“The SSSS is an elite (and slightly evil) class of #everesting. Comprised of 4 separate attempts, riders must complete an everesting of Significant (an iconic climb), Soil (a dirt climb), Short (less than 200km), and Suburban (a metro climb). At least one of the four rides must be more than 10,000 vertical metres.” – Hells 500
I had ridden a significant climb in Pound Road, The MCG was suburban, Cleland was the short one, so I figured I’d give dirt a try. I own a mountain bike, and have ridden a few races before. It’s bloody cracking fun, so thought I’d give it a shot. I also decided to do it on a single track trail, one that would require some technical skills to navigate correctly. I could have done it on a gravel road, but the idea of the extra challenge was really appealing. I know I can complete an everesting, so this was an extension of the challenge, testing myself limits further and seeing how far I could push myself. Turns out pretty damn far…
I’d had a shitful case of influenza in September, and was home in bed for nearly 3 weeks. Pretty depressing all round, left me as flat as a tack, and missing my bike horribly. It was during this time that I set my goal of November 14th to complete the challenge. I figured I would get well, train hard for 4 weeks, taper for 2 weeks, then ride. That would be enough. I have oodles of base fitness, so I just had to complete some extra volume, and away we go. I’d been eying off Chambers Gully pretty much since my last everesting. I’d never ridden it before, but had run up it plenty of times when I used to be into trail running. The gradient is manageable (6%), its a good length (4.5km), and it’s a really pretty little gully to ride up and down. Plus it’s 10 kilometres from the Radelaide CBD, so both getting there, and having supporters come out would be easier.
I work on Saturdays, so I worked a full day in the office as normal that day. That same day a bloke called Max was also everesting Woodland Way in South Australia, which I was very jealous of. It’s the hardest climb in Adelaide, and one I had had plenty of thoughts to do. It was exciting to watch online as others posted of his progress, whilst I was mentally preparing for my own ride that night (view Max’s ride here). I came home, had dinner with my wife and kidlets, packed the car, and drove up to the climb. My new mate Justin was there waiting for us. Justin is a mate of Sam, whom is a total legend, and did the last everesting I did with a big group (see that report here). Justin had read my other blog posts, somehow thought I was a pretty rad bloke, and wanted to be a part of the whole shebang. He had been offering me assistance all damn week, which was sensational. A total stranger, yet there was nothing that he wouldn’t help me with. I was pretty humbled by this. Everesting really brings people together, and makes mates want to support each other. It is a compulsion to o and assist others to complete something great. It is the reason I will go out for a ride at 10 o’clock in the evening just to help other mates whom are riding their own everests. The involvement of our little community is outstanding. (See my post about this very topic here)
So Justin opened the gate at the entrance to the gully (he has a key, SO HANDY), we drove up to the start of the dirt climb, and unloaded the car. I had a shelter, a small table, my box of food, some spare kit, and electronic stuff. Oh and a very basic chair. I learned from the last everesting that a comfortable chair is a huge time sink. When it’s really comfy to sit in, you don’t want to get out of it, and your overall challenge just takes longer. This chair wasn’t all that comfortable, it just allowed for me to park my backside for a few minutes whilst I ate, drank, and attempted to gather myself for the rest of the ride.
We were about to take off when Sam turned up on his old banger of a bike. Sam had not ridden off-road before, and was happy to join us on an old, rigid steel bike that he paid $60 for a few years ago. Even he admitted that he probably overpaid for the bike by $50… So that was that, at 8 o’clock, I waved goodbye to my lovely wife Sarah, and our two gorgeous kiddies, and off we rode up the hill.
It was still just light enough on that first lap that we didn’t turn our lights on until we were most of the way to the top. Sam did a great job of riding with us on that rubbish bike, which must have been pretty damn hard. For the most part, the hill just meanders along at a fairly manageable slope, certainly nothing too hard. There are a lot of loose rocks, like big marbles, so standing up is a bit tricky when climbing the steeper sections, but I had a super low gear on, which meant staying seated was fairly easy. But then eventually you get to the part that I named ‘Kenny Loggins Bend‘, so-called because it became – the danger zone. This is a wall of 24%, covered in loose rocks, and with the only rideable section being about half a foot wide. It’s only about 80m long, but then when you get to the top, you turn left, and there are 5 more little lumps along the way. On my preparation rides I had paid close attention to this part, and thought it would be tough, but manageable… That may have been optimistic.
