Friday, March 15, 2019

National Championships at the Strat

I’ve yet to figure out the Scale the Strat.

This race is the US National Championships and during the past seven years I’ve been the National Champion twice*, yet I’ve never won the race. Both times I’ve been beaten handily by a foreigner**

*Once officially, and once unofficially as there wasn’t a governing body back in 2014.
**Goerge Heimann is my hero. He just turned 50 and he just keeps getting faster.

If you look at my times year over year, you’ll notice they are very consistent and I’ve been getting faster each year.

Taken at face value, you’d think I’d be pleased. However I’m not; A 7:42 isn’t a whole lot faster than a 7:57, especially considering I’m in better shape and I’ve had plenty of experience in this particular tower. Since my first race in 2013, my goal has always been 7:30 and I’ve yet to crack even 7:40.

As far as consistency is concerned, each race has a completely different story to tell, so to me it seems odd that my times have been so close. In my first attempt, I raced too conservatively and had to play catch up. Another year I completely bonked toward the end of the race. There was also that time I raced sick*… and that time when I was in top shape…

*I had a fever before and after the race, but miraculously, I felt okay the morning of the race. Go figure!

I feel like I’ve hit some weird plateau such that no matter how good *or* bad feel, I’m  going to beat my previous PR by a mere second or two, yet still not break into the 7:30s.

You’ll notice that the above chart skips over 2018* so the last time I raced at Strat was in 2017. I wrote a blog about that race but never published it (I just wasn’t in the mood). Summary: I *thought* I climbed a solid race until I learned the results. Not only was my time still in the 7:40s (goal 7:30) but I came in 5th (worst place yet) and missed a podium spot by 11 seconds. I was super disappointed afterwards.

*In 2018, I raced at the Crash B Indoor Rowing Championships which was held the same day as Scale the Strat. Up until that point, I had come in 2nd place at the Strat three years in a row. I was a bit disappointed to learn out that the winning time at the Strat in 2018 was 8:10 – a time that was well within my capability. As a consolation, at Crash B, I ended up 2nd in my age group (ironically yet another 2nd place). The winner was the former captain of the Dartmouth rowing team and the race wasn’t very close - he was taller and had far better technique, not to mention he had an extreme amount of horsepower.

This year I was determined to break through the 7:40 plateau.

My original plan was to cut weight and race at Crash B which was fortuitously scheduled the week before Strat. If I could set a PB at Crash-B, I would undoubtedly crush Scale the Strat since I’d be racing at my highest power to weight ratio ever.

The plan started to unravel a week prior to Sears Tower (late October 2018).

I had been training seriously on the erg (indoor rower) for months and my split times were dropping (at that point I estimate my 2K time was right around 6:37 FWIW). During my long workouts, I had been noticing that my butt was getting sore (not much of a surprise) but a week before Sears, I realized it was more than just a sore butt… I had aggravated an old piriformis injury and I needed to take a break from the erg.

Fast forward to early February, my piriformis wasn’t fully healed so I still couldn’t train on the erg. However, I knew I could still bang out a quick 2K without too much pain. I still wanted to race Crash-B for fun, although breaking 6:40 probably wasn’t in the cards.

My dieting, however, didn’t go according to plan. I needed to be 165 on race day which meant I’d have to be around 169 a week prior to the race (4 lbs of water in one week isn’t too hard). Instead I was around 172. An okay weight for climbing stairs, but it would be impossible to make weight for rowing without becoming too dehydrated.

It was my own fault. I just didn’t buckle down and do what needed to be done.

Otherwise, my fitness was very good. I didn’t break any workout PBs, but I had several close 2nds all in the span of couple weeks. If I wasn’t in the best shape of my life… I was awfully close.

The days leading up to Scale the Strat I checked out my competition. My main rivals from the Dallas Vertical Mile would all be in attendance (Jason Larson, Harrison Kieffer & Mark Henderson) and I estimated I had a good 20 second advantage on each. Added to the list was Tristan Roth who is usually right around Jason’s level of fitness. Last but not least was Greg Billingsley. He was the dark horse. He climbed the building in 8:12 in 2018, but that was just his first stair climb and he apparently started with the general wave (not the elite wave). Plus he was still only 20 years old (less than half my age I might add!).

All in all, I felt I had a very good chance of finally winning the race.

