Furnace Creek 508 Race Report

by Emily O’Brien

This year’s 508 started out feeling very different from last year’s. Instead of wondering whether I was in over my head and out of my mind, I felt confident that I’d have no trouble improving over my time from last year. I was still on my beloved 1974 Raleigh Professional, with pretty much the same setup as last year, which has served me well for countless thousands of miles, including two 508’s now, the Boston Brevet Series, and the BMB. It’s not the lightest bike, and it isn’t new, and it has only one gear and no freewheel, but it’s seen me through a lot and it’s very comfortable. It’s been a faithful steed, and I hope it will continue to be for many years to come.

I had two main goals this year: to take a chunk out of last year’s time, and to make it up Salsberry Pass without getting off to walk. I walked some on Salsberry last year, but it was mostly because it’s a long, hot grind, not because it’s all that steep.

My crew this year was my Dad, Michael O’Brien, and my boyfriend Jake Kassen. Jake had been on my crew last year, and is a very strong long distance fixed gear rider, who knows my riding style and habits better than anyone.

There was no detour this year, so at 7 AM sharp we all rode out of the parking lot on the regular race route. A few minutes into the morning group cruise, one of the two small Cateye LED lights I’d mounted to my fork got caught in my spokes (must have gotten knocked when my bike was in the van) and went flying. Nothing worse came of it though, and I had other lights, so I didn’t worry about it.
It was pretty chilly when we started out, and it stayed chilly for longer than last year; when I made the right turn to where all the support vans were parked, I still didn’t want to take off any of my warm clothing. Jake and my Dad had climbed up the cliff on the other side of the street from the vans, and were cheering me from their perch when I rode past.

The early hours of the 508 take you over some moderate climbs that will make you pay attention, but nothing ridiculous. You also start to see roads like you never see on the East Coast: long, straight lines that go on forever until they disappear into a hazy mirage in the distance before hitting some large landform and then glancing off and heading in a new, equally straight direction. They’re either inspiring or intimidating, depending on how you look. You see some tiny object or landmark in the distance that doesn’t seem to get any closer, no matter how long you ride. But on the other hand, you have this long road stretched out in front of you, and another one after that, and another. You feel like the whole world is stretched out at your wheels, and your tires are just hungry for those expanses of pavement.

There was a fair bit of headwind, enough to make me ride hard into it, but not enough to feel discouraging. On the flats I passed a lot of riders who had passed me on descents, coasting while I spun the pedals like crazy.

I reached the first time station in California City and used the indoor facility at the gas station, then headed out. Shortly thereafter, I got to take an unanticipated break when I realized that both of my tires were flat. Jake took the front and I took the rear, and we discovered that both tires were stuck full of cactus thorns. In hopes that they would be a bit more puncture resistant, we took off the Michelin Krylion tires and installed the Megamium ones I’d brought as spares. Jake admonished me that I should have used the Megamium ones in the first place, because they matched my color scheme so much better! Jake and my Dad apparently pulled a bunch more thorns out of the Krylions later, too. I’m glad we don’t have thorns like that back East!

I rolled into the Trona time station later than I had last year, but feeling fresher. There were more people still there than there had been the previous year, so I felt encouraged even though I was a bit behind schedule. I chatted with some folks from Team Bonobo, who were well on their way to their awesome final time for the first fixed gear relay team. I attributed my later arrival in Trona to more headwind and maybe the flat tires.

It was pretty well on the way to being dark when I left Trona, and I remembered the pavement after Trona and before the turn onto the road to Townes Pass being fairly wretched. However, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered, and I rolled over it without being nearly as uncomfortable as I’d anticipated.

I’d forgotten how much fun the descent into the Panamint Valley is. I bet it’s a blast on a geared bike, but even on a fixed gear it’s better than the greatest roller coaster evere built. If curvy descents are your cup of tea, it’s about the most fun you can have on the whole course.

