Crewing for Yellow Labrador at the 2011 FC508
The first hint of trouble was when crew chief Jim Verhuel (JV) waited for our rider — Sara Kay Carrell — to move out of earshot before telling fellow crew member Ron Smith Jr. that he had a sure-fire backup nutrition plan in place for when Sara Kay’s plan failed. Sara Kay had been riding and racing using a relatively new product — tailored to her needs — which had been working for her in training. But JV had read the label and surmised it wouldn’t supply what she’d need during the race. JV may not always be correct, but he is never in doubt, so he was set to pull a switcheroo unannounced on Sara Kay as soon as she bonked. Ron, a gentle giant with loads of experience in riding, racing, and crewing, seemed unconvinced as to that course of action. He pointed out that by the time that Sara Kay’s plan failed — assuming it did — it was going to be late in the race, when Sara Kay might be facing hallucinations, extreme fatigue, sleep depravation, and who knew what other challenges. To change her diet under those conditions, he argued, might be the final straw; the thing that prevented her from finishing. In the end, JV reluctantly agreed. Considering the race hadn’t even started yet, it all seemed pretty remote.
I didn’t have an opinion on the matter. Ultra-endurance, ultra-marathon bike races such as the Furnace Creek 508 (AKA “FC508,” AKA “Great American Bike Race,” AKA “The Toughest 48 Hours in Sport”) are insane. To quote the website, “The course has a total elevation gain of over 35,000 feet, crosses ten mountain passes, and stretches from Santa Clarita (just north of Los Angeles), across the Mojave Desert, through Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve, to the finish line at the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms, CA.” It follows then that only insane persons would participate. As in some creepy horror film, though, the riders themselves look perfectly normal. It’s terrifying to contemplate.
The posting on the Bacchetta forum announcing that Sara Kay needed crew members for her solo attempt at the FC508 provided the opportunity to observe the insanity at first hand. After meeting with JV and speaking on the phone with Sara Kay, I became an official member of the crew.
October 7th, 2011
By midmorning Friday, the day before the race, the parking area (and starting line) of the hotel is jammed with teams. As an outsider, the only recognizable faces are famous recumbent racers John Schlitter and FC508 Hall-of-Famer Tim Woudenberg.
Around noon, Sara Kay shows up in her fully-equipped crew vehicle, along with JV and Ron. As she had with her training and nutritional needs, Sara Kay has organized the van to the Nth degree, to the point that the only thing that doesn’t pass inspection is her back-up helmet. A quick application of some reflective tape, and we are ready to head out to the market to stock up on food for the ride.
As everyone must know, for the FC508 you don’t race under your name or a number, you have a “totem,” the name of an animal (real or imaginary). Thus, Sara Kay is riding under the “Yellow Labrador” moniker.
From there it's off to the pre-ride dinner with a couple dozen of the other participants, and then over to the orientation meeting featuring race organizer Chris Kostman, which has been billed as “The Longest Two Hours in Bicycle Racing” by others who have sat through it before. Fortunately, Chris doesn’t take two hours for his presentation, although much of what he says reiterates information from the various printed materials, including the First Rule for Crews: Don’t run over your rider. Apparently he is following the First Rule for Event Organizers in these litigious times: Always cover your ass.
October 8th, 2011
Not so early to bed, but definitely early to rise. By 5:35 a.m. we’re at the starting line. Where the previous afternoon everything seemed straightforward in the bright daylight, now things seem less certain.
To avoid congestion and leave the route clear for the riders during the first few miles, all crew vehicles leave the starting area a few minutes before the start of the race. Along with the other crews, we drive up to the first feed station on Johnson Road (just after the turn off of San Francisquito Canyon Road), the first spot on the route where crews are allowed to connect with the riders, and wait for Sara Kay. Soon enough, racers appear, connect with their respective crews, and continue East.
We wait. Tim Woudenberg cruises by at what seems like a high rate of speed for a 508-mile race, looking for all the world as if he is expending no effort whatsoever. We wait. A few minutes later, John Schlitter powers by, looking as though he had already entered into “lizard brain” mode to catch and pass Tim. We wait. And wait some more. And try to think of everything that might have gone wrong, and what Sara Kay can do about it without our help, and a million other thoughts.
