2000 Furnace Creek 508

Musings of the Penguin

After my personal worst in 1998 and unable to race due to other commitments in 1999, I set my sights on breaking the 50 plus record of 31:07. Training on the Furnace Creek course, I realized how difficult this was going to be. It is so convenient to trade speed for endurance, while training for events such as RAAM, working hard and having other (family) commitments.

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Thatís how I found myself at the start of my 5th 508. Eric Ostendorff and John Gower (former Team "Penguin" members and good friends), my wife Linda and my son Michael were ready to get me to the finish. The largest field ever, filled with fast RAAM veterans such as Kaname Sakurai, Fabio Biasiolo and Andrew Bohannan. Crewing for Danny Chew in RAAM 2000, I was impressed with Fabioís strength and speed. Kaname Sakurai has an incredible capacity for suffering. I passed him in RAAM 1997, when he was forced to slow down by his inability to keep his head up, AKA "Shermer" neck. Despite his neck brace and upright position, it was still hard to beat him to Savannah.

John Williams (Warthog) was going to be my main 50+ competition. I first met John at the 1996 Hemet Double Century, he was riding so strong that only a broken chain kept him from 1st place. John finished RAAM 2000 as part of the tricycle team. The night before the race, he warned me that he had fully recovered, was strong and ready to put the hurt on me.

The moment we can start racing, John takes off like he is riding a 15-minute time trial! Good for him, he will probably go to ground somewhere in Death Valley. A bunch of other riders pass me by, but since they are not in my age group I don't care. Itís interesting to see Sakurai stay in the aero bars on the climbs and even over the smaller bumps. His butt surely must be more calloused than mine. Next up, Fabio, he is like Arnold Schwartzenegger on wheels. The other Italian, Nico (Dragon Fly), has a completely different riding style: staying out of the saddle most of the time, slowing down, speeding up etc. I am surprised to see my crew doing the handoffs to him. He either lost his crew or they have not caught on that without them the Dragon Fly is not going to go very far.

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This race is going very different for me as compared to my first two in 1996 and 1997. My heart rate is much lower, between 120 and 150 and I am also a bit slower. But at least to the Tehachapi summit, I am still on a record breaking pace, only 17 minutes slower than in 1996. But than the headwinds strike on the descent and continue throughout the rest of the race. A couple of dogs chase me, just after Ave D. But previous races and training rides have us prepared for this: the van was ready to chase them off. Will these people ever learn to keep those damn dogs tied up!?

Passing Time station One, I am way below a record setting pace. Finally Warthog changes his strategy. He is going to stay back and let me set the pace. Now I am getting worried, I know John is very strong and can easily out sprint me near the finish. I pick up the pace on the rollers towards the climb to Randsburg, succeeding to put some distance between us. At 1:10 PM we reach the climb to Randsburg, I know barring some incredible tailwinds, I can forget setting a new record. I am surprised that I have not caught up to the tandem with Mike Mosely and Cindy Staiger, they and the other tandem, however are riding a terrific race. No doubt they are being helped by the headwinds.

