Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Midwest Madness

Welcome to Chicago
This would be my 9th time racing up the Sears Tower. I’ve spent over 20% of my life training for this race and I’m still not prepared.

I’ve been juggling a lot of stuff recently and I’m not as young as I used to be. At 43, I’m still in good shape - but these days I feel like my age.

The months leading up to the race were stressful. I’ve been steadily working on the new house and finally made the big move in September. Adding to the stress was the fact that I had to do it alone since my SO was out of town dealing with other stressful problems. It also meant I had to get Lance ready for the school year by myself*.

*Lance is in 7th grade now and is participating in *way* too many extra-curricular activities. I’m chauffeuring him to Band, Stage Band, and Chorus every morning and picking him up from Crew practice after school. Not to mention Tennis, Piano, and the “Music Studio Kids” song and dance troupe. It’s far too much, really, but the kid’s got potential. He’s already 5’ 11” (two inches taller than yours truly) and he’s a beast on the indoor rower for a 12 year old. At the beginning of the crew season, he could probably pull an 8:30 2K on the erg, but I bet he’s closer to 8:00 minutes flat nowadays. By the time he’s an upper classmen, he might even be as fast as I am – but only if he trains hard. He’d rather be playing tennis.

With all that additional stress, it is a wonder I’ve been able to train consistently.

The real problem has been maintaining my weight and recovering from injuries. I’ve struggled to stay below 175 lbs. which I consider the very top of my “race ready” weight range. And regarding injuries, I have a bunch of old chronic issues, but In particular, my piriformis has been a nagging injury and sitting down just makes it worse. Most recently, I injured my hip. I don’t know how it occurred. A week before the race I was sitting down at my desk. When I stood up to take a quick walk, I noticed I was in pain and limping. I chalk it up to weird bad luck. It only curtailed a couple of workouts, so I’m thankful it wasn’t worse.

Fast forward to Sears.

Fitness-wise, I was in good shape but still a few pounds heavy. Plus my hip still wasn’t at 100%. I didn’t think it would impact my performance… but it was still a worry.

I arrived at Sears around 6:15 AM and bumped into a few other climbers I knew from the circuit. Some of us still didn’t have our bibs (including me!) so we had to wait patiently for David Hanley, our sports director, to show up.

I should mention that I didn’t completely know who was going to be at the race, so it was only when David showed up with all the bibs that the lineup became clear. On the men’s side, here was my predicted finish order:

Frank Careno (COL)
Alexis Trujillo (MEX)
Goerge Heimann (GER)
Jesse Berg
Alex Workman
Jason Larson/Mark Henderson (tie)
“Oz” Osborn
Mark Ewell
Josh Duncan

There were a few big-name scratches: Terry Purcell, Justin Stewart, and Sproule Love. Don’t ask me to guess a fantasy finishing order with them in the lineup. All I can say is they’d all be in the hunt for 4th place if they were present.

On the women’s side, I was grasping at straws. Cindy Harris would likely win but other than her, the remaining podium spots were up for grabs. The big names I knew were Sherri Breese, Meg Santanna, Stephanie Hucko, and Maria Lopez. This is not in any particular order; I just don’t follow the women as closely as I should.

Back to the start line....

Before I began my active stretching, I ran into Mischa from Towerrunning. I still hadn’t payed my annual dues (due to technical difficulties of the website) so I paid him 30 USD to cover the 24 Euro fee.

With my dues taken care of, I completed my active stretching routine and followed it up with a couple rounds of burpees as I made my way to the start line. For the record, the start line is two floors below the “normal” start line. It’s been like this for two (now three) years so perhaps starting in the basement will be the new normal.

I didn’t have my race-ready confidence and I felt like I didn’t belong at the race. However, I needed the points. As long as stayed within a couple spots of Mark Henderson I should be able to maintain my lead in the TowerRunning USA rankings. Theoretically, I could skip the race and still win the USA cup, but doing well here would cement my spot. Anyway, I signed up for the race and I wasn’t going to back out now.

