Saturday, November 9, 2013

Third Time is the Charm

Just like I mentioned in this post, I have been worrying about the Willis (aka Sears) Tower race for several weeks. When I finished the climb, all that stress melted away and for the first time in recent memory, I felt stress free.

The workouts leading to the race were a mixed bag. I had had a seriously kick-ass workout on Tuesday when I set a new PB on my Precor Climber, but broke down mentally during my 15 minute rowing session on Thursday - my last full workout before the race. During that rowing session, I quit when I hit the 12 minute mark. Although I was in some serious pain (i.e. my heart rate was jacked) I know I could of lasted another 3 minutes. But instead, a little voice in my head kept saying "It's okay to stop and rest - you have a race in a few days". Eventually that little voice won out, and believe it or not, I'm still upset that I quit. I would have preferred to end my last workout on a mentally strong note. Instead, I found myself second guessing my mental toughness.

On Friday, I did 25 minutes of light sets of pacing intervals on my practice staircase, just to get my body used to the slower pace I'd be doing at Sears. It was hard enough to get my blood pumping, but slow enough to make sure I wouldn't trash my legs.*

*On Fridays I usually climb for an hour. To get my hour of exercise in without impacting my climbing muscles, I also did 7 rounds of push-ups and 5 rounds of core exercises and 2 rounds of stretches.

That evening, my family drove me to the Schenectady train station and I got on Amtrak's "Lakeshore Limited" and headed West toward Chicago.

The ride was dreadful. Although the seats were pretty spacious, some of the passengers were just plain awful. One lady wouldn't stop talking/swearing on her cell phone even at 1:00 AM in the morning. Another wouldn't stop chatting with her neighbor and I (and the rest of the train car for that matter) learned FAR more than I wished to know about her personal life*. Even with earplugs I had trouble getting to sleep. To add to my misery, I found it difficult to find a comfortable position to sleep in without hurting my neck or back. The last straw was 3 hour delay, which ruined any chance of taking a sight seeing-trip around Chicago.

Ecstasy (the drug), prostitution, losing custody of her daughter, rehab, divorce, welfare, etc... I wish I was making this up.

I finally arrived in Chicago just before 1:00 PM after spending 17+ hellish hours on the train. Since I arrived so late, I had to rush to the Sears tower in order to get my bib before the 2:00 PM deadline. Fortunately, my luck had turned and I ran into my friends Mark, Napoleon, Syd, Thomas, and Steve at the race check-in. Some of us went for a quick bite of lunch and later, I hung out with Syd before heading over to "Lou Manati's" Pizzeria for the West Coast Labels team dinner.

At dinner I was able to see many of my stair climbing friends including my Chicago hosts David Hanley & Kelley Rice as well as my New York home boys Michael Karlin & David Tromp. Unlike two years ago, I knew almost everyone who attended the team dinner. What a difference two years makes*! After we finished with dinner, I participated in the first ever WCL talent show. I did a little bit of juggling (which I'm not very good at) and spun a few plates (which I'm pretty good at). Although I was nervous and distracted by all the lights, it was a lot of fun. Plus, I had a chance to see a bunch of other people's talents: more juggling by Mark and Josh, artwork by Oz and Napoleon, plus my favorite act of the night, a stair-climbing rap by Leland.

*If you have time to kill, you can read about my first experience at a WCL team dinner here.

When it was finally time to leave the restaurant, David drove me back to his place and we (Roxanne, Will, David, Kelley, and I) just hung out until it was time to go to bed.

I went over my racing logic one last time before going to sleep. Last year I set my metronome at 85 BPM and had to slow down during the latter half of the race. According to my post race analysis, I probably should have used 84 BPM in the race. On the other hand, my pre-race calculations* indicated that I'd only need 79 BPM to hit my goal time of 15 minutes. Therefore, decided to compromise and use 82 BPM for tomorrow's race. Considering I was in slightly better shape than one year ago, I felt that this pace would be conservative enough to maintain throughout the entire race. In addition, I memorized my time splits to make sure I'd be on track during the race:

  • 25th floor @ 3:45 
  • 51st floor @ 7:30
  • 77th floor @ 11:15

*Pre-race calculation assumptions:
  • 2132 total steps with 20 steps on a typical floor
  • 890 vertical seconds plus an additional 10 seconds to account for horizontal hallways, twists, & turns
  • 11 footfalls per 20 step floor (which includes an extra step on the landings when I land on my outside foot)
103 Floors of Pain
Photo by M. Pedersen
The next morning, we arrived at Sears about 20 minutes before the start of the race. Inside the building, I greeted a few other climbers and began my warm-up session in earnest: A few minutes of active stretching & jumping jacks followed by two sets of burpees spaced a few minutes apart. I dropped off my personal belonging with Kelley (thank you!) and made my way to the start line with just a few minutes to spare.

