Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer of Climbing: Climb "8,800 feet" in 9 days

The summer of climbing has gone a little differently than anticipated. By now, I expected to have conquered ridiculous mountains and to suddenly be proclaiming myself a lover of all things slanted upward. That has not happened. Not even close. The more I try to convince myself that the only way climbing is going to improve is to actually do the work, the less I want to get on a bike and go in an upward direction. It's almost as though my proclamation has been working against me. Blasted proclamations!

Then, as if Strava could somehow read my mind, a nine-day challenge appeared before me. This 9-day challenge was simple: climb at least 8,800 feet in that slightly over a week time frame. It's a lot - or at least a good chunk of - climbing in just over a week, at least I thought, but if I focused and actually did what I keep saying I'm going to do, it shouldn't be too painful...

I should say more accurately that it wouldn't have been horribly painful if the 8,800 feet was actually the challenge.
*Image from Strava
No, no, dearest pals, that was not the challenge at all. Apparently my feeble mind cannot tell the difference between the word "feet" and the word "meters," and so, I would soon come to realize that in fact I had signed myself up for a challenge that in no way could I ever accomplish. The 8,800 "feet" I thought the challenge would be, was actually 8,800 meters (so, for the record, just shy of 29,000 feet - though all of you non-metric-challenged and able-to-read-English-words readers already knew that).

How a human being that doesn't ride 10 hours a day is supposed to climb 8,800 meters in 9 days is beyond me... but, there are many who (as I would learn) are quite capable, and even far surpassed the challenge. As in, some did 5-7 times that amount. Seriously, what are these people? Mountain goats? In all reality, I have to question when Strava will have a challenge for us mere mortals and/or that doesn't rank us based on what pro or elite riders are out doing.

So, anyway, I was plotting out how I was going to get my 8,800 feet (or so I presumed) in 9 days. I had some routes planned, but when I realized the challenge was more than three times that distance, I immediately started mentally - which led to physical - slacking. The first day of the challenge, I didn't ride at all. Nor did I ride the second, third or fourth days of the challenge. I think I rode to the store during that first four days at some point, but that was about the extent of my time on a bike. What fun would it be if I didn't make it completely impossible to even come anywhere close to meeting the challenge? By day 5, I realized that I needed to do something or I wouldn't even get in 100 feet of climbing.

I can see how some would think, "Why would you even bother if you know there's no chance of completing the required climbing meters?" and I would answer them by saying that, in its simplest, I truly have a screw loose. Obviously, by day five, I knew there was no chance of getting 8,800 meters of climbing on a bike. I mean, who am I kidding? There's no way I'm going to climb close to 6k feet a day for five days straight.

Instead, I plotted ways in which I could torture myself needlessly. At the base of our old town area, there are several streets running north and south with hills that climb (or that descend if going in the opposite direction... which, I highly recommend for some down hill fun). Each is only one block and I wondered how many times I could circle one of these blocks without becoming both completely sick of the track-like path I'd be making and if my legs would make it up these hills more than twice.

Typically, I avoid these hills like the plague. If I have to go up any of them even once on a ride I am cranky, breathing hard, and whining that I should just walk up the stupid hill instead of trying to ride it. Of course, that's generally at the end of a ride when I'm tired. So, what if I just made the one-block climb the ride?

Ah, brilliant! I was pretty sure it would be a short ride, but I tried to tell myself that I could do it at least 5 times. Five rounds didn't seem so bad if it was all I would have to do.

I should say, these aren't long hills. Just a typical, neighborhood block. The grade runs between 4-13% (depending on the spot on the hill and which street one chooses to climb), but the total feet climbed is somewhere around 45-60 feet (again, depending on the street). So, if I could complete 5 laps, that would give me somewhere around 225 feet. Okay, I realize this isn't even kind of close to what I would need for the climbing challenge, but still, 225 feet for something that's probably a total of about a mile or two at most is pretty good, I think.

My first round didn't go quite as expected. I was on the Hillborne (which has a triple crank and mountain gearing - see, I did use my noggin' a little bit) and I couldn't get it to shift from the middle ring to the bottom. As I struggled to fight my way to the top for round one, I just.... couldn't...... quite......... get there. So, I stopped, got off the bike, picked up the rear end, turned the pedals a few times, and it shifted. The next lap went better and I had no trouble shifting when needed. By the time I was on my 5th round, I decided I would attempt to do 10 laps and then call it done.

A funny thing happens on a short loop like this though. It's really, really easy to lose count - especially for someone like me who's easily distracted by shiny things... or furry things... or old things.... or rusty things... or, well, you get the gist. I'd start to question myself... was that lap 6 or 7... 7 or 8... 8 or 9? So, I'd end up doing another one because I wasn't sure.
Now, a smarter person would keep better track, particularly knowing how much she despises climbing - and specifically these short hills. But, I didn't. I was trading off between two different streets for the uphill portions and coming down the third street, but my mind would become easily muddled. Additionally, I'm fairly certain anyone who was home on the streets during this experiment was pretty sure I am completely insane. I have to admit, it did look (and feel) a bit wacky.

