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The 508: a tour of the worst roads in the desert

Goat here, filling in for our intrepid hero, Matt, aka Desert Locust,
aka Dessert Locust. My first ever blog post, quite exciting. I imagine
I'll ruin Matt's sincere and consistent prose style, oh well.

I've always read horror stories of the 'thermonuclear headwinds' that
are said to rip through Death Valley at night. In my four years of
involvement with the 508, however, they've never materialized. The
glorious northbound tailwinds have always dissipated by the time night
has fallen, leaving fairly smooth conditions for the southerly route
through the valley itself.

Things were looking good this year. Matt's in excellent shape, and has
a lot of 508 experience now. He completed the first 200 miles in just
over 9 hours, and just outside of the top ten riders. The time, in
part, was aided by the aforementioned tailwinds.

Unfortunately, this year, the winds were here to stay. After a
refreshing break at Furnace Creek, there ensued eight hours of
gruelling slog against intense, gusty headwinds. To make matters
worse, one our crew. Had chronic, vomit-inducing car sickness. Matt
hung out in the van for a couple of rest breaks, but soldiered on
regardless. The winds eased by the time he hit the Salisbury and
Jubilee passes climb, and there was light in the sky.

Somehow in the overnight chaos I also managed to misplace one (of my
two) shoes. Oups. Should liven up the rest of the trip.

So now, here we are leapfrogging Matt across the (in my opinion)
toughest section of the 508, Shoshone to Baker.
Here, the rider has essentially thirty or forty featureless,
approximately flat miles, on a shoulderless road populated by
thundering RVs. It's a painful and lengthy trek before you reach the
quiet beauty and grandeur of the Mojave National Preserve just past
Baker, with the Kelso dunes and the Providence and Granite ranges.

To quote the closing passage from Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus":
"…we must imagine Sisyphus, happy" .

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2009 Furnace Creek 508 Solo

with reports, photos and progress through the weekend.

Well, here we go again. The Furnace Creek 508 starts tomorrow at 7am. A 508-mile race from Santa Clarita through Death Valley and Mojave to near Joshua Tree. I wrote extensively about it here (read this!), I have a 508 tab and National Geographic Adventure covered it when they called it one of the top ten toughest races in the world.

Is it October already? Despite taking part in this race the previous four years, 2005 (crew for Morgan), 2006 (fixed gear team), 2007 (hang out), 2008 (solo), it always excites. Despite a last-minute crew switch from one race veteran to another and finding tiny cracks in my Dura Ace wheels yesterday, preparation is going well. Chris and Morgan are back for another year of crewing and Max is joining us for his 5th(!) time on the course. I couldn’t be more fortunate! I have phenomenal support in these guys and in all of my friends who have helped me out leading into this weekend. Like Jack lending me his ridiculous wheels without any hesitation. Thank you all so much, I couldn’t do this without you.

You pick an animal totem that is yours for life. I’m Desert Locust:

With a minor change for this year:

Take yourself seriously, but not too seriously, right? And yes, those desserts are vegan. Though I still love dessert, I’ve managed to get my weight down 15 pounds from last year. I’m weighing in at 170, a number I haven’t seen since high school. A full 30 pounds lighter than winter Matt!

I’m looking forward to a weekend of adventure, mindfulness, solitude, beauty, struggle, fun, high highs and low lows. The desert nearly defeated me last year somewhere between Baker and Kelso, but after our training ride out there this summer and some Edward Abbey studying, I am more prepared and approaching with an open heart and mind:

“I am convinced now that the desert has no heart, that it presents a riddle that has no answer, and that the riddle itself is an illusion created by some limitation or exaggeration of the displaced human consciousness.” -Edward Abbey

He also said this, which nothing to do with bike racing, but is worth passing on:

‘Hierarchical institutions are like giant bulldozers —
obedient to the whim of any fool who takes the controls.’

I’ll do my best to send updates from the road, but cell service is limited. Thanks to everyone who has already sent kind words or vegan desserts!

Listened to 36 Chambers the whole way through this morning for Swarm!ing motivation:

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Do like the Europeans: Death Valley in the summer

After the slaycation (Mike had to be back at work Saturday evening), I met Morgan in Lone Pine and swapped my stuff from the adventure van to his rental car to head to Death Valley and beyond for some 508 training.

I got out of the car in the Panamint Valley to do the 11-mile climb up Towne Pass. The sky was ominous and the air quality low due to the fires in LA 200 miles away.

