Friday, March 13, 2015

Rundown of the Empire State Building Run-up

The 2015 edition of the Empire State Building Run-up is over and I’m having a hard time understanding the results. I was expecting to break 12 minutes this year, but with an official time of 12:50, my estimate was way off. In fact, I was even slower than last year (12:36 – albeit in a slightly shortened course).

What makes this race hard to digest – and this post hard to write – is that all the training leading up to the race and the pace I set in the stairwell seemed to indicate I’d have a pretty good shot at 12 minutes.

Although December was pretty much a wash with respect to training & fitness, January was very kind to me. I started off the month at a decent fitness level, but I ended the month in the best shape of my life. In addition to hard training, I focused on getting plenty of sleep and I went to bed early each and every night. I also lost a couple pounds by eating healthy and using the stairs during my coffee breaks*. As a result, I set a couple PBs on the stepper machine and inside the stairwell during my final week of training. 

*I don’t actually drink coffee, but I made sure to get up from my desk every couple of hours for a short break. During these breaks I’d climb up my building (6 tall stories ~ 27 meters) twice. It was enough exercise to get the blood pumping, but not enough to get soaked in sweat.

I also knew that I didn’t have a particularly strong performance in the 2014 edition of the race so I figured I had plenty of room to improve. A year ago, I was in great shape but was fighting off a virus which reared its ugly head after racing in Boston the prior weekend. Because I was worried about my health, I raced very conservatively at Empire and I figured I could easily shave off a good 30 seconds from my time this time around, which would put me pretty close to the coveted 12 minute mark.

Friend or Foe?
Answer: Both
The day of the race arrived with little fanfare. I had a decent night sleep, woke up, and went to work. I left work around 12:30 PM and relaxed at home for an hour or so before heading to the train station. I took the 3:10 train from Albany/Rennselaer down to Penn Station in NYC. I arrived at the Empire State Building around 6:00 PM and met up with my friends (and fellow Tower Masters) Steve Marsalese and David Tromp. We had about an hour to kill before they’d let us into the building so we tried to find a coffee shop to hang out at. No luck - It was rush hour in NYC. Fortunately, I knew of an indoor food court in K-Town that usually had free seats up on the 3rd floor. Sure enough, the place wasn’t very crowded upstairs and we hung out for the next half hour or so. 

And guess who we ran into at the food mall? Another Tower Master - Bruce Yang! Talk about luck*.

*Read my post from last year’s race to find out why Bruce is my lucky charm.

Tower Masters!
Just before 7:00 PM, David and I left Steve and Bruce (who were racing in a later heat) and headed over to Empire. The lobby was somewhat chaotic. All the elite climbers were just milling around. We were told to be there at 7:00 PM sharp – no earlier, no later – but very little information was being passed on to the climbers on where to go. So we all just hung out in the crowded lobby. After about 15 minutes of waiting, we were finally allowed to go upstairs, pass through security*, and check in our bags.

*For some reason the Empire State Building thinks it is more important than every other famous building in America (e.g. Sears Tower, Hancock Tower, etc.).

After bag check, I started my warm up and active stretching routine. We still had about 30 minutes until the start of the race so to keep myself ready, I simply did a round of 12 burpees every 4 minutes or so.

Soon the organizers gathered all the elite athletes and herded us downstairs to the start line. We still had 15 minutes to kill so I just continued my burpees in the hallway. I found the temperature to be uncomfortably hot and hoped the stairwell wouldn’t be as stifling*.

*Don't worry, the stairwell wasn't nearly as hot.

A few minutes before the official start, the race director, Steve Lastoe, announced a few individual climbers in the elite wave (including me!*) to the media & photographers before the start of the race. 

*I showed off my biceps. If you got’em, show’em.

Shortly afterwards, the ladies were off.  Now there were only four minutes left until the men’s start. 

The silence on the start line was oppressing, but I felt pretty chipper. I was nervous, scared, excited, and confident all rolled into mixed emotion. I couldn’t wait to get this race over with.

I was offered a starting position at the front of the pack, but I silently declined. I wasn’t planning on sprinting up the first few floors and I didn’t want to get in the way of the top competitors. 