The internationals were up front. Jason, Mark and I discussed who should go next. I wasn’t volunteering because if I went next, it meant I’d likely be passed at the beginning of a race only to re-pass during the later stages. Jason wanted to keep me in his sights, so he wasn’t volunteering to go next either. That left Mark. He didn’t want to right after the internationals, but he *was* willing to go 2nd.

So I approached Jesse Berg and told him it was a “unanimous” decision for him to go after Goerge. Problem solved!

I did a final round of burpees and a couple minutes later I entered the stairwell.

I set my metronome at 81 BPM. By all accounts, this is one of the slower paces I’ve used at Sears, but after consulting my blog post from last year (the year I got locked out of my room and didn’t have my metronome) that was the pace I planned to use. Considering I was a bit heavier than last year, I figured it should be sufficient. After all, I’d rather be a little slow and have a bit in the tank towards the end of the race. Going out too fast is a death sentence at Sears.

I tried focusing on being efficient for the first few floors. It’s tough to concentrate during a race, but the slow pace made it possible. By the time I hit the 6th floor Jason had nearly caught up. He tucked in behind me and commented that maybe he went out to fast (probably just to make me feel good so I’d let down my guard).

Together, we climbed into the teens. Slow and steady.

When we reached the lower 20s, I could hear another climber approaching. It turned out to be a kid named Nick Sdrenka (I looked up his name after the race). I say “kid” because I’m twice his age. He’s likely in his early 20s. I don’t know Nick personally, but I did recall him talking with David Hanley after I picked up my bib.

He cruised past Jason and me, but from the sound of his breathing, I could tell he was working harder than we were. Would he last another 70+ floors? From experience, probably not… but you never know. Perhaps this kid was going to be the dark horse of the race.

Jason and I remained together for another decad of floors and once again we found ourselves being passed. This time it was someone we both recognized: Cindy Harris. She was tearing up the stairwell, but I knew it was going to be somewhat short lived. She was breathing quite heavily - but then again, she *always* breathes heavily (it’s kind of her signature mark).

As we approached the lower 40s, Jason had had enough of my slow pace and moved to pass me. As he passed me I mentioned I planned to kick it up a notch at the half way point (lower 50’s). This was more of a defense mechanism of sorts because by now I felt guilty about going out so slow. Jason quickly built a lead of one and a half flights.

By now we had crossed the halfway point (about floor 52) and I took stock of my situation. On one hand, I had already been passed three times so my confidence was shot. On the other hand, I felt relatively fresh. I *knew* I went out too slow. To be honest, I’ve felt worse during my time trial training sessions on the Precor Stepper.

There was only one thing to do: Pick up the pace. I slowly reeled in Jason and together we pulled passed Cindy in the upper 50s.

Now comes the hardest part of the race: The Dead Zone.

With only 40 floors to go, I was well beyond the halfway point, but 40 floors is still a loooong ways to go. If you’ve gone out too fast, the Dead Zone is where you start to bonk. Even if you’ve gone out too slow (like me) the climb becomes painful. Could I go faster? Yes! Did I *want* to go faster? Heck no! The best I could manage was a step* closer to the redline.

*Stairclimbing pun intended.

As I ascended through the 60’s I was climbing nearly on top of Jason. With the 70th floor approaching, I made my move to pass and a few floors later we caught up with Nick who was being swallowed by the Dead Zone. The fact that he managed to stay ahead for so long means he’s a solid athlete.

In the upper 70’s I had maybe a flight or two on Jason, which meant that he was still technically ahead of me at this point (as he started 10 seconds behind me).

For Jason to win our duel, he just needed to stay with me. For me to win, I’d have to drop him for good… but with just over 20 floors to go, it was going to be an uphill* battle.

*Stairclimbing pun intended.

Time was running out as the final 20 floors should take only 3 minutes or so. The good news is that I was out of the Kill Zone and headed into the Final Sprint*. Furthermore, the stairwell configuration in the final section is a fast and narrow 7/7/7.

*The Final Sprint comes right after the Dead Zone. This is the point where you are able to push past the pain and increase the pace since the finish line is fast approaching. This assumes, of course, that you haven’t already bonked. If you’ve bonked, the Final Sprint just becomes an extension of the Dead Zone.

