Sunday, May 19, 2019

My Everest Experience

Our spouses probably think we need to be committed.  We are, it is just that our definition is different.
Endurance:  the struggle to continue against the mounting desire to stop.

Late last year, I was deciding on ways to try to test myself through cycling challenges.  Turning the big 5-0, what better way than to attempt an Everest.  The challenge is to take one climb and do enough repeats in a single activity to gain 29,029 feet.  Strava stalker Scott Morman saw what I was up to and asked if he could join in this "awfulness" -- what my daughter said.

The morning of, I awoke to my inner alarm clock at 3 am, grabbed a cup of Christopher Bean Hawaiian Kona, poured enough honey in it to cause a diabetic to go into a coma, and headed out the door.  The place was the Foothills Parkway, about an hour's drive.  Scott and I both arrived 30 minutes before we said we would, which shows our A-type bike-aholic personalities.  We both brought back up bikes, back up recording devices, back up batteries ... pretty much we had double or even triple of EVERYTHING.

My 13.7 pound Trek Emonda ... well maybe a bit more with all the electronic crap on it.

We parked at a pullout which was about 3 1/2 miles up the ascent. The climb I chose was 5.3 miles long with an average gradient of 5.5% and a total gain of about 1450 feet.

We began at 5 am.  The temp was 65 degrees. Storms had blown through earlier, leaving the pavement wet and the road foggy.  No sooner had my adventure begun than it almost ended, as I did not see a large stick in the road on the way down to the beginning of the climb.  I hit it full speed, but employing all my mountain bike skills, I saved it.

Halfway up the first ascent, it began to rain.  I stopped to  cover the connections from my external battery to my GPS device, worried about them crapping out from any moisture that could get in through the open ports.  It soon stopped.

Scott and I stayed together for the first two laps.  We enjoyed the whippoorwill calls and listening to the cascading waters as the sun rose.  The Smoky Mountains were enshrouded in fog and low lying clouds ... stunning!  My plan was to feel like I was going too slow the first 4-6 ascents and then see how I felt after that and reassess my game plan.

I stopped every two ascents at the truck to refill my bottle and grab a bite of something to eat then and there, allowing my stomach some blood flow for digestion on the descent back down.  I also shoved either a Honey Stinger Waffle or some Cliff Shot Bloks in my jersey pocket for the second descent down.

On the third or maybe fourth ascent, Scott slowly rode away from me.  No worries, as this is a ride where we need to settle into our own rhythm.  At the end of the day, he had lapped me.  We still saw plenty of each other throughout the day as we completed our ascents.  As we would pass by, going in opposite directions we were always encouraging the other with words or sign language. 

The first few pit stops for me, I had to pee.  This was a good sign, as I was staying hydrated.  The stormy morning was of benefit as the skies stayed cloudy through noon.  The heat of the day was from 12 pm to 5 pm, with a high of 82 degrees. The cloud cover had cleared and I could not hide in the shade from the overhead sun.  I had to back off a bit as I was seeing a heart rate that could very well spell disaster should it stay that high. 

Keeping the pit stop times to a minimum through multitasking. 

I picked a weekday for this challenge, hoping that traffic would not be as bad.  We pretty much had the road to ourselves, except for 11- 6 pm.  It was the usual parkway mix of Harley's, crotch rockets, sports cars, and beat up pick up trucks.  Gotta ask.  What is up with Harley riders blaring their radios while on a scenic drive through the mountains?  It's not like they can even here the music above that 100 decibel pipe noise!

Looking at this challenge in its entirety can be daunting.  I took the "eating an elephant one bite at a time" approach.  I first broke up the number of ascents into two groups of 10.  21 was the number that we had to do, but anyone can do "just one more," so I told myself I had to do 20.  Once I finished the 10th one, it was a descending pyramid after that.  Then I decided I would ride 2 ascents before stopping at the truck to resupply.  Once I finished the 7th ascent, I had completed 10,000+ feet.  From here it started to get hard, so I broke up each ascent into five 1 mile bits that I could focus on.  And believe me I focused hard.  By this time I knew where the smoothest section of pavement lay and subconsciously would find my wheel tracking to it.  I knew where I could stand and hammer, working different muscle groups, stretching the back, giving the va-jay-jay and the sit bones a moment of relief. BTW, the Specialized Power with Mimic is the "bee's knees" of saddles, at least for my anatomy.  But still, getting off those parts does keep them happier.

