Thursday, December 20, 2012

Trumped in Stamford

Editor's note: I'm way behind in updating my blog, so here is the 1st of 5 recent updates. This particular post was written in mid December 2012. Pictures will be added at a later date, since I'm having trouble downloading them from my camera.

The results from the Parc Trump in Stamford are in and can be found here. I set a new course record at 2:40 and broke my old course record by 7 seconds! Unfortunately, my new record did not stand long. Sproule Love - who started 30 seconds behind me - finished in 2:30. My new record stood for a total of 20 seconds. Sproule was just too fast!

Race day started off early. I woke up at 5:00 AM and was out the door by 6:00 AM. The drive was mostly uneventful, but there was a lot of fog on the Taconic Parkway so I had to drive a bit cautiously.

I arrived in Stamford just after 8:30 and rushed to get changed and checked in. Knowing I was pressed for time, I immediately started my warm up routine. I did a set of burpees right at check-in (at the SBC brewery), again at the coat check (at the Parc Trump), and a third set while waiting at the start line. It wasn't my best warm-up, but it was much better than starting the race cold.

I met my the other Tower Masters at the start line: Steve, Paul, & Napoleon. The only person missing was Sproule; he was still in the stairwell warming up. I also would have liked to have a few minutes in the stairwell, but with only a few minutes to go, I wanted a couple minutes to calm down and relax.

Everyone was quiet during the last minute before the start of the race. Then, as the clock struck 9:00 AM, I entered the stairwell.

I climbed into trouble as soon as I hit the first landing. I simply could not get a firm grip on the railing and I had a very hard time turning the first few corners. In fact, going around the first few turns, I caught myself from tripping not once, but twice. I felt like a fish out of water! I had similar problems last year (you can read about it here) and this ascent wasn't any easier. Paraphrasing my blog from last year:

“The Parc Trump is a very technical course (as far as stairwells go). With only 588 stairs covering 66 flights or so, most flights have only 8 stairs between landings. Since the steps themselves are relatively shallow (7 inches tall vs. the 7.5 inch norm) and the race itself is pretty short, I was completing a turn once every 2.4 seconds. To make matters worse, the railing was hard to grip. The Parc Trump uses an uncommon double railing system that has the upper railing situated too high to grip comfortably and has the lower railing out of reach until you've completed the turn.”

Although I had trouble with the turns, I pretty much nailed the pacing during the first part of the race. I went out a smidgen faster than I had planned, but still below my burnout point.

The floors passed by quickly and by the 10th floor, I settled into an awkward rhythm best described as “controlled chaos”. I stayed on the upper inside rail as much as possible, but it was hard to get a good pull around the corners.

By the middle of the race, my heart rate was hitting the redline and it was getting more difficult to climb. Since I was still feeling awkward in the stairwell, I tried out a few different techniques. My first variation was to use the lower rail rather than the upper rail.  My right shoulder was starting to ache because I had to reach up so high to grasp the upper rail so using the lower rail provided some measure of relief. The downside was that I couldn't get a good handhold going around the turns. Next, I tried using both sides of the railing rather than just the inner railing, but I abandoned this method after a couple floors. My arms were just a bit too short to use both sides effectively and I felt that the flights were too short to justify staying in the center of the staircase; as soon as I’d grip both sides of the rails, I’d have to let go again to turn the corner. Finally, I just decided to keep on the upper inner rail – shoulder pain be damned.

I wasn't at my best during the final third of the race. Although I was hurting, I wasn't in danger of having my legs give out. I should have sucked it up and gone faster, but instead I just kept my current pace. Somewhere near the 30th floor, a cameraman snapped a few pictures and the camera’s flash took me off-guard. I stumbled around the turn and nearly face planted on the stairs. At that point, any hope of winning fell away. I didn't have that competitive spark and I just continued my current pace. I coasted up the last few flights of stairs gasping for air. After crossing the finish line I stopped my watch. 2:41. It was definitely better than last year, but still about 10 seconds slower than my goal.

At that point, all I could do was wait for Sproule to arrive. After about 15 seconds of waiting, I had held the faintest hope of winning the race, but moments later I could hear cheering in the stairwell. I knew it was going to be close. When Sproule finally arrived, I glanced down at my watch again. It had passed the three minute mark, but not by much. Assuming he started exactly 30 seconds behind it meant he had made up 5-10 seconds in the stairwell. But then I heard one of the time keepers indicate that Sproule unofficially made it up in 2:15 or so. I was in awe.

After recovering for a minute or so, Sproule and I waited for the rest of our teammates to finish. Once everyone had recovered somewhat, we took the elevator down to the 7th floor to relax and chat. We also wished Napoleon luck since he registered the day of the race and wouldn't climb until well after 10:00 AM.

