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.