Sunday afternoon, creeping towards Baker into a headwind, my exposed skin feeling like it had been placed under a broiler, and stopping every few minutes to soak my jersey to keep my body temperature down, I was convinced that I’d not be able to finish Furnace Creek 508 within the 48 hour time limit. Heat, nausea and headwinds, and technical problems communicating with my crew early in the race had all added up. I arrived at the Shoshone Time Station (326 miles) nearly 2.5 hours later than the slowest pace I’d calculated before the race. Now it looked like I’d loose another 3 hours on the relatively flat, 58 mile section between Shoshone and Baker. I wasn’t going to quit before 48 hours were up, but I felt like all my pedaling was going to produce a DNF at 7am on Monday.
Before the start on Saturday morning I was relaxed. I focused on getting myself and my bikes ready. I had a lot of trust and confidence in my crew so I let them handle everything else. My crew was George Velasco, who crewed another 508 rider with me in 2008. He has a lot of experience crewing in Death Valley. He’s crewed the 508 five times, for four different riders and has crewed for Badwater more times than I know. My friend Abi Spring from Portland, OR, has never crewed before, but has been involved in athletics and supporting athletes all her life. As it turned out, it was particularly lucky that she was on the crew for this event. She loves the desert, and welcomed the predicted unseasonably high temperatures, except for their possible effect on me. Abi had been very seriously injured in a bike crash a few days before the 2007 508 and it was something of a celebration for me that three years later she was back to her crazy self and here crewing. My mother, Ann, has crewed for me several times, including my first 500 mile race, which she crewed by herself! At 71, she is the only one of us who could go 48 hours with no sleep. I guess I inherited at least some of her endurance, as well as her ability to complete repetitive tasks. I’ve never been surprised to see people her age doing well in ultracycling or ultrarunning events because I know some of what she accomplishes everyday with no training at all.
Foremost in my mind on Saturday morning was advice, from my friend Paul, a 35 hour, 508 finisher in 2001, not to get caught up in the competition of the pack and start too fast. (I’m guessing that Huerfano County Colorado, with a population of around 8000, and two 508 finishers, may now have one of the highest number per capita of 508 finishers in the country.) I figured I’d be able to stay with the group until we turned into San Francisquito Canyon, but after a couple miles I let the pack go so I could warm up easily and find my own pace. I was one of the last riders to the top of San Francisquito. I started passing people on the descent and flat, but still had one of the slowest times to the first Time Station (TS) at California City.
I’d noticed right away that the speed sensor on my climbing bike wasn’t working. I hadn’t ridden it in a couple weeks and when I’d taken my bikes for test rides on Friday I’d not taken my HRM so I did not test that any of its functions were working. (Something to add to the pre-race checklist.) I figured the battery was out, but new Polar speed sensors do not have user-replaceable batteries. Ah well, though watching the distance on my cyclometer is one of the mental games I use to maintain my pace, and I feel like I climb better with that information, I’d probably have to do without it. Since I know that Abi loves to take things apart and remake them (usually with new and different functionality), when I changed bikes at the top of San Francisquito I’d basically told her to “have at it.” My crew left me for a few minutes to search for a battery in Mojave and the next time I got on my climbing bike the speed sensor was working!!
I felt good, even as I contemplated the very real possibility that the headwinds that had slowed my pace thus far could be with me the entire route. I stopped to change shorts outside California City. At that point my crew and I were still struggling with the cheap walkie-talkies I’d bought. I could hear other crews talking on the same channel, but our radios seemed to have a transmission range of about 25 feet. This is an area where I failed. We should have tested the radios before the event. I also should have had more communication with my crew before the race about how things would work. I had so much confidence in my crew that I didn’t take the time; instead relaxing on Friday evening and letting them make last minute changes to the van and get to bed early. What I forgot, is while I deal with what I need on the bike all the time, even people who’ve crewed for me at other races do not. One person on my crew had never crewed for me before and one had not crewed at all. My failure to communicate beforehand and the radios failure to work meant that I was losing a few extra minutes any time we stopped.
When it started getting hot I switched to my summerweight longsleeve jersey, which we first dunked in cold water. That was super-refreshing, for a few minutes like air-conditioning, but in the dry, desert heat the jersey dried quickly. I then poured water on my back and arms, which worked ok, but was nowhere near as nice as the jersey fresh out of the “dunk tank.”
