The Furnace Creek 508

By Greg "Silly Goose" Matherly, solo men's 40+ finisher

Insomnia. Anxiety. Intimidation. Fear. Excitement. Confidence. Friendship. Isolation. Fatigue. Pain. Doubt. Suffering. Relief. Hot. Cold. Hunger. Bloating. Burning. Chafing. Sickness. Anger. Insanity. Light. Dark. Embarrassment. Disappointment. Humor. Euphoria. Glory. Joy. Accomplishment. Satisfaction. Pride. Sleep.

I guess that pretty much covers it!

Wow! What a race! I didn't think it was possible to experience so many emotions so deeply in such a short period of time. Although "short" is probably a word that should never be used in the same sentence as The Furnace Creek 508. There is nothing "short" about this bike race.

I spent the past ten years racing triathlons. Most of my casual friends think I'm crazy for racing Ironman. Most of my Ironman friends think I'm crazy for racing "The 508." I guess everything is relative!

The numbers just don't lie: 508 miles, ten mountain passes, 35,000 feet of elevation gain, maximum elevation of 5,000 feet, minimum elevation of -282 feet, 30,000 calories burned, ten gallons of fluids consumed, 400,000 heartbeats... Oh, and how about those desert winds, heat, and hostile road surfaces? It is a time trail format no drafting. You have to earn every mile on your own. There is just nowhere to hide. I don't think there is a single tree in the 508 miles! If you want shade you better bring your own!

Course elevation profile (top) and map (bottom).

The Race Director, Chris Kostman, is responsible for all of this insanity. He is the perfect "personality" for an event like The 508. I knew two minutes into his pre-race meeting that I was going to like this guy. He has a dry "ornery" sense of humor. He delivers the painful facts about your upcoming experience with a slight upturn on the outer corner of his lips. It softens harsh comments such as "the drop out rate for this race is 50%." He and his staff truly do an amazing job staging this event. They keep you in line but never offend. They genuinely care about your safety.

Kostman has done a fabulous job providing info about the race on his website The race starts in Santa Clarita, on the northern fringe of Los Angeles. It travels northwest through Mojave and Trona before climbing over The Panamint Range via 5,000 foot Townes Pass. Once over Townes Pass you turn south (near the Nevada boarder) travel through Death Valley, then to Baker. From Baker it climbs south through Kelso, then Amboy, across Route 66, finishing in Twentynine Palms. This race course is so large I'm sure it could be seen from space!

A fun tradition of this race is the use of totems instead of numbers or names. Each rider selects (or is given) an animal totem. As the race progresses these totems begin to take on a life of their own. My totem is The Silly Goose. My five-year-old son has been calling me "The Silly Goose" since he was about two years old. I think it was the third or forth word to ever come out of his mouth and I have no idea where he got it. I like it for two reasons: First, it sends an immediate message that I don't take myself too seriously. Second, I knew that in my darkest moments I could look back at the crew vehicle and viewing The Silly Goose logo plastered on all four sides of the van would generate a much needed smile.

Mental, physical, and nutritional components compose the three headed monster that must be mastered to finish this race.

I doubt there is only one way to prepare for the mental challenge this race poses. I think this is deeply personal and everyone will have a slightly different way to deal with it. I tried to break the race into three parts: The first 200 miles from Santa Clarita to Townes Pass. The 180 mile "night flight" from Townes Pass through Death Valley to Baker. The final 130 miles from Baker to Twentynine Palms.

The physical? How do you train for something like The 508? I still don't know the answer to that question. I did dozens of very fast 100 mile rides, many with some very strong Ironman triathletes. I guess that is a fringe benefit of living in San Diego. You can "hook up" with guys like Jurgen Zack, Normann Stadler, and Brian Rhodes. I chased these guys around all summer. "Hey guys, can I play?" They make 100 miles feel like 300 miles. I also completed two double centuries. That is pretty much it! I've never ridden a bike more than 210 miles before October 7th. I think at some point you just have to take a leap of faith! A jump into the abyss!

