-Mike "Wild Turkey" Wilson
One such tradition is that AdventureCorps assigns each racer an animal totem rather than a number, and that unique totem follows the racer throughout their AdventureCorps career. Well-known returning 508 competitors included the legendary Tweety Bird (Marko Baloh), Crow (Sean Cuddihy), Rock Rabbit (Adam Bickett), Irish Hare (Mick Walsh), Holstein (Dave Haase), Wild Turkey (Mike Wilson), and many others. Everyone in this race had qualified according to fairly demanding standards, so the level of competition was high. I'd be racing as Thundercat!
Unfortunately, because the Park Service recently imposed restrictions on athletic competitions in Death Valley, Kostman & Co. were forced to find a new home for the famous 508, which has been run 40 times since 1983. They selected Reno, Nevada as the new race home, and designed a route that would lead racers east into the high desert along Route 50, which has been called The Loneliest Road in America.
You'd think by now that, when I start saying I know what I'm doing, klaxons would sound and parents would start ushering their children to the tornado cellar.
The Noble Chariot
Unlike many 24-hour events, which tend to take place on relatively compact loops, the 508 required racers to have a support crew of at least two people. Mine were Max and Sam, two brothers who've been involved in the endurance world for many years. Max has also been a longtime riding buddy of mine, and is probably the person most responsible for my taking up randonneuring and ultracycling, so in some sense he dug his own grave on this one. Seriously, though, I felt lucky to have such two capable guys in my corner.
My Plan, Such As It Was
I did my homework as best I could, constantly monitoring the predicted highs and lows of every town on the route (of which there were about three). The forecasts spoke with one voice: highs on Sunday and Monday of about 80 degrees, and an overnight low of about 45 degrees. As deserts go, this was perfect, but I've learned to be skeptical; besides, with a support vehicle, I could bring whatever clothes I might need. So, I threw in pretty much my entire winter wardrobe, down to lobster gloves, balaclava, and shoe covers. My goal: no shivering in the night, no matter what.
As for the bike, I concluded there was really no choice to make. I'd take my trusty tri bike, which had seen me through 24-hour races, a 600k (375-mile) brevet ridden straight through in about 25 hours, and more training rides than I could count. Sure, the fit was a little aggressive, but that's how Mikey likes it, and this was a race, after all. I'd been ok with the bike position in the past, and I figured this would be no different. I decided to start with my disc wheel and Zipp 808 front wheel, but I also brought my pair of Zipp 404s as backups, and for a change of gearing should it be needed.
On the nutrition front, I had my usual assortment of Skratch Labs hydration mix and hyper-hydration (sodium bomb), along with water, Coke, and a few massive cans of Red Bull. I'd supplement these with Gu Roctane gels and energy bars of various sorts. I also threw in some salted nuts and potato chips. We planned for Max and Sam to hunt down some real food for me at the turnaround point (mile 255), but otherwise, I tried to keep it simple.
Finally, there was the question of strategy. I'd never raced most of these folks before, but a slew of them were Race Across America finishers with multiple race wins in 500-mile events, and with a gigantic 7-mile climb coming as early as mile 8, I suspected things would heat up pretty quickly. I wanted no part of an early dogfight -- I was a Thundercat, after all. I was confident that I could time-trial competitively over a long distance, but I've never been a pure climber, and my time trial bike with extremely deep wheels was a brick. I resolved to ride with a steady effort, but to let the results take care of themselves. I guessed that, on my best day, I could be competitive with most of the guys out there, with the possible exception of Marko "Tweety Bird" Baloh. But, having one's best day is the challenge, and a lot can go wrong in a 500-mile race. I didn't see any benefit to obsessing about planned wattages or time splits. Past a point, you just have to do what you can do, plans be damned.
