By Justin Simoni
I’m just going to start out by saying it:
I hate birthday challenges.
Although, each year I get myself ramped up to try to do another one, they usually blow up in my face. My greatest-worst birthday challenge was the Arizona Trail Race: 750 miles of bikepacking across Arizona on singletrack from the Mexican to the Utah border. It includes a mandatory portage down through and back up the Grand Canyon on foot – bike carried on your back! Now that’s an birthday adventure! And it started one year right on my birthday. The heavens gave me a sign, I must go!
I made it around 8 hours on day #1 (of a estimated 9), before ending up in a shallow wash, crumpled in the fetal position, extremely dehydrated, not being able to keep food or water down. Happy birthday to me! The next day, I extracted myself from the trail, and limped to the side of the highway where I received medical attention in the form of fluids delivered via IV from a passing Border Patrol officer who saw – and stopped my attempt to hitch hike back to civilization. I hightailed it back to the Colorado Front Range that same day, still dazed from my desert nightmare experience. Another year older, a little more wiser, I guess!
But every April as my birthday draws near, my mind is piqued again on the idea of, The Birthday Challenge, no doubt encouraged by the changing of seasons flirting with my emotions that summer will be here soon, and well: how did all that Winter training go for you, Justin? Care to test those legs out?
I was stymied on what to do for my 36th birthday: Ride 360 miles in a day? Climb 36 sport pitches in Boulder Canyon?
Drink 36 beers?
Late April is also when the Mount Everest expeditions start ramping up, as it takes weeks for teams to lay siege on the mountain. It’s not really my scene, but it’s impossible to be fanatic about hill walking in all its shapes and forms and not stay at least halfway up to date with all the drama that goes down on Everest, joyful or tragic.
I pondered about all the teams and their goals, while looking out of my backyard to Green Mountain, which keeps a silent sentinel over the city of Boulder, CO. I couldn’t but be reminded of Gerry Roach, Colorado mountain guide book author extraordinaire, and his answer to what his favorite mountain was. To him, it was that same Green Mountain I was myself gazing upon. Pressed as to give a reason why, Roach stated, “I can train for Everest on Green Mountain. I can walk from my house to Green Mountain. it’s free; I can’t afford Everest.”
I sympathized closely to Roach’s answer and I thought, why not bring the scale of Everest to Green Mountain itself? I can, in a sense, try to Everest Green Mountain! “Everesting”, is a niche pastime, within the niche of ultra endurance cycling. The rules are simple: pick a route and ride it out-and-back until your total elevation gained is that of Mount Everest: 29,029 feet.
There’s nothing to stop me from doing the same on Green, but on foot (bikes on Green aren’t allowed). Making a rough calculation, it would take me 13 laps to complete this hastily thought up birthday challenge, as each lap would gain me ~2,300 feet. I’ll give myself… 36 hours to complete those 13 laps. No idea if this was reasonable, or realistic – too many details to double check and if I think too much I’ll psyche myself out, so: let’s go!
I wrote an email to the local running group mailing list, outlining my intentions, and asking for them to join along if they’d like in whatever capacity they wanted, and went to sleep. I then woke up around 4:00am, quickly changed, threw a ton of food, some clothes, a few bottles of water, as well as some miscellaneous accoutrements into my Fastpack, and pedaled the few miles from my house, to the Gregory TH. This trailhead for Green Mountain is a lot quieter than Chautauqua, and would be my base camp of sorts as I lay siege to my stand-in Everest. My base camp wasn’t fancy – really, just my bike locked up and my Fastpack secured to my bike.
I also brought a large piece of cardboard and sharpies along, so that I could keep a running tally of my TH and summit splits, as well as elevation gained. If anyone wanted to tag along on a lap with me, they’d have a good sense of where I was, and could wait, or run up to find me. I was anticipating a few partners, as there is a cadre of trail runners who also find an almost cult like attraction to Green Mountain – it’s definitely not just Gerry Roach and I. And misery loves company, right?
