Yesterday, I attempted Everesting. The rules are simple, pick one climb and go up it over and over (and over) again until you reach the same elevation as Mt. Everest at 29,029ft. Simple as a hypothesis. Complicated in practice. This is a self-supported ride, so accounting for enough calories and liquid, changing weather conditions, starting in the dark (or light) and finishing in the light (or dark), extra equipment in the case of a cleat failure or kit that becomes abrasive from rubbing all that dried sweat into your backside, and so on. Everesting is not something to be taken lightly, in any capacity.
This weekend had to be THE weekend to try this, yet it was suboptimal. I had just finished my road racing season, so my form and freshness were high due to a 5-week taper heading into various State and National Champ races. However, my fitness was for shit. Averaging 5-7 hours/week for more than a month is not a recipe for a successful Everesting attempt. My thought was that the form and freshness would at least cancel out the lower level of fitness. If I waited, I’d have to wait until the Spring, most likely. The next 5 weekends were already taken up with other commitments. It was now or never.
Living in Boulder, CO, I could have had my pick of countless climbs of varying lengths and steepness. I scoured topo maps and Strava to see what the elevation gain per minute climbed would be. There’s a balance to strike here, taking into account time spent climbing every ascent as well as the time of each descent, which is your only rest interval besides pit stops. There’s also monotony. Imagine picking a climb you have to crest 50 times. In the end, I chose Flagstaff Mountain. Here’s why. I determined I would put as many vertical feet in the bank as I could while fresh, so I started with SuperFlag, which gains 2,300ft in just over 5 miles. The final 1.7 miles average a horrible 12% with a long pitch of 15-16%. Not ideal for Everesting. But, the rules state clearly that you can use a subset of the climb as long as there is a verified Strava segment attached to it. Flagstaff Mountain has climbing segments ranging from 1,000ft up to 2,300ft attached to it. My goal was to use SuperFlag and bank at least half of the necessary vertical before reverting to what is really considered “Flagstaff” proper in the local vernacular – from the very base up to an outdoor amphitheatre 1,486ft higher up. The amphitheatre holds added meaning as Lori and I were married there 23 years ago. Any inspiration I could get, I would take.
After packing up the car and double-checking my laundry list of consumables, I headed to bed at 9:00 to read and unwind. By 9:30 the lights were out. Slumber would be fleeting and my alarm rudely woke me up at 12:30am. I had eaten a PB&J right before bed, knowing I wouldn’t sleep that long, so I drank my big mug of coffee and focused on drinking lots of water. Finally, it was time to hit the road and drive to the base of Flagstaff. Another consideration – there weren’t many choices for climbs where I could easily park and safely pull up to my car to access my cooler, etc. There’s a high school at the base of Flagstaff, so that became my home base for the day.
I started at 2:14am. In the winter, I often ride outside in complete darkness. The nights are longer and I got in the habit of working out at 0-Dark-30 when our kids were in diapers; it was then or never. There is something very serene about exercising at this time. And while it might sound funny, the roads seem flatter when climbing because all you can see in front of you is what your bike light illuminates. Your visual perspective is tunnel vision myopia. This was going to be a long day, a very long day. So, the ascents were less about shooting for time and more about sustainable pacing. My goal was to average 60min per ascent/descent, knowing I would be faster than this when fresh and maybe slower than this as fatigue took its toll.
SuperFlag is a slog in any capacity. I didn’t know how many times I would ascend it before reverting to Flagstaff, but I ended up ascending it 7 times. And this is where I hit my first of several rough patches. The final 1.5 times up SuperFlag, I went to a dark place. Some teammates had come out to ride with me in shifts for moral support. At this point, Andy and Steve, two teammates were with me for the final 3 ascents of SuperFlag. Occasional banter helped the first 1.5 times they were with me. After that, I felt myself deliberately draw inward. I clammed up and wanted to be alone. My body wasn’t right and I had to focus on it, identify whatever barrier had just erected itself in front of me, dissect it and destroy it. At this point, each ascent/descent of SuperFlag was taking me 53-54 minutes, very metronomic. The second-last ascent/descent took closer to an hour and the 7th-and-final ascent/descent was just over an hour. Andy and Steve would ride up the road, look over their shoulders and see that I was far back, then slow down so I could catch up.
I was over halfway and it was time for a slightly extended break down at the car. I needed to compose myself, stretch out my hunched over and constricted body, and take stock of what was going on inside me. Where was I sore? Where was fatigue building up? Where did I feel fresh? How was my head? And so on. I felt relieved with the decision to start focusing on Flagstaff proper, which also created a jolt of energy. I had put 16,100 vertical feet in the bank. It was about 9am, still cool and it was turning into a gorgeous day. After about ten minutes, it was time to get back to Everesting. At this point, Andy said his good-bye, good luck, and Steve continued to ride shotgun.
