The Official Word

by Rich Savitt



* The Free Lap Rule

* Race Numbers 101


Furnace Creek 508 2010… The Final Piece

First let me say that this has been an incredible year from my perspective in the arena of bicycling experiences.  I have been riding for over 25 years but to have had the opportuni
ty to ride in the RAAM, The HooDoo 500, and finally the Furnace Creek 508 at the age of 60 years old is unbelievable.

I can’t thank Joe Peterson and Brenda Barnell enough for thinking of me when they offered the opportunity to join their team to me.  Of course I also need to thank Tim Skipper and Team JDRF for their willingness to take the recommendation of Joe and Brenda.   I may never ride another of these races but the experiences and friendships developed during the experiences will never fade from memory.  Which brings us to last weekend… The Furnace Creek 508… the” final piece” in this cycling triad of Ultra Marathon Cycling.

I will try to keep this brief but you know me.  The 508 presented us with different challenges than the RAAM or the HooDoo... both of those were tough but we did those on 4 tandem teams in a relay type format.  This was tough since each tandem was given short rest and then required to regroup and go out and do it again at full speed 24/7.  In the case of the RAAM that meant a “war of attrition” over the space of 6 days 14 hrs and 55 minutes… but who is or was counting.   The HooDoo had its own challenges … while a shorter period of time than RAAM it was still a challenge.  However, the 508 was a whole different “ ball game.”  We were just two tandems and the format involved each tandem riding a “stage” in rotation rather than the relay format.  This meant hours in the saddle followed by hours to regroup and then do it again.  There were eight stages meaning each tandem team did four of them.   
Our goals at the start were simple… to finish… to break the old record… and to win.  The other tandem team in our division were all veterans and held the record.  What follows is a summary of our “whirlwind” weekend.

Last Thursday I picked up my tandem partner at LAX at around 3 PM.  Nadine Howard was my “stoker” on the tandem for the HooDoo as well.  She lives in Regina, Canada and is a relatively new cyclist though an accomplished athlete, fitness competitor, and trainer.  Brenda and Joe made their way to the starting point of Santa Clarita somewhere in the night.  Joe lives in Bakersfield and Brenda flew in from Dallas.  Our crew also had to come together.  Tom Lamay, a veteran RAAM crew member, drove to Yorba Linda Thursday night and stayed with us.  The next morning Rob Kelly, a fellow Canyon Velo club member, met us in Yorba Linda and we took off in the Team JDRF Van for Marina del Rey to pick up the final member of the crew, Mike Roady, another RAAM crew veteran.  Then off to Santa Clarita.  Once there I discovered that I had had a “senior moment” and left my bag back in Yorba Linda.  Brenda was gracious enough to loan me her rental car and Rob Kelly kind enough to accompany me back to Yorba Linda to pick up the bag on Friday afternoon.   Yeah the traffic was brutal but what were the choices? We got back in time to catch the end of the required “team meeting” and it was obvious from all the “bad boys and girls” present that this was a “big deal” type race.  We retired back to our hotel and all got an ok night’s sleep.

The next morning after a nice breakfast at the hotel we made our way to the start line in Santa Clarita.  There were a couple of other Team JDRF teams entered in other divisions.  We all socialized for a few minutes and then got down to business for the 9:00 AM start.  Nadine and I were to ride stages 1,3,5,7, while Joe and Brenda would do the even stages.  There were over 200 racers and the solo riders had already started a couple of hours prior to our start.  The first 4 miles of the race were to be “neutral” while escorted out of town by CHP motors.  After a bit of prerace hype we were off.  Our tandem and one other single rider sat at the front for most of the 4 miles which were really ridden at a pretty “brisk” pace.  Once we left town the race was on.

Our first stage was from Santa Clarita to California City.  It was 83 miles long and had about 6,176 ft. of climb.  This was not an easy stage.  The first 25 miles had significant climbing but was also unsupported.  This meant that if anything went wrong you either fixed it yourself or hoped that a neutral support vehicle was there to help.  We were doing really well on the climbs until approximately halfway through the 25 mile unsupported section.   We began to notice that something seemed to be dragging.  We could hear a noise that sounded like rubbing when we were at full power on the steepest sections.  Somewhere in here the competition passed us.  They were obviously strong and experienced.  Both were out of the saddle on the climb when they went by us.  About 20 miles in it became increasingly frustrating that we were dealing with some type of mechanical issue.   We stopped on a steep climb to try to figure it out.  Nothing was obvious so we continued.   At approximately mile 23 I started to develop a hamstring cramp.  While I thought I had done a good job of hydrating  I may have miscalculated.  Luckily once we got to the 25 mile mark I was able to get a can of V-8 juice from our support van and the cramp went away.  Brenda let us know that at this point we were 8.5 minutes behind the other team.  Given the stop on the hill this meant that we were still in the hunt.  From here on until night rules we were allowed to have “leap frog” support … meaning that our van could park ahead and hand off water etc while stationary and then “leapfrog” ahead a couple of miles.  We still had the “rubbing issue” but it only seemed to occur on the steepest climbs under extreme torque.  The next 58 miles had plenty of climbing and also some “roll out” sections.  We were lucky in that there was some cloud cover which kept the heat down.  We arrived at the transition at 2:04 PM twenty-seven minutes behind our competition.  Not a good start.  We had averaged 16.50 MPH while our competition had average 18.11 MPH.

