PENGUIN SURVIVES DESERT HEAT

 

By Peter Pop

Crew’s Perspective by Andreas Schultz

As a kid in Holland, I used to race my friends to school pretending to be Jacques Anquetil or Raymond Poulidor. Little did I know that 35 years later I would be racing again, but this time for more than 800 kilometers across mountain passes and through desert trying to qualify for RAAM.

Here is my account of the 1995 Furnace Creek 508, one of the most exciting and personally rewarding events I had the good fortune to participate in.

The day starts questionably --- the hotel fails to give us the requested wake-up call. Since we manage to get up on time anyway, I decide to do the chewing out during check-out. in my own special way. I find it odd because there must have been dozens of wake-up calls requested that morning. Hmmm ....

*** 6:30 AM, Ranch House Inn, Valencia

I am one of the early ones to arrive at the starting line, nervous and apprehensive about the outcome of the race. Barely recovered from PAC Tour, during which I sustained a tendon injury, I am wondering how to quality for RAAM while competing with non-qualified riders like Charlie Miller (41 minutes faster in this years’ Terrible Two and even 8 minutes faster than last years’ Furnace Creek winner, Steve Born). While I did finish the Los Angeles Quad within 24 hours, the prospect of 510 miles and 30,000 feet of climbing without stopping is daunting.

Peter is indeed one of the first to show at the starting line. Now, if I had trained for something for several months, you could be sure I’d be there with plenty of time to spare. Oddly, though, people trickle in right up to the starting gun. Peter looks good: awesome cyclist’s tan (for a guy from Holland) from Pac Tour, plenty of zinc-oxide, overkill of bicycles on the roof rack, stuffed flightless waterfowl, in triplicate, taped securely to the outside speakers, good attitude, and an unshaven and upbeat crew of two --- he’s clearly ready for an adventure.

*** 6:45 AM

Nervous tension building up. Even though I am freezing, I remove my arm and leg warmers; I just might lose a few minutes removing them later. I am praying not to have to make a pit stop before the race even starts.

*** 7:00 AM

We are off. What a blast riding with RAAM icons Michael Secrest and Seana Hogan! Michael Secrest is leading the pack at a nice pace, but glancing at my heart rate monitor, I am amazed that my heart rate is already up to 145.

The countdown is over and the race is on. I attempt to work Peter’s camera, but to no avail. What does that little turning thing on the lens do anyway? Focus .... Huh? Good thing we don’t have to worry about a flash, right?

Wayne and I quickly decide that the camera is entirely too complicated and that the odds are much more in our favor for navigating 510 miles from a book with 6 pt. type and no maps.

Wayne drives as I navigate (Wayne would continue to drive for the entire 30 hr journey—way to go Wayne!)

 

*** 7:24 AM, 6 miles

The race is on! I decide to ride a comfortable climbing pace with a heart rate of less than 150, while keeping Charlie "Mandrill" Miller in sight. Slowly we are moving to the front of the pack. Towards the latter part of the climb, I am being passed by Seana "Hoopoe" Hogan and Nick "Gnu" Gerlich.

Halfway up San Francisquito canyon we wait in anticipation. Support crews are lined up on the side of the road like hyenas waiting to ambush a lion. Mike Secrest is the first rider in sight—I immediately bet Wayne that he’ll be the first on to finish in 29 Palms. We laugh but quickly decide that it wasn’t funny. Must be all that fresh air affecting our brains. Peter appears shortly thereafter in the middle of the first pack. He’s looking good, but he looks as though he’s working too hard ( we would soon come to recognize this as his riding style, however). He passes, and we get in the car. Time to develop some strategy for this leap-frog thing. We decide to let him go, then catch and pass, then wait for him to pass, and so on. This strategy fails even before we can fully implement it, and we decide to just wing it. Peter has planned the entire event so carefully, the least we can do is improvise with a little spontaneity.

*** 8:40 AM, 28 miles

Johnson Summit. I drink my first bottle of Energy Surge (330 calories per small water bottle) and eat a Stoker Bar. I am finally pretty relaxed and focused on keeping a steady pace.

