Xtri Chats with Dave Nerrow, Ultra Athlete and Multisport Business Owner (pt 1)

Posted on October 30, 2008 by

Dave Nerrow is the owner of Fast Splits, one of the top multisport retailers in New England, and he’s also a multiple Ironman finisher who’s dabbled in some ultra events. What makes Dave unique is that he doesn’t just participate in these events – he races them and does very well. At the Western States 100, he earned a coveted belt buckle for finishing in under 24 hours; last year he and his Team Psycho Teammates placed 2nd in their division by just 2 hours in their first attempt at RAAM; and most recently, Dave participated in the Furnace Creek 508, placing 6th overall. After that race, we had a chance to chat with him about how it went and some of the strange things that occurred during the race, as well as his relatively new venture as a small business owner in the multisport industry…

Check out a gallery of images from the Furnace Creek 508 here.

Hey Dave! So, another interview for Xtri – I know we chatted before last year when you did RAAM. So can you tell us about Furnace? Can you give us a recap of your experience at the Furnace Creek 508?

The Furnace Creek 508 is an ultra cycling event that this year was in its 25th year – it started in 1983. It’s moved a couple of times in terms of venue, but it’s solidified over the last 15 years in southern California. It starts in Santa Clarita and follows a horseshoe course through Panamint Valley, Death Valley and the Mojave Desert, finishing in the town of Twentynine Palms.

The start and finish aren’t that far apart from each other, but it’s a gi-normous horseshoe. The distance this year was actually 509.6 miles, which the race organizers knew – it had something to do with road construction. This year hosted the largest field of racers; 85 solos and about 75 relay teams. Furnace Creek is an “invite only” race– it’s owned by an ultra enthusiast guy who also owns the Badwater Ultra marathon. An applicant’s race resume admits that one is stupid enough to do this, and has killed enough brain cells along the way that one has done other similar events. The weekend warrior 5K, 10K guy or the guy who’s done a couple of Ironman triathlons is pretty unlikely to get the invitation. So I was kind of nervous about even myself: I’ve done a lot of ultra runs, I’ve done 9 Ironman races, I’ve done Team RAAM. Bottom line was that I got lucky.. This year’s field included a bunch of former winners, so I really had no good expectations for where I’d end up; I hoped to be 32-36 hours, and I finished just shy over 30 hours which was, I felt, a great success. Fortunately that left me in 6th place overall, so higher than I thought I’d be and pretty pleased with that as well. I was not the first rookie – it turns out I was the third rookie!


I think it’s more a testament to the fact that it’s such a hard race, you just can’t do it every year. It brings people in but then burns them out pretty quickly.

Right. What kind of people do this race? Are they pro cyclists, or what?

The ultra community really does not have a lot to do with the traditional community, it’s really a lunatic fringe in many respects. I think everyone in the ultra community probably thinks everyone else is crazy and they’re normal, because I think I’m perfectly normal, but you show up to these things and it really is the lunatic fringe. So, you’ve got basically a hippie, Grateful Dead-style scene of athletes. Very fit people, but really out there. The people who win and tend to do very well are not household names, except in the ultra community. The guy who won this year – 3rd win in a row – is a guy named Michael Emde: I’ve never heard of him outside this event. That doesn’t mean he’s unheard of and it doesn’t mean he’s not a good cyclist, he just isn’t a household name. A couple of the other guys that have done well there are known as ultra people and not mainstream cyclists or runners. It’s just a really different category of folks. Same can be said of the women’s side; there’s a woman who – well a couple women and even a couple of men – who make a big deal of self-promotion and they tend to get well known. They have a little entourage for themselves and all sorts of media that follow them around, so on and so forth. You do find that a little more than you do in more mainstream sports.

I was just curious as to what kind of people do this stuff, and it’s funny that the first time you came out to do this and you got 6th – you do pretty well at these types of things. But you don’t fit that mold, at least as far as I know, of being that hippie fringe type of person!

(Laughter) Well, you know I think the type of people that tend to do pretty well at these things are biomechanically extremely sound people. And that doesn’t mean they’re fast, but it does mean they don’t get hurt and they can go forever. So, while I can do pretty well at Ironman, I’m not a pro. I’m not really any good at short distance triathlon stuff; but the long distance, for whatever reason, both in training and in races I don’t get hurt. A lot of people suffer repetitive exercise injuries because they can’t take the volume, and you know, for whatever genetic reason, I can take an awful lot of volume. I think that’s the mainstay of the people who do these ultra things., Add to a drive that isn’t really motivated by outside influences, and it is all about getting something done for your own satisfaction. Ultra sports are extraordinarily lonely, but you can’t feel lonely or you can’t do it! My training included quite a few solo 200 mile training rides…no iPod, no conversation.

Yeah, I was going to ask what the training was like. How do you train for an event like this, where no one else you know is doing it with you? You’re a really busy businessman and family man, you’ve got young kids, how did you train for this?

Because I’ve been doing these types of things for a really long time I felt like the primary thing I needed was really long rides, as opposed to lots of really short really hard training. I probably rode 20 hours a week for 8 or 10 weeks, and that was frequently with an 8 or 10 or 12 hour ride one day a week. Those really long rides are all about nutrition – you can blow yourself up pretty quickly and I did blow myself up a few times. I rode with the Boston Brevet Series riders a few times and met a bunch of people who had done this before and learned about pacing and nutrition, which was super helpful. Some of those things would start at 4am and finish at 8pm so it made for some really long days. But I did a lot of point-to-point long rides, where, if my wife, Monique, and I were going to New York for a special anniversary dinner, I would ride there and meet her. We have a house in NH that’s about 100 miles from my house in MA and we’d go up every weekend – so I’d ride up and ride back every weekend. You try to find as many excuses to use your bike to commute as opposed to just for workouts; I commute to work nearly every day in addition to all my training, so that’s another 35-40 miles a day, and it just kind of adds up over time.

