The Double Furnace Creek 508
Part Three of a Trilogy
By Steve Beaver Born with images by Sallie Shatz
In 1999, when my brother Dave crewed his first 508 for me, he casually remarked "so this is Townes Pass" when I was gasping my way up the climb. This year he, all of us in fact, knew exactly what we were in for. After the initial mile or so of relatively flat terrain Townes Pass pitches up and hits hard. It's just a brute of a climb that allows little or no time to regroup while ascending. If you have a weakness, this climb will find it, expose it, and exploit it.
Knowing this, I started relatively conservatively. However, seeing the flashing lights in various parts of the climb made me hungry for competition. I don't know what the hell I was thinking but I must have forgotten about the 700 miles I had already ridden... now I felt like racing! "Mark, we need some kick ass music for the climb," I called out to my brother in the van. I had no idea what would emerge from the loud speakers but I figured it would be loud and crude... just what I needed to get myself up the pass. Sure enough, within seconds some extremely loud metal music was echoing off the mountainsides and just blasting my ears. Now this wasn't anything I would listen to at any other time but at this moment it seemed to do the trick. As the furious, driving rhythm increased so too did my pace. "What is going on?" I thought to myself. "I feel really good all of a sudden." My crew was also probably wondering what was happening for as the climb's gradient increased my pace did as well. The lights that were in front of me are drawing nearer and nearer. No longer did I need that 39 x 27, I dropped it into the 25 and picked up the pace again. I couldn't explain what was happening to me or how it could be happening but I felt pain free and liberated. My legs felt more fluid than they had the entire 700+ miles and I was actually climbing the pass faster than in either of my two previous 508's.
Ahead, I watch as a two-person team makes an exchange thinking that this is the last time I will see them. I figure that within minutes they'll be out of sight. But as I round a bend in the road, the flashing lights are still within reach and, beyond my ability to explain it, I am actually gaining on them. This is just not possible but somehow I am bridging the gap to the rider. Something comes over me and I shift to the 23-tooth cog, which I would never have believed I could manage up this climb at all, let alone after over 700 miles. Slowly but most definitely, I draw the rider in and, to my disbelief (and my crew's as well), I pass him and slowly move away. I'm not really trying to race him or the team, that would be ridiculous. But the scent of competition was so strong and my desire to make good time up this grade so great that I couldn't help myself. I just felt so good as well! "This," I thought, "must be what it feels like to be at the pinnacle of one's fitness potential." I had no other explanation other than that right here, right now I felt as though I had taken a quantum leap and reached the zenith of my capabilities of fitness. Moments like these are rare indeed and I was not going to try and figure it out. All I could do was enjoy the moment, surreal as it most definitely seemed. I knew it couldn't last, minutes later, as soon as the team made an exchange, their other rider closed the gap and eventually went by. Still, I had committed myself to my pace and was determined to ride strongly to the summit. A brief stop to take a huge swig of Hammer Gel and within a mile or so I had reached the summit. I've enjoyed some pretty unique experiences in the course of many ultra marathon races but this one topped them all. My crew guided me toward the dirt area to the left of the summit where I would put on a bit more clothing for the descent. When we had stopped we all looked at each other in amazement as if what had just transpired was a dream. Well, if it was a dream, it was one of the very best cycling related ones I'd ever have. I made it up Townes Pass and far faster than I ever thought possible. I had no explanation and could only shake my head in wonder.
As everyone who's done the 508 knows, the downhill from the summit is a white-knuckle adventure. I think this is more applicable for the person driving the support vehicle, trying to illuminate the road over the dips and hollows can be quite the nerve-wracking experience. Dave was doing a fantastic job though and I never once felt in danger. Perhaps due to the effort up the climb, most likely due to the cumulative effects of my time on the bike so far, my reflexes were less than sharp. Going downhill should have been a time for regrouping. Instead, I found myself struggling, as the road was difficult to get into focus. Not too long ago I felt fantastic, now I was struggling... I guess that's just part of the deal when it comes to ultra cycling. I'm not psyched at all about riding Badwater, I just hate that section, but I sure don't want to do it while sketching as bad as I am.
