Saturday, July 8, 2017

Challenger High, Going Deep


"Dude, you're high," was my buddy's response via text after I shared my intentions for a huge ride on summer solstice.  It was a Tuesday evening and I was truly sober, though feeling spirited having just finished a test lap of my planned route: a 7-mile loop with an exposed 2,200 foot gravel climb at an average grade of 14%, followed by a steep and formidable singletrack descent. Conditions were optimal. The decision was made. Challenger High, as I called it, was going to happen. As I drove home from the trail, I said out loud, "this is ridiculous!" and rolled through the idea in my mind:
  • Attempt to ride 10,900m (35,800ft) vertical ascent (and descent) on my mountain bike, the equivalent of the depth of Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in the earth's seabed  
  • Gravel road up, trail down 
  • Begin at first light at 4:24AM PST and begin the final ascent by the end of civil twilight at 21:59PM PST...17.5 hours and change to see what I could get done.         
The only issue now was that solstice was the next morning, and there were several things to put in order before a very early start to a very big day: gearing on bike, food, spare parts, battery charger, OTG cable for Garmin, backup GPS device, photo dinner...sleep. Despite my excitement, I committed to quietly blending this extreme burst of spontaneity into existing evening plans: the weekly grocery shop, a phone call to catch up with my brother, performing a bike fit for a client, and a dinner party with my wife, Sarah, and friends.

As I waited in the checkout line at the grocery store, running lists of itineraries through my head, a text came through from my friend and professional photographer, Paris. "Yo buddy!! I just talked to Bike Mag. They want to run a web feature about tomorrow. Let's get a plan going." Perfect! Word had spread amongst a group of buddies out on a ride together, and now it was really coming together! A feature in an industry-leading publication had not been the purpose of the ride, but having it in place already was certainly added motivation! That part of the game was important nowadays. After the evening's socializing and a delicious meal of paella, garden fresh salad, two Peronis and a club pour of rose, Sarah and I returned home. I got to packing and she pitched in filling the snack bin. Paris showed up just before 10PM to capture a few shots of my hasty preparation, and to ask just what the hell had gotten into me.
Installing a smaller chainring (32t) and larger cassette (11-42) were the main equipment adjustments the night before. PC: Paris Gore

Tonight's prep would make a sizable dent in the CLIF supply (see end of story for details on nutrition; CLIF Hydration, Blocks, Builder Bars, Nut Butter Filled Bars and more). PC: Paris Gore 
Double-checking the time markers the night before, and establishing a few "reasonable" parameters for a very unreasonable ride! PC: Paris Gore
All manner of items in the snack bin, from Clif Bars to Shot Bloks to dolmas to freeze dried backpacking food.  Oh, and plenty of peanut butter. PC: Paris Gore

Evolution and Concept

Despite the last minute embarkation, my idea for the ride (and other similar exploits) emerged in the winter as I was thinking up concepts for the the newly minted Kona Adventure Team, of which I was an official member.  For the first time since 2010 I would not be chasing UCI points and the cross country World Cup around the globe.  Instead, I would stay within at least three time zones and do less chasing and more just going, doing, realizing.  I would still train and compete as an elite-level athlete, but the evolution was a story as old as Outside Magazine and the growth of the outdoor sport industry.  I was transforming into the equivocal lifestyle adventure athlete.

Overlooking Castle Valley from Porcupine Rim with the Kona Adventure Team on our Kokopelli Trail Adventure where, the day after the Grand Junction Off-Road race, we completed the 165-mile journey from Grand Junction to Moab in 2-days.  

Chasing my competitive version of the "ultimate" (the Olympics and the World Cup) had been a tremendously rewarding life experience even though I could not quite play the game I hoped to play in terms of results.  I was often in the conversation, but that's about as far as it got.  Still, I had given it my best, it was fun as hell, and I wouldn't change a thing about it. The story and the motivation (and the value for sponsors) was that of the average underdog with above-average motivation and a thoughtful approach; the full-time-job-guy-rubbing-elbows-with-big-dogs until 2015 when I took a couple years to go "all-in".  It was neither exceptional nor stale, and it ran a great course from 2010 through 2016.

The inevitable issue was not the specific results so much as what it would always be no matter the outcome - a chase.  In the deep realm of elite-level competition, there is always some specific attainment being sought, and it's slippery like a fish! Holding on means controlling your emphasis on outcomes, good or bad, with the sharpest agility, and maintaining perspective when yesterday's success becomes today's disappointment. It's a fantastic, ridiculous, privileged game, a remarkable process to be savored. But in a sport with so much depth beyond tight shorts, watts per kilo and race results, it eventually becomes more sensible to let more of the fish swim...or just go for a swim yourself!  In any case, there was a new game to be played and the arena was wide open for worthwhile challenges and a way to continue my sporting career...blending creativity, noteworthy competition, deep personal journeys, fun and community.

