I made it even tougher by doing it on a fixed gear bike.
Why did I attempt the 508? When I did AIDS/LifeCycle (ALC), there is one day when we ride 100 miles. After the ride, Lori Jean got on the microphone and told us we were all ultracyclists. That didn’t seem right. It seems like millions of people sign up to ride century rides. It isn’t an easy thing to do, but ultra? When I got home, I went to wikipedia and looked up ultracycling. That is when I discovered The 508. Main draws:
- 500 miles in one stage. ALC does that kind of distance in a whole week!
- Equivalent to 4 mountain stages of the Tour de France done back-to-back. I will never be a TdF rider, but maybe I could do this.
- Ride goes through Mojave and Death Valley. The desert is a beautiful and magical place, and riding through it would be pretty rad.
So why fixed? Well I will never be a fast geared bike rider. I see those guys out there in spandex and I know I can’t compete. But I have mega legs and am stubborn. Give me a hill and I will make it to the top one way or another. On a fixie the field is a lot smaller, and I can be king of a small hill instead of being the bottom of the pack. And this year’s 508 was shaping up to be just that. I was the only fixed gear soloist (there were one 2-mixed fixed and one 4-men fixed relay team), so if I finished the ride within 48 hours I won my category. Of the 14 attempts made in the race history, the 12 solo fixed finishes have been made by 10 riders. The two DNFs occurred in the year of the headwind. Several people have commented on the high finishing rate for fixies and that I have a lot of pressure to not let down the stats.
Here is all the data on fixed attempts in the 508 database:
|Totem||First Name||Last Name||Gender||Home Town||State||Year||Age||Time|
|Seal (report)||Sam||Beal||M||Mountain View||California||2004||52||39:10:38|
|Red-Eyed Vireo (report)||George||Vargas||M||Encinitas||California||2007||42||45:12:45|
|Chesapeake Bay Retriever||Terry||Lentz||M||Templeton||California||2007||49||30:13:05|
|Rock Rabbit (report)||Adam||Bickett||M||San Diego||California||2010||27||42:43:16|
|Caretta Caretta||Chris||Cook||M||Fly Creek||New York||2010||37||45:07:02|
|Scarlet Macaw||Susan||Forsman||F||Morgan Hill||California||2010||40||41:38:55|
We had some traffic issues which held us back a little but we reach Valencia just before noon. We = Shaun Stegosaurus Arora, Kat Crew Chiefosaurus Espino, her brother BJ Bike Tech-Cerotops Espino, and our friend Stevosausus Rood.
In the lot, Kat and I catch up with old friends from other long rides and start making new friends … but mainly I spent the time getting my mind psyched for the ride. I can’t believe after so many years of planning and preparations I was actually here.
The inspector comes by and I am so eager to tell her my gear that I am a little disappointed she didn’t ask. I remind her and state proudly: 44-tooth front, 17-tooth rear, and 700×25 tires. This adds up to about 69 gear inches. We finish the prep and inspection by 2:30pm.
After the inspection we buy way too many groceries. The racer meeting at 5pm had the usual air of excitement. At one point during the meeting, I get the chance to get on stage with the other riders and it feels great.
After the meeting we grab a quick bite, hang out with red socks and pudu in the hotel hallway, and go to sleep early. There was a pool at the hotel but I forgot to bring my trunks and wasn’t daring enough to skinny dip.
Saturday Pre Race:
Sleep was tough. All the excitement compounded with the fear that I made a mistake somewhere along the way and I kept walking up. Finally around 5am I wake, eat a quick bite, stretch in the gym, and hit the road to do some intervals.
You may be asking why I would want to ride before a 48 hour ride? Well, I was a bit nervous about the first stretch of the race. Through Valencia we get a police escort through redlights. I worried that if I didn’t keep up with the pack, I would have to stop at the lights, miss out on the pace line, and start the whole race in a poor position relative to the rest of the race field. I know it’s silly to think that a few miles would matter. They say that the race starts after mile 250. But I wanted to get my engine revving so that the first few miles would be comfortable and not a shock.
After I get my heart rate up and feel amped to ride, I join my crew. Even with my eyes bright red and my fingers a bit chilly, seeing my crew gets me even more stoked. I start riding around the parking lot saying “I get to ride my bicycle while you have to sit in a car!” They were not jealous in the least.
And then I pump air in my tires. Hiss, I knock the stem and air starts to leak. I have to replace the rear tube. Oh well, at least I have fresh rubber for the race. Kat says that I was just testing my crew!
After a few photos, I leave my crew and head to the starting line. 15 minutes to go but the line is packed. The racers are all spandexed out on expensive bikes. I am so nervous I might puke. I imagined this moment as being emotional, of feeling so glad to have made it this far in my training. But the 500 miles ahead of me took over and I waited silently, soaking in the mood.
Ole Eichhorn, a.k.a Rocky The Squirrel, wrote one of the better route reports and so I would like to quote from him for the different stages, which I will put in italics. Ole is a strong rider who has yet to complete the 508 after several attempts.
