I kind of feel sorry for John. Every time anyone asked who’s idea this was, we all replied in a pitch perfect chorus, ‘John’s’. In truth, he might have been the first to mention Everesting but it lit something up in all of us.
It was an interesting concept, ride multiple times up the same climb on a single ride until you reach the equivalent height of Everest, 8848m. No sleeping, minimum rest, it would only make you slower, and no deviating from the route.
Then John told me that if you Everested you got a badge. Maybe it’s a hark back to school days, praying I’d be the chosen one to receive a sticker on my school jumper, but I do like a badge. I was in.
With lockdown in place, and even with Boris’s vague instructions on how long your government sanctioned exercise should be, there was no way we could ride outside for long enough to summit Everest. So, Zwift, an online cycling game, became our only option, Alpe du Zwift to be exact. Based on the iconic Alpe d’Huez in France, it is 12.2km long with 1,036 m of height gain. That’s an average gradient of 8.5% across 21 hairpin bends. We would need to climb it 8.5 times to hit the target 8848m and all on a turbo trainer which changes the resistance you pedal against in line with the steepness of the road.
As our research continued, we discovered Hells 500 and their Hall of Fame, a list of every rider who had successfully Everested and details of their ride, where and how long it had taken. As ‘Keepers of the Cloud’ and ‘Owners of Up’, there are rules and guidelines to be followed if you want access to their exclusive club. There was a class for virtual Everesting (vEveresting), which we’d be doing and even a challenge beyond, climbing 10000m in a single ride.
This germinated a seed of thought, if I was going to climb Alpe du Zwift 8.5 times, why not just keep going and add on an extra ascent to hit this new marker? Perhaps I wouldn’t feel quite so flippant after hours in the saddle, but I couldn’t help noticing that only three women had completed a virtual 10000m. It would be great to start adding to that total and the fastest time in the two weeks before our attempt was 15 hours and 6 minutes, it was a feasible target to aim for.
So finally, after spending £50 on snacks, the day dawned for our vEveresting attempt. The intrepid team of Emma, Eimear, Helen, John and I, separated by coronavirus yet connected by Zoom and Zwift set off in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Our chat was light-hearted and jolly as we wove our way up the first climb. Who’d needed to add some extra kilos to their weight on Zwift? Who thought their scales were broken? Who had forgotten something and had to dash to find a ladder? (I am still none the wiser about why a ladder was involved).
Two days before, I had checked the Hall of Fame and found the fastest female time for 10 000m had been smashed by Gabrielle Kiely in Australia to 12 hours 35 minutes. I am not as fit as I once was, and I knew beating this would be a big ask, it was a superb ride.
I was disappointed, but after some careful calculations there was an outside chance I could do it. I decided to start off putting out the watts I’d need to break 12 hours 30 and see how I felt. If it wasn’t sustainable, it wouldn’t send me into the red and I’d be ok to carry on and up to 10 000m in my own time. So that’s where I started, the first few ascents keeping the efforts consistent and in line with my aspirational goal.
Halfway up climb three, a familiar figure in camo kit appeared next to me on Zwift, it was Phoebe, my cycling wife, there to keep me company for an hour before her shift as an NHS doctor. The beauty of this ride, which wouldn’t be as easily possible in real life, was that people can drop in and drop out of Zwift to ride with you, providing a much-needed lift when the walls start to cave in. Which they then began to, I’d kept up my ambitious pace for four reps, but I knew deep down, it wasn’t manageable for another eight hours.
When Phoebe got off her turbo to head to the hospital, my head went down and I struggled to get going at the bottom of the climb. I felt tired, I was only a few hours in and I was tired. This was not how it was supposed to be. That weekend, I was partway through reading Emily Chappell’s book, ‘Where there’s Will’ and I remembered her stories about different flavours of tiredness and how you will always pass through the space and time where you feel exhausted. Perhaps the lack of long rides during the lockdown were showing their colours? I took comfort in her words and just kept pedalling, doing what I could, knowing I’d emerge out the other side.
All five of us attempting the challenge had moments where a dark shadow gathered over us. Helen went very quiet for a very long period of time, Emma disappeared off the Zoom screen and was found lying in a heap, John suffered severe cramp excruciatingly close to the finish and Eimear, in a twist worse than the pain we were going through, discovered her Zwift had crashed after seven and a half hours and it hadn’t saved any of her ride. But the mountain didn’t care about any of this, it just kept on, rising up into the clouds.
