Early October saw an impressive number of great events. The Levi’s Gran Fondo seems to have been a big success and many Strava members participated. The Mt Diablo Challenge gathered many climb-lovers to attack one of the most majestic peaks in the Bay area. A third big race taking place last weekend was the Furnace Creek 508. If you have not heard about it, this race is a true test of human endurance: 508 miles with 36,000 feet of elevation gain. This makes the Furnace Creek route roughly comparable to four typical mountain stages of Tour de France ridden back-to-back. Add to that a strong desert wind that can hit you like an 18 wheeler. Below is the account of one of this years participants, Michael Gaiman. Thanks to Michael for his contribution to our blog!StravaHQ Feedin’ the Addiction
Furnace Creek 508 2009 Team Colossal Squid Ride Report
Furnace Creek is one of the oldest and most respected ultra-marathon cycling events. It consists of 509 miles in the deserts of Southern California beginning on a Saturday morning and ending, if you finish, Monday morning. The race can be attempted solo or in teams of two or four riders. In the team format, legs are of fixed length (82 mi, 70 mi, 99 mi, 73 mi, 56 mi, 34 mi, 33 mi, and 58 mi) and riders rotate through their roster in a fixed, predetermined, order. The course is hilly with over 30,000 ft of elevation gain, but also features some of the fastest descents around.
Team Colossal Squid competed in the 2x Mixed 20+ category, which means two riders of mixed gender with an average age between 20 and 29. We were the only entrants in this category in 2009 which meant that our competition wasn’t another team (though we did compete with other teams on the road), but the record for this category, set by Team Labrador in 2007 at 34:38. Our preparation for the race began months earlier with heavy monthly mileage and regular team meetings to plan logistics and discuss strategy. We were crewed by Kathryn and Bill, who between them had crewed and ridden numerous 508s and even crewed RAAM. We were in good hands.
On the Friday before FC508 began, Tina and I woke up early, packed our bikes and things into my car and headed down to Santa Clarita. We arrived in the early afternoon to Kathryn, Bill, and Tina’s parents setting up the van. The van had been transformed into a mobile command center. Rear seats had been replaced with cubbies for food, water, lights, medical equipment, everything we could need out on the road. It impressed on me the seriousness of the task Tina and I had gotten ourselves into. (Tina, by the way, had completed FC508 in 2008 with another partner. So she knew exactly what to expect. I was a newbie.) Tina and I prepared our bikes by adding shiny tape to each side and then we all headed to lunch and the safety check. In the safety check they make sure your follow vehicle is up to standards, that your bike has enough shiny bits, and that your light is more than just a single blinky LED. From there we proceeded to the opening ceremonies, our first interaction with the 90+ other teams competing. Our evening consisted of giant plates of pasta followed by an early night.
On Saturday morning I dressed, ate, and then headed over to the start line. The race began with a neutral police escort out of town and then a climb through canyons before meeting up with your follow car at around mile 20. Tina and the crew had to leave before the race began so they weren’t caught behind the police escort. I said my goodbyes and took up my position at the start line.
These next 5-10 minutes seemed to take forever as the rest of the racers lined up, the camera people went around conducting interviews, the national anthem was sang, pep-talk was barked at us by the race director, and then, finally, we set off.
I didn’t actually know where I was going in the first 20 miles. I had a route sheet, but figured I’d just follow other riders and we’d all get there eventually. This meant that I had to follow others, which meant I couldn’t go my own pace. I positioned myself near the front. There were occasional attacks, and I would chase them down and then take their wheel–wanting to stay near the front, but not actually be the front. I ended up being the third rider to the team cars. Tina told me later that Bill was worried I was pushing too hard this early in the race, but I felt great.
As we got out on the open road, we encountered strong tail and cross winds. This suited me fine and I settling into a pace in the high twenties, keeping my heart rate in the low 150s. After a few mistakes I figured out how to do bottle handoffs with my team (this had to be done with them stationary on the first day, but we could switch to doing handoffs from the car that evening and the next day). By the time my first leg ended I had built up a lead of over ten minutes from the next closest team. I pulled into California City and handed off the baton to Tina.
I stretched for a couple of minutes and then we headed off to support Tina on her first leg. In the team car I changed into compression tights, ate, drank, and rested. I was high from the experience of the first leg, but I knew we had many miles left and that my job now was to rest and prepare for the next leg. Tina did great in our first leg and we were only passed by a couple of teams. One of whom was Team Godwit, a 2x Mixed 30+ team consisting of a Men’s Cat 3 and Women’s Cat 1 rider. Both strong. Later in the race a pattern emerged where I would catch their man, put time into them, and then their girl would catch Tina and put time into her. It was fun and I think both teams were faster because of it.
My second leg was a 99 mi ride from Trona to Furnace Creek. It began fast with the tail and crosswinds giving me a nice boost. This leg is traditionally the hardest of the race. Not only is it the longest, but it features a 10 mile, 4000 feet climb called Townes Pass starting around mile 45. We stopped a mile or two before Townes to put my lights on (race rules dictate lights must be on from 6pm to 7am) and then I began the climb. Well, first I turned right turning a crosswind into a headwind that would haunt us for most of the rest of the race. The climb up Townes was unremarkable. The trick with long climbs is to get into a good rhythm and then just keep going. The follow car was great though–blasting music at me to keep my morale high (and demoralize other racers as they started hearing my music shortly before I passed them). I ended up passing five to ten solo riders (who had began two hours earlier than the relay teams) while climbing. I got passed by one 4x team who were traveling up at an impressive pace. The summit of Townes was lovely and followed by a long, fast descent–very fast–I hit 64 mph! It was great. After the descent I settled into another faster flat ride, thinking that with only 30 miles to go, I’d probably be done in a little more than an hour and that we had the record in the bag for sure.