I assembled the kit I’d use for all my laps – my Ultimate Direction Groove running belt system and inside it a Body Bottle, a bit of nutrition, my phone, and my GPS. Lacing up my La Sportiva Akasha’s, and grabbing my trekking poles, I was off.
Lap #1 started as the sun began to rise. Birds fluttered around their nests located in the pockets of the flatiron formations. The day felt cool and calm, and my first lap was done mostly alone. I savored the calmness and the solitude. I knew the trails would soon become busy. This is a popular area, and the weather was perfect!
By lap #2 and #3, I was joined by the pre-work rush of runners getting in their training runs. Kyle Richardson and friend were coming directly from scrambling the First Flatiron to do a quick tag of Green Mountain, right after I managed my first, and only fall of the day passing him on my downhill.
It was nice to be seeing some familiar faces, some of whom knew what I was up to, and gave me support in the form of handshakes, high-fives, or just a quick shout-out of encouragement. I was happy for them to join in the celebration of the activity that we call trail running and also happy I could transform what’s usually a solitary time that I use for inner reflection into a shared happening. I was also relieved that my first real helper of the day, my housemate Troy, who works as a trail builder for the city, made good on his promise to deliver a huge jug of water direct to my bike, before he clocked in at work. With gallons of clean, clear water available, tons of food in my Fastpack, and extra of everything else, I could focus on putting in the laps, without running out of the basic needs of my day.
My next few laps went by with, I have to say: joy! When you give yourself space to just do something as simple like running up and down your local hill without needing to stress about all those other details of your life, nothing else does matter, and you can just focus on the simple act of pure free movement. This birthday challenge was turning into a true celebration. Hey, I’m having a good time!
I think my personal record of laps on Green were around four, so after ticking that many laps on this day, it was going to be slightly unknown territory for me; I worried a little of what I would expect and how my body and mind would react. Would I get bored? It’s the same 2.1 miles of trail, and I would pass by the same landmarks twice per lap: once up; once down.
To my surprise, the exact opposite happened. I became excited to pass all those tiny little landmarks I already knew by heart. It could be a certain rock or tree – it didn’t matter, I just enjoyed being engulfed within everything. I felt as diminutive as one should feel when on the face of a mountain, and I relished in the simple act of running up and running down.
Jeff Valliere, one of Green Mountain’s disciples, joined me for a lap around lunch time. Jeff is a great running partner, and I find that my pace is always just a little bit quicker, yet my perceived exertion is raised a minimum. His ability to chat breathlessly is unmatched when it comes to running and cycling. We pass Anton Krupicka running up as we were running down and exchange pleasantries; Anton is happy to find his running legs are good to go this spring day, and he has a big smile on his face!
Jeff says goodbye and I work on my 5th and 6th laps. I feel good, and my lap times are holding steady. I’m happy I’m playing it conservative at around 2 hours/lap, counting all the breaks at the trail head and summit to take pictures and to refuel on nutrition and water. It’s a bit warm, but not bad and I take a tiny little break, soaking my feet into the rushing Gregory Creek, putting on sunscreen, taking off my shirt to feel the slight breeze, and relishing in this beautiful Spring day.
Kevin Smith was next to join me for half a lap, and gave me a little more info on the nascence of the term, “Everesting” and why it’s more a cycling thing than a trail running thing: Think, “because it’s there” George Mallory, the before-his-time Everest climber who perished very close to the summit with his partner “Sandy” Irvine in 1924. His grandson, also named George, got the itch to climb Everest as well – the apple must not fall far from the tree. Living in Australia where there’s not a whole lot of high mountains, he cycled himself into shape by doing laps up his local hill. Ever the over-trainer, he reckoned that doing enough laps up and down to equal Everest’s elevation would be at least good enough to climb the real deal. Must have worked, as this George Mallory summited and returned safely in 1995. And so an compulsive legendary pastime was invented!