And so the first climb finished fairly uneventfully, and Justin and I started the descent. Sam had been dropped whilst riding that old banger of a bike, so turned back around when we came past. Then he crashed. It was dark, and he somewhat underestimated the technicality of parts of the descent. All ok, just a few small cuts, but it was a good warning to me to stay focussed. Sam even went on to take 2nd place in B grade the following day in a road race – legend.
Justin stayed for another lap with me, and then I was on my own for the climbs. In the forest, in the dark, riding my bike. Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland. We are taught these stories as kids, and if there’s a take away message, it’s that forests are bullshit scary by yourself in the dark. Each lap would take roughly 45 minutes. That was 45 minutes of “What the fuck was that?!” “God I hope that that noise was NOT a serial killer”, and “OMFG, are we now locked in eternal darkness, like the far side of the moon?”…. There were a lot of kangaroos hopping about, dozens of koalas, some foxes, some possums and even a rabbit. Koalas were the worst. The bastards kept climbing down, sitting on the track, and growling at me. I really didn’t want to be the first guy to pull the pin on an everesting due to a 2 inch claw gash in my calf. Also, turns out baby foxes make a sound exactly like a screaming infant child. EXACTLY. Try riding at 2am in the middle of a forest by yourself, hearing that sound, and not thinking the Blair Witch is behind the next tree waiting to get you.
Now normally you do an everesting, and for the first few hours it’s all pretty easy. Slow ride up, quick descent, repeat. But something was amiss this time. On lap 4, just 800 metres of the 8848 needed into the attempt, and it was really starting to hurt. There were two things I was becoming very worried about. 1- Kenny Loggins Bend was really bloody hard to climb, and I was struggling already. 2- The descent was long, fairly straight and very bumpy. This was causing a high level of discomfort to my hands and forearms from holding the bars and brakes. I’ve completed enough endurance challenges now to know that a mental rough patch is just that, a patch. You do come back around to feeling good again, so I let these thoughts slide, and focussed more on convincing myself that there were no killers hiding in the dark to get me.
The usual thoughts turned up – “You can’t make it”, “Just stop now before it gets really hard”, and “You won’t be able to take the real pain when it comes.” Somehow my brain keeps throwing this same old tired argument at me. My brain knows its bringing a knife to a gun fight when it tries to stop me with these thoughts, but it tries all the same. The only trouble was that my brain was trying this tactic WAY EARLIER than usual. It’s not supposed to do this until after half way, and I was not even a quarter of the way through. I’ll admit, this was becoming a little concerning. But fuck it, I’ve done it before, I’ll do it this time. I have what I need to cope.
Then, finally, it got light! This is the thing that I’d been waiting all night for. Seeing the sun come up is one of the single most uplifting things to experience on a long ride. Daylight, THANK GOD FOR DAYLIGHT. Daylight is a win, can’t stress this enough. With daylight, the fear of baddies in the forest goes away. The kangaroos retreat to sleep off the day, the koalas chill out in trees, and I can now see where I am actually riding. This is an outstanding feeling all round. The daylight made my problems fade back to a dull thought in the back of my mind, somehow my arms hurt less, and Kenny Loggins Bend was slightly less challenging. I could hammer down the descents at breakneck speed, and I could easily pick a clean line to climb back up on.
Other people started to turn up now also. The hill starts right in the eastern suburbs of Adelaide, so there were plenty of ladies in ‘active wear‘ coming out for a stroll whilst carrying their spring water bottles. It meant that I had to brake a bit more towards the bottom, but that was okay. There were groups of other mountain bikers too, and every now and then one of them would ask if I was the ‘everesting guy’, which was pretty cool. Gives you a lift when you know people are looking out for you. On one climb I even overtook 5 separate riders! Winning. Yeah, I was about 12 hours in at that point, and I was passing guys on their first climb of the day. That made me feel so badass! Cop that, I have legs of steel and was tearing this hill in half. I was about half way done at this point too.
