Friday, December 16, 2016


After Willis (aka Sears) I was a mess. First off, my lungs took nearly a week and a half to recover. Heavy breathing during strenuous exercise made my lungs hurt and I had to tone down the intensity of my workouts. Secondly, the race really took its toll on my mental health. I was simply numb to the World and had zero will power to continue dieting. During the next week or two I gained nearly 5 pounds. To top things off, I got sick the week of Thanksgiving resulting in 5 days without exercise and several more “active recovery” days to ensure I wouldn’t relapse. If time travel were possible, I’d like a redo for the entire month of November.

I headed to the Pan-American Championships at the Torre Colpatria in Bogota, Columbia 100% healthy, but a few pounds overweight and a bit undertrained.

A lot of mixed emotions were going through my head. Under normal circumstances, I’d never choose to go to Bogota on my own dime. Bogota sits at 8700 feet above sea level which puts low-landers like me at a pretty severe disadvantage compared to the local athletes (for comparative purposes, Mile High stadium in Denver sits at a paltry 5280 feet). But as I qualified for a travel package that covered most of my expenses (I still had to shell out $250) I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

As I was only in decent, yet not great shape and was worried about that altitude, my confidence going into the race was pretty low. On the bright side, I didn’t really have much to lose as the race was pretty stacked so I didn’t have much of a target on my back. If anything, my goal was simply to not embarrass myself on the international stage. That meant treating the race with a healthy dose of fear and respect and climbing an ultra-conservative race.

I took a puddle jumper from Albany to EWR on Wednesday morning, killing about 4 hours in the terminal awaiting my international flight*. While lining up to board the flight I ran into Sproule. At least I wouldn’t be making the trip by myself**.

*The Kindle Fire is my new best friend (Terry Pratchett’s “Hogfather”)
**We’d later learn that Cindy missed her connection flight and wouldn’t be joining us on our adventure.

After a 5+ hour flight*, we touched down just after 10:00 PM (no change in time zone) and we met our ride to the hotel around 11:00.

*The Kindle Fire is my new best friend (William Gibson’s “Shadowrun” “Neuromancer”)

Bogota sits at 8,700 feet above sea level, which means it holds considerably less oxygen. I was worried that I’d feel lightheaded or get altitude sickness since I’ve never been at high elevation (Mount Marcy’s peak is a shade over 5000 feet).  The air felt fairly dry, but otherwise I couldn’t tell the difference.

We  checked into the IBIS hotel shortly before midnight and found out I’d be rooming with Sproule. The room was decent, but fairly small. Although we had two separate beds they were sandwiched together, so it appeared to be a single queen sized bed. At least we each had separate blankets.

Lights out at a little past midnight, but as it was a national holiday in Columbia, random fireworks kept me up for another 45 minutes or so. Next time, I’ll bring my ear plugs.

As the elite wave didn’t start until about 11:00 AM, we were able to sleep in till about 8:30 before heading downstairs for breakfast. There I ran into Mishca (Towerrunning Executive Director) my Canadian friends Napoleon and Veronica, and met a few of the competitive Mexican athletes (Gustavo, Roberto, etc.). I only ate a couple pieces of bread and some fruit as I hate racing on a full stomach.

After breakfast I headed back to the room to change and gather my gear. At 9:30, I met up with all the other Towerrrunning athletes and our guides escorted us ot the start line and VIP waiting area.

Our hotel was only a 5 minute walk to the Colpatria. The road was closed off from vehicle traffic and the closer we got to the building, the more crowded it became with cyclists, spectators, and runners (presumably warming up). By the time we got to the start line, people were standing nearly shoulder to shoulder.

We were led to the gated VIP area which was also fairly crowded. After receiving my racing bib we were introduced to the race sponsors. Everything was spoken is Spanish so I didn’t have a clue what was really going on, so I just shook hands and smiled.

We dropped our stuff off at a private tent behind the VIP area and as we still had an hour or so to kill*, I decided to head back to the hotel to rest.

