Saturday, February 18, 2012

360 at New Haven

Wednesday's Empire State Building Run-up was a letdown, but Saturday's race at New Haven was a much better experience.

I woke up around 4:40 AM on Saturday Morning and was out the door by 5:20 AM. Although we've had very little snow this year, today was an exception... it was snowing! Fortunately, the snow tapered off as soon as I hit the Massachusetts border and it didn’t slow me down. The trip was pretty uneventful, but it did give me a chance to see both Springfield, MA and Hartford, CT, where I will be racing later this season. Although these places are only a couple hours from Albany, I've never been to these cities and it was nice to check out their skylines.

The night before the race I was pretty nervous. After looking at the starting lineup, I saw a familiar, yet very surprising name: Lam Ka Ming. Although I've never met Lam, I recognized his name. He won a few big races in his native Hong Kong, and had just competed in the ESBRU, winning the MMRF division and coming in 19th (male) overall. I knew he would be my chief competition for this race since he is clearly a very strong climber. However, I still liked my chances in New Haven since it is a shorter sprint race. 
Britney & Alex after the race

I arrived at New Haven right around 8:15 and went directly to the check-in. There I met a couple of the American Lung Association race organizers (Britney and Emily) and then headed to the warm-up area on the 6th floor. The elevator seemed to take forever, so I opted to take the stairs (always a good choice) and preview the race course.

Meeting Lam Ka Ming
At the warm-up area, I caught up with Tower Masters teammates, Michael and Ariel. I also had the opportunity to meet Lam Ka Ming. Although he spoke English was pretty well, I wanted to practice my Chinese so our conversation was a mixture of both languages. He came to the US for the ESBRU and decided to do a local climb before heading home to the New Territories, just north of Hong Kong Island. Lam brought a camera crew all the way from Hong Kong and although it was nice to meet him, I was a little intimidated. Not only was the media involved, but Lam was a 130 lb. feather weight (to my 175 lb.) and it looked like he would fly up the stair case.

A peek inside the stairwell during the race

After socializing, I headed to the stairwell for a closer look at the race course. The stairwell was very similar to Stamford's; The floors were very short, it used a double rail system, the rails were close enough to hold both sides at once, and the steps themselves were short (~7 inches). The only major difference was that the stairs turned clockwise. The race course also featured a couple of flat sections. The first one was at the start line, where we'd have to run 10-15 meters to the stairwell entrance. The second flat section was a 5-10 meter transition on the 6th floor between stairwells. I spent about 10 minutes analyzing the main stairwell since I knew I had lost time at Stamford due to poor technique. Since the floors were so short and I could grip both sides of the rails easily, I opted for a two-handed pull in the middle of each flight which allowed me to take 2 or 3 steps at a time. On the corners, I chose to hug the inside lane and use the inside rail to pull myself around the corner. Although my technique was still a little sloppy, it would have to suffice.

After practice, I stopped by the warm up area to pick up Michael and Ariel and then we all headed to the start line to warm up. At this point it was already 8:45, and still no sign of Steve Marsalese. Our Tower Masters team wouldn’t be complete without him! I continued my warm-ups, which by now are pretty routine (jumping jacks: 1 min --> burpees: 1 min --> rest: 3 min --> repeat). Finally, with less than 5 minutes to go, Steve finally showed up. Our team was complete!
Tower Masters!
Lam & Emily

I would be going first up the stairwell since I won Stamford a couple months ago. Michael would follow a minute later and Steve would climb 3rd. Lam was also climbing with the elite group and would be entering the stairwell 6th. 

The only surprise was that Paul Curley, a well-known cyclo-cross athlete, wasn’t feeling 100% and wouldn’t be climbing. He was still at the race since he is responsible for race timing. He was also there to cheer on his daughter Emily* who was racing with the other elites. It was nice to see him at the race, but it was unfortunate he wouldn’t climb; he certainly would have been a threat for a podium spot.

*Emily went on to win the race on the women’s side. Apparently excellence runs in the family.