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I am still riding the Merlin. The roads have gotten a lot rougher over the years and I am having a hard time being comfortable. Trona Road used to have a smooth and beautifully red surface, now it has New York style potholes and bone charring and butt bruising tar strips. Finally I can not stand it any longer and at the summit I change to the Otis Guy Softride with handlebar suspension. Since this is my first time off the bike, I take the opportunity to finally relieve myself and to slap on more ChamoisButrr  "Great Balls of Fire!" We zip down the long descent towards the railroad crossing. After a few more "speed bumps" we finally make the descent to Hwy 178, damn that headwind. The headwind is mild but steady, just enough to slow you down and wear you out. The climb out off Trona this time appears endless, but I always love the descent into Panamint Valley. Magnificent scenery with the setting sun and the purple mountains. Unfortunately I can now also kiss my goal of climbing Towne Pass in daylight goodbye. The road in Panamint Valley is even worse than usual, there are now potholes hidden between the jarring tar strips. Finally, we make the right turn towards Towne Pass. I stay in the aero bars up to the yellow "AC overheating" sign and switch to the Spectrum (my climbing bike). I pass at least two riders on this climb. No matter how many miles you have ridden, Towne Pass between the 2000 and 4000 feet mark is just a very tough climb. At the summit we take the necessary time to get the road grime off my legs, so I can put on my cold weather clothes for the descent. The descent into Death Valley is pretty scary for the crew. Near the top there are two dips where rider and crew can not see the road beyond, you just have to trust there are no obstacles. In 1998 my maximum speed here was 61.5 mph, this year I am really slowing it down, especially since there are two sections with road construction. Needless to say, we are not stopping in Furnace Creek. Having ridden Death Valley so many times, I just want to get to Ashford Mills to start the climb to Salsberry. After the right turn to Badwater the road turns again to something the Roman Legions probably had to struggle on. It jars the hell out of me, my feet feel dead even though they hurt like hell with every bump. We pass one more rider and than we seem to be all alone on the road. The extra Hella lights really help me avoid the potholes, I remember Nick Gerlich crashing on this section in 1996. By the amount of toilet paper on the road, I surmise there are quite a few support vehicles in front of me. I guess that it is just too dark to wander off into the desert for some privacy. For the climb to Salsberry I switch back to the Spectrum and I am happy to climb again. To anybody who has not done climbs such as Salsberry or Towne Pass late at night, I can only say: "Do it while you still can, it is very special and you will never forget the solitude of these lonely beautiful climbs". Right away we pass a rider (Seal) and the tandem with Mike and Cindy. Surprise, surprise, near the top we pass Fabio, who is calling it quits. On the descent we are passed by the 1st team! In 1996 and 1997 this occurred somewhere near Amboy! It is getting really cold on this descent and I can hardly wait to get to Shoshone, where the crew plans a bathroom break. The ride to Baker is dreadfully monotonous; initially we have our first tailwinds, which however turn quickly to headwinds at sunrise. It is very cold and I get suddenly very sleepy. Anxious for the sun to rise, I splash my face with water, don an extra vest and grind it out. By now I know this is going to be a long, long day. Better enjoy, Penguin!

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 In fact that is what I do when I am climbing the grade to Kelso. I feel good, the sun is out, it is warming up and it feels great to be out there. I have switched from the Otis Guy to the Merlin, trading comfort for ease of climbing. Dragon Fly, however is climbing stronger and easily widens the gap. I do not think Dragon Fly realizes, that this is where the race gets tough. It will be warming up quickly and the wind will be kicking up soon. Going over the summit, it is hard to imagine that just weeks ago, on this very summit during the Badwater to Durango race, I was in the middle of a fierce thunderstorm. The descent feels a lot rougher now, than during this Badwater/ Durango race when my only concern was to get out from underneath that storm. The view from the descent towards Kelso is magnificent. You can see the long climb to the Granite Mountains, beckoning to you, to please try her out. Fortunately no train is blocking the tracks and after negotiating the tracks VERY carefully it is time for another quick pit stop and to lather myself with sun block. I notice that my right Achillesí tendon is very sore where it touches the edge of my shoe, likely another present from the very rough asphalt. My bursitis on the inner aspect of my right knee has also made a comeback. Just great! The hardest part of the 508 is yet to come. Switching to the Spectrum we start the climb. I never realized until a recent training ride with my fellow Ultra junky, Charlie Griffice ( Team Gastropod ), how difficult a climb this really is. Like Salsberry it seems never ending, never seeing the summit until you are right there. I remember this climb only from 1998, when I just about collapsed at the top. This time I feel a lot better. My crew is antsy to go ahead of me to the time station , but I want them right there behind me. I know how long this climb is. I will be damned if I get a flat and have to sit alongside the road in this heat. Near or just beyond the summit we pass Dragon Fly. Shortly thereafter Dan Jordan (Jackal) comes tearing by, looking straight ahead, without a doubt determined to catch everybody. I have my doubts that he can sustain this pace, but he will do just fine. Between here and the right turn to Amboy, Dragon Fly and I switch leads repeatedly. Dragon Fly is faltering, especially when I point out the climb to Sheep Hole still faraway in the distance. Even for veterans like me this sight is daunting , from this far away it really looks like the stairway to Heaven ( or Hell? ). His support van is handing off coke bottles, staying right next to him. This is quite annoying since it is slowing me down. However, I am just not fast enough to rid myself of the Fly.

