Leapfrog and The Furnace Creek 508 509

By Colin Leapfrog Lynch

I can't exactly remember the first time I heard the words "Furnace Creek 508" but I do know who said them. So while the time frame to put this into context is lost, there is a clear target to blame for all that follows. The four-letter word...Curt.

Curt Simon is a nice guy most of the time but he does have a way of getting under your skin. He throws out ideas in such a way that make you think they are your own after awhile. Like you actually want to do this or that double century, this or that Brevet or even PBP. For a while I was even thinking the 508 was my idea and even a good idea at that. I now understand the clever and subtle ways I was manipulated.

Once signed up and committed, I thought about my strategy. Would I actually race to win or would I just try to survive and finish? I tried finishing within 36 hours on for size. Yeah, that would be my goal. Then I started to research the elapsed times of past finishers on the 508 website. I even knew some of the racers that finished in 36 hours. I knew I was not one of "them." My butt knew how it felt after sitting on a bike for 15 hours or more and the thought did not make me smile. I computed my times from my limited double century resume and factored in the additional miles, climbing and fatigue. In the end, I figured I would be lucky to finish within the allowable 48 hours at all. I tempered any thoughts of blazing the course with a huge dose of realism.

I was hot and cold for months. One day I thought it would be great fun and the next I dreaded the thought. Several times I successfully digested the thought of the 508, decided that this was not the ride for me and was ready to spit it out for good. After all, I had only been serious about riding a road bike for a couple years. I rode my first double century in 2002 and now I was going for the Furnace Creek 508 in 2003? I don't think so. Then Curt would work his magic (disguised as friendly support) and somehow I was going again. He even volunteered to crew for me. At first I thought this was an act of sheer selfless support for me but I soon realized the truth. He was prodding me with his pitchfork to make sure I suffered though the course. "There will be no quitting for you, keep pedaling!" Even the name Death Valley began to take on a new meaning.

Despite any inner doubts, I kept on training. This meant more commuting on my bike and long weekend rides with my Marin Cyclist Club buddies. Sounded more like fun than training to me. I even signed up for coaching with Carmichael Training Systems. My CTS coach Jane Beezer became my mentor. I had to learn a new language. Aerobic threshold, lactate threshold, climbing repeats, fast pedals, tempo rides, etc. I started to notice improvements so I kept at it.

Then the Marin Cyclist Bike Club actually announced they were going to help sponsor me for the effort. This became just one more layer of friends I would disappoint if I decided against it. They gave me a jersey to wear and some money to help defray some of the cost of such a race. They also "loaned" me some of the required equipment so I would not have to buy it for one race and then put it into storage such as the flashing lights for the top of the crew vehicle. It was all welcome and it all helped.

The Crew

My crew was in place long before I even signed up for the race. The rules require each racer to have a crew vehicle with at least two people in it. My crew was Carol Trevey, Curt Simon and Franck Battelli, all members of the Marin Cyclist Bike Club. Carol would be the crew chief since she not only competed in and finished the 508 in 2000, but she has also crewed for three other racers and/or teams since including crewing for Curt and Rebecca in 2002. Carol is the quintessential organizer and devoted support person. There is simply no better choice for a crewmember. She was the one on my crew that I relied upon most to stay organized and focused on my intake of calories, water and electrolytes. Sounds simple but difficult to do when you get tired. At our first crew meeting, Carol showed up at my house with a list of crew priorities. The 1st one on the list was "we are here for Colin, that is all that counts." I knew both Curt and Franck better than I knew Carol but I was beginning to like Carol more.

I have already said enough of my thoughts about Curt but I should add, he also competed in the Furnace Creek 508 race in 2002 with his wife Rebecca on their tandem. They were 30 miles from the finish when the battery in their van died. The rules say, "when riding at night, if the van stops, the racer stops." Their van stopped and it was all over. An extra car battery was the first thing on our equipment list. In fact, Curt single-handedly purchased and gathered together 95% of all the necessary equipment for the adventure. I just had to show up. In addition, Curt was the team bicycle mechanic and an excellent one at that. This was a plus and a minus though. I had secret thoughts about breaking something thereby forcing me to quit but I knew he would just fix whatever it was and tell me to keep pedaling.

My last crewmember would be Franck Battelli. Franck is an ironman triathelete, avid cyclist, and professional photographer. He has a great personality and sense of humor. I thought this would be essential for this adventure. He is a very disciplined athlete who seems able to maintain a certain enviable balance in his life. His wife Nancy might disagree. Franck, Curt and I worked together to produce the Marin Century in 2003 and were currently laying the foundation for the maiden voyage of the Mt. Tam Double Century in 2004. The four of us formed a team that was diverse in personality, temperament, and experience. We were all friends and they were the best crew of any racer in the entire event.

Though not in the van, my wife Kelly and four-year old son Connor were on my home team. They were in my heart and my inner source of strength and support. Kelly was beginning to know the term "bike widow." I rode half as much as I wanted to but she thought I rode twice as much as I should have. Deep down she understood (sometimes) when I spent many days training instead of with the family. The things we give up in pursuit of our dreams. Kelly gave me my "totem" for the race. Every racer picks a totem instead of getting a number. I became "Leapfrog." It was a great totem. I only hoped I would be able to "leap" when I needed to. Curt's wife and my friend Rebecca created the graphic for my logo which was placed on all four sides of the van.

