By crew member Vicki Pelton
Since I had such a great time crewing for Race Across Oregon I thought I'd do it again for Furnace Creek 508. This is a bicycle race of 508 miles in the desert of southern California, where the racers do not sleep and they stop for only minutes at a time. I looked at the website and found that John Jurczynski in New Hampshire was looking for another crew member. We talked on the phone and arranged to meet in southern California.
Thursday evening, John and the other two crew members, Caleb Johnson and Ken Hood flew into LAX, rented a van and drove to the hotel in Valencia, where I met them. We all had dinner at the Macaroni Grill (yum).
Friday was the day to get organized. I was prepared to help pack up all the equipment needed for such a race, but only saw a tiny pile of things next to the car. "Where's all your 'stuff'?" I asked. That's all they had. Since they had flown in, they couldn't really bring very much. Well, makes organizing a bit easier. John's "totem" is Blue Dog, so we put the Blue Dog signs on the car, along with "Caution Bicycles Ahead" and two yellow flashing lights on the roof. Everybody got Furnace Creek T-shirts and caps (thanks John).
Then it was shopping time to get ice chests, ice and food for everyone for the weekend. The officials came by to do the car and bike inspection. We had to buy a few things at a bike shop and then had some spare time to play Frisbee in a large park we had found. John has this terrific shot put throw that sends the Frisbee seemingly for miles. A man walking through the park couldn't help but exclaim, "Gee willikers." We thought of a few more food items to buy and...hey, what happened to all the crackers we just bought? Ok, add crackers to the list (again). Then it's dinner at the Macaroni Grill (yum) before going to the all hands meeting.
The meeting was in an auditorium in a shopping center between a bowling alley and a car wash. Is that weird or what? It was good to hear from people who had ridden it before. And they're actually back again? One guy got an award for finishing the race five times. He had started ten times. Goes to show how brutal the race is. It was great having all the racers up on stage. So many. There are actually 181 people who pay good money to torture themselves for a couple of days. Better get a good night's rest, as it'll be quite awhile until we see the backs of our eyelids again.
Saturday morning, all the solo racers were ready to go. The relay racers (two and four person teams) would start two hours later. Everyone counted down the last ten seconds and then they're off!...slowly. They had to follow a pace bicycle through town so the start was anti-climatic, but eventually, they reached full speed.
The first time the crew vehicles could stop was 25 miles up the road. At that spot, we pulled off the road along with the 73 other crew vehicles. Party city!! Nothin' to do but wait, so the guys got out the Frisbee and I went socializing. I finally had time to talk with the other crew members and look at their setups. It was great fun to see everyone out there, doing all they can to support their rider. Everyone was so excited about the race; there was electricity in the air.
John came by near the front and the race was on. We started out in leap frog mode. We drive ahead and wait for John. As he goes by, he tells us what he wants. We get it ready, drive past and park, then hand it to him as he goes by. It was mainly water, liquid food and solid food. We also tried to keep track of who was in front of him, but without numbers on the bikes, it was a bit hard to tell. We finally figured out some of the people, but then they would change their jerseys and throw us off.
When Ken was in the back with all the food, all we would hear for hours was the rustling of bags; he was eating continuously. Whenever a new bag was opened, Caleb would put his hand back, wanting to be fed. The eating capacity of these guys was amazing. We were keeping track of the calories John ate, but I figured if we recorded the crew's calories, it would be even more.
I don't know John very well, but he seems to thrive on competition. During a long race like this, many people get stomach problems. It seemed to me that John tried to out-do the others and so got major stomach problems BEFORE the race. That'll show 'em. So he was rather depleted at the start and wasn't as fast as he's accustomed to. He was not pleased with himself. But in reality, he was making great time and we did all we could to build his spirits. What was his response? Grump, grump, grump. Can't really blame him, as he's biking 500+ miles.
At one turn, we, and other vans, had pulled off in order to show our rider where to turn. As we were waiting, one rider, who was in front of his van, just went on by, missing the turn. Everyone started honking their horns to let him know of his error. Here we are in a race, and people are helping each other. It was a good feeling.
We had let John get out of sight and then we followed up the hill. At the crest we saw a spectacular view below of a desert valley, huge mountains in the distance and a steep serpentine road below. What a wonderful descent. Ken pulled the car over. What are you doing that for? He wanted to watch John pass. Caleb and I both said in unison, "but he's in front of us!" Ken looked startled and floored it, screaming down the mountain. We finally got to the bottom where we could see for quite a distance...and there's no John. Ken insisted he was behind us. Caleb and I looked at each other and said, "Oh." Ken had passed John when both Caleb and I were busy doing other tasks so we hadn't noticed. We sweated bullets for awhile, then finally saw John come down the mountain. For the next several hours Ken razzed us about this, which we deserved. Sure is embarrassing to loose your rider.
