The one big race I do every year, the Everest Challenge Stage Race—two days of racing with 29,000 feet of vertical gain—is coming right up. In case that “29,000 feet” description doesn’t tell you much, consider that each stage of this race is like climbing a 5-mile staircase with 24,000 steps that would take you to the top of a 1,160-story building. The first day is bad enough, but the second day is murder. The third (and last) climb on the second day is, by itself, the equivalent of a two-mile staircase with 10,000 steps reaching the top of a 490-story building.
A friend asked recently, “Are you ready?” It was not my wife who asked. She knows better, having had quite enough of my blather. It was my friend John who asked; he flew out from New York to race the EC two years ago.
I could have simply answered John directly, since he was reckless enough to ask and might actually be interested in the answer. But why answer only him, when I could blog about it on albertnet, where other people, like my mom and a Russian hacker, might also see it? Plus, maybe you’re considering racing the EC, or have already signed up, and are wondering more generally, what does it take to be ready for it?
(Perhaps most importantly of all, this post will come in handy later, when the EC is over, as a retrospective building block for self-flagellation.)
My gut tells me that I’m ready. But then, what does “ready” mean? I’m very confident I can finish, since I have five times before. Beyond this minimal sense, “ready” begs the question “Ready to do what?” To a snowboarder, “ready” means “Ready to shred this gnar’!” Which I’m totally ready to do, unless you’re talking about descending, where my modern chickenshit approach and undersized “big” chainring keep me decidedly within non-shredding, non-gnar territory.
So, what am I trying to do this year? Well, after all the solid training I did last year, I ended up setting the wrong goal. (I should have followed my own advice and not set a goal at all.) I’d been so miserable on the final second-day climb in 2012, I vowed to take it easier in 2013 and pace myself better, especially on the first day. (Day-to-day recovery is my Achilles heel.) Did this strategy work? Well, I certainly felt better on the second day’s last climb last year, but I was only 3 minutes 40 seconds faster ... and I was 20 minutes slower the first day. So whatever suffering I saved myself then has been dwarfed by the year of self-loathing I’ve subsequently suffered. (I’m reminded of a Steve Coogan line: “Remember: death is but a moment; cowardice is a lifetime of affliction.”)
So, this year, I’m going to try to man up and go as fast as I can, both days. I know that sounds simplistic, but go try racing for more than twelve hours over two days and then decide if you still think this all-out business makes any sense at all. So: am I “ready” to go utterly destroy myself? Well, can you ever be “ready” for that? And conversely, aren’t we all born ready?
Of course, “my gut” doesn’t refer only to a subjective sense of readiness. It also refers to whether or not I’m fat. “Fat” in cycling parlance means having an abnormally low amount of body fat that is nonetheless still higher than what you wish you had. I’m pleased to report that my fancy electrode-equipped scale tells me, as of a couple days ago, that I have 5.9% body fat.
There’s some fine print, though: you have to configure the scale with your height, age, and whether you’re an athlete or not. This last setting probably tells the algorithm to simply lower the number so that the self-styled athlete doesn’t get pissed off and demand a refund on his crappy scale.
I keep a really detailed training diary. I know, I know, I should use Strava for this, everybody keeps telling me that, but I don’t feel like sharing all my details with the world, especially if I’m updating the comments right after a workout and might write something untoward. (The pro team Omega Pharma-Quick Step has a rule against riders tweeting within an hour of competition “when when emotions can be running high, and logic and reason can go out of the window.”)
Old-school Excel training diary in hand, I compared this year’s EC training to that of 2012. (Of course how I prepared in 2013 is irrelevant, that race being an ugly smear on my memory.) The below chart shows a comparison of the EC training period (beginning after vacation and ending in mid-September) for both years. What I’ve discovered is that my preparation has been almost eerily similar:
Look at that. Only ten seconds difference on Mount Diablo. The biggest contrast is the number of Diablo ascents, but this year I did two fairly comparable rides in Colorado (click here and here for details). The difference in vertical gain might look like a lot, but actually, I gain that much vertical in just a couple of weekday (i.e., evening) rides.
