Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mauna Kea: Unintended Consequences

Helped in no small part by this blog, and in stark contrast to my dietary habits, once is often enough. I've had some pretty magical experiences on the bike, but when time frees up, my preference is usually for new experiences over rehashing old ones.  

Looking back, the exceptions I've tended to make are for those experiences which didn't quite go to plan, and I've willingly taken the opportunity to set the record straight.

For the last 10 months, last year's ascent of Mauna Kea felt like a ride that didn't go well.  I've recently had an experience which showed me how wrong I was about that.

* * *

This Easter offered a great opportunity for Sarah, Khulan, Kaitlyn and I to travel to the Big Island together, and while the focus would be on family time, we parents decided to take one day for ourselves, and ride Mauna Kea.  

The 34-32 "granny" gear ratio I'd had last time had been barely manageable on the upper section, and that was at best.  Rather than think about the big picture, I dwelt on that detail.  In fact, rather than think at all, I dwelt on that single aspect of my previous experience, and addressed it, to hell with the consequences.  Obviously dumb in hindsight.  

The climb is a monster by any metric.  The Hilo to Mauna Kea segment on Strava is 68.6km long, climbing 4168vm at an average gradient of 6%.  This is really a ride of four parts:

  1. A sealed road from sea-level in Hilo, to the access road turnoff.  The Strava segment Saddle Road from Hilo is 45.3km long, climbing 1973vm at an average of 4%. The KOM is 1:50:55 at an average speed of 24.5km/h.  If you're lucky, there are no roadworks en route (currently about 3 miles of gravel).
  2. A sealed road from Saddle Road to the Mauna Kea Visitor Centre.  The segment Saddle Road to Visitor Center has 9.9km for 791vm at an average of 8%.  But, this includes a nasty mile at 13%, and by this stage, the altitude has started to bite.  The segment has a KOM of 38:06 at 15.7km/h, while the whole 55.6km segment from Hilo has a KOM of 2:49:43 at an average speed of 19.7km/h.
    Steepest mile (file photo)
  3. A gravel section from the Visitor Centre:  7.4km, climbing 741vm at an average gradient of 10%.  At times very steep.  At times very corrugated.  And, at times very soft.  If you're unlucky, all three at once (with a healthy dose of thin air just to make it more fun).  KOM:  47:23 at 9.5km/h.  
    File photo
  4. Sealed road to the summit:  5.7km for 595vm at an average gradient of 10%.  The gradients lessen significantly near the top, but by then the air is very thin indeed.  KOM:  39:05 at 8.9km/h.  The KOM for the 13.6km from the Visitor's Center to the top is 1:38:07 by ex-pro, and current Strava fiend, Phil Gaimon.  He averaged 8.3km/h on the way to claiming fastest time from the Kona side of the island.  
    On top of the world (file photo)
The whole Hilo to Mauna Kea segment has a fastest time of 4:45:54 at an average speed of 14.4km/h. Last time I just dipped under 6 hours, and felt sure that I could go faster.  I wanted to.  

I wanted to, but focused on the one thing that went wrong, without thinking about all the things that went right.

Last time, I set off from Hilo with about half a bottle of drink, and a few bars in my pocket.  Sarah was in a truck with all manner of supplies:  food, drink, tools, and clothes.  She leap-frogged me all day long, camera in hand, and catered for my every whim.  This time, my Hawaiian friend Kri made every attempt to get us some help for the day (thanks mate, much obliged!), but in the end we weren't able to put something together, so it was pretty much a self-supported solo mission.

This time, I not only had a heavier bike (to the tune of about 1.5 pounds), but I also had a pump and MTB tube, a multitool, and two bottles, full to the brim.  By virtue of their 1.9L combined capacity, I was about 3kg worse off when I started the climb.  

Day 5, and the first time the summit had been visible from Hilo.  Perfect conditions
I hadn't starred the segment on Strava, so didn't know I'd immediately started losing time.  My luck was mixed - on the one hand, I had about 3 miles of roadworks to deal with, but on the other, the surface was relatively firm and smooth (and besides, I was on a mountain bike).   By the time I made the turn from Saddle Road, I'd lost just shy of 11 minutes.

Phase 1:  Saddle Road from Hilo - pink line is time advantage during June '16 effort

The time loss wasn't uniform - the rate of change lessened as the climb went on and my bottles emptied.  And while the "weight loss" was good for my short-term progress, the long-term implications were not so flash.  By the time I really wanted to drink but couldn't, I had 800vm to climb to where Sarah had left the car.  Not only was I out of fluid, but the only food I had with me really needed something to wash it down.  

