Welcome to Chicago
This would be my 9th time racing up the Sears Tower. I’ve spent over 20% of my life training for this race and I’m still not prepared.
I’ve been juggling a lot of stuff recently and I’m not as young as I used to be. At 43, I’m still in good shape - but these days I feel like my age.
The months leading up to the race were stressful. I’ve been steadily working on the new house and finally made the big move in September. Adding to the stress was the fact that I had to do it alone since my SO was out of town dealing with other stressful problems. It also meant I had to get Lance ready for the school year by myself*.
*Lance is in 7th grade now and is participating in *way* too many extra-curricular activities. I’m chauffeuring him to Band, Stage Band, and Chorus every morning and picking him up from Crew practice after school. Not to mention Tennis, Piano, and the “Music Studio Kids” song and dance troupe. It’s far too much, really, but the kid’s got potential. He’s already 5’ 11” (two inches taller than yours truly) and he’s a beast on the indoor rower for a 12 year old. At the beginning of the crew season, he could probably pull an 8:30 2K on the erg, but I bet he’s closer to 8:00 minutes flat nowadays. By the time he’s an upper classmen, he might even be as fast as I am – but only if he trains hard. He’d rather be playing tennis.
With all that additional stress, it is a wonder I’ve been able to train consistently.
The real problem has been maintaining my weight and recovering from injuries. I’ve struggled to stay below 175 lbs. which I consider the very top of my “race ready” weight range. And regarding injuries, I have a bunch of old chronic issues, but In particular, my piriformis has been a nagging injury and sitting down just makes it worse. Most recently, I injured my hip. I don’t know how it occurred. A week before the race I was sitting down at my desk. When I stood up to take a quick walk, I noticed I was in pain and limping. I chalk it up to weird bad luck. It only curtailed a couple of workouts, so I’m thankful it wasn’t worse.
Fast forward to Sears.
Fitness-wise, I was in good shape but still a few pounds heavy. Plus my hip still wasn’t at 100%. I didn’t think it would impact my performance… but it was still a worry.
I arrived at Sears around 6:15 AM and bumped into a few other climbers I knew from the circuit. Some of us still didn’t have our bibs (including me!) so we had to wait patiently for David Hanley, our sports director, to show up.
I should mention that I didn’t completely know who was going to be at the race, so it was only when David showed up with all the bibs that the lineup became clear. On the men’s side, here was my predicted finish order:
Frank Careno (COL)
Alexis Trujillo (MEX)
Goerge Heimann (GER)
Jason Larson/Mark Henderson (tie)
There were a few big-name scratches: Terry Purcell, Justin Stewart, and Sproule Love. Don’t ask me to guess a fantasy finishing order with them in the lineup. All I can say is they’d all be in the hunt for 4th place if they were present.
On the women’s side, I was grasping at straws. Cindy Harris would likely win but other than her, the remaining podium spots were up for grabs. The big names I knew were Sherri Breese, Meg Santanna, Stephanie Hucko, and Maria Lopez. This is not in any particular order; I just don’t follow the women as closely as I should.
Back to the start line....
Before I began my active stretching, I ran into Mischa from Towerrunning. I still hadn’t payed my annual dues (due to technical difficulties of the website) so I paid him 30 USD to cover the 24 Euro fee.
With my dues taken care of, I completed my active stretching routine and followed it up with a couple rounds of burpees as I made my way to the start line. For the record, the start line is two floors below the “normal” start line. It’s been like this for two (now three) years so perhaps starting in the basement will be the new normal.
I didn’t have my race-ready confidence and I felt like I didn’t belong at the race. However, I needed the points. As long as stayed within a couple spots of Mark Henderson I should be able to maintain my lead in the TowerRunning USA rankings. Theoretically, I could skip the race and still win the USA cup, but doing well here would cement my spot. Anyway, I signed up for the race and I wasn’t going to back out now.
