Tuesday, February 3, 2015

ESBRU 2014

Editor's Note: Originally written in 2014, this post has been sitting on my desk for nearly a year for a few reasons. First, I didn't have a particularly strong performance. Second, I was fighting off a virus that nearly ruined my season (which started with the Boston/ESBRU combo) and I wanted to forget about the whole thing. The final reason is I'm just lazy at keeping my blog current.

With the 2015 edition of the race right around the corner, I felt it was time to dust off this post and finally publish it. 

And my expectations for Tomorrow's race? I'm healthy, in great shape, and nervous. I'm likely going under 12 minutes.

ESBRU is done!

What a difference a few days makes. Even though I had a pretty mediocre performance at Empire, I still had more fun at this race than I did in Boston*.

*In Boston, I unofficially broke the course record. However, I couldn’t find the timing chip mat and lost 5+ seconds. My mishap cost me both the race and the official course record. It was a tough pill to swallow, but a good lesson learned.

I was full of nerves in the days leading up to the race, and sick to boot. I pushed myself pretty hard in Boston and I picked up a case of “climber’s cough”. To make matters worse, my immune system took a hit and I also picked up a cold; a runny nose on Sunday turned into congestion & wooziness on Monday. I kept Tuesday’s workout (the day before the race) short and easy to make sure I was fresh for Wednesday’s race. I only did 8 climbs at race pace in my 6-story office building. Although most of my strength seemed to be back, the top end of my lungs still hurt, making climbing somewhat uncomfortable.

Tuesday night was particularly stressful because not only were my lungs still sore, but a snow storm was coming in. I thought about leaving for NYC that evening to make sure I would make it to the race, but opted to stay home instead. I hoped that a good night’s sleep would help me recover.

When I awoke Wednesday morning, there was about 12 inches of snow on the ground and it was still snowing. School was cancelled so I had to work from home that morning. This was actually kind of nice because it meant I’d save a good hour’s worth of driving (round trip) which meant I had some extra time to relax and prepare for the race.

Around noon I stopped working, but I didn’t get on the road for at least another half an hour. Even though I parked my car as close to the road as possible, the snow was so deep it took me a good 30 minutes to clean my car and shovel a path to the road.

The roads were horrible and it was still snowing. I nearly had an accident on my way to the bus station after I slid through a red light. Fortunately there weren’t very many cars on the road and I had enough time to get my car back under control before running into the cross traffic.

I arrived safely at the Albany Greyhound station, but to my dismay it was closed because of the storm. I dreaded the thought of driving all the way to NYC in the storm, but luckily the train station was just across the Hudson River in Rensselaer. I hopped back into my car and drove over the Dunn Memorial bridge. Miraculously the trains were still running and I booked passage to Port Authority, NYC.

The train ride was smooth and we arrived in NYC without incident. Since I still had several hours to kill before the race, we took the family over to Rockefeller Plaza to visit the LEGOLAND toy store and take in another iconic building*.

*I placed third at the Rock back in 2012. It is also the place where I met Sproule’s friend Tim Donahue.

We arrived at the Empire State Building around 7:00 PM. The first thing I did was ask permission to measure the stairs. It took a few minutes to get through security and another few minutes to talk them into unlocking the stairwell door, but finally they allowed me to see the first flight of steps. With an elevation gain of 1050 feet and 1576 steps, you’d expect the stairs to be 8 inches tall… but you’d be wrong*. The steps at the Empire State Building are just over 7 inches tall!

*Time and time again, the published step count and elevation for stair climbing races are incorrect. Just ask Stan. It is no different at Empire. Although I only had a chance to measure a limited sample of steps, I’m positive that the steps are less than 8 inches tall because I climbed steadily at 88 BPM using my metronome. Had these steps been 8 inches, I would have either broken 11 minutes or had a heart attack.