The start line was crowded* and chaotic. But even so, we more or less still managed to sort ourselves out in order of climbing ability. Some of the big names ahead of me were Justin, Tim, Oz, David, Cindy, Jesse, and at least one German.

*Although I wanted to get in a quick set of burpees in, there just wasn’t any room.

Standing in line helped calm my nerves since I knew most of the other climbers and could chit-chat and wish people luck while waiting. On the other hand, I lacked the killer instinct & focus I wanted to have at the start of the race. I guess my primary emotion was a sense of relief that I’d be finally be climbing the Sears Tower; I’d been worrying about this race for weeks!

The race finally started a couple minutes past 7:00 AM*. Racers would start every seven seconds, so I had less than a minute to prepare myself. Although my killer instinct was AWOL, I still felt I was going to have a good race; I was in top shape and I had a solid game plan. Plus, I knew the real race wouldn’t begin until floor 51.

*I felt proud that my friend David Tromp had the honor of starting first in race.

I looked around for Thomas Scott, my biggest rival in the U.S. stair-climbing rankings. Fortunately he was starting several spots behind me so I didn’t have to worry about racing head-to-head with him in the stairwell*.  Therefore, I would need to keep my eye on the climber right behind me, Jason Larson, who also wanted to finish the race in about 15 minutes.

*I’d much rather climb by myself in a stairwell rather than race head-to-head.

I set my metronome to 82 BPM, set my watch, and entered the stairwell. I climbed the first few floors effortlessly and the pace seemed far too easy. I could hear Jason below me and by the time we hit the 5th floor he was right behind me. I was just about to let him pass when I realized that he wasn’t gaining any more ground. “Great.”, I thought,  “He is going to mark me the entire way up... letting me do all the work to set the pace.” For a moment I panicked, thinking that I’d be in trouble if I started a head-to-head race. But I quickly reminded myself that the race doesn’t start until the 51st floor. Therefore I kept climbing to my own rhythm and focused on climbing as efficiently as possible.

Somewhere in the 20s I noticed another racer behind us in the stairwell. Glancing down, I saw it was a girl. I guessed it was Alice McNamera, a member of the Australian national rowing team and the 2011 Empire State Building Run-up (ESBRU) champion. Slowly but surely she was catching up. Several floors later, she passed Jason and after another few flights I let her pass me on the inside. She thanked me for letting her pass and from the sound of her Australian accent, I confirmed it was indeed Alice. I contemplated telling her to slow down a bit since at this rate she was on pace for a high 13’s or low 14’s* which is fast by even men’s standards. Instead, I decided to hold my tongue. Who was I to tell an Olympic caliber athlete how to climb? If anyone could crush the women’s record it would be her. So, as I let her by I told her to “Go for the record!"

*I knew that Alice started the race at least 14 seconds behind me since she started at least a couple spots behind me. Since Alice passed me roughly a quarter of the way into the race, that meant her current predicted time was about a minute faster than mine.

At that point I had a choice – either keep up with Alice or stick to my metronome. Again I reminded myself that the race wouldn’t start until the 51st floor. Therefore, I decided to keep my current pace in order to conserve energy and reduce the risk of blowing up too soon (as I did at the US Bank Tower). Alice slowly climbed out of sight leaving Jason and I to duke it out on the stairs.

I hit my first checkpoint* - the 25th floor - right around 3:38. I was a little bit ahead of schedule. This made sense since I was putting a single foot on the landings more often than not. This gave me a little bit of encouragement since I still felt relatively fresh and my 82 BPM pace seemed to be working.

*I can’t remember if I hit the checkpoint before or after Alice passed me.

Things went pretty smoothly all the way until the 2nd checkpoint on the 51st floor. I had dropped Jason a good 10 floors back, even though I dialed back my pace a hair. I glanced down at my watch and I was sitting right about 7:25 which meant I was still a little bit ahead of schedule. By this point I was double stepping the landings more frequently than before, but I still felt I had enough energy to keep up the pace. Now the real race was on!

Cruising up near the 60s, I could hear someone breathing up ahead. I could tell it was a girl and it sounded like she was having a tough time. At first I assumed I was catching up to Alice, but several floors later I realized the heavy breathing belonged to Cindy Harris, the Sears Tower record holder and multiple time ESBRU champion. Although she sounded like she needed a double lung transplant, she still seemed to be climbing efficiently. Even though Alice was well ahead of her at this point, Cindy was still attacking the stairwell, pulling on the rails and taking two steps at a time. A couple of floors later I slipped by her on the landing and continued marching to the beat of the metronome.

