete there, I ride ahead, as Fred and Sally are off getting more stuff. "Watch out for the cattle guard!" Scott calls out.

Once over Interstate 15 and the cattle guard, I see several riders and crews up ahead. The road splits off in the distance. Will we go straight and flat, or right and up? Looks like everybody is going right. It is downright hot already, so I'm not moving with much enthusiasm.

Surprisingly, I eventually catch a couple of the riders. One is part of the two-man team Tucan. He compliments me as I pull alongside, then tells me that he practiced this section a few weeks ago and counted five false summits. The real summit is under the power lines, after a dip in the road and short rise again, over a cattle guard. Thanks, I appreciate that. Sure enough, there are power lines strung along the horizon ahead, but it isn't clear where the road goes under them. It could be straight ahead, or the road could veer off to the left, making the summit further away.

Eventually, I get to the top to find it just as he explained. The downhill is quite rough as we drop the long, hot eleven miles into Kelso. The road rising on the other side of Kelso looks very intimidating. At the bottom , I'm so hot and beat up that I have to stop. I motion for the van to pull into the dirt lot on the left and tell everybody that I have to cool down. Sally gets an ice rag, I drink a couple of V-8's and eat some chilled fruit cocktail. Within a few minutes, I'm ready to start climbing out of this hole. Actually, this is where we pick up part of the 1997 RAAM course. I don't recognize it because back then we were going the other way in the dark.

Who Said Downhills are Always Fun?

Yup, it's still hot. We pass a sign indicating some three miles to the Kelso Dunes off to the right. Big piles of beige sand. I just keep climbing, slowly. That's what happens when it gets this hot. This will go up for a dozen miles or so, and past the famed "Time Station in the Middle of Nowhere."

As we pass the time station, I am coming up on the two-person relay team Chinook. I close in on them until the riders switch off, then I loose ground. Eventually I catch one of them, and it turns out to be a woman, and her teammate is a guy. As I pass the woman, I tell her that I hope he will be a gentleman and give her the downhill. A couple of relays later, we near the summit. I remember from looking at the profile that there will be a short drop and rise again before the twenty-mile downhill. The woman tags up and rides toward the rolling terrain. I figure I should catch her on this section, but she shoots off like a bullet! Man, I thought I could descent pretty well, but I don't catch her until the road starts to rise again for the last time.

The twenty-mile descent starts off gradually. It doesn't ever get steep, so I'm maintaining about 35 miles per hour. The entire descent is laid out before me, with the distant valley floor way down there. The surface is cracked and pot-holed chip-and-tar and quite dangerous in places. I have to constantly watch for my best line, or more appropriately, the least worse. I'm in my aerobars, but trying keep them unweighted. Suppose they break? What about the seat rails? They are titanium, and quite a few years old. Will they break?

The descent continues, and so do the bumps. It is the hottest time of the day—two o'clock or so, which is of course siesta time. I can't believe that with all this bumping and swerving, I'm actually dozing off a bit. Ahead are several support vans, but I'm not making any ground on them. This descent is pure agony.

Half way down we approach Interstate 40, with a cattle guard just before the interchange. I slow way down for it, and suffer the pain as the bike goes over these two-inch bars on six-inch centers. Now I clearly remember this road from 1997. Rob Kish passed me about here, with the TV crew following him, and some other rider nearby. I remember climbing, but I didn't remember it being this long.

Under I-40 and back up to speed in my aerobars—hey! Another cattle guard. Actually, these are not too bad when taken at speed. That's how I'll take the next one in Amboy at the bottom.

The agony ends as we finally bottom out and turn onto the Old Route 66. Vivid memories from the 1997 RAAM are now in my head, although the left turn at Amboy is farther away than I expect. We turn off of Route 66 and on to the road that hosts the last climb of the race. The sun is burning my legs, so I pull off for more sunscreen. As usual, Fred, Sally and Scott attend to all my needs. One or two Mountain Dews go down very easily, but solid food is more difficult in the heat. I should change my shorts, but we only have about 50 miles to go.

Yes, the road is just as I remember it. We came through here at dusk in 1997, and the salty dirt graded off to the side had looked like snow cleared from the road by a plow. The salt bed is actually salty mud, cracked and heaved into slabs several feet across. This section is dead flat, and there is a slight head or cross wind of hot air that is not very effective for cooling. I can see the hill ahead now, but it is hard to say where exactly it starts because the transition is so gradual. I'm sweating like crazy, and I've got to replace this biology experiment with a fresh pair of shorts.

OK, final climb, ten miles to Sheep Hole Summit. It doesn't really seem like a climb, rather just very slow progress. There is virtually no wind for ventilation here, so I just have to avoid overdoing it now. The gears go lower, one at a time, until I run out. They have done nothing to this road since I was on it last. The problem is that with no vegetation, small stones are free to make their way onto the sticky hot pavement. Traffic works these stones half way into the asphalt, leaving them stuck. After years of this, the pavement becomes populated with them. You just can't avoid them—they are everywhere. Nasty going.

