A few weeks ago I completed my first attempt at Everesting on Bacombe Lane, a gentle slope averaging only 5% situated outside the sleepy town of Wendover in the English Home Counties. A mere 0.73 km bottom to top, it has a dead end, large houses lining one side, four handy street lights and three speed humps as the entertainment. 10,019 metres of ascent, 378.99 km, 252 repetitions, 25 hours riding, 32 hours elapsed. Everesting is a hard, long ride. But not as difficult as I expected. Or at least not in the way I expected. Read on, I’ll explain. But first a bit of background and context.
Finding the Joy of ‘Up’
By the time I reached 8 years of age I’d already spent many hours studying my Father’s calves, exposed between the hem of corduroy breeches and thick woollen socks as we trudged seemingly ever upwards towards the summit of a Lakeland Fell, usually obscured by mist and cloud or hidden by a series of false summits. We spoke little, paused even less but were unified in companionable silence and our individual absorption in ‘the moment’. Movement. Rhythm. Repetition. Entering the bubble where, somehow, it’s seemingly possible to think about everything and nothing all at once. Finding the Flow. Just Being.
‘Give me child until he’s seven and I will give you the man.’
Swap the walking boots for cycling shoes; the breeches for Lycra; the Lake District for the Chiltern Hills and you’ll find me seeking ‘UP’ with an almost religious fervour recently that I’ve been struggling to explain or justify to myself. But, when I look back on that treasured aspect of my early childhood and see it for the formative experience that it was, I recognise my tendency to seek activities that offer a similar experience – outdoors, an element of endurance, repetitive movement and in essence solitary and self contained. It gives me a joy that perhaps I need not explain. It just is.
Childish Dreams on the road to Everesting
The essence of childhood is play. Dreaming about what is possible. Making it up as you go along. Trying stuff. The bike is a great place to do these things. That’s how I came to idly wondering about turning my enjoyment of riding up hills into a specific challenge. How far to the moon? Uhhhmmm, too far! Ok, to the edge of Space? Nope still too far (for now at least). So, how about Everest. It is after all the biggest hill we have? Yep, good idea! How big is it though? Time for an internet search and up pops the everesting.cc website.
Of course, somebody has already been there, done that! They’ve even made a whole thing out of it. some rules and an incentive to join the elite band of climbers in the Hall of Fame for those who can attain the necessary 8,848 metres in a single ride. On a single hill. No sleeping allowed.
I did some more reading and started to realise this is a BIG ride. Needs a BIG commitment and LOTS of training. Perfect, a proper adventure, I’m in!
Training for Everesting
An obvious approach to training for an Everesting is simply ride up hills…..a lot!
The accumulation of vertical gain over the weeks and months is hugely satisfying as are the tangible gains in fitness. I tended to focus on doing repetitions on a single hill, mostly my chosen hill. I wanted to get used to the experience of doing something over and over and to be utterly familiar with the hill. Master it. Feel at home on it.
Not only is the training about building strength and fitness. I wanted to be sure there were no issues with bike fit and that my body was adapting specifically to being in the climbing position for long periods.
An eating strategy needed to be figured out, particularly in my case as I have no colon. Dealing with the need to go to the toilet a lot also figured high in my concerns. As it turned out these aspects rather dominated the actual Everesting attempt, as I thought they might. More on that later!!
Training through Winter was a great way to build resilience and determination. Devoting a whole day of most weekends and doing long hill rep sessions after work required a big mental commitment. Darkness and inclement weather dominated. Riding for long periods, at times close to the limit of what I can tolerate in terms of temperature really tested my steel. And, for the most part, I loved it. Occasionally I sat in the warmth of home and thought about skipping a ride but Mrs. BottomGear was quick to intervene: “Get changed and get out there………Yer bastard!” Motivational Goddess.
