Culture

Explainer: How to Everest like a pro

Phil Gaimon and Keegan Swenson take us inside their epic rides.

There are few challenges in sport with such simple rules: pick any climb, anywhere in the world, and complete repeats of it until you’ve reached 29,029 feet of vert. Easy!

Actually, there is nothing easy about Everesting, yet the recent spike in attempts to climb 29,029 feet on a single piece of road (or dirt) during the coronavirus pandemic shows that there is something about the challenge that appeals to people. While goals (to finish vs to set a record) may vary, attempting such a monster feat largely follows the same set of rules in terms of fitness, route choice, and preparation.

Just last week, retired pro road cyclist Phil Gaimon set a new world record of 7:52 for the fastest Everest on a bike; five days later professional mountain biker Keegan Swenson toppled the new result with a time of 7:40. As of today, over 80 people are registered to attempt an Everest in Rebecca Rusch’s Giddy Up For Good challenge (and that’s just outdoors; another 20 are signed up to do the climbing inside). Who knows how many people are tackling the vert on their own, totally offline.

So, what’s up with this once insane, now mundane concept of a challenge? We asked Gaimon and Swenson to take us inside the mountainous feat.

First, fitness

Whether they’ve been riding inside or out, most of the riders we’ve checked in with during the coronavirus pandemic have agreed on one thing: the lack of racing has allowed them to build up a substantial base. Swenson said that his training over the past few weeks has mimicked more of what’s typical in January, with a lot of volume and little intensity. This type of fitness lends itself well to an Everesting attempt.

“As long as you’re fit, you don’t need V02 or top-end effort, just tempo,” Swenson told VeloNews. “I figured I was fit enough for it.”

Swenson’s goal was to aim for 16- to 16.5-minute laps of his chosen segment (a 1.8 mile stretch of Pine Canyon Road in Midway, Utah with 1,023 feet of elevation gain). His fastest time up was 12.5 minutes and slowest was just over 14. Swenson says that he was laser-focused on trying to hold the same power output the whole time.

“I climbed at an average of eight miles per hour,” he said. “I was really just trying to focus on power, trying to hold 270-280 watts.”

Gaimon’s average power output for the uphill portion of his 62 laps was 300 watts. He cited “crazy volume” for the last month as the training tactic he used prior to the attempt, adding, “I’ve basically been training forever.”

“It was nothing specific,” Gaimon said. “I thought I could train by doing repeats of that hill but I knew I was gonna get sick of it. Basically I just rode all the canyons in Malibu until I was bored with them.”

In summary: no intensity required. Or recommended!

 

everesting

SRAM announced the new Force group with a bigger gear range the day after Gaimon’s attempt. Oops. Photo: Matt Hinkle

Choosing a road

Aside from having the fitness required to make an Everesting attempt possible, the other most important aspect of the challenge is the road (or trail) that you’re going to do it on.

“That’s one of the fun parts of Everesting,” Gaimon said, “figuring out a hill in your area that’s appropriate. A lot of people think, ‘I want an easy hill that’s not too steep, but that makes you have a longer effort. The fastest times are set up steep hills.”

Gaimon chose Mountaingate Drive in Los Angeles for his effort, although at 1.6 miles with 485 feet of elevation gain, it wasn’t as long or as steep as he would have liked. Both he and Swenson agreed that an extenuating circumstance of their Everesting experiences was the coronavirus pandemic; they stayed close to home to respect travel restrictions rather than travel to find the ‘perfect’ road. They also settled on a similar pitch: both segments averaged a 10-11 percent grade.

In addition to steepness, another factor to consider in road choice is how straight the descent is.

“Part of it is getting down fast so you can keep climbing,” Gaimon said. “You want a straight shot, going 55 miles per hour, and then you slam the brakes and start going up again.”

Pine Canyon Road has multiple segments, and Swenson said that he had initially planned to ride the entire road, which would have amounted to around 12 ascents of about 30-35 minutes each. That was when he was planning to attack the record set before Gaimon’s (Tobias Lestrell’s 8:29:11 attempt in 2017). When he heard about Gaimon’s blistering speed, he had to reassess his route.

“There are lots of switchbacks on that road, and much of it is about 8,000 feet,” he said. “so I had to reassess. I hit up my friend Jon Lee at TrainerRoad who’s Everested before and is a data nerd, and he helped me find some numbers.”

The two found that the lap option at the bottom of the road would be the quickest as it had no switchbacks and only one place that Swenson would have to brake on the way down. It would also allow him two minutes of rest on each descent, a stark contrast to Gaimon’s only 50 seconds of relief per lap.

