Some Great Highs – and a Few Lows – at the 2016 San Francisco Fight For Air Climb (Race Recap)

I competed in my fifth stair race of 2016 on Saturday, and it felt really great to return to 555 California in the heart of San Francisco.


I did this race for the first time last year, and it was tough. I was getting over an rough illness, so I wasn’t in peak physical shape. It’s also a hard stairwell – it’s pretty steep, and because of mezzanines and a tall lobby, it’s more than the 52 stories they advertise. All in all, it was a good experience – learn more and see photos here – but I was ready to see what I could really do, because right now I’m in excellent shape and ready for battle.

I jogged a little, and stretched a lot, and waited with my friend Lisa to enter the stairwell.


I had my first OH, SHIT moment about 20 seconds before I started, when a guy with the timing company told me my timing chip needed to be attached to my shoe, not my bib. (Information that wasn’t shared anywhere beforehand.) So I stepped out of line for a minute or two to fix my chip. It was an unexpected nuisance, but I’d rather get it right before racing than risk not having an accurate time.

The race itself was pretty uneventful. I was confident I’d get a PR, because last year’s time was slow, due to my illness. The question was: How much of a PR could I get?

I climbed steadily, double-stepped the entire way, and pushed myself. I avoided all the water stations (didn’t want to waste the seconds), and tried my best to execute efficient turns, even though handrail design didn’t make that easy.

I knew I had done my job and left all my energy in the stairwell, because I collapsed after crossing the finish line, slumping against a wall until my heart rate got out of the 170s. And this is when I had my second OH, SHIT moment. A paramedic came over, and asked if I was OK. (This happens regularly to me after races.) I nodded – I was breathing too heavily to speak. Then she said: “Did you make it?” My mind started racing. “I’m here, aren’t I?” This was a full-on stammer, in between gulping down air. She shook her head. “You didn’t make it…” and then she glanced over her shoulder, down the hall. I flipped out, internally, for a second. Did I not cross the finish line? Was the timing mat down the hall? Did I just add 60 seconds to my time by sitting here? Turns out the paramedic hadn’t finished her sentence, and had merely inserted a dramatic pause. “You didn’t make it… until you reach the beer.” Then she smiled. I smiled too. She got me good, that paramedic!

RELATED CONTENT: Check Out Race Recaps from Dozens of Other Races!

This race is put on by the bay area chapter of the American Lung Association as a fundraiser, and they have one of the best post-race parties I’ve been too. Many races don’t allow congregation at the top, and usher you back down to the lobby after a race. Not in San Francisco. There’s all sorts of food, from standard post-race fare like fruit and water to mini-quiches, cheesecake, beer, and Bloody Mary’s. A local massage school sent up stations where you could get a free massage. I took advantage.


There’s also walls of windows, with exceptional views, although at that hour (a little after 9am), it was still kinda foggy.


The Golden Gate Bridge is out there somewhere:


AND WHAT ABOUT MY PR? Well, the clock on my wrist says I finished in 11:53. Awesome! That’s a 2-minute, 27-second improvement over last year’s time (14:20)! I was ridiculously proud. I actually checked my watch when I was slumped against the wall, before the paramedic came over, and when I saw those numbers, I think I started crying. It was hard to tell, I was also soaked with sweat.

I was excited to see my official time, which may have been a few seconds different, you know, if I didn’t quite start or stop the clock exactly when I crossed the timing mats. When I eventually saw my time, I was shocked. It said 10:21, and I instantly knew it was wrong. As much as I wanted to take credit for a time that was well over a minute faster than my watch, I couldn’t. It’s wrong.

Later, I started hearing about other climbers having major time issues. Other times were off by over a minute. Some people didn’t get times at all. Others were listed under the wrong bib number, or under the wrong age group or gender. The timing company failed miserably at providing any accurate information whatsoever. Furthermore, they didn’t provide leaderboards, so climbers can’t easily see who the top finishers were, and how one stacked up against all participants, the participants in their gender, or even their friends and teammates. There’s also no ability to search results by name or bib number. These are all standards at every other race, provided by every other timing company I’ve encountered. Long story short: The timing company was Bike Monkey, and they used their system called Rhesus, and I will never again compete in a race that they handle. I train hard for these races, and take them seriously, and won’t let any future performances be measured by such an incompetent company. Thank goodness I have a time from my own watch. I’m considering that to be my official time, because I have no other choice.

