After an 8 year absence,
There is just something about this race. I’m not sure that I can FULLY articulate what it is. But after having this week to reflect, I was reminded of a quote that I had read a month ago.
"When you're stuck sitting in a
comfort zone, small problems
become magnified. Get out of
your comfort zone, touch the
edge, and you come back with
an appreciation for life."
- Barbara Warren, 1943-2008
Perhaps that helps to explain why I’m so drawn to the 508. I already know that I’ll be back. Hopefully I’ll go 3 for 3.
I can offer one other answer when someone asks, "Why?"
When I'm out there on the course and feeling the most vulnerable, both emotionally and physically, I also feel the most connected with what I am trying to accomplish. At exactly that precise moment in time, I am profoundly thankful for the journey.
I feel so very fortunate that I get to choose my pain and suffering. There any many on this planet who do not.
To say that the race course is difficult is an understatement.
The climbs are huge. They’re not terribly steep, but they are LONGGGGGG. Then there’s the wind. It is the desert after all. Oh yeah, and this year we also had fog, wind, more wind, rain, more wind, then finally some heat…..oh yeah, and more wind. Did I mention the wind?
My crew was amazing. Without them, I wouldn’t have stood a snowflakes chance in
Returning to the race with me after our 8 year absence were: Dick Allen & Jim Ortlieb. And joining me for the first time as crew was my wonderful girlfriend: Jo Carmichael.
The night before the start of 508.
In the weeks leading up to the race, I spent my time training. I was able to focus on my training because I knew that Jim was taking care of all of the logistical matters and Jo was taking care of me after my intense training sessions with a fantastic sports massage each evening. Furnace Creek 508 truly is a TEAM effort. I could not have done it without them.
We used Jim’s Ford Winstar mini-van for our crew vehicle and Jim spent his time leading up to the race getting everything meticulously organized with the van. Jo also took great care in putting together all of my personal needs.
Finally it was time to head to the start line in Santa Clarita. First off, we had out obligatory 6:00 a.m. stop at Starbucks.
The crew van is ready
We arrived at the start line host hotel just before noon on Friday. Our other crew member,
Jim brings our mascot, Jaggy, while
The whole gang: Jo,
Trying to rest those legs
Race Dedication Plaque for John Marino
Doug “Dog” Sloan gets us all checked in for the race
Jim looks on
What a great crew!
Check out those custom crew T-shirts
Another shot of our “T’s”
Lovin’ that Jaguar picture
Parking lot of race hotel
The pre-race crew dinner on Friday night
Chris has some instructions for Jeff “Brown Bear” Bell at the pre-race meeting
Chris looks on while John Marino speaks
John Marino accepts his plaque
The field of competitors
Erhard “Desert Mouse” Weiss (in the red hat) is a Badwater Ultra finisher
Suitin’ up and gettin’ ready
Last moments of relaxation
Jaguar, Dick, & Jim
At the start line
Chatting with Wolverine and Flamingo
Almost time to go
CHP Scott is set to lead us out
Holy Crap! I’m right next to Michael Secrest. I need to find a spot in the back row
The crew then goes forward to the 24 mile mark where they and all the other crews must wait for us to begin leap frog support. So that’s how we spend Saturday until 6 p.m. I ride past. The crew jumps in the van and drives a short ways up the road and waits for me and then I ride past and we do it all again. They have a tough time getting food and supplements to me because we have such a big tailwind that I was really moving. Way too fast to grab a bottle. There are times when I’m hardly pushing at all on the pedals but I’m still doing 35 m.p.h. But we muddle through and they keep me fed, watered, and supplemented.
The climbs and the time stations seem to click on by that first day. After Antelope Valley we head up climb #2, the windmills. After that, we’re through Mojave and we make the left turn and head north for a bit. Then the right turn and into California City and time station #1.
Leaving California City we are headed due north and we have a substantial crosswind from left to right. At one time, I have to hop off the bike real quick to do a bladder dump, and I realize that my legs are now being sandblasted (something the crew has had to deal with all day). I can’t wait to get back on my bike, because I wasn’t feeling the sand while I’ve been pedaling.
I’m also anxious to finish this northbound section and make the right turn and head up the Randsburg climb (because I know it will be tailwind time again).
During the climb I have a brief chat with Mike “Wild Turkey” Wilson. He’s from San Diego, in his 2nd FC508, and was recently hit by a car and had his racing bike destroyed. Fortunately, he’s alright, racing, and got a new bike from the factory.
I finish climb #3 and ride through the tiny hamlet of Randsburg. I can NEVER go through here without thinking about all the great times I had as a kid on my motorcycle. Good stuff.
