2013 Furnace Creek 508 Race Report

Discomfort Zone Head Coach and founder Mike Coughlin

by Mike Coughlin

The Furnace Creek 508 Bicycle Race is an event I have looked forward to doing for a very long time. With a course that climbs more than 36,000ft through some of the most inhospitable yet spectacular terrain on earth, including the infamous Death Valley, this ultra-cycling challenge in Southern California is one of the world’s true great endurance tests. I have also had the pleasure of meeting several FC508 finishers over the years in my training and racing travels and they were all very, very cool people. I figured the rest of the crazies that do this event must be equally cool, and looked forward to sharing 2 days of epic suffering and two-wheeled bliss in the desert with them.

Khai hands off a bottle with Team Tufted Titmouse at the 2013 Furnace Creek 508Not being a big fan of sleep deprivation, I decided that the 2-person relay division was a good way to experience the FC508 for the first time, and I convinced one of my athletes, James McNaughton to join me. James has been on a steep learning curve in long distance triathlon over the past 2-3 years and by mid-summer I realized that I had become the weak link on the team. This was just the motivation I needed to crank up my training in the late summer, with memorable rides in Guelph, Boulder, Mt. Tremblant, Huntsville and other locations where my triathlon coaching took me, capped off with races at Muskoka 70.3 (bike leg of a relay team) and the Collingwood Centurion to push me right to my limit. By October I had achieved my patented “just-in-time” fitness and was ready to roll, although I was a bit concerned about the lack of specific preparation relative to the hot desert climate and overnight riding conditions we were going to encounter.

Arriving at LAX on Thursday afternoon with crew members Mike Mahoney and Khai Lee, I was reminded that crewed ultra-endurance racing is as much a logistical challenge as a physical one. Renting and configuring a van to accommodate 5 people, 2 bikes, and all the various food, drink ,tools and gear required to get us across the desert was going to take longer than the race itself. We joined James and his girlfriend Shawna Kohlman at the race hotel and got to work shopping, packing and prepping. I knew everyone on the team but they did not know each other, so this doubled as a great way to become the well oiled machine we were going to need to be. By Friday night, we were ready to go.

The boys, as designated by Shawna, who took the picture.  With Team Tufted Titmouse at the 2013 Furnace Creek 508The pre-race meeting was a bundle of nervous energy as they usually are, coupled with a clear “family reunion” vibe. It was clear that this event was sacred to most of the people in the room, and it felt cool to be a part of it. Stories were told, Hall of Famers were inducted, and rules were reviewed. The best line of the night was the sage advice from a race veteran that “the most important part of the bike is the nut that holds the seat down”. That’s a good one!

This year had been a nightmare for the organizers, with desert flooding washing out roads, permit issues causing re-routes, and the shutdown of the US government closing Death Valley National Park. However, in true “the show must go on” spirit, adjustments were made for all of these challenges to create the “2013 Furnace Creek 508 AKA Trona 353”. We were disappointed, but knew that there was nothing to be done. We came to race long in the desert, and that is exactly what we were going to do.

Saturday morning came early, but not too early; as a relay team we did not start until 9:30am, and barely got up in time to see off the soloists at 6:30. Legendary basketball player Bill Walton, who is a big fan of the race, was on hand as the official starter – finally, somebody taller than James! Once the solos were on their way, it was a quick trip to the breakfast buffet, last minute preparations, and one big gut check. It was time to roll.

James McNaughton starting for Team Tufted Titmouse at the 2013 Furnace Creek 508The Trona 353 race course was to consist of 4 sections with a time check at the end of each one where relay teams would do their exchange. Stages 1 and 4 were 106 miles (170km) and stages 2 and 3 were 70 miles (112km). We chose “James, Mike, James, Mike” as our order, which was not ideal for the terrain relative to our strengths and weaknesses, but minimized the night riding for James who had not practiced it. This meant that I would spend the first 6 hours or so of the race in the van – something new for me in a race. I always wanted to know what was going on in the crew van during my Ultraman races – turns out it was lots of hard work and lots of laughs!

As the first leg wore on, it became clear that James had drawn the short straw. Massive headwinds and significant desert heat built through the day to put him “in the box”. I know few people tougher than he is though, and he demonstrated that by soldiering on, despite consistent vomiting and and loss of energy. We were all very happy when James safely made it to the first time check in California City, and impressed that he had done so in the lead of our division, with only a 4-man team and a tandem team ahead in addition to the solos who started 3 hours earlier.

Transition one for Team Tufted Titmouse at the 2013 Furnace Creek 508Passing the “baton” to me (teams are encouraged to bring home made batons, and ours was a Mill St. Brewery bottle opener), I started the second leg to the turnaround in Trona at just after 3:30pm. It felt good to finally be riding, but I was surprised and baffled to find that within 30 minutes, I was vomiting as well. It turns out that desert heat messes with many cyclists’ stomachs, and I was in damage control mode from the start. Luckily, this happened so quickly that I had time to reset my stomach before I really needed calories, and I was able to put good power to the pedals. I passed the 2 teams ahead and started reeling in soloists, which provided great motivation, particularly after dark when I could see the lights of their crew vehicles way down the road. One of the soloists I passed was Paul “Turbo” Trebilcock, a friend from Hamilton who stars in Boundless TV on the Esquire Network, and was doing the race as one of eight worldwide ultra challenges in a row in front of his camera crew. Way to go, Paul!

