Ultra endurance ride

13 Questions with Frank Kurzawa about Everest Challenge

By Frank Kurzawa 12/3/2016 10 minutes

How did you find out about doing the Everest Challenge?
Another guy did an Everest on Big View last summer. Someone somewhere posted a link to his strava ride. I've always been intrigued by people who do these ultra endurance things, but never considered them worth the pain and extended training time: I've got a life off the bike after all, and if you're going to race the distance you need to train the distance. But for some reason, as soon as I saw this thing, I knew I had to do it. Maybe because it wasn't a competition: I do enough of racing already, and this was just me against a hill on my own terms and no one else's. Plus Everest. I could never climb Everest; even if I had the physical ability (I don't) my vertigo would get me. I don't kid myself — this is a tiny, tiny thing compared to really climbing Everest. But the name. You gotta love the name
What kind of food and drink did you consume during the challenge? Did it go as expected?
I took my food and drink lessons from my many years of doing Tour das Hugel. Hugel is only 7 hours, and only a little over 10,000 feet of climbing; on the other hand I'm forced to ride it with something approaching race like intensity, at least for the first loop, and I don't do anything longer so it's my best approximation of what I would need to do for an Everest. On Hugel I've always found peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at rest stops to be great food. They would be way to heavy for a real race, but they're excellent nutrition for more measured efforts. So I bought a loaf of good bread and turned the whole thing into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the night before. A few were just jelly sandwiches for a quicker sugar boost. During the ride I quickly got into a pattern of doing 6 repeats then taking a short break to wolf down a half sandwich, drink fluids, pee, and stretch. This worked out to about 6 climbs per hour. And I ate the whole loaf of sandwiches by the end. For fluids I mixed up a huge cooler of Cytomax, which is really light and easy to drink. I often don't drink enough and having something that is refreshing and goes down well and has lots of electrolytes is important for me. I went through about 3 gallons during the ride. My secondary food was overripe bananas. They're super soft and moist and were easy to eat in the middle of the day when it was warmer and the peanut butter was harder to swallow. And the final piece of the puzzle was pickle juice. This is another thing that I always try to get when Hugelling. It's like mainlining electrolytes. I bought a whole case and drank all but two during the Hugel. Thanks to Dennis Lastochkin for reminding me about pickle juice. Early on (I started at 3:15 am), when it was cool, I could only drink a bottle about every two hours. But between about noon and five pm I was drinking two bottles an hour plus two pickle juices. The result was, I was never hungry or thirsty during the ride, although I couldn't pee after about 11 am until about 7 pm due to the warmer temperatures.
A lot of people that go on very long endurance events start to sing to themselves and hallucinate a bit. Did you ever dip into that zone?
Not even close! Although I have to say that after it got light and I had people with me during the day, I was constantly and pleasantly distracted. I think the people that are out doing events that are more than 24 hours are the ones that go into the weird zone. I had gotten a lot of great advice from our local King of Endurance (Andrew Willis), and he had warned me about hitting energy lows after the sun goes down and riding in the middle of the night. That's a large part of the reason that I started so early. I didn't want to be out on that hill flying down at high speeds until the next day!. You can take as long as you want to do your Everst, but you it has to be one ride with no sleep. The guy you did it in 2015 took a little over 24 hours. I calculated it wouldn't take me that long, and thank goodness it didn't. LOL
How long did it take you? Did you slow down towards the end? How was your progress and pace?
It took just a little over 18 hours and about 15 1/2 hours of that was actual ride time. Those little breaks that I took every hour add up to real time after awhile but I wouldn't do it any other way. Amazingly, I never slowed down, possibly because I was so intimidated and scared at the start that I never started out very fast. I was completely alone for the first 4 hours until it got light. And to tell you the truth, those first hours I was in a really dark place. After an hour, my quads were already getting really angry with me. So I knew that there's no way I would ever get halfway through it. Getting even a quarter through it would be hard. So I spent all the time in the dark getting pissed at myself of so widely advertising what I was doing. And I tried to figure out how I could explain to everyone how I managed to have such an epic fail. Mark Dawson was the first person