Sunday, July 25, 2021

From the Archives - Daily Peloton: Everest Challenge 2009 Stage 2


This post continues the saga, from my archives, of the 2009 Everest Challenge stage race. This originally ran in the Daily Peloton. (My dp stories were lost after a server meltdown, so over time I’m re-posting them here.)

The report below is of Stage 2 of the race; for background info and my Stage 1 coverage click here.

Here’s the Stage 2 profile. Just look at that final climb … over 10,000 feet of vertical gain. Abominable, especially after all the suffering preceding it.

Racing the Everest Challenge, Stage 2 – September 25, 2009

We ran a bit late in the morning and barely made it to the start line on time. Lucas had just enough time to check his placing from the previous day and was ecstatic to discover he’d finished sixth. So long as his legs and/or cracked crank arm didn’t fail, he figured he had a good shot at a top five overall. I decided it was just as well I didn’t know how I’d finished on Stage 1. I felt pretty good about my performance; to find out I didn’t place very high would have been a downer, while finding out I’d placed, say, top ten might have put unwelcome pressure on me during today’s (final) stage.

I did get a little hint, though. A Masters 45+ rider rode up next to me and congratulated me on the previous day. “You seemed to get stronger during the race,” he said. “I was trying to reel you in for over an hour but never actually did. Several times I thought I had you but realized it was just another rider you’d passed.” I asked if he knew how he’d done, and he said eighth. I was really stoked—the times of the 45+ riders are actually pretty similar to those of my 35+ field. (Cycling is a perfect sport for crusty old veterans, and the harder the course the better. If there was a doping control at this race, your typical 45+ would likely test positive for piss and vinegar.)

Oddly enough, I felt totally fine throughout the first climb, to Glacier Lodge. This was a 9-mile 8% grade topping out at 7,800 feet. The temperature was perfect; I managed to find others to make pace with. Here I am slogging away.

After a little over an hour I saw Lucas, then Paul, then Jamie coming back down the mountain, and then suddenly I was at the top. I took on a bottle of energy drink and launched myself at the long, relatively simple descent. Man, what a blast. For the next nine miles, I averaged over 43 mph, peaking out at 52, all the while averaging a heart rate of just 108. There was nothing to do but hold a tight tuck and pass climbers. I wish life itself could be like this: automatic, effortless success, just for being me. I blew by Jamie and thought of holding up for him, but figured he’d latch on during the flat section anyway. Sure enough, he did, and as we motored across the flats toward the second climb, I found another big guy to work with and we made contact with a group of about ten riders, including Paul.

The second climb, Waucoba Canyon, is the least difficult of the whole race—8.5 miles at 5%, to a summit of 6,645 feet. Paul, Jamie, and I worked together in our little group, which was really satisfying—after all, I’d barely seen these guys the previous day. The only question was, how long could I last at this pace? I wasn’t hurting yet, but day-to-day recovery has been a weak point for me ever since 1991, when I went from racing every weekend to just jumping in now and then. Plus, the temperature was already climbing; it was 80 degrees and not yet 10:00 a.m. 

The terrain was sparse but picturesque—like something out of the Road Runner cartoons, with ruddy, sandy hills rising up on either side, dotted with scrubby dabs of shrubs. The road snaked this way and that through the canyon.

I continued to marvel at the elite company I was keeping and the race I was having, and then suddenly—as if Fate had read my mind—I started to have stomach problems. Not nausea, but a sharp pain, like my gut being tied in knots. I didn’t have to ease up, but I was good and worried now. I didn’t complain to the others in my group—no sense tipping my hand—but suffered silently and went easy on the energy drink. All I could do was hang tough and hope my stomach problem would resolve itself.

[I’ll tell you something now that wasn’t in my original dp story: the stomach problem was due to the race-provided Heed energy drink. I’d been warned … it was notorious for causing stomach problems. One pal said, “It gave me such bad gas, my stomach bloated like a beach ball, and every time I farted my belly would get visibly smaller.”]

After about forty-five minutes we started seeing riders coming back down toward us. Among the first was Lucas, out in the wind by himself. He shouted for us to come up and help. I couldn’t understand what exactly he expected us to do—suddenly spark across, making it to the turnaround and back down to him like a fricking boomerang? Exactly what kind of rider did he take me for?