We handed off the Baton to Joe and Brenda and they were off.  I told Mike Roady, our crew member and mechanic about our problem and he found that the new 28 mm tires I had installed due to concerns about rough roads on the course were just clearing but under the strain of climbing were rubbing.  He and Tom Lamay changed out our rear tire to a spare 25 mm tire I had brought so that this would not be a continuing problem.  Joe and Brenda rode really well on their stage from California City to Trona.  This stage was 70.25 miles long and had 4212 feet of climb.  They averaged 19.96 MPH and made up five minutes on the competition.  They finished at 5:35 PM.

Our next stage was arguably the toughest of the race.  It was from Trona to Furnace Creek in Death Valley and 99.2 miles long with 7538 feet of climb.  We rode about 25 minutes before “nighttime” rules went into effect.  This meant that we had to have on a headlight, taillights, reflective tape, and that the van always had to have us in their headlights.  We rode really well over the first 1000 ft. climb and then “ate up” numerous other riders and teams through Panamint valley.  One of the really motivating aspects of riding at night in such a race is that you can see the lights of other vans out in the distance for miles.  This acts as a “carrot” to chase them down.  The next 40 miles were very fast and we as a tandem had a real advantage in the speed area.  I don’t know how many vans and racers we passed during this stretch but it was probably around ten or more.

Then we hit the climb of the race, Townes Pass.  This climb is incredibly tough.  It gains 3,800 ft. in 13 miles.  This really killed us.  Hindsight is always 20-20 I guess.  “If I knew then what I know now” I would have gone into this stage with much lower gearing.  The profile states that the climb starts with gradual climbing up to 2000 ft.  Then it gets steep from 2000 to 4000 ft.  All I can say is I thought I had missed the gradual part until we hit the steep part.  Never have I suffered this much on a climb.  In addition my back started to cramp as we “crawled” along at 3 MPH for what seemed an eternity.  Finally I couldn’t keep going without stretching.  I committed the “sin” of stopping the bike and walking.  Must say that Nadine was nothing but supportive as we walked along while I stopped a couple of times to stretch my back.  The crew kept shoving Gatorade at me and I drank it. After a bit we got back on the bike and climbed this “wall” again.  About 30 minutes later I once again had to stop, walk, and stretch.  To say I was miserable, embarrassed, and demoralized at this point would be accurate.  I must say though that we were not the only racers walking and we passed a number of racers who were all together stopped and “contemplating the universe.”  We got back on the bike and finished the climb in pretty good fashion actually.

Then came the highlight of the race (for me anyway) that being the decent down from Townes Pass into Death Valley.  It is fair to say that I was motivated to make up some time on the decent.  To her credit Nadine had given me permission to let it “all hang out.”  Remember that this is in the middle of the night and pitch black except for the lights from the van and whatever lighting you have on the bike.  I had borrowed Sue Griesbach's powerful headlight and turned it on at the start of the decent.   It was a bit technical at the top of the decent and I was a bit conservative on the tight turns.  Then we hit the high point.  Luckily there was a van out in the distance that was following a racer who was descending well .  This gave me an idea of what was ahead from the perspective of straight or winding road.  Once we hit the straight sections we took off like a rocket.  We maxed out at 59.8 MPH and I would estimate were over 50 MPH for over 10 miles.  It was a bit harrowing at times since we came over rises and basically hurled into pitch black at 50+ MPH.  But we made up time and hammered all the way to Stovepipe Wells and then had a good pace going the final 25 miles into Furnace Creek.

Amazingly even with our Townes Pass tribulations we gained 9 minutes on the competition during this stage.  We rode the stage in 6 hrs. and 40 min.  When we arrived at Furnace Creek we were only down to the competition by 13 minutes.  We finished the stage at 12:15 AM and they finished at 12:02 AM.   Unfortunately, we also probably had our longest stop of the ride at this transition.  Since the van must always have the riders in their lights at night we had to deal with “potty stops” and convenience store issues which probably added on 5-7 minutes  more to Joe and Brenda’s next stage elapsed time.  I don’t think we checked the time difference here either which would have been another motivating factor.

