Friday, May 24, 2019

Six Hours in Salt Lake

Less than a week after winning the US National Championship, I headed to Salt Lake City. I spent the past few days bumming around Vegas and Zion National Park. My experience is summarized by two pictures:

Although I did bit of hiking, I only went to the gym once during the week. Heading over to Salt Lake City, I found myself well rested, though I also felt a little heavier than usual - likely due to the added salt in my diet. The excess water weight didn’t bother me too much. Salt Lake City was going to be a 6 hours of “fun”, with the goal of completing as many laps up the Wells Fargo building as possible within the time limit.

This was going to be far longer than any of my previous races. My longest race to date was the Dallas Vertical Mile, and the time limit there was merely 2.5 hours.

This was also going to be unlike any other race I’ve participated in. Believe it or not, I’ve never done a true power hour. Remember, the Dallas Vertical Mile is set at 12 laps and you can take as long a break as you want between laps as long as you start your final lap within the 2.5 hour time limit. My breaks in Dallas were a whopping 7 minutes and I was able to push myself fairly hard each lap. The only other power hour I’ve done was many years ago in Calgary, and in that event, I had to climb down the stairs rather than ride the elevator.

The 6 hour SLC climb was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I had to pace myself fairly slowly and minimize my breaks – theoretically only resting on the elevator ride down. Plus, it was far longer than anything I’ve ever experienced.

Despite having little practical experience at such an event, I did my homework.

My friends Josh, Martin, and Christine all own records at the event having climbed the building 52 times (Josh & Martin) and 50 times (Christine). So a few weeks prior to the race I asked them all for advice and they gave it freely. The most useful piece of information of all was Christine’s lap split spreadsheet. It showed both the ascent and descent times for all 50 of her climbs. This armed me with a critical piece of information: The elevator ride down takes about 2 minutes on average, but can vary widely. I was warned that sometimes I’d have to wait for the elevator and sometimes people would get on & off on the 19th (break room) floor.

As far as climbing is concerned, I’m roughly 5% faster than Josh and Martin and perhaps 15% faster than Christine in a *single* climb. I stressed single on purpose. I have very little experience in ultra-events. My strength is really in the 4-5 minute range although I’ve trained hard over the years to be strong in longer events too.

Anyway, I figured I should shoot for the record and try to get in perhaps 54 climbs in (9 laps per hour).

To achieve 9 laps an hour, I’d need to have a round trip of 6:40. Assuming it took ~2 minutes to descend and get back to the start line, this meant that I’d need to complete each climb in about 4:40 or so.

I tested out this pace in my training building before I left for the Strat and It came out to be about 75 BPM. It felt extremely slow, but that was a good thing.

Fast forward to the night before the race.

I met up with John Rosswog, the race director, and had a quick preview of the stairwell. I used 77 BPM since this stairwell had shorter steps than my practice building.

Wells Fargo Building (From Wikipedia)
Here was the layout: The first couple floors were pretty tall and had 3 flights per floor, all turning to the right. This led to a short hallway on the 3rd floor, perhaps 5 paces or so long. The remainder of the course (floor 3 – 24) was fairly uniform and turned to the left. I believe the step configuration was primarily 13/13 (but don’t quote me). All in all, the stairwell was fairly efficient. Not only could I use both sides of the rails, but the turns were fairly tight. With effort, I could usually keep one foot on the landings.

When I finished my practice climb I glanced at my stop watch. 4:40 on the dot. I couldn’t have asked for a better result!

This pace seemed quite easy and although I was breathing quite heavily at top, I felt like I could keep this pace for several hours without fading.

The biggest surprise – which Josh and Martin warned me about – was the long hallway leading from the stairwell to the elevator. The stairwell dumps you out in a reception area (for some financial firm I think). After about 5 paces, it leads you to a long hallway overlooking the 23rd floor (as the 23rd and 24th floors share a tall open area). This hallway is a good 100 feet long. At the end of the hallway is the elevator bank (immediately after a hard left turn). All in all, you end up running for 10-15 seconds to get from the stairwell to the elevator. What’s more is that when you exit the elevator downstairs, you have to jog outside to get back to the stairwell, adding at yet *another* 10-15 seconds even if you run.

Essentially, the “break” each lap wasn’t a total break. For example, if the “rest” on average is about 2 minutes, then ~30 seconds of that (i.e. 25% of the break) would be jogging.

Armed with this knowledge I went back to my hotel room to prepare for the next morning.

I woke up right just after 5:00 AM and ate a quick meal of oatmeal and a hardboiled egg. I usually have something lighter for my pre-race breakfast, but I figured I needed the extra calories. Next I headed to the race to pick up my jersey and drop off my race fuel.

Altogether, I had 5 energy gels and 12 bitesize chews (candy and caramels). I also carried a small bottle of salt pills as well an emergency bottle of pickle juice to in case I developed cramps. The plan would be to eat gel and two salt pills every 9 laps (1 per hour) and eat one candy every three laps. I also brought a banana in case I didn’t want to eat candy throughout the entire race. For hydration, I planned to take a couple sips of Gatorade from the downstairs rest station and a sip of water from the upstairs aid station.

At 5:30 AM, I arrived at the building. I brought two small bags for fuel. One carried my salt pills, pickle juice, banana, 3 gels & about two thirds of my candy. The other bag was smaller and contained just two gels and the remainder of my candy. I picked up my racing big and dropped off the larger of the two bags near the front of the building (about 20 feet from the Gatorade station and exit door). Next, I took the elevator to the up to the 24 floor to drop off my smaller bag. I placed it in a corner of the reception area.

I made my way back downstairs and then headed to the 2nd floor to use the bathroom.

It was locked!

Someone mentioned the 19th floor bathroom was open and I dashed to the elevator bank. No time for the stairs!

Around 5:50 AM John Rosswog introduced a few of the elite climbers. I did my active stretches while waiting. I didn’t do any burpees. I figured the pace was slow enough where I’d naturally warm-up in the stairwell during the race. I was one of the last climbers to be called up and I was announced as the current US National Champion and 3x National Points Champion; I fed him that info earlier in the week and I kind of regretted it because now I had to live up to those titles!

Shortly afterwards John led us to the stairwell. The stairwell entrance was outside so we had to walk outside. It was cold and dark outside and there was faint dusting of snow still on the ground from last night. The time was just about 6:05:30 when he let us start. There was a huge digital clock right displayed right on the start line just inside the stairwell. It was kind of a mass start, although people seemed to take turns going. I wanted to get in quickly but I ended up about 4th into the stairwell. My official start time was 6:05:35.

Lap 1
I switched on my metronome and started the climb. I was soon passed by both Christine and Josh. What the heck? I knew my 4:40 pace was slightly aggressive so I was surprised that they’d want to pass me*.

*I later learned that our fastest lap counted towards the sprint climb so it made sense after the fact.

I was passed one more time by Admir, a local athlete I met the night before. However I was able to keep up with him fairly easily. Actually, it is more accurate to say that my metronome’s pace allowed my to stay close behind.

When I got to the 19th floor I must have accelerated ever so slightly because when I crossed the finish line I clocked in a 4:30 – roughly 10 seconds faster than my planned goal pace.

I grabbed a quick drink of water and then ran to the elevator. I caught it immediately. I got back downstairs, grabbed a quick shot of Gatorade, and made it back to the start line in less than 90 seconds.

Lap 2
I had pretty much recovered from my first lap. After all, the pace wasn’t very taxing. I switched on my metronome and entered the stairwell.

I was still fairly close to Admir and I climbed behind him for much of the 2nd lap. When I got to the top, I was a little bit slower. 4:43. Still a pretty good time and still on track for 9 climbs per hour.