Saturday Stage 1: 82 miles and 6,176 feet gain to California City
|The start, a long stage with two climbs, a nice canyon ride, and lots of flat pounding through the desert. The Hilton Garden Inn is right next to Magic Mountain, and the I5 freeway; it feels pretty different to most of the rest of the ride :) SAG vehicles have to drive on ahead and meet their rider at the 24 mile mark before beginning “leapfrogging” from the rest of the stage. The first five miles are through the bedroom communities along the North edge of Santa Clarita, then there’s a left turn and, poof ,you’re in San Francisquito Canyon. San Francisquito Canyon takes about twenty miles, up and down, mostly up as you climb about 2,000 feet. This is a good road, and not too busy – should be a nice part of the ride. At the end of the canyon there’s a nice descent down into the Mojave Desert; you turn right at “the Lakes” and soon find yourself in the middle of flat desert, with nothing but oil derricks.
Next up is 20 miles of flat. These are quiet roads in pretty good condition. The only problem might be heat, as the day warms up, and a headwind which builds as you approach the mountains to the North.
Next you come to the “Windmills” climb. This is about 1,000 feet, and not too steep, but there is a reason they put windmills here! The only compensation is the 1,000 foot descent on the other side, for which you’ll have a nice tailwind :) Both the climb and the descent are about 10 miles.
The descent gets you heading East, right at Mojave. You’ll skirt the West edge, and [unfortunately] won’t be able to see much of the famous “aircraft graveyard” at Mojave airport. The race organizers are trying to keep the riders away from all the truck traffic in Mojave, which is commendable, but still the airport is cool…
That leaves about 15 miles of somewhat-downhill somewhat-tailwind through the desert to California City. In the picture below you can see the giant Toyota test track (it dwarfs Mojave airport, which is pretty giant too), but you won’t be able to see either from the ride.
California City itself is a nice bedroom community and feels very spread out.
The time station is pretty much on the corner, by that little building; cars park in the dirt lot indicated above, on your right just after turning left on Neuralia Ave. There are plenty of facilities here for buying fuel, food, water, etc. – stock up!
Kostman gives the countdown to 7am, then hops in his Deloreon, and leads the paceline. After a few minutes, I realize I am keeping up with the paceline. It is a perfect pace for me to keep up and it stays pretty packed. We talk with each other. Nicole says that this feels like a coffee shop ride, and we all agree. The mood is great and I am so relieved.
As we turn onto San Fransquito, the race should begin. Kostman joked last night that if we want to win it we should start sprinting at this point. But no one really took the lead. We all felt a bit comfortable and the social mood continued through at least the first 10 miles of the canyon. I am keeping up with Pudu right in front of me. Anni and other ultrarunners are right behind me. There is a Badwater competitor with one leg who I ride with for a bit. Never got his name but was a nice man. The people on a tandem take a pee break early on and we all rib them a bit.
As we start heading up and gaining altitude, I notice my heart rate jump to 160, 170, and even the low 180 bpms. I try to slow down and let people pass, trying not to burn too many calories and end up deficient later on. By the time I am 5 miles from the top, it feels like the entire field has passed me. I notice I am working to hard and get off the bike for a second. I check my wheel and the rear doesn’t move! My wheel has slid a little. it is not rubbing on the frame, so I release the brake and notice an easier ride.
I finally get into a rhythm and start targeting the rider in front of me. I catch him and he turns out to be the Hammered out guy from Poorman’s PBP. Today he is Velvet Ant. We chat a little as we approach the summit.
As I get to my crew, I notice about 5 other soloist crews there so I know I am not the last rider. I rush over to BJ and tell him that I torqued my wheel so hard on the hill that I moved the bolts on the dropouts. He gets to adjusting and tightening. Meanwhile I dump my extra weight, pick up a bottle, and secure my walkie talkie. We have a lot of catching up to do, only 5% into the ride.
Once the walkie talkie start, I get in on the Macaque jokes. Someone was riding with the totem Japanese Macaque, and my crew were their biggest fans.
Being this far back we are a little isolated and not leapfrogging as much as those hammering at 15-20 mph. I am averaging about 14.5mph at this point. Thought I do start leapfrogging with Betafish, whose team and rider are pretty cute. Bettafish completed Badwater this year and is going for the Death Valley Cup. As the leapfrogging drags on, the Bettafish crew asks what my totem is and starts cheering for me. Stego has a fan club. In fact, Stego has a lot of fans. One of the benefits of riding fixed is that all the racers, crews, and officials want to see you finish. They all seem to recognize the challenge and respect that I am dumb enough to try.
On the windmill climb, I feel a bit lonely and decide to ask for my iPod. In the past few years, since I started riding, songs would float into my head while riding. I put all those songs into a playlist and was stoked to hear 8 hrs of music that captured my cycling progression. It was exactly as I wanted it – memories of rides and adventures flood back to me.
I keep moving through the desert doing math. 1/10th of the way to 29 palms. 1/8th of the way in. Then 1/6th. Getting close to 1/5th. I fight to gobble the miles as there is a noticeable lack of tailwinds relative to previous years. In fact, the descent from the windmill climb is all headwinds.
As we approach California City, I tell my crew that I need to refill on fluids at the time station. The walkie talkies garbled the message and the crew was confused why I passed them without grabbing fluids. I tell them, a little frustrated with the walkies, that I need the fuel at the time station in 10 minutes. All of a sudden I see a van pull up next to me and I yell at it “Keep moving!” I was totally embarrassed to see it was the photographers. I apologize to them and they take off to the time station.
