Thursday, November 15, 2018

Milwaukee's Best

After the Chicago Double (Sears & LaSalle) it was nothing but sex and alcohol in preparation for my next climb in Milwaukee.

Okay, maybe I’m stretching the truth a bit, but Chicago style deep dish pizza is the equivalent of sex.

After a day and night of indulgence and a bit of sightseeing around Chicago, I hit the gym with David Hanley on Tuesday. The RNG gym is pretty swank; I almost felt guilty leaving a pool of sweat on the step mill.

My standby workout is something like this:
7 sets of 3-minute intervals on your choice of cardio machine (indoor rower, step mill, etc.) interspersed with 6 rounds of either pushups or pullups. The first two sets of cardio are at warm-up pace and the last 5 sets done at “Sears” race pace. I try to keep my water break & pullups/pushups to about 2 minutes, so the entire workout lasts under 35 minutes. The number of pushups/pullups is about 2/3 of your max number of reps… but hitting those numbers becomes increasingly difficult as the workout progresses. On the last set, I’ll take an extra 30 seconds of rest and go to failure, cause why not?

It’s tough workout…. but I’m always fully recovered by the following day.

Note: David and I did *both* pullups *and* pushups as I hadn’t been keeping up with my upper body workouts while traveling.

The next day (Wednesday) I rented a car and drove to Milwaukee. Once again, I found myself drinking beer. This time it was at the Lakeshore Brewery. For 9 bucks, you get a tour, 4 cups of beer, and a sweet pint glass. Great deal!

This bottling line was used in "Laverne and Shirley"
 That evening, I had dinner with my friend Josh (who lives close by) to talk about stair climbing and diet. You should checkout his site:

The following day (Thursday) was race day. The race was at 6:00 PM so in the morning I hiked over to the Harley-Davidson museum. The first motor bikes (circa 1905) were nothing more than bicycles with a small motor tacked on. However, but the late 1920s, they started looking like the hogs we see on the street today. Highly recommended – even if you’re not a motorcycle fan.
I got back to my Airbnb around 3:00 PM and spent the next couple hours vegging out watching Netflix (Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown) and surfing the internet.

Around 5:15 PM, I started getting ready. This time I was not locked out of my room, so I had my full arsenal of tools at my disposal: racing flats, metronome, stop watch, & asthma inhaler (I had already taken my long-acting Advair 50/250 that morning).

My Airbnb was only a ten-minute walk to the US Bank Center (the tallest building in Wisconsin) and I easily made my way to the check-in desk.

Despite this race being in a “small” city, Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago often attracts several competitive out-of-towners. This time would be no exception. On the men’s side, we had Jesse Berg, Josh Duncan, and Mark Ewell (and me of course). On the women’s side we had Natalie Doolittle-Shadel, Olga “Stair”kova, and Jill Paha.

My biggest rival would be Jesse Berg. I barely squeaked ahead of him at Sears and at LaSalle it wasn’t even a contest. If memory serves me right, he’s won this race before and is PB is about 1 second off of Justin Stewart’s course record of 4:50 (feel free to correct me, folks).

I wasn’t feeling that confident going into the race. I figured I had a shot at the low 5s, but honestly, all the beer and pizza in between races didn’t help my cause.

The US Bank Building is 42 stories tall and stands at 183 meters. It is only few meters taller than the Corning Tower in Albany (180 meters) but since the race starts a few floors below ground, the race course is a bit longer. The race is still considered a sprint race, albeit a very long one.

Just before 6:00 PM, the top climbers made their way down a series of escalators and hallways. I felt like a rat trapped into a maze descending into the bowels of hell*.

*Yes, I’m exaggerating again… but I was still a nervous wreck.

The doorway to the stairwell was non-descript and they had a bathroom right next door (bonus!). After a quick trip to the porcelain god, I continued my warmup burpees in earnest.

We were in a kind of a limbo waiting for the start of the race. In some races, we start at a prescribed time, but in this case, I was told we’d start “when the timing guy shows up”. When asked when the timing guy would be showing up I got a non-committal shrug.

I cranked out another set of burpees and just then the timing guy showed up. Just my luck.

Jesse and I dickered who was going to go in first. Frankly, I wanted another minute of rest, so I tried my best not to be “the guy”. Finally, the timing guy said: “You know, the race doesn’t start until the first person enters the stairwell…”

Finally, one brave soul entered the stairwell (I think it was Adam Bruss). I guess he had enough of me and Jesse hemming and hawing about going first.

I was up next!

I set my metronome to 112 bpm. This is a little slower than I use in the Corning Tower, but this was also a slightly longer climb. Plus, as a newbie in this stairwell, I figured I’d rather err on side of conservative. If I was really feeling good, I could always pick up the pace later in the race.

I settled into my pace quickly using just the inner rails for guidance. I’m not quite sure if I could even reach both rails had I wanted to.

Knowing I was below ground, I didn’t bother looking up until I climbed into the single digits. At some point I knew the steps would follow my favorite 11/11 pattern and I wasn’t disappointed. By the 10th floor I found my rhythm and I glided up the steps quickly and efficiently.

Up ahead I could hear Adam so I knew I was catching up quickly. I eventually caught and passed him somewhere in the lower 20s.

Then I began to struggle. My heartrate had peaked, and my arms and legs were starting to tire. Could I survive another 20 floors?

My turns became sloppy and started double stepping the landings despite the efficient 11/11 step pattern.

However, by the time I reached the 30th floor, I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Yeah, I was tired and well above the redline, but I knew I had another gear left in reserve. I couldn’t hold this pace forever… but I *could* hold it for another 60 seconds.

With less than a dozen floors left to climb I cranked up the pace*.

*And no, I didn’t stop and fiddle around with my metronome… I just climbed faster than the current beat.

The 30s were a blur and soon I found myself crossing into the 40s. With only two floors left I cranked up the pace again.

40 to 41 was longer than expected and I think it had a couple extra short flights of steps. I hoped that the next floor wouldn’t be so brutal as I was finally reaching my limit. As luck would have it, this floor was even more brutal with 2 extra full-length flights. I grit my teeth and continued to push.

And then I reached the top. Success!

Then I realized the doors were locked.


*I didn’t actually say fudge.

In my semi-delirious state, I managed to turn off my stop watch as I banged one of the doors in the hope that someone would come to the rescue.

Memories of LaSalle came to mind. At that race, I didn’t really care about my time since I barely had enough energy to climb, let alone race. On a fresh set of legs, however, it was an entirely different story. I had a legitimate shot at winning!

About 10 seconds later, I encountered Jesse. I told him to stop his watch because the doors were locked. I think he made to the 3rd landing (i.e.completed 3 out of the 4 extra flights). He immediately started to climb back down. Then it dawned on me that perhaps the finish line was on the 41st floor!

I hobbled down as quickly as possible and crossed the real finish line on the 41st floor.

I was a little upset, but such is life. I walked around the perimeter of the floor (essentially it was a long square hallway) to catch my breath and recover. Unlike Sears – where I was on the ground for several long minutes – I felt pretty good. My lungs were raw, but I wasn’t completely exhausted.

Some people think that short climbs are easier (i.e. less physically taxing) than long climbs. Despite my recent experiences at Sears & Milwaukee, I disagree. I believe it depends on energy expenditure and pacing more than total duration. In fact, I’ve been on the floor feeling close to death after quite a few short races in my career. My theory is that Invariably you’ll bonk during a race (and if you don’t, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough). The sooner you bonk, the more you’ll suffer. I can say that my most taxing races have come where I bonk somewhere down below and struggle immensely just to even finish. The trick is to pace yourself conservatively in the beginning of a race and pick it up towards the end – no matter the venue*.

