Saturday, November 14, 2015

"Baby, What a Big Surprise"

My fifth Sears (Willis) Skyrise Chicago climb is in the books.

This was probably the most stressful event in my racing career because I organized the elite wave. 

My friend Dano, the Towerrunning World Association (TWA) Vice President, is a member of the World Federation of Great Towers (WFGT). This year he cut a deal with the Willis Tower, who is also a WFGT member, to provide free registration and waive the fundraising requirement to 40 competitive athletes.

Since I’m the Towerrunning USA President*, Dano asked me to organize the elite wave.

* Towerrunning USA - as the name suggests - is affiliated with the Towerrunning World Association.

In theory it should have been pretty easy to recruit the top athletes. After all, I know most of the top climbers personally and have a fairly robust ranking system in place. But in practice, it took a lot of effort. Not only did I have to handle the application process,  but I had to track down people to get registration completed and waivers signed. Suffice it to say, handling 40 climbers was like herding cats, but in the end I managed to attract an extremely talented field.

But that wasn’t the end of it. I was also expected to host a pre-race dinner, coordinate packet pick-up, purchase trophies, and manage the awards ceremony. Without help from my friend David Hanley (who lives in the burbs of Chicago) I wouldn’t have been able to get everything completed in time.

I steeled myself for the overnight train ride to Chicago. Every time I’ve taken the train to Chicago I’ve had to deal with a crazy lady keeping me awake at night. Keeping the tradition alive, some poor fool  accidentally spilled water on a  crazy lady’s laptop and she completely flipped out. Not only did she berate her seatmate for 30+ minutes (loud enough so the entire car could hear her), but she wouldn’t let the conductor do his job and collect the appropriate information from her hapless seatmate.

Eventually the crazy lady escalated the situation and threatened her seatmate with a lawsuit. She even requested told the conductor to stop the train in Utica to wait for police (which would have sucked for the hundreds of other passengers). Fortunately the conductor wasn’t a pushover. He finally separated the crazy lady from her poor seatmate and told her to find a seat up front.  I hope her hard drive is completely fried and all her important documents unrecoverable.

The remainder of the trip was uneventful and I managed to get a fairly good night’s sleep after reading a couple chapters of “Cider House Rules”.

The door to the Willis stairwell
I arrived at Union Station at 9:30 AM on Saturday morning and met David, Rudi, Mischa, and Tim Young a short while later. Together we met with the RIC folks (the charity who runs Skyrise Chicago) and picked up all the racing packets for the TWA elite wave. We also discussed a few points of logistics since both Rudi and Mischa are members of the TWA Presidium and wanted the elite wave to run smoothly.

After dropping off the bibs at David’s car we parted ways with Mischa and Rudi. It was time for lunch and we were hungry. We decided upon Native Foods since both David and Tim are both vegans. 

At lunch I had a chance to get to know Tim. He is super nice but an bit of an oddball – more so than most climbers – and I mean that as a compliment. He has been climbing stairs since his teenage years and he is an extreme endurance athlete. He climbs up and down stairs for a couple hours each day in addition to all his other training.  He also either bikes or runs everywhere he goes. I mean that literally. He doesn’t own a car and he doesn’t walk unless he is in a confined area, and even then he often bounces around like Tigger (according to my observation). Because he is always moving, he wears a triathlon kit *all* the time, including while at work*.  He also claims to eat thousands upon thousands of calories each day because his metabolism is so high, once topping out at 13,000 calories per day - which even he admitted sounds completely nuts, but true.

*Although he admitted he owns a semi-formal pull-over that he can slip on prior to important meetings and other engagements.

Yet despite climbing stairs for the majority of his life and despite running a 2:30 marathon in training… he has never actually participated in a race of any sort.

Tim certainly looked fit, but  I was curious to see how he’d fare at Sears which has dashed many athletes hopes and dreams. Been there. Done that*.

*See my 2011 Sears Recap.

After lunch we dropped Tim off at the gym and David and I drove around looking for an electronic metronome. A metronome you might ask? Well if you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I like to pace myself using a metronome and unfortunately, I lost my clip-on metronome somewhere along the way to Chicago. I normally keep it clipped to my bag… but somewhere along the way it fell off. Yes, I realize it sounds silly to keep it clipped to my bag rather than keeping it *inside* of my bag, but I have a good reason for doing so. You see, it is very easy to bump into something and accidentally turn on the metronome. Imagine if it happened while on the crazy lady overnight train to Chicago and I couldn’t hear it beep. Then imagine the look of surprise horror on my face when I try to turn on my metronome on the start line only to find out the batteries are dead. Yes, it has happened to me before.

It took maybe an hour or so (mostly due to traffic), but we found a clip-on metronome/tuner at a local music store. It wasn’t as streamlined as my Seiko, but it would suffice. 

We picked Tim up at the gym and then headed over to La Quinta for the pre-race meet & greet. I was pretty nervous because I was the primary host and I’m not much of a social person. On top of that, we changed the event from a pre-race dinner to a meet &  greet at the very last minute because La Quinta’s meal options were not gonna pass muster. I crossed my fingers that the event wouldn’t be a bust.

I didn’t have to worry. The meet & greet was a success! Since I passed out all the racing bibs, I had a chance to meet almost everyone personally, and in fact my throat became a little raw afterward because I spent so much time chatting.

After the meet and greet, David, Bob, Tim and I headed back to David’s place for dinner (Salad) and watched a little TV (Archer) before bed. I was nervous but still managed to go to bed early.

The next morning, I was up around 5:15. I quickly changed into my racing gear and headed downstairs for my pre-race meal: An open faced British muffin with peanut butter and blackberry jam*. We left David’s house around 5:50 and headed to the Sears/Willis Tower. The building loomed in the distance as dawn approached.

*#MyOtherHobby #MyJamRules

By the way, have you ever noticed that peel-off timing chip/strap you receive taped to your bib? You are supposed to peel it off and attach the chip/strap to your shoes. Apparently, there is a wrong way to peel it off such that the chip will completely delaminate from the strap. Luckily, the timing chip is fairly sticky and can be stuck back on if you are careful.

We arrived in the lobby around 6:15 AM and we quickly set up the TWA elite registration table. Fortunately, most of the climbers had already picked up their racing packets so there were only a few left over to hand out. I started my warmup routine with about 30 minutes left to go before the start of the race.

In between rounds of burpees I met with Stefani, the Skydeck manager to discuss the awards ceremony. According to Dano, arrangements were made for 2:00 PM (after the race) to hold the ceremony on the Skydeck. However, I wanted to get her permission to move the ceremony up to 1:30 PM since several athletes had early flights to catch. Much to my surprise, Stefani had no knowledge of the 2:00 PM arrangement and she expected we’d have the ceremony after the elite wave finished. 


Fortunately, this turn of events worked well for us since all the climbers would be hanging out on the Skydeck anyway.  I just needed to communicate this message to the herd of cats waiting at start line.

I finished up a couple more rounds of burpees and then headed to the start. It was already crowded, but I found a spot to finish up my last couple sets. 

To be fair, he was legitimately fast 
and cordial in the stairwell
The front of the line was jam  packed and I told a few people the new plan for the award ceremony and to pass it down the line. I also noticed a few unfamiliar faces had inserted themselves into the TWA elite wave line up.  I yelled at them to get out of line but to no avail. Apparently the regular elite wave also had a 7:00 AM start time. This one guy with a painted mohawk refused to budge. I was pissed but it couldn’t be helped. I just hoped he was smart enough to get out of the way once the faster elites caught up to him.

This edition of the race was pretty stacked, despite losing a few strong climbers at the last minute. Sproule, Gorge, and Tim Dohahue were the race favorites since all of them have done this race in less than 14 minutes – a pace I knew I couldn’t quite match. I could probably stand toe to toe with in a fairly short race (say 5 minutes or so) but Sears is the longest and tallest course on the American circuit. I knew a podium spot was out of reach.

