By Tim Woudenberg, 2003 solo official finisher
The race started at 7:00AM at the Hilton Garden Hotel in Santa Clarita, CA on Saturday Oct. 11, 2003. The race is a 508 mile course through California desert. There is 35,000 ft of climbing overall. Weather was exceptionally good for the 508. Except for a 5mph headwind in Baker, there were no winds. The temperature never got colder than 60F nor warmer than 99F (Amboy). We started out slow and were in 22nd place at the first time station in California City. We were climbing Townes Pass at nightfall and were steadily passing riders one by one all the way through the race. We crossed the finish line at 4:23pm on Sunday. We were the sixth soloist to finish. Elapsed time was 33:23:51.
I spent about two hours off the bike total; ate 230 calories per hour on average; drank 19 fl. oz. per hour. My heart rate target was 135bpm at the start. I cut that back to about 130bpm on the flats and 140bpm on the climbs. Average rolling speed was 16.2 mph.
How do you explain to someone the intensity of 508 without making it sound like an event for crazy people? Finishing and finishing well requires tremendous commitment and meticulous attention to so many aspects of ultra endurance cycling. This is not something that happens by accident. The learning process can be quite uncomfortable at times. Maybe it sounds crazy because we all pick our wild sounding totems. (mine is 'Werewolf'.) We decorate our support vans in odd ways. But, under the skin of this festooned vehicle there ought to be a well equipped crew that knows exactly what they're doing. This is what I had and I'm certain it made a tremendous difference.
A very helpful aspect of the event is the write-ups that participants are encouraged to write. In them are stories from those who have pushed themselves right to their limits and report back important information about what works and what doesn't. Unless you are someone that likes to learn only from your own mistakes, I encourage you to read many of these stories before attempting the 508.
I particularly liked the Nanosaurus story but mostly because it is well written and and tells a phenomenal tale. Kangaroo Rat wrote the most informative one for me. His lesson was riding at a conservative pace for the first 200 miles and then moving up through the field once everyone else has already burned out. I decided to emulate this and even memorized his first few splits . I would just repeat his experience as closely as I could. He was in 25th place in Cal City and moved up to 7th by the end of the race.
Early this spring I decided I needed a challenge, a ride so tough it makes me a little nervous to think about it too much. I thrive on this. The Davis Double was this challenge in '98. It was the Death Ride in '99, which I did not finish that year, so it was again the challenge in '00 (when I finished all six passes). It was the California Triple Crown in '01, the Everest Challenge in '02.
This year it was the 508. Even though I also did Paris-Brest-Paris, the 508 stands tall in my mind as the endurance event for the truly serious.
I got Graham Pollock, Chris Eisenbarth and my Sister Ruthe Woudenberg to crew. Charlie Massieon was an alternate in case someone had to back out at the last minute. Graham had done the 508 last year and had some very valuable experience for the group. Together we rode some of the course in the spring so that we were familiar with the terrain and in particular the rough road surfaces in the last 150 miles of the ride.
During one of the particularly difficult Brevets in Davis, I met Jim Kern pedaling his recumbent over the Ukiah-Boonville grade. We worked as a team for the rest of the ride and continue to work as a team in once sense or another ever since. After the ride I learned that Jim was considering doing the 508 and maybe even setting the course record for a recumbent soloist. Although this sounds like an ambitious target, Jim was quite consistent about it, every time we discussed it.
PBP was tougher than I expected, I took two weeks off of the bike afterward and was concerned that I would not have enough time to be ready for the 508. Graham assured me that five weeks was enough time to be ready as long as I didn't over train. During this time, Jim Kern and I did some riding together including a 140 mile preride out in the central valley that ended at the starting line of the Knoxville Double. We then did the Knoxville which gave us a total of 335 miles in 24 hours. This was a good confidence boost for me. However by the day of the 508 I still was uncertain about my training and definitely twelve pounds overweight.
