By Scott Loon Dakus
I couldn't believe how tired my brain was, but how awake my body was. I layed down in the dirt in front of the van and closed my eyes and was instantly asleep.
Five or ten seconds later someone said something and my eyes popped open and I could see stars. They weren't blurry or fuzzy, but there were definitely two sets of them and it seemed like I was watching a movie as the two images rotated into one.
I closed my eyes again and slept for maybe another minute and again when someone spoke, my eyes opened and the process repeated itself; one set of stars held still and the other spun around until they made one image. I sat up; my son saw me getting up and held out his hand to assist.
When I got to my feet, I wiped the dirt from my backside and grabbed the bike. Andy had already replaced the water bottle with a fresh one. He asked me if I needed anything, I said no, and he climbed back in the van as I maneuvered the bicycle over to the shoulder of the road. I swung my leg over the top-tube and clicked a foot into the pedal. As I looked over my shoulder to make sure Cynthia was ready to start driving, it was easy to see a couple of other riders and their support vehicles were about to overtake us. So I stood by the side of the road, straddling my bicycle, as they slowly forced their bikes past us. I recognized the first rider; it was Jennifer "Sooty Shearwater"; I didn't recognize the second rider. Perhaps he was a solo rider… perhaps he was part of a relay. He was riding much faster and would soon pass Jennifer.
I started pedaling, clipped in the other foot and the van filed in behind. Soon we were up to about six miles per hour and back into the grind of ascending the dreaded Townes Pass. Townes Pass comes at the 200 mile point of the annual Furnace Creek 508 mile bicycle race. It is a very straight-forward test; 4000 feet of elevation gain in nine miles. There is quite simply no easy way to get up it. You suffer; everyone suffers to get up this hill. The nine miles of this climb reveal all the mistakes you made throughout the day to this point and punishes you for each day of lax training the previous six months. Though we were going quite slowly, even for a steep hill, we were moving steady and I felt like I was keeping a little reserve in the tank. On this same climb six years before, I was reduced to walking my bike; I never, ever want to do that again…. racers ride, riders walk; that was my thinking. At least for now, I'm still a racer, even though I was starting to feel a lot more like a rider. Usually you start these events feeling pretty good and it slowly gets worse, but that's not how it went this time. From the start, I was in debt and had been struggling to overcome dehydration and a general lack of any sort of power or energy.
The race started at a hotel in Santa Clarita, California at 7am with a field of 70 solo riders. After a brief parade of about 5 miles, they are expected to start spreading out and will ride the entire distance individually; group riding is strictly prohibited. Spreading out is pretty easy as the climbs come very early. As soon as we started up Sanfransisquito Canyon, the first real climb, I noticed that there were several riders ahead of me that usually aren't and my legs just didn't have any ‘snap' in them. I just figured that I'd warm up slowly and shake off the morning fuzzies and that soon everything would just sort of work out, but it never did. During those first few miles is one of the only times you get to see and talk with some of the folks you know out on the course and that's what made this year very special to me. This year I had several friends competing: Kevin "Wolverine" Walsh, Eddie "Borracho Burro" Hladek, Steve "Giant Water Bug" Gray, Mark "Borzio" Dolginoff, Jennifer "Sooty Shearwater" Scharf, and Reed "Flamingo" Finfrock. In this race each competitor has a "totem" assigned for life; mine is "Loon." Having friends out on the course is very motivating. When you arrive at a time station, you can see how far ahead of you they are and that is very encouraging; also it is quite motivating to know that even though you are having a tough time at some point, you have a friend that is way behind you on the road and they aren't quitting, so there is no way that you're going to quit either. As the race was just starting, I was expecting to be ahead of all of them, but I was in the middle, riding near Reed with just Steve and Mark behind me. As the climbing began, Reed and I flip-flopped a bunch of times. I crested the first hill about a minute ahead of him, but broke a spoke on my front wheel and had to descend quite slowly because the wheel was wobbling quite a bit. This brought us to the 24 mile mark. This is the first point in the course where you can access your crew and all the vehicles are lined up at the side of the road in a very colorful parade.
