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Raising the Bar at the 2005 Furnace Creek 508
By Chris Kostman
The 2005 Furnace Creek 508 was the biggest (148 racers), fastest (nearly every course record broken), and most competitive in history (just nine minutes between first and second in the solo division and many other categories and placings were much closer than that). It also featured the presence of two incredibly well known endurance athletes making their first forays into the realm of ultra road cycling.
Seventy-eight solo racers, eleven two-person teams, and twelve four-person teams lined up in Santa Clarita, CA on October 8, 2005 to tackle "the toughest 48 hours in sport." Ahead lay 508 miles of nearly traffic-free roadway and over 35,000 feet of elevation gain, ten mountain passes, Mother Nature's greatest sports arena, Death Valley, plus the stark beauty of the Mojave Desert. The climbing began immediately as the racers headed up Bouquet Canyon, Spunky Canyon (renamed "Alpe de Spunky" by somebody who placed a home-made sign on the road), and San Francisquito Canyon. But even with the intense climbing, the record field size (an increase of nineteen more solos and twelve more relay racers from 2004) and an equally record level of competitiveness kept the majority of the field near other racers as they progressed through the early parts of the course. The weekend would prove to be a classic case of high-quality athletes pushing one another to yet higher, and higher, levels of athletic excellence.
From the race director's van, it was the most exciting display of pure, hard-core racing I've seen in a long time. Case in point: only on some years does the solo race leader, or leaders, reach the summit of Townes Pass (at mile 210) by sunset. This year, the top five solos were well over the portal into Death Valley in daylight, with the front two at the Scotty's Castle turn-off down nearly at the bottom of Death Valley (mile 235) at sunset, an incredible 20mph average speed.
The two solos off the front were Michael "Alpine Ibex" Emde, 35, an Austrian living in Seattle, WA and Kenny "Fast Truck Gecko" Souza, 40, of San Marcos, CA. Constantly pushing the pace and digging deeper and deeper into their pedals, Emde and Souza were achieving new heights of 508 excellence as they descended into the bowels of Death Valley, home to Badwater, the lowest point in the entire Western Hemisphere.
Emde, a rookie 508er with amazing talent and a road racing background, was new to us, but Souza, also a 508 rookie, is no stranger to the endurance sports community. Known as "the undisputed king of duathlon" in the 80s and 90s, he is an eight-time national champion and one-time world champion in the run-bike-run multisport event. But the 508 was no joy ride on the coattails of that illustrious career; in fact, the 508 marked Kenny's comeback to the world of competitive sports. After the near collapse of the sport of duathlon and the actual collapse of his marriage, Kenny had become a dedicated couch potato. His 5'8' frame had blossomed from 135 pounds to 165, his waist from 28" to 32". This year he decided to turn his life around and got back on his bike with a vengeance. The support of his 14-year-old son, Dalton, and his crewchief and training partner, Paul Thomas, were instrumental in his return to racing and in taking on the 508 in particular.
The Mojave Desert is a far cry from the cosmopolitan racing venues of his past like Palm Springs, San Diego, and Switzerland. Said Souza, "I'm looking at the scenery, thinking, 'Man, this place is weird.' I'm in the desert. It's desolate. If I do see a house, it's shacks everywhere. I'm in California? It looked like you were in a 'Mad Max' movie."
The front duo were not the only contenders, though. Close on their heels were Tinker "Mexican Wolf" Juarez, 44, of Downey, CA, a seven-time national champion and two-time Olypian in mountain biking who was also making his 508 debut, as well as Rick "Akita" Ashabranner, 36, of Mountain House, CA, a 508 and RAAM veteran, and Andrew "Blowfish" Bohannon, 44, of Sunnyvale, CA, a RAAM veteran and two-time 508 champion, among others.
From front to back of the entire race field, seemingly every racer in every category was pushing, motivating, and inspiring the others to race harder and faster. Not to be hyperbolous, but it was like Roger Bannister setting the bar higher for the slew of runners who would break the four-minute mile shortly after his effort. But in the 508, there were lots of Bannisters, and the bar just kept getting set higher and higher as the miles unfolded.
At the mid-point of the race in Furnace Creek (Time Station 3 at mile 252), Emde led in 12:12 elapsed, Souza followed one-minute later, Juarez followed in 12:31, Ashabranner in 12:31, and Bohannon in 12:37. But disaster struck when Emde's van's roof lights shorted out in Furnace Creek and he and his team had to stop to reconfigure them, losing precious minutes as well as their position "in the thick of things."