The internationals were up front. Jason, Mark and I discussed who should go next. I wasn’t volunteering because if I went next, it meant I’d likely be passed at the beginning of a race only to re-pass during the later stages. Jason wanted to keep me in his sights, so he wasn’t volunteering to go next either. That left Mark. He didn’t want to right after the internationals, but he *was* willing to go 2nd.
So I approached Jesse Berg and told him it was a “unanimous” decision for him to go after Goerge. Problem solved!
I did a final round of burpees and a couple minutes later I entered the stairwell.
I set my metronome at 81 BPM. By all accounts, this is one of the slower paces I’ve used at Sears, but after consulting my blog post from last year (the year I got locked out of my room and didn’t have my metronome) that was the pace I planned to use. Considering I was a bit heavier than last year, I figured it should be sufficient. After all, I’d rather be a little slow and have a bit in the tank towards the end of the race. Going out too fast is a death sentence at Sears.
I tried focusing on being efficient for the first few floors. It’s tough to concentrate during a race, but the slow pace made it possible. By the time I hit the 6th floor Jason had nearly caught up. He tucked in behind me and commented that maybe he went out to fast (probably just to make me feel good so I’d let down my guard).
Together, we climbed into the teens. Slow and steady.
When we reached the lower 20s, I could hear another climber approaching. It turned out to be a kid named Nick Sdrenka (I looked up his name after the race). I say “kid” because I’m twice his age. He’s likely in his early 20s. I don’t know Nick personally, but I did recall him talking with David Hanley after I picked up my bib.
He cruised past Jason and me, but from the sound of his breathing, I could tell he was working harder than we were. Would he last another 70+ floors? From experience, probably not… but you never know. Perhaps this kid was going to be the dark horse of the race.
Jason and I remained together for another decad of floors and once again we found ourselves being passed. This time it was someone we both recognized: Cindy Harris. She was tearing up the stairwell, but I knew it was going to be somewhat short lived. She was breathing quite heavily - but then again, she *always* breathes heavily (it’s kind of her signature mark).
As we approached the lower 40s, Jason had had enough of my slow pace and moved to pass me. As he passed me I mentioned I planned to kick it up a notch at the half way point (lower 50’s). This was more of a defense mechanism of sorts because by now I felt guilty about going out so slow. Jason quickly built a lead of one and a half flights.
By now we had crossed the halfway point (about floor 52) and I took stock of my situation. On one hand, I had already been passed three times so my confidence was shot. On the other hand, I felt relatively fresh. I *knew* I went out too slow. To be honest, I’ve felt worse during my time trial training sessions on the Precor Stepper.
There was only one thing to do: Pick up the pace. I slowly reeled in Jason and together we pulled passed Cindy in the upper 50s.
Now comes the hardest part of the race: The Dead Zone.
With only 40 floors to go, I was well beyond the halfway point, but 40 floors is still a loooong ways to go. If you’ve gone out too fast, the Dead Zone is where you start to bonk. Even if you’ve gone out too slow (like me) the climb becomes painful. Could I go faster? Yes! Did I *want* to go faster? Heck no! The best I could manage was a step* closer to the redline.
*Stairclimbing pun intended.
As I ascended through the 60’s I was climbing nearly on top of Jason. With the 70th floor approaching, I made my move to pass and a few floors later we caught up with Nick who was being swallowed by the Dead Zone. The fact that he managed to stay ahead for so long means he’s a solid athlete.
In the upper 70’s I had maybe a flight or two on Jason, which meant that he was still technically ahead of me at this point (as he started 10 seconds behind me).
For Jason to win our duel, he just needed to stay with me. For me to win, I’d have to drop him for good… but with just over 20 floors to go, it was going to be an uphill* battle.
*Stairclimbing pun intended.
Time was running out as the final 20 floors should take only 3 minutes or so. The good news is that I was out of the Kill Zone and headed into the Final Sprint*. Furthermore, the stairwell configuration in the final section is a fast and narrow 7/7/7.
*The Final Sprint comes right after the Dead Zone. This is the point where you are able to push past the pain and increase the pace since the finish line is fast approaching. This assumes, of course, that you haven’t already bonked. If you’ve bonked, the Final Sprint just becomes an extension of the Dead Zone.
