Surviving the Furnace Creek 508

By Mike Algae Aberg, 1999 solo survivor

I like to think that an endurance race like this breaks up into three categories: the Elite, the Finishers, and the Survivors. The Elite are those folks that have a pretty good chance of winning in their division. I have little hope of ever joining those ranks. The Finishers are those people who aren't going to win, but at least there is little doubt they will finish. I think I was in the third category: the Survivors. Survivors are those who might make it to the finish line, but then again, might not. Usually these folks have to make up for the physical by using and extra dose of mental determination, especially at the end of the ride.

I knew I was off to a tough start when I got my totem: Algae. What? I thought. Algae is not an animal. Algae doesn’t even move on its own, it just floats around. Well, after thinking about it a while, I decided it was ok. I would try to be the first member of the plant kingdom to cross the finish line. I even developed a motto: "Team Algae: GREEN AND SLOW."

Things got off to a good start, but right after the first climb, I pulled my right Achilles tendon, a problem which was to haunt me the rest of the ride. Anyway, despite this minor injury, I kept on going, and had a steady, uneventful ride to the bottom of Townes Pass.

Most of the solo riders were ahead of me at this point, and the "GREEN AND SLOW" motto seemed eerily appropriate, but I didn’t care: as a "Survivor," all I cared about was finishing. Anyway, no "Survivor" should be without a triple chainring, and mine came in handy on Townes Pass. I shamelessly used my lowest gear for most of the hill, but I never had to stop, and I even passed several riders camped out at the top, suffering from stomach problems. The ride through Death Valley was easy but monotonous, and I fought off drowsiness as long as I could, finally pulling over for a two hour nap at the bottom of the climb out of Death Valley.

I made it to Shoshone at 10am, and saw a list of riders who had already dropped for various reasons: stomach, knees, etc. I also found out that my friend Charlie, normally much faster than I, had had to drop out due to painful foot problems. I realized I was lucky to have "merely" a sore Achilles tendon.

That sore Achilles tendon finally caught up with me in the late afternoon on the long climb out of Baker. I had ridden all day in the hot sun with only brief rest breaks, and now the long hill and the rough, bumpy road were irritating my already inflamed Achilles tendon, making it nearly impossible to put pressure on my right pedal. I finally had to stop.

We tried lots of different remedies: ibuprofen, stretching, baggies of ice stuffed in my sock, but nothing really worked. I figured, "This is it, I have to drop out, that means I have to come back and do this damn thing next year." Finally, though, I clicked out of my right pedal and rode up the hill flat-footed. This was awkward, but it allowed the tendon to rest and loosen up a bit. Later, climbing Sheep Hole Pass, I felt good enough to click back into the pedal, and managed to pass two other "Survivors," including Perry "Swan" Smith, who I had been chasing since Baker.

I have been an avid cyclist for 17 years. I have ridden more than 40 double centuries and toured across the US and South America, but surviving this ride is the high point of my cycling career. The temperature extremes, dry air, long climbs and bumpy roads make this much harder than "just any ol’ 500-mile ride," and the last 20 "flat" miles of this ride are a perfect example of what makes this ride so tough. There is at least 1500 feet of climbing, a strong headwind, and much of the road is really bumpy.

It was nearly 3am, and my exhaustion and lack of sleep were taking their toll. I suddenly slowed down and yelled over to my crew, "This road sucks! When will this ride ever end!" Ironically, five minutes after this outburst, Chris Kostman drove up and cheered me on, giving me words of encouragement like "You’re only an hour from the end, 40 minutes if you use the big chainring." Nearly two hours later, I finally crossed the finish line.

Thanks to my crew (Dad and Girlfriend), who endured two sleepless nights, 46 hours on bumpy roads in a slow truck, and lots of whining from a certain cyclist whose rear end they got to watch for nearly an entire weekend. And, especially, thanks to Chris Kostman for doing an outstanding job of putting on one hell of a ride!