Sunday, May 15, 2016

Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring

The crescendo of excitement had been building since January. It reached its climax in the wee hours of Sunday, May 15th atop the tallest building in the United States.

It’s been a tough road.

After an awful performance at Empire in early February (which still stings) I set the record in Boston despite having a meltdown on the final few floors. It was a gusty -  if not foolhardy - win and I paid the price for it in the form of a severe climbers cough… which turned into a nasty protracted lung infection.

The following month, I set a solid PB at the Stratosphere despite my lingering lung infection and fighting off a fever. I developed a cold while flying back from Vegas * and for the next month I struggled to find the right balance between exercise and recovery. I kept most of my fitness, but by the end of the month I was feeling half a step slower. I’m thankful because it could have been far worse.

*My left ear sucks at flying. Since I was so congested on the flight home from Vegas, my ear never adjusted to the pressure changes and filled up with fluid. Believe it or not, my ear is still recovering from that incident and I’ve been partially deaf for the better part of two months.

I had three races in April. In each case I went out too slow and had to play catch up in the 2nd half.  None of them were records, but fortunately they were all wins*. During the course of the month I felt stronger with each race as my regular training resumed. By the end of the month my lungs were finally back to normal.

*Philly was a particularly competitive race with both David Tromp and Thomas Scott in the lineup.

I finally hit my stride in May. My times in the stairwell approached (yet not quite reached) my 2015 peak and I managed to set a personal record on my Precor stepper even though I’ve gained a few pounds.  Fit but heavy. The story of my life.

The 1WTC race almost never happened. The Durst Organization (who have a stake in 1WTC) lobbied to cancel the race (in a really dick move) but the Governor’s office stepped in at the last minute and convinced them to reconsider and work with the Tunnels to Towers (T2T) race organizer to make it happen.

The race was finally greenlighted and it created a significant buzz in the climbing community. Last year’s inaugural race was very competitive but it ended “only” on the 90th floor. This year the race was going to go all the way up to the observation deck on the 102nd floor. Despite a hefty price tag ($100 registration + $250 fundraising requirement) it attracts climbers from all around the country. Since I lived so close by and  it was worth 150 points on the US climbing circuit, I quickly signed up.

A couple days before the race T2T published the start list.

To my surprise the men’s field was missing last year’s winner (Tim Donahue) and runner up (Sproule Love). On one hand, I’d miss an opportunity to measure up to my rivals/idols. On the other hand, it left the keys to the race dangling within reach since I was now the #1 contender.

Despite a weakened men’s field, the pressure was enormous. Not only was there a $300 cash prize (sponsored by Travel Pak and the WCL team) but there was significant media presence covering the race. After all, that building has serious mojo; a phoenix rising from the ashes of 9-11 and (arguably) the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere.

Winning was not going to be easy despite being the #1 contender. Dr. Thomas Scott was in the lineup and he has been nipping at my heels for the last two seasons. He was right behind me at the U.S. Championships in Las Vegas in March and he beat me at Empire in February. Also in the hunt would be Norbert Lechner a well-known climber from Austria, although I knew from experience that he doesn’t excel in taller buildings. Plus (as in any other race) there was always the possibility of a top-caliber athlete from a related discipline (like cycling or rowing) showing up.

With less than 48 hours to climb, I did my final tune-up workout in the stairwell. I tried to use the exact same pace I planned to use at 1WTC*. I climbed my practice building a total of 12 times. Half of the climbs were done using my metronome to get a feel for the pace. The six remaining climbs were done without the aid of a metronome to get accustomed to climbing without electronics (since electronics weren’t allowed during the 1WTC climb). When climbing without a metronome, I kept the melody of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in my head. Although it is usually performed at a much slower pace, I enjoy playing this tune a little faster and it just so happens that my preferred playing tempo matches that of my planned 1WTC pace. Much to my satisfaction, all my climbs were completed within a fairly narrow band of times (between 55-57 seconds) so I knew the technique worked.

*I planned to use 90 BPM at 1WTC but since the stairs at 1WTC are shorter than my practice building, I used 84 BPM (roughly my Sears pace).

The day before the race started out as a fairly typical Saturday. I hit gym early with a light upper body & core workout and did my weekly grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. After that I packed my bags and made my dinner (salad and oatmeal) and placed them in  to-go containers. I should have been out the door by 3:00 PM to catch the 4:50 train to Grand Central, but time slipped by without me noticing. Not only was it already 3:20 PM by the time I got in my car, but I realized I had less than half a tank of gas!


I drove to the train station in record time - including a quick pit stop for a single gallon of gas once the dashboard’s low fuel light popped up. It was all for naught. I saw the train leave just as I pulled into the station. I was bummed, but I didn’t lose my temper. It gave me time to eat my salad and catch up on the latest Sci-Fi novel I’m reading (Tad William’s “Otherland” Series).