I muscled up those stairs like a man possessed. I had way too much energy left and I kicked myself for going out to slow. Yes, I was making up time, but with only 10 floors left to go, I knew I had left some time on the table.
As I headed into the mid 90’s I was truly suffering, but I wasn’t about to slow down. I still had energy in the tank, although tapping into it was going to hurt.
I crossed into the 100s and above me I could hear the crowd cheering. Was that Mark finishing? I had nearly forgotten about him… drat, it was going to be a tight finish. I kicked myself again for going out so conservatively.
The final few flights were a bitch. Having sprinted the last 20 floors left me in pain and I couldn’t afford to let up.
I crossed the finish line and stumbled a few steps before putting my hands on my knees to catch my breath. Yes, I felt like crap, but 20 floors of sprinting tends to do that. The silver lining is that my recovery time was pretty quick. Going out too slow for 80 floors tends to do that.
I didn’t mention this before, but I raced without my stop watch. It ran out of batteries a couple days before the race. As such, I had no idea what my time was, although I figured I was nowhere close to my PB. I’d be lucky to break the 15 minute mark.
I walked around for a bit to help recover and asked Mark, Jesse, and Jason about their times. Jason clocked in the lower 15s and I thought I was a good 10 second gap between us, so I figured I would be a few seconds faster. Mark mentioned he was in the lower 15s and I was nearly on top of him when he finished (though I never saw him). Jesse timed himself as just over 15 minutes.
It was real nail biter until we got the official results. See them here.
The biggest upset was that Alexis outsprinted Goerge for the win with both of them beating out the course record holder Frank Carreno who held on for a distant 3rd place. Among the Americans, Jesse was the fastest (he actually *did* break 15 minutes). I took fifth place narrowly ahead of Jason and Mark.
How did the dark horse fare? Nick finished about 30 seconds behind which means I’d better watch out. If he learns how to pace himself in the stairwell, he could easily drop 30 seconds. Or more.
How did the women do? Cindy Harris won handily. For the rest of the field, the big surprise was newcomer Anna Carlson taking 2nd place.
Effort: B- ; My pace for the first 80 floors was too slow (C-) but I made up for some if it by pushing hard during the final 20 floors.
Conditioning: B+ ; I was in decent shape.
Weight: B- ; 170 or less is needed to score an A in this category and I tipped the scales at a heavy 173/174.
Pacing & Technique: B- ; My initial pace wasn’t aggressive enough and I didn’t really change it until I was more than halfway finished… but at least I was able to conserve energy and use most of it up during the sprint. Technique was fair.
Overall: B ; Although I left some time on the table, considering my weight, I’m pleased with the overall result.
I’m relieved that I did as well as I did and pleased that I squeezed ahead of a couple of my rivals. Yes, I could have gone faster, but my game plan was reasonable. I wasn’t in top stairclimbing shape so I’m happy I was closer to the 15 minute mark rather than the 16 minute mark (which I thought was a real possibility). I think the only thing I regret was not picking up the pace earlier in the race. I should have checked my status and adjust my pace at the 30th floor rather than after the 50th. I think the reason I didn’t check my status was:
- I wasn’t confident.
- Coasting by at a slower pace is waaaay easier.
- Racing head-to-head with a rival discouraged me from speeding up. In my head I was thinking “Well if this speed is fast enough for Jason, then it must be fast enough for me.”
When I do this race next year, I may consider going out at 83 or possibly 84 BPM if my weight is closer to 170 lb or even 85 BPM if I’m in top condition.
The story doesn’t end here.
When I booked my flight to Chicago, the original plan was to stay in the Midwest and race in Milwaukee a few days after Sears. However, this year the Milwaukee race would be held a week later. Drat.
What is a climber to do? Find another racing venue!
Welcome to Missouri
It turns out there is another well known race in the Midwest called Master the Met in St. Louis. It’s held annually in April (drat!) but it turns out that the stairwell of Met Square is open for public use (yes!). Although I wouldn’t be able to officially take part in Master the Met, I could at least race the course on my own.
