Badwater to Durango," The Real Hell of the West" (also known as "The Pop Family" vacation) with comments by Charlie Griffice in red
"What the heck am I doing here"?!!! "Would you believe I am climbing this grade to Cima ,some godforsaken outpost in the California desert, again?" It is all coming back to me: RAAM 1997 , the scorching heat in the desert, the never ending shallow climbs, the headwinds and the bone jarring asphalt ( leave your dentures home ). My crew is hoping to fill up the ice chests, but I know better : whatever store there is will be closed, abandoned , flattened or destroyed by some disaster. I swore in 1997 never ,ever , to do RAAM again. Never again ride this part of the Furnace Creek 508 course in reverse.
When Hugh Murphy came up with the idea of this Race, I knew I would sign up anyway, being the glutton for punishment I am. I knew the scenery would be spectacular but the race conditions would be brutal. At the very least it would be good training for the Furnace Creek 508 in which I wanted to set the new 50+ record.
Having slacked off training quite a bit due to injuries etc. sustained while dirt bike riding, I got all fired up again by crewing for Danny Chew in RAAM 2000.
To prepare for this race I went back to the daily commute from Malibu to Culver City. Squeezing in any riding possible, I managed to do 400-500 mile weeks. This prepared me for the Eastern Sierra, my first double since Furnace Creek 1998. Following that ride , I sincerely doubted if I could even finish a 300 miler. Getting desperate I started to train harder on the 508 course : San Fransisquito Canyon up and down 3 times daily on the weekend ( only recommended for the braindead ) along with the major 508 climbs. Trying to ride in the hottest of conditions, I prepared myself for the worst.
A good riding buddy of mine Charlie Griffice, an accomplished double century rider himself ( recently inducted into the hall of fame ) offered to crew for me along with my wife Linda and my 13 year old son Michael.
When Peter told me he was taking his family on a vacation to Durango I told my wife about it and she said: "if this has anything to do with riding a bike, I don't think you can call this a 'family vacation'". Even though this was somewhat prophetic on my wife's part, I think all of the crew had a great time and WILL ALWAYS remember the event as an overall great time. To call "the event" a "family vacation", may be stretching things a bit however.
Wednesday afternoon we arrive at Long Street Casino in Amargosa Valley for crew instructions It is blowing so hard that the car door nearly gets ripped off by the incredible (head) wind. Want some jerky? Just hold out a slice of beef and this hot wind will suck it dry.
We meet Hugh and Allen. As it turns out only 4 people will race. One of whom , our hero from DownUnder, super cyclist Gerry Tatrai, is expected to arrive later. To be closer to the start and get more sleep, we drive to the Furnace Creek Ranch rather than stay at the Casino. Since it’s too hot for anybody to sleep in the van ,we end up renting two rooms. This is getting expensive!
We unload and repack the van in such a way that you can be sure that whatever w,e will need we will not be able to find , get to without stopping or get to without twisting ourselves into knots. Any chiropractor reading this? We do have ice though , tons of it!
Having only crewed for the FC508 before, I really don't follow Peter's organization plan for the van very well. This leads to my first day on the crew being by far the hardest. Peter's suggestion of trying to organize things from the crew's perspective is good. But I really don't figure this out till I get to Colorado.The next morning we arrive at Badwater 0530 sharp: nobody there! False hope! I see Hugh Murphy’s van in the distance. Finally two other racers show up: Dean Crothers and Gregg Kilcoyne. 0600 ready to go ,but no Gerry Tatrai. Scheduled to take hospital call on Monday, I really want to start . Dean and start at 0604. Gerry and Gregg will get time credits.
Knowing how rough the asphalt is, I start on my titanium Otis Guy ( TI GUY ) with its Softride beam and suspension handle bar stem. Climbing Jubilee/Salsberry I switch to the Merlin with aerobars. The conditions are still nice and we crest Salsberry Pass at 0930 after a 1:39 minute climb. Down we go, making a right on SR 178 to Shoshone. Dean catches up off and on .After Ibex Pass I leave him behind and won’t see him anymore. Gerry rides up to us on his Titan Flex in an incredible aero position, his trademark. We talk awhile. I see him dowsing himself with his one and only water bottle, but he does not appear to be drinking. Gerry intends to finish Saturday morning ( 50 hours ), being a mere mortal I wish him luck and let him ride away from me. I am surprised though that he is not going faster than he is. I finally lose sight of him after the long "dip" after Ibex. Near Baker we seem to be gaining on him and finally pass him at Baker while he is sitting next to the van. We stop for a second so I can "load up" for the climb to Kelso to allow my crew to get gas and a bite to eat.
The temperature sign in Baker along the 15 freeway said it was 108 ° F. Not really that hot yet.
Gerry gets back on the bike, follows me over the freeway overpass and then looses his taillight racing across the cattle guard and turns around.
