Everything clicked together and each time I stepped into the stairwell or got on my Precor Stepper, I set a new PB.
I attribute my fortune to three things;
1) I dropped weight
2) The weather
3) Hard Work
I had so many workouts during the summer where I had to bail out early that it became my new normal. Back then, I weighed in at 178 (at my heaviest) and the summer heat and humidity was brutal. You know it’s a hot outside when the rails of your practice stairwell are slippery because of your own sweat.
However, once I dropped the excess weight, things started to get easier and once the temperature dropped, I felt like a new man.
As difficult & depressing as those Summer workouts were, I know they helped me get into the best shape of my life.
So yeah, I had pretty high expectations for Sears Tower.
I’d like to say my trip to Chicago was uneventful considering all the drama I’ve witnessed on prior trips (you can read about my earlier misadventures elsewhere in my blog).
No such luck.
I planned to give my friend David a jar of homemade jam since he would be hosting me over the weekend. I placed the jam carefully in my carry-on luggage so it wouldn’t break.
But of course it was confiscated during check in. In my defense, didn’t know that jam was considered a liquid.
The TSA officer gave me a bunch of poor options, like checking in my bag, mailing it to myself, or giving it to a waiting friend. None of them made any real sense as I only had 15 minutes until boarding. After a few choice words I told them to just keep it. So much for David’s present.
On my way to the gate, I filled up my water bottle and opened my pack of gum in preparation for boarding. However, when I finally arrived at the gate, I found out that the plane would be delayed for another 75 minutes.
I might not be able to bring the jam to Chicago, but I was determined not to let it go to waste. I hatched a plan…
I marched back to the TSA checkpoint and asked for my jam back.
TSA Agent: Sorry, its gone.
Me: I was here less than five minutes ago, what do you mean it’s gone?
TSA Agent: Once you leave an object with TSA it is considered forfeit.
Me: Give me back my jam.
TSA Agent: We have a rule where blah blah blah (I’m not listening at this point)
Me: Give me back my jam. It’s probably in that small trash can. <pointing>
TSA Agent: <picks up jam and hands it back once I’m past the security checkpoint>
I made my way across the bridge and headed to the parking garage.
Phone booth? Nope – too out in the open.
Gap in guard rail? Nope – won’t fit
Back corner? Getting warmer...
I-beam Post near car ramp? Yes!
I found my hiding spot for the jam. No casual observer would be able to find it and it would be out of the sun. Perfect.
I hastily got back in line for my 2nd screening.
“Is this water bottle yours, sir?”
Damn it, I forgot I refilled my water bottle. It’s an 8 oz. mini-bottle and it’s small enough not to notice.
Me: Crap, I totally forgot my bottle. Can I just drink it? (remember it is only 8 oz.)
TSA Agent: No sorry.
Me: I literally just filled it up just a few minutes ago right there <pointing to the fountain near the bathroom>. Can I just dump it?
TSA Agent: No sorry.
Me: Seriously? Fine. Whatever.
I march out of the security zone, dump the water out into the garbage can literally three paces away from the security zone, and get back into line.
3rd time was the charm, though TSA decided to go through my luggage by hand. Again.
Once on the ground in Chicago, David picked me up in his Porsche. Sweet ride. After pickup up a few groceries, we headed back to his place to eat dinner and chat.
The next morning, we spent way more time than was necessary ordering a Towerrunning Banner online from Staples. Afterwards we headed down town to hang out.
After parking the car, we headed toward Monadnock, the tallest brick building in Chicago. We were going to check out it’s fancy staircase, but security kicked us out*.
*Note: Next time tell the guard you are there to see the doctor on the 9th floor. Bring a girl with you just in case the doctor is an OBGYN (we didn’t check).
Next, we walked toward Millennium Park, the site of last night’s White Sox celebration*.
*It must have been a huge event; cleaning crews were hauling away porto-potties by the dozens.
Next stop was the Adler Planetarium. During out stay, we learned about dark matter, read about the history of the Universe, and saw a movie about the 9th planet*.