As far as the nutritional component, read as many of the race reports Kostman publishes as possible. They have this down to a science and there are far greater minds than mine to explain it. Minds like Steve Born from Hammer Nutrition. Steve was kind enough to construct detailed email responses to my nutritional questions. He is fabulous!! I targeted 350Kcal and 24oz of fluids per hour. I tried to stay as liquid as possible. The only comment I would add is to make sure you have a lot of variety in the crew vehicle. You never know what will sound good 400 miles into the race. I was so sick of Perpetuem that I nearly vomited when my wife shouted from the van "do you want any more Perpetuem?" Chicken soup, V8, and Red Bulls were my savior! I never trained on any of that stuff!!

Oh, and none of this is possible without The Crew! I had a fabulous crew! I chose family and close friends over a cycling resume and I'm glad I did! It consisted of Tony Vanwinkle, a dear friend for nearly 30 years. Dave Irelan, a college fraternity brother I've known for over 20 years. Tim Matherly, my father, who knows how to "push my buttons" in critical moments. And my lovely wife Kay, who has seen me dig myself into deep holes before and knows how to talk me out of them. None of them knew a thing about cycling but they wanted to share this experience and that meant a lot to me.

In an event like this you throw your character on the table for the world to see. Your crew should be people that you're not afraid to melt down in front of. You need to be able to be yourself, completely. There are going to be ugly moments and everything will hinge on how you deal with those moments. A good supportive crew can make all the difference in those pivotal moments. I know this sounds a little weird, but I could actually feel their positive energy behind me.

I'm a bit of an anal retentive and I thought I had prepared everything weeks in advance of the Friday departure to Santa Clarita. If so, why was I working like a dog and behind schedule all day Friday? With the help of the crew we finally got on the road at 2:00. I'm convinced we had enough supplies to survive at least 60 days in the event of an alien invasion! Just like Noah, two of everything!

Friday traffic in LA is horrendous and we missed the bike/vehicle inspection. They had an after hours check for fools just like us. The bigger issue was the mandatory pre-race meeting. It started at 6:15 and we frantically hit the parking lot at 6:14—no joke! They dropped me at the door and I sprinted for the auditorium! This is not a good way to get started! A late bike/vehicle inspection plus dinner and I'm in bed by midnight. I guess it really didn't matter because I just stared at the ceiling most of the night.

Five o'clock came quickly, some oatmeal in the room and off I go to the start line. As I ride the mile or so to the start it begins to hit me that I'll be on this bike all day, all night, and all day again tomorrow. Incomprehensible! It's so out there that it's hard to even take it seriously. It reminds me of bungee jumping vs. sky diving. Bungee jumping is actually scarier because you can see the ground very clearly. You are so high when you sky dive that it is too surreal to fully grasp. It doesn't seem real so you jump, as I'm doing in this race.

Chris, with that ornery personality, announces through the bull horn that the start will begin in five minutes. He says "you shouldn't think about the 508 miles, you don't need to think about the 35,000 feet of climbing, don't think about the climb up Townes Pass, or the rough roads, or the head winds into Twentynine Palms..." Funny guy that Chris! Clear as mud!

We roll out on schedule and the first 24 miles are without crews and it is more social than anything else. I'm new to this "ultra" racing and I'm amazed and humbled by how friendly everyone is. At Ironman, everyone is so wrapped up in their own little world that sometimes I think you will get a time penalty for smiling. Just the opposite here! Great people! I think everyone knows how hard this event is and they are happy to help each other get through it. I met more people ten miles into this race than ten years in Ironman.

We regroup with the crews about 1+ hours after the start. I'm not even sure why but when I turn the corner and see all of the crews lined up and all of the activity around them I actually get a little choked up. I guess this is the moment I feel like I'm actually in The 508! This symbolizes everything I've read about. Also, San Francisquito Canyon just doesn't feel like The 508 to me and this is the point when you finally drop down into the desert and you can see the first of many vanishing point roads—a familiar sight in this race.