*The start time wasn’t exactly clear, but appeared to be somewhere between 11:00 AM and noon.

Right around 10:50 our minders met us in the hotel lobby and we headed back to the tent behind the VIP zone to warm up.

Right before I finished my active stretches, they brought us to the VIP area to finish our warm-ups. While everyone was jogging, I did several round of burpees. It was my first exertion at altitude. Truth be told, I didn’t feel any difference.

A few minutes before the official start, we were corralled to the actual start line. I finished my last round of burpees as everyone else completed laps along the long straight away behind the start line. Fans and cameras were everywhere! With a couple minutes ago, they lined us up somewhat randomly (not by bib number) although last year’s winner (Frank Carreno) was positioned last.

Other than last year’s finishing times I had very little information about the race course and only a vague idea how the attitude might impact my performance. Sproule finished in about 6:01 last year so I figured I’d ought to be within 20 seconds. From that, I gave myself a goal of 6:30 with a stretch goal of 6:15. However, executing that pace with my metronome was going to be a shot in the dark because I knew very little about the stairwell (e.g. step heights) and how much the altitude would affect my performance.

I did a quick back-of-the envelope calculation to figure out my target pace. I read online that above 5000 feet, performance drops about 3% for every additional 1000 feet*. As the race starts at ~8700 feet and ends at  ~9300 feet (taking into account the height of the tower) the average elevation of the climb is about 9000 feet. As such, I estimated that I’d need to go ~12% slower than normal. I figured the race should be comparable with One Penn Plaza (time wise) where I typically go out at 95 BPM. Assuming similar step heights (a fairly large leap of faith) that would mean I’d need to set my metronome at roughly 85 BPM – which is even slower than my Sears Tower pace. It seemed insanely slow for such a short race, but I wasn’t going to argue with physics.

*I doubt the performance drop is linear with respect to altitude, but that is a topic for another day.

I was 5th in line* and they gave a 20 second gap in between climbers. When it was my turn, I ran toward the tower. It is about a 20 seconds run to the building entrance and maybe another 5 seconds to get to the stairwell.

*right behind Franklin Saenz, the guy who cheated at the World Championships in Doha back in 2015. Just sayin’.

Once inside, I kept up to the beat of my metronome fairly easily for the first few floors. It seemed incredibly slow, but I didn’t dare adjust my pace for fear of the altitude.

The stairwell turns to the right and appears to use a 10/10 pattern. I tried using both rails for the first few flights but eventually just stuck to the inside rail. The rails were slightly too far apart for my tastes. The inside rail was the tubular metal kind, but was of a larger diameter than what I’m accustomed to. The other thing I remember about the stairwell is that the landings are fairly easy to turn. The first step juts out a bit and the railing only extends to the 2nd step. This means that there isn’t much impediment when you happen to turn on your outside foot.

By the time I reached the 5th or 6th floor, I was passed by the racer who started just behind me. I was perhaps a minute or two into the race and he passed me like I was standing still. I was feeling like a fish out of water. Was I really going that slow?

By now I was feeling the pace. It didn’t hit me like a ton of bricks (which I was dreading). Instead it was as if the pace dialed up from “easy” to “medium-hard”. Fortunately, I could tolerate “medium-hard”.

I crossed into the double digits and then into the teens. I was a bit more than a quarter of the way through the race (considering all the running) and I was feeling fairly good. I felt like I still had something in reserve, but still didn’t know if the altitude was going to wreak havoc on the upper floors.

I cruised into the 20s and checked my watch on the 24th floor (the presumed mid-point).  I can’t remember my split, but I remember thinking I was on track for a sub-7:00 climb. Not very competitive, but not embarrassing either.

I readjusted my pace and climbed ahead of my metronome. To break 6:30 I knew I’d need a strong 2nd half.

I climbed into the 30s. The 10/10 pattern was broken only twice with sets of spiral stairs (don’t ask me what floors). Before I knew it I had less than 10 more floors to go. I was right at the red line by this point, meaning that I was hurting and could keep up the pace for only a few more minutes before bonking.. But with only 10 more floors (a minute or two at most) I should’ve dropped the hammer. Instead, I just maintained my  pace; I lacked the drive, that special “fire” that comes wanting to win.

