Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Everest Challenge Stage Race

September 25/26 2010

By Mark Edwards


"Hi Mark, it's Scott, I've got a question for you. I'm considering attempting the Everest Challenge in 2011 and was wondering if you'd help me with a training plan to prepare?"

"Sure! That's a great race for you, it'll be fun putting together a training plan….(long pause)… I've got an idea. We're both in great end of season shape, why don't we do it this year for reconnaissance? There'd be no pressure, and we'd have the experience to help us build a better plan for 2011."

And so it started. Less than four weeks, with no specific preparation, before the "The undisputed, hardest 2-day USA Cycling Race" Scott and I embarked on my less than well thought out plan to race the Everest Challenge. For those not familiar, the Everest Challenge is a two day stage race covering 208 miles, 29,035' of vertical gain all between 4,000' and 10,000'+ elevation. And of course, both days would turn out to meet or exceed the maximum recorded temperatures for September 25/26 in Bishop California. 100 degrees most of Saturday, and high 90’s Sunday.

We quickly signed up (non-refundable), booked our hotel room, and panicked! Committed, we got to work doing what we could with just over three weeks until the start. Our fitness was already excellent, so there wasn't a lot to do there, but mentally we needed to do what we could. We both signed up for the Fremont Peak and Mt. Tam hill climbs. Insignificant climbs compared to what we'd be facing, but strong finishes for both of us boosted our confidence that we were climbing well.

The three weeks flew by and we were in the car for our 7 hour trip before we knew it. Crossing the Sierras via Tioga Pass was beautiful, I think… We were pretty darn nervous and talked non-stop attempting to assure ourselves we were ready for the challenge ahead, I'm certain I missed most of the amazing views. Fueling my doubt was the fact that I haven't ridden 100 miles in about 3 years, and I've never raced two days back to back. It's also worth noting that I'm not too keen on really long rides/events. I've only done one, The Death Ride, and swore I'd never try anything like that again. I rank that ride as my most painful experience ever on a bike. Well… it only took 7 years for the pain to fade enough for me to sign up for my second high Sierra suffer fest.

After checking into the hotel, we headed to the County Fairgrounds to sign in, get final instructions, and enjoy a huge pre-race pasta feed. This year's 45+ group was over three times the size of last year's. Scott and I knew several of the racers and enjoyed comparing notes with other racers that had been preparing all season for this race. We got a lot of good tips.

We were the second to last group to start. With the official wishing us luck; we took off at 7:30 AM. Our start time had been pushed back because of the large turnout, this kept our group to a more reasonable 62 guys, but the later start also put us deeper into the day’s forecast heat wave. With 8 miles to the first climb, the pace was brisk, but not hard. At least it wouldn't be hard for a 50 mile race at sea level. As we started to ascend the first 22 mile 6,000' climb the "players" came to the front. I knew several of the guys I expected would finish in the top 10, so it made my pacing pretty straight forward. I needed to go with the leaders and hope I could hang on. The majority of the group didn't have it quite so easy. Sure, in the first 15 miles pretty much everyone could hang on, but probably shouldn't have. So, how do you know when to back off when you've got 100 miles of major climbs in 100 degree heat ahead of you? I don't know the answer to this, and obviously very few others knew the answer either. The ground work for a whole bunch of suffering was being laid in the first hour.

The group thinned drastically to about 8 of us in the first hour. In 90 minutes we were down to 5. At about the three hour mark two riders gapped the three of us. Shortly thereafter my two companions gapped me with their repeated surges. We were 3/4 of the way up the second big climb of the day and I was thinking about the final 6,000' climb. I kept a steady pace and my companions never got more than about a 100 meter gap. As they dueled with each other I hung back and spun nice and steady. Near the summit one of the riders, Carl Neilson, broke and now we were three individuals just trying to survive. I pulled back Carl just as we crested and hoped we'd work together to pull back the third guy (last year's second place finisher). Over the top I punched it and got as low and aero as I could. After a few minutes I looked back for some help and found I'd dropped my friend. Carl lost about a minute to me on the descent, and I was able to pull back the guy that I was chasing. The timing was perfect as we hit a long flat stretch working together. He was extremely strong and we gained a few more minutes on Carl before the final climb.

