Even the thumbnail version of Gerry Eddlemon’s cycling resume is enough to fill a page.
Over the last six years the 66-year-old former University of Tennessee cross-country runner has set 72 individual cycling records that include 65 cross-country and cross-state speed records, as well as seven international time trial records.
In 2010, at age 65, Eddlemon won the Open Class of the World Cup of UltraMarathon Cycling, making him the oldest person known to ever win an overall world championship in any athletic event.
It’s no wonder that the UltraMarathon Cycling Association has dubbed him “King of the Record Book.”
This summer Eddlemon set his sights on cycling across Alaska, the final frontier. Before leaving Knoxville, Tenn., he couldn’t help wondering why, in a state with so many talented long-distance cyclists, no one had ever attempted any kind of record crossing of Alaska before.
Now he knows.
“Mud and mosquitoes,” said Eddlemon. “My new mountain bike was covered in mud, and the mosquitoes made life miserable. It didn’t matter if it was cold or windy, the mosquitoes followed me everywhere.”
On June 26 Eddlemon set out on his road bike from Seward, on the south coast of Alaska. On July 3, after 6 days 17 hours and 25 minutes of round-the-clock cycling, he reached Deadhorse on Alaska’s northern coast, a distance of 988 miles. His south-to-north crossing of Alaska started at Resurrection Bay on the Pacific Ocean and ended at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. In between he climbed 106,000 feet across a landscape as powerful and uncompromising as any on the planet.
“It was 200 miles farther than I’d ever gone, and slower than I’ve ever averaged,” Eddlemon said. “As much as I wanted to go fast, it was the kind of journey where I just wanted to marvel at my surroundings. Alaska is spectacular.”
For the first 575 miles Eddlemon pedaled his road bike on paved roads. North of Fairbanks, he reached the Dalton Highway where the pavement gave way to gravel and mud, and Eddlemon switched to a titanium-frame mountain bike he had purchased for the record attempt.
Roughly 350 miles of the Dalton Highway’s 415 miles are unpaved. Built as a supply road for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the road is used primarily by truckers. Immediately after getting on the Dalton Highway on his mountain bike, Eddlemon encountered steep climbs, screaming downhills, and long stretches of tire-sucking mud.
“I hadn’t done much mountain biking,” Eddlemon said. “It was a baptism by mud. The road was narrow, and I had to give way to these big semi-trucks, which meant getting off the road where the mud was even deeper. I was demoralized.”
As required by the UltraMarathon Cycling Association, Eddlemon was accompanied by four people -- crew members and officials -- who followed in vans to provide support and make sure his crossing qualified as a record. Members of Eddlemon’s support team were Alaskan and outstanding athletes in their own right. He said there were times when the only thing that kept him going was their unwavering support, day and night.
“I had never met any of these people,” he said. “I was humbled that total strangers would give their time to an old guy from Tennessee they didn’t even know.”
Eddlemon cycled 18 to 24 hours a day. He tried to grab three hours of sleep at night, plus 10- to 15-minute power naps as needed during the day. Once he blacked out on the bike from fatigue, but his crew saw him wobbling and rushed to his aid.
With temperatures ranging from freezing at night to 85 degrees during the day, he was constantly changing clothes. His only grizzly bear encounter occurred near the remote village of Coldfoot when he was barreling down a hill at 40 mph and saw a bear in the middle of the road. After slamming on his brakes, Eddlemon came to a stop, and the bear started coming up the road in Eddlemon’s direction. Just as Eddlemon was going into panic mode, his support van pulled up behind him and he hopped inside.
After that, he carried pepper spray.
In Deadhorse, near the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, Eddlemon finally crossed the finish line. It was 8:06 a.m., and, despite the wind and cold, the mosquitoes, horseflies and deer flies were as bedeviling as ever.
“I saw this as a chance from God to explore just how far and fast mind, spirit and body could be pushed to achieve goals I previously thought impossible, at least for an aging ex-athlete,” Eddlemon said. “If an old guy like me can bike hundreds of miles in a day, there’s no reason why almost any healthy person can’t walk, run or ride a few miles to school or work simply for the joy of exploring the world.”