Furnace Creek 508 Training Q & A

I have been receiving a lot of questions recently about how I prepare for the Furnace Creek 508 (508 mile 35,000 feet of climbing).  I thought it would be wise to post those questions and answers here so as to create an open forum in which to discuss my training and interact with potential 508 racers.  Please feel free to post your questions and I will respond to the best of my ability.

So let us begin…

Hi Geroge,

Was wondering if you do very much group rides during your training? I have been focusing a lot on solo riding as to simulate 508 conditions as much as possible. I have a lot of friends inviting me to group rides but I have been reluctent to join in, just trying to prepare as much as possible for my upcoming 508. I’m part of the killer Bees.



Thank you for your question.  I do group rides from time to time to test my “red-line” fitness. I find that I feel faster, if even in my head, when I do a group ride once a week.  Having some training intensity is important even for an Ultra Cyclist.  However, I prefer to do most of my training solo.  Nothing can prepare you for the 508 like going out and riding 10-12 hours alone.

If you want to do the intensity but don’t want to deal with the egos, safety concerns or the prescribed route that comes with group rides then you should consider doing intervals.  Begin with shorter intervals, say 5 minutes, until you get the discipline and focus to move on to longer intervals of 10 -20 minutes.  If you find that doing a timed interval is too hard try doing hill repeats.  Find a hill 5 minutes long, then a hill that is 10 minutes long and so on.

Hi, I’m riding in the 508 on a coed 4X team this year (2011) and was wondering if I could ask a few questions. How many miles per week and what kind of hill work did you do for training? Any other words of advice?
Lonnie (Killer Bees)


Thank you again for you questions.  IF I was doing a 4X relay at the Furnace Creek 508  my training would be focused on riding 2x a day for a minimum of 30 super intense miles during the week and 50 miles 2x a day during the weekend.  You need to know how your body responds to doing a hard effort and then sitting around for 4- 6 hours before doing another hard effort.  The 508 has only one long leg in it, Trona to Furnace Creek 99 miles.  The other legs should be done in about 4 hours when you have a fresh rider on the course.

When I was training for 2007 Race Across America (RAAM) 2X relay I did three workouts a day.  I had a 3 hour 45 minute 70 mile commute to work, then a 20 mile lunch time ride (super hard), then 4 hour 70 mile commute home.  When my teammate DNF’d I finished RAAM on my own.  You may want to be prepared, at least psychologically, to complete the 508 solo.  It’s rare that a 4X relay team DNF’s but in 2009 Furnace Creek 508 the winds were so bad even 4X relay teams DNF’d.  I rode solo that year and finished while riding in 60 mph gusts through Death Valley.  Weather is the X-factor …you never know what to expect…be ready!

In response to your mileage and hill work question- I have a really good base of miles on my legs.  I don’t have to do a lot of miles anymore.  I will post my mileage per month for you and the other readers soon.  I had some hard drive issues in May and I lost a lot of data.  However, my work schedule and my child custody limits the amount of training I can do.  I focus on quality miles.  I use a power meter to make sure every workout counts.  I generally do about 200 miles a week or 12 hours.

As far as hill work, I do a dedicated hill workout or hilly ride per week sometimes two.

First is in regards to training and intensity. Do you ramp up and taper like a marathon runner might do? And is there a set program you follow?


Thank you for reading my blog and providing me with moral support!!  My training plan is quite simple …it’s my life that is complicated 😉

In the “off-season” (Nov, Dec and Jan) I do longer rides with less intensity.  I prepare for my first event of the season, the San Diego 200km (125 miles 8,000 feet of gain) which is held usually the first week in January.  I then continue to ride longish miles through February, March and April.  I will do the Spring Death Valley Double and a few climbing centuries held by AdventureCORPS.  May and June I begin double workouts and shorter intervals maybe an occasional group ride.  July and August I do a lot of climbing and then September is all intensity and low milieage with clubs. That usually prepares me for the Furnace Creek 508.

In regards to tapering.  I have never really felt much need for tapering. Last year I did Everest Challenge (29,000 feet of climbing 2-day stage race) less than a week before the Furnace Creek 508.  My legs felt amazing during the 508 so much so that I will do it again this year!