Initially, spurred on by the light load, I even managed to gain a few seconds, but then the dehydration and lack of food started to bite, and by the time I reached the "steepest mile", I was on the ropes. 100m from the car, I got off my bike for the first time, and walked for a moment.

Phase 2:  Saddle Road to Visitors' Center
I opened the boot of the wagon, and sat down.  Sarah had set off on her own bike from here, aiming for the summit.  I was surprised to see she'd left two of the three bottles of powerade we had in the cooler.  I sculled one down, and filled one of my own bottles with the other.  I sculled the best part of a litre of water too, and ate a couple of bars and a small banana.  I lost about 6 or 7 minutes here - a 10 minute break, vs only a few to adjust my tyre pressure last time.  I needed every moment though.  

While I'd arrived at the car with only about a 1kg penalty, when I set off it was more like 4kg.  My bottles were full again, and in anticipation of descending back to the car, I now had a saddle bag with a thermal jersey, beanie, rain coat and 3/4 length over trousers, and I had donned a helmet. 

BUT, I had MTB gearing!!!  Whoop!

The gradient is initially fairly mellow, and the trace below shows I'd made much better progress on my CX-tyre-shod road bike.  The MTB was better suited to the steep switch backs, where I was able to cope with the gradient and stay on the bike - the first two switchbacks are clearly evident in the time series, where I claw back some time.  The further up I got, both gradient and the road surface worsened.   I had to stop a few times (as I'd done the previous year), and with the quadruple whammy of the nastiest corrugations yet, plus loose steep road surface and the oxygen levels associated with 3300m above sea level, decided discretion was the better part of valour, and did a tactical walk near the very top.   

Phase 3:  Gravel section after the Visitors' Center

About a kilometre before the end of the gravel, I'd met Sarah coming down the hill.  Unfortunately, she'd pulled the pin on her own attempt to summit, citing both concern for me and unpleasantly slow progress.  Her plan was to return to the car, then drive up after me.   I urged her not to, and told her I'd be OK to continue on my own.

I'd made lousy progress on my food and bottles - there's so little oxygen in the air, drinking is tough going.  The attention the corrugations demanded also made it hard to manage the bike with a bottle in hand.  As I stashed my near-full water bottle behind the arm-co barrier at the end of the gravel, I'd have been disappointed to know that while I'd ridden almost 100% of the last section, I'd still lost almost 2 minutes and was now almost half an hour behind break-even schedule.  

I knew how far I had left to ride, and knew I wanted to improve on my previous time, but extrapolation was impossible to do with any accuracy.  So, I pressed on, optimistically.

It didn't take me long to realise I was in trouble.  Last year I'd had to use the full width of the road to lessen the gradient, and I'd relied on strength to turn the pedals at a very low cadence.  This time, I had the gearing I needed to keep the pedals turning, but was struggling to find the energy to do so.

The previous evening's entertainment had been an experience of a lifetime...

Somehow the notion of dropping $120 NZD to hire four clunker bikes when we had two of our own back at base didn't seem like a great idea at the start of this 15km walk...

People living on the lava...  I hope their rates bill is suitably low.

The smoke in the background showing the path of the 61g lava flow

The 61g flow entering the ocean at Kamokuna

... but the 3.5 hour walk, during which we covered 15km, had been an unfamiliar activity, and it surely was partly responsible for the collapse of my legs on the upper reaches of Mauna Kea.

It was hard to understand exactly what was going on in the engine room.  When I was on the bike, the pedals turned easily.  I felt no need to use the full width of the road, and even wondered if that would show up in the "distance" travelled by the bike.  Nonetheless, it was difficult to maintain a straight line for very long at all, and I began a series of excursions into the ditch - one of which was almost at a right angle, and I was lucky not to pitch over the bars and faceplant.

Sarah arrived with the car, and I immediately jettisoned my pump, tube, multitool, and seat bag.  I registered no improvement in my upward momentum as a result, and completely forgot to ditch my helmet.

The summit was always agonisingly close.  I had a trivial distance left to ride - only a handful of kilometres - and "plenty" of time in which to do it.  Except that I wasn't riding at usual speeds, and there wasn't plenty of time at all.

The psychological doldrums struck soon enough.  "Going faster" is a wholly different motivation to "getting to the top".  The latter hangs around right until the moment you succeed, whereas the former is wont to switch into demotivation once success is off the table.

Being kept an eye on...
I tried various strategies to keep myself going, one of which was a commitment not to drive to the summit if I stepped off my bike.  "If you want to admire the view, you've got to get there yourself" seemed like a helpful motivator, despite being an empty threat.