I grabbed a quick drink of water and chased after Admin who ran off ahead. When I turned the final corner to the elevator Admir was already gone, leaving me to wait for another elevator. “Fuck!” I cursed. He didn’t wait for me. I only paused briefly for a cup of water and now I had to wait another umpteen seconds for the next elevator. “Fuck!” I cursed again.

It took a few moments to calm my myself. I knew I couldn’t keep ranting in front of the volunteers. It wasn’t their fault. I felt like an asshole for letting my emotions get out of control.

I caught the next elevator down and to my dismay I ended up waiting for another couple of climbers to get on board.

Finally I made it back downstairs. I grabbed a quick drink of Gatorade and reset my stop watch. It took a whopping 2:15 to get back to the start line. I had lost around 40 seconds. Damn it!

Laps 3 - 9
I climbed pretty steadily for the next hour. Climb times held steady at 4:45 or so and my rests ranged from 90 seconds to about 2 minutes. Not bad.

Every three laps I’d grab a piece of candy. My upstairs bag wasn’t in a great position and it probably added an extra 10 seconds to my lap time whenever I’d grab something from it. After my lap #6 (my 2nd piece of candy) I moved the bag down the hallway next to the elevators and the water station. This made a lot more sense. Now that I could see the elevators, I wouldn’t randomly waste time. If the elevators were going down, I could just get onboard. If I had to wait, I could use the extra time to casually take the candy out of my bag and have a drink of water.

As for the race itself, I started out in 4th place, but by the 5th lap I finally caught up to Admir. I lost him briefly as I took a drink of water. Oh no, not again! I had to wait until the next lap to finally overtake him. I saw him greet several other climbers and volunteers so I knew he cared about the charity and its mission; it wasn’t all about racing. I felt a little foolish for getting so bent out of shape on my 2nd lap. While I passed Admir, he mentioned the pace was just a hair too fast and would need to slow down a bit. 4:45s were doable for an hour, but not for six hours!

Now that I had passed Admir, only Josh and Christine remained ahead. I was nearly an hour into the race still no sign of them. Where were they? I knew my pace was solid and it was hard to imagine that they were going much faster.

I caught up to Josh around lap #8. Or was it lap #9 or #10? We exchanged a few words of encouragement and Josh mentioned that he lost sight of Christine somewhere on the 2nd or 3rd lap when he missed the elevator. She couldn’t be that far ahead, could she?

Oh yeah, it was now it was light outside. Yay!

Laps 10-20
I was in a solid rhythm. I could still maintain 4:45 although once in a while I’d hit a 4:50 or so. It couldn’t be helped. Traffic in the stairwell was becoming heavy as more waves started. Honestly, it wasn’t much of a problem because people tended to hug the outside rail and let me pass by on the inside. Yeah, I lost a second or two here and there, but it could have been a lot worse. As a matter of fact, most of the lost time occurred on the bottom two floors. People just didn’t want to get out of the way.

It finally dawned on me what was going on. The other climbers were told to let faster climbers pass on the left. This is great for floors 3 – 24 which all turn to the left. Not so great for floors 1 & 2 which turn to the right. No wonder a couple people gave me dirty looks when I passed them on the inside!

The 2nd hour became increasingly difficult. Sure I could maintain 77 BPM but now I was counting down the flights once I crossed the rest area on the 19th floor.

My “rests” were also taking longer. Not only were the elevator waits random, but there were more people getting on than before which made the trip down hot and stifling.

In other news, I couldn’t believe I was still chasing Christine. Where the heck was she?

I finally caught up to her on the 19th lap. I snuck into the elevator with her just as the elevator doors were closing. She looked a bit ragged, but then again up until this point, she’d been going faster than me and I wasn’t feeling great either.

I stayed with her for the first part of the 20th lap but then slowly pulled away.

At the top, I got into the elevator fairly quickly, but it was *crowded* and of course we ended up stopping on the 19th floor. After the doors closed again, it seemed to take forever to get back down to the ground floor. I wasn’t imagining things. It was taking an inordinate amount of time and I was worried that we were going to get stuck. Did I mention it was hot and crowded?

Thankfully the elevator made it down in one piece, but I had lost over a minute in the process. Was I still ahead of Christine? I had no idea.

Laps 21 - 30
I’d like to say the next few laps were like clockwork, but they weren’t. I felt like I was slogging up those stairs. Yeah, I was still climbing at 77 BPM, but I was barely keeping 4:50s. Part of it was fatigue, but another part of it was the temperature of the stairwell. The first few floors were nice and cool, but the majority of the climb was hot and humid. I could especially feel it when I’d pass large groups of people.

The highlights of the climb were the dancing nuns playing 80s music. And the big fan blowing air. God bless that fan!

The rests were no longer a pleasant respite. I could barely jog down the hallway (more like a fast shuffle) and I just couldn’t recover efficiently in the crowded (read balmy) elevator.

Somewhere in the middle of all this suffering  I heard one of the volunteers call for CPR and an EMT. On the next lap I learned that another climber had a heart attack. Poor guy (or gal).

I secretly wished they’d close off the stairwell due to the medical emergency. At least for a few minutes. I really needed a break.

I didn’t get one.

Around lap 27 or so I made the conscious decision to slow down my pace from 77 BPM down to 75 BPM. Up until now, I had averaged a 4:45 or so, but I couldn’t possibly maintain that pace for another 3 hours. Another few laps? Yes. But 3 more hours would kill me.

At first, the pace didn’t feel any slower. But by the time I reached the 19th floor, I felt slightly better (or at least less exhausted). My lap time was 5:00 on the dot.

Okay, maybe I can do this.

Laps 31 - 40
My climbs were getting slower and right off the bat I had trouble with the elevator. Great.

For the most part, I did my best to keep 5:05s, but every once in a while I’d clock in at 5:10. I knew that 54 laps were out of the question. But maybe I could still hit 53?

I lost track of my lap count. I asked for my lap count upstairs and it seemed a bit low. I needed to finish my 40th lap with at least 90 minutes to spare in order get #53 in. I suspected I was  behind schedule, but I couldn’t do the mental calculation so see just how far off.

After switching to 75 BPM I had felt a little better, but sure enough, fatigue was catching back up to me. This time, however, I didn’t have 3 hours left to  climb. I had less than two. Ok, let’s round it down to 90 minutes. Yeah. I could survive another 90 minutes.

Somewhere along the line I lapped Josh. He asked me how I was doing. I told him I felt like crap, but was hanging in there. He looked like he was in slightly better shape.

Lap 36 almost ended my race. On the 21st floor my left calf completely seized up as I was passing a group of people. It felt like someone took a sledge hammer directly to the muscle as it balled itself into a knot. I felt sorry for the people I just passed because now I was going slowly and taking up the entire stairwell in an effort not to put pressure on my leg. It f’ing hurt! At least it happened near the top.

I was in agony as I dragged myself to the elevators. Immediately upon entering, I began stretching the muscle. I could help but think this was it. I’m done. Finished.

Down at the bottom, I hobbled over to my fuel bag and downed my emergency bottle of pickle juice. Please work. I didn’t want to lose this race due to a muscle cramp, especially since I had been faithfully taking my salt pills. I spent another 20 seconds stretching my calf before resuming.

Lap 37 was touch and go. My calf was not longer completely balled up, but it still hurt. I didn’t dare put my entire weight on my calf. Instead I placed my weight on my heels*. It was awkward but it worked. I made it up in under 5:10. Okay, if I could make it up once, I could do it again…

*This bears some explanation. Typically when I climb stairs I’m usually on the balls of my feet and my heel hangs slightly over the edge. This is mostly due to geometry. My feet are nearly the same length as the tread of the step, so keeping my heel planted on the tread is awkward. I suspect if I had smaller feet, it would be a lot easier.

