Just because I can doesn’t mean I should

DNF.

Did. Not. Finish.

Three small letters, three small words, that ultimately spell failure. Yeah spoiler alert: this isn’t a post about how to push through a difficult ride, laugh and cry along the way, and ultimately succeed. This is a post about making the call to stop. About knowing that there are some things that I can push through, and some things I should not. Of accepting that sometimes things are just out of my control and it’s smarter to make the call.

Even if it was a lot harder to stop riding than it was to keep pushing through.

Backup

I reckon it was about 4 months ago that the idea started being pushed around to challenge the world record for the largest women’s mass Everesting attempt. The previous record had been set in 2015 when twenty women cycled Donna Buang: the original birthplace of Everesting. Since then there have been a number of mass attempts from all over the world (with 6 or 7 women completing the group events) , but the record for the largest group of women to simultaneously cycle on the same hill on the same weekend remained untouched.

The idea is fairly simple:  climb 8,848m of elevation, the equivalent of Mount Everest, the Earth’s highest mountain above sea-level. Hells 500 are the “creators and custodians” of Everesting and verify efforts before they enter the hall of fame containing successful attempts. George Mallory, the grandson of a mountain climber who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s, undertook the first ride to be described as an Everesting. He ascended Mount Donna Buang, located in the Victorian Alps in Australia, in 1994, completing eight laps of the 1,069 metre hill. Hells 500’s Andy van Bergen then went on to cement the rules of Everesting after hearing about Mallory’s effort, organising the first-ever group Everesting, where 40 of the 65 riders who started completed the challenge.

https://www.cyclingweekly.com/news/latest-news/everything-you-need-to-know-about-everesting-how-to-do-it-and-the-current-record-holders-458379

To say that 2020 really blew the lid off Everesting is an understatement, kind of like saying 2020 has been a bit of an odd year. To put it in perspective, from 2014 (when Everesting was officially launched en mass) to 2019 the total number of Everests was 5095, including 290 virtual Everests (done on an indoor trainer). By the end of November 2020 there had been 8080 completed (including over 2000 virtual Everests and 703 virtual BaseCamps), including the record breaking weekend in April when we set the world record for largest number vEverests completed worldwide over one weekend.

You do it largely alone in a quiet area with minimal, if any, support, so it’s a perfect challenge to maintain social distance and #ridesolo during the COVID-19 pandemic.

https://www.bicycling.com/training/a32587197/everesting-cycling-having-a-moment/

Once Sarah Fitton started floating the idea of another women’s Everest around in August, the idea took flight and we all started planning. Well, talking about planning. At the time the conversation started Victoria was still in very strict lockdown (1 hr of outdoor exercise per day, stay within 5km radius of your home, curfew of 8pm. And don’t even mention the ring of steel that locked Metropolitan Melbournians away from Regional Victoria) so the thought of actually seeing other humans outdoors to even attempt this crazy idea seemed a long way away. In September, the COVID-restrictions on group sizes was no more than 10 outdoors together, making a mass Everesting not feasible, so ideas around separated/clustered rides were discussed as a fallback. Many of us still hoping that Victorians would be able to pull through and have the restrictions lifted, but it was looking pretty grim. So instead, we started discussing potential climbs, pros and cons, accommodation options, and traffic issues.

But having a long term goal was a great way of coping with the pandemic lockdown, and gave everyone something larger than themselves to focus on. Many of us were already zwifting on the indoor trainers (and had been for months already) and many shifted to attempting virtual basecamps, virtual Everests, and virtual 10k challenges in attempts to get the legs and the minds ready for December. We watched the SHEveresting success in South Africa and cheered them on via Instagram. We swapped stories of our own successes, tips for long rides, logistics of lights and battery charging, and what our favourite foods are as we watched the COVID announcements in hopeful anticipation of being able to get together for our December attempt.

By the end of October the restrictions had been lifted so much so that plans were made for a “real life” basecamp attempt on Donna Buang for mid-November (note: a Basecamp has the same rules as an Everest but is half the vertical meters – 4424 instead of 8848m) and 23 women completed it. I had already made plans for my basecamp so ticked mine off the weekend before (wanted to get it done before the ‘ring of steel’ lifted and the region was flooded with traffic!). Alison went out to Ghin Ghin (the chosen Everest hill) and did a solid recce ride, adding in some photos and details to the Facebook group so everyone could see what the plan was for December. She also organised the rental of the Highlands Hall so we’d have a basecamp for everyone at the top(ish) of the climb: toilets, kitchen, fridge, running water, power points, indoor spaces to move around in and store gear… and a barista machine. Having anticipated running my Everest out of my car boot (again) with bush wees, this was luxury!!