Plenty of people came out to support. This always makes such a huge difference, and never fails to make me smile. Mates will turn up and do anything they can to help – bring food, beer and coffee, ride laps or just have a laugh to keep your spirits up. Lots of Hells 500 crew were there throughout the day, we’re getting a good group in Adelaide these days. Not including mine, I think there were 18 everestings amongst the guys whom came out for me. So rad.
Then I started seeing snakes on the trail. Snakes…. I hate snakes. Eastern Brown snakes too, which is only the second deadliest snake in the world, no biggie… The buggers aren’t even scared of you either, they will stand their ground, and even try to come after you if they feel like it. Was not anticipating to see 3 of them. The downhill ones were okay, you fly past at speed, so it’s no issue. On the uphill, I just wasn’t travelling all that fast, so the nerves pop in a big way, I swear loudly and repeatedly at the snake, and engage a quick sprint effort!
I wasn’t able to ride Kenny Loggins Bend in one go now. I’d ride the first big hill, stop to catch my breath for a minute or two, then climb the next 5 little pinches. I knew the line to pick amongst the rocks like the back of my hand by this time. I wouldn’t even spin my rear wheel with bad traction. I had it lined up perfectly, and would ride it every time. I just couldn’t ride it all the way through every short pitch. A wall of over 20% on dirt means that you can’t gently stand up to get power. You must remain sort-of-seated, which involves poking the tip of the saddle right into your underparts, and half crouch, half sit, trying to balance your weight evenly so that the rear wheel doesn’t spin, and so that the front wheel doesn’t lift off the ground. In that half crouched position you have little choice then but to ride with full power. Full gas, every time I got to this wall. Everesting isn’t supposed to be about going full gas, it’s about a measured, aerobic effort, sustained over a very long time. But here I had a hill that forced me to change that procedure. It was bloody hard to do, and it was wearing me down. It did at least make me feel better that the sherpas that would come out would often also find it difficult here. At least I wasn’t alone, and as hard as that climbing was, I was pretty sure I’d be able to manage it. I’d be unable to talk, and hunched over with my head slumped on my handlebars, gasping for breath and leaking sweat on every lap, but I thought I could make it.
The issue was that descent was really starting to hurt my arms and hands badly. The rough descent combined with the need to brake hard for the corners in case of a walker coming the other way, was taking a huge toll. My forearms and the joints in my fingers were aching. I would try to hold my hands in as many different ways as possible to try to alleviate the strain, but it kept getting worse and worse and worse.
Until I had 8 laps to go.
I rode up that lap without any major issues. I had a couple of sherpas for company, I was very slow, but it was just another climb. About 35 odd minutes of slowly picking my way amongst rocks and bushes to get to the top, and then I tried to come back down the hill. This time my forearms immediately started shooting out with a searing pain. It was agony, so I stopped. I stretched my hands, rubbed my arms, and steeled myself to deal with the pain. Nup, fucking hurts. Like really fucking hurts. Oh fuck, fuckity fuck, fuck, that fucking hurt. My pace dropped to a crawl, and I tried to brake with any fingers, my thumbs, my whole hands, ANYTHING to slow the pain so I could get to the bottom of the hill. Nothing worked, so I stopped again. I paused, and am pretty sure I was very vague when the guys looked at me. “No choice for it, you can’t walk down the hill by now, you’ve been riding for 21 hours straight, so just grab the brakes however you can, and rest at the bottom mate.” That was my thought at the time, and it was all I could do. It was a very difficult thing to face, as I had to invite the pain in. I had to clip back into the pedals, and choose to feel the pain. I cried so much on the way down. I was openly weeping as I rode, feeling every rock, and every bump for the next 3 kilometres of dirt descent. I wept and I rode, and it is something that looking back on now, that I can say is one of the most painful things I’ve had to experience. I’ve had my entire chest tattooed, THAT HURTS. This hurt more. Not just the pain, but it was also the clear realisation that I couldn’t finish. I had finally started an everesting that I couldn’t reach the top of. I could climb up, but I can’t parachute back down, I have to ride, and right now, I 100% could not ride that bike, down that hill, anymore.