I stayed in Chicago overnight and the following day I rented a car to drive down to St. Louis.
St. Louis is surprisingly awesome. It is roughly 3 times the size of Albany so it boasts a decent skyline which is dominated by the Gateway Arch, which I learned is made of fabricated steel, not concrete (I got up real close to verify).
|Close-up of the Arch|
Although St. Louis has it’s share of sketchy neighborhoods, it also had some fantastic public spaces. During my stay I explored:
- Missouri Botanical Garden (A+): Top notch botanical garden. Highly recommended.
- St. Louis Art Museum (A-): Decent size, nice collection, and free!
- St. Louis Public Library (A+): Wide selection in a historic building.
- Gateway Arch Museum (A-): Small but very detailed and informative. Also free!
- Old Courthouse (A): Beautiful domed architecture and you can climb up to the 3rd level to see it up close. Plus a small museum. Also free!
- Cherokee St. Antique Row (B): Lots of Antique Shops but sadly only a few were open when I went exploring.
There were a few other places that I saw, but didn’t have a chance to fully explore:
- Old Cathedral (note: it should have been open during the time I tried to visit!)
- Forest Park. Think Central Park NYC but bigger. I caught a glimpse of it when I went to the Art Museum.
- Christ Church Cathedral. Next door to the Library.
Last but not least, the surprise hidden gem was the “Apotheosis Comics & Lounge” which is a comic book store... with a bar! The owner is friendly and introduced me to the series “Manifest Destiny”. It’s the story the Lewis & Clark expedition… but with a supernatural twist.
Before I digress too far… the purpose of the trip was to climb up One Metropolitan Square (Met Square) so let’s get on with it.
On Wednesday, I met up with the John Wilmas, the self-proclaimed “Stair Ninja” of St. Louis. I’ve met him once or twice before at Sears, so I gave him a call when I decided to do a time trial at Met Square.
Met Square is a 42 story building with a listed height of 180.7 meters. That makes it the tallest skyscraper in St. Louis and 2nd tallest in Missouri (1st place belongs to One Kansas City Place, which is less than 10 meters taller). Met Square is virtually the same height as the Corning Tower in Albany, my hometown race, so I kind of knew what to expect.
I met John in the lobby of Met Square just past noon. He was already wearing his custom “Stair Ninja” racing kit. John is an office worker in a nearby building but he noonlights as a fitness trainer. If you live in St. Louis, you might run into him if you ever have lunch near the Gateway Arch. He often leads Cross-Fit-esque workouts on the steps leading up to the Arch. In fact, he is in the middle of opening up his own “Stair Ninja” gym. Somehow I imagine the gym will be equal parts Cross Fit and American Ninja Warrior. Plus some stairs.
Met Square is essentially John’s personal stairwell. He works in a nearby office building so when he’s training for stairs, Met Square is his go-to spot (his office building is “merely” 20 stories tall). To get into the stairwell, all that is needed is to sign a waiver at the security desk.
As we prepared to do a warmup lap, John confessed he wasn’t in stair-climbing shape quite yet but planned to do more stair workouts to get ready for the 2020 stair climbing season (which is generally in late winter/early spring). Although he’d be climbing with me, he wouldn’t be exactly “racing”.
I set my metronome to 75 BPM for our warm-up lap. The stairwell layout is a standard two flights per floor with right hand turns. The width is fairly narrow so I was able to grip both sides of the tubular steel rails pretty easily. I also noticed that there isn’t much of a gap between flights so I was able to take the turns quickly. Taken together, this meant that this stairwell would be a fast!
We chatted while climbing and John reminisced about prior editions of Master the Met. Because St. Louis is so close to Springfield, it often attracts top climbers like Terry, Oz, and Justin. Other editions have attracted the legendary Sproule Love since St. Louis just happens to be his home town. For such a “small town” race, it certainly has attracted some top talent over the years.
