The Insider's Guide to the Furnace Creek 508

By Mike "Whale" Wilson, multiple 508 finisher

The Course

The course is perfect for ultracyclists. There are few towns, signals or stop signs to slow you down. It is only you and that big California desert. There are several climbs, but most are not steep. Townes Pass will get your attention at 200 miles into the course. It is the steepest. Most of the others are typical desert climbs with fairly flat grades that go on forever. You will wonder if they actually have a summit.

I break the course into three sections. The first is the 200 miles from the start to the base of Townes Pass. There are only four climbs and lots of flats. The race starts with a neutral group ride through Valencia to the base of the first climb. Everyone will still be close together and riding hard. Pace yourself—this is just the start, not a sprint finish.

After the first time station in California City you will head to Mojave then Randsburg, your first experience with the hot desert climbs. You will wonder why you are going so slowly and whether you made a good decision to enter this race. . . and then there is a great descent into Trona. Keep rolling over the Trona bump and through the Panamint Valley as the sun starts to get low. The road? It's rough. Be light on the bike if you can. You'll do this section in daylight, with your crew doing leap-frog support.

The next section, a 180-mile stretch, from Townes Pass to Baker, is ridden at night. This is where many riders pull out of the race. It is not that tough, but the course catches up with you. During nighttime, a personal support vehicle (PSV) must drive behind each rider whenever he is riding. Townes Pass is wondrous. There are few things more inspiring to an ultracyclist than heading up this pass as the sun is setting. You can see the flashing yellow lights on the PSVs as they wind up the pass with riders slowly making the climb up to the 5,000-foot summit. It is time for the pace vehicle to play some tunes that make you feel good. This climb will take a while.

After the summit, the other side is quite fast and pretty scary in the dark—you can easily go 50 mph. You will roll through Death Valley eventually descending to several hundred feet below sea level. If you are anticipating views in the valley, too bad. It will be very dark. The climbs out of the valley at the south end are not steep. The second of the Jubilee/Salsberry duo is the longest. It is good that it is dark so the lack of a summit won't fool you. There will then be a nice down hill, one more small bump called Ibex pass and then on to Baker. It ought to be light by now.

For me, the challenge of the 508 starts at Baker. There are three more long gentle climbs without summits. This last section will be hot and tough. The downhill sides have some incredibly long runs. The last of the three, Sheep Hole, increases in steepness just before the top. From this last climb, the finish in Twentynine Palms is only a short distance away, but the finish is still a lot of work. You will climb through some more rollers into a head wind and wonder why you can not reach the finish line. But you will.

Clothing and Equipment

There is only one very steep climb on the course, but the rest can be demoralizing. I have measured about 28,000 feet of climbing on the course. No, the desert is not flat. I have used a 39/28 for the climbs and recommend it on Townes Pass. The desert wears you down. Some people bring a spare bike in the unlikely event of a major breakdown. Having a climbing bike and a flat land bike may also make sense. I just ride one bike and bring an extra set of wheels. You will want to carry a tube and a pump as far as Townes Pass, while your crew is leap-frogging you. At Townes Pass you can dump the pump but will need to put on lights. A simple LED rear light will last the night, and a 2.5 watt head light will work fine for all your night riding with a following vehicle except for descending Townes Pass. You want as much light power as you can get for the descent. I have used a 20-watt system for the descent, and I have used my 2.5-watt light. More watts are better if you can get it.

Bring every kind of clothing you own. In October it can be either summer-like, winter-like or anything in between. The desert can be either very cold or very warm. Even a raincoat can be useful for that extra layer of wind proofing or for a freak dump of rain or hail. Be prepared for just about anything. That goes for your crew too.


I know you are pretty fast but you need to consider this: You need to get to Twenty Nine Palms to finish. If you look at the past races you will find that about half the people who start the race finish. Pacing will be the most important aspect of the race. You must pace yourself, especially early in the race. Trust me. You need to get to Townes Pass feeling good, not sick or cramped up. You will pass many riders late in the race if you stay on the bike and don't over do it. A heart rate monitor will help you stay honest.