Before long we reached the turnaround, and I actually stopped, to get my bottle refilled with plain old water. I’d brought a baggie of drink mix with me, and in less than thirty seconds had mixed it all up and was back on the road. The group I’d been in had dispersed, but in no time I caught Paul and Jamie. “Oh, good, our descender is here,” Paul said. They took my wheel and we bombed the descent together, averaging close to 40. We passed a number of guys, none of whom was able to latch on. And you know what? My stomach was all better.

Now came the climb I’d been truly dreading: the endless slog to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest , 21 miles at 6% for a total elevation gain of 6,160 feet to peak out at 10,100 feet. As race director Steve Barnes had pointed out, there’s actually some descending along this route, which dilutes that 6% figure. And, of course, this was the sixth major climb in two days so we were all pretty knackered going into it. Top it all off with temperatures in the nineties and you’ve got yourself a real smackdown.

Fortunately, Jamie, Paul, and I were in a group with four others, and one of the riders had private support: a friend who would drive by in his Volvo, park ahead of us, and hand up bottles. His largesse extended to anybody riding with his pal; I had at least three nice, cold bottles of water from him (though Paul never did get the vodka martini he’d requested).

The pace felt comfortable to me, and my heart rate was only in the low- to mid-140s. The heat was a grind, but at least I was hydrated. The situation seemed too good to last, and it was: Jamie punctured, not to be seen again until the top. I felt a strange survivor’s guilt, with my 55-gram inner tubes and four-inch almost-worthless clip-on pump. I kept thinking, “That bullet was meant for me….”

Then I saw a familiar orange-clad figure up the road. Funny how you can recognize a rider from a mile away just by his position on the bike. It was Lucas, and we could tell he was having some difficulty. Gradually we caught up to him, and it was pretty clear he’d gone out too hard, probably due to irrational exuberance over his great ride the previous day. Lucas and I decided that I should pace him for the rest of the climb to defend his overall placing. We watched Paul and the other two ride away, and then over the next hour and a half, I watched my power meter and knocked out a steady, sustainable pace and kept Lucas out of the wind.

I didn’t struggle with this decision. I’ve always managed to be on teams with superior riders, making me a natural domestique, and I say this without shame. In college I always supported my star riders and it paid off—they won a lot and I felt it an honor just to contribute. My favorite event? Not surprisingly, the team time trial. So now, personal ambitions aside, it felt good to make myself useful on this endless climb.

As we gained in elevation, the heat subsided, and eventually we began to see scraggly, bent-over, blasted trees: the ancient bristlecone pines forest we’d seen on the map. By “ancient” I mean these are literally the oldest living organisms on Earth, some of them almost 5,000 years old. In other words, they are as old as I felt as I toiled away, mile after mile. I have to chuckle at the phrase “bristlecone pine forest,” though; “forest” suggests abundance, and this looked more like the dregs of a Christmas tree farm after a retail frenzy. I don’t think you can get a real forest this close to the tree line.

I suppose I shouldn’t admit this, but in addition to gazing at the pines I took a moment here and there to appreciate the vistas spread out before us—the best of the whole race (or maybe I was just finally able to lift my head up and pay attention). But most of the time the climb was a fairly grim affair, as I maintained a steady pace and kept an eye on Lucas. From time to time his muscles cramped, and I tried to help him ride through this by offering what little encouragement I could. (As he knows, I’ve never had a muscle cramp in my life.) I felt a little like a motivational speaker at times, and this was the image I had in mind:

It’s a refrigerator magnet my wife picked up during our recent vacation in London—a replica of a poster produced by the English government during the onset of World War II. Not that we were at war of course, but the sentiment seemed fitting at the time.

Exactly twice a rider came by us. Each time, I quickly asked what category he was: any answer but “35+” was the right one. Otherwise, I’d have to make a quick decision whether to keep pacing Lucas, or get medieval on the guy’s heinie. It seemed to me there couldn’t be that many 35+ riders ahead of us, and I didn’t want to miss out on a possible top-ten finish to post on my bike club’s website. Fortunately for both of us, neither rider was a 35+, and we did our climb mostly in peace.

A word of advice to anybody who tries a race like this: don’t look up—the grade and peaks ahead of you can be demoralizing—and don’t look down at your bike computer: the mileage ticks by so slowly you start to wonder if the damn thing is working. Don’t count down the miles—just turn the pedals. And don’t forget about fuel! Though each sip of energy drink brought with it a brief wave of nausea, I was diligent about drinking. To bonk after this much hard work would be a tragedy.