I make the turn at Highway 395, pass Johannesburg, and make the left turn onto Trona Rd. This is another memory filled road for me as I spent a great deal of time in this area also riding motorcycles when I was young (like 8 & 9 years old).
Trona Rd. is a series of rolling climbs that finally top out before a 6 mile descent to Highway 178 to the town of Trona.
It is on this 6 mile descent that my 2008 Furnace Creek 508 almost came to an abrupt end. The descent is fast. There was a HUGE crosswind blowing. I didn’t think much of it until I started getting a high speed wobble in my front wheel. It’s getting worse and worse, and trying to slow down is making it worse still. Time slows down (i.e., tachypsychia) and my brain says to me, “Wow, dude, you are well and truly SCREWED if you don’t get this wobble under control soon. And by soon, I mean RIGHT NOW!”
Braking is making it worse. Not braking is making me go to fast. The handlebars are wobbling so bad, that I’m almost losing my grip on them. My last ditch thought was to get the front tire off of the ground in the hopes that I could straighten it out. So I bunny hop the whole bike. It works (kind of). The shimmy slows down, I apply some additional brake, then the shimmy gets worse, so I bunny hop the bike again. This time is completely works. The shimmy is gone, and I get slowed down and finally get the bike under control. WHEW !! That was a close one.
Also fortunate was the fact that my crew was already up the road and did not have to see this, because I’m sure it would have scared the crap out of them!
Dick looks on in the Antelope Valley
One of our cushions ended up stuck in the door of the van. I couldn’t figure out what the “orange thing” was when they drove past. They fixed it.
Got my new rear wheel (off Jo’s bike) and now I’m all set.
Jo waits for me to pass by
Words of encouragement on our white board
You can see the sand blowing across the road
Jo takes care of crew and Jaguar
The dusty desert
I finish my descent on Trona Rd., roll to a stop at CA-178 and make the right turn and head to TS#2 in Trona. The road is due east here. The wind is due west. I’m absolutely flying. Right before you enter Trona, the road bends around to the left (almost due west). At that moment I’m going 35 m.p.h. with ease. The next moment I’m doing 6 m.p.h. and working my tail off. After a short stretch, the road bends to the east again and I’m on my way to TS#2.
We take a short break there. Jo gives me a quick massage and some more Chamois Butter in my shorts and I’m on the way. Up and over the “Trona bump” or climb #4 and a nice descent into Panamint Valley.
Most of the way through Panamint is also tailwind. I make the right turn at CA-190 at just after 5:00 p.m. I’ve covered 200 miles of racing in just slightly over 10 hours. Yup….up until this Townes Pass climb, I’ve averaged 20 m.p.h. Thank you Chris Kostman for the 200 mile tailwind !
I had a little trouble finding my climbing legs at the bottom of Townes Pass. It’s the steeper section of the climb and I just could not find a good rhythm initially. But after we make our way past the lower slopes, I start to find my climbing legs and we start making some decent time.
While on the climb, we make a quick stop just before 6:00 p.m. It’s time to put the lights on the bike and start direct support. I have the crew also crank up the tunes for the first time on our external speakers mounted on the van. So we’re climbing, we have the tunes going, I’m feeling pretty good and the sun is setting.
This is my absolutely favorite time of the Furnace Creek 508. Once that sun sets, the race takes on a very special quality. Almost mystical. In the dark, it’s just you, your crew, and the lights of the vehicle. It’s before the suffering really begins and it’s certainly a special time.
Another look at Townes Pass
We summit Townes Pass (elev. 4956’ and the highest point of the race route) just as the sun is going down. The crew hands me a vest and I add a layer of warmth for the plunge into Stovepipe Wells. We can see flashes of lightning in the distance. Dick comments that it looks like we might get wet. I dismiss it. Too me, it looks like it is far far in the distance and not along our route.
We start down Townes Pass into Death Valley. 5 minutes later, Dick is proven 100% correct and I am proven oh so wrong. The sky darkens and at first it’s just a few drops of rain. Soon that turns to a steady drizzle. The rain is cold and soon, so am I. I have to stop on the descent. The crew jumps out with many layers of clothing in hand. I even add a rain cape just so that I can retain some body heat.
We finish the descent, the rain lightens up and I am able to shed some of the clothing I was forced to don earlier. It is now fully dark and we are on the way past Stovepipe Wells and heading another 25 miles to Furnace Creek and TS#3.
