Tuesday, October 16, 2007


the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live...
- jack kerouac

what a long, strange trip it's been.
- the grateful dead

Monday, October 15, 2007

what's the 508?

trust me, the furnace creek 508 is a lunatic bicycling adventure, a 508-mile race through the mojave desert and death valley. i can't even do it justice. just check out http://www.the508.com. for sure, we're barking mad doing it as a four-person relay team. i don't even know how to diagnose the ones who ride it solo...

why the capybara?

the 508 doesn't assign numbers to racers. each team is identified by an animal totem. we chose the capybara, the world's largest rodent, the most athletic of the fat-ass water rats, a natural choice to represent a cycling team on a 500-mile race through the desert...

stage one – santa clarita to california city

82.3 miles, 6176' vertical

we watched the solo riders start at 7 am from the comfort of the coffee shop, then began our own final preparations. sunny morning for the 9 am team sendoff, very cool breeze but warm in the sun. mindy shed her jacket for the start, and the rest of us took off for the first support point.

since she doesn't carry any y-chromosome baggage, mindy knows better than to start out hammering at 25 mph like the rest of us goons. (of course, some of those guys took off at 25 mph and didn't look back.) she just warmed up before the long climb up san francisquito canyon, then caught a bunch of the fast starters on the climb, a phenomenon we witnessed often this year. we call it 'being chicked.' mindy's far too nice to rub it in, though. she just spins past at high cadence, smiling, probably even chatting. you can't hate that girl, no matter how many times she beats you to jelly on a climb.

san francisquito canyon is narrow and crowded with bicycles, so support vehicles would absolutely clog it. crew support is not permitted until mile 25, where there's a wide and long shoulder for crews to park and wait. at the single bush taller than twelve inches, fifty guys peeing. on some unspoken signal, it became the women's room. civilized, these 508 crews... we repacked the van and chatted with rocky mountain goat and some other teams – lots of bike talk, stories of past rides, mostly lies, i'm sure – while mindy carried her own tubes and other support gear up the canyon. at the turn, chad practiced the bottle hand-off like we were briefed. it worked – mindy barely had to slow down. we cheered – the rocky mountain goat crew called her by name, so she knows we were talking about her with them – and she was off again.

over the crest of the hill and after a long descent, we started playing leapfrog support, spending most of our time behind our rider. mindy would breeze past, we'd hang in the car for ten or fifteen minutes, then we'd go find her again, see what she needed, 'vitamin I and sunscreen,' and get it ready for the next stop.

the day was almost perfect, clear skies, hot sun but cool air, temps in the 80s – a little warm for cycling, but come on, this is the mojave desert – and a cooling but drying breeze. hydrate. you can see approximately forever in the spare landscape, so the windmills climb (imagine an uphill section of road through an extended windfarm...what else would you call it?) loomed many miles before the grade ramped up. distances deceive: since you can see it, you think it's close. not so... dusty red mountains fading up into grey, brush cover near the top at elevations high enough to coax the little water out of the wind...

chad was quiet in the back of the van, still an hour or so left in mindy's shift. wait for it...

a few more leapfrogs brought us down from the windmills and into time station 1 in california city around 2:30pm. mindy kicked butt.

stage two – california city to trona

70.3 miles, 4212' vertical

chad was off in no time, riding into no-fence land. mindy asked the race officials at the time station about our position in the 4x relay team standings. 'seven minutes behind smoking loons.' accurate as far as it went, but we heard that to mean we were riding in second place. easy to latch onto mistakes you want to believe... we decided not to tell chad right away, we knew he'd ride plenty hard anyway, no sense having him blow a gasket chasing somebody down, him with two little kids and all.

until he began the climb to randsburg at mile 25, there wasn't much place to pass the boy a water bottle. there was plenty of shoulder, but that part of the course is faast. i did manage one high-speed handoff with my best thirty-yard dash, but understand, running is not my gift. better to look for a slightly uphill stretch...

