Oct 15-16, 2000
I first heard of the Furnace Creek 508 while working as a geologist in Bakersfield, California. The route goes through Panamint Valley, where I attended a University of Washington Geology Field Camp, and traverses the length of Death Valley, a mecca for geologists. The weather is anything but mild. Our field camp literally blew away one day in a violent windstorm, and the rest of the time we either baked or froze.
Then I read an article in the paper about some Bakersfield residents doing a bicycle race through this region.
“That’s crazy,” I thought to myself.
I first thought about doing the Furnace Creek 508 while at the Spring 508 training camp in 1999. I had signed up as an excuse to visit old field camp haunts and ride in the sun for a few days. Not that I planned on doing the race itself. Riding 508 miles nonstop through the Mojave Desert and Death Valley and finishing in less than 48 hours was beyond imagination. After all, such ultra events were for serious racers, and I was having way too much fun on the bike to get serious about racing.
"So what motivates all you veterans to keep coming back to do this ride?" I queried at dinner.
One veteran replied, "Well, maybe twenty percent of the riders out there are racing to win, the rest of us are out there to have fun!"
Well, of course, how serious can it get when racers are assigned animal totems instead of race numbers and a menagerie of flamingos, scorpions, seals, and crocodiles rolls through the desert? I started envisioning rare and mischievous desert animals beginning with ‘B’.
Lee Mitchell, veteran long-distance cyclist and support vehicle driver, had warned me about long distance cycling: "You realize, of course, that we're really out there--the fringe of a fringe sport."
Of course, I vaguely remember the days when finishing a century was a milestone, the five-pass Markleeville Death Ride a major accomplishment, and riding a double or triple century beyond the reach of normal human beings. That was a mere four years ago. While I had accepted that I was far from normal, I was still sufficiently deluded to think that maybe the rest of the world, or at least the cycling fringe, might understand the motivation for my endeavor.
But my quest for crew was more difficult than I imagined. How much more fun could it get, sitting in a vehicle watching the behind of a weary cyclist for two days and nights and catering to their every need?
"That doesn't sound like fun...it sounds like hell," remarked one of my cycling friends, who is an avid racer and well acquainted with purgatory.
"Can we ride part of the course while we're out there?" responded another. Uh, no, you have to sit in the van all day and watch me ride.
"It's a strange sport...v-e-r-y strange," noted an ex-pro racer, who was leading a local training session. He gave me a meaningful, but questioning glance, like "you're not one of them, are you?"
With no volunteers for crew, I decided to post to the online cycling lists. Surprisingly, I netted a response, from someone I didn't even know, but was willing to give of her time to be part of the event.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” replied Sandy Price. I was overwhelmed.
My second crew member was a cycling buddy, Charlie Massieon, one of two cyclists that live in California City, which is on the race course in the Mojave Desert. He was at least willing to make sure I didn’t get lost on his home turf. The third was a family friend of many years, John Waterbrook, who came from my home town in eastern Washington State. He agreed to be crew chief as much to reassure my folks that I wouldn’t die in the desert as to help me on the ride.
Then came months of preparation and logistics. Lee Mitchell generously volunteered to help with van equipment and patiently answered my myriad questions on the rules and logistics of the event.
My totem emerged as a bandicoot, a rabbit-like marsupial that’s nocturnal, eats everything, and has a bent towards surreptitious activity. In Australian slang, “bandicoot” refers to a lonely and solitary individual. Sounded like a solo 508 rider to me.
Dad spent hours at the computer drawing a bandicoot logo modeled after the Crash Bandicoot video game, hoping it was unique enough to avoid copyright infringement. Mom had T-shirts made up and printed some colorful banners for the van. I pedaled my bike, a lot. I was ready, my crew was ready, and we were going to have a great time.
The '99 race started well for me. Even though temperatures were hot, I was quite comfortable and able to maintain a good pace for 200 miles from the start in Valencia through Panamint Valley. In fact, I logged personal bests for both a century and double century, though that was with full support…and a good tailwind.
We passed and got passed by a lot of other riders, and we all called out encouragement to each other. It was just a big rolling party. Obviously I wasn’t among the top 20% who were seriously racing.
In Panamint Valley I remembered mapping rocks in the Argus Range to the west, and when Chris Kostman came alongside in the official’s vehicle to take photos, I pointed out the white rocks of the Lee Flat Limestone quarry, gleaming in the late afternoon sun. “Uh-huh, sure…,” he replied skeptically and snapped away.
