Sunday was a great day for milestones. I competed in my 30th (!) stair climb race. It was held at Republic Plaza, the tallest building in Denver. 56 stories tall!
Denver is the 12th city that I’ve raced in. I’m up to a dozen! (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, and New York City are the others.)
And I’ve haven’t even told you about the race yet! It was a killer. It’s called the Ultimate Climb, it benefited the American Lung Association, and the objective is to climb the 56-story stairwell as many times as you can in one hour. That’s right, you climb to the top of this building as many times as possible:
As I said in my last post, I don’t have a lot of experience with this sort of nonstop race, but I have been training hard and I felt prepared. The building stairwell in LA that I practice in is 51 stories, so I felt especially comfortable with this building height. I walked in feeling 99% confident that I could complete three climbs in one hour. My goal was to complete four. It would be difficult, but I don’t show up to these events and not give it my all.
I arrived at 6:45am – the Ultimate Climb started at 7:30 – and picked up my bib. Lucky number 33!
I knew I could climb 56 stories in under 15 minutes, and I hashed out a plan that could get me to my goal: I had to enter the stairwell for my second climb by the 15-minute mark, start my third climb by the 30-minute mark, and start my fourth climb by the 45-minute mark. I knew the only rest time I’d get was in the elevator on the way down, and wondered if, with such little rest, if I could do multiple climbs in under 15 minutes and make those benchmarks.
Only one way to find out!
I synced my watch so I could always look at my wrist and see how I was doing. As I entered the stairwell for the first time, I decided that, despite this being an endurance event, there wasn’t a chance in hell I’d finish four climbs if I held anything back. So I went for it. I winced at the thought of 60 minutes of near-continuous, all-out climbing, and then focused on that first climb. I had to tackle these one at a time.
By the 10th floor, I had decided two things:
- I was so glad that I had trained so much with my elevation training mask, because I was already struggling to gulp down air, and thanks to that mask, I was familiar with that feeling and how to push through it.
- I didn’t like this stairwell. The railings were thick and square, which made them harder to grip, and the awkward railing design at the landings meant there wasn’t a good place to grab and pull myself around to the next flight.
No railing was going to keep me from reaching my goal, though, so I did my best and kept climbing. I tried to pay attention to landmarks, so I could use them as reference points in the subsequent climbs. There was about a 40-foot hallway on the 40th floor, so that was a good landmark, and they were blasting the air conditioning around the 18th and 38th floors (it was frigid and windy, and felt pretty good).
There was a professional photographer right before the finish line, snapping pictures as I climbed the final flight (I’ll share them if I can; it usually takes a little while to gain access to them), and after that there was the timing mat and the hallway beyond. I typically collapse after racing up 56 stories, but not this time. I jogged down the hallway, took a bottle of water from a volunteer, and jogged into the elevator lobby. They had a great system: volunteers pointed the way to the open elevator, and there was a security guard in each one holding the door. I never waited for an elevator at all, and for that I was thankful, because every second in this hour counted.
I glanced at my watch as I entered for my second climb: a few seconds past 13 minutes. Two minutes ahead of schedule! That provided a nice mental boost, which I needed, because I was beat. The second climb was significantly tougher, but I made it back down and started my third climb at 27:30 – still ahead of schedule!
The third climb was even harder. Pain radiated from every part of my body, and those landmarks I would working towards never seemed to arrive. Most of the climb was a blur, but I found myself back at the bottom at 43:00. I was on track to complete four climbs… with two extra minutes!
Starting the fourth climb on time was the second-to-last hurdle. The final hurdle was actually finishing. The rules state that you need to cross the timing mat at the top before the hour was up, or the climb doesn’t count.
IT WAS GO TIME.
