The Everesting Challenge 2021
I remember where I first heard of the Everesting Challenge, but I don’t remember exactly when. It was probably 2014 or 2015, and my good friend Matt explained the basics to me: pick a hill (literally any hill), and continue riding up and down it until you’ve reached the equivalent elevation of Mount Everest, from sea level. That’s a mind-bending 8848 metres in one ride.
I reached three quick conclusions on the challenge once I’d had a chance to ponder it. One, it’s WAY more distance and time than you imagine. At first, it sounded like a brutal full day ride. I mean a ‘normal person’ full day ride (after breakfast until dinner). As soon as you do the math on some of your toughest local hills (and explore their Strava segments), you realize it’s closer to ‘full day’ in the truest sense…much closer to 24 hours for many riders. My second conclusion was (and this is what I told Matt), “there’s no way I would do that if I had to ride for 20+ hours! There’s way more interesting rides you could do and actually go somewhere”. My third and final conclusion was, I didn’t actually think I could do it. My ego didn’t allow me to share the third conclusion with Matt.
Fast forward several years to 2019, and I’d heard of more and more athletes taking on the challenge, including runners. As much I was I awe of the accomplishment, I still wasn’t interested in taking it on. Not seriously, anyway. Then the Covid-19 pandemic started, and it took Everesting on a whole new trajectory. Highly trained and motivated athletes (both professional and amateur) were drawn to the challenge, people needing to test themselves but with nowhere to race. My Adventure Audio Podcast cohost, Tyler Hamilton, and I interviewed some amazing people who had taken it on. Tyler started to tease me about doing my own Everesting, and it became running joke on show. By this time it was well and truly taking shape in my mind, that I would make an attempt. I still hadn’t committed publicly, but when we interviewed Everesting record holder Ronan Mc Laughlin in April of 2021 I admitted to him that I’d been scouting hills on Strava and Google Maps. Ronan quickly replied “if you’re spending time doing that, you’re definitely going to talk yourself into doing it”. I knew he was right.
Once I’d mentally committed, it was on to what I consider to be the really fun part of Everesting, picking the hill. I’ve always been one to pour over maps and data, and this part of Everesting make it feel like 'project', in the best sense of the word. There’s so many things to consider, and I won’t get into a ‘checklist’ here (because that’s already been done better than I could do; check out ‘10 Tips for Everesting’ with Sir Guy Litespeed here:
Part 1 https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/the-everesting-podcast/id1596373634?i=1000542632479
Part 2 https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/the-everesting-podcast/id1596373634?i=1000542632723
I really had it down to just a few possible hills, as I wanted to keep it local and not make overnight travel a part of the plan. Ultimately, I settled on a hill about 6 kilometres away from my front door. It’s nearly impossible to pick an Everesting hill that checks every box, but this one did check a lot of them. It’s 1.4 kilometres in length (one way), it’s a nice quiet dead-end road with very little traffic and the surface is in good shape. It’s also interesting enough (some sweeping turns) and has great views of the front range of Canadian Rockies. The downside? At an average gradient of only 5.88%, this hill would take many laps to complete the necessary elevation gain. 119 laps, and a whopping 320+ kilometres. More distance means more time, and more time means more difficult. It seemed like a sensible compromise at the time, and one I hoped I wouldn’t regret. There’s also a separate ‘badge’ in the Everesting Hall of Fame for First Know Ascents, which was definitely appealing to me (being the first to ‘Everest’ a climb).
Next came preparing myself for the effort. Any smart goal need a timeline, and I set my sights on late August for my attempt. Some background on me for perspective first; I’ve been very active my whole adult life, and a pretty committed cyclist for over 20 years. I’ve ridden many ‘centuries’ (cycling-speak for a 100 mile/160 kilometre ride), and I’m accustom to putting in 6-10 hour days on the bike. 20+ hours though? This was a different story. It was now already May, however I felt like I was well ahead of schedule. I’d been working with coaches since January (Jim Capra at Tyler Hamilton Training, and getting lots of great tips from Tyler too), and I could feel (and see in the data) I that I was getting stronger by the month. The science and data of training is worth it’s own blog post, however I’ll say definitively that a block of structured and thoughtful training gave me an extra gear on the bike (probably two extra gears). By the time my Everesting attempt rolled around, my FTP had increased 13% and my watts per kilogram FTP had jumped 20%. Weight, and how it relates to cycling performance is also worth of its own discussion. For the purpose of a climbing challenge like Everesting I wanted every advantage I could get, and dropping some fat while increasing power created a big difference in my ability to climb well for a long time. With about 4 months to go, I set about a steady routine of riding 8-10 hours per week. That was mostly shorter (1-1.5 hour) rides at higher intensity, and a weekly longer ride (3-5 hours) depending on family commitments. I also set a goal of riding my first ever double century (200 miles) in late June, as a confidence builder. With my best riding buddies Kelly and Dave, we had a great 328 kilometre ride with 2800 metres of elevation gain. I felt good the whole time and strong to the finish, and I told Tyler that on phone shortly after. He replied “that’s great for building confidence…Everesting is going to be twice as hard”. Twice as hard? Shit. Tyler was a World Tour pro (the absolute pinnacle of road racing) for over a decade, raced the Tour de France 8 times, and is one of the best cyclists of his generation. In addition to that, he’s been coaching pro and amateur athletes since 2011. All this to say, when he told me Everesting would be twice as hard as my double century, I believed him. My last bit of preparation involved external motivation, as I was not above using every mental trick I could think of. I discussed it on the Adventure Audio Podcast, with all of my cycling friends (okay, ALL of my friends, cyclist or not), posted about it on social media and lastly, set up a fundraising page for Brown Bagging for Calgary Kids (www.bb4ck.org). Fundraising is an incredible self-motivational tactic, and I was excited to support such an awesome cause. This is yet another topic worthy of its own post, so I’ll just say that having people donate was a big motivator to keep going.
