Project Endurance

When we arrived back at the base of the hill, I got off my bike and walked slowly under the awning. I was exhausted. The sun’s heat beat upon me unobstructed by clouds and my clothes felt tight and uncomfortable. I was sweating profusely, and no wonder: I was bundled up considerably. On my legs I wore a pair of long pants under a layer of bike shorts; my upper body was wrapped in electrodes bound by tape and covered by a bike shirt. My feet sweated in bike shoes and my head baked under a helmet. As I walked in the tent I turned stiffly, unable to rotate my head, and sat down in a chair. Someone handed me a cold drink.

We were in Bishop, California for Red Bull Project Endurance. I was one of six athletes chosen to participate in a study led by 15 of the most respected sports scientists in the world. Using some of the most sophisticated technology available anywhere in the world, we spent four days in the eastern Sierra exercising at high intensity while hooked up to more wires and sensors than I could count. At any one point during the testing I was wearing upwards of $50,000 worth of medical equipment on my person, and with this came the constant attentions of concerned doctors forever fiddling with details and sensor positionings. Knowing very little about the precise purpose of any one test, I submitted willfully to all of them in the hopes that I would eventually be able to wade through the data to find meaning.

On the first day, we drove from Bishop to Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley National Park. At an elevation of precisely zero we utilized Red Bull’s state-of-the-art mobile training center to find our lactate thresholds, VO2 maxes, and power indexes (or something like that). In the process, the various electrodes and sensors did things like measuring the electrical activity in my legs, real-time blood flow through my legs and brain, the activity of my heart in several ways, my blood-glucose levels, my O2 and CO2 output, and probably much more. We did all of our testing on stationary bikes firmly installed in a semi-truck trailer filled to bursting with technology and medical equipment, and in the midst of a crowd of scientists bumping into each other. On top of all this, the outside temperature was hovering just above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Though I felt somewhat overwhelmed, I quickly realized that what we were doing was actually pretty cool.

The reason I was there was quite simple. A quick email exchange and phone call between myself and Red Bull’s high-performance manager, Per Lundstam, had resulted in my booking flights straight from Anchorage to Mammoth Lakes in mid-May. I suppose Red Bull was looking for endurance athletes to test, and they took Karl Meltzer’s suggestion to invite me, something for which I am very grateful to Karl. With little introduction, Per asked if I wanted to spend a week with scientists and athletes testing our endurance, and with little hesitation I replied yes, thinking that even if it wasn’t so good I could at least get valuable data for training. And that’s all it took.

Our day in Death Valley was hot and uncertain. We were unsure of what to do or how to do it. Everyone was still meeting each other and learning how to do their jobs in the most efficient way possible. I had never worn so much equipment in my life, and had only done a VO2 max test once before, on a treadmill in Colorado Springs. When I got on the bike I found I had many questions about how to even ride a bike well. Particularly vexing was finding an RPM rhythm that was most efficient. I spent a lot of time in the low 70’s range before seeing Rebecca Rusch behind me pedaling like crazy. I then ramped it up to a more reasonable 90 and kept it at that rate for the rest of the test.

The test itself was both fun and painful, surprising and routine. I pedaled against a steadily increasing load for about thirty-five minutes, then stopped for eight. Then I pedaled as long as I could with the power increasing by twenty-five watts every minute. My strength failed in less than ten minutes. Twenty minutes later I pedaled as long as I could at 25% more watts than I had reached during the VO2 max test. This was all extremely difficult for a guy like me who does little high-intensity work, and particularly after coming straight from three weeks of almost no running in Alaska. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the workouts and the experience. All that I saw and did was very thought-provoking, and I knew I could use this to build fitness for the summer running season.

The second day, we repeated the same tests at altitude. At 9,200 feet, we could see across the Owens River Valley to the Sierra crest beyond, and the mountains looked to be in fine running condition. Less beautiful were my graphs. Having felt strong and healthy the day before, my tests at altitude were markedly reduced in power and output. This was predictable, but vexing nonetheless. I found that even though I had been at a reasonable altitude in Alaska, my lack of specific training meant I did not have as much power as usual. Though determined, I simply did not have the power I sought. This problem was only assuaged by my many imagined future link-ups of the incredible Sierra peaks beckoning in the distance.

Red Bull treats its people right. Each night we slept in a beautiful home overlooking Bishop, with mountains all around us. We ate healthy, satisfying food cooked by a nutritionist and chef. We reviewed our data and talked of how to improve results. Working together in close quarters for four days, the 20-something of us found that we were very similar in many respects. Though we all came from vastly different backgrounds, we all had the desire to maximize potential and improve our knowledge of the various processes involved in doing so. Having known none of these people before the trip began, except for Karl, and knowing how different we all were, I found myself relating to and admiring every single person at the camp in a unique manner. I realized that the diverse people around me were going to be the defining parameters of this experience.

