Monday, February 16, 2015

The Boston Monkey

Just a few days after the Empire State Building Run-Up,  I traveled to Boston to “Race Up Boston Place”. I did this event a year ago and even though I had a great race, I forgot to swipe my timing chip and had to go back into the stairwell to swipe. Those few precious seconds cost me both the win and the course record, so I was coming into the race with a huge monkey on my back*. You can read about last years’ experience here.

*Actually, it felt like more like a baboon or a gibbon, but I’d have to consult a primatologist to be sure.

The day after Empire (i.e. Thursday) my lungs were still a bit raw but I felt energetic. I was still disappointed with my performance at Empire and I felt like hitting the gym hard to take out my frustration. Fortunately reason trumped emotion. Knowing I needed to save my energy for Boston, I kept my workout fairly light.

The day before the race, my lungs were nearly recovered and I spent my lunch hour in the office stairwell doing pacing intervals to prepare for the race. Although half of the ascents were done at close to race pace, they were short enough so that I wasn’t taxing my legs or lungs. After my pacing intervals, I knew I was ready to race.

That evening I headed to my friend Kurtis’ house in Worcester (a city just west of Boston) to crash overnight. I got a late start – having spent extra time after work to make a salad for dinner – so I arrived at Kurtis’ house later than I had planned (nearly 11:00 PM). We stayed up for another hour or so and I finally went to bed just after midnight. Although I should have given myself more time to sleep the night before a big race, I hadn’t seen Kurtis and Renee in nearly a year and wanted to chat and catch up.

I woke up around 6:20 AM and slipped out the door by 6:40. I got into Boston around 7:15 or so, but I missed the exit to get off I93. I was using the same map that I printed out last year to get to the race and wanted to get off at exit 24A… but the interstate exits seemed to skip from 23 to all the way to 26. By the time I finally got off the interstate I was completely lost. T minus 35 minutes.

The good news was that I brought along my portable GPS, but the bad news was that the GPS was on “low battery” and I didn’t have the USB adapter for my car charger*.

*I thought it was in the glove compartment of my car… but it was really sitting on top of my bookshelf at home.

I parked my car at a gas station and frantically entered the address into the GPS. T minus 30 minutes. It found the location easily enough, but it took several harrowing minutes for the GPS to connect to a satellite and give me directions. T minus 25 minutes. Finally the GPS showed me where to go and I followed the directions towards downtown. I got off the interstate again into a the messy web of Boston side streets. None of the street names looked familiar but I kept scanning the area for a familiar landmark. Finally I saw what I was looking for: One Boston Place! I found the parking garage I was supposed to use, but it was further down the wrong end of a one way street. T minus 20 minutes. Fortunately, I managed to go around the block and pick up the street again. I quickly parked my car in the garage. T minus 15 minutes.

As I ran over to the building memories of 2014 came back to haunt my mind. A year ago, I arrived fairly early, yet still managed to screw things up – forgetting my bib’s safety pins, getting locked in the wrong stairwell, etc. etc. But this year I was smarter… right?

I rushed into the building and headed to the lower level to get my #1 bib. Rather than mess around with gear check (on the 39th floor) I decided to just leave my bag behind the check-in counter. It wasn’t the safest option, but it saved a few precious minutes – minutes I didn’t have. I quickly stripped off  my warm-ups (I was wearing my racing gear underneath) and changed into my racing shoes. After stuffing my bag behind the check-in counter, I headed to the men’s bathroom *.  T minus 10 minutes.

*’cause every ounce matters.

With less than 10 minutes remaining, I headed back upstairs. I began my warm-ups right on the staircase landing (a separate stairway – not the actual race course). I had just enough time to crank out two sets of burpees before I had to get in line. Two sets wasn’t optimal, but it had to be enough. With less than five minutes before the race, I made it to the front of the line. Count down aborted. Mission success.

In line I met Paul Curley, stair climbing veteran and official timer of the ALA, as well as my new friend Chris Price, an Australian who I had recently met at the Empire State Building Run-Up. Also in line I met the racer with the #2 bib - Adam Celleme - a local racer who I knew by reputation. He has done this race several times and owns a PB of 4:31 (set in 2010). Assuming he was still in good shape, I knew it would be a close race*.

*To put things into perspective, 4:31 is an impressive time. Last year’s winner came in at 4:25, beating me in a tight (albeit mistake prone) race. Few people on the circuit today could go faster.