Bent way, way low over the borrowed Kuoto time trial bike which he was riding for the first time ever, Souza hammered south through Death Valley and up over the passes to Shoshone, arriving there (TS4 at mile 325) in 16:11, compared to Emde's 16:23, Juarez's 16:39, Bohannon's 16:52 and Ashabranner's 16:53. By Kelso (TS6 at mile 416), it was Souza in 21:13, Juarez in 22:05, Emde in 22:12, and Bohannon in 22:21.
Souza seemed invincible by then, never wavering as he motored down the road in full aero position in his gleaming red ClifBar skinsuit. (Souza was among the very first athletes to race on aero bars, back in 1986, so he has more experience than just about anybody else in that position.) Juarez, meanwhile, had no aero bars and sat much more upright (as in mountain biking) on his Cannondale road bike. Comparisons of Lemond and Fignon from the final time trial of the 1989 Tour de France came to mind as I watched them race.
If you've been to the 508, you know it's unheard of for racers to be anywhere near Amboy at sunrise. This year, Souza passed that 450-mile mark in 23:12, while Juarez passed in 23:28, Emde in 24:02, and Bohannon in 24:14. Heading due west towards the finish line, the racers were greeted by a stiff headwind. This, plus the compounded fatigue of racing so hard for so long, was now taking its toll on Souza, as evidenced by the decreasing split between him and Juarez.
But even as he started to finally unravel a bit, Souza knew he would not concede the victory to anyone else: "(my) son is in the car. This is the time to give him a life lesson and show some character."
That he did: Souza broke the tape in 27:15:21, eclipsing the seemingly unbreakable 28:09:34 record set by Rainer "King Crab" Klaus in 1995. Less than nine minutes back was Juarez in 27:24:07, the closest finish in race history. But Juarez was apparently unaware of his position relative to Souza. In fact, he claims he made a point of riding his own pace the entire distance, just testing the waters as he plans to race RAAM next summer. "If I'd had an idea of how close I was I might have been able to close the gap, (but) to get second in my first big road endurance event makes me proud," he said.
Taking third and fourth, and also eclipsing the course record, were Emde in 27:49:07 and Bohannon in 28:05:03.
These four off the front would seemingly set the tone for the rest of the field, with record after record after record falling, falling, falling by the wayside in all divisions.
David Mudcat Holt, 53, of Laguna Niguel, CA set the new 50+ record of 30:33:40, placing 8th overall. Dan Crane Crain, who had raced on a two-man team in RAAM this summer, set the new 60+ record of 33:13:11, placing 17th overall.
From the beginning, 2004 veteran Carol "Chickadee" Chaffee, 50, of Arvada, CO was off the front of the women's field. Chasing her for more than half the race was Shanna "Mongolian Wild Ass" Armstrong, 31, of Lubbock, TX. Armstrong had raced the 2004 508 and 2005 RAAM on a mixed two-person team, finishing both in excellent form. This fall she had primarily returned to her triathlon roots, gearing up to compete in the Ultraman Triathlon, a three-day stage race on the Big Island of Hawaii, held over Thanksgiving weekend. She was at the 508 against the advice of her coach.
Chaffee, all ultracyclist and fresh from breaking the women's trans-Colorado record, took the lead immediately. She passed through Trona (TS#2 at mile 152) in 8:05, compared to Armstrong's 8:59. In third at Trona was Linda "Monarch Butterfly" Bott, 48, of Ventura, CA, a well-known regular on the California double century circuit, in 9:13, and Nicole "Golden Dragon" Honda, 39, of San Mateo, CA, another California double regular, in 9:56.
By the third time station at Furnace Creek at mile 252, it was Chaffee in 14:49, Armstrong in 15:43, Bott in 17:23, and Honda in 17:57. Armstrong, unable to focus on the race at hand and concerned that her triathlon training was suffering, withdrew on the way into Shoshone. (She would later win the Ultraman World Championships in late November, repeating the same feat from 2003, before she had "discovered" ultracycling.)
Chaffee, with nobody nipping at her heels, but with her sights set on the women's 50+ record, churned the pedals with 100% focus. Bott and Honda, both solo rookies, gave the same focus to their goal of finishing the 508.
At the finish in Twenty Nine Palms, Chaffee clocked 33:14:58, besting Rebecca "Sun Bear" Smith's 50+ record of 39:28:36, set in 2001, as well as Chaffee's own 2003 time of 38:38:43. Chaffee was overjoyed at her accomplishment, especially when she received her finisher's medal from Smith herself. "I went this year with the goal of taking the women's 50+ record, and never thought a thing about WINNING the women's overall. Becky "Sunbear" Smith was helping "Fuzzy" Mitchell crew for the tandem team. It was a lot of fun to meet her, and quite special to have her be the one to give me my medal. It felt like the Miss America pageant, where the reigning Miss America crowns the new one!"
