Pour yourself a beverage and relax, ladies and gentlemen, because this is a long one. It’s also a good one (with lots of pictures!), because right now I’m feeling a kind of pride that I’ve only felt a couple of times before in my life.
The pride stems from Saturday morning, when I participated in the American Lung Association’s Fight For Air Climb 2012, and believe me, before I felt that pride, I felt a lot of other things, starting with ‘What the fuck have I gotten myself into?’
That’s what went through my head when I turned the corner in downtown Los Angeles and saw the 63-story Aon Center looming, just a block away. The Aon Center used to hold the record for being the tallest building west of the Mississippi, and it’s still the second-tallest building in Los Angeles (and California). Less than a month ago, I committed myself to racing up the stairwell, for charity, all the way from the street to the roof. I was familiar with the Aon Center, but had never looked at it with the knowledge that, in a matter of minutes, I would be inside it, climbing, climbing, climbing, until the stairs ended and there was nothing above but open sky. The Aon Center is tall – it tops out at 858 feet above the pavement – but when I turned that corner, it seemed ridiculously tall. Monstrously tall. Ominously tall.
It was so tall that when I stood at the base of it, I could barely make out the top – it seemed as far away as the horizon.
The Fight For Air event was a big deal. Hundreds of people were signed up to climb. They had closed down an entire block of Hope Street to create a plaza for climbers to congregate. The check-in tables were in the middle of the intersection of Hope and Wilshire.
Check it out – my bib number just happened to be my birth year! That’s a good sign, right?
Climbers were assigned line-up times. It’s not a free-for-all – they send climbers in, one at a time, on 10 second intervals, for safety’s sake. My line-up time was 9:45am. I got there about an hour ahead of time, and after checking-in and attaching the timer chip to my shoe, I did a lot of stretching and chatted with Heidi and Tom, two friends that came along to cheer me on. I looked up at the building every once in a while, and it seemed like the damn thing was growing taller with every passing glance.
At 9:30, I told Heidi the truth: I was getting really nervous. “Don’t be,” she said. “You’ve been training for this. You’ve got this.” She’s right: I’ve been on the StairMaster more times than I can count over the past couple months, and 63 stories on the StairMaster is practically nothing for me – I’ve climbed over 63 stories no less than 20 times.
But I knew climbing an actual stairwell would be a completely different animal. StairMasters don’t have landings that mess with your rhythm and pace, and while they’re strenuous exercise, you’re not lifting your full body weight with each step on the StairMaster, because the stair gives way under you. So I talked with my friend Laura on Friday to get some last-minute tips and advice. Laura’s done the Fight For Air Climb twice before, in the 73-story Renaissance Center in Detroit, and she gave me all sorts of new things to worry about:
“Here’s the thing, David – the stairwell is going to be hot and muggy. There’s no air flow in a stairwell – no breeze, not much ventilation. Wear the lightest clothes you have. Plus, stairwells aren’t cleaned as regularly as the rest of the building, so the people who climb before you are going to kick up all kinds of dust. There were water stations and oxygen tanks every 10 floors, and when I climbed, there were people who couldn’t breath and were using every oxygen tank that I passed. I made it to the top, but breathing wasn’t easy – which is ironic, because the event is, you know, organized by the American Lung Association.”
Yikes. I decided I would mentally prepare for a completely miserable experience, so I could be pleasantly surprised if it actually wasn’t that bad.
When it was my group’s turn to line up, all my thoughts of dust and sticky stagnant air were quickly replaced with ‘Whoa – this is actually happening! It’s time!’ - and I got really excited. Tom snapped this photo of me in line:
And I’m off!
The first part of the stairwell (which directly accessed the sidewalk) was very confined, but once it cleared the two story lobby, it opened up and became much less claustrophobic. Organizers put up posters on nearly every landing, and there were tons of encouraging signs on the risers of the stairs themselves, reminding me to ‘keep going!’ and ‘stay focused!’ (My favorite was ‘you’re almost there!’, which, when posted on the 15th floor, really stretches the definition of ‘almost’.)
In addition to the various warnings, Laura and I had also discussed strategy on the phone, and she stressed how important it was to find a maintainable, consistent pace and not blow your wad on the first 20 floors. Guess who did exactly the opposite? ME! I’m exaggerating somewhat – I tried to preserve energy, and thought that’s what I was doing, but the excitement of the whole event must’ve gotten the better of me, because by floor 16 I was huffing and puffing and my legs were starting to buckle. Up until that point, I was taking the stairs two at a time, but I couldn’t maintain that, so I slowed up and switched to one step at a time.