Getting the signs and the food and equipment together is a big chore, I was told. I gave myself a few weeks to pull it all together. It would have been better to give this task to someone in the crew as they would get a good idea of what was on-board at the start. As it was, Ruthe and I went through it all and she essentially loaded it in the minivan so she would know mostly what we had and where it was all hidden. It was a huge amount of stuff and it took some work to organize it so you could easily get at it. With no time to work the bugs out, we packed it all in and headed for the starting line. Much of it was reorganized during the event. The great part of it was that it all worked smoothly from my perspective outside the van. The crew was flawless. I was probably better hydrated for this ride than any other.
After a great night sleep, my crew served me breakfast in bed. It made Graham wince when he saw me pour the contents of three endurolyte capsules into my hot oatmeal and stir it in. The first real cup of coffee I'd had in months tasted great. I enjoyed this last bit of luxury before the start. My crew had made it plain that once the race began, I would not be permitted inside the van. I planned to ride straight through without stopping to sleep. I was prepared for the fair bit of hell that lay ahead.
At 6:20am I was downstairs in the parking lot, checking out the bike and riding around a bit to see what others were up to. At 7:00am we were rolling. In the first mile Jim caught up with me and we chatted for a while on our way up toward San Francisquito canyon. Somewhere in the first 20 miles, I came across Chris Kostman taking pictures at a stop sign. I saw Chris with the camera but was completely oblivious to the stop sign, even though he was calling it out. Finally he yells, "Hey! Stop sign!" I slammed on the brakes and stood the Titan Flex on its front wheel momentarily. It wasn't very pretty, but no one got hurt and it was a whole lot better than a DQ for a traffic violation. In the photo you can see the word "Stop" printed on the pavement and Chris' shadow across the yellow line. Thanks for the wake up call Chris!
In the flats through the windmills, I noticed that with a heart rate of 135 bpm my speed would get up to 23 or 24mph. This seemed excessive to me. I decided that I was not in such bad shape after all and should probably cut my target heart rate back to 130 bpm to conserve energy. Traveling at 24 mph on the flats is not efficient.
I got to the California City time station at 11:47, just 12 minutes behind the Kangaroo Rat's time two years ago. I was in 22th place. K Rat was in 25th place at this point. I was pretty much on target. On the way to Randsburg we passed Charlie Massieon coming the other way. I didn't notice him at all but the crew did.
Along the way to Randsburg, the Shrike crew got their support van stuck in the sand. I alerted the Werewolf crew to the situation and they went back to help. It was not long after, that the Shrike van came past, followed by the Werewolf van. There must have been a good bonding experience. The next time I saw my crew, they were parked next to the Shrike crew and reported that they were defecting to the Shrike team.
At the Trona time station I learn that I am in 12th place. While I'm standing there talking with the crew, Shrike comes blasting past without stopping. I'm encouraged to jump on my bike and give chase. I catch Jim at the edge of town and he asks me, "where's the time station?" I tell him that he passed it a few miles ago. I notice a moment of concern and add "Don't worry about it. Your crew will check you in, that's their job."
Jim and I trade positions a few times getting over the Trona Bump but Jim takes the lead on the descent into the south end of Panamint Valley. That recumbent may be heavy but it does such a good job of slipping through the wind. Near the north end of Panamint valley my crew calculates a position where I will be at about 6pm. I get there at just a few minutes before 6. They are setting up the Raleigh R700 for night riding. This one has a triple chainring and it'll get me and my fat ass over Townes Pass. While Chris finishes up on the bike I change clothes beside the van. Jim comes past just as I'm standing naked in the desert. I'm eager to get rolling as now my crew will be following me with music playing from the speakers atop the van. We also have a microphone set up in the van so that the crew can speak to me with the speakers.