Kevin passed the torch to Eli, who is in damn good shape, as I was starting to feel some of the effects of my long day. Eli has a quiet sensibility to him, and he dealt with my beginnings of what may be called, “whining” with good humor. Eli has completed the PCT before and is off now on his second tour of it as I write, so he knows what long days on your feet are all about. It was my pleasure to have such a varied cast of partners to have along, as I usually do my running alone. We passed through one of the local group runs, and received a bunch of hoops and hollers from that crew – much obliged!
Eli also breaks up his runs into little areas and segments he has names for, and we shared with each other our personal names for the things we pass through:
“I call this part simply, ‘The Trees’, even though there’s trees everywhere else!”
“We’re coming up to, ‘…Saddle Rock?’ – I never know if this formation is really Saddle Rock, thus the inflection!”
Once finished with our lap, Eli asked if I needed anything: Food? Water?
“Man,” I answered, “I could definitely go for a pizza – anything with veggies on it!” Eli dashed off in a flash to perhaps return sometime in the future, I hoped, with the perfect pizza present.
Night was coming along, and I began the start of a very long, late shift. Lap #7 was done while the sun was setting – the summit being my halfway point! I sang to myself my favorite Def Leopard song, Livin’ On A Prayer, descending back to the trailhead – as one is aught to do when one thinks their alone, then promptly shared my running and off-key singing online. “WhoaaaOhohhooo! We’re halfway thayyyereer!”
Lap #8 was done completely in the dark. I flicked on my head torch, and put my shirt back on. Trotting down to the trailhead while following my head torches bouncing brilliant ball of light. I noticed figures coming out of the shadows. Amassed in the parking lot was a small group of people: all my housemates had driven down to see how I was doing, and presented me with a strawberry birthday pie! My favorite! And there was Eli, again, with a slice of pizza! Happy birthday was sung and I may have shed a tear or two at the show of support from my friends and house family. I greedily ate the pizza slice and asked Eli how much I owed him.
“Pay ‘er forward”, was Eli’s response – not a stranger to trail magic. I’ll somehow find where one of his PCT mail pickup locations are, and see if I can’t leave a little surprise for him in the near future.
Housemate Ari lent me some Tailwind – I may have forgotten anything about electrolytes and their replenishment on this day and night… oops. She may have well saved me a horrible overnight, not unlike my nightmare in Arizona. In short time, everyone said their goodbyes – I had to keep moving anyways. It was around 10:30pm and I knew I wouldn’t see anyone for a long while, now. Well maybe a mountain lion. Or two.
These last laps before my final lap are somewhat of a blur – I can’t even remember if I *really* did them or not, but my GPS and my splits recorded on sharpie on my piece of cardboard do agree, so I must have been out there picking ’em up and putting ’em down. If there is transcendence through running, I experienced looking through that keyhole if only for a moment. I never found the need to stop to take a quick nap; never felt too mentally fatigued. Sure, the legs were getting heavy, but I’ve felt this same soreness before after 10 miles, and I was coming now damn close to 50. I allowed myself to be consumed by the darkness and just be in the present moment, alone on my favorite hill.
The sun began to rise as I finished my 12th lap. I couldn’t believe it, but I only had one more lap I needed to accomplish. But, the morning brought with it a rude message that betrayed the past 24 hours. Whatever transcendence I felt in the moonlight, it was fleeting (it always is) and everything began to crash very heavily down on me. So very quickly, I knew I had just one more lap in me before I was toast, and this was the one lap that really was going to test me.
This lap was the real challenge – the final pitch to the summit to the Everest out my back door.
My splits, up to this point, where incredible consistent, hovering around 2 hours/lap. But this was not going to be one of those laps. I weighed heavily on my trekking poles and made it up the first set of steep rock stairs up the Amphitheatre Trail, stopping often to just sit down. Large flat iron formations loomed above me, like I imagined the seracs of the Khumbu Icefall do.