Bott, taking second, crossed the line in 41:38:29, earning the Nancy Dankenbring Award as the first place rookie female entrant. Next was Honda in 42:18:17, who celebrated at the finish with pizza and champagne. The final female finisher was Emily "Archaeopteryx" O'Brien, 23, of Sommerville, MA, the first woman to tackle the fixed gear division. She clocked a 44:24:27. Her comments: "This race was amazing. I had the time of my life, from start to finish. I think it was the most fun I've ever had on two wheels. The course is spectacular, and so completely different and exotic for an east coast kid like me. I never imagined that it was possible to ride for 500 miles and not see a single red light!"
Yet another long-standing record fell when the mixed tandem pair, "Relucent Phoenix," set a new mixed tandem course record of 31:26:51. Craig Roberston, 48, of Los Altos, CA, a 508 team veteran and stalwart of the California doubles scene, teamed with Jennie Phillips, 44, of Danville, CA, a 2004 team 508 veteran, to break the 32:28:12 record set in 1996 by the "Pitsnake" pair of Mark Patten and Cindi Staiger. Staiger was on hand as a race official, so was pleased to present the finisher medals to Robertson and Phillips, another neat moment like with Chaffee and Smith.
DEATH VALLEY CUP
A record number of three 2005 Badwater Ultramarathon 135-mile running race finishers entered the 508 with hopes of becoming Death Valley Cup finishers in 2005 by also finishing the 508. Proving that their running prowess is no fluke, they all crossed the line at the 508: Patrick "Golden Eagle" Candé, 48, ofTahiti, French Polynesia placed 7th in Badwater in 34:13:21, followed by 37th at the 508 in 36:52:12, for a combined time of 71:05:33, the second fastest in history. His friend and training partner, Jean Michel "Manta Ray" Monot, 45, also of Tahiti, French Polynesia, placed eleventh in Badwater in 36:51:12, followed by 31st at the 508 in 35:53:48, for a combined time of 72:45:00. And Steve “Desert Duck” Teal, 40, of Phelan, CA placed 34th in Badwater in 43:56:20, followed by 29th at the 508 in 35:39:52, for a combined time of 79:46:12. For more info about the Death Valley Cup, click here.
The 508 was the most popular 2005 qualifier for the Race Across America. Kenny Souza was the first not previously qualified rider to finish, thus setting the following qualifying windows: 31:21 for age 18-49, 34:04 for age 50-59, and 36:48 for age 60+. In the women's race, Carol Chaffee was already qualified, so both Linda Bott and Nicole Honda, along with the fixed gear racer, O'Brien, qualified for RAAM. Altogether, ten racers newly qualified for RAAM.
As reinvented in 2004, the Furnace Creek 508 team division followed a fixed relay or "stage race" format, rather than an open relay format as in other ultracycling races. Each team member raced from one time station to the next, then passed a baton to another team member. There are seven time stations and thus eight stages on the course. Two-rider teams raced four stages each and four-rider teams raced two stages each. Racers switched off while stopped at each time station, passing a baton between them before resuming racing. The teams had to complete the route in a fixed order with each racer's position declared at the race start: Two rider teams switched off at each time station, rotating A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B. Four rider teams had to rotate A-B-C-D-A-B-C-D.
The new format was even better received than in 2004, with 70 team racers competing and 66 crossing the line, compared to 58 team entrants in 2004 and 46 team racers in 2003 under the old format. As with the solo race, course records fell left and right, while other new records, in divisions not represented in 2004, were set. All the teams set the bar incredibly high for future relay racers.
The 2005 two-rider race included six two-man teams, three two-mixed teams, and two two-woman teams and they were often finishing just seconds apart in heated battles.
In the women's 2x race, the "E.Coli" duo of Kerin Huber, 46, of Pasadena, CA and Isabelle Drake, 52, of Laguna Beach, CA, both rookies, crossed the line in 32:38:28. Just eighteen seconds behind them was the "Chupacabra" duo of Karen Rhodes, 51, of San Francisco, CA and Louise Comar, 52, of Atascadero, CA, both veterans, in 32:38:46. That's racing!
