Thursday, October 13, 2011

Furnace Creek 508 - my introduction to insanity

A couple of friends of mine do these "ultra" races. In bicycling, the ultras are often hundreds of miles over more than 24 hours. I have always thought this was insane. I am happy to push my  body for an entire day, but I want to be able to go to sleep afterwards.

In fact, part of the reason I set my sights on Ultraman Canada was that the race takes place over three days so you get to sleep each night. While some people may think doing a 10k swim, 90 and then 171 miles of biking and a double marathon over three days is crazy, it seemed completely doable to me once I get my bike speeds up from where they are. Staying up for 40-48 hours biking, on the other hand, just seemed completely undoable.

However, when given the opportunity to crew for a friend at this year's Furnace Creek 508, I jumped at it. I figured I'd get to sleep a bit in the car and crewing isn't the same thing as biking. Plus, I figured I'd learn a lot that would help me with Ultraman.

We started out for Santa Clarita/Valencia around 8:00 am on Friday and got to the registration hotel around 2:30 pm.  There were already tons of people there. We checked-in and then got our vehicle expected.

This is when I began to get a glimpse of how elaborate an effort completing one of these events is. And also how expensive!

First, it turns out that the racer is responsible for all expenses including feeding the crew. I hadn't really been expecting that as I figured I have to eat whether I'm in a mini-van in the middle of the California dessert or at home on my computer. Second, there is a ton of equipment necessary. Also, because every racer is self-supported, for every piece of equipment provided, there is also at least one back-up version.

To get our inspection approved we needed:

- "Caution Bike Ahead" signs on our vehicle
- A reflective triangle that attached to the vehicle
- A backup reflective triangle
- Flashing orange lights for the back of the vehicle
- A backup set of flashing vehicle lights
- Proper reflective tape on the bike (and any backup bikes)
-A proper blinking reflector light for the back of the bike
-A backup blinking light
-A proper white light for the front of the bike
-A backup light for the front of the bike
-A first aid kit

But we needed way more equipment than that. We had food, sunscreen, chamois butter, blister packs, more first aid stuff, extra wheels for the bike, an extra bike, extra tubes, a patch kit, an extra seat, chain, cleat, pedal, etc. Tools to fix pretty much anything that could go wrong with the bike or car. Twine, scissors, various types of tape (electrical, duct, etc.) Blankets, a pillow, a sleeping bag, changes of clothes for the rider. Changes of clothes and toiletries for us. Snacks for us. Several coolers for all the perishable food and drinks. Plus other stuff too numerous to mention that I am also forgetting.

We ended up needing little of the backup equipment (thank goodness) and we ended up putting a bunch of it on the roof rack to keep it out of the way. But, if we'd needed it, we would have had it.

One thing we didn't have was a way to broadcast music. Apparently this is a very common technique to keep your racer going. We did have a PA system to talk to our rider and we did use it when we were direct following him.

After registering for the race, we checked into the hotel for the night. Then we went off to the pre-race meeting. It was kind of long, but also interesting. They went over the major rules. They also talked about this year's theme. It seems the race director had talked four of the guys considered the fathers of Ultra Cycling who had pioneered RAAM (Race Across America) into being a four-person team for this race. There were special commemorative t-shirts and everything. I hadn't heard of these guys, of course. (Okay, I'd heard of Michael Shermer but only because he founded The Skeptics Society.) But I got a little mini-lesson in the history of ultra-cycling, which was much appreciated.

Then it was off for the pre-race meal at Olive Garden (a tradition of my friends) and then bed. We had to get up pretty early the next day in order to get on the road by 6:45 am. The solo racers start at 7:00 am but their support crews have to be out on the road by then. We drive to about the 25 mile mark and wait for our racer to come by. After that, we leap frog them until 6:00 pm when it's dark enough that we are required to drive behind them. We do that until about 7:00 am when we have the choice to shadowing or leap frogging. Then at 6:00 pm again, we are back to shadowing. This is all done for safety reasons and it all works quite well.

One of the first thing I learned was the proper leap-frogging technique. What you do is wait for your guy to go by and then wait another 10 minutes. Then you drive until you see him (which is generally another 3-5 minutes) and then you drive enough past him that you can still see him but you have time to get out of the car and get the nutrition ready. Then you wait another 10 minutes after the hand-off to do it all again. This way, you never get so far ahead of your rider that they are back there stranded (say with a flat) while you are ahead wondering where they heck they are and have to go back to check on  them.

We leap-frogged during the mandatory leap-frogging part of the race but during the optional direct-follow part we almost always direct followed. The exceptions were at two of the time stations where we stopped to get gas and food and other supplies.

Another thing I learned was that you are supposed to log every piece of food you give your racer. That, and preparing the food/bottles was my main job. I enjoyed it as I love crunching numbers and dealing with logistics.

The main problem I had was lack of sleep. During the time when I was "off-duty" I just couldn't sleep. I ended up resting my eyes for about 20 minutes while I was technically on-duty, which helped a lot. I also slept when our racer slept. That was only another 20 minutes of actually sleep but it kept me going for a large number of hours. I later tried to sleep in the front seat but the movement and talking of the people on-duty just distracted me too much. So it was another 45 min or so of resting without sleeping.

I managed to get to the end though. Our racer finished, which was very exciting and he did very well by my own standards. I was so impressed about how he just kept pedaling and knocking off the miles with only 30 minutes of sleep and with a lot of saddle-soreness and without a lot of external music.

Though we did feel he needed some music at one point and we figured out that if we cranked up the stereo really loud and opened all the windows and held the mike for the PA system up to one of the speakers, that it did broadcast over the speaker. So we did that for the last 1/3 of the race (well, except for the mandatory Quiet Zones, of course.) It was rather amusing.

We got back to the finish line with hours to spare, checked into a new hotel and I actually got about three hours of real sleep before it was time to go to the post-race breakfast. That was fun too. But I started to fall asleep during the video presentation and I slept for hours in the car going back. And also most of the day on Tuesday! I think I'm only just recovering from my lack of sleep today, four days after getting back!

I have to say that I had a blast being on the crew. I did learn a lot about doing an 'ultra' event too. Plus, I got to meet and interact with some great people. The Ultra cycling community is pretty small and so everyone knows everyone else. Everyone is very supportive too. It's just a completely different feel to that of the big ass triathlons such at the WTC-branded events and Wildflower. Those are more of a spectacle, which I also enjoy. These are more like family gatherings except all the weird-ass relatives who make you miserable stay home.

During the race, I became obsessed with the idea of dragging my friend Seht down and doing it as a two-person team. I was adamant that I wasn't going to do it solo. But I think I've been infected by the Ultra Bug and I am now seriously thinking about doing it next  year even if I have to solo it. I'm going to start out doing Double Centuries and also the 200k - 600k Brevet series one of the clubs around here puts on and see what happens. If I get so I can do a 600k Brevet and I enjoy it, then I'm in! If I never get past the Double Century, then I'll try to put together a team and do it that way.

I'm not sure why these crazy distances appeal to me so much, but they do. They appeal to me much more than doing lots of Sprints and Olympics and getting fast enough to podium, which is something I think I can do, if I wanted to badly enough. But I don't seem to want it like I want to get on my bike and just go and go and go.
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