Saturday Stage 2: 70 miles and 4,212 feet gain to Trona
|This stage features more climbing than you might think from looking at the profile, and a lot of desert rollers. Also it is probably going to be HOT during much of this ride. The landscape becomes more interesting as it goes along…
The stage starts with a straight shot on a flat desert road due North, for about 10 miles. In the picture below you can see the Honda test track, and this you will be able to see from the ride, since you go right by it.
Just before reaching Route 14 you turn right, and then it is another 15 miles of flat desert road, with rock quarries all around. The “flat” might be deceptive as there are rollers here, it gets progressively more difficult as you ride East.
The climb up to Randsburg is worse than it looks on the profile; it is about 1,500 feet, but it gets progressively steeper. The landscape in the canyon you climb is unusual, it looks like you’re entering a rock quarry or something, there are zero plants. The road surface seemed pretty good, fortunately.
Randsburg is a weird place in the middle of nowhere. It feels desolate and friendly all at the same time; many of the buildings look abandoned, yet it doesn’t feel like the place is dying. Anyway so you turn left upon entering the town, leave it, and enter serious roller territory.
After riding through the hills North of Randsburg, you come to Route 395 and get on it heading South for a few miles – watch out for trucks! You ride through Johannesburg (which, despite proximity, feels nothing like Randsburg, it is modern and uninteresting), and then after a few miles turn left onto Trona Road. And enter the twilight zone…
Trona Road winds through the mountains, going up and down and left and right for about 15 miles until you come to Route 178. I encountered more traffic than you might think, especially truck traffic, and the road surface is pretty lousy. This is going to be a tough section, but it is pretty interesting; each turn seems to bring a new view.
After turning right onto Route 178, the road improves and begins descending, and for about 15 miles you have rollers which are up and down but more down, until finally you descend into the Searles Valley. There is one really nice fast descent of about 2 miles right after you turn North, with the whole Searles Valley laid out in front of you, including Searles Lake. At the end of the descent there is a bike path next to the road, but it is in disrepair and I would simply ride the shoulder.
Trona has a long and interesting history, but from the main road it seems to be one giant chemical factory, with railways and quarries for decoration. (“Trona” is a chemical used to make Sodium Carbonate which is found in Lake Searles.) The town is in on the Lake Searles playa and is surrounded by pinnacles and other odd rock formations. The road through the town is straight, wide, and in good shape. There are quite a few trucks puffing along, though, so be careful.
Time Station #2 is opposite a gas station in a dirt field. The gas station will be important, as it is the last place to get gas and supplies for a long time; given that you’ll be riding through Death Valley at night there is nothing open at all. You basically have to plan that Baker will be the next time you can replenish until Baker.
As I leave the time station and head North I feel fresh. The rest to stretch, fix my brake, shed layers, and refuel helped me. I am riding a little faster, but it is at this point that I start getting passed by the relay teams. I was doing the math and was hoping the moment would come later. Fellow Swarm fans Godwit had eaten up my two hour head start. I successfully cross the train tracks that gave Buzzard a flat tire several years back and make my right turn on the rollers.
The heat was picking up as well, and it was a bit discouraging to be passed by the fast teams. I see the crew of the founding fathers – Great American Toad – cheering for me. At the top of the Randsburg climb, I am passed by the 2-mixed fixie team, a TRFKAS rider named Chris. As we hit the US395, I worry if I will make it to Trona by night and tell the crew we should gas at the Johannesburg Texaco on Trona Rd and US395. The team agrees, letting me know that Trona ran out of gas so they didn’t have a choice.
We turn onto Trona Rd and begin the monster rollers. Several crews were hauling butt back to Johannesburg for gas. I feel for them.
Then he pulls out his video camera trying to get a shot of him pulling away from me. I hustle to keep up, pushing myself up to nearly 25 mph on a climb before my asthma gets the better of me.
However, as we spend the 10-20 minutes fixing the wheel I see Great American Toad, Spotted Ass, and many other teams pass me. I feel like the bulk of teams passed me here, right before the mega descent down Trona Rd. People have told me this would be a hard section to do fixed. But at this point in the ride, I was spinning at 130-160 comfortably. At one point I was riding without touching my brakes or applying resistance, comfortably spinning at 130 rpm. The sun was going down and the desert was lit up in front of me. If I don’t finish the 508, at least I can say I did the 508. Tears come to me eyes as I scream down the hillside.
Sundown is coming soon but I opt to push on until as close as possible to the 6pm cut-off for direct follow. I hope I can make it to Trona but am a few miles short. I make it 150 miles before sundown. My average heart rate is below 150. My crew is fresh. We crank up the tunes and cruise into Trona. And although Trona has a bike path, it is a path meant more for mountain bikes than my skinny tire bike.
Saturday Stage 3: 99 miles and 7,538 feet gain to Furnace Creek
|This is definitely the “queen stage” of the whole ride, with plenty of rollers, long flats through the desert, a massive climb, and a massive descent at the end down into Death Valley. And much of it will be ridden in the dark, whew. Not to mention an uneven road surface through the Panamint Valley (quite a bit of it has been repaved, but the shoulder is lumpy).
Heading out of Trona, you are on a straight road with a few rollers, heading for some hills off in the distance.