"Guys, I need to regroup when we get to Stovepipe Wells," I tell the crew. They know that I don't want to stop to sleep, I don't really want to stop for very long, just long enough to get my bearings back before doing the monotonous miles to the time station at Furnace Creek and beyond through Badwater. When we arrive in Stovepipe, I lay down in the van for 10 minutes or so. I don't sleep but I do have to close my eyes and shake the cobwebs. Thirteen minutes later I feel a whole lot better (as best as one can I suppose) and mount the bike. "Three riders have passed while you were down and we think at least two of them were team riders," the crew tells me. However, as far as I can see in the distance there are no flashing lights. "Geez," I complain to myself, "of all the places to be alone this is the worst." For the journey through Badwater, which always takes more time that I think it will, it would be nice to fixate on some flashing lights. Even if I never got closer to them at least I would have something other than pitch-black miles to think about. But after checking into the Furnace Creek time station just before 2:00 AM, it doesn't appear that I'm going to have much company... not unless someone catches me. The closest rider checked in nearly 25 minutes ago. Oh well, Badwater is going to have to be dealt with the same way I did going the other way... alone and in the dark.
The 50-something miles through Badwater takes the riders through the lowest elevation in the U.S. When I get there I think I must be at my lowest point mentally and emotionally. The crew recognizes this and plays more music over the loud speakers, hoping that it will create some spark in me. To be honest, I wish I could be hallucinating here just so I have something to occupy my brain. Sure, I can see a set of flashing lights ahead of me but they're so distant that it seems like they're in another time zone. The only thing noticing those lights does is make me realize that I still have a very long way to go on this road. All I can do is stay on the bike, slow as I must be going, as the road meanders in and around the massive rock mountains to its left.
When I crewed for Bubba Shrimp Stevens in the 508 a couple years ago he remarked that the road leading to the Jubilee Pass climb seemed to rise substantially. I replied to him that it was one of the less enjoyable parts of the route because it was as though you had to climb just to get to the climb. I'm on that road now and the further up it I go the lousier the road surface seems to be... and without trying I seem to find every pothole in the road, which adds more misery to my current situation. If there is any good news, I have caught up to the rider who had been ahead of me for a long, long time. More than likely the only reason I've caught Paul “American Eagle” Bonds has to be because he must have stopped for a short spell. On a slight uphill I ride around his support vehicle and next to him. We share a few brief words before I pull ahead... for about 10 seconds. I can't make the pass stick for very long at all, that's obvious, and American Eagle re-passes me. Not able to engage in any sort of duel, I resign myself to riding behind him, slowly falling further and further back.
At the base of Jubilee Pass I switch to my climbing bike. It's still dark but it can't be too long before dawn arrives. Being here at this time of night is all very new to me and I start thinking about where I will be further up the course and what time I will be there. Jubilee's nearly five miles are accomplished fairly easily. Problem is, there's only about a mile of downhill that separates this pass from Salsberry Pass, which is nearly 10 miles in length. In actuality these two climbs might as well be one long one. American Eagle's van lights aren't too far up the road and my legs feel better than they did along Badwater. As dawn approaches I am making up ground. When daylight hits the peaks then begins to bathe the rest of the terrain I am awestruck by the beauty of this sunrise. It is like nothing I've ever seen here, the colors and hues are just incredible. Somewhere along the climb I pass the support vehicle of Becky “Sun Bear” Smith. I'm not sure if she's stopped on the side of the road with them or if she's up the road riding. To be honest, I'm not thinking about racing right now, I'm really thinking that she, Paul, and I are fortunate enough to be witnessing an incredibly beautiful sunrise.
Finally, after a fairly lengthy time up Salsberry Pass I reach the summit, put on a vest, and head downhill to the time station in Shoshone. At 8:19 AM I am checked into the time station. It appears that I've made up some ground on a few riders during the night although catching them doesn't appear likely. Thinking of the race, the Double 508 as a whole, I take the time to get cleaned up, put new clothing and fresh sunscreen on. I also take some time to use the restroom. Before departing the time station, I have a few large gulps of coffee. It's been a fairly lengthy stop, one I would never make if I were racing the 508, but it was essential at this time. I know I feel a lot better. There even appears to be a tailwind, which is most certainly the first favorable wind the other riders in the race and I will have enjoyed in 325 miles. I have to say that for riding 825+ miles I feel pretty OK. I know the remaining 180+ are not going to be easy but for now, I feel clean, I've had some coffee, the wind feels as though it's behind my back, and the weather, while promising to heat up, has not so far.