*Hint: it’s not Pluto
After the planetarium we picked up Roxanne and took an Uber to the Willis (Sears) Tower to pick up our bibs. We stayed there for nearly an hour as I needed to speak with the RIC & Skydeck folks to make final arrangements for tomorrow’s race*.
*In case you didn’t know – I’m the President of Towerrunning USA and was responsible for managing the competitive Towerrunning/World Federation of Great Towers wave of climbers. It is a shitty job, but someone has to do it.
After Sears we headed to the Chicago Public Library for a very quick tour of the indoor garden and to meet up with our pal Jason Larson.
Finally, we headed to the Flattop Grill for our pre-race dinner and meet and greet. I just ordered an iced tea and ate the salad I brought from home (why change what works?).
After dinner, David, Roxanne, Sue, Daryl, and I headed piled into David’s car (the Outback, not the Porsche) to head back home. Along the way we stopped by Trader Joe’s to pick up more groceries as well as Staples to pick up our poster*.
*Note to self: Why bother submitting the poster to online for same-day pick up if they’re just going to make you wait and print the stuff out when you get there?
At David’s house we chatted for a bit before I heading to bed. I stayed up reading till about 10:20 before turning out the lights. Although I was nervous, I managed to get a good night’s sleep. The extra hour due to daylight savings was an added bonus.
The next morning, we were up by 5:15 AM, out the door by 6:00 AM, and in the lobby by 6:30 AM. Several people were already looking for me because I had the box of bibs.
At 6:40, I began my round of active stretches in earnest. Then at 6:45 I started my rounds of burpees, though I only got in 2 or 3 rounds before heading to the front of the start line.
We had several strong climbers drop out of the race over the last few weeks including Sproule Love and Jesse Berg who’ve both won the race in the past. Still, there were several good climbers in the line-up. Here were my top picks:
- Frank Carreno (COL): Ranked 7th in the World. Definitely someone who could challenge Sproule’s record of 13:03. Despite racing in Boston on Saturday, he was still my favorite
- Matjas Miklosa (SLO): Ranked 6th in the World. Another one who could challenge the record.
- Eric Lenninger (USA): He’s probably the 2nd fastest American actively on the circuit and he’s won Sears before. He’s the only American left on the roster who has gone sub-14 at Sears.
- Alex Workman (USA): I gotta give myself at least *some* credit.
- Dennis Curran (USA): He’s come close to beating Eric in the past, so he’s probably a little faster than I am. I only give myself the nod because I have a bit more experience in this building (103 floors is tough)
- Daniel Walters (USA): Another good athlete from Chicago. He’s done the Hancock in 10:12, which is right around my goal pace. Again I give myself the nod because I have more experience at Sears.
- Dr. Scott & Jason Larson (USA): Tie - I’d spot them 30 seconds at most.
Last year I did the race in 14:19, leaving only a handful of seconds on the table. This year’s official goal would be 14:10 with a stretch goal of sub 14. Unofficially, anything more than 13:49 would be considered a failure.
I was ready to break 14. I was in the best shape of my life and a couple pounds lighter than last year. It wasn’t going to be easy; sub-14 would require a pretty good race. In my internal scoring system, I’d need at least a B+ or A- kind of race to come under 14:00. Certainly doable, but not guaranteed.
Last year I set my metronome to 83 BPM, so this time I set it a couple clicks higher to 85 BPM. If I had the same kind of race as last year, those extra two beats should put me just under 14:00.
I finished my last set of burpees a couple minutes before the start and then I got in line behind Frank, Matjaz, and Eric. Once Frank was through the door they gave us each a 10 second gap.
When it was my turn I took a quick drink of water and set my metronome. As I crossed the timing mat I started my stop watch.
The first few floors felt like they were in slow motion, but I knew my pace was solid; it’s supposed to feel easy this early in the race.
I took each turn quickly, making sure I kept up to the beat of my metronome. At first, I tried single stepping the landings (i.e. keeping just a single foot on the landing when turning) but it felt too awkward. I soon switched over to double stepping the landings (i.e two footfalls on the landing). However, to make sure I kept the same pace, I made sure to have two footfalls per beat on the landing.