The climb into the Panamint Valley (aka “the Panamint Bump”) is nontrivial, with some rather steep sections interspersed with brief descents. The road has been resurfaced recently here, fortunately. There is no shoulder in places, and the road is narrow. There continued to be a surprising amount of traffic (at least in the middle of the day, a 508 rider would likely encounter less as it is getting dark…)
After climbing through the mountains there’s a twisty and reasonably fast descent, and then lots and lots of straight rollers through the desert, mile after mile, for about 20 miles.
When you come to Panamint Valley road, bear left; do NOT continue on 178 up to Wildrose. In the dark this will be an easy mistake to make, as well as a bad one :) The road will continue on for another 15 miles or so before coming to Route 190. There’s a great sign, Lone Pine is 53 miles to the left, and Furnace Creek is 53 miles to the right. Yeah, 53 more miles to the race’s halfway mark.
After the turn you will see big mountains rising dead ahead (or you would, if it wasn’t dark, maybe that’s a good thing :). At the top of those mountains is the summit of Townes Pass. This is the biggest climb in the whole race, about 10 miles at 6%, I would say, with some sections over 10%. The summit is at 4,956 feet, the high point of the race. It is going to take well over an hour to climb this, maybe nearing two. Compounding the difficulty it will probably be cold at night, too. At least the surface is good!
After cresting Townes Pass (yay!) there is a long, long descent all the way down to Stovepipe Wells. If you had to climb this going the other way it would be the toughest climb in the ride, but you don’t :) Instead you have a winding 7% grade for about 17 miles all the way from nearly 5,000′ down to sea level, in the dark. Stay alert and have good headlights!
And finally the stage wraps up with a relatively flat section through the North end of Death Valley, from Stovepipe Wells to Furnace Creek. (There is a good little climb past the Scotty’s Castle turn-off.) This is a beautiful area but you probably won’t be able to appreciate it at night, barring a full moon… to the right is an area called Devil’s Cornfield, featuring weird sand sculptures that look a bit like corn, and to the left are the famous Death Valley dunes. The road is wide and in good condition, with a nice shoulder.
Finally, after 100 miles you arrive in Furnace Creek, probably in the dead of night. There will not be any facilities here, so you’ll have to bring food, water, ice, etc. with you. It is possible to get “pay at the pump” gas all night to feed your SAG vehicle.
We hand around in Trona for way too long. The town reeks of sulfur today. Someone is in the men’s room and just won’t get out. I fear that I am in the back, and later learn that I have the slowest time from Valencia to Trona out of all the finishers. I hear on Kostman’s walkie talkie that the first rider is not yet over Towne’s Pass. And luckily there are still some relay riders behind me who have not eaten the 2 hour headstart that soloists got. We get going.
We descend into Panamint in the dark and start to chase down the red lights in front of me. The valley was dusty with a slight headwind.
The crew and I start getting into a rhythm. The hum is nice behind me and the playlist is lively. Some songs bomb, but I try to encourage them with more thumbs up than thumbs down. We keep the energy up as we cross the valley. And then the crew plays this song:
I instantly shoot up to 25+ mph. I am flying. The whole time I am looking to the right to get some sense of the amount of riders still going up Townes Pass and where the heck is the pass. The road begins to get rough, much like the Trona bike path, and I make it to the base of Towne’s Pass, mile 200, in about 15.5 hours.
Megan asks how the ride is going and I tell her I’m nervous, amped, and lost one hour due to the stupid wheel torquing on climbs. She grabs a tri-tool and wrenches down on my wheel. Then tells me to get up the mountain. I comply and feel great.
The moment I have been planning for is here. And it’s a lot easier than I would’ve thought. I try to fuel as I climb and pass tons of riders. Big smile on my face as Megan drives past. After 4 miles I feel like a machine and the climbing gets a little steeper. After 6 miles I notice my stomach feeling funny and I opt to pull over. I ask for a soda to get easy sugar and hope it chills out my tummy. I also have a banana and start riding. My stomach rejects the banana and I nearly puke. I have heard too many horror stories like this on Townes pass so I opt to walk the bike until my stomach chills. My crew is stumped but they tell me no more soda. I had almonds but forgot that it would’ve helped.
Matt pulls up and I jump out of the van and tell him what’s going on. He tells me to eat chips and take my time. I eat some taro chips and accidentally take a 15 minute nap in the van. I wake up somehow and decide I need to get going. The hill is too steep to climb but I start up anyways. And then I do the walk of shame while my stomach sits on knife’s edge. I walk about half a mile before I feel comfortable riding again. And then I take off after the riders in front of me again. I feel good but decide not to push too hard. As I near the top the road flattens out. And 3.5 hours from the time I said buy to Swarm at the bottom, I finally summit.
The crew takes a quick pee break before we descend. I see a few crews including Bettafish and Brooklyn Beast at the top and know they are going to pass me on the descent. Ole is right, if we did the ride in reverse the backside of Townes pass would be the toughest climb. I had to pull over twice because my rims were heating up too much. I didn’t feel comfortable going much faster than 110 RPM for some reason, so I tapped the brakes a bit too much. I normally do 2 seconds rear and 2 seconds front. This time I apply more resistance and do 10 seconds front and 10-15 seconds rear. Three crews pass me as I rested.
We make it to Stovepipe Wells at the bottom and the crew needs another toilet break. We pull into a stop by the dunes and see Rocky the Squirrel and crew sprawled out over the parking lot. I recall the Ole in Panamint Valley with his feet in a cooler of ice and I begin to worry about his prospects.