As I climbed I could hear another climber ahead of me; probably the guy who sprinted past me in the beginning. By the 46th floor I could hear him just a floor or so above. At first I was like, “Ha! Serves him right for going out so fast!” But then I realized I had only a few floors to go. Even if I did manage to re-pass, I wouldn’t be able to make up the 20 second deficit. I redoubled my efforts for the next couple floors. Too little too late. On the 48th  floor I became a little disoriented. Suddenly I was out of the main stairwell and directed up a concrete ramp to the outside of the building. Around the next turn I could see my opponent climbing the final flight of outdoor metal steps. At that point I knew I wasn’t going to catch him as the finish line was likely just beyond view. I climbed the last flight a little dejected, but determined to finish strong. I glanced at my watch. It was approaching 6:30. Shit, I had to hurry!  I dashed to finish line a couple of seconds shy of 6:30.

I was out of breath (of course) but I quickly walked it off. I had come under my goal time, but knew I left way too much in the tank.

The other climbers finished one by one. I was pretty much fully recovered by the time Sproule crossed the line. I walked around a bit waiting for the guys to recover and the ladies to finish. The view on top of the roof was spectacular. Mountains form a ring around the city and because of the climate, everything is green year-round.

I walked over to Sproule and Gustavo who were sitting on a mat recovering. They both came under the 6 minute mark, which left me feeling a little bit depressed (last year they finished in ~6:01 and ~6:15 respectively). I shouldn’t be 30+ seconds behind either of them.

By now the roof was filled with athletes and camera crews were interviewing some of the top athletes. Eventually, we were herded back down the tower for the award ceremony.

At the bottom, I could barely see & hear the awards ceremony because there were so many people (not to mention the language barrier). The podium was dominated by the Colombians, although one of the Mexican climbers managed to earn 4th place (and snag some decent prize money).

I later found out that Sproule came in 7th, just a couple seconds shy of 5th place. I came in 11th place for the men and 12th overall (yes, I hate getting chicked). Here is a copy of the results. Keep in mind that the elite wave is a separate race. The other 3000 athletes climbed the same building, but ended on the 48th floor rather than the roof. I’m guessing the extra distance would have taken perhaps ~15 seconds, so there were probably a dozen or so other climbers in the regular race who would have been faster than me.

After the race we walked back to the hotel and I had lunch with Sproule in the dining room. As other racers filtered in, I made plans with Napoleon, Mischa, and another girl to hike up to the church overlooking the city atop the nearby mountain (I later learned it’s called Monserrate Mountain).

The journey started out fairly well as we navigated through the city to get to the base of the mountain. At one point we meandered our way through a local public park. It was quite beautiful, but what struck me as out of place was all the graffiti covering nearly every available surface.

We eventually found ourselves on a road which snakes its way across the base of the mountain. At this point it appeared we were on the outskirts of the city as all the commercial buildings lay beneath us and only a few clusters of colorful shacks (which can be appropriately described as “favelas”) separated us from the steep slope of the mountain.

As we walked along the sidewalk, I noticed a group of men coming down from the residential slum across the street going in more or less the same direction as we were. My spider sense started to tingle, but I didn’t think much of it. After all, it was in the middle of the day and we were on a somewhat busy road. But I remained slightly cautious and hung back a few paces  behind my companions.

Suddenly, the men rushed across the street directly towards us. I didn’t even have time to warm my companions as I sidestepped out of their way. They appeared to be four young men in their late teens or early 20s. One of them grabbed at Mischa and his backpack. Another one stood next to him with a knife in hand. Shit! At this point I was on the balls of my feet and I backed up another few paces. I glanced behind me to make sure we weren’t going to be surrounded. As I turned my head towards the scuffle, the four men took off and ran back to the slums. Incredulously, the girl who was with us chased after the thieves. She was running full tilt up the hill and was going to catch up to one of the stragglers. Knowing the men were armed, I called out to her from across the street to come back. She didn’t heed my warning until the thief turned and pulled out a wicked looking blade. She reluctantly stopped pursuit.