But, I kept plodding along, up above the Saddle Rock Trail. The floods of 2013 hit this part of the trail system so hard, they had to erect a ladder to get up and over a newly formed gulch that tore through the mountain. It would be my Hillary Step.
I had climbed up and down this ladder twenty-four times already, but this last time, I just stared at the ladder for a long while before mustering up the courage and motivation to climb up its rungs, without thinking I’d peel off to Oblivion.
Once cresting this ladder and navigating the scrambly bits rocks, I found the first flat area I could see to just sit down, which transformed into a lay down for just a few minutes. It was too cold to stay for too long, but it helped me get going again. I had no doubt I’d finish up, but I knew it wasn’t going to be all that kind. Nothing worth doing is ever that easy. I had to keep moving, or I’d just stop dead in my tracks.
I made it to the Greenman Trail junction, knowing every single rock that was in my path. I could barely see, but I could almost *feel* my way through the trails. Each turn, each switchback I now knew my heart, and it was my heart that kept on beating. With that rhythm I continued stepping forward and ascending. This was my South Summit – not fully there, but the taste of the peak was in my mouth, and it engulfed me with its fever. To the top!
By the very last switchbacks, I could at least form a crooked smile. It was just a matter of time before I reached the summit block, and I could sit awhile and enjoy the sunshine, as the morning runners congregated at the top to do much the same. I ran into Jacob – or I guess he ran into me, as I was going much the slower pace: right foot, left foot, stop to catch my breath. I imagined I was 29,000 feet up without bottled oxygen, instead of 8,000 feet down, with the twinkling of Boulder’s lights slowly being outshined by the rising sun just below. Jacob is a Product Manager for Ultimate Direction, and like all the UD folks, he gets stoked to see the products he helps design and market used for such fool-hearty endeavors, even if its right outside all our homes. With that stoke, I was able to pick up my pace just a little bit to get my poor body to the summit and relish in the sunlight. In short time, summit block was attained! I could see around me for miles and miles – everything beautifully covered in a blanket of snow. Was that Tibet over yonder, or just Nederland? Lohtse to the north, or Longs Peak?
Jacob had to dash down and I said my goodbyes to him, then I said my hellos to some more regular members of the Cult of Green Mountain. I stayed awhile to chat with a gentleman I met on my last running of the Dirty 30, and just after a few minutes, it was time for me to go down, too. Summits are always fleeting.
Going down wasn’t easy, but it was sure easier than going up! With a bit of bother from my lower legs who were by now protesting LOULDY that they would rather not try to stabilize what sure seemed like a steep descent pitch, I made it back to my bike, and found all sorts of baked goods waiting for me from fellow trail runners who answered my call for goodies. I laid down for a good 30 winks on a nearby rock in the parking lot, then collected my gear, and rode slowly home, half asleep at this point. I felt the entire weight of a landmass like Everest lifted from my tired shoulders. I could take a nap for the rest of the day, and drink the adult beverage left by my bike by an unknown party that night.
In 26 hours and 48 minutes – far under the 36 hour time limit I gave myself, I was able to make thirteen laps of Green Mountain, amassing 31,762 feet of elevation gain in 55.9 miles. That’s the longest time on foot I’ve ever done by around 10 miles and absolutely my PR for most elevation gained in one go. I couldn’t have possible have done another lap with the 9 hours I had left! To give perspective on the elevation, The Hard Rock 100 course amassed just a little more elevation gain, in a little less than twice the distance. Let’s say the trails on Green Mountain are a bit on the steeper side of things!
I want to thank everyone who came out for a lap, left me baked goodies and adult beverages, cheered me on, took photos, or followed along at home with updates given by all of the above. A wonderful trail running community makes living in such a town like Boulder that much more special! I may never myself travel to a Himalayan peak such as Everest (but if I do, you damn well know it’ll be by riding a bike to it!), but my own personal wonder of such great heights has increased stratospherically.