Peter just went headlong into the desert below, and we just took his water bottle to fill ‘er up. We realize there is just now way we can get it back to him while he’s doing 35 mph, but luckily the day is not yet a scorcher. We finally make a pass to him while I’m running at full speed on the road. It works well, although I don’t particularly recommend wearing sandals for the job. Over the next few hours, I begin to realize that other riders are kind enough to use those little levers on the handlebars, which are said to somehow control the rider’s forward motion, to give their crew members a shot at making the hand-off at less than 20 mph. I make a mental not to enlighten Peter that he, too, has those little levers.

*** 10:20 AM, 58 miles

Top of the second major climb. Relative to Eric House’s record setting pace in 1992, the time table of which I have actually clipped onto my handlebar stem, I am doing okay; however, I start to worry, having lost sight of Charlie Miller’s support van. I decide to continue at the same pace to prevent further tendon injury and while descending into Mojave, looking for the left turn onto Holt Street and having lost sight even of my own support van, I "#*#*#" slow way down but then fortunately notice the van parked around the corner on Holt street.

 

Heading into Mojave we enjoy some ZZ Top and marvel at the relatively low temperatures. Peter, Jeff "Bear" Bell, and I had been out here over Labor Day when temperatures soared to well over 100 degrees, so I was glad we didn’t have to endure such strife. Don’t even get me started on how I get when I have to drink warm Snapple. Wayne tries to cheer me up with the notion that warm 7-Up is far worse, and it works. Yuk!

Peter makes the left turn onto Holt Street and yells something about almost missing the turn. We’re practically parked in the intersection and there is no way he could have missed us, so we shrug off his comments as a heat-induced delusion. We pass through Mojave and eye the fast food joints intently ---- there would be no more civilization (read "hot food") after this little oasis, but we push on.

*** 11:19 AM

TS #1. At this point, we are well ahead of Eric House’s time table. We had a good tail wind to California City and it has been pretty cool so far. I am not at all thirsty with the result that I am not drinking enough Energy Surge. I finally dump my wind jacket and get mentally prepared for the big rollers and subsequent climb to Randsburg.

*** 12:27 PM

Start climb to Randsburg. At this point, I think I am in fourth position (unbeknownst to me I am actually fifth; William "Bull" Brown is way in front of everybody). We again catch sight of Charlie Miller’s support van which is truly encouraging.

We stop at the base of the Randsburg Grade, provision Peter, and then settle in for a little lunch for ourselves. Turkey and cheese sandwiches, with mustard and tomato along with some cold drinks ---- all prepared with the car in motion, of course. We briefly consider grilled cheese sandwiches on the hood of the car, but good etiquette and common sense take over. We are in high spirits, and Peter is looking strong on the climb. We wait for him at the top and once again run into the crew for "Blowfish" Bohannon. Three lovely ladies in a Range Rover are supporting my Terrible Two riding partner, Andrew Bohannon. Although we see them continuously into Trona, the Blowfish himself is never in sight. We decide they must be bluffing and that the poor Blowfish is out there unsupported, wasting away at the roadside. We sympathize briefly and then rejoice as there is clearly one fewer competitor on the road, or so we hope.

*** 1:03 PM, 118 miles

Randsburg. I am feeling good, especially while realizing we are still ahead of Eric House’s record setting time. Somewhere on the climb towards Trona, I pass Charlie Miller who looks very tired.

*** 2:11 PM, 141 miles

Right on Highway 178. Unfortunately, I have just been passed by the lowest life form in the race, Rick "Amoeba" Anderson. Since Amoeba finished a full hour behind me on the Terrible Two and passed me seemingly effortlessly while riding on his aero bars, I feel devastated. So far I have been unable to use aero bars due to an arthritic hip but now am firmly committed to somehow find a way to use them.

The "Amoeba" is quickly becoming our mascot. I think it’s mostly the name that we like --- "amoeba". Just kinda rolls off the tongue. We need things to roll all by themselves, flow if you will, after sitting in the hot car all day. Peter just keeps on chuggin’, although I think to myself that he probably has the Amoeba pegged in some way.