We arrived in Trona, TS #2, only 40 minutes before 6pm, when I’d have to start riding with lights. I wanted to make it to the base of the climb by 5:45 so I could switch to my climbing bike, which already had lights installed, and give Abi a few minutes to install lights on my main bike before the crew had to start direct support. As it turned out the start of the climb was very gradual so I waited as long as possible to change bikes. I did another shorts change when I changed bikes so there was plenty of time for fussing with lights. We got to the top of Trona Bump before it was completely dark. It was an easy climb and thankfully far less windy at the top than it had been the last time I was there, when another rider came up behind the rider I was crewing for and got blown off his bike!
Possibly because I have great lights, as long as it doesn’t get too cold, I love riding at night! It definitely was not going to be too cold. After the first big drop, the descent into Panamint Valley seems more rolling than it looks on the profile, but anyone who’s ridden many brevets with Rocky Mountain Cycling Club is certainly accustomed to rolling.
After about 40 miles, we turned onto 190 toward Furnace Creek and Townes Pass. It’s always been exciting for me to see the taillights of all the cyclists and vehicles as riders climb Townes Pass. I was ready for the climb. Thanks to Paul’s advice, I wasn’t feeling fatigued, but it was close to 10pm and I was feeling sleepy. I got on my climbing bike when the road started up a bit. I didn’t want to wait too long because, as I remembered it, there were a lot of places along this climb where it’s difficult to pull off the road. I was climbing easily and got passed by a few riders, including the rider for the Raven Lunatics 4x recumbent team. The climb felt easier than Pikes Peak. There were a few sections that were steeper, but there were no howling winds. And no part of Townes Pass is as steep as the steepest part of south Cuchara Pass, though Townes Pass is a much longer climb.
I stopped to change bikes at the top. I didn’t think I would need any extra clothes, but after standing still for a few minutes I felt a bit cool so I took Abi’s long sleeve top. I descended quickly after a stop to change front wheels when I was starting to get a wobble. Once I was below 2000 feet, I was feeling hot, but I waited another few miles, until the terrain slowed me down, before stopping to peel a layer.
On the grind from Stovepipe Wells to Furnace Creek I really started feeling sleepy. I planned to stop and sleep, but wanted to find a “nice” place for my crew. My goal was the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center just before TS#3, but when I spotted a paved parking area a few miles before that I pulled off for a 45 min nap.
I’d done pretty well on my calorie intake for most of the morning and early afternoon on Saturday. I’d been drinking Perpetuem with a few Sharkies and an occasional Hammer Gel, but by late afternoon I was starting to feel nauseous. I kept up the Perpetuem, Gel, etc and Endurolytes, but skipped my other supplements to see if I’d feel better. Once the sun set, I tried to get back on my regular nutrition plan, but I felt worse, not better. I started eliminating things until I was down to only ice water and Perpetuem. I tried taking some Tums. No change. My stomach wasn’t emptying.
I was reminded of the 600k I’d ridden in New Mexico in June. I had felt worse on that ride than any ride I’ve done this year. I’d finished, but with a very slow time of 37:05. I wasn’t sure I could ride 135 miles farther feeling that badly, particularly if nausea continued to prevent me from getting enough calories. On the New Mexico ride the only thing that had made me feel better was getting so sick that I finally puked. I felt pretty close to that point and a couple times while I was stopped I left the contents of my stomach on the side of the road.
Even in the middle of the night the temperature was very warm in the lower elevations of Death Valley, near Badwater, and for an hour or so before sunrise I stopped all food and drink except for occasional sips of ice water. By morning my stomach was feeling a lot better, but I was starting to notice the lack of calories.
The sky was light before I got to the top of Jubilee Pass. Abi was keeping track of my food intake and getting increasingly insistent that I eat something. While I was stopped she started rummaging through all the food I’d brought and pulled out a box of couscous I’d put in for after the ride. “That’s what I want,” I said. When the couscous was cooked I stopped and ate couscous, guacamole and daiya shreds, none of which I’d brought to eat during the ride. For the rest of Sunday ’til the finish I continued to take supplements and drink ice water and followed the “junk food” eating plan favored by many RMCC randonneurs.
