Thursday, September 30, 2010

Race Report - Everest Challenge 2010

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild coarse humor.


Permit me to regale you with the tale of the 2010 Everest Challenge. I realize I already galed my albertnet readers with such a story last year, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Hollywood movies, it’s the value of cheap retreads.

As with previous posts about cycling events, this report is targeted at those who have little patience for bike race blow-by-blow accounts, but who have a lot of patience for reading about the strange and fanatical dining habits of the competitive cyclist, along with various road trip anecdotes. If you’re not interested in either topic, you could just scroll down because there are some photos. Or don’t. Whatever.


The attrition this year started before the race even began. Mark couldn’t come because he had to go to a wedding of some fairly close relative; our hopes that the engagement would fall through did not come to fruition. Craig couldn’t come because his wife had an important overseas business function; he was trying to get her to quit her job but ultimately she didn’t. Tim had a bad crash and wasn’t able to train; I have no witty rejoinder for this, of course, it being simply very sad. Nor can I explain, actually, why Lucas and Steve didn’t end up registering. So I went to Bishop as the sole East Bay rider in orange.

Paul and Jamie drove up together in Paul’s dark stealth vehicle, a Honda Element color-coded to match their dark stealth bikes. They’re able to put the bikes on a rack inside the car to keep those heavy, non-aerodynamic dead bugs off the bikes. Ian and I drove in his VW Golf, which is all tricked out with a metric dashboard, an ominous engine light, a broken fuel gauge, and—new for 2010!—working air conditioning.

We left early—too early, in fact, to hit that killer taqueria in Escalon. I was navigating, so we missed the turn for Tioga Pass and had to backtrack, so I’m glad we padded our drive time. We had gringo burritos at a gas-station-snack-bar in June Lake, an hour north of Bishop, because a) we were starved, and b) there was a sign out front saying “You must eat here!” The burritos, for being gringo and lacking both rice and beans, were actually pretty good. From a satiety perspective, though, they were roughly equivalent to a big puff of air from a bellows. We proceeded to Bishop, where we missed the turn for our motel due to my tendency to confuse north with its sneaky doppelganger, south. My poor navigation skills would end up being a recurring theme on this trip.

Paul and Jamie arrived at the Bishop Village Motel just after us, and right away began gloating because their room had a full kitchen and ours only a mini-fridge and microwave. I nursed a grudge throughout our 40-minute leg-shakedown ride. It was an easy spin, though we did one “effort,” just so we could talk about it later and feel really sophisticated using the term “effort.” In my case this was a mistake because I hadn’t used my inhaler and was wheezing as soon as my heart rate hit 150 beats per minute.

Dinner, like last year, was at the county fairgrounds where we checked in. It was free, and it was pasta. Alas, my first serving was like what you’d give a small child who had been eating Nerds, Tangy Taffy, and Tootsie Rolls all afternoon. I was ten minutes in line and about thirty seconds in eating my first plate, which at least included half a dozen hunks of cheesy bread. I went through the other line for my second helping, hoping for a more generous server. Just as I reached the front of the line, I had an impulse and grabbed a fresh paper plate to put over my old plate, hiding the sauce stain. I don’t know why I did it—instinct, I guess. You can’t teach this.

I asked the server to fill the whole plate, and she said—speaking down to me like a child—“Start out with this much”—she put a hatefully small pile of pasta on my plate—“and if you’re still hungry later, just wait until everybody’s been served and there should be enough for you to have seconds.” Yeah, right. I got back to my seat, and minutes later Jamie returned from the line, having been turned down for seconds. He looked stunned, like he’d just been told he had to race without shoes. How is anybody supposed to race 120+ miles with no fuel?

My second plate, like my first, simply didn’t register in my stomach. It’s like when you put a penny in a parking meter. I had to go back again. Paul doubted aloud that I’d prevail again against the pasta Nazis. I turned my baseball cap backward to fashion a basic disguise, and went back through the first line to try my luck. To my horror the guy ahead of me got totally hassled! I stared straight ahead, past the server, and tried to act natural. Amazingly, it worked and I got thirds, no questions asked. By this time they were out of bread, but when it was time for a fourth plate of pasta everybody had been fed and I encountered no resistance. I doubt the sideways ball cap was even necessary. My expert tactics in the food line had me feeling victorious already, though the race was still more than twelve hours away.

