“The most important part on the bike is the nut holding down the saddle.” ~Kitty Goursolle
I’m a relative newbie to ultra-cycling. Five years ago I didn’t know the sport existed, and this year with two days’ notice I found myself standing on stage with over 200 world-class athletes about to ride the Furnace Creek 508, one of the top 10 most challenging ultra-cycling races in the world. Holy COW!
I first heard about the 508 in 2008. That was the year I did my first week-long cross-state bicycle tour with my mother-in-law from Kansas. Her friend who rode with us was training for and rode the Trans-America trail later that summer, and over Thanksgiving Sara Kay was talking about completing the 508 as part of a two person team. I had taken a week to ride 500 miles. She and her partner had taken less than 36 hours and set a course record. It was inconceivable!
Another cross-state ride in 2009, my first century in 2010, second century in 2011 followed 6 weeks later by my first double, and I was hooked on endurance riding. Sara Kay and Sea Dragon partner Dana Lieberman had broken their 2007 record in 2008, and she went on to become the first female solo recumbent rider to finish the 508 in 2011. She encouraged me to try ultra-racing, and we talked about riding together as a two person women’s team in 2012. There were two problems with this plan – I had ZERO experience as an endurance rider and she rides a recumbent while I ride an upright which meant we did not fit into any of the rider categories on the 508. She petitioned Chris Kostman, but he was not ready to add yet another category to the roster so my thoughts of tackling the race were put on the back burner until I could qualify on my own and/or find a partner who rode an upright bike.
In 2012 I rode 5 double centuries, completed a RUSA R-12, and set my sights on a Super Randonneur Series for 2013. My riding buddies shifted from people doing 50-75 miles to people routinely riding 120+ miles for their recreational weekend rides. Several were training for the 508, so I started looking at it more closely once again. Most people make their first contact with this race as a crew member for another rider, some as a member of a 4 person team. I decided to crew in 2013 and set about finding some riders to assist.
I’ve known Steve Jackson for several years. We rode together a bit as I was training for my first century, but he quickly proved he was a much faster rider. We stayed in touch, but were no longer doing the same rides. He and my regular mid-week workout partner David Dubowitz were crew in 2012 for 2 person mixed team Pushme Pullyou, and Steve had decided 2013 would be the year for him to enter the ultra-racing world with his own 2 person mixed team. He partnered with Meredith Caccese McConville, an accomplished San Diego category 3 racer who was entering the ultra-cycling world for the first time. David was instantly chosen for their crew, and I was the second.
Steve and Meredith trained for most of the year, and Steve spent countless hours preparing the ultimate follow van complete with refrigerator, burrito warmer, outside speaker system, and a bed.
2013 was the year anything that could go wrong did for Chris Kostman and AdventureCORPS’ planning for the 508 event. First there were freak summer storms which washed out some of the route. With roads indefinitely closed, the first route changes of the year were made. It would no longer be the standard 508 route, and there would be no course records broken this year. Then there were permits which were lost in the National Park Service database, with exorbitant extra fees levied at the last minute leading to still more route changes. Next, an historic congressional impasse led to a shutdown of the Federal Government causing immediate revocation of the permits to ride through Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. Ever flexible and creative, Chris was determined the event would go on even in a drastically altered state.
As the emails flew back and forth, Team Deer in Headlights debated their options. The route was looking likely to be a 353 mile run from Santa Clarita to Trona and back. This was not what they had trained for and they considered backing out. We received an email from the Chris imploring racers to make the best of a less than optimal situation and come celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 508 event. He offered a chance for riders to change divisions if they wanted to. Steve sent an email, then another…what if they would allow a change from a 2x to a 4x? Would the crew members like to ride too? Thursday morning, two days before the race, it was official. The route would be the Trona 353, and Deer in Headlights would be a 4 person mixed team. Holy cow, I was going to be RIDING in the 30th anniversary 508 event!!!
After a whirlwind of preparation, our team left San Diego on Friday morning. With four riders, there was no longer a crew chief or a dedicated crew. We still had to determine rider order, and two of us had never practiced essential ultra-racing skills like grabbing a water bottle from someone hanging out of a moving vehicle while pedaling like mad. We got to vehicle inspection with 45 minutes to spare and 75 minutes of work to do to be ready. Four people scrambled to make sure the lights were working, bikes were prepped, signs on the vehicle met the regulations, first aid kit was fully stocked. We somehow managed to pass the inspection and get checked in before the 4:00 pre-race meeting.
Dinner in Valencia, a stop for forgotten binoculars, and an 8 hour nap left us ready to start our race.
Meredith was our first deer, no headlights needed. At 9:30 Saturday morning we saw her off as a strong Santa Ana wind started picking up from the northeast. She rode like a true champion, fighting wind which actually blew her off the bike. We provided water, food, music, and a cheering squad as she battled wind and steady climbing for her 106 mile leg to California City. I tried to nap before my leg, but was too excited to really sleep. With one of Steve’s gourmet organic chicken burritos in my belly, the baton was passed to me at 5:40pm and my ride began.
