Sunday, March 1, 2015

There (Vegas) and Back Again

Vegas. Clown cars. Stairwells. USSCA Championship. It was an adventure.

For the past few weeks I’ve been steadily improving. Not only did I manage to drop a couple pounds, but I set several PBs in training. My confidence should have been sky high but it wasn’t. Two weeks before the race I pulled one of my quadriceps muscles on my left leg. I assumed it happened during one of my Friday “power hours” in the stairwell, but I only noticed it the following Monday during my leg blasting workout (lunges, squats, etc.). The muscle felt tight rather than sore, but I still managed to finish my work out successfully and gave it little thought. However at the end of the week, my leg still felt a bit off – despite setting another PB inside the stairwell. The following week, I toned down my leg blasting workout and then set another record on the Precor Stepper. Obviously the results were positive, but my leg felt strangely weak (in addition to the stiffness). In the days leading up to Strat I tapered of my workouts and kept my fingers crossed that the weakness would recede.

Friday rolled around and it was time to depart. I had a quick workout during lunch – forgoing my pacing exercises, instead doing 3 minute intervals on the elliptical machine followed by a sets of 20 pull-ups. It go the heart pumping without exacerbating my strained quad. After lunch I finished up a few tasks at work and then headed home for a brief rest and last minute packing check. I got to the airport around 4:45, headed through security, and went to my gate. There I learned my flight was delayed for a couple hours and I’d probably miss my connecting flight. They booked my on a different flight on Saturday morning, which would still get me into Vegas by during the afternoon. On the downside I had wasted a half day of vacation for nothing. But on the upside, I’d get to sleep in my own bed and still make it to Vegas on time. Not really a fair trade, but it still worked.
Hi Sue
I made it to Vegas the following day and took the 108 bus to the Stratosphere*. I met up with David Hanley and dropped my things off. Then we hooked up with a bunch of other fellow climbers at the ALA “before climb” party at the top of the tower. At the party I nabbed my #1 race bib and timing chip.

*The 108 North is one of the best and cheapest ways to get to the Stratosphere. It takes you right from Terminal 1 and drops you right at the north end of the Strat’s Casino. The bus stays off of the Strip so the ride only takes 20 minutes.  It was the best $2 I spent the entire trip.

After hanging out with everyone, I had a quick dinner with the Ronks and then headed back to the room. I brushed my teeth and crawled into bed. I read for a few minutes and soon fell asleep. It was just past 8:30. I was tired and still on East Coast time.

The next morning, I awoke around 5:30. I read silently for a bit and then had a light breakfast (an orange and a couple small oatmeal bars). Soon David was up and we chatted for a bit before getting changed for the race.

Around 7:15 I left the room and headed toward the start line to chat with a few other climbers. No sense being nervous alone.

Around 7:25 I taped up my fingers* and headed to the gym to start getting warmed up. I ran into Michael, Josh, Maggie, and Sproule who were already warming up. I did a quick active warm-up and then spent 6 minutes on the Precor Stepper. Just like at home. Before leaving, I chatted with Sproule who was slowly pedaling on the recumbent bike.

*The stairwell has a rectangular cross-section which gives me blisters. Rather than wear gloves (which I hate) I use athletic tape to help prevent them from occurring.

“So Sproule… why are you in Vegas? I figure you are either 1) Chasing points or 2) Looking to set the course record… or perhaps both?”

“Hey, I’m just here to race! I’ve been out for so long I have no idea what to expect.”

So says the 4th place finisher at Empire. Enigmatic as always.

We wished each other luck and I headed to the starting area to change into my racing shoes and check in my bag. After a couple rounds of burpees, I made my way to the starting queue.

The starting 5 was pretty much lined up the way I expected our finish order to be: Sproule, Me, Oz, Jason, Josh, and Dr. Thomas.