*Races lasting less than 2 minutes are the exception, but they are a rare breed.

Today, I pretty much nailed my pace. Sure, I could have gone a little faster… but not by a significant amount.

Meanwhile the organizers put a series of barrier cones up to block off the stairwell to the 42nd floor to make sure there were no other mishaps. Yet another reason not to go first.
Now to figure out what our times would have been had Jesse and I not climbed an extra few flights of stairs.

My stopwatch said 5:17 and Jesse’s said 5:14, but I think I climbed an extra flight (as I remember stopping Jesse one flight before the top). Wow – what a close race!

To be honest, I didn’t care so much about winning. Rather I wanted to see my time relative to Jesse and Justin back in the day. Back then, Jesse was the #1 US athlete and Justin was (and probably still is) the fastest sprinter. Really my purpose in Milwaukee was to see I measured up to some of the all time greats.

5:17 sounded underwhelming considering my goal was somewhere between 5:00-5:10. But how much did one floor cost me? As it turns out, quite a bit!

I asked the security guard permission to check out the stairwell up to the 42nd floor. They said it wasn’t allowed.

Me: Oh, that’s okay! [Climbs up anyway]

Security Guard: Hey, that’s not allowed! [Begins chasing]

I’m not typically a rule breaker and I’m not proud of what I did, but I needed to count the number of extra flights and steps.

<begin rant> I mean, come on! The doorway is upstairs is locked and if you were so concerned with security… why didn’t you stop me the first time around! Plus, there are literally 40+ other un-monitored floors! <end rant>

Turns out the last floor had a 10/11/10/11 configuration. Considering the race was officially 985 steps, 42 extra steps is significant (essentially two extra floors).

With those numbers in mind, I estimated my finish time would have been about 5:03 and Jesse’s would have been about the same. Far too close to call with all the uncertainties of self-timing.

Eventually, all my other friends finished the race and a group of us headed back down. At the bottom, Josh took Jesse and me to talk to the head timer to see what (if anything) could be done about our times. The head timer appeared understanding as I told him my story.

By now, it was time for another (albeit slower) climb! I think we finished just under 10 minutes, passing a handful of cheerleaders near the top*.
Only 31 floors to go!
*At least Mark and I passed a few cheerleaders. David stayed behind as a proper gentleman should.

The top was *really* crowded and the elevator line wrapped around the hallway, so we chose to descend via the stairwell. Though it took another 10 minutes, it was significantly faster than waiting for the elevator.

At the bottom, I took a look at the timing sheet. Jesse came in first with a time of 5:01 and I was in 2nd place with a 5:03. Oh well. I really thought I had a shot at winning. Still, I was quite pleased with my time of 5:03.

Next up food and beer!

After listening to the MC talk about CF and how much our support means to the CF Foundation they gave out the awards.

1st place: Alex Workman


I made my way forward and told the MC I think there must have been some mistake.
Back at my table, Josh pulled up the online race results on his smart phone. You can find the results here.

Now I was listed with a time of 4:53 in first place with Jesse in second with a 4:55. These times seemed way too fast, even given the uncertainties of self-timing.

After further investigation, Josh found out that the timers decided to use the data from the proximity sensors rather than the timing mat. I’m not exactly sure how that works, but I think it means there was a secondary timing device that picked up the timing chip prior to arriving at the mat. As such, the sensor’s time was a bit faster than our actual mat time by about 6-7 seconds (according to Josh’s estimate).

A win is a win, but I take it with a grain of salt. I’m only 60% confident I won… and my gut feeling is I legitimately climbed the race in about 5:03. It is possible I broke the 5:00 mark, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

As for the rest of the trip?

The next day I headed back to Chicago, but first I took a detour to explore The House on the Rock. I learned about this unique place when I read “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman. The House is worth the visit and the book is worth the read.

One of many rooms with self playing instruments

To infinity and beyond!

Final Thoughts:
The benefit of going first is that you have a clear stairwell. The downside is if shit happens, it’s gonna happen to you first. Yet again, I’m kicking myself for not checking out the finish line! Although I’ve blogged about it before, I still haven’t taken my own advice...

First and foremost, I blame myself. I had the time to check the stairwell ahead of the race. Plus, I had access to Josh’s stairwell map which clearly shows the race ending on the 41st floor*.

*Before the race Josh told me it ended on the 42nd floor... but sometimes memories aren't always accurate. "Trust, but verify" as the saying goes.

Secondly, I blame the race organizers. Why can’t turns and hallways be clearly marked, and wrong turns/extra steps be sufficiently blocked off? It is too much to ask to have a volunteer direct traffic at these junctures? I can forgive a new race in a new building… but Milwaukee is one of the oldest (correct me if I’m wrong).

Race Grades:
Effort: A-; A slight mental lapse in the middle of the race cost a little bit of time, but I pushed hard near the end.
Weight: C; I didn’t weight myself beforehand, but for the past few days my diet has been all you can eat. I likely gained a pound or two since Sears though given the time frame it’s likely mostly water weight. Pizza has a lot of excess sodium.
Conditioning: A; I was well rested from Sears where I graded myself with an A.
Pacing & Technique: A-; My 112-bpm pace was solid. Possibly I could have handled a little faster?? (The question marks are intended)
Overall: A-; There is at least little room for improvement in all areas, although the biggest bang would be to drop a few kilos. Easier said than done. All in all, I’ve got to be happy with this race!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Double Dragon


That is the sound my door made when when I locked myself out of my dorm room at the Airbnb. 


I meant to leave the door unlocked on my way to the shared bathroom.

It was just over an hour until my race up the Sears (Willis) tower. I was wearing my tank top and racing shorts, but my watch, racing bib, metronome, and my lightweight racing shoes were still in the room… as well as my asthma medicine. 

Double Fuck!

Only one other guest was awake at the Airbnb, and I let him know my situation. He let me borrow an undersized vest (actually his girlfriend's) and promised to get in contact with the landlord and (hopefully) find a spare key.

I power walked over to Sears (Willis) in the cold November wind and I could feel my lungs starting on constrict. It was drizzling on an off, but I made it to the building without freezing to death.

I tracked down David Hanley in the hope of securing an extra bib. He got me in touch with one of the race directors who had a small pile of extras (thanks Janet!). I also ran into Jesse Berg, another asthmatic, and he let me borrow his inhaler for a couple puffs of albuterol.

I was as ready as I was going to get. 

I made my way to the start line and started my warmup routine. Active stretching followed by several rounds of burpees to get the blood pumping. Then I made my way to the start line to assess the competition.

Favorites were the international athletes Frank Carreno, Alex Trujillo and George Heinmann. No contest. Next up were the US athletes vying for 4th place: Terry Purcell, Jesse Berg, and Jason Larson. Terry was probably the strongest of the group as Jesse hadn’t been on the racing scene for a few years. However, Jesse used to be the #1 US athlete, so he couldn’t be counted out. He was definitely the dark horse of the race. Last on my list was Jason. He is consistently one of the top US finishers and we always seem to be next to one another in the standings regardless of the venue. It would actually be strange if more than one or two slots separated us.

I figured I had a shot for 4th place, but beating all three of my rivals was going to be a tall order. I was in great shape physically but I was also a few pounds heavier than I should be. Actually, up until a few weeks before the race I had been sitting at 176 lbs, a far cry from sub-170, my peak racing weight. At the start line, I was probably sitting at 173. Not to mention I was wearing my heavy sneakers and custom orthotics which weigh a solid pound more than my racing flats.