After Napoleon’s race we all headed to the SBC brewery to wait for the awards ceremony and get a bite to eat. As people were leaving, I snuck back into the stairwell to take a few measurements and map out the course. Below is a short summary of the stairwell. As you can see, the published course information isn't accurate.

Total Steps: 551 (vs. 588 published)
Step Height: 6.75 inches
Course Height: 94.5 meters
Up to floor 7, the stairs turn to the left, and are mostly laid out in an 8/8 configuration. Up until floor 22, the stairs turn to the right continuing the 8/8 pattern. The last section continues turning to the right in a mostly 9/8 configuration. The course ends at the 34 floor (top). The course seems to be missing floors 13 and 23.

Keep in mind, I did not double check my work, so my step count might be a little off.

The best part of the race was getting to hang out with Steve, Paul, Sproule, Napoleon, & Jamie. I really like stair climbing, but I rarely get a chance to actually talk about it. I love hearing stories about epic battles up the Empire State Building and getting training tips from stair climbing veterans. Even though we had to wait until 11:30 to get our official times, it was an easy wait.

Checking the final times, I was relieved to know that I was only 10 seconds behind Sproule! Up until that point, I was worried the gap was more like 20-25 seconds. Ten seconds is within striking distance given enough training, discipline, and a bit of luck. But if the gap was 20 seconds… well, I might as well just give up give up the chase.

The other Tower Masters also had a fine showing. Napoleon grabbed a podium spot. Steve set a personal best. Paul, our team’s rookie, had a solid first climb. Last but not least, Sproule set a new course record!

Unfortunately, we missed out on the team award because one of our team member’s didn't get added to the roster; I signed most of our team members the day of the race, so I’m sure the paperwork got lost in the pre-race shuffle. Instead, the team award went to the Connecticut  Healthcare Stair Runners. They are a good group of climbers that David Tromp & I teamed up with at the Hartford climb.

This poses a very good question. Should we be upset that we lost the team award because of an administrative error? Or should the Tower Masters be competing for the team award at all?

On one hand, we've put a lot of effort into training and deserve the recognition. But on the other hand, our Tower Masters team had a huge advantage. We’re mainly comprised of folks who know each other through the competitive stair climbing circuit. How could another team compete with us when we've poached all the best climbers? It brings to mind an episode of Seinfeld where Kramer beats up a bunch kids at a karate school. I dearly love helping my Tower Masters win races, but at the same time it is hard to be proud of beating up a bunch of kids.

Last but not least, here is my post-race analysis:
Grades: Strategy= A-; Exertion = B-; Technique = C-; Overall = B-;
·        Sproule beat me on three different fronts:
1)      He was better prepared mentally. He had his game face on at the start line. No idle chit-chat; he was just focused on the upcoming race.
2)      He was better prepared for tackling the stairwell. He came to the race early and spent some time checking it out.
3)      He was better prepared physically (big surprise!)
·        I need to get into the stairwell the next time I race at Stamford. I had a hard time with the rails and I need to figure out how to take the turns faster. I imagine that is where I lost most of my time. Oddly enough, I said the same thing in my blog last year. I should have taken my own advice! Getting to the race early will also help me get mentally prepared; driving fast in heavy fog to avoid being late certainly didn't help my nerves.
·        The best part of the race was listening to everyone’s opinion about training.
1)      Sproule recommended mixing up my training. The only way to grow is to force your body to adapt. He also recommends pushing yourself well into the suffering zone. You have to be a bit masochistic to do this sport.
2)      Napoleon recommends incorporating heavy weights (especially leg raises) to help prevent injury. Since most of my leg exercises are done using low weights with high reps, I might be at risk of getting an overuse injury. After all, low weight, high rep squats/lunges are pretty similar to climbing stairs, something that I do quite frequently. Heavy weights will help mix up my routine and have the added benefit of protecting my knees (by strengthening the muscles direct around the knees).
3)      Steve always recommends running J. This time I might listen since the ESBRU requires a fair amount of running.
·        Recently, I've been having problems getting enough sleep. I've been getting a little over 7 hours, but I need about 8.  I forced myself to go to sleep early for a couple nights prior to the race and I felt considerably recharged on race day morning.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Racing Trump Style

The last race of the year is fast approaching. I will once again tackle the Trump Parc in Stamford, CT on December 8th. It was originally scheduled for November 3rd (the same weekend as Willis) but because of Hurricane Sandy, it was postponed.*
*I’m probably the only person in New York grateful for Hurricane Sandy!

