Audience: Anyone with an interest in ridiculous cycling challenges
Length: Two cups of tea, at least one biscuit
Sentence Summary: Alice completes an Everesting (8848m of climbing) on Naish hill, it’s very hard.
Figure 1: Rep 0 – thoroughly questioning what I’m doing.
To avoid disappointment, this post is not about climbing the mountain in Nepal. This is about the cycling challenge of the same name (see previous post for further explanation). This is a long one, but I’ve got a lot to say. I’ll be distilling out what I’ve learnt into tips for Everesting in a future post. This focusses on the story. Enjoy.
It’s 4am. That’s not a normal time for me to be up, and it seems especially rude to be stirring this early on a Sunday. But there’s a reason why Joe and I are eating our oats whilst Bristol’s clubbers stagger home outside the flat. We’re heading over to Naish hill, just outside Bristol, for me to start my Everesting attempt at 5.30am.
I’ve got a clear target of going sub 12h37minutes. This is Ailsa MacDonald’s time, and the fastest for a female Everesting. If the internet is to be believed, she’s
pretty unbelievably talented and eats trail ultramarathons for breakfast. I’m not even sure if she was targeting a fast Everesting when she set the blisteringly quick time, using it as training for other events. My challenge is to see if I can go quicker with careful choice of hill (steep), sensible gearing, determination, and a spreadsheet.
The spreadsheet gives six minutes and ten seconds for each ascent, with a minute and thirty seconds for the way down – including time for turning at each end. To keep this up, I found it really important to get into a rhythm. If I thought about it too much, the task and number of hours ahead could become overwhelming and seem near on impossible. A ten minute break every ten reps broke it up, and looking at the challenge in these blocks made it mentally much more digestable. Unfortunately, these weren’t ten flexible British minutes of the kind “I’ll just be ten minutes” or “I’m ten minutes away”. Joe likes a schedule and a spreadsheet, and as I rolled in to the lay-by which we’d made our base, he’d start the timer.
Figure 2: Portrait of the ten minute break. Appropriate use of a lay-by, featuring our bike-duvet and as many snacks and drinks as I can face.
The eating was hard. Ten minutes is short, and whilst the effort of climbing didn’t set me up to devour anything proper, I knew I needed to eat as much as possible in the breaks. I did my best and we had a plethora of different items – soreen, banana loaf, clif bars, peanut butter wraps, quorn scotch eggs, cheese twists, and some questionably flavoured ravioli. I’m not sure what I managed to eat in total, most of the ravioli made it home unscathed, and I definitely finished in a calorie deficit. Towards the end I could feel myself running low on energy, but I lacked any desire to eat. For the last three hours I felt somewhere between quite sick and very sick. I guess what I completed on Sunday was a hybrid of a cycling challenge, and a speed eating challenge, interspersed repetitively over around 12 hours to keep things exciting. To my digestive system – I’m sorry for what I put you through. It was worth it.
The weather was also really hard. Top tip would be not to choose a climb with a really exposed section and a day with a strong and gusty crosswind. Naish hill bridges over the M5 and the weather was not on my side – strong winds blowing in just the wrong direction. The descent is fast and scares me a little anyway, and this certainly added a new element. Steeling myself against the gusts to avoid being blown across the road as I crossed the bridge was nerve wracking but I knew that I needed to keep descending fast. Thankfully, when the weather was at its worst, I was joined by a series of supportive club members acting in turn as conversational windblocks and riding beside me on the way up Naish. The descent was still horrible. To top it off, I also enjoyed a couple of hours of precipitation, varying from drizzle, to sideways rain which joined the gusty winds. A wet and windy descent was not what I’d imagined for my August Everesting, and I’m still grateful that I managed to complete them all without incident.
Figure 3: Claire and Luke get a taste for Naishing, I get a windblock over the bridge
Initially, the reps went quickly. The very first flew by. It was dark, and my priority was getting up and down safely in the challenging weather. Daylight allowed me to enjoy all the little features of Naish and I found myself relaxing into it, legs still feeling fine and with the Silk Road Mountain Race podcast for simultaneous distraction and inspiration. There were some beautiful brown cows who I liked to watch on the first, brutally steep part. Then there was a gorgeous brown and white horse, close to the top who stood by his gate almost all morning and who I looked forward to seeing, and having (one way) snippets of conversation with – it was anything to keep my mind off the task ahead. As the Silk Road podcast came to an end Joe offered to ride a few laps with me and then it was time for my first break, as per the spreadsheet. A streamlined lie-down-cold-coffee-snack and back on the bike later and I was chugging towards 20 reps.
Figure 4: British summer delivering the goods.
The chunk I’d been most worried about was the no-man’s land before halfway (~44 reps). By this point, I knew I’d feel like I’d been riding for ages (~5 hours) but wouldn’t quite have the boost of having done more than half of the task. Thankfully it was around this time that local hill-smasher Ben Davies showed up to support. I’d never met Ben before, but I knew him from the club’s monthly Strava segment competition. His company was a great distraction and I’m sure he must have breezed through around 10 reps with me. As Ben signed off to head home, the stylishly clad club mates Tim and James showed up for a bit of a Naish bash – lending a great windshield, and an anecdote about some Tripe sausages to keep me going.
Figure 5: Two stylish companions
From here on in club mates came and went, turning Naish the red and gold colours of Bristol South. ‘A bit addictive’ was the description clubmate Claire gave, getting so into it that I lost count of how many reps she stayed for. In the lulls without company, I was alone with the Radio 4 women’s hour podcast, distracting me with everything from women in politics to GCSE results day. I was cheered through half way mark by the full Jones clan – Paul Jones (a fellow club member and author with a penchant for writing about cycling) plus Helen and the smaller Jones’ – Penny and Elliot. They were well equipped with noise making devices: Cowbells, hooters and the loud voices of small children. I was delighted to have the South West’s premier shouter of UP UP UP (Penny) there for my halfway party (not actually a party, just another hill-rep).
