One Month and Lots of Stairs

Presidential Towers (9 March 2014)

I may not have a medal around my neck but I really did finish!

I may not have a medal around my neck but I really did finish!

Coming back from Vegas, I was pretty run down. Various viruses had been floating around my office, I was particularly susceptible after that race, so I opted to take it pretty easy all week. I did some easy rides to keep my legs loose (and my brain sane), spent a lot of time in the steam room trying to make peace with my lungs, and slept a lot. I didn’t have high expectations going into Presidential Towers; it would be my first multi-tower climb, I seem to be stronger at longer races (probably a hold over from my endurance background and dislike of all out efforts), and I wasn’t expecting a good night’s sleep as I would be dealing with both a two hour time change and daylight savings time. So, I did a little magical number conjuring and decided that I’d be happy with a sub-25′ finish.

I spent most of Saturday on a plane and landed in Chicago late in the afternoon. My sister came to pick me up and we headed back to her house to catch up on our Pretty Little Liars backlog. We both knew that we would have to be up really early so we ordered dinner in and headed to bed relatively early. Neither of us slept well and I had to drag Frances out of bed so that we could just barely catch the train. We picked up our race packets, I stripped down and passed all my warm clothes to Fran and I headed across the street. Even though Frances had received a starting time just ten minutes after mine, she decided that she wanted to climb with me so she hung out on ground level while I raced, intending to meet up after I had recovered.

I lined up behind Karen, figuring she was roughly the same pace as me, waited my ten seconds and proceeded to recreate my strategy from the Strat of making sure that I could hear Karen’s footsteps ahead of me, trying to not let them fall out of earshot. I was passed by a few people early in the climb; due to the multiple climbs, I have no idea how they did in relation to me. I got to the top and fell to the floor, trying to get my heart rate to fall before climbing again. After some time (I don’t know how long, I just moved when Karen said it was time to go), I stumbled into the elevator with several other climbers and we headed off to tower two.

I got very confused in tower two. Towers one and three turn left whereas two and four turn right. I don’t practice in building stairwells often so my technical skills aren’t really up to snuff. This, combined with the fact that most buildings I’ve ever been in turn left, lead to a brief existential crisis in the stairwell when I looked at my feet moving and tried to think through how I would have climbed on left turns and had realized a disconnect between my feet and conscious brain. Fortunately my unconscious brain was still working and I didn’t trip while trying to figure out how to climb stairs. I eventually turned my focus on just keeping the footsteps in front of me within earshot and successfully made it to the top. In the elevator down I realized just how foreign right hand turns were to my body as my right shoulder started to bother me.

Tower three went by in a blur and by tower four I was ready to finish the race. Somewhere around the last water station I reached up for the next railing, preparing to just straighten my arm and swing around the platform like I usually do, especially when tired. This time, I reached out, straightened my arm and started to swing when I realized that I wasn’t holding onto anything. I stumbled a bit but caught myself and started running to the finish. Since I didn’t race with a watch, I had no idea how much time had passed, what my splits were, or how much rest I had taken. I just sat on the floor in tower four for what seemed like forever before I decided that I was okay to do this again.

muscle fail

After ten climbs I failed at this “strong” pose

I wandered downstairs, got my split times, and found that I had beaten my arbitrary 25′ goal by 14”! I wandered around a bit, was sufficiently out of it that I walked directly into another person and didn’t realize we had collided for a good second or two, and finally found Frances. She put our stuff in gear check while I chugged some gatorade and we went back up to tower one. My second pass at the stairs was relatively relaxed. I was there to support my sister and keep her going through all four towers. Climbing at a relaxed pace allowed me to actually see the stairwell, talk to other climbers, and pick up a lot of garbage that had been tossed on the stairs. The most entertaining conversation I had was with a fireman, in full gear, who had stopped on a platform to let his body temperature drop. He was asking me about my fivefingers, informing me that he imagined they’d be so funny feeling that he wouldn’t be able to climb. I just kind of laughed and asked him how was climbing in full fire fighting gear. He had a good laugh as he realized that what he was doing is so much harder than climbing in barely-there shoes. As we climbed the fourth tower, a woman who had settled into our pace asked if I recognized a climber or two who passed as local news anchors. Not being from Chicago I didn’t recognize them, but as we were just a floor or two from the top, she got more excited. I was shouting encouragement to everyone passing us, but she quickly informed me that the two guys who passed were from the cast of Chicago Fire and Chicago PD (I recognized one as Steve from Sex and the City but I still don’t know who the other was). Since the actors passed us in the final floor, we were greeted with news cameras as we exited the stairwell and accompanied by them as we tried to catch our breaths and head down in the elevator. Leave it to Frances to know how to time things.