When I got to the base of Townes Pass, there were a lot more other riders still there than there had been last year. I started climbing, and when the road got steep I got off to walk. I got back on when it levelled out, and got off again when it got steep. I walked comfortably, and Jake and my Dad played music for me over the speaker. When I first asked them to put on some music, I heard a flute playing Locatelli….. Hey, that’s a dirty trick! “Hey, no, put something else on, anything but that!” I said, realizing that it was a recording from one of my own concerts.

All in all, Townes Pass went by much more quickly than I remember from last year, and when I crested the summit I felt no desire to stop. I passed a good handful of riders before I rolled over the top, knowing I’d see them again going about twice as fast as me on the way down. On the way down Towne Pass, I tightened up my front brake with the brake release (I keep the barrel adjuster screwed out so that the pads are in normal position with the release open; that way I can flip the release to make a hands-free drag that I can modulate) to drag on the steeper parts of the descent to give my hands a rest, and flipped it open again at the bottom.

When I got into Furnace Creek, it was still later than it had been last year, but I figured that if I didn’t hang around too long I wouldn’t be too far behind schedule. My stomach was feeling pretty gassy, and I wasn’t feeling so great about food, but kept trying to eat anyway. I took a nap sometime after Furnace Creek, feeling myself getting slower and sleepier.

By dawn, I felt myeslf dragging, and I was pretty behind schedule compared with last year. As I saw Badwater up the road (I didn’t see Badwater last year, because it was still dark) my stomach decided it had had enough, and decided to toss out everything I’d put in it. I leaned over and vomited over my left shoulder, and pulled over when I reached Badwater. While I used the outhouse, I heard Jake talking to another rider outside who had dropped out of the race, and started to think that maybe dropping out wasn’t a bad idea. I was so far behind that I was doubtful I’d beat my previous time, and I had already puked with the sun barely up on the second day.

But then I remembered Salsberry. Last year, I got off and walked on Salsberry for reasons that were really more mental than topographical. I was probably not going to accomplish my goal of improving on last year’s time, but damnit if I was going to give up on the one goal that was still within reach: making it up Salsberry without stopping or walking. I got myself back onto the bike and started riding.

The road to Jubilee Pass was longer and hillier than I remembered, and the sun was starting to peek over the tops of the mountains. But on the other hand, I was getting a daytime view of Death Valley that most 508ers never get to see, because it’s too dark.

Mountains in the Northeast are much older and more worn by water and wind and ice, and are wrapped in magnificent draperies of green that obscure their origins. But looking at the landscape of Death Valley and its surrounding region is like looking Geology right in the eye; in the flesh, and in the nude, wearing just the barest gauze of Biology that doesn’t leave anything to speculation. The layers of prehistoric ocean floor sediment are clearly visible in the rock faces where the once horizontal land was heaved up at stress points near fault lines as is typical of the so-called “basin and range” region. The alluvial fans are clearly visible, down to the different textures of the sediment near the center and at the edges. So even though a part of me was dragging, part of me was thoroughly fascinated.

Before the left turn to Jubilee Pass, the road snakes around lots of points of rock, the protruding bases of the mountains. I knew there was a left turn coming, and that it would lead me to the dreaded exit passes, and every time I came around a curve I would eye the grade of the next visible gap in the mountains and wonder when I would finally get to the climb.

There was a good headwind by the time I made the left turn to Jubilee Pass. At first, I was happy to have finally gotten to this point and started the climb, but that relief soon gave way to just wanting it over with. Jubilee seemed to go on for much longer than it had any right to; after all, it’s the short one! Salsberry is twice as long, and it’s the one that seems to last forever! It seemed like I had been climbing for so long that at one point I started to wonder whether I’d somehow not noticed that short 1-mi descent between Jubilee and Salsberry, and was on my way up Salsberry already. My Dad confirmed by telling me I was just a mile or so from the top, and then it was all downhill to the next time station in Shoshone. I knew I was probably still on Jubilee, but I really wanted to believe that I was almost at the real top, and almost had myself convinced that my computer was busted.

When I saw the sign at the top of Jubilee Pass, I almost felt like crying, even though it only told me what I already knew. But I told myself to just enjoy the descent while I could, and to just shut up and climb when I got to Salsberry.