Soon enough, I was racing up 360 State Street! I decided not to use my metronome for such a short race and instead relied on my training. Since my training staircase is approximately one third the height of 360 State Street, I decided to go out at my usual training pace, hoping I could hang on till the end of the race. The first 10 flights went by quickly so quickly that I barely remember crossing over the flat section on the 6th floor.  Around the 20th floor, I was beginning to tire and my legs started to feel heavy. I could no longer take 3 steps at a time with my two-handed pulls, but I refused to slow down. Instead I picked up the pace knowing I had less than a minute to race.

At floor 25 my lungs were burning, my shoulders hurt, and my quads were leaden. Even my calves cried out in pain, which in living memory has never occurred to me in a stairwell. With only 6 floors to go, I knew I had to make my move now or risk losing the race. Although Lam hadn’t even started the race, I could feel his presence right behind me, catching up with each flight. 

Although I was in pain, I wanted this race. If someone else wanted to win they’d have to take it from me. I wasn’t going to give it to them. So I did what I’ve been training to do for the past 11 months; I turned on the afterburners and never looked back.

In my mind’s eye I soared up the remaining flights. I’m sure my turns were sloppy and my footsteps heavy, but for that one moment in time, I was an arc of lightning passing through the stairwell. I remember hitting floor 29, but I don’t remember climbing the last 2 flights. I just remember exiting the stairwell and hitting the timing mat with my chip.

Michael & Alex trying to catch their breath
I collapsed in a folding chair, my legs writhing in agony. I couldn’t believe how exhausted I felt considering how short the race was. My quads and calves were on fire and my right shoulder was numb. Since I had forgotten to start my stop watch, I hadn’t a clue what my time was. As Michael and Steve finished the race, I asked one of the volunteers what my time was in between gasps of air. Someone told me I had finished in about 2:46, the same time I had at Trump Parc Stamford, which was a slightly shorter building. I was a little surprised with my time because I knew I had pushed myself harder for this race.

Lam finished the race shortly thereafter and I asked him how he did. Unlike me, Lam remembered to use his stop watch and he told me he clocked in about 2:40, a very fast time indeed (matching my goal time). I was disappointed, but not disheartened. If Lam had gone faster, then so be it. With a time of 2:40 he deserved to win. I would just have to train harder for the next race. Even though I was prepared to come in 2nd, I still held out some hope for a win. I had raced to the best of my ability and felt that I had gone faster. A time of 2:46 just didn’t feel right.

A view at top
Tower Masters at the top
After recovering for a while longer, we took a few team photos at the top and then headed back to the warm up area to chat and change clothes. We then got directions to the Wolf’s Head Tavern, where the after event party would be held.

Jim & Alex
Alex & Alan

The party was a blast. Although Steve had to leave early, I got to hang out with my friends and meet the Stamford Fire Fighting team. Those dudes take stair climbing just as seriously as we do; they are all in awesome shape and dominate all the local Fire Fighter climbs. They are also built like bricks. Their captain (Jim) tips the scale at 216 lbs. and the winning fire fighter (Alan) is about my size. It turns out their training is very similar to my regimen, although they usually wear 45 lbs weight vests while training. Seriously. I’m not kidding. After doing a little math, I’m sure that Alan would have been able to keep up with the Tower Masters if he ran without gear. His power to weight ratio puts him right in the medal hunt.

Although the party was enjoyable, I was still nervous. The ALA would be posting the race results shortly. Upon the awards table there sat a little trophy that I wanted so badly, but I had a sinking feeling I’d be going home without it.

Just before 1:00 PM they posted the race results. I checked the board and there was my name at the top with a time of 2:34. Not only did I beat my goal time by 6 seconds, but I had won the race outright! I was overjoyed. After celebrating for a couple minutes I went over to Lam to congratulate him on his 2nd place finish. I know he expected to win this race and was a bit let down, so I told him that he kicked my butt at ESBRU a few days ago which was a much more important race.

