Above: Danny ascending Towne Pass during the 2008 Furnace Creek 508.
As his crew plays AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," Mother Nature plays along.
Furnace Creek 508 2008 (Danny "Wiener Dog" Westergaard)
By Danny Wiener Dog Westergaard
Last year a couple of months after finishing the Badwater Double I rode the Furnace Creek 508 mile bike race (my first road bike race) to complete the Death Valley Cup, which is finishing both the Badwater 135 mile run and the Furnace Creek 508 in the same calendar year. The FC508 went surprisingly well last year and the next day I had a thought (I know it's rare), I wondered if I could do a "Death Valley Cup Double", the Badwater Double and the Furnace Creek Double in the same year. I didn't have a crew to go back with me last year nor did I do any advance planning to accomplish the ride back to the start so the thought ended there, but the seed was planted.
In July of this year I was fortunate enough to complete the Badwater race once again with the help of a great crew, and was able to continue on up to the summit of Mount Whitney and back to the start with the help of some of my crew. After accomplishing that goal it kept my dream alive for the Double Double. So on October 4, 2008 I started the Furnace Creek 508 for the second time in as many years with the hope of improving on last years time and possibly recovering enough to head back to the start less than 24 hours after finishing the race. My main goal at FC as well as BW was to focus on the race and leave it all on the course, then assess my condition after the race to see if I could do more.
Furnace Creek started Saturday morning at 7:00am under a cool cloudy sky. My two crew members, Jason Becker and Rob Berry, which I had never met until the day before the race, were awesome through out the race and I was really lucky to have them out there helping me. Together we made a great team. The race went really well and we only had one real problem about half way through the race when the flashers mounted on the roof of the van stopped working. Jason and Rob were all over it trying to diagnose the problem though nothing seemed to revive them. So we got creative and after about an hour delay, though my crew said it was only 20 minutes (actually it was probably somewhere in between the two) we were finally back on the road through Death Valley. As a result of their great crewing I was able to finish the race in 34 hours and 38 minutes at 5:38pm Sunday evening - over an hour faster than last year. After about 4 hours of sleep I got up at 3:30am and went to watch the last few riders finish. Then I cleaned and reorganize the race van in preparation for the return trip back to Santa Clarita. After attending the race breakfast Monday morning with my parents we went back to the finish line hotel, finished preparing things, worked on the bike some and headed out at 12:30pm Monday on the 508 mile return trip, retracing the course back to the start at Santa Clarita.
It started out fine though my rear end region was a tad sore, complete with numerous saddle sores. Also after a few hours my left knee started to talk to me some and it wasn't real excited about the thought of traveling back to the start on the bike. We arrived at the first check point (last during the race) Amboy at 4:30pm and stopped to make a sandwich out of the cooler, our hopes of getting a meal at Amboy didn't materialize since it is pretty much a ghost town. The next milestone was Kelso which we arrived at 9:15pm. After a short break and waiting for a train to pass it was up another long hill and a rough road until we hit the long down grade to Baker. Heading down to Baker seemed to take an eternity, you could see the lights of the town off in the distance but it took hours to get down to them. Mean while I was trying to keep from falling asleep on the bike and come to find out later I wasn't the only one falling asleep as my Dad had put in a full day of driving the crew van and was trying desperately to stay awake as well and not run me over or end up in a ditch. My Mom kept giving him wet towels with ice in them to keep him alert for our push to Baker. We finally arrived at Baker at 1:00am Tuesday morning, about 126 miles into our journey. There wasn't much happening in Baker at this hour (or I'm guessing at any hour for that matter) and I was unsuccessful at waking up the hotel clerk in hopes of getting a bed for a few hours of rest. So we rearrange things in the van and I took my front wheel off my bike and stuffed it into the van so we could get some much needed rest. It was 2:00am by the time we settled in to our close quarters and was able to sleep off and on until about 5:00am, at that point we acquirer a hot breakfast at the Mad Greek, a 24 hour restaurant right on the course in Baker. After breakfast and getting things prepared for the day we were off to Shoshone at 7:00am. My knee was feeling better and I was able to take off the wrap I had on it the day before.
