It was sometime in May that Sara Kay asked me if I or anyone I knew on the left coast was up for crewing for her on the Furnace Creek 508. I think it was via Twitter. For those that don't know about the 508 its a 509.5 mile supported ultra race with a lot of climbing in it. If she pulled it off she would be the first woman to compete it solo on a recumbent. I knew if SK was going to try, it was because she was ready to pull it off. She is the master of showing up prepared. How could I say no?
Now, I had crewed once before on the 508, and that did not end well. Something about a rider in cleats running across the desert in chase of a flying $3600 wheel that the 40mph wind decided belonged much farther north.......
Somewhere in here she asked if I would be crew chief. You know, with these races, the racer foots the bill, and puts in much more work that the rest of us just training. So in the end, you know who is really the cheif. But still you need someone in the van to carry out her wishes and make sure she gets what she needs. I was quick to say yes. My ego told me, and SK, that I'd be great. ;-) The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that I was new to this. Luckily I found a crew member with a lot more experience than I at that position. When I put a call out on the local Randonneuring mail list for crew, Ron Smith Jr. replied with,"Pick me! Pick Me!" Ron has been chief for I think 7 different teams over the years, including RAAM. Thank you Ron! Thank you Ron! Greg Raven was our newbie crew member.
Our totem was to be Yellow Labrador, in honor of Moonlight (SKs Lab). Moonlight chose his human very well. SK put one of my mottos on the van graphic with Moonlights image: Plan, Prepare, Execute, Conquer!
There is definitely some work involved in prepping a van for ultra race support. My preparation work for the 508 has been mixed. In 07 with Mike Wolfe (totem Mussel), I got the van, build the cot, installed the hitch and rack, got bins, and when the rest of the guys showed up, we go it all together. SK helped with the cot design and buildin'. In 09 with David Bradley (totem Raven Lunatics), David had done all the work to his van before he left home. No work at all for Anthony, Sabrina and I! I felt a bit uneasy, and like a slacker, at first. But once I saw it was really all set, I slept like a baby. In 2010 with Puca Fairies, I don't remember doing a lot either.
Well Sara shows the Wednesday before the race with the van almost ready to go. Everything is labeled, and I mean everything. Spares too, and the spares for the spares, and I get a detailed tour so I know where all of it is. I try my best to remember it all. Most well prepared vans for this race have either radios for 2 way communication with the rider, or a PA system with music and a mic for one way. So what does Sara have? Of course, both! The mic for her radio she keeps pinned on her chest so she can grab it and talk anytime. We got a charger for all the batteries too, and spares for the radios, and instructions that when her battery died we needed to take the unit from her, swap the one short antenna, and just put it on a radio with a fully charged battery. Now the speaker setup is something I am not sure had ever been tried before. Some of the cheap PA speakers are useless due to sound quality. The one I tried to listen too on RAAM was! Cheap wood speakers usually come apart if it rains. SK brings high quality waterproof outdoor speakers, from a ski boat I think. Next is where to mount them. Most put them on the roof, and that makes it hard for the crew to sleep. Some put them on the hood, better but ugly and not pointed easily. SK had removed the emblem from the grill and welded and mounted the equivalent of a receiver hitch to the front bumper reinforcement. It sticks straight out the front of the grill by a few inches. To this she attached the big T that holds the speakers. Right at ear level for her, we can't hear them unless we go slow and roll down the windows, and easy to remove. Wow! I think this is the template for the future, assuming your vehicle will accept it. SK engineering! Innovative, elegant, reversible, and functional. http://a5.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/318621_160937497330191_100002418243571_317117_1312840969_n.jpg
OK, she had to get the roof rack on for the spare wheels. I busied myself with giving both bikes (CA2.0s) a good looking over. She had a few complaints, and I think I hit most of them. We tweaked her arm position on both bikes to relax her arms a bit. No messing with leg position at all so close to the event. She’s got a set of knees that seem gravitationally attracted to the right side of the road.
We all got together got to tech inspection at noon on Friday. Hooked up with Ron, and Greg. Passed with flying colors after SK got some reflecto tape on her spare helmet. Got groceries done before the Big Feast with 5 or 6 other teams at the Olive Garden. Always a good time. Lots of excited faces. We all got our crew T-shirts! We had to show Chris Kostman, the race director, what it looked like to get his reaction. He took Pics!
We got back to my place after the shortest ever 508 pre race meeting. 8 or so I think. Thanks Chris!! Final prep work. SK starts giving the rest of the crew the full van tour and it occurs to me that if I was racing the next day I'd want to have a peaceful evening and take care of my own stuff. SK agreed I tried to remember where everything was. We all got to bed at a reasonable time.
In the morning we had to get up early for the drive to the start. SK cooked up a big pot of oatmeal with fruit. Crew did the final loading. ........and SK had an extra big smile on her face. She had slept well and was really excited to race! Great way to start the race! Forecast was for 50-80 degrees and not too much wind. The temperature projections we had some faith in, but not the wind. Not in Death Valley!