Laps 41-50
Oh how I wanted the suffering to end! I was still maintaining a 5:05 pace but instead feeling it near the top, I was feeling it closer to the 12th floor.

With just under an hour left to climb, I realized now that I wouldn’t make 52 laps let alone 53. I was starting lap 43 and it would take exactly 60 minutes to complete 8 climbs assuming I kept my lap times to 7:30 flat. Eight more climbs would give me a total of 50 laps. If I could go slightly faster, I could get in the 51st - as long as I made it into the stairwell before the 6 hour time limit, they would count my final lap, no matter how slowly I climbed.

The problem was I had slightly less than an hour to climb and I was having trouble keeping my round trips under 7:30. I knew it was going to be close.

From here on out I was determined to jog the hallways. Or at least shuffle quickly.

I lapped Josh again. He was looking pretty good all things considered. In the elevator I bummed a salt pill from him and drank one of his Dixie cups of water even though I had my own stash at the bottom. I think I was becoming slightly incoherent.

The clock read 11:36:50 as I entered my 47th climb. I had started right around 6:05:35 so I had less than 28 and a half minutes to finish 4 climbs and start my 51st lap.

That meant my laps had to be like 7 minutes or so, right? Christ, I couldn’t even do simple math! All I knew was that for the past few hours a bunch of my laps had been in the 7:15 – 7:30 range. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I pulled in a lap time under 7 minutes.

Well, if I hurried and had some luck with the elevators, getting in the 51st lap would be possible.

I lapped Christine somewhere along the line. She bounced up and down in the elevator and I envied her energy. She looked fresher now than umpteen laps ago. What the heck?

It was fortunate that the stairwell was far less crowded this late in the race. I cranked out my next two climbs in just over 5 minutes apiece and my total lap times were 7:10 and 6:50 respectively.

I started my 49th climb right at 11:50:50. If I could maintain a 7 minute lap pace I could get in my 51st climb.

I really wanted it now. 51 Laps might not be the record, but it would be pretty darn close.

I cranked the next two laps both in 5 minutes flat and my total lap times were both under 7 minutes. I had done it!

Lap 51:
I entered my victory lap with about 45 seconds to spare (apparently, they were going to close the course right at 12:06 and not at 12:06:30 like I had expected).

I knew I could climb as slowly as I wanted but at the same time I didn’t want to totally blow it off. After messing around on the first few floors I decided to finish strong with my 75BPM pace.

My final ascent was 5:30. Sure it was my slowest lap of the day, but still not too shabby.

At the top they gave me my finisher medal with 51 laps taped to the underside. I felt proud I had completed the entire 6 hours. I eventually collapsed to the ground in exhaustion. My whole body was fatigued!

I found my way to the 19th floor. They were giving out fudgesicles and I was hungry.

John Rosswog gave me a plaque for winning the race. It was special because it was made from granite – the same material the Wells Fargo building is made from. I also got to wear the fancy winner’s belt, so I briefly felt like a WWF champion.

It gets better.

The timers told me I had actually completed 52 laps! I *did* remember thinking my lap count seemed a little low earlier in the race. That meant I tied the record!

Final Thoughts:
I knew this was going to be a hard race and words can’t completely describe how awful it felt during the final couple hours. But I’ll try:
  • It felt like the final interval during interval training... only doing it over and over again.
  • It felt like my left calf was about to tear.
  • It felt like I was half drunk, but not the mellow & happy kind of drunk.

I’ve felt worse before, though. A couple climbs come to mind: The Strat in 2015 (or 2016?) and even more so at US Bank in 2013. Those feelings of pain were far more intense and it took me a looong time to recover afterwards. I never want to go through those experiences ever again.

I’m pretty happy about my performance and I’m not that disappointed that I didn’t reach my 54 climb goal.

I believe my preparation helped me achieve that 52nd climb. 77 BPM might have been a little too fast, but it was pretty darn close to optimal considering I’ve never done a 6 hour climb before. Yes, I ended up slowing down… but not by much.

I would like to come back to Salt Lake City and get 53 climbs in. I think it is achievable with a slight change of pace and better attention to logistics. If I could shave off 8 seconds per lap – roughly 7 minutes in total - I’d be within range.

It’s completely doable and here is where I can shave off time:
  1. Each lap I stopped for a drink of Gatorade a the rest station at the bottom. Skipping the Gatorade and taking my own fluids while waiting for the elevator would easily shave off 2.5 seconds.
  2. Carrying a gel or candy with me would save me from stopping by my fuel bag once every three laps. That would likely shave off another 1.5 seconds (per lap).
  3. Prioritize the elevator first before drink/fuel. I missed a few elevators by a hair because I was busy drinking water or grabbing a candy. Missing an elevator could cost up to 30 seconds. I’d rather waste a few seconds drinking Gatorade at the bottom than losing 30 seconds at top. This is yet another reason for carrying an extra candy/gel with me at all times.
  4. Jogging rather than slogging could shave off 2 seconds.
  5. I could eke out another 1.5 seconds in the stairwell. My average pace was 4:56.7 and I bet I could handle 4:55 using a 76 BMP pace (remember I was climbing ~4:45 for the first half, so this slower pace is theoretically doable for the entire duration).
Logistic wise, I’d rely primarily on my upstairs fuel bag rather than my downstairs one. I’d also include my own bottle of Gatorade. When I’m waiting for an elevator ride, I might as well have a drink and top up on supplies. That said, I’d still have a redundant downstairs bag just in case.

Lastly, I really have to hand it to Christine, Martin, and Josh. I knew the race would be tough, but I didn’t realize just how challenging getting 52 laps would be. I assumed my fitness level would allow me to easily keep a 4:45 pace for the entire 6 hours. I found out the hard way that it’s sustainable for only 3 hours. Having barely survived the race myself, I have newfound respect for these 50+ lap climbers. A six hour climb is no joke.

Race Grades:
Effort: A ; The first hour or so was “easy” per plan. The remainder of the race took some guts.
Conditioning: A ; Still fresh off of Strat, I was in great shape.
Weight: B ; Likely a pound or so heavier than I was at the Strat. Maybe 173ish?
Pacing & Technique: B+ ; My initial pace was only a hair faster than it should have been. Considering this was my first attempt at 6 hours, I couldn’t be more pleased. In fact, I almost gave myself an A.
Overall: B+ ; As a first attempt, I’m very pleased with my race. The only reason I gave myself a B+ rather than an A is because there are several small improvements I could make (as detailed in the previous section).

The climber who had a heart attack was a competitive climber named Brian Zamboni. I didn't know him personally but I recognized him from some of the other climbs I've done (Sears Tower, Dallas Vert Mile, etc.). In fact, he was good enough to be on the podium at some of the local races, so it took me by surprise when I learned that he was the one who had the heart attack. During the race, I had just assumed it was a local person doing a single charity climb.

The doctors put him in a medically induced coma to help him recover, but unfortunately Brian never woke up.

RIP Brian. You'll be missed.

Friday, March 15, 2019

National Championships at the Strat

I’ve yet to figure out the Scale the Strat.

This race is the US National Championships and during the past seven years I’ve been the National Champion twice*, yet I’ve never won the race. Both times I’ve been beaten handily by a foreigner**

*Once officially, and once unofficially as there wasn’t a governing body back in 2014.
**Goerge Heimann is my hero. He just turned 50 and he just keeps getting faster.

If you look at my times year over year, you’ll notice they are very consistent and I’ve been getting faster each year.

Taken at face value, you’d think I’d be pleased. However I’m not; A 7:42 isn’t a whole lot faster than a 7:57, especially considering I’m in better shape and I’ve had plenty of experience in this particular tower. Since my first race in 2013, my goal has always been 7:30 and I’ve yet to crack even 7:40.