Wayne questions how many calories Peter must be expending. Well, he’s pretty thin, so I think 600-800 per hour might be a realistic estimate. We do some quick math by adding all what he’s eaten thus far and conclude, to our great surprise, that the two of us have each eaten waaaaayy more than he has. It’s amazing how those little Cliff bars just seem to disappear when you’re sightseeing out in the desert with nothing else to do. We try to talk Peter into eating something more substantial, like a sandwich, but he sticks to the Energy Surge. In the back of my mind something tells me that this lack of calories may come back to haunt us later in the race.

*** 2:47 PM

TS #2. Still more than 1 hour ahead of Eric House’s time table! I see Seana Hogan’s support van but then hear more demoralizing news: another non-qualified rider, William "Bull" Brown, is way in front and going very fast. Wishing to avoid at all cost having to qualify for RAAM in the Tour of North Texas, I start to push myself harder.

*** 3:48 PM, 170 miles

Summit of climb out of Trona.

*** 4:37 PM, 187 miles

Left on Panamint Valley road. Extremely rough pavement. My hands are already very sore from the lack of aero bars and I slow down and my heart rate drops to 120. I am then passed by Reed "Flamingo" Finfrock: "Soft Riders do it better." (Big smile). I reassure my crew that I know I will be able to make a comeback on the climb to Towne Pass.

Panamint Valley What? Not "ROAD". Clearly our tax dollars are hard at work out here. It’s amazing how the entire stretch of road up to this point has been relatively nicely paved, and then BLAM! It’s as though the road crew came back after Happy Hour to finish the job. I think someone put tar into all the cracks in the road, and the roadbed itself then decided to puke the entire thing up again. We strongly contemplate putting the Suburban into 4-wheel drive. Peter decides to stay with the Spectrum, although we have the hybrid on the roof rack. We don’t envy him and decide to toast his misery with yet another Snapple and a Cliff bar. Yup, looks like we’re hydrating just fine. --- Pull over, would ya.

*** 5:27 PM

Finally we make a right towards Towne Pass. Having climbed Towne Pass summit, several times in the past, I know it will take approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes to climb Towne Pass while tired. Planning to attach the headlight at the summit, we do not stop and pass Amoeba. At this point the rules change: The support van has to follow the rider at all times and car hand-offs and music are allowed. While listening to Wagner’s "Flying Dutchman," we pass Reed Finfrock who is climbing very slowly. I feel great and allow my heart rate to go to 155. While gaining quickly on Nick Gerlich, for the first time ever I develop an awful cramp in my left leg (I am still favoring my right leg). I take some Tums, gear down and decide to stay behind Nick. I am now spinning in my 30X25 "bail out" gear.

We stop at the base of Towne Pass. Peter goes on ahead, but we have to affix the various signs and flashers required for night following. As we pull up next to him to make the first official hand-off out the window, he requests "Liza Minelli" on the CD player. We cringe but oblige --- he’s the boss. For the next hour he flies up the mountain to the tunes of Broadway and Liza Minelli on the 100 Watt karaoke system hooked up to two big roof-mounted speakers. (It takes us nearly 100 miles to figure out how to keep Liza from blowing the circuit breaker every time she hits the high notes. It finally works when we keep her off the "Mega Bass".) Meanwhile, the crew enters survival mode --- neither of us can sing along because a) we don’t know the words, and b) because Liza sings in a key unobtainable to the musically challenged. Excitement builds as Peter passes first the Amoeba, then the Flamingo, and then comes within feet of the Gnu near the top of the pass. I think every rider ought to wear a helmet cover displaying his/her totem animal. Although, I don’t know how the average tourist would react to a guy wearing antlers and fuzzy buggy show covers. You just don’t see style like that anymore.

*** 6:45 PM

Summit Towne Pass. Just prior to reaching the summit, we had to stop to install lights. On the descent from Towne Pass, we pass Nick Gerlich.

