by Susan Forsman
The Furnace Creek 508 is the perfect experiment in how to discover oneself, especially when participating in the solo competition. I had crewed for Sam “Seal” Beal, Barley “Boar” Forsman and Bob “Bradan” Redmond, so I had some idea how tough the ride would be. I had also said that I wasn’t going to crew anymore unless I did it for myself. It occurred to me that I could do it on a fixed-gear bike if I trained hard enough for it. Easier said than done – riding a fixie is a whole different animal! I followed certain rules and took in advice from Barley, my husband, the fixie expert.
Once I decided I was going to do the 508 fixied, I started my own training program. I started on November 2009, and mapped out the year with rides and key targets by using a periodization method. I planned the workouts according to specific brevets to peak for the 508. As an exercise physiologist, I admire the body for its physical potential, but there is another potential: the power of the mind. Many people neglect this “X-factor” in their training. I practiced visualization exercises during my training: when it was windy, I imagined myself in the desert, when I was climbing, I imagined myself on Towne’s pass. During some training days, it was difficult to get out of bed early in the morning. However I have Barley, my biggest motivator.
I honed in my nutrition and experimented with various nutritional options while training. I created a plan that would be easy for my stomach to digest, easy for the crew to manage. I also prepared a variety of emergency foods in case things went wrong. Most of them were childhood treats that bring back good memories. Good food can help me overcome the inevitable bad times that occur during ultra-distance cycling.
Barley’s advice came in handy when going downhill; he explained that I would need to be able to stand as I pedaled 20+mph. He said “The long descents will generate pressure and heat while seated, it will be important alleviate that pressure by periodically un-weighting the saddle.” So I signed up for a brutal Santa Rosa Cycling Tour lead by Bill Oetinger. During the tour I measured my effort going down hills; however I ended up with a right arm injury and some nutritional deficiencies. All the work from the 410 miles and 40,000ft of climbing put a dent in my body. I had enough time to recover and I took it easy for 2 weeks to get my body back to “normal”. The tour was a good idea, but I overreached and had to pull back from training to avoid having a greater injury later in the season. I used a 43/17 gearing on my converted Breezer fixie and was able to climb and descend some of the toughest hills I had ever ridden, some with 18-20% grades!
I also utilized the very demanding Almaden Cycling Tour Club long distance training rides as motivation to go on 100+ mile rides over the weekends. I never went 100% during those rides, but I did have certain targets that I wanted to reach: intensity levels and heart rate zones. I also rode brevets for 2 purposes: prepare for Paris-Brest-Paris next year, and to get time in the saddle. I also enjoy the company of friends during brevets. The pace is calmer and even though there are time limits to complete, there is still time to sit and have an extended lunch. I completed a whole series: 200K, 300K, 400K and 600k, on the Fuji fixie with 42/17 gearing and other brevets on the Breezer with 43/16 gearing. During Furnace Creek I rode my red Sycip with 42/16 gearing. Actually, all my bikes are red, hence Scarlet Macaw as my totem.
The other important component for race preparation was getting the right crew for the job. I was flattered and lucky to have many offers: Barley Forsman, Robert Choi, David Hoag, Curt Simon, and Bill Ellis were all candidates for my roster, so I went with the obvious – whoever asked me first, I went with them! All very experienced cyclists (fast riders too) and 508 veterans, it was hard to turn down Curt and Bill. I kept thinking they were going to be bored during the race because my pace is nothing like theirs. In the end Barley became my crew chief and David the navigator and Robert the driver for most of the ride (as well as the mathematician). Curt was still my back-up in case someone had to bail.
I prepared for picking up the van, clothing and food. Barley got my bike and all essentials ready for the race. The crew did everything! I had prepared a schedule of my nutrition to be fed 250 calories or less every hour. Electrolytes and Heed depending on the weather, fruit in-between Hammer bottles, Tums, Ibuprophen and Alkazelser as needed. To avoid overheating, they were supposed to pour water on my back. All of these procedures were to be tallied every 20 minutes. It was a lot of work and my crew took on the task to perfection. All the planning had been done to beat the current women’s fixie record and to try to finish in 42 hours or less. In order to attain that record I needed to take short stops and keep a steady pace. After all, this was my first attempt at the FC508 ever!
The morning was beautiful, I chose to take it easy and enjoy the moment before the start. I talked to many of the racers and crew. Ken Emerson, a friend, was also racing solo. We took some pictures. I also met Chris and Adam, the other two fixie riders. Five fixies had originally signed up, but 2 dropped before the race. So it was just the three of us.