The first, third, and the last half of the fifth miles of the ascent were the hardest.  They had the highest grade and were unrelenting.  Fortunately they were broken up by some flatter stretches, and overall, this ascent was almost perfect.  I say almost, because, although the pavement was fairly smooth, I was wishing for buttery smooth asphalt (like on the newly opened section of the parkway) by mile 150.

On either my 8th or 9th time up the mountain, I thought I was hearing things.  Sounded like a musical instrument.  As I came around a corner, there was a gentleman at a pull off, sitting in a chair, and playing his trombone.  Weirdly cool!  In the races I have done I have heard a fiddler (New Hampshire 100), electric guitar (Marji Gesick 100), drums (MG100), and the bagpipes (Karl's Kaleidoscope?), and a harp (?).  I should have taken a picture.  On the subsequent descent, he was smoking a cigar.  Stuff I see on rides never ceases to amaze me.

As 6 pm rolled around, the road became shady again. I was now into my 14th hour and my 16th ascent. Throughout the day, I had occasional aches and pains and would come and go (left knee, right ball of my foot, left shoulder blade), but now I was beginning to have some discomfort in the palms of my hands and my left rear deltoid.  I was constantly shifting my hands and doing left arm windmills to alleviate the pain, but it pretty much was a nagging constant throughout the remainder of the challenge.  I could accept this pain, for at least I wasn't having any more foot pain and my lower back was staying happy.

With 5 laps to go (my mental number, with 6 being the physical number), I could now see the finish line.  Whether it was going to take me 17, 18, or 19 hours, I was going to win.  Although physically I was becoming a mess, my mental game was strong enough to keep my lap times consistent.  My knees began to feel like the Tin Man's.  My left deltoid was fussing at me on the descents.  My breathing became ragged anytime I was out of the saddle.  The descents were now becoming hard.

At the beginning of the ride I told Scott that the word of the day was savor.  It was our choice to do this, to experience the lows as well as the highs.  I believe that the lows teach you more about life then the highs.  So when your monkey brain is screaming at you, place a piece of mental duct tape over its mouth, and live in the moment. Take it in, process it, and then you will realize that it is not really as bad as you think it is. 

As I finished my 17th ascent and began to head back down the mountain, Scott was finishing up his 18th ascent.  Earlier in the week, I had communicated to him that it looked like we needed to do 20 laps.  I pretty much had figured it out by lap 7 that it was going to take 21 to solidify the 30,000 feet of gain.  I wanted a hefty buffer because all recording devices are not equal.  As I approached I slowed down and told him that he needed to do 21.  The look on his face was the equivalent of a toddler about to go into an all out fit!  I had to chuckle, to myself of course.

The sun began to set on my 19th ascent.  With clear skies, the full moon rose with all its beauty over the Great Smoky Mountains.  As my field of vision narrowed down to just beyond my front wheel, my other senses began to take over.  The sounds of hoot owls, whippoorwills, frogs, and other unknown noises (mebbe Sasquatch?) began to fill my ears, making me smile.  Around one particular bend, on each of the last 3 laps, I smelled cucumber salad.  And at another spot, something earthy and strong (bear?).

The last two times down the mountain, I started to get chilled, despite the warmish night.  That, along with the fear of a deer running across the road and taking me out, caused me to slow down a bit. 

Scott and managed to hook up for his last and my second to last lap.  Although we were both in zombie mode, we did manage to eek out a few sentences of how our day went.  On my final ascent, the moon was at my back.  With only an occasional car now, I turned off my headlamp so I could  take in the beauty of a dark sky, a rarity these days, what with so much wasteful artificial light.  ABSOLUTELY SPECTACULAR!!  This experience washed away all the pain I was feeling. I had a brief moment where I did not want this to end.  Crazy, huh?

But then it was over.  I was back at my truck, 18 hours and 218 miles later, having climbed 30,000 feet.  Suddenly the fatigue hit me like a tidal wave.  But first, I had to stop my recording devices and save the data.  I even wrote down instructions for my Garmin Etrex in case I forgot the sequence of buttons to push ... ha!  How quickly one can go from a strong determined racer to a bumbling hollow shell in just moments of getting off the bike.

