Friday, November 7, 2014

Duel on the 95th Floor

Die Nazi Bastard.

That pretty much sums up the train ride to Chicago.

The woman sitting ahead of me had a nasal voice reminiscent of Fran Dreshner from “The Nanny”.  But other than her voice, this woman was Fran’s diametric opposite – old, ugly, and mean.
I never quite figured out why she constantly asked for the time. After all, she used her smart phone on multiple occasions – and even I know that all modern phones have a time display*. From her loud conversations, she made it quite clear that she hated children (especially the “brat” sitting in front of her) and that she was “too good” for men (which explains why she is still single).

*I only use a cell phone when traveling and my cell phone might have been considered modern maybe 10 years ago.

When she wasn’t on the phone, she asked everyone around her when the train was going to arrive at the next station. You see, she suffered from Bronchitis and Emphysema (which I deduced from her non-stop coughing fits) and she declared that she needed to have a smoke break. Immediately.
I had to laugh when she proclaimed to the entire car that she was traveling in Hell. She took the words right out of my mouth!

I changed seats for a few hours to get away from all the noise and I managed to get a few hours of sleep. But apparently, my new seat was already claimed and when the owners returned, I was kicked out and had to go back to my original seat.

*I’d like to point out that when I initially switched seats I *did* ask the nearby passengers to make sure I wasn’t sitting in someone else’s seat. Clearly they were mistaken. When the owners finally returned (around 2:00 AM) I wasn’t about to argue with a couple of 6’3”, 200+ lb gentlemen.

I put in my ear plugs and dozed for a while, but when she yelled “Die Nazi bastard!” it was enough to wake up the dead (it was after all, Halloween night)*. 

*I can only assume she was watching the film “Dead Snow” on her smartphone.

At 4:00 AM I finally told her “Please be quiet until the sun rises” to which she replied “Leave me alone, I’m not feeling well!”


Afterward, I managed to close my eyes for a couple hours and even managed a short nap. But by 6:30 AM, the she-devil’s questions resumed in earnest.

The remainder of the trip went by fairly quickly. Although I was sleep-deprived, the old lady’s nonsensical self-conversations were quite amusing. Plus, she left the train car for a few extended periods (presumably to bother other people) and I was able to read a couple hundred pages of the “The Princess Bride” uninterrupted.

When the train finally arrived at Union Station, I met my friend (and host) David Hanley in the waiting area and together we headed to the Sears (Willis) Tower to pick up our racing bibs. At the pickup area we met up with Jason Larson and a few of his friends from Minneapolis. Since it was lunch time we decided to grab a bite to eat at Lou Mitchell's, an old-school Chicago eatery.

We were all pretty nervous about the upcoming race so four of us (Jason, Jessica, David and I) decided to kill time by taking a walk along the lake shore. Traffic turned out to be pretty heavy around Soldier Field since there was a pretty serious Rugby match starting between the All Blacks (Kiwis) and the Eagles (yes we do have a US rugby team), but David knew of a secret parking area. During our walk we learned a couple things:
  •  My bladder is quite active when nervous.
  • Rugby fans really like to drink beer and leave their cans lying about.
Good fortune smiled upon us as we came across a hidden stash of bottle water left by the drunken Ruby fans. Just the thing I needed to fuel my hyperactive bladder!
Well If I didn't, someone else would've

Another man's trash is another man's treasure

After our walk, we headed to dinner where we met up with most of our other West Coast Labels team mates. I won’t name everyone at dinner, but rest assured that most of the top climbers were present. Although David and I were some of the last climbers to leave the restaurant, there was enough time to get back to David’s house to unwind before going to sleep.

The next morning, I woke up at 5:30 and quickly readied my racing gear.

Breakfast you ask? 5.3 ounces of Greek yogurt & one large banana.

In the car we could see the Sears (Willis) Tower looming in the distance. A new wave of nervousness rushed over my body, but David and I kept chatting to relieve the tension.

We arrived at Sears (Willis) right at 6:18. T-minus 42 minutes until the start. I set the timer on my watch just to make sure I’d make it to the start line on time.

*Considering I was wearing a watch, you may be wondering why I bothered to set my timer. Answer: I just bought my watch on Friday and it didn’t come with directions. I have yet to figure out how to set the actual time… but I managed to figure out how to use the stop watch feature.

I decided to start my warm-up routine at T-minus 25 minutes. Until then I chatted with a few other climbers I hadn’t seen at dinner the previous night. Strangely enough, I didn’t have to use the bathroom – even though my nerves were taught and starting to fray around the edges.

With the countdown nearing the 25 minute mark, I started my warm-up routine. Five minutes of active stretching (high kicks, etc.) followed by 75 jumping jacks. Then I began my burpee routine to get my heart rate going: Intervals of 12 burpees followed by 2-3 minutes of rest. After my 3rd interval I made my way to the start line. It was already packed, but I managed to snake my way through the crowd to get to the head of the line. Here I met all the other top climbers. After a few greetings and fist bumps, I excused myself for my final round of burpees. T-minus 6 minutes.

Note to self: the starting area is cordoned off by a single strap. Rather than fight through the crowds, next time just duck under the barrier.

Back in line we decided our starting order. In general, this is a pretty straightforward activity; Faster climbers line up before the slower ones in order avoid serious bottlenecks in the stairwell.
Do you recognize the water bottle?
For example, even though Justin Stewart (last year’s winner) didn’t really want to go first, nobody else wanted to go in front. We all knew we’d have to get out of his way pretty early in the race to let Justin pass by, which could potentially cost either racer a few precious seconds. Justin basically had to go first since he couldn’t find anyone willing to start in front.

However, there is a bit of strategy that comes into play for some of the other contested spots. By rights, I should have gone third – behind Eric Leninger, another former winner who is right up there with Justin – but I knew Ralf Hascher wanted a shot at the final podium spot. I knew he was going to be a big threat since he was only seconds behind me at the U.S. Championships at the Stratosphere. As such, I encouraged Ralf to go third so I could go 4th. My logic was as follows:
I assumed Ralph would push pace early and would pass me pretty early in the race if I in front. Not only would that pass cost me precious seconds, I would then have to play catch up and pass him on the later floors in order to take the final podium spot. No easy feat.  I’d much rather start behind Ralf so I could climb up at my own pace for the majority of the race - until catching up to him, that is J.