Placed toward the back of the pack, I knew most of the athletes personally and a couple others by reputation. I already had a mental picture of how this race was going to turn out. Sproule, Christian, Darren, & Thor were the podium contenders and Tim Donahue would be in the hunt for 5th. Next would be David Tromp and me battling it out for mid-pack honors. Rounding out the race would be Jason, David Roeske (who I knew by reputation), Henry, Josh, Dr. Thomas, and Chris - more or less in that order. That left only three other guys on the start line that I didn’t know - most likely Europeans that would be putting pressure in the mid-pack.

My strategy was simple. I planned to get into the stairwell somewhere around 10th place, climb at an even pace throughout the race, and pick off climbers on the upper floors. I raced conservatively in 2014 using a pace of 87 - 88 beats per minute (BPM) on my metronome. Since I wanted to go at least 30 seconds faster this year, I set my metronome at the slightly higher pace of 92 BPM.

With 30 seconds remaining until the start, I turned on my metronome, readied my stop watch, and silently repeated my mantra: “A steady pace wins the race.”

Suddenly we were off. In a rush we all tried to squeeze through the stairwell door. I got stuck in the doorway for a few seconds, but with only 16 guys or so in the elite heat, it quickly thinned out. I ended up near the back of the pack (in lucky 13th place I believe). By the 4th floor I settled in behind Jason and in front of Henry. I was a little surprised that Henry didn’t sprint out ahead (like he did last year) but by the 8th floor or so he seemed ready to pass me and I let him by on one of the landings. Henry was one of the guys I was aiming to beat this year - having narrowly beat me last year - but I wasn’t worried. If last year was any indication of his racing style, I should be able to close the gap later on in the race. 

Jason was less than a flight ahead of me at this point with Henry sandwiched in the middle. The three of us kept the pace up for another few floors and I could smell Henry’s feet – he wasn’t wearing shoes in order to reduce the amount of weight he’d have to carry up the stairs. I silently prayed that Henry would pick up the pace a bit or slow down so I could pass; The combination of climbing pain and foot odor was becoming deadly!*

*I’m joking!

For the next few floors I was right on Henry’s heels; every time I’d turn the corner and reach up to grab the rail, I’d bump into Henry’s hands. Finally he let me pass by and several floors later I caught up to  and passed Jason. We were somewhere in the lower 20s. By this point, the stairwell changed from a series of switch backs (flight -- landing & 180 degree turn -- flight)  to just a single long flight connecting the floors followed by a  short run on the landings*.

*Nobody I know has ever had a chance to map out Empire's stairwell, but I learned something new during this climb: Not all flights from the 20s upwards are uniform. Many floors have just a single long flight, but many others have two flights (a short flight followed by a really long one). I have pictures of the latter case in my 2014 blog. Yeah, the difference between the two cases is pretty minor, but I'm a stickler for these kinds of details.

Jason was about half a flight behind me at this point and somewhere in the 30s we caught up to and passed Chris – who kindly stayed on the outside to give us plenty of room to pass. I also remember crossing a long hallway and nearly slipping on spilled water from the a water aid station. I don’t remember which floor it was on, but the moment my foot started to slide I thought of David Tromp; he recently told me that a few years ago he slipped and fell at an aid station… most likely at this very same spot!

Jason and I continued climbing together for the next 25 floors or so, but slowly my lead climbed to nearly a whole flight. As soon as I’d finish a floor I could hear Jason behind me starting it. This pattern continued up until the mid 60s.

I was grinding out floor after floor marching to the beat of my metronome. I could feel fatigue start to set in the 40s and by the 50s it was starting to get painful. We hit the 60s and it was all I could to hold on to my pace. 

At this point, I was no longer thinking about anything other than keeping pace and climbing. I remember passing Jamie Kate (from the Woman’s heat) somewhere along the way and giving her a tap of encouragement, but by the time I caught up to and Madeline I couldn’t even manage a grunt of acknowledgement. 

I had dropped Jason by the time I hit the 70s and was still cranking out my 92 BPM pace. I was catching up to another climber, too – I could hear him up above but couldn’t yet see him.