The faces of Everesting

As I changed clothing, put away my gear, and collected my emptied wrappers of nutrition, I reflected on the day.  The one thing that will truly be memorable was having Scott there to experience it with me.  It was NOT a "misery loves company" day, but rather a wonderful day to be alive, strong, resilient and with the fortitude to succeed in this endeavor.  Thank you, Scott, for being my co-pilot!

Other stats

9 bottles of Infinit (1 having 200 mg caffeine)
1 bottle of water
1 mini Coke
3 caffeinated gels
4 Honey Stinger waffles
3 Cliff Shot Blok packs
6 home made rice cakes
2 external batteries to run the Pioneer head unit
Garmin Etrex 30x with only 25% battery usage
2 close calls with vehicles (dumb ass blonde in an Infinity and an old man in a beat up pick up)
1 rattlesnake
1 skunk
3 Chamois Butt'r reapplications

0 moments of self doubt

Saturday, May 11, 2019

PMBAR Race Report

5 years since my last one ... long enough to forget the pain ... mostly.

Lisa Randall and I teamed up. Five years ago we toed the line and sped off at warp speed, as I was chasing the Queen of Pisgah and hungry for victory.  This year, I just wanted to have an all day adventure in the woods with no strings attached.  Meanwhile, Lisa, was still recovering from an NUE race director hangover.

We arrived at the Hoffmeister Temple Friday evening and Beth prepared us an extraordinary last meal.  She definitely went the extra mile with a chicken pasta dish topped with goat cheese and toasted pine nuts and a mixed green salad with dried blueberries.  Her culinary skills are top notch.

Race morning was warm and dry ... wait, what?  This not Pisgah. Looking at my weather app at 5 am, I saw the heavens were expected to let loose with a torrent of wind, rain, and hail around 1pm.  Now, this is Pisgah.  Passports were handed out at 8 am and the game was on.  I had heard about the 2018 version with the preamble Thrift Cove-Lower Black loop.

You WILL do the parade loop and you WILL like it! 📷 Icon Media Asheville

We got the joy of doing it again, in reverse, this year, too.  Lisa took the lead and began the 3 mile and 1200 feet elevation warm up lap.  I was busy trying to keep my heart rate low enough so I could process all the chatter around me, trying to glean any strategery from the locals, who knew the forest better than I.

After an hour, we finally made it to Pressley Gap.  I hopped off my bike, pulled out the map, and tried to think of how to go about collecting 4, possibly 5 checkpoints.  Trying to get my brain to work while my heart rate was still 160 was damn near impossible.  After circling all the CP's on the map, we began connecting the dots.  We opted to ride Turkey Pen to get the first mandatory at South Mills/Bradley Creek.  I had not forgotten the HAB on Black up to Turkey Pen, but these days, HAB's don't really bother me ... it is just part of the Pisgah experience.  For the first time, I truly enjoyed Turkey Pen because it was bone dry! 2 hours 46 minutes from starting our PMBAR journey, we grabbed our first CP.

Knowing how much rain this area has had in the past two weeks, I opted for taking Mullinax to Squirrel to upper Cantrell Creek for our second CP.  I could only imagine what South Mills and lower Cantrell would be like.  Besides, I LOVE Squirrel and had not ridden it since the 2018 Pisgah Stage Race.  Once again bone dry and with all the chirping birds lighting up the forest, I was in my happy place.  We came upon several teams going the opposite direction, which made me question my route for a few minutes, but I quickly pushed those thoughts out of my mind. The descent down Cantrell was pretty sketchy; most of it was under water and there were thousands of baby heads to contend with.  I opted more than once to walk my bike as the risk (broken derailleur) to reward (3 minutes faster) was high.

4 hours and 16 minutes from go time, we got our second CP at Horse Cove/Cantrell Creek.  Lisa's heels had taken a fairly good beating on the Turkey Pen HAB's, so while she tended to her blisters, I grabbed some water from the creek, relieved myself away from the creek, ate a couple hundred calories, and plotted our next move.

There was really no other choice than UP via Horse Cove. My bike was going to hate me, as it was pushed more than it was ridden.  And then the birds grew quiet and the sprinkles started.  Halfway up I ran into Patrick and had a brief conversation about how to go about snagging the 2nd mandatory at Farlow/Daniel Ridge.  We were both on the same page, so that made me feel good about my route.


