An Insider’s Guide to One of the Hardest Stair Races Around, From a Guy That’s Survived it Twice

When it’s come to athletic endeavors, I’ve spent most of my life with an “I can’t” mentality. That’s the sort of thinking that accompanies morbid obesity, and I used to weigh over 400 pounds. Thoughts like “there’s no way I’m fit or strong enough to do XYZ” where pretty commonplace.

Now that I’ve lost around 160 pounds and kept it off for over five years, I love doing things that weren’t even a remote possibility when I was heavy. That part of the appeal of stair racing. It’s a brutally challenging sport, and I still get overwhelmed after a stair race with a wave of emotions, a mixture of shock, disbelief, and pride.

On Saturday, I competed in the San Diego TOWERthon, and it didn’t end with a wave of emotions. Instead, I was hit by a tsunami of empowering feelings that, days later, still has me choked up.

Me and my bib – lucky number 161!

The TOWERthon is a beast of an event, where you are challenged to climb the stairs to the top of a 20-story building as many times as possible in two hours. That’s 120 minutes of nearly non-stop stair climbing – excluding elevator time to get back down – and if that sounds like a terrible way to spend a Saturday morning… well, I used to think that, too. Not anymore.

The venue for this self-inflicted torture is 550 Corporate Center in downtown San Diego.


It’s a baby of a building, compared to other skyscrapers I’ve raced up, like Willis Tower or One World Trade Center, but because this is a multi-climb event, I end up doing over three times the number of stories that those taller towers contain. This stubby, bay-window-laden, nondescript office building delivers more pain, suffering and exaltation than buildings five times its size.


This was my second time competing in the TOWERthon, which is a fundraiser for Toussaint Academy, the only long-term residential program for homeless teens in San Diego. It’s run by Father Joe’s Villages. The first time, two years ago, was a revelatory experience. It marked a new high for my stair racing career, and my blog post about it remains of my favorites. I was terrified before that race, because I didn’t know what to expect. This time around I was terrified because I knew exactly what was coming.

My goal was to set a personal record: 18 climbs. I was well prepared, eager, and ready to go, but I still felt my stomach sink when I saw the start line for the first time, with the stairs beyond it. I’m pretty sure I gulped – one of those big cartoon gulps, like when Shaggy and Scooby see a ghost for the first time.


Elite, competitive climbers came from all over the country, most of them friends of mine, and I knew these guys would push me, whether they knew it or not.


Climbers came from as far away as Illinois, Texas, Washington, and Mexico – and those are just the guys in this photo!

One climber started every ten seconds, and I started exactly 3 minutes and 10 seconds after the first guy went in. I synced my watch, so I could always look and see how much time was left in my two hours, but I tried not to look as much as possible.

The first half-hour was rough, due to technical difficulties. I felt strong in my climbing, but the elevators started breaking down. After my second climb, three of the four elevators were out of order, leading to waits of six or seven minutes. It was frustrating, because not only could I have done another climb during that time, but it was affecting my momentum. They started letting climbers use the freight elevator, which helped.


The elevator wait times greatly shrunk during the second half hour, not because the elevators were fixed, but because many participants began dropping out, leading to much shorter lines at the top. Often times the elevator was already there when I showed up, or I had to wait a minute or so, tops. The damage was done, though – I had trouble rebounding from the forced breaks after my first few climbs. It was hard to get into a good rhythm.

I wasn’t going to let anything stop me, though, so I kept climbing. I lost track of how many climbs I had done after 5 or 6, and I was thankful for that, because that meant I couldn’t fixate on the numbers and psych myself out. Instead, I focused on the climbing – double-stepping as much as possible, using the handrails, making efficient turns on the landings.

RELATED CONTENT: A Full Archive of ALL My Race Recaps!

My nose started bleeding on the third or fourth climb. This was something I’ve never dealt with before during a race. I’ve been prone to nosebleeds since childhood, and this stairwell, like many stairwells, was hot and dry. Plus, I was forcing lots of air in and out of my nose with every rapid breath, so I wasn’t surprised at all that something ruptured. The nosebleed was slight – I was able to sniffle and keep the blood inside my nose while in the stairwell, and I grabbed a couple napkins once or twice at the top, and blotted it away. I didn’t lose any time, and it went away as abruptly as it started.

You have a lot of time to think during a 2-hour event, and I worked hard to keep myself focused and positive. I gave myself mini-challenges, mostly involving staying ahead of climbers below me, or keeping up with ones that passed me. During one climb, I noticed my buddy Josh gaining on me as I passed the 14th floor. Josh is a stronger, faster climber than I am (he was actually lapping me for the second or third time), but I made a game of it, and pushed myself to make it up the final six floors without letting Josh pass. I won that mini-challenge, but when I tried it again 45 minutes later, I was no match for Josh.

I remember feeling ecstatic when the clock in the lobby said that I was past the halfway point.


Internally, I was beaming from ear to ear, although externally, I was achy and exhausted.

After climbing stairs for an hour, this is what you look like on the outside, no matter how great you feel on the inside.

After climbing stairs for an hour, this is what you look like on the outside, no matter how great you feel on the inside.

By this point, everything was throbbing: my legs, feet, arms, core, heart, lungs. I tried to keep my spirits up by spinning that fact: if everything hurt, did any single thing actually really hurt? (The answer, by the way, is YES.) I was also drenched in sweat. There wasn’t a dry inch of clothing anywhere on my body.

