Everesting: Gloom and Misery
I only decided, spontaneously, in the same week to give it a go, to hook onto someone else’s Everesting attempt. The timing wasn’t super great; I had family visiting and for personal reasons, at the same time, I felt rather emotionally drained. The night before, I confirmed my attendance and organized my bottles, fuel, clothing, lights and chargers to last me most of 20-24 hours. Honestly, I wasn’t much up for it and that was also why I didn’t tell a single soul that I was heading out to potentially complete one of cycling’s toughest challenges. I wanted a ‘bail’ option. I didn’t want any pressure. I gave myself permission to quit at any time.
What is Everesting?
It’s a simple concept, but a fiendishly difficult challenge to complete. Pick any climb, anywhere in the world and ride repeat after grinding repeat until you have notched up 8,848 elevation meters; the height of Mount Everest, in one activity. It is open to anyone, anytime, anywhere. It is not necessarily an organized event. All you need is a bike, a hill, a tracking device and a huge amount of determination.
The rules: One hill / One activity / No sleep / No time limit
Full Everesting rules here https://everesting.cc/
Weather forecast: RAIN
This is the Middle East, the likelihood of rain, is minimal. Although the UAE is made up from mainly desert, we are very fortunate to have some pretty epic mountain climbs too. The chosen climb for this Everesting challenge, was Jebel Jais, hosting the highest point in the UAE, at 1,934m above sea level, with the challenge segment at ca. 24km of 5.4% average gradient. To reach the height of Mount Everest, Jebel Jais had to be climbed just over 7 times.
6am start, right at dawn. It was miserable from the first ascent, wind pushing hard against the bike on certain sections. Followed by an even worse first descent, with rain hammering down; it felt like hail hitting face and skin, riding straight into the raindrops at high-ish speed. As I naively hadn’t respected the weather forecast, I arrived at the bottom of the first descent, in a thin soaked windbreaker and frozen fingers. Although not planned already, I had no choice but to make my first stop at my ‘base camp’. I was cold to the bone, soaked and shivering.
My planned ‘base camp’, was basically my car parked a few hundred meters before the start of the segment. It was my shelter and my fuel station. I changed to a rain jacket, then continued up on ascent number two, still with numb fingers and soaked shoes.The pure misery continued, although of course, as I started climbing again, I got warm and peeled off my layers. The final 4km to the top of the section and top of the mountain, is very exposed hence very windy. It takes a bit of courage and some decent bike handling skills to control the bike both up and down, but nothing more than I couldn’t handle. On the second descent, the roads were wet, but as we have good road conditions in the UAE, I didn’t want to lose time on the descents and it was so cold, I wanted to get down FAST. I nearly swallowed my heart! In one bend, three cars appeared fast on the road in front of me, with the one car coming straight towards me in the wrong lane. He was overtaking on a prohibited overtaking section. I had nowhere to go and no choice but to hit my breaks hard. My back end of the bike skidded left, right, left, right….. I envisaged: either losing control and crashing on the road in front of the car, or taking a hard right turn into the gravel and crashing into the mountain side, to avoid getting hit by the car. Miraculously, I managed to keep the bike upright and narrowly missed the car and the selfish, impatient, irresponsible driver. Breathe!
To bail or to continue?
Heading back to the car, I seriously considered bailing, it was just too miserable and clearly dangerous. It didn’t help by the fact that other riders on the mountain disappeared one by one. I got it! Why ride in miserable conditions, when most days are gorgeous and warm? But then I get stubborn! This is not a valid reason for quitting. A bit of rain shall not stop me. Holding on to the thought I would warm up when making my way up for the 3rd time, I headed back to the car to stuff more cheese sandwiches and snickers in my pockets. The weather must change. It must.
2,000m, 3,000m, 4,000m…. 5,000m. This was my crucial point. Final decision; go home or go all the way. Anything between 5,000m and 8,848m and it is not acceptable to quit; not in my head anyway, then it just turns into wasted effort.
No turning back
I am healthy, my bike is working and I still have more hydration and fuel in my car. I am pretty organized. Do I even have a valid reason for not completing? The answer is NO. I have no valid reason for not going through with it. Quitting would mean I would have to go back and do this to myself again. No thanks. I am doing it now. Now is now. And I am doing it! I know I can do it. I never doubted it. Of course I can climb until the target is reached. Yes, it’s miserable. Yes, it’s lonely. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s a mental struggle every time I need to start a new ascent. Yes, it’s hard on the legs, very hard. It’s A LOT of climbing, it’s beyond what I have ever done before. But ultimately, I believe in myself. I came to do it. I am not going home without it. One more factor to push me in the right direction; no woman has ever completed the Everesting Challenge in the Middle East (probably no one ever tried). I will be the first. Determination switch on. No turning back.
