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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alex,

    Just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for doing it!

    When you say 'single stepping the landing' do you mean that you only place one foot on the landing and then the footplant is on the next stair? I don't suppose you have any videos showing you doing single-stepping?

    thanks from a beginning stair climber,