The NYRR had a special area for the invitational and MMRF waves and I grabbed a spot in the corner to begin final preparations. While I changed and repacked my bags, I saw a few familiar faces – people I knew personally or climbers who I knew by reputation. In fact, I had a chance to finally one of the fastest climbers in the world: Darren Wilson from Australia. In the waiting room I also learned that the finish line had been moved to the top of the 86th floor rather than out on the observation deck. The bad weather made it too dangerous to run outside.

Nearly 25 minutes before the race, they started lining up the different waves, which was odd, because NYRR’s email strictly forbade us to arrive earlier than 30 minutes before the race. Thank goodness I ignored their instructions and arrived early so I had enough time to get ready. The other oddity was that they forbade us to bring our water bottles (presumably due to the enhanced security at the building).

A few minutes later, they allowed my wave (the men’s invitational) to start warming up while the women’s invitational waited at the start line. The hallway was pretty hot and after I completed a few rounds of burpees, my face was getting flushed and my mouth was getting dry. Without a water bottle in sight, I asked one of the guards the location of the nearest bathroom (which I figured would have a sink) and he told me there weren’t any, but I could try the Starbucks at the corner of the building. The door to the Starbucks was locked, but miraculously I saw a familiar face staring at me through the glass doorway. It was Bruce Yang! I did my best mime impression to indicate I was thirsty and needed some water. Fortunately Bruce had an extra bottle of water and motioned that he’d meet me in the hallway. He then walked out of Starbucks and walked back into the building near the cordoned off hallway. He reached over to give me a full water bottle as I shook his other hand to thank him. Triumphantly, I took a few sips. After saying goodbye to Bruce, I passed the bottle around to my fellow racers as we watched the women’s invitational take off. Now it was our turn to toe the line.

My strategy was pretty simple; keep a conservative pace until the 50th floor and then speed up if I felt up to it. Although my lungs felt better than they did yesterday, I wasn’t sure I was at 100%. Plus, pushing myself too hard (like I did in Boston) would be a recipe for getting a full blown lung infection. As much as I wanted to go under 12:00, I wasn’t in the right condition or mind set. I figured that 12:30 was still achievable, but I’d still be happy if I broke 13:00.

Looking at the invitational field, I knew I would be pulling up the rear. My closest competitors would be David Tromp and Henry Wigglesworth, but I didn’t plan on keeping up with either of them this year. Not only was I not feeling great, but they both were veterans of this race*. Honestly, I didn’t know how to pace myself in this building, especially on the upper floors when you had to do a bit of running to get to each staircase.

*Although I did this race back in 2012, it was a terrible experience. Even though I knew what pace I used throughout the race, the circumstances were completely different. I was in the lottery time-trial and the stairwell was choked full of people. I ended up passing at least 100 people which both slowed me down and made me tired. It was so exhausted, that I ended up walking on the upper levels. Correspondingly, only a fraction of my first experience could be applied to today’s race.

You may think I was selling myself short and giving up before the race had even begun. Perhaps that is true, but at that moment it felt right. It was also somewhat liberating since I no longer felt any pressure to perform well. Setting the bar low would ensure I’d finish the race, even if my lungs started to hurt again. Plus it would give me the opportunity to measure my pace in a clear stairwell. I might not feel very competitive this year, but the knowledge I’d gain would set me up for success next year.

I set my metronome to 87 BPM. This was probably the pace I should of used in 2012 and I figured it would be a relatively easy pace for me to keep. In fact, if the steps were indeed only 7 inches tall throughout the course, I would probably need to pick up the pace during the 2nd half in order to finish under 13 minutes.

As soon as the NYRR finished announcing the men’s invitational, the official sounded the horn in one of the most cordial starts in the ESBRU history*. I started off behind the favorites, beating only Henry Wigglesworth through the stairwell doorway. I immediately started marching to the beat of my metronome as all the other climbers pulled away and jockeyed for position. By the 5th floor, everyone else – including Henry – were already out of sight. I bit back the urge to follow since I knew their pace was unsustainable, secretly hoping I’d reign in a few people later on in the climb.