It was super fun to do the descent into Death Valley in the daylight. Though seeing my computer read 62.6 MPH did scare me a little more than I thought it would. I knew I was going fast, but seeing it register over 60 triggers your mind to display the potential dangers…Each time I would hit 60 (It’s a loooong descent) I’d sit up to slow down to a safer 50 MPH. In Stovepipe Wells this thermometer greeted us:

We camped in Furnace Creek after poaching the pool and seriously considering driving to Las Vegas to party with some friends. Up at dawn (the best time to see Death Valley, in my opinion) to drive to Shoshone so I could ride the sections that were miserable for me last year: the long, false-flat to Baker and the 23.5 mile climb out of Baker (see the entire route here).

Morgan was more than happy to do support for me, which I can’t thank him enough for. The desert and black metal? He was content to spend the day handing me cold bottles of liquid. In the 6 hours it took me to ride the 85 miles of the route in 100 degree plus weather I drank 2 gallons of liquid. Didn’t even think that was possible!

Morgan put up more of his photos here.

We drove the remainder of the route and made it to Loma Linda in time to score a giant can of my favorite vegan hot dogs for our upcoming picnic/bbq:

And with these back-to-back trips my ‘summer’ drew to a close. Yes, I live in Southern CA and am underemployed, but September in my mind always brings a new situation and a new outlook. After a slightly disappointing summer, I’m amped on making the most of Fall.

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Filed under 508, travel interview part two

I was asked to do this interview after some guys from came across the research poster I had up at registration the day before the Furnace Creek 508. This second part is more about veganism and Brian. Enjoy.

Tell us about the research you did on raw foods.
In 2006 I did the Furnace Creek 508 on a 4-person fixed gear team with some good friends. We chose Bonobo as a totem because they are egalitarian primates who eat a mostly plant-based diet. All four of us are vegan and we used the race to raise money for the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. At the time my friend and teammate, Brian Davidson, was flirting with raw foods. He ate raw for the whole race and not long after he switched to a completely raw vegan diet.

In 2007 he decided to race solo and purely out of personal interest I initiated a research project to see what his diet would look like. I trained his support team in diet record methodology and then a colleague and I ran the numbers after the race. I really did not know what to expect. He averaged 450 calories an hour! Almost as astounding his macronutrient profile was 65% carbohydrate, 25% fat and 10% protein. He ate a large variety of foods including bananas, raisins, lara bars, cashews and other nuts. We presented our poster at the 5th International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition at Loma Linda University early this year. The hypothesis was: can you get enough calories for a 508-mile race only eating raw foods? We did not do a micronutrient breakdown (this research was self-funded!), but since most fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense, I would reckon he did fine here as well.

How was his performance compared to a non-raw diet?
He is such a strong athlete and is continuously improving so I only know that eating raw is not inhibiting his progression. I hesitate to argue that veganism or raw food will make you faster or stronger, but will say that paying close attention to what you eat and focusing on whole foods cannot be detrimental. Brian is still raw and raced the 508 this year and finished in 33 hours, a 3 hour improvement from 2006. But he does not train seriously-he’ll be out till 3am on a Friday night doing a Critical Mass ride and then wake up to go on a road ride. He was asked -and accepted- to be on a raw 4-person RAAM team for 2010 with Organic Athlete. Maybe now he’ll start training seriously?

Would you recommend it?
I would recommend that everyone eat more raw fruits and vegetables. The health benefits are huge, not to mention eating lower on the food chain, taste and convenience. I hesitate to recommend eating completely raw because the evidence that this is MORE beneficial than a varied, whole food diet does not exist. There are not enough raw-foodists who have been doing it long enough to get the research done. I do recommend eating plant-based, whole foods, essentially vegan diets for the health, ethical and environmental benefits. I highly recommend Dr. Larson-Meyer’s book, Vegetarian Sports Nutrition and Organic Athlete’s Guide to Sports Nutrition (which I helped to write) as further resources.

Have you tried it?
I have been vegan for over 12 years and I do eat raw foods, but have never been completely raw. I flirt with it and have recently taken to eating raw breakfasts and huge salads for dinner. When you look closer at the produce section of a grocery store and think of fruits and vegetables as more than snacks, you see the endless possibility of combinations.

I covered this in other questions, I believe.

Thanks Jarrett for the opportunity to answer your questions. I have more stories and ramblings on my blog,

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Filed under 508, race, vegan interview part one

This is part one of an interview I did with If you like it and think others may be stoked please share it with the tool on the upper right.

