Everesting #2: Whiteleaf, UK (100 Greatest Climbs #23): 2016

By late June 2016, I’d converted my S-Works to ‘steep Everesting spec’:
– an 11-40 cassette
– an XTR Di2 rear dérailleur to accommodate that cassette!
– front dérailleur removed to provide a clean chain-line
– saddle tilted forward slightly
– chain-stay protector (chain slap on the descent was awful without it)
– Garmin battery charger taped to the top tube
– climbing wheels fitted and new brake pads

To get used to the gearing and also riding steep gradients all the time, I started running laps on a couple of steep local climbs: Kop Hill and Whiteleaf. Both reach 20% or more and sometimes I’d do alternate reps on both (they share the same summit (so would be perfect for a ‘Double Everesting’. Cough)) and other times I’d just pick one and do repeats. After a few weeks, I could ride them seated, keeping my heart rate below 140bpm (within Z3) and my power below 300 watts (330 FTP). So, I felt my body and my bike were ready for the Project H climb in Wales.

However, there were two issues, one minor and one major. The minor one was that Kev (a friend, planning to ride Project H with me) and I didn’t really align on availability. I contemplated going alone and encouraged him to do the same, if the weather suddenly came good. There were about five potential dates, but we only coincided on three of them. The more significant issue was the weather. The UK ‘summer’ in July 2016 was basically governed by a southerly jet stream, leaving the south-east of the country dryish and the north and west, wet and windy. I started to get frustrated and worried the ‘Everesting season’ might slip away.

It was with these thoughts in the back of my mind that I set out one Tuesday evening to run repeats on Whiteleaf. Number 23 in Simon Warren’s original 100 Greatest Climbs book, it’s 1.3km long and weighs in at a fraction under 10% average. It has three notable steep sections – the first at c.16%, the second, ‘the corner’ at c.25% and the third, a long, steepening ramp, nudging 20%. It’s a ‘proper’ climb, generally acknowledged as a contender for ‘hardest climb in the Chiltern Hills’ and it was used for decades as the centre piece of the Archer GP Road Race, as well as for local hill climb races. I ran eight laps that night and realised that I was still fresh at the end. When I got home, I checked the Everesting.cc Hall of Fame. No one had Everested Whiteleaf. I couldn’t quite believe it. In local terms, this hill was iconic and most of the equivalent climbs close to London had already been Everested, some of them multiple times. Being the first to Everest a climb as good as Whiteleaf was a singular opportunity and I was now completely hooked.

Whiteleaf 2D

The following day, I checked the weather forecast again. It was still bad for Wales, but perfect for Whiteleaf. I decided it was karma and asked Kev whether he fancied joining me, but Whiteleaf held less allure for him versus the Project H climb.

I locked in on my target, solo, and prepared a top tube sticker for Whiteleaf, breaking the climb down into sets of reps and correlating them to actual points on an ascent of Everest. I gathered my kit together, packed my car and took a big, deep breath. Everesting Whiteleaf would require me to ride 70 reps.

The very last thing I did was download an audio book – Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air’, a compelling account of the 1996 Everest disaster. I wasn’t sure whether I’d need the distraction or not, but I wanted the option.

I posted a picture on Facebook of the packed car, to add a little motivational pressure (but without any details of the target climb) and went to bed at 9.30am on Friday evening, seriously nervous!

My alarm went off at 2.00am. I dressed, ate breakfast and drove the four miles to the bottom of the climb, parking my car on the wide grass verge. I was riding my first rep by 3.00am, bang on schedule. It was dark, but my light cut a perfect beam and I settled into the task.

My plan was to ride five reps at a time and then stop to refill my bottle and eat a little food. Allowing for that stop and a lap time of c12 minutes, each set of five reps would take c. one hour. That would mean a ride time of around 14 hours and I assumed I’d lose at least another three hours in cumulative stoppage time.

You’ve almost certainly heard people talk about ‘the chimp on your shoulder’, particularly in the context of endurance challenges. I’m not sure who coined the phrase first, but British Cycling adviser Dr Stephen Peters has written a whole book on the topic: The Chimp Paradox. In very brief terms, it suggests that the rational part of your brain – the bit that says “I can do this”, is countered by the chimp: the irrational, emotional part that says “this is daft, let’s stop doing this”. Anyone who has ever run a marathon, attempted an Everesting, or a Cent Cols Challenge, or a Haute Route, will have had to overcome their chimp. They may well have spent days, even weeks, battling their chimp. BUT, here’s the good news: you can fool your chimp. He’s really not that smart – he’s all emotion, doubt and fear. For example, 70 reps of Whiteleaf and 14+ hours in the saddle sounded awful – my chimp would have the upper hand. But 14 sets of 5 reps, sounded completely different. Could I do another five reps, after each previous set? Yes, probably. My top-tube sticker was another way of fooling my chimp, by breaking the climb down into sections, rather than just aiming straight for the summit. It even included a message to him, at the very bottom: you only fail if you quit.