I got to maybe the 10th floor and caught sight of Eric. By the time we hit the teens we were climbing together at the same pace.
Things went fairly smoothly for the next dozen floors. When we hit the 26th floor (about 25% into the race) I glanced at my stopwatch. 3:20, which meant I was about 10 seconds faster than my goal. That seemed like good news!
If I had stopped to think about it for a moment, it really wasn’t good news. A 3:20 meant I was on track for a 13:20, which is about 30 seconds beyond my capabilities.
Anyway, my mind was solely focused on climbing, so up the stairs I went. I was getting tired, but I knew that I wasn’t at my limit.
For the next 25 floors I followed behind Eric, steadily climbing to the beat of my metronome. He remained about half a flight ahead of me. At each turn I seemed to gain half a step and in the middle of the flights Eric would gain it right back.
We hit the 52nd floor still going at a fast clip with a split time of 6:45 if I remember correctly. In the back of my mind I thinking I’m on pace for a 13:45, but in reality I’m on pace for a 13:30 which is still a bit faster than my capabilities.
At this point I’m basically right on top of Eric and we’re bumping hands on every turn. I could tell he was struggling, but I wasn’t in much better condition; I was close to my limit, too. I knew I could keep up the pace for another dozen or so floors… but there were still 50 more to go.
A few floors later, Eric moved out of the way to let me pass. Part of me was screaming “YES!” but the other part of me was in too much pain to care.
I pushed on for another half-dozen floors. Nothing is worse than letting someone pass only to have that person suddenly slow down in front of you. I didn’t want to be that guy.
Now I was at my limit. If this was the end of the race I could probably hammer out maybe ten more floors, but I still had over 40 floors to go. Immediately I started taking two beats on the landings instead of just one beat. Hopefully my 15 second cushion would sustain me until the end.
I climbed into the 70s by myself. The stairwell changed direction (from right to left turns) and the sudden change in pattern seemed to sap what little energy I had left. Although I’m stronger at turning right, for the last 14 months, I’ve been practicing in a left turn stairwell to overcome this imbalance. “I’ve got this!”, I reassured myself.
Through the 70s, I kept up to the beat of my metronome on the flights, but my turns were getting sloppier with each landing. I crossed the 77th floor (about 75% the way through) to see how close I was to hitting my goal of 10:30. My watch was stuck at 9:04. I must have accidently stopped it. Damn.
Nothing to do but keep climbing. Perhaps it was better *not* knowing my split. After all, I knew I was bleeding time.
I was truly in pain crossing into the 80s. At one point I paused for a beat, ready to throw in the towel. No, I *must* finish this I told myself. Just another few minutes!
At floor 83 I told myself that from this point onwards, each floor is 5% of the remainder. I counted down 5%. 10%, 15% 20%, 25% complete...
Eventually I hit the 90th floor and entered the final section of the race. Each floor had three flights of seven steps (7/7/7) with handrails close enough to grip both at the same time. This is one of the most efficient configurations I could ask for since turning in a 7/7/7 is usually easy and fast. This is where I planned to dig deep to finish strong, but I had nothing left. I tried single stepping the landings on a couple flights, but found it impossibly difficult. I just couldn’t find the strength to pull it off.
Somehow I managed to continue my ascent. If you’ve ever bonked in the middle of race, you’ll appreciate how I felt: absolutely miserable.
Time simultaneously slowed down and sped up: On one hand each flight seemed like an eternity of punishment. On the other hand, I was barely conscious and I scarcely remember anything but the pain.
I finally hit the 100th floor. Only a few more to go. Up ahead I could hear another climber. Could someone be just up ahead of me? Sure enough I could hear cheering as I crossed 101, yet it seemed improbable that I could have caught up to Matjaz let alone Frank, who had started 20 & 30 seconds ahead of me and were better athletes to boot. Plus, I definitely was going at a much slower pace this late in the race.
I tried to pick up the pace on the final two floors, which means I climbed slightly ahead of my metronome on the flights, but still slogged through the turns as if were standing in molasses. I had nothing left to offer.