The road pitched up again in short order, and I told myself to just shut up and climb. Jake and my Dad would drive ahead and ask if I needed anything, but I pretty much needed both hands and most of my energy to climb, so it was as good an excuse as any to not eat. I told them I’d eat when I got to the top.

At one point, Jake asked me if I needed anything, and I replied to him, “All I need is a summit!”. The next time the van passed me, Jake leaned out the window and said, “Okay. I’ve got Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, and a bunch of heads of state all lined up and ready to go. You’ll have a great summit…. So what would you like to discuss?”

I would have rolled my eyes, but I was too busy thinking about how much I wanted to be at the top. But I got into a good climbing rhythm, and as I went higher and higher, it got windier and sunnier, and finally I saw that beautiful sign telling me I was at the top.

I sat down on a rock by the sign to try and force down a PB&J sandwich and some beef jerky and put on my long-sleeved white shirt for the desert sun.

As I sat there nibbling my sandwich, Jake took some photos of my bike standing up with the pedal supported by a rock. A gust of wind blew it over, and when he picked it up, he said to me, “Hey, how long has your drag brake been on?”

“My WHAT?!?!?!?”

“Your drag brake is on. The rear brake.”

“You’re ****ting me!”

“No, it’s really on.”

“****.”

“Err, sorry, but it’s really on.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I saw you fiddled with it on Townes Pass.”

“But I didn’t drag the rear, just the front!”

“You must have, because I saw you fiddle with it, and it’s dragging now.”

“Do you think it got knocked when the bike fell over?”

“No, I don’t think so… it’s been tightened. You must have done that going down Townes Pass.”
I had no memory of closing the rear brake on that descent at all, but Jake said he saw me do it. I tried really hard not to think about how many miles (and how many feet of climbing!) I’d been mashing it with my brake dragging as if I wanted to control my speed on a descent! Gee, no wonder I was feeling slow!

Jake rectified the brake situation, and I got back on the bike for the descent into Shoshone, feeling somewhat better about the world. I still didn’t feel much like eating though, and although I choked down some hammer gel and bits of clif bar, it wasn’t enough. At the time station in Shoshone, I got two ice cream sandwiches at the convenience store which tasted about as good as anything at the time. The idea of soup at the Mad Greek sounded like what I really wanted though; all I had to do was make it to Baker, and I’d get soup. I really wanted coffee too, but Jake and my Dad thought it would take too long to get it in Shoshone; I could get some with my soup at the Mad Greek. The guy staffing the time station admonished me that “If you stop eating, you stop riding,” which of course I knew very well, but it didn’t make me want to think about food anymore.

I got back on the road for the leg to Baker. It’s not a long leg, and it has no major climbs. But it’s hot and sunny, and it has been the low point of both of my 508 experiences. Last year I puked on that leg, although I felt much better afterward. This year I just felt ****ty. It’s also a comparatively busy road without much shoulder, and all of the traffic on it goes really, really fast. And about three quarters of the vehicles on that road are campers towing trailers full of ATV’s or dirt bikes, or trucks towing campers towing trailers. Even though I grew up riding my bicycle in Washington, DC traffic and now I commute every day in Boston traffic, the traffic on that road to Baker is intimidating.

I tried to focus on the landscape, which as always, is very interesting, but as I rode on I felt worse and worse. I thought about quitting the ride, but told myself to just make it to Baker and have some soup, and then decide if I wanted to keep going after the soup. The numbers on my computer were climbing very, very slowly; the sun was beating down; I was tired, and just wanted to be lying in a bed sipping a cold beer or a hot coffee. There were hazy lines of telephone wires off in the distance, and something that looked like possible signs of human habitation. Jake and my Dad assured me that I was getting close; the time station was only six miles past the telephone lines, and probably only about twelve miles from where I was. I tried to tell myself that twelve miles isn’t a lot; that it’s less than the distance to work and home again, but it seemed like an eternity. It also didn’t agree with what my computer was telling me. I thought my computer was probably on the fritz, because it frequently goes in and out; I was tempted to just stop and throw the damn thing as hard as I could out into the desert, but figured my Dad would probably be annoyed with me for littering up the natural landscape, so I left it where it was.