I can see over a dozen points in the data below at which I stopped my bike and contemplated giving up for good.  The last of these was spitting distance from the summit (perhaps literally, given the rarefied air).  I was maybe 200m from the top, and I was genuinely weighing up the merits of continuing.  The video quality isn't great, but I find it shocking to see both the proximity to the summit, and the ease with which the pedals spin when I finally get going.

By the time I made the end of the road, I'd lost 40 minutes on my former self, and had covered the final 5.7km in 1 hour 50 minutes.  A suitably acclimatised sloth would've kicked my arse.

Phase 4: to the Summit 

I'd anticipated wanting to rush off the summit again, so had been careful to regularly remind myself to look around once I got there.  There was no triumphant bike loft, and indeed Sarah had packed my bike into the car before I'd had a chance to think about a memento.

I did try to look around, but have no lasting memory of it.  I guess a 4200m peak in the middle of the world's largest ocean doesn't actually provide a good view of anything, at least not below.  There's a reason the telescopes are all pointing into the heavens, I suppose.

After a few minutes, I grabbed a wheel from the car, and asked Sarah to grab a happy snap.

The summits of Mauna Kea (foreground) and Mauna Loa (background) rise above the clouds

We had a long stop at the Visitor Center, where I struggled to move.  My legs were wrecked in a way they hadn't been the previous year - we'd happily set off on a ride the next day, last time, and I'd felt no obvious  ill effects.  In contrast, this time I staggered around like a drunk man for the best part of 24 hours (walking is bad, mkay...).

Despite losing 1 hour 5 minutes overall, I was intrigued to find when we got home that of the 24 Strava segments on the ride, I'd been slower on every single one!   My ego was about as deflated as my empty water bottle.

Sea-level air pressure on the outside, 4200m asl air on the inside

Sarah seemed to be hiding her disappointment well, if indeed she felt any.  The daughters hadn't fared any better with their day - while Easter Sunday had been the optimal weather day for the bike ride, it had proved to be a lousy day for a trip to the mall, and the girls had had to make do with a return visit to Walmart.

* * *

I've thought a lot about this ride since returning home.  The whole biking thing has been a bit of a sore point since we were gouged about $400NZD per bike in oversized baggage fees (despite our allowance of 8 x 23kg bags, Hawaiian charges $150USD per International leg to and from NZ - caveat emptor).  No point crying over spilt milk, but I'm also keen not to make the same mistake(s) again.  

Cost aside, I don't regret taking a bike back to the Big Island, and I definitely don't regret riding up Mauna Kea again.  I got the closure I wanted, despite the outcome.  

The biggest take-home for me is the following:  if you set yourself a goal, don't fuck around with half-measures.  Alternatively, align your expectations with your resourcing.  

If I was to ride Mauna Kea a third time, and to be honest, that seems very unlikely, full support would be a bottom line.  If I'd stopped to imagine how fast my pump etc would be falling if dropped from 4200m, I'd have realised how much energy would be needed to get them to the top.  There's no point trying to go fast and expecting that all to happen on the bike.  The biggest time gains are in the logistics, I now realise.  

Failing support, the point would simply be to get up and down safely, to take dozens of photos on the way up, and to sit on the side of the road from time to time to admire the view.  

A foot in each camp is madness, and simply won't work.  I suppose it is simple physics.  

I've been following the state of US politics with morbid fascination, and have just watched a video of Obama reminding a group of college students of some of the pitfalls of modern technology.  As fantastic a resource as Strava is (e.g. the global heatmap was a great way to identify a safe route for a shakedown ride), it can distort the purpose of riding a bike.  Just because we can now compare ourselves to an unknown chunk of the riding population in the Strava-era, and marvel at the likes of Everest rides (including one of Mauna Kea recently) or Amanda Coker's remarkable smashing of the Highest Annual Milage record, it doesn't mean that we should judge every ride on that basis.

As I sit here cataloguing my biggest cycling wins, the things that immediately come to mind are breathtaking views, cold mountain air moving like a freight train down valley floors, getting from A to B under one's own steam, unexpected encounters with flora and fauna, sharing time with my wonderful wife and daughters, and great mates over the years.  The things I envy:  not Brendan or David's prowess and accomplishments, but the fact that they both saw a pod of orcas a few metres off-shore last week.  Relative to these memories, and hopes, the odd medal or trophy or record, and certainly a bunch of "virtual" trophies which would fall in a moment to any of a multitude of people if they were so inclined, are all meaningless in comparison.  

Thanks for the tickle up, Mauna Kea.  I owe you one.