I got to the bottom and Sarah was there with the kids. I rode straight to her, hunched over the bike and cried my eyes out. There were at least half a dozen other supporters there, but I cried anyway. Stoicism had departed at this point, and all that was left was a raw and fatigued bloke both in pain and despair, having seen all of his efforts go to waste. I sat there, again hunched and face down over my handlebars, and wept for a couple of minutes. I let it out, and went and sat down in my chair to eat. Then Justin and Sarah told me that they had organised for some ibuprofen to be brought by Mark, whom was still on his way. I said I’d give it a crack, it was my only choice, but I was pretty doubtful. My brain was finally starting to win. It had waged a very planned and sustained war against me this time. It planted the seeds of doubt, and the feelings of pain in me very, very early on. It kept at it, goaded me, made me feel worthless, made my ride seem impossible. Hour upon hour, climb upon climb, whilst I was chipping away at my target, so was my mind. My mind is a bastard, and it really wants for me to fail. It tries so damn hard for that to happen. Luckily I have my resolve on my side. My resolve is very selfish, it is single-minded, and even pretty dumb, as it can only think about one thing at a time. But set it to a task, and it does not waver for anyone or anything. You just have to get my resolve started, and once it does, it doesn’t back down.
So what the fuck was going to happen now? My brain thought it had won. It was having a moment, in territory it had never been before. My resolve just sat there with me in the chair. We both sat, ate, and waited for the ibuprofen. Neither of us knew what it would do, but it was something, and something is better than nothing…
Mark turned up, and I dropped three capsules. I climbed back aboard my bike, and that was it, ready to go. That stop was about 20 minutes, and we’d had enough. 7 laps left, just get it done. I hoped… The climb came and went. My arms were still in pain, so even the ride up involved a fair bit of grimacing. At the top Justin asked me how I’d go on the descent, so I said “We’ll see”, and left it at that. Well we did see. I approached with caution for the start of the descent, taking the corners fairly easily, and assessing how it all felt. I realised now that the pain had reduced, and I bloody flew. I hammered it down that hill, and even smiled. I was back in the game, let’s get this thing done.
6 laps now, and feeling tops. Same old slow climb, but on this descent I set my all time fastest decent of Chambers Gully! 23 hours consecutive riding and I dominated that ride downhill. I dropped three sherpas off of my wheel on the way down, I was hitting it that hard. On the next climb it was dark again, but I wasn’t too bothered. I knew I’d finish, and I had people with me this time, instead of trundling through the forest on my own. I texted Sarah to let her know the ibuprofen had worked, she was stoked. So was I. I knew I’d make it.
I did two more laps, and I just had Matt with me now. What a champ. He’d ridden 220 kilometres the day beforehand, yet here he was, riding up and down a tough dirt climb with me, just to keep me company. I was going to make it, I was there, just 2 more laps, and then a small part lap to finish the elevation needed. Except I’d run out of coffee. Oh fuck. I didn’t have No Doz either. Double fuck. It was after 11 at night, and I’d been riding since 8 the previous night. At some point in time, that sleep deprivation catches you. All well and good if you have the tools to beat it, but all the caffeine I had left available were some cans of coke, and that just isn’t strong enough. My damn brain is a quality opponent. It is nearly as strong as my resolve. Even then, with just 2 lousy laps to go, I started to get scared I wouldn’t make it, as I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more. So what do you do? I unzipped my wind vest and my jersey. After a warm day, it was now bloody cold and windy, and it got colder as you went higher up the climb. Cold people can’t sleep. Stay cold so I wouldn’t fall asleep, and I could finish the laps. That worked for 1 lap, so I had 1 full lap and a bit to go.