Two women in NSW joined in by riding their own basecamp in Jindabyne, and another few joined in virtually from around the world adding their basecamps in (with plans to join us in December), so we now shifted the focus to a worldwide women’s Everesting weekend in a push to “boost the numbers” of women.

Total percentage of women who have completed a full 8848 Everest “in real life”: 5%

As we got closer to the December weekend, the chatter on the Facebook group turned to logistics… and mentally preparing for the event. Questions, comments, concerns, support, and banter were all thrown around as we neared the December weekend… along with a lot of discussions around the weather. An Instagram channel was set up to capture the event, and rider bios were published to get to know the crew that would be attempting the Everest on the “Swiss Highlands” climb in Ghin Ghin.

For more on this see the Hills Angels Instagram

And me? I was calm heading into this. I’d cut out as many distractions/triggers from my life in the month leading up to this attempt and had been mentally focusing on this challenge. It meant I was pretty anti-social and quiet for a bit, but it was what I needed so I allowed myself to take it. I went up to Ghin Ghin a couple weeks before the big weekend to recce the ride and did three laps (the actual Everest would be 19.4). It felt okay, my knees would definitely hate me afterwards as the middle section of the 7.8km climb was quite pinchy, but the descent was good and there were lots of opportunities to spin out the legs so I figured it would be okay. Not a climb I would choose (too many sections over 10% which is NOT in my sweet spot) but it was do-able. Spreadsheet was put together (no I’m not uptight, I just find peace in structure, even if I don’t use it after the first two laps). Mentally I was ready.

The Off. And the Out.

The few days leading up to an event are usually quite ones for me. I tend to pull away from life as much as I can in order to get my inner focus razor sharp (and my inner anxiety monster quieted down) and eat and sleep as much as I can. Normally I bulk up a bit leading into an event as I know I’m going to burn through a lot of calories, and luckily for me all those COVID kilos were now coming in handy as I bulked up early. Which was handy as the week leading up to December 5th I felt pretty unwell. Didn’t want to eat, stomach was in knots, even donuts were unappealing. I revisited some old blogs and came across this line that I wrote when I did my first “no sleep” 600km:

The only hang up was that my tummy was playing a lot of odd games with me: were we cramping? Was I going to need to get off the bike? Surely this pain will go away? Whatever it was, it was a rather uncomfortable feeling, and putting it down to ‘nerves’ I ignored it and pedalled on.

https://tiffo012.com/2019/05/21/no-sleep-till/

Probably nerves then, I thought, and didn’t worry too much about the tummy issues. I figured they would eventually sort themselves out like they did during that 600, and didn’t stress about it. It wasn’t ideal going into an event like this without eating much during the week, but again, I was hoping those COVID kilos (or endurance tank as I like to call it) would help out here.

On the Friday I tried to rest as much as possible around my work schedule, then once the kids got home from school we packed up the car and headed up to Ghin Ghin. The plan was to drop off all my gear in the hall, then head to our accommodation where I’d prepare for a midnight start. However, the weather radar was showing a pretty miserable storm front coming in later on Saturday afternoon, and a look at my spreadsheet (to work out timings) showed that with a midnight start I’d be riding through the entire storm, and then more into the evening. Probably a wise idea to pull the start time forward a few hours and say a 9pm start, or even earlier if I could.

We arrived at the Highlands Hall just after 6pm and I got to meet Sarah (Fitton) and Sarah (Smith) for the first time, which was lovely! Awkward socially distant greetings exchanged, I started unpacking my bags into the Hall (for those interested I had a pretty similar setup to my basecamp, though with more food, a change of clothes, and more layers in case I got cold during the night. Stick with what I’ve practiced and what I know works). Two women had already started riding at 5am that morning, so the Everesting weekend was already underway. The weather that evening was glorious: clear blue skies, very little wind, and about 25 degrees.

Then Max said “Why don’t you start now?”

Huh. Why don’t I start now… sure, why not? No sense in just waiting around for a few more hours just for the sake of it, and it would mean I’d get to ride into twilight, my favourite time of day on the bike. A quick change and bike check, and I was on the road at 6:33pm, and started with the descent down to the base of the climb, waving at the two women as they headed up on their lap. Now we were three!

On the first climb my heart-rate skyrocketed and I felt an oily sweat all over my body. Well this is a gross start I thought, but not unsurprising. I’d been here before, and knew I’d eventually settle that heart rate down. Must be the excitement or something, just need to tap these out as easily as I can and wait for the calm to come.

Second and third laps were much of the same, stupidly high heart-rate for what was going to be a long day, and super sweaty. I was going through my water at a fairly rapid pace (I’d already figured out where I could drink on the climb without choking) but better that than being dehydrated. Three laps in and I pulled into the hall for my first break. Switched over to a full water bottle before anything else (750ml was what I was carrying), then opened up my magical bag of snacks and treats and wanted to eat… nothing. Huh. That was weird. Usually I’d be a bit hungry at this point, especially as it was past dinner. I managed to get down half a sandwich and an apple, and got back on the bike… and shook all the way down the hill.

