Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Silver State 508 race report

The Furnace Creek 508 was a bike race that traveled through Death Valley for 23 years before political maneuvering prohibited a return to the National Park. I've raced it twice, and crewed it several times.  This year I returned to the new edition of this storied event, now called the Silver State 508, as crew chief for Steven "Kookaburra" Burns. I've done crew chief duty for Steven previously at last year's Trona 356, and this year's Hoodoo 500.  Steven had a clean sweep of two official finishes in two attempts and was going for a third.  It was up to me and fellow crew members Dave Schalk and John Henry Maurice to make his goal a reality.

Our pre-race concerns revolved around wind.  The course was out and back and with the wide open desert being notorious for winds we just wondered whether we'd have the headwind on the outbound leg, or the inbound.

The average weather for the route suggested lows near or below freezing and highs in the low 80's. We told our rider to come prepared for those conditions. As we neared race day the weather predictions showed light winds and temperatures near normal expectations.

Pre-race predictions for a winning time hovered near 25-26 hours.  There were some dedicated and experienced riders who promised to push the pace on this relatively flat course (only half the climbing of the Race Across Oregon, and 30% less climbing than the Hoodoo 500 and about 25 miles shorter than both of them)

We started from Reno on Sunday morning.

Crews had to take an alternate route out about 35 miles to where 6 Mile Canyon Rd met Highway 50. In this stretch the racers made their way over Geiger Grade, Steven makes no pretensions about being in the lead, he rides to finish.  After his Hoodoo showing, I expected him to be near last position at the meeting point. I, and the other crew members were pleasantly surprised to find him nowhere near the lanterne rouge position at the meeting point. As we waited here Marko "Tweety Bird" Baloh was the first cyclist to pass by, about 40 minutes before our rider. Adam "Rock Rabbit" Bicket was hot on his tail.

 The racers turned eastward on Highway 50, billed as the "Loneliest Highway in America", it was busy enough though that crews were advised to not stop until Time Station One, in Silver Springs, Nevada. We were asked to give our riders a 20 minute head start before following.  We used the 20 minutes to turn the opposite direction on Hwy 50 for a couple of miles to top off fuel in the van.  We had run out of time to fill before starting the race, and knowing we'd have opportunities during the day of mandatory leap frog support we opted to top off along the route.  Our smart phone equipped crew found the gas station just out of our sight while we had time to spare.

Our rider would be out on a two lane road with rumble strips from the fog line outward, 70+ mph traffic, and not have the safety of a follow car. I was crewing the Race Across the West last year when Maria Parker had her issue with an inattentive driver, and seeing Steven out on that road alone concerned me.

Steven safely made it to Time Station One, (Silver Springs) at mile 48 in 3 hours and 15 minutes. We took longer at the time station than I thought was necessary but I keep having to remind myself that my racer has different goals than I'm accustomed to.

We continued eastward along Highway 50.  Traffic was moderate in volume, but heavy in rudeness. We had a number of close passes and honking drivers. We heard of one rider who had a beer bottle tossed at her. It was merely a warm-up for what would happen later in the race. With leap frog support and pedestrian hand offs required for all of the first 254 miles we'd get plenty of exercise keeping our rider fed and hydrated.

Steven was enjoying a tailwind. We knew he was putting time in the bank and hoped he would have a big enough balance to be able to cover the necessary withdrawals on the way back, likely into that same wind.  With the tailwind pushing him at one point we calculated his average speed thus far at just over 17mph.  We knew it couldn't last, but were glad to have the bonus speed for now at least.

As we neared Fallon, the largest city on the route, we were thankful for Oregon zoning laws.  The urban sprawl stretched for miles along Highway 50.  It seemed like we were on the edge of town for miles and miles. We finally made it through town.

We arrived at Time Station 2 (Harmon Jct) at mile 79 in 5 hrs and 19 min.  That was a very good time for Kookaburra, but we reminded ourselves that he had been enjoying a 10-12 mph tailwind.