on the climb to johannesburg, chad began catching the solo riders. then we spotted smoking loon just ahead and finally broke our news: that rider was leading. over the next few miles, our boy caught him and opened a time gap before the long descent to the trona turn. at the turn, we fitted his lights at a quick stop and he asked, 'leading what?' we told him what we believed, 'leading the 4x relay teams.' so holy shit, we thought, we're freakin' winning the furnace creek 508. chad echoed our team motto: if ya got it, leave it on the road. don't bring anything back...

by that time, chad was cramping pretty bad, asking us to mix extra electrolytes into his fuel bottles. but now that he 'knew' he was in first place, it was going to take une force majeure to get by him. we pulled into trona about twenty past six, a minute ahead of smoking loons, which put us in the division lead, if only in our own small minds. we didn't bother to look any farther up the standings. we'd never heard of, let alone seen, team sphinx or team prairie falcon, forget the millipedes (right name for a four-tandem team, ya think?). but we also had never considered that we'd do any more than finish, possibly even last. contending was a rush.

stage three – trona to furnace creek

99.2 miles, 7538' vertical

tom was ready to go pretty quick, but we promptly blew our 'lead' when team smoking loon showed their experience with a quick rider change and a crew that was ready to travel. they hit the road as we shuffled bikes on the roof, fueled up the car, bought supplies, and stood in line for the restrooms.

chad tried to recover from his balls-out run to trona, but instead started feeling carsick in the back of the van. we stopped tom on his way up the trona bump to switch drivers. mindy drove as darkness fell, and chad rode shotgun long enough to find his barfaerobic threshold. apologies to basenji, the 2x tandem team keeping their distance behind us... but chad felt a lot better.

after the descent from the trona bump, tom rolled through the panamint valley in the early darkness and set up for the monster climb of the race: 3800' vertical in thirteen miles up townes pass, with grades up to 13% in places. that's a grind, i don't care who you are. i can't even imagine doing it after riding a double century like those solo riders. we are SO not in their league. over the steepest stretch, tom spent, in his words, two hours doing three to five miles per hour... he just kept it turning strong. amazing to watch from the van. mindy complained that she couldn't sleep with the two of us up front muttering, 'wow, look at him go' every now and then. a race is exciting, even in slow motion.

as tom climbed, we caught glimpses of the long line of blinking lights behind and below us. a long, long guardrail bending left suggested a huge panorama, but not for us. riding at night, tom said it's all about the blinking lights. just find the next set in front of you and catch them if you can...

the grade moderates near the top, but there's still a substantial climb ahead. finally, finally, we reached the summit sign and pulled off on the left side to get tom some more layers for the descent. i stepped outside the car into the wind and immediately flirted with hypothermia. it gets damn cold at altitude in the desert. gave tom all his clothes, and he put them all on...

the 17-mile descent from townes pass is an exercise in trust. chad tried to keep the car close enough to illuminate the road in front of tom while preserving an error margin. tough balancing act at 40 mph. and the road didn't help. it dips often, so that as tom reached the edge of a dip, the car behind wouldn't be pointed down enough to light the road, so tom had to drop into the blackness for a second. after a few times, you get used to it, rationalizing that we're not the first bicycle down this road this evening, it must be clear, right?

from the bottom of townes pass, tom still had a 25-mile pull to furnace creek, now into a huge headwind. good thing we had our most experienced double-century rider out there. he pounded it out at high cadence, clawing through stovepipe wells and on around to furnace creek just before 2 am. check the standings: 53 minutes behind smoking loons. even with our long rest stop at trona, they must have put a monster on the road for stage three. tom told me, 'you may feel some wind...' he got that right.

stage four – furnace creek to shoshone

73.6 miles, 6744' vertical

my turn. got on the bike just after 2 am in furnace creek, finally getting to stretch it out after seventeen hours in the car supporting the other riders. sleep? fugeddaboudit. relied on my alert crew to help me find the right turn out of furnace creek to head south toward badwater, warmed up a bit, then put up the spinnaker, baby, we're sailin'! rode the tailwind tom earned for us with his upwind run through stovepipe wells. then like tom said, 'it's all about the blinking lights.' i could see from a few to several sets of blinking lights ahead (some miles ahead) in the darkness.