Shaun Stegosaurus Arora asks:

When you did 508 fixed what was the toughest descent? Also I struggle with gloves for steep fixie climbs. Do you have and recommendations.


Thank you for your question.  The 508 fixed is something I’d like to erase from my pain memory bank :).  It was extremely painful.  I think both Towne Pass and the descent into Almost Amboy were very tough.  Towne Pass is 17 miles.  The descent into Almost Amboy seems just as long even though it is many miles shorter.  I had to stop and take a nature break on the descent into Almost Amboy (400+ miles into the event) because of all the bouncing I was doing in my saddle.  My pedaling was no longer fluid and any cadence over 120 RPM was really a chore. As far as gloves I don’t usually wear them but on the Furnace Creek 508 Fixed Gear I had a lot of hand numbness even months after the event.

You can read about all my issues here in my 2007 Furnace Creek 508 on a Fixed Gear report during the event and then there is some stuff at the end of my report.  Good luck to you.





Newport Beach to Dawson Saddle 270 km (168 miles) 11,300 feet of gain

I wish to nominate Dawson Saddle for another of California’s Toughest Climbs  additional links here and here .  Dawson Saddle is 32 miles and gains 7,500 feet.  But there’s more difficulty to this climb than just the mileage and the gain.  If you plan on tackling the climb to Dawson Saddle please follow these tips to ensure safe travels:

1.  If you want a short warm-up and then begin climbing straightaway you should start at Encanto Park approximately 660 feet above sea level

2.  In the summer months, I would start the climb with a minimum of three bottles.  I have done it with five bottles.  Never a bad thing to have “too much fluids/nutrition”

3.  In the summer months, expect temperatures over 90 degrees F at the lower elevations

4.  Bring at least five hours of nutrition Minimum three-hour climb, Recovery at the summit and then nutrition for the long descent. The descent is not a high-speed descent because of the road conditions which you should note on your climb.  There are sections were you can open it up as well, so to speak.

5.  There isn’t anywhere to get fluids once you begin the climb

6.  There is a stream coming through the rocks at about 4,000 feet elevation – drink at your own risk!

7.  In May and June you should plan to reach the summit and begin your descent before 3 pm – temperatures drop very quickly as the sun sets  The “sun sets” sooner because you are surrounded by higher mountain peaks in the area and you lose the Sun’s heat earlier

8.  Bring a vest and arm/knee warmers and light full-fingered gloves as a minimum.  I HIGHLY recommend wool! Standard issue of clothing if you wish to a summit bagger!

9. Unless you are a strong climber bring at least a 27 tooth cassette (11-27 or 11-28) or a compact crankset 50/34.  I have done this climb with a 53/39 and 11-23 cassette but I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone.

10. Bring a buddy this is a remote climb, with closed roads to vehicular traffic, cell coverage is spotty to non-existent.  I would go on the assumption that there’s isn’t cell coverage.    Wildlife can and should be expected such as bears, deer and squirrels.  Yes squirrels, they are dangerous because they are unpredictable and cross your path then double back across your path again – a recipe for disaster.

11.  Bring plenty of flat repair- even though the road has been cleaned significantly over the years I have been doing this climb the roads are not maintained, frost heaves, potholes, plenty of loose rock, and falling rock are strewn along the highway.  I bring tire boots but a spare tire is not a bad idea.

12.  Be prepared to ride at least five hours without seeing another cyclist and once you pass the gated areas you won’t see any cars.

13.  Descend with caution- it could be hours or even days before someone finds you!

14.  File a flight plan- Tell a loved one or a friend where you are going and when you are expected back.  I have always called/texted my loved one with three simple words “on the mountain” and then “off the mountain”

15.  Lastly enjoy the views they are spectacular!

Training Peaks screenshot of Dawson Saddle Climb Normalized Power 201 or 3 w/kg for 3 hours

Grade analysis of Dawson Saddle from the Public Restroom at mile 35.25 on the San Gabriel River Trail

Felony – my 2011 Felt F1 with Shimano Di2

George “Red-Eyed Vireo” Vargas summits Dawson Saddle on his 2011 Felt F1 with Di2- 32 mile 7,500 feet of gain climb

