Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Crewing the 508

The view for much of the ride.
Crew:  a verb, derived from the noun "crew," conjugated as "I crew, you crew, he/she/it crews, we crew, you (pl.) crew, they crew."  Definition:  to support, feed, dress, entertain, wheedle, cajole, berate, cheer, and all-around serve an athlete who is digging deeper than anybody should ever dig.  [Not to be confused with "rowing," an action performed by a different kind of crew.  (Rowers never crew.  Rowers are a crew.)]

Sam and I flew to Reno to crew for frequent commenter Damon, who competed October 5 and 6 in the Silver State 508 ultra-cycling race.  About 40 solo riders left Reno from the Atlantis Casino at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 5 and followed a circuitous route through Reno to Geiger Grade, at which point they began in earnest to race -- not merely to ride -- 508 miles out-and-back to Eureka, Nevada.  Damon was no stranger to riding long, having in the previous 15 months completed 3x24-hour races and 2x1200K rides, as well as attendant shorter preparatory events.  (See for fuller details.)  But his 32:15 on Sunday and Monday, an average of 15.8 mph including all stops, is either a remarkable capstone or an entree to a whole new world of riding fast across mountain and desert, through hot and cold, and digging far deeper than mere ultraraces require.  Damon tells that story well here.

Sam and I were there to help.  As Ashley Hill reported in July, crewing a race like the 508 is not just advanced cheering.  Sam and I were functionally awake for 32:15 straight, in and out of the car approximately every 15 minutes during the light, driving directly behind Damon from 7:45 pm to 7:00 am at a distance of between 15' and 15 yards, mixing and handing off bottles, finding and serving food, performing minor bike maintenance, helping Damon to don and to shed clothes, and even raising our voices when needed to get Damon through the inevitable dark hours.  And things did get dark.

While crewing we had the chance to interact with other crews and cheered for riders across the front end of the field.  We saw one rider -- world-class Slovenian Marko Baloh -- only twice, once at the first stop and once as we neared the turn-around and he was on his trip home.  Nobody was realistically racing against Baloh, so the 508 involved a parade of North American athletes vying for second place.

Those US riders included Crow, Holstein, Rock Rabbit, Spotted Horse, Red-Necked Falcon, Great Basin Ichthyosaurus,  Irish Hare, and Wild Turkey; lest that sound like a late-night hallucination, Race Director Chris Kostman assigns "totems" to each athlete, an animal name the rider keeps for life after finishing the event.  Damon was "Thundercat." 

We hung with that pack for some time, exchanging pleasantries with the other crews, cheering the other riders, and working our way slowly from West to East across Nevada on US Highway 50.  That stretch of road is nick-named "the loneliest highway in the world," which somewhat overstates the remoteness but is nonetheless appropriately evocative.  (Having now driven Highway 50 through Nevada twice, I can say with some confidence the Richardson Highway north of Gakona, Alaska, is emptier.)  On Highway 50 and part of the time on Highway 722, we crossed desert mountains, salt flats, and sage-brush deserts.  One thing we never crossed after reaching about 30 miles from the start is any form of water.

It was never extremely hot -- Damon's Garmin reported 90 degrees at the peak and the car reported a peak of around 85 -- but with the altitude (between 4000 and 7500 feet), an  utter lack of cloud cover or trees, and dry air, we baked, and the riders much more so. 

We were charged with keeping Damon hydrated and satiated, no trivial task when everything seemed to upset his stomach.  At one point bloating led to a roadside purge.  We took to hiding caloric and salt powders in flavored drinks -- Carbo Pro or Skratch Mix with Coke, V8, or coffee.  Food was harder.  We crushed chips to get him simple carbohydrates, fat, and salt.  We handed off nuts.  Where possible, which was not frequently the case, we provided hot food -- convenience store microwave burgers and McDonald's breakfast food. 

One lesson about the Silver State 508:  there is one place meaningfully to refuel, in Fallon, Nevada, which riders encounter at mile 75 and again at 435.  In between, and in particular at night, the pickings are slim to none.  Crews should definitely pack a small assortment of solid foods -- perhaps bagels, cooked pasta, and boiled potatoes -- and hot drinks in thermoses.

Desert sky at moon-set.
I love the American desert.  I particularly love the desert at night.  When the sun went down the sky was phenomenal.  After a marvelous sunset we had a near-full moon and brilliant stars that became all the more remarkable around 4:30 am when the moon set.  When there was some light we could see specters of mountains around us. 

But much of the night we could not enjoy it, worried more about running the rider over than seeing any scenery.  Descending hills at night when providing direct-follow support is particularly fearsome.  The art is trying to maintain the closeness while moving as fast as 45 mph and keeping your light beams in positions to do the rider the most good.  You are painfully aware that a sudden fall will put the rider under your wheels.  It is amusing in retrospect that Sam, who is experienced in the crewing arts, was instructing me in the art of direct-follow support on mountain descents even while I was doing it, weaving back and forth across the road to keep the high beams in front of Damon as he rode.