Each racer has a crew and a crew vehicle. Each vehicle is plastered on all four sides with the rider's totem. My crew consisted of my wife, Cynthia and my two youngest kids; Andrew and Casey. Cynthia and Casey would do all the driving and Andy was our "Crew Chief." This is the role he inherited, because he is the only one in the van who could fix a flat bicycle tire or identify an allen key. He had actually been on a 500 mile relay race with me a few years prior, so at least he had been exposed to the inside of a smelly crew vehicle; the next day or two would be more of a learning experience for my wife and daughter, but I knew they would just roll with whatever was needed from them. When I got to the van, we did a quick wheel change and I was off. Next came a short descent into the Antelope Valley and a very flat section for 15 miles or so. During the first day of the race, the crew is only allowed to do leap-frog style support, so they would let me ride ahead for 15 or 20 minutes and then come and get me, they would pass up, pull over, and when I went by they would hold out a water bottle or food or both and as I collected them, I would shout out any needs or desires for the next time and they would magically show up down the road and deliver them. The process started off pretty smoothly, but the second time I asked for electrolyte pills we hit a snag. As I was slowing down to get the electrolytes, Andy held out a bottle and said that they can't find the electrolytes so he made me a bottle of HEED. "Good thinking!" I shouted; HEED is a pretty good substitute for e-caps…. Then I said, "Find the e-caps!"
The e-caps were never found; our best guess is that they were left on the bumper and simply fell off. The funny thing is that while packing for the race, I poured two containers of e-caps into one bottle for convenience. It was convenient, but lacked the basic redundancy requirement that gets you out of a lot of binds. Well, they borrowed a bunch of electrolyte like pills from Kevin (who was ahead of me on the course) and started rationing them to me. Every time I asked for some electrolytes, they gave me some, but I never asked for nearly as many as I needed. It was a hot day and I was averaging maybe two an hour when I could easily have been taking in three times that much. I was drinking a lot. Every time I passed the van, I took in water and tossed off an empty (or two). I did not want to get behind on hydration; that is a horrible spiral that is hard to fix. Actually it's easy to fix; it's just hard to fix and stay in the event. Well, that's exactly what was happening. Although I was drinking as much as I could, I was getting further and further behind. I had that going for me and I also had a physical issue creeping along. My left butt-area was giving me problems in the sciatic nerve region. I had a pain that was developing rather quickly and it was hindering my pedaling. Whenever I was seated, I couldn't pedal with the force that I wanted to with my left leg; standing was much better. This made the climbs more attractive and the second climb, the Windmill Climb, was just ahead.
This is a climb into the middle of a huge wind-farm with turbines everywhere. Usually the climb is into a stiff headwind, but today the blades were completely still; no wind at all. So far the weather conditions could only be described as "ideal." The climb was fun and I passed a couple of guys. That's usually how it works for me; pass em on the climbs and get passed by em on the descents. Ed caught me on the descent and we chatted a bit before he pulled away slowly as it turned into flat again. I told him about the nerve problem I was having; it must have sounded like I was complaining, because when I passed his crew vehicle a short time later, one of his crew handed me a container of Vagisil. I got even with him the next time, though. When I passed them later, I squirted him with my bottle and hit him right in the crotch. This was Erik "Sloth" Skramstad. He is my training partner and we have each crewed for one-another in prior years. Ed was in good hands with Erik on his team. We had a flat section taking us into Time Station 1 in California City. I kept Ed in my sights and he pulled in about one minute ahead of me. As I rode slowly by the woman with the clipboard, I shouted out my totem (Loon) and she marked me in. The crew was there cheering me (and everyone else) on. 83 miles down in 4h 48m.
That made it almost noon as I headed north from California City and straight into desolation. This next section of the course is my favorite, because it contains a long series of rollers and those go by quickly. The van pulled up again and said that they were going to go up the road six miles or so to the Subway restaurant and get some subs. I told them that the Subway was actually behind us in California City. I told them that it was their call and they opted not to turn around. Even though I said that I didn't care, secretly, I didn't want them to take off. I was pretty hot and a bit dehydrated. I didn't feel like getting off the bike or anything yet, but it's just nice to have the van near in case you do crump. I was starting to think about my hydration more and more. Since the race had started, I hadn't pulled over to pee yet and I should be doing that at least every hour or two. Although I was drinking all I could, I was starting to have a lot of trouble eating by this time as well. I would take a bite of a bagel and couldn't chew or swallow it, because it was making an unmanageable paste in my mouth. I would have to take a bite, chew for a while, then squirt some water in my mouth and try to make something swallowable out of it. It took so long to eat anything that my arms were getting tired from riding with one had while eating. I started eating more fruit; that worked pretty well. So far the solution I came up with was to slow down. If I rode slower, I didn't need as many calories, my butt hurt less, and my hydration could be managed. My strategy was to hold on till night-fall and then try to catch up on hydration and maybe some of the competition. Next was the climb to Johannesburg!