At any rate, Joe and Brenda tackled a tough stage from Furnace Creek to Shoshone.  This stage was 73.6 miles long and had 6744 ft. of climb.  It was a grind and included another necessary “potty stop” for the van.   Joe and Brenda finished this stage in 5 hrs and 33 minutes.  At the end of this stage Nadine and I took off on our next stage 40 minutes behind the competition.  We thought the next stage would be comparatively “easier,” and I suppose it was.

The Shoshone to Baker stage was “only” 56.3 miles and had only 2186 feet of climb.  Fate has an interesting way of intervening in man’s plans.  We rode really well for the first 15 miles or so.  We climbed Ibex pass very well and then had a killer decent into the valley.  Unfortunately, fate came calling at this point.  Nadine who is incredibly tough let me know that she had a serious leg issue.  One of her tendons on her left knee was “talking“ to her big time… as in she wasn’t sure it wasn’t going to be a “catastrophic situation.”  She literally was only able to pedal with her right leg for some time (I suspect the efforts of the night before on Townes Pass with insufficient the gearing may have created the situation.)  In addition we found ourselves on an incline, some 26 miles from the finish into a significant headwind.  This was not a good thing.  My concern was that if we pushed too hard and her kneecap actually did rotate off of her knee to the side as she feared, the race was done.  So in my opinion, the only rationale approach was to get conservative and “grind” out the miles in a reduced effort mode at around 12 MPH.  This was demoralizing as the miles just seemed to go by in slow motion.  Then as if the “gods” were really against us, after the van had left to go up the road to Baker to gas up and get ready for us to transition, we developed a rear flat.  Unfortunately we had taken off our bag and had no tools or tubes.  So to add insult to injury we rode the final 3-4 miles on a flat rear tire.  Fortunately, our tire was “beefy” enough to allow us to do so without riding on the rim.  We finished in 3 hrs. and 41 minutes at 9:29 AM.  We averaged 13.24 MPH.    We lost 27 more minutes to our competition and basically ended our chances of coming back.  We were now 1 hr. and 6 minutes behind.   But at this point the bigger issue was whether Nadine’s knee would hold up on our final stage.  Like I said earlier, she is one tough lady, and to see the pain she was experiencing as well as the lack of motion that was developing was definitely a major concern.

Joe and Brenda took off on their stage in the heat.  The stage was relatively short (34.9 miles) but consisted of (as the race description puts it) “a gradual but relentless 2500 ft. climb in 20 miles.  Adding to this dynamic was the fact that miles of the road were strewn with large gravel type rocks that made riding hazardous and flat likely.  It was a miserable stage and honestly, I felt fortunate that we didn’t have to ride it.

We transitioned to our final stage in Kelso.  Joe and Brenda had toughed out their stage and we started  1 hr. 10 minutes behind our competition on our last stage.  This should have been our “easiest” stage.  It was only 33.8 miles long and had 2280 ft. of climb.  However, it was hot, we were tired, and Nadine was fighting through her leg injury.  Our master plan was to simply make it to the finish.  Our stage started with a 13+ mile climb that was steady and then steeper the last 3-4 miles.  We told the crew that we were going to be really conservative since to have a catastrophic injury at this point could spell a “DNF.”  To say that Nadine “rose to the occasion” is an understatement.  We started off and got passed in the opening mile or so by a couple of single bikes.  Then Nadine kicked it in.  We passed those bikes and kept a steady and respectable pace all the way to the top.  It got steeper the last few miles and it was demoralizing at times as it seemed the climb would never end.  However, once we got onto the decent for the final 20 miles to the transition we hammered it.  We caught a number of bikes that had passed us earlier including one just 400 yards from the transition.

We handed off the baton to Joe and Brenda who had the unenviable task of finishing the tough 58 mile final stage  to Twenty-Nine Palms in the heat.  They did one heck of a job under tough circumstances.  They started  1 hr. 34 minutes behind our competition.  They finished the race at 6:46 PM, in 33 hrs. 46.29 minutes, 1 hr. and 4 minutes behind the other tandem team.  They had made up 30 minutes on them over the last stage.  This was an incredible effort.  
We all did the hug thing at the end and got our jerseys and medals.  However, the most gratifying variable of this adventure was overcoming adversity.  We all had our “gut check” moments.  It doesn’t take a “rocket scientist” to figure out how tough this thing was.  Look at the list of DNF’s.  Nadine could have found every excuse to quit.  Lesser people would do so and in fact did.  We all could have gotten demoralized when we realized that victory wasn’t going to happen… we didn’t … we persevered and finished as best we could.

Our crew of Mike Roady, Tom Lamay, and Rob Kelly were incredible.

I am so proud to have been a part of this effort.  By the way… we got two out of three of our pre-race goals… we finished and we broke the record… unfortunately the other team also broke their own record and won…

I may never do anything this hard or subsequently this gratifying again in my life… what a “final piece.”

story by Carl Moler



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