16 minutes and 17 seconds. That’s how long it took me to race up all the stairs in the Eiffel Tower.
16 minutes and 17 seconds, during which I smiled, sweated, screamed, cried, and pushed myself as hard as I could go, and then even harder.
This wasn’t just another stair race. This felt like an event I’ve been working towards for eight years; a destination that I was always meant to reach, even though I didn’t even know it was on the horizon until a few months ago.
The race was La Verticale de la Tour Eiffel – the Eiffel Tower Vertical. It’s one of the most prestigious stair races in the world, and this year’s event was being broadcast live on Facebook. (You can still watch the broadcast – keep reading for more info.)
Just being able to compete was an honor – nearly 800 people applied for a bib, and 129 were selected, including yours truly. (Read about the application and selection process in this post.)
I’ve been excited and nervous for the race ever since I was notified that I got in, roughly two months ago. Not all those feelings were positive, but I came up with a way of addressing the negative ones. By the time race day came, only good nerves remained – the ones that reminded me that this was important to me, and that I wanted to do well.
The staging area for the race was at a sports complex a couple blocks away, in a big tent erected next to a running track. It was here that we got our jerseys (I was assigned bib 73), timing chips, and start times, and listened to an informational briefing.
Two friends came along, Jen and Katherine, and it was great having them there.
I also hung out with Sally, the only American woman selected to compete.
You can also see how comically small and ill-fitting my jersey was – apparently a French XL is a lot smaller than a US XL. It looked like a crop top. Katherine, a marathoner who is a solid foot shorter than me, joked that it looked like I had borrowed her bib.
I met a few other climbers, including a couple European guys who introduced themselves to me, recognizing me from my Facebook posts. (!)
The race started at 8pm, with the first wave of runners, the non-elite men, starting one every 30 seconds from 8:00-8:43. Then, after a 7-minute pause, all the women started, one every 30 seconds, with the fastest elite women going last. Finally, after another 7-minute pause, all the elite men started, one minute apart, with the last racer entering the stairwell close to 10pm.
I was scheduled to start at 8:43pm, and I was geeked about that timeslot. I was literally going to be the last racer before a seven-minute break, which meant there was almost no chance of someone passing me. The Eiffel stairs get incredibly narrow, making passing difficult, so not having anyone coming up on me meant one less potential thing to think about.
We walked over to the tower a little before 8pm, and went through airport-style security. The tower was glowing with yellow light, and while I had seen it, in person, each of the prior two days, something felt different on race day. I stared up at it, knowing that it housed 1,665 steps, and while I knew that number will never change, it still seemed taller, more imposing, more daunting.
I wasn’t allowed to have anything with me when I raced: no cameras, phones, headphones. I gave my phone to Katherine. She and Jen were going to plant themselves in the crowd at the start line, and take photos when it was my turn. It was cold – around 48 degrees Fahrenheit – but there was still an electricity in the air. Everyone was buzzing, angling for a better view of the start line, as the commentators, speaking in French, introduced each climber.
There was a fenced off area for the athletes, and I entered it around 8:15. There were bikes and ellipticals that you could use to warm up on, and I jumped on an elliptical for about five minutes, just to get my blood flowing and muscles loose. (It would have been great to have my Bowflex Max Trainer, but the elliptical did the job.) I could see, one by one, racers head up to the stage where the start line was. There was an eruption of applause every 30 seconds, and the air was filled by the amplified, enthusiastic, booming voices of the commentators.
Then I started stretching. It had rained earlier that day, and the ground was still wet, but I was down on my hands and knees doing some hip stretches when a guy came over to me. “Number 73, you’re from the United States, yes? Would you mind coming over so I can interview you?”
It was a live interview, and as the correspondent waited for his cue, he looked down and reviewed his notes. I could see that he had info on a handful of racers, including me, and while I couldn’t read what it said (it was in French), it was clear that he, his producer, and his cameraman were hanging out in the pre-race area, looking for specific people to interview that they had targeted as having stories worth sharing. And I was on that list!
When he got his cue, he did an intro in French, and then switched to English and asked me about my weight loss. I honestly don’t remember what I said. It lasted a minute or two, they thanked me, and even though I was feeling pretty high from that experience, the clock was still ticking, and I hadn’t finished stretching. Back to my race prep!
I entered the tent behind the start line five minutes before my scheduled start. (You’re not allowed to enter it before then.) I no longer felt any nervousness at all. I was here. I was ready. There was nothing I could do now but climb.
I watched the athletes ahead of me as they headed to the start line, and I took in the enormity of it all. I had done over 50 stair races before, but none were televised. None had this level of organization or execution. There were cameras, commentators, and a crowd of people cheering for the athletes. Holy shit, this is such a big deal. Does that mean I’m a big deal?
