I accomplished another vEveresting on 2/25/2020, this time surpassing the 8848 mark of Mt. Everest (at 8.6 times up Alpe du Zwift) to 10,000 meters (9.7 times up Alpe du Zwift) and then opting to make the final push to the top of Alpe de Zwift to make it a 10-climb day. It took me 15 hours and 29 minutes, I rode 149 miles and climbed 10,388 meters, all made possible by the virtual world that is Zwift, a training and racing platform for cycling and running. It was not without its struggles but my preparation kept those to a minimum.
I have a background in distance events, so even entering my first vEveresting in December 2019 I had a bit of confidence and a virtual Everesting did not appear quite so carzy. I’ve done 3 Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike races, numerous qualifiers for them, and long gravel grinders. In 2017 I had the good fortune to race RAAM on a four-woman team, Team Brigham Health, and we established a record for women 60+ of 7 days, 11 hours, and 4 minutes. Broken into two duos, my teammate and I tag-teamed 8 day-into-night segments that each lasted for over 12 hours.
As far as hill climbing goes, I have raced up Washington Auto Road 6 or 7 times as well as most of the other hill climb races throughout the northeast which make up the BUMPS series. Included in this series is the hill climb up the Whiteface Mountain Auto Road, one of my favorites. When Alpe du Zwift was released on Zwift it amazed me that the scenery was so reminiscent of all of the climbs I had done, from those in the northeast to those in the Oakland, CA area where I am lucky enough to train as well, specifically Tunnel Rd. and Mt. Diablo. Let’s just say I love to climb!
One of the coolest things about Alpe du Zwift is that it is so very similar to the Whiteface climb. I had always heard that Whiteface and the famous Alpe d’Huez (for which Alpe du Zwift was patterned after) were quite similar, and this turned out to be quite true. While Alpe du Zwift is steeper at the bottom than Whiteface the last few miles are so reminiscent of that climb and the last mile brings me back to that race every single time. Since Alpe du Zwift was released almost 2 years ago I have climbed it over 100 times.
So when it came time to choose a climb to do my vEveresting the choice was clear. Alpe it was! In addition to my familiarity with the climb, there was no denying that its length and average grade would get me to my goal the quickest. There are many climbs on Zwift, but none that had an average of 8% and were 7.7 miles long. I investigated the others and looked at my fastest times (not that I was planning on duplicating those times during an Everesting) and there was simply not the bang for the buck that Alpe du Zwift offers. Utilizing any other climb was going to take longer, and this was going to be long enough!
That average grade does not come without its challenges. One of the rules to enter the Hells500 vEveresting hall of fame was that a virtual Everesting has to be as life-like as one done outside. When I purchased my Wahoo Kickr last fall and set it to the required 100% trainer difficulty it also proved to be “100% reality.” Just as if I was climbing that road over and over in the real world, I would want gearing that would allow me to pace myself and pedal at an endurance pace rather than at race pace or even tempo. I had my bike shop, Dick Sonne’s Cycling and Fitness, transform my Specialized Crux into the gravel bike of my dreams by installing a new rear derailleur and cassette so that my easiest gear was 36 x 40. Having that gear meant that I could remain at endurance pace no matter what the grade, even at the bottom/start of the climb which hovers in the 10-12% region. Did I use it all the time? No. I used the 31 and 35 as well, and perhaps even the 27, and kept my feet moving in order to not bog down. I do recall even shifting into the big ring on a couple of the switchbacks and, of course, I was in the big ring and the smallest cog on the descents.
I have always had a rule to never stop while climbing Alpe du Zwift and I remained true to this during both my vEverestings. That definitely made me push a little harder on the last 1.5 miles to the top, each time. Light at the end of the tunnel! During my training for the first vEveresting I also made my second rule, which was to not let my avatar ever come to a complete standstill. After topping out after each summit I would to a U-turn and pedal hard to get my avatar plummeting down the Alpe. While it was coasting I would then quickly rush upstairs to mix a drink, take a nature break, etc. As quickly as I could I would be back on my bike and pedaling the remainder of the descent so that my legs would be warmed up and ready for the subsequent climb. As soon as I flew past the start banner at the bottom I would make a U-turn and then begin again. Did I mention that the first part of the climb is kind of step?
