The Silver State 508
Strava: Silver State 508
This is the first year for the Silver State 508 and hopefully not the last. The race used to be called The Furnace Creek 508, and was run in Southern California through Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park. It is one of the premier ultra-distance cycling events in the USA and is a RAAM (Race Across America) qualifier. It is also a NON DRAFTING event—instead, it’s one super long time trial. Last year, my partner (Jami Horner) and I raced the Furnace Creek 508, but because of the Federal Government shutdown, all permits through National Parks were immediately revoked. So, the park was shut down and the race route was shortened and racers were not permitted to enter Death Valley National Park. So the 508 became the 368: an out and back to a mining town called Trona. It was still a fantastic race, albeit shorter than expected. That race turned out so well, the race director, Chris Kostman (Adventure Corps) put on a slightly shorter race called the 308, which I won in the solo division this year with my wife and Jami Horner as crew.
Then as luck would have it, the National Park Service revoked all permits for any and all activities within Death Valley. All permits were slated for a safety review, and they would not say when the park would re-open for any activity. That ended the Furnace Creek 508—an event that had taken place for 24 years straight; an event which brought over a million dollars of tourist revenue to Death Valley. However, when one door closes, another opens. A friend of mine, Dan Dominy, contacted me after it became clear the Furnace Creek 508 would not celebrate a 25th year in Death Valley. Dominy suggested I talk to the promoter and make a case for moving The 508 race to Nevada.
Fast forward a year, and The Silver State 508 is born.
After racing the 308 solo, I decided to go big, throw caution to the wind and enter The Silver State 508 as a solo rider. The furthest I have ever ridden was 429 miles in 27 hours across Nevada on Highway 50 simply because it was there. So this race looked like the next logical (or insane) step.
I managed to wrangle up a crew: Jami Horner (previous 368 partner and previous crew member in the 308 and many other events), Liz Beadle (previous crew member in multiple events) and Jeni Root (crewed for the Reno Tahoe Open (RTO)). They all had an idea what they were getting into, but had never crewed together, or for this amount of time. I figured this race would take between 32 and 36 hours of constant riding, and possibly 30 hours if everything went right. But when does everything go right—especially within 508 miles on a bike?
So at 6:30 am on Oct 5, 2014 I toed the start line at the Atlantis Hotel and Casino in Reno, ready to race up Geiger Grade to Virginia City, down 6 Mile Canyon to Highway 50, out past Fallon to the Highway 722 cutoff at Middle Gate and over Carol Summit. Then to Austin, continuing until Eureka where I would turn around and race back the way I’d come, back to the finish line at the Atlantis Hotel and Casino.
And we were off. The race sped through Reno, taking back streets to drop us off at the base of Geiger Grade. Quickly 3 riders pulled off the front, and I just found a rhythm, and kept it there. My fastest time up Geiger is 34 minutes, and I paced up the ascent at 40 minutes for this race. After all, there was still more or less 500 miles to go. Then, we dropped into Virginia City, a relic of the Comstock Lode, then down 6 Mile Canyon through the golden cotton wood trees to Highway 50 and began heading East to Fallon. Winds were flat and speeds were high as we dropped into our aero-bars and pedaled past Fallon.
The climbing began just past Fallon at Sand Mountain. We rode up Sand Springs Pass, and down into the Naval Bombing Range of Dixie Valley, then up Drumm Summit, then down to Middle Gate where we veered right onto Highway 722. This highway took us past the old East Gate Ranch, an operational ranch which was once a watering stop for early pioneers. As we pedaled past the ranch, we began the 13 mile climb up Carol Summit. At this point, we were about 150 miles into our ride, and our spirits were high. At 150 miles, everyone is still enjoying the event and fatigue hasn’t started to trickle into anyone’s head. In fact, at 150 miles, nutrition on the bike is still a second thought as we descended the East side of Carol Summit into Smith Creek Valley. Railroad Pass was the next short and quick climb then we descend into Reese River Valley to eventually put us back onto Highway 50 just below Austin.
At this point, I was solidly in 6th place. And this is the moment in the race where it all changed.
Life is a funny thing. Everyone faces adversity, and everyone has to deal with it. Not fun, but it happens nonetheless. And just like everyone, recently I have my share of mine. Lately, personal issues have made sleeping more of a luxury than a daily occurrence as I have not seen much of it. So going into a 30-plus hour non-stop race suddenly took its toll.
At almost 200 miles into the race, holding 6th place with a 21.3 mile average, I found myself struggling to stay awake on the bike. My eyes would blur, the road would go fuzzy, and I would find myself drifting from one side of the road to the other. When I was only 10 miles from Austin, I hoped to struggle though my sudden fatigue and climb up Austin Summit, then up Bob Scott Summit—I hoped that the change of effort from flat to climbing would wake me up.