I muscled up those stairs like a man possessed. I had way too much energy left and I kicked myself for going out to slow. Yes, I was making up time, but with only 10 floors left to go, I knew I had left some time on the table.

As I headed into the mid 90’s I was truly suffering, but I wasn’t about to slow down. I still had energy in the tank, although tapping into it was going to hurt.

I crossed into the 100s and above me I could hear the crowd cheering. Was that Mark finishing? I had nearly forgotten about him… drat, it was going to be a tight finish. I kicked myself again for going out so conservatively.

The final few flights were a bitch. Having sprinted the last 20 floors left me in pain and I couldn’t afford to let up.

I crossed the finish line and stumbled a few steps before putting my hands on my knees to catch my breath. Yes, I felt like crap, but 20 floors of sprinting tends to do that. The silver lining is that my recovery time was pretty quick. Going out too slow for 80 floors tends to do that.

I didn’t mention this before, but I raced without my stop watch. It ran out of batteries a couple days before the race. As such, I had no idea what my time was, although I figured I was nowhere close to my PB. I’d be lucky to break the 15 minute mark.

I walked around for a bit to help recover and asked Mark, Jesse, and Jason about their times. Jason clocked in the lower 15s and I thought I was a good 10 second gap between us, so I figured I would be a few seconds faster. Mark mentioned he was in the lower 15s and I was nearly on top of him when he finished (though I never saw him). Jesse timed himself as just over 15 minutes.

It was real nail biter until we got the official results. See them here.

The biggest upset was that Alexis outsprinted Goerge for the win with both of them beating out the course record holder Frank Carreno who held on for a distant 3rd place. Among the Americans, Jesse was the fastest (he actually *did* break 15 minutes). I took fifth place narrowly ahead of Jason and Mark.

How did the dark horse fare? Nick finished about 30 seconds behind which means I’d better watch out. If he learns how to pace himself in the stairwell, he could easily drop 30 seconds. Or more.

How did the women do? Cindy Harris won handily. For the rest of the field, the big surprise was newcomer Anna Carlson taking 2nd place.

Race Grades:
Effort: B- ; My pace for the first 80 floors was too slow (C-) but I made up for some if it by pushing hard during the final 20 floors.
Conditioning: B+ ; I was in decent shape.
Weight: B- ; 170 or less is needed to score an A in this category and I tipped the scales at a heavy 173/174.
Pacing & Technique: B- ; My initial pace wasn’t aggressive enough and I didn’t really change it until I was more than halfway finished… but at least I was able to conserve energy and use most of it up during the sprint. Technique was fair.
Overall: B ; Although I left some time on the table, considering my weight, I’m pleased with the overall result.

Final Thoughts:
I’m relieved that I did as well as I did and pleased that I squeezed ahead of a couple of my rivals. Yes, I could have gone faster, but my game plan was reasonable. I wasn’t in top stairclimbing shape so I’m happy I was closer to the 15 minute mark rather than the 16 minute mark (which I thought was a real possibility). I think the only thing I regret was not picking up the pace earlier in the race. I should have checked my status and adjust my pace at the 30th floor rather than after the 50th. I think the reason I didn’t check my status was:
  1. I wasn’t confident.
  2. Coasting by at a slower pace is waaaay easier.
  3. Racing head-to-head with a rival discouraged me from speeding up. In my head I was thinking “Well if this speed is fast enough for Jason, then it must be fast enough for me.”
When I do this race next year, I may consider going out at 83 or possibly 84 BPM if my weight is closer to 170 lb or even 85 BPM if I’m in top condition.

The story doesn’t end here.

When I booked my flight to Chicago, the original plan was to stay in the Midwest and race in Milwaukee a few days after Sears. However, this year the Milwaukee race would be held a week later. Drat.

What is a climber to do? Find another racing venue!

Welcome to Missouri
It turns out there is another well known race in the Midwest called Master the Met in St. Louis. It’s held annually in April (drat!) but it turns out that the stairwell of Met Square is open for public use (yes!). Although I wouldn’t be able to officially take part in Master the Met, I could at least race the course on my own.

