By Chris Tapir O'Keefe
Driving down to Southern California on October 5th 2006 I was wondering if I was going to be ready to face the biggest challenge of my cycling career: to ride 508 miles between Santa Clarita and Twenty Nine Palms by way of Death Valley finish and finish the 29thrunning of the Furnace Creek 508. I had been studying this ride since I started road biking 3 1/2years ago since I ran across the 508 web site. I always wondered if I could do this ride and here I was riding down Hwy 5 with my sister Kim, brother in law Anthony and close friend Duc and I was fighting a nasty cold wondering what in the hell I had gotten myself into. I was wasting these guys time driving to LA and had no business doing it. I would talk myself out of those negative thoughts several times on the way to LA.
Because my wife and I are having a baby in early 2007, I knew this would be my last chance for quite a while to do tackle this. Naturally I wanted to go out a finisher and not with a DNF but knowing how brutal the 508 can be and the difficulty the course can be for rookies I knew the odds were stacked against me.
I started the year with the goal of finishing the California Triple Crown Stage Race. I had the 508 in the back of my mind at the beginning of the year but that would depend on the completion of the 3 events of the Triple Crown. The first leg of the Triple Crown was the Devil Mountain Double. With 19,000 feet of climbing and the late April date it was a huge test for me. I finished 118 out of 145 riders in 18:53. Not a very fast time, but I felt pretty good for most of the day and was happy to finish. The second stage was the Central Coast Double. I finished 105 out of 126 riders. I was not feeling very strong this ride and felt pretty lousy during the heat but I was glad to finish. The last leg was the Terrible Two in Santa Rosa. This is considered one of the toughest doubles of the country due to very steep climbs and extreme heat late in the day. This turned out to be very hot ride and the created 100+ DNF’s. I was proud to finish 5 minutes prior to the 11:00 PM cut-off. I finished 175 out of 181 riders.
Clearly I am not a speed-demon but I managed to finish all three of the rides making me a Triple Crown Stage Winner. I managed to come in last place by a whopping 2 hours and 53. I took my Lanterne Rouge in the Triple Crown Stage Race as badge of honor and decided within a couple of days that I was going to go for the ultimate challenge of my cycling life and sign up for the Furnace Creek 508. I sent in my application and began to prepare for the big event.
I had a great day in the Mt. Tam double finishing very strong and faster than I had hoped at 8:15 PM. My last big ride before the 508 was going to be a self supported double century from my house in Mountain View in Northern CA to Yosemite Valley. My riding buddy Jason (Wookie) was going to solo the 508 as well and we followed an old route sheet that I found on Google from the 1992 FC508 winner Eric House. The route included the nastiest hill I have ever climbed, Old Priest Grade, which climbs 1500 feet in 2 miles for a 14 % average. I cursed Eric House and his sick route into Yosemite as this Old Priest Grade almost killed me. We managed to roll into Yosemite Valley right before dark. That was 6 double centuries in a little over 3 months. I was as prepared as I could possibly be for the 508, or at least I hoped I was.
Why is it that I always have a cold and feel tired before big rides? I remember having a cold on the morning of the Terrible Two this year and yet again it happens to me at the 508. I have trained hard all year and I will ignore this. As we leave the Hilton in Santa Clarita and start heading up San Francisquito Canyon the stress from all the building and preparation for the ride begins to disappear and I am amazingly relaxed and loving the canyon. I am happy to see the sign for the Pacific Crest Trail which we cross at around mile 19. I was lucky enough to hike the PCT in 1995 and I try to remember crossing San Francisquito Canyon Road as I move ahead. Stopping to see the crew was fun and they enthusiastically hand me a bottle of Perpetuem. The climb up San Francisquito Canyon is not very tough. I had my mechanic put on the triple before this ride and I really enjoy using it. You don’t need it for this climb but it feels great to spin easily this early.
Being a rookie my goal is to just finish this thing so I keep telling myself to relax and take it easy. San Francisquito Canyon checked off the list.
