Saturday, October 11, 2008

Furnace Creek 508 2008: 509 miles 35,000 feet of climbing in 37 hours 43 minutes and 12 seconds

As Seen by the Racer-Raven

Furnace Creek is a 508 mile non-stop ultramarathon bicycle race from Santa Clarita, CA to Twenty-Nine Palms, CA by way of Death Valley and the Mojave Desert. The race is put on by AdventureCorps, the same people who put on the infamous Badwater 135, a 135 mile running race over the same course during the 3rd week of July. The 508 has been held for 34 years, the last 25 on the current course that features 35,000 feet of climbing, sandstorms, high winds, blistering heat in the daytime and bone-chilling cold descents between 1 and 4 am.

Racers are not given numbers in the 508. They are given unique lifetime animal totems, usually descriptive of their appearance or their name. Since my last name is Rieper I was given the Raven totem the first year I raced Furnace Creek in 1999. We have raced under the moniker Grim Rieper and the Raven since that time because my sometimes grim brother Jerry has often joined me as my crew chief.

Left to Right Crew Chief Jerry Rieper, Raven(s) and Dr Tom Dougherty

When the racer arrives at one of the 8 time stations on the course he/she is required to yell out their totem name; if you give your regular name no one responds to acknowledge you. As a result, pace vans are decorated in accordance with one's totem and mascots symbolic of the totem are everywhere.

In passing a racer one always says something like "Raven passing Horned Toad". It's a courtesy thing. This year we introduced a new 16 inch stuffed Raven hand puppet to our crew. His saga is depicted in yesterday's journal below.

This year was the 25th anniversary on the current course so entry was pretty much by invitation only. This resulted in a super fast group of racers; probably the best in course history.

The course starts with a climb out of the San Francisquito Canyon. This year the last 8 miles of the climb and into the descent featured a thick fog that made seeing the road sometimes impossible. Normally I use an aeroshield to protect my contact lenses and to keep bugs off my face. I had to remove this in the Canyon after it got fogged up in the fog. Racers rode unsupported for the first 24 miles with their crews waiting for them in the fog at the exit from the canyon.

Once out of the canyon the road flattened out and a strong tailwind with gusts well over 30 mph pushed the riders towards the first time station 85 miles from the start in California City. Occasionally the road would turn and the riders would lean into strong crosswinds that pushed some of the time trial bikes with disk wheels to the edge of staying vertical.

About 55 miles into the first leg racers climb up to what is known as windmill climb. It's a long 10 mile climb up to a windmill farm. They put the windmills at the top of this climb for a reason; it's always windy. On this day it was pretty much a consistent head to head-crosswind force of about 20-25 mph. But at least it was scenic.

Shortly after chasing windmills we hit about 10 miles of really bad sand storms going into the first time station at California City. The landscape looked like a swirling cloud of sand with the road hard to pick out at times. The sand was flying from winds in excess of 50 mph as a crosswind. It felt like someone taking sandpaper against the skin. I was glad I had decided to wear only 1 contact lense and that eye was shut most of the time through the storms. I had brought a pair of swim googles and a mask for just such conditions but did not want to stop to put them on. This was probably a mistake. I spent the next 2 hours spitting sand out of my mouth.

Riders in the Storm of Sand outside of TS #1

The Racer-Raven riding a Time-Trial bike into 30 mph crosswinds

Race rules dictate that your support pacer van can not follow behind the racer for the first 11 hours of the race. Crew tries to stay behind the racer so that if the racer flats out during this time the crew can quickly change the wheel and minimize downtime. I flatted , for example, at mile 70 and had the crew change wheels in under 3 minutes. I had gotten lucky; they were not far behind me. Our original plan was to use 2 Garmin Rhino 120s with voice activated headsets. It proved way to windy to make this practical. So the crew continually drove in front of me a mile or so, waited for me to pass then tacked on the time it took for me to go 3-4 miles and finally leapfrogged ahead of me.

Race rules also dictate that the pace van can not hand off feedings to the racer from the van the first 11 hours of the race. Instead crewbies run along the road holding a bottle up so that the racer can grab it at 18-25 mph as the racer goes by. Usually the crew does this on an incline where the Raven slows down from natural causes.

