Friday, April 20, 2018

A Virtual Everest - one bite at a time

Back in November last year, a small team of us at Victoria University of Wellington were brainstorming on what sort of initiatives at work would mesh nicely with my fundraising goals and advancing conversations about mental health within the university environment.

One Saturday afternoon, I wrote: "Had a silly idea yesterday to Everest Kelburn parade. It would take 385 ascents of the straight bit of road. Reminded me of the joke about how to eat an elephant. Symbolic of starting something that seems insurmountable at first...".  The cycling link to university work (for staff or students) seemed somewhat tenuous, but as the months went by, I became increasingly convinced that an Everest attempt was actually a very good analogy for work that is commonplace.

The "six week dip" is when the rubber hits the road for many students - orientation activities are over, and while the hangovers might well have faded, they're replaced by headaches on account of the first major assessment dates.

I touched base with Hayden about the merits of an Everest (riding up and down the same stretch of road until 8,848 vertical metres are climbed, the height of Mt Everest), and he suggested it would be fine so long as it was in an easy week, and so when the end of the TDF Team's third training block looked to coincide with week 3 of trimester, the project team and I started planning for an expo highlighting the role of physical exercise in facilitating good mental processes.

As the date loomed, HR all but vetoed an on-road attempt, but before getting told "no", I proposed I try Virtual Everesting instead.  As much as I hated to admit it, it was a much better format for what we were trying to achieve.  My only apprehension was the voyage into the unknown...


The setup for a traditional Everesting is pretty simple:  you need a hill, a bike, and a GPS recorder.  On the other hand, a virtual Everesting ride is done within a computer game called Zwift, hooked up to a computer-controlled "smart-trainer".

I don't own one, so was very lucky that Capital Cycles were willing to lend me one for the day - yet another generous act on their part in my direction.

Once I'd got it home, the first task was to master the critical u-turn feature.  On a real road, the major concern is not getting squashed, but in Zwift, executing the turn seemed best achieved using the smart-phone companion app rather than my tablet.

The climb remained a mystery until the day before the event, but when I got home from work on Monday, I was able to ride the hill I'd selected for the first time.  I'd picked out a Leith Hill segment, largely by virtue of its 7% average gradient, and 134m gain per ascent.  I'd need to do it 66 times to complete the challenge.

The hill was part of only one of the pre-defined London loops on Zwift, and I rode the whole thing before realising I could take a shortcut or two to get to the base of the climb (no driving out there in Zwift!).  The day would begin with a 10km ride, with 150m of climbing in it, and the climb itself was much more lumpy that the strava data had indicated, but the die was cast...

Given I was going to be stuck in one place all day long, I approached my favourite cafe at the Kelburn campus, to see if they would be interested in looking after me through the day.  Hamish and Bryson are two employees there, and both Rongotai Old-Boys (a discovery I made only when taking mum - Deputy Principal at Rongotai for many years - to The Lab for coffee one day).  Hamish chatted to the bosses, and gave me the thumbs up a few days out, both making my life simpler, and my legs stronger in one fell swoop.

The Tacx Neo trainer Capital had lent me was set up for a 130mm rear hub spacing, so the 135mm Crowe-Rishworth was going to spend the day in the garage.  I was slightly nervous about this, since I've barely ridden anything else since I got it.  But, the irony of riding the lightest bike in my stable on this particular hill challenge was delicious.  My BMC racing machine got the nod a few days after it had emerged from Oli's workshop with a medium cage rear derailleur to cope with a wide range 11-32 tooth cassette.

The wonderful Danny Ryan at Ultimo Clothing worked wonders yet again, and Sarah was able to three new pairs of Victoria University bib-shorts for me at the very last minute.

They were thrown into a basket with various other bits and pieces, many of which didn't get used: surplus items included a different saddle, various tools, a spare pair of shoes, and an MTB-orienteering map holder.  On the other hand, three sets of riding gear, honey roasted peanuts and a tub of Sweet Cheeks Butt Butter were integral to the day's activities...

Various essentials, and insurances:  two pairs of shoes, a few sets of clothing, honey roasted peanuts, Sweet Cheeks Butt Butter, a spare saddle, donation bucket and a few tools.  

While I was getting myself sorted, I'd received the txt:
Good luck for tomorrow Johnno!  A significant donation relies on you keeping on going...
To which I'd replied "I'm shitting myself somewhat..."   As if the expo hadn't put me on the hook enough, I'd also emailed my colleagues within the Victoria Business School letting them know what I was up to.  Oh, and told my 700 statistics students.  I'd have to explain failure to quite a number of people, if it came to that!

My plan was to arrive at work by 7am, so the alarm was set for 5-something, and I hit the sack feeling like there was nothing else I could do to change the outcome of the day.


