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Old 10-28-09, 09:23 AM
  #114  
Biker395 
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OK, I know this is a long time coming, but I'm finally putting together the TR for the FC 508. I thought it best to give it up in installments so I wouldn't bore the hell out of everyone. Succeeding at that may well be a greater challenge than the 508 itself.

Here goes:

The Prelude

"Can I help you?"

"Yea, you can talk me outta this." I muttered under my breath.

"Excuse me?"

"Uh, pancakes and hashbrowns, please."

Bill and I are sitting down to breakfast at the Hilton Gardens Inn in Canyon Country. The time is 6AM. Within the hour, I would begin the 2009 Furnace Creek 508 ... a 508 bicycle race through Death Valley. I had 48 hours to finish it.

"Coffee?"

I had been off of caffeine for the last two weeks, hoping to sensitize myself to it. Since I had planned to complete the ride with only an hour or two of sleep, I would defer the caffeine until later.

"No, thanks."

Bill interjected. "Coffee makes a good laxative."

Well, that is a horse of a different color. The last thing I wanted to so was to take an impromptu crap somewhere in the desert. That convinced me.

"On second throught, I'll have some decaf."

One year ago, I was at the same place, at the same time, waiting for the start of the 2008 Furnace Creek 508. I had planned to race that year, but fate had other plans. Just as I was beginning to get into the teeth of my training schedule, I had a serious crash. I broke 4 ribs, punctured a lung, broke my collarbone in two places, and got the mother of all road-rashes. The 508 was out.

And that wasn't all. About a month after the crash, a "mass" was discovered in my head ... somewhere between my teeth and my sinuses. Now, a "mass" could be anything from a benign cyst to ... well .... anything. But I saw pictures of it, and it was ugly. Almost 3cm long and 2 cm wide. That doesn't sound like much, but it's huge when you are talking about something in your head.

Several doctors, two CT scans and an MRI later, and the nature of that "mass" had still been unresolved. Some opined that it was cancer. Some opined it was an ameloblastoma ... a nasty invasive tumor that comes as close to cancer without actually being such. Both would require disfiguring surgery and require me to wear a prosthesis to cover my palate. Either might return. Either might kill me. It could be devastating. But there was an outside chance it was nothing.

And through a series of snafus, I still didn't know what the "mass" actually was. There was a chance that it was merely a benign dentigerous cyst, but all of the doctors seemed to discount that possibility. Mad, late night searching on the Internet offered little hope that I could be that lucky. The mass was simply too big.

So on that day one year ago, I was a spectator ... and a frightened, unwilling one at that. I was there because my friend Saralie was doing the ride. She was being crewed by friends Rick, Bill, and Mary. I was there to see them off on their grand adventure.

On that day, I had arrived early, and found myself sitting in that little breakfast area, watching the riders and their support crews anxiously chatting about the ride. For the first and only time in my 20+ years of cycling, I was on the outside looking in.

I didn't belong. And I had no clue whether I would ever belong again.

And what do those people look like from the outside looking in? Healthy. Adventurous. People with a sparkle in their eye ... who could look themselves in the mirror and not laugh at the suggestion that they could ride a bicycle 508 miles in 48 hours. People with incredibly devoted friends ... willing to follow them for two days, sometimes at little better than walking speeds and dedicated to tend to their every need along the way, even if that meant slapping them upside the head and put them back on the bike.

A year ago, I knew all the participants were anxious about the ride, wondering if and when they would finish. I thought it to be sweet folly. The fact that they were there, ready to participate, with a serious chance of success ... that was all that mattered.

When you are a participant, you don't see things that way. You can't. You have a myriad of things to fret over. But when you're on the outside looking in, you see it for what it really is ... an adventure where there really is no such thing as failure. All of the participants are winners, and all of them were to be admired. In fact, to be envied. My future uncertain, I doubted whether I would ever have the chance to join that group again.