What I would have done to be riding in a cloud. It was boiling, we were boiling and no fan could compete with the heat expended from riding a stationary bike in a hot house. I was thankful I’d set my turbo up outside on the patio, but with the sun beating down on me throughout the morning, I regretted not wearing sunscreen. We’d arranged the date a couple of weeks in advance with no idea we’d be basking in a heat wave.
For me, the heat was one of the hardest things to deal with. Sometimes my head felt like it was going to explode. Alpe du Zwift has the benefit of a long descent and the rules of virtual Everesting dictate that you are allowed to get off the bike in the 10 or so minutes it takes to get back down to the bottom of the mountain. We started to spend the time with our heads under the cold tap or lying down in the shower. Soaking a towel in cold water and having it draped it round our shoulders brought welcome relief when it was time to get back on the bike.
The excess sweating carried with it its own risks too. I’d heard tales of horrendous saddle sores and athlete’s foot from spending hours on the turbo trainer. Partly from not being able to move around on the saddle as you can out on the road and partly from the damp salty haven for chaffing and infection.
I’d planned my kit carefully, changing shorts and socks every two reps and spending as much time as possible out of the chamois during my 10 minutes of downtime. Anything to keep saddle sore free. It involved a lot of lying naked on the lounge floor in front of a fan. It was not pretty but I think it saved me from needing to bulk order savlon.
Much of a successful Everesting attempt comes from planning. Setting out in advance a nutrition and hydration plan was key to getting to the top without bonking or dehydration. I had all my snacks laid out on the dining table and gathered them up as I wanted them and placed them on the table with my laptop so they were within easy reaching distance on the bike. I ate, from the start, every 45 minutes and tucked into cheese on toast at lunchtime and macaroni cheese at dinner time. I know I always crave cheese when I’m tired, so the meals were important motivation tools. Salted peanuts also featured heavily to help replenish the lost salt from all the sweat. I cannot thank my husband, Martin, enough for being the ultimate soigneur, fetching and cooking things all day long.
I went through one and a half 750ml bottles every time up the climb, some just water, some grape juice mixed with water (yes juice not wine) and some ginger beer and water. I find the ginger beer helps keep my stomach settled, much needed with all the cereal bars, stroop waffles and jaffa cakes circulating round my digestive system. Mixing it with water stops it tasting so sickly and sweet.
The planning fell slightly flat with my choice of gearing. I’d just hopped on my bike and not really thought much else about it, the 36/28 had felt fine the other times I’d gone up Alpe Du Zwift, but by the end I could have really used some extra gears. I was grinding away for hours at a cadence of about 60. How my knees survived I do not know. Helen was on a Time Trial bike with time trial gearing. Respect.
Back to fumbling through the darkness on the bike. By the top of the fifth climb I had managed to claw my way out and back into the light. Life looked good again. I was riding up a mountain, something I love, from the comfort of my own back garden.
However, it would be remiss not to mention what was really getting me through this. As good as my imagination is, this was no summertime jaunt to France to drink in the scenery, the history and the tarmac of Alpe d’Huez. Plain and simple this was a turbo trainer and sitting on them hurts.
The secret to my enjoyment was the train of people that joined our Zoom meeting to wish us luck, cheer us on, question our sanity and provide a much-needed distraction. From the off we were joined by Eimear’s cousin in Tokyo and Helen’s friend in Dubai, who was skipping in her apartment high up in the sky. I wondered how long I’d have to climb to be able to peer in through her window. We shared lockdown stories of being cooped inside and missing loved ones. Reaching out across the world made me feel connected to others in a way that is so difficult right now.
As the sun came up, our parents logged in to chat and kept dropping in as the day went by. Family and friends tuned in to wish us well. Some of them hadn’t yet made it out of bed and squinted at us through half shut eyes. Hand decorated signs were waved, beers were drunk, breathless happy birthday wishes were sung, bikes were ridden, in depth instructions on how to work Zwift were handed out and 9 year old Rosie joined us while riding on her rollers. B A Baracus and Betty Rubble even showed their faces. Something about a fancy dress quiz, but perhaps the delirium had set in by then.