The best I realistically hope for was a 4th place finish but I had several rivals who stood in the way. Rudi, Ralf, Zack, Sylvio,  Adam, and Tim Y. are all strong climbers who are in my gruppetto . Here was my pre-race assessment of the field, more or less in order of perceived ability.
  • Rudi – I had beaten him in Doha this past March, but I knew he was having a resurgent career. It would be unwise to count out a former ESBRU winner. Definitely a Dark Horse.
  • Ralf – We’ve traded blows over the last few races. I narrowly beat him in Chicago last year, but he returned the favor in Doha. Ralf was the most obvious threat. 
  • Zack – We’ve raced head to head at both Sears and WTC1. Both times I’ve come out ahead. Barely.
  • Sylvio – I’ve beaten him on several occasions, most recently in Doha. Not my biggest threat, but definitely a concern.
  • Adam – He’s not very well known on the circuit since he has only raced against a few top climbers. Fortunately I’m one of those few. I’ve beaten him in Boston this past February and again in Hartford in April, both by narrow margins. However those were much shorter races so I didn’t know how he’d fare in a taller building. Definitely an outside threat. 
  • Tim Y. – He talks a good talk but could he back it up? Definitely the biggest Dark Horse of them all. I wouldn’t be surprised if he won the race. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if he completely blew up.
With all the work I’ve put in during the off-season, I knew I was in the hunt for 4th place. It all depended on what shape my rivals were in. 

A couple minutes after 7:00 AM they let us into the stairwell. First through the door was Sproule. The rest of us followed in ten second increments:  George, Tim, Rudi, and then Ralf. A few moments later I was on deck.

I set my metronome* and prepped my stop watch. I jogged through the doorway and into the stairwell.

*Actually I borrowed a Seiko metronome from Steve Stermer at the last minute. Thanks Steve!

This was my fifth time climbing the Willis/Sears Tower and I drew on my experience when setting the pace. Last year I tried 83 BPM and was on track for my goal time of 14:30 until about the halfway point. I started to fall off my pace in the middle of the race but still  managed to finish with a respectable 14:45. Last year my 83 BPM pace was just a little too aggressive. 

This time around I was coming into the race in even better shape – roughly 2.5% better shape according to my training logs – which translated to an estimated finish time of 14:22. As such, I set my goal time at 14:30 and chose to use 83 BPM again. With my improved conditioning, I felt that 83 BPM would feel fairly conservative yet still fast enough to break 14:30 if I didn’t slow down too much in the 60s and 70s where the pace really starts to take its toll. With any luck, I’d still have energy left in the tank in the 80s and 90s and be able to pick up the pace on the upper floors.

Back in the stairwell for a fifth try, the pace seemed agonizingly slow during the first few floors. I glanced down at my metronome to make sure it was really set at 83 BPM. It was. 

After a few more floors I could hear Zack closing the gap. He was climbing pretty fast and he caught up to me well before we reached the 10th floor. He skipped by on the outside without missing a beat. He was well out of sight before I had even crossed into the teens. Next up was Sylvio. I was in the mid-teens or so when he started to catch up and by the time I reached the lower twenties he too was already out of sight.

Passed twice and not even a quarter of the way through the race. This wasn’t the position I expected to be in, but rather than succumb to the urge to chase, I kept steady.

I kept my eye on my watch and made sure I was still on pace. I crossed the 26th floor somewhere in the mid 3:30s. Just a hair under my target pace still feeling fairly fresh. No need to panic. 

Through the 30s and 40s I kept up to the beat of my metronome. I allowed myself to double step the landings as needed, but made sure to single step them whenever convenient. The pace was no longer easy, but I wasn’t in trouble. Sure, I was in the red zone, but I wasn’t past the point of no return. As I crossed the 52nd floor I checked my watch again. 7:10 on the dot. I was just under a 14:30 pace.

I climbed into the 60s and the going got tough. I was double stepping the landings more frequently than before, but still I marched onward to the beat of my metronome. Doubts began to fill my mind but I held them at bay. I was struggling, but I knew I could hold on for at least few more minutes.

A few floors later I sensed someone climbing up ahead. As I turned the corner I caught sight of Ralf. He was clearly having a hard time with the pace and soon enough I was nipping at his heels. As I got close enough to pass, Ralf used a burst of speed to gain a half flight, but the burst was short lived. I reeled him in and passed on the inside. 

By the time I reached the 70s I could hear someone else climbing up ahead. It had to be either Sylvio or Zack although it was too soon to tell. Honestly, I was so focused on climbing (or perhaps so unfocused because of the climb) that I had nearly forgotten I still had two climbers to catch!

I caught up to both Sylvio and Zack in quick succession. I could smell blood. The sounds of their heavy breathing told me they were struggling. I was also in pain, but I knew I held something back in reserve.  Both climbers let me by and I led the pack for a few more floors. 

When I hit the 80s I finally dropped them. Just a few minutes remained in the race, but I knew they were the hardest ones. I struggled through the 80s but still managed to hold on to the beat of my metronome.

I hit the 90s in pretty good shape. By that point the stairwell had narrowed significantly and I could use both rails at once. I increased my pace to ensure I’d break 14:30. It was tough. On one hand I still had strength in reserve. On the other hand, this was the hardest part of the race.

I mentally checked off each floor as I approached the upper 90s. I knew the only person likely ahead of my was Rudi but he was nowhere in sight.

I continued alone into the 100s. Just a few more floors!

I was climbing faster than my metronome but I wasn’t truly sprinting. “Shouldn’t I be going faster?” I thought to myself. I had the energy but not the willpower. I didn’t let loose until the final couple floors and even then I didn’t (couldn’t?) use my full strength. I felt like I was climbing through molasses. 

I hit 102 with a full head of steam. One floor left to go! 

At that point the strangest thing popped into my head:

What if the last floor had an extra couple flights like they do in the Albany Corning tower - which is a truly unpleasant surprise the first time you encounter it? Who knows? Maybe Sears has some kind of mechanical room underneath the Skdyeck (say for HVAC or something) which is unmarked so that when you finally climb to the top (not the real top, but where you think the top should be) you think you should be done but then you suddenly realize you really aren’t finished because you see several more flights of stairs leading upward… and because you just sprinted the last few flights you are *really* tired and totally unprepared for a few more flights. Wouldn’t that just totally suck? Yeah... Totally.... Damn, I wish I had studied Stan’s stair chart a little more closely*. 

*If you had trouble following that last paragraph, don’t worry. I don’t know wtf I was thinking either.

I readied myself for a few more flights of pain just in case (‘cause hey, you never know).

Fortunately, the last floor is pretty normal and a few moments later I dashed out of the stairwell and onto the Skydeck. I glanced down at my watch as I crossed the finish line. 14:18… I had beaten my goal time by over 10 seconds which meant I dropped my PR by over 25 seconds!

I stumbled a few more steps and sat down next to Rudi. I was winded but not totally exhausted. The race volunteers handed me a finisher’s medal and a bottle of water and I stood up to walk off the fatigue and to find out how the other climbers had fared. 

After talking with a few others, I suspected that Rudi cracked the podium since he managed to pass Tim Donahue on the upper floors. That meant I’d probably be dropped down to 5th place since Tim Donahue had climbed the building in just over 14 minutes. At that point, the only other climber whose results were unknown were Tim Young – who didn’t even wear a watch in the stairwell.

The Skydeck was getting crowded with all the finishers and I still had an awards ceremony to run. However, to get the show started, I needed to see the official results. I rejoined Rudi and we took the elevator downstairs to visit the timing table. 

Things were chaotic downstairs, but we managed to get a couple print out sheets of the current leaderboard. You can find the official copy here.

Sproule was in 1st place as expected and Rudi found out he sneaked ahead of Gorge to take 2nd place.  I found myself sitting in 6th place overall with a time of 14:19; one place ahead of Tim Young (14:21), but one spot behind Sylvio (14:14). Prior to looking at the results sheet I had assumed that I had beaten Sylvio since I pulled away from him in the 80s. Apparently he managed to keep it together and minimize his losses near the top (remember, he started ~20 seconds behind me). I was a little disappointed having dropped down a place, but still thrilled to be near the top of the standings.

Rudi and I rushed back upstairs to the Skydeck. We knew the other climbers were anxiously awaiting the results. When we finally arrived, we were enveloped by the crowd.

We handed off the results sheets to elite crew and a few minutes later I ushered everyone towards the TWA backdrop to start the awards ceremony. It took a few tries, but eventually the herd started to move.

I asked Mischa (the ranking TWA official) to say a few words and then I handed out the awards to the top three men and women. Since we were pressed for time, I wasn’t really nervous and the ceremony went by without a hitch – although I admittedly didn’t study the women’s results as closely as I should have and nearly forgot who was in 3rd place. Total mind blank.

