On Saturday, my sister Sarah and I competed in The Lemon Climb Denver, a 43-story stair race to the top of a tall Colorado skyscraper.
You: Really? A stair race? I thought you were taking a break!
Me: I am taking a break. But the break, while necessary, was a spontaneous decision, and I had registered for this race months ago, accepted money from sponsors, bought a flight to Denver, and my sister was doing it, and she had been training for months. So, yea, I did the race, and then went right back into break mode.
The race benefited Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, which fights childhood cancer, and was held in 1999 Broadway, the sixth-tallest building in Denver.
1999 Broadway is best known for its unique curved facade, which was designed to wrap around the back of a historic church. I actually blogged about this building years ago, when I climbed it hypothetically during a workout.
I was not prepared for this race, not like I usually am. I hadn’t done anything more rigorous than walking for almost three weeks beforehand. But I embraced that, and ended up enjoying being in a competitive environment without putting any pressure on myself whatsoever.
My strategy, which I decided upon a few days prior, was that I was going to try my best. This was despite knowing, due to my drastic decrease in physical activity, that my best wasn’t going to be what I’m used to.
Plus, apart from the fact that I hadn’t been training, I knew the altitude was going to play a factor. I had spent months, before my 2016 Denver stair race, preparing for the altitude change by working out with my elevation training mask. And I was going into this race not having worn it in two months. Plus, I had arrived in Colorado only 12 hours prior to the start of the race, so I wasn’t even acclimated anyway.
But I was okay with all of that. In fact, it was a bit of a relief. This race wasn’t about my time. It was about spending some quality time with my sister and supporting an awesome organization.
Sarah and I were in the first wave of racers, starting at 8:30am. There was a small group of elite competitors that kicked things off (including a few of my friends), and then Sarah and I went. We were probably the 7th and 8th people to enter the stairwell, which was through the green door.
Even though this is only the second year that this race has been around, it turns out 1999 Broadway had hosted stair races 30 years ago, because the winning times from those races were memorialized on the stairs, just inside the lobby. Cool! (And holy shit, those are some FAST times!)
This race pretty much kicked the crap out of me and left me for dead. It was so tough. And I can probably thank the altitude and my lack of training for that. I was huffing and puffing by the 12th or 14th floor, switched to single-stepping shortly thereafter, and was in full-on agony by the 22nd floor, which was the halfway point. My lungs were throbbing and aching like I had done five times as many stairs as I had actually done, and my heart was racing in the 180s.
It didn’t help that I really hated the stairwell. It was awful. Each flight was 20 steps (about 10 more than most other office buildings have per flight). There was a wall rising up the center, so each landing had a blind corner, making it harder to see competitors, making passing more annoying. (This didn’t turn out to be a big deal, because I only saw three other people during the race – two women that I passed, and one teenager that passed me.)
The stairwell reminded me of the stairwells I’ve raced in Detroit and Springfield, and also of the Stratosphere stairwell in Las Vegas, which I’ve raced three times. But the 1999 Broadway stairwell had something none of those stairwells had: only one handrail, located on the outside wall. Since making efficient turns on the landings require having a railing on the inside, this meant that my turns were sloppy throughout the race. I never found a rhythm to get me around those corners.
Normally, when a stairwell only has one handrail, I use a hand-over-hand technique to help get me up the stairs. But not during this race. The one good thing this stairwell had going for it was that it was narrow enough that I could pull on the outside handrail with my left hand, and push off the center, railing-free wall with my right hand, and use both movements to help pull me up. It was the best technique I could think of, in the moment, to deal with such a challenging race venue.
I could barely breath by the time I crossed the finish line, and I stumbled down the hall a little ways and ended up flat on my back on the carpet, wheezing, trying to absorb as much oxygen out of that thin air as possible. While collapsing on the floor, defeated by exhaustion, is typical after a stair race, this time I felt even worse.
I stayed on the ground a few minutes longer than usual. Sarah came and found me after she crossed the finish line, and we went and checked out the views from some vacant office space. It was a cloudy, drizzly, dreary morning, but I earned these views, and I soaked them in!
I don’t think many climbers realized the office space was unlocked, because we were the only ones checking out the view. So we took advantage of the windows and snapped a bunch of photos.
This is one of my favorites:
Look! A drone!
(There’s no drone. Sarah thought it would be a funny picture, and she was right.)
After a while, we headed down to the mezzanine level, where the charity set up an awesome after-party: A DJ, comfortable places to sit, a great spread of healthy snacks (fruit, Kind bars), and not-so-healthy ones (donuts, candy).
Sarah and I met two professional cheerleaders from the Denver Broncos! Breanna and Marissa were super nice and friendly, and kind enough to sign autographs for Sarah’s Broncos-obsessed son and pose with us in the photo booth.
We also got our times. Sarah was hoping to finish in under 13 minutes, and she scored a time of 11 minutes, 15 seconds! HOT DAMN! All her Stairmaster training paid off!
As for me, I finished all 43 stories in 9 minutes, 8 seconds! I was slightly shocked by my performance, because it felt like that brutal stairwell would never end.
I crunched the numbers, and I averaged one story every 12.7 seconds. For comparison’s sake, I also crunched the numbers for my San Francisco race last month, where I set a 2-second PR in a 48-story stairwell. During that race, I averaged one story every 11 seconds. So, despite the major shift in altitude (they don’t call Denver the mile-high city for nothing) and the lack of rigorous training leading up to this race, I was only roughly 15% slower. WOW. I would’ve predicted I was going to be MUCH slower.
UPDATED WITH STATS: I finished 23rd overall (out of 141), 19th among men (65 total), and 9th in my division (Men 31-44) – out of 21.
This performance makes me feel even better about the break that I’m taking. It proves my base level of fitness is still pretty damn awesome, and makes me think that getting back into the swing of things, when I’m ready, will not be as difficult as I first thought.
Keep it up, David!
Huge thanks to Bowflex, who very kindly and generously sponsored me for this race. Check out my posts (like this one and that one) about their excellent products – I use them all the time and so should you!
Big shout-out to Buffalo Exchange, who generously donated to Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation so that I could participate in this race. Buffalo Exchange is a store that sells new and recycled clothing. Check out their Denver and Boulder locations! (My green Marmot raincoat, seen in the second photo in this post, came from Buffalo Exchange, and I love it!)