So you just kind of blend it into your lifestyle…

Yeah, there wasn’t a ton of structure…when I say there wasn’t structure, that sounds lazy but there wasn’t a ton of structure to it; I would figure out how I could work in very long rides so they could fit in with my life. I rode 200 miles maybe five times, and I rode 260 miles once. And that was pretty much the extent of my really long stuff. I mean, I rode tons of 5 and 6 hour rides, but the really long stuff is where you get the most value.

So, I’m not going to ask you to go into the whole story of your race from start to finish, since we’ve posted your race report here. But I may ask you to elaborate on a few parts! I read about how you hallucinated in the middle of the night – I take this to mean that you didn’t have any rest periods?

No. I was off the bike approximately ten times for five minute stretches, in addition to one 20 minute break.

Okay, and secondly, what did you do when you were falling asleep on the bike, swerving around the road?! I mean, how do you pull yourself out of that?

Well, the race has seven time stations, and they’re various distances apart, usually marked by terrain features. And those are meaningless, except that officials are there to make sure you go past that point. I stopped pretty much only at those aid stations – they’re not aid stations, just a guy on a folding chair sitting under a tent – no food or anything there, just a guy sitting there. I stopped at those time stations because it was convenient and usually there’d be a gas station, or there’d be a street lamp or something. But I’d only stop for 3-8 minutes. And that was either to change bikes, or eat food that I couldn’t figure out how to eat on the bike, or to put on more clothes or to take off clothes, and you know, immediately get back on the bike, because you’ve got to be making forward progress. We had one substantial stop which was about 20 minutes, it felt like an hour, but it was about 20 minutes. Otherwise there were no breaks. I don’t know what other people did – I suppose more or less the same as me – I did pass a couple people here and there who were taking a long time in the time stations. The problem is, when you get off the bike you can quickly lose motivation so you’ve got to be very deliberate about what you’re doing when you’re not riding.

And so, I don’t know some point in the middle of the night, it must have been…I don’t have a good recollection of it, but I want to say it was maybe 14, 18 hours into it, perhaps 10pm, midnight time frame? The race started at 7am. I was having a lot of trouble staying awake; the feeling was identical to the feeling of falling asleep while you’re driving, which is, you kind of close your eyes “just for a minute.” Except on a bike you fall over. So I ended up wandering around the road, wandering curb to curb, crossing over the yellow line. Very quickly my support crew was like “hold on Dave, we’re not gonna do this, you’ve got to wake your ass up!” So we talked about it – we never stopped but we talked about it. I took some NoDoz. I’ve never taken NoDoz in my life until that Saturday night. I took the NoDoz, and that one wasn’t working – and I knew this because I was watching people gardening on the side of the road. Now, we’re in the middle of the desert and it’s the middle of the night! I would sort of shake my head and look, and they were there, but they weren’t there. Or I’d see these kind of ghost-like, kind of blob white dots floating around the sky, kind of at eye level, and obviously that wasn’t there either. Then I remember once, having a dream and sort of waking up to realize I was still riding my bike.

So I said to the guys in the crew ‘alright, you know, this isn’t working. I need to take a nap.’ I was kind of begging them, ‘how ‘bout I just lay down for five minutes,’ and their response was ‘well, give another 10 minutes for the NoDoz to work, and then let’s talk again.’ So I did, and that 10 minutes I don’t even remember, and I came back to them and said ‘ok, it’s not working, I need to lay down.’ I thought we were 270-275 miles done at that point, and they said to me ‘well, tell you what: you can lay down, and that’s cool, and we know that you’ll finish this race, but effectively your race will be over. Because five minutes will turn into 10, will turn into 20, and you’ll never get your motivation back.’ I said ‘well….alright. I still want to lay down!’ (Laughter) They said ‘well, how ‘bout another NoDoz?’ So I took more of that and then in about 10 minutes, I felt a whole lot better. It took a while for the caffeine to really get going in my system, and then I became more alert.

Later on, around mile 425-450, I had the freakiest hallucination which didn’t have anything to do with being tired – that’s why it was the freakiest. It was daylight and I was chasing a guy up the road, maybe about a mile up the road, but in the desert, everything is an illusion. It was this very straight, undulating road – but very straight, nobody else around and I could see him. And all of a sudden I couldn’t see him, because he dipped down a little bit, but then I saw him again and this time he was standing on the side of the road next to his bike, and then he started waving his arms. I said “this is awesome, I’m finally gonna catch this s.o.b.!’ But then I got up to the spot where he was, and he wasn’t there. I even slowed down, sat up on my bike and looked around to see if he was hiding behind the dunes or behind a bush because there was no way he was waving his arms at me and just disappeared! And that was probably the freakiest hallucination, because to this day, I don’t know what was going on really –he was there, and all of a sudden, he wasn’t.

Obviously your crew didn’t see anyone…

Yeah right – I pulled up on the side of the road to look for him and they said “what the hell are you doing?” I said, ‘I’m looking for that guy,’ and they responded ‘what guy?’ I said ‘the GUY who was RIGHT HERE,’ (Laughter)

It’s crazy what the brain does when you’re tired!

Yeah, but it wasn’t a falling asleep issue. It was kind of fatigue, screwy brain chemicals, not really knowing what’s up, kind of thing.

From http://www.xtri.com/features_display.aspx?riIDReport=5082&CAT=21&xref=xx

Posted by Stuart

Posted in: USA