We arrived at Shoshone at 11:45am and enjoyed a sandwich at the only diner in town, after about an hour stop we were off for another big climb and on our way to Furnace Creek. At breakfast I had called ahead and was able to get the last room available at Furnace Creek Ranch motel so we were looking forward to a good meal and a real bed that we could stretch out in for some well deserved sleep. The temperatures were starting to rise and were in the 100's as we made our way to Badwater and into Furnace Creek arriving there just before 7:00pm Tuesday night. After cleaning up we had a great pasta meal along with a bowl of soup, salad, a few dinner rolls and a strawberry milkshake to cap off the best meal of the trip. My wife has me spoiled with her great home cooking so the bar is set pretty high when I have to eat out. After preparing everything for the next day and going over the bike I finally got to bed about 1:00am and was up at 4:00am and on the road again heading to Stove Pipe Wells by 5:00am Wednesday morning. This may have been the highlight of the return trip, riding alone through the Death Valley darkness with millions of stars shining above, it was amazing. After stopping at the store in Stove Pipe to buy some Gatorade to refill my bottles it was up another relentless climb to the top of Townes Pass, from below sea level to nearly 5,000' in about 17 miles. An hour into the climb my parents caught back up with me after getting a couple extra hours of sleep and having breakfast at Furnace Creek to help prepare them for another full day of crewing their "Wiener Dog". Finally at 10:30am we arrived at the top of Townes Pass, I was rewarded with a nice long downhill into Panamint Valley and onward to the next town, Trona.
I rode into Trona at 4:00pm on Wednesday and after using the facilities at the gas station and fueling up the van and stocking back up with ice, we continued on. Around 8:00pm we stopped for dinner in the middle of no where and my Mom prepared us a great turkey sandwich and after about an hour break we were off again with hopes of getting to California City before having to stop and sleep. After a very long day and night for a total of 170 miles we pulled into California City at 12:38am on Thursday, this was mile 426 with "only" 82 miles left to the finish at Santa Clarita. I had pushed my Dad to his limit and he was more than ready to stop at this point so we pulled into a parking lot and tried to get some sleep. After finally getting settled in the van we rested for about 2 hours and were back on the road again at 3:50am Thursday morning.
We arrived in Mojave about 5:00am and stopped to eat some breakfast out of the cooler, we dined on some raisin rolls, bananas and OJ. The wind was howling and as I made the turn in Mojave I had to head straight up a fierce uphill complete with headwinds for about 10 miles but at this point a little headwind and another uphill wasn't going to stop me in my quest for a Furnace Creek Double. At the end of that stretch I was again rewarded with a nice downhill and some flat before my last big climb of the return trip and then a long beautiful downhill (mostly) into the finish.
So at 11:21am on Thursday morning I arrived back at the Hilton Hotel in Santa Clarita, where it all started "just" 5 days 4 hours and 21 minutes before and for a grand total of approximately 1,016 miles. I felt great and relieved to have finally made it back without any mishaps at all. I didn't have any mechanical problems or flats for the entire ride, my Cannondale and I made a great team and I was thankful to have my parents out there on the return trip to share in this incredible journey.
I owe a huge thanks to my crew during the race, Jason and Rob, my parents, Gary and Pauline for hanging in there and crewing me on the return trip and of course to my wife, Janet and my girls, Meagan, Brenna and Madison who allowed me to train for hours and hours in preparation for the journey of a lifetime. And of course thanks to Chris Kostman, the race director and the cast of volunteers that do such a great job putting on these races. Madison, my 9 year old, once asked me as I watched the Tour de France, "Daddy are you going to race in the Tour de France some year now that you are a bike racer?" I laughed and said only the best bike racers in the world are invited to race in the Tour and I will never be that good of a cyclist. She looked at me and said "Daddy you just have to believe". Though I still will never ride in the Tour de France no matter how much I believe, her words did help me many times during Furnace Creek and the return trip back to the start. When people find out what I do for "fun" I'm asked the usual "why?" And the best reason I can think of is "because I think I can". Sometimes if you just "believe" and do the work required, it's amazing what can be accomplished. On second thought, look out Lance, here comes the Wiener Dog!!!
By Rob Berry, Crew Member
As I write this, I am back at work, sitting at my desk. My body is here, but my mind is still somewhere over Death Valley, reflecting on an incredible weekend at the Furnace Creek 508.
I honestly wasn’t sure how I would feel about returning to this event. My only direct exposure with the 508 was a solo bid in 2007 that ended before it began, with an abrupt and ill-timed flu that struck me with a high fever hours before the start. Given my lack of miles in 2008 and horrible form, I knew another attempt would be foolish. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn back to the event, and I knew I wanted to be involved somehow. With no locals entering the event this year, I placed my name on the website bulletin board, offering to crew for anyone that had a vacancy. It wasn’t long before "Wiener Dog" contacted me, and the adventure began.
When I left work Friday, several co-workers asked me if I had any big weekend plans. When I explained that I would be driving 15 mph through the desert, accompanied in the van by someone I've never met, while following someone else I've never met, there were a few strange looks.
