By David Mudcat Holt
"I'd like to thank everyone who helped me to make it to the finish line…Extra special
thanks to the nuns of Ascension Catholic School who made me feel worthless enough
to want to do this." -Vinnie Tortorich October, 2008
In 2006 Vinnie Tortorich raced the Furnace Creek 508. He DNF'd just before Shoshone, 315 miles into the race. In July, 2008, Vinnie raced the Race Across Oregon. He DNF'd 400 miles into the race. Vinnie raced the 508 again this year. He finished with a very good time of 33 hours 48 minutes in the top twenty of the male solo division. But don't go away--there's more to the story.
Vinnie has being cycling since he finished playing Division 1A football at Tulane University in the 80s. As a linebacker he had followed a regimen to add bulk to his six-foot frame. He topped out at 270 pounds. Not wanting to continue gaining weight after football, Vinnie "bought" (or so he says) a bicycle and began riding it everywhere. He got his weight down to 170 pounds where he has maintained it. He owes a lot to that bicycle. Otherwise, rather than Townes Pass, gastric by-pass would be our topic.
Twenty-five years pass. Through hard work and self-discipline Vinnie has become a personal trainer to the rich, famous, and insane of Beverly Hills. But that self-discipline has come with a price. Vinnie has never completely come to terms with the sense of wretchedness and worthlessness instilled in him by the Catholic nuns of his childhood school years. Self-esteem, so popular in recent education philosophies, was not part of Vinnie's schooldays curricula. So, naturally, Vinnie develops a fascination for the torment, pain, and suffering involved in the tormented sport of ultra-cycling. Alas, double centuries and 24-hour races are insufficient for purging his wretched being of its wretchedness. So, in '05 he answers a posting to crew for the 508 so that he can see the race course before taking it on himself.
After the DNF with a knee problem in '06 Furnace Creek, Vinnie is determined to resume the torture in '07. Vinnie is a very strong climber and in training he rides just about every climb from Beverly Hills to Santa Barbara multiple times. It is August—hot—but Vinnie is getting cold and shivering on the descents. He isn't responding to the training. He goes to his doctor to figure out what's wrong. While out on a training ride his doctor calls him and tells him to cease and desist immediately. The diagnosis: cancer—LEUKEMIA. The cells in his bone marrow are 80% cancerous. Within days he's undergoing chemotherapy 24x7. Pain, torment, fear, suffering, purgation—Vinnie gets it in spades.
You hear stories about people who recover from life-threatening experiences. They have a whole new perspective. They change. They want to slowdown and take time to smell the proverbial roses; become more concerned and sensitive to the needs of those close to them; more loving.
Not Vinnie. By the end of the year he is back on his bike and spinner sweating out the poisons and trying to get his blood and hormonal chemistry back into balance. There's another 508 in the upcoming year and there is much work to do to get ready.
It's race day, Saturday morning at the Hilton Garden Inn in Santa Clarita. At the start line it's cool but not cold. I encourage Vinnie to wear a light vest for the unsupported leg of the race up San Francisquito Canyon, but nothing heavier. We also agree that Vinnie will go out easy. This has been a theme since the DNF at RAO where he had gone out fast and was in the top five throughout the first half of the race—only to have stomach problems in the second half causing him to fall far behind in race nutrition.
Vinnie's crew consists of Serena Scott Thomas, Steve Jackson, and me. Serena first crewed for Vinnie at RAO. There she went from novice to experienced crew professional in no time. Her ability to catch-on to crew responsibilities and her enthusiasm for taking on all crew tasks were quite remarkable. I am happy to see her back. Steve Jackson is new to crewing and ultra-cycling, but his experience and enthusiasm for all things outdoors makes him a quick study and excellent crew member. His contribution to solving a problem with nutrition later in the race is critical to Vinnie's success. More on that later.
We drive ahead to the rendezvous point. At the top of Johnson Road it is drizzling, the wind is howling, and the cloud cover is so low that at times it's a fog. It is cold. Vinnie has lived most his life in Louisiana and Southern California. He doesn't like the cold. At a RAO training camp in June of '06 I had seen him so cold and shivering so badly that it frightened me. (In hindsight, I think he may already have been in the early stages of cancer.) In my imagination, after encouraging him to dress lightly, I can see him coming up Johnson Road, an hour after everyone else, shivering, chattering and needing to sit in the car for half an hour to warm-up.