*Search for “ESBRU Start” on YouTube. Some years had dozens if not hundreds of people per wave, which meant the start was complete chaos.

Men's Invitational Heat. I'm in the 2nd row.
It was pretty lonely in the stairwell and I didn’t like being the very last one – especially by such a large margin. I wasn’t in the race mentally, but physically I was coping quite well. My lungs weren’t hurting and the pace felt pretty relaxed. By the time I hit the upper teens, I increased my metronome to 88 BPM, not daring to go any higher this early in the race. From experience I knew that the first part of a race always feels easy; it usually isn’t until the midway point when the pain really starts to kick in.

Around floor 21 or so the stairwell pattern changed. Instead of 180 degree landings between each floor, each floor had a single flight of stairs*. To get to each new flight, you had to run several paces across the landing. The pictures below show this section of the race course. Photos courtesy James Harris (photographer) and Tomas Celko (pictured).

* Technically there are two flights each floor, not one continuous flight. You will notice from the 2nd picture the stairs begin with a short quarter turn right followed by a short flight of three steps which ends on a small landing. After another quarter turn, there is a single long flight of stairs up to the next level.

Eventually I got used to this new pattern. My technique went something like this:
  1. Finish the prior flight of stairs. Grab the rail to help accelerate around the turn.
  2. Run across the landing (it is too short for a full sprint).
  3. At the base of the next flight, grab the railing as best as possible to help turn the corner.
  4. Use the momentum gained during the run to carry your body up the first short flight of steps and around the landing.
  5. Decelerate back to normal climbing speed on the long flight of stairs - letting gravity do the work.
  6. Climb the remainder of the flight. Repeat.

Soon I hit floor 30. The stairwell was very quiet. Besides the sounds of my breathing and footsteps, the only other sounds were coming from occasional volunteer. I remember hearing one of them announce “Here comes the last climber!” Most likely he was speaking into a radio to help the NYRR keep track of the race, but it still made me feel lousy. No one likes to be in last place.

A few floors later, I could faintly hear another climber up ahead.  Soon I confirmed I was gaining on the racer with the #4 bib. He was actually the only climber I didn’t know by reputation. When I saw him walking on the landings rather than running, I knew he was in trouble. I’ve been there before! I finally passed him on in the upper 30s and continued my vertical march.

I passed floor #44 imagining I only had the Albany Corning Tower left to climb*. I was nearly half way (time wise) up to the 86th floor but I didn’t bother looking at my watch. Without a stairwell map it is pointless to try and guess time splits. The floor numbers kept creeping up and soon enough I was in the 50s still climbing smoothly. I approached the 60s only slightly more fatigued.

*David Tromp told me that is what he always thinks when he passes the 44th floor a couple years ago and it has stuck ever since.

I met James Harris on the 66th floor. He wasn’t racing this event – he was taking pictures*. I said hello as he took a couple shots. Physically I was feeling pretty good at this point. My heart rate had maxed out but the pain level was tolerable and my lungs were holding up. I accelerated for a few floors but then settled back into my regular pace**. I was still climbing by myself (albeit no longer in last place) and I didn’t have the willpower to go any faster.

*His wife Cindy has won the ESBRU multiple times and is a bit of a celebrity in the stair climbing world.

**That is one downside of using a metronome. Once you set a certain pace it is hard to deviate.

I passed into the lower 70s and risked a glance at my watch; It was already past 10 minutes!* I didn’t really have a clue if I was on track to break 13 minutes, but I did know one thing; the top racers were already finishing and here I was pussy footing around nearly 15 floors below. Something in my brain snapped and I shifted into high gear. It was probably too late to make much of a difference, but I had to do something.

* Maybe my watch said 10:17? Or maybe10: 43? I don’t really remember.