The Final Week

Time started to run short. It was always months away and then weeks. Now, as if without warning, it was suddenly a matter of days. Then I got the call, a last minute scare. Carol's father had some serious health issues and was not doing well. She might have to stay behind. Carol was pivotal in my strategy but what meaning does "bike strategy" have when you are talking about your father? She would not be able to drive south with us on Thursday but would try to fly down Friday if he stabilized. It was touch and go. I was happy and relieved to learn that her dad was hanging on. I thought the last commitment she needed when dealing with serious family issues was crewing for a bike race but she assured me this would be good for her.

I did have an alternate crewmember in Lee Kane. Lee is one of these phenomenally strong cyclists and a total bike addict. We have logged many enjoyable hours together on cycling adventures and he would have been an excellent as part of the crew. He made arrangements to go with us should Carol's Dad keep her home but at the end of the day it was not necessary.

Despite all the hills and miles before me, I figured sleep deprivation was going to be my number one nemesis in this race. To give myself a fighting chance, I started to bank as much extra sleep the entire week before the race that I could. The jitters I had for the month leading up to the race mysteriously faded. I wondered about this. I do not usually get jitters about things. I think at some inner level I truly doubted I could ride for 500 miles, up 35,000 feet of hills and not sleep for two days. I like my sleep. The lack of jitters might have been a signal that there was no longer enough time before the race to train any more. I had my chance and it was over. More riding at this point would just leave me more fatigued at the starting line. Too late now!

Even though the race did not begin until Saturday morning, Curt, Franck and I made the six-hour drive down to Southern California on Thursday to avoid any last minute rush. Plenty of time to drive, eat, sleep, finish the food shopping and set up the van for "Leapfrog." All of this was done by my crew except for the eating and sleeping that I took care of. Carol did fly down Friday morning and helped orchestrate everything. I spent the day changing tires, cleaning and lubing my bike. Then I took a nap. What a luxury.

The Pre-Race

Friday night at 7 PM was the "Pre-Race Meeting" that all racers must attend. This is a race and some people actually show up with the thought of winning. Strange thought. I was racing against my inner demons that said I could not do it. I did size up the competition though and they all looked way studlier than I did. They actually had calves instead of the skinny little things my quaking knees were perched on. Good thing I was here to race myself and have fun because I was going to get crushed!

Before my final nights sleep, I called home to check in with Kelly and Connor. Kelly told me she had some very sad news. Her grandfather had passed away. I put aside my current situation and started to make the mental transition into family emergency. First things first and in the scheme of things, this was still just a silly bike race. I would have to bail. I have always felt that family is more important than all the other events in life. These thoughts were whirling in my head when Kelly said the service would be Tuesday. The race was over Monday morning at 7 AM. She said go ahead and race, nothing I could do at this point.

We were awake at 5 AM Saturday. I woke with a sore throat and coughed up phlegm for several minutes. This was not good. I did not have time to be sick now. I put it out of my mind. My demons would have to do better than this to stop me. I did keep it filed away in the back of my mind for easy retrieval as one of many possible excuses for why I was quitting should it become necessary.

The Race—1st Day

I was on my bike anxiously waiting for the 7 AM start. I wore my Marin Cyclist Jersey for the start. Franck would take pictures. Maybe they would be of some use on the club website. The racers were all gathering and Chis Kostman, the race director, announced someone was going to sing the star spangled banner. A small woman standing next to the start line looked as nervous as I was but she opened her mouth and hit every note beautifully. It gave me goose bumps and I wiped the tears from my eyes. I cry at the strangest moments. I cry when I watch the movie "Rudy" even though I have seen it 10 times. What a wimp. Wimps don't race the 508!

The countdown had begun. 10, 9...this is insanity...5, 4...I better start enjoying it while I can...2, 1 and off we go in a rush. I was in the very front of the pack. This was the only time this would be the case, that's for sure. As if anything that happens in the first 30 seconds is going to make a difference at the finish line. Already racers were pushing and jockeying for position. My goal was to pace myself and I am disciplined enough to hold back but I was already feeling I was in for a major ass whooping. The age of the peloton ranged from 16 to 80! Men and women and in some cases boys and girls were already leaving me in the dust. I was still in sight of the starting line! Are they going to burn up or is it my worst fears coming true? I really do not belong here. These are real bicyclists. These are racers and I am out of my league.

We rode up San Fransiquito Canyon. Lots of racers continued to pass me and I passed no one. Finally, a racer was dropping back. I passed him. He was Trilobite from Calgary, Canada. Boy that felt good. He looked over his shoulder as I passed him and asked me if I was last? What? I was in shock. I looked back down the long stretch of canyon visible behind me but there was not a soul in sight. This could not be. Surely everyone, except one, had not passed me. I said something that sounded much more confident than I felt like "yeah, but we'll see them all later at mile 200." Anyway, at least I was not in LAST place!

