I was lying on the carpet, unable to move. Pain and fatigue pulsed through my body, and every limb felt heavy, like I was being pressed into the floor. A woman appeared, looking down at me. “Are you finished?” I nodded, and she disappeared, only to return a few seconds later, ripping open a little plastic pouch with her teeth. She pulled a gorgeous multi-colored medal from the pouch, and I reached up, slowly, and took it from her. I pushed a few words out, in between gasps for air: “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” She laughed and walked away, and as I rested the medal on my chest, my vision suddenly got cloudy. My eyes were filling with tears, and I started sobbing, nearly 500 feet above the Dallas sidewalk.
* * * * * * * * * *
Before I begin this recap of my experiences at the Dallas Vert Mile, I want to remind everyone reading this that you are stronger than you think. When it comes to your abilities and goals, ignore those that say you can’t, and go get it done.
I’m surrounded with supportive, loving people, but my strongest naysayer has always been me. I have a history of struggling with self-doubt and low self-esteem. One of the reasons I love stair races is that they help me prove, again and again, that I am capable of extraordinary things.
While I relish sharing these races with all of you, who I’m proving it to is myself. I need these memories burned into my bones for the next time I catch myself thinking that I’m not good enough, not worthy, or a failure. I thrive on new accomplishments not only because they feel incredible in the moment, but because they’ll come in handy when I struggle. I know those struggles lie ahead, shadows darkening my path forward, and stair races provide a bright light that can vanquish those shadows.
I competed in the Dallas Vert Mile on Saturday, and now I have the brightest light yet.
The Dallas Vert Mile is a monster of a stair race. The objective is to race up the Reunion Tower 12 times. Whoever can do it the fastest wins. Why 12? Because the stairwell is 470 feet tall, so climbing it 12 times means you’ve climbed the equivalent of one vertical mile.
The Reunion Tower is 50 stories tall. It was cloaked in darkness when I arrived, a few minutes past 5am.
The center column houses the stairwell, and the two outer, narrower columns are elevator shafts. (There’s a third elevator shaft that you can’t see from this angle.)
We were allowed two and a half hours to complete our 12 climbs, and two and a half hours is a helluva long time to climb stairs. I’ve done three races that involved one hour of continuous climbing (in Denver, Minneapolis, and Springfield), and I did a two-hour race in San Diego twice (recaps here and here), but never 2.5 hours.
I felt confident that I’d be able to finish eight climbs before time was up, and climbing nine would an achievement. My buddy Dan told me a week prior that I would definitely do all 12, and I refused to believe him. I was even quoted, in a little article about me on Facebook, saying that I probably wouldn’t complete all 12.
To say I was nervous would be the understatement of the year. I was petrified.
What helped calm my nerves was that my friends were everywhere. This is the second year the Dallas Vert Mile was being held, and it already had gained a reputation for being one of the best races in the country, so enthusiasts from coast to coast were there. I’m friends with two or three dozen of my competitors.
I wanted a photo of the entrance to the stairwell, but what I got was a photo of my friend Jason looking like a badass.
Here’s how the race worked: We climbed 807 stairs, divided between 56 flights. We wore timing chips, so only our time in the stairwell would count towards our final time. Once at the top, a man outside the stairwell door pointed us either left or right to the next elevator. There was a table with water, gatorade, fruit, and Clif bars. I left, on a separate table, a little bag that held extra gum (which I chew during races to keep my mouth from drying out) and packets of energy gels.
The elevator took us down one floor lower than the stairwell entrance, so we had to cover about 40 feet, then go up two flights on a grand staircase in the lobby (I called these the ‘bonus stairs’ because climbing them didn’t count towards our time), the go another 40 feet to the stairwell entrance. There was a second table around the corner, in the lobby, with water, Gatorade and fruit.
In addition, our first climb up the stairs would count towards a separate event, the Sprint – a race to see who had the fastest time for one climb. Our first climbs would be compared against those who had signed up for the 1/2 mile event, the 1/4 mile event, and those who just signed up for the sprint.
My strategy was to stay consistent, start slow, and never stop moving. I knew in order to get eight climbs in, I wouldn’t be able to take breaks above and beyond being in the elevator and waiting for it to arrive. That meant jogging to each elevator, and jogging out of it, and running up the bonus stairs after every lap.
Here I am after two climbs:
The great thing about the elevator is that one side is all glass, so we had spectacular views on the way down. It was still dark when the race began, and the city was highlighted by the changing colors of the LED lights in the elevator. Sometimes everything was blue…
…and other times green.
Soon, though, the sun came up, and all of Dallas glistened in the morning light.
Looking back, I felt really good throughout the entire race, and that’s pretty remarkable. And by that I mean that I found a maintainable rhythm, double-stepped as much as possible, kept a consistent pace, and stayed positive. Physically, it was brutal. Fatigue, pain, and exhaustion sets in pretty early when you’re climbing stairs, but I expected that to happen, and was ready for it. I’m used to the aching legs, the searing lungs, the pounding heart. There were times that I felt my sides cramp up a little bit, but by that point everything was throbbing, so I barely noticed it.
