Thursday, October 2, 2014

Race Report - Everest Challenge 2014 (Stage 1)

NOTE:  This post is rated R for mild strong language and mature themes.


As I begin this report, it is the Wednesday evening after the Everest Challenge.  I was going to go for a bike ride—just because it’s so nice outside and I want to know again what warm sun feels like—but my wife put the kibosh on that.  “Your breathing still isn’t back to normal,” she says.  She’s right about that … it’s like I’m still trying to catch my breath.  I told her I’d already talked to my doctor about it.  She knows “my doctor” means my friend who’s a doctor who specializes in pulmonary problems.  She asked if he had any theories.  “Nope, he wasn’t concerned,” I told her.  “And I know what he’d say if pressed him:  ‘You’re a pussy!’”

This Everest Challenge, my sixth, was different from the others.  For one thing, I actually caught the names of a few of the leaders, including the guy who I think ended up winning.  But don’t worry, I won’t bore you with such details.  This report focuses on the food, the difficulties, and the deranged culture of the event.

This was also my first year in the Masters 45+ category.  But the biggest difference was that instead of being unbearably hot, the weather this year was unbearably cold.  So don your fuzzy slippers, grab a nice hot cup of joe, forward your phone, and prepare for some highly indulgent schadenfreude!


We met at Ken’s place, where we loaded up Paul’s kickass Endurance  team van, which—being all modern and sporting a custom paint job and a giant bike rack—is so pro that we’re vicariously intimidated by ourselves.  New for this year is that all five of our bikes were badass black.  (I guess that’s not such a coincidence when almost all road bikes, it seems, are now black.) 

I was a bit late meeting the others because I got held up performing an emergency Epley maneuver.  At least I had an excuse the guys probably hadn’t heard before.

Our group has only two rules regarding the Everest Challenge:  1) don’t talk about the Everest Challenge; and 2) bring baked goods for the drive.  I think as long as I obey the second rule, the guys will cut me some slack on the first.  My daughter Alexa baked us a bunch of butterscotch brownies.  They were so good.  So were the cookies and chocolate the other guys brang.  (Yeah, I know “brang” isn’t a word, but that sentence was getting boring.)

Lunch was at Priest’s Station again, though it almost wasn’t.  We got there unusually early and the host told us they weren’t serving lunch yet.  He seemed relieved to be turning us away.  We were on the brink of leaving until Paul, who’d been outside when we got the news, came up with the brilliant idea of finding out when they did start serving lunch, which turned out to be just ten minutes away.

I won’t go into everything everybody ate, but we did have some intrigue when Ken tried to order:

[Ken]  “I’d like to get the vegan sandwich, but can you add cheese?”
[Waitress]  “No, I can’t do that.”
[Ken]  “Why not?  Isn’t the customer always right?”
[Waitress]   “I’d like to, but that sandwich you describe … it cannot be.  It does not exist.”
[Ken]  “Look, I grasp that it wouldn’t be a vegan sandwich anymore.  But I want the cheese.”
[Waitress]  “The addition of cheese obliterates the very essence of the vegan sandwich.  Not being our vegan offering anymore, the sandwich thus vanishes from our menu so you’d be adding cheese to nothing, to a phantom, to a lack.”
[Ken]  “Seriously?”
[Waitress]  “Hey, I’m just a waitress … I cannot alter fundamental ontological laws.”

Okay, I confess that I’ve exaggerated that exchange a bit.  What really happened is that Ken wondered aloud beforehand about whether he’d get any flak for adding cheese to a vegan sandwich.  When he (almost sheepishly) asked, the waitress said something like “Of course!” which suggested that the word “vegan” meant no more to her than “cowboy” in the context of my cowboy burger (grass-fed beef, bacon, BBQ sauce, onion rings—very tasty though it made a mess in my beard, which may be why hipsters so often order non-messy things like tahini pita).

When we stopped for gas at the eastern edge of Yosemite, we couldn’t believe how windy it was.  The forecast was for unseasonably cooler weather, which started on a promising note (mid-‘70s) but become ominous, with some websites forecasting rain.  (We enjoyed a long discourse on the probable evolution of weather forecasting, which must have started with Ouija boards but evolved to include almanacs just to get predictions into a saner range.)  But when we got to Bishop and headed out for our traditional spin-the-legs ride, we enjoyed sun and temps in the mid-‘80s.

