Note that this write up has 2 main parts – one more descriptive of the event. The second more philosophical about what I came away with. If you want to jump to the second part look for “WHAT DID I COME AWAY WITH?”
Some events are time-based, some are distance-based. So to make things new and interesting, a vertical feet-based one was next. Created by Jesse Itzler (wrote Living with a Seal, founder of Marquis Jet, wife is Sara Blakely – founder of that just slightly amazing billion dollar plus Spanx business…). He’s partnered up with a great group of folks to help put on this event series which will be put under the Live Boundless umbrella.
To set a small bit of context:
Simply put, the goal is to climb the vertical equivalent of one of the 7 summits of each continent. Originally, the Utah event I’d signed up for was Denali – 20k feet, 9 times up. Wasn’t shabby by any stretch, but then a few months ago, they decided to allow people to have “official” goals that were either shorter or longer.
The event took place at Snowbasin Resort, a bit north of Salt Lake City. Beautiful area that I didn’t realize was so close to an event I go to each year near Powder Mountain. The reality is that the smoke from the California fires is evident in the sky. Oh, and Snowbasin starts at 6400 feet and the top of the climb summits at 8700 feet. Altitude would be a factor, as would 80+ degree heat with very limited shade.
We started at 6am, with the sun rising probably 30 minutes after we started. An amazing way to start the day. Mini groups and individuals quickly broke up, as the first 1/3 of a mile was a nasty and unrelenting 40% grade.
Looking back, I felt like I was intentionally going easy the first few laps. In retrospect, I probably should’ve gone easier. I went 1:15 up for the first 3 loops. My avg for the last few was 1:35 or so. With a 15-minute gondola ride down and some other breaks, it ended up being a 2-hour full lap.
But the day really started on lap 4, when I started feeling it. It also got really hot. And note that I had major stomach issues the day before, such that I couldn’t eat dinner. So I started suffering. It didn’t help that I have a very high sweat rate, then with nasty heat at altitude, I’m losing more water. Stomach issues meant I couldn’t drink nor eat that much. It’s frankly amazing I kept moving the way I did.
Lap 5 ended with meeting Sarah at the top of the gondola (she flew in that morning). Probably in one of the worst shapes I’d been in at an event. Had it been lap 8 or 9, I would’ve understood. Lap 5 was too early. And troubling. So we went down, took a 30-minute break, including some time in the Norma-tech compression machines.
Going up lap 6 I felt better. I finally used my trekking poles, which were a god-send. I used them for the rest of the event. And feel good on that lap. Until.
Until a flat section near the top. I gagged, had an air bubble hit my throat. And I knew. It dropped me to all fours. Once. Twice. Those weren’t that bad. #3 and #4, those really hurt and emptied my stomach.
But I felt a ton better. A few folks were going by and stopped to make sure I was okay. I wasn’t trying to be brave or pretend I was strong, but I was actually better. The medic at the top talked to me and felt good that I was lucid. Always a good thing…
At that point, I told Sarah I was looking forward to the sun going down. Cooler temps meant less sweat, which meant whatever water I put in my body was having a great impact. And meant I could process food. And get energy into my body. A brief rain shower gave me a forced respite – I just didn’t have it in me to get that wet, potential get cold, and then suffer even more.
By the 8th lap it was 8:30pm. I really started feeling better. I kinda knew that I would, and this is where tapping into prior endurance event experience (2 Ironman races, the 508, biking across the US) all pay dividends. More on this in a sec.
Here’s one of the crazy things. At roughly 10:30pm, 16.5 hours in, I had 4 more laps to go. That started feeling manageable. One more and I’d be at double-digits, with three to go. The crazy part is that I felt good knowing this meant I still had 8 more hours to go. Talk about shifting perspective…
As for what it was like out on the trail, it was brutal and unrelenting. Sure some sections were “flatter” than others. But other than the beauty of the mountain, one of the last things you’d think in looking at the route we took is that I want to hike this. Again and again.
Aid stations were at the top and bottom. And then 2 broke up the way up roughly every 3/4 of a mile. It also provided a natural place to gather, pause, and commiserate with others. But everyone had their own plan. Which was cool. Sometimes you talked with others, sometimes others were around you. And sometimes not.
I’ll say hiking thru the nite was one of the coolest experiences I’ve done. Sarah is putting together a video, where she captured footage from the gondola. At most there were 10-15 people out there at 2am. But we all had headlights and so you see these images of 2 lights per person – one from their heads where the light is. And then a second circle on the ground as the light hits the ground. So cool.