Now, I know you’re getting impatient for the real story: how was the pasta, anyway? Well, there was no sausage in the sauce this time, but it was still pretty tasty, in a cafeteria-grade, guilty-pleasure sort of way. Ian was drinking some beverage the color of antifreeze, which he complained was warm. But hey, free food!

After dinner we headed to Smart & Final for breakfast stuff. I’d brought a Tupperware of Cheerios—or, more specifically, the Trader Joe’s house brand. (My wife Erin persists in calling them by their branded name, “Joes Os.” I refuse to do this. In fact, I told her if she didn’t desist, I would start calling non-Kleenex-brand tissues “snot rags” in front of the kids.) We got milk and Ian picked out some bright green bananas. They were actually the ripest ones there, but way too green for me. He replied, “I like a firm buh-NAH-nah.” Perhaps it’s the English accent; my rejoinder—“That’s what she said!”—was just a formality as we were all laughing already. I realize now that this story is not that funny; I guess we were nervous about the race. Or maybe you just had to be there.

I spent a really long time pinning my numbers before bed. Ian taught me to crumple them up so they lie flatter and don’t flap in the wind. It’s so satisfying to continue progressing in this sport after thirty years. I was so pleased with my pinning job, finally, that I thought about not even wearing the jersey, but rather putting it on a mannequin that I’d display at home in a nice glass case. I suppose you could construe this as cold feet.

I was anxious, for sure. I wasn’t anxious about the race per se; I was anxious about being anxious, lest it disturb my sleep. I ended up sleeping pretty well, though I had anxiety dreams. I dreamt I left my laptop on Bart. In another dream I waited too long to ship out a modem line tap and had to rush all around for a FedEx office, eventually finding a Mailboxes Etc. that was also a taqueria. That’s how you know I didn’t get enough dinner.

Stage 1 – 122 miles, 15,465 feet of climbing

During the first stage I consumed four and a half bottles of my preferred brand of energy drink (two of which I’d stashed in a cooler by the car to grab before the last climb) and two bottles of energy drink provided by the race (which some of my pals have had trouble with, giving me incentive to mix my own bottles). I also had three Powerbar gels during the race. My stomach was actually pretty bad on the first climb, but I can’t blame the race-provided beverage for that—I’d not yet blown through my first bottles. Impressively, Jamie caught Ian and me on the first climb. (The Masters 45+ group, which included Jamie, raced with my 35+ group last year, but this year was split into a separate group, starting five minutes later, because there was such a huge turnout. The Masters 35+ group was twice the size of last year’s, and the 45+ field grew even more.) Unbeknownst to me, Ian stopped to take on nutrition at the top, and thus didn’t get to suck my wheel on the descent.

Toward the bottom of the first descent, disaster! I took a wrong turn, and Jamie followed me through it. (I haven’t taken a wrong turn in a road race since collegiate nationals in 1989. On that occasion, my coach famously said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk to you about it. I won’t humiliate you any more than you already are.”) Jamie and I lost 3½ minutes as a result of this error (which I know from studying my race statistics graph later). The silver lining of this error was that Ian was able to rejoin Jamie and me for the rest of the descent and the flat section following it.

There are three explanations for how I could have taken the wrong turn:

  1. I did it on purpose, as the best way to join back up with Ian. Slowing down inexplicably could have been dangerous, and it would have been impossible to explain myself to Jamie with all the wind in our ears. I timed the move to perfection so Ian didn’t even break stride getting back in our slipstream.
  2. I only thought it was a wrong turn and route correction; Jamie and I were actually abducted by space aliens and taken to their beautiful ship where they did horrible, invasive investigations of our Senator Packwoods before erasing our memories and setting us back down on our bikes, minus a third of our hemoglobin.
  3. The road cones wrapping around the corner were left there by a construction crew and were unrelated to the race, and the course marshal had abandoned his post for a little while—at the very moment we came through—before putting the cones in his car and taking them away to prevent confusion among the cyclists.

Though all three explanations doubtless strike you as far-fetched, I assure you that one of them is absolutely true. Needless to say my morale was severely damaged by this mistake. I ultimately reacted by going really hard on the last climb, far harder than I felt was even wise. Though many people had told me I should have a compact crank for this race, chalking my 39x27 up to pure foolishness, as it turned out I did most of the climb in my 24-tooth cog. I mentioned this to Jamie afterward (it was the closest I could really come to bragging), and still he insisted I should have used a compact. Gearing is like religion.

