It’s Not (Just) About Grades

I don’t mean letter grades in school. 🙂

What I mean to say is that preparing for The Furnace Creek 508 isn’t all about scouting out the course or trying to anticipate the average grade of any given climb.

Here’s what I can tell you about The 508 course. I’ve served three roles. I’ve been a crew chief in 2007. I was an official finisher of the race (Team 2x Thrasher) in 2009. And I was a race official last year. This year, I’m attempting a solo race. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

1. Everyone focuses on Townes Pass. Everyone. Even people who claim they aren’t. When you look at the profile of the race, it’s the biggest spike. However, that stage doesn’t have the most elevation gain. Not to downplay the climb, it’ll take some hit points out of a rider, but The 508 has a lot more than that stretch of road. Given that it also comes at the 200-mile point, a lot of riders who have only ridden double centuries, understandably struggle after the summit.

2. The Devil lives at the top of Salsberry Pass. With all the climbing already in the legs, this climb kills a lot of people. I’ve seen riders up and over in the dead of night. I rode up and over it in the early morning (2009 was the year of the crazy headwinds). And some have made it up and over in mid-day. But this climbing is now in the second half of the race, and riders’ bodies (and minds) start to respond in often-unexpected ways.

3. Time. I can’t tell you how many people blow out of the start, up the first climbs, and absolutely hammer the first two stages trying to reach Townes Pass, only to flame out and die over the next two stages. I remember these words of wisdom from a very experienced racer: “You can’t win The 508 in the first 25 miles. But you can certainly lose it.”

4. Time (part 2). The majority of riders who DNF do so somewhere between Furnace Creek and Baker. Baker, with all that civilization just begging for a long stop, seems impossibly far from 29 Palms when you’re sleep-deprived, sore, and suffering. But look at the finishing times. Even if things are going terribly wrong, there’s likely time to recover. Many riders could spend 6-8 hours sleeping if they absolutely had to, and still have time to make it to 29 Palms before the cut off.

5. Goals. They’re great to have, but they also can derail a rider. Look at my goals that I posted a few months back. I have bare minimums (just finish) to pie-in-the-sky (Townes Pass in daylight). Having those lofty goals is all well and good, but not if they become the focus of the ride. Yes, this is a race. But if you spend all your energy blazing land-speed records in the first 150 miles, the final 350 miles are going to be a suffer fest. Ride within yourself and your abilities. Set healthy goals. If you end up missing the high-end goals, no harm no foul. If you miss the bare minimum goals, it’s a DNF.

6. Stay on the bike. Every break takes up valuable time. When I was crew chief, I could count close to 5 hours of off-the-bike time for various issues from a severe bonk to mechanical issues with the crew van. Ultimately, most riders will get tired of being on the bike and try to find reasons to quit pedaling. If there’s a goal that really stands out to me, it’s to not stop at time stations. A 10-15 minute “rest break” at time stations translates to 2+ hours added to the finishing time. That’s a ton. I think it’s probably a pretty safe bet that racers finishing in 40 hours would have much preferred 38.

I can obsess about stages and profiles as much as the next rider. I look at the elevation profile of Stage 1 (which I’ve not ridden), and do a comparable ride in my area during training. I’ve been doing this lately. And I look down and see that it took me 7 hours to ride 90 miles. Then I look at the times racers complete Stage 1 and wonder how the hell they did it. Four hours? Are you kidding me? Next thing I know, I’ve psyched myself out and convinced myself I have no business being on the course.

The truth, though, is that The 508 isn’t all about the grades of the climbs. Each climb comes with an equally long and fast descent. Some short climbs have epic descents. Some long climbs have easy grades but gnarly headwinds. Some flat stages actually go up. Some stages that supposedly go “down” actually go “up.” The course is a mindfuck, which is the ultimate lesson.

At some point, the rides have to be enough. At some point, the training you’ve ridden all year is just that: training. The actual race can play out one of a hundred different ways. In 2009, I was excited to ride Death Valley. Furnace Creek to Shoshone is a 4-hour stage. I knew I could nail it. It ended up taking me 11.5 hours and nearly killed me. I couldn’t have predicted that wind storm.

The one guarantee? Each race has its own personality. Maybe we’ll get lucky and have tailwinds the entire race. Maybe it will be scorchingly hot. Maybe it will be frigid and wet (it rained last year!). There might be devastating winds. There might be a short climb that kills you, or a long climb that builds you up. I was throwing up in 2009, which never happens to me. There’s simply no way to predict it.

I just know it’s not ALL about the grades.

(For more thoughts and observations on specific stages, please visit  https://zombee508.wordpress.com/2011/09/09/common-mistakes-i-hope-to-avoid-stage-1/

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