When my alarm went off at 4:45am Saturday morning, the first thing I did was take a few deep breaths. This was going to be a day like none other I’ve experienced. I was going to push myself harder than ever before, in a challenge that would redefine what I’m capable of, what I could endure, and what I can rise above.
And it was all going to happen in this building, glowing in the pre-dawn darkness, just across the plaza from my Salt Lake City hotel room.
While short compared to towers in other cities, the 24-story Wells Fargo Center is the tallest building in Utah. It’s the venue for the OutClimb Cancer Challenge, a six-hour behemoth of an event – the longest stair race in the country.
Organized by the phenomenal husband and wife team of John and Beth Rosswog, and benefiting the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, The OutClimb Cancer Challenge is a race to see who can climb the Wells Fargo Center the most times in six hours – stairs up, elevator down. You can also sign up for shorter periods of time, but I went for the whole shebang.
I’m a stair race veteran, with over 60 races under my belt, but a vast majority of those were single climbs that last maybe 10-30 minutes. Six hours was a completely different animal. I’ve done some endurance events, but the most I’ve ever raced before was 2.5 hours, at the Dallas Vert Mile, and this was over double that.
Because I had no real comparable experiences in my race history, I decided to keep my expectations reasonable, and I set two goals for this race:
- Set a new personal record for race duration, beating the 2.5 hours I raced in Dallas.
- Set a new personal record for vertical distance, beating the 600 stories I climbed at that same race in Dallas.
I knew going in I’d probably reach both goals, and that was important. I wanted to leave Utah celebrating success, rather than be disappointed that I didn’t reach more specific, arbitrary goals that were literally plucked from thin air, due to my lack of experience in events lasting this long.
Let me just show a close-up of my bib. Good ol’ lucky number 29. And it’s personalized. Keep it up, David!
Why, yes, that is a Bowflex shirt I’m wearing! They were my sponsor for this race, which is so completely awesome. I use a variety of their equipment, but lately, I’ve been doing the Stairs program on my Bowflex Max Trainer as a way to engage my legs and prepare for my races.
It was a chilly morning in Salt Lake City, with temperatures in the 30s, and the start line for the race was outside, on the sidewalk. They kept us inside until about 90 seconds before the race officially began, and then we all moved out, under a pop-up tent, and waited for the official start.
This race had a mass start. Instead of starting one athlete every 10 or 15 seconds, we all went more or less at once, which was something I never experienced before. If this race had been a sprint, I imagine it could’ve been more raucous, but this was an endurance event, so not many people were exploding out the gate or jockeying for position.
The race logistics were pretty simple: You enter the stairwell from the sidewalk and climb up, up, up. There’s an aid station on floor 19, if you need water, before you finish the final five stories. There are volunteers cheering on other landings, too, some of them with cases of water bottles, so there was no reason to not be hydrated.
The top of the stairwell exits into the offices of an investment bank, and before the race, I stashed some supplies up there: energy chews, electrolyte tablets, coconut water, gum. Once you reach the top, you head down a hall.
There’s a huge tally board, about eight feet long, and they note your bib number, and add a hash mark to your spot on the board, keeping count of your climbs. I called out my bib number, loudly, every time I finished a climb. “29!” The volunteers at the tally board would repeat it, calling out “29!” after me, and cheering me on.
From there, you continue down the hall to the bank of five elevators, where volunteers would point you to the next arriving elevator and hold the door so it didn’t close on anyone. You could stop on the 19th floor for hydration or snacks, or head all the way down to the lobby, where you head back outside to re-enter the stairwell and do it all again. I always wanted to keep moving, so the only times I was standing still was in the elevator, or when I was waiting for the elevator. And I never waited for the elevator for more than 20 seconds.
The first hour went by quickly. I felt nimble and strong, although on my second climb I felt a stomach cramp, and immediately started hoping that I wouldn’t have to deal with cramps for the whole duration of the race. I worked through the cramp pretty quickly, probably thanks to smart fueling.
My friend Jeff, who didn’t compete in this race but is an accomplished endurance athlete, outlined a pretty straightforward fuel plan for me, which I followed. After every climb I ate a single grape-sized energy chew (which tastes like gummy candy and has amino acids, electrolytes, and carbs), and drank about 3-4 ounces of liquid. I had electrolyte tablets, which fizz, like Alka-Seltzer, when you drop them in a water bottle. The idea was to keep ingesting a steady stream of fuel that my body could use and continually replenish liquids as I sweated them out.