I did notice that, during the second half of the race, the arches in my feet were especially achy, which was new to me. I quickly realized it was because I was often landing on the next step on my arch. I tried my best to get my heels on each step, but it wasn’t easy with my size 13 feet, while everything hurt, and while trying to maintain a certain speed.
And have I mentioned that the stairwell was open, so you could see all the way down? Spectacular!
Thirty minutes in, I realized that all the fastest folks had a different strategy than me. Whereas I couldn’t spare any extra minutes, these men and women knew they’d finish 12 climbs with plenty of time to spare, so they were taking longer breaks in between each climb – sometimes five or six minutes – in order to complete each climb as fast as possible.
At first I was jealous of their ability to take longer breaks, and annoyed that they were passing me on every single one of my climbs, but before long I went back to respecting and admiring their athletic ability. These guys had been my role models for years, and I was witnessing both their strength and strategy in action. I cheered them on when they passed, and they encouraged me as well.
I definitely wanted to capture, on camera, a selfie after my eighth climb. But I didn’t have enough fingers to hold up and take the selfie, so I had to borrow three of my friend Larry’s fingers:
I get to a point, during these long races, where smiling hurts, because even the muscles in my face are achy. But that’s a big wide smile, because I had finished eight laps with about 40 minutes left. It was on this elevator that it started dawning on me that completing all 12 climbs was possible.
That realization provided a huge boost, and just when I needed it. My clothes were drenched with sweat. My legs felt like jelly. My entire chest was on fire. But goddamn it, I can keep going!
The rules state that if you enter the stairwell before the 2.5 hour mark hits, you can finish that climb and it will count. I started my 12th climb with about 10 minutes to spare. I was so utterly spent by that time that I used the 12th climb to celebrate. I had achieved something I didn’t think I could do. I chatted with other climbers, and climbed slowly. The organizers had made a motivational sign for every climber, and I couldn’t resist a selfie with mine.
The celebration started in the stairs, but the magnitude of what I had done really hit afterwards, while I was collapsed on the carpet, and that’s what brought on the tears that I mentioned at the start of this post.
It may have been an ugly cry, but they were happy tears. I let my pride envelop me, and thought about how far I had come. I thought about my workouts, and the time and energy I had spent keeping myself in a near-constant state of readiness for races that I do almost every month. Every minute I spent exercising was time well spent.
Mostly, though, I thought about how strong I had become, and how I’m stronger than I ever thought I could be. I told myself to focus on this feeling, this moment, and these tears, because the next time the shadows start to fall, I’ll need a bright light to keep them away, and I had never felt so luminescent.
And then I enjoyed a phenomenal view.
Let’s dig into some numbers!
Let’s start with the obvious one: 12 climbs up 50 stories equals 600 total stories raced. In one morning! This blows my previous record of 360 stories out of the water. In total, I climbed 9,684 steps, which beats my previous record of 7,596. (There’s a good chance that if I added in the bonus steps, I’d come extremely close to hitting 10,000. But I can’t add in the bonus steps, because I never counted how many there were!)
Here are my times for my 12 climbs:
- Climb 1: 7:30
- Climb 2: 8:55
- Climb 3: 8:46
- Climb 4: 9:31
- Climb 5: 9:29
- Climb 6: 9:49
- Climb 7: 9:57
- Climb 8: 10:08
- Climb 9: 10:38
- Climb 10: 11:44
- Climb 11: 11:55
- Climb 12: 15:06
Here’s some more number-crunching:
- It took me 2:34:58 to complete all 12 climbs, including elevators. My actual time in the stairwell was 2:03:28. Over two hours of climbing stairs!
- My breaks, in between climbs, averaged under 3 minutes. 3 minutes to get on an elevator, travel down 50 stories, make it down two hallways and up two flights of bonus stairs.
- 113 people competed in the Vert Mile. I finished 79th. I finished 60th among men (out of 75), and 14th (out of 16) in my age group (men 30-39).
- My first climb, which I did in 7:30, was also counted in the Sprint event. For the Sprint, I finished 75th out of 391 total participants – top 20%! I also finished 53rd (out of 185) among men, and 15th (out of 44) in my age group.
- My average heart rate for the entire event, including breaks, was 151 bpm. My maximum heart rate, likely reached during my first climb, was 175. I burned 1,999 calories – how awesome would it have been had I burned exactly one more?
Another nice touch was that there were volunteers at the top, passing out stickers for your bib, so you could keep track of your climbs. I normally don’t keep my race bibs, but I’ll definitely be holding on to this one!
A went to lunch with friends after the race, a couple blocks away. I saw the Reunion Tower for the last time after lunch, as I got into a Lyft, and I got chills. The memory of what I did, with my very own two legs, was so very vivid then, as it is now, and as it will be, for a long time to come.
Keep it up, David!
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