It is in the K. rat story at Townes pass where he starts picking off the competition. I don't see many riders up ahead but I do manage to pass Jim and one other guy. Graham admonishes me to get into an easy pace that I can maintain over the 90 minute climb ahead. Darkness falls, the full moon rises. This has special meaning for Team Werewolf. Graham points out the line of support vans strung out across Panamint Valley below. Without realizing it, I'm working way too hard. My HRM is not mounted on this bike. I'm starting to burn out, Jim Passes me by. This is the last I see of him until Granite Mountains. By the time I get to the top my stomach is on the edge.
The crew gets my downhill lights mounted and I get a windbreaker on. We had gone over this many times. There is no rest time on top. Must get going before the rider cools down. So in no time I'm off, blasting photons in every direction. I must be carrying an extra ten pounds of batteries. The road is so brightly lit from my own lights that I barely notice the van headlights from behind me. There's no dipping into darkness here. I roar fearlessly down the 4000+ ft. descent into Stove Pipe Wells. I have no speedometer on this bike but my crew assures me I was over 50mph for a good distance.
We roll into Stove Pipe Wells and I get the crew to stop at the gas station. "Only one problem… We've got to work on this stomach", I report. While Chris get's the TitanFlex ready, Graham buys a bottle of Pepto Bismol at the General Store. In the next hour as we roll toward Furnace Creek and out to Bad Water, my stomach is mended. I call Eric Nordman from the time station at Furnace Creek. I'm totally jazzed that I have finished half of the 508 in only fifteen hours. He is duly impressed and tells me to be careful out there.
Through Badwater in the darkness of night, you can see blinking yellow lights in the distance. This is the competition and we find we're gaining on them. We pass the Horse as we start the climb up Jubilee pass. Among our music collection, Chris plays "Another one bites the dust" by Queen. By the end of the song, Chris is punching the air and yelling. I slow up and see it on his face. He has the look of a teenager that has just thought up the killer prank. "We're gonna play this as we pass the others by," he says. I have to admit, it's a good one. So we play it for some of the competition as we pass them. It's good esprit du corps. Unfortunately we play this as we pass Akita, apparently DNF'd on Salsbury.
Our apologies Akita, we didn't realize you were in trouble, thought you were just stopped for a break.
About this point Graham starts to get on my case for not eating enough. It really is tough to digest 300 calories per hour over a long haul. I do my best but I feel like my stomach is getting full which is bad. Searching our inventory for stuff that tastes good, we come up with cantaloupe, bananas, Dr. Pepper on ice, vanilla slimfast shakes, snickers candy bar. After the race, I discover I was running on less than 150 cal/hour for about ten hours. His concern was clearly justified. Fortunately, I never bonked.
I have to stop near the top of Salsbury, my feet are so damn cold they're going numb. This is weird. The thermometer reads 68F and my feet are freezing. I'm also wearing shorts and a short sleeve jersey without being uncomfortable anywhere but my feet. Many have reported weird hallucinations on this ride. This is the closest I got to that. I stop the bike. I'm lying on my back in the gravel holding my toes. I tell my crew I need my heavy neoprene booties. They come back and put my shoes on and wrestle my booties on over them. Ruthe on my left foot and Chris on my right. They lift me back onto the bike and we're climbing again. My feet instantly warm up. Problem fixed.
Over the top and down into Shoshone. We pass Cerion and Osprey on the down hill. We had been tailing Osprey for some time, all the way up Salsbury in fact, but could not seem to close the gap. I stop for soup in Shoshone and let a few cyclists pass us. It's OK . We'll catch 'em again. Through Shoshone and over Ibex pass and the sky is starting to lighten. Sun up as we're pulling into Baker. The crew goes ahead to refuel and resupply in town. Graham gives me directions through town at the timestation. The road is not as bad as I remember. Out side of town the crew catches me and I stop to change over for daylight riding. Ruthe has a date shake for me from the Mad Greek. It's like a vanilla shake with dates floating in it. It tastes great, I drink the whole thing. I change clothes for the last time. It turns out I did not pack a third pair of shorts and opt to change into the ones I wore at the start. I douse them with Listerine attempting to disinfect them, then accidentally drop them in the sand. I do my best to brush it out, then put them on. I know this all sounds like compounded bad decisions. I was hopelessly sleep deprived.