Starting behind me would be a few of my other fast climbing friends. Knowing their relative climbing strengths I figured it was probably something like Oz, Jason, Josh, & Thomas but I don’t know for sure – my eyes were focused ahead rather than behind.

After a few quick announcements, the race was on. I thought they were supposed to start the elites about 7 seconds apart, but for the first few racers at least, they only gave us about 5 seconds. I crossed the timing mat about 15 seconds behind Justin.


Since this past spring, it has been an uphill battle to get back into shape (no pun intended). I was sick for a big part of the racing season and I was dreadfully out of shape when the Hartford race rolled around this past April. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was and how long it took to get back any semblance of racing fitness.

But I did it.

By September I my stairwell times had finally dropped and in October I was able to set a few training PRs. In the days leading up to Sears (Willis) I was pretty much where I was before I got sick last February.

So keeping that in mind, I set my goal pace at 14:30. Last year I posted a 14:53 at Sears (Willis) and since I was in slightly better shape, I figured I had a pretty good shot at breaking this goal. Other than that, I simply wanted to beat last years’ time – although I’d still be happy as long as I broke the 15 minute mark.

Now back to the race…

As I entered the stairwell, I set my metronome to 83 beats per minute, just a single BPM faster than last year. As long as I kept one foot on most of the landings, I knew that pace should get me pretty close to my goal*. To see my pacing logic, you may wish to read last year’s race recap.

*For those of you who are wondering what I’m talking about when I mention “metronomes “and “keeping one foot on the landings”, here is a short explanation: I use a metronome to keep my pace. On every beat of the metronome, I take one stride - usually taking two steps at a time. Keeping this pace is pretty easy on a straight flight of stairs, but really difficult when the staircase turns. The landing is the platform between each flight of stairs and in order to turn the corner really fast, you want to step on the landing (preferably with your inside foot) and then pivot around the handrail. When you place both feet on the landing, you often waste a whole beat on the turn, which slows you down.

The first few floors felt pretty easy. In fact, I managed to keep one foot on the landings even when pivoting on my outside (wrong) foot. As I progressed upward, I completely lost sight of Ralf, but I could see and hear Oz a couple flights below. I told myself not to panic because this was to be expected. I just hoped I could stay ahead of Oz for a little while longer. I didn’t want to start playing the leapfrog game with Ralf still ahead of us both.

A few minutes ticked by and I approach floor 25, roughly a quarter way up the building. To be on track for breaking 14:30, I wanted to hit the floor around 3:38. I was surprised to learn that I was pretty far ahead of pace – clocking in somewhere in the 3:20s (I can’t remember my specific time). Apparently my turning technique on the landings was really paying off.

At this point, I was still feeling okay, but my heart rate was already peaking. I knew I could continue for at least a few more minutes, but I wasn’t sure I could keep up the pace through the upper levels. I decided to start double stepping the landings anytime I landed on my outside foot, which should occur once every other landing. This was an easy concession; single stepping each landing was getting progressively more difficult as I was getting winded*.

*Single stepping the landings is faster, but it is also more tiring.

I glance down somewhere in the upper 20s or 30s expecting to see Oz hot on my tail. However, surprisingly enough it wasn’t Oz trailing me, but someone else I didn’t even recognize (I later discovered that it was racer #1045 – Evan Honse). I could feel his presence slowly closing the gap, but somehow I managed to stay a couple flights ahead.

I checked my watch at floor 51, pretty close to the midpoint of the race. I was right at 7:12 - just a few seconds ahead of my goal pace. I was pretty happy to still be on track, but warning bells were starting to ring. I had eaten through most of my cushion which meant my current pace was too slow. I didn’t really dwell on the fact – since my heart rate was sky high – I just kept climbing to the beat of my metronome.

In the upper 60s, I was pretty much climbing by myself. I lost contact with racer #1045 a little while back and Ralf was nowhere in sight. I was having a hard time concentrating on my technique. I was still handling the straight flights fairly well, but I was double stepping most of the landings. I kind of felt like I was hitting each and every landing on the wrong foot – although I know that can’t possibly be true. I was definitely bleeding time on the landings, but I didn’t really how much time it was costing me. I glanced at my watch. 9:41. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing goal wise, but it meant I only had about 5 more minutes of suffering to go.

I anxiously waited for floor #77 (the upper quarter) to see how far off I was from my goal pace. I was supposed to be around 10:53, but I figured that as long as I was close to 11 minutes, I still had a chance to make up lost time in the final sprint. In the early 70s I glanced at my watch again to see if I was anywhere near on pace. 9:41. that seemed pretty good.

It took me a couple more flights for that to sink in. Crap. My watch had stopped!

I didn’t panic. Although I was climbing blind (pace wise) I still had my metronome to keep me company. Plus, I was so tired by this point I didn’t really have any brain cells functioning to properly worry. It was all I could do just to hold on to my current pace.

I passed by floor #77 and I was nearing the home stretch. I couldn’t see Ralf ahead of me, but I could hear the volunteers cheering for him. I was finally closing the gap.

In the mid-80s, I could finally smell blood. Ralf was only a couple flights ahead of me. By the time we hit the 90s, I was right behind him. Our duel began in earnest.

Granted, my heart and lungs were beyond the point of no return and I couldn’t even speak, but my legs – the most effective weapons in my climbing arsenal – were still feeling pretty fresh. I surged ahead in the lower 90s but Ralf wouldn’t budge. He countered my blow with a jolt of acceleration and we climbed together for a few more floors. I tried to pass again with just under 10 floors to go, but yet again, Ralf wouldn’t move over. I couldn’t go around him easily on the stair case because the flights were too short. In addition, the railings were too close together to afford any room to pass. Ralf climbed even faster to fend of my most recent attack.

We cruised into the upper 90s and I pressured Ralf to go faster by keeping the distance between us as close as possible. He surged ahead and I matched his acceleration with a burst of speed of my own. I gave up trying to pass. It would cost too much energy to physically force my way through and clearly Ralf still had a little bit in the tank left to try and stop me. But I still held the advantage; as long as Ralf couldn’t drop me, victory would be mine – I had 5 second cushion and all I needed to do was defend my position.

