Friday, May 24, 2019

Six Hours in Salt Lake

Less than a week after winning the US National Championship, I headed to Salt Lake City. I spent the past few days bumming around Vegas and Zion National Park. My experience is summarized by two pictures:

Although I did bit of hiking, I only went to the gym once during the week. Heading over to Salt Lake City, I found myself well rested, though I also felt a little heavier than usual - likely due to the added salt in my diet. The excess water weight didn’t bother me too much. Salt Lake City was going to be a 6 hours of “fun”, with the goal of completing as many laps up the Wells Fargo building as possible within the time limit.

This was going to be far longer than any of my previous races. My longest race to date was the Dallas Vertical Mile, and the time limit there was merely 2.5 hours.

This was also going to be unlike any other race I’ve participated in. Believe it or not, I’ve never done a true power hour. Remember, the Dallas Vertical Mile is set at 12 laps and you can take as long a break as you want between laps as long as you start your final lap within the 2.5 hour time limit. My breaks in Dallas were a whopping 7 minutes and I was able to push myself fairly hard each lap. The only other power hour I’ve done was many years ago in Calgary, and in that event, I had to climb down the stairs rather than ride the elevator.

The 6 hour SLC climb was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I had to pace myself fairly slowly and minimize my breaks – theoretically only resting on the elevator ride down. Plus, it was far longer than anything I’ve ever experienced.

Despite having little practical experience at such an event, I did my homework.

My friends Josh, Martin, and Christine all own records at the event having climbed the building 52 times (Josh & Martin) and 50 times (Christine). So a few weeks prior to the race I asked them all for advice and they gave it freely. The most useful piece of information of all was Christine’s lap split spreadsheet. It showed both the ascent and descent times for all 50 of her climbs. This armed me with a critical piece of information: The elevator ride down takes about 2 minutes on average, but can vary widely. I was warned that sometimes I’d have to wait for the elevator and sometimes people would get on & off on the 19th (break room) floor.

As far as climbing is concerned, I’m roughly 5% faster than Josh and Martin and perhaps 15% faster than Christine in a *single* climb. I stressed single on purpose. I have very little experience in ultra-events. My strength is really in the 4-5 minute range although I’ve trained hard over the years to be strong in longer events too.

Anyway, I figured I should shoot for the record and try to get in perhaps 54 climbs in (9 laps per hour).

To achieve 9 laps an hour, I’d need to have a round trip of 6:40. Assuming it took ~2 minutes to descend and get back to the start line, this meant that I’d need to complete each climb in about 4:40 or so.

I tested out this pace in my training building before I left for the Strat and It came out to be about 75 BPM. It felt extremely slow, but that was a good thing.

Fast forward to the night before the race.

I met up with John Rosswog, the race director, and had a quick preview of the stairwell. I used 77 BPM since this stairwell had shorter steps than my practice building.

Wells Fargo Building (From Wikipedia)
Here was the layout: The first couple floors were pretty tall and had 3 flights per floor, all turning to the right. This led to a short hallway on the 3rd floor, perhaps 5 paces or so long. The remainder of the course (floor 3 – 24) was fairly uniform and turned to the left. I believe the step configuration was primarily 13/13 (but don’t quote me). All in all, the stairwell was fairly efficient. Not only could I use both sides of the rails, but the turns were fairly tight. With effort, I could usually keep one foot on the landings.

When I finished my practice climb I glanced at my stop watch. 4:40 on the dot. I couldn’t have asked for a better result!

This pace seemed quite easy and although I was breathing quite heavily at top, I felt like I could keep this pace for several hours without fading.

The biggest surprise – which Josh and Martin warned me about – was the long hallway leading from the stairwell to the elevator. The stairwell dumps you out in a reception area (for some financial firm I think). After about 5 paces, it leads you to a long hallway overlooking the 23rd floor (as the 23rd and 24th floors share a tall open area). This hallway is a good 100 feet long. At the end of the hallway is the elevator bank (immediately after a hard left turn). All in all, you end up running for 10-15 seconds to get from the stairwell to the elevator. What’s more is that when you exit the elevator downstairs, you have to jog outside to get back to the stairwell, adding at yet *another* 10-15 seconds even if you run.

Essentially, the “break” each lap wasn’t a total break. For example, if the “rest” on average is about 2 minutes, then ~30 seconds of that (i.e. 25% of the break) would be jogging.

Armed with this knowledge I went back to my hotel room to prepare for the next morning.

