What possesses some individuals to push the limits of physical intelligence is a question I had to ask myself. 4 members of the Truckee Bike team (Rick Reynolds, Debbie Hakansson, Dave Montgomery and myself, Dan Warren) participated in a bike race known as The Everest Challenge. So called because of the 29,035 feet of climbing in 2 days of racing that it accomplishes. It is known as the undisputed most difficult two day race and ride in the USA with categories for USA Cycling racers and a public “fun ride” category.
Dave, Rick, and Dan in the Owens Valley
I had not done any training specific for this race but I had done some long climbs and had ridden Donner Summit in under 18 minutes on several occasions. I was ready, but the more I read the course descriptions the more it scared me. Rick was nice enough to go down weeks before to do some reconnaissance rides and came back saying he was scared. Great, now I’ve got those cold sweat fears that make one question other options. Still, I convinced myself that it couldn’t be that hard and reflected at the Donner Summit climb as a gauge of 3.1 miles, 1000 feet of climbing at an average of 6.4% grade. Just to set some fear and make you shake out of your cleats the last climb of the last day is 21 miles long with 6160 feet of elevation gain, the last 3 miles average over 10% and tops out at over 10,000 feet in elevation. And this is on the easy day!
The start line is like a grocery store milk aisle: you know, 1% fat, 2% fat, riders with legs that look like a road map of Europe with skin that has so little fat that you can see every vain running up and down their legs.
This group could seriously skew the obesity stats in America. I’m running about 8lbs heavier that my young fast racing days but keep thinking that this is an advantage in some mysterious way.
The morning starts out in the low 40’s with Rick, Dave and myself in a category leaving an hour after Debbie’s 6:30am start. We wind our way through high desert cattle country with the smell of early morning dew on sweet smelling sage. As the sun rises the rabbit brush is in full bloom with its yellow flowers glowing as curious cows look at the strange spectacle that is taking place. The peloton, about 55 in our group, is in no hurry as we have about 8 miles of rolling terrain before we start up the “warm up climb” of 22 miles and just under 6,000 feet of climbing. This climb goes up the highest paved road in the Sierras topping out at 10,250’. As we start the climb the pace is stiff and I stay with the lead bunch as it sheds riders until there are about 15 riders when I decide that it is a long race with a lot of work ahead and slow down to save energy. Rick is ahead of me and Dave behind, as it will stay for the remainder of the day. When we hit about 9,000 feet in elevation the fall colors are putting on a spectacular show with some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. Crystal clear alpine lakes lined with golden aspen trees and 14,000’ granite peaks speckled with snowfields as the back drop. As we start the second climb the temperature has really heated up and as beautiful as this climb is the tall narrow granite canyon is just reflecting the heat right back to you. The sweat is really starting to pour as I look up the canyon with what looks to be one of those 14,000’ peaks as my objective.
The climbs are long, steep, and hot.
A quick descent and a few miles across rolling terrain. We pass by the start line and I see riders stopping and loading their bikes on their cars. I struggle with the option but keep going. The start of the last 20 mile long climb to South Lake. The temperature is in the high 90’s and there isn’t a tree in sight. I set a slow pace and am starting to not feel so well. The heat, altitude and the need to drink large quantities of fluids are taking their toll. My normal training rides rarely last more than 5 hours and I may drink two to three water bottles of fluid. Today I have already drank 20 bottles of fluids and have another 10 miles of climbing. I have stopped racing and am barely riding; the climb is taking its toll on other riders as I see what are normally formidable racers, who prefer the pace being 28 miles an hour, now sitting on the sides of the road with distance defeated looks on their faces. This climb is humbling some of the best athletes in North America. After a section of 10% grade that last about 4 miles I am convinced of two things. There is no way I will be able to get on my bike tomorrow and that a quick gunshot would be a less painful way to end this day. Everything is hurting, my feet hurt, my hands, helmet, shoes, glasses, even my hair has become an issue. My stubbornness keeps me going and I’m thinking that I am going to finish when I realized that some sadistic race planner put in a couple of sections of 15% grades near the finish. My mind now floating in that limbo between the living and death as visions of gothic creatures are spinning around my waiting for my demise. A rider passes me on a short flat and then around the corner another 15% grade. I see the frame of a normal cycling gladiator dismount his bike, take off his shoes and start walking as I crawl past him wondering if his option is the better one at this point. Finally, the top and the finish line. A great refueling stop scattered with salt incrusted athletes trying to realign their vision. Great quesadillas as I go for a hand full of olives because my body is craving salt. 102 miles and 15,465 feet of climbing now behind me and a quick ride back to the start line.
