“If it’s easy, go a little faster! If it’s easy, stay out one loop longer!” These words were preached to us by Jesse Itzler as he stood on top of a short ladder at 5:55 am on Friday. 175 additional participants have gathered around as we were about to begin 29029 – Vermont, a bit nervous, a little cold, and very excited.
I remember those words very clearly now as I watch the post-race video and attempt to relive the feelings of that morning. Could I have gone faster? Could I have gone one loop longer?
Jesse Itzler has a track record of making things that people really want before they know they want it. In his twenties, he wrote rap songs, then sold them to the NBA. He famously started one of the first jet rental companies. Think Uber for the sky, but before Uber, then sold that to Berkshire Hathaway Next he helped jump-start Zico Water as coconut water became “a thing” before selling that to Coca Cola. Through coaching and speaking gigs, he often talks about “the life resume”. As in, who cares that you’ve worked for “such and such company”, or snagged “this many degrees” from this university. His coaching website asks “What if we could land our dream job or get that promotion we always wanted because of our experiences? What if we felt more alive working and with our family because of HOW we lived our daily lives?”
This is not an uncommon thought. In the last 10 years, there have been countless reports that consumers value “experiences over things”. Events like Burning Man and EDM concerts, 50-100 mile ultra marathons, and 10-12 mile, mud, fire, and barbed wire filled obstacle races have all seen worldwide participation increase.
Jesse and his business partner Marc Hodulich created 29029 to be one of these life resume building experiences. 29029 is the vertical feet of Mount Everest. Mount Everest has been a bucket list item for thousands of people for the last 20-30 years. Cost estimates range from $30-45 thousand dollars to complete the expedition. It will also take you around 60 days to complete the mission.
You may have guessed, once again, people want something Jesse has the vision for.
So What If We Brought The Mountain To You?
Jesse and his team rent a mountain, provide entrants with glamping style yurts, and all the meals and aid station food they need. Then open, that mountain for 36 hours and invite participants to climb up, take the gondola down, and repeat until they hit 29029 (which is 17 laps).
The price tag, starting at 4 grand to share a 3 person tent is 10 times less than going to the actual Everest. Plus guests don’t have to deal with all of that silly altitude sickness or worry about falling to their death.
The entry fee on face still gives sticker shock to many, but when we take a deep dive into total costs and overall “value”, compared to events like Iron Man it levels the field some.
Other than food and shelter, the add-on assets are of massive value. There’s coaching available through an online trainer, plus a Facebook group, which includes current and past participants happy to help you with questions and advice. The next benefit provided is the Thursday night speakers. The 29029 team brings in top-level presenters who spoke Ted-style for 15 minutes each. For this trip, the speakers included Olympian Joe Malloy, mountain climber/explorer Colin O’Brady, endurance expert Alex Hutchinson, Wim-Hof instructor, Dr. Trish Smith, and of course, Jesse himself.
You are not only learning from these people, but you are also getting a chance to complete the event with them. Over the course of the weekend, I was able to chat with all of the speakers at least once while climbing. You aren’t going to leave a TedX talk and go run a marathon with the person you just watched on stage the day before.
On a gondola ride down the mountain after a lap with Colin, he told me why he returned for a 2nd time to this event. “I’ve never seen such a level of camaraderie and grace that happens out here. It brings all sorts of people out. I walked away from the last one with at least 10 friendships”.
Jesse is ending his speech “we keep going until there’s one left, and we enjoy it cause we earned it! Let’s have a great day”. I turn to the stranger next to me, and as his headlamps shone into my eye, I gave him a fist bump and we were off.
A strong suggestion for this event is to have hiking poles. I am not an experienced climber, but I had convinced myself I would not need the poles until at least the 2nd lap, and maybe the third. I mean we’re just walking up a mountain right? Halfway up the first climb, my heart rate was through the roof, and my legs were burning.
This was lap 1. How in the hell can I do this 16 more times?
And so it begins. The first of somewhere between 1,000 an 100,000 times, “The Committee” from inside the mind says
“Why are you still walking? Many things are sore or hurt. Doesn’t a warm bed sound nice?” “Let’s stop completely when we finish this next one”
The Committee is quiet at first, but they tend to get angrier and louder the longer you stick in the race.
To complete an event like this, you must out vote, outwit and outlast The Committee. You can do this any number of ways. For me, I just do my best bring myself back to right now. So when They say “16 more”. I say “Just take another step” When the committee says “This is going to take forever!” I say “Look around, take in all this beauty, isn’t this awesome. We are so lucky to be here!”.
It’s a discipline that must be repeated over and over throughout the journey. There will be times The Committee has gone silent and I think I have an event licked, only to have them return again hours later.
Another tool I use is connecting. The Committee wants you to stop and be alone. They can be really really loud when you are by yourself, especially in the darkest hours. So the best thing I have found to do is connect with other people. You can do this directly by seeing a participant and saying “Hey, I am really checking out here, can we talk and walk for a while”. Or, if this is not your style, ask a person how they are doing. Often times, they will come back and tell you that they needed someone to reach out at that moment to get them back in the game.
To Plan Or Not To Plan
The biggest question asked amongst participants is “What’s your plan?” as in “Do you plan on going straight through the night” or rather “Sleep some and do the rest tomorrow? Jesse implored us not to make a plan until we have done 2-3 loops and get a sense of how long each lap is taking. Information emailed before the event told us that “average person” does a lap in one hour, plus the 15 minute ride down. This, of course, does not account for clothing changes, bathroom breaks, etc.