As fate would have it, I got my chance. A biopsy finally determined that the "mass" was indeed a dentigerous cyst, and that disfiguring surgery would not be required. Oh, I needed surgery, and the recovery would be painful. Vicodin is wonderful stuff, but it can only do so much. But recover I did. And at the end, I managed to escape whole.

The crash injuries also healed as well, and as soon as I could, I registered for the 2009 Furnace Creek 508. A summer of training had passed. A summer that saw at least 10 double centuries. A triple century, followed by another 100 mile ride only hours later. Countless centuries with 10,000 feet of climbing. I saw the remains of a father and son hit by a drunk driver. I rode through fog, rain, and 110 degree heat. In short, I had trained as best I could.

I was eating breakfast. And I was no longer on the outside looking in. The day had come.

Sure, I was anxious. How anxious you ask? Well, anxious enough to have spent the last several hours ... since 1:30 AM ... tossing and turning in bed. Desperate to get some sleep, I sat as still as death, controlling my breathing and trying my best to relax and empty my head of any thoughts. It's not easy concentrating on nothing.

I sleep best when it is cool, so I had turned the thermostat all the way down. Bill later likened the room to a meat locker.

Fitfully sleeping then waking up, I had plenty of opportunities to dream. In one of those dreams, my gloves were tattered and torn.

So yes, I was undeniably anxious.

The weather report did little to a$$uage my fears. About a week before the race, the weather models started to predict high winds over the race course.

Wind.

Neophyte cyclists fear many things. Heat. Cold. Rain. Hills. Traffic. Seat pain. Fatigue. But serious cyclists fear only one thing. Wind.

With electrolyte replacement and plenty of water, heat can be managed. You can always put on more clothes to deal with cold or rain. Seat pain and fatigue can be all but eliminated with the proper training.

And hills? Most serious cyclists will tell you that they enjoy hills. They offer a challenge while ascending and the reward of a screaming descent. Climbs can be long and steep, but eventually, they are vanquished. Cycling would indeed be boring without hills. I had grown to love climbing. No, hills are not a problem.

But wind ... you don't vanquish wind. It vanquishes you.

It gets in your eyes, your ears, and your mind. There is no summit. It pushes you back without mercy, and can do so for hundreds of miles. It can be in your face when your heading south, and stay in your face when you turn and head east. I dunno how that's possible ... it just is. Wind can turn a short 50 mile spin into an all-day sufferfest.

Wind is not to be fought. It is to be endured and outlasted. And more often than not, the wind wins ... it outlasts you.

How bad were the predicted winds? Bad.

Well, in truth, not all bad. The winds were to start off slowly and from the West, presenting a cross wind as we rode through the Antelope Valley. Those same winds would be at our backs riding to California City from the windmills, and again while climbing to Randsburg.

As the day wore on, those winds were to turn to the South and to intensify to as much as 35 MPH. With any luck, those winds would blow us along though the Searles and Panamint Valleys. It was possible, even likely, that the winds would allow the racers to get to the base of the Townes Pass climb into Death Valley in record time.

The other side of Townes Pass would be another matter. There, the course turns South and into the wind. But by the time I got there, it would be evening, and the winds were predicted to die down. Nighttime winds in Death Valley were predicted to be southerly and perhaps 15 MPH.

Riding into the teeth of a 15 MPH wind is no fun, and having ridden through Death Valley before, I knew that the road condition was also far from ideal. So I fully expected Death Valley to be a long slog ... probably the low point of the ride. How low? That depended on the wind.

So my fate was literally tied to a rapacious and fickle wind. I had good reason to be anxious.

But I was there. I was trained. I was on the inside looking out. With all my apprehension, I recognized that participation itself was a privilege and adventure reserved for the very few. That fact tempered any anxiousness I had about the outcome.

I was there ... at least, I was there.

Bill and I arrived early the day before, and got the van checked in. A volunteer made sure that the van and my bicycle were properly equipped.





First the signs.

"CAUTION ... BICYCLES AHEAD" on the rear. Check.