Finally we got to the really steep pitches that announced the imminent final summit. Looking at the percent-grade graph on my PC, it’s no wonder we suffered here: the graph looks like an electrocardiogram, with all the peaks just above the 10% line and the dips just below it, for an average grade of 8.5% over the last 2.5 miles. With my 39x27 I was weaving across the full width of the road like a drunken paperboy on a steep driveway. I’m surprised I didn’t wear out my bike’s headset. Lucas, sensing somebody coming up from behind (there was nobody) started sprinting and I had to yell at him to sit back down lest he suddenly detonate.

Actually, I was worried for myself as well: Lucas normally drops my ass on the big climbs, as does Paul, as does Jamie, and all day I’d felt like I was crashing the strong men’s party. It all seemed too good to be true and I was sure at any moment my legs would seize, or I’d puncture, or get struck by a stray bolt of lightning. But we avoided disaster, and the steepest sections didn’t find me over-geared.

At long last, to our delight and relief, we finally crossed the finish line. In our euphoria we forgot the “exit interview,” and after a short descent to the food station had to double back and do a final bit of climbing to make sure our numbers had been recorded by the race officials. Finally we coasted back down, ditched our bikes, and joined Paul for some well-earned relaxation. Miraculously, for the second day in a row there were enough chairs to go around. I chatted a bit with the guy next to me, who turned out to be the winner of my category, Mauricio Prado. Next time I’ll watch for him.

Lucas tends to sweat a bit when racing in the heat.

We all got medals for finishing (which meant everything to my eight-year-old daughter upon my triumphant return home).

Jamie and Craig rolled in, and we ended up spending about an hour at the final summit, punch-drunk on endorphins and exhaustion. “I will never do this again,” I thought to myself. “At least not until next year.”

Results and stats

The “Bay Area Five” ended up having solid results, perhaps better than we’d anticipated:

  • Paul: 4th on Stage 1, 7th on Stage 2, 4th overall, Masters 35+ (and almost 17 minutes faster than last year!)
  • Jamie: 5th on Stage 1, 8th on Stage 2, 6th overall, Masters 45+  (and over six minutes faster than last year, despite his puncture!)
  • Lucas: 6th on Stage 1, 9th on Stage 2, 7th overall, M35+
  • Dana: 9th on Stage 1, 8th on Stage 2, 8th overall, M35+
  • Craig: 12th on Stage 2, M35+; alas, the officials failed to get his number on the first day

(As I mentioned in my Stage 1 report, I had no specific goal for this race other than to finish, ideally with dignity, whereas my daughter predicted a top-ten finish. I guess she was right … but I’m still not into goals.)

Some notes on the following graph:

  • My bike computer does a rudimentary power calculation based on my weight, my speed, and my elevation gain (f=mgh), ignoring wind and rolling resistance, so the wattage is on the low side
  • My altimeter was reading low as well, compared to the elevation marker signs
  • The vertical line down each graph shows where the stage finished
  • In each graph, the average values listed along the right-hand column ignore the final (untimed) descent; note the net elevation gain of 5,814 feet!
  • My average heart rate not counting descents was 143 for Stage 2 (vs. 149 for Stage 1)
  • The temperature readings are often exaggerated in these graphs, probably due to the sun baking the asphalt (of course, the rider feels this too)
  • You’ll want to click on this image to zoom in, obviously

Appendix - bits and bobs

Ever wonder what cycling road racers eat? Well, for a long training ride it’s this. And what shouldn’t racers eat? This. And what did I eat during the Everest Challenge? During Stage 1 I consumed seven gels, six bottles of energy drink, and a bottle of water. During Stage 2 I ate six gels, and drank four or five bottles of energy drink and about three bottles of water. And what did we eat before and after the race? Click here for the full food-and-camaraderie report.

Finally, you may wonder if, having conquered the Everest Challenge, I have any advice to offer for anyone contemplating such a brutal event. Why, I’m glad you asked! Check out this post.

My pals and I rode the Everest Challenge five more times, from 2010 through 2014. I’ve chronicled all of them in these pages; if you’re interested just Google “albertnet everest challenge [year].” If this tale was too rosy for you, rest assured I didn’t always manage the race so smoothly … I had some years where things went badly enough to satisfy your thirst for schadenfreude. Enjoy please enjoy.

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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