Competition is still very much a part of the equation.  I hope to compete until I'm old and leathery.  Less jet-lag in the process is just fine.  Here wrapping up the 2017 MTB race season in Carson City, NV in mid-June.  PC: Brian Leddy

At the end of the 2016 season I got my first taste of the ultra-endurance realm when I completed my first Everesting ride on my mountain bike, 8,848 meters (29,028 feet) of vertical ascent in a single ride.  It was as much a wild ride as it was a spiritual experiment, a personal endeavor to commemorate my erstwhile experience chasing the Olympic dream.  It was magnificent, everything I had hoped and much more. That said, I had minimal intention of ever doing such a thing again. Then, through the autumn and a long winter, my imagination peeped at the concept of blending systematic performances with arbitrary challenges. One day I thought, instead of climbing to the top of a high point, what about climbing out of the deepest point? The deepest known point on earth was Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, thought to be approximately 10,900 meters (35,800 feet) below sea level.  I was pretty certain nobody else other than James Cameron had ever attempted such a feat, at least not on a mountain bike! And in my strange brain, it didn't sound like much more than Everest. I would call it "Challenger High" since it involved going up.  As simple as that, the idea was planted.  With no idea for a location or route, it would sit dormant until the suitable occasion.

Sarah at 40-weeks!

It turned out that the suitable occasion was also planted in late 2016.  Sarah and I became pregnant! By the end of spring 2017, we were approaching full term after a very fortunate and healthy pregnancy, and for me, the excitement of becoming a father had transformed from surreal into a profound sense of gratefulness. Knowing I would be taking a temporary break from racing with the arrival of our child, I felt a deep appreciation for my mountain bike tribe, many of whom at this point feel like extended family. After my final race of the season in Carson City, Nevada, I could feel that another "tribute" ride was brewing. But this time it felt much more outwardly focused. As with my Everesting ride the year prior, I was certain of the impulse, but knew that something deeper was to be ascertained, unlocked, liberated.  

We all have our own methods for working on our personal version of "Maslow's Pyramid".  Mine happens to take place in the mountains and on the trails.
Ride and Realization

I arrived at the trailhead just after 4:00AM and Paris was already there waiting. His truck lights shone brightly across the parking lot and the forest was like a dark cavern with twisted walls.  Thanks to the last-minute preparation, I was starting this day on around three hours of sleep, but I resolved to never once dwell on that detail.  First light was 24-minutes after the hour, and after a final bike check, GPS reset, bottle in the cage and a high five, I began the day right on schedule.
One climb at a time.  Prancing out of the dark woods on the first lap around 4:45AM.  The day just seemed to unfold like a choreographed dance.  PC: Paris Gore 
Paris's company provided a boost and useful sense of accountability for the start of such a huge day. From previous experience I knew that the climb should take me around 40 minutes, with another 20 minutes for the descent and pedal pack to the truck. With at least 15 laps, and possibly more, I was careful not to start off too intensely.  I knew intuitively the pace that would work, but I still rode with a heart rate monitor and power meter to see what my body would do over the course of the day (see the end of this story for numbers and geeky stuff). The pedals felt light.

I reached the top of the first climb just before sunrise, and the pastel dawn air felt thick and soothing. The trail pitched down abruptly, at which point the ride truly felt underway.  Dark, braided roots were still slippery from rain 48-hours prior, but the soil was like ground velvet. As I let myself adapt to the rhythm of the trail, the corners gripped harder and harder.  On a sweeping left my tires banked into a subtle groove and bits of loamy dirt shot up into my mouth.  Stinging nettles against my arms, trees flashing by, the sound of rolling tires and songbird all produced a sensation somewhere between slow motion and supersonic. I'd get a taste of the forest each lap. An odd reset switch was triggered at the bottom of each descent, as if I had some specific amnesia of the previous climb. My thought was simply, 'Fun! Again!'.

Darting into the woods and towards the incentive for each climb - the trail! PC: Paris Gore

The first few laps rolled by casually, ticking by in just over an hour including a stop at the truck to grab liquids and a snack. Paris chased up the climb on his electric bike to grab photos, but the pace killed the batteries in less than three laps.  At the top of the second lap, just before entering the thick forest, we spotted what appeared to be a fresh batch of mountain lion scat.  Duly noted, we made extra hoots and hollers, and I would keep it in mind once the sun went down. Around 9:00AM Paris wished me well and went home to take a nap before rejoining in the evening. I carried on and rode deeper into my little world.        