As far as consistency is concerned, each race has a completely different story to tell, so to me it seems odd that my times have been so close. In my first attempt, I raced too conservatively and had to play catch up. Another year I completely bonked toward the end of the race. There was also that time I raced sick*… and that time when I was in top shape…

*I had a fever before and after the race, but miraculously, I felt okay the morning of the race. Go figure!

I feel like I’ve hit some weird plateau such that no matter how good *or* bad feel, I’m  going to beat my previous PR by a mere second or two, yet still not break into the 7:30s.

You’ll notice that the above chart skips over 2018* so the last time I raced at Strat was in 2017. I wrote a blog about that race but never published it (I just wasn’t in the mood). Summary: I *thought* I climbed a solid race until I learned the results. Not only was my time still in the 7:40s (goal 7:30) but I came in 5th (worst place yet) and missed a podium spot by 11 seconds. I was super disappointed afterwards.

*In 2018, I raced at the Crash B Indoor Rowing Championships which was held the same day as Scale the Strat. Up until that point, I had come in 2nd place at the Strat three years in a row. I was a bit disappointed to learn out that the winning time at the Strat in 2018 was 8:10 – a time that was well within my capability. As a consolation, at Crash B, I ended up 2nd in my age group (ironically yet another 2nd place). The winner was the former captain of the Dartmouth rowing team and the race wasn’t very close - he was taller and had far better technique, not to mention he had an extreme amount of horsepower.

This year I was determined to break through the 7:40 plateau.

My original plan was to cut weight and race at Crash B which was fortuitously scheduled the week before Strat. If I could set a PB at Crash-B, I would undoubtedly crush Scale the Strat since I’d be racing at my highest power to weight ratio ever.

The plan started to unravel a week prior to Sears Tower (late October 2018).

I had been training seriously on the erg (indoor rower) for months and my split times were dropping (at that point I estimate my 2K time was right around 6:37 FWIW). During my long workouts, I had been noticing that my butt was getting sore (not much of a surprise) but a week before Sears, I realized it was more than just a sore butt… I had aggravated an old piriformis injury and I needed to take a break from the erg.

Fast forward to early February, my piriformis wasn’t fully healed so I still couldn’t train on the erg. However, I knew I could still bang out a quick 2K without too much pain. I still wanted to race Crash-B for fun, although breaking 6:40 probably wasn’t in the cards.

My dieting, however, didn’t go according to plan. I needed to be 165 on race day which meant I’d have to be around 169 a week prior to the race (4 lbs of water in one week isn’t too hard). Instead I was around 172. An okay weight for climbing stairs, but it would be impossible to make weight for rowing without becoming too dehydrated.

It was my own fault. I just didn’t buckle down and do what needed to be done.

Otherwise, my fitness was very good. I didn’t break any workout PBs, but I had several close 2nds all in the span of couple weeks. If I wasn’t in the best shape of my life… I was awfully close.

The days leading up to Scale the Strat I checked out my competition. My main rivals from the Dallas Vertical Mile would all be in attendance (Jason Larson, Harrison Kieffer & Mark Henderson) and I estimated I had a good 20 second advantage on each. Added to the list was Tristan Roth who is usually right around Jason’s level of fitness. Last but not least was Greg Billingsley. He was the dark horse. He climbed the building in 8:12 in 2018, but that was just his first stair climb and he apparently started with the general wave (not the elite wave). Plus he was still only 20 years old (less than half my age I might add!).

All in all, I felt I had a very good chance of finally winning the race.

That feeling didn’t last long.  A day before the race I learned that Team Mexico would be attending in full force which meant Alexis Trujillo – Mexico’s fastest tower runner - would be on the start line. He’s young and fast enough to challenge the Scale the Strat record. Totally out of my league.

I’d be racing for 2nd place yet again. But since Alexis is Mexican… I still had a great shot at taking the US National Championship!

On Sunday, I was full of race day jitters. This year the gathering point was in a slightly different location due to construction, so it took a little bit longer to get my bib. It was cold outside!

About 30 minutes prior to the start, I headed to the gym with my friend Napoleon to warm up. They happen to have a Precor Stepper (albeit with a barely functioning control panel) so I was able to complete my normal pre-workout routine: 6 minutes of active stretching followed by 6 minutes of warm up.

With five minutes to go, I headed back to the staging area. They were running a few minutes late so I got in a couple rounds of burpees in the casino hallway.

Finally we were called to the staging area. We followed our guide all the way to the Skydeck entrance and about 10 of us crowded into the elevator to go *all* the way up to the 3rd floor start line (typically we’ve taken the stairs, but this year the Strat was doing some remodeling).

In previous editions of the race, we’ve had to wait in the 3rd floor hallway for up to 20 minutes before the official start of the race, but this time we started a couple minutes after we arrived.

Alexis was first out the gate as we all knew he was the fastest climber.

I was up next… and I was in for a bit of a surprise. I’m used to 30 second gaps at the Strat (which helps avoid unnecessary passing) but this time it I was ushered in after just a few seconds!

I quickly turned on my metronome and checked to make sure it was set to 97 BPM. Showtime!

Alexis was out of sight by the time I entered the stairwell but I could hear him a couple flights ahead. He was going out fast!  A few seconds later heard Jason start behind me.

My pace felt relatively slow and my first thought was that Jason would soon overtake me. But then he settled in about a flight behind, which upon further reflection made sense  – Jason is too experienced to go too fast right off the bat. We both knew the “slow” pace would become brutal in a couple minutes.

Prior to the race I debated what pace to use. My goal was to  climb in 7:39 or less (roughly a 101 BPBM pace) but I also knew my competition would likely struggle getting under the 8 minute mark. Prior experience told me that a 97 BPM would get me to the top in about 8 minutes and I contemplated splitting the difference. However, my desire to take the US Championship outweighed my desire to go for a decent PB. Going out too fast increased the odds of bonking near the top which would jeopardize the US Championship. Anyway, If I felt good during the middle of the race, I could always go faster and still meet my goal.

Jason eventually settled in about a flight behind me. I risked glancing at my watch. 2 minutes down and I still felt strong.

Behind me, things were getting tense. I could see Jason climbing head to head with another climber. Presumably Harrison. Now I had to deal with two climbers breathing down my neck. Considering they had started roughly 5 & 10 seconds behind me respectively, I was likely sitting in 4th spot. Great.

Unlike a traditional skyscraper, the Strat is a tower and the vertical position inside the building is marked off in feet rather than floors. To be honest, I don’t exactly know where the half way point is, but I knew that it was somewhere in the low 400s. I was now approaching that point and out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone blast past Jason & Harrison. Crap… now I had to deal with Tristan, too!

Just after Tristan passed, I did the math. Tristan likely started 15 seconds behind me and with this trio hot on my tail I was now likely in 5th place with just under 4 minutes of climbing left in the race.

I was fully winded, but the pace didn’t seem brutal. I knew I had climbed fairly conservatively for the first half of the race and now it was time to pick up the pace and drop my rivals.

But here is the thing: I was scared and doubting my ability. The only thought going through my mind was that this was the US National Championship and I was losing! Plus, the pace was hard enough that it was beginning to get uncomfortable. In this mental state, it took a lot of willpower to force the pace… but I did.

Over the next couple minutes, I slowly pulled away, climbing just a little faster than my metronome on each flight.

When I reached the 700s, I could sense the final part of the race was coming up. I thought I could faintly hear Tristan down below so I figures he was still in the hunt for 2nd place. Oh how I wished I knew exactly how many seconds he started behind me!

