Tuesday, October 13, 2009

508 Time Lapse!

More to come - annotations, soundtrack, etc..

This was taken on a cheap Canon digital camera with CHDK firmware. This allowed me to write a script which took a picture every 15 seconds. The camera was mounted on a GPS stand on the window. The below video was created by stitching these images together at 10 fps.
The video starts out with the crew driving up to meet me at the first support point 25 miles in, then providing leap frog support throughout the first day. It then documents my dramatic downfall on the slopes of Towne Pass. It resumes hours later and 10 miles down the road, early Sunday, around Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley, remaining unbroken until Twentynine Palms, right before the finish.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rock Rabbit's First 508. Gratuitously Long Report.

Following is the narrative report of my first Furnace Creek 508. I tried to keep the jargon and the numbers to a minimum. Obviously, I didn't try too hard to keep the words to a minimum! I'll be adding detailed data analysis of my ride later. Photos courtesy of Jordan Bickett, Alan Bickett, Chris Kostman and Ron Jones. More info on the race at the508.com

Meet Rock Rabbit

I opened my eyes. The hotel alarm clock's harsh red digits were staring at me. 5:40. Time to get up. In the next 48 hours, I was going to ride 509.5 miles through the California desert.

My crew chief Mavis "Ischyodus" Irwin, a veteran of the race, and also a veteran crew (for incredible ultra rider Cat "Bumblebee" Berge) was already up and out of the room, not sure where. My "DS" and racing buddy Alex was as well. My brother Jordan was sitting up in bed, rubbing his eyes. I pushed myself up and found that I was asking myself the unanswerable question that I had heard countless times in the past few weeks. "Are you ready?" Only one way to find out. I had slept ok, but I was a bit tired. I threw on the skinsuit and aero helmet I would wear for the first 200 miles or so, slathered on some sunscreen, and put my bottles on my bike. I knew I was forgetting something. My tires. I started trying to pump them. No air was going in. I took off and rescrewed on the valve extender (they're 404s). No luck. Great. I tried the other wheel. Same thing. Here's where I needed to take a deep breath, and either switch to my (much less aero) Ksyriums, or put a new tube in. No, race nerves and bullheaded obstinance kept Alex and me fiddling with these until it was time for me to roll to the start. I felt my tires, and said screw it - I only had to ride 25 miles on them, until I was meeting up with my crew and switching to the TT bike.

Tense, but jovial mood at the start line.

I put my underinflated tires out of my mind and rolled the quarter mile to the start hotel, where riders were congregating for the 7 am start. I saw a few buddies from doubles, Jon "Snoopy" Shellenbarger, Rob "Loggerhead Shrike" Treadwell, Kevin "Wolverine" Walsh, and Eric "Rooster" Wilson, who would be crewing for Kevin, and chatted a bit. I got a chance to meet Chris "Ram" Ragsdale, and said a quick hello to Michael "Alpine Ibex" Emde, competing this year for a 4th straight 508 win. We had met earlier in the year at the Davis 24 hour; we rode close much of the race and I got a glimpse into perfect crew/rider interactions - they have it down to a science. Before long race director Chris Kostman was saying a few words, the anthem was played, and we were off, amidst a police entourage, sirens blaring.

The first few neutral miles through Santa Clarita would be the only time we would ride together, and there was an unmistakably ominous air lurking behind the casual paced group ride. The familiar whir of wheels and gears in the crisp morning air was comforting. There were some jokes about the length of the ride, some introductions, and some more of the unanswerable "are you ready" queries. Dave "Mudcat" Holt, an incredibly strong ultra rider in his mid-50s, predicted to me that someone would jump out of the pack this year as a real standout. He added it could be me. Well that would be nice, I thought, and tried to steel myself against the upcoming ride, convincing myself to have at least as much confidence in myself as others did. I talked a bit with Michael Emde, and he mentioned I had the advantage of being close by, and could check out the course, the road conditions, etc. I smiled to myself at this; he'd done the 508 4 times, won it 3 times: sure I had gone and driven the course, and ridden some of it, but I didn't see my advantage. As it turned out, there was a sweep of the podium by Washington riders, even though there were only 4 in the race!

The warmup was soon over. The race was on. The road kicked up, and we turned left onto San Francisquito Canyon, the start of the first climb. Ragsdale and Emde took off. I surged a bit and kept an eye on them slowly gaining on me. My plan - my mantra - in the days leading up to the race was to pace myself early. I knew all too well that the 5-10 minutes I could gain by overexerting early would cost me much more later on. Then why, only 5 minutes into this climb, was I already feeling like I was going too hard?

Early on in San Francisquito Canyon

My heart was pounding in my chest. I looked down. My power was just where I had wanted it, between 275-300w. My heart rate was dashes on the display. Great. I fiddled with it a bit, and by the time it came up it was reading 185. No no no! My goal was to keep under 170. What is going on?? Nerves? Am I sick? I was well rested, my training had gone perfectly, I thought everything was in place. I tried soft-pedaling a bit to bring down my HR. Some of the riders from behind caught up to me on a flat section, and swarmed around me. We can't draft, and here they were pulling right in front of me and slowing down. I can't have this. I took off again when the grade increased. Of course, so did my heart rate. It flirted again with the 180s.

