Hello again, Stratosphere!
I’m back from my Las Vegas trip, where I competed, for the fourth time, in the American Lung Association’s Scale the Strat – a race up 1,391 steps in the tallest freestanding observation tower in the USA.
I didn’t like this race after I did it for the first time in 2014, mostly because the of stairwell’s long flights, with 20 steps instead of the more standard 10-12. But now that I’ve done it a few times, and competed in other towers with longer flights, I’ve grown to really enjoy racing here. The longer flights just require finding a different rhythm, which I can do, and I like that there are less turns.
Plus, this race is the National Championship race, and while I’m not fast enough to ever be a contender, it draws lots of people from across the country, so I get to see and hang out with dozens of friends from all over.
I brought JJ with me, and since the Stratosphere is not a pet-friendly hotel, we stayed up the street at a dumpy place that I’m not even going to mention by name. JJ had plenty to sniff in our room, and it was only one night, so we made due, and the Stratosphere looked nice (and tall) in the distance as I walked JJ at dawn before I headed to the race.
I had gotten my bib the night before. Good ol’ lucky number 1195!
The expo and staging for this race are typically outdoors, but this year they were in a new location because of construction at the Strat. It was really cold that morning, so most of us stretched and mingled inside, next to the hotel’s buffet.
That’s my Bowflex buff – they sponsored me for this race, and I’m proud to wear their name across my forehead. They create amazing machines that can help anyone, of any fitness level, take control of their health. I’ve amassed a home gym featuring four of their products and I can’t get enough. And they’ve just launched an artificial intelligence platform, called Max Intelligence, that “meets you every day with personalized workouts based on your capabilities.” Whoa! So cool!
This is where the pictures end for a while. They never allow phones in the stairwell, but I’ve snuck mine in in the past. We went through an airport-style metal detector this year, though, so I left my phone at gear check with the rest of my stuff.
Scale the Strat has a slightly different starting situation. The race actually starts in a cold, grey, interior hallway on the third floor, as opposed to the lobby, and we get escorted there in groups to start the climb. Last year we were taken to that hallway, and then waited there for over a half-hour, thanks to some technical glitches with the timing equipment.
This year is was exactly the opposite. Everything was set up and working like a charm, and after getting to the third floor, I had less than a minute before it was my turn to enter the stairwell and start my race.
My goal for this race was to start slow. I tend to start out way too fast, and expend too much energy too quickly, and then really struggle on the upper floors. This year I found a nice, moderate rhythm from the get-go, and climbed at a maintainable pace for a long time.
I passed one woman, and about three people passed me, and I kept chugging along, practically ignoring the pain, exhaustion and sweat that I’ve long been accustomed to at these sorts of races.
The main stairwell ends near the top, and the final 8 stories are in a more traditional stairwell, like you’d see in any office building or hotel. I use that transition point to start my final big push to the finish line, which I like to think of as a sprint, even though I’m so far fatigued and achy that I’m probably not moving much faster at all. The point, though, is to try. I want to use up all the gas left in the tank, and leave every drop of energy in that stairwell.
So that’s what I did. The official photographer captured my final moments, some 1,300 steps above the sidewalk.
I crossed the finish line, collapsed into a chair and then sunk to the floor. Volunteers offered an oxygen tank, which I declined. My first few post-race moments felt like they should: unable to stay standing, unwilling to move anything until my heart rate comes down a little bit.
But I recovered too quickly. And that’s when I realized that I probably could have pushed a little harder – not during the final eight floors, but during the rest of the race before that.
My time confirmed it. I climbed 1,391 steps in 14 minutes, 42 seconds. That’s almost two minutes slower than my personal best, 12:43, in 2016.
- Scale the Strat 2014: 15:06
- Scale the Strat 2016: 12:43
- Scale the Strat 2018: 13:02
- Scale the Strat 2019: 14:42
(Click on any of the prior years to read those race recaps)
My heart rate monitor also confirmed that I probably could’ve nudged myself a little harder. Typically at these races my average heart rate hovers around the high mid-to-high 150s, sometimes the low 160s, and my heart rate maxes out at 180 or above. This time around, my average heart rate was 143, and my max – set during that final eight-floor sprint – was 179. There’s not a huge difference, and I certainly wasn’t slacking, but there was room for more.
I always tell myself at these races that if I do my absolute best, than I have nothing to complain about or regret. So it took me a while to wrap my head around the idea that I could’ve done more. I don’t think it was a conscious decision, during the race, to ride the brakes a little bit. Perhaps I got too comfortable holding back at the beginning that I never nudged myself out of that mindset.
Regardless, the race is over, and when I boil it all down, I’m proud, because I climbed the tallest structure in Las Vegas in under 15 minutes. And the more I think about the nitpicky, strategic components to my race performance, the more I’m embracing the athlete I’ve become, and that continues to be an exciting, eye-opening evolution!
I’ve always loved the Scale the Strat finisher’s medal, because it can be detached and used as a keychain!
After the race, climbers congregate in the Stratosphere’s theater, where I chatted with friends and watched the TowerRunning USA Awards. Then I had to hightail it back to my hotel, so I had time to shower before checking out. Since JJ had been cooped up all morning in the room, I decided to take him for a walk after we checked out.
We walked north on Las Vegas Blvd until we got to the courthouse, and I was trying to get a selfie with JJ on a bench out front when our stair racing friend Maggie showed up! She was staying at the Stratosphere, and walking to get some fresh air, so she took our picture, and then we all walked together.
Our walk turned into an urban hike. I like how JJ is looking up at me in this picture of us on Fremont Street…
…and we discovered a three-story shopping center made out of shipping containers…
…and stumbled upon a giant robot sculpture.
We also walked past Heart Attack Grill, a restaurant I’ve seen on TV. The whole idea of it is cringe-inducing. They specialize in high-fat, high-cholesterol, high-calorie foods. They fry their fries in pure lard, and have a 2lb, 8,000-calorie burger on their menu. You have to wear a hospital gown, the wait staff is dressed like nurses, and if you finish one of the larger menu items, they wheel you out in a wheelchair. Oh, and you eat free if you weigh more than 350lbs. How do they verify your weight? With a freight scale just outside their doors, where your size is displayed publicly.
Look, they’re certainly not the only restaurant to sell terribly unhealthy items. But the way they embrace poor health and ridicule obesity is really tasteless. I’m never going to eat there, even though, for about a decade of my life (or more!), I could have eaten there for free.
Our walk ended up being 3.5 miles, and a great thing for both JJ and me to do before our drive back to Los Angeles, which, thanks to traffic, took about 5.5 hours. Ugh!
See you next time, Vegas! And…
…keep it up, David!
A huge thank you to my parents, Gay and Michael Garcia, and an anonymous donor (although I know who you are!), who donated to the American Lung Association in Nevada, so that I could participate in this event. I appreciate your love and support and hope I didn’t let you down!
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