Sep 27, 2011

Everest Challenge Stage 1 report

It was Friday, and Brooks and I were on our way to Bishop to tackle the race that nearly mentally cracked me a year prior. For Brooks, this would be his first attempt at Everest Challenge. We were both entered in the Elite 4 field, but I was only going out there to race one person, myself a year ago. I knew how much pain and suffering the race has to offer, but was confident that this year would be better. It had to be better - thousands of miles, hundreds of thousands of feet of climb, countless 5 am wake ups, and more times up Hawk Hill than I care to count - it had to be better.

Interesting news trickled in days before the race. Stage one was going to be run in reverse this year, making Rock Creek the last climb instead of the first. The reversal would also eliminate 12 flat “junk” miles we’d have to cover between climbs, which I was happy about, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to have a side-by-side comparison of my performances from a year prior. Another thing that looked very promising was the weather – unlike last year, record heat was not in the forecast.

Race Day

As I was getting myself ready, Nate English came over to borrow my pump. We made some small talk and I commented on whether he was looking forward to setting another course record on a different course. He had a very humble reply. Something to the tune of having stopped serious training a month or so prior and not being sure of how he felt. As he handed the pump back, he said: “Good luck, don’t die!” I smiled and replied, “You too!”

We staged at Millpond Recreation area and shortly after 7:30 am, our field was set loose to battle it out on the climbs of East Sierra. The field was neutral for the first few miles, but then as we turned toward the climb to South Lake, the race was on. A few guys went off the front, while I held my pace steady. Some of the racers passed me, some stayed behind. For a race like this, I know what I can do and I’m realistic about my abilities. I know I’m not in the elite group of climbers who can win that race, but I also know I’m good enough to put in a good performance if I race my own race – not someone else’s. Those guys who are better climbers will likely beat me anyway, and those who aren’t, but burst ahead, I will catch at some point when they blow up or have no more to give.

The climb up to South Lake is 17 miles long, averaging 5.5 percent and rising almost 5000. The morning was still cool. I wasn’t overheating, and my heart rate allowed me to work in the 170s to pace myself up the climb.

A group of about 20 riders from our 42-person field went off the front and I was alone for a bit, racing my own race. Then a group of six very chatty riders came up behind me and sat one my wheel for what seemed quite a long time. Not that there was much drafting going on at those speeds, but perhaps they found the pacing helpful. Eventually I rotated to the back of the group and a mile or so later, I let them go ahead (I caught and passed most of them later on).

At mile 15 was the first aid station; I grabbed a hand up bottle without stopping and pressed on to the top. As I approached the summit of the climb, I was happy that this was the first climb instead of last because the final pitches toward the finish would have really stung the legs, as they surpassed 15 percent in the final stretch. As I gained elevation, the air became cooler and I started moving a bit faster, gaining some ground on other racers. I reached the summit aid station and while I was making my turnaround, my bottle was being filled with water. Again without stopping, I pressed on and it was now time for a very long descent.

The heat of the working muscles, together with the cool air at nearly 10,000 feet resulted in my thighs beginning to cramp up. This wasn’t good. Cramps 20 miles into a 88-mile race are never good, but considering I had another 10,000 feet to climb that day, it was especially not good. I tried to spin my legs easy as I was descending to loosen up the muscles, hoping that once I was in the warmth of the desert once again the cramping would subside. It did, somewhat. I was also pouring water on my legs, which helps with cramps.

I made it down and it was now time for a few flat chore miles to get to the base of the second climb up to Pine Creek. I got on a wheel of one of the riders from a different field, and asked him if it was okay to sit behind him for a bit to let my legs “uncramp.” He didn’t mind and in this race, working together with different fields was allowed, so it was all good.

I was on his wheel for about a mile, until we passed the staging area where I stopped by my car to swap bottles before pressing on. As I moved toward the base of the climb, I was caught by another rider in my field and we rode together through the six flat miles to the start of the Pine Creek climb. 

At mile 47, another rest station came and I yelled for a water handup, what I got, however, was HEED – I hate HEED! I had a choice, turn around, toss the bottle (essentially wasting it) and grab another one of water, or deal with it. I decided to deal with it and pressed on. Luckily, the HEED was very mildly mixed and I didn’t have any problems taking it down.

The climb up Pine Creek is 7.6 miles long averaging just over 6 percent. This was the climb that took a lot out of me last year because it was hot and exposed. This year began similarly as I started to climb from the base, with the sun already beating me over the head. I kept telling myself: “Keep on pushing, it’s not that bad. Sherman Pass was twice as long and much, much hotter, and you survived!”

About half way through the climb, mother nature smiled at me in it’s own little way. A cool breeze hit my face. I looked up and ahead of me saw ominous clouds and heard rumblings of thunder in the background. The sun slowly disappeared, tiny raindrops began to fall and strong, cool gusts of wind began to hit my face and body – I was in heaven.

I livened up, my speed increased, my legs took on a life on their own and with an ear-to-ear grin on my face I shot up the last half of the climb, catching and passing riders that had passed me much earlier. I wanted more of this, more wind, more cold, more rain. This was my kind of weather, my kind of element. While others put their head down to brace for the strong headwinds, I sat up, exposing my chest to it and plowed on enjoying how it cooled my body.

