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.