There is plenty of aid station food along the way plus full meals served inside from Noon to 2 pm and from 6 pm to 8 pm. My goal was not to take a “real break” until at least the 6 pm “dinner break”, then adjust from there. The afternoon break was easy to skip, I was knocking out laps under the 75-minute average, enjoying myself, making friends, and easily digesting various aid station foods of bars, pretzels. and gu packets. Somewhere around 2 or 3 pm, my legs were starting to really hurt. Someone suggested I go inside and get a massage and/or use the Normatec leg stations provided. After telling my ego it did not make me a lesser man to do so, I went inside, had someone help me get inside the legs, and turned them on for 30 minutes. I also drifted off to sleep for a few as I in prone position what I would call a Normatec barc-a-lounger. I got out, put on some pants, changed my drenched buff, and felt like a new man
I was done with Lap 10 shortly after 7 pm and feeling pretty good. It was now dark, the temperatures were dropping and those still on the mountain were now facing that “What’s your plan “question square in the face.
Plan A: Call it quits, get rest and start fresh tomorrow. On its own, this plan sounds great. However, we all felt fortunate not to have any rain and the temps stayed above freezing. Anyone who is from those parts of Vermont can tell you that mountains tend to have their own weather system. Less than 24 hours before, the area had torrential rain and it threatened to return at any time. Reports were showing that Saturday would certainly have rain and cooler temperatures.
Plan B: Staying out all night, which carries its own risks. What if I push too hard, pull or tweak something so badly that it takes me out for the rest of the weekend. Also, certain parts of the climb were very muddy. With only a headlamp guiding my way, what if I took a tumble that did some damage, ending my quest for 17 laps?
I decided that finishing 12 was the magic number of hikes for me for day one. I reached the top of my 12th lap shortly after 10 pm. I had been awake for 17.5 hours and climbing for the better part of 15 hours. On the gondola ride down, I met Ray, a real estate developer from Alabama. We talked about how the event had surprisingly surpassed all his expectations. He said the quality of the production, the camaraderie he was finding, and the challenge itself was giving him way than his money’s worth.
I only found out what Ray did for a living as the ride ended as I questioned him for the purposes of this article. It wasn’t until I politely asked several additional questions, that I found out about his financial status. It turns out Ray is very successful, as in flew to the event in a private plane, successful. Several at the event, did the same.
Leave your judgment at home
When I first came upon the website for 29029, I had looked at the promise of fancy tents, curated food, and a big price tag and that pervasive word “privilege” came to mind. Many who saw my post online announcing my attempt at this event, had shared similar thoughts.
As a society, we are often told not to judge a book by its cover. Most of the time, we take that to mean don’t think less of a person because they may come from poverty or are a different color. I can’t remember the last time someone pointed out to me (or anyone) that those that have attained some wealth deserve the same amount of empathy and compassion.
My own pre-conceived notions of “rich white people” were smashed this weekend. It occurred to me that nothing was “privileged” about them. They aren’t lottery winners nor are they descendants of kings and queens. They’ve worked their asses off for what they have, and want the same health, happiness, and success that any of us “common folk” want for ourselves and our families.
As I looked back up at the mountain one more time before going to bed for the night, I saw the glow from the chain of tiny headlamps slowly going up the 1.3 miles and 1750 vertical feet of Stratton Mountain. I challenge anyone to guess the bank balances connected to those lights.
I snoozed the heck out of my phone alarm when it went off and left my tent later than I planned. I did not find myself leaving the breakfast table until about 7:30 am. This gave me a little less than 10 hours to do 5 climbs, but I did not want to be anywhere near the time cutoff. My goal was to knock out the last laps out one after another. No gear changes and no leg compression breaks.
As I began my first climb, I ran across Colin, the real -life mountain climber that I heard on Thursday night and asked if I could hike with him. This meant going slightly faster than my normal pace, but I knew it would be worth it As we passed the halfway point, we were hiking in snowfall. I stopped to take some photos and to enjoy the beauty of where I was. Every lap on day two was a joy.
Every step is a step closer to finishing. The Committee is near silent because I’d pushed through to get ahead of the curve the day before. I even started something I called “reverse ninja math” on The Committee which made the climbs go by even faster. As I started lap 12, I said to myself. “Only 5 to go, which is really only 4 to go”. Next lap up I said to myself “4 more to go, but I’m already on this one, so it’s only 3 more to go!”
The mood on the mountain that day can only be described as awesome. The volunteers and staff, who have been cheering everyone on since the event started, are sharing in the excitement as participants get closer and closer to completing the challenge. The last lap is truly a celebration.
When participants begin the 17th lap, they receive a special red bib. The bib announces that you are going up that one last time. I high fived many wearing their red bib that I passed or that passed me that morning on their way to 17. When they put my red bib on me at around 12:30 pm, I swear to God I felt lighter. The electric warm fuzzies are at an all-time high as I stopped to hug almost every person I came in contact with during that last lap. As I approached the last 250 feet, tears began to well up in my eyes. I was confident when I began that I would reach my goal of 17 laps, but that doesn’t make the finish any less sweet.
After one of the longest, hottest showers of my life, the rest of the day and night are a blur of hugs and war stories. At the final dinner, there’s a nice speech by Jesse and a medal ceremony where each participant gets a medal for the number of laps completed. The medal is nice, but we were already given a giant wooden plaque that we got to brand with a hot iron. The medal will go in a box somewhere, the plaque will hang in my office.
Back at home, I watched that post-race video again. What if I had gone one loop longer? My first reaction is to say yes. I could have gone 18 or even 19 laps, but the longer I look, that is ego looking for “most laps glory”. This event is not about who can do the most laps or who can be the last man standing. It’s about chipping away at a goal that seems insurmountable at first. It’s about commitment, which my dad defines as “doing what you said you would, long after the mood you said it in, has left.”
All Photos Courtesy: 29029. Additional photos located here.
A podcast featuring several of the speakers and participants.