We stop at the top of Towne Pass to give Peter some lights and some clothing. The Gnu has already plunged into the darkness, and we’re hot on his heels. Third place overall, and we’re starting to get competitive. A certain serenity returns to the inside of the Suburban as we’re forced to shut off all outside music. The darkness and the thrilling descent into Death Valley make for some long-sought after excitement. To our surprise the Penguin catches the Gnu with ease, even though the latter had a substantial lead because of our stop. I guess flightless waterfowl have always been pretty aerodynamic by comparison to their four-legged, land-lubber cousins. A moment of tension builds as the Penguin passes but fails to open a gap large enough to squeeze our rather svelte support vehicle between himself and the Gnu. Our attempt to remedy the situation ends in another "Holt Street Incident". Hmm, it’s not too warm outside though ...

*** 7:21 PM, 229 miles

Passing Stovepipe Wells.

*** 7:45 PM, 237 miles

Passing Scotty’s Castle turn off.

*** 8:35 PM, 254 miles

TS #3. Furnace Creek. Up to this time, I have been off my bike for 8 minutes. Unfortunately, I stop here for approximately 5 minutes to talk to one of my radiology partners and his family who were spending the weekend in Death Valley. At this time, Nick Gerlich passes me again. We catch up to him at the right turn to Badwater but decide to hang back and just keep Nick in sight.

*** 9:35 PM

Badwater.

Passing through the serene darkness of Death Valley with nothing but the stars above, the rider in front, and the rest of the pack chasing as tiny dots several miles behind, Wayne and I start to contemplate life, the universe, and everything. That is until we pass the "no music" zone and play Barbara Streisand and Wagner alternately on the outside music system. Peter is really hauling, and the miles fly past. The Gnu, however, seems to be determined to catch us before we reach the official checkpoint at Furnace Creek. He passes as we collectively heed the call of nature. Ah, to be young and in the wild ....

*** 11:40 PM, 301 miles

Start the climb to Jubilee Pass. We pass Nick Gerlich and I push myself hard to gain some time on Seana Hogan. After Jubilee, however, I lose some of my steam due to strong cross winds and head winds.

We have been shadowing the Gnu for some time now. We’re getting more and more worried about the lack of calories and repeatedly try to get Peter to eat something more substantial. He’s slick, though, because whenever we give him something it invariably ends up in his jersey pockets! Peter looks as though he just doesn’t have what it takes to pass the Gnu. That is, until he lets us in on his little ploy --- He’s been hanging back purposely to take him down on the climb up Jubilee Pass.! Unbelievable! --- It’s 300 miles into the race and we’re actually developing and implementing race tactics. And, just as promised, Penguin makes a power move past the Gnu and literally storms up the pass. The road is deceptively shallow at this point, and this being the middle of a moonless night doesn’t help, but we know what kind of climb this is and I am impressed with the Penguin’s performance. Wayne and I start to play tactics by trying to move the car around the next bend before the chaser catches sight of our lights. We figure that if he doesn’t know exactly where we are, he might not chase so hard. Whatever the reason, the Penguin has a commanding lead by the time we crest Salsberry Pass.

 

*** 1:02 AM

Summit Salsberry Pass. Strong cross winds and Spinergy wheels combine to make me suffer near loss of control on the descent. I finally changed to my spare bike with conventional spoke wheels but I lost precious time.

The cross winds are horrific. I wish Peter would ride near the center line because I’m afraid we’ll have to pick him up out of the bushes otherwise. The Spinergy wheels seem to create as much sideways motion as forward motion at this point, and at times he weaves over the entire width of the lane. A much awaited pit stop is made, and Peter switches to the bike with spoked wheels. We’re sure that the Gnu will catch us as we sit idly by the roadside during those precious few moments, but his lights are nowhere to be seen. The excitement of following the Penguin at 45 mph in total darkness wakes us up somewhat, which translates into the need for a real pit stop. Go figure. It’s amazing how much of the race is really dictated by the bladder. I started to think about the stories from the race magazine where the women crew members described their ever-increasingly bold bathroom protocol. I think we have reached a new low ,don’t even ask).

*** 1:47 AM, 327 miles

TS #4. Shoshone. Passing Shoshone, I have been off my bike for a total of 20 minutes. There is a great tail wind from here to Baker.

