This weekend’s Fight For Air Climb in Los Angeles, benefiting the American Lung Association, was the single toughest stair race I’ve ever done. For the first time in my 34-race career, I questioned whether or not I could finish. It was challenging, yes, but also excruciatingly painful and downright frightening.
The morning began wonderfully. I arrived at the event when plenty of time to prepare, warm-up, and stretch. Even though the 63-story Aon Center in downtown Los Angeles is a tall, monolithic structure, I feel quite comfortable racing there. And I should: this was my fifth consecutive year doing this race.
The building and race has a special place in my memory, because I did my first-ever stair race here, back in 2012. I arrived on Saturday feeling confident, due to my recent string of races where I’ve set personal records, and also nervous, which I consider a good thing.
A ton of friends were there, so I got to catch up with a lot of people before heading into the building. I hadn’t seen my friend Jeannie in months…
…and Dan and Juliana came down from Seattle, and it’s always great to see them.
(We’re lined up to start the race, by the way, and through that open door in the background is the start line and the stairwell.)
The first half of the race went swimmingly. Stair racing is always hard, but I was pacing myself smartly, and I could tell I was making good time, and had a good feeling I was on track to set another PR. Around the 30th floor, I felt a small pain in my side. I was starting to cramp up.
Cramps during a race are the worst. I’ve had them before, and worked through them, and that’s what I planned to do this time. But the cramp got progressively worse as I continued climbing, and then escalated exponentially around the 40th floor.
It was some of the worst pain I’ve ever felt, stair racing or no. My entire core was radiating with pain, from my chest to my waistline, and all the way around my torso. It was like an anaconda was squeezing me tighter and tighter. I wanted to buckle over, but the pain would intensify whenever I wasn’t standing straight up.
Worst of all, the pain made taking deep breaths impossible, because my lungs couldn’t expand without further aggravating the pain. So I began taking short, staccato breaths, like I was hyperventilating, and crying out every fourth breath or so, and that’s when I really got scared. This wasn’t a standard muscle cramp. Something was really, really wrong.
I knew those breaths weren’t supplying the oxygen I needed. The pain had slowed me down to a crawl, and I was still around 20 stories from the top. I didn’t know when the next water station was (where I could get medical attention), and I was starting to get dizzy from the pain and my restricted breathing. I felt my toes catch once or twice as I climbed, and worried that tripping and falling would only make matters worse.
I stumbled along for ten floors like this, reeling in pain, before it started letting up. I told myself the worst was over, and I tried to ignore the pain. I looked at my watch as I passed the 53rd floor, and realized if I did the last ten floors in under two minutes, I could still make a PR. That was encouraging, and it gave me something other than the pain to focus on.
But the pain never went away. The worst of it was between floors 40-50, and it never subsided enough after that to allow me to give the race my all, and, as a result, I didn’t make my PR. I crossed the finish line, exhausted and in agony, stumbled over to the side, and fell in a heap.
I didn’t get up for about five minutes – that’s how long it took for the cramp to subside – and when I did start to sit up, the tears came. I can’t really sort through my feelings from that moment. There was a lot swirling about. On one hand, I was on the roof of a skyscraper, over 800 feet above the sidewalk – one of my absolute favorite places to be. I was proud that I pushed through the toughest obstacle I’ve ever had during a race. On the other hand, even though it was due to reasons beyond my control, I was pissed and disappointed I didn’t earn my PR. Plus, there was still minor, lingering pain, and the fatigue that comes after every race. It was a mess of emotions, and it took me a minute or two to pull myself together.
I’m glad I did, though, because it was gorgeous day, and the views from the roof were stunning.
It was bright, too – I’m squinting in every picture I have from the roof!
I’m holding up five fingers because it was my fifth time on the roof. My buddy Ruslan took a cool panorama shot, too:
(Click on it to see it bigger.)
I got my time shortly after returning to the lobby: 15 minutes, 38 seconds. Despite all the misery in the stairwell, I was only off my personal best by 24 seconds. And I improved upon last year’s time by almost a minute.
There’s a lot to celebrate here: I pushed through the most intense pain I’ve ever felt while racing. I was on the brink of bailing on a race, but somehow made myself continue. And despite all of that, I finished only two dozen seconds slower than my best-ever performance.
Zoom out, and there’s even more reasons: This race marks my four-year anniversary in this sport. In 2012, I confronted this very building, and even though I was intimidated as hell, I climbed to the roof, starting a new chapter in my life that has taken me to races in cities all across the country. In the past four years, I’ve climbed landmarks like the Sears Tower, One World Trade Center, the Stratosphere (twice!), and the Space Needle, and over a dozen other skyscrapers. I’ve crossed 34 finish lines, and scaled thousands of floors.
In those four years, I’ve become a competitive athlete in an insanely difficult (and just insane) sport. I’ve proved, again and again, that I am capable of astounding things, and felt more pride and accomplishment than I’ve ever felt from a physical endeavor. Thanks to this blog, I’ve become a leading advocate for stair racing, and a resource for other climbers. And it all began four years ago.
There is so much to celebrate… and yet, I don’t feel like celebrating. I’ve been in a funk since the race, and even though I know every word in the prior three paragraphs are true, I haven’t been able to shake this depression yet. I’ve kept busy and social, which is very helpful, but the depression has lingered.
And that’s par for the course with my depression. I’ve struggled with mental illness my entire life, and I’m sure I will continue to do so. I deal with these depressive episodes a couple times a year, and I know they will pass. I wish ending them were as simple as telling myself to cheer up, but that doesn’t work. I wish I could tell myself I just had an off day, and that everyone has them, and that I’ll nail it next time, and then move on. But that doesn’t work either. I know, with time, that I’ll look back at this race and see it as nothing but a tiny little smudge on an otherwise excellent year, but, right now, I don’t see it that way.
What I can celebrate right now is the fact that I’m owning every single one of these feelings. The pride I felt on the roof is mine. The depression that came after is also mine. I’m not ashamed of my depression, and even though it makes me want to clam up, curl up and hide, I won’t. I’ve always said the purpose of this blog is to share all of my struggles and successes, and look at that folks… you’re getting the full range in one post!
I’m proud that I can be honest. I’m proud that I can use my voice to discuss depression, because not many people do. And you know what? I raced up the second-tallest building in Los Angeles in 15:38, and I’m proud of that, too.
Keep it up, David.
PS: Tim and Dana – Thank you so much for your generous donations to the American Lung Association. Your support allowed me to participate in this race, and it means so much to me. You’re the best!