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Furnace Creek Ultra-Marathon Gives Cyclists Chance to Test Endurance and Will, but . . . : It's No Joy Ride


FURNACE CREEK, Calif. — The National Enquirer would have loved this.

While crossing the United States on a nonstop bike ride in 1980, John Marino came upon flashing lights and police cars late one night in a Kansas pasture.

Marino pulled over to investigate.

Farmers said a UFO had crashed, killing four cows.


Nothing so extraordinary happened over 510 grueling miles of the Furnace Creek 508, an annual 48-hour ultra-marathon bicycle event from Valencia to Twentynine Palms one recent weekend.

Marino, an Irvine general contractor who coaches youth soccer, was not among the 28 men, four women, three tandems and five four-man teams who embarked on this excruciating endurance test.

But he remains their father-figure as the one who first pedaled into the night and simply kept going.

As many as 200 Americans willingly subject themselves to the punishment of ultra-distance cycling, and the Furnace Creek 508 is one of their toughest two-day events.

It is so tough that Rick Heiss, 38, of Bakersfield thought he might never finish it.

He tried and failed six times before the '94 race.

But they say misery loves company. So Heiss, a physician, enlisted the help of Tom Davies of Chico, a competitive ultra-rider, as his crew chief. Davies has ridden this race six times and has completed it once.

"When you try something that much you get to the point of, 'Why are you there?' " Heiss said.

Why indeed?

That question is pondered in the chill of a quiet morning just off Interstate 5 as race director Chris Kostman counts down the start before riders and their support crews.

It dogs these determined cyclists through the expanse of the desolate Mojave Desert as they inch their way into the coal-black night where, before long, they will be fighting fatigue, numbness, hallucinations, dehydration, sleep deprivation and aches and pains most others don't know exist.

There are few spoils for the victors: a finishers' T-shirt, a hand-thrown cereal bowl with name and time engraved on the bottom and a pair of hiking boots.

Hiking, great! Exactly what the riders want to do after this.

There are few spectators. The cyclists rely on their crews, the other competitors and mostly themselves to get through it.

The desert denizens with craggy faces and windblown hair shake their heads as the cycling parade passes their godforsaken backwater haunts such as Johannesberg, Trona, Kelso and Amboy.

Who knows, they just might call the cyclists in as UFO sightings. Unidentified Fatigued Objects.

The cyclists hardly notice life beyond the long, lonely stretch of pavement that snakes to eternity.

They have miles to go before they sleep.


After so much failure, Heiss is not sure why he keeps returning to the race. His fiancee, Tracy Hicks, has no answers, either.

Hicks, after all, has watched him drop out time after time.

"It made her cry," Heiss says.

He quit last year after Shoshone, Calif., in the eastern Mojave because of fatigue and nausea caused by the broiling sun. In 1992, he developed tendinitis in the heel while pedaling through Death Valley National Monument. His cleats were too far forward in his pedaling position.

One year, Heiss had to drop out when a severe dust storm made it impossible to see and caused electrical problems with the support vehicle. Other times, Heiss suffered nutritional imbalance. This time, leaving nothing to chance, Hicks has charted Heiss' caloric intake.

But all it takes is one tiny problem and it's over.

It happened to Steve Born last year during the Race Across America, the ultimate ultra-distance cycling event. Born, 36, of Ketchum, Ida., is something of a folk hero in the sport after finishing three consecutive Races Across America.

But last year he quit, 200 miles into the race, which is like forfeiting the seventh game of the World Series in the first inning.

Born was suffering from who-knows-what in the 120-degree heat in Baker, Calif.

"They peeled me off the pavement," he recalls.

Born, who won an Academy Award for sound for the film "Bram Stoker's Dracula," almost died in the ordeal.

"My urine was black," he says. "I felt like I was having convulsions."

But he did not see a doctor. Instead, he sat in a hotel room and talked it out with his crew until his body began to function normally.

Ultra-athletes do that.

Born notes that the temperature is 54 degrees as he cruises through Baker on his way to victory near the end of the Furnace Creek 508.

He finishes in 31 hours 9 minutes, 31 minutes ahead of the second finisher, Rob Murlock of Brookfield, Conn.

It is a triumph of the mind, Born says after bursting past the makeshift finish line of generic white toilet paper. He is greeted by the polite applause of race officials and his two-member crew.


Speaking of tiny problems. . . .

Three miles after the start, Heiss passes his crew and is thrown for a loop. Davies is bent over the engine of Heiss' 1970 pink and green VW van.

It has a bad carburetor.

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