This race really should be classified as just a “fun run” since it doesn't offer any additional tower running ranking points. However, it gives me a chance to compare myself to where I was a year ago* as well as test myself against some serious competition; I expect Sproule Love, Tim Donahue, Steve Marsalese, and hopefully Michael Karlin to be at the race. The timing couldn't be more perfect. I’m still at a very high fitness level thanks to all the preparation I did for Willis** and I still have a couple months to train for the heart of racing season in February & March.
*to read about how I did at the Parc Trump last year, click here.
** (albeit a couple pounds heavier)

Although I’m very excited for this race, there is also a hint of urgency and frustration. Here is why: The Empire State Building Run-up (ESBRU) registration is now open and only 10 or 20  athletes will be allowed to participate in the elite start. Last year’s race wasn't a very good experience for me (see my thoughts from last year here) and with potentially fewer racers in the elite start, it makes my chances of getting into it even smaller. I trained diligently over the past year to put myself in contention for an elite spot and I've done well enough over the course of the season to warrant consideration. Stamford is my last chance to  show that I deserve to be on the ESBRU start line.

The truth is, even if I somehow manage to win in Stamford, I still doubt the ESBRU organizers (the NYRR) will select me. My time from last year was simply too slow for them to take notice (13:56*) and I doubt they’ll consider my other more recent tower racing results. To be fair, however, I think I’m only capable of a 12:30 time at ESBRU which should put me in the top 20… but just barely. As such, my current game plan will be to:
1) Cross my fingers & get in through the lottery in 2013
2) Go around 150 or so other climbers in the time trial and somehow still break the 13 minute mark
3) Cross my fingers and hope that I’ll be let into the elite race in 2014
*To find out why I’m not happy with last year’s results and why the NYRR is partly to blame, click here.

Although I don’t have control over who gets into the ESBRU, I do have control over my own performance. I’m going to give Stamford my best shot and see if I can match pace with Sproule and company. I don’t really expect to win, but it won’t stop me from trying my best.

Just for fun, I spent some time predicting how well I’d do in the race relative to Sproule. On paper, I actually have an outside shot of retaining my title. My reasoning is as follows:
1) Sproule kicked my but at Hartford last March by a whopping 13 seconds. However, Stamford is a little bit shorter, so the gap at Stamford should be more like 11 seconds.
2) I’m in much better shape today than I was in March. My practice climbs are 2 seconds faster now than they were back in March, and Stamford is about 3 times the height of my practice climb. As such, I should be able to shave off at least another 6 seconds. This puts Sproule ahead by only 5 seconds.
2) Looking at the “Power vs. Time” chart for races a 2 second difference in a 45 second race translates to more like a 7.5 second difference in a 2:30 minute race. Taking this into consideration, this puts Sproule only 3.5 seconds ahead of me!

Although the numbers are heartening, I’m still putting my money on Sproule to win this race. I hope I can make it somewhat competitive, but I don’t have illusions of grandeur. My main goal will be to simply beat my time from last year. Based on my training results, I should be able to beat my previous record by a solid 15 seconds, so going sub 2:30 is a distinct possibility. If I come close, I know I’m where I need to be for the 2013 racing season. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Willis - Round Two

I had a great time in Chicago this past weekend and I posted a pretty solid time in the Willis stairwell and I placed 6th overall! See the overall race results here.

This year's edition of the race was a bit less competitive than in prior years. First off, the only European racer who showed up (besides Mischa, the director of was Norbert Lechner. Likewise, many of the top American races were missing from the lineup*.

*I’m especially disappointed that Sproule Love was left off of the start line. He signed up for the race late and was put on the waiting list. Although he exchanged emails with the race organizers to try and secure a starting spot, they did not help him out. On the other hand, Jesse Berg, the eventual race winner, didn’t sign up for the race at all, but was still allowed to race (from what I gather a few phone calls and a switcheroo with another climber who couldn’t make it). I’m glad that the rules were bent for Jesse, but I’m unhappy that Sproule did not receive the same benefit. It was a shame that a top racer (and record holder) who is competing for ranking points was left out of this master’s race.

So how does my time stack up with other editions of the race? It actually holds up quite well. A time of 15:13 would have placed:
·        12th in 2011
·        8th in 2010
·        11th in 2009
·        10th in 2008
·        6th in 2007
·        6th in 2006
·        8th in 2005
·        6th in 2004

Therefore it appears that my 6th place showing is a bit higher than it might have been, but it still would have been a solid top 10 showing in most other editions of the race. Therefore, I’m very happy with my performance and I’ll gladly take the 72 ranking points that come with it!  My performance is especially telling, since Willis should be my least competitive race on the stair climbing circuit since I’m built for sprint races.

The lead up to the race went as smoothly as can be expected. My training was solid, my eating habits were under control, and I was barely getting enough sleep. I held my last difficult workout on Tuesday and I kept my regular workouts on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, I skipped my weekly stairwell intervals and instead used the time to practice my race pace. It was enough to break out a sweat, but not strenuous enough to tire out the legs.