By twilight I was on Townes Pass and actually enjoying the climb. On the long descent into Death Valley, I bettered my personal speed record of 50 mph.
But things went downhill from there. Around the Sea Level elevation sign near Stovepipe Wells I began to feel queasy.
“It’s bad luck to stop at Furnace Creek,” Chris Kostman had warned us. But I knew the Death Valley Visitor’s Center was a good stopping place, with real restrooms and running water.
So we stopped at Furnace Creek, and I suddenly got very sick. The Manager of Digestive Services (MDS) starting issuing rejection slips. We watched the lights of the vans go by – the ones we had passed going up Townes Pass. After a couple hours, I was stable enough to get back on the bike and wobble on to Badwater, the lowest elevation in the United States. It was also the lowest point in the ride, because there I could go no further. The crew tried to catch some sleep under the stars, but I was too sick to sleep and the smell of stagnant water in the Badwater playa didn’t help.
“Badwater, that place is baaaaad. I’m never stopping there again,” said my crew chief John as we drove home in the early morning light.
It was so disappointing. After all the effort of recruiting crew, acquiring gear, and riding many miles in preparation for this event, there was nothing to show for it but a "Did Not Finish" next to my name. I felt like I'd let everyone down, that I could never show my face at a cycling event again.
"Seeeeee, we told you it wouldn't be fun,” they’d all be saying.
"If the race starts at Furnace Creek, you at least started the race," noted my crew chief, encouragingly. He was grasping at straws.
"We're so proud of you!" Mom called when I got home. Well, I didn’t die in the desert.
A few thoughtful cycling friends sent condolences and lots of good advice. It was appreciated, though I still wasn’t sure what went wrong. I told them I’d think about doing it next year. But I didn’t think I would.
I didn't think about it much at all, as selective memory suppression seems to be a characteristic of long-distance cyclists. Then one day I got a confirmation notice in the mail, welcoming me to the 508 for 2000. Don't know how it happened, except that maybe my bicycle got online while I overslept for a ride and signed me up.
This year it was much easier to find crew, thanks to a couple dear cycling buddies, Ken Holloway and Todd Teachout, who actually volunteered. We had been riding together all season, having a grand old time beating each other up on the double centuries and slurping down chocolate malts in the post-ride "recovery window." In fact, they seemed a bit too eager to watch me suffer for 48 hours in the desert. They were especially delighted at the prospect of having a one-way P.A. system -- "you mean, you can't talk back to us?!"
"This year we're going to cross the finish line…and have fun!" I instructed the team. They all nodded solemnly in agreement, trying to hide the diabolical grins on their faces.
This year I had ridden many more miles, completed more really long rides, and practiced a strict eating and drinking routine on the bike. Blackberry milkshakes on local training rides, Dairy Queen Blizzards in the desert, and chocolate malts in the recovery window. I was more than ready to see the finish line.
The day before the race, the crew gathered at my house to load up the gear and organize the van. My neighbors came out to see what all the commotion was about. They ride bicycles, too, but only when their driving licenses are suspended. They leaned over the fence, smoking.
“So how many miles you riding this time?” they asked.
“Oh, about five hundred eight.”
“How many weeks will that take you?”
“No more than two days.”
“Oh, so like you do 250 miles one day and then 250 miles the next?” They didn’t skip a beat.
“Uh, yeah, something like that.” Tough customers, the home crowd.
We drove down to Valencia and I tried to quell the squeamishness in my stomach. I couldn’t believe I was doing this again. How did my bicycle get me into this?
At the pre-ride banquet, Steve Born, 508 veteran and race winner, took the podium and gave us all some sage advice.
“Embrace your pain,” he said. I didn’t plan on having pain – this was supposed to be fun.
Then he told the story of how he once found himself in the lead and was thinking he could actually win the race, when a rider came blazing by him like he was standing still. His self confidence was destroyed until he realized that the rider was on a four-person relay team. He warned us solemnly: “If you’re on a team, be sure you call out ‘Team’ when you pass a solo rider.”
Like I’ll have to worry about that, I thought to myself.
The first half of the course was pretty much a repeat of last year, though slower overall due to the headwinds. When I started to lag, the crew piped fiddle music over the loudspeaker. “O.K, boys, let’s pick up the pace a little,” says the fiddler after each round of Sally Goodin, and the music steps it up a notch. I pedal faster and faster. Whenever I look back at the van, the crew is grinning fiendishly.