Mind games. On the climbs, I felt a content and undeterred focus, but would welcome glints of thought. Some simple: number of laps to go, vert accumulated, ideas for new Clif Bar flavors, time of day, temperature... Some deeper: things I'd read or heard, friendship, family...fatherhood... On the descents I just rode. I had recalled learning the term "autotelic", which describes an activity or a creative work as having an end or purpose in itself.  Having been there many times before, I knew I was in what is referred to these days, perhaps truistically, as the "flow state."  

At noon, around half-way through the ride, Sarah arrived with lunch, cold drinks and her big baby belly.  She'd have joined me for a few laps if she could have, but contented herself nonetheless with a stroll through the woods and the opportunity to support (and laugh at) her eccentric husband. Plopped on the rear bumper of her car sometime after the 10th hour, I had my one slip-up of the day when I downed an entire huge burrito.  I knew better even as I was ramming it down the hatch, and paid for it on the descent an hour later, a little burrito baby lurching around in my stomach.  The next lap I decided to bend the rules a bit by descending the road instead of the trail.  It would save a bit of time, brake pads, and preserve my arm strength so that I could really nail the final laps at sunset. I had read of a similar tactic known in computer science as "constraint relaxation" - remove some of the problem's constraints and set about solving the problem you wish you had, then reintroduce the tricky variables later. Make the problem temporarily easier before bringing it back to reality.  

Reality. What was that? At the moment, my little world felt more surreal.  Reality was many different things. It was 12 hours and over 8,000 vertical meters in to a bicycle ride. It was the thought of being a father. It was the feeling of my bod flying through the forest along a ribbon of dirt. How impossible, how amazing, how immediate. Though I didn't question my activity whatsoever, I simmered in the notions of why I was doing it. Fatigue is the endurance athlete's portal to self realization. And as I've learned over the years, staying the course involves, for me at least, a refocus from inward to outward. As one who claims to be an "athlete", I've benefited tremendously from the contributions from family, friends, and community.  In that process, much of who I've become has materialized through my pursuit of sport.  Yet despite my regard for sport, I've wrestled with its unavoidable self-serving ethos. Strength, self-discovery, and mastery are certainly important, but what room is left for also achieving compassion, providing value to the community, and doing well for others?  I thought about this old debate now with the anticipation of becoming a father; a tremendous outward focus toward the growth and benefit of a new person.

Cheesy story from a cheesy guy.  A few nibbles on this brick of cheddar tasted pretty good at around 12-hours in. PC: Paris Gore
Amidst the sound of crunching gravel, I recalled hearing an interview with high performance psychologist Michael Gervais, PhD. It struck a chord with me.  Toward the end of the talk, after discussing the merits of hard work and achieving personal excellence, et cetera, Dr. Gervais noted, "We fall very short if our efforts are just for self-consumption. [With] the idea that we're doing something just for ourselves, we'll miss the mark of the human experience inside of it and so...can we help others to find their very best?" I thought of the team that had helped me through my entire life up to this point, and how their contributions, whether intentional or by chance, had contributed to me discovering my best. My parents, siblings, friends, teachers, classmates, mentors, sport heroes, work colleagues, competitors. My life partner.  Suddenly the weight of the climb dissolved and I felt a wave of gratitude and awareness.   

Then an idea hit it home for me:      
"It's not just a single selfish pursuit of potential, but rather it is collectively being a part of a tribe and honoring the relationships that we have in a deep, committed way, and taking our talent and supporting their talent to go the distance."                              - Michael Gervais, PhD, High Performance Psychologist
Gazing out over Lake Whatcom and the Puget Sound, something clicked.  I felt something powerful complete itself in my physical and mental sensations; what was heavy was also light.  I thought of our first baby, the commitment to that journey, to my wife, to my family, to health, to community, to consideration for all of those who have helped us along the way.  I thought of the opportunity to now contribute my best so that a new person could become their best, and carry it forward. My focus burst outward to the end of my imagination and back, toward everyone I felt grateful for, the manifestation of this huge ride, from somewhere impossible to the idea of a child, and I thought, "this...I love you this big...this is how much I love you."