I woke up right just after 5:00 AM and ate a quick meal of oatmeal and a hardboiled egg. I usually have something lighter for my pre-race breakfast, but I figured I needed the extra calories. Next I headed to the race to pick up my jersey and drop off my race fuel.

Altogether, I had 5 energy gels and 12 bitesize chews (candy and caramels). I also carried a small bottle of salt pills as well an emergency bottle of pickle juice to in case I developed cramps. The plan would be to eat gel and two salt pills every 9 laps (1 per hour) and eat one candy every three laps. I also brought a banana in case I didn’t want to eat candy throughout the entire race. For hydration, I planned to take a couple sips of Gatorade from the downstairs rest station and a sip of water from the upstairs aid station.

At 5:30 AM, I arrived at the building. I brought two small bags for fuel. One carried my salt pills, pickle juice, banana, 3 gels & about two thirds of my candy. The other bag was smaller and contained just two gels and the remainder of my candy. I picked up my racing big and dropped off the larger of the two bags near the front of the building (about 20 feet from the Gatorade station and exit door). Next, I took the elevator to the up to the 24 floor to drop off my smaller bag. I placed it in a corner of the reception area.

I made my way back downstairs and then headed to the 2nd floor to use the bathroom.

It was locked!

Someone mentioned the 19th floor bathroom was open and I dashed to the elevator bank. No time for the stairs!

Around 5:50 AM John Rosswog introduced a few of the elite climbers. I did my active stretches while waiting. I didn’t do any burpees. I figured the pace was slow enough where I’d naturally warm-up in the stairwell during the race. I was one of the last climbers to be called up and I was announced as the current US National Champion and 3x National Points Champion; I fed him that info earlier in the week and I kind of regretted it because now I had to live up to those titles!

Shortly afterwards John led us to the stairwell. The stairwell entrance was outside so we had to walk outside. It was cold and dark outside and there was faint dusting of snow still on the ground from last night. The time was just about 6:05:30 when he let us start. There was a huge digital clock right displayed right on the start line just inside the stairwell. It was kind of a mass start, although people seemed to take turns going. I wanted to get in quickly but I ended up about 4th into the stairwell. My official start time was 6:05:35.

Lap 1
I switched on my metronome and started the climb. I was soon passed by both Christine and Josh. What the heck? I knew my 4:40 pace was slightly aggressive so I was surprised that they’d want to pass me*.

*I later learned that our fastest lap counted towards the sprint climb so it made sense after the fact.

I was passed one more time by Admir, a local athlete I met the night before. However I was able to keep up with him fairly easily. Actually, it is more accurate to say that my metronome’s pace allowed my to stay close behind.

When I got to the 19th floor I must have accelerated ever so slightly because when I crossed the finish line I clocked in a 4:30 – roughly 10 seconds faster than my planned goal pace.

I grabbed a quick drink of water and then ran to the elevator. I caught it immediately. I got back downstairs, grabbed a quick shot of Gatorade, and made it back to the start line in less than 90 seconds.

Lap 2
I had pretty much recovered from my first lap. After all, the pace wasn’t very taxing. I switched on my metronome and entered the stairwell.

I was still fairly close to Admir and I climbed behind him for much of the 2nd lap. When I got to the top, I was a little bit slower. 4:43. Still a pretty good time and still on track for 9 climbs per hour.

I grabbed a quick drink of water and chased after Admin who ran off ahead. When I turned the final corner to the elevator Admir was already gone, leaving me to wait for another elevator. “Fuck!” I cursed. He didn’t wait for me. I only paused briefly for a cup of water and now I had to wait another umpteen seconds for the next elevator. “Fuck!” I cursed again.

It took a few moments to calm my myself. I knew I couldn’t keep ranting in front of the volunteers. It wasn’t their fault. I felt like an asshole for letting my emotions get out of control.

I caught the next elevator down and to my dismay I ended up waiting for another couple of climbers to get on board.

Finally I made it back downstairs. I grabbed a quick drink of Gatorade and reset my stop watch. It took a whopping 2:15 to get back to the start line. I had lost around 40 seconds. Damn it!

Laps 3 - 9
I climbed pretty steadily for the next hour. Climb times held steady at 4:45 or so and my rests ranged from 90 seconds to about 2 minutes. Not bad.

Every three laps I’d grab a piece of candy. My upstairs bag wasn’t in a great position and it probably added an extra 10 seconds to my lap time whenever I’d grab something from it. After my lap #6 (my 2nd piece of candy) I moved the bag down the hallway next to the elevators and the water station. This made a lot more sense. Now that I could see the elevators, I wouldn’t randomly waste time. If the elevators were going down, I could just get onboard. If I had to wait, I could use the extra time to casually take the candy out of my bag and have a drink of water.