As I had almost convinced myself that twelve miles wasn’t that far, I saw a sign to Baker: seventeen miles. Seventeen miles to Baker! Seventeen Miles! I burst into tears. I saw the van stopped up ahead waiting for me and pulled over, sobbing that the distance was seventeen miles, not twelve, and that I thought maybe I wanted to quit.

My dad told me that if I though that was the right thing to do, he understood. Jake understood too… but if there is anyone in the world who understands how miserable I would have been and how much I would have regretted quitting, it’s Jake. And if there’s anyone in the world who knows how to keep me going when I want to stop and put the pieces back together when I fall to bits, it’s Jake.
Jake told me, “Don’t look at your cyclocomputer. We’ve been stopping to wait for you every two miles. That means that you will see us eight more times before you reach Baker. So just count down how many more times you’re going to see us. You’ll be fine, it won’t take you long. You’ll see us eight more times. That’s only every eight minutes or so, or less.”

I tearily got back on my bike and started rolling. My Raleigh rolled smoothly, and the pedals turned my feet around in smooth circles. There was a nice tailwind, and for a change the ride was quiet without wind blowing in my ears. My shadow looked normal; just like I was out for a Sunday cruise. I was annoyed at my shadow; it looked so peaceful and serene, while I felt so annoyed with myself for feeling so bad. Nothing hurt, my legs felt strong, I just felt miserable. I knew it was really just because I was tired and my body was hungry, even if my stomach didn’t want to agree.

Slowly, I counted down the times I passed my dad and Jake. I didn’t so much as glance at my computer. The town in the distance got larger and larger, and finally, there was the gigantic thermometer and the Mad Greek.

They didn’t have any soup, but souvlaki sounded good. They took a long time to bring our food out, and I had to go back in and ask where it was, but finally I had real coffee and a souvlaki sandwich with rice. I love meat any day, but it really tasted good that day. The coffee even tasted good after I spilled my sandwich in it; I didn’t even care that I was sipping lettuce with my java.

I felt much better, and I wasn’t even so ridiculously far behind the time I’d left Baker last year. I was still entertaining thoughts of quitting, but Jake pointed out that no one had DNF’d the 508 on a fixie yet. I wouldn’t want to be the one to break that streak, now would I? Well I certainly would not. Furthermore, I made it up Salsberry in a good rhythm, and I realized that as far as I was concerned, that wouldn’t count unless I finished the race too.

So Jake and my Dad boxed up the rest of my rice and sandwich, and I got back on my bike feeling much better about the world. I’d made it to Baker, and there were only three legs left. The sun was going down, it wasn’t hot anymore, and the last two legs contained the two climbs where I’d caught up with Sabertooth Salmon last year. I knew that all the hard parts were behind me, although it was still a long ride to TwentyNine Palms. The pavement on the road right out of Baker wasn’t even as uncomfortably rough as I’d remembered, and as I rode on into the night, I asked my Dad and Jake to play some music for me. Anything he wanted.

“Anything?….” Jake asked.

“Ack! Well, no, not ANYTHING!” I quickly replied. Jake has quite a few tunes on his iPod that he likes to threaten me with, such as a recording of a high school production of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, not to mention that I’d rather not listen to my own performances when I just want some happy music to make me feel good about being on my bike.

“Anything that’s on my iPod that isn’t me.”

I figured it would be Stravinsky if my Dad was choosing, and it was, but it was happy Stravinsky (a piece I’d completely forgotten was on there), and I actually started to enjoy myself again. The night temperature was cooler, and life was okay.

However, the leg to Kelso felt long, and I was tired. I think I stopped for a nap somewhere in there. It seemed to take much longer than it should to go that distance. By this point, I was pretty much taking in calories only in the form of watered-down Hammergel. I tried eating some rice left over from my souvlaki at the Mad Greek, but it was only destined for the pavement some miles down the road. I leaned over the side of the bike and lost my lunch, but didn’t stop riding. It’s hard to ride in a straight line when you’re puking though, and Jake and my Dad were concerned that I would swerve into oncoming traffic mid-retch. But at least it woke me up for awhile.