I thought I was doing fairly well at this point. At other races Jason is usually right on my tail and I knew Henry was further down below, so I figured I was in a pretty good position. Plus, I was hot on the trail of another climber. Could it be David Tromp? My lungs were ragged, but my legs were still pretty strong. Things seemed to be going to plan.

I glanced down at my watch to see how close I was to breaking the 12 minute mark. My watch read 11:50. What the heck*? 

*Cue brake screech.

I was still in the 70s  - at least a minute or so away from finishing. What was going on? With around 10 floors to go I’d be lucky to break even the 13 minute mark!

Time was running short and there weren’t very many floors left. I increased my pace and by the time I hit the 80s I was less than a flight behind the guy ahead of me. It was David… but not David Tromp. It was David Roeske! I slowly closed the gap and by the time we hit the 85th floor I was looking to pass, but there wasn’t any room to get through.

The last flight is a long one and leads directly onto the observation deck. I moved to the right to try and squeeze by, but I David was in the center grabbing both sides of the rails and I didn’t have enough speed to break through. David slipped on the final few steps and for a brief moment I thought I had a chance to finally go around but as he fell, I lost my forward momentum. David quickly recovered and managed to stay a step ahead. I don’t exactly know what killed my speed, but I suspect there is an immediate left turn as you exit to the observation deck and I was on the outside lane (which is a longer - and therefore slower path)*. The other likely scenario is that as David fell I simply didn’t have any room since I was basically right behind him. At any rate, it took us both by surprise and slowed us both down.

*Hopefully someone can confirm the actual layout of the course.

I had one shot left. I could still pass on the observation deck where there would be more room to maneuver. The finish line was in sight – albeit closer than I remembered from 2012 – and I continued on the right hand side to pass on the straight away.

To my absolute horror, there was a girl from the women’s elite wave jogging directly between us and the finish line. At that moment, I knew I was totally fucked. She was on the left side so David slid over to pass her on the right side – effectively cutting off my passing lane AGAIN. We both passed the girl with David still slightly ahead.  The finish line was only yards away and there was little I could do. We jostled for position but there wasn’t enough time or space to pass – especially on tired legs. We crossed the line with David literally a half a step ahead. After finishing, I sat down on an empty foot stool just beyond the finish line and looked down at my watch. It had just passed the 13 minute mark when I finally turned it off.

I sat there completely spent in the cold February air wondering what the heck happened to my race. I heard the announces call out Jason, Madeleine, Jamie Kate, and a few other climbers and when I had finally recovered enough to walk around again. Although I was upset at having a mediocre finishing time, I was happy the race was over. Racing up one of the most iconic buildings in the US and giving it your all is something to be proud of.

Jason, Josh, and I hung out on the deck for a few more minutes to admire the NYC skyline at night, but being a cold day in February wearing only shorts and tank tops, we soon headed downstairs to the 80th floor for the post-race award ceremony. It was nice to finally chat with the other climbers, change in to warmer clothes, and grab a bite to eat. A TV monitor displayed the times and there I learned that I was 12th overall and the 11th male athlete. I had missed my top ten spot by a fraction of a second  - David Roeske and I were both given a time of 12:51. You can see the full results here*.

*You’ll notice that in the official results I’m actually listed one spot ahead of David with a time of 12:50. My chip time was likely faster than his because he started the race in the front row and I started at the back (meaning his timing chip would have started a second or two before mine). However, make no mistake… David crossed the finish line ahead of me.

"The Ghost" & "The Schenectady Express"
Several of us then headed downstairs the Restaurant/Bar on the ground floor. I met up with some of the other Tower Masters and had a long chat with Darren’s kids and a short chat with Napolean about implementing “age group” rankings for older athletes on TWA. It makes a lot of sense. Currently, to get points in the TWA, you need to be in the top 30. At a competitive race like Empire, the cutoff is really tough to make. In fact, without age group rankings, there is little incentive for older athletes to get a TWA license. As the “Athletes Representative” for TWA, I’ll have to bring up that point to the council.

Around 10:25 David Tromp and I had to head back to Penn Station to get the last train back to Albany. On the train we both had  beer and chatted about the race, college days at Clarkson, and ski lessons (our kids are taking lessons at Maple Ski Ridge) before taking a well-deserved nap. 