A minute later, Trilobite got a second wind and motored past me saying something about refusing to be last. Dam. All my will started to dissolve and it was mile 15. Were they going to arrive at the finish in 30 hours and I was still okay or were they going to get there in 48 hours and I was on a 60 hour pace? It was now evident the 508 miles and the 35,000 feet of hills were not the obstacle between the finish and me. The obstacle was myself and right now my alter ego was rolling on the ground laughing at me.

The unsupported climb out of San Fransiquito Canyon finally ended and I met up with my crew for the 1st time. There were still other cars there on the shoulder of the road besides Leapfrog! Maybe I was not last after all? What a relief.

I was two hours into the race and time for my first stop. My strategy was to stay on the bike at all times except for 5-10 minutes every two hours when I would stretch. After five minutes of stretching, I was back on the bike and rolling. My crew would hand off water bottles filled with delectables such as Sustained Energy (SE—a concoction that has never really agreed with my stomach and digestive process), Ensure and ice water. My crew was room service without the room. Sandwiches, Fig Newton's, Clifbars, gel, you name it, all my favorites. Yum.

During one of my slide shows of my '95 Everest Expedition someone asked me what I thought about for two months while climbing the mountain. The question took me by surprise but the answer was simple. "I thought about putting one foot in front of the other. I thought about what the weather looked like and if it looked like it would change. I thought about how warm (or cold) my feet were, about whether I had enough sunscreen on or not." Hour after hour, thinking very simple basic thoughts. This was much the same. I had thought about bringing a CD player and headphones to keep myself occupied or distracted but I was too busy thinking about where my wheel was going, how my feet felt, when was my two hours up and whether I needed more bag balm!

There are seven time stations and ten climbs in the race. I had passed one of each by California City at mile 82. I likened the checkpoints to camps going up a big mountain. I was headed to Time Station 2. I was 32nd of 40 in my race class (solo men under 50) at Time Station 1. I had hoped to do better and I was doing about the best I could. My wife Kelly says I have 1 speed—slow and steady. She is the fast twitch muscle type in the family and I am definitely not. My sprint speed is about 1 mph faster than my all day speed. I reached into my jersey pocket to touch a small blue superball. It was Connor's. This was my memento, a worry stone of sorts. My family was waiting for me now as they had for much of the year while I trained and rode my big rides. Big for me anyway. The 508 was beginning to redefine "big" for me.

The stretch between California City and Trona (Time Stations 1 and 2) is hot desert and it began to take its toll on me. I hit the second set of climbs that was actually a series of climbs and rollers. My crew was like clockwork. Ice water and electrolytes went down easily but I was getting behind on the calories. Later, I was behind on both calories and hydration. My stomach felt full and very uncomfortable. My fatigue was growing. I was not even at mile 150 yet and here I was getting tired. This is okay on a double century but not when you are in the beginning of a 500-mile race! Curt and Carol both told me many times that the first half is flat and easy. It all begins at Furnace Creek. This thought was not a real morale boost at the moment.

Trona at mile 152 and Time Station 2 came and went. I was still 32nd. The field of racers was really getting stretched out. I had been playing "Leapfrog" with several other racers for some time now. We traded leads as one or the other took breaks. One of these was "Leprechaun." We passed each other several times and even though it is against the rules, we even rode side by side for a few minutes a time or two. He asked me my name after I asked him what county he was from. I said Lynch. He said, "Are you English or Irish." I said Irish. He said "Good, I thought I was going to have to dislike you"! Another racer was Humpback Whale. I met Rob (Humpback Whale) the night before the race with his wife (part of his crew) at the hotel. He was a very friendly guy from Denver. At the starting line we shook hands and wished each other the best of luck. We too played leapfrog a few times and on one occasion he passed me saying "come on buddy, you and me, we are going to finish this thing." I liked that.

The first racers had come through Trona more than two hours before me. Thankfully I am really not that competitive. I smile when I think of how well they must be riding. I hope they are not overdoing it and about to flame out. I want them to blaze the course. Go leaders go! I, meanwhile, am not blazing the course. The only things blazing about me at that moment were my feet and the painful sensation as I urinated for the first time in more than four hours! I passed Humpback Whale again. He was sitting in a chair beside his crew truck and was not looking good. He said something about cramps in his quads. I was still rolling but I yelled back "come on man, we are going to finish this thing together" but that was the last I saw of Humpback Whale.

I was behind in my water. Curt and Carol were both reminding me about this on the radio every five minutes. I had an earpiece just like the pros except I was no pro. It was hot and despite increasing my intake from 24 ounces to more than 60 ounces of water per hour, I was clearly in a deficit. Uh oh, Carol has her clipboard out. She sends Franck over to listen to how long I pee and check on the color. "How much force Franck?" I thought the ph test was next. I had nuns in grammar school with clipboards but they had rulers and paddles too. The rules were different back then but I checked to make sure Carol did not have a stick anyway. In all fairness, Carol and her clipboards were probably the only reason I finished the race. She would be my first choice of crew chief if I were ever going to try it again. Ha…. No way that would happen. I am ready to throw in the towel and I am not even finished up with my familiar 200-mile double century course distance yet.