1st and 2nd Place Winners
After the award ceremony (in which the Tower Masters basically swept with 1st, 3rd, and 4th place showings) I said goodbye to my all of my friends and departed for home… with my new trophy in the front seat of the car ^_^.

Next on the agenda is to buy a 45 lb. weight vest. After all, I have to get ready for “Hustle up the Hancock” in Chicago later this month!
360 State Street (Back)
360 State Street (Front)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Burned at the Empire State Building

The "Super Bowl" of stair climbing was held last Wednesday night in NYC. I have decidedly mixed feelings about this race and if you detect a hint of sense of bitterness in this post, than your sense of taste is spot on.

For the weeks prior to the race, I've been hitting my training sessions hard. Unfortunately I missed out my last tough stair climbing workout the Friday before the race due to a virus. Despite having a slight fever the following two days, I still slogged through a couple of workouts, keeping it light enough to make sure my illness didn't get worse. On Monday I felt marginally better and I tested myself out on the stair stepper at the gym. Although was worried I'd have an asthma attack, it never fully developed and I finished my workout feeling like I was pretty close to 100%. On Tuesday I took it easy and did a few practice runs on the stairs to work on my pacing.

My game plan for ESBRU was simple; I wanted to have an even pace throughout the race and to do this I could not afford to go out to fast at the start of the race. In each of my previous long races (Sears, John Hancock Boston, & One Penn Plaza, which are all greater than 200 meters) I've always sprinted up the first few staircases and eventually had to slow down in the middle of the race. To make sure I wouldn’t go out too fast at Empire, I planned to use my new metronome and set the beat in rhythm to my climbing pace. Based on my calculations, I needed to climb my practice stair case in about 50 seconds in order to match my planned pace, so during Monday’s workout I spent about 30 minutes climbing up my practice staircase to fine-tune my metronome’s pace. My calculations indicated 90 bpm would be required to climb the stairs in 50 seconds, which was the same pace I tried out at One Penn Plaza. That number turned out to be spot on as long as I kept only one foot on the landings. However, since my practice stair case includes several difficult landings and doorway which is difficult to navigate, I sometimes had to sprint a couple of steps to catch up to the beat of the metronome. To avoid these tiring sprints, I eventually settled on 92 bpm. Although it was slightly faster pace, I no longer had to worry about catching up to the beat every time I turned a corner.

The evening before the race was a quite stressful. Based on my calculations, I thought the steps at Empire were about 8 inches tall (based on 1050 feet climbing elevation with 1576 stairs) and I'd have to set my metronome to about 87 bpm to compensate. However my stair climbing friends assured me that the steps were only 7.5 inches tall. Since I know stair counts are often inaccurate, I put my faith on my buddies (Brady & Jeff - thanks for the info). I went to bed confident I had my game plan settled.

On Wednesday, I worked for 1/2 day and then took the bus down to NYC at lunchtime. I spent the afternoon in Korean Town and I eventually parked myself in a yogurt shop to chill out with a book*. Around 7:00 PM, I bought a double espresso and headed over to the ESBRU check-in.

*If you are into manga and haven’t read “20th Century Boys” by Urasawa Naoki, then pick up a copy; I highly recommend it.

Before I discuss how my race unfolded, it is important to know a little bit about the actual course. At the start line, racers will run about 15 meters and then pass through a doorway to get into to the actual stairwell. The first part of the climb is pretty typical of most other buildings. Climbers will ascend ½ a flight to a landing, turn 180 degrees clockwise, and ascend another ½ flight to the next landing. The stair well configuration then changes about a third of the way into the race. In this section, climbers will run across a short hallway (about 10 meters or so) to get to the next flight of stairs, turn 90 degrees clockwise, climb up a few steps to a landing, turn 90 degrees clockwise, and then climb a full staircase to get to the next level. When climbers finally reach the 86th floor observation deck, they exit the stairwell and run around the building (about 80 meters) until they end at the finish line. Since there is quite a bit of running involved, it is hard to estimate finishing times based on height alone. Additionally, results from prior years cannot be fully trusted because in those years, racers started en masse, leading to a huge bottleneck inside the stairwell entrance. So with nothing reliable to go on, I figured I’d come in somewhere between 12:30 and 13:45 minutes based on my friend Steve’s past performances. Although I’ve beaten him in shorter races, he has excellent endurance and I knew I’d be hard pressed to beat him in this race. Steve is a fellow Tower Master and has done this race countless times, often cracking the top 30 and sometimes even the top 10 at this event!
Fellow Tower Masters: Alex and Steve