Enter the Darkness
By 5,000m of elevation, and riding 100km uphill and 100km downhill, dusk is upon me, just after 18:30. Here comes the darkness, it will be a long, dark and lonely night. The rain stopped a long time ago, the temperatures a bit milder and the wind on the mountain side much less aggressive. I can do this.
By 21:10pm coming down from the top again, I just missed the last food truck, at the 20km viewing point and plateau. It was open on the way up, but closed on the way down. Damn. I had calculated, that to get me through the night, I would need more ‘real food’. I was running out of home made sandwiches. One last truck was in the process of closing, he had only tea, small bags of crisps and cup noodles. Argh, give me all. I sought shelter from the cold wind, warmed up a bit from the boiling water. But that was it. There was no nutrition in that food. Too bad. I have to manage on my own fuel. I will.
By around midnight, going up, again, Jani Brajkovic, former pro rider, came down the mountain side, for the last time. Mission complete. As the only other lonely soul out there, Jani had completed the challenge in around 19 hrs. Now there was only myself left. I still had another 2 ascents to complete.
The loneliness of Ultra
It was a very long and lonely night. I was also going slower and slower, and my fuel stops became more inefficient and more time consuming, as I was fumbling around in the back of my car in the darkness, warming up and organizing my re-fuel. As I was ascending for the last time past 3am, all lights on the mountain got turned off. All. And there was no one around. No one. On the way up thunder and lightning started to roar and flash in the distance. Oh no. Please don’t come closer. As I reached the open area, 4 km from the top, the flashes were cutting sharp and came too close. I stopped. The wind pulling me while standing still. I had clocked up ca. 8,600m. I was so close. But not done. I doubted my safety. I pulled out my phone and googled: How likely is it to get hit by a lightning on the top of a mountain? Apparently in the Rocky Mountains it happens a lot. I decided I HAD to complete my challenge. Admittedly, I was frightened. I turned my lights off, swerved to the wrong side of the road and crept up along the mountain wall to blend in with mountain. I couldn’t get to the top (and down again) fast enough. I as reached the top, I had logged 8,818m. Argh, I am still not done. An unexpected loud roaring thunder appeared right above me. Then the rain came. Pouring. It rained hard. I couldn’t see much on the descent. I had also lost my gloves at some point in the night (probably while pulling out a survival snickers), I couldn’t feel my fingers either. I had to check and check again during the descent that my fingers were actually wrapped around the breaks. At the same time I knew I would be able to finish the challenge in under 24 hours, if I got down fast. With the rain came dawn, coming close to 6am. I turned around quick at the segment start, and started my 8th ascent. I needed only 30m elevation more to reach the target of 8,848m. That would be done quick and it was now light. I climbed 1km, 2km, 3km, 4km… The ‘total ascent’ figure on my Garmin didn’t change, it was stuck at 8,818m. No no no no no no! My Garmin 520 Edge took A LOT of water from the downpour and roads splashing on the final descent. It must have frozen. I had no choice but to continue climbing and praying the meters would start to tick. I HAD to reach the Everesting target, otherwise this misery would have been for nothing. Time was moving past 24 hours. Okay what to do. 5km, 6km… elevation meters started to increase again. My target was 9,000m elevation (just to be 100% I had officially covered 8,848m on the actual segment). I reached my target 1/3 of the way up the mountain, after climbing just under 8km up again, for less than 200m extra elevation. Okay, but it’s done! MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
We couldn’t have chosen a worse day. It was pure misery, with unusual winds, rain and just freezing cold on the descents. I continuously kept motivated by reminding myself, that the challenge was made harder by the miserable conditions, and that I would grow stronger from staying with this battle till the end. There was no need to complete a grueling cycling challenge like this, in worse conditions than standard. We could choose any other day. But now was now. I was there. I had started it. And I completed it.
Why do an Everesting?
Honestly, I don’t really know. I just decided to do it. And I saw it through. I get stubborn. When I have it in my head and when I set out to do it, I don’t stop till it’s done. Even my self-approved bail out option didn’t work and the weather misery couldn’t stop me. I think the key is that I believe in myself and my abilities. I know I am physically healthy and I trust that I am strong. The ability to overcome or remove fear contributes too. And so does the sheer determination to complete the mission. The way I looked at it: after all, it is nothing more than to keep going up and down the very same road until the height of Mount Everest has been reached. It is achievable.