With a quick right turn, I exited the tower into the occupied “donut” section. I had maybe 7 or 8 floors left to go. Unlike the tower core, this section had true floors consisting of shorter yet wider flights and tubular rails. I think it starts at floor 100 and ends on the Skydeck at floor 108.

This was it. The final push to determine who would be crowned US Champion.

I had way too much energy left, but it was still a struggle to sprint these last flights. Faster pace, yes… full out sprint, no.

I burned what energy I could, but I knew I had left something on the table.

I crossed the finish line tired, but still standing upright. I glanced at my watch as almost an afterthought. 7:45. Crap. I stopped my watch a little late so likely was a little faster, but chances were that I didn’t break the 7:40 mark. Now I just had to wait for my rivals to show up.

I didn’t have to wait long. I heard Tristan whooping for joy as he crossed the line. He was perhaps 15-20 seconds behind me so I knew the race had been close. Damn. If I lost the National Championship by a few seconds it was going to sting. I briefly put my hands on my quads for a rest but stood up after a few seconds. I was winded, but feeling good enough to walk around. I grabbed a glass of orange juice. Nothing to do now but wait for the results…

As the other climbers filtered in, I chatted a bit and learned that I had handily beaten everybody but Tristan (and of course Alexis). Tristan self-timed himself at 7:45 so it indeed was a close race. I suspected I was slightly faster, but too much uncertainty remained – I know from experience that a few seconds is solidly within the margin of error.

After downing a banana and another couple glasses of orange juice, I headed back down with Tristan to see the final results.

Up on the screen, I found my name up in 2nd place behind Alexis. 

Yes! I was finally the US National Champion!

Then I peered at the times. Holy cow they were close…
Alex Workman 7:42
Gregory Billingsley 7:43
Tristan Roth 7:46

You can find the overall results here.

I felt bad for Tristan who had a good race, but was clipped by a handful of seconds for not one, but two podium spots. 

I knew I was lucky for narrowly edging out Greg. He started further behind us so I honestly forgot about him. Clearly he had a good race. Had he been climbing up front with the rest of us, it might have been a different outcome. I certainly had enough energy go faster but did I have the mental fortitude to back it up? Doubts linger.

I would have been bitter about the results had I been in Tristan’s shoes, but he seemed pretty happy about his performance. He easily shattered his goal of breaking the 8 minute mark which is a great prelude to the Columbia Tower (a similarly sized building in Seattle, where he lives). Someday I hope to have such a positive attitude.

All that was left was to take a shower and attend the awards ceremony for the annual points competition. For the past three years I’ve been atop the points rankings, but this year I gave up the top spot to Terry Purcell who has had my number in 2018. With a couple of big wins already under my belt this year, I hope to be top dog again in 2019.

Final Thoughts:
A couple people came up to me to congratulate my 2nd place finish at the Stratosphere, but nobody mentioned that I was the US National Champion. In fact, the accomplishment wasn't even mentioned during the Towerrunning USA awards ceremony. Boy that really stung.

A few days after the race I checked out Towerrunning USA and to see if there was an announcement that I could share with my friends and family. Nothing. Nada.

Sometimes I feel like climbing stairs doesn’t matter and I’m honestly sick of training my ass off. I know I’m not the fastest climber, but at least I show up and compete in the big races; nobody can accuse me of cherry picking only races I can win. Officially winning the US National Championship was supposed to be my time to shine and nobody gave a damn. To be honest, it still hurts.

Awkwardly, I contacted Stairlife and the Towerrunning USA director a few days after the race. I felt embarrassed having to ask for my name to appear, but upset enough to actually push for it. Thanks Stairlife for updating the Stratosphere post to include my name.

Finally, thanks to (the governing international organization) who at least mentioned me in a brief post. That made my day.

As for my performance, I’m happy about my place, but disappointed with my time. Not *that* disappointed mind you. I’m another year older and few seconds faster and I plan to keep the streak alive next year.

I learned a lot in the stairwell during this race. There have been times were I’ve blown up at 97 BPM and this time I handled it with aplomb. In fact, I had energy in the tank even after I increased my pace during the 2nd half. For the 6th time in a row I believe a 7:30 is in the cards (no pun intended being Vegas and all).

Effort: B; The first part of the race was more like a training session. I pushed it during the latter half, but I left too much in the tank.
Weight: B+; I was likely around 172 or just hair above. Good but not great. I honestly need to 170 or less.
Conditioning: A; I was in great shape this time around.
Pacing & Technique: B+: The turns seemed to be efficient and the blisters on my right hand can attest to using the rails. My strategy was sound and I increased the pace during the latter half, but I should have used a faster pace right off the bat.
Overall: B; There is room to improve as long as I can maintain my conditioning (no small feat, I might add).

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Record at Reunion


As kid, I’d envision J. R. Ewing* wearing his white ten gallon hat with the “Dallas” theme song playing in the background. I’ve never actually watched an episode of the TV show despite it being a television staple of the 1980s (I was more of a MacGyver fan).

*Played by Larry Hagman from “I Dream of Jeannie”.


As an stair climber, I now picture the 560 foot tall Reunion Tower – home of the Dallas Vertical Mile, one of the best climbs in the country.

As the name suggests, the race is a full vertical mile and you need to climb the stairwell 12 times to reach a mile (as the stairwell is “merely” 470 feet tall) within a 2.5 hour time limit.

The venue also hosts three other races: The Half (6 climbs), the Quarter (3 climbs) and the Vertical Sprint (1 climb).

This year the races were spaced across two days - giving athletes a shot at two (or more) events without being too fatigued. Saturday featured the Half and Sprint while the Mile and Quarter were on Sunday.

I chose to climb in the two most competitive races – the full Vertical Mile (which requires the most endurance) and the Vertical Sprint (which requires the most speed). As they were on separate days I figured I could go all out on Saturday’s Sprint and still have a full tank to compete in the Mile on Sunday.

This would be my 2nd year racing the event so I already had a good idea of what to expect.

I never formally blogged about my experience in 2018, so let’s start off with a short recap:

In 2018, the race was held on a single day with all four events (sprint, quarter, half, and full mile) happening either simultaneously or back to back.

My goal for the vertical mile was to break the hour barrier which was essentially the winning time from 2017. That meant I’d have to do each lap in just under 5 minutes. However, since Terry Purcell (one of the most decorated stair climbers ever) was attending the race, I figured I’d need to shoot for 4:50 laps in order to have a chance at winning.

I had a chance to preview the stairwell the day before so knew that a pace of 95 bpm would get me in that range.

At the start line, I let most of the other top guys climb ahead of me. They were planning to sprint the first lap since the first lap of the mile also counted toward the Vertical Sprint race. However, since the Vertical Mile was considered the “premiere” race (with the most points on the US circuit on tap) I chose to climb conservatively – hoping that my rivals would over-exert themselves.

It didn’t quite work the way I had planned. Although my first lap was on target (4:52) my rivals all had *much* faster times. Terry set a new course record with a 3:58 which meant that I’d need to overcome a deficit of nearly a minute.

After the first set of climbs, my times were in the low 4:50s to mid 4:40s. When I learned that Terry was keeping low 4:40s to upper 4:30s I had already completed ~5 laps. At that point I knew the race for 1st place was essentially over. I was already becoming fatigued and in order to catch Terry, I’d need to make up ~90 seconds. Assuming that Terry would continue pulling 4:40s, I’d need to pull 4:20s for the remainder of the race. That would be a tall order even if I were on fresh legs!

I climbed a little bit faster during the 2nd half of the race. I knew I couldn’t catch Terry, but I at least wanted to stop bleeding time. Plus, I had to pull ahead of my other rivals.

Things nearly fell apart on my 11th lap when my left calf seized up. I was painful, but fortunately I was near the top. I managed to finish the lap using my arms and my one good leg. However now my 12th lap was in serious jeopardy. I was on knifes edge of either 2nd place… or DNF.

