Wednesday, October 5, 2011

2010 Furnace Creek 508 - Rock Rabbit's Fixed Gear Report


It wasn’t supposed to be so hard. After my struggles in the Hoodoo the month prior, I figured that the 508, even fixed, couldn’t be too bad. In the Hoodoo I had already dragged myself, unsupported, over a 10,000 foot pass in the middle of the night, vomiting, unable to hold down food or water. I had recovered, and found a raging headwind through the entirety of the “easy” mid section of the course.  Then another massive climb to over 10,000 ft, and a final internal battle as I finished in the early hours of the morning, my grasp on reality beginning to succumb to extreme fatigue.

The 508 couldn’t be this bad the second time around: I would have the luxury of a crew, the climbs were mostly gentler and at lower elevation, and I knew the course. Having only one gear, and no aero equipment would slow me down, but perhaps also liberate me from the competitive pressure to push my pace beyond my abilities.  I felt ready this time, with a (perhaps unfounded) confidence that this time I would do things right. I was wrong.

Death Valley, the desert,  the 508 course, all demanded more respect than I had given them. I dragged myself to the finish, with the help and guidance of my crew, but yet again my knowledge and experience of the meaning of difficult, of epic, was recast. At the finish, I was again left trying to salvage feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction out of what was really only survival in the midst of a complete breakdown.  The 508 and Hoodoo, both within about a month,  both extraordinary sufferfests,  left me utterly drained and exhausted.  I wanted to write about my experience, but put it on the back burner, struggling with how I wanted to express it. I’m now finishing this report a year later, only days away from the following 508,  and while some of the details have faded, the essence of the experience is still fresh and vital in my mind. I tried here to capture the kernels of memory that define this ride for me. My recollections center around my own experiences, from the narrow visibility of my saddle (and occasionally, the side of the road.) While they might not get enough mention below, my crew was an essential component of my success here, keeping me going through extremely difficult circumstances for everyone, all the way to the end. Thank you, Jordan, Anabelle, Bal!

Towne Pass. Mile 200. Dark.

Walking. 3 miles an hour. Ok, at least I’m still moving. My pedals periodically jam into my calves, punishing my awkward gait, kicking me for not being on the bike.  A moonlit stroll.  Brilliant stars. In the middle of an epic race.  Surreal.  Wrong.

The plummet had happened so suddenly. I was at the bottom of Towne, in the center of the pack, the middle of a procession of lights marking the road ahead and behind. I had recovered from my earlier slump, and thought I was feeling great. Here the route turned right and up toward the pass, then beyond to Death Valley.  Riders were stopping here, steeling themselves for the climb. I pushed ahead, almost giddy to start climbing, to destroy Towne with my one gear. A mile up and my confidence was waning.  My legs were empty, the distressed fibers barely firing, and willpower alone was hardly enough to torque the pedals around, one agonizing revolution every 3 seconds, up the 10% grade.  

OK, stop, switch to running shoes. This section was going to be on foot.  I had known this might be necessary. But not so soon. I could barely handle extended 10% grades on the fixie when fresh, but I was 200 miles in now, and in trouble. The change in position as I laced up my shoes churned my stomach. I tried to ignore it and jumped up, pushing my bike up the grade. I made it a few minutes, as all energy drained out of my legs. Stop again. The vomit came forcefully, and I retched pathetically, lying on a camping pad beside the road,  struggling to will myself to get back up.  Pitch black, moving painstakingly slowly. Various riders passed. For a second year, the race was passing me by on the slopes of Towne. This was a long climb, much longer on foot. I tried to convince myself it was ok, to keep upbeat. I was recovering, I would be able to spin down, and get stronger through the night, as I pushed on through Death Valley.  Near the top, the climb is finally back to reasonable grades. Cycling shoes back on. Back on the bike. Eat a little. Pass by the top of Towne, not stopping this time. 5,000 feet down, legs like manic pistons,  300 miles to go.  



Back on the bike near the top of Towne. Death Valley awaits.


