In 2005 Megan, Max and myself crewed for Morgan ‘Goat’ Beeby’s solo Furnace Creek 508. Crewing requires feeding the rider and, at night, following behind him in the support vehicle.
We kept track of his caloric/water intake and motivated him along the way. He slept little and we barely slept any more (except for Max who earned the Adventure Snore award). Some time during those 41 hours from Santa Clarita to Twenty Palms, via Death Valley, we came up with the idea to ride the 2006 race as a 4-person relay. Fixed-gear. And it really happened. Morgan could not ride because of his car-induced injury in May so Brian Davidson became our fourth rider. The following is my account from the long weekend.
The 508 is a non-stop bicycle race from Santa Clarita, CA to Twenty Palms, CA (on the northern border of Joshua Tree National Park) via Death Valley put on by Adventure Corps. ‘Non-stop’ means that the clock never stops running. Can you sleep? Yes, but at the expense of your time. For relay teams there is always someone riding. The route is broken down into 8 stages and each team member rides two stages in the pre-determined A-B-C-D-A-B-C-D order. The other three are crewing for the current rider and preparing to ride or resting post-ride. Five different riders have completed the race solo on fixed-gears, but no relay team has ever ridden fixed. Finishing guaranteed us the course record! Lastly, an important part of the race is the ‘totem’. No boring numbers: each person or team gets to choose an animal (loosely defined) and it’s assigned for life. Morgan ‘Goat’ Beeby, and only him, will be ‘Goat’ whenever he races again. The totem must be displayed on all four sides of the support vehicle; looking at people’s creative totems entertained us throughout the race.
The most difficult pre-race aspect was picking a totem. We couldn’t decide between Tofu Antelope (from the Far Side cartoon) or Bonobo (the chimpanzee species famous for it’s egalitarian and sexual promiscuous lifestyle). Which would be funnier? We chose bonobo and then took it a step further and used the race as a fundraiser for bonobo conservation. ‘Los Angeles vegan bike kids race across death valley on fixed-gear bikes to raise money for endangered bonobos’ sounded like an LA Times worthy headline to us.
Did we train much? Well, I rode 2200 miles on the Great Divide trail on a cyclocross bike (see previous posts and Steevo’s blog), Megan became a messenger and road the track at night, Max road his tall bike around a bunch and Brian just did everything he does, which includes running, riding and swimming, at 110%. So, sort of, in our own way.
Our rad friends came through: Vmaas made us a logo and did layout for our fundraising postcards, Alec made us cycling caps and a screen for t-shirts, Jen Diamond made us jerseys, Orange 20 sponsored us and numerous others helped us with logistics. Eleven days after getting back from my Great Divide trip we were loading up Max’s mom’s van and heading to Santa Clarita.
Friday October 6th
‘I thought you had the cooler?’ ‘I thought you had it!’…etc, etc. What else would you expect? Finally we are on our way to the check-in hotel. Megan’s friend Sasha and three of her classmates are making a documentary about us and are around all day filming us. Just what we need: A camera in our face egging us on to be more obnoxious. We check in and tell Chris Kostman that we are using a banana as our baton. ‘Yeah, it’ll make it 36 hours in our jersey pockets. Of course.’ Morgan is helping with the webcast and interviews us. Mostly we mumble jibberish that is only funny to us. We get some good points in about our team being vegan. Later we play foot-down in the parking lot. Max and I skip most of the pre-race meeting to get tamales for everyone. We make it back in time to be on stage with all the racers. Amazing! My main thought is: At least I’m not riding solo.
Brian tells us he is not feeling well. Uh-oh. Brian is one of the most resilient, disciplined athletes I know. Sure, I don’t know many athletes, but he would top most people’s list. He’s the type of person you just expect to never get tired or to slow down. Him being sick was scary. We got some water into him and he went straight to bed. While Morgan and our friend Chris Cheung finished editing the sound files for Adventure Corps the rest of us crashed out in their hotel room.