On Saturday morning, I was out the door by 8:30 AM and I drove down to NYC to catch my flight to Chicago. Normally, I like taking public transportation down to the City, but since Hurricane Sandy hammered the lower Hudson, I was afraid I’d run into problems with the subway & bus lines. On one hand, driving was very quick and I was able to get an extra hour of sleep. But on the other hand, I paid about $30 worth of highway and bridge tolls, $66 worth of parking fees at the LaGuardia airport, and $45 for a tank of gas. Although I didn’t hit any traffic in the city, the gas lines in and around NYC were absolutely crazy. Most stations were actually closed, but those that were open had lines extending all the way back to the highway. I'm fortunate to have topped up my tank near Poughkeepsie instead of refueling in NYC.

I got to the airport early and spent my time watching the local news cover the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. My flight was on time which was surprising since the airport had been closed during the hurricane and just recently been reopened. After I landed in O’Hare, I jumped on the Blue Line and headed directly to the Elephant & Castle to meet up with all the other climbers from the West Coast Labels team.

At dinner, Mark tasked me with greeting each climber and  handing out name tags. Since I only had 50 name tags and I ran out of name tags near the end, I estimate there were around 55-60 climbers at the pre-race dinner!

At dinner, I sat with Mischa and Sebastian from and learned a bit about the European race circuit and the evolution of I also sat with Bob Toews and we discussed the challenges of the upcoming climb. I also finally met climbers I knew from the stair climbing circuit (e.g. Jeff, Scott, Roxanne, Madeleine, etc.). Last but not least, I met with Stan who helped me estimate what pace to set my metronome based on my expected finishing time.*

*Stan’s method is really quite simple:
1) Since there are 102 floors and I expected to finish in about 930 seconds (i.e. 15:30) I’d need to cover each floor in 930/102 = 9.12 seconds.
2) Since there are ~20 steps per floor and I expect to take two steps at time (except for near the landings where I’ll only take one step at a time) I’ll take a total of 12 footfalls each floor. That means I’ll take 9.12 seconds/12 footfalls= 0.76 seconds per footfall (i.e. 0.76 seconds per beat on my metronome).
3) Converting footfalls per second into beats per minute yields 60 seconds/min x 1/0.76 seconds/beat = 79 beats per minute.

After dinner, I met up with Ben Ruyle, who would be rooming with me and we drove to the hotel. Speaking of which, did you know that there are a total of three Hiltons within a few miles of one another? There are two next door to the Rosedale subway stop and third one adjacent to O’Hare. I know this because the first hotel we stopped at was the wrong one and hotel staff had to give directions.

When Ben and I finally checked in to the right hotel, we spent some time stretching, relaxing, chatting, and getting our gear ready for the morning. I’m really glad we decided to room together. It kept my mind off of the race and it turns out we have a lot in common. Not only do we both do a lot of strength training, but we also can quote Monty Python. Would would’ve guessed?

We went to bed pretty early and although I had trouble sleeping*, I managed to get in about 6 hours of sleep before the race.
*with visions of pacing calculations dancing in my head

The next morning, we were up early and out the door by 5:35 AM. Although it was still early, I was surprised that there was still a lot of traffic on the road. Nonetheless, we still made good time and we arrived at Willis just after 6:00 AM.

Ben & Alex before the race

I spent the next 30 minutes trying to stay warm, relaxed, and fully stretched. Closer to the start, I began my normal warm-up routine of jumping jacks and burpees. Shortly thereafter, we made our way to the start line. It was pretty crowded, so instead of doing a final set of jacks & burpees, I opted to do set of power pushups to stay loose. Before the official start, I positioned myself about 20th in line to make sure I wouldn’t start with the top elites, but also to minimize the number of people I had to pass.

Just after 7:00 AM, Jesse Berg entered the stairwell and every seven seconds another racer followed. Before I knew it, I was next in line.

My game plan was to start off at 85 beats per minute and then adjust based on how I felt and how fast my time splits were. I chose 85 beats per minute to give me a shot at cracking the 15 minute mark. I didn’t dare go any higher since in past races (like ESBRU or Hustle) I tried going out at 90 bpm and I cracked in the latter half of each race. If I couldn’t handle 90 bpm in a shorter building, then I wasn’t going to attempt it at Willis.

Still looking fresh

My goal was to have fairly even splits and to make things easy to calculate during the race, I decided to check my times at floors 26, 53, & 77 which are roughly 25%, 50%, and 75% the way up.  In order to keep my time below 16 minutes, I would have to do each section in less than 4 minutes.

The first 26 floors seemed almost too easy. The pace felt pretty slow and I started to second guess my pace. I slowly caught the climbers ahead of me and I had plenty of energy to ask them to move aside. I also had enough energy to ask the volunteers what floor I was on. I hit floor 26 somewhere in the 3:40’s and I knew I was on track to beat 16 minutes. At that point, I considered changing the beat from 85 bpm to 90 bpm. but since I was on pace to hit 15 minutes (my stretch goal time), I decided to just keep it at 85 and check how I felt at floor 53.