Now I was really tired. Like extremely tired. Oh my god I was tired. So tired, that whilst riding uphill, I would fall asleep, and ride into blackberry bushes. No joke. It turns out that whilst asleep, I can pedal, I can stay upright, I just can’t steer my bike. Several times on that climb I would jolt awake whilst riding into a thorny blackberry bush. I stopped for a sec, and realised that I was also hallucinating. I was having a very clear vision of a group of ladies playing test cricket against the english team, and they initiated a rule that when the English team was 2 for 848 (exactly by the way), that the english players would have to wear a Pavlova on their head… I even told Matt all about it. I knew it was bat-shit crazy, so did he, we laughed and rode off. More blackberry bush issues, jersey now unzipped all the way. I made it to the top, and we turned around straight away. The descent was slow. Very slow. Both because I was worried about riding off of a cliff in my sleep, and because my hands were back in pain again. Whatever, I just had to get to the bottom and do one little bit more.
At the bottom, I realised that I had some 70 metres of elevation left to climb to complete the ride. That was all that stood between me and the finish line. My brain also realised that we were just about done, so it laid down its efforts for me to fail, and jumped on board. All of a sudden I wasn’t as sleepy. I could even ride with my jersey zipped up and be a little warm. I stared at my garmin and read out every 5 metres that we gained. Then the last 10 metres I called out every metre. All of a sudden my computer said 8848, and I had done it, I had made it up everest for a fourth time. A lot of guys will go on and finish their last part lap, or will ride some extra metres just to be sure, but I didn’t have anything left. My resolve had seen the result come true, and stepped aside exhausted. We were all hurting, and so me, my brain and my resolve called an agreement, and we rolled very gently back down the hill. Back at the car I took a photo of my screen, then saved the file.
4 everestings now, and I had made the SSSS (well as long as Pound Road counts as significant, and I asked a couple of mates whom said it was, so that’s enough). I was just the 16th person in history to have done as many, and definitely the first one in Radelaide.
I could not thank Matt enough. When I was falling asleep whilst riding, and hallucinating, having someone there to look after me was the difference. He’d turned up just to ride a lap or two, and had stayed on for several hours, with a failing front light, just to make sure I could get there, as he had realised how dodgy I was starting to look. What a top bloke, thanks Matt. We packed up my base camp together, Matt took off in his car, and I sat in the driver’s seat of my car and ate Beef Stroganov. Yes, Sarah had made it especially for me, as that was the thing I was craving so much toward the end of my last everesting. Well Beef Strog and Pizza was what I craved at the last one, and Alex had already bought me a pizza (which I had already devoured). That Beef was heaven in my mouth. I was stoked, I couldn’t believe I had made it. This time, of all times, I really thought it was all over. Proper finished, no way was I getting to the end. But I did get to the end. I was sitting here, nice and warm, in a comfy car seat, eating a tasty meal and feeling surprisingly good. I had planned to have a nap for an hour, and then drive home, but I was all of a sudden feeling tops, so I drove home there and then. I didn’t weave, I didn’t drift off to sleep. What I did do was start to hallucinate really damn vividly. It was crazy, I could see people everywhere, and they were clear as a bell. Crowds dancing on the street, couples canoodling, people just hanging out, everywhere I looked, I could see people. At 2:30am, on a Monday morning… I knew it was all hallucinations, it wasn’t scary, it was kind of funny! I’ve never hallucinated that bad before. I made it home safe and sound, parked in the driveway, and that was that, lights out, I fell asleep in my driveway. Luckily Sarah had woken up and came and grabbed me, took me inside, undressed me, helped me to wash, and then helped me into bed. Champion woman.
So I could have done all of this on a gravel road, and I would probably have been done 10 hours earlier. I set out to test my limits further than I have before, and I had wanted to see how far I could push myself. I did that, I pushed really damn hard, and it was beautiful.
You can view the whole ride on Strava here
Also, an abridged version of this article was published on La Velocita. Please be sure to go and check them out, they run a quality cycling site.
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