The train came in at 1:22 AM and a few minutes later, David and I said our goodbyes in the parking lot. The drive home was uneventful, but took a bit longer than usual because it had started to snow. When I arrived home, I quickly took a shower and went to bed. My body was tired, but my mind kept replaying the events of the race. Not only was I upset at about failing to pass at the end of the race, but more importantly, I couldn’t explain how my time was slower than last year. I finally fell asleep at 3:00 AM.

Race Grades:
Effort: A- ; I went out at a reasonable pace and kept it throughout the race. After floor 60 it was tough, but I kept going. My only criticism is that I didn’t pick up the pace when I crossed into the 70s. Although my lungs were burning, my legs still had power to give.
Strategy: B- ; My strategy “a steady pace wins the race” works well in time trials, but less so in a mass start since position can be critical. Passing is tough near the end of a race. Getting into the stairwell in 13th place didn’t help. 
Technique: B- ; I climbed efficiently, but lost time on the landings.
Overall: B ; Honestly, I thought I had a good race up until I checked my watch and realized I was nearly a minute off of my goal. However, I put in a pretty good effort, so I can’t say I had a bad race. I'm just not pleased with my overall time.

Final Thoughts: I’m still having trouble understanding how I could be slower than last year by about 10 seconds and nearly a minute slower than my 12 minute goal time – considering I set my metronome at a faster pace. I’m still confused, but I know the clock didn’t lie. After considerable thought, here are some reasons why I went slower. 
  1. The stairwell was initially more crowded this year. In 2014 there were 9 climbers and this year we had 16. I definitely lost a few more seconds waiting to get into the stairwell. This year I started the race in 13th place, ahead of only Henry, Josh, & Dr. Thomas.
  2. This year I jostled for position with Henry for the first 15 floors. Letting him pass on the inside also cost me a second or two. He stayed ahead for only 10 floors or so, and although I was able to march to the beat of my metronome while climbing, I’m sure I lost time on the turns (as I bumped up behind him). 
  3. After the race was over, Jason and I discussed how we climbed in the middle of the race. It turns out that I pulled ahead of him on the stairs, but then he’d catch up on the short run between flights. Apparently, I was bleeding time during these short runs. Even if I only bled a quarter second or so each floor, I probably lost a good 15 seconds over the course of the race (compared to Jason). Of course, the real question is how did I do this year compared with last year? That is a tough question, but I have a feeling I went slower this year. Looking back on my notes from last year, I climbed at a fairly easy pace and I was alone for the vast majority of the time. As such, I was able to pay more attention to my technique on the landings (in fact, I even described my technique in my blog). I’m guessing I lost maybe 15 - 20 seconds compared with last year, but made up some of that time with a faster climbing pace on the stairs.
  4. This race has a substantial running component and I estimate there are about 3 minutes worth of running*. Assuming I can do the entire race in about 12:30 minutes (which I still think is possible) that means that nearly 25% of the race is on flat ground where my metronome never came into play. In addition, I’m definitely not a runner so I’m at a pretty significant disadvantage compared to the other athletes (most of which who are runners). I now suspect that my goal time of 12 minute was too optimistic. I have a feeling 12:15 would have made more sense.
I feel like a cop-out for saying this, but I don't think Empire is my kind of race. It is a long course, which requires a bit of running, and had a mass start. Basically, it plays to all my weaknesses. If I ever get invited back, I'll have to dial back my expectations to 12:30 or so.

Lessons Learned:
  • Start position matters. Being bottle-necked in the stairwell entry is a waste of time and energy.
  • Passing is very difficult at the end of a race. It is much better to be in front rather than behind. Strangely enough I was in this exact same position at the Sears (Willis) Tower back in November. Sears was a time trial so it didn’t quite matter as much, but the mass start at Empire is a whole different ballgame. David Roeske taught me a lesson I won’t soon forget – and I have to give him props for staying in front when it mattered most.
  • In a mass start, a metronome is useful, but don’t become a slave to the beat. Sometimes a quick surge to pass or create space is better than slowly jockeying for position over the course of several floors.
  • Don’t wait till the end of the race to pass. Make a strong move with at least 5 floors to go. 

No comments:

Post a Comment