Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Racing Season Finale: Clash of the Titans

Note: Post written in late March & April 2012... it just took an extra month for me to post :)

Tomorrow is the last race of the regular February/March racing season. I will be travelling to Hartford to climb up the Hartford 21. This race is a bona fide sprint since the building only has 36 floors and the building is only 134 meters tall. This course suits me quite well because I consider myself to be very competitive for races under 150 meters.

A few days ago, I expected this race to be between me and my friend David Tromp for gold. He holds the course record (3:15) and I know he'll be at the race to defend his title*. However, after looking at the starting lineup, it turns out that both Sproule Love and Tim Donahue will be at the race! Now it looks like it will be a fight just to get on the podium.
*Dave and I are planning to carpool to the race together, so he'd better show up :)

All three of these guys have manhandled me in one way or another this season. Sproule whooped me at both Willis & One Penn Plaza; Tim smoked me at 30 Rock; and David of course has beaten each and every time we've met (ESBRU, Albany, & Philly).

With these three racing, my chances of winning are slim and by rights I should be expecting a 4th place finish. But even though the odds are against me, I still have a shot. Sproule, Tim, and Dave have beaten me in longer races, but we haven't faced each other in a true sprint. I'm built for power and my training is centered on short bursts of speed. In my mind, the slate is wiped clean and I should stand on equal footing in this race. So bring it on, I'm not settling for 4th :)
Here are my expectations:
  • Expected finish - 3:20 (assuming no fancy hallways or running)
  • Goal - 3:15 (course record)

Race Day
Sproule Love won the race pretty handily, but I pulled off an unlikely upset, narrowly edging out both Tim and David for a solid 2nd place. See the race results here.
As you can see the top 4 times were within 20 seconds of each other and 2nd through 4th place was determined by only 6 seconds!

Race day started off like most other race days... lots of nerves and very little sleep. I woke up at 3:00 AM and lay in bed until my alarm clock sounded at 5:00 AM.  Fortunately, I was still well rested having had plenty of sleep in the days leading up to the race. I quickly got ready and I hopped in my car right around 5:25 AM. I headed over to Dave's house and we were on the road to Hartford shortly after 6:00 AM.

Although we had just a handful of days with snow this past winter, it started to snow while we were on the road. Fortunately, it wasn't snowing heavily and although it was slow going, we still had plenty of time to make couple pit stops and roll into Hartford before 8:15 AM.
After checking in, Dave met with his team "The Connecticut Healthcare Stair Runners", led by Ray Schneider who knows Dave through the local stair racing circuit. After a few introductions, I was drafted by the team :)
Next Dave and I went into the stairwell to warm up and do some reconnoitering. Here is what I learned:
  • The course starts on the 1st floor (ground floor) and ends on the 35th.
  •  Most floors have 20 steps: 11 steps --> Landing --> 9 steps.
  • The building skips floor 13, but has an extra floor (labeled PH) between the 34 and 35.
  • The steps are between 6.75 and 6.875 inches tall (I always bring a ruler to races).
  • The course turns to the left and the railings are close enough to use both sides. The railings are easy to grip and are the made of the thick tubular stock found in most buildings.
  • The stairwell continues up to floor 36 and the roof. There are a total of 54 steps from floor 35 (the end of the course) to the roof.
  • 100% vertical; no fancy hallways to navigate. The only obstacle was a security gate on the 2nd floor.

I continued my warm-up on the 3rd floor holding area (burpees & jacks) and a few minutes before 9:00 AM our team headed down to the start line.

The hallway was crowded with race volunteers, racers, and the media so it took a few extra minutes to start the race. David summed it up perfectly: "We could have made another bathroom stop before the race!" Once everyone was finally in position, the clock started and David bolted into the stairwell. I followed 20 seconds later.

The race:
I started off quickly, just a bit slower than my regular practice pace*. By the lower teens, I was still going strong, but I did not like how I was climbing. I felt like I was accelerating through the stairs, but losing time changing directions on the landings. No matter how hard I concentrated, I simply couldn't keep one step on the landings. In fact, I often stutter-stepped on the turns, wasting time, energy, and ultimately efficiency.
*My practice pace is usually much faster than race pace since I train in a 7 story building.