Everest-day prep

Unless they ride in ultradistance events, most pro riders attempting an Everest are also gearing up for their longest day in the saddle. Gaimon, who mostly chases KOM’s, is used to 15 to 60-minute efforts to achieve his goals. For cross country mountain biker Swenson, a long training ride is five hours. Preparing for the on-the-bike portion of an Everesting effort was thus another unique challenge.

“The days leading up to it, it definitely felt more like a race,” Swenson said. “I had to plan out my bottles, plan out my nutrition, talk my parents into coming out to sit in the sun, and help me.”

Keegan Swenson everesting attempt
Swenson, “100 percent shelled,” and his dad.

Again, coronavirus complications factored into the equation. Gaimon said that he didn’t want to invite anyone other than his girlfriend or “COVID training partner” Ben Foster out for the day. A few other friends showed up to ride and banter, but other than that, Gaimon’s effort was relatively self-sufficient. In terms of nutrition, he opted to forgo real food and used bars, gels, and alternated between bottles of Monster Hydro drink mix and bottles of water. Swenson had a slightly different fueling experience. He said that after he set the FKT (fastest known time) on the White Rim Trail outside of Moab, Utah last year, he learned that Gu gels and chews weren’t enough to fuel him for a long effort.

“I started with solids and slowly transitioned to more Gu [gels] later on,” he said. “Fig Newtons, donuts, white bread PB&J, leftover pancakes — simple to digest stuff. I aimed for about 90 grams of carbs per hour.”

Both riders were also able to time their attempts according to the perfect weather window. For Gaimon, this meant waiting until a hot snap in LA subsided and temperatures dipped back to the upper 60s. At altitude in Utah, Swenson opted for a later start (around 8:20 AM) so that he could forego leg and arm warmers. He also picked a day where the highs were forecasted to be in the upper 60s.

Neither athlete peed during their Everesting attempts, although Swenson said he considered it at one point and then ‘forgot’ about it.

“I still wanted to beat Phil and if it came down to it and I didn’t because of the one minute it took to pee, I would have been pissed at myself,” Swenson said.

Everesting with purpose

Both athletes chose to dedicate their Everesting efforts to charity, an action that has become widely embraced during the times of COVID-19. As of today, Gaimon has raised over $100,000 for No Kid Hungry, the equivalent of over one million meals for needy children in the US. Gaimon said that, although he tries to do a fundraising campaign each year, the outpouring of support for his Everesting attempt was different.

“People are desperate to do something meaningful right now,” he said.

Although Swenson was attracted to the Everesting concept because of his affinity for “big, long, hard challenges,” he admits that it takes a different kind of incentive to do something that doesn’t have the prize money or prestige of a race. He asked that supporters donate money to his good friend and training partner, mountain biker Ryan Standish’s, Bike MS fundraising effort. As of today, the two have raised almost $5,000 (after they finished Everesting on Saturday, Standish asked for another $1/foot and went on add another 2,500 feet to his attempt).

It makes sense to pair something so intrinsically self-motivated with the end goal of the greater good. For those wanting to try their own Everesting (given that they have the fitness and road at the ready), Rebecca Rusch’s Giddy Up for Good Challenge begins this Friday through Sunday and benefits COVID-19 relief efforts through Rusch’s own Be Good foundation.

And for the next time? 

Obviously, recovery first, but if Strava is any indication, both Gaimon and Swenson are already back in the saddle. On whether they think the Everesting fad is here to stay?

“It’ll be pretty interesting to see where it goes and if any other pro roadies or mountain bikers will give it a crack,” Swenson said.

For his part, Gaimon hopes that they do. After all, his MO right now is breaking Strava records, and he’s already gunning to get back to Tuscon’s Mt. Lemmon to take back the KOM he recently lost to triathlete Lionel Sanders. Regarding Everesting, there are a few pro’s he’d like to see “raise it up a notch (ahem Lachlan Morton and Joe Dombrowski).” As long as professional racing remains a pie in the sky notion, Gaimon thinks that riders will continue to go after different goals.

Already reflecting on their performances last week, both Gaimon and Swenson mentioned the nuance of the road choice as something to be tweaked for future Everesting attempts. In fact, Swenson reckoned that had he done his climb in the same conditions, on a similar road at sea level, he could have taken 20 minutes off of his time.

“Surely somewhere out there in the world there’s a road that’s perfectly suited to this, that’s 10 percent and perfectly straight,” he said.

Until someone finds the elusive road, the beauty of an Everest is that it’s right in your backyard.

Editor’s Note: Phil Gaimon completed his effort on a 56 cm Factor VAM road bike with the SRAM Force eTap AXS groupset and Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST wheels. Swenson declined to discuss the bicycle he rode.