i want to go back to death valley in the daylight. all we could see were stars (and stars and stars!) and mountain profiles (absence of stars). and of course a small bit of road. often in the turns, the headlights would pick out whiteness (alkali flats?) off the road, a spooky effect, especially when a pair of green eyes flashed me and a dim canine form instantly disappeared. coyote. we're not the only high-level predators out here...

but i mostly had my mind on the blinking lights, chasing them down one after another, passing with some speed differentials i've never experienced. i really can't take too much credit for it, i mean, my legs were fresh, and those solo riders had 253 miles in theirs. no way i could do what they do. it doesn't even seem fair that relay teams get the same finishers' jersey as the solo riders. they're in a completely different league, and i am in awe of them.

near the south end of the valley, a rider passed me: black panther, a 2x relay team. where the hell did he come from? i didn't know if he was one i had recently passed or if he had followed me all the way down the valley. but i could tell it was time to get serious: the climbs to jubilee pass (five miles, 1000' vertical) and salsberry pass (nine miles, 2300') were just ahead. i couldn't see my mileage so far, but the blinking lights began to appear above and to the left, up toward the turkish flag in the eastern sky: the late crescent moon next to venus morningstar.

(now that i think of it, i probably got that visual right with the wrong astronomy. i'll bet those flag symbols represent the new crescent moon at the end of ramadan, which could only be paired with venus eveningstar. just a guess...)

the blinking lights don't move fast on the climbs, but then neither do i. went by a few on the way up jubilee (including black panther near the top), but then the crew called a stop, which i welcomed, to fuel up. two or three teams went by at the summit, and i followed them down to the base of salsberry.

i had this climb in mind all summer. i understand distance and altitude, but this time the wind added a demoralizer. a headwind on a long climb just makes me grumpy, and this wind was naasty. it took a long uncomfortable time before my last fuel-up kicked in, so i started rewinding the tapes in my head: 'it's all about the blinking lights.' 'if ya got it, leave it on the road...'

the carbs started working their magic, and i started to chase the lights. at one point, i counted eight sets of them ahead somewhere in the darkness. when one came into steady view, i'd go deep to get by and open a gap for the van to follow. recover. repeat. i'd never ridden like that. this was my first race, the first time there'd ever been an official clock on my efforts. 'if ya got it...'

the conversations started in my head: can you catch that next one? maybe, but it'll hurt. a lot? yeah, a lot. ever hurt this much before? no. can you stand it? i guess so. so? ok, let's go.

and so on. i rode the climb of my life. caught five of the eight sets of lights. after about the thirteenth false summit, with calves and quads screaming, tom motioned me to stop at the sign for the pass. crunched to a stop in the gravel, he gave me a windbreaker for the descent. time to set sail.

caught the first hint of day on the horizon, nautical twilight outlined the mountains slightly better than the stars. my headlight was not made for high-speed descents, so i had to rely on the car headlights. but at speed, the van needed to keep a bit of distance, too much for me to see the black road well enough against the lightening sky, so i eased up. my left foot started pulling out of the pedal, and i understood the crunch i heard at the summit: broken cleat, front anchor. lost power from ten o'clock to one o'clock on my pedal stroke: the last bit of pull-up and the kick over the top. probably 15% of my power, since i'm nowhere near coordinated enough to have different pedal strokes on each foot: i matched my right foot as well to the broken left cleat.

missed the juice right away, because the road turned up for the last little incline, straight into a blistering wind. i couldn't crouch deep enough. it was relentless, the kind of wind that pulls the skin on your face tight, cheeks toward ears. i told tom later he was right about the wind.

the last of the descent was an exercise in core stability. flat aero spokes are not made for speed in strong crosswinds. just hold on, steady, nothing stupid...

at the turn onto CA 127, the wind became my friend again for the last mile and a half. blew past the speed limit 35 sign at the shoshone town line with a sly grin. my chp source tells me it's possible to get a speeding ticket on a bicycle. how cool would that be? pulled into time station #4 at 6:41 am, 4:45 for the stage (incuding stops). my computer read 4:21 ride time, putting my average speed on the bike just under 17 mph. with over 6700' of climbing, that was by far the best ride of my life. 'if ya got it, leave it on the road. don't bring anything back.' i had it, and i left it all on the road. i brought nothing, and i mean nothing, back. all i could do was wobble over to the car and sit as chad and tom got mindy ready to roll. check the time sheet...took 23 minutes out of smoking loons (later found i'd put nine into black panther). but then noticed team sphinx and team prairie falcon almost two hours ahead, and i think the millipedes rolled through sometime yesterday... ok, so we were never anywhere near the lead. best to let that delusion go...