The other two crew members were from NH, where apparently there is a tree every five feet. It's so forested there, you really can't see all that far. Here we were in the desert, where you could see all the way to the horizon. Everywhere we looked, we could see valleys and mountains, with only sparse vegetation here and there. The guys were awed by the vastness of the area. The desert is so spacious, it makes you feel like an ant. Every time you crest a hill, you can see for miles and miles. And then, every once in awhile, we'd see a house. They'd say, "Ohmygod, I'd loose my mind." Welcome to the desert.
At night, we switch to "follow" mode. We turn on the yellow flashing lights and follow directly behind our rider, as he uses our headlights to see ahead. As dusk fell, John was starting up the tallest mountain, Townes Pass. People get pretty spread out so we hadn't seen many riders for awhile. But on the road up the mountain, everyone had their lights on and so we could see riders both ahead and behind, all spread out along the road. It was nice to remember you weren't alone in this crazy endeavor. Going up Townes Pass, John passed last year's winner, who eventually dropped out of the race. Just goes to show, you can have good days and bad days.
The wind can be brutal on this ride. The strongest wind we had was at the top of Townes Pass. John stopped a bit to get more clothes on and then it was down, down, down. The top is at 4,956 feet. The bottom is at Badwater at 282 feet BELOW sea level. And remember, it's totally dark now. You don't do that kind of descent every day.
As we were driving along, Ken mentioned if we didn't stop soon, he'd have an "industrial accident." I found as I was crawling around the van, getting out the food and clothes, my elbows were getting road rash (hey, no snickering). When Caleb was driving, he got a twitch in his leg and couldn't stretch it out. I thought, this was amazing, here we were, whimpering about out little aches and pains, while John was out there, pounding the pavement, mile after mile.
John and his stomach had disagreements all day and night so at day break, he decides he wants some "real food." We pull up beside him and while we're all moving, with notebook in hand, I take his order: eggs over easy, toast, rice pudding, pasta salad, vanilla milkshake. When we get to town, it's light enough so John can go on ahead while we stop at the Mad Greek to get the food. When we catch up to John, he stops for a whole five minutes to scarf down his breakfast, keeping an eye out for anyone who might pass. The milkshake he takes with him on the bike. Turns out that's just what he needed. His stomach is finally happy. I had heard about the famous Mad Greek milkshakes so I had one for myself also...for breakfast even!
Everything came to a screeching halt at the Kelso Train Depot. A very long train was stopped, blocking the road. Some riders had already passed, but we were stuck behind. John would be disqualified if he walked his bike over the train. Bummer. The bars were down and the bells were clanging very loudly. One guy was sitting right next to the bell. His support car had gotten through so I said he could get away from the bell by sitting in our van. He said he was ok; he just put e-caps (a pill) in his ears. What!? John was not at all pleased with the situation, as people he had passed had now caught up and they were right behind us waiting for the train. But hey, it's party time again. Time to socialize.
After one hour and 25 minutes, the train finally moves and we're off. But for John, it's Grump time again. After all this work, and then you get stuck behind a train. On the next hill a woman on a two-person team passes our van. She said, "He's doing a fabulous job." The three of us answer back in unison, "Tell him!" We were hoping she could cheer him up. As her support van passed, they sprayed him down, as by now it was very hot and we didn't have a sprayer. That was nice of them.
We finally get to the finish town, 29 Palms. But the race seems to go on forever. This small desert town seems to be two blocks wide and 30 miles long. And it's uphill! Chug, chug, chug. How many miles to the next turn? Six. After awhile, hey it's been six, where's the turn? Oops, it was 6.2 miles, sorry.
Finally, there's the ending ribbon (made out of toilet paper, of course). John crashes through. Everyone applauds. Yeah! He made it! Fourteenth out of 74 solo riders is a fantastic placing. It took him 35 hours, 11 minutes. The sun was just setting. Others would ride though the night again and finish the next morning. But since John made such great time, we could go to a real restaurant and have a big meal. In the restaurant we found other riders and crew so had fun reliving the race. Everyone was on a high.
The next day we visited Joshua Tree National Park. After creeping along in the van during the race, it was exhilarating to actually go the speed limit. Ken said it felt like we were going 100 mph. It was actually 50. It was great to be out of the car, hiking, climbing the rocks, watching the squirrels beg for food and to see the great view, all the way to Mexico.
Then it was time for the guys to leave. It was a little sad to have it end. It was an intense several days. I love working with a team and supporting someone who's pursuing their dream. The crew was a lot of fun. John persevered through stomach problems, lack of energy, trains and strong winds. He's quite an inspiration.
For more photos, click here.