Having barely made it to the race on time, I had very little time to think about my race strategy, let alone preview the stairwell. Fortunately, the day before the race, I re-read last year’s blog so I more or less knew what to expect. With 30 seconds before the start, I set my metronome to 121 beats per minute which worked well last year. If I could keep up that pace, that would put my on track to hit 4:20 or so, which would handily break the Javier’s record of 4:23 set back in 2010.

As the seconds ticked by I reviewed one last thing in my head: Don’t forget to swipe my chip.
The clock passed 8:00 AM and I ran into the stairwell.

The 121 pace was tough, but maintainable. My mind wasn’t really into the climb – I was still stressed out about nearly missing the race – but I had my metronome to push me through the first 10 floors while I climbed on autopilot. As the floors passed by, I noticed that my movement was turning on the auto-lights. Every couple floors or so, it would become kind of dark, but with a sudden click, the stairwell would become illuminated once again.

By the mid-teens I was finally in the zone. My heart rate was peaking and I could really feel the strain of the pace. I surprised a couple of the race volunteers who were chatting idly on one of the landings. Once they saw me, they moved out of  my way – and quickly scurried back to their assigned stations. By this point I could no longer hear Adam behind me, although I could still hear the volunteers cheering for him down below.

I knew the midpoint of the race was somewhere between the 18th floor and 19th. I checked my watch as I approached the 19th floor. It was something like 2:07 or maybe 2:10? I don’t really recall – my brain being oxygen deprived  at that moment – but I do remember being fairly pleased. I climbed into the 20s still going strong.

The pace was becoming tough as I climbed out of the 20s. Suddenly (floor 28 to be exact) the stairwell switch from right hand turns to left hand turns. It totally broke my rhythm – almost like somebody sucker punching me in the gut and knocking the wind from my lungs. It took a couple floors to get back into the groove.

The 30s were brutal. I could barely hold on to the pace and gripped both rails at once for dear life. When I hit the 36th floor it felt like someone had taken a hot poker and branded my lungs. I began counting down each individual flight – not just the floors – in order to cope. In the back of my mind I knew I was supposed to kick it up a notch and finish strong, but I couldn’t will my body to go any faster. My legs were ready, but my heart and lungs were at their limit. By the 40th floor I had nothing left to give, but I knew it was almost over. I climbed the final few flights (all four of them) and the finish line was in site. I held out my right hand and swiped my chip. I made sure not to forget this time around*.

*It also helps that the timing mats were marked with a huge red “X”.

X Marks the Spot
After swiping my chip, I quickly turned off my stopwatch. It said 4:24 and I was fairly confident that I had at least tied the building record of 4:23. I may have been a second or two off from last year’s unofficial pace – but by finally taking the record, I had thrown off a huge monkey off my back.

I sat down in a chair, leaning forward with my forearms on my legs to try and recover. Although I didn’t see Adam finish (as I was too tired to lift my head) I could hear him cross the finish line. He wasn’t too far behind so I knew it was a close race – although I suspected I had pulled far enough ahead to take the win. Next came some of the usual suspects – Paul and Chris although I wasn’t sure in which order.

After a couple minutes I finally had enough energy to sit up straight and talk. I was finally able to chat with the other racers and hear their thoughts about the race. Adam pretty much secured the #2 spot, but apparently Paul and Chris battled it out for 3rd. From what I gather, Paul started 10 seconds ahead of Chris, but Chris managed to catch up and pass. Later on in the race, Paul took the lead again… but did he manage to take back all 10 seconds? It was too close to call. We’d have to wait until the final standings were posted.

At the top, I also had the opportunity to meet someone who reads my blog other than friends & family. Thanks Nick – you really made my day.

After recapping our individual races, Chris and I headed back downstairs to retrieve our bags. We stopped at the 39th floor to get Chris’s stuff and get a post-race snack (I had an ice cream bar). Then we went down to the check-in table to get mine.

Just as I was getting my bag, I ran into another person who reads my blog. You read that right. There are *multiple* people that read my blog! Just to prove it, here is a photo.
I'm not short. Daryl is just tall.
Daryl – a reader of my blog – came all the way from Canada to do this race. He is a fire fighter is climbing stairs to train for the fire fighter games. He chose the right venue since this Boston is one of the most competitive fire fighter climbs on the East Coast.

