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.

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