I chose this photo only because I appear really buff in it
I'll be turning 40 soon too ya know
After the ceremony we all rushed downstairs. Believe it or not, we had another race starting at 9:00 AM at 300 N Lasalle!

Despite knowing very little about the race (how many floors was it?) I was pretty relaxed. After successfully organizing the elite wave and setting a huge PR at Sears, a huge burden had been removed from my shoulders.  I was in pretty good spirits when I checked into the race and headed downstairs for the opening ceremony.

A short while later I found myself waiting near the front of the line next to the stairwell entrance. My body felt pretty strong but my lungs were sore from Skyrise Chicago. I knew a shorter course like LaSalle should favor me, but I didn’t like the fact I didn’t do any homework about the course and that I wasn’t racing at 100%. 

Rudi entered the stairwell first and I followed right behind.

I had no idea what kind of pace to use, but I figured it was best to start slow and see how I felt later. I set my metronome at 90 thinking that should be comparable to my Willis pace, which should feel nice and easy in such a short building with fairly short steps.

Within a few floors Zack caught up to me and passed (deja-vu) and I was left climbing by myself. The pace felt nice and relaxed and I focused on climbing efficiently.

The course suited me pretty well. It had fairly long flights and I could use both sides of the rail. Perfect for my climbing style.

For the next few minutes I climbed by myself. The pace still felt easy by the time I hit the 20s so I kicked up my metronome a couple of notches to 92 BPM. I knew I was climbing way too conservatively but I told myself that was okay. After all, I had already left my mark at Willis Tower and this race was really just for fun. Plus, if I pushed myself too hard I might compromise my immune system even further and risk getting sick so  I might as well just enjoy the climb.  In between breathes, I forced myself to smile.

I crossed the 30th floor (about half way) and checked my watch. I was already in the 4:30s. That would put me in the 9:00 minute range, far slower than I had intended. I started to regret my decision to take it easy. Despite my best efforts to have fun, I was feeling like a quitter.

I was in the lower 30s and I could hear another climber starting to catch up.  I fiddled around with my metronome and increased the pace to 100 BPM. I climbed another 10 floors and still I could hear someone a few floors below. No way was I gonna let someone catch up to me this late in a race! I took off with about a dozen floors to go. Too little and too late. I crossed the finish line somewhere in the 8:20s. I was a bit winded  - having sprinted the few remaining floors – but nowhere near my limit. Disgusted with myself, I quickly reset my watch.

Moments later, several other climbers came barreling through the doorway. They appeared to be in much worse shape than I was, but it was clear that they had all posted much faster times. With a mental groan I  once again regretted my decision to take it easy.

Despite feeling a guilty about treating the race like a fun run, I was still pretty thrilled to have finished the double header. I could now take it easy and relax!

Eventually I made my way into the crowded elevator and headed downstairs for the post-race buffet. It was a pretty nice spread with both food and alcohol (Bloody Mary’s and beer). A short while later I learned that Tim Young narrowly beat out Rudi for first place with a time of 7:13 or so. I mentally kicked myself since I knew I could have been in the hunt had I put in the effort.

However, all-in-all I still felt pretty good. My disappointment with LaSalle was overshadowed by my stellar performance at Sears which was the main event of the weekend.

The remainder of the day was spent socializing with my climbing friends. First we had a casual brunch at Wishbone* and then we headed back to David’s place to get washed up. Later David took Tim and I to the Garfield Park Conservatory, a large indoor garden which was a real treat. It has rooms full of tropical plants, ferns, moss, and even a room full of cacti. The greenhouse closed at dusk and afterwards we picked up Jason and headed to Lou Malnati's for some real deep dish Chicago pizza.

*I ended up jogging 10 blocks or so with Tim to get to Wishbone which is more than I’ve run cumulatively (excluding stairwell landings) over the past year.

Flat Stanley &the Greenhouse
When in Chicago...
Finally it was time to head to Union Station to take the train back home. I bid farewell to my friends and caught the 9:30 PM train back to Albany* with another climb in the books.

*without any crazy ladies, thank you.

Race Grades:
Effort: B  Instead of collapsing to the ground after the finish line, I just needed a minute or two to catch my breath. That means I had something left in the tank near the end.
Strategy: A+  83 BPM was spot on. It felt slow for the first 20 floors but by the 70s it had me gritting my teeth. Nearly perfect.
Technique: B+  I climbed efficiently, but lost time on the landings when I started to feel the pace in the upper half of the building.
Overall: A-   I’m pretty happy about my race. I left only a little bit on the table. 

Final Thoughts:
  • Unfortunately a few top climbers bailed Skyrise Chicago at the last minute. Most had valid excuses, but not all. Those extra slots could have gone to some other super-excited deserving athletes who were on the wait list. 
  • If you look at the history of the race, 14:19 is a damn good time. IF I stay healthy in 2016 (notice the capitalization), I bet I’ll have a decent shot at breaking the 14 minute barrier, which IMHO separates the boys from the men. According my data, only seven Americans have broken the 14 minute mark (Love, Purcell, Berg, Schmidt, Stewart, Leninger, & Donahue).
  • I still remember my first race at Sears in 2011 (the year Sproule & Cindy set the record) when I climbed up in 16:53. I was in awe of the top 10 climbers who all climbed sub-15. It just so happens that my 14:19 would have been good enough for 6th place that year. Funny how perspective changes. I will add, however, that Sproule’s record (13:03) still seems insurmountable. 
  • When I first started climbing competitively, people thought I was just a sprinter and too heavy to compete in the taller buildings. I almost believed them. Almost. To set the record straight, I’m not a true sprinter. I don’t train for raw power and I’m vulnerable in climbs lasting 2 minutes or less. My real forte is in the 3 to 5 minute range, although I’ve been training hard for the past few seasons to extend my range into the double digits.
  • Where did this year’s big improvement come from? The biggest change was staying healthy. I suffered through a few severe viruses in 2012, 2013, and 2014 which set me back a few months each time. This year I was able to chip away at my  goal bit by bit with very few interruptions and my Sears time dropped accordingly.
  • Rudi has officially come out of retirement. He’s just been teasing us these the past couple seasons.
  • Kudos to Sylvio and Zack who both made big gains during the off-season. I was also impressed with Scott Stanley who made some huge gains as well. 16:38 is no joke. 
  • With a time of 14:21, Tim Young proved he can talk the talk and walk the walk (or run as the case may be). I’m certain he is a sub-14 caliber athlete, especially considering this was his first race ever and he wasn’t climbing at 100%. I definitely hope to see him again both socially and inside the stairwell.
  • If I had to re-do this race again I’d be tempted to try 84 BPM. Fitness wise I’m not quite ready to break 14 minutes, but I’m close.
  • One important lesson I learned is that when you re-pass somebody in the stairwell during a time trial, you still need to make up those seconds at the end of the race. You have to drop the hammer when you re-pass! 
  • I still feel bad about taking it easy at 300 LaSalle. If I was truly worried about my health, I should have just climbed for fun without a watch or a timing chip. There isn’t any middle ground. You either race or you don’t. On the train ride back home I asked myself how I would have felt if I beat Sproule at a race only to learn that he didn’t take the race seriously? I know I would have felt gypped. I guess let myself down as well as my rivals.
  • I didn't take any pictures. The pictures you are courtesy of James Harris, David Hanley, Madeline Ronk, and Lisa Zeigel.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Tools of the Trade Part 1: The Metronome

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you’ll know that I often use a clip-on metronome when climbing stairs. Several people have asked about using a metronome and instead of providing a tailored answer to each individual, I figured it would be a good idea to share my experience on my blog*. This post explains the benefits of using a metronome and how to set the appropriate pace.

*In the hope to win a few more metronome converts.

A metronome is any device that produces regular, metrical ticks (beats, clicks, etc.) settable in beats per minute (BPM). Although primarily used by musicians to keep a steady time, metronomes are also used by athletes to keep a steady pace. I find it particularly useful for climbing stairs because unlike running – where strides can be variable – stairs have uniform heights*.

