Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Albany - One Year Anniversary

Part 1: Pre-Race Thoughts
Thursday's race up the Corning Tower in Albany will officially mark my one year anniversary climbing stairs competitively. I'm nervous because this will be my first opportunity to measure my year-to-year progress.

I have high expectations in this race because last year I put up a respectable 5:23 time, but since then, I've focused solely on stair climbing and have improved dramatically. My goal in this year's race is to break the 5 minute mark with a stretch goal of under 4:45. My calculations predict a time of 4:48 and since this is a sprint race (about 42 stories) I know I can do it. However, this race is particularly challenging because it is a very long sprint. I'm confident at distances of around 100 meters, but the Corning Tower is closer to 170 meters. I can't afford to go all out in this race and expect to be able to maintain my sprinting pace for the last 50 meters. I'm going to have to race a little bit conservatively so I have enough energy to finish strong. Pacing is much more important in this race than in the other sprints I've done.

Fortunately, I'm the underdog in this race so there isn't a lot of pressure to win it outright. I'm simply shooting for a podium spot. My biggest competition in the race will be David Tromp and Tim Van Orden. I know David will be at the race, but I'm unsure about Tim. Either way, these guys are capable of sub 4:30 in this race which I think is just outside of my reach... but I'm still going for it anyway!

My racing strategy will be as follows:
1) Go to the race early to measure the height of the steps. My calculations indicate the       steps are 8 inches tall, but I hope they are really 7.5 inches tall. My metronome pace will be set to 110 bpm for 7.5 inch steps or 105 bpm for 8 inch steps.
2) Practice inside the stairwell. I know for a fact the rails are close enough to grip both rails at once, but I need to check to see what technique works best. I'm more comfortable using just a single rail, although using both rails at once may offer more power.
3) Move toward the front of the line. Start right behind David & Tim.
4) Check my time on floor 21. I should be close to 2:15, with 2:25 max. Adjust speed as necessary. I should start to feel fatigued at this point.
5) Pick up the pace at floor 30. My lungs and heart should be hurting, but my legs should be capable of pushing it harder or at least maintaining current speed. Give David a run for the money.
6) Go all out at floor 36 and maintain it till the end. My legs should feel like lead when I hit floor 40, but I will pull on the rails with all my might.
7) Check my watch and collapse at the finish line. 

Part 2: The Race!
I had a very good race and I surpassed my own expectations. With a time of 4:39, I came in 2nd overall and only 5 seconds behind the winner David Tromp. See results here.
On race day, I was really nervous. Although I wasn't expecting a win, I was still worried that I wouldn't break the 5 minute mark. I've been training so hard for the past year and I wanted to prove that I'm a serious contender at stair climb races. Anything over 5 minutes would feel like I've wasted an entire year and had nothing to show for it.

Fortunately the race started at 7:30, so most of the day I was occupied with work and it was just business as normal. I left work around 5:00 and headed home to change and then over to the Corning Tower to check in. I parked next to the NY State Museum (for free I might add) and headed to the underground plaza beneath the Corning Tower and other NY State buildings.

The complex is pretty vast and the Cystic Fibrosis race occupied just a small part of the hall. Since it was already 5:30, most of the NY State workers had already gone home and the place seemed somewhat deserted*. At the check in, I paid my $125 donation and spoke with Whitney Hill, the race director. Although it was too late to get into the stairwell, she did confirm that the steps were 7.5 inches tall. I mentally checked off item #1 on my checklist.

*Except for the marching band, formal gala/wedding party, and a couple hundred other stair climbers.

Since I still had a couple hours to kill, I tried to read a few pages from the novel I’m currently reading. After a few pages, I gave up since I was just too pumped up to enjoy the book. Instead, I walked around the various booths and snagged a few Zone Perfect bars for later. I then ran into my friend Mark Hammond, another local stair climber, and he showed me how to get into the stairwell of Tower #1. Since this tower is the Corning Tower’s smaller sibling, the stairwells are very similar. Inside the stairwell, I spent a few minutes trying to figure out the optimal climbing technique. I eventually decided to use only the inside rail unless my arms became so fatigued that I needed to switch things up. Mark cautioned me that the building closes right at 6:00 PM on weekdays. Right before closing time, we rushed back to the elevator so we wouldn’t get locked in. Check off item #2.

