Gotta gotta get up to get down

(Note: this is an edited version of something I wrote for my company newsletter about a stair climb in March I competed in.)

For the greater part of the decade prior to my first official race, which came about a year ago, I’d occasionally go out and run “for fun.” I’m actually not sure what’s so fun about the act of running in and of itself — I think that’s why it was only occasional.

However, I finished that first race in a time I thought was pretty fast and I was pretty excited about it. By the end of the year, my best race time was 2 minutes and 3 seconds faster than that first race. I discovered that for me the fun in running is in competing—even if just against myself—and in trying to improve.

While continuing to run more road races has been atop my list of fitness activities, another sort of opportunity came a little over a month ago for an event based on an activity I do every day at work: stair climbing.

On March 23, I participated in the American Lung Association’s Fight For Air Climb at the US Bank Building in downtown Milwaukee. While running is something a lot of people do, and road races are available all year round, the chance to try to run up the entire stairwell of a skyscraper doesn’t come as often, and I was eager to give it a go.

Heading into the climb, I wasn’t sure how the race would compare to running. What I did know was that the US Bank Building is 47 stories tall—totaling 94 flights of stairs and 1,034 individual steps—and that of the nearly 1,600 people who participated in 2012, the winner finished in 6 minutes and 22 seconds. Only one other person finished faster than 7 minutes.

There was no way I thought I could do it that fast, but I felt I wouldn’t be too slow. To ensure that I wasn’t, I began adding stair climbing to my regular running and exercise regimen. I went in to the building where I work some weekends and/or evenings during the month and a half leading up to the event to scale all 13 flights of steps (from basement to roof level) for practice.

Not being able to accurately replicate a 47-flight climb from start to finish, I climbed in intervals—sometimes going all 13 stories at once, and sometimes following patterns of “up/downs” where I’d climb either two or three stories at a time, walk back down one, go back up two or three, walk back down one, etc., all the way to the top. I’d usually accumulate between 80-100 stories in a session, simply trying to build endurance and leg strength.

Let me tell you: stair climbing is NOT like running. AT ALL. It taxes the legs and lungs way faster and more harshly than running. But training here at my work building helped more than I realized it would: stairs there are way more difficult than at the US Bank Building. Not only is each flight of stairs longer, but the individual stairs are also taller at my work. Climbing 13 flights felt equivalent to somewhere around 20 to 25 flights at the US Bank Building. After a few practices, most of which I timed, I had a decent feel for how I should be able to do, and I set a goal of finishing the Fight For Air Climb in 8 minutes or less.

According to results of the climb, the 8:01 it took me to reach the top was exactly 2 minutes slower than this year’s overall top finisher. However, it was good enough for 41st place out of 2,242 total timed climbers and 13th out of 250 participants in my age/gender division.

While on one hand I’m pretty happy with that, since I was within 1 second of the goal I’d set for a type of event I’d never competed in before, I will also admit that on the other hand—thanks to my competitive nature—it stung quite a bit not to finish two seconds faster and get under the goal of 8 minutes that I was targeting.

One thing I realized afterward was that I probably should’ve been more aggressive where it concerned dealing with others in the stairwells. The event released participants up the stairs every five minutes in “waves” of roughly 40 people at a time. Although I was near the front of my wave, the team I was part of was released in a wave around noon, near the end of the event.

As such, there were a lot of slower people from earlier waves stuck struggling their way up the stairs.

Official climbing etiquette required that you announce your intent to pass as you approached slower climbers. I did that. But maybe my tone should’ve been louder and more aggressive, as traffic in the stairwells—especially near the top—turned out to be more of a factor than I expected.

I hate to make excuses about things like this. Trust me: I tend to be hard on myself when it comes to these sorts of things. However, when I made it to the top, I wasn’t too winded and I recovered my breath quickly. At no point following the race were my legs tired or sore. I felt properly trained for the event, I got enough sleep the night before, and I ate right leading up to the climb.

Shortly after the climb, I figured that I actually could’ve finished approximately 20-30 seconds faster—and thus, possibly inside the top 20 of all finishers—if it weren’t for traffic delays I encountered. I spent roughly half the race up the stairs in the outside lane passing people, and got stuck three times behind people who didn’t seem to care that this was a timed event and that some people were actually trying to pass them in order to finish in a decent time.

The first was around floor 20 when I encountered a young couple holding hands spanning the width of the stairwell. While it was heartwarming they could turn a 47-story stair climb into a romantic date… actually, scratch that: the only thing that warmed up was my blood pressure. Go find a park, kids! After about two flights and failure to respond to my announcement of my intent to pass, the girl seemed to take my tailgating as a hint and pulled the guy over so I could get past them.

The second time I got stuck behind someone came around floor 38 when I caught up to some dude who was passing people at a slower pace than I was. Since he was passing people, there was no room to pass him. While I give him bonus points for passing people, I deduct points for not doing it fast enough. There seemed to be a lot of people struggling to make it to the top around this point so the stairwell was pretty clogged up. I didn’t get a chance to pass this guy until I was only two stories from the top.

Upon finally passing that guy, I sprinted up the final two flights as fast as I could. I could taste the finish line. But when I turned the corner for the final flight of stairs, there was an older gentleman finishing his climb. Unbeknownst to him—or maybe he just didn’t care—the actual finish line was still about 15 feet away, past a doorway into the observatory deck of the building. He took his sweet time ambling his way from the top step and to the finish line. I was hoping he would move a little faster since there was no room to pass him. That delay alone was enough to push me over the 8 minute mark.

Regardless of whatever bitter taste the stairwell traffic delays gave me, I still had a great time pushing myself for this stair climb and it felt good to finish respectably after the work I put in to do well. I would recommend this, or any other stair climb, to anyone who likes running or simply challenging themselves.

I’m definitely planning to participate in this stair climb next year, and probably also a 103-story climb in November at the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago. I’m confident I can do even better next time as long as I train hard again. And also as long as I raise my voice while passing people.

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