As for the race itself, I started out in 4th place, but by the 5th lap I finally caught up to Admir. I lost him briefly as I took a drink of water. Oh no, not again! I had to wait until the next lap to finally overtake him. I saw him greet several other climbers and volunteers so I knew he cared about the charity and its mission; it wasn’t all about racing. I felt a little foolish for getting so bent out of shape on my 2nd lap. While I passed Admir, he mentioned the pace was just a hair too fast and would need to slow down a bit. 4:45s were doable for an hour, but not for six hours!

Now that I had passed Admir, only Josh and Christine remained ahead. I was nearly an hour into the race still no sign of them. Where were they? I knew my pace was solid and it was hard to imagine that they were going much faster.

I caught up to Josh around lap #8. Or was it lap #9 or #10? We exchanged a few words of encouragement and Josh mentioned that he lost sight of Christine somewhere on the 2nd or 3rd lap when he missed the elevator. She couldn’t be that far ahead, could she?

Oh yeah, it was now it was light outside. Yay!

Laps 10-20
I was in a solid rhythm. I could still maintain 4:45 although once in a while I’d hit a 4:50 or so. It couldn’t be helped. Traffic in the stairwell was becoming heavy as more waves started. Honestly, it wasn’t much of a problem because people tended to hug the outside rail and let me pass by on the inside. Yeah, I lost a second or two here and there, but it could have been a lot worse. As a matter of fact, most of the lost time occurred on the bottom two floors. People just didn’t want to get out of the way.

It finally dawned on me what was going on. The other climbers were told to let faster climbers pass on the left. This is great for floors 3 – 24 which all turn to the left. Not so great for floors 1 & 2 which turn to the right. No wonder a couple people gave me dirty looks when I passed them on the inside!

The 2nd hour became increasingly difficult. Sure I could maintain 77 BPM but now I was counting down the flights once I crossed the rest area on the 19th floor.

My “rests” were also taking longer. Not only were the elevator waits random, but there were more people getting on than before which made the trip down hot and stifling.

In other news, I couldn’t believe I was still chasing Christine. Where the heck was she?

I finally caught up to her on the 19th lap. I snuck into the elevator with her just as the elevator doors were closing. She looked a bit ragged, but then again up until this point, she’d been going faster than me and I wasn’t feeling great either.

I stayed with her for the first part of the 20th lap but then slowly pulled away.

At the top, I got into the elevator fairly quickly, but it was *crowded* and of course we ended up stopping on the 19th floor. After the doors closed again, it seemed to take forever to get back down to the ground floor. I wasn’t imagining things. It was taking an inordinate amount of time and I was worried that we were going to get stuck. Did I mention it was hot and crowded?

Thankfully the elevator made it down in one piece, but I had lost over a minute in the process. Was I still ahead of Christine? I had no idea.

Laps 21 - 30
I’d like to say the next few laps were like clockwork, but they weren’t. I felt like I was slogging up those stairs. Yeah, I was still climbing at 77 BPM, but I was barely keeping 4:50s. Part of it was fatigue, but another part of it was the temperature of the stairwell. The first few floors were nice and cool, but the majority of the climb was hot and humid. I could especially feel it when I’d pass large groups of people.

The highlights of the climb were the dancing nuns playing 80s music. And the big fan blowing air. God bless that fan!

The rests were no longer a pleasant respite. I could barely jog down the hallway (more like a fast shuffle) and I just couldn’t recover efficiently in the crowded (read balmy) elevator.

Somewhere in the middle of all this suffering  I heard one of the volunteers call for CPR and an EMT. On the next lap I learned that another climber had a heart attack. Poor guy (or gal).

I secretly wished they’d close off the stairwell due to the medical emergency. At least for a few minutes. I really needed a break.

I didn’t get one.

Around lap 27 or so I made the conscious decision to slow down my pace from 77 BPM down to 75 BPM. Up until now, I had averaged a 4:45 or so, but I couldn’t possibly maintain that pace for another 3 hours. Another few laps? Yes. But 3 more hours would kill me.

At first, the pace didn’t feel any slower. But by the time I reached the 19th floor, I felt slightly better (or at least less exhausted). My lap time was 5:00 on the dot.

Okay, maybe I can do this.

Laps 31 - 40
My climbs were getting slower and right off the bat I had trouble with the elevator. Great.

For the most part, I did my best to keep 5:05s, but every once in a while I’d clock in at 5:10. I knew that 54 laps were out of the question. But maybe I could still hit 53?