I made good time through Panamint Valley and finally stopped to switch on the headlamp just before Townes Pass. On the climb I set a steady pace and focused on reeling in the amber flashing lights of the next support vehicle up the road. At the summit, I paused only long enough to mount a high-powered NiteRider for the descent and put on an extra layer of clothing. With the lights of the van and the NiteRider, the 5000 ft nighttime descent into Death Valley was exhilarating, and I hit Stovepipe Wells on a roll.
Sea Level came and went without incident, and by Furnace Creek I was feeling good enough to put down the hammer. It was now approaching midnight and I was moving along in a cocoon of light from the van, oblivious to anything but the patch of road illuminated by the headlights.
“Whatever we do, we’re not stopping at Badwater,” ordered my crew chief over the loudspeaker. “That place is baaaaad.” I couldn’t talk back. But there was really no argument.
At Badwater I was still feeling good, so upped the pace to a flat out sprint. Speeding by the Badwater parking area, we screamed, shook our fists, and yelled, “Take that you…sunova smelly salt flat.”
Yeehaw! I was flying. We rounded the alluvial fan and headed out the bumpy road to Ashford Meadows. Flashing amber lights loomed through the darkness. The relay teams were starting to catch the solo riders, so I figured it was one of the team cars.
As we get closer I can see a cyclist at the side of the road, looking back, poised for the trade-off. I expect the team rider to come flying past me any minute and yell “Team,” just as Steve instructed them to. As I approach the team vehicle, I glance back, but can see no lights from the team rider. Wow, he must be moving really fast! I’m still carrying momentum from the Badwater sprint, and as I come alongside the team car, the rider clips in and launches off.
"Solo," I yell, "Solo rider."
He does a double take and stops. "Thanks."
A few minutes later he flies by me like I'm standing still.
"Team!" he yells. Yeah, got it.
At Jubilee Pass I was relieved to be off the bumpy road and settle into the rhythm of the climb. But my right knee didn’t share my enthusiasm. I was pretty much limited to seated climbing and a frustrating suboptimal pace. There were few other riders around, so I focused on racing daybreak to the top of Salsberry Pass.
At the summit I took only a short break and pushed off on the descent to Shoshone. The stark desert mountains slowly brightened in the early morning sun. Temperatures were near freezing and hitting pockets of cold air felt like opening the door of a freezer. I ordered up a hot chocolate from the crew and stopped to thaw out in the van.
I counted off the miles up the gradual climb of Ibex Pass, which doesn’t seem to go down enough after passing the summit. At least I was warming up.
I had now passed the furthest I’d ever ridden in one day by nearly 100 miles. It was unknown territory from here on in terms of both physiology and geography. That’s one weird thing about long distance cycling – you can’t just go out and practice the entire event like you can in, say, running a 10K or doing the long jump. It’s hard to know how your body will react until you get there, in spite of all the mental preparation and physical training.
By Baker I was starting to hallucinate. My crew had been carefully monitoring my food, fluid, and salt intake to prevent a meltdown like last year, which was likely caused by hypoglycemia (low salt). I’d been consuming a lot of “bike food,” the standby being a cocktail of Sustained Energy (carbohydrate mix) and Endurolytes (salt capsules) spiked with Cytomax for flavoring. It was good for fuel, but not exactly a…chocolate malt. I was starting to crave real food. Sagebrush morphed into sprays of french fries. Mountains melted into piles of chocolate ice cream. The road surface buckled into the surface of a Milky Way bar.
At Baker we stopped at a mini-mart for gasoline, ice, and restrooms. It is chaos. Bandicoots leap out of the van and go flying every which way. I’m getting impatient to go when suddenly Todd materializes before me with a chocolate malt, complete with little umbrella and long-handled spoon, and a large carton of greasy salty french fries! Instant approval from the MDS. I stuff the fries in my bento box for snacks to-go and point the bike south.
On Kelbaker Road, the Red Rockettes, a women’s relay team, came flying by, shouting words of encouragement. They were hoofing it, climbing out of the saddle like I wanted to be, but couldn’t because of Jubilee knee. But their speed and enthusiasm gave me a mental boost.
I resorted to entertaining the Bandicoot crew by pointing out geologic features like the Kelso Dunes and the Cima volcanics as we slowly crept by. Last year a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck here a week after the 508 and ruptured the surface for 25 miles. Had it happened during the race, I wonder how many riders would have thought it was just another cycling-induced hallucination.