At this point, many of the climbers were already checked in and I ran into a few familiar faces as well as some new ones:
• One climber was wearing a 2010 ESBRU shirt and I just had to introduce myself. He was Frank Nicolosi, a climber who came all the way from Florida to do this race. I was very surprised when I saw the race results and found out he is 71 years old since he looks at least 10 years younger. With a time of 7:48, he came in 26th overall, smoking folks less than half of his age.
• Hal Coghill introduced himself to me when he saw my #3 bib. Since he was wearing a pair of Vibram’s I could tell he had climbed stairs before. Last year was his very first race up the Corning Tower and he was looking to set a new PR. Obviously, we have a lot in common!
• My friend and coworker Tom Anthoff was doing this race for the very first time. In the weeks leading up to the event, I gave him a few pointers about stair climbing and we even practiced together in one of the staircases at work during lunch time. He has a lot of potential, especially in sprint climbs. 
• Dave Tromp, the reigning champion, was wearing his 2011 ESBRU shirt. He is one of the top US climbers and although he was recovering from a cold, I knew he was going for win #4. 
• Fred Eames, who has won this race numerous times over the last couple decades, was racing again. Although he has passed the torch on to David, he still is capable of a 6 minute race which is normally fast enough to win his age bracket… and several younger age brackets, too!

The full climb was last on the list of the night’s events. There was also a fire fighter race, a half climb, and a relay race to contend with. The race was a little bit behind schedule by the time 7:30 rolled around, but I maintained my race readiness by doing my pre-race warm-up routine: Burpees & Jacks once every 3 minutes.

At last, they asked us to line up. Since they asked us to line up by race number, I was third in line, just behind David Tromp and last year’s 3rd place winner, Justin Giffuni. Tim Van Orden was a no show (we surmised he had a snow shoe race) so I was exactly where I wanted to be in line. Check off item #3 on the list.

We ascended the escalator to the ground floor of the Corning Tower and walked over to the start line. The organizers told us space ourselves ten seconds apart from each other. Right as the clock changed minutes, we cheered and David was off. I took a few deep breaths and set my metronome to 112 bpm* as Justin entered the stairwell. Ten seconds later I was in the Corning Tower!

*Why 112bpm? I initially planned for 110 bpm, but I figured with David recovering from a cold, I had an outside shot at winning. I definitely didn’t want to race too conservatively. See my previous post at the Rock.

The pace was fast, but I could have easily have gone out faster. I’m glad I had the metronome to reign in my speed because as David puts it “The Corning Tower is the worst four and a half minutes of the year”. He is right. This race is much worse than most other sprint races, because it is about 50% taller than most sprint buildings. I might go faster in races like Stamford or New Haven, but in those buildings the race is over within 3 minutes. The extra minute or two of racing in the Corning Tower adds a different level of pain because you are climbing at ~25% faster than Lactate Threshold for the entire race*.

*note: As a reference point, my race pace at Empire or Hancock is only about 90 bpm.

The stairwell is pretty uniform and a typical floor has 9 steps, a 180 degree landing, and then another 9 steps. The rails are also close enough to use both rails effectively, although I only chose to use the inside track. The course was split into three separate sections, with a long hallway separating each section. The first section lasted till about the 17th floor and turns counterclockwise. The second section switches directions (turning clockwise) and lasts till about the 30th floor. The final section is a bit shorter than the first two and if I remember correctly, and it turns clockwise. It may be the shortest section of the race, but it certainly the most brutal. By this point, climbers are exhausted and to make matters worse, the final flight from floor 41 to the finish line is 50% taller than any of the other flights. In fact, it has two separate landings, making it the most challenging part of the race.