Then, I started noticing something with my GPS. As soon as I'd get about half way up one of the hills, the incline percentage would change to 0%. The problem with this reading is that at no point on these hills is it flat. The reading struck me as odd the first time, but I figured there may have been a temporary malfunction. Soon, I realized it was happening every time I'd ride up. Whether this affects the final results, I'm not entirely sure. I know GPS' cannot be 100% accurate, but at the same time, I still haven't found an answer regarding whether the unit's reading is what is used, or something else entirely (like satellite information, etc).

By the time I'd finished what I believed to be 10 laps, I thought I could complete a couple more, so I went for it. Why not? My legs were definitely starting to quiver, however, so I knew I was close to the end whether I liked it or not.

Ultimately, I ended up doing 17 laps (so much for accurate counting), which (according to the reading I got at home), put me at just over 850 feet (approx. 260 meters) climbed over 8 miles. I'm still not entirely sure if the GPS picked up everything, but regardless, it was a decent amount for such a short distance. Obviously, nowhere near the amount I needed for this type of challenge, but I think it was an interesting - if not slightly moronic - means of getting in some climbing without "wasting" the mileage on flatter terrain. Because, you know, heaven forbid I actually put in more mileage.

As the challenge wrapped up, I came shy of hitting 1,000 meters (it was about 3,000 feet) of climbing. Of course, I also hadn't given myself a very good chance at coming close given that I waited until half way through to even start and didn't even ride each of the last five days. A lesson learned, certainly. Considering I only went on three challenge-specific rides, I didn't think it was so bad, but it certainly didn't come close to being the climbing challenge I'd wanted. Of course, the participant (aka me) has to do the work for the challenge in order to make it beneficial. There are also better ways of getting in climbing, such as simply heading directly for the mountains; but I learned that if time is of concern, there are ways to practice climbing close to home and without spending hours out on the road. I also understand that while not the weakest participant (read: not last place) in the Rapha Rising challenge, I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself - mostly for lack of effort. I live at the base of some of the greatest places to climb on a bike in the world, and I didn't take advantage of it at all.

Even though the challenge is over, I will likely continue to use these in-town hills as training once in awhile. Although slightly nauseating to use in a track format, it's an easy (well, easier) way to get in climbing when I don't have a lot of time to spare.  Additionally, the mountains are at my disposal and the summer is still fairly young, so there's hope for me yet. I may not have met the specific challenge goals, but perhaps I just needed a bit of failure to realize that I can do it (maybe not this specific challenge - but my own version of it) if I set my mind and body in appropriate motion.


  1. 1,000 meters is nothing to sneeze at - I'd say it was pretty good. I'm all about the vertical when comparing rides. Climbing and wind have such a huge effect on your required energy output. I can ride twice as many miles when I'm in Tucson (where it is pretty flat) and get half the workout I get in Seattle.

    Besides the gps, you can plot your path in Google Earth. Save it as a favorite and you can then produce a vertical elevation profile of the route. It gives max grade in percent and tells you the total elevation you climbed.

    Keep up the climbing! Even though I know you don't like it. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

    1. Ugh. Wind. Yet another enemy. :O) It definitely affects energy output. There really are so many factors that play into how far one can ride. I would think you're at a much higher elevation in Tucson than Seattle, but I suppose having the (relatively) flat geography sometimes more than compensates for elevation changes.

      Thanks for the info about Google Earth. I've never actually tried that, but I will give it a whirl too - if nothing else, it will provide another comparison.

      One of these days (I assume) the climbing has to get easier/less painful, right?

  2. Oh yes. The more you climb, the easier it gets. My approach is to sit and spin in a gear low enough to get up the hill without standing, and in a state where I am breathing hard at the top, but not totally out of breath. I often find I can ride up a gear after taking a new hill several times. That said. There is a half life to your fitness for climbing. A day or two of rest helps me recover for climbing. But take a week off - I will have lost some oomph for that hill.

    1. I don't stand very often when climbing because of back injuries. I tend to find that I'm weak on the side that's injured when I stand, so definitely staying seated helps. I was actually just reading something a couple of weeks ago that sitting and climbing is a better use of energy (unless it's a very short climb), so it made me feel a little better. It's hard not to compare when people go racing by me up the hills. I know that I'm not a strong climber, but hopefully I can get stronger - even if it's just stronger for me - which, I suppose is all any of us can ask for when it comes to improving.

      I definitely agree that taking time off (more than a few days) has a dramatic affect on my ability to climb. I've also tried different methods for improving - like varying lengths of the ride and intensity. Sometimes I find it works to go on a longer, slower, climbing ride, while other times I do better on a short, intense climb. I think they both have their benefits.


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