Figure 6: The Jones clan offer a small cacophony to celebrate hitting half-way
Joe said he couldn’t tell how much I was suffering because I’d be smiling when I came past. On this I’ll say that it’s impossible not to smile when you roll past those cheering you on. The truth is I suffered a lot. Just staying focussed for that long was exhausting. The ten minute breaks weren’t relaxing, I was watching my splits on the climbs and focussing on the descents to stay safe, fast and claim any time back I’d lost waiting for traffic to turn round. I remember reps 56 and 64 being particularly hard. On 56 I had a friend riding with me, encouraging me to just keep turning the pedals, drinking, fuelling and nudging closer to my goal. On 64 I was alone. I was feeling very sick and I’d been too hot for the past 10 hours. The temperature was only around 19 degrees but spending 6 of every 7.65 minutes climbing fairly hard (averaging a HR of ~175 each ascent) was taking its toll. I’d been sweaty or soggy all day and my head was feeling horrible in my helmet. The next break felt miles away and despite having around 10 hours effort behind me I started to really question what I was doing. I stopped caring about the pace and tried desperately to keep clocking the reps. I told Joe I was on the verge of tears.
Figure 7: Snack offerings ahead
That was when Lucy, a best friend I acquired in nursery, rang. She’d gone to the wrong hill and was worried not to find me. I was delighted. I negotiated with myself to try and do two reps before she arrived. That way I’d only have five till my next break, and could look forward to a sit down with her and Joe. I think it’s hard to explain how ragged you’re feeling to someone who’s feeling fine, and I know from experience it’s a hard thing to imagine. So when I explained the various body parts that were complaining, that I was too hot, that I’d been uncomfortably hot for hours, that I was tired, feeling sick and generally on the brink I’m not sure how much they believed me. Getting back on the bike after that break was tough, but I did it. That was the start of rep 72. It was somewhere shortly after this point that I started to allow myself the belief I might actually finish it. At the same time, I was feeling the worst I’d felt all day. My splits were sluggish, my legs were tired, and I’d had a few slow turns. Joe kept me going with messages of encouragement sent from friends and news that supporters would be joining me soon.
Figure 8: New supporters materialise, Papa Geoff starts running (some of) some reps to cheer me on.
At rep 80, my family showed up and my dad started jogging reps with me. The end was finally in sight. They’d raided the instrument box at my mum’s nursery and were well equipped to make a racket. Initially I called it a day at rep 87, having calculated that 86 reps should be sufficient, but wanting to be on the safe side. Finishing was wonderful. Friends had shown up, and a small group gathered at the top of Naish to cheer, shout and hold me upright after ~12 hours on the bike. We must have looked an odd sight to the passers-by. Following celebrations, Joe talked me into doing a couple of extra reps to make sure I’d hit 8848m. Wise. But horrible.
Figure 9: Finishing (unaware of the extra 2 reps i’d end up doing)
It’s taken a couple of days for the achievement to sink in. When I finished my first priority was to get out of my very sweaty kit as fast as possible, which involved glamorously changing in my now favourite lay-by. I collapsed into the passenger seat of the car and was greeted by sharp pain in all the muscles who’d just made contact with the seat. I’d gone deeper than I’d imagined. My legs were unimaginably sore, and my upper body was complaining too. A firm touch of my arms, shoulders, or intercostals was painful. I couldn’t wait for a bath. 12.5 hours of sweating into lycra, and a frizzante shower had me smelling like a great night out, albeit with considerably less dancing and hopefully fewer regrets. My appetite didn’t recover that night. I think my body was still reeling from what I’d put it through and the unusual mix of foodstuffs. By 9pm, my eyes were refusing to stay open, my body ached more than it ever has – a feeling I relished a little, and I collapsed into bed.
Figure 10: Shower number 1 of 2 for the sweaty Everest-er
I learnt a lot about how far I can push myself, and despite some highs and lows, I really enjoyed it. It’s a challenge I’d love to see more women taking on, with the hall of fame male dominated at the moment. It’s not a challenge that goes well with typically female attributes. It’s gritty, gruelling, and sweaty*. That shouldn’t stop us. I might have the fastest time for now, and whilst it took a lot I’ve only been cycling just over a year, I’m not the fastest or strongest female cyclist in my club, let alone in Bristol. I’ve managed this through careful planning, choice of hill, choice of gearing, a good spreadsheet and a lot of determination. I’d love to see what some of the women who inspired me could do with this challenge.
That’s the story of my Everesting, at least what I remember. I’m delighted to say I did it, and achieved my goal of setting the fastest women’s time but will hold off putting a label on that until it’s confirmed with the Everesting team. Thanks again to all who joined me, cheered me on, or sent encouraging messages – they really helped. Thanks to Joe for being the spreadsheet overlord, keeping me on track, and being there from start to finish. Thanks to Everesting CC for the bonkers idea, and thanks to Ailsa MacDonald for setting the bar. And many thanks to the lovely brown and white horse who kept me going, when I’m next on Naish I’ll bring a carrot.
*First two compulsory, sweaty optional depending on choice of season/geographic location
Apologies for not listing all the supporters personally. This would have been a small novel if I had. You know who you are – and I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the support on Sunday, I’m not sure I could have done it without. Thank you.
Photos: Joe Hawksworth and Sam Thomson