As a recent newcomer to Strava I discovered how motivating it is to compete with other users. Joining the ‘January Cycling Climbing Challenge’ I didn’t foresee the degree to which I would become obsessed with making my way up the leaderboard. neither did I realise how difficult it is to hold your place once in a good position. On foul weather days I thought I’d gain the upper hand by going out when, surely, my rivals were cowering in front of the fire. Uhhhmmm, nope. Obviously we’re all of a like mind. Equally competitive and equally driven to withstand the shit-fest of rain, wind, sleet, snow to get our metres in! A days rest would be followed by anxious checking of the leaderboard resulting in a frantic redoubling of efforts the next day in an attempt to claw back the ten or so lost places. The benefit of this pathological craziness, when the challenge finally and mercifully ended, the immense satisfaction of having attained a place in the top 40 on the UK leaderboard and realising it’s pertinence to Everesting. That being, simply, I must be ready to go for it.
Packing to Go
With a vague date in mind around March time for my Everesting, I awaited a weekend with a suitable weather forecast. A prospect of fair weather on Saturday 23rd continuing through the night into Sunday had me packing my van on Friday night in a state of excited preparedness and anxious anticipation. A suitcase of clothes ( take everything! ). A box full of lights, Garmin, cables, battery pack and spare everything. Bike tools and spare parts, all of them. A huge box of food, sweet, savoury, salty, soft, crunchy and everything in-between. A camping toilet to receive the inevitable aftermath of lots of eating. Drugs to slow my peristalsis. Toilet paper, wet wipes and barrier creams. Sanitary towels…. Yes, really. And, last but by no means least, a big bottle of water and large syringe to administer enemas…….Yes, really really!!
The bike: a Kinesis Tripster ATR, usually ridden off road but wearing some dainty tyres for a change. Lovingly prepared with new bearings all round. Tweaked, lubed and adjusted to the specifications of a perfectionist. Running as smooth as a sewing machine, just how it should be. Squeaks, creaks, rubs and rattles (destroyers of morale) eliminated. Loaded into the van and ready to become an extension of my body for most of the weekend.
The Big Day
Saturday 23rd March dawned cool and clear with watery sunshine and a light tailwind on the hill. I’d decided on an 11am start. I struggle with very early starts and wanted to be sure of finishing in the daytime so I put the night riding in the middle. The coming of dawn on Sunday should, I hoped, boost my morale at a point of likely misery. And so it was as it happened!
The Ride Begins
With my Van parked in a convenient lay-by near the bottom of the hill I rolled down to the start, pointed the bike uphill, switched on the computer, muttered some words of encouragement to myself and took my first of many, many pedal strokes.
The gearing on my bike is set up with a 10-42 cassette and a 38t chainring. It was good to have the low gears in reserve in case it all went horrible later on. But, for the time being the middle of the cassette was powering me up the hill smoothly, comfortably, quickly and suiting my natural pedalling style – more masher than spinner. The hill felt easy like a flat road. I was enjoying a wonderful sense of invincibility. But guarding against misplaced euphoria I reined myself in and kept mindful of the need to pace the ride conservatively. 1000 then 2000 metres came and went with relative ease. Blocks of 500 m were taking about 1hr20. Id allowed myself 10mins off the bike every 1000m and things were going to plan.
I was 4.5 hrs in before the first annoying feelings of bowel discomfort brought the knowledge that I would soon be needing to go to the loo….most likely a lot!
The Challenge Within the Challenge
My Colon was removed in 2014 after being ravaged by Ulcerative Colitis. In it’s place I have something called a J Pouch; an internal reservoir made from small intestine seated a few centimetres upstream of my bumhole. It doesn’t hold much stool, maybe a small cupful. And, unfortunately, I’m one of the 20% with a generally poor pouch function: leaky bum, frequent toilet visits, incomplete emptying and some pretty special nappy rash. The more I eat the worse my problems and this ride needs some serious fuelling. What could possibly go wrong!