Despite concerns that something untoward might have happened to Sara Kay, the second hint of trouble actually arises from a different compass point. Before the race, JV had informed Ron and me that he, too, had a plan for the race, and we were going to follow it relentlessly and without exception. Rule One: Each member of our three-man crew has an assigned 16-hour duty cycle as well as an assigned 8-hour sleep cycle. That way, there will always be two crew members on duty and one relaxing. The problem is that none of us currently is sleeping, even though there is nothing else to do. As it turns out, it’s a lot more difficult to sleep in a moving crew vehicle than you might imagine, considering the stops and starts, radio communications, and various chores that must be done, in addition to the normal conversation that arises between the other two crew members who are on duty. In hindsight, a lengthy stop by the side of the road should have afforded a great opportunity to catch some rest, even though the race has literally just started.
Then, as the last of the other crew vehicles pulls out, Sara Kay appears. There has been no problem. She planned her race and is racing to her plan. She isn’t racing to win, but she absolutely intends to finish within the allowed 48-hour window. She has calculated how fast she needs to ride to make it before the cut-off, while preserving as much energy as possible. Compared with sitting by the side of the road wondering what's happening, connecting with Sara Kay makes it feel like a race, with us as participants.
As we pull away from the feed station, JV rebuffs my suggestion that we observe our iron-clad crew schedule, as it is his turn in the bunk.
The third hint of trouble comes a few miles later, while traveling north on 110th Street. Around Avenue I, JV gets out the map to the course that he “knows by heart” and then keys the microphone to radio Sara Kay that she’s missed the turn. She (and we) pull a U-turn on 110th Street to return to Avenue I, where we then turn East. JV continues to consult the map, though, and presently keys the microphone again to notify Sara Kay that she had in fact been on course on 110th Street after all, and so is now off course, necessitating another U-turn. Fortunately, the deviation doesn’t represent too much bonus mileage, and Sara Kay is still fresh. Through it all, Sara Kay maintains her trademark smile.
Sara Kay makes it through the first time station in California City, and then continues out across the Mojave Desert. She stays on her feeding schedule, taking infrequent (and short) nature breaks. As she contemplates the road tilting up on the run-in to Randsburg, she radios in, “Time to work again.”
After reaching Randsburg, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to a short but forbidding section of Highway 395 through Johannesburg, before being able to turn off onto the much less-traveled Trona Road. Up Trona Road, up and over the pass, then down into the second time station at Trona itself. Then up and over another pass, and eventually to the cut-off for Panamint Valley Road.
Up until now, the weather had been about as perfect as it gets along the route. The winds and temperatures had each been moderate; ideal for cycling. Now, though, it’s getting dark, and the poor surface on Panamint Valley Road foreshadows what’s to come later in the race.
Just before intersection with Highway 190, we stop to convert for night-time riding. The sun is down now, and so is the temperature. As we make the turn, one of the course workers reportedly says to the other, “That rider is always smiling, isn’t she?”
Highway 190 affords scant level riding before you start the climb to Townes Pass. Now, the air has gone from cool to cold, and the wind is sufficient to rock the van from side to side. Sara Kay seems content to crawl up the incline, and if it weren’t so wrenching to watch her struggle against the grade and the wind that now seems to be coming straight into us as a head wind, you might marvel at the ethereal beauty of the string of lights from bicycles and crew vehicles, both ahead and behind, stretching out for miles, plainly visible in the clear desert air.
Several times, the wind gusts so hard that it stops Sara Kay in her tracks. Amazingly, she puts her foot down, gets set, and takes off again. I have trouble doing this on a high racer on level ground. I can't imagine doing it on the side of a wall with the wind pushing me backward. If it phases her, she doesn’t show it.
Her “reward” for cresting the pass is a night descent into Death Valley National Park that beggars description. Because the riders typically don’t carry enough light to illuminate the road at the speeds they reach — which can be 50 mph or higher — the crew vehicles follow about ten yards back, to augment the bicycle lights with the headlights. And this is just part of the insanity of races such as this. Ron is at the wheel because of his experience in such matters, as we hurtle down the road. A flat tire, a misjudged corner, a piece of debris, any one of a number of disasters potentially put the rider on the deck. Apparently, this is known and acceptable behavior, as the only comments one hears about this descent relate to the speed of the cyclist. The fact that the cyclist is mere inches from being crushed by a friendly juggernaut is simply not worth a mention.
