By Scott Loon Dakus
I was well prepared for Furnace Creek this year with three bikes, the fabled green van complete with new wheel bearings so as not to repeat the embarrassing breakdown of RAAM '06, and I was coming off of at least five consecutive nights of eight-plus hours of sleep. What could possibly go wrong? Everyone was stoked, vehicle and bike inspection were done, the race meeting was done; there was nothing left to do but pedal. My daughter Casey (in the red shirt above) sang the national anthem, Chris gave his usual inspirational final words and the race was off at exactly 7AM. It was very misty out as we followed the escort through town and the start of the real race at San-Fran Canyon. I should note here that I beat Alpine Ibex up the first climb (the overpass next to the start hotel).
There was a westerly cross/tail wind that worked well until the start of the windmill climb. In previous years, I was mixing it up with some of the faster guys and this climb really hurt. This time I was pretty much alone and it hurt a lot less. In fact, for having a headwind, it was surprisingly easy to crest. I was either in better shape than I thought or riding slower than I thought. I coasted the tailwind descent down toward Mojave and guys I had passed on the climb rolled past me during that endeavor. The few turns that brought us into California City and Time Station #1 brought a mix of crosswinds and tailwinds; it was generally a swift trip. The crew had done quite a few hand-offs and seemed to have a good routine going; it was now time to leave behind civilization and head north.
Our time to the first TS was 4:12. That was plenty fast for me with the unpredictable winds we were experiencing. Between California City and the Randsburg climb, it started to get very windy. There were times when blowing dust left pretty much no visibility. Sometime during the endless rollers here, you pass the first 100 mile mark. I'm not exactly sure why it happened, but sometime in here, I started to wish the ride was over already. Usually this doesn't pop up until much later in the ride. I was at a point where I just wasn't having fun anymore and was starting to ask myself why I had signed up to do this again. I remember thinking that there wasn't anything wrong with doing a two-person or even four-person team. But I also knew that things would get better and the Monday morning cutoff would come whether I finished or not. The crew put me back on the Litespeed for the Randsburg climb and I rolled up pretty easily. At the bike exchange, we had a flat rear tire and the wheel was out of true; James fixed the flat, but I neglected to mention that the rim was a bit wobbly.
Tailwinds blew us along the plateau with the two pesky little climbs that followed. I was back on the softride for this portion and the rear wheel wobble was keeping me from rocketing down the descents. On the downhill to Trona, a spoke pulled right through the hub flange on the rear wheel and started making a heck of a racquet as it smacked against the seat stay each rotation. The van was by a minute later and we did a quick wheel swap. My replacement rear wheel was one that I have ridden on for about a million miles; it was reliable, but it was a back-up wheel. A mix of tailwinds and crosswinds brought us into Trona and TS #2. Our elapsed time was 7h34m for the first 153 miles; 20 mph… yeah there was a tailwind there somewhere.
The crew stopped at Trona and topped off the tank, made sure we had ice and water for the distance, and then found a guy making burritos outside a gas station. When they caught up to me a short time later and gave me one, I remember thinking it was one of the best burritos I had ever had. Not only was it great tasting and filling, but you could eat it with one hand. Riders were way more spread out now and we weren't even seeing many support vehicles anymore. The general pattern that emerged for me seemed to be that I would pass riders on the climbs, and then get passed back on the flats and even the descents. I was comfortable climbing hard, but had trouble developing any real power to drive the flats. Three weeks before the 508, I rode a 343-miler and perhaps I wasn't fully recovered from that ride, but I should have been. So far, the climbs had all been less of a burden than I remembered them in previous years. For example, in 2005, the windmill climb crushed me and seemed to go on forever; this year, even with the headwind, it was over before it even got steep. Townes Pass and Salsberry still to come have always been real bears for me; last time I even had to walk my bike for a mile up Townes Pass. I was starting to think that the big hills to come wouldn't be too big of a deal. The "Trona Bump" that they call the small climb between Trona and the Panamint Valley was the opposite though. I had never even considered it a real climb and now all of a sudden it was bearing some real teeth. Once we finally punched over it, there was a long descent into the valley to prepare you for the climb up Townes Pass.
