By Sponge Bob Paxson
First of all, a little personal background before I tell my 508 tale. I have been "blessed" by a few health challenges in my life. Growing up I had numerous, and severe, food and medicine allergies that led to a very sick childhood. When I was 18 years old I was diagnosed with insulin dependent diabetes. When I was 25 I injured a knee playing softball and eventually had seven knee surgeries (six on the left knee). So, you might wonder why I say that I've been "blessed" by these health challenges. Because they have given me the opportunity to become stronger as a matter of survival and strive for accomplishments that are so much more meaningful to me than if I hadn't had to fight to succeed. I've been "blessed" by a determination and perseverance that I feel can get me through anything. Two words/thoughts aren't ever in my personal dictionary, or thought process. Those words are "can't" and "tired." I never say those words, or think them. I hate to even type them. I've always been inspired by the stories of people who have overcome great odds to achieve great things. In its own small way, my story is dedicated to the person who will read this story and be inspired to overcome any obstacle in their way in pursuit of their dreams.
My FC 508 story started two years ago when I first attempted the race solo. I was new to long distance riding but felt I was ready for the challenge. Boy, did I find out otherwise. I had no idea how to prepare for the nutrition, hydration, and electrolyte replacements needs this race requires. Even more importantly, I didn't have a clue how to manage my diabetes for an endurance event this challenging. I had done other endurance activities such as full day mountain climbs, extended backpack trips, and cross-country skiing—but those were nothing compared to this. Needless to say, I failed miserably. I had to DNF at TS #2—only 152 miles into the event due to severe cramping, dehydration, and uncontrolled blood sugars. That was a big time wake up call!
Fast forward two years to this year's FC 508. I had used every ride in the interim to get "dialed in" to the necessary nutrition, hydration, and electrolyte needs of long distance cycling; and had gotten much better with managing my blood sugar levels. I visualized every day for a full year at riding at steady tempo, rolling through each time station, and crossing the toilet paper "tape" at the finish. I felt much better about my chances although I knew that I still had a greater margin for error than most and would have to be prepared for anything...
One thing I wasn't prepared for though was that tickle in my throat on the Wednesday night leading up to the race that developed into a full-blown, nose blowing cold by Saturday morning—right at race time! Anyway, I arrived in Santa Clarita on Thursday along with friend and riding partner John, and his wife Elaine, who were there to help me as part of my support crew. John and I had done the race the previous year as a two-man team—which I recommend for anyone considering doing this solo. That way you see the whole course without having to ride the whole course and know what you will need to prepare for. John was unable to ride with me this year but I was thrilled to have him and Elaine back to help me. Friday morning John and I went for a short warm-up ride to preview the first part of the detour at the start of this year's race. This detour added an extra 5.8 miles to the race and I suspected a bit more climbing. Good thing the detour was at the start and not the finish!
Later that day, my "dabbling" roadie friend Paul, and his wife Michele, showed up to complete my support crew. I had a great crew of my closest friends who all had taken time away from their families and jobs to support me in my selfish pursuit of finishing this race. Talk about pressure! I had failed myself, and them, once before and was determined to make it from start to finish this time - with their help of course! We did the usual stuff—bicycle/vehicle inspections and racer check-in. I really enjoy this part of the pre-race because everybody is milling around the Hilton Gardens parking lot and you get to see all of the support vehicle decorations/adornments identifying their racer's totem. My favorite this year was probably the giant Polar Bear ears strategically placed behind the cab of...the Polar Bear. This is also a great time to catch up with those who we've met in previous years, or rode with during the year. The most special feature of the 508, in my opinion, is the camaraderie and warmth that is shared by everybody—both racers and crews. This begins in the pre-race parking lot and stays with the race all the way to the finish.
