Sunday, October 28, 2007

2006 - Fall from Hell's Gate

October 29, 2006 Fall Death Valley Double Century

After 175 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing in Death Valley, I'm feeling pretty good while rounding the corner at Hell's Gate. A momentary stop for turn-point verification appears to be a small personal victory as I pass a number of riders who are refueling in preparation for the final push into Furnace Creek. A little more than 20 miles ahead is the culmination of a season's long training effort that has been a journey of priceless experience.

Riding through the silence of a Death Valley night, I think back to the first century ride of the year; the McClinchy Mile in Arlington, Washington. 111 miles in mid-March that proved to be a six-plus hour challenge to endure the elements of wind and cold of the Pacific Northwest. The same sensation from that frigid March morning's cold air rushing over my body seems real to me now as the descent from Hell's Gate slaps me back to reality. Plunging headlong into a place that many have called Hell should not feel this cold.

Climbing 2000 feet of elevation in the 7 miles to Hell's Gate had been a sweaty affair. Now the cooling effect of evaporation was working against me as the desert night sliced all the way to my core. Succumbing to hypothermia in Death Valley? I would have laughed out loud if I could have only stopped my body from shivering and my teeth from chattering. Instead of laughing I spent every second of that black descent with both hands full of brakes just trying to hang onto the bike. The situation cascades deeper into Hell as I can tell that my stomach will soon become the biggest loser in my body's battle to keep vital systems intact.

A grievous lighting equipment miscalculation further exacerbated an already bad situation. With poor night lighting equipment it is impossible to tell where the pavement ends and the desert begins. It is a struggle to keep the wheels as close as possible to the faded yellow center stripe and I find myself frustrated with the California Highway Department. I wonder how many years it has been since they’ve stepped as much as a foot in Hell. The sad reality is that the highway department had nothing to do with my poor decision to use inadequate lights on this ride. My mountain biking lights would have been a better choice even if they are a bit heavier than the mistake now fitted to my handlebars. There’s no time for these distractions now.

Somewhere I read about hallucinations due to sleep deprivation during long rides. This ride’s not long enough for mind tricks. I'm sure a couple of helmet flashing UFO’s and a sagebrush rooster don't count as real hallucinations. Just over twelve hours isn’t long enough to feel the effects of sleep deprivation. But, I can't stop yawning and my mind dangerously strays away from the faded yellow stripe in the middle of the road. I can’t help but wonder if hypothermia affects the brain as well as the body.

After a brief incursion into the desert for some off-road night riding, I manage to get back onto the pavement without donating any skin. Scoffing out loud I allow my thoughts to wander to a similar off-road incident that I had on last June’s Flying Wheels Century ride. I recall that at that time my wife Desiree had a good laugh and I consider the fact that I should have learned my lesson by now. That beautiful June ride was Desiree’s first century. With a big climb at mile 83, Desiree motored up that hill like it was merely a distraction.

Earlier this morning I left Desiree at Scotty’s Castle in Grapevine Canyon. She had completed the climb just like we had trained for it; strong. I’m sure she was not entirely happy with the hill training that I put us both through this season. This afternoon at the halfway point in Desiree’s 108 mile task it looked like Goat Trail hill repeats, Stevens Pass punishment, and finally a Chipmunk Canyon primer in the Eastern Sierra Nevada made today’s climbing task just another afternoon ride for her. She must be back at The Furnace Creek Ranch by now. I’m confident that she made it just fine.

I need to concentrate on myself for now. I had better get off of the bike and gather my focus. This is the first of three breaks off of the bike on the descent from Hell’s Gate. My hands, legs and arms are freezing up tight and the shivering is making it difficult to stay on the road. Random thoughts run through my mind during the brief stops in the dark; a recollection of today’s easy climb up Grapevine Canyon and past Scotty’s Castle to the border crossing; a rolling conversation with a Furnace Creek 508 veteran who eventually disappeared into the heat of midday at the Nevada Highway 95 turn point; the awesome sight of Ubehebe Crater and the terrible road surface on that stage.

Finally the road flattens out and I tell myself that it’s time to pedal. There’s no response. I tell myself again, “It’s time to pedal!” No response. There’s an obvious disconnect between my brain and my body. After a few tries my legs complete a couple of shaky revolutions. The pain is excruciating on each pedal stroke and I’m struggling to find any cadence that works.

After what seemed like hours of slowly weaving down this road to nowhere, I can barely make out a demoralizing cluster of lights glimmering in the distance. From here, mired in my own private Hell, it appears that the lights are unreachable. I think that I could be finished and I can almost hear that cluster of lights laughing at my misfortune.

Fumbling my way off of the bike to walk it off and to think for a while, I talk myself into enjoying the moment. Completely alone in the dark here in the heart of Death Valley, I can feel the Funeral Mountains looking down on me from the east. Above the landscape and off in the western sky, the moon is skimming through a transparent veil of high cirrus clouds. From below sea level, looking out of my place in Hell I can see the sun shinning brightly on the surface of the moon. What happened to the heat of the day? I had not considered just how quickly the desert turns from friend to foe. I feel so abandoned by the sun’s light and warmth that dissipated as quickly as a wisp of smoke in the wind. The desert surrounds me with a deep silence interrupted only by the occasional sounds of small groups of riders whizzing past me at incredible speeds; more demoralization.