There was no giving in to the discomfort. I kept climbing. I stayed hydrated, drinking 8 ounces of water after every climb. I chewed gum the entire time, which helps prevent my throat from drying out. I ate a couple packets of Gu Roctane, an energy gel that was recommended by a friend. There were also shots of pickle juice at the top, so I took a couple of those, to quickly replenish the sodium I was sweating out.

RELATED CONTENT: Racing Up The Tallest Building in San Diego

During the second half, I felt so worn down and raw that I found myself becoming emotional at the slightest triggers: a lyric in a song on my iPod, a pat on the back by a friend who was passing me, a glance at a floor number that was higher than I was expecting. There were a lot of tears, quickly absorbed by the copious amounts of sweat streaming down my face. I cried because I hurt so badly, then cried when I realized I was strong enough to keep going.

I was practically delirious by the final half hour. The stairwell never seemed to end, and I started to think that maybe it had grown taller, or looped back around on itself, like an M.C. Escher drawing. I was in the elevator when I hit the 100-minute mark, and I calculated that I could do three more climbs in the final 20 minutes. From that point forward, I focused on the countdown. I fought the urge to stop and lean on the walls and kept going.

The final climbs were a blur. I know my friends Jeff and Madeleine were nearby, but we must have gotten separated, because after my final climb, I found myself in an elevator with Josh, and I have no idea where he came from. I collapsed against the elevator wall, panting, and that’s when the emotional tsunami struck, clearing away the delirium and drowning me in an intense swirl of satisfaction, incredulity, agony, and joy. Josh asked how I felt. “There’s too many feelings,” I said, “and I can’t sort them out.” Josh was panting too. “Yea, that sounds right,” he said.

All I wanted to do afterwards was lie down, and I found a good spot outside on the plaza.


There were more tears – happy ones – as I became fixated on one single thought, which I’ll share in a bit. First, though, my results!

My official climb count was 16! I didn’t set a PR, but given the situation with the broken elevators and the knowledge that I couldn’t have pushed myself any harder, I proudly and happily accepted that number.

And I didn’t even mention that, an hour before the 2-hour climb began, there was a one-time sprint race to the top of the building! I didn’t set a PR during that event, either, but I climbed 20 stories in 3 minutes, 11 seconds, and that’s impressive.

So that totals 17 climbs that morning! Here’s more data:

  • 17 climbs = 340 total stories = 7,174 total steps (!)
  • Elevation gain for one climb = 239 feet. Elevation gain for 17 climbs = 4,063 feet. (That’s the equivalent of climbing a building that’s just over 3/4 of a mile tall!)
  • Maximum heart rate: 182 bpm
  • Average heart rate: 163 bpm (!) (This includes both climbing time and elevator time)
  • Calories burned: 2,098
  • Total time spent in the stairwell: 1:32:26 (TOWERthon) + 3:11 (sprint) = 1 hour, 35 minutes, 37 seconds.
  • TOWERthon Overall Finish: 31st place (out of 155)
  • TOWERthon Age Group Finish: 4th (out of 13 – one spot away from getting a medal!)
  • Sprint Overall Finish: 26th place (out of 40)
  • Sprint Age Group Finish: 7th (out of 7 – ha!)

Just as important was seeing so many inspiring, supportive friends – and they kicked ass, too! Lots of friends took home medals, and everyone turned in impressive numbers. My friends Scott and Christine won the TOWERthon, with 27 and 24 climbs, respectively.


Christine won the sprint, too, with a time of 2:19. It was a close race for the men, but my buddy George, whom I’ve hung out with at training sessions for a couple years, squeaked out a surprise win, beating Scott by 3/10ths of a second, finishing in 2:00.6.


George would agree it was a surprise win – he was the most surprised of all! When I congratulated him, his response was: “You. You inspire me.”

And that brings me back to that one thought – the one that consumed me after the race. It dawned to me, that after decades of living with an “I can’t” mentality, I’ve fully embraced something new. “I can’t” has been replaced with “I can”, and believe me, “I can” is a much, much better way to start a sentence. In fact, it’s at the beginning of some of very favorite sentences right now:

I can race up 340 stories in one morning.

I can do things that were once unthinkable.

I can push my limits, go on new adventures, and reap the rewards that come from those efforts.

I can do whatever I put my mind to.

I can live the life I want, and the life I deserve.

I’m so used to following a path full of mental roadblocks and obstacles. But the San Diego TOWERthon will always serve as a compelling reminder that it only takes two words to start clearing away those roadblocks and overcoming those obstacles: I CAN.

Here’s four more words I’m also particularly fond of:

Keep it up, David!

COMING UP IN MY NEXT POST: The surprising source of some unexpected inspiration. Pictures of what helped keep me moving during this arduous event!

If you’d like to donate to Toussaint Academy on my behalf, CLICK HERE.


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11 Responses to An Insider’s Guide to One of the Hardest Stair Races Around, From a Guy That’s Survived it Twice

  1. Rob Murdock says:

    Rock on, David!

  2. Nick says:

    You are an inspiration. Keep it up!

  3. G.M. Grena says:

    You’re 100% correct, David! No way would I be doing so well in the stairwells without inspirational people like you! It’s such a great feeling to see other people working hard to reach rough goals! Thanks for another well-written review of the event! And thanks for the opportunity to publicly acknowledge that Scott’s a much better/faster climber than me, but on this occasion he slacked off for literally 1 heartbeat (a third of a second). So now I’m inspired to work extra-hard over the next 360 days so that I can earn a decisive victory over him next year!

  4. Mom says:

    That was a particularly inspiring post, David. Congratulations to you and all the stair climbers. Who knew people did this as a sport??? WOW

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