That feeling didn’t last long.  A day before the race I learned that Team Mexico would be attending in full force which meant Alexis Trujillo – Mexico’s fastest tower runner - would be on the start line. He’s young and fast enough to challenge the Scale the Strat record. Totally out of my league.

I’d be racing for 2nd place yet again. But since Alexis is Mexican… I still had a great shot at taking the US National Championship!

On Sunday, I was full of race day jitters. This year the gathering point was in a slightly different location due to construction, so it took a little bit longer to get my bib. It was cold outside!

About 30 minutes prior to the start, I headed to the gym with my friend Napoleon to warm up. They happen to have a Precor Stepper (albeit with a barely functioning control panel) so I was able to complete my normal pre-workout routine: 6 minutes of active stretching followed by 6 minutes of warm up.

With five minutes to go, I headed back to the staging area. They were running a few minutes late so I got in a couple rounds of burpees in the casino hallway.

Finally we were called to the staging area. We followed our guide all the way to the Skydeck entrance and about 10 of us crowded into the elevator to go *all* the way up to the 3rd floor start line (typically we’ve taken the stairs, but this year the Strat was doing some remodeling).

In previous editions of the race, we’ve had to wait in the 3rd floor hallway for up to 20 minutes before the official start of the race, but this time we started a couple minutes after we arrived.

Alexis was first out the gate as we all knew he was the fastest climber.

I was up next… and I was in for a bit of a surprise. I’m used to 30 second gaps at the Strat (which helps avoid unnecessary passing) but this time it I was ushered in after just a few seconds!

I quickly turned on my metronome and checked to make sure it was set to 97 BPM. Showtime!

Alexis was out of sight by the time I entered the stairwell but I could hear him a couple flights ahead. He was going out fast!  A few seconds later heard Jason start behind me.

My pace felt relatively slow and my first thought was that Jason would soon overtake me. But then he settled in about a flight behind, which upon further reflection made sense  – Jason is too experienced to go too fast right off the bat. We both knew the “slow” pace would become brutal in a couple minutes.

Prior to the race I debated what pace to use. My goal was to  climb in 7:39 or less (roughly a 101 BPBM pace) but I also knew my competition would likely struggle getting under the 8 minute mark. Prior experience told me that a 97 BPM would get me to the top in about 8 minutes and I contemplated splitting the difference. However, my desire to take the US Championship outweighed my desire to go for a decent PB. Going out too fast increased the odds of bonking near the top which would jeopardize the US Championship. Anyway, If I felt good during the middle of the race, I could always go faster and still meet my goal.

Jason eventually settled in about a flight behind me. I risked glancing at my watch. 2 minutes down and I still felt strong.

Behind me, things were getting tense. I could see Jason climbing head to head with another climber. Presumably Harrison. Now I had to deal with two climbers breathing down my neck. Considering they had started roughly 5 & 10 seconds behind me respectively, I was likely sitting in 4th spot. Great.

Unlike a traditional skyscraper, the Strat is a tower and the vertical position inside the building is marked off in feet rather than floors. To be honest, I don’t exactly know where the half way point is, but I knew that it was somewhere in the low 400s. I was now approaching that point and out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone blast past Jason & Harrison. Crap… now I had to deal with Tristan, too!

Just after Tristan passed, I did the math. Tristan likely started 15 seconds behind me and with this trio hot on my tail I was now likely in 5th place with just under 4 minutes of climbing left in the race.

I was fully winded, but the pace didn’t seem brutal. I knew I had climbed fairly conservatively for the first half of the race and now it was time to pick up the pace and drop my rivals.

But here is the thing: I was scared and doubting my ability. The only thought going through my mind was that this was the US National Championship and I was losing! Plus, the pace was hard enough that it was beginning to get uncomfortable. In this mental state, it took a lot of willpower to force the pace… but I did.

Over the next couple minutes, I slowly pulled away, climbing just a little faster than my metronome on each flight.

When I reached the 700s, I could sense the final part of the race was coming up. I thought I could faintly hear Tristan down below so I figures he was still in the hunt for 2nd place. Oh how I wished I knew exactly how many seconds he started behind me!

With a quick right turn, I exited the tower into the occupied “donut” section. I had maybe 7 or 8 floors left to go. Unlike the tower core, this section had true floors consisting of shorter yet wider flights and tubular rails. I think it starts at floor 100 and ends on the Skydeck at floor 108.

This was it. The final push to determine who would be crowned US Champion.