The quick break was just what I needed. I felt rejuvenated and was in the right frame of mind to keep going. I knew I would complete the feat; no doubt in my mind at this point. Flagstaff proper felt so much shorter than SuperFlag and so much easier because it averages “only” 8% versus the 12% of the upper slopes. I hit the amphitheatre and captured a photo with Steve for prosperity. He would end up accumulating 11,000ft of vertical in his own right before peeling off. Hell of a ride and companion on the day.
The first three ascents up Flagstaff passed quick and relatively easily. It was all about perspective. SuperFlag had become a nasty slog, so by comparison Flagstaff was feeling short and easy. I was ballparking my roundtrips at 40-45 minutes, and was nailing it. After Steve left me, some more teammates showed up and rode in support for 1-2 ascents, including my older brother, Mike. Aside from the first couple ascents up SuperFlag, this was the most fun I had on the day. The camaraderie was infectious and I enjoyed the light banter for the first group ascent. Then, about halfway up the second time – the 5th time up Flagstaff – I went to that dark place again. Both up SuperFlag and this time, it was like the flip of a switch. One moment I’m riding with the guys and enjoying it; the next instant, I’m tailing off the back, drawing in and wanting to be completely alone. It’s like the old animal that leaves the herd to go off and die alone.
When we got to the bottom, the rest of the riders wished me luck and rode home. Mike stuck around as I composed myself at the car, offering much needed moral support and also taking stock to report back to Lori. I gotta say, she was a trooper. She’s sensitive to the dangers of cycling and was not the least bit thrilled for me to attempt Everesting. Yet, she supported it and didn’t stand in my way. I adore her. I took this time to put new kit on; my nether region was being ground to raw meat by all the caked sweat. New lycra and a bit of chamois butter made me feel like a new man. I hugged Mike and took off for ascent #6.
At this point, I’m crunching numbers in my head like a mathematician with a PhD. How many vertical feet have I accumulated? How many left? How many ascents up Flagstaff would that equate to? Did I have enough supplies? Did I have enough grinta inside me to finish it out? These were questions that filtered through my head unending, every single minute of the ride. I’m not kidding.
Being alone the final 6 ascents up Flagstaff was a welcome change from the company. Don’t get me wrong, the company was great and overall a definite shot in the arm. But, there comes a time when it is imperative to turn inward if you have any hope of keepin’ on. The final 6 ascents, at this point accounting for another 5 hours of riding and most of it uphill, seemed incredibly daunting. My body was starting to reject fluids and nutrition. There are receptors that help the body absorb carbs, protein and fats into the system and provide the body with energy. These receptors fatigue just like muscles when overworked. I had clearly overworked my carb receptors. The thought of more carb drink or waffles or gels was nauseating. Crushing a Coke sounded refreshing, oddly enough. But, I noticed I wasn’t drinking often enough or nearly enough volume. My body was telling me it was done with me. All it craved was plain ice water. I struggled through the next 3 ascents, forcing stuff down my throat and staring at the tarmac just in front of my front wheel. On multiple occasions, I would look up and wonder how I got to where I was on the road because I hadn’t recalled going past this or that landmark. I wasn’t hallucinating, but I was closing off in a major way. While my times for each ascent were remaining fairly consistent, it was clear my body was starting to cave in.
With only 3 ascents remaining, I knew I had to change tack or I would never make it. I stopped at my car and opened up my cooler. One last Coke; crushed it. A PB&J sat there; I left it. I didn’t even bother looking for a waffle. I grabbed a gel, ripped it open and choked it down. I had plenty of liquid fuel left. So what did I do? I dumped out 3 bottles and filled them with melted ice water from what had been a cooler full of ice as I left my house 12 hours prior. I knew I would not consume any more fuel. My body wanted plain water and if I didn’t allow myself the opportunity to drink more – a lot more – then the caving in process would be complete in no time flat.
The first of the final 3 ascents went OK. A steely mindset acts as a salve for physical discomfort for at least a little while. What surprised me to this point was how great I felt on the descents. Alert, physically capable of negotiating the switchbacks and even confident with opening the throttle. I was also comfortable getting out of the saddle on a rare occasion and the watts would come up nicely. Being able to access power was not the issue. It was a question of when would all-encompassing fatigue override the mind. At some point, it would happen. I just hoped it wouldn’t be before I completed the final 2 ascents.
When I hit the bottom of the descent, I immediately turned around and started the second-last ascent. I needed to fabricate momentum. About a quarter of the way up, I saw someone waving to me from the side of the road. As I got closer, I saw Kim. Kim is rooted in my swimming past, from the time we were young age groupers and through high school. She moved out to the Boulder area a number of years after I did and we ran into each other during a swim session about 14-15 years ago. We’ve stayed in touch and she was aware of this foolhardy thing I was doing. Seeing her and hearing her words of encouragement put an ear-to-ear smile on my face. It was then I knew I would not fail. I waved to her and silently continued on.