I lost track of my lap count. I asked for my lap count upstairs and it seemed a bit low. I needed to finish my 40th lap with at least 90 minutes to spare in order get #53 in. I suspected I was  behind schedule, but I couldn’t do the mental calculation so see just how far off.

After switching to 75 BPM I had felt a little better, but sure enough, fatigue was catching back up to me. This time, however, I didn’t have 3 hours left to  climb. I had less than two. Ok, let’s round it down to 90 minutes. Yeah. I could survive another 90 minutes.

Somewhere along the line I lapped Josh. He asked me how I was doing. I told him I felt like crap, but was hanging in there. He looked like he was in slightly better shape.

Lap 36 almost ended my race. On the 21st floor my left calf completely seized up as I was passing a group of people. It felt like someone took a sledge hammer directly to the muscle as it balled itself into a knot. I felt sorry for the people I just passed because now I was going slowly and taking up the entire stairwell in an effort not to put pressure on my leg. It f’ing hurt! At least it happened near the top.

I was in agony as I dragged myself to the elevators. Immediately upon entering, I began stretching the muscle. I could help but think this was it. I’m done. Finished.

Down at the bottom, I hobbled over to my fuel bag and downed my emergency bottle of pickle juice. Please work. I didn’t want to lose this race due to a muscle cramp, especially since I had been faithfully taking my salt pills. I spent another 20 seconds stretching my calf before resuming.

Lap 37 was touch and go. My calf was not longer completely balled up, but it still hurt. I didn’t dare put my entire weight on my calf. Instead I placed my weight on my heels*. It was awkward but it worked. I made it up in under 5:10. Okay, if I could make it up once, I could do it again…

*This bears some explanation. Typically when I climb stairs I’m usually on the balls of my feet and my heel hangs slightly over the edge. This is mostly due to geometry. My feet are nearly the same length as the tread of the step, so keeping my heel planted on the tread is awkward. I suspect if I had smaller feet, it would be a lot easier.

Laps 41-50
Oh how I wanted the suffering to end! I was still maintaining a 5:05 pace but instead feeling it near the top, I was feeling it closer to the 12th floor.

With just under an hour left to climb, I realized now that I wouldn’t make 52 laps let alone 53. I was starting lap 43 and it would take exactly 60 minutes to complete 8 climbs assuming I kept my lap times to 7:30 flat. Eight more climbs would give me a total of 50 laps. If I could go slightly faster, I could get in the 51st - as long as I made it into the stairwell before the 6 hour time limit, they would count my final lap, no matter how slowly I climbed.

The problem was I had slightly less than an hour to climb and I was having trouble keeping my round trips under 7:30. I knew it was going to be close.

From here on out I was determined to jog the hallways. Or at least shuffle quickly.

I lapped Josh again. He was looking pretty good all things considered. In the elevator I bummed a salt pill from him and drank one of his Dixie cups of water even though I had my own stash at the bottom. I think I was becoming slightly incoherent.

The clock read 11:36:50 as I entered my 47th climb. I had started right around 6:05:35 so I had less than 28 and a half minutes to finish 4 climbs and start my 51st lap.

That meant my laps had to be like 7 minutes or so, right? Christ, I couldn’t even do simple math! All I knew was that for the past few hours a bunch of my laps had been in the 7:15 – 7:30 range. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I pulled in a lap time under 7 minutes.

Well, if I hurried and had some luck with the elevators, getting in the 51st lap would be possible.

I lapped Christine somewhere along the line. She bounced up and down in the elevator and I envied her energy. She looked fresher now than umpteen laps ago. What the heck?

It was fortunate that the stairwell was far less crowded this late in the race. I cranked out my next two climbs in just over 5 minutes apiece and my total lap times were 7:10 and 6:50 respectively.

I started my 49th climb right at 11:50:50. If I could maintain a 7 minute lap pace I could get in my 51st climb.

I really wanted it now. 51 Laps might not be the record, but it would be pretty darn close.

I cranked the next two laps both in 5 minutes flat and my total lap times were both under 7 minutes. I had done it!

Lap 51:
I entered my victory lap with about 45 seconds to spare (apparently, they were going to close the course right at 12:06 and not at 12:06:30 like I had expected).

I knew I could climb as slowly as I wanted but at the same time I didn’t want to totally blow it off. After messing around on the first few floors I decided to finish strong with my 75BPM pace.

My final ascent was 5:30. Sure it was my slowest lap of the day, but still not too shabby.

At the top they gave me my finisher medal with 51 laps taped to the underside. I felt proud I had completed the entire 6 hours. I eventually collapsed to the ground in exhaustion. My whole body was fatigued!