After the Kelso time station, Granite Pass comes up pretty quickly. Even though I’d be praying for the descent before I got to the top, I looked forward to it, knowing that it would perk me up some. Granite was also where I caught up with Sabertooth Salmon last year, so I had good memories of the climb. I also remembered the descent being miserable.

That descent has some truly “special” pavement. It’s a long time to be going downhill on a fixed gear, but it also really takes a lot of concentration and it’s where a fixie rider will take more of a beating than anywhere else. That descent was where my hands started to really feel tired and abraded from the inside of my gloves, and where my butt started to complain. The pavement on that descent is like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else. It’s not especially cracked or torn up, but has all kinds of lumps and bumps and rocks sticking out of it that make for a really rough ride. It has a habit of appearing deceptively smooth ahead where you see the edge of the light from the van’s headlights; it looks like in just a few yards, the rough part is going to smooth out. But it doesn’t, it just keeps going downhill like that for a very, very long time. It got very chilly by the top of Granite Pass, and on the way down I felt blasts of air of very different temperatures. Sometimes I’d go through a warm pocket of air and feel overdressed for a minute or two, but then I’d always hit an arctic section and wish for more clothing.

However, as much as it sucks, at least going downhill means travelling faster and getting to the next time station sooner, even if it sucks more.

I got “lei’d” at the Almost Amboy time station, used the facility, and dawdled a bit until Jake told me we had to get going. I was pretty anxious to be finished and off my bike, but I also finally knew that I could make it and really had no excuses for quitting.

Sheephole is the final climb. It’s steeper than Granite, but shorter, and still a pretty much fixed-gear-friendly grade. The road up Sheephole had been repaved this year; last year it was pretty pothole-ridden. I told Jake and my Dad that I’d probably have to email Sabertooth Salmon when I got home and tell him that Sheephole was just not the same without him! (Sheephole was the site of our big showdown last year) At some point on Sheephole, my quads started to complain too.

Finally cresting the top of Sheephole felt indescribably good. The descent was very cold, though. I prepared myself for a long, endless ride into TwentyNine Palms. I think I stopped again for a nap on that leg, and at one point we had to stop so that Jake could make an emergency visit to the Desert. The poor crew were not faring much better than me, gastrically speaking.

The effects of the nap didn’t last very long; before I knew it, I was getting very sleepy again. But there simply wasn’t time for another nap if I was going to finish in the time limit. I realized that there was only one way to stay awake and keep riding: to ride hard. Ride hard enough that I stayed alert. Ride almost hard enough to puke again… and if I puked again, well, that would wake me up too. I think that on that long, interminable false flat I managed to get into something approaching a rhythm and tune out, and just pedal. A couple of times Jake and my Dad drove alongside to tell me how far it was, and I barely even wanted to talk to them because I just wanted to worry about pedaling.

As I got into town, it was getting light. I rode harder and faster, anticipating that little kicker of a hill shortly before the Best Western. When the hill came up, I mashed it as hard as I could, and was gasping like a fish when I got to the top. My legs were on fire, but I pedaled harder.

I saw a support van slowing down a couple of blocks ahead as the rider turned into the parking lot at the Best Western, and knew it was almost over. Last year I’d really wanted to sprint up the driveway, but backed off on it because it was dark and I couldn’t really see it that well. But this year it was light, and sprint up the driveway I did, slamming on the brakes when I got under the canopy so as not to hit the bunch of cheering cyclists waiting at the top to watch the final few finishers come in. As last year, Chris Kostman made me sprint up again to get some footage.

I was exhausted, but glad that I’d stuck it out and hadn’t called it quits in Baker. I didn’t beat my time from last year by a long shot, but in some ways this year’s finish was all the more satisfying because I made it despite being so ready to call it quits.

In any case, the Furnace Creek 508 is an amazing event, and a wonderfully challenging and breathtaking course. It might not be for a couple of years, as there are lots of other events out there, but I hope to go back and take another crack at bettering my time.

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