I had way too much energy left, but it was still a struggle to sprint these last flights. Faster pace, yes… full out sprint, no.

I burned what energy I could, but I knew I had left something on the table.

I crossed the finish line tired, but still standing upright. I glanced at my watch as almost an afterthought. 7:45. Crap. I stopped my watch a little late so likely was a little faster, but chances were that I didn’t break the 7:40 mark. Now I just had to wait for my rivals to show up.

I didn’t have to wait long. I heard Tristan whooping for joy as he crossed the line. He was perhaps 15-20 seconds behind me so I knew the race had been close. Damn. If I lost the National Championship by a few seconds it was going to sting. I briefly put my hands on my quads for a rest but stood up after a few seconds. I was winded, but feeling good enough to walk around. I grabbed a glass of orange juice. Nothing to do now but wait for the results…

As the other climbers filtered in, I chatted a bit and learned that I had handily beaten everybody but Tristan (and of course Alexis). Tristan self-timed himself at 7:45 so it indeed was a close race. I suspected I was slightly faster, but too much uncertainty remained – I know from experience that a few seconds is solidly within the margin of error.

After downing a banana and another couple glasses of orange juice, I headed back down with Tristan to see the final results.

Up on the screen, I found my name up in 2nd place behind Alexis. 

Yes! I was finally the US National Champion!

Then I peered at the times. Holy cow they were close…
Alex Workman 7:42
Gregory Billingsley 7:43
Tristan Roth 7:46

You can find the overall results here.

I felt bad for Tristan who had a good race, but was clipped by a handful of seconds for not one, but two podium spots. 

I knew I was lucky for narrowly edging out Greg. He started further behind us so I honestly forgot about him. Clearly he had a good race. Had he been climbing up front with the rest of us, it might have been a different outcome. I certainly had enough energy go faster but did I have the mental fortitude to back it up? Doubts linger.

I would have been bitter about the results had I been in Tristan’s shoes, but he seemed pretty happy about his performance. He easily shattered his goal of breaking the 8 minute mark which is a great prelude to the Columbia Tower (a similarly sized building in Seattle, where he lives). Someday I hope to have such a positive attitude.

All that was left was to take a shower and attend the awards ceremony for the annual points competition. For the past three years I’ve been atop the points rankings, but this year I gave up the top spot to Terry Purcell who has had my number in 2018. With a couple of big wins already under my belt this year, I hope to be top dog again in 2019.

Final Thoughts:
A couple people came up to me to congratulate my 2nd place finish at the Stratosphere, but nobody mentioned that I was the US National Champion. In fact, the accomplishment wasn't even mentioned during the Towerrunning USA awards ceremony. Boy that really stung.

A few days after the race I checked out Towerrunning USA and to see if there was an announcement that I could share with my friends and family. Nothing. Nada.

Sometimes I feel like climbing stairs doesn’t matter and I’m honestly sick of training my ass off. I know I’m not the fastest climber, but at least I show up and compete in the big races; nobody can accuse me of cherry picking only races I can win. Officially winning the US National Championship was supposed to be my time to shine and nobody gave a damn. To be honest, it still hurts.

Awkwardly, I contacted Stairlife and the Towerrunning USA director a few days after the race. I felt embarrassed having to ask for my name to appear, but upset enough to actually push for it. Thanks Stairlife for updating the Stratosphere post to include my name.

Finally, thanks to (the governing international organization) who at least mentioned me in a brief post. That made my day.

As for my performance, I’m happy about my place, but disappointed with my time. Not *that* disappointed mind you. I’m another year older and few seconds faster and I plan to keep the streak alive next year.

I learned a lot in the stairwell during this race. There have been times were I’ve blown up at 97 BPM and this time I handled it with aplomb. In fact, I had energy in the tank even after I increased my pace during the 2nd half. For the 6th time in a row I believe a 7:30 is in the cards (no pun intended being Vegas and all).

Effort: B; The first part of the race was more like a training session. I pushed it during the latter half, but I left too much in the tank.
Weight: B+; I was likely around 172 or just hair above. Good but not great. I honestly need to 170 or less.
Conditioning: A; I was in great shape this time around.
Pacing & Technique: B+: The turns seemed to be efficient and the blisters on my right hand can attest to using the rails. My strategy was sound and I increased the pace during the latter half, but I should have used a faster pace right off the bat.
Overall: B; There is room to improve as long as I can maintain my conditioning (no small feat, I might add).