In 2005, during a very long MTB ride, I even gave my chimp a name – he’s called Pete. I knew he’d show up at some point during the day.

The other point I’d make here is that the more reference points you have to counter-argue your chimp with, the easier something like an Everesting gets. By reference points, I mean big rides: anything over 250km, or 10+hours in the saddle, or 6,000m+ of climbing. And crucially, any rides where you’ve had to battle your chimp and won. Where things get really interesting is when you go through a real physical problem – a pain, a lack of energy, heat, cold, ‘the wall’ or ‘a bonk’. It sometimes takes hours to ride out of a physical low point and your chimp will pounce on the opportunity, telling you to quit. I was fortunate in that I had a lot of ‘low point milestones’ and every year, I make a point of going looking for new ones in the early part of the season, to give me confidence for the biggest challenges in the months ahead. For anyone who doesn’t have many of these milestones (I call the milestones ‘Chimp Cheaters’), an Everesting will almost certainly, at some point, turn into a really tough experience.

Three odd/funny things happened during the ride. The first was obvious even on the first lap: I couldn’t see them because it was pitch black, but the trees were full of squirrels! It was ‘hazelnut’ season and the squirrels were having a feast. From the steep corner upwards, the air was full of the sound of nut shells hitting the tarmac and three sections of the road were literally carpeted with nut shells!

The first 10 reps went like clockwork and by 5.00am, I was 1,270m up Everest.

Whiteleaf Sq

Then, something really odd happened. As I neared the first steep section on the eleventh rep, it felt harder than it should have done. Looking down, I realised that my chain was on the big ring. But this was impossible, because I didn’t have a front dérailleur! We’d removed it, to keep the chain line clean, so I was effectively locked into my small chain ring.

I climbed off, manually moved the chain back onto the small ring and carried on up the hill, pondering how that could have happened! I was lucky not to have torn the rear derailleur right off!

My general advice for Everesting includes choosing a climb with a good, relaxing descent, where you can eat and drink and get a bit of rest. Whiteleaf is nothing like that: it’s steep, bumpy, technical and the bottom half has numerous driveways which could provide instant danger from cars joining the road. I was literally feathering the brakes almost the entire way down, hovering off the saddle. Even so, by 20 laps or so, I had the descent completely dialed-in and was hitting almost 80km/h. Disc brakes made a huge difference here – they were effortless and far safer. People always think about preparing their bike for going uphill, but I’d purposefully sacrificed a little bit of weight for the benefits of disc brakes because I knew they would help me get down safely – descending c.9,000m of 10 – 20% is not easy.

By 7.00am and 20 reps in and I was still exactly on schedule. An occasional car came past and the sun had come up, but generally the road was quiet and it felt safe. I was ticking off the laps as I went, but had messed up my lap counter, so had to do it manually. I whiled away the climb by doing the maths in my head, checking total distance and height gained against my tally of reps, to make sure I was right. I was using two Garmins – a 1000 and a brand new 820. Amazingly, they never got further than 30m out of sync, which was remarkable given the scale of the overall ascent and even more so when Auto Pause kicked in two or three times on every ascent and descent, as the climb steepened under the trees and GPS struggled to keep a tab on me.

In line with my previous experiences of Everesting, my first and biggest mental goal was Base Camp, or 5,335m. This would require 42 reps of Whiteleaf and I had hoped to reach it around 1.00pm. I’d promised myself that if I reached Base Camp and felt OK, I would ‘go public’ on Facebook, thereby adding a little extra pressure and motivation. Up until this point, I’d told no one of my plans apart from my family, Kev and Ollie Blagden, one of the HWCC Espoirs who completed his own Everesting on a neighbouring climb the previous weekend. I decided that stating my plans publicly prior to my attempt was just setting myself up to look silly if I then failed. It seemed to me that it would be better to try, see how I got on and if I thought it seemed possible, then I would let people know what I was trying to do.