This leg would be over 100 miles and would mark the end of the flat section and the beginning of climbing.  We also lost our tailwind early in this stage.  Steven queried on why he was going so slowly, we reminded him that he had gained about 5 mph with the wind and now was riding without that assist.

The van showed temperatures climb into the low 80's (his bike showed much higher) and Steven was asking for, and receiving a wetting from a sprayer we had from time to time, especially as he climbed Sand Mountain.

We had an instant read in ear thermometer along because heat is Steven's biggest enemy.  We wanted to monitor his internal temperature.  Dr Alan Lim suggests that internal temperatures at 102 or above are to be subjects of concern.  We managed to keep Steven's internal temperature no higher than 97.  By comparison, a crew member took his own temperature to test the device and found his internal temperature to be 98.

It was a 14 mile long 2000 ft climb to Carroll Summit.  Steven took it in stride and looked good climbing.

In this stage we crossed the alkali flat remains of ancient Lake Lahonton.

You can see the water level of this ancient lake by the shoreline still visible along the hills.

Our plan was to have Steven change kit every 12 hours, to minimize "saddle interface issues".  We folded that chore into other time station duties.  We arrived at Time Station 3, 185 miles, Austin, at 13 hours 44 minutes. With the kit change and other issues, the stop stretched well over 30 minutes.  As crew chief I took the opportunity to remind our rider that these were Time Stations, not rest stops.

Leaving Austin, we continued to climb up Austin Summit toward Eureka in the dark.

Once topping Austin Summit there was a quick descent followed by a 400 ft climb to Bob Scott Summit.  From there Steven enjoyed a 1400 ft descent to the Big Smoky Valley.

When we were 45 miles from Eureka we met our first rider coming back on the out and back course. Marko Baloh was now 90 miles ahead of us! He also had a substantial lead on the #2 rider whom we did not recognize in the darkness.

We climbed 800 ft out of the valley on our way up to Hickson Summit, and from there a generally descending 40 miles to where we started a 400 foot climb to Eureka.

Steven was wearing a bright yellow jacket with reflective piping, but the crew was not impressed with his visibility.  We remembered that we had a spare reflective vest along and suggested to Steven that he put it on over his other clothing.  He did so, and it vastly improved his visibility.

When we were about 10 miles from Eureka I thought I recognized my friend Mick Walsh pass us. It was dark, but I spent many hours following him in a support vehicle at this year's Race Across the West, I knew his riding style. I expected him to be very near the leaders and was surprised to think that he might be back in the pack with us. Before long his crew vehicle passed us. As it ended up he had spent 4 hours off the bike because of stomach  issues and was now picking his way back up through "the peloton" trying to catch the leaders. We were sorry to hear that he had such bad luck, but soon found his position to be fortuitous.

We had overhead flashing lights wired to the vehicles electrical system.  I prefer them over battery operated setups because they are brighter, sturdier, and never need batteries. Unfortunately, the flasher overheated and failed. Not unheard of, but a first for me.  I carry a spare flasher on my races for such emergencies, but we didn't have one with us this time. :-(  I tried to file the fried points, but with just a pocket knife file it wasn't going to happen.

We knew that Mick's crew had a backup set of battery operated lights.  We were in leap frog support even at night at this point.  We made a "big leap" and caught up to Mick's crew.  John Henry called in an owed favor and we were the beneficiaries of a set of lights.  Mick and his crew are good folks, and I'm sure they would have helped us out, even if it weren't payback for an earlier favor afforded to them.

We were nearing Eureka and we made preparations for direct follow.  We topped off fuel and attached the SMV sign as well as took care of other needs in preparation of being held captive for the next 4 hours of darkness.  Steven pulled into Time Station 4, Eureka at mile 255 at 20 hours 20 minutes (2:50 AM) and took a relatively short stop though still not fast.  There weren't as many distractions here as most of the racers were will on their way back.

This being the turn around point for the out and back course, Steven hopped back on the bike and pedaled back toward Austin with us right behind him now.  We'd be in mandatory direct follow during dark hours until the end of the race except for the climb west bound on Geiger Grade.