This is where I saw my family for the first time. They had to stay for the 9AM start, because Casey was singing the national anthem for the team riders, too. I saw them a couple of times on the course, the last time was at Furnace Creek.
The southerly winds had kicked up considerably and I estimate the sustained wind speed was at least 30 mph. I was dreading the right turn to head up Townes. That turn comes at 200 miles and you have a ten-mile, 4,000 foot climb straight ahead of you. There is no easy way up this one. But, just because there is no easy way up the hill, didn't stop me from trying to find an easier way. I had constructed a bike especially for this climb; a fixed-gear Specialized Langster with everything stripped off. The gear on it was a tiny 34X21. Because of the crosswinds, I couldn't even take a hand off of the bars to grab a water bottle. That had to wait until we got a couple of miles up the climb and got some shelter from the topography. Even though I had too big of a gear on the bike (next time I would go with a 34X22 or 34X23), it worked great. I had a wonderful rhythm, was able to sit and stand, and I passed three or four folks and put some serious time on them. My favorite part of the race took place right near the top. I was about a mile from the summit, the road was flattening out, it was almost exactly 6PM so night-time rules were just coming into effect and the van had just pulled in behind to escort me for the next 13 hours, and a race official vehicle pulled up along side to chat. It was Chris Kostman. He saw what I was riding and asked if it was a fixed gear. I told him that it was and then he said, "Are you even allowed to do that?"
Back on the softride for the descent into Death Valley and the rollers on the deck. This is how you start a long night. At the start of the Townes Pass climb, I had honestly thought that DNF was a possibility. I had no idea how to ride through that wind. I even said to the crew that I didn't know what to do. The real decision would be made at a point that I call "The Corner." That is the right turn that takes place between Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. This is where you quit going north and start heading South. At this point, you can make an educated guess as to what the next 16 to 24 hours of your life will be like. At Stovepipe, we had horrible head winds, it was raining off and on, and there was an incredible light show from all sides. Most folks that have been to Death Valley a hundred times have never even seen a cloud; rain is almost unheard of. Riding in the rain is always fun and it was warm enough that I didn't need to alter any clothes. I still had my arm warmers on and just alternated between pulling them up and shucking them down depending on my comfort level and boredom level. We turned "The Corner" and I was in a crosswind; I could live with that. We pulled through Furnace Creek at 8:22PM (13h22m); we were halfway done! Which half is more difficult depends entirely on how much sleep you can operate on.
All the doubts about finishing that I had earlier were now gone; the rest of the ride could be broken into manageable chunks even if they were all with a head wind and right now there was no wind at all and the clouds were starting to break up; stars were coming out. Another beautiful, warm night in Death Valley. While stopping to change clothes, we got passed by a few riders and soon after we were moving again, we started to get passed by the leading relay teams. At this point in the race, you are forced to pull over every now and then to attend to something. It breaks up the night, helps you stay awake, and gives the crew a chance to switch drivers. There seemed to be a healthy dose of this going on for everyone that was in our section of Death Valley and I suspect for much of the rest of the race as well. I had spent much of the first day getting a bit dehydrated and behind in calories and was trying to make that up on what I have come to call "The Deck" (the floor of Death Valley). I rode easy and drank and ate until my arms were tired. Endless rollers took us to Badwater, more endless rollers took us to Ashford Mills and the place I love to hate; the climb out of Death Valley.
A 90 degree left starts the climbs of Jubilee and Salsberry. It was back on the Litespeed for this long, but not too steep exit hill; we are now about 300 miles in. By now my main concern was my left ankle. It started hurting at Townes Pass. At first I thought my buckle was too tight, but now it was obvious that I was brewing an overuse injury. In short, it was becoming very painful and difficult to flex my left foot upward or pull on the upstroke part of the average pedal stroke. The climb went peacefully, I repassed some of the same folks, threw on a vest and started the drop into Shoshone. I had a few episodes of being real loopy on the descent and saddle before Shoshone so we decided to take a 30 minute sleep break. I always plan on "Ironmanning" it with no sleep, but with the shifting wind I decided hours ago that I wasn't "racing" anymore, but rather "riding." I figured that I could get away with two thirty minute sleep breaks. One would be now at Shoshone, the next one would most likely be after Baker. We called out our totem to the friendly time station attendant and then hooked a one-eighty and parked behind the gas station where nobody would disturb us. We here now 326 miles in with a time of 19h16m; that made it 2:16AM. I was freezing from the descent. I put on long pants, a long jersey, and gloves and we all snuggled in for a 30-minute nap.