Stage 1: Reno to Geiger Grade to Virginia City to Silver Spring (47 miles, 2723' climbing)
After 40 minutes of pistoning legs, we crested the summit and descended to the brief plateau in Virginia City. By then, I'd caught up to Crow (a 2x 508 winner) and Irish Hare, another veteran of the scene. Several others, including Tweety Bird, Rock Rabbit, and Holstein, were further up the road. I followed Crow and Irish Hare as we rolled through the Old West town and around the first couple of turns, until it occurred to me a couple of miles later that we probably shouldn't be seeing riders in the event riding toward us. We'd somehow managed to get turned around and a couple of miles off course on the very first segment. In the grand scheme of a 500-mile race, a few miles probably wouldn't decide the outcome, but it definitely changed the dynamic of the first part of the race since we were playing catch-up to those we'd otherwise have been riding near. We turned left onto Route 50, which we'd get to know intimately over the next 30 hours.
Stage 3: Fallon to Austin (106 miles, 5049' of climbing)
As is clear from the picture at the left, Nevada isn't known for its shade. Not only are there no trees to be found, I don't think we spied a cloud all weekend. The dry air has an extreme desiccating effect, and the high desert altitude makes it that much worse. I'd been urinating regularly since the start, but I was still paranoid about keeping hydrated, and the crew was gently scolding me whenever I didn't finish a bottle on schedule. That was their job, and I'm glad they were doing it, but I was beginning to feel bloated -- not hungry, not thirsty, and like my system wasn't dealing with things the way it should be. I pointed out to the crew that I really wasn't thirsty, and their response was, "Good. Drink another bottle." I felt like something of a disobedient hospital patient. My lack of appetite was a more serious concern; that couldn't continue indefinitely.
The good news was that I was progressively hauling myself back into contention: the crew told me that I was gaining on Holstein (Dave Haase), a fiercely strong RAAM veteran who'd won 500-milers at the Race Across Oregon and Hoodoo 500 in recent months. I caught him a few miles into the stage, but hung out for 10 miles or so within shouting distance, deciding not to pass if it would mean pushing too hard. Our crews became friends over that stretch, both applauding each rider as we blew by.
Apparently my gut had been right: I'd been pouring bottles down my throat, but they hadn't been going anywhere. I wasn't sure what the problem had been -- had I been going too hard? Or just drinking too much? Either way, at least I had an opportunity for a fresh start. Too bad that fresh start consisted of the 14-mile climb up to Carroll Summit, at 7200 feet. I took a quick break in the car to get some fluids and electrolytes while Max and Sam checked over the bike. They noticed that my disc cover wasn't playing well with my rear derailleur, so I threw my spare wheel on the back and up the climb I went.
The descent down the east side of the east side was just fabulous, with sustained speeds around 50 mph and views for 10 miles down the road ahead. We quickly landed in the high desert, with nothing but scrub brush for dozens of miles around. It felt like the desert outside of Reno, but there was a key difference: this flat expanse was at about 6,000 feet, i.e., higher than Denver. The project was to relax in the heat and click off the miles, because things wouldn't stay flat for long.
Stage 4: Austin to turnaround at Eureka (70 miles, 2800' of climbing)
A mental game? You bet -- you basically have to be mental to play it.
I hit Eureka, a very quiet town consisting of a gas station and exactly nothing much else, at 8:19 p.m., 13 hours and 49 minutes into the race. At the time, the leaderboard looked like this:
(1) Tweety Bird (Baloh): 6:36 p.m.
(2) Crow: 7:34 p.m.
(3) Holstein:7:50 p.m.
(4) Rock Rabbit: 7:51 p.m.
(5) Thundercat: 8:19 p.m.
It certainly wasn't the split that I'd been looking for, but between my getting a little lost and playing Pukey the Clown, it wasn't calamitous.
I wanted -- needed -- to get off the bike for a couple of minutes and consume some real food, and the crew had me covered. They presented me with microwaved bacon-chicken-cheese biscuits from the gas station. They were among the most disgusting things I'd ever eaten, but by that point, even disgusting was better than more bars and gels.
I spent a little longer in the team car than I strictly needed to, but my motivation was flagging as the temperature dropped and night fell. It seemed to me at the moment that I kind of was where I'd be; I didn't see myself catching the guys ahead, but neither did I see myself losing too much ground to anyone behind me. It just seemed like I had 255 more miles of sitting on my bike. Eventually I convinced myself to get back out there.