*For those diehard stair snobs: This is generally true in a specific stairwell although you can expect slight variation between individual steps. For example, when I measured the stairwell in One Boston Place, the steps were typically about 7.125 inches tall, but there were a few outliers that measured closer to 7 inches (on the low end) and 7.25 inches (on the high end). This type of variation won’t impact pacing by any meaningful amount. However, there can be significant variation between steps in different stairwells. I’ve raced up buildings with steps as short as 6.75 inches and other buildings with steps as tall as 7.875 inches. This variation will play a role in pacing. More about that later…

My metronome journey started in Boston and to this day I still have nightmares about my first race up the Hancock Tower * where I jack rabbited up the first few floors. They went by so easily and I felt like I was going to utterly crush the race. By the time I hit the 10th floor I was still going fast… but suddenly I wasn’t feeling so strong. My heart rate was at the tipping point and my legs were starting to feel like butter. Soon I was forced to slow down to a more realistic pace. When I reached the 40th floor I was totally cooked… and I still had over 20 floors to go. At one point I even started single stepping (oh the horror!). To this day, I still don’t know how I made it to the top alive.

*Technically this was my 2nd climb, but I consider Boston’s Hancock Tower my first time competing at a high level.

That day I learned that jack rabbiting is the ultimate race killer. My new mantra was “A steady pace wins the race”*.

*I urge you to repeat this mantra several times before setting foot in a stairwell. Srsly.

A few races later, I started dabbling with using a metronome to make sure I didn’t bolt up the first few floors. Fast forward a few years with a couple dozen races under my belt using a metronome and I’m now completely convinced of its efficacy.

Why use a metronome?
The best strategy for doing well in a race – no matter what the discipline (running, rowing, stair climbing, etc.) - is to keep a fairly even splits* throughout the race, potentially going even faster towards the end of a race (i.e. posting negative splits)**. When you apply this concept on a flight of stairs, a metronome is the best way to set and keep a steady pace. Every beat, you take a step.  It’s that simple. Marching to the beat of a metronome***is the poor man’s equivalent of setting the pace on your favorite piece of fancy gym equipment (treadmills, steppers, Stairmasters, etc.).

*The term “splits” means a time or pace through a given portion of a race. For example, let’s say you want to run a 6 minute 1600 meters (about a mile) in 6 minutes. If you break 1600 meters into 4 equal 400 meter parts (e.g. a lap around a 400 meter track) to achieve even splits, you’d want to do each part (or lap) in 1:30. Your splits would be 1:30 at the 400 meter mark (1st lap), 3:00 at the 800 meter mark (2nd lap), and 4:30 at the 1200 meter mark (3rd lap).

** Which explains my mantra: “A steady pace wins the race”. To be clear, this strategy is applicable to any endurance sport, but works best in a time trial format on a uniform course. Fortunately for the sport of stairclimbing, most races are done in a time trial format inside a fairly uniform stairwell.

***Most people can keep a steady beat. Sadly there is a small fraction of the population that find this difficult. If you are part of this population then sadly a metronome may not be very helpful.

As Sproule Love once said: you have to “keep your powder dry” in a race, which means don’t waste all your energy in the beginning of a race.  You have to make sure you have something in reserve for the final few floors. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up not only bonk, but to bonk HARD.
It is beyond the scope of the article to prove why even/negative splits are best, but I’ve raced enough to convince myself that it’s true.

What kind of metronome should you purchase?
I personally use the Seiko DM50 clip-on metronome*. It is very light, portable and easy to use. In fact, I’ve even adjusted the pace while racing! I often clip the metronome to the shoulder of my tank top. This position is close enough to my ear so I can easily hear the metronome even on it softest setting. In my expert opinion, the Seiko DM50 provides excellent value for a fair price.

*Warning: shameless product plug ahead.

If you’d rather use your iPhone as a metronome, there is probably an app for that. Alternatively, you could create (or find) a suitable music file that uses a steady beat. The downside of using a music file is that you can’t adjust the beat on the fly (unless, of course, you have an app for that).

Setting the right pace on your metronome
There are several different methods for setting the right pace on your metronome. There are a variety of factors which can make setting the pace somewhat tricky, so read through each method first before committing to a specific one. I’ve tried to lay out each method in a logical order.

Case #1: Continuous Climbing
A good example of a continuous climb would be on a uniform outdoor staircase. This is the easiest case and it lays the foundation for many of the other methods.

Necessary Variables:
  • Total number of steps
  • Goal Time (in seconds)
Equation #0:  Number of Footfalls = [A] x (# Steps)
A = 1 (when taking one step at a time)
A = 1/2 (when taking two steps at a time)
A = 1/3 (when taking three steps at a time*)


Equation #1: Metronome Pace (BPM) = 60 x (# Footfalls) / (Goal Time)
The “60” factor is the conversion factor from seconds to minutes (i.e. 60 seconds/minute) and the “# Footfalls” term comes directly from Equation #0 above.

Example: if you want to climb a 200 step flight of steps in 100 seconds (e.g. an outdoor staircase) taking two steps at a time, your metronome pace = 60 x (½ x 200)/100 = 60 BPM

Case #2: Regular stairwell with turns (with time goal)
Metronomes are perfect for keeping pace on a single flight of stairs, but unfortunately, most stairwells have a lot of turns which make pace calculations a bit more complicated. First off, turning (while climbing) takes more energy than then climbing midflight steps. Secondly, turns often screw up your footfall pattern. Finally, footfall patterns may differ from person to person.

Someday, I’m going to write a post about different footfall patterns while climbing up various stairwell configurations, but that is beyond the scope of this article. The most important thing to know, however, is that your footfall pattern matters when climbing a stairwell.

Because of turns, we have to scrap equation #0 and figure out the number of footfalls on our own. With this method, we’re going take a single section of the race (say just a single floor or two) and calculate the pace for that section only.

For illustrative purposes, let’s use the same 200 steps we used in the first example with the same goal time of 100 seconds. Let’s further assume that this stairwell is inside a uniform 11 story building (i.e. 10 floors of steps) such that each floor has 20 steps with a mid-flight landing: 10 steps à landing à 10 steps (in shorthand this is written as “10/10”).

Let’s calculate the pace needed to climb a single 10/10 floor.
Goal Time = 100 seconds / 10 floors = 10 seconds per floor
With this 10/10 stairwell configuration, there are two basic footfall patterns.

Case 1: Single stepping the landings (10 footfalls per floor)
Case 2: Double stepping the landings (12 footfalls per floor)

Because the number of footfalls varies, each case will clearly yield a different metronome pace.

Using Equation #2, we get the following paces:

Metronome Pace (case #1) = 60 x 10 footfalls / 10 seconds = 60 BPM*
Metronome Pace (case #2) = 60 x 12 footfalls / 10 seconds = 72 BPM

The key takeaway is that your footfall pattern on the turns makes a huge difference in setting your pace, and knowing is half the battle**.

*Thoughtful readers will realize this is the exact same answer we found using our first method.

**Go, Joe!

Case #3: Pacing from experience (same building)
Often, you may not know the exact number of steps in a building and methods #1 & #2 won’t be of very much use. But maybe you are fortunate enough to be able to practice in or race up a building multiple times. If so, this is the best method for you.

With this method, all you need to do is keep track of your metronome’s pace and race time each time you climb up the building. After each climb, evaluate if you should have used a faster or slower pace and adjust accordingly.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you notice that I always record my pace and finish time. I find that this is probably the most reliable way to figure out the appropriate pace for my next race up the same building. If you ever use a metronome, I urge you to do the same.

The main benefit is that you don’t have to do any fancy calculations. It completely ignores your footfall pattern - which probably doesn’t change much from race to race unless you really focus on it.

The biggest drawback is that it doesn’t help you the first time you climb a building.

Case #4: Pacing from experience (different buildings)
There comes a time when you face a building for the very first time and you have no idea what the stairwell looks like. You can’t rely on methods #1, #2, or #3 to help figure out your pace, so what do you do? Fortunately, there is an app method for that.
Let’s take a look at two different buildings:
  • Building A: The building you’ve never climbed
  • Building B: The building you are very familiar with (you know metronome pace, goal time, & step heights)

Preferably, buildings A & B should be similar in height but it isn’t a show stopper if they aren’t.

First off, you want to figure out your proposed goal time for Building A. I’ve provided a method for doing so in Power Up a Tower: Part 2 (assuming you can estimate the height of the race course). You can also estimate your proposed goal time via other methods as well (e.g. comparing prior race results, etc.). In fact, I encourage you to use all the methods at your disposal. It never hurts to do a sanity check.