Recently 30.

I’m trained as a Registered Dietitian, in other words a professional nutritionist. Currently I work under a Food-stamp grant doing nutrition education in low-income areas of Los Angeles. Am also an adjunct instructor with the LA district community colleges.

How long have you been doing ultras?
Since Fall of 2004. More or less.

What was your first one?
My first ultra was the Mt. Tam double century in 2004. I had no idea what I was getting into. I did it on 3 hours sleep, finished in 16 hours, then had to drive an hour back to a friend’s house. It was beautiful.

What got you into ultras?
Bike touring. I spent the majority of teenage years on a BMX bike riding the most difficult trails in the country. Many of my friends went on to be pro. I went to college. Not sure if I made the right decision. Filled the gap with mountain biking and then bought a $50 panasonic road bike my senior year. Rode it 150 miles through Pennsylvania to my mom’s house within a month. First lesson: cut-off shorts and no underwear is not the most comfortable choice for your crotch. The following Spring I rode cross-country from California to Pennsylvania alone (mostly). I was too cheap to pay for camping (hotels weren’t an option) so I found my own places behind trees or rocks or in public parks. Spent $5/day over two months. Would of been faster but I got hit by a car head-on outside of Flagstaff, Arizona in a surprise snow storm. Ten days off the bike mending a broken wrist and a broken bike. Insurance of the driver bought me my first ‘real’ bike: a Bianchi Axis. The next summer a friend and I rode from Los Angeles to Belize City, Belize. We went through Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guatemala, it was a phenomenal experience. With some shorter trips, including Alaska and the Great Divide, I’ve got about 10,000 bike touring miles logged.

Your hardest?
Solo Furnace Creek 508! No doubt. The desert does something to you mentally. If you don’t love it and show it respect, it will chew you up. I struggled the second day quite a bit and would not of finished if it was not for my great crew. After 37 hours I was glad to be done and did enjoy it, even with the misery. That’s partly why I am out there. I love the highs and lows.

Paris-Brest-Paris in 2007 was definitely the longest. Does that count as an ultra? I wasn’t competing, I just thought it would be a fun way to experience France. It’s part Critical Mass, part bike tour, part cultural submersion. I went with the night start and rode with various groups over the next 26 hours. In Carhaix I found a cot in a gym to sleep on. ‘When do you want us to wake you up?’ In 8 hours, I replied to their confusion. I figured it would be more fun and easier if I slept a full night. Did the same the next night. Finished in 77 hours, if I remember correctly. Two weeks previous I had done my first iron-distance triathlon on a course in Norway they call the world’s hardest, the Norseman. I was nervous because it was especially cold. They had to move the swim away from the glacier run-off in the fjord. You actually had to get out of the water half-way through so they could check you for hypothermia. The bike was 126 miles and the marathon ends up a mountain. I finished near the back and the organizers were always tremendously supportive. They let us sleep in the gym (is there a theme here?) in the days leading up to the race and cook in the kitchen of a school to save money.

Recommendations for new athletes?
It is difficult for me to answer this because I struggle to call myself an athlete. I’d say keep it fun! Don’t take yourself too seriously. I like to do athletic events because they are an adventure and the process adds to my life experience. When I lose sight of this it becomes like a job and significantly less fun. To me swimming in a fjord in Norway, riding my bike through traffic in LA, mountain biking fantastic technical single track or running up a mountain near my house are all worthy experiences in their own right regardless of the end goal. Each give me that jolt of excitement that I don’t think enough of us get in our daily lives.

Food and hydration during events?
Even though my expertise is in nutrition, I still have to work very hard to get my food and hydration sorted out. The more I’ve trained and at times when I am most fit I am able to eat less while riding without compromising my performance. It has taken me years of paying close attention to my body to know how far I can push and when I need to eat and drink. I try to average about 200 calories an hour and focus, when possible, on eating fruits and whole foods. On doubles and really tough centuries I do use gels and the liquid foods with definite success.

What’s your training like?
Oh how my training varies. I am definitely on the low-end of hours and miles compared to others. Especially running. It is a struggle for me to run more than twice a week, which is something I need to change if I want to get my marathon time under four hours. I do a lot of core work, including pilates. I also live in Los Angeles without a car, so riding to the grocery store and carrying 20 pounds of groceries home on my fixed gear definitely helps.