Stage 5: Eureka to Austin (70 miles, 2753' of climbing)
As I made my way back west across the desert, plowing into the wind, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. My skinsuit was interacting with my saddle in an unhelpful way, leading to nasty starting to get some nasty saddle sores. It hurt to stand up, and then it hurt to sit down. It hurt to lean into the aerobars, and it hurt to sit up. In short, changing my position in any way at all was extremely painful. The only way to avoid the pain was to stay in a single position -- in the aerobars, for example. But that was becoming impossible. I'd raced on this bike for a couple of 24-hour races, and each time it was tolerable. For some reason, though, this was much worse; it felt like most of my body weight was being pitched forward onto my hands and shoulders. Maybe the extended technical descents had taken their toll. Whatever the case, my morale was plummeting with the temperatures. I was making terrible time, but there didn't seem to be anything I could do about it; I had no "push" in me.
In my experience, the early hours of the morning are when things turn from challenging to awful. You've been riding for 20 hours, you're exhausted, and it's the coldest part of the day, arriving when the body is too beaten up to warm itself. The overnight lows had been projected to be around 45 degrees, which was chilly but not terrible. Sadly, the projections were very, very wrong. I put on every scrap of clothing I had, including balaclava, lobster gloves, vest, jacket, arm warmers, knee warmers, and boot covers, but none of it mattered -- I just couldn't raise my core temperature enough to move down the road. I was shivering uncontrollably, and deeply miserable. Max even gave me a down jacket to wear outside of my other layers. It was thoroughly miserable, and the two sharp climbs at the end took everything I had. Rolling into the time station at Austin at about 1:30 a.m., I knew I was in for a tough night.
Finally, at 4:00 a.m., I overrode my crew and declared that I was taking a nap for 15 minutes -- I had to do something, and it was all I could think of. I climbed into the front seat, cranked up the heat to max, and tried to pretend I was anywhere else.
The nap and warmth perked me up a little bit, and I reasoned that I had about two hours until dawn; past that, the sun would bring me back to life, and I'd be able to keep going again.
The end of the descent corresponded with daybreak, at very long last. We turned left onto Route 50 one more, and I progressively shed layers as temperatures raced back up. The challenge quickly evolved from avoiding hypothermia to coping with the infinitely long slog directly into the western headwind, over roads that felt like tar on gravel. By now my hands and shoulders felt like they'd been fed through meat grinders, but the only thing to do was to keep pedaling, somehow.
Toward the end of this stage, the crew -- who'd returned to leap-frogging, per race rules -- charge ahead to Fallon, the only real commercial center on the course, to get me some d*mn breakfast. They came through in grand fashion: when I hit Time Station 7 (Mile 438) at 9:30 a.m., I found a platter of scrambled eggs, hash browns, pancakes, and coffee. Out-freaking-standing. Max did his best to motivate me by pointing out that a couple of riders who'd passed me in the night, including Sarah "Spotted Horse" Cooper and Mike "Wild Turkey" Wilson, were less than 10 minutes ahead. Normally, this would have been highly motivating, but I still felt dead to the world. I didn't want to see any more desert, grind over more chip seal, plow into any more headwind, or face any more cold or heat. I was just done, and although I was polite and thankful to my crew, inwardly I was checked out and just trying to make it to the finish line intact. I had a decadent meal before reluctantly getting back on the bike, thinking that I had about 70 miles to ride, and that the mission was to avoid disaster in that stretch.
Stage 7: Fallon to Silver Spring (25 miles, 500' of climbing)
I remembered that, on several occasions, I'd explained to incredulous friends about these events: "The thing about cycling is, past a point, you can just keep pedaling and eventually you'll get to the end." I wanted to find that version of me and beat him with a floor pump.
Toward the end of this stage, I passed a relay rider who'd passed me the stage before, and we chatted a bit. It turns out his team had gone 17 miles off course. Holy crap. I learned later that my crew had missed the same turn, but sheer indignation was keeping me on course at that point.
I hit the penultimate time station (Mile 464) at 11:30 a.m., more than an hour after I'd planned to be done with this event. Needless to say, I wasn't anywhere close to done: I had 47 miles to ride, and those miles included by far the toughest climb of the ride, the eastern face of Geiger Grade.