Got to the start and dealt with the crowd of riders and vehicles and wished the other teams well. It was cool but not bad, 50s. We have to leave before the riders and get to the first feed zone. So SK had a tire and tube and a pump, and the 4 pound steel tire levers it takes to get a GP4000 off a Zipp 404! We drove up to the feed zone. Watched the racers go by. JS and Tim looked to be racing each other pretty hard so early on. Weird. After a time we started looking for SK. Well after 15 minuntes had passed since the last rider, we started to get a bit concerned. Could she have flatted, or crashed, or worse? Well, SK has the most self-control and pacing sense out there. Steady Betty she calls it. The vast majority of riders go out way too hard on these events. Not Sara. I don't know if she was watching the power meter or just going on feel. She radioed us once she was close and we had everything she needed ready for a no stop feed. Here she is just after the feed zone. http://yfrog.com/kkqavuyj
Somewhere thereafter I messed up on navigation. I did not read the laptop right and I thought we had the route book up front. Oooops, it was still in back. The cost us a few minutes. SK was completely un-phased. I decided right then that I needed to try to sleep. If I can mess up on a course as simple as the 508..... Ron moved to navigation and Greg kept driving. Sara was riding steady as ever up the windmill climb and to Time Station 1 (TS1), California City:
I think we crossed the tracks just before that train. Crew was doing a great job keeping SK fueled. Somewhere in here we started passing other teams. Steady Betty in action! Somewhere in here I had a look at the log sheet and realized she had been very low on caloric intake for the first 3 or 4 hours. She started eating a bit more.
On the first day of the 508 the van cannot follow the rider and hand them stuff from the vehicle. We do leapfrog support and hand stuff to her, on climbs when speed is lowest, from the roadside. With the radios, this went very well. At the top of the Randsburg climb we fueled as we needed to be in following Sara at 6pm sharp, night rules. If we refueled at night Sara would have to stop too, and that costs time. Good thing we did as we had to go into night mode a mile or 2 outside TS2, Trona. Now we could just hand her stuff from the car. It was now that SK efficient planning really kicked in. We kept the feeds for the vehicle to a minimum, as they can be tricky when we all get fatigued. SK stays hydrated well, and when I say well, I mean more than her bladder can store for too long. With the radio she would let us know what she needed, stop, pee, and be on the way again. Very little time off the bike, and maximizing what got done when she had to stop anyway.
Here she is leaving Trona:
Townes Pass was difficult. It’s a 4000' climb at 7-8% I think. To make it worse, even on a calm day, there is a swirling wind that bounces off all the rock formations and changes directions every few second. You struggle to keep the bike straight. Sara still had her trusty Zipp 404 on the front, as I did the one time I climbed it. Any aero front wheel makes it a bit more work staying on the road. SK got to the top and grabbed a lot of clothes. It’s easy to freeze after climbing and getting sweaty, and then descending for 20 minutes at 40-50mph. Yes, even though it was the middle of the first night, she descended most of it at that speed. I think she topped 50 a few times! Ron, being the most experienced follow driver, followed her down. As we got near the bottom and she had to stop and take all those clothes off. At 200' below sea level, it was still about 70F. At Furnace creek we all had to pee!
I think the sun came up somewhere past Badwater. Through one night and not a moment of rest for SK. No sleep. She just kept pedaling! Like the energizer bunny! ....and she was still smiling. I remember we found some toilets down a dirt road near Ashford Mills. Then started Jubilee and Salsburg Passes. They are really one climb, the second biggest in the race. I can't remember why, and maybe it was just me, but we all seemed really happy going up these two. The sun was up on a beautiful day, we were keeping fed, and SK was motivating herself and the rest of us. We even started to think about finishing times. SK was not, she was just riding her pace. Very smart. Ron and I were thinking 43 to 45 hours I think.
....and so it was through Shoshone, over Ibex Summit and on to Baker.
Coming into Baker we left SK to execute an excellent pit stop. We got to Baker, dropped Ron off at the Greek for to get us all some food, then he would verify they got SKs time as she passed the time station, then he would walk over to the gas station where I was refueling and Greg was grabbing more ice and water. It went like clockwork! We caught up with SK about 2 miles outside Baker. We were enjoying warm fresh meals, and SK was still at it, smiling and pedaling.
How many hours on the bike at this point? 33? ....and we were headed to the dreaded boulderseal section of the 508. The upper section of the Baker Grade. This is the nastiest section of pavement you have ever seen, and there is no smooth line through it. Luckily SKs digestive tract is bulletproof, so she survived it. It was really pretty on top as the sun was setting on the second night. She took 10 minutes to just sit in the back of the van this pee stop, put on a few more clothes, and we were off to Kelso.
The climb up the Kelso grade is tougher and undulating. At one pee stop we ran into a Scottish couple out cheering for the racers in the night. By this time I was pretty much assuming she'd need to stop for sleep. It was the second night after all. Not yet! Still going. I started to spend more time on the radio, talking with her. To gauge how she was functioning mentally, to keep her occupied and awake. ....and she just kept pedaling!
On the descent into Amboy, I remember seeing her arms start shaking, and the front wheel with them. Cold. She was not taking any chances with holes and dips in the road either, keeping speeds under 30 most of the time. We all enjoyed the fresh pavement in Amboy. As she crested the climb up to Sheephole, we had a few cleat issues and did a few shoe swaps to get it all sorted. Just after that was done with, SK spots a target ahead, another team to pass. No time for sleep now!! After the pass she asked a few times how close they were. I told her not to worry about them as they were disappearing fast. ......and gave her a new target, finishing in under 45 hours! Well I did not think she was going too, but she did it with 4 minutes to spare!! There is now a female solo bent record!
I have crewed at night at Sebring a few times for the 24 hr racers, and ridden a few 600K brevets with others, and never have I seen a rider so consistently focused, positive, and just plain steady for close to 2 straight days, without sleep. Always smiling and thinking about what she needed at the next stop. Most rider eventually let the cadence drop a bit as they get fatigued. Not SK. Nothing could phase her. .....she just kept pedaling!