The 522-Mile Flight of the Griffin

By Kevin "Griffin" Griffin

This doesn't look right. But maybe I've forgotten. Passed a car with a sign in the window, but it was for a garage sale. Can't be right. But there's Mudskipper still following, so. Finally I pull over. It's not right, and I stop Mudskipper, he pulls out his route sheet and, yup, we should've taken a left not a right turn on Elizabeth Lake Road. We confirm to each other that the volunteer pointed us both to the right, and he'd even yelled out, "Right?", and she nodded.

Paul "Mudskipper" McKenzie didn't waste a second. He whipped around and stopped the first car that came in the other direction, which, fortunately, was a minivan with a very cooperative driver. It was a little incongruous that Paul was waving his arms in a life or death panic and we could only tell this guy that we were a little off course in a race, but I guess it's all relative. We hustled back and got back in the race, not knowing how or if this could be recovered. It was at least a nine mile detour.

After a smooth rollout from the Hilton Hotel in Santa Clarita at 6:30am, the 77 solo riders in the 2005 edition of the Furnace Creek 508 got the green flag to start racing at 7:01 and shortly afterwards hit the climbs that would eventually take us up to the top of San Francisquito Canyon and our first contact with crews. Because of a winter washout a new route added about 6 miles to the route, and caused us to start 30 minutes earlier than usual.

Everyone feels great at that point and the pace is always too fast, but I went with it, staying with the first group of about 20 riders all the way up. There was a quick little descent that separated many of us and I settled to the back feeling that had been enough exertion for the moment, but then came the misdirection.

When I finally got back on course, I met my crew and we all took off, trying to shrug off the lost time and look forward to the rest of a very big ride. Up till then, my strategy was to ride the first 200 miles relatively easy, get over Townes Pass safely, steady and strong through Death Valley at night, then give up the rest on day two with whatever's left. Now I felt there was time to make up, so I followed Mudskipper, much harder than I'd planned. But it felt good to go hard, and I wasn't at maximum effort, so what the hell? Make the crew proud. How stupid is that?

We picked up our first winds right away, in the avenues after the canyon. They came from the west, through a gap in the Tehachipi's, and blew us sideways. Very annoying, but not uncommon. Then we got through the Windmills climb and the wind or the road turned and we now had some pretty strong headwinds, which blew true for hours on end.

Passed through time station #1 in California City later than I'd hoped, but tried to do math on the misdirection to get my real time and it was okay, but it didn't matter. Hummed on through with Mudskipper, who it turns out, is not quite pro but good enough to be on Team Clif Bar, which incidentally won this year's Insight 500 Mile Corporate Challenge from San Diego to Flagstaff, Arizona. We passed several riders and crews who probably wondered where we came from.

Trudged up and over the Johannesberg climbs that start around mile 110 and headed down a long, delicious descent toward Trona and time station #2. On the way, Chris Kostman, the race director, pulled up and asked if I was in the "misdirected" group. He said the volunteer told him she was pointing toward the stop sign, which was to our right. Nothing in the rules about this, but in the spirit of fairness Chris agreed to give us 40 minutes off our finish time. Very kind and a big lift to my spirits, knowing that I had the right math now for the rest of the race.

I powered on, solo now, having cut loose Mudskipper. Through Trona easily and up the Trona bump, cresting to what is probably the most beautiful sight of the race, the Panamint valley in late afternoon light. Riders are treated to several magnificent facets of the valley while whirring down another very long, fast descent to the valley floor. Much later I start pedaling again, more slowly now, realizing the extent of the day's efforts and the queasiness in my stomach. I am about 30 miles from the start of Townes Pass, low on energy, behind on calories and quite fatigued.

At this point, I wondered how I might continue a whole night and next day of hard riding—where would the energy come from? No answer. Keep riding. Ouch! We have hit the rough roads of the Panamint Valley. Multiple saddle punches to the butt. We stop to put on lights. Everyone's a little fatigued now. They try to get me to eat, but I just nibble.

Finally get to the big right turn on 190 east towards Death Valley and we stop to switch bikes. I hop onto a Specialized with a triple chainring and march off. We have no music, only an iPod, which I decline in dispirited haste. I try to approach this climb with patience, just turning cranks until real power is required, but tonight I'm just climbing without considering any of this and I start too fast. Maybe I looked good, but I felt awful and soon felt little twinges in my calves that are harbingers of cramps to come.

I pull over and ask for Tums, the anti-cramp choice of champions. Back on the road, I continue to go too hard and soon they are there again, but now they're crampy-twinges, the next level up. I pull over and ask for more Tums. Off I go, but then the road kicks up, I stand to deliver, and BAM! Hard calf cramp seizure warnings!!! Stop again, get in the van. Now I really look bad. The crew knows I haven't eaten in more than two hours and I'm cooked.

Pel (our nickname for Bob Pelzar), who is really our dentist and now our leader, tells me I have to get a bunch of food in now or it doesn't work. I understand and eat PBJ's, bananas, I can't remember what else, but I'm full and it's time to go. So I take a step outside the van and the wind is howling down and chills me to the bottom of my cleats and I run back to the van for cover. Eat more, step out, BRRRRRRRRR, run back in. Repeat again, a third time. Finally I put on Pel's bright orange fleece pullover, step out, shiver and start walking the bike. I walk till I'm warm again, which took a little while. Pel walks with me, Jen, my loving, supportive and beautiful wife walks with me. Finally, I hop back on in my bright orange fleece pullover and start pedaling to the top, which I do indeed make.