Since I wouldn’t be climbing again for a few weeks (and I had traveled half way across the country just for the towers) I decided to climb tower four again. Frances wouldn’t join me so I ran up alone. I got to the bottom, still felt good, and went back in. About halfway through this climb my body reminded me that I had had hardly any food in the previous twelve hours (a granola bar and half gatorade) so I slowed, made it to the top, and went back downstairs to convince Frances to find us food. We stumbled towards the nearby Chipotle where I promptly ordered just about everything there, took a few bites, and got that sick feeling that comes when your body just isn’t happy.

555 California (formerly known as the Bank of America building, 29 March 2014)

Floor 17: thankfully I didn't notice this the first time up.

Floor 17: thankfully I didn’t notice this the first time up.

Between the time change, time zone change, late nights, and ten towers, I was exhausted. I knew that if I wanted any shot at winning the BoA climb I needed to rest up. I spent the post-PT week sleeping as much as possible while taking some easier rides to keep my legs moving. My plan of attack on BoA was to spend week one recovering from the Strat and PT, week two overloading my training, and week three recovering from week two and resting up. After looking at some previous results, I set my goal at finishing under ten minutes. I knew if I could get under ten then I’d be right in the mix and have a good shot at pulling out a top finish. Some well timed rain in week three ensured I didn’t go nuts on my bike before race day and I felt pretty good on Friday.

My friends Madeleine and Steve came up from LA for the race and we discussed the building over dinner Friday night. Neither of them had climbed this building before but we agreed that something must be difficult because all the times we had seen from previous years were much slower than we expected to see given the height of the building. None of us had heard anything strange about this climb, but for whatever reason we all thought it was going to be a much rougher climb than it appeared on paper.

The next morning we lined up next to a bunch of firemen (not in gear) and a few other local stair aficionados. One of the guys with us was an older guy who wound up placing third overall. He basically turned this event into his personal towerthon. The last time we saw him I believe he was on his ninth climb; he said he wanted to complete ten. Maybe it was because it had been raining all night, maybe it was just faulty plumbing, but the pipes above the clearing right before the starting mat were dripping so as the race progressed, the puddle that you were forced to run through grew bigger and bigger. I let Madeleine start a few seconds in front of me, then I made my way into the stairwell.

Flying around what I thought was the final turn

Flying around what I thought was the final turn

It took forever to get to the second floor. The lobby must cover several floors because I believe that there were about 50 or 60 stairs before I saw a floor marker. The railings were squared making it hard to get a good grip; they rail extended an extra half step or so from the top step and was squared at the end making turns difficult. The building was quite regular with just a few exceptions and I just kept chugging along. I passed a handful of firemen (without gear) who had started out way too fast and did my best to keep the pace up. I determined that there was a bell at the finish line, ringing each time someone finished, but because the stairwell was so open it was difficult to tell just how far away the bell actually was. I must have been much more hypoxic than I thought at the time because I distinctly remember hitting floor 39 and thinking that I was 2/3 done with my 52 floor climb (I apologize to all my math professors; I’m blaming the lack of oxygen in my brain, not you). I eventually saw Steve again (he had passed me early on) and kicked it up a notch to pass him and get to the finish line. There was an extra pair of turns between 51 and 52 and I was very disappointed when I rounded the what-I-thought-was-final turn and realized I had to keep climbing.

We finished!

We finished!

I had decided to race with a watch this time (and a heartrate monitor, the results of which I’m sure would not score me any points with a cardiologist). I looked at it and realized I had definitely not finished under ten minutes. After catching our breaths, Madeleine, Steve, and I headed down to the finish party to get our times, massages, and lots of food (and a little bit of bubbly). I wound up finishing in 10:34, 25″ behind Madeleine and over a minute behind the female winner but still good enough for fourth female overall and top of my age group. I was happy with the end result, despite being slower than my goal time, and would definitely do this race again. Not sure what it was but I really liked this climb; I’ll be back here next year, ready to crack 10′ 🙂

After the race I went home to rest up for a fun run at AT&T Park the next morning. Although I’ve trained on stadium stairs since high school, this was my first organized event and my first non-high school stadium. It turned out to be a beautiful day despite the forecasted rain. It was great to see so many people; indoors you don’t really get to see many people climb.


