By 508 Rookie Anna White Rabbit Boldon
In the spring of 2007 I was invited to be on a four-person team with two males and two females. I was honored to be asked, as my teammates were some pretty heavy-hitters in the world of ultra endurance sports. Me? I can count the number of marathons I've done on both hands, and I'd have a couple ironman triathlons under my belt come 508 race day. But if I had anything going for me, it was that I love to ride my bike, and I'm always game for new experiences.
In July, the two guys on our team made a proposal to my teammate Lisa and I. How would we like to ride as a two-woman team and the guys would crew us? After a week or so of wondering if we could really do it, we decided to accept their generous offer. This would be new territory for us both, but we were willing to rise up to the challenge.
By September, our crew chief Joe Gargoyle Garza (508 and Team RAAM veteran) kicked it into high gear with planning. We are all geographically separated by many miles (California, Nevada, Wisconsin and Washington), so our emails were frequent and many.
With just a few weeks left until the race, things were falling into place nicely and Lisa and I were pretty stoked about our upcoming adventure. As things go, however, we suddenly found ourselves with a small obstacle to overcome: our other crew person dropped out. It was down to Lisa, Joe and I.
Technically we could get away with this if we counted the non-riding cyclist as crew. But it was still our goal to get another crew person.
A week or so went by, and we still hadn't lined up a second crew person. Lisa was traveling in Greece, and she was concerned about being so far away and unavailable to help. I had some ideas for crew, but was told not to worry about it. Joe and our friend Chris would find us crew. Lisa and I were ordered to relax. We relaxed as nervously as we could.
Time passed, and we were finally a week out from the 508. Lisa was still in Greece and I received a concerned email from her explaining to me that she was feeling pretty sick, and she had serious reservations about riding. Let it be known that Lisa is about as tough as they come (as in 2007 Badwater Ultramarathon female champion tough). If she is having doubts about doing something, she means it. After some email dialog (the only means of communication we had at that point), we/she decided that it was best for her to not ride and to get well.
Doing the math, then, that leaves us with one rider and one crew. As it stood:
Dropping out didn't seem like a very suitable option. Since we were already in a pinch to find crew, finding another rider seemed highly unlikely. Riding solo appeared to be the easiest solution. Never mind that my longest ride this year was only 117 miles; I was going to give this solo thing a shot. What the heck? It'll be fun!
Fast forward to race day. We were fortunate to have found a ready, willing and able crew person in Steve Red Tail Hawk Scheetz. It definitely takes a 508 junkie to be eager to fly from the east coast on a moment's notice.
I had never met Steve before, so am doubly thankful that he was eager to come help a complete stranger. He was an excellent addition to the crew. His liveliness, dedication and humor helped keep spirits high throughout our time together out on the road.
I arrived at the starting line not very well rested, but happy to be there to take on this challenge that would be above and beyond anything I had ever experienced. I was very much at ease due to my two wonderful crew guys who were so supportive and optimistic that I could actually finish this thing.
As I waited at the start, I looked around to see if I could find my former coach Lisa Smith-Batchen, who was also lining up for her first solo 508 effort. As I was scanning the crowd, Steve Desert Duck Teal bumped my back wheel to get my attention. It was great to see a familiar face, and we wished each other good luck. I then spotted Lisa, and we blew good luck kisses to one another.
Soon enough the countdown to the start began, and we were off riding across town as a group. I chatted a bit with a few of the guys, and also with the young female rider Aye Aye. I really liked her totem. Although it's a symbol of death to humans in its native environment, it's awfully fun to say!
The miles flew by, and I was really enjoying the change of scenery from my native Wisconsin. I remember a nice comfortable climb, and before I knew it I was able to meet my crew for the first time at mile 24.4. They filled my gel flask up with some Espresso Hammer Gel—the closest thing I was going to get to my morning coffee.
I pedaled onward and upward. It was still early in the race, I was feeling good, and I was having the time of my life. I knew it wouldn't stay this fun and easy, so I really soaked it in. I loved seeing that long desert road ahead of me, another thing I knew I would not appreciate before too long, so I tried to enjoy it.