I started the day with a cheesy-omelette, some streaky bacon and a few of Gladstone's finest mushrooms, all washed down with a couple of coffees.  It was a bit early for some of my usual morning processes, and as a result, the weigh-in was slightly disappointing.  I dutifully increased my weight in Zwift by a kilogram (to 86), making my day that little bit harder - the computer would tweak the resistance in the trainer to mimic the additional effort of hauling that extra weight.

Sarah and I arrived at Victoria University's Kelburn Campus just before 7am, and by the time I'd retrieved a trolley stashed in the faculty office in the Murphy building, Sarah had started unloading the car.  It had felt very strange leaving the rear wheel of the bike at home...!

I was already in my cycling gear, so it didn't take long to set up the trainer and my bike.  Trish, one of the project team, was there soon after we were, thus beginning a long day for all of us.

I jumped on the bike at 7:14am, and began my unusual commute - it took just over half an hour to get to the start of the segment I'd spend the rest of the day on.

As my legs warmed up, so too did the university - Jonny and Adrian had set me up to share my Zwift screen within a Zoom meeting, and that feed was then picked up by a set of four large TVs over my left shoulder.  Various posters around the place let passers-by know what I was up to, and it wasn't long before people were dropping by to donate.

Shift-one. TDF training kit

Aside from the fundraising aspect, doing this challenge in a public place meant I was never short of distractions.  Only once did that cost me - the bottom of the segment was not the bottom of the hill, so once, engrossed in conversation, I completely missed the long-press on my phone to enact the u-turn, and had to add another 20m to my "unnecessary" climbing tally.

My on-road everest had taken a total of 14.5 hours, with about 2 of those off the bike.  This was proving to be a very different experience, and it wasn't until the 5-hour mark that I'd amassed 3000m of climbing.  To celebrate, I treated myself to a new set of riding gear, and a bit more Sweet Cheeks.

Shift-two.  "I'm supporting the Mental Health Foundation"

Aside from the rate of progress, everything was going well.  The fan I'd set up on the floor was perfect, and I was neither too hot nor too cold.

The Lab had been looking after me very well indeed, with occasional coffees, and slices of quiche.  I was well on my way through a bag of honey-roasted peanuts, and Sarah had brought in half a dozen soft-boiled eggs (peeled!!) which went down the hatch very nicely indeed.  From time to time, a kind volunteer would venture up to the Maclaurin building to fill my bottle with cold water, and all the while, online and cash donations kept coming in.

On the other hand, the arithmetic of it all was really mind-blowing.  By just after midday, I was a third of the way through the challenge, and assuming there was no way I'd keep that early pace up, it was looking like a late night beckoned.  My legs were already feeling tired, and I'd occasionally have to fight to not think about what remained.   Mostly, I managed to keep that at bay, and so long as my time horizon was a mere 5-10 minutes, pedalling on was simple enough.

One of the things I love about bike riding is the solitude.  Strangely, one of the things I loved about this challenge was the lack of it.  I had a chance to chat to many people I didn't know, but was also visited by family and friends.  Sarah popped in and out, and my parents too.  Lynzi and Mike (who I'd cut a few laps with when he successfully Everested Ngaio Gorge on Christmas Day, 2016) dropped in, during which time a donation by Mike was filmed, netting him a cameo appearance in a short video the Victoria Communications team produced.

My students had their first assignment due in a few days, and while I'd told them I wouldn't be able to respond to them on our online Discussion Board, I'd also invited them to drop by with any queries they might have on the assessment.  It was cool that a handful did, and I was fascinated to notice how my brain instantly snapped out of whatever place it was hiding, and I found more than enough energy to think about, and answer their queries.

At the half-way mark, Kathryn pretty much forced students within earshot to give me a bit of a cheer, and busted out a stunning wolf-whistle of her own!

Psychologically, the last third was much easier than the middle third, where extrapolating to the finish had been incredibly confronting.  I was well entertained by the Rec Centre's annual outdoor Zumba class - about 110 students between 5 and 6pm, they said!

Oli - whose logos I've worn on my shoulders since forever - spent some time observing the madness, and in the evening Simon and Miro swung by, as did Brendan and Fletcher.  My bro Dave came to check-in, and Vaughn hung out for a while too - one of a few bike racers who've passed through my statistics class.

Once I was into single digits, it became only a matter of time.  My Dad, having dropped Mum at the airport, was there, as were Sarah, Kaitlyn and Khulan - just as they'd been waiting at the bottom of Raroa Road for me at the end of that Everest.