While the guy before me awaited his start, I moved into the on-deck position. A race organizer welcomed me, and explained that there was a clock, to my left, that would count down to my start, so keep an eye on that.
Then it was my turn to step up to the start line. The clock started counting down from 30. The commentators started talking about me, because I heard them say my name, but I couldn’t understand anything else, except “États Unis,” which is French for United States. I did a fist pump when I heard it. I was so proud to be there, 5,600 miles from home, representing my country.
Then I closed my eyes. I took a few deep breaths, tried to drown out the noise, and told myself that I was going to have a great experience, and that I was going to crush this race. I had seven seconds to go when I reopened my eyes. Seven seconds before I began the biggest, grandest, most exciting event of my racing career.
The crowd erupted in cheers as I ran down the ramp and started running the 50 feet or so to the entrance to the tower. We were racing up the South Pillar of the tower, and there were about four cameramen perched at the entry and the first few landings to capture the start of every racer’s climb.
Normally I try to start a race as a slower pace, so I don’t burn through too much energy at the beginning, but I turned up the gas a little bit this time around. I wanted to look good on camera.
After passing the last cameraman, I corrected my pace and slowed down, and tried to settle into a consistent rhythm that was maintainable, yet still slightly aggressive. It was hard to do, because the stairwell is so different and unique, and it changes multiple times.
While stretching 300 meters into the sky, the Eiffel Tower only has three floors. Anyone can buy a ticket, for 10 Euros, and climb the stairs to the second floor, and I had done that the day before the race, just walking them with friends for reconnaissance purposes.
I already knew that the stairwell was outdoors, open to the elements, and wrapped in iron fencing, so that you couldn’t fall from it, even if you tried. But I learned so much more from the recon, and knew what to expect in the stairwell. I got to experience the steepness, practice my turns, and try out the handrail – all elements that come into play during a race.
Most importantly, I got to see how the stairwell was actually laid out, because that was the most unique component. Unlike most skyscrapers, where stairwells head straight up, the Eiffel stairwells also cover a little bit of horizontal distance, because each pillar curves inward to meet at the center.
So, during the first leg of the race, from the ground to the first floor, there were two flights in one direction for every one flight going the other way. Sound confusing? Look, I drew a picture!
I knew, from my recon, that there was the landing with a 45-degree left turn, and when I reached it, I was only a few flights away from the 1st floor. During the race, that landing came quickly. I was pleasantly surprised. I learned later that I reached the 1st floor (330 steps up) in 2:19. Off to a great start!
Once reaching the first floor, the course shifted from the South Pillar to the West Pillar. The two pillars are pretty far apart, so this race also has a 50-yard dash built in, to get from one to the next. In previous years this run was lined with spectators, but because of construction happening this year, it was empty. I ran it in silence, just listening to my breathing until a volunteer started calling out and pointing the way around the next corner.
I started the second leg feeling strong and confident. I knew this leg would require ignoring any rhythm I tried to establish, because the stairwell evolved as it climbed higher. There was still some horizontal distance to cover, but not as much, so it began with flights being 20 steps in one direction, and 13 in the other. As I got higher, those numbers slowly inched closer together, as the tower straightened upward.
All this is fancy talk for saying that, at any given point during the second leg, there’s a pretty good chance the flight you’re climbing won’t have the same number of steps as any of the ones preceding or following it.
The stairwell in this leg is also positioned closer to the outer edge of the pillar, so this is where, for the first time, I started noticing the twinkling lights of Paris below me, spread out in all directions; the Seine, just off to the right, forging a path through them. I would say it took my breath away, but racing up stairs had already done a pretty good job of doing that.
I had done the math and knew that I would I cross the 1/3rd mark on this leg. I was already 300 feet off the ground. As I approached the 2nd floor, I started hearing cheers. As I emerged from the stairwell, a volunteer pointed to the right. There were some fans on the 2nd floor, and I ran by them, giving a stranger a high-five as I went. I don’t pass up an opportunity for a high-five!
I bounded up a yellow stairway that connects different parts of the 2nd floor.
As I rounded the next corner, I saw more spectators on my left, and another cameraman up ahead on my right.
I was 700 steps into the race, not quite to the halfway mark. It had taken me 6:05 to get this far, and my muscles were aching, my heart and lungs working overtime.
The cheering was revitalizing. I fed off their energy, their screams of “aller, aller, aller!” (“go, go, go!”) and bounded up the next flight of stairs. I had seen these stairs during my recon, but this is where my recon stopped. Everything that came after them would be virgin territory – for me, at least. I had an idea of what to expect, thanks to reports from friends that have competed in previous years, but reading is different from climbing.