When my crew catches up, they tell me Gerry looks pretty tired and in trouble. I feel pretty good and fortunately my stomach is behaving. I am using Energy Surge (Sustained Energy ), Coke, Hammergel, Power gel and the occasional Promax and Cliff bar. To boost calories I use Glen Oaks drinkable Yogurt ( available in any super market and about 500 cal per water bottle ). That stuff really calms my stomach.
About three quarters of the way up, the weather takes a turn for the worse. Unbelievable! Right over the hottest section of the ride, severe thunderstorms are developing. Instead of burning to a crisp entering the Gates of Hades , I am getting soaked to death. Lightning everywhere with incredibly loud thunder. Frankly I am getting pretty scared. I can’t really stop, who knows how long this will last and I do not want to expose my family to this thunderstorm , near the top of a mountain range and no place to shelter. So on we go. Cresting the top and racing down hill to get out from under this storm.. At 1506 we make the left on Kelso- Cima Rd, 147 miles into the race. We start the climb to Cima, actually quite pleasant and dry, giving my feet a chance to dry out. There is no way I am going to stop to don dry clothes with Gerry on my heels, I plan to give this RAAM winner from Down Under a run for his money. As mentioned the metropolis of Cima appears abandoned. And down we go, braking hard for the nasty cattle guards. Braking hard to avoid plowing into the fresh flood debris obstructing the road. Having to get off the bike and drive or walk over it is quite the nuisance, really stiffening me up. I guess cattle does not like mud either and several times I have to share the road with cattle, losing more precious time. We make the right on Ivanpah Rd at 1728 ,180 miles. Finally the climb on Nipton Rd toward the I- 15. There is some ambiguity in the route sheet, but I have been here before and we get on the I-15 to Jean. Speeding trucks and rumble strips scare the hell out of my crew, but for me it is somewhat enjoyable. The scenery with the sunset is beautiful, all the roadside debris ,so hazardous on RAAM 1997 has been cleared. Primm and Jean are even gaudier than in 1997. We meet Hugh at Jean searching for the Texaco station which has changed its name. Hugh gives us some new instructions , how to get to the road around Lake Mead to Overton. We lose at least half an hour. No one really understands the new route, but we leave anyway. Hugh instructed us to get me in the van at a certain point, passing that point however there are still bicycle and car road share signs , so to keep myself honest I stay on the bike. Finally at what appears to be a new freeway I get in the van.
We are really confused now and waste a lot of time going over maps, but finally we somehow make it to Overton Rd and we start the seemingly endless series of climbs and rollers along Lake Mead into Overton. We stop for 1 ˝ hours for Charlie and Linda to take a break from driving. I change into dry clothes and we are back on the road leaving Overton at 0420 and turning back on the I-15 at 0437. Probably because of the weekend there is a lot of traffic: boats, house trailers and the like. It is getting hot and I don my " Cool Off" cooling vest( Phone no. (831)761-3363 ) , similar to the one used by Mike Wilson in 1997 RAAM. This works great, but I am using it too wet. The water drips into my crotch and my shoes. I will pay for this later with a horrible rash.. All during this ride the crew has been terrific. My son is really keeping my spirits up with his antics through the PA. Charlie cheerfully tolerates my grumpy mood. Just remember Charlie, C.R.E.W. stands for Cranky Rider Endless Waiting. By now I have the strong suspicion Gerry probably DNF’ed and since Hugh is always close to me I bet maybe the others did to.
The crew has shared this "suspicion" about being the only ones left in the race with a mixed feeling. It would be great to quit and get some sleep, but we also want Peter to win the race. The haunting feeling of "where is Gerry" happens over and over again throughout the rest of the race. On the other hand, my knowledge of where things are in the van and how to help Peter change bikes on the road is getting better. I have now learned that Linda and Michael MUCH better prepare food and drink than I, so I stick to driving. Nevertheless, Peter has to change his OWN bike seat along this stretch of road and repeatedly give me instructions for how to change cleat locations on his shoes for two of the three different bikes he's using on the ride.
With all the stops, breaks etc. we are not going that fast, they should have caught up. Going through the Virgin River Gorge on the I-15 is magnificent but hair raising. These trucks do not slow down even while passing you on the narrow bridges, nearly blowing you off the road. The asphalt is so rough, all the tar has evaporated, leaving just pebbles one even larger and sharper than the other. I switch back to my Otis Guy and we spend another 30 mins changing the seat and adjusting it. Riding the Softride is so much more comfortable. My forearms are bruised from staying in the aerobars all this time.
Entering St George at 1015, 374 miles, is just beautiful with all the mountains in the background. I go ahead with the climb out of St George , while the van gets gas etc. The roads have changed since 1997 and we can not find UT9 to make the right turn. We call Hugh and while waiting for him and backtracking we figure out where we should go, but we promised to wait for Hugh, so we blow another hour.