Up the final climb I was pretty certain my new companion was stronger than me. I held on as long as I felt I could, then I let him slip away. I kept a steady pace and could see he was trying to increase the gap between us. Surprisingly, his repeated efforts to increase the 100 meter gap he held for about an hour, started to shrink. He had blown himself up and would lose four minutes to me by the finish.

At 15 KM there was an orange cone marker. Oh good… only nine more miles of 8% climbing! I'd been racing for nearly six hours in 100 degree heat, 9 more miles of steady climbing was almost more than I could bear.

Somehow I made it to the 3 KM marker. There was a slight easing of the grade, only to be followed by a seemingly endless string of 18% stair steps. This was cruel beyond belief. I had absolutely nothing left in my legs. Basically the weight of my legs was all I could muster on the pedals; I couldn't add any force what-so-ever. At this point, I had no interest in racing; I just wanted it to be over. I didn't care if everyone caught and passed me, I just needed the pain to stop.

The Stage 1 finish line came into view on a short flat section. I temporarily regained my race mind and sprinted (at maybe 8 mph) to gain every second possible. As this was a stage race, I was concerned with my time, not something that factors into the road races I typically do. So, for my effort, I maybe gained 3 seconds. Finishing time Stage 1 – 6 hours 39 minutes.

The race organizer had laid out a very impressive spread for us. Tents, tables, grills, chairs, and a staff waiting on us hand and foot. Two types of quesa dias, PBJs, all kinds of cookies, fruit, and chips. Chicken soup, vegetable soup, and at least 6 kinds of recovery drinks. Relaxing in the thin 10,000’ air, I did my best to replace the massive calories it took to reach the finish.

Scott rolled in looking as tired as I felt. After he’d had the chance to eat and rest a bit, we hoped back on the bikes for the twenty miles back to the car. Once in the car we immediately started complaining, everything hurt (it would be easier to list the body parts that didn’t hurt – if I could think of any), how the heck were we supposed to do this again ten hours from now?

After a mostly sleepless night, we hobbled around the hotel room until we could stand straight, then we drove the 20 miles for the Stage 2 start. At the sign in for Stage 2 we got the results from Stage 1, I was in third. 2 minutes behind second place, and 4 minutes ahead of forth place. How’d that happen? Pretty cool! I had no expectations going in, so finding myself somewhat comfortably on the podium temporarily distracted me from the anxiety of the coming day’s racing.

Stage two would include almost no flat riding. Being on the larger side of the top climbers, I had made up a lot of time on the flats during Stage 1. Today I’d have far fewer chances. The only flat section was the out and back 2 miles to the first climb. At the gun, a big guy went to the front and drilled it. Sore, stiff, and not warmed up, I couldn’t believe how hard this guy was going. Not two minutes into what was to be another very long day and I was already hurting. I was hoping that once we started the climb things would calm down and I could catch a little rest.

Yea…right… My buddy Carl, who was sitting in 5th place 9 minutes behind me, had other ideas. As soon as the road pitched up, Carl punched it. He attacked this 9 mile 8% grade like it was the entire race. 6 miles into the race and he’d passed almost the entire 35+ field that started 5 minutes ahead of us, Carl was on fire. We were down to 8 guys and I had a bad feeling. I decided to back off and let the leaders go. These climbs are long, straight, and steep. I could watch my lead group dwindle for nearly the entire climb.

Near the top there was an unexpected flat mile to the turn around. I got into time trial mode and pulled back a little time. The descent was safe, but scary fast. I was with three 35+ guys who were trying to catch their leaders as I was trying to catch mine. 59.5 MPH. I caught Carl at the base, he’d faded near the top and the six leaders had pulled away. Back on the 2 mile flat section Carl and I were with about four 35+ guys (they actually instructed us at the start that it was legal to race/draft any one from any group). So Carl and I got right in there with the 35+ guys. Starting the second climb Carl had recovered and once again got to work drilling the pace. Unfortunately, he’d left too much on the first climb and soon dropped back. This was the easiest grade at 5% and suited me well. I picked things up and caught/passed a couple more of the guys shed from the lead group.