My personal goal was not to stop. I had my iPod, so I listened to some of my favorite songs and focused on reaching the milestone floors: 21 (1/3 of the way), 32 (halfway) and 42 (2/3 of the way). I tried not to look at the floor number signs on every landing, but they were hard to miss. I took water at every water station (there were 4 or 5 total), and there were also volunteers with noisemakers cheering us on at other floors as well.
I’m not going to lie: It was tough. Brutally, excruciatingly tough. Thankfully, none of the Laura’s climate-related predictions had come true: it wasn’t stuffy or warm, nor did I feel accosted by dust. But my entire lower body was throbbing and aching by the 45th floor, and I found myself relying on the handrails a little more frequently, but I kept going. And going. And going.
At the 48th floor, I started counting backwards: only 15 floors to go… 12 floors… 8 floors… 3 floors… I got energized when I saw natural light flooding the stairwell, and I picked up the pace for the last flight of stairs, and before I knew it, I was on the roof. WHOA – I was ON THE ROOF! Volunteers were right there, handing me a towel and water and removing the timer chip from my shoe. Meanwhile, I was looking around, because that rooftop instantly became one of my favorite places on the planet.
It was an overcast, gray, foggy day, and at that height, you’re in the middle of the fog. On a clear day, I would’ve been able to see the ocean, and mountains in every other direction, but not on Saturday. I loved how the only thing the punctured the fog was the top of the nearby US Bank Tower, the only building in town that’s taller:
You couldn’t get right to the edge of the roof, but I love this next picture. Wanna know how high up I was? The teeny-tiny-looking circular building over my shoulder is actually the Staples Center, the giant arena where the LA Lakers play:
When it was time to get off the roof, I headed down the only other staircase with roof access – a narrow, very steep little number that looked like something you’d see on an aircraft carrier. This was actually the scariest part of my morning – my legs were still wobbly and aching, and the staircase was slick from moisture in the air. Plus, I had to duck to avoid hitting my head on a beam (I’m thankful for the big ‘watch your head!’ banner, because I’m exactly the tall klutz that would smack my forehead).
Once safely on the 62nd floor, I followed the signs to another stairwell, which I took to the 60th floor, where there were elevators to take us to the lobby. Before I got on an elevator, I wandered a little bit – the 60th floor is completely empty, unoccupied office space (I wonder what the rent would be!), so I headed to the windows for a couple more pics that showed how high I was.
It’s freakin’ HIGH!
The elevator took us to the second floor, and there was an escalator to get down to sidewalk level. Heidi and Tom were waiting at the base of the escalator, clapping and cheering. I grabbed a banana, and we hung around for a few minutes, and I got a massage in a massage tent.
As Heidi, Tom, and I were leaving, I looked up at the Aon Center one final time. And you know what? It didn’t seem so tall anymore. That building has 1,377 steps from the street to the roof, and I climbed each and every one of them. A smile is creeping across my face as I type this, and I suspect it will always return when I think about this day. One of the things I remind myself, especially when I’m having a bad day or feel tempted to give up on my health-related goals, is that I’m capable of extraordinary things. I can do whatever I put my mind to. And climbing the Aon Center is the perfect example.
On Saturday night, I got my official race results. In total, 632 participants climbed the stairs. I finished 110th.
**UPDATE!** Because of a cheater (read about it here), I actually finished 108th out of 632. That’s 83rd percentile, bitches! I finished 79th among men, and 23rd in my age group (Men 30-39).
My favorite statistic is my time: I climbed those 63 stories in 15 minutes, 24 seconds! My pace was 14 seconds per floor. I was hoping, based on my StairMaster training sessions, of averaging 20 seconds per floor (21 minutes total) – so I CRUSHED my expectations! Woohoo!
That’s not the only thing I crushed. Thanks to contributions from 22 tremendous supporters, I exceeded my $630 fundraising goal and brought in $697.38 for the American Lung Association. Amazing – you guys are the best! I appreciate each and every cent and feel so honored to be the cause of such generosity. Thank you!
Don’t put your wallets and purses away yet! My second stair climb challenge is just three weeks away, and it’s also a fundraiser. I’ll be climbing the tallest building on Earth (in my own special way), and you KNOW you wanna be a part of that! Get the skinny (and make a contribution) here.
As for the American Lung Association’s Fight For Air Climb 2012, I’m thrilled and unbelievably proud of my performance this weekend. I’ll leave you with one more picture – Heidi made this sign and was waving it when I descended the final escalator into the lobby after the race: