Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Furnace Creek 508 Race Report 2012 Team Rock Ewe

Team Rock Ewe at Registration. (l to r) Jennie Phillips, Jeanine Spence, Cat Berge, Janet Martinez. (horizontal) Paul McKenzie.

I just returned from the 2012 Furnace Creek 508 bicycle race, where I served as "Crew Chief" for team Rock Ewe, a 4 Woman Relay Team. The FC 508 is a 508 mile race, traveling through Death Valley in Southern California. The women, racing in the 4x, 40+ age category, set a new course record, shattering the previous record by nearly 4 hours, and also setting a mark that bettered all women's age groups, with a time of 28 hours and 23 minutes. This mark also beats the overall all-time course record in the 4x mixed team division. In this particular year, 2012, they were, in fact, the first 4x team to the finish line, beating all of the men's and mixed 4x teams! They were the fastest 4x relay team at the 2012 Furnace Creek 508.

In early July of this year, I get a note from my friend Jennie Phillips. The subject of the email is, "You have won an all-expenses-paid trip to..." I'm, like, OK, what is this?" She goes on with the following:

How's that for an attention getter, Paul?!?!  I think you can probably guess how you can redeem this wonderful, resort-oriented trip.
Well, it's pretty easy actually.  Any chance you'd like to be our Crew Chief for the FC508 this year?????
You'd be spending 4 exciting days as part of the Rock Ewe Team, a team of 4 women vying to take back the 40+ 4x women's record!  (Team Pine Marten stole our previous record last year...and their time to beat is 32:05:22)
Team members are Jeanine Spence, Cat Berge, Jennie Phillips (yours truly) and "tbd."  Don't you want to have your name in the Twentynine Palm neon lights with these fast chicks????

This note is a real curve ball. On the one hand, my life is so busy with starting a new business, having little spare time, and barely surviving financially, it isn't a good time to commit to volunteering. On the other hand, the adventure side of me says that, although this will be hard, it will also be rewarding, these women are totally legit, and it's a way for me to give back to the cycling world and my good friends...and perhaps have some fun while I am at it.

I'm going to be honest here. I'd heard through the grapevine, that at least two of my other friends had been asked before me. I don't like being second fiddle. I like even less being third fiddle. And I'd been in this situation before. One of the racers, my tandem racing partner, Cat Berge, asked me to do a 2x mixed relay with her at FC 508 2006. The problem? I'd slacked off on my late season riding and it wasn't much more than 3 weeks before the event when she asked me. Turns out she needed a fill-in for her planned racing partner, a younger, faster, better looking fellow than me, but a far less reliable one as it turned out. He'd flaked on her, and she needed a substitute. I was like, "Damn Cat, wish you'd chosen me in the first place, and I could have trained for this darned thing." I showed up, and we did OK, set an age group record in 28 hours-something, but wished I could have planned for the event vs. doing it off the couch. We'd still have the record today, I think, if I had time to train for the event. (Cat came back a year later with another fellow and clipped our record).

But... This is different. I don't need to train. I could Crew Chief right off the couch. With 3-508's under my belt as a rider (2 solo and 1-2x with Cat), and one time crewing, I certainly have the credentials. And, I've had so many epic cycling experiences with Cat doing tandem riding, I find myself in a "can't say no" situation.

On July 3, I write this note to Jennie, regarding my "terms" for "Crew Chiefing," only half joking:

I would also want you to know that I will turn into a Pumpkin after 28 hours so fully expect the team to be well under that time and shatter the record by at least 4 hours.

And at the risk of being too personal here, I write back to Jennie on July 10th:

Cat is the reason that it is almost impossible for me to say no to this request. In me, she has a lifetime, loyal, friend. There is no person on earth that I hold in higher regard than Cat, for her cycling prowess, her friendship, and all she does when not on the bike.

I have not actually said yes at this point but the writing was on the wall. If Cat is in, I am in. Done deal.

We do not have a fourth rider yet. The third rider is Jeanine Spence. I haven't met Jeanine at this point, but I followed her with Team Raw Milk Cats on RAAM 2011, and knew she was a solid rider. A few names were thrown in the hat for the fourth rider, with one of them being Janet Martinez. I met Janet in the Fall of 2011 and immediately liked her. At registration for a "Low Key Hill Climb" event, she asked me if I wanted to be part of the "Sisters and Misters of No Mercy" team. I figured she perhaps confused me with my teammate Jesse Miller Smith, who'd won the previous event on Sierra Rd. I politely declined because I wanted to race with my team name, and I didn't want her to be disappointed when she realized that I wouldn't add much to their already stellar roster. I am at this point, really gunning for Janet to join.

Bottom line, I commit, Janet gives the nod as the fourth rider, and Team Rock Ewe is complete.
We arrive at the event on Friday, Oct. 5 and get registered. The new Host Hotel that Event Organizer Chris Kostman has arranged, is fantastic. Much more room, the pre-race meeting is held on premises vs. across town, and it's held before dinner time vs. afterward. Plus, he's shortened the format, so riders can get to bed earlier and get more rest. Thanks Chris!
At dinner before the event, Cat and I were presented with a birthday cake featuring both of our Totems. Our birthdays are in the first week of October.
A Birthday Cake for Muddy Mudskipper and Bumblebee

Skipping ahead, I want to say a few things about our riders. After you follow behind your riders for hours and hours in the van as Crew Chief, you really begin to understand them, strengths and weaknesses, so again, at the risk of being too personal, let me tell you about these fast women. I've assigned nick-names to all of them. Riders are introduced in their riding order for the eight legs. Once through the rotation and once again. Each rider does two legs.

Jeanine Spence: "Aero-Power-Masher"
Jeanine has a powerful, slow, mashing cadence. She is comfortable on the aero bars no matter how much crosswind (many riders gave up on the aero bars in the cross winds, while Jeanine remained steady). She churns a low cadence with much power. Her upper body sits crooked on the bike, right arm straight and left bent, torso cocked. But the pedaling, if slow, is very powerful. From behind, you don't see her head above her back. This low, aero position, combined with her powerful pedaling, makes her very fast on the flats. She is also a decent climber, though not at her best at FC 508 due to some decline in fitness after a recent illness. Jeanine is the first rider in our rotation, and on both of her legs, she leaves us in great position. Jeanine is one of the most fun people to be around that I have ever met. If she's in the house, it's a good time.

Jeanine Spence on the first leg Photo courtesy Chris Kostman
Janet Martinez: "The Silent Assasin"
Janet is a tall, slender, attractive woman. She does not necessarily look like a bike racer... until she is on the bike. She is soft-spoken and you'd never suspect that she would be as fast as she is, with a killer instinct. If I'd never met her, I'd have been shocked watching her ride. But I'd done a few rides with Janet prior to the 508, so I know of her talent. She has great skills for the 508 because she is an "all-rounder." She rides strong on the flats, but she is also a great climber, and she handles her bike with confidence. She rides with impeccable cadence, smooth and fast, 85-90 rpm, with quiet upper body, and she keeps her form and smooth pedaling even when tired. Janet is a rookie at the 508, and quite frankly, I think she was a bit intimidated by the talent surrounding her. She prepared herself well and showed up ready to race. Prior to her legs she was hooked up to her iPod, listening to her favorite music for inspiration. She delivered far above expectation in my opinion.

Janet Martinez on Baker-Kelso climb Photo: Paul McKenzie
 Jennie Phillips: "The Machine"
I've known Jennie for a long time. She has really honed her racing skills. She is sheer perfection on the bike. She is compact, powerful, smooth, and fast. Her average cadence is 95 rpm. Her bike is clean and perfect. Her pedaling stroke is perfect. Spotless white bar tape. Her kit fits her perfectly. She is adorable. With everything so right she looks like she is on a Pro Tour team with a $50 Million budget. She is a great climber, solid on the flats, and she wastes no energy. Any credible cycling coach would look at her riding and say, "There is nothing to be done here."

Jennie broke her pelvis this Spring in a bike crash. In June she was still in a wheelchair. She worked hard at her rehab, and it is truly amazing to see her riding so well at the 508.

Jennie Phillips on Amboy climb
Catharina Berge: "Ego Crusher"
Cat is, plain an simple, a World Class Athlete. I have had the pleasure of racing on the tandem with Cat and doing many other  rides with her. In any age group female competition, anywhere on the globe, I would not bet against her. She is simply one of the strongest Masters Female cyclists on the Planet, maybe the strongest. I can watch Cat ride and tell you how many Watts she is cranking out. You may not believe me, but trust me, it's right. Her cadence is slow to medium. She rocks back and forth and does not possess the same finesse as Jennie. But whatever she is doing, it works. She is the anchor of the team and without a doubt, the strongest rider. The most amazing thing about Cat is her humility. She is super human yet the most important thing to her is goodwill and friendship. I cannot think of anyone I respect more than Cat. And it would be the same even if she didn't ride the bike at all. The Ego Crusher name comes from the fact that she dusted all of the strongest men on the 4X teams, leaving their egos out on the road to wilt in the heat. With that said, they seemed to be good sports about it. Cat had the fastest times of any 4x team rider on the 4th and 8th legs of the event, including the men.
Cat Berge mashing out the power.

Let's get on with the racing in this already overly long-winded report...

Stage 1, Santa Clarita to California City: We leave Jeanine at the start and motor ahead to mile 26 where the crews are allowed to meet their rider.
Jeanine (third from left, Hammer jersey) at the Start with a few friends. Photo courtesy Chris Kostman
Too much congestion at the beginning to allow follow cars so riders are on their own for these first miles. We wait and socialize at the meeting point, and Jeanine comes along in great position. She is the second woman, and she is toward the front of the pack. We are thrilled. In front of her is a very small, muscular little climber, who I quickly coin as "Half Pint." She's maybe 90-100 pounds and built for climbing. She looks like an Ironman Triathlete (if you are reading this, Half Pint, please do forward your name and we'll include it).

Jeanine (far right) leads Craig Robertson (light blue), and "Half Pint" (yellow booties) at the beginning of the race. Photo courtesy Chris Kostman
The next stretch is flat. There is a horrible cross wind. Jeanine keeps her poise and stays in the aero bars. She has Half Pint in her cross hairs and she is coming back. We don't see what happens, but at the stop sign ahead, Half Pint is being tended to. Apparently she went down?? Only minor injuries so she continues. Jeanine is now the lead woman on the relay teams. Then the windmill climb comes. Jeanine starts up the climb and isn't feeling her best. Half Pint passes her, then several other riders, including two other women. I'm not worried. I know she'll kill it on the flats and we are still in good position. We turn right with a downhill and a cross-tail wind. Jeanine is back on her game and proceeds to close down the gap. She rides strong all the way to California City. There are still few teams in front of us, but Jeanine leaves us in great position after her first, difficult, leg.

ed. note: Per comment below from "Ultrawoman," "Half Pint" is Jodi Ruby, 50, an accomplished Ironman and XTerra athlete.

Stage 2 California City to Trona: As we approach California City, Janet is in the back of the van with her Earbuds blazing. We try to talk to her but she is getting her game face on. We assign everyone their jobs for a quick change as Jeanine rolls in. Janet sneaks off for a bathroom break while Jeanine approaches. It looks tight as there is no sign of Janet and Jeanine is close. I roll Janet's bike to the bathroom to save a few seconds. She emerges, I tell her to get on her bike, we roll to the exchange and she is on her way. We leave her alone and don't follow right away as we need to give Jeanine some time to clean up and have a break. Meanwhile, Janet immediately catches a few riders. By the time we get the van rolling down the road Janet has picked off a few teams and is setting a blistering pace.
Janet smiles on her first leg. Photo courtesy Chris Kostman

We stop to give her a feed, and we have a "rookie moment." Janet misses the bottle hand up, and rather than just rolling on until the next try, she decides to flip a U turn and come back. We weren't even watching and Jennie and I are shocked to see her coming back. We scold her and tell her that she is to continue forward on the race course at all times! Don't turn around and come back for a bottle!!! We laugh about this move, and warn Janet that she'll probably have to listen to the story told over and over again. Janet then reaches the hard climb of her leg, which is up to Randsburg. She is passing riders right and left, men, women, anyone in her way. Other riders are struggling with this climb. Janet is not. She flies up the hill. We don't think we'll make the 6:00 "lights required" cutoff before Trona, but Janet's awesome performance puts us there at something like 5:53. It's a brilliant ride.

Stage 3 Trona to Furnace Creek: This 99 mile stage is a monster, the longest stage of the race, and includes the famous Townes Pass. Jennie is assigned to this leg. Jennie takes off at a blistering pace. She's holding close to 25 mph on a false flat uphill. Sitting in the van, it's tough to know the exact grade and wind conditions, but I study her pedaling, and I can't help thinking she is going out too hard. I pull alongside and ask her to ratchet it back a few clicks and be sure to ease into the stage, warm up correctly, and save some for Townes Pass. Sitting in the van for 6 hours waiting to ride wears on you, and once you are on the bike you really want to kill it. It's natural, but not necessarily the best thing to do!

It helps to know the Officials (haha). Graham Pollock and Paul McKenzie "Yucca" it up on Randsburg climb.

I know Jennie won't listen to me, but if I can just get her to think about it a little, she'll make her own decision. Her pedaling is impeccable. Darkness is upon us. This is where driving the van is so crucial as the rider benefits greatly from the car headlights, especially on the downhills. We come to the first downhill and Jennie kills it. I told her prior to her stage to go as fast as she wants on the downhills, I will keep her in headlights and won't fall off. I stay with Jennie, but anything that isn't tied down in the van goes flying. Down in Panamint Valley we go. Then on to Townes Pass. The officials stop us to give some instruction on keeping it safe and not obstructing motorists on the Pass. We know the drill and ask if we can proceed! We're losing time here! Jennie grinds up the Pass picking off many, many riders. By this time we are catching solo riders who have started 3 hours before us. Jennie makes it over the Pass and descends efficiently to Stovepipe Wells. She is tired now, but empties the tank on the long, flat stretch to Furnace Creek. We are near the front of all 4x teams (including men's and mixed) at this point, with only a couple of teams ahead.

Stage 4 Furnace Creek to Shoshone: Cat Berge begins at Furnace Creek. It's windy and ugly, it's night time, but Cat is focused. She knows everyone has the same conditions, and she is simply going to go faster than everyone else. That she does, and we catch teams and solo riders one after the other.

In the lead of the 4x teams is the cleverly named "Nervous Ticks," a 4X men's team in the lead. On Jubilee Pass, Cat catches up, and passes, but, they decide to put up a fight. We hear later that this rider is always the first to the top of each climb on group rides and doesn't care to be passed. Cat goes around the rider and van, and I follow. It's getting late at night, probably close to midnight. It's pitch black with a starry desert sky. Cat is out of the saddle, laboring hard, easily squeezing over 200 Watts out of her 125 lb. body. The Nervous Tick rider chases. Unfortunately, he has the benefit of drafting our van, putting him at an advantage. It's a stalemate for a while. I slow ever so slightly to let Cat have a gap. The I accelerate up to her in an effort to eliminate the chaser's draft advantage. He's still there. I pull up alongside Cat and say, "Cat, you'll need to tighten the screws just a bit to get rid of this "Nervous Tick." She pretends to ignore me, but I know she just leans on it a bit more. A gap is created. We descend Jubilee, then begin Salisbury. The 'Tick does a great descent and closes the gap a bit. But it's futile. Cat just keeps a steady pace. After a few minutes, I look in the mirror and he's gone, just a spec in the distance. Objects may be closer than they appear in the mirror, but not in this case. We roll onto Shoshone, with one rotation complete. We're in the lead of the 4x teams, men, women, mixed.

Stage 5 Shoshone to Baker: Jeanine's card is up. She takes to the pedals for her second leg. By now I am exhausted. Driving at night following the rider is intense and takes a lot of concentration. Especially trying to provide perfect light for the riders on the descents. I take a break and go into a half sleep, while Jennie drives. I periodically check the action by opening one eye. I see Jeanine ahead, on her aero bars, keeping the pace. We arrive in Baker with our lead intact, but with a bit of a Nervous Tick. Those guys are just a few minutes behind.

I'm exhausted, so Jennie takes a stint at the wheel. Jeanine is on the road.
 Stage 6 Baker to Kelso: Janet is up. We didn't tell her what a horrible stage Baker-Kelso is. Rookie hazing I guess. We take off following Janet until 7 AM when we are allowed to leave her (follow vehicle not required after daylight). We start up the climb and I look in the mirror. The Sheriff is pulling us over! Party lights, but this ain't no party. I am pretty sure I haven't done anything wrong. Just as we are pulled over, the clock strikes 7 and we can leave Janet on her own. She has no idea what is happening behind her. The Sheriff walks up to my window and asks, "Is there an event or something going on?" I say, "Yes, this is the Furnace Creek 508." "Do you have a permit?" he asked. "Yes," I respond, "This is a permitted event." He says, "Well, I've been off for a couple of days so may be out of the loop, have a nice day." We've dodged a bullet and all is good. Glad he didn't ask for my license. Probably a half dozen or so warrants out on me!

Janet kills it again on Baker Kelso. She doesn't think so, but I explain to her that the beginning elevation of the stage is much lower than the end (net elevation gain), and the horrible pavement doesn't help the average speed. She catches more solo riders and 2x riders on the climb. Another stellar performance by Janet and we are in good shape.

Cat is trying to retrieve her mail from Belgium at the Kelso Post Office, however it it apparently closed. Photo: Paul McKenzie
 Stage 7 Kelso to Amboy: Jennie is up again and she's ready. This a short stage, with one long climb and an even longer descent. It gives her no trouble and she is flying. She closes the gap on the 2x team we have been chasing. She comes into the time station at Amboy really hot. I'm thinking, "Is she going to be able to stop?" She grabs a fist full of brakes and barely brings her bike to a stop right at the exchange point. We send Cat off and put Jennie's wheel in the van. PhhhhhhhhhhShhhh... What's that sound? Jennie's front tire decided to flat just at the end of her leg. The only mechanical we will have during the entire event!

Stage 8 Amboy to 29 Palms: This is a hard stage. It features the hot and ugly Sheephole climb, followed by a long, flat, windy, 20 mile stretch to the finish. It's super hot and Cat is cranking hard. We know we need to keep her cool and hydrated. You see, Cat had a serious incident in Europe this summer on a Time Trial on Alpe d'Huez. She overheated, collapsed at the finish, and was air lifted to the hospital. Her husband Marc was concerned for her health, and told her he didn't want her to ever race again. Because this event was on her schedule and already planned, she convinced Marc she needed to do it and could not let her teammates down.

I tell the crew, "We need to take good care of Cat. If she gets heat stroke again, we're fucked!" We all want to race more with Cat so we know what to do. "Cat, take it easy, keep your heart rate at 155, take some more water, do you want electrolytes? How about some more water? Some HEED perhaps? How about a Coke? Have another sip! Cat, drink, drink, drink." We are all over it.
Cat hammers in the heat on the Sheephole climb
Once she gets over the Sheephole climb, I relax a bit. Cat takes it to the finish in style. We had an earlier incident with Cat, with Janet telling her the top of Salisbury was closer than it was. Cat wasn't happy. Then we screwed up again, with Cat asking us to tell her when there were 15, 10 and 5 miles to go. Well, we tell her there are 10 miles when there are really 14 and we agonize about how to tell her, or whether to tell her at all. We finally decide honesty is the best policy, and I explain to her, kinda sorta blaming the route sheet for our shortcomings as a crew. By this time it's in the bag, and Cat isn't that concerned. I'm calculating our ETA in the latter part of the race and determine we are well under 29 hours, far exceeding the riders' expectations (but not mine), I knew they could do it!
In the end we were the first 4x Team to arrive at the finish, beating the winning Nervous Ticks 4x men's team by almost 40 minutes with our time of 28 Hours 23 Minutes.
Tired and Happy. Team Rock Ewe at the finish podium. (l to r) Jennie, Janet, Cat, Jeanine. Photo courtesy Chris Kostman
 We talk to the Nervous Ticks at the finish and they congratulate the women on a fine race. We see them at the Mexican restaurant and joke that at least they beat us to dinner as they had arrived first.
After dinner we hang around the finish to cheer other riders in. In the morning we attend the outdoor catered breakfast that Chris Kostman arranged. Good thing we come early, as there apparently is some glitch with the caterers, and they run out of food. Our van is already packed, so we get on the road, hit Starbucks in Yucca Valley, and then begin texting friends and loved ones about the great weekend.

Earlier, I put the words "Crew Chief" in quotes. Really, I wasn't much more than a driver, spectator, and cheerleader. Jennie had all the logistics sorted out, and Jeanine had the van and rack all ready to go. So I just needed to show up and keep things moving. This worked out great for me, as I really could not afford the time to handle all the logistics. Team Rock Ewe did everything right and really earned their place in the record books. This was an epic weekend, and I look forward to going back again next year to the 508, hopefully as a rider.

A couple of video links that may be of interest:

My solo 2007 508 "Muddy Mudskipper"

A series of interviews I did while crewing for Bill Ellis in the 2008 FC 508

Pig in Shit.