Ralf made one last attempt to break free as we approach triple digits but I followed close behind. Together we burst out of the stairwell on the 103rd floor. I had won our duel!

Before I collapsed to the ground, I took a look at the official race clock. It read 15:02, so calculated that I had finished in about 14:47. I had missed my 14:30 goal, but I beat my time from last year, so I was still pretty happy. Not only that, but I had managed to place ahead of both Oz and Ralf so my chances for a podium spot were looking good.

I lay on the ground for a couple minutes as other racers started to filter in. Although I was exhausted and my lungs burned, it only took a couple minutes to pick myself off the floor. For the next half an hour or so I chatted with other climbers and posed for photos on the Sky Ledge. Eventually David and I decided to go back down to the bottom and try to get in a 2nd climb*.

*Yeah, you read that right - that’s what climbers do for fun.

At the bottom, we checked out our official times. My time was 14:45 and I was currently in 3rd place! Even though there were still hundreds of climbers left to climb, I was pretty confident my podium spot would hold. Nearly all the competitive climbers had already climbed and since the stairwell gets pretty crowded, it would take a very strong athlete (like Justin or Eric) to post a 14:45 or less - passing people costs precious time and saps energy.

We bumped into Oz and Sue at the bottom.  They managed to sneak into the stairwell for a 2nd attempt and were still full of energy and excitement - hard to believe, right? But true! Our prospects were looking good for a 2nd climb.

We stood in line for about 15 minutes and were only seconds away from entering the stairwell when one of the volunteers approached us and forbade us from entering the stairwell. He told us, “You aren’t supposed to climb the building more than once. Sorry but I can’t let you climb again.” I don’t know how he knew it we had already climbed. Personally, I’m blaming David… they probably recognized his West Coast Labels shirt :)

But our wait wasn’t all for naught. While standing in line we did get a chance to get our picture taken in front of the Green Screen.

Eventually a group of us decided to go back to Lou Mitchell's for breakfast. I was hungry, and I happily accepted a couple donut holes (thanks Lou!) and an extra helping of fried potatoes (thanks Madeline!).

After breakfast, David and I headed back to his house for a quick shower and lunch. We talked about our most recent adventures and checked the final race results online. I barely managed to hold on to 3rd place (Yes!) and David easily made the top 50. In fact, he set a PR by 61 seconds. Amazing! You can see the final results here.

The afternoon passed by quickly and soon enough it was time to go out for a bite of dinner. We met up with Sue, Madeline, and Marisol in Chinatown and found a nice restaurant to eat, relax, and socialize. After dinner, David dropped me off at Union Station to catch the overnight train.
We DID NOT eat here

The train ride home was thankfully uneventful. Not only was I able to sleep uninterrupted, but I was able to polish off the final few chapters of “The Princess Bride”. The train arrived in Schenectady around 4:45 PM the next day - only about 2.5 hours late. I hit the gym around 5:15.

Gotta keep my weapons sharp.

Effort: B+. Although it was all I could do to hold on in the 70s, I had a little bit left in the tank near the end of the race. I recovered a little too quickly to give myself an “A”.

Strategy: B+. My pacing was okay. I went out a little too fast and bled time later in the race. But it was good enough to prevent bonking at the top. I liked starting behind Ralf because it took some of the pressure off. However, that strategy fell apart when I was bottle necked in the mid-90s. It would have been much easier to pass in the mid-80s (where the rails are farther apart and the flights longer). Maybe I should have taken Justin’s offer to start first?

Technique: B-. I lost a lot of time double stepping the landings. I was sloppy from floor 30 onward.

Overall: B. If this was my first time climbing, I would have given myself a B+, but this was my 4th time in the building. I made basically the same mistakes I did last year.

Final Thoughts: Although Ralf wouldn’t let me pass on the upper floors, I’m not angry. I did the same thing at the Stratosphere back in 2013. Anyway, he increased the pace each time I got close enough to pass, so I didn’t lose too much time. You can’t fault someone for racing, especially in a narrow stairwell at full speed. It comes with the territory.

If I were to do this race again, I’d probably keep my metronome at 83 BPM and pay special attention to the landings. I’d want to make sure I’d single step the landings at least once every other landing. Another possibility would be to use David’s step pattern (essentially single stepping the steps near the landings) and increase my overall pace to account for the slower turns. Food for thought.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Training Time #2: Interval Training

Although stair climbing is becoming more popular, there exists very little literature devoted to training for stair climbing races.

I've decided to take matters into my own hands and publish some of my own stair climbing work-outs. This is my second post in (hopefully) a series of posts devoted to training for a stair climbs. 

For Training Time #2, I've decided to share a few of my interval training workouts. These workouts focus on increasing anaerobic threshold and VO2 max*, which I consider to be the #1 ingredients to stair climbing performance.

*which is just a fancy way to say building up the heart & lungs.

Click here to download a few of my interval training routines  (via Google Docs).

This document is a work in progress, so comments are always welcome; I'm always looking to learn and incorporate new things.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Climbing & Cruising

Vacations really disrupt my workout schedule and eating habits. This year's cruise to St. Martin and St. Thomas was no exception.

Having taken a cruise before, I knew that overeating was going to be my biggest challenge - and it was. There is so much  food available at every hour of the day I couldn't help myself. Sure, I still ate plenty of fruits and vegetables, but I didn't pass up any opportunity for dessert and I tried pretty much everything my taste buds desired. I left the dinning room uncomfortably full after each and every meal. Yes, I felt guilty, but I still will have fond memories of all the fried sweet plantains and slices of English bacon that I consumed.

In order to offset my feelings of guilt about overeating, I vowed to keep up my regular training schedule. To that end, I squeezed in a short workout before I went to the airport at the start of vacation and did on an uphill bike ride & push-up session the evening I returned.