By this point my mind and body were locked in an intense dualistic Cartesian battle. But my mind was losing - as it usually seems to on the bike. I was furious with myself - I knew I was on the verge of throwing away my race in the first hour, but my legs kept turning...this pace shouldn't have been too hard; I was sitting right about my tempo endurance power- but my heart was still racing. I tried to justify - I would have a long tailwind section to recover, this would be over in less than an hour, I would be ok. But I was nervous. As I approached the community of Green Valley, my aunts, uncles and cousins that lived in the area cheered me on from the corner, and I smiled as I passed, trying to put my inner struggle out of my thoughts, and ease myself over what remained of the climb.

On the upper section of the climb, Brian "American Kestrel" Ecker, who had been slowly reeling me in, passed me. This was a test. I needed to let him go. I grit my teeth and kept my pace, eyeing my heart rate, trying to make it go down a few beats. OK. He can go. He shouldn't have been able to pass me. But he did. Keep in yourself, Adam. The climb ended. I tucked down the small descent toward the area where our crews were first meeting up with us. As I passed the crew area, I let myself forget about the hole I had dug myself so early, and enjoyed the moment - the crews cheered as I passed - there's so much good will between competitors in this race - and I saw the Mojave desert laid out in front of me, expansive and barren. We would be going far beyond the mountains that lined the bleak horizon.

Full stop! Approaching the first crew meetup

I finally came to my crew, at the road's high point before dropping into the desert, waiting and ready with my TT bike. It had only been an hour and a half since the start, but, preoccupied and worried with my performance on the climb, I felt like I had already gone through a lot. I hadn't. But seeing them comforted me. I unclipped and jumped on the TT, and was off in a few seconds, rocketing northward, the wind at my back and 480 more miles of road ahead.

Now we began the leap-frogging support that we would employ for the next 9 hours. To avoid choking up the roads too much before the riders have spread out, the race rules dictate that all support must occur from the side of the road before 6 pm - so the crews drive a bit ahead of the rider, prepare bottles, clothes, bikes, or any other demand, and hand them off as the rider passes.

Morning leapfrogging

I was feeling good on the TT bike. My power was around 200w, lower than I would have liked, but this kept my heart rate in the 150s, which I could live with. It was still too high. But I stopped thinking about this. I soaked in my surroundings, and started feeling almost euphoric. I was flying through the desert, at over 25 mph with little effort, in my aero TT position, with my crew, and everything I might possibly need, never more than quarter mile away. The reality of the what I was doing began to set in. And it was ok. I was ready. Bring it on.

My crew reminded me to pace myself, take my electrolyte capsules, drink my calorie mixes, keep my water intake up. We were a machine. Just had to keep everything running. I let my mind wander. I was climbing again before I knew it, this time, a moderate 1500 foot climb in the hills skirting the northwestern corner of the valley, through windmills and dry amber grass. This is the California I know well. I kept my pace at about my San Francisquito pace, a little lower, with my heart rate in the mid 170s. I figured this was ok : I wasn't nauseous, and I was enjoying myself. It was a beautiful day. Such seemingly trite observations come to me often while riding, but they mean something when you're out there. The end of the climb came quicker than expected, and with a sharp right turn, I began the quick, ruler-straight descent into Mojave.

Windmills Climb

I had passed Kestrel at the top of the climb, and he passed me again midway down. I was already going well over 40 - and figured I might as well rest my legs, rather than try to eke out a few more mph with a lot more effort. When I hit the flats again, as we zig-zagged our way to the other end of the valley, the varying wind directions made me notice I really wasn't at my best. I pressed on - nervously watching my heart rate climb into the upper 150s and above. Before long I was passing through the first checkpoint, in the strange, failed desert utopia California City. 83 miles, with about 5,000 feet of climbing in just under 4 hours. At least my speed didn't betray how I really felt.

My crew pulled in to check me in, and I blew past, only to flat my Hed3 moments later. After an inexplicably long amount of time (which was really only a few minutes) my crew arrived, we threw on a new wheel, and I was back on the road.

In this next section to Trona, it was starting to heat up a bit, though thankfully only into the mid 80s, and I began to feel stomach discomfort. I took more water, more electrolytes, and switched to Heed and Hammer Gel, which had no protein or fat and I hoped would be easier to digest than my standard Perpetuem mix. My crew handed me ice-filled knee-high pantyhose for me to stuff in my jersey, which felt great in the desert sun, and I kept drinking my fluids, hoping for my stomach to calm. The rolling desert roads flew by in the strong tailwind, and I was climbing up to the throwback towns of Randsburg and Johannesburg before I knew it. This climb was never steeper than around 5-6%, and I was able to meter my effort fairly well. Still - my heart was straining. I had now put over 1/5th of the ride in the bank - and was working on my second century. I began to see the crew of Charlie "Water Dragon" Engle occasionally. Charlie is a premier ultra athlete, and was going for the Death Valley Cup record - the combined time of the 508 and the insane mid-summer Badwater running ultramathon from Badwater Death Valley to Whitney Portal.

