With last weekend’s Hustle Up The Hancock now in the books, so is the 2013-14 stair race season. And the main thing I learned is that I have some work to do.

REWIND: Back in mid-October I was a few weeks away from competing in my second-ever stair climb, SkyRise Chicago, at the 103-story, 2,109-step Willis (Sears) Tower. The only other stair climb I’d raced in was Milwaukee’s 47-story, 1,034-step Fight For Air Climb six months earlier. I had been training like mad for the Sears Tower, though, so my focus on stair climb training led me to start seeking out even more stair climbs, particularly in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Why wouldn’t I want to do more of theses if I was putting in so much work?

The first one I discovered was Hustle Up The Hancock, a race at Chicago’s 94-story, 1,632-step John Hancock Center, set to take place the following April. I was interested. It sounded like a good time — as much a good time as punishing your legs and lungs for 15-20 minutes can be, anyway.

But in researching the race, I took note that HUH usually sells out fast. As in, within-two-hours-fast. After the Milwaukee FFA, Stephanie wasn’t too interested in future climbs, but right before SkyRise sold out, she changed her mind and signed up for that one. Knowing HUH sells out so quickly, knowing I wanted to do it, and knowing that my work day the day HUH registration opened would prohibit me from registering myself and/or her, she volunteered to get online when registration opened and sign us both up.

“I hope I don’t hate the Sears Tower,” she said when she volunteered.

FAST FORWARD: Stephanie didn’t hate it. And I continued to enjoy it, too. Last weekend Hustle Up The Hancock was our fifth stair race in the five months following SkyRise. Our enthusiasm is high, and we’ve both gotten a lot better. Especially her.

Stair racing has proven to be an interesting sort of sport. It’s a bunch of super hard, super intense, yet pretty short races that test your endurance and will power unlike running for a much longer time does. And there seems to be a pretty tight-knit community of climbers who treat races as much as social gatherings as they do competitions.

As for Stephanie and myself, we’ve met a couple cool people so far, but we’re not that deep into the social element of it. At least not yet, anyway. We mostly just want to improve our abilities and be beasts as much as we can be.

THE RESULTS: I finished in 14:29, good enough for 85th overall and 76th among all men. Stephanie notched a finish time closer to mine than any race we’ve done before; she clocked in at 14:35, putting her 89th overall and 10th out of all women.

The points she earned in the race helped bump her up to 16th place among all women in the national stair rankings. The points I earned weren’t more than my previous fifth-lowest point race, so I actually dropped to 143rd among all men from 132nd as other people leapfrogged me.

THE RECAP: Much like SkyRise, I found that the hopes and expectations I had for HUH didn’t necessarily match my abilities or, thanks presumably to my lack of experience, reality.

At SkyRise, my hope/goal was to finish in around 17 minutes. I based that off of the times I’d set during my training at my much smaller work building. I finished in 20:01 — about three minutes slower. Not terrible, but not what I wanted.

Coming into Hancock, I had more race experience (albeit in mostly smaller buildings). Thanks to SkyRise, I knew my training times weren’t a good gauge of how I’d do in a really tall building, so I largely ignored my stair practice times and instead added a weight vest to my training climbs to increase my legs’ strength and muscular endurance. With those improvement efforts in toe, the thing I thought gave me the best idea for a goal/expectation was that I researched the times of other climbers who’d done the Hancock in previous years, but who had also done races I had done. I took note of their times vs. my times in those common races to get a sense of their ability, then took note of their Hancock times. Based on that, I figured a sub-14 minute performance at Hancock was probably reasonable. However, I was aiming more for sub-13:36, which equates to a pace of two steps per second.

Never having done the race before, I knew I couldn’t account for the layout of the stairs (i.e., the number of steps on each flight, long landings, etc.). Having been slapped with an 11:45-a.m. start time, I knew I couldn’t account for potential crowds in the stairwell. Those were the only unknowns potentially working against me. The only thing I knew coming into it that wasn’t in my favor was that the stairs turned left.

I practice in a right-turn stairwell, and of the four buildings at the Presidential Towers, my two slowest were the two left-turn buildings. Obviously, I need to work on pivoting left. How much it affected me, I’m not totally sure. I ended up bleeding time on the landings, especially near the top, but that was because I was fairly worn out, not simply because my technique was inefficient.

As it turned out, the crowds weren’t so much a factor. While I did pass about 20 to 30 people, about half of them moved out of my way. The other half were slow enough I didn’t have to burn too much extra energy to get around them.

The stair layout may have been as slight a factor as the left turns. While the stair totals from floor to floor varied, and even included a handful of half-flights of four to six steps, but I’m not sure it really was the issue that caused me to finish about a minute slower than my goal.

Bottom line: it was my conditioning.

I put up top-10 finishes at both Indianapolis’ and Milwaukee’s FFA climbs a month earlier, as well as a 31st-place finish at Presidential Towers. I definitely could’ve worked on some things to be even better in those, but between my normal cardio, my normal stair training, and some added leg strength training, I finished those races feeling like I gave it my best effort and that I properly paced myself.

Hancock was different.

Once I hit the 50th floor or so, I was pretty much spent. I must’ve still been conditioned only for the 47-story buildings in Indy and Milwaukee, because right about that distance is when I lost my momentum. At that point, I began plodding along, sort of zoning out and just trying to keep going, until about the 70th floor. It was then I sort of snapped out of it, and forced myself to pick it back up a little.

Somewhere between there and the 80th floor, I thought I heard Stephanie huffing and puffing below me. At my work building, I’ve still not quite figured out how many flights apart we are when I can hear her breathing, but I estimate it to be somewhere around three, so with that in mind, I knew she was getting close to me.

Then, at 80th floor landing, I swear I saw Stephanie turning at the landing two flights below me. That’s when I knew I needed to kick it into gear. They released each climber eight seconds apart, and she started directly after me, so I definitely wanted to make sure I didn’t give those eight seconds back to her.

Honestly, I fully expect her to beat me one of these days. She works harder than me and has a better training program. Mostly, though, she’s just more determined. But if I can hold off that day where she beats me for as long as I can, I will.

She did make up two seconds on my 8-second head start, and it probably would’ve been another two or three if it weren’t for the hefty couple holding hands for the finish line camera and blocking her on the last flight up.

(Again: the perils of late start times and non-competitive climbers. We did find the picture, though. She’s photobombing them with a hilarious look of anguish on her face; you can tell she’s trying to find a way around them.)

When I hit the finish line, I was more “wobbly” than I’ve ever finished a stair race. My legs were jello and my brain could barely focus on anything other than trying to find a spot to sit down. At the point I saw Stephanie come out of the stairwell doorway, I thought she had beat me.

I wasn’t too relieved that she hadn’t beat me when we got our results; I was mostly disappointed I was almost a full minute slower than I was hoping.

Since I’ve had some time to marinade on it, my disappointment has subsided. I’ve realized it was probably unreasonable to have the expectations I did in the first place, simply because I’d never raced that building before and truly didn’t know what to expect. I also took solace in that I was only a minute off my goal at Hancock, which is a lot better than the 3-minute discrepancy between my goal and my finish at SkyRise.

LOOKING AHEAD: I’ll be focusing a lot on running in the next few months, specifically training for 1-mile races and 5Ks, but I’m starting with a new trainer who’s helping with leg strengthening and other stair-specific cross-training. So now it’s just time to get to work and get better.


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