There were 100-mile sections of the course that seemed to fly by and I have almost no memory of them. Then there were 20 or 30-mile sections that seemed to drag on forever and each pothole in the road seems etched into my memory (and butt)! The course beyond the Trona climb at about mile 170 through the Panamint Valley to the bottom of Townes Pass at mile 200 was one of the latter. Maybe it was because I was transitioning through dusk. Maybe it was because I had built up Townes Pass into a two headed monster with it's reputed 10-12+% grades Maybe it was because I was closing in on the 200-mile mark which normally meant the end of a ride and relief was around the corner. Whatever the reason, the Panamint Valley took forever.

It had been my stated goal to smile the entire way. Even if I did not feel it, I still wanted to smile. I was not smiling now. I stopped at one point and after stretching was bent over looking under the van. Franck asked me what I was looking for and I said, "My smile, I lost it somewhere and can't find it anywhere!"

The day before leaving the Bay Area for the Furnace Creek, my friend Janice Tower from Alaska sent me an email wishing me well. She finished the Fireweed 400 in a scalding 25 hours and also finished PBP this summer. She said, "Just remember, if you stay on the bike, you will get there sooner or later." These words rang loud and clear. Simple enough but staying on the bike became more of a problem as the miles were adding up. I did 5 double centuries this year preparing for the 508. I tried different foods at each of them trying to find the perfect recipe that worked. Everything I tried gave me some level of gastrointestinal distress. I always thought I had an iron gut but in this world of ultra cycling, my stomach was not my friend. Just like on my doubles, by mile 150 or so, my stomach was upset and I did not want to eat anymore.

My crew worried. They knew this would be the kiss of death for the race. Without the calories, no racer was going to go anywhere for long. So my 5-10 minute stops became 10-20 minutes because I did not want to get on the bike again. I mistakenly interpreted my crews concern for calorie intake as concern for me. Franck looked most sympathetic. I started to make my case. I knew I was not going to make it to the finish so why suffer for the next 20 or 30 hours? I would have to quit sooner or later, why not sooner? It only made sense. Only problem was that every time I started to sound weak, Curt just looked at me and handed me my bike. Tough love I guess. Upset stomach is no reason to quit. I knew better than to have him on my crew. He knew all these tricks. I was very transparent in my plotting and getting no takers. I only wanted to lie down until I felt better. A day, two at most and I would be fine, I'm sure.

This is the real reason you have a crew with you. They probably ran the race the first year without this rule and no one finished! A good crew is not going to let you stop because you don't feel great. You are not supposed to feel great. That's why it's hard dummy. "Get on the bike Colin." I was beginning to realize that if I quit, they quit too. This never sunk in before like this. They too have something invested. What have I gotten myself into?

The funny thing is, I never think of myself as a quitter. I have a stubborn steak a mile long. Just ask Kelly. Searching for inner resolve I thought about my years of mountain climbing and epic adventures. I battled my way up El Capitan in Yosemite for six days after running out of water on day four. Quitting there would have been next to suicide but that is beside the point. On a climb up Mt Hunter in the Alaska Range I was forced to take shelter, starve and shiver in a glacial crevasse for five days while a brutal storm raged above. I never gave up there but I could not exactly get in a van on Mt Hunter and say, "I quit" either. On Mt. Everest, I fought altitude sickness and nausea, hurricane force winds and freezing feet day after day trying to inch my way up the slopes into the "Death Zone." Death Zone… Death Valley, opposite ends of the Earth literally and figuratively but they were starting to feel the same – testing me to the far reaches of my ability.

I am more spiritual than I am religious. I believe there is something after life and so there were several conversations I had with both Kelly's departed grandfather and my own father who passed away in 1999. The Furnace Creek 508 was not something either of them would have ever thought of as fun for themselves but I knew they both enjoyed watching me reach for my own dreams. It was a friendly kind of chat and I told them in no uncertain terms that I needed help. "Come on boys, help me out. Give me some legs. Help!" There are lots of rules in a race like the 508. I read most of them but I wondered if there was any rule against this! Rule # 174.D - "No fraternizing with spirits or God permitted." I could easily have missed it. Probably a 15-minute time penalty. I risked it.

The First Night

Darkness was falling. We stopped and rigged up for night riding. Lights and flashers on the bike and from now until sunrise, the crew vehicle and racer must ride together. I rode 20 feet in front of the Leapfrog van. I hoped they were not falling asleep. A silvery glow backlit the Panamint Range dividing the Panamint Valley and Death Valley. After sunset, the moon peaked over the mountains to my right and shed its silvery white light on the road and on the high peaks of the southern Sierras ahead just north and left of me.