Laps 10 and 11, I felt good, but started getting tired and sleepy. No duh. So I made what I think was a smart decision in taking a 15-minute nap in the norma-tech chairs. Sarah made sure I got up. And I was amazingly refreshed. (Someone told me that a 10-min nap in those chairs feels like an hour. Definitely.)
#12 was solid. Just a matter of staying within myself. At the summit, Sarah was there as she had been for the prior 14 hours each time. As were the volunteer staff who cheered each time I got there. I tried holding back my emotions – The Wolf’s words from Pulp Fiction are one way I try to keep myself humble and contained prior to being done….
#13 was awesome. I felt pretty good. The sky was getting lighter, but the sun wasn’t out.
Sarah was at the top. She couldn’t have done anything more for me. Just an amazing feeling being done. I had trained for this in my own way and got to see what I was capable of.
A different form of meditation – For a day or two, I didn’t think about much. Frankly I couldn’t As Jesse said before the start, for a period of time, this was our job. No kids, no taxes, no work. I wasn’t concerned with much of anything other than what was in front of me. For me, meditation is about focusing on the breath and getting out of my head. But it’s also about just taking a break from all the things that can consume me day-to-day.
Just how much separation I got – It wasn’t until I dug back into my phone that I realized how much I’d separated from everything else. Just how little I’d thought about work. About social media. About some of the personal things I won’t share here but that keep me up at nights. I never expected to stop thinking about these things, and it wasn’t until I realized I’d taken a break that I realized they were out of mind. To be clear, areas of stress aren’t inherently bad. It’s just nice to take a break.
It’s harder at the top. Nearer the goal. – It’s easy to associate being better at something as making things easier. Or that when a business grows, it’s easier. Well, if the mountain reminded of something, it’s that you may be closer to the top, but it’s likely that headwinds are going to be blowing in your face. And so when you’re most tired, you have to dig even deeper.
Forced focus at night because you just can’t see much – We hiked at night with headlamps. Other than the light from the moon and lights at the aid station, the course was dark. That meant we had to focus on the steps immediately in front of us. And as much as we could look up a bit ahead of us, we couldn’t see the rest of what lay in front. And sometimes that’s a good thing. Knowing the goal is important but sometimes just how big it is can be more than daunting. It can be debilitating. It can be overwhelming. Rather than just focusing on the next step and you can take what’s coming as it comes.
“Mastery” comes thru repetition – Let’s be clear. I didn’t master the mountain. But I’ve been asked about the monotony of the climb. Having to do the same climb 13 times. But this climb was hugely reflective of how you get better at a skill, and certainly to master it. Learning something requires doing it over and over again. This is a valuable skill. Especially when each repetition was nothing remotely close to easy.
Repetitive doesn’t mean redundant nor identical – Each climb was similar and yet different. Of course it was the same basic route, but whether in the day or at night. Sunrise or sunset. It was always a bit different. The heat would change, the wind would change. The trail was worn in different places. Or perhaps I chose a slightly different route (even 3 feet to the left might feel very different). And then there are the mind games. Parts you thought were easier are harder on lap #11. And harder parts get manageable. But each climb brought a different challenge. So yes, it was repetitive. But in no way was each lap identical to one prior.
Get used to never feeling “normal” – anyone who’s done an endurance event knows one of the biggest balancing acts is the one with your stomach. Heat, altitude, emotions, adrenaline, big efforts. All of them change the biology and chemistry in your body as never before. And depending on what you’re able to get in, that affects fatigue and certainly is a cycle affecting your stomach. Getting sick on lap #6 helped me feel better. But that didn’t mean I felt good. Just better. And even at night, when I was able to get down more calories, I never felt like my stomach was settled. A day later and I was still feeling it. You can’t wait to feel good or normal. Sometimes that uneasy (in this case nauseous feeling at times) was just going to stay and you had to navigate thru it.
Hiccups suck – there’s no lesson here. Only my desire to say that I got them for 18 hours on and off. Never experienced that before. There’s no medical explanation. But suffice to say that my go-to solution is normally to hold my breath or turn my head upside down. Neither of which was an option on the mountain. Hiccups suck. Hopefully you don’t get them that often. And hopefully you don’t get them in the middle of a climb…
Sharing experiences adds such richness to them – I was only one of a few that had someone I knew at the event and who wasn’t participating nor event staff. Sarah was an unreal trooper. For someone who generally needs more sleep than the average person, the fact that she hung thru and was an absolute ball of energy until 630am when I finished was just awesome. Many others were solo. Most everyone made friends, whether in the FB group previously, on the mountain, at aid stations, or in the recovery area. For my part, having my wife see me race for the first time in our 10 year relationship, riding down the gondola with me each of my last 9 laps, taking video of me, cheering me on as I headed out, and most of all, being there with a smile and words of encouragement at the top each time. Well, let’s just say I’m getting teary-eyed as I type this. It’s something that has been forever added to our shared memory bank.