I saw: he lives near there and he rode up the hill with me at about 6:30 or 7 on the way to the Mellow Johnny's Sunday ride. By then I had completed most of the first quarter of my Everest and my legs weren't feeling any better but I also wasn't feeling any worse. After that it was getting light and people started showing up in a steady stream. Allen Turner showed up really early. Some of the guys from the Day Old Bagel Ride swung by. A group of people from the Bicycle Sport Shop ride, most of whom I didn't even know, came by to say hi. VC'er Bryce Billing showed up and climbed over 10,000 feet with me. He only told me later that he left when he did because he was cramping up; I'm really glad that I didn't know that at the time. So by noon or so I had finished half of the Everest and although my quads still felt like they were getting stuck with ice picks, I wasn't feeling any worse than six or seven hours earlier so that was a good sign. Even if I was unable to finish, at least I was now to the point where I had made a credible run at it. But the flip side of it is that as you get further and further along you have more and more blood, sweat, and tears invested in the ride, so you know that if it gets really ugly, you will just have to soldier on no matter what. I was still sticking to my schedule of 6 laps per hour with a short eat/drink/pee/stretch break. Generally for the first lap or two after a break I would feel renewed energy. But after three or 4 laps, I couldn't get to the next break soon enough. What if I started having cramping issues or just so much fatigue that I had to take a break every three laps, then every two laps, then every lap? If that happened I might not finish until sometime on Monday. I knew that I could actually climb the hill at only 2-3 miles per hour without falling over. That would really suck. I'm so thankful that never happened. I reached the three-fourths point on schedule and felt no worse. I finally had the confidence that I would finish and finish well. But around seven pm or so it got dark. Mark Dawson, who had been showing up periodically all day to offer support and help, warned me about the deer that would run out into the road at night. So that started messing with my head real bad. I had been descending at 35-45 mph, and that got me to back off a little. Better to hit the pavement at 25 mph if you have to hit it at all. I finally finished at 9:30 pm. That included an extra 900 feet of climbing (three extra laps). There would be nothing worse than to have Strava disagree with me about how far I had ridden and end up a hundred feet short.
I saw a bunch of people supporting you? How many came and the end did you always have somebody next to you?
This was the best and most unexpected part of the whole adventure. Since I had been talking to people beforehand, I expected a few ne'er-do-wells to show up in the morning. But I figured by noon, everyone would head for the comfort of their living room and it would be back to just me and the hill. Instead it felt like a party out there all day. After daybreak I always had between two and six people riding the hill with me. Sometimes they were so thick they were in my way. Some of them I didn't even know. But mostly they were my best cycling friends and it made the whole thing really special for me in a way that I can't begin to describe and never expected. Dave Henderson led a group of people that just parked and hung out at the top for much of the afternoon, cheering me every 9 minutes. Mark Dawson came back with two small ice coolers - one for the top of the hill and one for the bottom - they were full of ice water and hand towels to drape on my neck during the warm afternoon. Dennis Lastochkin came out with his fixie and his beautiful young daughter and ran up the hill next to me. Even my physical therapist came out in the afternoon with her boyfriend to be sure I wasn't falling apart. Even after dark when the other riders had left, Brandon McKinney hung out with me for the last 90 minutes and 9 laps while we worried about deer and talked about riding, racing, and life in general. My lovely and patient wife, Peggy arrived in the afternoon hung out at the bottom with Jay Bond. After dark they were still planted there, listening to the presidential debate on the car radio but jumping out of their lawn chairs every time I got back down to the bottom to cheer me on. If I took refueling break, Jay would grab my bike and get me anything I needed. I was running out of fluid and Rob Janssen went back to his house and brought me another gallon of Gatorade. Even when I finished, people in the 'hood drove by to stop for a few minutes to help me celebrate. I wished I had stashed a bottle of champagne for the festivities. With all the support the whole eighteen hour adventure seemed to pass in just a few hours.
Can you explain how you choose Far West as the hill to do it on? Would you choose another hill instead now?