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Finally the approach to Sheep Hole greets us with the usual headwind, which is not as strong as I feared. Dragon Fly slows down, likely in order to recoup his strength. I donít think I will have to worry about him any longer. I am now dousing myself liberally with ice water and I am wearing my "Cool off" vest. No more Energy Surge for me, just ice water and gel (PowerGel). I believe the climb to Sheep Hole is easily the most dangerous road for cyclists in the 508. Somehow the traffic is heavy, seemingly coming out of nowhere and going nowhere. Lots of cars, some of them towing boat trailers, hurry to nowhere. This is the time to keep that van behind you. I have ridden this many times by myself and it is scary!!! Swerving to avoid the potholes and other niceties of the road can transform you quickly in a hood ornament. I know people promote leapfrogging to appease the motorists, but I advise against it. Near the top someone tries to get me leiíd ( you know, like in Hawaii ), but hold on fellows this Penguin wants to get laid in 29Palms ASAP. Not an ounce of extra weight please.

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Sheep Hole never fails to deliver its final twist in my gut: that final couple of hundred feet of climbing and then we are ready for the push to the finish. This time the conditions are actually quite nice, only a slight headwind and it is cooling down. We get "SLIMED" by Dave Kessler , member of team Gastropod. Dave, an alumnus of the Santa Monica Mountains mini Deathride (AKA" El Muertito", 10000 ft of climb in 65miles with two long 15% climbs ), sprints by and says a few kind and encouraging words. I was wondering were those guys were! This " Wonder Valley" section is only second to Sheep Hole in its hazards for us ultracyclists. In addition to the traffic, potholes and butt bruising asphalt, we are chased again by some dogs. The crew saves the day; another argument against leapfrogging here!

Faster than I expected we make the left to Utah Trail, where I switch bikes again. This time from the Otis Guy to the Merlin, which has a triple. I am worried that I wonít be strong enough to climb the last steep hill before the finish in a 39/25 gear. The only goal left for me, is to finish within 35 hours. I "pour" it on and cross the banner (nearly getting entangled in it, thinking it was the usual toilet paper!). at 34:50.

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 Fifth place Solo overall and first place 50+. What a ride! An ice cooler for my feet please! I am utterly wasted, maybe even more so as compared to my RAAM 1997 finish. In retrospect I was coming down with the same flu, which struck my son Michael Saturday PM. Twenty minutes or so later Dragon Fly hits the 508 Banner. I canít believe John Williams is so far behind. I want to say hello to him ( or gloat? ) but we all have to go back to work tomorrow ( except John Gower, you lucky dog ).

Some food for thought. Though obvious, it is striking that relatively minor changes in conditions result in such disparate finishing times. My hopes to beat the 50+ record were trashed quickly by the continuous , albeit mild, headwinds. Since the road seems to be getting worse every year, it is going to get harder and harder to beat Rainier Klaus's incredible record of 28:09:22.

If I ever do this race again, I will have to find myself a fully suspended, lightweight, road bike. A Soft ride beam and handle bar stem are not up to the task anymore. I guess at my age, you have to insulate your feet from all the bone and ligament jarring impact. I will be looking. Any suggestions?

I am disappointed with PowerGel. I love its taste, but its viscosity is too high to be easily poured from a gel flask. I added various small amounts of water, followed by micro waving the mixture. None of these were entirely satisfactory. My crew warmed the flasks on the dashboard, but usually I was unable to empty ( read: suck dry ) the flask. That stuff is not cheap and I hate to waste it (being a graduate of the Danny Chewís Institute of Riding Further for Less ). I just have a hard time squeezing the last calorie out of a packet, tube, etc while riding. Gel flasks are just that much easier. Hammergel is probably better. In the past I have had problems with inconsistent viscosities, but these problems appear to have been solved.  During some of the California Doubles I rode this year, its viscosity was right on.

This year I only stopped for bike changes, at the same time allowing me to ease my bruised butt with ChamoisButrr, pay my respect to the calls of nature and allowing my crew to do the same.

Thanks to Chris Kostman for a great race. This race was by far the best organized. Thanks John and Eric, you guys were the best. Thanks Linda and Michael, please go easy on me for the payback! Thanks also to the many volunteers of the Ultra family such as Reed "Flamingo" Finfrock, Steve "Beaver" Born, Jeff "Brown Bear" Bell and Mike "Whale" Wilson, just to name a few.










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