My ride yesterday was from Newport Beach to Dawson Saddle 168 miles with 11,000 + feet of climbing. I left Newport Beach close to 1pm.  My plan was to do some night riding at the tail-end of my ride.  I was stocked with 10 hours of nutrition.  I ran out of fuel 9 hours into the ride.  It took me almost 11 hours to get home.  I bonked badly.  I rode 126 miles the day before and because of  it I was much hungrier on this ride.  My route was North on Pacific Coast Hwy (PCH)  to Seal Beach and then the San Gabriel River Trail (SGRT) to Hwy 39 to Angeles Crest Hwy 2 to Dawson Saddle summit 7901 elevation.  It’s important to mention that the  Dawson Saddle summit is 84 miles into my ride.  This climb is hard enough from Encanto Park where you get a couple miles of warm-up and just go.  Now imagine starting this climb with 50 miles on your legs.  Or how about this after summiting realizing you are still 84 miles from home.

his ride is especially difficult SOLO and unsupported.  You must carry enough fluids and nutrition from the start to a public restroom at mile 35.25 on the SGRT – about 50 miles for me.  Then refuel and have enough fuel/fluids for the next 35 miles of climbing – at least 3 hours of climbing.  You should have enough nutrition and fluids to have something at the summit and for your descent.  The descent takes a little longer than normal because the road conditions are not ideal in certain areas.  Basically you need enough of  whatever you fancy for 70 miles with 3+ hours of hard climbing in a remote closed road section.  Then once you refuel at the public restroom you need enough fluids/fuel to get you 35 miles back to PCH and then home if you don’t want to stop again.  Can you say Epic Adventure?!?!?!

Thank you for reading my blog.  Please provide me with feedback as to whether you find this post useful before or after doing your climb.  Please pass this blog on to your climbing friends.

Here are a few other posts I have made on climbing Dawson Saddle

September 29, 2008

May 14, 2010

May 27, 201

Coastal 200km (125 miles)

Today I did a round trip from Newport Beach to Encinitas.  It was 200km (125 miles) with only about 4,000 feet of climbing.  The training objective was to spin out the legs from yesterday’s hill workout where I did seated climbs at low cadences and high torque.  Today I spent almost 5 hours at cadences between 80-100 RPM.  I had good day on the bike.  The northbound leg (60 miles) was into a head/cross wind that sucked!  My average speed plummeted! But now I’m sitting relaxing in “the Pod” having a CVAC session at Lunar Health and Wellness in Newport Beach.  The plan is that the CVAC session will aid in my recovery so that I can do another 8 hours on the bike tomorrow.  Today’s ride was the longest thus far on “Felony” my 2011 Felt F1 with Shimano Di2 and SRM 7900 wireless crankset with Power Control 7.

CVAC Session today at Lunar Health and Wellness in Newport Beach

I’m running a little behind on my blogging but  I will try to catch you up slowly on my CVAC sessions beginning with my first one.

” Your “Introductory” Tier 1 session, consisted of (5) 5 minute tiers, that were designed to help train your eustachian tubes to adapt to the changes in pressure. The lowest elevation being 59ft above sea level (Ambient) and your highest being 10,500. As we discussed earlier, you will eventually get to 22,500 with 1.5 second drops.”

Heather Miller, of Lunar Health and Wellness in Newport Beach

For information check out this article submitted by John Howard to Lava Magazine.

The New Altitude Training: Sit Back and Relax – LAVA Magazine

CVAC sessions at Lunar Health and Wellness in Newport Beach

Last week I was called-on by the President and the VP of Operations of Lunar Health and Wellness in Newport Beach. They cited studies of how “altitude training” has been found as a natural means to help improve fitness and endurance. Being an endurance athlete, my curiosity was piqued. But as I did a little more research I realized that the wellness component would have more lasting benefits for me. I thought of two issues that I have been dealing with for years— sleep issues and exercise- induced asthma.