In fact, Death Valley seems a bit quiet for it being The 508. I see lights in the desert but not like when we are in the middle of the field. The lights are few and far between. I get close to them and then they pull further and further away. I struggle to make it up to those three riders who passed me earlier and never make it. I latter learn that some riders got lucky with a tailwind in Death Valley. I had only cross winds.
The desert is alive tonight. I see the full moon make its arch from above us to its setting spot behind Townes Pass. A tiny owl darts in front of my wheel and stops on the side of the road. Kangaroo rats hop around. I see scorpions live and dead on the road. The mountains glow in the moonlight. Car traffic is nearly zero at this hour, about 3am. Only a police car, ambulance, and two passenger cars pass us.
As we get closer to the halfway point, I can tell that my crew is falling asleep. We do a couple of frequent driver swaps. I have time to blow my nose and yellow crystals come out. They look like the color of yellow rock candy, and the size of mini chicklets. My theory is that the chemicals of Trona had an impact on my boogers. I also had time to think about Townes pass and theorized that as my climbing intensified the blood rushed from my stomach to my legs, leaving the food in my belly to sit and wait for the rest of my body to calm down. Since my body never calmed, the food didn’t move for a whole hour.
Finally, at 5am, we pull into Furnace Creek. All is quiet here. I report that I last saw Bettafish at the top and Rocky the Squirrel was taking a nap. The man at the time station tells me that paramedics were called out to Townes pass for Bettafish. She crashed on the descent. [Update: Mary Bettafish Betts got beat up from her crash but was able to go to the hospital and is recovering in good spirits]
Sunday Stage 4: 73 miles and 6,744 feet gain to Shoshone
|This is the second-toughest stage, long, ridden at night, and featuring the second-toughest climb and the second-longest descent. The roads at the South end of Death Valley are pretty crummy, too, adding to the fun. On the other hand this is the halfway point, after this it is all downhill, at least in terms of mileage :)
The stage begins with about 20 miles of rollers from Furnace Creek to Badwater. Just after leaving Furnace Creek you reach Badwater Road and turn right, following Route 178 (Route 190 heads East into the mountains).
Badwater is the low point of the ride, at 282 feet below sea level. (In fact it is the low point of any ride, being the lowest spot in North America :) It can get really hot here, but fortunately it will be late at night or early in the morning when you ride through here. From Badwater you continue on South on a pretty flat road for another 15 miles, before turning to the East to begin the climb up to Jubilee Pass. The road seems worse after passing Ashford Mill, with lots of ruts and potholes.
After turning onto Jubilee Pass road, the climb begins, gradually at first and working up to 6-7% in places. After about 5 miles you reach Jubilee Pass (1,285 feet) and then get a brief respite; a descent for about a mile. Then the road kicks up again and winds through the mountains for another 9 miles to Salsberry Pass (3,315 feet), the grade here is about 5%. From there you descend for about 15 miles gradually down into Shoshone. The road gets better after the Salsberry Pass and is fine down the descent.
After the descent on Route 178 it joins Route 127 and you turn South, reaching Shoshone in a couple of miles. There isn’t much to Shoshone; if you’re going too fast you might miss it :)
I was thinking of sleeping at some point on the ride, maybe for 90 minutes in Furnace Creek. But curiosity got the best of me. How far could I go in 24 hours? Let’s find out. My crew will get the sleep for me, which they did sportingly.
Chasing down The Brooklyn Beast, I hustle to Badwater. I end up making it to mile 275 at the 24hr point and celebrate with a coffee break. We heat up the hot water in the van and use a french press to brew a small batch from Yirgacheffe roasted by Oblique in Portland. The crew hands my over a coffee mug and I hand them my food bottle and soak in the sunrise in Death Valley.
Math can be deceptive. 275 miles in 24 hours means 550 miles in 48 hrs, right? I start feeling a bit optimistic about finishing. I know I have some climbs ahead, that I am currently at sea level and the race finishes well above sea level, that I have yet to take a nap, that the climb out of Death Valley will get hot if I procrastinate.
I was not fast enough. Even though the climb is a lot calmer than Townes Pass, the fatigue of 300 miles has worn on me. My heart rate only maxes out around 130 or 140, but I feel out of breath. More yellow crystals come out of my nose and I curse Trona audibly. The crew sees me slowing down on the climb and offer me an ice sock. I brought along some soccer socks that can be filled with ice and wrapped around my neck and into my jersey. And that’s exactly what we did. Instantly my body temperature begins to drop and my speed picks up.
Around noon, I finally summit! As I write this, I think “Seriously, it took me 4 hours to get out of Death Valley!” At this pace I am behind whatever schedule I thought I would be on. We cruise on to Shoshone and the crew gets a little jump to refuel. As we make the turn to Shoshone and eventually Baker, I feel the feeling I have been waiting for. After 300 miles of struggling I finally have tailwinds pushing me at 20+ mph.
Sunday Stage 5: 56 miles and 2,186 feet gain to Baker
|If there’s an easy stage in this race, this is it; one gradual climb up to the Ibex Pass, and then a long, long descent down into Baker. When I drove through there was even a tailwind, YMMV. There are a few rollers but the road is mostly flat and in good shape. There may be some traffic.
