The first weekend in October is the traditional date of the legendary Furnace Creek 508 ultramarathon bike race, run through the wastelands of Southern California, including Death Valley. This year, as a result of some really dumb behavior on the part of the Death Valley National Park head ranger, the event has been forced to move to an entirely new course in Northern Nevada. It is now known as the Silver State 508.
Two of our super-strong SRCC women took park in the first edition of the Silver State event this year. Club President Sarah Schroer was on a tandem with Paul McKenzie, while Sherry Adams was on a single bike. Most of the following report is from Sarah, but with an additional section from her crew member Bob Redmond, and with a final word from Sherry at the end. As befits any bike ride of over 500 miles, this adds up to a long report.
First is a preview of the event from Sarah...
Six SRCC members are on their way to Reno this weekend to participate in an event that has been called "The Toughest 48 Hours in Sport". Often referred to simply as "The 508", this grueling ultra distance bike race has been held annually since 1983. Traditionally staged in Death Valley as the Furnace Creek 508, the event moves to Nevada for the first time this year and changes its name to the Silver State 508.
After months of training and preparations, racers and crews are counting down the final hours to the start of the race on Sunday morning. Fans at home can follow the action via the 508 Webcast.
For those not familiar with the structure of the 508, here is a brief primer:
Racers are entered in the event as solo riders or as members of a two or four person relay team. Bike categories include classic, tandem and fixed gear, as well as traditional racing bikes. Competitors are further separated into age divisions.
Racers will be supported throughout the event by their crews, made up of individuals carefully selected for their ability to remain cheerful through hours of driving and their skill in building the perfect PBJ sandwich.
Rather than carry numbers, racers and crew vehicles are identified by animal "totems". Totems are often chosen to match the first letter of the racer's last name. Once owned by a 508 finisher a totem can never be reused by another racer.
At the 2014 Silver State 508, SRCC will be represented by two soloists and their crews. Paul McKenzie and I will be riding tandem under the "Mute Swan" totem. Paul is a 4x veteran of the 508, while I am still blissfully ignorant of what lies ahead. We will be supported in our bid to set records on the brand new course by a stellar team which includes Bob Redmond and Jennie Phillips (veteran 508ers as both riders and crew members) and Scott Duncan (new to the 508 but an experienced distance rider who has put in many hours with me on previous events).
The second SRCC racer prefers to fly without much fanfare, so I'll respect her wishes and just tell you to keep an eye out for an Albatross on a "classic" fuschia bike. This solo rider will be supported by Megan Arnold and Susan Forsman.
So as you are sitting down to dinner on Sunday evening and looking forward to a good night's sleep, spare a thought for your fellow club members who will still be far from the finish line. As you sip your coffee on Monday morning, we will be wondering about the wisdom of our decision to enter this race, and having the time of our lives.
Then we get Sarah's actual ride report…
Thanks to all who offered encouragement before and during this event, and congratulations after it was all over! It has been wonderful to feel your support and enthusiasm for what turned out to be an amazing, arduous, beautiful, exhausting and exhilarating journey through day and night, warm sunshine and extreme cold, vast open valleys and steep sided canyons, and spiritual highs and lows along the way.
Over the last 24 hours Paul and I have followed the advice that many of you have given us, eating and sleeping in a continuous, alternating pattern. Starting to feel human once again, and able to string sentences together in more or less coherent fashion, I sit down to distill the experiences of the last two days into a format fit for pubic consumption. A warning before you continue -- if you read this message to its end you also may feel that you have completed an endurance event! Based upon various threads on this list, I can see that I effectively blew Sherry's cover, and I hope she will forgive me for that. I'll let her tell her own story in her own way. Here is my ride report:
Perhaps the best part of the entire ordeal/adventure was the fact that despite race rules which prohibit drafting, or even riding side by side with other riders, and despite the natural divisions that occur between riders over such a long distance, we were far from alone throughout the 32 hours of our race. Of course, when riding tandem you are never alone. But in this case Paul and I also had the incredible support of our crew -- Bob Redmond, Jennie Phillips and Scott Duncan cheered us on, entertained us, provided mechanical support, counted calories and water bottles and catered to our every physical need. Perhaps most importantly they never, ever suggested that we stop and take a break. These friends did a huge amount of the prep work before the event, they followed us through the entire race, and then they sent us off to shower, eat and sleep while they took care of the bike and van. We are so grateful to have had the best crew on the road!
