There are many reasons why I love competing in stair races, but the very first thing that hooked me was the overwhelming feeling that comes after I cross a finish line – a one-of-a-kind swirl of pride, accomplishment, invincibility, pain and exhaustion. Prior to my involvement in this sport, I had never felt it before, and now I can’t get enough of it. This picture, taken moments after crossing a finish line on Saturday, is the closest I’ve come to capturing that feeling:
Now, when I look at it, I can see every component of that feeling pretty clearly: fatigue and achiness so prevalent that smiling is difficult, eyes that can barely release tears, and the questioning look that is still processing what I had accomplished, what had just happened.
What had happened was that I had just raced up the tallest stairwell in the western hemisphere, and I had done it much faster than I ever could have imagined. And that was just one of many triumphs worth celebrating that morning.
The day began bright and early. It was a foggy, gloomy Chicago morning. It was still kinda dark at 6am, when I arrived at Willis (commonly pronounced ‘Sears’) Tower, and because of the fog, the top of the building couldn’t be seen.
I got chills thinking of the task in front of me: racing up, up, up, higher than the fog, to the top of the second-tallest building in the country.
I was excited and nervous, and wanted to beat my time from 2014, the only other time I’ve done this race, when I finished it in 27 minutes, 49 seconds.
Beating this time would be more challenging that usual. This race is normally 103 stories, from the lobby to the observation deck on the 103rd floor. But because of renovations that were underway in the lobby, this year’s race started two floors underground, in the basement. So I had to climb two extra stories and still finish faster than I did in 2014 to make my goal. Yikes.
There were about two dozen friends at this race – folks I’ve met from doing these races around the country – and catching up and chatting with them helped take my mind off what I was facing.
Soon enough it was my turn to start. I shoved a piece of gum in the back corner of my mouth (so my mouth would salivate, helping it from drying out during the race), cued up my music, and when I got the OK from the line monitor, entered the stairwell.
Willis Tower stairs are steep. Steeper than most other buildings. Between the steepness and overall height, it’s a beast of a race venue. I started my 2014 race way too fast, and the fatigue began way too soon, around the 14th floor. I made sure not to repeat that mistake this time, and started at a pace that seemed unnaturally slow for a race setting. As a result, I was able to climb consistently and efficiently all the way into the 40s, when I first started really struggling.
But I’ve been in this position many times before, and I know how to ignore and push through all the different ways my muscles and organs scream at me to stop.
I hit a second wall when I was around the 70th floor, and pushing through that one was tougher. But I refused to focus on the pain, my pounding heart, or my screaming lungs, and instead focused on counting down the remaining floors, double-stepping as much as possible, and making smart turns on the landings. I surprised myself was how well I persevered, and during the final quarter of the race, it began to really sink in that this race was going really well. Crazy well.
The stairs get narrower near the top of Willis Tower, and the configuration changes, so there’s three flights per floor, instead of the standard two. But I was feeling so good and strong that I didn’t care. The final stretch of floors can be a real slog, but I don’t even remember the last part of this race. I recall stumbling out of the stairwell, getting handed my finisher’s medal, and falling to my hands and knees near a window, and then lying down, face into the carpet, barely able to move but feeling oh-so-good.
After a few minutes, I got to work. My heart rate/timing watch crapped out on me last month, so I couldn’t time myself. But I did know which songs I had listened to during the race, so I scrolled through them and roughly added up the length of each one. My estimate had me finishing in 25 minutes, 30 seconds, give or take about 15 seconds, and that made me gasp. Over two minutes faster than 2014!
My official time brought even better news: I finished in 25:18, giving me a 2 minute, 31 second personal record. The swell of emotions was monumental. And what a place to celebrate – on the observation floor, 1,353 feet above the earth.
Unfortunately, it was still foggy, so there were no views whatsoever. But fog can make for a cool photo!
I’m standing on the Ledge, a glass cube that extends out of the building. You couldn’t even see the street below that morning.
My friend Jason and I recreated a jumping photo that we also took in 2014, and this time around, our friend Josh joined in.
The fog started to clear right before I took the elevator back down, so I got one good photo that illustrates how far I climbed.
But my morning wasn’t over. There was another race that started in an hour, and it was roughly a mile away, in a 58-story skyscraper named 300 North LaSalle. I jogged from Willis to LaSalle, stopping a couple times for photos, like this one, of the second building I was climbing.
I’ve raced up this building before, also in 2014, although the races were on different days that year. The race is called the Chicago CF Climb, benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and there’s 58 stories between the start and finish lines.
I had no idea what to expect going into this race, because I had never done it after already racing the Willis Tower. I would give it my all, like I always do, but if I didn’t set a PR, I’d be fine, because competing in back-to-back races is enough of an accomplishment. I wore bib #42 at LaSalle, and it was a positively strange moment pinning a bib to an already sweat-soaked shirt.
And I was in good company: most of my two dozen friends were also doing both races, so there was a sense of deja vu when we lined up in the corridor at LaSalle.
My friend Karen was in line behind me, and we’re pretty evenly matched, time-wise. “It would be great if we could do this whole climb together,” she said, which would be great – because having someone to push you and pace you is a huge help.
And for two-thirds of the race, that’s what happened. I led during the first half, but Karen eventually passed me, and I kept up for 10 stories or so, before she really increased her lead. I could still hear her cheering me on, even when she was out of sight, and it was so helpful. She knew where I was because I’ve developed a habit of screaming mid-race. A single, loud scream every 10 floors or so, and every time I do it, it feels great. It happens because I feel so tightly wound and fatigued during the second half of races, and a good scream provides a release, and that release brings a burst of power that energizes me to keep going. I don’t fully understand it, but it works for me, and I’ll keep doing it if I need to. (A friend told me at the top of Willis that he always knew where I was thanks to the screaming, too!)
This race ends in a windowless storage room, but I found a corner where I could lie down. I also discovered how great it felt to sit down directly in front of the big industrial fan.
Once my heart rate lowered, I estimated my time using my iPod, like I did at Willis, and once again, my jaw hit the floor. I estimated my time to be a little over 12 minutes, which would equal a PR of over one minute. My official time confirmed it: I finished in 12:18, or 1 minute, 18 seconds faster than my 2014 time.
The big picture: Between the two races, I clocked nearly four minutes in PRs – 3 minutes, 49 seconds to be exact. Even better, these performances confirm something I’ve been suspecting for a couple weeks: I think I’m in the best shape of my life right now. I’ve been training hard and eating well, and it’s paying off.
And how’s this for a milestone? The Willis Tower race was my 49th stair race… and 300 North LaSalle was my 50th. I would never have imagined, when I signed up for my very first race, that this would become a driving force in my life, or that I would seek out races all over the country, competing a dozen times a year. For that matter, just a few years ago I wouldn’t have predicted that I would continue to get stronger and faster and better.
But I’ve done it. I’ve squashed my self-doubt, embraced my inner athlete, exceeded my own expectations, and become a force to be reckoned with. And it’s absolutely thrilling.
Keep it up, David!
A giant thank you to Sandie, who single-handedly covered my fundraising needs for the Chicago CF Climb. And giant thank yous to Anne and Lillian, Ann, Janet, Dana, Karen, and Joe and Joanne, who all contributed to my fundraising for SkyRise Chicago. I couldn’t have these experiences without help from my very generous donors, and I never ever forget that.
Follow me! I’m @keepitupdavid on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, and I’m on Google+ too! There’s also a “Sign Me Up” box on this page (at the top of the right-hand column) where you can subscribe to receive new posts via email!