Finally, (not a finally that means "at last" or "all right," more like a finally that means "I cannot delay this any longer," "bummer") I was at the foot of Townes Pass. The grade at the bottom was not too steep. It was pretty gradual and I was hanging on. A racer shot by me like I was standing still. Maybe I was. His lights disappeared up the hill. The taillights of the crew vehicles in front of me were winding their way toward the top. I was crawling along but I could see 10 or 11 sets of lights inching their own way up the Panamint Valley below. They were headed north on their way for their own run at Townes Pass. I wondered if these lights belonged to slower solo racers perhaps even more discouraged than me or were they teams that started hours later than the solo racers and were in the hunt to chase me down. It was all very surreal.

The grade continued but it was still not very steep. At every turn I thought Townes was going to present the showstopper—the wall. The reputed grade steep enough to push me over my anaerobic threshold and complete my crash and burn. I can think of many climbs on my bike that lasted forever but oddly enough, this one flew and there I was on top of Townes Pass. The wall never came. I looked at Curt. He was the one that warned me about the steep grades. "It is a full frontal assault," he said. Steeper than Ebbitts Pass and Lord knows I suffer on Ebbitts Pass every year. I brought my mountain bike with its granny gears as a backup specifically for this purpose. Had he done this so I would feel better? He looked as puzzled as I did and said he too kept looking for the steep walls he remembered as he ground his way to the top last year. We shrugged our shoulders.

I was very tired and still wanted to quit but I did have a few free miles in the form of a huge 5000-foot descent in front of my feet. I could not pass this one up. I changed my clothes into dry warm layers, traded my helmet for my second helmet that was already rigged with my 40 watt Nightrider. By the time I was ready to mount the bike, my crew had already outfitted it with a 32-watt nightrider Lee Kane had lent me.

72 watts of light! 72 watts plus the headlights of the crew vehicle and I was moving fast. Curt had warned me about this staircase descent. You fly off steps and launch into pitch black not knowing what you might hit on the road until your crew vehicle drops off the same shelf behind you to shed light on the road ahead. In order to minimize this, the crew has to stay right on your wheel, as close as it can. The only problem with this strategy is if you get a flat or make any error, you get run over!

This was not an issue in the least with 72 watts of my own light. The van could hang back. The helmet mounted light was directed wherever I wanted to look. There were no blind spots and the sanity level on the descent was high. I hit 50 mph plus on the midnight descent into Death Valley National Park. Carol remarked at the top of Townes that she had never seen it that warm before. I was overdressed in tights even at the top. Long before I was at the bottom, I started to sweat and needed to stop to shed back to jersey and shorts.

Halfway Point—Furnace Creek

Shortly after Stovepipe Wells I could see the lights of Furnace Creek down the valley. Minutes later I was there. The halfway point! I was exhausted, had an upset stomach, both knees hurt, my left Achilles tendon was beginning to bother me and my feet were getting hot spots. My butt was very sore but I realize now that 200 miles later the term "sore butt" was going to be redefined. For now, it was still holding out (probably largely due to the 20 lbs of bag balm that I had used so far). This is a joke but not as far from the truth as you might think. I had applied a large glob of the stuff at each of the stops I had made. The cumulative effect had soaked my shorts and leaked out somewhere (my legs?) onto my seat and down the seat tube, etc. Disgusting but hey, I could still sit on my seat. That is all that I cared about.

While laying in the parking lot stretching at Furnace Creek, my crew checked me in. Leapfrog was now 27th. Ha, caught a few racers somewhere. Maybe they got lost. Took a wrong turn. Maybe they quit. Didn't matter much now anyway because I was ready to throw in the towel myself. I started to discuss the situation. I should have started on Franck. He would have been more understanding (I think). He was massaging my quads and shoulders as he had been at every stop since the beginning but Curt was there and he was not hearing any of it. He looked at me like I would be the smallest of insects if I did not jump back in the saddle and continue. Pedal till you drop! He was merciless. You don't quit because your stomach is upset. You quit because you legs fall off. You quit because your feet are a bloody mess. Upset stomach? WIMP!

Everyone says the race begins at Furnace Creek. Most DNF between Furnace Creek and Shoshone. Either was fine for me, I really did not care which. It was flat for quite some time; maybe, if I was lucky, I could put my Lightspeed on cruise control and quit at the far end of the valley. Free miles in a way. I took my first caffeine pill (yeah Vivarin!) and had a Dr. Pepper (yeah, more caffeine). I have no caffeine in my regular diet so within minutes I felt the magic that much of the world must feel once they get their morning dose of java. Well, no time to waste. I was on my bike and headed south.

My cruise control pace started to perk up as my did my eyelids. I think I like caffeine. Maybe I should have started the race on it. The nearly full moon was over my right shoulder now. The cobwebs were clearing and I had places to go. I could see a series of slow moving crew vehicles headed south on the road ahead of me. Each vehicle held a sleepy crew and lit the road for a racer that probably felt much like I felt before my caffeine! They became targets. Individual challenges to chase down and roar past. Brontosaurus, Akita, Blue Dog…… They were dropping like flies. Who said I was not competitive? It was dark so I could not see my cyclometer. I would swear I was riding 22 – 25 mph but Curt said my max was around 20. I felt like I had wings.