Exercising at home is easy, but while I was away from home I had to be a bit creative. Here are a few of the things I did to keep in shape while traveling.
  • I did a hard stair climbing session (stairwell sprints) in the hotel I stayed at before getting on the cruise ship. The stairwell was very hot & humid (being in Miami) but I took my breaks in the air-conditioned hotel. Table 1 shows a comparison between my practice staircase and the hotel's stairwell. You can see the stairwells are significantly different, and it was fun* to try something new. Here is what I noticed:
    • All the extra turns in a shorter stairwell significantly slowed down my overall speed.
    • Using double rails gives a pretty good upper back workout compared with using only single rails. Although I didn't really notice during the workout, my back muscles were sore the following day.
    • My quads never really gave out during this workout, even though I took relatively shorter breaks. I believe this was a combination of:
      • Slower ascent times (i.e. less power used) because of all the turns.
      • More upper body power utilized because of the double rails.
      • Relatively shorter overall height.
    • My lungs were pretty raw on the last few ascents, so I know I put in a solid effort.
    • Double rails are great for descending. By grabbing both sides of the rail I could easily take two step at a time. This method was pretty fast and didn't tire out the calves (i.e. no DOMS).
*In the case of stair climbing, the term"fun" and "pain" get kind of mixed up.
  • I did another hard stair climbing workout (stair well sprints) the last day of the cruise. Cruise ships are so tall that you can easily get in a good climbing workout climbing up the main staircase. Table 1 shows a comparison between the cruise ship and my practice stairwell. Here are a few things I experienced:
    • Similar to the hotel's stairwell, I noticed all all the extra turns on the cruise ship's stairwell really slowed down my climbing speed.
    • An annoying issue was that there were people loitering on the staircase - no matter what time of day -  which added a few seconds to many of my ascents.
    • The elevator ride down is fast, but often would fill up with people stopping on every floor. I received a few funny stares.
    • My legs never really gave out. I think the extra resting break, slower ascents (because of the extra turns), and taking the elevator down played a role in keeping my quads fresh.
      Table 1
      (items in yellow are estimated)
  • The fitness center on the cruise ship (Norwegian Getaway) was well equipped and it even had a stepper and a rower. It made going to the gym a lot easier, but I still ran into a few challenges:
    • The stepper wasn't the same brand that I typically use so I had to let my breathing rate be my guide when I did my 5x4 minute intervals. I started off a bit too slow, but by the final interval I was really pushing my limit. 
    • The rower was a blessing. Having a "Concept2" rower really made my day since I was able to replicate my standard rowing workout on the cruise ship.
    • Although the ship advertised TRX cables, Unfortunately, they were only available during a few group fitness classes (which cost extra $$$). The fitness staff was always strangely absent so I never even had a chance to borrow a set. Instead I made do with wall sits, lunges, and goblet squats. I'll need to find another good quad exercise or purchase my own set of cables for travel.
    • The hamstring curl machine was a complete dud. It was in good working order, but it wasn't ergonomically sound. I think only a contortionist would have felt comfortable in that contraption (wish I took a photo). I need to broaden my repertoire of hamstring exercises so this sort of thing doesn't happen again.
When I finally returned home from vacation, I dreaded stepping on the scale. The week-and-a-half long non-stop eating binge should have added a few extra pounds to my waistline. I was in for a big surprise when I hopped on the scale and I was still at my pre-vacation weight!

I'm not sure why the scale didn't budge. I've been struggling with weight all summer and it took a few months (and lots of dedication) just to drop a few pounds. I can only guess that my metabolism was able to keep up with the extra calories because I made it a priority to stay active - which correlates well with my last cruising experience. Great lesson learned - but I'm still glad to be back on my regular healthy diet!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Training Time #1: Gym Workout

Although stair climbing is becoming more popular, there exists very little literature devoted to training for stair climbing races.

I've decided to take matters into my own hands and publish some of my own stair climbing work-outs. This is my first post in (hopefully) a series of posts devoted to training for a stair climbs. 

For Training Time #1, I've decided to share my gym workout, which focuses on building muscle endurance and maintaining muscle strength. Click here to download my full workout (via Google Docs).

This document is a work in progress*, so comments are always welcome; I'm always looking to learn and incorporate new things.

*In fact, I think I've already spotted a slight error! I guess version 1.1 is inevitable...


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pine Bush Triathlon - Lessons Learned

The Pine Bush Triathlon is over. I'm proud that I finished, but I'm a little disappointed with my overall performance. You can see the race results here.

You'll see that I was 13th overall and 5th in my age group. I was only 35 seconds slower than 2nd place in my age group so you can see it was a very competitive heat. I can't be too sad about that.

However, I'm disappointed that I was 2 minutes slower than 3 years ago. What is worse it that each of the three legs was significantly slower. My strong legs (swimming & biking) were just average and my weak leg (the run) was abysmal.

In preparation for the race, I had a light stairwell workout on Friday and took Saturday completely off. However, Saturday was busy and I didn't have time to pick up my packet. In fact, I got home after 11:00 PM on Saturday night. Although I got a few things ready before going to bed, I was still super rushed Sunday morning.

I made it to the bike/run transition to pick up my racing packet in record time. There wasn't any traffic on the road and I picked up my packet and dropped off my sneakers without any hitch. However, on my way to the swim/bike transition, a few things went wrong:

First off, I became disoriented while driving. I ended up retracing my route and then took the long way to the Pine Bush reservoir. It was like getting lost on the way to work. The only explanation for my mistake was that I was nervous and pressed for time.

Secondly, I realized I had forgotten my swimming goggles at home. Because I was running so far behind schedule, I didn't have time to go home to fetch them.

Thirdly, when I finally made it to the start line, I realized that I forgot to retrieve my swim cap from my racing packet! It was still in my car which was parked about a half mile away. Without my bicycle (which was already parked in the transition area) I wouldn't be able to retrieve it before the start of the race.

Fortunately, everything worked out fine. The organizer told me not to worry about my swim cap and I found someone with an extra (albeit old) pair of goggles. This left me with a few precious minutes to relax and warm up.

The Swim (375 yards)

I was in the 4th wave. I got into the water a couple minutes after the 3rd wave, but by that point, everyone else was already in the water. I started off at the rear of the pack and I had to fight through a solid line of swimmers for the 1st 100 yards. I exchanged a few kicks with other swimmers but I slowly managed to break through the pack.. My goggles were barely holding up - I could only see out of my left eye since my right eyepiece was leaking water.