And so, at 1.00pm, I posted the following: “Well, I’m now 42 reps into Whiteleaf – #23 in Simon Warren’s (original) 100 Greatest Climbs. It’s local and nasty: 1.3km long, 127m of ascent, an average gradient of fractionally under 10% and a maximum gradient nudging 25%. It’s a contender for ‘hardest climb in the Chiltern Hills’. So, 42 reps is significant because 1. it’s been hard work and I’m tired and 2. it means I’ve climbed 5,335m and that’s the height of Everest Base Camp. The milestones (hopefully) now come a little faster: Camp 1 at 6,000m/47 reps, Camp 2 at 6,400m/50 reps, Camp 3 at 7,200m/56 reps, the South Col/Camp 4 at 7,906m/61 reps, and the summit (fingers crossed) at 8,848m/70 reps. I’ll be here for at least another seven hours (maybe!?), tapping away – if anyone wants to come out to the hill and say hello, maybe even ride a lap with me, I’d be very grateful for the distraction – I’m running out of audio books!!! Updates to follow. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT”

28 more reps didn’t seem too daunting (Pete didn’t completely agree), but I stuck to my plan of five rep blocks and just kept slowly climbing the hill. I’d pulled the trigger on the audio book on the eleventh rep and Jon Krakauer and I were nearing the South Col together. I’d read the book when it was first published, but had forgotten most of the detail and it was proving really interesting and apt. I’d pause it at the start of each descent and then start it again when I turned at the bottom.

I posted the following at 45 reps: “I’m now 45 reps into Whiteleaf, or 5,760m up Everest, in my virtual world! A few words about the bike: it’s an S-Works Roubaix (David Alexander). If successful, this will be its second Everesting. It’s comfy enough to ride all day (and night!), but it’s also sharp enough to climb well and handle the descent. I’m running disc brakes, which helps hugely with the downhill: it’s steep, narrow, a little bumpy and I’m on the brakes almost the entire way down. There are also numerous side roads and drive ways on the lower half and the disc brakes will help me stop if someone pulls out unexpectedly. I’m also using lights, all day, in an attempt to help car drivers see me. It’s actually a pretty stressful descent – no rest at all. Thankfully it only takes just over two minutes. The real twist on this bike is the gearing. Simon Winfield @ Cycle Care, together with Shimano’s Technical dept, worked out a way that I could run a higher gear. So, I have an XTR 11×40 rear cassette and an XTR rear dérailleur, which is compatible with road Di2. You might think that makes it easy, but I promise you it’s not – I’m still averaging HR in Z3 and my power is up around 330 watts on the steepest parts and that’s my FTP, so it’s very debatable whether it’s sustainable. As a slightly masochistic experiment however, it’s fascinating, albeit also worrying! Up front, I’m running a normal 34/50 combination, but I can’t shift into the big ring because of the altered chain line, so we’ve removed the front dérailleur! That’s fine because there’s nowhere on Whiteleaf to use the big ring anyway :-) More updates to follow. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT”

In this case, with heavy modifications, a lot of it was All About The Bike!

In this case, with heavy modifications, a lot of it was All About The Bike!

Friends started to turn up from HWCC, stopping by to say hello and wish me well. Unfortunately, they brought with them the news that one of the super-talented Espoirs, Ollie Blagden, had crashed badly on the club run that morning and was now in hospital. I spent many of the remaining laps thinking about Ollie, who had Everested just seven days before – he’d been planning to ride a few reps with me.*

At 47 reps I posted this: 47 reps/6,000m. This wasn’t even supposed to happen! I was just running laps on Whiteleaf over the last few weeks, getting ready for a (much steeper!!) climb in Wales. But that faces south and the wind is from the north = nightmare = I didn’t go to Wales this weekend. But in the course of running laps on Whiteleaf, I realised that I really rather liked it. Or most of it. I don’t really like the 3 x almost 20% sections, nor the 25% corner, nor the technical, on the brakes descent with the constriction half way down, nor the off-camber turn at the bottom, but I like it enough to try! Perhaps. And so I find myself 47 reps in, at the equivalent height of Camp 1 on Everest (6,000m). I started at 3.00am this morning, in an attempt to avoid darkness tonight – fingers crossed. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT

It was around this time that the third funny thing happened. I was somewhere around lap 50, struggling through the final steep ramp, when a cyclist came past me so fast, I almost felt the air move. It took me a split second to work out who it must be – tall, super lean, white jersey, crazy fast: it could only be Tejvan Pettinger. He’s the reigning KoM on Whiteleaf and was British Hill Climb Champion in 2013. He’d disappeared around the final bend before I’d had time to really compute this, but it was a treat to see his effort and hilarious to feel the difference in our relative speeds: his KoM is 4’12” and I was averaging 9’45” per ascent!**