Vinnie is over the top of Johnson Road within minutes of the race leader. He's not shivering, he's not stopping, and he certainly isn't taking it easy. So much for pre-race strategy.
Through the windmills section, Mojave, California City, the climb to Randsburg, and the rollers and descent into Trona, Vinnie rides fast but under control, taking advantage of a tailwind when it offers itself and holding the bike up steady with his broad shoulders when the road turns and the lovely tailwind suddenly becomes a vicious crosswind.
The position that Vinnie must maintain on the bicycle is remarkable in its inefficiency. As a consequence of too many unfriendly encounters with offensive guards, tackles, and running backs in his football years, his right shoulder is void of any cartilage. He rides upright in a climbing position even on the flats and downhills. He doesn't bother with aerobars because he can't get into the position, and he uses the drops only occasionally and briefly. He may have to push 20 watts or more extra to maintain the same speed as someone in a good wind-cheating, aerodynamic position. The constant pain in his shoulder varies only in its degree.
We leave Vinnie just before Trona and drive ahead to get gas and re-supply at the station there. Vinnie passes through third. More importantly, over at the side of the gas station, next to the restrooms, they're grilling burritos. Serena buys us each one. We all three agree that these are the best burritos we have ever eaten. Seriously. An interesting but light sauce, a scattering of cilantro…but I digress.
Vinnie continues to ride well after Trona and into the Panamint Valley. He makes the right turn to Townes Pass in an amazingly fast time. He'll have time to climb the pass and be in Death Valley well before the 6:00p night rules curfew.
Going up Townes Pass Vinnie begins to experience stomach distress that's a little too reminiscent of his problems at RAO ten weeks before. He wants Pellegrino rather than regular water. (Italians, what can you say…) Serena and I, having witnessed Vinnie's demise at RAO because of stomach issues, are concerned. It's here, I think, where Steve Jackson first mentions the over-the-counter remedy that he uses for stomach distress. Vinnie chooses to continue on without experimenting with a medication he has never used before.
Vinnie reaches the Townes Pass summit and doesn't stop. It's still broad daylight. As he descends into Death Valley, we see a most remarkable, but intimidating, display.
Serena is an excellent photographer. She, with some help from Steve, captures some amazing sights. Death Valley is alive.
Vinnie rides through it all. Rain, crosswinds, blowing sand, lightening, two rainbows. Bolts of lightening come down in long, thick, jagged lines and look like they could be striking the road just a couple of miles ahead. Shamelessly, the crew considers the possibility that with each violent lightening strike Vinnie could be moving up in the standings.
It seems that all the elements have assembled for an all-night showdown in the Valley of Death—one big, bad, dark night of the soul. Think Lt. Dan riding out the hurricane atop the mast of Forrest Gump's shrimp boat, battling with Mother Nature, the Deity, his Destiny, and maybe those same nuns in Louisiana that Vinnie has an issue with.
Then something unexpected happens. About half-way between Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek the rain stops, the winds die down, and the lightening recedes. It is calm and pleasant for the rest of the weekend.
O' well. Maybe there'll be a sequel…
But the battle between Vinnie and his stomach continues. He is consuming fewer calories as the race goes on. By Furnace Creek he has dropped back to seventh. A familiar pattern is emerging. At RAO he had ridden a strong race until the halfway point where insufficient calorie intake began to catch up with him.
Through the climbs of Jubilee and Salisbury Vinnie's rate of progress begins to decay, stopping once for a short nap. By the time we arrive at Shoshone Vinnie has dropped to thirteenth. Compounding Vinnie's sensitive stomach issue, his shoulder issue, and his one-year-since-cancer issue, is his strong circadian rhythms. I think he struggles during the night because his body demands sleep more so than perhaps other racers. At Shoshone Vinnie takes another nap. We leave Shoshone at least two places further back than we had arrived.
The race leg between Shoshone and Baker is Vinnie's worst. Conditions are good and Vinnie should make good time on this the least difficult of the 508's eight stages. But his stomach continues to bother him and disrupts any momentum that he tries to generate. We stop for one short rest and finally an extended nap. Vinnie is down for almost 30 minutes.
For a crew member, it is a great time to stand outside the support vehicle while Vinnie sleeps. There's the Milky Way above, Orion to the southeast, and the Big Dipper setting in the north. Several shooting stars appear and in a split-second are gone. This leads me to contemplation and the formulation in my head of this very profound question, "Vinnie, dude, what are you doing? People are passing us and they're not all team racers. Get up and get your wretched butt moving!"