stage five – shoshone to baker

56.3 miles, 2186' vertical

sun almost ready to peek over the mountains now, mindy took off with that big tailwind on her way up ibex pass. need directions? the MTNT column (miles to next turn) in the route book read 124.81. just go. and go she did.

i'm guessing ibex pass is where the solo champ and mayor of furnace creek, michael alpine ibex emde, got his totem. since i lost the election for kelso town clerk, we got the capybara...

at 7 am, when the van needn't more follow the rider closely, tom called a catnap. we made sure mindy was well supplied, then pulled over. i was riding shotgun, still in my kit, sucking down a recovery drink that i hoped would make me feel better. we both set cell-phone alarms for eight minutes, and i just sat still in the predawn light. before the alarms, i heard tom take a quick breath, looked over to the drivers' seat, and saw him bright-eyed and alert. did the trick. back on the road, another leapfrog up ibex pass.

mindy was cruising, even on the climb. she was set to absolutely fly into baker. from the summit, you can see maybe thirty miles of road, almost dead straight, down the hill, across the plain, through baker, and up the hill on the other side, chad's upcoming stage. let 'er fly!

riding shotgun, i slipped in and out of full consciousness. but every time i came fully back, the picture was the same: mindy ahead of us in a crouch, sailing down the slope, the road straight down, across, and up like always. happened about six times. the picture didn't change.

with about five miles to go, we left her to get chad set up to take off from baker. she was smiling big! she averaged over 20 mph for her second stage, and rolled into baker uphill at 30 mph, on a high. boo-yah! pulling onto town, all of our phones buzzed or rang. the first cell service in probably half a day, and all the well-wishing text messages came pouring in. mindy alone got fifty. good to have friends. but now i was going to have to disabuse them of the notion we were winning...

stage six – baker to kelso

34.9 miles, 2920' vertical

again, chad hit the road fast and started his long climb out of baker, a 2+% grade for 20+ miles, the kind of grind that makes you start talking to yourself. the rest of us emptied, refilled, and fueled the car. bad sandwiches and ice cream from the gas station/convenience store on the corner. gotta get back to check out the mad greek, though. next time.

i took the wheel on the way out of baker and started looking for our rider. no sign of him, but you can only see about two hundred miles of road out there. wrong turn? no, tom saw him cross the I-15 overpass. but we'd already passed several teams we'd seen in baker. so where the hell is he? there's no place for him to go, nothing out here big enough to drag him off, and no place to hide him even if there was...

finally we caught him, pounding out his strong fast cadence, just running up that long grade. 'what do you need?' we asked on our way by. 'just pull over a mile or so ahead so i'll have something to shoot for. not much for landmarks out here.' so that's what we did, several iterations of jumping a mile or more ahead, texting more accurate race info to our fans, watching chad pound up that relentless grade. damn, that boy is riding strong...

next time by, chad called, 'can you fix this road? this chip seal is killing me...'

note to future 508 riders: never, ever complain about bad road. once you do, the road gods will soon show you truly bad road... near the top of chad's climb, the pavement lost the right to that name. what wasn't cracked or broken was weathered down to the aggregate, in this case, thumb-sized rock. chad slowed considerably, until he cracked the code. the painted lines were much smoother. he added about 3 mph riding the stripes. didn't complain when the chip seal returned on the descent into kelso, either...

pulled into time station #6 in kelso and checked the time sheet. still two hours behind prairie falcon, and an hour-and-a-half behind team sphinx, but only 16 minutes behind team smoking loon. chad took 17 minutes out of them on the baker grade. but we'd already given up chasing them, we didn't even jump ahead to set tom up to go, so they got it all back at our stop in kelso, plus they had their monster riding third.