The solo division of the Silver State 508 race began just before dawn on Sunday morning with a neutralized start through the outskirts of Reno. Skies were clear and temperatures were in the mid 50s. Paul and I settled into an easy pace as we climbed over Geiger Grade to Virginia City. By that point, the sun was up but the air was still cold for the fast trip down Six Mile Canyon on the east side of the ridge.
At the bottom of Six Mile Canyon, we were met by our crew vehicles and turned east onto the relatively flat Highway 50. With our van leapfrogging our progress, we rode steadily through the small town of Silver Springs, where the first time station was located, then on to Fallon for the second time station. To the east of Fallon we passed through an ancient lake bed and saw a massive sand dune created by the wind before turning off the highway and onto State Route 722 around Mile 125.
By now it was early afternoon and we faced a warm 14 mile uphill section to Carroll Summit. This climb brought us to higher elevations for the remainder of the eastbound leg of the race. There was one more significant uphill before the third time station in Austin, by which time we had rejoined Highway 50. Night fell around Mile 215 and temperatures plummeted in the high valleys between mountain ranges. Under an almost full moon, we hastily changed out of our damp kits and donned more layers before continuing to Eureka and the turnaround point. Here we put on more clothes, anticipating some chilly downhill riding. This was about 9:30pm, and for the rest of the night our support vehicle stayed behind us, lighting our way with its headlights and buoying our spirits with music played through speakers mounted on the bike rack.
The night grew steadily colder, with distinct temperature changes every time we descended into the shallow valleys between ridges. We stopped two more times to pull on more layers, even appropriating jackets from our crew -- at one point the Garmin registered only 25 degrees! Fortunately, there was no wind to contend with, and gentle inclines and slightly warmer temperatures (into the mid 30s) at the top of each ridge gave brief respites from the bitter cold. In the predawn hours, as we struggled with fatigue, we were treated to an amazing sight: the almost full moon, which first appeared in the east at midday on Sunday and which tracked slowly across the sky all night, suddenly accelerated in its trajectory and dropped below the horizon as though pulled by invisible strings. Had we blinked we might have missed the moonset entirely!
Dawn broke as we shivered our way down the western slope of Carroll Summit on SR 722 and approached the junction with Highway 50. The van went back to leapfrog mode and the music was turned off. The sun warmed our backs as we sped east toward Fallon, and by 9am we had shed all of our warm layers. We began to catch up with a few solo riders, and although there wasn't much left in the tank our spirits were good and our pace was steady.
Things changed for the worse once we started up Six Mile Canyon. We were almost 30 hours into the race and had about 480 miles on our legs. The sun was high and temperatures had risen to the mid 80s. This was the steepest climb of the entire race, and we struggled to push the bike up each pitch and around each curve of the road. We applied ice water liberally to our arms and backs as our crew hovered nearby and cheered us upward until we finally reached Virginia City. The remaining four miles of the climb to the top of the ridge were at highway grade and seemed easy by comparison.
As we crested that final ridge and saw the valley spread out below, we realized that we had a chance to finish in less than 32 hours. Our enthusiasm rose again, and we let gravity do its thing as we flew down Geiger Grade toward Reno. Back on wide city streets we sprinted from one traffic light to the next, watching the miles and minutes tick by. We crossed the finish line with three minutes to spare and not an ounce of energy remaining -- first place in the solo tandem division, and sixth in the solo category.
I am still amazed at what we have just accomplished, and the support of those at home as well as the constant company of Bob, Scott and Jennie along the way only serve to enrich the entire experience. However, my ultimate debt of gratitude is to Paul, whose skill and strength on the bike and whose experience and confidence in riding such long distances were the main reason I agreed to take on this challenge in the first place. I'm almost afraid to think what the next adventure will entail…
Now Bob Redmond's report from the perspective of a crew member…
After Paul and Sarah had ripped off a sub-24 hour 600-k, and seeing the level of fitness they were in, I wondered if a run at the 508 was in the picture. Months went by and neither of them voiced an interest. Now, the 508 holds a special place in my heart and I longed to be part of it after missing the last two years when my charge crashed in training and then work got in the way. So I reached out to some friends, wondering if maybe this year I would volunteer. But lo, maybe there was more interest from Paul and Sarah now that they had completed yet another ripen' 600-k.
I got a call from Sarah and I sat there like an expectant fiancée, hoping that she would pop the question.