Dropping through the deep green somewhere in hour 14 of the big day.  By this point I felt that I was one with the trail, every root and weave. PC: Paris Gore

I reached the top of the final climb just one minute before the sun winked behind the horizon.  The new mantra in my head had me dancing up the hill and down the trail.  Every pedal stroke and swoop of the bike seemed to emanate from a new source.  Over 15 hours and 9,000 vertical meters (30,000 feet) and I couldn't believe the amount of energy I had.  My friends Stephen and Mark had joined for the last few laps and we hooped and hollered as they chased me through the woods.  I knew the trail like a pianist knows the keys to an expressive composition and we just flew.  Sarah and Paris waited at the bottom, returned to celebrate the end of the day.

My self-imposed cutoff for beginning the final climb was 9:59 PM, the end of civil twilight.  It was 9:42, and the crew said they would wait for me until I finished.  The forest was pitch black again, and I thought of the mountain lions at the top of the hill. A series of shorter climbs up and down the lower portion of the road seemed an appropriate constraint relaxation.  Less than 700 vertical meters (2,200 feet) to go to hit 10,000 meters.  That mark seemed good enough!  With a light on my handlebar I zipped up and down from the deep woods to a viewpoint over the lake and back, the city lights twinkling off in the distance, and the pastel horizon reminding me of the morning 16 hours earlier. A pause at the top of the last ascent, atop my "Dawn Wall", a deep breath, 10,009 vertical meters (32,837 feet), and the mantra which I had unlocked. "This...I love you this big..."     

High fives, beers and pizza awaited at the bottom.  I was blissed out and happy.  The crazy thing was that I could have kept going. But this was enough for now.  It had been an absurd and beautiful day.  

The Numbers and the Gear

In this day and age, completing a huge ride without acknowledging the data and the gear is like going to the frozen yogurt shop and getting a handful of almonds.  So, to indulge on the silly details, below is a recap of stats, from vertical ascent to power output, nutrition, and gear. Given this story and all its details, I highly encourage anyone with a long attention span, philosophical hub, and pinch of endurance to take on their own version of this challenge.

I'm not sure that this ride set any records. In fact, many have climbed more than this in a single ride, especially my skinny-tired, curly-barred brethren. I will say, however, that it was unique to have completed such a feat off road on such an aggressive course. The descent was no joke. It was anything but a relaxing coast down the hill. Except for the two gravel safety laps I took in the middle of the day, each time down the trail demanded tremendous coordination and upper body strength. Thus, I climbed 10,009 meters but also descended a legitimate 8,050 meters for a grand total of 18,059 vertical meters (59,248 feet) where I was really working for it!

Though I came short of my original target to climb out of the Mariana Trench, I did earn unheralded entry into the High Rouleurs Society, an obscure club reserved for those unhinged individuals who complete 10,000 meters ascent in a single ride.  This got me curious about where my ride stood in terms of a record.  I'm positive that bigger, gnarlier mountain bike rides have been done in the same amount of time (and certainly longer, bigger rides are done all the time...if you think I'm crazy, just check out the Great Divide Race!). The World Record for greatest vertical ascent by bicycle in 24 hours is 19,024 meters (62,418 feet) set by Valentin Zeller of Austria in 2007. Ouch! Thankfully he was on a road bike and could coast down the hill. As far as I can tell from recorded rides on Strava, Guiness World Record and internet research, the closest "unofficial world record" I could find that matched my effort was that of Thomas Frischknecht and Thomas Giger, who descended 13,572 vertical meters on their mountain bikes back in 2013. But they used cable lifts and helicopters to pull it off.  The next closest account I can find is amongst the 253 recorded "High Rouleur Hall of Fame" entries, only 4 of which I could find labeled as "MTB". One gentleman, Daniel Schmidheiny, climbed over 13,000 meters in 23 hours to win the European 24-hour Championships in 2015.  He accomplished similar feats in 2013 and 2014. Savage. That said, for my little 17-hour "tribute ride", I think it at least stands somewhere in the vicinity of distinctive. And yes...absurd!    

Fifteen laps, just over 10,000 vertical meters (32,000 feet).  Equivalent to over 10 times up El Capitan,  6 times up and down from Whistler Villate to Top-of-the-World trail and back, routhly 1/5th the climbing in the entire Tour de France (2016 route), or more than the combined vertical of the 7-day BC Bike Race.   