I caught the next train an hour later. I hit Grand Central around 8:00 PM and eventually made it to my friend Michael’s place sometime after 9:00 PM. My friend Ken was also staying over, but since it was already quite late and the race was horrifically early (5:00 AM) we quickly turned in for the night.

I slept for perhaps 4 hours and I must have checked my clock half a dozen times throughout the night. Ken’s alarm clock went off at 3:00 AM although I stayed in bed for another ten minutes. We were out the door by 3:40 AM and picked up the subway before 4:00 AM with plenty of time to spare.

Then the train stopped.

Apparently there was an “unauthorized person” on the track and the driver suggested that we find other means of transportation. We were lucky that we stopped at a fairly big stop and there was another subway line that could get us fairly close to 1WTC. We waited for a good 10 minutes, but at 4:12 AM with no sign of an approaching train and time running out, we decided to leave the station and find a cab. Fortunately, it was easy to flag one down and we were soon on our way to 1WTC*.

*Although we had to listen to the cabbie complain that we were his last ride for the night and he was on his way back to Queens.

4:30 AM. Seriously!?
We arrived at 1WTC just after 4:30 AM and it was cold, dark, and windy.

I quickly changed out of my warmups and received my racing bib & timing chip. To my surprise they also gave us an armband and told us to slide our id’s into the plastic pocket.

I ran to last year’s start starting corral to use the outdoor porto-pottie, but the security wouldn’t let me bring along my water bottle. Seriously? We weren’t even inside the building!

I could see the porto-pottie station, but there was a labyrinth of portable barriers in the way. I attempted to cut some corners (as the queue was completely empty) but got yelled at by security. I threw a few generic curse words but complied with the law.

Have you ever used a porto-potie in complete darkness? I have.

After dropping trow, I ran back to have my last sip of water and then through yet another labyrinth of portable barriers and into the building. Apparently the start line was indoors this year - which was a relief since it was freaking cold outside.

As soon as I entered the building, the 1WTC staff stopped me from going downstairs to the security line since it was too crowded. I was literally next in line.

In frustration I tried to explain that I was the #1 contender and I needed to get to the front of the line. They looked at me like I was crazy and wouldn’t let me go citing "rules & regulations" and stuff.

I watched as the downstairs queue slowly thinned, seeing many familiar faces get past security while I stood by helplessly.

I did a couple rounds of burpees while waiting and in between sets, I asked another staff member if I could cut in line once downstairs and he looked at me sternly (as if I were some kind of criminal) and said it wouldn’t be appropriate, but admitted that he has no control over the matter once I was past the checkpoint.

Once the herd downstairs had thinned, I was allowed to descend the escalator. Downstairs, I met my friend Jack in the security line. We chatted for a few moments and then he suggested that I get my butt up to the front of the line since the race had already started.

I passed a bunch of people. Some folks gave me a dirty glares but I balanced that by shaking hands and saying hi to my other climbing friends*.

*If you’re going to cut in line, you have to do it with style.

I finally got through security and jogged down another long hallway to the actual starting queue. It was tightly packed, but that didn’t stop me from passing folks –fortunately I knew a many of climbers and I remained unmolested as I made my way to the front. There I met up with Stephanie as well as my friend and rival Dr. Scott.

Sure enough the race had already started, but the elite wave still hadn’t entered only the stairwell. Only the (slower) firefighters were climbing and the organizers were giving them a good head start to make sure the stairwell wouldn’t become congested.

My throat was parched but of course nobody else had water since water bottles had been confiscated by security. However, apparently oranges were allowed and Stephanie Hucko graciously shared a few slices with me.

The race organizer manning the doorway told me we had another 6-7 minutes of waiting before the elite wave would begin, so I began my final set of burpees in earnest. Moments after I had finished, the same race organizer indicated he was ready to let the elite wave start.

What the heck? A moment ago you told me we had 6-7 minutes! Are you kidding me?

My heartrate was sky high after my set of burpees so I motioned to my friend Kamen and his daughter to start the elite wave. Dr. Scott was waiting for me to go next, but I pushed him through instead. Then I gave him a 10-15 second head start before entering the stairwell myself. I would have preferred another minute or two of rest, but I didn’t want to let Dr. Scott out of my sight.

I started the long climb up with “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” playing in my head.

The first few floors were weird. For some reason, the landings turn to the left (as opposed to the right - like all the upper floors), but what surprised me most were the long sets of hallways we had to pass through. Last year had some lengthy hallways, but this year there appeared to be even more. Completely different stairwell I guess, not to mention we were starting one floor underground.

I didn’t really look up until I hit floor 20. From last year, I knew the floor numbers up until this point didn’t make sense anyway either repeating, missing, or skipping numbers.