The next lap was, quite simply, one of the worst climbs I have ever experienced. I felt horrible. Beyond horrible. Every pedal stroke was done through shear will power and determination. And it was so so slow. It became more a balance issue than anything at that speed, as I tried to keep my bike pointed in a forward direction as I slowly ground my way up the top. Trying to analyse what was going on I kept coming up with more questions than answers, but overall I just assumed it was my typical issue of “we can’t climb and digest at the same time” and wrote it off as a bad lap. The next one will be better.

It was not.

I chose this, I told myself. Come on Tiffo. Pull it together. PULL IT TOGETHER!! It’s nighttime, which you love to ride in, it’s not windy or raining, you’re going to be fine. This will pass. Just keep that perpetual forward motion. Remember, you love this stuff! Just keep pedalling. You’ve faced much worse than this and pushed through. It’ll get better. You know it changes. Just keep pedalling.

After these two laps I had finished off all the water I was carrying so I pulled into the hall for another break. My stomach was having rather loud words with me at this point, so I chose instead to ‘not feed the beast’ and settled for some flat coke instead, hoping that if my tummy didn’t have to digest any solid foods the next couple laps it might settle down on its own. It was approaching midnight now, and there were a few more riders on the course. But I was still on my own. Heading out of the hall, I descended once again to start the next set of laps 6 and 7.

Arriving at the bottom I saw a rider setting up their self-support system at the base of the climb. We waved and said hello and tried in the darkness to figure out who we both were (who is that? Tiff? It’s me, Daniela!) and I started up lap 6, still feeling pretty horrible. Daniela jumped on her bike and pedalled to catch up with me (didn’t take long) and we chatted our way up the climb (she chatted mostly. I’m a good listener when I’m climbing). That sixth climb was probably my favourite of the day as I was so distracted that I forgot about the pain my stomach was in. Maybe I’d beat the bug and we’d be all good now? Or maybe I could keep myself distracted enough from the issue and it would be okay. I’m mentally strong enough to do this (not my first time distracting myself from body issues), so I did u-turn, descended, and was back climbing for the 7th lap.

Turns out it was a no. No I was not all good now and this wasn’t something I could mentally just ‘will away.’ That seventh lap was hard as my tummy battled for dominance over the conversation. Eventually I said to Daniela that I was not feeling so good. She asked if I needed to stop, which I said no to and just kept pedalling. I’d hoped to make it to the top of the climb (not far at this point!) before I got off the bike, so I kept going.

And then I AM STOPPING NOW and leapt off the bike to the side of the road where I dry heaved. Daniela very kindly asked if I wanted her to stay or go, so I waved her away and said to keep going. My misery does not love company, and I really did not want anyone near me as my stomach started its joyous upheaval.

One of the upsides of a mass Everesting is that no matter where you are there is always someone near you. One of the downsides of a mass Everesting is that means if you want to be by yourself, keeled over the bike, you only have a few minutes before another rider comes along. Doris was up next, and she slowed her bike to a stop (a safe distance away, smart woman) and asked if I was okay. No, not particularly, I said. She then stopped and started chatting, and I felt so guilty about slowing down another woman’s Everest attempt that I got myself back on the bike and we headed up to the hall, managing to keep the contents of my stomach on the inside, if only just barely.

I felt dire. Truely dire. Pouring some coke into my water bottle to let it go flat, I sagged to the floor where I immediately started shaking. What even the heck is this? I thought. These are “Day 3 Audax” feels, not ‘7 hours on a bike’ feels. This is ridiculous. We aren’t tired, we aren’t sore, and yet we have the 1000 yard death stare and the body shock shakes happening. I peeled off my sweaty kit and grabbed a warm jumper. And I sat. I sat in that hall, staring at the wall, trying to figure out what to do. Do I stop riding? Is this where it ends?

I just couldn’t do it. I could not pull the pin on this ride. I didn’t have the strength to stop, and it was easier to think about continuing than it was to think about stopping. So I sat there. I ate a couple taco chips and drank flat coke. And stared into space. I thought of the tough rides I had been on that I got through. I thought of every ‘how to get yourself out of the darkness’ strategy that I knew. Everything I had learned over the past 3+ years of riding ultras. And while that helped me mentally, it was not making a difference physically. It was still a HARD PASS from my tummy to keep riding. So I sat. And waited for it to start feeling better so I could continue.

A few of the women rolled in and came over to ask if I was okay. Nope, I said. You’ll be all right they said, after all, if anyone can get through this it’s you.