The stage begins with about 5 miles of flat, and then there’s a false flat / climb up to the Ibex Pass over the next 5 miles or so. There are a lot of abandoned mines in this area, and as the sun comes up you might be able to look around and enjoy them!
After the Ibex pass it is all downhill to Baker – about 40 miles of rolling descent or flatland. Enjoy it while you can :) That is not a misprint by the way, you will be descending for over two hours – although it won’t be coasting, you will have to pedal. Whew.
Baker is the ONLY chance to stock up on gas, food, water, etc. before the finish; there is nothing in Kelso or Amboy. It is a cute little town on Interstate 15, billing itself as “the gateway to Death Valley”. Much of the town feels 1950s-ish.
Time Station #5 is on the right, in a paved lot across from the Mad Greek restaurant, pretty much in the center of Baker (just before reaching Interstate 15).
Before taking off, I sample some cut pineapple but it fermented in the cooler. The crew is hanging out with Bill “Onager” and relaxing but I want to take advantage of this tail wind so I keep heading down the road. This stretch Ole calls easy, but it isn’t the same for fixies. Yeah the climb is mild and fast up Ibex. My soft shorts and soft seat were finally cutting into my skin. My tender rear end earned the name “Stego has a sore ass.” The descent is long and fast across the desert. I have to use resistance and brakes to keep myself from spinning out. Once I finally get to the bottom and begin to climb, the heat of the day has come on and the road to Baker drags on and on. I recall watching Buzzard weaving on this stretch, hallucinating that there were three roads he could take on this one road stretch of desert highway. I am so glad I don’t have his problems.
The crew is fresh having raided Onager’s stock of food. They are eager to get me off powdered drinks and feed my some potatoes. When the give me pineapple slices from a can I come alive. I see riders and start catching them, leapfrogging with Running Terrier. I start doing more math and estimate my ETA at 5:30pm. Both my captain and I came to the same conclusion that we would part ways around 5:10 so that they could find bread and get me my much desired turkish coffee at the Mad Greek. I order 3 cups, one for each of the time stations ahead. It was nice that we were in sync and I enjoyed being out on the road to baker for myself.
Sunday Stage 6: 35 miles and 2,920 feet gain to Kelso
|This is the first of two short stages in and out of the Mojave National Preserve – all desert. You will climb 2,000 feet gradually over 25 miles, then descend for about 10 miles into Kelso.
You go straight South from Baker on Route 127; the road here is straight and flat, the surface is good. There are volcanic cones along the climb to the left, and mountains to the right with mining ruins (Kelso is an old mining town). It is probably going to be hot and getting hotter.
The descent down into Kelso is gradual, flat, and straight. Kelso is nearly abandoned, an old mining town on the railroad now sustained by tourists; there is an outstanding Mojave National Preserve Visitor’s Center at the Kelso Depot.
Time Station #6 is on the right, just after crossing over the railroad tracks. There are basically no facilities in Kelso, other than a bathroom and pay phone, so plan on having enough gas, food, water etc. to make it to the finish from here.
35 miles only? The first half of the race was made up of longer stages but the second half has more time stations and helps break up the ride.
I decide to ride alone a bit longer while the crew gets their gear and supplies together. It was 5:35 so I would only get maximum 25 minutes ahead before I would have to wait for them to follow direct behind me, but this was my stretch. The road to Kelso is a steady grade meant for fixies, and with the cooling temperatures I knew I would excel on this stretch.
I pass Running Terrier doing maybe double his speed. I feel a little good about this but know that he has been puking and has not eaten since probably Death Valley. I slow down and offer him some food or soda when my crew catches up but he declines my offer. I take in the cooling desert and blast on ahead trying to make some miles before being forced to wait for me crew.
At 6pm, I pull over and the Terrier team catches up. Where is my team? I decide to eat a banana, stretch, and walk around looking at the rocks on the side of the road. After 5-10 minutes the crew catches up to me. We put on lights, get a playlist together, and I eat a sandwich. They were actually held back in Baker because they jumped the time station volunteer’s car. I feel pretty proud about my crew.
We push onward and upward and I notice I struggle to get my heart rate over 120. The sunset in the Mojave Preserve is definitely one of the best I have seen in my life but I manage to hold in my tears this time. The red lights of racers ahead call to me and I start chasing them down. I do a 20 mph pass of Terrier again and my crew is exhilarated. They want me to pass the rider in front but I opt to mellow my pace and conserve. I still have 100 miles to go tonight!
The road up starts to get rough, rougher than any other section of the road. My steel bike has S&S couplers which absorb some vertical shock and I double-wrapped my handlebar grip tape. I was prepared for this part of the road and I loved every minute. I push my weight back, relax my upper body, loosen my grip, and let myself fly. The descent into Kelso feels like cyclocross and I am dodging potholes and tracing the best possible line to ride in. It definitely wakes me up and I cruise into Kelso. It is pitch black. I look at my hands and two giant blisters at the base. I guess my loose hand positions was a bit too loose.
We use the bathroom and chat with some motorcyclists in Kelso. They are a bit upset, complaining about teams riding well over the yellow lines. We tell them that it is not us and ask them to let us know if they saw a name on the side of the van we could report them. They could not but I hope they did. The road was not entirely calm that night and we still had many miles to go.