I did my final round of burpees and snuck in behind Terry and Jesse. Showtime!

Ok not so fast (insert sound byte of a record player violently stopping).

Terry made it out the gate, but Jesse got stuck at the start line. The timer’s magic wand stopped working due to technical issues.

Of course I did another round of burpees while waiting :)

Finally I was in the stairwell. I started about 15 seconds behind Jesse and 15 seconds ahead of Jason.

I didn’t have a metronome to guide me nor a stopwatch to keep track of my time. Instead I relied on my internal clock as I played Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring*” in my head. I probably played it faster than my goal pace of 81 bpm, but at least I throttled my pace down to a manageable level.

*Same song I play in my head at 1WTC - a similarly sized climb.

I got into a good rhythm using only the inside rails for turning. By the 10th floor I could barely hear Jesse up ahead (actually, I could only hear the volunteers cheering him on). Jason on the other hand was clearly catching up. Oh well, nothing to do about it but climb.

For the next 20 floors I focused on climbing efficiently - making sure I hugged the inside rail and kept only one foot on the landings.

The floor numbers increased into the 40s. I felt the first signs of fatigue (increased breathing rate and tiring muscles) but overall I was still okay. Jason was no longer breathing down my neck and I could faintly hear the volunteers up ahead indicating that Jesse was still ahead of me

I climbed into the 50s and 60s. My turns were becoming sloppy because I was starting to tire. At some point I remember crossing a hallway into a different stairwell. The power walk/jog was a necessary respite. Now I found myself taking the turns to the left. Despite being my slower* side, climbing in the opposite direction helped take the load off of my tiring right side.

*I've actually been practicing in a left turn stairwell once per week, so my left turns are nearly as efficient as my right.

In the 70s I had nearly caught up with Jesse. He was only about one floor ahead. However, I could not muster the energy necessary to close the gap. I was exhausted and my pace was probably slowing (I couldn’t be 100% certain as I didn’t have my metronome).

I crossed into the 80s knowing that I had about 3 minutes of suffering left. When I crossed 83 (basically 20 floors to go) I started counting out out the remaining distance in terms of percentage - where each floor represented 5% of the remaining distance.

5, 10, 15%...

I was slowly losing sight of Jesse but if I could just hold on a couple more minutes…

25, 30, 35%...

Less than 2 minutes to go!

50, 55, 65%...

Just over a minute of climbing left and I'm at my limit.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch Jesse, but perhaps if I dug deep I could match his final surge and come out ahead.

I switched over to counting floors. With only 5 floors to go, I grit my teeth and pushed, despite being close to empty.

It wasn’t much of a push. As I crossed Into the 100s I simply had nothing left to give. My “sprint” was barely faster than my initial pace. But at least I didn't bonk. 

Two floors left. One floor...

I crossed the finish line fully spent. Was it enough to edge out Jesse? If not, it had to have been a close race.

I crumpled to the floor, unable to move. After a short while, I heard Jason finish. It seemed like a good 30 seconds or so, but my sense of time wasn’t all that great.
"i TOLD you i'd kick your ass if you blocked me again, alex!"
I lay on the ground for what must have been a good few minutes because by the time I managed to get up, there were several other finishers milling about.

I slowly got to my feet and grabbed my finisher’s medal from a volunteer. 

I eventually ran into Jason and Jesse and inquired how they did. Jason wasn’t too pleased - having climbed slower than last year - but Jesse seemed upbeat after breaking the 15 minute barrier (as his goal time was “merely” 15:20).

Eventually I learned my time (14:45) and found out that I edged out Jesse by a single second (I secretly pumped my fist). On the other hand, my other rival, Terry, ended up with a solid 14:26, which pushed me down to 5th place overall. You can find the results here.

With Sears out of the way, I somehow had to recover enough to climb up 300 N LaSalle. Did I mention today was a double header?

Josh let me borrow a spare windbreaker and I jogged behind a few other racers (Jason, Josh, Natalie, etc.) over to the next venue. *Well* behind. Despite the “relaxed” pace, I’m not a runner and I was still exhausted from the climb. I struggled to keep up. In fact, I nearly lost sight of the runners and had to push a couple of times just to make sure I didn’t get lost.

I managed to make it to 300 N LaSalle in one piece and received my bib without incident.

This time around, I simply had no energy to warm up. Doing burpees was the last thing I wanted to do.

Shortly after 9:00 AM the organizers lined us up. First through the door was Alex Trujlio followed by Terry Purcell. I was nominated to go third, despite my protests. Before entering the stairwell, I half jokingly said to Jesse, “Don’t pass me too quickly!” (note: we were given a fairly lengthy 30 seconds between racers).

I still didn’t have a watch or a metronome, so I played “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” a bit faster than I did a couple hours ago at Sears. It was a fairly easy pace and I knew I could maintain it throughout the race. However, I couldn’t force myself into a higher gear. The last place I wanted to be was the stairwell and the thought of pushing my body to its limit for a 2nd time in a row terrified me. I couldn’t go to that place again.

The first 10 floors went by smoothly. The pace was manageable although I knew if I went any faster it would put me over the redline and I’d start to suffer.

Things were going well up into the 20s although by this time, I could faintly hear Jesse down below and he appeared to be getting closer.

Here is the thing about 300 N LaSalle - it is fairly isolating. There are several sections of stairs with carpeted treads, so sound is often muffled. Plus, there weren’t any volunteers cheering along the way, so I was literally climbing alone.

I headed into the 30s and by now I could hear Jesse quite clearly. Crap, he was actually going to catch up to me!

For the next 10 floors I debated whether or not to speed up. A small part of me wanted to race, but the larger part still didn’t want to push  into the dreaded red zone.

As I crossed into the 40s, Jesse was only a couple floors behind. It was now inevitable that he would pass. I contemplated pushing hard for the next ten floors to stay ahead. I knew I had plenty of energy to sprint the final 10 floors but once again I couldn’t bring myself to do it. 

Instead, I moved over with about half a dozen floors left in the race. Jesse was looking pretty focused (and winded) so I offered a couple words of encouragement and gave him a little boost from behind.

For the next few floors I upped the pace by a little bit. I wouldn’t call it a sprint per se - rather I merely climbed a little closer to the red line.

With about 2 floors to go I heard a lot of commotion from upstairs and I heard Terry calling down to use our stopwatches (as if I had one - LOL). The doorway on the 56th floor was locked and we couldn’t get to the finish line!

I finished the race slightly winded, but kind of glad the race was over prematurely. As we stood on the landing, I could tell Terry was pissed and we all knew the situation would just get worse as more climbers ascended to our floor.

One by one, the landing became more and more crowded. Meanwhile, Terry tried using the emergency intercom (there was a big red button at the top) to let the building management know that were were locked in the stairwell.

After about ten or so people showed up, I decided to climb back down. No sense waiting around.

Every few floors I ran into another racer and I told them the bad news. Around the 46th floor (I can’t remember really) I encountered a fully stocked aid station. Apparently, we were supposed to run down this hallway to go into another stairwell in order to finish the race. I bumped into a girl (possibly Natalie?) when the volunteers finally showed up to direct traffic. Fortunately, she had only climbed an extra flight before being called back down.

At the aid station I pocketed three Cliff Bars and I contemplated taking the elevator up to the finish line. However, at that point Hal showed up in his red and white striped jersey and I decided to finish the race legitimately. What’s another 10 floors? 