As I walk along, my teeth are no longer chattering but I am unable to stop my body from shivering. A couple of hiccups later I donate all of the liquid left in my nauseous stomach to the desert; my shivering stops and I feel better knowing that some small parched creature of the night may discover happiness in my misfortune. I feel good enough to tell a passing support vehicle that I’m doing fine and I’ll make it back to Furnace Creek. It’s obvious to me that I was not very convincing. They circle back around a couple of times to give me an opportunity to change my mind. The support on this ride has been fantastic and I appreciate their concern. But, there’s no way I’m going to get swept up by a support van. Certainly not after all I’ve been through to get this far. I have too much invested in this effort to quit now. I am going to ride to the finish on my bike or I am going to walk the rest of the way. I will finish!

Back on the bike the short walk and the desert donation have had a small effect on my ability to pedal again. A few more small groups of riders pass me and I can hear some of them discuss my predicament. My snail’s pace and unsteady wobbling down the road is a dead giveaway. Most of their encouraging words are absorbed in the silence of the valley. One passing rider yells back to me. The words that I hear are, “You’re almost there. Only thirty miles to go.” Did he say, “Only Thirty miles to go?” Did I hear that right?

The far off demoralizing cluster of lights that I saw earlier must be Furnace Creek after all. I don’t remember those now unreachable thirty miles from earlier this morning. All I can remember is the 17 miles of a super fast pace line from the ranch all the way to the Stovepipe Wells turnoff. Where in Hell is the Stovepipe Wells turnoff? How is it possible that there are thirty more miles to go? I hate that cluster of glimmering lights and I am angry at the thought of thirty miles to go. Telling myself that anger is counter productive I ignore the distant lights and just fix my eyes to the road and pedal. I think that the passing rider must be out of his mind with exhaustion. I am sure that one of us is delirious; at this moment however, I’m not sure which one of us it is.

Soon after I left my “thirty miles to go” math problem unsolved in the desert, the answer reveals itself on a Death Valley National Park information sign smiling at me from the side of the road. It says, “Furnace Creek ¼ Mile.” It wasn’t, “thirty miles to go.” The passing rider must have said, “three miles to go.” I guess hypothermia can affect hearing too.

Just ahead the dim lights of the Furnace Creek Ranch give way to the finish line tent set up at the gate. I limp across the line at 14 hours and 9 minutes. My beautiful wife Desiree is there to meet me with a smile and a hug. After I hand her my bike and take off my shoes, we slowly make our way back to our room. I have accustomed myself to never ending ride segments during the day today and the final hotel stage was nearly as difficult as the first stage earlier this morning. But with Desiree’s humor, help, and encouragement, this is definitely the most satisfying moment of the past 14 hours.

2006 – Journey to Tomesha (Death Valley)

"Ground Afire" is the meaning of the Indians' name for what is now known as Death Valley. And in the height of summer there is no better name for this sun-tortured trench between blistered ranges. But when a group of forty-niners [1849] blundered into it, they renamed it Death Valley.

After spending the bulk of last season building up to my first century, I really thought that I could be ready for the 508 by October. But a nagging IT Band irritation from a poor bike fit gave me a good excuse for not registering. The reality was that I had a long way to go before I had a chance at making it to Twentynine Palms.

Since I wasn’t going to register for the 508, I signed up for the Fall Death Valley Double Century. From an experience perspective, riding two hundred miles in Death Valley would give me an opportunity to check out the desert climbs and recon some of the 508’s route. I wanted to see Townes Pass first hand.

Before fall, I felt like I needed to do a double century on my own. I had been thinking about riding over the North Cascades Highway to Winthrop. The first half of the route looked good; plenty of water stops along the way. The last half however appeared to be more interesting; no roadside water at all.

In late August the weather and my fitness level seemed just about right. I left the house before sunrise and the first hundred and twenty miles went great. I made it to Newhalem in just over six and a half hours. With no water stops for the next seventy three miles, I filled both of my large water bottles and my 70 ml water bladder. Then I crammed multiple bottles inside the oversized pack that I brought for this stage.

The five thousand foot climb over both Rainy Pass and Washington Pass was demoralizing. Heading west from Newhalem, Highway 20 undulates up and down for over forty miles before it drops back down towards Mazama. Just as I’d crest one rise, a steep downhill section negated almost every foot of elevation gained. It felt like climbing a steep sand dune; three steps up and then sink two steps down. (The mapping data shows over 13,000 feet of total elevation gain: )

By late October I had not fully recovered from the Winthrop ride when I finished the Fall Death Valley Double Century. It wasn’t easy; but I proved to myself that I could ride two hundred miles. This time I thought, “If I could ride two hundred miles, it can’t be too much harder to ride five hundred miles”.

Friday, October 26, 2007

2005 - The 508 was a Burr Under My Saddle

My cat Ozzy was compelled to jump. He’d jump up there almost everyday. I’m sure he knew there was no way for him to get down. Once he did it, it was over for him until I’d climb up on the roof and get him. Pouring rain or searing afternoon sun, it didn’t matter. I watched him do it time after time. The look on his face was one of terrified resignation. He didn’t want to jump. He was compelled to jump. I know now how he felt.