I stayed in Chicago overnight and the following day I rented a car to drive down to St. Louis.

St. Louis is surprisingly awesome. It is roughly 3 times the size of Albany so it boasts a decent skyline which is dominated by the Gateway Arch, which I learned is made of fabricated steel, not concrete (I got up real close to verify).
Close-up of the Arch
Although St. Louis has it’s share of sketchy neighborhoods, it also had some fantastic public spaces. During my stay I explored:
  • Missouri Botanical Garden (A+): Top notch botanical garden. Highly recommended.
  • St. Louis Art Museum (A-): Decent size, nice collection, and free!
  • St. Louis Public Library (A+): Wide selection in a historic building.
  • Gateway Arch Museum (A-): Small but very detailed and informative. Also free!
  • Old Courthouse (A): Beautiful domed architecture and you can climb up to the 3rd level to see it up close. Plus a small museum. Also free!
  • Cherokee St. Antique Row (B): Lots of Antique Shops but sadly only a few were open when I went exploring.

Botanical Garden
Old Court House
There were a few other places that I saw, but didn’t have a chance to fully explore:
  • Old Cathedral (note: it should have been open during the time I tried to visit!)
  • Forest Park. Think Central Park NYC but bigger. I caught a glimpse of it when I went to the Art Museum.
  • Christ Church Cathedral. Next door to the Library.
Last but not least, the surprise hidden gem was the “Apotheosis Comics & Lounge” which is a comic book store... with a bar! The owner is friendly and introduced me to the series “Manifest Destiny”. It’s the story the Lewis & Clark expedition… but with a supernatural twist.

Before I digress too far… the purpose of the trip was to climb up One Metropolitan Square (Met Square) so let’s get on with it.

On Wednesday, I met up with the John Wilmas, the self-proclaimed “Stair Ninja” of St. Louis. I’ve met him once or twice before at Sears, so I gave him a call when I decided to do a time trial at Met Square.

Met Square is a 42 story building with a listed height of 180.7 meters. That makes it the tallest skyscraper in St. Louis and 2nd tallest in Missouri (1st place belongs to One Kansas City Place, which is less than 10 meters taller).  Met Square is virtually the same height as the Corning Tower in Albany, my hometown race, so I kind of knew what to expect.

I met John in the lobby of Met Square just past noon. He was already wearing his custom “Stair Ninja” racing kit. John is an office worker in a nearby building but he noonlights as a fitness trainer. If you live in St. Louis, you might run into him if you ever have lunch near the Gateway Arch. He often leads Cross-Fit-esque workouts on the steps leading up to the Arch. In fact, he is in the middle of opening up his own “Stair Ninja” gym. Somehow I imagine the gym will be equal parts Cross Fit and American Ninja Warrior. Plus some stairs.

Met Square is essentially John’s personal stairwell. He works in a nearby office building so when he’s training for stairs, Met Square is his go-to spot (his office building is “merely” 20 stories tall). To get into the stairwell, all that is needed is to sign a waiver at the security desk.

As we prepared to do a warmup lap, John confessed he wasn’t in stair-climbing shape quite yet but planned to do more stair workouts to get ready for the 2020 stair climbing season (which is generally in late winter/early spring). Although he’d be climbing with me, he wouldn’t be exactly “racing”.

I set my metronome to 75 BPM for our warm-up lap. The stairwell layout is a standard two flights per floor with right hand turns. The width is fairly narrow so I was able to grip both sides of the tubular steel rails pretty easily. I also noticed that there isn’t much of a gap between flights so I was able to take the turns quickly. Taken together, this meant that this stairwell would be a fast!

We chatted while climbing and John reminisced about prior editions of Master the Met. Because St. Louis is so close to Springfield, it often attracts top climbers like Terry, Oz, and Justin. Other editions have attracted the legendary Sproule Love since St. Louis just happens to be his home town. For such a “small town” race, it certainly has attracted some top talent over the years.