This ride burned over 10,500 calories, as measured by a Stages power meter and a normalized power output of 225 watts or just over 3 watts per kilogram.  This was equivalent to nearly 17 Costco muffins.  In reality, over 17hrs I consumed the following items below, which equated to a total of ~5,300kcal, or around 50% of the my estimated exercise energy expenditure: 
  • 16 bottles of CLIF Hydration (~1,300kcal)
  • 2 bottles of regular water (0kcal)
  • 1 bottle coconut water (~150kcal)
  • 1 pouch CLIF Organics Beet & Ginger (110kcal)
  • 3 packs of CLIF BLOCKS (600kcal)
  • 2 CLIF Nut Butter Bars (500kcal)
  • 1 can Trader Joe's Dolmas (~400kcal)
  • 1 CLIF Builder Bar (250kcal)
  • 1 Whole Foods Pork Burrito (~700kcal)* this was the only nutrition mistake of the day, resolved within an hour
  • 1/2 PBn'Honey Sandwich w/ Banana (~200kcal)
  • 1/8 block of sharp cheddar cheese (~180kcal)
  • 1 Mountain House Chicken Casserole pouch (700kcal)
  • 1 Banana and PB (~150kcal)
  • 1 Cold Brew coffee w/ honey (~30kcal)
*Breakfast in the morning was a small cup of coffee (to coax the morning BM at 3AM!) and 1/2cup (dry) teff with maple syrum, almonds, berries, cinnamon, and 2 fried eggs
Below are notes on gear.  Hopefully you know never to listen to a sponsored professional, as they never provide unbiased advice...but they do come from experience...

My bike for the day was the 2017 Kona Hei Hei DL, size Large (I'm 5' 9.5" with relatively long torso).  A suitable match for the going up and the going down.

Gearing was a Shimano XTR 32t ring up front with a XT 11-42 cassette in back.  This was a change-up from my typical race gearing of 36t or 34t front and 11-40 rear.   

Believe it or not, comfy all day in the WTB Silverado saddle.  KS LevC 65mm dropper is just enough to take the edge off when it gets steep.  For general trail riding I prefer a longer drop (at least 120mm), but for competition the trails don't often have enough sustained steep or airborne features to warrant a longer drop.  

Running the XTR Race Brakes was admittedly a bit of gamble with 10,000 meters of steep descending.  That said, they performed well, and with resin pads no less!  I ran 180mm rotor up front, and 160mm in back. The front pads pictured here already had the Grand Junction Off Road (50mi) and Kokopelli Trail (165mi) ride on them before Challenger High.  They made it to the end of the day...just barely.  So, safe to say you can get over 11,000m of descending out of your organic pads when it's dry! Meanwhile, WTB PadLoc grips were very comfortable all day.

Front suspension for the ride was MRP's new Ribbon in 120mm travel with 51mm offset.  Without going into detail, all I can say is that after all those times down the trail, my arms and hand stayed good all day.  Yes, part of that was trail conditions, part riding style, but also part equipment as well.

Hei Hei DL carbon green machine. 

Wheels were WTB's Ci31 rims laced to XT hubs, with WTB Trail Boss 2.25 up front and Ranger 2.25 in the rear.  I opted for the wider profile to eke out a slightly more supple feel with higher volume and lower pressure in the tires, combined with the confident and formidable feel of the wider WTB rim.  This worked well.  Amazingly, the tires already had the Grand Junction Off Road (50mi) and Kokopelli Trail (165mi) on them.  I experienced 1 small puncture on around hour 12 of Challenger High (a nail in the gravel) and quickly fixed it with a plug, finishing the day with no problem. 

Last but not least, shoes were Shimano's new Sphyre XC9 with Superfeet Pro Series Yellow Carbon insoles. I've been a fan of the shape of these new insoles (originally designed for hockey players), which I believe enhance plantar flexion through the pedal stroke, and seem to improve even distribution of force across the ball of my foot, i.e. no hot spots this year! During my "Everesting" ride in 2016 I recall my feet being extremely uncomfortable around half-way through the ride.  At the time I had a shoe from a different company without special insoles.  This year I honestly expected the same, as nobody ought to expect comfort for a 17hr MTB ride...but I was comfortable all day.  

That is all.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Love it. I had a day of similar realizations (mental/emotional, not quite so physical...) about 2 weeks before James was due-- found myself out for a walk in the countryside and just completely overcome by how much I had been loved and how very immense the web of love and support and community was that he would be born into. "Oh, kid, you're so loved. You're so loved. You're so loved."

    Gives you what you need for the hard days and all the days in between.

  2. I just made it to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, or at least the bottom of this incredible write-up. Hats off to you—I'm chock full of inspiration.

  3. Incredible ride and equally brilliant reflection. A whole lot to be inspired by!