At the top of the stairs was a right turn, and a sign that said something in French, with “bow down your head” translated underneath it. My first thought was: Am I meeting a Japanese dignitary? (Because that’s how my brain works on limited oxygen.) I had a split second to rethink it and duck below a low beam, before continuing up the stairs.
The cheers from the 2nd floor crowd dissipated below me, and I settled into the second half of the climb. I had been warned that the stairs in this leg were narrow, and they were. I could easily use both handrails, with my hands barely wider than my shoulders.
Early in this leg I passed the only person I would see on the stairs: an official photographer headed down. He squeezed against the outer rail, and I didn’t slow down, although I did fear that in such close quarters I would knock the big, expensive-looking camera from his hand. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
After passing him, it was just me and the people monitoring the course from every fourth landing. On the lower half of the race, these monitors were all volunteers, but on the second half they were all medics, in uniform, ready to assist if needed.
I tried to smile at every monitor that I made eye contact with. Some were stoic, and others had encouraging words, none of which I understood, although I always replied with a faint, gasping “Merci!” One guy, on the first leg, went on for sentences before and after I passed him, and he delivered his speech with the intonation of a coach, in a sports movie, delivering the inspirational monologue before the climactic game. It was stirring. I felt myself gain a little speed. I just had no idea what he said.
Shortly into my climb up the third leg, I realized two things that made this climb extraordinary. First was the stairwell: the four Pillars of the tower joined together at the 2nd floor, so now the stairs rose straight up, in a consistent design: two 24-step flights in one direction, then a turn, then two 24-steps flights in the other direction. And so on.
Because there were fewer turns, the space was wide open, more so than normal. The tower itself only got narrower the higher I went, so there was less iron and rivets in my sights, and more of Paris, glittering beyond.
The other, more terrifying thing that made this an extraordinary climb is that much of the climb after the 2nd floor is without fencing. There’s just a railing between you and a fall of hundreds of feet. I was so tempted to pause to look down, but I didn’t want to spare any seconds. I was there to climb, so I kept climbing.
It got windier as I got higher. It was also eerily quiet, just me, the whoosh of the wind, my gasps for air, my shoes hitting the metal steps, and my occasional scream from pain and exhaustion. Occasionally an elevator would glide by, but even they didn’t make much noise.
Between the grid of iron around me, the views, the breeze, the cool night air, and my continued efforts to push myself higher, I felt like a kid climbing an enormous jungle gym, reaching for the next level, onward and upward.
There were signs, in French, counting down how many steps remained. I had quickly figured out earlier what they meant, and I started to feel terribly excited when I reached the “arrivee 400 marches” sign, and the “arrivee 300 marches” shortly after that. I felt tears welling up behind my eyes, but I couldn’t devote the energy to crying quite yet, so I soldiered on, suppressing the emotion, focusing on my legs, my form, and my drive to keep going.
I had double-stepped 90% of the time thus far, switching to single-step for single flights when I transitioned to new sections, just to get my bearing. I wasn’t taking extra steps on the landings, and had been using the handrails the whole time. My technique had been excellent, but what I was really proud of was my attitude. I had stayed positive, not let any negative energy drain me, and cheered myself on.
I was ready to finish strong. But there was one final obstacle, just before the finish line: a narrow spiral staircase. I had been warned it was there, but I still wasn’t prepared. Turning while climbing engaged different muscles in my legs, and they started quivering when I started the spiral.
The spiral is only the equivalent of two or three stories, but it was tough. I have big feet (size 13), and because each step was pie-shaped, there was barely enough room for my right, inside foot to land on the narrow part of the pie. I made the quick decision to double-step with my left foot, where I had more leverage, and single-step with my right. It worked, and I sprinted up those spiral stairs as best I could.
A volunteer was waiting for me at the top of the spiral, pointing to the right. I headed that direction, made a final left turn, and started up the final flight of stairs. I knew the cameras were back on me, and I gutted any reserves I had left (which wasn’t much) and launched myself up those stairs.
It felt like every inch of my body was on fire. It felt like my legs were going to snap off. It felt like lava was coating the insides of my lungs. And yet, despite all that, I had never felt better. I crossed the finish line feeling like a champion.
First though, I crashed into a railing. True story. You can see it in the footage. I didn’t know there was a left turn at the top of the final flight of stairs, and instead I barrelled ahead, hitting the railing at full speed. I ricocheted to my left and soon, the finish line was behind me.
I stumbled a few feet. Volunteers were herding me towards a stairway to head back down one flight, but I couldn’t do it. I paused in the doorway to those stairs, and my legs gave out. I sank to the ground, and within a second, a group of volunteers circled me, pressing their hands against my shoulders and back. I wanted so badly to lie down, but they wouldn’t let me. They were speaking to me in French, but I could barely hear them, through my short and violent inhalations.