The stairwell switches up on the 19th floor (about halfway) so we had to run down a short hallway to get to the next stairwell. The new stairwell continues up to the 42nd floor, but the actual race finishes on the 40th floor, so that’s where we exited. It’s actually quite convenient because there is  bathroom right near the elevator. After a short pit stop, we took the elevator back down to the ground floor.

Now I was getting butterflies in my stomach. Although I wouldn’t be in official race, I knew I would be pushing quite hard.

Here is a secret: I *hate* pushing hard. It’s painful. I dread some of my workouts because I know I’ll have to push hard over and over again until I can no longer maintain the prescribed pace. Racing is even worse because you can’t even quit – even when you bonk.

After changing into my racing flats it was go-time.

Sproule owns the record at the Met which is 4:10 flat although Justin has come within a couple seconds of it. Other speedsters, like Terry have come in just under 4:30. In a time trial, I figured I should be able to come in around 4:30. That’s pretty much my goal time in Albany, which is a similar if not longer course.

But what pace to use?

Here is what I knew:
  • I didn’t take any measurements of the steps although they felt about 7 inches tall (which is *not* a precise measurement).
  • Warm-up lap was 75 BPM and we completed it in a bit over 7 minutes (I don’t remember the exact time)
  • Race Pace at Albany is about 120 BPM
I couldn’t do math in my head to ratio 75 BPM with 7 minutes (and change) to figure out what pace to use for a goal time of 4:30, but 120 BPM sounded about right.

So that’s how I set my metronome.

For the time trial, it was decided that I’d go first and John would try to keep up with me for as long as possible. I ended up borrowing John’s fit bit watch since my watch’s batteries were still dead.

I had to restart once because I wasn’t familiar with John’s fit bit, but I finally got it to work.

The first 10 floors were quick and easy and John stayed about a flight or so behind.

When we got to the 13th floor, however, the pace really started feel brutal. It was the sucker punch you get when you haven’t warmed up properly: things seem fine… until they don’t.

At the 15th floor, I was struggling, often taking an extra step on the landings. Could I handle three more minutes of this crap? I had my doubts.

I made it to the 19th floor and ran down the hallway to the next stairwell. Just about halfway through the time trial.

John was likely a couple floors behind by now. When I crossed 21 or 22, I thought I could hear him down below as he crossed over to the next stairwell.

I was suffering, but it would be embarrassing to quit in the middle even if this wasn’t a “real” race. Oddly enough, I felt a little bit better. Likely I was getting my “warm-up” back as my body adjusted to the pace.

Maybe I *could* do this…

By the time I reached the 30th floor I was climbing slightly faster than my metronome. The pace hurt, but I was handling it. Only 10 floors left! 75% complete! 25% to go*. I got this!

*I know it’s redundant, but that’s how my brain works when climbing stairs.

I increased my pace yet again, madly tearing up each flight. Although I could no longer single step the landings, I made up for it with fury.

As I rounded the 35th floor (5 floors left, 87.5% complete, 12.5% to go!) I still had energy to spare, but boy was I hurting. The little voice inside my head said, “Hey, this is only a time trial… there is no need to burn yourself out. This isn’t a *real* race”.

In the end, the little voice partly won out as I coasted to the top at my current pace. At least I didn’t slow down.

As I made it to the 40th floor, I looked down at John’s Fit bit. The screen was blank! Frantically I pressed the touch screen. 4:35… 4:36… 4:37… and I finally stopped it.

I stood there with my hands on my quads and waited for John. Maybe I waited for another 30 seconds? I don’t know since I didn’t restart/continue the fit bit. I’m guessing he finished somewhere in the lower 5s.

We rested for another minute or two before heading back down via the elevator. The time trial took a lot out of me so our next lap would be our last one. I set my metronome at 65 BPM as a cool down. One fast climb was enough!

At the top of the cool-down lap we celebrated with photo. Then I explored the 41st and 42nd floors just to see what the rest of the stairwell was like. John told me that during the first few editions of the Master the Met, the race ended on the 42nd floor, but he rarely goes up that far during training since the doors are always locked*.

*Except for that one time he ran into the cleaning crew and got to see the top floor.