I was on my sixth climb when I looked at my watch and realized I had crossed the 1-hour mark. My legs and lungs were already starting to ache, and my first thought was “Holy crap, I still have five hours to go!”
ONE HOUR DONE.
(I took this picture before they added the hash mark for that sixth climb.)
It was during the second hour that the firefighters started racing. A couple dozen firefighters, in full gear – heavy boots, helmets, oxygen tanks and masks, and thick, nonflammable clothing – charged up the stairwell.
Many stair races have firefighter waves, but they often don’t race until the very end, after most of the climbers have already finished. Being in the stairwell at the same time with firefighters isn’t very common.
Watching them climb, while wearing 70 pounds of gear, is something to behold. I got a little choked up, admiring their bravery, knowing full well that this race was practice for their job, helping them prepare to face disaster, and save lives. I cheered on every firefighter I could, and they cheered me on in return.
I started losing count after 7 or 8 climbs, and decided to avoid looking at the tally board, and instead stay focused on the stairwell. I soon developed a strategy that I deployed on each and every climb.
The stairwell started with eight narrow, quick flights, each with eight steps. I sprinted these flights as much as I could, to start each climb strong, while focusing on good turns, double stepping, and efficient use of handrails.
Those eight flights ended on the third floor, and after a 25-foot hallway, the stairwell transitioned to a pattern that stayed consistent all the way to the top: 26 steps per floor, divided between two 13-step flights.
Once I reached the third floor, my focus was on getting to the 12th floor, the halfway point. I tried not to look at floor numbers, but the 12th floor was easy to spot, because there were two volunteers cheering us on. They were an older couple, and they were wearing fun costumes that they changed every hour: nuns, Sonny and Cher, hula dancers, and so on.
My next goal was the 14th floor, because that meant there were only 10 floors left!
Then I would focus on getting to the 19th floor, which also had cheering volunteers, including a guy that played maracas for six hours straight. (The 17th floor also had two awesome volunteers, who fanned us as we went by with the signs they were holding.)
After 19, it was a push to finish the final five stories. At the beginning of the race, I would try to increase my speed for those final five stories, but after a few hours, I just didn’t have the energy, so I bumped it down to the final three, and then the final two.
TWO HOURS DONE.
I listened to music on my iPod for the entire race, and even brought a back-up in case my iPod ran out of juice. (It didn’t.) I’ve built a bunch of race playlists over the years, but for this race, I used my much larger Workout playlist, which has over 130 songs. I add stuff to my Workout playlist regularly, but never really remove anything from it.
Some songs on this playlist spark very specific memories, and as I started my third hour in the stairwell, I began to focus on those memories. Certain songs reminded me of specific races, cities, friends, or moments – all of which have shaped me, and helped get me to where I was that day, and everything started to be overwhelming. It started really sinking in that I was accomplishing something remarkable, ground-breaking, and beyond anything I’d ever done – in fact, it was so far beyond anything I thought I was capable of. And I wasn’t even half done.
Tears started mixing with the sweat streaming down my face. Tears from the pain and fatigue, and tears from the emotion, and it energized me. And right when I needed it most: as I crossed the two-and-a-hour mark. I had just reached one of my goals! I was now climbing for a longer period of time than I did in Dallas. Everything I would experience from this point forward was uncharted territory.
My body was ready to quit. Every inch, from the top of my head to my toes, was aching. My lungs were on fire. But I kept climbing. I kept reminding myself that I’ve felt like this before, and I can keep going, and I just need to get to floor 12… then 14… then 19… and then 24.
The second half of my third hour felt really productive, thanks to my second wind, and I pushed through to the three-hour mark, because I had pledged to myself earlier that I wouldn’t take a break until I was in the second half. I exited on the 24th floor at the 3:05 mark, and sighed with relief. Break time!
THREE HOURS DONE.
Sixteen Climbs Done!