After parting ways with Daryl, Chris and I went back to the 39th floor to snap a few photos and gather some post-race goodies*.

*read: another ice cream bar.

Chris and I then headed back downstairs to check out our official race times:
I took 1st place with a time of 4:23 – officially tying the record.
Adam took 2nd with a time of 4:28 – becoming just the 5th person ever go sub 4:30.
Chris managed to hold off Paul for 3rd place with a time of 4:58.
Paul came in 4th with a time of 5:03, putting guys half his age to shame.

You can see the full results here.

After checking our times, Chris and I headed to the post-race party at Scholar’s Boston Bistro to grab a drink. Unfortunately, both of us had to hit the road before the start of the awards ceremony, but we had a chance to hang out for nearly an hour and discuss our favorite subject: Climbing stairs!

Chris is one of the founding members of Stair Climbing Australia (SCA) – an organization devoted to promoting stair climbing in the land down under. Although SCA mainly covers the Australian climbing circuit, it has a lot of useful training tips for stair climbing. In fact, I got the idea for my “Training Time” posts from one of Chris’ posts on the SCA website (check out the site here). I’m glad I finally had a chance to meet Chris in person after reading so many of his articles on the SCA website.

At 11:00 AM, it was time to get back on the road. After parting ways with Chris, I headed back to my friend Kurtis’s house to unwind. After Empire and Boston, I was pretty much drained so it was a real treat to hang out with one of my oldest friends. Plus, I got to eat whatever I wanted (pizza, nachos, etc.) and play one of my favorite board games: Twilight Imperium (think Risk… but in space).
Don't mess with my fleet.
Race Grades:
Effort: A- ; I lost focus near the end of the race and could have pushed harder… but it would’ve been tough. I was a puddle of oatmeal (steel cut – not quick oats) when I crossed the finish line.
Strategy: A ; My game plan of “stick with what worked last year” paid off.
Technique: A- ; Solid… but I have to learn how to take the turns faster.
Overall: A- ; Fitness wise, I think I’m slightly better this year, so I was hoping to break 4:20. Although I felt strong and fully recovered from the Empire State Building Run-up, I can’t help but wonder if racing so soon after Empire (on 2.5 days rest) might have depleted some of my energy reserves. In addition, last year I put together one of my best races ever (before screwing up my timing chip). So all things considered, I still had a pretty good race this go around.

Final Thoughts:
I may have been slightly slower this year (unofficially) it was a great feeling to finally get both the win and the course record. I waited a whole year to go for the win and the record. Getting that monkey off my back was good feeling*.

*No copyright infringement intended.

This building is virtually identical to the Albany Corning Tower and it is worth comparing how I felt after this race with how I felt in Albany back in 2013. This time, my legs felt pretty good after the race, but it took  a few minutes to catch my breath (i.e. stop feeling like I’m at death’s door) and another few minutes to start feeling human again. However two years ago in Albany, my legs were the limiting factor. Although my lungs hurt and I coughed up phlegm for a few days afterward, it was the pain in the legs which I remember most vividly - the sensation that someone had replaced all the blood in my legs with liquid fire. I believe the difference has been all the leg strengthening exercises I’ve done in conjunction with all the stair well sprints over the last two years; I feel stronger in the gym and the results in the stairwell confirm it. Now my weakest link (for races 40 stories & above) is clearly my aerobic/anaerobic capacity.


  1. well done Alex, great result!

    I'm curious what tools and strategies you use for pacing when racing and training.

    The metronome seems to be key but I guess that is very dependent on the height of the steps and layout of landings, etc.

    Up until now the races I've done have generally been fairly short (around 30 stories). I'm going to do a much bigger race in March so I'm thinking a lot about pacing strategies. Where I've gone wrong in the past is to go out too hard and then die 2/3 of the way up. So my high level strategy is to start off relatively easy and try and hold that pace the whole way.

    Up until now I've relied on 'feel' when it comes to pacing. I'm planning to get a heart rate monitor and perhaps a metronome. Any thoughts you can share on this are greatly appreciated.


    (a reader of you blog from the Netherlands)

  2. Congrats on the win, Alex, as well as tying the record and pushing through when the going got tough! A very inspiring an educational read, indeed. Hope to see you soon, although I don't know when that might be. -DG