The first section of stairs was a blur, but I was hurting by the time I hit the lower teens. I became aware that I couldn’t keep a single foot on most landings, but I really didn’t care. The geometry of the stairwell made it exceptionally difficult to turn and since I was going so fast, it made the turns even more difficult to execute. Although I felt my technique was a bit sloppy, I felt confident I wasn’t losing too much time.

I caught Justin by the time we hit the first transition point and he stopped to let me pass. I knew I was going to break the 5 minute barrier since I expected Justin to finish in about 5:20 and I had already gained 10 seconds. As I reached the 21st floor I glanced at my watch and saw the magic 2:15 pop up. I was exactly on pace! Check off item #4.

By this point, I was tired, but I knew I could hang on for another 2 or 3 minutes. I focused keeping up to my metronome taskmaster to avoid thinking about the pain. At floor 30, I was getting close to exhaustion, but my legs still had a bit in reserve. I kicked it up a notch, per plan. I didn’t touch my metronome, but I focused on gaining a beat or two each floor. Check off item #5.

At floor 36, I told myself it time to go for it. My legs and arms were burning at this point, but still I went faster. By floor 40 my arms and legs were leaden. Without the rails for support, I’d be walking. I don’t know how I was doing it, but I was still going faster than my metronome. On the 41st floor, I knew I had a good race. I pushed it as hard as possible and as I turned the final landing, I stumbled. Fortunately I was still holding onto the rails and I quickly recovered, losing a half second at most. I climbed up the few remaining steps and crossed over the finish line. As I collapsed, I glanced at my watch just as it hit 4:42. Awesome! I knew I had probably broken 4:40. Check off items #6 and #7.

I spent a good 20 seconds on the ground moaning and eventually crawled to a chair to continue recovering. I remember hearing our times but my mind was in such a fog, I couldn’t tell who had won. David and I both had times somewhere in the 4:30s and I was so pleased with my time, I couldn't care less about coming in 1st or 2nd. I had shaved 43 seconds off of last years’ time and shattered the 5 minute mark!

After recovering for a minute or two, I saw some of the other racers finish. Although my heart rate and breathing were coming back down to normal levels, my legs and arms felt like someone had hit my muscles with a crowbar. Gradually the pain subsided and I finally was able to chat with the other climbers.

We then headed downstairs and I grabbed my camera to take a few pictures. Unlike my last two races, nobody gave me a hard time when I went back up to the observation deck.
Non-view of the Hudson River

Soon enough, the results were posted and the awards ceremony was underway. The closest race of the day was for the 50-59 year old bracket. Amazingly enough, Hal and Mark came in 9th and 11th overall and were just seconds apart with times of 6:11 and 6:13 respectively. Rounding up the top three was Tom who came in 18th overall with a time of 7:17. Not to be outdone by the younger generation was Fred who came in 8th with a time of 6:09.


Hal, Mark, & Alex
David & Alex

Alex & Whitney Hill (Race Organizer)

After grabbing a couple of subs from Subway (the race sponsor) I met Dave, Fred, Mark, and a few other friends at Applebee’s for the post-race celebration.
Here are my final thoughts:
• Grades: Strategy = A; Exertion = A; Technique = A-; Overall = A;
• Parking at the Museum was a great idea.
• Need to juggle my schedule around so I can use the stairs in Tower #1 sometime during the week (its closed on the weekends).
• I'm going to have to make some adjustments to my race prediction algorithm. For races that last less than 5 minutes, I’m coming in much faster than prediction.
• There were about 5 or 6 seconds of running in the race which I need to account for in my racing predictions.
• Train hard for next year. My goal should be 4:30 with a stretch goal of 4:20. Hopefully I’ll have a shot at the 4:12 course record set by Jesse Berg (who else?) before I turn 40!

1 comment:

  1. Great job Alex and it was a pleasure meeting and racing with you this year. I am humbled by your ability and I have you and Mark to thank for the metronome idea so I don't go out too bloody fast. Great race this year and I look forward to doing again next year!