I stopped at the top of Pine Creek for just a brief second. I ate a few pieces of banana while my bottles were being filled and swallowed a few endurolyte pills with some ibuprofen to subdue the cramps.

It was now time to fly down the decent, and fly I did. Pine Creek was my fastest descent from anywhere, averaging 43.6 miles an hour for 7.6 miles, and it probably would have been even faster without the cars I had to pass because they weren’t moving fast enough.

The next five miles to the base of the last climb were flat with a mix of headwinds, tailwinds and crosswinds, as the gusts became stronger and stronger. As I was approaching the base of the last climb up Rock Creek, I knew I needed to eat, so I grabbed a Mojo Bar out of my back pocket, but the cross-winds were so strong, that eating it was a challenge because I was afraid if I took one hand off the bars, I’d get blown over, but somehow I managed to stuff it into my mouth and drown it with water. Then I had to take a nature break, and guys reading this can appreciate the complications strong winds that can cause in that endeavor, but I came out “unscathed.”

Then it was on to the last 20 miles of the day. With the exception of about a 1-mile downhill, the last 20 miles would be uphill, averaging about 5 percent. As I made my way up the climb, another rest station was ahead, I yelled for another water handup, this time asking twice to make sure I was getting water before I went in for the grab – indeed I was.

The climb was steady, and I pressed on, passing a few people who had stopped to get things at the aid station, or at the side of the road. I knew that there was a downhill coming that would give me some time to recover, so I pushed a slightly higher gear than I would have had it been a steady climb all the way. The downhill came and went and it was time for the two most dangerous moves of the race – crossing highway 395 twice! Luckily, the traffic was light and before I knew it, I was at final aid station before the finish. I needed both my bottles refilled, so I had to stop. While the wonderful volunteers were filling my bottles, I grabbed a banana and downed half a coke.

Ten miles to go to the top. As I was ready press on, to my astonishment, I saw Brooks sitting on the ground at the rest stop – I thought that he was long at the top of the climb, knowing that he’s a much better climber than I am, but he wasn’t having the best day in the saddle. I continued on having yelled some words of motivation in his direction, hoping to see him flying by me shortly. (That wasn’t the case, but that’s not my story to tell.)

The last 10 miles lay ahead. It was cool, the clouds were over my head, and I was in my element, feeling great and motivated to finish strong. But it wasn’t all that easy.

Remember those cramps I had earlier? Well, they didn’t go anywhere and while they were only lingering from mile 20 to what was now mile 78, half a mile from the rest stop, as I got out of the saddle to take a few pedal strokes and change up the muscle groups, my thighs completely seized up, causing me to grind my teeth and force the legs to rotate through pain just so I could keep the momentum going or risk falling over.

One painful pedal stroke after another and pressed on, but knew I was not going to be able to finish like that. So I made a very quick stop and swallowed some more edurolyte pills and some more ibuprofen, hoping to ease the pain. One thing was on my mind, the slogan from the backside of Rocktape that was ensuring my left Achilles tendon would survive the ride: “Pain is the weakness leaving the body!”

I kept rotating it in my head, over, and over, and over again, knowing that I cannot stop again, not until the top. Pain, cramps, fatigue, elevation, none of that mattered, I had to press on. I was catching and passing many riders, some of whom I didn’t think I’d see again, but there they were, and there they went. The cramps were not letting up. I put my hand on my left thigh, it was rock solid even in relaxed state, same with the right. I didn’t care. With a masochistic grin on my face I kept turning the pedals over.

Up ahead I saw two riders from my field, who passed me a long time ago. I thought I would sit on their wheels for a bit before passing, so as to not create a cat and mouse game, but when I approached, I saw they were in no shape to chase. I gathered every muscle in my body, clicked the shifter a few times and attacked past them out of the saddle. I looked back - there was no reaction. I settled in and continued. The pain became even worse. Now my inner thighs were starting to seize up and each pedal stroke felt like I was fighting all sorts of forces within my body.

It seemed like I caught four or five second-winds up that climb because with each jolt of pain came a jolt of adrenaline that propelled me further. Then, there it was, the mark I was waiting to see all that time – 1000M to go. Just 1KM and I can get off my bike. I’ve already pedaled for over an hour through the worst cramps I ever had on a bike. I jolted forward, and before I knew it, the 200M mark was under my wheels (in chalk), just a few more moments and I crossed the finish line in 7 hours and 21 minutes (with only 4 minutes and 27 seconds of stop time) – 2 hours and 9 minutes faster than my time from the year prior.

I knew it wasn’t a fair comparison because of the change in route, but to me, it was an accomplishment nonetheless. I was proud of what I had done on that day and as I crossed the finish, I was overcome with a completely unexpected wave of emotions.

I likewise knew that many, many riders in my field had finished ahead of me, but I didn’t care. On that day one of two, I won the race against myself and was one tiny step closer to becoming one of them. I was also happy to have had sunglasses on, so the tear that trickled down my cheek was easy to disguise as sweat.

But there was no time to bask in any self-glory, as another stage lay ahead and I knew there was a chance that in much less than 24 hours,  I would pay dearly for the efforts of the day.

Everest Challenge Stage 2 coming tomorrow!

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