Monday, 22 September 2014

Tales From A 'Wannabe Everester'


It's no surprise to learn that not all 'Everesting' attempts are successful, and I guess if they were it may well take the fun out of it. Richard has kindly shared with us the ups and downs of trying to enter the Everesting Hall of Fame.




Tales of a 'wannabe Everester'
By Richard Gamble

I’ve been slightly obsessed with the idea of Everesting since i first saw the Box Hill attempt in August. I started road riding about 4 years ago and this year has been my best yet. I completed the Rapha Festive500 over Christmas and then was lucky to get a place on the Fred Whitton. I began increasing my ride distances in January, with my first century ride completed in February. I clocked up a further 11 centuries before the event and continued to push myself over the summer, completing several 200km audax rides and a 330km solo effort. I would just ride on the weekends, mainly on my own and discovered such pleasure from being out on my bike all day. Everesting sparked my imagination when looking for one final challenge before the end of the season. I wanted a ride that would push me to my physical and mental limits, to see where those limits were and find out how i would respond.

 

On 23rd August i made my first attempt on Kop Hill in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire. I’d not ridden it for several months and had forgotten quite how steep it was. The hill has since appeared in the Tour of Britain and is famous for its motorsport hill climb history. I arrived just before 7am, completely oblivious to what it would really take to Everest a climb. I rolled down to the bottom ready to start the first of the 95 required reps. The first ascent was a big shock, i straight away knew that this was not going to be my day, not the kind of thought you want going through your mind with so much still ahead. I thought i’m here now, i might as well crack on and just get in a decent ride and see how far i can get.


 
The first 10 laps were ok, then i had a break. I’d left all my food and drink in the car (in the misfounded belief saving the weight on the bike would be beneficial). The effort of wrestling the bike up the hill had reduced my appetite somewhat and I was struggling to eat much. The sustained 20% section half way up and the final 25% ramp at the top really started taking their toll on my knees and back. I remember clearly it was lap 27 that i started to feel the strength drain from my legs. From that point onwards it was survival mode and the rest stops became more frequent and longer in duration. Somehow i managed to convince myself to carry on to lap 47, which was just over 4500m and half way up Everest. It was 3pm and I packed up my bike and called it a day.

 
Looking back i’m surprised i made it quite so far considering the total mess i’d made of my nutrition and foolish selection of hill. It was however a benchmark from which to work and i took heart from it being the most elevation i’d ever done on a ride. I came away from that experience with a serious reality check. I was rather humbled and in awe of the people who had done successful attempts, if i was going to make it i’d need to start taking my preparation a lot more seriously.

 
I went back to the drawing board and searched for new possible hills. Living in the Chilterns I thought this shouldn’t be too difficult, the right hill must be out there waiting to be discovered. Kop Hill forms part of a trio of ascents, the others being the well known Whiteleaf (100 Climbs No.23) and the lesser known Wardrobes. I’d ridden Whiteleaf many times and knew how brutal it was. Wardrobes on the other hand always seemed so much easier in comparison. 93m of elevation gain over 0.66 miles with an average gradient of 9% that only rose above about 16% for a short section near the top. This would require roughly 95 laps also but with no severe ramps in the gradient i thought would be easier on my body.
 

 
Two weeks passed and I could see a window of opportunity. I’d been up to the Lake District to do some training, repeating the Fred Whitton route and then spending a day over at Great Dunn Fell and Buttertubs. In hindsight, giving myself only 2 days rest after this was a little ambitious. Anyway, I got some advice on how to improve my nutrition (from the start - little and often) and decided to carry enough drink and food to sustain me between breaks. The weather was still holding out, it was dry and reasonably mild.
 
On Friday 5th September i got up at 5:30am and was ready on Wardrobes Hill to start just before 7am. From the first pedal stroke i knew it would be a better day. The hill was so much easier to ride in comparison to Kop Hill, i soon got into a nice rhythm, eating and drinking little and often was working. I was doing about 12 laps at a time then having a break at the car. I got past 4500m which was a great feeling to know i’d improved on my last effort and was now in unchartered territory. I had however forgotten that 4000m to 7000m was known as the doldrums, and on cue my mind began to slowly crumble and doing so many repeats on the same short hill started to take its toll.
 
I made it to 6pm after being on the hill for 11 hours, the light was starting to fade under the trees which covered the road. I had not quite prepared myself mentally for the idea of riding into the night and the practicalities of having appropriate lights on my bike. At 6:30pm and after 65 reps and 6000m of elevation gain i stopped. Looking back at how it ended i was disappointed i’d not tried to carry on and at least see if i could ride for a bit in the dark with what lights i had. My legs weren’t totally spent, i’d certainly eaten enough but my mind had failed me. I was sure if i’d dug a bit deeper i could have done another 1000m but i’d made an improvement anyway of 1500m on my first attempt so couldn’t be unhappy.
 
Despite the autumn taking hold in the UK and the daylight hours dwindling at an ever increasing rate each day, i felt i had one more effort left in me. The following weekend i thought i was ready to have another go on Wardrobes. I went over on a reconnaissance mission on the Friday evening after work and soon realised something wasn’t right. I was having to ride in a lower gear all the way up and my legs felt heavy. I thought it must be the jeans i stupidly had on and carried on with my plans oblivious to what my body was trying to tell me. I went home and got everything ready and packed the car the night before so it would be an easy and quick start in the morning.
 