Rollers, desert, and a tailwind.

The Randsburg climbing section went well, and after a quick tour through the 1920s in Randsburg and Johannesburg, and a short jaunt on 395, I made the left onto Trona road, now on the path to Death Valley. The wind was still on my side, and there were some insanely speedy, yet gradual descents, where I topped off around 60 for minutes at a time. My mental unease and stomach issues melted again into euphoria as I stabilized my top tube with my knees and tucked, blasting to Trona.

Leapfrogging in the afternoon

Nearing Trona, I was back on flat terrain and reality began sinking in again. I wasn't feeling better. There was a long way to go. When your nutrition, hydration, and electrolyte levels are on the brink - and they always seem to be for me in events like this - minor depletion in any of them can cause drastic shifts in mood and perception. I felt this. I knew I was in trouble. A few miles out from time station 2 the road veered into the wind for a short bit, I stood up and immediately was shocked with a violent cramp in both quads. My concern was growing to a full panic. I popped more electrolytes. I reasoned that if I got some more sodium in me, I might be able to work through this. I had just done 130 miles on the TT bike, after all, and I had just recently gotten it back from frame repair, so had had no real time to endurance train on the aggressive position. The cramps may go away. The cramps did seem to subside a bit as I passed through the industrial desert wasteland of Trona. A weathered sign listed the churches of the community: there were 12! There didn't seem to be that much more more than 12 houses. I scanned the bleak surroundings, which seemed even more unforgiving in the harsh midday light. Images of the desert settlement from There Will be Blood flashed through my head, along with the demonic string section from Johnny Greenwood's eerie symphonic score.

My crew was filling up on gas ahead. I wanted them closer. Such things seemed to matter more in these moments. But I didn't really want to let them know the direness of my situation. I wondered what I should tell them. A gentle 1000 foot climb, the "Trona bump" was coming up in a few miles. I decided I would switch to the road bike here. It would spare my muscles, hopefully stressing my cramping VMOs a bit less, and give me a second to rest. I could stay on this bike until after Towne Pass, and then reassess my condition. I had spent only a few minutes off the bike (because of my flat) in 150 miles.

Around this time my crew showed up, we did the bike switch, and they outfitted me with the 2-way radio setup I had brought for the leapfrog section. Once in the heat of the race, you don't want to mess with extraneous things, but the moment we first connected on the radio I wish we had set it up way back at my first bike switch. "Roger that Rock Rabbit" Alex's voice came back in my ear, and it was awesome. I was in some hellish, solitary version of the tour. Alone, off the back, legs cramping, crawling along, but with Bruyneel in my ear, allez allez allez. I crested the Trona Bump without too much difficulty, albeit slowly. I was seeing Water Dragon's support truck more often now, I knew he must be closing in. By this point, I was beyond worrying about that. This was now my race against myself.

A twisty, fun descent followed, and gave way to more tailwind propelled flatlands. I had another puncture on this section...we switched out the wheel, and I took the opportunity to change out of my skinsuit into a normal kit, and switch out my aero helmet for my standard helmet. I grabbed a few slices of bread in a vain attempt to calm my increasingly restive stomach. I was well aware that I was pedalling ever closer toward a likely doom on the slopes of Towne Pass, and the Welcome to Death Valley sign only reinforced this (its placement is strange, as it is located in the Panamint Valley). Yet still there was only one direction to go. What were any of us in this mad race but lemmings, trying to find some sort of fleeting self-discovery on a foolish, pointless trek between two points in the middle of nowhere? Shut up Adam, you're getting loopy. Take some more electrolytes. Don't think. Turn the pedals.

The approach to Towne Pass

And then it came. The right turn onto CA-190. The highway itself is spectacular, snaking over mountain passes and through desert, from Lone Pine at the foot of Mt Whitney through Death Valley. But scenery is not on the mind in times of crisis like this. The winds had shifted. I was near knocked over as I began the approach to the bottom of the pass. The road followed the alluvial fan gradually up the mountain until it curved out of sight. It didn't look too bad. The mountains were dry and desolate, and they rose 3500 feet above us, but were not too imposing. That didn't matter; I had ridden it before. I knew it was one tough climb. 10 miles at over 6%, with the middle miles above 9%. At this point I had finished a 9 hour double century with over 10,000 feet of climbing. But what was behind me didn't matter in the slightest. My legs were cramping. My stomach was sloshing with undigested fluids. This was not good. I stopped at the bottom and let Mavis massage my legs, giving myself time to breathe and collect my thoughts. The fact that I wanted to stop and rest here was sign enough. I should be charging up the climb as I had a month prior on my route scouting trip, the exciting prospect of a 20 mile descent into Death Valley leading me on and over the summit. Instead I was sitting in my car on the side of the road, watching the race come at me from behind. Water Dragon pedalled by.