Just two minutes later, the first two-mixed team crossed the line: "Orange Cat," made up of James Norton, 33, and Katie Norton, 32, both rookies from Sacramento, CA, finished in 32:40:54. Next across the line was the venerable Chinook duo, with its perennial member David Fischer, 55, of Kennewick, WA competing in his seventh consecutive 508, teamed up with Diane Ross, 44, of Burbank, WA competing in her third consecutive 508. They clocked 34:13:26, followed three minutes later by the rookie "Night Crawlers" duo of Michael McGeough, 47, and Karen McGeough, 43, both rookies from San Jose, CA, in a time of 34:16:58. Speaking from the race directors' perspective, all of this made for some very hectic, but incredibly exciting, finish line activity!
In the men's 2x race, the winning duo was "Red Kangaroo," made up of 508 rookies Paul Skilbeck, 42, of San Francisco, CA and Johnny Boswell, 52, of Fredericksburg, TX in a time of 31:13:29. That victory only came about in the last miles of the race, as "Red Kangaroo" had passed through all seven time stations in second place. Here's what happened, in Skilbeck's words: "Johnny handed over with a 30 minute deficit at Amboy, and I figured if I could catch the Lizard by the top of Sheephole, I'd just about be able to hold him off on the long drag to the finish. Well, I almost bust a gut trying to catch him on the climb, but passed over the top about 12 minutes in arrears. I tucked low and pedaled hard on the descent, but turning right at the bottom I hit a mighty headwind and bonked right there and then. I began to consider how it would feel to take second place, and was trying to persuade myself that this would be OK (it was a more than I had hoped for before the start). Just then I saw the Lizard/Scorpion support vehicle pulled over on the soft shoulder - but the Lizard was nowhere to be seen. They really checked me out as I went past, then immediately sped off up the road. I figured that if they were spying, then the Lizard was probably in trouble too, and so I kept my eyes focused and just watched their van get smaller and smaller and smaller - until it stopped getting smaller. My heart leapt at this: I now had a target, and he was only three or so miles ahead. I couldn't sustain a high heart rate for long, but I knew I could ride five-minute intervals with five minutes rest in between. This I did, and by the time we were ready to turn left of that long road I was only a couple of hundred yards behind. My problem at that point was that I was feeling pretty awful and knew if I attacked and he strongly countered, I'd be unable to respond. With less than five miles remaining, however, I didn't have much time to play with. So I wound up my speed to about 25-30 mph and blew past the Lizard without even acknowledging him. Luckily for me, when he tried to counter, that's when he bonked! So for me it was a let-off - that last thing I wanted was a sprint finish."
"Lizard-Scorpion" duo thusly finished just thirteen minutes behind "Red Kangaroo" in 31:24:23. "Lizard" is Charlie Liskey, 49, of Ojai, CA who has three 508 solo finishes and a 1996 "Death Valley Cup" to his record, while "Scorpion" is Steve Winfrey, 51, of Camarillo, CA who has five solo 508 finishes and a Hall of Fame membership to his credit. They had tackled two-man RAAM this summer and decided to continue their collaboration at the 508.
The four-mixed race included two teams, with seven of the eight riders new to the 508. First place went to "Zorilla" in a time of 33:07:31, followed by the Los Angeles Wheelmen "Fireflies" in 34:30:51.
The 2005 four-man race included ten teams, of which three were all rookies and the other seven had one to four veterans on the team. Experience paid off in this division with "Hammerhead" captained by six-time entrant and four-time team finisher Joe Petersen, 47, of Bakersfield, CA taking the top honors in a remarkable and course-record breaking 24:56:10 (and also earning Joe his Furnace Creek 508 Hall of Fame in the process).
COURSE RECORDS SET IN 2005
Men's 30+, Michael "Alpine Ibex" Emde, 27:49:07
Men's 40+, Kenny "Fast Truck Gecko" Souza, 27:15:21 (overall solo record)
Men's 50+, David "Mudcat" Holt, 30:33:40
Men's 60+, Dan "Crane" Crain, 33:13:11
Women's 50+, Carol "Chickadee" Chaffee, 33:14:58
Women's Fixed Gear 20+, Emily "Archaeopteryx" O'Brien, 44:24:27 (overall women's fixed gear record)
Mixed Tandem, "Relucent Phoenix," Craig Robertson and Jennie Phillips, 31:26:51
Men's 30+, "Addax," 34:32:40
Men's 40+, "Red Kangaroo," 31:13:29
Mixed 30+, "Orange Cat," 32:41:54
Women's 40+, "E.Coli," 32:39:28
Women's 50+, "Chupacabra," 32:39:46
Men's 40+, "Hammerhead," 24:56:10
Men's 50+, "Yak," 26:45:34
Mixed 40+, "Zorilla," 33:07:31
For an article about the 508 for Ultra Cycling Magazine, click here.
2005 Webcast | Results & Time Splits (Searchable Database) | Race Roster | Pre-Race Press Release
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