I was up at 5am and on the hill ready to start at 6:15am. It was dark but the daylight soon came and with it the realisation that my legs felt like they were made of lead. Yesterday it wasn’t my jeans making me slow. I now know that my body hadn’t recovered from the previous week of riding. I’d been given a great piece of advice by both an ex professional rider and someone who has successfully completed several Everesting attempts. Make sure you are fully rested and recovered with your energy stores bursting full, when you have that feeling of desperation to get on your bike and ride for hours, thats how you need to feel. After 4 laps i packed it in. My body and mind were both telling me to go home and go back to bed. That’s exactly what i did, feeling rather disappointed and deflated.
 
I spent the following days resting, staying off the bike, sleeping as much as possible. It was on the Wednesday I couldn’t help looking on Strava for hills that were longer and less steep, something my friend had been telling me all along to do which i’d stubbornly refused to do so. After some searching i remembered that although Aston Hill in Wendover was more well known for its steeper top section, the full ascent on Strava included a second hill lower down that i’d ridden before and made for a great climb. It had a total elevation gain of 149m over 1.3 miles with an average gradient of 7% with ‘only’ 59.5 laps required. It had some steeper parts but never much more than 17% and only for relatively short sections.
 
I went after work on the Thursday evening to check it out. The very first thing i realised was my legs had returned to me, i had loads of energy and doing 2 laps up the hill felt pretty easy. I realised this hill was as good as I was going to find in the Chilterns. Why had no one already tried Everesting it! The descent was fast, the only downside was the busy road linking the two hills half way where i’d have to stop for traffic, and the bridge at the bottom that had a set of traffic lights (which turned out annoyingly not to be activated by a cyclist!). The reduced number of reps and the great views made these things seem worth putting up with.
 
I told myself that this would be my final attempt before the winter, if i didn’t make it this time i’d put the idea to bed and re-visit it in the spring. The final thing i did was to make a few extra modifications to my bike. I took inspiration from watching some online clips from the national hill climb champs. To lose some extra weight i took off the 50t outer chainring as i planned on not using the big ring on the ride, plus i then had no use for the front mech and the cable. With a few extra links out of the chain for some added tension as an extra safety measure, my test ride on the hill proved the chain was stuck solidly on the inner 34t ring. I swapped out the seatpost for a lighter version, fitted new pedals and took the bar tape off (knowing i’d be on the hoods most of the day). This all added up to a pound of weight saving, bringing my Canyon road bike down to 12.4lbs with everything ready to ride. I was using an 11-28 cassette which was perfect for spinning on most of the hill then gave me the excuse to get out the saddle on the steeper bits.
 
The weather for Saturday was not good, had i missed my chance of the good weather that had carried on through most of September. There were heavy thundery showers on Friday and into Saturday. Sunday looked fresher and brighter so i spent Saturday preparing everything i needed. Sunday morning i was up at 6am, i’m not an early riser so i planned on starting just after daylight, knowing that if i wanted to be successful i would have to mentally prepare myself for several hours riding in the dark at the other end. I was ready to begin my first ascent at 07:15. The weather was indeed much fresher, maybe too fresh on the descent but i soon got warm.
 
I really wish this story had the happy ending I had so badly wanted. I couldn’t get out of my head the enormous task that lay ahead, having experienced failure 3 times before, those thoughts and memories came flooding back to haunt me. After the first six laps i’d convinced myself i was never going to make it through to the end. I was on the hill on my own with no one to help shake me out of such dire thoughts. My attitude had gone from just having a crack at Kop Hill to see what i was capable of, to an all or nothing approach. I took a rest and sat in the drivers seat of the car. I never got back out of that seat.
 
I take comfort from the account of George Mallory’s first attempts to Everest Donna Buang in Australia, which required perseverance and several attempts, having to wait through the winter, before he finally built up enough fitness and mental resolve to crack it. It's disappointing to have come up short but it's been a great experience for me and something completely different. I thought the Fred Whitton had a lot of climbing so to have smashed that with a 6000m ride is something to be pretty pleased with. I plan to go back to enjoying long rides through the autumn and winter, doing some audax events, and maybe throwing in some extra hills on my rides. I’m determined to come back next year and claim my first Everest.
 


It is often the failures and mistakes we make where the most can be learnt. I’ve realised that proper preparation and planning are crucial. Repeatedly making failed attempts only serves to increase mental fatigue. Working out a date then planning some suitable training in the weeks/months leading up to it, then putting everything into that single effort. I think finding the right hill is really important too. One that suits the preferred climbing style and is enjoyable to ride all day. I’ve also realised that i really need some support on the day, doing it on my own has been very hard and maybe finding someone else to join me on an attempt would i’m sure make the day easier. When riding alone, its so hard not to focus on the enormous task ahead. So if anyone out there wants to join forces please let me know!
 
 

 

 

2 comments:

  1. well done for keep going - you'll get there one day...

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  2. I copped a 24 hour virus on my first, and had to pull the plug at 7,400 vertical which gutted me. With a winter of training under your belt and a lot more hunger, I'm sure you'll be back to knock one out soon enough.

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