After the 1st buoy, the pack thinned out considerably and I had more or less a clear line to the finish. My heart rate was sky high and I tried to relax a bit but with all the chaos around me I was still gasping for air. In the pool when I do laps, I usually take only one breath every 4 strokes, but during the race I was taking one breath every 2 or three strokes. Although my breathing rate and technique sucked and I didn't swim in a straight line, I still managed to pass a few more people 

I made it out of the water a little more drained than I had wanted, but I still thought I had a decent swim.

I ran to my bike and stepped on a pebble - right on my dreaded Morton's Neuroma. Ouch! my foot throbbed in pain as I thought to myself, "That doesn't bode well for the run!"

I made it to my bike and stood on my towel to change my gear. My feet were wet and dirty, it took forever to get my feet dry, socks on, and cycling shoes ready. Because my body was still wet, I couldn't get on my tank top on properly, and I barely got my arms through (I would later have to adjust it on the run).

Several people passed by me as I struggle with my gear, but finally I was able to get on to my bike.

The Bike (11.5 miles)
It took a few tries to get my shoes clipped into the pedals. I had new shoes* and pedals and I still wasn't used to them. Eventually I got them clipped in and I tightened my shoes as I coasted.

*I received a new pair of mountain biking shoes (extra wide) for my birthday. My old road shoes were too narrow and aggravated my Morton's Neuroma.

Finally I was all set and I took off flying.

I felt pretty strong and I passed quite few people on the Pine Bush bike path. After I got on the highway, I reeled in competitor after competitor. For the next half hour or so I continued at a decent pace, only slowing down when I needed to drink from my water bottle.I caught another couple dozen or so cyclist; I have to admit that passing a few guys with full aero gear was a nice confidence booster.

This was my first time using cycling shoes in a race and I felt they really helped. The biggest benefit was on the short uphills. Not only could stay in the saddle longer, but when I'd need extra power to crest the top of hill, I could employ my hamstrings instead of relying 100% on my quads. 

I slowed down a little bit near the end of the bike leg to get ready for the run. I didn't want to completely trash my legs prior to my weakest discipline. On the final turn I looked back and nobody was within site. Although my legs were a little tired, my heart rate was under control and I was feeling pretty confident.

The Run (3.25 miles)
I put my bike down and took off my biking shoes. I was feeling slightly woozy; apparently biking took a little bit more out of my than I anticipated. No sooner than I had put my first running shoe on, I noticed another racer blow right by me. I quickly put my other shoe on and finish tying my laces. My fingers felt huge and clumsy, but finally I was able to head out of the transition area.

The guy ahead of me was a good 30 yards ahead. I couldn't believe somebody had already passed me. I didn't think anybody was within 30 seconds of me when I looked back on the last straightaway, so needless to say I was surprised.

The first part of the course is a steep downhill and since the course was an in & out loop, I'd have to climb up the hill at the end of the race.

On the downhill my legs felt like jelly. My heart rate and breathing were under control but it was almost like I was stuck in 2nd gear. Even though it was all downhill, I couldn't get any speed.

Within the first quarter mile, I was passed by another two fast runners. I couldn't believe it. I still had three miles to go and assuming the people ahead of me were in my age group, I was sitting in at least 4th place. 

Finally I hit the bottom of the hill. My legs were like lead but surprisingly my left foot was holding up; it was a little numb, but it wasn't painful.

After the first mile, the road flattens out a bit. I knew I couldn't keep up with the two fast runners, but I was keeping up with the guy who initially passed me in the transition area. He was perhaps 50 or so yards ahead of me and the gap was remaining fairly constant.

At the turn around point, another runner passed me (the eventual third place finisher). My legs were finally starting to feel like normal but there wasn't any possible way for me to keep up. My feet were hurting and I had to keep my strides nice and short to compensate.

With about an mile to go, I was passed yet again by another guy in my age group but I managed to keep the gap to less than 30 yards. I was struggling at that point. I was overheating a bit and my heart rate was creeping up. To make matters worse, my left foot was throbbing. It it was so bad that I consciously avoided running on the pavement. Instead, I ran off to the side of the road on the gravelly and grassy areas to avoid the impact.

With a little less than half a mile to go, the final hill was in sight.The guy who initially passed me was maybe 70 yards up ahead and the guy who just passed me was still only about 30 yards ahead.

At the base of the hill I attempted to chase them both down.I can't compete on level ground but running uphill was a lot like climbing stairs and I slowly began reeling them in. However midway up I realized my last minute push wasn't going to be enough because I was quickly running out of pavement. I crested the top of the hill and sprinted as hard I as I could, ignoring the pain in my left foot.

I crossed the line right around 1:14:12, which meant that I finished the course in around 1:05:12 which was a couple minutes slower than a few years ago.I was happy that I managed to finish the run, but honestly I thought my time would have been faster; I know my run was pretty slow, but I really thought I nailed the bike leg.

I hung around for the official race results because at that point I still held out a little bit of hope for an age group award. Who knows, maybe all the people who passed me were in a different age group. However when  learned that I was 5th place in my age group I decided to head back home and take a shower... and ice my foot.

Final Thoughts:
I'd like to do the Pine Bush again but at the same time I know I won't be able to compete if I can't run. For now I'm going to retire from triathlon for a 2nd time, but if I can somehow overcome my foot pain (or at least manage it a little better) I'll probably come back.

At least now I know that getting an age group award is definitely within reach. In fact, if I had a better game plan I might have done so this time around.

  • I only had two practice swim sessions.A few more would have probably shaved off a few seconds.
  • I need to make sure I bring my own goggles, possibly using contact lenses so I can see a little better.
  • Next time I need to start in the front of my heat. I definitely lost a few seconds fighting from the back row.
Swim/Bike Transition:
  • Consider going barefoot with my cycling shoes already attached to my bike (which is difficult because of my foot pain)
  • Definitely need my own foot washing station if I plan to wear socks (which help protect my foot).
  • Having a one piece swim suit would have saved me a good 5-10 seconds since I struggled putting on my tank top.
  • I think my seat needs to be raised a quarter inch or so.
  • Consider aero-bars and wheels (If I can afford it).
  • Consider a cheap hydration system so I don't have to mess around with a water bottle.
  • I haven't biked very much this year. A few extra training rides could help.
Bike/Run Transition:
  • Stretchy no-tie laces would have saved at least 10 seconds.
  • Practice removing my cycling shoes would have shaved off a few seconds, especially if I loosened them while on the bike.
  • Unless my foot miraculously heals, my running won't improve significantly.
  • If I can't increase my running volume, the only improvement I can think of would be to limit my running to only bike/run bricks (to get my legs used to the transition).