The windmill climb was spectacular, and felt good. I didn't, however, expect that the descent into Mojave would start to make my legs tired. Perhaps I shouldn't have pedaled so much on that descent; but it sure was fun flying down that stretch of road.
I played leapfrog with very tall gentleman for much of the first leg. I'm sorry to say I don't remember his name now, but he was wearing a shirt that read, "quitting is not an option." I committed that to memory so I could remember it later, should the idea of quitting even enter my mind. I was pretty sure it wouldn't, but hey—you never know!
I arrived at the first checkpoint in California City before 1:00PM. I stopped at my crew van, and had a seat in the luxurious folding chair they had set out for me. I munched on potato chips, while Joe worked on my left shoulder and my legs a bit. My legs were just a little tired and sore, and I often get pretty knotted up in my left shoulder. If we can keep the shoulder thing in check, I will be a happy cyclist.
This stage was brought me my first dose of frustration. So far, the climbs were pretty innocuous. But I wasn't ready for the seven-mile Johannesburg climb that started at mile 110.
This climb doesn't look bad at all, but this is merely an illusion. I was moving really slow, and couldn't figure out why. It just didn't look that steep! But the course outline specifically states, "the desert climb is steeper than it looks and grows progressively steeper."
I guess nobody told that to the female relay rider who blew past me like I was standing still. Man, she was speedy! She was kind enough to give me some encouraging words as she passed.
At the top of the climb there was a convenience store where my crew had stopped. I pulled over and took advantage of the real bathrooms inside. I sat for a bit and had Joe and Steve work on my legs and shoulders again. I was dilly-dallying here quite a bit, but eventually got back on my bike and back on course. The remainder of this leg into Trona seemed to take forever, but we made it there right around 6:00PM, which is when your crew vehicle is required to follow you for the next 11 hours.
I took some time to sit down and eat half of a burrito (real hot food!), and I took a hit of some caffeine in the form of an ice cold Coke. We took advantage of some photos ops with race director Chris Kostman, then Joe threw some arm warmers on me, and we headed out into the dusk.
I tried not to think about this stage, because I knew it was a tough one. About 44 miles into Stage 3 is the dreaded 13-mile, 3800-foot, climb up Townes Pass. I scoped this climb out in July when I was in Death Valley for the Badwater Ultramarathon, and my observations had me believing it wasn't as steep as I had feared. I was wrong.
I must say, though, that I had a lot of fun in those 44 miles before hitting Townes Pass. The climb up the Trona Bump seemed easy. Plus it was pretty cool having my crew vehicle behind me, and to see the lights of all the other riders and their crew vehicles making their way up ahead of me.
The descent into the Panamint Valley was downright thrilling! By now it's fully dark. Although I had lights on my bike, they weren't terribly bright, so the headlights of the crew vehicle were my primary source of light. The first portion of this descent is very winding. Whenever I'd go around a curve, the lights behind me would disappear for just a few seconds. I'd brake a bit out of uncertainty about what was ahead, but it was pretty fun to be blindly heading into the dark at breakneck speeds.
Once this descent was over, the road surface was really terrible. I tried to keep going, but this bone-jarring stretch got the better of me mentally—I'd had enough and just needed to take a short break.
I sat in the deluxe folding chair while chatting up my crew and watching other cyclist and crews ride by. This is when the most memorable moment happened. An approaching crew vehicle had set up a nice sound system with music playing through speakers on the roof of the vehicle. It was loud, and it was awesome because they were playing "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane. Better yet, it was the dramatic end where they're screaming "Feed your heeeeeaaaaaaad!"
Joe, Steve, and I cheered wildly as they passed. I mean really, does it get any more perfect than that? I don't think so.
After that inspirational moment, I got back on my bike and braved that crappy road again.