I grabbed my bag and headed down the elevator to the 19th floor. My clothes were completely soaked with sweat, but I was prepared for that, and brought a complete second set of race clothes: shoes, socks, underwear, shirts. I brought a second pair of shorts, but I didn’t change into them, because I didn’t have the manual dexterity, after three hours in a stairwell, to open and close safety pins and transfer my bib to the new pair.
Peeling off the wet clothes felt so good. I knew the new clothes wouldn’t stay dry for long, but I felt lighter, and I was – those wet clothes probably weighed a few pounds more than the dry ones.
I wanted to represent my awesome sponsor throughout the whole race, so when the Bowflex shirt came off, the Bowflex buff went on. One of the volunteers at the start line had taken to calling me “Bowflex” as I entered the stairwell, and at one point she told me that seeing that name reminded her of her college days, and when she would procrastinate from studying by watching Bowflex infomercials.
Although my body practically demanded it, I didn’t want to lie down on my break, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get up again. I didn’t even want to sit down, but I did, for three or four minutes, while I pulled on new socks and shoes.
I drank a little extra water, and headed back to the lobby. It was pure coincidence that my break lasted exactly 20 minutes, and at 3:26, I entered the stairwell to start my 17th climb. Roughly two and a half more hours of climbing.
I got back into my rhythm, and felt refreshed. I had about a dozen friends competing alongside me, and I continued to cheer them on whenever I saw them. Before long, I was two-thirds done with the race.
FOUR HOURS DONE.
And now the 12th floor volunteers were dressed like dinosaurs!
I cannot fully express how incredible this group of volunteers was. Every single element of this race ran so smoothly, and was so enjoyable. Every volunteer was happy to help and support, and best of all, cheer us on. And it really made a huge difference. Every smile is valued when you’re more than four hours into an endurance event. Every shake of a maraca is appreciated. I was so grateful for the guy at the top who helped me multiple times with my electrolyte tablets; I didn’t have the strength to open the package.
Halfway through the fourth hour, when I was less than halfway up the building, my entire right quad muscle seized up – a giant cramp that went from my knee to the top of my hip. It felt like a throbbing basketball. I slowed down but kept climbing.
From that point forward I doubled my electrolyte intake: two energy chews after each climb, and double the liquid: 3-4 ounces of my own electrolyte beverage, and then a cup of Gatorade from the aid station in the lobby.
After I finished that climb, I took a five-minute break, and spent the few extra minutes outside on the sidewalk, where the 35-degree air felt downright heavenly. The cramp would come and go throughout the remainder of the race. It would dissipate in the elevator and during the start of a climb, and then gradually worsen as I got higher. Sometimes it was so bad I was screaming in pain. But I never stopped. I had come too far. I was committed to finishing.
FIVE HOURS DONE.
I literally don’t know how I was able to keep going. My memories from the last hour of the race are blurry.
I started leaning on a desk for a few seconds after each climb, as I fished an energy chew out of the bag, and once or twice I purposefully waited for one extra elevator before heading down, just to give my leg 15 extra seconds of rest.
The elevators back to the lobby typically had five to fifteen athletes in them, but one time, in the last hour, I had an elevator to myself, and literally the only reason I remember it now is because I took a selfie.
The cramp spread from my right quad to my left quad. I was leaning on walls in the stairwell, and fearful that if I let go of the handrails, I would come tumbling down like a Jenga tower. The agony was practically unbearable, and yet, at this point, nothing was unbearable. I kept reminding myself of the mantra I’ve seen printed on t-shirts and posters: Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever.
I. Am. Not. A. Quitter.
I entered the stairwell with about twenty minutes left. My friend Syd entered around the same time, and patted me on the back, saying “You’re doing it, David, you’re climbing until the very end.” I was moving glacially slow. There weren’t many climbers that hung on for this long, so the stairwell was oddly quiet and empty, except for the cheers from the volunteers on the landings – they hung on until the very end.
I was halfway up that climb when the cramp in my right quad worsened even more, like someone was punching and twisting the throbbing basketball under my skin. Two flights later, and I started feeling shooting pains up and down my right hamstring. I’m not sure how I stayed upright. My body had had enough.
I don’t know how, but I kept climbing, and I stumbled out into the 24th floor offices. I stopped the clock on my watch, bee-lined for the corner, and ended up flat on my back, staring up at the ceiling, my entire body trembling.