I saw something in the road and swerved at the last minute to avoid it – a scorpion with its tail elevated. I wondered to myself if it could give me a flat. I roared on. We passed Badwater—282 feet below sea level! I thought about Mt Everest. Curt started talking to me on the radio about slowing it down some so I would not burn up. I felt like I would be leaving it all on the table if I slowed down so I kept going. I had passed four or five racers down the length of Death Valley before I started the climbs toward Shoshone. Even then, I felt like I could roar up the hills at 12 – 14 mph but here I forced myself to slow it down and save something for the morning.

The Second Morning

The sun was rising as I topped out Salsberry Pass. My crew congratulated me on the good run through Death Valley and also congratulated me for a new personal record. I had passed the 280-mile mark, my previous distance record! I felt pretty good. Better than I had 100 miles ago. I love that. Morning and sunshine brought a renewed sense of energy and purpose. Maybe I would even finish? Too early to tell.

The descent down from Salsberry Pass was short and quick. The Mojave Desert is substantially higher elevation than Death Valley so while the climb up from Death Valley was almost 3000 feet; the descent was only a few hundred to the Mojave. It was a short ride into Shoshone and the 4th time station at mile 325. I was now 19th in the race. I was not ready to take a break here so I rolled as my crew checked me in and bought a few supplies. It was daylight rules again and I could ride without crew escort as we did all night long. It was 57 miles to Baker. Curt said it was mostly downhill and that I should try to get through this section before it warmed up too much. Curt felt this section was potentially the hottest of the course and he struggled here last year. I rode through the barren desert miles of dried up lakebeds and distant hills that did not support much in the way of life from the looks of it. The relatively flat and featureless miles have a way of eroding your energy faster than a good stiff climb in the mountains. I was getting tired. Very tired. It did not feel downhill at all to me. I was really beginning to get a sense that Curt was messing with my head again.

I pulled into Baker and Time Station #5 just about 11:30 AM. I was now 18th. Someone must have dropped but I never saw them. Curt said it was 100 miles to the finish from Baker. 100 miles! I felt like I had made it. I began to think might actually finish this thing. I could ride 100 miles in 6 or 6.5 hours on a normal day so maybe 7 or even 7.5 here and I would be done. Then I did the math in my head. 325 at Shoshone plus 57 to Baker. Several minutes later I had it! 382. 382 from 508 was…ummmm…well it was NOT 100. I knew that much. My brain was mush at the moment and I was getting just a bit edgy. It was not 100 miles but 126 miles. 100 or 126. That may not be a big deal on a normal day but I had 382 miles on my legs, no sleep and was about to set off into the heat of the day in the middle of the Mojave Desert. It seemed like a big deal to me. My patience was wearing thin. It was innocent enough but now 126 miles meant 8.5 or 9 on a good day, which could mean 12 or more here and now. Intentionally or not, Curt WAS messing with my head. My butt was extremely sore all of a sudden and I could not find a comfortable spot to sit. Everything burned and ached. I began to have my doubts. I did not even go looking for my smile in Baker.

There was another racer (Harpy Eagle) there at Baker taking a break. He was looking fresh which is to say he looked like hell but he looked much better than I was feeling! My crew needed to gas up and get a few things in Baker. They set me off headed south with my Camelbak but with nothing to fix a flat. Curt said I should just wait by the side of the road for them if I broke down. I rode out, crossed an overpass above I-40 and headed south. I was starting up the dreaded "Baker Grade." This is a slight uphill grade of 2-3 degrees but it is endless and hot. I was not having any trouble with it though. I was moving along quite nicely. I was even slowly gaining on Harpy Eagle. I did not have the attack mentality of my Death Valley run. I was too tired for that.

His crew was waiting for him where the road made a right turn and continued to climb. I caught him just as he reached his crew and stopped along the road. His crew chief was barking orders. "Stop right here, sit down in the chair, drink this, eat that, stay in the shade………." They were all very excited and making quite a fuss. I rode on thinking they were getting pretty excited about very little. What's the big deal? Maybe he did not get in enough heat training. On the other hand, I had finished several very hot rides this year including the recent Knoxville Double three weeks before the 508 and the Terrible Two in June. Both were scalding. It had been a hot year and many of my other training rides were in temperatures of 100 degrees plus. It did not occur to me to think that I had melted down to nothing and nearly puked on each of these hot rides and only survived them when it cooled off some.

I rode on for a few more miles. I hoped I would not flat. I thought I could die by the side of the road in minutes waiting for my crew. By the time they found me, my carcass would be picked clean. My crew came up behind me. I had worried about nothing. Not sure exactly how many miles it was after that, only a couple I am sure, I slowly became aware that it was not hot. It was very hot. I was feeling very hot. I was panting in little breaths and starting to feel a bit dizzy. I was trying to ride my two hours but it was not going to happen. I was overheating and needed to stop. I stopped my bike and just stood there straddling the top tube and leaning on my handlebars. I was soon surrounded. It looked like heat exhaustion. Orders were being barked with as much urgency as the Harpy Eagle crew had. They sat me down on the cooler in the shade of the van as there was absolutely no other shade for 50 miles I am certain! I was lightheaded, nauseous and moaning. It did not look good at all.