That's a great question. In some ways I think this whole ride was nothing but a parlor trick. I'm convinced that with the right planning and sticking to a plan most cat 3 or 4 racers could do this and probably do it quicker than me. The nutrition and pacing were key to the plan, as well as the weather and time of year,but the right hill is potentially most important. Picking the hill is a balancing act between these factors: • Not too shallow: you want to spend your time and energy going uphill, not pushing the wind out of the way, • Not too steep: you're going to have to turn a gear for many, many hours and you can't rely on your strength and fast twitch muscle after you've already been doing it for over a half a day, • Not too variable. Big View is kind of attractive from some perspectives, but that first pitch at the bottom is super steep. No way I would want to do after 12 hours. And then in the center section it gets shallow and you just push air. Lost Creek from Barton Creek has the same problem. • Not too short: you have to stop and turn around at the top and bottom. For me that was 100 times at the top and 100 times a the bottom. If that's 10 seconds each for 200 turnarounds, then that was over 30 minutes just turning around without any altitude gain. A climb that was only 150 feet vertical instead of 300 feet would have wasted twice as much time: an hour, • Not too much traffic. Think about all times of day, and think about in the dark. One of the reasons I didn't use Mesa was because of the traffic where it T's into 2222. • Convenient to town. This sounds pretty secondary and wasn't a big point for me, but it has advantages. It's easier to get people to assist. If you need to make an emergency run to the store or a bathroom (you can't count that part of the ride towards your Everest) then you can. And best of all people come out to support you. Party! I'm happy with my hill choice but I should have worked harder to get lower gearing. Far West is about 10-11% average, so I didn't have to push much wind out of the way. But my Trek Madone would not accept a triple crank, and it wasn't practical to get anything larger than a 32t cog on the rear. That meant that my low gear was a 34t/32t with my compact crank. That sounds plenty low — it's practically 1:1. But I was still climbing at only 45-55 rpm for most of the hill and that's too slow. If my cadence had been 60-70, my quads would not have been nearly as punished by the climb. With a 30-36 - a 10% climb is spinnable.
Anything else you would have done differently? Any ill effects afterwards?
I only had one major issue afterwards. My butt had been reduced to hamburger. I couldn't sit down the next day. Of course standing the next day was not very inviting either, so I had to call in sick to work on Monday. I don't know how I could have dealt with that issue. I know the last third of the ride my butt was burning, which I should have recognized as a warning sign, and I had even brought some spare shorts on Andrew Willis' advice, but it seemed like a relatively minor thing so I didn't bother to change. Maybe that would have made a big difference. Amazingly, although my legs did not feel fresh afterwards they otherwise felt fine. I've felt much worse after Hugel or even after a hard MJ100k. After three or four days it was as if I had never Everest.
Any other thoughts or lessons learned?
I have the most amazing group of friends in the world. And the Austin cycling and racing community is truly a gift to me and to all of us.
What's your favorite race? How has it changed over time?
Umm, not just one. I have done Tour of the Gila for over dozen years. It is hands down the best stage race in the country for amateurs - five days in the rocky mountains. Silver City is a great town with great people who love the race. But it's all mountains and all over 6000 feet. So I suck at it. It's really hard to take my lumps out there year after year, so the fact that I keep going back tells you how much I love it. Locally I 've always had soft spot for Lago Vista/La Primavera. The short punch nature of the climbs on the circuit is something that suits me fairly well. I won my first race out there: I was a cat 5. I got my first good results in a masters race out there. There were some years when I won the masters race both Saturday and Sunday, I've also had epic fails out there, but even then it's somehow an exciting fail.
What bike do you ride? What bikes did you use?
My last two bikes have been Trek Madones. I really like them. I'm sure I could be happy on so many other bikes, but these have been solid for me. I love carbon but I still have my titanium Merlin that I was racing back in the late nineties. Actually, it was replaced three times: I cracked two bottom bracket shells and Merlin warrantied the frame under its lifetime warranty policy And I had it stolen while I was on vacation and my homeowner's policy replaced it so I suppose I'm actually on my fourth Merlin. Back in the early 90's I had one of the those very early Specialized Allez Epics: cylindrical carbon tubes butted into aluminum. I'm glad we don't do bikes that way any more. I also have a CoMotion tandem (steel) that my wife and I have toured on. Unfortunately, I burnt her out on it and I can't get her to ride any more. And I have a 70's steel Motobecane Grand Jubilee that I've set up as a fixie that I sometimes ride on the road. I used to take out on the Veloway in the evening and ride around slow until some fast racers would come around and then I would jump on and concentrate on hanging through all those tight corners where they could cost but I had to pedal through them. I also have a 25 year old vintage Riggio track bike that I used to race at Alkek. I'm really dying to get back on the track, but think I should sell this to a collector sort and race something a little lighter and newer.