Going beyond the call of duty were my wellbeing project team - Trish, Jude and Catherine - we'd put a lot of thought into this event, and while I'd not dreamed they would be cheering me on at 11pm at night, it was lovely to have them there.

To counter a sense of guilt that I was keeping these wonderful people from their beds, I put Tool's Lateralus on quietly, and during Parabola knocked out my fastest ascent of the day - the 5th to last.  And not long after, the job was done.

My wonderful cheer-squad!

Thankfully, things didn't take long to pack up, and we were all in our respective beds before the stroke of midnight...!

By the numbers

The elapsed time was 16 hours and 3 minutes, during which time I rode the equivalent of 278km, climbed 9,031m, and spent only 35 minutes off the bike.

My weighted average power for the entire ride was 202W, and as can be seen from the data for a typical interval, I spent most of the climb out of the saddle (the first couple of minutes from 14:34, a few seconds in the middle, and 30 seconds or so fron 14:43).  The hill was a bad choice really, and my hands got hammered with so much weight on them throughout the day (pedalling as per a 13% gradient, but on level ground).

Data for a typical ascent

I got off the bike only six times throughout the day, as evidenced by the six longer times in the bottom left graph.  The vast majority were in the 10-12 minute range.

The numbers I'm really proud of though, were on the financial side.  The Mental Health Foundation received $2674.20 by virtue of the ordeal, including a whopping $1000 from the mystery txt-er.  Most of the remainder was from my amazing colleagues, the majority of whom are staff in the Victoria Business School.

All cash donations were passed to the VUW Student Hardship Fund, which disburses small grants to students in financial dire-straits.  It was wonderful to be able to deposit $1300 into that account, on the condition that it was "new money", over and above the usual funding sources.

The value of the conversation-starter was probably much more.  I've had occasion to speak briefly to the Vice-Chancellor about the day, and told him I was both gladdened and saddened by the number of disclosures I'd since received about struggles with poor mental health.  I guess the problem is there whether we're talking about it or not, so giving people the confidence to speak about it openly, can only be a good thing.

As fundraising gimmicks go, this was a good'un.  Aside from the late night, I really don't think it could have gone any better.

This was hard, in an overall sense.  As mentioned, thinking about what remained was the worst bit.  Focussing on the present, and actually doing it, were not so bad - more or less the opposite of the top section of Mauna Kea, where the present is the truly miserable bit, and what remains doesn't even register.  (I can't say I recommend either...!)  I very much doubt a single day in France will be as tough as this day was, physically or mentally, and I'm sure that'll be something I'll remind myself of when the going gets tough.

Thanks to all those who dropped by, donated, or wondered how I was going.

Thanks to the project team and my family, students, colleagues and friends who dropped by, donated, or simply wondered how I was getting on.   Special thanks to sponsors Roadworks Bicycle Repairs, Capital Cycles and The Lab.

My personal highlight

Since I joined the university as a student in 1992, I've enjoyed the intellectual might of the institution.  It is freakin' cool to be constantly around such smart and eager-to-learn people, staff and students alike.

At times we might be accused of being out of touch with "the real world" (a most-hated term by some of my Academic Committee colleagues, since when used it implies the converse is happening everywhere else), we largely control our own syllabi, and can change things at a moment's notice if a learning opportunity arises.

When Prof. Annemarie Jutel walked past mid-morning, she saw an opportunity to challenge her Health and Wellbeing 101 class on what it means to be healthy and/or well.

Created mid-morning, in advance of a 1pm lecture
She wrote to me afterwards:

Having to confront the relationship between mental health and physical health, as well as recognising that many things which count as “disease” can be managed, treated, and palliated and not interfere with health was pedagogically very useful.  (well, we don’t know if you are “healthy”:  we just know that you are fit, and your wellbeing is deeply personal, and can’t be assumed.  We also know that you may very well consider yourself to be healthy, but everyone might not.

While I'm sure Annemarie had other examples up her sleeve, it was nice to be part of the university doing its thing.  Not to mention, incredibly empowering to be so open about my own mental health (she told them, with my permission, that I'm taking two medications daily to treat my depression).

* * * * * 

This blog describes a fundraising project for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
  • Nearly 50% of New Zealanders will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, and one in five will have experienced a mental illness this year.
  • Depression is set to overcome heart disease as the biggest global health burden by 2020.
  • The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) is a charity that works towards reducing stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. We provide free support, training, and resources for anyone who is going through a difficult time, or for people who are supporting loved ones.
To make a donation, visit  Any contribution, big or small is greatly appreciated, and will be put to good use by the fine folk at MHF.


  1. Epic! Congratulations on a job really well done

  2. As always you knock me out with your incredible feats! Well done on all accounts, John. You're amazing.

  3. Excellent, John. You continue to inspire.