Sunday Stage 7: 34 miles and 2,280 feet gain to Amboy
|The shortest stage, but not the easiest, with a grueling climb out from Kelso and then a long fast descent down to Amboy.
The climb out from Kelso into the Granite Mountains is about 2,000 feet spread over 15 miles; a gradual but continuous ascent. It should be nice and hot for this stage, mid afternoon on Sunday. (Well, depending on your schedule; some riders will get here in the dark…) The road quality is good. The Granite Mountains are interesting and present a different look to the other mountains in the area, which is good because you’ll be looking at them for a long time…
The descent from the Granite Mountain summit down into Amboy is pretty steep, losing 3,000 feet over the course of 20 miles, with some sections of rough road. This is going to flash by after the long climb up to the Granite summit.
Time Station #7 is on the right just before you reach the National Trails Highway (formerly known as Route 66)!
We start climbing and I can see several crews behind me, two ahead. The climb looks like it ends right up there, but when we got to “there” we have more climbing to go. I didn’t anticipate this climb to take so long and didn’t fuel or layer right for it. The crew wants to do a pee break and so I get a chance to change layers and eat another banana. And I finish the last cup of coffee from The Mad Greek.
The whole climb up you hear a humming which is coming from either electrical lines or a huge flock of birds. I see out of the corner of my eyes a blinking light. And the light starts to keep pace with me. It looks like a firefly, but the crew rejects the notion that I see fireflies. I don’t care, as my fireflies are pretty cool and they keep me company for several miles of the climb. Maybe those are stars and I am having depth perception issues. Or maybe my crew just can’t see clearly outside of their protective steel box.
My speedometer has somehow added nearly 10 miles to the course and my math ends up garbled. I summit way later than I thought I would, and then brace myself for the 20 mile descent. Terrier passes me on the ridge and I wished I had a geared bike for this stretch. I know I am borderline with a DNF (Did Not Finish, meaning my time isn’t recorded next to my name in the results) so I tuck into my bike, rotate my hips, and hustle the whole 20 miles at 22 mph, 120+ rpm. I see Terrier in front of me getting further and further ahead of me but I don’t stop. Not even to eat or drink. I just spin and tap the brakes for an hour. My butt starts to feel tender all over and so I find a way to pivot my hips so that my butt is in the air. Probably some of the worst and most awkward cycling form ever seen, but it helped me make it to Amboy. The road flattens out and I spin a little faster as we approach the turn to Amboy. I still see no sign of a time station and worry that I am too far behind schedule. I tell me team that we need to make a quick stop and may have to take a picture and text Megan/Mike with our arrival time.
After a few minutes of anxiety I finally I see the time station. I pull in and collapse.
I am relieved it was 12:30am and the station closed at 3am. The time station crew laugh at me, “there are no fireflies out here!” But even with that crushing news it feels great to be so far ahead. My crew starts taking pictures and then we decide to roll on down the road. I felt like a winner. That feeling doesn’t last.
Monday Stage 8: 58 miles and 4,170 feet gain to 29 Palms
|The final stage, and it isn’t easy; at this point in a two-day adventure it will feel brutally long, and there is a decent amount of climbing, with a fairly steep ascent in the middle and then a long false flat to the finish.
You start by passing through Amboy, which is a shell of its former self when it was a way station on Route 66. Some real Americana here. There are no services available in Amboy. Be careful not to miss the left turn after leaving Amboy; Route 66 is cool, but finishing the 508 is cooler!
Heading South from Amboy, you go for about 20 miles due South through the desert before coming to the climb up to Sheephole Summit. Even in a car this seemed like a long way. The ascent is about 8 miles, at about 5%, getting somewhat steeper at the top.
After cresting Sheephole Summit there’s a steep descent down the other side, over about 5 miles. At the bottom of the descent the road turns West and heads across the desert through Wonder Valley to Twentynine Palms.
Now you have 20 miles straight West, with a slight grade upward, and [possibly] a headwind. This is going to seem like it takes forever… The road is straight as an arrow with rollers, the surface is not very good until you get near 29 Palms where it has been recently resurfaced.
Finally as you get into civilization (!), you turn left onto Utah Trail, and then right onto 29 Palms Highway. After about 5 miles through the town of 29 Palms, and one last climb, you turn left on Panorama Avenue and reach the FINISH. If you are riding as a team, the whole team can finish together. Congratulations!
The home stretch. The final climb. The last hoorah. 58 miles in 6+ hours. That should be doable. We roll through Amboy and make our final turn until 29 Palms. Then I start to feel tired. And cold. The more I layer up the warmer and sleepier I get. It’s 2am Monday morning and I have slept for only 15 minutes since Saturday morning.
It starts with a little bit of dozing off and struggling to keep my eyes open. Then the white lines in the road become hard to follow and I start wobbling a little. I give a death stare at the fog line hoping to keep it in place, and then a lady under the road grabs the flog line and starts waving it around! I pull over and tell my crew.
They tell me we need to get going and I ask them why? The race is over, I insist. Why are they still in the car? They should grab their bikes and I should get in the car. This makes no sense at all why I am still on my bike.
I lost my mind in Amboy for sure. And I don’t know if there is any way to get it back. My crew brews a coffee.