I spent my remaining time massaging and stretching my calf. I also downed a bottle of pickle juice (thanks Scott) to relieve some of the cramping. It worked. With two minutes to spare, I climbed my fastest lap of the day with a solid 4:29. My calf hurt, but it never seized up completely.

Rather than a DNF, I came in 2nd overall. I was pleased. This was my first time completing a true endurance race and at the very least, I showed I can compete at any distance. The only disappointment came many months after the race when I learned that the TWA  awarded points for the sprint race rather than the more competitive Vertical Mile*. I suddenly wished I hadn’t bagged the first lap…

*There are two different ranking systems. TowerRunning USA solely for US races and the TowerRunning World Association which ranks races across the globe. The former offered points for the Vertical Mile, but the latter strangely gave points for only the sprint.

Fast forward to 2019.

A week before the race, I learned that Terry wouldn’t be racing since he was injured. He’s beaten me consistently throughout 2018 so I was saddened I wouldn’t have another shot at going head to head. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have so much pressure on my shoulders. This bears a little explanation: You might think that being the #1 seed is more stressful than being the underdog. Well, in my case it is just the opposite. I always feel intimidated by faster rivals and I prefer the freedom of climbing at my own pace. I hate feeling the need to keep up to my rivals.

That said, the field was still deep. During Saturday’s sprint, my main rivals were going to be Jason Larson and Harrison Kieffer who both went under an hour at last year’s race (they were 3rd and 4th respectively). Joining us on Sunday would be Mark Henderson and Martin Pederson. I’ve only raced against Mark at the Sears and LaSalle double header. I beat him by about 30 seconds in the main event (Sears) but he came back and beat me an hour later at LaSalle (I was exhausted!). That meant he either raced conservatively at Sears…  or he’s able to recover quickly. In either case, it meant he was dangerous in long lap races like the Vertical Mile. Martin was the dark horse. He travels around for races (he’s Danish) and he’s built for endurance. If anybody else was going to break an hour in the mile, I’d place my money on Marin.

The trip to Dallas was uneventful and I arrived at my hotel just before 8:00 PM. I spent the next couple hours hanging out with my roommate (Josh Jacket editor of StairLife) before hitting the hay.

The Sprint was scheduled to start at 8:30 AM so that meant I had to get up by 7:15 in order to have enough time to get ready, walk to the tower and warm up. Everything went smoothly, except that I spent too much time chatting with other climbers and only completed a couple rounds of burpees before heading to the start line. No matter -  I was ready.

And then things nearly fell apart.

I was just about to jump into the stairwell when Lonnie (the head timer) told me I had the wrong bib…

What? You’ve got to be kidding me!?!

Apparently, I was given tomorrow’s Vertical Mile bib rather than today’s Vertical Sprint! I ran upstairs to the registration table and cut to the front of the line. It took but a moment to switch bibs and I dashed back to the start line. Fortunately, they had waited for me! With nervous fingers I pinned on my new bib and entered the stairwell. At least my warm up was complete!

I had one goal for the Sprint: Beat the course record of 3:58.

During my last race, I climbed Milwaukee’s US Bank Center in roughly 5 minutes using a pace of 112 BPM on my metronome. It is a good comparison because both buildings have 7 inch steps. However, this course was a bit shorter and I anticipated finishing in just under 4 minutes. With that in mind, I chose to use a slightly faster pace of 117 BPM.

It took a few flights to get into a steady rhythm. The pace seemed almost too easy and I fought the urge to accelerate. I’ve raced enough to know that it’s never a good idea to go out too fast and fade later. In the rare instance you do go out too slow, you can still accelerate in the latter half to make up lost time.

Sure enough, right around the minute mark I felt the strain of the pace.

Right around the half-way point there was a Gatorade stand. I tried glancing at my watch but it was too dark in the stairwell. By now, I was way over the red line. I could keep the pace up for a little while longer but could I hold it until the end? Or would I fade?

I checked my watch again when I approached better lighting. 2:30. Less than 90 seconds left to climb!.

The last minute was the hardest. In my periphery vision I noticed volunteers cheering in the stairwell. I was so focused on the hand rails and navigating the turns that I couldn’t spare a glance in their direction. However, I did recognize a few friends through the sound of their voices (Sue, Paul, etc.) and their words of encouragement kept me going.

My lungs were on fire, but I knew the top couldn’t be far. I accelerated. That record was going to be mine, dammit; even if it killed me!

 The purpose of this photo is to show the "fancy" steps.
I don't actually know this girl (but she's cute, right?)
Suddenly, the stairwell changed. Gone were the dingy, rusty treads and rails. Now the stairwell was bright and clean – featuring glossy black steps highlighted by fancy chrome rails.

I got to the top of the first flight and stopped. The stairwell continued upwards, but it was blocked by a stack of electronic equipment. There was a single guy in the stairwell looking directly at me. As I contemplated jumping over the equipment, I frantically asked “Where’s the finish line?!?”. “Right there.” he said, pointing to the open doorway to my left.

I nearly smacked my head it was so obvious.

I jumped out of the stairwell as my stopwatch passed 3:48.

Despite losing a few seconds to sheer stupidity, I still shattered the previous course record by a solid 10 seconds! YES!

I was tired, but not collapse-on-the-ground tired. By the time some of my other rivals had arrived, I had recovered enough to able to grab a cup of Gatorade without help.
Less Tired

I hung on the observation deck for a good while to chat with other climbers and pick up my fancy finisher’s medal. Paul (the race director) really out did himself this time. The medal is essentially a flattened torus holding a colorful spinning medallion in its hollow center – kind of like a gyroscope.

I then learned my official time was actually 3:43 since timing mat was as the top of the stairwell, not at the stairwell exit. My moment of stupidity hadn’t cost me any time after all! Bonus!

As I recovered, I felt fortunate that today wasn’t the Vertical Mile (with another 11 more laps to go). I wasn’t completely drained… but I doubted I could put together a string of sub-5 minute climbs within the next couple hours.

Race Grades:
Effort: A-; Although I was above the red line for most of the race, I wasn’t dying on the floor afterwards (which isn’t an entirely bad thing).
Weight: B; I was around 172 but I need to be sub-170 to be truly competitive.
Conditioning: B+; Training has been a mixed bag. My speed has been top notch, but I’ve had trouble completing my key workouts.
Pacing & Technique: A; Pacing was spot on. I could have hugged the turns a little tighter and had better foot placement, but it’s hard to be perfect!
Overall: A-; I honestly think the record is still a little soft, but overall I’ve gotta be pleased!

Immediately after the awards ceremony*, I had an overly big breakfast (ham, eggs & pancakes) at Cindi’s NY Deli & Diner with a bunch of my climbing friends. Although my energy levels were back to normal, I was developing a headache at the rear of my head - right where my neck meets the skull. Also, my lungs were pretty raw and I developed a mild case of climbers cough.

*I took 1st overall and our Tower Master’s team came in 2nd in the team event.

After breakfast, a smaller group of us took he courtesy shuttle to Whole Foods to pick up some grub. I picked up a salad for dinner as well as some snacks for the trip home and energy bars for tomorrow’s race. Josh and I walked back to burn off some of the excess calories from breakfast.

Despite being fully hydrated, my headache was getting worse, so I took a nap for an hour. I woke up feeling rested, but my headache persisted. At least it wasn’t getting worse. Fortunately, I felt good enough to grab dinner (pizza) with a large group of climbing friends. This time, I didn’t overeat!

Lights out came around 10:00 PM. My head was still hurting and my lungs were tired from coughing. I needed a good night’s sleep.