stage seven – kelso to almost amboy

33.8 miles, 2280' vertical

you can't really call kelso a town, or even really a settlement. a railroad crossing, i guess. tom was itching to go, and immediately got on it for his climb: 2000' vertical in 12 miles, a couple of bottle passes, deep into the routine now, even though mindy and chad are feeling done with this...

sagebrush and cactus, loose sandy soil, rocks. low population density regardless of species. browns and tans and greys and pale pale grey-greens. dead quiet at midday except for the wind. lots and lots of very very little. not a fence. not a power line. cell phone service? soon, i'm sure. welcome to the desert.

tom's stage ended with a loong screaming descent into almost amboy, home of the amboy memorial gardens and lemonade stand, resting place of unclaimed totems. the capybara won't end up there, if we have anything to say about it. pulled into time station 7 at 1:30pm sunday, more than six hours ahead of where we thought we might be. been a good run, it has...

stage eight – almost amboy to twenty-nine palms

58.2 miles, 4170' vertical

seven times, our team put an enthusiastic rider on the bike. at the start of each stage, we were itching to go. that streak ended in almost amboy. had someone given me the choice between getting back on the bike and having root canal, i was going with dental surgery.

sunday afternoon, i learned the difference between an endurance event and an ultra-endurance event. i trained for two stages. i knew i could tear up either one of them. fifty-eight miles and four thousand feet vertical? i've done that before breakfast. but riding in a 4x relay team in the 508 is not about riding two stages, it's about riding one event: two stages with a seven-hour recovery. i had the best ride of my life on the graveyard shift out of furnace creek, probably a three- or even four-thousand calorie effort. over the last three stages, i probably managed to consume six or seven hundred calories. didn't think to eat, and didn't feel like it anyway. do the math. i was out of gas at the starting line. endurance athletes need water, salt, and calories... i got two out of three. i was set up for the worst ride of my life, bar none.

riding in a bonk sucks a mop. riding the last stage of the furnace creek 508 in a bonk sucks the mop that just cleaned the floor of the mens' room at the goddam bus station...

what do you want to hear about? the broken pavement and crushed glass on the shoulder of route 66? the high-speed traffic? the way the shoulder disappeared altogether every time the road crossed a dry wash? the railroad crossing gates in amboy that almost clonked me coming down in front of an approaching high speed freight? (my stupidest move, following my crew through the crossing. still, with the train covering my back, i had no traffic worries for a while.) the moonscape vistas? (the eighth is not the prettiest stage.) the way i could only find 60% of my maximum heart rate? how my crew, themselves eager to finish, was pulling their eyes out watching me? how they counseled me to puke? (i know it worked for you, but chad, look, i'm not barfing.) the not one not two but three false summits at the top of the sheephole climb? the passing car that pulled in within inches of my wheel on the 35-mph descent from sheephole summit? the twenty-mile uphill finish? the santa ana headwind? good thing the desert finally started to get hot...

i had nothing to leave on the road, and there was nothing to do about it. just keep it turning and eat as much as you can. at the approach to sheephole summit, forty or more miles to go, deep into counting pedal strokes...

just shoot me. now. please. really, i mean it...

the carbs kicked in. the body is amazing. it won't go without fuel, but when it's gassed up, it almost jumps at the chance. didn't really feel any better, but all of a sudden i could click up a gear. then another. speed went from 10 to 18 mph, began to think i'd finish before dark. there was never any doubt in my mind about finishing. as i told tom later, even at six miles per hour, that's only a ten hour stage, and we had eighteen to finish... the energy hit got me over sheephole summit, catching a few of the teams who had gone by earlier. if ya got it...

lost it again on the rough pavement on the last long gradual desert climb to the finish. just keep turning. my odometer mocked me, refusing to change, then registering distance only grudgingly. using every mental trick i knew by then.

carbohydrate metabolism metaphors: maltodextrins are coal, high-fructose corn syrup is gunpowder. stopped for a coke at mile 490 or so. as soon as i got back on the bike, i had it again, heart rate back up in the 80% range, power in each pedal stroke, speed. ok, so leave it on the road. did for about fifteen minutes, or as long as the 150 calories lasted. then nothing again. gunpowder. i'll probably lay off that stuff in the future. no way animal metabolism evolved to deal with such concentrated energy. it can't be healthy.