Friday night consisted of dinner at the Olive Garden. This has become a tradition for the five of us over the past three years. You ought to see the looks I get from the waiter/waitress when I order a sauce-less pasta, or a sauce-less and cheese-less pizza. Food allergies! Hey, it still tastes great and the bread sticks they serve with dinner are awesome! After dinner, we're off to the pre-race meeting. This is always a bit stressful for me because 1) I don't like crowded rooms, and 2) at this point, I don't want to talk about the race anymore—I want to start racing! But Chris always makes it interesting and keeps it moving so I don't pout too much. The "Wind" video from last year was nice because it brought back those wonderful memories of riding through Death Valley with my bike at a 45 degree angle to the ground so that I wouldn't be blown over, and watching scorpions scuttle across the road faster than I was able to ride. For those of you who don't already know, last year's race featured winds in Death Valley of 40-50 MPH. They weren't tailwinds! Also, the video showed John and I finishing last year's race together. That was inspiring!
But now it's Saturday morning and time to start. Up at 5:15, a quick breakfast of a banana and yogurt, getting dressed, loading the second bike into the support vehicle, posing for a few pictures, giving my friends/crew hugs, a meaningful prayer of support from John and Elaine, and all of sudden it's 6:25 and the National Anthem is being played followed almost immediately by the ten-second countdown to the 6:30 start. Finally, we're off! My plan, and goal, was to finish. I had trained to ride long distances at a steady pace. My longest ride up to this point had been 234 miles, but I had done several doubles and felt that I had developed a pace that could keep me going all the way. From the start, my legs felt super. I rode at a nice steady tempo with no designs on any special placing in the race other than finishing by Sunday at midnight. That was my deadline goal. We were required to stay together the first 7.7 miles until the turn into Bouquet Canyon. A red truck would follow the last rider to this point and when the truck and last rider got there, the race would begin. I started out at a leisurely pace staying in touch with the middle of the pack, or so I thought. A couple of miles from the officiaI start, I looked back over my shoulder to see how far back the last rider and the truck were. Any guesses as to what I saw five feet behind me?... The RED TRUCK! I was the last rider! I took the hint and sprinted up to the middle of the pack. Although I had no delusions about winning this race, I did not want to be in last place! I took the left turn onto Bouquet Canyon and the race began. Right away I could see a handful of racers take off and leave the pack behind. The rest of us mainly stayed together for several miles until the climb became a bit steeper. Then the pack really started to spread out and the feeling of riding solo became real. Bouquet Canyon was followed by the short, steep climb up Spunky Canyon that was announced by the sign that said "Alp du Spunky, 10%, BC." Fortunately, the climb was short and I don't really think that it was quite 10%.
A few more miles and I met up with Paul/Michele at Johnson Summit. This is where I encountered my only mechanical difficulty of the entire race. I switched bikes at this point and went to pump up the tires on the new bike, and the valve stem broke on the rear tire. So we put a new tube in only to find out that my floor pump didn't work. Well, I'm pretty stubborn because rather than just use the CO2 pump that I had handy, I insisted on getting the floor pump to work. Paul and I are trying to get the pump to work on what we thought was the tire on the bike we were switching from but instead was the bike I was switching to. So, all of sudden I had one flat tire, and two more deflated tires, out of a total of four and a floor pump that wasn't working. 30 minutes later and no luck, we finally borrowed a pump from another crew (Thank you, Archaeopteryx team!). Oh yeah, my blood sugar level at this point was 416! I normally want to be 100-150 when I ride and this was way too high and I thought I was going to have the issues of two years ago all over again. Fortunately, the 30 minute delay created by my tire/pump malfunctions allowed the insulin boost that I gave myself to kick in and I was able to level out in time to avoid the calamity of two years ago.
Finally back on the bike and down to the Mojave area. I could tell down here that wind was again going to be an issue this year but it seemed to be more of a northwest wind, than the south wind of last year. This was confirmed on the Windmills climb. You know you're in trouble on this climb when you look up and see the windmill blades spinning furiously in the direction you're coming from. Like most of the 508 climbs, this isn't a steep climb but it is fairly long and this year was done mostly into a pretty strong headwind. But whoa baby! The climb ends with a right turn and it was "Tailwind City" from there until California City.