The lows will come. But they will also go – Not feeling “normal” is one thing. Feeling really down, tired and drained is another. When Sarah arrived, it was the worse I’ve felt at an event in ages. It sucks feeling this way. But you learn that some lows aren’t actually as low as you end up going. But most of the time, you get better. You just have to stay in the game and keep plodding along one step at a time if necessary.
Taking a break, even near the end, can be a good idea – With 2 laps to go I took a 15-minute nap. I could have decided to push thru. 2 laps out of 13 seems really late in the game to take a nap. But those 2 laps were another 4 hours. 2 out of 13 doesn’t seem like much. 4 hours does. Keeping some perspective about what’s left in the game, and when to recharge, can make the last part more manageable. It also meant I was semi-lucid when I finished. Which is a good thing…
It’s okay to compete when many others aren’t. And it’s to not care about competing no matter who else is – I trained for this event. Multiple weekend mornings, I was out early to do sets of stairs or to get biking on the road. For hours. That’s time away from my family. Time away from plenty of other things. And so I wanted to see what I was capable of. So yes, I paid attention to my times and wanted to see what I could do. That doesn’t mean I didn’t stop to say hi or to give words of encouragement to others. I also know that plenty of others out there weren’t competing. That’s cool. We all had our reasons and our own goals. It’s just important to know what those are going in.
Why I didn’t sleep – this one is a bit multi-faceted:
Like I said, I trained for this. My goal wasn’t just to finish. I didn’t disrespect the event, but I felt confident I could finish. But that wasn’t all it was for me. I could’ve slept more than I did and still finished. (Note, I say this very respectfully since some people finished at the cut-off. Some didn’t reach their goal, whether 13 summits or something shorter. I’ve been that person as well.) In this case, I wanted to see what all those hours of training, of countless sets of stairs, of hours on the bike, those hours away from my kids, the tradeoffs of skipping dessert (sometimes) – what those allowed me to do. Those were the prep. I wanted to see the outcome. Sometimes you know you can do something, but it’s crucial to do it.
The experience of going thru the nite is surreal. It’s so hard to explain. Whether as a participant, spectator, or crew. Sunrise. Thru the heat of the day. Sunset. Moonrise. Moonset. Dusk. Just an amazing life experience to do an event thru literally a full day cycle.
Doing what others aren’t. I like doing things others don’t. Or won’t. This event is one of those things. Even within the event, there are layers to that. And even though this is more of an event than a race, there was an important point I wanted to get across. To myself and in the story I knew I would tell. Sometimes you get outworked. Sometimes you consider something differently than others do. At this event I was one of those guys. Others were ahead of me at 10pm. But they no longer were at 3am. They had their goals. That’s fine. This isn’t about judgment or being “better” than someone else. It’s about remembering and knowing that sometimes you just have to sleep less than others. And sometimes, and this is the part that sucks, when you’re sleeping, someone else may be still climbing the mountain. In whatever context that fits. I think it’s important to remember both sides of this point. And to be intentional about which side you want to be on. Because there’s a place for both. You just have to be aware of it.
I wanted Sarah to see what I’m made of. Again, in 10 years of being together, she’s never seen me race. Racing had been a big part of my life. Tri’s, ultra-distance cycling, whatever. This has been an important part of my life. And I’ve been totally at peace not doing so since we’ve been together – building a life and family take plenty of work, none of which do I ever think twice about. But she got to see me doing an endurance event. And pushing like I did was something I wanted her to see in me.
Final point – Playing against my weakness. With this type of event, it’s hard to say things play to your strengths. So this was more about playing against my weakness. If that makes sense. I suffered in part because of the heat and altitude. When the sun finally set, my body started coming back to me. I had to take advantage of the cooler temps to get the miles in. Because of my sweat rate and stomach issues, it would’ve been a different level of suffering to be out there in the afternoon of day 2. So I had to play against that. Plus, 4 years each at MIT and investment banking, even though years ago, prepped me for all-nighters. Knowing that I would truly suffer and suck during the day, I had to stay out during the night. So sometimes, you have to know where you’re going to suck. And do whatever you can to avoid that…
Couple final points. This event was awesome. The staff and volunteers were amazing. And the fact that 100% of people who started got at least one summit (minimum of 4 climbs) – that’s just awesome. A heart-felt thank you to everyone who worked the event. Certainly to the other participants whose even small nods or words of encouragement made a large difference. A big thank you for the support of my family who was texting Sarah throughout the event. And of course to Sarah, who was such a rock, cheerleader and welcoming smile each lap.