As I drop into the desert I am feeling ecstatic. The sky is blue with little wind, and I am easily holding 20 MPH on the flats.. I am working my way towards the Windmill climb and thinking and notice my knee starting to hurt. I have the crew raise the seat before the climb a CM and things seem to get better. The Windmill Climb is pretty easy. I manage to pass a few people and enjoy the descent. It’s pretty easy into California City. I pull in at 5:39. I was just hoping to break 6 hrs so I am pretty happy at this point. My stomach was starting to bug me so I dropped off the liquid food and went to eating PBJ and Pasta. Luckily I talked to Kevin Griffin (Griffin) prior to the ride and recommended having a backup food strategy. The Pasta and PBJ went down well and I was off towards Trona. I rode all year with Wookie and was surprised to see him at the first rest stop as he is usually much faster than me.
The climb to Randsberg is never-ending and hellish. I managed to forget to drink enough water on this section and could not believe how long this climb took me. I felt miserable at this point. Finally the top. The ghost town of Randsberg is really interesting. I ran into some dirt-bikers inside the old jail changing my bibs out. Just glad I got out of there without a run-in with some angry bikers wondering why I had my pants down in the old jail.
Now to Trona. The desert section from Johannesburg to Trona is gorgeous. I hit the 6:00 PM cut-off so the crew would need to follow me from now until 7 AM. I can’t imagine them having to watch my butt for 13 hrs.
We pull into Trona right at dusk. We run into a crazed young woman who must have been on a two week crystal meth binge at the gas station manically cheering us on. I feel sorry for her. Little do I know that I will be about as crazy as she is in about 36 more hours. Rookie mistake to not get to Trona before 6PM as I have to wait about 30 minutes to get the gas filled up due to the long lines. If I ever do this again, I will get to the gas station before 6 I tell myself. Oh well, the goal is to just to finish I tell myself.
We get moving towards the Trona bump. The crew is following me. The moon peeks out on my right side over the mountains and lights up the road for us. We keep moving ahead and I get passed by a couple of riders. I see “Giant Water Bug” and he is extremely focused on his pedaling. I wonder ff I look half as focused as he does. Finally we top out at the Trona Bump. I use this excuse to stop the crew and to put the Light and Motion light on the bike. It does not clamp very well and requires me to continually move it back in place while I am descending. That’s not much fun I find out. Then it dies out altogether. So much for the high end lighting. Who needs it with my crew 5 feet behind me anyway? The ride through Panamint valley is really beautiful at night. As we head towards the base of Townes Pass I notice tiny red lights climbing over the mountain to my right. I guess this is Townes pass and mentally prepare for the long climb ahead. At the base of Townes Pass I notice my friend Wookie and he does not look so hot. He says his stomach is not agreeing with him. I wish him luck and hope to see him later on.
I remember that my goal is to finish this thing and spin slowly up in my Triple. I had my mechanic set up a Mountain Bike Gear of 30/29 and used it the entire way up Townes Pass. I manage to pass 3 or 4 groups up this climb and was really enjoying the climb spinning easily. Having the extremely easy gear at my disposal allowed me to relax and enjoy the climb. I had never ridden past 200 miles, and I was becoming euphoric as I slowly climbed this mountain. My crew cheers me on as I pass yet another rider.
The crew and I decided to stop at the summit of Townes Pass. It took us 30 minutes plus to heat up some water and make soup and get settled, etc. I was shivering while we waited for the water and do not recommend this to anybody. You’re better off summiting and immediately descending and taking a break down by Stovepipe Wells where it might be 30 degrees warmer.
I always read the stories about people descending Townes Pass at 50+ MPH and wondered how it would be. I did not manage to get much above 40 being too scared to let it fly with the crew following me and the lights disappearing during the dips. It gets warmer and warmer each mile and by the end I end up dumping the 4 layers I put on at the top. Time to crank through Death Valley!
I have never been to Death Valley and it was exciting to be there and to soak up the atmosphere. It’s dark out though and I can’t see much but the moon over Telescope Peak is absolutely amazing. It seems like I am flying as I ride towards Furnace Creek. I seem to be able to hold 20 MPH easily. I don’t see any other riders around me and wonder if I am in last place. We pull into the Furnace Creek Checkpoint at 3:30 AM. The Blandy Dragons Tandem team is here looking strong and calm. My goal is to ride until 7 AM and see if I can get 300 miles. So off we go into the dark.
The warm weather and lack of wind make it so comfortable riding at night through this amazing landscape. I keep looking ahead and start slamming red-bulls. Nothing beats two red-bulls in a water-bottle at 4 AM. Near the end of Death Valley it starts lighting up outside. I keep riding until about 7 AM near the beginning of the left turn towards Jubilee Pass. I lay down on the side of the road while the team makes some coffee. I have no idea what lays ahead of me, but I am glad I made my goal of getting 300 miles in the first 24 Hours.