Death Valley

The valley floor arrived none too soon. Bright reflective signs announce Stovepipe Wells, but the town was behind me before I notice it had passed. It felt warm. The moon was out. There was an eeriness to the night air. The wind was nothing like the maelstrom of the year before, but was still a nuisance, pushing against me as I battled my way south, around the curves and undulations of the tortured path out of the valley. And so the night progressed.  The grinding monotony of my slow journey through the dark desert was only occasionally broken - a nosebleed in the dry air, catching and passing a few riders, a handful of crackers. A brief respite at the Furnace Creek time station, still almost 50 miles from the climb out, and back on the road. 2:30 AM is a tough time, the body begging for sleep, the muscles aching from the hours and miles before, the mind dulled and a bit dazed, the world slowly pulling away, quiet and black.


Death Valley - The Climb Out

The valley is long, and seems even longer. I knew the road too well to fool myself. My stomach was not happy. I had been taking in decent amounts of food, calories, fluids. But something wasn’t quite right. My legs were weak, and the going was slow. I passed a few riders, but it was a death march out of the valley. The previous year I was fighting my way south through ridiculously strong headwinds at single digit speeds. But I felt great then, tackling epic conditions with a newfound strength from recovering from a near DNF. This time it was different. I knew all too well what was ahead of me, and I didn’t feel  particularly up for it. But I would need to suffer through it. Believing in the accomplishment instills meaning to the pain. I didn’t have energy for that, so I would just grind on.

Three hours of this unremarkable drudgery, and the sky was finally beginning to show some color. The sun was rising, but it wouldn’t peek over the towering mountains to the west for another few hours. Here at the base of the 3500 ft climb out of the valley, my souring stomach and growing fatigue became too much for me to overcome. I stopped, planning to sleep a little bit, and start fresh, recovered and ready to tackle the 200 odd miles left between me and Twentynine Palms. I stumbled forward as I dismounted, my legs absurdly sore, and as I sat down in the passenger seat, knew I was going to be sick. Painfully sick, in violent heaves. From the looks of it, most all of my chosen nutrition for my trip through Death Valley was staring back at me from the sandy shoulder. Great. Stomach exhausted and cramping, but finally rid of its aggravating contents. It had taken eight hours to drag  myself and my fixed gear from this camping pad on the side of the road of the climb into Death Valley, to the same wretched position on the climb out of Death Valley. I closed my eyes. I must have gained a few minutes of precious sleep, in between sips of lemon water and muscle massage from Anabelle, and increasingly impatient urgings from Bal to get the hell up.



Dawn breaks in Death Valley. Get back on the bike.

After almost an hour, I began the slow and uneasy process of dragging myself to my feet, mounting my bike, and rolling again. The longer the stop, the more painful the start. My legs were wooden and my stomach fragile, but my morale was on the rise. The morning was here, it was time to ride. With a wonderful lemon honey and water mixture in my bottles, I embarked on the monster climb to higher ground. The climb up Jubilee and Salisberry Passes averages a mild 5%, but for 15 miles. And in my weakened state and high gearing, that meant a gruelingly slow cadence of 35, or almost 2 seconds per pedal revolution.  I strained against the pedals, recruiting every enervated muscle fiber I could, in a tense struggle to keep moving. The difficulty of the climb brought me back into my element; I was a little happier with each painful, agonizingly slow mile. I felt once again what I had been missing since Towne...a reason to be doing this. Challenge. Overcoming it. Knocked down twice, reduced to puking on the ground, just to get up again, and push a stupidly big gear up this climb. Yes. I am doing this. I want to be doing this. 



The Escape from Death Valley

The beginning - San Francisquito Canyon

Santa Clarita. 7 AM.  The race is off with the usual casual banter at the start line, words by eventmaster Chris Kostman ( don’t think about the 500 miles ahead of you, the 30,000 feet of climbing, the wind, the heat...)  and a police escort out of town.