We were almost to the right turn toward the Townes Pass ascent where the road gets better, when I simply had to take a break from this road again. I didn't know I was that close, but I'd already gotten off my bike. Besides, I needed to find a bush. So, I took care of business and got back on the bike for the dreaded climb.
So there I was. I'd made it to Townes Pass, and it was a spectacular sight once again to see the lights of all the riders and crews ahead of me. I was feeling pretty positive going into this climb, but I quickly became frustrated and demoralized because it was so much steeper than I had bargained for. Steve assured me that the first part is steep, but then it gets better. Honestly, it all felt the same to me. Steep, steep, steep, and long, long, long.
It was from this point on that I learned a whole hell of a lot about ultracycling. It's really nice when you can learn from the mistakes of others. But when you learn from your own mistakes, you are sure to not repeat them.
My big mistake was stopping too much going up Townes Pass. I was so frustrated, that I simply gave in to every urge to stop and rest. If I had just gutted it out and pedaled non-stop to the summit, I could have avoided so much lost time.
It also would have worked in my favor if I hated my crew! Okay, so I'm obviously being ridiculous here, but they were super fun to hang with. I recall at one point saying, "I'm having a lovely time here with you two, but I really need to get back on my bike now." I guess the lesson here is to give your crew instructions to not let you needlessly lounge around too much!
After too much stopping and a couple short naps (I was getting pretty tired), I finally made it to the summit. I stopped to put on layers, as I was absolutely freezing, then I zoomed down the other side.
Joe warned me that if I got tired on the descent, that the plan was to pull me into the van and have me sleep for longer than ten minutes. He was thinking an hour or more. As luck would have it, I did fall asleep twice on the descent. You'd think it would be rather alarming to wake up and realize you're blazing down a mountain pass on your bike. But honestly, I was so tired, it was not nearly as shocking as it should have been.
Into the van I went. Joe cleared a spot, set a foam mattress down, and I was out. I don't know how long, but I felt much better when I woke up. I seem to recall it was in the four o'clock hour when I got back on the bike. Ouch. That's a lot of lost time.
Speaking of time, it was time to get out my iPod. I needed some kind of external motivation. It was a long, boring road from here to Furnace Creek and musical entertainment would serve me well. On went the iPod, and off went White Rabbit! Honestly, I may not have been riding fast, but I felt like a speeding bullet.
All was perfect in my world now. I now had a soundtrack for this unique experience of riding through the desert in the dark just before the dawn. As the sun started to come up, I couldn't help but smile from ear to ear, and to acknowledge how thankful I was to be right here right now. I was in a beautiful place doing something I loved (riding my bike) with some really cool people in the crew van behind me.
As I said, it's a long road. As the light of day revealed the desert landscape I kept hoping that Furnace Creek was just around that next bend. It never was.
Impatience got the better of me once again, and I signaled my crew to pull over so I could whine a little bit, and ask them just how far until this mythical place they call Furnace Creek? I'd been there plenty of times, so I was pretty sure it was real. But who's to say it hadn't gone the way of the Lost City of Atlantis? Steve and Joe assured me it was within a few miles, so I got back on the bike and pedaled until we got there.
Alas! Furnace Creek! This is the approximate halfway point of the race. Steve officially congratulated me on riding more than twice as far as I ever had in my life. Joe put me in the deluxe folding chair, and served me a hot cup of chicken noodle soup. Ah...wonderful!
Once I polished off the soup, Joe put down the foam mattress so I could do some leg stretches. I had started to develop some pain above my left knee up into my quads in the last few miles of the Townes Pass ascent, and it was getting worse. Between stretching, massage, and bike adjustments, hopefully we could keep it at bay. My crew made a seat height adjustment, we took advantage of real bathrooms, then we hit the road again.
Now that it was a new day and the sun was officially up and shining down on me, I was feeling happier and more optimistic. My knee still felt pretty painful even after the seat adjustment in Furnace Creek; but after another quick roadside adjustment it felt much better, and I could pedal with minimal pain.
