Kenny Souza (Photo by Dave Nelson)
Carol Chaffee (Photo by Dave Nelson)
The Mystique of the 508
Originally published in Ultra Cycling, Nov-Dec 2005
“With me there was a certain mystique about the 508. In 1997 Reed Finfrock and I were roommates on a PAC Tour. He used the two weeks to get ready for the 508, it was the first time I heard of the race.” Gerry Goode said.
In 1997 Reed “Flamingo” Finfrock raced the 508 for the fourth time and the Flamingo has since finished the 508 twice more.
In 2003 Goode crewed for David “Leprechaun” Glasgow when he completed the race. Last year Goode, the “Gerbil”, crashed while descending Salsberry Pass, separated his shoulder and broke three ribs. This year the Gerbil, age 66, finished the 508 in 37 hours 38 minutes.
What is it about a race that a veteran returns to it six times? Or so captivates a rider that he’s drawn by it for eight years and finally finishes? In addition to a certain mystique the best races offer intense competition and personal challenge.
The mystique initially draws riders to the race. At the 508 each rider is assigned a totem instead of a race number—riders from across the country come to the 508 to get their totems.
When asked if he’d race the 508 Ben Couturier replied “The 508 sounds like the hell part of RAAM with desert.”
And this is exactly what attracts many riders. Isabelle Drake, competing as part of the two-women team “E. coli”, said: “The 508 was incredible! The course is the perfect ultra challenge with climbing, wind, heat and the majestic and lonely feeling of riding in the desert at night. I will always remember this as one of the greatest physical and mental feats I have ever tackled.”
Emily “Archaeopteryx” O’Brien had a similar reaction: “This race was amazing. I had the time of my life, from start to finish. It was the most fun I’ve had on two wheels. The course is spectacular, and so 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!”
The desert draws the riders, but the head to head competition at all levels is what makes the race exciting. The 2005 Furnace Creek included 74 solo riders, two tandems, 11 two-person teams, and 12 four-person teams. In many ultra events participants often race alone—at the 508 there were plenty of close match-ups.
At the 508 each team rider races from one Time Station to the next, with the riders competing in a predetermined order. Team E. coli (Drake and Kerin Huber) was racing against the two-women Chupacabra. It was Drake’s turn to ride the last stage from Amboy to Twenynine Palms including the final climb up Sheephole. “I was having GI problems. The nausea was overwhelming and I lost our 19-minute lead three miles from the end of the Sheephole climb and there was still about 30 miles to go. I knew I could catch Chupacabra on the downhill and I did. Before the Utah trail Katie Norton from Orange Cat overtook me.
I watched her pass Louise (Comar) of Chubacabra and decided I should do the same. With about eight miles to go Louise kept trying to overtake me. We were neck and neck but I was able to get to the finish line first.” The E. coli finished in 32 hours 38 minutes 28 seconds a course record, with the Chupacabra coming in 18 seconds later!
For O’Brien “The best part was the little sprint-off between me and John ‘Sabertooth Salmon’ Spurgeon, the other fixed gear rider, on the way up Sheephole. I had caught him on the way up Granite Pass, then got caught on the way down, then caught him again on the way up Sheephole. After dropping him, I wanted to get as much distance on him as possible, and I knew I had plenty of energy to get me to the finish line, so I hit the gas as hard as I could. I’ve never had so much fun up a hill before!”
Some riders simply rode within themselves. Carol Chaffee: “I went to the 508 this year with the goal of taking the women’s 50+ record, and never thought a thing about winning the women’s overall. I told my crew that I did not want to know where anyone was during the race. That I wasn’t going to chase, and I wasn’t going to run. I just wanted to ride my ride—and walk away with the 50+ course record. Heading into Twenty Palms, they told me where I was in the standings. Couldn’t stop smiling after that point!” Chaffee won the women’s race and set a women’s 50+ record of 33 hours 14 minutes.
Whether a rider is chasing at the back of the field or leading the race, coping with the mental chal- lenges is critical.
Paul “Muddy Mudskipper” McKenzie and Kevin “Griffin” Griffin were misdirected the first morning and rode an extra 10 miles. They flagged down a motorist to drive them back to the course.
McKenzie: “I’m angry and demoralized. I start hammering on the pedals but quickly realize that I will end my race soon if I continue to ride hard. I pedal and pedal, passing the slower riders one by one. I’m shaking my head in frustration. I think about the crew as I watch the van ahead. I think about how three people have come so far to help me race. I think about this van full of people with the sole purpose of helping me out. I become emotional about it, and I know I must give my best performance for myself and for them. I am grateful to be alive and grateful to have such good people helping me.” McKenzie finished in 32 hours 7 seconds and qualified for RAAM.
Meanwhile Kenny Souza was leading the race.
After a messy divorce star duathlete Souza put on 30 pounds eating fast food, drinking beer, and not training. Last spring he said to himself “Just do something to change your life.” He took a leave from ClifBar, trained all summer and entered the 508 with a modest goal: “Just finish the thing.”
Tinker Juarez after Amboy at the Salt Works (Photo by Dave Nelson)
However, at the Furnace Creek time station he took the lead. “I went from being in the race to racing.” Through the night he raced across the desert at nearly 20 mph. When the headwind kicked up near dawn Souza almost cracked.
“Mentally, I could feel (Juarez) breathing down my back.”
Tinker Juarez, two-time Olympic mountain bike racer, had rolled through Furnace Creek just 18 minutes behind Souza and was chasing hard.
Souza thought of his 14-year-old son, Dalton, who was navigating in the pace van and keeping an eye on the competition. Dalton would often say: “I spotted the enemy. They look like they’re nine miles back.”
Souza thought “Your son is in the car. This is the time to give him a life lesson and show some character.” Souza, the “Fast Truck Gecko”, won in 27 hours 15 minutes, a course record.
Tinker Juarez’s focus for 2006 is the Race Across America. “People tell me that the RAAM organizers would probably let me in on my 24-hour mountain bike racing record, but I wanted to qualify on my own. So I raced the Furnace Creek 508 and surprised myself with second place, and learned a lot along the way.” The “Mexican Wolf” finished less than nine minutes behind Souza.
Once again the 508 was a great event with the mystique of racing through the desert, many one on one battles and the ultra challenge of pushing the limits.
57 solo riders finished the race and 16 riders qualified or requalified for solo RAAM. Solo riders and relay teams set 15 course records.
O’Brien said it best “I’m already scheming and trying to figure out how I’m going to justify the expense of going back next year….”