To say we had a diverse group would be an understatement. I would say we had a good cross-section of every aspect of endurance sports. On the bottom level we had the athletes. We were six – long-distance motocross rider, Kendall Norman; cyclocross rider, Tim Johnson; triathlete, Kirsten Sweetland; mountain biker, Rebecca Rusch; some guy named Karl Meltzer; and myself. We were the focus of the camp, scientifically.

Then we had people who understood the tools of our trade. A guy for the bikes and bike computers, a guy for the ride support, a guy for the gear, and a guy with TrainingPeaks to show us how to use all the data we gathered. And above that we had the scientists doing the science. These people were the real focus of the camp because they had the knowledge to extract meaningful data from quality testing and apply it to real-world settings. Each person had a specific focus–such as cardiac output or blood testing–and us athletes were forever pausing to submit to some test or another. Over the five days we were together, we became very close with each other, as people do when working in tight quarters and (for the athletes, at least) more than half naked. We quickly became good friends.

After two days of testing on stationary bikes, we were ready for a change. So the third day we rode real bikes 20 miles uphill. The testing equipment was the same as before, but we found new challenges to overcome, such the two electrodes taped to our necks, which almost completely prohibited lateral motion of the head. To make things even better, the sensor-fied shorts that we had to wear to measure blood flow didn’t have butt pads. But riding a bicycle requires butt pads. (Is there a technical term for this?) So we had to double up our layers to keep us comfortable, which ironically made us uncomfortable. This was an ongoing issue. From our start at the bottom of the valley we rode “easy” (Tim Johnson easy) up the Lower Rock Creek Road, along the Old Sherwin Grade road, along 395 for half a mile, and then about six more miles up normal Rock Creek Road. The vertical gain was about 4,000 feet over 19 miles, and boy, you can really feel that vertical gain on a bicycle.

Once at the top, however, we got to do the fun part. After the standard pricked-finger blood tests, I jumped back on the bike with Tim and Rebecca and began a descent that reminded me why road biking can be so awesome. Hauling ass down curvy mountain roads is really fun. Using the Quarc bike computer on my handlebars, I clocked us for most of the descent at around 45 mph. But towards the bottom the road got really steep and the wind turned to our backs and, with just a little bit of pedaling, I topped 50 mph. A premium accomplishment, if I may be so bold.

However, at about the moment I realized I was going 50 mph on a bike, I also realized I was going fifty miles per hour on a bicycle. A brief flash of panic ripped through me. A single mistake would leave me a crumpled heap of shredded skin on the side of the road. Then I realized I was acting like an adult who thinks things through and worries about consequences, which was kind of depressing. So I tried to speed up again and got the speed wobbles and the fear returned. With this degenerative cycle racing through my head, I coasted into the final climb of the day and downshifted until I could start pedaling uphill like I’m used to.

The next day was the hardest of all, but also the most satisfying. We began the day with a ride down the hill from our houses to the Pine Creek Road in the bottom of the valley. Once there, we got wired up and did our best to stay fueled and hydrated. (Those are athlete terms for eating and drinking.) When everyone was ready to go, we did a four-mile warmup and then lined up on Pine Creek. They lined us up and started us at two-minute intervals. Before long I was pedaling as hard as I could up the road with no idea where I would get to stop. The time trial had begun.

The scientists had intentionally withheld the distance from us, saying only that we would have to ride between 4.5 and nine miles. The point was to see our efficiency in the unknown or something like that, but the result was, like, really hard. I charged as hard as I could up the hill for what felt like forever, straining my eyes at every curve to see the finish line. The sun was merciless, beating down upon my back and neck. The road was a steady uphill grade of five-to-seven percent, and with each pedal stroke I felt my legs filling more and more with lactic acid. After what felt like an eternity (they had taped our bike computers so we had no feedback), I found that my legs simply couldn’t sustain the same wattage as before, and I dropped down to my absolute lowest gear, pumping as hard as I could and sometimes even standing up to gain leverage. Turn after turn went by with no finish in sight. And then I saw it. All I could do was inch across the line. When I finished I nearly collapsed off my bike.

Soon enough, however, I was feeling better. Though the day was still hot, I had a cool drink in hand and a snack. I was sitting under a tree cheering on the people behind me, and not long after that we all rode down the hill together, which further cooled us with the wind. Typical of me, however, I charged down the hill, pedaling as hard as I could to gain speed. So when I reached the trailer in the valley, I walked under the awning as described in the first paragraph of this (fascinating) article. Pretty beat up, but satisfied at the effort. I looked forward to a big meal and a shower in the afternoon, and maybe even a jog. But it was not to be.

Per walked under the awning and gathered everyone around him. “Well guys, good work. I’m super happy with your effort,” he began. We all looked at him suspiciously. If we were going to pack up and leave, why did we need a pep talk? I was suddenly aware that all the medical equipment was still attached to me. In previous tests we had been unhooked as soon as we finished. He continued, “That test was designed to test your efficiency over an unknown distance. Now that we have done that, what’s next?” He looked at us pointedly. He looked at us as if we had an answer. We looked back at him blankly. A moment of heavy stillness passed. Then from somewhere behind me I heard Rebecca’s voice, “we don’t have to do another one.”