Those who know me know that I am not what you would call a “morning person”, and prefer to do my training in the afternoons and evenings. Many a time I have chased the sun home at the end of a ride, so as I was forced to turn on my riding lights, I was in my happy place, and was treated to a fantastic desert sunset before arriving at the time check in Trona. James was waiting and looked a lot better than he did in California City. The bottle opener was exchanged and after a number of agonizing minutes switching bikes, nutrition and washroom breaks (since the van must always be with the rider after dark), we were on our way.

Mike takes a turn near sunset. Team Tufted Titmouse at the 2013 Furnace Creek 508In the rush to hop in the van and get going, there was no time for a cooldown. It never occurred to me that this would be a challenge, but the next 60 minutes in the van was the worst I felt in the entire race, with a splitting headache and significant nausea although thankfully no need to use the van barf bag which was always close at hand. I knew that I needed to get some nutrition in me to prepare for the next leg less than 4 hours away, but it was a long time before I could take anything but water. I reminded myself that I always come around from feeling this way eventually, and sure enough I did. No time for sleep though as it was recover, eat, and start prepping the bike from inside the van for the 4th and final stage back to the hotel in Valencia.

James was doing great on leg 3 (which was the reverse of my leg 2 course), and we were passing more solo athletes and their crews. By now it was pitch black, and navigating became a real challenge. Despite the best efforts of both James and the crew, he missed a key turn on a downhill, and after a frantic horn blowing episode from the van, managed to turn around and do a frustrating climb back up to the turn. I figured he did it just so he could say he rode longer than I did ;).

As we approached time check 3 in California City, I made sure everything was in order on my bike. However, I didn’t appreciate just how cold it had become in the desert, and there was still a mad scramble to don extra layers during our final rider transition. It was much shorter than Trona however, and just after 11pm I began the 4th and final leg.

Unlike leg 2, leg 4 was familiar territory since I had seen it in reverse from the van. However now that it was the middle of the night, it definitely looked different. One of the highlights of the leg is a huge wind farm with hundreds of windmills. Impressive during the day, they were even cooler at night since they all had periodic flashing red lights on them, causing the hillside to flash on and off under an otherwise dark, star-filled sky.

Mike hands off a bottle with Team Tufted Titmouse at the 2013 Furnace Creek 508Heat management and hydration was much less critical than leg 2, however my stomach was still not feeling well. This was due in part to the fact that my usual cure-all microwaved potatoes were replaced with take-out potatoes from the breakfast buffet since the local grocery store surprisingly had no mini-potatoes. Note to self: Roasted potatoes with garlic, onion and spices is tasty at breakfast, but not good stomach settling food in endurance events. Thankfully my mix of water, my Infinit Sports drink (ultra-endurance mix), and gels did the trick, and I rolled through the halfway mark feeling fine.

Heading into the outskirts of Palmdale, my back started to act up pretty bad. Climbing was particularly painful, and I thought I was going to have to get off the bike at one point. When my back gives out, I know that it is a combination of core and glute muscles failing to fire, so I sucked in my belly and punched myself in the butt (always entertaining for the follow car to watch!). That, coupled with stretching on every downhill, kept me together and generating the watts when it mattered.

with Team Tufted Titmouse at the 2013 Furnace Creek 508The final 20 miles of the course rolled consistently downhill and had a tailwind, and was some of the most fun riding I have ever had. My max speed of 75.2kph came in that section, which was thrilling due to the fact that it was in the middle of the night under the stars. I passed 7th overall solo Paul Millar of Toronto on this section, who was the last of the solos starting 3 hours ahead that our team would catch before the finish. It was my first time meeting Paul, and he left quite the impression by putting up one hell of a fight to hold me off even though he had been cycling for over 21 hours straight by that point.

Coming into the finish, I was joined by James to ride in the last half mile as permitted by the rules. We decided against a high-fiving finishing move due to a hilarious failed attempt at the Centurion Collingwood race 3 weeks earlier, and settled for big grins of fatigue and satisfaction as we rolled right up to the hotel where we got our awards and pictures taken. We had finished in a time of 18:48 without major incident, beaten all the other teams (2x, 4x, mixed and tandem), and passed all but the top 6 soloists who started 3 hours ahead of us. We thought we may have set a course record on the modified “Trona 353” course as well, but later learned that pro triathlete and budding ultra-cyclist Billy Edwards threw down a phenomenal solo ride to come in a full 27 minutes ahead of us. Well done, Billy!

with Team Tufted Titmouse at the 2013 Furnace Creek 508Finishing these races always come with a bit of sadness as the goal is no longer ahead, but the glow of overcoming challenge, making memories, and forging new friendships is still very much there. Returning to complete the classic FC508 course is threatened by rumours of uncooperative Forest Service and National Park staff causing permanent changes or cancellation of the event as it stands, but the organizers and other ultra junkies indicated that there will always be a similar event somewhere to push us to our limits. How truly lucky we are.

Live your dreams!