  • My fitness levels are good, but I wasn't in tip-top shape. There is some potential improvement here, but not a lot.
  • I'm about 5 pounds heavier than I should be. I'm sure that played a significant role on the hills.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pine Bush Triathlon Preview

Before I started competing in stair climbs, I raced in several editions of the Pine Bush Triathlon. It is a true sprint with a short 375 yard swim, a 11.5 mile bike ride, and a 3.25 mile run. When I first started doing the Pine Bush, I had pretty decent splits, but I was nowhere near the top athletes. But year after year, I slowly improved as I started to take the race more seriously. I did a lot more cycling and I worked at getting more efficient in the pool (I was already a pretty decent swimmer). However the biggest challenge was always the run.

Running wasn't always my weakness, bun I never really excelled at it either. I did track and cross-country in high school and although I was typically somewhere in the middle of the pack, I was closer to the front of it during my senior year. I stopped running once I got into college. I wasn't very good at running and I lacked the motivation to exercise. I picked up running again briefly in my mid 20's but I hurt my knee and took a few years off. In my late 20s and early 30s, I ran a few local 5Ks and then tried my hand at the Pine Bush Triathlon. Running was an off and on again love affair; I'd train well for a few months and then have to take a few months off because one thing or another (injury, work, etc.).

At 34, I kicked up my training into high gear. I had just finished my first stair climb and I knew I had found my niche. That summer I was in the best shape of my life and I wanted to finally kick some tail at the Pine Bush. But as luck would have it, my right foot developed nerve damage - a condition called a Morton's Neuroma - and running became painful. I decided to grit out the Pine Bush since I was in such great shape, even though my running performance (which was mediocre at best) was slowly fading.

I managed to set a PB at the Pine Bush that year, but I was still disappointed in my performance. I finally made it into the top 20, but I had a poor run. I was passed a couple times during the final mile and I missed out on an age group award by just a few spots.

After the race I hung up my running shoes for good. If I couldn't put in training miles for the run, I'd never have a shot at a good placement.Fortunately, I didn't matter too much; Stair climbing was my new passion and I was training intensely to get good at it..

This Spring I decided to come out of retirement to give the Pine Bush one more go. Although my foot hasn't healed, it hasn't gotten any worse over the last few years. The idea of giving the Pine Bush another go came to me while I was recovering from an extended illness. By late April, I had lost a huge chunk of fitness and I wanted to try something new to help get me motivated and back into shape. Preparing for another triathlon seemed like a reasonable goal.

My training hasn't been all that much different than usual. I still get into the stairwell once per week and still do interval training on the Preccor Stepper. The only big change is that I've incorporated a little bit of running on my recovery days.

When I say a little bit of running, I mean it.

On Wednesdays I've been doing 5 sets of:

  • 2.25 minutes on the treadmill (at 6.5 to 7.1 mph)
  • 45 seconds of either push-ups or pull-ups (keeping the treadmill running at a 4 mph)

The pull-up/push-up breaks up the run so my foot doesn't start to hurt. Plus it really jacks up the heart rate. All together, I get in about 1.5 miles in about 15 minutes.

On Sundays, I'll go for a slightly longer 2.5 mile run. I've run outside a few times but generally I like to stay on the treadmill since it puts less pressure on my nerve. Just like on Wednesday, I break up the run into smaller chunks to make sure my foot doesn't start to hurt.Generally I'll do intervals of running for 2.5 minutes followed by a 30 second break (where I either walk or shake out my foot). Usually I'll finish in about 24 minutes or so.

So with less than 48 hours until the start of the Pine Bush Triathlon I'm getting nervous. I'm in fairly decent shape so I know I'm going to have a good bike ride and I should have a decent swim (I've only been in the pool twice, but felt quite strong). The wildcard is going to be the run. If my foot hurts, it could take as long as 32 minutes to complete the run (since I'll have to run/walk). On the other hand, I'm in such better shape  now than I was 3 years ago, that breaking my time from 2011 (24+ minutes at ~8 mph) isn't out of the question.

Win or lose, I'm looking forward to retiring from triathlon for a 2nd time. It's been fun, but my nerve can't take much more and I have my eyes set on the Sears Tower in November.I'm still not back in peak shape, but I have another few months of training to get better. I'll need it!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Curse of the Bambino

My trip to Boston to climb up One Boston Place (aka Boston Company Building and home of BNY Mellon) was not particularly satisfying, but I learned a few things in the process which made it a worthwhile trip. I can’t complain*.

*I lied. I will complain, but I’ll try not to go overboard.

The weeks leading up to the race were challenging. I hit some PBs in the stairwell and on the Precor Stepper early in January, but I hit a wall in the middle of the month. Inexplicably, my times started to suffer and I couldn’t finish my workouts. I knew that fatigue is one of the first symptom of overtraining, so I decided to give myself an extra day off and I scaled back a few of my workouts to give myself time to recover. I hated taking time off so close to the start of racing season (with back to back races in early February) but I knew that if I didn’t recover soon, I might regress even further.

To make matters worse, the week leading up to the race was exhausting. I spent the week in South Carolina to get through an ISO 9001 re-certification audit and was extremely busy. Although I was able to train and eat fairly well*, eating on the road and training at odd hours wasn’t optimal. Plus, I don’t do well on airplanes. My left ear didn’t adjust properly and I when I arrived home Thursday evening, I was partly deaf and had a splitting headache.

*Thank you Whole Foods!

One Boston Place (thanks Wikipedia!)

Friday evening I took off for Boston and stayed overnight at my friend Kurtis’ home. Although I arrived too late to participate in Friday game night, I was able to tell his friends a few stories about Kurtis from back in high school. I went to bed later than I intended to, but it was definitely worth it. I rarely get a chance to catch up with old friends.

I woke up early the next morning and meandered my way through the streets of Boston. I reached One Boston Place around 7:25 AM, giving me over 30 minutes to prepare for the race.