I met up with Wiener Dog and my fellow crew member, Jason, at the hotel. After some brief introductions, Wiener Dog gave us an overview of the van setup. Jason and I marveled at his meticulous planning and the level of redundancy built into his system. If anything went wrong, he had a backup for it—except for his blinking vehicle lights. But hey, what are the odds those would catastrophically fail mid-race? If only we knew.
Wiener Dog seemed relaxed and well-prepared, about what you would expect from a 508 veteran and a guy who recently completed a Badwater double, and was intent on attempting a 508 double to complete an amazing Double Death Valley Cup. I guess the pre-race energy eventually became too much to bear even for him, because for some reason he felt the need to get up at 3:00 am on Saturday morning and re-organize the van.
I was a bit surprised at my level of nerves as we pulled out of the parking lot shortly before the racers departed. As an all-rookie crew, we just wanted to avoid doing anything stupid that would jeopardize the safety and overall well-being of our rider. I think our biggest asset as a crew was our willingness to accept our total ignorance at the start of the race. Luckily, we had many great examples to follow at the first few leap-frog points. As we watched the other, more experienced crews do their work, we learned the unwritten rules of crew support. Parking on an uphill, proper water bottle hand-off, pulling ahead to guide the rider at every turn or intersection, scanning ahead on the route slip to call out upcoming hazards—stop signs, cattle guards, railroad tracks.
The cold and gloom of the first few hours had us worried. At the frigid, windy first leap-frog point, I heard another crew describe the conditions as "epic." I couldn't help but smile. "Epic" is how it feels from the car, or how it feels a week removed from the experience of riding it. When you're out pedaling in it, it's just hard.
Fortunately, the cold start eventually gave way to an amazing tailwind, which propelled Wiener Dog to an impressive first 200 miles, which he covered in approximately 10 hours. His mood was upbeat, and we settled into a steady routine. During these first few stages, we met with Fischer Weasel, and learned that he was riding unsupported while his crew attempted to obtain an alternate support vehicle (apparently, his original vehicle was not compliant). As he was always within about a mile of our rider, we unofficially adopted him and tried to fill up his bottles and pockets whenever the timing worked out. As darkness approached and we began to climb up Townes Pass, it was clear that he would be in trouble if his crew did not arrive soon.
It is amazing how quickly you connect to people in this type of environment. Twelve hours earlier, there was not a single person involved in this race that I knew by name, but all of that just dissolves away. We found ourselves cheering on every rider that passed; in particular, Dromedary and Desert Duck—and they were never too tired to shout through the window as they passed by.
I know it has been said before, but there is a total lack of egos out there. Everyone is part of the same biking family, and every rider essentially has 100 crews out there that would help in an instant if trouble arises. It was one of those warm-and-fuzzy realizations that made me reflect on how lucky I am to be part of such an incredible sport.
Wiener Dog was already up part of Townes Pass when official race darkness arrived. After getting the night gear on, he made short work of the rest of the climb. Fact is, he made it look downright easy. Most impressive of all, he even took the time to do some sightseeing on the climb, routinely glancing around to the beautiful scenery around us. I couldn't believe it—over 200 miles into this beast, on the toughest climb of the course, and he was taking time to look around and enjoy the ride. It is a lesson I hope I never forget.
We descended Townes Pass, with Wiener Dog casually sweeping through the turns, while I white-knuckled the steering wheel. It's a fine line between staying close enough to light the rider's way, but far enough back to avoid plowing through him. Made me wish bicycles had brake lights. At the bottom of the descent, our rider pulled off to remove a few layers of clothing. It was going to be a two-minute stop, until we realized the vehicle flashing lights were malfunctioning.
We hoped it would be a simple loose connection, but all attempts for a quick-fix were unsuccessful, though the paperclip and aluminum foil were a valiant effort. Fischer Weasel strolled over right about then. His crew never managed to find anything besides a camper, so he had just received the inevitable DQ. To thank us for our assistance earlier in the day, he graciously offered us one of his lights. It seemed a poetic symmetry—a rider that we had helped throughout the day was now offering to keep us going throughout the night. I took a moment to marvel at the manifestation of karma at work. Unfortunately, Fischer Weasel's light was also inoperable. Bad karma. Bad, bad karma.
What transpired over the next 30 minutes would have made McGuyver proud. I'll spare you the details, but needless to say, it required enough duct tape to wrap a small city. Somehow, it worked, and we soon found ourselves hustling toward Furnace Creek with our resurrected light system.