My schedule made it that I had a date in mind and I was keen to stick to it, unless some seriously horrible weather rolled in. As the day approached it looked like I would get luckily with good temperatures and no rain. I fussed over all my nutrition, clothing and other gear the day before, and I swung past Bow Cycle in Calgary (thank you Bow!) for a loaner ‘back up’ bike. I had a huge dinner and tried to get to sleep early. The alarm went off at 3 am, and I went about a routine of coffee and eating before making the 5 minute drive over to the climb. My vehicle acted as my ‘base camp’. A base camp for the purpose of Everesting is your support area, for food, clothing, tools, a spare bike…anything and everything you can imagine you might need or want. I set out for my first of 119 reps at exactly 4:00 am, right on schedule. On my first decent I saw lights being set up on the road by my car. I only have one friend crazy enough to meet me at 4 am and sure enough, it was Kelly. Kelly and I road for several hours in the dark, and my first bunch of laps ticked by until the sun came up. Everything was going according to plan, except that my average lap time was slightly slower than I had calculated. ‘Slightly’ slower doesn’t sound like a big deal, but by being one minute slower per lap, I was adding about two hours to the total Everesting time (starting at 4 am with a goal of being done by midnight). A twenty hour bike ride is obviously massive, and the realization that I wouldn’t be able to hit that timeline was a mental blow. With the hill being so close to my home, I was able to do ‘practice’ laps several times in advance to get a sense of pacing. Where did I go wrong? I hadn’t accounted for slower lap times in the dark (rookie mistake) and perhaps I was a little off my intended pacing by riding with friends (still totally worth it for the company). Everesting is a very strange experience, especially on a short hill. You watch an entire day pass by in motion, without ever actually going anywhere. The day and the laps started passing by with lots of friends and family stopping by to offer some encouragement, feed me sugar and caffeine or to ride a few laps with me. Company is great during an Everesting, however this can also impact your time schedule. About 7 hours in (a huge bike ride on its own), I was getting pretty deep into my own head…why, exactly, am I doing this?? I’m not going to be finished until way past midnight! This is impossible! These thoughts will inevitably start to creep in when tackling an ultra endurance event. The key is to have all of your mental rebuttals ready to go. David Goggins calls this the ‘cookie jar’. Every time I thought I couldn’t do it/didn’t want to do it/told myself it was crazy for doing it, I quickly replied to myself with I can do it/people donated money, I HAVE to do this/if I quit I have to live with that forever, etc. This metal debate continued for much of the day, and I believe it’s a very common experience among Everesters.
By the time darkness had set back in (around 9 pm, as it was late August), I was about two thirds into the effort (80 laps and over 6000 metres of climbing). It was by far the most elevation I’d ever gained in a single ride, and I still had another 3000 metres to go. My incredibly supportive wife, Kristina, came back again to check on me (her third trip to ‘the hill’ of the day) around 10:30 pm. While my legs were still okay (relatively speaking), I was unbelievably tired, and wanted to sleep in the worst way. Until you’ve been there, it’s hard to describe how mentally tough it is to be 75% done something and still have at least 4-5 hours of hard work ahead of you. Obviously aware of my destroyed state, Kristina told she’d drive behind me for ‘a few laps’, which allowed me to descend faster because I could ride in the headlights of her car. She shepherded me for about an hour and then our good friend Ken showed up again (his third visit of the day). All told, Kristina and Ken drove up and down that hill for over three more hours, until 3 am, keeping me safe and sane. We also had a short visit with the police, who were called by a resident asking to see what the heck we were doing out there all night. On my final trip down, I couldn’t believe I’d finally done it. I was overcome with relief. Standing by my car, we nervously waited for the Strava file to save and verify the ride. Once it loaded, it was confirmed: 9166 meters, 324 kilometres (201 miles), 22 hours 59 minutes elapsed time and 19 hours moving time. Everesting Challenge complete.
A lot has changed since that fateful ride. Shortly after the big day, I emailed Andy van Bergen (founder of Everesting, who Tyler and I have had the pleasure of hosting on Adventure Audio) and we got to talking about why there wasn’t a podcast dedicated to Everesting. I consider Andy a kindred spirit, and one thing led to another (as these things do). Within a month of having completed the challenge, I’d agreed to host and help launch the new Everesting Podcast. To say this challenge and the incredible community of ultra cyclists around the world (known as Hells500 'Crew') have sucked me in would be an understatement. Like a lot of Everesters, I thought I would never do it again - and I’m now making plans to take on some version of the challenge in 2022.