The stairwell switches up on the 19th floor (about halfway) so we had to run down a short hallway to get to the next stairwell. The new stairwell continues up to the 42nd floor, but the actual race finishes on the 40th floor, so that’s where we exited. It’s actually quite convenient because there is bathroom right near the elevator. After a short pit stop, we took the elevator back down to the ground floor.
Now I was getting butterflies in my stomach. Although I wouldn’t be in official race, I knew I would be pushing quite hard.
Here is a secret: I *hate* pushing hard. It’s painful. I dread some of my workouts because I know I’ll have to push hard over and over again until I can no longer maintain the prescribed pace. Racing is even worse because you can’t even quit – even when you bonk.
After changing into my racing flats it was go-time.
Sproule owns the record at the Met which is 4:10 flat although Justin has come within a couple seconds of it. Other speedsters, like Terry have come in just under 4:30. In a time trial, I figured I should be able to come in around 4:30. That’s pretty much my goal time in Albany, which is a similar if not longer course.
But what pace to use?
Here is what I knew:
- I didn’t take any measurements of the steps although they felt about 7 inches tall (which is *not* a precise measurement).
- Warm-up lap was 75 BPM and we completed it in a bit over 7 minutes (I don’t remember the exact time)
- Race Pace at Albany is about 120 BPM
I couldn’t do math in my head to ratio 75 BPM with 7 minutes (and change) to figure out what pace to use for a goal time of 4:30, but 120 BPM sounded about right.
So that’s how I set my metronome.
For the time trial, it was decided that I’d go first and John would try to keep up with me for as long as possible. I ended up borrowing John’s fit bit watch since my watch’s batteries were still dead.
I had to restart once because I wasn’t familiar with John’s fit bit, but I finally got it to work.
The first 10 floors were quick and easy and John stayed about a flight or so behind.
When we got to the 13th floor, however, the pace really started feel brutal. It was the sucker punch you get when you haven’t warmed up properly: things seem fine… until they don’t.
At the 15th floor, I was struggling, often taking an extra step on the landings. Could I handle three more minutes of this crap? I had my doubts.
I made it to the 19th floor and ran down the hallway to the next stairwell. Just about halfway through the time trial.
John was likely a couple floors behind by now. When I crossed 21 or 22, I thought I could hear him down below as he crossed over to the next stairwell.
I was suffering, but it would be embarrassing to quit in the middle even if this wasn’t a “real” race. Oddly enough, I felt a little bit better. Likely I was getting my “warm-up” back as my body adjusted to the pace.
Maybe I *could* do this…
By the time I reached the 30th floor I was climbing slightly faster than my metronome. The pace hurt, but I was handling it. Only 10 floors left! 75% complete! 25% to go*. I got this!
*I know it’s redundant, but that’s how my brain works when climbing stairs.
I increased my pace yet again, madly tearing up each flight. Although I could no longer single step the landings, I made up for it with fury.
As I rounded the 35th floor (5 floors left, 87.5% complete, 12.5% to go!) I still had energy to spare, but boy was I hurting. The little voice inside my head said, “Hey, this is only a time trial… there is no need to burn yourself out. This isn’t a *real* race”.
In the end, the little voice partly won out as I coasted to the top at my current pace. At least I didn’t slow down.
As I made it to the 40th floor, I looked down at John’s Fit bit. The screen was blank! Frantically I pressed the touch screen. 4:35… 4:36… 4:37… and I finally stopped it.
I stood there with my hands on my quads and waited for John. Maybe I waited for another 30 seconds? I don’t know since I didn’t restart/continue the fit bit. I’m guessing he finished somewhere in the lower 5s.
We rested for another minute or two before heading back down via the elevator. The time trial took a lot out of me so our next lap would be our last one. I set my metronome at 65 BPM as a cool down. One fast climb was enough!
At the top of the cool-down lap we celebrated with photo. Then I explored the 41st and 42nd floors just to see what the rest of the stairwell was like. John told me that during the first few editions of the Master the Met, the race ended on the 42nd floor, but he rarely goes up that far during training since the doors are always locked*.
