Furnace Creek 508

The Great California Desert
October 2003

By Joe Clapper

Team Salamander -- Al, Joe, Eric, and Cyndi

Photos: Collage | Long Road | Sunrise | Sunset

We did it. Our valiant team of four non-bikers and crew of two, overcame all obstacles to finish the Furnace Creek 508 bike ride through the Mohave Dessert and Death Valley in 36 hours. Even more importantly, by the end we continued to be friends. Let me start at the beginning.

The other teams were from areas near the race. However, our team, “Team Salamander” consisted of 2 rowers from New Hampshire, Big Al and Cyndi “the Machine” Stam; Eric Wakin, poker player from New York City; and myself a runner from Virginia. Rounding out the team was Al’s sister the always steady Dorothy Stam from Seattle and chief nutritionist and motivator Rebecca Byerly, from North Carolina.

Getting all of us and our gear together for the race was logistically a Herculean task. Rebecca and I flew into LA on Friday a.m. and decided to rent a car and get out of town as quickly as possible, which in LA is never quick. We rode up the coast to Magoo State Park and ran the 7 mile run that Chris Scott uses for the first day of Coyote 4play. It was a spectacular southern CA day with the mist clearing and the sun getting stronger and stronger. We both took our shirts off in an attempt to catch up with Chris in his race toward melanoma. The highlight was the Ray Miller trail, a two mile down hill perched above the azure Pacific. Although we could not see the Channel Islands through the ocean mist, the crispy brown fall hills were a welcome relief from the summer of deluge in the East. Of course we did the obligatory swim in the ocean when we finished, cool but nothing like New England.

The team coalesced later in Santa Clarita, an eyesore of a town about an hour inland from the coast. For those that have run Coyote 4play it is east of Ojai. I could not get the Eagle song out of my head with the refrain: “they put up ugly boxes, and Jesus people bought ‘em” From the same song: if you call something “paradise” kiss it goodbye.

We went to the pre-race events where they check over your vehicle and your safety gear and give instructions for the race. It became obvious that the seriousness of the riders was in inverse relation to the amount of hair on the team. Except for Cyndi we are a hairy bunch. (It is a little hard to get used to a 6 foot manly-man with shaved legs.) We were undeterred! We would not shave, we would not wax, in fact we didn’t even shower.

Some interesting facts about our competition: I expected a lot of 20 something folks with piercings and a rainbow of hair colors, but much to my surprise, we were one of the younger teams. The Whippets had a 25-year old and her 80 year grandfather. A particularly aggressive member of the Naked Mole-Rats tried to wipe out our entire team in the parking lot with her Toyota: we were too fast for her. One guy shaved “508” into the side of his head and then died it red. Cute for a 23 year old, kind of weird for a 50 year old. We left the pre-race with our dignity in tact.

On race morning our dignity slid a little as Eric, our ace starter, while practicing in the parking lot could not get out of his toe clips and fell down in front of everyone. They could tell by our bikes we were about results. Our three bikes were worth about half the price of any one wheel of our competitors. I always say, it is not the bike, it is the motor. We were ready to motor! The race started under a yellow flag to get out of Santa Clarita and Eric tied for first. At the end of town the race was on- up a mountain! We lost a little there. Actually we lost a lot. I was second in the saddle and determined to kick some soft California butt on the climb up the mountain. Surprisingly I caught up to another rider relatively fast. As I passed him I looked over and saw it was the 80 year old guy, who looks every day of 80. I’m not proud and I’ll take it anyway I can get it.

Shortly there after, we dropped back from next to last to way last. By about 50 miles it became obvious that our goal was to finish. However, if any other team faltered we were ready to pick them off. The plan was to bike about 10 to 20 minutes on hills before switching off to a teammate and on the flats bike for 30 to 50 minutes. It was a bit of a GRE type problem as: I had the best bike and theoretically could climb the best: Cyndi preferred not to do down hills; Eric needed to share bikes so could not go immediately after the person he was borrowing a bike from. At about half way I decide not to do down hills either as I was worried I might lose my eyesight. Big Al could do everything but, needed to rest sometime.