The Kelso grade is never ending and the road surface gets bad near the top. Think of an asphalt road with gravel dumped on top. In the desert heat, the gravel then fuses to the asphalt but never sinks down into it much. At first you try to pick a line through the stones but finally give up and just ride, trying not to notice the road surface. The downhill side is worse, because you're going through it much faster. You just have to decide whether to stand up and take it on your hands and feet or whether to sit down and take it on your butt. I alternated between the two.
Once down into Kelso, the road gets better and the climbing begins again, up Granite Mountains. This is where the Silver Fox (two man 70+) team passes us. John Clare is looking strong, on his way to setting a course record. I exchange greetings with John and Sandy, his wife and support crew.
At the 'No Where' time station, The crew informs me that we are in 7th place and the Shrike is just six minutes ahead of us. We continue climbing and catch up with Jim and his crew, stopped near the top of the hill. It's good to see them again but Jim is started again before I reach him. It's a gentle grade down for the first few miles and I cannot seem to close the gap on Jim. I send the van ahead to play "Werewolves of London" so Jim can hear that we're back. As the road gets steeper, Jim has the clear advantage and disappears ahead of us.
I start thinking of Amboy and send the van ahead to get me a vanilla milkshake. They meet me again in town. It's 99F and no wind at all. I'm ready for that milkshake but continue rolling as I suck it down. I get all comfy down in the aerobars, holding that milkshake in one hand, straw between my lips. I try not to think of the 13 miles of open desert that lies ahead.
We find Jim stopped out in the desert and he starts again just after we pass him. He's keeping a good pace on the flat and I'm having trouble keeping up. I decide I have to conserve a little for the last hill and fall back. At the base of the climb up Sheep Hole, Jim is stopped again. It looks like he's stretching out before he starts the climb. He cheers me on as we pass. I was thinking that he was giving me one final chance to hold the lead over him. I find out later that at this point Jim's digestive system is in revolt and he's has to stop to put himself back together. I tell you one thing about Jim, he shows a pretty calm exterior, even when all hell has broken loose.
I've started the last climb. I am getting seriously overheated at this point, but Graham has some real tricks lined up like a water sprayer to keep me wet and cool and a wet towel under the helmet. I look like a sheik with my white towel flapping around my face in the breeze. I start climbing fully expecting Jim to come around me at any minute. He never did but it kept me going at a good pace thinking that he could at any moment.
The last 25 miles went by pretty fast. It was downhill into Twentynine Palms then through town. The crew was keeping me showered with encouragement and keeping the boat toting four by fours from running me off the road. We turned into the Best Western and across the finish line.
Feeling more glad to be finished than the conquering hero, we line up to get our picture taken with the director, Chris Kostman. We look at the whiteboard and see that we are the 6th soloist to finish.
I still am shaking my head over this. I did not prepare to finish as well I did. I am uncertain as to how I was able to do it. Perhaps it was having Jim Kern on the course who I regarded as my rabbit. Certainly my superb crew had a lot to do with it. They knew what I needed far better than I did. Though none of them have ever crewed the 508 before, they knew exactly what to do at every moment. They worked well together and though there may have been chaos in the van at times, it never appeared so from the outside. Though many others had to DNF, we were never close to having to make that difficult decision.
Graham finished the 508 last year and his experience was indispensable throughout the course. He instinctively knew what was coming and how to handle it. Chris was ready for every problem mechanical. He single handed all the bike change-overs. He was even able to correct problems in the tuning of the Titan Flex with no time or space to do it. Ruthe was instrumental in keeping me in good spirits. There was never a time when I felt whooped. It may have been her unique brand of massage that kept me going.