We reach the left turn marking the end of the neutral section, the pleasantries are over, and we’re heading up. The race is now strictly no drafting, but just as last year, no one wants to separate.  Annoying.  I try to keep it easy, to stay alone, but am still swarmed by draggers on. At one of the steeper rises I foolishly take off, wasting energy in order to get some separation. My gap thankfully sticks. I try to keep it sensible from here on, focusing on smooth pedal strokes, standing up and torquing the pedals when the grade stiffens, sitting and spinning out the tension on the flatter sections. The first summit finally comes, marked by one last, painfully steep section. I clench my teeth and power up it.

Rolling over the top of a climb on a fixed gear is a different experience - gone is the relaxing, enjoyable descent of a geared bike, the chance to rest the legs, catch your breath, enjoy the speed. Instead, the ceaseless spinning of leg, wheel, and crank seamlessly shifts from the grind of the uphill to the crazed dance of the downhill. I had trained extensively on my fixie, and had managed to improve my fixed descents, and limit the toll of the extremely high forced cadences of 150+ on my body. But still, the fixed gear descents offer little recovery to a body weary from the previous climb.

Then the right turn onto Johnson Dr, and the first crew meetup - the road here is lined with support crew, all cheering, and passing by them all  is exhilerating.  My crew were waiting near the end of the line, with a fresh bottle and some fruit, and I grabbed them as I passed. 25 miles down. The route then dropped quickly off the ridge into the vast desolation that is the Mojave desert, where we would trace a giant horseshoe across the expanse of rock and sand. 483 miles to go.

The Mojave, Day 1

I can’t find a pace slow enough to calm my anxious body. My heart rate is too fast. I nervously think back to 2009. Is this slow motion downfall happening again? I can’t let it. With minimal effort on the pedals I try to ease myself through the desert. It’s interesting to be in the middle of all the riders. I convince myself that I’m in my own race, that it doesn’t matter I thought I was faster. But still, no matter how easy I go, I can’t stop my heart rate from beating too fast. 



The beginning of the Windmill climb

This long daytime section into Trona is only a prelude. The true tests lie ahead. The desert is there, all around, a force pulling at you, weakening you for the trials that begin at Towne. It was doing just that.  I was in survival mode, far too soon.


Struggling in the desert

I stopped turning the pedals for the first time at 130 miles. 15 minutes of rest and muscle massage.  But the heart rate is still unsettled. The stomach, uneasy. There was only one thing to do. Deny the impending disaster. Keep going. 



Panamint Valley, approaching Towne. 

Into Baker

The road stretched far into the distance under the bright desert sun, mocking me. It was hot, nearing 100. It was windy, an oppressive and steady south wind, with occasional strong gusts.  I toiled on in my slow cadence, and my gaze followed the road to the base of the mountains ahead, miles away. There it curved slightly to the left to skirt the terrain. It was 35 miles south to Baker, and the sun was high in the sky. I knew I had little hope of any reprieve from either the wind or the heat. It would been have been calmer and cooler earlier; only further punishment for my earlier difficulties.

Time, like the miles, ticked by at a lumbering pace. I was weak: from near no sleep, from well over 24 hours on the bike, from vomiting, first on Towne, then on the exit from Death Valley. From the ceaseless demands of my fixed gear, which never allows a moment’s break: the torque and strain of an overgeared uphill, the frantic spinning of an undergeared downhill, and the lack of flexibilty even on the flats. I was at 12 mph, cadence in the 50s, overheating. My confidence was flagging.

I had overcome my troubles on Towne, and pushed on through Death Valley, through the night and into the morning. I had another low before the large climbs of Jubilee and Salisberry, but I had fought through the pain and fatigue to muscle up the 15 mile climb. Now here I was, in a situation just as trying, but now I was weak, laid bare in my suffering. I had little left to give, and the prospect of what lay before me was despairing. At my speed, I had hours of this until Baker. I felt pathetic. I didn’t want this. Desire is absolutely essential at times like this, and I was losing it.

It was here that my crew pulled up alongside me. Anabelle handed a bottle out the window - I could hear the ice cubes clinking inside.  “It’s ice water...pour it on yourself!” OK... I dumped half the bottle on my neck and back. It was heavenly. My core temp wavered a fraction, and I was jolted out of my negativity.  I chewed on the remaining ice cubes in the bottle, downed the water and handed it back. More please.