mindy was right about the toothbrush. as any endurance athlete will tell you, the biochemical reaction between a sports drink and an energy gel creates wool. each of my teeth dressed up in its own little cardigan sweater...

my kmart buddhism teaches me that the journey is the destination. i confess my heart questioned that tenet, a crisis of faith in the face of ten more miles of 1% grade into a stiff headwind on shitty pavement with the sun in my eyes, sweat and sunscreen dripping in...did i mention the headwind? attitude check: i got your stinkin' journey, yeah, right here, man... it's true, i developed an attachment to the destination. the root of all suffering...

didn't i already ask you to shoot me?

finally on twenty-nine palms highway, only a few miles to go now, sun lower, completely blinding. i could see about fifteen feet ahead, but that was just about enough at six miles per hour...by then i couldn't even get 55% of my max heart rate. i did some mental math...two miles to go, at this speed, let's see, that's only...twenty minutes. be done in no time. at least my electrolytes are ok, i can still think...

a woman waited in her car for me to cross a driveway in front of her. as i passed, i turned to acknowledge and thank her for the courtesy. she made the index-finger-around-ear gesture: you're crazy. i laughed, hard to argue, given the evidence...

still sun-blind, i plowed straight through some pine branches hanging out over the road. blindsided by a plant. ok, people, we really need to finish up here, that tasted like a martini...

i think five teams passed me and stayed ahead on the last stage, and black panther would have caught me but the race was fifty yards too short. sure, this was a race, but no losers here. if you think i'm just blowing smoke, spouting cliches about how all that matters is doing your best, read empress penguin's blog. go ahead and tell me you don't believe she won by DNF at mile 400.

i can't wait to do it again.

Friday, October 12, 2007

free advice...

...for future furnace creek 508 4x relay teams.

and worth the price, i might add...

> the car to bring is a minivan with the middle seat removed and half the rear seat folded down. that makes for a cyclist on the road, a driver, a navigator/bottle passer, and gives a little slack to the team member in the back of the car to sleep, eat, change, clean up, whatever.

> even with that slack, there really isn't much down time for anybody on the team. sleep is a gift from the cycling gods, and they are fickle. two of us went straight through with zero sleep, and the others didn't get much. after 7am sunday, the driver should feel free to call for a ten-minute catnap.

> this is one event, not two separate stages. you must, and i mean ya GOTTA plan your recovery between stages. i didn't and rode my second stage completely in a bonk. that sucked a mop. plus it added an hour or more to the ordeal.

> the rider with the most civilized riding schedule should act like a crew chief and be responsible for most of the thinking.

> a step stool would be nice for getting bikes off the roof.

> you can save real time by planning the rider changes. think ahead, and talk about it in the car before you get to the time station.

> you can save twenty minutes by getting into time station 2 before the rules change at 6pm. if you don't have to follow your rider in, you can jump ahead, gas up, let everybody pee, and get your third rider ready to go. but that requires 17 mph for 2 stages totalling 153 miles with 10200' vertical. that's a stretch for me and the crowd i ride with.

> i'd only do this event with riders i know well and am comfortable with. two days in close quarters with people pushing themselves to physical extremes means you're going to get to know your teammates better than you might like to. leave your delicate sensibilities at the starting line. privacy is a luxury.

> more to come...

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


team capybara finished the furnace creek 508 in 32:58.

30th place of the 117 starters (84 finishers)
7th place of the 14 4x relay teams
3rd place of the 9 4x mens' relay teams
1st place of the 1 4x mens' relay team in the 30+ age bracket.

i guess we won, then, if you define your terms properly.

hard to get too big-headed about it, though, finishing as we did almost three hours behind chesapeake bay retreiver, a dude my age riding solo on a fixed-gear...

it'll take me a couple days to write the story. right now, almost 48 hours after we finished, i'm still trying to recover from the deepest bonk of my life. i now understand the difference between an endurance event, which i prepared for, and an ultra-endurance event, which this was, and which i did not. but man, that was fun, in ways i can't even explain.