My heart rate and breathing rate slowly crept up by the time I reached floor 53 and I'm glad I refrained from changing my pace. Somewhere in this section I caught up to P.J., who gave me a nice push up the stairs. Although it was more of a symbolic gesture, it helped. First off, it gave me an unexpected moment to catch my breath. Secondly - and more importantly - it is always nice to see a “step” brother in the stairwell offering encouragement, especially when you are about to crack.

At floor 52 or 53, I glanced at my watch and although I’d don’t remember my exact time, I recall seeing 7:XX and I remember being pleased. But at that point I was really starting to tire. For future reference, I recall hearing the one of the volunteers tell the climber ahead of me that we were at the half way point and if I remember correctly, it was more like floor 54 rather than floor 53.

My technique was breaking down by the time I got to floor 77, but I was well under 12 minutes, so I knew I would clip the 16 minute mark if I could hold on a few more minutes. I still could keep up to the beat of my metronome, but I was taking an extra step on the landings. Somewhere along the line, I passed Mark Trahanovsky who gave me a few words of encouragement. At that point I was breathing so heavily, I could only nod my head and keep forging ahead.

Floors 80 - 95 were absolutely dreadful. My heart and lungs were at their limit. It was getting harder to push the thoughts of slowing down from the front of my brain. My psyche was cracking under the pressure. Looking back, I believe the only things keeping me going was the fact I could finally reach both rails (which relieved some of the pressure on my left side) and that my legs were still in decent shape. My legs were tired, but they had not yet reached their limit. It appears that all of the Tabata leg presses, lunges, and sprint training in the stairwell paid off.

At floor 96 I knew I was only about a minute or so away from finishing so I picked up the pace. Deep down, I knew I should have started the last push a few floors earlier, but it was too difficult to convince my oxygen-starved brain to kick it into high gear. By floor 100, I was going significantly faster than my metronome, but I was holding on for dear life. I was planning to sprint up the last few floors, but before I turned on the afterburners, I was climbing up the last flight!

I staggered over the finish line and stopped my stopwatch. My time was 15:11! I was very pleased, but I was also at my physical limit and couldn’t summon the energy needed to celebrate. I grabbed a water bottle from one of the volunteers, wobbled my way through the finishing corral, and collapsed to the floor. My heart rate continued to spike and it took a minute or so to get it back down to a functional level.

After recovering I was ready to congratulate some of the other climbers, take pictures, and enjoy the view from the top! Although I couldn’t stay very long (I had a plane to catch) I had a great time*.
*Even though Kristen Frey beat me for the 4th time in a row by another narrow margin. But who’s counting?

At the top with Ben, Alex, Dave, & Roxanne
At the bottom of the tower I gobbled up a couple of post-race muffins* and printed out my official time**. Then Ben gave me a ride back to the Hilton and I took a quick shower before heading to O’hare to catch my flight home.
*which were hands down the best muffins I’ve ever tasted. Seriously.
**15:13? How did I lose 2 seconds?

This was definitely a satisfying race. I set a new PR by a whopping 1:39 and had a great time hanging out with other climbers. My race is proof that consistent hard work & sound strategy really does pay off. I may not fast enough to hang with the big boys in a tall climb, but another year of training might close the gap.

Post-Race Analysis:
·        Grades: Strategy= A; Exertion = A-; Technique = B; Overall = A-
·        All in all, I believe my improvement year-over-year came from equal parts better pacing and improved fitness.
·        If I could re-do the race, I would have set my metronome at 84 bpm and focused more on turning efficiently on the landings.
·        I honestly felt clumsy at the landings. It seemed as though I was always hitting the landing with the wrong foot. During the upper stories, it was significantly worse because my body wanted to slow down.
·        Tired though I was, I could have gone faster in the last part of the race. As long as the legs aren’t above their lactate threshold, there is always another gear.
·        The new shoes felt pretty good. I don’t like running in them, but in the stairwell, they are just fine.
·        Limiting factor was my heart rate and breathing rather than my legs. This makes sense because Willis is so tall.
·        Willis is a monster of a climb, but if you approach it the right way, it isn’t such a daunting race. Slow and steady is definitely the way to tame it. If you aim to have even splits, the race doesn’t really begin until the 50th floor. But if you go out too fast, it will chew you up and spit you out. With this race, you really need to know your limits and have a game plan.

I felt a bit sick after the race, but after my heart rate came down, I felt pretty good. My legs never reached the point of no return so my initial recovery was pretty fast. Compare that with the Albany Corning Tower or the Bennington Monument where I torched my legs. If you’d like to read about those races, click here and here.

I came down with a moderate case of “track hack” or “climbers cough” and was spitting up phlegm on Sunday night and Monday morning On Monday, I felt a cold coming on and actually took half a day off from work, but fortunately, it seemed to be a false alarm.

