Yesterday was a brisk Michigan winter day, with snow everywhere and temperatures in the low 20s, and I started it with a little sprint at 6:45am. I dashed out to the driveway, barefoot and wearing only a T-shirt and underwear, so I could start the car and get the heat pumping while I got dressed.
Crazy as that was, it paled in comparison to happened a few hours later, when I competed in the American Lung Association’s Fight For Air Climb in Detroit – racing up the stairs to the 70th floor in the Renaissance Center.
The Renaissance Center (nicknamed ‘RenCen’) is a 7-building complex right on the Detroit River, and the race was held in the stairwell of the tallest tower, a Marriott hotel. When you’re outside the complex, it can be hard to tell that the center tower is over 30 stories taller than the towers that surround it, but it is.
My favorite view of the tower is seeing it through a skylight in the expansive, multi-floor RenCen lobby.
Does it look like a tall building? It is. It’s the tallest building in Michigan, and, for about 25 years, the center tower was the tallest all-hotel building in the western hemisphere.
I got downtown in about 30 minutes, and had plenty of time to walk around the RenCen, stretch, jog a couple laps around the lobby, and hang out in the Wintergarden, a huge atrium with a wall of windows facing the nearly-frozen-over river.
Those buildings in the distance, by the way, are in the completely different country. That’s part of the skyline of Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
This was a very big race. Well over 2,000 people had registered, and they had an organized system where they brought people to the start line in groups. I was in the Elite group, so I was one of the first people to climb. Elites also had special green bibs, while everyone else had white.
Good ol’ lucky number 101!
They were supposed to start letting people in the stairwell, one every eight seconds, shortly after 9am. But there was some sort of hold up, and even though there were only about 30 people ahead of me, I didn’t get to the start line until almost 9:30. I’ve been in the RenCen a bunch of times, starting when I was a kid, but I’ve never been in the stairwell, and I didn’t know what to expect. As the delay lingered on, I started feeling increasingly nervous, in addition to feeling excited.
Oh, did I mention that the RenCen is owned by General Motors, and it’s their world headquarters? That explains the cars in the background – the lobby is full of them.
Seconds before I started, the timing company guy said: “This is your last chance to bow out.” My response? “Nope. I came to play.”
And into the stairwell I went.
I wish I could say my nervousness was completely unnecessary and that I tackled the stairwell easily, but I can’t. The RenCen stairwell immediately tossed a couple wrenches my way that I was not expecting. I was caught off guard, and it completely frustrated me.
There main difference between this stairwell and most of the others I’ve raced in is that the RenCen has a concrete wall rising up the center of it. You can’t see any flight of stairs other than the one you’re on, which makes it hard to spot people ahead and behind you, which can make passing (or getting passed) tricky. And with people entering every 8 seconds (as opposed to every 15 or 20), there was a lot of passing.
Even more problematic was the handrails. I’m used to using the inner handrail to pull my body around on the landing to the next flight, but these handrails ended just before that center wall did, so there was nothing I could use to help propel myself around the corners. Any momentum or rhythm I had by the end of a flight was instantly lost.
Since both those obstacles presented themselves as soon as I started climbing, I had no choice but to deal with it and climb. So I climbed. I put some extra oomph in at the beginning, thinking I wanted to make up for time I was losing on the landings. I pushed myself.
I tried to ignore the floor numbers, and after a short while, I guessed I was coming up on floor 12. It turned out to be 21. That’s when I realized that every landing was a new floor. There weren’t landings halfway between each floor, which is common in high-rise buildings. That made the climb seem to go by quicker, and I was grateful. Finally, something in my favor!
Even though stairwells may differ, my objective in each race is the same: to get to the top as quickly as possible. Fatigue started setting in around the 30th floor, but I kept pushing. My heart rate stayed in the 170s the entire time, topping out at 178 near the end.
By the time I crossed the 70th-floor finish line, my legs felt like jelly. I found a corner and laid down for a few minutes, until my heart was no longer pounding like a jackhammer at a construction site. This photo was taken a minute or two after that:
They had a hotel suite open, so I headed in, got something to drink, and grabbed a banana… which turned out to have a message for me:
One of the reasons I love these races is the view, and the view from 1,035 steps up didn’t disappoint. Here’s the river, with Belle Isle in the distance:
This race also gave out a snazzy finisher’s medal:
After heading back down, I went and found my friend Laura, who was also racing. This was Laura’s third RenCen race, although she hadn’t done it in a few years. She actually gave me lots of advice before my first-ever stair race (which I shared in my recap from that race), and I was so excited when she agreed, a few months ago, to race again this year.
When Laura finished, we headed back up to the top of the RenCen – this time to the restaurant on the 72nd floor, called Coach Insignia. My father and I dined here four years ago (it’s delicious), and it has awesome views of the city.
It was a great place for photos.
Race organizers quickly started sharing results. I didn’t set a goal – other than to give it everything I had – and I was happy when I saw my time:
I finished in 11 minutes, 28 seconds! Some other statistics:
- I finished 144th overall, out of 937 that finished the full climb (there was a half-climb option, too).
- I was 96th out of all men (336 total).
- I was 4th among all participants who came from outside Michigan (trailing folks from Ohio, Wisconsin, and Canada).
- I was 1st among all participants who came from California*! I WON!
*I was the only participant from California, but that’ll be our little secret.
I’ll wrap this up with one final photo. There were some comically giant chairs at Coach Insignia, and I couldn’t resist getting comfortable in one:
Being 6’4″ and almost 250 pounds, there’s not much that can make me look small, but that chair does it!
With the RenCen under my belt, I can add Detroit to the list of cities where I’ve raced up a skyscraper. It’s the 7th city on that list, and by the time March is over, I’ll have added the 8th and 9th (Phoenix and San Francisco). That’s a lot of cities… and a lot of races!
Keep it up, David!
PS: My parents were my sole sponsor for this race, and I want to thank them for their amazing donation to the American Lung Association, and for all their support in general. I love you both!