Here was my take on the podium contenders. I figured Sproule pretty much had the race in the bag, unless he had a poor race and either Oz or myself pulled a rabbit out of the hat. I figured I’d be favored to secure the 2nd spot, but I knew that Oz was in fantastic shape and 2nd place wasn’t assured. The truth is that when Oz is at his best, I can’t compete with him in a tall climb (like Sears), so in a medium height climb like the Stratosphere we were gonna be rolling the dice Vegas style. The dark horse of the race was likely Jason. He was looking to finally break onto the podium; Ever since Sears a couple years ago he’s been hot on my trail…. and I knew sooner or later my luck would run out. Fortunately, I didn’t think it would happen today. Jason had just competed (and won) a race in Minneapolis the day before, so I assumed he wouldn’t be climbing at 100%.

While waiting in line, I did a final set of burpees. Then, a few minutes before 8:00 AM, the organizers marched inside the building up a few flights of stairs to the starting line (the entrance to the core’s main stairwell). We were all pretty nervous, so we just chatted with one another as we waited for the official start.

Several minutes ticked by and we were still waiting. It was already well past 8:00 AM when we found out that one of the volunteers (emergency crew perhaps?) had hit their head and needed to be taken out of the stairwell. Meanwhile, I was no longer properly warmed up, so I did a set of burpees in the hallway to keep my heart-rate up and my body warm. It must have been a pretty serious injury because by the time we finally started the race (maybe 30 minute late?) I had already completed 3 rounds of burpees.

Finally the organizers got the “all clear” message and it was time to get the race started. Everyone wished each other luck (again) and the race was on. Sproule entered the stairwell as I turned on my metronome and got my stopwatch ready. I followed him in 30 seconds later.

I’ve done this race a couple of times before, although both times I wasn’t happy about my performance. In 2013, I went out too conservatively (at 90 BPM) and played catch up during the latter half of the race, finishing with a time of 7:57. In 2014, I went out a little too fast (at 97 BPM) and ended up slowing down during the 2nd part of the race, finishing with a time of 7:56. This year I was in better shape so I decided to give 97 BPM another shot. With luck, I figured I might be able to break 7:45. At worst, I figured I’d still be able to break the 8:00 mark.

I hit the stairwell running but quickly settled into my 97 BPM pace as I climbed up the 2nd flight of steps. The pace felt easy and I tried to stay relaxed. I focused on keeping one step on the landings and keeping up to the beat of my metronome.

Time slipped by and within a couple minutes the pace was beginning to get difficult. I scanned the stairwell for location markers* and I was somewhere in the 300s. I kept on climbing and soon I was in the mid-400s, which is the approximate half way point. I glanced down at my watch when I got into the upper 300s (probably 370s, but I’m not sure) and I was right around 3:50. I was pleased, because I knew I was pacing myself just under my goal time of 7:45.

*I didn’t memorize Stan’s chart of the Stratosphere, but basically the “tower core” section doesn’t have any true floors. Instead, there are various position markers given in vertical feet. When you get about 800 feet up, you enter the occupied levels: floors 101 through 108 which uses a more traditional stairwell.

As I crossed into the 500s I was really starting to feel it. I still had some energy left in the tank, but I wasn’t sure I could last another 3-4 minutes. I double stepped a couple of the landings, but I fought back and single stepped the next few*. Last year I had already given up by this point and I was determined not to succumb this time around.

*for those of you who aren’t stair climbers, this warrants an explanation. To save time, it is best to place a single foot on the landing, pivot 180 degrees on the ball of your foot, and continue climbing the next flight of stairs. If you place both feet on the landing, it means you just wasted a half second or so (basically taking a one-step mini break).

In the 600s I was fighting a losing battle with the turns. I started double stepping the landings pretty regularly, although I managed to hold on to the beat while climbing. When I got into the upper 600s I was nearly at my limit. My brain was basically in the “off” position although a single coherent thought crossed my mind “Hey – at least the flights are pretty long!*”

*Translation: Thankfully the stairwell doesn’t have very many (slow) turns.

At this point I was begging the markers to accelerate through the 700s, but alas they were still plodding along at a leisurely pace. I knew I had only a couple more minutes to go, so I kept up the brutal pace.