Jubilee Pass is very slow torture for me. I am not used to these long low grade climbs living in the SF Bay Area. I feel like I should be going faster but I crawl along. Dropping to the base of Salisbury Pass is nice but the climb towards the summit seems to take me hours. I am exhausted and wondering if I can get up this hill. I slam 2 more Red Bull’s and then just for kicks slam another one. It’s getting warm as I keep climbing over false summit after false summit. I see my crew waiting for me at what I pray is the top and finally drop down the other side. The descent to Shoshone should be a great reward, but I do not enjoy it and even manage to stop on the way down struggling and wondering if I can do this. I decide to switch bikes as my butt is killing me. It turns out I was getting dehydrated by this point as I was not drinking nearly enough water on the Jubilee climb. I pull into Shoshone at close to noon and am have the panicky feeling caused by impending dehydration. The crew and I wait at a restaurant for lunch. Luckily the service was dead slow and I manage to relax and slam a couple of quarts of water. I start to feel alive again and decide to strap on the camelback for the ride into Baker. I find out that there are only a few teams behind me and decide that I better get moving if I want to finish this thing. Its already 12 Noon on Sunday and I have a long way to go. My crew mate Duc stops every 5 miles or so to give me water and dunk my head. It is only in the high 80’s but the water feels great. I start to really enjoy this section and get a euphoric feeling and start speeding up to 22-25 mph on the flats. Not sure where this energy is coming from, but I am not going to question it and hammer towards Baker.
The climb up to Ibex goes down easy and I enjoy the descent. My crew-mate Duc is doing a great job of keeping me hydrated and is dumping water over my head every couple of miles. It’s only in the high 80’s but the water feels great. I start to really enjoy this section and get this euphoric feeling about the day, and feel so lucky to be out here doing what I love. I go from being de-hydrated in Shoshone to feeling water-logged on the ride to Baker. This is fine by me and I get a big blast of confidence and start hammering at 20+ MPH on the flats. I start feeling confident that I can make it to the end. To this point I never thought once about the finish and only focused on the 100 feet of road ahead of me. It is scary to start thinking about the finish and I start to panic. Gotta ignore this. Keep riding. The finish will come. The outskirts of Baker come into view and before I can say Gyro, the Mad Greek restaurant comes in to view. My team graciously buys a bunch of Gyros and I eat one in 5 minutes. I wonder if I will pay for this down the road, but take off from Baker and Cross hwy 15. It’s now about 5:15 PM. I take it really slowly on the climb to Kelso summit. So slowly that I feel I am barely moving. I have no idea what is ahead of me and my team tells me very little. They say I have just a few miles of climbing ahead and I naively pedal forward thinking the summit will come any time. We put on the lights and the crew begins to follow me. Another hour goes by and I am still climbing. Is this ever going to end? The summit will never come. The moon pops its head over my left shoulder and I am still climbing. 2+ hours of climbing and I still climb. The road starts to deteriorate as I continue to climb. Rocky, rutted, and out of repair this, road is not fun 400+ miles into the ride. I am pretty tired and wondering if I can take this road. Finally I summit. The road improves for a short moment and than back into the rocks and ruts. I was praying for a celebratory descent after the endless climb and it never comes. I panic during this descent thinking I might miss out on an official finish of 48 hrs at this rate. I descend at a pathetic 10 MPH worried I will fall and thinking I am going to lose it after all this work. My crew is wondering why I descend so slowly. I tell them the road looks worse from my perspective, but I get the feeling they don’t believe me. This descent is the hardest thing for me so far on this ride and I really wonder if I will make it. I peer over the valley and see some tiny red lights on the Granite climb ahead. Its 930 PM by now. Those far off lights begin to give me a lot of doubt about my ability to get down this hill. If these roads continue to be so crappy my ride is doomed. Finally we get to the bottom!
I cross some train-tracks and check in to Kelso. I see the Blandy Dragon Tandem team pull in right behind me. I am starting to worry about the 48 hour cut-off. I do the math in my head and figure I need to cover about 11 MPH or so to make it. This seems like a piece of cake on a normal ride, but I have been riding and messing about for 38 + hours by this point and the doubt hangs over me.
