A frequent contributor to UltraRaceNews, John (Blue Racer) Schlitter has experienced yet another huge season on the Ultracycling circuit. It began in February at the Sebring 12/24 as usual, and ended with the Furnace Creek 508 (FC508). Just like many races from the past, John was locked in a battle with long time friend and fellow recumbent rider Tim (Werewolf) Woudenberg. Here’s John’s account of his first solo FC508:
by John Schlitter,
In 2008 I crewed for Sara Kay Carrell (Team Bacchetta) and Dana Lieberman’s (Bent Up cycles) 2 person FC508 team. Even after crewing I really did not think I ever wanted to race this race. Well last year when Sandy Earl suggested we do a four person team with David Bradley I said yes, it would be an honor to race with David.
Then they set up the rotations so I would do the Trona to Furnace Creek for my first pull. This includes the Townes Pass climb. Then my second pull would be Kelso to Almost Amboy. It just so happens I really enjoyed the first pull so much I got it into my head to do FC 508 solo.
When the FC 508 opened up registration I got my name in there and was committed. The “Plan,” for the 2011 season was to race into shape and have fun while doing it.
That “Plan,” worked well up though PBP. Then the plan was to drive on out to CA, do a four man recumbent team time trial in Fresno (we won), get at least a century in and fly back to FL for some more riding. Then a taper weekend in Costa Rica and back to FL, fly on out to Fresno and go down to Valencia for the start of FC 508.
Jacquie Hafner, Don Warner and my cousin Greg Issinghoff volunteered to be my crew. Greg had crewed with me on Sara Kay and Dana’s FC 508. Turned out the combination of crew worked out great and they hung in there through those painfully long climbs that FC 508 is known for.
We got down there in time to get through inspection without too many surprises and made the Olive Garden gathering with the other recumbent racers and a few traditional rider friends with their crews.
Turns out we had a total of four solo recumbent racers for FC 508 this year. Sara Kay Carrell, Team Bacchetta, was going for the first woman soloist on a recumbent. Chris Young from OR and Tim Woudenberg from CA.
Chris Young is bit of an unknown to me but proved to be a strong rider and put in a good 508. Tim and I have had battles out there on the course for the last few years starting with two man RAAM in 2007. There had really yet to be a direct race between us that had not resulted in Tim running in to equipment problems so really have not had it out head to head to the end. Oh, there also was that little matter of him taking away my record on solo RAAM but that’s what records are for, to be broken.
I got to ride with Tim on PBP and I must say he seemed to be having a much better PBP than I (riding effortlessly) and that kind of got me worried a little. I believe it was at one of the controls there he told me he was also riding solo FC 508. So the mind games were coming into play while we were riding though western France.
Now if you have never been out in the desert or have had the joy of riding FC 508 or some of the precious roads that run out there though Death Valley, you just might not appreciate when someone takes FC508 a little too lightly. I’ll tell you this is one race you better come prepared for and just don’t think because you have done races of this length or longer with no problems you can come into FC508 a little too relaxed. If you do, you either DNF or experience a true suffer fest!
Race Day weather turned out to be a little cold for the start but I knew it should warm up quick enough. I tried to keep the output low, not go into distress so my lungs didn’t fill up with fluid. I soon found out that really is not possible when you have a race that crosses ten mountain passes and has over 35,000 feet of climbing. Remember this is a former Kansas boy now living in Florida.
I roll out and I keep Tim nearby to watch and get a feel of how he is riding, looking for those little signs that might give me a clue as to what he is capable of doing this race. It did not look good; he was smooth as glass and chatting with other riders like he was out for a 30 mile spin. My game plan was to ride steady, no hard out puts, burn no matches early. This is a long hard race and I really have to ride smart because I’m thinking I might have come here just a little too relaxed.
After five miles of riding with the pack, they let us loose to race. The CA 2.0 does the work for me. Tim is either not interested in going yet or just is not descending as fast. Soon I’m up pacing off a group of traditional riders trying to back it down and keep plenty of space between riders. It is going good hanging at their pace pretty easy, not working too hard, passing by on the downhill and getting slowly passed on the longer climbs. Then I see Tim coming up on me and he goes on by as the climb turns into more than just a bump. Mind games had just shifted to Tim’s court. I had to go deeper than I wanted to keep his pace and was having to let him go. This meant he would get to the first point of the race 25 miles in for hand ups.