We proceeded in this fashion with Dorothy at the helm of Al and Cyndi’s Mega Truck. Mega Truck is some kind of Chevy that eats imported cars for fuel. In the midst of chaos, cranky bikers, and me being bossy, Dorothy never lost her calm, kept the momentum going, and most importantly never ran over anyone. Rebecca’s job evolved into keeping the bikers chemically happy: a GU right before biking, a ginseng if a mood change was needed, a salt tablet every 4 hours, and our secret weapon DMG under our tongue as we took off. We polished off an amazing amount of calories as we went through loafs of bread, pounds of cold cuts, Cliff Bars, fruit, and piles of other junk.

After the initial climbs and down hills we came into the Mohave Dessert. The road engineers were not very creative. Folks that live there don’t need a steering wheel because they never have to turn. Did I mention flat? It was warm that first day but tolerable. Our first interactions with natives occurred at 150 miles at about 10:00p.m. in the town of Torna (which in Greek language is a polite way of saying everyone in town is related or married to everyone else.) The entire town had that same distinctive smell that you get crossing the bridge from Delaware to New Jersey. However, the factory had no identifying sign, and what product they make is still a mystery to us all. As this was the last store for 250 miles we stopped for a while to gas up, food up, and ice up. Saying a little town in the middle of the dessert is surreal may be redundant but, these people were freaking weird. Locals would pop out of the darkness say their few bizarre lines and then disappear back to vastness. The exception was a women behind the counter of the Little Mart that looked like she just walked off the cover of shape magazine and was as sweet as a southerner. We were giddy happy to have left Little Mart without being forced to become one of the family.

Right out of Torna was the start of the climb up the mountains that surround Death Valley. We were warned that this is where most bikers drop out. On the elevation profile this climb is an almost vertical line. This is where Team Salamander showed heart and I knew that it was not a matter of finishing but, a matter of when. Even if we got down to one bike with one gear we were going to finish. Each person in turn biked to exhaustion, fueled up and got ready to do it again. It was at Tonnes Pass that we realized our technical shortcomings. With only one vehicle each time we changed riders we had to stop as the biker must never be without an escort on any night section. Our finely oiled team would pile out, pull the new bike off the truck, put the old one on, everybody would pee, we would switch lights, raise/lower seats, switch shoes, switch helmets, then pile back in Mega Truck and be off again.

And so it went for 508 miles. We really hit our groove on the second night and were putting lots of miles behind us; until the last 30 miles. As we closed in on the finish the wind kicked up to about 20 mph in our face. It stretched out the inevitable but, we crossed the finish line in 36:13 a little after 1:00 in the morning. Tired but happy. Upon finishing we confirmed the rumor that the Naked Mole Rats had been disqualified for breaking the rules, i.e. cheating. We finished 4th in our category and won the coveted Most Enthusiastic Award.

Thoughts on the Dessert
For years I have read and heard folks wax on romantically about the beauty of the dessert. Well having spent two days intimately in the Mohave dessert and Death Valley I got to say I just don’t get it. Nothing changes in the dessert but the temperature. It is either hot or getting hot. Our top temperature was 101. The colors varied from kaki to chocolate with a ribbon of black road down the middle. Most distressing was that there are no trees to squat behind. The salt flats give off hissing, cracking, sucking sounds, which was kind of spooky but otherwise give me a mountain, give me a jungle, even a beach.

After word
The next day was a hectic race to get Dorothy to the airport in Las Vegas (275 miles) and get Rebecca and me off to Denver. The rest of the team stayed in Las Vegas to win big bucks to fund next year’s trip. As Rebecca and I left in a new rent-a-truck we stopped to get Mexican food. Not a good idea if you are going to drive 750 miles with me. I scanned the map looking for a mountain to run. Finally I saw that we could get off and run a mountain near Keystone CO and still make our flight. Rebecca and I drove to about 10,000’ and ran up from there. We were looking down on Breckinridge ski area across the valley. In two days we went from negative 300 feet to 12,000 feet. At the top I felt like a drunken sailor and did not want to hang around to find out which part of my body would start getting edema first. I slept like a baby on the plane home, and Rebecca studied for her Econ midterm the next day.

Photos: Collage | Long Road | Sunrise | Sunset

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