By this point I was climbing smoothly, even keeping one foot on the landing whenever it felt convenient.

I crossed into the 30s still feeling okay and soon enough I began to catch the slower fire fighters. All of them let me go by on the inside (right) lane. I was still feeling nervous and had a dry mouth so I grabbed a cup of water at the next aid station. I had one sip and then set the cup back down on the next flight. Hopefully someone picked it up before it was spilled.

I hit the 40s in reasonably good shape, but now the climb was starting to take its toll. My march was steady and “Jesu” was no longer needed. In fact, I couldn’t spare the energy to even think about the tune.

I hit 45, which was last year’s midpoint and it became clear to me that this race was going to be a struggle. I was already tiring and I still had a few more floors before hitting the half.

I climbed through the 50’s and 60’s doggedly. I was close to my limit but unwilling to slow down  - although I suspect that I unconsciously did. Every few floors I’d hear someone up ahead. I hoped it was Dr. Scott, but each and every time it turned out to be another firefighter.

In the upper 60s I could hear another climber up ahead. Unlike the last few climbers, this climber was managing to keep ahead of me. A few floors later, just a single floor separated us. On one of the landings I risked a glance up. It was Dr. Scott and I could see the whites of his eyes peering at me from above.

I got to within a single flight, but no closer. We were in the lower 70’s and I was inching towards my limit. At this point last year I was in dire straits. This year I was merely in trouble; the boat was still floating, but had sprung a couple of leaks.

Half of my brain told me to pass and seal the win, but the other half was screaming to slow down. Eventually I settled in about a floor behind. As long as I kept Dr. Scott in view I knew I would be able to eke out the win.

Together we climbed into the 80s. Slowly Dr. Scot pulled away and I struggled to keep up. The Doctor was no longer in sight but I could still hear his heavy breathing up ahead.

I crossed the 90th floor, last year’s finish, and  I remembered staggering over the finish  line fully spent. If the race ended here again, I’d be standing (or lying down as the case may be) in  the winner’s circle. This time around I still had a little bit of energy left in reserve, but unfortunately, I still had a dozen floors to climb.

I started counting down the floors. With less than two minutes left in the race I somehow had to keep my body moving.

I crossed floor 93. I had less than 10 floors left to climb – the equivalent of my practice building. However I was nearing my limit. I could still hear Dr. Scott up ahead but the sounds of his breathing were growing fainter. He had me on the ropes and I knew that I was in serious trouble.

I crossed the next floor. I expected to see the number 94, but instead the number “93M” appeared.


Another floor had been tacked on to the race? I felt like I had been punched in the gut.

My odds of winning were quickly dropping but at that point I was in so much pain the statistics it barely registered.  I was going to completely bonk within the next few floors. I simply didn’t have anything left to give and there were still a bunch* of floors left. I was pretty much toast but I knew Dr. Scott couldn’t be in much better condition. I wouldn’t concede the race quite yet.

*I could no longer do simple math at this point so I’ve left out the specific number of floors remaining.

I crossed the next floor and looked for the floor marker. 

I was half expecting to see floor “93N” because let’s face it - my luck had been pretty shitty up until this point. Yesterday I missed my train. This morning the subway stopped because of some random dude on the tracks and when I finally made it to the race, I got held up by security. To top it off, they started the elite wave a few minutes too early and I didn’t get a chance to properly recover from my last round of burpees. What’s next, an endless stairwell?

Then a miracle happened: The marker said I was on the 100th floor!

I wouldn’t have been able to handle a small-yet-significant number of floors*, but I could certainly handle two more**. My heart soared in joy***.

*Again, simple math escaped me.
**I still could handle 102 – 100 = 2 without thinking.
***Figuratively as my heart couldn’t handle anything more.

I bounded up the two remaining floors running on fumes, but with the finish line so close I pushed with everything I could muster. It wasn’t pretty. I escaped the stairwell on floor 102. Only a short hallway remained between me and the finish line. I glanced around hoping to catch a glimpse of Dr. Scott, but he was nowhere in sight. With one final push I dashed forward knowing that each second would count.

I crossed the finish line completely spent and I spent the next minute or so hunched over with my hands on my thighs for support. I eventually staggered to the water station and collapsed to the ground. It would take several more minutes to get my heartrate down to a manageable level.

My mind was a complete blank as I lay on the ground. I was simply thankful that I had survived the climb in one piece.

Slowly I came back to my senses and a volunteer helped me up off the ground. I wasn’t completely ready to stand, but I knew I ought to move away from growing throng of climbers. One question still remained unanswered. Did I win the race?

I had built up nearly a 10 second lead in the 70s, but I knew I lost some of it  in the 80s and 90s when the Doctor climbed out of sight. The fact that I could still hear him up ahead in the 90s meant I couldn’t have been too far behind, but was it enough?