We arrive in Furnace Creek at 9:22 p.m. We’ve been racing for 14 hours & 22 minutes. I’m ready for a lengthier break off the bike at this point. The crew gets a chair for me and proceeds to tend to my every need. Food, water, new clothing, massage, checking the bike and more. They tend to some of their needs as well. The break is welcome, but all too soon it’s over and it’s time to get moving again. Badwater and Ashford Mills here we come. It’s 17 miles to Badwater and it is there that the crew needs a bathroom stop. It’s a quick stop and we’re on the way again. After leaving Badwater (elev. 282’ below sea level) Dick decides that he will try to get some sleep. Jim takes over on driving and Jo moves back and forth between the back of the van and the front passenger seat. We will stay in this configuration until Shoshone.
The miles grind past ever so slowly. I’m starting to get pretty tired now, but Jim & Jo keep me going with music (on our external speakers), food, water, supplements, and encouraging words.
I’d swear that the 27 miles between Badwater and Ashford Mills are the loooooongest 27 miles anywhere on the entire course. It’s endless.
But finally, we get past Ashford Mills and start the Jubilee & Salsberry climbs (climb #6). With those climbs behind me, I am truly getting sleepy now. The crew gives me half of a caffeine tablet on the descent in Shoshone, but it might as well have been a sleeping pill. It had about the same effect. My stomach is also starting to annoy me and I’m having trouble getting the calories down that I want. So I switch to Hammer Gel (nice compact calories) and water. This works. It’s just enough for my tired body to limp into Shoshone at 4:48 a.m. By now, I am having real problems staying awake. I’m afraid if I keep riding that I’ll hurt myself. I tell the crew that I’ve got to close my eyes for 30 or so minutes.
I lay down in the back of the van and am sound asleep in about 8 seconds. 30 minutes later the crew awakens me and gets me back on the bike. I feel slightly better but it only felt like I slept for 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes. My stomach is still a bit gooned up as well. So I’m not at all a happy camper. But I turn the pedals nonetheless. Jim would tell me later that he could tell when I started to feel better just by watching my pedaling cadence. As soon as I reached a normal “spin rate” he knew I was finally starting to wake up and was ready to get that bike moving.
I’m just hanging on until sunrise in another hour or so. I know that once the sun comes up, so will my spirits.
It finally starts to get light at around 6:30 a.m. FANTASTIC !!
I feel like a million bucks! SWEET !!
Sunday morning - Sunrise, just south of Shoshone
On the way to Baker
I think that was Jim’s note to himself
Heading to Baker
We get through the 60 miles from Shoshone to Baker with relative ease (nothing is easy at this point of the race). We clock through Baker and TS#5 at 9:26 a.m. We stop briefly in Baker for gas and Jo takes the time to massage me and add some more Chamois Butter to my shorts.
All too soon it’s time to remount and start the Kelbaker climb or as I like to call it, “Forever Hill.” It only averages something like 2.5% but it goes on for 21 miles. It’s also the worst paving of the entire race course. Oh yeah, and the descent is so rough that it offers no relief whatsoever. And the damn thing takes me about 2½ hours.
It’s on this climb that I hit my second (and last) low point of the race. With about 8 miles still to climb, I’m starting to really feel bad. Physically. Emotionally. I’m just depressed. It happened to me on this same climb 8 years before. I seem to time it so that my normal circadian “dip” happens at the same time I am on this dreaded climb.
I’m literally just hanging onto the bike while making feeble forward progress. I’m feeling so lousy that I start to make deals with myself. “I’ll climb 3 more miles. Then I’ll only have 5 miles until the summit. If I still feel horrible, I’ll lay down for another 30 minute break.”
The crew picks this moment to pull forward and check on me. As soon as I heard the engine rev-up behind me, I thought, “Crap, I must be weaving or something, because they know I’m in trouble right now.”
As soon as they start talking to me, I go completely into “meltdown mode.” I’m so tired that I start sobbing like a little kid who lost his balloon. The crew shows me such support and encouragement that I sob even more because I’m already emotional and I’m just totally blown away by their sacrifice to be there with me at that moment in time and to help get me through it. Mind you, I’m still pedaling all the while this is going on.
I finally start to feel a bit better. The tears dry up and I’m moving away from the void. The crew has tied an invisible and emotional life line to me and literally pulled me away from the abyss. They have saved me once again. Not the first time during this race…..and certainly not the last.
They say that timing is everything. Well, in another fantastic stroke of timing, my good buddy Keith calls my crew on my mobile phone at this same moment. Jim is talking to Keith (who has been enthusiastically following the race online since the start) and relaying to me Keith’s words of encouragement and support. Keith also played a roll in bringing me back to life. Thanks Keith!