Unbeknownst to me, the greatest training team, my fellow Specialized ambassadors, had organised to join me by riding on Zwift at various parts of the day. After Phoebe deserted me in my hour of need, Becky turned up with a smile on her face to accompany me through the next block. Then Gilly, fresh from her own NHS shifts, followed by James, who, while he isn’t an Ambassador, was sent by Laura as her replacement to do his first ever rep of Alpe du Zwift. I’m still not exactly sure how Laura managed that coup, to stand by and watch while he pedalled.
All of this positivity was getting me through. I was feeling fatigued, but it was carrying me up on waves of endorphins. Until, that is, my lifeline, the Zoom meeting, crashed out. I was in silence. On my own with only the sound of my heavy breathing. Turboing on your own is just not that fun. In went the earphones and on went the music.
Then seemingly from nowhere, Grace from Specialized materialized out of the verge on Zwift, a little angel sent to pull me out of the void. Then Tracey, Tiff and Scot from Magspeed turned up. We were a crew pushing on into the night. I put Eminem, Till I Collapse on repeat. The lyrics resonated with exactly how I felt, ‘But you gotta search within you, you gotta find that inner strength and just pull that sh*t out of you and get that motivation to not give up and not be a quitter, no matter how bad you want to just fall flat on your face and collapse’. Falling on my face had felt quite tempting at times but it was not what I was there to do.
Despite the cramp, John reached the summit of Everest and declared he wouldn’t be carrying on to 10 000m, just to the top of climb nine as he wanted to spin the Alpe du Zwift wheel of fortune one more time to try and win the Lightweight Meilenstein in game wheels. He wasn’t successful, gloves again, so back down he headed. Maybe the extra metres looked likely after all. Anyone who has ridden Alpe du Zwift will know the cry of frustration, ‘I got gloves!’ Always gloves.
Eventually, back on Zoom and with the cheers of those around me I summited Everest. I don’t even know how long it took me to get there, I wish I’d had a look, but by this point the goal was just on getting to the top one more time and forcing myself to eat raspberry jelly. Helen and Emma soon followed suit and reached 8848m, wisely getting off their bikes immediately after and despite his protestations, John reached the elusive 10 000m. Poor Eimear’s attempt lay in ruins after her technical issues, but I know her day will come.
Then on to my own 10km of climbing. On the 10th time up Alpe du Zwift I started to feel amazing, it must have been adrenaline as I did not look amazing, but I just wanted to keep pushing. I hit the goal and rather than finish the ride I carried on climbing with everyone shouting at me to stop. I didn’t want to. I wanted to carry on. Just to the top of climb 10 I said.
I’ve reflected on why this was and can only think that it was the closest I’d come to having my family and friends with me for weeks and I didn’t want it to end. Plus, in a time when long hard training rides aren’t safe or necessary, I’d missed the sensation of pushing my body to find out its limits.
It turns out my limits are five hairpins from the top of Alpe du Zwift. I quietly mentioned my knee hurt and Becky, ever the physio, ordered me off so after 14 hours and 14 minutes I shuffled away to lie on the floor.
Yes, it was tough, but also thoroughly enjoyable. In fact, I found the following day a lot harder to manage. I felt worse than I ever had done before, even after longer back to back days on the mountain bike. I spent the day laying on the sofa eating crisps, cheese and fish fingers. I couldn’t face eating carbs and even walking was an issue, bending down impossible. I think this is because there is nowhere to hide on a turbo. You’re stuck in the same position all the hours of the 14 hour long day. I’d tried to combat this by standing up to pedal every time the gradient went over 10%, which is more times than I would like, but it clearly hadn’t been enough. A slow and stationary Sunday it was.
Now I’ve been officially admitted into the High Rouleur’s Society by Hells 500 there is no real need for me to do this again, but I can’t help but think my journey with Everest isn’t complete. With different categories for significant, short, suburban and soil climbs there are more rides to plan and in reality, a little more training to do.
In the meantime, there is still time to donate to the Ugandan Foundation, the real reason behind our attempt on Everest. The Ugandan Marathon has been postponed this year, meaning the loss of its usual charitable funds. Uganda has only 55 intensive care beds in the entire country which means there is a very strict lockdown currently in place which is having a significant impact on local communities. The funds raised will go towards Hospital PEE and hand washing stations, seed distribution and planting to support families in need to grow and harvest their own garden food and grants to support Ugandan charity workers, leading projects like these so they can continue to work without worrying about how their salaries will be paid. All donations gratefully received. Thank you so much to everyone who has donated so far. http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/MountainforMasaka