If you had to pick one type of rider you are closest to? Would it be Froome? Cancellara? Sagan? Kittel? Greg Van Avermaet? Somebody else entirely.
Seriously? These are pro's and I've never been more than a local amateur; they're my heroes but it's like we don't even do the same sport. In terms of style, I'm not a pure climber or pure time trialist or pure sprinter or pure anything. Training Peaks calls me an All Rounder based on my data and I think that's correct. I guess that makes me like Sagan or Greg Van Avermaet out of that list. If only. Come to think of it, Sagan is a consummate bike handler, even for a pro. I've always been more like a brick on a bike so I don't have that in my arsenal either. I think I have a pretty good 1-5 minute power relative to my long term power.
Does weight training help for cycling in your experience?
There is so much to argue about here and most sports scientists discount weight training for endurance athletes, but here is my own experience: Just a few years after I got serious with cycling and racing, I started a really serious winter weight program for cycling. I did it with my good friend and neighbor Tom, who raced on the US National Track team in the 80's under the tutelage of Eddie Borysewicz. We did Eddie B's plan, which was very regimented, brutally hard, and would break me down: for several months I really couldn't do serious training on the bike due to the demands of the weights. But after one winter of that I was transformed into a new rider. It took me a couple months to get my racing legs under me and then I won just about every race that I entered for that whole spring campaign. I took a lesson from that year and did that same program for about a dozen years even after Tom retired from racing. After awhile I think I had muscles in my shit. But eventually I saw diminishing returns. And as I got older it was harder and harder to flip from the weight training to the bike racing. I would find myself a month behind everyone all spring, and that's always the best racing in Texas. So I pitched the weights completely and replaced them with a lot more foundational bike work in the winter. That transformed me again and suddenly I was racing like I was five or ten years younger. Now I seem to have played that out as well, and I just seem to be an old man. Ultimately we can't beat time. So to get back to the question: did the weight training help? I concluded it did. But I'm just one data point, and I started weight training right when I would be getting stronger as a racer anyway. Maybe the weights actually hurt. I can't say. I do know there is strong evidence of health benefits to resistance training in older adults, so I've been doing a little more weight training just for general health reasons.
How about supplements? Beat juice, Sport Legs, other stuff.
I've tried beet juice supplements but never really gotten serious with them. I think you really need to do pretty significant dosages to get the benefit. My primary supplement is good nutrition. Unlike a lot of racers I get a lot of lean protein in my diet. Not much beef, etc., but lots of lean chicken and whey protein. It's hard to get enough lean protein without supplementing with whey or something similar. And I try to eat a lot of fresh fruits (mostly citrus) and vegetables. Vegetables, especially because the high caloric content of fruit can have detrimental effects on my slim girlish figure. On the bike I drink cytomax or scratch, depending on whether I want to focus on the carbs or the electrolytes. And years ago I started adding glutamine and calcium citrate (carefully measured) to my cytomax and endurox: calcium to address cramping issues and glutamine for muscle rebuilding. I worry about my iron levels. Most cyclists should. As part of the blood test that I get with my annual physical, I be sure to get my hematocrit and ferritin tested. A couple years ago I was not recovering well and a blood test showed my vitamin D to be low so I've taken a vitamin D supplement.


Frank Kurzawa

Frank is one of the best 61 year old kick-ass bike racers around. He's a member of Violet Crown Sport Association.

Some of Franks accomplishments to date:

1st Texas state RR 40+ (1), 45+, 50+, 55+
1st Texas State Crit 50+, 55+, 60+
1st Texas State ITT (1)
1st Texas State Tandem Crit
1st Texas State Track 40+
1st US South Regional Track
1st National Senior Games RR 50-55
1st National Senior Games RR 55-60 (2)
Best recent placing: 2nd Texas State Crit 60+