Power to the women
Only 175 women world wide have officially completed the Everesting challenge. That accounts for 5% all completions. You can check the Everesting Hall of Fame, to see who completed in your area.
I wasn’t even meant to take part. I had registered before the deadline to leave the option of participation open. But I had failed to read the rule book of the Danish Cycling Federation and therefore I was oblivious to the paragraph of ‘binding registration’. I decided against participation even before leaving Dubai and after extensive research, when I discovered the practical, logistical and financial efforts and implications of bringing two bikes from the Middle East to a faraway place in Jutland, Denmark, on a solo journey. I accepted and decided against it. And also I have only really started training more specifically on the TT bike four months ago, along with participation in only three ITT events locally during this time. I took off happily from Dubai with my road bike only.
I learnt about the rules of the ‘binding registration’ as well as the extortionate cancellation fee only 48 hours before the start of the ITT event. To be fair, the rules and regulations are there for a reason and I do take full responsibility for not reading them before submitting my registration. Done is done and I accept the consequences. Luckily the consequences were no worse than I was pretty much forced to take part in the ITT Nationals 2017. It could have been a lot worse really.
I considered my options carefully:
1) Roll down the ramp on my road bike, and then exit the course, accepting a DNF.
2) Perform a personal test on my road bike on the ITT course, and finish most likely as the only rider on a road bike and with a potentially ‘embarrassing time’.
3) Perform some sort of max power test, and then exit the course before the finish line, accepting a DNF and avoiding an ‘embarrassing time’.
4) Get hold of a TT bike? (not an easy task this close to the event)
Not yet having made a final decision 24 hours before ‘my start time’, miraculously my friend Svend appeared with an offer to compete on his TT bike. “Take my bike! I am there anyway acting as support for one of the girls. I’ll bring everything for you”, Svend almost demanded, “I have seen all the training you have done. You’ve got this”. The stars somehow aligned.
At the race destination, I met with Svend 2 hours before my start time. Svend pulled out his tool box and adjusted his bike set up as close as possible to my own bike measurements. Not one measurement was correct. But all were within a few centimeters deviation and as I made an easy roll on the bike to collect my start number and back again with a plastic bag in one hand, I decided “yes, it’s going to be okay, it fits okay for 28km”.
I changed back to my road bike and warmed up on the turbo trainer (supplied by Svend). I didn’t ride the TT bike again before I jumped onto it on the start ramp.
For those of you who do bike racing, you know it’s not an easy task to do alone: drive to destination, find your way, find parking in town via roads that are already closed off, and collect race number in one area and timing chip in another. Go to the loo (at least 3 times), change clothes, set up bike, find tools, buy water, get all stuff organised, eat and drink the right thing at the right time, don’t get too hot, don’t get too cold, warm up (not too early and not too late), stay warm and hydrated on the start line, but don’t carry too much stuff…. Clear the mind and get focused on the task ahead….; the list goes on, and it’s almost impossible to handle this solo and at the same time be fully focused, stress free and perfectly warm for the competition. I have been in this situation countless of times before when travelling alone for competitions. And every time when I have jumped on my bike stressed or cold, I have asked myself the same question: “Why? Why are you putting yourself through this?”.
And here I was again! On all borrowed equipment, set up right before the start of a small event called the Nationals, a competition between the best in the country.
With huge thanks to both Svend and my dear mother, who offered their support from their big hearts, I even managed to fit in a 30 mins warm up on the turbo trainer. Svend supplied the equipment, while my mother unofficially accepted the role as my race assistant. “Mum, I’m running out of water, can you please find some more. Mum, can you please find some tape or cable ties to fit my timing chip. Mum, can you please pull out my vaseline in the right pocket of my sports bag. Mum, can you please add electrolytes to my water bottle. Mum… Mum… Mum… Please… Please… Please…“. Bless my mum. It was her first time being support at a race and I was literally dishing out orders to a clueless helper, while turning my legs on the turbo trainer. It was either that – or start the ITT cold. I cannot thank my mother or Svend enough for their flexibility, patience and generosity.
On another positive note and under the circumstances I was probably the calmest I have been in a long time. No one had any expectations of me. But more importantly, I didn’t have any expectations of myself either. I was out swimming with the big fish, against all odds. The best I could do, was to give the best of myself, on someone else’s equipment. I came into the competition expecting to place last. I would be very happy if I achieved 2nd from the bottom. Let’s not forget I was lining up with the best in the country, incl. 7 World Tour riders.