The 30-minute nap seemed to be over in 12 seconds; for the time being, I was refreshed and feeling great. We had no idea how many folks passed us while we were racked out, but the line of crew vehicles with flashing ambers up the road was uncountable. It seemed everybody was on the road to Baker with us. Two of my accomplices from our 2007 team RAAM effort sailed by during this stretch. Kevin was doing a two person mixed relay. He sailed by and shouted out as we were pulled over. He looked very strong. We pulled over a LOT on this stretch. I was now very well hydrated and my bladder was in a constant struggle to achieve equilibrium. A short time later, Erik passed us by. Erik was crewing for two other friends who were in the two man relay. They also looked like they were cruising very strong. We chatted for a few minutes and they were off. It can get very disheartening here. There are two things that never change on this stage. Soloists will get passed constantly by teams during this stage and the last 30 miles are very flat and very boring. Because of this, it is known as "The Baker Death March." The miles slowly ticked off. The mile posts here count down so you always know exactly how far you have to go. Twenty became ten, ten became five, and the last five faded away. The goal for me is always Baker by sunrise; we made it by a few minutes. Time Station #5 at 6:61AM; 382 miles down and 126 to go. How tough could that possibly be?
We pulled into the Chevron and I used an indoor bathroom and changed my clothes while the crew set me up with a microwave burrito. I hopped on the bike and ate it as I started up the gentle (but very, very long) Forever Hill while the guys did whatever it was they did in Baker. I suspect it had to do with gasoline and water and stuff like that; didn't need to know and didn't care. Every time I wanted something, I got it right away and every time I needed something they just gave it to me. Crew issues were never a concern. This section is a 24 mile easy grade with beyond horrible road surface; the closer you get to the top, the worse it gets. It is actually funny! Again I passed some of the familiar faces, crested the top, and coasted down to Time Station #6 in downtown Kelso. 417 miles in 26h53m. My favorite leg was next; the climb up Granite Mountain.
My ankle was killing me, but that was my only real issue and it wasn't even close to being a deal-breaker. I still couldn't generate any flat land power, but I was moving steady, the wind was either whisping erratically, not there at all, or even a tailwind. For early in day two, it was very hard to ask for more. I passed some more solo riders on the climb, got passed by a few more relays, crested the top and started the 20 mile plunge to Time Station #7. We hit it at exactly high noon and it was getting hot out. 451 miles in 29 hours. 57 miles, one climb, and the dreaded 20 mile headwind to the finish.
Sometime after we had finished, the crew commented that the last stage seemed to take a good, long time. I think it is like that for everyone involved in the race. I bet even the officials think this last stick seems long. There is a trip back four decades as you ride through Amboy and then a trip back two million years as you ride through the lava flows and leech fields of the "Whatever that stuff is Valley." Sheep Hole is the final climb; about ten miles worth. It gets steeper at the top and veterans know they are getting near the top when they pass the old Time Station #7 (better known as the "Penalty Box"). For the folks that climb this one in the dark, it is a punishment. At night, they can't see how the topography works and it turns into a series of false summits and cruel pitch changes. This endless climb eventually ended, too and we dropped down the other side and turned west and started to slice very slowly through the headwind toward the finish.
My time for the 2008 Furnace Creek 508 was 33h5m and made for my third solo finish in four attempts. From dinner that night to the ride home, all we talked about was the race. It is very addicting. Tracy and James are accomplished ultra-cyclists and both plan on competing in the 508 soon either in a relay or solo. My sister, Christine was just blown away with what she saw and all of them described it as an incredibly demanding and equally rewarding way to spend a weekend.
In closing, I just want to say thank-you to my crew. Anyone who has done anything like this knows that there is no such thing as a "solo" finish. It is a team effort; I was simply the pedaler. When I crewed for the 508, I felt like I had earned a finish medal, too and so should all three of my crew. Thank-you Tracy, Christine, and James. A great weekend with great friends!