I came around the corner and climbed the hill of shame as all the crews are there cheering on their racers feeling a little disappointed because I stuck to my game plan, ride steady, it is a long race. There was Tim on the side of the road changing to another bike, so I rolled ahead of him. That lasted for a while and we kept each other close but as we got near the wind mills climb he once again just walked away from me and once again I went into conserve mode. It is a long race.
I think Tim was starting to play with me. Coming down wind mill pass I catch up to him again and he is riding the low racer which we all know a high racer like a Bacchetta can’t keep up with going downhill! I’m thinking he must have had a problem. We soon hit another long downhill and he slowly inches on by then starts launching his water bottles out. I hit the second one with my rear wheel and sprinted up to him and say I hope you’re out of grenades; you almost got me on the last one.
We swap the lead a few more times and he leads us into the first time station. I’m guessing we were running about 7th and 8th place overall at this point and soon had no targets in sight for a long time which meant those in front were likely not to be seen by me.
Once again Tim stops for something and I get ahead. At this point I just want him to get gone! Get out of my sight! Get out of my mind so I could settle into my own little suffer fest and chug along. He grants me my wish and slowly disappears but we also have run down a few more of the lead riders moving us up to around 5th and 6th place.
The climb to Randsburg is not a fun climb. Matter of fact none of these climbs were as fun as it was last year when I only had to ride 160 miles of the race. Something about doing every little inch of those lovely chip seal roads myself was giving me a new appreciation of this SUCKS! I was having flash backs to my solo RAAM when I struggling though Arizona. This was not fun. What is amazing is that all it would take was a chance to point the nose downhill and let her rip and I would be all happy again and ready for the next climb. That happiness would last for about a third of the next climb then it would be back to damage control for the rest of the climb. You get the picture. FC 508 is a lot of up and down. Long memories of the up and very short ones of the down.
We hit Trona and get the time split. Tim is running about twenty minutes ahead and I announce to my crew I’m not going after him; he is going have to come back to me. Of course the thought flashes though my mind, it is a long race.
Trona to Furnace Creek was a blast last year. It was my first pull of the race and on the way I had about a gazillion targets in front of me. Say the least I was amped! We had gone into the night following last year and you could see the targets lined up for miles ahead and the bike was rolling easy as targets went by.
This year no such thing, must have been a head wind. It was all up hill to the Trona bump, no targets. Just the Golden Retriever (Herve Talabardon) and I swapping back and forth. I think Northern Nose Shoveler (Michael Svihura) was around there too. The roads seemed a little better, maybe because it was still daylight and I could see the cracks and holes that I nailed last year. Then we made the turn onto Townes Pass. I could only see a couple of cars and riders working their way up. I was wondering which one of those is Tim?
About a third of the way up I saw a white van far over to the right in a pull off and thought, I think that is Tim’s set up. I was not a hundred percent positive but it gave me the incentive to pick it up and if it was, I was not going to let this opportunity go by. It was still early in the race and I wasn’t having sleep issues, was still taking in fuel but struggling a little on that. I kept thinking that each pedal revolution will put me that much further away from him and he’ll surely have to work as hard as I was to even try and catch me. Then the thoughts would pass through my mind – but he is going to be rested and flying, will my crawl pass be enough to hold him off? The delirium of an ultra-racer, what else do you have to think about? The descent down Townes Pass was once again a blast and Jacquie did a great job following as we cruised down averaging 55 mph. About half way up Seana Hogan passed me on the climb leaving me one target on the descent. Expecting to reel her in quickly on the descent but it took clear to the Stovepipe Wells to close the gap. She was descending fast!
Furnace Creek to Shoshone was a section I slept through the last two times I was on this course so it was all new to me. I really like the section along Badwater. I saw a couple of targets way off in the distance which would seem real close then bam, far away. It was because we were following in and out of coves along the side of a lake. It really kept me focused on getting those targets and I kept thinking I hope Tim does not have targets to help him focus on going faster. Then we made a left turn and the road went up to Jubilee Pass. It was tough. I did get a nice visit in with Chris Kostman during the climb. He gave me an update on who was behind and how far Tim was back. I hit the summit of Jubilee and did the quick descent for a mile right into Salsberry. Then Don told me it was ten miles to the top. I whimpered and hunkered down for the long spin to the top. I got passed by Drew Peterson (Turkey Vulture) but got him back before we hit Shoshone. We rolled right on through and kept it going, heading for Baker.