Grinding away up Towne

I got back on my bike, my stoppage time now over doubled from that 15 minute break. I put my head down and half closed my eyes, not seeing anything but slowly moving pavement. 15 minutes later, I needed to stop again. My legs were jello, except for the occasional excruciating spasm. I collected myself for 5 minutes, and Mudcat passed by. This spurred me to get back on the bike, and I crawled up the climb, pushing just around 6 mph on a 7% grade. A cramp stopped me again, and I limped up to my car, trying to avoid my increasingly alarmed crew, who thought I just needed to be goaded back onto the bike, that I'd be ok. I managed to get back on and complete the whole 2 mile, 9% section in one go, inching up it at under 5 mph. I collapsed into my car again. Leah "Mighty Mouse" Goldstein, Israeli national champion in the Road Race and TT, calmly rode past. I moved to get up, but fell back into my seat as I threw up what looked like 2 water bottles worth. I knew it had been coming. And now my stomach was relieved - empty. Maybe I would be all good now. From my past experience, I knew better than that. But what else could I think? Desert Locust and Wolverine pedalled by. Someone was playing Shania Twain on their roof mounted speakers. I tried to smile and greet the riders as they passed. It was an empty feeling - one of resignation - of complete removal from the race.

Sunset, nearing the top of Towne Pass

It was now approaching dusk, and we put lights on the bikes, and the extra reflectors and blinking lights on the car. I took down some fluids and bread and began working on the remaining 1000 feet of climbing. The sun had gone down and I had puked once more by the time I dragged my broken body up to the Towne Pass sign at the summit. I was sick again, and in considerable pain from the cramping. Emotionally I was numb. This was exactly how I felt when I dropped out of the Devil Mountain Double earlier in the year, and I ended up in the hospital that night. How was I going to save this one? My crew asked me to pull over so they could switch drivers. I obliged, getting off the bike briefly to stretch. As I unclipped and tried to bring my leg over the saddle, it siezed up and I near fell over. I needed to lie down. I stumbled to the car, sat in the front seat and retched out everything I had tried to eat over the last segment of the climb. I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself. We were going to have to stay up here. I was dangerously dehydrated. My stomach was not keeping down fluids. My legs were useless.

Mavis and Jordan. Our parking place for 7 hours. Hmm, what's the splotch on the dirt?

Minutes turned into hours. No one mentioned quitting. I wasn't going to bring it up. I heard my crew chattering at points about writing down numbers, and figured it may have to do with hospitals or dropping out somehow. I ignored them. I had one concern. Get water down, and keep it down. A doctor, who was crewing for another rider, came and checked me out. He reassured that I would be fine - that I just needed to get fluids processing again. That's just what I had thought. If only it were as easy as willing it. Every once in a while Alex would try and convince me to just get back out on the bike. We could go from there. No. There were gale force winds out there. I still was nauseous. I wasn't getting out there until I knew I was staying out there. Having to puke or a debilitating cramp in the middle of that descent is not something I wanted to deal with.

My crew wanted me to get out there - but they were patiently waiting. I can't thank them enough for how they handled this situation. None of us knew what to do. But I felt like I finally had a plan. Stay calm - get the fluids down. When they stay down, get the hell back out there. I might actually be able to save this one. That's part of ultra cycling - working through whatever's thrown your way. Analytic problem solving is actually a component of the sport - when you ask your body to do absurd things, you need to be ready to handle it when it balks at your requests.

It was after midnight, and the tail end of the pack had already straggled through, when I finally felt like my gut may be working again. I began drinking more , getting calories in, electrolytes, and they stayed down - I was finally able to satisfy my body's desperate need for everything it had been rejecting for the past hours. As the nutrients worked their way through my body I could feel them rejuvenating me. Outside was cold, dark and blustery - not exactly an inviting time to begin the 5,000 foot descent down to the Valley, but I could do this. I had to pee! Yes. I was hydrated. I bundled up, even putting on Alex's sweatshirt, having no idea what to expect. I had been so low for so long, it didn't matter. We were finally moving. I relieved myself, switched my lights on, and we cruised down the descent. The way my bike was handling, I could tell we were going over 50, although I couldn't see anything but a narrow patch of pavement in front of me. It was thrilling. I was back.

We hit the valley floor and I shed all the extra clothes I hadn't really needed in the first place. It was a warm evening, and I went with just my jersey and bibs. The full moon was high above, and our spirits were soaring. I looked back to Alex, driving the crew car, and we knew this was happening. We were going to do this. We had been through the purgatory of Towne, and we had survived. We had a purpose, and we only had 275 mi to the finish. He drove up alongside to pass off a bottle, and in my joyous carefree mindset I declared "this is badass!" .. the crew smiled in agreement.