 The stage started with about a 400 ft descent, then had a generally upward slope for the next 40 miles. Along this stretch we amazingly started picking up a bit of tailwind.  Steven must live right to have tailwinds both directions!

Depending on whether the van or the bike had the most accurate thermometer, it was either a couple of degrees above freezing, or a couple of degrees below freezing.  Being year round riders in Oregon, the crew has experience and clothing to make this reasonably comfortable. Steven, being a Southern California guy doesn't have as much experience or as much suitable clothing.  He was cold, but kept slogging along.  I was impressed with his resolve.  Another self professed "cycling legend" dropped out blaming it on the cold.  Amazing to me since the weather was nothing extraordinary, and certainly predicted. If it really was too cold, then one has to question pre-race preparations.  

Steven is a relatively green rider, as in inexperienced.  He began riding 3 years ago.  I've been crewing for him on all of his ultra events and have seen his skills improve with each event.  I was particularly impressed with his descending abilities this time. While still not crazy fast, he has improved a great deal.  He also takes smoother and better lines through corners now.  It's been great to watch his progress.

We topped Hickson Summit then descended down into Big Smoky Valley

 We then began the 1400 ft climb up to Bob Scott Summit. From there was a short descent then a 600 ft climb to Austin Summit.  Steve continued to ride well on these climbs. We descended the 7% grade down from Austin Summit, but after 1000 ft of drop we had to scrub speed to keep from violating Austin's 25 mph (enforced) speed limit.
We arrived at Time Station 5, Austin, 326 miles, at 27 hours 12 minutes. It was another long stop owing in part to another drawn out kit change.

The next stage climbed up Carroll Summit. Steven struggled a bit up this one.  We had to remind him that this was the last big climb before Geiger Grade.  He just had to get up it. He dug deep and kept the pedals spinning.

He descended about 25 miles before having to go over the little bump of Drumm Summit, and the slightly larger bump of Sand Springs Pass then leveling out for the remainder of the stage.

We saw some wildlife along the route, including wild horses, antelope, and deer.

Pre-race Steven had expressed that he thought a 42 hour finish was possible for him. With about 100 miles remaining we discussed this among the crew and thought that the goal was attainable without much more effort on his part.  We thought if he pedaled with purpose, and the crew brought stops down to a bare minimum that it was within his reach.  We got on the Cardo communication system and asked for his priorities.  After some discussion he said that 42 hours was not important to him, but finishing, and finishing with enough reserves to be able to ride the Bass Lake Powerhouse Double Century next weekend (4 days away) was what his priority was.  Amazingly, he has biked every California Double Century this season, and doesn't want to break the string this close to the end.  He is motivated by his commitment to a charity that provides bicycles and hope to third world people. The crew settled back into supporting our racer's goal of being an official finisher.  We knew that barring some unforeseen happening, that our rider would finish.

A possible unforeseen happening was weighing heavily on us.  The road was horrendous. We were back in leap frog support.  Our rider was unprotected on a road with rumble strips from the fog line to the edge of asphalt, the cars and trucks were not at all willing to share the road.  What was described as the loneliest road looked like this:
The bikes had no place to go but on the edge of the travel lane, the support vehicles were prohibited from providing protection, and the 70-80 mph traffic was sure to let us know that we were not welcome here. The triple trailered semi truck hauling hay in the above photo had just laid on the horn and buzzed us so closely that we were surprised we didn't lose a side mirror. We watched in fear as he close passed those bikes ahead of him.  We had another big rig pass us with on coming traffic, forcing the traffic onto the shoulder, and of course the semi truck pulled back into our lane of traffic too quickly.  We had a pickup play chicken with us, crossing the center line and coming right toward us, with horn blaring.  He pulled back before colliding, but what the hell?  It is not safe to hold a race here, not safe to ride here. If the event is held here again next year the organizer better have a heavy police presence on the section of road, and signs informing motorists that bikes are present, and have a right to be there.