I laughed. Everyone laughed. We were all friends. We were used to making jokes. This was funny. What was next? Maybe some cold beer and pizza? Maybe some creek baths and afternoon naps? Maybe even, if we felt super industrious, some data review? But certainly, definitely, absolutely not another time trial. I kept my eyes on Per, who was smiling slightly, and he didn’t move. Then he said, “We’ll start again at 1:30. Make sure to get some food and water in so you feel good.” And then I knew there was no hope, and I would have to kill him and everyone else there, and I reached for my hunting knife.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten to attach it to my spandex bike shorts, so after a long period of considerably vehement denial I ate a bagel with jelly and got a short massage and drank of lot of electrolyte drink, and then we had to suit up and go again. I don’t really want to go into the details. The second time trial was awful. Even worse than the first. It lasted more than 35 minutes, and for every one of those minutes, I felt negative. At the top I wanted to rip all those electrodes off and melt into the pavement. But I (mostly) kept my cool and didn’t lose any friends, and soon enough we were back at the trailer at the bottom, high-fiving and making jokes again. Things like that usually pass pretty quickly, but that doesn’t justify a bad attitude. I don’t have any excuses. I should have been better.

Tim had the fantastic idea to ride home, so he, Kirsten, Rebecca, UK-based-sweat-scientist, Andy Blow, and I got back on the bikes for the last few miles up the hill. Karl and Kendall had much more sense than us and simply caught a ride home in one of the vans. I thought our ride home was a good idea until we started going uphill, and then I realized our ride home was the biking equivalent of my last 25 miles at Hardrock last year. A total slog. A quiet sufferfest. Deep in the pain cave, I beat my chest and rended the flesh from my own legs with bared teeth and wild eyes. Little had I realized that our descent that morning–seemingly eight or nine miles–was actually 15 miles with 2,000 feet of climbing. Tacking that onto the end of the day we had just had, and following immediately after the previous day’s hard ride, and not being in shape or even someone who would call himself a cyclist, that kind of hurt. A lot. I don’t know how to describe it, but if you’ve been there you know. It’s the kind of challenge that makes you stronger mentally.

By the end of the day I had ridden more than 60 total miles, and more than 12 of them at maximum effort. I was pretty beat. But that’s the best feeling of all, and after a big meal and a cool shower, I took a nap and appreciated the feeling of sinking perfectly into comfortable bedsheets and oblivion. Nothing compares to the feeling of worth after a hard workout.

Project Endurance began to wind down. That night we endured several hours of data review, which was actually fascinating in many ways but when tacked onto the end of a day like that was pretty painful to watch. All of the information transmitted from the sensors on our bodies was graphed and overlapped and the result was a really cool overview of our levels of effort, our strengths and weaknesses, and our limiting factors. All this data will be highly useful to us in the future for training. But at the time I could do little more than stare at the people speaking and visualize words jumping out of their mouths and bumping into each other and breaking apart into nonsense that spilled all over the floor in a pile of meaningless vocabularic rubble.

On Sunday, we did about 20 miles on the bikes with no sensors, and on top of a hill we did some interviews and photos and that sort of thing. While riding back down the hill I nearly died with a super-sketchy pass at 50 mph around an RV with oncoming traffic. But I survived it and learned that you don’t mess around with cars ever, and especially not at 50 mph, and especially not ever. Lesson learned. Then lunch. Then packing. Then airports and airplanes until nearly 1:00 in the morning. As I write this, I almost feel that the last week was a dream. From a hectic and unfamiliar environment I have now returned to a predictable and familiar landscape, and I can’t help but question the veracity of my senses. The comparison seems too extreme. Surely I couldn’t have been there then if I am here now. But I know I was, because I can feel the positive energy within me.

This past month has been a revelation for me. Always in the past I have returned from long trips almost disappointed. What had once been a fantastical dream was now a known entity, the romance and excitement dissipated in the doing. But on this trip, to Alaska and then to California, I finally broke away from my insecurities. Red Bull’s Project Endurance was a quantifiable step forward in understanding endurance sports from a physiological point of view. But for me it was more than that. It was an affirmation of self, a lesson in others, a choice for the future.

A new page has been turned; a new light has been cast. The world of mountain running is dynamic and exciting. The world of mountain climbing is more versatile than ever. The things that I love, and the people with whom I love to do them, are available and ready to go. The only limits remaining are imagination, and with the list of ideas growing every day, I don’t think we’re going to run out of that anytime soon. I’m not alone in feeling like this. The world in which we train, compete, and socialize is growing and changing every day, and people are setting and accomplishing goals with a rapidity unheard of just a few years ago. We have a long way to go, and I couldn’t ask for a greater blessing than that.