Favorite event?
So hard to say! My first mountain bike race ever was this year, the Shenandoah 100. It was freakin awesome. A party the whole time, with a 100 miles of amazing terrain and great single-track in the middle. I raced rigid single-speed and came in just under 11 hours. A great way to spend the day. I also did Vineman, the ‘people’s iron-man’, this year in Sonoma Country. Very well supported, lots of veg food and an emphasis on minimal impact: they washed and reused water bottles and even composted fruit scraps.

Why ultras?
I like the commitment. I don’t want to spend more time traveling to an event than I do participating in it! That space in time after the initial adrenalin wears out is where you learn the most about yourself and the world. I’ve experienced clarity like no other on really long bike events. This is cliche, but it takes you away from mundane, normal life with the hassles of bills to be paid, reports to be filed, calls to answer, etc. In a way it is very primal and aligns us with what our ancestors were forced to do to make it through life. I think we all need to remember this. I do my best to promote ultra events so others can get out of the work-buy stuff-watch tv-sleep-repeat routine and experience what we are capable of experiencing, for good and for bad.

Long term goals in the sport?
Tough one. I take it year by year. I like this mountain biking thing so I want to do a 24-hour race next year. The courses seem so boring though. Maybe race the Great Divide? I am not sure. I hope no one who reads this holds me to that!


Filed under 508, brevet, double, off-road, triathlon, vegan

Morgan’s view from the crew

Thanks for writing this Morgan and for taking such amazing photos!

Sometimes one feels the pull to burn through the fabric of everyday life into the deeper, visceral reality concealed below. A few days ago, a group of four of us experienced just that.

The Furnace Creek 508, a ultradistance cycle race through the Californian desert, has become somewhat a legend, and more recently a fixture, amongst our group of friends. The route describes an inverted “V”, starting in the south-west just above Los Angeles, wending through the desert to it’s most northerly point around Townes Pass into Death Valley, then heading south to Twentynine Palms near Joshua Tree National Park. Prior to this year, two of us had ridden the full 508 miles ride solo, four had ridden it as a relay team together, and one was forced to abandon a solo attempt due to a knee injury.

This year it was long-time friend Matt’s turn. This journey through the desert is to be completed over two days and two nights; three of us would be there to travel with him, providing sustenance and support. Setting off just after sunrise, Matt climbed in the midst of a caravan of cyclists through the southern Californian mountains into the clouds. Thick damp fog made it hard for us to see him approaching as we stood waiting to pass off bottles of water, peeled bananas and energy bars.

Gusting winds encouraged us through the desert, past dry salt lakes, disused airplanes, huge wind turbines, endless straight roads and expansive desert planes. Distant glimpses of the high Sierra Nevada in the distance excited.

As the sun set, the climb up the mythical Townes Pass was surrounded by raw blue skies and long shadows. Townes Pass is the gateway to death valley, and it was there that one of the three-strong support crew succumbed to travel sickness and, after almost three hours of nausea and vomiting, was forced to abandon ship for the night. He hitched a ride with race staff at an oasis of light in the depths of the darkness of the valley, Furnace Creek.

The night’s journey truly began shortly afterwards. Now there were only three of us. At night, the race rules direct support crews to follow immediately behind their riders, illuminating the way with their car headlights and shielding the rider from any oncoming traffic in the desert. The two of us in the car where in a hypnotic, focused world of admiration and logistics; Matt was meanwhile cycling in a world of suffering, yearning and anticipation. At least that’s how it seemed – our worlds only touched occasionally, and briefly.

Those worlds dissipated with the sunrise. We stopped briefly for Matt to sleep for fifteen minutes; I’d slept sporadically throughout the night so stayed awake to watch the sunrise. Fifteen minutes was quickly over. We were back in southern California and heading towards Baker where the route crosses the I-15 between Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

The second day saw Matt trawling through darker times. Endless, horizonless climbs past lava flows and cinder cones with a scorching sun above took it’s toll, exacerbated by an injury and an otherworldly, sleep-deprived state. We stopped to cool Matt and to talk to him once, but for the most part Matt pressed on doggedly.

The final climb was shorter than we’d all remembered it and we saw Matt power up the hill. Curiously, this had been a pattern over that second day: renewed energy when confronted with a challenge. Matt maintained this energy through the final near-suburban desert stretch into Twentynine Palms, city of murals and naval hairdressers.

A few days later, thinking back, I recall how the night made my thoughts coherent, and brought to mind the final sentences of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart”, writes Camus. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


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