I teased, in my last post, that the stair race I did on Sunday was in an iconic, landmark building, and I didn’t lie. Recognize this 100-story beast?
Did you guess the John Hancock Center in Chicago? Pat yourself on the back! If you don’t recognize it from that angle, you’ll probably recognize it now:
With 100 stories, the Hancock is the 8th tallest building in the US. When it was finished in 1969, it was the second-tallest building in the world, after the Empire State Building.
This is my favorite photo, because it makes the building seem the most menacing and unconquerable (from a stair racing perspective):
Hustle Up The Hancock is the annual stair race here. This was the 20th year. It attracts over 4,000 athletes every year, and is a fundraiser for the Respiratory Health Association, bringing in over a million smackers. Whoa.
This race has been on my radar for a couple years, but two things have prevented me from coming in the past: scheduling conflicts, and the fact that it’s so popular it sells out, and quickly! This year it all came together, and I’ve been excited to tackle this landmark, so I can add it to my list of iconic structures I’ve raced in, alongside Willis Tower, One World Trade Center, the Space Needle, and the Stratosphere.
While the building has 100 stories, the race is only to the the 94th floor, home to the 360 Chicago observation deck. Only – ha! 94 stories is a lot!
I was scheduled to start at 11:45am, and that was fantastic news. I had raced up 217 stories in Minneapolis just the day before, and then flown to Chicago, so I would be able to get a good night’s sleep without having to get up before dawn to make it to a 7am start time.
Hustle Up The Hancock is a well-oiled machine. They distribute lots of information in advance so you know where to go and how things will work, because the crowds on race day are so large that it can make finding your way around confusing.
My 11:45 wave consisted of a couple hundred people, and I positioned myself well, so when they opened the line, I ended up being first. That was strategic on my part. If there was any gap between my wave and the prior wave, than the stairwell would be a little less crowded, and that was something I could take advantage of as I climbed.
When I entered the line, I passed a sign saying to expect a 30-minute wait, because the line snaked around the basement floor, then went up to the street level lobby, then down another hall, around the corner, and over to the elevator bank. It turns out there was a huge gap, so much so that a race organizer frantically ushered us straight to the starting line. My 30-minute wait ended up being about five minutes. I was caught off guard by this, and let a couple others go before me, so I had a few seconds to adjust my earbuds and gloves and prep my heart rate monitor and watch.
And then…. it was go time. I had been worried that I’d be achy and sore from Saturday’s hour-long climbing fiesta, but I was surprisingly limber and not sore, and I started the 94-story climb feeling really good. I quickly passed the three people that I let start before me, and then had the stairwell all to myself for the next 15 stories.
That’s when I started catching up to the slowest people in the wave before me, and passing them. This was my first race in a long time where I wasn’t in a competitive heat, and I’m not gonna lie – passing people provides a mental boost that helps fuel me to keep going.
But the people I was passing inspired me so much. I passed people of all ages and sizes, including a few that probably had the same BMI as I did when I was at my heaviest. I cannot express how happy I was to see them in the stairwell, doing something that I would never ever have done at that weight. I smiled at every single one, and flashed thumbs up when I could. (It was a race, after all, I wasn’t going to stop and chat!)
When I started slowing down, around the 35th floor or so, when the fatigue from Saturday’s race really set in, it was seeing these racers that kept me going. I thought about my own journey, about how fear of failure had stagnated me at 402 pounds, and how scared I was to take the first steps towards building a healthier life.
And here I was, seven years later, 160 pounds lighter, and a veteran in a sport so utterly, back-breakingly difficult that many people I explain it to can’t believe it’s real. I’ve been those people I passed in the stairwell. I’ve walked in their shoes. Except I haven’t… because they’re much braver than I was at that weight.
So I kept climbing. I kept climbing because my first steps ultimately led me here, led me to the belly of this American landmark, led me to all sorts of amazing places I never could have predicted, and the only way I knew how to honor that journey was to not give up, never give up, keep climbing, keep pushing until I had nothing more to give, until I left every last watt of energy from my body in that stairwell.
I kept climbing for ME, because I’m worth all the hard work, the devotion, the sacrifices I’ve made to get and stay healthy. And I climbed for YOU, to show you that the fears, self-doubts and reservations that we share aren’t permanent. They don’t need to be anchors. You may not end up becoming a tower runner, but taking those first steps can led you to amazing places, even if you don’t know yet where they are.
After 40-something repetitive floors, the stairwell changed. The floors got shorter – from 20 steps per floor to 15. This was a welcome change for a tired stair climber, because the floor numbers flew by faster. To be honest, much of this race is a blur, even though I remember my body being ablaze with fatigue, and my legs feeling heavier after every flight.
I remember thinking I could muster a sprint up the final five floors, so I tried turning up the juice at the 89th floor. Then, the 90th floor ended up being twice as tall as the ones that preceded it, and my sprint dissipated in a cloud of complete weariness and sweat.
I reclaimed my sprint as I turned on the 93rd floor landing. There, a few steps in front of me, was another climber, and I decided in that instant that I needed to pass him. I flew up the final two flights, passing the guy four steps from the top. I blasted across the finish line, and staggered around until I found a place to sit down.
And then it hit me. It all hit me. I was slammed with so many overwhelming thoughts, concurrently, that I broke down. I just climbed 311 floors in one weekend. I’m 94 stories above the sidewalk, and MY FEET brought me here. I got here in 19 minutes and 22 seconds – much faster that I ever could have imagined. But most of all, I’m here, in this moment, right now, because I’m strong, I work hard, and I did it. The tears mixed with the sweat; my body shuddered from emotion and twitched with pain.
And then I looked up, and saw the view. Man, the view. It was a crystal clear day, and from that height, beyond the forest of skyscrapers, you could see the curvature of the earth.
I earned this view!
A close-up of the finisher’s medal:
A long way to the ground:
Lake Michigan, a calm, never-ending field of blues and greens:
A selfie in the mirrored ceiling:
I stayed on the observation deck for nearly an hour, soaking up the experience, and promising myself not to forget. Not to forget what I did this morning, what I’ve done with my life, how I’ve taken control of my health. I left that John Hancock Center feeling as strong and unwavering as the building I had just climbed.
Keep it up, David!
Another thank you goes to my friend Anne, who made a very generous donation to the Respiratory Health Association on my behalf. You’re the best, Anne!
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