Once you have your proposed goal time for Building A, calculate the “percent maximum power” using the graph below (the table is taken from Power Up a Tower: Part 2 in case you are wondering).

Then find the “percent maximum power” for Building B (i.e. the building you are very familiar with).

Your metronome pace for Building A can now be calculated as follows:

Equation #2: PaceA = PaceB x (% Max PowerA/%Max PowerB) x (Step HeightB/Step HeightA)

PaceA and PaceB are your metronome paces (in BPM) for Buildings A and B

Step HeightA and Step HeightB are the typical heights of the steps in building A and B (using either inches or centimeters… just be consistent)

Note: Since you’ve never climbed building A before, I suggest you bring a ruler to the building and measure a few steps on the race course.

Here is a quick example to show what the equation is doing:

Building A has 7.0 inch steps. We predict our goal time to be about 5 minutes (say 30 stories)

Building B has 7.5 inch steps. You can climb it in about 10 minutes (say 55 stories) using a pace of 60 BPM on your metronome.

(% Max PowerA/%Max PowerB) = 67%/64% = 1.05

This positive ratio means you’ll have to use a faster pace (which makes sense because Building A is a shorter race)

(Step HeightB/Step HeightA) = 7.5 / 7.0 = 1.07

This positive ratio means you’ll have to use a faster pace (which makes sense because the steps in Building A are shorter than those in Building B).

Therefore: PaceA = 60 x 1.05 x 1.07 = 67 BPM

This method completely ignores all the turns (which is key to method #2). Instead it assumes you’ll attack Building A pretty much as you would Building B - which is probably a pretty good assumption of the buildings are somewhat similar.

Final Thoughts:
A metronome won’t make you faster - only hard work will do that - but it can help you race smarter.

I recently had to climb up the World Trade Center One in NYC without my metronome* and I did just fine without it. However, I made sure not to go out too fast right at the start of the race – something I learned through practice and regularly using my metronome.

 *stupid security rules 

Friday, April 3, 2015

World Championships Run Down.

Doha, Qatar.

I never imagined I’d visit the Middle East, but anything is possible in the world of stair climbing.

The tower running world championships were held in Doha this past weekend and I couldn’t pass up this once in a lifetime opportunity to race against the best tower climbers in the World.

It was a three day event with meetings on Thursday, preliminary races on Friday, and the finals on Saturday. That meant I had to leave Tuesday night in order to get to Doha by Wednesday evening.

The trip to the NYC was pretty uneventful and I arrived at JFK with plenty of time to spare. They began lining us up to board the aircraft nearly an hour before takeoff and I noticed that only a few of the passengers appeared to be Arabic. Pretty much everyone else appeared to be just your average New Yorker*

*FYI - New York is a huge melting pot of cultures and ethnicities.

As I was getting ready to board the plane, the airline announcer called out a several passengers to come to the front desk. Among those names I thought I heard “Veronica Stocker” – which is one of my WCL teammates from the West Coast. Could she be headed to Doha too? I only knew of three other teammates traveling to the race… and they were all traveling from Chicago. I looked around but Veronica was nowhere to be found, so I though perhaps it was just a coincidence.

The flight was pretty uneventful and I even managed to sleep one or two hours. The airline food was fairly good and they had a good selection of movies and TV shows. Plus I had an empty seat next to mine. No complaints!

After landing, I noticed Veronica standing in line to disembark. I guess it wasn’t just a coincidence! I flagged her down and she was happy to see me. Together we went through customs. Next we to get Veronica’s luggage from baggage claim… but much to my dismay (and Veronica’s horror) her bag was nowhere to be found. She ended up filing a claim at the luggage inquiry desk. The airline reasoned that the bag never made off of her transfer flight which ran late (hence the airline calling out her name at JFK). Her bag would have to be sent to the hotel when it arrived on the next incoming flight*. Although the missing bag fiasco lasted nearly 45 minutes the delay didn’t matter. The Chicago bound flight with my other teammates landed well after us and our hotel’s shuttle service didn’t want to make two separate trips for the team.

*and luckily Veronica got her bag the very next day.

While waiting for our WCL teammates we met a couple of pro triathletes* and their team’s manager. They were also invited to race, so needless to say I was pretty intimidated. How do you make small talk with pro athletes when you’d be competing head to head in a few days?

*Specifically Will Clarke (a 2008 Olympian) and Romain Guillaume from the Uplace-BMC Pro Triathlon Team.

Finally our teammates flying out of Chicago arrived: David, Jason, Karen, and Cindy. After a group photo, we all piled into the shuttle (actually two separate SUVs) and headed to the Aspire Tower (aka the Torch) where we’d be living and climbing.
Good Looking WCLTeam... and David
By the time we reached the hotel it was almost 8:00 PM. We quickly checked into our rooms and then headed to the “Flying Carpet” restaurant for dinner. There we ran into a few other athletes as well as the Towerrunning heads: Sebastian, Rudi, and Dano (I think only Mischa was missing). I know these guys fairly well because I’m part of the Towerrunning council as the Athletes Representative. We also met up with the last couple members of our WCL team: Napoleon and his daughter Jaime.

Over dinner we talked about the upcoming race and our pre-race strategy. If I was fast enough, I’d be racing three separate times. Tomorrow’s 1st preliminary round would whittle down the field to the 30 fastest climbers (per gender). It would be a time trial going from the ground floor all the way up to the top at the 51st floor. The 2nd preliminary round was only for seeding purposes and would be held just 5 hours after the 1st preliminary. It would be a time trial “sprint” race to the 30th floor. For the finals (held the following day) the seed order would be based on the average position of the two preliminary rounds. Racers would then be lined up on a huge starting grid (similar to F1 car racing) and be a mass start. The race would consist of about 150 meters of running before hitting the stairwell. The race would end on the 50th floor, one floor below the top.

Just making it into the finals was going to be difficult. According to Rudi, there were 30 or so elite climbers registered on the men’s side as well as a couple pro triathletes (who we already met) that would be racing. There were also several very strong local athletes who’d be participating too, which meant there were 40+ strong athletes competing for 30 spots in the final. The women’s field was a bit more open, although getting into the final with a decent seed would still take a fast climb.

The Torch
After dinner we went outside and took a few more pictures of the torch. Later, a few of us checked out the stairwell. We entered into the stairwell on the 6th floor, but only David and I climbed the entire building taking measurements of the stairs along the way of course*. When we reached the 50th floor we tried to find an elevator, but instead we ended up in the middle of a fancy restaurant instead. We walked down a few more floors and once again found ourselves in the middle of another restaurant. We were about to go down a few more floors when we were confronted by an angry member of the wait staff - after all, we were both sweaty messes by that point in the middle of a fancy restaurant. He stiffly directed us to the elevator. It wasn’t all bad though; while we were waiting to go down the hostess peppered us with questions about the upcoming race**. She wanted to do the race, too.

*The steps are all 6.75 inches tall in case you are wondering.

** I think she was flirting with David.

David and finally headed back to our room (we were sharing one room to save costs) and got ready for bed. The next day would be busy.

Although I was exhausted, I had a pretty poor sleep. David and I spent several hours chatting in the dark after both of us woke up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep. I managed to get maybe 6 hours of sleep only because we slept until 9:30.

The next morning we met up with a couple teammates for breakfast.  Then several of us decided to explore the nearby area. It was so hot outside that we soon gravitated to the next door mall to see what shopping was like in Doha. Summary: Pretty much like every other mall in America – only cleaner and with signs in both Arabic and English. I bought a pair of shorts in Carrefour (the French Walmart) since I was overheating in my khakis.
Indoor "Venice" & GAP Store... in Qatar
After the mall several of us hit the gym* and I had an easy workout on the elliptical machine. My goal was just to get my body moving and burn off a few hundred calories. Since the race was less than 24 hours away, I tried to keep my heartrate in the low 140s to make sure I didn’t tap into my energy reserves. It wasn’t a tough workout but it sure got me sweating. After a quick shower I headed to a late lunch. Then I explored the bottom floors of the stairwell to get a better feel for the race course.

*The gym is meant only for men because of Islamic tradition, but we found this out after Karen finished her workout. They staff didn’t seem to mind - probably because Karen’s muscles are bigger than mine (she is a former bodybuilder and still trains like one).

Just after 4:00 PM, the Towerrunning council got together at the Aspire Dome for an obligatory meeting. I won’t bore you with the details, but the key takeaway I came out with is that stair climbing is fast becoming a legitimate sport.