My body felt pretty fresh on Monday (other than feeling a cold coming on) but my lungs ached. On Tuesday, I had to cut my workout short (cardio day on the step mill) since my breathing wasn’t yet back to normal. As of Friday (as I’m finishing this post) my lungs are still tender, but my stair workout was mostly unaffected.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Preparing for Willis

In just one short week, I will make my way to Chicago to climb up the Willis tower. Although I’m prepared, I’m quite nervous because I have high expectations. I want to crack 15 minutes this year which would be a truly impressive feat. Last year I climbed Willis in 16:52 and to reach my goal, I’ll need to shave off nearly two minutes. To do that I’ll need an 11% increase in performance from last year, which is a pretty tall order.

Since this race is the last big race before the Empire State Building Run-up, I’d like to do well enough in this race to be considered for an elite spot in New York. This adds increases the pressure of this race by an order of magnitude. Even if I break the 15 minute mark, I’m still not guaranteed a spot at the ESBRU.

There are several improvements that I’ve made that will help me break 15 minutes this time around. In order of magnitude (from smallest gain to biggest gain) here are my top improvements:
1)      New Shoes: I just picked up a pair of New Balance Minimus sneakers. Although I’m not quite used to them, they are so much lighter than my current pair of sneakers. The shoes themselves weigh as much as my orthotic inserts. No joke.
2)      Experience: My biggest mistake last year was starting out way too fast. Since I’ll be using a metronome to pace myself, I won’t be making the same mistake twice.
3)      Diet: I’ve improved my diet considerably since last year. Even though I haven’t lost any weight, my percent body fat is at an all-time low (just under 10%) meaning I’ve shed a few pounds of fat and replaced it all with muscle.
4)      Training: I’ve trained my butt off during the year, even when times were tough. I’ve shaved off over six seconds in my training stair case, nearly a 13% increase in performance since last November.

Even though I’m well prepared, there are a few things that worry me. In order of magnitude (from smallest worry to biggest) are:
1)      New Shoes: I’m not used to the way my new sneakers feel. They feel alright as long when I use the inside rail, but are definitely uncomfortable when I use the outside rail (and take an extra couple steps on the landing). I hope they will feel more normal with practice.
2)      Pacing: Since I’m not sure of the step height (it changes on the upper levels) and I didn’t use my metronome last year (as a reference point) I’m not sure which setting to use. I may have to bring a ruler with me to the race.
3)      Weight: My body composition has improved, but I haven’t lost any weight. I’m probably spotting most top 20 climbers a good 15 pounds.
4)      Building: Tall buildings are not my forte and Willis is the tallest climb in North America.
5)      Training: Although I’ve seen a big improvement in my practice building, I’m not confident that my sprint training will boost my performance in a longer race. I have recently incorporated some longer distances to my training plan (thanks to feedback from Sproule). On my Sunday bike ride, I’m averaging about 25 miles whereas before I was only averaging 10-15 miles. I’ve also increased the amount of time on the step mill by 25%. I just hope it isn’t too little too late.

My official prediction is to crack 16 minutes with a stretch goal of breaking 15 minutes.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Chocolate Overboard

Throughout August and early September I made some pretty good gains in climbing fitness, but then I spent a week on a cruise ship for vacation. I was worried that I’d lose all of my recent gains since I wouldn’t be on my normal schedule and I’d have easy access to junk food.
As expected, I couldn’t resist the temptations of overeating. A perfect example was Friday evening, midway through the cruise. That day I had a moderate breakfast, lunch, and dinner and I planned to hit the fitness center that night and have a light post workout snack. But just before my workout, I bumped into “Chocolate Night” at the 24 hour buffet. The crew had set up a dozen or so chocolate sculptures, a chocolate fondue fountain, and laid out dozens of chocolate desserts: chocolate ganache cake, chocolate brownies, chocolate ├ęclairs… you name it, it was there. Before I could stop myself, I had already eaten a couple plates worth of chocolate delights.
Miraculously, I didn’t gain any weight even though I consumed thousands of extra calories throughout the trip. I figure that one reason was because I wasn’t stuck behind my desk and I was on my feet for much of the day so I burned more calories than on a typical work day. However, I think the biggest reason I kept off the weight was because I kept to my normal exercise routine. Although I didn’t use the stairs on the cruise ship (other than for normal everyday use) I went to the fitness center every single day for a good hour and made sure I pushed myself as hard as I would have at home.*
* It wasn’t easy. Several times I went to the gym after a late dinner in order to get my workout complete before closing time. Trust me on this… working out on a full stomach isn’t the most pleasant experience.
Fast forward two weeks and I’m back in top shape even though I suffered through a nasty cold a few days after my trip and had to curtail my training for a couple days. My motivation level is back to normal and since I still have 5 weeks of training to go before Willis, I think I can make some solid gains before the race. I honestly think that breaking the 15 minute barrier is possible this time around!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Training for the Stairwell

I often wonder how other stair climbers train. I’m looking to improve my own training regime so I’d love to learn a thing or two from other climbers. In this post I will share my own personal training plan; hopefully others can learn from it or better yet... offer up suggesting for improving it.