Harpy Eagle came riding by looking strong. I sat there still moaning and wondering how bad off I really was. Franck was taking some photos and thought things were finally beginning to look interesting but a look from Carol wiped the smile off his face and he quickly displayed a face that showed seriousness and concern. They were all concerned. They dipped towels in ice water and put them on my head. They rubbed ice up and down my neck and on top of my shoulders. They put towels on my legs and back. I was cooling off. Ice, towels, more ice and more towels. I drank several bottles of ice water. Twenty minutes later, mission was accomplished. I started to shiver. I was so cold that I had to stand up and move into the sun to warm up. Imagine that! I learned later that Carol wondered if they were going to have to call in a helicopter. Curt thought I would not recover enough to continue the race but would survive. Franck thought I was going to be fine. I was not sure I trusted my own thoughts at that point but I never felt like I was in serious danger. I just needed to cool down.

The whole stop took an hour. I could have easily quit then and there. I would have had the full support of my crew. Everyone would have said I gave it my best shot. I rode like a warrior but dropped like a big fly. It was at this point I knew I would not quit. I had suffered too much. The race had already extracted its pound of flesh. The damage was done and I was going to finish. Everyone expressed their concerns but they felt they would let me ride and watch me closely. I was riding slowly and painfully and drinking lots of water but at least I was riding. The uphill grade was still there and would be there for some time to come. I rode up and over something of a pass and down into a valley. The Baker Grade was done! Curt pointed to the hills on the far side of the valley and said something about Granite Pass. He said it was a 19-mile grade and went on forever. Great. Everything goes on forever in the desert! I was not looking forward to it. Everything was taking on a new look. I had been riding for 30 hours and fatigue was showing me another of its many faces. The thought of smiling never came to mind.

Down I went into the valley. At nearly 200 pounds, I do this very well. Better than most in fact. There are some advantages to being a big man until it comes time to point the wheels uphill. Then I pay the price. I had finished 8 of the 10 climbs on the race but the two more ahead were beginning to weigh on me. I found the bottom of the grade up Granite Pass. It looked long and I settled in for a very long afternoon. My cyclometer told me how I was progressing and the miles seemed to go by impossibly slow. I was not climbing fast even though the grade was not steep. I looked at my tire several times to make sure I was not low on air pressure. I was just low on pedal pressure. This was going to take hours. Although slow, my legs felt up to the task but my point of contact with the saddle was in shear agony. I shifted side-to-side, front to back, stood, stood longer. Nothing I did was working. I had 80 miles to go. Time to grit the teeth and get it over with. After an hour or so I came to a shoulder of the mountain. There was a car alongside the road and a man standing next to it with a clipboard in the middle of nowhere. It was the Nowhere Time Station. 79 miles to go but who's counting. He said something about another mile or two to go! I had expected the road to turn and climb for another 10 miles but I hit some rollers and then the bottom fell out. I was descending, and descending. I descended forever. I was tired of descending. I was just tired. Granite was over. I was pleased that it was 10 or 11 miles instead of 19.

One more climb to go. Sheephole. What a name. I would not let my imagination drift anywhere near that one. I crossed the valley and started up a very slight grade with a very long and entirely visible straight stretch of road ahead of me going to the top of the hill. It was twilight now. I kept seeing what looked like large white blank billboards on the right side of the road. I turned my head several times to get a better look at them but they flashed in a bright burst followed by a meteor shower that looked like fireworks. Then it was just desert. I was hallucinating. Hey, I was a child of the 60's. Good thing I had experience with this sort of thing.

The Second Night

I sensed activity behind me. A racer came up from behind with his crew vehicle following. He was moving very fast. I love a chase and I only had one more hill so what the hell. I bit the hook and chased. I thought it might wake me up some. A minute later my heart rate monitor displayed my effort in a way that confirmed what my pounding head was telling me. I was into the danger zone. I could feel my heart rate escalate, alarms sounding in my head. I caught him. As soon as I caught him he stopped. It started to get dark and I had to get rigged with lights again. I had hoped to finish in the light but I was hours away from that kind of speed. I thought he was a solo racer that was getting a second wind but he was part of a four-person team (team Whippet). Within a few minutes several crew vehicles were passing me, lights were flashing and I got caught up in the excitement. The racer had been relieved by a fresh teammate and she was ahead of me. I knew better than to chase a team but with my heart pounding out of my chest I did anyway. I passed her as the alarms were ringing uncontrollably. I had blown it. I could not sustain the effort for another minute. I had passed her and my crew passed them both but now I felt like I needed to fall off the pace and let them pass me all over again. What a pain in the ass I was. I got on my radio and told my crew I needed to drop the pace and what should I do. It was beyond me to figure it out. I was brain-dead. If I had a brain, I never would have chased her to begin with.