Crew Chief Jerry handing off a zip lock bag of grapes

After the first 4 hours the mass start of 81 solo riders got pretty spread out. It was not uncommon for the Raven to not see another racer or support van for 15-20 minutes at a time. In the middle of the desert the mind starts to become paranoid and suspicions arise that perhaps one had made a wrong turn, even though there were no other roads to miss for hundreds of miles. Remembering this paranoia from past FC 508s I had brought a Garmin 705 with me. On it I had downloaded a recorded history from last years race off of and converted that racers performance into a course for the race. Thus, I had directly in front of me a digital map with the course in a pink line on my handlebars. The device would tell me when I was off course; even if I just went 50 feet off route to a restroom at a gas station. Pretty cool! And oh so reassuring.

The 705 on my handlebars before the race showing I'm 96 feet from the start line

Note: that it says I was actually going to race 511 miles and would have to do it in 32:58 if I was to beat the performance I downloaded from MotionBased

As someone who has a long history of missing turns, I once went 16 miles off course in Burley, ID during the Race Across America, I have nothing but kudos to Garmin for inventing the 705. Not only did it keep me on course and reduce stress but it gave me incredible feedback on my performance and what lie ahead. During the 12 mile climb up Towne's Pass, for example, I was able to count off each 1,000 feet of the 5,000 foot ascent by looking at the ascent recording on the 705 as well as the %grade readout. This feedback helped me immensely up the climb. When I passed Buzzard halfway up the climb my Italian friend who I was passing asked me how much was left. I boldly cawed out 2,500 feet of ascent and 6 miles. Luigi was impressed when I told him to "Get a Garmin".

My original goal was to get to the base of Towne's Pass by dark so I would not have to do the descent in the dark. The 17 mile descent is normally carried out at speeds up to 55 mph but can reach 70 in daylight. I did it in total blackness at around 50 mph according to the 705. And it was cold. I found myself shaking from the cold so bad it was hard to control the bike. I pinned my knees against the top tube the entire way down to stabilize the bike and control the shaking. One of the guys in the recumbent division had an extremely low riding bent that surely passed me at speeds approaching 70 mph in the dark of the Towne's Pass descent. I dont understand how he could see through his feet well enough to navigate his way down the slope but he did.

Once down Towne's Pass we were in Death Valley with nice temps and good flatland for recovery from the horrific 12 mile climb and chilly descent. Amazingly it was raining; in Death Valley. Didnt think that ever happened.

Recovering in the dark of Death Valley: notice the wet pavement

At the 14:58 minute mark of the race we got to the halfway point at the time station in Furnace Creek. My 705 showed I had averaged 17.5 with 19,000 feet of climbing under my belt. I was feeling pretty good and my crew expressed awe that I had gone that fast. I was not so confident; I knew what lie ahead.

The road to Badwater from Furnace Creek is a long, dark, lonely somewhat bumpy ride. You are descending slowly to about 300 feet below sea level somewhere near Badwater. It smells like sulfur and has the appearance of nowhere you want to be alone; especially at night. I dont recall see any other rider or vehicle during that entire 40 mile stretch; it was like a black hole with a bumpy road on the top.

Shortly after leaving the Time Station at Furnace Creek I turned on my MP3 player for the first time and listened to some of the 10 hours of Napster rental music I had downloaded especially for this trip. Before Death Valley the 12 hours of wind blasting in my ear had made listening to anything other than the roar of the wind impossible. I settled into the ride listening to Mellancamp, Springsteen, Creed, Coldplay and assorted other eclectic bicycle tunes. Life was good again.

About 2 am we started our ascent out of the valley by way of a 12 mile climb up Jubilee Pass. This pass features a lot of 8% grade mileage with a minimum of 3% for the rest. At 2 in the morning it's not much fun. After a 1 mile descent we then started a 20 mile ascent up Salisbury Pass. This is not as steep with nothing over 5% but it is non-stop, it is late and I was tired.