Dinner was at Astorga’s, the Mexican joint, again.  They seated us in a back room, away from the decent guests.  We were all clean and presentable .. .what gives?  Maybe we’re too thin.  Anyway, something big was going down in the kitchen and nothing was coming out.  We ate at least a basket or two of chips apiece while waiting.  I wanted the combo with a beef taco and chicken enchilada and Craig ordered the opposite, just to spleen me.  I was unfazed until I got a beef taco and beef enchilada and both of Craig’s items were chicken.  “Boo-ya, motherfrockles!” the waitress did not say.

When we left, it was significantly colder out.  At the motel we set about pinning our numbers and mixing up bottles.  This year I even got organized and put a little sticker on my handlebars telling the mileage of each summit so I could mark my progress.

Craig, knowing he’d be groggy in the morning, wrote a to-do list for the morning:

The order is important.  If you dress before shitting, you’ll have to take your jersey and jacket back off to drop the bib shorts.  If you eat before heating your food, your food will be raw.  Etc.

Stage 1 – 89.2 miles, hella climbing

I say “hella climbing” instead of the normal precise number because the course had a last-minute change due to road construction and/or an evil troll crouching near the roadway.  So we did the traditional first climb (to South Lake, elevation 9,835’), then the standard second climb (to Pine Creek, elevation 7,425’), and then the first climb again.

I woke up dark and early, full of butterflies, and groped for my smartphone to check the time.  I was pleased by neither the time nor the active-background weather update for Bishop:

Craig was using some fancy-pants Weather Underground app to predict the weather at the higher elevations, and the forecast for South Lake was for snow turning to rain and then back to snow.  D’oh.

We began our day.  I burst out laughing to see Craig’s oatmeal in the microwave:  a serving the size of a grapefruit.  I opened the door to snap a photo and the oatmeal sank.  It was mostly air, bubbling up as it cooked.  Still, a hearty helping.

I’m never eating Uncle Sam cereal pre-race again.  It’s just like cardboard and is like 30% flax seeds.  I also ate a tasty old-school granola bar 2-pack that had expired during the Clinton administration.

I fretted over whether to save my wool socks for Sunday (which had an even worse forecast) before discovering, to my delight, that I’d brought two pairs.  These were not only Smartwools but were a Christmas present from my mom, so you know I was super-stoked.  Alas, I only had one long-sleeve thermal base layer and saved it for Stage 2.  The rain had stopped before we mobilized but it was still plenty cold.  Less cold, of course, than what we’d be facing at South Lake.

When we got to the start line, my bowels asserted themselves again and I had to ride off to the comfort station and do one last purge.  It was farther away than I’d remembered, and I rolled up to the starting line about 15 seconds before the start.  The ref laughed.  “There’s one in every peloton,” Paul said.

The first climb was brutal.  Determined not to wuss out and over-conserve my energy as I had last year, I dug good and deep and was still with the leaders until about halfway to the summit.  Then some damn climber type got a little aggro, others responded, and eventually my heart rate got too high for too long and I had to let six guys roll away, lest I detonate 13 miles into an 89-mile race.  When the grade flattened a bit I eventually made it back to them, along with Ken and a couple big rolleur types.  We latched quietly on the back of the lead group and sat in.

A few more dropped riders got back on, and right about the time I was thinking, “Wow, this is kind of a big group for this far into the climb,” Ken said, “Wow, this is kind of a big group for this far into the climb!”  The climbers must have heard, because the hammer went down again.  Plus, the road pitched up with a vengeance.  It was freezing cold up there, there was snow on the side of the road, I was carrying 175 pounds of blood and guts and my solid penguin-style bones, and a gap started opening.  I saw the 0.2 KM sign and figured whatever gap the pocket climbers got, I’d be able to close it on the downhill.

Suddenly I heard this isk-isk-isk sound and looked at my rear brake.  The rim was hitting it!  Had I broken a spoke?  No wonder I was hurting so bad!  I turned around at the turnaround (as one does) and stopped to put on my jacket.  Craig (racing in the 35+ category with Ian) was there, zipping up his.  I asked him to check my wheel.   He said it was fine.  (I discovered later that one of the decals had started peeling, and that was all that was hitting the brake, which wasn’t centered right.) 