American Eagle and Sun Bear have both passed me while I was stopped at the time station. That's OK, they're riding faster than I am anyway and the only reason I was able to catch them earlier was because they had stopped. They are the only riders I have seen since Townes Pass and even though they're now ahead of me I feel less alone out here. I also realize that there are a few riders not too far ahead and many riders still behind me, which helps me to feel as though I'm still part of the actual race. Dad and brother Jeff take over the support crew duties.
It's 55 or so miles to the time station in Baker. After approximately 15 miles I am over the top of the Ibex Pass and am enjoying the fairly lengthy downhill. Unfortunately, the soreness in my body has most definitely increased since last night and it's becoming more difficult to find a comfortable position on the bike. In addition to my legs, my lower back is also very sore, as are my arms and neck. The constant irritation from the rash causes me to readjust my shorts as well as my position on the bike. On top of all these things I notice that the weather has very much gotten hotter. My friends Rick “Amoeba” Anderson and Jon “Abalone” Arnow, who are officiating, drive next to me. "How are you doing?" they ask. "Oh, OK I suppose," is my reply. "I have my moments both good and bad." We share a few more words in conversation before they wish me well and drive on up the road.
This section of road is another where I am out there a lot longer than I think I should be and this time it's very true. Even with the tailwind I don't feel as though a whole lot of progress is being made, the town of Baker is off in the distance but I never seem to be getting any closer. I want to stop and rest but force myself to stay on the bike; I'll stop for a couple minutes at the time station... if I ever get there. Along the way, Sun Bear, who must have stopped for a bit, re-passes me, on her way to a new 50+ women's course record. Like the majority of the riders and crews, she offers very kind words of encouragement adding, "and no, you're not crazy," in response to a couple email correspondences we had sent prior to the race. I smile, thank her, and watch her smoothly and strongly pedal away.
Familiar with the route, I already know what the road sign up ahead is going to say but I keep hoping otherwise. Arrrrggghhh! 17 miles to Baker. It's a tough pill to swallow because I already feel as though I've been on this section for an awful long time. Now I realize that I won't be into Baker for more than an hour. The heat may not be extreme but it is taking a toll on me. Slowly but surely though, I stubbornly make my way towards the town and eventually I am at the outskirts. Prior to entering the town I indicate to my Dad that I need to stop for a few moments at the time station. My quads ache and need some massage before I can attempt to ride up the Kelbaker grade. I also need to cool down a bit and put more sunscreen on. They find the only shady spot available, pull the van over, take out the foldable lawn chair, and wait for my arrival. Once there I semi-collapse in the chair and ask them to work my legs over, which they do. All their work, good as it is, doesn't seem to make a dent though... I could use about 2-3 hours of this. Instead, we allow 5-10 minutes before I get up, put more sunscreen on, and head out of town, trying to gather myself for the 20+ mile ascent up Kelbaker Road. We pass the time station where I am checked in at exactly 12 Noon... it feels so much later than that though.
As I pass the time station I notice that the "World's Tallest Thermometer" on my left reads 81 degrees, which I find very hard to believe. It feels at least 10 degrees hotter, no doubt about that. Whatever the temperature really is, it's hotter than I prefer, especially since I've a long, sustained climb ahead. Over the I-15 freeway and back into isolation... Kelbaker Road. Before too long my Dad tells me that another rider is approaching. It's a rider from the all women's Snail Darter team. Before passing she slows and says something, apologetically even, to the effect of, "oh, I feel so bad doing this." "Don't worry," I reply with a laugh. "Teams have been passing me for a long time. It's just nice to see other riders out here... even if it doesn't last for long." We share a few laughs and a couple more words before she pulls away. The crew in the passing pace vehicle are shouting many words of encouragement to me, which makes me feel great.