As I made my way down the road to Badwater, a couple other riders passed me. One of them caught me singing out loud to my iPod—poor guy. We made a brief stop when we reached Badwater. My crew reorganized the van, and I changed into fresh clothes. What better way to start into a new day than with clothes that don't stink? Actually, there was one better way. That was to fill one of my water bottles with the deliciously caffeinated elixir called Starbucks Frappuccino. Coffee is always a great way to greet a new day, no matter where you are.
Although we were still seeing a few riders at this point, I was seriously concerned about my ability to finish. We reached the halfway point in about 24 hours. Completing the second half in the same amount of time seemed questionable now that I was on tired legs AND I had never ridden anywhere near this far ever in my entire life. Nonetheless, I let this concern pass through my mind and I replaced it with more positive thoughts. All I could do was to keep pedaling, and to stay happy. No matter what happens, I'm going to say I had fun out here, dammit!
And so I rode, and rode, and rode, and rode.
Then came Jubilee and Salsberry Passes. These climbs severely challenged my optimism. I tried to stay cheerful, but by the time I got to the midway point of Salsberry Pass I was extremely frustrated. It's a long climb (9.5 miles), and I was moving so slow. I was also stopping a lot for short breaks just out of frustration. It's not that it was physically hard, it was just long. I was impatient, and I wanted this climb to be over.
My only saving grace at this point was the constant supply of orange slices that Joe kept handing off to me through the passenger side window. They were cold and tangy and perfect. You have to find joy in the small things sometimes!
After what seemed like an eternity, I made it to the top. I insisted that my crew document my summit with me posing in front of the Salsberry Pass sign while gesturing my sentiments.
The descent was a lot of work (horrible headwind), and it seemed like another eternity before I made it to the next time station in Shoshone.
Friendly checkpoint volunteer Eric Ostrich Ostendorff approached me, and we talked a bit. He said I was remarkably cheerful and coherent compared to most other riders coming through around this time. This made me feel a little better, but then he laid the truth on me. He would be shutting down the time station soon (at 3:00PM), and I was really bumping up against that 48-hour time limit. If I kept the same ride and rest schedule I would make it. But I HAD to keep to that same schedule.
I knew this without him telling me, but there was something about hearing it told to me in plain English that made me completely crumble. I didn't want to talk to anyone or I was going to be all girly and cry. But Steve made me look him straight in the eyes so he could assure me they would do everything they could to get me to the finish; but he stressed that safety was of the utmost importance.
I lost it.
I may not have been prepared for this, but I wanted so badly to finish. I knew I could finish if I was smart and did things right, but I had pretty well blown that strategy by now.
I tearfully mounted my bike and hit the road once again. At long last, I had a tailwind. Angry and determined, I pedaled as hard as I could on my tired legs. But it wasn't long before my tailwind disappeared. It took an incredible amount of effort to keep moving, and this stretch of road to Baker is just about the most boring place on earth.
A little after 5:00 we pulled over so I could eat some real food. A turkey and cheese sandwich constructed by chef Joe was on the menu, as was some tomato juice that Steve so stylishly served to me in a Starbucks Frappuccino bottle.
I wasn't back on the road for too long before my comfort on the bike crossed over the line from pretty uncomfortable to downright miserable. Over the course of the race, I had tried three different saddles before I found one that was comfortable. I wasn't having much better luck with any of my four pairs of shorts.
It's funny how you can just get a random bad day like this. I've been comfortable on one saddle for years, but not this weekend. And I've only once had trouble with my favorite pair of shorts. Well, make that twice now. It would figure that this would happen on a 508 mile ride.
I finally couldn't stand it, and pulled over to try and rectify the situation. Joe had brought a pair of his own Assos shorts just in case I needed them. Now that I was at the point of desperation, I was going to give men's shorts a try.
They felt okay. Of course, there's padding in different places for guys, so it was different. They felt great when I rode in the hoods. Trouble is, I could pretty much only tolerate riding aero at this point. There was simply too much padding for comfort in those girl parts that take all the seat pressure while in the aerobars. But what was I going to do? Nothing else was any better, so I went with it.