There were four guys ahead of me, but I was primarily concerned with just one. The guy four minutes back in forth place. It was obvious that the first and second place guys were a step above me in fitness, and too far ahead to catch. And Carl, who started the day 9 minutes back had lost several more minutes already and wasn’t likely to make it up. I wasn’t sure where the forth guy was, but he had to be at least 9 minutes back (turns out he was ~18 minutes back). I just needed to keep the forth place guy close to protect my podium place.

As I approached the turn around I was watching carefully for the forth place guy. You can’t see the numbers on guys coming at you at 35 mph, and even though we were catching dozens of slower riders from earlier groups, they all go downhill pretty fast. It was hard to recognize who was who. Finally, there he was. I looked at my watch, it was 45 seconds to the turn around, he was roughly 60 seconds ahead of me.

Skipping the feed, I accelerated through the turn. Up to speed quickly, I tucked for the long descent. A 35+ rider came by really working it. I had used all the descents to rest, but hey, if this guy wants to fry himself pedaling like crazy down the hill, I’ll gladly sit in his draft. He collected about 4 of us willing to let him do all the work when a tandem flew by a good 5 mph faster. Finally, the acceleration that serves me so well in local road races, but is pretty much useless in an epic endurance race like Everest, was put to use. I jumped and caught the tandem’s wheel; none of my companions could make it across.

Talk about fun, it was like motor pacing. Unfortunately, I only got to enjoy the ride for about a mile. The third and final climb was starting, and the tandem wasn’t going to be any help there. As I rounded the corner to start the climb, there was the forth place guy, about 100 meters ahead.

Whew! At this point I’d pretty much had my fill of racing. With the forth place guy in sight I figured I just needed to keep him close. I didn’t expect it to be easy, but I knew it wasn’t likely he’d drop me and take four minutes out of me. So, I settled into a comfortable pace and made sure I drank and ate.

As we approached the halfway mark it was obvious my companion was fried. His pace had slowed enough that I was starting to be concerned about the mystery rider up ahead. There was no doubt I’d beat my companion, but was I losing enough time to the mystery guy that I might lose my third place finish? About this time a young Cat 3 came bounding by me. The guy looked like he’d parked his car a mile back and just got on his bike. Light on his pedals, he danced past us. Once again I called on my acceleration and crossed the gap quickly. Dropping the forth place guy and a 35+ guy that was with us for good.

The Cat 3, who actually had started 10 minutes ahead of us, had won the Cat 4 at Fremont Peak and Mt. Tam this year to upgrade to Cat 3. He was all of 137 pounds and clearly has a future in bike racing. We worked together drilling the small rollers midway through this final climb to 10,000’. Every time the road stepped up, he’d punch it and drop me, then I’d crawl back, just in time for him to punch it again. No respect for his elder what-so-ever.

Once through the rollers the road pitched up at a steady 8%. I pulled my torturer back one final time, as he exclaimed “I’m done” and dropped back – That felt good ;-) With about 3 KM to go I figured we had easily closed the gap to the mystery rider and my position was safe. I cruised in the final 10 minutes thinking about all the food waiting at the finish, and how amazingly happy I was to have survived such a brutal race. Stage 2 finishing time – 5 hours 5 minutes.

Am I happy I did it? Yes. I’ll be reliving these memories and telling stories for years. Would I do it again? Not likely. I much prefer the shorter more intense races. But, from this experience, I have an even greater respect for those riders/racers that seek out these epic challenges. More power to them.


Satin Matt said...

Wow, that sounds brutal. I was in Yosemite over the weekend - can't believe you guys raced in that dry heat. Congrats on doing more than surviving.

Jim Langley said...

Great race report, Mark and awesome job you guys to ride so strong in such tough conditions. Now, you just have to wait another 7 years to forget about the pain so you can do another epic like this. Ha.

Dennis the Mennis said...

Epic! I mean, EPIC!!! Awesome race and report Mark! Wondering how many calories you consumed, and how you managed to avoid losing your lunch.