As I watch this rider and support crew slowly disappear up the grade it becomes very apparent that I am now in survival mode. No matter how hard I try I cannot seem to get comfortable in any position on the bike for any length of time. Stand, sit, up, down, hands here, hands there... no matter what I do my body aches. In addition, it is most definitely getting hotter and hotter. And is that the f*%&ing wind picking up again? Jeff and my Dad are doing all they can to help ease my suffering up this relentless climb but even their words of encouragement and the cool sprays of water they provide don't provide much relief. I don't dare look up now for I know that the summit is still a long, long way away and looking up would only discourage me. I am consuming enough water, food, and Endurolytes but the overwhelming exhaustion I seem to be driving myself to is laying heavy on me. I refuse to get off the bike though and figure that if I can't beat this climb physically I will do so mentally. Still, the sun and the wind are wearing away at me. "God help me," I whisper over and over again. Finally, the road surface starts deteriorating more, which indicates that the summit isn't too far away. I look up and see the telephone poles, which definitely means the summit is soon to arrive. After what seems to have been an eternity, I am up and over this climb. "Congratulations Steve, good job," my Dad calls out. "You'll never again have to do this climb."
The downhill to Kelso is a minefield of potholes, broken pavement, and rocks imbedded in the asphalt. I recall how I was thinking about just that when I road up this hill, which now seems like it was such a long, long time ago. I know I have to climb another 12-mile stretch almost immediately after Kelso but right now I am in no condition to consider it. We stop for a few minutes after crossing the RR tracks. Again, I don't really need to sleep but just need to gather myself and stretch my legs out in the hopes of maintaining some fluidness and rhythm up the Granite Mountains. If the Kelbaker Grade wore me down, this next climb is trying to be the knockout punch. All rhythm and smooth pedaling is history. My legs are so sore, my knees are swollen, and my shins (of all things) ache. Once again it is difficult to find a position on the bike for any length of time over a minute; I am constantly shifting around. While the mental aspect of successfully completing ultra distance races came to the forefront quite a long time ago, now it is absolutely the predominant requirement. Once again I refuse to stop during the climb because I know that it would be so difficult to start back up again. "The quickest way to get this over with is to just not stop," I tell myself over and over again. I recall Diana Nyad's words (paraphrased) regarding what Susan Notorangelo must have been thinking in RAAM '85: "Keep on the way you've been doing all along. Steady until the end." Fortunately, over the years I've learned to harness the mental discipline so important for ultra cycling and have been applying it throughout this race. I may not be fast but I'm sure as hell not going to stop unless it's absolutely necessary.
The sun is starting to lower itself to the horizon in front of us as I pass the "Middle of Nowhere" time station about 10 minutes before 5:00 PM. Surprisingly, American Eagle is only 8 minutes ahead of me up the road, the next solo rider behind me would not check in for over 2.5 hours. At the summit of the hill I see my friend Mike "Whale” Wilson standing at the side of the road. "You're the toughest guy out here," he offers in encouragement. I don't remember if I said thank you or not but I sure am thankful for his kind words. Shortly after that I see American Eagle's pace vehicle... with Paul situated in the front seat. I'm not sure what was wrong but I am truly surprised to have caught up to him. Surely he will pass me on the long downhill to Amboy. But he never does and I later realize that he has had to withdraw from the race.
The road into Amboy is about as bad as it gets. It's dusk now and all I want to do is get off this highway and on the road to the Sheephole climb. Mistakenly, I think the traffic will subside there but as I make the turn onto the road it hasn't. If anything traffic, what there is of it, is driving faster than I feel comfortable with, even with my support van right behind me. The time of day and oncoming traffic lights are really screwing with my ability to discern where the road is and where the soft, dirt shoulder is. Many times I find myself damn near riding off the road simply because I can't really make out where it is. I also wonder where the night crew is. My Dad and Jeff have been in the van for an awful long time. They have to be tired and need a break. Fortunately, the night crew, Dave, Mark, and Jeff Martin arrive. We stop briefly to do a crew change (we have to stop since it's now dark) and I mention to Dave that I'm really sketching out here and am having a hard time discerning where the road is. When I tell him that the freeway overpass is back Dave looks in my eyes and right then determines that we're going to take 5 minutes to regroup so that I can clear the cobwebs. Dave also does a magnificent job on my legs. God that feels so good and I wish I could get about 3 hours of this. Instead, and true to form (being superb crew people), Dave, Mark, and Jeff M. tell me it's time to get back on the bike. Ahead is one of the hardest climbs of the race.