I slam 2 more Red Bull and begin the next climb. I like this climb much better than the Kelso climb as it’s a bit steeper and feels more like the climbs at home. The IPOD is cranking at full blast. I start feeling euphoric on this climb. My mood has gone from depression to elation and I start blasting up this climb at 12-15 MPH. I have never enjoyed a climb this much in my life. 38 hours of riding and I am climbing better than I have ever climbed. I am built more like a linebacker than a cyclist and I tend to suffer up climbs but not now. I gracefully fly up the hill hoping my crew recognizes my amazing cycling prowess, and I get a small acknowledgement, but I can tell they are dead tired and not on a psychotic caffeine endorphin high like I am. I summit this climb around 10:30 PM. The Granite mountains to my right look mysterious and a bit scary to me at this point. The long descent begins and the mental fatigue makes what should be a fun descent hellish. How can a descent be tough? I scream out to the night sky pissed off about this awful descent and I have to stop several times on the descent before the flats lead us into almost Amboy. My crew wonders what is wrong with me and I feel I have to concentrate extremely hard on the descent or I might veer off into a ditch. As we pull into the Almost Amboy check-point I feel like we dropped into a bar 5 minutes before closing. The crew graciously cheers us on. There are only a couple of riders behind me now and I feel privileged these guys stayed up so late for us. It’s after midnight now. We have 58 miles to go. Were going to make it!! I slam my pineapple juice and get start the last section.
We are in the middle of nowhere, or so it seems. We pass a few deserted buildings in Amboy and start climbing. The torture of seeing the tiny red lights way up ahead happens again as I see tiny flashing lights far off in the distance snaking up a impossibly long climb. I look to my right and start to see a giant Elephant…or is it a wooly mammoth? The long tusks were bobbing up and down and it was at least 12 feet tall. I keep riding and start noticing monkeys and dears to the right. I keep pedaling and start to pick up the pace. I stop and grab a couple of red bulls. It seems the Red Bulls takes the edge off the hallucinations. I have never hallucinated before on a bike ride and it was actually fun. I ask the crew if they saw the Mammoth, but they say no. My sister who was on my crew tells me that these animals are my spiritual guides. Wow. This is really fun. The one benefit of being a slower rider is to experience the second night on the bike. All of us drawn to ultras are here to push ourselves way beyond anything possible in our normal life and this second night opens me up to the intensity of the 508 experience. I am being surrounded by mythical creatures as I climb this final hill and it helps frame this epic experience into something I will never forget. I relish every minute of this climb and am completely elated as I climb this endless climb. The summit finally comes and I imagine that there will be a long descent into 29 Palms. Little do I know that this “descent” is short lived and I will be riding into yet another slow climb into a nasty head wind.
I start climbing at around 4 AM. I hear I have maybe 18 miles to go and figure I can do that in 3 hrs. I am going to finish this thing. This final 18 miles is hellishly windy and very slow. I ride at maybe 9 miles an hour. I get passed by a rider who seems to be flying. It turns out that it was “Mammoth”. He tells me were almost home and going to make it. I am going my miserable 9 mph and stop for the 10th time it seems grabbing more diet coke and red-bull. I have not stayed up for 48 hours in many years and I feel this strange combination of tiredness and crazed alertness. Finally we make a left turn onto Utah Trail and we hit the outskirts of 29 Palms.
We get pulled over by a cop turning into town and he finds out what were up to and says how crazy we are. I know I am a bit crazy by now. I have been following a rider for the last 10 miles and it turned out it was another one of those spiritual guides my sister told me about earlier. It was great being escorted in by a phantom rider and crew into 29 palms. When you read stories about ultra athletes hallucinating you don’t believe it will happen to you. This phantom rider disappears as I ride through 29 Palm. This has been one of the greatest nights of my life. I pedal over one more insanely steep hill in 29 Palms and than we hit the finish line. Its 5:39 AM. I finish in 46:39 with an official finish.
My goal was to finish and somehow I managed to do it. My crew was amazing and managed to keep me in good spirits moving ahead. This is an amazing event and I highly recommend it to anybody ready to face the void and go a bit beyond what they believe is possible. I am very thankful to Chris Kostman and team for putting on an amazing event. This was one of the best experiences of my life and I will never forget it. It only took me a day or so before I began wanting to try it again some day. My wife and I just had a healthy baby girl, so it will be a little while before I get the chance to get in the kind of shape to tackle this again, but the Tapir will be back some day in the future.