As luck would have it, she stopped and was relieved by another teammate. It gave me breathing room and I saved face. I needed a quick stop to get some more bag balm. Ouch. Nothing was helping at this point. As we were stopped, she was relieved by her 80-year-old teammate and he passed me. I got back on the bike. I admired this guy and felt terrible passing him but I did anyway. I hope I am riding at 80! I was riding my pace again. He was soon relieved by his 25-year-old granddaughter who stood on it and flew by me going what must have been 18 mph up the hill. Bye Bye. I knew I would never see them again. Go Team Whippet, Go!

The road surface was going from bad to worse. The surface was a patchwork quilt of concrete and asphalt with rocks varying in size from as round a quarter to the size of my fist partially embedded with most of the bulk remaining above the surface. I never saw anything like it in my life. To make matters worse, potholes were everywhere and many were large enough to swallow a wheel. Each little bump was a new and direct insult to my screaming crotch. I was standing as much as I was sitting.

By now it was very dark and my Leapfrog crew was behind me illuminating the way. The light on my bike was useless other than to keep me legal. Granite was supposed to be long but was short. Sheephole was supposed to be short but was long. It felt like eternity. I could see the taillights of cars far ahead and I never seemed to get any closer. It was going to be a long night. I had a few more conversations with my spirit companions. I needed all the help I could get. "If you just stay on your bike, sooner or later...." Everything ends eventually and so it was that I reached the top of the Sheephole climb and started down the other side. I had passed the final time station at mile 479. I might have even smiled.

It was still warm and there was no need to put on any additional layers. The descent was not steep and was not real fast but I held some brake anyway. I was playing dodge ball with the potholes. I hit a couple and thought I would flat. I tried to stay in the sections of the road worn somewhat smooth by the passing of cars over the years but it was not consistent and I was weaving all over the road to find the most comfortable surfaces. I was beyond fatigue. The billboards were back and now in spades. Snakes were crossing the road by the hundreds. My world in the headlights of the van was not a simple road but an undulating serpent bent on my destruction. I slowed down some more. It was too much. I stopped to have another Dr Pepper. Was this my 4th? 8th? Who knows. I doubted an IV of caffeine at this point would make any difference.

I kept thinking "just stay on your bike and sooner or later...." I was unconvinced but quitting with 30 miles to go, even in my state of mind, was not an option. I must have stopped five times in the last 30 miles. I cannot even remember what I stopped for. It must have been for my butt. It was all I could think about. On one of these stops I changed back into my Marin Cyclist Jersey. One of the only reasons I was close to finishing this race at all was because of what the club had given me in the way of experience, encouragement and friendship. With 20 miles to go, Curt pulled up alongside and said "jump in, you've as good as done it." I thought this was a good idea and I was warming to it when I realized he was joking. There was no way they were going to let me in the van at this point. This was our pact. I would not be allowed in the van until the finish line. So far, I had not been in the van once. My will was dissolving though and cheating could become an option. My will was dissolving but my crotch was SCREAMING#$%^!

The Finish

The final miles into the finish at Twentynine Palms is a slight grade uphill and there are lights that look like they might be part of a landing pattern for aircraft. Except the lights went on and on forever and I never saw an airport. I never seemed to get closer to the lights either even though I was always headed in their general direction. I was afraid to say something to my crew in fear they would say, "what lights?" I hoped we were getting very close.

We entered Twentynine Palms before we realized we had missed the turn. It took a few minutes to figure it all out. It could not have added more than a mile (508… 509…. What's another mile at this point?). Our new route added a few extra short hills (really needed those...). Finally my crew was as frustrated as I was and placed a call to the finish for directions. I wanted to cry but I put on a stoic face as I stood over my bike. I think they were as anxious as I was. They spoke with Chris Kostman at the finish. They figured out where we went wrong. He sent out some staff in a van to find us and lead us back in. They were waiting at the finish line with what looked like a roll of toilet paper for me to ride through but it was actually some kind of ribbon.

I had finished. WE had finished! The only reason I made it within 300 miles of the finish line was because of my support network. It was woven deep through my family, my friends, my Bike Club and especially by Leapfrog Crew. They made the ultimate sacrifice, called all the right decisions and never lost hope. I am sure they would say it was lots of fun but after reading this story you should know better.

It was 11:02 PM, 40 hours and 2 minutes after I started. I was still 18th and all smiles (I found it again!). Photos were taken, my back was slapped with a few "great jobs" and "well-dones." I went from feeling like death warmed over to just being a zombie. The traditional ceremony of having a medal placed over your head was over and we were headed to our hotel rooms. While the crew sorted some things out, I laid down for a quick second on the floor of the hotel room. I was asleep instantly.

My crew wanted to get a decent meal but the only thing open was Denny's. A nudge woke me and to Denny's we went. We talked about what went right and what didn't. There were stretches of silence as I realized they were as exhausted as I was. I was thinking about myself the whole time but these three took time off work to be my crew. They worked selflessly and with devotion to keep me on the bike and going. They worried more than I did when I was behind on my calories or hydration. They would not quit when I would have. They did everything except pedal the bike. In some respects, my job was easier. This was their victory as well as mine. Crossing the finish line was a testament to their perseverance, experience and talent in the sport. They had finished. We were not first over the finish line but we had won. At one point I actually started to say "Next time I would...." They caught it before I did. We all smiled.