*** 2:34 AM, 342 miles

Summit of Ibex Pass.

I think the road to Baker is exceedingly boring, even during the night. I can’t imagine having to ride it during the day, and I certainly don’t envy those who had to do it. The only encouraging note is that we have a roaring tailwind and are making excellent time. By the time we reach Baker, the Penguin has made up nearly six minutes and is less than 50 minutes behind Seana Hogan.

*** 4:11 AM, 383 miles

TS #5. Baker. So far we are 1 hour and 50 minutes faster than Eric House but Seana Hogan is still 50 minutes ahead. After crossing the cattle guard, we begin the seemingly endless climb of 2700 feet to Kelso Summit. At this moment, I get disgusted, not realizing before that it was going to be such a long climb. I am getting cold but do not want to stop to put on warmer clothes, still intent on catching up to Seana Hogan. During this part of the race, I realize that I am not taking in enough calories but somehow due to the cold and darkness, I can’t make myself eat enough.

I can’t believe we’re nearly two hours faster than the previous record pace. Something must be drastically different about this year’s conditions in comparison to the ones past. We catch a faint glimpse of Seana Hogan’s flashing amber lights on the long climb to Kelso. It’s difficult to determine how far ahead she is, but I’m sure it’s an insurmountable distance at this point. It’s very disappointing when we fail to see them at any time thereafter.

Peter looks like death warmed over. It’s very cold outside, and he’s still only wearing shorts and a short sleeve jersey with a wind vest. He’s pushing a good pace, and we have total control of second place overall. There is little doubt in my mind that the Penguin will qualify for RAAM, and I’m starting to think that he may hold on for the overall men’s win and course record. Only time will tell. The lack of calories is becoming an issue again, and even Peter shares our concern. Unfortunately, nothing is done about it. I think Peter may be nutritionally too depleted to recover without stopping to rest extensively and to eat. In retrospect, I think a chart with an hourly feeding scheme, strictly enforced, would be the way to go.

*** 6:11 AM, 407 miles

Kelso Summit. I put on leg warmers and a Polartec jacket for the descent and change back to the Spectrum with Spinergy wheels.

*** 6:41 AM, 419 miles

Start climb to Granite Pass. I don’t remember much except that at this point I start to get tired. I am approximately 4000 calories short at this time.

Every time we turn the century mark on the odometer we seem to start another major climb. Hmmm, coincidence? I don’t think so.

The sun is now out for the second day, and we start to climb Granite Pass. The scenery is fairly bleak, but we take an interest anyway. After driving through pitch darkness for nearly 13 hours, anything scenery related will do. All motions by both crew and rider have become totally automated, but the rising sun breathes new life into the team. The ascent is steady and we see the microwave tower in no time. The Penguin is greeted with hurricane force winds at the top, and we opt for the spoked wheels once again. The transition takes less than 30 seconds, and Wayne and I fell like Al Unser’s Indy pit crew. Another 200 miles of racing and we’ll have all this crewing business down to a science. I’m telling ya, this race is entirely too short for a learning crew to iron out all the kinks and function like a well-oiled machine. Maybe the racers don’t share that though. We’ll see next year.

*** 7:55 AM, 433 miles

Granite pass and microwave tower. There is too much cross wind on the descent and I am looking for an excuse to stop. I change back to my bike with spoke wheels.

*** 8:15 AM, 441 miles

Junction I-40.

*** 9:02 AM, 458 miles

TS #6. Amboy. Turning left on Amboy road, there is a very strong head wind. Again regretting the lack of aero bars, I put my head down and start hammering. During this stretch, prior to the start of the climb to Sheep Hole summit, I start to cramp up. My crew persuades me to take GU and from then to the finish, I will consume 10 packets of GU. At this time, the leap frogging support van of Nick Gerlich catches up, and despite the enthusiastic vocal support of his crew, Steve Born and Roger Marcus, I am deeply demoralized. Nick Gerlich, going rather slow, passes me, going even slower, on the climb to Sheep Hole Summit. By this time, I am hardly moving, concentrating on completing each agonizing pedal stroke. I stop once on the climb to get a quick massage and grab some grapes, chips and water. Half way to the summit, David "Koala" Kees flies by and then easily passes Nick Gerlich.