An evening of reminiscing of the day’s events, some good Mexican food for dinner and a restless night of sleep, and we are at it again the next morning. Hearing that some of the riders were taking up to 25 salt (electrolyte) tablets during yesterday’s race made me decide to take some during today’s race. A body gets to a point where you can drink as much fluid as can but without the electrolytes to balance the water intake your body will stop absorbing fluids and you will end up bloated with a belly ache and heat stroke. I was walking that line yesterday and didn’t want to fall over the edge today.
The morning starts in the upper 40’s again but the first climb comes after only a couple of miles and is steep and hot. It is listed at only 9 miles long and an average of 8% what it doesn’t tell you is that the top 3 miles are not steep at all and that you have a section of about 4 miles at about 12% grade. A good wake up call for the morning as Dave and ride together and are joined by several members of the Wells Fargo cycling team. We leave the Sierra Nevada range on a fast exposed decent and we head across the valley to take on two climbs in the White Mountain Range. The second climb of the day is Waucoba Canyon. This is the easiest climb of the two day in terms of length, total climbing and steepness but what it doesn’t take into account is that this is a fully exposed true desert experience. It is so dry there is hardly any sage brush growing and the landscape is more moon like with bare rocky terrain and roasting temperatures in the 90’s. I start seeing riders stopped at the sides of the road succumbing to the glaring heat. Not normally this hot, we are racing in a record breaking heat wave with Los Angles reaching 113 the day before. I am happy to have Dave as company as make our way up this climb. I take on extra water and electrolyte tablets at the top of the climb and start down. As we make our way past the start line and the beginning of the race’s last climb, the thermometer is flirting with the 100 degree mark. The true caliber of this climb sets in when I pass the 4000’ elevation sign knowing that I need to climb to over 10,000’ before I cross the finish line. Hot, dry, long, steep, call it what you like but I am feeling better today on this last climb than on yesterdays last climb. Half way up I pass a water stop and load my jersey pockets with ice and top off my water bottles. The cool ice on my back is a great relief and helps me carry on up the climb. The last 5 miles start taking its toll on the racers as I start to pass the carnage of exhausted racers stopped or walking. I’m lacking strength but my motor feels pretty good as I push on. I am ready for the short sections of 17% grade but it starts to feel like the finish line will never come; just around the next bend or top of that little rise. My optimistic mind is starting to make me frustrated at the finish that seems like it will just never come. Finally it is there and a huge relief of an accomplishment that was questionable at so many points.
Food and rest at the top for a while and then with a smile I look forward to the ride back down as it is steep fast and technical. Just the way I like it. It is like riding into a blast furnace with single digit humidity my eyes feel like they will dry open and my skin will start to crack from lack of moisture. On the ride down I meet up with Jenny, one of the riders on the Wells Fargo team, finishing up her second time at this event. Jenny told me that she had tried to tell other riders on her team what to expect but her message wasn’t quite sinking through to them. I can’t agree more. This is a race where the first time you do it you experience it. But racing it was something that needed to left to a second or third attempt. I could ride Donner Summit 29 times in a weekend but it would never get me ready for this. The steepness, the duration of time climbing, the altitude, and the heat are factors that take a large toll on you. I found that something that I missed on both days was that my fluid and food intake were off. The first day suffering from lack of fluid and the second day succumbing to lack of power because I hadn’t eaten enough. Lesson learned.
Debbie honors us with a 4th place in her category, Rick gave us a top 10 with a 9th place, I rolled in 26th and Dave right behind with 29th. Congratulations Truckee bike Team for the strong showing at an event that just scares most racers away.
Would I do it again? Last week it was a definite “No” this week I am in the maybe thought, How soon the memory forgets the bad and reflects on the good.
This guy was chasing me up the last climb but he couldn’t catch me, Ha!