There was a headwind, but it wasn't bad enough to dampen the mood. I got in the aerobars and powered through. I felt great. I looked down, and my heart rate was a relaxed 135, at the same power that had been sending me into the 170s earlier in the race. Perfect. My body was back. My mind was back. Let's finish this. Death Valley's strange, beautiful landmarks eased by, sand dunes, the devil's cornfield, Stovepipe Wells, barely visible, reflecting a pale glow from the full moon. We reached the race's namesake and halfway point, TS3 at Furnace Creek, surprised to see that the race staff was still there, ready to write down - Rock Rabbit : 3:19 AM - as we passed.

Wheel change in Death Valley

Soon after the time station, the route climbs a small hill and bears right onto Badwater Road. As I followed the turn to the south, a sudden wind gust threw me toward the center line. I tightened my grip and hunkered down, chin near my bars. It was 45 miles to the start of the climb to Jubilee and Salsberry passes, and the exit of Death Valley. I was now moving at 10 mph, on what appeared to be flat ground. I had expected an easy night spin over the small rollers down to the climb. Looked like I was in store for something entirely different.

I had caught up to the tail end of the race, and was now passing riders and crew. Most were parked on the side of the road, perhaps trying to wait out the windstorm. Some were pedalling, some were walking, leaning into the wind, trying to keep from being blown off the road. I felt alive, I felt invigorated, I was clawing my way through the valley despite everything it was throwing at me. I embraced the wind. I was thrown from one side of the lane to the other, but I went with it, kept the pedals turning, tried to keep my aero helmet down on my back, although the wind grabbed and wrenched at it. I tried briefly to ride my TT bike, but my left knee wasn't having the more aggressive position. I had been in the wind an hour. I was only averaging around 11 mph. Sand, dust, and rocks sprayed in the air. I tried to yell to my crew as they pulled alongside, probably about how ridiculous the conditions were, but realized neither of us would ever be able to hear each other. I shook a bottle, and got back a full bottle of Perp. We'd have to use gestures.

And we grinded through the valley, the wind swirling and gusting against the mountain faces directly to our left, bouncing back on all sides, pushing us back where we came from. I tried to relax in the wind - move with it, through it, let it throw me from side to side in the lane, as long as I kept moving foward. It wasn't going to stop me. We would get to the climb, we'd get out of this forsaken valley, and there would be other obstacles to conquer. As dawn crept over the mountains and spilled into the valley, I thought back to the start line, almost a day earlier, and what lay between then and now. I smiled as I reached the sign for the long abandoned Ashford Mills ruins. The rocks were awash in an pinkish-orange glow. The climb was nearing. I was thankful to be on my bike for this moment. The winds were beginning to soften, enough for me to motion up my crew and give them a "good morning." It hadn't been easy to reach this sunrise for any of us.

Sunrise and full moon, exiting Death Valley

The climb of Jubilee and Salsberry Passes is pleasant and well graded, about 15 miles between 4 and 5%. The wind had now completely abated, and I sat up and spun the climb, enjoying the moment, and conserving for the long day still ahead. As I made my way toward the summit, crew car after crew car passed by, abandoning their 508 bid, beaten to submission by the brutal conditions in Death Valley. The mass exodus was a sad sight; but it reminded me how happy I was to still be on the bike. I crested the climb after an hour and a half, relaxed into my aerobars and let gravity do the work. My legs appreciated the break; it had been over 7 hours of battling headwinds and hills since I had been able to coast.

As I passed through Shoshone and TS 4, I thought back to family and friends who were watching the time splits online - I hoped these would be updated - I wanted everyone to know I was still going. I was ok. I didn't quit.

Headed to Baker

As I hit a headwind again on the long slog to Baker, I realized the toll the night, and the previous day, had taken. I had been up for over 28 hours (with a few fitful moments of sleep), riding for 20, and I was tired. My crew must have been filling up on gas, and I started to get anxious, looking back, seeing only empty road. The road was a slight incline with a headwind, and I was dragging. I needed calories, I wanted my crew. It was 10 more miles to the top of Ibex Pass - and I begain eyeing the side of the road, thinking about taking a quick break. Don't do it. I looked back again, to see my crew right behind me. Relief washed over me and I forgot about stopping. I waved them up. Perpetuem please! Ice! I gulped down the liquid calories. Still tasted good. Most people gag at the thought of such a long ride with a near liquid-only diet - but I don't think they've ever tried it. It's far more important to minimize stress on your stomach and keep processing calories than to have gourmet solid meals on the bike.

Another fast, effortless descent followed after cresting Ibex Pass, and the road to Baker stretched out in front of us, miles visible at a time. I was feeling good again, and the endless straight road didn't bother me, the miles were ticking away. I would get to the finish. I passed more riders on the way to Baker - including my friend Kevin Walsh - and they looked to be struggling. Many would drop out at Baker, mile 385. The long night in Death Valley affected everyone - and was the main reason for the over 50% DNF rate. Riders who quit at Baker may have expected another 120 torturous miles of headwinds over the hilly terrain. The winds seemed to have been shifting, and I was starting to hold out hope for a tailwind.