In 2005 the 508 was a burr under my saddle. That number gnawed at me every day. I spent time on the internet researching everything that I could find about it. I put a 508 graphic on my PC at work. The image was a tiny speck of a cyclist in the distance on a desert road. The graphic had a quote by Seneca the Elder, “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult”.

Early in the season my wife Desiree and I decided that we should get road bikes. Since she was lukewarm on the whole mountain bike thing, we thought that road biking together would be fun; I secretly recalled the 508. She and I spent a few weeks checking out the road scene and riding as many demo bikes as we could find. We eventually chose the Trek 2100. I think that we must have looked like a couple of dorks riding identical bikes. We also had fancy riding clothes that matched our bikes. We laughed about it and called ourselves "Team Troili".

The more I rode, the more I wanted to ride. I heard people talk about century riding and I had no idea what that meant. Once I figured it out, the prospect of riding a hundred miles sounded like a fair challenge. “Besides”, I thought to myself, “If I could ride one hundred miles, it can’t be too much harder to ride five hundred miles”.

I was sure that big rides were going to take a ton of food. I wondered how I was going to carry it all. That question was the beginning of an investigation into unsupported endurance cycling. I poured over tons of material on long distance riding. One internet article mentioned Steve "Beaver" Born and his "Double Furnace Creek 508". Now I felt much better about my dream to ride the 508; I figured that if this “Beaver” dude did it twice in a row, I could definitely do it once. I had never been serious about riding a road bike. I had not even ridden a century. Now my ego and I were conspiring to ride over 500 miles.

In August of 2005 I finally completed my first true century. The ride was 110 miles from my home in Everett, over Stevens Pass to Leavenworth. The total trip time was seven hours. Excluding breaks, the actual saddle time was just over 6 hours; 110 miles in 6 hours over a 4032 foot mountain pass seemed like a reasonable result for my first century. My reaction was, “Four more century rides like that and I’ll be doing the 508 in 30 hours; no problem”. I have often failed to separate fantasy from reality.

Monday, October 22, 2007

2004 - A Dream in a Goodie Bag

Flying Horseshoe MTB Festival, Cle Elem, WA
NORBA Cross Country Race - 06/05/2004

I was pissed to find out that I'd have to buy a NORBA License to compete in the Men's Pro Division at the Flying Horseshoe MTB Festival in Cle Elem. For the past year or two, I had been crushing the guys that I ride with every Thursday night. As far as I was concerned, I was going to crush the field in my first bike race of any kind. I reluctantly registered as a single event Sport Class rider.

Goodie bag in hand, my huge ego and I went back to the parking lot to wait for the start of the "Men - Sport - Master - 40-49". I tossed the unopened bag in the back of my truck and turned to watch the start of the Men's Pro race. Immediately after the starting gun it was obvious that I had no business even considering that I belonged in the Pro group; the riders disappeared up the hill faster than I could ride down it.

I had no idea of the significance of that goodie bag now wrinkled in a heap. A piece of the crumpled contents would later change my life. A tiny little cache of minerals and a pouch of banana flavored carbohydrate sat unnoticed for weeks. Occasionally I'd look at the bag. But it was only a bitter reminder of the punishment that my ego had to absorb at the Flying Horseshoe MTB race.

When my goodie bag finally fell out of my truck, instead of just chucking the whole thing in the trash, I opened it and took a look at the funny white capsules and the weird looking silver pouch that said "Hammer Gel - Banana". I went to the web address on the packet and found the world of endurance fueling.

A strange number was mentioned again and again. I had never heard of Furnace Creek and what the hell did 508 mean? I quickly discovered what it meant: 508 miles with 35,000 feet of elevation that must be completed within a 48 hour time limit. I thought, "Impossible!...But I can do it".

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Preface - 2007 Furnace Creek 508

Moments are to be seized and savored. This moment took three years to seize and it will take a lifetime to savor. (10.08.07 45:21:31).

This moment was forty five hours and twenty one minutes of heaven and hell. At 4:21 AM on October 8, 2007 three years of training and preparation for this single event became the fulfillment of a dream. My obsession was to finish the Furnace Creek 508. But it became much more to me than just finishing. It has become a life lesson that has changed me forever. Many things are crystal clear to me now because of the 508; Things that had been shades of gray have become a stunning black and white.

I could not have accomplished this solo finish without my beautiful wife Desiree. Her selfless support of my purely selfish goal is humbling. For three years I spent countless days away from home on training rides. Desiree never complained. She planned our meals based on my nutritional demands and timed them to coincide with my always late arrivals. She selflessly volunteered to participate in the 508 as a crew member. Over 45 hours in our crew van and she smiled every time our eyes met. I love you Desiree. [457]

It has been two weeks since I crossed the finish line in Twentynine Palms and I have spent hours trying to recall exactly what happened. Unfortunately, I remember very little of the event. Brief images flash across my brain. But honestly, the only things that I remember are the things that disturbed my focus.