I crossed the line and glanced up at the main timing clock. It had just crossed 15 minutes. I crumpled to the floor. As three people started ahead of me in ten second increments, II likely finished in about 14:30, about 30 seconds slower than I had anticipated. I would have been disappointed, but I was in too much pain to think. At any rate, 14:30 was still a fairly good result especially considering I bled so much time from 70 onward. It could have been *a lot* worse.
I lay on the floor for at least 8 minutes*. I was completely wiped and my heart rate was having trouble coming down. Eventually I felt well enough to stand but I was still woozy. One of the volunteers asked me if I wanted to take my finisher’s medal. I just gave her a blank stare, not really processing the question. In fact, I don’t really know how the medal got around my neck. Did I pick it up off the floor or did someone else? And how did it finally get around my neck?
*Honestly, I don’t remember being on the floor that long, but I have photographic evidence which proves otherwise.
I shuffled around the corner. By now there were a lot of climbers who had finished the race. I briefly congratulated Frank and Matjaz for their climbs. Both had used stopwatches and knew their approximate times. Frank came in about 13:10 and Matjaz finished about 14:25 or so – quite a bit slower than I initially expected, but still probably enough for 2nd place.
I was still wiped but back on my feet. I congratulated a few of my friends and met up with Laurie from the RIC. She pointed me towards the Towerrunning and World Federation of Towers banner where we would be able to hold our awards ceremony. I shuffled my way around the Skydeck to find it. I found the banner hanging just past the elevator bank, away from the crowd at the finish line.
Now that I was alone, I decided to take a rest. I was still pretty messed up from the climb. My heart rate was no longer racing, but I still felt woozy and my lungs felt like I had breathed in hot ash. I crawled over to one of the binocular stations and lay myself down on the floor. I closed my eyes.
I was still on the floor when David stopped by and asked if I was okay. I looked up and murmured that I was fine and then closed my eyes again. He had the preliminary results in hand and I really didn’t want to see the damage; I was already in rough shape and I was dreading this moment.
But David was upbeat: “Guess what? You came in 2nd place!”.
Impossible, I thought.
I propped myself up and looked at the sheet. There it was: Alexander Workman – 2nd place – 14:08
I had clipped Majik by about 15 seconds. Apparently the person I sensed just ahead of me at the finish line *wasn’t* a figment of my imagination.
I was in disbelief. I lay back down and started sobbing uncontrollably with my both hands over my face to cover my tears.
Some of the tears were of those of sadness; watching my sub-14 race slip away on the upper floors was a rough experience, both physically and mentally.
Some of the tears were of those of joy; 2nd place at Sears in such a deep field is something to be proud of.
Some of the tears were those of relief; I was thankful just to survive this race intact.
A couple people (volunteers I assume) noticed me crying and asked if I was okay. Between sobs I waved them away.
After a minute or so I pulled myself together and stood up. The tears seemed to have washed away some of the fatigue and I was feeling oddly refreshed. That was fortunate, because I still had a job to do.
Now that we had the results in hand, it was time to kick-off the award ceremony. But first, I wanted to take a closer look at the results. My 2nd place seemed legit, but my time of 14:08 appeared to be fast. If only my stopwatch hadn’t conked out!
David and I consulted a few other climbers who had used stopwatches and it appeared that times were off 10-15 seconds across the board, which meant I had likely climbed the race in about 14:20 or so. Ugh! At least that didn’t impact the order of the climbers. The awards ceremony would go on!
For the next few minutes we gathered all the competitive climbers together and herded them towards the TWA/WFGT banner.
I didn’t have a microphone and my voice was hoarse, but I’m pleased to say that the ceremony went off without a hitch. Typically I’m nervous when giving a speech, but considering all I had been through over the past 30 minutes, public speaking was a piece of cake. Plus I was thrilled to actually receive an award.
After the ceremony we snapped a bunch of group photos and since I was next to the elevator bank, I made my way back to the lobby. I could finally relax.
I chatted for a bit with other climbers as David spoke to the timing folks to figure out what was wrong with the race results. All he learned was that the times were off, likely because the upstairs/downstairs clocks weren’t in sync – presumably because of daylight savings time (which I find to be a fairly weak explanation)*
*as I’m editing this, we *still* don’t have a good answer and posted results are still incorrect.