As I made my way through Baker, TS 5, my tailwind dreams - which I certainly didn't really expect - were beginning to be realized. I crossed the 15 freeway - teeming with traffic between LA and Vegas - and as I headed toward the 2,700 foot climb leading to Kelso, a faint tailwind whipped at my back. I couldn't believe my luck. More crew cars were ahead, and I powered up to each one in turn, using them as carrots , a mental diversion to the length of the 23 mile climb. I felt like I was hammering, but my fatigued legs were only capable of around 200 watts. That was ok...my heart was calm, staying in the 130s, I wasn't cramping, I wasn't bonking, I was happy. I never would have dreamed that I would be enjoying this section!

Near the top of the climb, the freshly laid, smooth pavement gives way to gnarled, ancient, pavement substitute: I imagined the pavers throwing rocks over the road, dumping buckets of tar on their rock piles, and calling it a day. I had not worn gloves up to this point, and my hands had started to numb. But by the time I picked my way up to the top of the climb, dodging a pothole here, razor sharp rock there, my hands were smarting. I pulled over and added gloves, vest, and warmers. I tried to shake the mix of pain and numbness out of my hands and got ready for the descent. I wanted to bomb it - but I didn't want to taco my wheels, and my hands hurt. So I babied it on the descent, trying to weave through the line with the smoothest pavement - I thought of Boonen in Paris Roubaix. Can't have been as bad as that! Man up. Finally the road condition recovered, and I blasted through Kelso - really a set of train tracks and a museum - and headed up the climb to Amboy. Another gentle climb of around 12 miles, through the beautiful Mojave Preserve. The granite outcroppings the climb passes through were catching the afternoon sun - the sun would be setting before too long! The climb topped out and we stopped to put lights on the bike. Where had the day gone? It hadn't seemed too long ago that the sun was rising in Death Valley. Only one long descent, and one big climb to go. I was giddy - the finish line was now a palpable reality. I took a quick look around to enjoy the view, and jumped back on the bike.

In the Granite Mountains climbing above Kelso.

The pavement was smooth now - and the descent to the last time station near Amboy was long. I just relaxed in the aerobars, crusing at around 30. I was feeling good, but no need now to kill myself, I still had one climb to go. I got the thumbs up as we passed - meaning no penalties, and no need to stop. So we rolled through the time station, and headed west on the old route 66, until meeting up with Amboy Road, which would take us all the way to Twentynine Palms.

I handed back my bottles for a refill, grabbed the strange but tasty mixture of snack foods they handed to me - nilla wafers, goldfish, and pretzels, took some bites of banana, and headed up toward the last big climb of the day - the curiously named Sheephole. I asked Alex for the champagne - I was getting ready for the celebration - and mentally ready to be done. But there were still over 3 hours of riding left. I knew this, but kept pretending with myself that it was already all over. As the sun went down, I powered up Sheephole - standing up most of the way, feeling awesome. It still took most of an hour to climb, and I welcomed the dark, high speed, descent that followed. When the road curved westward and began its last gradual ascent to the finish line, a nasty headwind reared up to greet me. I knew this was coming - although for some reason I envisioned the section as 10 miles. It's 23. The headwind was nasty - and I stood up and tried my best to hammer through it. The road is straight and unremarkable - and in the dark there were no real landmarks or progress markers. My Garmin mount had broken in the rough pavement section so I didn't have any data to look at. Maybe it was better, I just needed to suffer through this last section, and bring it home. An eternity later we arrived at the left turn on Utah Trail, which took us to CA-62 and the last 5 mile trek, through rolling hills and the whole length of Twentynine Palms, to the finish. The city is amazingly long and spread out, and the 5 miles dragged on - through intersection after intersection - over hills - until finally the Best Western sign was visible in the distance. Looking back, I see why it seemed so long: between the headwind and uphill, I averaged only 13 mph for those last 23 miles. Passing crew cars, perhaps heading from the finish, cheered as they rolled by. And then we were turning left, into the driveway. Lots of people. More cheers. And I was done.

An immense feeling of accomplishment welled up in me as I crossed the finish. Not even a twinge of disappointment for my performance - which by the numbers was well below my target. That didn't matter anymore. My parents were there - my sister was there, it was wonderful to see them. My crew hopped out of the car and jumped on me. We had done it. I got my medal and jersey. We took pictures. I chatted a bit with crew and folks about - about my remarkable recovery from an almost certain DNF. Other crews had seen me during my stay on Towne - and it meant a lot to see their enthusiasm and happiness for my turnaround.

Finally! Rolling across the line.

I was starving - and attacked the leftover KFC that had been my family's dinner. First substantive food in 2 days! We all then quickly went to bed. The next morning was the post-race breakfast - a hearty affair put on by a local church, with tasty, freshly made eggs, hash browns, and pancakes. Everyone was in good spirits, whether they finished or not, and it was a great end to what the best race weekend I've ever had. As we all said our goodbyes and headed home, I was left wondering what this race really meant to me. Such a race really does provide for introspection, but it's not easy to process the results. What I do know is that I am deeply grateful to my crew, and to my friends and family. Because of them I was able to find in myself what I needed to persevere and pull through - and complete what I consider the biggest single athletic accomplishment of my 25 years.

