Furnace Creek 508 Camp

April 19-22, 2001

By Peter Pop

Most of the photo's by Paul Biron and Chris Kostman



Ever since my involvement in the Furnace Creek 508 race I have been inexplicably drawn to its course.  I got the URGE to do these great climbs over and over again, in my quest of a personal best. I have gone out to the desert by myself; for days riding these roads not talking to anyone, only hearing the sound of the chain, the sound of my heavy breathing and the sound of the tires rolling over the (too numerous) small pebbles. Other times I have relayed the course with a bunch of other enthusiasts. This time I decided to do the social thing and at the same time train for RAAM on at least a few new roads. Chris Kostman, a keen ultra athlete himself and organizer of the Furnace Creek 508, offers a well supported 4 day training camp with reasonable daily miles. Several other RAAM and Furnace Creek veterans were joining ,among them Seana Hogan( with husband Pat Enright and their few month old son ), Jim Pitre and Perry Smith. To warm up I spent the first part of the week in Mammoth, experiencing mostly headwinds and cold temperatures. The day before the camp, I scouted  Whitney Portal (still snow at the Portal) and Horse Shoe Meadows (still closed near the top by a snow drift). All this to make sure I was well rested before  the camp. I was fortunate to have as my room mate Chuck Giles, twice team captain for Gerry Tatrai, nice guy and strong rider. Total of 28 people had signed up, including support crew.

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Day 1   Mojave to Panamint Valley Resort 

Just after 7 am we are off! Strong tailwinds push us along Hwy 14 to the right turn for California City. Seana and I are leading the pack. Seana has gained the usual few pounds during her pregnancy and has slowed down some, giving us mere mortals the opportunity to stay with her. We reach the rollers to the turnoff for the Randsburg climb in record time. It becomes pretty obvious that Doug Sloan and Paul Biron are going to be the fast guys in the group. Next up one of my favorite climbs: the climb to Randsburg 1700 ft in 8 miles. During the race this section gets pretty hot, but now its cool. This is truly an enjoyable climb with hardly any traffic, good pavement and therefore a chance to talk to your fellow rider. Especially Chris can keep the conversation going, no matter what. My heart rate of 130 jumps suddenly to the 170's, oops, getting to close to Paul Biron's heart rate transmitter. He tells me he can sustain this rate for hours. It sure would be great to be young again. Doug Sloan is waiting for us at the top of the hill wondering what took us so long. We now turn  towards Trona on Trona Rd. This is a series of long rolling climbs with straight descents and stunning views. Throughout this ride Chris provides super support, offering any conceivable drink including Starbucks Frappuccino and an ample assortment of energy bars, cookies etc. Even more important, there is an ample supply of ICE CUBES.

The lead regroups in Trona at the Ice cream store ( I down the biggest shake ever and feel great ) and we are ready for the climb into Panamint Valley. Still tailwind! We are making record time and we should be at the Resort way early. Anybody game to climb Townes Pass for some extra miles? No takers!!! This tail wind must wear people out. We reach the Summit quickly, descend into Panamint Valley and meet the ROUGH ROAD sign on Trona Wildrose Rd. This rough section  tortures me on each 508. The most horrible asphalt imaginable. This time we fly over it with an incredible tail wind. We reach Hwy 190. Every one but me, turns left for the final 3 miles to the resort. Somehow I had myself convinced to climb Townes Pass and climb it I will! So I turn right! The winds on this climb are unbelievable. The strong tailwind in the valley turns to a fierce headwind on the climb  to approximately the 4000ft level after which it turns back into a tailwind, literally pushing you over the Summit. Meanwhile though, I am hardly moving. Even while out of the saddle in my 30/25 gear it is slow going. This is stupid, but I got to get to the top. Having climbed Townes Pass numerous times in all sort of conditions, this time it is by far the hardest. After an hour and a half I  finally reach the top and can turn around. I have to push the pedals hard to overcome the headwinds on the initial descent. The descent is pretty tricky, even with conventionally spoked wheels. Dust storms are chasing each other along the valley and I wait for the best moment to dash the 1.5 miles across. Panamint Valley Resort has never looked better. This is actually a great place with a well known restaurant. A good time is had by all enjoying the great food and company. One can count on meeting  many interesting folks on these Ultra events. That evening I met David Waraby, winner of the Across America foot race, recently returned from being an advisor to the Around Australia foot race. Ben Jones and his wife drop by to wish us luck. They are training for the Badwater ultramaraton, another main event organized by Chris Kostman. 157 miles. 9940 ft 

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Day 2   Resort over Townes Pas, into Death Valley, climb to Scotty's Castle, return to  Stove  Pipe Wells.