The end of the climb is now within reach. The official's tent is on the left marking the last time station near the top. This is where riders must sit out time penalties they may have been assessed for any rules infractions. And there it is: a broken RV toilet sitting on the shoulder, marked "Penalty Box."

Final Push

Yee-Haw! This is the final downhill, and only thirty miles to the finish. Although the road is still rough, I try to enjoy it. Near the bottom, I pass Osprey, one of the women riders, then team D'Back and almost immediately Deerhound as I make the turn onto the flat road leading to Twentynine Palms. These are the lead women, and being so close guarantees that their finish will have to be determined by a sprint. Wow! I've never seen a sprint in an ultramarathon event, but rules are always set up beforehand to handle such a situation.

So how will this play out? Perhaps one will surge early in an attempt to drop the other so as to avoid a sprint. More likely, they will both ease up and play cat-and-mouse all the way to the start of the designated sprint area. I don't think there are any solo men riders nearby, but I don't really want to finish behind the women if I can help it. Besides, I like to watch a sprint as much as anyone, so if I push now and get my work done early, I can finish in time to watch it. I'm feeling strong and can probably keep this pace for the next twenty or so miles.

Over my shoulder, I see Deerhound coming up on me to pass. She must be trying to drop Osprey early to avoid the sprint. I pull to the side and let her by so I don't interfere with them. Now that her support van has passed, she seems to have let up, so I just ease back to stay out of any draft. It is about five-thirty, and I'll have to put on my lights sometime before the finish. I might as well do it now. Fred hands me the front light and leg bands. I can't seem to clip in the light while riding, so I put it and the leg bands in my jersey pocket.

The sun is almost setting onto the pavement straight ahead. In about fifteen minutes it will be six o'clock and I won't be allowed to go anywhere without the Crew directly behind me. I motion for them and ask that they drop back and assess the situation: Are there any other solo men riders that I may have to sprint against? How is Osprey doing? Perhaps Deerhound could use this information as well. They pull off, and I pull alongside Deerhound's van and motion for the guy to roll down his window. Do you have communication back there? We can relay information about Osprey for you if you want. He declines, apparently confident with their situation.

I stop to put on the light and legbands, then catch up to Deerhound again. They pull off into a parking lot, presumably to put her lights on. Up ahead, there are no racers or support vehicles. I hope the course stays on this road for a while, because if it doesn't, I could be in a real bind without my Crew. Keeping up the pace, I occasionally look back to see if any support vehicles are coming. The road is rolling, and for the longest time I don't see any vehicles at all. The sun drops below the horizon, and it's ten minutes to six. Hmmm… Just keep riding. Finally, I see some headlights come over the rise behind me, probably Deerhound or D'Back. A couple minutes later, a very long line of traffic starts passing me, perhaps twenty cars or so. One last car stays behind without passing—yup, it's my Crew. Whew! Four minutes to spare.

With no other racers immediately in sight behind us, I can relax a bit. Still, I want some time margin to be able to go back and watch the sprint. "Left turn on Utah Trail," I'm told. Taking the turn with a good lean, I see a lot of gravel and have to straighten up. I hope nobody goes down there! A mile later, we turn right onto the main drag through town. This is a busy multi-lane highway with several traffic lights. How can anybody sprint here? Ahead is a sharp rise in the road, probably a quarter-mile long. Aha! Is that the designated sprint zone? It would be just like them to force a sprint on a hill for this race.

No, I'm told the sprint line is in front of the Best Western motel a mile up on the left. I see amber flashers parked on the right, so that must be it. The flashers belong to Chinook's van, but other people are there as well, so that must be the line. I turn left and then right into the Best Western motel driveway, ride through the ribbon among several cheers. Without slowing, I swing around and back out the parking lot to Chinook's van. Nobody's there yet. A minute or so later, Deerhound rides through alone, and both Chinook riders accompany her to the finish line. I was disappointed in not seeing a sprint.

Final Results

We finished in 10th place with a time of 35 hours and 32 minutes. Blowfish won this event more than six hours earlier in 29 hours and 19 minutes, and two hours ahead of second finisher Landshark. Centaur placed in front of us at 25 minutes, and Horse followed us by an hour. Of 52 solo men, twelve of which were over 50 years of age, 20 did not finish.

In looking over the time station results, Osprey led the women most of the way, steadily building an hour and a quarter lead by mile 429. I don't know why, but her speed dropped drastically after that, allowing Deerhound to close to within four minutes at the last time station. Osprey limped in to the finish more than two hours after Deerhound.

Many thanks again to Sally, Fred and Scott, who managed a logistically flawless race. This was a terrific time for all of us.