The Double Furnace Creek 508
Part Two of a Trilogy
By Steve Beaver Born with images by Sallie Shatz
When the alarm clock went off at 6:00 AM I couldn't believe it; I felt as though I had slept five minutes, not five hours. But that and my brother Dave's voice were sure indications that I needed to drag my tired body out of bed and prepare for yet another 508 miles. Dave did a few minutes of massage on my legs and arms to get the blood flowing again prior to helping me out of bed. I could have used several hours of massage...
One of the first things I packed prior to driving down to California was my coffee pot and coffee... no hotel room coffee for this kid! Nope, if I'm going to subject myself to this I'm going to at least have some good coffee and strong coffee at that. So while the pot was brewing I slowly dressed myself taking note of the fact that even though I had taken lots of preventative measures I had developed a fairly good rash and general skin irritation all around the crotch area. Great. I have to start the 508 with residual bodily effects (sore muscles, rashes, etc) of an already completed ultra marathon. I honestly wasn't sure if I was up to the task; 508 miles seemed to be an outrageous amount of miles to have to accomplish. I was more ready for another 12 hours of sleep followed by a huge meal, not another 508 miles of riding. But out the door I went armed with a mug of my mega strong coffee. 35 hours, 22 minutes after departing 29 Palms, I had arrived in Valencia (at 22 minutes past midnight), got into bed at 1:00 AM, slept five hours, and was now hanging out in the parking lot about 30-40 minutes prior to the start of the race, which was in accordance with Chris Kostman's request that all racers start assembling at 6:30 AM. I certainly didn't object to this requirement but I sure would have rather stayed in my room and sleep for as many more precious minutes as I could.
The weather seemed unusually cool outside or perhaps it was just my body showing the effects of being depleted. Chris found me standing around, came up to me, gave me a big hug and congratulated me on me on my performance on the first 508 miles. We enjoyed a few minutes of conversation before he had to attend to his seemingly endless duties as race director. First though, a few pictures were taken. I didn't realize it until I saw the pictures but I had some serious bags underneath my eyes. I must have looked like hell!
I got on my bike and started riding around the parking lot, slowly getting the kinks out and allowing the muscles to come back to life. During this time I noticed the enormous amount of riders and crews that had gathered for this year's race and remembered that this was the largest field in the history of the race. Lots of familiar faces greeted me and congratulated me, which was very, very nice and certainly quite encouraging. After nearly 35 and a half hours of sleepless, solo riding it was good to be among friends. It certainly helped to validate my being out there, and made me feel as though I wouldn't be so alone out on the route. I had no illusions or intentions of racing the 508 this year, I simply wanted to complete the double, but knowing that I would interact with a few riders made the prospect of another 500+ miles a bit less daunting. The problem was that everyone looked sharp, well rested, and ready to go. I, on the other hand, felt as though I was talking and moving in slow motion. I hadn't thought about the prospect of being way off the back but looking at how fit and ready everyone else was, it now became a more primary thought in my sleepy head.
I saw Seana Hogan lined up nearby. I walked over, said hello, smiled, and gave her a hug adding, "I thought I better say hi now since I probably won't see you after this, " meaning that most certainly she, as well as a good portion, if not all of the field would be well ahead of me shortly. We enjoyed a few laughs before I took my position in the massive field of riders. In less than a minute we were off. I was still coming to grips with what lie ahead but for now enjoyed the easy paced riding. Soon though I realized that even at this seemingly easy pace, I could not keep up with the pack. "No problem" I thought, "I think we'll all be regrouping at San Francisquito Canyon Road." Wrong! When I got to the turn, no one was there... the race was on and I was already DFL! Actually, that was just fine with me because it kept me from going out too fast trying to keep up with everyone. Instead, I reminded myself that I needed this time to get my body back into riding mode. My "warm-up" would simply be several miles longer than the rest of the field's.
Still, as I made my way along SF Canyon, I started passing a couple riders. Not too long after that I found myself cresting the steep summit of this road, making a series of turns, and eventually heading down the long and fast descent of Johnson Summit, which had beaten me up going the opposite direction not too many hours ago. When I got to the flatter roads of the Antelope Valley area it became apparent that I could not keep up with nor pass anyone on the flats; I was just not fast enough. If I were to make any headway up the field it would have to be on the climbs. Fortunately, the climb up through the Tehachapis was ahead. It's not a particularly difficult climb but it does last awhile and serves notice as to what the desert offers in the way of climbs: long, long ascents, most of which are not terribly steep but ones where the entire lay of the land rises up with the climb. I think it's called an alluvial fan and it makes the climb more deceptive and potentially difficult because there's not as much depth perception to validate the fact that you are in fact climbing.