Anyway, I climbed behind Hal for the rest of the “race” and I crossed the finish line just under 14 minutes after I had started (at least that is what the official results say - I would have guesstimated my time to be slower than that).

By this time, the doorway to the locked stairwell was open and a bunch of racers were crowded around the timing desk to give them their “unofficial” times. I probably should have given my time but I wasn’t really in the mood. I knew I had a relatively slow time, plus I was still peeved about the locked doorway and lack of clear directions and volunteers.

Eventually I headed down for the post race party. Despite not really racing at LaSalle, I still deserved that Bloody Mary!

After hanging out and chatting with my fellow climbers, I saw the results. You can find them here.

Had I submitted my self-timed results, I would have placed myself around the 7:50 - 7:55 mark (I was 5-10 seconds behind Jesse and he started ~30 seconds ahead of me).

I think the biggest surprise was that Alex Trujllo set a new course record. I certainly think he is capable of doing it, but I’m slightly surprised he did it after climbing so fast at Sears a mere two hours prior. Here is a quick gap comparison between Alex, Jesse, and Terry (all of which seriously raced both venues).

Alex beat Terry by 40 seconds at Sears and 62 seconds at LaSalle
Alex beat Jesse by 59 seconds at Sears and 55 seconds at LaSalle

Considering LaSalle is a much shorter building, the gaps at Lasalle seem larger than I would have expected.

The other surprise of the day was the 7:30 by Mark Henderson. I don’t know him, but a 7:30 is fast especially considering he is over 50 (he did Sears in 15:16 which is also very good). Not that age matters that much in this sport (just look at George for inspiration).

Final thoughts:
I honestly hate double headers. I’d much rather have a power hour where I can dole out my energy appropriately. If I race all out, I simply can’t bounce back quickly enough for a second race - especially if I went out too fast in the first race.
Ain't she a beaut?

Race Grades:

Effort: A; I was on the floor for a good long while
Weight: C+; I should have been sub-170 lbs for me to be competitive.
Conditioning: A; I was in excellent shape - likely because I’ve been climbing “heavy” for the past several months.
Pacing & Technique: B+; Considering I had neither a metronome nor a watch, I felt pretty good about my pacing. I went out a little too fast and paid the price at the end of the race. However, I never bonked, so I’m still happy. My technique was good for the 1st half of the race but I became sloppy near the end (as I was tired).
Overall: B+; I was under-medicated (i.e. I didn't take my Advair) and had on my heavy sneakers. Still, I managed to beat last year’s time by 5 seconds. In a normal year this would translate to something like a 4:25  or a 4:30, which isn’t that much slower that my PB of 4:19 (note: The past two years we started from the basement rather than the ground floor).

Effort: C-; I didn’t need time to recover after finishing.
Weight: C+; As above
Conditioning: A; As above
Pacing & Technique: C+; At least I cracked the 8 minute mark. My technique was pretty good. That said, I had plenty of energy so I didn’t really have to think about it. Obviously, my pace was far to slow.
Overall: C; I was already tired so my effort level just wasn’t there. I think I could have climbed 7:30 or less (given my level of fatigue) but it wouldn’t have been pleasant. I keep telling myself that Sears was the race that really mattered, but I’m still disappointed with my level of effort at LaSalle.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Power Up a Tower: Part 4 (aka The Magic Number 11)

I’ve climbed a lot of stairwells during the past 6 years and my two favorite stairwells are:
  • One City Place - Hartford, CT 
  • US Bank Tower - Los Angeles, CA
Although I’ve only climbed these two building a handful of times*, I can tell you with certainty that these are two of the fastest, most efficient stairwells on the circuit.

*One City Place: 3 times racing and 4 times for fun. US Bank: 2 times racing, 2 times for fun.


They both share the magic number eleven. Eleven steps per flight, to be specific.

This edition of Power up a Tower will explain why 11 steps per flight is so efficient and while covering a few related topics such as:
  • The Physics of Climbing & Turning
  • Stairwell Configurations & Efficient Footfall patterns
Part 1: The Physics of Climbing and Turning

In this section I will share several principles that are 2nd nature to most competitive climbers and provide evidence justifying why each principle is true.

Unlike my other Power up a Tower articles, there won’t be any fancy calculations. I just rely on basic physics principles and geometry, although I will recommend one or two scientific papers along the way.

Taking two steps at a time is more efficient than taking one step at a time.

Most competitive stair climbers will nod their heads in agreement, but if you want scientific evidence, I recommend reading a paper by Halsey et. al. entitled “The Energy Expenditure of Stair Climbing One Step and Two Steps at a Time: Estimations from Measures of Heart Rate”.

If you don’t have access to the paper or don’t feel like reading, here is the gist of it: The authors hooked a bunch of people on heart rate monitors and had them climb a stairwell multiple times alternating between single stepping (i.e. taking one step at a time) and double stepping (i.e. taking two steps at a time). It turns out that single steppers had a higher heart rate at the top of the stairwell which indicates that single stepping requires more energy overall than double stepping.

The paper suggests that it has something to do with bio-mechanics of single stepping vs. double stepping. Single stepping has a much higher (roughly double) turnover rate it means you end up swinging your legs (and possibly arms if you aren’t using the rails) twice as much as double stepping. This additional motion costs additional energy.

If two steps at a time is better than one step, then how about three or even four steps at a time? That is a question I’m not entirely prepared to answer. It likely has something to do with bio-mechanics as well. My guess is it takes too much power (i.e. leg strength) to climb three at a time - kind of like trying to bike up a hill using a gear that is slightly too high. Furthermore (at least from my experience) taking three steps at a time puts the body an awkward position* that isn’t suited for sustained output.

*Usually I try to lean a little bit forward when climbing and it is harder to lean forward when taking three steps at a time because I'm raising my legs up so high.

Perhaps there are certain tall individuals who might be more efficient when taking three steps at a time or certain buildings with extremely short steps (e.g. 5 inches tall) where taking three steps at a time makes sense, but in general, these cases would be the exceptions rather than the norm.

Tight inside turns using the rails is faster than other turning methods.

This should come as no surprise. Race cars will take the inside line because it has the shortest distance. The same holds true inside the stairwell. In addition, using the inside rails (using upper body strength) can help you pivot and accelerate around the turn.

I’ve been tracking my own performance inside my practice stairwell for years, so I have a lot of data to back this up. For example, in my last training session, I sprinted up a total of 12 times, with 4 – 5 minutes of rest between each climb. Four of the climbs were done using the inside rails. Four of the climbs were done using only the outside rails. Four of the climbs were done using no rails whatsoever (i.e. legs only). The ascents were climbed sequentially using the following pattern: Outside, Inside, No Rail, Outside, Inside, No Rail, etc.

Here were my average climb times (in seconds):
• Inside: 40.08
• Outside: 43.30
• No Rails: 43.80

Using the inside rails is faster than the other methods and a brief analysis of my previous training data* (spanning thousands of climbs) corroborates.

*You’ll have to take my word since I’m not ready to share all my training data. Perhaps in a later post…

Geometry of the stairwell has a role to play, especially when you consider the climb times using the outside lane. In a narrower staircase, you’d expect the time gaps to narrow. Likewise, climbing technique matters. Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks to eke out a tenth of a second or so of speed when turning inside my practice stairwell. Every climber has their own unique climbing style, so slightly different results would be expected between climbers*.

*If you are a statistician, you might point out that data from a single climber doesn’t pass muster. Point taken. I’ll be sure to update this post once I have an adequate sample size, smartass.