And desert nights, in particular at altitude, get cold.  Damon rode for scores of miles with temperatures in the 30s; the lowest we saw was 34 degrees. (Again, Damon reports his Garmin went more extreme yet, hitting a low of 28.)  Despite shoe covers, leg warmers, mittens, and double jackets -- for nearly 50 miles he wore my synthetic down parka -- nothing could make our rider warm.  After nearly 24 hours in the saddle, one's body has no fuel left to burn to keep the core warm.  It is a dangerous time, with fears of hypothermia and exhaustion-induced crashes.  As crew we balanced the desire to keep him moving with the fear for his safety.  The right approach was never clear.

The view ahead.  "Just a few hundred yards up!  (Or maybe a few miles.)"
 And during those dark times the field began to move back into us.  With the straight roads and clear air we could see headlights for miles into the distance behind us and tail-lights streaming ahead in front of us.  Our rider was in no position to do anything to react. We cheered other riders as they rode by.  Somewhere during the night Red-Necked Falcon passed us, as did Gibbon, a rider from Oregon who had not previously been in the mix at the front end.  Spotted Horse and Wild Turkey passed, followed by the immensely strong mixed tandem Mute Swan.  The phenomenon was amplified because the relay teams, which started one hour behind, began to catch us.

After a short nap -- Sam enforced the allotted 15' to the second -- Damon began to ride stronger.  We crested the penultimate climb to the route's highest elevation at maybe 5 am and began the miles-long descent to the flatlands leading into Fallon.  The light returned and with it some warmth; by Fallon our rider was stripped back to his skin-suit.  And in the light and on the flats, we moved back into the mix with a couple of the relay teams and with Wild Turkey; we learned in Fallon that Spotted Horse and Red-Necked Falcon were not far ahead.

Deluxe Big Breakfast from McDonalds, advertised at 1400 calories.
We loaded up a feed bag at McDonalds in Fallon, one of those "one of everything, please" orders, and Damon put down eggs, hashbrowns, and pancakes before returning to highway 50. At this point we nearly came to an argument.  27+ hours and 440 miles into a ride, nobody has the same fire in the belly that was there at the start.  I found myself dictating to our rider not to answer his telephone, to get back on the bike, and to make an effort to pass at least two of the competitors that were up ahead. 

Whether it was the hot food, the new day, innate competitiveness, or my exhortation, from Fallon home Damon unleashed some of the fire from the previous day.  He rolled straight through the next time station and closed quickly enough on the riders ahead that we found ourselves playing games, hiding the car from the competitors' crews and never rolling too far ahead where we might be spotted.  Damon finished with the ride's fourth-fastest time for the brutally difficult final segment.

Final grade on Nevada 341 from Virginia City to Geiger Summit
On that segment he caught the relay team and passed riders 6 and 7 on the hellish climb up Six-Mile Canyon before descending Geiger Grade to Reno for a spin through town.  At Geiger Summit our work as crew was functionally done.  We tried to stay nearby in case of emergency, but through town Damon was basically on his own.  He rolled into the finish in 32:15, 6th place overall in the solo division, and the first rider to finish who had not competed in the 508 before.


sam said...

Nice write-up. As with all things ultra, immediately afterward I was thinking "never again". A week afterward, I'm wondering when the next race is, and thinking about getting into shape to ride the 508 rando division.

Max said...

With those temperature swings, it would not be a trivial rando division! I am tempted as well.

I note an additional checkpoint (presumably with drop-bag service): "an additional checkpoint will be added at Middlegate Station (mile 122 / mile 390)" -- this is halfway from Fallon to Austin. Can't as I sit here recall anything existing there.

Unknown said...

Rando division party in 2015!

I wonder whether the rando division will wind up being a real race, or will all the action be on the crewed side?

My sense is that you'd need to ride with a camelback. In the middle of the day, in the desert, even a 50-mile stage is way too long for a standard 2 or 3 bottles.

Max said...

I was trying to think on that and I agree. Good sized saddlebag, some sort of feedbag mounted up front, two bottles in the frame and 96oz of water on your back should serve.

Based on the experience last week but assuming you move more slowly if self-supported, I think you dress light until Middlegate Station, then leave your warm clothes in one of Austin, Middlegate, or Fallon on the return. Of course, on the slower schedule you may need them again for the final descent from Geiger Summit, so perhaps you need to keep a windjacket or vest in a pocket.

sam said...

A rack like your Urkel could suffice instead of the camelbak, if the idea of wearing a clammy bag on your back for 508 miles isn't appealing.

That gives you room for a couple spare bottles and enough insulated stuff to get by in a pinch, with warmer stuff at the TS as Max suggests.

Max said...

The degree of specificity in these comments strongly suggests we may be moving in this direction. Sounds great from my end.