Giving my very relived mom a hug at the finish

Chatting with the Water Dragon crew - great folks!

As has been typical of my progression with cycling - I may soon look for bigger goals than completion of a race of this length, as the novelty of the accomplishment fades. A large part of the significance of these events is proving, in the face of doubt, that you can do it. But even so, I know this will be a major landmark along the journey.

One thing is safe to say: I'm coming back next year!

38 hours and 16 minutes out on the road.
Just over 30 hours moving.
Just over 9 hours to the base of Towne Pass. (~200 miles)
Almost 9 hours before leaving the top of Towne Pass. (~10 miles)
19.5 hours from the top of Towne Pass to the finish. (~300 miles)
509.5 miles.
27,000 feet climbed.
115,000 pedal strokes.
18,500 calories burned.
Around 6,000 calories ingested (that didn't come back out!)
4-5 pounds lost (makes sense with the caloric deficit above)
Numb hands and feet for 1 week.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


38 hours and 16 minutes after departing from the start line in Santa Clarita, I rolled into the Twentynine Palms Best Western to surprisingly raucous cheers. A 508 finisher. The journey may have taken a lot longer than expected, but what a ride.

Team Rock Rabbit!

My crew: Alex, Jordan, and Mavis were absolutely incredible. THANK YOU!

Lots more to come.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

And it all comes down to this.

I am running out of things to do. Good thing. In 45 hours I'll be racing. No matter what happens, this will be an extraordinary weekend. I pick up my brother tonight. I pick up my crew chief, Mavis "Ischyodus" Irwin tomorrow morning on the way up to Santa Clarita. Directeur sportif Alex will meet us in the afternoon. The race is on at 7 am on Saturday.

I was going to write more about the details of the planning and preparation - and maybe I will assess how the logistical aspects worked out - after the race. But really, it's all unremarkable. Bike maintenance. Car maintenance. Buying stuff. Organizing stuff. Drawing out plans. These details have consumed every spare moment for me in these weeks leading up to the race, but they're not what this is about. So what is it about? I ask myself that often.

There's the simple visceral pleasure of turning the pedals on roads way out there.
There's the striving for a goal.
There's the enduring through suffering, and overcoming of adversity to achieve this goal.
Then there's the progression of these goals ... and the strengthening of yourself as an athlete.

The excitement of the unknown - of pushing your limits - but then expanding them. Of being able to do feats that are mind-boggling for the vast majority of people - that were even mind-boggling for yourself in the recent past. This gives a sense of purpose to life that can all too easily be mired in the drudgery of the everyday. Now.. is riding 500 miles really sufficient "meaning"? It'll do for now.

This is my take on the lure of ultracycling. The 508 embodies this for me at this point in my cycling "career".

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One Week Out.

The Furnace Creek 508 is "only" 509.5 miles. Just 2.5 times the length of a double. But it's much more than that. This is obviously true at the physical exertion level. But the addition of a crew brings in all kinds of logistical issues. There's the in depth planning. There's the endless need for more stuff. No longer are you limited to one bike, and whatever minimal added things you want to bring with. In a way, this makes the adventure that much more epic - because you are forced to put much more into it, and this in itself gives the race more importance. I've never prepared so much or cared so much about the outcome of an athletic event than I have for this race. But as much as I love buying new bike gear - part of me wishes there was a way to do it without so much stuff. Alright, I guess I could do it with less stuff. But the need for support, and all the extra complications that come with it, is still there. I can't wait to be out there on the road - all of the prep completed - only having to worry about the next pedal rotation.

Many people don't understand how bike racing is a team sport. But what may be even more surprising is that solo ultra endurance racing is also very much a team sport, but in a different sense. Our crews are absolutely essential - and I do look forward to sharing this experience with mine.

Pics below of my climbing bike (decked out w/ TT wheels) and my support car rack setup. Yep, I'm not using a van!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I am... Rock Rabbit

Every 508 racer chooses a totem. Mine is Rock Rabbit. Also known as the pika - a little high-altitude, hay-collecting rodent with a funny shrill squeak. I saw a lot of these guys on the John Muir Trail last summer. I have a tendency to be a bit of a rabbit - going out too hard and paying for it later - and this is something that I'll definitely have to watch during my race. It's difficult to transition from pacing for crits, road races and time trials to pacing for ultras. I've found that I can be totally comfortable with a pace that in reality is way too hard for a long event. Keeping constant tabs on power levels and heart rate is key for this.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Tapering? Not yet...

My plan was to begin tapering for the 508 after my intense week of training. But I'm still 26 days out, I was feeling great, and I needed to take my newly built up Scott Addict on a long ride (pictures to come). End result? A very enjoyable ~8 hour, 143 mile ride out in East County, 8800 feet of climbing, in warm temperatures (probably around 90).