It's not obvious from this picture but this is the steep corner - 20% ++

It’s not obvious from this picture but this is the steep corner: 20% ++

The next milestone was 57 reps (7,200m and Camp 3 on Everest) and by then, I was starting to have to really work at it. My heart rate had climbed from a max of sub 140bpm, to early 150s, but now it was falling again, a sure sign that my muscles were beginning to lose power. Interestingly, my coach had been testing my muscle glycogen storage in the days leading up to the ride and we’d discovered two things: I could recover to full storage in less than 12 hours after a training session, but just 24 hours before starting the attempt, I inexplicably appeared quite depleted. I largely ignored this – I felt strong and went ahead anyway. It was later explained that I appeared to be storing the glycogen in a thin layer of fat on the surface of my muscles, rather than within my muscles – useful for an Everesting, but less helpful if I’d been riding a 25 mile TT!

I posted the following: “57 reps/7,200m: Camp 3, on Lhotse’s ice wall. Everesting is a fascinating concept: pick any hill you like and run consecutive reps, up and down, until your cumulative ascent equals the height of Everest (in one push, no sleeping allowed). Simple. Compelling. My first Everesting was a long one: 420km, 19+hrs in the saddle and over 24hrs on the road: I was dog tired by the end. This one is completely different, because the hill is so much steeper (10% average), meaning a distance of just 180km. This qualifies it as a ‘Steep’ Everesting and it hurts far, far more than my previous ride. Other categories include Soil (off-road, I love this idea), Suburban (yuk, never) and Significant (something BIG, abroad – I love this idea too). Completing an Everesting admits you to a loose knit, global group of riders known as Hells 500. A Hells 500 rider has undoubtedly spent some time in a dark mental and physical place, but endured and pulled through. In short, it signifies a really big ride, an uber-long day, an awful lot of climbing and significant will power!. 13 more reps to go. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT”

Having messed up the settings in my Garmin's lap counter, this was the solution - a pen and the lid of my cool box!

Having messed up the settings in my Garmin’s lap counter, this was the solution – a pen and the lid of my cool box!

From around 60 reps onwards, I started to feel slightly sick. I’d been bent over my bike for around 12 hours by then, working reasonably hard and I think it was just an alien feeling, versus the ebbs and flows of normal riding (60 reps equaled a solid 13 hours towards the top end of Z3). I posted the following: “61 reps, or 7,902m: the South Col. If I was actually on Everest, I’d now be in what they call the Death Zone because there’s so little oxygen that your body is slowly dying! Camp 4 is literally at the edge of the earth’s atmosphere! The summit would be just under 1,000m above me – via a famous spot called the Hilary Step, where Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had such an epic struggle on the first ascent in 1953. Nine more reps to go, or in other words, a couple of hours. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT”

I kept eating and drinking for the next seven laps or so, but limited my intake to try to stave off the slightly nauseous feeling. Finally, with darkness returned and around 10.30pm, I completed my 70th rep and posted the following: “70 reps done, 8,848m. Everesting #2 completed. I started at 3.00am this morning and now darkness draws near again. The problem is, there’s one other type of Hells 500 ride: a High Rouleur. To qualify, you have to do 10,000m in a single ride. Not many people ever do that, but I’m intrigued to try. That’s ten more reps, or two more hours. Onwards. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT”

So I wasn’t finished, even though mentally, all I wanted to do was pack up and drive home. This was undoubtedly the toughest single moment of the entire ride – Pete (my chimp) was jumping up and down on my shoulder screaming “oh come on, you have to be kidding! Let’s just go home! It’s past 10.00pm and we should stop this nonsense right now”. However, it’s not often anyone gets this close to riding 10,000m in a single ride and I didn’t want to pass up on the opportunity – I knew I’d always regret it if I did. I told Pete to simmer down and also decided to skip further stops and just kept going, riding the final 13 laps in one go! The last two felt really, really difficult and my lap times were nudging 14 minutes by this stage (my ascent times spanned 8’41” to 11’44” on the final one – three minutes slower than at the start)!