Final Stage: Silver Springs to Virginia City (47 miles, 2844' of climbing)
I pushed hard into the headwind until the base of the climb at mile 20, and Max and Sam met me at the bottom with a bottle of cold water to dump over my head. That was just perfect -- the temperatures were back up to 90 degrees already -- although, in the desert air, I was dry about 10 seconds later. They said that the climb was 6 miles at an average grade of 6 percent, which seemed just about possible.
But there's a thing about averages: they lie. There's a world of difference between a steady 6% grade, and one that starts at 2-3% for the first few miles, and then winds up with a 6% average. This climb was in the latter category, and boy would it hurt.
I stayed seated in the first few miles, and quickly reeled in Spotted Horse, who was on her way to a massive overall victory in the women's race. After a quick hello, I spun ahead in search of Wild Turkey. Max said that he was 3 minutes ahead, which seemed an eternity, but I came upon him surprisingly quickly, and when I passed, I hammered it as hard as I could for the next mile to see if I could get the lead to stick. It did! Who knew; I felt almost human.
After 32 hours and 15 minutes, I arrived at the finish line in 6th place, 20' out of 5th (Rednecked Falcon) and about 15' up on Spotted Horse and Wild Turkey, who finished together.
Wild Turkey put it exactly right: These races damn near kill you. I've done a lot of silly stuff on a bike, but nothing even came close to the challenges this race posed. My theory that it would be "like a 24-hour race, plus a bit" was nowhere close to correct. My finishing time of 32 hours and change was fully four hours off of my conservative guess, and usually I'm pretty accurate on that front. I have no mechanical failures to blame; there are only failures of fitness and execution.
Actually, on the fitness front, I'm not second-guessing too much. I trained as appropriately as I could (without access to 90-degree or 28-degree weather, deserts, or 14-mile mountain climbs), and my numbers were solid before I found myself in pukeville.
The bottom line is, this was my first 500-mile crewed event, and it was a much bigger learning experience than I thought it would be. Here are some of the most important lessons I've taken away.
- My bike and position were a huge mistake. I was one of only a few riders who limited himself to a single bike, an I was definitely the only person with just a tri bike with a ridiculously aggressive fit. I've gotten away with it in some 24-hour races, but I realized that those are flat events, and they're usually on smooth pavement. It doesn't work at all with 14-mile climbs and descents on chip-seal. Five days later, my rotator cuffs are still killing me. I'm planning to sell a couple of bikes and replace them with an endurance-oriented road bike. It turns out that, the longer the event, the more important comfort is. You can have the most aerodynamic bike fit in the world, but if you can't stay in the aerobars, it's just a heavy waste of time.
- Plan to take a nap. I've concluded that I'm someone who needs a 10- or 15-minute nap in the middle of the night. When I get one, I give up a small handful of miles, but I invariably ride much, much faster afterward, and in terms of sheer enjoyment of the event, I think it's worth it. My mistake was drifting along uselessly for an hour before finally insisting on what I should have done in the first place.
- Carry thermoses of coffee and hot chicken broth. When you're in very cold temperatures 20+ hours into an event, it almost doesn't matter how much clothing you have. You're not generating any heat to trap. In rural areas, you can't count on services being there, so in the future, I'll carry 40-60 ounces of hot liquids in high-quality thermoses. I think doing that in this race would have saved me an hour or two, and quite a bit of misery.
- Bring a change of clothes. When things get cold and awful, sometimes changing into something dry can be invaluable.
In the meantime, despite my self-imposed misfortunes, I'm proud of fighting through the agony. This was a course that was much harder than it looked on paper, both physically and mentally. You learn a lot about yourself out there. It's about the closest we can come to going off to battle without going off to battle.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Max and Sam for being an absolutely stellar crew -- I owe them everything in this event. Their suggestions were good ones, they planed ahead for what I'd need before I knew I'd need it, and they motivated me in appropriate ways without joining in my disappointment at how things were going compared to expectations. I hope I can return the favor for them down the road.