I don’t remember eating very much of the free meal at the top of the final climb. Certainly I had some cokes, and I slammed enough ginger ale for some really righteous belches (though I kept my mouth closed so as not to scare anybody). I had a few bean-and-cheese quesadillas and some Oreos. I was either too blown to eat a lot, or too blown to register what I was eating, or too blown to shunt the fact of my eating into long-term memory. I shudder to think, looking back, how little I ate with the second stage of the race still looming.

I compared my Stage 1 time this year with last year’s. At the bottom of the final climb I was about three minutes behind where I was at the same point in ’09, but by the top of the climb I was fifteen minutes faster for the stage. I have to be pleased with that, and I am. (Note that the altitude numbers are wrong on this. The final summit on Stage 1 is 10,250 feet above sea level.)

Dinner was at the same Italian place as last year, though we could have sworn the name had changed. (It hadn’t; the waitress confirmed: it’s had the same name for sixteen years.) We had some combo pizza as an appetizer, and it was excellent. It included green peppers, the consumption of which made me feel subversive as Erin is allergic. I had the same mushroom soup as last year—oddly spicy but very good. Oddly, I got about four bay leaves in mine, and Ian didn’t get any. It’s who you know.

The waitress couldn’t remember what I’d ordered last time, and I guess I can’t blame her since she may not have been my waitress last time. I knew it was either the chicken parmigiana or the chicken marsala, and whichever it was, it had been delicious. I should have re-read my own blog post about Everest ’09 and I’d have known it was the marsala; instead I guessed wrong this time and got the parmigiana. It was overly breaded and a tad greasy. I mean, it was fine and all, but I’ll never forget that marsala from last year. When I’m on my deathbed looking back at my life, trying to pinpoint where I went wrong and at what point things started to unravel, I’ll doubtless conclude it was this particular dinner choice. Meanwhile, my more meticulous competitors had probably done their homework and enjoyed the marsala, using my own blog against me!

Stage 2 – 86 miles, 13,570 feet of climbing

I approached this stage with utter dread. I’d slept very poorly; my ears were ringing as I lay in bed, as though I’d been to a loud nightclub or something. I finally managed to fall into a fitful sleep. At around 3 a.m. the dirtbag in the next room over, just across the thin motel wall, started yakking on his cell phone. I figured it must be an emergency call from somebody in Europe, and the guy would soon be on his way to the airport, but instead he just chattered away ad infinitum. I was wearing earplugs so I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but his tone was that of a happy homemaker discussing wallpaper samples. Finally Ian yelled through the wall for the guy to ring off or have his cell phone shoved so far down his throat it’d tickle his duodenum. Wait, come to think of it, Ian said something much more diplomatic; that must have been the comment I had been formulating. Anyhow, the guy shut right up, but neither of us really got back to sleep after that.

During stage two I drank four bottles of my preferred energy drink, two bottles of Heed, and a couple bottles of water. (It’s a lot shorter race than Stage 1, but it was hotter than blazes with no shade at all.) I also swallowed some electrolyte capsules they were giving out at a rest stop, and ate a couple fistfuls of grapes passed up by a Samaritan spectator who appeared a couple times along the road on the final climb. Somebody gave me a banana at one point as well, provoking Paul to quote Ian’s firm buhnahnah statement. I timed my consumption to perfection, running out of energy drink less than 500 meters from the finish line.

For the last fifteen kilometers I’d really been going hard—harder than I was completely confident I could sustain. I wouldn’t have been surprised to suddenly crack at any point. I passed a number of riders who had, in fact, cracked—including the previous day’s third-place finisher, who for awhile was five minutes ahead of the rest of the Masters 35+ riders. One guy, when I passed him, said, “Oh man, there’s another one!”

Near the top, I went by a couple of spectators, one of whom said, “Way to finish strong!” I felt like turning back and saying, “Say that word ‘finish’ again, would you? That sounds really good!” It was a real relief to be done: not just because the suffering was over, but because nothing catastrophic had happened. In the end I was about five minutes faster on this stage than I’d been last year. I didn’t place as high as last year for the overall race, nor in either stage, because the field was much better this year. That said, in the “Man vs. Nature” and “Man vs. Himself” competitions I am plenty satisfied with my efforts.