At least for a while. When I hit my tolerance level with Joe's shorts, I had to switch back to my dirty Craft shorts. Steve seemed to understand that I was asking for my "dirty crap." No, Steve. Just the dirty Crafts, thank you!
Back on the bike in my dirty Crafts, it was me versus that long boring road again. At some point I remember something that Joe told me about this stretch. He said, "You'll know you're on the boring road to Baker when you start riding like this" — at which point he demonstrated putting his head in his hands with his elbows resting on a solid surface. Not having anything else to do, I tried it. Yup, that seemed about right...
Night came, and by this time I was using Steve's iPod since my batteries had run dry. I recall specifically seeing the lights of Baker in the distance. They never seemed to get closer. I was getting ornery; I just wanted to get to Baker.
Soon enough, this Doors song started playing. I don't know the name of the song. I am not a Doors fan, but I was really glad to be distracted by this song that I sincerely thought was the dumbest song I had ever heard. (And I mean that in the nicest way possible.)
And so Jim Morrison's stoned ramblings brought me into Baker, where we stopped at a gas station to fuel up, and Steve ran to the Mad Greek for some food. I sat in the van and ate the other half of the delicious turkey and cheese sandwich leftover from my lunch stop. Amused, I watch Joe practically bouncing around the gas pump. Where on earth is he finding that energy? It's not like he's slept much either! Incredible.
The time station volunteers in Baker had packed up and gone home. I pretty much expected this to be the case, so I didn't let it bother me too much. I was still feeling positive. That was before I knew what was in store for me in stage six.
I put on some arm warmers and leg warmers before venturing out into the darkness of stage six. Joe warned me that this stage contains what is dubbed the "forever climb." It's a very gradual ten-mile climb that never seems to end.
He wasn't kidding. I never thought a gradual climb could mentally destroy me so badly. I felt like I was moving at a pretty good speed, but I just kept going up and up and up. I was also having temperature control problems, so I was stopping a lot to add and subtract layers. It was to the point of being ridiculous, but I just couldn't tolerate being too hot or too cold. If anything good came out of all the clothing changes, it was that I switched to my own cycling tights which solved all my saddle discomfort. My butt felt great! Small victories.
I was also getting very tired. I tried to push myself hard to keep going. Relative to the number of times I was tempted to pull over, I was doing a pretty good job. But by regular standards, maybe not so much.
Finally, I simply had to try taking a short nap. I climbed into the van and shut my eyes for about ten minutes. I couldn't fall asleep, but it seemed to do me some good, as I did feel a little better when I started riding again. Still ornery, but better. This is when Steve's iPod came to the rescue again. I felt like I was at the height of frustration when "Big Balls" by AC/DC started playing. I'm sorry, but I don't think there's a good-humored person on earth who can't get a good laugh out of this song. I was laughing out loud.
About halfway up, one of the two volunteers at the Kelso time station drove back to find us. His name was Kyle, and he wanted to let us know that they would stay open until we got there. Our friend Bruce, who is an AdventureCORPS veteran on both the competitor and volunteer front, was the other volunteer at Kelso. I was thrilled to hear this news, as I knew it would be nice to see a familiar face once I got there.
Steve and Joe warned me that in the last few miles of this climb, the road gets really bad, and stays bad through the entire descent into Kelso. There is no way I can convey to anyone who hasn't been there just how terrible this road is. All I can say is that riding on trails would feel better. It was awful and utterly bone jarring.
Shaken to the core, I made it to the Kelso time station. Bruce and Kyle were there to greet us. I crawled into the passenger seat of the crew van.
My plan from the time I realized I might not make it was to ride until I either made it to the finish or until 48 hours had elapsed. But as I sat there in the van, I decided that I had nothing to gain by continuing to ride. At this point it was impossible for me to finish within the time limit of 48 hours. Sure, I could keep riding and be able to say that I made it to time station seven in Almost Amboy. That would be nice, but it wouldn't make me feel any more satisfied than I was right now.