One thing I noticed early on in the race was that the wind was not the typical prevailing wind. Instead, it was pretty much a direct headwind. This was not going to make it any easier for us that's for sure and I wondered how and why it could change direction overnight. We ALWAYS have either no wind or a bit of a tailwind for at least some of the route into the first time station in California City. Now though it looks as though we're going to have to deal with a headwind. "Well," I told myself, "no one said it was going to be easy and at least it doesn't appear that it's going to get ridiculously hot. So sit down, shut up, and ride the bike." Once the summit is reached the right turn in made onto Oak Creek Road, heading downhill into Mojave. Again, the same wind that had been in my face going up this road last night had reversed direction today. What would normally be a fast descent, no pedaling involved, now became work as the headwind increased in intensity. Geez, does this suck or what? I sure as hell don't want to pedal down any hills; I need all the help I can get. But again, when push comes to shove, what are you going to do? I couldn't change the wind direction and bitching about it wasn't going to help matters so I just tried to take things in stride. I also reminded myself that while I wanted to ride as strong as possible, it probably wasn't a good idea, at least for now, to try and race. "Let's just get to the first time station and take it from there," I told myself. "Once you get through that first time station you're pretty much committed and there's no looking back."
After a breezy stretch along Highway 14 and a slower-than-usual (thanks to the wind) stretch along California City Blvd, I make the left turn onto Neutralia Road where Time Station #1 is located. Terry Hutt is once again manning the time station and records my passage at 12:25, about an hour behind the leader. What's really nice is that there are several riders within sight, which is most helpful for keeping my head in the game, making me realize that I'm not going to be out here totally alone. As I mentioned earlier, one of the more difficult aspects in doing the route backward was the fact that there was no one out there to compete against. Now I have to good fortune to interact with other riders. Beetle, Tom Cat, Bush Baby, Stone Cat, Piglet, Tadpole, and Langur are all within minutes (I love the totem aspect of this race). Every once in awhile I will pass them or their support vehicles. Every time I am greeted with encouraging words, which I was and am very thankful for.
I can't wait to get to the climbing though. For some reason, going uphill, while certainly slower, feels a whole lot better. I don't feel as much loss of power on the climbs as I do on the flats so if there's any possibility of making up ground it will be on the climbs. The long grind up to Randsburg has always been one of my favorites. I'm not setting any land speed records up the 8+ mile climb, that's for sure, but I am feeling as though I'm racing now, not just trying to survive. The wind is once again in the racer's faces, which is a less-than-desirable alternative to the usually warmer temperatures. By the time I summit, there's a lot more separation between the riders that are in front of me and those I was able to pass on the climb. After negotiating a few turns through "town" (Randsburg isn't much more than a ghost town), and after a couple miles on Hwy 395, the left turn onto Trona Road is made
Last year the racers had to deal with a long stretch of road which was torn up, the process of re-paving nowhere near being complete. Fortunately, that stretch has been completely re-paved. Although my Kestrel bike always does a splendid job of absorbing shock, the less I have to subject myself to the better. Here, along this lonely stretch of road, is where I've always felt as though there was truly no looking back. Once you've reached this road you're seemingly isolated from the rest of the world and very much committed. There is one rider in sight, seems to be the only rider within miles. It's Dave Dugong Tanner, a friend and fellow RAAM finisher. I'm able to pass him only when he's briefly stopped by the side of the road. Once he's back on the bike he has little difficulty catching and passing me. We do enjoy a short conversation before he rolls past and, once he has passed, I now have a visual, which I can gauge my pace off of. He's slowly pulling away but I am able to keep him in sight for quite awhile, which can only help my overall speed.
I'm absolutely enjoying the six-mile descent to the right turn onto Hwy 178, which several hours ago really kicked my butt going the other way. Once the right turn is made the racers have nearly 13 miles to the time station in Trona. Along the way a rider passes me but as the time station gets closer I catch up to another, Polecat. I pass him going up a small rise but soon realize that he's stronger than I am... I get dropped pretty quickly. He will pass through the time station a minute prior to me, while I re-pass Dugong briefly and arrive at the time station a minute before him. It's 5:35 in the afternoon, 152+ miles into the race. Since the California City time station I've picked up six or so places in the field and while I'm certainly no threat for a top ten finish, I'm not off the back either. All of this should be good news but what is dominating my thoughts is that I am tired, irritable, and sore. I've ridden 660 miles and believe me I feel it. That 5 hours of sleep seems completely inadequate now. My pedal stroke still seems fluid and my strength is hanging in there... I just feel very sore and weakened by the tough desert conditions. The rash/irritation is a constant nuisance and the rough pavement leaving Trona doesn't help matters. During this late afternoon procession towards the Panamint Valley Dave, Mark, and Jeff Martin take over support crew duties while my Dad and brother Jeff take a well earned rest. The first thing I do is tell the guys in the support van, "Look. I don't plan on being a jerk and losing my temper or anything but I am really tired, sore, irritable, impatient, and on the edge. You need to talk to me slower and make sure that you speak clearly. It's just getting harder to comprehend things and assimilate things. Besides that, I'm getting the crap kicked out of me, so keep that in mind when you're dealing with me." Being support crew veterans they understand and assure me that they'll continue to take good care of me, which they do. My crew is so awesome and hasn’t missed a beat.