So we progressed - into the raging wind, the nondescript desert scenery, the unforgiving sun. We had ice, water and gatorade. Just by looking, there was no hint of progress. The miles counted down on my Garmin agonizingly slowly. I tried not to look. I took the bottles handed me, emptied them, returned them. The crew cheered. We had found a rhythm; the physical task itself was little easier, but once again I wanted to be there, I felt like I was accomplishing something, like this difficulty meant something. And that made all the difference.

After hours of our routine the desolation finally gave way to a ramshackle collection of restaurants, gas stations, and budget motels around I-15. Baker. What a welcome sight. We had staved off the heat until now but I needed to cool down. I eyed the AMPM across the main drag. The entrance had two sets of sliding doors with an entryway in between where AC was blasting. I stumbled in and planted myself on the floor, the wonderfully frigid air wrapping around me. Almost giddy, I smiled to myself at what I had just accomplished. For the second year in a row, I was m
uch, much slower than I had expected, performing nowhere near what I knew I was capable of. But still I had done something. The last three hours had been some of the hardest hours I had ever endured. And I was still here. I was going to finish. Regardless of my finish time, this would mean something. My desire was back.


As I was basking in the wondrous cool, letting my core temp fall, and readying myself for the remainder of my task, Willy “Long Eared Jerboa” Nevin came in and sat himself on the floor opposite me. It was great to see him at this point. The previous year, he had given me advice on my first 24 hour race. He was one of the many who had dropped out amid the windstorm of the ‘09 508, but was resolved this time. We were only 200k from the finish. I thought back a year. For me, without a question, this had been harder than 2009. I had worked for every mile this year. No aero gear. No coasting. No sensible gearing. I realized now how much a difference it made. The 15 minutes in the AC had left me feeling refreshed, ready to go. My crew had grabbed ice, water, frozen goodies, and we were rolling again. I dismissed the 380 miles in my legs, I was a new rider. From here on out, no problem?


Leaving Baker refreshed, on Kelbaker Road

Kelso Climb

Leaving Kelso

The second dusk was upon us. The air above Kelso was crisp, in the sky an intense sunset, framing the surrounding granite mountains and high desert in dark blues and bright oranges. There were thunderstorms in the distance behind us, but I had my eyes ahead. I was feeling almost drunk with fatigue. My legs were still below me, making slow, tense circles, but I felt detached from them - from the sensations of the climb, from their sore exhaustion. The crew ambled behind me, Bal never quite keeping a straight line, occasionally faltering into the dirt or falling too far back. Maybe I was setting the example. It didn’t matter. What a moment. We had already been through so much. Nothing was going to stop us from finishing. I motioned for them to pull aside me and gushed forth. “I love you guys. This is so awesome. Thank you so much. But I can feel that I’m losing it... just wanted to let you guys know. This may get difficult.” 

The sun sets above Kelso. It gets harder. 

And my world began to shrink as the day slipped away, limited to the rough pavement in the headlights, the side of the road, and whatever my mind filled in to the dark boundaries. As the grade stiffened, I filled in pine trees bordering the road, and I was riding in the Sierras. I wondered briefly how I got there before I startled back to reality.  My perception of time was failing me - the climb seemed like it should have been over long ago. My crew had lost track of miles and didn’t know either. I tried counting - my gearing is 262 pedal revolutions per mile. One...two...three... at a cadence of 30, I realized this game wasn’t going to help.  I  relaxed and simply accepted the pace, not fighting my gear, or the mountain, but instead just gently rolling up it. And after ages we were at the top.