Aon Center – LA (5 April 2014)

Aon Center

The view from dinner

I decided early on that this was going to be a fun race. BoA was my real target and I planned to participate in my bike club’s intraclub race Friday morning. However, due to some unexpected rain Friday morning, I skipped the bike race and showed up to LA, incredibly well rested and with pretty fresh legs. I knew I was at a slight disadvantage because the race would be my first time in the building and all the LA folks get to train here regularly. I decided to exploit this and asked a lot of questions while the Aon Center towered over our pre-race dinner. The consensus was that the stairwell was ever changing, had some weird features, and finished on the roof.

After getting a pretty good night of sleep, I headed to the climb. As a New Englander I was raised on the perils of planning anything outdoors. Even if the weather ought to be nice and the forecast says it will be, there is always a rain site. If I were organizing a stair climb I wouldn’t even think to do anything outdoors. Of course, in Southern California a bad weather day is when it’s cloudy so it made perfect sense that registration and everything else was outside the building, but it still took me by surprise. Come race time we lined up outside(!) the building and one by one we set off on our journey to the roof.

On the roof of Aon, looking out on the US Bank building.

On the roof of Aon, looking out on the US Bank building.

This is arguably the most mentally taxing building I’ve climbed. Because the configuration changes several times I was stuck searching for new stepping patterns quite often; the first section featured mirror stairwells that were very visually confusing, although there was a barrier so there was no risk of accidentally switching stairwells. The most mental anguish I felt in this building was at the second to last turn when I saw a beam of sunshine coming through the door. I thought, I’m there! Nope, there’s still another flight until the timing mat. Exiting the building on the roof was such a cool experience. It was my first time racing to a roof; given my penchant for sneaking onto roofs it was certainly not my first time climbing out to one. Given that this sport can be claustrophobic at times, the wide open roof and sunshine really made this a memorable climb. Of course, I would never think to wear sunscreen to a stair race, and my pale skin was not happy with me.

Age Group Winner!

Age Group Winner!

Given that I had kind of written this race off already I hadn’t bothered to set a time goal. I felt great after the climb, only taking a minute or so to catch my breath and get my heart rate back down. My back had been bothering me during the race likely as a result of blowing off my core work for the past few months and starting a desk job so I was shocked when I discovered that my 12:14 was good enough for fifth overall female (just one lousy second off fourth!) and an age group win! I’ve been looking for an age group win all season and although I did win my AG in SF, there was a timing error so I didn’t realize that I had won until the next day or so after my post race euphoria had worn off. I had climbed to the top of my age group in the US rankings but an actual race win had eluded me until Aon.

I did a few more practice climbs while waiting for more results to come in, including one climb in my Hokas. My friend Cindy and I decided to grab our cameras and have some fun in the stairs. I had already packed away my FiveFingers, not expecting to climb again, so I decided that since it was a fun climb the Hokas wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I have since decided that I will never climb in Hokas again. I want to start this off saying that I love my Hokas. When I was marathon training they were a life saver; I hate shoes in general and the Hokas were the perfect balance of barely there and comfort on long road runs. That being said, the cushioning is nearly an inch thick so there is no way for my foot to feel the ground, pushing off for power is difficult as you have to push through the cushioning, and because they are so high off the ground I felt very unstable on the stairs. I still love them and went for a run the next day in them, but I’m sticking to my barely-there FiveFingers from now on.


Cindy and I on our photo shoot climb :-)

Cindy and I on our photo shoot climb 🙂

The past month or so has been crazy, traveling so many weekends for races, putting in the time to train, and getting myself mentally prepared to put myself in a world of pain for 10+ minutes. I’ve found such welcoming people in this sport and find that it is generally very supportive. No one wants to see you have a bad race, never mind beat you when you had a bad race. You’re rarely racing anyone head to head so there is no way to really know how you did compared to others until after the results are published which I think adds to the supportive nature of climbing. Plus, unlike other types of activities, climbing hurts a lot. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are, it will hurt. Knowing that other people seek this pain, and that the best thrive on it, is comforting to me as I climb, in a world of pain, and think back to that poster on floor 17 of the Bank of America building: “I’m climbing these stairs, why?”

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