Stage #2 is California City to Trona. For some reason, this is probably my favorite stage of the race. Mile after mile of rollers to the base of the Randsburg climb. You can actually see the Randsburg climb slicing through the desert for many, many miles before you get to it. And, like most roads/climbs in the desert, the road stretches straight out like a ribbon and the flat looking grade is deceivingly steep. But for some reason, I really enjoy this stage and this climb in particular. Right near the top it gets a bit curvy and a bit steeper and BOOM!—you are cruising through the ghost town of Randsburg. I've seen a few ghost towns in the West and this one definitely gets the Better Housekeeping award. It is so clean! From there a few more rollers, several miles of nice downhill and then a few miles of flat and you're cruising into Trona.
For those of you who haven't been to Trona, here's my description for you. The area is comprised mainly of huge mining piles and factories, depressed neighborhoods, and a sand-blown bike trail. The ghost town of Randsburg is spotlessly clean and the "living" town of Trona is one of the most ramshackle and dilapidated places imaginable. I'd commute from Randsburg if I worked in Trona! Daytime looks a bit more presentable but enter Trona at night and you've entered a scene out of "Night of the Living Dead."
But I rolled in just before 5:00—still daylight and time for my first...ENGINE COMPARTMENT HOT DOG! John had been letting Ballpark Franks heat up in the engine compartment of his truck and I took one with bread and relish...with relish! E.C. Hot Dogs and a Mountain Dew!! This became my motivation for getting to wherever John and his truck were. By the way, here is John's recipe for Engine Compartment Hot Dogs—wrap in tin foil, rest the package in a secure place on the engine, and drive for 30 miles. It's that simple!
As I was getting ready to leave Trona, John walked over and said "Hey Bob, every mile for you from now on is a personal record." Comforting thought considering I had 356 miles to go! But I really appreciated his support because this is the spot where I had to DNF two years earlier and he had been very encouraging to me at that time. I am so fortunate to have such good friends also double as my crew. So, on up and over the Trona bump, lights on the bike and support vehicle directly trailing me for night riding. This is really fun because now your crew is within feet of you and, in my case, they were blasting Judas Priest, Motley Crue, GNR, Reo Speedwagon, AC/DC, etc. from speakers strategically placed on the front bumper of the truck just feet behind me. Thanks to Paul for putting that together! Music makes it happen. Downhill into the Panamint Valley and then a long, rolling stretch.
This stretch is memorable for the sunset colors of orange, red, and yellow in the desert and then the mesmerizing sight of the twinkling lights of bikes and vehicles tracking up Townes Pass as the sky darkens. This was to be my first moment of truth. I can't tell you how concerned (read: intimidated) I was by the thought of doing this 3,500' double-digit climb with 200 miles already in my legs. But my legs still felt super at the beginning of this tough climb (made even tougher this year by the strong headwind blowing down most of it) and I did very well. I actually passed seven other racers without being passed. One of them was getting some real encouragement from one of his crew who was leaning outside the side of the team van just behind the rider shouting out constant words of encouragement. This is why we owe so much to our crews because they are there for everything! As I closed in on the top I began to wonder if Lance Armstrong or Jan Ullrich had ever ridden a Hors Categorie climb after 200 miles on the bike. I don't think so and that is one of the many reasons why this race is so challenging. Up to the top, another E.C. Hot Dog and soda, Nite Rider on the helmet, and warmer clothes. Back on the bike for the downhill into the perfect still night of Death Valley, and the right turn to the Furnace Creek Time Station and the journey south.
Another E.C. Hot Dog here, clothing/bike change, crew switch and we were back on the road. We made it to Badwater in 50 minutes—last year it took 3.5 hours. We made it to Ashford Mills in 2.5 hours - last year it took 6.5 hours. What a difference a year and 50 MPH less wind makes! Last year we stopped along this stretch with dust blowing, tumbleweeds flying, car doors getting slammed by the wind, and having to hold on to my bike to keep it from blowing away when Michele got out of the truck, crossed her arms while looking around and nonchalantly said "So, I guess this is why they call it Death Valley." Ha Ha! But this year, we stopped at Ashford Mills for a switch to my climbing bike, and marveled at the quiet, star-filled night-time sky. It may have taken me 300 miles and nearly 24 hours to get there but I wouldn't have traded that moment for anything. Nature is magnificent and this was one of Nature's Moments that will stay with me forever. But I did have a race to ride so back on the bike for the Jubilee/Salsberry climb combo. This stretch really was hard for me. I had been blowing my nose constantly from the start, and my throat was very sore. I'm a mouth breather to start with so adding in the congestion from a cold, and riding in the dry desert air, made the open mouth thing even more of an issue. I had resorted to chewing gum to keep some moisture in my mouth which helped some. What also helped was the resumption of tunes from Paul's truck—Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, the Who, Led Zeppelin, etc. Shortly after sunrise, we pulled into Shoshone and Time Station #4.