In the upper 70s or lower 80s I passed my friend Madeleine (who was in the women’s invitational) and a few moments later I passed another girl. Even though Madeleine was in last place, I was happy she was making it a competitive race. I on the other hand didn’t even show up to the fight. Ashamed with myself, I bolted up the few remaining flights and passed the finish line. I stopped my stop watch just as it passed 12:33.

Winded, I looked for a place to rest as a volunteer grabbed me a cup of water. The last ten floors were really draining, but compared to Boston, I felt pretty good. I was fairly pleased with my time, which would have been in the lower 12:40s had we been able to run across the observation deck to the normal finish line. Although I was a little upset with myself for not picking up the pace sooner in the race, I still managed to come close to my goal. Plus I set new PR by a margin of about 1:15. I was definitely pleased.

After the race we headed down to the post-race buffet and award ceremony. I think it was on the 80th floor? It was nice to chat with the other racers at the buffet and congratulate all the podium finishers. I got a chance to look at the time sheet and I was surprised to learn I was only 6 seconds behind Henry Wigglesworth. After the first couple floors I never even saw him in the stairwell. I must have made up a significant amount of time near the end of the race, which meant my slow and steady strategy nearly paid off. You can see the full results here.

The best climbers live in Albany!
The only sour moment came during the announcement of the podium finishers on the men’s side. I was pretty upset when the NYRR announcer commented “Yet again, no American male sits on the podium.” Although true, it was the way he said it that really set me off. The tone of his voice sounded like he thought the American racers were 2nd rate. What an asshole. After flipping him the bird, I yelled out “Hey, why don’t you try it?”

This point deserves a bit more commentary. If you follow Stair Climbing, you would quickly realize that the sport is dominated by the Europeans and Australians on the men’s side. We have many good climbers in the US, but there are far more athletes abroad who compete at a high level. To make matters worse, very few top Americans race at Empire because of the logistics. The race is in the middle of the week and this year the acceptance notices didn’t go out until 4 weeks prior to the event. This makes booking tickets & hotel accommodations difficult for those Americans living further West. In fact, you’ll see from the results sheet that the top Americans all hail from the East Coast.

After the awards ceremony, David and I headed back down to the bag check area to get changed. Next on the agenda was the brewery for a few post-race drinks! I spent the next hour or so with my friends and family talking about the race and meeting other climbers. All to soon it was time to leave; we had a bus to catch back to Albany.

Final Thoughts:
Effort: D/B- ; I didn’t push myself very hard (D). However, I just recovered from Boston, so I purposefully went out slow. That said, I should have picked up the pace around floor 45 rather than wait until the mid-70s. As such, I’m giving myself a B-.
Strategy: C+/B+ ; My pace was definitely too conservative (C+), but considering I had just recovered, I get some points back (B+). I can’t give myself an A because I failed to increase my pace during the 2nd half of the race.
Technique: B+ ; The stairwell takes a bit of getting used to, but I finally feel comfortable with it. With practice, I think an A is possible.
Overall: C/B ; Because I didn’t push myself hard enough, I give myself a C. I purposefully held back because I wasn’t at 100%, so I’m giving myself a few points back (B).
Lessons Learned:
·         As a race, I did pretty mediocre, but as a practice session it was extremely valuable. Now I know what to expect and can make the proper adjustments.
·         If I had to do this race again today, I’d set my pace at 92 BPM and see how I felt at the 45th floor. I feel fairly confident that I could break 12 minutes.
·         My lungs barely had time to recover after Boston. If I do the Boston/Empire combo again, I can’t afford to get sick. If I didn’t have unfinished business inside the stairwell at One Boston Place, I’d contemplate skipping the race next year.
·         Because of Empire’s unique shape (i.e. broad landings & long single flights) it is more sound proof than your typical stairwell. You can be within a floor of someone and not even notice. Don’t assume you are significantly behind or ahead of your fellow racers.

·         Screw Greyhound! The train is far more reliable in bad weather.

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