I love this climb! It just suits my riding style. It is about 8 miles long and each mile is steeper than the one before it. This year they had a resurfacing project going on and the road was covered with gravel. Although there were signs everywhere warning motorists to slow down, cars just sped by and we were all pelted with rocks the entire climb. On this course, you can't complain when there are road repairs happening; the course is filled with long sections of horrible road and any sort of repair is very welcome. My estimate is that of the 508 miles of road we would ride, at least 200 of them were in very bad condition and if they were on your daily commute, you'd select a different route. The Johannesburg climb was in that category. Aside from the occasional rock pelting, it went great for me and I passed at least six riders on the climb. On the steep section near the end, I caught Jennifer; she was just sitting there spinning up the hill and she looked very good. I asked her how she was doing and she said, "Great!"
She asked how I was doing and I told her about my maladies and that I just wasn't having a very good ride today. Then she stated, "Oh, good. I didn't want to say anything, but I'm not doing very well either." She was concerned that it was pretty early in the ride to be feeling as crappy as she was. I told her to just slow down a little and stay on top of everything and that she'd be fine. She is a very strong rider; last year was her first attempt at the 508 and she DNF'd due to some insane weather conditions. There were sustained headwinds of 60 mph the entire floor of Death Valley and lots of folks didn't finish last year… including me. Last year, I attempted the race on a fixed gear and the wind got me, too. I made it about 275 miles, but my last 19 miles took me six hours! This year I had promised my family that I would at least finish the race. That's probably why I slowed down when things started going wrong. I know that I had to finish and slowing down was the smartest thing to do to guarantee that. I left Jennifer behind, passed another guy, and just before the top, saw my son there with a water bottle and a bagel. He had been dropped off while Cynthia and Casey went to the store in town to try to find some real food. I took the water and bagel and started off on the large rollers on the plateau where we now were.
While I was riding along waiting for the van to reappear, I came across Kevin's crew stopped at the side of the road; this meant that I was catching him…. Slowly. His crew consisted of his son, Jeff, good friend and 508 legend Eric "Red Rooster" Wilson, and Ann Patriche who had crewed for me in my unsuccessful RAAM attempt earlier in the summer; she was new in the sport, but clearly enjoyed the craziness of it all. When I passed them, Eric asked if I wanted a kiwi; that sounded great I told him. Earlier that year I gave him his first kiwi while we were both volunteering at the Badwater Ultramarathon race. He liked it so much, I gave him another one and he said that he'd pay me back someday; I guess today was the day. They leap-frogged up a short way and when he handed it to me he said that he had one more and that he would save it for me. Well, I ate the whole thing (skin and all) and loved it and was looking forward to the second one. A short while later they were pulled over again (I must have been gaining on Kevin still, even though I couldn't see him yet on the rollers). Eric and Ann were outside the car and I slowed down a bit to get my kiwi. Ann was holding something and she said to me, "Would you like a potato?"
"No." I said. I kept riding. Even if I wanted a potato, it was certainly not a juicy, delicious kiwi. I never got my second kiwi; however, Cynthia did find a nice turkey sandwich and I ate half of that. It went down pretty good and I had the other half a short while later. After the three large rollers we had a nice, fast descent and then about 10 or 15 miles of flat into Trona and time station #2.
Trona is just Trona… you gotta see it; a small town with no reason to exist except for some mysterious industry that takes place in the Searles Valley and makes everything look like a dried up swamp. The Trona High School football field is dirt; not one blade of grass. Trona is the last gasoline stop for 180 miles and home to TS2. I arrived there at 4pm; nine hours and 154 miles into the race. There is a burrito stand there that manufactures these killer burritos and the plan was to simply ride through the time station while the crew refueled, checked out the leader board, and seized some of those burritos. As I was riding past the time station, Andrew flagged me down and shared some news with me. He told me that a race official had seen my fixed gear bicycle and told him that if I rode it to climb Townes Pass we'd be immediately disqualified. She said that it was because it didn't have a front brake. I knew right away that someone was just being overzealous or overcautious, but all I told him was, "O.K. I won't use that bike; I'll just climb Townes Pass on this one." In 2008 I used a fixed gear bicycle just for those dreaded 9 miles; it had a gear of 34X21 and everything else stripped off of it. It weighed less than 15 pounds and I sailed up the hill like it was helium filled. My fondest memory of the 2008 race was cresting Townes Pass as Chris Kostman (the race director) pulled up alongside to chat. He said, "Is that a fixed gear?"