Check in was a complete mad house. Climbers took up almost every available inch of the place. It was challenging to even find a spot to change into my WCL jersey! Eventually I bumped into a few folks I recognized from other stair climbs. In summary I saw Kristen, Tim, Napoleon, Jamie Kate, Luis, Jesse, & Kacie although I mainly hung out with my friend Steve and another racer from California  (I'm sorry I can't remember his name). I also *finally* met up with my friend David Tromp, who also hails from the New York Capital Region.

Listening to the race announcer, I heard that the elite 22 climbers would start around 8:00 PM and that the Charity and Corporate racers would race next. The general time trialists would start last and would be grouped into waves of about 100 people. The time trialists would start one-by-one in 5 second intervals rather than en masse. Since my race number was 1097, I learned I'd be in the very last wave! Since I didn’t want to get stuck behind hundreds of people, I asked one of the organizers if I could start off near the beginning of the time trial. They told me that I'd have to start with my wave, but I was allowed to go to the front of the pack if I'd wish. Although I didn't like it, at least I'd be able to enter the stairwell without trouble. Since my start time wouldn't be until 9:30, I downed my double espresso just after 8:30 to make sure I was properly caffeinated.

First in the Last Wave
After Steve got in line to race (he was in the 800 wave) I started my standard warm-up routine: jumping jacks and burpees every 3 minutes until race time. When the announcer called out my wave, I weaved my way to the front of the line and continued my warm-up. Right before our wave left to go to the start line, I ran into another one of my Tower Masters buddies, Scott Chappe who had just finished the race. Although we only had a couple minutes to socialize, it was nice to run into a familiar face.

Moments later our wave descended the escalator to the start line. This was it! The organizers took about 40 extra seconds or so to welcome us to the event and during the wait, I set my metronome to 92 bpm and clipped it onto my WCL jersey. Suddenly it was my turn to go and I was racing in the ESBRU!

Since we were given nearly a minute of extra time between waves, I had the stairwell to myself for about 5 flights. I could actually hear the person behind me getting closer during this period, and although I *wanted* to speed up, I kept up a steady 92 bpm pace. Eventually I dropped the people behind me and I started passing people around the 6th floor. By the 10th floor, the stairwell became really congested.

At first I told people to get out of my way and pushed through other climbers to get into the inside lane. At this point I was consistently passing at least one person each flight and it was getting difficult to pass. Many people simply wouldn’t get out of my way, and several people yelled back at me “Pass on the left!” as I passed by them on the right. I was expending more energy trying to take the inside lane so I eventually stopped yelling at people and took the outside lane. When I looked at my watch around the 3:00 minute mark, I was already in the lower 20s (although I simply can’t remember which floor) so I knew I was right on track. I was pretty winded by that point, but I felt I could continue at this pace for another 10 minutes.
Right around 6:30 into the race, I was into the upper 40s, but I was getting tired. I was well into the 2nd section of the race by this point and although I was still able to run across the hallways between the stair cases, I knew I couldn’t keep up the pace for much longer. I had spent too much energy passing people on the outside lane and I was suffering. At that point I decided to turn down my metronome down to 89 beats per minute but I made a promise to stick to that pace no matter what.

By floor 70 I had kept my promise, but the stairwell was just too crowded. I could no longer summon the energy to sprint around people and I found myself getting caught behind slower climbers. On the rare instances I had a clear stairwell, I could still keep my 89 bpm pace, but it took longer and longer to get around other climbers. I also caught myself walking along the hallway between stairs rather than running whenever I had more than two climbers to pass. My mental resolve was almost broken, but I still kept up my 89 bpm pace up the stairs. The only thing fueling my climb was my bitterness toward the New York Road Runners Association for putting me in such an awful position.

