By Nick Gnu Gerlich
It is noble to finish a race having achieved one's goals. It is far more noble to finish a race having *not* even come close...and touring Hell along the way.
The flames of disappointment, the agony of what-ifs, the guilt of dragging your friends along for the ride...these things weigh heavily upon anyone willing to throw it all on the line and go for broke.
Because sometimes you wind up broken.
It was 5:30am on 6th October when Brian, Bill and I found ourselves getting Mel ready to race the Furnace Creek 508, the toughest 48 hours in cycling. More than 70 racers and their crews were fidgeting with bikes, water bottles and jangled nerves, the prospect of over 500 miles of non-stop racing weighing heavily in everyone's minds.
Santa Clarita CA was hauntingly quiet at this hour, a propos of the soundtrack each racer faced for the duration: dead, stone cold silence, above which the only thing one could hear are the demons summoning their willful demise.
The route is boomerang-shaped, starting in LA's northern suburbs, arcing northward through Antelope Valley, California City, Randsburg and Trona. From there cyclists drop into the Panamint Valley, and then make the arduous climb up and over Townes Pass. It then drops into Death Valley before heading south through Shoshone, Baker and Amboy en route to the finish in Twentynine Palms.
Ah yes, Death Valley. Must have been a marketer that named that place.
Most of the route sees only a passing shower or two each year. It is perhaps the starkest, least scenic route anyone could imagine. Oh, and ten mountain passes with 35,000 feet of vertical climbing are included at no extra charge. Race Director Chris Kostman's words? "You're welcome."
The trees we saw leaving LA were the last we would see. The desert's funny that way. Of all the places you'd like to find some shade, there's none to be found.
But while the route initially ventured north, Mel's stomach went south. Early. Such is the risk of ultramarathoning. While he was in 17th position after the first climb, his position slowly eroded through the first day.
It became painfully apparent that Mel was not up to his usual pace. I knew full well that he could easily finish in 32 hours...if everything worked right. But having plied my skills before in this race, I knew that everything working right is a crapshoot with worse odds than Vegas. When everything works, you're on top of the world. When it doesn't, you start composing the Craigslist ad for all of your biking gear.
And so we watched Mel keep going, dutifully drinking his bottled food. But the look on his face bespoke the topsy-turvy, Tilt-a-Whirl ride going on in his stomach. We did our best to keep him in good spirits, sometimes yelling, and later on, often cursing. Our job was to get him to the finish line, no matter what it took. Desert be damned, Mel had a job to do, and we had to support him.
Bill had been down this rode twice before, too. As dusk fell, we started the long, parched climb up Townes Pass that marked the 200 mile mark of the race. Bill noticed the guardrail he had hugged a few years prior. "That's the spot!" he exclaimed.
Thanks for sharing, Bill.
Almost as if on cue, Mel found himself a mile later claiming his own piece of that curved metal. Brian stayed in the van. Bill and I stepped back five feet to get out of the splash zone. And Mel got a close look at terra firma spookily illuminated by the van's headlights.
It was at that moment that Mel's demons were crying loudest. "Quit, you damn fool! Why are you out here? Why did you make your friends come with you? And what about Tracie and the kids at home worrying about you? What a loser you are! Your vomit is the wisdom of your 38 years. You have now lost it all."
Or maybe not. Sometimes it is in losing it all that one finds his inner strength. Beaten down, but not out. Because when nothing remains but Desire, the human body can find miraculous strength.
And so Mel picked himself up and walked. One. Step. At. A. Time. There is nothing so humbling for a cyclist than to have to walk up a hill. But Mel did it. We removed his cycling cleats and shod him in sandals. What the hell? It was a nice evening for a walk in the desert.
As the grade flattened near the top, Mel hopped back on for the ride and topped Townes Pass a new man. We slowly started putting calories back in his empty stomach, and he cruised...no, *flew*...down into Death Valley. Like the mythical Phoenix, Mel had risen from the ashes of defeat.
That's not to say the road was all downhill from there. Five passes remained, and during each one, those demons came back to remind Mel they hadn't forgotten.
With each pass he summited, though, those demons grew quieter. The drop from Salsberry Pass into Shoshone at sunrise signaled a new day dawning, and Mel took it as his rebirth. Sure, he was well off his planned pace, but there was a symbolic victory to be had if he could just hang on.
The desert, though, is relentless. Even in October, temperatures routinely soar into the 90s. Imagine spending a couple of days in an oven. That's what he was doing. At least we had an air-conditioned van.
The challenge in overcoming such adversity, though, is the tedium. Knowing that you should have finished in 32 hours makes each and every mile, each and every minute, pass by in a slow motion only experienced in nightmares. The bad guy is chasing you...you try to run, only to find you are in sand up to your knees.
The difference here is that bad guy is the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish), and somehow you've drifted off-road into a sand dune.
Somewhere south of Shoshone, Mel broke down and cried. Unless you have been to the edge of your limits, you have no idea the ups and downs to be experienced. Mel saw through those tears and kept riding, slowly turning one crank over the other, inching ever closer to Baker.
It is in the dusty tow-truck town of Baker that riders can start to see the tape at the end of the race. Freeway motorists commonly break down on the Baker Grade east of town, and enterprising rescuers have made an industry of retrieving over-heated cars and their occupants. A few fast food joints are all that dot this Hell hole.
And it was here that we laid a little psychological trap for Mel. "We've got a deal for you," we said in the midday sun. "When you get to town, we'll give you 30 minutes off the bike."
Liar liar, pants on fire.
Right before the city limit sign, we dropped a bomb: "OK, when you get to town, Brian is going to check you in at the time station. Bill's going to get gas, while I run to the store. Then the three of us will go to Del Taco. You just keep riding."
Ooh, if looks could kill.
I had told Mel long before the race that we would everything we could to get him to the finish line, even if it meant roughing him up. Yelling and screaming. And lying. We could ask forgiveness later.
It worked. He kept going, and we met him part-way up the 22-mile climb on Kelbaker Road. Lest we be branded uncompassionate slave drivers, we did let him get off the bike...for 20 minutes. Oh, and we gave him a big ol' burrito.
Sometimes a little comfort food can go a long way. Especially after 30 hours of liquid pre-digested slurry.
After this brief rest, Mel found his mojo. Maybe it was the black beans. I don't know, but there was a new zest in his demeanor. With a high placing now far out of the question (a winner had already been crowned shortly after noon), he made peace with just finishing within the 48-hour limit. Methodically he crested Kelbaker, dodged potholes down to Kelso, chased the setting sun as he climbed the Granite Mountains, stormed through Amboy, and then, with sleep deprivation finally catching up with him, crawled up and over the Sheep Hole Mountains.
All that remained were 20 relatively flat miles to Twentynine Palms.
For several hours, friends and family from all over the country had been texting him well wishes. Buoyed by several hundred messages, Mel kept his eyes on the prize. There will be future races to consider, but for now, 31st place would be just fine.
Except that in those dwindling miles, Mel caught sight of another racer up ahead. The blinking amber roof lights betrayed the other guy's crew vehicle. As if this were just the beginning of a 10-mile time trial, Mel took off and smoked him. Make that 30th place.
And so at 1:03am PDT Monday 8th October, Mel crossed the finish line...42 hours and 33 minutes after having left Santa Clarita. We laughed. We cried. We hugged.
And then we bade those demons farewell, broken, forced to wait another year to chase down riders. Mel, on the other hand, emerged stronger for the wear and tear. Because finishers are winners, and desert journeys are metaphors of the human condition, to be taken one step, one mile, at a time.
Even if you have to hug the guardrail once in a while.
Click here for Mel's 508 time splits.