From there, the ride is uneventful to and through the third time station at Furnace Creek. The subsequent ride through Death Valley is beautiful and surreal at night. It’s difficult to gauge distances or landmarks, and in some places the road curves around so riders and crews who seem to be only a little ahead of you, are in fact miles away. Sara Kay keeps peddling away, up the “dual” climb over the Black Mountains, and then descending into Shoshone as day breaks.
October 9th, 2011
In a car, the road from the fourth time station in Shoshone to the fifth time station in Baker seems an almost straight shot, the trip made quicker by the fact that you can crank up the CD player and cruise along at well over the speed limit with no distractions such as other vehicles or landmarks.
On a bicycle at 15 mph, it’s completely different; the road seems interminable. The sun is now well and truly up so the temperature is rapidly rising, and once you leave behind Ibex Pass there doesn’t seem to be anything ahead … anywhere ahead. At one point, various insects seem to take a fancy to the van and flutter alongside, sometimes landing on the windshield for a breather, then taking off again as a sort of rag-tag squadron.
For crew members, there’s not much to do if you’re not behind the wheel. My plan had been to take photos and post them on Twitter as we went, to feed the legion of Sara Kay’s friends and well-wishers. It turns out that when you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’re lucky to have cell service, let alone a data connection of any kind. You sit watching for bars to appear on your phone, hoping to get signal long enough to enable the posting of tweets while they still have some temporal relation to the event described.
On the outskirts of Baker, the van leap-frogs ahead with the hope of completing most if not all of the resupplying chores before Sara Kay’s arrival at the time station there. Refueled, re-iced, fed, and somewhat refreshed, we discover that Sara Kay has come and gone, so we leave in hot pursuit.
By this time, Ron and I have each taken a couple of turns in the bunk, but JV has gone down only once for a couple fitful hours. In Baker, he takes the wheel.
At a glance, the landscape around Baker seems flat enough, but Kelbaker Road between Baker and the next time station at Kelso rises inexorably. As it rises, the road condition deteriorates. By late afternoon, it’s time to prepare for night riding conditions again, but there is no preparation for the poor road conditions. Even so, Sara Kay continues to ride as she has been, still sticking to her diet, still sticking to her race plan, still smiling. I relinquish the navigator post to Ron and move to the back. To eliminate the bike’s shadow and give Sara Kay a better view of the road ahead, JV drives in the lane for on-coming traffic. This is specifically prohibited not only by the California vehicle code but also by the race rules for crew vehicles. JV decides to gamble on his ability to see for miles forward and backward, and the paucity of other traffic, to give Sara Kay more light at the risk of disqualification.
In the darkness with no cell signal, I prop myself up in the rear jump seat and try to rest. If no one else is going to try to sleep, I might as well try. I doze on and off for a couple hours while Sara Kay climbs and climbs.
Suddenly, the van crunches to an abrupt stop, and JV yells, “I killed her!” JV and Ron bolt from the van. By the time I reach them, they were standing next to Sara Kay in the middle of Kelbaker Road staring down at her bike, which was pinned beneath the left front tire.
Neither JV nor Ron seems to have any idea what has happened. Aside from the impromptu stops during the climb up Townes Pass, I had never seen Sara Kay stop anywhere but at the side of the road. This was as predictable as everything else about her racing style. Yet, here was her bike almost at the center line, crushed beneath the van.
For her part, Sara Kay is clearly shaken. She has narrowly escaped death at the hands of her own crew, and is standing, bloody and bruised, miles from nowhere. More to the point, after riding nearly 400 miles, Sara Kay still has roughly 100 miles to go to finish the race, if that’s even possible at this point.
A quick look around reveals no approaching traffic. Still, we are blocking the road, and something has to be done regardless. Backing the van off of the bike produces a cacophony of sickening sounds. The carbon fiber frame, carbon fiber seat, and expensive carbon fiber Zipp wheel seem to amplify every painful moment of extricating the two vehicles. For added measure, something on the bike catches and pulls on the front valence of the van, supplementing the damage from the original collision.
JV continues to maintain that he doesn’t know what happened. One thing that’s nearly a certainty in his mind is that he couldn't have run over Sara Kay: Clearly, something or somebody else precipitated this accident, maybe even Sara Kay herself. Talk isn’t getting us anywhere, though, so we get the spare bike from the back of the van, switch over the few remaining still-functioning accessories from the crushed bike, and load the scrap into the van. Sara Kay collects herself and remounts the bike. Wobbly at first, she eventually gets back into her rhythm, heading toward Kelso.