Before our final descent, I took a closer look at the stairwell, specifically the stairwell between the 38th and 40th floors (as I didn’t feel like taking the stairs *all* way down).

Holy Crap! The stairwell is a fast 11/11 configuration*! I asked John about the rest of the stairwell and he confirmed that floors 1-19 are somewhat random, but 19-40 are all uniform. Before exiting the stairwell, I did a couple turns just to show John just how fast 11/11 can be. I wish I had used that technique during the time trial.

*IMO 11/11 is the best possible stairwell configuration. You can read about my stairwell analysis and suggested foot placement ad nauseum here.

Time Trial Grades:
Effort: B ; I pushed the pace for most of the time trial but I Iet off the gas with about 5 floors to go.
Conditioning: B+ ; I was still in decent shape and well rested after Sears.
Weight: C+ ; After Sears I switched from a lower sodium diet to a higher sodium (pizza) diet so I’m guessing I was in the 175 lb range.
Pacing & Technique: B ; 120 BPM was challenging. My stairwell technique was passable, but I did not utilize the efficient 11/11 foot pattern.
Overall: B+ ; I’m pleased with my results because it was a solid learning experience. If this was a real race, I would have graded my performance as a B-. There is room to improve in each category.

Final Thoughts:
I suspect I wasn’t fully warmed up prior to the time trial. If I ever come back to Master the Met, I’ll need to make sure I do some sprinting or at least some burpees to get my body accustomed to the fast pace. If I were to race again (at the same weight and conditioning) I would probably bump the pace up to 122 BPM and focus on foot placement for the 11/11 section. I think a good goal would be 4:30 with a  stretch goal of 4:25. I bet a 4:20 flat would be possible if I get my weight under control.

I hope to someday to come back to Met Square and put my knowledge to good use, but what is a stair climbing trip without a couple of WTF moments?

  1. On the outskirts of Chicago, they still have coin operated automatic toll booths on the interstate. Seriously, who carries $2.60 in change these days?!?
  2. In St. Louis, they have an eatery called “The St. Louis Bread Company”. It sounded kind of awesome so I tried it for lunch. Big mistake. This cute name is just a disguise for the “Panera Bread” chain*. Normally, I don’t have a beef with Panera  - other than the fact I hate spending $10 for a sandwich - but this particular branch was awful:
    • I ordered a soup and waited for well over 10 minutes… only to be told that they were out of soup and I’d have to change my order. I wasn’t happy, but sometimes these things happen unexpectedly. No worries (yet).
    • While waiting for my new order, I decided to use the restroom. It was electronically locked with a key pad. The sign above the keypad said to check your receipt for the access code. I pulled out my receipt. No access code. When I inquired at the ordering station, the cashier mentioned that they are supposed to put the code on the receipt… but for some reason they don’t. I wasn’t sure how to reply. That’s like saying, “We have rules, but choose not to follow them”. At least she gave me the bathroom code.
    • When my meal finally arrived, it came with a bag of chips instead of the bread that I had ordered. I asked my server about the unexpected (and unwanted) switch she told me that they were out of bread because they were busy earlier in the day. Not only did I doubt that a place named “The St. Louis Bread Company” was out of bread, but I took offense that she thought that giving me something I didn’t order (or even want) *without* asking me beforehand was okay. It’s like going to coffee shop and ordering a cup of decaf… and then purposefully being handed a can of diet coke (not even caffeine free!). It would have been one thing if the server accidently got my order wrong… but she knowingly made the switch even though adequate substitutions were literally right behind the counter. 
That was the third strike. I had enough of this nonsense and finally spoke to the manager to get a piece of bread after waiting 20+ minutes for my “fast casual” meal. Long story short: although they were out of the mini-baguette that they usually serve with meals, apparently they *did* offer a wide variety of other baked goods that they could substitute… you know, because it’s a flipping sandwich shop that makes bread.

*Fun fact: Panera Bread started in St. Louis as “The St. Louis Bread Company” and the original stores in St. Louis have kept that moniker.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Six Hours in Salt Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward to the night before the race.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was locked!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t get one.

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

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

Okay, maybe I can do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It gets better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP Brian. You'll be missed.