I started thinking about Joe and Steve. When this race is over, Joe and I were getting right back into the van to drive back to Vegas. I knew I'd be too trashed to drive, and that Joe wouldn't be feeling a whole lot better than I would. The best and safest plan of action was to call it a day. It was 1:30AM. The three of us could drive to Twentynine Palms, where we had rooms, and get a few hours of sleep before going home.
As I sat there enjoying the heat of the van, Joe poked his head in the passenger window and asked what the plan was. He pretty much knew, but wanted to hear it from the horse's mouth. Or more correctly, from the White Rabbit's mouth.
With an elapsed time of 42:29, I officially DNF'd. I was disappointed that I didn't finish. But I did reach a number of notable milestones:
As my friend Beth and I like to say, "Go big or go home." I had, without a doubt, gone big for my first ultracycling event. Granted, it was a series of unplanned events that got me here. But I could have just thrown in the towel when I lost my two-person teammate. Rather, I gave this solo effort a shot. It's one of the best decisions I've ever made.
I recently heard a great quote that goes something like this: "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want."
I wanted to finish, but I didn't get that. Instead, I got an experience that words can't describe. I'm not so sure I would've had the courage to do the 508 solo if left to my own devices, so I'm glad I fell into it the way that I did. I'm thankful for this first ever DNF and for this remarkable experience that taught me so much.
Like the credits in a movie, I can't just end this report without giving credit where credit is due.
Joe: You are truly the best. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into the preparations and planning, and for your incredible generosity and kindness. Your experience as an ultracyclist and as a 508 veteran were invaluable when I had questions or needed advice. Also, thanks for being my personal taxi service, hotel, masseuse, orange peeler, drink mixer, and ginger candy supplier.
Steve: How did I get so lucky snagging you for crew? Thanks for enthusiastically agreeing to fly all the way across the country to crew for a complete stranger. I swear you knew every inch of the course, and you were always able to tell me what was ahead and what to expect. When my brain was so fried I couldn't think, you thought for me. Thanks, and I want to see you take four Endurolytes!
Chris: Thanks for inviting me to be on what started out as a four-person AdventureCORPS team, and for your support and help when it dwindled down to just me as rider and Joe as crew. I've said it before, but now that I have a competitor's viewpoint for a change, I'll say it again—your events are top notch, and you do good work!
Lisa: I'm disappointed we didn't get to ride as a two-woman team, and I know we would have had so much fun as team Swift Foxes. You made the right decision, though, and I thank you for your support and confidence as I went into this crazy adventure! I'm tempted to say "I couldn't have done it without you," but the more accurate statement would be, "I couldn't have done it with you!"
"Ultraman" Ann: Thanks for being the only other person who still needed to do long rides after Ironman Wisconsin! You're a fantastic training partner, and I think there should be a 508 in your future. Thanks for all your support, concern, help, and cheerleading.
Bruce: Thanks for letting me gallivant off to Death Valley once again. Even more, thanks for not complaining when this meant getting home utterly exhausted and useless on our anniversary. Thank you for insisting on coming to Milwaukee with Amanda to get me. I surely would have fallen asleep at the wheel if you hadn't.
Greg and Amanda: You guys are just too cool for words. Thanks for cleaning my bike and shipping it, Greg. Amanda, thanks for driving to Milwaukee with Bruce in the wee hours on a school night to make sure I made it home safely. And thanks for helping me eat those Terra Chips!
Pat and Warren: You guys really know how to get stuff done. Thanks for playing the middleman, Pat. Thanks for the great artwork, Warren.
HeadHunters: Wow, what an outpouring of support! Thanks everyone! Notable thanks to Mark (a.k.a. "Joey"). Thanks for keeping me in check mentally and for being my partner in "death by chocolate" crime.
Team242: Thanks for the entertaining barrage of emails in the week before the race. You never cease to make me laugh so hard I want to pee my pants (Tom W, your message was the funniest). Notable thanks to T$ for getting right on that artwork request. I promise to use it next time!