The crew and I fall into our mandatory day one "leap frog" routine. Things for the next 50 miles are pretty uneventful. Although, I'm stopping briefly at all of the bottle exchanges and I'm beginning to realize I should have taken the advice from the veterans to stay on the bike. I just didn't think it was a big deal to stop for a minute or two in a 500 mile race. Boy would I find out otherwise! My wife kept a log of all of our stops and I still can't believe the numbers. By the time this race was over I spent more than five hours off the bike!! I wouldn't have believed it if it weren't documented in her log! Steve Born cautioned me on this in one of his emails. I should have listened! But at the end of the day I had one goal: to finish. I never asked what place I was in and I didn't mount a computer. I wanted to deal with the moment and not worry about how I was doing.

The Randsburg climb (110 miles) was my first difficult moment. I had been fighting a festering stomach problem and this climb was turning it into a crisis. The climb took a Herculean effort. I began to question if I have any chance to finish considering how far I had yet to go! I think the crew was sensing my problem and this was their first test also. They remained patient and I managed to slug my way to the top and basically just "hung on" all the way to Trona.

Through this approximately 50-mile section I would yo-yo with The Rocky Mountain Wolf. The Rocky Mountain Wolf's crew was fantastic! They would fly by me and then pull over, jump out and cheer me on by giving me high fives, etc... They were an animated crew. They really lifted my spirits and I'd love to be able to thank them. It is yet another example of what makes this event great! Funny, I'll probably never forget that crew members face. I even get a smile as I type this just thinking about him!

I arrive at Time Station #2 in Trona and head straight for the van to deal with this stomach problem. I kill about 30 minutes at this stop and my stomach doesn't get any better so I decide to just move on and deal with it on the road.

We pull over about 15 miles before Townes Pass (around 185 miles) to switch into night mode. It is 6:00 and the van is now required to follow 20 feet behind me at all times. The music kicks on and my spirits rise immediately! This is my first experience with a crew vehicle in tow and tunes blasting from the roof. I expected to be deep into Townes Pass before nightfall, and that doesn't help my spirits but I'm able to just "let it go" and enjoy the experience.

We take another break of about 20 minutes at the base of Townes Pass (stupid), to change into a 27 tooth cassette pre-mounted to an extra wheel. We also remove the rear light from my jersey and put it on the bike (a rule item I must have missed). Dik Dik (Shanna Armstrong) and many others roll by as I sit and feel sorry for myself. Shanna has won RAAM (Race Across America), Double Ironman, and a host of other sadistic races. She is an amazing athlete!

Eventually, I get rolling up this beast of a mountain. Yeah, all of the flashing crew lights going up Townes pass are cool, but I'm suffering too much to care. Maybe it will be inspirational for me when I see it on video?

I'm beginning to question my 39/27 gear choice. I need to ride near anaerobic threshold just to keep it spinning. We pass Dik Dik and then the road gets REAL steep (about 15%). I can't explain how painful a 4,000-foot climb is when you have more than 200 miles in your legs. I mash the pedals for a short while and then I need a break. This weight lifting is crushing my legs. Dik Dik rolls by and in the cutest voice you can imagine she yells over and says "hi Silly Goose!" She's such a cutie! It's strange the things you remember in the haze of this race. As it turns out, I was only about 100 yards from the point where the road begins to level out. I should have just STAYED ON THE BIKE. Another rookie mistake.

We get to the top and I decide to abandon my pre-race nutrition plan. I've stubbornly stuck with Perpetuem and Heed and my stomach is not getting better. I switch to soup, Red Bull, V8, and Clif Shot Blocks. Anything different probably would have helped.

I jump on the bike and descend from this cold dark ugly place called Townes Pass! I'd be OK if I never see that place again. Memo to future rookies: don't stop at the top of Townes Pass. It is cold and uncomfortable. If you can just hang on for about ten minutes, you will descend into a perfect nighttime Death Valley climate. I, on the other hand, suited up in ski clothes and descended only to stop 15 minutes later and take it all back off. Hello McFly, McFly?

