This past weekend was the American Lung Association’s Milwaukee Fight For Air Climb.
Last year’s Milwaukee FFA was the first-ever stair climb I’d ever competed in. I did it because I was thinking I might want to do the Sears Tower in November. A smaller, local race several months in advance of that one would be a good test of my interest, right? Well, one year and six stair races later, I’d say I’m pretty much hooked.
Honestly, the more stair races I’ve competed in, the less exciting the idea of running has become. And I really like running! I mean, I’ll still run races, and I still do run training, but there really is nothing quite like stair racing. It makes running seem sort of boring. Most stair races take about half (or less) the time as a 5K, but are somewhere around triple to quadruple the intensity. And then, when you’re done, it just feels different… better… more exhilarating… like more of an accomplishment.
In any case, with as much as Stephanie and I have gotten into stair climbing, and because the Milwaukee FFA is our “home turf,” this race was sort of a big deal to us. On a wider scale among stair climbers, the Milwaukee race isn’t really considered a big deal, but in a sense it was our big race.
BEFORE THE RACE:
The first question I had to answer months ago was whether I was going to climb this again, or run in the Lucky Leprechaun 7K, which I ran in last year. Last year, they were held on consecutive Saturdays. This year, they were being held the same day. Ultimately, it wasn’t even a close decision. Stairs take priority. Plus, last year’s Lucky Leprechaun wasn’t that great an experience. For one, it’s a little longer distance than I prefer, but also the weather was terrible. Neither of those factors was so bad, though, that if these two races were held on different days again this year I wouldn’t have run the 7K again. It really just came down to stair races taking priority. Especially THIS stair race.
The next issue, once we’d registered, was our start time. Again, this is always a big issue because of potential crowds in the stairwell. And the crowds in a stairwell are way tougher to deal with than in a road race. In a road race, you can just cut to the outside somewhere for a second, zip around slower people, and then run on your own chosen path along the course. In a stair race, it takes way more energy to pass people because you pretty much have to double your pace to clear a slower climber. Not only that, but you’re more often than not forced to pass slower climbers on the outside, which means you’re increasing your overall distance traveled. Conserving energy and proper pacing are of paramount importance in stair racing.
That said, start times weren’t announced until the Wednesday before the race. When Stephanie and I registered, we each selected 8 a.m. as our preferred start, hoping that we’d get in early enough that the stairwell wouldn’t be too clogged. Well, when start times were announced, we were listed in a wave that began at 10:40 a.m. Definitely not ideal.
We learned from our Indianapolis experience a couple weeks earlier that we could probably just show up at whatever time we wanted to climb and just jump in with whichever wave was going at that time. I was okay with doing that; however, the first single-climb wave started at 8:20 a.m. and was comprised of 50+ people all climbing as part of the same corporate team. I didn’t necessarily want to stick out like a sore thumb amongst that group, so instead I contacted the race director about switching times or potentially changing our registrations to the Ultimate Climb, meaning we’d start at 7 a.m. and get to climb as many times as we could, or wanted, for an hour.
As it turned out, the race director was nice and would allow us to switch to an earlier time, but it didn’t sound like it’d be as early as we’d prefer. Instead, I switched our registrations to the Ultimate Climb, meaning we were slated to start at 7 a.m., and that we could climb as much as we wanted for an hour.
I wasn’t sure how well I’d do in this race. I knew I was going to push it the first time up for sure, and if I did it a few more times, I’d play that by how I felt. I didn’t necessarily feel I was as prepared for the race as much as I would’ve liked to be, but I couldn’t have fallen off of my preparation too bad in the two weeks since we’d had the back-to-back race weekend.
My hope was that I’d be able to start my first climb behind Jason Larson, an elite climber from Minnesota who was starting at 6:50 a.m., while he was doing a second or third climb. I wanted to use him as a pacer, like I used Syd Arak in Indianapolis. I knew I couldn’t keep up with Larson’s fastest pace, though, so I was hoping his second or third time up would be something that I could match and still net a good finish with. Well, no such luck on that with my first climb.
I started at the front of the 7 a.m. wave, so when they told me I could go, I went. I honestly don’t remember too much about my first time up, other than my experience with other people in the stairwell. I passed a bunch of people from the wave ahead of me and no one passed me. There were couple guys who started immediately behind me and Stephanie who seemed like they might want to cut in front of us at the start line, but they didn’t even turn out to be that fast. I’m pretty sure some other people passed them, even. There was one other guy from our wave I vaguely remember who started catching up to me around the 25th floor or so. He made it to within about a flight of me, and he hung with me for a floor or two, but after that, he dropped off. I didn’t see him again.
Now, I can’t remember if this was during my first climb, or my second climb, but near the top, with about three stories left, there was a guy climbing on the left and a woman climbing on the right. I was pushing to try to finish strong, but they were both in my way. Maybe a little less under my breath than I wanted, I said, “C’mon, let’s go! We’re almost there!” I was saying it more out of annoyance and frustration because I just wanted to get past them, but the guy must’ve thought I was trying to be encouraging or something, because he responded, “I’m not falling for that!”