I looked at my watch. It read 5 hours, 54 minutes, and 55 seconds. I was so depleted that I wasn’t sure if I could make it down in time to start another climb, and if I did, who knows if I would’ve been able to make it to the top.
So I called it. I was done. My OutClimb Cancer Challenge was over.
My heart rate had cooled off after a couple minutes on my back, and the cramps went away almost immediately. My legs were certainly sore, but so was every part of my body. I slowly got up, turned to face the tally board, and for the last time, and with every lingering atom of energy, called out “29!”
And then I watched as one of the volunteers pulled out her Sharpie and added a 27th hash mark next to my name.
I almost ended up on the floor again, but I braced myself against a counter. 27 CLIMBS!
I counted them again and again. 27 climbs.
I wanted to jump for joy. I wanted to whoop it up. I wanted to yell out in pride. I wanted to cry. Hell, I wanted to smile. But I couldn’t do any of it. I could barely function, I could barely move. I had spent six hours exhausting every muscle, draining every tear duct. There was literally nothing left.
A volunteer asked me for my climb count, and seconds later, handed me a medal.
My accomplishment was immortalized on the back of it.
I climbed a 24-story building 27 times. That’s 648 total stories. That means I crushed my second goal, of climbing more than 600 stories in one race. And it really isn’t 48 extra stories, it’s a whole lot more than that. I’ll explain.
I climbed 600 stories in the Reunion Tower in Dallas, a 50-story tower. But it’s very short for 50 stories, and the Wells Fargo Center is very tall for 24 stories.
The Reunion Tower stairwell has 807 steps. The Wells Fargo Center has 594 steps. So even though the Reunion Tower claims to have over double the number of stories, it only has 213 more steps than Wells Fargo Center.
To set my 600-story record, I climbed 9,684 steps. And at the OutClimb Cancer Challenge, I climbed 16,038 steps. I crushed my previous record by about 166%!
To put it another way, the goal of the Dallas race is to climb a vertical mile, and it actually ends up being 1.07 miles. During this race, I climbed 1.98 vertical miles!
The official results were posted later than evening. I entered my bib number (29!) into the website, and my heart sank. The timing company had logged 26 climbs, not 27. Somehow I had gotten an extra hash mark on the tally board.
I synced my watch to my phone and looked at my data from the race. I looked at a chart of my heart rate during the entire six hours. Based on my heart rate, I can tell exactly when I was in the stairwell and when I was in the elevator. My data supported the timing company’s results: 26 climbs.
I won’t lie: I was crestfallen for a little while, but then I amended my statistics:
- 26 climbs equals 624 total stories – 24 stories more than my previous record.
- 26 climbs equals 15,444 total steps – 160% more than my previous record.
- 26 climbs equals 10,088 total feet of vertical gain. That’s 1.91 vertical miles – .84 more miles than my previous record.
Those are some crazy impressive figures! There’s no other conclusion: I rocked it. I crushed it. I was a beast in that stairwell. It was epic. Monumental. The stuff of legend. I think back about my time in the stairwell, and there’s not a single thing I would’ve done differently. I gave it my all, every single thing I had.
Here’s some more awesome statistics:
- Out of 166 men that competed, I came in 15th for climb count. WHOA! (Not all those men were registered for the full six hours, but I don’t have access to who was signed up for what.)
- My fastest climb was 6 minutes, 16 seconds. I’m not sure, but I’m going to assume that was my first climb. I don’t have times for the rest of my climbs, because they only publish the fastest time for each climber. I wasn’t going for speed on any of my climbs, but it’s still pretty cool to think that I made it to the 24th floor in 6:16.
- Salt Lake City is the 21st city I’ve raced in.
- I burned 4,202 calories (!) during the duration of this race.
I accomplished so much. There is so much to be proud of. I set aside my self-doubt, embraced an nearly unthinkable challenge, and performed at a level no where near anything I’ve ever done before.
And it all happened in this building, just across the plaza from my Salt Lake City hotel room.
Keep it up, David!
A huge thank you to Matt & Maggie, Dana, Ann, and the anonymous donor who all contributed to my fundraising efforts so that I could participate in this race. It’s because of you that I get to have experiences like this one. Your support means the world to me.
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