*Except for that one time he ran into the cleaning crew and got to see the top floor.
Before our final descent, I took a closer look at the stairwell, specifically the stairwell between the 38th and 40th floors (as I didn’t feel like taking the stairs *all* way down).
Holy Crap! The stairwell is a fast 11/11 configuration*! I asked John about the rest of the stairwell and he confirmed that floors 1-19 are somewhat random, but 19-40 are all uniform. Before exiting the stairwell, I did a couple turns just to show John just how fast 11/11 can be. I wish I had used that technique during the time trial.
*IMO 11/11 is the best possible stairwell configuration. You can read about my stairwell analysis and suggested foot placement ad nauseum here.
Time Trial Grades:
Effort: B ; I pushed the pace for most of the time trial but I Iet off the gas with about 5 floors to go.
Conditioning: B+ ; I was still in decent shape and well rested after Sears.
Weight: C+ ; After Sears I switched from a lower sodium diet to a higher sodium (pizza) diet so I’m guessing I was in the 175 lb range.
Pacing & Technique: B ; 120 BPM was challenging. My stairwell technique was passable, but I did not utilize the efficient 11/11 foot pattern.
Overall: B+ ; I’m pleased with my results because it was a solid learning experience. If this was a real race, I would have graded my performance as a B-. There is room to improve in each category.
I suspect I wasn’t fully warmed up prior to the time trial. If I ever come back to Master the Met, I’ll need to make sure I do some sprinting or at least some burpees to get my body accustomed to the fast pace. If I were to race again (at the same weight and conditioning) I would probably bump the pace up to 122 BPM and focus on foot placement for the 11/11 section. I think a good goal would be 4:30 with a stretch goal of 4:25. I bet a 4:20 flat would be possible if I get my weight under control.
I hope to someday to come back to Met Square and put my knowledge to good use, but what is a stair climbing trip without a couple of WTF moments?
- On the outskirts of Chicago, they still have coin operated automatic toll booths on the interstate. Seriously, who carries $2.60 in change these days?!?
- In St. Louis, they have an eatery called “The St. Louis Bread Company”. It sounded kind of awesome so I tried it for lunch. Big mistake. This cute name is just a disguise for the “Panera Bread” chain*. Normally, I don’t have a beef with Panera - other than the fact I hate spending $10 for a sandwich - but this particular branch was awful:
- I ordered a soup and waited for well over 10 minutes… only to be told that they were out of soup and I’d have to change my order. I wasn’t happy, but sometimes these things happen unexpectedly. No worries (yet).
- While waiting for my new order, I decided to use the restroom. It was electronically locked with a key pad. The sign above the keypad said to check your receipt for the access code. I pulled out my receipt. No access code. When I inquired at the ordering station, the cashier mentioned that they are supposed to put the code on the receipt… but for some reason they don’t. I wasn’t sure how to reply. That’s like saying, “We have rules, but choose not to follow them”. At least she gave me the bathroom code.
- When my meal finally arrived, it came with a bag of chips instead of the bread that I had ordered. I asked my server about the unexpected (and unwanted) switch she told me that they were out of bread because they were busy earlier in the day. Not only did I doubt that a place named “The St. Louis Bread Company” was out of bread, but I took offense that she thought that giving me something I didn’t order (or even want) *without* asking me beforehand was okay. It’s like going to coffee shop and ordering a cup of decaf… and then purposefully being handed a can of diet coke (not even caffeine free!). It would have been one thing if the server accidently got my order wrong… but she knowingly made the switch even though adequate substitutions were literally right behind the counter.
That was the third strike. I had enough of this nonsense and finally spoke to the manager to get a piece of bread after waiting 20+ minutes for my “fast casual” meal. Long story short: although they were out of the mini-baguette that they usually serve with meals, apparently they *did* offer a wide variety of other baked goods that they could substitute… you know, because it’s a flipping sandwich shop that makes bread.
*Fun fact: Panera Bread started in St. Louis as “The St. Louis Bread Company” and the original stores in St. Louis have kept that moniker.