I rode through Austin, up Austin Summit, then up Bob Scott Summit, but the effort of climbing didn’t quite wake me up; instead, I had to jump into the support vehicle and sleep. It was about 5 pm, and I curled up in the front seat and passed out.
My wonderful crew, wanting to give me quiet, waited outside the support vehicle and cheered on the passing riders. About 45 minutes later, team Desert Bighorn (a two-man relay team consisting of Adam Kovac, an employee of Great Basin Bicycles and Justin Clark, resident of Fallon, Nevada, the only other Nevada riders) blazed by, accompanied by hoots and hollers from my magnificent crew. Soon after Desert Bighorn had descended Bob Scott Summit, I was back up and on the bike. I still felt like I was in the race. Although I took a 45 minute nap, I reasoned that most racers will also have to take a nap at some point on the course, so I figured that I just took mine early, and would make time on them when they took their break.
So with (mostly) high spirits, I continued my way to Eureka.
This has got to be one of the hardest mental sections of the race. As you drop down Bob Scott Summit into Big Smokey Valley, you begin what looks like a gradual ascent up the valley, then up and over Hickson Summit into Monitor Valley.
When you reach Monitor Valley, now in the dark heading east, you see only one light. There is a ranch house way out the valley on the North side. You are looking up at the light of the ranch house, so you know you are going slightly uphill. And as you watch a car pass you heading east towards Eureka, you can see their tail lights continuing up the valley, shimmering away into the darkness. You have the feeling of not moving, except for the light of the ranch house moving ever so slowly, lower and to your left. You know you are getting somewhere, but in the dark you have no idea where, and you want to get there faster.
I continue to ride east, watching that ranch house light move slowly to my left as I watch the road again start to get fuzzy, and I can feel my head dropping with drowsiness. I struggle to stay awake, after all there are only 20 more miles to Eureka—only one more hour. I continue to fight off the incessant desire to fall asleep on the bike, and I struggle every mile to Eureka and finally arrive. My body feels fantastic, but my head just wants to sleep.
We check into the time station in Eureka, then I crawl back into my support vehicle and fall quickly asleep. Two of my crew, Jami and Jeni, take sleeping pads and sleeping bags and sleep outside on the hard cold ground as I get the front heated seat of the vehicle. As I slept, my third crew member, Liz, sat in the back seat of the vehicle quietly prepping food and drink for later. One hour 45 minutes after I went down, I finally wake myself up and realize that any hope of a strong finish was just slept away.
This is where the race took a turn for me.
I got back on the bike, and started my return trip back to Reno. It’s just past midnight, and I think to myself: I am back on my bike leaving Eureka in the dark, in the cold, and what the hell am I doing here? I just slept away any hope of a strong finish because there is no way the stronger riders would ever sleep that much in this event. And here I am, putting my body through hell with 250 miles yet to go.
I ask myself: Why?
And my answer isn’t much, but it’s something: I realize that I still have a little hope of pulling something back. Not much, but still something. So I decide to power on. Realizing how miserable I feel, I cheer on every cyclist I pass still heading east to Eureka. I don’t know if it helps them, but I hope it gives them that little bit of belief that I so desperately need.
Or, maybe misery just loves company.
I continue to make great time. I am catching riders, and leaving them behind. The long sleep feels like it worked, and my confidence rebuilds with each rider I pass. Back over Hickson Summit, heading towards Austin, I see the Ranch House again. Now, it’s on my right side and that’s when I feel that terrible drowsiness creeping back into my head. I look at the Ranch House knowing that it is a slight downhill back into Big Smokey Valley, but I then realize that I have found the only road in the world that is uphill both directions. I continue to struggle to remain alert, to keep a straight line on the bike and I try not to let the demons of sleep get into my head.
I cover 60 miles from Eureka and I’m forced to stop: I have to take another nap. Yet again, I can feel all the racers I just passed pass me as I sleep. All hope of strong finish is now truly gone.
Again, my fantastic crew hunkers down as I sleep for another 45 minutes. I get back on the bike completely demoralized realizing that I have been down for just over 3 hours total; 3 hours that I will never be able to make up. I get back on the bike in the dark–now even darker and colder than it was before–and start up Bob Scott Summit and Austin Summit. The demons of failure crept into my mind like the cold into every muscle in my body.
Again, I ask myself: Why am I doing this? It would be so much easier to just quit and go home. And what is happening to my crew with their sleep deprivation. Throwing in the towel now would probably be best for everyone.
I battle those demons as I climb; even though I am riding west, I still see riders heading east towards Eureka. This puts them almost 60 miles from the turnaround point, then 60 more miles behind me. That means that I am 120 miles—or, about 7 hours—ahead of them, and they are still going. They are still succeeding, they are still fighting their demons, and they are winning. I know that they will finish! So what is my excuse?
