Furnace Creek 508
By Bill Becher
Bill Palmer ready to had up a water bottle as Merrick
Cohn rides by.
This is one sick bike race -- a 508-mile ride from Valencia through
Death Valley and the Mojave Desert to Twentynine Palms.
At the meeting the night before the race, organizer Chris Kostman
exhorts the 114 cyclists who've signed up for the fun. He jokes about
having experienced sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations when he raced
the Furnace Creek 508 -- including thinking he was attacked by jumping
It's hard to conceive of riding a bike continuously for 508 miles.
That's about the distance between San Diego and San Francisco. Add to that
desert winds and a more-than-Everest 35,000 feet of climbing and you have
a prescription for some major suffering.
Merrick Cohn from Camarillo is joking about winning at the pre-race
meeting. Cohn, 32 and a member of the Conejo Valley Cyclists bike club,
has done four rides over 250 miles. In a more realistic moment he says his
hope is to finish the race in 36 hours so he has a shot at qualifying for
the Race Across AMerica. The 508 solo course record is 28 hours.
Racers at the 508 who finish within 15 percent of the winner's time
will qualify for RAAM. But just finishing the 508 is considered a triumph
by most who enter. Lack of sleep, injury, sore butts, illness,
dehydration, hallucinations, or just plain fatigue cause many to abandon
the race somewhere in the desert.
The annual race costs $279 to enter as a solo rider, unless you sign up
early. There are categories for men, women, and mixed tandems. There are
also two-person and four-person relay teams racing. Volunteer support
crews follow each rider in a car or van.
Instead of race numbers, each rider or team gets an animal "totem".
Cohn's is "California Condor." The sign on the side of his support van
reads, "Better watch out... I eat roadkill for breakfast!"
Kostman, the race director, says that numbers are impersonal, plus the
racers have a hard time remembering numbers when they have to shout them
out as they ride by a time station in the middle of the night.
"It's a fun thing we've done at the race since 1993 and racers and
crews really embrace it," says Kostman. "Several have even had their
totems tattooed onto their body."
Why would someone enter a 508-mile bike race, beside the excuse to
tattoo an animal name on his body?
"I don't know, says Cohn, who is studying computer science at Moorpark
College after being laid off from his job earlier this year.
Cohn explains that he started riding 100-mile centuries, then double
centuries, than several 300-mile rides. So 508 miles seemed like a logical
progression, though Cohn admits riding 508 miles isn't logical.
"It's really hard," he says. "The course is really tough. Just when
you're at your lowest, you look up and there's more climbing. It tears you
The reality is that only about half of the solo riders who attempt the
race finish it. It's not a kid's sport. This year just one rider is under
30 and he won't make it.
Bill Palmer waits in the crew vehicle as Merrick Cohn
Cohn is lucky to have Bill Palmer, an experienced ultra distance bike
racer, on his crew. Palmer holds half of the two-person mixed team record
for the 508, and has crewed RAAM races. In addition Cohn's wife Chandra
and fellow bike club member Lance Christensen will drive the support van,
providing food, drinks, encouragement and trying to stay awake.
"I felt like a mother worrying about her newborn baby," said Lance
Christensen after the race. "We were constantly asking: Is he eating
enough? Is he drinking enough? Is he peeing enough? Handing him his
bottle. Sound familiar?"
The race starts at 7 a.m. in Valencia and the racing starts in earnest
at San Francisquito Canyon as the riders head toward Mojave.
After 100 miles Cohn is only about ten minutes behind the rider who
finished third last year and his crew is happy. It's getting warm. Chandra
Cohn fills a tube sock with ice cubes for Merrick to wear like a collar to
keep him cool. The wind picks up.
In Panamint Valley Cohn throws up. His crew isn't too worried at this
point. Part of long distance cycling is finding out what food your body
can tolerate. Like many racers, Cohn is using a mostly liquid diet.
"You can be a victim of your gut if you eat the wrong thing," says
Palmer. Riders can develop a sore mouth from breathing the dry desert air,
making it hard to eat dry food.
Cohn recovers and climbs Towne's Pass, catching three other racers. The
climb is 13 miles long with up to a 13 percent grade. Coming after 200
miles of riding it can be tough. The reward for all the climbing is a
50-mile per hour downhill into Death Valley -- especially interesting
because night has fallen.
After dark the riders use lights on their bikes and are followed
closely by their support vans.
In Death Valley Cohn starts falling asleep on his bike. Palmer pulls
him off and allows him a 20-minute nap. Cohn gets back on the bike and
pedals up Jubilee Pass out of Death Valley.
Watching the sun come up can be the toughest part of the 508 says
Palmer. This is where it sinks in that a whole day is passed and there are
still many miles to go. "You want it to be over," says Palmer.
At 325 miles in Shoshone the California Condor starts to look like
three-day-old road kill himself. Ten miles north of Baker, 370 miles into
the race, he melts down completely.
He's shaking really bad and can't keep anything down. Cohn's crew has
been weighing him periodically to check his hydration. He has lost 10
pounds - the equivalent of over a gallon of fluids. Cohn sleeps in the van
while his wife and Palmer discuss whether to take him to a hospital. But
after several hours Cohn wakes up and gets back on his bike.
"I wanted my crew to tell me to stop. I wanted an excuse to quit," said
Cohn after the race. "Then I saw one of my crew wearing a 508 shirt and I
remember thinking I really want that jersey."
Cohen puts on his shoes, gets on his bike and rides away.
His crew is amazed at how well he is doing now. South of Baker comes a
28 mile climb. Cohn said seeing a car's lights behind him for 10 minutes
and another eight or 10 minutes after the car passed was demoralizing. But
he keeps cranking. "I thought at that point I had about a five percent
chance of finishing," said Cohn.
For the last 200 miles of the race all he can keep down is Coca-Cola
and a couple pieces of bread. But Cohn's mental attitude is good and he's
determined to finish within the 48-hour cut-off time. After that no
Cohn rides to the race finish at 3:30 a.m. He is 20th out of 25 in his
category. Cohn's time of 44:27:20 earns him a jersey. One racer is
disqualified and 12 others in the men under 50 category don't finish.
The overall winner, Eric Ostendorff from Torrance, finished in
31:14:11. The top woman, Seana Hogan, finished in 35:06:03. Hogan, who has
raced the 508 many times, said headwinds made this the toughest race she's
"In my opinion if (Merrick} hadn't gotten sick, he would have qualified
for RAAM," said his crew chief Palmer. "As a rookie, just finishing is
good." Cohn said later that it was an advantage being a rookie.
"If I had known how tough it was, I would have quit at Baker," said
As they drive home after the race, Cohn tells his support team that the
race is just too hard and he doesn't plan on doing another.
"I bet by Thursday you call me about racing next year," says Palmer.
He missed his bet by a day. On Friday when Palmer checks his answering
machine there's a message from Cohn. The California Condor wants to talk
about riding in next year's Furnace Creek 508.
IF YOU RIDE
The Furnace Creek is held each year on the second weekend in October by
adventureCORPS, who also organize the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 100-mile
run through Death Valley in the middle of summer. Visit
www.the508.com for more
The Ultra Marathon Cycling Association supports long-distance cycling:
riding a century, double century, brevet, or long-distance tour. The
association also promotes ultra distance races and the Race Across AMerica.
For information see
(This article originally appeared in the Daily News.)