Furnace Creek 508 Race Report

By Patty Jo Struve, Two-Woman Team Psycho Kitties

After a 4 year absence from riding a road bike, I decided to take on a challenge that I had once completed with a great friend of mine. In honor of Anne Schneider, who has since passed from a battle with cancer, I competed in the Furnace Creek 508 Road Race this past weekend with another great cycling legend and friend of mine, Janet Christiansen. This race has been said to be one of the most grueling ultra bike races in the country, consisting for 508 miles crossing Death Valley and climbing 35,000 ft. We entered as “Psycho Kitties”, a two person 50+ women’s team.

As a two person relay team, it is a bit more relaxing than taking on the solo challenge, which I did in 2003, hoping to qualify for RAAM. The format is different from most, as the race director, Chris Kostman, believes that if we only switch at time stations instead of the traditional off/on in 20:00-30:00, and use only one pace vehicle, that it is much better for the environment. I agree with his concept and wish more races would take on this attitude. Seeing as I have a background in LONG distance, I prefer to ride for a longer amount of time before I trade off with the other rider.

Our crew, Bill Osborn and Kathryn Reid were the best! With experience and expertise, this team made the pre-race preparation fun and exciting. I never even had a doubt that they feared what was ahead for the two day event and felt very confident that we would succeed in getting to the finish line safe and sound. As for Janet, well, her talent and experience is one of a kind and I knew she would carry her part far stronger than any other woman in the race.

Race morning came and we got to sleep in due to a 9:30 race start. There was excitement in the air near the start line, with many veterans there to break records and many newbies just to finish with success. Our goal was to have fun and ride well. I have had an injury since early June, so I did not know what to expect after this many miles of riding. My love for mountain biking took me out in June after a small crash and I have had a pinched nerve along with sub scapula syndrome. After many hours of treatment, I felt I could do my part riding the sections 1,3,5,& 7. These sections had the biggest and longest climbs and the most miles in the long run. I did not mind this; I knew Janet would be better on the bad road surface sections. I am really a bad road surface “weenie!” and I am pretty sure they did not want to hear my whining going up Sheephole.

As I rolled out with the group, I felt good and was ready to ride. I knew that many months of training alone on hot, long rides with very little support had prepared me mentally, so I was excited to actually be riding with people. I spent some time with one of the Skipper boys on the first climb and then pulled away to enjoy the first leg of the race. Once Janet got on the bike, the wind was in her favor and she just took off at a very fast pace. I love to watch her efficient spin on the bike, what a rider!

When we arrived in Trona, I was ready to take on the first night and a stretch of 100 miles, riding over Townes Pass, the longest climb in the race. As I started my pull with my music blaring over the loud speaker, I felt great. As I climbed the Trona “bump”, I noticed that my left side in the hip and rib area was becoming very tight. This is an injury that has plagued me for a long time and I was hoping it would not be so bad during the race. Well, as usual, I sucked it up and knew that the pain would only last for a mere 7 hours! When I reached the top of the hill, I had the pleasure of passing at least 4 boys on this ripping descent, no brakes on this one! FUN!!!

Moving along, there was one funky road surface section, but I did ok. AT the bottom of Townes Pass, I felt ready to take the challenge and settled in for an hour climb. Between the 2,000 and 3,000 ft. marks on this ascent, I really was hurting, my hip and back felt like a small explosion was occurring. When I reaching the summit, I stopped to put on a layer and Bill said he thought it was great that I did not have to stop on the whole climb. Oh but in my head, there were many times, when I wanted to stop. AT this point, my arms had become somewhat non functional. Due to my injury, I was not allowed to do weight training this summer and my triceps were so weak and painful, that it was all I could do to stay on the bike. I did not have aero bars and that was certainly a mistake.

The descent into Stovepipe Wells was awesome!! The moon and the stars and the blinking lights from all the vehicles made this part magical. YAHOO!!!! Once I made it to Furnace Creek, it was time for Janet to do her thing. She was a riot to watch. All it took was one blinking van in front of her and off she went. I think she passed 25 people that night on her section and never looked back. Amazing.

Morning brought the sun in my face and I was off to Baker, thinking it was 43 miles of moderate riding. When I thought I only had 7 more miles on this section (with a head wind), Bill pulled up and said “only 19 miles to go” and I was devastated. I had not read the route book correctly and really did not plan my eating and drinking correctly for that. SO...first melt down for PJ in the race. I stopped and just cried and thought “how stupid” am I! After refueling and relubing, I got back on the bike and just put my head down and rode on in to Baker. A strawberry milkshake awaited me and encouraging words from my friend Brian “THE NAK”, made me realize that I really was riding at a good enough pace.

Next Janet took on the “road from hell” and just kept passing people like they were riding a stationary bike and she never once complained about the bad road. I think she had one of the fastest time splits on this section, must have been the RAAM experience that has made her so tough. After waiting for the train to go by, I got on the bike for my last pull. “Only 32 miles left, PJ” is what the crew told me with much encouragement. As I started up the long and climbing road, I realized that Janet and I were going to win the women’s two person team relay by a large margin, and I knew I could just relax and enjoy the beautiful rock formations and desert that I love so much.

The weather was perfect and temps were not much past 90, so I felt good going up. At the top, there were many little rollers and then finally my last descent. This was supposed to be a fun downhill, but the roads were bad and the headwind made me pedal to just get up to 20 mph. It was PAINFUL, arms were screaming and in my head, I am thinking, this is my last 508. Janet did an awesome job on the last leg. It is one of the hardest because there is a significant amount of climbing, especially the last 30 miles of unending uphill.

As we approached 29 Palms, I was proud of our crew for doing such a fine job and proud of Janet for keeping us in the race as contenders. We crossed the finish line together, me in my “snowkitty” shorts and both of us with our cat ears proud upon our helmets in a time of 34:47 and winners!

All in all, this was a great experience for me. I had the honor of racing with one of my heroes and I know that OUR Furnace Creek 508 of 2012 will be one to go down in our books as a safe and successful race. Thanks to a great crew, Bill and Kathryn. As for me, back to the mountain bike and soon I hope. Let it snow! PJ alias Snowkitty