When I got to the top, I felt tired, but I’m not totally sure I felt totally burned out like I do most of the time I finish a stair race. I half wonder if I pushed hard enough? It definitely didn’t feel easy, though. In any case, I didn’t know how fast I’d done it. I don’t carry a timer, and the results aren’t available until you’re totally done. And we were going to climb some more.
After a break at the top for water and to talk to Stephanie, we took the elevator down for our second climbs. Jason Larson happened to be going down at the same time to start his third or possibly fourth climb. I thought this would be my chance to use him as a pacer, possibly. I might clock a decent time for my second climb!
I gave up on that pretty much right away because a bunch of people managed to start between myself and Larson. I figured I wouldn’t be able to catch up to him with all the passing of people I’d have to do. So, I just went in after that handful of people. However, to my surprise, after about six or seven floors, I’d passed that handful of people, and had already caught up to Jason Larson. At that point, I stayed about a flight behind him, matching his pace. That is, until somewhere around halfway up the stairwell. At that point, he kicked it into a gear I didn’t have. Especially for it being my second time up. And that was his third or fourth time up. Shows how much work I still need to do.
For my third climb, I maintained a pretty consistent pace. I was tired at the end, but not so much that I needed to stop climbing. I figured I’d see how Stephanie felt. If she wanted to go up some more, I would, but if she didn’t, I’d feel I got my money’s worth for the extra it cost to do the Ultimate Climb. After all, it still was 3,100 steps, which is more than we’ve done at a single time during training. When Stephanie got to the top, I asked her what she wanted to do. She said she was good. She probably would’ve gone again if I’d really wanted to, but we had some other plans for after the race, so we figured we may as well just call it a race and get ourselves ready for those plans.
I was confident I’d beaten my time of 8:01 from last year, meaning I’d get a “I BEAT MY TIME!” ribbon; however, I wasn’t that confident I’d beaten my personal best of 7:39 at the US Bank Center, which I did last November at a Cystic Fibrosis Foundation climb. I thought I may have come close to it, though. I felt almost certain I didn’t beat the 7:23 I put up at Indianapolis’ Chase Tower two weeks earlier. Being that Chase Tower is the same amount of stories, and only six steps taller than Milwaukee’s US Bank Center, I felt the 7:23 was the mark to beat for this climb.
When results were ready, I printed out my time slip… 7:21! I was not expecting that based on how I felt. That means I beat the 7:23 I was hoping for (even though my steps per second pace was exactly the same as Indy)! At the time I printed that slip out, my time ranked me 5th among all climbers’ first climbs (overall results are based only on the first climb). I knew it would probably hold up in the top 20 of all finishers, but I wouldn’t know until much later how far it might drop.
By the end of the day, a total of 2,366 climbers made their way up the stairs at the US Bank Center, and my unexpected-to-me 7:21 slid only to 10th! I finished 10th! I’m pretty excited about that because my 7:23 in Indy ranked me 9th out of less than half as many total participants.
STEPHANIE’S A BEAST:
Stephanie was really upset after an 8:09 finish at Indy. She was really gunning for sub-8. It was still an improvement over her 9:03 at the US Bank Center a year ago, and the 8:26 she put up at the CFF climb in November. Prior to the race I was trying to temper her expectations about how she might finish at this climb. I really just didn’t want her to be upset if she finished in, like 8:02 or something. Because that would mean she had still improved, and even managed to cut 8 extra seconds off what she did two weeks earlier. Considering it usually takes longer than two weeks to chop time off, I’d have said that would be impressive.
But I think I learned I should never try to temper Stephanie’s expectations ever again.
She finished in 7:34.
WHAT THE CRAP???
I mean, seriously. What was I doing wrong during my climb and in my training??? I mean, I improved. But not THAT MUCH.
She essentially jackhammered 35 seconds off her time in two weeks. THIRTY-FIVE SECONDS IN TWO WEEKS.
I keep telling her she’s going to get faster than me at some point here. She keeps saying I’ll stay faster than her, and she won’t admit it when I press her on it, but I think she really is trying to get faster than me. Even keeping up with her during training is hard now. Skip Jason Larson: if I want to be as good as my fiancee, I have some work to do.
Her time held up as 14th place overall and was the third place female.
– Our last-minute switch to the Ultimate Climb caused some issues with our second and third times not being reflected in the results. After contacting the timing company, they fixed it. My second and third climbs were 8:27 and 8:32. Stephanie’s were 9:26 and 9:25. (To be fair, she said she wasn’t pushing near as hard the second and third times; I wasn’t going full-steam, but I was pushing a little.)
– There was a firefighter in full gear who’d just finished the firefighter climb who walked past us a little later in the morning to ask how we did in the Ultimate Climb. He asked because he had seen us during the Ultimate Climb, which he did on his own, with no gear, prior of the firefighter challenge. I don’t know how many times he went up during that, but the fact he did both is ridiculous!
– I was worried Stephanie’s older brother, who’s pretty athletic and competitive, and who was climbing for the first time with a different group later in the morning, would beat my time. He didn’t. *Whew.* He said he got stuck behind a pretty congested section of people within the stairwell. I don’t doubt it. From what I know of his abilities and competitive drive, there’s no way he should finish in the time it took him. If he did it again without a crowd, he’d definitely do better.