At the top I dressed a bit warmer and started a long descent into the time station in Soshone. It was way too cold and I almost lost the bike from the cold-shaking. And it made me sleepy. This was the sole point in the race where I felt I was losing control. Getting to the bottom around 4:30 am I had to get into the van for the first time to warm up and get 5 minutes of power sleep before continuing. This was the only point in the race where I thought of quitting. My back was hurting from the cold and the fact that I had positioned my saddle too low. I didnt see how I would make it over all the climbing and heat I knew was up ahead.

I have this rule learned the hard way that one never drops out of an event on a climb. You drop out when conditions are good. In 2001 I dropped out of solo RAAM at the 1328 mile mark just 1 mile from Leadville, CO after climbing Tennessee Pass. Reflecting back on that decision or lack of committment I realized that I had done all 100,000 + feet of climbing on the course and in front of me lie downhills and flatland till the finish line. If I had just done the one more mile of climbing I would have gotten recovery and a change of attitude. With that reminder in my thoughts I had made it over the climbs and was now on flatland till way past Baker. But I hurt and I was cold and sleepy; I wanted to quit.

This is where a crew goes to work and makes or breaks your race. Their is an old adage in ultracycling that says that a crew can not win a race but they sure can lose it. My crews over the years have never lost a race. Dr Tom Dougherty who has crewed for me on Race Across America and my brother Jerry who has been my crew chief in just about all my races are as experienced and gifted crewbies as you would find on the race. Jerry knew just how to handle me to get me back on the bike in minimal downtime. Having been a crew-chief myself numerous times on RAAM and at Furnace Creek I know it is not an easy task to coach an irrational, sleep-deprived, exhausted back on the bike to do another 200 miles and 18,000 feet of climbing. I always think of friend Mark Patten quitting the Race Across America only 120 miles from the finish line in Georgia while in 5th place and nothing but flatland and a tailwind between him and the finish. Yet 6 hours and calls to all of his friends and families could not get him back on the bike nor to anywhere but returning to his home in California. I am always grateful 5 minutes after returning to the bike for the crew that I have selected to teamwork with me.

Jerry coaching me back onto the bike at the bottom of SalisburyPass

The road from the time station in Soshone to the time station in Baker is pretty uneventful and a good source of recovery from the climbs and the cold. Daybreak happened and this is about the time the racer thinks he is going to make it. I suspect that the finish rate for those who make it this far is pretty high

Raven-Racer riding the Road to Baker just after daybreak

Raven-Racer just before the time station in Baker

The morning of the 2nd day, just before Baker, is when I have always started to be concerned about being calorically-challenged. A racer in this event will burn a solid 600 calories an hour for however long it takes to complete the race. In the past I have lost as much as 12 pounds at the FC 508, much of it water depletion but a good deal of pure calorie loss. With the level of exertion being put out it has always been impossible for me to eat solid foods. Thus, I rely on a liquid powder called Perpeteum, lots of fruit, Pedialyte for sodium and lots and lots of fruits and avocados. I also take an occasional can of Slimfast which seems like a contradiction till you see the calorie count on the can. It's always easy to spot the rookies in this race as they are the ones on the side of the highway losing their solid foods ingested earlier.

Another crew chief told Jerry that his rider had consumed 75 bottles of Starbucks coffee with heavy cream by mile 300. He had depleted the supply and wanted the crew to find more. Right... Starbucks in the middle of the Mojave Desert. This racer would later crash, on which I will report later.

After Baker my crew decided it was time to start having some fun to bring the other racers back to alertness. The road out of Baker at to the time Station in Kelso features two long climbs of 20 and 24 miles. Nothing spectacular, just long, unrelenting climbs of 2-5% grades. This was the hottest leg of the race with temps at 85 degrees, relatively calm by past standards. Tom and Jerry would position themselves near the top of the long climbs and dressed in Grim Rieper costumes they would greet the racers with "Welcome... we've been waiting for you".

The Grim Riepers Greeting the Racers in the Heat of the Climb

The time station in Kelso was nothing more than an old train station manned by a couple of volunteers who liked the desert. By this point in the race I was pretty ripe so I changed attire and prepped for the final 125 miles.