Smiling wanly, I agreed with them. Come on Tiffo, are we in this, or are we in this? My mind: YES! WE CAN DO ANYTHING! My body: WE ARE IN (shut up knees)! My tummy: …

… …

And then I vomited up my toenails.

It still took me another 10 minutes to decide to pull the pin on the ride. And even after I’d made the call to Max to come pick me up, it took me another 10 minutes to finally stop my Garmin and end the ride.

It was over.

The aftermath

I woke up the next morning still feeling terrible, a good sign that I had made the right call a few hours earlier, though it didn’t make it any easier. A couple posts on the socials to say my ride was done showed the hurt of where I was at when I pulled the pin. And showing that I’m hurt feels vulnerable, something I’ve been working on but still struggling with this year (and most likely forever).

Sometimes making the right call sucks. After not being able to put food in or keep food down for hours I finally pulled the pin on my ride and called Max to come pick me up. I think I can have unhealthy expectations of what I can overcome, so to make this call was hard for me. Very hard. Might need to have a sad day today, and try not to beat myself up too much. Tomorrow is another day.

I felt numb. Nauseous and numb. And was struggling with having to stop a ride that I knew I was mentally prepared for and capable of doing. It would have been easy to just crawl into bed forever and not talk to anyone. But I didn’t. There were two dozen brave souls still out there doing their Everests, so now my role changed to support, rather than team. However, not knowing what was going on with my tummy meant I didn’t want to risk going back to the hall and making anyone else sick (nor could I leave the room for that long, risky business) so I was #crewfrombed and worked the socials as much as I could. I grabbed their stories, posted and reposted, liked all their posts, and helped keep that flow of support and messages going all day in the only way I could. Maybe I was trying to stay busy to avoid having to deal with the DNF, but I don’t think so. This ride was never about my success, but in trying to motivate and support others to do their first Everest (or Basecamp).

And while I was online most of the day, I saw the messages come pouring in as a response to my ‘I’ve pulled the pin’ posts earlier that morning. I hadn’t done anything… yet friends from near and far reached out with messages like “I’m proud of you” and “you’re my hero.” I was baffled. I’d failed. I hadn’t actually accomplished anything. Not an Everest. Not even a BaseCamp. What was going on? I watched the messages roll in and didn’t say anything. I wasn’t ready yet.

So I sat with it. And I owned it. I’d shown up, and didn’t complete what I’d set out to do. It took my body actually screaming at me to stop (along with said rather violent upheaval of my stomach all the way from my toenails incident) but I actually listened to it. Eventually.

First time for everything I guess.

Reflection

So am I happy with not finishing? Of course not. But I’m not devastated, or a broken shell of an athlete. I’m not looking back and overanalysing this ride. Okay, not much anyways. My brain and body were not in sync, and I was wise enough to stop riding rather than to keep at it and destroy myself. Again. Been there, done that. It doesn’t mean I’m not looking back and wondering if I should have kept going. If only I’d waited another hour maybe things would have been different. Maybe. Probably not though, and actually in hindsight I could have pulled the pin even earlier. It was my mind that got me through those extra four laps, and it probably could have pushed me through even more. But I would have paid for that, both physically and mentally.

Logically I know I did the right thing. Emotionally I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting there.

So why are we celebrating this ride? Why the picture of the glasses and the bubbly? I had an Audax mate post on my Insta that “making the effort to start is an achievement to celebrate.” Talking to Max about this he said he we needed to celebrate me making the right call on a ride. To re-wire my brain to not needing to accomplish ‘an epic thing’ to find a reason to celebrate.

And maybe that’s why I’m sitting okay with this right now. I’ve spent years chasing ‘catharsis’ on these long rides. They’ve been a way of me closing off some major stress cycles, of finding my way back to myself after loss, of getting out of my own headspace for awhile, and of finding that brain fog that often brings clarity and helps me to make some really difficult decisions. I often go into these long rides with my body so wracked with anxiety that I can hardly breathe, and need the long rides as a way of settling down again. But this one I went in calm, and I’ve also come out calm. I didn’t need the catharsis. I didn’t need to escape myself. And I definitely didn’t need to destroy myself in order to prove to nobody that I can do it.

Pulling the pin on this ride doesn’t change who I am or erase what I’ve accomplished. And if I keep repeating this to myself it’ll start to resonate and eventually become my truth.

Stats

  • Distance: 110km with 3164 vertical
  • Elapsed time: 7 hours 52 minutes
  • Moving time: 6 hours 34 minutes
  • Average speed: 16.8 km/h
  • Average heart-rate: 150bpm
    • Max HR: 175bpm
  • Calories burnt: 3378
  • Weather report: Clear, 20 degrees.
  • Strava file here: DNF today

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