After the alarm goes off at 630am we savor the last couple minutes of comfort. We know that we won’t be sleeping much over the next two days. A few of us head downstairs to watch the solo racers’ start. We wish Emily Archaeopteryx O’Brien, the only woman to do 508 on fixed, a great race. We get back, wake everyone up, get Megan sorted and load the minivan. Brian is feeling better! All of us are nervous as Megan sits on her bike with the other teams’ first riders. The race starts with a huge climb out of the valley; we know that Megan will not be off to a fast start riding fixed. The remaining three of us head to mile 24, the first point where we can assist our rider.
Last year at this point we waited while almost every other team helped their rider and drove off. Where was Morgan? Him and a couple of others made a wrong turn and went 7 miles out of the way. Megan stayed on course and was looking strong as she rode by. We passed her some fresh water bottles. The first leg is a tough 80 miles. We leap frog her a couple of times and before I know it, and before I am ready, we are in California City, the first time station. This is where Megan passes the baton (our banana!) to me.
My friend Catra, whom I met when she was crewing in Badwater, is there crewing for the same woman, Linda McFadden. Yep, Linda ran the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon and is now attempting the 508. Chris Kostman (Adventure Corps director) and part of our film crew is there as well. That would be fun and all if it weren’t for my nervousness. Not sure why I am so nervous. Probably the realization of how little I have trained on my fixed gear. Or the pressure of being on a team. After hanging out about ten minutes we see Megan coming. I trackstand in the street and she rolls up and passes the banana. I take off. Definitely faster than I should be going. Soon Chris rolls up in a car and starts filming me. I continue to push. He shoots some pics and is off.
When the climbing to Randsburg starts I am ready for it. Glad to be out of the saddle and climbing. Since I do not have a cyclocomputer on my fixed I do not know my speed or how far I’ve ridden. Megan and I talked later about how this may have been beneficial. I’m still not sure. Soon I am passing people. Some solo riders and some teams. As the 7-mile climb gets steeper I gain on more riders. I’m not a particularly strong climber, but the gear I chose to run is hard. This means I can go faster on the flats and spin less on the downhills, but have to push harder on the climbs to keep the pedals turning. When I hit my first fast descent I realize I made the right decision. Struggling uphill is absolutely worth the price of a slightly lower RPM coming down. The downhills are real challenging. On some occasions the rider I passed going up would pass me going down. 30 MPH on a fixed for any extended period = not fun.
My goal was to reach Trona, the second time station, before 6pm. ‘Night’ starts officially at 6pm and the support vehicle must follow behind the rider. I came up about 30 minutes short, despite my pace of 17.75 MPH for the 70-mile section (the fastest team rode the section in 3.5 hours, 20 MPH).
Max hops on his bike and we are off right behind him. This is one of the best sections of the whole course. You ride out of Trona, past the church with no windows, climb out of the Searles Valley and into the Panamint Valley. From here you ride across the valley and can see, way off in the distance, Townes Pass. It is a monster of a climb: 13 miles with 3800 feet of climbing and sections at 10-13% grade. Max’s bike is geared for the climb so his flat speed is limited. Finally we reach the turn and start climbing. Metal is blaring on the roof speakers and Max starts picking up the pace. It’s phenomenal to watch him passing people like they are standing still. Some people see him, step on it, but can’t hold his pace. At some points he can barely turn the pedals, but he pushes on. At the top we dress him in warm clothes for the 17-mile descent. It’s brutal to watch him spinning away for so long. Other, coasting, cyclists pass us. Eventually we hit Stovepipe Wells and then Furnace Creek and the end of his 100-mile stage.
Getting Brian out of the van and on to his bike was a relief. The kid had been in the van, watching us ride, for 17 hours before he got on his bike for the first time at 2am. All that stored
energy came gushing out. I’m pretty sure he sprinted the entire 74 miles. On Jubilee and Salsberry Pass (15 miles of combined climbing) he went faster. We counted something like 14 people passed in 3 hours. There was one short period where I was driving and handing him his bottles while Megan and Max napped. The sun started to come up as he descended out of Death Valley into Shoshone.
Megan is back on the bike and we have to follow behind till 7am. Then we start leap frogging. Her knees are bothering her, but that doesn’t stop her from holding a strong pace on a tough section. The road quality here on out is very poor. We leave her early so I can get to Baker and get ready. Here the time station volunteer tells us how much he admires bonobos. Very quotable stuff like:
‘The christian right wants to keep bonobos from having fun’
‘I wish I could live the life of a bonobo for a day’.
