The 10th annual Los Angeles Fight For Air Climb was on Saturday, and I was ready to go. I even had my personal mantra written on my arm.
The ‘PR’ stands for personal record, and the ‘ER’ stands for emergency room. And since I had no intention of going to the ER, my only choice was to accomplish the personal record. And how would I do that? By climbing the third-tallest building in Los Angeles faster than I’ve ever climbed it before.
It’s the Aon Center, and there’s 63 stories from the sidewalk to the roof. This was my sixth consecutive year participating in this event, benefiting the American Lung Association, and to get my PR meant getting to that roof faster than I did it in all of those previous years.
(Click on any of the years to read the recap from that race.)
My time to beat was 15:14, from three years ago, and I wanted this PR so badly, partly because I hadn’t gotten one in the past two years, and partly for another reason I’ll get into later.
Focusing on a PR can be helpful and problematic. It’s always good to have a goal, and when I’ve raced a building before, getting a PR is the only goal I have. On the other hand, I easily psych myself out, and fixating on a number can mess with my mental game during a race. Overthinking things can create mental obstacles that I don’t need in a stairwell, as stair racing is plenty difficult already, thank you very much.
So I approached this race with two things in mind:
- My ‘PR or ER’ mantra, which reminded me of my goal, but in a lighthearted, silly way.
- I gave myself permission to relieve any pressure that my PR goal might put on my shoulders. I thought back to my US Bank Tower race last year, where I literally didn’t give two shits, because I was fresh off an injury and way under-trained… and ended up scoring my second-fastest time! I learned that not caring, oddly enough, could be an effective strategy.
It’s hard not to get nervous, though, and the butterflies in my stomach were multiplying as I warmed-up and stretched in the plaza by the start line, and glanced upward at the monolithic building I would soon be climbing.
Plus, this event was held in the evening, for the first time ever. So instead of waking up early and getting it over with by 8 or 9am, I had all day to fixate, until my 5:15pm start time. Luckily, by the time my nerves had escalated in the minutes before the race began, I was surrounded by friends and there were plenty of distractions to keep me from going crazy.
The race itself went smoothly and was rather uneventful. I restrained myself from going all out at the beginning, and focused on double-stepping and making effective, hand-rail-assisted turns on the landings.
Somewhere in the middle a blond woman passed me, and I kept her in my sights the rest of the way, working hard to keep up with her, only catching glimpses of her, one floor up, as I turned the corners. (Afterward, I told her I was trying to keep up, and she told me she was doing everything she could to stay ahead.)
I started paying close attention to my body around the 40th floor. By this point, everything was aching and pounding and screaming, which is typical, and I know how to push through it. But it was at this point last year that my entire torso flamed up, a thick innertube of horrendous cramps around my midsection that made it hard to breathe, making me afraid that I wouldn’t be able to finish – although I eventually did. And those cramps stayed away this year, and I kept climbing.
The final ten floors are kinda hazy in my memory, but I made it onto the roof, a panting and sweaty mess, and I was so exhausted and achy that I could barely stand up. I remember leaning on a railing, and stumbling, like a drunk, past a paramedic, who reached out a hand in assistance. I pushed it away, unable to vocalize a ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ sentiment, and instead wandered to an open area, where I buckled over and ended up lying on my back, staring at the sky.
Only then did I realize I had forgotten to stop my watch at the finish line, so I reached over, pressed the button, and looked at the number. HOLY SHIT. I had my PR, even with the stumbling and the buckling and the staring added in! My watch showed a 20-second PR. My official time, which I’d get later, would be even greater. I felt like screaming, except I physically couldn’t.
My heart stopped racing after a couple minutes, and my breathing returned to a more normal state, and I was able to stand. My friend Madeleine happened to captured that moment on camera.
One look at the view caused all the uncomfortable aches and pains to go away. I enjoyed every single second at this vantage point, the entire city unfurling below me, stretching in all directions towards mountains and ocean and hundreds of endless suburbs.
Madeleine also snapped a nice photo of me in the stairwell – the stairwell that leads to the elevator back down.
I was already celebrating my PR in the lobby as I waited for the official results to get posted, and when they did, my knees almost gave out. My time was 14:30 – a full 44 seconds faster than any previous time. A FORTY-FOUR SECOND PR!
And I still wasn’t done. A few of us entered the stairwell a second time for a casual climb. That’s me, Christine, Jeff, and Patrick:
We entered at precisely 6:50, giving us ample time to make it up the stairs for a special event… sunset. And we made it.
Seeing the sun disappear behind the Santa Monica mountain was breathtaking. And I had a unicorn moment!
Maybe I grew a horn… or maybe it’s the spire from the building across the way.
I took a moment, back down on the street, to fully absorb the magnitude of what I had accomplished. I haven’t mentioned the other reason I really wanted this PR, but I will right now: because this race marked my fifth anniversary in the sport, and I wanted…. no, needed to commemorate that with a big win. And that’s exactly what I did.
Five years! Man, does time fly. It was at this very event in 2012 that I raced up a stairwell for the very first time, terrified by the task at hand. It took me another year to get hooked, but those hooks got me good, and I haven’t looked back.
This race, in 2014, marked my 20th stair race, and now, two years later, I’m proud to share that this race marked my 45th stair race. I’ve raced in 17 different cities, in 25 different venues, and to say this sport has become a major part of my life is an understatement.
But wait – the data doesn’t stop there! I went back through my files and notes, and added up all the stories I’ve climbed during those races. Ready for that total?
It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around what 4,179 stories looks like, except for that it’s tall. Very tall. But figure an average of 10 feet per story, and that’s nearly 42,000 feet of total vertical gain. I’ve raced nearly 8 vertical miles!
(Update: My friend Stan corrected me, saying that the average height per floor is closer to 13′, which puts my total vertical gain at 54,327 vertical feet, or 10.3 vertical miles!)
To put that in perspective, consider this: most commercial jets are prohibited by the FAA from flying higher than 40,000 feet (and most flights don’t exceed 35-38k feet).
Which means that the next time I’m on an airplane, I can look out the window, imagine a staircase connecting the plane with the earth way down below, and know that I’ve climbed EVEN HIGHER. Add in the thousands of flights I’ve climbed during my training sessions and other workouts, and I’m probably well on my way to the International Space Station!
And all that began five years ago, at the Aon Center, when I felt like a tiny little ant compared to the monster rising up next to me.
This little ant has vanquished that monster, again and again and again. This little ant has proved he’s mighty, he’s strong, and that he’s capable of extraordinary things. This little ant goes hunting for new monsters to conquer. This little ant can’t wait for the next battle.
Keep it up, David!
Sending a heartfelt thank you to Felise and Lori, who made very generous donations to the American Lung Association on my behalf, allowing me the opportunity to participate this year. I’m so grateful!
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