At this point I should also mention that Jo had my phone in the van throughout the race and she would update me on the various calls, texts, and words of encouragement that came though on my mobile. They were all most welcome and all a tremendous lift for my mood. Thanks to all of you who took the time! It was definitely noticed.
There are several cattle guards on this section of the race course. I rode over the first one at the beginning of the Kelbaker climb. It hurt every nerve ending in my body SO BAD that I decided to walk over all the others on the climb including the last one at the summit. It was just too bone jarring to try to ride the other ones.
So finally my emotional low point and the geographical high point of the climb came to end. I was quite glad to see another summit going behind me (at 12:38 p.m.). At the top of the Kelbaker climb there are roughly 100 miles left in the race. Just a century!
More of Forever Hill (aka Kelbaker climb #8)
So after the 11 mile descent, we arrive at TS#6 in Kelso at 1:17 p.m. I take another short break here and Jo helps me through my final clothing change. It’s the only time in the race that it is genuinely warm, so I go with a sleeveless jersey for the first time during the race. I also get a fresh pair of shorts full of fresh Chamois Butter (which feel oh so good).
We take off from Kelso and start climb #9 over Granite Pass. Now we have 91 miles to go. Considering that I’ve been on the bike for almost 31 hours, I actually feel okay. My feet and rear end are sore, but the suffering is manageable.
I even manage to pass a couple of riders on the climb. Just prior to the summit of Granite Pass, I have my crew give me another caffeine tablet. I do this because there is a 20 miles descent coming and during my last 508 in 2000, I almost fell asleep on this descent and I was also hallucinating quite a bit. So I thought that a small dose of caffeine would keep me awake and safe.
It works. I feel alert during the descent. We are moving downhill at a pretty good clip. At mile 439 we are coming around a sweeping right hand turn and up ahead there are 2 crew vans stopped in the right lane. A rider is down. It turns out to be Steve “Chow Chow” Kreiling. I heard later that he had a concussion and a lot of road rash from his crash, but I never got the whole story. I hope he’s okay and ready to come try it again next year. Having come that far in this race, he deserves to get to the finish line.
There is another crew lending assistance. My crew checks to see what they can do. Turns out….not much. The other crews seem to have it covered.
The crash of Chow Chow was nerve wracking for Jo. She had just turned around in the van to grab something (and was not looking out the front window). They next thing she heard was Dick yelling, “Oh no! He’s down!” She would tell me later that her heart leapt up into her throat before she could get turned around, look out the window, and realize that Dick was talking about Chow Chow and not me. I think it probably took Jo a while to come down from that adrenaline spike and the resultant stress.
So we press on for Amboy and TS#7. We pull into Amboy at 4:09 p.m. Just 58 miles left. Jo adds some more Chamois Butter to my backside. It’s really screaming by now. We pull out, make the right turn on Historic Route 66, and go west right into the nastiest headwind of the entire race. Luckily we only have to do that for 6½ miles.
We finally get to make our left turn and we pick up a very nice tailwind. I’m making good time through this section on the way to Sheephole summit (climb #10). We make another quick stop and put the lights back on the bike since its approaching 6 p.m. My crew puts the theme from Rocky on the speakers. It sounds great and I’m still hammering the pedals well.
This is how the world was looking to me at this point
The lights of Twentynine Palms at long last start to show and now I know we are getting close.
We make the left at Utah Trail, go 2 miles and make the right on 29 Palms Hwy. Just under 4 miles to the finish line now.
We pedal through the city, stopping for traffic signals and stop signs along the way. One more little hill to climb and the finish line hotel is in sight!!
Crossing the line with my Sweets (photo by Chris Kostman)
Another shot of my EXCEPTIONAL crew
We hung around the finish line for a bit. I had a slice of pizza. I made some phone calls to supporters back at their homes. But we were all pretty fried, so we went to our hotel, showered, had a victory toast and slept “like dead animals” as Jo would say.
I felt somewhat human the next morning so we headed down to the finish line at about 6:45 a.m. to see if there were any last minute finishers. But, none rolled in. I guess the last one had finished an hour or so earlier.
We headed to the post race breakfast, had some tasty food, visited some other racers and crew and head home to the Bay Area.
I already know that I’ll be back. I just love this race!
Breakfast on Monday morning
Jim waits in line for his breakfast
Jim and Jo
A rest stop along I-5 on the way back home
I thought the shadow looked cool
The warriors return home
2008-10-21....Okay, it's been a couple of weeks now. An easy ride with Jim.
Thanks for reading!