Suddenly I crossed through the fire door into the occupied section of the tower. This is the only tricky section of the climb because the fire door brings you to an intersection where you can go either left or right. It isn’t clearly marked and even if you *know* you are supposed to turn right, it is still pretty tricky because your brain doesn’t always remember things when it is oxygen deprived. Better climbers than I have screwed up this intersection and I didn’t want to be the next victim. My brain screamed “turn right” and thankfully I turned right.

The fire door took me by surprise and it honestly took me a couple of flights to convince myself that I was indeed inside the occupied section which is the essentially the home stretch of the race. I was supposed to be accelerating up these final few flights but I was pretty much in a daze. I tripped on the next floor but caught myself before I fell.  I wanted to sprint, but my body had a different idea. I climbed a few more flights and tripped again, barely managing to stay upright. Yep. Sprinting wasn’t gonna happen*. “Just keep climbing” I silently told myself.

*I may have tripped a 3rd time too, but I honestly can’t recall.

I remember hitting floor 107. I knew there was only one floor left to go, but it took me a moment to actually believe it. My body was shutting down but I managed to haul myself up the last couple flights. I crossed over the finish line, glanced at my watch (about 7:51) walked a few steps, turned off my watch (7:54) and collapsed to the ground.

I was in rough shape. As lay prostrate on the floor waiting for my heart-rate to come down, I was in so much physical pain that my mind was a complete blank. After about a minute or so, I crawled to one of the recovery chairs and put my legs up*. I barely even noticed that Oz had crawled next to me and he did the same thing. After a couple minutes Oz was able to get back up, but I needed a couple more minutes to catch my breath. Believe it or not, I was actually in worse shape than Oz who is well known for his post race collapses. At some point we discussed our times. Oz clocked himself in at 7:54, which was only a few seconds slower than my unofficial time of 7:51.  Although I had a slight advantage, the race was too close to call - it is pretty common for self-timed results to differ from the official chip times by a few seconds.

*I’m not sure it really helps, but that’s what Mr. Paradis, our cross country coach, had us do after practice back in High School.

Finally I dragged myself off of the floor and grabbed a glass of orange juice and a banana. I was still tired, but my senses were coming back. I sat down next to Mark Trahanovsky and Sproule and I closed my eyes to listen to their conversation – I didn’t have enough energy to chat, although it was pretty clear that Sproule had won the race by a good 30 seconds. They left after a few minutes (Mark offered to drive Sproule to the airport) so I sat there alone eating my banana. Normally, eating a banana takes only a few seconds, but I had to eat this one slowly. My stomach was having trouble tolerating solid food. When I finished, I lay down on the couch to rest a few more minutes. I was still pretty in pretty bad shape.

After what seemed like an eternity, I was finally ready to join the rest of humanity. After chatting with a few of my fellow climbers, we gathered for one big team photo and then headed back down to get ready for our first US Stair Climbing Association (USSCA) meeting.

I took a quick shower, ate a granola bar, and headed to Madeleine’s room for the meeting. I was running late, but so was everyone else.

The meeting was pretty quick. Suffice it to say, I’ll be serving as the interim President until we become incorporated as an official non-for profit, and our first order of business is getting incorporated. I have a feeling it is going to take a lot of work – and I’m not sure I’m the best person to get things done, but I think I can at least get the organization formally recognized before the end of the year. That will have to suffice for now. We quickly finished the USSCA kickoff meeting and headed to the award ceremony.

Looking at the published results, I had officially took 2nd place, just a few seconds ahead of Oz. More importantly, I was less than 30 seconds behind Sproule – which was one of my unofficial goals for the race. Rounding out the top five were Jason and Josh respectively in yet another tight race. The biggest upset (in my opinion) was Jeff taking 6th overall, edging out Dr. Thomas by single digits. On the women’s slide, I finally got the chance to meet the winner, Stephanie Hucko, as well as 3rd place Kacie Cleveland. You can see the full results here.

*Stephanie is originally from Australia. Go figure.

Later we headed to Randy’s house for his annual “Scale the Strat BBQ". By that point my energy had mostly returned, and I was feeling almost normal again, although I still had a slight headache left over from the race. The food was great and the companionship even better.