Everyone is now all eyes for the Dairy Queen on the left. It is getting real hot and I will get the milkshake later. Then all of a sudden the van decides to call it a day. There is something weird with the electronics, this has happened in 1997 and during a training ride in the desert. When it gets that hot, the engine just dies but can be revived in minutes to die again. The dealer was never able to find something wrong. Mind you this is not a mini van but a full size Ford Econovan. I'm driving the van when this happens. I think the thing hates me. Go figure. I am soaked from all the dowsing and the cooling vest and late afternoon we make another stop to change into dry clothes and shoes. The idea was to ride to Kayenta, but the weather is changing again. Damn these thunderstorms. On the climb to Page we get soaked by several showers. I am getting really fed up. My brand new Carnac shoes are getting wet, my wet toes are killing me, my rash is on fire and I have only one pair of dry shorts left. I am dreading what Colorado has in store for me, surely more thunderstorms. Descending into Page there is lightning 360 degrees around us. This is it , I want to stop in a hotel and wait until the weather clears up. From my perspective, this, and the next 4-6 hours was Peter's lowest point. After a short but vicious climb ( I remember it well from 1997 ) we get to the hotel at 2120. Showers everybody , I fall asleep quickly and wake up 11/2 hrs later contemplating if I really want to get up or blow it off and get back to sleep and forget this purgatory of the Hell of the West. What makes me get up , is the resolve never to quit as well as the thought that someone should finish this race. Hugh had put in a lot of effort and money to make this happen and I was not going to let him down. I wake up Charlie, get dressed, get myself "bag balmed" and "chamois buttered'"( for the uninitiated this means applying a concoction of creams to prevent/diminish saddle soreness), wake up Linda and Michael and off we go. Good God ,I am stiff. I forgot about all the climbing one has to do before Kayenta on Hwy 98. Fortunately it has dried out and after a few 5-10 min. power naps we reach the Left turn to US 160 to Kayenta. Finally tailwind!! A first for this ride. Kayenta sure has changed: from the single Holiday Inn to many hotels and supermarkets. The price of progress. Fortunately the scenery leaving Kayenta is still the same. I can look forward to 100 miles of spectacular red rock formations including Monument Valley. I am feeling pretty good and ready to finish the ride. Hugh comes by and shoots a gazillion pictures. We also enjoy Hugh getting his van stuck in the soft dirt. Little do we know that van problems are just ahead for us as well. I am riding pretty fast, but still taking in all the sights. I finally notice Mexican Hat. In 1997 RAAM this totally escaped me. Shortly after Mexican Hat near the "town" of Bluff, the van calls it quits one more time. It is so hot, we just stand around not knowing quite what to do. Peter tells us he's read the temp on a special watch he has and it says its 113 degrees. The vans hears him and really starts giving me fits. The engine dies on downhills leaving me with no power steering or power BRAKES. I nearly need to "double foot" the brake pedal , to stop the van. The van has done this to me before on a test run of the FC508 and it totally freaks me out. If the engine is off totally for a few minutes, or going fast, this apparent "vapor lock" type problem goes away. Our cell phone won’t reach Hugh to call for help. The engine even quits while coasting downhill, loosing power brakes and steering, which is pretty tricky. Finally the van leapfrogs out of sight and seems to be doing OK. Another hour lost though. We reach the Colorado border at 1704, 717 miles into the race. Thunderstorms again threaten to ruin the day, but somehow they pass us by. At 1831 ( CA time ) we pass Cortez. From Cortez at 6300 feet we have a couple of climbs to the 8500 feet summit before a steep descent into Durango. Especially the last climb goes on forever. In the meantime I have switched to my climbing bike, a titanium Spectrum.
Finally the descent. In RAAM 1996, I descended in pouring rain. This time it was incredibly cold, so cold I had to change gloves just before the finish. At the same time Allen was riding up to meet me and lead me to the hotel. At 2428 we finish and are greeted by Gerry and his crew. What a ride! Eight hundred and four miles with approximately 37000 feet of climbing. Cregg Kilcoyne is still on the course and won’t finish until Sunday PM. Dean Crothers DNFed at the Rt.turn to the I-15 to Jean, being apprehensive about riding on the freeway.
Thanks Charlie for all your excellent support. Thanks Linda and Michael for staying with it. Thanks Hugh for putting on a great ride. Hopefully next time there will be a larger turnout.
I think Peter's performance was outstanding. I was particularly wound up by the finish and thought it was extremely considerate for Tatrai and crew to be there as well. I think the ride should be advertised as a mini-RAAM, because it is NOT like Furnace Creek. The 805 miles are mostly filled with extremely difficult climbs and sleep is a bigger issue. This ride would be great for either two-man or four-man teams. My thanks go to Peter and his family for letting me go on their "vacation" with them. My thanks as well as to Hugh and Allen for there willingness to initiate and sustain NEW ADVENTURES for the bicycle crowd. Way to go, Hugh!
Hey, Hugh, how about those time credits you were talking about?!