Once I hit Death Valley, I began to feel good again! I'm recovered and cruising along at 23 mph in race mode! Racing through the pitch black of Death Valley at 3:00 AM, under a full moon, with the crew vehicle lighting my way, tunes jamming from the roof is a surreal experience. A highlight of the race for me! It is difficult to explain how enjoyable (almost spiritual) that really is. "Ah, this must be the spiritual odyssey Chris was talking about!" I expected it to be lonely and maybe even a little scary. Not even close, it is incredible! I'll never forget it!

On a side note, another one of those hazy images came when we approached a crew vehicle on the side of the road. The rider was spread out on the ground with his helmet still on, in front of his crew vehicle, illuminated by the headlights. It was a cruel reminder of how quickly things can turn ugly. This could be any of us in a matter of minutes. That is how fragile and on the edge you get in this race. I don't know who he was but I hope he recovered.

Speaking of recover, we hit Jubilee and Salsibury pass (300 miles) and I'm on a high! Go figure? How could someone in such dire straights two hours ago feel this good now? At this point I think I could leap small buildings in a single bound! We descend into TS #4, music cranking and lights ablaze. I had planned to be in Baker by 7:00, by god there is no way I'm getting to Shoshone after 7:00! We hit Shoshone, and of course, I get off the bike!!! I just won't learn.

The next ~60 mile section to Baker almost cracks me. I'm hanging on to a precipice! You can see 20 miles in front of you and every mile you log there is another visible mile added in front of you. It's like a Stephen King version of Groundhog Day! That is my future for the next three hours? Also, I'm starting to get a little goofy. There is a short stretch where I begin to have an out of body experience. I'm floating 20 feet above the ground, slightly to the left, looking down at myself riding the bike. I know this can't be true, but it is so clear!! Very bizarre!! Then about 20 minutes later, I become detached from my arms. I can see them but I have no control over them. Thankfully they are steering the bike straight, apparently without me. This was not a hazy experience. It was very clear. I slow down to tell the crew. Not that they can do anything about it, but I figured if I talked about it that maybe it would go away.

We finally hit Baker (380 miles) and I feel like crap. I tell the crew that I'm not sure I have another 130 miles in me! I begin searching for a good excuse to drop out. The crew calmly puts me in the van and feeds me some oatmeal, a Red Bull, and I'm not really sure what else. I'm wiggin big time! After about 30 minutes I'm not improving so I reluctantly decide to trudge onward. My dad tells me to "just go ten miles and see what happens". In my mind, I've seen this movie before. It doesn't get better!

I start the nasty 20-mile climb out of Baker. It's beginning to heat up. I ask for my gel seat cover and a jersey that unzips all the way so I can let it flop in the wind. I need air! Surprisingly, the climb is the kick in the ass I needed and my breathing is getting better, my legs are feeling better. I think I might be coming back, but I'm too afraid to test it yet so I stay within myself.

We hit the summit and begin that torturous 15-mile downhill. You have got to be kidding me! I've heard all the adjectives about how rough this road is and they all understate it! I'm getting more fatigued on this downhill than the uphill. How cruel can this course be?

We hit TS #6 Kelso (400 miles) and, yeah that's right—stop and get off the bike. I'm not even sure why this time. Mentally I'm not all there!

About 15 minutes later I re-mount and begin the 15-mile Granite Climb. I hear what sounds like a gunshot and "pow" a spoke breaks on the front wheel. Before I come to a stop, I hear another "pow" and a spoke on the rear wheel snaps. The crew jumps into action and change both wheels. Not bad for a couple guys that know nothing about bikes! I look back at that bumpy descent and curse while they hand me the bike. Kinda like that guy that gets in a fight and shouts to his adversary what he would have done had his friends not separated them.