I didn’t have to wait long to find out. A volunteer approached me and told me I had won the race by 8 seconds and sure enough, there was a flat screen monitor with the preliminary results with my name at the very top of the list! You can see the final results here.

For the next ten minutes or so, various news agencies came over to interview me and I had my picture taken with Stephanie Hucko, the winner on the woman’s side. I’ve never had so much media exposure in my life and I was a little bit starry eyed as I traveled from one news program to the next.

The Winners!

Notice how the sun hasn't yet risen?
When the media buzz was over, I had a few minutes to chat and take photos with my Tower Masters and WCL Teammates before heading down tower to change into warmer clothes.
Does it even end??

Hanging with the Doc
At the bottom, I met up with Thomas and Chuck and since we didn’t have anything else planned for the morning (as there was neither an after climb buffet or awards party) we decided to go find a place to have breakfast. After climbing up ~100 floors* we were all hungry.

*Damned if I know the actual floor count.

After stopping by Thomas’ and Chuck’s hotels, we eventually made our way to “Georgia’s Dinner” and sat down for a breakfast of French toast, eggs, and bacon. We talked at length about our the duel on the upper stories of the building (among other things) and it appears I was pushing Dr. Scott as hard as he was pushing me. What a dogfight!

Finally it was time to go. I said goodbye to my climbing friends and then meandered through downtown Manhattan to pick up subway back to Michael’s place. Along the way I took a stroll through Battery Park and took a detour through Wall Street.

^ I climbed this ^
The Wall Street "Charging Bull"
(edit: I just noticed that I accidentally photographed some random Chinese dude fondling the statue's testicles whilst his wife snaps a photo to commemorate the moment)
I took a shower at Michael's place and afterwards took the subway back to Grand Central. While waiting for the train, I stopped by Shake Shack (conveniently located downstairs) for a coffee milkshake*.

*As their location is peanut free, my preferred peanut butter option wasn’t available.

This time, I didn’t miss the train.

Final Thoughts:
1WTC may be the tallest skyscraper in the U.S., but the tallest race course still belongs to Sears. According to Chuck’s altimeter, the race course is approximately 70 feet (21.3 meters) shorter than Sears. That height is equal to 4 stories of my practice building. Climbing at 1WTC race pace, it would take me about 40 seconds. However the 1WTC course has a bunch of running;  I’m guessing perhaps 20 seconds of running more than Sears.  Therefore, I estimate that WTC1 should be about 20 seconds faster than Sears (at my pace). Maybe less. Remember, Sears has a sweet upper third (changes direction & close rails) and is much easier to pace since you can wear a watch, mp3 player, or even a metronome.

There is a lot to like about 1WTC:
·          - The tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere
·          - A competitive race with lots of media attention
·          - It is in NYC*

Unfortunately, there is also a lot to dislike about 1WTC:
·         - 5:00 AM start time. Even if you lived Queens or Brooklyn, you’d still have to wake up by 3:00 AM
·         - No after climb party or buffet
·         - No electronics and over-the-top security (two checkpoints + we had to climb with our ids)
·         - Porto-potties
·         - Having to pass a bunch of slow firefighters
·         - $100 registration and $250 fundraising -  It is the most expensive race I’ve ever climbed
·         - It is in NYC*

* Feel free to debate

Some of my dislikes are not The Tunnels to Towers fault. In fact, I bet $10 that the 5:00 AM start time was the Durst Organization’s way of flipping off T2T. Classy move Durst. Classy move.

In closing, I will say that letting slower firefighters climb in front of the competitive climbers is typically a bad idea. Fortunately there were fewer firefighters this year and  all of them got out of the way - unlike last year - and having them go first didn’t slow me down. Plus, I totally get why the T2T chose to let the firefighters start the race. Respect.

Race Grades:
Effort: A+ ; There are only a handful of races where I’ve pushed myself harder. Most notably Strat (2015), Boston (2016), US Bank (2013). In those three races I physically bonked. I came very close to bonking in this race.
Strategy: B ; Clearly I went out too fast and suffered in the latter half of the race, but at least my “Jesu” technique kept me honest during the first 20 floors or so. Considering I didn’t have access to a stop watch or a metronome, I can’t give myself a lower score than a B.
Technique: B ; Average. The stairs are wide I could only grip the inner (right) rail. The rails themselves aren’t the best – one of those double rail systems with a smaller diameter inner rail. After floor 70, my right shoulder started to tire, but I continued using good form until the very end. Lastly, I didn’t focus on single stepping the landings, so I’m giving myself an average score in an average stairwell.  
Overall: B+/A-;. This was a tough win both physically and mentally and I’m proud to have ground this one out. That said, 14:26 isn’t a really super-fast time for me. This courses should be climbed faster than Sears and my PB at Sears is 14:19.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Alex---as usual. Congratulations on a great climb!