By Louise McCracken
The big event of the year for many cyclists is a premier ultra marathon event of 508 miles and 35,000 feet of climbing. A spiritual odyssey where participants experience an unparalleled personal achievement called the Furnace Creek 508 race. A total of 211 bicycle enthusiasts took part in this endeavor. This consisted of 128 people in two and four person relay teams and 67 solo riders. 91 rookies (first experience with the race) and 120 veterans from 19 states in the US and eight other countries (Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany, Morocco and Switzerland).
Team KITES consisting of Rob Kraencke, Triathelete; Anna Luo, Triathelete; Richard McCaw, ACTC and Louise McCracken, ACTC. This team had its difficulties with its riders. Anna replaced a member from last year as they decided to participate in the event as a solo rider. I was able to replace one member who suddenly could not participate with the event under circumstances beyond their control. Another member had surgery on their hand and the replacement rider was struck by a car during a training ride. Thus, Richard stepped-up to the plate and was able to complete the team about three weeks before the event. Rob was the only Veteran as the remaining members were Rookies to the 508. None of us have ever cycled together and relied upon each other’s confidences to do their part on the team. I offered to be rider “A” to cycle Stage One and Five. Anna offered to be rider “B” to cycle Stage Two and Six. Rob and Richard debated between rider position “C” and “D” and made their decision en route the day before the race started. Richard took rider “C” to cycle Stage Three and Seven (the most climbing of all the positions) and Rob took rider “D” to cycle Stage Four and Eight to the finish line.
We arrived in Santa Clarita Friday afternoon before the race. We found the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Hotel a buzz of excitement. Everyone was preparing their vehicles and bicycles for inspection to pass safety features and requirements. As we checked-in with the officials, we were given a bag of handouts, a team photo taken and a book entitled “The Guy on the Bike” personally signed by the Author, Michael Seacrest. Anna’s husband, Dan Sauers, a solo rider and his support crew joined us for dinner to load-up on carbohydrates and go over the details of the course. The Olive Garden serves a very tasty Italian Margarita, yummy. The mandatory pre-race meeting was overflowing as the audience paid close attention to the announcements involving the rules and requirements of the race. Much emphasis was made on safety as weather conditions were consistently changing throughout the course. Group photos were taken of all the riders on stage as the meeting adjourned and everyone returned to their respective accommodations for the night.
Solo riders started two hours ahead of all the teams at 7:00 am. The California Highway Patrol was gracious enough to escort riders for the first five miles out of town. I had been advised by Veterans that the left turn on San Francisquito Canyon Road was considered the official starting point of the race. Nervous and excited all at once, I was about to start our team with the race. Anna called Dan’s support team to get a final check on the weather. Heavy fog and winds, it’s cold and wet climbing over the hills. Wearing my rain jacket, I felt prepared and ready to go. I like the camaraderie of all the participants as we wished each other well before the national anthem, last minute announcements and our escorted departure from the hotel.
As much as everyone would like the mass split in two groups as the elite rider pace was at least 30mph as I did my best to keep-up with them at 25mph. The other group maintained a comfortable 20mph as cruisers and motorcycles scrambled along with us to stop traffic at signal lights and stop signs. Sure enough, that famous left turn and everyone took off to mark their place in the race. I kept a moderate-brisk, but comfortable pace to save my energy for the 6176 feet of climbing up ahead. It was overcast, but no fog in sight. I was overheating and stripped my rain jacket at the stop sign near the Ranger Station before the first mountain section of the course. I was about 14 miles from the designated point where I would meet the rest of my team members and the leap frog routine would begin. Before approaching Johnson Summit, team Kites were at the sidelines cheering me on. I handed them my rain jacket. The crosswinds at the climb were noticeable, but manageable. I was impressed to find race officials at adjacent corners when approaching stop signs. They are very serious about abiding to the safety rules. As many may know, I tend to be geographically challenged and get lost on rides. Thus, I was very pleased to see course marshals at the turns with most of the course.
The second mountain section of the stage is called the “Windmills Climb.” It was very scenic providing a Holland appeal of windmills along the road. Alas, the name of this segment of the course was there for a reason-WIND! It would have been nice if it were tailwinds, but this is a race, I was dealt with headwinds. I also noticed the fog I had been previously warned about, it was lifting and the moisture was barely noticeable. After the climb and starting into the descent I noticed some sprinkling of rain. Making a right turn at 4060 feet of elevation, the overcast was darker, but the rain was still light. The Team was at the sidelines and offered to return my rain jacket. “Nah!” it’s not raining hard enough, I’ll just get overheated again. Moments after passing them, the rain started to flow and I was getting wet. Wiping my glasses off with my fingers, I was happy the team was at the side of the road shortly thereafter and helped me with my rain jacket. Should have known this was going to happen, Murphy’s Law.