Seeing as to how the leaders we already underway, I said to Craig, “Let’s go!”  I couldn’t believe my luck:  descending behind Craig is a wonderful thing.  Encountering him here looked like the best thing to happen to me since I missed my transfer (by like a mile) riding a San Francisco city bus and the driver, having just finished her shift, actually drove me home.

But here I was deluding myself.  “Sorry dude, Ian’s taking a piss,” Craig said.  “You better get going—your leaders are down the road.”  He didn’t need to add, “You bozo!” because this was implicit.  I’d have hauled ass down the twisty, narrow road except I was afraid of frost and ice.  I took it easy for awhile.  When I got back into the sun I chased like a mofo and eventually caught the leaders.  In fact, after I passed them I accidentally dropped them all via my aerodynamic tuck and my penguin bones.  So  then I had to coast awhile, untucked like a slob’s shirt, and let them catch up.  I kind of missed the hammering I’d been doing … at least it had kept me a bit warmer.

Those poor climber bastards.  They’re even skinnier than I am and a few weren’t even wearing leg warmers.  A couple of these guys were shaking so badly they could barely control their bikes.  I gave them plenty of room.

(A note about my constant climber-bashing:  I actually have nothing against climbers and in fact hold them in high regard.  But their ability to roll away from me on pivotal uphills just isn’t something I can take sitting down.  Or standing up.  It rankles.  It would be dishonest not to share with you the feelings I had during the race, even if these feelings evaporated immediately afterward.)

On the flat section it was really windy and I was hoping to put more distance between our group of 11 and the couple dozen guys who’d been dropped.  But the climbers wouldn’t help.  Their attitude seemed to be, “Who cares how many guys latch back on?  I’m a climber and another climb is coming up and I’ll just drop them again, ha-ha!”  Fine.  But they don’t get to self-identify with draft horses or oxen … just little ponies or maybe lapdogs.  Ken and I did most of the work until the second climb.

Four miles from the summit the pace got too high and again I released myself from the leaders on my own recognizance.  Fortunately, two big guys decided to detach with me.  One of them, Marco, I’ve raced with pretty much every year at EC.  The other didn’t look familiar but he had a cool Belgian-themed bike and good form.  I later learned his name was Bobby.  So we suffered along together for awhile before Marco said, “Hey, welcome back” to this fourth dude.  This guy was particularly lean, with really veiny legs and a fancy Ridley bike.  But he didn’t hang around … he went by us and gradually pulled away.  This seemed kind of stupid to me.  I mean, he wasn’t going to catch the leaders, and we were bound to catch him on the descent or the flat section later, so what was the point of expending extra energy opening up a gap on us?  But hey, free country.

Sure enough, after reaching the summit together and sharing the wind on the descent and the flats for about ten miles, our trio caught the veiny-legged Ridley guy.  As we approached the road where all the cars were parked, I thought about stopping for a couple fresh bottles.  (The race-supplied energy drink tends to give me debilitating gas, along with others I know who have used it.  Paul said it once blew his belly up like a balloon, and when he was finally able to begin farting post-race, each passing of gas shrunk his belly visibly.)  Of course it’s a shame to break up a group, so I was contemplating suggesting to the other guys that we all stop at our cars and then sync back up.  At that moment the veiny/Ridley guy suggested exactly that.  So we all stopped at our cars—except him.  He just kept right on going!  “Aha,” he must have thought, “I tricked them!”  Bobby said mildly, “That wasn’t very sportsmanlike.”

We had a strong, cold crosswind on the final climb.  Marco must have fallen off at some point.  Bobby and I picked up a couple other good riders (from other categories) and were steaming along pretty well when I saw the Talented Mr. Ridley ahead in the distance.  I knew I wouldn’t last in this group for the whole climb, but hoped we’d pass and drop this guy before I had to back off.  When we went by him I didn’t even look back to see if he’d latched on.  I just settled in and suffered.  I know the road would turn eventually, so the wind might not be so bad.  When I finally eased off  and peeked over my shoulder, the Talented Mr. Ridley was way off the back.  This stoked my coals.  I don’t mind telling you, I hoped we’d completely crushed his morale.