According to some of the data CVAC – Cyclic Variations in Altitude Conditioning will help me sleep better. By default getting more and better sleep every night will help me become a better athlete, right?  My other issue is exercise- induced asthma.  When I climb I can hold  high intensity but as soon as I crest and the intensity wanes, I begin coughing uncontrollably..  In the past, I was prescribed two types of inhalers, one as a daily dose and the other as needed during coughing attacks.  I don’t want to carry an inhaler nor do I want to be dependent on medication.  CVAC potentially offers me a drug- free option at dealing with these two issues.  And if that makes me a better endurance athlete in the process wouldn’t that be a bonus?

I’d like to hear from you — how many of you have heard of this technology and what are your thoughts?

I gained 10 lbs on my bike ride yesterday!

I rode from Encinitas to Palomar Mountain yesterday.  I had a great day on the bike. On my way back, I saw a fruit stand selling 10 lb bags of oranges for $1.00.  I couldn’t resist and bought a bag.  I carried that bag for the last 35 miles of my ride.  I thought why not – it’s good training 😉 and my son LOVES oranges! 🙂



Another Six Hours in the Saddle – Newport Beach to Oceanside and Back to Newport Beach

My legs felt a little heavy after yesterday’s six hour training ride.  It took some time to warm up.  I was quite hungry on today’s ride and pulled over a couple of times to get some solid foods in me.

The training goals and actuals are almost exactly what they were yesterday so I won’t load any additional graphs.

One awesome thing that happen today was running into Isabelle Drake. I was experiencing a lull in my ride, just south of San Clemente, when up ahead I saw a Furnace Creek 508 vest.  I wondered who that might be.  As I got closer I recognized Isabelle.  The timing was perfect.  I snapped out of it and started riding better.  She has a knack for that!  At the 2009 Furnace Creek 508 the winds were gusting up to 60 mph and we motivated each other to keep riding as we played leap-frog through Death Valley.  Thank you Isabelle you did it again you got me through a rough patch.  When I post my Death Valley Double Race Report this is the Isabelle that I will talk about.

Six Hour Training Ride – Newport Beach to Hwy 39

On Saturday February 26, 2011 I did a Double Century.  On Tuesday, March 1 a 30 mile club ride.  Today a Zone 2 Endurance Miles, 6 hrs pedal time 108 miles,  3,500 kjs Normalized Power of 180 watts. The club ride really hurt I wasn’t recovered yet! But I wouldn’t let myself get dropped no matter how much I hurt. My legs felt surprisingly good consider the abuse they took on Saturday’s double century.

Garmin download here

TRAINING GOALS: Endurance Miles 6 hours in Zone 2 training 160-216 watts.  2.35 w/kg – 3.17 w/kg, Average Cadence 90 RPM

ACTUALS: Average 162 watts (2.38 w/kg) Normalized Power 180 watts (2.64 w/kg). Average Cadence 86 RPM

HEADWINDS: Newport Beach to Long Beach and the San Gabriel River Trail. (about 15 Miles)

TAILWINDS: Long Beach to Hwy 39 Azusa (about 40 Miles)

HEADWINDS: Hwy 39 Azusa to Long Beach (about 40 Miles)

TAILWINDS: Long Beach to Newport Beach (about 15 Miles)

All-Weather Training

We’ve had some rain recently with more on the way. And there is rain and snow in the forecast for the Spring Death Valley Double Century this Saturday.  Often people ask me why I ride in the rain.  Why do I train in the rain when I could wait a day and it will  be sunny and warm.  First of all, I do it because most people don’t.  Most people just don’t like to suffer — they don’t want to do the work that it takes to improve.  Most people are lazy and expect things to happen.  Most people are fair weather riders.  And that’s OK if you’re a recreational cyclist.  But if you are competitive cyclist then sometimes you need to suffer a little to learn a lot.  You need to learn about yourself and your limitations.  What I believe makes me a successful Ultracyclist is I still haven’t found my breaking point.  I purposely go out on training rides or races seeking my limitations.  Even when I thought I had reached my breaking point like a Phoenix I rise up from the ashes and ride again.