On floor 80 I could no longer think straight. I knew I should start increasing my pace near the end of the climb, but I couldn’t remember if there were 86 floors or 88 floors! Around floor 84, I started going all out. I was totally surprised (yet thankful) once I reached the observation deck because I still thought I had 2 more flights to go! I ran blindly around the observation deck and although I was pretty dazed, I still managed to pass a couple more people on the run.
After the finish line, I stumbled into a corner to catch my breath. A moment later, I remembered to check my watch. It said 14:01, so I knew I broke the 14 minute mark. I was satisfied with my exertion level, but I knew I could have gone a little bit faster near the end. I felt like collapsing, but I had enough strength to stand, albeit hunched over with hands on the knees. At least I exerted more effort here than I did at One Penn Plaza a few weeks back. After a couple minutes of rest, I finally managed to stumble my way around the rest of the observation deck to get to the elevator. 

And then I got burned at the ESBRU. No kidding! Somewhere along the observation deck, I ended up in a heated glass hallway. I know it is heated because I accidently brushed up against the metal heater. Take a look at these 1st degree burn marks. Believe me it hurt!
Burned at the ESBRU
Although my time was slower than I had expected due to the congestion inside the stairwell, it was still a respectable time. I figured that I still had an outside shot at a top 30 (male) spot as long as the other time trialists faced similar problems during the race.
Man vs. Building
I spoke with Steve after the race and he told me his time was about 13:45. My chances of a top 30 spot were now pretty slim since I knew Steve was fighting for a top 30 spot, too. We both complained about the race and how much we were slowed down by having to pass so many people. I estimated that I had lost at least 15 seconds and Steve figured he had lost at least 30.

By this time it was after 10:00 PM. I grabbed a sandwich and headed down to the bar to meet Dave Tromp and another friend (and fellow Tower Master) Jim McNamara. Jim didn’t race in the ESBRU this year, but Dave started with the other elites and clocked a time of less than 12 minutes, a VERY fast time indeed! After Jim and Dave went home, I stopped by Korea town for a bite of dessert and then headed home. Since I was so pumped up with caffine, I lay in bed thinking about the race and I didn’t fall asleep until 2:00 AM. Getting up at 5:30 AM the next morning to catch the bus to Albany was not a pleasant affair.

On the bus ride home, I found out my time was only good enough for 36th place (male), just outside my top 30 goal. In other circumstances, I would have been proud, but today I was furious. I felt that I hadn't been given a chance to race and potentially missed out a top 30 spot because of it. I spent some time thinking about the race and here are my final thoughts:

1)      Having a start time at 8:00 PM is simply too late. Most New Yorkers were in the time trials which started past 9:00 PM. I could have left work at 5:00 and *still* made it to the start line in time, and I live THREE HOURS away!

2)      Letting only the top 22 racers compete in a clear stairwell is unfair. There are 30 spots worth points in the rankings and there at least 50 racers who had legitimate shot at a top 30 spot. The NYRR could have easily seeded the time trialists (or let the racers decide starting order).

3)      Starting in the middle of the time trial cost me at least 30 seconds (much more than I initially estimated). Here is where I lost time:

a.      I stayed on the outside lane(a longer distance than the inside lane) for a good portion of the race

b.      Sprinting by other racers expended more energy than what was necessary.

c.      I used my arms far less than I typically do, causing extra fatigue in my legs. This is a very important part of my racing technique because I’m a heavy racer and I have strong arms.

4)      Many potential top 30 racers were left out of the race because of the opaque selection criteria and random general entry policy, which is very unfortunate since this is the supposed to be the most competitive race in the World.

5)      There wasn’t enough space for the athletes to change, let alone properly warm up.

The sad thing about this race was that many of the problems could have been avoided with a few simple changes. Unfortunately, it is the athletes who suffer the most because of how poorly this race was planned.