"Yeah!" I shouted back.
"Is that even allowed?" he asked.
"I don't know; it's your race!" I told him back. He laughed, took a few photos and drove up the road to chat with the next person. Well, that was two years ago and it looked like this year I'd have to ride up the darn thing on a regular bicycle just like everyone else. I was cool with it; the bike I was on had a lower gear (34X25) and I knew that I'd probably need all of it.
A few miles out of Trona and I see Kevin's crew vehicle pulled over, his bicycle leaned against it, and Kevin lying on a mat in the shade of the car. I don't slow down at all, but I do shout out as loud as I can, "Walsh! Damn it!!" I was now ahead of Kevin, but behind both Jennifer and Ed. No matter how hard you try not to, you race; bicycles just do that. During the climb over the Trona Bump (a 1000 foot climb after Trona), I try to ride a good tempo and put Kevin behind me for good. Honestly, I don't care if he's ahead or behind; it's the back-and-forth stuff that kills me. When someone is finally out of sight and out of mind, I can ride my own race. When they are near, you push hard and sometimes you don't get the desired result.
After the Trona bump I start doing the math. This is the slowest I've ever been on this course. Right now, I'm trying to predict where I'll be when the sun sets and we have to start with the night-time rules. I try to eat one of the burritos that my crew got for me, but it's useless. I'm dehydrated still. I pull over to pee; the first time since the race started; I should be peeing every hour or two. A few nuggets of pee drip out and I hop back on the bike. It's hot, I'm hungry, and I'm riding too slow. Secretly, I can't wait for it to get dark, so I can fix everything by getting rehydrated. We descend the fun, curvy, smooth road into the Panamint Valley and flatten out again as we continue north to our date with Townes pass. Over the last three hours a wind had developed. At first it was light, wispy, and variable, but lately it has been a steady, light headwind. This could mean that when we make "the turn" several hours from now that we will have a tail wind for the last 200 miles. So far the weather has been kind: hot, but not too windy. There is a left turn coming that marks one of the ugly stretches of road and I'm hoping to make that turn before the 6PM mark. We come up short. A few miles before the turn-off, we pull over. It's a few minutes to six and we prepare for night-time rules. Starting at 6PM and for the next 13 hours, the cyclist is married to the support van; all riding has to be done in its headlights. Each vehicle is equipped with roof mounted amber flashing lights, a slow vehicle triangle, and caution signage that makes them very conspicuous. As we head out as a unit now, we start to take notice of the other teams doing the same thing. Within a half hour, the sun has set and it is starting to get dark. We reach the end of the bad road, turn right, and before us is a mountain; Death Valley waits on the other side. You go over it or go home.
As we approach the lower slopes an amazing sight unfolds. Behind us and to our right is what seems like 100 sets of car headlights of vehicles standing still; but they are not. They are vehicles slowly following their riders on the same road we were just on; it stretches for as far down the Panamint Valley as you can see. Directly ahead of us is a road that in one mile shoots straight up; it is also filled with amber flashing lights of vehicles following their riders. The riders behind us are anticipating the climb, some with great trepidation; the ones ahead are already exhausted and, in their lowest gear, simply numbing their way through the motions that experience tells them will eventually get them to the top. For the first time in the race, you are put in your place. These people, the ones I can see ahead and behind me, are my group. We are all racing at about the same pace and should finish the race near one another. They are the ones sharing my level of suffering and seeing the things that I see. Kevin is one of the lights I can see behind me, but I can only guess which one. Steve is also behind me, but I fear that he is further back than I can see. Knowing that Steve is far back and also knowing that Steve is going to finish the race is a clear motivator that leaves only one option; join the suffering of the group ahead. Ed is in the group ahead. Is he one of the lights that I see or has he already crested the top?
This is when I find out about Ed. When the van pulls up alongside of me to hand out some water, Cynthia tells me that Ed is actually behind me. She said that he got off for a long rest at the first time station and even removed his helmet and shoes; she estimates that he is at least 30 minutes back. I'm not sure what to think about this news. Of course I'd like to finish ahead of Ed, but much more than that, I'd like him to finish. I have no real idea what is going on in his world, only guesses. Ed is a good cyclist with the right attitude. He has Erik on his crew. No matter how you slice it, that adds up to a finish. I figure that as I slow down during the night and day tomorrow that I'll see him again. Right now I just have to find a way to muscle up Townes Pass while dehydrated and hungry. The road tilts up, abruptly, and before I know it I have used up all the cogs on my cassette and am firmly in the lowest gear that I brought. No more thinking or decisions; just push down hard and go up slow; I love this sport!