With Ron at the wheel and JV riding shotgun, there isn’t much room in the back for the third crew member and the remains of the bike. Sara Kay’s exquisite shelving and organization were predicated on bikes being carried on the rear rack, not inside. Examining the corpse reveals that not many pieces survived; there is virtually nothing usable. Using my trusty multi-tool, I reduce the ungainly carcass to a small pile of rubble while Ron and JV hash and rehash what the heck has just happened.
Against the odds, Sara Kay regains her steady progress, climbing Kelbaker Road, checking in at the Kelso time station, adding clothing for a descent in the cold night air. After 37 hours on the road with scant breaks, Sara Kay is still very much in the race.
Then she’s through the pass, with 17 miles to go until time station 7 in Almost Amboy. In a cruel parody of what should be a welcome descent, the conditions are brutal; terrible pavement that must be traversed in darkness and bone-numbing cold.
October 10th, 2011
South of Amboy, headlights overtake us and then slow. It’s a race official making a routine check-in. Will they catch a glimpse of the as-yet uninterred Bacchetta Carbon Aero 2.0? Will they wonder why the rear bike racks are empty? Did someone else report that we had a problem? Even with the evidence of the accident more or less hidden, our guilt about what has happened makes for an uncomfortable encounter.
Soon enough, Sara Kay is through the flat lands south of Amboy. She claws her way up the climb of the Sheep Hole Mountains, then descends again in the dark and cold. Unbelievably, it's now only fourteen miles to the end of the race in Twentynine Palms, although perhaps predictably it is uphill all the way. Even the last few feet to the finish line at the hotel are on a steep driveway.
There, Sara Kay rolls to a stop but remains sitting on her bike for a few moments, as if stunned. After 44 hours, 56 minutes, and 12 seconds, she has become the first-ever female solo recumbent finisher of the Furnace Creek 508.
Then there are the congratulations, the photos, the medal, and the coveted jersey. Fortunately, no one asks about the blood on her clothing. Maybe this is normal for finishers of the FC508.
Sara Kay moves in slow motion now. In due course, the bike is loaded onto the rack on the van, everyone gets inside, and we head to the hotel, dropping Ron off along the way so he can connect with his ride back home in a few short hours.
There’s still the problem of the destroyed bike, though. The longer it stays in the van, the more chances there are that someone will spot it and make inquiries. JV rejects the idea of ditching it in a remote dumpster somewhere in Twentynine Palms, out of an abundance of paranoia that someone might find it.
At the hotel, Sara Kay and JV sleep-walk to the front desk to check in. I fetch the luggage, move the remaining bike from the rear rack to the inside the van where it nestles alongside its fallen twin, empty two day’s worth of trash, and secure the van for the night.
Once in the room that I am to share with JV, he tells me he’s decided to spent the night in Sara Kay’s room. After awakening later that morning, according to Sara Kay, JV noticed her wounds and asked what happened. Dumbfounded, she informed him that he ran her over with the van, a suggestion that JV rejects. In a few short hours, confusion over what happened has turned to certainty that it had in fact never happened, and for good measure he is no way at fault for whatever did or did not transpire.
There were still the matters of the slaughtered bike and the damage to the van, which was on loan from a supportive relative. According to her, JV’s solution was to file a false claim with the insurance company. His conviction that his actions are above reproach has led naturally to the conclusion that he bears no responsibility for making good for the damage.
And these people look perfectly normal. It’s terrifying to contemplate.
Sara Kay's splits for the 2011 Furnace Creek 508
(Start time from Santa Clarita: 7:00 a.m.)
|Time Station||Miles into the race||Arrival date||Arrival time||Elapsed time||Average MPH||Time from last TS||Avg MPH from Last TS|
Solo recumbent Furnace Creek 508 attempts
|Werewolf||2006||49||FIN||31:50:35||Age Group and overall Superstock recumbent course record||7||Y|
|Hedgehog||1994||32||FIN||35:24:29||Course Record, 2nd solo finish||2|
|Flicker||2006||32||FIN||35:49:13||RAAM Qual'd; Age Group and overall Stock recumbent course record||2|
|Beetle||2000||43||FIN||40:49:31||Established a new course record||2|
|Yellow Labrador||2011||34||FIN||44:56:12||First ever female solo recumbent finisher||3|
|Don Gray||1991||51||FIN||46:10:20||Course Record; one arm||1|
|Beetle||1999||41||DNF||TS5 - overheated||2|