After a short dinner it was time to get our race bibs for the next day. The bibs were given out more or less in assumed seed order and I came out with bib #14. That gave me a bit of confidence since although there were several better athletes seeded higher (e.g. the pro triathletes and other serious athletes) it meant I had a pretty good chance to make the finals.

After the meeting, I met up with Napoleon and Jamie to show them the stairwell. Once again we climbed all the way to the top, but this time around I was smart enough to know to climb down a few floors and take the freight elevator down rather than disturb the patrons eating at the restaurant. Before heading back to our rooms we did a few pacing trials in the stairwell to mimic tomorrow’s pace. I'll make you a metronome convert yet, Napoleon! 
The Dinosaur and his Daughter
After the climb I headed off to bed. I was nervous about tomorrow’s preliminary round and I wanted a good night’s sleep to prepare.

I woke up around 8:00 and had a light breakfast. My race was at 10:00 AM so I went back to my room to try and relax. At 9:30 I began my warm-up. I did 5 minutes of stretching and then headed to the stairwell for a warm-up. I went up from the 4th floor and took the elevator down from the 16th floor (climbing 11 floors total – there is no 13th floor).  I did a total of three climbs with the last one at race pace. Race pace felt challenging, but I knew I should be able to handle it throughout the race.
The nerves were really on edge at the start line. We would be given 20 second gaps between climbers to minimize passing. As the 14th climber, I would be starting right after Ralf and right before Jason. I did a couple rounds of burpees to stay warmed up but pretty soon it was my turn to get on the start line.

I had several goals for this race. First off, I had to climb fast enough to make sure that I stayed within the top 30. That meant I couldn’t slack off very much because I figured the cut-off time wouldn’t be too far off my regular race pace. Secondly, I wanted to make sure I kept up with my peers - If I made the finals, I didn’t want to be too far behind. That meant I really couldn’t slack off too much. Lastly, I wanted  make sure I didn’t expend too much energy because if I made it through the 1st preliminary round I’d  still have to race in the 2nd preliminary round later in the afternoon (more about that later) as well as tomorrow’s finals.

The 1st and 2nd goals were pretty much in line with one another, but the 3rd goal was in direct conflict with the others. Basically I had to climb fast... but not too fast.  Easy stuff right?

Fortunately, I had a pretty good idea how to pace myself for the race. I dialed my pace to 99 BPM which was just a little bit slower than the race pace I used at One Penn Plaza the week before*. At One Penn I kept to my metronome’s pace during the 1st half but was able to pick up the pace in the 2nd half which turned out a very competitive time. I figured that if I just kept that same pace during this race – without accelerating during the 2nd half - I should still be fairly competitive.

*I used 94 BPM at One Penn Plaza, but the stairs in that building are about ¾ inch taller.

The race officials let us into the stairwell in 20 second intervals. When it was my turn to start, I turned on my metronome and began running towards the emergency exit (i.e. the stairwell entrance).

The race course is as follows: a short run to the emergency exit and then another short run down the hallway. Next up is a short flight of steps followed by a short run around the tower’s core and into the main stairwell (Stairwell B). The stairwell itself entirely made from concrete and is painted with a non-slip gritty paint. The rails are fairly close together such that you can use both rails simultaneously. Up until floor 22, it is an open stairwell, meaning you can more or less see all the way to the bottom if you look over the inner rail. These floors are uniformly 11/12 (11 steps, landing, then 12 steps). The stairwell turns to the left and the steps measure 6.75 inches tall. After floor 22, the stairwell is closed, meaning there is a solid wall between the inner rails. The flights are uniformly 14/14. The stairwell continues to turn to the left and the steps are all 6.75 inches tall. On the 50th floor there is a separate door that leads up to the 51st floor. There is a 2nd stairwell (Stairwell A) with minor differences which I’ll discuss later. (Note: There is no 13th floor)

I ran pretty fast at the start of the race to make sure I didn’t lose too much time. When I hit the stairwell I immediately climbed to the beat of my metronome. Since the first 22 floors are all 11/12, it was fairly easy to keep one foot on the landing. Even when I placed two feet on the landing, I made sure to accelerate to keep my vertical pace constant.

On floor 22 I had a minor delay. The solid wall blocks the view of the next flight, so when I hit that floor I started running out of the stairwell. I probably lost a second or two as I had to quickly change directions.

From here on out the race became a little bit harder because of the solid wall and the 14/14 configuration. This configuration made it a bit harder to execute turns efficiently. In fact, at some point along the way I scraped my knuckles on the wall - although I didn’t notice the bleeding until after the race.

I hit floor 27 (my assumed halfway point) in about 3:50 which I thought was pretty good. My heartrate had peaked but I felt I could go faster. I resisted the temptation to accelerate and continued my climb.

Right around the 40th floor the climb became painful, but with only 10 floors left to go, I knew the suffering would soon end. I glanced at my watch. 4:50? Wow, I was doing awesome*! I still had enough energy to burn but I rather than spend it, I held it in reserve.

*4:50 at the 40th floor seems a little fast right? Keep reading…

I crossed the mat on the 51st floor and kept walking. I stopped my watch at 4:50. What? My watch must have stopped somewhere in the 30s. Such is life. I manually counted out the seconds until the next climber arrived (possibly Jason?) and I was only 10-15 seconds ahead. Since racers started at 20 second intervals that meant the next climber clearly gained some ground.

I was a little winded but I was able to recover quite quickly. A lot of the other climbers were sitting on the floor recovering so I knew they put more effort into the race. As such, I had a sinking feeling that my time wasn’t very competitive with my peers.

I asked Ralf how he had done and he told me that he had timed himself at just over 8 minutes. He then told me that he counted out the seconds and I was a good 30 – 35 seconds behind, which meant he clipped my 10-15 seconds. I also asked Jason how he did. Apparently he was passed a three times during the race, but managed to re-pass once. He didn’t know exactly how far ahead the two passing climbers were ahead of him, but it appeared that our finishing times were in the same ballpark.

I wandered around a bit more and then learned that a bunch of guys broke the 7 minute and those who didn’t were closer to 7 than to 8. All of those times put mine to shame. Although I felt fairly certain that I had finished in the top 30, I doubted I’d make the top 20.

The next few hours were somewhat of a blur but I did cheer on the women’s finishers at the top of the climb. I also had a light lunch in preparation for the 2nd preliminary round at 3:00 PM, assuming that I had made it into the top 30.

It turns out I never found out my final time because there were problems with the timing chips. The Towerrunning officials had to manually calculate times based on the race footage. Even as I write this I still don’t know my official time.

After lunch I found out that I made it into the top 30 although my friend David wasn’t so lucky. I think he placed 33rd which put him just outside of the final cut. The timing issues just made it worse. At one point the officials said he was in and I went back to the room to tell David the good news. But an hour later the officials said he just missed the cut. I felt horrible and I’m sure David was crushed by the news (despite preparing himself for the bad news).

I tried to relax before my next race, so after lunch I went to my room to surf the internet and read. At 2:30 I began my warmup – repeating the same routine I did during the 1st round – and made it to the start line around 2:55. They made us change our bibs based our results from the 1st round. I was given bib #11 which was clearly a mistake but the officials didn’t have enough time to fix. I felt a little embarrassed when several better climbers asked me about my preliminary results. I know it wasn’t my fault, but I hated having to explain the situation time and time again.

This time around they’d be giving the climbers 30 second gaps, so was pretty sure I wouldn’t be passed by any climbers, despite the fact I was seeded amongst better athletes.

The race course was basically the same this time around except we’d be ending on the 30th floor rather than the 51st floor. I doubted that I’d be passed in such a short race although the Columbian behind me thought differently and gestured that he wanted me to give up the inside rail when he passed me. Of course that gave me a good reason to make sure I stayed well enough ahead.
I spent a few minutes thinking about my race strategy. Should I push hard and gain a few spots which give me a slight head start in tomorrow’s final? Or should I race conservatively to make sure I’m fresh for the final?

I decided to race conservatively. I figured that I was already behind some of my peers so it would be pretty difficult to gain ground (since they’d be taking results of both preliminary rounds into account). I felt it was more important to be fresh for the final considering that I was already likely seeded near the back of the pack.