The crew would consist of me, Scott Duncan and Jennie Phillips. I've crewed before for Paul in both his solo and men's 2-tandem team runs. This would be his fifth ride, putting him in the 508 Hall of Fame. Sarah, as a rookie, was my concern. Think of your best double century and your worst. Then amplify that…which is what was in store for her. As Sarah's training partner, Scott would be the first to see a change in Sarah's riding style that would tell us things were off. Jennie brought to the team the full experience of successful rider, crew, female, stoker and all those other subtle nuances that were in store for Sarah that I could not know. She also related to Sarah as a detail oriented, over-prepared soul. I tend to sketch out a serendipitous plan with broad strokes that leaves many of the important critical moments left to unspoken trust. We would compliment each other well to be the best crew possible.
This was a new venue for the 508 since our national parks are now off limits to sporting events. So all our experience on the Death Valley course was out the window and we'd have to spend more time studying the terrain trying to identify those critical moments to talk through. There would be many unknowns to adapt to. As crew, we talked even more details that we'd keep from Sarah and Paul so that they could remain focussed.
We got to Reno early and relaxed, one advantage of the new venue. The route was an out-n-back which would also help logistically. The van prep was completed and we quickly got through tech inspection. The new LandShark tandem was a geek magnet with it's full carbon, DI2 hydraulic setup. That left us plenty of time to outfit the van with all the food and gear so that it would be at our fingertips with little thought. Then a quick dinner before the mandatory rider meeting where we got to wear our freshly minted team shirts sporting the team name and logo. The rider meeting is one of those necessary evils yet it's the first of those special 508 moments since it's that once-a-year gathering of kindred spirits that you only know by totem. Riders are not identified by number, rather an animal totem that you get to choose for yourself. This may be the most difficult of decisions to make going into this event. By tradition, the choice will include the first letter of your first or last name. McKenzie and Schroer. M-S. Sarah found a picture of two swans flying in tandem formation, and the breed type was Mute Swan. It was meant to be.
Up early to get things loaded and the riders to the line by 06:20 for the 6:30 start. Their first 30 miles would be unsupported which included a climb over Geiger pass and nasty descent on Six Mile Canyon from Virginia City to Hwy 50, where we'd pick them up. We would see the riders off, then get ahead of the riders and wait for them to arrive two hours later. This is another one of those special moments where you get to chat with the other support teams.
And now our race was on. Paul and Sarah arrived where we waited with fresh bottles of Heed. They now began their journey to Eureka, Nevada via Hwys 50 and 722. We would watch the tandem fly along until almost out of site and then leap-frog ahead with just enough time to find a safe place to pull off the side of the road, watch them go by repeating this sequence for 250+ miles. You don't want to get too far in front of them or let them get out of sight in case anything goes wrong.
Paul and Sarah were so disciplined, keeping to their pace regardless of where the competition was. Jennie was a human calculator keeping both Paul and Sarah on their fueling regimens simultaneously. The tandem would never stop; bottle changes and food hand-offs are done on the fly. The three of us would prepare about 20 yards apart with either bottle or baggie of food. Think of a baton pass in the 400 meter relay. You sprint to decrease the relative speed so the tandem wouldn't slow too much, losing time. This is a race after all. This is easier on a climb, but this course was much flatter and these old bones don't sprint well. I think I blew a hammy.
Being a crew is calmly waiting for moments of chaos. We were in walky-talky contact when the message came in that the rear tire was loosing pressure. Race up ahead and prepare like a NASCAR pit stop. Scott directed the tandem to a stop as Paul dropped the rear gear. Paul and Sarah dismounted to take a nature break. I swapped out the wheel and Jennie replaced the bottles. Back on the bike and off they went. Find the cause of the flat, replace the tube and bring it up to the specified pressure ready in reserve, get the next bottles ready in reserve and we're good to go for the next rotation. High fives all around.
Another down-side of this course is that we could not start our follow support until we started the westbound return rather than immediately at sunset. Leap-frog support and running hand-offs after dark are SO MUCH FUN, especially after getting way too far ahead of your charges looking for a clean place to pull off the side of road without fear of falling off the raised roadbed.
Funny, fearful moment. We missed one of those bottle hand-offs just as the lead rider was coming back past us. The bottle bounced right in front of him, I'm yelling and Marko so calmly veered around it. Thank the gods. I would hate to have taken out the leader, tarnishing the Mute Swan totem.
The follow process is another special moment of this event. Now hand-offs are done as you pull aside the rider/s, just handing the bottle out the window. Make sure you hold your line and let the tandem micro-adjust towards you. You get to chat with the rider for a moment - but not too long or pull a time penalty. We are right on the wheel of the tandem, god forbid you have fading moment and bump the bike, close so they get the full advantage of the van lights and the music blaring out of the rack-mounted speakers playing some god-forsaken country music that's special to Paul, much to the snarky pleasure of his crew. Yes, Jennie, Scott and I knew most of the artists in Paul's iPod.