This ascent continued well. Because I was able to chug water, my body was opening up a little bit. The cold, clean, flavorless liquid was refreshing. My body invited it in. I hit the amphitheatre, did a 180 and started descending. For the first time, little aches and pains became much more pronounced. My neck, low back and left tricep were on fire. My left pinky toe was throbbing like I was hitting it repeatedly with a hammer. About halfway down, some cars were pulled off the side of the road and I noticed a couple of folks attending to a motorcyclist riding a crotch rocket who had wrapped himself around a thick tree. His body was misshapen, his bike a wreck. It was grizzly. I tried to piece together how it happened based on how his body laid there and where his bike was, but couldn’t. After a few attempts, I realized I didn’t have the mental capacity to try and forgot about it. It was then I heard the wail of sirens down below. The accident must have happened 20 minutes or so before I came upon it.
When I hit the bottom, I needed that last bottle of ice water, so I made a final, quick stop at the car, grabbed the bottle and started up again. I started working on contingency plans. My fear was that the throng of emergency vehicles which had headed up the climb would block off the road at some point. So, if that occurred, I would need to do 2-3 shorter climbs to hit the mark; but, would that still count? I panicked a little bit, because to get this close and not be able to finish would be heartbreaking. As I hit the place where I had run into Kim the previous ascent, the ambulance was already passing me coming down. I thought how quick of a turnaround that was, and how awful the results of the accident must have truly been. I took a nanosecond to wish the biker well before focusing all my energy on the next 30-35 minutes.
Halfway up the final ascent, I knew without a doubt I would make it. After 14 hours in the saddle (and another hour-ish of breaks) and 186 miles, I was nearly done. I couldn’t believe it! And, as soon as I gave myself the permission to bask in the finality of the challenge, my body caved in. It had spent over 15 hours accumulating abuse and storing it in nooks and crannies all over the body, holding it back because I kept cracking the whip demanding for it to perform. When my mind shifted from “just one more pedal stroke” to “I’m going to do this”, my body took the cue. It didn’t need to protect me from myself anymore. Every single bit of abuse was released in that single moment of the mind shift. It was shocking. It came out of the blue and hit me like a sledgehammer.
I went to shift into my easiest gear only to realize I was already in it. I looked up as I navigated one of the four switchbacks on the climb to realize I was farther down the climb than I thought. Once the dam breaks, there is no way to repair it. At this point, I don’t remember much. I have vague snapshots of the rest of the ascent, but that’s about it. There was no coronation. No fireworks. All of a sudden, I was at the amphitheatre for the final time. I awkwardly came to a stop, unclipped and got off my bike. I was heaving as if I had just climbed Flagstaff at full tilt, completely out of sorts. “Are you OK?” came the question. Folded over my handlebars, I opened my eyes and tilted my head to the right to see another cyclist there. I thought I must look even worse than I felt. I nodded silently, then prepared for the descent.
Taking stock of my body before descending, I realized the hardest part of the ride would be these next 10 minutes. I had been worried my mental clarity would be the challenge with the descending this late in the ride. I was wrong. It was the state my body was in. While I never got into danger of pushing past the limits, I had to muster every ounce of resolve to make it back down to the car. It sounds weird to talk about a descent being the most challenging 10 minutes of the entire ride, but it’s the truth.
So, why tell this long story? Barriers come in all shapes and sizes. We run into them every day. Sometimes softly, sometimes not so much. Some we overcome. With some we call a truce, while others knock the shit out of us. I recently wrote that the limit of human performance is limitless. But how many of us really – and, I mean, REALLY – embrace the attempt to find limiting barriers? Seek them out, come up against them and do our damnedest to smash them to rubble, knowing that there’s a very real chance the outcome may not be very pretty as we end up on the receiving end of a miserable experience.
Proactively seeking out barriers is not for the faint of heart. Finding them rarely leads to jubilation even if there is an overarching sense of accomplishment. To find the barriers that cause us to grow as people and to start comprehending that of which we are truly capable means we have to have the audacity not only to ask “What if …” but to also act on those thoughts. Because if we choose to not hunt these elusive, audacious barriers, to go to war with them, then I argue we never really understand ourselves. And when barriers become the hunter and we the prey, if we have not practiced going to that dark place each one of us must to overcome the biggest of barriers, then we lose. Every time. Fear overcomes our sense of adventure and paralyzes us. We’re dead in our tracks before we even realize what hit us.
As I submitted my Garmin file for Everesting ratification, I thanked the group which thought this idea up. They planted the seed. They asked “What if …”. They came calling, and I chose to answer.