With my plan of being on the bike as much as possible I had to be well prepared, having water bottles filled, and having my Hammer Nutrition supplements, Hammer Gel, Perpetuem solids, and Hammer's Perpetuem measured out, labeled, and at my side. Nutrition and hydration are things that can be controlled and being prepared is a must since, well, brain-power during the event might be a little lacking. My plan worked to a T, just as it did in December. Aside from bits of a Hammer Nutrition Vegan bar and a few Perpetuem solids all my nutrition came in liquid or gel form, with my hourly intake at 200 calories, 18 ounces of liquid, and, every 50 minutes an Endurolytes capsule, an Anti-Fatigue capsule, and a BCAA+ capsule. I added in a few more Endurolytes and constantly used Energy Surge. I began the day with a serving of Fully Charged and had two more servings, one at 5 hours and one at 11. I have been a sponsored athlete of Hammer Nutrition since 1997 and so I have a ton of experience with their products. Honestly, though, I use them all as directed, which is the way I suggest everyone who works with them.
I’ve been asked about my training for these events. The six weeks leading up to the event involves lots of climbs up Alpe du Zwift, along with threshold training and endurance work. I have worked exclusively with my coach Mark Fasczewski of Vantaggio Fitness and Nutrition since 2004, so none of this type of training is new or unusual to me, just, perhaps, a bit more of it at certain points. Being as fit as possible, nailing down the pace that one can continue for long periods, and then tapering for the event without losing fitness are all critical and Mark knows how to arrange this for me. Also critical to this is refraining from overtraining with both eyes on rest and recovery.
Doubly important is the support I receive from my husband Phil, the athletes I coach, and on event day, also from good friend Wendy Bowers. Phil accepts my long rides on the trainer as part of my job and my work schedule is flexible enough to allow me to train lots during the day and then work early morning and all evening. As a coach these hours, and this event, give me a perspective on what my athletes are going through when things get rough for them. EVERY SINGLE ONE of my athletes inspire me, with their tenacity and dedication despite whatever limitations they might have or encounter along the way.
As one can see, there are many moving parts to this kind of thing. Training and past experience are critical, and along the way one can study and learn how to do this the best. Planning is the key. Equipment/gearing, nutrition/supplementation, pacing/protocol, and support are the pillars that hold this all up.
So what is next? After completing the 10 times up Alpe I proudly exclaimed “never again!” That was tough on mind and body and I was a bit concerned about how I would recover. I took two days completely off the bike and some naps, with a gradual re-entry since. Doing something like this also comes with lack of sleep, both before, with my 3:30 am start (because I woke up and was not about to go back to sleep) and afterward with the body zooming so much and legs that hurt so bad that going to sleep took a while. Yeah, I had a 24 hour day J But now that I am mostly recovered (I still need an acupuncture treatment from Mackay Rippey) I have a great base under my belt. I can look forward to some great race training for the goal events I have this season which include --- ta da – hill climbs and longer events such as marathon mountain bike races and gravel grinders. Oh, and time trialing.
Can you do this? If you want to, and you REALLY have to want to! Work your way up to it a little at a time. If you already have experience doing long things (8+ hours) on the bike you’ve already got a mental leg-up. I suggest that if anyone wants to have the best experience to do their absolute best with preparation and to not give this a GO until you are good and ready. As I mentioned after my first vEveresting, I thought I was “ready” to attempt it as soon as Cyclocross season was over. Coach Mark knew otherwise and devised a training plan that enabled me to be so successful and to actually want to do it again. Six weeks later I was, literally/virtually, on top of the world. To date, out of 444, I am the oldest human to have done a vEverest (take that you men one year younger than me, lol,) the woman, out of 25, with the most vertical meters climbed (by ten whole meters,) and at the time my first vEveresting was the 5th fastest (by a few seconds.) I love to compete and seeing these stats afterward are icing on the cake but not really why I do it. The goal is to just do my best and have fun doing it. OK, this was Type 2 kind of fun, but I did get to watch a lot of UCI Cyclocross in the process!
This post started as simply an answer to a couple of how-to questions. As usual, I went overboard. Most importantly, do what moves YOU. Enjoy it. Riding a bike is a privilege as is having the health to do it. Rejoice and respect your abilities and the accomplishments you've already made, set goals, and learn about yourself along the way. Rejoice in the blessings of the rest of your life as well. Life is an unpredictable journey, but by systematically taking care what you can control you can work toward accomplishing something you thought was not possible. Always be kind to yourself and to those around you.
Of course I am pretty good at forgetting self-inflicted discomfort so there might be more Everesting in my future. Never say never. Ride on!