Everyone has 48 hours to finish this event, when I suddenly realize that I am only 200 miles from the end. That puts me 12-ish hours away from the finish line. It was now around 4am, which means I would finish around 4pm, giving me the finishing window of 32 to 36 hours I was shooting for from the start.
At this point, I was riding 50 to 60 miles before I had to sleep, so even if I had to follow the same sleep schedule for the rest of the race, I would more than finish in the required 48 hours. So, I simply decided to change my focus on the race. My race really ended in Eureka. With almost 3 hours of down time, there was no chance of ever pulling that back. So I decided to put my head down and hammer each section until I had to go down for another sleep break.
I continued to ride through Austin, and back onto Highway 722. And again at about 60 miles from my last sleep break, I found myself struggling to stay awake. I was desperately trying not to fall asleep and veer over into the other traffic lane, trying not to veer off the right hand side of the road, and just struggling to stay vertical. Slowly as dawn crept into the night sky, the evaporation from the irrigated valley increased and the temperatures started to plummet down to 23 degs F. Now fighting the biting cold, and the incessant drowsiness, I struggled to see the sun crest the 11,700-foot Toiyabe Mountain Range behind me to the east.
I know from previous endurance races that if I can just make it to full sun rise, I might just snap out of it.
I watch the peaks behind me start to light up, I struggle to stay warm– to stay awake– as sunlight slowly pours from east to west, lighting up the peaks in front of me. The golden light slowly caresses the mountain tops and flanks into the valleys below. Slowly, the temperature begins to rise. I can feel the warmth from the sun driving out the biting cold, and driving away my drowsiness.
The more the sun rises, the better I feel. It is simply amazing how the human body reacts to the rising sun. With the light, with the warmth, everything changes, and so did I.
I realized that my race had ended 100 miles ago, but there was nothing keeping me from finishing. So I continued to make the best out of an epic adventure. I felt horrible for my poor crew who had been there handing me food and water bottles filled with whatever I needed, dancing on the side of the road to keep my spirits up when they could see the competitive edge drained from my expression, and driving behind me for hours upon hours at 20 miles per hour. Because, in part, of them I knew I couldn’t quit. They are what forced, encouraged, and supported me to find that extra spark within myself to finish. And they were all magnificent beyond expectation.
From that point on, I muscled over Carol Summit, past East Gate Ranch, and back on Highway 50 towards Fallon. Over Drumm Summit, over Sand Pass Summit, then down to Sand Mountain where a vast flat emptiness awaited. I struggled with headwinds and the worst chip seal asphalt with rumble strips from Hell that would knock every filling out of your mouth if you hit just one. I think I lost all my fillings.
I continue to force myself to ride into Fallon as the once biting cold has now turned into searing heat. But I will take the heat over the cold and drowsiness any day. The temps now climb from a low of 23 to a stifling 93 degs F. This was a 70 deg F temperature swing that challenged even the best riders.
And with a slight headwind, I plodded toward 6 Mile Canyon, the final climb up to Virginia City. I turned off Highway 50 and onto 6 Mile Canyon at Silver Springs and began my hot ascent. I know this climb well and have ridden it many times, and it never gets any easier. It starts out as a mild ascent then it throws in steep sections. Then to put the icing on the cake, the last quarter mile is between 16 – 20% grade . . . after 480 miles completed. I continue surging up the steep sections of 6 Mile Canyon, and make it to that dreaded last quarter mile section.
I realize that I am not here to kill myself, so I zig-zag up the first 90% of the climb until I reach that final 50 yards of the climb. And for no other reason other than to say that I did, and for no other reason other than to say I could, with my crew watching and cheering from the top, I sprinted strait up the last section.
From the top of 6 Mile Canyon, it is a mild climb to the top of Geiger, and to my amazement, I catch and pass a couple riders. I give them a quick cheer of encouragement, and they return the favor as I continue up to Geiger Summit. Now the finish line is only about 16 miles away. I descend Geiger Grade like a man possessed, and drop into the back streets of Reno. Little did I know that my crew had phoned a personal friend to let him know where I was on course. Ready to power to the finish, I rounded a corner to see Jay Grubaugh waiting to cheer for me at a stop light, giving me that little bit of encouragement for the last 3 miles to the finish line.
34 hours 55 minutes, 510.8 miles, 21,175 ft of climbing, and 8 place solo male (over 40 solo entrants). The team Desert Bighorn out of Great Basin Bicycles was a 2 man team that finished 2nd in their category. 28 hours 58 minutes.
A huge and magnificent thanks to my crew for their exceptional dedication to me and my quest during this event. I never could have completed this event without their help, dedication, and love. Thank you all. Jami Horner, Liz Beadle, and Jeni Root.
Rich Staley, Owner – Great Basin Bicycles, Reno, Nevada.