"THINK SKINK" on all 4 sides. Check

A red "slow vehicle" triangle on the rear. We had one that we hung on our rear wiper. Check.

Flashing yellow lights, that show only from the back. JC Whitney specials. Check.

Our turn signals, lights, and brake lights were all checked. And I discovered that one of my tail lights was out. While not a requirement, we were encouraged to get that replaced. That meant finding a place to buy a light, and more. It turns out that unlike any other car I've ever owned, the rear lights on my van are not easily accessible. OK ... that would be another snafu to resolve.

"Let's check your reflecive material on your bike." Check. I had that in spades.

"And your headlight?"

"Mine's on my helmet."

"I dunno ... I'm not sure if that is legal. I think it has to be on your handlebars."

I brought out the rule book to show him that indeed, a light on the helmet was sufficient. But he checked with the race director anyway to confirm it. And confirm it, he did.



"I have a light ... a very bright one." I explained. "But I only intend to use it on the downhills. I don't want it vibrating around on those crappy roads."

He reluctantly agreed. And on our way to lunch (In N Out ... Yum), Bill and I found a mechanic who had the tools to replace the brake light.

"Any more coffee? Excuse me ... any more coffee?"

I was daydreaming. "Uh, no thanks."

Other cyclists crazy enough to accept the challenge shuffled in. Most looked to be more than up to the task. Thin and muscular. Young. Confident. Many are sponsored, and outfitted in the regalia of their benefactors. I was none of those things. What the hell am I doing here again?

Bill and I arrived at breakfast early, and had no trouble finding a seat. But by now, the room was crowded with cyclists and their support crews, and many were looking for a place to sit. After finishing our breakfast with Rick and Saralie, we shoved off for our last minute preparations.



I joined them. We took a picture for posterity.



The first 25 miles of the 508 passes through the streets of Santa Clarita and then ascends San Francisquito Canyon, the scene of the greatest flood in California history. Since that road is narrow and has little shoulder, our support vans would not be following us in this section. Instead, they would wait for us at Johnson Summit, just past the little burg of Green Valley.

That meant that our support crews would leave the staging area before we did. It also meant that they would be unable to bid us farewell or take any pictures at the start of the ride.

It was cold. The low pressure system that was going to wreak havoc with the winds had also lowered the temperature substantially. The week before, it was well over 100 in the deserts. This weekend, it would get no warmer than 90 degrees, even in Death Valley. And right now, in Santa Clarita, it was about 50 degrees. It was a little chilly for wearing only shorts and armwarmers, but I knew we would warm up fast climbing out of Santa Clarita.

I wheeled over to the staging area.



The serious racers were already there, at the front of the pack. I took my position where I belonged ... at the back.

I knew from previous experience that a lot of riders would charge out of the gate and attack the San Francisquito climb. With all my nervous energy, I knew I would be tempted to do the same. But this is a 500 mile race, and charging out of the gate is a fatal mistake for all but the strongest riders. This is definitely a tortise and hare event, and I had resolved a long time ago to be the tortise.

Being the tortise takes some mental discipline, something that does not come naturally to me. So I resolved to keep the rules simple. Start at the back, and do not stand up on the climb. Remain seated and spin.

I was waiting at the starting line for perhaps 5 or 10 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. To pass the time, I chatted with the racer next to me. An ultramarathoner from British Columbia. We chatted about what kind of training we had done and whether we were prepared to go the distance. As an ultramarathoner, she had learned long ago what her body could take and how to pace herself. I had no doubt that she would finish.



The megaphoned race director had some words of wisdom for us before we left.

"Things happen out there that weren't intended or expected. I encourage you to focus on getting to the finish line, no matter what."

Boy, was that good advice.

We synchronized watches. Gawd, I hope finishing within 48 hours doesn't come down to seconds.

A countdown. "5, 4, 3, 2, 1 ... GO."

And with the sirens of our police escort, we were off.
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