Needless to say I am no longer racing, I am in pure survival mode. Oh sure, I'm making halfway decent progress up the hill but damn if the summit never seems to get closer. Loud music blares over the loud speakers keeping my mind occupied and helping to pass the minutes. Over and over again I force the pedals to turn. My form is atrocious now but as long as progress is being made that's all that matters. I know I must be nearing the 1,000-mile mark in my odyssey, with only a few more miles to go, but I am struggling to keep it together. Mark picks one final CD for the rest of the climb. Fortunately it is exactly the one I would have picked and the intensity of the music stirs something in me and causes me to lash out against the mountain both physically and verbally. I know it's childish but I don't care. I am literally yelling at the mountain while I exhort my body to push hard one more time... and it seems to be working. Screw the form, screw everything, I'm laying it all out now. It sure isn't pretty and I don't care, just as long as that damn mountain knows who's boss... and damn it, that boss is ME!
After this last assault on the climb the summit is reached and the crew and I pull off the road. My steel climbing bike is exchanged for my carbon fiber Kestrel. One last bike change, one last push to the finish. Sadly, and I would imagine to the dismay of every cyclist who's ever reached this point in the race, after the downhill off the Sheepholes is completed the final 16 or so miles are sometimes the worst of the entire race. You can smell the barn but the damn barn is still a long way away. The road conditions are abysmal, the route is a net uphill, and woo hoo! We have a headwind once again. That last effort up the Sheepholes pretty much did me in and I have resigned myself to the fact that I won't be moving terribly fast along this last stretch of the race. Again, I have to remind myself that even though it would feel so good to stop for a rest and massage, the quickest way to end this is to simply stay on the bike and tough it out. With the help of my crew that is what I am doing. I am beyond tired and hallucinating once again. "Who's he talking to?" Jeff Martin asks Dave, who has no doubt witnessed this before in RAAM (although in RAAM it took me 8 days to reach this point). "Ah, he's just talking nonsense to himself," Dave replies. "I've seen this before. He's fine." Occasionally they pull the van next to me to make sure I am drinking and eating still... no sense bonking at this late stage. "That dog is really running close to the van and keeping up a remarkable pace with you guys," I tell the crew. They don't bother answering because they know there really isn't a dog there. Same is true for my familiar freeway overpass. I swear it's there but in my heart I know it's not so I'm not too troubled by this apparition.
Somewhere in the dark Cindi Staiger shows up, at least I think she does, telling me to reach out because she's got a cup of coffee for me. I say, "hi Cindi", reach out, grab the mug, and start chugging coffee, which really tastes wonderful. I thank this angel of mercy for appearing in the dark. Five minutes later I am asking my crew if she was really there or if I was imagining all of it. They assure me that this one was not a hallucination. "Dude! You've only got a bit over a mile to the left turn on Utah Trail!" Dave yells out. "No way! I thought I had something like another 20 miles," I reply. But Dave's not lying, in no time at all I am making that left turn off of this horrible highway and onto the residential streets of 29 Palms. I feel as though I've stepped of a battlefield and am now in a neutral and safe place (if that makes any sense). After a mile or so I make the right turn onto 29 Palms highway. At this late hour, the streets are not too crowded but Dave takes no chances, keeping the van glued behind me. These last couple miles are incredibly surreal, it's as though everything is going in slow motion, which is just fine with me. I'm too tired to really appreciate the fact that my epic adventure is nearly complete. I do say a word of thanks to God for protecting me, the crew, and our equipment. I wave the crew up to me and tell them that it was an honor doing this with them and I thanked them for all their phenomenal efforts. After the last steep little bump is negotiated, I have just a short distance to travel before Dave lets me know it's safe to pull into the center lane. I see the motel parking lot, which will be the end of my journey. I turn left, then a quick right, and I see the finishing tape held up for my passage. At 11:14 PM on Sunday night, 82 hours, 16 minutes, 34 seconds after the start, I breech the tape, applied the brakes and stopped riding... this time for good. My Double Furnace Creek 508 was complete.