I set my metronome for 115 BPM which is a pretty fast clip, but fairly slow for a sub-4 minute race. To but things into perspective, I won in Boston in 4:24 with an equivalent pace of 125 BPM, and today’s course was even shorter.

When it was my turn to go I ran to the fire door, around the tower core, and into the stairwell. It felt pretty easy for the first 10 floors or so, and I hoped it would be fast enough so I wouldn’t be caught be the Colombian. I still felt pretty good until the 22nd floor, but once again I nearly exited the stairwell (see my first race above) and I chastised myself for the mental lapse. Things started getting tough after this point because the turns are more difficult and fatigue was starting to set in. I could have picked up the pace at this point, but I was determined to stick with the plan and make sure I didn’t completely exhaust myself and burn out my legs. I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch at 4:10. Not an impressive time for sure, but hopefully it would be in the same range as my peers.

Once again I was tired, but was able to quickly walk it off. I then grabbed a quick snack (Gatorade and a banana) and waited for my peers. I spoke with Silvio and Jason a few minutes after they crossed the finish line and it appeared I managed to clip them both by 5-10 seconds, but after speaking with Ralf, I learned that he came in about 10 seconds ahead of me. That meant I more or less held my position without expending too much energy. It was a fair trade.

After the race, David, Karen, Jason and I went for a bus tour of the city. For the past couple days we were trapped indoors and we wanted to get a feel for the city. A small bus picked us up from the hotel and about 45 minutes later we were on top of a double decker bus taking in the sights of the city. Here are a few things I learned:
  • Only 20% of the population is Qatari. The majority of the residents hail from the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and many other countries.
  • Doha is wealthy. It is shopping paradise for high end Western brands.
  • The cars were all pretty new and there were plenty of high end vehicles on the road (Lamborghini, Porsche, etc.).
  • The city is growing and there is a lot of construction. They’ve reclaimed a bit of land from the bay and all the sky scrapers were built within the last 10 years.
  • Traffic is fierce, but they are building a subway to help congestion.
  • I felt very safe. There weren’t armed guards walking around. There is no social unrest in this part of the Middle East.
  • Although Westerners are expected to dress conservatively (no bare shoulders, shorts covering the knee) Qatar appears to be very tolerant of other cultures.
Doha Skyline from afar
Doha lit up at night
Because of traffic, the tour took longer than expected and we didn’t get back to the Torch until 8:30 or so. We were famished by that point*

*and my bladder was ready to rupture... you know the feeling, right David?

At dinner we learned our starting positions for the final. I was told I came in 23rd during both preliminaries so I’d be seeded 23rd for the final. Jason was a couple spots lower at 25th, but all my other peers were seeded a bit higher. I think Ralph was 19th, Norbert 21st, and Silvio 22nd. Although I was seeded a few spots lower than I had hoped, I felt that it was worth it to have fresh legs and lungs for the final.

The next morning I felt nervous (of course) but otherwise pretty fresh. I felt more or less fully recovered from yesterday’s races. I skipped a formal breakfast opting for a banana and a granola bar instead.

I stayed in my room until 8:55 AM and then headed outside to the start line to get my new bib. Today the women would be racing at 10:00 AM and the men at 10:45. After getting my bib I headed back to my room to relax.

Right at 10:00 AM I headed to the stairwell on the 4th floor and cheered for the women as they passed by. Then at 10:15 I began my final warmup using the same routine as the day before.
I arrived at the start line a few minutes before the start and while waiting around I met up with my good friend Dan and his father (who visiting Dan in Doha). Dan is a professor at one of the local universities so when I found I’d be in his neck of the woods, I figured it would be a great to meet up.

The race course for the finals is a little bit different than in the prior heats. First off, we’d be starting off in a huge starting grid similar in layout to a Formula 1 start (so I’m told) with two columns of racers (odd seeds on one side and even seeds on the other). The distance between racers was about 2.5 meters such that the distance between the 1st and 29thpositions (or 2nd and 30th positions) was 32.5 meters.

To put things into perspective, the 1st seed starts a good 6-8 seconds ahead of the 29th seed assuming a fast 5K pace.

Next, we’d have to run a good 150 meters (with a slight uphill) to the main entry of the building. I didn’t measure length of the run, but it took me a good 30 seconds with a quick jog, so I figure it is a good 20-25 second run at a fast 5K pace.

Then we’d enter the main building and climb up the main steps to the M-1 level (i.e. the 2nd floor). At the top of the stairs we’d enter Stairwell B and start climbing as normal until the 30th floor. Here we’d exit the stairwell and run around the tower core (counterclockwise) and enter Stairwell A (on the other side of the core). I didn’t measure the run, but I’m guessing it takes 5-10 seconds.
Finally we’d climb up to the finish line on the 50th floor (since Stairwell A doesn’t go all the way up to the 51st floor).

Before the start they officials had us line up in the proper seed order and a minute later we were given the green light to race.
Lining up. I'm waaay in back
My strategy on the start line was to run at a quick jog to the stairwell and then climb at 99 BPM. At the 30th floor I would then accelerate and finish the race strong.

I wasn’t really happy with all the pre-stairwell running (since I’m not a runner) but at the start of the race I did my best to keep up with the others. Although I dropped a couple places on the run, I wasn’t too far behind my peers when we entered the building. I bounded up the first few stairs, quickly realizing I was climbing way beyond my 99 BPM pace. Midway up, I started to decelerate and I entered the stairwell in about 26th place or so.

I knew that everyone was climbing fast and furious and I figured the guys still behind would be tearing up the stairwell. Since this was a mass start, I was not obligated to give up the inside rail, so I hugged the inside lane as tightly as possible. If the lower seeds wanted to pass, I’d give them room on the outside; I knew I’d catch up to them again and I didn’t want to waste my time or energy by giving up the inside lane.

Sure enough, every one passed me except Napoleon. By the 4th floor I was next to last (about 29th place). Clearly this wasn’t where I wanted to be (with my aspirations of a top 20 finish) and I was felt a bit demoralized as we crested the 5th floor. On the other hand, I knew that I was stronger than the lower seeds and I should be able to catch most if not all of them later on in the race.

The real race had begun.

I climbed to the beat of my metronome and caught one of the lower seeds on the 6th floor or so. He was the last person to pass me so he was never out of my sight. I could tell that he couldn’t maintain the pace and fortunately he gave up the inside lane for me.

Next I caught up to the long grey-haired guy wearing socks. He was climbing fairly quickly so I stayed with him for the next ten floors or so. Meanwhile we both passed the other lower seeds. It was a crowded mess in the stairwell, but fortunately I didn’t have to expend too much energy re-passing. We more or less took the inside track as we climbed.

We were probably in the upper teens when I finally made the move to pass Mr. Socks. The stairwell was no longer crowded so I darted up on the inside. By my estimation, I had cleared all the lower seeds leaving only my peers ahead of me: Jason, Rudi, Ralph, Silvio, Pavel, & Norbert.

I was still climbing to the beat of my metronome and I was feeling pretty good. My heartrate had peaked but I wasn’t in any danger of blowing up. After passing all the lower seeds I was feeling a bit better, but I knew I deserved better than 25th place or so. I continued climbing at my pace, hoping that the guys up ahead were blowing up and I was closing the gap.

And boy did I close that gap!

From here on out, my memory becomes a bit clouded regarding the order of passing, but I’ll tell it how I remember it.

Somewhere in the upper 20s I finally caught up to Jason. It was quite a relief seeing a familiar face. We’ve raced together a number of times and I usually finish 10-15 seconds ahead, so passing him gave me a boost of confidence; my other peers shouldn’t be too far ahead. The “Steel Oath” let me pass on the inside and together we exited Stairwell “B” and ran around the deck of the 30th floor.
For the 3rd race in a row I had a brief mental mishap. This time I nearly exited the deck through the wrong exit. I stutter stepped a brief moment and continued around the deck to the entrance to Stairwell “A”.

I caught up Rudi either right before floor 30 or right after (I honestly can’t remember). I called out "Hi Rudi!" and he let me by on the inside. At the same time we both caught up to Norbert who was having a very difficult race. Norbert actually moved out of the stairwell (into a side nook) to take a short break. Apparently the effort of yesterday’s races and today’s fast start had taken a great toll.

By this point I was climbing faster than my metronome. The pace was tough, but I still had energy in reserve and I was going for a negative split for the 2nd half of the race. Now that I had passed Jason, Norbert, and Rudi I was in about 22nd place – one better than my seed – I was feeling pretty confident.