I can’t wait. I start to realize that I am not finished and start to realize that I need to keep pedaling. But how can I stay awake on such a long stretch? I need something to look forward to. So I look at my clock. When the last digit hits 1 and 5 I will have a grape. At 2 and 6 I will chase the grape with a soda. At 9 I will have a sip of food, and at 0 a mint to chase down the food flavor. Maybe next time I will do a coffee at 5. This cycle of activities goes on for about 30 minutes and it works! I am awake and back in the game. I get out of the saddle and climb. I don’t know how long the climb is but I recall how much I struggled with my past two crew experiences on this climb. I get out of the saddle and start chasing the lights in the distance. The climb is definitely easier than I remember and I reach the top way quicker than I imagined.
After a fast descent then we have a false flat where we gain 1000 feet in 25 miles. It’s 5am so I have two hours to go. As long as I am riding faster than 12.5 mph I’m good. But each time I look down I am at 10 mph. I get out of the saddle and sprint but I seem to slow down to 9 mph. This is hustle time, and I recall Nicole Honda’s trick of asking for flasks. I ask my team for a flask. The word flask sounds a lot like food … in walkie talkie speak. So after a little back-and-forth I get a flask of Gel. I pound it and another and I start sprinting feverishly trying to keep my speed up around 14+ mph. The clock strikes 6am and I am still outside of 29 Palms. 1 hour on the clock, and there are some climbs in 29 Palms. The fear of DNF-ing is real and I hustle even more. How could I have been so dumb to think that I had finished at 2am?! I push hard and am sweating, getting my heart rate up well above the 110 it has become comfortable with. Finally we turn onto Utah. And then onto 29 Palms.
It’s nearly 6:30am and we are going up a climb, and then I see the hotel. I finally feel like I am going to make it. I relax and cool my hustle to a fast but refreshing pace. I get closer and the crew tells me Annick is waiting for me at the finish. 6:40am and I can almost see here. I joke around with the crew that we should make a u-turn. 6:45am.
There are crowds cheering, Swarm friends and other recent finishers are there. Cheers are so loud some riders awake from their exhausted slumbers in their comfy rooms to check out the noise. I finally realize that I have won the fixed gear solo category, becoming the 11th finisher in the race’s history!
I’m speechless and tell him I lost my marbles in Amboy. He reassures me that many people do the same.
As we are celebrating and watching the sun come up, the clock hits 6:50am and we see another rider making his way to the finish line. It’s Red Velvet Ant, the guy from Poorman’s PBP I met. I can’t believe he finished! He must have pulled off a bigger miracle than I did since there didn’t seem to be anyone close behind me when I was climbing Sheephole. We hug and I watch as he gets his medal.
The clock hits 7am and the race is over. The team and I pack up our stuff and head straight over to the rider breakfast where so many of our friends and fans were hanging out. Riders, crew, and officials went through an intense weekend and we are all a bit closer after the experience.
Some Notes on Supplies:
- Ran out of bread, needed 3 loafs and couldn’t buy more sliced bread in Baker.
- Soccer sock filled with ice helped up shoshone
- Only needed 4 water bottles, labeled “food” and “water.” I labeled my food powders “hill” and “flat.” Flasks should be called “Gel” because flat sounds like flask.
- 2 trash bags was enough
- I wish I made pasta or rice and threw it in a burrito. Pasta salad is also a pretty good thing and manageable while on the bike if in a tortilla.
- We ran out of ice in Baker but had surplus of water, used only 10 gallons of water plus ice melt during the entire race.
- 2 bunches of bananas are enough. I bought four and they are going bad in my fridge now.
- Hammer flasks and several flavors helped. The expresso was too thick for the final mad dash. I probably finished 50 servings over the entire race.
- Spare chain, didn’t need but glad I had
- Spare gloves helped
- Glove mits were fine. Didn’t need full finger gloves and am glad I didn’t have to use them because that would’ve been one more clothing change.
- I had two spare tires, didn’t need either but nice to have at least one.
- Didn’t need second helmet. I don’t know why I thought it would be refreshing to change helmets between day and night.
- Needed thermos cup for coffee and silverware for noodles that I never got around to eating. If I reached Shoshone in the cold I would’ve eaten hot food but there was never time to do so.
- Bandana to keep nose warm and keep fumes out in trona
- Clear and daytime glasses were all I needed. Polarized lenses played with my mind and I would not bring them to future ultras. I had trouble telling how far the ground was from my feet and so I quickly switched back to non-polarized shades.
- Spare jersey felt great. Wished I had spare shorts that I liked. I did a shorts change but the new shorts were just too tight so I changed back.
- Almonds and chips during stomach problems helped. Soda water helped at many times when bloated but not when nauseous.
- PA System was fun. There were lots of stretches where we didn’t use the speakers, but the few sections where we used them were very productive.
- The walkie talkies were good and I am glad we practiced, but the wind and incomplete planning aided to frustrating communication misfires.
Stats from odometer:
- 518.54 miles (it should’ve been 509.5)
- 12:42 avg moving speed
- 127 avg heart rate
- 41:44 ride time
- 27,707 ft climbed (it should’ve been 35,000)
- 14% time off bike, similar to my fast brevets
Photo credits: Wayne and Chris Kostman, Ron Jones, Kat Espino, Stevo Rood, Jim Harris, and Gene Smith.
And P.S. check this out. I now own the Stegosaurus totem.