Of course, he was not all I had to worry about.  Survival was very much on my mind.  It was getting ever colder as I gained altitude, and then it started to rain.  No, it wasn’t a deluge, but enough but enough to soak my chamois, which makes Hank cranky.  How much weight does a drenched jacket add?  Oh well.  Then the rain turned briefly to sleet before becoming snow.  Again, not a lot, but—snow!  Dang!  And there was that damn wind.  I won’t go into tedious detail about how long the next ten miles felt.  If you really want a taste of what it was like, read this paragraph repeatedly for the next hour while punching yourself with a bag of frozen peas.

Paul drove up next to me in the Intimidation van and called out encouragement.  He would go on to park it as far up the climb as he was allowed, so we wouldn’t have to descend the full twenty miles to the start area after the race.  HUGE.

I eventually made it to the finish, though this required some paperboy-style weaving on the steepest pitches.  (Despite having already disgraced myself with a compact crank maybe I’ll use a wussy 27-tooth cog next year—there, are you happy now!? )  In case you’re wondering, I reached the finish almost four minutes ahead of the Talented Mr. Ridley.

Fortunately it was dry at the top and the sun even managed to poke through a bit.  I was drying out nicely.  A volunteer handed me a cup of hot cocoa which was so perfectly appropriate, it almost brought me to tears.  It even had a few clumps of un-dissolved cocoa mix, like chocolate croutons.  Then I had a bowl of hot noodle soup or two and various sugary treats.  I found the sag vehicle  and my (sadly under-stocked) warm-clothing bag.

Steve Barnes, the race director, recognized me despite my beard (which is more than I can say for many people in my community, such as the shocked school mom who wondered who this dangerous-looking stranger was walking along with my daughter).  Steve asked how the beard was treating me, and I pointed out that not only did it keep my face warm, but the moustache traps snot, which can be harvested later for its valuable electrolytes.  He’d not been aware of this, perhaps because I’d just made it up (though I think it’s actually true).

Craig and Ian rolled in and had themselves some calories.  Here we are.

This next photo is intended to showcase the dusting of snow on the mountains, and I suppose it does (though such things never look as good in photos).  Bonus:  it also showcases two other bearded racers.


We had just started our frigid descent to the van when I realized nobody had grabbed Ken’s clothing bag.  (He’d ended his race at the van on the way up, having suffered a moment of clarity about our absurd situation and an ominous tightness in his chest.)  So I screamed for Craig (ahead of me) to stop, and the three of us re-climbed the 200-meter 16% finishing wall.  That really hurt, in every way.  I felt like I should have something to show for such an effort, so while Ian fetched Ken’s bag I had Craig take my photo with a couple of local superheroes.  If you look closely at this photo you’ll see that the snow had started up again.

By the time we got to the van I was completely frozen.  Hanging around at the finish line and diverting all my blood to my stomach had serious consequences, as had neglecting to bring full-finger gloves.  Craig reported that my lips were purple.

Dinner was at our old standby, the Upper Crust Pizza Company.  For some reason I listened to Ian and Craig, who thought that last year’s strategy—splitting an XL pizza among the three of us as an appetizer—was overkill, and that we should just get two smalls.  That place has seriously good ‘za and (though I say this every year) next time I swear I’m going to get my very own pizza appetizer.  But the ‘za, some bread, a bowl of soup, and the yummy chicken marsala pasta did a good-enough job of replacing my lost calories.

To be continued…

I was pretty happy with how I rode on the first stage.  (I was 8th in a good-sized M45+ field.)  I was less happy with the weather, and with the forecast for Sunday.  In fact, the wimp in my brain was half-hoping the weather would be so bad for Stage 2 that we’d be able to bag the whole thing without completely sacrificing our dignity. 

But I’ll tell you right now, Stage 2 did happen.  And as I’ve pointed out many times before, recovery is my greatest weakness:  the better I go on Stage 1, the more I pay for it on Stage 2.  So if you’re not satisfied with the level of misery I’ve described above, check back because believe me, there’s more to come.

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