I can’t adequately describe how utterly depleted I felt during that fourth climb. But that ticking clock was a huge motivator, so I kept chugging along. I couldn’t bear the thought of letting all the work I had done thus far be for nothing. I felt tears rolling out of my eyes and mixing with the sweat. I heard myself groaning as I pulled myself around the landings. When I came across two puddles of very fresh vomit between the 27th and 28th floors, I wasn’t grossed out. I understood how someone could push themselves to the point of puking. (A few floors later, I passed a custodial team heading down the stairs, and I shouted out exactly where to find the mess.)
It wasn’t until the home stretch – the final 10 floors – that I fully embraced the idea that I was going to succeed in reaching my goal. I had around six minutes for those final 10 floors, and I remember feeling this expanding sense of pride. First it tingled in my fingers and toes, and then I felt it bubble and swell. A second later, whoosh! It flooded my body, washing away the discomfort, quieting my screaming muscles, soothing my aching lungs, drowning out my pounding heart.
One part of me wanted to slow down, since time was on my side, but another part wanted to finish strong. You know which part I listened to, right? Yup, I finished strong.
I crossed the finish line and found a corner to collapse in. My whole body was trembling, and the mix of euphoria and debilitating fatigue made me cry again. Two people asked if I was OK, and I sputtered out something about them being happy tears. One of them was a nice woman named Kathleen, who was the only woman who completed five climbs this year. (She may be the only woman in this race’s history to complete five climbs, actually.)
After a few minutes, I regained the ability to stand up, and I took in the gorgeous view. THIS is why I race – to get myself to perches like this:
I got a snazzy looking medal…
…and posed by the official banner:
Now time for some cold hard data:
I finished my fourth climb 57:43 after I started. I had 2:17 to spare!
My official time in the stairwell was 53:05. So I spent 4:38 seconds in hallways and elevators getting back down to the bottom, which means my three breaks between climbs averaged 92 seconds each. Here are my splits for my four climbs:
Did I really climb 56 stories in 11:39? Holy crap, that’s fast!
My heart rate maxed out at 175 during the climb, but what boggles my mind is this: my average heart rate during those 57 minutes, including the short breaks, was 167. I kept my heart beating at 167 beats per minute for just under an hour.
You’d think that this was enough racing for the day, right? WRONG! The Ultimate Climb was the first of two events that day. The second event was a one-time sprint to the top. I signed up for both events… and I had a special companion for the second race: My sister Sarah!
Luckily, I had a couple hours to recover in between events. I hung out in the lobby, and caught up with some friends that were also there competing:
Sarah arrived about 45 minutes before the climb. This was her first stair race, so I accompanied her as she got her bib, and we snuck into another stairwell and I showed her a couple pointers.
They started one racer every 10 seconds, so Sarah went first, and I caught up to her by the 7th or 8th floor. Sarah did great. She never stopped, moved at a steady pace, and used the handrails to her advantage.
Meanwhile, my legs started aching by the 4th floor. I did as best as I could, having already done four climbs earlier, and honestly, having Sarah there probably helped me move faster than I would’ve without her.
She finished in 15:27 – a great time. I finished in 14:53 – which I’m also happy with. On the way home, Sarah asked me if she held me back, and I gave her an honest answer: I may have had a little more gas in the tank, but that 5th climb was painful, and even if I had given it my all, I probably couldn’t have finished in under 14 minutes.
Here we are at the top:
Yup, we’re still very high up!
Sarah’s already talking strategy and goals for next year’s climb, and that makes me really, really happy.
Between the four climbs during the Ultimate Climb and the fifth climb with Sarah, I climbed 280 stories in one morning. That’s 5,490 steps!
Yup. Sunday was a great day for milestones.
KEEP IT UP, DAVID!
I couldn’t have done this race without the generous support of Bowflex, which sponsored me for this event. I am a huge fan of Bowflex’s products (like this and this and this), and I’m so grateful that they help make these out-of-state races a possibility for me. I also can’t forgot to thank my awesome donors, who gave money to the American Lung Association in my name, so that I could participate. Heather and John, Amy, Dana, and Janet – you all are the best!