Being a competitive cyclist has many different meanings.  I am competitive but really I just compete against myself.  I “race” with other riders on the course but ultimately I am competing against myself and MY results from previous years on the same course.  If I place in the top five I’m not going to Kona or some World Championship.  I’m not receiving prize money or primes (pronounced preems).  Nope I’m doing Ultras for my own personal sense of achievement.  I do Ultras for a sense of self-awareness or as is listed in the California Triple Crown website, Personal Growth Experience.  I can’t control who shows up.  I can’t control the weather conditions.  What I can control is my pace, my nutrition strategy, and my mental attitude.  While a good result is important to me when I “race” it’s much more important that my process through the event was efficient, smart and repeatable.  Once you have adopted the proper mindset for Ultras then you will be satisfied or not with YOUR results.

Let’s discuss the weather shall we? The reality, my cycling friends, is you can’t plan the weather.  There will be times when you line up at the start line with rain imminent.  Or even more distressing, it could be raining before the start of your event.  You know the difference don’t you?  When you wake up and look outside and it’s raining it’s really hard to get out isn’t it?  When you can hear the rain pelting on your bedroom window it’s quite discouraging.  But THAT’S when you seize the moment to make the exception!  That is when you separate yourself from the rest. Get up get dressed and get rolling! It’s much different than when you’ve been riding and it begins to rain.

What about wind?  I know that fighting a headwind is mentally draining as well as physically exhausting.  I would rather climb than fight a headwind.  However, I plan routes so that the return leg will be into the headwind.  In triathlon they say to train your weaknesses during your off-season. As cyclists I don’t believe we have the luxury of an off-season so I train my weaknesses year-round.

What about cold?  I will ride up at higher elevations during the winter months because I love to climb but I also like to expose myself to lower temperatures.  Riding in colder temperatures requires a higher calorie burn, hence it allows me to test my nutrition strategy along with my clothing.

What about heat?  You need to train in heat so you know how your body will react.  In particular how do you stay fueled how do you stay hydrated and how much electrolytes do you need.  I’ve gone out on really hot days or ridden in really hot areas to test all those very things.

2004 Death Valley Double Century Southern Route more the half the field DNF’s based on 112 degree heat

I do all this suffering because I wasn’t given the genetics to be an elite cyclist so I train harder than most to make up the difference.  I think of Steve Prefontaine  who said the difference between him and other runners was the pain he could tolerate.  Go Pre!

We live in Southern California and to say that our weather is moderate would be an understatement.  However, there have been several years when my early season events have had awful weather.  Why do I train in the bad weather?  Because when you don’t know what to expect of yourself and your equipment the likelihood of riding a successful ultra may be compromised.

  1.  You have to know with absolute certainty what clothing works in the rain and cold.
  2.  You have to know how well your equipment will function with the abuse of rain, sand and mud in your drivetrain.
  3. You have to know how to handle your bike on wet, oil slick streets.
  4. You have to know how to ride fast through painted intersections.
  5. You have to know what are your limits or your equipment’s limits when descending a wet switchback mountain.
  6. You have to know how your brakes will function in the rain and not be alarmed when your stopping distances are almost doubled.
  7. You have to know that motorists’ visibility is reduced significantly and wearing passive reflective equipment and actual lighting is essential in ensuring your safety.
  8. And don’t forget you’re still racing an Ultra so rain, cold, wind, low visibility AND night riding is also possible in the shorter days of winter.
  9. You must know that your lighting equipment will work in all-weather along with your cycling computers.

On a recent training ride I purposely began a 6.5 hour training ride (112 miles 5,500 feet of gain) at 12pm.  I knew it was going to rain and wore wool from head to toe.  I brought my lights and reflective gear.  I knew that I would ride about 1.5 hours in the dark.  It was important for me to test my clothing, nutrition and lights.  In anticipation of foul weather in Death Valley I had to test my gear.  I wanted and needed to be prepared equipment wise and mentally.  Over the years I have gotten faster as such I have been finishing most centuries and early season Double Centuries in daylight lately so I had to move my start time to noon so that I would encounter some night riding.

Just one example of my equipment choice is I don’t like Speedplay Pedals because they can become sticky in rainy conditions (metal to metal engagement for the cleat and pedal).  Another reason is on supported events the aid stations are placed off the pavement and they can get quite muddy and all that stuff clogs up your cleat.  I prefer Look/Shimano pedals and cleats.