By the 25th floor, I was still hanging on but I didn't have the energy willpower to go faster. Instead, I waited until the 30th floor to start my final push. I could hear cheering from the finish line and I knew I had to kick it up a notch. It wasn't much of a push, but I gave it my all by the time I hit floor 34 (two floors to go). Crossing the finish line, I quickly looked at my watch and saw 3:20. I didn't quite reach David's record, but it was still a fast time. I then sat down next to David to see how he fared. He had a solid time of about 3:25. We congratulated each other and then focused on recovering. David busied himself hacking up a lung and I spent my time writhing in pain. My breathing soon turned back to normal, but my arms and legs were burning because of the lactic acid build-up. For comparison, the pain was just as intense as it was in the New Haven and Albany races.

After another 5 -10 minutes, Tim Donahue and Sproule Love finished the race. I went over to greet them and ask how they did. Unfortunately, neither of them brought a watch but Tim claimed that Sproule beat him by a good 20 seconds. At that point, I figured Sproule won the race and I came in 2nd unless Sproule somehow managed to break the 3 minute barrier.
After Sproule, Tim, and David recovered a bit I asked them to make sure we could meet later for a group photo. I was pretty thrilled that three of the top stair climbers in the North East were all in one place!

Sproule and Tim took the elevator downstairs to cheer on the rest of their team, but David and I opted to take the secondary stairwell down*. This gave us a chance to count the number of stairs in the race course. I called out each step and David confirmed my count at the end of each landing. Unsurprisingly, the published number of steps (686) is different than actual count (700).
*All skyscrapers are required to have more than one set of stairs for safety purposes. In 
Hartford 21, the secondary stairwell is basically the same configuration as the racecourse, but turns to the right rather than the left.

After counting the steps, David and I headed back to the 3rd floor lounge to socialize with the other climbers*. At long last I was able to snap a few photos of Sproule, Tim, and David.
*Special note goes to Reese, a raw Vegan who recognized my WCL shirt. He is one of Tim Van Orden's many followers.

East Coast Champions!

After the photos session, I snagged a few Larabars and a banana for the trip home and then headed over to the Black Bear Saloon for the post-race party. The party lasted a bit longer than expected because of the record number of climbers and we were there until about 2:00 PM. Fortunately, I had a good time socializing with my new team mates and the Black Bear provided a buffet for both breakfast AND lunch! I also had an opportunity to hang out with Sproule and Tim's older brother Bill (a fast climber in his own right).

Team Donahue!

Partying with the Connecticut Health Care Stair Runners
And the Winner is... Spoule Love!
Here are my final thoughts about the race:
  • Climbing technique is vastly different in a sprint climb compared to a longer climb. I can easily keep one foot on landings when going at a slow pace, but it becomes exponentially more difficult the faster I climb. This makes a bit of sense because my legs are moving much faster during a sprint. I'm also going so fast, my body is overcoming significantly more centripetal force when turning around the stairwell. As a reference point, I climbed each stair case in less than 6 seconds (3 seconds per landing) at this climb. However at the Willis tower I climbed each floor in about 10 seconds (5 seconds per landing). I've got to learn how to take turns more efficiently (or at least more quickly) during a sprint.
  • Grades: Strategy = A; Exertion = A-; Technique = B-; Overall = A-;
  • Based on my measurements, the real height of the course is between 120 and 125 meters.
  • The race organizers should have kept about 10 or 15 seconds between each climber rather than 20. That would have sped up the race while keeping the stairwell traffic at a reasonable level.
  • I'm happy that I was able to keep up with the likes of Dave Tromp and Tim Donahue at this race. Although Sproule set the new course record, he was only 4% faster than me. For comparison, at One Penn Plaza Sproule was 12% faster and at Willis he was 22% faster! Although I'm a bit better than I was a few months ago, this race shows that I'm no longer the underdog when it comes to sprinting. I can't wait for Bennington in May which is an even shorter race!
  • I had a lot of fun hanging out with David over the last few races. I'm hoping he'll be able to tackle the Willis Tower later this year. 

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