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.

1 comment:

  1. Great review Alex--thanks.

    I agree with you---passing and getting passed can really eat up precious time.

    Race/climb organizers really need to get a better handle on the waves.

    Hopefully next year, you'll be properly seeded, and ideally, you won't need to pass or be passed by anyone.

    I love the idea of the metronome. Where did you buy yours?

    John Smiley