It is interesting to note that the slowest climbs were done without using the rails. I don’t have a clear-cut answer why this was the case, but I can come up with a few reasons:

  • Although I tried to stay in the inside lane, I often steered toward the center as I was pumping my arms rather than hugging the rail.
  • My turns were slower because I could accelerate my body around the turn using the handrail; I could only use the power of my legs.
  • The “no-rail” assents seem to be the most physically demanding so fatigue near the top of the stairwell likely contributed to slower times.
Turning on the landing is easiest when pivoting on the inside foot.

Most stairwells will have either a couple large balusters (i.e. vertical members to support the handrail) or a wall which physically separates the individual flights of steps from one another. To turn efficiently – no matter which foot you pivot on – your foot needs to be as close to the baluster/wall as possible. Pivoting on the outside foot is difficult* because the barrier interferes with your inside foot as you bring it around to the next step. Obviously, the closer your outside foot is to the baluster/wall, the less clearance you have between the barrier and your inside foot, which makes the turn even more difficult**.

*unless you are as flexible as David Hanley.
**unless you are as flexible as David Hanley.

Pivoting on the inside foot is much easier because your outside foot will not interfere with the baluster/wall barrier.

You may argue that some stairwell configurations make it impossible to keep just a single foot on the landing during the turn. This is certainly true if there is a significant horizontal gap between adjacent flights or some other barrier. However, even if you end up taking two or even three steps on the landing, your final pivot around the baluster/wall is still easiest when pivoting on your inside foot.

Turning requires extra energy.

Simple physics will tell you this is true. After all, when turning in a typical stairwell, you basically come to a stop and then turn on the landing – essentially making a 180 degree turn. Then, once you are facing the other direction, you quickly accelerate back up to full speed. All this acceleration (including the turning) requires force and energy*.

*If you don’t think starting and stopping requires extra energy, try a few shuttle sprints. Though to be fair, it is easy to de-accelerate when approaching the turn thanks to gravity. I find that most of my energy is spent turning and then getting back up to speed.

Calculating precisely how much energy is required to complete a turn is a complicated matter and would require a decent scientific paper to cover this topic adequately*. For example, figuring out how much energy is required to run at a given speed in a straight line requires a good understanding of the bio-mechanics of the human body as well as a foundation in kinematics to create an accurate model. Modeling a pivot while using the rails would an even harder problem to tackle, as the movement is complicated (e.g. each limb has an independent motion) and the entire action happens over a brief period of time.

*There is a paper by Misetti et. al. “Skyscraper running: physiological and bio-mechanical profile of a novel sport activity” which broaches this very topic, but I don’t agree with their model. Otherwise this is a highly-recommended paper.

Part 2: Basic Stairwell Configurations

Most stairwells inside tall buildings will have two or more flights of steps per floor with landings* separating each flight. Flights usually alternate 180 degrees from one other at each landing. Most floors are of a uniform height so you will see the same (repeating) flight pattern on multiple consecutive floors.

* I consider the floor to be a kind of a landing, too.

Throughout this article, I will use the following notation to represent the layout of a repeating stairwell: X/Y*

  • X represents the number of steps in the 1st flight.
  • Y represents the number of steps in the 2nd flight
  • “/” represents the mid-flight landing.
For example 10/10 represents two flights per floor with 10 steps per flight.

*I also use the same notation for certain turns, where the numbers just mean the number of steps per footfall. 

This article only handles typical stairwells with two flights per floor, but this notation can be expanded to include stairwells with additional flights. For example, The “Lucky Sevens” 7/7/7 has three flights per floor with 7 steps apiece*.

*A separate article isn’t going to happen for three reasons. First of all, 3+ flights/floor is relatively rare. Second of all, there are too many combinations to document (for example 3 flights/floor has 40 different configurations). Finally, a good chunk of the time these 3+ flights/floor configurations mimic their two flights/floor brethren. In the case of the Lucky Sevens (7/7/7), it is really nothing more than a 7/7 (which is a shorter version of the Magic 11s (11/11) configuration which you’ll read about shortly). Climbing up two floors of the Lucky Sevens is virtually identical to climbing three floors of the 7/7.

There are numerous exceptions, of course. For example, the Bennington Battle Monument’s stairs wrap around the inside of the building using a series of 90 degree turns. In fact, the Empire State Building (arguably the most famous skyscraper in the world) primarily has just a single flight of stairs per floor followed by a short run to get to the next flight*.

*which is why I frickin' hate that stairwell.

There are also numerous exceptions within a building's stairwell as there are usually maintenance floors, fire doors, and other irregularities which will mess up the repeating pattern.

However, in general, the flight pattern is repeatable and throughout the rest of this article we’re going to focus on this repeating pattern.

Common Time (e.g. 12/12)

So far we’ve learned that best method to climb a stairwell is to (1) take two steps at a time, (2) hug the inside rail on the turns, and (3) use your inside leg to pivot on the landing.

Wouldn’t it be just peachy if there was a stairwell configuration that satisfied all three conditions?

It turns out that a (4m)/(4n) flight pattern (where m & n are positive integers) satisfies this condition*.

*Set m=n=1 and if you read music, you’ll understand why this stairwell is nicknamed Common Time.

This occurs because you end up with an even number of footfalls per flight when taking two steps at a time*.

*With an even number of footfalls, you’ll end up in the same position you started with. Conversely with an odd number of footfalls, you’ll end up on the opposite foot.

Figure 1 shows an illustrative example for a 12/12 flight pattern (where n=m=3).
Figure 1: 12/12 Footfall Pattern
The figure represents two flights with 12 steps each. The red dots represent footfalls and the shaded area represents the landing. The turning arrows represent your pivot foot (which makes a 180 degree turn).

The Common Time stairwell has a solid footfall pattern, but it has a couple of limitations.

First, this step pattern only works if the horizontal gap between flight is tight and there aren’t any major barriers (such as a wall or balustrade) on the landing which hinders your inner foot placement on the landing. Otherwise, keeping a single step on the landings may be difficult or even impossible.

Secondly, turning requires additional energy (more about that in the next section) which makes pacing a concern:
  • If you try to keep a constant vertical pace (e.g. by using a metronome*) your level of exertion will no longer be constant, and the turns will sap your energy.
  • If you try to keep a constant level of exertion, your turns will need to be slower, which makes using a pacing device (like a metronome*) difficult.
*Of course if you don't use a metronome, these concerns are less important... but seriously, why would you not use a metronome?!? 

How important are these concerns? In my experience, they play a minor role in a short race, but become more important in the longer races when you are climbing for an extended period at just slightly above the red line (i.e. lactate threshold or whatever biological term you want to use). In the latter case, even minor fluctuations of energy expenditure could be enough to push you well past the redline - causing you to bonk prematurely during a race.

The Magic 11s (e.g. 11/11)

Is there a stairwell configuration which overcomes the limitations of a (4m)/(4n) flight pattern?*

*spoiler alert: Yes there is.

Yes there is!

I present to you the most efficient stairwell configuration known to mankind:
(4m-1)/(4n-1) where m and n are positive integers*.

*From now on just assume that m and n are positive integers so I don’t have to keep typing it out.

For example, when m=n=3, you have an 11/11 stairwell, just like at City Place in Hartford an US Bank Tower in Los Angeles. See figure 2 for the foot pattern.

Figure 2: 11/11 Footfall Pattern
Basically, this pattern is just like the 12/12 step pattern (i.e. it has an even number of footfalls) except you only take a single step when approaching the landing.