Mornings are generally my best time, gut wise. It’s a good time to load up on food and if I’m lucky I’ll be blissfully symptom free until mid afternoon when the inevitable jostling queue of shit can be held back no longer. It’s an impossible situation in many ways, I can only do my best to ignore it as much as possible and just buckle down to deal with the practicalities of it when I have to. It is an endurance event in itself.
Between 3000m and 4000m progress slowed somewhat as I needed to sit on my glorified bucket in the van a couple of times. I ate while doing the business to save a little time and finished off with an enema to get a decent empty. But the constant eating combined with my having taken drugs to slow my gut motility began to take a toll as I cycled on into the night, a cold night.
More was going in the top end than was coming out at the bottom. Shit was accumulating in my small intestine. My appetite was diminishing. So too was my speed as I began to deteriorate physically. Nausea and a general feeling of malaise were taking hold. I started to feel miserable and cold. I’d be lucky to ride a block of 300 metres before having to sit on the bucket.Doing so was proving unfruitful, I only managed to pass really small amounts at each visit and the time between visits was getting shorter. I call it cluster shitting. It’s very demoralising. I desperately needed a good clearout. Enemas are the solution but I’d run into a problem.
The big bottle of water I had in the van for enemas was at ambient temperature. The night was getting cold, down to 2 degrees C, so was the water. I’m sure we’ve all at some point experienced the pain known as ‘brain freeze’ caused by gulping a freezing cold drink. Well, I can promise you a similar fate awaits at the other end should you surprise it with an injection of water barely above freezing. Really, it’s not an option!! This was a miserable discovery only made worse by the light in the back of the van timing out part way through the process. My cycling endurance challenge was becoming a farce….of the arse.
It is at these moments that ones mettle is really tested. Determination mixed with desperation is a powerful trigger for inspired action. So it was that I found myself reaching for a flask that contained just enough lukewarm tea to fill my syringe, enabling a small but welcome enema without which the whole enterprise may have ground to a sorry halt there and then.
Relief was frustratingly short lived, my deterioration continued, as borne out by the numbers – between 1am and 4am I only managed to wring 800m out of my miserable body. To the bucket, back and forth, back and forth. Just keep going. Be in the moment. Every tiny step is still a step forward.
The night was still, cold and silent. I considered the true nature of endurance. I’m lucky to be able to choose the first world luxury of doing endurance challenges. It’s an indulgence, a weird form of leisure. It’s far removed from the visceral experiences of people who endure daily travails beyond anything we can imagine in the name of survival.
I also thought a lot about my friend, Robin. who had entered a hospice a few days earlier as his life came to an early end. I knew I was unlikely to see him again. I thought about his physicality, vitality and enthusiasm for life, something he maintained until close to death. I thought how, if I was in his situation, I’d happily settle for a dodgy bowel. I thought about his massive hands and how they stayed big even as the rest of him wasted away. And, I thought about the maturity, pragmatism and dignity with which he and his family dealt with his illness and forthcoming death. I rode for Robin a lot during the night. It helped keep me going.
The first notes of birdsong arrived around 5am as I hit the 6000m mark. My spirits lifted slightly with the prospect of daylight and a rise in temperature. But, I was uncomfortably cold, still feeling sick and really struggling to eat and drink anything. I knew I had to clear the backlog of shit to be able to continue.
Mrs. BottomGear was due to bring me hot drinks and bacon sandwiches at 7am so I sent her a text requesting a big bottle of hot water. I peddled on, fairly miserably, looking forward to seeing my long suffering wife, about to be subjected to yet another tale of arse woe. She duly arrived bang on time, gave me a hug and asked how I was doing. I said “its really hard” and promptly got a bit emotional.
A Turning Point
Feeling too sick to eat my lovely breakfast. I made my excuses and disappeared into the van clutching my bottle of hot water. I sat on my bucket sorted myself out with the water and had a rather more substantial cry. Tears of frustration, self pity and more than a little relief. The copious injections of warm water were clearing my overburdened bowel spectacularly.