I woke up just before 5:00 AM. My throbbing headache had disappeared although the back of my neck/skull was sore to the touch. My lungs felt okay, but not 100%. Phlegm had settled in during the night and it took a couple coughing fits to get everything out.

The race would be starting at 6:00 AM sharp. This time around I received my proper bib. Unlike yesterday, the check-in was outside (read: cold) but we were still able to put our racing gear indoors.

My goal was to win the race and my stretch goal was to beat the course record (55:36). To do that, I’d need average splits of 4:37. Considering that last year was tiring and my average splits were a mere 4:47, I knew that climbing ten seconds faster would be extremely taxing. Certainly within the realm of possibility… but frankly I didn’t give myself great odds*.

*As Llyod once said: "So you’re telling me… there’s a chance? Yeah!!"

Fortunately I had prepared for this: I set my metronome a couple beats faster than last year (97 BPM) and I plotted down my nutrition plan in my journal:
  • Salt pills after laps 4 & 8 to alleviate cramping.
  • Energy gels after laps 3, 6 and 9.
  • A small bite from my  energy bar (maple & sea salt) if I wasn’t scheduled for an energy gel.
  • Gatorade after each lap to stay hydrated.

Last year I had climbed in sneakers because the race was so long. This time around, however, I switched to my lightweight racing flats. If my feet started hurting, I could always switch footwear.

Finally, I kept a pen handy in order to jot down my splits in my journal after each lap.

This time around I had a much more relaxed warm-up. The pace for at least the first few laps shouldn’t be too taxing so the warmup wasn’t quite as important as it was for yesterday’s sprint.

At 6:00 AM sharp, I entered the stairwell (with no last minute bib switching!).

Lap #1 (4:43)
Today I had more time to view my surroundings since the pace wasn’t so brutal. The most notable aspect of the stairwell is the plethora of motivational posters tailored to each climber. I also noticed the flight numbers marking the way up the tower as well as posters announcing 20, 15 and 10 floors to go respectively. Lastly, I was welcomed by a cheering squad with 5  flights to go. If memory serves me right, there are 55 flights in total?

I reached the top and exited the stairwell (this time around I remembered the location!). I stopped my watch at 4:43. This might seem slower than my goal pace of 4:37, but considering that this stairwell has  an extra floor compared with the other stairwell – remember we’d be completing the remaining 11 climbs in the 2nd shorter stairwell – a 4:43 was nearly perfect.

I was tired but still able to walk around. As I rested, I sipped on a cup of Gatorade and waited for some of my other climbing friends to arrive. I didn’t need to hurry downstairs as I had roughly 8 minutes before I needed to start my next climb. My plan was to enter the stairwell once every 13 minutes in order to start my 12th lap within the 2.5 hour time limit*.

*Theoretically, I could start each lap at 13:37, but a 13:00 flat was easier to remember and would provide a decent cushion “just in case shit happened”.

I took the elevator down with a few minutes to spare. While downstairs, I jotted down my time, ate a bite of my energy bar and finished the rest of my Gatorade. At the 13 minute mark I headed back into the other stairwell for lap #2…

Laps #2 & #3 (4:40?,  4:37)
I got into a good rhythm for the next couple laps. On lap #2, I didn’t start my stop watch properly but considering I was using my metronome, I figured my lap time was at most 4:40 so that’s what I jot down. The stairwell was clear for lap #2, but I passed several climbers still on their 1st  lap in the other stairwell*. As more climbers finished the first lap and were into their 2nd, I ran into a little more traffic on my 3rd. Fortunately, I didn’t run into any bottle necks and I finished lap #3 in a solid 4:37.

*Stairwells #1 & #2 are intertwined like a double helix; they share the same space but are still separate.

While resting downstairs after my 3rd lap, they posted some of the intermediate results. Mark was in 1st place, and I was tied with Harrison for 2nd place with Jason mere seconds behind.

Crap. All four of us were on record setting pace. Furthermore, my lungs were aching; I obviously hadn’t fully recovered from yesterday’s sprint. This could turn out to be a dog fight.

Laps #4, #5 & #6 (4:36, 4:38, 4: 37)
I didn’t panic. My lungs hurt, but it didn’t seem to be hindering my oxygen uptake. I was surely getting tired but then again I was climbing relatively fast. The pace had to be taking a toll on my rivals, too. If needed, I could *perhaps* find another gear but I didn’t want to use it until the latter half of the race. Gotta keep the powder dry*.

*As Sproule once famously remarked.

By now the stairwell was getting fairly crowded. The good thing about 13 minute laps is you can afford to choose when to enter the stairwell. I had enough buffer to wait until 13:30, but if needed I could get in at 12:30. To be honest the extra 30 seconds of rest had negligible impact to my recovery. The trick was to find a lull in the crowd. This normally meant waiting until a slug of people came up out of the elevator and hop in line right before their arrival.

As such, the first minute of climbing was usually pretty clear, but invariably I’d catch up to small clusters of people. I’d recognize climbers here and there (sometimes with words of encouragement if it was early enough in the climb) and most were happy to move out of the way. Once in a while, however, I’d run into folks who simply wouldn’t budge. I’d usually say something like “passing” or “coming up”, but when folks don’t get out of the way, I’d take the inside lane and physically move them aside. I feel slightly bad about it, but I wasn’t about to lose time because of slower climbers. Perhaps next year I’ll offer to make speech about climbing etiquette. I’d hate to ruin a newbie’s climbing experience. I’m sure they just don’t know any better.

My pace was right on target for the most part and there was a point during my 5th lap where I experienced a (somewhat short lived) 2nd wind in the latter half of the tower. However by the time I had finished my 6th lap, I was definitely starting to tire.
Preparing for yet another brutal lap...
Laps #7, #8 & #9 (4:38, 4:37, 4:37)
The race was over halfway complete! The ache in my lungs had thankfully disappeared, but I was steadily becoming fatigued. In the first half of the race, I didn’t really feel the pace until well into the 2nd half of each lap. But now I was struggling in the 30s… and then in the 20s… and by the time I hit the 9th lap,  I felt like crap as early as the 18th flight.

I could still keep up the pace, but it was becoming more and more of a mental challenge the further I progressed into the race. I also noticed that my recovery at the top of the tower was taking longer and longer.

By now I was solidly in 1st place. Mark faded after his 3rd lap and although Jason and Harrison were still going strong, they were averaging about 10 seconds slower per climb (they were in a real dogfight for 2nd place).

Laps #10 & #11 (4:35, 4:28)
I finished my last energy gel*l prior to entering lap #10. I was definitely tired, but I was still close to the record. No time to let up.

*Chocolate is my favorite and I saved it specifically for lap #10. On the other hand, Citrus and Raz (whatever that is) both kinda suck.

Several climbers had already completed all 12 laps (e.g. Josh & Martin) and it was kind of demoralizing knowing that I still had 25% left to climb.

Lap #10 was slightly worse than #9. I felt crappier earlier in the tower and my recovery was longer and more painful. But knowing I was closing in on the record helped me over the hump.

Once downstairs, I looked at the times in my notebook and compared them with the times shown online. My journal showed me climbing just under record setting pace, but I found a couple discrepancies in the published results which showed me going a bit slower on a couple of my laps. That meant I had little to no buffer and my next couple climbs needed to be fast ones.

I bumped up my metronome from 97 to 98 BPM on lap #11 for insurance.

Honestly, it wasn’t noticeably harder, but it was draining nonetheless. Midway up I could feel my left calf starting to tighten up. Crap. Not now! Fortunately it never completely seized, even when I pushed the final 10 flights. Thank goodness I took those salt pills.

Lap #11 felt really tough, but with a time of 4:28 – my fastest lap so far – no wonder! Though it took even longer to recover than before, my energy wasn’t completely tapped. I knew I had another climb left in me.