Once we hit Funneltop, it was all downhill to FS1206 ... well, mostly.  At this point we were 5 hours in and Lisa began to fall a bit behind.  Up until today, 4 hours was about the longest she had ridden this year and after having a 72 hour adventure last weekend, I would say her body was in WTF mode.  The rain began to come down a bit harder and I put my shower cap on my helmet.  By the time we had finished Funneltop and were approaching the intersection with FS1206, the skies opened up.  I quickly put my rain jacket on, not to keep me dry, as I was soaked in my own sweat, but to keep me warm.

📷: Lee Neal

One lightning bolt struck close enough to make me double my cadence for about 30 yards before I realized that I couldn't outrun electricity.  I told myself if I am gonna die today, at least it will be on my bike. Once we turned on FS1206, we collectively made the decision not to go and get the CP on Pilot Cove.  Lisa's engine was sputtering and although I had my required head lamp, I really did not want to use it.  And who knows when and if this storm would let up.

So we turned left and began to make our way to the second mandatory CP at Farlow and Daniel Ridge.  The rain continued to pummel us as we dropped down 276 to FS475B to 225.  I didn't have to drink from my CamelBak, as I had enough rainwater mixed with sweat running down my face for my own electrolyte drink.

📷: Icon Media Asheville

Daniel was a mess with water pouring over the million roots.  I was all over the place trying to stay upright.  Finally we arrived and got our passport stamped at 3:05 pm. We continued on down Daniel, crossed the bridge, took FS475 to Davidson River to 276 to FS477.  The rain was coming down enough for me to worry about us getting pancaked by traffic on 276 so I motored on as quickly as I could.

As we turned onto FS477, the rain began to let up, nearly 2 1/2 hours later.  As I approached lower Bennett, I mentally prepared myself for the HAB.  I also hoped Lisa would still talk to me afterwards, especially after we hit the super steep pitch where I had to lift my bike up and over some root/rock shelves.  Fortunately I had gotten ahead of Lisa and she was out of my sight on this part, so she did not have the opportunity to kill me and stash my body.


I stuck my passport through the small opening in the tent.  It came back out with some heavenly goodness.  They asked if I wanted a Snickers to which I replied yes.  What I wasn't expecting was a homemade one!  OMG!  It was so cold, I thought it was made with ice cream.  That marshmallow cream was all it took for a foodgasm!

It took 45 minutes to climb up Bennett but only 15 minutes to descend.  The water flowing down the trail showed us the line.  We popped back out on the gravel and began the final push back to the finish.  The sun began to pop out once we hit Clawhammer and it felt so good.  Maxwell went on forever.  We were both ready to be done, but still had to hit the HAB on Black before we could stop pedaling and enjoy the descent.

The  Gods of Pisgah weren't finished playing with me yet.  I was holding my own until I came to the root staircase with the sharp right-hander at the bottom.  I decided to dismount at the last second; as I got off the bike both feet slipped in the mud and I ended up bouncing down on my ass. With only an injured pride, I hopped back on the bike and continued.

Halfway down, my left calf began to cramp.  Holy Mother of God!  Normally I can slow pedal and calm down the angry muscle.  But that was not an option.  I just gritted my teeth and went faster.  I hit one rock garden with way too much speed, my front wheel hit a rock, twisting my bars so forcefully I almost lost connection.  How I managed to correct the bike and get it back on track I do not know, but am forever grateful because that would have left a mark.

Once I regained my composure I nursed the remainder of the trail.  Lisa and I crossed the finish line at 6:32 pm, 10 1/2 hours after beginning our adventure, with 62 miles, and 10,000 feet of climbing in our legs.

No land speed records were set, but we accomplished our goal of having a wonderfully suffery day.  Our route choice was good, although looking back now, I see where we could have made a better choice going after the last two CP's.  I was glad we chose to knock out the first two CP's the way we did, as it allowed us to ride Turkey Pen and Squirrel in perfect conditions.

This was great training for the Crusher in July, which we will be tackling together as well.  Feeling as well as I did also helped to boost my confidence for another challenge I will be tackling on Friday, which will have a wee bit more climbing.

Thanks Eric for always challenging me and providing a course where I am not just following flags all day.  It is these style races that I have grown to love.  And thanks Steve for the photos.  What a master of photography you are!