The 30s were difficult but by the time I hit the upper 30s I knew I could keep up the pace until the end. I saw Silvio and Pavel climbing together up ahead and I surged by them on the inside. I was pretty thrilled.

The only one left on my list was Ralph, but I knew he was the strongest of the bunch. In our last two head to head races we were only seconds apart, so I knew catching him wasn’t going to be easy. I was in the lower 40s by this point and pushed the pace. The finish line was fast approaching.

I finally caught sight of Ralph on the 46th floor and caught up to him on the 47th. With only 6 flights to go Ralph increased the tempo and we both surged ahead to the 48th floor. Only 56 steps remained between us and the finish line.

On the 49th floor I knew the race was over. Clearly Ralf had some energy left in the tanks and I didn’t have the power to pass, especially when we were both going full tilt. I let him go up the final flight uncontested and I crossed the finish line at the top a couple seconds behind. My watch read 8:10.

The finish area was absolute carnage (see David's video). I saw Ralf drop to the ground a few feet beyond the finish line. Beyond him athletes blanketed the floor in a tangle of pain and suffering. I walked by Ralf and gave him a congratulatory tap on the leg and continued onward. I wanted to drop but there wasn’t any room. I pushed past one of the volunteers into a blocked off area of the restaurant, but he quickly pulled me back. I replied to him “What gives? I’m tired and I just want to lie down!*” Angrily I found a place to sit away from the main pile of athletes.

*Yeah, I was rude, but I was also in a lot of pain…

After that point I recovered fairly quickly. Although I put a lot of effort into the final part of the climb, I raced the majority of the building somewhat conservatively. As a result, I didn’t spend all that much time above the redline. A couple minutes later I was up and about chatting with my fellow racers.

Although I didn’t overtake Ralf, I was very pleased with my race. The first part may have felt disastrous, but I really turned it around in the middle and at the end. Rudi and I took a look at the preliminary race results and surprisingly enough I squeaked into the top 20! But admittedly I did have a little help; Omar Bekkali – a very good climber - dropped out of the race with an injury which put me into the 20th spot. It also showed that I passed the most racers in the stairwell which meant I really had a solid 2nd half.

After recovering, I went downstairs and met up with Dan and his father. I wanted to get out of the Torch and do a bit of sightseeing, so I suggested we spend the afternoon in Souq Waqif, the most famous market in Doha. I knew about the market because we saw it on the bus tour, but didn’t have time to wander around.

I went upstairs and took a quick shower and then headed downstairs for a quick bite to eat. Along the way I ran into David invited him along. I also had a brief chat with Darren Wilson, the bronze medalist. Apparently there was a bit of drama at the front of the race. One of the Columbian tried to block out several of the top climbers. In fact, Darren had to prop up Mark Bourne (the silver medalist) to prevent him from falling. Although it was bad news for the guys in front, it was good news for me: with a 30 second penalty the Columbian would be moved down several spots and I’d be moved up a spot into 19th place.

The four of us piled into a taxi and headed to the Souq. Since it was the middle of the day, it wasn’t very crowded and only a fraction of the stores were open. Dan explained that the market is a much busier place at night when it becomes a little cooler outside. The marked reminded me a little of NYC Chinatown with tiny shops selling trinkets, but it was still fun browsing the different shops. Besides trinkets, there were shops selling honey and spices (albeit many of them were closed) as well as lots of places for silk and other fabrics. There was even a small complex devoted to gold and jewelry (the Gold Souq).
Souq Waqif
We stopped by a local restaurant for lunch. I wasn’t too hungry but I had a Turkish coffee and some desert. During lunch, Dan and I finally did a bit of catching up. I told him all about our common friends. In return he told me some good news: his wife would be having twins. Congratulations!

After lunch it was time to get back to the hotel for the formal Gala. We parted ways at entrance of the Souk and took a cab back to the Hotel. 

During the trip, as I was fiddling around with my seatbelt strap, I realized I was no longer wearing the strap of my travel bag. I must have left it back at the restaurant.  No big loss I thought… until I remembered it contained my passport! Quickly we turned the cab around and headed back to the Souk. Although the odds were good that we’d be able to retrieve my bag, I was still a nervous wreck. I needed my passport in order to get back to the US.

The cab dropped us off at the entrance and the driver offered to wait for us. Quickly, I followed David back to the restaurant (for he has a better sense of direction than I). When we arrived, I asked the host at the front desk if they had found a small bag and he pointed behind the counter. There it was! I showed him my passport to prove that I was the owner and a moment later it was back in my possession. A huge wave of relief settled over me and together David and I headed back to the waiting cab.

We arrived at the hotel without further incident and changed into better clothes for the Gala. We sat with all our other teammates and watched a slideshow of all the pictures taken over the course of the last couple days. Ralf arrived a few minutes late to the Gala with one of his Couch Surfing friends – a pretty girl from Kenya. There wasn’t any room at the German/Austrian table so he decided to sit with all the cool kids from the US*. Dinner was buffet style and I ate as much as possible – including dessert.

*As an added bonus, his friend brought along a bottle of vodka (shhh… don’t tell).

After dinner it was time to get packed. We’d be leaving the hotel at 5:00 AM to catch our 8:15 AM flight back to the US (the NYC and Chicago bound flights were leaving within minutes of one another).

Early the next morning the shuttle bus picked us up from the hotel and dropped us off at the airport – along with Darren and the professional triathletes. Security was uneventful and we departed ways once we arrived at our gate.
We had a "belter", right Darren?
This time around I knew that Veronica was on my flight and we managed to sit next to each other in two of the best seats in economy; most of the seats are grouped in rows of three, but we were able to snag the only group of two, giving us a bit more privacy.

The flight to JFK was smooth and I watched a few movies along the way. At customs I gave Veronica a hug and parted ways. She had another flight to catch and I still had to get to Albany.

It was a long journey back to Albany. The subway right was frustrating. Every time I had to catch or switch trains, I missed it by a hair – either by my own unfamiliarity with the different lines or by pure bad luck (like getting stuck behind someone in the escalator). I missed my train back to Poughkeepsie by mere minutes and had to wait an extra half an hour for the next. Par for the course. When I arrived in Poughkeepsie it was already past 7:00 PM, but I was finally on the home stretch. I arrived at home at a quarter to 9:00 and gave my family a big hug. 

Doha was fun, but it was good to be home.

Race Grades:
Effort: B+ ; I raced a bit too conservatively in the finals to give myself an A, but I’m still satisfied.

Strategy: A- ; On the first day I did a pretty good job saving my energy at the expense of a few seeding positions. It was definitely a good trade-off. During the final, I paced myself a little bit too conservatively during the beginning of the race, but on the positive side it allowed me to pick up the pace during the 2nd half. Since the start was staggered there seemed to be plenty of space in the stairwell, although getting passed and having to re-pass was a waste of time and energy.

Technique: B+ ; My running left something to be desired, but my climbing was pretty good. I did well on the 11/12 configuration but I was less efficient when it switched to 14/14.

 Overall: A- ; I’m pretty happy with my climb. The biggest thing I would have changed would be to hit the "go" switch on 22 rather than wait until 30. I also think I could have tolerated a slightly faster initial pace. However, I have to be pleased with my result. It’s better to have negative splits rather than risk blowing up.

Final Thoughts:
I’m very happy about coming in 19th in a very deep men’s final. You can see the full results here.
One thing that surprised me was how good the top men’s athletes are. I raced against some of these athletes at Empire which is longer course and has a bit more running, but it was still shocking to see how fast these guys are in a middle distance climb. For example, the finals seemed to run about 20 to 30 seconds slower than the Stratosphere – our US championship race - yet the top 5 guys had times that would have equaled or bettered the record at the Strat.

Boy do I have my work cut out for me over the next couple seasons.

Another thing I noticed was how slow some of the professional athletes were in the stairwell. These weren’t the “dregs” of the pro field either; one of the triathletes was on the British Olympic team in 2008. I honestly thought that all the cycling these guys do would have put them into medal contention, but instead they finished only a few spots higher than me (i.e. mid-upper teens). If it sounds like I’m knocking the pros, I don’t mean it that way; my takeaway is that it takes a bit of specificity to be good at climbing stairs and that several of the top stair climbers really are world class athletes.