I really wanted to take in everything, the smells, the scenery, the happiness to feel the wind caressing my legs as I went downhill. I held back and the group rapidly split up. Some riders seemed to be working very hard. I stayed within my limits, or so I thought! A bit slow at the first check point from what I had estimated with my splits, but I soon realized that it was going to be difficult to keep that pace, so I slowed down a bit more. Long distance races are not won at the beginning. My exercise physiology background kept reminding me that muscles fatigue will be greater if I push too hard at the start, then the muscles will need more time to recover if I stop.
I saw Chris Kostman. He rolled some video and took pictures. It was exciting to be on the same roads as those I had crewed for in the past. I was reminded to stop at two stop signs- in my view I did stop, but I just wasn’t unclipping. Some people didn’t realize I was on a fixie. I kept seeing the same vans. Jeff (Landshark) who was crewing for another solo rider was very encouraging. I saw Paul Vlasved for a stretch of the road.
My first stop was at about mile 170, at least that’s what my crew told me. I stopped only to get set up with lights and pee. I really don’t know what my mileage was because I was only focusing on the average speed from my computer.
The crew bought a veggie burrito for me in Torona, I wanted to make sure I had something else to eat at night time. This idea was brilliant in my case. I was ready for Towne’s Pass. I had visualized this climb during my training, so I was ready to pace myself. In my mind the race started at Towne’s Pass. The downhill was brutal, a lot harder than I had visualized. A rider had fallen down in front of me in the middle of the road near the bottom of the descent. It took several seconds to register what was going on, but I never slowed down. How could I? It’s a race!
The hardest climbs for me were Jubilee and Salisbury. It was dark and I was tired! There is no recovery time between them so I just “sucked” it up. At some point I saw The Hub Cyclery van, Chaz and Claire were crewing for Debbie and Bill, it was fun to see them go by as I was trying to keep my momentum.
I was ready for windy conditions. My mantra was: “Is that all you got? I thought it was going to be WINDY!!” Of course, these were just mental games to keep me focused. During the windy sections, I kept hoping for a turn so that the wind would cease, but the wind just kept turning with me! It seemed that I had a head wind at every turn. My stops became a little bit longer. It became harder to keep them to 3-5 minutes. My third stop was 15 minutes: I sat and extended my legs, while Robert gave me a massage and everyone else filled my bottles, gave me food and told me how great I was doing. They told me my form was good and to keep up the pace, and that I was on task to break the record. The crew did everything possible to keep me going. We would plan what I needed before the stop to save precious time. My job was to keep pedaling. I changed clothes once. They got me sun block, at the hottest time. Once I sat in the van for 3 minutes with the air-conditioning on my face!
At times I was going only 4mph, and it was frustrating to be unable to pick up the pace. I kept telling myself: “I’m moving faster at 4mph than at 0mph if I stop”, so I just allowed myself to recover while I pedaled slowly. As time went by I needed to make more stops. I continually wanted to pee, so I had to stop and it was harder to squat, I had to have Barley help me.
I couldn’t clip in anymore, because the bottom of my foot and calf would cramp. Robert and David started putting me on the bike and clipping me in. By the last 100 miles, Robert was in charge of clipping me in and holding me until I was able to clip my other foot and get going again. The synergy of the crew was incredible – I would signal for them to come up and they would already be ready with different possibilities for drinks and food. They kept giving me updates of the climbs that were coming up, and estimated times I would reach the top. I had difficulties getting off the bike, someone would help me lift my leg over the bike, then someone would hold the bike while I would get food or take a pee break. Every time I got back on the bike I was fine, so I was purposefully trying not to stop to avoid cramping and stiffness. Little by little the power on my quads was diminishing, but I kept going.