Shoshone to Baker was nice. A little break with an easier long climb before dropping down towards Baker. It was on this leg I moved into fourth place. In my mind I figured somewhere around sixth place. I passed Joshua Talley (Escapegoat) coming into Baker, asked the crew to pull in to see if they could get any information on Tim as I rolled on.
Baker to Kelso has the nicest section of roads I have ever ridden across in an ultra-race, NOT! You’ll hear all the stories about how crappy this road is and even if you have driven across it a couple of times your mind just wants to forget what it saw. You keep hoping as you start the climb that maybe they fixed the road. Maybe that section of thick chip seal that goes on for miles, numbing you into submission, is like this all the way now. Just when you’re thinking I’m getting to the top, you go over a cattle guard and the road disappears. Well it is still there but it has completely changed to some weird organic sculpture scattered with big rocks and all kinds of things stuck into the road. Making the summit you get a hundred yards of okay pavement then the distorted road comes back for the descent. Speeds up to thirty is all you can really think about as you try and pick the best line down. There is none. I wacked a hole and hoped I did not pinch flat and kept on bouncing my way down. About a mile from the bottom I motioned for the crew to pull over for a pit stop. When getting ready to re-mount the bike I drop my rear wheel down and it clanked as if it was flat, yup pinch flat. Quick change of the tube and we were rolling again.
Kelso to almost Amboy I think okay, there are three more long climbs. Maybe this one is just one long one and there are really only two. The road is still rough chip seal and teams are started to play tag with me as we make our way up. Early in the climb I hit a breaking point with my SRAM bar end shifter losing its indexing. I just could not hold it manually in gear anymore. I told the crew to find a spot to pull over and I was going to change out the shifter. I was so glad the dissension to bring an extra set along was made. The change out took me about ten minutes to do and made a world of difference in my attitude once back on the bike. I settle into the slow climb watching the rear view mirror not wanting to see a recumbent coming up behind me. I still felt I was going slowly enough that Tim being well rested was going to be able to run me down. I said “Hi” to the time station crew at Almost Amboy and kept rolling. One more big climb then it would be somewhat flat to Twenty Nine Palms.
Almost Amboy to Twenty Nine Palms has a nice few flat mile before it goes up and as it turned to the south west I picked up a little tailwind. This was great on the flatter ground, but as soon as I headed up the hill and the speeds dropped down to matching the tailwind the heat was just there. It was not super-hot but just hot enough with no air moving and the sun beating down that it turned the climb into some miserable last hours of the race. I kept thinking Tim is going to catch me on this damn climb and will I have it in me to hang near him and then go by when the time would be right. There was just no way in my mind I wanted to let this 508 mile race come down to a sprint for the finish.
I finally made it to the top and dropped down to the road heading west. Guess what? It was torn up too! I had been passed near the top of Sheephole pass by a team rider and could see their follow vehicle way down the road every once in a while. I set it as my goal to catch and pass them before the finish. I made the pass about five miles out and that made me have to keep it up so I would not let them by again. Then I noticed I had a slight chance of finishing under the 34 hour mark so I kept giving it everything I had. I just could not do it and was about a mile out when the clock struck 5:00 p.m… I was toast and just spun in for the 34:04 finish.
I was so very happy to be done, my feet were killing me and I just wanted out of those riding shoes. My crew was waiting with cameras, and then we got swarmed by three teams who finished right after me. I waited around while Chris Kostman gave them all their medals, t-shirts, jerseys and congrats. Chris then called me up for my rewards; got the crew up for a group picture and then I went and threw up.
We talked about hanging around for Tim. I had heard he was going to buy me a beer because he had told my crew that the last one to the finish buys the beer. I was just too toasted and ripe. We hit the hotel for a shower and then found some dinner and crashed for the night. We made a quick visit to the finish breakfast, visited with friends and then we closed the book on FC 508 for 2011.