This has two benefits:

First, you can reach a little bit further onto the landing with your inside pivot foot since you are covering only one step, not two. This makes turning a little bit easier and efficient since allows you to plant your pivot foot closer to the optimum spot.

Second, taking a single step at a time requires less energy than taking two steps at time*.

*It is more accurate to say that two single steps require slightly more energy than one double step because of wasted motion.

Keeping this latter piece of information in mind, I propose the following equation:

Energy used taking two steps (two steps at a time) ≈ 
Energy used taking one step (one step at time) + 
Energy used taking executing a turn

I use the ≈ rather than =, < or > because I don’t have the tools available (experimental or analytical) to determine exactly how much energy is required to turn.

However, I think we can safely bound this so called “turning energy” by the following:

Zero energy < Energy required to turn < Energy required to climb two steps

Clearly, the turning energy isn’t negligible and if turning costs more energy than climbing two steps than I should have died from a heart attack long ago.

Personally, I’m estimating the turning energy is about equal to that of climbing a single step… and if my upper bound is true, then at worst, my estimate is off by less than a single step’s worth of energy.

What all this means is that (despite the uncertainty) taking a single step while turning requires about the same energy as taking two steps at a time on a straight flight. 

If you use a metronome to keep pace (as you should) your energy expenditure will remain fairly constant…even while turning (and that is a good thing).

Seriously, this configuration is the bomb. Once you start pivoting on your inside leg, you don’t even have to think about it. You automatically end on your inside leg. Every. Single. Turn.

Interlude: Common Turning Patterns

Quick turns are predicated on having your feet in the right spot as you enter a turn. The 12/12 and 11/11 stairwells automatically place your feet near the sweet spot so that is why I hold them in such high regard.

Unfortunately, not all configurations are so convenient*.

*All together, there are ten basic stairwell configurations* and we’ve already covered the Common Time and Magic 11s stairwells. Several of the remaining eight are more complicated.

*Proving there are exactly 10  two-flight stairwell configurations is a neat math problem. If you have a few minutes (and are so inclined) I urge you take a short break from reading and solve this problem before continuing.

We can’t change the number of steps per flight in a stairwell, but we can change how we take the turns. Before we get into more complicated stairwell configurations, let’s discuss turning.

Turning has two primary goals. The first (and obvious) goal is to get around the current landing quickly and efficiently. The second (and less obvious) goal is setting up your footfalls to make the next turn is as quick and efficient as possible.

Here is an example to illustrate the 2nd goal.

Let’s say you are in a 12/12 stairwell and just started a pivot turn on the inside foot. Should your next footfall take one step or two steps at a time?

Back in figure 2 we showed that taking one step after the turn is optimal from an energy expenditure standpoint. But if we took only one step, we’d find ourselves on the outside (wrong) foot when we reached the top of the next flight! Clearly taking two steps at a time is the right choice*.

*Unless you are a contortionist.

The key to figuring out the best footfall pattern in a stairwell is choosing the best type of turn that doesn’t screw up your next turn*.

*Note: I used bold typeface because this sentence is really important.

Before moving to the remaining stairwell configurations, let’s study the type of turns we have at our disposal.
A: 2/2 Inside Pivot
B: 2/1 or 1/2 Inside Pivot
C: 2/2 Outside Pivot
D: 2/1 or 1/2 Outside Pivot
E: 1/1 Inside Pivot
F: 1/1 Outside Pivot
G: Double footfalls on the Landing (Inside Pivot)
H: Skip Landing (Inside Pivot)

The 2/2 inside pivot is the same turn used in a Common Time (e.g. 12/12) stairwell. See figure A. The turn spans two footfalls and each footfall covers two steps, so it is a fast and energy intensive turn. This turn may be difficult to perform if the landing has any obstacles, so this choice may not always be available. On a letter grading scale, I’d give it a solid B+.
Figure A: 2/2 Inside Pivot Turn
The 2/1 & 1/2 inside pivot are the same turns used in a Magic 11s stairwell. See figure B. The 2/1 & 1/2 are interchangeable. For example, in an 11/11 stairwell you could construct a footfall pattern using either type of turn*. The turn spans two footfalls and on average, each footfall covers 1.5 steps (2 then 1 or 1 then 2 steps). Therefore, the turn itself is moderately fast, but energy balanced (i.e. the energy it takes to get around the turn per footfall is approximately equal to the energy it takes climbing up two steps at a time on a straight staircase). Since one of the footfalls only covers one step, it is easier to perform than the 2/2 inside pivot. On a letter grading scale, I’d give it an A+.

*To prove this to yourself, go back to figure 2 and change the direction of the arrows to widdershins.
Figure B: 2/1 & 1/2 Inside Pivot Turns
The 2/2 outside pivot turn is shown in figure C. Like the 2/2 inside pivot turn, it spans two footfalls and each footfall covers 2 steps. It is fast and even more energy intensive than the 2/2 inside pivot because an outside pivot is relatively awkward and inefficient. Because this turn is so difficult, it can only be performed in a stairwell with little or no obstacles. On a letter grading scale, I’d give it an C+.
Figure C: 2/2 Outside Pivot Turn
The 2/1 & 1/2 outside pivot turns are shown in figure D. Like the 2/1 & 1/2 inside pivots, these two turns are interchangeable. Each turn spans two footfalls and each footfall covers 1.5 steps on average. It is moderately fast and slightly more energy intensive than the 2/1 inside pivot turn because an outside pivot turn is relatively awkward and inefficient. This turn can be performed in most stairwells; it is easier to perform the 2/2 outer pivot, but harder than the 2/1 inside pivot. On a letter grading scale, I’d give it an B.
Figure D: 2/1 & 1/2 Outside Pivot Turns
The 1/1 inside pivot is shown in figure E. This turn spans two footfalls and each footfall covers 1 step. It is a slow but easy to perform. As such, it can be performed in most stairwells. On a letter grading scale, I’d give it a C+, but I’d rank it higher if the landing had obstacles.
Figure E: 1/1 Inside Pivot Turn
The 1/1 outside pivot is shown in figure F. This turn spans two footfalls and each footfall covers 1 step, which makes the turn slow. The outside pivot is awkward, but easy to perform because of the single steps. As such, it can be performed in most stairwells. On a letter grading scale, I’d give it a C, but I’d rank it higher if the landing had obstacles.

(Crap... I forgot to make Figure F. I'l have to do it later)

The double footfalls (on the landing) turn usually uses an inside pivot turn*. See figure F. This turn is slow because it wastes an entire footfall on the landing which makes the turn relatively slow and inefficient. The main benefit of this turn is that it can be performed in most stairwells, as two single step footfalls gives you a lot of extra room to turn. On a letter grading scale, I’d give it a C, but if the landing had obstacles, it would be ranked higher.

*I’d be hard pressed to find a situation where using an outside pivot turn would be preferred.
Figure G: Double Footfalls on the Landing Turn
The skip landing turn shown in figure H is probably the least well known turn. It is executed with an inside pivot on the step below the landing with the next footfall landing on the step above the landing – such that you completely avoid touching the landing. It is a fast turn on par with the 2/2 inside pivot turn, but it is slightly more difficult to execute. This turn requires a very good stairwell with convenient handrails and very little gap between the flights. On a letter grading scale, I’d give it a B.
Figure H: Skip Landing Turn
Now that we know all about turns, let's get back to business...

Part 2: Basic Stairwell Configurations - Continued

We’ve covered (4m)/(4n) and (4m-1)/(4n-1) stairwell configurations which both have an even number of footfalls per flight.