I didn't have my power today (don't have my Quarq installed on my new bike yet) , but I was able to approximate my endurance pace by keeping my HR around 160 on climbs (around 80% of my max). After years of training almost exclusively with power, I'm learning that, at least for ultra training and racing, heart rate may be a more important pacing tool. Today, despite the heat and a relatively fast pace, keeping my heart rate low kept my fluids and calories processing, and I felt great all the way through the ride. It's looking good for the 508!

At this point, I know that there isn't really enough time to make significant fitness gains - and I just need to be concerned with maintaining fitness and coming into the race well rested. But I do think I can still make gains with heat acclimation, and with fine tuning my hydration and nutrition plan. Really, I'm just enjoying being out on the bike, and I don't think that's harmful at this point.

Monday, August 31, 2009

508 Training Week Report

508: T -33 days. But the last 10 days have been excellent preparation. I've now driven or ridden basically all of the 508 course, gained more insight into my handling of heat, how to keep my fluids and calories processing (and how NOT to), and gotten in some big miles. Will add writeups, data, etc. as I have time. Took 5 days off, and in that time squeezed in over 700 miles, finished my 508 recon, and was a groomsman at my friend's wedding. Overview of my training vacation. From Friday Aug 21 - Sunday Aug 30. More detailed info with power numbers to follow...
  • 25 mi 1500 ft - Spin ride on my La Jolla training loops
  • 115 mi 4300 ft - An out and back - between north of Amboy and 29 Palms. It was hot, muggy, and even stormed for a while. I ended up severely dehydrated. Puked. Needed 4L of IV.
  • 53 mi 5200 ft - 508 route - climb south out of Kelso, and Towne Pass
  • 118 mi 12,500 ft - Similar to Day 1 of Everest Challenge - Rock Creek and South Lake climbs.
  • 101 mi 4,000 ft - Double day - "easy" ride out to the bay, Calaveras loop, rode with my Dad back from his work.
  • 78 mi 4,300 ft - Ride through Palomares, Redwood, Pinehurst, Moraga, back over Palomares.
  • 155 mi 12,100 ft - Epic ride - Felter Rd, Mt Hamilton, Mines Road, Palomares, Calaveras. HOT!
  • 32 mi 400 ft - Flat spin ride down to the bay and back
  • 38 mi 2,000 ft - Calaveras loop with my dad
  • 63 mi 4,000 ft - Calaveras + Palomares
778 mi >50,000 ft climbing

Friday, August 21, 2009

Preparing for the 508

I'm lazy. I created this blog a while ago, with the idea that I would write up all my epic rides, post my power data, provide my analysis of the data, and chronicle my ultra cycling progression. Almost half a year later, and none of that has happened.

But now, the 508 is just 6 weeks away, and I've cleared out a week of work to get in a serious training session. I'm thinking of one last brutal week before I start a long taper. A perfect time to actually start writing. The 508 is a non-stop 509.5 (hmm..) mi ultracycling race - really just a very long time trial - running from Santa Clarita through Death Valley to 29 Palms. It's also my biggest goal of the year; well, the biggest goal of my athletic life to this point. And it's really kind of terrifying.

I rode quite a few double centuries throug the early part of the year. I did my first 24 hour in early May, and despite some disastrous mechanical issues, I was pleased with passing 400 miles. And I realized I may actually have a shot at riding over 500 miles. I did two doubles after that, the Central Coast Double and the Heartbreak Double, and I ended up cracking in both of them. This is when I realized I had been running (ok, cycling..) myself into the ground. I started taking it easy. At about this time, work was getting pretty hectic. I managed to get in a 300 mi ride (Grand Tour), but dropped at this point instead of finishing the Quad Century. After this, a long business trip ended with me off the bike for 10 long days. It was nearing mid-July when I realized that the 508 was less than 3 months away, and I was nowhere near as prepared as I needed to be.

I started preparing. The urgency of the ever shrinking gap between me and the start line in Santa Clarita proved to be motivation enough. I rode a chunk (near Trona) of the 508 course in 105 degree temperatures. I speed-hiked Mt Whitney, then rode up to Whitney Portal (4700 ft climb) after. I climbed Horseshoe Meadows and Whitney Portal the next day (~60 mi, 10,000 ft climbing) I did a century comprised solely of Torrey Pines climbs (30 climbs, >13,000 feet gain). I climbed Mt. Soledad by every major route (14 climbs, ~70 miles on the mountain, 9500 ft). I rode 2 non-stop centuries on short circuit courses of .6 mi and 1.5 mi to work on mental tenacity. I rode 90 mi to the start of an organized century starting at 2 AM, rode the century with my dad, got a ride home, and then did a 1.5 hour intensity ride upon returning. But I still am completely in doubt whether I'm actually ready for this race.

I leave tomorrow to drive up to 29 Palms and ride the end part of the course. I think I'll keep driving North from there, maybe through Death Valley along the 508 course, and eventually make it up my parent's home in the Bay Area. Forecast for 29 Palms? 95, with 30% chance of thunderstorms. Nice.