The problem with my butt had been getting better the last few hours and many times I had forgotten about it all together, but it had a dark twin. Because I wasn't pushing as hard with my left leg as I should have been, I was pedaling harder with the right and had been developing a "hot-foot." This is just a very painful condition that comes from too much pressure. I had managed it till now, but at this point it had simply become unbearable and I had to rest it. Although I was ascending fairly well, my foot forced me off the bike. When we came upon a nice gravel parking area at the side of the road, I motioned to the van and I pulled over, unclipped, and sat down. I told them that I just had to rest my foot for a few minutes. They were cool with it. I was about half-way up the climb. I layed down on the dirt and closed my eyes. I didn't even know that I was tired, but I fell instantly asleep.
With two or three minutes of sleep in me, I remounted and set off to tackle the remainder of the climb with Jennifer now ahead of me. For the next 30 minutes, I rode about 100 yards behind her and her van and climbed at her pace. With about 3 miles left in the climb there is a switchback and you can see all the folks on the climb that are behind you. Poor bastards! It flattens out a bit just before the top and your speed slowly creeps up; click; I unconsciously shift up a gear. It is a small victory. Soon we are travelling at ordinary speeds again. As we pass the summit sign, Jennifer pulls over and I slide past and shout out some sort of obligatory encouragement. She really didn't need it though, she was riding very strong. Up ahead, I see my favorite sign in the world. It is a yellow diamond shape with a truck and a triangle: wicked descent ahead!
I've never done a descent that wasn't worth the climb. As much of a nasty bear as the Townes Pass climb is, the descent is a just reward; 18 miles of smooth pavement straight into the throat of Death Valley. You don't even have to tuck to achieve 60 mph if you have the guts. During the day, I have the guts; not so much after dark. There are curves and a few significant dips. When you are approaching one of these dips, the headlights of the van leave a black void across the road where it dips that you will enter on your bicycle, you drop down into complete darkness in a blink and stay there for about 3 seconds. Just as you are coming out of the dip, the van enters it and your lighting again disappears and you again are in complete darkness, complete and total darkness, for a couple of seconds. When the van pops back out and lights up your path, your heart slows down; hopefully you're still pointed down the middle of the road and there aren't any surprises in your path like a coyote or a tortoise or a crumpled cyclist. The bottom two thirds of the descent doesn't have any of those things; it's just a straight, fast drag strip. While preparing for the race with my rookie crew, we went over how the descent of Townes Pass might play out. Last year I was on a fixed gear and we really heated up the brakes on the trip down; we didn't want to do that again. I told my wife that if I was going too fast, she should just drive at a comfortable pace and I would slow down to match so that I was staying in her headlights. Well, it kind of backfired. I saw that she was hanging back, so I slowed down. She saw me slowing down, so she thought she was going too fast and she slowed down. That snow-balled and we ended up going down this huge descent at about 20 mph. I never worry about anybody that passes me on the way down; I'm very much aware of my mortality and I never feel the need to keep up with them and there were a few. People kept on whizzing by me; I lost count. One of them was Jennifer and it was the last time that I would see her. She rolled past rather easily and I was sure that I would catch up later on a climb or something, but I never did.
The bottom of the hill is marked by the hamlet of Stovepipe Wells welcoming you to Death Valley. We are now at sea level and for the next 75 miles it is all rollers as you sneak along the floor of the desert. This is a good time to ease up and fix your body. The top of the hill was cool, but it is hot again; I keep drinking and drinking and drinking, but can't seem to catch up. We arrive at Furnace Creek, the halfway point of the race and Time Station #3 at 11:30 pm. We are 16 ½ hours in and have 250 miles behind us. We stop for a few minutes and use the bathrooms here; I've learned that crewmembers really appreciate real bathroom facilities whenever they become available. Besides, I'm not winning this race and we've got a long night ahead. I pee for the second time of the whole race and it isn't very much. Lots of folks drop out here and I know that the smartest thing I can do is just get on the bike. Our stop is relatively brief; about 10 minutes; we head off into a very black night and notice that the race vehicles are getting a little more scarce.
