It's at this time of year that we often look back and take stock of the last 12 months. We think about the things we’ve achieved and the goals we want to conquer in the coming year.
And for endurance cyclist Alex ‘AJ’ Hill, 2019 will always be significant. It was the year he became the first person in the UK to complete a Double Everesting.
Having completed three single Everestings, this year AJ had his eyes set on the double
AJ is no rookie when it comes to Everesting. In fact, when we caught up with him last summer, he’d already completed two individual efforts. In February this year he took on his third - a virtual Everesting on Zwift that took just over 16 hours to complete.
But AJ was chasing a much bigger goal.
“When I do something, rightly or wrongly I take it to the enth degree,” AJ has previously admitted. And this was no exception.
“The idea of doing a Double Everesting really started after I completed my singles. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to know if I could do it. Then I looked online and found no one in the UK had completed one yet, and that really cemented the idea. Why not try and be the first?”
The rules were simple: climb the cumulative height of Everest twice in one ride. That’s 17,696 metres of up. The climbing needs to be done on the same hill or segment, with no loops allowed. No 'free' elevation gain should be achieved.
So how do you go about choosing the right climb?
“I chose a hill in Shropshire close to where I live. A 1.3km climb in total. It was where I completed my first Everest, and having climbed it nearly 400 times before, I could gauge my effort level accurately,” he recalled.
The crest of AJ's climb. Credit: @ajh_cycling
“I parked my car at the top of the climb and tried sticking to 10 repetitions before having a quick break. I’d grab a snack - bread, potatoes, rice cakes and hummus - before jumping back on the bike again.
“I needed to do 224 reps to complete the double. In the end I did 228 to ensure I had done enough. It worked out at 18,207m of climbing and 585km in distance.”
The effort took 45 hours and 31 minutes.
Hells 500, the organisation which set up and now governs the rules on Everesting attempts, permits a cyclist two hours of sleep during a double.
“I slept for 45 minutes after about 12,000m. That was it. I didn’t want to sleep any longer than that in case it blocked my legs. It was easier to just keep going,” AJ explained.
But sleep deprivation wasn’t a new phenomenon to new dad AJ at the time. It turns out his daughter had been unknowingly assisting him with training ever since her arrival into the world 10 months prior.
“With her around I didn’t really sleep any great amount anyway!” AJ joked.
“Mentally, it was unlike anything I've done before... I just felt very numb."
A dedicated endurance cyclist, AJ now has countless audaxes and ultra-endurance races such as the TransAtlantic Way under his belt. But he admitted that of all his challenges, this was his hardest test to date...
“Physically it wasn’t too dissimilar to my other Everestings in that my legs just hurt a lot. Go figure.
“But I think the main difference was the feeling of fatigue rolling over the first 8,848m into the second. Because of the ultra cycling I do I'm used to riding fatigued, but there's usually somewhere to be or more scenery to look at to take my mind off the pain.
“This was different in that I couldn't really break from the pain and so had to just ride through it.
AJ after finishing the double, understandably a bit broken. Credit: @ajh_cycling
“Mentally, it was unlike anything I've done before. It was so draining.
“It only really hit home after I finished, when I just felt very numb. It meant going into a dark place to finish the last 2,000m which were by far the hardest of my cycling career to date.”
It’s clear to see that experience really is key to an event like this. In AJ’s case, the trials and errors of his past endurance events have clearly helped him paint a detailed picture of what he needs to do to have the best shot at an effort like this - from knowing what to eat and when, to bringing the correct kit.
“I’ve had a few instances where I’ve bonked in a big way from eating just sweet stuff. Now I have a mix of sweet and savoury and I find that for me, that balance works really well. It’s also the first Everesting where I ran a food pouch on my bike too, and it was a massive help. I filled it with salted nuts and jelly babies to snack on in between food.
“I also knew the temperature was likely to fluctuate a lot throughout the ride, so I had plenty of kit options with me. I started in summer kit as the early morning was humid, then changed into leg warmers and the thermal long sleeve jersey for the second third of the ride.
“The last third was done in another summer road jersey and leg warmers. I didn't change shorts once during the whole thing, and never felt that I needed to.
So, the question remains, why do all of this?
“I think I see these challenges as a way to test my physical and mental boundaries, and so I convince myself that by completing the challenge I can move on to something else.”
As for what that next “something else” may be, we’ll have to watch this space.