The discussion would not be complete without considering stairwell configurations which have an odd number of footfalls per flight: (4n-2)/(4m-2) and (4n-3)/(4m-3)

If you insist on taking 2 steps at a time, you’ll find yourself out of position every other flight. This happens because you have an odd number of footfalls (e.g. for a ten-step flight, you have 5 footfalls when taking the steps two at a time).

The Oddball Ten (e.g. 10/10)

Let’s consider a 10/10 stairwell (i.e. (4n-2)/(4m-2) where n=m=3). 

In this configuration, you can do one of three things:

A: Alternate between 2/2 inside and 2/2 outside pivot turns (figure 3-A).

B: Uses two footfalls on the landing (figure 3-B). This pattern turns the total number of footfalls from odd to even.

C: Uses a 1/1 inside pivot turn (figure 3-C). This pattern turns the total number of footfalls from odd to even.
Figures 3-A, 3-B, & 3-C: 10/10 Footfall Patterns
Pattern C is often overlooked because you must consciously decide to single step before and after the landing. Unless you’ve practiced this pattern, it won’t be reflexive.

Personally, I like to use pattern A as it keeps my vertical pace constant. But in practice, I usually end up switching to pattern B as fatigue sets in.

I don’t often use pattern C since the 1/1 inside pivot end up being too slow for my tastes. That said, I keep the technique in my back pocket for special cases. Certain types of landings make it very difficult to keep one foot on the landings (e.g. wide gaps between flights, rails/balustrades that stick out, etc.). In those cases, this step pattern might give you enough room to keep just a single footfall on the landings.

Double Odd 9s (e.g. 9/9)

Next, let’s consider a 9/9 stairwell (i.e. (4n-3)/(4m-3) where n=m=3)*. 

*Colloquially called the Double Odd because each flight has an odd number of steps and an odd number of footfalls.

There is only one obvious climbing choice as shown in figure 4.
Figure 4: 9/9 Footfall Pattern
This pattern alternates between 1/2 inside pivot turns and 1/2 outside pivot turns.

Turning on the inside foot is a piece of cake, but turning on the outside foot is troublesome. Fortunately, the single step ameliorates some of the awkwardness of doing an outside pivot because it allows you to plant your foot step further into the landing (and the added room makes the turn less awkward).

Personally, I dislike the outside pivot turn, but otherwise this is a solid pattern with limited downside.

Part 3: Asymmetric Configurations

Before continuing, I need to define the term symmetric and asymmetric with respect to stairwell configurations.

Symmetric means we have the same number of stairs per flight*.

Asymmetric means we have different numbers of stairs per flight*.

*Technically I need to tack on the phrase “when we set m = n” to the end of these sentences. For example, the 12/12 configuration is clearly symmetrical. It comes from the symmetric (4m)/(4n) pattern when we set m=n=3. But if we set m=2 and m=3, we get the 8/12, which is also symmetric using this expanded definition.

So far, I’ve only described the symmetric stairwell configurations, so now let’s turn our attention to their asymmetric counterparts.

Close Cousin 11/12

Remember the Common Time (e.g. 12/12) and the Magic 11s stairwells? Both feature an even number of footfalls per flight.

Their asymmetric cousin is the 11/12* pattern, formally written as (4m-1)/(4n), which also features an even number of footfalls per flight.

*By the way, the 11/12 pattern is identical to the 12/11 pattern in a repeating stairwell. To prove it to yourself, start your step count from the floor start counting from mid-floor landing. Since we’re in a repeating stairwell, it shouldn’t make any difference where you start counting from. For sake of consistency, though, I always list the smaller number first (e.g. 11/12 rather than 12/11).

This configuration (like most other asymmetric configurations as it turns out) is a bit hard to visualize in a simple figure. Rather than do a fancy bit of resizing and re-scaling (which ultimately is still visually confusing) I’ve opted to show the 11/11 and 12/12 patterns side by side to help visualize the 11/12 pattern. See figure 5. You may ignore the shaded region, but I’ve left it semi-transparent so you can still see the related 11/11 and 12/12 patterns as a reference.
Figure 5: 11/12 Footfall Pattern
As far as stairwells are concerned, this pattern is among the best. It alternates between using the 2/2 inside pivot turn (grade B+) and the 2/1 inside pivot turn (an even better A+).

As such, I like this stairwell a little bit better than the Common Time (e.g. 12/12) stairwell, but it falls slightly behind the Magic 11s.

Close Cousin 9/10

Next, we have the asymmetric cousin to the 9/9 and 10/10 patterns; the 9/10 pattern - formally written as (4m-3)/(4n-2). They are cousins in the sense that they all share an odd number of footfalls per flight.

Since there are quite a few different ways to handle the 10/10 pattern (go back and see figures 3-A, 3-B, and 3-C), there are a bunch of ways to handle the 9/10 pattern as well. Here are two of the best:

Pattern A: This footfall pattern alternates between 2/2 inside pivot turns (grade=B+) and 1/2 outside pivot turns (grade=B). The outside pivot turn is awkward, but the single step makes it palatable. See figure 6-A below.
Figure 6A: 9/10 Footfall Pattern (A)

Pattern B: This pattern is hard to visualize, but that’s the price you pay for asymmetry. Rather than repeating every floor, the pattern repeats itself every other floor. On odd floors it cycles through a couple of 1/1 outside pivot turns (grade = C). On even floors it cycles through 2/1 & 1/2 inside pivot turns (grade = A+). See figure 6-B below.
Figure 6-B: 9/10 Footfall Pattern (B)
The main difference between patterns A and B is the that A uses a total of 10 footfalls whereas  B uses 11 footfalls per floor. Pattern A is faster but requires a bit more effort on the turns. Pattern B takes the turns very efficiently at the expense of more footfalls. Which option would I choose? Probably option A since I use a metronome, but option B is a solid 2nd choice - especially if the stairwell has troublesome landings.

The Ugly Stepchildren

The final configurations, the 9/11, 9/12, 10/11, and 10/12 (I’ll write the formal terms later) have the following in common: One flight has an odd number of footfalls (9 or 10 steps) while the other flight has an even number of footfalls (11 or 12 steps).

This means that the total number of footfalls per floor is odd (since odd + even = odd) and if you take two steps at time*, you will always end up on the opposite foot when you reach the next floor.

*I should clarify to say “two steps at a time wherever possible”. Obviously, you’ll have to take at least one step at a time before or after the landing if you have an odd number of steps in a flight (like 9 or 11 steps).

Compare that with the symmetric configurations and their close cousins which have an even number of footfalls per floor (since even + even = even; odd + odd = even).

Naturally, the ugly stepchildren are fairly hard to map out since the map will often cover two floors (i.e. four flights) worth of steps.

The Bastard (e.g. 9/11)

The Bastard 9/11 stairwell, formally known as (4m-3)/(4n-1) is in a difficult position. If the stairwell is perfect, it has one top-notch pattern…but all bets are off if their are any obstacles.

The most efficient pattern uses a combination of 2/2 inside pivot turns (grade B+) and skip landing turns (grade B). This pattern works because it has the same number of footfalls as the symmetric 4m/4n pattern*. See figure 7-A.

*Its kinda cool when you think about it. The 9/11 has exactly 20 steps and 10 ten footfalls just like the symmetric 8/12*. Since the skip landing turn spans two separate flights (i.e. covering one step in each flight), it essentially converts the 9/11 into a symmetric stairwell. In fact, if you really wanted to, you could even use the skip landing pivot turn in a regular (4m)/(4n) stairwell. I guess you could call this pattern the legitimate “bastard” of the (4m)/(4n)**.