That left me with the rest of the day to relax. I hung out with a bunch of other climbers (Steve, Jason, David, Jeff, Bob, Sue, Daryl, Roxanne, and Will). Before heading to the airport, we decided to get some deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s, but as luck would have it the location we chose was take-out only. Instead we ended up at a nearby Italian restaurant. Jason and I split a pizza. It may not have been deep dish, but it was still pretty damn good.
The flight back home was fairly easy and yes, my jar of jam was waiting right where I left it.
Effort: A+ ; I pushed myself beyond what is normally safe. I bonked somewhere around the 80th floor and still pushed myself until the end. My lungs are still feeling the aftereffects a week later (as I’m editing this). This ranks up there with US Bank 2013.
Strategy: C ; I went out too fast and kept pushing the pace until it was too late. This is a recipe for disaster.
Technique: B- ; I climbed fairly efficiently until just over the halfway point. In the end I was very sloppy.
Overall: B- ; I did not have a good race, but somehow I kept pushing and limited my losses.
I’m happy to have come in 2nd place at Sears Tower. I attribute my placement to equal parts luck, perseverance, and experience.
I did not have a very good race, but neither did Eric nor Majik. In essence we all bonked in the latter half of the stairwell. I was fortunate to have it happen relatively late in the race and pushed myself closer to my limits. In addition, there were several first time climbers (i.e. Matjaz, Dennis, & Dan) who are near my level or even better. Because the building is so tall it is hard to give the building the respect it deserves the first time around. In my own rookie experience I raced nearly a minute slower than my capabilities. I imagine this year’s rookies will experience a similar drop in time their sophomore year. Good news for me this year… but bad news for me next.
The effort I put into the race couldn’t have come about if I wasn’t in the best shape of my life. I knew I was capable of going sub 14 and when I saw it start slipping away, I was able to push through the pain. My attitude near the end was: “Even if I’m not going to break 14:00, I’m still going to put up a respectable time. Even if it kills me.” If I wasn’t so set on (and confident of) breaking 14:00, I would have limped to the top considerably slower.
That effort came with a steep a price. My lungs are still hurting more than a week after the climb and I’ve been binge eating all week (post-race) despite my better judgement. It took a lot out of me both physically and emotionally and it is a price I’d rather not pay. I honestly hope I never have another race like this ever again. It is performances like this one which make me dread racing.
Lastly, here is my analysis of what when wrong:
First off, my 85 BPM pace wasn’t what did me in. It was the fact that I kept up to the beat of my metronome on the turns so far into the race which did me in. In prior years, I gave up on the turns far earlier, but in my quest for sub-14, I refused to let off the gas pedal.
Let me do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to illustrate:
When keeping up to my metronome, I take essentially 5 footfalls per flight as each flight is typically 10 steps. Compare that with 6 footfalls per flight when I’m taking two steps on the landing (each to the beat of my metronome). That is a difference of roughly 17%.
In other words I (foolishly) pushed myself ~17% harder than last year for maybe 20-30 floors.
No wonder I bonked!
Secondly, I did not heed the warning bells when I checked my pace at the quarter and halfway points. Heck, I didn’t even realize they were warning bells! When I saw 3:20 instead of 3:30, it never occurred to me that I was going way too fast. I kept pushing the pace even though I was already 10 seconds (40 seconds overall) ahead of my goal pace.
Next year I’m going to re-tool entire strategy.
- First, I’m going to come into the race slimmer and in better shape. Hopefully.
- Next, I’m going to re-tool my entire race strategy. I’m going to scrap my standard 5-beat climbing pattern and go with a (theoretically) more efficient 6 beat climbing pattern. I will likely have to increase my metronome’s pace to account for the extra climbing beat (say 96 BPM) but the two “rest beats” on the turn should help mitigate the higher cadence. It sure sounds suicidal… but on paper it might just work.
- Lastly, I’m going to pay close attention to my pace at the 26th floor and adjust accordingly if I’m ahead or behind my goal pace.
Moral of the story: Confidence is a good, but don’t let it turn into foolhardiness.