Proud of the company I work for and the products we produce I wanted to finish in Corporateness

Shortly after changing I started a 23 mile descent at 40 mph into the time station at Amboy. As I rounded a curve I saw crew Chief Jerry in the road motioning me to stop. A rider was down just in front of Jerry and Doc Dougherty, a good old Kansas country doctor who has spent time as a sports doctor at Emory University, was attending to him. Apparently the racer had squeezed the brakes too hard at 41 mph and had flown off the front of the bike according to his crew chief who witnessed the whole thing. We were in the middle of nowhere desert and the crew chief was having a hard time telling 911 how to find us.

Seeing that there was nothing for me to add to the situation I told Dr Tom to take as long as he needed and that I would make it to the finish line somehow on my own. Jerry needed to stay and redirect traffic away from the downed racer whom they were afraid to move because of probable spinal injury. Tom and Jerry stayed for 2.5 hours waiting for a helicopter to evacuate the racer to Las Vegas where he was later determined to have a neck broken in 3 places, a fractured clavicle and a severe concussion. I like to think Dr Tom saved him from having it be worse.

In the meantime I rode to Amboy and then halfway to the remaining finish line distance unsupported in the 85 degree temps. I stopped once and got water from another crew stopped along the road. About 5:30 I started to get worried since race rules state that you can not ride alone after 6 pm. I negotiated with another crew on the side of the road to double up on the afterhours support should my crew not make it back to me. The rules dont preclude this but they also do not include it. RAAM, however, allows this and my crew in past RAAMs has supported another rider while supporting me. I had a good case.

Fortuanately at 5:45 my crew reappeared behind me and we slugged it into Twenty-Nine Palms. As indicated the race has been ending here for 25 years. The residents appear to appreciate the race; during the final four miles in Twenty-Nine Palms cars were honking, stopping for people to get out and cheer and pedestrians were going nuts on the sidewalks everytime a racer appeared. This was fantastic and meant an easy extra 5 mph on the racers speed.

Just before the turn in at the finish line the crew passed me our mascot, Ralph the Raven, and we rode in with Ralphie suspended on my aerobars. Our finishing time was 37 hours 43 minutes and 12 seconds, good enough for 33 rd place amoung 81 solo entrants.

This was my best time of the 3 times I have raced the 508 and at 59 will probably remain my best time. I would later learn that 85% of the soloists would finish the race. This is way up from the normal 55-60% finish rate. The explanation is that the roster had been handpicked for finishability. It worked and you could tell the race director was very happy with the results.

To my crew I say Thank You! You were your customary stupendous selves. I know the other racers appreciated your antics and attempts to bring reality back to a difficult race. I've done Race Across America multiple times, I've done 22 marathons and I've done Ironman. Mile for Mile this is the toughest event available and it is not doable without a crew that works together as a cohesive unit anticipating every crisis and offering a solution to every problem under the worst conditions. You are the best and you do it with a laugh and good cheer that is just not replaceable. My lifelong appreciation is extended to the both of you.

At the Finish Line with Ralphie

Links to more photos: 1 2 3

Link to race website: the 508

Link to Garmin Connect 705 performance 1st 259 miles

Link to Garmin Connect 705 performance last 169 miles

Furnace Creek 508
As seen by Ralph the Raven

Ralph with the other Raven-imposter and crew
Ralph with crew chief testing out the aerodynamics of the time trial helmet
Ralph trying to line up some corporate sponsorship for next year
Ralph with crew chief asking for a chance to ride
Ralph on the Hood catching some rays and waiting for the Raven-Racer to pass
Ralph checking out the trees in the Mojave Desert
Ralph handing off a feeding to the Raven-Racer
Ralph pacing the desert floor waiting for the Raven-Racer
Ralph going undercover to intercept race strategy from passing crews
Ralph on stilts disguised as a Stork to go undercover
Ralph undercover as Road Kill to spy on other crews
Ralph playing with a cloth snake
An exhausted Ralph taking a nap in the Mojave Desert

Ralph spooking some of the other racers with a friend he met in Death Valley

Ralph and the Grim Rieper welcoming racers out of Death Valley

Ralph on the front of the bike leading the charge across the finish line