To be honest, I hadn’t even looked at the route in detail (just to make it clear, I would never consider not studying the route under more controlled and competitive circumstances). I heard it was flat with 22 turns. Okay, let’s go! As there was no power meter on the bike, I just received one last minute advice from my faraway coach: “Don’t go too hard in the beginning – and then use your heart rate as a monitor”. I rolled down the ramp and maneuvered out of town behind my personal marshal motor bike. “Don’t go too hard!”… But what does that actually mean? How do you control that ‘feeling’, when you are supposed to give your all, over ca. 45 mins; you have fresh legs and the adrenaline is pumping? I wasn’t sure to be honest. I wasn’t sure of the exact feeling. But I knew I didn’t want to give ‘too little’. I lack experience of my self-awareness.
Just to make you aware that 22 turns, is 22 turns more than what we have on our UAE tracks; NAS, Al Qudra and Al Wathba, where we have zero turns. At home we put the hammer down from start to finish, that’s it. Get measured on raw power. I am not entirely sure how to turn a TT bike efficiently and safely. Again, I lack experience. I decided to take the same line as the motor bike in front of me through every turn. And I decided it would not be worth taking any risks and potentially causing damage to myself or my borrowed equipment. After ca. 10K, I realized and I had to accept that after all I had started too hard. Everything hurt and I was forced to take it down a notch. At this time I was on a long straight, but I only discovered I was on a long straight when I was far enough into it, to realize it was a long straight (lack of preparation). It was quite hard to swallow that I didn’t have full power down the straight (it wouldn’t necessarily make much of a difference to the bottom of the results list, but it would make a difference to my personal performance, judgement of effort and certainly confidence). I was overtaken too. In the UAE I haven’t yet been overtaken (by women). I was totally prepared to get overtaken going into this competition however, but I didn’t know how it would feel, until it happened. I definitely spent some time (and maybe also energy), seconds or minutes, I can’t remember, to deal with it mentally and emotionally. Also around the 10km mark, both my feet started to cramp, like serious pain in both my feet. I had simply tightened my shoes too hard. I don’t know what I was thinking when I was standing in line to the ramp. I always tighten my shoes before I take on a sprint for the finish line. Subconsciously, I tightened my shoes before jumping on the bike. Tight shoes for the best performance. Big mistake. The pain was almost unbearable. I spent a considerable amount of time weighing the two options: 1) loosen both shoes (consequence: a significant drop in speed and momentum) or 2) suck it up and continue riding in pain. I chose the first option as I was coming out of a turn and reached down on both sides. The shoe strings didn’t at all loosen enough. And I still took the loss of speed and momentum. Ah dammit. I’ll have to suck it up then. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling at all. In the Summer heat of Dubai riding dehydrated in 40+ degrees celcius, my feet cramp on a weekly basis. I had to continuously wiggle my toes for the rest of the ITT. Around 20K and 2/3 into the course, I decided to start picking back up again, hurt more and drive my heart rate higher. There was more technical navigation and another long straight along the way. I did the best I could until the finish line. As I came to a stop, I could hardly unclip from the pain in my feet and I had to take a few minutes on the side, before getting a normal feeling back in the feet and being able to walk again. Quite frankly, I had no idea how I performed. Without a power meter it’s also hard to tell. I wasn’t particularly bothered about the final result, in terms of ranking. If I could have had any form of ‘result’ I would have chosen to see my power profile.
As expected I finished last. Number 20 (of 23 starters and 20 finishers). But you know what? It was not a bad time at all! Under the circumstances, I am quite proud to say I am in the top 20 best time trialists in Denmark in 2017! And I am still in possession of US$ 300 (which would have been the penalty fee for cancelling) minus the penalty for the, also borrowed, non-club kit at US$ 45.
The icing on the cake, was after the event when I caught up with the rider (placing 2nd last) and her coach. Their positive attitude, laughter and healthy delight of beating my time and not placing last in the Nationals, really, it was priceless. Just for that enjoyment factor, I was happy to take the bottom spot in the ranks.
After completing ITT Nationals under these circumstances, again I tell myself “No more of this Helle. Come prepared, with the appropriate support and equipment – or stay away”. On the other hand, with the time and effort I put into my cycling, I am equally intrigued to witness what I am actually capable off, under the right circumstances.
Will I return next year? Right now I am thinking: “Probably not for the Elite Nationals. Definitely for the Masters Nationals! (if I can bring my own bike along)”. But I have a habit of throwing myself in the deep end. So who knows.
The day after, Svend earned his title as National Champion Para ITT.
Nothing won, nothing lost… But always an experience richer 🙂