The headwind Meredith had struggled with became a moderate cross-wind as evening fell. I warmed up for the first 12 miles, getting my legs under me and dancing with incredulity in my head. I was actually on a bike, riding in this year’s modified version of the 508. Holy COW! The turn onto Red Rocks Road brought a series of rolling hills, a slight headwind, and a spectacular dessert sunset. I settled in, enjoying the undulating terrain and changing light, getting used to having a follow vehicle. The music coming from the front speakers was Steve’s playlist, an eclectic mix of funk, rock, and reggae. I’m not used to matching cadence to music, so I just danced on the bike and sang along when I could with Meredith shouting encouragement through the karaoke mike. This was FUN!
Darkness fell, headlights turned on, and I hit the first real climb of my day, a 5 mile stretch of 3-5% grade into Randsburg. I dropped into a spinning gear, and settled in. Since I was expecting to crew rather than ride, I had not analyzed the hill climbing and had no idea how long the hill would be or how steep. I knew leg two only had 3500 feet of climbing on it, and I KNEW I could do that with relative ease regardless of how steep or long those climbs were. I passed several riders, several riders passed me. We shouted “Great job!” to each other and kept on going. I settled into the meditation of climbing in the dark and soon Meredith was shouting that I was nearly at the top.
A quick descent, then 1500 feet of climbing into Johannesburg. The miles sailed by, but the pressure in my bladder became more and more insistent and I was freezing on the downhill stretches. Finally I could’t stand it anymore and had to pull over. 5 minutes for nature to take its course, and I was back on the bike for the final stretch of rolling hills before the 6 mile descent into Trona. Two miles to go, another rider passed me. I tried to push it up a notch and keep up, but I had nothing left to give and had to drop back to my own pace. I pulled into the time station with wobbly fatigued legs and a decidedly queasy stomach, and handed off the baton to David at 10:26pm.
As soon as we were gassed up and had burritos for the road, David was off like a bat out of hell. He hauled ass up the first climb, overtaking rider after rider. We were in the middle of the pack, truly in the race. He cruised up the climb back into Johannesburg, hit the descent hard, but slowed coming into Randsburg as his legs started to feel the effect of pushing his pace. His speed picked up again as he descended out of Randsburg, and he sailed over the rollers on Redrock/Rand Rd. Abruptly we realized that the line of tail lights and yellow blinkies we’d been following were gone. We were on highway 14, not where we should have been. We got back on track, but it cost us about 45 minutes and the 10 riders our 3rd deer passed were ahead of us again.
3:52am, we pulled into the time station. With the wind and two slower racers added to our team, Steve hadn’t expected to get on his bike until daylight and didn’t have his lights handy. We all pulled together and got David’s lights installed on Steve’s helmet, and he was off. Even with the sore throat he had been battling all day Steve is a solid rider. He took off fast and started making up for the time we lost with the missed turn. He passed a rider, and another, and another. We lost count after the first 12. I saw 50 mph on the van speedometer while following him down the windmill descent and it was hard to keep our deer in the headlights. We handed him water, an assortment of Gu and bars, and a few Coca-colas while he rode like a demon with the cross wind mostly at his tail.
We agreed to meet ¼ mile from the finish with all of our bikes and ride in together, so when we were about 3 miles out David drove the van ahead to a mall near the finish and we all hopped on our bikes and waited for Steve to appear. That last ¼ mile was an all-out sprint to the end, and we crossed the finish line at 9:55am, 24 hours and 25 minutes after we started.
Team Deer in Headlights, a group of four ultra-racing rookies from San Diego, finished the Trona 353 second in our category. For three of us, it was a first race ever. For me, it was the first time supporting other riders, the first time riding with follow-vehicle support, and my first race. I learned a lot about how to provide support, rode 70 miles without stopping for more than the absolutely necessary potty break, was awarded my first medal ever at the end, and had a ton of fun.
I was extremely impressed by the quality of the people riding this event. Every rider I passed called encouragement, and I offered the same to riders I passed. Meredith used our PA system to shout out something positive to every rider we passed. The camaraderie felt more like a highly supported randonneuring event than a race, though everyone had at least one eye on the time clock. Because of the route changes, the race ended up 353 miles with a maximum of 33 hours to complete rather than 508 miles with a 48 hour limit. Our route had about 1/3 the climbing of the usual route, leaving us with a “mini” 508 experience.
The flexibility of Chris Kostner of AdvertureCORPS and my team mates made it possible for me to do the unheard of and step in at the very last minute to participate as a rider in a race I didn’t expect to even be considering before 2014.
For the last two years, while I’ve had the 508 vaguely in my sights qualifying for the event was not really on my radar. While filling out the application on Wednesday before the race, I was surprised to find that I now actually qualify to race it as a soloist. Holy cow again! Now that I’ve had a taste of the ultra-racing experience, I’m looking forward to returning in 2014. I haven’t decided whether it will be as a 2 person team or a solo rider, but I have until March to make that decision. I don’t expect to win the race, but my goal is to finish strong with whichever category I choose.
I’ve heard over and over from other riders that they wished they were fast enough to try certain events. I started as one of the slowest riders in every group, and have worked hard to pull myself up to the middle of the pack. I have been determined to prove to myself that I can finish pretty much anything I take on, even though I am one of the slower endurance riders out there. I don’t have to be fastest, just fast enough. Ultra-cycling has enriched my life in ways I could never have imagined. It has given me courage to face more demons than I realized I knew, taught me that no obstacle is too big, and introduced me to some of the most amazing athletes and human beings anywhere. I hope my experience and my writing encourages others who are towards the back of the pack to put aside the fear and excuses, set a goal, and get out and do it!