Reflecting back on the race, I realize that things started to fall apart at this point - partly because I didn’t manage my time appropriately and partly because I had a bit of bad luck. Before I get into what happened, first let me explain how the race is organized.

  • Basement –  Check in + small bathroom
  • Lobby – Start line, elevator bank, water & fruit station
  • 5th floor – Bag Check
  • 16th floor – Bathroom
  • 25th floor (?) – Bathroom
  • 39th floor (?) – Observation room and rest area
  • 41st floor – finish line (small room with water and cough drops)

I checked in fairly easily and received my #2 bib. After catching up with a few of the ALA organizers (who I see at all the local climbs) I made my way to the bag check to drop off my backpack. Here is where things became muddled. Although I still had plenty of time to explore/measure the stairwell and get warmed up, I wanted to wear my comfortable sneakers instead of my racing shoes while warming up. That meant I’d have to come back to the bag check area to drop off my ruler and switch shoes. Things got even more confusing because my bib packet lacked safety pins* and I would have to go back to the check-in to go get them.

*Bad Luck #1

I grabbed my ruler and headed back down to check-in to retrieve my safety pins. On the way I stopped by the bathroom… and completely forgot about retrieving the safety pins. Instead I went back to the lobby to measure the steps*. By this point, I was starting to run out of time. I decided to go back to the bag check and switch into my racing shoes and then warm-up in the stairwell. As I was putting on my racing shoes, I realized I was still missing my safety pins!

*FYI – the steps measured between 7.00” and 7.125”

To save time, I decided to enter the stairwell (on the 5th floor) climb to the top, and then take the elevator down to get my safety pins at the check-in. I did one round of burpees and then headed into the stairwell. As I headed to the 6th floor, I heard an ominous click as the door closed shut**. I was worried that I was in the wrong stairwell and was locked in. Rather than forego my warm-up and stairwell preview, I decided to climb up to the bathroom & water station on the 16th floor and see if it was unlocked. I didn’t want to be locked out at the top of the building and have to hike 10 minutes downstairs to get out.

*Bad Luck #2

Sure enough the door on the 16th floor was locked. Rather than continue my climb to the top, I decided it was safer to head back down to the lobby and finish up my warm-up with a couple rounds of burpees.

I finally exited the stairwell at the far side of the lobby which confirmed that I was in the wrong stairwell. Next, I headed downstairs to get my safety pins and put on my bib. At that point, I still had about 5-10 minutes to spare. Looking back on the situation, I didn’t have enough time to get in another warm-up climb, but I may have had time to take the elevator to the top and scout out the stairwell near the finish line. But reality was a different story; I was getting nervous and the fear of missing the start of the race was the overwhelming driver. Instead I opted to finish up my burpees and get in line with the other climbers.

At the start line, I met my friend Paul Curley* and shook hands with a couple other guys: Niles and Andrew, who are part of the “Gentle Giant Moving Company” team. From my pre-race research, I knew this team always wins the team division and a few of their team members have won the climb in previous editions of the race. Although last year’s winner (Sean Wolf) wasn’t in the line-up, I figured that Andrew (with his #1 race bib) was going to be my primary competition**.

*Paul works for the ALA and I see him at all the local races. Even though he is in his late 50s, he is still in great shape and is usually near the top of the standings; you can tell he was a professional cyclist back in his younger days.

**If I had a photographic memory, I would have recognized Andrew from the 2010 results list. He placed 5th in a very competitive race behind the likes of Chris Solarz and Javier Santiago. In fact, Andrew was only a few seconds behind Chris and his time would have won several other editions of this race.

Soon enough, the race was on! As Andrew entered the stairwell, I turned on my metronome* and prepared my stopwatch.

*Boston Place is nearly identical to the Corning Tower in terms of race duration. Since I plan to use 116 BPM in the Albany Corning Tower this year, I decided to use 121 BPM at One Boston Place to account for the shorter step heights (7.5” @ Corning vs. 7.0” @ One Boston Place). I estimated that this pace would land me right around 4:30, which would be very competitive.

Fifteen seconds later, I ran into the stairwell. Immediately, I started to climb to the beat of my metronome. The first few floors were pretty tall, but after I crossed a short hallway on the 4th floor, everything followed a uniform 10 + 9 step pattern. As far as stairwells go, this one was fairly easy. Although the pattern wasn’t very suitable for turning the corners on the landing (i.e. single-stepping the landings) the rails were close enough together to use both rails effectively. As the floors began creeping up, so did my heart rate. By the time I reached the teens, I was pretty much at my limit. At that point I was only single stepping the landings when it was convenient to do so.

I reached the 21st floor (my assumed half-way point) at about 2:17*. Since I was aiming for a 4:30 climb, I believed I was a few seconds off of my target pace. By this point, I was starting to tire, but I knew could continue the pace for another minute or so. If I could find a burst of speed near the end, 4:30 was still possible.

*Actually, the halfway point is midway between floors 18 and 19, but I only learned this fact after I mapped out the race course.

By the time I hit floor 30, I was really starting to feel the burn in my lungs & legs. Rather than using one rail at time, I started grabbing both rails simultaneously, which gave an extra burst of speed in the middle of each flight.

In the lower 30s, I could hear Andrew up ahead. Up until this point the stairwell was pretty quiet except for the sound my metronome, my labored breathing, and the occasional volunteer cheering me on. Actually, I had kind of forgotten about the #1 bib ahead of me; my attention was solely focused on keeping up my pace and ignoring the pain. But now that I could hear Andrew up ahead, I realized I was slowly closing the gap. By the time I reached the 35th floor, I was confident I would win. I kicked up my pace into another gear for the killing blow. I was midway between floors 39 and 40 when I heard the volunteers cheer for Andrew at the finish line. With less than a two floors to go, I sprinted the rest of the way. I burst out of the stairwell and stopped my watch at 4:21:39*. Not only did I smash my goal time, but I clipped the course record by nearly 2 seconds!** I was elated for a brief moment but then -  to my horror - I realized I didn’t swipe my timing chip. Where in the dark abyss was it? The volunteers franticly waved me back into the stairwell. I found the timing mat waiting for me on top of a portable table tucked in against the wall. I swiped my chip and stumbled out of the stairwell for a second time.