At mile 410, I wondered, how Emily O’Brien (the previous fixie finisher) did it! This thing, the 508 on a fixie, it’s a crazy idea! I thought, “she is a tough one!” While I was descending, I wondered about Sam and Barley on the fixie. They were much faster than me, and I couldn’t imagine how fast they must have been going. Another brutal descent I was not prepared for was Sheephole! It was indescribably horrible! My seat felt crooked, and I felt like I was going downhill on a mountain bike course. I signaled to the van to stop and told my crew: “this saddle is crooked!”, both Robert and Barley checked the saddle and said that it wasn’t. So, I guess that means I’m crooked! I had gotten a saddle sore, but my body knew that if something was going to go wrong, it was going to be equipment and not the body, so I blamed the equipment! I realized that I had to ride crooked while descending to avoid vibrating the saddle sores. I was mentally prepared for sand storms, snow, rain, mechanical problems, and physical problems. I had a solution for every pain, every negative thought, anything that could, or would go wrong. I inadvertently ran over a mouse as it darted across the road and I thought: “I hope this doesn’t come back as bad karma later in the ride!” This is a race and I’m going to break the current women’s fixie record! I was avoiding sand on the road, potholes, looking for the smooth area of the road. There was none to be found! I tried staying on the painted white strip because it gave me a break from the vibration. My hands were feeling damaged. I remember Sam talking about his hands and blisters. I had already popped one small blister on my left hand, so I started holding the handle bar with my fingers. I stopped braking for a while. To keeping the bike at 17-20mph, I controlled the speed with my legs. On the downhill to stop #7, I was able to keep my speed near 22mph during most of the downhill. I was tired and I kept imagining that the van was going to run over me, so I slowed down and asked my crew to give me more distance. Barley was driving at that time, so he assured me that there was enough space between me and the van. I don’t see well at night so he was trying to give me as much light as possible, the fastest speed I reached during the race was 39 mph, but it was probably only for a few seconds.
Going up the last climb, the crew kept me motivated with updates of my splits and other riders. I kept saying, “it’s not over until is over!” As I climbed I estimated that if I kept a 5mph pace on the uphill, I could make up some of the time on the downhill. Again easier said than done! The downhill became even harder. I had damage the back of my right knee by pulling a tendon from standing and pedaling downhill. When you ride a fixie downhill, it is extremely difficult to give your butt a break, so there is A LOT of chaffing. I stopped one last time and put on another pair of short to double them and get extra padding. After 450 miles, every inch of my body was pleading for mercy, but I kept telling it, “this is a race! I can rest when it’s over!” Anyway, I had pulled a tendon, so I had to visualize the pain leaving the knee, so I would have enough strength to stand and pedal to give my butt a 2-3 second break. I would do this continually for the last 36 miles. I decided I was NOT going to stop again. I was going to finish the race – without getting passed by anybody else!
I imagined that the last miles were just a short ride, nothing more than an easy morning loop. This loop went on forever! My crew kept me motivated by making sure I was eating and drinking. Gu with caffeine was my secret weapon to keep me alert and energized. I could no longer eat the fruit cups because it was slowing me down, so I decided to stay with Perpetuem and Gu. After I descended the last climb I thought I saw a turn coming up. In reality it was just another straight road ahead! I was getting upset at the road. I thought about the road engineers and wondered what were they thinking? Were they trying to save money by avoiding turns? Everything was dark, but I could see the lights of other finishers so that kept me going. If I could only catch one of them I could get in faster. My focus intensified at mile 495 – the lights of the city seemed so close. Of course, as I reached the school, I remembered that I still had 6-8 miles to go. The van pulled up and said,”you’re almost there, 6 more miles and you will be there”. Those were the longest miles of the ride! I saw another rider, at the top of a small crest. That crest felt harder than Towne’s Pass, and I began to wonder if I could catch him. I tried my best, and that became my focus for the last miles to the finish.
As I got to the finish, the first person I saw was Chris Kostman, I think he took a picture. Cindi Staiger, congratulated me and Matt from the Santa Rosa Cycling Club took a picture of my entry with the unofficial time of 12:37am Monday morning. Chris told me to wait, and that I was going to get my picture taken, I tried to get off my bike. Luckily my crew came to the rescue and helped me get off the bike and held the bike for me. I was so happy that I had done it!! I am part of a very small group of people who have attempted the feat on a fixie and an even a smaller group of women. I think I am the third woman to attempt the 508 fixed. When I got back to the hotel, I was looking forward to a cold shower to wash away all my pains and start recovering as soon as possible. It was hard to get in the tub, but it was even harder to get out, my quads had nothing left to give. I knew that my body had given me every single cell of strength and left it on the course! I am happy with my accomplishment and satisfied with all the decisions I made throughout the year in preparation for the race. The crew was excellent – they even continued getting things for me, and helping me to be as comfortable as possible the day after the race on our drive home!
One last note, Furnace Creek 508 in the solo category is most successful with the correct crew, without my crew I couldn’t have done as well. They were selfless and gave me four days of their lives so that I could give my best on the bike. Thank you!!
We all can’t wait for the Movie. For now you can watch the trailer.