Before I get into the specific details of my training program, it would help to know a little bit about my personal stair climbing goals and training limitations:
·        I know many climbers excel at other sports and often have training plans aimed at competing in multiple disciplines; I primarily train for stair climbing races, so my training regime is focused mainly to get better at climbing.
·        I do not have easy access to a tall building. My training staircase is only 7 stories tall, so my stair case workouts are typically sprints.
·        I’d like to run, but I have too many chronic injuries. I hope to get healthy enough to run again someday.
·        I’m heavier than most climbers since I used to lift weights. I’m not yet ready to sacrifice upper body muscle mass to cut weight, so I continue to incorporate upper body strength work into my work out plans. I like my beach muscles!
·        I have limited time to exercise, so my workouts last about one hour.
·        Since I’m relatively heavy (175+ lbs) and I incorporate a lot of sprints into my workouts, my training regime is geared toward shorter climbs (200 meters or less).

Now that you know a little bit about my background, here are my key workouts for the week:

Strength Training
After warming up, I do the following exercises.
·        Two sets of 26 squats immediately followed by 26 lunges (13 on each side) while holding two 30 pound dumbbells. Rest 2.5 minutes between sets.
·        Three sets of 15 deadlifts with 2.5 minutes rest between sets. I usually start off at 95 lbs. and increase the weight each set. When I’m 100% healthy, I typically max out at 185 lbs. (about 10 lbs. heavier than my body weight). When my sciatic nerve is acting up, I will skip the deadlifts completely do a 3rd set of squats & lunges instead.
·        Two sets of hamstring curls with 1-2 minutes rest between sets. I mainly go for muscle endurance with this exercise rather than pure strength. I typically do about 40-50 curls each set with a little more weight on the 2nd set. The 2nd set is done until exhaustion.
·        Two sets of Tabata leg presses with 3-4 minutes rest between sets. I’ve worked up to about 220 lbs. with this exercise, but keep in mind that not all leg press machines are calibrated the same way. I used to keep the weight “up” during the 10 second rest periods, but I found that it puts undue stress on my hips which can aggravate my recalcitrant piriformus muscle & sciatic nerve. This does make the exercise a little bit easier; before I switched technique, I would normally end my 2nd set around the 3 minute mark.
·        20 minutes of pull-ups or 25 minutes of push-ups (depending on the week). I often ride a spin bike in between sets.

Since stair climbing requires a fair amount of anaerobic strength, most of my training is done using low weights and high reps, which promotes muscle endurance & leg strength instead of pure power. After all, even short stair climbs last upwards of 4 minutes, which is hardly a sprint.

Climbing Machine Workout
I use a Climber to build my cardio endurance and I follow a very specific routine so I can measure my performance from week to week.
·        6 minute warm-up:
o   2 minutes @ 110 steps per minute (spm)
o   2 minutes @ 120 spm
o   2 minutes @ 130 spm
·        1 minute active rest (holding the rails @ 140 spm)
·        4 sets consisting of 4 minutes @ 170* to180 spm followed by 1 minute active rest after each interval
·        3 minutes active cool-down:
o   1 minute @ 140 spm
o   1 minute @ 130 spm
o   1 minute @ 120 spm

*as a reference point, I would be hard pressed to keep up 170 spm for longer than 10 minutes when fresh

This is my primary exercise for developing my cardiovascular endurance since it gets the heart rate going without overly taxing the muscles. Since this exercise is essentially interval training, it is designed to build up my VO2 max. However, the intervals are long enough to mimic the race conditions of a longer climb. I’m truly suffering after during the 3rd and 4th intervals; the last couple minutes are a true mental challenge.

On a good day I might be able to achieve a 1 to 1 ratio of time spent at 170spm vs. @ 180 spm. My goal is to decrease this ratio (i.e. more time done @ 180 spm).

Stair Climbing Workout
My staircase is too short to mimic a stair climbing race, but it is perfect for doing interval training. This is the most physically demanding workout since it taxes both the aerobic and anaerobic systems.
·        Warm-up with a slow climb to the top followed by a minute of jumping jacks and active stretches
·        Interval 1: Outside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 2: Inside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 3: No Hands + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 4: Outside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 5: Inside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 6: No Hands + 5 minute rest
·        Interval 7: Outside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 8: Inside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 9: No Hands + 5 minute rest
·        Interval 10: Outside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 11: Inside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 12: No Hands + 16 jumping squats

Each interval is done at about 85-90% capacity and lasts about 45 seconds in duration. Three minute rests are sufficient for the first few intervals, but are barely adequate for the latter half of the workout. I incorporate longer rests when I climb without the rails during intervals 6 and 9 since these climbs quickly burn out the legs. I try to keep even splits for each climb; if I climb too fast in the beginning, I’ll pay the price during the last few climbs. I take the elevator down only during my longer rest breaks (intervals 6 & 9). Otherwise, I alternate climbing down backwards and forwards (one flight backwards followed by one flight forwards). This method reduces the stress on the calves and Achilles tendons and still allows me to descend the stairs at a reasonable pace. 