The crew needed to switch batteries on the amber lights, and I wolfed down some remaining fruit salad. We were soon back moving, tackling the 25 mile descent as fast as I could muster. After hours of too slow, my cadence was now far too fast, and I relaxed my legs and tried to let gravity fling them around in circles, squirming to get comfortable on my saddle, sneaking quick half-stands, shuffling my numbing hands on the bars. The interminable descent that is a welcome treat to all geared riders was a complete chore to me - but after many false hopes and misinterpreted light clusters, the real Amboy time station finally came into view. The staffers were cheerful, enthusiastic about the Hawaiian theme of the control, and lamented that we didn’t want to stay and chat. I was not in the mood for “getting lei’d” jokes...I downed the pineapple juice they handed me, and motioned to my crew that we needed to keep going. It was 9 pm and I should be finishing now.  But, ashamedly, my job was far from done. The finish line, and my hotel room, were still 55 grueling miles in the distance.

To the Finish

Onwards to Amboy... The road was familiar to me, both from training and the previous 508, but I didn’t recognize it in the dark. I was falling again into an uneasy confusion, and was worried that I would miss the upcoming left turn. I passed the iconic Roy’s motel and cafe in the dark without noticing.  I was too fatigued to realize anything but my confusion. My tenuous grip on consciousness was soon to be lost.

The turn came, and we crossed the railroad tracks onto Amboy Road - which would take us most of the remaining 50 miles to the finish. The two bright lights behind me were alien, sinister, following me with an unblinking stare and the faint purr of an undertaxed engine.  The dark shrouded the sand, the mineral flats, the wastelands we were passing unseen, with an even deeper nothing. In this unbounded emptiness my mind began to unload all the doubts, anxieties, suffering, frustration, fatigue and emotion of the previous day and a half. But my pedals kept turning, in weary, unceasing circles.

Voices were talking at me in the darkness. The vehicle had come along side me. They were familiar, but I couldn’t quite place them. My very existence now seemed a mystery. What am I doing. How did I get here.  It was terribly frustrating. I got my answers. Oh. Right, the 508. I need to finish. Twentynine Palms. Yeah. But wait. A minute later it was gone - a fleeting epiphany. The road was climbing now, I was torquing the pedals. Standing up. Moving very slowly. Am I on my right bike? The words came out of my mouth. My faceless companions next to me in the dark didn’t quite know how to answer.  I had the foreboding feeling that something was wrong. I was in the middle of something huge that I didn’t understand, and I could be doing something wrong that would ruin it all. Something to do with my bike. It was special, it was different? I started a race, ages ago. I was here now riding in a quiet blackness. How does this make sense. I don’t understand what I’m doing.

My crew answered patiently. You’re on the right bike. It’s a fixed gear. You’re on the last major climb of the 508. Sheephole. Keep riding. You’ve been riding since yesterday morning. You’re going to finish. OK. Right. What's your totem?? Rock..Rabbit. That's right! Wait. No...what was I doing? But how did I get here? The answers weren’t sticking. But I was trying.  I’m on my bike. You’re the crew. You’re in the car. I have to keep going this way. This would be repeated many times as I slowly made my way toward the finish. Cresting sheephole, down the last descent, up the painful last 20 miles of headwind and gentle uphill. I was detached from reality, but also from any suffering that may have been left in me. It was a dream, but too vague to be a nightmare. I kept moving, at a glacial pace. I had no conception of competition anymore. My memories are only of the brief flashes of recognition amidst the confusion: the left turn onto Utah Trails. The last right onto the highway. The appearance of lights.  Businesses. Other cars. Twentynine Palms. Some final hills. The fluorescent arches of the Best Western. The end.



As I rolled onto the driveway of the Best Western and crossed the finish, the bright lights and  handful of people cheering snapped me out of my madness. I was here. I was supposed to feel something. But I couldn’t - I knew now what was happening, but it was as if I was only observing.  Why did the achievement seem so empty? My crew parked, got out, and ran over. I hugged Anabelle. We had made it. Chris Kostman was there with a jersey, a medal, and a camera. Pictures with my fixed gear. Pictures with my awesome crew. Then off to our motel room. Haggard, fatigued, and 15 pounds lighter than at the start line, a 42 hour eternity before, I collapsed into bed. I drifted into a deep, content sleep. I was done.


The crew that made it all possible. Jordan, Anabelle and Bal

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