At this point, although I wasn't sleepy, I felt I should give my cold a rest. I took a 45 minute break (no sleep!) and got up feeling...TERRIBLE! But my vision of this race didn't have me quitting in Shoshone and besides, there was a nice tailwind, so I got back on the bike and headed toward Baker. A few miles out I realized (actually my sore throat reminded me) that I wasn't chewing gum. John and I did a roadside handoff of a tiny piece of chewing gum. Other than the massive SUVs passing within inches of this sleep deprived rider at 80+ MPH, the ride from Shoshone to Baker was uneventful. I do recommend that, for protection, racers have their support crew directly follow them through this stretch as John and Elaine did.
Arriving at Baker (380 miles) was the first time I felt that my vision could become a reality—that I could actually finish this amazingly difficult race that had been alluring me with its magnetic call of suffering and accomplishment. I called my girlfriend to let her know how I was doing and had to step away from my crew because I was becoming verklempt—a blubbering mess. I wanted this so bad! Back on the bike and up the 22 mile Kelbaker climb. At no point is this climb difficult in gradient but the length will test anybody's endurance. In addition, the weather was much hotter on Sunday and became a real issue. But, as always, my crew was there in my time of need to keep me constantly supplied with wet rags for my neck, and cold water to drink and dribble through my helmet vents. Paul yelled out at me as I riding by at one point and said "You're getting too close to the finish to not make it. We're going to drive you hard to the finish!" Thanks, Paul—you all "drove" me just right. Back to the climb, though. This is one climb that is not followed by a rewarding downhill. There is a downhill, but this one should more accurately be called a "downhell." This has got to be the roughest and bumpiest paved road on the planet. Actually, when the road was built and being paved, I believe the road builders forgot one thing—THE PAVEMENT! A totally rutted surface with jagged rocks sticking out everywhere. When I got to the time station at the bottom (Kelso) I felt like somebody had just pounded my shoulders, elbows, and wrists with a baseball bat. My left hand is still numb as I type these words three weeks later.
Into Kelso where I had my last E.C. Hot Dog, another soda, and back on the bike for another long, gradual climb up to Granite Pass. This climb became a real test of not only my physical endurance, but also my mental preparation. Earlier in the year, I had ridden a double century with a huge hole in my right sock. As a result, I developed a painful "hot foot." If you've never had hot foot, I don't recommend it. The pain becomes excruciating and the only way to get relief is to stop riding, unclip, and even take the shoe off. For me, relief comes almost instantly but once the pain is there it returns at regular intervals. I had been dealing with this since the 120 mile mark but it was getting really bad here. To add to the fun, I began to get cramps alternating between both legs. And, if that wasn't enough, I also began to feel the effects of a painful saddle sore. So, I stopped. But, I wasn't finished. I changed shorts, walked around a bit, used the facilities (read: bush) on the side of the road carefully watching out for rattlers because John had just pointed out a sidewinder on the side of the road—and took inventory. Hot foot, cramps, runny nose, sore throat, a puncture in my right a** cheek, but less than 100 miles to go, and I was not going to stop! Back on the bike, a couple more uphill miles, a couple of rolling miles, and then a sweet downhill into Amboy.
Here again, I felt that I should give my cold a rest before the final 50+ miles to the finish. 45 minutes later (and again no sleep) I got out of the car and felt ...HORRIBLE ten times over! I asked Elaine to check my forehead because I was sure I had a fever of like 108 or something. She told me my ears were cold so I guess that meant I could keep going. John saw how much I was suffering and said that the 56 miles to go would be easier than any training ride that I had done all year. He later said that the look I gave him was priceless. Tough love—that's what friends are for. All I knew was that my vision of this year's 508 didn't have me quitting in Amboy, so I put my butt back on the bike seat and got going. Six miles down the road to the left turn that points the way to Sheep Hole Summit, and something clicked and I felt remarkably strong and fresh. I made it to the top in almost an effortless manner, switched crews at the top and began the final stretch to the finish.