Now, if I were a proper bike dork, I’d have a power meter and could look at all kinds of extraordinary numbers. And in fact, it would help me during my rides as well. I saw this in action last weekend when, on the second trip up Mount Diablo of the day, my pal Craig dropped my other pal, Ian, and me. Craig just walked away from us (figuratively speaking). At the summit, when Ian commented on this, Craig said humbly, “I was just watching my power meter and trying to keep it between 300 and 350 watts.” To which Ian replied, “Yeah, I was just trying to keep mine between zero and 200.”
The requisite lugubrious day
I think it’s pretty unlikely that anybody training for a race like EC, and then racing it, will escape having a truly lugubrious day. If he does, he’s either loafing too much (like I did last year) or is egregiously lubed like the pros. (Yes of course I noticed that “egregiously lubed” is an anagram of “lugubrious leg guy,” except when it isn’t really, which is always.)
The trick, I think, is to get that lugubrious day out of the way during training so that you won’t have it during the race. It’s like an insurance policy against having a particularly bad day when it really counts. This almost worked in 2012 when I did a double-Diablo training ride fueled entirely by greasy dim sum, as chronicled here. But I wasn’t quite miserable enough that day to call it lugubrious, which perhaps is why that last EC climb became my crowning lugubrious moment of the year.
What exactly do I mean by lugubrious? Well, you know, just mournfully, pathetically, almost comically sad (though too sad for it to be funny). This photo, I think, captures it pretty well. Yes, I’m actually sobbing into my orange slices (after totally cratering in the 2003 La Marmotte).
So, you may be wondering, have I had my 2014 lugubrious moment? Well, I almost got it out of the way really early, on January 1, when I raced the Mount San Bruno hill climb. I went into the race angry, and was hoping to channel that anger into a great performance. But as I wrote in my subsequent race report, “As I got dropped, I discovered that it’s possible to be bitter without being angry. In fact, I just felt sad.”
Fortunately, that wasn’t my most miserable biking moment of 2014. Nor was a frigid ride in the rain in February, though that experience was also awful enough to write about. No, my worst ride of the year so far—which certainly deserves the lugubrious label—was my first double-Diablo after getting back from vacation (i.e., from missing almost three weeks of riding).
Man, that ride was just awful. I clocked abysmal times on the climbs, and couldn’t even keep up with my pals on the flat section back from the mountain. (Because I’d taken so long on the climbs, Craig had to really motor to get home on time, and couldn’t wait up for me anymore.) I finished up with over an hour of solo riding when I was barely able to turn the pedals. By the end I was just totally shattered. Everything hurt ... my legs, of course, and my butt, and also my forearms, my biceps, even my hands. Even coasting hurt. I came away from that ride feeling that the “good base mileage” rule is bogus—that I’d have been no worse off had I done no riding at all during the spring. After that ride I was totally useless for five days straight.
(They say misery loves company, and I was duly cheered to learn that another pal on that ride fared even worse than I had. Despite skipping the second trip up the mountain, he had to stop to lie down three times on the way home.)
All those stats I provided earlier may end up meaning nothing, as stats often do, so I should probably hedge my bet a bit with an omen. I certainly have one to share, though whether it’s a good omen or not remains to be seen.
Last week I was hammering home through Tilden Park, at the tail end of an evening training ride, in the last moments of weak daylight before dusk set in, when I saw something swoop down from out of a tree. Its trajectory was totally unlike that of a bird. It came right at me and then swerved at the last second, but in the wrong direction so instead of going over my head, it went down and actually hit my thigh on its way past. “What are you, blind?!” I thought, before realizing that yes, in fact, it was. It had to have been a bat. Moments after seeing it, I saw another creature of the same size and odd flight style, but this one was silhouetted against the horizon and was definitely a bat. I got home and googled “bats Tilden park Berkeley,” and sure enough, bats can be found here. Or they can find you. (The other odd creature I’ve been seeing lately, but on Mount Diablo, is the tarantula. I’ve seen three of them in the last month.)
So, what does it mean to be hit by a bat while riding? Stay tuned to albertnet, because in early October I’ll give you the a full report on the 2014 Everest Challenge: what I ate, and how badly I destroyed myself, and thus whether being hit by a bat is a good or bad omen.