The challenge now is to stay motivated at night. I notice that my wife is racked out in the bed in the back of the van and Casey is driving with Andrew sitting shotgun. Before the race had begun, she stated that she thought she could make this whole thing work as long as she got one good hour of sleep. She was taking her shot. I turned my iPod on and listened to a series of history podcasts while trying to busy myself by taking in the wonders of Death Valley. It's a shame that we go through here at night, because it is really a beautiful place. Tonight, everything I see is from memory; there isn't even a moon out and visibility abruptly ends at your headlights. I've been on this road a hundred times and know each landmark: Artist Palette Drive, The Devil's Golf Course, Telescope Peak, and of course Badwater, the lowest point in North America. Tonight they all look like a narrow twisty road with scorpions. I must have seen 20 large scorpions and all of them were crossing the road from left to right. Also out there mixing it up with us were mice. These were tiny, puff-ball, white mice with very long tails and big ears. I tried not to hit any of them, but I'm pretty sure that the van got one. Between the scorpions, the mice, and the history lesson (fall of the Roman empire), I managed to keep a slow but steady pace for about fifty miles. This took us to Ashford Mills and the start of the climb out of Death Valley. Just before we made the turn to climb, Andrew notified me that they needed to switch drivers, which I was fine with, because my foot really needed a break anyhow. Cynthia had slept for three hours; I was proud that we were able to have nothing go wrong and give her a good solid block of sleep. I knew the climb out would be tough as well; longer, but not nearly as steep as Townes Pass.
I hate this climb, but for some reason, this year it wasn't so bad. I was starting to figure out that because I wasn't going as fast as I had in other years, I just had more left in the tank. During the climb out, we passed several crews pulled off the road sleeping. Each time you pass one of them, it tugs at you. Sleep would feel real nice right now; I wasn't "sleep" tired, but I was getting a little beat up and now that a daylight finish was very unlikely, we were going to have to factor some sleep in someplace. I decided that I could ride to Shoshone before we had to pull over and sleep. Besides, Shoshone had more real bathrooms. We finished the climb out and then the long saddle and eventual descent into Shoshone and Time Station #4. It was quite bright out now and the sun was threatening as we pulled into the time station. We shouted out our totem, "Loon… L-O-O-N!" and drove around behind the convenience store to crash for a while. 326 miles in 23 hours and 41 minutes. I thought about the guys at the fire station that would be getting off work in an hour. If they checked the web-site before they went home, this would be the last information they would have. Then they would go home and be with their families and forget about us while they go about their weekend. To be honest, I would probably forget about them, too. It's not like they nominated me to do this or anything. If fact, it's flattering that anybody would come out and help me get through this considering it really has no tangible value. In three of my prior races, guys from the station have crewed for me and it's always meant a lot. This year, we traded experience on the crew for the comfort of family and it was working. I crawled up on the bed to sleep and Cynthia, Andrew, and Casey left the van. I closed my eyes and was instantly asleep again.
Ten seconds later, I opened my eyes and 30 minutes had gone by. Casey was sitting on a bench reading (she reads a lot). I grabbed some clean clothes and headed for the bathroom to pee (hopefully) and change shorts. When the race started, I had forgotten to apply chamois crème and didn't get around to it until 75 miles in. I was now paying for that. My van couldn't carry enough chamois crème to fix that mistake; however, a sore butt is just a sore butt… you live with it and worry about it after the race. My sciatic problem was much better, but my foot was slowly getting worse; I was still dehydrated. The next stick of the race is the dreaded 56 mile stretch from Shoshone to Baker, known to race veterans as The Baker Death March because of its long, flat, headwind section; the last 35 miles actually does take forever; this year was no different. The next 150 miles would be head-wind. I tried some gels, a cherry coke, anything to get calories on board, but it wasn't working. My rehydration never worked out and by the time we eventually limped into Time Station #5, it was well over 100 degrees outside. Baker, California in 29 hours; high noon, day two; 382 miles down and about 126 miles to go. I can throw a Frisbee that far.
The plan for Baker was to get some "real" food. When we cleared the time station, Cynthia suggested that I sleep while she got some breakfast with the kids. I told her to get me a breakfast burrito with bacon and then to get another one. I moved the van to a shady area and climbed back on the bed repeating the cycle of closing my eyes and then immediately opening them up 30 minutes later. That's when they showed up without my burrito. We had arrived in Baker so late that they weren't offering their breakfast menu any more at The Mad Greek (sad face). I suggested a gyro instead and when Cynthia went back to get it, I quickly mounted the bike and started riding. Again, the overriding thought is… get on the course. Riding is productive; sleeping is productive; nothing else is productive. It only took a minute to shake off the cobwebs and get back into riding. It was getting pretty late to only be on the way out of Baker, but there were at least some folks still behind us.