Amboy is one hulluva town. Wayne and I ponder what may have gone on here in its heyday but fail to see what would possess people to move to such a forsaken place. 50 miles to go to the finish line, and we have plenty of time in which to do it and still beat the unadjusted record. --- But then it happens. peter hits the wall, or to put it more accurately, the wall hits him at about Mach 2. The first of the relay teams has just blown by us, and I think seeing another rider fly by with such ease is totally demoralizing to a rider who has been out there solo for 28 hours. Speed is no longer an issue, getting to the finish line is. We stop a few miles prior to the base of the climb up the Sheep Hole Mountains so that Peter can eat and more importantly, change into wider, more comfortable shoes. To our horror, the support van of the Gnu appears in the distance. We urge Peter to eat some Gu, but he steadfastly refuses. Meanwhile, the Gnu is steadily chipping away at the Penguin’s slimming lead. Another five minutes and we find ourselves in third place overall. What a downer!

Wayne and I ponder what to do; we have to get Peter over the last of the kill mountains. I enter "nagging and authoritative mode" and tell Peter he’s going to eat some Gu. And some more Gu. And yet more Gu, until all told he’s eaten 8 packets in just over an hour. If we can just get him on a sugar high over the last few miles, we might just have a chance to catch the Gnu and put him away.

*** 11:15 AM

Finally we crest the summit. At this moment, I have been off the bike for a total of 23 minutes. After the descent, we hit large rollers with strong head winds as well as cross winds. At this point I am pretty much exhausted by the severe cramping of my legs, arms and back. Without any excuse, I just stop and eat some more food. My crew tells me that I can still beat Eric House’s course adjusted record. Somewhat revitalized, I get back on the bike and start to hammer again. My heart rate goes to 145 and after several frustrating stops at traffic lights and some more rollers, we sprint in at 1:24 PM in fourth place, having just beaten Eric House’s course adjusted record. I can hardly walk and cannot believe we finally made it in.

The final summit! What a relief. The last few miles have been agonizingly slow for the crew, and a veritable death march for the gallant Penguin. We stop briefly and to our surprise the Koala powers up and over the summit, looking as though he was merely out for a 20 mile Sunday morning spin. Bummer!

Down the last hill we go, eager to get onto the flats and the final sprint to the finish. As if to add insult to injury, the last 20 miles presents itself with a roaring mostly-head wind, and our average speed drops to nearly 10 mph. All hopes of catching the Gnu fade, and we’re hoping no one else will catch us from behind.

With six miles to the finish, and after having fired an impressive number of stale math neurons to arrive at such a conclusion, we lie to Peter and tell him he has to ride the next 6 miles in 24 minutes or less to beat the adjusted course record. He buys into our math, and puts on an impressive burst of energy, which luckily lasts up to the finish line. We roll in at 1:24 pm, convinced that we are on top of the world. Peter can hardly walk, but within an hour he’s already making plans for RAAM!

Congratulations, Peter. You put on one helluva determined race to stay on the bike as long as you did, and to ride as consistently and as fast as you did. At least we’ll know what the competition will look like next year.

Some afterthoughts:

I counted on the average temperature being much higher and I expected to drink 1 to 2 bottles of Energy Surge with a caloric value of 330 calories per bottle. I only drank 27 bottles of Energy Surge in addition to fruit, 2 Stoker and 2 Cliff Bars, 10 packages of GU and some chips and candy for a total of approximately 13,000 calories which was just not enough to prevent the dreaded "bonk".

Stating the obvious, aero bars appear to be essential to be competitive in a race like this with several flat sections with strong head winds. For RAAM and next years’ Furnace Creek, I will set up at least one of my bikes with aero bars.

A word of thanks to my crew, Wayne Fairchild and Andreas Schultz who were terrific and without whom I could never have finished this race. At the very least they too appeared to have had a lot of fun since both of them are planning to race Furnace Creek in 1996. _

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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