Meantime, rookie crew member Steve Jackson keeps advocating that Vinnie try Steve's upset stomach remedy. I pretty much ignore him because of that age-old, ultra-cycling adage that you never experiment with something new during a race. Besides, Steve is, after all, (snort) a rookie. Serena, however, listens to Steve and takes the message to Vinnie. He agrees to give it a try.
Vinnie gets back on his bike and rides into Baker. It is 6:45a. I am afraid of what the rest of the day may hold. Vinnie may finish, but it could be a long, hard slog. We are still under night rules as we roll into the time station. Without stopping, perhaps in a bit of a daze, Vinnie makes a left into the Mad Greek restaurant parking lot. Although it's daylight, strictly speaking that's against the rules since we are not directly behind him for about 30 feet. Fortunately, we don't get a time penalty. (I mention this only to lend evidence against the theory that legendary race official Cindi Staiger is at all places on the race course at all times ready to cite a rule violator.)
After checking into the Time Station we pull into the Mad Greek. Vinnie is already there and, lo and behold, has ordered a big breakfast. He is splayed out in a booth with a milkshake that features whipped cream, a red cherry on top, and a cute little multi-colored parasol as garnish.
This is a wonderful sight! Vinnie is eating—and also demonstrating that even in the Spartan and gritty sport of ultracycling one can still channel ones inner Martha Stewart.
It takes us almost an hour to get out of Baker—a combination of restocking, recalibrating, and waiting for Vinnie to finish eating. Steve Jackson's stomach remedy is apparently working.
I'm not sure what to expect as we leave. Vinnie has eaten well, but Shoshone to Baker had been a struggle. Will we be revisited before Kelso by all that Vinnie has eaten at Baker?
Vinnie Tortorich is an athlete. He is fit, muscular, and aerobically strong. But it isn't his athleticism that gets Vinnie from Baker to the finish. The rest of the way Vinnie is all business. He isn't fast but neither is he slow. He stops a few times but always briefly and with a purpose. He left Baker in 20th place overall and arrives at the finish in the same position. No complaints, no drama, no excuses—just focused on the task at hand. Pain, suffering, and weakness may permeate his body, but willpower—with the aid of better nutrition—provides a firewall that keeps them from overwhelming his mind.
Serena, Steve, and I were very privileged to have crewed for a 508 finisher who, a little more than a year ago, was extremely ill with a life-threatening, life-changing disease. His determination to finish the 508 was something to see.
Besides Serena, Steve, and me, Vinnie really had a fourth crew member. Vinnie has a great friend in Mehran Salamati. Mehran crewed for Vinnie at RAO in July and Furnace Creek in '06. He also helped Vinnie with preparation for this year's 508. He helped Friday afternoon and was at the start Saturday morning to help again, but other commitments kept him from going along in the vehicle.
Sunday morning, when we gave Mehran the word that Vinnie was going to finish, he organized a group of Vinnie's friends for a trip to Twenty-nine Palms in his six-seater airplane. Initially, Mehran thought he would do a flyover as Vinnie made his way down Amboy Road to the finish. At first I thought that would be really cool. Then I remembered rule 7.C.:
"... Note: Any vehicle associated in any way with any racer(s) is considered a ‘support vehicle,'
thus "unofficial" support vehicles or family/friend cheering squads are not allowed."
On the other hand, you could make an argument that a plane flying overhead is not really on the race route and therefore not a support vehicle. But then I recalled General Rule 1.J.:
"The Race Director has the authority, at any time, to overrule any rule or invent a new rule…"
And despite the small evidence to the contrary back at Baker, I still wasn't convinced that legendary race official Cindi Staiger wouldn't be at all places at all times to observe the flyover. So, I was a little worried about it. It also occurred to me that I would probably jump out of my Red Bull saturated skin if Mehran flew too low while we negotiated the Sunday p.m. traffic on Amboy Road.
Well, Mehran did not do the flyover, but he and Vinnie's friends were at the finish line to greet him.
It was a happy occasion. Vinnie has great friends.
I suspect that Vinnie will return to ride the 508 again. I'm pretty sure he has yet to get his full strength back from the cancer and chemotherapy. If he can limit his time off the bike, somehow improve his aerodynamic position, and continue to work on his race nutrition, he could finish very high in the standings. Of course, the nuns of Ascension Catholic School will continue to be there to help him down the road to the finish line whenever he needs them.