One way I approach the race is to see myself riding to Baker. The hills in between are not major destinations. This helped me keep a pace that would allow me to finish. And so will you.

Let's look at why people drop from Furnace Creek. Most of the time it is related to stomach problems. Riding in the heat will put a huge load your body, so you will need to keep yourself well fed and hydrated. This is how your crew can help you. Hydrated means more than drinking water. You are losing a lot of electrolytes so make sure you replace them. Consider high salt food or salt tablets. You won't believe how good a cup of soup tastes at the top of Townes Pass. Liquid foods work well for lots of people. They are convenient and it is easy for the crew to determine your calorie intake. A good target calorie intake for me is around 400 per hour. Your crew can help you determine if you are getting too far behind. You may not feel like eating or drinking but you must if you plan to finish. Bring a variety of things like individual servings of fruit, fruit drinks, pastas, cookies, pop tarts, soups and different electrolyte drinks. If you get sick, you may not want your standard "preferred" cycling food. On a hot day in Baker my crew brought me a hot cup of soup. It was exactly what my body wanted.

If you have never ridden through the night and you are only looking to finish, you can catch a couple of hours of sleep and still do fine. One strategy that works well for me is to sleep for a few hours, then get up as the sun rises. I did this between Salisbury and Jubilee passes on my first ride. If you want to be more competitive, plan to ride through the night. Another plan is to take a few minutes of sleep when you feel you need it. You will be pleasantly surprised how much a five minute "power nap" can help. You may go into the event not sure what you will need to do . . . but that is OK. You should have some options in mind and see how things go. Be sure to share your thoughts with your crew.


You need a couple of good friends to crew for you, three if you can get them. This provides enough people so each person can get a little sleep and do a good job of supporting you. Typical assignments are Driver, Navigator and Feeder. During those times when someone is sleeping, the navigator can double as the feeder too. Make sure all your crew know how to keep track and monitor your electrolytes and food.

Good cycling friends or family members make good crew. You will want to pick people who will help you finish and not get bored following you for 30 or 40 hours. You can use a car or even a pick-up truck as the following vehicle, but a van is ideal. To be legal you will need to have flashing lights mounted on the roof, a "CAUTION BICYCLE AHEAD" sign and a slow moving vehicle triangle. It is pretty easy to set these up. The "CAUTION BICYCLE AHEAD" sign is on the rear of the vehicle throughout the race. The triangle is displayed and the overhead flashers are on only when the vehicle is following directly behind you. Additionally, you can put on an external speaker so the crew can talk to you and maybe play some inspiring music. This probably won't make much difference in your performance but it will make you feel like the other more experienced racers.

The veterans know some of the little secrets of Furnace Creek. These are not race winning secrets, but they do help. First, the crew should start off with a pretty full load of ice. If it is hot you will feel smart. If it is not hot you have spent a couple of extra bucks. Once you are into Mojave, the crew can send you down the road alone while they stop at Subway's on the way out of town and pick up crew food and maybe more ice and bottled water. Don't count on bottled water in Trona or Stovepipe Wells. By the time the tail-enders come through, there will be none left. The crew can get good burritos at the time station in Trona. The last place for fast foods before the finish is in Baker. The trip would not be complete without a stop at The Mad Greek. They do have some great soup (even for breakfast), and other food suitable for crew. This will be the last real town until you get to Twenty Nine Palms, so buy what you need. During the day on this course, rider can take off and not worry about getting lost while the crew stocks up on gasoline and foods. Don't run out of gasoline. There are few places to pull over and tank up out in the desert. Fill up in Trona, which will get you through the night, and then fill up again in Baker.

Still interested? Sounds like you are serious. OK, here is my last hint on how to do well. Just stay on the bike unless you are sleeping. It is amazing how creative riders become with reasons to stop or take a little rest in the van. Your crew can do you a big favor by agreeing that they will NOT let you in the van. The only way to get to Twentynine Palms is to ride your bike.

So what do you think? Yes, I think you could do it. It is one of those rides you will be proud to finish. It is only one full weekend with friends and a lot of riding.