Lap #12 (4:18)
OK… one lap to go! With a strong lap #11, I knew I was on track to break the record.

Downstairs, I inquired how much time I had left before my 2.5 hours was up. I was told I had about 10 minutes to spare. I intended to use the extra rest to my advantage. I also learned that Jason and Harrison were neck and neck and this last lap would be the deciding factor. What a battle!

I was tired and nervous, but also a little excited. If I climbed well, I’d smash the record. But if I bonked, it could be over in an instant.

Knowing that 98 BPM would get me over the hump, I started my last lap conservatively. The record would be mine if I could just stay on course.

As I passed into the 20s, my left calf started to twitch. Please don’t cramp… please don’t cramp…

I trode gingerly as possible up the stairs still going strong at 98 BPM.

I passed Alberto doing single leg hops up the steps just for… fun?!?  If I had any energy to spare, I would have cracked a smile. I think leg hops would have killed me…

The lap seemed to drag on forever until the 20 floors to go banner. I was getting close and I could smell victory. However, I was also climbing on fumes. This bears some explanation. On one hand, I still had something left in the tank. Theoretically, I *could* accelerate. My heart rate wasn’t sky high and my legs were still strong. But on the other hand, I was in pain and climbing any faster meant more even more suffering. I may not have been at my physical limit, but I was certainly close to my pain threshold.

Screw it. I’m not going to throw down a mere 4:28… I knew I could go faster.

So I did.

With 10 floors to go I knew I was going to put down a solid time. My heart rate still hadn’t peaked and my body was still capable of going faster. However this time I couldn’t summon the mental strength to increase my level of suffering. I had already won the race and was 99% sure I’d break the record. The voices telling me to “take it easy” eventually won out.

Despite the voices in my head, I kept my current speed. The cheering squad at 5 floors to go made the final few flights bearable.

I could see the chrome rails signifying the final flight. I bounded up the remaining few steps…

… and my left calf seized up.

I knew It was only a matter of time before it would happen, but the fates were with me. I only had to take a couple more steps to cross the finish line.

I hobbled in pain over the mat and then exited the stairwell. I stopped my watch at 4:18.

Though my calf was in a knot, the pain didn’t detract from the feeling of accomplishment. I said I was going to try for the record and I did it!

Unconsciously, I furrowed my brow and my lips turned upside-down into a frown. It was all I could do to hold back the tears of relief.

It took a couple seconds to compose myself, but moments later I raised my fist into the air and cried out an emphatic “YES!” to celebrate my victory.

Then back to reality. I had just climbed my fastest climb of the day – on my last lap to boot! Recovery was definitely a bit slower than after any of my previous climbs, but  all in all, I felt pretty good. I could probably have climbed another couple laps at a decent pace (say 4:40) if I absolutely had to (and I would need a *very* good reason).

I grabbed my finishers medal and went to tell my friends the good news. A while later I learned my friend Jason had a fast final lap and was assured 2nd place. Congrats!

After finishing a couple cups of Gatorade, I finally made my way downstairs. It was time to switch into my comfortable sneakers and stretch. As I had another 90 minutes until the awards ceremony I headed back to the hotel to take a shower, pack and check out.

The awards ceremony was held outside this year and although it was cold, I barely noticed. I was still stoked about the race. My official time was 55:13 for all twelve laps and I couldn’t have been prouder.
Podium: Jason, Alex and Harrison (I'm the one in the middle).
After the ceremony I hung around the hotel for a while sharing stories with the other competitors but at 1:00 PM sharp, it was time to head to the airport - just in time to see the Patriots win.

Final Thoughts:
Although I’m happy I have the record in both the Vertical Sprint and Vertical Mile, I’d be the first to tell you that the prior record was set when the first lap of the Mile counted towards the Sprint whereas I had the luxury of a day between the two races.

Despite the day of rest, the sprint took more out of me than I wanted. My lungs were raw during the Mile so I wasn’t quite back at 100%. Don’t get me wrong – I was certainly race ready – but I know I left some time on the table. Perhaps a second or two here and there?

From my experience, after clocking in a 3:43 sprint, I couldn’t have been able to continue at a 4:37 average pace for another 11 laps. I bet I could have clocked in a 4:20 first lap (after all my last lap was a 4:18!) and maintain the necessary pace, but honestly I don’t know if I could have matched Terry’s first lap (3:58) and still break the VM record.

If I had to guess, I would bet that Terry didn’t go quite all out when he set the bar at 3:58. That’s my take, at least.

Even if my records have stars associated with them, I’m still very pleased. I crushed the Vertical Sprint and I shaved off over two minutes from last year’s Vertical Mile. Let’s take a look at how my times stacked up. I’m also including my self-timed splits to highlight a couple of discrepancies I noticed after the fact.

Lap Number
2018 Actual
2019 Actual
*I didn’t time my 2nd lap so this was my conservative estimate (it was pretty close!)

As you can see, I beat each of last year’s laps – often by 10 to 20 second margins. Considering I purposefully *didn’t* participate in the Sprint last year, this is truly an apples to apples comparison. Needless to say I’m pleased. I knew it would be possible to shave off 5 – 10 seconds per lap, but to have climbed so consistently and fast? Even I’m impressed with the year-over-year improvement.

Upon closer look, most of my self-reported times are within a second of the actual results. However two of the results are 4-5 seconds different (laps #6 & #10) and my 11th lap was a whopping 10 seconds slower than what I timed. I could probably chalk up laps #6 & #10 to random error, but I know I used a faster pace on my 11th lap and purposely pushed a bit harder. I’m guessing something was off with the timing on this lap. Oh well.

The last observation is the just how different this race can be for various athletes. This warrants a bit of explanation…

To get all 12 climbs in, you need to have a decent amount of fitness. Even the slowest 12 lap climber is an athlete in my book. Logistically, you need to start your 12th lap under the 2.5 hour time limit. Based on data from the last couple years, it appears you need to have an average pace of under 10:40 for the first 11 climbs. You also have to have a bit of luck with the elevators so that you can get back to the start line in under three minutes. In this case, the slowest possible time (assuming you don’t bag the 12th lap) is about 2:07. Essentially, the slowest athletes spend over two hours climbing with less than half an hour of total break time.

The fastest athletes, on the other hand, have lap times of under 5 minutes. Overall, they spend about 1 hour climbing and about an hour and half resting (~5 minutes per climb with ~8 minutes of rest).

This is a vastly different race for those on opposite ends of the spectrum!

Slower athletes climb nearly continuously and therefore have to pace themselves underneath the red line (mostly cardio). For the fastest athletes, the pace is often over the redline (mainly on the upper flights) so the race is really like a HIIT workout (i.e. a good amount of anaerobic work).

I will say one last thing about the fastest athletes. Personally, I was nearly recovered with just 5 minutes of rest. I took the full 8 minutes in the hopes that I’d  shave a couple seconds off my lap times. I’m pretty sure I could have completed the Vertical Mile in under two hours without sacrificing too much speed. On the other hand, If I only had say 2-3 minutes of rest each lap (just like the slower athletes) I bet I’d have a noticeable increase in my lap times.

Race Grades:
Effort: B+; I climbed this race conservatively enough to make sure I wouldn’t bonk. This was a good trade off.
Weight: B;  (same as Sprint)
Conditioning: B+; (same as Sprint)
Pacing & Technique: A; My splits were *very* consistent and right where they needed to be to capture the record. Behold the power of the metronome! As the pace was much slower (compared with the sprint) my climbing technique was good.
Overall: A-; Yes, there is room to improve… but I wouldn’t want to try it any time soon. Overall, I’m satisfied with this race.