Joined at the toe clip
“UGHHHHHH -- my leggg!”
I felt as if I had been hit by a gunshot. After six hours of battling 40- to 50-mph headwinds, in the Amargosa Mountains of Death Valley I reached for a water bottle, and my right hamstring balled up in a stabbing, paralyzing knot that felt like the muscle was ripping off the bone. Frantic, I braked, then toppled off the bike.
“Sorry guys, sorry guys, sorry,” I babbled, squirming on the ground.
Ron, Steve and Keith rushed out of the support van -- speechless. What could they say? They’d come all this way, worked so hard, spent so much time and money, and now, at 3 a.m., 18 hours into the Furnace Creek 508, I had let them down. It wasn’t the first time.
Eight years ago, in a down-to-the-wire battle, we had lost the Furnace Creek team race by four minutes. Nobody blamed me for the loss, but my sluggish pace, especially on the climbs, stood out among a team of accomplished racers. My passion was bike touring, not racing, and I’d given my all, but my all was too slow. In the years since, I had trained like a madman to erase my shame, only to wind up in a cramp-induced sprawl on Highway 178.
Five-hundred and eight twisted miles over high desert and mountains, the Furnace Creek 508 starts in Santa Clarita, spins northeast over the Tehachapis, then out across the Mojave, to Death Valley, over the Amargosas and finally drops into Twentynine Palms. Add it up and you get 35,000 feet of climbing in conditions that include parboiling heat during the day, mind-numbing cold at night and unrelenting headwinds. Since 1989, hundreds of endurance riders from around the world have accepted this challenge, which is formidable enough to be a qualifier for the 3,000-mile Race Across America.
The 508 has become a goal for such solo riders as 2002 winner Eric Ostendorff of Torrance, 43, and Peter Pop of Malibu, 55, a two-time Race Across America rider who this year was attempting his seventh finish.
But it’s the team category -- half of this year’s 122 riders -- that jacks up the pressure, adding the tension of having to pull your weight even when you feel like road kill.
Ron, Steve, Keith and I were four strangers when the ’96 race began and something quite different when we finished 24 hours, 53 minutes and 1 second later. We had met the night before -- an arranged marriage, orchestrated by the race director -- and didn’t talk much during the ride itself. But the intensity of the experience bound us like soldiers in a foxhole, a connection you don’t get in, say, miniature golf.
The key ingredient was pain. It’s what united us and kept us together to the end. Keith described the ride as “a drug-induced nightmare, without the drugs.” What I remember is the gasping -- the frantic in-and-out of desert air blasting my throat, which left me with a sputtering, muffled cough for months.
But as memories of the pain faded, a euphoric imprint remained: the feeling of being part of a team, and it brought us together a second time last month. Ron Jones flew in from Atlanta. Steve Ilg delayed a trip to an ashram in India. Keith Kostman (brother of race director Chris Kostman) flew in from Minneapolis, and I fought traffic from Irvine. Team Sasquatch was back -- despite all reason. This time I hoped to show, especially to Ron, that I belonged in the same rented panel van as the rest.
Three divorces. Three marriages. Two cross-country relocations. Two new careers. Our lives had been rocked by seismic shifts as we graduated to a new competitive bracket, moving from 30-plus to firmly 40-plus. Only one thing remained constant: Ron’s speed.
At the chilly 9 a.m. start in Santa Clarita, he bolted to the front of the team race. The 44-year-old corporate wellness coach from Lawrenceville, Ga., flung himself past the wind-bent juniper trees on the long, 2,500-foot climb out of town and onto the flat, Joshua tree-studded Mojave Desert with the same abandon he had in 1996.On our first 508, we only knew Ron as a somewhat famous small-town bike racer. We didn’t know that in his 20s, he had been an angry, hard-drinking contractor who first started riding after making a 1988 New Year’s resolution to get fit and be a better example to his daughter. He started racing at 30, collected a garage full of trophies but burned out. That’s when he decided to go to college. He lettered on the track team at 35 and was recruited for the Race Across America. When a documentary about the team’s wins made him a hero in his hometown of Bakersfield and in demand as a speaker, Ron realized he’d found his niche as a fitness and team training expert.
Team events require a higher level of understanding than solo events, says Ron. “It’s just not about ... who can win races. It’s almost spiritual -- the sense of helping make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”
By noon, riding strong tailwinds, Ron had blown through tough, windmill-covered hills and a vast airplane-repair graveyard, miles on his way into California City. He finished his 82-mile segment in an average speed of 24 mph, impressive, given the 5,000 feet of climbing, and miles ahead of everyone else. “He’s sending a chi statement,” said Steve, who owns a Tarzana yoga studio. “There is no duality in his dharma. This is karma in action.”
I had no idea what he meant. But with each of us riding for up to six hours, covering distances of 38 to 99 miles, I would have plenty of time to find out. The three non-riders could gab, plot strategy and monitor each rider’s form and diet. Helping teammates with hydration and nutrition became a crucial element of the race. Last time, we were like independent contractors.
Now, as Ron reminded us, we literally had to watch each other’s backs. “We’ve got to make those Gatorade handoffs smoother, guys,” he said. “We’ve got to get the rider a new bottle before he runs out. We can’t drive too far ahead -- in case the rider gets a flat. And we have to watch Keith, because he still doesn’t know how to shift gears.”
As Keith set off on his 70-mile segment, he was even more afraid of not measuring up than I was. That’s because he wasn’t a cyclist. In 1996, he was a full-time spinning instructor, and would infuriate Ron by often descending in a hill-climbing “granny gear.”