The last 25 miles to Twentynine Palms were the most enjoyable, peaceful, and rewarding moments of my athletic life. With every mile, I felt closer to accomplishing what just two years earlier had seemed an unconquerable goal. Despite all the health challenges thrown at me throughout my life, I felt that I was about to accomplish something truly remarkable—even for a normally healthy person. Not that it's tougher, but when you consider the facts, fewer people finish the 508 each year than make it to the top of Mt. Everest. When I made the final two turns into town and had just three miles to go, I felt the most amazing feeling of calm take over my entire body.
The tension and pressure that reside with the deep desire to accomplish and the accompanying fear of failure left my person and I felt total relaxation and self-reward. I felt the most perfect sense of achievement. I really slowed down the last three miles to savor a feeling that I hope we all feel at some point in our life. I didn't want to let it go, but before I knew it—there it was! The Finish! I broke the roll of toilet paper "tape" and realized my dream. But, I wasn't finished yet. Chris K wasn't ready with his camera so they asked me to circle the parking lot and cross the finish again. Which I did proudly, but I still wasn't finished because this time Chris was ready but his camera wasn't. Third time was the charm. I crossed one last time for the cameras and said a prayer of thanks.
My final time was 41 hours, and 3 minutes. I missed my finishing goal by three minutes but couldn't have cared less. I finished, and that was all that mattered.
This story would not be complete without the most heartfelt gratitude to my crew. The 508 crews are the heart and soul of the 508, and their belief and support in me was never failing. They were there for me in every way for every mile. Thank you Paul, Michele, John, and Elaine for helping me realize my dream.
As I was changing out of bike clothes after finishing, I took closer notice of my handkerchief that had probably gotten as much exercise as I had for the past 41+ hours. That darn thing was as ruffled and brittle as a Ruffles potato chip.
I need to say a bit about diabetes. Diabetes is a misunderstood disease. Yes, it has many serious complications and can be a killer. But it is also controllable and should never be a reason for anybody to not live their life to the highest level. There is no reason why a person with diabetes can't do ultra-endurance races. I've proven that! Too many people with diabetes are limited by a lack of knowledge about the disease. I often hear people express surprise that I am able to complete endurance events despite having diabetes. I'm not surprised. A person with diabetes is capable of anything. I want to educate by example as many people as possible about the real possibilities of a life with diabetes. I say this from the heart when I say that I am living a life now that has far exceeded my wildest expectations of many years ago—mainly because of diabetes. I attack it everyday and I refuse to be stopped! I was asked later that night and the next morning if I would ever do the race solo again. I responded immediately with a resounding "No!" I had accomplished my goal...or so I thought.
Never ask a long distance cyclist about his/her next ride right after they've finished. By the next afternoon, I was already considering doing the race again solo. Yes, I had finished and yes, that was my goal and my personal victory. But I finished in 45th place. I'm capable of doing much better. I don't want to be known as the person who came in 45th place because he has diabetes. I want to be known as the person who was competitive, despite having diabetes. Having diabetes isn't an excuse. When you read the stories of the racers who finish at the top of the standings, they all spent very little time off the bike during the race. I spent hours off the bike this year. Much of that time was to test my blood sugar and adjust my insulin pump settings. I've made it my next goal to shave as much "off-bike" time as possible from my rides. To do that, I must learn to test my blood sugars and adjust my insulin pump settings while I ride. To that end, I've already begun modifying my bikes to attach the blood sugar testing equipment to the handlebars and aerobars. I'm immensely proud of my achievement but I feel there is still more to accomplish. I will be back!
I must thank Mini-Med and One Touch for providing the insulin pump and blood glucose meter that I use during these events. They work wonderfully, and they give me every opportunity to be successful.
Finally, I have to say to anyone reading this who wonders if they can do something out of the ordinary to consider the following equation:
Dreams become Goals, and Goals become Accomplishments.
Be a dreamer!