I focused on taking longer breaths, and that calmed everything down. My hands were burning up, so I peeled off my gloves. After a few minutes, I started clambering to my feet, and the volunteers helped, hoisting me up. I gave them a thumbs up, and started, slowly, down the stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs I was handed a trophy. Everyone that finishes gets one, and despite competing in 54 prior stair races, I had never earned one before. Remember those tears that were building up behind my eyes? One look at that trophy and they all came at once, pouring down my face, my chest and shoulders shaking.
Once again, I was encircled by volunteers within a second, and they led me to a bench. I sat down. The tears wouldn’t stop. After not responding to a few comments in French, someone asked me, in English, if I was okay. All I could say was “I am so happy.” With that, they left me alone.
A minute later, I got a tap on the shoulder. “Excuse me, monsieur, can you come answer a few questions? You’ve got a great story.” The woman talking to me saw my tears and added, “When you’re ready, of course.”
I followed her around a corner, and there was another cameraman waiting. I had to take my glasses off for a little while, because they had completely steamed up. While we waited to go live, I saw that she had a giant stack of index cards, each with handwritten notes. I asked if she had a card on every athlete, and she said “most of them.” You have to be prepared to report on nearly everyone at a race like this!
The interview began, and I couldn’t hold back the emotions I was feeling, nor did I want to. I talked, through tears, about how I had worked so hard to get there, how proud I felt at that moment, and that I hope others realize that it’s never too late to make a change in their life.
Around 150,000 people all over the world watched the coverage on Facebook and saw that interview. Were you watching?
Here’s how to watch my race, in case you missed it. Or, in case you want to watch it again!
In addition to being broadcast on Facebook, it was also on YouTube. Here’s the YouTube link – this way, anyone can watch, regardless if you have a Facebook account or not!
The coverage lasted over 2.5 hours. You’ll get a lot more out of it if you can understand French! Here’s the parts that I’m in, if you’d like to skip ahead:
- 25:33 – My pre-race interview begins.
- 45:30 – My race begins.
- 52:58 – Footage of me on the 2nd floor, starting up to the 3rd floor.
- 1:08:42 – My post-race interview begins.
- 1:10:15 – Shot of me running into the railing just before the finish line. (B-roll during my interview)
In addition to the gorgeous trophy, I also got a really cool fleece. I was stoked that they had one that fit, since the jersey so clearly didn’t!
THE RESULTS! I started this post by sharing my time (16:17), so no need to build up any tension. I knew going in I’d be one of the slowest people there, because, after all, the best of the best come out of the woodwork to compete. My secret hope was to not finish in last place.
- Out of 83 men, I finished… in 78th place! WOO-HOO!
- Add in the women, and out of 118 total finishers, I finished… in 107th place! DOUBLE WOO-HOO!
- And I came in 3rd place among US athletes… out of three!
I hadn’t given myself a time-based goal, because those have really messed with my head in the past. However, my fastest time in the US Bank Tower, which is 100 feet taller but has almost exactly the same number of steps, is 18:30, so I had been using that as a reference point. And completing Eiffel Tower over two minutes faster than that is way better than I was anticipating!
16 minutes and 17 seconds. A momentous performance in a world-famous monument. But that’s not the only amount of time worth noting.
90,720 minutes between learning in January that I was selected for this race, and the race itself.
350,632 minutes since first submitting my application for Eiffel Tower Vertical. I applied last July, and wrote my personal essay in October.
3,199,524 minutes between my very first stair race, in 2012, and Eiffel Tower Vertical – a span of time that includes 53 other stair races in between, in 19 US cities. The Eiffel Tower was my 55th race, in my 20th city, and my first international race.
4,295,248 minutes since I started making changes and losing weight, back in 2010, beginning on a path that would ultimately bring me to this race. I had no idea at the time where I was headed or what I would accomplish. I’m so glad I stayed dedicated to this journey, even at times when I wanted to throw in the towel. I’m grateful that I kept an open mind about trying a new sport, because tower running has evolved from an unexpected experiment to a major force that has improved my life in so many, many ways.
Continuez, David! (That’s ‘Keep it up, David’ in French!)
Bowflex very generously sponsored me for this race. THANK YOU, BOWFLEX! My living room is stocked with their equipment, and I use it to stay active and train for my races. They’re a great company, run by incredibly awesome people. Their sponsorship made it possible for me to go to Paris for this race, and I am grateful for their support and friendship. Do yourself a favor and get familiar with their line of machines and equipment – and check out their Spring Sale!
A huge thanks to all the friends and loved ones that tuned in and watched my race live. So many of you sent links, screengrabs and photos of the coverage – many of which are included in this post – and I felt your love and energy all the way in Paris.
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!