Wiener Dog cruised through Death Valley and over the exit passes, dropping into Shoshone before dawn on Sunday. This was the only stretch where we were seriously concerned about his strength, as his energy levels dropped and he showed signs of extreme fatigue. Jason and I traded a few worried looks when we saw our rider slapping himself in the face to ward off the fatigue. Turns out, all he needed was a little sun, and as sunrise passed and the morning temperatures began to rise, so did his energy levels. He was soon back into his normal rhythm and pumping out the miles.
Around mile 400, Wiener Dog began to show his teeth, and his competitive streak began to emerge. Instead of merely inquiring about distances or altitudes, he was now asking if any riders were about to catch him. He also wanted to know if there were any riders immediately ahead, within striking distance. Jason and I smiled. He was no longer concerned with merely finishing—he now wanted to finish strong and assure a better overall placement if possible.
One of my most enduring memories of the weekend is the sight of Wiener Dog powering up the final climb to Sheephole Summit. He was in and out of the saddle, punishing the asphalt as though he were 10 miles into a training ride. He passed several riders, including several teams. We reached the summit and quickly descended to the final stretch of road.
As we closed in on Twenty-Nine Palms, we found ourselves catching up to five different crews and riders. In the last 5 miles of the course, Wiener Dog passed every single one of them. It was amazing to watch.
Wiener Dog officially hit the finish line just after 5:30 Sunday afternoon, taking nearly 90 minutes off his personal best from the 2007 race. It was a critical gain—official race "darkness" begins at 6:00, and we had serious doubts that the lights would function if we needed to stay on the course after then.
What an amazing two days. You cannot say enough about the volunteers that make this race possible. My personal thanks go to Pit Snake. Somehow, she always ended up waiting for us at each checkpoint, though I never recall seeing her pass in a vehicle. By the time we reached Amboy, I kidded that she must be the ninja of the 508—always nearby, but usually invisible. All joking aside, I must have asked her a dozen questions over the weekend, some of them were probably really dumb questions. She answered them all happily and thoroughly, and never once made me feel like an idiot for asking.
As a cyclist that would like to attempt this race again someday, I am much better off for having watched Wiener Dog’s approach and attitude. Ironically, his ability to make the effort appear so easy demonstrated to me how much further I need to develop as a cyclist. On a personal note, I think anyone that is entertaining the notion of conquering this beast should volunteer or crew for another rider prior to entering the race. You will learn more about the race, you will see what it takes to succeed, and you will give a little back to the cycling community that has given so much to all of us over the years.
I take many other lessons away from the weekend. I now know some of the world’s best burritos are being served out of a cart in Trona. I’ve learned you can drive a mini-van for quite a while with the emergency brake on before you smell anything. I learned you shouldn't block the photo when a group of Harley riders are posing for a picture at a gas station. I learned there’s always room for ABBA on the iPod. I learned that our sport is better off for having folks named Wiener Dog, Ibex, Dromedary, and Dik-Dik.
If you've never been to this event, and even if you're not a cyclist, do yourself a favor and venture to the finish line next year. Being there on Sunday morning will be exciting, as the top racers cross the line—but the real drama begins late into Sunday evening or early Monday morning. I recall reading several crew reports from previous years that mention the awe of seeing the blinking lights heading up Townes Pass. While a memorable image, for me personally it pales in comparison to standing at the finish line and watching the slow procession of support vehicles inching towards the hotel. Each of those vehicles represents a dream, initially conjured by the rider, but eventually shared to include his support crew, family, and friends. Each represents months of effort and preparation, sacrifice, and commitment. Each symbolizes the unmistakable promise of humanity—if we dedicate ourselves to a task, nothing is out of our reach. Anyone that was within earshot of the finish when Wild Buck crossed the line will know exactly what I'm talking about.
Several friends and family, knowing how the 2007 ride affected me, began texting me Sunday night to see what my immediate thoughts were about the weekend. Exhausted and hungry, I simply replied that I was a better person for having experienced this event, and I was impressed with the volunteers, officials, crews, and riders.
And of course, I was impressed with Wiener Dog. I was impressed that he had completed a double Badwater. I was impressed by his unflappable attitude. I was impressed by the sight of him powering up Sheephole Summit. I was impressed that on Monday, while the rest of the riders were loading up their cars to drive home, he climbed back on the bike to do a counter-clockwise loop of the course, eventually completing his 1,016 mile ride a few days later.
Most of all, though, I was impressed that on the toughest climb of the toughest race in the world, he still took the time to look around and enjoy the ride.