I want to thank my amazing support crew of my father D.C. Born, my brothers Dave, Jeff, and Mark, and my very good friend Jeff Martin. We all know that a good support crew is vital in ultra marathon cycling. I was blessed to have a crew of individuals that took such good care of me. For the entire distance they were "on", they never lagged, their support was never less than flawless. They were absolutely key to the success of this most difficult endeavor and without them there is no way I could have finished it. To my crew: I thank you for everything you did for me and for your tremendous, selfless, and tireless efforts. I will never forget everything you did for me.
It was great seeing my long time cycling friends Seana Hogan, Bubba Jeff Stephens, Mark Patten, Reed Finfrock, Andrew Otto, and many others. Although I never did see you during the race (you were all too fast!) it was great being a part of the same race you were competing in. A special congratulations to Eric Ostendorf for his fantastic race. The conditions were difficult this year but you still posted a very fast time, one that really is awe inspiring. Simply put, you rode a magnificent race this year and I congratulate you on a tremendous effort.
To all the riders and crews in this year's race I wanted to say that it was an honor to compete with you. Thank you to all the riders and crews who offered words of support and encouragement. They were always very nice to hear, they always lifted my spirits, they helped make the journey go smoother, and they very much solidified my belief that the people involved in ultra cycling are the classiest people around. The camaraderie and family-like quality of ultra cycling has always been one of the most appealing facets of this sport and this year's experiences only reinforced that for me. Thank you again for all the very kind words and support.
I've often said that the Furnace Creek 508 is my favorite race. Part of the reason is because it is such a unique and challenging race venue. Being a part of this race as rider, crew, or official, has always been very special to me and the experiences I've garnered over the years are unlike any other I've experienced in the sport of ultra cycling. A major part of why this race is so special to me is because of the way it's run. Again this year Chris Kostman put on a first class event. I know how much energy and devotion he puts into this race so I want to thank Chris for all his efforts. Sincere thanks to the many volunteers and officials that are a vital part of this race. Your efforts were very much noticed and appreciated. Thanks for being out there and for all the work you put into the race.
In the many years I've been involved in the sport this accomplishment is certainly the most unique, and very much the most satisfying one of all. I know I will never, ever forget it.
My primary bike was a Kestrel 200 EMS, Dura Ace 9-speed components, Time pedals, Zipp clincher wheels (I forget which model they are), Michelin 23 mm tires. My climbing bike was a Columbus Nemo steel frame made by Ionic, Dura Ace 9-speed components, Time pedals, Campy Neutron clincher wheels, Velo Flex 22 mm tires. I still use the same Avocet O2 saddle and Mavic aero bars that I’ve had since God-knows-when. All my clothing was HAMMER GEL/E-CAPS clothing made by Voler. I wore Sidi Genius shoes.
My primary fuels were the yet-to-be-released HAMMER NUTRITION product Perpetuem Pro, and the other HAMMER NUTRITION products Sustained Energy and Hammer Gel. Occasionally I also consumed sandwiches, Kellogg’s NutriGrain Bars, and Saltine crackers. My caloric intake for the distance averaged between 300-350 calories per hour.
I used the following E-CAPS supplements as much as possible on an hourly basis:
- Race Caps: 1-2 per hour
- Enduro Caps: 2-4 per hour
- Anti-Fatigue Caps: 2 per hour
- Endurolytes: 3-6 per hour
- Super AO: 1 every 4 hours
Other supplements used hourly:
- 250 mg l-carnitine alternated with 250 mg acetyl l-carnitine
- 500 mg l-carnosine
- 250 mg HMB
At night I included the following supplements:
- 1 capsule Neuherin by Ecological Formulas (acetyl l-carnitine, ginkgo biloba, thiamin)
- 1 tablet NADH by Source Naturals
- 1 capsule Cognitex by Life Extension Formulas
Click for Part One or Part Two
For an excellent interview / profile article of Steve Born, click here.