By Amboy, it was starting to get dark. The final climb was Sheep Hole Pass, which is usually referred to by less complimentary perversions of the name. The road was as much pothole as pavement. By then it was pitch dark and there was nothing along the road to give a sense of perspective -- like riding in a tunnel. Which way is up? Down? What is out there? Sagebrush? Trees? All I knew is that I had to keep moving because if I clipped out I might never get started again.
Ahead were flashing yellow lights. Is it road work? Emergency vehicles? Hours later, it seemed, the last time station materialized out of the gloom. It had an incongruous Hawaiian theme with grass skirts, thatched hut, and of course the ceremony of “getting lei-d.” I was too tipsy to fully appreciate the humor, but the crew seemed ready for some comic relief.
Now I was looking anxiously for the finish at TwentyNine Palms, but the climbing didn’t stop. I could finally see the lights of the city spread out below, but I was still disoriented in the dark. Seana Hogan, the race official assigned to the women’s category, was patiently escorting me to the finish. She is multi-time champion of both the 508 and Race Across America, and I felt bad that my slow pace was keeping her up so late.
I finally rolled through town and up to the finish, where my crew was holding the banner for the first woman across the line. But it wasn’t really a race among the women, as I hardly saw any solo women competitors the entire race. Anyone who finishes this race is a winner, and most of the work is just getting to the starting line.
"Let's go around again!" chirped a rather bedraggled Bandicoot. Other than Jubilee knee, I felt great, better in fact than I've felt after some of the more difficult double centuries. But it’s a good thing the Bandicoot crew didn't call my bluff.
My crew was glad I made it in by a decent hour so they could get some quality sleep after 39 hours on the road. And I could rest in peace now that I had finally erased that DNF.
"Ha," I thought to all the naysayers of the previous year, "see, now I've completed this big ride and it was really…fun." I imagined my Inbox being flooded with congratulatory notes from all my cycling friends. "We are so shocked that you actually made it...we thought you’d never finish this ride."
But when I got home, my Inbox was empty.
The next morning, my neighbor poked his head out the door. "So how did your ride go?”
"Fine, I finished!"
“What place did you get?”
“Outa how many?”
“Hmph, well that’s not bad.” The expected answer was undoubtedly "twelve."
No matter that 40% of the solo riders didn’t finish the race. It was a race against one, myself, and I had won.
I visited the local cycling shop that week, bringing my bike in for a minor repair and a new chain.
"This chain just put on 500 miles over the weekend,” I announced expectantly.
"Oh, the Furnace Creek 508." I tried to sound nonchalant.
“Isn't that some place out in Death Valley?"
I was getting the post-508 blues. Here I had accomplished the dream of a lifetime, spent months in planning and training, had overcome a shattering defeat, and had finally succeeded. But it was life as usual to the rest of the world. It only had meaning to the fringe of the fringe and, as is characteristic of long-distance cyclists, they would quickly forget.
I was no longer a princess being waited on by my three charming princes. Maybe I wouldn’t ride my bike anymore. Somehow, going for a nice walk in the city park was beginning to sound like a lot more fun.
Then I got a message in my Inbox. It was from Mom.
"We're so proud of you...."
Cycling is a team sport, even in the solo category, and the Bandicoot couldn’t have even made to the starting line without a generous and supportive crew and sponsors.
My parents, Betty and Claude Barnett, were the chief graphic designers and principal fan club.
Lee Mitchell lent equipment and gave much-needed advice on race rules and choreography.
My 1999 crew, Sandy Price, Charlie Massieon, and John Waterbrook, got me through my highest and lowest points of riding a bicycle.
My 2000 crew, Todd Teachout, Ken Holloway, and John Waterbrook, made sure I kept my sense of humor and took every bump in the road with a grain of salt.
In both 1999 and 2000, crew chief, John Waterbrook, helped organize the gear, reassured my parents, and gave much useful advice on physiology and biomechanics.
Rivendell Bicycles, A Bicycle Odyssey, Joe Young Wheels, and E-Caps & Hammer Nutrition provided dependable equipment, good service, effective fuel, and moral support.
Chris Kostman, director of the Furnace Creek 508, put on a great show and supplied the on-the-road photos.
I thank all of my supporters with the enthusiasm of a bandicoot in a potato patch!