 We began direct follow about 20 minutes early.  The race director said in the pre race meeting that to above all be safe. We were terrified that our racer was going to be a casualty. If we got a penalty for early follow I was going to do my best to explain the circumstances.

We arrived at Time Station 6, Fallon, mile 438, in 36 hours 24 minutes.  Again, a longer stop than I'd like to see, but given our position on the course, and remaining time to finish there was some time available.  The crew was anxious to get our man across that finish line and the leisurely time station stops drove us a bit crazy, especially since we were not required to stop at time stations at all.  We only had to identify ourselves as we passed. We skipped the planned kit change to save time.

We began stage 7, a short 25 miles in length with 500 ft of elevation gain.

We evidently weren't finished with wildlife yet, though we saw none on the road.

Dave had driven the first 16 hours, then had 4 hours off, but was now back behind the driver's wheel. I asked if he wanted me to drive for a bit, but he declined, saying he'd prefer not to do the navigation.  I had spent many hours getting navigation set up on both a TomTom Via and a Garmin Nuvi.  The TomTom did 99% of what I had hoped it would do, and what it lacked, the Garmin filled in.  We not only had bullet proof navigation (we heard of several other racers who got lost, in one case riding 12 miles off course!) but we also had notifications of climb data and distance to summits, warnings of RxR tracks and sharp turns, and we could even see approaching side roads giving us advance notice of places to pull off long before we could see them. Steven was experiencing some Achilles tendon pain.  Dave is a pharmacist and put him on Ibuprofin.We hoped it would give enough relief that he could keep going.

We arrived at Time Station 7, Silver Springs, 464 miles, in 38 hrs 44 min.

We were advised there by race staff that there was a route change in Virginia City.  though in darkness we'd be in mandatory leap frog support in that entire climb, we planned to leap ahead and point out the turns for our racer.  The climb was 11 miles long  and gained 2300 ft, but had some surprisingly steep pitches, in some places reaching 15%.   It was tough on legs that had nearly 500 miles on them.  Our racer impressed us yet again.  We had been playing cat and mouse with about 6 riders for most of the last 200 miles.  There were about 3 of that group ahead of Steven as we started the stage.  He passed all of them on this climb. 

We leap frogged to near the summit, then staged ahead of our rider to put our SMV sign back on.  As he crested the hill we pulled in behind him and he started down the hill without stopping.  We were going home!


Before long the lights of Reno appeared.

The Cardo BK duo that we had been using the entire race was about ready to really show it's worth. We were in a designated quiet zone and the turns as we entered the edges of Reno were coming in rapid fire succession.  We kept the communication channel open and just talked him through them. Loud speakers were prohibited, as were horn honk codes.  We couldn't pull up next to him and verbally communicate.  Maybe a walkie talkie could have worked, but not nearly as well as the Cardo.

Before long we were making the last turns and the TomTom was informing us that we had 600 ft before the finish.  We directed Steven through the green bollards to the finish, while we drove a bit farther to the driveway, following the directions for support vehicles.  We were parking when Steven finished so no pictures of him actually crossing the finish line, but he did cross, and crossed in 43 hrs 21 minutes. Not bad at all.  He's now three for three in ultra events. 3 starts, 3 finishes!

Steven finished when "cycling legends" quit. He rode cold, he rode with a red, swollen, and sore Achilles tendon. He finished.

Marko Baloh finished 1st overall with a time of 26 hours 20 minutes.  Very near the pre-race prediction buzz.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Mick Walsh, despite taking 4 hours off the bike to nurse stomach issues, came back like a lion.  He picked off the other members of his division, none of them slouches, one by one.  He passed the lead rider on the Geiger Grade climb and finished first in his division, and 9th overall.  Absolutely amazing.  Determination: That is what separates real cycling legends from the has beens.

You can fix cold with a jacket and gloves.  It takes determination to come back from a 4 hour layover in a 500 mile race.  It takes determination to keep going when you have a sore Achilles tendon and are cold.
First place, or well back in the pack,  these guys rate high in my book.

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