Here is the graph. Note that it’s altitude over time, not over distance, so the descents look steeper than the climbs. This is an illusion. I’d have shown you altitude over distance, except my bike computer was screwing up, so the altitude/distance graph looked like a long rubber band dropped from a great height onto graph paper. Not very useful. Also note that the altitude numbers are wrong. The final climb started at 3,800 feet and ended at 10,100 feet. (In fact, the distance and power numbers on my bike computer display were also reading low, which tended to make me both ride harder and overestimate how far I still had to go.)

At the top, after a bunch of water and some cokes, I started macking on these so-called Greek quesadillas they were grilling up. They had fresh spinach leaves, feta, and I think olives. The spinach was perfectly wilted, the tortilla perfectly crispy yet soft, the cheese gooey and salty … fricking amazing. I kept expecting them to run out, but the ‘dillas just kept coming. I was just shoving them in my face as fast as my hands could move.

I cannot estimate how many quesadilla triangles I consumed other than to say I surprised even myself. After a volley of eating I’d go sit down for awhile, the basic camp chair feeling like a throne of some kind, until the hunger would gnaw at me and I’d give up the seat for more food. This led to an interesting social question: is it fair to take over a fellow racer’s chair when she is called up for the awards ceremony? I ultimately decided it was, so long as I gave her the chair back later.

The medals this year were even cooler than the ones we got last year. I complimented the race director, Steve Barnes, about the medals (and everything else about this glorious event), and he said a few people had said they’d preferred a cash or merchandise price to the medal, but he chose to ignore that input. I agree with him: a money or bike tire would be consumed right away, whereas a medal can live in a drawer forever, occasionally brought out by your kids to admire or play with. In fact, without being prompted my daughter Alexa found a nice ribbon for this year’s medal:

Dinner was at Erick Schat’s Bakkery in Bishop—again, the same place as last time. I talked up the pastrami sandwich a whole bunch to Ian before realizing I was setting him up for disappointment. What do I know about pastrami? What makes me an expert? So I backpedaled and said, “Look, you probably should order something else. You’re bound to be disappointed. I shouldn’t have shot off my mouth.” He ended up ordering it, and as far as I can tell he liked it. I got the pastrami myself and it was nirvana. The only trouble was, they were out of their rye bread and the sourdough wasn’t as robust, and got a bit soggy from the sauerkraut I stuffed in there. I wished aloud that they’d grilled the bread, and Ian disagreed, pointing out that the soft bread conforms better to the stuff inside. Though I found this observation perfectly consistent with his race-number-crumpling technique, I couldn’t resist taking the bait, and soon we were fistfighting in the parking lot. No, of course we weren’t—far from feeling pugilistic, we were happy to be done with the suffering and to be stuffing ourselves with pastrami that a placard noted “is not lean.” Jamie had the “Mule Kick” sandwich. I was tempted to say, “You just like saying ‘Mule Kick.’” It really is a catchy name. I suppose it’s trademarked. If I start a sandwich shop maybe I’ll offer a “Jackass Spaz” sandwich. Paul had a platter of some kind; the vegetable side looked a bit limp and he wasn’t thrilled with it.

The trip home

No way were we going to settle for Taco Bell, like we did last year. We stopped in Groveland at a little restaurant that had pizza. I remembered the place from a Yosemite trip many years ago, and I remember thinking how awful it was, but here we were and I was determined to go with the flow and keep a stiff (if sunburned and chapped) upper lip. Pizza was indicated. Jamie and Paul said they only wanted a slice. This made no sense. Why would they lie? To be safe, I talked them into ordering a large. Oddly, a one-topping cost like $5 more than a plain pizza, and yet the super-combo with like five ingredients was like $1.80 more than that. Normally, on general principle I’d have insisted on a combo, but we were tired and a debate about topping choices might have been dangerous. So we went with pepperoni. It was glorious. The crust, though thin and crispy, wasn’t overly cracker-like: it still had some nice chewiness. The cheese was plentiful and the pepperoni was fattening. We should have ordered two or three of them.

After getting home around midnight and finally making it into bed, I dreamed of food all night. One dream involved dinner with some new friends, and they were serving carnitas. The problem was, instead of using forks or tortillas we were expected to lift the carnitas into our mouths with chips, and I couldn’t keep the meat from falling off the chip. I was getting hungrier and hungrier and progressively more embarrassed. When I woke up I had the relief that it was only a dream, but no relief from the hunger. In fact, I’m still hungry. I have to go.

dana albert blog

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