Divorced, relocated and remarried, Keith, 41, had discovered his true calling: teaching elementary school. This time, he was determined to make the team -- and Ron -- proud. He had trained 36 days in a row on mountain bike trails, and it seemed to pay off. Helped by 40 mph tailwinds, Keith rode 25 miles in the first hour.
Relaxing in the van, Ron, Steve and I rejoiced and took a moment to get to know each other. I learned that after the first 508, Steve had been best man at Ron’s wedding. We got the lowdown on kids and ex-wives, swapped fitness tips and discussed the meaning of yoga terms. We then realized that we’d forgotten about Keith.
Three miles back, we found him pedaling an agonizingly slow cadence uphill in a downhill-worthy gear. It was 90 degrees, and he’d run out of Gatorade. His sunny disposition had more than a few dark clouds in it. Team Sasquatch was passed by several other teams.
We quickly got Keith rehydrated. Recharged, he flew into the ghost-town desolation of Trona. Whipped by the tailwinds, he finished the last 20 miles in 40 minutes and handed off to Steve.
Twelve years ago, Outside magazine ran a photo of Steve on its cover, with the words, “This man can break you down -- and build you up again.” Since then, little has changed physically. At 44, he is as muscular as a gymnast, as limber as a yogi and as aerobically fit as a marathoner. Married and divorced, Steve is more philosophical these days.
“We have already traveled the physical terrain together,” he said before the race. “Now we will explore the spiritual side of the journey. The team concept is vital to spirituality because you can’t be self-serving .... Your teammates are your prayers. You have to take care of them.”
Steve attacked his 99-mile segment, the longest of the 508, like a starving yogi attacking a veggie burger. In two hours, he blitzed the 50-mile length of the Panamint Valley. But then at dusk, we saw a long string of red taillights rising before us like Christmas lights. It was what others dread, but what Steve was made for: the 13-mile ascent of Townes Pass. He began passing riders so fast that we didn’t have time to identify them. But by the last third of Townes, fatigue had set in.
“You have to hammer past those last three remaining lights up ahead,” shouted Ron. “The summit’s coming soon and we don’t want any traffic on the way down.”
Experts say that motivation can come from two sources: internal or external, ego-oriented or task-oriented. Top athletes have both. Steve dug down and took off. By the time he was finished, he had gotten the edge that Ron wanted for the dangerous 5,000-foot, 17-mile descent into Death Valley.
I knew my 74-mile pull was going to be trouble before it started. The route had turned south. What had been a 40-mph tailwind was now a howling headwind gusting to 50 mph. Several riders were stopped, demoralized. Riding against a headwind is agonizing, but bulk helps, and at 5 foot 9 and 185 pounds, I had it. I passed at least half a dozen riders. Each provided me with peace of mind. My teammates, especially Ron, could see for themselves that I wasn’t as slow as I used to be.
Moving my body position and the firing sequence of my thigh and butt muscles, I settled on a standing position that allowed some control in the unpredictable gusts. Meanwhile, I was mining my memory for a moment of pain that was worse than this -- like the 1999 Boston Marathon -- when a rider appeared out of the darkness and passed me as if I were standing still.
“Who was that?” I screamed.
“Velociraptor,” yelled the guys, shorthand for the only coed team in the race, two women and their boyfriends, the demon double date.
But there was no time for distraction. Coming up was the 15-mile, 4,000-foot climb out of Death Valley and the dreaded back-to-back ascents of Jubilee and Salsberry passes. I caught a few exhausted solo riders, but by 3 a.m., I had run out of tricks. As if on cue, the Sasquatch van pulled up. “We need you to go faster. See that red light up there?” asked Keith, pointing to the taillight of a bike up ahead. “Go get it.”
I was instantly energized. The red dot went down. Keith pulled up again. “Get going, you slacker! Get those two.” More red dots fell.
He handed me a bottle of Gatorade, and as I reached for it, my leg exploded. All I could think was that the race was over. I’m wrecked, and I’ve wrecked it for these guys. But as I lay on the ground, I knew I had to rally for the team.
Support from others can have a remarkable effect on our response to pain. It can change neurochemistry, says psychologist Arthur Ciaramicoli, author of “Performance Addiction” and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “We produce more serotonin when we have an empathic exchange. It actually reduces pain that you’re feeling at the time. It makes you perform through the pain. You want to do it for the other people. You want to achieve something larger than yourself.”
Surrounded by Ron, Steve and Keith, I stretched my quad and hamstrings for 60 seconds and got back on the bike. Remembering Steve’s heroic push to the top of Townes Pass, I plowed ahead and wound up catching the last few dots.
“I got a major chi hit from that!” Steve told me. The wind never let up. Nearly half the solo riders quit. It was the worst dropout rate in the race’s history. Veteran Pop finished but vowed to never do a solo again. Ostendorff, the 2002 winner, dropped out, as did Race Across America winner Seana Hogan.
Team Sasquatch managed to lengthen its lead in the four-man division and even passed Velociraptor. In a show that left us dazzled, Ron stood in the saddle for an hour straight and made up 42 minutes in the next 56-mile segment. But lacking more Rons, we were caught again by Velociraptor, and finished an hour behind that team.
Still, our time of 31 hours, 45 minutes and 32 seconds was two hours faster than the next-best men’s team. We took our win and hugged at the finish.
I thought that Ron reeling in Velociraptor was the highlight of the race, but Ron had his own moment -- me standing up on the bike for nearly six hours straight in that 40-mph headwind. “I thought, ‘Wow, if Roy can do that, I can surely stand for an hour,’ ” he said.
A rush of pride enveloped me. Ron Jones, inspired by me?
Roy M. Wallack is the gear columnist for the L.A. Times Health section and author of “Bike for Life” (Avalon).