Welcome to the Forever Hill. The climb is 20 miles long, but not very steep. The next 34 miles are the worst paved surface of the race. I shouldn't even use the term "paved surface," but I guess that's technically what it is; the road sucks… all of it. The closer you get to the top, the worse the road gets. The top of the climb is where the power lines cross the road and you can see it from about 10 miles out. If you haven't learned this little nugget yet, it can be a very demoralizing hill with an elusive summit. A couple of people pass me and I pass a couple of others on the way up; I also have to stop for a foot break again. It's starting to become more and more common, but it's keeping us moving. Just before the summit, we pull over and I eat the gyro and it tastes great! I'm very encouraged by the fact that I can eat the whole thing rather easily; maybe my hydration problem is starting to get better. Under the power lines, over the top, and then, BAM!... a very stiff headwind that I have to fight to get through. O.K. this is a descent that wasn't worth the climb. I was hoping to coast into Kelso, but it turned into a little more work than that. We come into Kelso (Time Station #6) at 4:30PM; 417 miles in 33 ½ hours. I ride straight through and start the next climb while the crew rolls over to the Kelso Train Depot to take advantage of the last daylight bathrooms that we'll see this race.
This is the Granite Mountain climb and it is another one of the climbs that I like. I know that it is long; not as long as the prior hill; maybe about 14 miles, but it is a bit steeper and with some relatively nice scenery. The van catches me about five miles later and I notice that spirits are high all around. For the long, long day that we have been having, everyone is doing very well. If the crew is having any issues, they're keeping it in the van. This climb plays out like the last one; a few passes each way, a stop to rest the foot and before you know it, the top is looming. As we crest this hill, we hit the dreaded 6PM and have to start with nighttime following again. I had completed the 508 three times; all daylight finishes and one of them in 31 ½ hours. This time is was dark and I still had over 75 miles to go. This was a bit depressing, but I had guaranteed my family a finish and there was only one way to get it; point your bike down the course, put your head down, and pedal. After a false summit and then a real summit, we are treated to a 20 mile descent to Time Station #7. It gets a little bit darker each mile and it is completely dark by the time we roll in. 36 hours, 22 minutes; we are now 451 miles in and have one major climb and 58 miles to go.
Time Station #7 is run by a couple of race veterans, Dan "Horse" Dibb and Greg "Polecat" Page. They have it all decked out in a Hawaiian theme and even have a lei for each rider and a can of pineapple juice for each crewmember. Dan comes out and shakes my hand and asks if we're going to stay for a bit, but I tell him that we're going to continue while we feel good. It's nice to see him; we rode together on my first Furnace Creek and we've become friends since then. He warns us of some road sections ahead that have debris on them from the flash flood the night before and then he scurries over to the van and hands them some pineapple juice and wishes us luck. We roll out and head towards Amboy.
We are now on the last stage; 58 miles from Amboy to the finish in 29 Palms. In the daylight, this is barren wasteland; at night it looks like Death Valley did last night except that all the mice we see tonight are little brown ones instead of the white puffballs. I know exactly what to expect from here to the finish. First we'll meander along a two lane pancake flat road that is newly paved and the smoothest surface of the weekend; then the road surface degrades again (all the way to the finish) and one more 10 mile long climb with a tricky false summit, a short descent, and then a slight uphill drag to the finish with its usual headwind. This should be a fun section for everyone. Most dread the climb, because it's not an easy one; however, it is the last one and that makes it much more manageable. As we're rolling along the flat, I notice two things: first is the line of race vehicles inching up the climb in the dark just like they did last night. I can't help but be amazed that after almost 40 hours any of us are within eyeshot of another, but here we are. I guess that from me to the farthest guy I can see is an hour and a half and then I count off seven of us in that group. Several times I swing out wide and look back behind the van to see if anyone is near us; I can't see anyone. This makes sense as I feel pretty good right now and hypothesize that I may actually be gaining on some of them. The second thing I notice is the occasional crew vehicle driving past at highway speeds. When they did this during the day, they were most likely providing leap-frog support to their rider, but at night it only meant one thing. These were the cars of people that had dropped out of the race and were heading for the finish line or some point beyond. I start to think back and can recall a few cars during the day that fit this description, too. I have dropped out of the race on two different occasions (2004 and 2009) and felt the stare of every cyclist as we drove past them to the finish. It's way better to be on the bike. Like those of us that will finish, each of them also has a story worth listening to. Most of them will have ridden to their ability and then past it; they will have had problems and worked on overcoming them until it seemed like they were the object of some cruel science fair experiment. At some point it is fair to pull the plug; sad, but fair. There are few folks that know both the high of finishing such an undertaking and the disappointment of not measuring up to the challenge. What we all have in common was the enthusiasm to start, and the courage to persevere. We will share this at the post-race breakfast in the morning. It is scheduled to take place at 7AM; when the course closes and the race is over. At this point, we know that we will be finishing and we are just going through the motions.