Finishing the descent and rolling into Mojave, one of the most talked about required stops of the course, the railroad crossing. If you happen to arrive as the train approaches, it is known to be up to an hour wait for the train to cross. As I arrived to the area, everyone was stopped and the train was gong through. Just as I approached the support vehicle, Rob yelled, “Just in time, the train is almost through.” Shoot! It was dry and I needed to shed my rain jacket again. My team members were gracious to retrieve my jacket again and I was off to finish Stage One of the course. I enjoyed the tailwinds and I was focused to maintain 30 mph for the last 15 miles of the segment. Anna was getting into her cleats as I arrived at the timing station in California City. Here you go, I am so happy to pass the baton and climb into the warm cab to find food and drink.
Anna started her 70.25 mile section with 4,212 feet of climbing. I was envious as she dealt with tailwinds and crosswinds, lucky puppy. You could tell she was enjoying the ride as her smile glowed every time we passed her in the leap frog. There was one occasion where we parked on a soft shoulder of loose gravel and got stuck. Luckily Rob took the shovel and was able to dig trenches so we could get the momentum to roll ourselves out of the mess we got into in the first place. It was amazing how fast she completed the stage in Trona as we welcomed her with high accolades. “That was the longest ride I have ever done!” she exclaimed as she passed the baton to Richard.
Richard knew he had 30 minutes to ride leap frog before we converted to following him on the road. He had the toughest part of the course with 99.2 miles and 7,538 feet of climbing from Trona to Furnace Creek. Anna decided to drive the truck, and I commanded Rob to lie down in the cab and get some rest – call me Sergeant Louise. Anna and I observed the dark clouds and lightening just beyond the mountains into Death Valley. Just as we were discussing the potential of a delay in the race resulting from a lightening storm did we realize that Richard missed the turn on Panamint Valley Road. We didn’t go to far off before we turned around and got back on track with the course. Richard was maintaining an excellent pace with the rolling hills. There was one occasion on a descent where we were frightened with concern for him as the crosswinds caused his bicycle to oscillate vigorously. We stopped and checked his bike to see if anything was loose, all was tight. Thus, Richard concluded he needed to ride slower as the combination of elements was probably causing the problem. When we made the right turn on East Furnace Creek, an official of the race announced that the lightening storm had passed and the roads were wet, so use some caution. Anna expressed that she has night vision and uncomfortable driving, so I took the helm of the truck. This was the toughest climb of the course up Townes Pass. We were astounded how Richard likes to rabbit chase other riders. I lost count of how many we passed. What amazed us the most was a renegade rider on a mountain bike was on the same road. As we passed him, we noticed that he had a plastic grocery bag with an extra water bottle. All of this excitement passing riders and alike was causing Rob to get up as I barked for him to lie back down and get some rest. Not only did Richard pass many riders climbing, he also passed many of them on the descent as well. There was one occasion where he was coasting and kept up with a support car. Why was he costing? He had the potential to pass the cyclist up ahead. He signaled us to pull over when there was a safe place on the road. Once we stopped, we realized that he threw off his chain. A ha! Rob was up and anxious to drive the rest of the way to Furnace Creek. I decided to take over the back of the cab and get my rest.
I can not write much of anything about this stage to Shoshone of 73.6 miles and 6,744 of climbing since I was sound asleep throughout the duration. The next thing I knew, Anna was telling me, “Okay Louise, you’re up!” Huh? Oh shoot! Richard and Anna got my bike together as I scrambled to get my gear and ride on the course. It was still dark in the early morning hours and the gas station, with bathroom facilities, was closed. There was no need to wear my jacket as the temperatures remained in the 70’s. This was when I noticed that team Prairie Dog was briefly behind us and Franz K. was mounting his bike. Great! Here I am groggy from being a sound sleep and I have to ride with one of the most experienced cyclist I know. I am going to get blown away.
As I peddled on the 56.3 mile course with 2,186 feet on climbing, I did not have much energy and grabbed what I had stuffed in my bento box. Rob did his best, but he was not following close to me as I was following Richard when I was at the helm of the truck. I waved at Franz as he passed me about a mile into the climbing. That was when I realized, where are my gloves? Ah shoot! I could see the end on the climb ahead with the flashing lights of other support crews. It wasn’t until I was descending when I could see a decent place to pull over so I could get my gloves and a cliff bar. The sun had rose and support crews were able to leap frog riders again. I was done with the climbing and dealing with more crosswinds. Luckily they weren’t as strong as they were the day before on the first stage of the course. Riding into Baker was delightful, I stood on my pedals to finish strong and Anna was geared-up and ready to ride as I approached. The passing of the baton was quick and smooth; Anna was off to catch Prairie Dog team ahead.