By this time a small crowd had gathered and folks were leaning out of their windows to see what was going on. We flagged down what appeared to be a police officer with a police dog, but he told us he couldn’t help (we later learned that some of the “police officers” are just private security guards). Finally, one of the locals pointed down the hillside and told us there was a police station nearby. As we walked, we compared notes. Mischa lost his backpack and phone and had his shirt pocket ripped (as he was carrying his phone in his breast pocket). The girl suffered a similar fate - sans ripped clothing. A man with a club came after Napoleon, but he managed to duck out of the way. As he turned back toward the scuffle, he tripped and fell to the ground. Luckily the attackers were already fleeing and didn’t take anything from him (other than wounded pride).

After a short walk down a public staircase, we arrived at the police station and told the officers what had happened. They couldn’t do much about the attack since the inhabitants of the slums usually cover for one another. In fact, it appeared the police rarely try to venture into that particular district. That said, the police took a report and met us back at the crime scene and then did a cursory look inside the heart of the shanty town on motor bike. Unfortunately, the didn’t turn up any leads but offered to escort us back to our hotel. We took them up on their offer.

Back at the hotel, I *finally* took a shower and then told Sproule about our ordeal. He told me he was bummed he couldn’t go with us (due to work commitments) but when he learned about the attack, he was thankful he wasn’t involved.

By now it was dinner time. None of my other friend were in the mood to go out (because of the attack) but Sproule and I ventured out on our own. He knew of a nice little restaurant (Restaurant “Bruno”) in the city that he enjoyed the last time he was in the city. We took a cab and shared a nice quiet meal, talking about a range of topics including politics, family life, and of course stair racing.

By the time we got back to the hotel it was almost time for bed. Although our flight left at 9:30 AM, our ride to the airport was picking us up at 5:00 AM (yikes!) to avoid traffic delays.

Other than having to wake up super early, the next day was uneventful. Sproule, Napoleon and I hung out at the airport for a few hours* and on the plane ride home, I managed to make a few seat exchanges so the three of us could sit together.

*Fun Fact: The money exchange kiosk at the airport is a pretty good deal. I exchanged nearly $400 worth of pesos for only $7.

Effort B- ;  This race scared me so I went out very conservatively. When I had excess energy in the latter half, I didn’t push the pace hard enough.
Strategy: B+; I set the bar fairly low and didn’t screw up. That has to count for something, especially with so many unknown factors in play.
Execution: B ; Even though I didn’t know the course, I still climbed pretty efficiently. I did push the pace in the latter half, albeit not to my full capacity.
Overall: B ; Considering all the unknowns, I did a fair job. If I had to repeat the race today and ended up the same splits/results, I’d give myself a C+.

Final Thoughts: It’s funny how my perspective changed before, during, and after the race. Had you told me I’d race a 6:28 beforehand*, I’d have been fairly pleased with my time. But now that I know what kind of energy expenditure is needed at 9000 feet altitude, I would have set my goals a bit higher (say 6:15 goal and 6:00 stretch). All-in-all, I’m not pleased with my performance, but I also think I set myself up for a solid race the next time I’m in Bogota (yes, there will be a next time). Now that I’ve raced at altitude, I know how my body will respond. I still respect 9000 feet, but I’m no longer afraid of it. The next time around I’d likely go out at 90 BPM and start cranking at either the 24th floor or the 40th (depending on how I feel).

*Note: We’d rule the world together with your supernatural powers.

Last note: While on the plane ride home, Sproule showed me a comparison of his splits at Torre Colpatria between 2015 and 2016. He just presses a button on his stopwatch to record the data on a given floor during a race and his watch records the splits for use later. I’m going to have to see if my stop watch has the same functionality. I often check my splits manually, but I often forget my exact time in the middle of the race.