The above exercise routines form the core of my training plan, but I also incorporate cycling, indoor rowing, and swimming (during the summer) on my "easy" days as well as a few sessions of push-ups, pull-ups, and core exercises each week. I normally take one day off per week, although I will usually sneak in a 30 minute session of core exercises if I'm home for the weekend.

I'd like to improve my workout plan in order to get faster in the stairwell; I'm very open to suggestions for improving in it. Comments would certainly be welcomed!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Struggling with Motivation

Since the Bennington Monument race in May, I’ve suffered from lack of motivation. One root cause is that my fitness levels have hit a plateau. A year ago, my climbing times were steadily improving, but in recent months, I’ve seen little to no improvement. This fitness plateau has had a profound effect on my motivation. I call it the “all pain and no gain” syndrome; I hate putting my body through grueling workouts without having any measurable improvements in fitness.
To make matters worse, I had a string of business trips where my eating habits and exercise schedule went out the window. When I finally got back into my regular exercise schedule, I had gained a few pounds and my fitness levels decreased proportionally.
I’ve overcome several obstacles over the last few months and although motivation is still a challenge, I’ve learned a few helpful hints that have helped me stay motivated.
1)     A little bit of exercise is better than nothing at all.
This tip is more about preventing discouragement rather than increasing motivation when I had limited time to exercise. During my latest string of trips I felt awful whenever I bagged a workout; partly due to guilt and partly because exercise helps me cope with stress. On the other hand, I felt pretty good on the days I exercised, even if I only managed to sneak in 15 minutes or so. These short sessions helped minimize the loss of fitness. It also helped me get back into shape once I resumed my regular schedule.
2)     Don’t always focus on performance.
When I train hard, I usually have a goal in mind (e.g. certain number of reps, weight lifted, and pace/duration climbed). When I got back into the stairwell after a long business trip, I felt sluggish. Between jetlag, weight gain, and limited training, I had lost my edge. Midway through my first workout, I stopped timing myself up the stairs and ripped up my time tracking sheet. Rather than feel depressed because I couldn’t achieve my usual goal, I focused solely on having a good workout.
3)     Put on your workout clothes.
For several weeks I dreaded going to another grueling training session. Simply walking over to the gym was mentally challenging since thoughts of the upcoming workout were always at the forefront of my mind. To make it easier, I tried focusing on simply getting dressed. Putting on my gym clothes was painless and easy and it took my mind off of the upcoming workout. Once I was dressed, I usually felt ready to exercise.
4)     Reset your fitness benchmark.
My fitness peak plateaued in March and decreased a bit in June. Resetting my fitness benchmark helped in a couple different ways:
·        Before I reset my fitness benchmark, I was climbing faster than my body could handle. I’d burn out prematurely and feel like crap because I failed to achieve my goal. By resetting my benchmark at a lower performance level, I could finally complete my workouts.
·        Once my benchmark was set a reasonable level, I was able to see improvements from week to week. This bolstered my confidence and motivation because I knew I was getting my edge back.
5)     Sign up for a race.
Even though racing season is still a few months away, signing up for a race helps me keep focus. Earlier this month I signed up for the Willis Tower (Sears Tower) race in Chicago and made a promise to be in better condition than I was at the end of last racing season. Whenever I feel like skipping a work out or overeating on junk food I ask myself - how will my actions impact my race?
6)     Have a rival and an idol.
As a competitive stair climber I know the capabilities of most climbers on the circuit, especially the folks on the east coast. As such, there are a few people that I know I can beat if I can just shave off a few seconds. Likewise, there are folks who I can’t touch in the stairwell, but want to emulate. I use both for motivation. When I’m getting tired during my stairwell sprints, I often try to visualize racing against one of my rivals to help get me to the top of the stairwell. Similarly, I think about my idols when I plan my workouts & diet; after all, if can pick up a few seconds by imitating my idols, then someday they will become my rivals!
After a solid 6 weeks of regular training, I’m feeling much better about the upcoming racing season. I’m still struggling with my weight, but I’m also a bit stronger and my power outputs have improved. I can’t wait for my next race, but at the same time I’m glad I have a couple of months to train. I want to be in the best shape of my life come race day. I’m planning for a top 10 finish, so I need to shave off at least a minute from last years’ time!