The motions include Sheephole Summit; ten miles and about 1500 feet of climbing. Again we have one brief stop to rest my right foot; maybe two minutes. Watching the lights of the vehicles ahead of me get closer and closer is very motivating and we hit the false summit surprisingly quickly. It was probably an hour, but it felt much shorter than that. The road then turns to the right and then we pass the "Penalty Box" in the dark before the summit. This used to be the last time station and old timers like me remember this is where you'd serve a penalty if you'd accumulated one. Penalties come in 15 minute increments and although it's easy to race clean, it's also easy to get a penalty. The rules at the Furnace Creek 508 are pretty simple and are based on safety and fair play. Each crew and rider has had ample opportunity to learn them all and ignorance of them is not accepted. With that being said, the race director, Chris Kostman, has been there; he has completed solo RAAM and countless other events and knows what goes on out there and hasn't forgotten where he came from. These attributes have been disseminated to the volunteers and officials on the course and the system works. This year has had a heavy official's presence. We've seen them all over the entire course. At no time did I feel that we were just left floundering out there in the desert with 200 other crazies. If you wanted to cheat, you probably could, but as they say, you'd only be cheating yourself. We crest the top and coast down the other side and start the final push to the finish. Big surprise… no wind! None! It is very welcome; there is always a headwind here. We've had plenty of headwinds on this one, so I feel that we've earned it.
We ride for a while and I ask Andrew how far until the turn into town. He tells me that it is in three miles. I know that it is way more than three miles. I have almost caught one of the riders ahead and when we get to within a quarter mile of him, I turn down the throttle; it'll just be easy riding to the finish. I keep watching his van to see when he makes the turn into town. While I'm waiting for that to happen, I see a flash and then another flash. They are taking photos from the van. I roll up beside the van and ask for the camera so I can take a photo of the crew inside. While I'm attempting this, I almost crash. That would suck! Seven or eight miles pass and the van ahead finally makes the turn onto Utah Trail. I coast back to the van and look right at Andrew. "Three miles?" I yell…. "Three miles??"
We are now in town and five miles from the end. I know that there is a Del Taco in town and ask the crew to keep an eye out to see if their drive-through is open 24 hours. We notice that it is open 24 hours and I start to plan my post race feast in my mind. The rider ahead is riding slower than I thought and to avoid passing him, we post up at an intersection and wait for about three minutes to give him time to gap us prior to the finish. We don't know who it is up there, but we want him to have his own finish and not to have to share it with another rider 30 seconds behind. We go over the final bump in town and can see the rider ahead turn into the hotel where the finish line is. I've been there three times before and it feels pretty good. A few minutes later we turn into the hotel ourselves and I cross the finish line.
There are about a dozen folks there cheering us in and Chris is there to take the official "Crossing-The-Finish-Line-Photo." 41 hours, 21 minutes; it's 20 past midnight. One of the first things I do when I get off the bike is to check the status board to see when Jennifer finished. I am totally shocked to learn that she abandoned while climbing up Jubilee Pass out of Death Valley last night. She will be credited with 250 miles. I can't imagine what happened and am very curious to find out.
I'm awarded my medal and finisher's jersey and we take some photos in front of the official AdventureCorps banner and this one is done. It is every bit as sweet as the first one. It meant the world to me to have my family along for the ride. They've always been out on the course to cheer me and the other racers and they've welcomed me at the finish, but now they have experienced the race as close as they can without clipping in and hopefully will have more sympathy for my sob stories in the future. Family can be a tough crowd. Cynthia checks into the room and Andrew and Casey join her for some sleep. I'll join them for a few short hours of sleep after I go back to Del Taco and grab two pounds of food. Reed ended up dropping out, but all of the rest of my friends will finish over the next six hours while I am sleeping. I come back to the finish line and watch the next three finishers while I sit on a bench to eat my Macho-Combo burrito, fries, and a huge Cherry-Coke. It's great to be back in 29 Palms.