Where are we?
After the BBQ, a bunch of us (12 to be exact) climbed into David’s minivan and headed back to the Strat (watch the video here). We decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the various casinos on the Strip… intent on finding all the hidden staircases Vegas had to offer and climb them. The coolest set of stairs we found was at the [*]. The complex is shaped like a [*] and we found one staircase that follows the inner sidewall – snaking itself around to hug the side of the building. Because of the angle, you could see the entire staircase all at once. We were like kids in a candy shop.

*Deleted by admin to protect identity of the building. No sense in having the casino find out about our little escapade. I don’t want them to close the stairwell to the public and ruin the fun for future climbers. Contact me for details if you ever find yourself in Vegas and want to see the stairwell for yourself.

After dinner at the casino, it finally time to head back home. “Z” gave me a ride to the airport around 11:00 PM and while checking in, I learned my flight was cancelled! I’d have to stay another 24 hours in Vegas… and miss another day of work. I took the 108 bus back to the Stat and asked a friend to let me crash at their place overnight. It was nearly 2:00 AM by the time I go to bed.

The next morning I was running on fumes. I was tired, but I didn’t have a good night’s rest (since I was still stuck on East Coast time).

I gave Michael a call before checkout and found out he was also at the Strat, literally two doors down the hallway! I closed my phone and chatted with him in the hallway to discuss plans for the day.

I hung out with Michael and Ariel for the rest of the day. We hit the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas. It is an excellent museum and well worth the $20 cover charge to get in. My only complaint is that the topic is depressing: Illegal business & murder. Thoroughly interesting, but also pretty morbid.

After dropping Ariel off at the airport, we went out to eat with Steve, his dad (who lives in Vegas) and one of his buddies from New York. Holsteins - best burger on the strip.

Michael dropped me off at the airport after dinner and I hopped on a plane back to the East Coast. I got maybe a couple hours of sleep on the plane so I was running on fumes by this point. When the flight landed in Philly, I found out my flight to Albany was cancelled. I was pissed. I accidentally walked out of the terminal trying to find the help desk* so I ended up going to ticketing and then spending another 30 minutes getting back through security. I was scheduled to get on the next flight, but it was completely full and I was put on standby (after all, there was an entire plane of people that was stuck in the airport). The lady at the terminal help desk told me there was less than a 50% chance I’d be able to leave Philly that day because of a bit of bad weather coming in later that afternoon.

*Hard to believe I’d miss the big red exit only sign… but my brain wasn’t functioning clearly.

“Fuck it, I’m renting a car” I thought to myself and walked out of the airport.

I met up with another stranded passenger and offered to give her a ride back to Albany. It turned out she was a friend of an old co-worker so at least we had something in common to talk about during the 4 hour drive. I drove and she navigated. I finally got back to Albany in the mid-afternoon and after taking a quick shower, I took a long much needed nap.

Moral of the story: Vegas is awesome, but getting there & back sucks eggs.

Race Grades:
Effort: A+ ; Looking back, I honestly didn’t think I put that much effort into the race up until 600s, but the clearly the aftermath of the race tells a different story; the only race where it took longer to recover was at the US Bank Tower in 2012. Maintaining the pace through the 700s and the final 7 floors clearly took a lot out of me. For my own sake, I hope that never happens again.
Strategy: B+ ; “A steady pace wins the race” really fits the Stratosphere. 97 BPM was a decent pace for this building, but it was slightly too fast for my present condition. A slower pace would have worked better overall. Say 95 BPM? Maybe even 94 BPM?
Technique: A- ; I climbed efficiently, but lost time on the landings during the latter half of the race, mainly because I was so doggone tired. Fortunately, the relatively long flights (with fewer landings) mitigates some of this. I definitely used the rails to haul myself up the building and I have a blister to prove it – even with all the athletic tape (right ring finger, on the “fat” part closer to the pinkie side).

Overall: A ; This is a solid A. In my current condition (or at least my condition on race day) I’m probably capable of a 7:40 in this building with the right pacing. But who knows? Back in 2013, I climbed in 7:57 and had plenty of energy to spare in the latter half of the race because went out pretty slow (at 90 BPM). After the race, I thought I was capable of a 7:30… and I know I’m in better condition today.

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