The bonobo totem has fulfilled our goal of being funny and an opportunity for jokes. It started early on Saturday when we ran into Team Swallow, a team of four female, super friendly, triathletes. ‘Do you think they know their totem is funny?’ They have to!’ When we were both waiting for our first rider I asked them which totem would be the butt of more sexual jokes. They said when they picked up their jerseys and got a look from the guy they said ‘Yeah, it can be a noun and a verb’. The guy’s response: ‘It can be a noun?’ Very funny stuff. Throughout the race they cheered us on and we all made pointed jokes (Props to them for later posting to their triathlon list about our fundraising efforts). Good times.
I’m back on the bike straight into a boring 20-mile gradual climb through the Mojave Desert National Preserve. The reality of having not slept for over 24 hours hits me pretty hard. The team rolls up and I tell them there is something wrong with my bike. ‘It’s not fast!’ The road is empty and I don’t see anyone except the one solo male on fixed. Damn we didn’t pass him till 400 miles in! As I roll towards the Kelso time station I see a line of cars. A train is stopped on the tracks and we can’t get across. I hang out at the van and we eat Molly’s crazy chocolate raspberry blondie bars till the train leaves and I can pass the browning banana to Max.
Max’s section is a lot like mine. One big up and a big down over 35 miles. We do some math and realize that we could finish before ‘dark’, 6pm, if we held a good pace. Even with the 30-minute train delay this still looks hopeful. Max turns it out and at the final checkpoint he passes the banana to Brian for his last stage. Traffic picks up as we get closer to Twenty Palms. Tons of dickwads pulling trailers of 4-wheelers in their big trucks at 80 MPH. We stay behind Brian and he pushes along as if he’s fully rested.
He passes some more riders, but one in particular does not look happy about it. Team Swamp Rat has 4 bikes for 2 people, each one worth more than all of our bikes put together. The dude is on his aero bars with zipp wheels and, about 5 miles from the end, pushes up and past Brian. It’s on. Then he runs two stop signs! We, by no means, are purists about stopping at stop signs, but it is an official rule of the race. Adventure Corps could lose permits if riders are caught blowing stop signs. The worst part is that he did it to pass Brian.
So Brian catches him again. About two miles away Brian rolls up to a red light right behind the guy. So he runs it! What a chump! We ‘boo’ his team and are astonished he wouldn’t sprint finish verse someone on a single speed. So Brian catches him for a third time. We pull ahead so we can be at the finish and, in our rearview, see Brian pull into the wrong hotel! The mileage was just off and he thought he was at the finish. Then he pops back out and catches the guy AGAIN. Amazingly they pull into the finishing hotel together and climactically Brian slides out in some water and the swamp rat pulls ahead and beats him. Brian was alright and we walked him across the finish. Did swamp rat come over and congratulate us or see if Brian was okay? Nope. Total suckas.
Chris awards our medals and takes our pic at the finish. We are elated on our 32 hour 23 minute time. Hours faster than anticipated. We ceremoniously ate the baton banana. Alec and
Jenny (Brian’s wife) are there as are Morgan, Chris and Sasha. We take some more pics and head over to our hotel (thanks Jenny!). Some more antics, food and filming and then back over to the finish to hang out. Watching solo riders finish is a beautiful thing. It goes way beyond physical aptitude; it’s a mental and spiritual adventure that is unimaginable. We start to talk about next year. Who is going to ride solo? Could our crew put together a strong female team? Around 1030pm we call it a night. After 40 hours without sleep I’m ready. Well, after a second dinner (burritos!) of course.
Working on a team and riding 508 miles in less than two days was fantastic. We have such a tight bond. Again and again I say that the bike is merely a medium to experience the world and to enjoy life with your closest friends. That, and a reason to eat a lot. Thank you to everyone who was a part of our adventure. Thanks to Chris Kostman and Jenny Davidson for the pictures.
We have raised over $1200 for the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, but are still thousands short of our goal of $5000. The money is going towards sending bikes to the Congo for a sustainable transportation infrastructure. Please log in and donate! Mention the Furnace Creek 508.