With some food in my stomach, I had energy for the real work of ultrariding; mental calculations of miles remaining, available time, pace thus far, pace I’d need to maintain to finish. That’s when I remembered Anna’s advice. Anna has ridden the 508 twice. In 2007 she was signed up to ride as part of a 2-woman team. When her teammate had to drop out a few days before the event, Anna decided to try solo. She completed more than 400 miles. In 2008 she came back and finished in 43:26. She’d told me to stay on my bike as much as possible. It occurred to me that sitting in the car eating, and stopping to ask my crew for something and waiting around while they found it, were exactly the types of time-wasters she’d been warning me against. I let my crew know that from that point on I’d tell them what I needed while I was moving and if it required me to stop I would wait until they were ready before stopping.
Coming into Shoshone TS #4, I was a little worried about how far behind schedule I was, but I figured I’d still be able to easily finish in less than 48 hours. I was hoping I could get to Baker in about 3 hours. (Part of that was wishful thinking because I know that Shoshone-to-Baker is the most monotonous section of the entire route and I wanted to get it over with.) I hadn’t planned on the strongest headwind I’d faced thus far. It reminded me of the 30 mile grind back to Grants at the end of the Malpais 300k. The wind wasn’t as strong as it had been in New Mexico in April, but this was also the hottest part of the ride and I was having to stop often to cool down. Fortunately Abi had brought CamelBaks which she filled with ice and water. We put a CamelBak under my longsleeve jersey and drenched everything in water. That saved some time because, in the extremely arid conditions, the CamelBak kept me cool much longer.
At Baker I stopped a few minutes and ate something and the temperature dropped a few degrees. I set off on my own while my crew ran errands to prepare for the last 130 miles. It was then that I started thinking about all the people who’d supported my 508 goal over the last year; my friends who own the local bakery who’d sent me off to California with good luck, lunch, and a load of vegan treats and who’ve fed me yummy, healthy food for nearly 20 years; my randonneuring friends who’ve pushed my limits, put up with my pacing experiments, expanded my view of what’s possible on a bike, and who’d say, “Since when can you not ride 200k in 14 hours?!!”; there were the frisbee friends and biking friends who’d given me a place to stay in northern Colorado this summer; my friends and my dad’s friends who’ve donated to Challenged Athletes Foundation in his honor; the friends who’ve shared their favorite workout tunes; and all the friends who’ve sent me encouragement; not to mention my 508 crew, three people giving up 4-5 days of their time to do nothing but help me complete this ride, and all the friends and family who’ve crewed for me at events leading up to the 508. Feeling all that support, I was able to push a little harder, and I decided I’d try to go through the night without sleep, and if I could do that, I just might make it.
Near the summit of Kelbaker Road, it started to sprinkle and was soon raining pretty hard. My crew asked if I wanted to stop. I said, “No! This is the first tailwind I’ve had in 400 miles!” It only lasted a few hundred yards. When we got within a half mile of the summit I did stop because I was freezing and needed to change bikes and put on some warmer clothes for the descent to Kelso.
When I was crewing in 2007 and 2008 I’d seen the bad pavement on Kelbaker Road and a few other sections and wondered why anyone would want to ride the 508. Now, with a summer of New Mexico and Colorado brevets behind me, I laughed at how average the pavement was. In fact, the “bad pavement” on Kelbaker Road felt surprisingly smooth if you avoided the potholes.
I enjoyed the descent to Kelso, but the rain had stopped and I was losing altitude and soon felt overdressed. I stayed in my rain jacket and leg warmers through Kelso, TS #6, because I knew I’d be stopping to change bikes right away.
For some reason the climb from Kelso was the hardest of the entire route. It’s not a very steep climb, but taillights kept disappearing in front of me, making me think I was near the top, only to reappear much higher. I was also getting very sleepy and I had to stop to sit in the van and shut my eyes for 5 minutes.
When I changed bikes at the summit my knees screamed. I took some more Tylenol and switched back to my climbing bike and stayed on it for the rest of the ride. It was a fun, fast descent into Amboy, TS#7, though I was being cautious on the corners near the intersection with I-40 because a rider had a bad crash near there in 2008.
After Amboy, the 20 mile stretch to the start of Sheephole climb looks very flat on the profile, but felt like it was downhill all the way. The Sheephole climb went by quickly. Then another fast descent and 24 miles of very gradual uphill to the finish. I crossed the line at 45:55, nearly 6 hours slower than I’d expected, but I was no less happy to collect my finisher’s jersey!