*Remember that 8/12 is in the (4m)/(4n) family just like the familiar 12/12 we studied back in figure 1.
**Your father is symmetric & your mother is asymmetric, but you are close enough to your father to claim an inheritance.
Figure 7-A: 9/11 Footfall Pattern (A)
The skip landing turn makes the 9/11 into a solid stairwell choice, but if there are any obstacles which prevent the skip landing turn, you are going to have to settle for another complicated two-floor pattern*.

*Which turns the 9/11 into an illegitimate bastard.

There are several variations of the two-floor pattern. I’m going to only show one of the variations to illustrate, but I’ll give you enough information to construct the others for yourself.

Check out figure 7-B. This pattern (and all variations of this pattern) uses 11 footfalls per floor which means we are taking a few single steps here and there to help us get around the turns.
Figure 7-B: 9/11 Footfall Pattern (B)
There are four basic types of turns illustrated
A: 2/2 inside pivot turn (grade B+)
B: 1/2 inside pivot turn (grade A+)
C: 1/2 outside pivot turn (grade B)
D: 1/1 outside pivot turn (grade C)

You can create other variations of this pattern by pairing up the turns as follows: A pairs with D and B pairs with C.

This give us the following variations:
A, B, C, D (as shown in figure 7-B)
A, A, D, D
B, B, C, C

Of which, I think BBCC is the clear winner since it uses 1/2 pivot turns.

You can also construct similar variations by including double footfalls on the landing. I personally don’t like these kind of patterns because if you must switch feet to get around a turn, you might as well climb a step while you are at it (and with an odd number of steps per flight, you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to do so).

The Doppelganger (e.g. 10/12)

The 10/12 stairwell, formally known as (4m-2)/(4n), can look a lot like the symmetric 10/10 stairwell. The difference is it will nominally take two floors to complete a cycle rather than just one floor*.

*This makes logical sense. 10/12 has an odd number of footfalls per floor whereas 10/10 has an even number. In order for 10/12 to get back to an even number of footfalls, you’ll need to complete two circuits (since odd + odd = even).

If you just take two step at a time (and you can because each flight has an even number of steps) the step pattern is straightforward. It is very similar to the the 10/10 pattern shown back in figure 3, but it covers two floors to complete a cycle rather than just one. This 10/12 pattern is shown below in figure 8-A.

Just like the 10/10 pattern, the 10/12 pattern will alternate between standard 2/2 inside pivot turns and awkward 2/2 outside pivot turns. The only difference is that the pivot turns alternate between floor rather than between flight (i.e. you get the same pivot turn twice in a row before it alternates).
Figure 8-A: 10/12 Footfall Pattern (A)
10/12 can mimic other patterns as well. One particularly simple configuration cycles only once per floor. See figure 8-B below.
Figure 8-B: 10/12 Footfall Pattern (B)
This 10/12 pattern is like the 10/10 pattern shown in figure 4, but it is more efficient. In 10/10 figure 4, you have a double footfall turn each landing, but in this 10/12 pattern, you have a double footfall turn every other landing*.

*You can thank the 12 step flight. Since it has an even number of footfalls, it effectively delays the double step to once every other landing rather than every landing.

The final 10/12 pattern ranks right up there with the Magic 11s because it uses both 2/1 & 1/2 inside pivot turns . See figure 8-C.
Figure 8-C: 10/12 Footfall Pattern (C)
This pattern is very interesting because it mimics aspects from both the 10/10 and 12/12 patterns:

  • The right (10 step) side of the figure is just like the right-hand side of the 10/10 pattern show in figure 3 - which has easy, but slow turns.
  • The left (12 step) side of the figure is just like the left-hand side of the Common Time 12/12 pattern shown in figure 1 - which has fast, yet energy intensive turns.
When combined, these two patterns mimic the Magic 11s*. The only difference is with this 10/12 pattern, you alternate between 2/1 and 1/2 inside pivot turns rather than just using one or the other.

*Which isn’t too surprising since they share the same number of steps per floor.

Overall, the 10/12 stairwell offers a lot of versatility. The footfall patterns shown above are all viable… but let’s face it, the final pattern gives the Magic 11s a run for the money*.

*I still give the nod to the Magic 11s stairwell because you automatically take 2/1 inside pivot turns – and that’s hard to screw up. With the 10/12 you must remember where to place your feet, so you need to be on the ball to get the correct pattern. I will concede, however, that the alternating 1/2 & 2/1 inside pivot turns are perfect balanced between legs. In either the 1/2 or 2/1 patterns, one leg will end up doing a little more work than the other (since one leg will be always be doing a single step rather than a double step around the turn).

The Politician (e.g. 10/11)

On the surface 10/11 (i.e. the (4m-2)/(4m-1)) has a lot going for it. It has the same number of footfalls as it’s big brother the Doppelganger (10/12) and the 11 step flight makes it appear similar to the Magic 11s.

But looks can be deceiving.

You can construct a lot of different patterns with the 10/11 and all of them are compromises. Look at figures 9a and 9b to see what I mean.
Figure 9-A & 9-B: 10/11 Footfall Patterns
In figure 9-A, the top turn is a 2/1 inside pivot turn (yay!) but the bottom turn features a 1/1 inside pivot turn which makes the turn easy, but slow (boo!).

In figure 9-B, the bottom turn is a 2/1 inside pivot (yay!) but the top turn features double steps on the landing, which is slow (boo!).

Next, let’s take a look at figure 9-C.
Figure 9-C: 10/11 Footfall Pattern (C)
This pattern cycles one every two floors and features the following turns:

  • A 2/2 inside pivot turn (grade B+)
  • A skip landing turn (grade B, but only in a perfect stairwell)
  • (2x) 2/1 outside pivot turns (grade B)
The bottom line is that no matter what pattern you choose, you always end up with a less-than-stellar compromise.

The Shortcut (e.g. 9/12)

The final stairwell configuration is the 9/12 (i.e. the (4m-3)/(4m)), I like to call it the Short Cut. 

The basic pattern is straightforward. See figure 10-A. It features a double footfalls turn (grade C) and a 2/1 inside pivot turn (grade A+).

(Crap.. once again I forgot to include the figure. I'll add it later. Good news is that the pattern is illustrated on the left hand side of figure 10-B. Just ignore the green arrows.)

This pattern ain't too shabby. But guess what, there is a shortcut! See figure 10-B. 
Figure 10-B: 9/12 "Shortcut" Footfall Pattern
This pattern starts off the same the basic one, with a double footfalls turn (grade C). For the next turn, rather than use a 2/1 inside pivot, instead use a 2/2 inside pivot (grade B+). This will set us up for a couple of back-to-back skip landing turns (grade B).

These two patterns are equally viable. The difference is that the basic pattern uses 12 footfalls per floor whereas the "shortcut" uses a combination of 12 and 10 footfalls on alternating floors. This means that the "shortcut" pattern is faster, yet more energy intensive on the whole. 

Final Thoughts:

This article has covered the common footfall patterns for all two flights/floor stairwells. It provides a lot of detail – admittedly too much detail for the casual reader – so I’ve made a quick summary of the different configurations in Appendix A for easy reference.

(OK - I haven't actually made up the Appendix, but I will eventually)

Many of the patterns require a near perfect stairwell with good landings and rails. But in real life you’ll find plenty of stairwells which require an extra step or two.

Therefore, I leave you with the following advice: Study your stairwell and figure out an efficient footfall pattern suitable to your turning style.

You can thank me after you shave a few seconds off your PR.