Rebecca Rusch issued a challenge. Durango’s Payson McElveen answered the call, and he set out to gain her respect.
Rusch, one of the world’s most accomplished ultra-endurance cyclists with seven world championships, is also well known for her advocacy work. Last weekend, she challenged the global cycling community in an effort to raise funds for COVID-19 relief. It was widely accepted by athletes who have found themselves away from race start lines because of the cancellation of events caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The objective has become popular in recent years and has found more participants during the time of quarantine and social distancing orders. It was to climb the equivalent elevation gain of the height of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain at 29,029 feet.
In what Rusch named “Giddy Up For Good,” athletes climbed more than 10 million combined feet and helped raise more than $130,000 for COVID-19 relief last weekend. Donations are still being accepted through June 1.
“She’s always been good at poking fun at me for doing shorter distance races compared to her crazy bikepacking stuff,” McElveen said of his fellow Red Bull athlete. “I figured I had to step up to the plate and do the Everesting and maybe finally earn her respect. That’s what I set out to do. The whole thing was unexpectedly awesome.”
‘Everesting’ by the numbersEveresting has gained momentum in the running and cycling communities. Some, such as mountain bike star Keegan Swenson, have gone after record-breaking times. Swenson set the latest Everesting fastest-known time on a bike in 7 hours, 40 minutes, 5 seconds while repeating a road climb in Wasatch Mountain State Park along with former Fort Lewis College cycling star Ryan Standish, as the two teamed up to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
What set McElveen’s attempt apart was his choice of route. Instead of lapping one of the paved mountain passes in Durango, the two-time marathon mountain bike national champion opted to stick to singletrack dirt trails. He selected the Jones Creek Trail.“When I was deciding to do it, I knew I didn’t want to do it the same way everyone else has been doing it, which is on pavement,” McElveen said. “I decided to put my own spin on it and do it off road. It was kind of surprisingly hard to set up in Durango. There’s a lot of awesome trails but not too many with steep, sustained climbs. Jones Creek seemed like the best option.”
Each lap he completed was 4.1 miles with 1,551 feet of climbing at an average grade of 7%. McElveen set out for his first lap at 5:50 a.m. Monday and didn’t finish until 12:40 a.m. Tuesday. He moved for a total of 15 hours, 24 minutes and covered 137.1 miles. While having a bit of trouble with his Garmin GPS device, McElveen conquered an extra lap to make sure he reached the Everesting total. He ended up surpassing the requirement with 30,188 feet of elevation gain.
“It was pretty slow going in the dark,” McElveen said. “I took on this challenge to put my self out of my element for the first time in awhile and do something I wasn’t sure I could even finish. It’s the most time I’ve ever spent on a bike in 24 hours. The longest before that was Dirty Kanza, which is about 10 hours but with more people on the course and people drafting and all that goes into a race like that. This was a very different thing. Dirty Kanza is much different because you aren’t dictating your own pace all the time. This was physically and mentally harder.”
‘Never Forget The Feeling’McElveen, the star of the short film “Standing Man” that chronicled his fastest-known time record ride on the White Rim trail in southeastern Utah, was quickly able to put together a film component around Monday’s ride. But he didn’t want the project to focus on the numbers surrounding his Everesting trip. He wanted to bring the sense of the mantra instilled into young cyclists in the Durango Devo program of “Never Forget The Feeling.”
“I wanted to make it more of a community event if possible,” McElveen said. “I don’t think anyone wants to see racers strut their stuff right now and are a bit tired of that storyline. There are a lot of people just getting into cycling right now. It’s a small silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are buying bikes for the first time or trying outdoor sports for the first time. For a lot of people, a 10- or 15-mile ride is a big challenge they are not sure if they can do. It’s a chance at self discovery.
“Devo talks a lot about that self discovery. No matter how good you get, don’t forget that feeling of how a bike can create the feeling of freedom. The film is going to lean into that mentality of Durango Devo rather than some sort of impressive feat of fitness. I wanted to shy away from the numbers of the day and lean much more into what it means to ride a bike and push your comfort level.”
Cyclists of all generations joined him on Monday’s ride. Those included a wide range from young children, upcoming junior stars such as Riley Amos, Ruth Holcomb and Maddie Jo Robbins, current top pros such as Sarah Sturm, Devo co-founder Chad Cheeney and even McElveen’s father, Mike.
Amos, who will soon follow in McElveen’s footsteps as a cyclist for the FLC team, is the top-ranked junior 17-18 rider in the world and defending cross-country and short-track mountain bike junior national champion. The 18-year-old completed 65.8 miles in 7 hours, 10 minutes for 14,518 feet of climbing.
“I knew Payson was doing it and his goal was to create this movie not just showing the Everest attempt but to show the NFTF spirit of Durango,” Amos said. “He asked me if I could come out and be part of it with him. It was special that he thought I would be a great person to come represent in the movie and ride some laps with him.”
While McElveen, who is originally from Texas and came to Durango to race for FLC, did not grow up in the town he now calls home, Cheeney has been delighted to see how the star has embraced what he tries to teach young cyclists across Durango.
“We have a cycling community that is wide in range and bursting with passion on all levels,” Cheeney said. “It’s a place where bicycle dreams can come true. Payson knows this. I think he sees the value of riding with your peers and being part of a team in your formative years. He sees this as a big part of Devo, and it’s so cool to see him in on it.”
‘A new frontier’McElveen was happy to get through the day with no mechanical problems with his Trek Supercaliber mountain bike. The Orange Seal Off-Road Team athlete also was proud to report no flat tires despite all the rock garden crossings.
But dust was a factor. Jones Creek Trail is covered in ash from the 416 Fire of 2018. Amos said it left him cleaning his bike, specifically his chain, once an hour.
Amos also burned through an entire set of brake pads during a punishing day for the bikes.
“It’s really loose with ash mixed into dirt,” Amos said. “When it is as dry as it was Monday, it turns into powder. The trail is definitely one of my favorites in Durango. It’s pretty steep in spots and technical. On a road bike, I can do 68 miles in three or four hours. It took seven to do that on this trail on a mountain bike, so it gives you an idea of how tough the trail is.”
An Orange Seal team tent was set up at the start of the trailhead to allow McElveen to rest and receive some support between laps. Amos was thrilled to have some supporters along the course, giving him the long lost sense of racing he has missed the last few months.
McElveen said the toughest toll on his body came in the form of hand and wrist joint pain during the descents. His legs felt great, so he said going uphill was actually more of a break than the descents.
“Later in the day, I was looking forward to the climbing,” he said. “Descending was beating me up. Mentally, it got pretty hard at night. There’s something about night time that is more challenging emotionally. I had great lights and knew the trail well and felt safe. There were times of solitude on the top of the mountain that were really nice. I stopped on the upper meadow at the top of Jones and looked at the stars a few times.
“Mentally, the hardest part was knowing I had people still down at the base area supporting me – my friends, dad, team manager and the video crew. It was taking so much longer than I expected, and I felt bad they were still there standing in the cold. Personally, I was having a great time. If no one else was out there, I would have rode until sunrise to ride the full 24 hours. I was genuinely enjoying being out there. I was discovering a new frontier of where I could push myself.”