Well, then we hit the head winds again and suddenly went from cruising at 25+ to struggling at 15. I worked hard through the wind and slowly whittled down the miles. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, though. The wind was tough, very tough. I think part of it was that I wasn’t mentally prepared for them. Even with Townes Pass, my average speed for the leg was above 20 and I was easily on track to do a sub-5 hour century. I was celebrating to myself at finishing the hard part of the ride and figured the rest of the race would be easy. The wind, then, was a large shock. As I got closer to Furnace Creek the wind only seemed to get stronger. The only solace I had was that I was steadily gaining on two team cars off in the distance. With two or three miles to go I realized that I’d probably catch them for the leg ended. In the prerace meeting, the race director had described the ideal way to complete a pass when follow cars were involved: do it quickly to minimize your time without a follow car and to minimize the time your follow car had to be in oncoming traffic. And so that’s what I did. I caught them and then sprinted into the wind, passing both teams quickly. It was a huge release for me after the frustration of the last couple of hours! As an added bonus, it turned out one of the teams I overtook was the 4x team who had beaten me up Townes Pass.
As we exchanged the baton I told Tina, “just do what you can do, just get through this wind. It is hard.” And then I settled into the car back into my routine of eat, drink, relax. Only I couldn’t relax. Tina was out there struggling in the wind which only seemed to be getting worse. She worked for two hours and only put a twenty mile dent into her 70 mile leg. After a blast of wind so strong that she almost fell off her bike, she stopped and came back to the car. We sat her down and told her it was a remarkable job she was doing. We told her that maybe she could get through it by going a few miles and then taking a break–just do what she could do each time. When she prepared to go back out there, I told her privately that I wouldn’t hold it against her if she stopped. This was crazy. She looked at me, and practically yelled, “I’m not quitting!” And it was just that simple. We saw team car after team car pass us, going full speed taking their rider(s) home, but Tina pushed on through. Nine hours after her leg began, we got to Shoshone. I can barely put into words how proud I was of Tina for getting through that section. She basically did a 70 mile climb and the amount of fatigue that gets into your body doing something like that is intense. She did it when over 20 other teams couldn’t. Solo teams quit, 2x teams quit, 4x teams quit–riders who were completely fresh couldn’t make it! Tina finished that leg and I knew we would finish the race.
We put all thoughts of breaking the record out of our mind, and focused on getting through each leg. I had a 56 mile leg next. I had felt crappy in the car, but as soon as I got back on my bike, I felt good and right. I worked through the winds keeping my heart rate between 140 and 150 which translated to a 12-15 mph pace. After two and half hours we caught and passed Team Godwit. They had overtaken us in the night. It gave me a huge boost and I worked hard through the rest of the leg. At around mile 45 the winds let up and I found myself resuming my usual 20+ mph pace. Things were good and I made the most of the stillness while it lasted, assuming the wind would return in a few miles.
Tina began her next leg at Baker. It was an up and down 34 mile stage. I slept and don’t know much about this leg, but I think the winds mostly behaved themselves. A train stopped the riders shortly before the stage ended, bunching up three or four teams. So I took my place at the second mass start of the race. My last leg was 33 miles which were up until mile 14, rollers to 16, and down. It being my last leg, I gave it all that I had. By the time I got to the top there wasn’t another team in sight. We got to the hand off (known as “Almost Amboy”) and I handed the baton to Tina for the last time. My race was over. All I could do now was watch and cheer Tina on for her last 58 mile leg to the finish in Twenty Nine Palms.
And a funny thing happened. I got into the team car and our crew, who had been there with us the whole race, through the wind and the sand, were giddy. Actually giddy. I figured this was fatigue manifesting itself, but no. It turned out that as long as Tina maintained a pace above 11 mph that we’d break the record. I couldn’t believe it! Frankly I had dismissed the record as unobtainable sometime during the night and had put it out of my head. But here it was, within our grasp. Likely, even!
Tina rode for twenty or thirty miles before Godwit and their Cat 1 racer caught us, but interestingly she lacked the steam she’d had earlier in the race and Tina kept her in sight for most of the rest of the leg. We stopped briefly a few minutes before 6pm and put lights on our bikes (on Tina’s bike so that she could ride the rest of the leg, on mine so that I could ride the final mile with her and we could cross the finish line together). And then the Team Colossal Squid got slowly more excited as we got closer to the finish. Tina kept going strong while everybody in the team car tweeted on our twitter accounts. When we reached the KFC a mile before the finish line, I got my bike off the rack and rode with her. We took the final mile slow and easy, chatting. Happy. And then we crossed the finish line and were done! In the end we finished in 33:22. We broke the record by over an hour and did it in a tough year. The next morning the race director remarked during the closing breakfast that this year, ”definitely [had] the hardest, craziest weather we’ve ever had out here in 20+ years”.
It is definitely an experience I won’t forget.
Race website: http://www.the508.com/
Colossal Squid: http://dbase.adventurecorps.com/individualTd.php?e=3096