The 70s were pretty challenging. I was getting tired and my technique was getting sloppy; I was double stepping the landings much more often than not. When I checked my watch at the 3rd checkpoint on the 77th floor, I was at 11:16, a second behind my goal time. It was an instant wake-up call. In order to break the 15 minute mark, I would have to make up some ground in the final - and hardest - section of the race. It was going to be tough, but if I could kick it up a notch on the last few floors, I’d have a chance. I knew it was a big if.

In the lower 80s (if I remember right) I caught back up to Alice. I could tell she was struggling. As I passed her I felt a twinge of sympathy since I knew her chances of breaking the course record were slowly slipping away and there wasn’t much she could do about it at this point in the climb. I couldn’t even offer a word of encouragement since I was pushing pretty hard myself and my throat was parched – so dry that I grabbed a cup of water from the race volunteers and took a sip before placing the cup back on the stairs.

Although my pace was still solid, I knew I was bleeding time on each landing. If I didn’t do something soon, I wasn’t going to break 15 minutes. I originally planned to make my move somewhere in the mid-90s, but as I approached the 88th floor* I knew that I could handle a faster pace for the remainder of the race. I immediately kicked it up a notch. By the time I reached the mid-90s, I knew was going to break 15 minutes and a sense of relief started to creep in. Although I was nearing my limit, I knew I could hold on.

*Some might say that 88 is a very auspicious number.

I sprinted up the final few floors, confident that I would break 15 minutes, but slightly disappointed that I held so much in reserve. Surprisingly enough, I caught up to Oz somewhere near the 101st floor. Even though he wasn’t having the race he wanted to have, he still offered up a word of encouragement as I passed by. My legs finally started to give out on the last couple flights. I crossed the line and crumpled to the ground. I looked down at my watch and stopped the timer at 14:57, estimating that my official time  would be somewhere between 14:50 and 14:55.  Unlike my last race at US Bank, I was able to move a minute or two after I collapsed. Now that I could think straight, I was pretty thrilled about breaking the 15 minute barrier.
Sprinting to the line
Photo by J. Harris
Tired, but Still Jacked!
Photo by K. Rice

For the next 30 minutes or so I hung out with all my climbing friends at the top of the tower. After consulting some of my climbing peers, I soon learned that my time was likely good enough for 5th place overall! You can see the final results here.

The Gang's all Here!
Photo courtesy of Madeleine, my inspiration for this race
After the race, I spent time with my friends David, Kelley, and Michael. After a quick shower at David’s house and a bit of lunch at Chipotles*, we headed to the Fermilab for the afternoon. At the lab, I learned a bit about Quarks & Leptons and took a tour of the particle accelerator lab where they make proton beams. What a cool experience!

Three Amigos
Sci-Fi fun at the Fermilab
*On our initial attempt to find Chipotles, the GPS brought us to the corporate office. Fortunately we stumbled across an actual restaurant on our way to the lab.

Photos of the Fermilab courtesy of Kelley and David.

After the lab, we went out to eat at a local Thai restaurant and then David drove me back to the Union Station to catch the "Lakeshore Limited" back to Schenectady*. All in all, it was a great weekend. The pressure over the last few weeks was worth it!

*Fortunately the ride back was far more pleasant than my initial trip.

Final Thoughts:
Effort: B; I didn’t push myself hard enough from floors 51 through 88. Likewise, I didn’t sprint hard enough for the last dozen or so floors. I was definitely suffering in the 70s, but since I was able to push the pace from floors 88 onwards, it means I raced too conservatively in the lower sections of the race. Another indication was that it only took me a few minutes to recover after the race.
Strategy: A+; 82 BPM was a solid choice for my pace. I kept me from blowing up near the end of the race.
Technique: A-; I had pretty even splits throughout the climb, although my technique started to get sloppy in the middle of the race. Choosing not to race with Jason & chase after Alice were smart tactical choices.
Overall: A; I have to be pleased with my climb. Not only did I break 15 minutes, but I count myself lucky to have come in ahead of the likes of Thomas, David, Oz, Alice, and Cindy. This might not have been my best race ever, but it certainly was one of my smartest ones.
Final Comments: This building is challenging, but I’m starting to get the hang of it.  I may have raced a little bit too conservatively this time around, but honestly it was a pretty good strategy. I’d rather have a little bit of energy at the end of a race and have sprint to catch up than to burn out near the top and bleed time. If I could do the race again, I think I would try 83 BPM with a goal time of 14:30. However, I’d have to dig really deep to keep the pace through the latter half of the race.