The Restaurant at the corner of the timing station had a full menu. Rob mentioned that their strawberry milkshakes are good. It may be something o’clock in the morning, but a strawberry milkshake with fresh strawberries sounds irresistible. Talk about something going down easy. I was done, grabbed a change of clothes and freshened myself up in the bathroom before the guys were done with their breakfast. Hey! Come-on let’s go! We don’t have that much time as this section is only 34.9 miles with 2,920 feet of rolling hills. Anna is going to need fresh water bottles or something soon. As we drove down the course, the roads were horrible! The worst I have ever seen. Chopped-up, worn out, patched and re-patched we were all concerned Anna would get a flat for sure! When she passed us, she was rolling just fine, didn’t need anything, but expressed how the road conditions were so terrible. Again, I was envious with the tailwinds as she was passing riders along the route, including team Prairie Dog. When we approached the timing station in Kelso, Richard knew he was up again Franz K. and there wasn’t much of a lead. Another quick and smooth passing of the baton and we were off racing.
Richard had some rough road, but not has horrible as what Anna had experienced. His 33.8 miles course had a small climb of 2,280 feet and the route description cautioned of cattle guards on the descent. Anna decided to take the helm of the truck and I encouraged Rob to sleep again. You could tell by the look on his face that Richard was working hard against the winds as the weather was getting warm. I am sure he wanted to do his best because Franz would not be far behind. As we approached Almost Amboy, we were still ahead of team Prairie Dog, but not my much. Rob was ready to go; we had the passing of the baton down to a science.
We were concerned with Rob as the day was getting warmer and the winds were starting to get stronger. There was 58.2 miles and 4,170 feet of climbing until the finish line. The last stage and we were all getting excited to complete the course. We really did not know how much time had passed and we had to remind ourselves what day of the week it was. It was if our internal clocks were disoriented, but the focus was to finish this race. Richard was meticulous about checking in on Rob every five miles to see if he needed more fluids or food. Rob did well to keep hydrated as he asked for a fresh bottle of water every time. After the first two exchanges, I got the pattern down and had the water ready as opposed to twice to catch a water bottle and stopping again to pass a fresh water bottle. When he made the famous left turn unto Utah Trail marked the six mile point to the finish line, team Prairie Dog parked their vehicle off the road close of ours. When Rob approached, Paul V was close behind. As we exchanged water bottles, Rob turned to me as asked “Should I pass this rider as the whipped dog that he is?” I quickly responded, “Oh Yes! By all means… Absolutely!” A resounding “HEY” came from Shelia S. support crew of the other team. As the two rider took off, we all encouraged them to press on the best they can (both of them). When we made the turn onto 29 Palms Highway, the winds grew stronger and my heart sank. This was going to be a tough stretch and another hill to climb. Some may think of it as a speed bump. But it was bigger than an overpass and after so many miles; it was going to be tough. We slowed down to keep Rob in our sights before we drove onward. As we gathered to the finish line, other teams and support crews were there in wait for their respective riders. Team Prairie Dog was there as an official with binoculars was providing up-to -the-minute updates of the riders. I voiced my concern as the official was describing Paul V. jersey was ahead of Rob, but he was mistaken. As I expressed a sigh of relief, Shelia S. replied, “You told him to whip him…” I rebutted “He asked me for my permission. What was I suppose to say? This is a race, so I felt it was best to encourage him.” We all were full of loud cheers and applause as Rob crossed the finish line. In the spirit of the event, we did the same for Prairie Dog as both Paul V and Franz K arrived together moments thereafter.
Team Kites broke last year’s record with 32:15:16.and set a course record for mixed 4-person team in the 50+ category. As team photos were taken after we were given our medals and finishing jerseys, numerous features of the event remained fresh on my mind. We were all happy we had completed the race with no flat tires and no injuries. As we were talking about the wind and the rain, Rob mentioned that “Louise took one for the team.” A number of things were learned along the process. There has to be some attention from other team members to make sure the rider coming up is preparing themselves at least 30 minutes before their stage begins. Teams ought to do some training rides together to ensure the best riders are designated for specific stages. Better communication on the needs of the rider during the course. This was this biggest highlight ever imagined to end my first year in cycling. A spiritual odyssey indeed.