*I distinctly remember 4:21, but I can’t be 100% sure about the fractional second. I think I remember 4:21:39, but I honestly can’t be certain. It could have been 4:21:93 for all know – but I’m sticking with 4:21:39 because it sounds way more impressive.

**Javier Santiago’s record was 4:23 set back in 2010.

I collapsed into a nearby chair and shook hands with Andrew. I had pushed it toward the end of the race and was now paying the price; my quads were on fire and my breathing was ragged. Together we waited for the next few climbers to arrive. Paul came in about a minute later and Niles shortly afterwards. At this point, I kind of lost track of time, but I spent at least a few minutes rocking back and forth in my chair managing the pain coursing through my body.

I was angry with myself for missing the timing mat. I knew I lost a good 5 seconds which would cost me the course record. Although I still believed I had won the race, I still felt empty. When I had recovered enough, I went to talk to Paul and the timers to see if they recorded my actual time since they had a second timer recording times manually. They promised to look into it. Somewhat depressed, I headed back to the lobby to finish recovering.

I had originally planned to do a few extra practice climbs, but I wasn’t feeling up to it. My first climb was exhausting and I was beginning to have a headache. Instead, I decided to take it easy and map out the stairwell - which would be the equivalent of a slow 15 minute recovery climb. I retrieved my clipboard and ruler, found a piece of scrap paper, and got in the stairwell for a 2nd time.

In summary, the stairwell is generally a 10-9 configuration with 180 turns on each landing and each floor. The only exceptions are from floors 1 - 4, 16 & 17, and 40,  which are a bit longer. The first 27 floors turn to the right and the remainder turn to the left.  You can see the entire map below.

One Boston Place Stairwell
Now that I had mapped the race course and replayed the final moments of the race several times in my head, I was no longer confident that I had won the race. I originally assumed I was about 7-8 seconds behind Andrew (who had a 15 second head start) so I figured I had still beaten his time even with my timing chip mishap. However, the layout of the stairwell told a different story. I estimated I was on the mid-level landing between the 39th and 40th floors when Andrew finished, but the final floor was a bit longer than normal and had a few extra turns. I estimated that there were about 33 steps and 5 turns between us. Since my pace was 121 BPM, it meant I was covering 4 steps each second. Factoring in all the turns (which slow you down) it meant I was probably more like 10+ seconds behind Andrew, making it a much tighter race than I had previously assumed.

After the race... eyes closed.
Memories of Hartford replayed in the back of my mind when I missed the finish line and climbed up an extra flight of stairs. That mistake dropped me from 2nd to 3rd in another tight race and it looked the same thing was about to happen all over again.

Eventually I mustered the courage to look at the preliminary results sheet. I glanced at my name and my heart sank. Alex Workman: 2nd place in 4:27. Andrew had clipped me by 2 seconds. My only hope was that the timers manually captured my actual time, but I knew that my chances were slim.

It was a long wait until the awards ceremony and I contemplated skipping it altogether. Although I might be a sore loser at heart, that isn’t how I want to be remembered when I retire from this sport. Instead, I quietly read a book* while waiting for the official times and awards. 

*”The Castle Story” by Sheila Sancha; A history of castles built in the U.K. throughout the middle ages.

Before the awards ceremony, I ran into a climber from England named Patrick. He was visiting the US to do a few stair climbing races including Boston (Feb 1st) , ESBRU (Feb 5th) , and New Haven (Feb 8th)  which are all within driving distance. We traded stories for a bit and waited for the awards to begin.

When they announced the overall winner, I cringed. Although Andrew had already left by that point, everyone was cheering when they heard his time and cheered again once it was announced he had missed the course record by a mere 2 seconds. It hurt. Deep down I wanted to yell, “I had the fastest time and I broke the course record! Cheer for me!”

A minute later, I was called up to the podium to get my 2nd place award. It was hard to smile, even though it was my ALA friend Brittany presenting the certificate. The clapping and cheers did little to soften my mood and I quickly went back to my seat on the upper level. I had the urge to throw my award against the wall, but I held back. I was miserable, but I knew that wasn’t the right way to behave. I took a few deep breaths to calm myself. Next up to the podium was Paul Curley who came in 3rd and I couldn’t help but cheer. Here was a guy at 58 who could still break the 5 minute mark, which is something I’m not sure I’ll be able to do in 20 years. I made the decision to quit complaining and just cheer for the other climbers. Losing sucks, but being a poor sport is even worse.

After the award ceremony I said goodbye to my friends Britney & Paul and headed back to my car. I was feeling much better now that I had changed my attitude, but I wasn’t looking forward to the three hour drive ahead of me. I’d much rather spend that time composing my blog.

Final Thoughts:
Although I wasn’t happy about my official time, in my heart I know I that I own the record, albeit unofficially. Better yet,  I know that posting such a good time meant I was over my bout of fatigue and ready for the ESBRU (Empire State Building Run-up). Finally, I have to give credit to Andrew who deserved the win. He made it a tight race and there are only a few people on the stair climbing circuit who might be faster*. Plus, he had the presence of mind to look for the timing mat. He executed and I didn’t. End of story.

*There is good reason, too. Apparently, all the top athletes from the “Gentle Giant Moving Co.” team are competitive rowers. Andrew placed 2nd at the CrashBs in the men’s lightweight division in 2012. Likewise last year’s winner, Sean Wolf, is a former Olympian. I’m lucky these guys don’t focus on stairs!

Effort: A ; I pushed pretty hard throughout the race, but may have lost a couple seconds between floors 21-30 as the pain really took hold, but otherwise it was a solid effort.
Strategy: B ; My pace was pretty much dead on. Unfortunately, I didn’t properly scout out the stairwell which was costly in the end.
Technique: B+ ;  It is tough to climb efficiently in a 10-9 stairwell, especially during a sprint. The turns were hard to nail, but the close hand rails made up some of the difference.
Overall: A- ; This was a solid race. Had I not goofed up my timing chip, this would have been a solid A.
Lessons Learned:
  • Scout out the finish line.
  • It never pays be a sore loser.
    • If you display it on the outside, people will think you’re an arrogant bastard.
    • If you hold it inside, you’ll just put yourself in a bad mood.
  • Scout out the finish line.