Now let’s talk about something more timely.  This Saturday’s event, the Spring Death Valley Double Century, put on by AdventureCorps promises to be epic.  There are weather forecasts of cold temperatures, precipitation and even snow at higher elevations.  Does this scare me off of a 200 mile event?  On the contrary, I’m looking forward to it.  The worse the weather conditions are the more everyone else is suffering as well.  I enjoy riding in stormy weather.  I enjoy the ardor of it.  The fact that I  will be suffering more than the usual amount on a 200 mile event is enticing to me.  The bonding that I feel with other riders when we’re riding in poor weather is unexplainable.  We suffer together and brave the elements and succeed where others fail.  I feel an immense sense of achievement when I’ve completed an event in poor weather.  Below are just a few examples, where I’ve actually taken the time to write-up a report documenting riding/racing in less than ideal weather conditions.  Of course there have been many other times that I just considered it part of life as cyclist and didn’t bother writing a report.


Butterfield Double Century (Rain)

San Diego 300km Brevet (Rain, hail)


San Diego 300km Brevet (Rain and hail 50% DNF rate)


San Diego 200km Brevet (Rain)

Still smiling at the start of the really wet 2008 200km


San Diego 300km (Rain and cold)

UPDATE: 2011 Spring Death Valley Double Race Report

Epic Training Tip:  If it’s raining— go climbing.  When you climb you are going fairly slow.  Consider that if you are on flat ground you will at least be traveling at 18mph but uphill 8-10mph.  Everything is happening in slower motion.  You produce more body heat because you are working harder and won’t feel the cold–as much anyway.  Additionally, you are going slower so the rain isn’t pelting you which is nice when it’s hailing 😉  Riding skill isn’t really important until the descent.  When you summit descend at a leisurely pace and go up again 😉

Epic Training Tip: Wear wool.  This is always a conflict for me.  I have sponsors and I have to represent them with my clothing and equipment.  I have recently joined the Simple Green/Bike Religion cycling team.  And while I should be wearing my team kit on Saturday, I have some series reservations.  I will opt instead for clothing that I know works.  I will wear wool at Saturday’s event.  While I may receive a little grief from my team members I hope they understand the extremes of riding a 200 mile event in inclement weather .  What’s more important in the end is that I represent the team well with good sportsmanship, a competitive spirit and as a bonus a good result.  You have to FINISH to have a good result. My safety, my health and my performance as an individual are much more important than wearing Lycra.

Why do I train in all-weather conditions? Well because far too many riders Do Not Finish (DNF) when the weather is less than ideal.  We are so spoiled in Southern California.  Some of my close friends are Race/Ride Directors so I feel compelled to say this — please don’t start an event if you know in your heart that you don’t have the will to finish it.   Those that DNF put unnecessary load on the system.  For example, while the volunteers may be giving you a ride in the SAG vehicle because you were ill prepared, ill trained and/or ill clothed,  there could a rider “racing” the course that needs attention much more than you for a true mechanical or health issue.  Please be considerate of your fellow race mates it’s better to DNS (Do Not Start) than to DNF on the course.  Ideally, if you’re not attending an event then please let the ride/race director aware so he can find another rider to fill your spot. Then IMMEDIATELY  request to be a volunteer so you can help the ride/race director have a successful event. The race director will be very appreciative of the extra people when the weather, not the course, becomes the primary obstacle for a rider to finish.

Personally I hope the weather is abysmal this weekend.  I wish for a weeding out of riders who spook easily.  I would actually prefer that it snow.  If it snows instead of rain the riding conditions will actually be better.  Allow me to explain…it takes a perfect conditions for snow. In my opinion, snow is easier to ride in and comes down slower and you don’t get as wet.  Rain on the other hand has a much broader temperature range and you get really wet and that sucks more :p  There is a certain crispness to the ambient air a freshness and an eerie quiet when it snows.  I love being in the mountains climbing when it snows!

Why do I train in all-weather?  Because I’m an Ultra Cyclist and on race day I will be prepared!