My dad yells out the window "when you get to the top you'll have a 20-mile descent and that will put you less than 60 miles from the finish." That dreadful Granite climb seemed to go on forever. Those telephone polls that run along the road kept reproducing themselves. But when I finally crested the summit I savored every minute of that well deserved 20-mile descent.

We hit the "Hawaiian themed" almost Amboy Time Station (450 miles) and I'm beginning to smell the barn. By this time I'm beginning to lose all feeling in my hands, feet, and rear end. All three points that have supported my weight for the last 32 hours are shot and I'm loosing my sense of humor!

A funny thing about these ultra events. You lose your sense of time and distance. I'm approximately 60 miles from the finish and I begin to feel euphoria. The same kind of euphoria you get 25 miles into a marathon when you finally know you are going to reach the finish. I'm starting to realize that I will finish this beast. I'm even getting chills and I have the urge to pump my fist in celebration. For the first time I can begin to mentally absorb what remains. I've got one big climb (Sheep Hole Pass) and then a flat 30 mile run to the finish in Twentynine Palms. Seems doable right? I'm almost home! Then I run the numbers. Because of this climb I'm probably still about four hours from the finish. At home a four-hour ride is a long ride. A lot of bad things can happen in four hours! I literally begin to coach myself: "All right Silly Goose, settle down you have a long way to go. Don't blow it now. Make sure you keep drinking. Make sure you take in calories. Loose the goose bumps already!"

Well, the ten-mile Sheep Hole Pass vaporized those goose bumps. Man that climb hurt. Somewhere near the summit a car pulled along side me, the window rolls down and a guy with a warm smile leans over and gives me the thumbs up. "Congratulations, you are about to accomplish something great and there is nothing silly about that...Goose"! Later I notice from race staff photos that it was Eric "Ostrich" Ostendorff. Boy it felt good to hear that! Thanks Ostrich!

Eventually we roll over the summit and enjoy a nice descent before that last unnecessary 30-mile run into Twentynine Palms.

I read somewhere that those 30 miles are the hardest 30 miles in cycling. I'm not sure who said it, but they were right. That is a masochistic finish! Straight as a board, 30 miles into a headwind, with a slight uphill, on a brutally rough road! Twentynine Palms just doesn't get any closer no matter how hard you pedal! I'm cursing Chris at this point! I no longer like this guy, not even a little! I'm riding on pure rage.

I decide I have one hour left in my legs and that is it! I either get there in one hour or I DNF. I drop into TT mode and mash the pedals as hard as I have ever ridden. My legs are screaming and I'm screaming back at them—out loud! I'm really losing it now! I'm not sure how, but I smoke those final miles. I pass three other riders and crew. They must have laughed as we went by and I'm yelling out loud—for what seemed like no particular reason.

I finally make visual contact with the finish. "OK, now you can celebrate!" I cross the line in 37:30:18, 20th overall, 4th age group.

What an experience! I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world! And I'm thrilled that I had two great friends, my dad, and my wife there to experience it with me. None of them slept one moment. I couldn't believe it! They said they were so wrapped up in watching me race that sleep was never an option. I know they felt the highs and the lows with me. Very special indeed!

Great event Chris!!!

Would I do it again? Not sure yet. There is a part of me that says no way. This event is whacked! There is another part of me that thinks with a little "house cleaning" I could cut five or six hours off of my time. If I just stay on the bike I could cut four to five hours off my time. I'd probably end up having a whole new series of problems that would kill my time, but I guess that is part of the appeal of events like this.

Should you do it? You can study the nutritional requirements for this event. The formula for success is well documented. If you think you have the physical and mental fortitude to complete this event you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. I can promise you it will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. This event grabs you in a very deep way. I have a spiritual connection with this event that is very hard to explain. I'm not a touchy feely kind of guy but I left a part of my soul on that race course and I don't think I'll ever be able to completely walk away from this race. It is dangerously painful, but the feeling you get when you roll through that "toilet paper" finish is worth every ounce of pain you absorbed out on the road. My brother sent me an email before the race: "Remember, the pride lasts longer than the pain." So true!

Silly Goose!