It was blowing up a storm last night, but this early in the morning the wind has died. The climb to Townes Pass is now so much easier. The faster riders have started a little later, but in the end we are the first at the top. Those Starbucks coffee drinks are just great ( fortunately we never run out ). At the end of the descent everyone is discussing the maximum speed they have reached, several riders peaked in the 60's. I am riding with Jim Pitre and Kathleen Rogers on the long gradual climb to Scotty's Castle. They are interesting. Jim is a businessman and attempted RAAM 2001 in the 60+ category. We exchange some of our fond and not so fond RAAM memories. Kathleen is an Intensive Care nurse and as fellow health care providers we quickly agree that we are overworked and underpaid. They are riding strong and we are discussing various RAAM's, including the upcoming one in which Jim will make his second solo attempt and I will race as part of the two man E-Caps team. In the weeks to follow my partner Bill Maida will withdraw with knee problems and Jim Pitre will take his place. This climb goes on forever, Chris has under estimated the mileage. At Scotty's most of us just turn around because of the wind and much lower temperatures at this elevation, just under 4000ft. Now we have to pay the piper for all the favorable winds. It will be headwinds all the way to Stove Pipe Wells. 120 miles.8320 ft.

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Day 3   Stove Pipe Wells to Dante's View and back.

Clouds are gathering above us. The weather in Death Valley has been rather unusual this year, at least for me. The weather during the Death Valley Double Century was terrible with hail and snow over Salsberry Pass. Only 3 out of 100+ riders made it over Salsberry and back. Today it looks like we might get rained on. The snow level in the surrounding mountains looks pretty low. To be sure I fill up my back pack with warm clothes. I will get to the top of Dante's Peak no matter what nature will dish out. Seana, Doug Sloan, Chuck Giles and I take the lead battling the headwinds. The weather gets worse and worse. Dense rain clouds over Furnace Creek, rainbow to the right. Doug and Chuck take off and it starts to rain. When I think it can not get any worse in Death Valley it starts to hail with a vengeance. That's it! Got to stop to put my rain gear on . Seana goes on like she is on a mission to beat all of the man  to Furnace Creek. I am swearing under my breath. I won't ride in Death Valley again even if hell freezes over. The free standing water on the road drenches my feet, oh well this is great  RAAM training. Mind over matter. At the rest stop at Furnace Creek the weather is beautiful. Get my shoes off and try to dry out. After nearly everyone has left I can not postpone the inevitable, got to get back on the bike. I join Chris and Debbie Caplan for the climb to Dante's. Very gradually we gain altitude. Pass Zabrinsky point with its spectacular yellow rock formations. Decide not to climb the view point though. On we go with even some tail wind. You can bet we will have to pay its price on the return. Chris and I pick up the pace and start passing some riders while the road is getting steeper. Pass Paul Kopit, fellow California Triple Crown addict, muscling his way up. Finally we get to the steeper part to the rest stop and pass Jim Pitre riding strong. At the stop we join Doug Sloan who has already climbed the top with its 15+% grade and is now experiencing hypothermia. With this wind, it's absolutely freezing. Get to the top and yes it is VERY steep. Take some pictures and let's get back to some warmer elevation, please. Doug and I start hammering to get to Furnace Creek ASAP. Those damn headwinds again. Doug seems to slice right through them, he has a great aero position on the bike and he is fast! 100 miles. 7720 ft.

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Day 4  Stove Pipe Wells to Whitney Portal and back to Lone Pine

Today is the big one: nearly 13700 ft of climbing over  three big climbs in the first 90 miles. A couple of riders leave very early. Doug and I start out together. He drops me and it takes me a while to catch up. We pass Bob Lutz ,a wildly enthusiastic novice rider from the East coast. He is perspiring like crazy, but loving every minute. We are looking for the dreaded steep section near the top, but it never materializes. The climb is long and nearly 5000ft, but quite gradual.

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At the summit I am ready for another Frappuccino and can't wait for the climb to Father Crowley lake. That climb turned out to be more challenging than I expected, especially since the headwind has picked up. Looking back you have a marvelous view of Panamint Valley and the climb to Townes Pass. After Father Crowley Point the summit at 5200 ft is still another 1000ft of climbing away. This is followed by a long descent and then a short climb to Gunsight Pass. Glorious descent through Owens Valley with great views of Horse Shoe Meadows to the left. Arrive in Lone Pine ready for Whitney Portal. Doug and I start the climb, but he hangs back and eventually turns around. Whitney Portal is my favorite climb, about 4400 ft in about 11.5 miles. Fantastic views of Owens Valley. Even though the road is closed for traffic, Chris' support crew follows me up. Finally I reach the Portal. There is less snow than the week before and it is just great to be there. On the way back I meet Bob Lutz and Ron Way still climbing. The three of us will be the only ones who will have done the entire ride. Bob is just ecstatic about the day. After another group photo and some heartfelt goodbyes, it is back to LA . I will get to do this again soon in the Lone Pine Double Century next week. 106miles. 13720 ft.

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Chris did a terrific job organizing the camp. My thanks go to all the support volunteers, who went out of their way to help us enjoy and finish the ride. The weather could have been better, but there is always next year. I can recommend this camp to anyone. You can ride as much or as little as you want. There is no pressure, only the emphasis on having a good time. Its association with the Furnace Creek 508 attracts  a select group of Ultracyclists, which introduces a welcome element of competition. Put this one on your calendar for next year.

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