ALS: Riding for Augie

‘Surfer bums’ enter brutal cross-country cycling race to raise funds for ALS research

by Quest Staff on July 24, 2009 - 2:09pm

Many fundraising events for Augie’s Quest (MDA’s aggressive ALS research initiative) tend to be glamorous galas attracting high-profile socialites to genteel settings.

There was nothing genteel about the fundraiser that began June 20 as part of Race Across America (RAAM). It’s one of the toughest endurance events in the world. Cyclists – usually 250 or so, solo or in teams – race 3,000 miles from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md. Four-person teams typically cover that distance in five to eight days of nightmarish physical challenge.

Augie Nieto, chairman of MDA’s ALS Division, talks with fellow fitness fanatic Don Wildman prior to the cross-country cycling race to raise funds for Augie’s Quest ALS research initiative.

Augie Nieto, 51, of Corona del Mar, Calif., (after whom Augie’s Quest is named) is one of very few people who could inspire anyone to exert themselves in such incredible fashion. Nieto learned in June 2005 that he had ALS. Today he is almost totally paralyzed and relies on an array of assistive devices to keep him breathing, mobile and communicating. He and his wife Lynne are co-chairs of MDA’s ALS Division.

A friend in need

Don Wildman, 76, a good friend of Nieto’s, thought up the idea of an Augie’s Quest RAAM fundraiser.

“Five years ago, he cleaned my clock at golf,” Wildman said. “Today, the thought that continually goes through my mind is, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ Seeing him convinced me I had to do something to help him in his battle against ALS.”

Wildman, founder of the company that became Bally Fitness, has been called the fittest 76-year-old in the world. He has competed in multiple Ironman triathlons and the Aspen downhill ski race; run in the New York and Los Angeles marathons; raced solo in RAAM in 1994; paddled throughout the entire chain of Hawaiian islands on a surfboard; and snowboarded Alaska’s backcountry with Olympic downhill champion Tommy Moe. He retired from business at age 61 because it was cutting into his snowboarding time.

Team Surfing U.S.A

Wildman put together a macho quartet called Team Surfing U.S.A.

At 6 foot 2 inches, with six-pack abs and chiseled arms, Wildman is an impressive physical specimen. So is Laird Hamilton, 45, 6-foot-3, widely considered to be the world’s best surfer. Tim Commerford, 41, is no slouch. The bassist and backing vocalist for American rock band Rage Against the Machine and fanatical mountain biker (he writes thank-you notes to his bikes on the liners of his albums) stands 6-foot-4. Jason Winn, 27, attended college on a football scholarship, is an Ironman Triathlete and races mountain bikes. He’s also 6-foot-2.

Some of their competitors dismissed them as surfer bums, in part because the four had surfboard paddled from Malibu to Oceanside (a 115-mile/24 hour trip) to start the race.

‘Then we put ‘em away’

“One of the real serious cycling guys pedaled up alongside Laird after the race started and said, ‘This is what I DO. I’ve been racing bikes since I was seven,’” Wildman recounts. “I guess he was trying to say, “You surfer dudes don’t have any business here.’ Laird didn’t say anything … just kicked his bike into high gear and left the guy in the dust. Then we put ‘em all away.”

Speedy cycling surfer dudes: (from left) Tim Commerford of the rock band Rage Against the Machine; Don Wildman, founder of the company that became Bally Fitness; Laird Hamilton, regarded as one of the world’s best surfers; and Jason Winn, Ironman triathlete. Unfortunately, a van-bike collision ended their run before the finish line.

Team Surfing U.S.A. took the lead in their class and almost certainly would have won except that in Missouri, about two-thirds of the way to the finish line, a support vehicle for another team struck Winn, breaking his ankle, severely bruising his hip, destroying his bike and giving him a serious case of road rash. That was all she wrote for Team Surfing U.S.A.

Team members had vivid memories of the grueling demands the race placed on their bodies and minds.

“The toughest part for me physically was learning what I needed in the way of sleep and food … even though I still don’t know,” Commerford said. “The hardest part mentally was feeling old when Wildman was looking young.”

Wildman actually felt the team left the starting gate too vigorously. “We were amped up, adrenalin flowing, went anaerobic for the first 24 hours. In the first 40 hours, I had maybe four hours of sleep.”

“It’s brutal,” said Winn, “You really have to commit yourself to having one foot in the grave for five or six days.”

But Winn’s ready to tackle RAAM again next year if the team is up for it.

That doesn’t appear to be a problem. “Next year we’d like to go back and complete the project,” said Wildman. “I think we have a good chance of pulling it off. Our average speed this year would have been in excess of 22 miles an hour. The winning team’s final time was 19 miles an hour and change.”

The team’s effort was not lost on Augie Nieto. “I was honored that my good friend Don Wildman and Team Surfing U.S.A. chose to raise awareness for my Quest to cure ALS. The commitment and dedication that Don, Laird, Tim, and Jason showed was inspiring. They are champions in their sport, as well as in life. I am grateful they chose to lend their talents to help others. I know they would have won had Jason not been injured toward the end of the race. They are all winners in my book.”

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