I eat more at the top, then roll over, still wearing that pullover and still shivering so hard I can't let go of the brakes. Down around 2,000 feet it finally warms to the point I can shed this silliness and start riding again. We are in a mode of passing time pedaling until we get to Furnace Creek, time station #3 and the halfway point. I am still a little low when we head off to Badwater, but I'm focused on getting to Shoshone now and nothing else matters.

The van pulls alongside and Jennifer asks if I'd like to use the iPod. THE IPOD!! I forgot all about it! Gimme the iPod! Oh, my second source of energy, the musical boost. The first song nearly brings tears to my eyes, it is that beautiful. I've created a playlist called "through the night" which has everything from the beach boys to 15th century French polyphony and I'm rolling now past Badwater, headed to Ashford Mills and the hell out of here on a tailwind.

The crew informs me I just missed hitting a skunk, who was turning to get me. Funny, but I've seen several other imaginary animals on the side of the road, and I missed the only real one!

The road turns really bad in the southern end of death valley and I'm looking for the left turn up to Jubilee Pass for the longest time, till I finally arrive and head upward. I've been following doctor's orders all through the valley and I've now assimilated all those calories and by God, I feel pretty good!

But I know Jubilee and Salsberry and they go on forever, so I don't get excited. I just motor on in a smooth climbing pace that reminds me of spin class. I can hear Gordon, "Pull, push, pull, push, complete circles!" That's what I do, smooth as can be, and now I'm over Jubilee, starting up Salsberry. Time passes and I see a blinking light, which I mistakenly think is the light at the summit (there isn't one), and I pick it up. I start hitting 10 m.p.h. and, ohhhhhhhhhhh, that's a van and ohhhhhhhhh, there's another one even farther up. But I'm feeling really good, so I keep on the gas and I'm likin' this! I pass two guys, and there's still more lights.

Sunday shows it's first light and I can distinguish the summit now, so I'm out of the saddle and motoring. By the time I arrive, I've passed a two-person team and have barely missed catching a four-person team and my crew is going nuts! We're pretty happy to leave Death Valley and head for home. I bundle up and shiver my way down to Shoshone, bike a' shaking.

The road to Baker is easy. You want it over with way faster than it can be got over. I make a point of spitting at the top of Ibex Pass where I stopped in 1998. I obviously wasn't thinking then, or I'd have at least rolled to the end of a major descent from the top. I've had multiple caffeine shots and am relaxed and patient now, resting in my aerobars and letting it happen. We do finally arrive, do a major stop, where my wife offers, among other things, lubrication and everyone laughs. I'm outta there.

I am glad to be on the Kelbaker climb because I know it's the last of three climbs and although it has several false summits, it is gentle enough never to irritate. I take the iPod again and I'm having fun, singing to old Led Zeppelin, old Doors music, letting the miles roll by. It's significantly warmer than yesterday and I'm sweating quite a lot because there is a tailwind, so I remind myself not to get behind again in fluids, electrolytes and calories. My legs feel really good and I'm riding at a sustainable pace. Time ticks by, I crest and roll over, heading down to Kelso and time station #6.

It gets blurry from there. Bad roads, multiple saddle punches to the butt, numb hands, etc. The Kelso climb was not terribly difficult and the descent from there was incredibly long and rough. Before I know it I'm at the last time station talking to Dan "Horse" Dibb and preparing mentally for the Sheep Hole climb, the last of the race.

I'm prepared to gut anything out now, we're getting that close. But Sheep Hole isn't so tough either. To prove a personal point, I stand out of the saddle the entire steep section near the summit.

The last descent, the right turn toward Twentynine Palms, sweet. From crewing others I know this is a fool's paradise, as the finish line is still quite a ways away. So I settle in and just turn 'em over, trying to be patient. Then I see the lights to the right and I'm pleased, but I know that the turn into town is to the left and haven't seen those lights yet. I try to stay in the aerobars and crank but my butt is now so sore I can only last a few minutes before standing and stretching. The balls of my feet are extremely sore and ache so badly I have to unclip from time to time. I don't feel the last two fingers on either hand. I get frustrated with the crew when I ask how far and they don't know.

Finally, the finish unfolds: the left turn on Utah Trail, the right on 29 Palms Highway, the last climbs to the Best Western and it's really me crossing the finish line this time! I'm exhilarated and spent. Chris is very kind and takes all our pictures. Ten minutes later we are checking in to another hotel and it's over, except for the pizza. But the processing of what just happened has just begun.

My finishing time of 36:39 is so much better than my original estimate of 38-40 hours, I'm elated. This is my first finish in three attempts. I understand that some events are so difficult it takes a few tries to figure it out. So maybe I've figured out the 508. I wouldn't say that out loud, and neither would I say definitely that I won't do it again. This event is mysterious and that gets in you as you go, and I did things I didn't think I could do. I surely went beyond my limits and anything that takes you there changes you as an athlete and a person. That's a good thing, right?

Notes on my crew: The three of them Mike Lynch, Bob Pelzar and my beautiful, incredibly fit and loving wife, Jennifer, were unbelievably smooth and professional in their first crewing effort. Never underestimate the crew's beneficial effect on a tired rider or their contribution to your finish.