Wanna see a picture of a man pushing himself to his absolute physical limit?
I was about four steps from the finish line of Scale the Strat when this photo was taken. And those four steps hurt. Every part of my body hurt. What you’re looking at is my determination to power through the exhaustion, despite my aching muscles, my lungs begging for oxygen, and my heart, pounding in overdrive to send blood through my body.
What you don’t see in that photo is the nearly 1,400 steps I had already climbed!
Scale the Strat is the annual race up the stairs in the Stratophere, an event that raised $300,000 for the American Lung Association. This was the tenth year, and my third time participating. The Stratosphere is the tallest structure in Las Vegas, and the tallest observation tower in the US. It’s hard to miss!
They like to say that the Stratosphere is 108 stories, although the step count in the stairwell is similar to other buildings in the 60-65 story range.
The race was bright and early, and I walked over from my hotel at 6:45 am, giving me ample time to warm-up and stretch before my 7:45 am wave – the first wave of the day. There was a DJ getting everyone pumped, and cheerleaders from UNLV (I think?) to cheer us on as we lined up.
Two things to notice in that picture:
- Check out my new Bowflex shirt. Bowflex sponsored me for this race, and I’m proud to wear their name across my chest. They are a fantastic company and I use their equipment all the time to stay in shape and get prepared for mornings just like this one.
- I’m wearing leggings under my shorts! The leggings are new to me, and this was the first time I had worn a pair for a race. They’re cold weather leggings, purchased for my upcoming Eiffel Tower race, which will be outdoors, at night, in Paris, in March. I’m glad I broke them in at this race, because Las Vegas was unseasonably cold that morning: 39 degrees when I walked over from my hotel.
For this race, you’re assigned a starting time, and line up with everyone in that wave outside the tower. You’re not allowed to bring anything in the stairwell – no phones, cameras, or ear buds – so security guards pass a metal detector wand over everyone, before bringing the entire wave into the building and up about eight flights of stairs, to an interior hallway that has access to the main tower stairwell. Then we line up in the hall and await our turn to climb the rest of the way, with one person entering the stairwell every 15 or 20 seconds.
I was warmed up and ready to go when we were lined up in the hall, but due to technical difficulties with the timing equipment, we had to wait about 30 minutes before we could go. It crossed my mind that all the waiting could adversely affect my race, because it’s hard to stay warmed up in a crowded hallway, but I stayed positive and put it out of my head, because there was nothing I could do. Plus, I’d rather wait and get an accurate time than go prematurely and not get a time at all!
The first wave of climbers include many of the fastest people in the country, and many friends of mine, and many people that fall in both categories. This race is billed as the National Championship, so people come from far and wide. I was near the end of the pack, and my friend Madeleine started 20 seconds before me. After lots of waiting, it was time to move.
The Stratosphere’s stairwell is not easy. The flights, for most of it, have 20 steps instead of a more standard 10-12. If you’re afraid of heights or claustrophobic, skip this one, because you can look over the rail and see all the way down, and there’s no place to bail out. I hated the stairwell the first time I did this race, but now that I know what to expect, I can handle it.
I thought I had shown some restraint in the beginning of my race, but I caught up to Madeleine, who, generally speaking, is faster than me, after 8-10 flights. She encouraged me to pass her, but I hung back, and knowing her to be a very steady, consistent climber, stayed about 6 steps behind and kept her pace for 2/3rds of the tower. Staying on her tail for that long was a challenge, and it definitely pushed me. I quickly realized that any mistake with my footwork or turns on the landings would push me further behind, so I really focused on climbing with proper form. (Afterwards, Madeleine told me that having me on her tail really pushed her, too.)
Madeleine’s pace proved to be a little too fast for me towards the end, and the gap between us grew during the final third of the race, to the point where I couldn’t see her, but I could still hear her. She’s vocal in the stairwell, and I’m becoming more vocal, too. I wrote in my Chicago double header recap that I’ve taken to occasional screaming in the stairwell, and this race required a lot of screaming. They’re deep, guttural sounds, and I find it to be a welcome release at a time when limbs are hurting and fatigue is starting to overwhelm every molecule in my body.
You cross the hall and enter a new stairwell once you reach the beginning of the pod, and the final 14 flights are in a more standard stairwell. I could hear myself gaining on Madeleine, but couldn’t quite catch up. But I buckled down during those final flights, committed to finishing strong, crossed the finish line, and quickly found a place to lie down, my legs shaking from the exertion.
They had oxygen tanks up there, so once my heart settled down, I sat for a couple minutes taking nice deep breaths with an oxygen mask on.
The second wave of the morning was the firefighter wave, and they all climbed in full gear: heavy boots, tanks, helmets, and thick, non-breathable clothing – 50-60 extra pounds in all. I watched many of them cross the finish line, in awe of their strength and abilities.
I hung out on top for a good long time, comparing race performances with friends, and soaking in the view. I knew a lot of people at this race, and we all gathered for a group photo.
And, of course, there was the view. It was a beautiful, clear, bright morning. Glorious!
A couple men came up and introduced themselves, and told me how much they appreciated this very website. One guy – I forgot his name – expressed gratitude for my shining a spotlight on this sport, and it choked me up. “I’m just trying the best I can,” I told him, “and I’m humbled and honored that you, and others, get something out of reading it.”
I had two goals for this race. To set a personal record, which meant finishing in less than 12 minutes, 43 seconds (my time from 2016), and to have a strong, positive, reaffirming experience. This was my last race before I race up Eiffel Tower, and I want to arrive in Paris feeling on top of my game, and having a great performance in Vegas would help a lot.
My official time was 13:02. That’s 19 seconds slower than my fastest time, but you know what? It’s awesome. I’m confident I couldn’t have had a better race in that stairwell. I did everything I could. My technique was on point, and I finished knowing there was no extra fuel in the tank. I gave everything I had, and that was my only job.
Some more fun facts:
- I finished 84th overall (out of 847 participants) – that’s top ten percent! In 2016 I was in the top 15%, so even though my time was slower, I’m still moving on up!
- I finished 60th out of 352 men.
- I finished 18th out of 96 in my division (men 30-39).
And if that seems like enough for the day, you’re wrong. A few hours after the race, I headed out with two friends to climb more stairs, and our adventure was magnificent. I’ll share all the details – and some kick-ass photos – in my next post!
Keep it up, David!
Another huge hug to Sandee, who very generously donated to the American Lung Association so that I could participate in this climb. I use the word ‘another’ because Sandee also donated to my last race, in Portland. Thank you, Sandee!