Enough negativity for now. I wasn’t done climbing yet! I had a very special friend that was competing in his first stair race: My 9-year-old nephew Eddie! Eddie came last year as a spectator, along with his parents and brother (Eddie’s dad is my brother), and took an interest in the race and the sport. So we talked at Christmas about him doing it this year, and a little while later, he signed up! My sister-in-law Alexis even took him a bunch of times to a public stairway for training.

Alexis, a former runner, and I showed him some good stretches, and the two of us got back in line. I removed my timing bib this time around – my only goal was to encourage Eddie and accompany him to the top. I gave him some final pointers while we waited in line to enter, and this was when I noticed that the stairwell ran alongside an open shaft that went all up 52 stories. It wasn’t an elevator shaft (there was no elevator), and I have no idea what it was for, but it definitely provided a good photo op!


Eddie started 10 seconds before me, and I caught up to him around the 5th or 6th floor. He went gangbusters at the beginning, and got winded quickly, but soon settled into a pace that he could maintain the rest of the way. Look at Eddie go!


Eddie took little pauses at the water stations, but always kept climbing. He was the one that suggested we take a photo on floor 32 – this was the floor Alexis used to work on, way before he was born.


Eddie got a lot of attention and encouragement, and I think he soaked it up. All the volunteers and fellow climbers were cheering him on. I pushed him to sprint the final few floors, and he did great, crossing the finish line with a smile – and a lot of sweat.

RELATED CONTENT: My Sister Joined Me in Denver For Her First Stair Climb

Eddie loved being at the top and looking down on the city, and thankfully, some of the fog had cleared up be then.  Hello, Golden Gate Bridge!


(It’s there, in the background.)


We got some selfies, too.


And a goofy one!


I’m super proud of Eddie. He was one of only five climbers that were under 10 years old, and he did great. I think he might even do it again next year!

Despite the race organizers having some planning and execution issues (some I mentioned, some I didn’t), I had a successful day. And regarding those issues, I’ve already sent a letter to the American Lung Association, and they called me within a half hour, and were thankful for the feedback, apologetic about what happened, and sounded determined to provide a better experience next time.

I’m already looking ahead. I’ve got races in San Diego and Los Angeles in April, and I want to keep up my streak of PRs. In the last four months, I’ve set PRs in Anaheim, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, and now San Francisco. Altogether, I’ve shaved around 10 minutes off my times in those five cities! I can’t describe how powerful this feeling of accomplishment is.

You better believe I’m gonna do everything I can to…


Thank you to Sandee and Felise for their generous contributions to the American Lung Association on my behalf. I couldn’t have done this race without your help!


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10 Responses to Some Great Highs – and a Few Lows – at the 2016 San Francisco Fight For Air Climb (Race Recap)

  1. Trixie says:

    You continue to inspire. Way to go!

  2. Mom says:

    I’m so proud of Eddie for his stair climb accomplishment. You are a great inspiration, David. Also, great that the timing company responded so quickly to your letter.

  3. Syd Arak says:

    David, I really enjoy reading your race recaps. They are always very descriptive.
    And congratulations on your PR streak and your rapidly dropping times. You’ve obviously put in the training time and your results reflect that. Way to go and KEEP IT UP DAVID!!

  4. G.M. Grena says:

    I’m fortunate to get to train with awesome people like you! Another nice job! Bummer about the timing company. Most of them take photos & write absolute times at both mats as a failsafe (e.g., Alexandra ALA FFA 2015). At least you remembered to tap your own watch, & I see they entered 11:53 for you on their website now. Looks like William Hughes in the Male 60-69 category smoked everyone with a supersonic time of only 1:47.

    • David says:

      Thanks George! I’m fortunate to train with awesome people like YOU! I don’t know where you see 11:53 listed for me. I just checked and I’m now listed at 11:19 – my third inaccurate time for this race. And that’s quite a course record William Hughes set! Very impressive. 🙂

      • G.M. Grena says:

        That Rhesus Live site is a real pathetic disaster. I wonder if it changes with the phase of the moon &/or sunspots. You’re correct, now it has you at 11:19, but the time for William Hughes is now only 1:13, so you’re not even 1 second closer to catching that bad boy! By next week, he should be sub-1… Ha! But seriously, 47-13=34 seconds as does 53-19. Coincidence?

  5. Alexis Garcia says:

    Thank you for inspiring Eddie to join you, he really enjoyed “stepping up” to the challenge. He says next year he’ll cut out a few water stops. My sisters want to join the climb too. It’s turning into a family event! Keep climbing Uncle David, we love you!

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