The sky is definitely darkening and the sunset spectacular as the road gradually makes it way up to the climb that separates Trona from the Panamint Valley. One of the very best reasons to do this race is to witness the incredible sunrises and sunsets. Today, we have one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. Along the way I pass the Scorpion who is off his bike and temporarily in his van. He's finished every one of the many 508's he's entered and I am more than a little surprised to see that I've been able to bridge the gap to him. One of his crewmembers is Charlie Lizard Liskey, a very good friend. We both yell out a "hootie hoo!" or two (our way of saying "hello"), which makes me smiles and reminds me of the many wonderful days I had spent years ago training in the area where Charlie lives.
Up ahead, the familiar amber/red flashing lights of rider's support vehicles are already visible. I can see three or four riders up the road though none of them are reachable at this time. While I am making my way towards the steeper part of the road, Chris Kostman pulls up. We enjoy a brief conversation while dozens and dozens of photographs are being taken. It's a real nice diversion but it doesn't last nearly as long as I'd like it to. After a long, hard effort up the climb, I pass a rider who is stopped at the summit before plunging down the long, twisting descent. Again, I am thankful Dave is at the wheel because this is an extremely fast and somewhat technical descent, at least for the first few miles. He's got the van right behind me, expertly illuminating the road behind me so that I don't have to use the brakes very often. Once the twists and turns are completed, an incredibly long, straight, and downhill stretch of road begins. It feels as though I am coasting on this thing for a long, long time, probably because I am. I immediately think back to how long this climb took going the opposite direction and am most thankful that I have that one under my belt.
As the road flattens out my speed decreases substantially. A couple riders that I had previously been ahead of have now caught up to me and pass, always offering words of encouragement. I'm not terribly happy with my speed on the flats but I can only do what I can do. It's dark now. In my two previous 508's I had been through this section of the course in the daytime but now find myself in unfamiliar territory. I'm not upset by it at all; in fact I am enjoying this new experience and look forward to the climb up Townes Pass in the dark. My thoughts are interrupted by the first team to blaze by me. It's the tandem team and they are just smoking. Their speed is most impressive and I watch them disappear into the night as quickly as they had come upon me. "From now on a lot of teams will be coming," I tell myself, "so don't get discouraged."
It's nearly 14 miles from the turn on Panamint Valley Road to the turn onto Hwy 190, which begins the climb up Townes Pass. It's rolling terrain, almost all of the 14 miles are a net uphill, and it's taking a toll on me. I take a glance behind and see lots and lots of headlights in the distance. I'm hoping that I don't get passed by all of them but it's not looking too good, as my speed isn't improving. If anything I am slowing. I hate this section of road and just want to get to the turn. At least then I'll feel as though I've made some progress. For now, this portion of the race is going by agonizingly slow. I want to stop and rest but force myself to stay on the bike. The less-than-ideal road surface is pounding away at me, making my feet and all the way up my legs to lower back hurt. I'll admit it; I feel miserable and am kind of hating life right now. I'm also concerned with Townes Pass. It's the steepest climb in the race and I wonder if, after 700+ miles, I'll have anything left for it. I start thinking that perhaps the 39 x 27 won't be sufficient. Too late now, I'll just have to do the best I can. Right now though all I want to do is get off this miserably slow and monotonous section of road. Whatever riders were not too far ahead of me have increased that gap and I am concerned that everyone behind me will pass me. I am seriously wondering if I can make it up Townes Pass, let alone the entire distance... there's such a long and difficult way to go.
After what seems like an eternity, I arrive at the turn. After making the turn my crew and I stop on the side of the road. Jeff Martin takes my climbing bike off the roof and quickly gets it set up while Dave and Mark work my legs a bit. I am so thankful to see lots of flashing lights up the climb; once again I am comforted by the belief that I am not alone out here and perhaps within striking distance of a few riders. At night, the view from the bottom of the climb is one-of-a-kind. It is pitch black out here and the only way you can tell there's a massive climb ahead is by the string of support vehicle lights slowly snaking their way up this monster. Soon, I position myself on my climbing bike, snap myself into the pedals, and join the parade. Chris Kostman drives by and tells me I'm looking good while a few more pictures are taken, before my crew and I are left to tackle this tough, steep ten-mile climb. Ready or not, here we go.
Click for Part One or Part Three
For an excellent interview / profile article of Steve Born, click here.