The next special moment is one for the crew rather than the rider - a technical descent in the dark when the van is providing light for the bike. This is SO MUCH FUN when you have an accomplished tandem captain depending on you. We are well into the wee hours coming off Carroll Summit into a much colder valley below. Do you trust your sleep deprived driver obtaining g-forces not meant for a vehicle with a high center of gravity and loose bike stuff on board? That's what the oh-shit handles are for.
Oh, that's another thing. By rule, after dark the bike and follow vehicle become a single symbiotic entity. The van cannot stop or the tandem must stop. So when the tandem stops for a nature break, that's the crews chance to take a nature break too. We would remind each other to at least try to empty our bladders for fear of having to desperately clench the muscles waiting for the next opportunity.
The night was so cold. The 508 has always been more of a race and somewhat of a survivor, man vs nature battle against heat and winds that bring you right up against the "F#@k this" moment. New venue learning moment. Accu-weather temps are for the town and not the valley below. While van thermometer read 34F, the tandem had sub freezing temps. Paul was prepared with layers but had to resort to taking layers from the crew. More than one veteran DNFed due to the cold. Extra stops to don more layers draining precious time. More fuel for a body burning calories to stay warm. Shivers sneaking through and the whole bike shimmies.
The night was difficult yet still remarkable. Almost full moon and shooting stars. Jennie calculating caloric intake and making adjustments. That hour before sunrise may be the toughest. Then the sun breaks over the hills and quickly warms your abused body, bringing renewed energy while forcing yet another time-consuming stop to shed those life-saving layers.
We pass through the next time station in Fallon, finding out that we are in 9th place solo and the other tandem continues to lose time on us. We are going to take another chance to gas the van and get some ice. Don't forget to put the patch kit back on the tandem since they'll be alone.
They make their way back through Silver Springs to the turn onto Six Mile Canyon. I will never complain about the Sierra Road climb on the Devil Mountain Double. Nothing like a nasty climb with 450 miles in your legs. This is where Scott made a brilliant call. Mute Swan had to find their center to get through this difficult climb. We would not distract them with any kind of chatter. It was quiet with the sun bringing out the beautiful green in the leaves as the road continued to serpentine upwards with lactic infused compliments to the ride director. Kidding aside, it was such a solemn moment as I've never experienced before just standing there on the side of the road as they passed.
Getting through Virginia City, the worst was over. The remaining climb over Geiger was actually easier and the tandem picked up the pace. As they cleared the summit, they realized that a sub-32 hour finish was within reach with a strong push. That descent was SO MUCH FUN part 3. The final few miles included traffic lights. We'd stay far enough in front to trip lights without going too slow or allowing the tandem too close, both of which would draw a time penalty. We'd mark a turn and race ahead to the next. The van odometer didn't match the route sheet so we had to adjust. The level of communication between the crew ourselves and the tandem was incredible.
And they did it: 31 hours and 57 minutes, establishing a solid benchmark for competitors to reach for in future years. You are Mute Swan now and forever.
Finally, a brief note from Sherry Adams after her successful solo effort. Sherry had two more of SRCC's amazing corps of superwomen crewing for her: Susan Forsman and Megan Arnold…
To the folks who sent messages via Susan Monday evening (email, twitter and facebook I think)-- she read them to me out the window as I was going up Gieger grade. Which I was pretty sure was the steepest hill I had ever been up. Thank you. Thank you all for your encouragement and kind words. I really value being a part of this community.
One thing I have to emphasize, is that the category 'solo' is really misleading. I was one of four people on team Albatross, with the other three in the van. In addition to Susan and Megan, two incredibly accomplished cyclists who many of you know, my brother Dan flew in to be on the crew. I can't begin to tell you how crucial their incredibly exhausting, perfectly-orchestrated support was. There were several times I teared up during the race, just moved by the lengths they went to that allowed me to ride at the top of my abilities. At one point I looked down and all three of them were simultaneously rubbing sunblock on different parts of my body. When the temps were around 30 degrees on the first night, and after I had all of my clothes on, the crew started stripping down and putting their clothes on me. I may have looked like the michelin man, but I don't think I spent more than 10 minutes off the bike at a time, and was able to descend at those temperatures.
A big congratulations to Paul and Sarah and their crew. Not at all surprising, but still very impressive. Sarah, you didn't blow my cover until after I had left for Reno, and since my flip phone is also a classic, I didn't know until Susan was reading me encouraging messages from club members out the window. Which was very welcome.