I emerged back into the sunlight, welcomed by a patient smile and already feeling a lot better. With a hug and some words of encouragement Mrs. BottomGear departed and left me to get on with it. I did a few laps, felt suddenly very hungry and sat for a while on my van relishing the still warm bacon sarnies and hot tea. I resolved to stop beating myself up over my considerable stoppage time. I can’t fight a bowel disability. I can only go with it. It can slow me down but it can’t stop me.
With new resolve and a remarkably sudden improvement in my physical wellbeing, thanks to an empty gut, I got back on the bike confident in my ability to complete the remaining 2500 or so metres….and with a small but growing thought that I could continue beyond the Everesting to complete 10,000m to join the High Rouleurs Society.
The inhabitants of Bacombe Lane were largely tolerant of my prolonged intrusion into their territory. Some even welcomed my enterprise, took an interest and were encouraging. One lady, before retiring to bed, lit a candle and left it out on the verge “to keep you company through the night.” A lovely gesture.
On the other hand….an Englishman’s home is his Castle. However some peoples Castles creep beyond the confines of the Moat and Bailey. Woe betide intruders encroaching without their blessing for they shall lower the drawbridge and charge out to verbally slay the intruder with indignant righteousness. Wonderfully British! But best not do it to someone who has been riding a bike up and down a hill for 24 hours, They may be a little WIRED and trigger happy already.
A request to stop using one gentleman’s road as “a race track” was met with some very bad words indeed. Words I regretted even as they were tumbling out of my mouth. Needless to say with only a few hundred metres left to complete the Everesting I was not going to be stopped. I think I was fairly clear about this in-between the swear words and he retreated up his driveway. However, I felt terrible about losing my temper. I apologised to him later. He started to explain how he was only really concerned about me crashing into somebody coming out of a driveway in a car………the debate started to warm up again…… but we managed to cling to civility and agreed I’d finish what I’d come to do and never return!
Reaching the Summit
2:24pm saw me arrive at the 8,849 metres needed to complete the Everesting. Feeling that I still had energy to spare I rode on to finish at 10,019 m. It took an extra 4.25 hrs. I tried to do it on minimum food to avoid yet more toilet time but I was really low on reserves. I ‘bonked’ for the first time ever, a most peculiar feeling, righted with amazing speed by a Mars Bar and gobfulls of Jelly Babies The follow up to that was lots of disappearing into the back of the van to sit on the bucket. A very heavy bucket by now!
As I came towards the end of the ride I felt a certain sense of sorrow and disappointment that I’d reached the end my journey. Elation eluded me. I’d put my heart and soul into training through the winter and I think that is really where the enjoyment, sense of progress and achievement was to be found. Perhaps the answer to the question of why we climb lies somewhere between the base and the summit of the mountain.
In the following days I felt quite low. Grieving for a loss of purpose and the end of a memorable journey. Superlatives like ‘epic’ are much overused but I think most Everesting attempts are probably worthy of its use. One way or another the attempt itself and the journey leading up to it is a truly epic experience.
As the weeks have passed I reflect on my achievement with growing pride. I’m planning the next one and looking forward to taking with me what I’ve learned from the first. Initially I felt a lot of disappointment at having been so held up by my bowel condition. But ironically I owe it to my bowel that I find myself Everesting. I only started regular cycling to rebuild strength after being hospitalised with Ulcerative Colitis and a series of gruelling operations. I got the bug and who’d guess were it would lead.
Not many Everesters, if any, will have done it without their colon……AND not that I’m recommending them but enemas whilst Everesting….gotta be a first!
Thanks to Mrs. bottomgear for her support and for understanding my selfish need to disappear on a bike at every opportunity for months on end!
Thanks to Sir Guy Litespeed for his excellent guide to Everesting which I found most helpful, informative and recommend as a starting point for anyone thinking about giving it a go.