I found my way to the 19th floor. They were giving out fudgesicles and I was hungry.

John Rosswog gave me a plaque for winning the race. It was special because it was made from granite – the same material the Wells Fargo building is made from. I also got to wear the fancy winner’s belt, so I briefly felt like a WWF champion.

It gets better.

The timers told me I had actually completed 52 laps! I *did* remember thinking my lap count seemed a little low earlier in the race. That meant I tied the record!

Final Thoughts:
I knew this was going to be a hard race and words can’t completely describe how awful it felt during the final couple hours. But I’ll try:
  • It felt like the final interval during interval training... only doing it over and over again.
  • It felt like my left calf was about to tear.
  • It felt like I was half drunk, but not the mellow & happy kind of drunk.

I’ve felt worse before, though. A couple climbs come to mind: The Strat in 2015 (or 2016?) and even more so at US Bank in 2013. Those feelings of pain were far more intense and it took me a looong time to recover afterwards. I never want to go through those experiences ever again.

I’m pretty happy about my performance and I’m not that disappointed that I didn’t reach my 54 climb goal.

I believe my preparation helped me achieve that 52nd climb. 77 BPM might have been a little too fast, but it was pretty darn close to optimal considering I’ve never done a 6 hour climb before. Yes, I ended up slowing down… but not by much.

I would like to come back to Salt Lake City and get 53 climbs in. I think it is achievable with a slight change of pace and better attention to logistics. If I could shave off 8 seconds per lap – roughly 7 minutes in total - I’d be within range.

It’s completely doable and here is where I can shave off time:
  1. Each lap I stopped for a drink of Gatorade a the rest station at the bottom. Skipping the Gatorade and taking my own fluids while waiting for the elevator would easily shave off 2.5 seconds.
  2. Carrying a gel or candy with me would save me from stopping by my fuel bag once every three laps. That would likely shave off another 1.5 seconds (per lap).
  3. Prioritize the elevator first before drink/fuel. I missed a few elevators by a hair because I was busy drinking water or grabbing a candy. Missing an elevator could cost up to 30 seconds. I’d rather waste a few seconds drinking Gatorade at the bottom than losing 30 seconds at top. This is yet another reason for carrying an extra candy/gel with me at all times.
  4. Jogging rather than slogging could shave off 2 seconds.
  5. I could eke out another 1.5 seconds in the stairwell. My average pace was 4:56.7 and I bet I could handle 4:55 using a 76 BMP pace (remember I was climbing ~4:45 for the first half, so this slower pace is theoretically doable for the entire duration).
Logistic wise, I’d rely primarily on my upstairs fuel bag rather than my downstairs one. I’d also include my own bottle of Gatorade. When I’m waiting for an elevator ride, I might as well have a drink and top up on supplies. That said, I’d still have a redundant downstairs bag just in case.

Lastly, I really have to hand it to Christine, Martin, and Josh. I knew the race would be tough, but I didn’t realize just how challenging getting 52 laps would be. I assumed my fitness level would allow me to easily keep a 4:45 pace for the entire 6 hours. I found out the hard way that it’s sustainable for only 3 hours. Having barely survived the race myself, I have newfound respect for these 50+ lap climbers. A six hour climb is no joke.

Race Grades:
Effort: A ; The first hour or so was “easy” per plan. The remainder of the race took some guts.
Conditioning: A ; Still fresh off of Strat, I was in great shape.
Weight: B ; Likely a pound or so heavier than I was at the Strat. Maybe 173ish?
Pacing & Technique: B+ ; My initial pace was only a hair faster than it should have been. Considering this was my first attempt at 6 hours, I couldn’t be more pleased. In fact, I almost gave myself an A.
Overall: B+ ; As a first attempt, I’m very pleased with my race. The only reason I gave myself a B+ rather than an A is because there are several small improvements I could make (as detailed in the previous section).

The climber who had a heart attack was a competitive climber named Brian Zamboni. I didn't know him personally but I recognized him from some of the other climbs I've done (Sears Tower, Dallas Vert Mile, etc.). In fact, he was good enough to be on the podium at some of the local races, so it took me by surprise when I learned that he was the one who had the heart attack. During the race, I had just assumed it was a local person doing a single charity climb.

The doctors put him in a medically induced coma to help him recover, but unfortunately Brian never woke up.

RIP Brian. You'll be missed.

1 comment:

  1. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is the first I've heard of this tragedy. I have so many fond, inspirational memories of Brian. Thank you, Alex, for the information & link to his obituary.