I’d always intended to ride another 10 reps if possible i.e. 80 total, but somewhere around lap 62, I’d lost count (I couldn’t decide if I’d done 61 or 62) and no amount of calculations would really reassure me of where I was! But, to my best estimate, I finished rep 80 at 1.01am on Sunday morning and posted the following: “Job done: 80 reps of Whiteleaf and 10,260m of vertical! An Everesting and a High Rouleur, all wrapped together. I am now too wasted to say much, except thank you to those who have helped me, both on this endeavour and over the years, notably Simon Winfield @ Cycle Care for preparing my bike, Andy Colley @ Purus and Jon Roberts @ Matt Roberts Personal Training for preparing my body and all my friends and my family for their support and for enduring my bike habit. Time for a very long sleep :-) SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT

I’d been in the saddle for just under 16 hours and on the road for about 22. Where I lost 6 hours I have no idea – I ate proper food four times and paused to recharge my Garmins in the car a few times, but even so, I still couldn’t work out the elapsed time (loss)! But it didn’t matter – an Everesting isn’t about time, it’s simply about doing it. Even better, I’d managed to carry on to ‘The Limit’ and complete 10,260m of ascent in a single ride. I headed home feeling wasted, but happy, where I uploaded my ride and was able to confirm that I had definitely ridden 80 laps. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I went to bed at 2.30am and woke up five hours later in exactly the same position – I literally hadn’t moved at all.

The following morning, I jotted down some numbers:

10,131 – meters climbed in total * 8,848 – the height of Everest in meters * 637 – Strava Training Load * 408 – Strava Suffer Score (Epic) * 220 – km ridden to reach 10,000m+ and admission to the High Rouleurs Society * 192 – km ridden to Everest Whiteleaf * 89 – watts: weighted average power * 121 – heart rate average * 80 – reps completed to clear 10,000m in a single ride (and qualify for the High Rouleurs Society) * 76.7 – km/h max speed * 70 – reps completed to clear the height of Everest * 71 – cadence average * 42 – the number of reps needed to get to the height of Everest Base Camp * 40 – the number of teeth on my largest sprocket * 34 – the number of teeth on my chainring * 25 – % maximum gradient of the climb * 21:58:11 – elapsed time * 15:50:49 – moving time * 13.9 – km/h average speed * 13 – British riders in the High Rouleurs Society * 12 – HWCC members who very kindly came and cheered me on * 11.5 – litres of water drunk * 9.4 – % average gradient of the climb * 9 – number of hours my power was above 175 watts * 6 – reps, before a squirrel hit me with a nut shell (the hazelnuts were ripe and the squirrels were very busy) * 5 – hours of sleep afterwards, before I woke up again! * 4.5 – hours of sleep before starting * 4 – cheese rolls * 3 – cups of coffee * 3 – am. The time I started, on Saturday * 3 – bananas * 3 – Bounce Balls * 2 – yoghurts * 2 – chicken/rice/pasta/pesto meals * 2 – gels * 2 – I dropped my chain twice * 1 – am. The time I finished, on Sunday * 1 – Percy Pig * 1 – bowl of muesli * 1 – inexplicable shift into the big ring (without a front derailleur!­) * 1 – number of times I was passed by the Whiteleaf KoM (and ex-British Hill Climb Champion), Tejvan Pettinger (he was sooooo quick)! * 0 – punctures * 0 – repeat passersby who asked me what I was doing

659087710

I was tired after this ride – tired enough to notice the impact even a couple of weeks later – but perhaps less so compared to the aftermath of my first Everesting. My toes weren’t numb this time and when I rode the bike again 24 hours later, I felt OK. It had been a tough ride, but not desperate and almost certainly not my hardest ever. I know from previous experience that it’s possible to suffer a complete, ride-ending physical melt-down, but they’re not common and that risk aside, I think for me and for most cyclists with the appropriate milestones, an Everesting is really a mental challenge, more than a physical one.

Predictably, my mind has turned to ‘what next’ and ‘soil’ and ‘significant’ are likely to be key ingredients. Stay tuned. Sir Guy Litespeed, August 2016.

Notes:
– I’ve compiled my ‘Everesting Tips’ into a separate post: https://www.sirguylitespeed.com/blog/2016/08/02/everesting-tips/
* Ollie’s crash was significant, but two weeks later, he was gently riding his bike again :-)
** When I got home, I was reminded of Tejvan Pettinger’s quote from his blog www.cyclinguphill.com – in 2014, he said: “I really wouldn’t fancy everesting Whiteleaf because it is too steep. You get the vertical height gain over with in a short distance, but it is too intense on your muscles. To Everest, you are looking at 12 – 16 hours in the saddle. You have to be comfortable.” I think at the pace Tejvan was going, this is a fair comment! My gears helped hugely.